Small group of free agents still without a home
They are the last of the last, that small group of free agents without a home, a group comprised almost exclusively of the aging and injury prone. And yet, for NHL teams desperate to shake off early slumps or to fill gaps caused by early injuries, they are names that cannot be ignored: Brian Leetch, Jason Allison, Peter Bondra, Yanic Perreault.
Leetch, for instance, has become the name of the week as Philadelphia GM Bob Clarke acknowledged chatting with Leetch's agent, Jay Grossman, about the defenseman's availability and desire to play. The Flyers (1-2 after beating the Rangers Tuesday night) are without Mike Rathje and newcomer Lars Jonsson along an already shaky blue line. The Leafs, likewise, will be without rear guard Pavel Kubina for several weeks with a strained ligament in his knee, an injury that adds to an already injury-depleted blue line in Toronto.
But don't expect Leetch to jump into the fray anytime soon. After signing early in Boston after the lockout, the veteran blueliner will be waiting patiently to make sure he finds a team where the fit works for both Leetch and the team, Grossman told ESPN.com. And that's assuming he decides he's going to play at all.
Offensively, teams are more likely to use minor league prospects in the early going rather than add salary to plug a hole. Still, it's hard to imagine that Bondra, who has been working out in his native Slovakia, wouldn't be useful to some team seeking production and leadership -- a team like Detroit, Philadelphia, New York or Washington, for instance. The longtime Washington Capital had 21 goals in 60 games for the Thrashers and was a key part of the team's power play before being injured.
Perreault attended Nashville's camp a year ago on a tryout basis and ended up leading the league (once again) in faceoff efficiency while chipping in 22 goals for the Preds. Perreault, a solid citizen, can't skate like the wind (he never could), but with 15 NHL teams below 50 percent in faceoff efficiency, surely Perreault might be of some value.
Allison is another pivot who lacks foot speed, but did manage to score 60 points in 66 games with Toronto last season. Allison's situation is more problematic because he is seen as a loner and not particularly good in the dressing room.
Bondra's agent, Rich Winter, said he doesn't think there will be quick movement on these kinds of players because the collective-bargaining agreement forces teams that sign players 35 or older to honor the entire contract regardless of whether they play. On the other hand, players in this category can also structure their contracts to receive bonuses that give GMs more leeway than with other players.
It is a reflection of the anticipation of a new season that we attach undue significance to early-season results. Fans are rejoicing in San Jose, where the Sharks are undefeated, fueling Stanley Cup talk. Carolina is winless in four games to start their defense of the Cup.
Let's take a look at how the final four teams from last year's playoffs started the season a year ago.
• Anaheim, then Mighty, was 2-2-1 in their first five games, while the Buffalo Sabres were 4-1, including a shootout win and an overtime win as they surprised most observers by blazing out of the gate.
• The Hurricanes were 3-2 in their first five, including a shootout win over Pittsburgh and 7-2 and 6-1 thumpings of Washington and New Jersey that would set the tone for the entire season.
• The Edmonton Oilers were 3-2 after five games, having won their first three and then dropping the first two of what would become a seven-game losing streak.
• As for the league's doormats, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Chicago, the Blues began the season 2-3, the star-laden Penguins were 0-5 before they knew what hit them, although three of those losses were in overtime and another in a shootout, and the Blackhawks were 2-3.
• The hottest teams a season ago? Dallas was 4-1, but would self-combust in the first round of the playoffs. Detroit would likewise go 4-1 en route to a Presidents' Trophy before flaming out in the first round. The Habs, another first-round playoff victim, also started last season 4-1.
• The hottest team in the NHL a season ago? Nashville went 5-0 en route to a franchise-record eight straight victories to start the season. The Preds, however, followed precedent and were dispatched in the first round by a San Jose squad that struggled through the first third of the season.
All of which tells you that it's better to wait until April to start planning those Stanley Cup parade routes.
Over in Chicago, sophomore Blackhawks coach Trent Yawney gave his team a verbal lashing to make a point early on that the sloppiness that characterized his team's play for most of last season won't be tolerated this season. It's a laudable move on both parts given the stakes: defending a Cup and trying to return to respectability. One has to imagine the tough love routines are likely to become more commonplace with the parity in the NHL. Of course, the danger for coaches is going to the whip too often and losing a team's respect.
