One of the big stories this past weekend came Friday when the Florida Panthers dismissed coach Kevin Dineen and replaced him with Peter Horachek. I think there were a lot of reasons this move came about, with the obvious one being that for the second straight season the Panthers are struggling. New Panthers owner Vincent Viola, I think to some extent, wants to put his stamp on the team by pushing general manager Dale Tallon to make a change, but it's important to show your fans you won't settle for what's happening on the ice, and that's what this move does.
In addition to that, though, it looks to me like the players had quit listening to Dineen. In recent weeks you started seeing veteran players like Kris Versteeg as healthy scratches. When you have to start doing that as a coach, scratching veterans and guys that are supposed to be your leaders, that tends to tell you there's trouble in the dressing room. This was Dineen's third year in Florida and that third year tends to be when the majority of coaches get fired. They run out of ways to say what they believe in and the players can get tired of hearing you. I think that's what happened with Kevin.
Of course, some things were out of Dineen's control. There were a ton of injuries last season and this season, a number of guys they were counting on are having terrible years and a lot of the young guys haven't progressed as quickly as the team would have hoped. Don't forget, the Panthers also lost Stephen Weiss and Jason Garrison to free agency over the past few years and you can't really replace those guys.
Right now the Ottawa Senators are sixth in the Atlantic Division, already eight points behind the division leaders. It's still early but this is not where we thought Ottawa would be. I don't know that I would say it's time to "worry," but I do think it might be time to be concerned.
In a lot of ways there are good things that are happening. Sunday, even in a loss, they caught some breaks -- literally in the case of Bobby Ryan's stick-breaking goal that tied the game in the final 10 seconds. In addition Erik Karlsson is starting to play the way we've envisioned and Jason Spezza has scored as well. Obviously there was a scary moment when Craig Anderson was hurt, but even if he misses extended time backup goalie Robin Lehner has been good.
I think they know they've got a good team and they're certainly not happy with the way they've played so far, but I also think when they start to watch the tape from this past weekend, when the Senators had back-to-back shootout losses, they'll see some good teams and manage to pull themselves together.
Without a doubt we had the biggest trade of the season so far Sunday night when the Buffalo Sabres shipped Thomas Vanek to the New York Islanders for two draft picks and Matt Moulson. Now everyone is going to rush to judgment on who won the trade, but when you're dealing with draft picks like that, a lot of times it doesn't come out until you see the draft picks play.
A few years ago the Boston Bruins traded Phil Kessel to the Toronto Maple Leafs and one of the draft picks the Bruins got eventually turned into Tyler Seguin. He was unbelievable with Boston at first, particularly when the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011, but now Seguin is gone and people are saying maybe Toronto won the deal because Kessel is playing so well. With draft picks, it takes some time.
Anyone who follows hockey saw something special Saturday when Mike Smith became the 11th goalie ever to be credited with an NHL goal. Few things are as exciting or as rare in hockey as when a goalie takes a shot at the open net, but I've got to say, I'm not surprised Smith scored a goal. I'm surprised it took him this long.
I coached Smith in Tampa Bay and I saw up close how good he is with the puck. He probably shoots the puck as hard as two-thirds of his team and he just handles it great. Now Smith has dialed his puck handling back of late. When he first came into the NHL he kind of over-handled the puck, but he could handle it so well that it makes him very dangerous when he has his opportunities.
When you play Mike Smith, you talk about that before the game. You talk about his puckhandling ability and how he can pass the puck so you're not lazy on a change. Smith is a guy that can accurately throw the puck from his net up to the far blue line, and if he's facing a lazy team on a bad change he'll create a breakaway on that pass. Some goalies have a great glove hand; he's a great puckhandler with great shooting ability. That's one of his weapons.
Out in the Western Conference this season we see the usual suspects like the Chicago Blackhawks, the San Jose Sharks and the St. Louis Blues among the leaders in the standings. But through five games there's one surprise team that's right there with them, and it's the Colorado Avalanche. After struggling the last few seasons this kind of 5-0-0 start is unexpected, but I think they're for real.
If you look at their goaltending, Semyon Varlamov's numbers have been fantastic, but even when he gets a night off Jean-Sebastien Giguere comes in to play one game and is awesome. The Avalanche have a backup goaltender that's won the Conn Smythe Trophy. Not many teams have that in hockey. Then you look at their defense. This was supposed to be their weakest link, but it's been very good so far. Everyone knew Colorado's forwards would score, but the defense and goaltending were expected to be weaknesses and they've actually been their strengths. Add that to their sheer talent up front after all the high draft picks they've had, and throw in what Patrick Roy has brought to the team as coach, and you've got a 5-0-0 record.
