On Feb. 28, the St. Louis Blues made the most aggressive push toward claiming the Stanley Cup, acquiring Ryan Miller and Steve Ott from Buffalo. As director of pro scouting, Rob DiMaio was a critical voice in general manager Doug Armstrong’s decision to land two difference-makers.
“That’s really the job,” said DiMaio, an ex-Bruin. “You try to find players that you feel can improve your team by recognizing what you may have as a deficiency on your team. That’s the job of a scout. You determine what can help your team. You make sure you do your due diligence. You know the players. You dig into their background a little bit. That’s what makes it fun.”
DiMaio has been in his current position since Aug. 7, 2012. From his home base in Toronto, DiMaio keeps his eyes on just about every professional hockey player in the world. He tracks the usual characteristics: skating, hockey sense, the areas of the ice a player is willing to enter. But DiMaio’s experience as a player and as a scout tells him that the heart is the most important intangible. Such drive gave DiMaio four good seasons in Boston, including two with P.J. Axelsson and Tim Taylor on the Bruins’ checking line.
“It’s the character of the player, first and foremost,” DiMaio said. “I think in the end, that wins. Regardless of whether that player has less ability, does he have that extra intangible to go the extra mile? That certainly sticks out in my mind.”
Character was what DiMaio had in mind when his organization was seeking someone to work with its prospects. In 1997-98 and 1998-99, DiMaio played alongside two driven forwards: Taylor and Axelsson. Coach Pat Burns rolled the three out against every top line. The forwards created offense from defense. In 1997-98, Taylor popped in a career-high 20 goals.
Taylor was a cerebral, hard-working center. He was a good teammate, as DiMaio also learned in Tampa and New York. On June 22, 2011, upon the recommendation of his ex-linemate, Taylor was named St. Louis’s director of player development. He had been a freelance consultant for the Calgary Flames.
“He won the Stanley Cup. He was a captain. He’s experienced all sides of the game,” DiMaio said. “He was an offensive player from a younger age. He became a defensive player at an older age. He figured out what it takes to compete at the highest level. I always knew that about him. When we were looking for somebody and he was available, I knew he was the guy that I would want if I were in control of things. Fortunately, my manager listened.”
The ex-linemates work for the same organization, but they work at different poles. DiMaio is on the finishing end. Taylor is responsible for helping teenagers land on DiMaio’s radar. Washington drafted Taylor in the second round in 1988. He was close to a can’t-miss junior prospect. In his draft year, he had 46 goals and 50 assists to lead the London Knights. Washington traded Taylor to Vancouver when he was in the AHL. Taylor didn’t crack an NHL lineup until signing with Detroit as a free agent in 1993.
“I didn’t realize, at a young age, what it took to be a pro,” Taylor said. “I wish I had someone doing my job. I played more years in the minors than I probably should have. But it was my own fault. I wasn’t mature enough. The day you’re drafted, you’re told how great you are and that you’ll make it. After that, every day you’re beaten down if you’re not progressing as quickly as you thought you should be.”
Taylor’s job is to serve as a type of den mother to St. Louis’s prospects. Taylor’s primary charges are the Chicago Wolves, the Blues’ AHL affiliate. Taylor, who lives in Brantford, Ontario, keeps his gear in Chicago for on-ice sessions.
One of Taylor’s most satisfying projects was Dmitrij Jaskin, St. Louis’s second-round pick in 2011. Jaskin had been playing for Slavia Praha in the Czech Extraliga. Taylor visited Jaskin in the Czech Republic. With help from Taylor, the Blues convinced Jaskin to play for Moncton in the QMJHL in 2012-13. Moncton’s coach is Danny Flynn, who also coached Taylor in London. Jaskin, 21, scored 46 goals and 53 assists for the Wildcats. He is now on St. Louis’s roster.
“Those are the most important and biggest aspects of the job,” Taylor said. “I enjoy it. There’s a self-fulfillment in seeing young guys grow and develop into NHL players.”
Taylor is also responsible for monitoring the development of youngsters in Kalamazoo (ECHL), NCAA, WHL, QMJHL, and Europe, where the Blues’ other prospects are playing. By their nature, coaches must sometimes break players down to eliminate bad habits. Taylor finds himself on the other end. Taylor emphasizes positive reinforcement.
Both Taylor (Baltimore) and DiMaio (Springfield) required AHL development before becoming full-time NHLers. Axelsson, their former left wing, never played a single AHL game. Of the three, Axelsson had the most natural talent.
