The Avalanche decided to try yet another reset, turning last week to Hall of Famer Joe Sakic to make the most important calls in hockey ops as the club’s executive vice president. The overwhelmingly underwhelming Greg Sherman will remain on as general manager in title, but the 43-year-old Sakic is truly the in-charge guy, his mission to whip the sagging franchise (three straight years without a playoff berth) into relevance again in what was once among the NHL’s hottest, richest markets.
Sakic was a great player and forever gracious and accommodating with the media. He is a great face-of-the-franchise guy, much as Cam Neely is here in the reborn Hub of Hockey. Everyone loves Neely, and he was hired mainly for that reason, first as the non-titled “face of the franchise,’’ then later as club president, once the Jacobs family figured a polite way to cover Harry Sinden under a rich blanket of mothballs.
It’s prudent, I think, to remember that “reborn” part, because amid all the reignited playoff hysteria, people inside and outside the Garden sometimes forget that the Bruins’ season-ticket base had plummeted to somewhere around, oh, the population of Deerfield (a robust 5,125 in the 2010 census) before the Boston front office was overhauled in the March-June stretch of 2006. GM Mike O’Connell was dismissed in March, and after a failed dalliance to hire Ray Shero out of Nashville, the Bruins’ corner office (located 450 miles away in Buffalo) finally succeeded in bringing in Peter Chiarelli from Ottawa.
The Avalanche today are very much what the Bruins were then, a total mess in dire need of rebuilding a roster, a fan base, and some viability/credibility among the media. To that latter point, there is plenty of buzz around the Bruins nowadays. But back then, even The Hockey News was challenged to find space for the Black and Gold. The Globe, Herald, and a smattering of suburbans (Patriot Ledger and Lawrence Eagle Tribune chief among them) stoked the hockey hearth, but that was about it other than the club’s rights-holders. Bloggers were just starting to creep into the building. Comcast SportsNet New England and 98.5 The Sports Hub — bless both their hockey hearts — didn’t exist.
If Avalanche owner Stan Kroenke thinks Sakic is going to do it all now simply by waving one of his old autographed sticks over the team’s ashes, he is indeed in for a rude awakening. Dallas went with the ex-player-in-the-corner-office cure in hiring Joe Nieuwendyk as GM in May 2009. That’s the same Nieuwendyk who was just replaced by Jim Nill, another ex-player who happened to spend the better part of the last 20 years working diligently in the Red Wings’ front office. The Stars never made it to the playoffs during Nieuwendyk’s tenure.
Chiarelli, an attorney, worked for seven seasons in Ottawa’s front office prior to being hired in Boston. He made some mistakes from the outset, including hiring Dave Lewis as coach, but overall his work has been superlative, including hiring Claude Julien to replace Lewis after only one year.
Chiarelli’s hirings of Jim Benning and Don Sweeney as assistant GMs have also proven astute, effective additions. If anyone thinks it’s easy to win a Cup in five years, they only need to look where Nieuwendyk’s career path led in Dallas, or for that matter, where Sherman took the Avalanche over nearly the exact same time. Or what has happened to franchises in Florida, Columbus, Calgary, Minnesota, and Long Island. Carolina, a Cup winner in 2006, has been a DNQ six of the past seven seasons. It can go bad very quickly. And stay bad.
Managing is vastly different than playing. It takes incredible devotion and grueling work to become a player, but for the most part the workdays, though intense, are extremely short. Virtually none of them has ever known an eight-hour workday or a calendar that allows for no more than a few vacation weeks per year. A devoted NHL GM routinely will log 10-hour workdays, rarely take a day off, often travel extensively to scout, and escape for but a week or two in the offseason, depending on the length of the playoffs.
If Sakic has signed up for that work life, fine. If he hasn’t signed up for it, the Avalanche will stay mired in ineptitude and failure. In the end, the key to success isn’t necessarily the hard work alone, but doing all that work and being able to evaluate talent and then find the right coach to work with the talent, shape a winner. Sakic will know good talent from bad, and he should be able to know a good coach from a bad coach, but even the hardest-working, smartest GMs sometimes have trouble making those selections.
