Struggling Avalanche should be fine with Aebischer in goal
Posted: Thursday October 23, 2003 8:50PM; Updated: Thursday October 23, 2003 8:51PM
Everyone is wondering whether Sean Burke, Curtis Joseph or Nikolai Khabibulin will end the season in the crease for the Colorado Avalanche.
Sure, Pierre Lacroix could pull one of his magical deadline deals to nab a netminder if that's what the Avs need to contend for the Stanley Cup, but I think the status quo will work out just fine in Denver.
Unlike many other pundits, I fully expect David Aebischer to remain Colorado's starting goalie for the entire season.
The Avalanche have expressed their commitment to Abby as the No. 1 netminder, and while they could renege on it, Lacroix isn't the type of guy to easily admit that he made a mistake, which he essentially would be doing if he trades for someone else as the top goalie ahead of Aebischer.
Colorado had been building goaltending depth in the organization through the draft for the past half decade in anticipation of Patrick Roy's retiring after the 2003-04 season. St. Patrick accelerated his timetable, so Aebischer was forced to take over in net a year earlier than expected.
The Avs have disappointed thus far with a 2-3 record, but the play of the goaltenders isn't to blame. Aebischer is 2-2 with a 2.02 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage in four starts. He played well in Colorado's first three games, then struggled in Tuesday's 4-1 loss to Boston, allowing four goals on 34 shots. Phil Sauve's NHL debut on Saturday was less than stellar, but Colorado has been playing sloppy defensively, so it's hard to place the blame on the goaltenders.
The Avs have been sloppy in their own end, and their turnovers and inability to build up speed through the neutral zone have wasted the advantage their two dominant scoring lines gives them. But with Paul Kariya sidelined with a wrist injury and Steve Konowalchuk coming over from Washington for Bates Battaglia, Colorado will have to shake up its lineup in the short term, but the changes could result in more permanent new combinations.
The trio of Alex Tanguay, Peter Forsberg and Milan Hejduk is unlikely to be broken up after dominating the league for the final 55 games last season, but the Kariya-Joe Sakic-Teemu Selanne line could be shifted around. Tony Granato benched Selanne for much of the third period of the loss to the Bruins, while Riku Hahl was given some time centering the top unit between Tanguay and Hejduk.
Konowalchuk is likely to slide into Kariya's spot on the left wing playing with Sakic and Selanne, but once Kariya returns, it's not a certainty that he'll take that spot back. Granato might be wise to try to spread out his scoring a bit more, perhaps playing Kariya and Selanne on the third line with a gritty player like Hahl between them. Playing Sakic between hustle players like Konowalchuk and Dan Hinote would lower Sakic's potential for points, but it would spread out the scoring threat beyond the top six forwards.
It's doubtful that Aebischer will match Marty Turco's incredible numbers from his first season as a starter, but he's not going to put up a goals-against average close to 3.00, as some people have been intimating. I believe Aebischer will play around 55 regular-season games and Sauve will take the other 27 or so. And if he gets hot late in the year and can carry that momentum into the postseason, Abby and the Avs' remarkable offense could contend for the Stanley Cup.
Aebischer is a quiet, respectful young man who is confident in an unburdened sort of way. I spoke with him after the YoungStars Game in Florida last February and he could only chuckle about how pointless it was to have goalies take part in that shooting gallery of an exhibition game. But even eight months ago, he was preparing himself for the day he'd take over for Roy. He spoke of what a daunting but exciting task it would be.
Aebischer's time is now, so expect him to man the crease at the Pepsi Center for the remainder of the season.
About your playoff predictions -- what about the Thrashers? They should get some notability for what they are doing early on in the season. With Ilya Kovalchuk and coach Bob Hartley, the Thrashers should at least make the eighth spot, don't you think? -- Duy Lam, Atlanta
No, I don't think the Thrashers should be in the eighth spot, or else I would've put them in there. Atlanta's hot start has been impressive, but I'm still not convinced that the Thrashers have what it takes to keep up this level of play for the entire regular season and make the playoffs.
The Thrashers were impressive in stealing a point in Tampa on Tuesday night by rallying to force overtime against the Lightning, but before that, their schedule was kind of soft. But it won't be much longer.
Atlanta has a tough stretch coming up in a few weeks, when it plays eight of 10 on the road. If the Thrashers are still above .500 after that, they probably will jump into the playoff seed rankings. And keep in mind that the playoff seed rankings are different than the Power Rankings.
