Now that they have a financial template for at least seven more seasons, the NHL Board of Governors soon will try to work on that partnership thingy with their players. We know what a failure that has been in the past. Witness: one player strike, two league-imposed lockouts.
But that said, the league and the players union should be able to work quickly and intelligently toward crafting a realignment plan, something that makes sense for the current Original 30 and perhaps accommodates a couple of new (read: expansion) franchises.
What’s in place now works OK, save for the fact that the Winnipeg Jets are still considered an “East’’ entry here in Year 2 of doing business as the ex-Atlanta Thrashers. The Jets are some 450 miles northwest of the Minnesota Wild, which makes for cold winters by Hotlanta standards and an all-East travel schedule here in the 48-game season that keeps the Jets in one of the great competitive disadvantages in North American professional sports history. No short roadies for those nomadic Manitobans.
When the new plan shakes out, look for two conferences again, but with two divisions in each instead of the current three. With emphasis put back on divisional play, playoff seeding likely will be Nos. 1 through 4 in each division, with the first two rounds of the postseason pegged on deciding divisional champions to match into conference finals. The current format seeds 1 through 8 in each conference.
For those who remember the Bruins in their old Adams Division days, that’s how the postseason was, for better and worse, in the opening two rounds. It made for some heated, emotional, and at times bloody rivalries with the likes of Montreal, Buffalo, and Quebec, but it also made for some boring redundancies each April. Remember, the Bruins were erased in Round 1 by the Canadiens in 1984, ’85, ’86, and ’87, each spring a Habitual horror.
With regular-season play also to emphasize divisional matchups in the realignment, the potential of 14 more playoff games against the same brethren can turn rivalry into so much same-ol’-same-ol’. But the Lords of the Boards will bet that the playoff patina overcomes such boredom, and with eight teams per division, there is a better chance of different year-to-year playoff matchups.
One man’s view of a potential realignment scheme:
Sketching it out on paper is easy enough, but there will be plenty of objections, mainly from the Midwest and South, specifically Nashville, St. Louis, and Columbus, perhaps even Chicago and Detroit. They are the geographic tweeners, and no doubt could make cases for being swept into the Eastern bloc. Truth is, however, they’re all currently Western entries, and the only shift of conference in this schematic is the needed continental hopscotch by Winnipeg. Otherwise, it’s fairly status quo.
The East, with only 14 teams, easily could accommodate an expansion club or two in, say, Quebec City and/or southern Ontario. If not expansion, then perhaps a franchise shift to one of those cities. The obvious one is Phoenix, which remains a league-owned orphan after yet another proposed sale recently went down the drain.
Failed sales in Phoenix now rival the Stanley Cup total in Montreal. If the Phoenix entry were to fold up and migrate to Portland or Seattle, then it easily could remain in the Smythe or perhaps swap spots with a Norris entry.
In the Adams Division, Bruins fans would call the Flyers divisional brethren for the first time. Even though the Flyers would exit their longtime metro New York rivalry, the move makes sense, keeping the Broad Streeters connected with in-state rival Pittsburgh and also shouldering them with Original Sixers Boston, Montreal, and Toronto.
Cooke knifes into Karlsson
Impossible to decipher a player’s intent when viewing collisions like the one that had Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke ending Erik Karlsson’s season Wednesday night when his skate sliced through the Ottawa defenseman’s left Achilles’ tendon.
Equally impossible to ignore the fact that bad stuff happens when Cooke is in the thick of things, as Bruins fans are well aware (Cooke being the one who delivered the deliberate hit to Marc Savard’s head that sent the Bruins forward skittering down the road to retirement). Boston coach Claude Julien, when asked if Cooke’s involvement in the injury gave him pause:
“No! I’m going to be again bluntly honest. I looked at it, and I looked at it in slow motion and sure it’s going to look deliberate. But you know what? At regular speed, I personally don’t believe it was deliberate. I certainly understand why [Ottawa general manager] Bryan Murray is upset. You lose your best player like that, I would certainly be upset, too.
“Sometimes when you are that upset you are not being realistic. I certainly didn’t think it was purposely done. But because it’s Matt Cooke, obviously the discussion is going to be there.’’
As with the hit on Savard, Cooke skated off without any reprimand from NHL headquarters. The league’s division of player safety, headed by Brendan Shanahan, told Murray that it was a hockey play gone bad.
“I suggested Cooke has somewhat of a history,’’ a disgruntled Murray noted.
So Cooke skates on and the Senators are without one of the game’s prized blue liners, one who had a shot this season of winning the Norris Trophy again. Karlsson is by no means a classic defenseman, but his skating and puck-moving skills have made him a joy to watch.
A number of NHLers in recent years have turned to socks made out of Kevlar — the material used in such things as bulletproof vests — to protect them from such lacerations. Karlsson was not wearing those socks, and Cooke’s blade cut 70 percent of the way through his Achilles’.
Prized Buffalo scorer Jason Pominville wears the protective socks, because a couple of years ago he had an injury much like Karlsson’s, a skate blade severing a tendon in his right leg, ending his season during the playoffs.
