Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s weekly Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week’s topics include Brian Burke hiring someone other than himself to be Flames GM; Joel Quenneville joining elite company in the coaching record book; Jack Capuano surviving on Long Island; Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby creating another Hart Trophy debate; and, notes on the outdoor game preparations.
FIRST PERIOD: Can Brian Burke really hire a GM and stay in the background?
It was classic Brian Burke. His hair was unkempt, his tie loose and askew. He used words like truculence and hostility as he talked about building a big, tough team. Instead of preaching patience, he said he was impatient. Instead of managing expectations, he kept his eye on the Stanley Cup.
“This is all about having a parade,” Burke said Thursday. “It seems very distant on a day like today. Our team’s struggling. We’re near the bottom of the standings, and the guy’s standing up here talking about titles. People are saying, ‘Man, this guy needs a urine test.’ But that’s what this is about. I wouldn’t have come here if that wasn’t the ultimate goal.”
It sounded a lot like the day in 2008 when Burke was hired as the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and this could have been the day Burke made himself the GM of the Calgary Flames. Frankly, this is the day for which we had been waiting since the Flames hired Burke as the president of hockey operations. Jay Feaster had to go as GM, not just for his bad record, but for the Ryan O’Reilly offer sheet fiasco and the Jarome Iginla trade deadline disaster.
But Burke did not make himself the GM. He fired Feaster, fired assistant GM John Weisbrod and made himself the interim general manager as he began the search for a permanent GM. He needed to get going, because the Buffalo Sabres have already been searching for a GM for a month. If Burke isn’t going to hire himself, he might be interested in the same candidates the Sabres are.
This could be smart. It also could keep the Flames dysfunctional, depending on whom Burke hires and how they work together.
The Flames have a chance to do this right. They have rich owners and loyal fans. Burke is an experienced executive who won a Stanley Cup as GM of the Anaheim Ducks. He emphasized the importance of the draft and talent evaluation, and he sounds like he wants an up-and-coming guy who shares his black-and-blue vision.
Burke made it clear he is looking at candidates who have not been GMs before. There are good ones, like Jim Benning, the assistant GM of the big, bad Boston Bruins, and Dave Poulin and Claude Loiselle, who worked for Burke in Toronto and are still in the Leafs’ front office. Burke could be a mentor.
“The beauty of this management structure is that you could take a guy literally out of uniform if you believed in him and turn him loose, and he could avoid those big mistakes that young GMs make,” Burke said.
But this could go wrong, too. This management structure could get ugly. Burke is a colorful, dominant personality and a media darling. Will he be able to stay in the background? If Burke hires someone who has worked for him before, will the titles even matter? No matter whom he hires, will he really be able to turn the new GM loose? Will he give the new GM enough leash when the rebuild looks like a long process and he likes the rebuild on the fly?
The key question to Burke on Thursday was simple: Why not you? Burke said becoming the GM himself was not the deal he made with ownership, that firing Feaster and taking his job would “cast suspicions on his motives.” He said the new GM would hire the assistant GM and eventually decide on the coach. (Burke promised coach Bob Hartley and his staff they would stay through the rest of the season.)
“I’m prepared for this role,” Burke said. “I laughed when Buffalo opened up and someone said, ‘Brian’s going to go after that job.’ I’m a Calgary Flame, and in this role, I want to be a Calgary Flame for a long time.”
One of the criticisms of Burke in Toronto was that he didn’t pay enough attention to his day-to-day duties – that he was off being Brian Burke too often instead of being the GM, that he left too much of the job to his many lieutenants. So maybe this role does suit him better. But in Toronto, Burke was still the GM at the end of the day, and now he’s choosing not to be. Can he support the new guy without looking over his shoulder?
SECOND PERIOD: Joel Quenneville entering the class of great NHL coaches
Joel Quenneville has won 683 regular-season games as an NHL head coach. He could pass Pat Quinn (684) for fourth place on the all-time list as soon as this weekend.
If the Chicago Blackhawks keep winning at the rate they have won this season, Quenneville will pass Dick Irvin Sr. (692) for third place in mid-January. If the ’Hawks keep winning at the same rate they have won in their six seasons under him, he will pass Al Arbour (782) for second place less than halfway through the 2015-16 season.
