Johnny BoychukGregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty ImagesJohnny Boychuk is getting more ice time -- and more responsibility -- with the Islanders.
The theory among scouts and executives regarding Nick Leddy was that once the talented 23-year-old defenseman escaped the depths of the Chicago Blackhawks' lineup, he would blossom in a bigger role. It’s one of the reasons New York Islanders general manager Garth Snow was almost universally praised for adding the strong-skating Leddy to his young group.

You didn’t necessarily hear that about Johnny Boychuk -- another addition Snow made. Instead, he was hailed as the veteran defenseman who was going to bring championship experience to the young Islanders.

Really, the two weren’t all that far off experience-wise. Boychuk had played 317 games for the Boston Bruins, compared to Leddy’s 258 for the Blackhawks. But Boychuk, it appears, had more untapped potential than people realized.

His return to Boston provided some cool moments in Thursday's game --
Mike BabcockAndy Marlin/NHLI/Getty ImagesMike Babcock has earned a reputation of maximizing the talent present on his teams.
Imagine for a moment that you’re a young and talented AHL coach. You’ve just coached three games in three days, it’s Sunday night and you’re exhausted.

The phone rings.

It’s the NHL general manager of your parent team. They’ve fired their head coach, and they want you to take over and run the show behind the bench for tomorrow night’s game in Nashville. There are 30 NHL head coaching jobs, and you’ve just landed one of them. You’re packing, you’re calling family, maybe you’re reaching out to a player or two. Chances are you’re not planning to negotiate the best possible salary for yourself at that moment. If so, the GM has a list of 10 other AHL coaches willing to take your spot.

“Those guys all undercut themselves to get their foot in the door,” one veteran coach said. “And I don’t even blame them for that.”

Or, take a more experienced coach who has been out of the NHL a few years. His first crack as an NHL head coach didn’t go particularly well, but it was a young team with a low payroll. He did what he could. When that second opportunity comes after a long wait, his leverage is miniscule. He’s taking the job and hoping the pay raise comes later.

NHL coaches being hired are rarely in a position of power. They’re available because they’ve been fired and are looking for work. Or they’re available because they’re coaching outside the NHL. So when it comes time to attach a dollar amount to the job, it’s typically lopsided in favor of the person offering the job.

Mike Babcock is the exception.

His Detroit Red Wings have just one regulation loss in six games, and he’s again maximizing the talent he has on the roster.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Frederik AndersonStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesFrederik Andersen's hot start to the season has been a long time coming.
When they worked together in Washington, former Capitals assistant coach Jay Leach shared his philosophy on young defensemen with Bruce Boudreau, current head coach of the Anaheim Ducks: It takes a good 300 NHL games for a young defenseman to figure out what it takes to play in the NHL.

That’s fair.

The harder question is this: How many games does a goalie have to play in the NHL before we know what kind of goalie he is?

On Tuesday evening, we posed this question to Boudreau -- he has a goalie in Frederik Andersen who has started the season 5-0 and is 25-5 to start his NHL career. He has a .927 save percentage through 33 career NHL games.

What kind of sample size do we need to see before we know what we have in Andersen?

“I really don’t know,” Boudreau said. “The goalies that I’ve had that are really good, I’m getting them when they’re experienced. The young goalies I’ve had I never had long enough to know it was real.”

He sees some comparison to what he has now in Andersen and John Gibson to the duo of Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth he had in Washington. Varlamov ultimately grew into one of the NHL’s best starters last season in Colorado and Boudreau points out that it didn’t work in Washington only because one of the two seemed to always get hurt just as they started playing well.

With better luck in Anaheim, the Ducks could have something special in goal. In analyzing some of the hot starts in the NHL this season and whether or not they’ll continue, let’s start there:

The start:

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Slava VoynovJuan Ocampo/NHLI/Getty ImagesKings defenseman Slava Voynov has been suspended indefinitely by the NHL following his arrest.
Terry O’Neill wanted to make something very clear: The NHL’s indefinite suspension of Slava Voynov following his arrest on domestic violence charges is a positive first step. That’s it.

