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Coldhearted: Building a Mystery

Player signings, the trade deadline, eight-point evenings, and the rest of the week in the NHL

If you listened closely, you could probably make out a collective squeak of resignation on Tuesday night, a whimper produced by dry-erase markers, dozens of them, grimly scrawling out the name “Frans Nielsen” on all the whiteboards hanging in all the offices around the NHL. The news was out: The Islanders had re-signed Nielsen to a four-year contract extension. And another one bit the dust.

Frans Nielsen is the kind of defensively minded forward that most GMs would love to have. He logs over 17 minutes of ice time a game, many of them on the penalty kill or originating in the Islanders’ defensive zone. Despite playing on a team that gave up the NHL’s fourth-most goals last season, Nielsen came away with a positive +/-, earning some votes for the Selke Trophy in the process. He can score, too. He doesn’t do it much in regulation, though he did have a career-high 13 goals last year, seven of them shorthanded, on the way to 44 points. But in a shootout, over his career, his production has been the most reliable in the league.

More often than not on the shootout he opts for his backhand, which has grown so effective that it’s become a mascot and earned a nickname of its very own: “The Danish Backhand of Judgment.” Lighthouse Hockey, an Islanders blog, riffed on this in the headline of a post announcing Nielsen’s new contract. “Danish Extension of Merriment: Frans Nielsen Agrees to 4-Years, $11 Million,” it said.

Nielsen’s old deal cost the Islanders $525,000 a year against the cap and made the 27-year-old an incredible value. He was widely expected to be a player who would do quite well for himself when he became an unrestricted free agent this summer. Some GMs, watching the Islanders flounder in November and December, kept their fingers crossed that they’d be trade-deadline sellers, making players like Nielsen available for “rental” in exchange for some sort of combination of a prospect and a pick.

Instead, on the night Nielsen’s signing was announced, he picked up another shootout winner in the Islanders’ 1-0 victory over Philadelphia. On the other end of the ice recording the shutout was Evgeni Nabokov, the veteran goaltender who just over a year ago was so outwardly displeased to have been plucked from reentry waivers by the Islanders that he refused to report to the team. This season, Nabokov has been steady in net for the Isles, particularly recently: In his last six starts he has gone 5-1 and given up more than one goal only once. For a while it seemed as though he also might become available by the deadline; someone can always use a goalie. But now that the Islanders have gone 6-2-2 in their last 10 games and sit only single digits out of playoff position, they seem to consider themselves the ones who could use Nabokov the most.

It was the latest signal from the Islanders that the organization is emerging from the lottery-picking phase of its rebuild and is now focused on maintaining a quality core. In the last year, GM Garth Snow has signed and re-signed players ranging from Matt Moulson to Nielsen to, most important, 2009 first overall draft pick and All-Star player John Tavares, who is currently tied for ninth in the league in scoring. Nabokov and P.A. Parenteau, whom Snow would love to sign, will become UFAs this summer unless a deal is struck. “I was here on day one when Garth decided to do the rebuild and I’d love to be here to see it through,” Nielsen said after his new contract was announced. “Seeing all those guys like Johnny [Tavares] taking the next step, I just know we are going to be good here and I really wanted to be a part of that.” (What are the odds that Nashville GM David Poile printed out these quotes and doodled in Ryan Suter’s name instead, just to see how it looked?)

Nielsen is one of several players predicted to be on the market this winter who are instead being locked in by their current teams. (If you liked it, then you should have, etc.) Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Tim Gleason was one player that many teams had an eye on — that is, until he announced a four-year, $16 million extension with Carolina. During an interview with NHL.com, his teammate teased him in the background by yelling “cha-ching!” It was the first time Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford had conducted contract negotiations in mid-season.

The Hurricanes are at a make-or-break juncture with upcoming unrestricted free agent Tuomo Ruutu as well; Rutherford met with him this week, and told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Michael Russo that a decision will have to be reached over the next few days: If they can’t sign Ruutu, they’ll look to trade him. The price will be “real high” in that case, Rutherford said. The Columbus Blue Jackets, recognizing the value of having a relatively stable person somewhere inside the organization, signed Vinny Prospal for another year. (Greg Wyshynski wonders if they did so properly.)

