Friday December 4th, 2009

Hockey may be a game of sacrifice on the ice, but that selflessness rarely shows itself at the bargaining table. When the term "hometown discount" is tossed around, it usually means a haircut of a couple hundred thousand, maybe a million (case in point: Sidney Crosby's well-deserved but nonetheless limiting $8.7 million annual hit in Pittsburgh). Everybody smiles, talks about how much the extra cap flexibility means to the team, and a few pennies are pushed from one pile to another.

But Marc Savard, who has earned $5 million a year as Boston's leading scorer over the past three seasons, made a more sizable concession. As a free agent this summer, he would have attracted offers in the $6-$7 million range. But the seven-year, $28.05 million accord announced this week proved him to be the rare player who is truly willing to take one for the team.

Rather than follow ex-linemate Phil Kessel's advice to maximize his take in the open market (and, you know, maybe join him in Toronto), Savard actively campaigned for a deal to stay with the Bruins that actually cut his cap footprint. The pact was heavily front-loaded, paying him $7 million each of the first two years. After that, it's $6.5 million, $5 million, $1.5 million and then just $525,000 over the final two years. In essence, the 32-year-old and the team are betrothed for just the next four years. If his productivity slips before or during the last three seasons of the deal, the Bruins can send him out to pasture with a readily absorbable buyout.

The irony of it is rich. Savard, a guy ripped for much of his career as the epitome of me-first selfishness, proves to be the game's ultimate team player where it matters most these days. Good on him. Now the pressure's on Boston GM Peter Chiarelli to do something important with the cap space to justify Savard's sacrifice.

The most shocking stat of the season? After Thursday night's 6-3 loss to the Leafs, the Blue Jackets have allowed six or more goals in seven of their 28 games this season. Do the math: that's a total defensive meltdown one out of every four games.

Steve Mason's taking a lot of the heat for the red light parade, and he certainly deserves his share. He's been beaten an astonishing 72 times, tied for last in the NHL, as of Friday, with Craig Anderson and Jon Quick. He's not getting from side to side as adroitly, his glove hand seems a click slow, and his five-hole has been more accommodating than that of the legendarily gracious Jon Casey. He ranks at or near the bottom in save percentage and goals-against and has allowed nine goals on 21 shots on the way to an 0-5 mark in the shootout.

Ugly, sure. But the truth is that this isn't all Mason's fault. He's simply wearing down under the barrage of high-quality opportunities that are being created through an endless series of brutal turnovers, missed defensive assignments, and poor positioning by his teammates. And that's not new. Mason dealt with that hostile work environment much of last season, too.

It's not time for panic in Columbus, but collars are tightening. With just three wins in their last 10 games, it's expected that GM Scott Howson will make a move to shore up his beleaguered blueline. Not that he's going to find a game-changer on the market, but Howson has to do something to alter a chemistry that's clearly gone foul.

The right move may be enough to shake the Jackets out of their competitive lethargy, but if it doesn't, it won't be long before the focus has to shift onto Ken Hitchcock. That's not a knock on the man's ability behind a bench. The guy didn't make the Team Canada staff because they needed someone to regale the group with Civil War stories. But there's a growing sense of disconnect between Hitchcock and these players that suggests he might just be the wrong coach for this group.

Hitch has always been a guy who rides his veterans hard and keeps the kids on a short leash, which makes him an awkward fit for the league's youngest team. But it's been the veterans like Fedor Tyutin, Mike Commodore and Kristian Huselius that have been making the worst decisions with the puck, and as Hitchcock keeps throwing them over the boards he's dying with their mistakes.

Unlike the situation in Philadelphia, where cold sticks are being mistaken for faulty coaching, the situation in Columbus is starting to feel like a team that's tuning out its leader. The Jackets hear what Hitchcock is saying about better puck management, but when they keep coughing it up in their end over and over again, it sure doesn't seem like they're listening.

