Friday April 24th, 2009

With the first round winding down, it's time to dig into the mountain of missives that have filled my mailbag. And now, what's on your mind:

So the real Sean Avery finally showed up in Game 4 against the Caps. This is the guy I've been terrified of ever since we re-signed him. What happens now? Does Torts sit him to send a strong message, or just keep him on a short leash? -- Candace Stoker

The Rangers recognized before bringing Avery back into the fold that he could, on occasion, plant both feet firmly on the wrong side of the fine line he skates. Case in point: that pair of "what-was-he-thinking?" stick fouls that put New York on its heels and could have cost them their 2-1 lead. The penalty-killers saved his bacon, but John Tortorella's patience appears to be at a breaking point.

"If we keep flirting with discipline problems, we'll lose, and not just one game," the coach said in his postgame press conference. "Momentum changes. We've been flirting with that all series long. You cannot keep going to the well like that with the lack of discipline we have shown at times and expect to continue to compete in the series."

Tortorella recognizes Avery's value. He was quick to praise the winger during the regular season, stressing how valuable his speed was to New York's forechecking game. But he hasn't seen that same level of effectiveness in a series where the forward seems to be paying more attention to the little devil sitting on his shoulder than the angel.

With a chance to put the Capitals down, I'd tell Avery to slip into one of those fine designer suits instead of the Rangers' road whites for Game 5. Not that I claim any insight into Tortorella's thought process, but I'm guessing that's what he'll do, too.

Ho-hum. Another must-win playoff game for the Sharks and where's Joe Thornton? The Floppy One is on ice for three goals-against on Thursday night and is noticeable more for his floating than anything productive he accomplished. San Jose will never win anything with him in the lineup. It's just that simple. -- R. Nicotero, Bay Area

Have to agree that Thornton's Game 4 performance was uninspired. Ah, why be nice? An empty sweater would have been an upgrade over a player who spent his night gliding effortlessly around ice while putting up a well-earned minus-3 rating. Thornton wasn't even a passenger in that one. More like a stowaway.

Truth is, his apparent lack of drive is putting him in a position that's getting tougher and tougher to defend. The guy just doesn't seem to want it badly enough.

I remember a feature that Hockey Night In Canada ran on Thornton this season in which Todd McLellan spoke of how the big center's half-board game was too easy to defend, and that he needed to work for space in front of the net in order to succeed. Jumbo Joe then said all the right things -- that a switch had flipped on, that he knew he had to work harder in the middle rather than stay in his comfort zone along the wall -- but his actions suggest he either forgot the lesson or just doesn't feel like doing the work.

It would be nice if not-so-Jumbo Joe could take a page out of Marc Savard's book. There's a guy who was written off as a player who only thought two things: "pass" and "how many points do I have?" A switch really did flip in his brain, and Savard's game has benefited as a result. He works hard in all three zones. He goes to the net fearlessly and he's not afraid to mix in a shot occasionally with an eye toward buying space for his passing game.

We all know Thornton has that within him. Honestly, it wouldn't surprise me at all to see him dig deep and come up with a couple of dominant performances to get the Sharks back in this series. But that odds are he won't.

It's getting to the point where we might just have to accept that Thornton is what he is: a guy who just can't match the intensity and drive of players like Ryan Getzlaf and Chris Pronger. The sad thing for the Sharks is that it appears his desultory approach is more infectious than the gung-ho attitudes of Jeremy Roenick, Travis Moen and others. Thornton's lack of drive, as much as anything, is why the Sharks are on the verge of another early exit.

Is there any way Joe Thornton could be convinced to seek out American citizenship in time for the Olympics? Maybe get his passport pulled? At this point, anything that keeps him off Team Canada would be a service to this country. -- Chris Flemming, Ontario

I'm guessing that Thornton's passport is safe. Even if he did change his citizenship, he'd be ineligible to play for Team USA because he's represented Canada in an IIHF event. So he'll remain Steve Yzerman's problem to deal with.

On talent alone, Thornton merits lengthy consideration. It's hard to overlook the fact that he's averaged better than 100 points over the past four seasons or that his vision and hockey sense are off the charts. At the same time, you have to believe the Canadian brain trust is carefully monitoring what's shaping up to be yet another low intensity playoff performance and wondering if there are better options out there. Both Marc Savard and Jonathan Toews have shown the ability to step up their game and play with the kind of grit and intensity the Olympics will require.

At this point, either player would be a better option. Of course, that's at this point. All three will be invited to the summer camp, and roster decisions won't be made until December. Plenty of time for Thornton to see a wizard about a heart.

