It was April 29, 2010 — the day after Montreal completed its stunning seven-game upset of the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals. There was no time to breathe, not with Game 1 against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins less than 24 hours away.
There was, however, time to reflect.
Alex Ovechkin recorded five goals and 10 points in that series, but the Canadiens still believed they’d done a pretty good job containing him. They knew his favourite move and sat on it.
“Generally, you know what’s coming,” said Josh Gorges, who drew the primary Ovechkin assignment that spring alongside Hal Gill. “When he comes in on the off-wing, he’ll try to step into the middle and shoot through you. You can bait him into that.”
It was, I learned later, not a minority opinion among opposing defenders. They felt he was predictable. The other major criticism came from a coach, who did not like The Great Eight’s usage of teammates on the power play.
“I’m looking at Ovechkin with the puck and I’m afraid of all the talent around him. There’s (Nicklas) Backstrom. There’s (Alexander) Semin. There’s (Mike) Green. They’ve got three other guys who can kill you. And he’s taking them out of the game.”
Whether you bought these theories or not, Ovechkin followed the 2010 playoffs with the two dreariest scoring seasons of his spectacular NHL career. A guy who scored 269 times in his first 396 games — a ridiculous average of .68 goals per game — “dropped” to 70 in 157, or .45 goals per game.
It’s almost a joke to call that a slump, but, by the end of it, Ovechkin was buried on the bench during games the Capitals led in the third period. Since the lockout ended, he’s back to where we expect him to be — .67 (135 goals in 202 games).
What really stands out is how he’s scoring them. If you’re feeling extra nerdy on this long weekend, watch the 103 goals he’s compiled this season and last. I divided them into different categories: the off-wing cut Gorges described; those resulting from waiting weak-side on the power-play; shots immediately after a face-off win; even-strength one-timers; going to the front of the net; breakaways; empty-netters and “other.”
(Examples of “other” goals are a few off the rush that didn’t fit into any category, and one where he came off the bench undetected in the offensive zone and was wide open for a pass.)
The vast majority of Ovechkin’s goals — I counted 41 among the 103 — came from the weak-side power-play spot. Most were one-timers, but there were others, including a few where he charged to the net and knocked in a rebound.
There is absolutely no way anyone watching them could say he’s selfish with the man advantage. He barely touches the puck, waiting in stealth mode until it comes to him. When it does, good luck Mr. Goaltender. It bears zero resemblance to that critique from five years ago.
Do you know how many goals he scored on the off-wing cut?
Only one came in 2013-14, and that was a four-on-four overtime winner against the Islanders. He’s got four this year, but what really stands out is he had zero five months into the season. He scored this way March 1 against Toronto, March 19 in Minnesota, March 29 versus the Rangers and Thursday in Montreal.
I began to look for saves on Ovechkin, shots to see if there were a ton against this move, and there really weren’t. Some of that is probably because Adam Oates sent him to the right side. This suggests two things: Ovechkin proved he can score without his pet attempt and maybe, just maybe, he’s bringing it back. If he can combine that with everything else he’s doing (17 goals from going to the net at even-strength, 12 immediately from won face-offs), the only person who can stop him is himself.
He’s not getting the credit he deserves for being the greatest goal-scorer of his generation, but that’s what happens when playoff and Olympic success is, as yet, unattained. But you can see he’s willing to adapt.
Those criticisms from 2010?
They’re as outdated as another fad from five years ago — Silly Bandz.
1. As everyone wades in with their #hottake on Dustin Byfuglien’s punishment, here’s one fact to chew on: from 2009-10 until now, there have been 10 suspensions of four games or longer handed down from April 1 until the end of the playoffs.
They are: Raffi Torres on Jordan Eberle (2011); Aaron Rome on Nathan Horton (2011); Arron Asham on Brayden Schenn (2012); Torres on Marian Hossa (2012); Anton Volchenkov on Brad Marchand (2013); Ryan White on Kent Huskins (2013); Torres on Jarret Stoll (2013); Zac Rinaldo on Chad Ruhwedel (2014); Michael Rupp on T.J. Oshie (2014); and Matt Cooke on Tyson Barrie (2014).
Byfuglien is just the third one — and first since Asham — to get that many games for an incident where the victim (J.T. Miller) did not miss a game. Tyler Toffoli’s hit on Alex Burrows was bad, and he got nothing.
2. From informal conversations and text/e-mail exchanges, the sense I got was most people expected two or three games. There’s a pretty funny story about an unnamed GM who wanted an opposing player suspended late in the regular season a couple of years back — until he realized other clubs in the playoff chase would benefit from facing that short-handed team during the suspension.
Nothing’s a guarantee, but if you look at Winnipeg’s next four games, Vancouver and Minnesota are in solid shape; St. Louis is clear and Colorado is all but out. The bubble team is Calgary on the final day of the regular season. So, maybe it’s not a surprise four was the number.
3. The night after Byfuglien’s crosscheck, Buffalo’s Tyson Strachan was nailed for one in front of the Sabres’ net with 1:19 to go in a one-goal game. You had to wonder if there was something sent out to the referees as a point of emphasis, but I was told no. You can bet they all saw it.
4. I’ve heard rumours that Eric Lacroix, the former player and executive who now coaches minor hockey in Las Vegas, would have a role with a potential NHL franchise there. But Bill Foley, the prospective owner, said the only person advising him remains Murray Craven, who was identified earlier in the process. Remember also that Foley has a friendship with Wayne Gretzky.
5. Detroit Red Wings director of pro scouting Mark Howe attended Toronto/Buffalo on Wednesday night. There are only two possible reasons why: he loves chicken wings or he was there to check out a particular player. Any wagering on who that might be?
6. The Red Wings have plenty of cap room, but remember Justin Abdelkader, Danny DeKeyser, Darren Helm, Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan and Brendan Smith make a little less than a combined $9.5 million right now. All of their contracts are up by the summer of 2016. What will their total be in two seasons, $25 million? How does that affect any potential trade for a higher-salaried player?
7. The Sabres graciously allowed me to watch a season-ticketholder appreciation event before the Toronto game on Wednesday. They do a small one before every game in a dressing room near the players’. It’s pretty impressive they have a base of 16,000 in the middle of this.
Each fan gets a stall with a nameplate, hats, refreshments and a chance to ask questions of team president Ted Black. The group was supportive of the organization’s plan, with one fan saying, “I’ve waited 42 years. I can wait a little longer.”
Meanwhile, 77 per cent of Sabres fans responding to a Buffalo News poll said they were cheering for the Maple Leafs that night.
8. It is an unusual dynamic. Sabres fans understand, Black and general manager Tim Murray make it very clear things will change next year, but coach Ted Nolan and the players are determined to make the draft lottery more interesting than anyone wants. Nolan creates an us-against-the-world mentality, and you can sense how he’s convinced them not to accept this.
They felt they could beat Toronto and were determined to do it, despite dressing seven players who had one goal or fewer. Two of them (Zac Dalpe and Matt Ellis) scored in the 4-3 win.
9. Nolan told Mike Weber he was proud of the defenceman for speaking his mind when fans cheered Arizona’s victory there last week.
Weber, the team’s Masterton nominee, was sheepish when asked about it upon returning from a road trip, saying he didn’t intend to be malicious. “Our fans have always come through in these rough years, always filling the seats,” he said. “It’s tough when you compete and you battle and your fans are cheering for the other team…to answer your question, I don’t really regret it…but we do want to give them a good effort in these last six games.”
10. Players who’ve scored 30 goals at age 20 in the 21st century: Alexander Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jonathan Toews, Evgeni Malkin, Anze Kopitar, Patrice Bergeron, Marian Gaborik, Evander Kane… and Sean Monahan.
11. Patrick Roy, when asked if the Avalanche can keep Ryan O’Reilly long-term: “I will be very disappointed if that doesn’t happen, but I understand the business. Does he want to play in Colorado or test the market? That is his decision. He knows how I feel and how much we want him. I understand that is a tough call…I had the chance to leave Denver late in my career but I stayed because it was best for my family.”
Roy likes O’Reilly and Gabriel Landeskog together.
“They have good chemistry and understand each other. It is fun for a centre to have a winger like this, know you can put the puck on that side and (Landeskog) will get it first.”
12. Similar quotes came from Roy on Tyson Barrie, and from Dave Cameron regarding Erik Karlsson. “Do I have rules for Tyson?” the Colorado coach asked. “Yes: ‘Go!’ It is the best way for him to learn.”
Roy did add Barrie’s really improved at game management.
“Are we up by one goal? Is it time to force, or not force? What point of the game is it?”
And finally: “I like when he’s moving the puck north-south, not east-west. It’s not as crazy. I know he’s on top of his game.”
13. Cameron, asked if he has any rules for Karlsson: “Always a green light.”
14. The Ottawa Senators coach provided an interesting little factoid on Mark Stone. He said the 20-goal scorer has as straight an end to his stick blade as he’s ever seen. Why? So Stone can put it right against the boards and not have pucks go through.
15. Ottawa’s run has changed perspective on some of its young forwards. They were hoping Stone could be a second-liner. He’s eliminated any doubt. Mika Zibanejad was all over the place the last couple of years, but now he’s showing himself to be a centre with a high ceiling. He can penetrate the middle of the zone, make plays down low and be a good complement to Bobby Ryan.
Jean-Gabriel Pageau went from someone they felt was simply happy to be in the NHL to a physical presence with Erik Condra and Curtis Lazar. There’s more clarity in some of these roles than expected. The only frustration I sensed — and I should stress it did not come from Cameron, the only person quoted here — is with the injuries in goal. They put some extra padding in Craig Anderson’s blocker last week to protect against vibrations from shots hitting the stick, but they would love a more healthy alternative with Robin Lehner out and Andrew Hammond battling back pain.
He can’t stay healthy.
16. With L.A.’s cap issues, other teams were wondering if Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli would get stuck with their qualifying offers for next season, but the Kings extended Pearson for two years at $1.4 million per. That’s about $700,000 more than his qualifying number (good for Pearson) and wipes out a year of arbitration (good for L.A.).
Word is there are no talks yet with Toffoli, whose bargaining position is a little better. You forget Pearson’s played only 67 games. Toffoli’s approaching 150 and he could have 50 points this season.
17. A couple of weeks ago, Chicago would not have been seen as a favourite to sign free agent Kyle Baun or keep draft pick Michael Paliotta, who was eligible to test the market in August. The Blackhawks were very excited to get these done. Their success makes them a destination, but usually for veterans who want to win a Stanley Cup. Clearly, they are making it known to prospects there is going to be opportunity because of their looming cap crunch.
Baun, who could have signed for $832,500, went for $700,000, knowing every dollar matters. (Scott Darling did something similar with his extension, taking less than Antti Raanta.) There’s going to be some interesting turnover here.
18. One note on Baun: the biggest warning one scout had for him was, “he skates too often with his head down. Will have to correct that in a hurry.”
19. Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman, when asked at the GM meetings what he’s learned about his team since Patrick Kane went down: “We’re a good defensive team and when you lose a player like that, you have to be even better. We haven’t given up a lot of goals…We still have that foundation of being sound.”
Corey Crawford’s been very good, too. In 17 games since the injury, Chicago has outscored its opponents 43-36. That’s not a lot of scoring, dropping the Blackhawks from ninth to 14th in the NHL in goals. But they’ve moved from the fourth-best defensive team to No. 1, and their goal differential has improved from fifth to third. The only thing that sticks out in a negative sense is Chicago is 21st in shots against (30.2), their lowest position since finishing 26th in 2003-04.
20. A former Blackhawk, Brandon Pirri, is moving towards a historically amazing scoring line. On Thursday, Pirri tied an NHL record by scoring his 15th consecutive goal without an assist. He now has 22 goals and two helpers in 45 games. That ties a second, crazier mark: most goals with two or fewer assists — also 22, set by Cy Denneny in 1923-24.
Pirri admits his teammates rib him about it, calling him “Cy Young.” During the GM meetings, I went to a Montreal/Florida game and Shawn Thornton, who was out of the lineup that night, walked by. He said to watch Pirri, because he can really fire it. Minutes later, he scored. No word if Thornton played the Powerball lottery that night.
21. When Pirri was drafted by Chicago in 2009, he began to work on his shot with Paul Vincent. Vincent, a skills and skating coach with almost 40 years of experience, was hired by the Blackhawks to work with their young players.
“One of the things you try and do,” Vincent said this week, “is ask players what other sports they play and use those techniques to help them in hockey.”
Pirri says Vincent used golf analogies with him, explaining that positioning/rotating your hips properly will have the same effect on a hockey shot as a golf shot.
“If they’re not set towards your target, you get the dreaded hook or slice,” Vincent explained when Pirri’s comments were relayed to him. But he believes Pirri learned more from lacrosse than golf.
22. “When Brandon came to Chicago, I told him to look at Marian Hossa,” Vincent added. “Hossa skates with his hands extended from his body. Brett Hull was the same way.”
