Brian Burke, middle name Truculent, is thinking expansively these days. He is convinced he has seen the game’s future and it is slightly bigger — at least bigger than the standard NHL ice sheet that measures 200 feet long by 85 feet wide that has been around since water first froze.
The game and its players would be better served in the years ahead, the former Maple Leafs general manager believes, if new NHL buildings coming on line were designed with the capacity to accommodate an ice sheet up to 92 feet wide. That little bit more room between the sidewalls, he thinks, would add to the game’s flow and cut down on injuries, while at the same time preserve much of the body contact NHL fans crave.
“By and large, we’re still playing on the same-sized surface on which the 5-foot-9 Leo Boivin was deemed the feared hitter of his day,’’ said Burke, summoning the name of a former Boston defenseman of the 1950s and ’60s. “Our players are bigger and faster now, and if that changes, it’s only going to increase.
“A wider rink should allow for more playmaking, more scoring, better power plays . . . overall, a greater emphasis on skill, but still with plenty of hitting. No one wants to turn hockey into a non-contact sport.’’
The hybrid sheet, adopted in recent years at Boston University and Bowdoin College, is the same as that used at last month’s World Championship in Sweden. Burke is not in favor to a shift to the considerably bigger IIHF/Olympic-sized rink (200 x 100), feeling, like most North Americans, that it affords players too much space to roam (i.e. hide), thus leading generally to more passive play and limited body contact.
“More European leagues and teams are considering it,’’ said Burke. “So, I think what we’re seeing is that they’re coming our way — they want more contact — and we’re going their way because we could use a little more room. I think the day will come when you see a universal rink adopted worldwide, something around 200 feet by 90-92 feet.’’
Ideally, said Burke, new NHL rinks would begin now to incorporate the design for the slightly bigger sheets, which necessitate larger ice-making plants. However, play league-wide would not shift to the larger sheets until at least half of the arenas had the capacity for the bigger sheet. Until then, those arenas with the bigger surfaces would continue to play on the smaller sheet, reducing the size by shifting the boards closer and adding portable seats around the surface.
“Some engineering would be needed, obviously, but it’s all achievable,’’ said Burke, who spoke about the idea last week, upon word here that the Penguins initially considered just such an option prior to constructing the new Consol Energy Center. “I can tell you I talked to [Penguins GM] Ray Shero about it, and they were intrigued, but I believe it lost out to cost. Garth Snow [the Islanders’ GM] tells me he’s on board with the idea. The Islanders are on target to move to the new rink in Brooklyn now, but had they built new, they were going with it.’’
It all sounds like a solid, if not inevitable, plan. The game is far too congested and scoring remains on the decline following an initial post-lockout bump in 2005-06. If a bigger surface keeps players in the lineup, fewer brains addled, and the scoreboard lighting up, then everybody wins. But the idea would have to evolve as new buildings came on line. Current club owners would not stomach the cost of retrofitting their buildings, while at the same time surrendering the ticket revenue from the scores of seats that would be lost when two or three rows were removed along the sidewalls.
“A building’s life is generally 30 or 40 years long,’’ said Burke. “I think the custodians of the game have to think long term on this. The design we’re working with now is the same as it was 100 years ago. Our game is in great shape. But the way the game is played today, with its high speed and bigger players, I think we could be guilty of falling asleep at the switch if we don’t start doing something about this now.’’
PAYING THE PRICE
Tortorella not good enough
No surprise here that John Tortorella was sent packing as Rangers coach on Wednesday. Though generally successful, which is usually all that counts, he has meticulously crafted an image as a bully, especially in his endeavors with the media, and that’s a shtick with very little shelf life in today’s bully-sensitive North America.
No doubt some fans have enjoyed Torts lighting up members of the media. I lost any respect for him when he used a postgame setting as a bully pulpit to launch on Sam Rosen, the Rangers’ decades-long TV play-by-play man, early in the season. Rosen, a thoughtful and kind guy, is held in the same reverence with Rangers fans and co-workers that Fred Cusick earned in the Hub. But there was Torts, working for the same company, attempting to humiliate Rosen after he asked a benign question. Trite. Shameful.
In fairly short order this season, here’s how it went for the Blueshirts under Tortorella:
■ Elite scorer Marian Gaborik was deemed ineffective and dealt to Columbus.
■ Star Brad Richards was demoted to a fourth-line center and then decommissioned, ordered to the press box, after three games of the playoff series against the Bruins.
■ Star winger Rick Nash, the club’s big offseason move to make a Cup drive, turned in an anemic playoff line of 1-4—5 in 12 games.
