Sunday Hockey Notes

Sizing up the NHL at the midway point

The streaky Maple Leafs have been on fire of late, staying in the thick of the playoff hunt, and ex-Bruin Phil Kessel has maintained his most consistent season as a pro.
The streaky Maple Leafs have been on fire of late, staying in the thick of the playoff hunt, and ex-Bruin Phil Kessel has maintained his most consistent season as a pro.

The official midway point of the NHL’s 1,230-game schedule came Monday night in Los Angeles, where the Kings dropped the Capitals, 5-2, and maintained their one-step-at-a-time recovery under new coach Darryl Sutter.

Now, with 550 games to go on the master schedule, and the Feb. 27 trade deadline approaching, 10 observations on the season to this point:

1. Terry Murray, Sutter’s predecessor in the Kingdom, is one of seven coaches to get the gate this season. The latest ex-coach is former Bruin winger Scott Arniel, canned Monday in Columbus, a firing that might be best described as a mercy killing. Bad roster, a mishmash of mediocrity and namelessness.


General manager Scott Howson on ditching Arniel after 1 1/2 seasons: “I didn’t see much hope in moving forward with him.’’

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Washington, Anaheim, St. Louis, Montreal, and Carolina also dumped their coaches in the first half. Of the seven, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Washington had playoff berths in hand as of Friday morning.

2. The league gave the Don Fehr-led Players Association the better part of a month to make good with its wish to realign the Original 30 for next season. Finally, in need of lead time to cobble together a schedule, the league backed off the proposal at the end of last week when the NHLPA wouldn’t check off.

It’s all about positioning - and, shall we say, chop busting - prior to the big round of collective bargaining agreement talks, likely to begin next month with the current agreement expiring Sept. 15.

If only the NHLPA these last 24 months - half of those under Fehr’s rule - had been as involved in the issue of player safety, specifically shots to the head and eye protection.


Take a stand on scheduling? Really?

3. The Lightning are going nowhere but home in April if they don’t find a legit goalie, and GM Steve Yzerman knows it. The issue is, will one of the other 29 clubs part with a bona fide stopper in the next six weeks, and if so, what’s the price?

Tampa has precious little talent in the pipeline, so Yzerman doesn’t have prospects to offer and can’t afford to give up first- or second-round picks.

Here’s one from the city of wild dreams and fantasy leagues: Roberto Luongo from Vancouver to Tampa for Vincent Lecavalier. Cory Schneider gets the No. 1 gig in Orca Town, Henrik and Daniel Sedin get someone else to withstand the checking-line heat, and BobbyLu returns to Florida, a state chock-full of gas stations and tire pumps.

Lecavalier’s cap hit: $7.727 million; Luongo’s: $5.333 million. Lots of ways around that.


4. As hapless as the Canadiens look, let’s not forget they came within a Mike Cammalleri shot off the back of Zdeno Chara’s skate from eliminating the Bruins in Game 7, Round 1, last April.

It’s a league engineered for quick turnarounds. This is Peter Chiarelli’s sixth year running the Bruins, and it took him the better part of three seasons, and a key coaching change within the first 12 months, to gain real traction.

Montreal GM Pierre Gauthier needs newcomer Rene Bourque (swapped for Cammalleri during the second period of the Bruins-Canadiens game Thursday night) to make immediate and meaningful impact. If the haplessness continues, Gauthier will be gone.

One ever-lingering rumor has ex-GM Serge Savard, who turns 66 next Sunday, getting back in the front-office mix.

5. Top five active players, games played, entering yesterday: Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit, 1,537; Roman Hamrlik, Washington, 1,349; Jaromir Jagr, Philadelphia, 1,309; Teemu Selanne, Anaheim, 1,302; Brian Rolston, New York Islanders, 1,220.

Top five active players, points: Jagr, 1,631; Selanne, 1,383; Lidstrom, 1,131; Daniel Alfredsson, Ottawa, 1,056; Jarome Iginla, Calgary, 1,042.

Of those seven guys, Rolston and Hamrlik are the only ones who aren’t slam-dunk Hall of Famers. And if I had to take one player? Lidstrom, without a second thought.

6. New Sabres owner Terry Pegula figures that, because of a rash of injuries, “There’s no way you can evaluate our team.’’

Those were his words to the Canadian Press. And he’s right. But only partially.

The Sabres are a touch too small up front and decidedly ho-hum on the back end. And primo stopper Ryan Miller hasn’t been close to his 2010 Olympic form.

Add it all up, and the Sabres indeed would be better if they weren’t held together with rubber bands and paper clips. But not dramatically better. They need more size and muscle up front, and big, young backliner Tyler Myers needs a real growth spurt in his game.

