Wednesday January 21st, 2015

Every Wednesday, a trio of SI.com staffers will sit down for a discussion of the hockey world's hot-button issues. This week, Sarah Kwak Brian Cazeneuve and Al Muir talk about injury trouble in Nashville, performance-enhancing drugs in the NHL, the league's best fourth line, and our picks to shine at this weekend's All-Star festivities. First up:

• The Predators looked like world beaters with Pekka Rinne in the lineup. What happens to Nashville now that he's on IR for the next three to five weeks?

SARAH KWAK: Man, that first period against Detroit on Saturday gave Predators fans something to chew on. Goalie Carter Hutton let in three of the first four shots he faced and lasted just 12:32 before getting yanked. Granted, Hutton had played—and won—the night before against Washington, but that start and performance against the Red Wings will stay with the 29-year-old backup for awhile. And I think it goes to show just how valuable Rinne has been in Nashville; his numbers (1.96 GAA and .931 save percentage) are no fluke. So what's Nashville to do without him? They'll need to make adjustments in their defensive coverage, giving a little extra support to their goalies, particularly on the penalty kill, where the Predators have been exposed in the last two games. Washington and Detroit took full advantage of their power play opportunities, converting on four of five. The Preds will need to block more shots, and not leave their goalies vulnerable laterally. Rinne is one of the most agile and athletic goalies in the game, and at 6'-5", he is big in net. The Predators will have to remember that his backups don't necessarily play the same way.

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BRIAN CAZENEUVE: Rinne has been the Predators’ money man every bit as much as Shea Weber this season. When he went down, I think he was the Vezina Trophy favorite and even a Hart Trophy candidate. His value was amplified by the Preds’ consecutive losses against Detroit on Saturday and Montreal on Tuesday. Granted, Hutton had a better night in the 2-1 overtime loss to the Canadiens, but it was also a pretty sleepy evening for a while, as the Predators were outshooting the Habs, 25-5, on Montreal ice. He finished with 25 saves. Hutton has only appeared in nine games, but look at his numbers (1-4-3, 2.88, .897) compared to Rinne’s (29-6-2, 1.96, .931) and you see why Rinne will be impossible to replace down the stretch. As teams have learned in recent years, playoff positioning isn’t always as important as being prepared for a good playoff run. The best plan for Rinne is to forget about the standings and get him as healthy as possible for April when the Predators won’t win without him.

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AL MUIR: I don't think tightening up the D is the way they go. In fact, I think they may get a little more aggressive in the offensive zone. Hutton is what he is, a bargain-brand replacement who can only hope to match last season's numbers (.910 save percentage, 2.62 GAA) if the Preds spend more time with possession, preferably in the attack zone. That might be doable. Their offense has been surprisingly reliable this season, averaging 2.96 goals per game, ninth most in the league, and they shoot the puck a ton (32.1 per game, third in the league). I wouldn't be surprised to see both of those numbers trend upward.

• The hockey world has always been quick to say that the sport has no issues with performance-enhancing drugs. Now that we've had two suspensions this season, both from the same organization (Toronto), do we need to re-think that position?

Well, I suppose I've long held the non-conventional position on the subject. That is, I don't think PEDs are a non-issue in hockey. Now, I am not saying there is a widespread problem or that PEDs run rampant in the NHL, but I just don't believe that the absence of positive tests means all that much, especially given that the league's drug-testing program (introduced in 2005) has generally lagged behind. It introduced playoff testing, off-season testing and no-notice individual testing in 2013. It still doesn't test for HGH, and per the latest CBA, it doesn't test for stimulants and amphetamines. I don't pretend to know the extent of PED prevalence in the NHL, but I think it would be naïve to think it's zero or close to it. And the best the league can do is improve its testing program and let it continue to be a priority for the good of the game.

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I agree with Sarah on this one. As with many pro sports leagues, the NHL has not been at all proactive in regard to testing. Just look at what happens when NHL players become eligible to play in the Olympics and have to make themselves available to testing by the World Anti-Doping Agency. That’s real testing, with unannounced tests and numbers to call to let testers know your whereabouts, even on vacation. The mechanisms are not in place for any of the so-called Big Four to test. When stories broke about drug use in baseball a few years ago, it was mostly because a drug dealer named names. SI’s Michael Farber wrote a striking story for SI back in 1998 called Hockey’s Little Helpers that spoke of the use of stimulants in NHL dressing rooms. The numbers are anyone’s guess, but surely they are not limited to two suspended players.

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If we've learned anything from the procedures put in place by other sports, it's that the users are always a step or two ahead of the testers, no matter how diligent WADA and other enforcement bodies try to be. And so it's all but certain that hockey players have eluded detection while using prohibited substances to, for example, expedite their recovery from an injury. But PEDs as a serious issue for the NHL? I don't think so.

