SUN Hockey Pool

Puck stops here

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:05 AM ET

Goaltenders are expected to dominate discussion heading toward the March 9 National Hockey League trade deadline.

While it's true that the stringent salary cap makes it hard to shed or accommodate the big salaries that the best stoppers demand, it's the time of year when prices are lowest and clubs must decide to upgrade or roll the dice with incumbents in playoffs.

The most stability is in the Eastern Conference at this stage, where the Philadelphia Flyers finally have a pair of go-to goalies in Robert Esche and Antero Niittymaki. All the major Eastern contenders, the Maple Leafs included, seem well off in depth, with the exception of the unpredictable Tampa Bay Lightning.

But in the West, the 6th-7th-8th-pace teams, Vancouver Canucks, Colorado Avalanche and Edmonton Oilers have reason to worry. The Canucks are using Alex Auld while Dan Cloutier recovers from a long-term injury, but neither has proven to be the answer in the past. The Oilers never have found an adequate replacement for Curtis Joseph, going on eight years.

Colorado has the most interesting quandary. David Aebischer has contributed heavily to a seven-game club win streak, yet general manager Pierre Lacroix would love to duplicate the Patrick Roy coup of a decade ago and land a big name.

A disgruntled Jose Theodore was given his job back in Montreal after GM Bob Gainey took over as coach last week. Theodore posted the win on Saturday over the San Jose sharks. That likely will cool talk of a move to the Avs.

In Florida, Roberto Luongo turned down an offer of close to $30 million US over five years that was meant to mollify him by putting him in league with Marty Turco's four-year, $22-million pact with Dallas. But Luongo's desire to wait until he sees where the franchise is heading won't exactly endear him to GM Mike Keenan.

Aebischer has a lot of incentive. Swiss national team coach Ralph Krueger was in Denver last week. The same man who benched Aebischer at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics for Martin Gerber, who now is playing in Carolina.

TUOMO JUST TOO CURSED

Chicago Blackhawks forward Tuomo Ruutu is having the same kind of bad luck that dogged another former first-round pick, Nik Antropov of the Leafs.

Ruutu doesn't turn 23 until next month, but already has had two knee surgeries, shoulder surgery and this year missed 25 games with a back problem and could be done for this season after he tore a tendon in his right ankle a week ago, apparently trying to extract himself when his skates were tangled on the back of the net.

"There's nothing structural," Ruutu's agent Bill Zito said of the damage. "The positive is it's a thing that does get better. It's not something where you'd say he'll never be the same."

AROUND THE LEAGUE

The International Ice Hockey Federation is no doubt waiting to see who represents Russia at the Turin Olympics. Hockey Night In Canada picked up reports in the Russian media that federation and league president Alexander Steblin punched two members of his own delegation during the European Champions Cup in St. Petersburg earlier this month and could be impeached ... When Nikolai Khabibulin gets back this week from a groin injury, he could have a new backup in Chicago. Adam Munro has outplayed Craig Anderson ... Hawks owner Bill Wirtz lifted the TV blackout for the game against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins ... If Brent Sutter eventually joins the New York Islanders as coach, within a couple of years he could have two members of his world junior gold medallists aboard, draft picks Ryan O'Marra and Blake Comeau ... Wes Walz and Marian Gaborik scrapped briefly at a Minnesota Wild practice last week.

ILYA'S STICKY SITUATION

Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell, trying to defuse another controversy about Ilya Kovalchuk's attempted use of illegal sticks, says he will not pay for any of the star's equipment if it arrives with an illegal pattern.

"Some of his patterns come in legal and some come in illegal," Waddell said. "He's aware of the consequence. Obviously, (coach Bob Hartley) will deal with it if he gets caught with an illegal stick."

But Waddel maintains Kovalchuk uses standard sticks in a game, despite being caught at least four times in his NHL career and escaping a penalty on Wednesday against the Nashville Predators. The Nashville bench demanded a measurement of his stick, but Kovaluchuk is suspected of ridding the evidence relay style by passing it to a teammate, an assistant coach and then a trainer, who spirited it down the hallway while a "clean" curved model was provided for analysis.

"I knew it was an illegal stick, we had discussed it before the game," Nashville's Steve Sullivan said.

Kovalchuk would only say he was using a legal stick in the last 10 minutes of the game, though interestingly, Nashville was not penalized when he was found innocent.

Both Waddell and NHL director of officiating Stephen Walkom are aware of the devilish practice that goes on in the NHL, but say the disadvantages of an illegally curved stick vis-a-vis puck control and potential penalties far outweigh the benefits.

"In terms of competitive advantage, I don't believe the curvature of the stick can be equated to a corking of a baseball bat," Walkom said. "If you watch (players) and see them preparing to get ready for any game, they know what the rule is and you see them with the saws and files, trying to make their sticks perfect or as close as they can. The good players are right on the edge of every rule and stick measurement is no different."


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