Bylsma's wait might not be much longer 

November, 24, 2014
Nov 24
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Dan BylsmaBruce Fedyck/USA TODAY Sports Dan Bylsma's .670 winning percentage is the best in Pittsburgh Penguins history.
When Dan Bylsma was working in the AHL and the parent club Pittsburgh Penguins needed something, he typically heard from former Penguins assistant GM Chuck Fletcher.

So when he saw a phone call coming from Ray Shero, a call that led to his hiring as Michel Therrien’s replacement in 2009, he knew something was up. That’s how the process went.

He has no idea how the process works now.

As teams start to assess their places in the standings and how it relates to the future of their head coaches, Bylsma’s phone could be ringing soon with an NHL GM on the other line. There’s speculation that Dallas Eakins is on the hot seat in Edmonton. The same goes for the San Jose Sharks' Todd McLellan. The Toronto Maple Leafs' Randy Caryle was on the hot seat the moment he was hired.

This past weekend didn’t do much to help the situation in San Jose, with the Sharks losing to the Arizona Coyotes 4-3 in a shootout on Saturday. It was San Jose’s third consecutive loss to opponents the Sharks should have beaten. Meanwhile, the Chicago Blackhawks blew out the Oilers in Edmonton on Saturday night in embarrassing fashion, with the home team losing 7-1. It was Edmonton’s sixth consecutive loss.

It seemed like a good time to reach out to Bylsma. At least for me, and maybe also for the GMs of those teams.

As of early Sunday evening, he hadn’t heard from any interested teams. If he had, he assured me, he wouldn’t be talking about it anyway.

The financial challenges of NHL players 

November, 21, 2014
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Jack JohnsonChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesColumbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
It was a strange question, not asked often in the confines of a hockey locker room. For a project that will appear in an upcoming issue of ESPN The Magazine, I asked an NHL player how much money he currently had in his bank account.

He thought for a moment, graciously answered a seven-digit number, and then we both laughed at the absurdity of it all. He’s a millionaire, but inside, just a kid from Canada playing hockey.

“It’s ridiculous,” he said.

For the most part, hockey players come from modest backgrounds. They remain down-to-earth even when the modest beginnings evolve into something that puts them in the highest tax brackets.

When I used to cover the Atlanta Thrashers, we were allowed to park in the players’ lot for practice. Yes, there were Mercedes Benzes and BMWs, but I always knew I could find a well-used pickup truck to park next to as well, so I didn’t feel so bad about my hand-me-down Chevy Malibu.

Many of the players are able to keep the money separated from the day-to-day hockey life, and part of the reason is they have the mentality Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson had -- find someone you trust to handle the finances and focus on doing what you do best on the ice.

Johnson’s bankruptcy story, broken by great reporting from the Columbus Dispatch, is heartbreaking. During a conversation about managing the finances of a family member in hockey with John Thornton, that’s what it kept coming back to.

John and his brother Joe, the San Jose Sharks' star center, have never had a big conversation about keeping family and money separate. They didn’t have to. There’s a trust there when you hire family to represent you, as Joe did with his agent brother. So, what happened to Johnson was hard for John Thornton to accept and wrap his head around.

“Jack loves his family and his little brother,” John Thornton said when we chatted Thursday afternoon. “I feel so bad for this kid, that’s the thing. He’s still a kid.”

Reading the court documents in the Johnson case lifted the curtain into the world these players deal with that the public doesn’t see. Johnson owes millions to a company called Pro Player Funding -- a company that former NFL quarterback Vince Young called a predatory lender in a New York lawsuit. Young was one of several NFL players to get loans from the company at high interest rates during the NFL lockout, according to ThePostGame.com.

Thornton recognized the name of the company but couldn’t say for sure whether or not the lender ever approached any of his clients for loans, mostly because he’s lost track of how many times individuals and companies have tried to pry money away from the NHL players he works with.

It’s nonstop.

“These players are alone on the road. When they’re alone on the road, they get guys in these cities who are nice to them, impressive, seem important, buy nice meals, seem wealthy and educated, and they start trusting them,” Thornton said.

Unpaid loans and investments gone bad aren’t necessarily an uncommon thing in NHL dressing rooms.

When Thornton started working with his brother, he had to start unraveling some of it.

“The first thing I did was get him out of a video game deal there was nothing behind,” he said.

Then there’s the barrage of financial advisers trying to get at the players' money through the agents or families, offering kickbacks as motivation.

“I get e-mails from financial advisers all the time. They’ve offered to take me out, fly me places. They offer to give me a kickback off the players’ fee. If they charge the player 3 percent, they’ll give me 1 percent,” Thornton said. “There’s a lot of hounds.”

It can be relentless if there’s not a system in place to contain it for some of the more high-profile players, especially the ones who don’t want to come off like a jerk. And that’s a lot of players.

“These players are too polite. I tell them to talk to me. Let me be the [a—hole],” he said. “They’re trustworthy people to begin with who aren’t quite jaded yet when they get in the league.”

It’s why you need someone you can trust. It’s why it’s hard to fault Jack Johnson for what happened, because that’s exactly what he thought he had.

On to the Friday mailbag:

Hey now, Craig. Big fan. As a non-Oilers fan living in Edmonton, I'm curious if you feel the Oilers will ever be good, or am I going to have to listen to the crying and complaining until the end of time?

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Leafs' problems go beyond Carlyle 

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
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Randy CarlyleChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesA slow start for the Maple Leafs has some calling for the team to fire Randy Carlyle.
Unless you’re holed up in a bunker, the Toronto Maple Leafs are inescapable in Toronto. Players, coaches and management can ignore the clips, stay off the Internet, turn off talk radio and you’re still going to get the pulse of the hockey fans in Toronto.

“It’s everywhere,” said one source who worked in Toronto. “You go to coffee shops, you hear it. It’s around you all the time.”

Right now, the demand from fans is clear: Randy Carlyle has to go. Not only are they clear, it’s a stance that is quite easy to defend. Aside from their place in the standings, late-season collapses under Carlyle and inability to carve an identity, players have performed better once leaving Toronto. It also doesn’t look particularly good that the Anaheim Ducks rocketed to the top of the division when Bruce Boudreau took over for Carlyle in Anaheim.

This is the time of year when the default solution is changing the coach. Too often, it’s the easy way out. So, on Wednesday, I made some calls to get the opinion of a few people around the league and some who have spent time closely with the team in Toronto to see how much blame falls on Carlyle’s shoulders.

Unsurprisingly, there’s blame to go around that extends beyond Carlyle.

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Murray, TyutinGetty ImagesRyan Murray is week-to-week and Fedor Tyutin is out another month, both because of knee injuries.
TORONTO -- While in town for the general managers' meetings, one of Jarmo Kekalainen’s colleagues shared a sobering projection with the Columbus Blue Jackets' GM.

If a team has 400 man-games lost in a season, it’s all but impossible to make the playoffs.

If you finish the regular season with 500 man-games lost, you’d better have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on your roster to give you a fighting chance of making the postseason, like the 2013-14 Pittsburgh Penguins, who advanced to the playoffs despite a mind-boggling 529 man-games lost.

It’s even worse in Columbus right now.

“We’re on pace for 600 this year,” Kekalainen said following Tuesday’s meetings.

“Someone sent me an email that said we have seven man-games lost on average per game.

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Brodeur pondering his NHL options 

November, 18, 2014
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Martin BrodeurEd Mulholland/USA TODAY SportsMartin Brodeur said goodbye to the Devils last spring, but wants to continue playing in the NHL.
TORONTO -- Watching Martin Brodeur walk down the red carpet to witness the 2014 class get inducted into hockey’s Hall of Fame, it’s not hard to imagine him being honored in the same way in the next few years. He smiled when he was asked if he was taking notes for his speech down the road.

“I’ll take notes when I get the call, if I get the call,” Brodeur said on the red carpet.

That call is an absolute certainty.

He has four Vezina Trophies and more wins than any other goalie who has ever played. That’s not the call that is the priority for him right now. He’d still like to hear from an interested general manager with a job opening in net.

