The NHL Column: Best Available Coaches, Top Left Wings, NYI's Military Night
Ringbearers: Despite his struggles with perpetually rebuilding Columbus, Ken Hitchcock is the most highly-regarded unemployed head coach. The prepared, opinionated, sometimes stubborn Hitchcock has his detractors, but the Stanley Cup winner with Dallas will undoubtedly receive at least one more opportunity to run a team from behind the bench. With his Blue Jackets' experience as the only negative mark on an otherwise string career, Hitchcock will want to be selective in his next destination. While he probably wouldn't be offered the Islanders' job anyway, Hitchcock would have to think long and hard about whether another rebuilding, low-salaried franchise gives him the best chance to succeed.
Then there's Bob Hartley, who led the Colorado Avalanche to the Stanley Cup almost a decade ago, but later endured a similar experience to Hitchcock in Columbus when he was unable to fix the Atlanta Thrashers. Hartley is still a worthy candidate for a franchise in need of a transition to a more strict disciplinarian. He has not coached since 2007, serving as an analyst on French broadcasts in Canada, but could get another job offer. The Islanders chose Gordon over Hartley in 2008.
Turnaround Artist: Andy Murray will never win any Mr. Charisma contests, but he remains highly respected for his ability to implement a system, teach and develop young players. While Davis Payne has had the good timing and ability to coach the Blues back into the playoffs, Murray's work is not disregarded by St. Louis management. For a young, rebuilding club just looking to find its way and an identity, Murray deserves a look.
Big Names, Second Shots: The surprise (to some) in our polling could be the sentiment for a return behind the bench for popular broadcaster Ed Olczyk. No one is holding Olczyk responsible for having the bad timing of leading the Penguins juggernaut in its early infancy. With his firm, but likable nature and camera presence, Olczyk could help a franchise in need of a culture change and a salesman. Craig MacTavish, who led Edmonton to the Cup final in 2006, is another big personality who knows how to coach. Almost of our pollsters believe MacTavish will get an offer, but he may be picky.
Smaller Names, Second Shots: There are three coaches, united by the distinction of having strong reputations before struggling in their first NHL jobs, considered to still be in play for future opportunities. They are John Stevens, replaced in Philadelphia by Peter Laviolette last season but now earning praise for his work as an assistant in Los Angeles, John Anderson, whose attacking system might have fallen victim to the Ilya Kovalchuk affair more than a lack of execution; and Scott Gordon, who retains an admiring fanbase among NHL executives.
The AHL Call-up: As we wrote in the NHL Column last week, Kevin Dineen of the AHL's Portland Pirates is widely considered as the next minor league coach in line for a promotion to an NHL franchise. A year ago, it was Scott Arniel, who is doing a fine job in Columbus.
Magnificent 7: Left Wings
The NHL is not exactly star-rich at the left wing position, but there are enough great players to fill out a weekly bit we call Magnificent Seven. Or at least six.
1. Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals: Alexander the Great has only one thing left to prove, and it's not that he can carry HBO's "Road to the Winter Classic." Come heck or hot-as-Halak goalies, Ovechkin must carry the Capitals to the Stanley Cup.
2. Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit Red Wings: A Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe Trophy and Olympic gold medal, and he's still just 30 years old. Whether he produces 70 points or 90, Zetterberg's all-around game is one of the reasons why the Red Wings still believe they can contend for a long time.
3. Zach Parise, New Jersey Devils: You knew Parise wasn't right when he scored just three goals in the first 13 games of the season and couldn't help the floundering Devils. Sidelined for 3-4 months after surgery to repair a torn meniscus, the absence of Parise's offense, competitiveness and leadership is a crushing blow for New Jersey.
4. Daniel Sedin, Vancouver Canucks: He has averaged more than 80 points the last four years, despite missing 19 games last season to injury. Still just 30, along with twin Henrik, there's a feeling the Sedins have yet to peak -- a scary thought for opponents.
5. Patrick Marleau, San Jose Sharks: Hard to believe the second overall pick in the 1997 draft is going to play his 1,000th regular season NHL game this year, but the durable and skilled Marleau hardly ever misses a game. Like Ovechkin, but at 31 a few more years down the line, Marleau's resume is missing a Cup.
6. Alexander Semin, Washington Capitals: Semin is having arguably the best season of anyone on this list, but inconsistency in his still-young career keeps him out of the top-three for now. A spellbinding talent who could be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, Semin is playing like a man who knows he has a lot to prove. So far, he's been a blast to watch.
7. Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey Devils: While Kovalchuk is playing possibly the worst hockey of his career and you cannot deny Loui Eriksson's stunning development in Dallas, we'll give the Devil his due for a while longer. This has been a nightmare of a first quarter for Kovalchuk, but the bet here is he'll figure it out sooner than later in New Jersey.
Heroes of the Week
This Saturday, the New York Islanders are doing up their Military Appreciation Night right. The team has donated more than 1,000 tickets to armed forces personnel. The Islanders will wear camouflage jerseys during their pre-game warmup. Space for a military vehicle display has been created outside the arena known as the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Most impressive of all, the 106th Rescue Wing/New York Air National Guard paratroopers will scale down from the Coliseum ceiling to present the game puck before the opening faceoff.
-- I may be alone, but I'm still a believer in the re-constructed Chicago Blackhawks. Especially after they make an upgrade or two at the trade deadline, they will not be an easy out in the spring.
-- Miroslav Satan may turn out to be this generation's forward version of Reijo Ruotsalainen, the former defenseman who twice won Stanley Cups after starting the season in Europe. The smooth Slovakian winger will sign with an NHL team in the coming month, just as he did for the second half last season with the Boston Bruins. Still the owner of a slick pair of hands and good-enough wheels, Satan will help a team just as he did in Boston.
-- In Wednesday's 2-for-2 trade with Calgary, the Hurricanes went 2-for-2 in getting both the better defenseman (the underrated Ian White for Anton Babchuk) and forward (Brett Sutter for Tom Kotsopoulos). Carolina added salary, but nicely done, Jim Rutherford.
-- NHL Elite Four -- 1. Washington 2. Detroit 3. Philadelphia 4. Los Angeles
-- NHL Bottom Four -- 27. Calgary 28. New Jersey 29. Edmonton 30. New York Islanders.
-- Today's Three Stars -- 1. Ron Hextall 2. Larry Carriere 3. Claude Loiselle