Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s weekly Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week’s topics include why P.K. Subban appears to be on the bubble for Team Canada; how the Coyotes’ start has left an owner “speechless;” why hybrid icing might be one of the NHL’s great changes; how the referee was worried about the worst-case scenario in the Ray Emery-Braden Holtby incident; plus, notes on fighting, Ted Nolan and Nail Yakupov.
FIRST PERIOD: Could Team Canada not include the Norris Trophy winner?
Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman made an interesting comment the other day about scouting players for the Sochi Olympics.
“The majority of the players we’re talking about – all of them, really – they all play a lot,” Yzerman said. “Generally they’re all around the puck a lot. So you can watch them on TV more so than, say, a third-line checker or a fourth-line player or whatnot. But I think it’s important to see players live because you see them away from the puck. We pretty much know these players very well. It’s coming down to decisions between very good players and who’s going to fit and how are they in certain situations.”
Hmm. What does Yzerman see when he watches P.K. Subban? The Montreal Canadiens star won the Norris Trophy last season as the NHL’s best defenseman. The 24-year-old is the second-leading scorer among defensemen this season with 17 points in 19 games, and advanced stats say he is a top possession player. Yet he appears to be on the bubble because of his flashy, risky style.
What does Subban need to do to convince Yzerman he’s a lock? Yzerman didn’t want to comment on any individual, but he said: “We’re going to put out players that we can count on in both ends of the rink, because at this level if you’re not responsible – and I’m not being specific to anyone, this goes for them all – if they’re not responsible, the coaches aren’t going to put them on the ice.”
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Subban has the puck a lot, which means his opponents don’t have the puck as much. When he creates offense, he doesn’t even have to play defense. He also has more chances to make mistakes than most players, and when he makes them, he might stand out more than others do. His positives far outweigh the negatives in the NHL. He’s set to become a restricted free agent after this season and will get paid handsomely.
But what does Yzerman see away from the puck? What does Yzerman see in the defensive end? In a single-elimination tournament at the pinnacle of the sport, when the roster should be loaded offensively and one defensive mistake can make the difference, will Team Canada think Subban’s rewards are worth the risks?
A couple things to consider:
Yzerman put Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty on the team in 2010 when Doughty had just turned 20, and coach Mike Babcock fell in love with him in Vancouver. Doughty played an increasing role as Team Canada won gold.
After the final walkthrough at orientation camp in August, Babcock spoke with a player 1-on-1 along the boards in Calgary: P.K. Subban. You’ve got to believe Babcock told him specifically what he wanted to see, and you’ve got to believe Yzerman, Babcock and the rest of the braintrust will be evaluating that more than anything else.
SECOND PERIOD: Coyotes’ hot start has left owner “speechless”
It was surreal. The Coyotes had an owner. And he was on Phoenix sports talk radio. And it was in November. And he was being baited about where the Stanley Cup parade would be – on Central Avenue in Phoenix or just in suburban Glendale.
“I almost feel like I shouldn’t even try to answer that jinxing question,” Coyotes president and CEO Anthony LeBlanc laughed Thursday morning on Arizona Sports 620. He said that would be “a nice problem to have.”
Just worrying about a jinx is a nice problem for the Coyotes, who were supposed to parade to Seattle or Quebec City or somewhere, but have stayed in Glendale and gotten off to a great start. They were 13-4-2 entering Thursday night’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks, and their 28 points put them in a three-way tie for second-most in the NHL (they had played two more games than the Colorado Avalanche and one more than the ’Hawks).
Remember that this team made the playoffs three years in a row – and reached the Western Conference final in 2011-12 – before missing the playoffs last season when the lockout messed with the schedule and the ownership uncertainty dragged into its fourth year. Now the schedule is back to normal, the NHL has finally sold the team out of bankruptcy and the relocation speculation has stopped.
At first, the coaches and players were consciously excited to be able to focus on hockey. “I think it let everybody get out of the gate with a little bit more enthusiasm,” LeBlanc said. Then they forgot about that and actually just focused on hockey. “These guys are in a groove,” LeBlanc said. “Their confidence level is where it should be and what you need to be a successful franchise.”
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The Coyotes have not been winning with their usual stingy style. They are scoring 3.10 goals per game, sixth-most in the league, while allowing 3.00 goals per game, seventh-most in the league. They’re giving up too many shots, 35.0 per game, fourth-most in the league. But goaltender Mike Smith has been stellar, defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson has continued to develop into an elite player and the scoring is deeper and more balanced than before. Coach Dave Tippett is capable of tightening down his system.
LeBlanc said he was “somewhat speechless” and added: “We expected this team to be very good. We expected this team to be a contender, and we’ve always felt that this is a playoff team, and let’s make sure we all understand that it’s still early. We’ve only played a portion of the season. But we’re thrilled.”
What about the business?
In an interview before the season opener, LeBlanc said he expected attendance to be relatively low in October and November, as it traditionally has been in Glendale. He also said his biggest fear was losing all the games on an early road trip because Phoenix is a fair-weather market. “That scares me to death,” he said then. “That’s how it goes wrong.”
Well, attendance has been bad. The Coyotes rank dead-last in the NHL in both average crowd (12,398) and percentage of capacity (72.4). But on the radio Thursday morning, LeBlanc said ticket revenue was up about 20 percent. He said the Coyotes had sold 15 more full-season suites, suite rentals were up almost 100 percent and corporate sponsorships were tracking toward the best season in franchise history.
And the Coyotes did not lose all the games on that early road trip. They went 3-2-0. They’re also 8-0-1 at home. Their hope is that the team’s strong start will help draw more fans as the season goes on and that other revenue streams – from the team and the league – will make this go right.