It’s mid-November and Brodeur still has the itch to play in the NHL. Actually it’s more than an itch.

“I still have the fire,” he said. “But it’s understandable with the quality of goaltending around the league. The youth and the quality of goaltending is pretty tremendous. We’ll see if my experience is valued to an organization or not.”

He said he’s enjoyed the time off, time with kids and getting the chance to travel. He’s getting on the ice three or four times a week to stay sharp and doesn’t think it would take too much to get him ready for an NHL game.

“It depends on the situation you’re in. If you need a goalie tomorrow, that would be a tough one but I’m willing to do it. It doesn’t matter, I’ve done it before,” Brodeur said.

He said he’s willing to join a team in any role, including as a backup.

“It’s not about ego or anything. I just love to play the game,” Brodeur said

Looking around the league, it’s hard to see a logical fit. The New York Islanders' goaltending hasn’t been great, and their .911 even-strength save percentage is No. 23 in the league. Washington is even lower, at .903. Edmonton has an even-strength save percentage better than only two other teams.

But even if one of those teams looked to make a move in goal, it’s hard to imagine their first choice being a 42-year-old goalie who hasn’t played all season.

Even so, Brodeur is keeping the faith.

“I know I can help a team out somehow,” he said.

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Richards' growing impact for Blackhawks 

November, 17, 2014
Nov 17
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Brad RichardsJohn E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY SportsBrad Richards has seen his ice time increase as he earns Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville's trust.
It was a milestone event for Brad Richards. Game No. 1,000 came in Chicago on Sunday against the Dallas Stars and was an opportunity for reflection and to get his family together to appreciate a long and outstanding career.

But Richards wants to make one thing abundantly clear: He doesn’t believe he’s finished as an impact player in this league.

Sunday’s game was more than a career milestone; it has the potential to be the game that marks his arrival in Chicago.

Richards had two assists, playing on a line with Patrick Kane and Kris Versteeg. His 18:20 of ice time was his biggest total in a game this season by a good two minutes. He also saw 2:31 of power-play ice time. It was the kind of performance everyone anticipated when Richards signed a one-year contract with the Blackhawks on July 1.

“I feel good,” Richards said Friday. “I’m still trying to figure out where I fit on the team and see where it goes. It’s a locker room that’s very established. Day by day, I’m trying to figure things out.”

After a loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Friday, you could still sense frustration from Richards. In that game, he played just 13:03, which was more in line with his season average of 13:10 and more than seven minutes below his career average.

He played primarily with Peter Regin and Jeremy Morin -- quite a difference from playing with Kane.

He knew he had work to do to earn coach Joel Quenneville’s trust.

“He’s got a lot of trust and has had a lot of these guys for a long time,” Richards said. “It’s a one-year shot. It’s a lot different. Both my new teams [in Dallas and New York] were for long-term. You’re pretty ingrained. Not that I’m not here, but you’re trying to do things a little differently.”

Sunday’s game in Chicago was the Blackhawks' last before they hit the road for six games out West, through western Canada and California. Chicago will play 10 of its next 12 games on the road. It’s a chance for Richards to find his place and form bonds on a group that is already tight-knit. It’s also a chance to build off a game on Sunday that suggests he can still make an impact on an impact team.

“I’ve been a go-to guy most of my career. I don’t want that to stop,” Richards said.

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How NHL teams handle the mumps 

November, 14, 2014
Nov 14
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Corey PerryDebora Robinson/Getty ImagesCorey Perry missed four straight games because of the mumps but has been cleared to play and can resume working out.
When you see Corey Perry’s name on the crawl while watching a hockey game and it says "mumps" in parentheses to explain why he’s not playing, it’s a bit jarring. We’re used to things like shoulder injuries, ankle injuries and especially upper- and lower-body injuries.

Not diseases that are supposed to be covered by vaccines.

Then, Minneapolis Star-Tribune writer Mike Russo shared the news on Thursday that defensemen Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin may also have the mumps -- an illness that already sidelined Keith Ballard -- and it became more than an isolated incident.

For me, it was a reminder of just how little I knew about a disease that I thought was covered with the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.

