The Chip ‘n’ Chase: Sabres’ shakeup, Yakupov versus Eakins, Jocks versus Nerds, and more

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This is a new thing we’re trying. Every Wednesday, we’ll publish a little back-and-forth we have via email. We’re calling it the Chip ‘n’ Chase. Yes, it’s a terrible name. Enjoy.

Jason Brough: Hey buddy, so major changes today in Buffalo. Still trying to wrap my head around everything, but looking back on the past couple of seasons, it seems to me the Sabres went off the rails as soon as Terry Pegula came in with his blank checkbook. Which is kind of odd when you first think about it, since the best teams are typically the ones that spend right up to the salary cap. But on the other hand, it’s totally predictable. The Sabres actually remind me of a regular Joe who one day wins a massive lottery and has no idea what to do with all the cash. He buys a huge mansion with mismatching furniture; he starts investing in all his friends’ dumb business ideas; he basically loses all self-control when it comes to money. Which I suppose makes Ville Leino the unused jet ski in the Sabres’ driveway?

Mike Halford: What does that make Tyler Myers then — the 1,000-volume LaserDisc collection? “There’s no way these depreciate in value!” I agree things went off the rails when Pegula arrived with his bags of money, and call me skeptical that these latest moves will get things back on track. I mean, Nolan and LaFontaine aren’t exactly dialed in to the NHL anymore. Nolan has been coaching the Latvian national team for the last two years and LaFontaine wasn’t involved anywhere prior to taking a gig with the league last month. LaFontaine also said at today’s presser that he’s “not ready to be a GM because I lack experience,” which sort of stood out for me, given he’ll be the new GM’s boss.

JB: I’m a little more optimistic. Nolan was only hired on an interim basis, so if he doesn’t work out the Sabres can always choose a new coach in the summer. The key will be LaFontaine’s choice for GM. Whoever it is, he needs to — well, he needs to do a lot of things — but at the top of the list I’d put player development. Case in point, Mikhail Grigorenko. That kid is completely lost out there. He really shouldn’t be in the NHL. The Sabres have a ton of draft picks in 2014. Making the right selections is only the first step. They have to figure out a better way to bring them along.

Speaking of lost kids, did you see that Nail Yakupov media scrum yesterday in Edmonton? It was a bit…how-you-say-my-English-no-so-good…awkward. Listening to Yakupov, it really doesn’t sound like he’s on the same page with Dallas Eakins. Not sure who to blame for that. I guess I respect that the kid wants to play more and help his team win, but I tend to have sympathy for the coach when I see plays like this:

And Yakupov wonders why Eakins has trust issues with him. He wonders why he’s played “lower and lower minutes” in the past few games. Maybe next time put two hands on the stick when you take a pass in your own end and Steven Stamkos is on the ice.

MH: I know we’re focusing on Yakupov here, so I’ll ignore Devan Dubnyk getting beat on a long wrister. Actually, forget that — I wanna focus on Eakins. When he got hired, the words “master” and “communicator” were thrown around so much I thought he actually had a Masters of Communication from a fine online college. So, what happened? The Oilers now have Yakupov saying “I’m not talking about anything with Dallas” and Eakins saying “I won’t search him out, but my door is open.” There are broken pagers that do a better job of communicating than these two. On the subject of trust, do you have any that Eakins can turn this thing around?

source:  JB: Honestly, I don’t. In hindsight, if the Oilers were intent on firing Ralph Krueger, I think they might’ve been better off hiring an experienced NHL head coach to lead their inexperienced group of players, not a first-timer who got constantly talked up by the Toronto media because he was in, you know, Toronto. I don’t mean to discount Eakins’ success with the Marlies, because he definitely had some, but do you think he’d be the Oilers’ head coach today if he’d done the same things he did with the Marlies but he’d done them with, say, the Lake Erie Monsters? I feel like he wouldn’t have received as much positive press coverage in Cleveland. Whatever. He’s not going to get fired, so it’s not worth spending too much time dwelling on whether he should have been hired in the first place. You’re right about the “master communicator” stuff though. It’s pretty funny actually. The way Eakins was talking in June — e.g. “The way you coach players now is you get them one on one. You’ve got to know them inside out” — I figured the Oilers would be getting daily encouragement notes in their cubbyholes. Wait, do they have cubbyholes? Maybe they need some cubbyholes.