His job may not be on the line yet, but another couple weeks of this inexcusably sloppy play could force Howson to make a difficult choice.

No one's losing sight of what's most important: The likelihood of a full recovery for Jonas Gustavsson after his second cardiac ablation procedure on Friday is extremely high. But one NHL executive, whose team won't be in the market for a goalie this summer, thinks any aspirations the young Toronto stopper might have harbored of striking it rich as a free agent took a hit when he left Tuesday's game against Montreal with a racing heartbeat.

"I'm amazed by how quickly guys recover from injuries these days . . . [but] this isn't a knee or a shoulder. This is his heart," the executive said. "You know he's getting the best care and I read the success rate is high on the second surgeries...but you'd always be wondering [about the potential for a recurrence]. I mean, this is twice in two months and there are no guarantees. You saw what happened to [Rangers' first rounder Alexei] Cherepanov. You just never know.

"Toronto's starting to put some good games together and he may have a great finish and prove me wrong, but I don't think the Leafs will have to outbid too many teams to keep him now."

It happened like it always does when a Canadian national team is announced. The focus goes not to those who got the call, but those who didn't. So when the list of 36 invitees to the country's World Juniors selection camp was revealed on Tuesday, there was lots of talk about the absence of Joe Colborne, Zack Kassian, Tyler Cuma and Jeff Skinner, among others.

That's a stout group to be left at home. But how about the kids that were eligible, but unavailable due to prior commitments? The rest of the field would be playing for silver if the Canadians could have dressed Steven Stamkos (17 goals in the NHL this season), John Tavares (11), Matt Duchene (8) and Josh Bailey (7). That Murderer's Row doesn't even include guys like Evander Kane (8) and Ryan O'Reilly (17 points).

As it is, the home side has a good chance to make it six golds in a row when the tournament gets underway in Regina and Saskatoon on Dec. 26, but the Swedes (led by Florida first-rounder Jacob Markstrom) and Russians (with erstwhile Blue Jacket Nikita Filatov) have teams that are more experienced. Canada's depth always seems to provide just enough of an edge, but it will be tested more than ever this year.

Another interesting angle out of the Team Canada camp involves a decision made by Calgary Hitmen right winger Brandon Kozun. The WHL's leading scorer was born in Los Angeles but moved to Calgary as a youngster and holds dual citizenship as a result. Given the choice between a guaranteed spot on Team USA and a tryout chance with Team Canada, the 2009 Kings' sixth-rounder threw in his lot with the Canucks. It's a risky move for the 19-year-old, generously listed at 5-9, 164. His speed and playmaking ability could earn him a spot, but he'll need a strong camp to seal the deal.

Thursday's trade between the NHL's two worst teams didn't feature a lot of star power, but it still made a lot of sense for both sides. The Leafs picked up Philippe Paradis, an 18-year-old left winger who was Carolina's first-round pick last summer. Paradis, who has eight goals and 19 points in 26 games with Shawinigan this season, is no one's idea of a high-upside prospect. Still, he's an ideal Brian Burke-type player.

Already 6-2, 197, Paradis projects to be a physical third-liner who'll make his presence felt along the boards and will drop the gloves when it's called for. And there's still a chance that his offensive game could develop. He won the hardest shot competition at the 2009 CHL Top Prospects Game with an impressive 95.7 MPH blast.

In Jiri Tlusty, the Hurricanes get a 2006 first-rounder who is further along in the development process -- ideal for a team that might try to reload, rather than rebuild. He's been dynamite at the AHL level (103 points in 105 games), but seems to freeze under the NHL spotlight....or maybe more to the point, under the Toronto spotlight.

The Canes are hoping they've acquired a Brad Boyes-esque talent who simply needs a fresh start in a different system. There's reason to believe that opportunity may be all Tlusty needs. In the nine career games in which he played at least 15 minutes, he has five goals and six points. He'll get that kind of chance on a regular basis in Carolina next year, if not sooner.

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