Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s weekly Three Periods column will appear on Thursdays. This week’s topics include Matt Duchene embracing the Avs’ new style; why Jason Spezza and the Sens can feel better about their start; what you need to know about the Maxim Lapierre-Dan Boyle incident; and more notes from a busy week in player safety.
FIRST PERIOD: Duchene and the Avs flying with a new philosophy
At the end of last season, when the Colorado Avalanche finished second-to-last in the NHL, Matt Duchene had lunch with Joe Sakic. They spoke not just player to executive, but man to man, centerman to centerman, Av to Av. Something had to change.
“He said, ‘We’re going to go. We’re going to push it. We’re going to play,’ ” Duchene said.
Duchene was thrilled. And now look: The Avs have replaced coach Joe Sacco with Patrick Roy, drafted Nathan MacKinnon first overall and rolled to a 6-0-0 start. The highlights: a 2-1 win at Toronto, the Maple Leafs’ only loss so far; a 2-0 win at Boston, home of the Eastern Conference champions; and, a 5-1 win at Washington, their third straight victory on the road over a team that made the playoffs last season.
Credit Roy’s passion. Credit the goaltending. The Avs are winning in the short term largely because Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere have posted a .972 save percentage, by far the best in the league and unsustainable. They aren’t going to keep winning if they keep allowing 35.3 shots per game, fourth-most in the league, even if they say they’re forcing a lot of those shots to the outside.
But credit the style, too. The Avs are pushing it all right. They’re pressuring the puck, forcing turnovers and taking off.
“That’s one thing we’ve all talked about in our room the last four years,” Duchene said. “Not to knock anybody or anything, but I don’t feel like we’ve played the way that our team is built. I think we’ve played a little bit too stingy and slow, or tried to play that way, and it wasn’t in our makeup, and it backfired, I think. I think we need to play a style like Chicago. We’re built like a Chicago.”
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Duchene isn’t claiming the Avs are as good as the Blackhawks, winners of two of the last four Stanley Cups – not up front and especially not on the back end, which he said is “still developing.” He is saying they have a group of talented forwards – Duchene, MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, P.A. Parenteau, Ryan O’Reilly, Peter Stastny, Alex Tanguay. They have speed and skill. That’s their strength, and that’s what they have to play to.
“I don’t think there’s a run-and-gun team in the league that we can’t compete with,” Duchene said. “I think we can play that style and expect to win almost every night. I’m not saying we’re going to let in six goals a night. We can’t do that. Playing ‘D’ is so important. When you get back in your own end, you’ve got to pay attention. You can’t take shortcuts. You’ve got to play the right way. But as soon as you get that puck back, you can’t be afraid to make plays. If you give it back, get it right back again.”
Duchene has four goals in his past three games, five total, most on the team. He has five points in the past three games, seven total, tied with MacKinnon and Parenteau for the team lead.
Keep an eye on him. Duchene, the third overall pick in the 2009 draft, scored 24 goals his first season and 27 his second. He dipped to 14 his third season, but he struggled with injuries – playing only 58 games, playing hurt. He scored 17 in the lockout-shortened, 48-game schedule last year, the equivalent of 29 over a full, 82-game campaign.
At 22, he has grown up a bit. In his fifth NHL season, he understands the league and the pro life better. With this style, with a coach who seeks his input, with more talent around him, with a whippier stick making the puck fly, he has a chance to show his skills. Hoping to make Team Canada for the Sochi Olympics as a winger, he has plenty of motivation.
“I’m ready to take that next step,” he said.
Maybe the Avs are, too.
SECOND PERIOD: Hat trick helps Spezza, Senators feel better about their starts
You’re Jason Spezza. You just missed most of a season with a back injury. You just took over the captaincy of the Senators from Daniel Alfredsson, an Ottawa icon. Now your team has just held a meeting to talk about finding an identity, has just fallen into a 2-0 hole at Phoenix and faces returning for the home opener with a 1-3-2 record.
What do you do? You score a natural hat trick and lead your team to a 4-3 overtime victory, that’s what.
Tuesday night didn’t solve the Senators’ problems. They still have to recapture at least some of the scrappy attitude and strong defensive play that carried them last season, when their best players – Spezza, Craig Anderson, Erik Karlsson and Milan Michalek – all missed major amounts of time because of injuries.
