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September is always the toughest to swallow when you're a hockey fan because it's the only month where Opening Night feels so close yet so far away as well. At least the NFL has kicked off. But September may very well be the most important month as well because this is really where teams start to take shape. A great camp from a rookie may change the entire depth chart for certain teams like Florida and Atlanta, who are desperately hoping for a gem to emerge from their ranks to being their re-build. Even Cup contenders like Vancouver, are waiting to see if Cody Hodgson or Jordan Schroeder can make the big club and make an impact. Pittsburgh is waiting to see which of Eric Tangradi, Ryan Craig, Dustin Jeffrey, or whoever they may unearth can step into a top six role. To help you bide the time while waiting for the puck to drop, here are some grumblings... <img src="http://tomferda.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/dustin-byfuglien.jpg"class="imageFloatRightFramed">Craig Ramsay has announced that he will start Dustin Byfuglien on defense. I guess if you're going to spend the majority of the season treading water and trying to keep pucks out of the night it's more logical to use your biggest player to clear the crease rather than cause havoc in the offensive zone. People think because Byfuglien can play defense he's versatile, but he really isn't. Anyone who watched him play this year knows that he's an atrocious skater and given the emergence of young defensemen with extraordinary skating ability, like Drew Doughty, Erik Johnson, and John Carlson, you'd have to think if this is a good move. Byfuglien won't help with the transition game - instead, he's more like an Andy Sutton-type with better hands. If you look at the players who can play both defense and offense, they're mostly guys who really don't do either very well. Ian White aside, the list includes the likes of Christoph Schubert, Matt Carkner, and Wade Belak - a pretty mediocre group. Given the right environment, like lining up besides two potential Hall of Famers like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, Byfuglien will succeed, but not in Atlanta. So long as Ron Wilson is behind the bench at the Air Canada Centre, Tomas Kaberle won't play... according to his father. It was a non-headline at the beginning and I'm going to sound like a broken record, but the Leafs desperately need him on the blueline. I don't think Brian Burke was ever really dangling him but I do believe at least 10 teams have called and if they have a good offer, you listen. He's a great puck-moving defenseman with a very affordable salary, which in the CBA world pretty much counts as a first round pick. Without him the Leafs won't have anyone to spring Phil Kessel on a breakaway. Kaberle is still the Leafs' best player. Jersey numbers have a way of sticking in hockey fans' heads. 99 is synonymous with Wayne Gretzky, 66 with Mario Lemieux, and 4 with Bobby Orr. In Edmonton, 4 evokes memories of Kevin Lowe, the Oilers' great blueliner during their 'City of Champions' years. When I heard that Taylor Hall was going to wear that number, my stomach did a little flip. Lowe's number is not retired by the Oilers so it's fair game, but it's a number that hasn't been used since 1992, Lowe's final season in Edmonton in which he was also captain. I'm obviously making too big of a deal out of it but I wish Hall picked a different number and blazed a path of his own. But then again, it's Lowe's number to give and no one is really going to watch the Oilers this year anyway (which makes them dangerous, actually, like Colorado and Phoenix last year). The Blues weren't very involved during free agency (they didn't have to) but did get an upgrade in goal with Jaroslav Halak. Habs fans still are still swooning over their playoff hero during a recent visit to Montreal. But let's put things into perspective: Ville Leino will not be a force in the regular season, at best a second line player, and Dustin Byfuglien won't score 41 goals in the regular season. Playoff heroics has a funny way of driving up a player's stock and more often than not those players become way overrated. The Blues should be excited because they've finally found a legitimate no. 1 goalie but Habs fans shouldn't forget that Carey Price also managed to post a respectable .912 SV%. If you're expecting Halak to be all-star material I wouldn't bank on it. Count me as a skeptic. Speaking of skepticism, Mike Modano evokes none from me. Wearing the unfamiliar number 90 and even more unfamiliar red and white, Modano has an opportunity to finish his career a winner, at home, no less. The Michigan native signed a one-year contract for one last kick at the can and the stars have lined up for him. Chicago lost quality players and the Wings have Johan Franzen, Jiri Hudler, and Niklas Lidstrom back. The Wings are poised to re-take the Central Division title and a little bit of luck and staying healthy could mean the Wings could be back in the finals for a third time in four years. Modano won't have the pressure of having to score and his defensive game has improved by leaps and bounds the past 5 years. The Wings' puck-possession game suits him well with