Wednesday December 9th, 2009

Watching the Game of The Season on television Saturday night -- that playoff-quality Chicago overtime win over Pittsburgh -- On the Fly felt twinges of nostalgia for the good old days of, say, 2004.

That was before Twitter and the salary cap made our lives more complicated.

Naturally wonderful things have occurred in the NHL in the interim. The rule changes that came out of the Shanahan Summit during the lockout freed a constipated game, and two seemingly once-in-a-generation players, Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby -- entered the NHL at the same time. But the salary cap, which was designed to control labor costs and save drunken sailors like the New York Rangers from their worst instincts, has been a pox on the game (if not necessarily on the owners).

See, we're watching the Hawks and Penguins on WGN and RDS and thinking that in a perfect world, this fabulous game might be a Stanley Cup preview not merely for next June, but plausibly for several years to come. Sadly, the system is stacked against extended runs. Pittsburgh's general manager, Ray Shero, has tight-roped the salary cap as well as anyone, but had to let go of his shutdown defense pair that was so instrumental in the final against Detroit -- the estimable Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill. They walked as free agents because they had grown too expensive.

And really, the Stanley Cup champions occupy Nirvana compared to the strapped Blackhawks. GM Stan Bowman deserves hearty congratulations for signing cornerstone players Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to long-term -- and in the case of Keith, really long-term -- deals that kick in next season. That's the good news. The bad news is that next summer Bowman will be obliged to jettison bodies overboard at a rate that would have shocked even the participants at the Boston Tea Party.

The Blackhawks finally have a nice thing going, but there is a real chance they could by one-and-done as Cup material. They certainly are contenders for 2010, if their goaltending holds up, but the youth, depth and talent on the team suggest that Chicago might have had the chance to put together an extended run of excellence that could pay off in multiple Cups. But the realities are that even with the salary cap expected to actually nudge up a tick -- a team has told On the Fly that GMs have been apprised that the cap likely won't drop because a strong Canadian dollar has camouflaged a weak economy -- Bowman will have to give up some valuable pieces, possibly players such as Patrick Sharp and Kris Versteeg.

In any event, Bowman can't gorge on half the menu even if Rocky Wirtz's bank account might permit it, just as Shero can't dip into the revenue streams that a new arena in Pittsburgh will provide beginning next year. No Larry Bird Exception in this league.

The best and yes, often the freest-spending, franchises are being sacrificed on the altar of cap parity. Looking at boom times in the NHL, this notion of equality is not all it's cracked up to be. Since the late 1950s, the NHL has been at its best when there has been an identifiable king of the hill that has forced other teams to find a way to knock it off. Starting with the 1956-60 Canadiens, the NHL has been blessed with circus teams, including Montreal of the late 1970s, the New York Islanders of the early 1980s, the thrilling Edmonton Oilers that supplanted them, and finally the Penguins of the early 1990s. Money has broken up dynastic teams before -- think of Peter Pocklington having to sell/trade Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles in 1988 -- but these always were due to circumstances, not a system.

Bowman was given the Blackhawks job last summer, in part, because former GM Dale Tallon mishandled the salary cap, especially with his profligacy concerning goalies. (Chicago was simultaneously paying Cristobal Huet and the since-departed Nikolai Khabibulin salaries commensurate with a top-five netminder. Tallon also wildly overpaid for free agent defenseman Brian Campbell.)

But Tallon also made some slick acquisitions, especially Sharp, and oversaw terrific high picks in Kane and Toews. Top five draft picks generally are the reward for fecklessness, and the once-horrid Blackhawks duly cashed in. Now they will be punished for having spent too much money on free agents (Marian Hossa, Huet, Campbell) and acquired or developed too many talented young players who need to be compensated.

The Detroit Red Wings, the NHL's most successful franchise of the past 15 years, felt the clammy hand of the salary cap when they couldn't make the numbers work and allowed Hossa to walk to rival Chicago last summer. Now the Blackhawks, all in for 2010 as the poker players say, will have to do without key players in the future because of the same issue. The age of building a franchise and keeping a team together over the long haul is history.

Call us old-fashioned, but we thought the game was better when each team had its own salary cap: it was called a budget.

Philly's Achilles heel

After a soporific 3-1 loss in Montreal on Monday, a game in which the Flyers outshot the Canadiens, 15-13, glum Philadelphia defenseman Chris Pronger observed, "It's a good think they didn't charge fans by the shot." The 28 shots were the fewest in a game involving the Canadiens, a team that (as it reminds us) has been around 100 years.

Anyway, while the focus on the foundering Flyers has centered on the coaching change from John Stevens to Peter Laviolette, in Philadelphia it is always a wise policy to follow the goaltending.

After a promising start following his return from exile in Russia's KHL, Ray Emery posted a 5.36 goals against average and .814 save percentage in five games before going down with an abdominal tear that will sideline him for six weeks. He ceded his place to Brian Boucher in Montreal, but Boucher was beaten three times: once when Andrei Kostitsyn was left alone in the slot, another when defenseman Braydon Coburn misplayed a two-on-one and Maxim Lapierre fed Mike Cammalleri, and finally when the goalie lost his angle on Marc-André Bergeron's dipping point shot on a third-period power play.

Boucher and the Flyers were somewhat steadier the next night at home in a 6-2 win against the Islanders, a team that has been a reliable patsy in recent years (12 straight losses to Philadelphia), but goaltending remains on the watch list until Emery returns and regains his form.

Numbers game

On the subject of numbers, consider these: 105 and 6.

First, 105: the most goals allowed in the league. Carolina and Columbus share the dubious distinction of worst defensive team. When a Ken Hitchcock-coached team consistently gives up a passel of goals, the Blue Jackets are off the rails.

Now, 6: Despite the glut of retired jerseys in Montreal -- the Canadiens added Butch Bouchard's No. 3 and Elmer Lach's No. 16 (already retired for Henri Richard) last Friday -- the team has overlooked this one. Toe Blake, the other member of the Punch Line with Lach and Maurice Richard, made it to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a player before he became a coaching legend. His No. 6 sweater deserves to hang from the Bell Centre rafters. And with No. 5 already retired for Bernie Geoffrion, Montreal should say what the heck and raise a banner for a Big Three defenseman who also wore that number: Guy Lapointe.

Stamkos stumbles

Among the players invited to the Canadian Olympic orientation camp last August, a handful -- including Dallas' Brad Richards and Ottawa's Mike Fisher -- have played well enough to have their names tossed into the mix. The most prominent non-camper, however, has been Steven Stamkos, who has an eye-catching 17 goals but didn't help his chances with an erratic performance last Friday in a 3-2 loss in New Jersey.

With Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman and aides Ken Holland, Kevin Lowe and Doug Armstrong watching from the press box, coach Mike Babcock in the stands and assistant coach Jacques Lemaire behind the opposing bench, the Tampa Bay center had a forgettable night. He lost the puck at the blue line with a high risk/high reward play late on a power play and took a dreadful penalty during a rash of them by the Lightning in the third period.

The Team Canada executives are fully aware of Stamkos' startling speed and heavy shot, but they expect to see more of reliability and acumen when he doesn't have the puck. The 19-year-old doesn't look ready to dislodge a top six forward that figures to be on the roster, which means he seems to be competing for the 13th forward slot.

Stamkos did set up Steve Downie for a late tap-in power-play goal on a clever fake shot/pass in the dying minutes, but Yzerman and his troupe had left the Newark arena moments earlier.

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