But if they were waiting for their stars to shine, at least one of them did. They finished a tough six-game season-opening road run – Buffalo, Toronto, Los Angeles, San Jose, Anaheim, Phoenix – at a respectable 2-2-2. And Spezza, who sat out the L.A. game with a groin injury, has four goals and five points in five games. He can feel better about his start after a miserable 2012-13 season.
Spezza left the lineup in late January. After surgery to repair a herniated disc, the Senators wanted him around to mentor their young team, but he didn’t want to be in the way and become a distraction, either. He’d rehab in the dressing room. He’d watch games in the press box. But he’d avoid the media to avoid questions and constant updates on his condition.
“It’s a weird feeling being hurt,” said Spezza, who had never been in limbo quite like that before. “It was a bit of a song and dance at times.”
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On top of it, he had the natural mixed emotions as the team moved on without him – proud the Sens were winning, frustrated not to be a part of it.
“I respect our team,” Spezza said. “I think it shows a lot of intangibles. You feel like a fan when you’re up there. You just want to see the guys do well, and you know the ups and downs of a season. But it sucks. It sucks watching. It’s tough. There’s nothing worse.”
Spezza came back for three games in the playoffs. The Sens lost the last two by a combined score of 13-5, and they lost the second-round series to the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games. But in double overtime of his return, a 2-1 victory, he was crushed by Craig Adams – and he got back up.
“It helps me mentally knowing that, ‘OK, if I can go through that, I can take a bit of punishment,’ ” Spezza said. “My back felt good. It really helped me springboard into my summer.”
Not even an Olympic snub got him down. He wasn’t invited to Team Canada’s orientation camp in August. “They told me I didn’t play last year, and if I have a good start, I’ll be on their radar,” he said. “It’s just added motivation to have a good year, and I’m already pretty motivated.”
THIRD PERIOD: Lapierre not officially repeat offender, but it doesn’t matter
Two things need to be clarified after the Maxim Lapierre-Dan Boyle incident:
— One, when the NHL requests an in-person hearing, it reserves the right to suspend the player for six or more games. It does not commit to suspending the player for six or more games.
— Two, a player is considered a repeat offender under the collective bargaining agreement if he has been fined or suspended in the past 18 months. But that is only to determine how much money he will lose during a suspension. The NHL divides average salary by 82 games for repeat offenders. That’s a pricier penalty than it is for first-time offenders. The NHL divides average salary by the number of days in the season for them. This season it’s 195.
Bottom line: If the NHL’s department of player safety decides a hit is illegal, it then factors injury and a player’s entire history – especially with that type of infraction – into the length of the sentence. If it thinks six games or more is possible, it requests an in-person hearing.
That makes this an interesting case. Lapierre hit Boyle on Tuesday night in the St. Louis Blues’ 6-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks. Boyle turned his back to Lapierre as he played the puck in the corner. He stumbled a bit. But Lapierre did not have to drill him in the upper back and drive his face into the ledge where the boards meet the glass.
It wasn’t the worst boarding incident we’ve seen. It wasn’t even the worst boarding incident we’ve seen from Lapierre. But it was boarding, and Boyle was injured. And though Lapierre hasn’t been suspended since 2010 – when he played for the Montreal Canadiens and got four games for a hit from behind on San Jose’s Scott Nichol – he has a long history of borderline hits like these. He has been warned by the department of player safety.
Lapierre will have an in-person hearing Friday. He has apologized to Boyle, and though Boyle spent the night in the hospital, he reportedly is doing well. That could keep the suspension shorter than it otherwise might have been, but Lapierre will not get a break because he is not technically a repeat offender under the CBA.
OVERTIME: Breaking down Burns-Morrow, Kaleta appeal, Brouwer-Stepan
It was a busy week. More thoughts on player safety:
— Why no hearing for San Jose’s Brent Burns for driving St. Louis’ Brenden Morrow into the boards? Because Morrow stopped up and initiated contact – pause this video at 0:14 – before Burns hit him in the back and sent him flying.
