Weekend rumblings: Realignment concerns, Parise's contract talks and drug testing

Lou Lamoriello doesn't sound awfully enamored with the NHL's realignment plan for next season, although he stopped short of saying he was one of the four “No” votes when the Board of Governors passed it in Pebble Beach.

Clearly the new schedule matrix, which will feature more games against nonconference teams, isn't a big winner in the eyes of the New Jersey Devils’ governor/general manager, although he understands the benefit of it as a whole for the league.

"Through the eyes of our own team, my preference certainly would be to play the people in our division eight times and create a scenario where you play four at the beginning, four at the end and out of conference in the middle," Lamoriello told ESPN.com Thursday. "That's my opinion. But when you step back, and you look at the Western travel situation, you look at how many times they see the Eastern teams that are more traditional as far as the Original Six and teams that have been in the league a long time -- you have to understand. So you make the best of it and you move forward. You don't become negative. If I had a preference, it would be one way, and I think there are other people that think that way, but it's not the majority. Whether it's right or wrong, you have to look at what's best for the league."

Sources confirmed earlier this past week to ESPN.com that the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers were among the four “No” votes. I also believe the Montreal Canadiens may have voted against it but I have not been able to confirm it. Was New Jersey in there as well?

"I'm not going to say how I voted, one way or another," Lamoriello said. "I never do. And you can't assume how I voted. But it was a very difficult situation. There's no one, whether it's media or teams or the league or whomever, that came up with a perfect scenario which would be something everybody unanimously agreed upon."

My guess is that the Devils ended up voting “Yes” despite their concerns. That's what happened with Toronto. Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke tried to sway teams into a “No” vote heading into Pebble Beach but, ultimately, the Leafs voted “Yes” when they realized it was a lost cause. Mind you, I'm told Burke still vented to the Board his concerns about the increased travel this realignment and schedule matrix will cause.

Lamoriello said there was a key assurance from the league that will help make this plan work.

"The challenge will be the scheduling end of it," he said. "The league has assured the scheduling will be done a certain way where people are scheduled in a certain way. For example, when you go out West you play three games in four nights or four games in seven nights, so you make it a trip and consider the cost factor, the travel. All of those things were addressed and they did a good job with that."

Playoffs still an issue with realignment

Still to be debated by the NHL's 30 GMs at their annual March meeting is the playoff structure under the recently announced realignment plan.

One idea being floated out there by one NHL team is to add a play-in playoff round, a best-of-three between the fourth- and fifth-place teams in each conference before the 16-team playoff tournament begins.

A league source took a dim view on that idea, as did Burke.

"I can only speak for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but we have no interest in adding playoff teams," Burke told ESPN.com Friday. "The percentage of teams that makes the playoffs is healthy and it's good. It should not be increased.

"This idea has no chance, in my opinion. I think it would devalue the playoffs and it would devalue the regular season. The playoffs have to represent merit."

What the GMs are officially supposed to debate in Boca Raton in March is what to do about the Final Four -- go East-West or reseed based on points?

The early trend from my conversations with GMs is that East-West will be the more popular pick. But people can change their minds. We'll see.

NBA drug testing heightens issue for NHL

The NBA released official details of its new labor deal Thursday evening, and one particular item caught my attention:

"The NBA's drug testing program has been strengthened to include up to two offseason tests for performance-enhancing drugs per year, increased penalties for performance-enhancing drugs and blood testing for HGH once the test is validated by a neutral panel of scientific experts."

In other words, year-round testing.

"Wow," one NHL GM who requested anonymity told ESPN.com via text, when told of that item in the NBA deal.

The NHL/NHL Players Association’s drug-testing policy is far from perfect, and one of their biggest criticisms is that they don't test in the summer.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman raised eyebrows on the eve of the June 2009 Stanley Cup finals when he publicly stated for the first time that the league needed a better drug-testing policy.

"We don't believe there is a performance-enhancing drug problem in this league, but I acknowledge that our testing program could be more comprehensive and it is time, we believe, that the players' association step up and agree to make the changes that the World Anti-Doping Agency [WADA] has recommended that we make to make the program even more comprehensive than it is," Bettman said on May 30, 2009, during his state of the union news conference.

The current policy, the first in the league's history, came into effect in January 2006. It was an important first step for the league, but it's obviously not good enough. Not only does it not test players in the offseason, but it tests only for the banned substances on WADA's "out-of-competition" list, which isn't nearly as comprehensive as the "in-competition" list.

