Under Pressure: Randy Carlyle

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“If you’re worried about optics in this market, it’s going to be a disaster. I think you have to make a decision based on what you think is the best decision for the organization, and this in our minds was clearly the best option.

“He was a guy we believe can get the job done for us. Whether optics are that it’s the wrong thing to do or not doesn’t really matter to us. If you’re looking at trying to please people, you’re probably going to make some poor decisions.”

That was Toronto GM Dave Nonis this past May, talking about the decision to extend head coach Randy Carlyle. The move came under heavy fire as the optics of retaining Carlyle, who presided over a Leafs team that went 2-12-0 down the stretch and collapsed out of playoff contention, left many scratching their heads. Several other coaches that whiffed on the playoffs met their demise — John Tortorella, Adam Oates and Barry Trotz, to name a few — and Nonis made it clear there was some issue at the coaching level by turfing all three of Toronto’s assistants.

Yet when the dust settled, Carlyle remained. One of the few constants in an offseason filled with change.

The Leafs really shifted course this summer. They hired a new president, Brendan Shanahan, then emerged as progressive club on the advanced analytics front — first, with the hiring of 28-year-old assistant GM Kyle Dubas, known as a fancy stat advocate with OHL Sault Ste. Marie; then, with the creation of an advanced numbers department, spearheaded by the guy that used to run Extra Skater.

Change happened on the ice, too.

Gone, it seems, are the day of trotting out truculent bottom-six forwards like Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren. Toronto had itself a Moneyball-esque summer, signing (slightly) flawed veterans on the cheap in the hope of striking gold — guys like former 30-goal scorer David Booth (signed for $1.1M after getting bought out of a disastrous situation in Vancouver), skilled center Mike Santorelli (inked for $1.5M after last season was cut short by season-ending shoulder surgery) and power forward Daniel Winnik (who fell out of favor in Anaheim, remained unsigned ’til August, then came to Toronto for $1.3M). These additions, along with Finnish forwards Petri Kontiola and Leo Komarov, should give Toronto the most depth it’s had up front in the Carlyle era.

As such, the pressure is on.

By keeping Carlyle after last year’s collapse, the message was loud and clear — this was on the players, not the coach. But from that point forward, the challenge was put on everybody to achieve more, coaches included. Expectations have been heightened and there is a demand for improvement — for example, Toronto could have a wildly competitive training camp, as there are 15 forwards on NHL contracts fighting for 12 spots.

All of this, of course, comes back to Carlyle, who has now been given tools to succeed: new players, new assistants and a new, fresh look at the managerial level. If that pressure wasn’t obvious enough, Nonis ensured it in May by saying his coach needs to get through to this group.

“If you’ve seen it being done before with most of the same players, or a lot of the same players, and with that coach leading that group, I know it can happen,” said Nonis. “I know it has happened with this group before. I know that (Carlyle) has reached them before, reached them at times this year.

“For me it’s not that we’re guessing whether or not he can have success or he can get through to them. We’ve seen it. I know that it’s there and we feel he is the guy that can get through to this group.”

Panthers face ghosts of past mistakes in Golden Knights

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The Vegas Golden Knights are one of the great success stories of the 2017-18 season in the NHL so far. The Florida Panthers are not.

Such notions would already make Sunday’s game feel a touch awkward, but in seeing the Golden Knights tonight, many Panthers fans might feel like they’re opening the door to an alternate reality in which the team didn’t revert back to the Dale Tallon era.

As TSN’s John Shannon notes, the Golden Knights feature eight former Panthers employees in some form, including head coach Gerard Gallant plus key scorers Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault.

Now, if you’re expecting the players or coach to stir the pot when it comes to revenge, you’re out of luck. All three gave boilerplate answers about just wanting to get two standings points tonight. No bulletin board material there, folks.

Instead, Panthers executives are providing some drama for us.

In seeing one of the Golden Knights’ many cheeky tweets, in this case trumpeting Smith’s presence on the team, Panthers executive Doug Cifu provided an interesting reply that was eventually deleted. Sports Illustrated’s Alex Prewitt was among those who got a screen grab of it, and it’s a chin-scratcher:

Again, Cifu deleted the physical tweet, and he explained that he was attempting to be nice and that his tweet was “totally misconstrued.”

Even in Twitter form, the Panthers seem like they’re operating under the motto of “One step forward, two steps backward,” and today serves as a cruel example of how things don’t need to work this way.

Now, look, the Golden Knights enjoyed an expansion process that the NHL engineered to generate a more respectable early product than anything we saw in Florida’s era. Beyond that, even Gallant would probably acknowledge that there have been some positive bounces (although you could easily counter with a mention of Vegas’ many goalie injuries).

Still, it’s tough for this not to shine a light on the Golden Knights’ stellar start and the Panthers cellar dwelling.

