Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s weekly Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week’s topics include the deep problems facing the Oilers; the lack of a Stanley Cup hangover for the Blackhawks; Semyon Varlamov’s brilliance for the Avs; Patrick Roy’s hands-on approach and partnership with his players; and, where Jaromir Jagr would rank on the all-time goals and points lists had he not taken a three-year break from the NHL.
FIRST PERIOD: Despite their young talent, Oilers’ problems run deep
Dallas Eakins thought he knew what he was getting into. When the Edmonton Oilers hired him as coach in June, they had missed the playoffs seven straight years, finishing 25th, 19th, 21st, 30th, 30th, 29th and 24th in the 30-team NHL. The losing had led to high draft picks. The high draft picks had led to young talent. That had led to a mix of impatience and increased expectations.
“I knew it was going to be a challenge coming in, with the experience of the team and the expectations down the road,” said Eakins, who was a hot name because of his work with young players with the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies. “I knew there was going to be some pain involved. I did not think that it would be this big. I didn’t think we’d be this far down in the standings right now.”
The Oilers are headed toward their eighth straight season out of the playoffs, the longest drought in the NHL. They are 29th in the league. General manager Craig MacTavish made a couple of trades Wednesday, sending goalie Devan Dubnyk to the Nashville Predators for forward Matt Hendricks, then acquiring goalie Ben Scrivens from the Los Angeles Kings for a third-round pick. But the moves hardly inspire hope.
Dubnyk was done in Edmonton, his confidence shot. Scrivens had a .931 save percentage in L.A., third-best in the NHL. But like Dubnyk, Scrivens is a pending unrestricted free agent, so he’ll have to be re-signed. He also has only 51 games of NHL experience, and he goes from the best defensive team in the league to the worst. Will he stay in Edmonton, and how will he look if he does?
[Related: Oilers acquire goaltender Ben Scrivens from Kings]
Hendricks brings elements the Oilers need – experience, character, grit, defense, faceoff prowess. But he turned them down in free agency last summer and signed a four-year, $7.4 million deal with the Predators. Now he’s headed to Edmonton because the Predators cut bait after only 44 games. He’s 32. He has four points this season. He has terrible possession numbers, too. If he can regain his form and fill a role, his $1.85 million hit won’t be bad, especially with the cap about to rise. But if he stays at this level or declines further, yikes.
MacTavish took over for Steve Tambellini in April. He added players like defensemen Andrew Ference and forwards Boyd Gordon and David Perron in the offseason. But the problems still run deep. The Oilers have skill. But they can’t use their skill when they don’t have the puck, and they don’t have the puck enough. They can’t sustain pressure in the offensive zone. They give up the puck too easily and turn it over too much. They get hemmed in the defensive zone.
Talk to Eakins about the short term, and the long-term issues are obvious. “We need more offensive zone time,” he said. “The best way for our team to play defense is to not be in our zone, because we’re not that big, we’re not that heavy, we’re not that experienced with our blue line.”
MacTavish needs to do more than handle pending UFAs like Ilya Bryzgalov, Ales Hemsky, Ryan Jones, Nick Schultz and Ryan Smyth. He needs to decide if the young core of Jordan Eberle, Sam Gagner, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Justin Schultz and Nail Yakupov should be tweaked. If he moves a piece, he better get a strong return. The youngsters need to learn and improve their all-around games, but they can’t do it alone. They need more mentors and a far stronger supporting cast.
[Also: Devan Dubnyk dealt to Predators in exchange for Matt Hendricks]
The Oilers probably need another goalie. They have two top prospects on defense – Darnell Nurse (drafted seventh overall in 2013) and Oscar Klefbom (19th overall, 2011) – but they badly need help on the blue line. They need better depth and more size up front.
Ference left the Boston Bruins as a free agent last summer after winning a Stanley Cup and going to another final. He signed a four-year, $13 million contract with his hometown team. He is now the captain. This is what he sees:
“When you have a lot of young players that have experienced a lot of losing over the last couple years, you have to break the cycle at some point,” Ference said. “You have to really examine where the changes are going to happen. The trouble that you can get into is expecting that just time makes everything all right and that eventually you’ll just be good because you age, which isn’t the case. You have to work extremely hard to not only have great skill on your team, but have that commitment to be excellent at defending and excellent at reading danger and all those things. …
“We have the raw talent, but it’s just that extra step of transferring what that raw talent got you through junior and world juniors and those levels. You can dominate. At this level, you can’t dominate with just talent. You have to incorporate those other parts to your game to take it to the next level. That’s where the next big step will happen for this team, when you see that progression to being really complete.”