THIRD PERIOD: Hybrid icing might be one of best changes for player safety
When the NHL introduced hybrid icing, the hope was that the rule would keep the race for the puck and reduce catastrophic injuries. The worry was that the linesmen were going from a black-and-white judgment (who touched the puck first?) to a much more murky one (who would win the race?).
The GMs continue to worry about how the enforcement of the rule could affect playoff races and playoff games. Will the linesmen get it right in the dying seconds of a critical game? Will the clock stop at the precise moment it should?
At the GMs’ meeting Tuesday in Toronto, NHL director of officiating Stephen Walkom made a couple of points:
One – and this is coming from a former on-ice official – the linesmen didn’t get it right every time under the touch icing rule, anyway. Human error is always part of the equation, no matter how much you try to avoid it. “Mistakes were made within the game, and you’re still going to have mistakes,” Walkom said.
Two, a little more than 260 games into the new rule, the linesmen appear to be adjusting well. There have been hiccups here and there, but the linesmen – who don’t judge who wins the race to the dots, but judge at the dots who would win the race to the puck – are calling icings at virtually the same rate as they did before. There were about 8.4 icings per game last season. There have been about 8.5 icings per game so far this season.
“People can say, ‘Well, the linesmen are always going to give the defenseman the benefit of the doubt,’ ” Walkom said. “Well, the answer is, if it’s a tie, yes. And they’re going to make that decision at the dot for safety reasons. If they weren’t predicting the icing as accurately as we hoped they would, we would have way more icings, but we don’t.”
Remember, too, that’s with the elimination of the attainable pass. Linesmen don’t wave off icings anymore if a player is near the puck. A player has to touch the puck. “There should be more,” Walkom said.
In the end, hybrid icing has had little impact on the play of the game – and defensemen are no longer being put in dangerous positions on icing plays. “Everybody when it first came in was, ‘Oh, boy, this is going to be real bad,’ ” Walkom said. “But in fact, maybe it might end up being one of the best changes the general managers ever made for player safety.”
OVERTIME: Referee worried about worst-case scenario with Emery-Holtby
A footnote to the Ray Emery-Braden Holtby goalie debacle on Nov. 1:
With at least one fight already going between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Washington Capitals in the third period of a 7-0 game, Emery charged the length of the ice and challenged Holtby. Referee Francois St. Laurent tried to get in between them and stop the fight before it started, but failed.
Then St. Laurent not only stood and watched as Emery pummeled Holtby mercilessly, but kept other players from breaking it up. Finally, with Emery on top of Holtby, the linesmen came in as other fights started.
Walkom said St. Laurent’s first priority was to prevent the worst-case scenario.
“As much as in that situation Frankie tried to get in to prevent the fight, once the fight began, his focus turned back to, ‘I don’t want the benches to clear,’ ” Walkom said. “Now, did it look bad? Yeah, it looked bad. In a perfect world, he gets [Emery] before he gets there and we don’t have that fight. In a perfect world, we have two linesmen there to break it up. It’s always easier in hindsight, but everybody was trying to do the right thing in that situation.”
The referees’ main jobs are to survey the scene. If they are engaged in a fight, they might miss something going on somewhere else. The linesmen are taught to break up fights – and to do it in a team of two, because one linesman trying to break up a fight can be dangerous for both the linesmen and the fighters.
“You’re often waiting for another person,” Walkom said. “[St. Laurent] got overpowered when he went in the first time, and he’s a pretty big guy. Hey, could it have turned out better? Yeah, we all hope it would have turned out better. But in the same breath, he was looking beyond what was happening right there.”
SHOOTOUT: Notes from around the NHL
— At the GMs’ meeting, NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan showed clips of lopsided fights. No one made a peep about suspensions in those cases. So why should Emery be suspended? Because he and Holtby are goalies? Because Holtby didn’t want to fight at first? Holtby did engage; he just got his butt kicked. There have been several examples of what the league considers reluctant combatants, not unwilling combatants, and when there is a fight, someone might lose. That’s the reality under the current rules.
— The GMs seem to support a rule against a goalie instigating a fight with another goalie, but the Emery-Holtby incident was unique. Goalie fights are rare. Because of that, the GMs could find it easy to recommend a new rule when they meet in March – or to forget about it when months have passed, if no other major incidents have occurred and emotions have calmed.
— Ted Nolan makes a ton of sense as interim coach of the Buffalo Sabres. He should energize the fans, because he has been popular since winning the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year in 1997 and leaving because of a contract dispute. He should energize the players, who have been going through the motions. “I want people who compete,” Nolan said. “We’re in the entertainment business, and we have to entertain people.” Nolan is competing for his career, too. He has been out of the NHL since 2008, and he was emotional, saying he was unsure he would get another chance. If he does well, the Sabres can keep him. If he doesn’t, the Sabres couldn’t have done worse, right?
— Nail Yakupov is 20 years old. He has played 66 NHL games – not yet a full season. He is a Russian adjusting to his second NHL coach already, and this one (Dallas Eakins) doesn’t have the European background of the previous one (Ralph Krueger). The Edmonton Oilers should not trade a kid who was talented enough to be the first overall pick in last year’s draft unless they receive an incredible return. That said, they should not ignore Igor Larionov’s concerns. Larionov is Yakupov’s agent, yes, but he’s also a Hall of Famer who knows a thing or two about playmaking and how Russians adjust to North America. The way the Oilers have started, they should have invited Larionov to visit Edmonton.
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