O’Neill, the president of the National Organization for Women, believes it can’t be the final step the league takes in cases like this.

“I suppose it is progress provided that it’s not temporary. That they’re responding quickly and decidedly in their view is a good sign,” O’Neill told ESPN.com on Monday. “I want to sound a huge alarm and raise a huge red flag about their response. I don’t know if the suspension would keep her safe.”

The safety of the victim, O’Neill suggests, should be the league’s priority. Then comes a larger examination of how the league treats domestic abuse.

“The woman’s safety and economic security must be the paramount concern of the NHL,” she said. “The acceptable response first of all is: Get evidence. Do they have information? Ask about her safety. What is she doing to stay safe? What does she need in order to stay safe? Ask about her financial security. What does she need to stay secure? Then the next thing they should be asking is what do we do next?”

The counter to this argument is that the league is a business, that asking it do to anything more gives it responsibility and power it shouldn’t have. That this debate is being held at all is another indication that the landscape in sports has changed since the Ray Rice case. It’s brought domestic violence to the forefront of discussion in sports, a debate that is now shifting to the NHL following Voynov’s arrest.

“Ray Rice has changed everything,” said sports lawyer Eric Macramalla, a partner at Gowlings, a Canadian law firm, and legal analyst for TSN.

The NHL deserves credit for its quick action in the Voynov case, but what it does next is just as important.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was asked recently about the potential need for a domestic abuse policy, and he said the league takes it on a case-by-case basis. The different handling of the Voynov case as opposed to the Semyon Varlamov case is evidence of this. It’s also clear that the league is well aware of how public perception and awareness has changed on this front over the past year.

The CBA, specifically the second portion of Section 18-A.5, currently gives the NHL all kinds of leeway when it comes to suspending a player following an arrest:

The League may suspend the Player pending the League's formal review and disposition of the matter where the failure to suspend the Player during this period would create a substantial risk of material harm to the legitimate interests and/or reputation of the League.


That it’s so subjective could open the NHL up to the possibility of a grievance by the NHLPA. The second potential risk is that Voynov is ultimately exonerated and sues the league because the mere suspension by the NHL following the arrest suggests guilt and harmed his earning ability.

The NHL knows this, and the fact that Voynov was still suspended is an indication that it has enough information to make this call so quickly and decisively.

Following the Ray Rice case, the NFL toughened its domestic violence policy with automatic penalties for violators, including a six-week unpaid suspension for any player who violates the domestic violence policy. A second incident would lead to a lifetime ban.

This may be a path that the NHL ultimately follows.

“I think it’s inevitable that they’re going to have a domestic abuse policy in place,” Macramalla told ESPN.com. “What might help the NHL is a sound and reasonable decision based on the facts and circumstances on this specific case.”

If there is going to be a change in policy, the key is finding one that is collectively bargained for between the NHL and the NHLPA, unlike the NFL did with its new policy. The more specific and objective the policy, where clear punishments are identified depending on the situation, the less the league opens itself up to criticism of fairness.

The more attention these cases get on the sporting landscape, the more O’Neill says she’d love to have the power to require answers to questions she now has of professional sports leagues. Because she still has many.

“For instance, what is the nature of the relationship between the security personnel of the leagues and the police and the prosecutor’s office? Who calls whom? How often do they speak? I want details,” she said.

That’s just the start. She wants to know how many women have gone to the players' associations or the leagues' human resource departments asking for help because of abuse. What was the response?

She wants to know whether or not the leagues are conducting studies that might link traumatic brain injuries to violence at home. If so, what are the leagues doing about it? She wants to know what the leagues are doing to keep family members safe from violence.

“Those are the kinds of questions I would like all these athletic leagues to be considering,” O’Neill said.