• Another team working extra hard to turn an early unwelcome tide was the Nashville Predators, who lost 8-6 to open the season and then were nipped 6-5 by Minnesota. Coach Barry Trotz put the team through a rigorous week of practices designed to focus on defensive lapses. And while netminder Tomas Vokoun quietly criticized the team's defensive play, saying the first two games were like All-Star games (when goalies are traditionally left hung out to dry), he also acknowledged he has to be better.
The slow start puts added pressure on Vokoun to prove that he is fully recovered from blood clotting problems that ended his season just prior to the start of last season's playoffs. Of course, when opposing teams score on 7 of 10 power-play opportunities, as the Preds' opponents did to open the season, it's not just a goaltending issue.
E.J. Hradek and Barry Melrose look at teams off to hot starts.
|NOT TAKING THE LEAD|
|Peter Forsberg: Interesting situation developing in Philadelphia with the strange reluctance of new captain Peter Forsberg to participate in what turned out to be a marathon shootout session between the Flyers and Rangers. Forsberg said he lacked confidence for the shootout, plus he didn't have any good sticks (huh?). He eventually did shoot sixth, but missed in what could have been perceived as a lackluster effort. The Flyers lost the game, but Forsberg returned strong in the team's next outing, a decisive 4-2 win over those same Rangers on Tuesday, before the Flyers dropped a 3-1 decision to Montreal a day later. What bears watching is the leadership issue. The Flyers seemed adrift last spring when Buffalo dispatched them in six games in the first round, and it's widely accepted that there's been a leadership void since Keith Primeau went down with what turned out to be a career-ending injury last season. When he's on, Forsberg remains one of the world's top talents. When he's off? Well, the captain simply can't afford to take many nights off, bad sticks or not.|
|A TANGLED WEB|
|It simply doesn't get any better than this. The Islanders are predictably lousy with Rick DiPietro, he of the new 15-year contract, leading the way as the Isles dropped their first three games. Then, Mike Dunham gives DiPietro a breather and leads the Islanders to a 5-4 shootout win over previously undefeated Anaheim, stopping 46 of 50 shots, including 19 saves in the third. So what does new coach Ted Nolan do? Does he court professional disaster by going back to Dunham, knowing that DiPietro and wacko owner Charles Wang are buddies? (Did we mention the 15-year deal?) Or does he try and squeeze points out of a team that has virtually no shot to make the playoffs by riding DiPietro as long as he can? Is this fun or what?|
|GOOD OR BAD?|
|Ilya Kovalchuk: The Atlanta Thrashers are off to a franchise-best 3-0-1 start and star Ilya Kovalchuk has yet to dent the twine. While Kovalchuk, who has two assists and is plus-3, is obviously frustrated, angrily smashing his stick on the ice at a missed chance in a 4-1 win over Boston on Wednesday, coach Bob Hartley believes Kovalchuk is playing the best all-round hockey since the coach arrived in January 2003. Back-checking and picking up his man defensively, Kovalchuk is doing all of those things that complete players do and that many believed were beyond the scope of the talented Russian. Wednesday, for instance, he rushed back to break up a dangerous Bruins rush while the Thrashers were on the power play.|
Sidney Crosby plays the hero in a win over the Rangers.
Games on our radar over the next few days:
• Friday: Hurricanes at Thrashers, 7:30 p.m. ET: Think Atlanta is happy to have Kari Lehtonen back in the lineup? The young netminder posted back-to-back shutouts and set a team record for shutout minutes in the Thrashers' first four games (3-0-1). They take on Southeast rival Carolina, which has yet to win a game (0-3-1).
• Friday: Sabres at Red Wings, 7 p.m. ET: Oh, the drama. The unbeaten Sabres (3-0) face former goalie Dominik Hasek and the Red Wings, 9-2 winners over the struggling Coyotes earlier this week. Too bad the game wasn't at the rowdy HSBC Arena.
• Saturday: Blue Jackets at Wild, 8 p.m. ET: A battle of the unbeatens! No, you're not reading it wrong. Columbus (2-0-1) and Minnesota (4-0-0) are both off to good starts. Wild winger Marian Gaborik has two goals and three assists in four games.
• Sunday: Stars at Ducks, 8 p.m. ET: Both teams are off to decent starts, but this one could help set the tone for intra-conference play within the competitive Pacific Division. It will also be interesting to see how Marty Turco holds up against all of that young firepower from Anaheim.
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