Friday November 7th, 2008

Well, it's time once again to open the good old NHL mailbag and respond to some of your more thought-provoking missives.

I'd like your thoughts on a barroom discussion we were having the other day: Who is the most over- and underpaid player in the league? If you run this in your column, I'd like to say hello to the guys back at the plant. -- Rick Fuller, stuck at your neighborhood Applebee's

Since it's hard to qualify anyone who makes more than half a million clams as underpaid, how about we tackle this based on who provides the best (or worst) value for the money?

There are dozens of players who should have trouble hiding their shame when it comes time to cash their checks, but in terms of impact, I'd rank Chris Drury and Mathieu Schneider as the worst values. Drury is a great leader who provides a strong defensive presence. He'll even bang in one here and there -- and yes, I realize he potted a hat trick against Tampa Bay on Thursday night -- but he doesn't create enough chances, and he's failed to find lasting chemistry with anyone since joining the Rangers. When you're clearing a touch over $7 million, you need to make a consistent offensive impact to justify the cap hit.

Schneider, who's taking home nearly $6 million, has been brutal in Atlanta. His league-worst minus-11 rating is a pretty accurate reflection of his poor decision- making both with and without the puck. At 39, he's finally looking his age.

It's nearly as tough to narrow down the best values from a pretty sizable field, but I'll put my money on Mike Komisarek and Brandon Dubinsky. For $1.7 million, the Canadiens have a top pairing defender in Komisarek, who leads league in blocks, is seventh in hits and is a solid presence in his own zone. The Rangers almost compensate for the Drury deal with Dubinsky, the $633,000 center who is tied for the team scoring lead despite getting just 15 minutes of ice per night.

Fun debate topic, with plenty of good arguments to be made. Might be fuel for a future column, eh?

I don't have a degree in math, but I'm perfectly capable of putting two and two together. When I saw that the Stars had signed Sean Avery, I knew they were going to regret it. Looks like it's happening sooner than I thought. Is that guy a cancer, or what? -- Lee Zigulski, Manitoba

I wouldn't be so sure about those math skills of yours, Lee. It's obvious the Stars are in tatters right now, but it's unfair to suggest that Avery is responsible for their early struggles.

From what I can see, and I live near Dallas, it's unfair to call him a cancer, but it's pretty clear that's he's not the typical team-first guy. It's not unusual to see him hanging out alone in the hallways pre-game, listening to his iPod or watching an out-of-town game on TV rather than talking strategy with his mates. But chemistry isn't the issue with Dallas. Talent and experience are.

Remember: No. 1 defenseman Sergei Zubov and first line winger Jere Lehtinen have been sidelined all season. Their ability to power an attack or calm the seas when things aren't going well is invaluable. Both were scheduled to return for Friday night's game (Nov. 7), but will need a couple of weeks to get back into top form. They've also had to rely too heavily on too many rookies and sophomores, especially on the blueline, and Marty Turco's been brutal.

Meanwhile, Avery's been playing fairly well. He still needs some time to adjust to the system, but the effort's definitely there in all three zones. And hey, outside of the debacle in Boston (video of the festivities here), he's done a good job of being Sean Avery. You know, the guy who's the best in the league at getting under the skin of the opposition and knocking key players off their game.

The one obvious issue is that instead of enhancing the game of Steve Ott, Avery has made his fellow agitator redundant. It wouldn't surprise me to see the Stars ship Ott out of town and leave the shift disturbing to Avery.

I'm guessing with the way Tim Thomas is playing in Boston, maybe Peter Chiarelli will dangle Manny Fernandez in front of Lou Lamoriello? What does New Jersey have that the Bruins could use? The B's have a major logjam of middling talent up front and seem to be solid on the blue line. -- John F. McKenzie, Charlotte, NC

Fernandez to the Devils? If Lamoriello was a closet Bruins fan, maybe. Otherwise, what's the upside for Jersey? Fernandez hasn't done much to prove he's the same goalie he was in Minnesota, and his injury history isn't particularly reassuring. At this point, there's not much evidence to suggest he's a better option for the Devils than Kevin Weekes. And that $4.33 million salary makes Manny almost unmovable. If Chiarelli ever manages to divest himself of Fernandez, I'd hate to be a fan of the team he goes to. They'd have to be in some seriously dire straits.

Can you tell me how on earth Boston goalie Tim Thomas was left off the All-Star ballot? Did Gary Bettman enlist some of his old buddies from the NBA to make the choices? -- Bill S., Plymouth, MA

I'm all for taking gratuitous shots at the commish -- fight the power, right? -- but blame the hockey operations department, not The Count, for this one.

Despite the fact that 103 names were placed on the ballot -- basically one of every seven players in the league -- there's always someone obvious who gets overlooked. Last year it was Sergei Gonchar. This time around, Thomas is the most glaring oversight.

It's not like he should have snuck up on anyone, either. After appearing as an injury replacement in last year's All-Star Game, and getting off to a hot start this year (his .944 save percentage and 1.85 GAA rank him alongside Ryan Miller as the league's statistically dominant goaltenders), Thomas should have been a no-brainer. Problem is, the balloting requires that every team have at least two representatives, so that meant Vesa Toskala, Kari Lehtonen and Tomas Vokoun were given charity nods at the position. No explaining how Martin Biron made the list, though.

While that's the explanation, it's still no excuse. The NHL blew it, but it's best not to get too worked up over the snub. The fan balloting simply elects the starters, and it was highly unlikely that Thomas would have outpolled Miller, Henrik Lundqvist or Martin Brodeur (if he hadn't been injured). If Thomas keeps playing this way, he has a good shot at being named to the team when the roster is filled out prior to the event.

