The division-centric NHL season of 2020-21, particularly with the seven Canadian teams tucked away up there in the Great White North, has made it a greater challenge to take in what’s happening across the full 31-team landscape.
One month into last season’s schedule, for instance, the Bruins had played 13 games, against 12 opponents, and only four were division brethren.
On Friday night at Madison Square Garden, the Bruins played their 13th game, the Rangers one of but six teams they’ve faced. They’ll have to win two playoff rounds to get a chance to face their first non-division opponent of the season. As is true throughout the league, it’s possible they’ll play 70 division games before reaching the conference finals (Stanley Cup semis).
When it’s all over, and the movie “NHL Groundhog Day” is made, Bill Murray is destined to be cast in the Gary Bettman role.
For those who’ve been lost in their Bruins/East groundhog hole, here’s a handful of story lines that have emerged over the first month:
▪ Minnesota left wing Kirill Kaprizov, and not No. 1 draft pick Alexis Lafreniere, has a foot up on Rookie of the Year (Calder Trophy) honors. Headed into weekend play, the Siberian-born 23-year-old led all freshmen in scoring (11 games, 3-6—9), which included his overtime winner in his debut at Los Angeles.
Kaprizov is a joy to watch. Fast. Extremely clever hands. Exhibit A: his scoring bid Jan. 22 vs. the Sharks, in which he used one arm to fend off a backchecking Marcus Sorensen on a rush to the net, then squeezed off a dazzling one-handed, between-the-legs attempt on Devan Dubnyk that was labeled for the back of the net.
“I can’t believe he made that move,” marveled Dubnyk, thankful to have made the stop. “You don’t want to be on the receiving end of those.”
Kaprizov, drafted in 2015 (No. 135), remained in Russia well beyond his expected NHL arrival date, in part because he wasn’t sure how his game would fit on the smaller sheet. Thus far, nothing lost in the translation. He led CSKA in scoring (57 games, 62 points) last season, his third year with Red Army, and finally signed with the Wild in July.
▪ New bosses in Pittsburgh. Brian Burke (president of hockey operations) and Ron Hextall (general manager) signed on this past week, less than 14 days after Jim Rutherford’s abrupt bolt from the Penguins.
“Two of the greatest minds in hockey,” heralded David Morehouse, the Penguins’ president and CEO.
Everyone will expect Burke, 65, hired away from his Sportsnet commentary gig, to be an unremitting quote stream. He is a great talker, and one the league desperately could use, but he tempered that approach greatly during what many believed would be his last front office job as president of the Flames. He’ll be a key guiding hand between ownership and the on-ice product and likely leave Hextall to deal with the media.
Hextall, 56, whose father, Bryan Hextall, played for the Penguins in the early ’70s, is a smart pick. The former Flyers goaltender trained in the Kings’ front office and had Philly going in the right direction as GM when shown the door in November 2018.
Rutherford did not make public his reason(s) for leaving, but it is believed to have been over how to proceed with the current roster. The core talent is aging (Sidney Crosby about to crack 1,000 games, Evgeni Malkin close in his wake) and Rutherford, an aggressive dealer, likely was poised to make moves that pointed more to future than current success.
Thus a telling quote from Hextall from his introductory news conference: “If we can get better this year, we’ll try to get better.”
The Penguins were a mediocre 6-5-1 late in the week and could struggle to make the playoffs with current personnel. Ownership believes Crosby and Malkin just need the right parts around them. Could be fun in the weeks leading to the April 12 trade deadline. The biggest potential impact deal could be in net, where the Tristan Jarry-Casey DeSmith combo has been underwhelming. Probably crazy to think of a Marc-Andre Fleury return from Vegas, but . . .
▪ Sleepy little Columbus has kept making headlines, including a blockbuster deal that saw Pierre-Luc Dubois get dished to Winnipeg, while struggling to remain in the thick of things in the Central.
For now, GM Jarmo Kekalainen is sticking by old-school coach John Tortorella, despite the parade of talent that has left as free agents or been traded. Some of that may indeed be simply market dynamics, such as the UFA departures of Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel. But the RFA likes of Josh Anderson (dealt to Montreal) and Dubois were the kind of young talent that franchises want to cultivate rather than cashier. Columbus is the town where so many good players don’t stay.
This past week, veteran center Mikko Koivu, who took a one-year flyer with the Blue Jackets after a distinguished career with the Wild, abruptly decided to call it quits. Stated reason: He was unhappy with his level of play. Okey doke.
