Devils running away in Atlantic; Blues' fallout
1. Our Atlantic Division winner
We know there's half a season left to play, but it appears it's not too early to project the New Jersey Devils as winners of the Atlantic Division. We are calling this one at the midway point of the season, not just because the Devils are 8-2-0 in their past 10 and are the Eastern Conference's best team at this point, but also because their closest competitors, the Pittsburgh Penguins, have gone into the tank.
The Pens have lost five in a row and six of seven, including two shutout losses against the Devils over that stretch. The latest indignity came Sunday, when the Florida Panthers whipped the Pens 6-2. The power play, never operating at the kind of efficiency the team's star power would suggest, has failed to score in four straight contests. Defending scoring champ Evgeni Malkin continues to struggle with no goals in his past five games and no points in four straight.
Penguins GM Ray Shero acknowledged Monday that having the 30th-ranked power play in the NHL "is not good enough." But he's also mindful of his team's capabilities.
"Why didn't you call me a month ago when we were red-hot?" Shero joked.
"I don't think we're playing poorly at all," he added. "I like our team. I like our character."
As of Monday, the Penguins trail the Devils by six points and New Jersey has three games in hand. Hard to imagine that kind of gap will be made up during the second half of the season, when games more often end up in overtime or shootouts.
Would the Pens mind starting the playoffs as the fourth seed? Not if history is any indication. The Penguins began the past two playoff campaigns from the fourth seed in the conference and advanced to two Cup finals, winning it all last season. The problem for the reeling Penguins, though, is Boston has now crept onto the horizon and began the week just four points back with three games in hand.
2. Scrap the roster rule
If NHL players continue to participate in the Olympics at the 2014 Sochi Games, here's a suggestion. Scrap the deadline for announcing rosters given the inability of the International Ice Hockey Federation to govern even the simplest element of this process.
The idea of naming rosters early in the process allows member hockey federations, along with the NHL and the NHL Players' Association, to market players and generate revenue and buzz for the tournament. But to do so, there needs to be some guidelines about what happens to those rosters once they're announced and, more importantly, someone to enforce those guidelines.
Neither is in evidence as we roll toward Vancouver with the Russians suggesting they will make arbitrary changes to their 23-man roster announced Christmas Day. Even the U.S. team's suggestion that New Jersey defenseman Paul Martin might "withdraw" from the team if he isn't 100 percent once the tournament starts is problematic. The way most interpret the rules is, if a player is named to an Olympic roster and is on an active roster with his club or NHL team, he cannot be dropped. Fair enough.
We understand a player cannot be forced to play in the Olympics, but imagine if the Russians announced that several players had "withdrawn" from the tournament. The immediate assumption would be that they were forced to "withdraw" so the Russians could use a player they believed was performing better.
If the IIHF had any gumption, it would simply announce that only a bona-fide injury, one that keeps a player from participating with his club or NHL team, will be acceptable when it comes to making a change to an Olympic roster. In short, if Martin is named to the U.S. team and he's on the Devils' roster come Olympic time, he's in. Same for every other country. Simple.
If the IIHF doesn't have the wherewithal to enforce such a simple matter, then the idea of announcing rosters any time other than just before the start of the Olympics should be scrapped completely.
3. Changes in St. Louis
It's not so much what a man says on the way in the door that marks his character; it's what he says on the way out.
You can mark Andy Murray as a man of great character even if he could never quite get his St. Louis Blues to follow the track they followed during the second half of last season (they had the best record in the NHL and surged into the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference).
It didn't matter what Murray said or did this season. The Blues could not get back on track, especially at home, where they were, in the words of president John Davidson, "nothing short of atrocious."
So Davidson dispatched Murray on Saturday morning and replaced him with minor league coach Davis Payne. When Payne arrived in St. Louis, there was a welcoming note on his desk -- Murray's former desk -- from Murray wishing him well.
"It was really good for Davis to get that," Davidson told ESPN.com.
"He was unbelievably professional," Davidson said. "He was awesome."
Along with getting the Blues out of last place and into the playoffs last season, Murray also worked tirelessly to help promote the team and rebuild its fractured relationship with the fan base in St. Louis. He was also something of a mentor to Payne, who is getting his first taste of coaching at the NHL level.
Davidson is hoping Payne will replicate the successes of relative unknowns, like Dan Bylsma, Cory Clouston, Scott Gordon and Joe Sacco, who earned NHL coaching jobs without much hype and have had varying degrees of success since ascending from the minors.
Or not. Payne is only the interim coach. Davidson said the rest of the season will allow incoming GM Doug Armstrong, who takes over for Larry Pleau on July 1 when Pleau moves into an advisory position, a chance to assess whether or not Payne is his man.
As for Murray, his devotion to detail and passion for the game (one Blues veteran told ESPN.com recently Murray was the best coach he'd ever had) will ensure he returns to the NHL.
4. Remember the big picture
Ah, the poor Edmonton Oilers. Get it? Poor? Not only are they easy pickings on the ice these days, but they are also now the butt of endless jokes in the hockey world after a Calgary restaurateur complained the team tried to short him on the bill after a raucous New Year's Eve bash.
Initial reports suggested the Oilers refused to ante up for a bill that topped out at almost $17,000, believing the restaurant was ripping them off. About half the bill was reportedly devoted to alcohol, including rounds of shooters and expensive champagne.
A source with the team told ESPN.com the story was wildly exaggerated; when the issue was quickly resolved over the weekend, one imagines both sides were suitably chagrined at how things had gone down and the matter had become a public spectacle.
Still, we are reminded of a story about former Detroit Red Wings veteran Chris Chelios riding herd over team functions in Detroit. The story goes that Chelios regularly conferred with staff and management at whatever locale the team was visiting to make sure players behaved and all monies were paid with a generous tip included.
Legend has it that after the embarrassing incident at the Nagano Olympics in 1998, when U.S. players busted up some furniture in the athletes' village following their disappointing performance, it was Chelios who jumped forward and offered to pay for all damages, even though he wasn't involved in the fracas.
The bottom line is, even if the good folks at the Osteria De Medici in Calgary did try to run up the tab (there were reportedly issues over whether the team should pay for liquor by the shot or by the bottle given its level of consumption), someone should have simply paid up.
No one likes to be taken advantage of, but there is also understanding the big picture. NHL players (or any pro athlete who's making an average of about $2 million a year) will always look like insufferable cheapskates when they argue about a restaurant bill, no matter how much they're being gouged. End of story. The fact this didn't happen means the story, like the Oilers' poor play, will go on far longer than they had hoped.
5. The defense doesn't rest
We have spent some time with Atlanta defenseman Ron Hainsey this fall as he has pursued his dream of becoming a U.S. Olympian. That dream wasn't necessarily denied, but certainly put on hold Wednesday when he was told by Atlanta GM and U.S. Olympic management team member Don Waddell that he didn't make the 23-man roster announced New Year's Day at the Winter Classic in Boston.
Hainsey also spoke to Team USA GM Brian Burke on Dec. 31.
Not to worry, though. Hainsey didn't go all Mikael Samuelsson on us (the Vancouver forward told the Swedish Olympic brass they could go, well, you-know-what themselves when he was left off its 2010 roster).
"I kind of knew where he was at," said Hainsey, who has three goals, eight assists and is a minus-10 while averaging 21:33 in ice time for the Thrashers.
It initially looked like the Americans would take eight defensemen, which would have given Hainsey a better shot. But Burke and his staff decided to go with a more traditional 13-forward/seven-defensemen alignment.
Still, the Olympic door has not completely shut on Hainsey or other U.S. defensemen. Martin remains out of action while recovering from a broken forearm that has not healed as quickly as first predicted. Martin told New Jersey reporters over the weekend he did not know if he would be ready to play in Vancouver when the tournament starts Feb. 16.
Given the makeup of the team, there are only a couple of defensemen who could fill Martin's role in terms of being able to skate, handle the puck and make smart decisions breaking out of the defensive zone. Hainsey is one of them, while Anaheim's Ryan Whitney would be the other.
