This week’s Three Periods column by Nicholas J. Cotsonika: Adam Oates’ Jack Adams argument; Bruins’ struggles down the stretch; Shane Doan’s sales pitch for Coyotes; what is really impossible about Wings’ 21-season playoff streak; plus, the cost of Sidney Crosby’s injuries and the overlooked story of Martin St-Louis.
FIRST PERIOD: Ovechkin for MVP, Oates for coach of the year
If not for Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals would not have made the playoffs. He scored 21 goals in 19 games as they went 15-3-1 and clinched their division. He drew “M-V-P!” chants Tuesday night in D.C.
“He’s pulled us along,” said Capitals coach Adam Oates, “and all 20 guys have gotten better because of it.”
But if not for Oates, the Great Eight would not be great again. Oates pulled Ovechkin along, and all 20 guys got better along the way. Oates deserves the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year whether Ovechkin wins the Hart Trophy or not, for putting Ovechkin back in the discussion and turning the Capitals around dramatically under the circumstances.
Coaching is about getting the most out of the talent you have, whether it’s helping elite players live up to their potential or scraping by with spare parts. There are all kinds of Jack Adams candidates this season for all kinds of reasons. The debate among the broadcasters who vote for the Jack Adams might be even more contentious than it is among the writers who vote for the Hart.
Michel Therrien brought back the Montreal Canadiens after a disastrous 2011-12 on and off the ice. Bruce Boudreau of the Anaheim Ducks, Randy Carlyle of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Jack Capuano of the New York Islanders also led their teams back into the playoffs this season. Mike Yeo of the Minnesota Wild was on the verge entering Thursday night, and Todd Richards of the Columbus Blue Jackets still had a shot.
Joel Quenneville’s Chicago Blackhawks didn’t lose a game in regulation the first half of the season and clinched the Presidents’ Trophy for the league’s best record. Dan Bylsma’s Pittsburgh Penguins won the East despite injuries to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and more. Paul MacLean’s Ottawa Senators were on the verge of a playoff spot entering Thursday night despite injuries to their best players, and Mike Babcock’s Detroit Red Wings had a chance to extend their playoff streak to 22 seasons despite heavy personnel losses.
Oates separated himself in a competitive, lockout-shortened season because he faced the most difficult challenge – rookie coach, six days of camp, no exhibitions, new system, slumping superstar, high expectations – and he emerged from the mess quicker than expected. He did it with pure coaching: motivation, ego management, X’s and O’s. He did it on the fly.
[Related: Why the Hart Trophy should go to NHL's MOP, not MVP]
The Capitals started 2-8-1. Ovechkin wasn’t scoring. Not only that, Ovechkin had asked not to be moved to right wing, and he went back to left wing on a line with grinders Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb for a while. At best, it looked like Oates needed time. At worst, it looked like a disaster.
In the end, Oates didn’t need much time at all, considering the circumstances, and he showed remarkable progression.
Oates didn’t panic. He stayed relentlessly positive, knowing the Capitals had gone through enough negativity. After Boudreau went defensive and Dale Hunter went even more defensive in previous years, Oates swung the pendulum back to the middle and installed a more aggressive, more sophisticated puck-pursuit system. He earned Ovechkin’s trust instead of demanding Ovechkin earn his, and he got him to buy into the switch to right wing. He fixed the power play.
The Capitals don’t sit back now; they skate. Ovechkin isn’t as predictable anymore; he touches the puck more often and is more involved. Entering Thursday night, the power play ranked first in the NHL. Ovechkin ranked first in the league with 16 power-play goals and first in the league with 31 goals overall – a 55-goal pace over an 82-game schedule. He had a career-low seven power-play goals and a career-low 32 goals in 2010-11. He had 13 and 38 last season.
“He’s played great the last couple months,” Oates said, “as we’ve talked about his willingness to change positions for the team and for what I think will make him a better player.”
Of course, Ovechkin needs to play great the next couple of months. The goal is the Stanley Cup, not the Hart Trophy, not the Jack Adams Award, and as soon as the playoffs start, the conversation will shift to that again.
But for Ovechkin to get to where he wants to go and for the Capitals to contend for the Cup, Ovechkin had to get back to where he was and the Capitals had to make the playoffs first. And at least the Capitals are preparing to win with their captain and highest-paid player in the playoffs, not in spite of him.
Boudreau and Hunter each took the Caps as far as the second round by doing things their way. Hunter took them within a game of the Eastern Conference final last season. But playing too wide open or sitting back too much or using Ovechkin too little wasn’t going to get them too far. They had to find a balance. Oates seems to be finding it.
SECOND PERIOD: Can the Bruins flip the switch in the playoffs?
Claude Julien is sick and tired of his Boston Bruins looking soft and tired. He has scratched power forward Milan Lucic in a desperate attempt to get him going. He has benched players for parts of games, pulled his goaltender, ranted, raved.
After a 5-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night, the Bruins were 1-4-1 in their past six games with three to go. Julien said they weren’t ready to play – and openly wondered whether they would be ready for the playoffs.
“We are running out of time here to get this stuff going,” Julien said. “You always hope it’s some sort of wakeup call. But the way the season’s gone, you question whether it will or not. Only time will tell.”
Two problems: the schedule and the attitude.
The Bruins had a light schedule early, and they have had a heavy schedule late. Three postponements – one for weather, two because of the Boston Marathon bombings – have exacerbated the problem.
They played seven games the first 23 days of February. They played 31 games in 59 days afterward, and now they finish with three games in four nights. The NHL season was supposed to end Saturday, but the Bruins have to make up a game with the Ottawa Senators on Sunday.
Zdeno Chara looked particularly lethargic and sloppy in Philly, and he is the captain, and this is what he told reporters: “We were obviously tired.” Not what the coach wants to hear. Asked if he should rest Chara, Julien went off again.
“Let’s stay away from excuses, because it’s not going to work,” Julien said. “Excuses is a lot of B.S. right now. We have to take responsibility and quit hiding behind those excuses, because it is a load of crap.”
The Bruins won three seven-game series in 2011 and won the Stanley Cup. They know they can respond when the pressure is on, and they know they are capable of winning a championship. This is a deep, balanced, experienced team. Jaromir Jagr was a great addition at the trade deadline.
But the Bruins also lost a seven-game series in the first round last year. Are they flipping the switch or flipping a coin?
“We need a wakeup call mentally, and we need to be willing to do the stuff that gave us success,” Julien said. “Right now we have it sometimes, but we don’t have it all the time.”
THIRD PERIOD: What now for Shane Doan and the Coyotes?
With a lockout looming in September, Shane Doan had to make a decision.
Doan had been with the Phoenix Coyotes his entire career, moving with the franchise from Winnipeg in 1996, and loved living and playing in Arizona. The Coyotes were coming off a trip to the Western Conference final. It looked like the ownership situation would finally be settled. Despite interest from several other teams, he decided to stay and signed a four-year deal.
The Coyotes have missed the playoffs for the first time in four years. Contracts are up for GM Don Maloney, coach Dave Tippett and goaltender Mike Smith. The ownership situation still isn’t settled, and relocation remains a possibility.
“I’m a big boy,” Doan said. “I made my own decision. Hopefully it’ll be able to work out.”
Doan has been through too much to get too excited about interest from ownership groups anymore. He understands if the uncertainty bothers others.
“It’s hard to get people to sign with the team when they’re not sure where they’re going to be, as wonderful as it is to play in Phoenix,” Doan said. “It’s tough to sell anybody without a commitment by ownership.
“Everyone wants to have a little bit of clarity of where they’re going to be next year. I don’t care what you’re doing in life. In every avenue of work, if you’re not sure where you’re going to be next year, it’s hard to find those people that are going to stay committed.”
But Doan remains committed.
Doan said he has heard there are “three or four different groups that are in the process or close to buying the team.” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said there is “a lot more interest than we’ve ever seen.”
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Though it remains to be seen what those groups have on the table and whether one will reach an arena lease deal with the city of Glendale, Doan has helped them do their due diligence and will continue to do so.
“I tell them what I honestly believe,” Doan said.
And what’s that?
“I believe it’ll work in Phoenix,” he said. “I believe that there’s an opportunity. The situation we’ve been in the last three or four years, you can’t find a probably worse situation to run a professional sports franchise, and yet we’ve found a way to have enough success that it could work.
“People come from the north and down to the south for the winters, and they still want to watch hockey and be part of it. We sell out X amount of games a year because of that. If you ever had any type of stable ownership that could put a team in place that was stable and had a chance for everyone to get behind, I think we’d be one of the stable franchises – and staple franchises – of the league. But …”
“Obviously people can laugh at that and kinda make fun of that with the situation we’re in,” he said. “It’s just what I think.”
OVERTIME: Is the Wings’ 21-season playoff streak really impossible to match?
Babcock called it “impossible.” Some readers balked at that, pointing out the Wings’ streak isn’t even close to the NHL record. How can 21 seasons be impossible when the Canadiens went 21 and 24, the St. Louis Blues went 25, the Blackhawks went 28 and the Bruins went 29?
Well, Babcock used the word “impossible” because of the parity in pro sports today. The Wings hold the longest active streak in the NHL, NBA, NFL or MLB – all of which have some drag on salaries.
All of the longer NHL streaks ended before the league introduced the salary cap in 2005-06. The Habs’ 21-season streak went from 1949-69, their 24-season streak from 1971-94. The Blues’ streak went from 1980-2004, the Blackhawks’ from 1970-97, the Bruins’ from 1968-96.
But don’t get hung up on one word. Change it to “impressive” or “incredible” if you want instead. What is truly impossible is comparing eras in the NHL, let alone eras across pro sports.
The NHL has some parallel to the NBA in structure, but not to the NFL or MLB. In the NHL alone, there have been many alignments, expansions and playoff formats over the years, and these streaks stretch across them to varying degrees.
[More: Secondary ticket market trolls Maple Leafs with $19,670 ducats]
What is – let’s use the word “interesting” – about the Wings’ streak is that it has been harder to sustain the longer it has lasted.
It began in 1990-91, when the NHL was a 21-team league and 16 teams made the playoffs – the top four in each of the four divisions. It continued as the NHL grew into a 30-team league with six divisions and two conferences, with the top eight in each conference making the playoffs.
Though the Wings were strong while expansion diluted the talent, 16 teams still made the playoffs and the talent evened out as time went on, lengthening the odds. The salary cap accelerated that. The most impressive part of the Wings’ streak is the last seven years. Only one other team has made the playoffs every year of the salary-cap era: the San Jose Sharks.
Will such a long playoff streak be impossible in the future? Impossible to say.
Even if you assume the salary cap and parity are here to stay, the NHL is realigning and changing the playoff format again next season. There will be four divisions again, and the top four teams in each division will make the playoffs – with a wild-card caveat if a fifth-place team has a better record than a fourth-place team within a conference. The NHL could expand again and realign again in the coming years. Who knows how it will play out?
So appreciate the Wings’ streak for what it is – the longest now, though not the longest ever; incredible, though not impossible; amazing, all things considered.
SHOOTOUT: Last shots from around the NHL
— It’s a shame for Sidney Crosby. The Pittsburgh Penguins captain held the NHL scoring lead for 24 days after he suffered a broken jaw, only to lose it Wednesday night. He will lose the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s scoring champion for the second time in his career because of injury, and he might lose the Hart Trophy for the second time because of injury, too. He was the runaway leader for both in 2010-11 before he suffered a concussion halfway through the season.
— It’s a shame for Martin St-Louis and Steven Stamkos, too, in a sense. St-Louis’ 58 points passed Crosby. Stamkos’ 56 points tied Crosby. But if one of them wins the Art Ross, it will come with an unofficial asterisk because everyone knows it likely would have been Crosby’s, and neither will contend for the Hart because the Tampa Bay Lightning is so far out of the playoff picture.
— St-Louis should be a much bigger story. He is playing at the highest level at 37 years old. Great quote from earlier this year: “I feel good out there. I don’t know what you’re supposed to feel like at 37, you know? This is my first time.” It will be his first time turning 38 on June 18, too.
— Los Angeles Kings captain Dustin Brown deserved his two-game suspension for elbowing the Minnesota Wild’s Jason Pominville, and to be sure, it gives him a record and will make him a repeat offender if he screws up again. But the NHL might have done him a favor. He gets a nice little two-game breather before the playoffs. Don’t say the Kings needed Brown to fight for home ice in the first round, even if they are struggling on the road this season. They won the Cup as an eighth seed last year.
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