Pushing for Peca
Readers heavily support adding Islanders center to Team Canada
The mail came in fast and furious about last week's possible rosters for Canada and the United States in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.
And the feeling is unanimous. No, not that my lineups were perfect ... that the World Cup can't get here soon enough.
The passions invoked by international hockey have fans on both sides of the border fired up nearly nine months before each team begins its training camp. As is typical, my e-mail was about 75-25 from Canadians, who offered much more detailed and reasoned responses. Some of them took a swipe at me for being an American, but my country of birth has nothing to do with my leanings or choices for these squads. I'll have you know that I picked Canada to win gold before the 2002 Olympics and only picked the U.S. to take bronze.
And if I had to be pegged down for an order of finish for the World Cup this far in advance, I think I would go with Canada, Russia, Sweden and the U.S. at this point. I just don't think Team USA has the depth as the other top nations, and that the Americans' roster is aging quickly. By the time the 2006 Olympics roll around, Team USA will scarcely resemble the group that played just four years prior.
The biggest beef readers had was with me leaving Michael Peca's name off my list of Team Canada possibilities. The players listed certainly weren't the only possibilities, but I had to cut off the lists at some point.
Peca's name was the next one off my list, and in consulting with international hockey expert Joe Pelletier about my selections, he told me to expect a barrage of e-mails in support of Peca. He couldn't have been more correct.
Canadians are loyal people, and the fact that Peca was on the 2002 gold-medal winning Olympic team seems to be an automatic invite back for the 2004 World Cup in most readers' minds. And considering that Team Canada wants to do nearly everything in as similar a fashion as possible, that could well end up being the case.
But from my perspective, Peca's numbers are off a bit this season, and he has looked a half-step slow in every Islanders game I've watched. My inclusion of Justin Williams basically was taking Peca's place as the checking center. Williams' stock is soaring thanks to his breakout year in Philadelphia, and his offensive upside is significantly higher than Peca's. But the feisty Peca is a veteran of international play, and his experience is probably worth of consideration.
When I'm wrong, I admit that I'm wrong. And in this case, you've convinced me that Peca deserves to be there, despite my misgivings with his play.
The remainder of players who got mentioned most frequently of being worth of at least a look by Wayne Gretzky and Team Canada included Jason Allison, Sean Burke, Anson Carter, Barret Jackman, Curtis Joseph, Bryan McCabe, Keith Primeau, Brendan Shanahan, Jason Spezza, Jordin Tootoo and Steve Yzerman. Bob Hartley was the name most frequently brought up as a possible member of the coaching staff that I failed to include, but his ego and poor relationship with many other coaches around the league -- Jacques Martin, in particular -- make him a longshot for inclusion on the staff.
As for Team USA, Erik Cole, Brent Johnson, John LeClair, John-Michael Liles, Shawn McEachern, Ryan Miller and Chris Osgood garnered the most frequent support from readers. Osgood was born in Peace River, Alberta, but is a naturalized U.S. citizen who has never represented Canada in international competition, and therefore would be eligible to play for his new country. LeClair's injuries worry me, but Cole's toughness would be a fine addition to the U.S. team. If he can continue to play at the level he has shown this year, Cole would merit strong consideration from whomever is chosen to serve as the GM for Team USA.
Keep the letters coming. Judging by the interest you've shown already, I will need to revisit the World Cup often. And if the interest is there, I could outline possible rosters for the other six nations, too, with reader suggestions always welcome, of course.
The last two seasons have seen Cinderella teams make it to the Stanley Cup Finals (Carolina in 2002 and Anaheim in 2003). Who is your early pick to unexpectedly make it deep into the 2004 playoffs? -- Charbel G. Balloutine, Toronto
It's hard to predict which team will be a Cinderella next spring when we don't know how the chips will fall yet. Toward the end of March when we have a better idea of where teams will fall in their conference standings, then choosing a likely surprise and disappointing team will be a much easier task.
Each week in the Week at a Glance, I take my best guess as to what the playoff seeds might look like. According to this week's list, the Red Wings as a No. 6 seed could be a pretty threatening team in the playoffs. I had the Stars as a No. 3 seed, which obviously would mean they would win the Pacific Division, but the Glance was written on Sunday, before Dallas lost to Detroit 6-2 to fall under .500.
If the Wild get going, they would stand a pretty good chance of repeating what they did a year ago. Marian Gaborik was so good in the postseason, especially in the Canucks series. While most of the rest of Minnesota's team isn't scary offensively, Gaborik's ability to take over a series means the Wild could make another deep playoff run, even if they barely sneak into the postseason.
