One day last summer, I ran into an NHL player. During a brief gossip session, he asked, “Why didn’t Toronto fire Randy Carlyle? Why just the assistants?”
My thoughts were that Toronto was not committing to anything until it knew Mike Babcock’s future. So, firing Carlyle, hiring someone else, and (possibly) getting Babcock would make three coaches in three years. No sane organization wants that.
“Makes sense,” he said.
It was impossible not to think of that conversation while watching an exasperated Carlyle after last Saturday’s 4-1 loss to Boston. The coach, who came to Toronto with a grouchy reputation, works hard to answer everything as politely as possible.
Last weekend, his sighs were a dead giveaway. He didn’t have the answers. But, he’s not the one who should be giving them.
Talk to the former NHLers on our shows — Glenn Healy, Kelly Hrudey, Mike Johnson, Nick Kypreos, etc. They know. They know when a coach is in a tough spot, when a husband starts making googly-eyes at that blonde 15 years younger than his wife.
If the players aren’t reading Twitter or watching television bloviation, they’re being told by their friends, their parents, their agents. You’d have to be hermetically sealed in plastic not be aware of what’s going on.
But it’s a terrible, unacceptable excuse.
Really, is it any different than what’s going on in Calgary? Over the past 13 months, Bob Hartley’s seen the man who hired him replaced by two levels of authority — Brian Burke and Brad Treliving. Hartley is in the final year of his contract; there is no guarantee he’s back.
Despite that, he always looks in control. Hartley benches Dennis Wideman and what happens? Upon returning, Wideman has a chance to tie a record for most consecutive games with a goal by a Calgary defenceman.
Whatever the individual Flames may think, they play hard. Very hard. I’m not sure who’d win a seven-game series between Calgary and Toronto, but I do know this: on Day 2 of the season, the Flames began a 7,000 kilometre, six-game road trip through Edmonton, St. Louis, Nashville, Chicago, Columbus and Winnipeg. They won four of those games.
Any team would take that.
Goaltending? Absolutely. But they compete, and their best players (especially on defence) tend to be their best players.
Would Babcock even take Toronto’s money if he doesn’t think he can win there? There’s this fantasy in the Ontario capital that the Maple Leafs will change coaches and all problems magically disappear. It’s the most egregious example, but nothing Carlyle draws up on the smart-board can correct Jake Gardiner’s fly-by on the 4-0 goal in the Boston game.
It’s not a big deal if players don’t like their coach. We all hate our bosses at times. But if players don’t demand the best of themselves, no coach looks good.
1. Who knew? The NHL has an “Infectious Disease Committee.” Last week, as a mysterious flu/virus overwhelmed Minnesota and St. Louis after a trip to southern California, this group sent out a memo reminding what precautions should be taken to avoid unnecessary exposure to infectious viruses. At one game, cars apparently were being disinfected. Crazy stuff.
2. The Blues are in an interesting spot. A contender going through some transition. The new setup in goal is well-documented. The defence is reasonably set. What’s getting less attention are the changes up front. Jaden Schwarz is establishing himself as a top scorer. Vladimir Tarasenko is growing from a 15-minute player to a 17-minute player. Once he gets healthy, Paul Stastny will be a major piece. Depending on how this evolves, will Doug Armstrong quietly gauge the market on some of his incumbent forwards?
3. Calgary had a serious presence at a couple of the Blues’ early games, but it doesn’t seem like anything is going on.
4. Before Montreal lost in Edmonton Monday night, one scout was asked why the Canadiens started 7-1. “You mean besides Carey Price?” Well, yes, that. “They force you to play at a pace faster than most teams want.”
5. Two years ago, when Marc Bergevin took the Canadiens’ job, he said he got plenty of calls about Lars Eller. Not sure that’s changed. Now that Alex Galchenyuk is moving towards being a full-time centre, other teams are wondering what Bergevin’s plan is.
6. Nail Yakupov scored his second of the season in that win. There’ve been a lot of rumours about his future, but I confess I haven’t heard anything substantial. After a week of looking into it, here’s my best guess: he’s not untouchable, but the Oilers asked him to show more commitment in the off-season and on the ice. So far, he has delivered. It sounds like Edmonton wants to reward that. Dallas Eakins is trusting him in late-game one-goal leads, something that never would have happened a year ago.
7. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored the game winner against Tampa Bay and the game-tier versus Washington in back-to-back games. He’s got a much-improved shot. He’s stronger and made it a summer project. “Shot 100 pucks four times a week,” he said. “Shooting as hard as I can…High blocker, high glove, low glove, around the horn.” Didn’t think he could beat Ben Bishop from where he did, but Nugent-Hopkins said, “If I shot up high, the chances of beating him from that spot were pretty low….Besides, I like going low blocker or (low) glove.”
8. Nugent-Hopkins had an obvious goal for 2014-15: make the playoffs. His personal desire, however, is to become a 50-50 face-off man. Career numbers are 37.5 percent (2011-12), 41 percent (2012-13), 42.4 (2013-14) and 47.4 so far this season.
9. Finally, he had a good line about the Kings, who he called the toughest to play against: “You get past one, and it always seems like another guy is on top of you.”
10. When Mark Letestu scored at 19:04 of the second period Sunday, it was the first time this season any member of That 70s Line (Jeff Carter, Tanner Pearson, Tyler Toffoli) was on the ice for a goal against (eight games). Carter’s total is 17 for, one against. Toffoli is 16-1. Pearson is the real slacker of this group at 14-1.
11. Thought Boston and/or Philadelphia, both short defencemen, might look at Buffalo’s Andrej Meszaros. He’s on a one-year deal and has played in both cities, but it doesn’t sound as if either looked at it. He’s at $4.125 million, which may explain the problem for a pair of cap-tight clubs.
12. Edmonton’s Jeff Petry’s comes a little more than $1M lower, and the Flyers can’t do that right now for cap reasons, even though they like him. Between the Flyers, Red Wings, possibly the Ducks and anyone else I’m missing, there seems to be a nice little market for him.
13. Eric Staal returns to action Tuesday in Vancouver, and in a phone conversation last Friday you could tell it was killing him not to play. “It’s kind of embarrassing,” he said. “We have a new coach, we’re trying to get him a win and we haven’t got it yet.”
14. The toughest thing for Carolina is there are guys on the roster who will be players, but aren’t ready yet. After the Hurricanes lost 5-0 in Calgary, Staal said Bill Peters made sure to show video of them doing good things in previous games to try and keep their confidence up. “Our foundation needs to be better,” the captain added. “Trust in your teammates, worry about your ability to do your job. Once you start doing other people’s jobs, you’re looking disorganized. Stay where you are supposed to be.”
15. As for his future, Staal made it very clear his preference is to stay. “I had a good meeting with Ronnie (Francis) in the summer…Ron’s going to be a very good GM. We all know this is a business and things can change at any time. For me, as a player, I want to be where I am…I believe in this team and this organization. I want to see it turn around and believe it will. We’re not throwing in the towel after seven games.”
16. He did have one qualifier, though: a change of ownership. Peter Karmanos is open about his desire to take on a partner or sell outright. “Where all that goes, we’ll have to see.”
17. Finally, I asked Eric if he’d spoken to brother Jordan about leaving, considering Jordan still has eight years left on his contract. Eric said that topic has never been discussed between them.
18. Predators assistant coach Kevin McCarthy on Shea Weber: “It is amazing how the best can adapt. He knows everyone else’s position. A great resource.” Nashville plays a 1-3-1 under Peter Laviolette. “The right D gaps up a lot more than traditional defencemen…He nodded and said, ‘We did that in the Olympics.’ We can explain why we are doing something and he just understands.”