I just read in one of your Mailbag answers that the NHL is suggesting a $31 million cap. I understand that people always lowball in negotiations, but can't either side just agree to meet in the middle to avoid what happened to baseball in '94? Don't you think a $40 million to $50 million cap is more reasonable? -- Jason, Daejeon, South Korea
The NHLPA summarily rejected the league's claim that a salary cap was needed in their initial meeting in Toronto a few weeks back. But in an effort to create goodwill and an appearance that they are trying to do something about salaries, the PA offered to cut all salaries by 5 percent, which was rejected by owners.
That pretty much sets up a year's worth of what we should expect in the labor negotiations -- more rejections than Dikembe Mutombo could deliver.
Based on last year's salary figures, 14 of the 30 teams had payrolls of more than $40 million, so the $31 million figure for a salary cap sounds unnaturally low.
If the average NHL player salary of $1.81 million was used based on a 23-man roster, a salary cap of $41.63 million could be established. That would be reasonable enough that the lower-end teams would probably go along with it, but the big-buck boys, like the Rangers, Red Wings, Avalanche, Stars and Blues, might have a hard time getting down to that level.
Krystal from Vancouver suggested that "the logical means of determining a salary cap would be to simply take the average of all current payrolls." That number also would fall somewhere in the low $40 million range, making that a good number for the owners to shoot for in their quest for a cap.
What's the deal with Theo Fleury? I've heard he's eligible for reinstatement, but would the Commish reinstate him? And is there any talk about interest by any teams? -- Scott Newman, Williams Lake, British Columbia
I can say with some confidence that we've seen the last of Fleury in the NHL. Fleury was suspended without pay in April for violating the terms of his aftercare program in the Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program of the NHL and NHLPA. Under the terms of his suspension, Fleury would've been able to apply for reinstatement on Oct. 11. But he didn't seek immediate treatment and, in fact, delayed seeking help for two months after the suspension took effect. That means he isn't eligible to apply for reinstatement until sometime in December.
Fleury is an alcoholic who has relapsed on several occasions and been given second and third chances by NHL teams. The Blackhawks' experiment with Fleury last season was an unmitigated disaster, and his involvement in a strip club incident with Tyler Arnason and Phil Housley in Columbus, Ohio, on Jan. 19 fractured the Blackhawks' locker room. The team was 21-13-8-3 at the time, but then lost five of its next six and went into a tailspin that saw it spiral all the way down to 11 points out of the final Western Conference playoff spot.
Team sources have said that they will cut their ties with Fleury if he is formally reinstated. It's a safe bet to think that other teams would follow the Blackhawks' lead and not touch Fleury again because he is too much of a character -- and team chemistry -- risk.
I am a Los Angeles Kings fan, and I have to admit I am a little concerned about the post-concussion syndrome that Adam Deadmarsh has. It seems that everyone is questioning "when" he will come back. I say that the question is, will he come back? Do you believe he will make it in the lineup soon, or is he done and everyone is afraid to admit it? -- Joe, West Toluca Lake, Calif.
Do you think Murray would separate the J-A-Z line if they get healthy? Perhaps it would be better to let one of them play with Frolov and Brown or something like that? -- Kristian, Greve, Denmark
The Kings are expecting Deadmarsh and Jason Allison back soon, but they aren't ready to put a date on their returns yet. And they definitely don't want to rush them back, both because they don't want to risk a recurrence of the concussions and because the team chemistry is pretty good right now.
"They are skating and are medically cleared," Kings head coach Andy Murray told me last week. "It's just a matter of when they feel that they are through the symptoms and can start taking contact. Then, once they take contact for a week or so, we'll put them into a game. But we just don't know when those symptoms are going to subside."
Palffy has been playing so well with Jozef Stumpel and rookie Dustin Brown on the second line -- or what Murray refers to as the "black line" -- that it's unlikely that unit would be broken up.
The Kings' top unit (the "red line") has consisted of Luc Robitaille, Derek Armstrong and Trent Klatt. Armstrong was the surprising star of the preseason for the Kings, but he has slowed down in the early going of the regular season and could be a candidate to slide down to a lower line once Allison is ready. Klatt was brought in as a depth guy, but the Kings love the grittiness he has brought to their lineup so far, so he might not get pushed off the top unit once Deadmarsh return.
Klatt is bigger, tougher and more durable than Deadmarsh, so until Deader can prove that he's healthy and willing to play the tough-guy game the Kings need on their top line, it's likely that he will spend some time on one of the lower forward lines working himself back into game shape with less ice time.
