Friday April 10th, 2009

As the curtain comes down on the regular season, here are my choices for the campaign's best, worst and most engaging performances, players, signings, moves and other esoteric categories.

Player who truly deserves the MVP (but won't get it): Chris Mason, Blues

Even the NHL can't make up its mind. The Hart Trophy page on the league's web site says in one spot that the award goes to the player judged to be most valuable to his team. In another spot, it goes to the best player in the league.

The distinction is legitimate. Most voters will give the nod to Alex Ovechkin based on the latter definition, but if you go by the former, it's hard to imagine any player more individually integral to his team's success than Mason.

St. Louis was a floundering, last place squad when he took over as the No. 1 netminder in late January. Since then, the Blues found an identity and clawed their way into a playoff spot with just two games to go. While there's plenty of credit to go around for that success, the calming presence of Mason was the foundation. Without him, the Blues are weighing the merits of Matt Duchene and Magnus Svensson-Paajarvi.

Player who deserves at least one MVP vote: Scott Clemmensen, Devils How soon they forget. When the Devils got together to vote on their MVP last week, they cast their lot with Zach Parise. Nothing wrong with that choice -- he'll probably pick up a few Hart votes as well. But honestly, New Jersey would be rattling around with Florida and Buffalo were it not for Clemmensen's heroic stand-in work after Martin Brodeur went down with a torn triceps. The career minor leaguer/NHL backup responded to the challenge with a 25-13-1 record, 2.39 GAA and .917 save percentage. More important -- he helped the Devils prove to themselves that they were more than just Brodeur's backup band.

Goal of the year (five-on-five): Alexander Ovechkin, Feb. 18, vs. Montreal The math is pretty simple: when you record the most goals in the league, you're going to score a few of the most memorable . . . and none were more remarkable than this one against the Habs.

Cashing in on a broken play, Ovechkin picked up a loose puck in the neutral zone just ahead of Roman Hamrlik. With no time to look for help, he banked it off the boards, spun around the defender and picked it up again in the Montreal zone. He was hauled down by Kyle Chipchura before he could break in alone on Carey Price, but even that wasn't enough, Ovechkin casually flipped the puck over the sprawling netminder while sliding along the ice on the seat of his pants.

Goal of the year (shorthanded): Blake Wheeler, Dec. 21, vs. St. Louis Wheeler earned his spot on Boston's roster with a strong back and some soft hands. Both were on display on this amazing shorthanded marker.

After taking a pass in the neutral zone, he carried the puck alone into St. Louis territory, then slowed up to wait for help. But with a line change underway, Wheeler was on his own against four defenders. Smartly, he drove to the net, took one hit, spun off it, and beat another defender with an outside-in deke to close alone on Manny Legace. His first bid was denied, but he managed to pick up the rebound and bury it to give Boston a 2-0 lead. See it to believe it.

Goal of the year (period): Jordan Eberle, Jan. 3, vs. Russia Sometimes you have to credit substance over style.

The Canadians were trailing the Russians in the dying moments of their semi-fina at the 2009 World Juniors. Just when it looked like the defending champs would go for the fold, the Canadians found a way. With their netminder pulled in the final seconds, they buzzed the Russian net. The puck was nearly cleared by a defender before Ryan Ellis threw himself at the boards to keep it in the zone. It bounced to John Tavares, who fought off two Russians before launching a blind backhand at the net. The bid was blocked by a defender, but Eberle snatched it from underneath him and buried it behind Vadim Zhelobnyuk to tie the game with less than six seconds left. That set the stage for the Canadians to advance in the shootout on the way to their fifth consecutive gold medal.

Best fight (NHL): Daniel Carcillo vs. Derek Dorsett, Nov. 26 You say you prefer your hockey characterized by skill and grace? You might want to skip the next two categories, milquetoast. Fighting was up in the NHL this season -- that's a good thing -- and even though I prefer my tussles to occur more organically, this something-less-than-spontaneous bout was a classic. Try counting all the punches that connect.

Best fight (period): Jon Mirasty vs Jeremy Yablonski, Dec. 19 You don't see the AHL wringing its hands over the presence of fisticuffs in the game. Fortunately, that league understands the marketing appeal of the occasional Pier 6 brawl, and don't mind if teams employ the odd cement head to keep the opposition honest and the seats filled.

Cases in point: Mirasty and Yablonski won't ever have to worry about the tax implications of drawing an NHL paycheck, but they do know how to put on a show. This one's a beauty -- and yeah, I love the mutual pat on the back after the linesmen stepped in.

Proof that the open-ice hip check still exists: Brett Lebda on Cal Clutterbuck, Feb. 12

Check it out. Somewhere, Larry Robinson and Scott Stevens are smiling.

Player most in need of jam with his peanut butter: Martin Skoula, Wild Come on, Marty. Five lousy minors in 79 games? It's one thing to play with discipline (see: Lidstrom, Nicklas). It's another to play with all the physicality of the pre-pubescent Zac Efron. If you're not sure where the action is, ask Nik Backstrom. I'm sure he'd be glad to point out a few of the opposing forwards camped out in front of him who would enjoy a Koho sandwich.

Player who won't retire, but should: Mike Modano It's not so much that he scored just one goal in the wake of his wildly undeserved All-Star Game appearance, nor is it the major deterioration of his physical gifts. It's that Modano is unable to hide his complete disinterest through shifts, periods and, too often, entire games. He simply doesn't have the heart for the battle any more.

Problem is, Modano signed his last deal after the age of 35, which means that his $3.25 million cap hit stays on the books whether he plays or not. The Stars, already dealing with the debacle of a playoff DNQ, can't take the hit of losing the most marketable player in franchise history . . . even if he's a nonfactor on the ice. Though he's talking like hanging them up is a possibility, expect him back for the final year of his deal.

Player who might retire, but shouldn't: Joe Sakic He'll be 40 in July, and his body isn't letting him forget it. Nagging injuries necessitated longer recoveries and cost him all but 15 games this season. But if any player deserved to go out on his own terms, it's Burnaby Joe. As he showed in limited action, he still has something to contribute. His role in 2009-10 would be limited -- Paul Stastny and Wojtek Wolski deserve the top two center spots -- as would his compensation (the Avs have serious cap issues). No matter. He's got something left to prove to himself. Plus, there's always the carrot of a potential Olympic invite.

Best free agent signing: Sean Avery, Rangers After allowing him to seek greener pastures over the summer, then watching as he flamed out in Dallas -- a monumental failure that may end up stripping the co-GM title from Brett Hull -- the Rangers brought The Grate One back home for 50 cents on the dollar. So far, he's been exactly the tonic the sagging Blueshirts and their fans needed. His wheels, tenacity and physicality -- rare sightings in a Stars sweater -- have been evident on Broadway, giving the team both a spark and a presence that forces the opposition to game-plan him and free up space for his teammates. There's always the chance he could have another one of his "special moments." Until then, he makes the Rangers a more dangerous team . . . and that's a good thing.

Worst free agent signing: Wade Redden, Rangers He looks to be a $39 million albatross around the neck of this franchise for the next five seasons. His first year has been characterized by unforced turnovers, soft play in his own end, and a negligible presence in the offensive zone. Now imagine this: his game has been in steady decline for the past three seasons. What's he going to look like next year?

Pardon, je m'excuse: Antoine Vermette, Blue Jackets It was just over five weeks ago that I criticized the Jackets' decision to settle for Vermette at the trade deadline rather than pay the price for a legitimate center.

My bad. Vermette has been anything but a square peg for the team's obvious hole down the middle. In fact, next to Steve Mason's emergence as a reliable No. 1 stopper, the acquisition of Vermette may have been the single biggest factor as Columbus clinched its first ever playoff berth. He's helped spread the offense with his touch and willingness to drive to the net (7-6-13 in 15 games). Just as important, he's been a dominant force in the faceoff circle and has fit in nicely on the penalty kill. Guess my feelings shouldn't be hurt if GM Scott Howson fails to check with me before making his next deal.

Biggest surprise (player): 79 games -- and counting -- from Martin Havlat Okay, so he's gunning for a new deal as a UFA this summer. Is that any reason to be cynical about the timing of his breakthrough campaign? Let's just say it's nice to see the Hawks finally earning a return on their investment in this brittle forward. Havlat has set career-highs in games-played, assists, points, plus/minus and shots, and is just two off his personal best of 31 goals. And he's doing it all from the checking line. Amazing.

Honorable mention to David Krejci, Boston's sophomore center who went from 27 to 72 points (and is plus-37) centering a line that was, at times, the most effective in the league.

Biggest surprise (team): Blues Buried in the Western cellar in February, they entered the final weekend one win away from clinching a playoff spot. This lunch pail gang achieved success by sharing the load in the face of catastrophic injuries, and discovered themselves and their formula on Jan. 19. On the road and trailing the Bruins by two with 90 seconds to go, they tied the game in regulation then won it in OT. Since then, they've found just enough offense to compliment Mason's goaltending, and could head into the postseason as one of the hottest teams of the second half. Not bad for a club many thought would make a killing selling John Tavares jerseys.

Biggest disappointment (team): Canadiens So the Habs finally earned a playoff spot . . . by losing to the Bruins. Seems like a fitting finale to a nightmarish regular season. Instead of the centennial celebrations and building on last season's Eastern championship, this one will be remembered for the impotent power play, the banishment of Alexei Kovalev, the spiritual depantsing of Carey Price, the failings of Guy Carbonneau and humiliating losses to their rivals in Toronto and Boston. A first round exit followed by a major housecleaning operation seems inevitable.

Biggest disappointment (player): Olli Jokinen, Coyotes/Flames The Coyotes needed a true first-line center to spark their lackluster offense and a respected veteran to provide leadership -- plus a bit of cover -- for their stable of young talent. Jokinen's resume suggested he was the perfect fit: a big, strong, reliable scorer. Didn't quite work out that way.

Jokinen popped in the odd goal, but rarely was an offensive force. There were too many nights when he seemed disengaged from the fray, and too many lengthy droughts. Most damningly, there were loud whispers out of the room that he was alienating the team's core young players. Having to dump him after just five months hurt . . . but probably not as much as it did to watch Keith Ballard blossom in Florida.

Coach most likely to be earning severance before the draft: Craig MacTavish He's not entirely to blame -- what coach is? -- but after three straight playoff DNQs, the easiest and most likely move is the termination of MacT. It could be that his defensive schemes are ill-suited for the talent on hand. It could be that he's past his best-by date after eight years behind the Edmonton bench. Either way, it's hard to imagine the Oilers standing pat, his close friendship with president Kevin Lowe notwithstanding.

Player most likely to change a team's fortunes for the better: Jonas Gustavsson With so many teams looking for help in net, the 24-year-old keeper is drawing a lot of attention after leading Farjestads to the Swedish championship. Scouts love his size (6-3, 196) and technical ability. "He's big and covers a lot of net," one Western conference scout told "But he has his own style. He'll need a [goalie] coach with an open mind."

As a free agent, Gustavsson can sign with any team, but reports suggest he's looking for a place where he can play right away. Toronto, Colorado and Philadelphia provide obvious opportunities, but don't rule Dallas out. The Stars need someone reliable to back up Marty Turco next season (and take over his spot in 2010-11), and they also have a sizable contingent of Swedes to help make "the Monster" feel comfortable. The most intriguing angle is the timing. Gustavsson is subject to the rookie cap if he signs this season, but if he waits one more year, he'll be able to line up the bidders against one another. If he signs now, look for his deal to be short term so his big payday isn't too far off.

Best anthems singer: Celena Rae, Dallas Not to be all curmudgeonly, but if it were up to me I'd get rid of the anthems before NHL games. There's nothing quite like hearing the winning country's tune played after an international match, but as a prelude to a pro sporting event, anthems seem completely out of place. And judging by the silent disinterest most fans display, I might not be in the minority on this one.

All that said, I appreciate hearing the songs sung well and with respect, and no one does a better job than this former American Idol finalist. The quality of this clip doesn't adequately capture it, but her bilingual version of O Canada when the Habs were in town to play the Stars was goosebump good.

Best reason to root for the Panthers: Randy Moller's goal calls I'm a sucker for a good bit, and Moller has the best one going right now. His wacky goal calls owe more than a tip of the cap to Mike Lange, but Moller's made the routine his own by embracing that most ubiquitous of all male social activities: tossing out the random TV or movie quote.

Some have an oddly comfortable symmetry to them. ("Pour some sugar on me," "Ma! The meatloaf!") Others are jarringly forced. ("She blinded me with science!" and "Come with me if you want to live!") Doesn't matter. They're entertaining enough to justify a subscription to XM just to hear what he'll come up with next.

Personally, I want to hear him yell, "Mulva!"

Two lessons to be learned from the minor leagues

Former NHL officiating great Randy Shantz, currently serving as an officials' supervisor in the Central Hockey League, recently shared two rules in his circuit that would benefit the NHL:

First, the CHL imposes no limit on the curve of a blade. Obviously, there are pros and cons to going the banana route, but the willingness of some NHL snipers to skirt the current rules hints at a perception of the benefit. Before they do anything drastic like increasing the size of the net, why not try this? Anything that gives scorers a slight edge against today's oversized, over-padded netminders deserves consideration.

Second, the CHL has addressed the pointless posturing (and massive time waste) of those post-whistle scrums. Though it's not yet in the rulebook, the league issued a directive to all officials and coaches. Essentially, they allow one scrum per game. After that, the officials go to the coaches and inform them that the next scrum will result in a penalty to one of the participants. Any player involved can be given a minor at the discretion of the referee, but one team will always end up shorthanded.

"If there are roughing minors to each player, one will get an additional minor," Shantz said. "If there is pushing or shoving, one player only will get a minor penalty. The result in each game I saw was the players tested the limits and when it was called one time, the scrums ended. There was no pushing and shoving that caused the linesmen to spend time and effort separating guys who are shoving each other and yelling at each other just for the show of it."

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