■ And if those three strikes weren’t enough, there was the Rangers’ postseason power play, which went a dreadful 4 for 44 (9.1 percent). Only the Wild (0 for 17) were worse.
The only surprise, really, was that the season ended last Saturday and it took until Wednesday for the front office to make the decision public.
Staal still not seeing clearly
Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, struck in the right eye with a deflected puck on March 5, told the media on Monday that a tear in the eye remains unhealed, which is what kept him off the ice the rest of the way for all but one playoff game against the Capitals. According to Staal, the tear made it very difficult for the eyeball to “regulate’’ its pressure. The pressure would “spike and dip,’’ he said, during practices, which he found disorienting on and off the ice. Time and rest, he hopes, will make him whole in time for next season. Meanwhile, he is yet another of the vision-impaired brotherhood who would like to see everyone wear a visor. Staal: “I don’t want anyone else to get hurt.’’ Everyone wears a cup. Everyone wears a helmet. Eyes, evidently, rank third.
Patrick Roy, new man behind the bench in Colorado, told the Denver media Tuesday that “my No. 1 quality is that I am not afraid to put in the time.’’ If only coaching were a time-in/results-out business. The NFL is full of coaches who sleep and eat in their offices, but performance does not necessarily correlate with the punching of the time card. St. Patrick went a formidable 348-196 and won a Memorial Cup (2006) in his time directing the Quebec Remparts. So, he has displayed a coach’s touch. Now we’ll see if he can recast an Avalanche roster that has some interesting young talent in the likes of Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O’Reilly, and the slightly older and underperforming Paul Stastny. Have to wonder, though, if Roy will push his boss, Joe Sakic, to flip the No. 1 overall draft pick he’s holding later this month for a young bonafide netminder. The Kings’ Jonathan Bernier, the No. 11 pick in the 2006 draft, would be the obvious target. With Jonathan Quick on duty, Bernier is not going to get his shot at being a No. 1. Bernier, a Quebec kid, with Roy, the Quebec goaltending icon. Parfait, non?
The salary cap will dip from $70.2 million to $64.3 million in 2013-14, which makes it highly unlikely that the Bruins will retain the services of unrestricted free agent Nathan Horton (a meaty 5-7—12 in the 12 games of Rounds 1 and 2). The Rangers, meanwhile, look as if they’ll “Wade Redden’’ veteran center Brad Richards, making him their second (and final) amnesty buyout in order to get his $6.67 million cap hit off the books. So, here’s the Richards “retirement’’ package: with $36 million due over the next seven years (per the deal he signed in July 2011), he’ll instead pocket two-thirds ($24 million) over twice the remaining term of the deal (14 years). In other words, a $1.7 million a year parachute until the spring of 2027, at which time he will be on the cusp of his 47th birthday. All in all, Richards will have collected upward of $42 million for 1½ seasons on Broadway in which he delivered 36-64—100. Cost: $420,000 per point. Scratched for Games 4 and 5 against the Bruins, he says he’d like to continue playing. “I’ve got to take care of how I can play,’’ he told reporters last week on break-up day. “And that’s all on me.’’ Richards fell far behind the curve by not playing in Europe or Russia during the lockout. The same hell-no-I-won’t-go approach also hurt Boston’s Milan Lucic, but he was young enough (25 this Friday) to salvage a strong postseason.
Phoenix remains a mess, with commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy Bill Daly in Glendale much of last week, yet again trying to orchestrate a deal that would enable the league to remove its “For Sale By Owner’’ sign from the franchise and still have it do business at Jobing.com Arena as the Phoenix Coyotes. Yes, you have heard this one, over and over and over. The current buyer in the pipeline is Renaissance Sports and Entertainment, a group of Canadian-based businessmen (lead names: Anthony LeBlanc and George Gosbee). The main hitch remains all sides being satisfied with the city’s lease deal, an ongoing bugaboo that has nixed previous deals. The NHL bought the desert franchise out of bankruptcy for $140 million in 2009. If no deal this time? Look for the franchise to land in Quebec City, where a new Colisee is being constructed, or in Seattle, where the league still has a chance to get its stake in the ground before the NBA brings its game back there. Daly last week from Glendale: “We expect that representatives from the Renaissance group will begin meeting with the city to see if a mutually agreeable lease agreement can be forged expeditiously. We will have no further comment pending completion of the process.’’
