Cross Checks: Barry Trotz
In a game with plenty of ugliness, Neal's cheap shot to an equally unsuspecting Marchand was the most senselessly bizarre. One wonders how the suspension will effect Neal's standing with the Canadian Olympic group. It's not just the five games he'll miss, but the question of whether in a tournament in which special teams will play a prominent role, you can afford to have someone on your team who has so little self-control.
One NHL executive at the board of governors' meetings in California suggested that if Orpik had simply fought Thornton -- as Thornton had wanted after Orpik's heavy hit on Eriksson -- none of this would have happened. Oy.
If there is a problem the league's GMs and competition committee need to address, it's the notion that players should have to fight after delivering a legal body check. Whatever happened to simply taking a hit?
The sooner the league moves to punish players who go looking for fights in the aftermath of clean hockey hits -– there was no penalty assessed on the Orpik hit on Eriksson –- the sooner we have fewer incidents like the debacle in Boston on Saturday.
Lightning bitten by injury bug
While the Bruins deal with several injuries and the loss of Thornton (and continue winning, by the way), no team has it quite as bad as the Tampa Bay Lightning.
After being relatively injury-free through the first six weeks of the regular season, Tampa Bay lost Steven Stamkos to a broken leg in November and has been besieged by other key injuries since.
"It was exactly like the injury dam broke," head coach Jon Cooper told ESPN.com Monday.
The Lightning have piled up 101 man-games lost to injury, and at one point last week had 13 players in the lineup with fewer than 100 NHL games to their credit, and eight with fewer than 50 games.
On the night the Lightning got defensemen Eric Brewer and Radko Gudas back from injury, Keith Aulie and Victor Hedman both went down with long-term injuries. The two defensemen join Stamkos and veteran winger Ryan Malone among those with significant injuries.
One of the first things Cooper did when talking to his players about the spate of injuries is to make it clear they weren't going to use them as an excuse for on-ice performance.
"The one thing we'll never do is use injuries as an excuse because once you do that, we're done as a team," Cooper said. "The mindset has been, 'These are the 20 guys we're going with on any given night, now how do we get the most out of them?'"
But the rash of injuries that totaled more than 2,800 games of NHL experience has tested the team's organizational depth and forced players to play out of their comfort zone. Valtteri Filppula, for instance, is now the team's No. 1 center and Tyler Johnson is in Filppula's normal spot on the second line, meaning both are playing against a class of players they're not used to seeing.
Overall, Tampa has four rookies among in the top 30 in scoring among first-year players.
The team has held its own since Stamkos went down, going 5-5-2 overall and 4-1-1 at home. The team defense and goaltending have been excellent, but the team's offense has, perhaps predictably, gone south.
"The problem is we're really struggling to score," Cooper said.
Surprise for Sabres?
Among the interesting names being bandied about for the vacant Buffalo Sabres GM job is that of Tim Murray. The current assistant GM in Ottawa, Murray had a hand in building the Anaheim Ducks' Stanley Cup winner in 2007 as director of player personnel responsible for college free agents.
He has also served with the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers in various scouting capacities. Bloodlines don't hurt, either, and Murray is the nephew of current Ottawa GM Bryan Murray and former NHL head coach Terry Murray.
Fisher making a Selke case
Of all the trophies hockey writers vote on, the one that gives us most pause is narrowing the field for the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the league's best two-way forward. It is always difficult to balance the offensive side of the game with the work a player does killing penalties, taking key draws and shutting down the opposing team's top players.
So we listened with interest as Nashville head coach Barry Trotz talked about his top shutdown center, Mike Fisher. The team has struggled and Fisher's offensive numbers (seven goals, 12 points) aren't what he or the team hoped for, but he remains a key figure even though his work goes largely unnoticed.
"He's always been a guy, top centerman in the league, he ends up playing a lot of times head-to-head [against opposing stars] and I think he hasn't got any credit for that here the last couple of years," Trotz said in a recent interview. "He's scored and all that, but he's sort of under the radar and I think this year, especially this year, he's played really back to the level that I think has made him a real hard player, a Selke candidate.
"His numbers are modest, but they're solid for our team. He plays against the top guys almost every night. He plays heavy minutes and he plays a heavy game. He doesn't play a light, shadowy game.
