Who's In, Who's Out?

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Written on 1/20/2011 by Jim Cerny

There's an old saying in sports for teams suffering from many injuries that goes something like "you can't tell them without a scorecard".

Well if that saying really holds true, scorecard and program sales must be skyrocketing this year in the National Hockey League because the amount of injuries---and injuries to key players---has just seemed off the charts this season.

Just taking the past 24 hours as an example, the number of big names returning from injury stints is balanced out by a number of equally important performers in a dizzying display of in one door, out the other.

Let's take a look...

Returning: Tonight will see the return to action of four pretty important players to their teams. Chris Pronger (pictured), out since December 17 with a foot injury, returns to further bolster a Flyers team which is already sitting atop the Eastern Conference. Shawn Horcoff, captain of the Oilers, makes an earlier-than-expected return to the lineup from an MCL sprain that has sidelined him since December 8. Skilled winger Kyle Okposo, out since the pre-season, will see his first game action for the Islanders tonight at a time when the Isles are playing some of their best hockey of the season. And Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard gets the start in St. Louis this evening after being set back briefly by a sore knee.

Those are four very important players to their team, and fans benefit with their collective return this evening.

But with the positive comes negative news, as well.

Sidelined: Montreal Canadiens winger Mike Cammalleri was diagnosed with a separated shoulder and was placed on Injured Reserve today. Even though his production has been down this season he is a vital cog in everything Montreal does. Penguins superstar Evgeni Malkin was scratched from the lineup last night due to an undisclosed injury. St. Louis today placed defenseman Carlo Colaiacavo on Injured Reserve with an eye injury. And the Rangers---who are already without Ryan Callahan, Vinny Prospal, Alex Frolov, Erik Christensen, and Derek Boogaard in their lineup because of injuries---were hit with the double whammy yesterday, losing the team's top scorer Brandon Dubinsky for 3-4 weeks because of a stress fracture in his left leg and dependable 3rd-liner Ruslan Fedotenko for 2-4 weeks with a sprained left shoulder.

And this is just the injury-related news---both good and bad---from the past 24 hours. Keep in mind that earlier in the week Bryan McCabe broke his jaw and Ryan Whitney was placed on season ending long-term IR.

It's been a crazy cycle of injuries in the NHL this year, it seems more so than in the past, but I'd have to research that out.

For some reason it stands out more to me this year than ever before.

Follow Me On Twitter: @jimcerny

The Halfway Home Awards

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Written on 1/13/2011 by Jim Cerny

Now that each and every team in the National Hockey League has reached the official mid-point of the season---having played at least 41 games of their 82 game schedule---it is time to hand out the Rink Rap Halfway Home Awards.

I will submit my three finalists, in 1-2-3 order, for the major awards halfway through the season as follows:

Hart Trophy

1-Sidney Crosby (Penguins)
As I have said, and written, often this is a two-man race for the league's MVP so far this season---Crosby and Steven Stamkos. I give the slight edge to Crosby because---even though he's missed several games due to a concussion---he still leads the league in goals (32) by one over Stamkos and points (66) by nine over Stamkos. He also had the amazing point-scoring streak at a time when Pittsburgh's other superstar---Evgeni Malkin---was either hurt or not playing to superstar form. Through 41 games, Crosby is the best the league has seen so far this year.

2-Steven Stamkos (Lightning)
He has been dynamic offensively, and is a major reason why Tampa Bay finds itself in first place at the midpoint in the Sortheast Division. He has gotten a lot more help from star teammate Martin St. Louis than Crosby has from Malkin, but Stamkos is breathing down Sid the Kid's neck for this award.

3-Brad Richards (Stars)
Third place in this race is really third place, since it's a two-horse race, but there are many qualified candidates to consider including the Sedin twins, whose combined great play has helped Vancouver to the top of the league standings. But I like Richards here because he is having a terrific season (50 points) while not being bothered at all by constant trade rumors and speculation about his impending unrestricted free agency. Richards has also helped turn Dallas into one of the biggest suprises in the NHL, sitting in first place in the Pacific Division at the midway point of the season.