SECOND PERIOD: No Stanley Cup hangover for the Blackhawks
The Chicago Blackhawks dominated the lockout-shortened schedule last year. They didn’t lose in regulation in their first 24 games. They finished 36-7-5 for 77 points, best in the NHL, and went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Through 48 games this season, the Blackhawks were 30-8-10 for 70 points. A seven-point drop-off ain’t bad when you consider the 2013 team was on a 131-point pace. Now at 30-8-11 for 71 points, this team is still on a 118-point pace.
And here’s the best part for the Blackhawks: Even though they are behind the red-hot Anaheim Ducks and neck-and-neck with the Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues in the NHL standings, the drop-off ain’t even as bad as it looks.
The 2013 Blackhawks went 5-0 in overtime and 6-5 in the shootout. The 2013-14 Blackhawks are 0-5 in overtime and 4-6 in the shootout. There’s seven points right there. The ’Hawks have won only five of their past 12 games, but only one of their losses has come in regulation. Three have come in overtime. Three have come in a shootout.
“I don’t want to say it’s a crapshoot, but we played just as many close games a year ago, and now we haven’t been as good in those overtime games,” said Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman. “I don’t know. We haven’t scored an overtime goal yet, which is really …”
“Explain that one.”
It’s inexplicable. The Blackhawks are one of the best offensive teams in the NHL – full of skill that should excel 4-on-4. Then there’s this: Patrick Kane is 0-for-9 in the shootout. He is 29-for-75 for his career (38.7 percent), ninth among active players.
“It’s weird,” Bowman said. “I don’t know why it is, if it’s a fluke. We’re playing very well. I just think we haven’t been good in the shootouts. I can’t explain that one.”
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Bottom line: The Blackhawks have competition in the standings, but because of other teams' improvements and some lesser luck, not because of any Stanley Cup hangover. They returned with virtually the same roster. They have stayed healthy, and they have stayed fresh.
Last season, teams couldn’t practice much because of restrictions in the new collective bargaining agreement and the compressed schedule. Coach Joel Quenneville found it worked well for his group. Now, especially with several players headed to the Sochi Olympics, he has been giving the team more time off than required.
“The guys like to play games. They don’t like to practice. The coach knows that,” Bowman said. “There’s times when you have to, but we never have to, like, send them a message. Our guys seem like they’re past that point, and as a result, we haven’t practiced a lot.”
Said forward Patrick Sharp: “I think when you’re younger and you go for six, seven, eight days in a row and you get that one day off, you might make some bad decisions and not take care of yourself the way your body needs you to. Veteran players know how to use their time off.”
The Blackhawks know they have a good thing going. They don’t want to waste it.
“I think we’re excited by the fact that we’re defending Stanley Cup champions,” Sharp said. “It’s not every year you get to win the Stanley Cup and have a chance to defend it, and that’s something that we want to take pride in. We didn’t have too much turnover in our roster from the playoffs, so after the short summer we just kind of picked up where we left off.”
THIRD PERIOD: Varlamov has Avalanche firmly in playoff position
Look who’s behind the Ducks (.786), Blues (.767), Penguins (.729) and Blackhawks (.724) in points percentage: the Colorado Avalanche (.685) – the same team that finished second-to-last in the NHL last season.
The Avs started 14-2-0. They came back to earth a bit, as many expected, going 11-9-4 over their next 24 games. But now they’re on another run – 6-1-1 in their past eight – and they’re eight points ahead of the fourth-place Minnesota Wild in the Central Division. They will have to really regress to miss the playoffs at this point.
Though the Avs are one of the worst possession teams in the NHL and need to bolster their blue line, they have a top-10 offense and excellent goaltending. Semyon Varlamov has been seeing rubber and stopping it in the same class as the Buffalo Sabres’ Ryan Miller, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Jonathan Bernier and the Montreal Canadiens’ Carey Price. He has faced 1,048 shots and stopped 92.7 percent of them. He’s 9-0-5 in his past 14 starts.
