Revisiting Habs-Wild trade, referee woes
1. When a trade works
We all know there are few moves made by NHL GMs until the eve of the annual trade deadline because of the parity within the league and restrictions imposed by the salary cap. We get that. But kudos to Montreal GM Bob Gainey and his counterpart in Minnesota, Chuck Fletcher, for finding a way to not only get a trade done, but also make a deal that has had a significant impact on both teams.
Since the Wild traded former first-round draft pick Benoit Pouliot to the Habs for left winger Guillaume Latendresse on Nov. 23, both players have done well in their new environments. Pouliot has been terrific in Montreal with six goals in 12 games, but that pales in comparison to the blossoming of Latendresse in Minnesota. Playing mostly with top free-agent signee Martin Havlat, he has 12 points in his past seven games, including a hat trick in his past game in Phoenix, and was named one of the NHL's players of the week Monday.
Latendresse was anointed by some to be the next great French-Canadian star when the Habs selected him with the 45th overall pick in the 2005 draft, and he enjoyed early success after making the jump straight from junior to the Canadiens' lineup.
Former Habs great and current junior coach Patrick Roy sparked debate by saying Latendresse should have stayed in junior during his rookie season. Although Latendresse averaged 15 goals a season over three campaigns with the Habs, he never quite lived up to his early billing. He was with his girlfriend and their son in a Montreal shop when he got the call from Gainey that his time with the Habs was over.
"When I saw the Bell Center number, I don't know why, but I knew it was that call that was going to change my life and the life of my family, too," Latendresse told ESPN.com. "I was happy inside of me because I knew that people around me would be sad, so I didn't try to show them, but I was happy about it. I was really happy, really excited to come to Minnesota, just to have a chance to restart my season somewhere else."
Latendresse began the 2008-09 season playing with Saku Koivu and Alex Tanguay in Montreal and had early success before tailing off and seeing his ice time reduced. He is now playing on what is arguably the Wild's top offensive unit and seeing prime time on the power play.
"I just needed chances to play with good players and have some ice time. I got all this opportunity here," Latendresse said. "The hardest is not to do it for 20 games, it's to do it the full season, so that's my biggest challenge, to be ready every night. It's the first time I've played out of Quebec, so it's different. I really enjoy my time right now, so I just want to keep my head at a good spot and keep working hard."
Wild coach Todd Richards has been pleased with Latendresse's production. He also said the move has created a ripple effect up and down the lineup.
"I think the big thing is probably the confidence that it's given the other guys on the team," Richards said. "I don't mean confidence in their ability, but just confidence that management is there to help them and try and make the team better. I don't know what happened in the past, what happened in Montreal. All I know is that the player we have now is a pretty good player."
2. Who needs rest?With the Olympics around the corner, it's part of the quadrennial ritual to wonder which teams might suffer the most from their players' taking part in the tournament. San Jose leads all NHL teams with eight players slated to compete in Vancouver, so there are a lot of questions about the possible Olympic impact on the Sharks' Stanley Cup dreams. Washington and Pittsburgh are also sending a bevy of top stars.
GMs and coaches will hold their breaths for two weeks in hoping none of their big guns gets nicked up, as we saw happen in 2006, when then-Ottawa netminder Dominik Hasek pulled his groin early in the Olympics, an injury that cost him the rest of the season and, arguably, the Senators a shot at a Cup.
But which teams stand to benefit from not having players laboring away in Vancouver? Well, how about the surprising New York Islanders, who started the week in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference? The Isles are sending just one player to Vancouver (defenseman Mark Streit, who will play for Switzerland) and should be well-rested for the stretch run following the break.
Florida, just two points back of the final playoff spot in the East, will send two players, Tomas Vokoun and Dennis Seidenberg, and are looking to make the playoffs for the first time since 2000. A rest for top players Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton and Michael Frolik won't be a bad thing.
