Nicholas J. Cotsonika's weekly Three Periods column will appear on Thursdays. This week's topics include the rise of the 'Hawks; the Canucks' crease options; a coach's rare praise for Bruins rookie Dougie Hamilton; and Maple Leafs' Mike Kostka's long-awaited NHL arrival.
FIRST PERIOD: Look out NHL, the league-leading Blackhawks are only getting better
Joel Quenneville is in an odd position for a coach. He has no complaints. His Chicago Blackhawks are 8-0-2, atop the NHL, even though they have played eight of their first 10 games on the road in the Western Conference, collecting points in places like Los Angeles and Vancouver and San Jose.
“We’re pleased with basically most every aspect of our game,” Quenneville said. “It’s been a fun start.”
Attitude? Conditioning? Health? Everyone came to training camp in shape, despite the four-month lockout – or thanks to the lockout, in the case of Marian Hossa and his recovery from a concussion. Quenneville said there “seemed to be a spark.” Maybe the players were motivated by two down seasons – backing into the playoffs in 2010-11, losing nine straight games in 2011-12, falling in the first round twice.
The star forwards? Patrick Kane, Hossa, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp are leading the team in scoring, as they should. The defense? The pair of Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson has been particularly strong. The goaltending? Like Kane up front, Corey Crawford is answering some questions in net.
“I don’t want to say they have something to prove, but their focus and attention to detail are definitely in the right places,” Quenneville said. “They want to be the best they can be, and they really are contributing to our team success in a big way.”
Special teams? Greatly improved. The power play has more movement and more of a net-front presence – Andrew Shaw posting up on one unit, Viktor Stalberg on the other. It ranks 15th in the NHL, after ranking 26th last season. Michael Frolik and Marcus Kruger have helped boost the penalty kill to first in the league from 27th.
Depth? Critical. Since the Blackhawks dumped half the roster in a salary-cap purge after winning the Stanley Cup in 2010, the challenge has been to rebuild the supporting cast. Now look: Not only have they had the fortitude to beat tough teams in tough buildings, they have had the personnel and the balance – and Quenneville has had the confidence – to roll four lines without the last change.
“Sometimes you’ve got a group that you’re looking to change, get off the ice matched up against a Thornton, the Sedins,” said Quenneville, referring to the Sharks’ Joe Thornton and the Canucks’ Henrik and Daniel Sedin. “We haven’t been changing on the fly, and we’ve been trusting everybody out there against anyone.”
Combined with Frolik and Kruger eating up PK minutes, which has helped keep the stars fresh, and that should help as the season goes on. “We think over the course of this condensed schedule, our top guys hopefully will keep some energy and we’ll continue to play at a high level,” Quenneville said.
The best part? Quenneville sees the Blackhawks getting better. Top defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are minus players, but Quenneville said they are “really trending in the right direction.” Brandon Saad, a 20-year-old, is on the left wing on a line with Toews and Hossa. Saad just scored his first NHL goal, while Hossa has six goals and 10 points, Toews four goals and nine points. Just wait.
“It’s been a monstrous line, where their production hasn’t reflected how they’ve really controlled a lot of shifts and a lot of the play over the course of the game,” Quenneville said. “That line I could see breaking out. It has the potential to break out production-wise.”
SECOND PERIOD: The Canucks’ complicated crease
Trade Roberto Luongo?
Yes, the Canucks are up against the salary cap, Luongo has an albatross contract and Cory Schneider is supposed to be the future. But the cap won’t come down until next season. The Canucks have a shot at the Cup. You’re better off with two good goaltenders, especially with the condensed schedule, especially in panic-prone Vancouver. And not only has Luongo outplayed Schneider so far, both continue to handle the situation with class.
Luongo is 3-0-2 with a 1.53 goals-against average and a .942 save percentage. Don’t say it increases his trade value and the Canucks should strike while he’s hot. Luongo is a known quantity. Everyone knows his strengths and weaknesses, why the Canucks want a lot for him and why they want to trade him. It’s hard to believe this will sway any opinions.
The unknown quantity is Schneider, who is 2-2-0 with a 3.13 GAA and .897 SP. For all his potential, he has played only 72 NHL games compared to Luongo’s 733. He hasn’t had the playoff hiccups Luongo has, but he has had some, and he hasn’t been a Vezina finalist or won an Olympic gold medal like Luongo has, either.
Schneider’s agent, Mike Liut, told the Vancouver Sun that this was supposed to be the season when Schneider played the most games. That’s why Schneider signed a three-year, $12 million deal. But Luongo shrugged it off as an agent looking out for his client, and Schneider knows he has to play better.
Luongo is suddenly becoming a sympathetic figure – “Being a backup is a lot funner than I anticipated,” tweeted his hilarious, self-deprecating alter ego, @strombone1 – and maybe the dynamic has eased the pressure. Why not let this play out the rest of the season? In the end, the easier and better move might be to trade Schneider.
THIRD PERIOD: ‘Larry Robinson’ turning heads in Boston
It’s one thing to hear Pierre McGuire rave about Dougie Hamilton on NBC. It’s another to hear Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien, who rarely pumps up young players, compare the 19-year-old kid to Hall of Famer Larry Robinson.
Hamilton shrugged it off. “I’ve never seen him play,” he said. But hey, he was born in 1993, a year after Robinson retired; he has been hearing comparisons for years, as a prospect good enough to be the ninth overall pick in 2011; and, a big reason he is already playing a top-four role for a Cup contender is that he’s not awed by the NHL.
Like Robinson and Rob Blake, Hamilton has a lanky build at 6-foot-5, 193 pounds and an extensive skill set. He can close off defensively. He can step up and hit. He can jump up offensively, and he skates so well that he can recover quickly.
“He’s in front of the net, and the next second, he’s back with me,” said his partner, Dennis Seidenberg, a steady veteran. “And so it’s really fun playing with him.”
But what’s most impressive right now is how Hamilton has broken into the NHL without a single preseason game and, despite the speed increase from junior, has shown uncommon poise with the puck. Watch him go D-to-D. Watch him on a breakout. He waits until a player clears a lane.
“We call it a pass underneath,” said GM Peter Chiarelli. “A lot of times a guy wants to make that pass. He’s got it, and he wants to make it. And to wait – that poise to wait – that’s a real mature characteristic. You’ll see that quite a bit, just little hesitations that he does before a lane opens up for a pass or a shot. That’s important.
“He’s going to have his adjustment period, too. It may come at a later point. But right now he’s played very well, and that’s an element of his game that’s very mature.”
OVERTIME: Leafs’ Kostka took the long way ‘round to the NHL
Mike Kostka is like Dougie Hamilton in that he has broken into the NHL, played a top-four role on defense and impressed with his poise. As Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said: “He doesn’t get rattled.”
But that’s about the only way Mike Kostka is like Dougie Hamilton. Kostka is 27. He wasn’t drafted. He played four years of U.S. college hockey and six seasons in the American Hockey League – bouncing from Rochester to Portland, back to Rochester, then to San Antonio to Norfolk to Toronto. He signed with the Leafs as a free agent last summer because they promised him a fair shot, and after playing well for the Marlies during the lockout, that shot finally came when the lockout ended.
“When I let him know that he was going to the training camp, he was in such an amazing frame of mind,” said Marlies coach Dallas Eakins. “Sometimes guys go, ‘Oh, my God. This might be my last chance. This might be my first chance. This might be my only chance.’ But he was just like, ‘I’m going to enjoy this. I know I’m ready.’ He was so free and so positive and so not nervous.”
Kostka has played on the top pair with Dion Phaneuf and on special teams, averaging 25:22 in ice time. He is minus-6, but he was minus-4 in one game, skewing the stat, and has been plus-1 over his past five games. He has four assists.
“He’s earned the opportunity,” Carlyle said, “and that’s a novel concept in today’s sports.”
How did Kostka do it? How did he go from the minors to playing heavy minutes against top competition in places like Montreal and New York and Pittsburgh? Some of it is age and experience. Some of it is personality. Eakins said Kostka knows himself physically, when you’d be surprised how many professional athletes don’t, and Kostka knows himself mentally, too. He was a psychology major at UMass-Amherst.
“I understand the importance of getting out what’s inside,” Kostka said.
He has kept a handwritten journal of his journey in a Moleskine notebook, writing every day or every other day, at home and on the road, about hockey or whatever else. He has always believed in himself when others didn’t. But at times he has needed a reminder, and he has found inspiration by going back and reading his own words.
“When you do go through low times, you can have that spark to kick things back to where you where,” Kostka said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about confidence.”
SHOOTOUT: Last shots from around the NHL
Several players have gone from the Marlies to the Leafs since the lockout ended, and Eakins stays in contact with them, mostly by text message. “I want them to be comfortable, but I want them to treat every day like it might be their last,” Eakins said. “ ‘What can I do today? What am I going to do today to get better? What am I going to do to stay here?’ And hopefully that turns into thousands of days.”
One day, Eakins will be in the NHL himself. Many are surprised he isn’t behind a big-league bench already.
It’s no surprise some NBA agents would like Don Fehr to take over the basketball union, after his long experience in baseball and his transition to hockey. But one source called it “farfetched,” and another said Fehr only might offer guidance if Billy Hunter does not return. He is happy at the NHL Players’ Association, has more work to do and isn’t going anywhere.
The NHL and the NHLPA are drafting the collective bargaining agreement this week and next. One source said it’s going “relatively smoothly.” The hard part was reaching a deal in principle, and the sides were detailed when they hammered out the memorandum of understanding before training camps opened.
NHL general managers won’t meet in Boca Raton, Fla., after the trade deadline as usual this year. Because of the condensed schedule, they will meet in Toronto on March 20 – before the April 3 trade deadline. Expect rumors galore. Also expect talk of a coach’s challenge rule, after a couple of critical blown calls early this season.
Another potential topic for the GMs: TSN reported some are unhappy about a new rule that bars them from talking to the league about supplemental discipline for 48 hours. (It’s actually 48 hours from the start of warmups, not an incident.) The idea was to stop lobbying. It probably was designed for the same GMs who are unhappy now.
One year till Sochi. Right?
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