1. Pick a stance and stick with it
Let’s begin with this admission: I don’t care a whit about who shows up or doesn’t show up for the All-Star Game. The fans love it; some players like it, some players avoid it like the plague. Whatever. It is what it is: a love-in for sponsors and a chance for the league to milk the corporate cow. I don’t begrudge them that. Hey, it’s a business. But as is often the case, the league struggles with its own consistency when it comes to this strange moment on the NHL calendar.
I applauded commissioner Gary Bettman’s strong stance at the 2009 All-Star Game in Montreal, when Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom declined to show up for the proceedings after they’d been selected to participate. Bettman had previously told his GMs that he didn’t want guys pulling the plug after they’d been chosen and that if players were bowing out using the injury card, they wouldn’t be able to play in the first game back after the All-Star break. So, in effect, Lidstrom and Datsyuk were suspended for a game after the ’09 break. The Wings hated it and it was a tough call given the long years of dedicated service Lidstrom had put in on behalf of the Wings and the league.
Now, though, that hard stance has apparently fallen by the wayside in favor of the "wink, wink" strategy for avoiding the game. Lidstrom and Hall of Fame-bound Anaheim winger Teemu Selanne, among others, deserved to be in Ottawa and should have been there based on a host of factors, including their All-Star caliber of play this season. But sources have told ESPN.com those players let the league know they’d prefer not to go -- heck, Selanne came out publicly saying he wanted a break -- and so Corey Perry will go essentially on behalf of Selanne, even though Selanne, as captain, would have been a nice bookend to Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson’s captaincy of one of the All-Star teams. Lidstrom, a captain a year ago in Raleigh, is having another Norris-caliber season but won’t be in Ottawa. If you’re going to have the event, and it’s going to mean anything at all, this turn of events is a definite step back and is a slap in the face for the fans who are, after all, paying the freight. They have been cheated out of a chance to celebrate the appearance of two future Hall of Famers in perhaps their final year of play. And the absence of players such as Selanne and Lidstrom is a slap in the face to the players who will show up in Ottawa but would rather be somewhere else. Like many things, it’s all about consistency, or in the case of the All-Star Game, a lack thereof.
2. Blues ownership still a mess
St. Louis Blues minority owner Tom Stillman has the inside track on becoming the next owner of the team, bringing to an end a long and sometimes rancorous process. Multiple sources told ESPN.com that Stillman now has exclusive bargaining rights to buy the team after threatening to sue the NHL over how the sale was progressing. These same sources told ESPN.com that shortly before Christmas, plans for Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer to buy the team were on track and in fact the deal was in its final stages. But as a late-December deadline approached without a final deal being struck, Stillman’s legal team threatened to take action if the league didn’t move to give Stillman an opportunity to get a deal together. The league terminated Hulsizer’s purchase agreement and multiple sources confirmed to ESPN.com that the Hulsizer bid to buy the team is dead. Hulsizer had initially been in position to buy the Phoenix Coyotes, but an inability to reach a deal with the city of Glendale on a new lease for the team’s arena in Glendale and threats of a lawsuit from public interest group the Goldwater Institute scuttled that deal. The Yotes remain in limbo and are in danger of being relocated. After that deal fell apart, Hulsizer was courted by the NHL, which suggested he examine ownership possibilities in a number of markets, including New Jersey and St. Louis. With the Blues deal falling apart, it’s believed Hulsizer will take a step back and see how the Stillman bid plays out. A spokesman for the Blues said Stillman is not commenting on his efforts to buy the team.
3. Move 'em or lose 'em
This is the time of year when the discussion turns to players who might have no-trade or no-movement clauses and whether they might be made available before the Feb. 27 trade deadline. Some people, like Toronto GM Brian Burke, take a hard line on this issue, saying they won’t approach a player about waiving his no-trade or no-movement clause.