7. If NHL discipline meister Brendan Shanahan were playing the way he’s administrating from league headquarters, his line at the midpoint would read 32-20-52, on pace for the second 100-point season of his career. Not bad for a guy who will turn 43 a week from tomorrow.

I know it was a key point in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers,’’ but it’s uncanny how many top-notch hockey players were born in January, including Wayne Gretzky (26th) and Mark Messier (18th). Newly minted All-Star Tyler Seguin will turn 20 on Jan. 31. Johnny Boychuk will be 28 Thursday.

8. The Bruins will be in New Jersey again Thursday, and the more I see of Ilya Kovalchuk, the more I am astounded that the Devils lavished such ridiculous riches upon him. Entering yesterday, the ex-Thrasher sniper had a line of 17-21-38 and a minus-10.

There’s no debate about his sizzling shot, or his overall skill package. He gets around. Just a little too much.

From what I’ve witnessed, three coaches - John MacLean, Jacques Lemaire, and now Peter DeBoer - have not been able to shape that raw talent into anything resembling a comprehensive core player who makes the difference between winning and losing.

He will make $11 million next year and carries a cap number of $6.667 million. Another example, if not the best, of long deal/short return.

9. I know refereeing is a tough job, which is why there are two of them out there to keep order. It’s a fast game and arguably the toughest to call, given that the NFL isn’t a transition-based game and all 11 pins on each side are reset after every play.

But that said, Bruins vs. Canucks last Saturday was a perfect example of on-ice officials lacking feel for the game, and right from the start.

When the crazy pig-pile around Shawn Thornton was sorted out, the Canucks were awarded a five-on-three power play for two minutes. No sense at all, given the full-team mugging Thornton received.

All the worse for Boston, Milan Lucic was mistakenly tossed from the game, a call that was rescinded by nightfall when the league ruled that Lucic had not, as believed, left the Boston bench illegally to enter the Thornton scrum.

Refs Don Van Massenhoven and Dan O’Rourke had a bad day. Getting a feel and control over a game is an art form, and more referees need to master it.

10. And the MVP midway through the season is . . . Chicago center Jonathan Toews, though the Sedins will get a lot of love in the Hart balloting if they keep up their big numbers.

Toews, 23-21-44 through 45 games, looks like he’ll finish right around a point per game, only slightly better than his first four seasons. He has won a league-best 61.5 percent of his faceoffs, and has been the key reason the Hawks have remained near the top of the Western Conference standings.

He is a bigger, slightly younger Patrice Bergeron, with a better defined No. 1 pivot role, and right now he is delivering just that little bit more than the vastly underrated Boston center.


Gorton finds right blend

It has taken far too long this season for such a decades-long matchup to be rekindled, but the Rangers finally are in town Saturday for a 1 p.m. matinee.

Jeff Gorton, Boston’s general manager between the Mike O’Connell firing and Peter Chiarelli hiring in 2006, expects to be on hand. These days, he is the assistant GM of the Eastern Conference-leading Blueshirts. According to Gorton (above), the three keys to the Rangers’ success this season: Depth, coaching, and goaltending. Sounds a lot like what we’ve watched here in the Hub for the last couple of seasons.

“We’ve had some injuries, but our depth has been able to sustain us,’’ said Gorton, noting how the back line remained intact even with Marc Staal out virtually the entire first half. “You’re without a No. 1 D-man, but still able to remain stable, that’s pretty good.’’

Concord-raised John Tortorella, hired as bench boss Feb. 23, 2009, finally has his squad’s full attention in his third season.

“I’d say coaching is a huge part of it,’’ said the 43-year-old Gorton, who grew up in Melrose and climbed through Boston’s front-office ranks, beginning as an assistant in the public relations department. “John’s coaching ability is second to none. It’s a team with a system, with accountability. The team has taken on his identity, which means no one is allowed a day off.’’

And finally there is “King’’ Henrik Lundqvist, now in his seventh season in the Ranger net. Lundqvist will be 30 in March, and he is again on track to post 60 or more starts.

“One of the best in the world,’’ said Gorton. “So you put all that together with a nucleus of good young players, and we’ve done pretty well so far.’’

Gorton, now living in Westchester County, was reached via phone Friday as he made his way to watch top Rangers prospect Chris Kreider, the budding power forward for Boston College, play against UMass. Kreider, the 19th overall pick in 2009, is a junior and could turn pro when the Eagles’ season is done.

