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Blackhawks' Corey Crawford continues to struggle in Chicago. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck (Darryl Dyck/CP)
Blackhawks' Corey Crawford continues to struggle in Chicago. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck (Darryl Dyck/CP)

The Look Ahead

No surrender as NHL trade deadline nears Add to ...

What the heck, let’s blame Gary Bettman.

After all, the three-point system contributing most to the current trade-deadline inertia arrived under the NHL commissioner’s watch. As the Feb. 27 trade deadline approaches, there are still far too many teams that think they’re still in position to make a playoff run to create the annual player auction.

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In the Eastern Conference, there were either eight teams in the hunt for the last two playoff spots or nine chasing three before the NHL’s games Sunday, depending how you look at the race. Similarly, there were seven teams in the Western Conference chasing the last three spots.

Adding to the logjam are the struggles of some of the teams trying to hold on to the last couple of playoff spots. In the East, the Ottawa Senators are 2-6-2 in their past 10 games and the Toronto Maple Leafs have to take a three-game losing string into a crucial road trip to Western Canada this week. On the West side, the sixth-place Chicago Blackhawks have a five-alarm fire going thanks to an eight-game losing skid that has head coach Joel Quenneville on the hot seat. The fifth-place Nashville Predators and the seventh-place Los Angeles Kings are also struggling.

With that many teams in position to relinquish their spots in the top eight, those below them are reluctant to abandon the race and create a pool of players for the trade deadline.

The trouble is, the three-point system’s double whammy makes this situation hard to unlock. On the one hand, the one point for losing in overtime or a shootout makes it almost impossible for teams that fall way behind to make a dramatic playoff run late in the season. But at the same time, those on the bubble can hang around longer, even though the chances of overhauling two or three teams are slim.

Adrian Dater of the Denver Post dug up this interesting statistic: In January, 48 of 180 games went to overtime or a shootout. That is 26.7 per cent, which means in almost one-third of the games, two teams come away with at least a point. With so many teams chasing so few spots that makes it awfully difficult to get ahead of the crowd.

As a result, there are still few committed sellers two weeks before the trade deadline, which has the general managers trying to buy climbing the walls. Just imagine how Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman feels right now.

Corey Crawford may still be Chicago’s goalie of the future but neither he nor Ray Emery are stopping many pucks right now. Bowman needs an experienced goaltender immediately but the one that should be available, Evgeni Nabokov, is off the market because New York Islanders GM Garth Snow thinks his team still has a shot at the playoffs.

Nabokov, 36, is the perfect rental player because he’s playing well, has a minimal cap hit at $570,000 (all currency U.S.) and will be an unrestricted free agent in July. But all that’s available now for the Blackhawks is Nikolai Khabibulin of the Edmonton Oilers. He’s three years older at 39, is inconsistent and has one year left on his contract with a cap hit of $3.75-million.

Similar problems confront other GMs, as players such as Teemu Selanne, Lubomir Visnovsky, Ryan Malone and perhaps Hal Gill are disappearing from the market because their GMs think there’s still a chance to make the playoffs.



MULLER REVISITS MONTREAL

The Montreal Canadiens, one of those teams still contemplating an unlikely run to the playoffs, will say hello to the man who could have been their head coach on Monday night. Former assistant coach Kirk Muller, who left the Canadiens for a shot as an NHL head coach, will be at the Bell Centre for the first time since he was hired by the Carolina Hurricanes.

A lot of people think Muller should have been the one picked to replace Jacques Martin as head coach of the Canadiens when he was fired on Dec. 17. But by then Muller was long gone, having accepted a job last summer to be the head coach of the Nashville Predators’ farm team and then moving to the Hurricanes as head coach when Paul Maurice was fired on Nov. 28.

Muller, who was captain of the Canadiens as a player and spent five seasons in Montreal as an assistant coach, was smart enough to dodge the inevitable questions. He declined to say if the Habs coach needs to speak French, being well aware of Cunneyworth’s troubles on that issue. He also stepped around those wondering if he quit because he didn’t see the Canadiens giving the job permanently to a unilingual coach.

“It was a good time for me to move on,” Muller said. “I have no regrets.”

The language issue, Muller said, is “not my area. It’s a tough one for me to answer.” Muller said he knows Cunneyworth does not have it easy, “but he’s doing a good job.”

KEEP AN EYE ON THE FLYERS

The Pittsburgh Penguins get a lot of attention for staying in contention despite losing their star players to injuries, but it’s their cross-state rivals who should get more credit for doing the same.

Despite the long-term losses of defenceman Chris Pronger and forward James van Riemsdyk and many other players to shorter periods because of injuries, the Flyers are still hanging around the top five of the Eastern Conference. They’ve also had to contend with inconsistent goaltending from their big free-agent acquisition, Ilya Bryzgalov, as well as from youngster Sergei Bobrovsky.

However, cracks are showing. The Flyers had two big games on the weekend and were smacked around by the New York Rangers on Saturday before facing the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday. The loss to the Rangers prompted Flyers defenceman Kimmo Timonen to question his teammates.

“I’m disappointed at the effort, the emotional level [against]a top team in the conference and the league,” Timonen told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “To be honest, I think we had half the guys going and half the guys not.”

The Flyers went into the Detroit game with a 4-3-3 record in their previous 10 games and were five points ahead of the eighth-place Toronto Maple Leafs. They have four days off until they play the Buffalo Sabres and Penguins later this week and the host of teams in contention for the last few playoff spots are starting to eye the Flyers hungrily.

A PLAYER TO WATCH

Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas is doing nothing to dispel a growing sentiment he is half a bubble off centre. Politically, he is way off-centre, and his right-wing views once again stirred up enough trouble to reignite talk the Bruins might look at easing Tuukka Rask into a few more starts now that the team is cooling off a little.

The problem with Thomas is not so much his odd-ball political views (after refusing a visit to the White House and ranting about the “out of control” government, he waded into the contraception debate about the Catholic church last week on his Facebook page) but his refusal to explain himself. Thomas cannot seem to grasp that a public figure cannot espouse strong beliefs in one forum and then refuse to explain himself when reporters come looking for clarity.

The whole thing is beginning to wear on his teammates, according to those who cover the team.

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