At what point do questions about Brad Richards' struggles last season become old, dated and out of touch?
"If it's because things are going good then I'll keep answering them," Richards told NHL.com.
Things haven't been going well for the New York Rangers this season, but for the first time in a long time Richards isn't shouldering the blame. He's off to a strong start with seven points and 30 shots on goal in seven games. Considering the Rangers have scored 11 goals in their seven games (2-5-0), Richards obviously has been their most productive and consistent offensive player.
"I can't comment on what happened last season, but I can comment on the years before, where he was an elite player with an elite skill level and he really competed hard," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "What we've seen so far this year is exactly that."
To Richards, that's not news and it doesn't deserve a headline.
To the rest of the hockey world, the fact that Richards and the word "elite" are in the same sentence again is a striking change from the storyline that followed him into the 2013 offseason.
Richards was coming off a hot and cold regular season and an absolutely dreadful Stanley Cup Playoffs. Former coach John Tortorella, who went to bat for Richards to help persuade general manager Glen Sather to bring him to New York on a nine-year, $60 million contract, made his man a fourth-liner and then a healthy scratch for the final two games of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Richards blamed himself, admitting he wasn't ready to start the season once the lockout ended. He said of last season as a whole, "Everything was a mess." He certainly wasn't prepared to play a fourth-line role in the playoffs. He blamed Tortorella for putting him in that unfamiliar position, for not putting him in a position to succeed.
Was Richards right? Was Tortorella right? Nobody will ever know, but it resulted in a broken relationship between the two, one that may never be fixed.
The relationship between Richards and the Rangers was on the brink of collapsing too. The team could have used its remaining compliance buyout on Richards, who entered the season with seven years and $36 million left on his contract. It chose not to.
While it's a small sample size, Richards so far has made that look like a wise decision.
"It's adversity and I'm not immune to it," Richards said. "A lot of players have gone through it at different stages in their career. I was pretty lucky in my career where everything went nicely, I won a Cup early. I can't say I had to face a lot of bad times, but some people do face it early. It was a half a season, and probably half of a half a season that I played bad. It took on a life of its own and I kind of let that get to me.
"I just had to kind of clear my mind and realize that I still have put in some good work in my career. I relied on that and got back to work in the summer. It was hard, but I really just tried to put everything out of my mind and start fresh."
The Rangers still could use a compliance buyout on Richards next summer, when he'll have six years and $27 million left on his contract. Richards knows that and understands he's not safe. But he doesn't seem worried because his fresh start has led to him playing, as he puts it, his normal game, which for Richards historically has been better than most.
"People have a habit of coming up to me and asking, 'How do you feel?' They look at me like I'm an alien," Richards said. "I just feel that I would any other season. If that didn't happen last year this would not be a story. That's where I am. This is just the norm of how I play. I've set that standard throughout my career. That's all I want to do and maybe even be better. That's the plan. I want that to be talked about.
"I'm kind of sick of all the last-year stuff. That's all it is."
Reese pushes Mason back, brings out his Calder form
While reluctant to talk about the adjustments he has helped Steve Mason make, Philadelphia Flyers goalie coach Jeff Reese did at least concede that one of the major changes is that Mason is playing deeper in his crease and it's making him a more effective goaltender.
Mason, with his 2.37 goals-against average and .923 save percentage, has been the lone bright spot in what has been a dismal start to the season for the Flyers.
"It just simplifies his game and makes him more efficient," Reese told NHL.com on why he's had Mason play deeper. "It makes him work less. It's an easier game. You're there and you can play a lot of games on a consistent level. If it's a smaller goalie you can't do that. Like Jonathan Quick, he's way out and he's very quick side to side. It works for him. [Mason] still has to read the game, but this makes him more efficient and under control."
Reese said Mason's size -- he's 6-foot-4, 217 pounds -- is a big reason why he felt playing deeper would make him play better.
"I want him to beat the pass and be there for the shot because that way if the guy one-times it or throws it back, he can just adjust," Reese said. "If you're out farther you've got a longer way to go. The theory also is he's going to make three or four saves in the course of a game that he might not otherwise make. The downside is you're going to get beat with the odd shot or the odd high tip or deflection, but I always want him in position. I think a guy that big should never be out of position."
Santorelli quickly becoming Tortorella's guy
Tortorella, now coaching the Vancouver Canucks, continues to be impressed by the play and attitude he sees daily from forward Mike Santorelli, who has provided productive top-six minutes in the absence of Alexandre Burrows (broken foot).
"Quite honestly, I think the organization probably had him penciled in in Utica [of the American Hockey League], but he came into camp in probably the best shape out of most of our athletes, top three anyway, and has simply had an attitude that I'm going to make this team and I'm going to make a difference," Tortorella said. "He continues to do that just with his play. He doesn't say a word, just plays. It's been really refreshing."
Santorelli has played on the top line with the Sedin twins and on the second line with Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen. There are times he's played with Ryan Kesler as well. He had four goals and two assists in the first 10 games. He also has been noticeable when he hasn't gotten on the score sheet, which is why Tortorella regularly is playing him more than 18 minutes a game. He has not been a defensive liability.
"He does everything well," Henrik Sedin told NHL.com. "He's tough to play against on the boards. He takes pucks to the net. He's smart. He does the little things really well. That's what Torts is looking for."
Marchand trying to loosen his grip
Brad Marchand hasn't produced the way the Boston Bruins have come to expect from him so far this season (two points in seven games), and as a result his ice time has suffered, down to 14:57 per game after he averaged 16:57 per game last season.
"I came in and it just seemed like I was gripping the stick a little bit tight and forcing plays at the wrong time," Marchand told NHL.com. "My decision-making just wasn't really there. I think I've got to just get back to working a little harder and a little smarter. If I do that, things will come."
Marchand said he's most effective and involved in the game when he's riding the line between agitator and instigator, talking trash to opponents and trying to get under their skin. He said he is doing enough of that, but he has to use his stick and his skill as well as his mouth to help the Bruins, who play the Buffalo Sabres in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2, RDS2).
Sabres crushed by their starts
Steve Ott identified the one positive in what was an otherwise dreary first 10 games for the 1-8-1 Sabres.
"I would say it's the fact that we're in every single game," Ott told NHL.com.
Maybe not every game, considering three of Buffalo's losses have been by three-goal margins, but Ott's point is that at least the Sabres have been competitive. The problem is it's not until the second period begins.
Buffalo is being outscored 13-1 in the first period. Five of the Sabres' nine losses (including one in overtime) have been one-goal games, but they didn't score in the first period in any of them. Their lone goal in the first period this season came against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Oct. 10, but they trailed 3-1 after 20 minutes in that game.
The Sabres have been outshot 141-77 in the first period.
"[There have been] a lot of games that we started poorly because of trying to test the waters and obviously finding out later that we can play with these guys, coming back and probably being the better team in the second or third on most occasions," Ott said. "Our starts have really been killing us. The positive is that we're in all these tight games, but we're on the wrong end of them. We have to look for those positives."
This and that
* Sidney Crosby leads the NHL with 17 points. His linemates, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, have combined for 19 points. They all were among the League's top-30 scorers entering Tuesday, and yet here is a quote from Kunitz suggesting the Penguins' top line, which has helped the team to a 7-2-0 start to the season, isn't doing enough:
"We're doing OK, but I know we've left a few things out there on the ice and we have to get better," Kunitz told NHL.com. "We need our chemistry to succeed every game."
They may have left some points on the ice Monday despite combining for 16 shots on goal (blame Colorado Avalanche goalie Jean-Sebastian Giguere), but if 36 points from one forward line is just OK, then what constitutes good?
"The game is about shooting pucks and getting to the net," he said.
Of all people, Flyers rookie forward Tye McGinn is setting the example for what Berube wants. He has three goals in as many games since being recalled from the American Hockey League. All of his goals are a direct result of going to the net, finding the puck, and, you guessed it, shooting it into the net.
"The way he is on the puck, shooting pucks, he's great for our team," said Flyers captain Claude Giroux, who has as many points as McGinn despite playing five more games.
* David Clarkson will make his debut for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday at the Columbus Blue Jackets. Clarkson has served his 10-game suspension for coming off the bench to join an altercation during a preseason game. He makes his home debut Saturday against the Penguins (7 p.m. ET, CBC).
"I think the bottom line is he just needed a change. He needed people to believe in him again. I've watched his career and I've always felt he's a huge talent. From management to coaches to players, they all believe in him here. He's growing up. He's fought through some adversity. Early in his career he got a lot right away and sometimes it's actually better to go through a little adversity first."
Bruins forward Brad Marchand on if there is a line he will not cross when trash talking an opponent:
"I don't know. It depends on the heat of the moment. When the time comes, I decide then."
How much is an NHL coach paid on average and why are they not disclosed publicly like player's salaries? -- @NJD4LIFE
A team executive relayed to me that a big reason why player salaries skyrocketed was because they started to be made public. He suggested the same thing could happen if the salaries of coaches are disclosed. That said, the same executive noted that coaches talk amongst themselves and probably know what the other guy makes, so it helps in their negotiations. He estimated the average salary for a coach is around $1.2 to $1.3 million because there are some guys making upwards of $2 million, others making around $700,000, and many in between.
The details of a coach's contract occasionally will get reported because it gets leaked by an agent, the team or the coach himself. For instance, when Alain Vigneault was named coach of the Rangers there were multiple media reports that said his contract was worth approximately $10 million over five seasons. Those same media reports said that would make him the highest paid coach in the NHL.
It should be noted that many teams don't disclose player salaries either. A handful have started giving out contract details when a player signs, but there still are many that won't disclose the information, citing team policy. There are many other ways to obtain that information and it's obviously important because of the salary-cap implications. But since there is no salary cap for coaches, the need to know what they make is not nearly as great.
How much of Phoenix's success comes down to goalie Mike Smith, and is he an early contender for the Vezina Trophy? -- @mikelaybourne
Before looking at Smith, let's not ignore the fact that the Coyotes were 10th in the NHL in goals per game (3.00) entering Tuesday. They have scored four or more goals in four of their nine games. They can score, but to suggest they'll stay at this pace for the entire season would be wrong. They averaged 2.61 goals per game in their first four seasons under coach Dave Tippett. Their roster isn't built to sustain its current pace, which is all the more reason why Smith is so important.
The Coyotes play a disciplined defensive system, but any coach worth his salary understands disciplined defense only matters if your goalie is stopping the puck. As per usual, the Coyotes are going to ride Smith as far as he can take them, but with a 2.83 goals-against average and .916 save percentage he isn't an early season Vezina candidate yet.
With improvements at 5-on-5 and Steve Mason's stellar play, is the power play the key to the Flyers starting a run? -- @KylePineda2
It couldn't hurt if the Flyers got their power play (3-for-33 for the season) going, but it'll take more than that for them to dig out of the hole they're in now.
Their defense looks slow and old. Too many players have been turnover-prone and missing assignments in front of the net. The Flyers aren't getting enough from their top forwards, even though Claude Giroux looks like he's trying to take on the responsibilities of two players to get this team going. He's falling victim to trying to do too much instead of just trying to be good at what he's supposed to do.
Mason has to be excellent (he's been close) and the power play needs to deliver (it went five straight games without scoring), but if the Flyers are going to start a run they're going to need to tighten up defensively, be much more careful with the puck and simplify things on offense.
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