Tag:George McPhee
Posted on: March 1, 2012 4:05 pm
 

Caps GM says Ovechkin's weight jumped to 242 lbs.

Ovechkin was the last player to score 60 goals in one season. (Getty Images)

By Brian Stubits

In searching for answers to why Alex Ovechkin's scoring totals have gone down one year to the next recently, a lot of different theories have been floated. Some just point to the statistics and say a regression was in order. Some like myself have pointed more to the league figuring him out. Even others have gone to some other outlandish conclusions.

Since 2007-08 when he had 65 goals, Ovechkin's totals have gone to 56 to 50 to 32 last season. His 26 this year has him a little ahead of last season's pace.

In an interview with ESPN 980, Caps general manager offered something else up that could possibly bear an explanation, or at least a factor (from the Washington Post).

“I think the progression in his weights, he came in 218, 224, 232, 237, 242,” McPhee said, which doesn’t exactly reflect the team’s prior reports. “He played at 242 once, and he got suspended for hitting a few people. And he was crushing guys, and he loved crushing guys, and we said you know what, Bruce always thought he was a better player at about 227. And you can see it when he’s moving out there, he’s flying.”

Putting on 24 pounds isn't the best way to maintain your game when it relies a lot on speed and agility.

For the record, McPhee said Ovechkin is weighing in at 224 right now.

McPhee was also asked about Ovechkin's commitment to the game, something that was put in question by former Capitals goaltender Olaf Kolzig.

“Um, well, it’s a lot better than it was,” McPhee said, hinting that there was indeed some issues about his commitment level.

How much might this have to do with his numbers decreasing in recent seasons? I don't know. It would only be speculation on anybody's part so attempt to say what affect it had, if any. But the GM more or less admitting in a round-about way that Ovechkin wasn't as committed as much as he should have been is definitely an interesting sign.

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Posted on: January 16, 2012 5:32 pm
 

Caps' Green out 4-6 weeks after abdominal surgery

By Brian Stubits

I would love to write about Mike Green the defenseman again. But it's been a long time now since he has played for any period longer than two games in a row.

That's not going to change anytime soon.

The Washington Capitals announced on Monday that their one-time Norris Trophy-nominated defenseman is going to be out 4-6 weeks after having abdominal surgery.

For those keeping score this season, he has had an ankle injury that cost him a few weeks, returned to the lineup in time to injure his groin and sit out another few weeks. He finally came back to play two games after the groin injury before he was sidelined again. Now comes the abdominal surgery.

Go back to last season when Green missed a big chunk of the season due to a concussion and you see a trend developing here, and it's not good for Green.

Where this gets so interesting is what happens with Green in the coming weeks and months. There is no doubt that he's a very talented offensive defenseman whose game was growing in his own zone. But he will become a free agent this summer and the Capitals have obviously learned to play without him and find some other defensemen in their system.

Doing the math, the timeline at the long end brings him back just before the trade deadline. That could make for an interesting decision for general manager George McPhee. The Caps actually have a slew of defensemen who have played in Green's absence, including rookies Dmitry Orlov and more recently Tomas Kundratek.

Considering how little he has been healthy and the $5 million salary he is making this season, you wonder if the Caps can commit to keeping Green around. He has played in only 20 games (including playoffs) since early last February. That's just about an entire year and $250,000 a game.

Photo: Getty Images

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Posted on: December 16, 2011 1:39 pm
Edited on: December 16, 2011 2:35 pm
 

Weekend Preview: Flyers streak on sans Pronger, G

Schedules: Friday | Saturday | Sunday

By Brian Stubits

There must be something in the water in Pennsylvania. That's the old cliché people turn to when they can't make sense of what's going on, how people (or teams in this case) continue to perform at a high level despite the obstacles.

We saw it last year (and again this season, really) with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Despite being without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin the second half of last season, they just kept on winning. Their 106 points were tied with the Flyers for most in the Atlantic and were just one point behind the Capitals for best in the East.

This season, the Flyers are getting their own taste of life without their Stars. And just like their Keystone State brethren, they continue to win. As in seven in a row.

Philly has been playing without its captain Chris Pronger for a month now. After yesterday's news, they are going to have to play the rest of the season without him, too. In fact, some are saying that Pronger might never play a game again. After all, he is 37 and he has a life after hockey to think about.

As good as Pronger is and has been his entire career, the Flyers have done a good job overcoming his absence this season -- nay, a great job. Since he last played against Winnipeg on Nov. 19, the Flyers have won nine of 11 games.

