Friday March 7th, 2008

One of the great perks of this gig is that you're never lonely. The merry mailman visits every day with satchels of love letters and thoughtful inquiries from readers such as yourself. So let me share the wealth and warmth while I address your pressing stretch drive concerns:

I always thought the SI curse was limited to the cover of the magazine itself, but I guess it also applies to the columnists. Ever since you wrote that the Bruins were a lock for the playoffs, they've become the NHL's answer to the Washington Generals. Any chance you could talk up the Yankees in your next column? Love to see a little more failure come their way. -- Mark Yoder, Boston

Just the cover? Oh no, the curse is pervasive and all encompassing. How to apply it is one of the first things they explain at our orientation seminar. Clearly I was paying attention.

That said, I'm not sure I can take all the blame for Boston's alarming skid. Coming on the heels of a six-game winning streak -- their longest in four years -- the wheels have come flying off the Bruins Express and you can place the blame squarely on the team's veterans. Tim Thomas, who's been brilliant all year, looks like he's overthinking instead of reacting on every scoring opportunity. Smart players like Glen Murray, Marco Sturm and Zdeno Chara are taking dumb penalties at the most inopportune times and not working hard enough in the offensive zone to create quality chances. The PK is a shambles, giving up four scores (and almost a fifth) on seven chances on Thursday night against the Leafs. And the concerted and consistent defensive effort that has been the hallmark of their success all season has disappeared.

The glad tidings are that none of these things are a sign of The End Times. The Bruins have overachieved all season because they've bought into coach Claude Julien's demanding program. Because Julien relies on discipline above all else, it's easy to understand how a team can lose focus over an 82-game schedule, especially in the wake of such a successful stretch. All it takes is one or two guys to let up and lose it, and the rest just fall like dopey dominos. But they've adhered to the plan before. They can do it again.

The bad news? The Bruins are in the midst of a brutal run that sees them playing 10 games in the first 16 days of March. That means little practice time for Julien to make the necessary adjustments. This schneid will demand more from him in terms of in-game management, something he's been criticized for in the past.

With apologies to those who believe in the SI curse, I still hold that this team has what it takes. But the vets, guys like Chara and Marc Savard and P.J. Axelsson whose willingess to buy into Julien's system made it work so well, have to prove their investment. Without them guiding the way, well, let's just say that the Celtics won't have to work about scheduling conflicts at the TD Banknorth Garden this spring.

And the Yankees? They're a stone cold lock for 121 wins and a sweep of the Series. How's that for a whammy?

I know it's odd, but as a Leafs fan it's making me insane to see them winning all of a sudden. I'm not just bugged that they weren't doing this all season. It's more like why now, when all they're doing is screwing up their draft position? This team doesn't need to scramble into eighth place and then get crushed in the first round. It needs to start the rebuild with a top prospect, but that's looking less likely by the day. Great. More mediocrity to come... -- Dayne Chow, Mississauga, Ontario

I'll never forget what may have been the worst beating I ever took as a cub reporter. Being much more brash than bright, I thought it was perfectly reasonable to ask a veteran on a team that was swirling down the drain whether their late-season swoon was actually a blessing in disguise, seeing as how it would guarantee them a shot at a very highly regarded prospect.

"You know what? [Screw] him," the vet said. "I'm sick of hearing about him. He could be the second coming of Wayne Gretzky, but by the time he gets here I'll probably be gone. So, no. I don't care about the lottery or what pick we get. I'm here to win, tonight and every night, and so is every other guy in this room. Next stupid question."

Clearly, he didn't find my thought to be as clever as I thought it was. But I did learn a universal truth from that dressing down: the thing about pros, as opposed to fans, is that not one of them cares about next year. All that matters is winning now.

So I'm guessing the better part of Leafs Nation is experiencing the same inner turmoil as you while they watch the team discover its inner Red Wings on this late-season run. Toronto's chances of landing a blue-chipper around whom long-term success can be built are dimming with each win. Barring some miraculous and bold work in the offseason by temp GM Cliff Fletcher, the core of this team is what you'll see in place next fall. So yeah, you're likely to get more of the same. But hey, if the Leafs do make the playoffs, you can take solace in knowing that Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment will pocket millions of dollars from each home date, win or lose. And that's a reason to be cheerful, right?

The Coyotes have taken a huge step towards respectability with their play in the second half, and I think next year the playoffs are a real possibility. What do you see them doing to make that happen? -- Sharon Thornhill, Dogtown

Although there's only a slight chance they'll go after an impact free agent scorer like Marian Hossa to shore up the top six -- I wonder if the chance to play with his brother Marcel will be an enticement -- it's more likely that they'll stay the course. This team is building toward long-term success, and the core they have in place looks strong enough to contend for a spot next season, especially with the benefit of Ilya Bryzgalov in the nets for a full year.

