In his weekly notebook, Eric Duhatschek explores a revolutionary new playoff format, Teemu Selanne's future with the Anaheim Ducks, and the St. Louis Blues' disciplinary call on T.J. Oshie.
The Anaheim Ducks might be the most interesting team in the NHL right now, with so many great storylines to explore that it's hard to get to them all on a single visit to town. But let's start with the most important one for any Canadian hockey fan who is hoping the Vancouver Canucks become the first Canadian-based team to win a Stanley Cup since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens.
The Ducks are on an 8-2 run at the moment, have edged up to seventh spot in the Western Conference and are within two points of the fourth-place Phoenix Coyotes. More importantly, they are just one back of their arch rivals, the Los Angeles Kings, and have a chance to leapfrog them in the standings because they finish with a home-and-home series against a Kings team muddling along without top scorers Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams.
Why does it matter to Vancouver? Only that there should be some reward for winning the Northwest Division, for winning the Western Conference regular-season title and for winning the President's Trophy - and for a while, it looked as if the Canucks might draw the surging Ducks in the opening round, hardly a just reward for their October-to-April consistency.
In fact, it would be a matchup eerily reminiscent of what unfolded in the 2009 playoffs, when Anaheim made a similar late-season push, just squeezed into the postseason, and then knocked off the first-place San Jose Sharks in the opening round.
This is where I make my annual plea for a tweak in the playoff system that would be so much fun, the NHL will never go for it:
For the opening playoff round, why shouldn't the higher-seeded team be able to pick which opponent it plays?
Think about that. Right now, only five points separate the five teams ranked four-to-eight in the West. It is a tightly packed bunch, but they all got to this stage of the season in different ways, and, as a result, pose different challenges in the postseason.
Some were good early and then cooled off. Some were slow out of the gate but eventually picked up steam. Anaheim is on the cusp of a playoff spot rather than being comfortably in the mix for two reasons: A horrible start to the season and then another stretch, right after Jonas Hiller got hurt, in which they turned to Curtis McElhinney in goal and he faltered. Ducks' GM Bob Murray went to work, bringing in Dan Ellis from Tampa and Ray Emery as a free agent. They stabilized the position and Anaheim has been solid ever since, finding ways to win tight games.
They have arguably the best line in hockey (Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan). They have the inspirational, record-setting 40-year-old Teemu Selanne, who is currently a top-10 scorer. They have the leading scorer among defencemen in the NHL in Lubomir Visnovsky. They have a precocious 18-year-old wunderkind on the blue line (Cam Fowler). And now, they have goaltending again.
So you probably don't want to mess with the Ducks in the opening round, where anything can and usually does happen.
Which is why, if Vancouver could pick its first-round opponent, it would be fairer (justice for its regular-season excellence) and would also add a delicious subplot to the proceedings - the opposition knowing that it was chosen because of the perception that it is the most beatable of the qualifiers.
Here's how it would work: The four top teams in the conference get home-ice advantage and get to choose opponents on the basis of their finish. Vancouver picks No. 1. They'd probably opt for either L.A., because of its injuries, or Nashville, because the Predators have never won a playoff round in franchise history (but do have a wild card in goaltender Pekka Rinne.). San Jose is currently No. 2. They'd probably pick whichever of L.A. or Nashville Vancouver didn't choose. Detroit goes third. Do they opt for Chicago, their great rival and defending champion, or the Ducks which, on top of everything else, would create a far greater travel commitment? Hard to say, but you'd be interested in knowing which way they'd go. Fourth-place Phoenix would inherit the team that is left.
The NHL showed a willingness to do something along these lines at the all-star game, when team captains got to pick their teams, school-yard style. It was a fun exercise and actually represented the most interesting diversion of the whole weekend. It'd be nice if they ever introduced a version of the same bold philosophy for playoffs too.
Back in the days of the 21-team NHL, there was a reward for finishing first - often, in the opening round, you'd draw a team with 70- or even 60-some points and the matchup represented a near walkover for division and/or conference champs.
No more. Everybody that makes it the playoffs has a chance to do some damage once they start. A first-place team should at least get the right to pick its own poison.
CANADA'S TEAM?: Quick aside: Will Vancouver become Canada's team, now that it looks as if only two of the six Canadian teams will qualify for the playoffs? The rivalries between Vancouver and Calgary and Vancouver and Edmonton are significant and deeply felt, so it may be difficult to sway much of Alberta to the national cause, but elsewhere? You'd have to think that purists who tune in to see the game played well will eventually fall in love with the Canucks. They are the highest-scoring team in the league; their power play is dynamic; and the Sedins are a wonderfully charming individuals, both of whom have come out of their shells over the past two seasons and seem comfortable in their respective skins in front of the TV cameras. Just so long as Roberto Luongo isn't coaxed into reading too much more poetry on the air, they should find Canada squarely behind as they attempt to negotiate the tricky waters of the Western Conference playoff race.
