The Avalanche last week broke the syndrome of hiring recycled NHL coaches, opting to fill their late-summer bench vacancy with Jared Bednar. If you’ve been too buried in beach reading to pay attention, the job opened unexpectedly when Patrick Roy abruptly resigned Aug. 11, convinced that his view from the bench was not in focus with the rest of Denver’s front office cognoscenti.
Unlike Roy, the sometimes tempestuous Hall of Fame goalie who backstopped Cups in both Montreal and Denver, the 44-year-old Bednar lacks any “Q factor.” Even in Cleveland, where he led the AHL franchise this spring to the Calder Cup championship, he was a virtual unknown. A defenseman, he was undrafted after three years of junior (Western Hockey League), then kicked around the minors for eight seasons before breaking into coaching as an assistant with the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays in 2002-03.
Some 14 seasons later, including three with the Springfield Falcons, voila, Bednar hit the big time Thursday when Joe Sakic and friends picked him to lead them out of their protracted tailspin. The Avs missed the playoffs for a second season in a row in 2015-16 and have DNQ’s five of the last six seasons. Roy’s bench had gone flat, despite some young, high-end talent up front (Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog).
Bednar, with the AHL Springfield franchise shifted to Cleveland last season, led the Lake Erie Monsters (now Cleveland Monsters) to the title with a mesmerizing 15-2 playoff run, including series sweeps of Rockford, Ontario, and Hershey. The Avs picked him from a trio of finalists that included ex-NHLers Kevin Dineen and Lane Lambert.
“He did a tremendous job with us,’’ said Bill Zito, the former agent who, as the Columbus Blue Jackets assistant GM, is also GM of the Cleveland franchise. “His coaching, the team, the atmosphere . . . it all came together for one magical run.’’
After rubbing out Grand Rapids in Round 2 (4-2 series victory), Bednar’s charges ran the table with eight consecutive wins over Ontario and Hershey. In Denver, he’ll need to reinvigorate that young, underperforming forward corps, and pray that goalie Semyon Varlarmov isn’t beaten to a pulp after three grueling, disappointing seasons (averaging 59 games).
The 51-year-old Zito, once the agent for Bruins goalies Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask (and the forgotten Hannu Toivonen), is among the game’s rising front office stars. A batboy for three seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers, he played high school hockey in Milwaukee and then prepped a year here at Andover before initially committing to Harvard. But a late acceptance to Yale, and the chance for more playing time with Tim Taylor’s Bulldogs, enticed him instead to New Haven.
“I sent a long letter to Bill Cleary, thanking him, explaining why I felt Yale was the right decision for me,’’ recalled Zito. “And I get zero response. Uh-oh, not good. The Brewers were playing the Yanks, so I was able to get to New York with them, bus to Boston, and get over to Billy’s office.’’
After the initial handshake with Cleary, Zito, then 19, asked if the legendary Crimson coach had read his letter.
“And he says, looking at a big pile of letters on his desk, ‘Nah, but I bet it’s buried in there somewhere . . . what’s up?’ ’’ recalled Zito. “So now I’ve got to tell him, ‘Uh, well, I’m not coming to Harvard.’ There’s a fun moment, right? But he was great about it. He perfectly understood. I’ll never forget it. He gave me this big hug and wished me the best. He could not have been more gracious.’’
Other than his senior season, Zito played sparingly at Yale, then ultimately returned home to earn his law degree at the University of Wisconsin. In the mid-’90s, he founded Acme Sports in Chicago and began representing athletes, most of them hockey players, and had built Acme into a thriving agency by the time Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen (the ex-Bruins forward) hired him as his righthand man.
Intrigued for years by the prospect of joining a team’s front office, it wasn’t until the Bruins’ successful Cup run in 2011 that Zito was convinced it was time to make the career change.
“I was in Vancouver for the clinching game,’’ recalled Zito. “And when they won, everyone’s out there on the ice, right? In 20-plus years, it was the only time I was ever on the ice. Everyone’s hugging . . . Timmy, Tuukka, Pete [Chiarelli]. Then there’s this scramble, the team poses for pictures, and then they’re outta there. Gone. And in a flash, that’s when it really hits home. Everyone leaves and you’re left standing there, realizing you’re not part of it.’’
Amid the brewing mayhem that broke out that night on Vancouver streets, Zito hustled to the airport for the red-eye flight back to Chicago. While still at the airport, Thomas and Rask called to say thanks, apologized for the abrupt goodbye at the rink, and wished him safe travels home.
“Those calls, and then returning to Chicago, made it clear to me how desperate I was to be a part of it,” mused Zito. “It made me want to move over, to be part of a team and be proud of hopefully putting together something really special.’’
