Cam Neely thought Pat LaFontaine was merely picking his brain to see how things were going as one longtime friend and former competitor checking in with another. Little did Neely know LaFontaine was on a clandestine advice-seeking mission each time the two spoke earlier this season.
"Looking back I can say maybe it was research," Neely, the Boston Bruins' president and alternate governor, told NHL.com, "but during the conversations it felt that it was just his interest in what was happening."
LaFontaine and Neely are laughing about those conversations now, two weeks after LaFontaine was named the Buffalo Sabres' president of hockey operations. He was hired on Nov. 13.
"I couldn't quite tell him everything," LaFontaine told NHL.com. "After he found out he sent me a funny email, called me and wished me good luck."
Do you think the Devils will try to acquire a top-four defenseman at some point? -- @amazingjr87
They should try to get one of those guys, maybe someone on an expiring contract like Nikita Nikitin from the Columbus Blue Jackets, Tom Gilbert from the Florida Panthers or Nick Schultz from the Edmonton Oilers. I'm not suggesting they're going after those guys, just merely using them as examples. And it's debatable if Nikitin and Schultz are even top-four blueliners right now. Regardless, they should try. They should stay in the playoff mix if they continue to get the goaltending they're getting from Martin Brodeur and Cory Schneider. They have a lot of defensemen, but I'm not sure they have great depth at the position.
There was no talk of James Reimer for Team Canada in your piece, not even a peep. If he stays hot why not bring him along as a third? -- @NathanKanter11
For reference, I offered my selections for Canada's Olympic roster in this story (READ HERE) that came out Monday. My selections for Canada's three goalies were Roberto Luongo, Carey Price and Corey Crawford.
The 6-0 loss Monday night notwithstanding, Reimer has been relatively solid in a small sample size this season. He hasn't done enough to convince me that he can go win a gold medal in a best-on-best tournament. Sure, you say take him as the third goalie, but it's not just a throw-in position. What if the first two guys get hurt? What if Reimer has to play in the gold-medal game? Steve Yzerman has to be thinking along those lines. He has to be able to trust that Reimer can succeed when the pressure is at its peak. Reimer hasn't shown enough in his career to prove he can do that.
How can the Islanders be fixed? -- @BillyFitzz
Six words and yet it's such a loaded question. There are so many ways to go about answering this, but I'll start in goal. The Islanders need a young, yet somewhat proven NHL goalie that can grow with the team. They don't have that now. Two of them were available after last season (Jonathan Bernier, Cory Schneider). They should have tried to get either one. Maybe they did and couldn't. They should have tried harder then. Teams can't win with subpar goaltending. Good goaltending sends confidence through the dressing room. Teams play better when they can trust the goalie. Once the Islanders solve their issue in goal they can go about working on the defense, which clearly needs some work.
There's a reason why LaFontaine chose Neely as his secret sage.
"I have great respect for him," LaFontaine said. "I'm so happy to see him have success in Boston."
LaFontaine wants to have similar success in Buffalo, but their roles are different. Neely acts as the conduit between the day-to-day hockey and business operations of the club and Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs; LaFontaine is tasked only with revamping the hockey side of the Sabres. Ted Black handles Buffalo's business side as the team's president and alternate governor.
However, LaFontaine and Neely have enough in common that the Sabres' new hockey boss thought it wise to collect advice from the Bruins' president.
They were drafted the same year (1983), only six spots from each other with LaFontaine going third to the New York Islanders and Neely ninth to the Vancouver Canucks. Neely retired in 1996 because of injuries; LaFontaine retired two years later because of injuries. LaFontaine was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003; Neely was inducted two years later. They have combined forces for various other projects, and now they're working for the teams they used to play for.
"Cam fills his role in the hockey capacity in a very important way, because it's a connection between the owner and president now down to the general manager and the coaching staff," LaFontaine said. "In good organizations there aren't any disconnects. You want to be connected and everybody working at the same page. My responsibility is not only putting the people in place, but making sure everybody is working together, having input, going in the right direction. The responsibility lies on my shoulder to make sure the right people are picked and to make sure things are running the right way, everybody is doing their job."
Neely didn't have to do all that. General manager Peter Chiarelli and coach Claude Julien were in place when Neely took over as the team's president in 2010 after a three-year run as vice president. Chiarelli and Julien have made his job easier, Neely said.
"When you have good people, you can focus on other areas that you might need to focus on," he added.
LaFontaine is in the process of putting what he hopes are good people into prominent positions. He said he has begun interviewing candidates for the Sabres' general manager opening, and has more scheduled. He doesn't have a timetable for when he wants to have a GM in place.
Neely confirmed the Bruins have granted assistant GM Jim Benning permission to interview with LaFontaine for the Sabres' opening.
"He's been a valuable part of our organization and I can see why Pat and the Sabres would want to talk to him," Neely said of Benning.
Other reported candidates include Pittsburgh Penguins assistant general manager Jason Botterill, Nashville Predators assistant general manager Paul Fenton, and Montreal Canadiens assistant general manager Rick Dudley.
LaFontaine did not reveal who he has interviewed or will interview, but said his list of candidates has expanded from its original form.
"I did start out with kind of a shorter list, but there have been some recommendations from some very respected people in our game that I felt it was important to keep an open mind," LaFontaine said. "Obviously I would like to identify who the next one is, the right fit, and once we make the decision we want that general manager to be here for many, many years, so I'd rather take the time. If somebody comes extremely highly recommended, it's worth the time to meet those candidates."
LaFontaine rolling with the punches
Two weeks into his tenure and LaFontaine already has the sour taste of losing. The Sabres are 1-4-0 since he and coach Ted Nolan took over for departed GM Darcy Regier and ex-coach Ron Rolston.
LaFontaine is trying to keep perspective as he evaluates his new club.
"I hate to lose like anybody else who is competitive, but I also have to be realistic," he said. "I'm mainly focused on where our energy level is, where our compete level is, who wants to continue to work hard on every shift, who is showing up consistently. Creating the culture is more important. Results will come, but I want to see who really wants to be here under the culture and environment we're going to create."
LaFontaine said he brought in Nolan because he needed "somebody down in the trenches who I can work with to not only watch the players but identify what's going on, on the inside."
He said he needs to have patience, a trait he's been practicing since he hung up his skates.
"One thing I have learned since being retired is you can't dig the puck out of the corner, make a pass and score a goal in 10 seconds anymore," he said. "It doesn't work that way in life. We talk about delayed gratification. In this case I've had to learn to adapt with patience.
"We're seeing what we have. You can't expect things to happen and change in five games. Over a month or two things start to show."
Speaking of Hall of Fame players turned executives, what about Brett Hull?
Hull learned about life as a general manager in the NHL while working in tandem with Les Jackson for the Dallas Stars from 2007-09. The experience made him realize he doesn't want to work in hockey operations on a full-time basis.
"The only thing I would ever do on the hockey side is be an adviser," Hull told NHL.com. "There are too many people that don't have a clue that actually think they do have a clue."
Instead, Hull has taken his candor and experience as a Hall of Fame player to the business side of the game, working for the St. Louis Blues as an executive vice president with a focus on business development. He thinks he's found his niche helping team chairman Tom Stillman and president of business operations Bruce Affleck bring dollars and notoriety back into the franchise.
"I always thought I'd retire and play golf, but after five years and too many pounds, I'm like, 'I gotta do something,'" said Hull, who scored 741 goals during his playing career. "When Tom and the local ownership took over I thought it's a great opportunity to come back, be with a team and organization that I love with great local ownership that care about the team.
"[We're] trying to get back in good graces with the business people and the civic people of St. Louis after the last ownership group alienated them. We're trying to regain the trust in the business community."
Bruins president Cam Neely talking about the big picture in Boston:
"It's about making sure we're setting ourselves up to be in a good spot come the end of the season. I feel we have a team that can compete again for the Stanley Cup. Our players have been around a little bit now, they know what it takes, what kind of road it is to get there. From my perspective you want to see consistency and the effort, get yourself in a nice spot as the season progresses to set yourself."
Eric Staal on the two games this week between the Hurricanes and Devils, who are each 9-10-5 and tied for fourth in the Metropolitan Division:
"Great opportunity. You've gotta be excited about it. Divisional games, back-to-back, home-and-home, it's a great challenge for us. They're playing better. We've gotta win these games to take that step forward and establish ourselves as a good team in our division."
