Friday November 27th, 2009

The thoughts that drifted through my head as the tryptophan kicked in:

Was it the heavy hand of Darryl Sutter guiding Miikka Kiprusoff when the Calgary stopper announced that he would either start for Team Finland at the Vancouver Olympics or stay home? Seems like a reasonable assumption. After all, no team's fate is more intricately entwined with the success of one player than that of the Flames, and adding the Olympic burden to his already onerous NHL workload seems likely to negatively impact Kiprusoff's play down the stretch.

There's also been criticism of Kipper's apparent sense of entitlement, and it suggests that he should be left at home if he thinks he's bigger than the team.

Fair enough, but I think both of those views miss the point. Here's the more likely reality that Team Finland has to face: Kiprusoff is just not that into you.

There's a perception that the Olympics are more important to foreign-born players, and it's been by declarations like Alexander Ovechkin's pledge to ditch the Capitals for the 2014 Sochi Olympics if the NHL doesn't participate. But Kiprusoff doesn't seem to be wired that way. Sure, he's worn his country's colors before, manning the pipes once at the World Juniors, twice at the World Championships, and once at the World Cup. But keep in mind that this is a player who bailed on both the 2002 and '06 Olympics and the '08 World Championships. Honestly, was there any reason ever to expect that he would be part of the equation in 2010?

So maybe you can question the integrity of his avoidance techniques -- a sketchy injury claim in 2006 that resulted in zero NHL games missed, and now this petulant-sounding ultimatum -- but by stating his position early, he's actually done Jari Kurri a solid. The toughest decision facing the Finnish Olympic GM just became that much easier.

Even if Kiprusoff prefers to watch the Games on TV, Team Finland won't exactly struggle to fill the position. Minnesota's Niklas Backstrom is being heralded as the favorite to assume the job, but the bet here is that Antero Niittymaki has earned the first crack at it. The Lightning stopper is off to a sensational start, leading the NHL with his .932 save percentage, but his track record gives him the edge. Niittymaki was the main man when the Kipper-less Finland won Olympic silver in 2006, posting a 5-1 record with a 1.34 GAA, .951 save pct. and three shutouts en route to being named the tournament's top goaltender. And in the unlikely event that the Finns need some insurance, the third spot should come down to a battle between Nashville's Pekka Rinne and Boston's Tuukka Rask.

Kiprusoff will have to deal with the fallout from his declaration, but the Finns won't. Whatever his reasons, he won't be missed.

This space has fired more than a few well-deserved broadsides at Don Waddell in the past, so it's only fair to give the Atlanta GM his due for making what's shaping up as the most lopsided deal of the summer. It was Waddell, after all, who accommodated Brian Burke's desire for a crankier blueline and some salary cap relief by sending original Thrasher Garnet Exelby and forward Colin Stuart to Toronto in exchange for Pavel Kubina and Tim Stapleton.

How's it working out so far? The gritty, if sparsely-talented Exelby has played in just 12 of the Maple Leafs' first 23 games, and with only one fight and a -6 rating to his credit, he's likely to become a near permanent resident of the Foster Hewitt Gondola at the Air Canada Centre when Mike Komisarek returns to the lineup next week. Stuart, a spare part in the deal, was sent to the Flames without ever playing a game for the Buds.

And Kubina? The fleece is evident in the numbers. He's eating up more than 22 minutes a night as part of Atlanta's second pairing and playing a significant role on both special teams. He's on pace for 40 points, is tied for the team lead with a +11 rating and willing to sacrifice the body (a team-best 38 blocks).

All the pieces are coming together for the 32-year-old veteran because Waddell recognized that he was the right fit for this organization. As surely as they needed someone with his 6-4, 250 frame to keep the sight lines clear for Ondrej Pavelec and Johan Hedberg, they also needed a veteran with the talent and presence of mind to know when to step up and join the attack. Kubina knows how to make John Anderson's system work. And as critical as he's become on the ice, he plays a key role in the room, counseling young blueliners Zach Bogosian and Toby Enstrom, and keeping the group loose with one of the game's top wits.

