The second half of the NHL season begins Monday with no hope in sight for relief from the league's biggest problem – concussions.
Sidney Crosby and Chris Pronger head a long list of NHL stars who may not or will not play again this season because of head injuries. And yet, the NHL brass refuses to admit this is a serious problem that needs to be tackled on many fronts.
Or maybe the league actually recognizes the severity of the problem but is loath to admit it publicly. Either way, the NHL needs to marshal the considerable forces it has access to and take bigger steps to find solutions. Here are the areas that should be under consideration:
Culture. Far too many NHL players are too careless or have too little respect for their peers when it comes to hits to the head. Look at the elbow Rene Bourque of the Calgary Flames threw at the head of Nicklas Backstrom of the Washington Capitals last week. Brendan Shanahan, the league's head disciplinarian, gave Bourque a five-game suspension. He needs to come down harder on this type of offender.
Equipment. The league is working with designers and manufacturers to come up with softer shoulder pads and elbow pads. A dozen players are already testing a new prototype of shoulder pads. This equipment must be adopted – and players forced to use it – as soon as possible.
Treatment. The NHL should tap into the long list of reputable concussion experts willing to help and develop a sensible plan for treating concussions. Then it should get the National Hockey League Players' Association to join it in strongly encouraging the players to follow it. The chiropractor and his unorthodox methods Crosby turned to got a lot of media attention. But in several interviews with concussion experts, I did not hear one unequivocally endorse those methods, to put it mildly.
Rule changes. All hits to the head need to be outlawed, not just the blind-side ones.
Game changes. Since increased speed is responsible for the rise in concussions more than any other factor, the NHL's general managers need to seriously consider ways to counter this. The most popular suggestion, putting the centre red line back in play to slow speed through the neutral zone, requires discussion, as does widening the ice surface.
Fighting. Once it was easy to say hardly anyone was seriously injured in a hockey fight. Then size, steroids, boxing and mixed-martial-arts lessons entered the picture. The majority of concussions in the NHL do not come from fights but the game has evolved to where pure fighters are not necessary. Getting rid of goons will remove a certain percentage of concussions and remove those players from the long-term brain damage common to their profession.
Even an unlikely success in the above areas will not guarantee the elimination of concussions. As long as hockey is a physical game, the chance of being concussed will always be there. But that's all there should be, a long-shot chance.
A SUTTER RETURNS
On Saturday, Darryl Sutter will return to the Scotiabank Saddledome for the first time since the Calgary Flames pushed him out as general manager a little more than a year ago. While he is going back in a position of strength – the Los Angeles Kings are 5-1-3 since Sutter was hired as head coach on Dec. 20 – Sutter can expect a rough ride from the Flames' fans.
As a GM, Sutter makes a good coach. By the time he was shown the door, Sutter had the Flames in such a mess that incoming GM Jay Feaster is still hamstrung by a long list of big contracts awarded to underachieving players. But things are finally looking up, even though the Flames are not going to be in the playoff picture.
Thirteen players will have their contracts expire this summer and nine will be unrestricted free agents. So look for Feaster to be busy in the trade market over the next six weeks until the Feb. 27 trade deadline.
SPEAKING OF …
With Anaheim Ducks general manager Bob Murray threatening to trade everybody on his roster except Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu, the action could heat up well before the Feb. 27 deadline.
Naturally, the prospect of landing Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf or Bobby Ryan has NHL GMs buzzing away at Murray's cellphone, but there are some other teams that add to the intrigue. After an appearance in the Eastern Conference final last spring, the Tampa Bay Lightning are in terrible shape. GM Steve Yzerman needs to continue the playoff appearances to keep his fan support and his needs list is topped by a goaltender and a defenceman. While Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke insists he is not looking for a goaltender, he is after a top-six forward. Murray is probably already tired of listening to Burke's pitches for Getzlaf, Ryan and Perry or all three.
Elsewhere, Columbus Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson is in the same position as Yzerman, only worse. He has to make the playoffs just to have any hope of keeping his job. Hence all the social media chatter about a potential Rick Nash or Jeff Carter trade.
BACK TO THE FLAMES
Feaster says he has no plans to trade Jarome Iginla because he expects the well-loved forward, who has a no-move contract, to retire in a Flames jersey. But there are lots of other possibilities on his team.
The top two are goaltender Mikka Kiprusoff and defenceman Jay Bouwmeester. The latter's trade value is severely compromised by his mediocrity since landing in Calgary and a contract that has two years to run at $6.8-million (U.S.) a year. But Kiprusoff would command a high price from, say, Yzerman.
A SALUTE TO THE WORKINGMAN
Sean O'Donnell, 40, will play his 1,202nd NHL game on Tuesday night for the Chicago Blackhawks, quite an accomplishment when you consider he was hardly ever more than the fifth or sixth defenceman on any of the teams he's played for. Too often, players like that are waived into retirement in favour of younger bodies, although McDonnell is dependable enough defensively that he always found work. He is in his 18th NHL season with his eighth NHL team and no one ever accused him of taking a night off. Not that players in his position ever could.
FIVE GAMES TO WATCH
Sabres at Leafs
The Leafs started their long January homestand in style with wins over the Tampa Bay Lightning and Winnipeg Jets, which kept them in a playoff position in the Eastern Conference. Now they need to beat Buffalo in regulation time to keep the good times rolling. Tuesday, 7 p.m., Sportsnet Ontario.
Blues at Canadiens
It's always fun when a former Montreal player comes to call, in this case St. Louis goaltender Jaroslav Halak. While few will argue the decision to keep Carey Price instead of Halak, the lack of return on the goalie is a sore point, even considering Lars Eller's big night last week, as well as the Habs' current woes. Tuesday, 7:30 p.m., RDS, TSN-Habs.
Sharks at Wild
Minnesota went into a swoon after lingering at the top of the league all season, while San Jose's hot streak has it moving into the top four of the Western Conference. Tuesday, 7:30 p.m., TSN 2.
Blackhawks at Red Wings
Hey, any time these Original Six rivals hook up, you have to watch. Especially when both teams are among the best in the Western Conference. Saturday, 12:30 p.m., TSN 2, NBC.
Kings at Flames
Since the Kings turned themselves around with the arrival of Darryl Sutter as their new head coach, you know they will want to win this one as much as he does. Since there is nothing like a Sutter scorned, he wants to beat the team that dumped him as GM very, very badly. Saturday, 10 p.m., CBC.