It was no coincidence that John Scott was on the ice shortly after Torey Krug gave the Bruins a 4-2 lead over the Sabres last Wednesday.
It was also by design that on Sept. 22 during an exhibition game, Scott lined up against Phil Kessel one shift after Toronto’s Jamie Devane beat up Buffalo’s Corey Tropp.
In both situations, Scott didn’t roll over the boards on his own. Ron Rolston tapped the tough guy on his shoulder.
The Buffalo coach didn’t tell Scott to fight Kessel, or hammer the Bruins’ Loui Eriksson. But Scott is not dumb. The 31-year-old understands his role and what he must do to earn ice time. Because his coach gave him both of those shifts, Scott carried out actions that were unsaid but understood.
Not all coaches would sanction such thuggery.
“If a guy chooses to be that and a team chooses to have a guy like that, I don’t know,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “But I’ll never tell Shawn Thornton to go after Sidney Crosby or anybody else that’s a top player in this league. I’ll never do that. So if he does, it’s on his own. And if he does it on his own, I don’t think personally I’d accept it.”
In the first case, the Sabres were angry that Devane (6 feet 5 inches, 217 pounds) fought Tropp (6 feet, 185 pounds). Scott warned Kessel before the following faceoff to be ready to dance despite their 68-pound difference. In the aftermath, Kessel took several tree-chopping slashes at Scott, earning a sitdown for the rest of the preseason. David Clarkson hopped off the bench to grab Scott and was suspended for the first 10 regular-season games.
Last Wednesday, Krug had scored a four-on-four goal. The game was getting out of reach.
Scott had tried to engage Thornton in the second period after Dougie Hamilton gave the Bruins a 3-1 lead. Thornton said no. A period later, the message Scott chose to send was a late, blindside head shot.
Kessel was lucky. Eriksson wasn’t.
That Eriksson has a concussion is on Scott. The 6-8, 270-pound behemoth clobbered Eriksson from the side after the Boston right wing had dumped in a puck. The play had hints of Matt Cooke’s blindside takeout of Marc Savard, the hit that led to the end of the pivot’s career. Eriksson never saw Scott coming. Eriksson had no chance to protect himself against the hit.
But Scott has enablers. He is on his second contract with the Sabres. General manager Darcy Regier didn’t sign Scott to consecutive one-year contracts because of his 1-4—5 career scoring line. Nor did Regier hire Patrick Kaleta (currently serving a 10-game suspension because of a head shot to Columbus’s Jack Johnson) for his goal-scoring mitts.
Rolston, Regier’s pick to replace longtime coach Lindy Ruff, took the helm on Feb. 20. Rolston’s previous stops included Rochester (Buffalo’s AHL affiliate), USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, and Boston College. Rolston arrived in Buffalo with strong credentials.
Less than six months into his role as official head coach, Rolston’s reputation is in shreds.
Nobody, including team owner Terry Pegula, expected the Sabres to contend for a playoff spot. But nobody predicted the Sabres’ rollout (1-9-1 following the 5-2 loss to the Bruins) would have as many glitches as www.healthcare.gov.
The team is a train wreck. Tyler Myers, the 2009-10 Rookie of the Year, is not improving. Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek, unrestricted free agents at season’s end, want out. It is a toxic environment for youngsters such as Mark Pysyk, Mikhail Grigorenko, Zemgus Girgensons, Nikita Zadorov, and Rasmus Ristolainen.
Through 11 games, the Sabres were outscored, 14-1, in the first period. They had the league’s fourth-worst power play (10.5 percent). They run around in their zone. They miss defensive assignments. They commit and repeat simple mistakes.
That reflects poorly on the coach. And that’s aside from Rolston’s hit-squad track record.
On Thursday, the NHL upheld Kaleta’s appeal of his 10-game suspension. In his appeal, commissioner Gary Bettman noted that Kaleta had been disciplined six times in less than four seasons. Kaleta boarded Jared Ross. Kaleta head-butted Travis Zajac. He charged Mark Fraser. Kaleta head-butted Jakub Voracek. Kaleta high-sticked Derek Morris. Kaleta rammed Brad Richards from behind.
