Tuesday September 22nd, 2009

As training camps grind on toward opening night next week, it's time to grab the old mailbag and address some of your questions and concerns.

I'm reading all these stories about Phil Kessel being the bad guy for wanting out of Boston, but not a word about Claude Julien deserving a share of the blame. Doesn't the coach have a responsibility to accommodate the needs of his players, especially his stars? Seems to me if he'd done a better job, Kessel would still be in Boston. -- Debbie R., Needham, MA

A better job? You mean, the guy who won the Jack Adams Award as the coach of the year? The guy who led the Bruins to the best record in the East and the team's most successful regular season since the Orr years? The guy who put Kessel into situations that allowed him to break out for 36 goals? Short of strapping on the skates and personally breaking Carolina's forecheck with crisp, two-zone passes, I'm not sure how much more could be asked of Julien last season.

While Julien took the high road in the aftermath of the trade by saying, "there were no issues with him resisting," there's a well-informed belief that the two men had different ideas regarding the effort required to negotiate the path to success. The coach expected two-way discipline on the ice and a strong work ethic off it. Kessel's approach was somewhat more intuitive and less strenuous.

Here's the thing, though: only one of their opinions mattered, and it wasn't Kessel's. Hockey's a team game that requires strict adherence to systems implemented by the coach. Stick to the plan, life is good. Pull in your own direction? There are going to be problems.

"He was no different than any other player that you deal with at times," Julien said after the trade was announced. "You never have smooth relationships because there are challenges along the way. What you need to do as a coach is to convince those guys and make them understand and believe that this is what you need to do to be the best team possible. This is what you need to be the best player possible as well."

Kessel's statistical improvement suggests that Julien knew which buttons to push. Despite his success, Kessel bristled against that approach, something that speaks volumes about his maturity level. So here's a gentle reminder to the young man as he hops the fence: the grass is not always greener on the other side. And if he thinks Ron Wilson is going to sing him a lullaby every night until he falls asleep on a pillow stuffed with a cool 5.4 million fluffy singles, well, pleasant dreams, Phil.

Theo Fleury: Doe he have a real chance to make the Calgary Flames or just an interesting side note to training camp? -- Ross Black, Aurora, Ont.

The Sutter boys aren't making this an easy read, Ross. Even after seven cuts on Tuesday (9/22), the Flames had 20 forwards on their roster, although that number should be whittled down after Wednesday's game against Edmonton to give us a better idea of where Fleury stands. Still, his play to this point has elevated his profile as the fall's most compelling bubble player.

Not that Fleury's return to action has been seamless. Despite the flashy shootout-winner he scored against the Islanders last Thursday, one observer relayed to me that Fleury, "looked like someone's dad joining the team for a skate."

Fleury was considerably better on Sunday night against the Panthers, burying a breakaway chance, setting up the winner, showing a bit more speed and, best of all, getting in the face of Florida winger Adam Keefe after burying him with a hit.

After another solid effort Monday in Vancouver, Fleury was keeping himself in the mix. That created an interesting problem for the Flames, who already have 14 forwards signed to one-way contracts -- not including Fleury, who is on hand on a tryout basis. If he makes the cut, at least one player needs to be dealt, or an NHL-sized salary must be buried in the minors. If he doesn't earn a spot with the Flames, Fleury has said that he'd be willing to sign a two-way deal and go to Abbotsford of the AHL. To do that though, he'd have to pass through waivers. It's likely he'd go unclaimed -- feel-good story or not, he's still a 41-year-old carrying significant personal baggage after six years away from the league -- but if the Flames let him dangle, there might be someone out there who is willing to take a chance on an affordable vet with some zazz and a little magic left in the stick.

Whatever happens, Fleury's the story I check on first every morning. Love him or hate him, it's impossible not to root for his successful return.

You've been pretty vocal about the need to suspend players for cheap shots in the past, so I was waiting for your thoughts on the Dion Phaneuf head shot on Kyle Okposo the other night. That kind of play doesn't belong in hockey, especially in the preseason, and more attention needs to be called to it to ensure that it doesn't happen again. -- Ken, Brooklyn, NY

Sorry, Ken, but after looking at the replay a couple dozen times, I came to the same conclusion as the league: the result might have been ugly, but the hit was within the rules of the game...or more accurately, the lack of supplementary discipline was consistent with the way that this type of incident has been interpreted of late.

Was Okposo blasted in the head? Doesn't matter. Phaneuf's feet were on the ice and his elbows were down when he made contact with the young forward. Since Phaneuf followed the rules of engagement, the league sees this as a valuable lesson on the importance of keeping one's head up in open ice. You might make an argument that Okposo's balance was compromised when he was nudged seconds earlier by Nigel Dawes, but the Islander was still cutting through the middle with the puck. That makes him a fair target in the eyes of the league...and for all the talk about wanting to eliminate head shots, as long as it doesn't involve a flagrant foul (like a leap or an elbow), that's where it ends.

As far as the timing element goes, I don't think anyone benefits from easing up in preseason. Not the rookies who are trying to earn jobs or the coaches who are trying to assess them. Not the veteran players who are trying to get their timing down. And certainly not the fans who are forced to pay regular season prices to watch patchwork lineups.

Allan, what do you think is going on with Detroit's backup goalie spot? I really don't think Jimmy Howard can replace what Ty Conklin gave them last year. Do you see Thomas McCollum, Daniel Larsson, or even Dan Cloutier getting the No. 2 spot ahead of Howard? -- Josh, Nashville, TN

If Detroit fans lack confidence in Howard -- and it seems there are plenty who share your concern -- I'd suggest that their fears are inspired by his sparse NHL resume rather than a clear understanding of any gaping holes that might exist in his game. Howard has suffered through his bouts with inconsistency as a pro, but honestly, after four years in Grand Rapids it's time to see what he's got at the next level.

