SUN Hockey Pool

It's time to assess the NHL

The Winter Classic got great ratings and there is a sense the NHL has some traction heading into TV...

The Winter Classic got great ratings and there is a sense the NHL has some traction heading into TV contract negotiations. (REUTERS/Dave Denoma)

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:23 PM ET

The all-star break is as good a time as any to take stock of the NHL game.

The NHL did a pre-emptive strike this week with a release about how well the business side is doing. In the wake of all that, one agent said revenue will be up a solid 6%, thanks mostly to teams jacking up ticket prices on their most expensive seats and the continuing strength of the Canadian dollar.

The Winter Classic got great ratings and there is a sense the NHL has some traction heading into television contract negotiations, which will start in earnest soon.

So, there is a lot of good going on.

But that doesn't mean the headshots issue is going away anytime soon, especially with Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby missing the proceedings in Raleigh because of his concussion and with no date set for his return.

I liked what Tampa's Steven Stamkos had to say, that players have to take the lead in curbing contact with the head: "There are a lot of players you never see get hit because they're smart and realize where they are on the ice and who's out against them and how to position themselves to prevent things like that," he said. "It's a physical sport. It's meant to be physical. We've tried with the equipment and putting in the rules. The onus is on the players from here on out."

A good thought, but the players don't have much of a track record policing themselves.

As they get educated about the long-term implications about brain trauma, maybe that will change.

HEAR AND THERE

I know, I know, nobody is going to care until April, but Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo is playing like, well, Roberto Luongo is supposed to play. He's 16-1-5 with a .941 save percentage in his past 22 starts ... The Chicago Blackhawks made a good push to get back into the playoff picture, but things get tough after the break: A six-game trip and a stretch that sees them play 17 of 26 on the road. They have only 10 road wins. Only St. Louis and Edmonton have fewer in the Western Conference.

THE BUZZ

The revitalization of the Tampa Bay Lightning under new owner Jeff Vinik will continue with the unveiling of new uniforms and a $40-million upgrade of the St. Pete Times Forum, including the installation of a pipe organ. Nice ... Don't think that if Craig Conroy retires as a player, he'll be out of work for long. One of the most accessible guys in the game, some network will snap him up as a talking head ... The Canucks have a kangaroo court of sorts which, according to treasurer Alex Burrows, runs on "peer pressure." For instance, Ryan Kesler showed up for Wednesday's morning skate wearing the, ahem, white gloves he will sport at the all-star game Saturday and Sunday. "That might be worth a little bit of money. We'll have to let him know about that," Burrows said. Said defenceman Kevin Bieksa: "In case you don't know, he's going to the all-star game." The fine money goes to charity with the Canucks having made a donation to the Luc Bourdon Foundation ... After a great start, St. Louis G Jaroslav Halak went 2-6-1 in January with a 3.39 goals-against average and an .833 save percentage. Here's betting he bounces back.

JUST SAYING

Not to put a damper on the love everybody was feeling for Wayne Gretzky and all his records last week on the occasion of his 50th birthday, but watching those endless highlights the thought occurs: "Wow, was the goaltending really that bad back then?" The answer is, "yes." Or rather, goaltending has really, really improved over the past 20 years. There's no disputing the Great One's greatness because his numbers were so much better than everybody else's in the same era, but seeing those skinny, standup goalies 15 feet out of the net waving at Gretzky's shots does make you wonder how many goals Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos would have been scoring back then.

JUST WONDERING

So, a Thursday night in January goes by without any hockey to watch. A thought occurs. Wasn't the CHL Prospects Game just last week, embraced warmly by family and friends huddled in small groups? Why not delay it a week and play it on a night when the NHL is dark during its all-star break? I might have been more inclined to watch more of it with no other hockey fix available.

THE LAST WORD

Jeremy Roenick might be retired but he still knows how to stir the pot. When asked to compare Gretzky and Crosby, he told The Dan Patrick Show: "The era now, the players are so much better. The goaltenders are so much better. The equipment is so much more advanced, it would really be hard to compare the two eras, but Gretzky was by far the smartest player, but I think Sidney Crosby is definitely way more talented than Wayne." C'mon, J.R., get an opinion.