As much as the NHL and its players deserve credit for avoiding trouble a majority of the time -- as the commissioner pointed out recently -- the Voynov arrest is further proof that hockey isn’t isolated from the real problems that impact other sports, that impact those who follow the sport.

The reality is that professional sports -- and how those who run them react to these problems -- help shape the culture in the U.S. It probably shouldn’t be that way, but it is.

That’s why it can’t be business as usual. O’Neill believes those making the decisions at the top should take a serious, hard look at how domestic violence is handled as a league, to take a moment of self-reflection to see how their decisions impact others.

“I wish leagues would start doing this,” she said.

Growing pains for Devils' young D-men 

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
10:43
AM ET
Jon MerrilBruce Bennett/Getty ImagesJon Merrill, age 22, is skating 20:25 per game for the Devils this season.
It was suggested to New Jersey Devils coach Pete DeBoer that perhaps his team was built in a less-than-ideal fashion. He has a veteran group of forwards led by Jaromir Jagr, Mike Cammalleri and Patrik Elias. The youth is on defense, where 22-year-old Jon Merrill, 23-year-old Eric Gelinas and 20-year-old Damon Severson are all getting significant minutes.

Typically, coaches like the youth at forward -- where the inevitable mistakes that come with inexperience are a little easier to hide -- and veterans on defense.

“I’ve never been of that school,” DeBoer said when we chatted over the weekend. “I think coaches want guys who can play. There’s no doubt there’s more subtleties to playing defense at the NHL level you have to learn. Stick positioning, when to be patient -- things that forwards can get away with. If you have young defensemen with hockey sense, those things get picked up pretty quickly.”

The Devils seem to have that. The reshaping of the Devils' defense has helped improve New Jersey’s transition game, something that should be of great benefit to a team that was already a good possession club.

Still, the early returns are mixed.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Eric StaalChristopher Pasatieri/Getty ImagesA rebuild for the Carolina Hurricanes may mean dealing the face of the franchise.
Let’s start here: It’s premature. Talk of a possible Eric Staal trade has already started and another loss by the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday night won’t slow it down. The Hurricanes' season is only four games old -- long enough to indicate that they’re not going to be particularly good, but not so long that it’s time to pack it up and deal the face of the franchise.

The trade talk is also inevitable. Staal has one season remaining on his contract after this year that comes with a salary-cap charge of $8.25 million. If the Hurricanes want to maximize value on Staal, this is the time to start considering a deal. Especially if they’re going into full-on rebuilding mode.

They can learn from the Ottawa Senators and Vancouver Canucks, who waited too long to trade Jason Spezza and Ryan Kesler. The offer the Anaheim Ducks made at the trade deadline for Kesler was stronger than what the Canucks ultimately received, in part because the Ducks would have been getting an additional postseason out of Kesler.

It’s also complicated.

For one, Staal has a complete no-move, no-trade clause.

“It’s going to be up to him,” said one NHL source.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

How Bruins can get back on track 

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
11:26
AM ET
Milan LucicAP Photo/Paul SancyaWhile Boston played their most complete game in the win over Detroit, they still have work to do.
After one period of play Wednesday night in Detroit, Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien came to a conclusion: It was the best his team had played all season.

At this time of the season, the smartest coaches are more concerned with process rather than result, so it didn’t bother him that the game was tied after Boston’s most impressive period of hockey of 2014-15.

He saw exactly what he’d been stressing at practice the previous day. Bodies going to the net, getting shots on goal and making life as hard as possible for Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard.

The Bruins outshot the Red Wings 12-3 at even strength, and graphs that chart shot attempts showed the gap growing as the period progressed.

“That’s the kind of team we have to be,” coach Claude Julien said afterward. “I like the fact that we had chances. Guys went in front of the net; we were bringing pucks to the net.”

In the big picture that is the Eastern Conference, it’s easy to lose track of the Bruins right now.