What do you think of the job Terry Murray's doing in Los Angeles? Seems to me he's making many of the same mistakes that got Marc Crawford fired. He's juggling the lines, playing Jason LaBarbera too much. These look like the same old Kings to me. -- Peggy R., Inland Empire

After so many years in the dumps, I get why you're anxious for an early sign of better times, but you have to cut Murray a little slack. He's learning about the abilities and chemistry of a new group of players while dealing with injuries (Jack Johnson) and holdouts (Patrick O'Sullivan). He's worked in five rookies, including a pair -- Drew Doughty and Oscar Moller -- in significant roles.

Yeah, LaBarbera continues to struggle in the No. 1 job, but it's not Murray's fault that he's the best option. GM Dean Lombardi could make Murray's job a whole lot easier by upgrading at the position, but that's not likely to happen this season. No reason to, unless someone's feeling charitable. This isn't a playoff team, and with Jonathan Bernier waiting in the wings, it wouldn't make sense to bring in a vet unless they were on a short-term deal.

The next few weeks should give us a better indication of what Murray's about. He came in giving everyone a clean slate, and everyone deserved a few weeks to show what they have to offer. Now you should start to see what Murray has got in mind. Erik Ersberg has looked good in his three starts and he'll likely get more chances to spell LaBarbera and display more of his potential. Moller's looking smart and comfortable on the second line. The defensive scheme is more cohesive than anything seen in LA in years. The penalty kill is ranked sixth (although there's a lot of work to do on the 29th-ranked power play).

Tough to ask you to continue to be patient, but that's what it's going to take this season. If nothing else, Murray's scheme should have you believing that better times lie ahead.

I know it's early, but it looks to me like the Panthers are headed for another playoff DNQ this spring. Jacques Martin is threatening changes, but his only real bargaining chip is Jay Bouwmeester. What's the buzz on a J-Bo deal? Who might be interested? --- Owen Sanders, Florida

The style has changed under new coach Pete DeBoer, but the results are the same for the frustrating Panthers. They lost five straight, all while facing their opponent's backup goalie. The offense is anemic -- think they miss Olli Jokinen? -- and the special teams are in utter shambles. Injuries have cost them Stephen Weiss, Bryan Allen and Bryan McCabe for extended stretches. And now this: Bouwmeester's value is dropping by the minute.

Sorry, Cats fans. If you were thinking that a Bouwmeester trade would provide both instant and long-term relief for your suffering, you're going to be disappointed.

"There are 29 teams that would love to have Bouwmeester, but his name is more valuable than his game right now" one pro scout told "He's a world-class skater and his physical play is improving and he's obviously a workhorse. But I think we've all seen the flaws, too. His passing is nowhere near where it was expected to be. He doesn't always make the best read and he gets nothing on his shot. He's been great in his own zone, but the offensive game isn't there. He's not the player we all thought he'd be. I don't think anyone's going to give away the farm for him."

Take that to mean there'll be no Marian Hossa-type package waiting when the Panthers eventually pull the trigger on the impending free agent. In fact, they might not be looking at much more than what the Senators got for lesser defender Andrej Meszaros. While the Panthers need forwards in return, the same type of package -- a serviceable second pairing guy (Filip Kuba), a decent prospect (Alexandre Picard) and a first-rounder -- is a decent point of comparison. Keep in mind that Meszaros was an RFA, making him easier to sign and thus more valuable. Any team acquiring J-Bo has to consider the possibility of losing him at the end of the season, and that will lessen the return.

Who might be looking? There's no actual buzz, but it's easy to do the math. The Flyers obviously need blueline help. So do the Senators, Penguins and Bruins. The Wild would love to move Marian Gaborik. The Avs could use some punch on D. Honestly, look out that window. Like the scout said, most teams would love to have Bouwmeester. But cap concerns this year, and talk of his long-term contract demands ($7 million per) mean there'll be a lot of tire-kickers but few with the ability to put the key in the ignition and drive Bouwmeester off the lot.

Fair to say that if the Panthers continue to struggle, we'll be hearing a lot more about him.

What's the story with Kyle Wellwood? He's not good enough to play for the Leafs and all of sudden he's a scoring machine in Vancouver. What happened? And is this just a hot streak or can he keep up this pace? -- Rachel Rogers, Tulsa, OK

Sometimes a change of location is all a player needs to find himself. . .that, and a bit of a break from the hockey gods.

Wellwood got the change when the Canucks signed him as a free agent over the summer, but for a while there it looked like his Vancouver career was going to be over before it started. When the team needed to clear roster space for a returning defenseman, Wellwood was chosen for assignment after the season opener. GM Mike Gillis gambled that no one would bite on a player dogged with a reputation for being slow and out of shape, and he was right. And lucky. When Pavol Demitra was sidelined with a rib injury, Wellwood got the call and responded with a team-leading six goals in his next seven games.

Wellwood has said that he feels motivated by the last-chance nature of this opportunity. He's earning his keep with one of the nicest sets of hands in the league and a high panic point that allows him that extra millisecond to consider his options before making a play. Just as important, he's become the team's best option on faceoffs, and he's been reliable in his own zone.

Can he keep it up? Absolutely. He's not playing with the Sedins at even strength, so he'll continue to face secondary checkers. He's also improved his conditioning, and while he'll never be mistaken for a gym rat, he just looks more like a pro athlete now than he ever did in Toronto. Odds are the success he's having will lead him to stick with the program.

I'd bet on him popping in something like 50 points. That'd be a pretty decent return for a guy who was picked up on waivers.

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