Attention: the following is not an attempt to fool you into a laugh at your own expense on a day when people think such a thing is funny. It's simply a statement of fact:
The best player in the NHL this season might not be Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby.
It's quite possibly Henrik Sedin, who plays in a place that, for Eastern-based Hart Trophy voters -- and I am one -- is far, far away and somewhat under the radar given that Sedin happens to be the NHL's leading point-scorer (104) with just over a week to play. Normally -- or at least in the normally biased East -- the Vancouver element wouldn't come into play regarding Hart consideration, but Sedin doesn't just play on the West Coast. He wraps himself in a fog of anonymity out there. He almost dares you to find him, but once a name gets to the top of the scoring heap, it's pretty hard to keep a spotlight away.
The low-keyed Swede has been a standout for several seasons. Teaming with his twin, Daniel, he's been the lead factor in the league's most consistent one-two punch. Yet it's obvious only now that Henrik has taken up the mantle of greatness that was long predicted for him. It's so obvious that one can only wonder why his stellar year wasn't a front-burner story until the closing days of the season.
Sedin also leads the NHL in assists (75), and though he's barely in the top 20 in goals as of this writing (he's likely to finish with 30-35, which is no small accomplishment), his falling short of a 50-plus season will only highlight what an extraordinary playmaker he is. He's in the top three in plus-minus (+36), accounts for a ridiculous number of his team's overall points, and is durable (76 games), relatively immune to suspensions and penalty minutes, and amazingly competent in shooting percentage (fifth overall at 18.8, a seriously high number in relation to his ice time and stunningly low number of shots-taken (154 to Ovechkin's 343 and Crosby's 281).
Sedin is the full package, and should he outpoint Ovechkin (101) and Crosby (94), he has to be a legitimate Hart candidate. After all, in five of the last six seasons, the winner of the Art Ross Trophy (scoring) has also been the league MVP. The only broken link in that chain is Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin, who won the Ross but lost the Hart to the far more dynamic Ovechkin last year.
You can make an argument that the official Hart criteria hurt Malkin. It states that the award goes to the player judged to be the most valuable to his team. Not to the league, but to his team. Since Malkin played alongside Crosby (who pulled more than a few votes himself), and Ovechkin was still thought to be the only player of consequence on his team, the Capitals winger won even though the media-shy Malkin truly was deserving.
Ovechkin could still run past Sedin, but that won't guarantee him the hardware. He's got a couple of suspensions on his resume this season and that might cause a minor backlash in the voting. Even so, Sedin will likely need to win the Ross and put out a highlight DVD because the truth is that he, like Ovechkin and Crosby, works a lot of magic with his stick but not everyone sees it on a regular basis.
Want proof? Name the last time NBC forced a schedule change to get the Canucks on Sunday afternoon TV. (For that matter, when did NBC even consider showing Ryan Miller and the Buffalo Sabres after they put the Olympic hero goaltender on The Today Show?)
Sedin has proved his worth to the Canucks (33 multiple point games and a pointless streak that has never gone beyond four games). He's on track to prove it to the rest of an NHL that seems fixated on Crosby and Ovechkin to the exclusion of a player who is every bit their equal and, this season at least, maybe even better.
An open note to Jeff Vinik, new owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning:
Hey Jeff, welcome to the NHL. You don't know me, but I've been around the block in this league for a while and I thought I might pass on a thing or two to a newbie in a world where things aren't always as they appear.
For example, someone has told you to find a really good chief executive officer and give him enough leeway and resources to run a solid ship. It's fine advice and I'm glad to see you are following through, but if you think your problems start and stop there and can be corrected entirely by someone who knows how to find the bottom line without costing you the bulk of your noteworthy fortune, you couldn't be more wrong. Success in the NHL is predicated, at least in part, on good ownership that doesn't just hire someone and get out of the way, but immerses itself in the game and makes decisions based on being a good, quick study.
So with that in mind, learn this: You, not your CEO, have a problem with general manager Brian Lawton and coach Rick Tocchet. You, not your CEO, must fix it. You see, Jeff, the NHL is all about leadership or at least the perception of it. Your players, who aren't really as bad as the team's record indicates, aren't getting it. What they see is a GM openly meddling with the coaching staff in an obvious power play designed to curry your favor. And a coach openly resisting that meddling with an understandable but not very sensible public feud with the GM.
This is not good, Jeff. I've seen this first-hand on more than one occasion and I can honestly tell you that though both men have noteworthy merits, the only thing you can do to truly move your franchise forward is to rid yourself of them and start over. If you don't, you've sent your players the wrong message. You're telling them that it's not about winning on the ice, but in the back hallways where power fights always take place.