Could this spread to more teams? How long are these guys going to be out? And most important, because it always comes back to me, should I wear a hazard suit into the dressing room of the game I’m covering tonight?

Thankfully, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was willing to answer those questions.

On Friday morning, I spoke with Dr. Greg Wallace of the CDC. He's the lead of the measles, mumps, rubella and domestic polio epidemiology team and has been working with the Anaheim Ducks doctor already but hasn’t spoken yet to anyone with the Wild.

“I assume the teams are all pretty aware of it at this point,” he said by phone. “It is a reportable disease; these things are generally handled on the local level.”

He explained that small outbreaks of the mumps like this aren’t all that uncommon.

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Filip Forsberg clicking in Nashville 

November, 13, 2014
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Filip ForsbergTerrence Lee/Icon SportswireFilip Forsberg found immediate chemistry on a line with Mike Ribeiro and James Neal.
Like all teams preparing for the NHL draft, the Washington Capitals went through countless mock drafts leading up to the 2012 entry draft. With two picks in the first round that year, the Capitals planned on going with skill with their No. 11 pick and then hoped to get Tom Wilson -- a player some saw as a Milan Lucic-type -- with their second first-round pick. They got Wilson with the No. 16 pick and were thrilled.

It was their first pick, however, that came with a curveball. Their most likely projections and expectations were that they’d end up with Codi Ceci, a defenseman they liked from the Ottawa 67’s. One scenario they didn’t anticipate in those mock drafts was that Sweden’s Filip Forsberg would slip to them at No. 11. He was ranked as high as the No. 3 overall by some, and the likelihood of him slipping outside the top 10 wasn’t something Washington expected. Really, nobody did.

But there he was, available, when the Capitals were on the clock in 2012 with their first pick. You’d think there would have been a sprint to the podium to land a prospect rated as highly as Forsberg, the memory of a dominant performance in the Ivan Hlinka tournament earlier that season one that helped cement him as a high-end prospect.

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Is 3-on-3 overtime coming to the NHL? 

November, 12, 2014
Nov 12
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Patrick KaneAP Photo/Brandon WadeThe addition of a 3-on-3 overtime session could push shootouts toward extinction.
The more he talked about it, the more he seemed to warm up to it. I checked in with an AHL head coach this week to see what he thought of the league’s new overtime system, one in which a seven-minute overtime is split between 4-on-4 and 3-on-3 action.

“You know what? I’m kind of mixed about it,” he answered immediately. “I don’t mind it.”

As he described the process and some of the strategy involved as coaches try to figure out the best way to capitalize on a session of hockey that essentially becomes a series of 2-on-1s, you could tell he was starting to like it.

“Right now, it’s pretty enjoyable,” he said. “In that four-minute span, you’re going to trade chances.”

This offseason, the NHL implemented changes to try to cut down on the number of shootouts. Overtime now includes a long change and a pre-overtime dry scrape of the ice surface. Some of the early-season rumbling about waiting five minutes to start overtime while the ice is being resurfaced has started to dissipate, and the tweaks are being noticed.

“I like what they did this year. I think you’re seeing more [OT] goals,” said Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Matt Carle. “I don’t think refs are as afraid to call penalties in OT now. The dry scrapes and when we’re switching ends -- that’s a big deal.”

When the GMs meet next week in Toronto, the anticipation is that they’ll get prepped on exactly how successful the changes have been made, even if it’s a bit early.

“We basically agreed that we would talk about it this year. I don’t know if we’re going to talk about it [next week], I don’t know if we’re going to talk about it in March,” said Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland, a proponent of a 3-on-3 overtime. “We’ve played a month with what we’re trying to do. We can get a brief [update]; it’s such a small sample size. It think realistically in March, once we get a larger sample size, a larger sample size in the American League and in the National League, we can see.”

The early results in the AHL are promising -- if you’re trying to make the shootout extinct. We’ll get to whether or not that’s a good idea in a minute.

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Trade Grades: Moen-Gonchar swap 

November, 11, 2014
Nov 11
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The deal

Montreal Canadiens get: Sergei Gonchar, D.