As callous as it always feels, the Flyers must move on. While their captain and best defenseman deals with severe post-concussion syndrome, they have a very promising season to continue. With the roster freeze coming next week, it's unlikely the Flyers will acquire some additional help on the blue line in the near future, but it will have to be a consideration for Flyers GM Paul Holmgren.

Holmgren told the media on Friday that he's already considered that, having called all 29 teams, presumably about any defensemen they might have available.

But that's for then. Right now, the Flyers are making due without him or their budding superstar center Claude Giroux (or simply G, as they team calls him). It doesn't seem like it will be a long shelving for Giroux, but you never can know, concussions tend to be pretty fickle.

In the only games the Flyers have played without either player, they have won. Despite missing their leading scorer and a point-producing defenseman, Philly has still averaged 4.5 goals in the two games without Giroux and Pronger.

But now a real test comes to see how they compare with the other beats of the East without the two stars.

The Boston Bruins are nipping on the Flyers' heels for the best record in the Eastern Conference and they, too, have been playing without arguably their best player (skaters-only division) in Zdeno Chara. But the big man might be back in time for the Saturday matinee in Philadelphia.

"We're going to give him a chance to fly and see how he feels," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "If he feels good then we have a chance of seeing him."

Normally I'd lament this game being played without Giroux, Pronger and possibly Chara. But with the way both of them, the Flyers in particular, have played without the all-stars, I don't see it stopping what will likely still be a very good game.

Winnipeg welcome wagon rolls on

This first season with the Jets back in the NHL has been an ongoing welcome wagon for the folks in Manitoba. They were licking their chops at getting to see Ilya Bryzgalov, they relished the opportunity to see former Jet Shane Doan back in Winnipeg.

Now comes perhaps the best welcome/return of them all; Teemu Selanne.

The veteran once starred for the Jets before he was traded to the Anaheim Ducks. He has waited for the chance to go back and play in the first NHL city he called home. Now it comes on Saturday night.

"You know, even when the schedule came out, even when I didn't know if I was going to play or not, I checked right away if we were going to Winnipeg," Selanne said. "That day was on my calendar right away.

"I knew there were two really special things. Obviously the Finland trip and then Winnipeg. It was really exciting to even think about it."

Unlike the welcomes fans in Winnipeg gave to Bryzgalov and, to an extent, Doan, it's hard to imagine there will be any jeers, only cheers for Selanne.

"He was so admired. It was overwhelming," Jets chairman Mark Chipman said of Selanne. "This guy was so good and so approachable and so humble in his approach that the community just absolutely fell head over heels for the guy."

Amazingly, Selanne is still performing at the level he was when he first broke into the NHL with the Jets in the early 90s. That's only going to help the flashbacks for the fans -- minus that whole wearing the Ducks jersey part.

Back in Buffalo

One of the more criticized offseason signings (excluding just about every move made by the Florida Panthers) was the Toronto Maple Leafs signing former Sabres center Tim Connolly. Leafs GM Brian Burke gave Connolly a two-year deal worth $4.75 million per season.

People in Buffalo laughed and simply said "Enjoy!" to their near-neighbors in Toronto. It wasn't about Connolly being a bad player -- he's not at all -- but it was about his health concerns. There always seemed to be something that was keeping Connolly on the bench.

So there's a sense of irony when the Maple Leafs visit the First Niagara Center this weekend. Connolly will be healthy and on the ice against his former team. Although he hasn't been without his health issues this season, when he's been on the ice, he's been good for Toronto. In 18 games played, he has 15 points.

On the other hand, the deal that Buffalo signed with Ville Leino was widely applauded. That one hasn't worked out so well.

Reunion tour continues

The Washington Capitals will be visiting the Colorado Avalanche this weekend. That means they will get to see their old goalie Semyon Varlamov up close and personal again.

Varlamov was traded to the Avs this summer after he made it clear that he was looking to play in the KHL over Washington. So Caps GM George McPhee swung a deal with the Avs to give them Varlamov in exchange for Colorado's first-round draft pick this offseason and their second-round pick.

So not only do the Caps get the chance to say hi to an old friend, but they can help themselves out in more ways than one. The points in the standings are the first and most obvious way, but every game without points for the Avs helps the Caps' first-round draft pick go higher and higher.

Although it's quieted down with Varlamov coming back down to earth, when he and the Avalanche were off to their hot starts, some in Washington wondered if the team made the wrong goalie decision. There might still be some questions considering the duo of Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth hasn't fared much better, if at all. But at least Neuvirth comes into the game having just shut out the Jets in Winnipeg, so there might be some positive momentum building. The goaltending problems have been as much an issue as anything in D.C. this season.

Canucks are still great

In fact, according to Roberto Luongo they are better than they were last season, which was great.

