Time For NHL to Treat All Players Like People, Regardless of Role

Coyotes L Todd Fedoruk and Blue Jackets R Jared Boll mix it up during the Phoenix Coyotes versus the Coumbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, OH.

Over in New Jersey, Todd Fedoruk is trying to survive the pressures of addiction and an NHL comeback, as he works to catch on with the Canucks.

Fedoruk is a 32-year-old enforcer who was out of hockey last season while he worked on some personal issues.

Down in Tampa, Steven Stamkos is trying to establish his new contract doesn’t mean more pressure for the young star.

Both players are under a tremendous amount of pressure. While Stamkos has a contract, he now has to live up to the dollars that appear on it. Who’s to say that’s more or less pressure than trying to catch on with a team, liked Fedoruk is trying to do.

But obviously, there’s a huge difference between the two players. Stamkos is a talented offensive player. His talents are relatively rare within the hockey world, which is how he is able to command a large salary.

Fedoruk’s skill set is less rare, making it harder for him to find a job. When you’re an NHL enforcer, there’s usually someone who can do a comparable job for less money.

This summer, we saw three NHL enforcers die, with some speculating the life on an NHL enforcer was too much for the young men to handle.

I’m not sure we’ll ever understand the forces that drove those men to make the choices they made, but I’m sure the pressure of holding onto an enforcing job did weigh on them, to some extent.

Cam Janssen, the Devils’ enforcer trying to win back his old job in training camp, said being an NHL enforcer is a stressful job. He’s probably stressing about winning a roster spot over Eric Boulton.

The NHL and NHLPA are trying to come up with a way to help players.

I truly believe the league and the union are sincere and any mental health services they can provide to players will surely help improve the quality of life in the NHL. But the real issue is that enforcers are simply too common in hockey. They’re so common, the players become almost disposable. Players, like Janssen and Fedoruk, are always fighting for their jobs, and even when they have regular ice time and long-term contracts, they know they can be bought out or sent down to the minors.

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Jets and Crosby Show the Importance of NHL Teams, Not Players

Circa 1990's: Teemu Selanne of the Winnipeg Jets

I was happy to see the good people of Winnipeg are psyched to have an NHL team in their midst again. The new Jets are already rock stars and they’ve yet to play an official minute in the Peg.

Excitement has been one of the main casualties of the NHL’s expansion into non-traditional markets and into markets that can’t really sustain an NHL team.

By forcing square hockey pegs into round market holes, the league sucked the excitement out of the game for fans, many of whom were forced to sit amongst swaths of empty seats and for players, who toiled in an obscurity usually reserved for Mummenschanz performers.

But assuming the excitement shown by the people of Winnipeg will translate into ticket sales, it seems the league is better off having a team in a hockey market, as opposed to a team trying to create a hockey market, as was the case with the Jets previous stop in Atlanta.

NHL teams in traditional markets also means the success of the league hinges less on the successes of its national stars.

Just about everyone attached to hockey is analyzing the Sidney Crosby concussion situation, trying to determine when he’ll come back, if he’ll come back, and if there’s some sort of cover-up going on somewhere. A lot of this is driven by the fact that it’s August and not much is going on, NHL-wise. But a lot of this is also driven by the fact that Crosby is the face of the NHL. For much of North America (especially NBC), Crosby is the NHL.

But in hockey markets outside of Pittsburgh, the Crosby story is more curiosity than anything. Because for fans in true hockey markets, in places like Winnipeg, they’re way more interested in their own players than in Crosby.

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Are the Flyers Getting Nervous About Jaromir Jagr?

During a game against the New York Rangers and Atlanta Thrashers in the Eastern conference quater-finals. Ranger Jaromir Jagr celebrates with #92 Michael Nylander after Jagr's goal.

I was a little surprised to hear the Flyers have invited Michael Nylander to training camp on a tryout.

Signed by the Caps in 2007, he never quite clicked anywhere and found himself playing out his contract in the AHL. While in the AHL, he injured a vertabra in his neck and had what many said could be season-ending surgery.

Capitals owner Ted Leonis would eventually tell Puck Daddy Nylander was “a bad signing.”

So what exactly do the Flyers see in a 39-year-old player who had trouble keeping his NHL job and is coming off of an injury?

The answer, is of course, Jaromir Jagr, who was signed by the Flyers in the off-season. Jagr has spent a lot of time with Nylander as his center and the two have had a lot of success over the years.

But even knowing that, the invitation still raises some questions. Was Nylander invited as a favor to Jagr? Is the invitation more courtesy than serious consideration? Or are the Flyers suddenly having second thoughts about Jagr’s ability to produce in the modern NHL?

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Loose Caps Are A Feature, Not a Bug

Washington Capitals interim head coach Bruce Boudreau talks with left wing Alexander Semin (28) during the 3rd period against the Carolina Hurricanes at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. The Capitals defeated the Hurricanes 5-2.

I was very intrigued by Matt Bradley’s comments about Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau and the tone of his team’s locker room:

I think our locker room was maybe a little bit too nonchalant, and guys weren’t disciplined the way they should have been.

