Share this article

print logo

Realignment not as easy as it looks

Sometimes, the easiest move happens to be the best one.

The NHL is expected to juggle its divisions after this season and pull the Winnipeg Jets [nee: Atlanta Thrashers] out of the Southeast Division. The obvious move is swapping Winnipeg for Nashville in the Central Division and moving forward, but it's not likely to be that simple when NHL's Board of Governors meet in December.

Detroit has been in the Western Conference since the NHL dumped the Price of Wales and Campbell conferences in 1993. The Red Wings for years have pleaded to move into the Eastern Conference and away from the longer travel. Many believe the Red Wings, as an Original Six team, model franchise and good soldier, should have first dibs.

Fair enough, but it doesn't mean they'll get their wish. Detroit will determine the contentiousness of the meetings by how hard its pushes. Twenty votes are required to approve realignment.

The NHL could switch Detroit and Winnipeg, but it doesn't solve every problem. The Wings would have fewer trips to the West Coast and western Canada, but they would still be out of place and actually wind up with more travel inside the division if Washington, Carolina, Florida and Tampa Bay remained in the Southeast.

It's not as if the Red Wings have the toughest travel schedule in the NHL. According to ontheforecheck.com, 12 teams will pile up more air miles Detroit this season. The list includes Florida and Tampa Bay, which are in the Eastern Conference.

Detroit is one of the most popular teams in the league and makes for a good sell in hockey outposts such as Los Angeles, Dallas, Phoenix, Nashville and Columbus. The Wings are a bigger draw than the other candidates looking to move East, but along comes this question: Should they be punished for being good?

Columbus and Nashville can make arguments about travel, too. Dallas plays in the Pacific Division. Minnesota should be playing in the Central but instead plays in the Northwest. One option would be reconfiguring several divisions in both conferences and starting over.

Imagine a Midwest Division that would include Buffalo, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Columbus. It sounds like a good mix, but it means taking the Leafs away from the Canadiens and Senators, the Penguins away from the Flyers and the Red Wings away from the Blackhawks.

The change would be too radical, the trickle-down effect massive, the possibilities numerous, the arguments endless. Ultimately, the NHL needs to do what's best for the league and not what's best for Detroit. Nashville and Winnipeg should switch places while the NHL waits to see if the Coyotes remain in Phoenix.

***

Olli's new approach

Flames center Olli Jokinen was off to a good start with five points in his first six games and looking more like the player who was good for 30 goals and 80 points earlier in his career. He had a miserable start last season and finished with 17 goals and 54 points.

The difference, he says, is more mental than physical. The 32-year-old has been preparing for every game by speaking to his psychologist and concentrating on three aspects. He also has been trying to approach every game as if it could be his last one, which has helped motivate him.

"It helps me relax, helps me prepare for the games, so it's been good," Jokinen said. "In this league everybody's big, everybody's strong enough, everybody can skate, everybody can score. I think what difference makes a top player is mental preparation. If your head is not there, it's tough to play."

***

Luongo gets booed

Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo isn't on the trading block yet, but he could be reaching a point in which a change could be in order. Fans haven't forgiven him for his play in the Stanley Cup finals last June, and he's done little to sway public opinion with his play this season.

"I've got ears," Luongo said last week after allowing four goals on 19 shots in a 4-0 loss to the Rangers. "They're not happy with my play and I'm not happy with my play. I guess they're entitled. That's fine. I understand that. I have to pick up my game and make some saves."

Luongo took a 1-3-1 record with a 3.70 goals-against average and .856 save percentage, numbers suited for the JV squad, into the weekend. He was getting Bronx cheers at home for making routine saves against the Rangers. It makes for a difficult situation for any player, especially the franchise goaltender.

"It's part of the territory," defenseman Kevin Bieksa said. "He has a microscope on him. There are mistakes made all over the ice. Coaches can hide the easiest from those, then forwards, then the defensemen. For a goalie, there's really no hiding."

***

Panthers in a funk

Florida had a four-game stretch that included seven power-play goals and another short-handed among its 10 tallies in back-to-back victories over Tampa Bay before the Panthers were shut out in consecutive games against Washington and Buffalo.

The Panthers had a team-record five PPG last Monday against the Bolts, who had given up four in their first five games to that point. They had only two shots in the first period against Caps goalie Tomas Vokoun, who breezed against his former team. Ryan Miller made 22 saves in the Sabres' 3-0 win.

"I don't think we tried hard enough," coach Kevin Dineen said. "That's six periods in a row that we showed little snapshots here and there, but we're a far way away from where we were [last week]. We need to address that and soon."

***

Quotable

Blues coach Davis Payne, after his six forwards combined for six points and were minus-11 during a four-game road trip: "It's a group that is trying to play perimeter jumpshot hockey and I don't see too many of those going in."

***

Around the boards

*Oilers defenseman Ryan Whitney had a contest on Twitter, asking his 55,000-plus followers how many empty-net goals Brett Hull scored among his league-leading 86 in 1990-91, in exchange for two tickets to a game. The answer: None. A winner was declared in 12 seconds.

*The Stanley Cup hangover does, in fact, exist. The four conference finalists last season -- Boston, Tampa Bay, Vancouver, San Jose -entered the weekend with a combined 9-15-3 record.

*Joe Thornton and Hal Gill broke into the NHL with the Bruins during the 1997-98 season, and neither played a shift in the minors. The big center and bigger defenseman played their 1,000th game last week only 24 hours apart. "Once all is said and done," Thornton said, "it's probably nice to look back and say you played 1,000 games."

*The Hurricanes had an extra day off in St. Louis, which gave brothers Chris (Blues) and Anthony Stewart ('Canes) enough time to catch the World Series opener between the Cardinals and Rangers and have dinner on consecutive nights. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be where I am today," Chris said of his older brother.

*Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau after his team won its first five games, a franchise record that was extended to six: "Quite frankly, when it comes to April and May I'm not going to be able to sit here and say: 'Hey, we were 5-0 and we got that record. Isn't that great?' It's not really going to hold a lot of weight."

*Blue Jackets coach Scott Arniel, having watched too many listless efforts during their 0-6-1 start, resorted to putting his team through a charming bag skate. "The coaches can do only so much to guide you, show you what to do," veteran Vinny Prospal said. "Ultimately, it's on the individual to perform out there. Not try to do it. Do it."

*Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur entered the weekend having missed 76 games over the last two seasons with injuries. Remember the days when he played that many in one? The Devils are saying he'll be out another week or so, so expect him to be sidelined for at least another month.

email: bgleason@buffnews.com