Buffalo Sabres v New Jersey Devils

Looking for someone to blame for Devils bad season? Kovalchuk says to blame him

We’ve talked a lot (too much?) about the struggles of the New Jersey Devils this year. If it weren’t for the Islanders, they’d be sitting at the bottom of the Eastern Conference and as it is, they’re 15 points out of the eighth spot in the East. Times are bad in New Jersey and while fans can point the finger at injuries to the defense and to Martin Brodeur and to a severe lack of offense as to why the team is failing so badly, one player has stepped up to take the blame.

Ilya Kovalchuk, he of the $100 million contract this off-season and 11 points this season, wants to take the heat for the team doing so badly this year. He also wants to show you that when a team struggles, it’s something that effects a player personally. Dave Hutchinson of The Star-Ledger gets the honest take from Kovalchuk about how bad things have gone so far in New Jersey.

Who can forget him losing control of the puck during a critical shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres at the Prudential Center and being booed off the ice? And what about his decision to pass instead of shoot against the Penguins on Monday night, turning it into a Pittsburgh goal in a 2-1 loss?

“I’ve never had problems with sleeping, but this year I have a little bit,” Kovalchuk said yesterday in a quiet moment at his locker following practice at AmeriHealth Pavilion. “It’s tough.”

There’s no doubt that Kovalchuk is squeezing the stick a lot in trying to breakout for the Devils. Kovalchuk is all too familiar with playing on teams that are doing poorly in the standings after spending most of his career in Atlanta. Then again, he was never on a team that’s been this bad before and he was never signed to a franchise-altering mega-contract there either.

As for the Devils offense that ranks out as the second-worst in the NHL with 50 goals scored in 27 games, Kovalchuk doesn’t make any excuses for how poor they’ve been.

“I’ll take all the responsibility for that, that’s why I’m here,” said Kovalchuk, who scored 41 goals last season between the Thrashers and Devils. “That’s what the team wants from me: Create chances for myself and my linemates. But we’re not there yet. We just have to keep working hard.”

It’s refreshing to see a player be as honest as Kovalchuk is being in talking about the team’s struggles. So often when things are bad you’ll see a player dance around the subject or even start pointing the finger elsewhere. Kovalchuk, however, is owning it. The Devils are dealing with injuries all through the lineup, most importantly to fellow offensive threat Zach Parise. Martin Brodeur makes his return tomorrow against Ottawa so that’s one piece back and while defensemen Matt Taormina and Anssi Salmela work their way back, things are slowly getting into place elsewhere in the lineup.

Of course, those guys aren’t getting paid $100 million to score 40 goals a year either. Kovalchuk settling down and snapping out of his funk is vital to the Devils bouncing back and climbing out of the cellar. Guys like Kovalchuk aren’t kept bottled up for very long. 11 points in 26 games is a dreadful stretch for a superstar like Kovalchuk, the Devils just have to hope he starts hitting his stride before they’re too far out of the playoff hunt.

Pre-game reading: Clayton Keller tops a good list to top

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— Up top, Bob McKenzie explains how the bye week is going to work next season, and why it’s going to be changed.

— Who are the best prospects who have yet to graduate to their NHL teams? TSN’s Craig Button has put together his list of the top 50, and it’s headed by Coyotes draft pick Clayton Keller. Writes Button: “Keller’s sleight of hand is matched by a creative mind that allows him to be dangerous every time he’s on the ice. The Arizona Coyotes prospect is an electrifying player who is highly productive.” (TSN)

— In which Mike Babcock admits he’s “said lots of dumb things and handled situations fairly poorly at times.” The Toronto Maple Leafs’ head coach also shares his philosophy on the job, and talks about how to handle the pressures of being a bench boss. (Sportsnet)

— What is the market for Ottawa’s Curtis Lazar? At first glance, it doesn’t seem all that strong. The 22-year-old former 17th overall draft pick has no goals and just one assist in 32 games for the Senators this season. Hence, all the trade rumors. But as noted by TSN’s Travis Yost, Nino Niederreiter went through a similar year with the Islanders, and he’s turned out pretty well since being dealt to the Wild. (TSN)

— Why the Vancouver Canucks need to be sellers at the trade deadline, by Postmedia’s Jason Botchford, who writes: “For another season, the retool has been exposed a fraud, and there aren’t any options left this week. The Canucks have to rebuild their player base, and the next step in doing it has to be trading veterans for assets — preferably draft picks.” (National Post)

— What’s it like to be a general manager on deadline day? Here’s how Flames GM Brad Treliving puts it: “The trade deadline is like five lanes merging into one. … With each hour that goes by there’s an excitement level building, but you have to block all of that out and be methodical in your approach and then have a sense of when it’s the right time to strike.”  (Yahoo Sports)

Enjoy the games!

Goalie nods: Khudobin makes second start in as many months

TORONTO, CANADA - MAY 6:  Anton Khudobin #35 of the Boston Bruins stretches in the warm-up prior to playing against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on May 6, 2013 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Bruins defeated the Maple Leafs 5-2 to take a 2-1 series lead. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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Back on Dec. 23, Anton Khudobin stopped 20 of 23 shots in Boston’s 3-2 OT loss to his former team, the Hurricanes.

Since then, he’s had exactly one start.

That came back on Feb. 11 — a 4-3 win over the Canucks — and tonight, Khudobin get another look as the B’s play the second of a California back-to-back in L.A.

Tuukka Rask played and lost last night in Anaheim, allowing four goals on 25 shots, so it’s little surprise Boston’s making a switch. Rask has been one of the NHL’s busiest netminders this season — starting 48 games, tied for fourth-most in the league — and there have been concerns about potential fatigue.

The problem, of course, is that neither Khudobin or AHLer Zane MacIntyre have earned much trust. Former head coach Claude Julien didn’t have faith either could provide consistency, and Bruce Cassidy appears to be of the same mind. Cassidy has started Rask in four of five games since taking over from Julien behind the bench.

On this note, we should mention GM Don Sweeney did say the B’s could add a goalie at the deadline.

For the Kings, Peter Budaj is in goal.

Elsewhere…

Carey Price, who’s played well in his last two games (58 stops on 62 shots, a .936 save percentage), gets the call as Montreal hosts the Isles. Thomas Greiss is in net for the visitors.

— The streaking Henrik Lundqvist gets a big test tonight, as the Rangers take on the high-flying Leafs in Toronto. Frederik Andersen will be in goal for the Buds, after allowing four goals on 20 shots in a OT win over Winnipeg on Tuesday.

— It’s Brian Elliott versus Ben Bishop as the Flames take on the Bolts in Tampa.

Pekka Rinne appears ready to start in Nashville, after allowing four goals on 13 shots (and getting pulled) in Tuesday’s loss to Calgary. No word yet on an Avs starter, but Calvin Pickard has started four straight.

Mike Smith is playing well lately, have won four of five while posting a .936 save percentage, so he’ll draw back in tonight in Chicago. The ‘Hawks are countering with Corey Crawford, who has won five of his last six.

Wideman open to being traded by Flames

CALGARY, AB - NOVEMBER 7: Dennis Wideman #6 of the Calgary Flames skates against the Pittsburgh Penguins during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on November 7, 2015 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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The odd man out after Monday’s acquisition of Michael Stone from Arizona, Calgary Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman says he’s open to being traded, in spite of his no-movement clause.

“If that’s something that (the Flames) want to do, then they can call and I definitely would be open to it,” Wideman said, per the Calgary Herald. “I think, as a player, you don’t want to be anywhere that you’re not wanted. So if they want to move you and someone wants to take you, then it’s nice to go somewhere like that if that’s the case.”

Read more: Flames see a ‘style fit’ with Stone

Wideman, 33, is in the final year of his contract. But with a $5.25 million cap hit, he may be tough to move, even if the Flames retain salary.

Wideman was a healthy scratch in Calgary’s 6-5 OT victory Tuesday at Nashville. In 52 games this season, he has three goals and 13 assists.

Related: Treliving won’t say if Wideman’s been asked to waive NMC

B’s not planning to trade Carlo, but adding goalie is on radar

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 25:  Boston Bruins General manager Don Sweeney speaks to the media during the 2016 NHL Draft on June 25, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jen Fuller/Getty Images)
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The Bruins have seven wins in their last 10, are surging under new head coach Bruce Cassidy and could be buyers as they head into the March 1 trade deadline.

One guy that unlikely to be involved any potential deal? Talented young blueliner Brandon Carlo.

Bruins GM Don Sweeney told the Boston Globe the B’s “want to be a team that believes it has internal fixes, that you are growing those players.” To that end, he’s not planning to move Carlo, who has developed nicely and played a significant role this season.

Sweeney added this organizational approach means Carlo isn’t “worried [about] going somewhere.”

Carlo, who only turned 20 in November, has reportedly been one of the pieces teams have tried to pry out of Boston (the other being Charlie McAvoy, the 14th overall pick at last year’s draft that’s currently starring for Boston University).

At 6-foot-5 and 203 pounds, Carlo has terrific size and has shouldered a heavy workload, averaging over 21 minutes through 60 games this year.

There have been rumblings of a Carlo-for-Gabriel Landeskog swap with Colorado, though reports suggest Sweeney balked at the asking price.

What Sweeney could address, though, is the club’s unstable backup goalie position. The organization appears to have little trust in either Anton Khudobin or Zane McIntyre, a big reason why Tuukka Rask has started 48 games this season, tied for fourth-most in the NHL.

“Yep, we could,” Sweeney told the Globe, when asked about adding a backup. “It’s tough to find at this time, but they exist. But it’s just a matter of teams are like, ‘Well, what are you giving up for it?’ That’s a big part of it.”

There are a few candidates that might fit the bill. Anders Nilsson is a pending UFA and having a solid campaign in Buffalo, with a .922 save percentage in 20 appearances. What’s more, he carries a relatively low cap hit ($1 million). The Sabres, though only four points out of a playoff spot, would need to jump five teams to get there and could be sellers soon.