There was plenty made of the deadline deals Pittsburgh made for Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz, but Anaheim's pick-up of Ryan Whitney was pretty much ignored. How do you think that deal's looking now? -- Shelley Graham, Lebanon, PA

Going by the early returns, let's call this swap a win-win. In fact, I might have to give the edge to the Ducks. So far, Whitney's turning out to be one of the best acquisitions of the deadline. He was brought in to stabilize Anaheim's blueline over the long term (he has four years left on his deal at a very reasonable $4 million per). The surprise has been how large a part he's played in the team's surprising run since the trade.

What really caught my eye is his ability to adjust to the role he's been given with the Ducks. In Pittsburgh, his skating and puck-handling abilities put him in a position to lead the rush out of the zone. In Anaheim, he's paired with Chris Pronger. That not only means a greater defensive responsibility (he's consistently up against the opposition's top line), it requires him to be the fail-safe on the play. He seems comfortable and it hasn't put a lid on his offensive contributions, either.

Don't underrate the impact of James Wisniewski, either. The veteran presence that both players bring to the table has allowed the Ducks to lighten the workloads of rookies Brett Festerling and Brandon Mikkelson. That's helped the group regain the confidence that made it an elite unit back in 2006.

The injury bug is starting to bite several teams. Which team do you think will be most adversely affected? -- Ricky Renteria, Portland

Matt Hunwick may not be a familiar name, but I think his absence will be deeply felt by the Bruins before this postseason is over. Boston has some depth on the blueline -- that Steve Montador move at the deadline is looking better by the day -- but Hunwick's minutes won't be easy to replace. Since earning a regular role on the club, the rookie had become a fixture on the first power play unit and was eating steady minutes alongside Dennis Wideman on the second defensive pairing. Hunwick is out until sometime next season after having his spleen removed last week.

So, the real Chris Osgood finally showed up [Thursday night]. Does anyone still believe the Wings can go deep with goaltending like that? -- Dale Shields, Toronto

I've been as critical as anybody of Osgood and Detroit's casual approach to defense this season, but I'm not sure why anyone would choose now to take a swing at the guy. Sure, he gave up five goals to a team that won't be confused with the 1971-72 Bruins, but he was on the road playing against a desperate squad fighting for its playoff life. More importantly, he gave up one goal less than the guy at the other end of the rink. That means Osgood gets the W and the Wings skate off with a four-game sweep of the Blue Jackets -- in which they gave up just seven total goals. That's fairly salty.

Osgood is still viewed as the weakest link in Detroit's chain, but until he loses a series this spring, he deserves a little slack.

The NHL needs to reprimand linesman Steve Miller after making that atrocious too many men on the ice call against the Blue Jackets. How a linesman could be allowed to dictate the result of the game after the referees wisely decided to let the players play is beyond excuse. -- Irate in Columbus

I understand the disappointment, but you're focusing your anger on the wrong guy. You need to point the finger at Jake Voracek for gliding to the bench after a 70-second shift that should have lasted half that duration, and Fredrik Modin for touching the loose puck before Voracek got to the bench. Miller made the right call.

And let's be honest, it's not like that call flipped the series upside down. The Jackets had scored just two goals in the previous three games and simply weren't good enough to beat the Wings. One way or another, the result would have been the same.

I've been reading that John Tavares is sliding down in the estimation of many teams and that he might drop all the way to third. As an Avs fan, that's outstanding news -- we desperately need someone long-term to replace Joe Sakic. What are the odds of this happening? Should I go out and buy a burgundy and blue Tavares jersey now to avoid the rush? -- An Avs fan in Manitoba

Unless you're the sort of guy who'd wear an Atlanta Thrashers Steve Stamkos sweater, I'd advise you to save your cash. Barring a bold (and costly) trade, the Avs aren't getting Tavares.

The chatter you're reading about is understandable, especially when a player's been the presumptive top pick for as long as Tavares. Scouts start picking at his game, focusing on the flaws instead of the positives that won them over in the first place. It hasn't helped that Tavares was decidedly average in the just-concluded series that saw his London Knights ousted by the Windsor Spitfires. Blame some of that on a bum shoulder, and give some credit to an outstanding Spitfires team, but that's the sort of performance that makes some scouts say "Uh-oh."

Of course, those scouts all are employed by teams that are picking lower in the draft and would be thrilled if Tavares dropped to them.

There's no doubt that some teams rank Swedish defender Victor Hedman first overall. There may even be one or two who prefer Matt Duchene's potential. The big center definitely has quicker feet and a jump to his game that makes him look more active than a lurker like Tavares. Still, the Islanders need a home run with this pick, and Tavares gives them a player who can jump in immediately and provide them with some marketing muscle. He's not dropping to three.

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