Wade Belak

What the NHL and NHLPA should learn from a year filled with tragic death

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There’s no way to be able to wrap your head around what’s happened off the ice in the hockey world this year.

Since the start of 2011 we’ve seen four tragic deaths. Sharks minor leaguer Tom Cavanaugh, Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard, former Canucks tough guy Rick Rypien, and now recently retired scrapper Wade Belak. Of those four, three of them are believed to be suicides (Rypien’s cause of death is still yet unknown while Belak’s is suspected to be a suicide) and Boogaard’s came thanks to a toxic mix of painkillers and alcohol all stemming from being upset with missing time thanks to post-concussion syndrome.

We’re not here to hypothesize on what caused these young men to reach that dark place where killing their body with toxins or taking their own life seemed like the right answer to the situation they were in. Doing that is a folly. Trying to figure out if the life of an NHL tough guy or a concussion victim leads to being consumed by the saddest of sad thoughts is too much for people not in the know to speculate on. While you could draw conclusions with a guy like Rypien, using the same methodology for a guy like Belak doesn’t make sense. We just don’t know what made these guys tick and that’s part of the frustration in dealing with their untimely deaths.

What needs to be looked at is how the NHL and the NHLPA are trying to take care of their troubled souls. Former NHL tough guys Tyson Nash and Matthew Barnaby took to Twitter to point the finger at the NHLPA for not helping players prepare for their post-career lives. In Belak’s case, this makes some sense although Belak wasn’t lacking in opportunity post-hockey. Belak was set to be a rinkside reporter for Predators broadcasts and was also set to compete on CBC’s Battle of the Blades celebrity figure skating competition.

The fact here remains that pro hockey players are guys that have been playing since childhood and have known a professional schedule lifestyle that consisted of virtually nothing but hockey. When it comes time to retire or if you’re forced out of the game by injury, it’s a colossal culture change for players which sometimes leaves guys feeling lost.

It’s the sort of situation that makes you think of the character Brooks from the film “The Shawshank Redemption.” After so many years on the inside of prison, when he was set free he became a lost soul unable to adapt to a new way of life on the outside. That’s not to say that the hockey lifestyle is like a prison, just that when everything you’ve ever known is thrown into disarray, if you’re not ready for it you can be left feeling swamped over.

Whether it comes from preparing players for their post-career lives, helping them with substance abuse, or getting them help when it feels like there’s no way out of the darkness that’s enveloping their lives being proactive to let the players know there’s help when they need it is the absolute least they can do and it has to start early.

The NFL and NBA hold rookie symposiums for incoming players to help them better prepare for the perils of being a professional athlete. Having the NHLPA and NHL work together to let players know that there is a program in place to help (the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse & Behavioral Health Program) can get the word out early and let it be known that help is there if needed. Whether the problems stem from abusing alcohol or pain killers, the assistance is there.

With depression is one of the most personal and most private mental illnesses, teaching players early on what the signs of it are and that reaching out for help when it’s needed. That’s not nearly enough to help those who are depressed, but doing something is better than doing nothing. Depression is such a difficult thing because even with proper counseling and a great circle of friends, it still might not be enough to save someone from their thoughts. Ignoring it, however, is not an option.

With  so much sadness and so many questions left unanswered for those players and their families, the time is now for the NHL and NHLPA to work together and make sure that sadness and avoidable tragedy will not happen in the future. One death is one too many, four is a sign of a much larger problem that must be addressed.

Avalanche’s new head coach Bednar is at least saying the right things

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Look, there are exceptions, but new head coach press conferences feature the same basic terms and buzzwords.

After witnessing the high-octane Pittsburgh Penguins skate opponents ragged on their way to the 2016 Stanley Cup, any reasonable coach would throw “speed” into their phrasing.

Still, the Colorado Avalanche have been so deeply buried by even the most basic of modern measurements that you had to wonder: would they learn from Patrick Roy’s struggles? Can someone come in and at least attempt to keep up with the pack?

We won’t know for sure anytime soon, but hey, at least Jared Bednar seems to be saying the right things as he transitions from the AHL to the Avalanche’s head coaching gig.

When discussing his hire with NHL Network, Bednar seemed confident that his style in the AHL – “Up-tempo, aggressive style in all three zones of the rink” – will translate well in Colorado.

That interview hits the beats you’d expect from job interviews beyond hockey. There’s even a “detail-oriented” bit.

(If you space out, you might just assume there’s a mention of thinking outside the box, like every corporate interview in human history.)

Still, it’s OK to settle for baby steps, especially considering the tough situation Patrick Roy created in abruptly skipping town. For many, it might just be comforting to note that Bednar doesn’t outright dismissive “analytics” or “fancy stats.”

Mile High Hockey brings up a great point: if nothing else, the spotlight will shift from the Avalanche’s flamboyant head coach to the talented core of young players.

So, not only is Colorado bringing in a coach who is as savvy with spreadsheets as he is with the wipe-off board, but he’s going to allow the players to crawl out from under Roy and finally earn their own accomplishments. This is every bit as important as fixing the breakout play or eliminating the Collapse-O-Rama™ defensive system.

(Collapse-O-Rama, huh? Can we stash that term for future use regarding another coach or two?)

Bednar isn’t a retread, so we only know so much about what to expect.

There are positive early signs. Roll your eyes all you want, we have seen more than a few successful transitions from AHL glory (Bednar just won the Calder Cup) to the NHL.

