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Flames turning season around under interim GM Jay Feaster

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Mark Twain may have had hockey and the Calgary Flames in mind when he said, “The reports of (my) death were an exaggeration.” Even though the Flames were left for dead around Christmas, they’ve completely turned things around and have not only disassociated themselves from the Oilers, but they’ve become a good bet to emerge as a playoff team come April. So what is the difference?

Jay Feaster.

The Flames have won their last three games and five of their last six going into tonight’s game in Phoenix. Since Feaster took over the GM position on an interim basis on December 28th, the Flames have a sparkling 20-6-6 record for 46 points in 32 games. Contrast that to the 35 points the Flames had earned under the Darryl Sutter’s 37 games at the beginning of the year. What does that mean? They used to look like a rebuilding team like Florida Panthers; now they’re the Vancouver Canucks. They’ve gone from a team that fans thought should be rebuilding to a team who is competing for home-ice advantage in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. How did this happen?

There’s been some speculation that the Flames just needed someone else in the GMs chair. In Darryl Sutter, they had a strong personality who—well, has a strong personality. Just like a coaching change can change the atmosphere around a team, it looks like Jay Feaster’s (temporary) persona is wearing off on his team. Then again, winning is fun. So which is it—did the winning cause the improved atmosphere or did the improved atmosphere lead to the wins?

No matter which side of the question you fall on, it’s hard to argue against Feaster and the team’s performance since he took over. It also helps that his best players have been playing extremely well since he took over (that will make anyone look like a genius). Last week, Jarome Iginla became the 5th player in NHL history to score 30 goals in 10 straight seasons. Miikka Kiprusoff has survived a rocky start to the season and is tied with Carey Price with the most wins in the league (32). The rest of the team has been keeping pace and people have been making awful “red-hot Flames” puns for the better part of two months.

One of the secrets to Calgary’s success has been focusing on the here-and-now. Trying to make up that much ground in a short time span can be a daunting task, so they chose to go with a focused attack during their assent in the standings. Feaster relayed their strategy to Adrian Dater at SI.com:

“Our coach (Brent Sutter) put out a challenge to our team before a December 23 game in Dallas. It was: ‘Let’s win two out of three from here on out. Just focus on three-game blocks at a time.’ Since he put that challenge out there, our record is 21-6-6. When you take it out of the realm of ‘Boy, look at all these teams we’re chasing and have to climb over’, that new outlook kind of made it seem less daunting in the bigger picture. Let’s just look at now as a three-game playoff, and you have to win two out of three.”

Sometimes a team will flip a switch and we never really find an adequate explanation. In this case, we have a pretty clear separation between the embarrassing version of the team that started the season and the dangerous version of the team that is tearing through the Western Conference.

Calgary Flames President and CEO Ken King agreed with Jay Feaster before promoting him in December that the GM position would be on an interim basis for the rest of the year and they’d revisit the position at the end of the season. If the team keeps it up, the Flames organization may as well order that nameplate for Feaster’s office. He might be in Alberta for a while.

Flyers not ‘focusing on or looking’ to trade Neuvirth, Mason

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One of Philly’s areas of strength this year was in goal, where Steve Mason and Michal Neuvrith both enjoyed solid seasons and, at times, held the No. 1 gig.

That’s led some to suggest that a trade could be in the works — y’know, deal from a position of strength.

But that’s not what GM Ron Hextall is thinking.

“I don’t believe that’s a strength that you want to weaken,” Hextall said, per CSN Philadelphia. “The old saying, Wayne Gretzky got traded, right? So I’m not going to sit here and say no I wouldn’t trade anybody on our team, because the reality of it is, if the deal was right, it’s my job to strengthen our team and the organization.

“It’s certainly not something we’re focusing on or looking to do.”

In fact, Hextall suggested both goalies would head into next season in a similar situation to this year, and platoon the starting job. Mason was the busier of the two — 53 starts to Neuvirth’s 29 — but some of that had to do with Neuvirth’s late-season knee injury, which saw Mason play exclusively down the stretch and at the start of Philly’s opening-round playoff series against the Caps.

Neuvirth was the one that finished the Washington series, however, and finished it strong. He posted a ridiculous .981 save percentage over the final three games, allowing just two goals on 105 shots.

Now yes, Neuvirth’s appearance came after Mason struggled, allowing a horrific long-range goal in Game 2 before getting beat six times in Game 3. But that didn’t take away from his body of work this season — “Mase played the last month-and-a-half and was terrific,” Hextall said — and Mason is under contract for one more year, at $4.1 million.

Finances matter for the cap-strapped Flyers, and that’s probably why Hetxall is comfortable keeping the status quo in goal. Like Mason, Neuvirth is also under contract for one more year — with a tidy $1.625M cap hit — which makes for a much more affordable goaltending duo than in, say, Dallas, where the Stars have over $10 million tied up in Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi.

Both Mason and Neuvirth have expressed their desires to be the No. 1 guy. Hextall seems content to let them battle for it.

“To have inner competition is a good thing,” the GM explained. “So we get two good goalies and I think as we saw this year, it’s nice to have.”

Good news for the Senators, who move one step closer to building a new arena

OTTAWA, CANADA - OCTOBER 11: Owner, governor and chairman Eugene Melnyk of the Ottawa Senators walks the red carpet and greets fans during the Senators' 20th anniversary pre-game ceremonies prior to the start of the NHL home opener against the Minnesota Wild at Scotiabank Place on October 11, 2011 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
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The Ottawa Senators got some very good news today in their quest to build a downtown arena.