With the Oilers, Hurricanes and Wings struggling, why not trade either Curtis Joseph or Manny Legace to Edmonton for Mike Comrie? Edmonton should try to deal Tommy Salo, maybe to the Avalanche. Or, throw the Hurricanes into a three-way deal that will see Comrie and a Carolina defenseman head to Detroit, Igor Grigorenko (or another Red Wings top prospect) and Josef Vasicek to Edmonton, and Carolina receiving Joseph and one Edmonton draft pick? -- Bernard Szeto, Toronto
You are making me dizzy with all of these trade possibilities! Comrie would be a nice fit in Detroit, as they are still looking for depth in the middle to replace Sergei Fedorov. But the Avs would have no use to Salo, who is no better than David Aebischer or Phil Sauve.
The three-way trade you propose is intriguing, but I don't know that Edmonton would take a risk on Grigorenko. When healthy, he was regarded as one of the best prospects in the game, but they would need to get a sure thing back from Detroit in this deal. The Oilers' bigger need is on the blueline, so maybe Niklas Kronvall would fit better into this proposal.
The Wings would have to pick up nearly all of CuJo's $8 million salary for the 'Canes to bite on this deal, because they have no interest in adding to their payroll. Carolina wants to give Kevin Weekes an entire season as the unquestioned No. 1 to show what he can do, so Joseph doesn't make sense for them. Considering the rebuilding mode the 'Canes are in, adding a veteran goalie with just a few years left would go against the direction of the rest of the franchise.
Why doesn't the NHL want to enlarge the rinks? Saying they'll lose money is not true! There will always be front rows. Row C renamed to row A is now worth front row price. Yes, they'll lose two rows but they'll be back rows and those back rows are empty anyway! -- David Belanger, Quebec City, Quebec
The NHL is desperately trying to improve the speed and play of hockey games. Probably the best solution, though a tremendous undertaking, would be to increase the size of the rink to International dimensions. Do you think that arenas and teams around the NHL could pull it off without jeopardizing their revenue? -- John Messina, Hackensack, N.J.
David makes a good point that there would always be a front row, even if it was a bit behind where the current front row is. But while tearing out a few rows of seats to accommodate the wider rinks would still leave you with a front row, there is only a finite number of seats in the lower deck, and owners don't want to lose those valuable lower-level seats.
I would love to see the 100-foot wide rinks used in NHL competition, too, and I think the owners are blowing smoke when they use lost revenue as an excuse. With the increased excitement and scoring that would be generated by having approximately 17.6 percent more ice, the owners might be pleasantly surprised by the additional revenue they would reap by having a more popular product.
If the Red Wings can't unload CuJo, are they willing to keep all three goalies? And can they just release him if no team wants him without having to deal with part of his contract? -- Al, Detroit
The Wings would have to pay a portion of Joseph's salary even if they released him. Most NHL contracts stipulate a buyout clause of two-thirds of the remaining salary, so based on CuJo's salaries of $8 million each for 2003-04 and '04-05, Detroit would have to pay him $10.67 million if it released him. That would be foolish, since the Wings probably could swing a deal with another team, where even if they weren't getting much in return as far as players or picks, their share of Joseph's salary would be less than $10.67 million. So Detroit will be patient until a deal comes along that makes sense. Or until Dominik Hasek goes crazy from having CuJo around. Whichever happens first.
What's your take on Bobby Clarke's suggested plan to ban goaltenders from handling the puck outside the crease? -- Chip, Mount Vernon, N.Y.
Many GMs have been proposing clever suggestions to increase scoring, and Clarke's idea is among the most novel. His arguments is that netminders used to handle the puck very infrequently on dump-ins, and banning them from going behind the net to stop the puck on a rim-around play would open up forechecking, and thereby increase scoring.
That may well be true, but it also would nullify the advantage that teams like the Devils and Islanders have gained from drafting and nurturing the puckhandling skills of Martin Brodeur and Rick DiPietro, who are regarded as the two best in the business. A better idea to increase scoring would be for coaches to take it upon themselves to preach systems other than the trap, which is what is mostly responsible for keeping scores down.
Clarke's own head coach, Ken Hitchcock, is a purveyor of this system, so it makes you wonder how committed Clarke really is to increasing the amount of offense in the game. If the Flyers win a Stanley Cup with a defensive-based system, you can be sure that Clarke would no longer feel that any changes need to be made.
Do you think Pavel Bure will return to play for the Rangers at some point in the season, and, if so, do they have the ability to contend for the Cup? -- Kishan, East Windsor, N.J.
The chances of Bure returning to play for the Blueshirts this season are remote. His career is in jeopardy, and it remains to be seen how committed he will be to rehabilitating this latest knee injury. If they had the Russian Rocket, the Rangers would have a much better chance to win the Cup, but without his speed and laser-like shot, too much of the offensive load will be placed on Alexei Kovalev, who always has been best as a complementary player.
Is the Flyers' current goaltending strong enough to get them to the finals? -- Rob Shipley, Bear, Del.
Robert Esche has just 30 minutes of playoff experience, while Jeff Hackett is only 3-7 with a 3.54 goals-against average in 12 career playoff games. I can see why Flyers fans fear a repeat of Roman Cechmanek's postseason meltdown of the past two years. But the rest of Philly's team looks much more solid than it has in either of those seasons.
