Nicholas J. Cotsonika's weekly 3 Periods column will appear on Thursdays. This week's topics include Rick Nash's arrival in New York; Paul Martin's quest for a superior sequel in Pittsburgh; Tomas Holmstrom retirement fun; and, what the Canadiens should do about unsigned free agent P.K. Subban.
FIRST PERIOD: Rick Nash, the Rangers’ dangerous big man
John Tortorella doesn't gush much. So when the coach famous for the NHL's snappiest press conferences gushes about a guy amid two sloppy season-opening losses ("I thought he played pretty well") and a dramatic off-the-schneid victory ("he's really exciting to me"), then you know the New York Rangers have got something special.
Rick Nash is Torts' type of player, and he gives the Rangers a dimension they didn't have when they went to the Eastern Conference final last season – an elite power forward who can drive to the net and create offense. Even through the team's early struggles, Nash showed what he could do and why he helped make the Rangers the sexy Stanley Cup pick for 2013.
"You can see how strong he is with the puck," Tortorella said. "He's going to be a really good player for us. We can see that."
At 6-foot-4, 216 pounds, Nash makes full use of his big body, long reach and considerable skill. He barrels down the wall. He pulls up and shoots. He goes hard to the net. He uses his great hands.
We saw all this with the Columbus Blue Jackets, for whom Nash scored at least 30 goals seven times and 40 twice with a weak supporting cast. But this is more like when he played for Team Canada in the Olympics. He's a big star on a big stage, and he will be expected to contribute to a winner, but he doesn't have to carry the team. He can be what he should be ideally – an excellent complementary player.
Nash was the face of the franchise in Columbus, but he's a quiet guy and doesn't have to be out front in New York with goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, captain Ryan Callahan, center Brad Richards, winger Marian Gaborik and so many others drawing so much attention. His Team Canada coaches loved him because he was content to blend in and do whatever he was asked. Torts should love him for the same reason.
In the sloppy season-opening losses – 3-1 at Boston, 6-3 to Pittsburgh – Nash was the Rangers' best player. It wasn't the goal and assist, but the way he threw hits, attacked defenders, used his body to shield the puck and made things happen. One scout said he would be scarier once the Rangers got into a flow and he established some give-and-go chemistry with teammates.
Then Tortorella put together a line of Gaborik, Richards and Nash in Wednesday night's 4-3 overtime victory over the Bruins. Gaborik had a hat trick, including the winner, while Richards and Nash each had an assist. All three played more than 20 minutes. That is some line. Tortorella will continue to mix and match as the season goes on, no doubt, but Nash gives him better options at even strength and on the power play.
"He's the full package," Tortorella said. "I don't think he's bashful at all about trying a lot of different things, and that's what we're looking for."
SECOND PERIOD: Second chance for Penguins’ Paul Martin
The Pittsburgh Penguins lost their home opener Wednesday night to the Toronto Maple Leafs, 5-2. Must've been Paul Martin's fault.
But wait. Look at the scoresheet, and though Martin had no points, he also was on the ice for no goals in 24:49 of ice time. Maybe it's time to cut the guy some slack. Maybe it's time to give him a fresh start.
Look, Martin struggled last season. He will be the first one to admit that. Still, the criticism of him seemed excessive. It was as if when things went wrong, people looked down the Penguins' lineup, couldn't find fault with all the superstars and settled on him as a scapegoat. Then people piled on.
Martin will tell you he didn't care about the criticism. But he will also tell you the lockout was good for him, because he had never gone through a season like that before – "a lot of negativity" – and the time away from Pittsburgh allowed him to clear his head. He worked out at home in Minnesota and worried about what really mattered – how to improve. His main goal: more consistency.
"I feel a lot better this year than I did last year," Martin said. "I think as a player if you have people telling you that you're not playing well, eventually you're going to believe it. I know what type of player I am and what I bring to the table, and so as long as I stay focused and work on my game, it doesn't matter what they say."
Coach Dan Bylsma started out by putting Martin with Brooks Orpik, a steady, reliable partner. Martin should know where Orpik is going to be all the time. That should make life easier in the defensive zone.
"Every single time he goes back for a puck, there needs to be a way out," said Kris Letang, one of Martin's former partners. "I think he's going to get his chance offensively. He's a really good passer, so I think transition-wise, he's good. I think it's in his zone that he needs to keep doing hard work, and I think the rest of the game is going to take care of itself."
THIRD PERIOD: NHLers getting up to speed on the fly
To understand the adjustment players are making now, put yourself in their skates. Imagine playing shinny at a local rink or hockey in another league, then joining your NHL team, going through a five-day training camp, playing zero preseason games and hopping right into regular-season action. It's about more than conditioning. It's about habits.
- Forwards: When they skated at local rinks, players simply tried to maintain their conditioning and skills. They skated in loops. They didn't hit each other. In Europe, it was competitive but a different style on a larger ice surface. They still skated in loops. They didn't hit like they do here. Now coaches are barking at them to stop and start, sprint back defensively, and drill defensemen on the forecheck.