From the Ottawa Citizen:

The plan from Eugene Melnyk’s RendezVous LeBreton team has emerged as the highest ranked of two competing proposals for the redevelopment of 21.6 hectares of vacant land on LeBreton Flats.

RendezVous LeBreton’s plan focuses on a new downtown arena that would house Melnyk’s Senators and major events. It also includes a restored “heritage aqueduct” lined with shops and cafes and an Abilities Centre catering to disabled and able-bodied athletes.

The Sens were one of two bidders to develop LeBreton Flats and build an arena on the vacant land. The other proposal came from the deep-pocketed Devcore Canderel DLS Group — a group that was bidding despite Melynk’s insistence that 1) the Sens weren’t for sale “at any price” and 2) he had no interest in moving into an arena he didn’t control.

According to the Citizen, the DCDLS bid was “rated lower but will remain in contention as a second choice,” meaning the Sens will still need to deliver on their proposal.

From CTV Ottawa:

This is one major step in a long process, but the Senators group promised in their bid that a new arena would be ready for the puck to drop by September of 2021.

The big question for Kanata residents now: what are the plans for the Senators current home the Canadian Tire Centre.

Melnyk says he has plans for that site too, and will reveal them soon.

Colton Orr — one of the last enforcers — has retired

Florida Panthers' George Parros (22) and Toronto Maple Leafs' Colton Orr (28) fight during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Sunrise, Fla., Monday, Feb. 18, 2013.  (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)
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After 477 games, 12 goals, 12 assists and — most notably — 1,186 penalty minutes, Colton Orr has retired from the NHL.

“I feel privileged to have played for a decade in the NHL and to have had the support of four great organizations in Boston, New York, Toronto and Calgary,” Orr, 34, said, via the NHLPA. “I am grateful to have had the opportunity to play with great teammates and against great players, many of whom have become great friends.”

Undrafted out of the WHL, Orr was a prototypical enforcer, the kind that few teams carry anymore. In 2009-10, he fought 23 times in 82 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs, piling up 239 PIMs in the process. That was the most he ever fought in a single NHL season. But he dropped the gloves 36 times for the Providence Bruins in 2003-04 and 33 times in 2004-05, per hockeyfights.com

In the NHL, Orr had a couple of infamous bouts with fellow tough guy George Parros — one that ended with Orr going face-first into the ice and suffering a season-ending concussion, another with Parros getting knocked out and leaving on a stretcher.

“I look forward now to the next chapter of my life which I could not be happier to share with the two loves of my life — my wife Sabrina and daughter, Charlotte,” Orr said. “They are the two consistently bright lights in my life who have made the darker parts of my journey a very bright part of a very fulfilling career.”

Related: ‘The game has changed’

No chemistry issues or character problems here, says Wild GM

2012 NHL Entry Draft - Rounds 2-7
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Reflecting on a year in which pundits saw mostly regression and a lack of team cohesion, Wild GM Chuck Fletcher took to the podium on Thursday to reflect on what he called a “disappointing” campaign.

Among the key takeaways:

There’s no chemistry issue on our team.

Not surprising Fletcher had to go here.

In mid-February, the club was forced to fire head coach Mike Yeo amid rumblings the players had tuned him out — which, not coincidentally, came amid a horrific losing streak.

There were also major, season-long issues with veteran players like Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek, both of whom woefully underachieved.

Vanek, in particular, was a healthy scratch under Yeo and interim bench boss John Torchetti. The 32-year-old’s effort level repeatedly came into question, and now buyout rumors loom.

Elsewhere, team leaders Ryan Suter and Zach Parise were embroiled in controversy when, following his dismissal, Yeo took issue with the two working with skills coach Adam Oates during the season.

The Star-Tribune’s Mike Russo noted that Oates showed up at a Wild morning skate in January, so he asked Yeo about it:

When you say things never felt right, did this start with the Adam Oates stuff? “Yeah. I thought we dealt with it. We talked with Zach, and we had no issues with it after that. And talked with some players, and … Whether it’s something like that, whether it’s the trade rumors, whatever it is, when there’s things that might cause a little unrest, they kind of sit there and they hang out. When things are going well, they’re forgotten and pushed to the side. But when things don’t go well, quite often they come back.”

Did it bother you that Oates came to the Buffalo morning skate? That was at the start of the tailspin? “I’m not going to even comment on it. But I would say, that I would not do the same thing.”

Yeo went on to add he felt there was a divide in the Wild locker room.

“It just felt like there were almost two groups,” he explained. “There were younger guys and there were the older guys. It wasn’t just a group.”

He’s definitely a very serious candidate for the head coach position.”

That was Fletcher on Torchetti, who’s currently holding the interim tag. The Wild GM praised Torchetti for being “able to push and pull this team into a playoff position,” but stopped short of promoting him to full-fledged head coach.

Why?

Well, the Wild weren’t that good under Torchetti.

They went 15-11-1 during the regular season and bowed out to Dallas in six playoff games. Granted, they showed some fight and spirit at times, and a few players definitely played better under Torch than Yeo (Erik Haula was exhibit 1a).

But there were also some alarming moments of apathy and poor play, like a late-season drubbing in Winnipeg which led goalie Devan Dubnyk to remark, “we’re going to get throttled if we’re going to play like this.”

This is probably why Fletcher fielded so many questions about his team’s character and chemistry on Thursday.

He’s done almost everything within his power as a GM with this group — big trades, coaching changes, free agent splashes — yet the club is still potentially headed in the wrong direction.

That’s why it was time to start questioning the group.

Related: Wild owner says Fletcher’s not on the hot seat