Tampa Bay is the hot team with young talent and high expectations that is looking every bit as good as the preseason hype. The New York Islanders have taken the talent added by GM Garth Snow and developed into an early offensive powerhouse, averaging five goals per contest through three games. The New Jersey Devils haven’t lost a game yet, with Mike Cammalleri turning a summer signing that was met with a lukewarm reception into one that is paying off in a big way early on for Lou Lamoriello’s group.

The Bruins were only developing into a story for the wrong reasons.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

The NHL's All-Hinge team 

October, 15, 2014
Oct 15
10:45
AM ET
Ryan KeslerAP Photo/Jae C. HongWhich players need to click for their team to succeed? Ryan Kesler headlines the All-Hinge team.
Shortly after Ryan Kesler was traded to the Anaheim Ducks, he received a phone call from new teammate Ryan Getzlaf. It’s what you’d expect out of a captain. Call the new guy, make him comfortable, congratulate him on his taste in teams on the no-trade list, and we’ll see you in camp.

Getzlaf did a little more than that. He also passed along his wife’s phone number to make sure that Kesler’s wife had a local contact. Anything Kesler needed, the Getzlafs were prepared to offer up help with the transition to Anaheim.

“It’s part of our job to make sure he’s comfortable, make sure his family is comfortable, those kind of things that make things easier,” Getzlaf said when we chatted recently.

The extra effort is paying off.

“He seems much happier than I heard about him in the past,” Getzlaf said. “There were things we were looking to do when he came here to make sure he was comfortable and get back to being a happy hockey player and being satisfied where he is.”

A general manager can only do so much. He can address holes in the roster and make changes to fix weaknesses. But once the big moves are done, it’s on the players to make sure they work.

Ducks GM Bob Murray bet big on Kesler, and if it pays off, it could come with a championship ring. That’s how high the stakes are with this move.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Checking in on key impending RFAs 

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
12:09
PM ET
Sergei BobrovskyJamie Sabau/NHLI/Getty ImagesFor now, Sergei Bobrovsky is focused on stopping pucks. But contract negotiations loom.
There are really two schools of thought when it comes to signing your restricted free agents early, like the Minnesota Wild did over the weekend with Jonas Brodin. Once you’re confident you know what you have in a player, like the Wild are with their talented young defenseman, get the deal done. Avoid future hassles that can come with an attempted bridge contract (like we saw this offseason) and get your franchise cost certainty moving forward. In a few years, the contract will look like a value.

If Brodin continues on the trajectory he is right now, there’s no doubt that the $4.2 million he’ll be averaging per season will look great.

Still, there are reasons other general managers are in the other school of thought, and aren’t rushing out to do the same thing. One situation that is often brought up by executives around the league is what has befallen the Edmonton Oilers. They see the long-term deals the young players were given almost immediately, and wonder if it made those players a little too comfortable at an early age.

“I don’t want to gift wrap a big contract,” said one general manager this week.

They want their young players driven. They want to know exactly what they’re getting in a player rather than trying to project what they might get. And if they sign one player, they don’t want their next two or three young players calling with their hands out.

That’s a challenge GM Chuck Fletcher faces right now in Minnesota. The Brodin deal is a smart one but now the other Minnesota RFAs, and there are plenty, will want theirs. Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula and Marco Scandella are all restricted free agents after this season.

Here’s a look at a few other high-profile restricted free agents and where they stand right now

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Ten takeaways from opening weekend 

October, 13, 2014
Oct 13
11:17
AM ET
Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild Andy Cross/The Denver PostThings have been a bit of a mess for the Colorado Avalanche thus far this season.
Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau understood the sentiment, but quickly shot down the suggestion. It’s October. The most meaningful games aren’t played until the spring. Teams that are coming off a long playoff run or have huge postseason aspirations might find these mid-October games a little uninspiring.

