Friday October 12th, 2007

And now, a handful of the love letters, nosegays and sincere scientific inquiries you've recently sent my way:

I can't believe that punk Jesse Boulerice! I love physical hockey as much as the next guy, but there can't be room in the NHL for crap like his cheap shot crosscheck on Ryan Kesler. When is Count Chocula going to step in and make a real example of someone by simply saying enough is enough and throwing the bum out of the league? And while [Gary Bettman] is at it, how about hammering the Flyers organization, too? I don't think it's a coincidence that both Boulerice and Steve Downie acted the way they did. If the Flyers are going to live by the sword, they should die by it, too. -- Ron, Burnaby, BC

The first time I became familiar with Boulerice was in the wake of a gruesome stick-swinging incident that took place when he was a member of the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL. He was banished for the entire 1998-99 season as a result of that attack, but -- perhaps not surprisingly -- he found several avenues open to continue his hockey career the following year.

Since then, Boulerice has continued to ply his rough trade in much the same fashion, regularly stepping over the boundary between honorable hard play and shameful goonery. Still, Wednesday's incident was startling both for its savagery and the utter absence of provocation (which is not to suggest anything would justify that kind of attack, but its senselessness was heightened by the pounding Philadelphia was giving the Canucks on the scoreboard at the time). On a night when the rebuilt Flyers should have been celebrating, Boulerice's brainlock gave them, and the game, another black eye.

Boulerice doesn't bring a lot to the game that the NHL would miss, but throwing him out isn't an option. The NHLPA may be headless, but it isn't exactly operating with training wheels, either. Because he's a recidivist, the kind of player the league wants to eliminate, Boulerice was told he'll be cooling his caboose for 25 games, five more than Downie got. Anything less would have been a shameful abrogation of duty on the part of Commissioner Bettman and Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell. In fact, Boulerice probably deserved 40.

What's the word on these new jerseys? I've been reading that they're causing all kinds of problems, including the sweat pouring out of them directly into the skates and gloves. Considering they're already a fashion disaster, isn't it about time to put these on mothballs and bring back the old-style jerseys? -- Greg Force, somewhere in Iraq

I've spoken to several players who've voiced those exact complaints, Greg. Fashion disaster aside, the jerseys simply aren't delivering on the performance that was aggressively promised in the months leading up to their debut. You're seeing more guys having to swap out gloves in the middle of a period just to keep their hands dry, and waterlogged skates are eliminating any benefit from the jerseys' wind resistance improvements.

Don't expect the old jerseys to make a comeback, however. There's too much tied up in this project, and the league's relationship with Reebok, for this program to be scrapped. The league has asked Reebok to address the problem, and a new iteration of these jerseys is expected to be in use within a couple months.

As a columnist for SI, do you not feel obligated to tell Brian Burke to shut up? Please, for the sake of all of us in Canada, tell the man to zip his lip and forget what a camera looks like for a month or two. -- Jesse Griffith, Calgary

Are you kidding, Jesse? As a media member, I love this guy. Every time he opens his mouth, nuggets of pure gold fall out. Guys who shoot from the lip like Burke make life a whole lot more interesting for the media -- and give fans more to chew on than, say, Boston's Peter Chiarelli, who avoids controversy like the CW shuns quality programming. Right or wrong, the game's a lot more fun when Burke's around.

After reading what you wrote about the Maple Leafs, Allan, I think you can also use the same words to describe Vancouver after their loss to the Flyers. Can you write a column pleading with Dave Nonis to get rid of the remaining "old guard" -- i.e., Naslund, Ohlund, Morrison, etc. so they don't continue to show a ho-hum work ethic to new players on the team? -- Chris Lund, Seattle

The Canucks certainly aren't off to the start they wanted, but I'm not sure they're in need of the same kind of organizational makeover as the Leafs. From the blueline back, Vancouver's as solid as any other team in the league -- ask any Leafs fan if they'd be willing to swap units and see how quickly they'd grab Ohlund and company and head out of town. Still, I can understand your frustration with both the effort expended by the forwards and the inability or unwillingness of Nonis to adequately address an obvious deficiency over the summer. His two "marquee" signings, Byron Ritchie and Brad Isbister, have spent as much time in the press box as on the ice, and the team's only managed one even-strength goal through three games. That's unacceptable.