Then came the benching Monday night of Patrik Laine, the prized acquisition in the Dubois deal, in only his fourth game in town. Neither Tortorella nor Laine offered details, but reports had it that Laine said something disrespectful to a Tortorella assistant — Brad Larsen or Brad Shaw — during the game vs. Carolina. Outcome: Laine sat on the bench for the final 26:19.
Tortorella wouldn’t comment. Laine called the benching “fair” and added, “If you do something, you’re going to get benched.”
“I think Patty understands,” added diplomatic captain Nick Foligno, “and now has gotten a good dose of who we are.”
Good talent comes and goes, the Blue Jackets totter on, and the Tortorella method never changes.
▪ Roman Josi was a fine pick as the Norris Trophy winner last season, but Victor Hedman — fresh from his Conn Smythe playoff tour de force — remains the game’s best defenseman. The Lightning star is also off to a career-best points pace (12 games, 14 points). Meanwhile, the slick Quinn Hughes (17 games, 17 points) leads blue liners in scoring. He has been a joy to watch amid an otherwise hapless start for the Canucks.
▪ The Blackhawks, 32-30-8 last season, have perked up, in large part because of rookie goaltender Kevin Lankinen, 25, in his third pro season after signing out of Finland as an undrafted free agent. With Corey Crawford moved on (and subsequently retired), Lankinen won the job over ex-Bruins prospect, and first-round pick, Malcolm Subban.
CHANGING ON THE FLY
Schedule has taken some hits
The NHL knew playing outside a controlled bubble environment would carry “an element of risk,” as commissioner Gary Bettman understated on the eve of the season, and COVID-19 has indeed delivered a steady stream of challenges.
This past week, four franchises — the Wild, Devils, Avalanche, and Sabres — were frozen in “pause” mode, on the heels of the Golden Knights finally getting COVID clear and back on the ice. A total of 35 games — including the Bruins’ scheduled tilt Monday night vs. the Devils — had been postponed.
There are signs that the pandemic is abating, thank goodness, but further disruption to the schedule in the near term could force the NHL to trim back from its 56-game template, be it to 48 or even 42 (a tick over half of its standard 82-game regular season).
Among the issues in play is the July 23 start of the Tokyo Olympics, provided, of course, that the pandemic doesn’t knock the Summer Games into the abandoned badlands. The NHL plans to end the regular season May 8 and wrap up four rounds of playoffs no later than July 9, allowing a two-week runway for NBC to transition its US programming from NHL to Olympic coverage.
As things stand, the NHL can massage 34 postponed games fairly comfortably into its compressed schedule. But if this next month forces more franchises to pause, and more games to be reshuffled in the deck, then the choice could be to extend the regular season or peel back from 56 games.
Jamming games into the back end of the schedule, while remaining fixed on the May 8 date, will increase player fatigue and risk of injury. Logic dictates that the players would want to push the regular season out, say, to May 15 or 22. But logic and TV often don’t match, which is another way of saying TV calls the dance.
Quality of play is another concern. For instance, the Sabres, who haven’t played since Jan. 31, are supposed to return to action Monday night against the Islanders. The two-week delay between games is equal to the length of their training camp. Unlike camp, however, team facilities are closed during pauses. Clubs are able to have a quick tune-up and then it’s full immersion back to the grind.
Bettman said “flexible and agile” would be the bywords of the new season. One month into it, flexibility and agility have worn thinner than the layer of red paint across center ice.
Prospect Lauko off to fast start
Jakub Lauko picked up a pair of assists in the AHL Bruins opener, a solid start for the 20-year-old Czech left wing.
“Just a real passion for the game, competes hard, a big smile on his face, good optimism,” said WannaBs GM John Ferguson Jr. “Great to have him back here, and we think it’s a perfect time to take that next step as a pro.”
Lauko, chosen 77th in the 2018 draft, had his first pro season get cut short by a knee injury suffered in the World Junior tournament (December 2019). With the NHL on pause this season, he hooked on with Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic and played there for 25 games (5-5—10) prior to reporting for North American duty.
Providence coach Jay Leach has been using Lauko in all situations, including both special teams, and has seen development over last season’s abbreviated look.
“He’s certainly a stronger player,” said Leach. “He’s familiar with the pro game now. It was a broken year for him last year just because of the injury, and he was a young player in this league. He’s matured a year and I think he’s comfortable with the system. He’s always had the speed, but he’s able to get inside a bit more now and win a puck battle. He can penalty kill, so we have him in all situations . . . so there’s certainly maturation from the time we had him [last year].”
All in all, a “noticeable difference,” said Leach.
“Just really in strength, more than anything,” he added. “He is starting to look like a man and the player we envisioned him being — an exciting young forward for us.”
