Like a stranded Chevy Corsica in a fresh blanket of snow, there are no tracks for NHL general managers to refer to in the second half of the NHL season. The salary cap complicates things. Not only do GMs have to worry about this year, but they also have to plan what free agents they want to go after this summer and how much cap space they'll need to give their teams the best chance.
I imagine there might not be too much of that going for those teams that genuinely believe they have a chance to win the Stanley Cup this season. At this point, I would bet that after the trade deadline deals, the Stanley Cup will be raised by Ottawa, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Detroit, Nashville, Calgary, Atlanta or Dallas. But certainly, Buffalo, Toronto, Carolina, Edmonton, Vancouver, Los Angeles and San Jose have realistic chances at a Cup Cinderella story, depending on what they can do by the March 9 deadline. I firmly believe the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs could be the most exciting ever.
So, how do the GMs of the NHL's 30 teams manage the rest of this season? The trade deadline has been moved from 26 days to 40 days before the final day of the regular season, which means teams are on the hook for the extra paycheck if they bring on salary. Also, maybe a GM believes his team is one 6-1-1 streak away from sniffing the eighth spot in his conference. Here's how I would handle managing NHL franchises if I went from the natural progression of SportsCenter anchorman to NHL GM. Instead of going East to West, we will go alphabetically -- 15 this week, 15 next week.
Mighty Ducks of Anaheim: I picked them to make the playoffs, but after trading Sergei Fedorov, they are weak up the middle. Anaheim's centers are either too small, too young, too average or Sami Pahlsson. Unless the goaltending gets much better, the playoffs won't happen because scoring is a problem here. I think Todd Bertuzzi is going to be a Duck soon. I'd bet my My Chemical Romance CD that Bertuzzi will become a Duck between now and the Fourth of July. J.S. Giguere and a prospect for Bertuzzi and a salaried defenseman?
Brian Burke has to decide what the ceilings are for Getzlaf, Lupul and Perry. Bobby Ryan looked lethargic at the world juniors. Is he a franchise player? You need Hall of Famers to win Stanley Cups. In 2003, the Lightning had Andreychuk, Lecavalier and Richards, who, in the end, will all be Hall of Famers. In 2002, the Devils had Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Brodeur. Google "Stanley Cup Champions." Look at the teams that have won and see how many clear-cut or very close Hall of Fame players they had. Niedermayer is the only Hall of Famer on this roster, and although the young group looks promising, will its members be high-level, Olympic-team type performers? If not, trade them now when their value is at its highest. If you believe in them, stay the course.
Verdict: I would trade two of the prospects now. If the Ducks could bring in Bertuzzi and Sergei Samsonov, while not Hall of Famers, that could be enough to get them in the playoffs this spring.
Atlanta Thrashers: The Thrashers will have a blistering second half and sail into the playoffs. They have loads of scoring talent up front and plenty of sandpaper, as well. Atlanta's issue is a No. 1 defenseman who can make a great outlet pass, skate the puck out of danger, help run a power play outside of feeding Ilya Kovalchuk one-timers, and provide that confidence and calm that only a great defenseman can. I would think Brian Leetch will be traded if he wants to be in the postseason. And although he is not an elite NHL defenseman anymore, I bet he gets better as the season goes on and would provide a boost to any NHL dressing room. Plus, he has a one-year deal and probably could be had for a second-round pick. Goaltending is another obvious issue, but the playoff run and the postseason will be a great training ground for talented Kari Lehtonen.
Verdict: Stay the course, but try to get two veteran defensemen to upgrade your defensive-zone play.
Boston Bruins: The Bruins are a mess. There obviously was no plan or vision this summer for the team beyond how many waterlogged hot dogs could be sold and how many pennies could be saved on Nick Boynton. The B's have shown the judgment of Jude Law with the personality of Keanu Reeves. Does anyone have fun over there? Where is the personality? The passion?
Get some people in there who love the game, who love life, who like to have a good time, who drink one too many Belvedere and Red Bulls and sing classic C+C Music Factory songs after a win over the Canadiens. Get a coach and GM with personality. The Bruins were at their best and most fun with personalities like Derek Sanderson, Phil Esposito, Wayne Cashman, Terry O'Reilly, Don Cherry, Reggie Lemelin, Lyndon Byers, and on and on. Hockey games and hockey telecasts are shows. People want to watch talented people give their all and have fun. That starts at the top. This organization used to be KISS, Motley Crue and Blink 182. Loud and fun. Now, they are a three-headed John Tesh, Kenny G, Dan Fogelberg monster. Yawn. The Bruins alumni team has way more fun than the actual Bruins. Bob Sweeney for GM!