It's unlikely that Nonis is going to do anything over the short term to address the situation (although he might have an interesting bargaining chip down the road in defenseman Luc Bourdon). So, for the moment anyway, it's up to Alain Vigneault to prove he deserved that Adams Award thanks more to his coaching acumen than the superlative goaltending of Roberto Luongo. That means extracting the maximum effort out of the talent he has, especially five-on-five. Anything less and this group will find it tough to make the playoffs.

Any update on the Peter Forsberg situation? Do you still consider the Avs the frontrunners if he decides to return? -- Carol Auf, Ontario

Not a peep out of his camp, Carol. At this point, you have to think he's monitoring his options as much as he is his health and his enthusiasm to return. If the Avs are his preference, he may be looking at the writing on the boards. With Joe Sakic and Paul Stastny in place, the center spot is spoken for, and while Forsberg has played left wing in the past, the Avs are set there, too, with Ryan Smyth and Jaroslav Hlinka. Barring injury, he may not fit into their plans this season. If his heart is set on Colorado, he might decide to call it a night. Of course, it's all speculation at this point, but until Forsberg breaks his silence, that's all we have to work with.

Who's impressed you in the early going? Any surprises? -- Corey Gnipp, New Bethlehem

After watching him bumble through last season, I think the play of Martin Gerber has been a pleasant surprise in Ottawa. He's created an interesting situation in the nets when starter Ray Emery returns. The success of the troika of Mike Comrie, Bill Guerin and Ruslan Fedotenko was unexpected. Not sure they can keep it up, though. Not one of the three is known for consistency. Corey Perry's numbers aren't huge (3 goals, 2 assists), but he seems to have taken his game up a notch. Same with Antoine Vermette in Ottawa.

And I can't miss a chance to pump up Niklas Hagman. Not that the reliable two-way play of the Dallas winger comes as a surprise -- the guy is one of the league's underappreciated treasures -- but his team-leading four goals is a bit of a shocker.

I've always liked Florida defenseman Mike Van Ryn. He's one of those quietly effective players that every winning team seems to have. I've been hearing that he's on the outs with the Panthers, and they may be looking to move him. Any chance he could end up in Phoenix? -- Glenn, Scottsdale, Arizona

Van Ryn's clearly in the doghouse of coach/GM Jacques Martin, but I'm not sure he's played his way onto the trade market just yet. Martin benched the veteran for Florida's second game as more of a wake-up call than anything. He was brutal in their opening night loss to the Rangers, with one particularly boneheaded pass up the middle in the defensive zone leading directly to Ryan Callahan's goal. The decision appears to have caught his attention. Van Ryn was better in his next two games, including Thursday night's 3-0 win over the Devils, and is expected to regain his footing in Florida's top four.

That said, it's true that Van Ryn is not as effective as he was in the past. Problems with his wrists (he had offseason surgery on both) have limited his comfort with the puck, and there are reports that his fitness level is an issue. Still, he can be a valuable player for the Panthers, soaking up more than 20 minutes a night, so it's hard to imagine that he can't work his way past this rough patch.

If the Panthers decide to move a defenseman -- not out of the realm of possibility given the presence of Noah Welch -- the player on the outs would more likely be Ruslan Salei. He wouldn't bring the same return as Van Ryn, but his edgy, physical play would likely interest a few teams. And honestly, Martin would probably be relieved not to have to deal with his propensity for untimely penalties.

I am wondering about you rating the Caps to finish last. I would be interested to hear why you came to that conclusion. -- Bill, Woodbridge, Virginia

That pick doesn't have me in the money right now, does it? That win over the Isles, where the Caps were outshot 32-12, notwithstanding, Washington has been playing above their paper in the early going.

As I wrote in my Eastern Conference preview, I don't think there's going to be much separating those on the inside and those on the outs once you get past the top five or six teams. Still, I think there are three clubs with deficiencies significant enough that they'll finish back-of-the-pack: Boston, Montreal and Washington. In the case of the Caps, I think defense will be their undoing. While it's been up to the task early, any group that's led by Tom Poti and is counting on 19 minutes per from Mike Green and John Erskine is clearly overextended.

Ultimately, someone has to finish last, and I picked the Caps. We'll see if I'm right come April, won't we?

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