CBS’ Adam Gretz pointed out yesterday that since the start of the 2005 season, only two teams had overcome a deficit of five points or more on February 8 to make the playoffs. (The two teams were the 2008-09 Blues and the 2006-07 Rangers.) If this is discouraging news for the suddenly surging teams — Anaheim, Tampa Bay, the Islanders — who think that with a little skate leather and a lot of luck they can work their way into the postseason, they haven’t let on. It’s an optimistic time, strangely: Teams love their guys, or they love their chances. But too much optimism is bad for the trade market, which requires someone to be willing to cut bait.

While some organizations seem open to offers on any number of their players — the Montreal Canadiens come to mind — both TSN’s Darren Dreger and ESPN’s Craig Custance noted that there’s a marked imbalance at this point between trade deadline buyers and sellers. “Teams are becoming increasingly skeptical of what the unrestricted free agent market can provide and because of that seem more interested in keeping what they have,” Dreger wrote. Custance spoke with Chicago GM Stan Bowman, who acknowledged that there have been fewer players available this year. “We’re looking to add but I’m not going to create one hole to fill another,” Bowman said. Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher told Kevin Allen that “the prices are very high, and historically, if you look, I’m not sure that 25 percent of these rental trades work out for the teams that are buying.” Toronto GM Brian Burke called the deadline “a pit of quicksand.”

Still, every year somebody buys. And over the next few weeks, the situations of many teams will become more clear — or, at least, more stark. Once that happens, expect to see the balance of trade even out a bit more. And always remember: Just because a GM says they’re “not shopping” a player, that doesn’t mean they won’t happily sit back and entertain offers. These next few weeks should be fun.

Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes

You can’t talk about scoring over the last week without mentioning the Edmonton Oilers’ 22-year-old Sam Gagner, who bounded out of the All-Star break a young man possessed and has yet to slow down. Last Thursday night against the Chicago Blackhawks, Gagner — who hadn’t scored a goal since January 3 — broke out for four of them. He added four assists, making him just the third Oiler — Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey are the other two — to have scored eight points in a single game.

(NOT SO FAST, argued Hockey News’ Ken Campbell. One of the assists was erroneously awarded, per his further inspection, meaning that Gagner only deserved seven points. “It was one for the ages to be sure,” he wrote. “Too bad it never should have happened.” To which I respectfully reply: Generous and/or phantom assists are part of the very foundation upon which hockey is built! )

Coming off the big night, Gagner scored two more goals and added an assist in a 5-4 Saturday shootout win over Detroit (he had one of the team’s two shootout goals), picked up a helper in a loss to Toronto on Monday, and scored both of Edmonton’s two goals Wednesday night in a 4-2 loss to the Red Wings. It’s been a satisfying stretch for Gagner, who was drafted sixth overall by the Oilers in 2007 but who at just 22 is already entering comparative middle age on that Edmonton roster. That’ll happen on a team featuring two 20-year-olds and an 18-year-old among its top four scorers.

Gagner, who had been the subject of trade rumors before his more recent play made him the subject of more nuanced trade rumors, spoke of a “pep talk” he had with his father, Dave, a former NHL All-Star and current director of player development for the Vancouver Canucks. “The trade rumors are something that I haven’t really dealt with up to this point in my career because I’m so young,” he told Pierre LeBrun, adding that spending time with his father over break had been beneficial.

I’m sure it was, but still: No pep talk can set up plays quite like being on a line with Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle can.

Other great goals over the past week: Calgary’s Olli Jokinen had a hat trick against the San Jose Sharks Wednesday night, but it was Tyler Ennis goal embodies everything about the Sabres’ 6-0 drubbing of the Bruins … There’s nothing like a good straight-from-the-penalty-box goal. Here’s one from the Flyers’ Brayden Schenn, while the L.A. Kings’ Kyle Clifford took advantage of a great pass to score a goal of his own after winding down his two minutes.

Piling On the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performers

This one goes out to Tim Peel, the NHL official who decided to reenact the scene from The Town where the local cop doesn’t see the nuns for the Anaheim Ducks. I read that babies as young as 7 months can differentiate between sad and happy faces, and I assume that the very next facial cue they learn to identify is the “ruh-roh” look of guilt, as displayed here almost clownishly by Corey Perry in overtime between the Ducks and the Carolina Hurricanes:

Ha, even if there weren’t already clear footage of Perry tripping the Canes’ Jussi Jokinen, the league ought to be able to retroactively issue a penalty based solely on the evidence of that shifty glance. He kinda looks like that kid they catch stealing in Empire Records, come to think of it.

(For more questionable calls this week, check out tomorrow’s weekly goalies post on the Triangle, where we’ll discuss the week in interference. What fun!)

