Friday September 19th, 2008

Well, I've had plenty to say in recent weeks about the big questions facing every NHL team as the new season gears up. Now, I'd like to turn the floor over to you. Here are some of the more bracing letters that have graced my mailbag lately.

Answer this for me: if the NHL really does move into Europe with teams down the road, has anyone thought about how this might affect free agency? I could see a team in Sweden always getting the best free agent Swedes, etc. Could you see this happening, or are we getting ahead of ourselves? -- Chris Lund, Seattle, WA

You're probably putting the proverbial ox before the cart, Chris, despite this week's assertions from NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly that the league would like to have teams in Europe within 10 years. Sounds to me more like a shot across the bow to remind the KHL and the Scandinavian circuit proposed by Mats Naslund just who has the biggest artillery. But as much as the NHL needs to create a bigger footprint, if only for marketing purposes, there aren't many out there who believe a Euro division is practical, even under ideal economic circumstances.

A lot can change in 10 years. Oil may be $24 a barrel again and the Euro could double in value, but I think we'll see the NHL expand into Canada, and possibly downsize in the States, long before we see teams competing for the hearts and wallets of Jokerit, Sparta Praha and Djurgardens fans.

You raise an interesting point, though, about the competitive advantages of Euro-based teams. It's easy to imagine pressure on Europeans to sign with local teams, as well as on the teams themselves to build around native players. Doesn't mean it would play out that way, though. Despite the fervent wishes of local fans, the lure of suiting up for the home team hasn't brought many free agent stars into the fold for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens.

What do you make of the China Sharks situation? Is this the start of something big for the sport, or yet another example of the NHL trying to sell hockey to people that have no interest in it? -- Jim Breese, CA

Geez, Jim, did you sleep through the Olympics? If you watched the Summer Games, you'd believe that whatever the Chinese put their minds, population and money to, they can achieve. And they're not just interested in competing. They aim solely to be the best. If they commit seriously to hockey, it would be huge for the game.

But let's bring everyone up to speed: Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment, the parent company of the San Jose Sharks, entered into an agreement with the Chinese government to take over pro hockey there last season. They merged two teams and placed the China Sharks in Beijing as part of the Asian Professional League. This week, SVS&E announced they were moving the franchise to Shanghai, which at 20 million people, is the largest city in the country. Described by a company executive as "a cosmopolitan center...with the added benefit of an international fan base already familiar with hockey," the new location is seen as the first step in expanding the popularity of the sport in China.

In a press release, SVS&E laid out a five-year plan that gets both the Chinese government and local investors involved in building youth leagues and developing arenas across the country. That investment in infrastructure will be the first step in a long-range plan to join the elite hockey powers of the world by 2022, when the Chinese hope to host the Winter Olympics.

Considering where China stands now -- 28th in the 2008 IIHF rankings and firmly entrenched in Division II -- they've got a long way to go. And while they went from 16 golds in 1996 to 51 in 2008, team sports have proven more challenging than achieving success in individual pursuits. But the presence of the Sharks -- with ex-NHLers Wade Flaherty and Sean McKenna -- and the commitment to youth leagues are the first serious steps in advancing the cause. It may be a while before we see a Chinese Sidney Crosby (they'd probably settle for their own version of Anze Kopitar or Lars Eller), but you'd be wise to bet on them developing homegrown stars by the time 2022 rolls around.

I've been hearing a lot of buzz about Ville Leino sticking with the Red Wings. What are his chances, and if he fails to make the team out of camp, will he return to Finland? -- Jeff Reynolds, OH

Given the veteran depth the Wings have up front, it was a bit of surprise when the 24-year-old MVP of the Finnish League chose to sign as a free agent with Detroit last May rather than pick a club where he'd be more likely to play right away. It's not that Leino lacks the skill to suit up for the Wings (although strength and defensive awareness are a concern), the problem is just trying to figure out exactly where he fits in.

The Wings have 12 forwards signed to one-way deals, so Leino's two-way contract suggests he'll start the season in Grand Rapids unless he absolutely dazzles in camp. He does have an out clause that would allow him to return home, but the sense is that he'll accept an AHL assignment to demonstrate his commitment. At that point, it's just a matter of time before an injury or trade creates a roster opening. As one scout told me, "Once he gets a job, he'll hold onto it."

And the rich get richer...

What's going on with Brendan Shanahan? I know he slowed down a bit last year, but it seems to me like he still has something to contribute. Any chance he could end up with the Hurricanes, especially now that Justin Williams is out for most of the year? -- Jill McKinley, Greensboro, NC

What's going on? Oddly, not a whole lot other than some informal skating and a lot of waiting by the phone.

In Shanahan's perfect world, that phone rings tomorrow. He picks it up and hears Glen Sather apologize for leaving him hanging, then offer him a one-year deal (at 50 cents on the dollar, of course). That way Shanny gets to step gracefully away from the game after one final campaign.

Not sure that's going to happen, though. It's to Sather's discredit that he's taking full advantage of Shanahan's desire to remain in New York rather than simply signing him or advising him to move on. At this point, there are a handful of teams that have expressed interest in Shanahan's services, but the Canes aren't among them.

There's some thought that Carolina will be looking for veteran help to help offset the extended loss of Williams, the talented but fragile winger who cemented his china doll reputation by tearing his Achilles tendon this week. The injury wipes him off the roster -- and his salary cap hit off the books -- for four to six months. But the Canes are in the mood to shed more salary, not take it on. So instead of Shanahan, or free agents like Glen Murray and Mark Parrish, the Canes are more likely to gaze inward.

Patrick Eaves, acquired from Ottawa last season prior to the deadline, will get a long look. So will Jeff O'Neill. It's tough to replace a 30-goal scorer, though. If no one steps up, GM Jim Rutherford will have to consider external options. For his sake, here's hoping Shanny's off the market and wearing Broadway blue, by then.

As a long suffering Islanders fan whose last meaningful game was in the 1993 playoffs, I understand why you have shown no confidence that they can create any buzz this year. One day, I hope I can take the bag off my head. However, I will not stop rooting for them and have hope that one year all the critics will be wrong. -- Mike Ruggiero, Danbury, Conn.

Thanks to a couple of decent drafts, I think there are some solid pieces of the puzzle in the Islander pipeline (Josh Bailey, Rhett Rakhshani and Corey Trivino all look like players), but the franchise remains a long way from being a consistent threat. Of course, teams have a way of surprising us. I was part of the vast majority of pundits who predicted that the Habs would miss the playoffs last season..and look how that turned out. Not saying it's time to take the bag off the head just yet, but you might want to consider having your hairstyle updated from the 1993 look...just in case.

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