Last year, Burke ended up trading defenseman Tomas Kaberle to Boston, but the impetus for the move had to come from the Kaberle camp, given that Kaberle had a no-movement clause. Fair enough. Burke’s position is that the player has earned the right through his contract not to be moved, and unless the player is looking to be traded, he won’t broach the subject with him. Our perspective is a little less strident. If it makes sense for a player to be moved, why not approach him regardless of the clauses in his contract? Players are often proud creatures and don’t want to be seen as abandoning ship, even if the ship is clearly taking on water, as the Leafs were a year ago. The Kaberle move clearly helped the Leafs, who obtained a top prospect in Joe Colborne and a first- and second-round draft pick, while the Bruins won a Cup, even if Kaberle was more hindrance than help most of the time. The player clearly has the final say-so if they have a no-trade or no-move clause, so what’s the harm, especially if it’s clear there’s a market for him and his departure would help both the player vis a vis playing in the playoffs and possibly winning a Cup, and the team that will see assets returned? If, as is often the case, the player is heading into unrestricted free agency, there’s nothing to stop the team from turning around and re-signing the player in the offseason, as we saw with St. Louis re-signing Doug Weight and later Keith Tkachuk after trading both at the deadline in recent years. That said, here are five guys we would approach, if we were the GMs of their teams, about waiving their no-move clause because of their desirability on the ice and the return they might bring to a team looking to take a run at a Cup: Shane Doan, Phoenix; Ryan Malone, Tampa; Jarome Iginla, Calgary; Ryan Smyth, Edmonton; Francois Beauchemin, Anaheim.
4. Traders beware of these guys
On the other hand, here are five guys we wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole come deadline time, no-trade or not. Olli Jokinen, Calgary: Teams are always looking for help down the middle, but one look at Jokinen’s meager playoff record -- he’s played in just six postseason games in his career and there’s a reason for that -- should warn teams off. Shawn Horcoff, Edmonton: Another center, but it still boggles the mind how Horcoff managed to get a deal that pays him $5.5 million for the next three years. He has eight goals this season. Scott Gomez, Montreal: Ha, ha. OK, so no one will be asking about Gomez, who has two more years at an astounding $7.35 million cap hit. Brian Rolston, New York Islanders: Even though it’s prorated, it remains astounding that the 38-year-old somehow managed to wrangle more than $5 million out of any team. A good guy in the room, Rolston has four goals this season for the always-fumbling Islanders. Nik Antropov, Winnipeg: Not sure, exactly, how a player who has accomplished as little as Antropov earns a no-trade clause, even if it is a modified one. Still, he is a center and has shown at times to have terrific hands around the net. But another year at a cap hit just north of $4 million should be enough to keep perspective buyers away.
5. Bourque a stand-up kind of guy
We watched the inevitable on Wednesday night, Rene Bourque fresh from his trade to Montreal from Calgary and fresh from his five-game suspension for his cowardly elbow to the head of Washington center Nicklas Backstrom, facing off against those same Caps. It wasn’t an issue of whether there would be payback but rather just how quickly it would happen. For those in the Bourque Puts 'Em Up pool at home who had 1:15 of the first period or Bourque’s first shift of the game, you won that Brendan Shanahan bobblehead. So, was anything accomplished by the bout? We’re pretty sure watching designated avenger Matt Hendricks tangle with Bourque didn’t clear Backstrom’s head. The Caps’ most important offensive player hasn’t been able to play since being clipped by Bourque on Jan. 3. Bourque was handed a five-game sentence by league disciplinarian Shanahan. It was Bourque’s second suspension of the season (he rammed Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook from behind, earning a two-game respite earlier this season). So much for making life difficult for repeat offenders. But would it have mattered had Bourque received the 10- or 15-game ban he deserved? Wouldn’t Hendricks have been waiting for Bourque the next time the two teams tangled anyway? Hockey players have long memories, and there is something almost comforting about that. It doesn’t solve anything other than to say simply, we remember. We remember your bush-league behavior. And to Bourque’s credit, he understood that he was expected to answer for his actions beyond the slap on the wrist given him by the league. We suspect that even if the league did a better job of meting out discipline, these moments of frontier justice would still remain. Does it keep players in line? Probably not. But knowing a player will be made to account for his actions sometime, somewhere, may not be such a bad thing.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.