No doubt Phoenix captain Shane Doan was disappointed at not being named to the Canadian Olympic team. But with only netminder Ilya Bryzgalov and defensemen Sami Lepisto and Zbynek Michalek picked by their respective countries to play in Vancouver, the unheralded Coyotes will be well-rested for what promises to be a grueling march to what they hope will be their first playoff berth since 2002.
3. On-ice officials have seen better days
Not a good couple of weeks for the NHL or its officials. First, you have the festering wound that is the Stephane Auger/Alexandre Burrows incident, an incident exacerbated Saturday night when "Hockey Night in Canada" host Ron MacLean criticized Burrows in an interview with league disciplinarian Colin Campbell.
Yes, Burrows has a history of being a bit of a malingerer. At some point, though, it would be nice (perhaps, even imperative) to hear from Auger, but the NHL's veil of secrecy is firmly in place on this one.
Then, as if officials didn't have enough unwanted attention, they blew a crucial shootout call against the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday. Dallas shooter Steve Ott tried to slip the puck between netminder Jimmy Howard's pads. As the puck and the goalie slid back into the net, Howard covered the puck with his trapper. Referee Rob Martell, standing on the goal line a few feet from the goal, signaled no goal. But the second referee, Mike Leggo, who was following Ott in from center along with a linesman, indicated the goal counted even though they were both further from the play than Martell.
There was no video indication the puck crossed the line completely, but the goal stood because there can be no reversal of a call without conclusive evidence. But it was the wrong call. Here's hoping that lost point doesn't cost the Red Wings a playoff spot.
4. Danton's second chance
We didn't buy Mike Danton's story about how he really was trying to kill his dad and not his creepy former coach and svengali-like mentor David Frost in an interview with Canadian TV network Sportsnet after Danton's release from prison. But the bottom line is that Danton, who was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, paid his debt to society. We applaud both Danton for wanting to try to turn things around by going back to university and the Canadian University system for allowing him to play hockey.
Danton, granted full parole, has been cleared to move to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and play for the Saint Mary's University hockey team.
Whether Danton ever plays in the NHL again -- and the odds are long that it will ever happen -- is moot. A plan to try to repair a life gone wrong is laudable, and if playing some hockey helps along the way, so be it.
5. Kovalchuk watch
Another week, and still no movement on a deal to keep star winger Ilya Kovalchuk in Atlanta. The Thrashers continue to hang around the playoff bubble, starting the week in 11th place in the jam-packed Eastern Conference and sitting one point out of the final spot.
We don't envy ownership in Atlanta after it boasted in the offseason that its top priority was to re-sign Kovalchuk for the long haul. Now, like so much of what the ownership group has set out to do in Atlanta, that bravado is ringing increasingly hollow. We're not suggesting it makes sense in terms of building a contender to pay Kovalchuk between $10 and $11 million annually for a decade or so (that's the ballpark terms being bandied about), but ownership needs to make its peace with just how valuable Kovalchuk is to the franchise and move on.
Bottom line: Kovalchuk is among the most productive, dynamic players in the NHL since the lockout. No matter what kind of package the Thrashers get in return for Kovalchuk before the March 3 trade deadline (and make no mistake, he will be traded if no deal is reached), they will not get a player of Kovalchuk's caliber in return. They may never again get a player of his caliber. That's just the reality of the situation.
If ownership is going to make good on its commitment, then sign him and get it done. If it doesn't have the stomach for it, or doesn't believe it is in the best interests of the team long-term, tell him that, let GM Don Waddell get the best package possible and be prepared for Kovalchuk to light it up for another team for the next 10 years.
Either way, this is ownership's call, and each day of limbo is another day toward more failure for the franchise.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
What To Watch This Week
1. The first of four annual regular-season meetings between Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby takes place in Pittsburgh on Thursday. The battle of the titans will be the first meeting between the two teams since the Penguins waxed the Caps 6-2 in Game 7 of their second-round meeting last spring. That series, an instant classic, has fans eyeing a repeat performance this postseason.