MORE DUCK WATCHING: On a Monday night, after Teemu Selanne established two more records for 40-something hockey players, the Anaheim Ducks' forward was interviewed post-game on the ice at the Honda Centre. As Selanne modestly deflected the credit for his five-point night and his stirring career to others, the crowd chanted 'one more year, one more year.'
Later, as Selanne arrived last in the dressing room, his teammates greeted him with a similar refrain.
Well, why wouldn't they want more of the Finnish Flash? Selanne is in the midst of an astonishing, and virtually unprecedented season for the NHL's geriatric set. Only Gordie Howe and Johnny Bucyk have ever managed what he's done - score 75 points in a season after his 40th birthday - and Selanne is doing it in an era when speed is of the essence. Chris Chelios played until he was 46 and was a defensive mainstay at the age of 40. But he also played within himself, and wasn't nearly the same player.
Selanne, by any measure, hasn't lost a thing. His hands are still great - ninth in league scoring with 76 points - and if he hadn't missed nine games with a groin injury, he might be in Steven Stamkos territory. His legs are still great too - as fast as ever.
Selanne says he will defer any decision about his future until the summer, but Perry is holding out hope. He told me this week that both he and Getzlaf have been working on Selanne all year to convince him to play on and says: "It went from 'no' to 'we'll see.'
"I've been over him all year, me and Getzy."
So they're wearing him down?
"I think so."
Perry, incidentally, says he remembers Selanne's 76-goal rookie season; he was seven, watching his celebrations - throwing the glove up in the air, and then using his stick as a gun, mimicking a skeet-shooting motion.
"I don't even know if I knew what that meant," said Perry. "I mean, you're so young. You think everybody can do that. Then you start to grow up and learn that 35 or 40 goals are tough to come by in the NHL. 76? Amazing. He's got more years left in him.""
PERRY TO OILERS: Just a brief, in painful, 'what if?' reminder for Edmonton Oilers fans, now that Perry has been named NHL player of the month for February. When Mike Comrie, coming off a 33-goal sophomore season, decided in the fall of 2003 that he wanted out of town, the Oilers had a tentative deal in place to send him to the Ducks for a package that included Perry, who was in his second year with the OHL's London Knights at the time and had been picked by Anaheim with the 28th overall choice in the 2003 entry draft.
At the 11th hour, the Oilers decided they liked Philadelphia's offer better: Defensive prospect Jeff Woywitka, plus a first-rounder (that turned out to be Robbie Schremp) and a third-rounder (Danny Syvret). All three remain on the fringes of the NHL, while Perry evolved into a star. His 46 goals leads the league; he played well for Canada in the 2010 Olympics; and at the age of 25, doesn't look as if he's plateaued at all. For a team that is relatively undersized, the 6-3 206-pound Perry would be the perfect foil to all of its emerging young talent. Sometimes, a franchise's fortunes can turn on small, curious forecasts.
FLAMING OUT: Even if Calgary's playoff hopes are essentially finished, the Flames still have a couple of things to play for. One is Jarome Iginla's quest to get to 1,000 points. He is three points shy heading into Friday's date with the St. Louis Blues. Calgary plays Colorado on Sunday, then returns home for a Wednesday date with Edmonton. Iginla is from St. Albert, an Edmonton suburb. If you believe in serendipity, that would be the perfect night to snag the career milestone.
Also worth watching: How centre Daymond Langkow fares in these final four games. The Flames activated Langkow Thursday, after he missed more than a year recovering from a neck injury that occurred when an Ian White slap shot hit him in precisely the wrong spot in a March, 2010 game against the Minnesota Wild. Langkow will get a clearer idea of where he's at in terms of his comeback by getting in a handful of appearances before the end of the season - and if it looks as if he'll play again, Calgary will have to be mindful in the off-season of how to deal with his $4.5-million salary commitment.
As it is, the Flames needed to farm out Ales Kotalik to AHL Abbotsford in order to fit Langkow's contract under the 2010-11 NHL salary cap.
AND FINALLY: T. J. Oshie, arguably the Blues' most popular player, will return to the St. Louis lineup for Friday's game. He'd been suspended for the previous two games by the team for missing a practice last Monday. It was second time in two years that the Blues disciplined one of their own for a similar transgression: It happened to Patrick Berglund last year and sends an important message about professionalism to a team with lots of young talent. The Blues paid Oshie during the suspension, but he volunteered to turn over his checks for the two games to local charities. With Chris Stewart fitting in so nicely after coming over from Colorado in the trade for Erik Johnson (14 goals in his first 21 games), the also-ran Blues - if they can stay healthy and get David Perron back after a season-ending concussion - should be a factor in the Western Conference playoff race next year.