Joni Pitkanen has solidified the defense and given another option for some scoring help from the back end, while up front, Justin Williams is emerging as the physical force that Flyers fans always hoped he'd be. With Tony Amonte, Jeremy Roenick, Keith Primeau and John LeClair, Philadelphia has scoring balance among its top three lines. Heck, even perma-underachiever Sami Kapanen has looked good.
But, ultimately, the Flyers' hopes will come down to how well Esche and Hackett play between the pipes. They have both been excellent so far, but then again, Cechmanek was always good in the regular season, too.
What is the possibility that Scotty Bowman would return to coaching? -- Mike, Macomb, Mich.
I don't expect Bowman to coach again, unless its behind Team Canada's bench in the 2004 World Cup or the 2006 Olympics. And even those are remote possibilities. Sure, teams will call him to gauge his interest when jobs open up, but Bowman seems happy in retirement and probably wouldn't want to start building a team toward the Stanley Cup again at age 70.
If the Kings are able to stay healthy and get Jason Allison and Adam Deadmarsh back, do you see them as a Cup contender this year? What are their chances if they just stay healthy? -- Hockeyrat, Bakersfield, Calif.
I'm a huge fan of the Kings' style and Andy Murray's coaching and motivational ability. But Murray hasn't been able to find the magic elixir to heal his star players' concussion symptoms. Los Angeles would like to duplicate the playoff success of its neighbors from Orange County a year ago, but that would be difficult without Allison and Deadmarsh. Cechmanek's playoff reputation isn't the best, but with the Kings' ability to outscore team, Chemo won't need to be perfect to earn the win like he had to be with Philly's anemic postseason offense the past two years.
The Rochester Americans are the farm team of Sabres, and Wednesday's game at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester will be the smallest venue any NHL game will be played in this year. Don't you think this is great and more teams should give this chance to their minor league team? -- Rick Baker, Rochester N.Y.
I think every NHL should play at least one game at the home of its AHL affiliate each season. This would give fans in AHL cities the chance to see alums of their local team who have made it big in the NHL, and it would also help solidify the bond between the NHL clubs and their farm teams. Sabres owner Tom Golisano was so pleased with the game in Rochester on Wednesday that he said he hopes that they will be back for one or two games again next year.
With Patrice Bergeron of the Bruins and Eric Staal of the Hurricanes getting the opportunity to contribute at the NHL level at such a young age, will this make GMs around the league think about giving the younger guys a shot as compared to letting them mature for three or four years in the minors? -- Jim Rice, Henderson, Nev.
The players that you mentioned -- in addition to Marc-Andre Fleury, Nathan Horton, Dustin Brown, Dan Fritsche -- form perhaps the best class of 18-year-olds in NHL history. But that would make sense considering that the 2003 NHL Entry Draft was regarded as the deepest ever by many general managers and scouts.
I think the depth of good young players is clearly an aberration this season, so in the future most teams will continue to let most of their draft picks mature in juniors and the minors for a few seasons after selecting them. This class of 2003 is just exceptionally talented and is a rare bunch, so don't expect this every year.
How is the left wing lock different from the trap? -- Mike Tannis, Ottawa, Ontario
The lock and the trap are the two most commonly played aggressive forechecking systems. The left wing lock tries to -- as the name would suggest -- lock the puck up along the left wing boards as a team tries to clear the zone. The trap is a nickname for what is essentially a 1-2-2 zone which is geared toward creating turnovers in the neutral zone as a team tries to pass the puck up ice.
The left wing lock tries to gain a two-on-two situation in a puck battle along the boards by forcing the puck that direction with the right wing and center collapsing toward the defenseman with the puck in an attempt to limit the options he has with it to just pushing it up the left wing boards.
Meanwhile, the trap uses more skating, circling and stickwork to try to force turnovers and teams try to clear their zone with passes to forwards skating across the neutral zone on angles. The key to the trap is having the players at the top of the trap (usually a center) be an excellent skater who also possesses an agile stick, to bat down or at least disrupt lots of passes. In the trap, once a team decides which direction it is going to play the puck out of its zone, the center and the wing on that side pinch together with the off-side wing sliding over to the middle waiting for a potential turnover.
The basic philosophy of both is to create turnovers on your opponent's side of the red line in an effort to create a short rink on which to counterattack.
With the Sharks constantly gaining ties against quality teams and often being in every game they play would it be fair to say with a little luck and a solid addition to the forwards that the Sharks could make the playoffs this year? -- Daniel Petri, Lafayette, Calif.
I think the loss of Milan Michalek in the first week of the season hurt the Sharks a lot, because with his mature two-way game their forwards would be that much more impressive. Of course, they could get hot and make a push for the playoffs, but I think San Jose is at least a year away from battling for that, just because the Western Conference is so incredibly deep.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.