09 February 2006

Hartnell, Huet, Stempniak

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


The NHL is in their final week of play before taking a two-week Olympic layoff. With that layoff comes a roster freeze, but don’t expect general managers to not be extremely active behind the closed curtain. After the NHL resumes there are only nine days until the trading deadline (March 9th) so I expect that the genesis of many deadline deals will take place in the next few weeks.

As mentioned in last week’s column, many teams have already begun to restructure their squads, either in anticipation or hopes of a long playoff run (e.g. Nashville), desperation to make the playoffs (Montreal), or simply throwing in the towel on 2006 and rebuilding for 2007 and beyond (St. Louis). Today’s column looks at a player on each of those teams and we’ll take a look at how they could contribute down the stretch.

Scott Hartnell, Winger/Center, Nashville Predators

Drafted sixth overall in 2000, Scott Hartnell at age 23 is already in his fifth full season. Hartnell doesn’t have the long scoring resume that many other top ten draftees often have – the biggest reason for this is that he immediately joined Nashville after being drafted (becoming the youngest player in the NHL). He only played two full years in the Western Hockey League; his second season being the one that attracted scouts as he provided his Prince Albert Raiders a nice blend of scoring (team-leading 82 points in 62 games) and toughness (124 penalty minutes).

Although he has not yet realized the high expectations laid on him coming out of the WHL, Hartnell has been a solid player for Nashville over the past four years, but never really contributing in the offensive end on a consistent basis. Yet over the past three weeks he has shown signs of finally becoming an impact player, averaging a point per game over the Predators last 11 contests. On the season he has notched nine power play goals and has shown a knack for the timely goal with seven game-winners so far. His 154 shots (a close second on Nashville behind Paul Kariya) is further exhibit of his offensive aggressiveness this year.

As for predicting how well he’ll finish this year, a lot may be dependent on who Hartnell’s linemates will be - Nashville has been juggling their lines quite a bit, often times during a game. At times Hartnell plays on a wing with Kariya and Yanic Perreault, other times with Greg Johnson and Jordan Tootoo. Obviously if he were to stick on a line with Kariya the likelihood of offensive production would increase.

With 36 points in his first 55 games, Hartnell is well on his way to establishing a career high in points – his previous high being 41– and he’s already hit the 20 goal mark this season for the first time. Nashville is viewed as one of the league’s elite teams this season and has put together a high-quality and diverse offense, of which Hartnell is becoming an integral part. Hopefully he can use the rest of this season as a springboard to a highly successful career, one that has been expected of him since his draft year.

Cristobal Huet, Goaltender, Montreal Canadiens

Another week, another seemingly out-of-nowhere hot goalie: I originally wrote something along the lines of “there’s a serious goaltending controversy in Montreal right now” but in all honesty, there isn’t one. Cristobal Huet – with his gaudy .925 save percentage – has closed the books on which goalie has been Montreal’s best this year. Of course decisions like this are never simple – does past performance mean anything when deciding the future of a franchise, especially in terms of the most important position in the sport?

All things being equal, Huet should get the starts but whither former league MVP Jose Theodore? As the season of goalie-flux continues…it’s really time to wonder about Jose Theodore’s status in the game today as an elite netminder. Aside from his glorious 2001-2002 season in which he won both the Vezina and Hart trophies, has he really earned NHL elite goaltender stature? With his save percentage down to a brutal .881 (last in the league for qualifying goaltenders), he has a long climb back up the ladder of respectability ahead of him. And that climb may not come in Montreal, as backup Cristobal Huet has been stealing playing time from Theodore, and taking advantage.

Huet spent parts of the past two NHL seasons with the Los Angeles Kings, getting into 42 games in the 2003-04 season, and was traded to Montreal last summer with the expectation that he’d see limited action as a backup to Theodore. Alas, Theodore stumbled badly this year and Montreal turned to Huet, who has been remarkable, especially in the last week. Huet posted back-to-back shutouts over Boston and Philadelphia and put together a span of over 173 minutes without giving up a goal. Many comments from the coaching staff and his teammates are quite revealing, giving the distinct impression that they have full confidence in him as their goalie down the stretch.

Whether Montreal takes the plunge and deals the former-MVP Theodore (of course providing they find a willing partner to take him) is still undetermined, but based on playing time it seems obvious the club has lost a lot of faith in Jose. Huet probably isn’t viewed by Montreal as a long term solution as he’s 31 years old but I would think that the Canadiens would be foolish to not play out the string this year with Huet, at least until he falters horribly, as the Canadiens frantically attempt to remain in the playoff picture in the East.

Lee Stempniak, Winger, St. Louis Blues

As was mentioned in last week’s column, the revamping of the Blues franchise has created - and will create - nearly limitless opportunities for young players in the organization. With the jettisoning of high-salaried veteran players, the time has come to rebuild with youth – and it’s open-audition time in St. Louis. Dartmouth College graduate Lee Stempniak has been the latest beneficiary of greater ice-time with the Blues. Stempniak led Dartmouth in scoring in each of his final three seasons and made the Blues out of training camp this year.

Stempniak initially struggled during his first tour of the NHL, going through a 12-game pointless streak that lasted over a month, which culminated in his demotion to Peoria in the AHL. Yet since his recall on January 29th he’s been producing at an impressive clip. In his first four games back in St. Louis he has scored at least a point in every game, including four goals, and has added two shootout winners in that streak as well. He put at least three shots on goal in three of the games, which he had only done twice before in 24 games and has been a +2.

Of late he’s been seeing time with a host of linemates, from Dean McCammond and Petr Cajanek to Scott Young and Keith Tkachuk (who, if you read the writing on the wall, may not be long for the Blues this season – probably dependent on whether the Blues can convince another team to pick up some of Tkachuk’s salary). So predicting who he’ll be lining up with is virtually impossible, but I’d expect this will probably settle out by the trading deadline at the latest, as St. Louis will likely bid farewell to more veterans. For now, however, Stempniak is hot and getting quality ice time (averaging over 15 minutes since his recall) and could be a sneaky pickup for the final two months of the season.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

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