Toronto, finally showing some pop with coach Randy Carlyle working with a clean slate from the start of the season, will be on Causeway Street Thursday night. Maybe the Maple Leafs can shift the discussion away from, “Thank you, Phil Kessel,’’ for one night, especially now that top pick Nazem Kadri is putting up numbers, including his first career hat trick in a 5-4 OT win vs. the Islanders last week.
Of Lebanese descent, Kadri pronounces his first name NAH-zem. But a few PA announcers around the league have referred to him as nah-ZEEM, leading teammates to refer to him as “Nah-ZEEM the Dream.’’
A quick-handed center, Kadri is fast and creative, which at times infuriated ex-coach Ron Wilson when his free-wheeling led to mistakes. Carlyle is far more mindful of line-matching, and plays Kadri to his strengths, most often not pairing him against the opponents’ top offensive lines and not putting him with linemates who attract the best checkers. Carlyle will do his best here to employ Kadri on those rare shifts when Zdeno Chara takes a seat.
Kadri likely will line up at the Garden with Colton Orr and Clarke MacArthur. Orr provides the muscle and space for Kadri to wheel. Matt Frattin, if healthy, could sub in for MacArthur because Frattin and Kadri have displayed some chemistry. Following the win over the Islanders, Kadri led the Leafs in scoring with 8-13—21 in 22 games.
Meanwhile, rumors persist in Toronto that general manager Dave Nonis may unload Kessel (4-12—16 in his first 22 games) prior to the April 3 trade deadline. In three-plus seasons, the ex-Bruin has convinced many up there that he’s neither a leader nor core performer. Add him to a deep lineup with a coach who emphasizes offense (say, the Blackhawks, or maybe Canucks or Ducks), and he could be that 60-, 70-, or even 80-point guy who helps deliver a Stanley Cup.
Ideally, a Kessel swap would bring the Leafs a franchise center. Of course, if they had a franchise center, perhaps they wouldn’t consider dealing Kessel. Such is life in the salary cap world.
PULLING THE SWITCH
Realignment is in the cards
As of Friday, the league and the Players Association had yet to finalize realignment for 2013-14, but reports early in the week added further credence that the 30-team league will switch from six to four divisions, as noted here.
The surprise was the reported shift east by both Detroit and Columbus, in part to accommodate Winnipeg’s shift to the West.
Each of the four divisions will send its top three teams to the playoffs, while two others qualify as wild cards; so five teams could qualify in one division, three in the other.
The division setups:
■ Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa, Toronto.
■ Carolina, Columbus, New Jersey, Islanders, Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington.
■ Anaheim, Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver.
■ Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis, Winnipeg.
The imbalance, with 16 teams in the East and 14 in the West, makes it appear the league is readying to accommodate a couple of expansion teams. The likes of Kansas City, Houston, Seattle, Portland, and even Las Vegas have long been considered candidates.
In the East, Quebec City, southern Ontario (metro Toronto), and Hartford are among the wannabes. Betting around the league has it that if Florida remains a doormat, it could be shifted to Quebec City, where construction on the state-of-the-art Quebecor Arena began in September.
Express lane for 10 items
■ Headed into Saturday’s play, four NHL clubs had yet to win more than two games on the road. The weariest of the road warriors: Columbus (2-8-1), Colorado (2-6-2), Washington (2-6-1), Rangers (2-4-1).
■ The ever-enigmatic Sharks went 2-6-4 in February, scoring only 15 goals in those 12 games. Joe Thornton’s 12 games for the month: 1-5—6 with 22 shots on net.
■ Ryan O’Reilly’s contract impasse came to prompt conclusion Thursday when the Avalanche immediately matched Calgary’s offer sheet of $10 million/two years. The 22-year-old pivot received a $2.5 million signing bonus, another $1 million for the remainder of this season, and will jump to $6.5 million in salary beginning in October. Boston’s highest-paid forward on the books for next year is Milan Lucic at $5.5 million.
