Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s weekly Three Periods column will appear on Thursdays. This week’s topics include how Seth Jones has surprised even the Predators; why the Avs’ goalies are off to such a great start; how Bobby Ryan is adjusting to Ottawa; why Gary Bettman upheld the Patrick Kaleta suspension; and, why the John Scott situation isn’t quite what some think.
FIRST PERIOD: Seth Jones already ahead of schedule for the Predators
This was not the plan.
Yes, the Nashville Predators were thrilled when Seth Jones fell to them at fourth overall in last summer’s NHL draft. Coach Barry Trotz talked about pairing him with Shea Weber. The kid made the team with an impressive preseason.
But the kid was just that – a kid, 19 years old, living with his mother in a new city – and the leap from junior hockey to the NHL is supposed to be long, especially for defensemen, whose lack of strength and experience can be so easily exposed.
The plan was to pair Jones with Kevin Klein or Victor Bartley. Assistant coach Phil Housley said the Predators were going to give him about 15 or 16 minutes a game, “just slowly sort of breaking him in and getting him used to the game.”
So much for that. Roman Josi suffered a concussion the second game of the season, and the Predators put Jones on the top pair with Weber in his third NHL game – even though Jones was a right-handed shot on the left side and hasn’t played there much at any level.
It’s like Jones has a time machine. He is a time machine. He’s averaging more than 24 minutes per game – hard minutes against top competition in all situations, more than three minutes more than any other rookie – and he’s excelling so much that people are wondering whether he might make the U.S. Olympic team.
“It takes, I think, a defenseman at least five or six years to really get at the top of his game, and I think he’s sort of leaped forward of that,” Housley said. “It’s pretty incredible right now what he’s doing at this age. Sometimes I think we forget that he’s only 19 years old.”
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Jones, of course, is the son of former NBA player Popeye Jones. He has natural athletic ability, has been around pro sports and is used to the spotlight in his own right. He has the mobility and hockey IQ to play at the high pace of the NHL, and he has the composure to handle the pressure. He is not in awe – not even on a Saturday night in the mecca of Montreal, where he played 27:29 and scored the winner with 1:27 left in a 2-1 victory over the Canadiens.
Falling in the draft might have been a blessing. Housley was the sixth overall pick in 1982. He broke into the NHL at age 18 and became the highest-scoring American-born defenseman in history. He coached Jones when Team USA won gold at world juniors. When Housley joined the Predators in May, he didn’t think he would work with Jones in Nashville – no way Jones would fall to fourth, right? – but here they are together again.
One day Jones will fill out his frame, now listed at 6-foot-4, 204 pounds. But for now, he can be outmuscled. So Housley has him focusing on keeping inside position – riding opponents to the outside, pushing them as far as he can without losing them and allowing them to pop past him. Jones already makes tight turns and skates well out of trouble, and he already makes crisp passes, finding seams, hitting teammates. Housley is working with him on when to jump into the play.
The kid is going to make mistakes. He’s less than a month into his NHL career. But he has limited his mistakes so far, and he has been an eager student with perhaps the perfect teacher.
“There were a lot of questions – ‘Could he adapt? Could he make the adjustment?’ – and I think he’s answered those questions,” Housley said. “I think maybe not being picked first overall was a challenge for him. It was motivation, if you will, and that’s great for us, believe me.”
SECOND PERIOD: Avs off to great start thanks to Allaire, Varlamov, Giguere
The key to the Colorado Avalanche’s 8-1-0 start has been goaltending. Although the Avs are allowing 33.8 shots per game, sixth-most in the NHL, Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere are stopping 96.1 percent of them, best in the league.
The Avs’ new head coach is Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy. Their new goalie coach is butterfly guru Francois Allaire, who helped Roy win the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy with the Canadiens. Allaire did the same for Giguere with the Anaheim Ducks and also guided Giguere with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In July, Varlamov spent a week working with Allaire in Switzerland, where Allaire has a goaltending school. In August, Varlamov and Giguere spent two weeks working with Allaire in Montreal.