“This is a remarkable record over the span of just 3½ seasons for a player who is only in his eighth NHL season, and, as noted above, has demonstrated a total disregard for the safety of other players and, in particular, their heads,” Bettman wrote. “It is not only the frequency of his prior offenses but, even more so, the fact that all their offenses involved in some way contact with or an injury to an opponent’s head that leads inexorably to the conclusion that Mr. Kaleta has not responded adequately to the progressive discipline that has been meted out to him thus far.”
Rolston wasn’t the coach for four of Kaleta’s six disciplinary incidents. But after the Richards hit, Rolston could have straightened out Kaleta in the simplest way: by not playing him. That never happened.
Ice time, after all, is a coach’s most powerful tool. In Scott’s case, he doesn’t get much of it in the first place (4:57 per game). If the Sabres were any good, Scott would see even less.
Scott wants to play. He knows his rock-hard hands and feet, when it comes to scoring and skating, work against him.
The granite in his gloves for punching, however, makes him an asset. If Scott doesn’t fight or play on the edge, he doesn’t play at all. Scott’s flattening of Eriksson was the product of coaches, not just Rolston, repeatedly telling him what he has to do to stay in uniform. While Eriksson’s condition is Scott’s fault, the blame is not entirely on the player. He is a product of the hit-to-hurt culture, which, according to Buffalo’s track record, Rolston shamefully endorses.
The result is a franchise in freefall. Billionaires like Pegula, an oil and gas titan, don’t suffer ridicule in the boardroom. Everybody in the rinks, however, is laughing at Pegula. It’s time for the boss to act like one. Pegula can start by telling his supposed hockey people they are no longer needed.
Stuart pays price for hit
John Scott’s takeout of Loui Eriksson is the eighth incident this month that resulted in a suspension. Clearly, Scott did not get the message sent via the seven previous suspensions, the longest being teammate Patrick Kaleta’s 10-game sitdown.
Perhaps the only players who get it are the ones the NHL suspends.
Brad Stuart believes he is one of them. The ex-Bruin is a hard-nosed, defensive defenseman. Stuart finishes his checks with breath-stealing violence. Rick Nash learned this the hard way.
On Oct. 8, Nash rimmed the puck around the boards. Stuart closed on Nash and took out the Rangers wing. Nash suffered a concussion. The NHL suspended Stuart for three games. Stuart’s only previous disciplinary action was in 2000-01 for a stick violation.
League disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan concluded that Stuart did everything just about right. Stuart used his shoulder, not his elbow. Even though Nash had passed the puck, Stuart arrived within the NHL’s acceptable timeframe.
But Shanahan ruled that Stuart unnecessarily drove his left shoulder upward. That motion made Nash’s head the main point of contact.
“Obviously, I’ve got to be more aware of the type of hits I’m going into,” Stuart said. “This game happens really fast. One wrong move, if you’re off an inch or two one way, a good hit suddenly turns into a bad-looking hit. Even if it wasn’t your intention, the focus on it right now is pretty intense. I’ve got to be smart. But I still want to play physical and look for hits. I’ve just got to be more picky about what I do.”
Stuart said he’ll modify his game in hopes of avoiding those checks entirely. Because of the game’s speed, too much can go wrong when a check occurs — an avoidable lift of the shoulder, an angle that is just off. If players don’t throw those dangerous hits at all, the bad stuff won’t occur.
“There’s going to be times where I have to decide, do I go for the hit? Or do I not? Once you commit yourself to the hit, then it’s hard,” Stuart said. “One wrong move, a couple inches this way or that way, then you can be in trouble. It’ll be more of a thought process of, should I step up? Or should I not? Once I make that decision, it’s pretty much going to be what it is.”
BU reunion held overseas
The Boston University band will be back together next month in Munich for the Deutschland Cup.
Retired Terriers coach Jack Parker will coach the US select team, with former assistants Ben Smith and Mike Bavis joining him behind the bench.
