USOC Media Summit

Sochi notes: Women’s hockey tourney has an interesting format

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Hey, have you missed me? You didn’t even notice I was gone, did you. Sigh. Well, I’ve been in Sochi for a few days now. I’ll be here until the end of the Olympics, which will culminate with the men’s gold-medal game on Feb. 23. I’m hoping I can pop in here from time to time and share a few offhand thoughts on the hockey, and just being in Russia. Otherwise I’ll be writing stories that appear on both PHT and NBCOlympics.com, or in some cases just NBCOlympics.com.

OK, onto my first list of notes:

—- Full disclosure: I’d never covered international women’s hockey until I came to Sochi, and I hadn’t really followed it since the 2010 Games in Vancouver. Like most hockey fans, I knew the basics – Canada and the United States are really good, everyone else is trying to catch up – but it’s not easy to parachute in (figuratively speaking; they have an airport and everything here) and start asking questions. Not good ones, at least. Fortunately, the American and Canadian players/coaches/management have all been super friendly and open during the media availabilities I’ve attended. I guess they know it’s important to promote their sport during the Olympics, which is really the only time there’s a significant media contingent on hand to cover it.

—- They’ve got an interesting format to the women’s tourney this year. In the preliminary round, the top four ranked teams — Canada, U.S., Switzerland, and Finland – will play each other – and the bottom four teams – Sweden, Japan, Russia, and Germany – will play each other. After that, the top two teams from the first group (probably the U.S. and Canada) will advance to the semis while the bottom two teams from the first group will play off against the top two teams from the second group for the other two spots in the semis. Got it? Good. A couple of reasons I figure they’re doing this. 1. They want to guarantee at least one game between Canada and the U.S. 2. They don’t want the blowouts we saw in 2010, like Canada 18, Slovakia 0 or the U.S. 13, Russia 0. Blowouts aren’t fun to watch, and they only shine a spotlight on the disparity between the top and bottom teams. I believe there’s genuine concern that women’s hockey will be removed from the Olympics if the rest of the world doesn’t start catching up to the two powerhouses.

—- I watched the U.S. and German women scrimmage earlier this week, and the disparity was vast. You could see it right off the bat in the warm-ups. On one side, the Americans were ripping shots crossbar and in; on the other, the Germans were — and I’m not trying to be mean here — basically floating theirs. They didn’t keep score in the scrimmage, but I can tell you it wasn’t close and the Americans ended with a really high Corsi rating.

—- I don’t want to say U.S. star Amanda Kessel (sister of Phil) waffled when asked if she was back to game shape after skipping the pre-Olympic tour to manage an injured hip (which required surgery in 2012), but she definitely didn’t give a resounding yes. “Getting there” was how she put it. “Decent.” She did look pretty good in the scrimmage though, and coach Katey Stone said later she was “100 percent.”

—- I wrote on Wednesday about new Canadian coach Kevin Dineen’s decision to take the captaincy away from women’s hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser and give it to Caroline Ouellette. The more I think about it, the more I wonder just what was going on with this team last year. Remember that Dineen only replaced coach Dan Church in December after the latter abruptly resigned. So that’s a coaching change and a captaincy change right before the biggest tournament in women’s hockey, which only occurs once every four years. Clearly Dineen felt the team needed a shakeup, and I guess you have to give him credit for making a tough move he believed in, because it would’ve been a lot easier to just go with the status quo. I’ll still be surprised if it’s anyone but Canada and the U.S. in the final game, but the U.S. sure does seem like it has a great chance to snap Canada’s streak of three straight gold medals. And of the two favorites, if one is going to get upset by another country, I’d have to bet it’s going to be Canada.

—- I’m sure you’ve all heard the stories of reporters and their unfinished hotel rooms. Well, mine is just fine, thanks. I did, however, have a panic the other morning that I’d lost my wallet. Fortunately, it was right there in my pocket the whole time, but I was sweating it big time for a bit. I just can’t imagine the hassle of trying to replace all the credit cards and other stuff in my wallet while in Russia. You may be wondering, how could I possibly think I’d lost my wallet when it was in my pocket? Good question. Best I can explain is my whole pockets routine has been thrown off over here. Usually I keep three things in my pockets – wallet, keys, phone. Same three things every day. Over here, it’s totally different. I have my own phone and a temporary local phone, and I don’t always take my wallet with me, plus I’ve got credentials hanging around my neck and sometimes I carry a little digital recorder and everyone’s speaking a bunch of different languages and I didn’t sleep for the first 36 hours I was here because I stayed up to watch the SEA-HAWKS! win the Super Bowl. You can see how a blogger’s pockets routine could get thrown off. I figure it’s a bit like North American hockey players having to adjust to the bigger international ice surface. I have no idea where my keys are, by the way.