The trick now for Waddell is selling Kubina on a pay cut because, for all he's done for the team, Atlanta can't afford to maintain his current $5 million rate when he becomes eligible for free agency this summer. The Thrashers won't spend to the cap (Waddell has said their limit is $47 million) and he has a couple of core players to address first in Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavelec, plus another of his impressive summer acquisitions: the surprising Maxim Afinogenov. That won't leave any more than perhaps $3.5 million for the defender.

Will Kubina accept a sizable pay cut to stay in an ideal situation? Tough to say at this point, but this much is clear: He's played a key role in making the Thrashers a competitive squad in 2009-10, and that's the element that's likely to keep Kovalchuk in the fold. For that reason alone, the deal that brought him to Atlanta is a winner.

Nice to see that Paul Kelly has landed a gig that will allow him to remain an influential voice in the sport. Too bad it's one that'll make his old job look easier than being a Kardashian.

The Hockey Commissioners Association announced on Tuesday that the deposed NHLPA executive director had been hired to helm College Hockey Inc., the newly-minted marketing arm of NCAA Division I men's hockey. His task? Selling the benefits of the college game to top prospects from both the United States and Canada.

It didn't take long before the challenge that Kelly will face became obvious.

Just one day after the Kelly announcement, Jack Campbell, arguably the top goalie prospect for this summer's draft, informed the University of Michigan that he was withdrawing his verbal commitment to attend the school next fall. The U.S. National Development Program goalie foreswore instant BMOC status to instead play for the OHL's Windsor Spitfires in 2010-11.

That's a major defection from the NCAA path...and hardly an isolated case. The defending Memorial Cup champs have become a particularly irresistible alternative for college-bound players since being taken over by Warren Rychel and Bob Boughner in 2006. Take a look at the current roster. Cam Fowler, a lock to be one of the top three draft picks this summer, reneged on a commitment to Notre Dame and joined the Spits. Toronto Maple Leafs second-rounder Kenny Ryan bolted Boston College just last month. They could be joined next season by fellow NDP alum Austin Czarnik, who already has withdrawn his commitment to Michigan State, and by Stephen Johns, who is said to be wavering on his promise to Notre Dame.

And it's not just the deep-pocketed organizations like the Spitfires, London Knights and Kitchener Rangers that are wooing top American talent. The Medicine Hat Tigers won over Emerson Etem, the Long Beach, CA, wunderkind currently leading the WHL in rookie scoring. The Everett Silvertips were so intent on luring defender Seth Jones -- the Denver-born, Dallas-raised son of former NBA cult hero Popeye Jones -- that they used a first-round pick in last summer's bantam draft to secure the 14-year-old's rights. He'll make his decision at the end of next season.

The lure of the CHL for these kids is obvious: NHL-style programs that promise more games, more practice time, more exposure to scouts and the opportunity to focus their full attention on their development. And if playing hockey doesn't pan out? They can fall back on full-ride college scholarships provided by the team whenever they're ready.

It's not a knock on the NCAA to say that's a tough hand to beat. The college game worked out just fine for Ryan Miller, Dany Heatley and Erik Johnson, among others, and it will continue to win its share of kids who grow up immersed in the culture or whose parents prize education first (or fear the NHL-style violence of the CHL). College teams will even steal a few from the juniors along the way -- Harvard snagging Montreal first rounder Louis Leblanc, for example -- and they'll continue to crank out a few stars here and there.

But the Kelly hiring finally recognizes the frustrating reality that the NCAA is losing ground in the battle for the country's top talent. Considering the inexplicable arrogance that the NCAA has long held about what it offers a prospect, acknowledging the problem is itself a significant and positive step for the development of the game in the States.

First Liz Lemon, then Weezer, and now this. The Dallas Stars are offering a $99 holiday ticket package that includes a pair to three games along with what's sure to be the gift most likely to end up in next summer's garage sale: a Stars logo Snuggie. Surely this is the death knell of irony...

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