Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s weekly Three Periods column appeared on Thursdays during the regular season. This week’s finale includes the changes that could be coming to the teams that missed the playoffs; how the NHL probably will replace Brendan Shanahan as disciplinarian; why the Red Wings’ 23-season playoff streak might be the most impressive in NHL history; and why the PHWA should not embarrass itself in postseason all-star voting again.
FIRST PERIOD: Now that Mike Gillis is gone, who’s next?
Mike Gillis is out as general manager, Trevor Linden is in as president, and it looks like that will be just the start – in Vancouver and across the NHL. The coming days and weeks should bring a lot of change for teams that missed the playoffs. Here are five to watch:
1. Vancouver Canucks: Linden said the GM search had already begun and would involve internal and external candidates. The internal candidates are assistant GMs Laurence Gilman and Lorne Henning, both of whom are highly regarded. The external candidates likely will include Boston Bruins assistant GM Jim Benning, who just so happens to have played with Linden in Vancouver and helped build the team that beat the Canucks for the 2011 Stanley Cup. Linden said receiving permission to speak to candidates could affect the timing of the decision, and he said he wanted a team that didn’t sacrifice offense by defending well. That last comment doesn’t bode well for coach John Tortorella, who ground down a skilled team this season. The Canucks are 28th in goals per game. Torts has got to go, too, doesn’t he?
[Related: No experience, but Trevor Linden 'ready for challenge' of reviving Canucks]
2. Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs will announce Friday that they have hired NHL executive Brendan Shanahan as the new team president. It remains to be seen how everything will shake out, but this organization needs significant changes – from the front office to the coaching staff to the overall philosophy. The Leafs made the playoffs last season and almost upset the Bruins in the first round, and they got off to a strong start this season. But as the analytics folks predicted, it was fool’s gold. The Leafs don’t possess the puck. They give up tons of shots. They lived on shooting and save percentage, and when those two things regressed, so did the team. That’s on personnel decisions by GM Dave Nonis, and that’s definitely on systems and player usage by coach Randy Carlyle. An epic collapse has left the Leafs out of the playoffs for the eighth time in nine years.
3. Washington Capitals: George McPhee has been the Caps GM since 1997. They made the Cup final in his first season, but they haven’t been out of the second round since. Sniper Alex Ovechkin and coach Bruce Boudreau made the Caps a high-flying, successful and popular team, but failures in the playoffs sparked changes in philosophy and changes in coaches – Boudreau to Dale Hunter to Adam Oates. The Caps haven’t been the same since. Oates has made Ovechkin an elite goal-scorer again but hasn’t been able to solve other problems – and he just called out Ovechkin for quitting on a play defensively and goalie Jaroslav Halak for not wanting to play against his old St. Louis Blues. Ovechkin has his faults, but instead of expecting him to carry the team, the Caps need to surround him with a stronger supporting cast. If McPhee and Oates are fired, they likely will land elsewhere – McPhee as a GM, Oates as an assistant coach specializing in the power play.
4. Nashville Predators: David Poile and Barry Trotz are the only GM and coach the Preds have had since entering the NHL in 1998. They built the franchise literally from the ground up – even picking out the carpet and the nickname of the team. They weathered everything from ownership problems to tight budgets to a flood, and they made the Preds a perennial playoff team, even a top Cup contender at one point. But here’s the problem: They have long wanted to set high standards, and now they aren’t living up to those high standards. The Preds have missed the playoffs two years in a row. Yes, an injury to goalie Pekka Rinne hurt this season. But it might be time for a change – maybe just Trotz, maybe both. Neither would be out of work for long. It would be especially interesting to see if Trotz could do better on a team with more money and more scorers.
[More: Are we witnessing Barry Trotz's lasy days in Nashville?]
5. Carolina Hurricanes: Jim Rutherford has been the GM since 1994, when the team was the Hartford Whalers. The Hurricanes went to the Cup final in 2002 and won the Cup in 2006 under Rutherford, but he reportedly will step down and be replaced by assistant GM Ron Francis, the former captain. Despite high-profile acquisitions like Jordan Staal and Alex Semin and high hopes of contention, the ’Canes have missed the playoffs for five straight seasons. Kirk Muller has not worked out as coach. This group needs a new voice and a new identity.
What about places like Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Long Island? Flames boss Brian Burke has to hire a GM (McPhee?), and the GM will decide on coach Bob Hartley, who might get to stay. The Flames have finished strong and work hard. Dallas Eakins probably has another year with the Oilers, as miserable as they have been, because he was a rookie coach this season and they are so young. If Paul Maurice wants to keep coaching the Jets, the job is his. You wonder if he might want to explore a wide-open market, though. Paul MacLean deserves to keep coaching the Senators. Yes, they underachieved and missed the playoffs, but they overachieved the past two seasons and he was coach of the year last season. Garth Snow deserves to be fired as GM for his handling of Matt Moulson and Thomas Vanek in the trade market, but Islanders owner Charles Wang is fiercely loyal to him.
SECOND PERIOD: Who will replace Brendan Shanahan as NHL disciplinarian?
When the news broke that the Leafs were courting Shanahan, the hiring process accelerated and came to a head Thursday. The NHL could not – and should not – have someone who was going to become a team executive ruling on other teams as the league’s disciplinarian, even if his new team was not going to the playoffs.
Now that Shanahan is joining the Leafs, who will replace him as the league’s disciplinarian for the playoffs and beyond?
It seems unlikely that Kris King or Mike Murphy will move from hockey operations in Toronto to the department of player safety in New York. It seems likely that power will pass to Shanahan’s deputies, the way it did during the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. Murphy took over for Colin Campbell because Campbell’s son Gregory was playing in the series for the Boston Bruins.
The DPS can function as is, at least for now. Stephane Quintal is a former player and the senior guy, and he likely will now make the final calls. Damian Echevarrieta, the vice president of player safety and hockey ops, runs the situation room most nights. He knows the rule book, the precedents and the players’ histories as well as anyone else, if not better than anyone else. The crew is well trained – Brian Leetch, Patrick Burke and company. Leetch has the most famous name and has the most impressive resume as a player, but this is his first season with the DPS and he doesn’t seem to want the big job.
Shanahan tried to set up the department of player safety so it would outlast him. He often spoke about the next person to do the job. He didn’t want to stand in front of the camera to explain suspensions in his first season – that was commissioner Gary Bettman’s idea. He later just did voiceovers without introducing himself. He also had others do them. Even though he made the final call and was accountable for it, he wanted the focus on the process, not the person.
Who will replace Shanahan in the long term? It could be Quintal, but it remains to be seen. There is no heir apparent with Shanahan’s background and skill set.
Bettman and former disciplinarian Colin Campbell approached Shanahan about the job in 2011 for several reasons. Shanahan had what turned out to be a Hall of Fame playing career, and not only did he score 656 goals, he took penalties and got suspended. He played a role in rule changes and played under the new rules. He spoke well and worked hard. He could draw from his experience, communicate clearly with the hockey world and command respect from the public and his peers. It isn’t easy to find anyone willing to take the worst job in hockey, let alone someone like that.
THIRD PERIOD: Why the Red Wings’ playoff streak is so impressive
The Detroit Red Wings’ 23-season playoff streak is only the fifth-longest in NHL history and isn’t even close to the NHL record, but it might be the most impressive playoff streak in league history.
The Montreal Canadiens made the playoffs for 24 consecutive seasons. The St. Louis Blues made it for 25. The Chicago Blackhawks made it for 28. The Boston Bruins made it for 29.
[Related: Daniel Alfredsson's 'selfish decision' last summer pays off in playoffs]
But all of the longer NHL streaks ended before the league introduced the salary cap in 2005-06. The Habs’ 24-season streak ran from 1971-94. The Blues’ streak went from 1980-2004, the Blackhawks’ from 1970-97, the Bruins’ from 1968-96.
The Wings’ streak 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 past nine years. Only one other team has made the playoffs every year of the salary-cap era: the San Jose Sharks.
[Also: 'The Streak' lives as Red Wings qualify for 23rd straight postseason appearance]
The NHL realigned this season and changed the playoff format. You can argue that helped the Wings. They went from the stronger West to the weaker East, and they squeaked into a wild-card spot. It doesn’t matter that they have 91 points and that 91 points would rank eighth in the West, because the Wings played more of their games against Eastern teams. The Wings went 12-10-5 against the West, 26-17-10 against the East.
Still, making the playoffs is making the playoffs – ask the Leafs, who have made it only once in the past nine seasons, all in the East – and the Wings did it despite losing more than 400 man-games to injury, second-most in the league. They went long stretches without top players, including Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. They still don’t have Zetterberg, their captain.
And the scary part? The Wings have developed several young players, including Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco, Riley Sheahan, Luke Glendening and Danny DeKeyser. If the veterans stay healthier next season and the youngsters keep growing – and if GM Ken Holland can clear out some players on expiring contracts and make a move or two – the Wings should be even better. They should have a good chance to extend their streak to 24.
OVERTIME: PHWA voting embarrassment shouldn’t happen again
The Professional Hockey Writers’ Association embarrassed itself last year in the voting for the NHL all-star teams. The writers voted Ovechkin both the first-team right winger and the second-team left winger.
They did it even though the story of Ovechkin’s season – for which they gave him the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player – was that he started scoring again after Oates moved him to the right from the left and dragged the Capitals into the playoffs. The NHL continued to list Ovechkin as a left winger on their website and in their official statistics, but it shouldn’t have mattered.
Many of the writers got it. Too many didn’t.
It should not happen again.
The PHWA has reached an agreement with the NHL. If a writer casts a ballot listing an ineligible player for an award – a forward for the Norris Trophy, a non-rookie for the Calder Trophy, Ovechkin as an all-star center, et cetera – it will be considered “spoiled” and will not be counted.
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The PHWA also has sent a memo to its members informing them that for the purpose of all-star voting, the Sharks’ Joe Pavelski should be considered a left winger, the Blackhawks’ Patrick Sharp should be considered a left winger and Ovechkin, of course, should be considered a right winger. (The Jets’ Dustin Byfuglien can be considered a right winger or a defenseman because he has played both a significant amount.)
If writers have questions about positions, they are supposed to raise them to the PHWA so a group determination can be made. The awards ballots go out Friday.
SHOOTOUT: Notes from around the NHL
— Byfuglien, if you’re wondering, switched from defense to right wing on Jan. 11. He played 46 games on defense, putting up 10 goals and 34 points. He was third in the league in scoring among defensemen at that point. He has played 32 games at right wing, with 10 goals and 22 points, but he moves back to the blue line in 4-on-4 situations. The NHL still lists him as a defenseman on his bio and third among defensemen in scoring in the stats. This is the biggest potential screw-up in the voting, if writers just look at the scoring leaders. If only because he has played about half the season at each position, Byfuglien should not be an all-star at either one.
— The Sharks will face the Los Angeles Kings in the first round. That means a top Cup contender will be eliminated right off the bat. But is that because of the new playoff format or because the West is just so stacked? If the playoffs started today under the old format, seeding the top eight teams in each conference, the Sharks would play the defending champion Blackhawks.
— Who would have thought that in the final days of the season only two teams would be fighting for a playoff spot – the Dallas Stars and Phoenix Coyotes? They meet Sunday night in Phoenix in the last game on the NHL schedule, No. 1,230.
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