Predictably, when NHL general managers gathered in Toronto last week for their semi-annual meeting to discuss rule changes, there was the usual amount of face-to-face trade talk as well. It resulted in a couple of minor deals – the Toronto Maple Leafs getting additional depth at forward by acquiring Peter Holland from the Anaheim Ducks and the Chicago Blackhawks fleshing out the bottom half of their roster by re-acquiring Kris Versteeg from the Florida Panthers.
Versteeg was a victim of the first Blackhawks’ salary dump after they won the 2010 Stanley Cup. He just never fit in wherever he landed – not in Toronto, not with the Philadelphia Flyers and not with the Panthers, where you figured it might work, just because he was working for ex-Blackhawks’ general manager Dale Tallon again.
Some of Versteeg’s issues may have related to a slow recovery from knee surgery last March to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament. For a player whose game revolves around speed, it is a particularly difficult injury to get back from. Players can be medically cleared to return to the lineup, but that is not the same thing as getting physically up to speed again with the pace of the game.
Moreover, Versteeg – while showing flashes of scoring ability – likely isn’t an ideal top-six forward, even though at $4.4-million per season, he is being paid like one. It’s why the Blackhawks were able to get the Panthers to eat half his salary. At $2.2-million, Chicago general manager Stan Bowman can justify playing Versteeg on his third line, where he can kill some penalties, score some even-strength goals and provide the sort of depth that they lost when Michal Frolik was let go from last year’s championship team.
Anaheim moved Holland because Rickard Rakell had moved ahead of him on the organizational depth chart and are in an intriguing position of strength in goal, given how many teams have significant holes to fill at that position right now. The Ducks lost last year’s first-year sensation, Viktor Fasth, to an undisclosed injury for a time, which paved the way for them to promote Danish rookie Frederik Andersen. Andersen was only sensational, going 6-1 in his first seven starts, with a 1.66 GAA and a .943 save percentage before Fasth got back into action, which forced them to send Anderson back down. The Ducks also have the reliable veteran Jonas Hiller, who is on an expiring contract, and arguably the best young goalie prospect outside the NHL in John Gibson, learning his trade down in the minors.
So the Ducks are loaded between the pipes and it wasn’t surprising to see the Nashville Predators – who are without starter Pekka Rinne – make inquiries there about a goaltender. It’s a dilemma of sorts for the Ducks, however, because they are a legitimate Stanley Cup contender again this year, after finishing second overall in the Western Conference’s regular-season standings a year ago.
If you think you can win it all, could you legitimately take a chance and trade away Hiller, even if you risk losing his rights next summer for nothing? Or do you keep him, just because he likely gives you the best chance to win in the short term, and the other goalies in your organization have fewer than 50 games of NHL experience amongst them?
The answer: If someone offered a significant return, they’d have to think about it. If not, they’ll muddle along with the status quo and see how things unfold.
The Ducks are already in a strong position heading into next summer’s entry draft. They’ll have their own first-round pick, plus the Ottawa Senators as well (as part of the compensation for Bobby Ryan). And the pick that the Leafs sent them for Holland could be upgraded to a second-rounder if he plays 25 games for Toronto, which seems likely based on where coach Randy Carlyle had him slotted for Saturday’s date with the Buffalo Sabres.
Eventually, the Leafs will get Nazem Kadri back from suspension and Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland back from the injured reserve list, which will drop Holland down the depth chart. The Leafs wouldn’t have made the deal if they didn’t think Holland could play in the NHL right now.
Nashville, meanwhile, is pulling out all stops to stop the bleeding in goal. Carter Hutton, Magnus Hellberg and now Marek Mazanec have all started for them since Rinne was hurt. Mazanec made 39 saves against Chicago Saturday for his first NHL win, as the Predators returned home after a seven-game, 17-day road trip that left them just barely hanging on in the Western Conference playoff race. Probably the most heartening part of the victory was not that it came over the defending Stanley Cup champions, but that seven different players managed to score goals in the game, something that hadn’t happened for Nashville in almost four years.
CANADIAN OLYMPIC WATCH: It’s hard to get Steve Yzerman to smile these days, given how his Tampa Bay Lightning have lost their leading scorer Steven Stamkos, indefinitely, thanks to that awful broken leg he suffered Monday afternoon. But on Tuesday, when he was asked about Canada’s Olympic hockey team and how the roster might have changed since they ran that orientation camp back in August, Yzerman said couldn’t give a definitive answer because he hadn’t actually set his 25 names down on paper yet. I interjected that he was the only person in Canada who hadn’t, which elicited a brief laugh.
The irony is that Yzerman’s list is the only one that will ultimately count. The International Ice Hockey Federation wants the preliminary rosters in by Dec. 31, but Yzerman indicated to me Canada would likely announce somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s – Dec. 28 is the likeliest date at the moment – and so that leaves a full six weeks to gather input and assess progress.
Yzerman will not answer questions about specific players for a very good reason – if you gave a progress report on one player’s status, you pretty much have to provide them for all players. But I wondered, because Canada had 25 roster spots this year as opposed to 23 in Vancouver, did that change the evaluation process in any way? The IIHF granted the extra two spots for injury reasons – if you get a player hurt, you cannot easily parachute a replacement in from North America for an Olympics being played in Sochi, Russia, nine time zones away from Eastern time, 12 from the West Coast.
In theory, therefore, you could pick a player just to play a narrow defined role. Up front, maybe you like someone for his face-off skills. On the blueline, maybe you add a player who can anchor your power play. I was thinking specifically here of the Montreal Canadiens’ P.K. Subban who, according to all the sports panels prognosticating lineups, could be on the outside looking in, even if he is the reigning Norris Trophy winner.
