He has been in the Nashville Predators line-up for exactly 10 games now, which is how long Peter Forsberg thought it would take him to get comfortable, playing for a new team, in a new city, for the first time in his hockey-playing life.
Forsberg will admit it too - it hasn't been all smooth sailing, since he joined the Predators, a Stanley Cup contender, from the Philadelphia Flyers, an NHL also-ran, just before last month's trading deadline.
Forsberg missed time with yet another injury since arriving in Nashville ("to my upper body," he says with a laugh), and only now, looks as if he's starting to roll again. His two assists in last Thursday's 3-2 overtime loss to Calgary were vintage Forsberg plays - smart nicely threaded passes that only a handful of talents can make. The Predators traded away a big chunk of their future - two young players and a No. 1 draft choice - to rent Forsberg for the final six weeks of the season, plus playoffs, in the hopes that his presence in the line-up, and playoff experience, would help them win a round or four in this year's post-season.
Nashville made the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, but was eliminated in the first round by Detroit and San Jose respectively. Apart from Forsberg, Paul Kariya and Jason Arnott, the young Predators have limited playoff experience. Forsberg twice led the post-season in scoring and is the only multiple Stanley Cup winner on the Nashville roster.
"It's hard to jump into a team midway through the season," said Forsberg, in an interview. "It's never happened to me before because I've always been on a team that made the playoffs. I don't think I've played as good as I want to, but it's starting to get better. I'm starting to get used to my teammates and line-mates, so it should go uphill from here."
The problem, from Nashville's perspective, is that they haven't had a chance to get their full team together since making the Forsberg trade. They currently have three top-nine forwards (Steve Sullivan, Martin Erat and Scott Hartnell) out of their line-up, with relatively serious injuries. Nashville's strength is its balanced three-line attack. Forsberg is one point shy of 50 for the season; when he reaches that mark, he will be the eighth Predators' forward to do so this season. Only the Buffalo Sabres can match that sort of offensive depth. Sullivan and Hartnell are among their five, 20-goal scorers; Erat is tied for second in assists (with 41), trailing only Kariya.
The test for coach Barry Trotz will be to sort out who plays where and with whom, once he gets all hands back on deck. Normally, the Predators play Kariya and Erat with David Legwand; and Arnott, with J.P. Dumont and Sullivan. For a time, Forsberg replaced Legwand on the top line, but more recently, he has been playing with dynamic rookie Alexander Radulov and Vernon Fiddler. If Trotz was of a mind to keep Forsberg with Radulov and Hartnell once he returns, that would provide a dynamic third line - and then let the Predators select a fourth line from among Fiddler, Scott Nichol, Jerred Smithson and the currently suspended Jordin Tootoo.
"There's almost like a primary guy from every line missing," said Trotz. "It's been a little frustrating and there's been a little bit of concern because we went through that last year; we had a number of guys injured at the end and it's hard to catch up
"But we've learned from last year, we're going to train our guys a little different. Hopefully, we'll get everybody back and get ready for the playoffs and it'll be great - toss a coin."
Toss a coin - what an apt way of analyzing the upcoming playoffs in either conference. Nashville was the first NHL team to crack the 100-point barrier this season, but through Friday, only eight points (and three victories) separated the top seven teams in the Western Conference - No. 7, the Dallas Stars, held two games in hand on the Predators. Ideally, Nashville would like to earn the top seed in the conference, if only because it would almost certainly mean a first-round meeting with the Calgary Flames. Until the Flames won a 3-2 overtime decision the other night, Nashville had won eight in a row against Calgary - and seems to match up well against them.
Trotz didn't think Calgary's win, in the final meeting, would have any psychological impact on a possible playoff meeting, noting: "We'll be a lot different team. They're healthy. That'll be their team. We've got a lot of pieces that we can still add."
"If you took those kinds of players out of other teams' line-ups, they'd go in the toilet," added Kariya. "We've been able to battle and win some games. It'll really help us in the playoffs, facing adversity like that. We've certainly had our fair share of injuries this year."
Kariya played with Forsberg for one season with the Colorado Avalanche and the two will always be inextricably linked, thanks to their showdown in the shootout that decided the gold medal between Sweden and Canada in the 1994 Winter Olympics.
Kariya said of Forsberg's addition: "He's been great. He's had his own injuries too. He came to our team, played five or six games. Right before he was injured, he was playing unbelievable. I think he's starting to find himself.
"He's a special player and one of a kind. When he's going like that, he's really going to help our team."
As for Forsberg, he is gradually settling into his new home. He lives in the same subdivision as Kariya, renting a home that belongs to Yanic Perreault, the ex-Predators centre.
"Leaving Philly was tough," acknowledged Forsberg. "I had a lot of good friends; I got to know some great people in the two years I was there. On the other hand, I can't look back. I can just look forward. I got a great opportunity to come to a good team and make the playoffs. So I've got to do the best."
Physically, Forsberg says: "It's getting better. My upper body is much better. I'm getting healthy. I don't think I'm ever going to be 100 per cent healthy again. But I'm not complaining. I'm playing hockey again, so I should be fine."
The fact that Nashville isn't exactly Hockeytown USA has been more of a blessing than a curse, said Forsberg.
"It's a great place to live. People are very friendly. It's good weather. For me, it was kind of a change because Philly was such a hockey town; there were a lot of writers after the game. It's kind of a good change for me - you don't need to talk to the media every single day.
"But now that we're coming down to the playoffs, people know the team is doing well and are coming to the games. There have been a lot of people at the games, so … I'm looking forward to seeing the end of the year and playoffs."
DROPPING THE GLOVES: With so much attention being paid the on-ice races, it is worth wondering if this point in NHL history - March of 2007 - will be remembered as the launching pad for a series of fundamental changes in the way the game is played, officiated and perceived. Two developments make me say this:
One, the admission by senior vice-president Colin Campbell that maybe, just maybe, given the way fighting is perceived by society in the 21st century, the NHL needs to take a hard look at its place into today's game. Campbell was careful not to say he personally thought fighting needed to be eliminated from the game; still, the fact that he was willing to float the possibility of a fighting ban as a trial balloon is significant, given the NHL's traditional reluctance to consider such a step at any previous point in the league's history.
Secondly, with two separate investigations going on within the NHL players association - one into the hiring of Ted Saskin as executive director; the other into allegations that Saskin read the private emails of NHLPA members - the union has a chance to reinvent itself, under new leadership. It is considered unlikely that Saskin will return to lead the NHLPA, even if he is cleared of all wrongdoing by the twin investigations; more likely, those results will only determine the value of his severance package, not his future with the organization.
Mission statements tend to make most of us cringe, but perhaps this is one time when they might have some value. Ultimately, once NHLPA begins the process of rebuilding itself under new leadership, the first order of business should be to determine internally what sort of union they actually want to have.
Under former executive director Bob Goodenow, the NHLPA did an effective job of capitalizing on a period of rapid NHL expansion and owners prepared to spend whatever it took to ice a winner. The net result: Financially, hockey players were rewarded with salaries comparable to those in other sports, without the corresponding television revenues to support those extravagant pay hikes. The NHLPA mostly left it to the NHL to deal with workplace safety issues - the increase in concussions, for example, and the effect that rock-hard glass and gladiator-style equipment had on those injuries. Every year, they'd circulate a questionnaire about mandatory visors; players would reject the concept without any meaningful debate; and that would be that. There was little attempt to take an active role.
Under new progressive leadership, that could change; and the NHLPA could create a new department that would concentrate on the day-to-day health and well-being of its membership.
The new-found willingness to discuss the future of fighting would be as good a place to start as any. Externally, there is a perception that fighting would become irrelevant and unnecessary, just so long as the NHL's on-ice officials penalized slashing, hitting from behind and late hits. It wouldn't hurt to levy heavy suspensions for that sort of behavior either, which would have the effect of sending a strong message.
Also as an aside: Do you ever wonder what constitutes a boarding penalty these days? For that matter, would strictly enforcing the penalty as it is defined in the rulebook ("boarding occurs when a player or goalkeeper checks an opponent in such a manner that causes the opponent to be thrown violently in the boards") eliminate a lot of problems.
Still, the players have the best vantage point of all - from ice level. Just as there are many divergent points of view about fighting and other would-be player safety issues, maybe you couldn't reach a consensus among the players on some of hot-button topics dominating the chat boards these days.
But wouldn't it be good if they at least tried? And you never know - once in a while, they might discover that an overwhelming margin of players actually supported one initiative or the other. The one thing the Brendan Shanahan Summit taught was that there are a lot of smart, thoughtful players out there; if they could ever summon that collective voice on a more consistent basis, the NHL would be foolish not to listen.
THIS AND THAT: One more fight injury to add to the total: The Thrashers' Jon Sim either broke or bruised an orbital bone in an exchange with the San Jose Sharks' Mark Bell on Thursday night. There was no immediate word as to how long he'd be out -- Unlike the Predators, the Thrashers were cruising along nicely, after their post-trading deadline deals - or they were until they got waxed 5-1 by the Sharks the other night. Still, they were 8-2 in their previous 10 games; moved back into top spot in the Southeast and perhaps most importantly of all, had built a six-point cushion over the pack of teams struggling to grab that final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Defenceman Alexei Zhitnik had been a great addition - with 12 points in his first 10 games with the Thrashers. Centre Eric Belanger scored as many goals in his first 16 games with Atlanta (eight) as he did in 56 games with Carolina. And Keith Tkachuk, who is playing centre instead of left wing, had six goals and nine points in his first 10 games as well as recording a plus-seven mark. Tkachuk, who waived a no-trade clause to join the Thrashers, called it, "emotionally, an exciting time of the year. Coming from St. Louis and coming to play in Atlanta, things are going our way, I think. Thankfully, because as you can see in the standings, things change day by day and it's incredible to see the movement. We've won eight out of ten and we've gained a little ground. You think you'd gain a lot more than that but we've gained a little more. Things are tight right now" -- Tkachuk, incidentally, would not say what his plans might be for next season, when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. If Atlanta does sign him, they forfeit a No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft to his previous employers, the Blues -- Los Angeles Kings' president Tim Leiweke, who is also chairman of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, spoke at a Sports Business Forum in New York last week. In a question-and-answer session that followed his formal presentation on the new building going up in London, England, Leiweke suggested that even though the Pittsburgh Penguins may be staying put, another NHL team will ultimately relocate in Kansas City. "The Kansas City solution is coming and coming soon," he said -- With another lost season almost in the books, the Chicago Blackhawks are setting their sights on next season. With that in mind, they've signed U.S. collegian Jack Skille, their first choice in the 2005 entry draft, to an entry-level contract. Skille will play out the season for their minor-league affiliate in Norfolk and then will be given a chance to crack their NHL line-up next season. Skille will turn 20 in May and signed with Chicago after playing two college seasons at the University of Wisconsin. The next step for the Blackhawks will be to coax Jonathan Toews, their first choice in the 2006 draft (and third overall), to leave the University of North Dakota after his sophomore season and turn pro as well. Though Toews has won back-to-back gold medals with Canada's world junior team, he is - believe it or not - still just 18 (he turns 19 at the end of April). Seeing how effective teenage Jordan Staal was at the NHL level this season, the temptation to push both Skille and Toews onto the Blackhawks' NHL roster will be great next season --The Red Wings aren't exactly flying high these days - three games in a row, with just a single goal scored in regulation - but the value of a 2-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets the other night was that two more members of their lengthy injury list (Todd Bertuzzi and Daniel Cleary) made it back into the line-up. The Red Wings understand well enough that Bertuzzi isn't going to provide an instant solution for whatever ails their slumping offence, but the expectation is that with two weeks (and three weekends) to go in the regular season, he would be finding his feet by the time the playoffs roll around. Detroit also got Johan Franzen back two nights earlier in Calgary, meaning the one big question mark remains Henrik Zetterberg, whose return from a back injury is still uncertain -- Coach Mike Babcock did a smart thing the other night, when he acknowledged that his starting goalie, Dominik Hasek, was trying to draw a penalty from the officials, when he flopped onto his back, during a Calgary power play. Only problem was, the referees - Bill McCreary and Eric Furlatt - weren't biting. With Hasek out of the play, Kristian Huselius scored the game winner for the Flames. Up to that point in the game, Calgary had received five power-play opportunities; Detroit none. Instead of focusing on that discrepancy, Babcock made himself a few friends in the referee's union by pointing the finger at his own goalie, not the officials - and said something we all believe; that there are too many attempts at embellishing fouls in the game -- A week after the Dallas Stars' Mike Modano became the highest goal-scoring American player of all time, USA Hockey is planning to honor Chris Chelios, a four-time U.S. Olympian, prior to the Red Wings-Ducks game Monday night. Chelios became the NHL's all-time games played leader among American-born players last November when he competed in his 1496th career game to surpass Phil Housley. Chelios, in his 23rd NHL season, had played in 1540 career regular-season games - this year, he passed, among others, Wayne Gretzky and Steve Yzerman to move into a ninth-place tie with Johnny Bucyk on the all-time games played list. If Chelios returns next year, Alex Delvecchio, Ray Bourque and Larry Murphy are all within reach. -- It is a lesser milestone, but noteworthy anyway: Panthers forward Chris Gratton played his 1,000th NHL game against Ottawa last Thursday, making him the fifth-youngest player in NHL history to reach the 1,000-game plateau, behind Dale Hawerchuk (30 years, 306 days), Vincent Damphousse (31-110), Brian Bellows (31-152) and Pierre Turgeon (31-206). Gratton was 31 years, 260 days old, when he reached the milestone. Gordie Howe is the all-time games-played leader with 1,767 in 26 seasons; Mark Messier is second with 1,756 games in 25 seasons.