The Bruins open their season Oct. 13 in Columbus, where Zito is convinced something special is on the horizon.
Braid could open doors in coaching
The Coyotes made NHL history last week by naming Dawn Braid as an assistant coach.
Braid, from Woodbridge, Ontario, became the first woman named as an assistant NHL coach. She is also believed to be the first assistant ever hired specifically as a skating coach, which is perhaps more astounding, given that skating is the most essential element of the game.
“Without it, what’ve you got?’’ was the mantra of ex-Bruins coach Gerry Cheevers, whose skating skills as a goalie were of Capades caliber. “Everything comes from skating.’’
Hired by Coyotes GM John Chayka, Braid becomes a member of Dave Tippett’s full-time staff, but will not be on the bench during games.
“I take a ton of pride in that,’’ Braid said in a release, referring to her groundbreaking status. “I’ve worked very hard for this opportunity.”
Through the years, Braid was a skating consultant with other NHL clubs, including Toronto, Anaheim, Buffalo, Calgary, and last year with Arizona. It has not been uncommon for women to help NHLers with their skating. Laura Stamm was at it decades ago, dating to the Islanders’ glory years in the early ’80s. Marianne Watkins, based at Robert Morris University outside Pittsburgh, also has worked extensively with NHL clubs and players.
“I think skating coaches are very helpful for continued development and rehab,’’ said Bruins GM Don Sweeney, noting he was fully supportive of women joining the NHL ranks.
Sweeney last season deeply immersed Kim Brandvold, a former defenseman with UMass Lowell, as a skating instructor with the Bruins, both in Boston and in Providence. The Norwegian-born Brandvold was a regular on-ice presence during training camp and frequently worked with prospects at Providence. He’ll do the same again this year.
“To see a woman hired is great for the sport, the league, and for her,’’ said Brandvold. “And it’s especially great to see more and more teams hiring people who address individual skills, whether it’s skating, stickhandling, shooting.’’
Brandvold, though intrigued by the Braid hire and happy for her success, said he doubted that it would start a trend of other clubs hiring assistants specifically for skating. But he did say he feels there is increasing awareness throughout the league about the importance of enhancing players’ skill levels.
“The league is so tight now,’’ noted Brandvold, “and often it’s the individual, high-end skill player who can tip the outcome of a game one way or the other.’’
The Arizona Cardinals last summer became the first NFL club to put a female coach on the field, enlisting BC grad Dr. Jen Welter to coach inside linebackers during training camp. The Bills later made Kathryn Smith the first full-time female assistant coach in league history. In the NBA, Becky Hammon is an assistant in San Antonio and Nancy Lieberman is an assistant in Sacramento.
COST OF BUSINESS
Prospective stars don’t come cheap
Jimmy Vesey, the Harvard star and last season’s Hobey Baker winner, last Friday ultimately chose the Rangers as his career entry point, wrapping up months of guessing and hand-wringing among many NHL fans.
As the process dragged out, Internet chat rooms, radio talk shows, and countless Twitter feeds were full of fans’ laments, many of them casting Vesey as being uppity or even a prima donna over the process behind his decision.
It’s a business, folks. He put in his four years at Harvard, earned his degree, and the CBA grants free agency to kids who choose the four-year books-and-pucks path. Think of how many kids get drafted and never get tendered contracts. Vesey accepted the risk of getting hurt in college, possibly his career ending with zero in the bank, and in the end it paid off for him.
As for the equally constant refrain that had fans questioning why a high-end prospect would draw such abundant interest, consider what Arizona did last week to pry 19-year-old Lawson Crouse away from the Panthers. To land the projected power forward, the Coyotes willingly ate the remaining $16.5 million in debt owed the chronically injured Dave Bolland (the ex-Hawk who scored the Cup-winning goal vs. the Bruins in 2013).
Just like Vesey, Crouse projects as a top-six forward, though more as a corner and net-front presence. But with his rights controlled by Florida, who made him the 11th pick in the 2015 entry draft, he wasn’t going anywhere without the Panthers extracting a very high price — namely the three years left on Bolland’s deal at $5.5 million per season.
“We looked at what we’ve got and what we need,’’ said Coyotes GM John Chayka during a conference call Thursday, “and we think [Crouse] fits in perfectly.’’
Video: Lawson Crouse on joining Coyotes
Bolland might play for Arizona someday, but it’s highly unlikely. Had he not been injured, the Panthers surely would have bought out his deal. With some cap room to burn, Chayka took on the Bolland’s full deal solely to land Crouse.
Think of how costly that Bolland salary dump might prove for Florida if Crouse plays, say, 10 years and piles up 300 or 400 goals.