The minors though? That's a different matter. Take a look at the two players who were caught this year, Carter Ashton and Brad Ross. Both were highly touted prospects who, after years in the minors, were watching their NHL dreams die. You can understand a guy in that position being desperate enough to look for an edge and that's why the AHL and Pro Hockey Players' Association need all the support they can get to deal with the problem before it takes root in the NHL. And it says something for the efficiency of their system that they have been successful in detecting cheaters.

As for the big leagues, they have more pressing problems: painkiller and sleeping pill abuse. Both the NHL and NHLPA have made significant commitments to addressing these issues, but there's still more to be done.

• Don Cherry says the Islanders’ unit of Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas is the best fourth line in hockey. Agree or prove him wrong.

Yeesh. I mean, I'll be honest, at SI, I can't say we really dissect and rank fourth lines around the league—or historically for that matter—with much regularity. It'd be like debating the best seventh-spot hitter or the greatest third-leg-of-a-relay runner. That said, I'm going to disagree with Don Cherry because while I don't know which fourth line in history was the best to ever play hockey, I still think the Bruins' Merlot Line of a few years back was better than the Islanders' trio. Shawn Thornton, Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille were such an effective fourth line that people actually knew them as a unit. They brought grit and some timely offense to that team and played a pretty integral part in Boston's Cup finals runs in 2011 and '13.

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Somewhere under hockey hyperbole, we find Cherry’s comment: “This may be the best fourth line ever in hockey as far as I’m concerned.” It reminds me of the time Ted Lindsay was testifying before a federal jury in Detroit in 2008 about the crash that paralyzed Red Wings defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov. Lindsay said Konstantinov was the best hockey player in the world. Down boys, down.

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These days, the fourth lines are a hybrid. Some of the game’s best penalty killers play on fourth lines, and since the role of the designated enforcer is changing, a lot of fourth-line guys need to be able to play a little in order to get any minutes at all. You can’t really go back to the days of the so-called Original Six, because many teams saved more minutes for their top players in a game that didn’t move nearly as fast as it does today. I would agree about the Merlot Line, especially since the Bruins didn’t break it up after a year, something that often happens with fourth lines. The '90s Red Wings teams had guys like Kris Draper (best fourth-liner ever?), Kirk Maltby and Joey Kocur on the so-called Grind Line. Darren McCarty was on there, too, at times, and actually scored a fantastic goal against the Flyers in the Stanley Cup finals. Since Detroit rolled four lines, it was a line that actually saw the ice a lot. The Devils had a Crash Line —Bobby Holik, Randy McKay and Mike Peluso—that was a very effective third/fourth line. When Holik played With Dainius Zubrus and Mike Rupp, it was also quite an effective group. The 2014-15 Islanders have a pair of big hitters in Martin and Clutterbuck on their fourth line, but until they win something, no, they don’t belong in the discussion.

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Come on, Grapes. They aren't even as good as some of guys you used to have at the end of the bench for the Bruins, like Bob Miller, Stan Jonathan and John Wensink. Those guys had 63 goals between 'em back in 1977-78. Let's go!

But today? Yeah, that Isles trio is pretty solid. Depth is more important than ever—how often do you hear hockey people talking about the importance of rolling four lines?—so having guys you can send over the boards for maybe 12 shifts a night and trust not to spend the whole time scrambling around their own zone can be the difference between a good team and a great one. All three are terrific on the forecheck, demons on the cycle. And they can really put a world of hurt on a defense corps. They'll be warriors in the playoffs.

But Chicago has a pretty decent trio, too (Marcus Kruger between Ben Smith and Joakim Nordstrom), as do the Kings (Mike Richards, Dwight King, Jordan Nolan) and the Blues (Steve Ott, Max Lapierre, Ryan Reaves). But I really like Dallas' group of Vernon Fiddler with Shawn Horcoff and Travis Moen. They play a heavy game and they've got some offensive chops. For my money, they're the best in the league.

• Finally, with the All-Star Game and Skills Competition on tap this weekend, we'll go to the lightning round. First up, who will be the last player taken in the Fantasy Draft?

KWAK: Zemgus Girgensons.

CAZENEUVE: Justin Faulk.

MUIR: I'm guessing they'll be told not to leave Phil Kessel swinging in the breeze again, so I'll take Radim Vrbata.

Who will win Fastest Skater?

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KWAK: Phil Kessel.

MUIR: Yeah, Kessel.

CAZENEUVE: Kessel.

Who will win Hardest Shot?

CAZENEUVE: Shea Weber.

KWAK: Weber.

MUIR: I want to say someone else, but it's gotta be Weber, right?

Who wins the MVP?

CAZENEUVE: John Tavares

MUIR: Vladimir Tarasenko

KWAK: Please God, let it be Zemgus Girgensons.

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