Q: I believe the loss of Mark Eaton is significant. He is a selfless defensive defenseman. His shot-blocking is second to none on the Pens' backline. Do you think the Pens will shop for more of a No. 2 or 3 defenseman to replace him or just bring up someone like Alain Nasreddine, who really is like a sixth or seventh guy who couldn't even make the starting rotation this year?
David Clark, Tampa
MOLINARI: Eaton, out indefinitely with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, is, in fact, the kind of player a lot of people might not fully appreciate until he's out of the lineup. He and Sergei Gonchar routinely are matched against opponents' top lines, and his defensively responsible style gives Gonchar the latitude to get more involved in the offense than he would be able to with a less reliable partner.
Filling in for Eaton will be a major challenge for Rob Scuderi, who is being plugged into Eaton's old spot, but there's no indication general manager Ray Shero is actively seeking a top-four defenseman to replace Eaton. Scuderi will get an opportunity to prove he can handle the role and, if that doesn't work out, it's not out of the question that Brooks Orpik or even Darryl Sydor will have a chance to work alongside Gonchar.
Should Shero determine at some point that he must bring in someone from outside the organization to assume Eaton's responsibilities, it would behoove him to do it with an eye on the long-term repercussions of such a move. Because Eaton will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, the Penguins can't simply assume that he will be in their lineup for 2008-09, even if both parties are interested in continuing the relationship. Consequently, it would make sense to at least investigate the possibility of picking up someone who could fill Eaton's niche for more than just the rest of this winter.
The Penguins apparently have no immediate plans to recall Nasreddine, although he would be the logical choice if they opt to add a defenseman from inside the organization. Because the Penguins have at least one day between games between now and Jan. 18-19, they should be able to bring in a player from their farm team in Wilkes-Barre without any problem if an injury or poor play by someone on the major-league roster would make such a move necessary.
Q: Is it a rule that you must drop your gloves when beginning to fight in the NHL? Whether it is or not, shouldn't removing your helmet be added to that list? How bad it must be to repeatedly punch someone's helmet while they get to pound directly on your head because your helmet fell off easier?
Tom, Toledo, Ohio
MOLINARI: The NHL rulebook devotes more than four pages to fighting, with 22 subsections devoted to the subject and covering almost every conceivable facet of fisticuffs. Nowhere, however, is there a mention that a player's gloves must be removed when he gets involved in an altercation. Such a rule probably isn't necessary, though, because gloves are heavily padded on the back of the hand and fingers, which means a bare fist can do a lot more damage than one covered by a glove.
Punching an opponent in the helmet can cause a fighter to suffer some serious pain, if not a broken knuckle or two, but with the catastrophic injuries that can result when a player's bare head strikes the ice, the feeling here is that there should not be a rule requiring fighters to remove their headgear. A guy looking to trade punches with a player who isn't interested in discarding his helmet should either aim carefully or find a different dance partner.
And if a player doesn't want to risk having his helmet fall off during an altercation (or at any other time), he should simply take a second to tighten his chinstrap. Or, better yet, have it tightened from the start of the game, since a helmet's protective value is severely reduced if it is allowed to flop around a player's head . Life presents many difficult and complicated challenges; figuring out how to keep a helmet in place isn't one of them.