It has all worked here in Boston mainly because Chiarelli knows what he’s doing, works hard, and has assembled a competent, efficient, hard-working staff. A subdued lot, for the most part, they also have Neely as that out-front guy, who was able to maintain that smile even when the awkward, aging face of the club’s finances (Jeremy Jacobs) insulted him amid the Cup celebration in 2011, reminding Neely that he didn’t deliver the Cup when he played. Of course, nor could Jacobs deliver it, with Sinden calling the shots in those years. But, oh well.
So good luck, Burnaby Joe, and all the fans who’ve seen rock bottom in the Rockies. Like here in 2006, ownership has decided to change the culture, with the franchise’s last Cup, with Ray Bourque aboard, now 12 years in the past.
It all worked out quite well for the Bruins, with a Cup in 2011, a waiting list for season tickets, the city awash in Black-and-Gold hats and sweaters beyond levels we saw even during the Bobby Orr era. The change game is difficult.
We know that better than anyone. We also should remember it.
Leafs’ Nonis lauds Kessel
Of all the players he was asked to review in Thursday’s end-of-season news conference, Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis was most effusive about Phil Kessel. Nonis, more blunt than most GMs, was equally surprising when noting that he would consider trades for anyone, which would include captain/defenseman Dion Phaneuf. For that matter, it would include Kessel, but that’s not going to happen.
Kessel, who has blossomed into one of the game’s dynamic offensive performers, finally shed his “Thank You, Kessel’’ image in the seven games against Boston. He was Pavel Bure-like in how he revved up in the back end for dashes up ice, and his blistering snap shot off the fly was the best, and made him the most consistent and feared scoring threat on either side.
In his fourth season with the Leafs, first in the postseason, Kessel led all Leafs in goal scoring (4) and was second only to James van Riemsdyk (2-5—7) in points. He’s not ever going to challenge for the Selke Trophy, but he’s incorporated bits and pieces of three-zone play into his repertoire. He’s not a horse yet, but he’s also no longer a one-trick pony.
“I think this is the best stretch of hockey Phil Kessel has ever played,’’ said Nonis, adding that the right winger has developed into “one of the best players in the league.’’
Such comments will cost Nonis at the pay window, with Kessel about to enter the final year of the five-year, $27 million pact he signed when traded to Toronto. The ex- first-round pick is on the books for $5.4 million in 2013-14. His next deal likely will bump him up to around $8 million per, for another 4-6 years.
“Phil Kessel is going to be a good player in this league for a long time,’’ said Nonis. “We’ll look to bring him back for an extended period of time.’’
Contrary to headlines out of Toronto immediately after the news conference, Nonis did not specifically say he would be willing to trade Phaneuf. He did say he was open to discussing deals for anyone on the roster, including the tenacious 28-year-old backliner, whose attempted big hit on Nathan Horton in the Game 4 overtime led to a 3-1 series deficit.
“I’ve always felt the word ‘untouchable’ is really silly in this sport,’’ said Nonis. “There are players you would be unlikely to move and players we see as long-term solutions to success here. But untouchable doesn’t help if you are looking to get better.’’
Staal is in world of hurt
On Saturday, an MRI of Hurricanes captain Eric Staal’s right knee revealed a third-degree sprain of his medial collateral ligament (no surgery needed), suffered Thursday while playing for Team Canada at the World Championships in Stockholm. The franchise pivot, also Canada’s captain, was felled by a knee-on-knee hit by Sweden’s Alex Edler, the Canucks’ defenseman. “Not a good [injury],’’ Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford told Chip Alexander of the Raleigh News & Observer. Edler was assessed a five-minute kneeing major and ejected from the game. Always a risk when NHLers play in these international tourneys, but most GMs, Rutherford included, support their involvement. It’s a dangerous game wherever, whenever it’s played. The Rangers still await the return of Marc Staal, one of Eric’s younger brothers, to their defensive unit. Marc suffered a severe eye injury March 5 when hit by a slap shot from Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen.
Two months later, Staal finally returned during Round 1 against the Capitals, logged 17 minutes, but vision issues have prevented him from rejoining the lineup. “With this thing,’’ he told reporters later in the series, “the way I’ve been dealing with it is, wake up in the morning and take it from there. I can’t speculate one way or the other.’’