[Golden Knights get to 20 wins faster than any other expansion team.]

The Panthers chose to fire Gallant during their short-lived “analytics-friendly” period. Then, in reaction to that time, Tallon almost seemed to recklessly expel elements of that regime by handing the Golden Knights two useful forwards in Marchessault and Smith when only one really needed to go (and Florida could have tried to sway Vegas into taking someone less valuable, too).

It all echoes back to Tallon’s much-mocked comment about being back in control, especially since the Panthers’ situation hasn’t dramatically improved since then:

Now, it’s likely that Tallon is merely glad to be running things again, yet it’s tough to avoid a snicker or two considering context.

Ultimately, the Golden Knights have profited off of Florida’s frenzied ways. Win or lose, Vegas is gaining from unforced errors on the Panthers’ part.

No doubt about it, these narratives will only sting more if the Golden Knights add another L to the Panthers’ largely miserable season, though.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Predators still on fire with addition of Kyle Turris

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In hockey, a great idea on paper doesn’t always work out on the ice.

Brett Hull and Wayne Gretzky didn’t set the NHL on fire during their brief run together with the Blues. The days of Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne in Colorado are best forgotten (and many people have done just that). Peter Forsberg and the Predators mixed like water and oil.

So, there was always the risk that the Kyle Turris trade wouldn’t work out for Nashville. Instead, it’s been a smash success beyond just about anyone’s expectations. Even GM David Poile would probably admit that he didn’t expect this sort of boost.

As The Tennessean’s Adam Vingan notes, Nashville sports a 13-2-2 record with Turris in the lineup, the best mark in the NHL since Nov. 11.

In one’s mind, you could picture Turris blending well with two forwards who’ve shown promise but hadn’t yet broken through in young forward Kevin Fiala and veteran sniper Craig Smith. Their production really has been a sight to behold.

Turris in 17 games: four goals, 13 assists for 17 points. He’s currently on a seven-game point streak (two goals, eight assists).

Fiala in 17 games: eight goals, eight assists for 16 points. Fiala is on a seven-game point streak, and it’s goal-heavy with six tallies and three helpers.

Smith in 17 games: eight goals, eight assists for 16 points.

It’s a line that’s checking off just about every box you can ask for when it comes to driving play and dominating opponents.

While Fiala’s getting over that hideous leg injury in an inspiring way (note: it doesn’t seem like that derailed the promising forward, a real concern considering his speed), Smith’s evolution might be the most enticing part of this line’s rise.

As The Tennessean’s Joe Rexrode reports, Turris has been impressed with Smith, and not just by his skill.

“One thing I didn’t realize was how strong he is,” Turris said. “Like, he’s a really strong guy. He has a great shot and I knew he was fast, but the way he competes and battles along the walls, he’s a force.”

Smith, 28, showed some great efforts at times during the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, including generating nine shots on goal in Games 2 and 3. Still, he was limited to a goal and an assist during that series, another missed opportunity for him to gain more mainstream attention.

It all sets the stage for the Predators to be a frightening matchup.

If you’re coaching the opposing team, do you key on Filip ForsbergRyan JohansenViktor Arvidsson, or Turris’ line? When everything’s running on all cylinders, Nashville could conceivably boast two lines that are first-line-caliber and top four defensemen who could be featured blueliners on most other NHL teams.

Now, it’s still December, and one can almost guarantee that Turris, Smith, and Fiala will see their struggles. There might even be enough cold streaks to break up this trio from time to time.

Generally speaking, Peter Laviolette’s bright enough not to mess with something that works, and so far this trio has passed every test with flying colors.

The Predators currently lead the Central Division and Western Conference considering the games in hand edge they have on the Blues, but it’s all in service of trying to win the Stanley Cup after finishing two wins short last time. The Turris trade clearly puts them in a better position to do just that.

It might just make them a favorite.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hextall’s patience, Elliott’s goaltending playing big roles in Flyers’ turnaround

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PHILADELPHIA — Step inside the Philadelphia Flyers dressing room, look to your right and you’ll notice above a clock on the wall is a sign that reads, “The Star Of The Team Is The Team Itself.” That message has been the thread through an interesting month for the team as they experienced the dregs of a 10-game losing streak before flipping the script and winning six straight.

That sixth win came Saturday night during a 2-1 overtime victory against the Dallas Stars making the Flyers the third team in NHL history (1967 Toronto Maple Leafs, 2005 San Jose Sharks) to reel off six victories in a row after a 10-game winless streak.

It wasn’t that long ago that fans were chanting for general manager Ron Hextall to fire the head coach and there was talk of shipping bodies out of town to shake things up. Those requests, however, were not in Hextall’s plans. The GM defended his team, defended his coach and was not going to make moves for the sake of change. That show of belief was well-received by his players.