The Avalanche can score, but if it's a low-scoring game, they've now got the goaltending to compete and defensively they're committed. When you've drafted as high as the Avs have for as long as they have, you know you've got talent on your team. Next to the Edmonton Oilers, the Avs have had the highest picks in the NHL over the past five years and now that roster has Nathan MacKinnon, Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog on it, and don't forget Erik Johnson was a No. 1 pick by St. Louis. This team was always going to be talented, but it takes someone to bring that talent out. That's where Roy has come in. Roy has done a great job and you've got to give him the credit for this turnaround. When you look at this team vs. who was on the roster a year ago, the only real difference aside from drafting Nathan MacKinnon is Roy. He's come in and demanded work ethic, he's demanded preparation, he's demanded commitment to winning and he's getting all those things.
The 2013-14 NHL season is underway and after the first week we're already starting to see who is playing great, which teams are real contenders and which teams might be in for a long 82 games. Here are some of my thoughts on the first week of the new season.
Toronto takes charge
After finally snapping their postseason drought last season the Toronto Maple Leafs exited the Stanley Cup Playoffs in about as brutal a way as any team can. There's the threat that a loss like that can carry over to the next season, but so far the Leafs look great. One of the things I like about them is in their second game, a 3-1 win at Philadelphia, I thought they were outplayed by the Flyers, but they ended up getting the victory. It's a good sign when you're able to win a game when you're not at your best. I don't know if that could have happened last season and certainly over the past number of years. If Toronto didn't outplay the opposition it had no chance of winning.
On any night the goaltending, whether it's Jonathan Bernier or James Reimer, has been very, very solid, the Leafs aren't giving up very many offensive chances against and they just look rock solid all around. The right names are showing up on the scoreboard, they've got some grit, they hit, they're tough to play against and they're finding ways to win. Toronto is showing last year's return to the playoffs wasn't a fluke. And don't forget, Toronto is 3-0 without David Clarkson. He's a guy who was brought over to change the team and they haven't lost a game with him out of the lineup.
As we wait for the puck to drop tonight for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Chicago Blackhawks are right on the cusp of their second championship in four seasons. While it's been a great series so far, and these are two great teams, I have a feeling it may be pretty tough for the Boston Bruins to keep this thing going to a Game 7 on Wednesday.
Here are a few of my thoughts as we get ready for Game 6 tonight:
Bergeron's absence changes the game: Bruins coach Claude Julien said Monday he was "confident" Patrice Bergeron would play Monday night, and he had better hope so, because if Bergeron is out of the lineup, I just think it'll be too big a loss to overcome. When you look at what's happening here, the Bruins have lost two games in a row, they're not playing great, Zdeno Chara is struggling, Brad Marchand and Jaromir Jagr aren't doing much right now. And then you look at the other side of the coin. Chicago is starting to play the best hockey it's played all series, Patrick Kane is on fire, Bryan Bickell is playing well, the Sharp line is playing well, defensively they look rock solid and Corey Crawford has been much maligned, but all the guy does is win and now he's one win away from the Stanley Cup. I just think mentally and physically, the loss of Bergeron would be too much to overcome.
Usually the two teams that get to the Stanley Cup Final have had to overcome something. The Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins have both been tested. They've overcome the challenges and they're playing their best hockey right now. You don't get this far unless you're playing great hockey, and I think both these teams are playing the best hockey they've played all year long. They both have six excellent defensemen, they both play four lines and both teams are playing great, as you could see in their respective conference finals. To dominate two teams like the Los Angeles Kings and the Pittsburgh Penguins the way Chicago and Boston did is just phenomenal.
The 2013 Stanley Cup Final is pitting two teams that are deep, talented, experienced and playing with a ton of momentum. You probably have to go back to the 1980s when the Edmonton Oilers were playing against the Philadelphia Flyers, or maybe when the Flyers faced the New York Islanders a few years earlier, to find two teams that are this experienced in the Stanley Cup Final. It's very unusual to have a Final with two teams that have each won the Stanley Cup so recently.
So, with all that said, who has got the edge?
The answer is probably that neither team has any edge, at least not one that's obvious. I think what you've got is a powerful offensive team like the Blackhawks against a team that loves to try and play matchups and match lines. I think that's exactly what Bruins coach Claude Julien is going to have to do. He's going to want Zdeno Chara out against Jonathan Toews' line and Patrice Bergeron out against Marian Hossa's line, and it'll go from there just like it did against Toronto, the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh. And don't forget, this team returns a lot of the players that shut down a big offense in Vancouver in the Stanley Cup Final two years ago.
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I don't know how he does it. I don't know how he gets his body parallel with the player and pulls it through his legs like that. I know he's tried it a couple times in practice and it's never worked, so how he does it in a game, it's incredible.