I’ll leave you with one of the many pictures hanging in the hallways of the massive main press center here. Just the definition of old school Olympics.

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Brandon Pirri makes Rangers’ offense so deep, a trade may be needed

SUNRISE, FL - DECEMBER 10:  Brandon Pirri #73 of the Florida Panthers skates with the puck during a game against the Washington Capitals at BB&T Center on December 10, 2015 in Sunrise, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Want to make your brain hurt a little? Try to narrow down the New York Rangers’ forward group to a mere 12 after the whip-smart signing of Brandon Pirri became official.

To start, you have the obvious guys: Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello, Mika Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes. Then you add new arrivals in Pirri, Jimmy Vesey, Nathan Gerbe and Josh Jooris.

The list above includes 10 mostly-viable options and we haven’t even discussed the likes of Oscar Lindberg, Jesper Fast and fringe types such as Tanner Glass.

Throw in prospects such as Pavel Buchnevich and Marek Hrivik and … well, it sure becomes such a strength that things feel pretty crowded after some reflection.

Blueshirt Banter makes a strong case that something has to give; they believe that Pirri’s signing points to a possible trade. Maybe even a significant, multi-part one:

And this is where things get interesting. The Rangers are still floating around the Kevin Shattenkirk rumors, and the persistent Rick Nash speculation isn’t going anywhere, either.

It’s something that Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman apparently pointed to.

Well, isn’t that interesting.

General Fanager puts the Rangers’ jam-packed roster about $1.4 million under the salary cap ceiling as of this moment.

With that in mind, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton probably isn’t in a desperate situation to move someone – whether it be a big name such as Nash or not – but New York might amass enough forward pieces to jar a quality defenseman loose

Even as is, the team sure looks more formidable now than it did entering the off-season. Forward depth was one of the strengths of the group that made it to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final (recall useful supporting cast members including Benoit Pouliot), so maybe Alain Vigneault would really excel with another deep group?

Vacation-mode is just about over, so perhaps the Rangers have something interesting up their sleeves? It’s a reasonable question to ask.

Poll: Where will the Canadiens finish in the East this year?

MONTREAL, QC - APRIL 17:  Carey Price #31 of the Montreal Canadiens watches play during Game Two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals  of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Bell Centre on April 17, 2015 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Canadiens defeated the Senators 3-2 in overtime.  (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
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Expectations were high for the Montreal Canadiens going into last season.

In the first month of the 2015-16 season, it seemed like the high expectations were justified, as the Canadiens jumped out to a 9-0-0 start.

They continued their strong play through the month of November.

In November, the Canadiens lost both Carey Price (knee) and Brendan Gallagher (hand) to injury. The Price injury, in particular, really hurt the Canadiens.

Price was initially supposed to be out for 6-to-8 weeks, but he never ended up returning. Without him, the Canadiens just weren’t the same team.

“It’s been hard mentally,” Price said last April, per NHL.com. “This has been the most trying year of my career. I feel more tired now than I do when I play hockey,” Price said. “Watching, I don’t know how fans do it to be honest. It’s hard to sit and watch and not be able to do anything about it. It’s the hardest part about this process.

“I think I’ve learned a lot of things in the aspect of preparing myself for a long season. I’ve changed a few things like my diet plans and my preparation for practices. As you get older (Price turns 29 on Aug. 16), you have to do more things like that. And I think I can carry that into next year and it will be beneficial.”

Now, it sounds like Price is back to full health and that can only be a good thing for Montreal. With Price, it’ll be interesting to see if Montreal can find their winning ways.

Montreal also added Shea Weber and Andrew Shaw via trade. Both players figure to be important parts of the team in 2016-17.

How high do you expect the Canadiens to finish in the Eastern Conference standings? How do they stack up against the Panthers, Lightning, Red Wings, Bruins, Senators, Sabres and Maple Leafs in the Atlantic Division?