Norris Trophy

1-Nicklas Lidstrom (Red Wings)
Funny how just a year ago all the talk was about the new guard of NHL defensemen and that Lidstrom's time as the pre-eminent D-Man in the league was coming to an end. Well an injury to Drew Doughty, fall off in play by Duncan Keith and Mike Green, and the re-emegence of one of the greatest defensemen ever to play the position has put Lidstrom right back at the top of Norris talk again. He is logging 24 minutes of ice time a night, been terrific defensively, and is tied for the league-lead in point production by defensemen with 41 points---just eight fewer than he had all last season. At age 40, Lidstrom could be on his way to a 7th Norris Trophy.

2-Kris Letang (Penguins)
Letange has taken a major step forward in his development this year, recording a career-high 40 points already, while also posting a whopping plus 20 plus/minus mark. At age 23 Letang is making the dramatic move up among the league's elite defensemen just as Keith did with Chicago a year ago, though at age 26. Love his physical play, too.

3-Dustin Byfuglien (Thrashers)
Byfuglien emerged last year as a key contributor on the Blackhawks Cup-winning team---but did so as a forward. Traded to Atlanta, and switched to defense, Byfuglien has responded with his best year as a pro---not only producing a career-best 41 points, but playing a rugged, physical style in his own end. His is one of the NHL's best stories in the season's first half.

Vezina Trophy

1-Tim Thomas (Bruins)
A Vezina winner two years ago---and replaced as the team's No. 1 goalie by Tuukka Rask last season---Thomas has been nothing short of sensational for the Bruins this season. Thomas leads the league with a phenomenal .946 save percentage,  1.77 goals against average, and six shutouts. He has stopped 922 of the 975 shots he has faced in 30 games. Surreal. His perseverence is commendable to return to top form this year at the age of 36.

2-Jonathan Quick (Kings)
Many people, myself included, thought before the season that rookie Jonathan Bernier would be the Kings No. 1 goalie by now. But Quick has squashed those thoughts with a fairly remarkable first half of play. Though he played often---and well---a year ago, Quick has been a much sharper goalie this season, posting a 2.18 goals against average and .920 save percentage in 32 appearances. Quick is a major reason why the Kings---who disappointed in so many areas of play in the first half---have not fallen out of playoff contention in the West.

3-Jonas Hiller (Ducks)
With J.S. Giguere long since traded, Hiller is The Man in Anaheim, and his league-high 40 appearances attest to that fact. He has posted a respectable 2.43 goals against---and an excellent .927 save percentage---for an average Ducks squad, which gives him a slight edge over other Vezina contenders like Marc-Andre Fleury, Ondrej Pavelec, Roberto Luongo, Henrik Lundqvist, and Carey Price.

Calder Trophy

1-Corey Crawford (Blackhawks)
While this year's rookie crop is not like last year's---which was the year of the rookie goaltender---Crawford is my pick as top rookie, so far, for having solidified the defending Cup champs netminding. Veteran Marty Turco was supposed to be the No. 1 in Chicago after Anttii Niemi was allowed to head to San Jose as a free agent, but Crawford clearly has supplanted him by winning 7 of his last 9 starts, including back-to-back shutouts in his last two games. Crawford is 15-8-1 with a 2.14 goals against average and .920 save percentage playing under the intense pressure which comes with being the defending champ. That is more than impressive.

2-Logan Couture (Sharks)
Though he did play in 25 regular season---and 15 post-season---games a year ago for the Sharks, Couture is still eligible for the Calder, and his league rookie-high 19 goals are too hard to ignore. Even recently when the puck has not been going in for him, Couture keeps driving for goals---firing shots on goal with abandon. A bit dinged up now, Couture has become an important player for the Sharks as they seek to secure a playoff spot in the season's second half.

3-Jeff Skinner (Hurricanes)
Boy, this is quite the toss up because there are many deserving candidates to fit into this top 3 of what is a terrific rookie class. Derek Stepan, Taylor Hall, Kevin Shattenkirk, John Carlson, and Brad Marchand are just some that deserve mention here. But Skinner is the most dynamic rookie I have seen all year, and the precocious 18 year-old does lead all NHL rookies in scoring with 33 points, so he gets the slight nod over the others.

