Are older players really the best answer for a team's needs?
Editor's note: In our "Friday Faceoff," ESPN.com NHL writer Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Toronto Star columnist and frequent ESPN.com contributor Damien Cox (based in Toronto) duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!
This week's topic: There has been a real dichotomy between the success of young players and the struggles of older players. Are we seeing the end of the line for some venerable NHL stars?
Damien: Well, let's not talk in generalities as we celebrate the 73rd NHL season of Chris Chelios. Which players, specifically, do we think are showing those telltale signs of wear and tear and should be thinking about retiring to the broadcast booth?
Scott: Well, we could start with two venerable Americans. First, Doug Weight, who was given a whopper deal in St. Louis and has two assists even though the Blues are off to a surprising start. Then, there's Mike Modano, who's been carrying around the pressure of becoming the top-scoring American of all time while toiling on the Dallas Stars' fourth line (he's got five points, by the way). I guess it's not so much that these players need to hang them up, but rather how do teams deal with falling (or fallen) stars?
Damien: You know, it's probably always been a tricky issue, but even more so now in the salary-cap era where, for a lot of teams, you're making an active decision not to add something in another area when you keep on an aging veteran. In general, though, it rarely turns out nicely. Imagine if Wayne Gretzky had wanted to keep going after his last season in New York, a single-digit goals season. Injuries, thankfully, often make the decision easier for everybody.
Scott: True. But all of the guys that are struggling now -- Mark Recchi, Gary Roberts, Bobby Holik, Glen Murray -- who all have one goal as of Thursday afternoon, are guys that teams will be clamoring to get their hands on at trade-deadline time if their respective teams are out of playoff contention. The story from the end of the first round last season: When the Senators and Penguins were shaking hands, then-Ottawa coach Bryan Murray whispered to Gary Roberts, "You should have been with us." So maybe none of this matters. Unless, of course, your team is junk and then you've got to figure out what to do with the old dogs. As it were.
Damien: Part of that race for veteran talent at the deadline is teams trying to add that final missing piece. But the reality is, we -- not just me and you, but the media in general -- may be partly to blame for wildly exaggerating the value of players whose best days are behind them. Take Roberts, for example, as good a power forward as there was in his prime. When the Pens acquired him last winter, it was as though he was the missing ingredient. But in the end, he didn't make the difference. It's always your top young players that really decide how far you're going to go. OK, maybe with the exception of Scott Niedermayer.
Scott: That's funny, I was going to say just the opposite, that we tend to exaggerate the importance or impact of young players early in the season and, in the end, it's players like Dominik Hasek, Teemu Selanne, Scott Niedermayer or (the season before) Rod Brind'Amour and Dwayne Roloson that make a significant difference in the playoffs. Last spring, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and other youngsters showed that winning at the most crucial times is often a world away from putting up gaudy numbers over the regular season.
Damien: Obviously, you need a mixture. But old players rarely carry the day. It's that they are there when the younger guys are finally mature enough. Let's take Anaheim. Sure, Niedermayer was superb. But do the Ducks win if guys like Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Samuel Pahlsson and even Francois Beauchemin don't break through to become prominent NHLers? I don't think so.
Scott: Agreed. And the Hurricanes don't win the year before without Eric Staal and Justin Williams. But the challenge for coaches who are carrying guys who aren't producing is in how to minimize their exposure without creating a huge problem in the dressing room. Can you imagine when/if Leafs coach Paul Maurice has to reduce Mats Sundin's playing time to 10 minutes a night? Luckily, he's off to a great start. But you know Weight, Modano and the rest of the aforementioned slow starters are feeling incredible pressure to produce just as their coaches are feeling incredible pressure to win, even if it means putting Hall of Fame-bound players on the fourth line.
Damien: Fallen in love with the word "incredible," have we? Your points are sort of well made. Detroit, it seems to be, handled the case of an aging veteran best when it came to Steve Yzerman. He didn't have to carry the club any longer, but could still fill a valuable role. Now they've got to see how they can handle the situation with Chelios and 37-year-old Nicklas Lidstrom, as well. I'm assuming, by the way, this is all a roundabout way of getting to the issue of Peter Forsberg, who's 34 and probably coming back to the league soon?
Scott: But the issue of struggling veterans does indeed play into the whole Forsberg frenzy. He'll be playing for Sweden in a tournament in Finland next weekend and the stands will no doubt be filled with GMs who envision bringing the aging center on board and thus ensuring a Stanley Cup parade in their backyard. Oh wait, the Predators already tried that. Flyers, too. Didn't exactly work out, did it? Not that it will stop every other GM with a frequent-flyer card from trying to make it happen.
Damien: So, you're saying if you're Sens GM Bryan Murray or Canucks GM Dave Nonis or whoever, you're not interested?
Scott: I didn't say that. But if you think having Forsberg solves all of your problems, then you're misguided. I think Forsberg might actually be the difference on a team like Ottawa. Vancouver? Not so much.
Damien: OK, here's my theory on Forsberg. First of all, the guy's incredibly beat up, and that's no secret. He's a wonderful talent and, in his day, maybe the best player on the planet. But interestingly, he was most effective perhaps in the old hook-and-hold days, even though he spent a fair bit of time being bashed around. He was terrific at using his body to shield the puck and buy time, and particularly adept at operating down low in the offensive zone. You didn't see him thrive because of his breakaway speed. These days -- and games like the Minnesota-Pittsburgh tilt on Tuesday night are being played at a supersonic pace -- I wonder if the style of the game doesn't mesh as well with Forsberg's skill set. In other words, maybe he can't be a difference maker.
Scott: See, that's where I think Forsberg becomes one of those "missing pieces" you were talking about earlier. If Ottawa grabs Gary Roberts at the deadline instead of Pittsburgh, maybe the Sens don't get beat up by Anaheim as badly and that Cup finals series takes a different turn. If Forsberg lands in Ottawa, where he doesn't have to shoulder the load but just contribute, work the power play, chip in here and there, the Sens are a Stanley Cup team. If he ends up in Vancouver, where Nonis apparently didn't get the memo about having to score goals to win, then I think it's a perfect scenario for disappointment, as far as the Canucks are concerned.
Damien: The beauty here, of course, is that Forsberg comes free. You don't have to trade for him, as Philly and Nashville did, and the longer he waits to come back, the less a team has to mess around with its cap number to fit him in. But this takes us back to where we started. He's 34 years old with a lot of miles on his chassis, but he's still Peter Forsberg. If you're Ottawa, can you reasonably bring him in and slot him behind Jason Spezza and Mike Fisher? What happens to Chris Kelly's minutes? Or do you brush all those guys out of the way and put the world's No. 1 player between Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson and worry about the fallout later?
Scott: Don't you love how we always come full circle? It's true. If you bring in Forsberg, especially if he struggles as he did most of last season due to his health problems, then you're in the same boat that Dallas is with Modano and St. Louis is with Weight, etc. All you hope is that you've got enough to get you to the dance in April and then hope some more that some sort of muscle memory kicks in for those guys and they help you enjoy a long run.
Damien: My thinking is that if Forsberg's serious and you are looking to make him a big part of your team, he's got to be in North America playing and practicing by Jan. 1. Then, at least you have a chance of having him at maximum capacity come April. Having him drop by and do a Reijo Ruotsalainen in March just won't work.
Scott: How many tries did it take to get Reijo's name right? But you're right. And I think Forsberg will be in an NHL camp by Christmas. Now, the question is whether it's the right camp or not. Until next week, my friend.
Damien: And good luck getting that Nashville ownership situation sorted out. I understand they've called you in as a mediator. Farewell.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."
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