Ovechkin can’t win
Following his MVP-caliber season as the NHL’s leading goal scorer, Alex Ovechkin turned in a paltry 1-1—2 line against the Rangers in Round 1. Then, like Eric Staal, he headed overseas for the Worlds, where on Thursday he suffered the indignity of Russia’s 8-3 loss to Team USA. Turns out, according to the Washington Post, Ovechkin suffered a foot fracture late in the Ranger series, and was hobbled for Games 6 and 7. Asked about any injuries before departing D.C., Ovechkin only said, “Couple bruises . . . but nothing major.’’ No telling if a healthy No. 8 would have made a difference, but he went without a point over the final five games, and had but one shot in Game 7.
Using their heads
Another good call last week by the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, dismissing San Jose’s Raffi Torres for the rest of the Sharks-Kings series. Torres, suspended 25 games (later reduced to 21) last spring for trying to decapitate Chicago’s Marian Hossa, opened against the Kings by slamming his shoulder into Jarret Stoll’s noggin in Game 1. The Sharks then went out and booted away Game 2, allowing the Kings two late-third-period goals. It looks like the Kings, the defending Cup champs, will advance again to the conference finals (likely vs. Hossa and the Blackhawks). But they’ll get there with a boatload of injuries, contrary to last season’s run, which saw their blue liners not miss a shift. “That will never happen again,’’ mused coach Darryl Sutter, “to use the same six defensemen from basically the trading deadline to the middle of June. It’s impossible in today’s game.’’
Counting his blessings
Leafs defenseman Mark Fraser, his skull fractured by a Milan Lucic slapper in Game 4, made it to Thursday’s wrapup in Toronto. The shot left Fraser with the fracture over his right eye, though he did not suffer a concussion or any vision issues. “Could have been a lot worse,’’ he said. The 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pounder last week still suffered from some headaches and was under orders not to blow his nose for a month.
Now, context is everything, but Adam Oates, now the Capitals’ bench boss, said last week during a radio interview that he could handle Rangers coach John Tortorella in a fight. Maybe he could. But I never witnessed Oates in a dustup. Also convinced that Tortorella, for all his bluster and media goading, would just keep firing words, little else . . . The final line for Ducks star Ryan Getzlaf at the faceoff dot in Round 1 vs. Detroit: 39 for 117, an abysmal 33.3 win percentage. It left the club’s top line to start without the puck two out of every three drops. Tough way to win. The Red Wings advanced, in part, because Pavel Datsyuk won 101 of 181 at the dot for a 55.8 success rate . . . As of Friday morning, the Bruins numbered David Krejci, Zdeno Chara, Lucic, and Nathan Horton among the NHL’s top 10 playoff scorers with a total of 41 points. Think about that when pondering how Claude Julien’s roll-four-lines approach isn’t built for offensive production . . . Tyler Bozak will be an unrestricted free agent in July, possibly demanding big dollars. Leafs GM Dave Nonis said he would have Bozak back, but only if the price is right (read: no more than $4 million per season). Bozak tore a triceps during a faceoff in Game 5 and did not suit up for 6 and 7 against the Bruins . . . With Matt Bartkowski, Torey Krug, and Dougie Hamilton looking quite capable of working the points on the power play, all the more reason to move Chara to the top of the crease on the man-advantage. Maybe not as a first-unit or even regular tactic, but just to have at hand as another variable. The 6-foot-9-inch Chara was down low and in James Reimer’s face when Patrice Bergeron wristed in that long-range tying goal (4-4) vs. the Leafs in Game 7 . . . Looking at Krug, all 5-9 of him (maybe), hard not to think of Greg Hawgood, the ex-Bruin, remembered here for his unique Hawgie Hockey style of skate and shoot . . . Another ex-Bruin backliner, Michael Thelven, has joined the Twitter brigade, under @ThelvenMichael. One of his tweets on Friday was aimed at a D.C. resident. To wit: “@BarackObama Played pro hockey in BOS in the US ’85-’91. Now I’d like to retire in the country I love and which gave me the chance.’’ Certainly a different tone than the last Bruin who wrote anything pertaining to Washington. Thelven recently sold his company (medical devices) overseas and now splits time between Switzerland and Florida.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.