his deft hands and great skating. One of the more intriguing training camp stories this year (there's always a few - who's going to be our Sergei Shirokov this year?) has been the Stars' invite to Jonathan Cheechoo. Cheechoo's fall from grace has been well documented but if anyone can find your offensive mojo it's Marc Crawford. The Stars can score goals in bunches if they can keep the puck out of their own zone long enough with Brad Richards dishing out passes while James Neal, Jamie Benn, and Loui Eriksson finish them off. My prediction is that Cheechoo does land himself a contract from GM Joe Nieuwendyk but there's no returning to form here. I think it's case-closed that Cheechoo's 56-goal season was a major fluke and more Joe Thornton than him. I also would've rather kept Modano rather than invite Cheechoo. There's been reports (sorry, no link) that Bobby Ryan is close to inking an extension with the Ducks but it'll be on the Ducks' terms, not his. Reportedly the main holdup between the two sides is length, with Ryan wishing to become a UFA as early as possible while the Ducks hope to have him signed beyond that, ensuring that Ryan, Corey Perry, and Ryan Getzlaf won't all bolt at the same time. Thanks for the paranoia, Miami Heat. LeBron James' summer fiasco has changed free agency forever. That's his legacy. Forget about the championships, he's all smoke and dollar signs. <img src="http://i.cdn.turner.com/si/multimedia/photo_gallery/0810/nhl.rookies.to.watch/images/cody-hodgson.jpg"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">If you're banking on either Schroeder or Hodgson to make this squad, the safe bet is Schroeder. It wouldn't hurt for both to return to the AHL for more seasoning and the Canucks have zero need to rush them but at this point Schroeder has at least proven he's capable of producing at the AHL level. The Canucks recently announced that Hodgson won't be attending the rookie tournament in Penticton after doctors couldn't declare him fit to play. Alain Vigneault, never one to shy away from challenging a player's mental toughness publicly, has refused to elaborate but it doesn't take a genius to know that he's not particularly happy with this whole fiasco. But neither is Hodgson - I'm sure he's frustrated too. It's been two years since his misdiagnosed back but it's been disappointment after disappointment, some of them undeserved. He got cut because he wasn't 100%. He lost out the MVP award at the World Juniors to John Tavares even though he was more deserving. Tavares will now have at least 2 NHL seasons under his belt before Hodgson. Underclassman Schroeder is leapfrogging him on the depth charts. However, let's not panic - Hodgson still has a bright future and to give up on him now would be a mistake. Hodgson is once again a big fixture in the training camp news wire and he'll really need to impress if he wants to make it. For now, the odds are stacked against him and it'll be another long test of his character. Oh, and Sidney Crosby hits home runs.
It may have well been the Vancouver Canucks vs. Jaroslav Halak last night. If there was any question of which young goalie La Belle Province liked better, the Slovakian netminder made 45 saves in a 3-2 win. Jacques Martin decided to not start British Columbia native Carey Price amidst rumours of locker room drama, sitting him for the fifth time in their last six games in which the Habs have gone a rather pedestrian 2-2-1. Halak improves to 15-8-2 and is making a strong push to be Slovakia's starter at the Olympics, supplanting Colorado backup Peter Budaj. However, I don't think this game was won and lost in the goaltending department, although it certainly gave Montreal an edge. The Canucks were atrocious in the circle, going only 20-for-54 the entire night. Ryan Kesler, despite his blue-collar goal to pull the Canucks within one, was uncharacteristically awful, winning just 6 of 21. Henrik Sedin and Kyle Wellwood were both below average, while on the other end of the spectrum, Tomas Plekanec won 17 of 25 and Scott Gomez won 9 of 16. For whatever reason, the Canucks couldn't gain control of the puck for long periods throughout the night. They have to win the little battles if they want to be successful, and if it hasn't been stressed enough already, this 14-game road trip is absolutely crucial. <img src="http://d.yimg.com/a/p/sp/getty/a2/fullj.2c6b64587e9c262408dc39e45b9d8783/2c6b64587e9c262408dc39e45b9d8783-getty-90960808rw008_canu_cana.jpg"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">The defensive play was also poor. There were too many errant passes, either because they were too long, too inaccurate, or just a complete lack of awareness of what was going on. A turnover led to Sergei Kostitsyn's second goal of the season, who has been bumped up to the top line in the absence of Mike Cammalleri and played the most inspired hockey I've seen him play in a while. The even-strength marker was the Habs' first in four games. Maxim Lapierre was johnny-on-the-spot with his fourth of the season on a missed assignment by Brad Lukowich, who played just under nine minutes, and Steve Bernier, who hasn't been quite as effective since coming back from a groin injury. Despite some line-juggling from Alain Vigneault, including