Nicholas J. Cotsonika's weekly Three Periods column will appear on Thursdays. This week's topics include the Washington Capitals preaching patience with Alex Ovechkin; the latest swerve in the Phoenix Coyotes’ ownership saga; and, a referee realizes his dream and makes his NHL debut.
FIRST PERIOD: Alex Ovechkin, superstar in transition
After a lockout, a week of training camp and no preseason, Adam Oates has been meeting regularly with individual players, trying to catch up as the Washington Capitals' rookie head coach. Wednesday was Alex Ovechkin's turn. They met for about two hours on an off day in Toronto, watching video, talking.
Ovechkin has to play better. His owner has said so. He has said so. "Well, of course," he said Thursday morning before a game against the Maple Leafs. "Two points not good enough for me." Especially with the Caps off to a dreadful start (1-4-1) and Ovechkin coming off career lows in points and goals the past two seasons.
But let's take a step back. The career low in points to which Ovechkin sank last season was still 65. The career low in goals to which he sank in 2010-11 was still 32. And that was when his coaches – Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter – were trying to turn the Capitals from a high-flying offensive team into a defensive unit. That was when the power play slipped from the league's elite.
Will Ovechkin score 50-plus goals and post 100-plus points regularly again? Will he ever win the Hart Trophy again? Maybe not. But is that really the point? Isn't the point to find the best balance between being productive and playing within a team framework, so the Capitals have a better chance of winning the Stanley Cup? Don't Oates and Ovechkin need time to figure that out?
"Adam's been through everything that Ovi's been through," said Capitals general manager George McPhee. "Adam was an elite player, and he's played with elite players. So that's what we like about him. He knows how to work with Ovi. I think we'll start seeing results."
Oates was a Hall of Fame playmaker, and he is trying to turn the Capitals into a 50/50 blend of offense and defense, an up-tempo team that pressures the puck. But he is trying to do it on the fly, and he is trying to change Ovechkin after Hunter tried to change Ovechkin and after Boudreau tried to change Ovechkin. He is Ovechkin's third coach in two seasons. "It's first time ever happens to me, switch the coaches two years three times," Ovechkin said. And that doesn't count the Kontinental Hockey League, where Ovechkin played a different style on a different surface for a different coach for Dynamo Moscow during the lockout.
Ovechkin has received a mix of instructions (play this way; no, that way) while receiving mixed messages (score; no, play defense; hey, why aren't you scoring?). Now Oates wants to move him from the left wing to the right wing, as Ilya Kovalchuk did successfully while Oates was an assistant with the New Jersey Devils. As a right-handed shot, Ovechkin can face the play on his forehand. "The game's so quick now, if you're on your backhand when the defenseman comes around the net and gives you the puck, it's hard to get it out or it's hard to make a play," McPhee said.
It's no surprise Ovechkin wasn't comfortable and asked to go back to the left wing. But just because he's skating with Joey Crabb and Jay Beagle doesn't mean he's in the doghouse, doesn't mean the experiment is over and doesn't mean it won't work in the long run. This is not like when Hunter cut Ovechkin's ice time and tried to win in spite of him during the playoffs. Remember, Nicklas Backstrom is struggling badly, too. Oates plans to put Ovechkin back on the right wing eventually.
Has Ovechkin become too predictable? Oates doesn't buy it. "It's not predictability," Oates said. "It's like saying Albert Pujols is predictable. Guess what? If he's got somebody batting in front of him and behind him, he's going to get better pitches, right?"
This isn’t to keep Ovechkin from charging up the left wing, cutting to the middle and firing his shot. "He likes his certain moves, and I would never take that away from him," Oates said. "I just want him to have the ability to enter the zone in all three places, not just one."
Ovechkin has to work with his teammates, so he has support like Pujols does in the lineup and opponents can't key on him as much. He has to read those well-prepared defenses, like a quarterback does in the NFL, knowing when to run his favorite play and when to take what he's given. He has to execute in tight windows. He needs the power play to improve.
He needs more than six games to put it together. Oates pointed out how Ovechkin grew up playing a certain way, made millions playing a certain way and has been discombobulated by coaches trying to get him to play different ways.
"Our system is very fast-paced and it’s very in-your-face in the NHL, and there's no room," Oates said. "We're becoming more and more like football, so it's very difficult. There's no openings, so you can't give them an opening. That's kind of what I'm showing him. But in fairness to him, it's still a growing process."
SECOND PERIOD: Phoenix Coyotes’ fuzzy future
Greg Jamison reportedly didn't have the money to buy the Phoenix Coyotes before 11:59 p.m. MT Thursday, when his sweetheart arena deal with Glendale, Ariz., was set to expire. The city won't extend the deadline for him.
The NHL says it remains committed to keeping the Coyotes in Glendale, there are other interested parties and the city says it would negotiate a new lease deal. But the city also has a new mayor and four new council members and the new leadership does not intend to negotiate another lease with terms so favorable to ownership.
Some hard questions: If Jamison couldn't find enough investors when Glendale would pay an average of $15 million a year for arena management – and the NHL's new labor agreement lowers the salary floor and increases revenue sharing – why should we believe anyone will close this deal with a less attractive lease? If the NHL really wants to keep the team in Glendale, will it lower its $170-million asking price? Or will the Coyotes saga finally end with relocation?