Jack Adams Trophy

1-Alain Vignault (Canucks)
Vignault has his club atop the entire league with 62 points, and has recorded at least one point in its last 17 games (14-0-3). That is tremendous consistency, which is also proven by the fact that the Canucks have lost only 8 times in regulation over 42 games. They also have a +43 goal differential, scoring 145 goals and allowing just 102. This is a very talented team, but credit Vignault with pushing them to the top of the entire league halfway through the season, playing the majority of their games in the extremely tough Western Conference.

2-John Tortorella (Rangers)
I'm sorry, no one I know believed that the Rangers would be this good halfway through the season. Tortorella deserves much credit for easing up on his uber-intense personality just a bit and getting the entire team to buy into his system, which requires termendous work ethic and effort. That he has his club in a solid playoff position---after not reaching the post-season a year ago---despite a dizzying array of injuries to key players also puts Tortorella in solid contention for this award, I believe.

3-Guy Boucher (Lightning)
I give Boucher a slight edge here over Peter Laviolette, Marc Crawford, and Craig Ramsay. Steve Yzerman recognized that Boucher was one of the brightest young coaching talents down in the AHL and hired him in Tampa Bay to great results, so far. A terrific communicator and solid bench coach, Boucher has the Lightning in first place in their division, despite a weakness in goal that may have only recently been addressed. He's going to be a good one for quite some time, I think.

So what are your thoughts? Leave your comments here or reach out to me on Twitter.

Follow Me On Twitter: @jimcerny

A Tale of Ones

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Written on 1/12/2011 by Jim Cerny

Last night's game between the Rangers and Canadiens at Madison Square Garden---particularly events surrounding the first two periods of play---provided quite the numerical oddity, one that really can't be replicated again for another 11 years and one month.

I shared this strange---and somewhat fascinating---information via Twitter (@jimcerny) during the game, but feel it's worth repeating here.

Yesterday's date was January 11, 2011, or in its numerical form 1/11/11.

After two periods of play last night the Rangers and Canadiens were tied 1-1.

OK, 1-1 score on 1/11/11. Cute. But who cares?

Well, both teams accumulated 11 shots on goal in the second period.

Yes, that's a bit more interesting. 1-1 game, and each team with 11 shots on goal, on 1/11/11. Not so bad.

But there's a bit more. In fact, the best part.

Montreal tied the game on a goal scored by Jaroslav Spacek late in the second period to forge that 1-1 deadlock. And how much time was showing on the scoreboard clock at MSG when the disc eluded Henrik Lundqvist?

Why, 1:11, of course.

So that's a game tied 1-1 on a goal scored with 1:11 to play in a second period which saw each team record 11 shots on goal in a game played on 1/11/11.

Not sure what that all means. But it was pretty cool.

Note to the NHL powers that be: Make sure to schedule the Rangers and Canadiens again on February 22, 2022. Let's see what kind of magic these two Original Six franchises can muster on 2/22/22.

Follow Me On Twitter: @jimcerny

Stars in Dallas Talk Langenbrunner Trade

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Written on 1/07/2011 by Jim Cerny

After playing parts of nine seasons in New Jersey, Jamie Langenbrunner is heading back to the team that drafted him in the second round of the 1993 draft, and with whom he won the first of his two Stanley Cups, the Dallas Stars.

With the Devils at the bottom of the NHL standings, and with Lou Lamoriello looking to cut payroll, Langenbrunner---New Jersey's captain since December 5, 2007---became the first of what likely will be several exiled Devils.

For the Devils side of this trade, including comments from Langenbrunner today, check in with Tom Gulitti's excellent Fire and Ice blog.

As luck would have it I am here in Dallas with the Rangers for tonight's game, so I was able to catch up with  several key people in the world of the Dallas Stars this morning over at the American Airlines Center.

Here's what the star player, team captain, and head coach of the Dallas Stars all had to say....

Brad Richards

"Jamie has won Stanley Cups in this league, so he'll be another voice in this room...another example of how hard it is to win"

"I am very excited. Anytime you can add a guy whose done what he has done, and has already been in this organization---plus is good friends with Joe (Nieuwendyk, the Stars GM and former teammate of Langenbrunner's in Dallas and New Jersey)---you know we'll get everything he's got, and he'll come in here with a great attitude. He's always been a hard player to play against, which I like. I think that's the direction we are headed---being a good, hard, resiliant team---and he adds to that. I'm very excited to see him in this lineup."