"We were one win away, so I don't think you need to change much," Luongo said. "That being said, though, we went through a lot last year, and I think we grew as a team. So for that reason alone, I think that we're better than last year."

That's even with him still getting a lot of starts in the net. Remember, he was a Vezina finalist last season. This season? Not so much.

Their next chance to prove Lu right will come in Toronto on Saturday evening for another Hockey Night in Canada appearance.

Stammer don't hurt 'em!

More like don't get hurt Stammer.

With his overtime winner on Thursday night, Steven Stamkos joined Milan Michalek on the top of the goal-scoring list this season with his 19th. Hopefully the same fate that has befallen many of the game's best scorers in recent weeks won't strike the Lightning's superstar.

With Michalek, Giroux, Sidney Crosby and Jeff Skinner (among many others) recently being diagnosed with concussions or at least post-concussion symptoms, the last thing the league wants is another young star to go down. If anything, it would probably love to see Stamkos go on one of his tears and become a positive story in the league again.

He'll have the chance to take the lead in the goals race by himself when Tampa Bay heads to Columbus to face the Blue Jackets.

We're going streaking!

Flyers: As mentioned, they are the hottest thing going in the NHL right now between their seven-game win streak and HBO's 24/7.

Bruins: Philly's opponent brings a modest three-game run of itself into the Saturday matchup.

Chicago Blackhawks: A double-dip awaits the Blackhawks and their three-game win streak as they face the Ducks and Flames.

Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues: We're going to combine these two because they are both riding four-game win streaks and they will face off against one another on Saturday. The Blues also have the Jackets on Sunday.

Dallas Stars: Last on the win side, the Pacific-leading Stars take to New Jersey seeking to extend their three-game streak on Scott Niedermayer Night.

New York Islanders: Once again, the Isles are slumping. They get to face the NHL-best Minnesota Wild with a four-game skid. The good news for New York is Minnesota is likely down a lot of bodies.

Florida Panthers The Southeast leaders are on a mini slump having lost three in a row. They have the Flames and Hurricanes at home this weekend to try and cure the ills.

Photo: Getty Images

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.

Posted on: November 30, 2011 11:52 am
 

Boudreau on Caps: I tried an awful lot of things

By Brian Stubits

Bruce Boudreau waited a day to do his farewell media tour to the people in Washington. He didn't want to overshadow the debut of Dale Hunter as his replacement and the team. So when did start talking about his time with the Capitals on Tuesday, he was typical of the guy nicknamed Gabby for his propensity to talk.

In a radio interview on D.C.'s 106.7 The Fan, Boudreau ran the gamut what he learned and went through as a coach with the Capitals, a job he describes as a dream job.

"I'm sure there more options, but I tried an awful lot of things," Boudreau said when referring to pushing so many buttons. "I'm sure I would have thought of few more things."

But the elephant in the room was his relationship with star forward and team captain, Alex Ovechkin. There has been a lot of speculating that the two had, for lack of a better term, grown apart.

So, was there a rift between the two of them?

"Quite frankly maybe I'm naive, I have no idea," Boudreau said. "We both grew a little bit. When I first got here he was 21. I think everything else has been blown out of proportion."

When the two finally did talk on Tuesday (understandably, Boudreau wasn't interested in talking to anybody really on Monday) what did he have to say?

"I told him he was very fair to me and he made it easy for me to coach," Boudreau said.

It's interesting that Boudreau left the door open for speculation with some of his answers. On a couple of occasions he cited his own naiveté before denying any rifts or other such issues such as him "losing the team." We can't really say if there was a problem in their relationship or not, but from the press box, it didn't seem all peachy keen.

Is he just trying to say all the right things now or is he being completely honest? Knowing Boudreau, he's probably telling the truth, he's never been one to really hold back on saying what he thinks.

What about the other Russian winger he seemed to be butting heads with, Alexander Semin. Was he difficult to coach?

"Sometimes just because the language barrier and sometimes just because the penalties," Boudreau said. "Sometimes he was a pleasure to watch, sometimes it was frustrating. Like a lot of geniuses when they are flowing they are tremendous, but when they are struggling it's tough."

Boudreau could see the writing on the wall and while it was tough, he said he understands why he lost his job. It's almost like a coach at the college level who is asked to walk away from a job at his/her alma mater. It's home for them and they don't want to see it hurt. Better yet, it's the way some people view breakups -- if you truly care for the person, you hope they'll be happy.

Boudreau comes off that way, like he's leaving an ex-girlfriend behind in D.C.

"I was more concerned with the state of hockey here in D.C.," he said. "We've built something good here and I didn't want that to deteriorate."