But Yzerman answered no. “They (the two extra spots) give you flexibility,” said Yzerman, “but I don’t think we’re going to need to bring one player specifically for face-offs, for example. If you look at the group of centremen that are there, there are strong guys on the left and the right to win face-offs. The broad group of forwards that we’re talking about, there’s going to be guys that can all play on the power play and there’ll be plenty of them that are strong enough on the defensive side of the game – and that goes for the blueline as well. So I don’t think we’ll have any specialists – power-play specialists or shootout specialists. I don’t think we’ll do that.
“We’ll simply take the 25 best players. I mean, we won’t take 14 centremen, but there won’t be any specialists.”
Yzerman went on to say, if he had put his roster together in August, there’s probably been a few changes, but ...
“Honestly, I never did my roster at that time, because you have to change it too often. There have been a few young guys, almost 20 games in, who have elevated their play, so they’re under greater consideration. The veteran players, regardless of the start they got off too, we know what to expect from them.”
This past week, my Montreal-based colleague Sean Gordon asked Subban about the perception that he was on the outside looking in for the Olympic team – and he had an interesting answer to him. Subban said that spending time working for Sportsnet during the last lockout taught him that you can basically say anything on television, so why worry about what anyone says? Touché.
Yzerman wouldn’t answer a specific question relating to Subban, but said: “In general, with our defence, we’re looking for the best possible eight defencemen. We will take into account right and left shots. I’m not saying we need four and four, but I believe and I know Mike Babcock believes in having rights and lefts together.”
Then Yzerman concluded with what could be termed his mission statement: “I want players and we’re going to put out players that we can count on in both ends of the rink because at this level, if you’re not responsible defensively – and I’m not being specific, this goes for them all – the coaches are not going to put them on the ice.”
THIS AND THAT: The Carolina Hurricanes have a couple of veteran defencemen, Mike Komisarek and Tim Gleason, sitting out a lot of nights these days. One or the other could likely be had for little of consequence in return . The Kings’ Jordan Nolan played against the Buffalo Sabres Tuesday night, knowing that his father, Ted, was about to be named head coach of the team the next day. Nolan kept the intelligence to himself. The Kings sat him out Sunday night in New York to get Daniel Carcillo into the lineup . Michael Del Zotto was mentioned as a possible long-shot candidate to play for Canada’s 2014 Olympic team, but he can’t even get into the New York Rangers’ lineup these days. Del Zotto was a healthy scratch for Saturday’s 1-0 victory over the Montreal Canadiens and he was out for Sunday’s date with the Kings at Madison Square Gardens. Under coach Alain Vigneault, the Rangers have righted the ship after a disastrous start to the season. The win over the Canadiens lifted them above .500 for the first time all year to 10-9, which includes an 8-3 mark in their last 11 games, after they started the season 2-6. New York hadn’t had a regular-season shutout in Montreal since 1967 – with Ed Giacomin in goal – and they hadn’t had a 1-0 victory there since Jan. 18, 1940, with Davey Kerr between the pipes. Don’t you just love the Elias Sports Bureau and how they come up with this sort of stuff?
THE INJURY WATCH: The Columbus Blue Jackets will be without Marian Gaborik for anywhere from four to six weeks with a sprained left knee. Gaborik was an instant hit after coming over to the Blue Jackets from the Rangers last year, but after a fast start, he’d slowed considerably – one assist in eight games before his injury – and had slipped to fourth on the team in scoring when he went out. Gaborik’s absence means more playing time for, among others, Ryan Johansen, who is maturing into the player the Jackets thought could be a difference maker when they took him fourth overall a few years back. Johansen had two more points in Sunday’s win over the Ottawa Senators and except for their game against Montreal two nights ago, has been at 18 minutes or more for every game thus far in November . The slumping Avalanche aren’t close to getting Alex Tanguay back from a knee injury either. Tanguay who had nine points in his first 13 games this season, was an integral part of the second line.
QUOTABLE (1): Subban, asked about the heavy minutes Ryan Suter is playing for the Minnesota Wild, said it’s sometimes easier to do that because you play a simpler game: “When you’re maybe not playing as much it’s tougher because you know that you have to try to make those plays to try and create something. When you know you’re going to be out there, you don’t force anything, you keep the game simple, the game comes to you because you’re always out there.
“I can guarantee you that if you’re rushing the puck all the time you’re not going to be playing 35 minutes a night in the NHL.”
QUOTABLE (2): Tyler Seguin is thriving away from the spotlight in Boston, where he was a young kid playing mostly on a veteran team. In Dallas, he says: “It’s a breath of fresh air to be able to go the rink, play hockey, and then go about my business away from the rink, whether it’s just walking around a mall or whatever. That’s been a different adjustment, but I’ve enjoyed it. I definitely hang out with a lot more guys away from the rink, I still have some of my best friends in Boston, people I talk to every single day and players . . . the thing in Boston is, you could only go to the guys’ houses for dinner so many times! You want to hang out, go to the movies, whatever, and here you can do that a little bit more.”
AND FINALLY: You think last year might have been rough for Cory Schneider, sharing the net in Vancouver with Roberto Luongo, and dealing with questions about who starts, night after night? This year, in his new home with the New Jersey Devils, Schneider is splitting time in goal again, this time with future Hall Of Famer Martin Brodeur. Both are playing well, but only Brodeur is winning regularly. That’s because, for reasons unknown, the Devils simply cannot give Schneider any goal support. He is 1-5-3 on the season in nine games, and has surrendered just 18 goals. The problem is, New Jersey has only scored 10 times in his nine starts. Following a 2-0 loss to L.A. Friday, which included an empty netter, Devils’ coach Peter DeBoer noted Schneider “can’t do more than what he’s doing.”
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