Teams must wonder if Olympics are worth it
Bryan McCabe is the reason many NHL owners and GMs quietly wish the Olympics would go away. And Alexander Frolov. And Joni Pitkanen. And Robert Esche. And a host of elite players recovering from serious injuries on playoff-hopeful, even Stanley Cup-hopeful, teams who nonetheless want desperately to play in the Olympics next month in Torino.
Since NHL players were given leave to take part in the Olympic tournament in 1998, it has been the classic case of big picture versus small picture. Is the value of interrupting the NHL routine for two weeks every four years and compressing the schedule to put NHL players on the world stage worth the inherent dangers to individual franchises?
Shortly after the new collective bargaining agreement was signed last summer, top NHL executives told ESPN.com they thought it wasn't the right time for the NHL to be returning to the Olympics.
In part, they were concerned about interrupting the flow after losing an entire season to the lockout. In part, they were concerned about the dynamic that now exists in many NHL cities: teams having players who want to be part of the Olympic experience but whose health, and availability to their big clubs for the all-important post-Olympic stretch, will be jeopardized by their participation in the Games.
Any tournament like this brings with it the possibility of injury.
There will be injuries in Torino. It is the cost of doing business. But a quick glance at the NHL injury list reveals that this is no ordinary season.
The lockout, the new up-tempo game, the new rules -- all have conspired to inflict a slew of groin and core muscle injuries on players across the league. Factor in the Olympic schedule that will see players play as many as eight games between Feb. 15 and 26, and there is a recipe for more.
Atlanta Thrashers coach Bob Hartley joked about goaltending phenom Kari Lehtonen, who missed most of the first half of the season with a groin injury, being sent back to Atlanta in pieces after the Olympics.
Lehtonen became the de facto starter for the medal-minded Finns when the country's most accomplished netminder, Miikka Kiprusoff, told his countrymen he wanted to recover from injury. The injury hasn't stopped Kiprusoff from leading the Flames to the top of the Northwest Division, leading to much speculation that Calgary management put not-so-subtle pressure on Kiprusoff to take a pass on the Olympics to give the Flames the best possible chance to meet the team's Stanley Cup expectations.
No doubt Toronto GM John Ferguson Jr. would love for McCabe, the team's leading scorer and most important player, to take the two-week Olympic break to rest a torn groin rather than rush back in the hopes he can play in Torino. Without McCabe, the Leafs have fallen below the bubble in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
McCabe, named to the Canadian taxi squad, rightfully could expect to get the call in Torino with the slow recovery of Jovanovski (groin) in Vancouver. And rest assured, GM Dave Nonis would be just as happy if Jovanovski, a star at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, would rest up for the post-Olympic break with the Canucks tied with Calgary atop their division.
The same dilemmas exist in a dozen NHL cities, where teams are jockeying for playoff position or simply trying to qualify for the all-important postseason berth.
In the past, some coaches have been guilty of pressuring players not to attend the midseason All-Star weekend in order to rest up for the stretch run. For a corporate schmoozefest like the All-Star Game, integrity is hardly an issue.
But the Olympics are a different story entirely, and the NHL and the IIHF will be monitoring whether more and more players beg out of the event to make sure they are at their best on the smaller stage with their individual teams, the teams that pay their way.
|WHERE THE WILD ARE||REVOLVING NETS||BLACKHAWK DOWN|
|The Minnesota Wild have gone 11-6-0 over their last 17 games after a 3-2 win over Chicago on Sunday. But will it be enough to make the playoffs? As of Monday, the Wild are six points out of the final playoff spot in the West. The schedule will not be on their side; nine of their next 14 games will be on the road.||The goaltending musical chairs continues in Detroit. Manny Legace gets the nod Monday night vs. the Preds and is third in the league with a 2.15 GAA. Chris Osgood has struggled of late, going 1-2 in his last three starts and being pulled after helping the Wings lose a 3-0 lead vs. Dallas on Jan. 8.||More bad news for Chicago as goalie Nikolai Khabibulin will be sidelined up to six weeks (sprained knee). And what about the Olympics? The injury makes it very unlikely he'll play for Russia with the Games just under three weeks away.|
Captain Keith Primeau was considered a wastrel in Detroit and Carolina, but became a consummate leader and dynamic playoff performer as a Flyer. Sami Kapanen, one of the league's most versatile players, was obtained from Carolina for spare parts.
This season, Clarke signed unwanted veteran Brian Savage on the eve of training camp, and Savage has pitched in with timely goals as the Flyers have fought through an inhuman stretch of injuries.
That said, Clarke has stretched the boundaries with his acquisition of Petr Nedved (pictured). The 34-year-old center, a former teammate of coach Wayne Gretzky, was expected to provide veteran leadership and scoring in Phoenix but was a huge bust, scoring just twice in 25 games, garnering a minus-6 and missing 19 games with various injuries.
Nedved was a healthy scratch for the struggling Coyotes, and it will be interesting to see how the lanky center survives under taskmaster Ken Hitchcock in Philadelphia. If he becomes a useful contributor, Clarke gets our vote for manager of the year. -- S.B.
On Saturday afternoon, Stars goalie Marty Turco likely will get another chance to earn his first career victory over the Western Conference rival Red Wings. The former University of Michigan stopper can't seem to get over the hump against the Wings, going 0-5-5 in 11 career appearances. Inexplicably, Turco has struggled since signing a four-year, $22.8M contract extension Jan. 5, being pulled in three of his next six starts. With four conference tilts on the schedule this week, the Stars hope their goaltender will get back on his game. And, no doubt, a win against the Wings on Saturday would go a long way toward restoring his confidence.
Washington at Pittsburgh, Wednesday: This game marks the second head-to-head clash of the rookie titans Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. Back in late November, it was Crosby dominating as the Penguins defeated the Capitals. So much has changed since then, though. Pittsburgh coach Ed Olczyk is gone, and the Penguins have plummeted to the bottom of the NHL standings. Crosby has been criticized, mugged, taunted, and generally manhandled on and off the ice while continuing to pile up the points. Meanwhile, Ovechkin is threatening to turn the rookie race into a walk-off with play that shows no sign of tailing off. Heading into play this week, Ovechkin was nine points ahead of Crosby with 62 points to Crosby's 53.
Who to pick up: Predators left wing Scott Hartnell has picked things up in the past week, posting two goals and three assists in his last three games. His spurt might continue this week.
Who to drop: Stars goalie Marty Turco might need some time on your bench. He has allowed eight goals in the last 21 shots he has faced and has been pulled three times in his last six starts.
As we head down the stretch to the Olympics break and the run for the playoffs, there is a lot of excitement on the horizon. "Tomorrow Never Knows," a classic from the Beatles, seems to capture the atmosphere. That song came out 40 years ago, yet it's a song that could pass for today's Chemical Brothers. Not comparing the two, just pointing out that the Fab Four were ahead of their time.
"There is absolutely no reason that you need to have an illegal curve stick in this day and age. If you get 70 goals or a defensemen, you get 40 goals like Paul Coffey or Bobby Orr, so be it, but I don't understand. There is no reason for a player in this era to have an illegal stick. It won't happen again on our team. There won't be another illegal stick on our bench."
-- Wayne Gretzky, voicing his displeasure with Paul Mara after the D-man was penalized for using an illegal stick.
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