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Netminders' struggles hurting teams' playoff goals

11/4/2006 - NHL

AROUND THE RINK

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com


It is the oldest truism in the hockey handbook -- no team goes anywhere without solid, consistent goaltending, and in the new NHL, that means having more than one netminder who can provide it.

That is why at least three NHL teams that had playoff aspirations, if not legitimate Cup hopes, are in serious trouble.

The biggest letdown in the second season of the post-lockout era has been the play of Henrik Lundqvist in New York, where the Rangers are 7-6 after Thursday's win in San Jose. Only four teams have given up more goals than the Rangers and Lundqvist has been victimized by poor goals on almost a nightly basis.

A year ago, the Rangers were able to establish their strong work ethic and team unity in large part because Lundqvist was so good early in the season. Through the Rangers' first 10 games last season, Lundqvist didn't allow more than three goals in any one contest, giving up just 19 goals over that period. This season, Lundqvist has given up a whopping 36 in his first 10 starts. Rangers coach Tom Renney has been trying to use Lundqvist as often as possible to help him get his confidence back and help his team stay on track.

But that strategy soon might go by the boards as witnessed by Kevin Weekes' consecutive starts this week. Last season, Weekes, more than capable in spite of rough treatment at the hands of the Madison Square Garden faithful, played four times in October and then went 6-2 in November as the Rangers surged to the top of the division and conference standings. It's clear that Weekes is going to have to figure much more prominently into the Rangers' future plans if they're to approach lofty preseason expectations.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix Coyotes thought they'd added enough pieces, especially along the blue line with Ed Jovanovski and Nick Boynton coming in, to make life easier for workhorse Curtis Joseph. But Joseph, who was between the pipes for 32 of 38 Coyotes' wins last season, has struggled. He's allowed 31 goals through his first nine starts and the team's lack of goaltending depth has contributed to the Coyotes' woeful 3-9 start. Mike Morrison won the backup job over incumbent David LeNeveu out of camp, but was brutal and was waived after allowing 13 goals in four games. LeNeveu backstopped the Coyotes to a huge win over Edmonton last week, but then was torched for seven goals against the Rangers in his next outing (although he deserved better).

GM Mike Barnett has made inquiries, but the usual suspects when it comes to potential trading partners (Anaheim, San Jose and Buffalo) will not be making any moves any time soon to unload their prized goaltending depth. The end result? The Coyotes will have to pay dearly for better goaltending in the form of draft picks or prospects, or hope Joseph regains his form.

The third and most curious of this group is defending Vezina Trophy winner Miikka Kiprusoff, whose Flames continue to languish in the Northwest Division basement with a 3-7-1 record following Wednesday's 3-2 loss to Detroit. Kiprusoff started last season allowing fewer than three goals six times in the Flames' first 10 games. This season, he's managed that feat just three times over the same period. GM Darryl Sutter, so quick to dismiss anyone who has the temerity to criticize his team, suggests the team performed in a similar fashion a season ago but still managed to win the division. Oh, never mind then.

WHAT'S REALLY FREE?


Poor Dave Nonis. The Vancouver GM has become a lightning rod for discussion this week after he unloaded while speaking at a local business luncheon. Among other things, Nonis complained the adjustments to free agency in the collective bargaining agreement make it harder for teams to keep their young players together. Gee, there's a news flash.

Did Nonis forget his predecessor Brian Burke struggled for years to assemble a competitive team under the old system with a payroll one-third what teams like New York or Detroit or Colorado or Philadelphia were spending? Did Nonis forget that it was virtually impossible for any team like the Canucks to develop, and keep, young stars because those aforementioned teams would simply outbid them for their services when they became free agents, or that teams like Vancouver regularly dealt young stars because they couldn't afford to pay them beyond their entry level deals?

Those same factors are still at play, but they're at play for Detroit and Philadelphia and the Canucks alike. Bottom line? If you can't create a winning environment for young stars in seven years, a place where they want to stay regardless of their status as free agents, then you'd better find another line of work. Imagine what Nonis, who insisted later that he'd been quoted out of context and really does love the NHL (and his job), would have to complain about if the owners hadn't taken the players to the woodshed during the lockout.

-- S.B.

ENOUGH!

OK, hands up for anyone who is sick of all the moaning and wailing about the schedule. Once again kids, you can't have it all. You want to see Alexander Ovechkin and you live on the West Coast? Well, take a good hard look at a map and be thankful for the weather.

No doubt it's a drag if you're in the Western Conference and you only get to see Sidney Crosby or Ovechkin once every three years. And maybe there's a way to alter the schedule to allow teams from a Western division to face a different Eastern division team every year as they do in the NFL. But what do you think attendance is going to be like in Vancouver with the Islanders coming in on a Wednesday night in November? Will Nonis then complain about having to sell dogs like that?

As for the current schedule, some Western fans may not get Crosby and Ovechkin, but they do get to see Chris Pronger and Ales Hemsky and Jarome Iginla and Markus Naslund and Marian Gaborik at least twice a year, and depending on the division, sometimes four times a year. Fans in the Eastern Conference don't. The other factor that the schedule whiners forget is that inter-conference games generally stink. Ask coaches. Divisional and conference games always, always mean more, and therefore generally produce a higher level of emotion and a better product. In the end, isn't that what this about, putting the best product on the ice?

Here's a hanky, Dave. Dry your eyes and move on.

--S.B.