Due mainly to the lockout and the resultant jammed June schedule (playoffs/draft), the NHL, as expected, will not stage its annual awards ceremony in Las Vegas. Instead, it will split the ceremony into two parts, the first on the day before Game 2 of the Cup Final, and the second as a lead-in show on the evening of Game 2. Patrice Bergeron, a Selke finalist again, is the only Bruin up for an award, with Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk and Chicago’s Jonathan Toews also in the mix. Bergeron increasingly reminds me of Hall of Famer Ron Francis. Not as big nor as offensively prolific, but every bit the professional and complete player. Bergeron won his first Selke last June. Francis, in his Penguins days, won it in 1995 and was runner-up to Sergei Fedorov in ’96.
Ex-Bruin Jumbo Joe Thornton had a fairly robust playoff run, collecting 2-8—10 in 11 games (now a career 22-75—97 in 125 playoff games). But he went a flatline 0-0—0 in the Sharks’ Game 7 decider vs. the Kings with 2 PIM and no shots on net in his 19:36 of ice time. It will be a fascinating summer in San Jose, where big guns Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dan Boyle all have one year remaining on their deals. It’s now officially The Team That Never Got There. Not a likely scenario, but it’s tantalizing to think of Thornton, proud son of St. Thomas, Ontario, in a third life as a Maple Leaf with Jumbo Joe Colborne as his understudy for, say, the next 2-3 years. The senior Jumbo will be 34 in July and his passes might be enough finally to turn Phil Kessel into the 50-goal scorer that everyone projected him to be during his brief Boston stay. The Leafs haven’t had that big physical pivot presence since Mats Sundin’s final stand in April 2008. They also haven’t had a pair of huge pivots since Sundin and Jason Allison were on duty there in 2005-06, when they combined for 48 goals and 138 points.
The annual NHL draft combine wrapped up Saturday at the edge of the Toronto airport. Not really a surprise, but the International Scouting Service (ISS) last week reversed its 1-2 rankings ahead of the combine and slotted Halifax center Nathan MacKinnon as the top prospect for the June 30 draft at Newark. Portland defenseman Seth Jones, son of ex-NBA player Popeye Jones, slipped to No. 2. Jonathan Drouin, MacKinnon’s teammate with Halifax, the Memorial Cup winner, remained at No. 3. ISS doesn’t figure an American high schooler (likely from Minnesota) will go until the middle of Round 2. Closer to home, ISS pegs three Connecticut high schoolers for the third round, including Anthony Florentino, D, South Kent; Nick Hutchinson, C, Avon Old Farms; Jason Salvaggio, F, South Kent. The NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau figures them all roughly the same, although CSB’s final look had Jones No. 1 and MacKinnon No. 2.
Now that the conference finals are finally up and running, keep in mind that these are rarely short stories. In fact, of the 20 conference finals played from 2002-12, only three ended in sweeps. Five went the full seven games, including Bruins vs. Lightning in 2011. The other 12 series were settled in five or six games.
Old pal Marco Sturm might have enough left in the legs at least to draw a training camp invite from someone. He provided some late-season relief for the Cologne (Germany) Sharks and provided a respectable 2-3—5 line in five playoff games. The ex-Bruin will turn 35 prior to September’s training camps . . . Good bet that Ryane Clowe, sidelined by reported concussion issues, likely would have helped the Rangers in their series with the Bruins. He likely would helped the Sharks, too, in their series with the Kings. Now about to be an unrestricted free agent, the winger said Monday he’d like to stay on Broadway. If so, given money issues there, he’d probably have to take less than the $3.625 million he pocketed this season. Clowe, 31 in September, could be a cheaper, edgier alternative to Horton on right wing here . . . The Rangers also have to find a way to sign key free agents (all restricted) Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello, and Carl Hagelin . . . Note to USA goalies: If you are thinking Sochi Olympics, you are thinking of two weeks of watching Jonathan Quick. A nice seat, mind you, but . . . Rick Nash’s final playoff line with the Rangers: 1-4—5 in 12 games. His summation: “It was good.’’ Good in the same way that Tyler Seguin’s line read 1-3—4 in 12 games prior to the start of the Pittsburgh series . . . Ex-Bruin short-timer Sergei Gonchar, now 39, hopes to play two more years, ideally with the Senators. If so, it will be at a steep discount from his three-year, $16.5 million pact that just expired. More likely he’ll be moving on, to a place such as Phoenix or Dallas, for maybe 25 cents on the dollar . . . No one knows if Daniel Alfredsson wants to continue in the NHL, and that includes Alfredsson. But if he does, look for Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli to try to bring him here. The Bruins are deep in pivots, but there is only one Alfie . . . Per agent Neil Abbott, ex-Bruin P.J. Axelsson has played his final pro game. Axie finished out his four-year tour with Sweden’s Vastra Frolunda with a 6-10—16 line in 49 games. A winger, but front and center in the Good Guy Hall of Fame.