Ramblings from observations of around the NHL:
Are Flyers For Real?: The Philadelphia Flyers are an impressive 5-0-1 in their past six games and have dragged themselves from the depths of the Eastern Conference to being just four points back of the second wild-card spot as of Friday morning and with a game in hand. But a cautionary note: The Flyers' streak has included two wins over a struggling Ottawa team that might be among the worst teams in the league right now and a win over a Buffalo team that is without peer in its awfulness, while losing the extra point in a shootout to the ordinary Winnipeg Jets. The only legitimate team beaten during this stretch was with a 2-1 win over archrival Pittsburgh at a time when the Pens' offense had curiously gone dry. Points are points and kudos to head coach Craig Berube for getting his team into a position where it is picking up points, regardless of the opponent. The rest of the month suggests a similar path, with dates against the New York Islanders, Florida, slumping Tampa, the Jets again and Nashville. Only Tampa currently owns a playoff berth and the Lightning are riding a three-game losing streak in the absence of top player Steven Stamkos. In short, time for the Flyers to continue to make hay while the sun shines on their schedule, if indeed they've turned a corner.
The Ups With Downie: ESPN colleague Barry Melrose has repeatedly pointed to the much-ballyhooed scrap with the Washington Capitals (you remember, Ray Emery pounding on Braden Holtby) as the catalyst to the Flyers' turnaround. With all due respect to Coach, the more likely the catalyst to the turnaround has been the arrival of Steve Downie from Colorado. The deal that saw Downie return to the team that drafted him in exchange for Max Talbot still smacks of an untold back story (it has been reported a preseason feud with captain Gabriel Landeskog was the impetus) but good on GM Paul Holmgren for getting a tough, skilled player to help a team that lacked both those qualities in the early going. Downie's first game after the trade was in that Washington debacle and saw him leave with an injury. But since returning to the Flyer lineup, Downie has collected five assists in five games, none of which the Flyers have lost (4-0-1).
Brind'Amour Is Hall-Worthy: During my recent trip to Raleigh, N.C., I ran into former captain Rod Brind'Amour, who is, along with Dave Lewis and John MacLean, part of head coach Kirk Muller's staff. Someone wondered aloud why Brind'Amour's name rarely comes up during conversations about the Hall of Fame. It's a fair question, and a closer look at Brind'Amour's accomplishments suggests he should be in the mix. The hard-nosed center was for a long period one of the game's premier two-way forwards in the game, twice winning the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward in the league. He was no slouch with the puck either, collecting 1,184 points in 1,484 games, scoring 452 goals. In the postseason, Brind'Amour brought game as well, with 51 goals and 111 points in 159 games. Perhaps more notably, Brind'Amour was the glue guy in Carolina, helping transform a struggling team in a non-traditional market into a powerhouse, guiding the team as captain to their only Stanley Cup championship, in 2006. If intangibles are part of the mix when defining the line between outstanding and Hall of Fame, Brind'Amour deserves to be in the Hall.
Faulk's Making a Case: One of the interesting battles shaping up for the U.S. Olympic team is along the blue line with a bevy of young, talented puck-movers looking to secure a trip to Sochi. Among the players whose stock continues to rise is Carolina defenseman Justin Faulk, who is a product of the U.S. National Team development program in Ann Arbor, Mich., and who was a member of the all-rookie team in 2012. Like all of those in contention, especially those who weren't part of the U.S. effort in Vancouver, Faulk is trying to ignore the external buzz about where his stock might or might not be. "You'd be lying if you said it doesn't go through anyone's head," the St. Paul, Minn., native told ESPN.com this week. "Turn on NHL Network and some nights and it's Olympics, Olympics, Sochi. So, obviously, it's there, people talk about it and it is what it is. If I go out there and can play my game and can put myself in a position to make the team, that's all that matters, not what he or she says on TV. That's all I can control, so that's really the extent of my thinking about it I guess." Does he worry about who's watching when he has an off night? "Just hope all of your good nights are against Pittsburgh or something, right?" Faulk said, jokingly referring to the fact head coach Dan Bylsma, assistant coach Tony Granato and GM Ray Shero are all integrally involved in the selection process of the U.S. team.