“Varly has worked extremely hard,” Giguere said. “His preparation for the season was second-to-none. He’s made the commitment. It would have been easy for him to spend the whole summer in Russia and have fun with his buddies and his family. But we wanted to make a point as a goaltending duo to be ready for the season and have a strong month of October, and so far it’s worked well.”
Varlamov has strong legs and is super-quick, but sometimes he used to get into trouble by being overly aggressive. Allaire has helped with positioning and technique. Varlamov is staying in the crease and letting the puck hit him more often. He is 5-1-0 with a 1.68 goals-against average and .950 save percentage.
Giguere has built his career on his technique. Allaire hasn’t adjusted much. Giguere has been known for wearing large equipment, too. But despite his age (36) and new rules (two inches off his pads), he is 3-0-0 with two shutouts, leading the league with a 0.67 GAA and .981 save percentage. He said the smaller pads don’t affect him because he uses a narrow butterfly style, protecting the five-hole with his knees, not his pads. If anything, his pads are a little lighter and easier to move.
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“I’d love to say that, for the record, I voted yes for the change,” Giguere said. “I don’t think many people would believe that, but I was for the change. Even though I was losing two inches, I think it was not a bad thing for the league. I think it’s important to have some goals out there. At the end of the day, it’s what sells the game, right?”
There will be more goals scored against the Avalanche. No team can keep winning at this rate, especially when allowing shots at this rate. No goalies can keep stopping pucks at this rate. But that doesn’t mean Allaire, Varlamov and Giguere haven’t built a foundation. That doesn’t mean the Avs are going to go back to what they were last season, second-worst in the NHL, miserable.
“Are we going to keep that up? Are we not? We’re going to lose some games at some point,” Giguere said. “But it’s nice to have that kind of start, because it gives you a lot of confidence and you can ride that way for a long time, too.”
THIRD PERIOD: Ryan finds more confidence, consistency and space in Ottawa
In his second game with the Ottawa Senators, Oct. 5 at Toronto, Bobby Ryan flashed back to his early days with the Ducks. He made a good play to gain the zone on a power play, but then he made a wrong read on a pass, jumped when he shouldn’t have and put himself out of position.
Skating back to the bench, he thought: “OK, that’s your last opportunity. Good luck on another unit.” Once upon a time in Anaheim under coach Randy Carlyle, Ryan might have lost his spot, at least for a while. Carlyle had little patience for mistakes, and he used one dominant power-play unit. He could demote you in favor of any number of guys looking for a chance.
But now, after an off-season trade, Ryan is playing for the Senators’ Paul MacLean, a hybrid of his two coaches in Anaheim – Carlyle and Bruce Boudreau. MacLean is demanding and wants you to stick to the structure, but he’s supportive and allows creativity offensively. Ryan found himself right back on the ice next to Jason Spezza & Co. on the next power play that night against the Leafs, and he relaxed.
“You don’t have to tighten up or whatnot,” Ryan said. “You can let it go and play. There’s been situations on the ice where I’d like to have things back, but we’ve had a lot of good talks between us about that kind of stuff. He’s given me the confidence to let me know that they’re going to put me right back out and get me right back into the situation again.”
Ryan came into this season looking for more consistency, and he has found it so far. He has six goals in his first nine games, three of them on the power play. As awkward as it was for the Senators to part with captain Daniel Alfredsson, they replaced a 40-year-old right winger with a 26-year-old right winger who was drafted second overall in 2005. Just wait until Ryan adjusts to the East.
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“There’s more opportunity up ice to create, whereas in the West I think you play through three zones,” Ryan said. “You live to fight another day to get through the blue line in the defensive zone. Then you kind of play in that transition area. And then you create off the cycle. Here I feel like there’s much more open ice through the middle, and I’m still getting used to that. I get to the point where I’m still dumping pucks that I don’t have to.”