■ Four other NHLers will draw the same $6.5 million next season: Dion Phaneuf, Erik Karlsson, Carey Price, Daniel Briere.
■ As of Saturday morning, ex-Bruin Dennis Wideman stood a lackluster 3-7—10 and minus-5 through 19 games, ranking him T-23 for scoring among all blue liners. The Flames signed BMW (Big Money Wides) to a five-year deal paying a total $26.5 million in the offseason.
■ You know it’s a different Leafs team when Mark Fraser leads all NHL defensemen in plus/minus (+15 headed into Saturday’s play). Originally a Devils draft pick (No. 84 in 2005), the 6-foot-4-inch Fraser was dealt to Toronto by Anaheim for Dale Mitchell at last year’s trade deadline.
■ Boston’s Shawn Thornton has yet to engage in a fight since getting his bell rung in the Jan. 31 dustup with Buffalo’s John Scott. A valuable fourth-liner, Thornton can do much more than fight, but it’s clear the Scott bout brought a kinder, gentler Thornton to the ice the last three weeks.
■ As of Friday morning, Tyler Seguin stood T-173 in NHL goal-scoring with 3. He did score in Saturday’s game against the Lightning.
■ You don’t hear a lot of talk about Matt Martin, because his Islanders aren’t worth a lot of words. But as of Saturday morn, the 23-year-old winger led the NHL with 93 hits. Takes a lot of moxie and mental strength to keep dishing out hits in a losing cause. Martin finished atop the league last year with 374 smacks, 28 percent more than runner-up Dustin Brown (293).
■ Scott Gomez, 13 games, 0-2—2, with San Jose. Hasn’t lost a step.
BIG DEAL IN BIG D
A Star is born in Cole trade
Michael Ryder is expected in the Montreal lineup at the Garden Sunday night, playing against a number of his fellow 2011 Cup winners in Black and Gold. Ryder scored 62 points with Dallas last season and stood a team-high 6-8—14 through 19 games this season before being traded for Erik Cole. He is making $3.5 million and will be a UFA again July 5.
Cole, though, has two more seasons to go at $4 million. Ex-Bruin Mark Recchi, recently hired by the Stars in a player development role, won a Cup with Cole in Carolina in 2006 and no doubt lobbied for him in Big D.
Heck, Cole is only 34, a newbie in comparison to fellow Stars Jaromir Jagr, 41, and Ray Whitney, 40 (another Cup winner with the Hurricanes).
The new CBA allows for clubs to retain a portion of salaries in trades. But two league sources confirmed Friday that it was a straight swap, with the Stars on the hook for all of Cole’s $8 million after this season. The Habs also will receive a third-round pick from Dallas.
Patience paid for Killorn
Prime example at the Garden Saturday of patience paying off for kids dreaming of an NHL career, with ex-Harvard center Alexander Killorn suiting up for his 11th game with the Lightning and scoring a goal.
Picked 77th overall by Tampa in 2007 after his first year at Deerfield Academy, the Montreal-raised Killorn opted to stick to the education path, and he played all four seasons for Ted Donato’s Cambridge crew. He turned pro last spring with AHL Norfolk and reported back there this fall with the NHL in lockout, going 16-22—38 in 44 games before getting the call to Tampa.
He’s only 23 years old, with degree in hand and what looks like a long NHL career in front of him.
“It’s not about getting there the fastest, but getting there and staying there,’’ noted his agent, Matt Keator, who preached much the same for Chris Kreider, encouraging the ex-Boston College Eagle to remain at The Heights for three years before turning pro.
Another way to get it going
My recent chat with Mike Milbury about dwindling NHL goal scoring regenerated one of my old ideas about how to pump up the scoring volume.
At even strength, five-on-five, teams in their defensive end always have an advantage because they are defending their net with six bodies (five skaters and one goalie). Seems to me, the obvious way to open up the game in those situations would be to prohibit teams from having five skaters in their defensive end.