Among their charges are ex-Terriers Chris Bourque, Peter MacArthur, and Chris Connolly.
The former Hockey East players are playing in Europe this season: Ak Bars Kazan (Bourque), Augsburg (MacArthur), and Tappara (Connolly).
Chad Johnson was teammates with Mike Smith last season in Phoenix. After seeing how Smith handled the puck in games and practices with the Coyotes, Johnson wasn’t surprised when Smith scored a goal against Detroit Oct. 19. “You have to have that confidence to go back there, get out there, and know you can do it,” Johnson said. “Get out there and be comfortable throwing a sauce pass through two guys to the cross-ice. You’ve got to have that confidence to do it. He doesn’t have any doubt in his mind that he can make certain plays back there. There’s guys that can maybe stickhandle as well as him. But he has that confidence to go out and do that.” Retrieving pucks is not easy for any goalie. He must take his eyes off the forecheck, find the puck, consider his options, and get rid of it before opponents close in. Smith is the best.
Martin Biron retired last Sunday after being waived by the Rangers. Biron’s high-water mark was with Buffalo in 2001-02, when he went 31-28-10 with a 2.22 goals-against average and .915 save percentage. By the conclusion of his career, Biron defined himself as Henrik Lundqvist’s backup. But Biron’s primary highlight clip was from 2006-07, when he took on then-Ottawa goalie Ray Emery in one of the only post-lockout doozies. Biron knew Emery, a fighter in his early days, would have the upper hand. But Biron knew it had to be done and took his shots before tough guy Andrew Peters cut in to tangle with Emery. Biron retired with 508 career appearances, a 2.61 GAA, .910 save percentage, and a reputation for being one of the nicest men in the league.
This summer, the Jets committed $93.1 million to restricted free agents Zach Bogosian, Blake Wheeler, and Bryan Little. The result: another peaks-and-valleys start that’s left Winnipeg needing binoculars to spot division competitors Colorado, Chicago, Nashville, Minnesota, and St. Louis. Winnipeg’s problem, like every poor team, is inconsistent goaltending. Ondrej Pavelec often makes stunning saves. But then he lets in a dribbler, which does far more damage to his teammates. After 10 starts, Pavelec was 3-5-2 with a 3.06 GAA and a .902 save percentage. It was the worst save percentage of any goalie with nine or more starts. Simply not good enough.
Doug Hamilton, father of Dougie Hamilton, raced in the Head of the Charles last weekend, under the Ridley Graduate Boat Club banner. The elder Hamilton is a former Olympic rower and might be in better shape than NHL sons Dougie and Freddie Hamilton . . . As much trading Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek is critical to Buffalo’s rebuild, such moves are tough to pull off in October. The market for high-end players becomes more defined as teams identify their needs . . . Detroit didn’t give Stephen Weiss a five-year, $24.5 million contract (courtesy www.capgeek.com) to be a bottom-six forward. But Weiss (2-0—2 through 11 games) is centering the third line because of his offensive inefficiency. It can be hard for players on perpetually losing teams such as Weiss, a career Panther, to adapt to the high expectations of a winning franchise . . . Lars Eller started the season as Montreal’s No. 3 center but has displaced David Desharnais as the No. 1 pivot. As good as Eller has been, Desharnais’s offensive dropoff has been a mystery. Through 10 games, Desharnais had no goals and one assist. Bruins defenseman Adam McQuaid once credited Desharnais as being the NHL’s most underrated player, primarily because of his hockey sense . . . Carolina is now down both of its varsity goalies. Cam Ward could miss a month because of a lower-body injury suffered on Thursday. The Hurricanes were already without ex-Bruin Anton Khudobin, whose return date is unknown. Friday was a good time for stay-at-home defenseman Tim Gleason to return. Gleason missed the first 10 games because of a concussion . . . It brightened everybody’s day when ex-NESN rinkside reporter Naoko Funayama was at TD Garden for Thursday’s Bruins-Sharks game. Funayama was part of Comcast SportsNet Bay Area’s on-air team. Funayama is expecting her first child, a boy, in January, good weather for a hockey family.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.