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Tuesday 10: E.J. talks coaching change, special teams

by EJ Hradek /
The League's dramatic realignment plan, which was approved by the Board of Governors on Monday, isn't a perfect solution. There is no such thing. Commissioner Gary Bettman himself was quick to point out that fact in his comments Monday evening.

During the coming years, I'm sure there will be at least a few unintended consequences that will grab our attention. Despite the best intentions, those type of things just happen.

The new alignment does, however, address the concerns of several clubs.

"We're ecstatic," said Stars President Jim Lites. "We're where we should be."

That sentiment was shared by executives in Detroit, Minnesota, Columbus and Nashville, just to name the most obvious beneficiaries of the new conference structure.

Here's hoping they'll be feeling as good about things three or four years from now as they do today. That's when we'll be in a much better position to judge just how smart this change really turned out to be.

Here's the Tuesday 10:

After a slow start, the Canucks seem to have hit their stride, winning nine of their last 10 games to move within six points of the Western Conference-leading Wild.

The Canucks are getting a lot done on the power play, converting a league-best 26.4 percent of their chances. That’s nearly five full percentage points better than the next best extra-man unit (Toronto, 21.7).

As always, Daniel and Henrik Sedin key the unit's success. The Sedin twins are tied (no surprise there, eh?) for the League lead with 16 power-play points each.

The Canucks' power play has been particularly dangerous recently, scoring at least one power-play goal in each of the last five games. In that span, they've scored eight power-play goals on 24 chances.

Tonight in Columbus, against the League’s worst penalty-killing unit (73.7 percent), the Canucks' power play figures to keep the good times rolling.
On the flip side of the special teams coin, the Devils have been terrific on the penalty kill, leading the League with a silly-good 92.8-percent success rate despite surrendering a power-play goal in each of their last three games. The current number stands nearly 10 percent better than the rate posted by last season's Devils (83.4).

Patrik Elias
Center - NJD
GOALS: 9 | ASST: 15 | PTS: 24
SOG: 69 | +/-: -5
At home, the Devils have done some yeoman work, shutting down their opponent's extra-man chances. In their first 10 games at the Prudential Center, New Jersey's killers were a perfect 38-for-38. In their last two home games, they finally cracked -- a bit -- allowing two power-play goals on 11 chances against.

Defensemen Anton Volchenkov, Henrik Tallinder and Bryce Salvador anchor the penalty-kill unit, while veteran forwards Patrik Elias, Dainius Zubrus and Zach Parise are among those who work the top of the box.

In the short term, coach Peter DeBoer will have to get by without Volchenkov, who was placed on injured reserve after suffering a hand injury against the Senators last Thursday. The injury isn't thought to be serious; nonetheless, he won't be available when the Devils complete their Florida double dip against the Panthers tonight.

Florida's power play, led by puck-moving defenseman Brian Campbell, is eighth in the League (19.2 percent). The Devils will have to shut it down if they expect to leave town with a win.
The Sharks' penalty-killing problems have leaked into the new season. Last season, they were 24th in the League with a 79.6-percent success rate. Fast forward to the early stages of the 2011-12 season, and San Jose's penalty kill ranks 28th (75.3 percent), ahead of just Toronto and Columbus.

Coach Todd McLellan believes his team will improve in that area as the season goes on.

"We're going to keep doing what we're doing," McLellan told the San Jose Mercury News. "Positionally, we've got to be a little bit better."

The Sharks probably could use a few more shorthanded saves from top goalie Antti Niemi, who has an .848 save percentage in those situations. That ranks him 51st in the League.
Tomas Kaberle paid quick dividends for the Canadiens, assisting on both goals in the Habs' 2-1 win against the Devils in Newark on Saturday. In Montreal, they can only hope it's a sign of better days for Kaberle, who struggled mightily in Boston and Carolina since leaving Toronto last February.

Tomas Kaberle
Defense - MTL
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 11 | PTS: 11
SOG: 39 | +/-: -12
Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier, perhaps feeling some heat, must believe Kaberle can help his team's struggling power play, which currently ranks 28th in the League with a weak 11.8-percent success rate. Of course, Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli figured the same thing when he acquired Kaberle from the Leafs. That didn't quite work out.

Gauthier might have another motive for acquiring an underachieving player who carries another two full seasons on his contract at a cap hit of $4.25 million. Gauthier might see the move as insurance against further delays in the return of oft-injured defenseman Andrei Markov, who had to abort a planned early December return to have yet another procedure on his knee.

Whatever his reasoning, Gauthier seems out on a bit of limb on this deal. If Kaberle doesn't rediscover his former form, Gauthier could face the music himself come the spring.
Quick kudos to Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman and Anaheim GM Bob Murray for their decisions to loan youngsters Brent Connolly (Lightning) and Devante Smith-Pelly (Ducks) to the Canadian National Junior Team for the upcoming World Junior Championship, scheduled for later in the month in Alberta.

In the long run, I figure both players will be better for the experience. Connolly should add some scoring punch for Team Canada, while Smith-Pelly will bring additional size and grit to the lineup.
Did you know the NHL-leading Wild have dressed a League-high 32 different players thus far this season? Despite the shuffling caused by injuries, Minnesota has proven to be a resilient bunch that brings the same effort on most nights. It's just another reason why first-year NHL coach Mike Yeo should get early Jack Adams consideration.
Coaching changes can bring just that -- change -- to a player's life.

In Washington, for example, defenseman Jeff Schultz is feeling the impact of the club's decision to replace Bruce Boudreau with Dale Hunter.

Jeff Schultz
Defense - WSH
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 5 | PTS: 5
SOG: 13 | +/-: 1
Under Boudreau, Schultz was a regular on the Caps' blue line. In fact, two seasons ago, he finished with a sensational plus-50 rating, averaging just less than 20 minutes per game.

In the six games since the coaching change, Schultz has been a healthy scratch twice and he played just 3:55 in a 5-3 win against the Senators on Dec. 7.

Apparently, Hunter hasn't been impressed with Schultz's foot speed, and he'd like to see the 6-foot-6 230-pounder play more of a physical game.

Somewhere down the road, however, I won't be surprised at all if Schultz gets a ticket to rejoin his old coach, Boudreau, in Anaheim. Unless there's a significant turnaround, he seems to be collateral damage in the coaching change.
Then again, I guess a significant turnaround always is possible. In New York, third-year defenseman Michael Del Zotto has turned his game around after spending the second half of last season in the AHL.

The smooth-skating Del Zotto leads Rangers defensemen with 14 points and has a team-best plus-15 rating. Coach John Tortorella is trusting the 21-year-old with more than 22 minutes of ice time per game.

At this time last season, Del Zotto was going through a difficult second season. The club's 2008 first-round pick (No. 20), Del Zotto re-established himself this season in training camp. He impressed Tortorella with a more consistent and mature approach, and he's been rewarded with a key spot on the Rangers' blue line.
The Red Wings do a lot of things that are conducive to winning. One thing, for example, is getting more shots on goal than their opponent.

Entering Tuesday's game against the Penguins, the Wings and Sharks each have fired a League-best average of 34.2 shots per game. Meanwhile, the Wings are allowing just 27.5 shots per game, second-fewest in the League. On average, that's nearly seven more shots per game.

Over the course of an 82-game season, if those numbers were to hold up, the Wings would get roughly 500 more shots on goal than their opponents. I'd say that would give you a much better chance to win.
I don't know if the NHL is ready to name the four new conferences after former legends, but if the League opts to go that way, I'd love to see Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr so honored.
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