As I wrote Tuesday night, St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock isn't worried about life after the Capitals for Boudreau. He expects him back and around hockey very soon. Boudreau feels pretty much the same. He better.

"Hockey is in my blood. My wife would kick me out of the house anyway if I stay around too long so I better do something."

Photo: Getty Images

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.

Posted on: November 28, 2011 2:41 pm
Edited on: November 28, 2011 8:49 pm
 

Bruce Boudreau loses job after losing team

By Brian Stubits

ARLINGTON, Va. -- To most, it would appear that Bruce Boudreau is the classic case of a coach becoming a victim of his own success.

The Washington Capitals fired their coach of four seasons on Monday, breaking the news to him at 6:15 in the morning and naming one of greatest players in franchise history, Dale Hunter, his replacement.

Boudreau was as good of a regular-season coach as the NHL has ever seen. The Caps took off under him when he became the boss during the 2007-08 season, going 37-17-7. The four times he finished the season behind the Caps bench, they won the Southeast Division.

But he could never get over the playoff failures. In his tenure, the Caps were 17-20 in the playoffs. That lost him a lot of favor among the fans who were thirsting for more. To see a team doing so well season after season and failing to make a conference final? Still, the Capitals brass stuck behind Boudreau.

No, what cost Boudreau his job wasn't the losses in the playoffs -- although those didn't help -- but instead it was the loss of the team this season.

"These are always difficult decisions but, as I said, you don't want to make these decisions but when you see what I saw, you have to make the decision," general manager George McPhee said. "You can't look the other way. I've seen it in a few games recently, enough that I knew the team wasn't responding. We've got their attention now and hopefully they respond in the right way.

"He gave it everything. As I said, he emptied the tank, he gave it everything and he pushed every button he could push. It worked for a while, it's not working now."

The losing of the team was never on more display than the now infamous incident when Alex Ovechkin, the team's superstar and captain, was benched for the final shift of the game, one in which the Caps scored to tie the game, no less. On the bench, Ovechkin was seen mumbling something about his portly coach that was less than flattering (lip-readers out there know what was said). If there were any thing that signaled the beginning of the end, that was probably it.

General manager George McPhee declined to signal out one instance, but when talking about losing the team, that is exhibit A.

"I don't think this has anything to do with Alex Ovechkin," McPhee said on Monday at the team's practice facility. "I think this has everything to do with his team not playing well. The goalies aren't stopping pucks, the defense aren't getting the pucks out and the forwards aren't checking and scoring enough. It's our whole team, not an individual. We have a lot of players that aren't playing the way they are capable of playing, and that's why a change was made.

"We've got to be good defensively. We haven't been good defensively. That's really my issue right now. We're just giving up too many goals."

Maybe the players put it best.

“For whatever reason, as a team we weren’t really responding well enough or as good as we should have been,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “And it’s kind of ‘Where do you go from there?’ And that’s when they come into play, the guys upstairs. And they do what they have to do.”

Or there was Brooks Laich's more succinct take.

"You should be giving your best effort all the time ... It sucks that he's the fall guy for it."

More NHL Coaching Changes

If that Ovechkin incident was just the beginning, than it was a recent road trip that was the end. The final nail in the coffin appeared to be an embarrassing 7-1 loss to the Maple Leafs in Toronto.

"A couple of games on the road last week, I didn't like them at all," McPhee said. "I was happy we bounced back early last week with a couple of wins, but then I started to see the same thing again. and that's when you know.

"It's probably been about a week that we've been kicking it around."

The hope, of course is that this will flip the switch and the Capitals will return to being the Capitals of the past few seasons, the team that romped its way to the Presidents' Trophy. There is hope among the Caps and their fans that this in-season change will work as well as it did for the Penguins and Flyers in recent seasons, with both teams representing the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final.

The most intriguing aspect of this will be to see if Ovechkin, and to a lesser extent Alexander Semin, will play like we have seen them in the past. The local radio shows here are filled with what you'd expect: people thinking Ovechkin is done, wanting Semin gone, etc.

It's a worthwhile question: Can a new coach bring back the old players?

That's the task for Hunter. Many are betting he will. I'm not as convinced. I don't think we'll ever see the 50-goal Ovechkin again. I'm not even sure how much we'll see of a 40-goal Ovechkin. Power forwards don't last forever in the NHL, especially when they don't adapt. If Ovechkin is going to become the dynamic player he once was, he'll have to change. Maybe that is a message Hunter will be able to get through to him, because clearly Boudreau couldn't.

The inevitable happened in this coach vs. star battle: the star won. We all knew that would be the result eventually, you can't fire Ovechkin. In reality, Ovechkin doesn't come away looking any better than Boudreau in this case.

"I think everybody was in shock," the captain said.

Ovechkin continued, saying that sometimes a message can get a little tiresome.

"You can be tired from what the coach is telling you and maybe mistakes and some things like that," Ovechkin said. "But again, the decision is made and we just have to look forward, not look back. Or if you are going to look back at what happened, I think we don't have to talk to you guys about it. It's going to be between our family and our locker room."

That family no longer includes Boudreau, obviously. Not after his early morning talk with McPhee.

"We had a meeting at 6:15 this morning and he was a class act, all the way," McPhee said. "He said all the right things and he made me feel better. Bruce has got such a nice way about him. He made me feel better about the decision. If the worst thing you can say about the guy is that he's a hell of a nice guy, he must be a great guy, and Bruce has been a great guy here."

I can tell you this much. While Boudreau might night be missed a whole lot by the fans, he'll be missed as a personality in the sport. He became an even bigger star when he stole the show on HBO's 24/7 series. But he won't be out of hockey long at all. If he isn't coaching again, he'll find a spot on television for sure.

With his affability, that's a team he would never lose.

Photo: Getty Images

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.

Posted on: November 28, 2011 8:44 am
Edited on: November 28, 2011 6:17 pm
 

Capitals fire Boudreau, bring in Dale Hunter

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By Brian Stubits

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Washington Capitals announced on Monday morning that they have fired head coach Bruce Boudreau and named former player Dale Hunter to be his replacement.

Hunter will make his debut as the Caps' new boss on Tuesday night in Washington against the St. Louis Blues.

The rumor mill picked up late Sunday night when Nick Kypreos of Sportsnet reported that he was hearing rumblings Boudreau could be out as coach in 24-48 hours. He had it wrong. Apparently it was more like 12 hours.

"The reason for the change was we weren't winning, obviously," general manager George McPhee said. "This wasn't a slump. You can ride out slumps. This was simply a case of the players were no longer responding to Bruce. When you see that, as muc as you don't want to make a change you have to make a change.

"Bruce did a terrific job here, we're very proud of him, very proud of the work he did for us. But when the players aren't responding, you have to make a change."

Can you view the Boudreau, then, as a failure?

More NHL Coaching Changes

"I don't view this as a negative or a failure at all," McPhee said. "I think Bruce came in and did a great job, but his time was up."

Boudreau took over as the Capitals coach during the 2007-08 season, replacing Glen Hanlon, and in parts of five seasons behind the team's bench compiled an impressive 201-88-40 regular season record. The team qualified for the postseason in each of the previous four seasons but struggled to have the regular season success carry over to the playoffs, never advancing beyond the second round of the playoffs, and twice exiting in the first round. That includes the 2009-10 season when they won the Presidents Trophy with the best record in the NHL and were dismissed by the No. 8 seed Montreal Canadiens in seven games.

Replacing him will be the 51-year-old Hunter who has spent the past decade coaching the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League and leading them to the Memorial Cup championship during the 2004-05 season. He owns the highest career winning percentage of any coach in the OHL's history.

Hunter, of course, also played for the Capitals between 1987 and 1999 during a career that saw him score 323 goals and compile over 3,500 penalty minutes in 1,407 regular season games. Along with the Capitals, he also spent time with the Quebec Nordiques and Colorado Avalanche.

"This has been my team ... I shouldn't say my team, it's Ted's [Leonsis] team but it feels like my team because I played here for so long and I have good memories here," Hunter said at his meet the media session after Monday's team practice here at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. "I taped every game for the last how many years?"

Asked what Hunter will bring as a coach, McPhee talked about the pedigree Hunter has.

"Hopefully [he brings] the same things that he brought as a player," McPhee said. "Obvioulsy Dale was an intelligent player, he had talent and he was tough, downright mean at times. We probably won't see a player like that again for a while. You don't see numbers like the numbers he's had. But he played 19 years in this league and I think the best thing you could ever say Dale Hunter was whether the game was home or away or he was injured or healthy or we were winning or losing, that guy played the same every night. And it was hard. So he had really a great NHL career over 19 years, played a heck of a lot of playoff games."

As for his jump from the OHL to the NHL? McPhee isn't worried.

"No one's been better at that level. In that Ontario Hockey League that's been around forever, he has the best winning percentage of all time. It's not a flash in the pan; one or two or three years. It's 11 years. He's turned that franchise into the best junior franchise going."

Hunter, the only player in NHL history to have 300 goals and 3,000 penalty minutes in his career, will bring his style back to Washington, a city where he is remembered fondly as one of only four retired jerseys in the rafters.

"We're going to be a hard team to play against," Hunter said. "We're going to be on the puck hard, forecheck hard, really responsible defensively, backside pressure coming back through the neutral zone so teams can't run-and-gun on ya."

Asked if his team will play the way Hunter did, he didn't exactly say yes.

"Too many referees out there now!" Hunter said, drawing a laugh from the massive media contingent. "There's an extra referee out there now."

One of the big concerns, then, is getting this team to respond. If Boudreau lost the team's ear, how can he expect to get it back? How will his approach differ from that of Boudreau?

"Every coach coaches differently," Hunter said. Sometimes the players hear your voice everyday and sometimes the players don't execute as well as they should.

"I'm a player's coach, but also the players will know when I'm mad at them. I'm stern on them, that's the way you have to be to win game. Mistakes ... everybody makes mistakes out there, but if he continues making mistakes than there will be repurcussions."

That sounds a bit like the accountability mantra Boudreau was preaching this season. One difference though is that Hunter will start with that attitude. It's much easier for players to accept it when you are always more stern than somebody like Boudreau who was a bit more of a player's coach who tried to turn into a demanding coach in the offseason. That's a difficult change to make.

This is already the second in-season coaching change of the NHL season, as the Blues, Washington's opponent on Tuesday night, replaced Davis Payne with Ken Hitchcock earlier this month.

The Capitals opened the season on a 7-0 record and the best record in the NHL, but have followed that up with a 5-9-1 run and have struggled the most over the past two weeks, getting blown out by Buffalo, New York and Toronto, while also dropping games to Nashville and Winnipeg.

Adam Gretz contributed to this report

Photo: Getty Images

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.

Posted on: November 20, 2011 5:09 pm
 

Weekend Wrap: Wild move to top of the NHL

By Brian Stubits

When I was trying to wrap my head around the aftermath of the weekend in hockey, you must pardon me if I'm a bit staggered. It's not exactly the college football landscape after Saturday, but it's equally as jolting.

It's still only late November, but a tour of the standings is surprisingly fun. And confusing.

Who'd a thunk the NHL's top team at this (or any) point in the season would be the Minnesota Wild? Was there anybody not busy laughing at Dale Tallon that they could have seen the Florida Panthers ahead of the Southeast Division? Did anybody believe Dave Tippett could work his magic again and have the Coyotes in first place of the Pacific? Lastly, who saw the Maple Leafs atop the Northeast Division?

This is the bizarro NHL. Or maybe it's just that this is the NHL with the 2-1-0 point system.

The difference between the best in the NHL (Wild and Chicago Blackhawks) to 25th place (Winnipeg Jets) is only eight points. Four of the six divisions have the fourth place team within four points of the division lead.

One of the divisions that doesn't fit that bill is the Northwest, and that's not because the Vancouver Canucks are running away with it again. Instead, the Wild are, building the biggest division lead in the NHL, holding a five-point lead on the Edmonton Oilers (we told you this was bizarro world).

If we want to take the last 10 games (which we do, it makes this look better) the Wild are the hottest team in hockey alongside the Boston Bruins. Each of them are 8-2-0 in that span after the Wild took the two points from the St. Louis Blues on Saturday with a shootout victory.

It must be the offseason additions of Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, right?

They haven't hurt matters, to be clear. But I wouldn't go as far as to call them the reason the Wild have the most points in the league. Offensively speaking, the Wild have been well below average. Their 2.20 goals per game ranks 28th out of 30 teams.

Obviously that means it's the defense that's led them to a league-high 12 wins. The Wild are surrendering a very impressive 1.95 goals against average. It's funny how starting goaltender Niklas Backstrom is the "worst" goalie of the tandem of he and Josh Harding as he sports a 1.97 GAA and.935 save percentage.

The most amazing part about this is the Wild are doing it with what most would agree is a no-name group of defensemen. Brent Burns is gone to San Jose. Greg Zanon has been sidelined as have Marek Zidlicky and Marco Scandella. That leaves a cast of characters that I doubt anybody outside of Minnesota or Houston (the Wild's AHL affiliate) had heard of; guys like Justin Falk and Kris Fredheim.

This is all under first-year NHL coach Mike Yeo, by the way. He has come in from Houston and has this team as one of the biggest turnaround stories of the season. I defy anybody, including those fans in Minnesota, to say they saw the Wild starting this well.

Speaking of surprising turnarounds ...

There's another team shocking the NHL under a first-year coach after an awful season a year ago. That would be the Florida Panthers.

