Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week’s topics include why the Toronto Maple Leafs won’t be fooled again; why Peter Karmanos would like to sell the Carolina Hurricanes; and notes on potential NHL expansion, the Florida Panthers’ attendance and Mike Babcock’s contract situation with the Detroit Red Wings.
FIRST PERIOD: Leafs on another hot streak, but at least they know what it is
Three weeks ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs were in crisis. They had lost back-to-back games to the Buffalo Sabres and the Nashville Predators by a combined score of 15-4. Critics wanted to hear from president Brendan Shanahan. Critics wanted coach Randy Carlyle to be fired.
Then the Leafs won … and it got even worse.
After a 5-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning, the players deliberately did not give their customary stick salute to the fans at the Air Canada Centre. They said they were just changing the routine, but they were really tired of jersey-tossing and booing and empty platinum seats. Another firestorm ensued. Critics questioned their leadership.
Now they’re on a 7-1-1 run. They have 35 points, good for a wild-card spot as of Thursday night, on pace for 102 points.
“We were not happy with how we played,” said captain Dion Phaneuf. “We wanted to turn it around as quick as we possibly could. But I feel that our group has really come together. Sometimes you’ve got to go through that adversity to learn a lot about yourself, learn about your team, and I think that our team’s responded very well.”
The Leafs are still very much a work in progress, though. The bad: While the winning has cooled the crisis, it has masked the same, old underlying problems. The good: The coaches and players are aware of that and want to fix the problems. The question: Can they execute the changes needed to keep winning?
Shanahan did not want to panic. He didn’t fire anyone and said little in the media, other than a radio interview at a charity event. Privately, management told the players their decision not to salute the fans was poor and challenged them to take care of it themselves. The players saluted the fans at the ACC after their next game, a 4-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings.
The Leafs also set a goal after those brutal back-to-back losses: keep shots against to 25 or fewer. They listed ways to do that: more blocked shots, better defensive zone coverage, more backside pressure, fewer turnovers, more offensive zone time. They emphasized penalty killing. They tried to focus on that – on the process – thinking more puck possession at even strength and better penalty killing would translate into more winning.
“There’s a recognition that there is another way to play,” Carlyle said.
The Leafs’ new analytics department seems to have had some effect – not on the ice yet, but on how performance is evaluated.
Over the last nine games, the Leafs have won primarily because of high shooting and save percentages, as they have in the past. They have allowed too many shots, as they have in the past. After allowing 28, 27 and 26 shots in the first three games of this 7-1-1 stretch, they have allowed 37, 38, 26, 46, 33 and 42 since.
But at least they know it could catch up to them, as it has in the past, and at least they acknowledge this kind of winning is unsustainable, as they haven’t always in the past. At the same time they say the bottom line is winning and they’ll take the two points, they say they need to improve in a lot of areas.
“The shots against have crept up lately, and that’s been a big concern,” Carlyle said. “But I think again, it’s about controlling the puck and not playing loose hockey, trying to play more of a checking game, trying to play more of a complete game.”
“We’ve given our goalies too much work and relied a little bit too much on them the last few games,” Phaneuf said. “We want to continue to cut our shots against down.”
“It’s not the recipe for success,” said defenseman Stephane Robidas. “You can’t rely on your goalie to win every night, to be a major factor like that. It’s something that we talked about. … We have to be better at defending. Being better at defending, it’s not always playing in your own zone. Sometimes the best way to defend is playing in the offensive zone and not turning pucks over and holding onto pucks when there’s no play to be made, not trying to force plays and make plays when they’re not there. Whenever we play a smart game and we don’t turn pucks over, we’ve proven it to ourselves that we can be very successful and cut down on shots.”
They have proven it in very small samples – the first period against the Vancouver Canucks last Saturday night, the second period against the Calgary Flames on Tuesday night – but they still have to do it over the long term. If they don’t, there will be another crisis to come.
SECOND PERIOD: Karmanos defends his market, wants to ease into retirement
The Carolina Hurricanes rank second-to-last in NHL attendance with an average of 11,823 – behind the Arizona Coyotes and ahead of only the Florida Panthers. Owner Peter Karmanos has been selling shares and recruiting more investors. He has said he would entertain offers for his majority interest.
But Karmanos is looking to ease his way into retirement, not abandon the franchise he has owned for 20 years. He bought the Hartford Whalers in 1994, then moved and renamed them in ’97. He has always bristled when people have criticized hockey in Carolina, and he bristles now when people inevitably blame the market.
“No matter what happens, if I get to be 75 years old and decide I want to get out of the business, it’s because, ‘Well, that’s Raleigh,’ ” Karmanos said this week at the board of governors meeting in Boca Raton, Fla.
No, Raleigh is not Toronto. Fans will not sell out the rink when the team is bad. But they come when the team is good – tailgating in the parking lot, screaming in the stands. Raleigh can be one of the loudest rinks in the league.
The problem is that the Hurricanes, who won the Stanley Cup in 2006 and made it to the conference final in ’09, have not been in the playoffs for five straight seasons. They have a new president (Don Waddell), a new general manager (Ron Francis) and a new coach (Bill Peters), but they have holes in the roster, ran into injury trouble early this season and entered Thursday night 8-16-3, last in the East, second-to-last in the league.
Karmanos has been selling shares and looking for investors for six years since the death of his original business partner, Thomas Thewes. He is from the Detroit area, and he watched what happened after the March 2009 death of Bill Davidson, who owned the Detroit Pistons (and once owned the Tampa Bay Lightning).
Davidson’s widow, Karen Davidson, ended up selling the Pistons and the Palace Sports & Entertainment company to Tom Gores in June 2011. The price: $325 million. It was called “shocking.” It was $125 million less than the most recent NBA franchise sale.
Karmanos, 71, retired in March 2013 from the company he co-founded, Compuware. Ideally, he would like to do what Charles Wang did with the New York Islanders: sell his team for a hefty sum but remain in control for a couple more years.
“All I’m doing is being judicious about retiring and making sure that my family doesn’t end up the same way as Bill Davidson’s family did with the Pistons, having to have an emergency sale and having the team get buried,” Karmanos said. “That’s all that’s going on.”
THIRD PERIOD: Notes from around the NHL
— One governor pointed out that if you’re selling your team, like Karmanos is open to doing, expansion is particularly attractive. Your share of $500 million would be $16.67 million. You can pocket it as you get out. But if you plan to keep your team long term, you have to weigh that one-time payment against the diminution of your share of NHL revenues. You receive 1/30th of those revenues now. Do you want to receive 1/31st in the future? Or 1/32nd?
— Karmanos, who is on record in favor of expansion, would point out that even if your percentage of revenues goes down, you will bring in more money. You will receive your share of the expansion fee. Then you will receive your share of a revenue pie that is currently hundreds of millions of dollars and expected to grow. “Let’s just suppose that the expansion fee was going to be $500 million a team,” Karmanos said. “It takes sort of the blow off maybe a little dilution in your [share of revenues]. … Even though it doesn’t go up by as much, it still goes up.”
— You can see why owners would want expansion: more money. You can see why players, coaches and executives would want expansion: more jobs. But what about fans? If you love hockey and live in a market without a team, you want expansion to your city if relocation isn’t an option. But what if you already have a team? One governor worried about the talent pool being thinned yet again – not just because of the quality of play itself, but because of the high prices teams charge. The product has to be worth the price.
— The Panthers’ average attendance is only 8,849. Though they are competing for a playoff spot now, they have made the playoffs only once in the past 13 seasons. It’s early in the season. Most important, the new owners have stopped giving away tickets to stop devaluing the product. No one wants to buy a ticket and find out he’s sitting next to someone who got in for free. “These things take time,” said commissioner Gary Bettman. “You’ve got to get the marketplace used to it.”
— Bettman reaffirmed owner Vincent Viola’s commitment to South Florida. “Nobody should be focusing on the Panthers as a relocation candidate, period,” Bettman said. But here is reason to remain skeptical: Bettman said something similar about the Atlanta Thrashers weeks before they moved to Winnipeg and became the Jets in 2011, and he also said this about the Panthers: “If we’re having this conversation in two or three years, it might be a different issue. But I don’t believe we will.” Quebec City’s arena will be long done by then.
— Mike Babcock is not close to signing an extension with the Red Wings, despite a report. “I’m telling you the truth right here,” Babcock said Thursday. “Nothing’s happened.” Nothing has changed. The Wings approached Babcock in the summer and again before the season. They have a multi-year offer on the table that would make him the highest-paid coach in the NHL. They hope he signs sooner rather than later. They’re optimistic he will sign eventually but prepared in case he leaves. Babcock speaks to general manager Ken Holland daily; their families socialize. But the sides are not actively negotiating, and asked if an extension was possible during the season, Babcock said: “I don’t think so.” It’s up to Babcock. Unless he changes his mind, this is going to the off-season. “There’s nothing more to tell,” Babcock said. “I’m not hiding anything. I’m not making anything up. This is just reality.”
MORE NHL COVERAGE ON YAHOO SPORTS: