1. The age-old Calder debate
My colleague and good friend Pierre LeBrun and I have often debated last season's Calder Trophy race, which was won by Buffalo defenseman Tyler Myers. I have no problem with Myers' selection (he won by a veritable landslide, collecting 94 of 133 first-place votes). Myers was terrific as a 19-year-old blueliner.
But where Mr. LeBrun and I often disagree is that part of Myers' appeal was he was a teenager, compared to Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard, who was 25 going on 26 during his rookie season. Howard was second to Myers in voting. I voted for Howard because I believed his performance for the injury-riddled Red Wings (especially in the second half of the season) was exemplary, regardless of whether he was an "old" rookie.
This season, the age issue has again crept into the Calder discussion.
Jeff Skinner, who won't turn 19 until May, is in a dogfight with San Jose's Logan Couture. Couture, who turned 22 at the end of March, has done it all for a Sharks team that is likely the second-best team in the NHL behind Vancouver. At the time of this writing, Skinner had opened up a four-point lead on Couture, although Couture was tied with the Isles' Michael Grabner for the rookie goal-scoring lead (31), two more than Skinner.
Both are centers, and there is no doubt Skinner's performance is wildly impressive. But I have seen others refer to Skinner's performance as it relates to being a "young" rookie and, presumably, his worthiness as a Calder candidate. There's a reason the award's parameters are in place. It seems unjust to penalize Couture, who is marginally more deserving of the award given his overall impact with the Sharks, just because of the calendar.
2. A not-so-grand finale
Check out the last Saturday of the regular season: 11 contests, 22 teams, each tilt a divisional matchup ... all but one.
Yes, Buffalo fans will be storming down the highway to Ohio to get tickets to the Sabres' final regular-season matchup against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Huh? So, play 81 games and the best the schedule-makers can come up with is a meaningless, emotionless contest against a sad-sack team from the other conference?
Hey, we understand the schedule is a monster to manipulate with six divisional games and 15 teams in each conference. But how on earth the Sabres could end up playing their finale against a team that isn't even in their own conference is incomprehensible.
You can bet Toronto, Carolina, the New York Rangers and Montreal -- teams whose own playoff standing could be affected by the Sabres' final game -- were wishing the game had a little more meaning or at least have it be against an Eastern Conference foe.
3. Enough already, Georges
Has there been a player in recent memory who accomplished so little on the ice but talked so much off it than Georges Laraque?
It created hardly a ripple when the Canadiens bought out Laraque's contract, which then-GM Bob Gainey foolishly bestowed given Laraque's negligible on-ice impact; but disappearing gracefully has hardly been Laraque's style.
The ubiquitous "expert" has weighed in on various topics in recent days and months, including the Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty and whether Montreal coach Jacques Martin has lost the Habs' room. We had to snicker when Laraque suggested that had he been on the ice, Pacioretty would not have been ridden into the stanchion at the Bell Centre. Were that true, hundreds of players who played alongside Laraque (well, that's a stretch since Laraque spent many nights stapled to the bench in many NHL cities) owe him a debt of gratitude for having saved them from similar injury. If they only knew how lucky they were.
Then, to suggest in recent days that Martin has lost touch with his players is just more waste material. The coach guided the underdog Habs to a shocking Eastern Conference finals appearance last season and has them pointed toward the playoffs again this spring despite injuries.
Not sure what's more shocking, that Laraque continues to offer up such misguided opinions or that he finds a forum for them.
4. The access debate
What a schmozzle the annual awards voting process has become, thanks to the smallness of the New York Islanders and the failure of the NHL to do the right thing.
You may recall when Islanders GM Garth Snow revoked the credential of writer and Professional Hockey Writers' Association member Chris Botta earlier this season. Botta was a former Islanders PR man who had gone on to write his own blog, first sponsored by the Isles, then independent of the team. The NHL tried through various means to get Snow to back off, but the Isles insisted they had the right to control access by bloggers. Botta now writes a blog for The New York Times, but is still banned from the Islanders' locker room.
What should have been clear-cut from the league's perspective is that Botta is a member of the PHWA, the group that votes on many of the league's top awards, All-Star and All-Rookie teams, and should have been protected by the league.
Instead of telling the Isles the PHWA trumps individual teams' arbitration on access, the NHL allowed the Isles' decision to stand. As small as Snow's decision was, the NHL's response was sadly weak-kneed.
Fast-forward to this past week. This year's awards ballots were issued to members of the PHWA and the three New York-area chapters decided to boycott the voting process this year in protest. The majority of PHWA members will continue to vote on the awards in the next week or so, but those New York-area writers should never have been put in this position to begin with.
It was illuminating to see Snow's response to the boycott, as he suggested it would only hurt the chances of Islanders or Rangers players of being honored. As if local writers would only vote for local players.
5. Scouting ahead of the game
In the days leading up to Ottawa's signing of top college free agent Stephane Da Costa, we were talking to agent Wade Arnott about the pressure on NHL teams to turn over every stone to find talent.
Since the lockout, ferreting out those collegiate or European free agents who fall through the cracks or mature later has been crucial to teams managing the salary cap. Finding these players can save money and help preserve other assets, as they aren't as expensive as traditional free agents and don't use up a draft pick. Consequently, adding these pieces to a roster gives teams more flexibility when it comes to making other roster moves.
"It's a burgeoning part of our industry," Arnott said.
Take the Anaheim Ducks, who turned the good work of assistant GM David McNab into a number of undrafted collegiate players like Dustin Penner, Andy McDonald and Chris Kunitz en route to a Cup win in 2007. Would the Ducks have been able to sign and/or acquire Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger without those players in the lineup? Not likely.
Arnott said more than half the teams in the NHL inquired about Da Costa, but he was weighing a number of factors in making his decision.
The time put in by Senators scout Lew Mongelluzzo likely had something to do with the decision and the potential for Da Costa to step into a full-time role next season.
"They all feel that he can play," Arnott said. "It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when."
Our good friends at the Elias Sports Bureau tell us that so far this year 134 undrafted players have appeared in NHL lineups, down slightly from 144 last season and 149 in 2008-09. But the really telling numbers: There were just 110 in 2003-04, the season before the lockout, and 102 in 2000-01.