Cam Tucker

Jonathan Drouin goes undercover — which he won’t be able to do much longer in Montreal

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There is a video making the rounds online right now of Jonathan Drouin interviewing Montreal Canadiens fans about Jonathan Drouin.

His disguise of choice? A black T-shirt. Equipped with a Habs microphone, Drouin goes around asking folks in both English and French what they think of the team’s new additions this offseason and about how many points their recently acquired and signed 22-year-old skilled forward may get — among other hard-hitting inquiries.

Based on the video evidence, some fans seem to recognize him after a short conversation. Others don’t before the big reveal is made.

One fan’s advice: “Don’t take Montreal too seriously.”

While the premise of the video is for Drouin to be right out in the open acting as a team reporter yet incognito at the same time, it would be foolish to think the pressure on him next season won’t be anything short of immense. He was born in Ste-Agathe, Quebec, which is just a short drive northwest from Montreal. Per the Montreal Gazette, he grew up spending summers on the West Island of Montreal. He’s a hometown player for the Habs.

As to be expected in a trade of this magnitude, the Canadians paid a price to land Drouin from the Lightning, parting ways with prospect defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, selected ninth overall last year. The Habs then signed their new acquisition to a six-year, $33 million contract following his breakout 21-goal, 53-point season in Tampa Bay.

The Habs have bulked up on defense over the last few years, acquiring Shea Weber and then signing Karl Alzner this summer. Their success has hinged mostly on the play — and health — of their goalie Carey Price, who was in turn paid a historic amount in his latest contract extension.

For all their efforts to bolster that element of their game, the Habs need dynamic offensive players. They sent that type of player in P.K. Subban to Nashville last year to get Weber. Montreal’s offensive attack during the regular season was middle of the pack for the NHL, 15th in goals-for per game at 2.72. In the playoffs? In six games, they averaged just 1.83 goals-for per game against the Rangers and were eliminated.

Keep in mind, as well, that they lost Alex Radulov during free agency. Back in the NHL after a four-year stint in the KHL, Radulov was responsible for 18 goals and 54 points, before he cashed in with the Dallas Stars.

There are others that can help carry the burden of offensive production. If Paul Byron could duplicate — or come close to duplicating — what he did a year ago, that would be a huge boost. Alex Galchenyuk is only 23 years old but has a 30-goal season under his belt already. Max Pacioretty has five 30-goal seasons, including four in a row.

But the Habs were in need of another highly skilled and speedy forward and that’s what they have in Drouin. He’s young, which is also a plus. He’s coming off a solid year with the Bolts, with the promise for greater things in the future. He has already discussed the pressure he’ll face playing in Montreal. He believes he will “thrive” in this situation.

Playing for the Habs, it will be impossible for Drouin to remain anonymous.

Experience not required: Rookie coaches a growing NHL trend

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Rick Tocchet is the kind of coach who doesn’t mind if a player calls him at 9 p.m. to share a thought.

He doesn’t expect that to change as he goes from a Pittsburgh Penguins assistant to head coach of the Arizona Coyotes. Tocchet has done it before, and his 148 games as an NHL head coach make the 53-year-old one of the more experienced hires this offseason as teams look for the next new idea rather than recycling from the past.

Three vacancies were filled by first-timers: the Buffalo Sabres’ Phil Housley, Florida Panthers’ Bob Boughner and Vancouver Canucks’ Travis Green. Tocchet and the Los Angeles Kings’ John Stevens are longtime assistants with some time running a bench, while the Dallas Stars’ Ken Hitchcock and Vegas Golden Knights’ Gerard Gallant represent the only seasoned coaches.

Almost every general manager cited communication skills as a major reason for prioritizing youth over experience.

“It’s clear for me: (Tocchet is) one of the best communicators I’ve come across, not only in hockey but probably professionally as well,” Coyotes GM John Chayka said. “He can just relate to the players. He’s very firm. He can motivate. He can be aggressive in his approach, but he can also be that big-brother kind of approach.”

Tocchet, Housley, Boughner, Green, Stevens and Gallant all played in the NHL in the 1990s and represent the new-school concept of a players’ coach, mixing positive relationships with accountability. Likable Jon Cooper took the Tampa Bay Lightning to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final in his first go-’round, while other experiments like Dallas Eakins, Claude Noel, Ron Rolston and Mike Johnston didn’t go so well.

More time is needed to determine the success of some, like the Philadelphia Flyers’ Dave Hakstol, New Jersey Devils’ John Hynes and Colorado Avalanche’s Jared Bednar, but teams are more willing than ever to take a risk on coaching rookies. Ten of the 31 coaches are in their first head jobs in the NHL as some prominent experienced coaches like Lindy Ruff, Jacques Martin, Jack Capuano and Marc Crawford have accepted roles as assistants.

Florida GM Dale Tallon went through an “exhaustive, extensive search” before Boughner’s interview blew him away, and Chayka talked to over 25 coaches before calling Tocchet the best candidate by a wide margin. Kings GM Rob Blake said “there was literally no search” as Stevens was the natural fit to succeed Darryl Sutter, and the Canucks didn’t interview anyone but Green, who coached their top minor-league affiliate for the past four seasons.

Buffalo GM Jason Botterill said Housley was “uniquely qualified” for the job based on his playing and coaching careers. Hockey experience on the ice and at other levels may be just as valuable to executives picking coaches.

“I’ve been a player, I’ve been an owner, I’ve been an executive, I’ve been a head coach, an assistant coach,” Boughner said with a significant nod to his time in junior hockey. “I know this league and I know the game and I’m ready for this challenge.”

One of the biggest challenges in the transition from assistant to head coach is the different dynamic with players. Panthers captain Derek MacKenzie had Boughner as an assistant in Columbus and considered him approachable but someone who knew when to “put his foot down.”

MacKenzie acknowledged it won’t be exactly the same with Boughner in charge. After winning the Stanley Cup the past two seasons with the Penguins, Tocchet figures he won’t alter his approach in Arizona.

“That’s the million-dollar question to me because I don’t want to change as a person,” Tocchet said. “I don’t think that because you carry a title `head coach’ that all of a sudden you’ve got to be distanced from your players.”

His old boss disagrees. Mike Sullivan, who spent several seasons as an assistant under John Tortorella between head-coaching gigs and was hired by the Penguins midway through the 2015-16 season, and insists there’s a delineation in day-to-day duties.

“Ultimately I have to make difficult decisions, whether it be playing time or lineup decisions or power-play combinations,” Sullivan said. “I think by nature of the head-coaching position, it’s a very different relationship. … That’s just reality.”

Tocchet was credited with helping Phil Kessel, Housley with Ryan Ellis and other Nashville defensemen and Boughner with Sharks Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns. But perhaps more in common than their hands-on work in improving players, these first-time head coaches all sold their styles as fast and exciting.

“I don’t want to take the stick out of guys’ hands,” Tocchet said. “I want them not to think too much. I want them to play. … You have to give players freedom, especially in today’s NHL, to play.”

 

Giroux ‘lets everything get into his mind,’ says Roenick

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Jeremy Roenick has never been one to shy away from offering his opinion.

The former Philadelphia Flyer recently spoke to Philly Sports Talk and offered quite a take on current Flyers captain Claude Giroux, who struggled last season and was brought up in trade speculation toward the end of the year, as Philly missed the playoffs.

“The reason why Claude Giroux doesn’t get success is [because] he lets everything get into his mind and he looks for other things to blame it on,” Roenick told CSN’s Philly Sports Talk.

“Claude Giroux can play this game and he can play it at a high, hard level. He’s just got to get back into the inside of the game, start attacking the game and not worrying about what the media or the fans are saying about Claude Giroux, period. Because he is a world-class player that can make a difference, and that’s why he has the ‘C’ on his chest.”

Coming off hip and abdominal surgery last spring, Giroux had 14 goals last season — half of what he was able to score in 2013-14 — and 58 points in 82 games.

He turns 30 years old in January and has five more years left on his current contract, which carries an annual cap hit of $8.275 million. It also includes a no-movement clause, per CapFriendly.

A week after Giroux’s name popped up in trade speculation, his general manager, Ron Hextall, gave his top center a vote of confidence. It was only three years ago that he averaged more than a point per game and was a finalist for the Hart Trophy.

“He’s not on the decline,” said Hextall. “I know this, I’ll be shocked next year if you guys don’t ask me in January how has G turned this around. He’s a very driven athlete, very driven.”