One of the keys will be to re-sign impending UFA Radim Vrbata. The 26-year-old right winger leads the team with 27 goals, already a career best, and he'll be a hot commodity this summer. GM Don Maloney has plenty of cap wiggle room, so he should be able to keep Vrbata at home. The team will also be looking to entice at least two collegians to leave school early. Given the rapid maturation of rookies Peter Mueller and Martin Hanzal, they'll be hoping for similar results from Kyle Turris (chosen third overall last summer), Blake Wheeler (fifth overall, 2004) and Michigan grad Kevin Porter (a 2004 fourth-rounder).

Bottom line: I think the 'Yotes need at least one more year of building from within.

The thing that bothers me the most about the Lightning isn't just this season, but the fact that they've drafted so poorly over the years that the system is almost devoid of real prospects. Now that Mike Smith is in the lineup, do you think they can get something for the system by dealing Marc Denis, or maybe Riku Helenius? -- K. Baggett, St. Petersburg

I'm not sure the Bolts could coax another squad to part with a used bus or pair of tickets to a hot Las Vegas show in exchange for Denis. He's currently in minor league exile and hasn't exactly dazzled with Norfolk, where he ranks 41st in GAA, and 39th in save percentage. His problem there is the same as it was in the NHL -- lack of consistency. He's a world-beater one night, then the dog's breakfast the next three. He lets in one and it gets into his head. Hard to believe that Denis has delivered so little on the promise he had as a junior.

Denis the menace is on the books for nearly $3 million next season, so expect the Bolts to buy him out this summer. But even if he offered himself at the league minimum, it's hard to imagine another club having any interest.

Helenius, the team's first-rounder in 2005, holds considerably more promise, but this isn't a bull market for unproven netminders. He's worth more to Tampa Bay developing in their system.

You're right, though, about the overall state of the team's prospects. It's abysmal. Tampa's talent pool is widely regarded as one of the league's least promising. There are some intriguing options, though. I like Dana Tyrell, a small but gritty center in the mold of Daymond Langkow, and Vladimir Mihalek, a massive 6-8, 225-pound defender who is currently playing 20 minutes a game for Norfolk. It would be a surprise if he didn't get a look-see in Tampa before this season is out.

As grim as it all sounds, things still could turn around for the Bolts. If Smith ratchets up his play, the Lightning will be a much improved team next season without having to rely on any reinforcements from within.

Guess it's time to start fitting Steve Stamkos for a Kings jersey. With Dan Cloutier back in the lineup, it's pretty obvious that they're gunning hard for the first overall pick. I had such high hopes for this season. Now it looks like the future is still years away. So much for Dean Lombardi being a genius! -- Marc Goldman, So Cal

Don't write Lombardi off just yet. It's funny how things work out some times. Just two weeks after dealing backup J-S Aubin to the Ducks, the pauper Kings lost Jason LaBarbera for the season after the starter suffered a sports hernia (a term that always makes me wonder if there's such a thing as a gardening hernia, the bane of suburban housewives).

That's a bad break for those who were left to fill out the sweaters and kill off the rest of what has been a bleak, disheartening season in sunny LA, because Cloutier may well be the least qualified goaltender to earn an NHL paycheck.

Still, things may not be as dismal as they appear. Playing Cloutier certainly makes sense for a team that is trying to sew up last place. He's the Kings' best chance to grab the first pick in this summer's draft. But they will also use the time to try out some players who have a chance to contribute next season, including Swedish stopper Erik Ersberg.

Ersberg, who turns 26 on March 8, was signed as a free agent by Lombardi after proving himself as the best goalie in Swedish Elitserien last season. The opportunity that opened up after the LaBarbera injury and Aubin trade gives him a chance to insert himself into the mix for next season along with Jonathan Bernier. Considering that insufficient goaltending has been the biggest issue in LA outside of the writers' strike, the chance to mix in a new contender for the job should be looked upon as a positive.

Although it's only one game, Ersberg certainly looked like a potential option on with his 40-save shutout of the Senators on Thursday night in his first start on home ice -- and third overall. You expect agility and reflexes from a small goalie, but it was his rebound control that gave him the edge against Ottawa. That performance should earn him the start against Montreal on Saturday. We'll have to see how he does against a team that's firing on all cylinders.

After watching yet another goal scored in the wake of a player busting a composite stick and essentially leaving his team shorthanded, I wonder how much longer teams will continue to fund this madness. Teams do pay for all their sticks, right? So why don't they simply tell the players that the benefits aren't worth the risk, and that they're going back to wood? -- Call Me The Woodsman

I'm sure there are several clubs out there that would love to do just that, and not just to avoid those situations where a shattered shaft forces a player into playing defense like a spider monkey. Using wood sticks would save a fortune because they're cheaper and their durability means a drastic reduction in shipping expenses -- no small consideration there.

But there's no chance that'll happen. The vast majority of players feel more comfortable with the modern composite, and no team is going to make a decision that would tamper with that good feeling. And think beyond the current roster: no team wants to make itself a less appealing destination for free agents by taking a step like that.

So until the manufacturers come up with a stick that combines lightness with enhanced durability, equipment-induced "power plays" will continue to be a frustrating feature of the game.

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