Three Periods: Red Wings on playoff bubble; You Can Play; nagging Coyotes questions

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s weekly Three Periods column will appear on Thursdays. This week’s topics include the Red Wings’ quest for 22 straight playoff berths; NHL and NHLPA’s partnership with You Can Play; players’ opposition to hybrid icing; nagging questions about Coyotes sale; plus, added outdoor games, a rich extension for Jimmy Howard and unexpected trade deadline dividends.

FIRST PERIOD: Wings on bubble for first time in years

Henrik Zetterberg settled into a comfortable routine in his NHL career – win at the rink, relax at home. He wasn’t the type to stress on off-nights. He didn’t need to. Why waste time and energy on worrying? Watching games and checking scores could always wait until the playoffs.

“But this year,” Zetterberg said with a laugh, “I’ve been kind of watching hockey a little bit earlier than normal.”

Zetterberg has been watching hockey every night lately, because his Detroit Red Wings are in an unfamiliar position – on the bubble. They entered Thursday night clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. They had a one-point lead over the Phoenix Coyotes and a two-point lead over both the Dallas Stars and Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Wings haven’t missed the playoffs since 1989-90, when they finished fifth in the Norris Division. Yes, the Norris Division. In the Campbell Conference. They are riding a 21-season playoff streak. No one else in the NHL is on a streak of more than nine seasons.

But it’s not just that the Wings made the playoffs in each of the past 21 seasons. It’s that the Wings were never even close to missing the playoffs in all that time.

They finished sixth in the West in 1990-91, the first year of the streak, but had an 11-point cushion on eighth and a 19-point cushion on ninth. Different era, eh? They finished fifth in the West in 2009-10, seven points ahead of eighth, 12 points ahead of ninth. They finished fifth in the West last season, seven points ahead of eighth, 12 ahead of ninth, again.

Every other season during the streak – 18 out of the previous 21 seasons – they finished in the top four in the West.

If the Wings extend their streak to 22 seasons, it will be extra-special for two reasons:

— One, the competition has caught up because of the salary cap and points for overtime and shootout losses. The Wings can’t outspend everyone like they used to when they stockpiled future Hall of Famers. They haven’t had a high draft pick in ages. Three-point games help keep the standings tight.

“There’s more teams that can do it now,” said Zetterberg, who broke into the NHL with the Wings in 2002-03. “That’s the biggest difference from when I came into the league. The first couple years, there weren’t as many teams that were the contenders. Now you can take nine, 10 teams in the West that can probably go all the way if everything clicks, they’re healthy, they get on a run in the playoffs. The goalie gets hot and you do the right things, you can go all the way.”

— Two, injuries and a crazy schedule have piled on top of personnel losses. The Wings have done a masterful job of rebuilding on the fly for two decades. Only five players were a part of all four of their Stanley Cups in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008. But none of them are left. They lost three of their top four defensemen over the past two years to retirement or free agency, including one of the greatest players of all-time and their biggest constant, Nicklas Lidstrom.

[Related: Wings re-sign Jimmy Howard to reported 6-year, $31.8M deal]

Then came this compressed, lockout-shortened season. They entered Thursday night having lost 216 man-games to injury in 39 games. That’s 5-1/2 guys out per game. Darren Helm hasn’t played this season. Mikael Samuelsson has played only four games. Todd Bertuzzi has played only seven games. That’s essentially an entire line missing every night.

“There’s a lot of new guys that’s been coming in and been doing a good job,” Zetterberg said. “But if you add that on to more teams getting better, it’s more difficult to be that dominant.”

The Wings had nine games left entering Thursday night. They knew if they won enough, they would make it. They didn’t need help. But look at the last week: It includes a home game against the Coyotes and a road finale against the Stars. Zetterberg might be watching games and checking scores to the end.

“The last couple years have been more and more difficult,” Zetterberg said. “The streak we’re on, it is a pretty cool streak. We want to keep doing it. But I think if we wouldn’t have made the playoffs last year, we would have the same hunger to be in the playoffs now. I think it’s not so much about the streak. It’s more about we want to be in the playoffs.”

SECOND PERIOD: NHL and NHLPA get active, partner with You Can Play

Until it’s no big deal for an openly gay athlete to play professional sports, news like Thursday’s will be a big deal.

The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced a partnership with the You Can Play Project, the organization dedicated to equality, respect and safety for athletes without regard to sexual orientation.

It was co-founded by Philadelphia Flyers scout Patrick Burke to carry on the legacy of his brother Brendan, who came out as gay as a student manager of the Miami University hockey team and died in a car accident in 2010. Its motto is beautiful in its simplicity: “If you can play, you can play.”

Making the partnership official was an important step in and of itself, no matter how inclusive the NHL and the NHLPA have already tried to be, no matter how many individual players have appeared in public-service announcements. This isn’t passive support. This is active support. It sets an example. Hopefully it affects lives well beyond the NHL and even hockey.

More impressive, this wasn’t just a feel-good, politically correct press release. This isn’t a token thing. The partnership includes a commitment to education and training for teams, players, media and fans – from seminars at the NHL’s rookie symposium, to making resources available to teams and players, to more PSAs in arenas and on TV broadcasts.

In theory, this should create an environment in which an athlete – or anyone else connected with the game, for that matter – should feel comfortable being openly gay. We’re obviously not there yet, as evidenced by the need for this partnership and everything that comes with it – and the fact no active pro athlete in a major North American sport has ever come out.

One day, someone will. One day, it won’t matter when someone does.

“This is another step towards us shutting down,” Burke told The Hockey News, “and I couldn’t be happier.”

Keep one thing in perspective: Unlike with other issues – Jackie Robinson and race being perhaps the easiest example – sports is not ahead of society this time. It is behind society, as far as society still has to go. But laud the NHL and the NHLPA. At least hockey is ahead of other sports.

