Image (1) loulamoriello1-thumb-250x312-19668-thumb-250x312-19669.jpg for post 15307

Behind every failing coach is a befuddled GM

The Score’s “Houses of Hockey” blog featured an updated list of coaches on the hot seat, spotlighting Buffalo’s Lindy Ruff, New Jersey’s John MacLean and Anaheim’s Randy Carlyle.

I agree with the list, but I think it’s a shame that coaches are almost always the “fall guys” when the truth is that a team’s general manager is just as much to blame (if not more). With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the blunders by the Sabres, Devils and Ducks GMs.

Sabres GM Darcy Regier – Regier deserves some benefit of the doubt for dealing with working in small market Buffalo. That and the small town’s cold weather makes it harder for the team to land big ticket free agents.

Still, it looks like Regier made some tactical errors. For one thing, he depended on two players continuing to play over their heads. Ryan Miller is a genuine elite player, but counting on him to top (or maintain) his 2009-10 level of performance is asking a bit much. Regier also seemed to expect Tyler Myers to be at least as good as he was during his unexpected run to the Calder Trophy, but the super-tall defenseman is regressing a bit. Even if talk of a “sophomore slump” is a bit overblown, Regier put too much stock in Myers, allowing top defensemen Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman leave via free agency for cheaper options.

He left Ruff (pictured to the right) with a makeshift defense, an OK but by no means elite group of forwards and a shoddy, bargain-basement backup in Patrick Lalime. Both Ruff and Regier have been in Buffalo a long time, but it seems like the longest tenured coach in the NHL might be the scapegoat instead of Regier.

Devils GM Lou Lamoriello – People will naturally gravitate toward the Ilya Kovalchuk signing and – in some ways, rightfully so – even if it’s more of a symbolic mistake. It signifies a break from the team’s tradition of avoiding big free agent risks and never putting one player above the whole.

But when you look at it, the team’s been moving in the wrong direction for years. Trading for Jason Arnott made the team worse from a 5-on-5 perspective and I must admit that I was a little shocked by how excited many people were by the signing of a very average backup in Johan Hedberg. Let’s not even get started on the contract he handed to Brian Rolston.

Really, it comes down to their threadbare defense, though. Some moves have been related to bad luck, from Anton Volchenkov (pictured) being injured* to Scott Stevens retiring and Scott Niedermayer wanting to play alongside his brother in Anaheim. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that he let Paul Martin and Brian Rafalski walk; maybe those two received more money than they were worth, but how many blows can a blueline take before it falls apart?

Perhaps it’s not as much about MacLean being a bad coach as it is about how deft Jacques Lemaire was at camouflaging the team’s defensive blemishes. Either way, the Devils woes can be traced back to a common combination of bad luck and bad decisions. Lamoriello earned his protected place as one of the league’s most respected general managers, but perhaps he’s lost a step or three over the years.

* – Though I think it’s fair to say that signing a guy who blocks that many shots to a big contract is pretty risky, considering the fact that laying down in front of a puck is hockey’s answer to Russian Roulette.

Ducks GM Bob Murray – After beating the Pittsburgh Penguins last night, I think Carlyle (and Murray) are much safer than they were a week or two ago. Still, the Ducks could very well waddle their way back into trouble, so let’s take a quick look at their issues.

Much like Lamoriello, Murray (pictured) faced a combination of bad luck and bad decisions when it came to the team’s once-proud defense. Then again, Niedermayer has been mulling retirement for years, so it’s not as if he could have been blindsided by the decision. Trading Chris Pronger for prospects was seen as a bottom-line decision, but they didn’t save as much money as expected considering the fact that one-dimensional forward Joffrey Lupul doesn’t make much less cash. Since winning the Stanley Cup, the Ducks lost Pronger, Niedermayer, Francois Beauchemin and James Wisniewski among other defensemen.

Mysteriously enough, the team is allowing the most shots in the league and their talented offense and above average goalie are given too much of a burden for consistent success. Perhaps Carlyle deserves some of the blame, but Murray blamed the players, at least publicly … and Murray is the man who chose them.

***

So, that’s my take on those three situations. I’m not saying that coaches deserve none of the blame and general managers should be given all of it. Yet much like a middle manager getting fired even if it’s hardly his or her fault, coaches often get canned even if the real problem is one step higher up the food chain.

Desjardins rejects notion the Canucks are playing a ‘passive’ structure

Anaheim Ducks' Ryan Kesler, left, is checked to the ice by Vancouver Canucks' Erik Gudbranson (44) in front of goalie Ryan Miller as Luca Sbisa, right, of Italy, defends during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, in Vancouver, British Columba. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
AP
Leave a comment

The Vancouver Canucks have played 24 games this season. They’ve opened the scoring just six times.

So in 75 percent of their games they’ve trailed 1-0.