He’s not necessarily anti-information and seems at least interested in implementing modern, attacking systems. Attacking systems that, theoretically, would best suit the talents of a gifted-but-flawed group.

It all feels a little vague, but then again, it’s not even September yet. So far, so good.

One way or another, Al Montoya will be important to Canadiens

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 02:  Goalie Al Montoya #35 of the Florida Panthers looks on in the second period against the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center on February 2, 2016 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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This is part of Canadiens day at PHT …

Here’s an unsolicited opinion: a good backup goalie is often underrated.

Yes, getting a quality Plan B is easier said than done – goalies are an unpredictable lot – but it’s simple to see when it pays off.

(There are plenty of examples, but Matt Murray winning a Stanley Cup for the Pittsburgh Penguins is the shiniest one.)

Even if injuries aren’t a big issue, a No. 2 goalie is a pretty safe bet to play 20 games for a given team. In that regard, Al Montoya could be a significant upgrade over Mike Condon, and that could be important.

Waning workhorses

In 2015-16, no goalie played 70 regular season games. Jonathan Quick was the workhorse of the NHL with 68, while only 10 played at least 60. So, more than two-thirds of last season’s teams needed at least 24 games from their lesser-paid goalies.

Even in Carey Price‘s dominant 2014-15 campaign, he played 66 games while Dustin Tokarski was in net for 17.

Let’s ponder the outlook for a variety of scenarios as Price hopes to rebound from injury:

If Price resumes Vezina-caliber form

As PHT notes, Price seems confident that he’s at 100 percent.

That’s great … but what else is he going to say? Knee injuries can beguile just about any athlete.

He does admit that he’s getting up there in age a bit – relative to the sport, mind you – at 29. Earlier this summer, the Hockey News went over Montreal’s plan to scale Price’s workload a bit, injured or not.

So, even in a dream scenario, Montoya and/or Condon will still see plenty of reps.

If Price falters

The Canadiens are expected to live or die by Price. Let’s not kid ourselves.

The leash might not be very long for Michel Therrien if Price really falls on his face, however. A Condon-led Habs team stumbled terribly, but what might we see from Montoya being thrust into the spotlight for performance reasons?

  • With a .909 career save percentage, Montoya’s experienced his stumbles in the NHL. Montreal has to hope he follows more of the path from strong showings in 2013-14 (13-8-3, .920 save percentage with Winnipeg) and 2015-16 (12-7-3, .919 save percentage with Florida).

Long story short, there were flashes of the brilliance you’d expect from a guy who went sixth overall in 2004.

  • The good news is that he’s accustomed to a fairly heavy backup duty. He set a career-high with 31 games played and 26 starts with the Islanders in 2011-12. Including that season, he’s enjoyed 20+ appearances in five of his last six seasons.
  • The bad news is that he hasn’t ever even carried half of a season’s workload so …

Yes, a Price re-injury would be disastrous

Montoya hasn’t been “the guy” before, certainly not in a pressure-cooker like Montreal. Condon’s opportunity didn’t go especially well.

One can understand ownership giving Therrien and GM Marc Bergevin something of a “Price pass” after 2015-16, but would there be the same level of acceptance if they couldn’t thrive without their star goalie again? You’d have to ask about lessons learned.

***

Long story short, Montoya matters to Montreal. The Canadiens just have to hope that he doesn’t matter too much.

 

Ducks lock up 2016 first-rounder Max Jones

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24:  Max Jones poses for a portrait after being selected 24th overall by the Anaheim Ducks in round one during the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes/Getty Images)
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The Anaheim Ducks handed their 2016 first-round draft pick Max Jones an entry-level contract on Friday.

Anaheim selected Jones 24th overall. It looks like he’s getting a pretty typical rookie deal, according to reporters including NHL.com’s Curtis Zupke.

In PHT’s “Get to Know a Draft Pick” series, THN’s Ryan Kennedy described Jones as “a power forward who can make you look silly with his offensive moves or simply plow you through the boards.”

Jones was one of three London Knights players who went in the first round in 2016, following Olli Juolevi (fifth overall) and Matthew Tkachuk (sixth overall). He certainly seemed to enjoy the team’s Memorial Cup victory:

You never really know for certain, but one would imagine that Jones may take a season or two to make it to the NHL level with the Ducks. From the sound of things, he’s in the sort of power forward mold that the team’s had a lot of success with.

With Lehner injured, Enroth will be in Sweden’s goalie mix at World Cup

BUFFALO, NY - OCTOBER 04: Jhonas Enroth #1 of the Buffalo Sabres and Robin Lehner #40 of the Ottawa Senators warm up to play at First Niagara Center on October 4, 2013 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jen Fuller/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK (AP) Sweden has selected Jhonas Enroth to replace injured goaltender Robin Lehner on its World Cup of Hockey roster.

Lehner was bothered by an ankle injury last season while playing for the Buffalo Sabres. Sweden coach Rikard Gronborg said Lehner had not recovered 100 percent.

Enroth, who signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs, joins Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers and Jacob Markstrom of the Vancouver Canucks as the goalies on Sweden’s roster.

The 28-year-old has a 2.80 goals-against average and .911 save percentage in 147 career NHL games. Enroth was on the Swedish team that earned a silver medal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, though he never appeared in a game.

Enroth started for Sweden at the 2015 world hockey championship.

The World Cup begins Sept. 17 in Toronto.