Before you join the scores of panicky Wings supporters who are already patrolling street corners wearing sandwich boards stenciled with "The End is Near," remember this: Ken Holland obviously thinks Howard has something. The GM has proven to be a fairly astute judge of talent, so he probably deserves the benefit of the doubt, no?

That said, there are no guarantees the job is Howard's for the season. Mike Babcock has made it clear that his expectations are high, and he's counting on the youngster to win 25 games. If he's not up to the challenge, the Wings might be forced to explore their options by Christmas. But don't expect any of the other goalies in camp to be the answer.

McCollum and Larsson are slated to split time in Grand Rapids. Both could do spot duty, but neither is ready for a full-time employment behind Chris Osgood. There's a chance Cloutier could land a two-way deal if the Wings can find an AHL team with an opening for him, but it's more likely that he heads over to Europe after the Wings break camp. Any reinforcements, if necessary, are likely to come from outside the organization.

Now that the Predators have signed Francois Bouillon, do you think they trade one of their veteran defenseman for the forward they need? -- Kate Santiago, Nashville, TN

The Preds may yet make a deal for that elusive sniper, but I don't think the Bouillon signing signals anything so much as the fact that GM David Poile didn't feel comfortable dressing three rookies on the blueline. Nashville has an enviable wealth of prospects at the position, but just three proven NHLers: Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Dan Hamhuis, along with sophomore Kevin Klein. Bouillon provides some veteran depth, leaving Teemu Laakso, Alexander Sulzer, Jonathan Blum, Nolan Yonkman and Cody Franson to battle it out for the sixth and seventh spots. Bet on Laakso and Sulzer seizing the jobs.

Fantasy hockey season is upon us and I'm planning to carry one rookie on my roster. I've narrowed the field to the Preds' Colin Wilson or the Flyers' James van Riemsdyk. Which do you prefer, and is there anyone else I should entertain over these two? I won't get John Tavares due to draft position and I can't take Victor Hedman because my defense slots are full. -- Rob Brown

Tough call as of this morning. Out of your two choices, the best bet is Wilson. Though the Preds are notorious for demanding that players pay their dues in Milwaukee, his size, talent and ability to fill an obvious hole make him a better bet to break camp as the team's third-line center. That doesn't suggest he'll be your fantasy gamebreaker, but he'll be in the lineup. It's a trickier call with van Riemsdyk, even though camp reports suggest he's performed like a top nine forward to this point. JVR has more offensive upside, but I think he's still ticketed for a full season in the AHL, with the occasional call-up. That situation could change over the next week, though, so you might want to check back before your draft.

The safest rookie bet (outside of Tavares and Vancouver's Cody Hodgson) might be Columbus' Nikita Filatov. The defensive demands of coach Ken Hitchcock make it all but inevitable he'll spend a few nights over the course of the year in the press box polishing up on his responsibilities, but with Fredrik Modin out for a month and Jason Chimera banged up over the weekend, Filatov will get top-six minutes to start the season...and that could make him a fantasy steal.

The Penguins lost their two defensive specialists in the offseason (Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill). Will the team's firepower be enough to offset these losses? -- Aaron Martin, Pittsburgh

Scuderi and Gill were reliable soldiers, particularly in the playoffs, but we're not talking Serge Savard and Larry Robinson here. They can be replaced. Sergei Gonchar is healthy, so count on him eating up a lot of the minutes the departed duo were forced to assume last year. Ray Shero brought in Jay McKee over the summer and he'll provide a stalwart defensive presence, blocking shots and laying out the body. Add in Alex Goligoski, whose feet were dampened with a bit of experience last season, and the Pens should be relatively sound on the back end for the duration of the regular season. Wouldn't be a surprise though to see Shero go fishing for another Scuderi come the trade deadline.

I was shocked to see the Kings cut Oscar Moller. I thought he looked very promising as a rookie last season. What happened there? Was he overhyped last year? -- Brenda Crochet, California

That Moller was cut wasn't so much a surprise as was the timing. It was thought that he needed more time to develop his game and the process wouldn't be well served if he were playing a depth role in Los Angeles. But to be sent down before 2009 draft picks Brayden Schenn and Kyle Clifford? That should point out to Moller just how much work he has to do in Manchester. Part of that will be maturing physically -- the kid is still too small to handle the pounding in the NHL -- but it's also about growing more comfortable in the pro game. In the AHL, he'll be able to play top-six minutes and improve his confidence and skill set. He'll probably earn a recall or two over the course of the season with an eye on returning to LA full-time in 2010-11.

A year ago, Kyle Turris was being promoted as the next Great One. Today, he's been cut from the Coyotes and sent to the AHL. Is he considered a bust already? -- Nancy Ritchie, Phoenix, AZ

Turris, who clearly was rushed to the NHL last season by a team that needed a box-office draw, is another player whose development will benefit from the lesser demands of the AHL. He simply wasn't good enough to surpass Matthew Lombardi, Peter Mueller and Martin Hanzal on the depth chart, so playing 20 minutes in San Antonio makes more sense than eight minutes wherever the Coyotes call home this season. The tangled ownership situation in Phoenix probably came into play as well. In San Antonio, Turris and fellow 2008 first-rounder Viktor Tikhonov (also cut this week) can focus on hockey and the challenges of simply growing up rather than spend their days dealing with the effects of court battles, negative media attention and the depressing reality of playing in front of only friends and family at Jobing.com Arena.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.