Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s weekly Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week’s topics include NHL security at the Sochi Olympics; how Patrick Kane is among the scoring leaders without an elite centerman; why Jay Bouwmeester has gone from Olympic snub to Olympic lock; and what Ken Hitchcock did when Bob Hartley tried to start something.
FIRST PERIOD: NHL brings own security to Sochi, players worry about families
The NHL will bring its own security to the Sochi Olympics. The ability to do so was among the items the league negotiated with the International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation last year before it committed to participation.
The league will not provide details. But obviously this will be a small supplement to the massive force already in place, and the league has little to no control over what will happen at a huge gathering in a volatile part of the world.
“There’s only so much you can do when it comes to security at an Olympic event,” wrote NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly in an email. “At the end of the day, we have to rely on the organizing committee, the Russian government and the IOC to ensure a safe environment for our athletes and guests.”
NHL officials and players have not been deterred from going to Sochi themselves, despite recent bombings in the region, direct threats to these Games and news that terrorists might be there already.
“We are being briefed on a regular basis,” Daly wrote. “There’s certainly a level of concern, but I can’t say that it’s been heightened by recent events. I would also say that we have been given no reason to doubt that everything possible is being and will be done to keep the Games safe.”
But a number of players have decided not to bring their families. Though they feel reasonably safe because they will be inside the Olympic Village and venues, they feel less certain about their loved ones. They don’t want to be distracted by worrying about them.
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Anaheim Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf will not bring his wife and children to watch him play for Team Canada.
“That was a family decision, when it came down to it,” Getzlaf said. “It was hard. But the whole situation over there, isn’t good for young kids.”
Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith and his wife have two children and another child on the way. His family won’t be going to watch him play for Team Canada.
“I just think it’s not worth it,” Smith told reporters this week. “From everything I’ve heard, the Olympic Village will be very secure. Once we’re over there, I’m sure everything will be fine. But obviously with what’s gone on there leading up to the Olympics, there’s always some concern.”
Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron’s family went to Vancouver to watch him play for Team Canada in 2010. His family is staying home this time.
“I’ve got to say security is part of it,” Bergeron told the Boston Herald. “It actually blows my mind that people could consider attacking the Olympics. It’s sad that it comes to that. It’s such an honor for athletes and such a great event. You work so hard to get there. It’s sad that this could happen. …
“I don’t know if anything could change my mind. You obviously don’t want to hear about anything happening. That’s the last thing you want to hear. But I feel like the security over there is going to handle it. I’m sure the Olympic Village is going to be very secure. So right now, I feel OK.”
SECOND PERIOD: Kane raising his game without an elite centerman
Patrick Kane ranks fourth in NHL scoring with 58 points, and he’s on pace for 36 goals and 91 points, both of which would be career highs. The Chicago Blackhawks star has always had some of the sickest hands in the game, and his skill trumps his 5-foot-11, 181-pound size now more than ever before.
“A lot of guys in this league, they get the puck on their stick, and their heart rate goes up,” said Edmonton Oilers coach Dallas Eakins. “And when he has it on his stick, it just seems like he’s even more calm and cool. He rarely makes a mistake in the offensive zone. Everything he does, the puck lands flat. It never bounces. It’s right on the guy’s tape. He’s an amazing guy to watch.”
“When he first came in the league, you had a 50-50 chance of maybe pushing him out of the competition a little bit,” said St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. “You can’t do it now. You’re not going to push him out. … In his own way, he’s as competitive as anybody in the National Hockey League. He does it with the puck. He’s just so determined with the puck, and so you have to negate him with positional play.”
Hitchcock compared Kane to Wayne Gretzky: He won’t run you over. But if you overpursue the puck, he will burn you.
Kane has produced as a right winger without an elite centerman. He has played with the Blackhawks’ other top forwards on the power play – Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews – and put up nine of his goals and 22 of his points on the PP. But he has put up 14 goals and 36 points at even strength playing with a mishmash of guys, including centers Michael Handzus, Brandon Pirri and Andrew Shaw. He hasn’t played with Toews at even strength since October, when coach Joel Quenneville put together a first line of Sharp, Toews and Hossa.
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“Look at all of the top scorers in the league, and you see a lot of twosomes,” said Sharp, listing himself and Toews, Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, and Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. “Everybody’s got their guy that they feed off. We’re all good players in this locker room, so I’m not ripping on anybody. But Kaner’s one of those guys that’s going to find a way to get it done whether his line is producing, whether he’s not feeling good. Whatever the excuse may be, he’s going to find a way to put up points.”
One knock on the Blackhawks has been the lack of a good No. 2 center. But they won the Stanley Cup last year with Handzus in that spot, and Kane lets them get away with it. He has played center before, and he plays almost a hybrid of wing and center that accentuates his strengths and covers his weaknesses. He can carry the puck up ice, roam in the offensive zone and make plays, while the center focuses on defense and handles faceoffs.
“I’ve pretty much played with everyone on the team,” Kane said. “I don’t think it’s unrealistic to ask for that. Especially with how much coverage the top line demands, you’re going to be facing third and fourth D-men or fifth and sixth on some shifts. Try to take advantage of that, too.”
THIRD PERIOD: Bouwmeester’s back with Team Canada and the Blues
Jay Bouwmeester is the same smooth-skating, minute-munching, 6-foot-4 defenseman he always was. So how did he go from being left off Team Canada for the 2010 Olympics to being a lock this time? How did he go from struggling with the Calgary Flames to excelling with the Blues?
Bouwmeester played for Team Canada in 2006, but the Canadians didn’t win a medal. He was traded by the Florida Panthers to Calgary in 2009, just as the Flames were starting to crumble. His reputation suffered. His numbers suffered. Both continued to suffer in 2010-11 and 2011-12.
But then he stood out to the Team Canada brass at the 2012 world championships, killing penalties, shutting down top players on the big ice. “He was a great player,” Hitchcock said. “That’s what impressed everybody.”
And then he was traded to the Blues last season. It wasn’t easy at first, but he paired up with Alex Pietrangelo, adjusted to the Blues’ style and made the playoffs for the first time in his NHL career.
“Our coaches preach making plays from the back end – skating with pucks, being confident when you have the puck to make the best play possible and not just make it somebody else’s problem,” said Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. “I think initially when he came here he wasn’t used to that, and you saw him not really fit into the system right away. But I think over the past few months, he’s really embraced that, and I think that’s why he’s flourishing.”
“There’s more emphasis on keeping the puck and moving the puck,” Bouwmeester said. “We have a good group of forwards that comes back in support. Maybe you don’t spend as much time in your own end, maybe snuff things out before it gets back there. Overall, I’ve enjoyed it here. It’s been a breath of fresh air.”
Bouwmeester has 29 points – on pace for 47, which would be a career high. Hitchcock played down the pairing with Pietrangelo – “Heck, we could play him with [Roman] Polak and he could do the same job,” he said – but he said the Flames had to hold him back because they didn’t have the personnel the Blues do.
“They had no choice,” Hitchcock said. “They couldn’t turn him loose like we are here. If you look at all of his points, they come from him almost looking like a forward at times. He’s at the net, around the net, attacking the net, off the rush. We have the ability because he’s got a partner who can back him up, and he can do that also for (Pietrangelo). We’re constantly turning one of those guys loose all the time.”
OVERTIME: What do you do if you’re in Tortorella’s shoes?
Flames coach Bob Hartley has started his tough guys and sparked a line brawl only once this season – Saturday night, when all hell broke loose in Vancouver. He received a $25,000 fine. Canucks coach John Tortorella received a 15-day suspension for confronting the Flames in a hallway after the first period.
But Hartley tried to start something against the Blues late in a game earlier this season, and Hitchcock avoided trouble. Hartley would throw on his tough guys; Hitchcock would pull off his skilled guys. Hartley would do it again; Hitchcock would do it again.
“There were two shifts at the end where there were no players on the ice,” Hitchcock said. “To be honest with you, it was funnier than hell, because we would say, ‘Change five,’ he’d say, ‘Change five,’ and everybody’d just leave the puck. It looked like mini hockey. The puck would stay out there. … When it’s like that, what he’s trying to do is keep the emotion of his team going, and I’m just trying to get the safety of my players looked after.”
Tortorella had no business going anywhere near the Flames’ dressing room, even if he had a history with Hartley dating to the minor leagues – especially when he had a whole period to calm down. He crossed a line you cannot cross. He exposed his anger issues yet again. And so he’s paying for it.
But as far as his lineup, it’s too easy to say he should have started his skilled guys. Hartley’s intentions were clear, no matter what he says. Kevin Westgarth was taking the faceoff. Maybe the Flames wouldn’t have gone after the Sedins, but who knows? Can you trust The Code?
“You look like you want to have an advantage, but then you don’t want to see your players hurt,” Hitchcock said. “Most coaches guard on the safety side of things. I don’t know. I’m not sure. I’ve done it both ways, and I’ve got hurt both ways. Not in the NHL, but that was always the deal in junior.”
Hitchcock remembered his early days as an NHL assistant with the Philadelphia Flyers. Before an exhibition game, the Flyers would not count how many NHLers their opponents were dressing.
“We’d count tough guys,” Hitchcock said. “He’s got six? We need seven. He’s got seven? We need eight. And that’s how you dressed your lineup. It’s changed dramatically now, but that’s how you dressed your lineup. Everything’s changed now, but it was scary, and exhibition games were scary. It’s not like that anymore, but I think you’re always worried about, ‘Gee, if I get a guy hurt, that’s on me.’ ”
SHOOTOUT: Notes from around the NHL
— When the NHL fined Hartley, it didn’t reference “player selection” like it did when it fined the Buffalo Sabres’ Ron Rolston after an incident in the preseason. How can you tell a coach whom he can play? Instead, the league referenced By-Law 17.3 (a) for “conduct prejudicial to or against the welfare of the league.” Flames acting GM Brian Burke said he was perplexed by the fine. Again, how can you tell a coach whom he can play? But the NHL used a much better justification this time – and it seems to have wide latitude to discipline coaches. It should use the by-law more often.
— Expect another push to hold teams accountable for the conduct of their players. In 2011, Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux suggested a laddered system of fines to teams for their players’ suspensions. It didn’t go anywhere. But some inside the game want to look at it again – or at least something like it.
— Expect the GMs to discuss expanding video review at their annual March meeting. The NHL was embarrassed Saturday night when the Detroit Red Wings scored a late tying goal on the Los Angeles Kings, after a puck hit the netting above the glass, fell onto the back of goaltender Jonathan Quick and slipped into the net. All four officials missed it, and that’s understandable. Most everyone in the arena lost sight of the puck. But that’s what video review is for – or should be for. Even though replays were clear, hockey ops in Toronto did not have the power to call no goal.
— Credit referee Kyle Rehman for preventing a goalie fight Wednesday night. The Penguins’ Marc-Andre Fleury wanted a piece of the Montreal Canadiens’ Peter Budaj, and Fleury tried to evade Rehman. But Rehman stayed with him and stopped things before they started. Say what you want about Fleury, but he has played well this season. With Tomas Vokoun just returning to the ice after dealing with a blood clot in his pelvis, the Penguins cannot afford an injury to Fleury.
— The NFL stole an idea from the NHL, ditching the conference format for the Pro Bowl and selecting players in a fantasy draft, as the NHL started doing for the All-Star Game in 2011. Now should the NHL follow the NFL’s lead? NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said his league would consider getting rid of extra points, because they are boring and rarely missed. What tradition should the NHL break in the name of adding excitement? Should the NHL consider bigger nets? It seems like sacrilege, but goalies are getting bigger, and making their equipment a little smaller isn’t having a great impact.