Two days before Evgeni Malkin was given the NHL’s first official equipment violation penalty for having his sweater tucked in during a game, the superstar was sitting in his stall at Consol Energy Center discussing the league’s policy on that very issue with a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins training staff. So what went wrong?
Best as we can tell, there was a lot of effort made to try and keep Malkin from ever being assessed the minor during the Nov. 29 game at Tampa. The above discussion happened prior to the Penguins game against Toronto on Nov. 27—a few hours before the league’s hockey operations department noticed that Malkin took a shootout attempt against Jonathan Bernier with his sweater tucked inside his pants. Since adopting Rule 9.5 during the summer, which was approved by the NHLPA and mandates how the uniform is worn, a member of hockey ops has been in contact with teams whenever it spots a player who tucks in his jersey. In addition to that, referees were instructed to give a verbal warning on the ice before handing out a penalty in a game.
Essentially, the NHL views the two-minute minor as a last resort rather than a first option. Malkin seemingly ignored a series of warnings before getting sent off last week for a penalty his Pittsburgh teammates successfully killed. Clearly, the Penguins centre doesn’t like the rule. He’s far from alone on that front. What will be interesting to monitor is if he decides to challenge it again—Malkin got through Tuesday’s game in Long Island without incident, but did tuck his jersey in at the morning skate.
Some of the NHL’s Russian players, in particular, seem to be against Rule 9.5. Carolina Hurricanes forward Alex Semin was assessed a penalty in pre-season while Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who used to always tuck in his sweater at the back, criticized it during training camp. “I think if NHL wants to make a show, this is a show,” Ovechkin told the Washington Post in September. “You can see the young kids look at the players. Like tinted visors or yellow laces—they do the same what the NHL players do. (We’re) individuals, everybody wants to do their own thing. It’s stupid.”
For the NHL, it's a matter of player safety. It wants everything from a sweater to pants to elbow pads to be worn in the manner it was intended.
OTT IN LIMBO
Steve Ott is the only impending unrestricted free agent in the Buffalo Sabres dressing room willing to emphatically state that he's prepared to wait out the rebuild. Yet the captain has no idea if he'll be given that chance. "We had some negotiating going back and forth and (former GM) Darcy Regier kind of pulled the plug and said he was going to wait until training camp," says Ott of some summer discussions. "Then training camp came and nothing was said."
Now the entire landscape around the franchise has been altered. Pat LaFontaine was hired as president of hockey operations and is currently conducting a GM search with no end in sight. In fact, some in the industry think he could end up essentially holding that job himself through the end of the season. Whoever is calling the shots as the March 5 trade deadline approaches will need to make a decision on the future of Ott, long-time No. 1 goalie Ryan Miller and perennial 30-goal man Matt Moulson—all of whom are playing on expiring contracts.
Ott was acquired in a July 2012 trade from Dallas and loves living in Buffalo. The 31-year-old thinks the organization's rebuild has a chance to go a little more smoothly than others because of the commitment shown by owner Terry Pegula. However, with an affordable $2.95-million cap hit and the Sabres more likely to win the draft lottery than 30 games this season, he's realistic about the fact that he might ultimately end up getting traded. "You've got to look at it: Who are your assets?" says Ott, who calls it an honour to be mentioned in rumours and wanted by other teams. "We understand the whole asset side of things. Myself, (Miller) and (Moulson) are the unrestricted guys in this dressing room, and we're going to probably cause a little stir because of where we are—in a rebuilding atmosphere we're usually guys (the team) will get pieces for. Otherwise, that's bad business."
So far the uncertainty doesn't seem to be getting to Ott, who has lived through this type of scenario before. He was told by former Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk that he would be dealt ahead of the trade deadline in 2010. Then, the night before it was set to pass, Nieuwendyk instead phoned him with an $11.8-million, four-year contract offer. "We signed at 12 o'clock at night just before the deadline," says Ott. "It was a good time to crack a beverage, to be honest with you, because of all the stress that was leading up to it."
He's ready for whatever comes this time around.
A FEW MORE THINGS
Yes, Henrik Lundqvist received a boatload of money. His $8.5-million cap hit starting next season will be $1.5-million more than any other goaltender, thanks to the $59.5-million, seven-year extension he signed with the New York Rangers on Wednesday. But what other option did the team really have? Goalies rarely bring much value in a trade and someone else most certainly would have paid Lundqvist that kind of money in free agency. The Rangers chose instead to stick with the guy they know and trust—similar to what Toronto did with Phil Kessel earlier this year—and were forced to pay Lundqvist fair market value to do so. Said one NHL exec: "I've never understood why goalies aren't the highest-paid player on every team. They play 60 minutes every night."
San Jose Sharks captain Joe Thornton has been sporting a nasty bruise after taking a puck to the right eye over the weekend. However, he still isn't putting on a visor. The veteran centre was one of six Canadian players forced to don a shield at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics—they are required for anyone born after 1974 under international rules—and I asked him during that tournament why he chose not to wear one in the NHL. "When I was a kid, I remember seeing guys without any helmets and without any visors, and I thought, 'Hey, if I ever made it to the NHL, I'm not going to wear one,"' Thornton said candidly. With visors now being grandfathered in for all NHL rookies, there won't be kids following that same line of thought.
Speaking of the Sharks and the Olympics, it's looking more and more likely that centre Logan Couture will get a call from Hockey Canada when the team is announced Jan. 7. Not only does he have 27 points in 27 games, but he's been tasked with matching up against every opponent's top line and has shown himself to be more than capable of handling the job. The 24-year-old from London, Ont., admits that Sochi has been on his mind a lot. "I think about it probably once a day," Couture says . "Usually when I'm just sitting around doing nothing I'll daydream like a typical hockey player would."
One final Olympic note: Czech national team coach Alois Hadamczik is currently on a scouting tour of North America and will take in Friday's Sharks-Hurricanes game in Raleigh. For 20-year-old Tomas Hertl, it will be an important one. The San Jose winger leads all NHL rookies in goals and points and calls it his dream to play at the Olympic Games. I like his chances. Jaromir Jagr has made it known that he's a big fan of Hertl.
While it is no strange sight to see either Malkin or Sidney Crosby's name atop the NHL scoring charts, it is unusual for it to happen at the same time. They enter play Wednesday sitting 1-2 in points—Crosby owns a 38-37 edge—which raises the possibility of the teammates battling for the Art Ross Trophy later in the season. Crosby, by the way, will appear in his 500th NHL game when San Jose visits Pittsburgh Thursday night. He's missed 152 games due to injury in his career and would likely have more than 900 points had he appeared in all of them (he currently has 703).
A voice that has been curiously absent during all of the talk about a new arena in Markham, Ont., is that of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Executives with the NHL team have remained remarkably quiet about the possibility of another rink being built just 30 km away from the Air Canada Centre. While the suits at MLSE are not saying so publicly, it's safe to assume that they're not big supporters of the project.
Condolences to Nazem Kadri, who missed Tuesday's Leafs game after his 77-year-old grandfather (also named Nazem Kadri) died suddenly in his sleep. The Leafs centre comes from a tight-knit family and indicated that his only regret was that he didn't get the chance to fulfill a promise to take his grandfather on a trip back to the village outside Beirut, Lebanon where he was raised. "I'm just glad he's at peace now," Kadri says.