Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Ramblings: All eyes on Caps' Kuznetsov
By Scott Burnside
Pressure already on Caps' Kuznetsov
It will be interesting to see how Washington head coach Adam Oates employs Evgeny Kuznetsov during the stretch run. The former first-round pick of the Caps (26th overall in 2010) made his NHL debut Monday after much anticipation and many delays. Oates admitted he was trying to shield the talented winger from expectations in what is a completely foreign game to the youngster. Kuznetsov played 10:22 in his NHL debut (and 14:52 on Tuesday night against the Penguins), lining up mostly on the team’s fourth line, although he did end up playing a shift or two with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. The issue will be how quickly to try to accelerate the learning process for the 21-year-old. The Caps are life and death to make the playoffs and one of the team’s critical areas of deficiency is its depth scoring. After Ovechkin’s 44 goals there isn’t a 20-goal scorer on the roster. The Caps are one point out of the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference but have two teams to jump over, have played more games and have a poor tiebreaker with just 22 regulation or overtime wins. In short, whether it’s fair or not, how quickly Kuznetsov adapts to the North American game might say a lot about whether the Caps’ streak of six postseason appearances gets to seven.
Jets are passive and winless
There’s the old chestnut about the best deal you make being the one you don’t make. Right now that doesn’t really apply to the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets, of course, made their big move earlier in the season when they fired head coach Claude Noel and then caught fire under new head coach Paul Maurice. But in spite of crawling back to within a point or two of a wild-card spot in the Western Conference, the Jets were strangely passive at the deadline, neither moving potential free agents Devin Setoguchi or Chris Thorburn nor adding pieces that might actually push them into the postseason for what would be just the second time in franchise history. Their competition did not sit idly by. The Phoenix Coyotes added Martin Erat, while Dallas GM Jim Nill straddled the fence by trading defenseman Stephane Robidas to Anaheim while keeping free agents Ray Whitney and Vernon Fiddler (and adding Tim Thomas). Both teams have played well of late and are ahead of the Jets in the standings. Now we’d be praising GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to the skies if the Jets had reeled off a few wins in a row after the deadline to prove not just to the public but to themselves that their strategy was sound. But they have now gone winless in four and have failed to collect a W in the three games since last week’s trade deadline. The bottom line? As of Wednesday morning, the Jets were six points out of the final wild-card spot with two teams to dislodge and they are not in a good situation vis-a-vis the tiebreaker. In short, the chances of the Jets arresting the franchise history of fading to black come playoff time are slim to slimmer.
Fair for Devils to get pick back?
In theory, I don’t have any problem with the NHL relenting on its original penalty for salary-cap shenanigans in the New Jersey Devils' original contract attempt with the erstwhile Ilya Kovalchuk and reinstating their 2014 draft pick by locking them into the 30th pick in Philadelphia. When Daniel Alfredsson explained last summer how he and the Ottawa Senators had basically cooked up his last salary to beat the cap system and the league failed to act, well it just seemed fair that the Devils at the very least should get their draft pick back. But know this, loads of teams aren’t big fans of this decision. So the Devils are locked into 30th; it still robs the teams that draft behind them in the second round of a pick or, rather, positioning. Let’s say the Oilers draft first overall (don’t they always?). The Devils in theory are getting their pick at the top of the second round. Fair? Not for Edmonton or for Florida, etc. And the fact that this draft pick was given back at least in part as a show of good faith for the new ownership group in New Jersey does not sit well with other teams, either. Nor should it given the kind of precedent this has the potential to set.
Struggling a relative term for Bruins
Boston GM Peter Chiarelli admits he wasn’t thrilled with the way his team came out of the Olympic break. First, the Bruins were beaten by lowly Buffalo 5-4 in overtime. Then the Caps got the better of the Bruins by a 4-2 count. Even though the Bruins entered the break on a 3-0-1 stretch, Chiarelli acknowledged you never know how a sudden stoppage in play will affect your team.
“Sometimes you come out of it in a funk,” Chiarelli told ESPN.com this week.
Good thing for the Bruins "funk" is a relative term. Since a disappointing return, the Bruins have rebounded to play some of their best hockey of the season. In fact, they have played so well that at one point this week they overtook Pittsburgh for top spot in the conference in a battle that now seems destined to go down to the wire. Not that the Bruins are necessarily focused on the standings, but rather on making sure their style of play is on display on a consistent basis, as it has been during their current five-game winning streak.
“I liked how we responded,” from the slow post-Olympic start, Chiarelli said.
The Bruins tightened up their defensive game and have been rolling offensively, getting timely contributions from up and down the lineup -- the calling card of the Bruins team that won a Cup in 2011 and then went to the Cup finals last spring.
“For us, it’s about having the four lines and three defensive pairs going and that’s hard to do. You have to have everyone in sync,” Chiarelli said.
This is a Bruins team that underwent significant change up front during the offseason with Tyler Seguin, Nathan Horton and Jaromir Jagr all headed to different teams. But in recent days, the Bruins’ third line of Carl Soderberg, Chris Kelly and Loui Eriksson has caught fire and been a catalyst to their charge to the top of the conference standings. Kelly is a veteran presence down the middle and Soderberg’s skating has improved, which is important for a player with his size. Eriksson, the key to the deal that sent Seguin to Dallas at the draft last June, is making the kinds of plays that the Bruins expected he would when they made the deal.
“That third line has really been key,” Chiarelli said.
As for watching the standings, the Bruins finished behind the Penguins last season, but when the two met in the conference finals, it didn’t matter to the B's when they swept the favored Penguins.
“It’d be nice to be there,” Chiarelli said of the top seed. “But we don’t focus on it.”
Statues all around
It is the season of the statue, apparently. The Philadelphia Flyers will unveil a 1,300-pound bronze statue of Hall of Fame coach Fred Shero at Wells Fargo Center on the morning of March 15. It’s fitting the unveiling of the statue honoring the man who coached the Flyers to their only Stanley Cup championships, in 1974 and 1975, will happen before the Flyers take on the Pittsburgh Penguins, whose general manager, Ray Shero, is Fred Shero’s son. That’s a nice touch. A few weeks later, the Tampa Bay Lightning will have a similar unveiling near their home building in Tampa. A nine-foot sculpture depicting former captain Dave Andreychuk holding the Stanley Cup aloft as he did after the Lightning edged Calgary in Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup finals will be unveiled during a pregame ceremony on April 5. Andreychuk is sometimes a forgotten figure in the Bolts’ seminal run to their lone championship. The focus has often been on Brad Richards, captain Vincent Lecavalier and the recently traded Martin St. Louis, but Andreychuk’s leadership and his willingness to adapt his style at that stage of his career to a more defensive role were crucial to the team’s overall success. Now fans will be reminded of that every time they head to a Lightning game.