It's been a while since I addressed your concerns, and judging by the contents of my mailbag, there's a lot on your mind especially after the trade deadline and Olympic break. So let's dig in...
I think you overlooked Nashville in your list of trade deadline winners. I'm biased obviously, but I was very pleased by the way the day went. I think we're going to surprise a lot of people in the playoffs. -- Ryanne O'Flannigan, Tennessee
I don't know about the Preds surprising anyone. They've earned their due as one of the league's best-coached, hardest-working teams, but I'd agree that they belong on the list of deadline day winners. First, they were buyers not sellers, and that's a boost for both the room and the fanbase. Neither of the players they picked up, Denis Grebeshkov and Dustin Boyd, are likely to make a significant impact, but that's not the point. Both are legitimate NHLers who address depth concerns.
Grebeshkov should bring some bang to the power play and eliminate the need to shuttle young defenders in and out of Milwaukee. Boyd is a player who'll bolster the penalty kill and add some grit on the depth lines. He has decent wheels, some offensive touch and, most important, upside. I spoke with two scouts after the deal was made and they believe Boyd never received the chance he deserved in Calgary. If things work out in Nashville, he could develop into a second-line player...and wouldn't that be a nice pickup for a fourth- rounder?
But as is the case so often on deadline day, the best deal was the one the Predators didn't make. By keeping potential UFA Dan Hamhuis, they are in a better position to make a postseason impact. Can they get the solid veteran defender signed this summer? That's a problem for another day. For now, they can concentrate on nabbing a playoff spot with a much deeper roster than they dressed before the break.
What's with all the no-name guys trading places at the deadline? Just seems like most of the deals involve players nobody's ever heard of or will hear from again. Is the point to prove to your fans that you're doing something or am I missing the true genius at work?-- Rick Martinez, Birmingham, MI
Well, it's true that the most deadline activity involves the exchange of, um, unproven quantities, but it's not so much bluff as it is a case of treasure-hunting or filling deeper organizational needs. Sometimes, it's like the neighborhood garage sale. You walk around and scope out the junk until something catches your eye. You think, "Hey, this might look good if I clean it up and stick it in a corner of my place." Maybe it works out that way, but odds are it'll end up looking just as crummy in your house as it did at the sale. Still, hope springs eternal that you'll scrounge something really useful at a bargain price. And that's where scouts come in. Maybe there's a player they've loved for years who is languishing in someone else's system. The scouts sell their GM on picking him up cheaply and taking a chance.
Then there are the deals that are made with stocking a minor league club in mind, or maybe a team is motivated to move a draftee they're having trouble signing. A lot of these players will never be heard from again, at least not on a national level, but its like panning for gold. You sort through a lot of mud on the off-chance that you'll uncover something of value.
Every time I watched Norway play in the Olympics, this Mats Zuccarello Aasen kid caught my eye. He's just one of those players that the puck seems to follow around the ice. Hard to believe he's a free agent with that talent. Is there any chance someone gives him a shot next season? -- Keven Bernhard, Saskatchewan
It's not a lack of talent that led scouts to pass on MZA at the past five drafts. The 22-year-old right wing is listed at 5-7, 161 pounds, and that may be a generous estimation of his stature. Is that a deal-breaker? Not necessarily. But for every Brian Gionta and Theo Fleury who has made an impact in this league, there are 20 Steve Kariyas. The odds aren't good.
Still, MZA made an impression in Vancouver. There's no questioning his hands. The kid is dynamite with the puck, and if he's trying to build on the buzz, the four goals and nine points he's posted in three games since returning from the Olympics should do the trick. He also has a lot of compete in him. He doesn't shy from contact and is willing to battle along the boards. He has decent puck protection skills and that long stick of his always seems to be in the right place. I compared him to NBA oddity Spud Webb in an earlier piece and I think that's still valid. MZA might be that exception who can overcome significant physical deficiencies and find a way to make a place for himself in the NHL.
There are sure to be a few offensively-challenged teams whose desperation will encourage them to be open to an offbeat solution. Boston and Toronto come to mind as clubs with openings in their top six that might take a chance. Here's hoping MZA gets one. He's the sort of player fans can get behind no matter what team they cheer for.
A couple more names to watch coming out of the Olympics: Patrick Thoresen and Roman Wick. Thoresen is looking for something more than a cup of coffee during his second bid for NHL employment. Wick, a former draft pick of the Senators, will hope to get his first real chance. Both should be in NHL training camps next season. No word yet on whose camps those will be.