“I don’t know if they would have prevented my cut,’’ he said. “Because it was a pretty big and deep cut and it sliced through the side part of my pad and everything — cut the foam side of the pad.”
Realistically, noted Pominville, it’s likely impossible for a sock to guarantee protection against such injury, but he feels wearing them makes sense.
“It definitely pushed more guys to wear it and I am wearing them because of it,’’ he said. “Guys see different guys wearing it so they want it, and because of what happened to Karlsson, I am sure there are going to be a lot more guys around the league who’ll do it. Just putting all the odds on your side is a good thing.’’
Kane quote needs context
Snippets of a Ken Campbell story in The Hockey News that were released last week had talented Jets forward Evander Kane, one of the league’s few black players, noting his race alone brings with it some criticism.
“I think a good portion of it is because I’m black and I’m not afraid to say it,’’ said the 21-year-old winger, The Hockey News yet to publish the entire interview as of Friday. “I don’t feel like a victim and I don’t want to be perceived as one.’’
More context needed, obviously, thus making it impossible to know what frustrations led the former No. 4 draft pick to say it.
Kane drew criticism in December, in the thick of the lockout, when he posted a picture that had him clutching large stacks of currency in both hands on the Vegas strip. He held the stack in his right hand up to his ear, pretending to make a call to boxing great Floyd Mayweather, a man who also likes to flaunt his cash.
Given that it was close to the holidays, and that the NHL remained dormant, the shot rankled some. In the days leading to the lockout, Kane, with 213 NHL games then on his résumé, signed a contract extension paying him $31.5 million over six years.
Photos of Kane also circulated that showed him with the large initials “YMCMB’’ shaved into his hair. For the unenlightened, that stands for “Young Money Cash Money Billionaires.’’
There are all kinds of criticism, fair and unfair. If Kane is taking heat for his race, then that’s unfair. If it’s because he is immature, as these two photos would indicate, then that could be a much different, and perhaps equally complex, issue.
Where does O’Reilly fit in?
Easy to see where Avalanche center Ryan O’Reilly is coming from in his contract dispute. He has played three NHL seasons and last year led Colorado in points with a modest 18-37—55. With the likes of Evander Kane and Tyler Seguin pulling down rich, long-term deals, he no doubt feels $5 million a year is a fair starting point. He is a restricted free agent, as were Kane and Seguin. Post-lockout, however, the Canadiens ended P.K. Subban’s holdout with a two-year deal that pays an average $2.614 million. Subban had but two years on his résumé, the same as Seguin, and you can bet the Avalanche have been jockeying O’Reilly’s number closer to Subban than, say, Seguin ($5.75 million beginning in October).
End of line for Malhotra?
Tough to read the Canucks news release Thursday noting that they were shutting down Manny Malhotra for the season, his vision still causing him issues after an injury late in the 2010-11 season. Bruins fans will remember he made it back in time to suit up for the final six games of the 2011 Cup final.
Class act, the 32-year-old center, a two-way defensive stalwart and strong man at the faceoff dot.
Malhotra needed more work on the eye after the 2011 playoffs, but returned to play a full 2011-12 season. The release was not specific, but betting in Vancouver is that he is dealing with diminished peripheral vision, which would make him vulnerable to crushing, potentially debilitating blind-side hits. It could mean his career has come to an end.
“The long-term health of Manny Malhotra is of utmost importance to our organization,’’ said GM Mike Gillis in the statement.
Malhotra, his $2.5 million cap hit shifted to long-term-injury exemption, is expected to remain around the team, perhaps working with forwards in a player-development role.
The ever-enigmatic Sharks opened the season with six wins in January but went 0-3-3 in their first six this month, scoring only seven goals in a half-dozen games. Jumbo Joe Thornton amid the dry spell: 0-1—1 with 8 shots on net . . . Likewise, the Blues finished January with four straight wins, then lost five straight before finally edging the Red Wings, 4-3, in OT Wednesday . . . With Austria clinching an Olympic spot in the recent qualifier, it looks like Vienna-born Thomas Vanek finally will get to the Rink of Five Rings. “As long as I make the team,’’ Vanek kidded with the Buffalo News last week. Vanek, 29, entering Saturday led the league in goals (11) and points (23) . . . Not to pump his tires, but Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo entering Saturday led the league with a 1.45 goals-against mark . . . The best goalie in the NHL thus far, Ottawa’s Craig Anderson, spent 12 days in the employ of the Bruins in January 2006, but was claimed on waivers by the Blues Jan. 31 that year when future two-time Vezina winner Tim Thomas came to town. Thomas had to clear waivers to come up from AHL Providence. The margins of fame and fortune can be so thin . . . Jarmo Kekalainen, named last week as the new GM in Columbus, played 27 games with the Bruins at the start of the ’90s after leaving Clarkson. He is the first European to lead an NHL front office. Thoughtful and inquisitive, Kekalainen is considered a top talent evaluator and was in his third year as GM of Jokerit when the call came.