Canucks need Virtanen to realize ‘what he’s capable of at his size and speed’

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Jake Virtanen’s bottom-line numbers in the AHL last season certainly stand out. Just not necessarily in a good way.

The Canucks’ 2014 first-round pick, sixth overall, had only nine goals and 19 points in 65 games with the Utica Comets, after he was sent down from Vancouver.

It’s underwhelming production for a player taken as high as he was in the first round and considering William Nylander, Nikolaj Ehlers and Nick Ritchie — all taken after Virtanen in the top 10 of that draft class — have each: a) played more NHL games than the 65 Virtanen has appeared in so far; b) scored more goals; and c) recorded more points.

Virtanen’s shot metrics, however, paint something of a different story about his year on the farm. Per Garret Hohl, co-founder of HockeyData, the Canucks prospect had a 60.1 per cent Corsi rating over a 15-game sample size.

From The Province:

Sixty is a really good number. That means 3 out of every 5 shot attempts at even strength were going towards the opposition’s net while Virtanen was on the ice for the Utica Comets in 2016-17.

In a season where he didn’t find the net often, that still shows he was making a positive offensive contribution. 

It fits with how things went for most of 2015-16, his professional debut. When he was with the Canucks (he missed a month mid-season with the Canadian World Juniors squad), he was the team’s best possession forward for a lot of the season.

The Canucks last season added prospect forwards Jonathan Dahlen and Nikolay Goldobin, while Brock Boeser made his NHL debut late in the year. This summer, they added Sam Gagner, Alexander Burmistrov and re-signed Anton Rodin. They still have three restricted free agents — Bo Horvat, Brendan Gaunce and Reid Boucher — to sign, as well.

The Canucks could use the size, speed and shooting ability Virtanen brings, but the recent additions mean there is internal competition up front to make the roster next season.

“But it’s getting him to understanding the details and what he’s capable of doing at his size and speed. It takes time. Some guys make the adjustment right away. Some guys take longer. We want to be patient because it’s hard to find power forwards,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning told The Province.

Virtanen is a pending restricted free agent at the end of next season, when his entry-level deal comes to an end.

Islanders prospect Barzal admits to being a ‘little star-struck’ last season

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Mathew Barzal had a brief glimpse of life in the NHL last season, before he was ultimately sent back to junior for the remainder of the campaign.

The 16th overall pick in 2015 played in two games for the Islanders and was then returned to Seattle, eventually becoming the most valuable player in the Western Hockey League playoffs — another promising development for the talented prospect forward.

The Islanders, who have 13 forwards under contract for next season, have stockpiled high-end talent up front, including Barzal. He made his debut last season, as did Josh Ho-Sang, and there may be opportunities for the younger players to crack the roster for 2017-18.

“Last year, I was maybe a little star-struck sometimes playing against [Nicklas] Backstrom and [Alex] Ovechkin and those guys,” Barzal recently told NHL.com. “This year, I just want to hopefully come in and not kind of feel that, just feel like I belong and that I can really play with those guys.”

Just over two years into his time with the Islanders, Barzal was recently mentioned in trade rumors involving Colorado’s Matt Duchene.

From Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet:

There’s been criticism of the way Colorado’s handled this. I do think everyone — including Duchene — would benefit from a fresh start, but the Avalanche need this deal. The Ryan O’Reilly trade didn’t work, and you can’t move two of those talents without getting some kind of win. They are looking for young players with term, and I think the guys they’ve targeted include Mathew Barzal and Ilya Sorokin from the Islanders; Brandon Carlo or Charlie McAvoy from the Bruins; Mattias Ekholm from the Predators. (Before someone from Barstool comes at me, I don’t think the McAvoy conversation was a long one.)

Such a deal — if it were to ever happen in the future — would give New York two of the top three players selected from the 2009 NHL Draft, and highly talented No. 1 and 2 centers in John Tavares and Duchene.

Tavares has one year left on his deal, with an annual average value of $5.5 million, and the Islanders need to get him secured into a contract extension. Duchene has two years left on his deal, which has an AAV of $6 million, before he would be eligible for unrestricted free agency.

Meanwhile, Barzal still has all three years left on his entry-level contract, according to CapFriendly, and shows plenty of promise based on his production in junior.