Ergo, the team with the puck would attack in the offensive end with five skaters and be resisted by five defenders: four skaters and one goalie. What of that fifth “defensive’’ player? He would be forced to remain outside his own blue line, in the neutral zone.
The immediate effect would be attacking teams having significantly more room to create in the offensive zone. The hidden benefit, and perhaps the most exciting, would be that teams skilled in puck repossession in their own end (hello, Bruins) would develop a knack for wiring breakaway passes to that one player outside the zone. During a 60-minute game, we might see a handful of thrilling breakaways.
So sign me up. Anyone else on board?
Rask may be next extension
Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli and agent Bill Zito remain tight-lipped about negotiations aimed at getting Tuukka Rask signed to a long-term deal. “I’m not going to negotiate through the media,’’ Chiarelli reiterated Thursday. Zito added only that he talks regularly with Chiarelli on myriad subjects. Sounds like a Foxborough tutorial, doesn’t it? But based on Chiarelli’s track record, with extensions for Tyler Seguin, Milan Lucic, and Brad Marchand last summer, he’s likely to get Rask’s deal done sooner rather than later. Rask’s expiring one-year deal, signed last summer, pays $3.5 million. Given his start this season, his wage next year likely will jump to $5 million, but with a cap hit on a long-term deal something around the $6.5 million Montreal goalie Carey Price will pocket next season.
The trade that wasn’t
Simon Gagne rejoined the Flyers last week in trade from Los Angeles. In March 2000, less than two years after the Flyers made him the 22d pick in the 1998 draft, Gagne was wrapping up his rookie season on Broad Street. Boston captain Ray Bourque, traded that month from Boston to Colorado, had the Flyers topping his list of choices when asking GM Harry Sinden to be dealt. Sinden never acknowledged it publicly, but had the Flyers been willing to part with Gagne, Bourque most likely would have gone to Philadelphia. And the Bruins would have had Gagne flying on Joe Thornton’s left wing, or perhaps shifted to the right side to form a Sergei Samsonov-Thornton-Gagne trio. Bourque won his Cup in the spring of 2001 with Colorado, then retired. Gagne won his lone Cup last spring with the Kings and entered weekend play with 773 games and 587 points.
Lots of folks are musing over the prospect of an Original Six Boston-Chicago matchup in the Cup final. Vegas loves such dreamers. For the record, the two sides have never played for the championship. The Bruins and Blackhawks last met in the postseason in 1975, with Chicago prevailing, 2-1, in a best-of-three . . . Montreal-born defenseman Jean Gauthier died last week at age 73. Gauthier played but 166 NHL games, and 11 of those were with the Bruins in 1968-69, the start of the Bobby Orr era. He also suited up for the Habs and Flyers before finishing his pro career with Rochester of the AHL in 1973-74 . . . Look for a lot of bidding action on Andrej Sustr in the weeks ahead, once his junior year is over at Nebraska-Omaha. Sustr is a 6-foot-8-inch Czech defenseman, more in the style of, say, Tyler Myers than Zdeno Chara. Never drafted, he will be free to sign with the highest bidder . . . Anton Khudobin made the start in Boston’s net Saturday vs. Tampa Bay, only his fourth of the season. Nothing but kudos for Khudobin throughout the organization, but I still think Chiarelli will target a veteran backup prior to the trade deadline. Rask’s core injury last March had Chiarelli scrambling to Austria post-deadline to acquire stopgap Marty Turco. For very little impact on the salary cap, it could be a very valuable ounce of prevention . . . The Bruins will face Adam Oates’s Capitals Tuesday night in D.C., the first time they will see their former star pivot as a bench boss. Slick Washington defenseman Mike Green, sidelined once again by a groin injury, did not make the club’s weekend trip to Winnipeg. Green, 27, is a huge talent, but it looks like this will be his third straight season diminished by injury.