Kevin Dineen, certainly with a great pedigree as a player in the NHL, has put his name in the early running for the Jack Adams (next to Yeo) with what he has done in Florida. Or perhaps we should say with what Dale Tallon has done.

The top line for the Panthers is making all the difference right now. For years, the Panthers didn't have much production from the top line. If you had to rank where they stood, it was always in the bottom five of top lines in the NHL, that includes when it featured Stephen Weiss, David Booth and Nathan Horton.

The new top line of Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg showed its prowess on Saturday night against the Penguins in South Florida. They were in on all three Florida goals, including Weiss' power play tally in the final minutes. Each member of that line is on pace for about 80 points or more. None of the three has ever had more than 61 points in a season (Weiss in 2008-09).

The team has some serious gumption. After taking the late lead on the Pens, they withstood a massive barrage, particularly the final 65 seconds when the Penguins pulled goalie Dan Johnson. That's when Jose Theodore -- another surprise -- stood tallest and denied Pittsburgh's numerous scoring chances. Theodore, by the way, has a very respectable 2.46 GAA and .923 save percentage.

We are close to a quarter of the way through the season and it's just so weird to call them the first-place Panthers. But that's exactly what they are.

Getting Bizzy

Another one of the surprising teams (boy, there are a lot of those) is the Phoenix Coyotes -- we'll have more on them this week. They have been winning in seasons past, but I think many believed that Ilya Bryzgalov was a big reason for that and when he left for Philadelphia, most predicted they would falter.

Surprise is a word that would aptly describe Paul Bissonnette's night on Saturday, too. Maybe even surprise doesn't cut it, shocking would fit better.

The Coyotes tough guy who hardly plays but is one of the most popular players in the NHL due to his Twitter fame, had the rare shot to play in Buffalo, near his hometown of Welland, Ontario. It also happened to be the first time his mother had the chance to see him play live in the NHL. And so wouldn't you know it, this happened:

As I said, shocking. That goal brings his total to five goals in the past three seasons with the Coyotes. Maybe equally shocking was Tyler Myers' play to give Bissonnette the shot on the doorstep.

Meanwhile, the Coyotes' 4-2 win moved them into a tie with the Sharks for first place in the Pacific Division.

We want 10!

How crazy are things right now? The Oilers scoring nine goals on the Blackhawks and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins recording five assists goes here. Oh, and Taylor Hall had a hat trick.

The Oilers had eight goals at the mid-way mark of the game, prompting the chants of "We want 10!" from the Edmonton faithful. They came close, real close, in the final minutes, but didn't get it. Instead they had to settle for a 9-2 rout. For shame.

For the Oilers, it's what you would call a rebound win. They entered the game on a four-game skid. The quick start to the season seemed long ago in the rearview mirror. But then in 60 minutes they scored more goals (nine) then they had in the entire span of that losing streak (eight).

What's more, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins continues to live up to the billing. Labeled as a play-making center, the Nuge's five-assist night was the a record-setter. No 18-year-old had ever done that before in NHL history. His 19-year-old linemate Hall had his second career hat trick. Whatever they wanted to do, they did.

As for the Blackhawks, their four-game win streak ran into the Alberta armor and went kaput in back-to-back nights to the Flames on Friday and then the Oilers.

"Right now, it seems like every little mistake we make it's in the back of our net and we're making a lot of mistakes," defenseman Duncan Keith said on Saturday. "We all as a team need to focus on committing to playing the right way and the way we know how to play. We have to. The last two games have been embarrassing. The only thing we can do is try and learn from it and move on."

Make it eight

The Boston Bruins can't be touched right now.

With their 6-0 trouncing of the Islanders on Saturday, they have won eight games in a row. With that run, they have finally climbed back into the top eight of the Eastern Conference standings.

The most amazing part of the eight-game run? The Bruins have outscored their opponents 42-14 in that time. That's an average margin of victory of 3.5 goals per game. As I said, they can't be touched right now.

Caps popped

The Capitals are in a tailspin, leading to the annual chatter of Bruce Boudreau's job safety starting up again. That can happen after taking a 7-1 pounding by the similarly struggling Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday.

When asked after the game about a vote of confidence for Boudreau, GM George McPhee game a "no comment."

But it's still hard to put this on Boudreau in my mind. He's trying everything he can to right the ship. The problem is partly on the shoulders of Alex Ovechkin, who has failed to score a point in any of the past four games. The last time that happened? Go back to February of 2007.

So what's the next step after a team meeting and a practice on a typical off day? It could be the benching of Alexander Semin. The other talented Russian forward on the Caps, Semin has already seen demotions this season. In Sunday's practice, he was dropped all the way to the third line and when Boudreau was asked if Semin might be a healthy scratch on Monday against the Coyotes, Boudreau didn't say one way or the other.

