As we begin the one-year countdown to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, the debates over who should represent their country will increase in volume. Colleagues Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun have already assembled their early Olympic rosters, and it won't be their last cracks at them.
It's not an easy job to pick the rosters as a journalist and is even harder to do in real life. Same goes for the coaches. For the Team USA brain trust, the options are strong to follow Ron Wilson's impressive job guiding the Americans to silver in Vancouver.
But early-season signs have underlined the belief that it's Dan Bylsma's job to lose. His Pittsburgh Penguins are battling the Boston Bruins for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and looking every bit like a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
Just to be safe, I checked with Bylsma this week to see if there had been any recent conversations between him and USA Hockey regarding the coaching position.
"I have not been in contact with USA Hockey over the coach of the Olympic team, who is coaching or what the situation is," he said. "My involvement with USA Hockey ... the last couple years has gone up, and I very much want it to go forward into the future, into the Olympic year."
That's about as far as Bylsma will go in making a case for himself. He doesn't have to.
He's already won a Stanley Cup and has his team poised to contend for another one. But it's more than that.
Watching him conduct an off-day practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, Va., this week was a reminder at how much fun players seem to have playing for him. It's serious when it has to be, but it's one of those practices that makes you want to put on skates and take a shootout attempt at the end. Not surprisingly, NHL players voted Bylsma the coach they would most like to play for in a 2011 CBC poll. No reason to think that's changed much.
On one of the biggest stages in sports, you want a guy who can juggle the duties of running a team and the huge media demands that come with the Olympics. As much as Wilson was criticized in Toronto for interactions with the media there, he was outstanding in Vancouver. He and Mike Babcock had entertaining news conferences on a near-daily basis, helping sell the game to a captive sports audience. Bylsma's personality would be perfect on that stage.
That doesn't disqualify his biggest challenger, John Tortorella, whose short postgame news conferences became a national story in the playoffs last year, but Bylsma has a huge edge in that area.
According to a source with USA Hockey, there won't be any announcement on the coach until after an agreement is made regarding NHL players in the Olympics. The GM and management team would be named first, with the coach announcement likely to come after the NHL season. But Bylsma has to be considered the favorite. He would be a great choice.
Shrewd move by two GMs
The moment he raised a Stanley Cup as Bruins general manager, any doubt about Peter Chiarelli's skills were erased. He is as smart as they come in this league and showed it again in dealing Tim Thomas to the New York Islanders for a conditional second-round pick. Per Pierre LeBrun, the only condition in which the Islanders would send that second-round pick to Boston is if Thomas plays any time in the next two seasons for the Islanders or any team to which they trade him.
But any draft pick compensation would be a bonus. By offloading Thomas, Chiarelli gains valuable cap space for a potential late-season acquisition.
As for Islanders GM Garth Snow, it's been a harder evaluation of his job in New York. His team has never won anything of consequence, other than the ability to draft really high.
The Islanders seem to find their way into the news for the wrong reasons, such as when players traded there refuse to report.
But Snow works for the worst owner in the NHL, one who doesn't come close to giving him the support he needs, either through front-office personnel or player payroll. Yet every once in a while, Snow makes a move that is quite shrewd. The Evgeni Nabokov waiver claim was one. John Tavares' contract will end up looking like a fantastic deal for the Islanders -- just look at how that annual salary compares to other players of his caliber.
This trade is the latest move that suggests Snow is a smart GM in a bad situation.
In Thomas and defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky, Snow has two players who count $10.6 million toward the salary cap floor, yet New York is paying only the prorated $3 million of Visnovsky's actual salary since Thomas is suspended and Visnovsky's deal with the Anaheim Ducks was front-loaded.
They can toll Thomas' contract, which means rolling it to next season in order retain that cap hit beyond this season (while not paying him a dime because he's suspended) and keeping a chip that has potential value down the road.
"[Thomas] can be a valuable asset if he were to decide he wanted to resume his career," said an NHL source.
That ability to resume his career is one reason why it would be tough for the NHLPA to challenge the Thomas trade or suggest that this trade violates the spirit of the collective bargaining agreement. If Thomas never plays again, this costs the Islanders nothing.
It's Snow working with what he has. Pretty smart.
On to the Friday mailbag:
Loved your article on the Washington Capitals' early season struggles and their win now/later dilemma. Would a Dany Heatley for pick(s) trade make sense to you? The Wild have too many bodies and not enough cap space. The Caps could use a scoring winger and have plenty of cap space. For Washington, this move would help replace the scoring void left from losing [Alexander] Semin both this season and next season while their prospects mature.
