Three Periods: Iginla worth wait for Bruins; the Vanek effect; Bolts keeping Callahan?

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo SportsApril 3, 2014
Three Periods: Iginla worth wait for Bruins; the Vanek effect; Bolts keeping Callahan?

Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s weekly Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week’s topics include how Jarome Iginla, Thomas Vanek and Ryan Callahan have adjusted to their new teams this season; Canucks GM Mike Gillis hinted at a power struggle in Vancouver; and, three members of Team Canada whose stock rose in Sochi.

FIRST PERIOD: One year after spurning Bruins, Iginla is excelling in Boston

It was only a year ago that Jarome Iginla decided not to join the Boston Bruins. He had a no-trade clause in his contract, and so he had a choice when the Calgary Flames reached a deal with the Bruins before the deadline. He went to the Pittsburgh Penguins instead to chase his first Stanley Cup.

“It’s funny how it works itself out,” said Bruins winger Milan Lucic, smiling. “There might have been a jab here or there [at first]. But we all respect him for who he is and what he he’s done as a hockey player over the last 17 years, so we were happy to have him.”

It has worked out well for Iginla and Boston this season, at least. Iginla made the Eastern Conference final with the Penguins last year, only to be swept by the Bruins. Would the Bruins have beaten the Chicago Blackhawks in the Cup final with Iginla instead of Jaromir Jagr, their Plan B acquisition? Who knows? There were no hard feelings last summer when Iginla signed a one-year, $6 million contract with the Bruins as a free agent, and now Iginla is a reason the Bruins have an excellent shot at the Cup again.

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Iginla, 36, has fit in perfectly as the right winger on the first line with Lucic and David Krejci, replacing Nathan Horton, who left as a free agent for the Columbus Blue Jackets. He has been one of the hottest players in the NHL down the stretch, with 11 goals and 13 points in his past 12 games and 15 goals and 25 points in his past 22 contests. The Bruins are nine points better than the next-best team in the East – you guessed it, the Penguins.

“It’s been as fun as I could have hoped for,” Iginla said.

Not that it has been easy.

The Bruins seemed to be the best fit for Iginla all along, because he fit their identity – a power forward on the big, bad Bruins – and slotted into his natural position. The Penguins played him at left wing on the third line for the most part. He never really got the chance to play with Sidney Crosby like he did at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, when Crosby shouted “Iggy!” and he made the pass and Crosby scored the golden goal.

Still, Iginla was not used to change. The Dallas Stars traded him to the Flames before he broke into the NHL. He spent 16 seasons with Calgary – his entire NHL life – and then bounced to the Penguins to the Bruins in a matter of months.

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“I’ve talked to guys who have been traded and buddies,” Iginla said. “They say it takes a little while. You think, ‘Wow. Really? You know what? It’s hockey. It’s hockey, you go out there, it’s the same.’ But it does.”

Iginla talked about settling the family, learning the route to the rink, finding things in the dressing room. Once you handle off-ice stuff, you have more energy for on-ice stuff – and there is lots of on-ice stuff.

“When you’re playing a lot of different systems, you’d be surprised how much you go to the wrong spot or you forget,” Iginla said. “ ‘Was I supposed to put my stick on this side to take away this pass or that pass?’ … Maybe I’d be coming across and I should be staying wide. … The game happens so quick that you can’t really double-clutch to look, ‘OK, I think I see him. Yeah, that’s him.’ … Everybody plays so different. It’s surprising, but we all play so different.”

Iginla – traditionally a slow starter, anyway – didn’t score in his first eight games for Boston. He had only five goals and 14 points through his first 29 games. He went six games without a point as recently as mid-January. But coach Claude Julien kept the top line intact, and Iginla began to heat up in late January. His totals: 30 goals, 61 points. He has scored at least 30 goals in each of the past 12 full seasons (and he scored 28 and 29 goals in the two seasons before that.)

“He’s got that great shot,” Lucic said. “He’s been a great addition when it comes to that. As a line, we’ve [improved] from the start of the season to now. That’s obviously what you want to do. You want to progress throughout the year, and hopefully we can keep doing that to the end of the year and heading into the playoffs.”

The playoffs. Iginla knows they start in just two weeks. But he doesn’t want to think about them yet, let alone the Stanley Cup, let alone his future. Though he wants to keep playing for years and the Bruins want him back, he’s soaking up this experience as if it’s his last. Why not? The Bruins’ cushion is so comfortable they were able to rest Iginla on Wednesday night. Iginla missed the playoffs 10 times with the Flames. He got past the first round only once, in 2004, when the Flames lost in the Cup final.

“The winning has been the best part,” Iginla said. “It’s a different stress, battling in the standings when you’re trying to finish first as opposed to just hanging in there. It’s a different pressure. It’s fun, too, at this time of year, when you’re battling for a playoff spot. But it’s a nice change.”

SECOND PERIOD: Vanek making impact on his third team in one season

Iginla is on his third team in two seasons. At least he isn’t on his third team in one season like Thomas Vanek, who played 13 games for the Buffalo Sabres, then 47 for the New York Islanders and now has played 13 for the Montreal Canadiens. The pending unrestricted free agent has been traded twice.

Vanek, 30, had a place on Long Island because he was traded early in the season. He doesn’t have a place in Montreal. Meanwhile, his wife, Ashley, has stayed in Buffalo with their three sons – Blake, 6, and twins Luka and Kade, 3. She brings the boys to visit when she can.

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“I mean, I have it easy,” Vanek said. “I’m on my own. I’m in hotels. I’m eating out. She’s having the tough part to stay home and try to keep them happy.”

He laughed a little.

“Hopefully, I’ll never have to do this again,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of friends, which is nice. I’ve met a lot of good people. It’s just hard. If I were single, if I had kids who were not in school, this could have been a good experience for all of us. But once your kids are in school and you have multiple [children], it’s not so easy anymore.”

It isn’t Vanek’s fault that Islanders general manager Garth Snow made two puzzling deals – sending Matt Moulson and first- and second-round picks to Buffalo for Vanek, then acquiring a prospect and second-rounder from the Canadiens for Vanek and a fifth-rounder.

Vanek produced 17 goals and 44 points in those 47 games with the Islanders. But they fell out of contention, and he didn’t sign an extension, wanting to test the market this summer. (The Canadiens want to re-sign him, too, but the speculation has long been that he favors the Minnesota Wild. He played in the USHL for the Sioux Falls Stampede and in the NCAA for the University of Minnesota. We’ll see what happens when the offers roll in.) He said he thought he was on a great line with John Tavares and Kyle Okposo. He raved about Tavares.

“He’s an even better person off the ice than he is on the ice,” Vanek said. “That I value more than anything, than his skill set on the ice. I thought it was fun playing with him. I told him when I left, he’s not the reason that I didn’t want to stay. He understood.”

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Vanek started out on a line with Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta with the Canadiens, then shifted to a line with David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty. It has taken some getting used to, maybe more for his teammates. He uses his 6-foot, 217-pound frame, holds onto the puck and dishes it at the last minute, catching people off-guard at times. But he has six goals and 11 points in these 13 games, and he’s headed to the playoffs.

“I think we’re getting better every game,” Vanek said. “I think the way I see the ice and I play the game, it’s just for me to talk to them a lot and let them know what I see. I think as long as they agree and they don’t mind – which they don’t seem to – I can make them better players, and they can make me a hell of a lot better, too.”

THIRD PERIOD: Could Callahan end up staying in Tampa Bay?

When the Tampa Bay Lightning acquired Ryan Callahan at the deadline, the word was that GM Steve Yzerman would not re-sign him. Callahan’s demands were too rich for the New York Rangers, whose final offer was six years, $36 million. If he still wanted more than that, his demands would be too rich for the Bolts, too.

But now Yzerman is saying he wants to keep Callahan and will talk to him about an extension after the season. Is he willing to come up? Does he think Callahan will come down? Has this been a better fit than the Lightning thought?

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Acquiring Callahan was convenient. Martin St-Louis wanted out and wanted to go to the Rangers specifically; Callahan and the Rangers were in a stalemate. St-Louis and Callahan were both captains and right wingers, even if they were different types. So Yzerman shipped St-Louis to New York for Callahan, a first-round pick and a second-rounder that becomes a first-rounder if the Rangers make the conference final. (If he signs Callahan, the Lightning will swap its second-rounder in 2015 for the Rangers’ seventh-rounder.)

But Callahan also had an element the Lightning lacked on the NHL roster and in the pipeline – a bleep-you attitude in the dressing room, a net-front presence on the power play.

“I think that’s a big reason we went for him, because we needed that,” said coach Jon Cooper. “Regardless of who we were trying to pull out of the Rangers in that trade, that was the type of player we needed. I think if you look at us moving forward and some of the players we’re probably going to get in next year – more skill and maybe a little bit more perimeter – to have guys like Callahan …”

Cooper’s voice trailed off. You can fill in the blanks.

Callahan, 29, is not going to win the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer, as St-Louis did last season. But he has six goals and 10 points in 14 games for the Lightning – three of his goals on the power play – and he’s a heart-and-soul defender, a guy who will backcheck and block shots and do whatever needs to be done to win.

“Coming in, I was just continuing to try to play the way I play and not change that,” Callahan said. “The adjustment’s been pretty good. I think the biggest thing is the organization and the players in the room have welcomed me and made it an easy transition. So far it’s been pretty good.”

OVERTIME: Gillis hints at a power struggle in Vancouver

“I’m not sure if I’ll be back next season.”

That was the headline quote from Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis’ interview with Team 1040 on Thursday. It was surprising in terms of frankness, but not in terms of fact.

Gillis should not be sure if he’ll be back. After coming within a win of the Stanley Cup in 2011, the Canucks have lost in the first round twice and will miss the playoffs this season, and they have been consumed by drama – most notably the Roberto Luongo gong show. The question is whether Gillis goes, or coach John Tortorella goes, or both. They have four years and $8 million left on their contracts. Each.

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But the deeper question is what has been going on behind the scenes between ownership and management and between management and the coach. Gillis talked about moving goal posts but did not specify who had moved them, how they had moved them or why. He said he had a “clear vision” for how the Canucks would win the Cup, same as always. He said he wanted an up-tempo, puck-possession style. He said he wanted to get back to that.

So, among other things, did the Aquilini family force him to hire Tortorella or heavily influence him to do so? Is Tortorella’s defensive approach a large part of the problem and does Torts have to commit to change to keep his job? Do the Aquilinis need to share Gillis’ vision if they are going to keep Gillis as GM? Or is this all desperate spin?

Here’s what the GM had to say:

“The running of this team is my responsibility, and I really feel over the last couple of seasons we’ve chased goal posts that have been moving and got away from our core principles of how I want this team to play and how we want to perform and the tempo that we want to play with,” Gillis told Team 1040. “People love to pick someone to blame, but the reality is, as an organization, we’ve deviated from some of the things that made us successful and some of the things that I know will be successful. We’re going to get back to those levels. We’re going to get back to that style of play that we started six years ago. We have the personnel to do it, and we just have to be committed and have the guts to be able to carry it out. …

“Six years ago, everyone thought Alain Vigneault couldn’t change from a defensive-style coach to an offensive-style coach. If given the resources and the players are committed to it, I think any coach can coach the team that he has. But having said that, our problems are far-reaching, and they will be addressed. If people don’t want to get onside with how I view this team and how it’s supposed to play, then they won’t be here.”

SHOOTOUT: Notes from around the NHL

— According to one NHL executive, three members of Team Canada raised their stock significantly at the Sochi Olympics: Chris Kunitz, Jamie Benn and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Kunitz started slowly and his line didn’t put up big numbers, but he improved as the tournament went on and showed how much of the heavy lifting he does for Crosby. Benn was not invited to the orientation camp in August but showed how well he could perform with elite players. Vlasic showed how solid he can be at the highest level.

— Vlasic likely will get little love for the Norris Trophy, but he has been one of the NHL’s best defensive defensemen this season. He has only five goals and 24 points in 77 games for the San Jose Sharks. He doesn’t play much on the power play, but he kills penalties for a top-10 unit. He takes on tough assignments at even strength and has some of the best possession numbers in the league.

— Canadiens defenseman Douglas Murray was suspended three games for an illegal check to the head of Lightning defenseman Mike Kostka. It was an open-and-shut case. Murray clearly picked the head. It was also the NHL’s first suspension for an illegal check to the head since Jan. 6. The league has handed out 10 this season, but only six since October. The league handed out 13 in 2011-12, the league’s last full season.