“It means a lot. Obviously, Hexy has faith in us. He’s a very patient man, the coaching staff as well,” said forward Wayne Simmonds.

The front office wasn’t going to tear things apart and the players weren’t going to come unglued, even with the pressure of the losing streak growing with each defeat. They can look back now and see that as a takeaway from that experience.

“The most positive thing [was] we didn’t separate, we stuck together as a team and that’s why we’re winning games right now,” defenseman Ivan Provorov said.

The play of the five skaters on the ice has meshed well with the play of goaltender Brian Elliott, who’s been spectacular during this stretch. During this winning streak, he’s been named the NHL’s Third Star of the Week and has posted a .952 even strength save percentage.

“Our team has confidence in him. That’s a real position of strength for our bench, for the guys that are out on the ice,” Hakstol said. “It’s not just the things that you see on a nightly basis on game nights. He does such a real good job on a daily basis of approaching his day of work and that’s something that guys can feed off. They know he does the work. He’s prepared and I think that gives everyone a level of confidence coming into the game.”

It’s been a two-way effort for the Flyers during the streak. They haven’t allowed more than two goals a game and just grinded out a pair of 2-1 victories.. After averaging only two goals scored per game during that 10-game slide, which included being shutout three times, the offense has pumped in 3.5 goals per night. The power play is also cooking at 27.3 percent and their team shooting percentage is moving in the right direction going from 6.45 percent during their November slide to 9.23.

Adding to Provorov’s positive note about what came from the losing streak was also their standing in the Metropolitan Division. You’d think a team that did as poor as they did in November would see themselves with a major hole to dig out of by Christmas, but picking up five loser points helped keep the Flyers a bit above water. And now after picking up 12 out of a possible 12 points, they currently reside four points out of a wild card spot and six points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for third in the division.

Hakstol doesn’t care if you want to call it confidence or swagger, but the Flyers are carrying themselves in that manor. Winning cures all, right? A 10-game streak could have really done damage to the team’s psyche and affected them going forward, but as Hextall said last month, they believed — despite the losses piling up — they weren’t playing bad hockey. It was just a matter of time before they started digging up again.

“You can be playing really well, but when you’re going good you just have that mentality that you’re not going to take less than finding a way to win a game. I can tell you, when you’re on the other end of close losses, tight losses, it starts to wear at you,” said Hakstol.

“But you have a couple of good things happen, along with working hard, paying attention to detail and really sticking together, you get that little injection of adrenaline that helps push you in the right direction.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Job of the Hutton

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Players of the Night

  • Carter Hutton has quietly been playing well when used (sparingly) by the St. Louis Blues, but he stepped into the spotlight on Saturday, guiding his team to a 2-0 win against the Winnipeg Jets.

The high-powered Jets fired 48 shots on goal in this one, yet none beat Hutton, who nabbed the ninth shutout of his solid career. The 31-year-old bumped his save percentage up to a whopping .949 so far in 2017-18. He set a Blues record in doing so.

  • On Friday, Jack Eichel collected a hat trick and an assist in a losing effort. Gabriel Landeskog upped the ante one night later – literally – by scoring three goals and two assists in a game his Avalanche managed to lose anyway.

As much attention as Nathan MacKinnon is grabbing (rightfully, as he added two goals to his impressive season so far), this marks the second hat trick of the season for Landeskog. Not bad with it still being 2017, and all.

This was a pretty nasty game between the Avalanche and Lightning, at least at times.

Some key highlights

Technically, you can spell overtime without Alex Ovechkin

(Ovechkin’s already in select GWG company.)

Shayne Gostisbehere scored both of Philly’s goals, but the antics between Wayne Simmonds and Ben Bishop were the real highlight here:

Speaking of Nathan MacKinnon, this is something else:

Mathew Barzal to Jordan Eberle a combination that torments Darcy Kuemper in overtime and Peter Chiarelli, always:

Finally, Jonathan Gibson flashes the glove in defeat:

Factoids

The Lightning keep piling up different milestones and accomplishments, with Mikhail Sergachev ranking among those today (as Tampa Bay won its seventh in a row):

The cold weather didn’t slow Erik Karlsson down (more on that outdoor game here):

Pekka Rinne‘s really been rattling off some milestones lately.

Scores

Oilers 3, Wild 2
Rangers 3, Bruins 2 (OT)
Blues 2, Jets 0
Islanders 4, Kings 3 (OT)
Hurricanes 2, Blue Jackets 1
Flyers 2, Stars 1 (OT)
Senators 3, Canadiens 0
Capitals 3, Ducks 2 (OT)
Penguins 4, Coyotes 2
Lightning 6, Avalanche 5
Predators 2, Flames 0

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.