Offensive defensemen another perk in new NHL

Updated: November 29, 2005, 6:01 PM ET
ESPN.com

OPENING FACEOFF
Bryan McCabe
With wide-open play and a plethora of power-play opportunities, teams that cannot count on offensive production from defensemen face an uphill struggle to make the NHL playoffs.

Heading into play this past weekend, our friends at Elias Sports Bureau reported that Minnesota, St. Louis and Columbus ranked 30th, 29th and 28th in point production from their defensemen. Wild defensemen had produced a paltry 20 points, the only tally in the league under the 30-point plateau and 46 fewer points than league-leading Philadelphia.

In terms of goals, the Florida Panthers had just four goals from defensemen, the worst in the NHL, 16 goals fewer than the league-leading 20 produced by Colorado defensemen.

For Columbus, Florida and St. Louis, the playoffs are a pipe dream, and the Wild will be touch-and-go to qualify. The exception to the rule is the New York Rangers, who rank second-to-last in the league in defensive goals with just five but remain at the top of the Atlantic Division standings.

At the other end of the spectrum, it's no surprise to find that Colorado, Vancouver and Calgary defensemen lead the way with 20, 18 and 16 goals, respectively. John-Michael Liles leads the Avs' defense with 18 points; the Canucks' Sami Salo also has 18; and Roman Hamrlik leads the Flames' blueliners with 15 points.

In terms of points, Philly, Colorado and Toronto head the NHL class with 66, 64 and 61 (the Maple Leafs' Bryan McCabe (above) leads all defensemen with 32 points). All those teams appear destined for postseason play.

-- Scott Burnside

THE HAT TRICK
HE'S BACK? YOU KNOW WHO CUJO STANDS TALL
Ilya Kovalchuk has seemed to find his scoring touch for the Atlanta Thrashers. He is riding a six-game points streak, has six goals and seven assists in that span, and has moved into a tie for seventh overall in league scoring with 34 points. Remember the Stars? You know, that former Stanley Cup power everyone (including us) questioned before the start of the season? Dallas has won nine of its last 11 games and has scored at least three goals in 14 of its last 15 games. The Coyotes are two games over .500, and the reason is Curtis Joseph. He is 7-3 in November and has saved nearly 95 percent of shots he's faced in the month. The result: Phoenix is 13-11-2 and sits third in the Pacific.



COUNTDOWN TO TURIN
WHAT ABOUT RECCHI?
Much of the pre-Olympic buzz around the NHL surrounds which of Canada's young guns -- Eric Staal, Jason Spezza and/or Sidney Crosby -- will fill the gaps created by the possible absences of players like Mario Lemieux, Rick Nash and Steve Yzerman. Let's not forget it will take a good measure of experience and veteran savvy for any team to bring home the gold in what promises to be the finest tournament ever. Let's assume Yzerman is not going to be on Canada's Olympic team.

The 40-year-old Wings captain has just six points, is a minus-2 and is playing just 11:42 a night after missing considerable time with injury. Could he be a valuable member of the Olympic squad, killing penalties and the like? Sure. But will he? No. And if so, why not Mark Recchi? Likable Recchi is 37 and the go-to guy in the Penguins' dressing room, not to mention Crosby's road roommate. He has 19 points in 23 games and is averaging 21:56 a night. Sure, he's minus-18, but there isn't a player who wouldn't be dragging around a minus rating the way the Penguins play defense.

Recchi is on Canada's 81-man list, although Recchi joked he is "No. 81." But the Canadian brain trust should look long and hard at a guy who can do it all: kill penalties, work the power play, shadow the other team's best players, and do it all with a smile on his face and a jump in his step.

THE FIVE HOLE

Barry Melrose
How good are the Los Angeles Kings? First in the Pacific Division, plus they're getting bang for the puck from Pavol Demitra. I'll look to see how L.A. does when interconference play begins over the weekend. The Kings will have a big three-game road swing against Eastern Conference powers Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto.
E.J. Hradek
If you want to be a serious Cup contender, you have to take advantage of your schedule. The Flames did just that in November, going 10-1-1. Ten of the 12 games during that stretch were at home. Now, Jarome Iginla's team hits the road for a tricky five-game road swing that starts Tuesday in Nashville. After that, they visit Detroit (Thursday), Pittsburgh, Philly and New Jersey. The Flames, just 4-6-1 on the road, enter the week only one point behind the Canucks for first place in the competitive Northwest. A strong road trip would put them in position to top both the division and the conference later in the month, when they'll play eight of 11 at the Saddledome.
Scott Burnside
This weekend marks the first interconference games for every team but Columbus and Washington, which played each other on Opening Night. When the Blackhawks visit the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning on Friday, it will mark a homecoming for Blackhawks netminder Nikolai Khabibulin, who chased the dough to Chicago and became the league's highest-paid goalie. But Khabibulin has struggled mightily, as have the Hawks. If Khabibulin wishes he were still a Bolt, so do his former teammates, who have watched John Grahame and Sean Burke take turns playing poorly.
FANTASY ISLAND
Who to pick up: Wild center Brian Rolston has a goal and three assists in his last three games. Next up is Columbus, so he should be a good lineup choice for this week.
Who to drop: With Phoenix only playing two games this week (one of them vs. Carolina), it's likely a good call to rest one of your Coyotes players, like defenseman Paul Mara.
IN THE BOX
We're big fans of Arcade Fire, especially the album Funeral. Our pucks song selection of the week is Rebellion (Lies), the second-to-last track. We like to dream, too, dream that we can pass like Crosby, shoot like MacInnis and stand our ground like Sundin!
THEY SAID IT
"It's been a rough month. You read every day in the newspaper and see the numbers to see what the losing streak is. It's over now."
-- Panthers center Olli Jokinen after Florida beat Pittsburgh 6-3 Friday night to end a 12-game skid

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