a great shift from the speed line of Kesler, Alex Burrows, and Mason Raymond, the poor defensive zone coverage around the net led to Tomas Plekanec's 14th of the season who had not one, not two, but three good whacks at it before crossing the goal line. There is only so much Roberto Luongo can do, and while he didn't play a spectacular game, the team play in front of him wasn't any better. The Habs were largely dysfunctional in their own zone, which led to a lot of Canuck opportunities but were turned away by Halak again and again. The first half of the second period seemed to be a microcosm of the Canucks' play the entire night. Poor blueline management that led to numerous off-sides and a stretch of back-and-forth icings, a result of both teams unable to generate any offense. The Habs did score 3 tonight, but it's the most they scored since January 23 in which they scored 6 on the Rangers. Without Cammalleri, the Habs lacked any sort of real finish tonight and expect that trend to continue. I felt at times the Sedins tried to get too cute with the puck and the Habs did do a good job of really taking away the passing lanes. Of the 47 shots the Canucks fired, I can confidently say that over 30 of them were from relatively long range and/or from sharp angles. I didn't think the officiating was particularly good last night either, and it always frustrates me when there are more penalties called in the third period than the first and second combined (6 to 5). I felt Alex Burrows' interference call on Marc-Andre Bergeron was rather weak, as was Kesler's diving call on a Yannick Weber trip. Kesler's 14th gave Canucks fans a slight jolt of hope with a comeback akin to the one last Saturday against the Leafs, but Burrows' goalie interference call made all that come crashing down with a halt. You have to wonder if Burrows and Kesler's reputations for diving and whining came into play last night. Kesler did draw two penalties earlier in the game on a Roman Hamrlik slash and another Weber trip. Let's cue the conspiracy theorists - perhaps referees Greg Kimmerly and Chris Rooney went up and talked to them between whistles? With the win, and considering Halak's performance, it seems as though Martin will go with him for the time being, given his hot hand. Carey Price is quickly losing favour among Montreal's faithful, including rumours that his carefree, nonchalant attitude has given him the nickname "Superstar." There has been a ton of debate over whether or not GM Bob Gainey should trade Halak or Price, and for now the answer is unequivocally Price. I don't think there's any debate - the Habs should keep both, even when both goaltenders are RFA. Why? Because I don't think the market's been better for goalies, it still hasn't been decided which one is undeniably better than the other, and they will get a decent enough return for either. Dallas is in the hunt for a starting goaltender and either of those guys will be better options than the injury-prone Kari Lehtonen, journeyman Martin Biron, and more established than Cory Schneider. They risk here is that the Habs won't get an offer sheet for either goalie, but given the situation I think that seems rather unlikely. If we stay conservative and believe that both goalies are worth roughly $3.5-$4 million on the open market, the Habs stand to receive 2010 1st and 3rd round picks. Personally, I think Price is the better long term option but like any other goalie he will have to go through growing pains. The Islanders made a mistake by trading away Roberto Luongo too early and it's the ultimate cautionary tale when it comes to goalies. Quick rumour hits (because everyone loves them): - The Leafs aren't done dealing and are talking to the Oilers. The Leafs want to get rid of Lee Stempniak and his $3.5 million salary and Alexei Ponikarovsky doesn't seem to be in the long-term plans either. - The Pens are looking for help on Evgeni Malkin's wing and the word is that Ponikarovsky's their top choice. - The Blues have Eric Brewer, Keith Tkachuk, and Paul Kariya on the block. Tkachuk was rumoured to go to Boston last year but ended up with Mark Recchi instead. The Bruins have Michael Ryder on the block and are interested in Peter Mueller. Kariya may head to the Pens, Kings, or even Canucks. - The Sens want to add more depth given their recent surge and playoff hopes. Brian Lee is their big trade chip and they're looking at more mid-level affordable options like Ray Whitney (also linked to the Kings and Flames) or Andrew Brunette. Ray Whitney has not waived his NTC. - The Kings are supposedly dangling a package that includes a mix of Jack Johnson, Wayne Simmonds, Oscar Moller, Brayden Schenn, and picks for Ilya Kovalchuk but it appears as though those rumours are not true. - The sale of the Lightning might mean cost-cutting moves and that includes Vincent Lecavalier and Andrej Meszaros. Cue the Montreal rumours for Vinny. - The Avs are supposedly in "buy" mode given their surprising season but probably won't part with picks or prospects. - Glen Sather will most likely not be the Rangers' GM next year. Mark Messier has been groomed to fill the void, following a trend that includes Joe Nieuwendyk in Dallas. Personally, I hope Messier fails miserably. Yes, I'm still bitter.