MH: I could see Nugent-Hopkins liking the cubbyhole idea. Give him a place to store his Pokemons. You know what’s crazy? We haven’t even mentioned Ilya Bryzgalov yet. That’s how many other issues the Oilers have. I don’t want to get into the whole “Mr. Universe” thing or how he’ll react to the Edmonton media… but I do want to talk about all the flawed logic and, frankly, blatant denial in that move. Bryz and his agent ripped the Flyers for having a weak defensive system, right? So now he’s going to Edmonton, which doesn’t exactly have an Iron Curtain on the blue line and is giving up a league-worst 3.90 goals per game. What’s more, the Oilers had to dump a pretty useful d-man in Ladislav Smid just to make room for Bryz’s contract! That might be best part in all of this, though I’m reserving judgment until reporters can ask about his “November months, minus-32!” remarks.

Okay, that’s enough about the Oilers. Let’s talk about tonight’s game between Toronto and Minnesota. I’m calling it Jocks versus Nerds. The Leafs, who are skeptical of advanced statistics, taking on the Wild, who apparently are not. All I know is this — whoever scores more Corsis is going to win.

source:  JB: I’m pretty pumped, too. Tonight may be the most talked-about jocks-nerds showdown since the Alpha Betas battled the Tri-Lambs in the Greek Games. Although I have to admit I’m having a bit of trouble picturing Dave Nonis in the cool fraternity. Or Chuck Fletcher drunkenly riding a tricycle. In all seriousness, I really don’t get the Leafs’ skepticism — if not downright disdain — for hockey’s new stats. Unless they’re playing coy, which I don’t think they are. Based on his comments, it seems like Nonis is searching for some magical statistic he can use to break the code, and until that magical stat is presented to him on a silver platter, everything else is useless. Is Corsi perfect? No, it’s not. A team can win games without having the puck more than its opponent. But here are the top five teams in that stat: Chicago, Los Angeles, St. Louis, San Jose and Minnesota. You’re telling me that’s a coincidence? Now here are the bottom five: Washington, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, and Buffalo. Hmmm. Maybe I get the Leafs’ problem with it now.

Goalie nods: Dell starts for Sharks, his sixth in the last 12 games

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There was a plan in San Jose to try and give first-year backup Aaron Dell some additional playing time down the stretch.

And the Sharks certainly are executing.

Dell, who has basically split starts with No. 1 Martin Jones this month, will get the call tonight when San Jose takes on the Stars in Dallas. He’s certainly earned the call — in five starts in March, he’s going 3-2-0 with a .941 save percentage, and has allowed a grand total of eight goals.

While there’s no goalie controversy at play — Jones is the unquestioned starter — this development has to have provided some relief for Peter DeBoer and company. Dell is a 27-year-old minor league journeyman that made his NHL debut this year, but played sparingly behind Jones for the most part.

Now, he looks like a guy the club can rely on should Jones struggle, or get hurt. Dell’s posted terrific numbers overall — 10-5-1 record, .936 save percentage, 1.85 GAA — and could see even more action over the final eight games of the regular season.

No word yet on who starts for Dallas. Kari Lehtonen played in last night’s shootout loss to Chicago, so logic would suggest it’s Antti Niemi.

Elsewhere…

— As we wrote about earlier, Jaroslav Halak makes his first NHL start in 85 days as the Isles visit Pittsburgh. Marc-Andre Fleury is in for the Pens.

Petr Mrazek gets the call as the Red Wings host the Lightning. No word yet on a Bolts starter, though Andrei Vasilevskiy would seem likely given Peter Budaj played against (and beat) Boston last night.

— The red-hot Jonathan Bernier gets another start as the Ducks play host to the Jets. No word yet on a Winnipeg starter, but Connor Hellebuyck did play last night against L.A.

Pre-game reading: Bettman insists NHL isn’t ‘anti-Olympics’

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— Up top, members of the Detroit Red Wings and their fans recall some of their fondest memories from Joe Louis Arena, which will host its last NHL game on Apr. 9.