It has to be hard to get up for Game No. 3 when the intensity of a playoff Game 7 playoff isn't too far removed from memory.

“If you think in those terms, that 'Yeah, you can just turn it on when you want,' it doesn’t happen,” Boudreau warned. “That’s why you have to come out of the gate. I put a lot of emphasis on coming out of the gate.”

His Ducks bounced back from an ugly opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins to register their first win of the season Saturday. The Los Angeles Kings got their first win last night against the Winnipeg Jets. The Chicago Blackhawks, who don’t seem to have any trouble getting going, are taking care of business early.

“You need those games because you’re going to go through bad times,” Boudreau said. “If you don’t have that buffer, you’re going to be in trouble.”

Which takes us to the first team in our Ten Takeaways from the weekend, one whose buffer is disappearing quickly:

1. It’s early, but Colorado needs to be concerned.

The Avalanche travel to Boston for a Monday afternoon Columbus Day game that looms large for the visitors. It’s not a huge deal that Colorado dropped the first two games of its season to the Minnesota Wild, it’s the manner in which the Avalanche did it.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Marc-Edouard VlasicHarry How/Getty ImagesInjured at the end of last season's playoffs, Marc-Edouard Vlasic is ready for bigger impact this year.
With his teammates on the road in Game 6 of the first round against the Los Angeles Kings and Marc-Edouard Vlasic injured, he stayed back in San Jose. He got some treatment during the day and decided to quietly sit at the bar of a place called Dry Creek Grill to watch the game.

This was the game, you’ll remember, where things really turned in that series. Justin Williams scored a controversial goal, and the San Jose Sharks never recovered.

And the Sharks most important defenseman was hundreds of miles away, sitting alone, watching helplessly.

While spending time in San Jose this week, I pitched two ideas to Vlasic. The first: I think the Sharks beat the Kings if he stays healthy.

“I would personally like to think so,” Vlasic said, although he was quick to say it can’t be used as an excuse. “Guys have injuries all year. … We had to find a way to battle through adversity, and we didn’t do it.”

The second theory? I think Vlasic should play a ton this season.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Drew DoughtyCal Sport Media via AP ImagesJust 24 years old, Drew Doughty is already one of the NHL's elite defensemen.
The ideal defense no longer is about matching a puck mover with a stay-at-home defenseman on each pairing. The best teams still have a physical, defensive defenseman around to take care of business when necessary, but the league is skewing toward defensemen who can speed up the transition game with their skating and puckhandling -- guys who can get pucks out of the defensive zone as quickly as possible.

The Los Angeles Kings are as good as anyone in the league at this, in large part because of Drew Doughty, a guy who doesn’t make many mistakes in the defensive zone mostly because he doesn’t spend much time there.

In ranking the top 10 defenses heading into the 2014-15 season, with help from an NHL scout, that’s where we start:

1. Los Angeles Kings

As a team, the Kings' possession numbers were the best in the league last season, and that starts with the defensemen. They were especially good at forcing teams to dump the puck in and quickly retrieving it to go on the offensive attack. Doughty has that ability and is the best defenseman in the game right now.

“Doughty tips the scales because of his solo abilities,” the NHL scout said. Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez and Slava Voynov provide the youth and skating, Matt Greene and Robyn Regehr the veteran stability. We might not have brought Greene back, but general manager Dean Lombardi has more than earned the benefit of the doubt.

2. Chicago Blackhawks

Nick Leddy is going to have a strong season with the Islanders, the team he recently got traded to, playing a ton of minutes and growing his game offensively. The fact that he couldn’t crack Chicago’s top four shows just how good its defense is right now.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Ranking the top 10 forward groups 

October, 8, 2014
Oct 8
10:25
AM ET
Patrick Kane, Jonathan ToewsAP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastLed by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks have the NHL's top forward group.
The final opening-night rosters turned in by NHL teams Tuesday showed a continued evolution at forward. The notion of a top six and bottom six is starting to disappear. The best teams have three skilled lines that are almost interchangeable and a fourth line capable of playing a good 10 minutes a game.

