Pressing matters

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That is the norm for "da Govs." A little debate, a bit of housekeeping, and, this time, perhaps a change in the scheduling scheme -- something that has been the subject of media debate for years and the victim of league flip-flopping for decades.

In this go-round, da Govs are expected to put a rubber stamp to the plan put fourth by commissioner-turned XM Radio host Gary Bettman that would see the NHL go back to the pre-lockout format, a time when teams played 18 out-of-conference games instead of 10. The change will come at the expense of interdivision games, a format that was exhumed after the 2005 lockout in an attempt to build "traditional rivalries" and (so the whisper went) to cut down on travel costs.

Those of you who have followed the game long enough to remember when the divisions were named after people like Adams, Norris and Smythe (instead of geographic regions) and featured teams like the Hartford Whalers, Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques will recall that playing a division rival eight or even nine times a season was not unusual. The NHL abandoned it a few seasons into the Bettman regime, returned to it, and now appears ready to abandon it again largely on the premise that fans get sick of seeing the Sabres play the Canadiens five times in a month and because teams in the West want to see Pittsburgh and Washington scoring phenoms Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin while teams in the East want to see the "evil" Stanley Cup champion Ducks with "mean" Chris Pronger and the West Coast-cool Sharks with their redesigned, almost teal-less uniforms.

It's a noteworthy premise and it's been touted for weeks by the few media organizations that still bother to cover the semi-annual Governors meetings. But for many fans and a great many general mangers, the schedule is not a primary concern. "The really pressing issue is the product," said one GM who insisted on anonymity in order to avoid being fined. "What they should be talking about is ways to make the on-ice product better."

That's not on the agenda. But some GMs and even a few owners would like to see a number of game-changing initiatives debated by the ownership group. The problem for the GMs is that they aren't invited to these affairs. Their voice has largely been muted (some say by a business-like castration by Bettman) and they resent the fact they can't speak out without incurring a) a fine and b) that subtle kind of intimidation that comes with incurring the wrath of the commish or his associates.

There are others who argue that's the way it should be, given that owners and especially Bettman believe free-spending GMs caused the problems that led to what the NHL called "fiscal insanity" leading up to the yearlong lockout. They maintain that almost everything related to the on-ice product should be in the hands of the competition committee (a group not dominated by GMs) or some other mandate-producing entity as long as it is tightly controlled by ownership and some extension from the commissioner's office.

The problem, at least as some GMs and others a little closer to the ice see it, is that the committee has been virtually nonexistent after its initial burst of rule changes following the lockout. Some say the game is again backsliding into a defense-first style that is strangling goal production and, by extension, fan interest, and that no one is doing anything about it.

They may have a point.

Goal production rose immediately after the lockout, the result of rules- and cosmetic changes on ice, but fell again last season (5.8 per game, down from 6.2) and the trend is spiraling down (5.4 as of midweek). After an initial post-lockout attendance surge, it appears that fans who sampled the "new" NHL have seen either enough or too much. The league tends to differ when crowd numbers are reported in the media, but first-hand observers insist that attendance is down in traditionally solid markets such as Detroit, Dallas, Colorado and San Jose. More telling: TV ratings in the U.S. dropped to near zero in terms of limited network viewership last season. According to a recent report in the Toronto Globe and Mail, they've started to slip a bit in Canada as well.

That has to be troubling to a league that has benefited greatly from Canada's willingness to embrace all things NHL. While it can be argued that the ratings in Canada have slid because the traditional viewership generator -- the Toronto Maple Leafs -- are having a horrible season, there is evidence of a country-wide decline even though the Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks are playing well. (The Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers aren't playing, but they are the two smallest Canadian markets that still have NHL franchises.)

There are GMs who believe that the failure to build on the bump after the lockout is tied directly to a falloff in the entertainment value of the product. As the argument goes, ticket prices keep rising, but the value of those tickets (generally connected to scoring) is falling. So far, at least, the league's response has ranged from calling it "an expected adjustment" to the more recent pronouncement of something "to be monitored." Either way, there has been no action taken to stem the decline. That doesn't sit well with some GMs and even some marketing people, who have proposed everything from more rule changes to larger nets and all manner of stuff in between, but can't seem to get their message out.

"It's not at the crisis stage yet, but the game has changed again and it's not to the good," said the source. "You see teams putting five guys out in front of the goaltender and daring you to try and get a shot through. It was bad before, but I've never seen it as bad as this. It's something that needs to be addressed, but no one wants you to even talk about it."

Especially not to "da Govs."

The media frenzy in Toronto regarding the poor play of the Maple Leafs will likely cost general manager John Ferguson Jr. his job before the season is out. The Leafs struggle at home and away because of poor play on offense, defense and in goal, but the players get a pass because the media and fans have settled on Ferguson as the root of the problems.

Richard Peddie, Ferguson's boss, pretty much sealed the firing when he told one local paper that hiring Ferguson was his own "mistake." The Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment President quickly distanced himself from the comment by stating that it was a mistake to hire Ferguson when he did (in 2003) because Ferguson was young and inexperienced, and that the Ferguson fans see today is better then he was when he first took the job. But the damage -- which appeared to be calculated -- is done. The word mistake has stuck to Ferguson, not Peddie.

Ferguson, a good man and, according to many of his peers, a good hockey man, is in the last year of his contract and did not get a promised extension when he asked for it last summer. Since then, upper management has toyed openly with him. Late last summer they interviewed other hockey people for a job as "mentor" to him. When they failed to find one (or get one to accept their proposal), they picked up the option on Ferguson's contract but declined to give him the extension.

In recent days Ferguson has been the victim of a parade of seemingly orchestrated leaks regards his ability, or lack thereof. To borrow a phrase from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the leaks have been so prevalent and so damaging they resemble "a high-tech lynching."

The Red Wings are once again a top team in the Western Conference, but it's not because they're feasting on Central Division turkeys. After a loss last Thursday (America's Thanksgiving Day) to the Predators in Nashville, the Wings were 4-5-1 against Central opponents. Last season they went 23-4-5 against them en route to piling up the most points in the conference. Nashville, not stumbling despite so many off-ice problems with ownership, is a part of the reason, but the improved play of the Blue Jackets and Blues also adds to the equation. Even with the skewed won-lost-overtime wins standings formula, the Central is the only division in the league where all five teams have winning records. Central squads measure themselves against the Wings and get up for them both home and away.

The Minnesota Wild sent a "shot across the bow" when it picked up the rugged Todd Fedourk off waivers. The "shot" was for Branko Radivojevic, who is supposed to be one of the better "grinders" on the team but hasn't been playing to expectations of late. He's not the only one responsible for the team's 6-9-1 skid, but the Wild, through Tuesday night's game, was struggling at home and on the road, and management believes it's because the team isn't playing tough enough.

Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren is getting some much-deserved praise for his team's turnaround, but he also has to fight off allegations that the Flyers are becoming a reincarnation of the old Broad Street Bullies.

It's a hard battle given that the Flyers so far have had four players pick up suspensions for hits (mostly from behind) that caused injury while the rest of the league combined has had two. The Flyers also lead the NHL in PIM and major penalties and seem to have adopted a philosophy of hit first and worry about the consequences later.

It offsets the fact that the team Holmgren has built on the fly is better on offense, stronger and quicker on defense, and definitely getting better play in goal with the acquisition of Martin Biron from Buffalo late last season.

One could also argue that the Flyers have been a bit unlucky (though not as unlucky as the Bruins they've injured) in the two most recent incidents: hits along the boards by Randy Jones and Scott Hartnell. Still, these Flyers don't let up -- not when they drive to the net, and not when they drive vulnerable opponents into the boards. That latter practice seems to be the one that keeps causing problems for the Flyers and major head injuries for their opponents.

The Oilers may be last (or nearly last on any given night) in the NHL, but they are number one in one category. Edmonton is 6-1 in shootout games this season. And the Oilers had only 10 wins as of Thursday. Going back through their last 44 games (24 this season and 20 last), the Oilers have won just 11 and seven have been in shootouts. That translates to four regulation wins in their last 44 regular-season starts.