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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
I fell asleep. That’s neither a random thought nor an observation. That’s just a fact.
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.
There’s enough commentary out there providing the all-encompassing account of each game as it’s played. So instead, I offer you random thoughts and observations from Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
For the first half of the opening period New York is dictating the pace. LA is spending long stretches of play hemmed in its own end. Interesting though, half way through the first; the Rangers have a team total of three hits and Dustin Brown himself has four. In four shifts. It’s hard to spot but this is how the Kings’ captain leads. Never mind that contact creates turnovers and that turnovers can become chances; when Brown collides with the opposition, it creates energy in the Kings’ camp. And that energy can turn momentum. I suggest that this is part of the explanation why the Kings come back as routinely as they do.
Hagelin’s shorthanded goal makes it 2-0 Rangers. A goal like this should mark the turning point in a Rangers’ win. Instead Carter follows up on a great chance of his own and continues to forecheck deep in the Rangers’ end. Clifford lifts the Carter pass up and over Lundqvist on a play in tight. Now we’re 2-1. The Kings head into the room after one period with a foothold rather than down 2-0. Can’t you already feel it coming?
Trevor Lewis is in two on one with Gaborik early in the period. Note to Lewis: if you’re not going to slide it over to the hottest player on any continent, you’ll wanna hit the net at a minimum.
Muzzin goes off for interference at 3:54. There’s a lot to like in the Rangers’ power play. They don’t ultimately convert, but they are moving it exceptionally well and creating promising looks. Good chances for St. Louis and Zuccarello both. LA is on its heels for most of the two minute minor. Keep an eye on this going forward.
Doughty’s fifth of the playoffs comes off a filthy little pick up thrown behind him. Then he pulls this double-clutch thing in the low slot to get Lundqvist moving. We’re tied at twos. Can you believe how routinely LA comes back from a two-goal deficit? At this time of year? For most teams that’s a hill that just cannot be climbed.
Past the halfway point of the period and the shots are 13-0 in LA’s favor. Waiting and watching for the moment the Rangers break down.
If you’re New York, on the one hand you’ve got to be thrilled you’re locked in a 2-2 tie this late while facing a team that’s been vastly superior offensively through the first three rounds. On the other hand, the determination of the group at the other end has to be leaving an impression on you.
Williams unassisted, four and a half minutes into the fourth period. Wow. Kings win and justice is served. With the exception of a flat start, LA outplayed New York in most every area of Game 1.
If New York intends to make a series of this, in Game 2 they’re going to need to do something dynamic. But what and how? LA defends well, they are producing offensively at a feverish clip, they’re physical and they are far and away the most driven team in recent memory. Toughest task yet for coach Vigneault and his Rangers. Wondering if that New York power play couldn’t provide something to rally around?
See you around the rink.
The dust settles in the West in fitting fashion. Yet another Game 7 won by the plucky Los Angeles Kings in OT to close out the defending champs. If you saw it you’ll agree, that was a game for the ages.
And so with that, the Rangers can now prepare for a specific Stanley Cup opponent. Here are a few thoughts/predictions, by key categories, as we look forward to the East-West matchup.
Clear advantage to the Kings here. Kopitar (24pts) leads the post season in offense. Carter (22), Gaborik (19), Williams (18), Doughty (16), and
Toffoli (13) all appear in the top 20 scorers before any Ranger (St. Louis @ 16th with 13 pts) is mentioned.
And all this from a team that struggled to find the back of the net in 2013-14. The Kings had an aggregate of 206 goals for; the fewest of any NHL playoff team. This group has found their touch and its paying obvious dividends. Gaborik especially with a league-leading 12 goals. No single trade deadline pickup has had a stronger impact. The Rangers have not yet faced a team with as robust an offense as the Kings. The Murderous Monarchs move on to Manhattan.
Make no mistake; King Henry is an important part of the explanation as to why the Rangers are still playing in June. Lundqvist’s .928 SV% and his GAA of 2.03 best Quick’s numbers in both categories.
Question is though, as between Quick and Lundqvist, in the context of a single seven game series, who will rise to the occasion and deliver?
To that end, there’s a lot to like in Quick. He has more deep playoff experience and he is one who will raise his level based on the moment. Lundqvist’s game has looked fallible at times in the post season. See Game 5 of the ECF – four goals on just 19 shots. Neither will play perfect hockey but Quick will play better.
The marathon that is the Stanley Cup is the toughest in all of team sport. And for that reason, it takes a healthy measure of character to be the last team standing. One noteworthy statistic tells the tale here. No other NHL team has been to seven games in all three prior series and still made it to the Finals. Does this leave the Kings out of gas for the fourth and final round? Maybe. But I doubt it. LA has played just one more game than its Eastern opponent. Fatigue should be a non-factor.
I’ve never experienced it but I can only imagine the buzz inside the Kings’ room right now. Having come out on top in three seventh games has to leave you with a serious case of “this is our destiny.”
Your Stanley Cup Champion comes out of the West once again in my estimation. LA in six; this talented group will not be denied.
See you around the rink.
The Nashville Predators radio play-by-play duo of Stu Grimson and Willy Daunic break down Wednesday's trade for Michael Del Zotto before the team takes on the Vancouver Canucks tonight at Rogers Arena.