Friday November 30th, 2007

NHL Board of Governors announces new schedule format

Reaction: Alright, it's something, and for that we should be thankful. But after suffering through three seasons of a failed approach to scheduling, this half-measure solution proves that the BOG wasn't listening all that closely to the fans.

They did get something right by reducing the number of games against divisional opponents -- someone remind me why we bother with divisions when the playoffs are conference-based -- but cutting the wait time between inter-conference visits from three years to two simply is hardly an adequate solution.

And while the need for regular visits has been downplayed by some who think the cry for change was predicated on Western teams wanting to see Sidney Crosby more often, there's more to it than that. It's about variety and the fact that the league can sell the brand names of franchises as well as its stars to ticket buyers who are obviously weary of the bland diet they've been force-fed since the lockout. The palpable excitement in Dallas and Phoenix last week for the first visit in four years by the Maple Leafs is just one example of why the NHL should have gone for the home-and-home inter-conference option offered by the 84-game schedule that was championed in this space last year, and later by the Red Wings -- a team that fans in the East would surely like to see more than once every other year.

So yeah, it was a step. But you can bet that the fight for a better schedule didn't end yesterday in Pebble Beach.

Philly's Scott Hartnell gets two games for hit on Boston's Andrew Alberts

Reaction: Everyone loves Hartnell. The guy's a gamer, the sort of player who any club wants in the lineup because of the accountability he demands from his opponents as well as teammates. But the vicious hit he laid on an utterly defenseless Alberts on Monday night went way beyond merely finishing a check. It was a clear example of crossing the line between tough hockey and reckless endangerment of a fellow athlete.

Based on where Alberts' head was at the time, Hartnell had ample opportunity to raise his arms and avoid driving it into the dasher. That he failed to do so showed an appalling lack of judgment.

But just as inexcusable as the hit was the slap on the wrist suspension issued by Colin Campbell. There's plenty of talk from the league -- and from the players themselves -- about eliminating head shots from the game. Obviously, that's just lip service when a flagrant elbow thrown to the head of a vulnerable player is "punished" so lightly.

The message is clear: keep your heads up, boys. With reprimands like this, and the instigator penalty still in place, it's every man for himself out there.

Panthers and Capitals need 11 shootout rounds to decide contest

Reaction: Memo to self-proclaimed old schoolers: it's time to drop the rhetoric that the shootout is just a gimmick. Some nights, it's the most compelling part of the program. That certainly was the case on Wednesday, when Tomas Vokoun of the Panthers outdueled Washington's Olaf Kolzig to gain a critical extra point for Florida. With seven goals scored on those 22 shots, there was an enthralling mix of creativity and goaltending that left the hometown fans satisfied even in defeat.

Recognizing the entertainment value of this showdown, and the impact these points have on the standings -- the situation in Toronto would not look quite as dire if the Leafs actually won these shootouts on occasion -- only reinforces my belief that the league needs to extend the format from three to five shooters.

Can't imagine that paying customers would have a problem with that concept.

Roberto Luongo records third straight shutout

After a brutal stretch that saw him lose eight of his first 12 starts, Bobby Lu is back and playing once again like Vancouver's MVP. His current streak of nearly 194 goalless minutes is a team record, but more importantly has justified the faith that his teammates had in him during his struggles.

The streak puts the surging Canucks into the Northwest Division lead, and a share of second place in the Western Conference -- this despite an offense that, while improved, doesn't have the depth to support a protracted playoff run.

GM Dave Nonis has to recognize that a window has opened up here that requires him to take a proactive approach. Sacrificing a piece of the future -- defenseman Luc Bourdon appears expendable with the emergence of Alexander Edler -- to add some bite to the forward unit is a must move. There's no hurry, of course, but Nonis can't be the one left looking for a chair when the music stops.

Sabres owner Tom Golisano announces likely severance of relationship with AHL's Rochester Americans

Reaction: Are you kidding? This is like being told that your grandparents are splitting up. After 29 years as the training ground for Buffalo's top prospects, the Amerks are set to be ditched by the Sabres after this season. The breakup comes as a result of conflicts between Golisano and the owners of the Amerks, predicated primarily on the business practices of the minor league team. Word is that legal intervention was required earlier this season to secure monies owed to the Sabres by the Amerks, and that the minor league team is deeply in debt to several other entities, including the city of Rochester for use of the Blue Cross Arena.

Given the value of the long-standing relationship between the two franchises, there has to be much more simmering for it to have come to this point. Expect the dirt to surface in the inevitable court filings over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, the future of the Rochester franchise itself is up in the air. The city is unlikely to allow the use of the arena next season without full payment and a restructured lease arrangement. And while the Amerks have a secondary agreement this season with the Florida Panthers -- an agreement the Panthers are reportedly happy with -- there's no guarantee they'll stay put given the circumstances. The Coyotes and Ducks also will be in the market for a new affiliation next year, but both teams are looking for something a little closer to home, making Rochester a backup plan for them at best. This looks to be one of those situations where you hope for the best, but expect the worst.

Board of Governors approves the sale of Nashville Predators

Reaction: Congratulations to the embattled core of fans in Music City, who've suffered with hockey's version of the Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads for the past year. The approval means the new ownership group takes over, as soon as today. What's that mean, exactly? They've said they'll allow GM David Poile to focus on signing a sizable group of impending free agents -- including David Legwand, Jordin Tootoo, Ryan Suter, Shea Weber and Kevin Klein -- while they stick to selling tickets.

Preds fans can't relax completely, of course. The new owners still have the option to pull up stakes if support isn't forthcoming from the business community, but their local roots should help them make inroads where previous owner Craig Leipold failed.

Now that this one's in the books, keep an eye on the situation that's evolving in Tampa Bay, where a potential new ownership group was kicked to the curb and the current owner appears desperate to divest himself of the club after losing upwards of $75 million.

After watching the Predators shed salary last summer in an effort to make themselves a more appealing target for buyers, the possibility for a similar fire sale in Tampa is a distinct possibility.

Stars win six in a row in wake of firing GM Doug Armstrong

Reaction: Hiring Brett Hull as partial replacement for Doug Armstrong was a demonstration of exceptional genius on the part of owner Tom Hicks, right? Tap the brakes, there. Hull and co-interim-running mate Les Jackson may turn out to be the best thing to happen to a front office since Sam Pollock, but we won't know until they make a more distinct impression on the composition of the team than simply calling up a couple of kids from Iowa.

No, the credit for the turnaround in Big D goes to the goaltending and a suddenly unstoppable power play led by deposed captain Mike Modano.

Prior to Wednesday's loss in New Jersey, both Marty Turco and Mike Smith were delivering the kind of consistency between the pipes that they failed to provide early on. Smith, in particular, has offered the sort of stable-to-spectacular efforts that demand a greater share of playing time. Turco may be the titular No. 1, but you can attach a co-prefix to that job as well, at least for the time being.

Modano's been a force ever since getting the monkey that was the chase for the all-time American scoring record off his back. It's also helped his game that the red-hot duo of Mike Ribeiro and Brenden Morrow are drawing the attention of opposing shutdown units, giving him a bit more room to freewheel. Modano has 10 points in his last 10 games, but just as important, he's playing with a renewed sense of freedom that seems to have affected the entire team.

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