Friday June 11th, 2010

It's been a while since I've dipped into the old mailbag, which you've graciously filled to the brim...

So, are you willing to be the first media member to admit he was wrong all year long about the Blackhawks' goaltending? I think Antti Niemi would appreciate an apology. Just remember to shout. He might be a little hard of hearing after all the applause he heard after winning the Stanley Cup. -- Josh Anderson, Wisconsin

To be honest, my opinion of Niemi hasn't changed as much as my expectations of what it takes for a goaltender to get the job done at playoff time. What I saw was a goalie who was good enough on most nights and pretty special on a couple others, especially in the San Jose series. Still, Niemi looked a bit intimidated by the pressures of the Cup final and even over the course of Game 6. I was floored by the way the puck was trampolining off his pillows on almost every shot from distance. There had to be a half-dozen instances where, from my perspective at least, his angle to the shooter was off. That's not all that different from what I saw at various points during the season.

Niemi is capable, but hardly game-changing (though I have to admit, his diving mask stop on Jeff Carter late in the third period of Game 6 was fun to watch). Apparently, cappable is sufficient these days, especially when the guy at the other end is playing like the waiver-wire pickup he just happened to be. In the end, though, Niemi became the fourth rookie goalie, and first Finnish netminder, to lead his team to the Cup. You can't ask for any more than that. So I'll take my crow deep fried, Cajun style.

What happens now with Michael Leighton? Does he come back next season as Philly's No. 1 goalie, or do his various meltdowns in the final reinforce what he really is: a fair-to-spare backup? -- Karen Tipton, New York

You know, even if he'd won the Cup, I'm not convinced that Leighton would have been viewed as a lock to enter next season as the go-to guy in Philadelphia. There are plenty of good reasons why he has never grabbed a No. 1 job and made it his own -- inconsistency being his main bugaboo -- and I don't think he allayed any of those concerns after being pulled twice in the final. Truth is, he was a backup thrust into the starter's role at the most crucial time of the season and, even aided by a pretty salty defense corps led by Chris Pronger, he wasn't able to fully rise to the occasion. No doubt he's going to take a lot of grief for the way he attempted to play Patrick Kane's Cup clincher, but honestly, there were dozens of moments throughout the series when he appeared overmatched by his circumstances.

Next season, I'd look for the Flyers to do what they do seemingly every year: scour all corners for their next savior in net. Could be Marty Turco. Could be Evgeni Nabokov. Could be some late-blooming Euro goalie like Niemi. But I don't think the Flyers, or any other team, will look to UFA Leighton as the solution to a starting vacancy.

What do you make of Kirill Kabanov? Six months ago, he was challenging for the top spot in the draft and now it seems he's sliding toward the back end of the first round. Seems to me he's an incredible talent who could be a tremendous value pick later in the round. Any chance the Coyotes might take a flyer on him with their second pick? Seems like he'd be worth the risk. -- Marc Simpson, Phoenix

A week ago, I would have suspected that type of scenario was possible, and that a team with two picks in the first round, like Phoenix, Boston or Atlanta, might be willing to overlook Kabanov's troubled season and swing for the fences after making an earlier, safer choice. Now I can see the talented but troublesome left winger sliding into the third round, or maybe later, before someone is willing to take a chance.

Kabanov is one of those kids who burst onto the scene at an early age, with a strong tournament performance at 15. His play earned comparisons to Evgeni Malkin and it wasn't long before scouts were suggesting that he might go first overall in this year's draft. Part of his problem is that his game hasn't progressed as most hoped -- he's still a compelling prospect, but his development hasn't matched expectations. More troubling though is the off-ice stuff.

Leaving the Moncton Wildcats. Being tossed from the Russian Under-18 squad. And, most recently, being "fired" by his agent, J.P. Barry. That, for the record, would be the fourth agent that Kabanov has burned through. The problem, according to three NHL scouts, is a father who makes Carl Lindros look like Ward Cleaver. "I don't think he's a bad kid, but you know how it is," said one. "You take this kid, you're taking his dad, too. Do you really want to deal with that kind of [headache]? I can tell you, he won't be on our [draft] board."

"No draft" is probably a minority opinion, but Kabanov's character and maintenance issues are a legitimate consideration for every franchise. Add the built-in flight risk that comes with drafting a Russian these days -- even one who threatened to abdicate his citizenship -- and it could be well into Day 2 of the draft before someone calls his name.

Good call on Guy Boucher passing on the Blue Jackets. Even you didn't see him taking the Lightning job, though. What do you think made that gig worth taking and where did the Jackets fall short? -- Cheryl Kelsh, Ohio

As much as anything, I think a prettier girl asked him to dance. That's not a knock on Columbus GM Scott Howson, a guy who is slowly building a reputation and one who showed some stones by courting Boucher in the first place. But new Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, even without a month's experience in the big chair, has nothing to prove. You wouldn't need many fingers to count the guys who've earned more respect in this sport and that was a significant influence on Boucher's decision to leave the Canadiens organization.

"The opportunity to work with somebody who has the track record and the integrity of Mr. Steve Yzerman, it's something I and the whole organization can benefit from," Boucher said in a teleconference announcing his hiring.

Plus, it only made sense to hold out for a position where he had a better chance of success. I think the talent that Tampa already has in-house seems better suited for the 1-3-1 system that Boucher has used so effectively in both the QMJHL and AHL. The Blue Jackets may have some speed (we caught flashes of it after Claude Noel replaced Ken Hitchcock), but it's more evident in Tampa. Plus the Lightning have a defenseman in Victor Hedman who seems well-suited to run Boucher's system.

As a rookie last season, Hedman showed a lot of puck savvy early in the season. It waned as the year went on (hard to tell if that was a confidence or coaching issue), but there's no denying he has it in him. With the sixth overall pick at the draft, the Lightning are expected to grab another suitable piece of the puzzle (maybe Jon Merrill, maybe Mark Pysyk), but I think Yzerman will also make a move to acquire a capable, veteran presence to help bridge the gap. You'll hear Tomas Kaberle's name mentioned as an option, but I believe Yzerman willl look for someone less costly. We'll see.

Whatever the case, it was a bold hire by Yzerman and a smart choice by Boucher. Should make for an interesting 2010-11 season in Tampa.

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