— Here’s NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, speaking Friday in Chicago: “The league isn’t anti-Olympics. The problem is, the clubs are anti-disruption to the season. To disappear for almost three weeks in February when there is no football and baseball and it’s only basketball and … there’s no programming for the NHL Network, for NHL.com (and) all of our social media platforms. … If somebody proposes something dramatic and radically different that gets the attention of the clubs where they say, ‘You know what? We don’t like going but on balance it’s worth it because of this,’ we’ll have to look at it again. But overwhelmingly the sentiment of the clubs is it’s too disruptive.” (Chicago Tribune)

— The players have said they won’t negotiate with the league for the right to participate in the Olympics. But they’ve made no secret about their desire to go, as evidenced by ESPN’s lengthy list of player quotes on the topic. Said Steven Stamkos: “In talking to a lot of players, I’ve yet to hear someone say they didn’t want to get a chance to represent their country at the Olympics.” (ESPN)

— Whether the NHL continues its Olympic participation or not, it’s clear the league is eyeing China as part of its growth strategy. In September, the Canucks and Kings are expected to play a couple of exhibition games in Beijing and Shanghai. And according to deputy commissioner Bill Daly, there may even come a time when an NHL franchise is owned by Chinese business interests. (The Globe and Mail)

— Are the Bruins on the verge of collapse? CSNNE columnist Joe Haggerty saw some concerning signs in last night’s loss to Tampa Bay — a loss that put the B’s in further danger of falling out of a playoff position. Haggerty concludes: “Their next wrong move will cause a nosedive straight out of the playoffs for the third year in a row, and that will spell changes far and wide on Causeway Street for the Boston Bruins.” (CSN New England)

— Islanders rookie Josh Ho-Sang, who wears No. 66, is ready for — and even looking forward to — a hostile crowd tonight at PPG Paints Arena. “For me, Pittsburgh is the one city as a whole where I’m totally OK with them hating me. For wearing No. 66. Mario Lemieux is a hero, a pioneer for them there, and for them to take it as disrespect is completely understandable.” (Newsday)

Enjoy the games!

PS — Lemieux said he was “fine” with Ho-Sang wearing his old number.

In prepping Vegas for draft, McPhee cites ‘outstanding’ record with Caps

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George McPhee is a veteran of the draft process, having presided over nearly 20 during his time with the Caps.

This year, he’s in a unique position — spearheading the first draft for the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights — and he suggests his past success should set him up well for the future.

“I think we have an outstanding staff,” McPhee said, per the club website. “I think our draft record in my previous job was outstanding.”

Assessments like these are always up for debate — draft success is somewhat subjective, and there are inevitably a bunch of misses among the hits — but McPhee does have a strong history of drafting and developing players, and could point to the current Capitals as validation to his claim.

The active roster has 11 players that were original draftees (Braden Holtby, Philip Grubauer, Dmitry Orlov, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Tom Wilson, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky and Nicklas Backstrom), with goalies Holtby and Grubauer — both fourth-round picks — emerging as pretty good finds.

McPhee’s strategy? Go big or go home.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever played it safe going to the draft,” he explained. “I believe in swinging for the fences, and trying to find someone who can be a real difference maker. The difference makers are those core guys on your team, those 4-5 players that become elite players are the ones that can really take you a long way.

“They are hard to find. Those are the ones I’d like to swing for.”

At this year’s draft in Chicago, Vegas should have a shot at landing an impact guy. The club will have the same odds of winning the lottery as the team that finishes with the third fewest points this season and, though it’s considered a weak draft overall, there is some serious talent at the top end.

WHL Brandon’s Nolan Patrick, QMJHKL Halifax’s Nico Hischier and OHL Windsor’s Gabriel Vilardi are all considered high-end prospects and — importantly — all three play center. For a team that’s building from scratch, filling that position is of vital importance.

McPhee acknowledged this is a weaker draft, but contended those are the ones “where the best teams excel.” He theorizes that with fewer quality players available, the strongest teams emerge with the good ones.

He also shared how the Golden Knights plan to land ’em.

“We’re really aggressive,” he said. “We try not to play it safe very often.”

B’s ink prospects Fitzgerald, Johansson to entry-level deals

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Boston has brought a pair of talented youngsters into the fold.

Forward Ryan Fitzgerald, who just wrapped his senior season at Boston College, and defenseman Emil Johansson — who spent this year playing in the Swedish Hockey League — have signed their entry-level deals and will begin playing with the club’s AHL affiliate in Providence.

Fitzgerald — who’s father, Tom, is the assistant GM in New Jersey — scored 31 points in 34 games for BC this year, serving as an alternate captain. He was originally taken by Boston in the fourth round (120th overall) of the ’13 draft.

Johansson, 20, was a seventh-round pick in ’14 that’s panned out pretty well. He scored a career-high seven goals and 17 points in 49 games for Djugardens this year, appearing in three playoff contests.