Brendan Morrow

"Personally, I know what he brings to the team: good leader, good work ethic, plays in all situations. I'm looking forward to him getting here."

"He adds a little bit of everything: a good shot on the power play, hard on pucks on the forecheck, been in some pretty good systems in Dallas and New Jersey. It's just overall good for us."

"I know how close those guys are (Langenbrunner and Nieuwendyk), so we've heard about Jamie coming back here for a few years now...he had some success here, so we'd like to help him have more of that here."

Marc Crawford

"It's a great addition to our club which makes us a better team. You've got a guy that's familiar with Dallas and familiar with a great many of our fan base, and on the other side he's a quality leader, a captain--not only on his own team but on the US Olympic team last year, and a guy with playoff experience. If you are talking about a shot in the arm, we've gotten a tremendous one here today. We couldn't be more pleased to have Jamie Langenbrunner on board."

"Any time you have guys that have been the distance and have had those playoff experiences, they're guys that can help younger guys that haven't been there. This team hasn't been in the playoffs in a couple of years and we're not taking anything for granted. We're in a dogfight like everybody else in both conferences. The addition of Jamie Langenbrunner gives us more depth on our team, another right shot which we haven't had very many, and that helps us. I think it shows Brad Richards and others on this team that Hey, the organization really believes in us."

Monday Musings: Rangers Identity Risk, Tampa's Goalie Upgrade, and Canada's Shot at Revenge

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Written on 1/03/2011 by Jim Cerny

Here are some Monday morning quick hits from a reporter fresh off a New Years road trip to the Sunshine State:

Rangers Need a Helping Hand

I almost couldn't believe my eyes yesterday afternoon when I saw Rangers forward Ruslan Fedotenko grimacing in obvious extreme pain and holding his right arm/hand close to his body after blocking Bryan McCabe's slap shot.

Another injury for the Rangers. And even more head-shaking: another hand injury for the Rangers.

A team of hard-working and diligent foot-soldiers has been plagued by injuries all year---the team has lost 123 man-games to injury through 40 games this season---and, more specifically, hand injuries suffered while blocking shots have KO'd team captain Chris Drury for 31 games and currently have sidelined alternate captain Ryan Callahan for seven (and he is still 3-5 weeks away from returning to action).

And now Fedotenko, who has been a perfect fit alongside Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust on the Rangers most consistent, balanced, and persistant line all season long, takes a blast off the hand---though x-rays did not show a break.

The Blueshirts have proven to be a legit playoff contender, but their gritty identity has been skewed since losing Callahan in mid-December---and would further be taxed if Fedotenko misses some time. Despite the fact that their record has remained good since Callahan went down, they Rangers have not shown that pit-bull tendency to attack the opposition like when Cally was in the lineup showing the way with his over-the-top boundless energy and passion.

"Ryan Callahan embodies what a Ranger should be," said the club's coach John Tortorella.

And he is right. But now the healthy Rangers---and there are fewer of them by the day as there were four players sidelined by injury for yesterday's game, and that was BEFORE Fedotenko was hurt---need to step up and play as they did when Callahan was in the lineup. Dispassionate performances, like those of the last two games in which they produced one goal in more than 120 minutes of hockey down in the Sunshine State, will send this team on a freefall out of the Top 8 in the East.

The Rangers need to reclaim their identity and not let the evil hand of injury wash away the good they have created, so far, this season. 

Tampa Bay Acquires Dwayne Roloson

Ironic that on a night Tampa Bay watched rookie Cedrick Desjardins play brilliantly in earning a 2-1 overtime victory over the Rangers---two nights after winning his debut 4-1 against Montreal---that the Lightning go out and acquire 41 year-old goalie Dwayne Roloson from the Islanders. But no matter the timing, it was a solid move by team GM Steve Yzerman.

Desjardins was heading back to the minors anyway, leaving the Lightning with the middle-of-the-road tandem of Dan Ellis and Mike Smith---who returns shortly from a knee injury---to backstop the top team in the Southeast Division.

While Roloson is no superstar, nor even the best goalie who may come on to the market before the trade deadline---think Tomas Vokoun, for example---he was having another strong year for a struggling Islanders team, and will definitely be an up-grade over Ellis and Smith.