Will Rick DiPietro be an All-Star one day? -- Gildo, New York
DiPietro is off to a fine start, but he may be a year or two away from contending for a spot in the All-Star Game. The East has quite a bit of depth in the nets with Martin Brodeur, Ed Belfour, Khabibulin, Olaf Kolzig, Patrick Lalime, Roberto Luongo and Jose Theodore, so DiPietro's chances look better for the future than for this season.
Playing in front of the Islanders' fabulous foursome of Adrian Aucoin, Kenny Jonsson, Roman Hamrlik and Janne Niinimaa won't hurt DiPietro's chances, either, but I don't see him earning an All-Star spot for another couple of seasons.
With the possibility of next year's NHL season being wiped out due to this labor situation, do you think the newly reformed WHA has a shot at being an accepted alternative? -- David Kellow, Toronto
The WHA is marketing itself as everything it believes the NHL isn't. The WHA wants to be seen as the fans' league, a brand of hockey that caters to the wishes of hardcore hockey fans while presenting a more affordable, fan-friendly product than the NHL.
But the WHA won't work if the NHL settles its labor dispute. The timing of launching the WHA for the 2004-05 season was built entirely around the possibility that the NHL might not be playing its regular season due to a lockout. If that comes to fruition, fans will want their hockey jones and will check out the WHA. If the NHL reaches agreement with the NHLPA on a new collective bargaining agreement before any games are lost, the WHA will be dead on arrival.
Being a Canucks fan, I'm happy to see their jump in this week's rankings, but a lot of teams went up/down by quite a few places. I guess my question is, why such volatility in the rankings? -- Ryan Denning, St. Louis
Early in the season, the Power Rankings fluctuate more than Liza Minelli's moods. Much like a batting average early in the baseball season, a couple of wins or losses can send a team skyrocketing up or plummeting down the board. Some people wish I'd base them more on the records, while others wish I'd ignore the records altogether. I try to find common ground somewhere in the middle.
I caught some flak (see next question) for ranking the Predators at No. 18 despite their having a winning record at 3-2. My justification is that Nashville deserves to be rewarded for its impressive start, but its 3-1 loss at Chicago tainted some of the goodwill the Preds had built up with three wins in their first four games. Still, Nashville was the worst of the teams that were at .500 or above, but was clearly better than any of the teams behind it.
Once a few more games are put in the books, the rankings will take on a more consistent look as a tool to sort out the best teams.
Must you always disrespect the Preds? They just happen to be the lowest ranking team with a winning record. What would it take for the Preds to break the top half of your rankings? -- Will Sevier, Milan, Tenn.
Will, I realize that being a hockey fan in the state of Tennessee is harder than trying to get a suntan in Antarctica, but frankly there hasn't been much about the Predators to get excited about in their early history. Expansion teams are definitely Rodney Dangerfields for the first several years of their existence.
Don't interpret that as a slap against the Predators franchise; it's just that they have chosen to go the slow, steady, building rout, unlike the Wild, who apparently sold their souls to the devil for playoff success. I think the slow-growth method they've followed will benefit the team in the long run, as a steady stream of Predators draft picks will continue to work their way into the team's rotation over the next year or two.
The Predators are one of the best organizations to deal with top to bottom. You can't help but root for good people to do good things, and as their on-ice performance continues to improve, so will the amount of national coverage they receive.
I've given more than my fair share of ink to a franchise that has never made the playoffs. I must point out that I am one of few people from a major publication or Web site who paid the Predators much attention last season. I did a piece on David Legwand right before the team embarked on its hot two-month run to get into playoff contention. I think I've always been fair to the Preds and given them the amount of play they have been deserving of on a national level.
Are the Hurricanes going to make a move for someone who can score and turn this team around? -- Alex, Tulsa, Okla.
The 'Canes have such players on their roster. Their names are Jeff O'Neill and Radim Vrbata. O'Neill needs to stop breaking sticks in frustration and start putting the puck in the net. Vrbata needs to summon the level of play that helped him score five goals in 10 games after coming over from Colorado at the trade deadline.
Carolina realizes that it's going to be hard to jump back into playoff contention just one season after finishing last in the league with 61 points, enduring a 30-point dropoff, so they were optimistic that a 30-point gain was possible.
The early signs aren't encouraging, however. They aren't scoring goals, and only their trapping system and solid play by Kevin Weekes has kept them in games. Three consecutive ties are better than three losses in a row, but the winless 'Canes are on pace for a 49-point season, and speculation about Paul Maurice's job security will heat up if they don't get their first win soon.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.