Before Nov. 9, 2013, John Madden had never stood behind any kind of bench. This does not seem especially fair to coaching lifers, including his former boss in New Jersey.
“Some are more fortunate than others. They skip a few grades and get right to the top,” Bruins coach Claude Julien, who mucked in the QMJHL and AHL corners before his NHL opportunity, said with a smile.
The 40-year-old Madden was lucky. He is not two years removed from dressing alongside the Panthers he now helps to lead as an assistant to head coach Peter Horachek. Madden’s final game was on April 26, 2012. His right wing was Tomas Kopecky. Now, among Madden’s duties is to help his ex-linemate find the game that’s gone missing.
Madden is an assistant in the sport’s premier league without ever having yelled at a player or pointed out errors on video. It is an unusual and, sometimes, unenviable position. NHLers have a hard time taking a rookie coach seriously, especially when it’s someone who used to bust chops in the same room.
“It’s not the ideal situation sometimes,” Madden acknowledged of coaching players he considered his peers. “But other times it is. A lot of people feel they can come to me and talk. They bounce things off me all the time. That part of it’s really good. A year and a half ago, I’m sitting with them. Now I’m sitting over there and making decisions. But knowing their game, if I find something on video I want to show them, something I’ve seen before playing with them, there’s a lot of positives.”
After retiring, Madden scouted for the Canadiens and Panthers. He informed Florida general manager Dale Tallon that he was interested in coaching. When the Panthers sacked Kevin Dineen and assistants Craig Ramsay and Gord Murphy on Nov. 8, Madden became an assistant.
It wasn’t a coaching pedigree that granted Madden the position. Rather, it was an on-ice career Madden played as if a whistle hung around his neck.
Madden won three Stanley Cups: two with New Jersey, one with Chicago. He was the player every coach loved to have in his toolbox. The two-way center won faceoffs. He was a dependable penalty killer. Madden was the guy who regularly took last-minute shifts with his team protecting a lead.
During the sweet spot of his career in New Jersey, Madden and former Bruin Jay Pandolfo were two-thirds of the Devils’ checking line, arguably the best in the business. Whether it was Julien, Larry Robinson, Kevin Constantine, Pat Burns, Lou Lamoriello, or Brent Sutter, every New Jersey coach had Madden and Pandolfo in his back pocket to toss out against top players.
“We talked about the matchups we were going to have,” Madden said. “We relished it. We really took it to heart. When we got scored on, we weren’t happy. It was a lot of fun for us. We took a lot of satisfaction out of coming out of a game when the other top line hadn’t produced any goals.”
The Bruins once had their own checking line. In the late 1990s, P.J. Axelsson, Tim Taylor, and Rob DiMaio were often tasked to shadow dangerous gunners. In 2006-07, Anaheim won the Cup with Travis Moen, Samuel Pahlsson, and Rob Niedermayer smothering Ottawa’s Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, and Daniel Alfredsson.
The role Madden defined, however, is leaving the NHL. Coaches prefer to match their best defensive pairings against dangerous forwards. Even in 2006-07, Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle made sure that Chris Pronger or Scott Niedermayer, both shutdown defensemen, was on the ice whenever his checkers hopped over the boards.
The preferred blueprint is two skilled lines, one hybrid, and a fourth unit for energy. Coaches emphasize power versus power instead of checkers against offense. Pavel Datsyuk is Detroit’s best offensive center. He’s also its most defensively proficient pivot.
The same could be said about the Bruins’ David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron. They are both offensive playmakers. Julien also trusts both centers in defensive situations. The emphasis is on possession, with the theory being that controlling the puck means not chasing it at the wrong end of the ice. The embrace of defense by offensive players is why checkers like Madden find it harder to secure NHL paychecks.
“The difference you’re seeing is that the skilled guys are defensively responsible,” Madden said. “Ten, 12 years ago, the skilled guys were just skilled guys. You had to check those guys. Nowadays, you’ve got a guy like Krejci, he can play both sides of the puck just as well. Bergeron, the same way. But they’re highly skilled and can score, too. That’s where the game’s going. You’ve got to play all 200 feet of the rink now.”
Madden played a hard game. By the end, he felt it, especially after back-to-back games.
Madden has new worries now. For coaches, it’s the hair, not the body, that pays the price.
OLD SHARK, NEW TRICKS
Thornton forced to change his game
Had Joe Thornton been born two days earlier, the former Bruins captain may still be without his next deal. Instead, because Thornton’s birth date was July 2, 1979, the San Jose pivot was eligible to sign a standard three-year, $20.25 million extension on Jan. 24. The collective bargaining agreement outlines that anyone 35 or older on June 30 prior to the league year in which his contract becomes effective is considered a 35-or-older player. Such players are subject to more complicated contracts. The most significant point is that if a player 35 or older is unable to complete the term of his contract, the team must still carry his cap hit toward its total sum.
Such players are also eligible for performance bonuses. The Bruins’ Jarome Iginla, for example, carries a $1.8 million cap hit. But because he’s 36, Iginla is eligible to receive up to $4.2 million in bonuses. Because Thornton will be 34 years and 363 days old on June 30, the Sharks were OK to negotiate on less-complex terms. It is why Thornton signed his extension. And it is why 37-year-old Dan Boyle, who will be unrestricted after this season, remains without a deal.
It is a wonder that Thornton is even approaching the milestone age. He was just in Boston seemingly yesterday riding alongside fellow 1997 draftee Sergei Samsonov. But Thornton will be entering what could be his final contract. Had Thornton not changed his game, he might not have earned an extension from San Jose.
The Sharks changed their game last season. Their current identity revolves around speed, which has never been Thornton’s strength. Thornton’s preference had been to slow down the game, suck in opponents, and open up passing lanes to his teammates. But Thornton understood that if he wanted to retire in San Jose, where he makes his full-time home, change was required. Now, Thornton keeps his feet moving.
“It’s how we want to play,” general manager Doug Wilson said during a conference call. “It’s three-zone play and who can play fast. There are many different ways to play fast — thinking the game fast, going to the right places, athletically moving your body fast. That fits in with what we’re trying to accomplish. That was how we started last year. We’re continuing. Any player we bring into the organization has to play a fast, hard, supportive game, which includes playing in all three zones.”
With Callahan, let Drury’s fate be a lesson
Ryan Callahan is a scrappy, right-shot forward who will be a United States Olympian for a second straight time. The captain of the Rangers leads by example. He is the current version of Chris Drury, the previous New York captain. Callahan is also at a point of his career where Drury cashed in. With another team.
In 2006-07, his final season in Buffalo, Drury scored 37 goals and 32 assists in 77 games. That season allowed Drury to sign a five-year, $35.25 million blockbuster with the Rangers. Drury played three full years on Broadway, but never made it to the conclusion of his contract because of a knee injury. After the 2010-11 season, in which Drury played only 24 games, the Rangers bought out the final year of his contract.
The Rangers do not want a similar scenario to happen with Callahan. Like Drury, Callahan plays bigger than he is. Callahan does not hesitate to enter the dirty areas. His style benefits the Rangers. But Callahan’s body pays the price.
Callahan was a ghost in the playoffs last season against the Bruins because of an injured left shoulder. He underwent surgery after the second-round exit. This season, Callahan has missed time because of injuries to his shoulder, thumb, and knee.
Through 39 games, Callahan had nine goals and 11 assists while averaging 17:54 of ice time. Most recently, Callahan has been the No. 2 right wing alongside Carl Hagelin and Brad Richards. Callahan’s statistics, age (28), and injury history work against him long term.
The Rangers’ issue isn’t cap space. They’ve offset their big-ticket players — Henrik Lundqvist, Rick Nash, Richards — with bargains such as Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal. But it’s not prudent, even for moneymakers like the Rangers, to commit long-term bucks to a player whose body is already breaking down. They learned that the hard way with Drury. They will let another team, perhaps Callahan’s hometown Sabres, take the hit instead.
Ben Scrivens stole the show in Edmonton’s 3-0 win over San Jose on Wednesday. Scrivens, playing for his third organization since last season, turned back 59 shots. If not for Scrivens, the Sharks could have put up a silly number against the leaky Oilers. San Jose dominated puck possession. The Sharks tried 100 shots (22 blocked, 19 missed) while limiting the Oilers to 38 attempts, which indicates how little Edmonton controlled the play. It is imperative for Edmonton to address its defensive issues. The Oilers started that process on Friday by acquiring Mark Fraser from Toronto. The Oilers allow the most goals in the league (3.36 through 56 games), and not just because Devan Dubnyk couldn’t stop the puck at the start of the season. Last weekend, team president Kevin Lowe and GM Craig MacTavish were in Philadelphia. It’s possible that with better coaching, Luke Schenn could be a value acquisition for the Oilers. Schenn, only 24, was averaging 16:34 of ice time through 52 games. That’s less than Schenn played in 2009-10 as a rookie, when he logged an average 16:52 of playing time for Toronto.
TSN and parent company Bell Media lost its Canadian national TV rights to Sportsnet and Rogers. So it was crucial for Bell to land regional rights to the Ottawa Senators. The communications company announced its 12-year, $400 million blockbuster on Wednesday. It’s a high price for Bell but a necessary one to acquire a much-needed NHL property. It’s also good news for the Senators, one of the NHL’s small-market teams. In previous seasons, they’ve had to monitor their budget. It was one reason why former captain Daniel Alfredsson bolted for Detroit. Now, the Senators should have enough funds to compete with Boston, Toronto, and Detroit. Following 2014-15, Jason Spezza and Bobby Ryan will be eligible for unrestricted free agency. Ottawa can’t afford to let both players walk.
Erik Gudbranson might have been Florida’s best defenseman on Tuesday. That’s because the third-year pro was out of uniform for the Panthers’ 6-2 loss to the Bruins. It was the second straight game in which coach Peter Horachek made Gudbranson a healthy scratch, which is not a healthy reflection of his development. Gudbranson was the third overall pick in 2010 after Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin. The 6-foot-5-inch, 210-pound Gudbranson projected to be a nasty and mobile right-shot stay-at-homer. But Gudbranson’s fundamentals — slack gaps, inconsistent stick positioning — do not reflect his pedigree as a top-three pick. Three defensemen picked after Gudbranson are headed to Sochi for the Olympics: Cam Fowler (No. 12, USA), Justin Faulk (No. 37, USA), and Radko Gudas (No. 66, Czech Republic). Panthers GM Dale Tallon’s immediate priorities are to acquire assets for impending free agents such as Brad Boyes and Tom Gilbert. But one of Tallon’s long-term objectives will be for his on-ice people to reinforce the basics with Gudbranson. Gubdranson’s flaws can be fixed. The 22-year-old has too much in his toolbox to be scratched repeatedly.
On the morning of Dec. 28, the Bruins learned that Zdeno Chara would be unavailable that night against Ottawa. The logical choice for recall was Kevan Miller, who was in Glens Falls, N.Y., with Providence. But one reason why Miller didn’t get the call was because he didn’t have his passport. Zach Trotman was the only Providence defenseman with his passport, and thus earned the promotion. It’s a lesson for all players: Pack your papers every time . . . Andrew MacDonald was back at his usual 24:15 workload in the Islanders’ 2-1 loss to the Rangers on Wednesday night. Two nights earlier against the Bruins, the workhorse defenseman logged only 18:24 in the Islanders’ 6-3 loss. It was MacDonald’s second-lowest total of the season. MacDonald fought the puck against the Bruins, but was back to his steady self against the Rangers. If the Bruins enter the bidding for MacDonald’s services, they want no part of the defenseman who looked shaky against them at Nassau Coliseum. The Islanders, who ceded their 2014 first-round pick in the Thomas Vanek trade with the Sabres, will look to get back in the opening round . . . Brian Rafalski officially called it quits on Tuesday. Rafalski had tried to launch a comeback in the ECHL. But three games with the Florida Everblades proved to Rafalski that his back could not take the grind. Rafalski will be known as one of the NHL’s best offensive American defensemen of his generation . . . Jordan Caron’s contract status — the fourth-year pro must clear waivers to be sent to Providence — wasn’t the reason he stayed in Boston while Ryan Spooner was assigned to the AHL. Caron serves a purpose, that of a versatile wing who can play in emergency situations after long stretches in the press box. Spooner, on the other hand, needs big minutes in Providence to improve his performance in the defensive zone . . . Chelmsford native Jack Eichel is projected to be a top pick in 2015. By then, Eichel will have finished his freshman season at Boston University. Depending on which team picks him, Eichel could make his NHL debut in 2015-16. Eichel’s best route, however, would be to stay at BU for two seasons, according to scouts who have been watching him the last few years. Eichel will still be 19 years old at the start of the 2016-17 season . . . Leave it to Lundqvist, one of the league’s nattiest dressers, to use pinstriped pads in the two games at Yankee Stadium. Sharp and brilliant.