Chayka made a similar play earlier this summer when he took the final year of Pavel Datsyuk’s deal off Detroit’s hands in order to acquire a higher first-round pick and select 6-foot-2-inch defenseman Jakob Chychrun in the June entry. For that move four slots up the draft, the Coyotes accepted Datsyuk’s one-year cap hit of $7.5 million.
So why all the hype and holler over Vesey? Top-end prospect, possibly an impact scorer, with not a single cent of accompanying cost.
Goalies have yet to be downsized
With training camps less than a month away, it appears NHL goalies will be back on the job without any substantial nips or tucks to their ridiculously bloated, goal-choking, game-stifling equipment.
It’s an ice game, folks, and like the Ice Age, changes happen very slowly.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman made it clear during an interview with Sportsnet last week the league would like to see modifications. He also diplomatically tiptoed around the fact that said changes would have to be endorsed by the NHL Players’ Association, eschewing the chance to blame the players for continuing to suck the entertainment out of the game like it was the last lobster tail of the summer.
“We are committed to doing it,’’ said Bettman, noting the league’s desire to streamline the gear. “My hope is it can get done.’’
Bettman also beat down the idea that the upcoming World Cup, which will feature “SAP’’ advertising on team sweaters, is a precursor of the NHL ultimately slapping advertising on the sweaters of NHL teams.
“If we did it,’’ said Bettman, who is nearing a quarter-century on the job, “it would be kicking and screaming, with some really, really good reason to do it.’’
Money is always the reason, of course, and it’s a good bet the Lords of the Boards one day will be offered a huge chunk of cash for GE or Best Buy or EpiPen (the priciest stick in the rack) to buy space on the sweaters. The NBA has already gone that route.
“Pandora’s Box is open,’’ said Bettman, “and we are not interested in Pandora’s Box.’’
Changing on the fly
A couple of key scratches last week for Team Canada ahead of the World Cup (Sept. 17-Oct. 1). Dallas gunner Jamie Benn, still recovering from recent surgery on a core muscle, was replaced by San Jose’s Logan Couture. Hawks backliner Duncan Keith, noting he needs time to strengthen a knee after tearing cartilage last October, opened the door for the Blues’ Jay Bouwmeester.
The good news for Dallas: GM Jim Nill (headline: “Bruins get Nill for McNab’’) says Benn will be ready for the regular season.
Couture’s addition brings to eight the number of Sharks who will suit up in the WC, including fellow Canadians Joe Thornton, Brent Burns, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
The other Sharks who will suit up in Toronto: Joe Pavelski (USA), Tomas Hertl (Czech Republic), Joonas Donskoi (Finland), and Mikkel Boedker (Europe).
Good luck, except . . .
The Blues officially moved on from the David Backes era on Thursday when they named defenseman Alex Pietrangelo their new captain.
Backes, who signed on with the Bruins as a free agent in July, for $30 million over the next five years, captained the Blues for the last five seasons.
Soon after Pietrangelo’s appointment, Backes tweeted out to his old pal, “Congrats, buddy, on your new role. You will be great. Best of luck, except for Nov. 22, Jan. 10 vs @NHLBruins.’’
Bochenski thriving in KHL
The puck is already in play in the KHL and ex-Bruin Brandon Bochenski is back at work, skating wing for a seventh season with Astana Barys, along with another Boston short-timer, Kevin Dallman, and ex-Ranger Nigel Dawes.
Bochenski, 34, was one of Peter Chiarelli’s first acquisitions as GM in the Hub of Hockey. Chiarelli surrendered Kris Versteeg for Bochenski, whose scoring ability vanished when he muscled up over the following offseason. He now has scored 20 or more goals in each of his six KHL seasons.
Steve Moses, 27, a former UNH standout and ex-Junior Bruin via Leominster, is playing for St. Petersburg, along with fellow forwards Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk. Hey, it’s not what he had to work with in Durham, but . . .
Once salary-cap bottom-feeders, the Coyotes, after adding Dave Bolland’s $5.5 million hit, are now only some $2 million from the $73 million max . . . The Bruins don’t officially open training camp until rookies hit the ice on Sept. 15, followed a week later by the varsity. A large portion of the Black-and-Gold brethren will be on the Warrior ice in Brighton starting this Monday, working out in unofficial captain’s practices . . . Gerry Cheevers, who coached when the Bruins practiced at a humble arena in Danvers, each day addressed the media in his tiny office underneath the stands. It was all but impossible for anyone to stand upright in the hovel, the under portion of the arena’s stairway cutting through the coach’s office at a 45-degree angle. “This joint is so small,’’ Cheevers oft-lamented, “even the mice are hunchbacked.’’
Rosters were finalized Friday for the third World Cup of Hockey, which begins Sept. 17 in Toronto. Seven Bruins players as well as coach Claude Julien will be participating. A look at the eight teams: