Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week’s topics include the frustration of Leafs Nation and Brendan Shanahan’s approach as team president, plus notes on 3-on-3 overtime, the salary cap, Jack Johnson, Pascal Dupuis, Alex Hemsky and more.
FIRST PERIOD: Maple Leafs need new approach more than a new coach
Leafs Nation is frustrated, and should be. The Toronto Maple Leafs are the richest franchise in the NHL. Yet they haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967. They haven’t made the playoffs in eight of the past nine seasons, and when they did make it, they blew a three-goal lead late in Game 7, lost in overtime and fell in the first round.
They have owners who compete head-to-head in their main businesses. They have a corporate boss headed out the door. They have a president who didn’t hire the general manager, a GM who didn’t hire the coach, a coach who didn’t hire his assistants. They have a roster that lacks a No. 1 center, a No. 1 defenseman and more.
They entered Thursday night 9-8-2, sixth in the Atlantic Division, just out of a wild-card spot. After a 6-1-1 stretch, they had lost three in a row – the last two by a combined score of 15-4. They had faced two of the lowest-scoring teams in the league at the time – the Buffalo Sabres and Nashville Predators – and had been blown out. When they’ve been bad, they’ve been awful. They fall behind, they freelance and they bury themselves in a snowball.
Coach Randy Carlyle was asked this week if the Leafs had found their identity yet.
“No,” he said. “I just think we’re too erratic and we’re too inconsistent.”
The answer should have been yes. That is the Leafs’ identity – too erratic, too inconsistent. We are what we repeatedly do, right?
The Leafs repeatedly change executives, change coaches, change this, change that. They go up and down and often settle in that no man’s land of almost-mediocrity, good enough to tease and compete for a playoff spot, not bad enough to bottom out and draft a difference-maker. When they did finish 29th in 2009-10, they didn’t have the No. 2 pick and didn’t get Tyler Seguin because Brian Burke, then the new GM, had been fooled into thinking they were better than they were and made an aggressive trade. You might have heard of the Phil Kessel deal.
Who knows how the ownership of Bell and Rogers will continue to coexist? Who knows who will replace Tim Leiweke as the president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment? Who knows how that will affect Brendan Shanahan as the Leafs’ president? Who knows how well Shanahan will perform in his new job?
But at least we know this: Shanahan seems to get it. He seems determined not to repeat mistakes of the past. He seems to understand that in the big picture the Leafs need to slow down, evaluate everything and move methodically.
He could fire Carlyle now, and it would not necessarily be a knee-jerk reaction based on the last two games. It could be justified by all 167 games Carlyle had coached entering Thursday night. If things continue to spiral downward, Shanahan might have to do it. But he does not want to simply replace Carlyle with someone better. He wants to find the best coach for the next few years.
He could have cleaned house when he was hired in April. He could have declared his vision and made bold promises. He didn’t do any of that for a reason. He kept Carlyle – and even extended him, to placate him and give him a bit of credibility – but swept out his assistants. He kept GM Dave Nonis, but he ended up sweeping out his assistants, too. He hired young, progressive assistant GM Kyle Dubas. He created an analytics department. He hired a veteran, creative mind in Mark Hunter as director of player personnel. All along, he has said little about his plan publicly. He hasn’t tipped his hand to competitors or given critics quotes they can use against him later.
He’s watching now. He’s watching how Nonis works. He’s watching how Carlyle coaches. He’s watching how the players perform. He’s watching how the old school mixes with the new school. He’s learning – about the job, about the team, what he has, what he needs.
The town is howling for Carlyle’s head, and Nonis is trying to calm the storm in the media, and Shanahan’s staying in the background. But you think Shanahan’s not plotting his next moves? This summer, some worried nothing had changed, or not enough, and suddenly Dubas and the analytics department showed up. And then suddenly Hunter showed up.
Shanahan wants to improve this organization bit by bit, carefully. It’s not how quickly you make changes; it’s how long those changes last. That’s how you turn an erratic, inconsistent organization into a stable, successful one.
SECOND PERIOD: Notes from the Hall of Fame induction and NHL GMs’ meetings
— A ray of hope for the Leafs: William Nylander, the 18-year-old center they drafted eighth overall this year, has five goals and 14 points in 11 games for Modo in the Swedish Hockey League. “He’s got all the tools to become a great player in the National Hockey League,” said former Leafs captain Mats Sundin. “I thought it was a really smart move to let him go back and play in the Swedish Hockey League. He’s not physically there yet. But he’s still playing against men over there at a high level, and he’s going to keep developing, and he’s going to grow a lot until next fall. I think he’s going to be great.”
— The general managers didn’t debate 3-on-3 overtime at their meeting Tuesday. They just got an update on the early returns of the new AHL format – seven minutes, with 4-on-4 until the first whistle after three minutes, then 3-on-3. But support seems to be building. A few teams tried it at a prospects tournament in September, and Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said it was “awesome.” Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill likes what he has seen in the AHL. “So many things can happen,” Nill said. “I think it’s a great way to end the game without getting to the shootout.” Expect serious discussion at the GMs’ meeting in March.
— Are GMs no longer operating under the assumption the salary cap won’t increase? Not exactly. The general feeling is that the weakness of the Canadian dollar could keep the cap from rising as dramatically as it would have, but won’t keep the cap from rising. “The cap has been increasing year to year,” said Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman. “I think overall we’re excited about the direction. It’s a league on the rise. We’re certainly expecting the cap to go up. The magnitude of that depends on a lot of factors.” Expect the NHL to give teams a 2015-16 cap estimate at the board of governors’ meeting Dec. 8-9.
— Kekalainen isn’t ready to say Nathan Horton’s career is over because of back problems. “He’s resting now,” he said. “We’re hoping that the rest is going to get him back into more of a rehab stage where he can start strengthening and hoping that he can get back to playing. But no updates right now.”
— How badly have injuries depleted the Blue Jackets? Kekalainen said someone told him they had averaged seven man-games lost per game this season and a fellow GM told him you have no chance to make the playoffs once you reach 300-something man-games lost. “We’re on pace for 600 this year,” he said. Has any part of him worried they’ve already lost the season? “No,” he said. “I think we have the same exact record right now as we had last year, and we made the playoffs.” He said that Tuesday afternoon, when they were 6-10-1. They started 6-10-1 last season, too. But the Jackets lost Tuesday night to the Detroit Red Wings, 5-0. Last season, at least they lost their 18th game in overtime.
— This anecdote didn’t make my Dominik Hasek Hall of Fame piece this week, but it’s a classic. After Hasek joined the Detroit Red Wings in 2001, his first matchup against Patrick Roy and the archrival Colorado Avalanche was highly anticipated. He allowed four goals in a 4-1 loss. The next morning, the Wings arrived at Joe Louis Arena to find Hasek’s car still in the parking lot and Hasek disheveled. They found out he had spent the night on the sofa in the stick room. “That was his way of kind of disciplining himself, saying, ‘You know what? I’ve got to be better,’ ” said Nill, the Wings’ assistant GM then. “He buckled down, and from that point on, he just took off.”
THIRD PERIOD: More notes from around the NHL
— The Jack Johnson story is a cautionary tale to NHL players – men who make millions at a young age often without an advanced education. The NHL and NHL Players’ Association have had financial experts speak at rookie orientation. They have brought in bankrupt former players to share personal stories. NHL Security includes financial issues as part of its annual presentation to each team. But in the end, each individual player is responsible for managing his affairs – or choosing the right people to manage them for him.
— Those close to Pascal Dupuis are thankful he wasn’t playing, practicing or flying when he felt discomfort in his chest. Dupuis, who had a blood clot while recovering from a knee injury last season, went to the doctor to learn he had another clot in his lung. He spent a day-and-a-half in the hospital and was released Tuesday morning. The clot should be gone in a few days, but he can’t play for at least six months while on blood thinners. It’s a blow to the Pittsburgh Penguins, not just because they lose a top-six forward, but because they lose a beloved voice in the dressing room. Dupuis will try to stay involved with the team but hasn’t thought about his future yet.
— Johnny Gaudreau has been a surprise within a surprise. “We weren’t sure what kind of impact he’d have,” said Calgary Flames president Brian Burke. The 21-year-old, 5-foot-9, 150-pound winger has produced three goals and 13 points as the Flames have started 12-6-2. Other keys: Coach Bob Hartley has instilled belief, work ethic and structure. Goaltender Jonas Hiller, who signed a two-year, $9 million deal as a free agent, has a .920 save percentage. Captain Mark Giordano has led an underrated defense. “Our goaltending has been terrific,” Burke said. “That’s the biggest difference from last year. Our ‘D’ is mobile and quick and fast. We get out of trouble early.”
— Ales Hemsky has been a disappointment within a disappointment. After signing a three-year, $12 million deal as a free agent, he has produced zero goals and two points in 18 games as the Stars have started 6-9-4. He has been a healthy scratch for the first time in his career. “We’ve had a lot of guys on our team that just haven’t clicked,” Nill said. “We didn’t get off to the start that we wanted. We had two or three games real quick where we looked like the Harlem Globetrotters, and that might have hurt us more than helped us. Now we’ve got to get back to finding our identity. The last three or four games, he’s actually been very good. He’s just snakebit right now. It’s going to come around.”
— The Blackhawks are 10-7-1, fourth in the Central Division, and now play 10 of their next 12 on the road. Bowman isn’t concerned. “I think we’ve played very well, probably better than our record shows, actually,” he said. “I’m very pleased with our performance.” The ’Hawks entered Thursday night ranked second defensively and first on the penalty kill. “That’s going to bode well for us down the stretch,” he said. They ranked 15th offensively, 19th on the power play. But they’ve always been able to score, even when their power play has been puzzling, and they’ve been coming along lately. They’ve scored 17 goals and gone 4-2-0 in their last six.
— For a long time now people have said the Edmonton Oilers are built more for the East than the West, and this season sure supports that. They’re 6-2-1 vs. the East and 0-9-1 against the West. There are three options – move the team, hope for realignment or make major changes – and the first two ain’t happening. Coach Dallas Eakins must be on the hot seat in his second season, but the Oilers have to look at their personnel and decide if they have the right mix to compete in this conference.
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