Today in From the Pressbox:
In Sidney Crosby's absence, who is emerging as the best player in the NHL? The Leafs have a nice problem on their hands as a potential free agent is on fire. Tuomo Ruutu is being singled out as the most likely rental player to be moved before the trade deadline. We look at the Flyers continued success in spite of a number of injuries. Can they continue to contend in the East? A usual suspect is at the top of the Western Conference standings. Is Vancouver sending a loud message to Roberto Luongo? How do you like the early returns on some of the longest player contracts in the NHL?
Much has been written and speculated around the injury status of Sidney Crosby and of late many observers are looking around to identify the best player who is actually playing this season. In an effort to make up for the absence of The Kid, his teammate Evgeni Malkin is once again raising his game. This is becoming quite a pattern with the big Russian playing his best hockey when the spotlight is firmly on him. Pittsburgh is in the thick of the playoff hunt largely due to Malkin's outstanding play in recent weeks. In 12 January games, Malkin has 12 goals and four assists to take over the leadership of the NHL scoring race. As the Pens came out of the All-Star break, they were on a seven game win streak that was powered by Malkin. He further underscored his ability to get the key marker by tallying a late tying goal against the Leafs on Tuesday night, in a game where he was held of the scoresheet until the last seven seconds of regulation time. If Crosby returns before the playoffs the Pens will be a dangerous foe, just because of these two stars.
In that same Tuesday game, the Leafs second line center, Mikhail Grabovski, who was the NHL player of the week immediately prior to the All-Star break, continued his hot streak with a pair of goals and an assist in Pittsburgh. In his 12 January games, "Grabo" counted eight goals and eight assists. The fact that he has performed at this level has drawn attention to the fact that he is in the last year of a contract. The Leafs face the pleasant but difficult decision to either re-sign Grabovski, whose current deal pays him $2.9 M this year, or to consider packaging him off to another club as the trade deadline approaches. The 28-year Belarusian-born star admits that he really likes playing in Toronto and would like to stay on, but the Leafs are known to be searching for a big-name front line center with the likes of Ryan Getzlaf and Eric Staal being linked to them in most of the rumor charts. As the saying goes, you have to give up some quality to get that quality player in return. Regardless of where he plays next year, Grabovski has solidified his reputation as a strong two-way player.
Speaking of trade possibilities, if we had to place a bet on who is the player most likely to be dealt before the deadline, the big money would be on Carolina's Tuomo Ruutu. The factors that point to him include the last place standing of the Hurricanes, that he is also in the last year of a big ticket contract ($3.8 M) and the 'Canes already have 10 (mostly younger) forwards under contract for next season. For his part, Ruutu brings a lot to the table, as he is a gritty forward who is responsible at both ends of the ice. He leads Carolina with 15 goals and has posted a (-1) for the cellar-dwelling Hurricanes through 51 games played. He is apparently highly coveted by many teams who will be buyers at the trade deadline and could create a bidding war for his services.
Once again, the Philadelphia Flyers find themselves solidly entrenched in a playoff position. The difference this year is that their relatively successful season-to-date record of 29-14-6 may be hard to continue in light of a bad string of injuries. First Chris Pronger went out with a season-ending concussion, and then Daniel Briere was sidelined with a concussion of his own just before the All-Star break. On top of that, a 39-year old Jaromir Jagr has hit a funk in his formerly impressive season. He was held to four assists in his nine January games and posted a miserable (-5) rating. The lack of a contribution from these three team-leading veterans has shifted the burden of responsibility to other players here. Unlike prior years, Philadelphia is not loaded with offensive depth and they have really leaned on two holdovers, Claude Giroux (55 points) and Scott Hartnell (44 points). They do have a number of young forwards with the potential to be top scorers, but Wayne Simmonds (27 points), James van Riemsdyk (22 points) and Braden Schenn (6 points) are not quite ready to dominate just yet. The Flyers will be looking to their prized offseason signing, goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who has put together an 18-10-2 mark almost despite some ordinary work on his part (.891 save percentage and 2.99 goals against average). The fact is that he has been outplayed by his backup, Sergei Bobrovsky (2.42 g.a.a and .919 save percentage). It says here that the Flyers will be life and death to make the playoffs, unless they add players through the trade deadline.
In the Western Conference, the Detroit Red Wings are once again at the top of the Conference standings, despite the fact that they are the oldest team (in terms of the average age of players on their roster) in the entire NHL. Given that statistic and one of the most grueling travel schedules, it is surprising to note that they also rank among the lowest in terms of man-games lost to injury. They have effectively led the charge to get less involved in fighting and instead have relied on a superior skill level to set their lofty pace. While they have benefitted from newcomer Ian White's nice fit in replacing the recently retired Brian Rafalski, and a rebirth of Todd Bertuzzi's offensive skills, this team is not much different in its core identity. As usual, they are led by six European-born players in playing an unparalleled game based on puck possession. It was quite revealing that the first player drafted in the All-Star team selection was Pavel Datsyuk, who is widely acknowledged as the best two-way player in the game. Datsyuk, along with Henrik Zetterberg and the venerable Nicklas Lidstrom almost make you think they are capable of defying the rigors of the long NHL season once again, in their attempt at another long playoff run. The team's depth and excellent health make that a very real possibility.
For many years, Roberto Luongo was at, or near the top of, the busiest goalies list, as he has been largely unchallenged for playing time in his tenure as a Canuck. Last season's playoff failure in the Cup Final apparently set the stage for Cory Schneider to expect more playing time in the Vancouver net. However, even he could not forecast that he would be the starting goalie in a key game against the Canucks' fierce rival (Chicago) in the first game after the All-Star break. Publicly, the Canuck brass is saying all the right political things, like "today's goalies should not play 70 games because they will tire in the playoffs" or "they have faith in both of their goalies". The fact of the matter is that Schneider has actually posted better individual stats than his counterpart so far this season. Naysayers will point to Luongo's slate of five straight starts before the break, but he is not the headliner in too many of the Canucks' game reports, like he used to be.
Have you noticed that the number of players who have signed very long contracts and are not producing anywhere near the accompanying expectations is on the rise? The byproduct of this unfortunate combination is that those same teams are in a salary cap bind and any subsequent trade talks may limit those clubs. Consider the case of Scott Gomez, who has two years left at an annual cap hit of $7.357 M. He has only seven assists and has played in only 17 games this season. How's that 15-year deal for goalie Rick DiPietro working out for the Islanders? Don't you think the Lightning would love to rid themselves of Vincent Lecavalier's annual hit of $7.7 M despite his 40 points in 49 games played? Do you realize that much of the Sabres' woeful season can be laid at the feet of Christian Ehrhoff and Tyler Myers, who have combined for a -18 rating and only 29 points, all in exchange for $9.9 M, which the Sabres will be shelling out for the two defensemen for the next seven seasons?
The moral of these stories is buyer beware. You are not likely to get your bang for the buck on extra long contracts if these examples are the rule rather than the exception.
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