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A different kind of hat trick is important in hockey

Friday, 02.06.2009 / 10:00 PM / Columns

By Larry Wigge - NHL.com Columnist

Don't ever let anyone tell you that one or two or three items can't explain every problem a team can have today in hockey -- goaltending, the right coach, puck movement in transition.

I was thinking about that hockey hat trick of success the other day after the Ottawa Senators fired coach Craig Hartsburg after just 48 games. And it hit home again later that night when I watched the Anaheim Ducks struggle in a 3-2 victory against Buffalo.

Significance? Well, wasn't it just 20 months ago that the Senators and Ducks were playing in the Stanley Cup Final?

We're taught in Journalism 101 that getting a story starts with the Who, What, Where, When and Why. Not a hat trick, but a good start to analyzing what makes a story a story.

The Who in this story? Well, we've had Bryan Murray, John Paddock, Murray again, Hartsburg and now Cory Clouston as Senators coaches since they took the ice for Game 1 of the Cup Final on May 28, 2007.

What? Where? When? They are all kind of superfluous to the real question: Why? Why would a team on the edge of greatness wind up a 17-24-7 mess 20 months later?

While the horde of media around the NHL latched onto goaltending last season as the reason the Sens inexplicably fell off the face of the Earth after a 13-1 start and 23-8-4 record at Christmas to a 20-23-4 record the rest of the season. But Ray Emery and Martin Gerber were not the real bottom-line reasons for the team's collapse. Neither was Paddock or Murray.

Let's go back to the Hockey 101 basics from then to now: Who? Wade Redden, Joe Corvo, Tom Preissing and Andrej Meszaros. What? They were the top-scoring defensemen on the Senators in the 2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Where? They're all gone now.

And if we go outside the box for a second from Ottawa to Anaheim, we'll find out that the Ducks' dominance has dissipated on defense as well -- look at the loss of Francois Beauchemin (torn ACL in his left knee, out for the season) and Sean O'Donnell (traded to Los Angeles on Oct. 1 for a conditional draft choice).

The bottom line in today's game so often starts -- or falters -- with a team's inability to move the puck in transition. Sure, Ottawa's top line of Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson, which scored 113 goals in 2006-07, had combined for just 54 goals through 48 games, is a concern. So too are Mike Fisher and Antoine Vermette, who were down to 7 and 6 goals, respectively, after 23 and 24 goals last season.

It was just last week at a morning skate in St. Louis that Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson came to the same bottom-line cause and effect.

"When you don't have that flow or push up the ice like we used to have, well, everything kind of breaks down and the puck always seems to be in our own end of the rink," Alfredsson said. "We've seen the media pile on the goaltending, but the real reason for our struggles in my mind is that we haven't scored enough goals."

Alfredsson stopped short of criticizing the defensemen he has to work with now. But it's clear where he was headed as he continued: "We aren't getting as many chances to score as we used to. We aren't getting the kind of secondary scoring to make the opponents honest in defending us. That leads to squeezing the stick a little tighter. Missed opportunities."

Transition -- the X-factor in our hockey hat trick to success.

But don't just ask the Ottawa Senators and Anaheim Ducks -- not when defending champion Detroit starts with Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Niklas Kronwall, all good puck movers; San Jose added Dan Boyle and Rob Blake, and look at the Sharks go; Boston built its resurgence around Zdeno Chara, Dennis Wideman, Andrew Ference and Shane Hnidy's mobility on defense; Chicago added Brian Campbell to big-minute players like Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook; Pittsburgh lost Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney to injuries and look at the Penguins, Stanley Cup Finalists last spring, now.

Puck movement in transition? It so often answers the Who, What, Where, When and Why of everything in hockey.

Hockeytown discount? -- Detroit Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland went to the blue line at the trade deadline last February to acquire defenseman Brad Stuart from Los Angeles for a pair of draft choices. His attention this season, however, has been on the potential free agency of forwards Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa, Johan Franzen and Jiri Hudler.

After Zetterberg, the playoff MVP in the Wings' Stanley Cup run, signed a 12-year extension for less money than he could have gotten on the open market, Holland admitted that chances of getting Zetterberg, Hossa and Franzen re-signed were not nearly as gloomy as he feared earlier this season.

"I'm going to try and get something done in the next four or five weeks (with Hossa or Franzen), then see what happens after the playoffs," Holland said. "If they both want to stay and the cap goes up a little, there's an outside chance -- especially if they are as motivated to make it work as Henrik was."

There are smaller dollar exchanges Holland could consider if coach Mike Babcock says that rookies Ville Leino and Justin Abdelkader are ready for big NHL minutes. But it all comes down to how much Hossa and Franzen want to be in Detroit.

Hossa, who signed a one-year deal with Detroit last summer, had a team-leading 26 goals after scoring twice and then the shootout winner against St. Louis on Feb. 2. If Hossa would take a Detroit discount like Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk did, well, Holland might think it's Christmas in July when free agency begins again.

No doubting Thomas -- Just one day after there was speculation in Edmonton that Oilers coach Craig MacTavish was going to send Dustin Penner to his doghouse for the second time this season, Buffalo winger Thomas Vanek scored his fifth career hat trick to power the Sabres to a 5-0 victory.

 
 
Flashbacks are wonderful, aren't they? Remember when then-Oilers GM Kevin Lowe signed restricted free agent Vanek to a seven-year offer sheet in July 2007? The Sabres, after losing free agents Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, weren't about to let Edmonton steal Vanek out from under them, so they matched the offer.

That's when Lowe shifted his attention to Anaheim, signing restricted free agent Penner to a five-year offer sheet -- which the Ducks did not match.

Three-plus years later, Vanek has 32 goals for the Sabres (just four behind League-leader Alex Ovechkin) and Penner just 11 for the Oilers -- including just 1 goal in his last 13 games.

Here come the Stars -- Considered one of the playoff locks when the season began, the Dallas Stars have been on a roller coaster. Now, though, the ride isn't so bumpy.

Since that fateful early December morning when free-agent pickup Sean Avery talked his way out of the NHL, the Stars have gone 16-7-3. More important, they've accomplished this turnaround without captain Brenden Morrow and defenseman Sergei Zubov, both injured and out for the season.

Coach Dave Tippett has stressed team unity and defense first -- and the team has lowered its goals-against from 3.77 prior to the Avery blowout to 2.81 in 23 games since. Loui Eriksson has picked up the goal-scoring slack (team-leading 24 goals) lost in free agency with Niklas Hagman going to Toronto and Antti Miettinen going to Minnesota. Meanwhile, power forward James Neal has made himself a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate with his 16 goals. And Marty Turco has showed his leadership and great never-give-up goaltending to lead the way.

Said Turco, "I think we all got mad at what was happening here and took it personally. I know I did."

Jay-walking? -- The next few weeks are going to be important for the present and future of the Florida Panthers, who are trying to convince unrestricted free-agent-to-be defenseman Jay Bouwmeester that he should stay in South Florida -- even if the team hasn't made the playoffs in any of his five previous seasons with the club since they made him the third pick of the 2002 Entry Draft.

"From Day 1 of training camp, I wanted to sell Jay on the idea there is light at end of tunnel here, that we've got the program headed in the right direction," said rookie coach Peter DeBoer. "We're hoping that means the playoffs this year. If not, we think it's the playoffs in the near future and where we're heading."

Weather forecast -- When Vancouver defenseman Willie Mitchell was talking about the Canucks' woeful 0-5-3 stretch at home, he used a weather analogy to describe what it was like, saying, "Sometimes it's just a stiff wind in your face ... and you have to battle a little harder."

The main targets of finger-pointing in Vancouver have been returning No. 1 goalie Roberto Luongo and recently signed free agent center Mats Sundin. However, in Vancouver's 4-3 triumph against Carolina on Feb. 3 to end the losing streak, Luongo was steady and Sundin added a goal and an assist.

The Canucks overcame the wind of the Hurricanes for the win.

Great Scott -- He's won four Stanley Cups, an Olympic gold medal and a World Junior Championship and yet there are times I wonder if Scott Niedermayer might not have established himself as one of the truly great offensive defensemen in the game.

On an Anaheim team that has lacked push up the ice at times this season, Niedermayer, who had only 19 points (5 goals, 14 assists) in 38 games through the end of December, took charge in January, totaling 1 goal and 16 assists in 14 games to set personal highs for points and assists in a calendar month. His previous highs for one month were set in March 2006 (16 points, 13 assists).

Building from strength -- There was a reminder for teams on the outside looking in at the playoffs when the trading deadline comes around that all is not lost.

In February 2004, the Washington Capitals traded veteran center Robert Lang to Detroit for prospect Tomas Fleischmann and two draft choices. The Red Wings won three playoff series in the three postseasons Lang played in Detroit. Meanwhile, Fleischmann has a career-high 15 goals this season. And the first-round pick Washington got from Detroit became All-Star defenseman Mike Green, who leads the League's blueliners with 15 goals and 40 points, despite missing 13 games earlier in the season with an injury.

"We're lucky to have him. He's a game-breaker," said Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau. "I shake my fist at him sometimes like I'm his father when he takes off on a rush. But I like it that he's passionate about winning. He wants to do something -- lead a rush, score a goal. When you can make a difference like him, I have no problems giving him the green light."

Following the break -- Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner said he just relaxed during the All-Star break. Oh, and he stopped gripping his stick so tightly, too. The result has been nothing short of sensational -- three straight two-goal games and the game winner in each contest. That coming after he had only 8 goals in 47 games before the break. In the process, Langenbrunner became just the fifth player to post three straight two-goal games and three straight game-winners -- and the first since Wayne Gretzky did it with Edmonton in 1984. For the record, the others to accomplish this feat were Johnny Gagnon in 1932, Claude Larose in 1966 and Mickey Redmond in 1974. ... Look out Red Wings' opponents -- Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are together again. And Marian Hossa's goal-scoring won't dry up now that he's on a line with Johan Franzen and Valterri Filppula, as his 2 goals (giving him 28 this season) showed Feb. 4 in a 5-4 win against Phoenix. ... When Atlanta's Slava Kozlov scored the winner in a 2-1 shootout victory against the New York Rangers on Feb. 3, it was Kozlov's 20th career shootout goal in 35 attempts, tying him with Jussi Jokinen for the highest total by any player over the four seasons in which the tiebreaker has been used. ... To say that David Booth was a born goal-scorer with his back-to-back 20-goal seasons in Florida would be misleading, especially since he never had more than 17 goals in one season anywhere -- for Detroit Compuware in the North American Hockey League, at the U.S. National Development Program, in four years at Michigan State or one year in the American Hockey League. Can you say late bloomer? ... Captains crunching numbers in the Central Division? How about Chicago's Jonathan Toews with 7 goals in his last 13 games and Columbus' Rick Nash with five multi-point nights in his last 12 games? ... Another former first-rounder rounding into form is Kyle Okposo of the New York Islanders, whose 5 goals in his last four games came after a confidence-building session with coach Scott Gordon. ... Last season, Colby Armstrong and Erik Christensen were kind of afterthoughts in Pittsburgh before they were dealt to Atlanta for Marian Hossa at the trading deadline. Now, sources report Thrashers GM Don Waddell is getting plenty of inquiries about those two from teams looking for help before this season's deadline -- with Armstrong particularly setting the tone in a lot of Atlanta games lately. ... Beware of being named the No. 1 goalie in Nashville. Well, sort of. Chris Mason lost that title last season to Dan Ellis. Now, Pekka Rinne apparently has wrestled No. 1 away from Ellis, having appeared in 16 of the past 19 games after making only nine appearances in the first 31. ... What would a report from St. Louis be without a M*A*S*H warning? Andy McDonald, who had 6 goals and 12 assists in his first 16 games before being sidelined with an ankle injury, was expected back after the All-Star break. Soreness in that ankle, though, has pushed his return back again. But the injury report has not stopped the Blues from talking to the potential unrestricted free agent about a new multi-year contract.

Things that make you go hmm -- In the second year of a three-year deal, Sharks center Joe Thornton says he's a realist and isn't interested in a 12-year extension like Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg recently signed. "I like one- or three-year deals," Thornton said. "I don't know what I want to do in a couple years so why commit myself for that long?" ... David Krejci's goal in a 3-1 win at Philadelphia on Feb. 4 gave Boston its 10th win in its last 11 road games. It was Krejci's League-high fifth go-ahead goal in the third period this season; no other player has more than three such goals. ... For those of you who were speculating that Chicago would not keep Martin Havlat since he's on the final year of a three-year contract and, at 27, the Blackhawks couldn't afford the oft-injured winger any longer, think again. You don't fool with good karma -- and the chemistry between third-liners Havlat, Dave Bolland and Andrew Ladd has been essential to Chicago's attack this season. Plus, Havlat is on pace for 66 points, which would be his best offensive season since 2003-04, his final year with the Senators, when he had 68. More important, he's only played in 70 or more games twice in his career -- and he's not missed a single game this season. ... Phoenix captain Shane Doan says of all the young players on the Coyotes, the one who has scary skills and often goes under the radar is speedy Enver Lisin. ... What do you know about Jonathan Quick? Other than having two shutouts in his first four NHL starts with the Los Angeles Kings and three shutouts in his first 14 starts following a 1-0 victory in Ottawa on Feb. 3. A third-round pick (No. 72) in the 2005 Entry Draft, Quick, the son of a salesman for Entenmann's bakery in Milford, Conn., plays a simple angles game and doesn't let the fact that the Kings have been kind of a goaltender's graveyard in recent seasons bother him one bit. ... On the night Adam Graves' No. 9 was raised to the rafters at Madison Square Garden, you would have thought the Rangers could have found a spark on offense, right? Well, no. It wasn't until 10.7 seconds remained that Markus Naslund tied the contest with the Atlanta Thrashers on Feb. 3. That gave the Blueshirts 19 goals in their last 11 games. ... Tough loss in Montreal. Center Robert Lang was playing a key role on the Canadiens' power play and penalty kill; now he's out for the season following a severed Achilles tendon. But GM Bob Gainey has the depth to move centers Saku Koivu and coming-on-strong Maxim Lapierre to take on additional duties. ... Toronto forward Jason Blake, who just now is coming back to form after being diagnosed with a form of leukemia more than 16 months ago, said the medication and the disease wore him down. In the summer, he considered the importance of hockey in his life. Then he got a jolt of reality when new coach Ron Wilson benched him earlier this season. Now he's healthy and wants to be wanted -- and his 7 goals and 6 assists in a recent six-game stretch shows the 35-year-old veteran he's still got it. ... Flashback? In some ways, you can't help but look at 6-foot-4, 220-pound, 24-year-old Calgary rookie defenseman Adam Pardy and see a glimpse of what Robyn Regehr looked like when the Flames acquired him from Colorado for Theo Fleury at the trade deadline in 1999. ... Despite starting the season in the minors, Minnesota forward Cal Clutterbuck led the NHL in hits with 180 in just 45 games going into February. And on Feb. 4, Clutterbuck set a career-high with nine hits in the Wild's 3-0 victory against Anaheim. Who says there's no hitting in the NHL today?


Quote of the Day

I kept refreshing the page on the NHL website after the second round and I was shocked he lasted that long. I'm sure the Coyotes were pretty happy to get him. He's such a good player and he plays big in big games.

— Arizona forward Henrik Samuelsson on prospect Edgars Kulda being drafted by the Coyotes