Taking It Coast-to-Coast: A Lap Around the League

  • With their 4-2 win over the Oilers on Wednesday, the Detroit Red Wings won their 18th straight game at home, moving to within two consecutive wins of the NHL record of 20 set by the 1929-30 Bruins and matched by the 1976 Flyers. It will be no easy task, however, particularly as no. 1 goaltender Jimmy Howard remains sidelined with a broken finger. On the home schedule next? The revitalized Anaheim Ducks on Friday night and the dangerous Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday.
  • Speaking of Detroit: The NHL formally announced today its plans for the 2013 Winter Classic, which will be between the Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs and will be held at the University of Michigan football stadium in Ann Arbor. Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers, will also get a rink and will host a medley of other outdoor games and events. It is no secret that the league wants the buzz around this Winter Classic to be its sheer size, which factored into its venue selection. Recently, the Michigan athletic director mentioned that “the NHL is hell-bent in breaking the record we set” for attendance at a hockey game. (Michigan and Michigan State drew a crowd of 104,173 in 2010 in the stadium.)
  • The Edmonton Oilers’ Ales Hemsky was a -4 in a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. But what does it meeeeean? Very little, as Tyler Dellow illustrates to amusing effect.
  • Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Friedman presented a moving segment on the Nashville Predators’ Jordin Tootoo and Brian McGrattan and their battles with alcoholism. McGrattan has been sober for three-plus years now, while Tootoo checked himself into the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program for six weeks last winter. The Nashville Predators already have a reputation for being a familial organization, but watching Barry Trotz’s genuine concern and respect in the video really underlines that. In his “30 Thoughts” column (a weekly must-read), Friedman included some additional thoughts from McGrattan on whether his role as a fighter played a part in his alcoholism.
  • I applaud hockey agent Ritch Winter’s dedication to blogging, particularly when it yields sentences like this: “The specifics as they relate to Ilya are confidential, but some of the more general insights we uncovered have widespread application and are, for the most part, just very interesting” (I’m using that construct all the time from now on) and great-moments-in-question-marks teasers like this: “NEXT WEEK — The Day Glen Sather Punched Me: And why I deserved it?” If you haven’t read Winter’s blog, I recommend it: Some of the more general insights I uncovered have widespread application and are, for the most part, just very interesting.
  • It was a harrowing week for coaches: Buffalo’s Lindy Ruff was “leg-swept” by Jordan Leopold during practice; the Buffalo News vividly described the 51-year-old coach “letting out a scream as his body crumpled that echoed through the empty arena.” (He broke three ribs in the collision.) That same day, the Edmonton Oilers’ Tom Renney took a puck to the head that required a dozen stitches and left him with a concussion. The two coaches reportedly commiserated via text.
  • Missouri truly is the “Show Me” state: It’s the only place where lobbyists can give unlimited gifts to public officials, provided that they disclose everything. Yahoo!’s Harrison Mooney takes a look at the books to see just how hot of a ticket the St. Louis Blues can become when they’re playing well. “In many ways, a hockey game is the perfect sporting event if you’re hoping to chat up a lawmaker,” he quotes St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Jake Wagman as saying.
  • After 1,200 games in the NHL, the rugged but productive Owen Nolan officially hung up his skates on Tuesday after making a “handshake deal” with San Jose GM Doug Wilson to retire as a Shark. Nolan played 18 seasons in the NHL that included eight in San Jose, where he was captain from 1998 to 2003 and one of the organization’s most popular players. “When your body won’t do what your mind and your heart is willing to do, it’s time to move on,” he said Tuesday. Here’s a nice 2,000-word piece on Nolan that says it all: “He spoke while squinting through a swollen and sutured left eyelid that had been sliced two nights earlier by a Red Wing’s inadvertent high stick.”
  • Chirping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off

    Flyers rookie Zac Rinaldo appears to have graduated from the Brad “because I felt like it” Marchand school of explaining yourself. Asked by ESPN New York’s Katie Strang about the two separate $2,500 fines handed down to him for his actions in Saturday’s 6-4 loss to the Devils, which included a late hit and a slew-foot, Rinaldo said he was surprised by the punishment. He added: “The slew-foot really shouldn’t be in the game but 6-nothing we were down and someone had to stir the pot.” Oh, well in that case …

    Hockey Haiku

    Tim Thomas is like
    Any other Facebook friend:
    So awful online.

Filed Under: Art, General topics, Movies, NHL, NHL Playoffs, NHL Viewing Guide, Sports, Ted

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes