30 Thoughts: Reeling Blue Jackets search for answers

Damien Cox and Elliotte Friedman discuss all the top stories around the NHL including if the slow starts for the Ducks and Blue Jackets have put their coaches on the hot seat.

Something a little different to start this week’s notes.

In August 2014, the San Antonio Spurs hired Becky Hammon as the NBA’s first full-time female assistant coach, then chose her to lead the organization’s summer-league team. She coached it to the championship at that event.

Last July, the Arizona Cardinals hired Jen Welter as an assistant coaching intern, to work with linebackers. She became the NFL’s first woman coach.

Kim Ng joined the Chicago White Sox as an intern in 1990, and is now MLB’s Senior Vice-President for Baseball Operations. Ng has interviewed for at least five GM positions in the sport, but has yet to land one.

The first woman to have her name engraved on the Stanley Cup was Marguerite Norris, President of the Detroit Red Wings in 1954 and 1955. Others include Marian Ilitch (four times with Detroit) and Sonia Scurfield (the first Canadian, a co-owner of the Flames). In recent years, the highest-ranked hockey administrator would be Charlotte Grahame, now Colorado’s Vice-President of Hockey Administration.

Then-GM Pierre Lacroix asked for Grahame’s inclusion when the Avalanche won their second Cup, in 2001.

With Hammon’s summer success and Welter’s hiring, I wondered if anyone in the NHL considered following this path — adding a woman to either its coaching staff or management.

Turns out Toronto almost did, although the subject wouldn’t discuss it.

Jennifer Lute Costella graduated Valparaiso law school in 2001, describing herself as “a casual hockey fan.” But, as the Chicago Blackhawks grew from doormat to nuclear superpower, she bought the Centre Ice package for the 2008-09 season. A trial lawyer who handled insurance defences (such as amusement park liability), she has a naturally analytical mind.

“I got into it more and more…and was thinking maybe I can do this,” she said during a phone conversation last weekend. “I need to know every bit of minutiae and detail of everything I’m interested in. One thing people say I’m good at is teaching and translating information that’s not easy to understand into something more digestible.”

“Eric Tulsky (now part of Carolina’s front office) taught me about tracking. I picked it up and ran with it, developing my own system — focusing on entries, exits and touches.”

Costella’s work can be found through her Twitter handle (@Regressed PDO). It’s thoughtful. Personally, a lot of my thinking on analytics is changing. I’m learning much of the stuff we know publicly is irrelevant, and there is much deeper work to be discovered. Costella does quite a bit of that, delving into why things are a certain way and how they can be changed.

The Maple Leafs took notice.

Costella would not confirm Toronto’s interest or indicate what happened, only saying working for an NHL team is “something I’d like to do, and has been explored in the past.”
From what I understand, the conversations took place before Lou Lamoriello was hired. (Other club executives are off-limits, so I couldn’t check there, either.) The issue was timing. Costella stepped away from her practice a few years ago to be with her young family. It didn’t work out — for now.

In the meantime, she just launched LCG Analytics, a player-tracking service. Costella gave an interesting presentation about it at the recent Rochester Institute of Technology hockey analytics conference.

“The former players I’ve talked to behind the scenes are always more than happy to talk and share knowledge,” she said. “They are very encouraging and helpful. With the big boom that’s going right now of hockey analytics…a woman can totally do this.”

“It’s been a warm and encouraging reception.”

30 Thoughts

1. How fragile is Columbus? Look at two things: how many goals they’ve given up in bunches, and how many times they get scored on shortly after scoring themselves.

In their opener against New York, the Blue Jackets gave up three goals in 1:17. In the rematch, they gave up three more in 5:48. Tied 0-0 in Chicago, the Blackhawks scored twice in 1:55 to take control. Meanwhile, in Buffalo, they closed to within 2-1, only to give up a third goal 111 seconds later. Columbus pulled back to 3-2, but the Sabres took 2:34 to clinch it. Against Ottawa, the Blue Jackets led 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2. None of those advantages lasted longer than 4:58.

It’s death by 1,000 cuts when you can’t protect a lead or overcome an opponent’s momentum. After the loss to the Senators, there was a meeting that kept the doors closed longer than normal. Usually, when you enter a room, most players are out of their gear. It struck me how many where still wearing it when we did get in. “A lot of staring straight ahead,” one player said.

2. Sergei Bobrovsky’s loss of confidence is a huge factor.

Even if the Blue Jackets throw a combination of Al Arbour, Toe Blake and Scotty Bowman behind the bench, it’s not going to make a difference if he doesn’t get back to his elite level. Before the Ottawa game, goaltending coach Ian Clark pointed out Bobrovsky “shrinks into the net” when struggling, and Clark was working to get him back to his regular, bolder position.

The thing that must drive Columbus crazy is the two made serious effort last summer to change Bobrovsky’s off-season routine in hopes of eliminating previous slow starts. Clark traveled to Russia to work with him, as the goalie decided to start his on-ice tinkering earlier than normal.

3. The word last weekend was GM Jarmo Kekalainen wanted to make a trade before a coaching change, and he’s certainly trying. He’s looking for a defenceman who can make life harder on opposing forwards.

There are two problems. First, when you’re struggling, other GMs throw anvils instead of life jackets. Second, it can be very difficult to find trading partners this early. Most teams want to see what they’ve got.

4. Wouldn’t be surprised if Kekalainen asked about Anaheim’s Shea Theodore, but not sure the Ducks would even consider it. They love him, even as Theodore’s being brought along slowly.

5. As for Todd Richards, when we last saw him, he was coaching a huge underdog at the Worlds (Team USA) to a stunning bronze medal. Can’t imagine he forgot what to do in five months.

If the Blue Jackets eventually do make a change, there’s been a lot of speculation about everyone from Guy Boucher to Jacques Martin (who worked with Kekalainen in Ottawa) to John Tortorella.

One thing about Boucher, who was about 10 minutes from being Toronto’s coach before Mike Babcock called: He does not have an out during the season. He’s at SC Bern in Switzerland and did, at one point, have a 48-hour window to pursue NHL jobs. But that is now closed.

You always look for connections. Others include Davis Payne, who President of Hockey Operations John Davidson hired in St. Louis. But I don’t see Los Angeles allowing it in-season.

6. Bruce Boudreau’s in a tough spot in Anaheim. For one thing, I think he’s the only head man in the league who didn’t hire any of his assistants. But, it sounds like GM Bob Murray feels strongly his coach deserves more of an opportunity to straighten this out.

The Ducks begin a five-game road trip Thursday in Nashville, and, according to a couple of sources, Murray wants to see how things go. I do remember a conversation I had with the GM well after he fired Randy Carlyle. He said he believes a firing is the last resort, because teams should be forced to try and work through their problems. So, his modus operandi is to be as patient as he can.

7. Fantastic first start for Antti Raanta with the Rangers, a 4-0 shutout of San Jose.

When he was available last season, at least one team needing goaltending passed because Raanta isn’t the plus-sized monster so many clubs covet. But Benoit Allaire has a nose for netminders, which is why New York fought to keep him when Arizona made a big off-season push for his services.

8. Before Edmonton lifted the weight of the world off its shoulders with weekend victories in Calgary and Vancouver, GM Peter Chiarelli said the 0-4 start would not mean rushing Darnell Nurse (or Leon Draisaitl) to the NHL. “We have a plan, and we are going to stick to it,” he said.

9. It’s been reported Chicago is also looking for a defenceman, but that doesn’t sound like an easy move with all of their cap issues.

When I mentioned that to another executive, he wondered when the club would call up Ville Pokka, who's getting closer to being ready for full-time duty. He added he’d heard another club had asked about Pokka in a trade, but was rejected. Can’t figure out for the life of me who that is, though.

10. A couple of defencemen to watch as the season progresses: St. Louis’s Carl Gunnarsson and Carolina’s Ryan Murphy.

Gunnarsson gained time with Kevin Shattenkirk’s injury, but is the Blues fourth defenceman right now, behind Jay Bouwmeester, Colton Parayko and Alex Pietrangelo. If Parayko can keep it up, you wonder if Gunnarsson would be available. He’s a free agent next summer.

11. As for Murphy, his entry-level deal ends this season and the Hurricanes are building a decent prospect base along the blueline. He’s never held a spot there. Murphy was over 20 minutes the first three games, then dropped to 14:40 and 18:49. Maybe he gets a chance to re-start somewhere else.

12. We’re still waiting for Andrew Hammond’s first appearance of this season, but the Hamburglar made one adjustment — to his pads.

Hammond said last week he normally keeps them one inch below maximum size, but is trying a pair that reaches the limit. He says he prefers the shorter ones because they don’t rub together or interfere with each other when he drops to the ice. We’ll see how long this experiment goes.

13. Senators coach Dave Cameron had some interesting insight into the decisions he can make this year as opposed to last season. Cameron pointed out that when he took over, the Senators were playing for their playoff lives, so there really wasn’t time to experiment.

“You just go with what you know,” he said last week. With a training camp and a full season, there is room to tinker, “providing a player earns the opportunity.”

One such example is Mike Hoffman. Cameron said Hoffman did everything Ottawa asked of him, so he’s getting time with Mark Stone and Kyle Turris.

14. Cameron got Bobby Ryan a much-needed goal in Columbus by putting him out there with an empty net. (Ryan said Mika Zibanejad, who made the pass, ordered him not to give it back.) Three nights later, Penguins coach Mike Johnston tried the same thing with Sidney Crosby against Toronto. But it didn’t happen.

There was a shot of Crosby on the bench in that game, and he was the picture of complete frustration. It’s easy to see why: he cares a ton, he knows he’s supposed to deliver as captain and best player, the team had just one win at the time and he’s sitting there with zero points.

Sunday, I watched his shifts from this year, and he is squeezing that stick hard. In Sochi, I did a moderately tough interview with Crosby the night Canada squeaked by Latvia in the quarterfinal. Another player saw it, said Crosby puts more pressure on himself as anyone he’s ever seen and wondered how it affects his teammates. I asked how it affected Team Canada. He said it wasn’t a problem for them because they had so many veterans, elite players or guys who’d won before.

15. Anyway, the look on Crosby’s face reminded me of Jonathan Toews when it seemed like Chicago was going to melt down against Detroit in the 2013 playoffs. Brent Seabrook went to calm him down in the penalty box and things cooled as Chicago righted itself and stole the series.

When Crosby was younger, Pittsburgh had the Colby Armstrongs, the Hal Gills, the Bill Guerins and the Max Talbots around to break the pressure or make him laugh. I understand Pascal Dupuis still plays a key role, but he’s injured. The roster is younger now, so they’re probably more intimidated than anything.

Struggling sucks, especially for a perfectionist like him, but there has to be someone who can ease that pressure. There’s no reason we can’t be looking back at this in April as he charges up the Art Ross race, laughing at how we worried about this.

16. One coach on the Crosby/Kessel pairing: “It’s early. But Kessel’s game is transition, or moving away from the puck to find space for an open shot. Crosby likes to play tight to his teammates, set up that 10-foot pass for a goal. Their games are not compatible, yet.”

The bigger issue may be that Crosby and Kessel both prefer their way. Will they say, “How can we help each other?” or will they say, “I need you to change to mesh with me?” The answer determines if they can work it out.

17. Pretty interesting stuff from former Toronto coach Peter Horachek on building a relationship with Kessel.

“Because he is such a quiet player, it takes coaches a really long time to get to know him. And the reason why is that he doesn't trust very easily. There has to be an opportunity for a coach to spend time…with him over a whole season to get him to trust you.”

He added you have to be really careful when calling out Kessel in front of the team. Sometimes you can’t avoid it, but “for the most part I think he responds best when it’s one on one with you, so it’s best to bring him into your office to talk.”

The good news for the Penguins is a couple of people compared him to Jeff Carter, who found a great spot as secondary fit in Los Angeles. If that is Kessel’s future, Pittsburgh will gladly take it.

18. One other note about Kessel: while doing some research, information came to me that, during his time in Toronto, he met someone who ran a children’s charity, offered his phone number and said he’d be glad to help. He did. Very quietly, demanding no publicity.

I wanted to include this information in the piece we ran last weekend, but the charity would not do it without his permission. I’m still waiting — and not holding my breath. But I thought it should be mentioned.

19. As Calgary starts slowly, remember the Flames shot 8.9 per cent at five-on-five in 2014-15. That was second-best in the NHL.

It’s early, but they are 22nd so far this season, at 5.8 per cent. And opponents seem determined not to let Calgary kill them with the long bomb, an important weapon from a year ago.

20. It always helps when you have an impenetrable force in net, but Ottawa, the Rangers and Pittsburgh all praised Montreal’s structure in front of Carey Price.

“They do a great job of angling you to where you don’t want to go,” one opponent said. “Much improved. Very disciplined.” Another added that, in a league where “bang it off the boards” gets your mouth washed out with soap, the Canadiens aren’t afraid to do it. “Their philosophy is, ‘Spend as little time as possible in your own zone.’” One of their advantages is their speed, so they’ll take a chance with the footrace if the pass isn’t there.”

21. Things can change, but by signing Tomas Plekanec, Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin can be free of major contract decisions until Alex Galchenyuk in 2017 and Price in 2018.

Plekanec wanted to stay in Montreal and Bergevin could make sure it was on the organization’s terms. Although, you wonder if, from Plekanec’s perspective, last summer’s market squeeze played into his decision.

Bergevin has compared Plekanec and Andrei Markov to St. Louis’s Al MacInnis and Scott Mellanby (now with him in Montreal), as veterans who could take things easy. Instead, they show younger players how much work it takes and how hard you have to prepare.

22. Plekanec, who will be 33 on Halloween, signs for two years and $12 million. What does that mean for Frans Nielsen? The Islander will be 32 in August, and isn’t historically as big a point producer. But Jack Capuano loves him some Frans Nielsen, praising him like Bergevin does Plekanec. Interesting call.

23. Another contract question: How does Ryan Kesler’s six-year, $41.25-million extension affect David Backes and Andrew Ladd?

Kesler is 32 in August, Backes 32 in May, Ladd 30 in December. The other two actually outscore Kesler on a points-per-game basis, but I could see the Blues and Jets resisting this idea.

24. John Shannon did much of the legwork in noting that Canadiens COO Kevin Gilmore is in the mix for the Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment presidency. It’s very difficult to figure where that search is because nothing’s been normal about it. But Gilmore makes sense as a candidate.

25. You learn something new every day: Five years ago, a Washington player slept in, missing a practice — and nothing. No discipline. It caused a problem. (It wasn’t Alexander Ovechkin. I’m told the perpetrator is long gone.) But there are enough people around the organization who remember, so, this time the Capitals kill it before it festers.

26. Apparently, teams are accusing each other of wiring video review capability into places where it’s not supposed to go. It allows more team executives (GMs, etc) to decide whether or not to go for a coach’s challenge. If there’s a loophole (or someone thinks there a loophole), God knows they’re going to find it.

27. One scout on Toronto’s AHL Marlies: “Totally different team than two years ago. You wouldn’t think it was the same organization.”

28. Sounds like a few World Cup teams will hold get-togethers around the Hall of Fame Inductions and GM meetings scheduled for early November. Canada is one of them, and a head coach is to come within the next month.

29. Quote of the week, from one team executive: “Every player and trainer in the league is pulling for the Rangers tonight.” That came the day New York hosted Winnipeg, the team’s fourth consecutive game without a morning skate.

Alas, after three straight victories, the Rangers lost 4-1 to the Jets. Then, New York lost in Montreal. The morning skate survives another challenge.

30. It was humorous working that Ottawa/Columbus game. Standing in the Zamboni area, the officials came by to start the game and joked (half-joked?), “Keep us updated on the Jays.” It was Game 5 vs Texas.

Before the second-intermission interview with Mark Stone, I asked off-camera if he wanted to know who won, but he laughed and said, “We already know.” It’s funny to see how many hockey people are caught up in this.