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How will elite teams counter Devils' deal for Kovy?

by Phil Coffey
Jacques Lemaire flashed his Cheshire cat grin Friday morning and with pretty good reason. His New Jersey Devils now have a bona-fide game-breaker in Ilya Kovalchuk and didn't have to gut the roster to get him.

"It makes you feel good," Lemaire told the unusually large media swarm. "I think he's a guy that can change a game, a player that can make other players (better), a strong athlete, good skater, a great shot. So, there's no doubt that he's going to make this team better. I talked a lot about having one line that is a threat when they're on the ice, but I think we'll be able to get two, which is good, like many other teams."

Lemaire's grin is in contrast to some of the scowls around the NHL as teams revamped their plans for wheeling and dealing with the biggest name in the rumor mill now pulling on a new jersey.

New Jersey's acquisition of Kovalchuk sends a strong message, namely the Devils are going for it -- now. Whether Kovalchuk re-signs in Jersey or moves on is immaterial at this point. GM Lou Lamoriello feels this team can make some noise in the postseason. With Martin Brodeur turning 38 on May 6, Lamoriello knows the time is now to make a run for the franchise's fourth Stanley Cup.

So, what do the Washington Capitals do to counter the move? What about the Pittsburgh Penguins? Will George McPhee and Ray Shero feel the need to make a countermove after seeing New Jersey shore up a perceived weakness, namely inconsistent scoring? Do they stay the course, knowing they already have strong teams?

Critics will chirp that Washington's goaltending is suspect, despite evidence to the contrary. The Penguins will be deemed lacking in depth by others. But are they? And if the decision is moves are needed, is there help out there?

Can acquiring Marty Biron from the Islanders be a move that would make McPhee sleep easier? Could adding forwards like Ray Whitney or Chad LaRose make Shero feel he has the needed depth now to counter Jersey's big move?

What about other Eastern Contenders like the Buffalo Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers and Ottawa Senators? Is the heat on Darcy Regier, Paul Holmgren and Bryan Murray to make a move?

Regier already has said any changes to the Sabres' roster will likely come from within. Holmgren said he would like to add a forward and defenseman, but doesn't have a lot of wiggle room against the cap. Murray has never been one to duck making a move, but can he find the right one?

And does the deal for Kovalchuk coupled with their forgettable January turn the Bruins from buyers into sellers?

All are fascinating questions that will be answered in the next couple weeks. So while Kovalchuk may be off the trade market, there are still plenty of interesting trade stories to be told before March 3.

Glass is half full
-- Dion Phaneuf is a glass-half-full kinda guy.

When others look at the Maple Leafs place in the playoff hunt they think "wait 'til next year." When Phaneuf looks at the same numbers, he thinks "why not us?"

"It's not over yet," Phaneuf told reporters Wednesday. "There're a lot of games left. We are where we are, but we have to do our best to get points and make a push for the playoffs. ... If teams lose and you win a few, you're right there."

As of Friday morning, the Leafs were 10 points out of the eighth seed and two points ahead of Carolina to stay out of the Eastern Conference basement. Plus, in the pair of Sunday's trades -- one that landed Phaneuf in Toronto -- the Leafs sent four forwards and their combined 48 goals and 60 assists packing.

Plus, GM Brian Burke said more moves are coming. So, is it reasonable to expect the Leafs to challenge for the playoffs this season?

Well, there is precedent and recent precedent at that. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last post-lockout club to qualify for the playoffs from as far back as the 14th-place Leafs sit now was last year's St. Louis Blues. But those Blues had 10 more games to work with when they jumped from 14th to 8th in the Western Conference on the last day of the season.

But there is no questioning the moves have lit a fire in the Leafs' dressing room.

"All three guys bring a lot of energy," defenseman Luke Schenn told reporters. "Like it was said, you needed a bit of a culture change here and these guys bring intensity, you could sense it (Tuesday) night, it showed in our dressing room and then it carried over into the game. (a shutout win over New Jersey)
"Dion ... it's a lot louder in our room, he's always talking. And I think the younger guys can be themselves, maybe not be afraid to say something in the room. We're a young team and everyone fits in."

"Dominating" Sid -- Pittsburgh defenseman Jay McKee is too young a man to call old, but in the hockey world he has earned gray-beard status at age 32. Heck, he's so old he goes back to Dominik Hasek's days in Buffalo.

Which leads us to this impressive compliment to Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.

"With Sid, a guy I can compare him to in his work ethic is Dominik Hasek," McKee said. "Dom, I think, was one of the best goaltenders to ever play, and he was the guy that got ticked off if you scored on him in practice. He always worked his tail off, and that's what made him great. Sid's a lot like that. Every practice, every game, he's working his tail off.

"He has the drive and the passion to want to be the best in everything he does. He's great in a lot of things, and he wants to be great in all the things."

Happy reunion -- The trade that send Christopher Higgins to the Calgary Flames certainly met with the approval of one current Flame, forward Eric Nystrom.

"He's one of my best friends," Nystrom told reporters. "I've known him since I was 10. We played hockey together since we were little kids. And now we train together in the summer. He lives around the corner from me.

