Sunday, February 28, 2010

Almost time for hockey chaos...and more chaos!

Clearly most of the hockey world's attention today will be centered on the US-Canada Gold Medal showdown at 3 PM on NBC, a rematch of a first-round game where the US beat the favored Canadians 5-3. However, this time around Canada will be starting local boy Roberto Luongo in net and not Martin Brodeur. Luongo has won all four games he's started in the Olympics while Brodeur was subpar in the earlier loss to the USA after Canada needed a four-round shootout to beat Switzerland. Of course Team USA has plenty of local representation with captain Jamie Langenbrunner and Zach Parise (who's heated up in the medal round) of the Devils and the dynamic PK tandem of Chris Drury and Ryan Callahan from the Rangers but for one more afternoon at least, team lines can be blurred.

With Finland's come from behind win against Slovakia to take the Bronze last night, the third US-Canada showdown (including the Canadien women beating the US women's team) of these Olympics is all that's left of what's been a great fortnight hockey-wise. I'll leave the preview and recap of the showdown and the whole tournament to Derek...what I want to talk about is not the chaos that will descend on Vancouver this afternoon just before the closing ceremonies but rather about the chaos that will accompany the return of the last quarter of the NHL's regular season.

For those of us that won't stop watching hockey once the final whistle blows in the Gold Medal match, there'll be a new meaning to the word 'whirlwind'. Between the lifting of the trade freeze at midnight tonight and the actual end of the NHL trade deadline Wednesday at 3 PM there should be a flurry of activity. Especially considering GM's have had two weeks to talk and negotiate deals while the majority of NHL'ers were getting some deserved rest from the hectic schedule. I wouldn't be surprised if more deals took place in the twelve hours after the freeze gets lifted than in the twelve hours before the trade deadline. After all, what's maybe one game between now and Wednesday really going to change for anyone? Everyone's already had ample opportunity to take stock of whether they'll be buyers or sellers.

Much to my surprise I found out the trade freeze wasn't a total roster freeze and the wheels have already started in motion locally, with the Rangers claiming Alex Auld off re-entry waivers from the Stars after the Stars' acquisition of Kari Lehtonen before the deadline to back up (and eventually challenge) Marty Turco. Both the Rangers and the Devils made huge preemptive strikes just before the roster freeze, with the Rangers getting Olli Jokinen and the Devils' blockbuster trade for Ilya Kovalchuk.

Will any of the local teams do more? I'd imagine the Rangers will do something, within cap constraints given they're in their annual spring chase for the playoffs. While the Sabres were struggling just before the break, having Ryan Miller play as well as he has for Team USA during the Olympics bodes well for them down the stretch, though it can be a double-edged sword having him play six games during the Olympics to go along with his normal heavy schedule. That's one of the reasons I'm glad Brodeur lost the Team Canada job, though I don't really expect the three or four games he doesn't play now to make a difference in the end since he'll probably play 77 games for us anyway. Still, losing his job and maybe seeing Luongo win the gold in much the same way he won the gold after Curtis Joseph got roasted in '02 will provide him with a chip on his shoulder for the rest of the season.

All's not well with the Devils in any case, not only has the team nosedived since New Year's but the injury bug remains a factor since Paul Martin is still recovering from his broken arm in late October. Apparently the Devils had to re-break the arm in late December when it didn't heal correctly and he still doesn't have enough strength in it to shoot pucks. Tentatively he's targeting March 10 against the Rangers (the Devils' home return) as a comeback date but who knows anymore?

So defense remains an issue and having a centerman that can win faceoffs and play some two-way hockey is also a concern. I wouldn't put it past Lou Lamoriello to do another deal or two now that he tipped his hand with the Kovalchuk acquisition. If he does decide to trade for a defenseman though, please Lou - just deal with Minnesota (or nobody at all) assuming any of their better d-men are even on the market. At least the Wild d-men know the system, it seems as if anyone else we acquire has trouble acclimating to the team in time to really contribute during the season. There is at least some good news on the horizon with the return of gritty winger David Clarkson on Tuesday in San Jose after his own long absence from the lineup.

Will the Islanders trade? Probably, though they don't have a lot of vets on their team with any value. Maybe they convince someone to take Martin Biron but being a third-stringer on a team that's not making the playoffs again doesn't lead teams to beat down your door. Around the rest of the league, the biggest name I hear involved in rumors is the Panthers' Tomas Vokoun and teams like the Blackhawks (who could use an upgrade from Cristobal Huet and a more veteran presence to complement Antti Niemi) may well be agressive in trying to acquire the top-shelf Czech goalie.

One thing's for sure...there won't be any time to be sad over the end of the Olympics, no matter the result of this afternoon's game. Though most teams don't get back into action until Tuesday, Detroit and Colorado do resume the NHL schedule tomorrow night at 9 PM. That, coupled with the flurry of trades still to come should make for a quick transition back into the NHL season before the stretch drive.

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