As the Washington Capitals stormed off to the best start in the NHL, the last unbeaten team, one of the players had a warning: "We're only at 30 per cent of where we need to be."
Turns out he was right.
And, even though there appear to be deeper issues, the easiest bullet to fire is at the coach. Colleagues Tim Wharnsby
and Mike Milbury
have more on Bruce Boudreau and Alex Ovechkin, but it's clear that Hunter's first task will be getting the captain going. (And, GM George McPhee said Monday that Ovechkin will retain the captaincy.)
He must balance Ovechkin motivation with repairing a room that is fractured to some degree. After Saturday's 5-1 loss to Buffalo, Brooks Laich, trying to accentuate any kind of positive, said, "I thought some guys worked and played hard." That's pretty damning, and the biggest indication of what's gone wrong.
Although Hunter is being portrayed as a take-no-prisoners, no-nonsense kind of guy, high-end offensive talents love to play for him. Since he became coach in 2001, nine Knights, eight of them forwards, have been taken in the first round of the NHL draft. (That counts John Tavares, which, admittedly, is stretching it.)
"It's not unusual to see some of those guys on the ice for entire powerplays and a shift or two before or afterwards," said an opposing coach. So, there's no shortage of opportunity, even though Hunter's never been afraid to send that stern message. In a Game 7 loss to Guelph during the 2004 OHL playoffs, he benched Rob Schremp, who would become one of those first-round picks shortly thereafter.
Sounds like McPhee also did some due diligence on Kirk Muller over the last week, but never asked for permission. That's because he's talked to Hunter many times over the years, and probably knew that the biggest hurdle to hiring him was whether or not Hunter was ready to go.
When McPhee called Sunday night, the answer was yes.30 THOUGHTS1.
If I was Max Pacioretty
, I'd be furious. And, I'd also wonder if the suspension would've been as harsh had a penalty been called on the play.2.
Have to fly across the continent this afternoon, so won't be able to see Muller's media conference. His hiring in Carolina is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it is extremely rare for an NHL team to allow an assistant or an AHL coach leave for another organization during the season. A lot of GMs wouldn't agree. Clearly, David Poile felt differently and granted Jim Rutherford permission about a week ago.3.
Couple of people were surprised Jeff Daniels, who coaches the Hurricanes' AHL team, didn't get the job. One exec: "I think [Rutherford] was looking for new ideas."4.
How long does Boudreau stay unemployed? You've got to think a team or two would be interested in the kind of jolt he brought to Washington in 2007. One thing about him: he wants to work. He won't like to sit around. 5.
Other situations to watch: Calgary, Anaheim and Colorado. Eric Francis reported Saturday that the Flames won't make a change, and they did win in Minnesota on Sunday. 6.
A lot of talk about what will happen in Anaheim. There's some sympathy for Bob Murray, with other GMs saying he's really stuck because the Ducks' budget is stretched to the limit. Murray had to wait until Niklas Hagman went through re-entry waivers, since he could only take half of Hagman's contract. 7.
The most telling thing: the Ducks passed on Blake Comeau, who they could have used. (It would have cost a pro-rated $2.5 million US.) In a league where depth is critical, the Ducks are top-heavy. One scout used the example of Brandon McMillan, who played well last year, but was sent to the AHL on Monday. "The league adjusts to you, and he still has to figure out how to adjust back. It gets harder."8.
Anaheim's financial situation may also affect Randy Carlyle's future. He just received an extension through the end of the 2013-14 season. If Murray wanted to make a change, will he be allowed to, considering the budget tightness?
Colorado is another interesting one, considering the Avalanche are tremendous at keeping secrets. Other teams, however, believe changes are possible, but how high will they go? Prospective coaches may be nervous about going there now if a full-on regime change is to occur this summer.10.
As one executive put it to me: who is (or will be) calling the shots in Denver? Will it be Greg Sherman, Pierre Lacroix or Eric Lacroix? Or will it be Joe Sakic or even Patrick Roy? (There are people who assume that if he ever wanted the job, he could have it.) Or, someone else? No one really knows.11.
On Sakic: It doesn't sound like he would want to be a GM anytime soon. Word is that he recognizes this is not a position for learning on the job. If such a move is in his future, it will come after an apprenticeship.12.
On Roy: Last year, we did a piece on him for the Heritage Classic. Afterwards, I asked him about moving to the NHL. He came up with a hilarious quote, one of my favourites ever. Paraphrasing: I was thinking about it, but, as I was golfing one day and thought how good I have it (in Quebec). I asked my owner if he was happy with me and he said yes. I asked my GM if he was happy with me and he said yes. Roy, of course, is both.13.