Cassidy ranks among the best behind bench
Bruce Cassidy took over the Bruins bench four years ago (Feb. 7, 2017) and his .635 points percentage ranks tied for third with Bruce Boudreau among coaches with at least 350 games.
Cassidy’s record, including his years with the Capitals: 218-114-9-43 after Friday night’s win over the Rangers.
Tom Johnson, behind the bench for Boston’s 1972 Cup win and the powerhouse 1970-71 season, logged a league-record .738 mark for 208 games.
The three coaches above Cassidy: Scotty Bowman (2,141 games, .657), Jon Cooper (589 games, .648), and Boudreau (984 games, .635).
Toe Blake (.634), the legendary Canadiens coach, finished with 914 games and eight Cup titles.
It should be duly noted that the NHL went some 40 years, including all of Blake’s time behind the Habs bench, without overtime as a means of settling tie games. Had the Habs cashed in on, say, one-third of his 159 ties, Blake would be ranked No. 1 at .663.
Much of a coach’s success is rooted in messaging and salesmanship, tools Cassidy said he hasn’t changed much since taking over in Boston for Claude Julien.
“I think I’ve been honest with the guys, sometimes to a fault,” Cassidy said. “That’s how I like to treat them. They’re men. They’re good pros. We have good leadership in the room, that hasn’t changed from the day I took over. I just try to give them an honest message — where they’re at, what their expectation is for them as individuals, what their expectation is for a guy who plays for the crest on the front [of the team sweater] and not the name on the back.”
His on-the-job learning, said Cassidy, has been in tailoring the tone of the honesty for it best to reach an individual player.
“Is it soft, or is it direct and get it over with?” he said. “Is it video? Is it pulling them aside? Those are things you sort through with every player. Even if you’ve had them all four years. What is the best way for [Brandon] Carlo to have confidence with the puck at the offensive blue line? Or for [Jake] DeBrusk to be consistent every night? As a coach, those are the things you go through with different guys.”
That’s a broader, more considered approach than Blake’s day. Johnson played on the record five straight Cup teams under Blake, 1956-60, and recalled years later that he once saw Blake grab the great Maurice Richard by the sweater collar during a game and get right in his face with some heated words of instruction.
“We all saw it,” said Johnson. “And we all thought, ‘If that goes for Rocket, it goes for all of us.’ ”
Ex-Boston University forward Trevor Zegras was the AHL’s first player of the week in the new season, collecting a 2-3—5 line in two games with San Diego, the top Ducks farm team. Zegras, who collected 36 points in 33 games in his one season on Comm. Ave. helped lead the US team to the World Junior gold medal in January. Meanwhile, the Ducks have been abysmal on offense, with no one averaging better than 0.50 points per game through the first quarter of the season . . . Kirill Kaprizov is the same size and build (5 feet 9 inches, 185 pounds) as left wing Sergei Samsonov, the Magical Muscovite, who was a Bruin when he won the Calder in 1998. If Kaprizov wins it, he’ll be the eighth Russian to do so in a little more than 30 years: Sergei Makarov (Calgary, 1990); Pavel Bure (Vancouver, 1992); Samsonov; Evgeni Nabokov (San Jose, 2001); Alex Ovechkin (Washington, 2006); Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh, 2007); and Artemi Panarin (Chicago, 2016) . . . Samsonov, by the way, joined the Hurricanes as a scout in 2014 and now is in his third season working in a player development role, specifically with forwards . . . Bruins draft pick John Beecher’s Michigan team finally returned to action Saturday vs. Wisconsin, the first game for the Wolverines since Jan. 22 (three games postponed because of COVID-19 issues). Beecher, a late cut from the US junior squad when he tested positive, went into weekend play with a 4-3—7 line in 14 games . . . Pierre-Luc Dubois went without a point in his Jets debut Tuesday vs. Calgary, playing most of the time with Kyle Connor and Mason Appleton as his wingers. He hadn’t played since Jan. 21 . . . Brian Burke’s GM tours were in Hartford, Vancouver, Anaheim, and Toronto before taking the team president’s job in Calgary in 2013. The Pittsburgh job rounds out a personal original six for the former Providence College Friar. It was then-Friars coach Lou Lamoriello who called Burke into his office and slid the Harvard Law School application across the desk. Burke, in turn, politely told his coach he would think about applying. “You don’t understand,” Lamoriello told his 21-year-old winger, “it’s not an option, you’re applying.” Burke entered Harvard Law after his year playing for the AHL Maine Mariners and became a player agent upon graduating.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.