Sophomore slump for MacKinnon? 

October, 30, 2014
Oct 30
Nathan MacKinnonBrent Lewis/Getty ImagesAfter a tremendous rookie campaign, Nathan MacKinnon has struggled early on in 2014-15.
An NHL head coach was talking this week about the struggles of a second-year player when he was asked whether or not he believed in the concept of the sophomore slump.

“I don’t believe in it,” he said, but then his next sentence suggested otherwise.

“There’s a history to it,” he said. “It’s a mystery.”

Last year, Neil Greenberg ran the numbers on every Calder Trophy finalist since 1991 and came to a conclusion that the sophomore slump doesn’t exist for forwards, who often build on strong rookies seasons. It does, however, exist for defensemen.

“I had a tough first half and after that I picked it up,” said Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang when I asked him about sophomore slumps and how he handled his second season. “You always think it’s going to get easier, but it’s not. It’s always harder.”

Last season, we saw Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau go from averaging 0.65 points per game in his rookie season to 0.41 as a sophomore. He scored more goals (14) in the lockout-shortened season than he did in his sophomore season (nine). This season, he has just two points in seven games.

Jonas Brodin saw his goal total jump from two in his rookie season to eight last season. His possession numbers took a slight dip, but it wasn’t a season that would constitute a sophomore slump. Brendan Gallagher's game continued to develop along a respectable path, as did Brandon Saad's. Nail Yakupov was awful.

So it was a mixed batch for the sophomores last season.

Which takes us to this year’s class, most notably Nathan MacKinnon.
Philadelphia Flyers-Los Angeles KingsAP Photo/Chris SzagolaThe effects of a short-handed roster are becoming apparent for the Los Angeles Kings.
It was really the first night there was a tangible on-ice impact from the Slava Voynov suspension. On Tuesday night in Philadelphia, the Los Angeles Kings dressed just 19 players because of the salary cap implications that come with a suspended player whose salary still counts, mixed in with short-term injuries to Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik and Trevor Lewis.

They then lost 3-2 in overtime to an average Philadelphia Flyers team that ended the Kings' six-game winning streak.

The Kings are successful because they can roll four lines consistently -- and beat you with any one of them. On Tuesday night, they didn’t have four lines to roll.

As he often does, Darryl Sutter boiled it down to the simplest form afterward.

“Well, we had a left winger out, a centerman out, a right winger out and a defenseman out,” he told reporters after the game. “So that’s a quarter of our lineup.”

As colleague Katie Strang pointed out Tuesday, the Kings should get some emergency relief in the way of a CBA clause that allows them to recall a player earning less than $650,000 after playing one game short-handed.

It’s also possible that Kopitar gets healthy in time for the Kings’ back-to-back games with Pittsburgh and Detroit, starting Thursday.

Still, it’s apparent this is going to be an issue for the Kings until it’s resolved in some form

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The NHL's least dispensable players 

October, 28, 2014
Oct 28
Ryan SuterStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesRyan Suter plays big minutes in all situations for the Wild, and losing him would be devastating.
The early portion of the NHL season has come with a stark reminder: If you want to survive the grind of a long season, you’d better have depth. Especially on defense.

One by one, defensemen who are critical to the success of their teams are going down. Zdeno Chara is hurt. Erik Johnson is banged up. Ben Lovejoy broke a finger fighting Joe Pavelski and could be out two months.

And on Monday, scary news emerged from Pittsburgh, where defenseman Olli Maatta will have surgery next week to remove a tumor from his neck that is potentially cancerous.

Last season, when injuries hit the Penguins' defense, it was Maatta who rescued Pittsburgh in a rookie season that earned him a spot in the top three of my Calder Trophy ballot. His sophomore campaign was looking just as good with his comfort level higher than it was at this point last season.

“You know what to expect. Your confidence is higher for sure,” Maatta said when we chatted last week.

Kris Letang, Maatta’s partner on defense, says Maatta has a maturity that goes well beyond his 20 years of age. It’s one of the reasons why even scary news like Monday’s could end up just being a footnote on a long career for the Finland native.

“He’s a very mature kid for his age. He prepares himself, the way he comes to the rink. He does what he has to do,” Letang said. “It’s all maturity.”

The Penguins have enough depth on defense to survive the short-term removal of Maatta from the lineup, especially if another young defenseman emerges to pitch in, just as he did last season. He’s expected to make a full recovery, which is obviously the important part.

These early-season injuries -- including the one suffered by Sergei Bobrovsky, who will be out at least a week -- got us thinking. Aside from the obvious -- stars like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews and nearly every starting goalie -- which players are currently the least dispensible to their teams? Here’s a look at some candidates

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Antti Raanta, Dmitrij JaskinJeff Curry/NHLI/Getty ImagesDmitrij Jaskin scored the eventual winner against the Blackhawks on Saturday night.
With the St. Louis Blues having been knocked out of the playoffs by some of the best teams in hockey the past few springs, the theory went like this: Coach Ken Hitchcock would measure the progress of the Blues during this regular season on how they did against the best teams in the league.

All 82 games were important, or course, but he wanted to see something extra against the NHL’s elite.

This theory was shared with forward David Backes during a Sunday afternoon phone conversation, and he pointed out one small flaw.

"I don’t know how he’s going to quantify who the 'good' teams are and who the 'not good' teams are," Backes said. "There are 10 teams in the West very capable of getting hot and finding their way to being a conference champion. For me, that’s a tough way to evaluate."

OK, that's fair.

Does a game against the Nashville Predators -- currently in first place in the Central Division -- count as an evaluation game? What about the Canadiens? The Capitals? The Sharks?

This much we know for sure: One team that will always be seen as a measuring stick for St. Louis is the Chicago Blackhawks.

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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 --

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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.

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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:

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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 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 “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
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.

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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.

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How Bruins can get back on track 

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
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.

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The NHL's All-Hinge team 

October, 15, 2014
Oct 15
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.

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Checking in on key impending RFAs 

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
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

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Ten takeaways from opening weekend 

October, 13, 2014
Oct 13
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.

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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.

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