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POSTED ON Thursday, 10.16.2014 / 12:42 PM

In the summer of 1991, I’m negotiating my new deal with the Chicago Blackhawks and then-GM Bob Pulford stares across the table and counters by saying, “Stu, I can’t pay you $300,000 a year; I don’t think there’s going to be fighting next year.” Nice try Pully.

But is anyone surprised that we’re still having the debate 23 years later?

Will the NHL ever outlaw fighting and the enforcer?

Maybe; maybe not. But more and more prominent hockey folks are adding their voices to the anti-fighting lobby and there seems to be an increasing appetite within the game to take that step. I am for leaving things as they are but let me make one point before I explain why I take that position.

If you’re going to make a change and ban fighting, do it for the right reasons.

For starters, don’t do it to save the enforcers from themselves. These guys realize the risks associated with what they do, and they accept that risk willingly. I understand the concern for player safety but save it for the reckless, deliberate blows to the heads of unsuspecting, vulnerable players. That’s where the serious injuries occur.

First off, fighting on ice has evolved, it occurs with far less frequency, and it’s become far more tactical if you look back through the 60s, the 70s and even the 80s. During the course of the regular season, you might go two or three games without seeing a player on your favorite team get into a scrap. At the NHL level, most fighting occurs because a player is protecting a teammate or a player is trying to motivate his team because his club is trailing in a game. See Paul Gaustad versus Vern Fiddler in a recent game against the Stars.

Furthermore, when I broke in, every team had a heavyweight – sometimes two. Today, my own informal survey of the league demonstrates that roughly two-thirds of NHL managers believe they can get by without the services of an enforcer. My point is: Why should the league ban fighting when the role and the act itself are becoming more and more marginalized as time goes on?

Second, and this is more an observation than a reason to leave the game as is, attempting to define “staged-fighting” and outlaw that is a fool’s errand. You can’t pick and choose which type of fighting you want to eliminate. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition. There would be no end to the complaints if one day the refs were responsible for deciding that one type of fracas is okay but the participants in a different fight should be ejected for the entire game.

Finally, the presence of an enforcer keeps the other team honest. The opposition is far less likely to take liberties with your team when you have an enforcer in the lineup. And think of it this way: If the ultimate goal is to reduce trauma to the head, the threat of a fight is one tool in a small basket of tools the NHL has at its disposal to curb that sort of behavior. The enforcer, just like a ref on the ice, acts as a deterrent. If a player knows he has to answer to a Brian McGrattan or Rich Clune when he acts up, he’s far more likely to keep his elbows tucked in.

Having said that, I am the first to admit that the justification for fighting is less compelling today than it was when I played.

The game has evolved; I don’t recall the last time I saw one team come out on top simply because it brutalized its opponent. There was a day when the tougher team was most often the team that prevailed. Today, that seems to be the exception… not the rule.

If you want to ban fighting, do it for that reason. Ban fighting because the game has outgrown it.

But I’m not convinced it has.

POSTED ON Wednesday, 10.08.2014 / 12:41 PM

So summer 2014 has come and gone and David Poile has done his level best to bolster his Predators and put them back on a path to the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs. I’ve written fairly extensively on the changes made on the ice and behind the bench.

But for a broader perspective, let’s shift the focus to the Western Conference and the Central Division to evaluate the club’s prospects for a top-eight finish.

Of all the NHL divisions to occupy, the pesky Preds had to pick the newly formed Central. The only division in the NHL to send five – count ‘em – five teams to the playoffs last season. And what’s more, nearly every Central Division team improved during the offseason.

Chicago adds Brad Richards; St. Louis signs Paul Stastny; Minnesota grabs Thomas Vanek; last season’s remarkable surprise, Colorado, adds key experience in Danny Briere and Jarome Iginla; and perhaps the greatest concern to Smashvillians, Dallas ropes in Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky. Adding another formidable layer of offense to what was already a strong and improving line up. See Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.

If you gulped as these transactions were made, you’ve got a pretty good feel for the way things stack up in the West.

Here’s the task for the Preds as I see it. The West is comprised of three tiers of teams: the elite tier, the struggling/rebuilding group and the middle tier. Take the second category first. The Predators, given their current make up, should finish above Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg. However, that’s by no means a given. There may be a Colorado-like surprise to come out of that group… but not likely.

At the same time, it’s hard to envision a scenario where the Preds break into the elite group either. The Kings, Ducks, Blues, Blackhawks and Sharks are very likely to make up some combination of the top five. And it’s just as likely that one member of the Western elite will go on to hoist the Cup by the time it’s all over.