Dallas Stars get: Travis Moen, LW.


Montreal Canadiens: C

Even with Dallas retaining 8 percent of Gonchar’s salary, the $4.6 million cap hit (per CapGeek.com) is a hefty ticket for a 40-year-old defenseman who is known for offense but managed only 22 points last season.

The good news is that it’s short-term risk, since Gonchar is only signed through this season and Montreal still has some cap flexibility.

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Curing the injured defensemen epidemic 

November, 11, 2014
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Zdeno Chara, Ryan McDonagh and Victor HedmanGetty ImagesZdeno Chara, Ryan McDonagh and Victor Hedman have all hit the IR this season.
Anecdotally, it appears to be a problem.

It seems like NHL defensemen are dropping like flies, especially considering that prominent defensemen like Zdeno Chara, Ryan McDonagh and Victor Hedman remain out with injuries. When McDonagh went down, one scout I spoke with was angry enough that he made a call of action to the league.

“The league has to wake up,” he said.

Is it a problem? Is it a fluky run of injuries?

Posed with this question, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper started running through the list of guys out, and what caused it.

“When you look at those injuries -- our guy blocked a shot. Chara’s is a weird tweak. McDonagh got hit but he put himself ... it was an unfortunate situation. It was a good check,” Cooper said. “I think we’re hitting a little aberration. But tons of guys are getting hurt, it’s not just the D. Forwards are getting hurt.”

That’s true. How do the injuries on defense compare to other positions?

Right now, according to the injury information compiled by TSN.ca, there are 24 defensemen on injured reserve. By comparison, there are four goalies on injured reserve and 38 forwards.

Assuming the typical NHL roster has 14 forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies, that puts league totals around 420 forwards, 210 defensemen and 60 goalies on a given day. So if we’re looking at percentages using the TSN injury data, 9 percent of the forwards are currently on injured reserve and 6 percent of the goalies are out.

The total for defensemen? 11.4 percent.

Not only is it some of the biggest names -- you could fill out a pretty good Norris Trophy ballot with the guys sitting right now -- the quantity is there, as well.

“It’s an issue,” said one Western Conference GM in an email on Monday afternoon. “Speed of the forecheck now allows for full-on runs at D-men. No ability to slow down or ‘pick’ the forechecker.”

Identifying the issue is one thing. The bigger question: Is there a good solution?

“That’s the problem,” he answered. “Not sure if there is.

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Stamkos still has room to improve 

November, 10, 2014
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Steven StamkosDave Reginek/NHLI/Getty ImagesSteven Stamkos notched his ninth and 10th goals on Sunday -- and he's still rounding into form.
There are still reminders, just about every day. Steven Stamkos has mornings when he wakes up and the leg he broke last season in Boston is stiff. Or there’s a momentary scare for coach Jon Cooper like the one Sunday evening in Detroit, when Stamkos skated back to the bench shaking the leg a little bit, enough that Cooper checked in quickly to make sure it was nothing serious. It wasn’t.

A little ache, a little pain, a daily reminder of that moment last season when Stamkos slammed into the goalpost and altered what was shaping up to be a memorable season.

It’s starting to sink in that this is the new normal for the Lightning captain.

“That’s the million-dollar question: Is it ever going to feel the same way [as] before? It may never,” Stamkos said. “I’m hoping one day you wake up and there’s no little pain, no discomfort -- it just feels like a regular leg. I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”

Tuesday marks one-year since the painful injury occurred, and Stamkos is still making the slow climb back to the dominant player he was then. Statistically, he’s there. He scored his ninth and 10th goals of the season in Tampa Bay’s win over Detroit on Sunday, which puts him one goal off NHL leaders Corey Perry and Rick Nash. His 16 points equal guys like Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau and Henrik Zetterberg and top players like Perry, John Tavares and Ryan Getzlaf.

He’s producing, so we understand why Cooper quickly shrugs off any suggestion that Stamkos isn’t quite back.

“If he scores 10 goals every 15 games, I think we’re in pretty good shape,” Cooper said after Sunday's game.