Ryan enjoyed the cycle game in Anaheim, especially playing with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. But he thinks he will like the open ice a little more, picking up speed and making plays crossing the offensive blue line more often.
“I’m not fast, by any means,” said Ryan with a laugh. “I’m not going to win you a whole lot of foot races. But I like to think I have another step every now and again that can kind of confuse guys. I’m using the word ‘deceptive.’ ”
OVERTIME: Bettman upholds Kaleta’s 10-game suspension
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman upheld the 10-game suspension of Buffalo Sabres’ Patrick Kaleta, ruling it was supported by “clear and convincing evidence.” Under a new clause in the collective bargaining agreement governing suspensions of six games or more, Kaleta now has seven days to appeal to the neutral discipline arbitrator, James Oldham. If he does, we will have our first test case.
The league released Bettman’s ruling, a 17-page legal document. To be brief, the NHL Players’ Association argued Kaleta did not break Rule 48 because Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson changed position immediately prior to the hit and made the contact to the head unavoidable; and, even if it was an illegal check to the head, NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan went too far because of how he viewed Kaleta’s history and which precedents he cited. Bettman rejected all of that.
Some key quotes:
— “Regrettably, Mr. Kaleta stands out for his repeated violations of – and seeming indifference to – the Playing Rules put in place to protect other Players, and, particularly, other Players’ heads.”
— “It is now 2013. … There is no longer any possibility (assuming there ever was one) to excuse a Player on the basis of his failure to appreciate the importance of Playing Rule 48 (or the broader League-wide emphasis on protecting Players’ heads).”
— “The NHLPA’s emphasis on the fact that Mr. Johnson did not suffer an apparent injury on the play and therefore no significant discipline was warranted is misplaced. Mr. Shanahan’s disciplinary video makes clear that the absence of an injury has already been factored into the assessment of a suspension for ten (10) games. I suspect that the suspension meted out to Mr. Kaleta likely would have been significantly longer had Mr. Johnson been injured.”
— “Ensuring stiff punishment for Players who repeatedly violate Playing Rules, and repeatedly attempt to hurt other Players, is vital to the safety and well-being of all Players. This is something I have discussed with Players and the NHLPA generally over my tenure as Commissioner (both in the context of Competition Committee meetings and otherwise), and particularly in recent years. It is essential to the long term best interests of the game.”
Which brings us to …
SHOOTOUT: Notes from around the NHL
— Sabres enforcer John Scott has little to no value beyond fighting. But fighting and headhunting are two separate things and governed by different rules. Keep in mind that Scott has never been suspended in his NHL career and has no history of the kind of head shot he gave the Boston Bruins’ Loui Eriksson on Wednesday night. He will be suspended for the hit. His suspension might lengthen depending on Eriksson’s health. He could get six games or more, with the NHL requesting an in-person hearing. But the stiffest suspensions have gone to repeat offenders, and Scott, believe it or not, doesn’t fit that class.
— Best idea regarding Scott: Don’t suspend him. Make the Sabres play him at least 15 minutes a night instead. You might think this comical mess of a team can’t get any worse, but that would do it. Scott is the only player in NHL history who has played 150 or more games and recorded five or fewer points.
— Players like Jones are rare. It seems smarter to err on the side of caution and focus on the long term when deciding whether to keep teenagers in the NHL or return them to junior. But teams are less afraid of burning a year of entry-level contracts these days. “I think in special cases, you look at a lot of the top drafted players, they’re making an impact,” Housley said. “Why send them down when they’re some of the best players on your team?”
— You can tell how the Avs felt about Joe Sacco by the way they praise Roy. “Sometimes you have a coach that kind of works against you, and he’s always screaming at you,” Giguere said. “It’s different with Patrick. He’s like, ‘I want to win with you guys. We’re part of a team.’ ” The Avs haven’t hit hard times yet, though. What happens when they lose two in a row? How will Roy show his passion then? “Maybe he might change,” said Giguere with a laugh, “but I like the way he’s been approaching the game so far.”
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