There has been a lot of talk of expansion recently, with new arenas in various stages of planning in Quebec City, suburban Toronto and Seattle. The NHL has been consistent in saying it has no plans for expansion, but it has never spelled out exactly why not when those markets seem so promising. One possible reason: The league didn't want the NHL Players' Association to try to get a slice of expansion fees during collective bargaining. Another possible reason: The league has had too many franchises to fix first, and you can't expand when you might have to relocate.
THIRD PERIOD: Brendan Shanahan takes team approach to league discipline
When an NHL player was suspended last season, Brendan Shanahan tweeted the link to a video from his personal account (@NHLShanahan). Except for rare occasions when Rob Blake took a turn, Shanahan stood before the camera and introduced himself as the NHL's disciplinarian before showing the replay and explaining the ruling. It was revolutionary in terms of accountability and transparency.
But look and listen closely this season, and you'll notice some tweaks. When a player is suspended, the NHL department of player safety tweets the link from its account (@NHLPlayerSafety). Shanahan still does the voiceovers for the suspension videos, but he goes right into the replay and explanation – no intro.
It is still revolutionary in terms of accountability and transparency. The word is still coming straight from Shanahan's mouth. But he is keeping a low profile deliberately to put the focus on the facts, the process and the department. You can call suspensions "Shanabans," comment on his clothes or even spoof the videos at the NHL Awards. (Hey, Will Arnett is a friend of his.) But Shanahan has always tried to emphasize he leads a group, and though he makes the final call, decisions are made collectively.
OVERTIME: Referee makes “surreal” NHL debut
Darcy Burchell got into position for the opening faceoff Tuesday night in Detroit when he heard his first chirp. "A player asked me who the hell I was," he said. His response? "Just another person, that's all. Just another name."
Who the hell is Darcy Burchell? A referee. And that was the perfect way to make his NHL debut, because if he does well, he will be just another name – anonymous. But a referee is also just another person, in that breaking into the NHL means realizing a dream, and it's a shame you never hear about it.
Burchell, 35, grew up in Hamilton, Ont. He started officiating as a linesman in the OHA and rose as a referee in the OHL, ECHL and AHL. He worked three NHL exhibition games last season, but that was a year-and-a-half ago, so it was a straight and sudden jump from the AHL to the NHL – with his wife and parents in the stands, the game moving at a higher speed, his adrenaline pumping. He kept a puck as a souvenir and brought his dad into the dressing room, just like a player would.
"It's pretty surreal," Burchell said. "You're skating with guys that you've watched for 15 years. Now you're on the ice with them. It's kind of humbling. You skate out into Joe Louis Arena, it's surreal. It's a feeling that you can't really explain."
SHOOTOUT: Last shots from around the NHL
- Nail Yakupov should celebrate dramatic goals. It would be a shame to take the personality out of the Edmonton Oilers rookie. But he does need to tone it down a bit, and here's why: After scoring in overtime against Phoenix on Wednesday night, he raised his arms behind the net and held them there. Oilers veteran Ryan Whitney had to shield him from punches from the Coyotes' irate Derek Morris. Will Yakupov's teammates tire of coming to his aid?
- Same goes for P.K. Subban. It would be a shame to take the personality out of the Montreal Canadiens defenseman. But look at how coolly his teammates reacted when he signed his contract this week. Flash is fine, but only if it fits into the team concept and doesn't hurt the group.
Could the Habs end up paying more for Subban in the future because they gave him only a two-year deal? Of course. But that's a better risk than the alternative. Subban is already on thin ice in the room, and some teammates had to accept similar deals in similar situations. What if he got a long-term deal? And haven't the Habs saddled themselves with too many bad contracts recently? Subban needs to mature, and there is nothing wrong with giving him motivation to earn a big payday.
- Want to outlaw fights off the opening faceoff? OK, how would you do it? Say you suggest an extra penalty for a fight in the first 30 seconds. First thing the GMs will say: What if someone takes a cheap shot in the first 30 seconds and a legitimate, spontaneous fight erupts?
- Dallas Stars captain Brenden Morrow is still on the power play, but has faded to a fourth-line role. The last three games, he has played 9:09, 9:32 and 10:12. "Rather than be upset and bitter about it, he's kind of going back to how he established himself – banging bodies," said Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk. "It's funny, when you get older, sometimes you have to keep proving that you can still do those things. He's a caring guy and has been a terrific leader. So he'll continue to battle."
- Morrow is in the last year of his contract, so he could be a rental at the trade deadline for a contender looking for veteran depth and character. But it's too early to speculate. What if the Stars run into injury trouble and Morrow plays a more significant role? What if they have a chance to make the playoffs for the first time in five years?
Jaromir Jagr has been a good influence on not only his teammates, but one of the Stars' top prospects. Radek Faksa, a Czech center and the 13th overall draft pick last year, spent a lot of time talking with Jagr during training camp. He returned to the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League but suffered a knee injury, so he was in Detroit to see Jagr and the Stars on Tuesday night.
- After playing in Detroit last week, the Stars' plane was grounded by mechanical problems. In the wee hours of the morning, the team could find only 20 double rooms at an airport Courtyard. No one volunteered to pair up with Jagr – too intimidated – so the NHL legend ended up rooming with a member of the TV crew. Jagr joked that he hasn't scored since because the guy snored too much and kept him up.
- Roberto Luongo. Shutout for the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday night. Can't make it up.
Yakupov's OT WinnerNail Yakupov bats it out of mid-air for the winner in overtime.
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