Jake, Champlin, Minn.
Hey Jake, thanks for the comment on the Capitals story. Enjoyed spending time in D.C. getting to know that team and its situation.
You propose an interesting option for the Wild and Capitals. First, I don't think this is something Minnesota would want to do during the season. They're trying to make the playoffs, so it wouldn't help them to move Heatley and not get anything in return that helps immediately. Mikael Granlund has been an early disappointment and Devin Setoguchi is struggling, so the Wild don't exactly have scoring to spare.
Where it might make more sense is this summer. Like you mentioned, the Capitals have the cap space. The Wild, according to CapGeek.com, have a shade under $13 million in cap space next season with 17 players signed. They'll need to make a decision on goalie Niklas Backstrom at some point, who is a UFA after this season. Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Matt Cullen come off the books and will need to be replaced or re-signed. There are a few RFAs that need to get done too, so yeah, GM Chuck Fletcher is going to have to do some stickhandling this summer to get around the cap. I know they like Heatley in Minnesota where he has rebuilt his reputation, and I think his production this season will help decide his future there. Whether the Capitals are interested may hinge on what's available in free agency.
Should the NHL implement automatic instant replay review for all 5-minute match penalty head contact calls?
Brad Holbrook, Alexandria, Minn.
Brad, it's been a rough start for the officials. We've already had the NHL rescind a couple of match penalties given to San Jose's Andrew Desjardins and St. Louis' David Backes. I understand that it puts teams at a big disadvantage when they lose players in games, but I'm not ready for automatic instant replay on this issue. I think we'll see an improvement in how games are called as the season settles down, and I'm against anything that slows games down, which this would. The longer intermissions are bad enough. If it continues to be a problem, maybe I can be convinced.
The Sabres are in a free fall, with no scoring outside of their top line. our defense, even when healthy is Swiss cheese. I would say fire [Lindy] Ruff but I don't know that any coach can get something out of this lineup. [Owner Terry] Pegula broke the bank to put this team together, but we are even worse than last year. Something's gotta give. Is it a trade? Fire the coach?
Kurt, Buffalo, N.Y.
Kurt, I'm not convinced midseason GM firings do an ounce of good if you're trying to win now, and as Pierre LeBrun reported, Darcy Regier just signed a contract extension. Usually it's the coach who takes the fall, and we've seen that strategy pay off for some teams that were underachieving. Sometimes a new voice is needed. If the Sabres did fire Ruff, I don't think he'd stay unemployed for long, and Regier has indicated he's willing to be patient there. I'd give it another 8-10 games before doing anything in Buffalo. Around that point, you'll have more general managers willing to deal.
I think (most) hockey fans are getting a little bored with shootouts to decide games, so here is an alternative OT idea: Similar to college football, have "rounds" where each team gets a 2-minute power play. If a team scores and the other team doesn't, they win the game. After maybe two rounds, switch to 1-minute 5-on-3s to try and speed the process up. And of course, if a team scores short-handed at any time, the game is over. There still are probably a lot of details to work out but it could be a start.
Brian, Mankato, Minn.
Wow. I absolutely love this idea. I thought I'd heard every possible overtime solution, but this is a great one. I will absolutely steal this idea and start suggesting it to people like I thought it up myself. I wouldn't allow icing for the PK either to make it a little more challenging for the defense. Since a short-handed goal ends the game, would coaches send their best offensive players on the top PK unit? This is great.
The Rangers ice the puck constantly, take stupid penalties, run into each other a lot and don't seem to have a system or any chemistry left from last year's team. When do we start to hear the rumblings of Tort's demise?
Chris, Canton, Ga.
Chris, not this season. Tortorella is a great coach, but he's one with a shelf life. That's a tough style to play over a long period of time, but I'm confident that team turns the corner this season. He'll get them going. Now, if they miss the playoffs, then you start those conversations.
When will Gary Bettman make some sort of "public appearance?"
Fred Cundy, Woodbridge, Va.
I have to imagine it will be a while unless Phoenix announces an ownership deal sometime in the near future. Hockey is enjoying a post-lockout resurgence with strong ratings and attendance. Bettman has become a polarizing figure and has nothing to gain by making a public appearance that would just remind fans of the canceled hockey games from the lockout. He usually addresses the media at GM meetings (this year they're in March) and is accessible during the playoffs when he visits host cities. During the Stanley Cup finals, Bettman does an annual "state of the game" address, which I expect to happen again this summer.