By Lyle Richardson
The NHLPA’s recent decision to let the deadline for a decision on the NHL’s new divisional realignment plan pass without a vote by its membership means the plan won’t be implemented in time for next season.
It also has many observers interpreting the move as an “opening salvo” in what’s expected to be another lengthy, nasty round of labour negotiations between the two sides.
With the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) due to expire on Sept. 15, more than a few pundits, bloggers and fans are worried about another potentially season-threatening work stoppage. As a result, the PA was subjected to a storm of criticism for their refusal to accept the realignment plan in its current form.
It was a brilliant public relations move by the league. Either the PA accepted the plan, without any consultation over the players’ concerns of travel and playoff qualification (and signalling potential weakness within their ranks prior to CBA negotiations), or reject it and face the wrath of their critics.
It was a “no-win” scenario for the PA.
By rejecting the plan, the PA has signalled they’re not going to just roll over for the league’s demands in the next round of labour talks.
That being said, we shouldn’t be too quick to interpret this gambit as meaning another potentially season-killing labour squabble is in store when CBA talks begin in earnest in the coming weeks.
The atmosphere between the two sides is considerably calmer than it was leading up to the 2004-05 lockout. Both sides are for the most part content with the current system, and while there are some important issues to work out involving revenue, escrow, and player contracts, neither side wants to do anything to jeopardize the league’s increased popularity and revenue.
Negotiations won’t be smooth skating, but they should be considerably easier than they were eight years ago, with a good possibility there won’t be any significant interruption in next season’s schedule.
The good news for Murray Harbour native and N.Y. Rangers centre Brad Richards is he’s currently on pace for a career-best 31 goals this season.
The bad news is his assists are way down compared to his usual output, putting him on pace for 64 points, down from last season’s 77 points in 72 games with the Dallas Stars, and a considerable decline from his career-best of 91 two years ago. One reason for the lower numbers is Richards isn’t seeing first line duty as he was in Dallas.
He’s currently paired with team captain Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky on the second line, and while both are good two-way players, they’re not offensive stars like his former Stars teammates Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn.
That’s led critics at mid-season to rank Richards as one of this season’s most overpaid NHL players. Still, Richards is one of the reasons the Rangers are among the best teams in the league this season, and if he helps to take them deep into the 2012 playoffs, Rangers fans will consider it money well spent.
The Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators have exceeded expectations during the first half of this season, but the stakes will be higher in the second half as they jockey for playoff positioning in the tight Eastern Conference. Both teams have started the New Year off right, with the Leafs winners of four straight in early January, while the Senators won four of five over the same period.
To clinch post-season berths, however, both teams must improve their goaltending and defensive play.
The Senators have allowed the most goals and second-most shots of all NHL teams this season, while the Maple Leafs have given up the fourth-most goals, and fifth-most shots-against, plus they have the worst penalty kill in the league.
Failure to resolve those issues will prove costly down the stretch.
Throughout most of the first half of this season, despite a series of injuries to notable stars like Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang, the Pittsburgh Penguins have managed to remain among the top teams in the Eastern Conference. But entering mid-January, Crosby and Letang remain sidelined by concussions symptoms, and two-way centre Jordan Staal is now out four to six weeks with a knee injury.
The Penguins currently lead all teams in man-games lost to injury (over 220), and have slid from the top four in the conference to ninth overall, out of a playoff spot.
It’ll put considerable pressure upon their remaining healthy stars — centre Evgeni Malkin and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury — to get the Penguins back in playoff contention until the others return, and could push general manager Ray Shero into the trade market if those injured players are still out of the lineup by the Feb. 27 trade deadline.
Lyle Richardson is a freelance writer with The Hockey News and runs the website Spector’s Hockey. His column will appear in The Guardian every second Friday.