"At the end of the night, you know you played Mike Fisher. At the same time he still operates on the penalty kill, still operates on our power play," Trotz continued. "Plays head-to-head against people, plays in all the key situations, takes key faceoffs, him and Paul Gaustad. He really is a guy who is very important to their team, but at the same time contributes on both sides of the puck.
"He's not a pure shutdown guy; that's why I don't think he gets the credit that he deserves. It's a hard league and he's a hard guy to play against."
Shea Weber now joins Chris Pronger and Kris Letang on the sidelines with a concussion. In a perfect world, they are three of your five top choices for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman.
Pronger is out for the season, Letang remains sidelined indefinitely and now Weber -- who was injured Friday night -- is out with the official word being that there is no timetable for his return.
However, Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz clearly is hoping (praying?) for a Claude Giroux-like recovery from his franchise defenseman.
"There's no official timetable for his return but he's feeling better and I'm hoping there's a chance for him to return Friday," Trotz told me Tuesday afternoon. "But we'll see."
By now, most hockey fans have had it ingrained in their hockey lexicon that you can’t put a target date on a return from a concussion. It’s a day-to-day process in which you hope to string enough good days together to get the green light. For Giroux, that happened quickly. For Letang and many others, it hasn’t.
Like others before him this season, including the likes of Letang, Giroux and Andy McDonald, Weber didn’t become symptomatic until a few days later. Trotz told ESPN.com that Weber was fine after Friday’s game and didn’t show symptoms until Monday’s morning skate.
One thing’s for sure, the Preds are not pleased that Mark Fistric of the Dallas Stars wasn’t punished by the league for his forearm (some would say elbow) to Weber that caused the concussion late in Friday’s game. The league looked at the play, but the initial lack of quality video for replays limited any compelling evidence and, thus, the league’s ability to act.
A source told ESPN.com Wednesday evening that new video of the hit, which the league obtained, showed Weber falling forward just before getting hit by Fistric. So the league feels no discipline was warranted on the play.
Not that a suspension to Fistric would have changed the reality for the Preds. Their franchise player is out. As GM David Poile told ESPN.com earlier Tuesday, not all injuries and not all players are created equally. You don’t replace a player of Weber’s caliber. He plays 26 minutes a game, anchors the power play, is a key cog on the penalty kill and is matched up as the shutdown D-man against the other team’s top offensive weapon. Just ask Alex Ovechkin about that from the 2010 Olympic quarterfinals.
It’s not a hole in Nashville’s lineup, it’s a crater.
But if there’s a team that understands survival, it’s the Preds, who lose key players every offseason and plug those holes with homegrown drafted and developed players.
In this case, Ryan Ellis was called up and played his first NHL game Monday night. Nashville’s first-round pick, 11th overall, from the 2009 NHL entry draft is not being asked to replace Weber on his own -- no one can -- but he’s getting a chance to play significant minutes and show what he has learned so far at AHL Milwaukee.
"His pace has improved since we saw him at camp," Trotz said. "He’s a bright kid and obviously has lots of talent."
There’s only one thing, however, that will ease the nerves of the Predators' coach. A quick and healthy return of his captain.
Weber's agent is upset the NHL didn’t punish Fistric for his hit.
"It is very disappointing that Mark Fistric’s hit on Shea Weber in Dallas last Friday is not being looked at as a suspendable act," Jarrett Bousquet of Titan Sports Management Inc. told my TSN colleague Darren Dreger. "To me this is an illegal hit to the head and in complete violation of Rule 48. Fistric is a repeat offender and regardless of where the puck is, Fistric makes direct contact with Weber’s head resulting in a concussion. This is the exact kind of hit that the NHL is trying to eliminate. If the NHL wants to protect its superstars, or any player for that matter, hits like this should result in a suspension."
Reached by ESPN.com after the statement was released to TSN, Bousquet maintained his frustration.
"I just don’t understand how that was swept under the carpet," Bousquet said.
The league has pointed to the lack of a quality video replay from the incident last Friday and thus the lack of compelling evidence in its decision not to suspend Fistric. Fistric's agent, Gerry Johansson, declined comment when reached by ESPN.com.
Bousquet didn’t think a return this week was likely for Weber.
"He has to follow the protocol first and foremost and certainly has to be completely honest with himself," said Bousquet. "I don’t think there’s any real time table right now."