Tarik El-Bashir followed-up on Bradley’s comments and was met with a silence that seemed to agree with the comments.

I’m on record as saying Boudreau’s not a very disciplined (nor nuanced) coaching strategist. But I’m not sure that having a disciplined, tense locker room always translates into better on-ice play.

I understand Bradley’s point about nonchalance and how that could read as indifference. But how many players crumble in the playoffs because of the pressure of being in the playoffs? How many players compromise their game because they’re too worried about how they’re playing?

The fact that players feel loose and comfortable for Boudreau isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

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NHL GMs Go Hollywood and Embrace the Reboot

Spider Man shows himself during the Carolina Hurricanes game versus the Florida Panthers at the BankAtlantic Center, Sunrise, FL.

Here in the United States, we seem to be in a period where we’re enthralled by the idea of a reboot, with reboot defined as the reconceptualization of a previously developed idea.

The Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies were popular but to breathe new life into the character, the franchise is getting rebooted, giving a slightly different take on Spider-Man than seen in the Sam Raimi-directed films of the 2000s.

The same thing happens with TV shows being rebooted on TV and TV shows being rebooted into films. We’ve even figured out how to reboot board games into films, which is the last step before being able to turn lead into gold.

Some might say that reboot is a euphemism for “lazily recycle an old idea.” Whatever your perspective on the idea of the reboot, they seem to be catching on in the NHL.

The Chicago Blackhawks invited goalie Ray Emery to camp, trying to reboot the previously troubled goalie who’s spent a lot of time bouncing from franchise to franchise (even across the Atlantic) into a steadying veteran for young Chicago goalie Corey Crawford.

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Rangers Give Brandon Dubinsky Four Years to Live Up To Potential

New York Rangers left wing Brandon Dubinsky (17) screens Washington Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth (30) during game 3 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals between the Washington Capitals and the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden in New York, NY. The Rangers beat the Capitals, 3-2. The Capitals lead the series 2 games to 1.

The Rangers did a relatively impressive job in holding Brandon Dubinsky to a four-year, $16.8 million, arbitration-avoiding contract.

According to some, the big issue in getting the contract done was money and length of contract. According to others, the issue was just contract length.

If the proceedings had a feeling of deja vu, it’s because back in 2009, Dubinsky held himself out of Rangers training camp while negotiating a new contract. Eight days later, Dubinsky had a nice, new contract.

There were two interesting issues at play for this edition of Get Dubinsky Signed. One was the Rangers’ reluctance to commit to Dubinsky. He’s coming off of the best year of his young career, but it wasn’t an incredibly impressive career year for a guy entering his fifth NHL season. Dubinsky’s 24 goals puts him firmly in the NHL’s top 60 goal-scorers for last season. Plus, consider Dubinsky’s two goals and one assist in the playoffs.

When linemate Ryan Callahan went down in February, Dubinsky stepped up for the Rangers, but went Callahan went down again in April, Dubinsky just wasn’t the same player.

My sense is that this is what concerned the Rangers and why they didn’t want to go any longer than they felt they needed to with Dubinsky. They obviously didn’t want to spend too much on a player who might disappear. But even more pressing than the salary issue, they didn’t want to be locked into a bubble player for too long.

As confident as Rangers’ management is in the Brad Richards signing, they have to know that Richards is a risk, and they must now temper that risk with safer signings.

Dubinsky is not a sure thing.

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Next Devils’ Coach Might Want to Learn He’s Hired

Adam Oates of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks battles Sergei Brylin and Colin White of the Devils during the Ducks 3-2 (ot) victory over the New Jersey Devils in game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals at the Arrowhead Pond in Anheim, CA. Mandatory Credit: John Cordes/TSN/Icon SMI

I’m not quite sure why the Devils have yet to pick a new coach but my gut feeling is that it can’t be a good thing.

After last season’s coaching misfire, with rookie NHL head coach John MacLean destroying the season, followed by former coach Jacques Lemaire returning to his old job, almost managing to bring the Devils back into the playoffs and undo the MacLean damage, one would think GM Lou Lamoriello wants to pin down one of the more important positions in the organization sooner rather than later.

Unrestricted free agent Zach Parise remains unsigned, but I can’t imagine there’s a coach the Devils could hire that would change (for better, or for worse) whatever’s going on with those negotiations.

Given what a challenging situation the Devils are, both in terms of team composition and personalities, I imagine a new coach would want as much notice as possible in terms of starting the gig.

You have the Parise ambiguity, not knowing if your team will have one of its top forwards.

You have the goaltending challenges, with a superstar goalie who might have lost a few steps but has no desire to reduce his workload (and who might be in his last NHL season).

You also have a team that last year had just one 30-goal scorer and just one 20-goal scorer. The next coach of the Devils needs to give Ilya Kovalchuk more production opportunities. Otherwise, what exactly is the point of paying him so much for so long?