Time to vote!

Adding toughness was an offseason priority for the Canadiens

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 12: Andrew Shaw #65 of the Chicago Blackhawks collides with Shea Weber #6 of the Nashville Predators at the United Center on January 12, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Predators 3-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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After a miserable 2015-16 season, the Canadiens needed fixing. This offseason, it became clear that Montreal wanted to be bigger, tougher and meaner.

It’s an interesting time to take that approach, especially when the NHL seems to be moving in a different direction.

The Pittsburgh Penguins used speed and skill to their advantage during their 2016 Stanley Cup journey and we should expect to see more teams try to emulate that this season.

But GM Marc Bergevin clearly isn’t interested in following the latest hockey trends.

Bergevin made two trades on draft night. He sent Lars Eller to Washington for a pair of draft picks and he acquired Andrew Shaw from the Chicago Blackhawks.

“Two Stanley Cups in five years,” Bergevin said of Shaw, per NHL.com. “I like guys who don’t like to lose. Everybody likes to win, everybody’s happy when you win. I want guys, when you lose, it gets them inside. It hurts. And then you go back to work the next day.

“Andrew Shaw has it. I was in Chicago long enough to know they don’t take losing with a grain of salt. I want guys who don’t like to lose.”

Days later, Bergevin stunned the hockey world when he shipped P.K. Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber.

Again, Subban is no push-over, but he isn’t as nasty as Shea Weber.

“He’s the toughest defenseman to play against in the NHL and I’m glad I don’t have to do any net-front battles with him again … maybe in practice,” Shaw said earlier this month, per the Montreal Gazette. “But I think it’s going to be huge for the team. He’s a good leader guy, a good team guy. He’s got that experience, too. He’s got that shot from the point that will help both on the power play and even strength as well. He’s just that big, strong man in front of the net that’s going to help out defensively as well.”

Clearly, the Canadiens feel that having Carey Price back and playing a physical brand of hockey will allow them to be competitive in the Eastern Conference.

Time will tell if they chose the right approach.

Under Pressure: Michel Therrien

GLENDALE, AZ - MARCH 07:  Head coach Michel Therrien of the Montreal Canadiens watches from the bench during the NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on March 7, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. The Canadiens defeated the Coyotes 2-0.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Being a head coach in a hockey market like Montreal isn’t easy when times are good, so imagine how hard it can get when the team finishes near the bottom of the standings.

In his second stint as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens, Michel Therrien has had success. From 2011-12 to 2014-15, Therrien helped guide the Canadiens to a 125-64-23 record. But the “honeymoon” came to a crashing halt this season.

Montreal got off to a 9-0-0 start, but injuries to Carey Price and Brendan Gallagher derailed the Canadiens’ season.

With Price and Gallagher on the shelf, the Canadiens went through a miserable stretch in December. From Dec. 3 through Dec. 26, the Canadiens played 10 games and won just one those contests. Things didn’t get much better from there.

Without the defending Hart Trophy winner at their disposal, it’s normal that the Canadiens would dip a little bit, but the lack of solutions from the coaching staff was concerning.

The Habs have made plenty of changes to their roster after last season’s disappointment. Gone are Lars Eller and P.K. Subban and in come Shea Weber, Alexander Radulov and Andrew Shaw.

The Canadiens also added Kirk Muller as an associate coach, but the rest of the coaching staff remained intact.

“Given what we went through in the last six months, to panic and change everything, I’m not ready to do that,” Bergevin said in April, per CBC.ca. “I’ll look at every aspect of the organization to see where we can improve, but to turn everything upside down? No.

“Last year we had 110 points. I’m not ready to throw people out the door based on what happened this year. Nobody is walking away with a clean slate, but we have to break down what happened. Michel learned a lot. We all learned. We’re not happy. It’s my job to address this team moving forward, but Michel will be behind the bench on opening night.”

With plenty of off-season change and the return of Carey Price, there are no more excuses for Therrien. As loyal as GM Marc Bergevin has been to his head coach during this rough patch, don’t be surprised if a slow start costs Therrien his job.

Therrien has already been fired twice before (Montreal and Pittsburgh), so this could be his last head coaching gig in the NHL.

The pressure is definitely on.