Pittsburgh's Dan Bylsma, Nashville's Barry Trotz and Vancouver's Alain Vigneault were named this season's Jack Adams Award finalists Friday. Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun make their picks, even if the award is voted on by the NHL Broadcasters Association:
Burnside: No slight to defending coach of the year Dave Tippett, who did another outstanding job in Phoenix, or John Tortorella or Barry Trotz or any of the eight to 10 coaches who deserved a look for this award. But we figure the Penguins' bench boss deserves the hardware. Dan Bylsma kept his squad afloat and near the top of the Eastern Conference standings despite the long-term absences of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Enough said.
LeBrun: Luckily, I don't have to vote on this one for real. It is again a deep list of worthy candidates, and I don't envy the broadcasters who voted on this. My list includes Trotz, Bylsma, Tippett, Guy Boucher, Vigneault, Todd McLellan, Bruce Boudreau, Tortorella and Lindy Ruff. Tippett and Trotz (Nashville) once again worked miracles with the talent they had. In his first NHL season, Boucher coached the Bolts to a surprising season. Vigneault coached Vancouver to its greatest season in 40 years. McLellan guided the best second-half turnaround in the league. In the end, I saw this as a three-way fight between Bylsma, Tippett and Trotz, but it's hard to ignore the terrific work by a coach who lost two of the best players in the world halfway through the season.
Jack Adams Award: Your vote?
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma led his team to the postseason without stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Short of pretending it's what Scotty Bowman feels when he reminisces about coaching the Big Three of Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe and Serge Savard, in today's 30-team NHL, the Suter-Weber combo is an impressive tandem that drives the little engine that could in Nashville.
"Twenty years from now, I'm going to go, 'It was something to watch those two kids together,'" the Predators' head coach told ESPN.com Wednesday night. "Their combined skill produces the ultimate defenseman."
Between Weber's "physicality, big shot, leadership and nastiness," and Suter's "game management, great escapability, the way he does all the subtle things, these two guys just dominate a game," Trotz added.
The Preds are second in the NHL in goals against per game and third on the penalty kill. Those stingy defensive numbers are why they sit fourth in the tough Western Conference.
"We've had really good team defense," Trotz said. "It starts with Suter and Weber on the back end, they've been absolutely fantastic. And we've had great goaltending."
Pekka Rinne's numbers are among the league leaders, and combined with the Suter-Weber star pairing, you're looking at the three guys most responsible for keeping Nashville in a playoff spot.
What irks Trotz just a bit is that people around the league don't seem to recognize the star players on his team.
"Sometimes I think people don't think we have any players, and coaches and management here maybe get too much credit, but we have some really good players," Trotz said. "Suter and Weber are really all-world. I was disappointed because I thought Rinne, Suter and Weber -- all three should have been in the All-Star Game. I'm biased but I see them on a nightly basis, and I know how good they are."
Only Weber got the All-Star nod. Trotz continues to be amazed that Suter isn't regarded as highly as he should be.
"Ryan Suter doesn't get nearly enough credit for how good he is. He is just outstanding," Trotz said.
So is the coach. Although Trotz said that maybe he gets too much credit and his players not enough, the fact is the NHL should implement a rule that stipulates that Trotz is an automatic nominee for the Jack Adams Award every single season he's in Nashville. He coaches the heck out of a roster that every fall has new, unknown faces.
And right now, the team is on quite a roll.
"Our identity has come out in terms of being really resilient," Trotz said. "We've got people out, and people have stepped up."
The team ranks only 23rd in offense (top-notch offensive talent costs money), but the Preds have gotten "timely goals from different people," Trotz said.
"Sergei Kostitsyn, for example, he's been really good for us, stepping up and getting some timely goals," Trotz said.
Kostitsyn, who wore out his welcome in Montreal, has caught fire with 20 points (9-11) in his past 19 games, including five goals in his past six games.
"He's a guy that once he trusted us in what we were doing, he started to buy in," Trotz said. "And he started to play more and got more opportunity. And he's run with it. He's been a real good story for us."
He's had to be because the player Nashville figured would be one of their top offensive forces has been shelved nearly the whole season. Matthew Lombardi, who was signed to a $10.5 million, three-year contract this past summer, lasted two games this season before a serious concussion derailed him. For a team that doesn't spend a lot of money, that one has hurt.
"Lombardi is out indefinitely," Trotz said. "He hasn't been cleared yet to do anything. He hasn't played for us, so we don't know what it feels like to have him on the team. Other guys have stepped in."
The Preds could use those players. But they won't complain.
"We've been resilient," Trotz said.
Well, of course, it's the Predators way.