"He's the type of addition that can really help this team. Unbelievable skill. Great shot. He's fast. Plays a tenacious game. He's really going to help us a lot. I think the fans are going to be really surprised with him."

Well Said I -- "Do I handle everything right? No. Am I too harsh sometimes? Maybe. But players will always know where they stand with me and what pleases me because I'll let them know, and I don't play games." -- Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock

Familiar song -- On the day he was dismissed as head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, everyone was sorry to see Ken Hitchcock go. The cynics among us would say that had those sentiments been put into action during the season, then Hitchcock would still be behind the Columbus bench.

But at 22-27-9 and with a playoff berth slipping away, the time had come for a change. As any number of wise men will tell you, it's easier to change the coach than the players.

"It does not change the fact that Hitch is an excellent coach," Columbus GM Scott Howson said. "He came with the organization in disarray and is leaving it in much better shape. He brought structure, credibility and legitimacy to our franchise. He played a huge role in getting us to our playoff berth last season, and we've all learned a great deal from him in terms of commitment, preparation and attention to detail, and for that we're grateful to him."

It's funny how the knock on Hitchcock is he is too tough on young players, but then later on some of those players laud him as the reason they were able to excel at the NHL level.

Rick Nash was one of the young players who took the grief from the demanding Hitchcock and prospered for it. Needless to say, he didn't offer the usual platitudes after the firing.

"It's terrible news," Nash told reporters. "It's terrible that we couldn't play better, and the coach had to be fired. Hitch put this market on the map. We didn't really have an identity before he got here."

But as we all know, in sports, you are judged on results and this season has been a terrible disappointment for the Blue Jackets, who made the playoffs for the first time last season.

"This decision was made for the best long-term interest of our hockey club," Howson said. "It had become clear that, despite the efforts of Hitch, the coaches and players to find a solution, it wasn't working. The team was not responding to the message."

As for Hitchcock, he took the news with class.

"I came here to Columbus with my eyes wide open," he said. "I'd never started anything on the ground floor. I wanted the challenge. We made obviously significant progress in moving this thing forward. We took a step backward this year in some avenues. But in my thought process, the step backward was visible and natural when you try to integrate more, younger and new players into the program. We struggled at times and we had success at times. We were inconsistent."

Getting a mulligan -- Matt Stajan, Ian White, Niklas Hagman and Jamal Mayers didn't produce a point in their first game as Calgary Flames, Monday's 3-0 loss to the Flyers, but coach Brent Sutter wasn't casting an immediate judgment.

"Well, I think it's unfair to judge them so quickly," Sutter said. "They got in late, after supper (Sunday) night, and they had things they had to get done. They came in (Monday) morning to meet a bunch of new guys, meet a new coaching staff, try to get an idea of what our system's like, how we want to play. I don't think it's right to judge them on their performance."

Still Stajan wasn't offering any excuses.

"It was a long day (Sunday) and there's a lot going through your head the last 48 hours, a little trouble sleeping, thinking about things," he said when asked if he was maybe a little too tentative, playing it too safe. "But at the end of the day you have to prepare yourself to play hockey."

Well Said II -- "This is the silly season. Between the Olympics and the trade stuff you've got trade rumors flying everywhere, you've got newspaper reporters calling you in the middle of the night wanting to know something. It's the perfect time to change your phone number." -- Ken Hitchcock

Go, go, go -- Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville doesn't want his players to coast into the Olympic break. With four games left after Friday's meeting with Phoenix, Quenneville knows the points available now are every bit as valuable as the ones coming one play resumes on March 1.

"We want to make sure we go into the break on a positive note and have some momentum," Quenneville said. "We targeted that long trip and now that we have these six games let's bring some meaning to the games. They're all games we want to win badly and could put us in a good spot going into that break. Let's try to recapture some momentum here at home and take advantage of how it feels like playing here."

'I'll show you -- Don't be surprised if Olli Jokinen goes on a tear with the New York Rangers.


Well, his season with the Flames wasn't very successful, but he still didn't like getting the word he was being dealt.

"Eleven months ago, when I got traded here I was hoping I could stay here the rest of my career, but like I say it's a brutal business," Jokinen told reporters in Calgary as he left for Los Angeles to join the Rangers. "That's the way it goes. It comes with the salary. When you make $5 million dollars, 11 goals is not going to cut it.

"It's definitely a slap in the face to get traded."

Now, Jokinen knows the job that faces him with the Rangers.

"The bottom line is I have to help this team win hockey games," Jokinen said. "We got to find a win because everyone knows where we are in the standings, it's so tight. We have to treat every game like a playoff game."

Babcock: We've gotta improve -- Mike Babcock is a straight shooter, so he put the word out to his Detroit Red Wings that they simply cannot try to ride the goaltending of Jimmy Howard for the rest of the season.

"Playing the way we've played the last couple of nights," Babcock said, "I mean, go Howie go, but that to me isn't the way we want to go about our business.

"We've got to skate better. To me, that's not a physical thing, that's a mental thing. Our engagement and our execution have to be better if we're to play at a high level. We have no rhythm in our game, and what I mean by that is, because you turn the puck over, you never get skating and you look slow.

"Do we suddenly not know how to pass the puck? That's mental. That's being in the right spots. Every year you have lulls, but we have to understand that we can't afford a lull."

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