In the NHL’s view, Morrow put himself in a vulnerable position. He lost a battle to a bigger man. Morrow is 6-feet, 205 pounds; Burns 6-foot-5, 230. You can argue the standard, but not the consistency. The department of player safety has viewed similar incidents the same way.
— The Buffalo Sabres’ Patrick Kaleta is appealing his 10-game suspension for his illegal check to the head of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ Jack Johnson.
First, commissioner Gary Bettman will determine whether the decision was “supported by clear and convincing evidence.” No hearings have been scheduled yet. If Bettman rules six or more games, Kaleta can take another step if he chooses, thanks to a clause in the new CBA regarding suspensions of six games or more. He has the right to appeal to the neutral discipline arbitrator, James Oldham, who was agreed upon by the NHL and NHL Players’ Association over the summer.
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It seems unlikely Bettman will change the suspension. The question is what will happen if this goes to the arbitrator, who would have “full remedial authority” and would review whether the NHL’s view of the violation and the penalty were “supported by substantial evidence.” We haven’t had a test case yet.
The violation of Rule 48 is clear. Kaleta put his shoulder into Johnson’s head. It was the main point of contact. It could have been avoided. The reason for 10 games is clear, too. Johnson wasn’t hurt – an injury could have made it longer – but Kaleta has been fined or suspended six times in the last four seasons. But how would a neutral arbitrator view the league’s rationale? If a neutral arbitrator reduced the suspension, what then? How would that affect the dynamic in the future?
NHLPA members are on both sides in these situations. The union views its role, however, as not judge and jury, but the defense. It defends the player’s rights and watches over the process to make sure the right result is reached, whatever it is. What about the victim? The union says it protects players by having a say in the rules the NHL is enforcing.
— Alain Vigneault has a point. If the Washington Capitals’ Troy Brouwer didn’t see the New York Rangers’ Derek Stepan, what was he looking at? As he was going off on a change Wednesday night, Brouwer sauntered straight into Stepan as Stepan was skating backward in the neutral zone. The main point of contact was indeed the head. Did he do it on purpose? Accidentally on purpose?
Only Brouwer knows, and of course he said it was incidental contact. But let’s give Brouwer the benefit of the doubt here. He is not known to be dirty or sneaky-dirty. He was skating slowly toward an open bench door. He should have seen Stepan. He could have avoided Stepan. But he was tired at the end of a shift and might not have been paying attention because of it, and he did react as if this were a collision, bracing for impact at the last split-second, turning and looking back to see what happened. If he’s an actor, he’s a great one.
SHOOTOUT: Notes from around the NHL
— Jason Botterill, a former Sabre and the assistant GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins, was spotted in Buffalo on Monday night. But he was at the Sabres’ game against the Minnesota Wild to scout, not because he is about to replace GM Darcy Regier. Botterill will be a GM someday; Regier might be on the hot seat. But this isn’t happening yet.
— Huge news for the Detroit Red Wings: Darren Helm, who has played only one game in 18 months, is on a conditioning assignment with their American Hockey League affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins. If all goes well, he could be back in the NHL next week. The Wings have sorely missed his speed. They feel they are a different team with Helm in the lineup.
— Read what Duchene said in September about his chemistry with Parenteau: “He slows the game a little bit, draws everybody to him, and I kind of come up from underneath with speed. You get the puck, and then it’s easier. He’s slowed it down. He’s slowed everyone down for me.” Now watch this goal he scored Tuesday night.
— Teemu Selanne grabbed a stick from the bench and scored on a breakaway. That turned out to be the winner Wednesday night as the Anaheim Ducks beat the Calgary Flames, 3-2, and improved to 5-1-0 and … wait. Isn’t Selanne 43? Didn’t the Ducks get blown out 6-1 by Colorado in the season opener? Aren’t they supposed to take a step back after finishing second in the West last season?
— Sidney Crosby leads the NHL in scoring with 12 points, with little to no fanfare outside of Pittsburgh. This is how it is now. Crosby’s brilliance isn’t news anymore. His recovery from concussions isn’t news anymore. The Penguins winning isn’t news anymore. Unless something crazy happens – a slump, a record, not gonna say the other thing – it’s all about the playoffs.
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