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Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Ramblings: The year of the goaltender

By Scott Burnside

Really, Buffalo?: It’s been easy to pile on Buffalo GM Darcy Regier for the shipwreck that is the Sabres, although in the wake of the Thomas Vanek trade there has also been a weird kind of damning with faint praise for Regier’s ability to return good young assets/draft picks as he continues to tear down the team he so poorly constructed. OK, so Regier is really good at cleaning up his own mess. It’s kind of weird, but we’ll buy it. Sort of. But when we read John Vogl’s report in the Buffalo News that the Sabres were prepared to make Vanek the highest-paid player in the NHL, we were gob-smacked. Vogl is a pro so we trust his sources. Now maybe that’s how the franchise is trying to quietly spin having to deal their most skilled skater -- oh, we would have kept him at any price but he decided to fly the coop -- but if the team was actually prepared to pay Vanek more than Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin or any of the game’s truly elite players, it is stark indictment of everyone wearing a suit connected to the franchise from owner Terry Pegula on down. Talk about a franchise gone down the rabbit hole.

Pain in the net: So, 2013-14 is looking like it’s shaping up to be the season of the goalie. Or rather the season of the banged-up, knocked-down, on-the-limp goalie. To whit, the season is less than a month old and brand-name netminders Henrik Lundqvist, Pekka Rinne, Cam Ward, Tim Thomas, Kari Lehtonen, Niklas Backstrom, James Reimer and Jimmy Howard have already gone down with a variety of injuries. Some (like Ward and Rinne) are out long term, forcing their teams to consider Plan B or even C, D or E. Shorter pads? Narrower nets forcing netminders into more side-to-side movement? Lots of theories but one thing is for certain, the injuries are scaring the beejeebers out of GMs and fans.

Goalie to spare: Speaking of goaltending, not sure how things are going to turn out, but Anaheim head coach Bruce Boudreau has used three different starters this season -- Viktor Fasth, Jonas Hiller and Frederik Andersen -- and the trio somehow manages to win ... for the most part. While the high-scoring Ducks (they rank seventh in goals per game heading into action Tuesday) have rolled to a 9-3-0 record, the goaltending is in a bit of flux. Fasth has appeared in just three games due to injury, while Hiller faltered in recent days and has allowed 11 goals on the last 60 shots he’s faced. That opened the door for Andersen, the 6-foot-4 Dane who has gone 3-0 and allowed just four goals on the 74 shots he’s faced in his first NHL action. Given that Hiller’s contract is going to expire at the end of this season, the Ducks are seemingly awash in goaltending fortunes (the best of the bunch is likely John Gibson, currently toiling in the AHL) and goalies are dropping like flies (see above), it’s likely you’ll hear Hiller’s name a lot more frequently in the coming days.

Road trip: You have to wonder about the intersection of fate and the schedule-makers. The Nashville Predators appear to be at that very intersection now with starting netminder Rinne out with a hip infection for about a month, which seems like about the amount of time they’ll be on the road on their coming monster road trip. The Preds visit Phoenix on Halloween Thursday night, then head to L.A., Colorado, Winnipeg and finish with a swing East for dates in New Jersey, Long Island and Pittsburgh. After winning their first game without Rinne, the Preds were blasted by St. Louis on Saturday. This is a team that historically relies on scoring by committee and if ever there was a time for that committee to get to work, it’s during this upcoming trip. We talked to veteran Matt Cullen just before Rinne’s injury and he talked glowingly about the mentality taking shape in the dressing room and his role playing mostly with youngsters Craig Smith and Gabriel Bourque. It’s not quite two kids and an old goat a la Brett Hull at the end in Detroit, but the Preds are hoping for something similar in production, especially during this long absence from Music City.

Blue-line blues: You might think a 7-3-2 record through the first month of the schedule would be at least somewhat satisfying for the Phoenix Coyotes, but a closer look suggests head coach Dave Tippett would like a little more traditional Yotes style in the current team’s play. On the offensive side of the puck, the team has generated far more than might have been expected, ranking fourth in goals per game at a healthy 3.33 clip. That’s been the pleasant surprise as the team has received contributions from up and down the lineup, including a healthy contribution in goals and points from the back end, where Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle lead one of the most dynamic blue lines in the NHL. But what has Tippett troubled is the team’s overall defense, which is tied for 25th in the league in goals allowed per game. Being in the bottom third of the league in goals allowed, "isn’t a way we’re going to be successful," Tippett told this week. And while some teams are willing to play a high risk game where they’ll trade scoring chances, Tippett doesn’t believe this is the case with his team. He sees a lack of commitment to playing well in their own zone, a point he and the coaching staff made emphatically clear early this week. There have been games when they’ve been badly outchanced, lost important puck battles and, in general, simply not defended as emphatically as Tippett teams perennially defend. The Yotes have also taken a plethora of first-period penalties, which has put them behind the eight ball early on in games. “We’ve gotten down early and we’ve chased games,” Tippett said. The Coyotes have been outscored 14-5 in the first period. When they score first, they’re 5-0-1 but otherwise are 2-3-1.

Winding path: The line between being a very good rookie and a very good NHL player is almost never a straight line. Take Nathan MacKinnon, who is a very good rookie and will almost certainly become a very good NHL player. But after registering seven points in his first six NHL games, the first-overall pick in last June’s draft has gone five straight games without a point heading into action Tuesday. MacKinnon’s not alone. Take the NHL’s top rookie scorer, Tomas Hertl of San Jose. Hertl, of course, scored four times against the New York Rangers in his third game, which gave him six goals at that early juncture. But over the next eight games, the Czech talent had just one goal. Hey, if it was easy, everyone would do it, no?