1. It's not just about Crosby
Considering he wasn't even at the All-Star Game this past weekend, we sure heard a lot about Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby. The game's best player is expected to begin light exercise as he struggles to come back from a concussion.
Toronto GM Brian Burke insisted that the recent focus on concussions and blows to the head was directly related to Crosby's situation.
"The concussion thing is the topic du jour," Burke said this past weekend in Raleigh, N.C. "It'll be shoulders next year if there's a rash of shoulder injuries. And frankly, I think the biggest reason we're focused on concussions is because of Sidney. If Mike Brown got that concussion, would you guys all be around with cameras asking about concussions? I don't think so."
Not sure that's fair. We seem to recall a lot of attention on the topic when Marc Savard got hurt, and David Booth before him. That said, if the fact that the game's most marketable asset has been sitting on the sideline for almost a month because of a concussion sparks more interest in the topic, so be it.
2. The playoff picture (who cares if it's early!)
So, we were checking out the standings this morning as we head into the unofficial stretch drive.
With most teams having about 30 games remaining, the playoff picture won't come into focus until the final week of the regular season. That said, if the playoffs began Monday, you would have these first-round matchups: Pittsburgh-Washington, Boston-New York Rangers, Detroit-Chicago and Vancouver-San Jose. And for all those who have been pining for those Vincent Lecavalier-in-Montreal storylines, the Lightning would face the Canadiens in the opening round.
Bring it on!
3. Here come the Red Wings
Hate to fall back on that old adage about "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger," but it applies to the Detroit Red Wings.
Detroit has managed to keep a solid cushion over Nashville in the race for the Central Division title and is also within striking distance of Vancouver for the top seed in the West. (The Red Wings are five points out with a game in hand.) All this despite missing key personnel like Pavel Datsyuk, Daniel Cleary and Brad Stuart, among others. Well, sound the bugle, the cavalry is coming over the hill in the form of Cleary and Datsyuk, both of whom are expected back in the lineup this week.
The Wings are 6-4-1 in 11 January games, and coach Mike Babcock has seen impressive play from players who might not otherwise get much time on the power play or penalty kill or see top-six forward minutes. Four of the team's victories in January came in overtime or the shootout. The team must still deal with its goaltending depth, as Chris Osgood is out long term with a groin injury. (It failed in its efforts to land Evgeni Nabokov, who was picked up by the Islanders via waivers.) Still, watch for the Wings to take their game up a notch in the coming days. Interesting to note that the Wings play the Predators twice in their first five post-All-Star break games.
4. Tampa Bay and the Southeast race
The Tampa Bay Lightning will continue their monster homestand now that the All-Star break is over. The Bolts won the first two of a 12-game mother-of-all home respite, but the coming days will feature key clashes, including visits from the Flyers and Capitals this week. The Lightning lead the Caps by four points in the Southeast Division race.
Behind Dwayne Roloson, the Bolts have shut out the Caps in the past two meetings, and those head-to-head games will be crucial when it comes to deciding the division crown. It's not just bragging rights on the line in the Southeast, though. The team that fails to secure the division title likely will fall to fourth or fifth in the East and earn a likely first-round matchup with Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. Win the division, and you're likely looking at playing Atlanta, Carolina, Montreal or the New York Rangers. On paper, at least, that's a lot more palatable.
A couple of players to watch during this homestand will be Lecavalier and Simon Gagne. Both have struggled with injuries and inconsistency this season but have shown signs of life lately. Their productivity will be crucial to a long playoff run.
5. The players have spoken
Interesting stuff in a wide-ranging poll released this past weekend by the NHL Players' Association and "Hockey Night in Canada." What caught our eye was the list of teams for which players do not want to play.
The Islanders were first in this category, which is understandable. The Isles play in an awful arena and are a mess organizationally. Edmonton was also near the bottom of the list, and that, too, is no surprise. Long winters, small market ... it's just not a sexy hockey place. Not anymore.
But our eyebrows rose in seeing Atlanta and Toronto next in the least desirable of NHL markets. It wasn't that long ago when the Maple Leafs brought in sought-after free agents like Gary Roberts, Alexander Mogilny, Shayne Corson, Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour. And there was winning in Toronto. Under coach (and sometimes GM) Pat Quinn, the Leafs advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in 1999 and 2002. They beat Ottawa pretty much every spring. But the same dynamics that made Toronto a cool place during those years -- a lot of media and fan attention -- now make it a place that players want to avoid.
The Leafs haven't been to the playoffs since before the lockout and won't be going again this season. The culture of losing has turned all that attention into a perpetual black cloud. It creates a situation where the Leafs run the risk of having to overpay for free agents, making Burke's task of rebuilding the team even more onerous.
And onerous pretty much sums up the situation in Atlanta. That's what a decade of losing will do for you. But it shouldn't be this way. The climate is great, it's a great place to fly in and out of, and there are all kinds of cultural entertainment options and plenty of green space for families. Yet players want to avoid Atlanta like the plague. GM Rick Dudley is hoping to change the perception, but it's a big challenge, especially with an incompetent ownership that spends more time in court than trying to build a winning franchise.
One final note on the player poll: It was no surprise to see Crosby as the player other players would build a franchise around. But it was interesting that Crosby's coach, Dan Bylsma, was who other players most identified as the coach they'd like to play for. The coach they'd least like to play for: Toronto's Ron Wilson.