Nicholas J. Cotsonika's weekly Three Periods column will appear on Thursdays. This week's topics include the search for the real San Jose Sharks; Marian Hossa’s quick recovery; the Devils and David Clarkson continue to surprise; Lindy Ruff’s legacy in Buffalo; and, the latest on NHL realignment.
FIRST PERIOD: Are the Sharks a great team, an awful team, or somewhere in between?
Who are the San Jose Sharks? Are they the team that started 7-0-0? Are they the team that went 0-4-3 in their next seven? Are they Jekyll, Hyde or somewhere in between?
“I’d like to think that we’re a little closer to the first seven games rather than in the middle, but we have to prove that,” said Sharks coach Todd McLellan on Thursday. “We can guess and speculate and talk about what’s on paper and what we’re supposed to be, but we are what we are when we play. We’re either an efficient team that can be real effective, or we’re inefficient and we lose games. So the next little bit will tell us what we really are.”
It means little that the Sharks snapped their seven-game losing streak Tuesday night with a 2-1 victory in St. Louis. The Sharks scored only two goals, and the Blues were tired after arriving home at 6:30 in the morning.
Let’s see what happens Friday night in Chicago – against a team that has beaten the Sharks twice already this season and hasn’t lost in regulation yet. Let’s see what happens the next night in Dallas and when the Sharks return from this five-game road trip.
It’s easy to see why the Sharks are where they are. They generally have had good goaltending and solid defense. Effort has not been a problem – except perhaps in a 6-2 stinker at Columbus. Their top players were hot early on, especially Patrick Marleau with nine goals in his first five games, and the power play was humming. But then the top players and the power play stalled, and there was little secondary scoring to compensate for it.
Twice, the Sharks allowed no goals in regulation and lost. Once, they allowed one goal in regulation and lost. They lost another game 2-1.
“We’ve just got to score some more goals,” said captain Joe Thornton, who has two points in his past nine games after putting up 14 in his first six. “We play good, tight defense. We feel if we can get three goals a night, we have a good shot at winning.”
McLellan was asked last week if he saw trades coming. He responded by saying everyone needed to worry about their job, including the coaches. That’s reality, and it might be a harsh reality if the Sharks don’t improve soon. This team has too much talent to struggle so badly.
But this team also has the talent to snap out of it. The Sharks entered Thursday night sixth in the West, so they’re still in playoff position. The defense and compete level suggest McLellan is still getting through to his players, and the history of the players suggests they can score more.
The Sharks had two days of practice on the road, a rarity in this lockout-shortened season. McLellan has worked on the even-strength offense and power play – trying to attack from different places, to shoot from different angles, to go to the net without overcrowding the scoring area.
Does McLellan want changes?
“Yes, but I don’t want bodies moving,” McLellan said. “I’d like to trade what we get from one player on one night for what he can really give us.”
In other words, he’d like to trade the Marleau and Thornton from the last eight games for the ones he had in the first seven. He’d like to trade the Ryane Clowe who has zero goals for the one who can make an impact. Go down the list.
“It’s not about sending a guy to wherever and getting another body in,” McLellan said. “How about you give us what you’re capable of giving us? That would be a great trade.
“Our staff as a whole, right from the top on down, there’s pressure on us to perform. Had we not played as well as we did early in the year, I think there’d be a lot of questions about whether this team can do it or not. We did do it.
“Circumstances can change. Teams can catch you a little bit. But I still think this group is capable of performing at that level. And if they don’t? Well, then there’ll be changes. Simple as that.”
SECOND PERIOD: Despite “shaky” feeling and flashbacks, Marian Hossa seems OK
When Marian Hossa took a blow to the back of the head Tuesday night, he had flashbacks. He lay in about the same spot as he had in the playoffs, right in front of the Chicago Blackhawks’ bench, when he was blindsided by the Phoenix Coyotes’ Raffi Torres and suffered a concussion. He felt, as he put it, “shaky.”
But the flashbacks were a good thing, and “shaky” was relative. At least he could have flashbacks. At least he knew what had happened. “I knew it’s not going to be that bad like last time,” Hossa said, “because I didn’t remember last time anything.”
Now that the Vancouver Canucks’ Jannik Hansen was suspended for one game Wednesday and Hossa returned to practice Thursday, the incident, the discipline and the Blackhawks’ concussion protocol are being dissected, and rightly so. But one game seems about right, and the Blackhawks and Hossa aren’t necessarily being careless if Hossa plays Friday night against San Jose.
The incident itself comes down to this: Hansen started out reaching for a flying puck, not to put a forearm into the back of Hossa’s head. Still, he put a forearm into the back of Hossa’s head. It wasn’t malicious, but it was reckless. Hossa left the game; Hansen received a minor for roughing when he could have been penalized for an illegal check to the head. A one-gamer was appropriate.
It gets more complicated when you slow down the replay and pick it apart. The video shows both players putting their hands up for the flying puck. As NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan noted, Hossa keeps his hand open to catch the puck while Hansen turns his arm and closes his fist.
“I’m glad at least one game,” Hossa said. “Hopefully guys learn from it. He said he was reaching for the puck. I don’t buy it, because when you reach for the puck, you don’t hit somebody that hard to the head.”
But you can reach for the puck, then realize you aren’t going to get it because your opponent is in the way, and then stick your arm up reflexively in a split-second, drilling your opponent in the back of the head without even thinking about it. That doesn’t deserve a harsh suspension, but it doesn’t deserve no suspension, either.
Hossa just went through a horrible concussion recovery, and he said he didn’t feel like himself for the first half-hour after the incident. But he said he had no headache or blurred vision, and he had his wits about him.
Asked what he meant by “shaky,” Hossa said: “Well, I mean, when somebody hits you from behind – I don’t know if you’ve experienced it – you feel shaky. I didn’t feel right.”
That seems shaky, especially because the Blackhawks, like some other teams, have been cagey about concussions. Goaltender Corey Crawford returned to practice Thursday and wouldn’t even acknowledge he had a concussion, let alone describe the symptoms.
But you can not feel right and not have a concussion, especially if you just went through what Hossa did and are scared it is happening again. Hossa went through concussion testing Thursday, then practiced and felt good. He said he would go through more testing Friday and see how he feels after the morning skate before deciding whether to play Friday night against the Sharks.
It wouldn’t hurt for him to take at least one game off, just to be safe, just to make sure symptoms don’t surface later. But if he passes all his tests and feels fit to play, should he not play?
“You ask the player, ‘How you doing? Can you play? Do you feel like you’re ready – more than ready?’ ” said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. “I’m sure that’s going to be the criteria – more than ready.”
THIRD PERIOD: David Clarkson delivers for the never-say-die Devils
David Clarkson was supposed to be a fluke. So were the New Jersey Devils. Thirty goals for Clarkson, a guy who was never drafted and had never scored more than 17 before? The Stanley Cup final for the Devils, the sixth seed in the East? How were they going to follow that up this season – especially after losing captain Zach Parise in free agency?
Well, Clarkson has 10 goals in 16 games, a 51-goal pace over an 82-game schedule. The Devils entered Thursday night atop the Atlantic Division with 22 points, one off the Eastern Conference lead. Asked for his top teams in the East, one NHL scout listed only New Jersey and Boston. He did not mention Pittsburgh or the New York Rangers.
Losing the Cup to the Los Angeles Kings did not crush the Devils. It gave them confidence. Yes, they lost Parise. No, he could not be replaced. But they returned the rest of the team virtually intact, and after spending last season adjusting to new coach Pete DeBoer, this time they could pick up where they left off in the playoffs.
“That was my first run to the final,” Clarkson said. “It was probably the hardest thing to get over and accept and – I don’t want to say – let go. It’s something that you learn from. I think when you make it that far and you lose, it’s hard. … But I think once you get back into playing again like we are now, you realize that – or you hope that – you know what it takes to get there now.”
Clarkson played on a bad foot in the playoffs. The lockout gave him a chance to heal, train and spend time with his family at home in Toronto. When he returned, he wasn’t playing a third-line role anymore. He was playing top-six minutes with Patrik Elias on the other wing and eventually Adam Henrique as his centerman, and he was back on the power play.
No one expects Clarkson to keep up this pace. He has gone two games without a goal and tweaked his back the other night. But he has more stature and opportunity now, and he is taking advantage of it – in a contract year.
“I think the more years you play in this league, you get more comfortable,” Clarkson said. “You’re able just to go out there and play, not worry about anything. I think when you have confidence, when it seems to be finding the back of the net for you …”
“There’s going to be times when it isn’t,” he continued. “So when it is, you better shoot it quite a bit. Right now, it just seems to be going in for me.”
OVERTIME: Plenty of options for ex-Sabres coach Lindy Ruff
How should Lindy Ruff be remembered?
“As a great coach,” said Buffalo Sabres general manager Darcy Regier, choking up after firing his longtime colleague Wednesday. “I think he’ll get an opportunity if he wants to very quickly. I think people who have been fired, you have an opportunity to use it as a springboard, or I suppose you can sit on the springboard. He’ll use it as a springboard if he wants to. He’ll have lots of opportunities.”
Ruff will be in demand, no doubt. He nearly won the Stanley Cup in 1999. He took the Sabres to four Eastern Conference finals, won the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year in 2006 and led the Sabres to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top regular-season team in ’07. And though he was the longest-tenured coach in the NHL – in Buffalo since ’97, an eternity in pro sports – he’s only 53.
It won’t matter that his message got stale and the Sabres stopped playing for him, that he missed the playoffs three times in the past five years. Most coaches have a shelf life. Owners and GMs know that.
Owners and GMs also follow trends. There are times when up-and-coming coaches are hot. This does not seem like one of those times. Two accomplished coaches were fired last season – Randy Carlyle in Anaheim, Bruce Boudreau in Washington. Both landed with new teams before the season ended – Boudreau in Anaheim, Carlyle in Toronto – and both are succeeding now.
Ruff does not need to jump at his first opportunity. He can afford to sit on the springboard and evaluate his options until the right one comes along. Even if a job opens up this season, others are sure to open in the summer. His best fit is likely a veteran team that needs a veteran coach.
How should Lindy Ruff be remembered?
No one can take away what he did in Buffalo – the good or the bad – but that question can’t be answered yet.
SHOOTOUT: Last shots from around the NHL
– As the injuries continue to pile up for the Detroit Red Wings, 0-2-2 in their past four entering Thursday night, they need more from Valterri Filppula. He has one point in his past six games, three in his past 10 and eight in 16 on the season, despite playing with stars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg at even strength and on the power play. Filppula needs more from himself, too. This is a contract year.
– Yes, a linesman badly blew an offside call that led to a goal that cost Nashville a game. And yes, the GMs likely will discuss a coach’s challenge again at their March 20 meeting. I’m all for getting it right. But officials occasionally blow calls, big ones, and the coach’s challenge comes with the same old challenges that have kept it out of the NHL so far. What are the parameters? Are the delays worth interrupting the flow of the game?
– The NHL wants realignment settled next week, but discussions are ongoing with the NHL Players’ Association and details are scarce. The league has tweaked the plan that was approved by the board of governors last season, but team officials are in the dark. One exec said it’s likely that only the owners are in the know at this point.
– The NHL and the NHLPA finished the process of drafting the collective bargaining agreement last Friday night, but the CBA is not quite done yet. They agreed to final language for the bulk of the CBA, rolled over some language from the memorandum of understanding, and extended the drafting period for a small portion of the document. They hope to have a complete document to print sometime in March.
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