Nobody embodies that better than the Chicago Blackhawks, the No. 1 forward group in the NHL.

For the second straight year, we’re ranking the forward groups, this year with the help of an NHL scout who was influential in making sure the Islanders were included in the top 10 after an initial exclusion and also in warning against ranking the Penguins too high even with two of the top centers in the game.

“I get that,” he said or Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. “We have to go deeper than that nowadays.”

1. Chicago Blackhawks

For as much as we know that you have to be strong down the middle, the Blackhawks have managed to be highly successful without the traditional strength at center throughout the lineup. If you’re going to have a rotation of second-line centers through the years, you’d better have Jonathan Toews anchoring the No. 1 center spot and wingers as talented as Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad.

The NHL scout is firmly in the camp that Saad is in for a big season in Year 3. “Absolutely,” he said. Saad’s big postseason (16 points in 19 games) is a good sign that there’s more growth to his game after registering 47 points last year, although his six playoff goals came with a 17.1 shooting percentage. Brad Richards gives this group even more talent and skill without the pressure of big money and expectations that weighed him down in New York.

2. Los Angeles Kings

Yes, we know the Kings finished No. 26 in scoring during the regular season at just 2.42 goals per game, but that number should jump this season.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Evgeni Malkin, Sidney CrosbyGregory Shamus/NHLI/Getty ImagesPittsburgh must capitalize on the star power of centers Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.
The Friday mailbag is back -- the surest sign that the hockey season is nearly upon us. As always, your participation in making this one of the most enjoyable parts of my week is greatly appreciated. The questions are often better than the answers, which is a credit to you guys.

This season, however, the Friday mailbag is bulking up. Before diving into the questions, I want to spend time sharing news and notes gathered over the course of the week, during conversations at the rink or on the phone, that didn’t fit one of the blogs and was simply too long to share on Twitter.

Let start there:

• One of the interesting things to watch at the start of the season will be the free-agent goalie market.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Patric HornqvistAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarAfter 387 games with the Predators, Patric Hornqvist was traded to the Penguins this summer.
Anyone with a newborn can relate: A new baby changes just about everything. It means less sleep, different habits and finding ways to entertain both you and the baby when you’re stuck at home or up at all hours.

In a normal offseason, Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist doesn’t watch a lot of hockey when he’s done. Put in a training camp, 82 games plus the playoffs and there’s not a lot of motivation to watch rivals in the postseason reach for the goal that you already missed.

This offseason was different. Hornqvist and his wife, Malin, had their first child, Isabella.

“We were home a lot,” Hornqvist said on Wednesday. “The TV was always on.”

As a result, he watched a lot of Stanley Cup playoff games, and in particular, those played by the Pittsburgh Penguins. It never occurred to him for a moment to think he might be watching future teammates, not when he’d spent the past six seasons with the Nashville Predators, the team that drafted him with the last pick of the 2005 draft.

Instead, he simply admired the play of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, even when the two fell short of their Stanley Cup hopes.

“Now, to play with them,” Hornqvist said, smiling, “it’s even better.”

Eventually, it will be.

Malkin is expected to return to the ice at some point in the near future, but his availability for the season opener against the Anaheim Ducks remains in doubt. Crosby made his preseason debut on Wednesday in Detroit.

When Hornqvist was acquired by the Penguins, the assumption was that he would play with Malkin, and that’s still a distinct possibility. But in Crosby’s only preseason game, Hornqvist was on Pittsburgh’s top line with Crosby and Chris Kunitz. Penguins coach Mike Johnston assured us all that he was just getting different looks in the preseason, but if this offseason proved anything in Pittsburgh, it’s that nothing is sacred.

That includes the spots on the wing next to Crosby

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

SPONSORED HEADLINES