Five Things: Coaching hot seat, Kings' strong start
1. Coaching hot seat
With New Jersey off to its worst start since 1983-84, Buffalo in disarray, Calgary struggling and the New York Islanders and Toronto in freefall, there is a lot of discussion about potential coaching changes around the NHL. So, let's handicap the potential coaching replacements.
We have to start with Ken Hitchcock. His résumé includes a Stanley Cup in Dallas and two Olympic gold medals as an assistant in 2002 and 2010. While offense isn't necessarily his forte, he's tactically terrific and defensively among the best. And he's got instant credibility for teams looking for just that.
Running a close second will be Michel Therrien and Bob Hartley. We put the two French Canadian coaches together not just because they're long-time pals, but because they bring a measure of old-school "beat them in the alley" mentality with their top organizational skills. Both have rubbed players the wrong way, but what do they say about breaking eggs and making cakes? Therrien has had more recent success in remaking the Pittsburgh Penguins into Cup contenders, while Hartley won a Cup in Colorado.
Craig MacTavish's name will also come up in these discussions and represents a different personality than the three aforementioned coaches-in-waiting. The cerebral coach may represent a kinder, gentler option to fill a void created by a taskmaster.
In the minors, what about Don Lever, who won an AHL championship in Hamilton and is now coaching the AHL Chicago Wolves? He's had NHL experience as an assistant for many years.
And then there's longtime NHLer Kevin Dineen, who was thought to be in line for the Columbus job, but whom many believe deserves a shot at a head-coaching gig. He's currently the coach in Portland of the AHL.
2. Kings following Pens' progression?
Are the Los Angeles Kings ready to take a page from the Pittsburgh Penguins' Stanley Cup playbook? Remember how the Pens matured far more quickly than anyone imagined they would, making the playoffs in 2007, going to the Cup finals the following season and then winning it all in 2009?
Many were expecting the Kings to take another big step forward this season after losing in the first round to Vancouver. What has been so impressive about their 10-3-0 start has been their commitment to team defense, the bedrock of almost all championship teams. Even with Norris Trophy nominee Drew Doughty out of action for a chunk of time (Doughty has missed six of the team's 13 games, but returned to the lineup last week), the Kings remain one of the most difficult teams in the league to play against.
They are third in the league in goals allowed per game with an impressive 2.00 team GAA after finishing ninth in that category last season. They are second in the league and first in the West on the penalty kill, another area that has shown improvement from last season (they were 20th on the PK). Yes, Jonathan Quick has been terrific in goal, but the entire team has bought into coach Terry Murray's system.
Is there room for improvement? Sure. Offensively, the Kings are 12th in the league and are relying on scoring by committee, with Anze Kopitar off to a rather pedestrian start (four goals in 13 games). Doughty, by the way, has yet to score and has just one assist. But the early signs suggest this could be the Kings' season to make a big playoff splash for the first time since the Wayne Gretzky era.
3. We don't get these Habs
OK, we admit, we don't quite get the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs are a respectable 8-5-1 and were sitting atop the Northeast Division as of Monday morning. Yet they are a team that has a lot of passengers when it comes to putting the puck in the net. Andrei Kostitsyn is the team leader with six goals, while the heart of the team's offense -- playoff scoring hero Mike Cammalleri, captain Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez -- has just six goals between them. That's not good.
The Habs rank 25th in goals per game, but the power play remains the most vexing issue for coach Jacques Martin. Last season, they ranked second on the man advantage and used an opportunistic power play to upset Washington and Pittsburgh in the postseason. This season, the power play has managed to connect just three times. Three. Even with top defenseman Andrei Markov back in the lineup, the Canadiens are dead last in the league. Markov has just one assist in four games and the Montreal blue line has chipped in exactly three goals to date. The bottom line is unless things pick up for the Canadiens offensively, their stay atop the division will be a short one.
4. Why is NHL ignoring this no-brainer?
We must admit a certain sadness that GMs will not discuss the issue of being able to hold back salary in making trades when they meet Tuesday in Toronto.
This has been Toronto GM Brian Burke's quixotic quest for a number of years, but he has grown tired of banging his head against the league wall.
"Dead horse until the next CBA," Burke told ESPN.com. "Even I know when a great and noble cause has become an exercise in futility."
Still, the logic behind Burke's great and noble cause remains impeccable: If a team wants to move a player, it should be able to agree to pay a portion of that player's salary to make the deal work.
The players' association has never voiced a complaint about the proposal because it doesn't affect hockey-related revenues; the money all stays in the pie, it's just how it's divvied up. And since trades are exciting and can be helpful to players and teams, it should be a no-brainer that GMs have this ability. A look at how few trades get done ahead of the trade deadline reinforces that this would be an important piece of hockey legislation.
Another GM recently told ESPN.com he remains mystified that this continues to be an issue. He thinks it's a no-brainer that GMs should be able to eat portions of a salary they're trading away. Further, this GM said, the notion that this would somehow favor big-market teams is flawed; small-market GMs could benefit from picking up a player and not having to pay the full salary.
In the end, it is the fans that pay the final price for the league's refusal to make what appears to be a logical change. Wouldn't the NHL be a better place for having guys like Sheldon Souray and Wade Redden playing somewhere rather than toiling in obscurity in the AHL?
5. The Frolov factor
"He is strong on the puck. I think that's his biggest strength," Tortorella said last week. "He is really strong underneath the hashmarks, and it's really good in the way we're trying to play. That fits in exactly what we want do. I just want him to take the opportunities.
"I just want him not to look for something better when there's a shot available," he said. "We need to get more shots with him from further out when they're available."
Frolov has skills; there is no question of that. He has twice topped the 30-goal plateau with the Los Angeles Kings, but fell into disfavor with coach Terry Murray and ended up with just 19 goals last season.
When he was signed as a free agent this past summer, it was thought he might mesh nicely with Rangers scoring star Marian Gaborik. But Gaborik has been injured and Frolov has managed only two goals and has taken just 22 shots in 14 games.
With Ryan Callahan out of Friday's game, Frolov played with Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov and played well on the team's top line. On Sunday, with Callahan back in the lineup, Frolov appeared to score in a 2-0 loss to St. Louis, but the goal was waved off when it was ruled that a Blues player had touched the puck with a high stick and then netminder Ty Conklin played the puck just before Frolov pushed it into the goal.
"I'm not upset with his effort at all," Tortorella said. "He has worked very hard. I just want him to get rewarded."