So that shifts the focus squarely to the middle tier. The challenge for your 2014-15 Predators is to knock the Coyotes, the Wild or the Avalanche out of the Nos. 6-8 seeds. Looking over those three, it would seem to me that the Avs are the most apt to re-appear in the postseason. That puts Arizona and Minnesota squarely in the Predators crosshairs. Season matchups versus the Wild – and there are five – should be just that… Wild. “Suuuuterrrrrr!!!!”

I’ve made this point before, but realignment makes for more interesting, more meaningful matchups earlier in the regular season. That couldn’t be more true for the 2014-15 Predators and the road ahead. Strap in and enjoy the ride… should be fun!!

POSTED ON Thursday, 10.02.2014 / 2:15 PM

Training camp 2014 draws to a close soon, and we look forward to the real deal on October 9. So I thought it would be worthwhile to walk through a little zone-by-zone primer in terms of the Predators new style of play.

Offensive Zone:

Two things to key on here. First, the forwards will simply forecheck harder and with a larger presence. They’ll send two guys, rather than one, when the opposition has the puck in its zone. This means that this year’s team will need to be better conditioned and probably shorten their shifts on average to sustain increased pressure.

Second wrinkle is that the defense has the green light to pinch down more from the other team’s blue line. So on any puck that is rung around the boards to an opposition winger, you’re apt to see Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Seth Jones and company jump down hard to create a turnover and hold the zone. From the opposition’s point of view, this is tough to deal with when you’re now getting pressure from above and below the puck.

Neutral Ice:

Not much to report on here, though I have picked up one observation through the preseason. On something like a faceoff loss in neutral ice, you should see the strong side forward force the opposition defender with the puck. He’ll try to steer that player to the outside in a trap style maneuver. The remaining Predators are stacked up at or near the blue line four across. The goal is to create a turnover at the Preds blue line or force the other side to have to dump the puck and concede possession.

Defensive Zone:

We keep hearing the new system will add offense but can you add offense even when defending in your own end? Sounds odd I know, but yes. If you’re defending more aggressively – and you’re successful doing so – you should spend less time in your own end, right? And it follows that if you’re spending less time in the defensive zone you should be in your opponent’s end creating chances.

Head Coach Peter Laviolette’s team will try to accomplish this with at least two tweaks. One is by way of the swarm. Sounds pretty exotic, I know, but a lot of teams are playing this way now. Watch for the defenseman at the net front to jump into the fray when Nashville is defending deep in one corner once the puck goes to the wall. Typically, the net front defenseman will remain static in front of the Preds net as long as that two-on-two battle stays confined to his partner’s corner.

However, now under the Laviolette system, you’ll often see the net front defender jump into the battle in order to outman the two opposition forwards so as to regain possession of the puck. You saw this from the Preds in the past but there’s a key difference between then and now. Under Laviolette, the net front defenseman no longer has to wait for that puck to “die” (or stop) on the wall before he activates into the corner. He’ll jump in as soon as the puck goes to the wall even if it’s moving.

Second tweak is as follows: The left and right wingers will play lower in the zone when the puck is deep in Nashville’s end. The thinking here is that the wingers are more apt to create turnovers if they’re positioned deeper in the Preds zone.

Lots going on I know, but keep an eye out for some of this as it should be exciting!!

POSTED ON Thursday, 09.18.2014 / 9:59 AM

The following is the last of a four-part review of a summer’s worth of changes. Here, we focus on coaching.

Early in the offseason, the Predators made it clear that they were parting company with the only coach the organization had ever known in Barry Trotz. A few weeks of due diligence produced veteran bench boss, Peter Laviolette. In my estimation, this was the strongest candidate available to General Manager David Poile at that moment. There’s a lot to like here.

Coaching is 75 percent personality and 25 percent knowledge. A coach with a strong personality and the ability to communicate systems, structure and culture in a clear way will get the most from his group. This is where Laviolette is strong.

Players who’ve had him in the past agree that he can motivate. He’s a clear thinker with a very direct manner of speaking; it’s rare for him to verbalize much more than what is absolutely necessary for the moment. Players respond to that kind of clarity; it breeds confidence in the leadership. You start to lose people if you’re talking at length about things that aren’t really instructive or relevant.

Moreover, Laviolette carries with him 11-plus years of NHL head coaching experience as he enters the room; most notably, a Stanley Cup Championship in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes. That’s a lot of cachet as 20 sets of eyes lean in to learn which direction their new mentor intends to take them.

It’s worth noting that Laviolette comes with long time assistant, Kevin McCarthy. “Kaito” knows the new guy well and he’s able to act as a buffer to some degree. He’ll fill in gaps and educate players and others about “life under Lavvy.” It is easy to underestimate the importance of someone like McCarthy, but he’s well positioned to accelerate any adjustment to a new man in charge.

Last point to make is that there is a strong nexus present here – where the coach’s strength meets the team’s greatest need. The Predators are in dire need of more offense and Laviolette teams typically adopt an offensive slant. It remains to be seen whether a Laviolette system applied to an upgraded forward roster (See: James Neal, Mike Ribeiro, Derek Roy and Olli Jokinen) will actually produce more offense. But the table is set and if the coaches coach and the players play this team should compete for a top-eight spot in the West.

Lots to watch for here; and it all gets started today at training camp! See you soon!

POSTED ON Friday, 09.12.2014 / 1:16 PM

Rookie camp 2014-15 is upon us.

That’s good news; it means the real deal is right around the corner! But no matter whether you’re a Gretzky, a grinder or somewhere in between, everyone runs the gauntlet that is NHL rookie camp. And this is one example of how the game has changed. For the better.

I broke in during the late 80s by way of the Calgary Flames organization. For whatever reason, the Flames rookies played the Vancouver Canucks rookies exclusively. We’d have two or three days of practice to get our legs under us before facing off against the Canucks recruits, and then it was on!

Fighting played a far more prominent role in the game back then. So most players felt that getting in a scrap or two (or three) with someone from the other side was a good way of impressing the decision makers.

We’d typically play the Canucks rookies a handful of times in different small town rinks all over southern British Columbia. Each outing included the same cast of characters, all tough as nails, all desperately trying to stick with the big club anyway, anyhow. This was not pretty hockey. Think Ogelthorpe, Dave “Killer” Carlson and a set of brothers named Hanson, except most of us were just two years out of high school.

I recall one game where we were "hosting" our Canucks counterparts in Calgary. As usual, it was another bloodbath. There were over a dozen fights in the first two periods. I’m sitting in my stall during the second intermission; I had been in three fights by this stage so I thought my night was over. I hung back as the other players filtered out to the ice for the start of the third period. Coach Baxter looks my way and says “What’s with you?” I replied, “I had three fights; I was going to hit the shower.” Baxter scoffed, “Yeah, you’re not. Get out there … you got another 20 minutes to play like everyone else.”

Today, you’ll see a brand of hockey that is far more subdued, at least in terms of the physicality. Rookie camp is a closer simile to NHL style hockey. And this is where the "changed for the better" part comes in. When you stage a Wild West show, as was the custom back then, you create an environment where the smaller and the highly-skilled players are distracted from playing their game. You lose the opportunity to truly evaluate these guys—and all players for that matter—and the camp itself is not nearly as effective.

So here’s to Rookie Camp 2014! And here’s to seeing you out at Ford Ice Center.

POSTED ON Friday, 08.29.2014 / 12:31 PM

Missing the NHL playoffs in consecutive seasons provides plenty of incentive to retool and create a roster that will reverse the trend. That’s precisely what Nashville Predators General Manager David Poile did this offseason.

The following is part three of a review of a summer’s worth of changes, by position. This week we feature the forwards. Plenty to talk about here.

The changes up front amount to something just shy of a full-blown overhaul. No other area of the roster got more attention. Why? Because offense has been an area of concern for some time. And because a new coach with an offensive focus necessitates a roster with more firepower. 

Starting on day one of the NHL Draft, Mr. Poile made one of the biggest splashes of the summer when James Neal was acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins. An exciting move to be sure; the Predators have never had a 40-goal scorer in the stable.

But the question becomes: How do you put him in a position where he can produce in that way again? Remember, Neal scored his 40 with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin riding alongside.

Enter Mike Ribeiro, Olli Jokinen and Derek Roy. These are all interesting signings and each fits a common profile. Players in their early 30s (Jokinen is 35); who have scored at a point-a-game clip in the past; who signed for less money on one-year deals because they’re looking to parlay the coming year into another solid contract. (i.e. Each forward has something to prove.)

Given the way unrestricted free agency played out (Paul Statsny, Mike Cammalleri and Thomas Vanek were snapped up early), you have to credit the Predators with making the most of a depleted market. Unable to capture a “big name” the team adjusted and played the short game by signing three “second-tier” players who may be positioned to have strong years.

