BUFFALO SABRES

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.

Capitals bump Todd Reirden up to associate coach

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 10:  Assistant coach Todd Reirden of the Washington Capitals talks to the power play unit during a time-out against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on May 10, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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The Washington Capitals announced that Todd Reirden (pictured) was promoted from assistant to associate coach on Monday.

What does that mean, exactly? Well, most directly, the team shared word that he’ll run Capitals training camp while Barry Trotz works with Team Canada at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

Giving Reirden a promotion makes sense, as he’s been linked to some head coaching searches. The Washington Post compiled some of his opportunities:

In the past two years, Reirden has been a serious candidate for two NHL head-coaching gigs. According to the Calgary Sun, Reirden was a finalist to coach the Flames before they settled on Glen Gulutzan, and he was considered for the New Jersey Devils’ vacancy last summer, too. Lane Lambert, another Capitals assistant, was a finalist for the Colorado Avalanche head-coaching job earlier this month, according to the Denver Post.

The Capitals have a pretty well-regarded coaching group, as many credit goaltending coach Mitch Korn with some of Braden Holtby‘s improvement since Trotz took over.

Maybe we’ll see Reirden and Lambert get head coaching gigs at some point, but for now, Trotz’s “coaching tree” stays intact.

Penguins believe Kessel, others can heal up by start of next season

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12:  Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Going deep enough into the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup often comes with the cost of stacking up injuries, and the Pittsburgh Penguins paid the price.

As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and others report, Phil Kessel (wrist) and others aren’t guaranteed to be healthy to start the 2016-17 regular season.

“All the injured guys are tracking in the right direction,” GM Jim Rutherford said. “Until they all get here, we won’t know 100 percent where they’re at, but it sounds like all the guys should be ready for camp.”

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review runs down a significant list of players who likely accrued bumps and bruises that may carry over:

Defenseman Trevor Daley, for instance, suffered a broken ankle on May 20. Kris Letang (foot), Nick Bonino (elbow infection), Bryan Rust (hand), Patric Hornqvist (hand) and Evgeni Malkin (elbow), among others, dealt with physical problems of varying severity at times.

If recent history is any indication, Kessel will probably fight hard not to miss time.

For all the weird criticisms he receives, he’s been remarkably durable, playing in every game during the past six seasons.

That’s impressive stuff, but the Penguins would be wise to keep an eye on the big picture. If it comes down to making Kessel and others swallow a little pride to limit the odds of aggravating injuries, they need to do it.

Even if it means a bumpy start to their title defense.

Win now, worry later: Why the Lightning should go all-in

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 08:  Ben Bishop #30 celebrates with Andrei Vasilevskiy #88 of the Tampa Bay Lightning after defeating the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 in Game Three of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the United Center on June 8, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This is part of Lightning day at PHT …

The Chicago Blackhawks employed some great teams in winning three championships so far during the Jonathan ToewsPatrick Kane era, but there was something special about that first group.

For one thing, Toews and Kane were playing out the final years of their entry-level contracts. Those CBA-powered savings gave the Blackhawks a surplus of players who would eventually be too expensive to retain, most notably Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Brian Campbell.

That fantastic group never faced elimination during an overpowering run to the 2010 Stanley Cup.

Thanks to deft maneuvering by GM Stan Bowman, the Blackhawks were able to reload and put together other strong supporting casts even after big losses, and that could be a profound lesson for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It might be tempting for the Bolts to merely keep their window open as long as possible. Instead, they should take a big swing in 2016-17 and then trust management to recover from any fallout.

Bishop’s expiring contract

The safe move would be to trade away some of the expiring contracts on Tampa Bay’s roster instead of risking getting nothing when they leave.

Many believe that Ben Bishop is on his way out. With one year left on a contract that carries about a $6 million cap hit and Andrei Vasilevskiy getting the Jake Allen-style “you’re the man” extension, it seems like a matter of time.

Keeping Bishop around for one more season might just pay off, though.

For one thing, Vasilevskiy’s shown signs of brilliance, yet his current NHL numbers aren’t overwhelmingly strong. Bishop, meanwhile, kept the Bolts afloat during some tough times in 2015-16.

Even if the Lightning feel like Vasy is the guy, what if he gets hurt? They’ve already seen goalies get injured at inopportune times, and the reigning champion Penguins provide another reminder.

(For more on the Bishop situation, click here.)

Win low, worry later

GM Steve Yzerman deserves ample credit for signing Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman to relative bargain deals, but those are still expensive contracts. The squeeze is coming.

That said, the Lightning may want to identify their own Byfugliens and Ladds and go for broke in 2016-17. Let’s not forget how close they were to a second consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearance even with Stamkos on the shelf.

It’s tough to imagine the Bolts managing to keep all of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin. On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine many opponents managing to contain an attack that features Stamkos, Johnson, Palat, Drouin and other dangerous attackers.

(Plus, another year of evaluation would give Yzerman time to determine who is truly a core member.)

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It’s a challenging situation, but the Lightning easily rank alongside the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and maybe a few other select teams as the cream of the East crop.

They’re positioned to jostle with the elites for some time, but why not take their best shot in 2016-17 and then make the best of things later on?

Sometimes the difference between really good and truly great comes down to having the courage to make these tough calls.

Under Pressure: Tyler Johnson

TAMPA, FL - MAY 18:  Tyler Johnson #9 of the Tampa Bay Lightning skates against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second period in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on May 18, 2016 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This is part of Lightning day at PHT …

What a difference a year makes.

Last summer, Tyler Johnson was such a huge part of the Tampa Bay Lightning, more than a few people believed that he could ease the pain of possibly losing Steven Stamkos to free agency. He tied Stamkos for the team lead in scoring (72 points) and topped all Lightning players with 23 playoff points during their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.

The 2015-16 regular season was a bumpy one for Johnson … in some ways literally.

Painful year

Health was a major obstacle for Johnson, starting with the hangover from a wrist injury he suffered during Tampa Bay’s magic run.

Even afterward, there were moments of pain. Sometimes it came down to flat-out bad luck:

Other times, there were questionable hits:

It wasn’t until late in the regular season that Johnson seemed to feel himself, as he noted to the Tampa Bay Tribune.

“I feel I’ve got the speed back, got everything I can do,” Johnson said. “I’m actually mentally there, not worried about other things …”

Big commitments

He’ll have some things to worry about in 2016-17.

The Lightning handed out a ton of money this off-season, locking up Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Alex Killorn and Andrei Vasilevskiy to lengthy deals. They still need to sort out a contract for Nikita Kucherov, a talented forward who rose while Johnson stumbled.

Fair or not, Johnson must prove that he’s a core member of the Lightning

He made a strong argument in his own favor once he was healthy, generating 17 points in 17 playoff games as the Lightning made it to within one game of another Stanley Cup Final appearance despite missing Stamkos.

Still, Johnson faces a fork in the road. Ben Bishop either needs a new deal or (most likely) a trade to a team that will make him “the guy.” Ondrej Palat likely won’t be the easiest player for Tampa Bay to re-sign, either.

Few players could gain or lose more money with one season of play than Tyler Johnson. He can prove that 2015-16 was derailed by bad luck or allow injury concerns to linger.

Millions are on the line, and those personal goals may very well help Johnson drive the Lightning to another deep run.

For all we know, he could also find himself driving out of town.