“Certainly pleased with the way it’s developed, and the attitude of the players speaks for itself,” said NHLPA executive director Don Fehr to The Hockey News. “But you ought not to get extra credit for doing the right thing, and that’s what we’re doing.”

THIRD PERIOD: Why the NHLPA is hesitant on hybrid icing

Mathieu Schneider isn’t sure whether the NHLPA will poll its players on hybrid icing, as it plans to do on the visor issue before the competition committee meets at the Stanley Cup final in June. But he said the union has a lot of work to do now that the general managers have recommended hybrid icing and yet another player has been injured on an icing play – the Carolina Hurricanes’ Joni Pitkanen.

Under a hybrid icing rule, the play would be blown dead unless the attacking player is winning the race at the faceoff dots. The idea is to keep the race for the puck, while reducing potentially catastrophic collisions into the end boards.

The GMs have debated the rule for years. It was tested in the American Hockey League during the lockout, and for the first time, the majority of GMs favor it. Some GMs still prefer the status quo of touch icing. There is no support among the GMs for no-touch icing.

Schneider, Fehr’s special assistant, spent 21 seasons as an NHL defenseman. He said there seems to be little support for hybrid icing among the players. The majority support the status quo. A minority support no-touch.

“My opinion, that’s the safest,” Schneider said. “If you want to say we’re going to look at this from a pure safety standpoint, no-touch is the way to go. It eliminates that play altogether.”

Schneider said most of the players have never played with a hybrid icing rule and think current no-contact rules are enough if enforced. NHLPA officials plan to get feedback from players who experienced hybrid icing in the AHL this season.

Pitkanen was not hit when he lost his footing, slid into the boards and broke his heel bone. It was more a product of speed. But Schneider said speed would still be an issue with hybrid icing. If the forward wins the race, the dynamic is the same as it is now. Even if the play is blown dead, it could still be dangerous.

“Listen, they seem to be terrible injuries when they happen, so if we can eliminate that, we’re going to do our best,” Schneider said. “But it’s been an issue where players don’t necessarily think you’re going to eliminate those injuries by just going to the hybrid. It’s still a split-second from the faceoff dot to the end of the boards when you’re traveling as fast as the guys are in a race. It’s just going to take more debate and more time, I think.”

OVERTIME: Nagging questions about the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman wasn’t lying Sunday when he said there is “a lot more interest than we’ve ever seen” in purchasing the Coyotes. Four groups are involved to varying degrees, and there are reasons why the team might be more attractive now, starting with the new labor agreement. The salary cap and floor will lower next season and won’t rise at the same rate in the future, because the players will receive 50 percent of league revenue instead of 57 percent. The revenue-sharing plan is more robust and liberal, which could help prop up the franchise. It doesn’t hurt that attendance is up this season, either.

There are plenty of reasons to remain skeptical of a Coyotes sale, however, and they go beyond the fact the NHL has been unable to unload the team for years. No one knows what the interested parties actually have on the table and what their contingencies are. No one knows what Glendale will want in the lease deal for city-owned Arena, either.

So far, all prospective buyers have wanted sweetheart deals. Now the city is looking at outside arena management companies for the first time, so at least it will know what the market actually is for arena management contracts. Will Glendale be as willing to fork over as many millions to a buyer to manage the arena?

Another key question: What commitment are these groups actually making to the Phoenix market? Are they in it for the long term, or do they want an out in the short term? Will they reserve the right to relocate if and when arenas are built in Seattle, Quebec City or suburban Toronto?

SHOOTOUT: Last shots from around the NHL

— Would multiple outdoor games make the Winter Classic less special? Yes. But making the Winter Classic as special as possible isn’t the highest priority for the NHL. The event has started to lose its novelty on a national level, anyway, and it will have a hard time growing after drawing a record crowd of 110,000-plus to Michigan Stadium on New Year’s Day. But whether they’re Winter Classics, Heritage Classics or something else, outdoor games will continue to be special in the local markets – and will generate more revenue. “I don’t know if you could have too many of them, I don’t know if having just the one is not enough,” Schneider said. “But in my little experience … I mean, the cities just love these things.”

— There is one reason the NHL can consider staging an outdoor game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles: ice guru Dan Craig and the knowledge he has gained in recent years. “He does an unbelievable job, especially when it comes to player safety,” Schneider said. “I think the players have a lot of confidence in what he’s been able to do and to keep the ice conditions as safe as possible. We feel pretty good about that.”

— The Wings are close to an extension with Jimmy Howard. TSN reported a cap hit of about $5.3 million for six years. That’s quite a raise for Howard, whose hit has been $2.25 million the past two years, and that’s quite a departure for general manager Ken Holland, whose philosophy has been to use a low percentage of his cap dollars on goaltending. But Howard is a homegrown guy who has earned his contract, Holland likes his stability, and how much would the Wings have to spend on a replacement via trade or free agency? Ryan Miller has one more year on his contract with the Buffalo Sabres at $6.25 million, for example. What’s Mike Smith going to get if he hits the open market?

— It’s no surprise Jaromir Jagr made an instant impact since moving at the trade deadline. The future Hall of Famer had a game-winning goal and four assists as the Boston Bruins went 3-1-0 with No. 68 in the lineup. But new arrivals have made impacts all over the place, and look at the other side of the Jagr trade: The Stars received prospects Lane MacDermid and Cody Payne, plus a conditional second-round pick. MacDermid, who had no goals in his eight previous NHL games with Boston, scored two goals in his first two games with Dallas. The Stars, who also traded away Derek Roy and captain Brenden Morrow, have won three games in a row. Go figure.

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