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Rule refinements could get hitting in check

Lock 'em up and throw away the key, fine them until their bank accounts run dry, take them to the city square for public condemnation and ridicule? We need to save these guys from themselves because they don't respect one another. Do that, and we just might keep hockey moving forward.

Or ...

Leave the game alone and the sport intact, with plenty of blood and guts and missing teeth and cracked craniums. Hockey isn't for sissies. These guys know what they're getting into the minute they step on the ice for their first shift in the best travel league in the world. We need to preserve the game, not take from it.

Last year, the NHL implemented Rule 48, banning blindside hits to the head. It looked into further action for all head shots, and the concussions that come with them, during general managers' meetings last week in Boca Raton, Fla. Sure enough, just hours after they broke from meetings Tuesday, San Jose's Dany Heatley and Boston's Brad Marchand delivered hits to the head that led to suspensions.

What's head hunting, what's hitting and what's hockey?

Listen around the league, and you'll hear various opinions. Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier wants all head shots removed from the game, and he has plenty of big hitters standing beside him. Their position makes sense because the NHL should be doing whatever it can to make a safer game. But how far is too far?

Do they eliminate the biggest head shot in the game, the punch to the face, and ban fighting? Do they punish for an incidental elbow when all heads are down in search of the puck in the middle of a scrum? Do they penalize taller players, for the sake of argument Tyler Myers, who are in perfect position when contact is made only to find their shoulders are forehead-high of pipsqueak forwards, such as Nathan Gerbe?

Once again, we have plenty of questions and not enough answers. Nobody seems to have the perfect solution to reducing concussions and while still maintaining everything we love about the game -- the speed, skill, hitting and, shhh, fighting. The blend of talent and toughness is what draws fans, and the billions of dollars they spend every year, to the game.

Sidney Crosby and a long list of others who put people in the seats and money in the NHL's deep pockets are useless from the injured list. And, so, the debate rages across all levels as the league searches for the proper balance.

Leafs GM Brian Burke wants to make sure good, hard checking remains a big part of the game, and I agree. Penguins GM Ray Shero is included in a growing population looking for zero tolerance when it comes to hits to the head, and I agree. League officials are left straddling a fine line while hockey lovers want it both ways.

But what's the right way? Burke doesn't know for sure. Neither does Regier, Shero, Commissioner Gary Bettman, the NHL players' association, you or me.

The NHL has been ahead of other sports in addressing head injuries, and the hierarchy took another step forward last week when implementing stronger protocol for treating concussions. It begins with an examination by a doctor in a quiet area rather than a trainer holding up a few fingers on the bench in a rowdy arena.

Wait, more questions. How would it look if, say, Washington star Alex Ovechkin gets rocked in Philadelphia, is examined by the Flyers' team physician and told he cannot return to a playoff game? Will teams fly their own physicians to away games to avoid speculation about ethics? Regardless, could doctors' opinions differ?

The questions are endless, so here are a few suggestions:

The NHL should keep the most recent rules in place, stiffen fines and lengthen suspensions and maintain the protocol for concussions through next season. Meanwhile, keep rules in place for fighting and ban all other head shots in the American Hockey League -- as they are in the NCAA, juniors and youth levels -- while examining the effects of such changes on the game itself.

They just might come up with the answers they need. They could clean up the jungle known as the AHL in the process. It could make for a better, safer and faster product in the NHL going into negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement. It's certainly better than sitting around and arguing.

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>DeBoer loses luster

Panthers coach Pete DeBoer's days could be numbered in South Florida. The third-year coach has not been told he would return, a possibility that looks less likely with the Panthers set to miss the playoffs for a record 10th straight season.

DeBoer signed a four-year contract under former GM Jacques Martin, who was replaced by Randy Sexton before GM Dale Tallon came aboard last season. Tallon has been overhauling the roster and could be looking for a new coach, with only a year remaining on DeBoer's contract.

"I don't worry about next year," DeBoer told the Miami Herald last week. "I sleep easy at night. I know how hard we have worked as a staff. I think our team plays with structure and plays hard every night. They have all year. If that's not good enough, that's for other people to decide."

Tallon told the newspaper DeBoer and his staff would be evaluated after the season. If a change is made, don't be surprised if Thrashers assistant John Torchetti becomes a strong candidate. Torchetti was an assistant coach in Chicago when Tallon was GM and was respected for his work during its Stanley Cup run.

Another coach to watch this summer is Kevin Dineen, who has done a terrific job in AHL Portland the last two seasons and was a finalist in Columbus last year.

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>Blues for sale

St. Louis has joined Atlanta, Dallas and Phoenix among teams that are up for sale, with Buffalo and Tampa Bay having been sold in the past year.

Blues chairman Dave Checketts was hoping his company could gain 90 percent of the franchise but couldn't agree on a price with TowerBrook Capital Partners for its 70 percent stake. Checketts, who owns 20 percent, and another minority partner will join TowerBrook in selling the entire franchise and its lease with Scottrade Center.

The Blues were valued at $165 million last year by Forbes magazine. Checketts bought the team for $150 million five years ago before adding investors. Any agreement with prospective owners would likely include a clause that would keep the Blues in St. Louis, where attendance and commitment are strong.

"It's just very difficult when there are differences of opinions in terms that we couldn't live with, our new investors couldn't live with, and our old ones couldn't live with," Checketts told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "We weren't able to make a deal. I don't want to get any more specific than that."

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>Wilson skates by

Ron Wilson already became the first Leafs coach in history to miss the playoffs two straight seasons and come back for a third. He'll likely become the first to miss the postseason three straight years and come back for a fourth.

Toronto took a 12-6-5 record since Feb. 1 into the weekend, probably enough to secure his job under confidant and boss Brian Burke. The problem hasn't been coaching so much as consistency that usually comes with maturity.

The Leafs had a 17-6-10 record in one-goal games this season, but they had an 8-17 record in games decided by three goals or more. Translation: They can get blown out with the best of them. They also have been shut out 11 times this season, the latest a 4-0 loss to Florida in a game Toronto desperately needed.

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>Quotable

New Jersey forward Patrik Elias on whether the Devils are a team of destiny after going on a 22-3-3 rampage to climb back into the Eastern Conference playoff race: "I'll believe it when it's over -- after 82 games."

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>Around the boards

NHL.com reports that shootouts will be down 22 percent if they keep up the current pace. It could be that more teams are pushing harder in overtime now that shootout wins aren't counted in total wins for tiebreakers. Last season, 61.1 percent of games that reached OT ended in a shootout. This year, it's 48.8 percent.

Devils winger Travis Zajac played his 389th consecutive game Thursday night to break Ken Daneyko's team ironman record. Zajac has played every game since missing a game Oct. 26, 2006, the first month of his NHL career. Doug Jarvis, of course, holds the NHL record of 964 games played. "That's crazy," Zajac said.

Blue Jackets star Rick Nash went cold when his team needed him most, taking an 11-game goal-less streak into their game Saturday afternoon against Minnesota. Columbus had a 2-5-4 record during the slump, which matched the longest of his career.

USA Hockey is bringing back coach Dean Blais for the World Junior Championships next year in Calgary and Edmonton. Blais, if you remember, was behind the bench two years ago when the Americans won the gold medal. He's coaching at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and was named the top coach in the conference this season.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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