Should Roloson help make the Lightning defense even a bit better---and my bet is that he will surely do that---then this is a steal for Yzerman, who for a low cost (he traded away a minor league defenseman and added the affordable contract of Roloson) gave his team-on-the-rise a better chance to win its division and, perhaps, make some noise in the post-season.

USA-Canada Meet Tonight at WJC

Canada won the international hockey event that mattered the most last year---the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver---but that doesn't mean the hockey-mad country isn't hell bent on revenge tonight vs. the United States. For it was also last year that Team USA secured a gold medal of its own by winning the 2010 World Junior Championships, besting Canada in an epic overtime finale.

Tonight Team Canada seeks its revenge, squaring off in a semi-final match-up with the United States at the '11 WJC. You just know they would love to hear "Oh Canada" played up in Buffalo on US soil following this evening's clash.

Like last year, these are two very talented teams, with the US squad perhaps holding a slight advantage in that department this time around. Goalie Jack Campbell looms to be the difference maker should the United States win.

But this is must-watch TV tonight. Catch it on the NHL Network here in the States beginning at 7:30.

Follow Me On Twitter: @jimcerny

In Reality It's Crosby vs. Stamkos

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Written on 12/31/2010 by Jim Cerny

During the first half of the season the National Hockey League has offered up non-stop promotion for its reality series on HBO centered around Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby---one that will culminate in tomorrow's much hyped and aniticipated Winter Classic at Heinz Field.

In the second half of the season no other special programming is planned, though I suggest that focus shift from the Sid the Kid vs. Ovie to Sid vs. The New Kid in Town, Tampa's Steven Stamkos.

Crosby and Stamkos do not have the history that Sid and Ovechkin share, and Stamkos has yet to be raised by the league's marketing gurus to their lofty status just yet. But is there a better one-on-one battle being waged in the league right now than the one between Crosby and Stamkos for the Hart Trophy (not to mention Art Ross Trophy and Rocket Richard Trophy)?

Like Sid and Ovie, these two are former first overall picks carrying great expectations on their shoulders---and succeeding in masterful fashion. Their games are a bit different---Stamkos more the sniper, Crosby more the overall package offensively---but since tying for the NHL's goal-scoring lead a year ago, the games of Stamkos and Crosby have been more intertwined really than those of Sid and Ovie.

Stamkos scored another pair of goals last night, including a you-can't-believe-this spin-o-rama penalty shot goal vs. Montreal's helpless Carey Price. He now has 9 points (5-4-9) in his last 4 games. And perhaps most impressive is the fact that despite Crosby reeling off an incredible 25-game point-scoring streak, Stamkos is still right there breathing down Sid's neck in both the points race and the goal-scoring race.

The kid chasing The Kid.

Check out the numbers of the two: Crosby, 23, leads the league with 32 goals and 65 points in 39 games. Stamkos, 3 years younger at 20, is second in both categories with 31 goals and 56 points in 38 games. Stamkos leads the NHL with 13 power play goals, and Crosby is second with 10. Stamkos is connecting on 22% of his shots, Sid right behind at 20.8%. Crosby is second in the league with a +20 plus/minus mark, Stamkos is a solid +12 for a much looser defensive team.

And most importantly, Crosby's team and Stamkos' team are both winning. Currently the Penguins sit atop the Atlantic Division---and the Eastern Conference---with 53 points. The Lightning lead the Southeast Division with 49 points while holding down the second seed in the East.

Should all of this success continue---and really, barring injury to either player, why wouldn't it?---there is going to be one heckuva' run for the Hart Trophy as the league's Most Valuable Player.

Right now my pick would be....oh wait, can't give away any secrets here. My "Halfway Home Awards" are coming next week here on Rink Rap, as I choose the league's award winners through the first half of the season.

But let's just say this is a two-man race. And Alex Ovehckin isn't in this picture.

The kid versus The Kid.

###

Tonight closes out a very action-packed calendar year 2010. Thank you for the support you have shown me this past year---and thanks for the debates, suggestions, and laughs along the way.

Enjoy ringing in the new year this evening, but please be smart and be safe so that we can share more great memories together in 2011!

Follow Me On Twitter: @jimcerny

Sutter Resigns, Devilish Problems, and Wiz Trade Shows Isles Colors

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Written on 12/29/2010 by Jim Cerny

With much news in hockey land of late, here is a smorgasbord of the most important doings the past few days, and my quick take on each.

Daryl Sutter Resigns as GM of the Flames

This was not a shock, and probably could have/should have happened this past summer. The Flames are a midling team at present---one stuck with 11 no-trade/no-movement contracts---with a weak farm system after one poor draft after another.

That falls on the general manager. And as such, with the Flames sitting in 14th place in the Western Conference, it was no suprise that team president Ken King asked for--and received---Sutter's resignation.

But all that said, I don't understand the level of vitriol that has been sent Sutter's way, in general, by the hockey media, not to mention the glee with which Sutter's resignation has been reported.

Sutter is no bouyant personality, never looking to be quick with a joke or to banter with media folk. I get that. But I also understand that he made a series of bold moves earlier in the decade to turn Calgary back into a relevant franchise again, one that was within a controversial call of winning the Stanley Cup.

Under his stewardship---both as general manager and head coach---the Flames became a profitable organization once again, not to mention a contender on a regular basis. That needs to be recognized as part of Daryl Sutter's record as much as his recent head-scratching moves and lack of on-ice success the past couple of years.

As for the bottom line, the Flames are in good hands with interim GM Jay Feaster, a solid hockey man, in charge for now. But it will take time to clean up this mess, what with untradeable veterans and less-than high-end prospects in the organization.

Devil of  a Time in New Jersey

John Maclean finally got the boot as coach of the Devils, with Lou Lamoriello dropping the axe right before Christmas on one of the organization's most popular and devoted all-time individuals. The move was as justified---the Devils are shockingly last overall in the 30-team National Hockey League---as it was disrespectfully timed.

That Jacques Lemaire was brought back in by Lamoriello to coach this mess of a team, mere months after an exhausted Lemaire retired as bench boss in Jersey following a first-round playoff pasting at the hands of the Flyers, is either a desperate move, a convenient move, or a move of a man who could think of no other move.

Nonetheless Lamoriello now has to figure out how to purge salary from his Cap-stressed roster and begin to look towards how to fix things in time for next season. He is all but begging some other team to claim Brian Rolston on re-entry waivers by noon tomorrow---a move that would save the Devils half of Rolston's $5 million salary this year and next.

That is the only beginning, though. Lamoriello has a helluva' lot more work to do than that. And while purging salary, he needs to find a way to be creative and get Zach Parise---the injured, yet soon-to-be-star-free-agent---signed this summer, and then attempt to rebuild his awful defense corps while getting Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac and the like to score like they used to.

I spoke with a Devils staffer today at the Prudential Center and he wore the blank look of someone shellshocked by what has happened this season. As that Devils employee and I said to one another, seasons like this always have seemed to happen to other teams---pretty much every other team in the NHL, actually---just not to the Devils.

Now that it has happened to the Devils, Lamoriello and the organization do not seem to know how to slow down the snowball that has swiftly descended the negative slope.

And thus they are buried in an avalanche of a mess.

Islanders Trade Wisniewski to Canadiens

On the surface the Islanders trade of defenseman James Wisniewski to the Montreal Canadiens for two draft picks, including a second rounder, seems like a win-win for both clubs.

The Islanders are not in playoff contention and they turned the servicable Wisniewski into a pair of draft picks.

The Canadiens are in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, battling for their playoff lives with a string of other teams, and could use veteran help on the blueline, especially now that the club has seemed to decide that rookie PK Subban is not quite ready for a regular role among the top six defensemen.

But what irks me about this trade is that I get a nagging feeling that the Islanders just wanted to drop more salary from their payroll. That Charles Wang is in Garth Snow's ear telling him to drop even closer to the Cap floor, though I don't know how much further down they can go before falling through that floor.

I spoke with a respected veteran NHL person "in the know" today and he said exactly what I was thinking, "At some point you have to stop selling this notion of the future, the future, and start showing something in the present. This guy (Wisniewski) is no star, but he was vital to that team. In my opinion this was all about shedding more salary and continuing to sell the idea that stockpiling draft picks and prospects is the way to go."

Couldn't agree more. It's almost like a street-card game of Three Card Monty. Keep shuffling in a fast deceiving way, keep offering hope, but never deliver the goods.

And so it goes on The Island...

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