Q: What do you see as Jarkko Ruutu's future with the Penguins at this point? To say he's been a bit quiet this year is something of an understatement. Seems like he has the potential to have much more of an offensive impact.
Ethan, Hoboken, N.J.
MOLINARI: Ruutu has been perilously close to a nonfactor this season - he has been scratched for 11 of the first 39 games and, going into the Penguins' game against Buffalo yesterday, was averaging just eight minutes and 40 seconds of ice time when he did dress - but has a chance to raise his profile (and his impact) significantly now that he's getting an opportunity to fill Gary Roberts' spot on a line with Erik Christensen and Georges Laraque.
Being given that role doesn't necessarily indicate that Ruutu has won over coach Michel Therrien - the Penguins are carrying just 12 healthy forwards and six healthy defensemen, so all of them have to play in every game - but he could make an impression on a coach who clearly had little, if any, confidence in him earlier in the season.
Ruutu has gotten very little work killing penalties, a duty he regularly handled while playing for Vancouver, and does not spend enough time on the ice most nights to do the kind of agitating at which he specializes. It's tough for Ruutu to get under the skin of an opponent if they only cross paths two or three times in a night.
Barring a major change in how he is used during the next three months or so, it's hard to imagine that Ruutu, who will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, will be interested in returning to the Penguins.
Q: After the world junior championships, Kyle Okposo will leave the University of Minnesota and join the New York Islanders or their minor-league team in Bridgeport. In this salary-cap world, do you think that this will become a trend, or is it a one-time deal?
Pat Tracey, West Islip, N.Y.
MOLINARI: There really is no clear connection between the Islanders' decision to sign Okposo last week and the NHL's salary cap. If anything, the league's financial system gives teams extra incentive to bring in young players before the start of training camp, because all entry-level contracts run three years. In Okposo's case, the first year of his deal likely will be used even though he'll play no more than a half-season (although the NHL's labor agreement includes a provision for extending the contract for a year if he does not appear in at least 10 NHL games this season.)
The most interesting aspect of the Okposo saga might be the caustic comments Islanders general manager Garth Snow made about Okposo's development being impeded at the University of Minnesota, where he had been playing. If that kind of hostility between NHL teams and the schools where so many prospects play these days would become the norm - not that there's any reason to believe it will - it certainly could strain what seems to be a fairly civil relationship between the league and the NCAA.