“This franchise is going to win. I can’t tell you when that is, but it’s going to win.”
- Columbus Blue Jackets president Mike Priest.
“This franchise is going to win. I can’t tell you when that is, but it’s going to win.”
- Columbus Blue Jackets president Mike Priest.
From big off-season acquisitions struggling to oft-maligned players proving their worth, the NHL has its fair share of players who are hard to figure out.
I'm still confused.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the NHL's five most confusing teams, at least from my perspective. These were the teams that I just couldn't figure out. Were they good? Bad? Somewhere in the middle? I'd spent the season trying to work it out, and come up empty.
As it turned out, I wasn't alone. More than a few readers confessed to being confused by those teams too, not to mention several others. It was like having a support group. A support group of confused hockey fans, all watching the games unfold with their heads tilted like a puppy seeing a toilet flush for the first time.
Well, today I'm going to call another meeting of the confused hockey fan network. But this time, we're not looking at teams. No, today we're going to dive into some specific players that have me perplexed. In most of these cases, I thought I had a handle on things. But now I'm not so sure.
Maybe you can help me out. Or maybe you're just as confused as I am. Either way, I think it will be good for my soul to admit that I just can't figure these guys out.
What I thought I knew: After an up-and-down start to this NHL career, Elliott had settled in to a predictable pattern with the Blues. He'd play well. He'd post strong numbers, sometimes even league-leading ones. And then, just when push came to shove, the Blues would lose faith in him and hand the starter's job to someone else. Maybe it was the backup. Maybe it was a pricey trade acquisition. Maybe it was even a semi-retired legend, in a move we'd all agree to just pretend never happened. But time and time again, the Blues had no faith in Elliott.
And I was convinced that they were wrong. This was the classic case of a team over-thinking things, or maybe letting dressing room politics or a faith in intangibles override basic logic. The numbers didn't lie: Elliott was one of the best goalies in the league. And when the Flames nabbed him at a discount in the offseason, I was sure that they'd found their starter.
Where I'm at now: Sitting around wondering what happened. Which is also where Elliott finds himself most games these days.
Chad Johnson has been a great story, and you can't blame the Flames for riding the hot hand. Elliott got off to a bad start, and when you're a young team that hasn't earned a ton of self-confidence quite yet, you can't let yourself fall too far out of the race. The Flames are being smart here.
But… Elliott is still good, right? Every goalie has the occasional slump, so we can't panic over 13 games. Then again, Elliott's never really done much outside of Ken Hitchcock's goalie factory, and the Blues still didn't believe in him. Did they know something that the rest of us, including the Flames, somehow missed?
What I thought I knew: Remember when Ryan was left off of Team USA in 2014, partly because Brian Burke didn't think he could spell "intense"? What a ridiculous snub that was. Hey guys, 30-goal scorers in their prime don't exactly grow on trees.
Where I'm at now: Has anyone noticed that Bobby Ryan doesn't score 30 goals anymore?
Well, sure, I imagine Senator fans were already in the loop on this one. But it feels like the rest of us have been slow to realize that Ryan just hasn't been the same player in Ottawa that he was in Anaheim. His best year since the 2013 trade was only 23 goals, and that was back in 2013-14. This year, he has just three goals through 21 games.
In hindsight, maybe we should have seen that coming. Ryan was 26 when the trade went down, and in today's NHL, that's already past the peak of many forwards. But the Senators clearly thought they were getting an elite player with some big seasons left in him – remember, we're just two years removed from them handing him a $50-million contract.
Ryan's had to overcome some tough hurdles in his life, including the loss of his mother this summer. It still feels like he could rebound and reclaim his status as a first-line player. But if not, the budget-conscious Senators may be stuck with an ugly-looking contract that they can't really afford.
What I thought I knew: Any Leaf fan who was paying attention was in on this one. Sure, Bozak had put up some decent stats over the years, but he'd done it as Phil Kessel's sidekick, inexplicably getting all the playing time with Toronto's best player and reaping the rewards. And even then, his numbers had been just OK, never topping 50 points in a season and struggling in his own end.
It was a classic case of a superstar propping up an also-ran. And once Kessel was shipped out of town, we'd see the real Tyler Bozak.
Where I'm at now: Hey, it turns out the real Tyler Bozak is pretty good.
Not "first line center" good. Certainly not "team MVP" good, despite some of the sillier hype from the Kessel era. But his production hasn't cratered without his superstar wingman. In fact, it's improved slightly, and he's on pace for the most productive season of his career this year.
Maybe he's benefitting from the Leafs finally having some depth at center. Maybe he's embracing his role as the "dad figure" on one of the league's youngest rosters. Or maybe he was just better than I thought he was all along.
What I thought I knew: He's easily one of the best young offensive defensemen in the league.
Where I'm at now: Pretty much the same place. Which is why what's going on in Dallas right now is so hard to figure out.
Last month, Lindy Ruff made Klingberg a healthy scratch, and everyone went "What?" Then we found out that Klingberg had missed a team meeting, so fair enough — the rules apply to everyone. But then last week he was scratched again, this time for performance reasons.
And sure enough, he hasn't been great this year. He's on pace for the worst offensive totals of his career, and he's getting creamed on possession, where he'd previously been very solid. Sure, maybe nobody would look good in front of that Dallas goaltending. And Ruff is carrying eight defenseman, which makes his decisions tougher. But Klingberg really has looked off this year, and with a 98.5 PDO, this isn't all about bad luck and shaky percentages. Something's wrong.
We're talking about a guy who finished sixth in the Norris voting last year, in just his second NHL season. It looked like the Stars had themselves a poor man's Erik Karlsson in the making. Maybe they still do. But this season has turned a sure thing into a major question mark.
What I thought I knew: No clue. None. He seems like a good guy. Smallish, and without any especially flashy numbers, but he always seemed like a nice underdog story who'd overachieved over the years on a long path towards earning some respect. I usually like those kind of stories.
But over the last few years, Russell has somehow morphed into the poster child for the debate between analytics and old school. And you're not allowed to stake out a middle ground. You have to either think he's the second coming of Scott Stevens, willing his team to victory by sheer force of heart, or you have to think he's hot garbage. Those are your only two options. And you better choose quickly, because as soon as his name get mentioned, everybody is going to start yelling.
Where I'm at now: SO MUCH YELLING!
Honestly, I have no idea. When Russell hit free agency this summer, I thought the big numbers being thrown around were a little ridiculous. So did the league, apparently, since he had to settle for a one-year deal with the Oilers. That seemed like a good fit, and you figured Russell could settle in, put together a decent season, and take another shot at a big UFA payday next year.
No such luck. No, apparently we all have to keep fighting the Great Kris Russell Battle until the end of time. Is he good? Bad? What position does he even play? Nobody remembers.
We have always been at war with Kris Russell. Now pick a side and go yell at somebody about it.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.
The New York Islanders captain undressed Jay Bouwmeester in the most unusual of ways, but the important thing is he kept the puck. Then he buried it
John Tavares: good at hockey.
The New York Islanders captain pulled off an absolutely stunning series of moves last night, culminating in a laser-shot goal against St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen. But let's get back to his humbling of Olympic gold medallist Jay Bouwmeester, because that's where the real magic happened.
Witness, as Tavares puts his stick behind his back and grabs it with his other hand while still skating and fending off Bouwmeester. Then, since he is a patient boy, Tavares waits and waits and waits before firing one top corner on Allen:
As the soccer folks would say, lovely. New York would go on to beat the Blues 3-2, with Anders Lee scoring the other two goals for the Isles. After struggling to begin the season, New York is now 6-2-2 in its past 10 games. Tavares leads the squad with 21 points through 26 contests.
Injuries to Alex Galchenyuk and David Desharnais have the Canadiens in need of help down the middle, but making a move at this point in the season could be tough. Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs won’t be alone in keeping an eye on Karri Ramo in the AHL.
The loss of centers Alex Galchenyuk and David Desharnais to knee injuries is a serious blow to the Montreal Canadiens' scoring depth. With both on the shelf six-to-eight weeks, GM Marc Bergevin could be scrambling to find replacements.
Galchenyuk's absence hurts the most. At the time of his injury, he led the Habs with 23 points in 25 games and was on track for a career-high 70 points. Finding a suitable replacement in the trade market at this point in the season is almost impossible. Still, Bergevin must find some suitable depth down the middle until Galchenyuk and Desharnais return.
TSN's Darren Dreger believes Arizona Coyotes center (and pending free agent) Martin Hanzal would be a good fit. However, he said here's no indication the two sides have discussed a Hanzal deal. He believes the Coyotes' asking price would be a good young prospect.
Boston Bruins forward Ryan Spooner is reportedly available. A versatile forward who can play center or wing, the 23-year-old is struggling offensively after a promising 49-point effort last season. It's unlikely, however, that the Bruins trade him to a hated rival in the same division.
Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman observes the Winnipeg Jets have a lot of young centers, suggesting Alex Burmistrov as an emergency fix for the Habs. Like Spooner, the 25-year-old Burmistrov can play center or on the wing. He's struggled to establish himself with the Jets and might benefit from a change of scenery. His $1.55-million cap hit, however, could be a tight fit for the Canadiens.
MAPLE LEAFS NOT ONLY TEAM WATCHING RAMO
Speaking of the Toronto Maple Leafs, changes appear to be afoot for their backup goaltending. Earlier this week, Jhonas Enroth was demoted to the AHL's Toronto Marlies after clearing waivers. Antoine Bibeau is Enroth's replacement, but only on a short-term basis.
Unrestricted free agent goalie Karri Ramo signed a professional tryout offer with the Marlies. If he plays well for them, the Leafs could sign him.