But what made the three click was their collective hockey sense and work ethic. None of the three would have made the NHL without those two assets. DiMaio’s nose isn’t naturally crooked. It got that way because the undersized winger stuck it into places it didn’t belong.
Their time in Boston helped define DiMaio and Taylor as players. They’re applying part of what they learned toward lifting the Cup they never won with the Bruins. That’s neat to see.
Will Johnson leave as Khudobin did?
Being Tuukka Rask’s backup is not a bad thing. Anton Khudobin used the experience to build up his résumé, bet on himself, and turn that wager into a starting job.
Chad Johnson could be next. Johnson has done well as Rask’s No. 2. In 23 games, he is 16-3-1 with a 2.04 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage. They’re better numbers than Khudobin had in 2012-13 (9-4-1, 2.32, .920). Khudobin was in a good situation in Boston, just as Johnson is now. But Khudobin knew he would never replace Rask as the starter, so he took a one-year paycut to pursue a starting opportunity.
In Boston, Khudobin was coming off a two-year deal with an average annual value of $875,000. He accepted a one-year, $800,000 offer with Carolina. Khudobin knew that Cam Ward was neither as good nor as durable as Rask. Khudobin earned a two-year, $4.5 million extension March 4. He would have never gotten that contract nor opportunity behind Rask.
Johnson could stay. It’s not a bad gig to claim 25 starts, play on a good team, and chase a championship. But every goalie wants to be the man. Johnson, who will be unrestricted at season’s end, is no different. In the East, possible landing spots include Philadelphia, Washington, and the Islanders. In Philadelphia, Johnson could push Steve Mason. In Washington, Jaroslav Halak will be unrestricted, while Braden Holtby is not a clear-cut No. 1. On Long Island, Evgeni Nabokov will also reach UFA status.
Assuming Johnson leaves, the Bruins have a succession plan in place. Niklas Svedberg, who will be restricted after this season, will be ready for the NHL. Once Svedberg graduates from Providence, Malcolm Subban will be the No. 1 in the AHL as a second-year pro. Save for Ward, everybody won last time. Rask and Khudobin were excellent together. Khudobin got his chance and made the most of it. His departure opened a spot for Johnson. In turn, Rask and Johnson have been very good. We’ll see if history repeats.
Carlyle has failed on captain Phaneuf
According to his résumé, Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle is no dummy. Carlyle led Anaheim to the Stanley Cup in 2007. His masterful matchup touch — he deployed checkers Travis Moen, Samuel Pahlsson, and Rob Niedermayer to smother Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, and Daniel Alfredsson — kept the Senators from challenging the Ducks’ physical dominance.
Upon reflection, that the Ducks had either Chris Pronger or Scott Niedermayer on the ice at seemingly all times played the biggest role in their championship.
Carlyle, in his current position, has nothing close to Pronger or Niedermayer on his back end. Carlyle would be better off having Francois Beauchemin, then his No. 3 defenseman, instead of Dion Phaneuf.
This is Carlyle’s third season in Toronto. It’s unfathomable why Carlyle hasn’t straightened Phaneuf out by now.
Phaneuf isn’t a bad defenseman, but he’s not a smart one. As captain, Phaneuf recognizes he’s surrounded by deficiencies. So he tries to do too much — pinch low in the offensive zone, sprint into center ice to throw a big hit, pursue the puck carrier in the corners. None of that helps his team.
It is Carlyle’s mandate to keep Phaneuf collared to his position. If he played a simpler game, Phaneuf would be a much better defenseman. Phaneuf is strong, fit, and mobile. Those attributes benefit a stay-at-home defenseman.
Instead, Phaneuf chases the game. This isn’t lost on his teammates. The captain sets the example. His teammates fall in line and chase the puck instead of controlling it.
Carlyle could have stopped this a long time ago. A coach’s best tool is ice time. Carlyle could have stuck Phaneuf on the bench after each positional gaffe. Phaneuf would have shaped up quickly. He didn’t. Carlyle might have to pay the price for that.