Of all 30 teams in the NHL, no team has trailed 1-0 in a higher percentage of its games. Colorado (73%) and Ottawa (71%) are close, but Vancouver leads the way. And that’s not a category any team wants to lead.

So what’s the problem? Why all the slow starts? One theory — beyond the simple explanation that the Canucks just aren’t very good — involves their much-ballyhooed defensive structure. Is it possible it’s too defensive? Too passive? Too much waiting for the other team to make a mistake, and not enough getting after it?

Because in last night’s 3-1 loss to Anaheim, the Canucks didn’t register their first shot until halfway through the first period. The Ducks didn’t open the scoring until the second, but they had their chances. The Canucks had practically none, until they were losing that is.

After the game, head coach Willie Desjardins refused to blame the structure for the slow start.

“There’s nothing passive about our defense,” he said. “I don’t think we moved the puck great. I don’t think we were transitioning it real well. Our team has to be a transition team. We’ve got to turn pucks over, we’ve got to transition, and we’ve got to get to the net.”

The Canucks, to be fair, were missing two of their best defensemen in Alex Edler and Chris Tanev, and that meant bigger minutes for the likes of Luca Sbisa, who was charged with three giveaways on the night.

So Desjardins wasn’t necessarily wrong in his assessment. The Canucks did have all sorts of trouble breaking through the Ducks’ forecheck, especially in the first period.

“They took charge of that game. They had segments of the game when they were in our end,” said the coach. “The one thing that will happen if a team’s in your end, they’ll wear you down, so every time you come out you’re changing, and then you’re in a bad cycle.”

For the Canucks, the first period was one long, bad cycle.

Sbisa, for his part, couldn’t say why the Canucks came out of the gates so tentatively, but he did concede it was a “very disappointing” loss.

“I don’t know what it was,” he said. “We didn’t have that jump, that intensity that you need, especially against the Ducks, a big, heavy team. You’ve got to be ready to battle.”

The Canucks better be a lot more ready to battle Saturday when the Toronto Maple Leafs pay a visit to Rogers Arena. The Leafs smoked them, 6-3, in their last meeting on Nov. 5 at Air Canada Centre.

“Our focus is on our effort and it has to be better tomorrow than it was last night,” Desjardins said this morning. “I’m not worried about if we’ll be ready.”

Related: Gudbranson threatened Martin in a ‘fit of rage,’ didn’t really mean what he said

Boudreau: Flames made ‘mountain out of a molehill’ over Gaudreau slash

ST PAUL, MN - OCTOBER 15: Head coach Bruce Boudreau of the Minnesota Wild looks on during the game against Winnipeg Jets on October 15, 2016 at Xcel Energy Center in St Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Getty
Leave a comment

Calgary will face Minnesota tonight, for the first time since losing Johnny Gaudreau to a broken finger in a 1-0 win over the Wild on Nov. 15.

Much has transpired since.

The Flames were pretty upset about all the slashes Gaudreau took that night, and spoke candidly (and often!) about it. That, in turn, led to Bruce Boudreau offering up the following on Friday:

According to Calgary GM Brad Treliving, a third-period slash by Eric Staal was the one that did the damage, breaking Gaudreau’s finger and leading to corrective surgery, which sidelined him for six weeks.

The Slashgate conversation lasted for a while. Treliving acknowledged he later spoke with NHL Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom about the club’s frustration regarding the incident.

“When you look at that game, it wasn’t the first one,” he said, per the Calgary Sun. “This wasn’t a unicorn that popped up in the middle of a period. By our count there were 11 chops on (Gaudreau) in the game.

“Two, three, four, I got it, but maybe at nine we dial it in a bit.”

In related news, the Wild have recalled 6-foot-4, 211-pound tough guy Kurtis Gabriel for tonight’s game, and it looks as though he could be making his season debut.

What has happened to the Dallas Stars?

Pittsburgh Penguins' Patric Hornqvist (72) can't get to a rebound off Dallas Stars goalie Antti Niemi with Julius Honka (6) defending during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene Puskar)
AP
3 Comments

The Dallas Stars are the worst defensive team in the NHL.

That’s just a fact. The Stars are surrendering 3.40 goals per game, and no team has a higher goals-against than that. Philadelphia’s next at 3.20, followed by Arizona at 3.14. The best is San Jose at 2.08.

Last night, the Stars fell 6-2 in Pittsburgh. With the loss, their record dropped to 9-10-6. They are now one point back of Nashville for the final wild-card spot, and the Predators have three games in hand.

What has happened to last year’s Stars?

Well, it would be easy to point at Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen and blame the goalies for everything. Those two haven’t been great this season, and that’s an understatement. Niemi has a .902 save percentage; Lehtonen’s is .885. For all the good work Jim Nill has done as general manager, he has botched the one position a GM absolutely cannot botch.