I asked Bettman that same day about specific changes he wanted to see and he said, "in-competition, year-round testing."

The players will have a mighty say in this, but you can expect the league to push for this in the upcoming collective bargaining agreement talks. The players want a clean sport, but being dragged from their summer vacations for unannounced drug tests has never been an appealing thought. This will be interesting to see where it heads.

Patrick back in NHL

Craig Patrick is back in the NHL fold after a six-year absence from the league, as Columbus Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson hired him this past week as a senior advisor.

"I'm really thrilled that I'm back," Patrick told ESPN.com Thursday.

The two-time Stanley Cup winner with Pittsburgh ran the Penguins for 17 years before being let go in April 2006.

So what's he been up to all this time?

"I've been trying to do things outside of the game while also at the same time trying to get back into the game," Patrick said.

"I've been offered a few things but the timing didn't make sense. Then this came up and it was exactly what I was looking for."

Of course, the cynics immediately looked at the announcement and figured Howson was possibly hiring his own replacement down the road. Not so, said Patrick.

"That's not the case at all," Patrick said. "I'm extremely happy to be helping somebody else. That's exactly what I was looking for the last little while. Initially [after being fired in Pittsburgh], I was looking to getting back as a GM, but now what I'm looking for is to help a GM get better. I have a lot of experience and I think I can help an organization a lot. I think this is a perfect situation for me."

Patrick will remain based out of Pittsburgh but will travel a ton.

"The way Scott has laid it out is that I'm a consultant but I'll be involved in all aspects of the things he does, evaluating everything and giving him my input on this organization but also other organizations through scouting and what have you," said Patrick.

"And I want to know the entire Columbus organization from [top] to bottom, including draft picks."

This is a shrewd hiring by Howson. Patrick has a lifetime of hockey knowledge in his brain. This is a win-win situation for the Jackets.

Questioning in-game concussion protocol

Kris Letang hasn't played since Nov. 26, a game in which he got hammered by Max Pacioretty and appeared dazed, but he came back in the game and scored the overtime winner; he since has been diagnosed with a concussion.

All of which has some people wondering about the effectiveness of the NHL's in-game concussion protocol.

It's at least the second time this season that a player finished a game in which he would later be sidelined from a concussion suffered in that same game. Andy McDonald of the St. Louis Blues took a hard hit near the end of the second period of a game in mid-October but came back to finish the game. He hasn't played since, as he sits out with a concussion.

But in both cases, everyone involved insists that Letang and McDonald followed in-game concussion protocol and didn't become symptomatic until later on. In Letang's case, a source said he didn't become symptomatic until two full days after the hit.

It underlines the inherent flaw in the protocol -- players don't always show concussion symptoms right after getting their brain crushed by a big hit. The mechanism in place is far from perfect. And I'm not sure I have the answer to make it better. You can't start removing players from games on a hunch, can you?

Parise shines with contract talk on horizon

Devils captain Zach Parise seems to be coming out of his early-season funk, putting up eight points (2-6) in his past six games entering the weekend.

After missing most of last season with a series of knee injuries, it appears he's ready to roll.

"I think it takes time for a player to come back from that," Devils GM Lou Lamoriello told ESPN.com before Parise had two points (1-1) Thursday night. "Right now, Zach is playing some of his best hockey in all areas. He's been killing penalties where he hasn't in the past. I think scoring is going to come and it's going to come in bunches. I have no problem whatsoever with Zach.

"Don't worry about Zach, he's our heart and soul."

And yes, folks, I asked the Devils GM about Parise's contract situation and, as you might imagine from Lamoriello, I got completely shot down.

"You know better than to ask," Lamoriello laughed.

The Devils and Parise's agent, Wade Arnott of Newport Sports, can't technically do anything contract-wise until Jan. 1 as per CBA rules for a player on a one-year deal. Parise, of course, would be the big item on the UFA market July 1 if he chooses not to re-sign.

Burke's trade freeze

The NHL's official holiday roster freeze (no trades) runs Dec. 19-27. But as per his custom, Leafs GM Brian Burke widens his personal trade freeze by 10 days.

"It begins tonight at midnight," Burke told ESPN.com Friday.

Burke has done this for years and believes it's important for players and their families.

"I don't think players should be traded at Christmas time and I don't think the freeze we have in place as a league gives them enough time to plan adequately for travel and things like that," Burke said. "It's clearly an advantage to our players that we do this in my opinion."