Left Wondering About Booth: Hard not to watch what’s happening with David Booth in Vancouver and wonder, what if? Booth has been a healthy scratch for the Canucks and has managed just one goal this season to go along with the single goal he delivered last season, in spite of the fact his six-year contract comes with an annual cap hit of $4.25 million. He's been sent to the Canucks' American Hockey League affiliate for conditioning as he tries to recover from ankle and groin issues, but nothing seems to have worked and his return to the big club seems in doubt with both head coach John Tortorella and GM Mike Gillis suggesting this week nothing is imminent. Still, you wonder what might have been for Booth had he not been the subject of a devastating blindside hit courtesy of Mike Richards, then of the Philadelphia Flyers, when Booth was skating for the Florida Panthers early in the 2009-10 season. The head-hunting blow on Oct. 24, 2009, saw Booth removed from the ice on a stretcher and his career thrown into disarray. A shoo-in to make the U.S. Olympic team in Vancouver, Booth was never in the hunt after the hit. He rebounded to score 23 times in 2010-11 but following his trade to Vancouver in October 2011, Booth's productivity continued to decline as other injuries mounted. Maybe you can't draw a direct line from the Richards' hit to Booth's current status as a player in limbo, but it's hard not to wonder how his career might have gone had he not been the target of the kind of hit that led directly to the NHL changing rules regarding hits on unsuspecting players.
Outdoor Wonderland: We have never lined up with the throngs that have hammered the NHL for allowing its outdoor games to multiply like so many rabbits. Yes, six outdoor games, starting with the Winter Classic between Detroit and Toronto on Jan. 1 at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich., is a lot. But we've bought the league's rationale that each of these games represents something unique in widely diverse markets from Detroit to New York, where all three local teams will get a chance to play at Yankee Stadium during Super Bowl week, to the highly anticipated game at Dodger Stadium, not to mention games at Soldier Field and B.C. Place. Now, we trust the NHL will scale these events back next season, but as long as the tickets go like hotcakes -- and there is no evidence thus far that they won't -- we don't buy the "Oh, it'll water down the product" argument for this season. That said, we arched our eyebrows when the NHL announced this week it will pump these outdoor games up with a seven-part series of documentaries focusing on star players taking part in the so-called Stadium Series (those outside the Winter Classic). For us, the marriage between HBO's "24/7" documentary series and the Winter Classic, one that continues with a series focused on the Red Wings and Leafs, has been magical because it has captured the sometimes raw, sometimes comical, often emotional inner workings of the game in a pure, unadulterated presentation. Much of the magic was in not having the interplay between coaches and players, players and opponents, on-ice officials and team officials bleeped out or censored. Given the different standards for obscenity that NBC Sports and its Canadian partners in this enterprise bring to the table, it's hard to imagine the product won't be any different than the many in-house "documentaries" produced by teams around the NHL that show players in their kitchens or going out to dinner. If so, these offerings will be easy to ignore, which will only add to the widely held belief the NHL has killed the outdoor goose.
Emotional Moments: As an aside, the one element of this multipronged documentary project that we love is that the series will follow players on an arc that takes us through the Sochi Olympic Games, including intimate looks at the dynamic that exists between teammates in the NHL, such as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks, who will face each other with medals on the line in Sochi. It's hard for people to get a handle on how much the Olympic experience means to these players, regardless of which country's jersey they wear, and a series like this might bring home that emotion in an unprecedented fashion. Given the ambiguity with which the NHL as a whole views the Olympic experience (OK, most owners hate with a deep and powerful passion that the league shuts down to take part every four years ), this kind of exposure might soften that view and help pave the way for continued participation.