- Defensemen: Consider a guy like Dallas Stars vet Stephane Robidas. He played in Finland for a couple of months, but came back in early December. A month of shinny was enough to get used to making plays comfortably. He faced only token pressure. Now he has to turn and retrieve the puck in the corner under real pressure, with a forechecker coming to hit him. "That's a big difference," he said. "You've got to get in game situations. That's the only way you're going to replicate that." One other thing: Defensemen don't shoot much playing shinny for the same reason guys don't hit – they don't want to hurt anyone. Now they need to get the puck through to the net. "I'm still a little bit in that mentality where you try to make that pretty play," Robidas said. "That's not how it works at this level."
- Goaltenders: If they played in Europe, they have to get used to the angles on the smaller ice surface and the increased traffic in front of the net. If they only practiced, they have to get used to not only the speed of an NHL game, but the mental grind. There is a reason goalies do eye exercises and concentration drills in the off-season, but it is not the same as tracking the puck for 60 minutes or more.
OVERTIME: Tomas Holmstrom leaves ’em laughing
One night in the early 2000s, the Detroit Red Wings held a rookie dinner at a Vancouver steakhouse. They made the youngsters give speeches. They also made Tomas Holmstrom speak – even though he had broken into the NHL years before. He was hilarious for what he said and how he said it in "Swenglish," his own personal dialect, a combination of Swedish and English. Both Swedes and North Americans struggled to understand him. "Translator!" they'd yell.
So you knew Holmstrom's retirement speech would be entertaining on Tuesday. As he thanked everyone from scout Hakan Andersson ("good job, Hakan") and Zamboni driver Al Sobotka ("best octopus swinger") for his remarkable career, he left everyone in tears of laugher. As former teammate Kris Draper told reporters: "That press conference right there, I mean, we lived that for 15 years."
Just two highlights that reflected a goofy, gutsy 10th-round pick who played 1,000 NHL games and won four Stanley Cups: Holmstrom, who made a career of posting up in front of the net on the power play, used a flat blade to deflect pucks. Luc Robitaille once suggested he try a curve – and coach Scotty Bowman did not like the result. "I did it one day, and I almost got traded," Holmstrom said. "I was like, 'Scotty, seriously, it was Luc's idea.' " As for his inability to skate at an NHL level, well, he blamed longtime equipment man Paul Boyer. "I could never get the glide I wanted," he said.
SHOOTOUT: Last shots from around the NHL
- If you ever ripped the owners for failing to control themselves, then don't blame them for holding the line on restricted free agents – the Montreal Canadiens with P.K. Subban, the Dallas Stars with Jamie Benn and the Colorado Avalanche with Ryan O'Reilly.
- Habs GM Marc Bergevin should be reluctant to give Subban a rich, long-term deal. Still too many questions about Subban, and Bergevin, a rookie GM, needs to set a strong precedent. But he also should be reluctant to trade him. If and when Subban matures as a person and player and all that skill is harnessed, look out.
- How about Marian Hossa and the Chicago Blackhawks? Hossa came back from a concussion with four goals and five points as the 'Hawks started 3-0-0. They beat the Stanley Cup champions (Los Angeles Kings) and Pacific Division champions (Phoenix Coyotes) on the road, then the Western Conference media darlings (St. Louis Blues) at home.
- With all due respect for Gaborik-Richards-Nash, the scariest line in the NHL is Evgeni Malkin-Sidney Crosby-James Neal. Bylsma has all three available at once, for a change, and likes to put them out together after a penalty kill. Doesn't matter that they're all lefties.
- Sorry, but skeptical of the Anaheim Ducks' start. They have scored 12 goals and are 2-0-0. But is this just Bruce Boudreau firewagon hockey flourishing in the sloppy early going? They have been great 5-on-5 but poor on the PK.
- Losing Joffrey Lupul to a broken arm is an obvious blow. But an encouraging sign for Randy Carlyle's Leafs: five goals against in their first three games – at a time when the league is playing loose, when they had to play in Pittsburgh's home opener. Did not pick them to be the first to beat the Pens, let alone by a 5-2 score.
- The impatience in Vancouver is understandable, and maybe Canucks GM Mike Gillis has overplayed his hand. But let's face it: Roberto Luongo has 10 years and more than $45 million left on his contract, plus a no-trade clause. Gillis is not exactly dealing from a position of strength, and Luongo is being classy. If there is no urgent need to dump salary now, why not wait for the right deal?
- Dislike staged fights. Think fights should be sparked by something that happens in the game, not used as a tool to spark something. But cannot deny they are an effective tool. Anti-fighting arguments continue to be drowned out by crowd noise.
- Talked to Jaromir Jagr about his weighted vest. Patted my stomach and smiled. "You got same thing, but you cannot take it off," he said with a laugh. Well, I could take it off if I trained like him.