Matters could be coming to a head very soon in D.C. one way or another.

Coming back to Earth

Once sitting atop the NHL in points, the Dallas Stars have gone into a funk, losing five in a row, topped off by a 3-0 loss at Colorado on Friday and a 4-1 defeat in San Jose on Saturday.

That prompted first-year coach Glen Gulutzan to go off about this team, leading to ...

Quote of the weekend

From CSN Bay Area:

“We whine like little babies throughout the game,” Gulutzan said. “I don’t know if there’s been a history of that here or not, but every team that I’ve coached, we’ve always been at the other end of the scale. I think we’re the worst penalty differential in the league, and every team I’ve coached we’ve always been the opposite.

“That’s going to change. We’re going to change that culture here. We’ve got to do it by zipping our mouths one step at a time. The refs are human, and if you whine that much, they’re not going to give you calls. That’s just the bottom line. We’re not getting some calls, and it’s our fault.

“I’ll be glad to go back to Saskatchewan if we don’t get out of this, but at the end of the day we’re going to do it the way we’re going to do it,” he said. “We’re going to be men, we’re going to have character, we’re going to shut our mouths and we’re going to play. If that’s not good enough, then so be it.”

Photo: Getty Images

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.

Posted on: October 13, 2011 1:28 pm
 

Daily Skate: Sabres being careful with Hecht

By Brian Stubits

HECHT OUT: The Buffalo Sabres will be without Jochen Hecht, who suffered a concussion until at least next week as the team is being especially careful with him considering he has a history of concussions. He will be out at least through Saturday's game at Pittsburgh. (Sabres Edge)

GO FISH: Speak of concussions, Capitals GM George McPhee and member of the NHL and NHLPA concussion working group, talked about them recently. Noting that of course you have to be concerned about the players, a non-physical game just isn't as entertaining. “If you go to Europe … it’s not very entertaining. It’s highly skilled, but it’s like trying to watch two guys fish.” (Washington Times)

ROLOSON THANKS SNOW: Dwayne Roloson returns to Long Island to face the Islanders for the first time since he was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning last season. And the 42-year-old took the time to say thanks to GM Garth Snow. "When I signed, Garth told me the situation and to his credit he stuck to his word, that when we were out of the playoffs, he would trade me. Very appreciative of what he did" (ESPN New York)

SERGE OF MOTIVATION: The boo birds have found a target of Sergei Gonchar in Ottawa. Unhappy with his performance, the Senators fans have let him know. His coach Paul MacLean suggests he uses it to his advantage. “I’ve been booed, so it’s something that you ... I think it’s a motivator. If your fans are unhappy with how you play, they should express that they’re unhappy with how you play. Conversely, if you play better, they should appreciate that you play better and to me, it’s just a signal that you need to be better.” (Senators Exra

THE UNTOUCHABLES: Here is a list compiled of the 10 most untradeable contracts in the NHL. Not surprisingly it starts with Rick DiPietro. But after seeing Brian Campbell change addresses this summer makes me think in this this era of a salary cap floor, no contract is untradeable. (The Hockey News)

FISHER STORY: Mike Fisher of the Nashville Predators is very open about his strong religious faith. He has said in the past one thing he likes about being in Nashville as opposed to Ottawa is the amount of churches. Last summer he came out with a book Defender of Faith about his story. Here's a little more from Fisher on how it came about. (Predators Insider)

BROTHER BOND: When the Toronto Maple Leafs headed to a military camp for a team-bonding retreat, it made defenseman John-Micheal Liles think of his brother stationed in Washington state with the U.S. Navy. Here's a good story on the strong relationship the brothers have. (Globe and Mail)

STROME SENT DOWN: It's about the time of the season where a lot of the rookies who were getting extended looks out of camp are going to be returned to their junior teams beore contracts kick in. That's what the Islanders did with their first pick in this summer's draft, Ryan Strome. (Islanders team site)

MURPHY TOO: The Carolina Hurricanes did the same with their top pick, sending diminutive Ryan Murphy back to Kitchener of the OHL. In Murphy's case, he had been a healthy scratch in the team's four regular-season games, so it seemed pointless to continue to leave him up. (Hurricanes team site)

GABRIEL'S GOAL: One first-round pick who won't be returning to his junior squad is Colorado Avalanche rookie Gabriel Landeskog. The No. 2 pick in the draft scored his first NHL goal (video below) on Wednesday night in a win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, and he talked to Adrian Dater about it afterward. (All Things Avs)

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.

 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com