Tough test for Turin; cap on the brain

Updated: December 14, 2005, 2:25 PM ET
ESPN.com

OPENING FACEOFF
2002 Winter Games
There is widespread concern around the hockey world that the Olympic tournament in Turin will mean a return to the old days, when hooking and holding was a way of life, thus diminishing an important opportunity to promote the game. But international officials insist it won't be so.

International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel insists the group will use the NHL model to root out the obstruction that has become a blight on the international game in recent years.

"The revolutionary turnaround regarding rule enforcement in the National Hockey League following the lockout has given the world of hockey a new momentum to fully implement the crackdown on all restraining fouls," Fasel wrote in a recent mission statement regarding the 2006 Winter Olympics.

"For the first time in hockey history, we have the opportunity for the IIHF and the NHL to be on the same page when enforcing the rules and calling restraining fouls like hooking, holding and interference. ... It is our responsibility toward the game and its fans to seize this opportunity and showcase hockey as a sport of unique speed and skill to a projected TV audience of 2.3 billion viewers."

That will be easier said than done given the IIHF is determined to employ just one referee instead of the two-man crews that have been crucial to reducing the obstruction fouls in the NHL this season.

A one-man crew will be expected to call the neutral-zone hooks and holds that slow down flow and curtail scoring chances while still watching the puck. It will be a difficult task. International GMs will be rolling the dice when they pick their teams, hoping Fasel can pull off what he's promised. If the games are slow and cluttered, a team that went with speed and skill over size and grit in its lineup might find its medal chances hampered.

It would make sense to ensure NHL officials work the tournament's most important games, the quarterfinals and medal games. But IIHF officials say there's no guarantee that will be the case, although they insist the best referees will be assigned to the most difficult games.

Can the IIHF pull it off?

The first test case will come later this month, when IIHF officials will be asked to produce the same level of enforcement at the World Junior Championship in British Columbia.

The other problem will be in indoctrinating the six European referees who will share duties with four NHL referees. To help officials get on the same page, the IIHF will hold a series of meetings with officials prior to the Olympics. NHL officials will meet in Toronto from Dec. 19-21, international referees will meet in Zurich Jan. 13-15, and then all of the officials will have instructional sessions in Turin on Feb. 13-14. The men's tournament begins Feb. 15.

As witnessed during the early stages of this NHL season, the work done by the men in black and white will go a long way to ensuring this Olympic tournament is one to remember, and not remembered as a giant step backward.
-- Scott Burnside

THE HAT TRICK
Sabres center Daniel Briere returned to the Buffalo lineup Sunday after missing eight games with an abdominal strain. He led the team in scoring before the injury, but his absence didn't hurt the Sabres, who are riding a 10-game winning streak and sit just five points behind Ottawa for second place in the Northeast Division. According to a report from The Sports Network of Canada, Alexei Kovalev skated with the Canadiens on Monday for the first time since his knee surgery on Nov. 15. The Habs would love to have him back. Since he left the lineup, Montreal has gone 3-6-1 in 10 games and is barely holding on to the seventh overall spot in the East. Detroit goalie Manny Legace told local reporters over the weekend that it was "stupid" and that he "lied to the coaching staff" when he returned too soon from a knee injury earlier this season, a decision that has sidelined him again. Legace could practice later this week, but he said he doesn't know when he'll return to the lineup.



CAUGHT IN THE NETS
HOLIDAY TRADE FRENZY?
The NHL's board of governors meets this week in Arizona, where they will discuss the new NHL rules and standards of officiating, the possibility of an expanded playoff format (don't expect it to happen until at least the spring of 2008, if not 2009), and most important, the revenue picture. It's believed league revenues are significantly higher than anticipated and may even return to pre-lockout levels, about $2.1 billion. This would mean the $39 million salary cap (based on projected revenues this season of about $1.8 billion) will at least remain intact and could go up as opposed to the generally held preseason view that the cap could drop to as low as $37 million next season.

What does the rosy financial picture mean? The report could trigger a flurry of movement of players now that teams have a better idea of what they'll be able to spend next season. Petr Sykora, Todd Bertuzzi, Doug Weight, Tom Poti, Keith Tkachuk, Roberto Luongo (pictured) and Olaf Kolzig are all valuable commodities who could be on the move before the end of the season. All will take a significant financial commitment, either in terms of existing contracts or in inking a new deal. Teams with cap room that are either playoff ready (N.Y. Rangers, Buffalo and Nashville) or are on the bubble (Phoenix and Anaheim) might now be in a better position to take advantage of some of these assets. Although the trade deadline isn't until March 9, the good financial news revealed this week might prompt movement sooner rather than later.

THE FIVE HOLE

Barry Melrose
Well, so far the Joe Thornton trade has done the trick for the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks haven't lost a game since obtaining Thornton from Boston on Nov. 30. Thornton immediately helped them end a 10-game winless streak in his debut and has two goals and 10 assists in five games. Will this winning trend continue? A trade like this automatically brings offense to your team, but San Jose's goaltending and defense have to pick it up as well. With an important home-and-home vs. Anaheim this week, that defensive strength can't come too soon.
E.J. Hradek
Wayne Gretzky is proving to be just as interesting to watch behind the bench as he was as a player. His Coyotes continue their surprising quest for a playoff spot, finishing a two-game road swing in Montreal Tuesday. They return home to host the Lightning Thursday before closing out the week with a key Pacific Division showdown in L.A. vs. the Kings. The Great One has benefited from rejuvenated veteran goalie Curtis Joseph and is getting a lot of offensive production out of savvy forward Ladislav Nagy, who leads the team with 33 points in 28 games. Ironically, the Coyotes might have to oust Gretzky's old team (the Oilers) to earn a playoff spot.
Scott Burnside
The Canucks entered the week tied for the best home record in the NHL, but were a dismal 2-7-1 on the road in their last 10 games. One of the teams with whom the Canucks are tied for home dominance happens to be the Flyers. But the Flyers have been decimated by injury, including the loss of defensive anchors Eric Desjardins and Joni Pitkanen and top scorer Simon Gagne. Peter Forsberg has also been hobbled, setting the stage for an interesting clash between two Cup hopefuls on Thursday.
FANTASY ISLAND
Who to pick up: One player who has benefited from Joe Thornton's arrival in San Jose is Jonathan Cheechoo. The Sharks forward has five goals and two assists in five games since the trade, compared to just one assist over the five games before the deal. A good pickup.
Who to drop: Veteran Mark Recchi might have just ended one of the longest scoring slumps of his career, but is that still worth keeping him on your fantasy team? He had only one goal in his previous 14 games before recording a goal and an assist in a win over Colorado on Saturday.
IN THE BOX
So, we just picked up Wilco's new live album "Kicking Television." If you haven't caught them in concert, you should, they are one of the best. We picked the song "A Shot in the Arm" for this week. Jeff Tweedy, who's seen plenty of ashtrays over his lifetime, would think pucks, too.
THEY SAID IT
"You can say what you want, whether we're a fragile team or this and that. That's baloney. We're in the NHL. I don't care how much youth we have in the lineup, it doesn't matter. It's just a fine line between winning and losing."
-- Blues winger Mike Sillinger on the team's struggles

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