Hainsey did not want to speculate, saying Martin deserved to be on the team and hoped the New Jersey defenseman would be healthy enough to play.
"I don't want to talk about what-ifs," Hainsey told ESPN.com. "I don't feel good talking about guys getting hurt."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
5 Things To Watch This Week
1. So was this the awakening or just a brief spasm of life from erstwhile Russian star Alexei Kovalev? Dormant for much of the season, Kovalev erupted Sunday, scoring four times and adding an assist in Ottawa's 7-4 win over Philadelphia. Kovalev has been a major disappointment after signing a two-year deal worth $10 million in the offseason, declining to shoot on net for the most part this season. Still, the Sens began the week in sixth place in the East. They host Boston on Tuesday and visit Washington on Thursday before hosting Florida on Saturday. A non-slumbering Kovalev will greatly enhance the Sens' chances of returning to the postseason.
2. How do the Atlanta Thrashers snap out of their free fall? Or do they? The Thrashers, who were in the middle of the playoff pack in the East a few short weeks ago, have not won in eight outings and managed to lose games in almost every fashion. They blew a 3-0 lead against Buffalo before losing in overtime and spotted the Islanders a 3-0 lead before losing in a shootout. The penalty-killing unit, a top-10 unit for much of the season, is now 17th. The Thrashers visit the reeling Penguins on Tuesday and host the New York Rangers and Washington on Thursday and Saturday, respectively.
3. Miroslav Satan spent the first three months of the NHL season polishing his Stanley Cup ring and skating around with injured New York Islanders netminder Rick DiPietro before suddenly finding himself a member of the Boston Bruins. Not necessarily an act of desperation by GM Peter Chiarelli, but an acknowledgement that his defensively stellar but offensively challenged team needs help. Satan, a proven goal scorer whose competition level has often come under question, will get a chance to resurrect his career after being named to the Slovak Olympic team last week. The Bruins travel to face the Rangers (Monday) and Ottawa (Tuesday), then host Chicago (Thursday) and the Blueshirts (Saturday). No time like the present for Satan to make his presence known.
4. After spending most of the first half firmly entrenched in a playoff spot, the Los Angeles Kings begin the second half of the season with the safety net stripped away, sitting eighth in the West. Making the playoffs is an absolute must for the Kings, who lost four in a row and five of six before putting together impressive victories over Minnesota and Washington late last week. This week, they travel to San Jose (Monday) and host Detroit and St. Louis. The Red Wings game looms large as the Wings started the week in ninth place, three points behind Los Angeles with a game in hand.
5. The San Jose Sharks have won eight straight games to crawl back into a tie with Chicago for top spot in the West and the hunt for what would be their second straight Presidents' Trophy. What's most impressive is the Sharks have won six of those eight games in regulation (the other two were won in shootouts). This week, the Sharks close out a four-game homestand against Los Angeles (Monday, when they could tie a franchise record for consecutive victories), St. Louis (Wednesday) and Detroit (Saturday).
Take This To The Bank
Andy Murray was the second coach to fall during this NHL season, following Philadelphia's dismissal of John Stevens last month. It won't be the last. Because of trades being almost impossible to pull off with the salary cap and the tightness of the standings, the only alternative for teams looking to reverse a downward trend is to fire the coach.
There are grumblings in Atlanta, for instance, as the Thrashers haven't won in eight outings. The Anaheim Ducks, likewise, have found it difficult to gain traction after losing five of six. Fans are calling for Ken Hitchcock's head in Columbus, where the Blue Jackets have won just twice in their past 17 outings. We're not suggesting the coaching changes will necessarily come in these markets; but for teams that still think they've got a shot to turn things around, firing the coach is the easiest thing to do in this NHL.
Stock Up, Stock Down
Sean Avery, New York Rangers: The pesky but talented winger has gone 18 games without a goal for the offense-starved Rangers. He has just four on the season.
Niklas Backstrom, Minnesota Wild: The Finnish netminder, who was named to the country's Olympic roster, has lost four of his past seven starts and has allowed three or more goals in six of those games. The Wild have dropped to 11th in the Western Conference, eight points out of a playoff spot.