“Varly’s just been outstanding,” said Avs coach Patrick Roy. “He’s been our best player. He’s giving us a chance to win almost every night.”
Can Varlamov keep it up? Can he at least stay at a high level long enough to get the Avs into the playoffs? His career save percentage is .915. But this is the first time his head coach has been Roy, the Hall of Fame goaltender, and his goalie coach has been Francois Allaire, the butterfly guru. Roy had Varlamov change his glove position from low to high, and Allaire has worked on his technique and patience.
“I can say Patrick and Francois, they do a great job for me,” Varlamov said. “I appreciate it. I feel like I am pretty lucky [to have them]. … We change a couple things in my game. It works right now. We see how it goes later.”
OVERTIME: Roy’s partnership with his players working well so far
A lot of NHL coaches oversee practice. They’ll teach a little bit or bark a little bit, but mostly they’ll stand back and observe while their assistants run things. Not Roy. He’s constantly teaching, constantly whistling with his lips, constantly getting in the middle of things, even during run-of-the-mill drills.
“When you’re coming down and you think you have a free lane to the net, he’s getting in your way so you have to make a move, so nothing comes easy,” said forward Jamie McGinn. “That makes it fun for us as well. He’s involved. He cares and he wants to win, and you can see that. It’s exactly like when he played. The passion’s there.”
The atmosphere around the Avs under Roy is completely different than it was under former coach Joe Sacco. Is that a cause or an effect of winning? Probably a combination of both. Roy has been able to make the transition from former player to player’s coach so far. The Avs players will tell you he can joke around in the dressing room, but be all business during practice and games.
“I know where I come from,” Roy said. “I just try to be myself and enjoy the ride. The first thing I’ve said to our players is, I want to have a partnership with them. I don’t want to be their coach. I want to be someone that the door’s open if they want to talk about anything, and the system is not for me. The system is for them. They need to be comfortable in our system, and they need to ask questions. They need to be involved.”
Asked about putting in the work as a coach after a Hall of Fame playing career, Roy said: “Well, it’s my passion, and I surround myself with passionate people. The guys that I’ve been working with, they love the game, they’re passionate about the game. They work extremely hard, and we’ve got a good group.”
SHOOTOUT: Notes from around the NHL
— The Ducks are ridiculous. They’re 18-1-0 in their past 19 games and 20-0-2 this season at home. Now it’s time for a test, a chance to shine in the spotlight. They visit Chicago on Friday night, then St. Louis on Saturday night. They come home to host the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday night, then it’s back-to-back with the Kings – Thursday night at home, then Jan. 25 at Dodger Stadium.
— The Maple Leafs have won three in a row. But they have the same underlying problems, and they go beyond coach Randy Carlyle. The Leafs are a poor possession team and have valued grit over skill. General manager Dave Nonis is signed to a long-term contract. Say the Leafs miss the playoffs and Carlyle is fired. Is there any indication Nonis is going anywhere, or that he would build the team differently or hire a different kind of coach?
— Paul Maurice faces a stiff challenge taking over the Jets in midseason. But he’s only 46, has more than 1,000 games of NHL experience and should be a better coach after spending last season with Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the Kontinental Hockey League. It forced him to look at the game in new ways, and it taught him how to relate to foreign players, especially Russians. If he stays in Winnipeg, could the Jets get Alex Burmistrov back?
— Jaromir Jagr is a marvel. The man is 41 – he turns 42 on Feb. 15 – and he’s on his fourth NHL team in three seasons. But he leads the New Jersey Devils in scoring with 38 points, and he has 14 goals. He just passed Mark Messier to move into seventh place on the NHL’s all-time goals list with 695, and he’s seventh on the all-time points list with 1,726. Imagine where he would rank had he not spent three years playing in the KHL. Had he produced at the same rate from 2008-09 to 2010-11 as he has since returning to the NHL, he would have averaged 24 goals and 62 points over full 82-game seasons. He’d have 767 goals, third behind Wayne Gretzky’s 894 and Gordie Howe’s 801. He’d have 1,912 points, second only to Gretzky’s 2,857.