That would put Quenneville behind only Scotty Bowman (1,244), the greatest coach in hockey history, who happens to be a Blackhawks senior advisor.
Irvin, Arbour and Bowman are in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Quenneville has had the advantage of the shootout since it was introduced in 2005-06. He won 15 shootouts in three seasons with the Colorado Avalanche, and he has won 36 shootouts in his six seasons with the Blackhawks. Those are 51 wins that would have been ties in the old days. But remember: Those 51 wins also came in the salary-cap era, when teams struggle to keep their rosters intact and even the strongest can’t pad their records against the weak that easily.
Irvin and Arbour each won four Stanley Cups as head coaches. Bowman had won five by the time he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1991; he won four more afterward. Quenneville has won two. But both of Quenneville’s Cups have come in the cap era.
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After the first Cup, the Blackhawks had to dump half their roster directly because of the cap. Quenneville kept the same core but adjusted to a new supporting cast – and shuffled his coaching staff – to win the second. It’s amazing he was on the hot seat during some hard times in between, looking back now. Though others have come close, no one else has won multiple Cups in the cap era.
Quenneville is only 55 years old. The Blackhawks are the best team in the NHL again this season in terms of wins (23), points (51), points percentage (.750) and goal differential (plus-36). They are the top possession team in the league according to advanced stats.
The stars are on top of their games. Patrick Kane is second in the league in scoring with 42 points, one behind the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby. Patrick Sharp is in the top 10, Jonathan Toews in the top 20. Duncan Keith is second in scoring among defensemen with 28 points, one behind the Ottawa Senators’ Erik Karlsson.
The Blackhawks have a shot to win their third Cup in five years, and whether they win the Cup this season or not, they should be in position to contend for years to come. They are committed to extending Kane and Toews before the superstars reach unrestricted free agency in July 2015, and they will have more room to accommodate them with the cap rising. They already have locked up other key people, including Quenneville, who is signed through 2017.
Yes, Quenneville has had great players. But didn’t Irvin, Arbour and Bowman have great players? And isn’t there a unique challenge in managing great players, meshing them with others and living up to high expectations? Quenneville is entering the class of great coaches, and he has a tremendous opportunity to ensure he will enter the Hall of Fame.
THIRD PERIOD: Why is Jack Capuano safe (for now) for sinking Islanders?
The New York Islanders made the playoffs last season and scared the Penguins in the first round. Now they’re a disaster, last in the Metropolitan Division, five points behind the seventh-place Philadelphia Flyers. They’re nine points behind the third-place Carolina Hurricanes and 12 points behind the Leafs, who hold the last wild-card playoff spot in the East.
Yet coach Jack Capuano is reportedly not going to be fired anytime soon. Why? Because the Islanders are too cheap to hire a replacement? Because the season is already a lost cause and what’s the point? Maybe. But some things have been out of the coach’s control.
Consider that the Islanders are actually a middle-of-the-pack possession team based on advanced stats, even though they are one of the worst teams in the league in the standings. The real issues have been goaltending, secondary scoring and injuries.
The Islanders have the worst save percentage in the league overall at .888, and they have the worst save percentage in the league four-on-five at .775 – which might explain why they have the worst penalty kill in the league at 71.3 percent.
Captain John Tavares leads the team with 38 points. No one else is within a dozen. The Islanders have scored just 18 goals in their past 11 games, and 10 of them have come from the Tavares-Thomas Vanek-Kyle Okposo line. Michael Grabner has no goals in 28 games, Josh Bailey none in 20, Frans Nielsen none in 10.
Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov has been injured. So have top-four defensemen Brian Strait and Lubomir Visnovsky, and another top-four defenseman and former captain, Mark Streit, left after last season.
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Nabokov and Strait are about to return, and the Islanders have called up Ryan Strome, the fifth overall pick of the 2011 NHL draft, who leads the American Hockey League in scoring. But it might be too little, too late.
General manager Garth Snow has made the best of a bad situation on Long Island in a lot ways. But he has made the worst of this opportunity. He has failed to upgrade in goal. He failed to make an impact by acquiring Vanek – in exchange for Matt Moulson, a first-round pick in 2014 and a second-round pick in 2015 – and that trade will be a colossal failure unless he can flip Vanek for something substantial or find a way to re-sign him. Vanek has six goals and 12 points in 16 games since the deal, while Moulson has put up five goals and 12 points in 18 games for the Buffalo Sabres. Both are set to be UFAs.
OVERTIME: Are we headed to another Sid vs. Ovi Hart Trophy debate?
It’s early yet. We haven’t even hit the halfway mark of the regular season. But is Alex Ovechkin headed to another Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player – or are we headed to another debate between Ovechkin and Crosby, another debate over the definition of the award?
Ovechkin entered Thursday night leading the NHL in goals with 26 – five more than anyone else. Crosby led the league in scoring with 43 points. There are other good Hart candidates, and some play against stiffer competition more often in the West, including Kane, Ryan Getzlaf and Alex Steen. But with the two biggest names leading the two biggest stat categories, it’s easy to envision the vote coming down to how the writers interpret the phrase “most valuable to his team” for the second straight year.
It seemed easy last year. Crosby was the best player in the world. He was leading the league in scoring by a large margin. But then he suffered a broken jaw and missed the last quarter of the lockout-shortened, 48-game schedule, and the Penguins kept winning without him. That opened the door for Ovechkin, who got hot and carried the Washington Capitals into the playoffs. Crosby was widely considered the best player, and the players gave him the Ted Lindsay Award as the league’s most outstanding player. The writers gave Ovechkin the Hart because they considered him the most valuable to his team.
Let’s hope everyone stays healthy this time. But even if that happens, this could turn out to be “best” vs. “most valuable” again. Crosby does so much all over the ice while piling up points. Ovechkin is more one-dimensional, but now that Caps coach Adam Oates has put him in better positions to score on the right wing and on the power play, he has 26 goals in 29 games this season.
Should Crosby win for his all-around game? It’s not his fault he plays on a better team. Or should Ovechkin have the edge because his goals have such a huge impact for his team? This week has illustrated the dilemma: On Monday night, Crosby gave the Penguins a 2-0 lead over the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the goal turned out to be the winner in a 2-1 game. On Tuesday night, the Capitals fell into an early 3-0 hole against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Ovechkin scored four goals as they came back to win in a shootout, 6-5.
Should someone else win the Hart – and not just because people are sick of Sid and Ovi?
SHOOTOUT: Notes from around the NHL
— Burke on his tenure as GM of the Maple Leafs: “Toronto was a bigger challenge than I think people realize – than certainly than we realized – because of all the assets that we had to move before we could bring in new assets. We had a lot of guys who were overpaid, who had term. And really, realistically, at one point I said, ‘I’m not sure we’ll be able to move any of these guys.’ And we managed to move them all and turn them into assets. That’s what occupied the first 24 months there.” Guess John Ferguson Jr. won’t be a candidate in Calgary.
— The NHL has a new ice-making truck for outdoor events. Ice guru Dan Craig helped design it, and he visited it every three weeks as it was constructed in Toronto. It left the shop about a week ago and arrived at Michigan Stadium on Thursday to begin preparations for the Winter Classic. “My eyes kind of lit up when I opened up the doors,” Craig said. “I haven’t had the chance to play with it.” How much did the new toy cost? Craig declined to give a number. “A big number,” he said.
— Craig checked into an Ann Arbor hotel on Wednesday night for a 29-day stay. His crew will arrive on Sunday, go through a safety orientation Monday and start unloading equipment Tuesday. They will put up the boards Wednesday, test the system Thursday morning and start making ice Thursday night. “Mother Nature is going to dictate how those four days go,” Craig said. “If we don’t start doing it until Friday morning, that’s no big deal.” (The rink has already been built and the ice is already down at Comerica Park in Detroit, where a series of events will be held leading up to the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day. But Craig is only overseeing the work of a subcontractor there.)
— The new truck was designed to make ice even in warm weather. “If we have a 60-degree day, don’t worry,” Craig said. “We’ll still have hockey.” So that is the truck that will go to Los Angeles for the game Jan. 25 and to Vancouver for the Heritage Classic on March 2. The original truck – which made ice for the Winter Classics in Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia – will handle the games in New York on Jan. 26 and 29 and Chicago on March 1. Craig will supervise the L.A. and Chicago games. His son, Mike, will supervise the New York and Vancouver games.
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