So at end of the day/summer, are the Predators any better? Yes … on paper. The club acquired four key pieces that make the club measurably more potent than last year’s version. But the rubber has yet to hit the road. I estimate that by the second half of November the answer to this question should become clear. In any event, keep an eye on the forwards this year; that’s the gateway back to the postseason.

Next week we’ll analyze coaching.

POSTED ON Friday, 08.22.2014 / 1:00 PM

The following is part two of a full review of a summer’s worth of roster changes, by position.

This week we feature the defense.

With two (below) exceptions, very little has changed at the blue line … and for good reason. The depth at this position has emerged as one of the true strengths of the organization. In fact, hockey pundits rate Nashville’s defensive corps as one of the brightest in the business. 

Last season saw Shea Weber play Norris Trophy-worthy hockey (again) and defense partner Roman Josi had plenty to do with that. Josi is one of the best-kept secrets in the NHL. Solid in his own end, a threat to score on the PP and he can move the puck through neutral ice as well as any blueliner in the Western Conference. Moreover, Ellis, Ekholm, Bartley and Jones all took notable steps forward in their maturation as NHLers. 

Subtract from the mix one Michael Del Zotto, however. Acquired in an exchange that saw Kevin Klein go to the New York Rangers, Del Zotto just never clicked as a Predator. David Poile made the 24-year-old no offer; and he ultimately signed with the Philadelphia Flyers.

Add to the roster, 11-year man Anton Volchenkov. In all likelihood, Volchenkov will settle in as one half of the third pairing. However, I expect the large Russian will have an impact in three key areas. Volchenkov should play in a range of 12-15 minutes a night against even top six forwards. He’s an anchor to any defense corps, very reliable in his own end.

Secondly, the ex-Devil/ex-Senator is a terrific shot-blocker and penalty killer. Watch to see head coach Peter Laviolette shift some of the PK workload to Volchenkov which will have the net effect of taking some of the burden off Weber and Josi. That subtle move should leave the top pairing in a better position to activate up ice in Laviolette’s offensive structure.

Lastly, one incidental benefit you get in adding Volchnekov is the example this gritty battle-tested veteran sets for a talented--but young--set of defenders. I like the move to bring him in; his attributes should round the group out nicely.

Next week I’ll treat the forwards.

POSTED ON Friday, 08.15.2014 / 3:32 PM
Missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons provides all the more motivation to retool in order to create a roster that will stop that trend in its tracks.  And that’s exactly what the Nashville Predators hockey ops department did during this off-season.   In the coming weeks, I’ll offer a full review of a summer’s worth of transactions, by position.  Let’s start at the net.

The Tenders

Not much activity here though Carter Hutton returns signed to a two year deal.  The upside to life without number one net minder Pekka Rinne was that Carter Hutton was able to shoulder most of the load during Rinne’s absence and accelerate his development as he did.  To his credit, Carter battled through plenty of adversity to come out the other side a solid NHL backup.  Carter racked up 20 wins during this stretch and he grew measurably as a pro in my estimation. 

I’m never one to pass up the low hanging fruit. Assuming number one netminder Pekka Rinne is healthy throughout 2014-15, that should translate into no less than a ten-point gain over last year’s totals. More than enough capital to earn a berth in the Western Conference top eight.   No disrespect to Hutton, Mazanec or Hellberg, but Rinne ranks among the league’s best and it’s a steep climb when you’re without his services for 51 games.

So the recipe at net looks like this.  A healthy Rinne backstopping for 60 or more games. Plus Carter Hutton relieving in 20 or so games where new goaltending coach, Ben Vanderklok, can hand pick some ideal spots to alleviate Rinne’s workload.  If the past is any indication, this should be a very solid tandem at the key position.   You like the way the Preds look at goal.

Next week I’ll analyze the blueline. 

See you around the rink.
POSTED ON Thursday, 06.12.2014 / 3:03 PM

Thoughts and observations from Game 4 of the SCF.

I can empathize with the Rangers at this point. I’ve been to the Finals twice and was swept in both appearances (Chicago-1992 and Detroit-1995). Finding the confidence as a team to play your game in Game 4 is a tall order. You’re trying to push back a sea tide at this point.

First Period

Pouliot makes it 1-0 Rangers. As the period wears on you’re thinking: why does this lead feel different from others the Rangers have held in this series?

The Zuccarello delay of game penalty creates a shift in momentum. LA carried the tempo for several minutes but New York seems to stabilize. This is an important development because you know LA will be pressing later when the game is on the line. New York will need to push back at that moment if the club is going to see another day.

Notwithstanding the fact that LA is on the brink of closing out this series; it's been entertaining hockey throughout. Never more than a two goal spread.

Second Period

Gaborik off the crossbar just one minute into the period. Here they come?

With the kind of playoffs he’s had surely just once this series Lundqvist is able to steal a game for his club. He’s making a strong case for doing so tonite.

St. Louis makes it 2-0 on a gritty play driving hard to the net. To this point, this is the strongest the Rangers have looked this late in a game.

Girardi busts his stick as he makes an attempt at the net. Brown grabs the loose puck and makes a terrific move to get LA on the board. 2-1 New York. High drama no? And the $46,000 question is … does this play provide the turning point for LA?

Third Period

It’s seven minutes into the third before the Rangers register their first shot on goal – their only shot on goal in this period. But credit them for holding the lead in spite of the heavy pressure.

Lundqvist is inspiring. It says a lot about an athlete when he can take his game to another level at a time like this.

Good for New York and good for hockey that the Rangers prevail. From the club’s point of view, that’s a foothold. The lone bright example of what can be done when your goaler outplays even himself and you get a bounce or two. However, you’re still left with the feeling that the inevitable is yet to come. It’s still just a question of what form it will take. The Rangers won’t erase that feeling until they pull off the improbable … winning Game 5 in LA. Only then does this series become interesting again.

See you around the rink.

POSTED ON Saturday, 06.07.2014 / 1:04 PM

First Period

Rangers come out carrying the tempo for most of the opening period; exactly what they needed to do. Far more urgency than they showed in the opening game. If you pressure the opposition enough, it is bound to result in your opponent making plays they do not want to make. Case in point, Justin Williams’ turnover that leads to the McDonagh goal at 10:48. Williams is being pressured above and below when he coughs it up. 1-0 New York.

Lundqvist is seeing chances that are far more difficult than those faced by Quick at the other end. He’s a difference maker in the early going.

Matt Greene’s turnover at the Ranger blueline ultimately leads to the Zuccarello goal. Rangers are in the driver’s seat 2-0; they’ve dictated the pace and held territorial advantage for the majority of the first period. At the end of one, you can’t help but feel “surely to goodness this is the one time that LA spots the opposition two and they don’t come back.”

A key point here, by contrast to Game 1, is that New York did not allow the Kings life late in the period. Remember Clifford’s goal at 17:33 of the first period in Game 1. That was the Kings’ foothold.

Second Period

There’s a lot to like in the Kings’ Justin Williams. His resilience for example. In the opening period, he’s responsible for the turnover that results in the Rangers’ first goal. On a similar play but this time in the offensive end, Williams is again under pressure. However, he makes a perfect play this time. Rather than force the puck, off balance, to a protected Rangers’ net he throws it back into the high slot and finds Stoll who squibs it past Lundqvist and Klein. Now it’s 2-1 Rangers.

From an LA point of view, you hate that you weren’t able to reverse momentum anytime in the first period. It’s fair consolation though that you get on the board and cut the Ranger lead in half less than two minutes into the second period.

Half way through regulation and the Rangers are going hit for hit with the Kings. Are they leading for this reason? I suggest that’s part of it; see last blog.

Mitchell draws LA to within a goal. 3-2 Rangers. But on the very next play he fails to clear it behind the net off the ensuing draw and Zuccarello feeds Brassard. A momentum swing like this should put the Rangers in a spot where they can close this game out if they manage it well.

Third Period

The no goalie interference call on LA’s third goal is defensible. McDonagh closes on Clifford hard as the Kings forward works his way back to the net front. What’s more important than the goal itself though is the response of both teams. LA finds life and New York sags; Gaborik scores as a result. It’s now a 4-4 game.

A reminder. LA started this period down 4-2 against a team that is 10-0 this season when leading after two. It’s baffling to me how the Kings can make a two-goal turnaround look so routine.

Overtime 1

I fell asleep. That’s neither a random thought nor an observation. That’s just a fact.

Overtime 2

I’m wide awake as Dustin Brown wins it for LA with a deft little redirect from the low slot. Unreal. New York may ultimately win a game as the Series heads back east but will it matter? After the way things have gone through Games 1 and 2, can you see LA failing to win out?

See you around the rink.

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