Start of something good
Through 73 games, Ryan Johansen led Columbus in scoring with 29 goals and 25 assists while averaging 17:36 of ice time. This is just the start of an explosive career for the 21-year-old, who could become one of the best centers in the league. The third-year pro is putting up big numbers while playing good competition. In Columbus’s critical 4-2 win over Detroit on Tuesday, he scored two goals while centering Boone Jenner and Nathan Horton. Red Wings coach Mike Babcock rolled out a checking line of Luke Glendening, Drew Miller, and Todd Bertuzzi against Johansen. Babcock also tried to have Niklas Kronwall or Danny DeKeyser, his two best defensemen, out against the No. 1 pivot. Johansen has won 53 percent of his faceoffs. He’s also started 45.4 percent of his shifts in the Columbus zone, according to www.behindthenet.ca, most among Blue Jackets centers. It underscores how coach Todd Richards trusts him in defensive situations. If the 6-foot-3-inch, 223-pounder gets meaner, he could become the next Ryan Getzlaf.
Rapidly becoming a star
Since mid-January, there has been no better offensive player in the league than Gustav Nyquist. In the last 25 games, Nyquist has scored 20 goals, the most of any NHLer during that stretch. Nyquist is the latest model off Detroit’s famous production line: a smart, mid-round Swedish player who developed in Grand Rapids and will never return to the AHL. Nyquist was the final pick of the fourth round in 2008. That fall, Nyquist started the first of three seasons at the University of Maine. Nyquist was a Hobey Baker finalist as a sophomore and junior. But his college pedigree led to three seasons of development in Grand Rapids, including this one. Nyquist should have been a varsity player in October. But the Wings’ cap issues, plus Nyquist’s ability to go through waivers without being claimed, led to his AHL assignment. In hindsight, the baking time, as Detroit GM Ken Holland calls it, paid off. Nyquist is under Detroit’s control for one more year at a laughable $950,000 cap hit. Nyquist isn’t the league’s best skater, shooter, or checker. But his hockey IQ, like many of the Wings, is through the roof. In the NHL, having a brain pays off.
Panthers in it for the long haul
Lowell native Mike Santos was told on Tuesday that he was out as Florida’s assistant GM, effective immediately. Santos, a Boston College graduate, had been in the position since July 2010, just over a month after Dale Tallon got the top job. The Panthers have been slowed by financial shortcomings. But with Tallon and Santos calling the shots, there hasn’t been much clarity or results in building the organization. The Panthers made their biggest noise in the summer of 2011, when they tried a roster makeover via free agency. On the first day of business, Florida signed Sean Bergenheim, Tomas Fleischmann, Marcel Goc, Ed Jovanovski, Jose Theodore, Scottie Upshall, and Nolan Yonkman. They qualified for the playoffs the following season but lost in the first round to New Jersey. With Santos’s departure, more responsibilities are in line for Eric Joyce (assistant to the GM) and Michael Dixon (manager of hockey operations). This rebuild will not be quick.
This idea has some punch
Bruins defenseman Kevan Miller might not be getting many invitations to fight following his dusting of the Canadiens’ Travis Moen on Monday. Miller kicked off the fight with a haymaker to the side of Moen’s head. Moen rallied later in the scrap, but Miller ended it with another right. Miller is one of the league’s strongest men, but he’s also protected by a visor. Miller would prefer not to wear one, but is required to do so. It’s too much of an advantage for a good fighter to be protected by a shield. Shawn Thornton has advocated for someone to invent a removable shield that a player could pop off before a fight. This has Kickstarter written all over it.
Officials deserve silent treatment
It’s become a rare sight for a player to skate straight to the penalty box with closed mouth. More common is the cursing and whining and head-shaking after every call. No official deserves that kind of abuse. Rule 39 gives referees the right to tag the pottymouths with a two-minute unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The rule states that players cannot challenge or dispute a ruling; use obscene, profane, or abusive language or gestures; or bang the boards with their sticks. These things happen all the time. It has to stop. Too many young players watch the professionals act like children and mimic their behavior. This is hockey, not soccer. At the very least, there should be greater use of the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Referees should even bring out the 10-minute misconduct or game misconduct options they have in their toolbox.
Congratulations to Worcester Sharks coach Roy Sommer. On Wednesday, Sommer coached his 1,257th AHL game, setting the league record. Sommer’s AHL stops also include Kentucky and Cleveland, both former San Jose affiliates. The 56-year-old Sommer’s most recent projects were Matt Nieto, Matt Irwin, and Tommy Wingels, all now fixtures with the varsity . . . Alexei Emelin is now known as chicken, as so branded by Milan Lucic. If the Bruins and Canadiens play in the second round of the playoffs, I will be very disappointed if Garden goers do not greet the Habs with a rousing version of “Pou-let, poulet, poulet, poulet.”