“He’s got a very nice skill set - first and foremost his speed, that’s his biggest asset,’’ Gorton said of the Boxford-raised Kreider. “And he has size, maybe 6-2 or 6-3 and 220 pounds. So he projects as a power forward as a pro, but that said, he’s still in college and whenever he’s ready to talk to us, that’s up to him.’’

Despite his new role with the Rangers, one that could lead to his becoming the Blueshirts’ GM, Gorton said he felt happy for the Bruins last spring when they won the Cup with some of the players who were on the job during his days on Causeway Street.

“Hey, I loved working there, and I grew up in Boston, I was a huge Bruins fan my whole life,’’ said Gorton. “So sure, a big part of me was proud of what they did, especially Patrice [Bergeron], to come in at 18 and then go through the whole concussion thing . . .

“To see him, and to see Tim Thomas such a huge part of it all, it was definitely gratifying.’’


Leaving bench cost Byers 10

Only one Bruin, Lyndon Byers, has ever been suspended 10 games for leaving the bench to enter an altercation. On Dec. 13, 1990, with Mike Milbury behind the bench, the ever-ready Byers stepped both feet onto the ice in hopes of joining a Bruins-Whalers free-for-all in the third period of an 8-2 Boston win at the Garden. Career pacifist Milbury did his best to restrain Byers from leaving the bench, but he was unsuccessful. Byers was expelled for 10 games and Milbury, per the rule, was suspended for five.

Another shot for Richards

Todd Richards took over the Columbus bench in the wake of Scott Arniel being fired. Prior to joining the Columbus staff this season, Richards coached the Wild for two seasons (77-71-16) before Mike Yeo took over to start 2011-12. Yeo jumped out to a tremendous start in St. Paul, but the former Trappist Wonks have slid back considerably from their No. 1 spot in the West. Entering yesterday, they were parked in the No. 8 spot with 50 points, with four clubs within 3 points of dropping them into DNQ territory. The Wild stood a woeful 2-7-1 in their last 10 entering last night’s game.

Realities of inflation

When the NHL scrubbed the 2004-05 season because of the lockout, the players were earning, on average, approximately $1.8 million per season. Estimates now have that figure right around $2.3 million per man, about a 28 percent increase over six seasons. A number of NHL owners and GMs stated during the lockout that they hoped ticket prices would level off or perhaps drop once a salary cap was in place, but we know that has not been true here in the Cup-winning Hub of Hockey. To their credit, the Bruins have generally shown reasonable restraint with their season-ticket holders, but walkup prices, especially this season, have been given significant boosts.

Eyes on $25 million prize

Still no resolution - surprise, surprise - between the Players Association and the league on how to treat the $25 million the city of Glendale, Ariz., has handed the league, and likely will again after this season, to cover Coyotes losses. The NHLPA feels the $25 million should be factored into hockey-related revenue, which in turn would support or boost next year’s working cap figure. The league’s position is that it’s the league’s to keep. All of which, along with the stalled realignment, will be in the mix during CBA negotiations.

Loose pucks

The streaky Maple Leafs have been on fire of late, staying in the thick of the playoff hunt, and ex-Bruin Phil Kessel (above) has maintained his most consistent season as a pro. Through 43 games, he stood 24-24-48, a pace for 92 points, and has been held scoreless in only three of his last 13 games . . . Alexei Kovalev finished last season in Pittsburgh, swapped back to his old club by Ottawa at the trade deadline, then signed with the KHL’s Oblast Altant in Moscow in the offseason. But a check of the KHL stats Friday showed him with a meager line of 1-3-4 in seven games, while NHL bust Nikolai Zherdev (fourth pick overall in 2003) led the way with 11-19-30 in 38 games . . . Ex-Bruins FredStanfield and Dick Redmond will be at Sportsworld in Saugus for an autograph session next Sunday from noon-2 p.m. Address: 352C Broadway, Route 1 . . . Sad to learn of the passing last Monday of Ron Caron. The inimitable “Prof’’ was a schoolteacher before he began to scout for the Canadiens, and held a number of roles in the NHL throughout his career, including a 10-year run as St. Louis general manager. No one enjoyed reminiscing about hockey more than the excitable Caron, whose fuse was always lit when he was with the Habs and the Bruins were playing his team at the old Forum in the late ’70s. A typical night had Caron in the press box, screaming throughout the game, “That’s a Harry Sinden team! The cross-checking! The spearing! Beating up our good, skilled players.’’ The Boston management contingent, often with Sinden and old pal Tom Johnson sitting only feet away, learned over time to ignore whatever it was that excited the Prof. After the game, he instantly would turn polite and gracious, even in those rare instances when the Bruins won up there. Caron, who was 82, loved every moment he was anywhere near a hockey rink, or with anyone who ever stepped foot in one.