But outside of Dallas, far too little attention has been paid to the big changes in another part of the Stars’ lineup. This offseason, Alex Goligoski left for Arizona and Jason Demers signed in Florida. Those two veteran defensemen played the first- and fourth-most minutes for the Stars last season, and a team does not lose a pair of top-four defenseman and just keep going like nothing happened.

The Stars did sign Dan Hamhuis in free agency, but he’s struggled in a new setting. John Klingberg, their top defender, has also had a tough start.

Last night, with Johnny Oduya out injured, the Stars were forced to play the defending Stanley Cup champs with three rookies on defense: Stephen Johns, Esa Lindell, and Julius HonkaThe other three were Klingberg, Hamhuis, and Jamie Oleksiak, the latter of whom has played fewer than 100 NHL games. Patrik Nemeth was a healthy scratch. He’s inexperienced too. 

“We all take pride in here, and that’s just not good enough. It’s frustrating,” said forward Tyler Seguin., per the Stars’ website. “We have to dig deep. We’re not digging deep enough right now. From our best players to everybody, we have to dig deeper, especially in those big moments and find ways to win hockey games.”

Seguin is still producing on offense, with 25 points in 25 games. But he was a minus-2 against the Penguins, and he’s a minus-11 overall. Meanwhile, the Stars’ other top center, Jason Spezza, is a team-worst minus-15; Klingberg is minus-10; captain Jamie Benn is minus-7; and so is Patrick Sharp.

Now, plus-minus can be a misleading stat. On bad teams, good players often have big negatives.

But that’s the thing. It happens on bad teams, and the Stars are not supposed to be a bad team. They are supposed to be Stanley Cup contenders.

So far this season, everything about them says bad team. Bad defensive numbers. Bad goaltending. Bad penalty killing. Bottom third of the league in score-adjusted Corsi, so it’s not bad luck.

Yes, they’ve had injuries. So have lots of teams. The Stars will still have major questions in goal and on the back end when they get healthy.

The big question right now is whether they can recover and still make the playoffs. Because they’re starting to dig a hole, and if it gets much deeper, they’re going to get buried.

Speaking of digging holes, the Stars play the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday.

Two bad teams, going at it.

Bad, until they prove otherwise.

Related: Colorado’s core is under heavy scrutiny, yet again

Colorado’s core is under heavy scrutiny, yet again

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 25: (l-r) Joe Sakic and Alan Hepple of the Colorado Avalanche attend the 2016 NHL Draft on June 25, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Getty
6 Comments

Prior to Thursday’s loss to Columbus, Colorado GM Joe Sakic was asked how his core players have performed during an ugly 9-12-1 start to the year — “inconsistent,” he said — and was then asked he had any intention of breaking the core up.

“Not right now, no,” Sakic said, per the Denver Post. “It’s early in the year.

“I have faith in them, but to me, the start is not a core thing — it’s a team thing.”

Not long after Sakic said that, the Avs lost their fourth straight game, putting them on 19 points — tied with Arizona for the fewest in the NHL.

And then, in his first real bit of message-sending, head coach Jared Bednar took the core to task.

“I’m going to say this,” Bednar said in his postgame media availability. “Tonight, I thought our supporting cast did a real good job up front. I didn’t love some of our top guys tonight. Not that they didn’t work hard, but I didn’t love their game as a whole.”

The controversy surrounding Colorado’s core guys dates back to the Patrick Roy era. After missing the playoffs for a second straight year — which he called “unacceptable” — Roy unloaded on his top players in an April radio interview, saying “the core needs to show more leadership.”

“It was like this when I played for Montreal, it was like this when I played for the Avs,” Roy continued. “The core are the ones that have to carry the team. They’re the ones where, when you lose a game, it has to hurt from the inside. You should want more.”

At this point, it’s probably prudent to identify exactly who comprises the Avs’ core. The Post says it’s “generally considered to be six players, now all tied up to long-term contracts.” Six of the longest-term contracts on Colorado’s books belong to Nathan MacKinnon (signed through 2023), Erik Johnson (2023), Gabriel Landeskog (2021), Tyson Barrie (2020), Matt Duchene (2019) and Semyon Varlamov (2019).

Carl Soderberg, signed through 2020, could be seen as the potential seventh member.

Roy clearly wanted to move on from at least some of these guys, and the fact Sakic didn’t was a major reason why Roy abruptly resigned in August. But it wasn’t that Sakic just keep the core intact — he actually strengthened his commitment to it by giving Barrie a four-year extension this summer, at a time when many figured the puck-moving blueliner would be dealt.

In light of that, it’s not really surprising that Sakic came out yesterday and publicly defended his core guys.

He’s sticking to his guns.

For now, anyway.