Verdict: Hire a front office that cares and start over. Again.
Buffalo Sabres: After 40 games, the Sabres were 13-6-1 at home and 13-6-1 on the road. That says a lot about this team, the coaching of Lindy Ruff and the leadership Chris Drury puts forward every night. The biggest chip is goalie Martin Biron, and he will be moved. The Sabres should be able to get a good piece in return. They need some help up front, preferably with size, and yes, they need a defenseman. I would try to make that move before Buffalo's six-game road trip against six playoff teams that begins Jan. 16. That road trip could help define the Sabres' season.
The first two home games after that trip are against Philadelphia and Ottawa, the two best teams in the NHL. The Sabres have shown they can't compete with Ottawa, losing three games by a 21-5 margin. All those Ottawa games came off Sabres wins, as well. The Sabres can't afford a 1-7 or 2-6 stretch. Look to move Biron and some prospect/draft pieces. Think about Glen Murray, Leetch, Bertuzzi, Adrian Aucoin, Martin Lapointe and other pieces that won't cost much. The Sabres need to be proactive, or the second half could see them plummet quickly, although perhaps Ryan Miller makes them immune to long slumps.
Verdict: Don't be afraid to trade a young chip along with Biron to get a really good player. It doesn't matter what position, as there are no gluts among the skaters.
Calgary Flames: I wrote here before the season that the Flames would have scoring concerns. The Wild and Devils have scored more goals. Calgary really misses Craig Conroy. He has 12 even-strength goals for the Kings. Iginla has nine for the Flames. As I type this, South Windsor, Connecticut's Chris Clark has just as many goals in Washington (eight) as Shean Donovan, Stephane Yelle, Matthew Lombardi and Jordan Leopold combined. Samsonov would fit really nicely here, as he would on just about every team in the league. However, there only three Europeans, no Russians and not many face shields on this team, so Samsonov probably is not going to end up here.
Verdict: Try to find a scorer somewhere if you can, as you only have one on this team. That won't be enough to win a Stanley Cup.
Carolina Hurricanes: This team has shocked the world. The Canes are winning because they have a very good coach in Peter Laviolette, Eric Staal has blown up like Jessica Simpson blew up in 2005 and Rod Brind'Amour has 11 power-play goals. This team is pretty solid all around and is in position to trade for anybody since it isn't weak or deep in any one area and has cap space.
Verdict: Fish around and see whether anyone is looking to salary-dump a good player. Glen Murray, playing without Joe Thornton, is overpaid, but he works really hard, is big and would look good on a team that could use another pure right winger.
Chicago Blackhawks: As I wrote before the season, their young players aren't studs and the free agents they signed were wayyyy overpaid. They are well-coached and try hard, but the Hawks are a ways away. I'd dump all the veterans I could and stockpile prospects and draft picks. This organization has a lot of young talent. Let it play out. Play the young guys; let them grow; and keep drafting high. The Hawks are on the right track, they just have to realize they are, like, 5-7 seasons away. Accept it and be patient.
Verdict: Trade Aucoin and Khabibulin for prospects and draft picks. Chicago can be Ottawa in five seasons if it is smart, keeps drafting high, and then makes that perfect trade or free-agent signing.
Colorado Avalanche: The Avs are in a weird place. They have no goalie, an aging defense and plenty of firepower. They are going to have to trade someone like Alex Tanguay or Milan Hejduk to get a goalie. They probably wouldn't mind sending that kind of player in a Roberto Luongo deal, but you know they don't want to deal that kind of forward in a Biron trade.
Verdict: Go get a goalie and Leetch, if you can. The offense should carry the Avs to a playoff berth as all the teams chasing them are offensively challenged. San Jose is the one team Colorado has to keep its eye on. If the Sharks fix things and
start flying, they could sail by the Avs in the standings and bump them out of the top eight.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Adam Foote was a ridiculous signing for this franchise at this point. Maybe the Jackets can get an underachieving team like the Sharks, who have cap room and no leadership, to take him. He's a much better fit there, or in Florida or Atlanta, than in a place like Columbus. We cover Columbus issues down in the e-mail bag.
Detroit Red Wings: The Wings are a Stanley Cup contender. Their record will be inflated because they play in the NHL's weakest division, but they are well-managed and well-rounded. Detroit has 12 games left against Chicago, Columbus and St. Louis combined. It will be able to control its veterans' minutes and get a home-ice playoff spot at either No. 1 or No. 4. In my mind, the Wings have the best No. 1 power-play unit in the NHL, and that will go a long way in the playoffs. They will miss Jiri Fischer and need to fill that void on the blue line. The question is in net. Are Manny Legace and Chris Osgood good enough and durable enough for a two-month playoff tournament?
Edmonton Oilers: This team does it with mirrors, which shows how well-coached it is. The Oilers have each base kind of covered, but by only one guy. And they have as many goaltending concerns as the Avalanche. They are a tenuous playoff team. If a key guy gets injured and the goaltending remains a bit unstable, the Oilers will lose their way down the stretch. They have been healthy at the key spots, and they have to stay that way.
Verdict: Yeah, see what the price is for Biron, but don't overpay. Edmonton is like Carolina in that it has good players at every position but lack depth, so it has options.
Florida Panthers: What a disappointment. Jay Bouwmeester has no goals as I type this. Jozef Stumpel plays 15:03 a night, and that is 15:03 too much. Why is he on this team? This team will be better in the second half and still has a chance at the playoffs. Signing Luongo is a must. It would settle down the team and put the focus on the playoffs.
Verdict: The playoffs are still in reach. Trade for Leetch and Foote on the same day you announce the Luongo signing.
Los Angeles Kings: If you work hard and score goals, you are tough to beat in the NHL this season. The Kings work; they have a coach who makes an impact; and they can score. The Kings are wayyyy more entertaining than the Lakers. It's tough for teams in the Pacific and Northwest because they are the only divisions with no bottom-feeding, weak NHL team.
I was concerned about the Kings' goaltending before the start of the season. I wanted to pick Buffalo in the East and L.A. in the West for the playoffs, but I thought goaltending concerns would just keep them out. Both should be OK, although as we said above, the Sabres are not a lock. The Kings are. They have too much scoring depth up front to fall off. L.A. is destined for either a third seed, if it wins the Pacific, or a fifth seed. The second-place team in the Central will be the fourth seed.
Verdict: Just some tweaking here and there. Like every other contender, they will look to the blue line first, then for a veteran forward. How good would Sergei Brylin look on the left side of this team?
Minnesota Wild: This organization is so smart. The Wild always sign the right veteran but don't overdo it. They are making tons of money and continually put a good product on the ice. Let the young players play and develop. They have not one defenseman who is even 30 years old. They will be good for a long, long time.
That is good for business, but at this point, they will have to either make the perfect trade or sign the perfect free agent as the free-agent minimum comes down in future years. They won't ever be bad enough to get a Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Rick Nash, Dany Heatley, Steve Yzerman or Mario Lemieux kind of franchise player in the draft.
They will trade Dwayne Roloson or Manny Fernandez for a good young prospect, and they will do what they do -- the Montreal Canadiens old-school way. Team-build, get a couple of really good forwards, a bunch of skating, hardworking forwards, big, mobile defensemen, and a goalie like Ken Dryden or Patrick Roy. They are praying Luongo doesn't sign a long-term deal in Florida.
Luongo becomes unrestricted after next season as the unrestricted free-agent age drops to 28 years old or seven years of accrued service. If Luongo is free, the Wild can sign him just as they are ready to make the step to Western Conference big-boy status.
Verdict: Begin tampering with Luongo and his agent in French. Mention Minnesota's exciting lake booze cruises and Jacques Lemaire's summer home in Vermont. Born to be Wild.
The Mother of All Mailbags
All right. Dallas. Lay it on me.
(P.S. -- Please tell me you love Ralph and Razor.)
I wrote this in my Western Conference preview back in September: "The Stars have two very good lines, and they hope some young players can emerge to give them depth … It's no secret I'm a big fan of goalie Marty Turco and have great faith in him."
Jussi Jokinen, a genetic Finnish cloning experiment gone well using cells from both Jussi Markkanen and Olli Jokinen, has provided goal scoring, shootout tallies and power-play production. Turco has three shutouts and a 90 percent save percentage. Bill Guerin has been a colossal disappointment and has turned into a Chan Ho Park-type Texas free-agent signing. He is dragging the Stars down with his salary and goal production. They need him to get it going because the Stars are not scoring enough goals. Mike Modano is no longer a major goal-scoring force, and Brenden Morrow appears to be locked in as a Shane Doan-like 20-goal scorer. Morrow has plenty of value for what he brings to the Stars, but if he could score just one more goal every two weeks, he and the Stars would be looked at differently.
I think a lot of what happens hinges on Guerin's goal scoring. Then again, he is one of the more overrated players in the NHL. He has scored more than 30 goals just twice in his career and has not been a good playoff performer. Guerin has no goals and one assist in nine playoff games as a Star. He scored 40 goals in 2000-01 because he played in 85 games as a result of his Edmonton-Boston trade and he played with Joe Thornton. As we said before, Thornton makes his wingers rich. Guerin and Glen Murray are 35-40 goal scorers with Thornton and 20-goal scorers without him. If I'm Morrow's agent, when he becomes eligible for free agency, I tell him to sign with the team Thornton's on for the NHL minimum. Tell the coach to play you with Thornton or you will cause him bodily harm. You will then score 40 goals, and the next summer will sign a four-year, $20 million deal.
Another name/number combo. Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander the Eight.
And for you "Dodgeball" fans, Alexander 8, the Ocho.
What are the Rangers going to do about Al Montoya now that Henrik Lundqvist has emerged?
"Al, see that goalie equipment bag over there? You are going to carry that for the rest of the year."
Gimme a reason to be optimistic about the Blue Jackets. They have some good, young players, but they also seem to seriously lack quality depth. Obviously, their record stinks.
The Blue Jackets got a bad break when they didn't get within the top three picks of the 2000 draft lottery. They got the fourth pick and were left with Rostislav Klesla, who has underachieved so far. Scott Hartnell or Alexander Frolov would have been better picks in hindsight. In the 2001 draft, the Jackets had the eighth pick after the combination of going with too many veterans and playing very well in their home rink, which really rocks when the Columbus fans have something to cheer. The Blue Jackets took Pascal Leclaire, who has done little in his pro career. Remember, 2001 was the Kovalchuk-Spezza draft. Players picked after Leclaire: Dan Hamhuis, Ales Hemsky. In 2002, Doug MacLean made a great deal to get Nash, who is the best player of a very good draft. The 2003 draft was awesome, but Columbus, picking fourth, chose floater Nikolai Zherdev. They could have had Dion Phaneuf, Ryan Suter, Thomas Vanek, Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler or Mike Richards. Columbus picked eighth overall in 2004 and sixth in 2005. Those players are too young to assess.
The Jackets should have gone all young from the start to accumulate multiple top-three picks. If I ever own an NHL team, the GM will be mandated to do that for five years. MacLean has overpaid for the wrong second-level NHL stars and, therefore, has still lost, has cost his owner probably about $40 million to $50 million in profits and keeps getting those No. 4-No. 8 overall picks. Also, he has yet to hire a coach to get more out of the team. As I write this, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Columbus are at the bottom of the league. It would behoove the three to stay there and hope they finish with the 1 or 2 pick. One can take Phil Kessel or Jonathan Toews. They both look very special at the world juniors. If Columbus picks first, it would take Kessel and put him with Nash in October. Kessel will be 19 in October and already has an NHL shot. If Pittsburgh wins the second pick, Toews is an electric playmaker who would give the Penguins a 1-2-3 center combo of Crosby, Malkin and Toews. Young, but astonishingly talented.
If OLN is going to limit themselves to coverage on the same two nights each week, then why further limit their audience by replaying the same game at 10:30 p.m.? Honestly, how many people tune in for that? Why not show your 7:30 East coaster, then 30 minutes of Emrick et al in studio, followed by a West Coast tilt? More games, more viewers, more money. ESPN did it right, why can't OLN get it?
ESPN learned in the final years of its last contract with the NHL that West Coast games do not get good ratings. Now, ESPN2's games were not exclusive broadcasts, so their numbers were even more minuscule; however, a large portion of America's televisions are east of the Mississippi and the ratings don't justify showing West Coast NHL games right now. I love them. You love them. But right now, much of America would rather watch Ted Nugent kill things than watch the Coyotes kill a Shark power play.
Please pass this on to your readers -- get over the Todd Bertuzzi hit on Steve Moore! It's over and done with. The powers that be have determined he's paid his price. Let it rest already!
Chris de Faria
As I write this, Bertuzzi has 29 goals in his last 105 NHL games. As I write this, Eric Staal has 26 goals in 38 games THIS YEAR.