For the record, Jay Feaster on Jarome Iginla: "He is part of the solution...We are not trading him." Agent Don Meehan said he received no calls from the Flames or from Iginla after the stories last week about the captain changing his game. 14.
One scout on Sidney Crosby: "I was much more impressed with him against St. Louis (zero points) than against the Islanders (four points). The Blues really came after him physically, and he didn't back down." Said a lot about his confidence in his health.15.
Comeau had a few claims, Minnesota and Nashville among them. The Islanders -- like many teams right now -- didn't want to take on salary, so they dropped him. A 25-year-old who scored 24 goals last season? Seems a tough way to lose a player, even if he's having a bad year.16.
It didn't get a lot of attention, but Nino Niederreiter erased a tweet that said, "The answer for all those questions I got is pretty simple...I don't know." Undoubtedly, he was referring to his four straight healthy scratches through Saturday. The Islanders are an easy target, so I asked someone who sees a lot of them for his opinion. He said, "Look at their recent string of scratches...It's really unusual to see a team do that. I don't know what to make of it." (Kyle Okposo was another victim.)17.
Watching Brian Elliott makes me think of Stars goaltending coach Mike Valley. The two are close and last season, when Elliott was really struggling, Valley predicted that the red-hot Blue would come back strong this year. Should get Valley to predict lottery numbers.18.
Two reasons for Elliott's improvement: First, he's regained confidence in himself. "If a goalie loses just one degree of confidence, it's the difference between winning and losing," Valley said. The second? He looks much less tense. "When you tense up, especially with your upper body, you move slower and you react slower...And, rebounds bounce off you harder. He just needed to relax a little bit." 19.
Another player having a good bounce-back year: Edmonton's Tom Gilbert. Opponents are really impressed with how Steve Smith's helped him. Same deal as Elliott, a case where rebuilding confidence is such a huge part of it. One scout: "He's also much more willing to take a hit and make a play."20.
Kind of funny how the scout mentioned that to me, because that's one of the issues facing Mike Green in Washington. Green prefers to wait until the last second before making his decisions, trying to draw opponents to where they can't defend against a move or a pass. Problem is, that means he gets hit a lot. He tried to become more Lidstrom-esque earlier in the season (making your plays quicker so you don't take the abuse) but it didn't work for him. 21.
One opinion on the Buffalo Sabres: "Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville are carrying that team...But they're not getting much help."22.
After Paul Gaustad fought Milan Lucic, I asked him when was the last time he lined up as a winger. He laughed. "Last year." 23.
A couple of the Bruins had an interesting theory about why they struggled so much at the start of the season. Basically, they pointed out that when you win the Stanley Cup, you stay behind for a couple of days, then leave and the Cup goes with you. The city never really gets a chance to celebrate with it. So, when they started the season, there are a whole bunch of new events and the Cup is always around. As one Bruin said, "We had to get rid of the thing to get our focus back."24.
Brad Marchand said Boston noticed opponents were skating away from them and avoiding scrums. "We talked about it. We said we had to find new ways to get ourselves energized."25.
A few opponents are eying the Philadelphia Flyers and wondering what they're going to do with Sergei Bobrovsky. Apparently, Colorado took a long look at him before choosing Semyon Varlamov. Are they saving Bobrovsky to get what they determine to be the final piece of the puzzle?26.
A lot of different opinions on why the Maple Leafs were not sold. Two big ones: as mentioned last week, minority owner Larry Tanenbaum's right-of-first-refusal continues for another couple of years. Also, banks aren't really thrilled right now about lending the amount of money the majority owners are asking for. "It can't get any worse in two years. In fact, you have to assume it will be better," one ownership-type said. 27.
MLSE approached former Canadiens president Pierre Boivin about its position -- which becomes available when Richard Peddie retires at the end of this calendar year. Unless Boivin's changed his mind very recently, he declined because his family is happy in Montreal.28.
Those who support Tom Anselmi (the leading internal candidate) say he's a better choice because while Boivin did a great job with one team and one facility (probably should be two with the Canadiens' new practice rink), MLSE is a much bigger animal. We'll see where this goes.29.
After our piece about Professor Ted Carrick
aired during Saturday's pre-game show, the most-asked question I received was some version of: "Is this guy for real?" here's what I can tell you: Carrick did take pains to point out that there have been situations where he could not help. When we were first told about this treatment (and it didn't come from the professor), we looked into it, asking a few people who know Crosby if we were being misled in any way. The answer was always some form of, "No. It helped him." 30.
In October, Crosby himself told Sports Illustrated, "I don't think this is a case of trying to do something wacky. When someone came along and invented the airplane, people must have thought they were out of their mind...At the end of the day, as long as the person getting the care is comfortable, I think that's what's important." It's the patient's feelings that matter most, isn't it?
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