I absolutely believe that Maxim Lapierre should be suspended for his dirty hit on Scotty Nichol [Thursday night]. Do you agree? Lapierre hit him from behind, five feet from the boards, sending Nichol in head-first. Scotty is lucky he's not paralyzed and Lapierre is lucky Nichol only had one arm functioning or Nichol would have been all over him.-- Chris Issel, Foster City, CA
No doubt it was a cheap shot delivered by a player who's building a reputation for borderline hit 'n' runs. Suspendable, though? I don't know. On the one hand, Lapierre's doing his job by clearing out a player who was in position to pick up a rebound off his breakaway attempt. And Nichol must have been skating on Bambi's legs to go down that easily on what looked like a pretty lightweight crosscheck. That said, Lapierre has to make a better decision. Lack of intensity notwithstanding, that crosscheck was pretty reckless, and players have to show some respect for an opponent who is in that dangerous position.
The fact that neither Chris Lee nor Ian Walsh called a penalty is both staggering and a sign of trouble for Lapierre. If he'd been whistled for boarding or crosschecking, that probably would, and should, have been the end of it. Since he wasn't, the league decided to make sure the incident doesn't go unpunished. On Friday, Lapierre was slapped with four games without pay to make sure the point gets across.
Four years for Matt Stajan. Six years for Rene Bourque. Trading for cap killers like Ales Kotalik and Steve Staios. Is Darryl Sutter trying to simultaneously get himself fired and ensure that his successor has no chance for success, thanks to a handful of deadweight contracts? Is there any real hope he'll be fired if the Flames miss the playoffs? -- Rob Nipper, Alberta
If they miss the playoffs? I'd say it's highly likely they will. Lots of talent, but a failed chemistry experiment since Day One. With a tough schedule ahead, a spotty commitment to defense, and a group of forwards who break into hives at the mere thought of treading into in the slot, I don't see them putting together the 12 or 13 wins it'll take to slip into the top eight.
But as bad as things look for the Flames right now, Sutter's hold on the GM job in Calgary is secure. This year's been an epic disaster in terms of talent and cap management, but he can point to a playoff berth every year since the lockout -- and to coming within a win of the Cup in 2004 -- to suggest that he knew what he was doing at one point in time. If nothing else, ownership loves him, and that should buy him the time he needs to figure out what this team's identity will be moving forward and who on this roster fits that image.
That can't be reassuring to Flames fans who have watched Sutter deal away draft picks (they have no first or second this year) and wonder why aging vets like Kotalik and Staios were deemed more valuable than a huge chunk of cap space this summer, but that's the situation. It's not a job for life, but that leash looks pretty long.
I keep hearing rumors the Thrashers are about to announce a move to Winnipeg. A friend there told me that Gary Bettman was in town to discuss flipping the [AHL] Manitoba Moose to Atlanta in exchange. I know we've heard stories like this before, but this one seems legit and I'm starting to get worried. Where there's smoke there's fire, right?-- Karen Moser, Austell, GA
If there's any smoke, it's just your friend exhaling. Not to say it couldn't happen five or 10 or 50 years down the road, but the Thrashers to Winnipeg in any kind of short term time frame is a pipe dream.
I loved the line Brian Burke had the other day about how signing college free agents is like finding a wallet on the ground. It got me thinking: who are the guys that are going to be hotly pursued this spring? -- Ethan LeBlanc, Brampton, Ontario
Depends who you talk to, because teams have differing opinions on the potential of these players. While there are always going to be late bloomers, some are still available at this point for good reason.
Here are four worth keeping an eye on:
Stephane Da Costa is a native Parisian who came to Texas in 2006 to improve his game. Now in his first year at Merrimack College, the 20-year-old winger has 15 goals and 42 points in 29 games to lead all Hockey East freshmen in scoring. The question is whether he's physically ready. He's listed at 5-11, 180, but one scout who saw him recently said "he looks like McLovin" with his shirt off.
Cam MacIntyre is a 6-1, 225-pound winger who has been limited to just 24 games over the last two years with Princeton due to injury, but has the pro build and promising touch around the net that scouts love.
Bobby Butler is a mid-sized right wing senior at New Hampshire who offers the scoring touch that every team craves. He has 24 goals in 32 games, second-most in all Division 1, and is on the verge of becoming the first Hockey East player to score 40 points in a season since 2003.
Sebastian Stalberg is the younger (and smaller) brother of Burke-signee Viktor Stalberg. Just 19, he's a freshman at Vermont where he's going through a similarly rough period of adjustment to the North American game. Scouts love good bloodlines, though, so they might give him the benefit of the doubt and trust that he'll show the same development curve as his brother.