The explosive skating that Stamkos flashed on Sunday hasn’t been there every single night, and he’s the first to suggest that there’s room for growth in his game.

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Noah Hanifin and Jack EichelGetty ImagesNoah Hanifin and Jack Eichel are revitalizing college hockey's presence in the NHL draft.
Boston College hockey coach Jerry York started rattling off the names of high-end draft picks from college programs over the years -- guys like Bill Guerin, Erik Johnson, Jack Johnson and Brian Leetch.

“We’ve had players who have certainly gone [high],” York said during a phone conversation Thursday before practice.

That he had to reach back to players out of the league is telling. There’s no disputing that college hockey is a great avenue for developing NHL players. Look no further than this Hall of Fame class, where Rob Blake left Simcoe, Ontario, as a skinny, gangly defenseman and returned from Bowling Green, under York’s guidance, a man ready to immediately jump into the NHL.

But there’s still a widely held belief in hockey circles that the best of the best are better off playing junior hockey in Canada. The CHL has dominated the top of the draft for years.

This draft year is threatening to turn that theory on its head. On Friday, Boston College will host Boston University in the first college meeting between two freshman sensations -- BU center Jack Eichel and BC defenseman Noah Hanifin.

It adds intrigue to a game that is already one of hockey's great rivalries. If all goes as expected, Eichel and Hanifin will be picked in the top three of the 2015 NHL draft, putting college hockey back at the top of the draft.

“I think it’s a great boost for all of us in college hockey,” York said.

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Marc-Andre FleuryCharles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsMarc-Andre Fleury's contract extension will pay him $23 million over four seasons.
With the potential of free agency looming for one of his most high-profile clients, Allan Walsh was given pretty clear instructions from Marc-Andre Fleury. Get a deal done.

New Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford made his affinity for Fleury known publicly early, and Fleury privately reciprocated that affection in how he wanted his next deal handled.

“Do we recognize that Marc-Andre Fleury would have been the No. 1 goalie on the free-agent market in 2015? Yes, we recognize that. Is there a possibility that he could have got longer term and more money somewhere else? The way we see it, the Pittsburgh No. 1 goaltending spot is the prime spot available, or one of the prime spots in the entire league,” Walsh said when we chatted late Wednesday afternoon, after the deal was announced. “To go to another organization was never really contemplated. There was a mutual strong interest in getting the deal done.”

From Fleury’s perspective, it’s easy to see why. Yes, if he continues his strong season and wins big in the playoffs, there would have been a bigger reward in free agency.

But where? What other starting goalie position is better than playing with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the next four seasons at an average salary of $5.75 million?

A cursory glance around the league reveals few spots more appealing. Washington is one option if the Capitals lose patience with Braden Holtby. Maybe Minnesota, if things go sideways with Darcy Kuemper, although that looks more unlikely by the day. Same thing with the situation in St. Louis. San Jose? Maybe, but GM Doug Wilson continues to stress that he’s going young. Fleury isn’t young.

Pittsburgh was the best option by a long shot. But that’s not the question people are asking. What they want to know is: If you’re Pittsburgh, why Fleury?

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Penguins, Wild off to fast starts 

November, 5, 2014
Nov 5
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Jonas BrodinBruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty ImagesPittsburgh has extended its winning streak to five games following Tuesday night's victory.
If it were the same old factors that made the Pittsburgh Penguins successful in the past driving their recent five-game win streak, there would be no special reason for optimism.

However, since losing to Detroit in overtime on Oct. 23, Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford is seeing progress in areas of concern for the Penguins -- something that should be encouraging for fans.

Most specifically?

“The balance in our forwards,” Rutherford said Wednesday morning, following an impressive win Tuesday night over the Minnesota Wild. “Everybody is holding their own or contributing. … Our players are playing more of an all-around game and complemented by more balance through all the lines.”

During our weekly ESPN hockey chat Tuesday, a reader wondered whether we thought Tuesday night’s Wild vs. Penguins showdown was a potential Stanley Cup preview.

At first, it seems like a long shot, but considering the starts of these two franchises, it’s at least something to consider.

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