19. During the 2010 playoffs, McCarthy helped us with a piece on Chris Pronger. I reached out to him to compare them. “Neither one skates like (Drew) Doughty or (Duncan) Keith, they don’t have that effortless stride,” the coach said. “Chris used his stick, got guys in certain areas and made them pay a price. Shea finishes a check and goes through people. A lot of people hit, but don’t follow through. He hits to put them down.”
20. Weber’s partner, Roman Josi, does have that smooth stride. The two look good together and Laviolette is getting ownership its money’s worth, with the two ranking second and third behind (who else?) Ryan Suter in ice-time per night. “One penalty kill they played about 1:45, and what amazes me is not only did they kill the penalty, but came back two shifts later and played at the same level.” A similarity between Pronger and Weber? “Like Pronger, he’s not even breathing hard,” McCarthy said.
21. Weber, Josi, Seth Jones, Ryan Ellis. That defence can move the puck. “Don’t forget (Mattias) Ekholm,” an opposing coach said. “He can do it, too.”
22. Before the season, a few Eastern teams thought the combination of Barry Trotz, Todd Reirden, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik would have the biggest influence of any off-season moves in that conference. Can’t argue that so far. It took eight games before Washington allowed 30 shots, and it’s no coincidence the Capitals’ worst game was a 6-1 preseason loss in Buffalo. Niskanen and Orpik didn’t dress for that one.
23. From one-to-five on the blueline, their minutes are very even, running from 23:14 (Niskanen) to 19:42 (Karl Alzner). Among returnees, Nate Schmidt (number six) is down 4:15 per game, John Carlson is down 1:21 and Alzner 0:50. Also down significantly: Mike Green (2:53). Green, who is unrestricted after this season, is being watched by other teams, as they wait to see how Brian MacLellan handles things.
24. The early reviews are positive. One scout: “Green is trying. He (used to be) sloppy in coverage, bad stick, not finishing checks. Now, he’s staying on the right side of the puck.” MacLellan sees a difference, too. “When other teams played us, the plan was to hit him— finish your checks. It took its toll. Now, we have other options. It eases the pressure on him.”
25. The Capitals have yet to discuss an extension with Green. “We’ll leave that for later in the season,” the GM said. “Let’s see how this shakes out.”
26. Another Eastern Conference coach on the Nicklas Backstrom/Eric Fehr/Alexander Ovechkin line: “They still cheat, but not as much. I suspect that’s by design they’re allowed to…you still want opponents to be scared of them. The (Jason) Chimera/(Joel) Ward line, for example, plays differently.”
27. Finally on Washington: MacLellan said new goalie boss Mitch Korn worked with Braden Holtby “to get his arms and legs more aligned with his body.” Sounds important for everyday life, not just hockey.
28. As Johnny Gaudreau works to establish himself in the NHL, there is a bit of a clone working his way up through the NCAA. He is Petawawa, ON’s Matthew Peca, playing at Quinnipiac. Listed as 5-foot-9, 165 pounds, he has 35 goals and 107 points in 118 games entering his senior season. Peca was taken 201st overall in 2011 by Tampa Bay, and the Lightning are being patient with him. His numbers are not as gaudy as Gaudreau’s were, but Peca’s seen as more of a north-south player. Something to watch for.
29. Olli Maatta, five points in seven games, 20 minutes a night, while wondering if a tumour in his neck was thyroid cancer. He’s something special. Most importantly, the prognosis is excellent.
30. On the morning of the gold medal hockey game at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, I walked into the IHOP next to the rink. Out came Steve Nash. I said, “Don't you have practice today?” He didn’t break a smile. “I told (coach Don Nelson) to fine me.” A year or two later, he was preparing to play for Canada as a number of other NBAers were being told to sit. I asked him about it. “(Nelson) said, ‘I don’t want to see you playing for Canada this summer.’ I told him he better not turn on his TV,” Nash replied. When Jason Kidd was traded to Phoenix, Canadian reporters worried for his career. He simply said, “Everything will be okay.” Boy, was it ever. What a spectacular career.