However, Hull said he's not removing himself from the hockey discussion in St. Louis, especially if general manager Doug Armstrong or coach Ken Hitchcock wants to bend his ear.
"I'm always there to listen," Hull said.
What about Mike Modano in Dallas?
Modano is also enjoying his second career in hockey as the Stars executive adviser and alternate governor. He works side-by-side with Jim Lites, the Stars' president, CEO and alternate governor, as the organization tries to re-establish its connections in the Dallas business community.
"It's not real heavy lifting," Modano told NHL.com. "We felt we lost a lot with the whole transition of the ownership and Tom Hicks leaving, so a lot of companies pulled their budget dollars out of marketing with the Stars. We've been trying to get those guys back. We've had some good success up until this point, but it's all about the product on the ice. If the guys are winning and people are talking about them it's not a hard sale."
Modano said he thinks he likes the business side of the front office better than he would if he were in the hockey operations side.
"It's dealing with some different people," Modano said. "You don't have the stress of making those day-to-day decisions about personnel, who is going to be here, signing this guy and that guy. It's a little different situation but I'm liking it a lot more."
Back on the ice, 'Canes captain picking up pace, points
Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal has points in six straight games totaling three goals and five assists. Normally this wouldn't be news considering Staal is an elite player in the NHL, but considering he had three goals and six assists in his first 18 games this season, his recent hot streak is noteworthy.
Staal told NHL.com he thinks his hot streak is a byproduct of him picking up the pace in his game. Because he's playing faster he's using his speed along with his size to find more room in the offensive zone. He's not chasing the play as much as he was earlier in the season. He's holding onto the puck. He's winning one-on-one puck battles with defenders along the walls.
"I probably wasn't at the level I needed to be at or wanted to be at earlier in the year," Staal said. "It's starting to come around here now."
Why did it take so long?
Staal refuses to use it as an excuse, but the knee injury he sustained in May during the IIHF World Championship is mostly to blame. He spent the summer rehabbing instead of trying to find ways to get better. He couldn't bend his knee until August, when he finally resumed skating. Staal arrived at training camp in shape and healthy, but he wasn't able to play with the pace he needs to play with to be successful.
"It wasn't that I was feeling bad, but I felt like I could have done more and it just wasn't happening," Staal said. "With the way the game is played now and how tight the games are, it's only a half-inch, a half-a-step, a break here or there and it can go either way. For me earlier it just wasn't going, and it's gotten better lately. I'm feeling more confident now and comfortable. That's a good thing."
It's also good for his chances to make the Canadian Olympic team. He's a favorite to go to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but Staal still had to show Canada's executive staff that his knee wasn't a problem.
This and that
* One more note on Hull: The former co-GM of the Stars indicated it still irks him when people blame him for the Sean Avery fiasco.
"I didn't like the way I was thrown under the bus with the Avery thing," Hull said. "Like it was all my idea, like I just went out and signed him and it was nobody else's idea."
Avery signed a four-year, $15.5 million contract with the Stars on July 2, 2008. At the time, Hull said Avery would give the Stars the extra emotion they needed. He played 23 games for Dallas and was suspended by the NHL for six games because of controversial statements made in the media. The Stars waived Avery on Feb. 7, 2009.
* How about this for a damning quote from Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean:
"Right now, we don't play hard enough to win."
MacLean delivered that quote after the Senators lost 4-1 to the Hurricanes on Sunday, dropping their record to 9-11-4. They had an early 1-0 lead that would have become 2-0 before six minutes had elapsed in the first period had it not been for a diving stick by Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward. Carolina scored three times in the second period and capped it with an empty-net goal late in the third.
Ottawa visits the Washington Capitals on Wednesday.
* Speaking of Ward, the goalie told NHL.com he feels he was aggressive and not overthinking this past weekend, when he made 70 saves against 74 shots in splitting a back-to-back against the Bruins and Senators.
Ward started back-to-back games for the first time since last season. He sustained a knee injury in the second game (March 3) that put him out for the rest of the season. He also missed 10 games this season with a groin injury.