Ramo, however, is not the Leafs property yet. He's still free to sign with any NHL club. TSN's Pierre LeBrun reports the Los Angeles Kings are keeping an eye on Ramo, but the Leafs are considered to have the inside track.
HENDRICKS’ TIME UP AS AN OILER
It appears checking-line left wing Matt Hendricks doesn't have a future with the Edmonton Oilers. Having miss the opening month of the season to a lower-body injury, the 35-year-old's been a healthy scratch in recent games. An unrestricted free agent next summer, the Oilers could look at moving him.
Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman believes Hendricks might be a good fit with the Minnesota Wild. He said the Wild are seeking fourth-line help and Hendricks is a favourite of Wild coach Bruce Boudreau.
The Wild, however, only have $392K in salary-cap space. Hendricks' annual salary is $1.85 million. Even if the Oilers picked up half of his cap hit, it won't be enough. The Wild would have to move salary elsewhere to make that work.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.). For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.
John Tortorella's antics have made headlines more than his coaching ability, but the veteran bench boss is showing again this season that he's still got the chops to be a top NHL coach.
Hidden behind all the nonsense is the fact John Tortorella can be a very good coach.
The 58-year-old veteran bench boss has proved it time and time again, particularly in 2003-04 when he led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup championship; allowing his players to show offence and creativity in a league that had become bogged down with clutching and grabbing.
Safe is death was Tortorella’s mantra back then and he convinced his players to embrace his adventurous coaching style. He was named the NHL’s Coach of the Year in 2004.
Too often since then, Tortorella has allowed himself to become a sideshow. His antics often took away from the good job he was doing managing questionable talent.
In New York, where he guided the Rangers to a 171-118-30 record in 319 games, Tortorella became better known for his daily run-ins with respected New York Post veteran beat writer Larry Brooks than coaching the team. Brooks calls ’em as he sees ’em – as a good journalist should – and that didn’t always sit well with the coach who would often lapse into verbal sparring matches with the reporter that would gain international attention.
There was also an incident during Game 5 of the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2009 when Tortorella responded to being heckled by fans of the Washington Capitals by throwing a water bottle and trying to spear a fan between two panes of glass with a stick he grabbed from one of his players. He was not ejected from the game, but was suspended by the NHL the following day.
In his one season behind the bench of the Vancouver Canucks, with which he was 36-35-11, Tortorella was involved in an infamous altercation on Jan. 18, 2014 when he entered the Calgary Flames dressing room area in an effort to engage with Flames coach Bob Hartley between periods following a first period line brawl. Tortorella was restrained by players and coaches and was suspended by the NHL for 15 days without pay.
Despite all the shenanigans, I have always believed in Tortorella’s ability to be an effective coach. I have a theory about him, though.
In an effort to prove to his players he wants to win as desperately – if not more so – than them, he comes across as trying to be one of them. That is when things tend to spin out of control. Long before his beard became a permanent fixture, he – like the players – would grow a playoff beard. Silly.
When things get out of control during games, Tortorella wants to show his players he is willing to fight for them. Even sillier.
After Tortorella was fired by the Canucks, many wondered if he had painted himself into a corner. Had his volatile reputation made him untouchable? Perhaps to some, yes, but not to Blue Jackets president John Davidson who got to know him when Tortorella was coaching the New York Rangers. Davidson knows all about Tortorella’s ability to be an effective coach when he is focused.
So when the Blue Jackets lost their first seven games in 2015-16, Todd Richards was fired and replaced by Tortorella who guided the team to a respectable 34-33-8 record. Not everyone believed in his ability, however.
After making headlines by saying he would bench any player who elected to sit on the bench during the playing of the National Anthem while coaching the United States to a disappointing 0-3 record at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, some wondered if Tortorella wasn’t losing his focus…again.
In its pre-season commentary entitled ‘31 Bold Predictions for The 2016-17 Season’ TSN.ca proclaimed Tortorella would not survive the first month of the season as the Blue Jackets spiral toward last place in the East.
Well, not only did Tortorella make it out of the first month, he currently has his Blue Jackets sitting in sixth place overall and riding a four-game winning streak. Not only was he still behind their bench, Tortorella was a legitimate contender through the first quarter of the season to win his second Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s best coach.
There is still plenty of time remaining in the season and things could certainly go south, but it seems like Tortorella has a good grasp on what he needs to do to remain a successful NHL coach.
“I think he’s maybe been a little more relaxed and perhaps a little bit different with the scheduling of days off,” said Blue Jackets forward Brandon Saad. “For the most part, though, he is who he is and he demands the most out of his players.”
For those who only know Tortorella through the viral YouTube videos that paint him as a madman, you might think he’s an incurable crackpot. For those of us who have the pleasure of knowing him on a more personable level, we know a good person lurks under the craziness. He just needs to control that craziness.