That allowed both of them to “skate into” their shots, driving more power through the puck. Pirri understood the concept from playing lacrosse, allowing him to make the transition. He didn’t stay in Chicago because the question was never scoring, it was defending. Dale Tallon, who knew him well, traded for him last year.
“When I got here,” Pirri said, “they told me I was moving to the wing because they had so many centres.”
It also meant a reunion with Vincent, who left the Blackhawks “to spend more time at home”, but was hired by Florida in 2012.
Pirri reached out to Vincent last week about making his shot attempts less predictable.
23. A couple more NCAA notes: Michigan senior forward Zach Hyman is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent Aug. 16 if not signed by the team that drafted him, Florida. In a bit of a surprise, it sure sounds like he will test the market rather than go directly to the Panthers. In some way, Florida should take that as a compliment because they have so many prospects that the route for young players is now tougher.
You always look for relationships, too. This is purely a guess, but Hyman is from Toronto and his previous “advisor” (no agents in the NCAA, wink, wink) was Kyle Dubas. I could be overthinking it, but what the heck.
24. Not sure if Matt O’Connor was watching Edmonton/Los Angeles Thursday night, but he’s already informed the Oilers he will make a visit after The Frozen Four. Because he plans on going to several cities, Boston University’s run means he won’t get to burn a season of his contract. A National Championship would sure be worth it, though.
It is expected he will also see Buffalo, Calgary and Vancouver, with the Rangers another possibility. Edmonton’s been very aggressive here, but the biggest worry for them may be other teams entering the race now that O’Connor won’t be able to burn a year of his first contract.
25. It will be an upset if Jack Eichel, whose season also ends next week at The Frozen Four, is not invited to play for Team USA at the World Championships. Connor McDavid’s Erie Otters can close out their first-round series Friday night, leading Sarnia 3-1. If McDavid’s team is eliminated by the Worlds, it is expected Canada will ask him to participate. He should be part of the U.S.A./Canada under-23 team at the 2016 World Cup and, hopefully, Team Canada for years to come, so why not offer the experience?
26. We’ve discussed Minnesota defenceman Mike Reilly in this blog before. He’s a Columbus draft pick, with one more year of college eligibility. If he opts for the NHL, the Blue Jackets have 30 days or June 1, whichever is later, to sign him or he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Reilly is expected to finish his school year before deciding whether or not to turn pro.
27. Casey Bailey, who signed in Toronto thanks to a call from Brendan Shanahan, grew up a Detroit fan and said his favourite player was Steve Yzerman. Did Yzerman try to recruit him? “No,” Bailey said. If he had called, would you be in Tampa Bay?
“Depends on what he said,” he laughed.
28. One succinct scout’s opinion on why Montreal has so much trouble with Tampa? “As fast as the Canadiens are, the Lightning are even faster. Can’t keep up with them.”
29. Emptying the notebook on Devan Dubnyk: one of the things he really worked on last summer was his mental approach. Dubnyk was in a bad place after everything went sideways during the 2013-14 season.
“I needed to understand that being here (in the NHL), even if it isn’t going well, isn’t so bad,” he said.
One of the suggested tips was thinking of his young son while driving to the rink. No matter what’s on your mind beforehand, that thought will put you in a better place. Dubnyk is so serene he didn’t go all Billy Smith when Mathew Dumba drilled him high twice in a practice. Dumba’s got a deadly shot and laughed when asked about the incident.
“After I did that, I figured I’d better be careful…he came up to me, pinned me against a wall and said, ‘Stop going so easy, just shoot it.’”
Carte Blanche to hit him, I guess.
30. It was December 2005 when I met Mike Babcock Sr. on a Red Wings fathers’ road trip. As they sat together for an interview, Mike (the coach) told a story about how Mike Sr. developed loyalty from his employees as an executive in the mining business.
(I’m paraphrasing Babcock quotes here) “I asked my dad, ‘How do you get your people to work so hard for you?’
He said, “Don’t ask anyone to do anything that you wouldn’t do yourself,’” while Mike Sr. nodded at the memory.
In January 2008, we went to the home of Mike Sr. in Saskatoon for another story and he was hilarious. While we were setting up, he said, “Do we drink this before or after the interview?” as I turned around to see him holding a bottle of Scotch.
He showed us his recliner where he kept a copy of The Hockey News with all of the NHL television listings underneath the remote.
A funny, friendly, personable man. All the best to his family.