I was watching the USA junior hockey team in their first two games against Norway and Finland and was surprised to see the hatred exhibited by the Canadian fans toward the U.S. team in both games. Do Canadians hate the U.S. that much that they feel the need to boo the USA team at every opportunity? I thought it was a pretty sad display on the part of the Canadian fans, considering these are just a bunch of young kids just out of high school.
You wonder how many of them (i.e., Phil Kessel, Blake Wheeler) will ever consider playing for a Canadian NHL team based on the less-than-warm welcome they are receiving at the World Junior Championships.
Prior Lake, Minn.
Phil Kessel won't play for a Canadian team because all six Canadian teams probably will be in the playoffs. He'll most likely be a Blue, Penguin, Capital or Blackhawk. Wheeler was chosen by the Coyotes as the fifth overall pick in the 2004 draft. The "USA sucks" chants are a bit much, but they are telling. Canada knows its hockey, and fans there see America is starting to produce high-level hockey talent on par with Canada for the first time in the history of Western civilization. In fact, the Americans have better, more talented players than Canada does. Team USA is NHL-big; however, the passion of the fans and their energy will make it very difficult for Team USA to win gold at the world juniors if the team has to face Canada. Team USA is not passing the puck well and not working well with each other. Maybe that will come, but right now, it hasn't. The home-ice advantage is huge in Vancouver. Canada is well-coached and has lots of grit and passion. I expect the Canadians to win gold.
I wanted to hear your take on the Lightning's situation. They are struggling in many areas, especially goaltending. Occasionally, they completely outplay their opponent (such as against Montreal), but they just can't get a break. When you watch them, every puck seems to bounce off of their sticks and the stars, Marty, Lecavalier, Modin, and even Richards, are struggling to get any kind of momentum. Do you think they can still make the playoffs or possibly win the division at this point in the season, and is it a possibility to see a new goalie in Tampa soon?
Relax, Steve, the Bolts will make the playoffs. As I write this, they are nine points behind the Hurricanes. The problem is the skill players. They aren't producing enough, especially on the power play. Vinny Prospal should not be leading Tampa Bay in scoring. Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis are underachieving, and they have to pick it up. I think they will. I think they will play better in the second half, and one would think Carolina, although certainly looking like a playoff team, should cool off a little and the Lightning should be able to win the Southeast Division.
I'm a college student from Boston, and a huge B's fan. But this year, they are depressing. With the Thornton trade, things looked bleak for a few weeks. But like you said in your Thornton column, he wasn't doing much in Boston overall. For a while, the Bruins looked like they'd be staying put in the bottom of the Eastern Conference. However, recently they have shown some sparks and promise, finally winning big games, heating up newly acquired ex-Sharks Marco Sturm and Brad Stuart, and solid net minding from the-now-No. 1 goalie Hannu Toivonen. Do you think the playoffs are possible for the Boston Bruins?
Let's assume Atlanta makes the playoffs, which I think is a safe assumption. And Tampa Bay. That means, as I write this, the Rangers and Maple Leafs are 15 points in front of the Bruins. Are the Bruins as good as the Maple Leafs or Rangers? I think it's safe to say, for the love of Hazel Mae, no. Now, spot the Rangers and Maple Leafs 15 points. Put this in big, bold, block letters above the Bruins' ATM Rink: THE BRUINS ARE NOT MAKING THE PLAYOFFS THIS YEAR. CUE THE RUDY SEANEZ FIGHT SONG.
Hannu Toivonen. Best Jerry Lewis name ever.
HEY, LAAAAADYYYYYY!!!! HANNY TOIIIIIIIIIVONEEEEEEN!
Any chance of another outdoor game in the NHL's future? Those of us below the border never got to see it. And why is there hardly any mention of it?
The NHL will have an outdoor game next season. Hopefully, a Red Wing-Blackhawks game at Lambeau Field will be in order in February 2007.
I never thought I would see the day that I would miss men in makeup. Now that there is no Melrose Mullet and Johnny Gel Head, I am deeply saddened. I can only watch West Coast games on the NHL ticket if I need a late night hockey fix.
I wish I could quit the 2 of you,
The highlight of my television career will always be the NHL 2Night years. They will always be the most exciting, fun and fulfilling moments. I am confident nothing will surpass that. I just hope something comes close. For what it's worth, every Thursday night, except the 19th, I will be with Barry Melrose on ESPNEWS with our weekly mini-NHL 2Night called "Hockey Night." The 19th, I'll be in Orlando night putting. Putting at night.
John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is firstname.lastname@example.org.