This week's clash of stars -- Crosby, Ovechkin, defending scoring champ Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Gonchar and Alexander Semin -- may also be a precursor to a potential gold-medal clash between Canada and Russia at next month's Vancouver Olympics. Should be a dandy regardless, although the Pens must be hoping netminder Marc-Andre Fleury's injured finger allows him to return to action after they were pounded 6-2 by Vancouver on Saturday.
2. A little old home week for New York Rangers coach John Tortorella, as the Tampa Bay Lightning -- his former squad -- visit Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. Tortorella guided the Bolts to a Cup win in 2004 and was dispatched before the start of last season when new ownership took over in Tampa. Tortorella joined the Rangers last season and guided them to the playoffs, and they'll be looking to put some more distance between themselves and the Lightning, one of five teams currently below the playoff bubble but within striking distance in the East.
The Rangers are coming off a 6-2 rout of the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday, but have just two wins in their past six games. The Bolts, meanwhile, are still wondering whether they'll have the services of netminder Mike Smith, who is out with what is believed to be a neck strain after a collision with Washington's Brooks Laich on Jan. 12. They have lost both games since then. The Lightning began the week in 13th place in the conference, but just four points out of a playoff spot.
3. Things don't get any easier for the sliding Calgary Flames. They visit San Jose on Monday night and then entertain conference-leading Chicago on Thursday. The Flames and Hawks met in the first round of last season's playoffs, with the Blackhawks dispatching the Flames in six games en route to a Western Conference finals berth. The way the Flames are sliding, that matchup could happen again come April (that's assuming Calgary doesn't fall completely out of the playoff picture). The Flames began the week on a four-game slide and were seventh in the conference, just two points ahead of ninth-place Detroit.
4. The Colorado Avalanche began the week in second place in the Western Conference and first in the Northwest Division. But they'll have to get along without veteran scorer Milan Hejduk for as long as a month because he will undergo arthroscopic surgery on his knee. Hejduk was second on the team with 15 goals and had 30 points. The Avs continue a five-game homestand this week with dates against Edmonton, Nashville, Dallas and Minnesota. They won the first of the five games with a victory over New Jersey on Saturday.
5. The Buffalo Sabres embark on a five-game Western road trip starting with a late-afternoon affair Monday in Phoenix and with stops in Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose and Vancouver. The Sabres are an anomaly this season, building up an impressive 7-0-1 record against Western Conference foes. This road trip will certainly put that gaudy record to the test, as the West has enjoyed widespread success against the lesser lights from the East so far this season.
Take This To The Bank
Cormier, the captain of the Canadian junior team that lost to the United States in the recent World Junior Championships, came off the Rouyn-Noranda bench and made a beeline straight for an unsuspecting Tam, elbowing him in the face. Tam, a defenseman with the Quebec Remparts, could be seen convulsing on the ice before being carried off and taken to a local hospital. Quebec police are investigating following a complaint by Remparts coach Patrick Roy. Given earlier reaction to dangerous plays by the Canadian major junior league, it's likely Cormier will be done for the season. He should be.
But the incident reinforces the need to take strong and decisive action to remove blows to the head from the game. Hockey at all levels takes cues from the NHL. We have seen proof of this in positive ways, as hockey up and down the ladder has worked to remove obstruction and open up the game as the NHL did following the lockout. Now more than ever, the NHL and the NHL Players' Association must commit to severely punishing the kinds of hits we saw at the junior level this week.
Stock Up, Stock Down
Tom Poti, Washington Capitals: Poti has been collecting the points for the red-hot Caps with two goals, five assists and a plus-8 in the past seven games as the Capitals have taken over the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Mike Fisher, Ottawa Senators: Remember when Mike Fisher's name was being bandied about as a possible Canadian Olympian? Well, the solid two-way center has managed to collect just one goal in his past 17 games. He'll need to get back to his form from earlier this season if the Sens are going to hang on to a playoff spot.
Andy Greene, New Jersey Devils: Greene turned heads earlier this season as he became a key contributor for the Devils' battered blue line. Greene had 23 points in his first 35 games, but has now gone eight straight without a point. The Devils, meanwhile, have relinquished the top spot in the East to Washington.