If you side with Lawton over Tocchet, then you will have invested too much power in a GM the players feel is not working for anything other than his own survival. If you side with Tocchet, you've let them know that he'll have power over the next GM and they won't be able to get a true airing of their feelings when things go wrong or change might be necessary. However, if you pick a good hockey CEO and have him, with your input, select a quality GM who gets the dominant say in who he wants as coach, you've established a system that has a chance of success even in the wacky world of the NHL.
You might be a good businessman, but hockey isn't like real world and you may have overpaid for what you bought: a heap of problems evidenced by a team in singular season. You aren't going to get your money back, so you might as well set about trying to make your organization better. In doing that, you might make your team better and, frankly, that's the only way you can begin to get a return on your investment.
Good luck, you'll need it.
One more piece of advice to the new Lightning owner: dump Vincent Lecavalier and his 11-year mega-contract. Do it quick, preferably this offseason, even if you have to make him uncomfortably give up his no-trade-no- movement clause and take a hit in terms of what comes back in players, prospects, picks or nothing at all.
The cost of Lecavalier ($10 million per over the next six years, then a sliding scale downward) means that even nothing in return is a gain in that Tampa gets rid of a contract that keeps the franchise from making any real on-ice progress as long as it's on the books. Getting rid of it will free up cash to pay players who still give a damn about performing (like Steven Stamkos) and create enough operating capital to sign helpful free agents who just might make the team better than Lecavalier can, given his set-for-life approach to the game and the paltry goal and point totals reflected by it.
Don't think it can't be done. There are teams beyond Montreal that can absorb Lecavalier's salary, and GMs who think they can get him back to his true playing ability. There are GMs who just might see his hit ($7.7 million) as a distasteful but simple way to get to the salary cap floor while they sell at least the hope that Lecavalier might decide he does want to again play to his ability. Factor in a buyout over the last four years and it's a doable deal for certain clubs. Toronto could certainly afford it and that market may well appeal to Lecavalier. The New York Rangers do things like this all the time and never seem to tire of it even when they regularly blow up in GM Glen Sather's face.
Interesting scenario in Buffalo where head coach Lindy Ruff is believed to be playing out the last year of his contract. If the Sabres, locked into a playoff slot and still able to finish as high as second in the Eastern Conference, go out in the first round, Ruff might take a fair share of the heat. At the same time, the NHL's longest-serving coach to one team might be willing to try his talents elsewhere. Buffalo has long been a franchise that does just enough to sell hope to a fan base that hasn't seen a Stanley Cup since the team's inception some 40 years ago.
Buffalo is said to have an option for next season, but if Ruff really wants to go, it will be difficult to hold him to it. Whichever way it plays out, he isn't likely to be worried. He's a career coach with a stellar reputation in the NHL and he just added a gold medal to his legacy as an assistant on Canada's Olympic hockey team. Coaching likely is still in his future, but a team that might someday open the door to the general manager's office may well attract his eye, be it in Buffalo or elsewhere.
Like Moses and the Rev. Martin Luther King, both of whom proclaimed they might not get to the Promised Land, legendary NHL coach Pat Burns this week said he may not live long enough to see his name over the door of the arena that is being built near Montreal.
Burns has terminal cancer, but I for one will never bet against the man. A Stanley Cup-winner, three-time coach of the year, and one of the most courageous men I've ever met, he said he doesn't expect to see the Pat Burns Arena finished and opened, but he recently flew, against doctor's orders, from his home in the Tampa area to the Canadian-American border to watch the project get underway.
"This honor was something that was unexpected in my life," Burns told an adoring crowd. "I hope this committee is going to go on and realize the project. I've told myself and my kids that when you look back, you don't cry because it's over, you're happy because it happened and this is happening.
"I think being involved in a project like this is an opportunity to inspire youth to be able to participate in sports," he added. "We know that it's difficult for kids today and they need a place where you know they can go and do something constructive."
Burns in his life and career has never done anything that wasn't constructive. He's moved past colon cancer and liver cancer, but now the disease is said to have spread to his lungs and his long battle may soon be over. If it takes a fight to get the funding to complete this project, I won't bet against Burns leading the way. It might happen after he's gone, but the project will get done because if it has Pat Burns' name on it, well, then failure isn't an option.
One can only hope the voters at the Hockey Hall of Fame induct him while he still has time to enjoy that honor as well.