BIG GAMES

LIDSTROM @ STAAL

Sunday

Not much of a fix but the closest thing we will have had to NHL hockey in three days, so ...

PHILADELPHIA @ TAMPA BAY

Tuesday

How many of you saw this coming? A battle at the top of the Eastern Conference standings.

NEW JERSEY @ N.Y. RANGERS

Thursday

Revitalized Devils might bring some zing back to the cross-Hudson rivalry and hurt Rangers' standing.

WASHINGTON @ TAMPA BAY

Friday

Capitals need this one to stay in touch for a chance to win the Southeast Division title over Bolts.

GO FIGURE

0

The number of teams that have moved into a playoff position in the Eastern Conference in the past two months. The same eight teams in the East held down playoff positions as of the all-star break as did on Nov. 22. Interestingly enough, the Carolina Hurricanes were in ninth place on Nov. 22, one point behind the Atlanta Thrashers. On Jan. 27, the 'Canes were in ninth, one point behind the Thrashers.

4

The number of teams that were out of a playoff spot on Nov. 22 in the Western Conference which have now moved up and are in the top eight as of the all-star break. On Nov. 22, the Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks were not holding down playoff positions. They are now. Falling out are the Colorado Avalanche, L.A. Kings, St. Louis Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets.

7

The number of spots the Vancouver Canucks have moved up in the Western Conference standings from Nov. 22 to the all-star break. On Nov. 22, the Canucks were 10-7-3 and in eighth place in the conference. At the all-star break, they are 31-10-9 and first the conference and second overall in the league to the Philadelphia Flyers. To save you the math, the Canucks are 21-3-6 during that span.

9

The number of places in the Western Conference standings the Los Angeles Kings have fallen since Nov. 22. The Kings were 13-6-0 on Nov. 22 and in second place behind the Detroit Red Wings. They are 27-22-1 at the all-star break and sit in 11th place in the Western Conference. The Kings are 14-16-1 during that stretch. They can't blame it on their power play, which has actually improved (14.5%-16.8%).

PLAYERS TO WATCH

CLAUDE GIROUX

There's no reason to believe the Philadelphia Flyers forward won't keep up his scoring pace, which makes him the best bargain in the league: "Just" $17,125 of cap hit per point.

STEVEN STAMKOS

Based on flat salary this season, the Tampa Bay Lightning sharpshooter is the best bargain on a dollar-per-point basis. His salary of $875,000 and 68 points equals $12,870 per point.

ONDREJ PAVELEC

The Atlanta Thrashers goaltender, who is making $1 million this season ($1,150,000 cap hit), is the best bargain in the nets, costing just $1,241 of cap hit per save percentage point among goaltenders who have played at least 30 games.

CHECKING LINES WITH ...

George Parros, Anaheim Ducks

You can find some interesting stuff sifting through the NHL media guides. No matter what you think about playing the harmonica or the merits of Kenny Chesney as a performer, just remember Parros leads the NHL with 20 fighting majors.

* Reality shows? Really?

(Parros) considers himself a reality show junkie and would love to be a contestant on "Wipeout" or "American Gladiators" one day.

* Parros is known for his famous moustache and uses his follicle fullness to benefit charities.

He donates his hair once a year as part of the annual George Parros "Cut for the Kids," benefiting the Childhood Leukemia Foundation. He started an apparel line called "Stache Gear," in November 2009 which is available at the Ducks team store and online with all proceeds benefiting the Childhood Leukemia Foundation and Garth Brooks Teammates for Kids.

* If he wasn't a hockey player?

The Princeton grad would be working on Wall Street.

* Musical interests?

He plays the harmonica and also enjoys playing Guitar Hero. He loves country music and thinks Kenny Chesney is the best act he has ever seen live.

twitter.com/CJ_Stevenson


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