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Chemistry Between Gaborik and Richards Isn’t a Given

Brad Richards

The most interesting thing about the Brad Richards signing in New York is the assumption that he’ll click with Marian Gaborik.

The assumption is so prevalent, the only question people seem to be asking is who’ll play left wing on the Richards-Gaborik line.

But I think we need to take a step back. Because just because two players are great doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be great together. Especially with a player like Gaborik, who seems to have some idiosyncrasies. For instance, he’s only shows some chemistry, as a Ranger, with the elderly and unsigned Vinny Prospal, the enigmatic Erik Christensen, and the abrasive Sean Avery.

I’m not sure Richards fits the playing profile of any of those players.

The NHL is littered with teams constantly searching for centers to play with talented wingers. The Calgary Flames have struggled with this. The Columbus Blue Jackets have struggled with this. And, since Michael Nylander left a few seasons back, the Rangers have struggled with this.

A huge part of the challenge of matching a center to a winger, especially a star winger, isn’t the challenge of finding talent. Rather, it’s the challenge of finding talent that also complements a specific talent.

Because Richards is a playmaker, it’s reasonable enough to assume that he’ll defer to Gaborik, constantly trying to get Gaborik going, and shooting when Gaborik or the mystery left winger isn’t well positioned.

But there’s no guarantee Gaborik will be comfortable with Richards. It’s entirely possible the two star players will be more effective on separate lines. The Rangers signed Scott Gomez to center Jaromir Jagr and the two never clicked. Not even a little.

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Sharks and Flyers Fix What’s Not Broken in Search of Cup

19 January 2009: Chicago Blackhawks right wing Martin Havlat (24) and Brent Burns (8) during 3rd period game action the United Center, Chicago, Il

The most interesting part of last week’s roster moves (and this weekend’s) was that two very successful NHL teams were willing to dramatically reinvent themselves, even though the previous season’s versions of the teams were successful.

Both the Philadelphia Flyers and San Jose Sharks, two teams that, had some things gone just a little bit differently, could have played each other for the Stanley Cup, made big moves via trade and free agency, sacrificing rosters that were proven to be effective to take each team in a new direction.

In essence, Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren and San Jose GM Doug Wilson each said that winning doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t result in a Cup. So each GM reworked their winning-yet-Cupless teams.

The Flyers started with a purge of their core, trading away Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. They ended by signing Jaromir Jagr and Max Talbot (maybe…).

The moves represent a change in philosophy for the Flyers. Coach Peter Laviolette will have a lot less speed to work with. Instead, the Flyers are probably going to be a full-time grind-it-out kind of team, not unlike the Cup-winning Bruins. The Flyers will be able to defend in their own end, and control the puck in the offensive zone.

And that’s where Jagr comes in. Jagr hasn’t had much speed in quite a few seasons, but the Flyers are still banking on his shot. With Jagr in the lineup, the team just needs to regularly get him the puck down near the circles, and Jagr will, the Flyers hope, be able to score.

If the new Flyers were an NBA team, they’d now be considered a half court team. They should be challenging to play, but without a lot going on in the neutral zone.

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Purge of Flyers Helps Team Shed Salary and Talent

Philadelphia Flyers forwards Jeff Carter (17) and Mike Richards (18) against the Minnesota Wild at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. The Flyers beat the Wild, 6-1.

The thing that worries me about Philadelphia’s crazy purge of two of their best players, is that I can kind of understand what Flyers’ GM Paul Holmgren was trying to accomplish.

Holmgren wanted to sign goalie Ilya Bryzgalov but the Flyers were capped out. Mike Richards and Jeff Carter both had no-trade clauses that would have started in 2012. They also both had expensive, long-term contracts, Richards for a $5.75 million/year cap hit that went until 2020 and Carter with a $5.2 million/year cap hit that went until 2021.

Those contracts left Holmgren with no options or maneuverability. He couldn’t attract any splashy free agents. He wouldn’t be able to trade for much. And he wouldn’t even be able to sign the goalie he thought the team needed.

Holmgren was trying to give himself the ability to make deals.

What I don’t understand is why he traded one kind of cap drama for another. With Richards and Carter gone, Holmgren immediately signed Bryzgalov to a nine year deal with a cap hit of just under $5.7 million per year. At the end of the contract, Bryzgalov will be 40 years old.

Holmgren might have seen the danger of long-term contracts, recognized the danger, unloaded the danger, and then, in a final act of defiance, entered right back into an equally dangerous situation.

The Flyers still have a lot of cap space to play with, but the question becomes, what are they going to do with it? This year’s unrestricted free agent class doesn’t have any season-changing names (although it seems lots of teams believe Brad Richards to be one).

But ample cap space for free agency might not have been Holmgren’s only goal. I wonder if he was merely trying to keep his options open, hoping to be able to grab a top-line player from another capped out team.

The great risk in this scenario is that Holmgren can’t really know for sure if that player will ever be available. It also means that when the season starts, the Flyers could be down two of their best players.

The tradeoff is that right now, in this moment, the Flyers future cap is manageable, giving Holmgren space to pull off a big deal, should one ever become available.

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