James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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Dan Girardi isn’t worried about ‘doubters’

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Hopefully, for the sake of Dan Girardi‘s sanity, he doesn’t hear all of the heckling.

The often-criticized New York Rangers defenseman is aware that he has plenty of critics and hopes to bounce back in 2016-17.

That doesn’t mean he necessarily loses sleep about it, as the New York Daily News reports.

“I want to come out here and prove I can play,” Girardi said. “I know I’ve got a lot of doubters out there, but I’m not really worried about what’s getting said around here or anywhere else. I’m worried about myself, the team and what I can do to help the team. Just play the best I can and not worry about anything else.”

In some quarters, Marc Staal also absorbs at least a portion of the heat that Girardi receives. Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault told the media that some rest did both blueliners some good.

“I can tell you what I’ve seen so far [at workouts], you can tell when you talk to them they’ve turned the page on the past and they’re focused on right now,” Vigneault said, according to Newsday. “They seem to be in a good space mentally.”

In other words, they’re probably not staring at things like their ghastly HERO charts:*

The preseason is a time that’s rife with optimism, and really, wouldn’t it be kind of weird if players moped their way into October?

It’s tough to imagine Girardi silencing his critics in 2016-17, but it’s plausible that he could get in his coach’s good graces. If nothing else, his biggest haters could at least root for the blueliner to pump up his trade value.

* – Hey, at least Staal’s chart was prettier to look at just a few years ago.

Duncan Keith expects to be ready by regular season

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Cynics might snicker about players who bowed out of the World Cup, yet it might pay dividends for the likes of Duncan Keith.

As both the star defenseman and Chicago Blackhawks staffers noted to CSN Chicago’s Tracey Myers, there’s a lot of optimism that he’ll be ready to go for the regular season.

“It was disappointing I wasn’t ready to go for the World Cup,” Keith said. “But maybe I wouldn’t be where I am right now if I didn’t take the time to let it rest and not start skating again until a couple of weeks ago.”

Keith underwent knee surgery last October and dealt with some setbacks this summer. While it’s a situation for Chicago to watch – he’s going to be withheld from certain preseason activities and likely games – it sounds like he made the wise move.

Knee issues can be tricky, so you never know if this story will end up being something that people remember wistfully if the veteran blueliner struggles to stay healthy in 2016-17.

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Yes, it’s true that the Blackhawks have some defensive storylines to follow before the season begins.

They must monitor Keith’s health and also determine a role for long-time defenseman Michal Rozsival. Getting Brian Campbell back in the mix is a pretty big deal, too.

Still, after defense was under the spotlight last fall, now it’s about filling some holes on offense. Check out this post to get acquainted with some of the prospects jockeying for playing time or even jobs as Blackhawks training camp gets into full swing.

Boudreau’s already a breath of fresh air for Wild

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) The Bruce Boudreau era has begun for the Minnesota Wild.

For the players, the demands will be many. The expectations will be as straightforward as can be. The experience also promises to be a lot of fun.

“Sometimes he doesn’t even know what’s coming out of his mouth when he’s talking,” forward Charlie Coyle said.

The rotund new head coach, well-regarded for his regular-season success, well-known for his profane rants and well-liked for his down-to-earth and self-deprecating manner, formally took over Friday for the first two practices of training camp. The squad split into two groups and, in addition to plenty of time with the white board picking up Boudreau’s defensive scheme, went through a grueling conditioning test during which skaters had to complete several laps around the rink under certain times.

The drills were no joke, but Boudreau made sure to keep the mood light even while barking encouragement to the participants.

“We’re huffing and puffing,” Coyle said, “and he’s still making us laugh.”

NHL training camps began about a week later than usual because of the World Cup of Hockey, and six Wild players were given a break for the first three days in their transition back home from competition: forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter from Team USA, forwards Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund and Erik Haula of Team Finland and forward Nino Niederreiter of Team Europe. Only Niederreiter’s team is still alive in the tournament, so he could be delayed further.

The learning process won’t wait, though.

“We want to ramp it up as quick as we can. We want to have a lot of pace in our practice. It’s a real mixture, because we have to teach at the same time. It’s not going to be like a practice in December,” Boudreau said. “At the same time, we don’t want anything slow. We want a lot of moving parts.”

The first exhibition game is on Monday against Buffalo in State College, Pennsylvania, and the season opener is Oct. 13 at St. Louis. That’s less than three weeks away. Hence the hard work on the first day, even though players train year-round these days and don’t typically need to get back into shape.

“Everyone’s just excited to get this thing going and start playing some real hockey,” defenseman Matt Dumba said.

There will be differences in style, for sure.

“I think they’re still trying to figure me out. `What’s this guy like? He seems to be smiling a little too much.’ Or, `He’s joking around with me. Is he really joking or is he sarcastic?”‘ Boudreau said. “I think it takes a little bit of time for guys to get to know me.”

Impressions are there to be made for the players, most of whom have never played for Boudreau before.

“Everyone’s here to get a job and knock people out of their jobs, so everyone came prepared,” Coyle said. “It’s good to see that intensity and that competition right away.”

Niklas Kronwall wonders if knee will ever be pain-free

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Every now and then, there’s an article that pops up that makes you a little worried about the Detroit Red Wings’ record playoff streak.

Maybe the biggest issue is the “D” in Detroit. Far too many important blueliners seem to be dealing with nagging injuries that may never go away.

(Let the bleakness of that thought sink in for a moment.)

Not that long ago, Jonathan Ericsson acknowledged his ongoing hip-related struggles. Fellow Swede and Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall spins a similarly sad story.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever be pain-free, but hopefully, I’ll be able to be out there in a position where it doesn’t bite as much,” Kronwall said to the Detroit Free-Press.

“The surgery that was talked about was something that probably wouldn’t be the best idea if I wanted to play again.”

Yikes.

To recap, Kronwall and Ericsson both seem like they’re adjusting to the reality that they’ll rarely – if ever – feel “100 percent.” That’s $10 million in cap space wrapped up in banged-up defensemen … and Mike Green‘s injury history doesn’t inspire much optimism, either.

Combine those issues with all the mileage Henrik Zetterberg has accrued and the departure of Pavel Datsyuk, and you start to wonder how long Detroit can keep this up.

Don’t take this as a burial by any means; betting against the Red Wings is a foolish gamble.

(Just watch Dylan Larkin speed around the ice for a few shifts and it’ll be a lot easier to find positives.)

Still, it’s not the greatest sign when Kronwall and Ericsson aren’t even providing the usual positive spin during the off-season.

Russia squeaks by North America in thriller

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If Russia’s eventual 4-3 win against North America doesn’t stand as the most thrilling game of the World Cup, then we’re in for some special hockey.

The Air Canada Centre was rocking tonight, especially during North America’s bid for a third period comeback.

From that beautiful Connor McDavidAuston Matthews goal to a wave of dangerous chances, the North Americans carried much of this contest. Sergei Bobrovsky kept that under-23 group at bay just enough for Russia’s first win of the round-robin tournament.

Ultimately, it came down to a second-period collapse where Matt Murray allowed four troubling goals before John Gibson took over:

The remarkable thing about this tournament is that, all of a sudden, North America is in a tougher spot after this loss. They face quite a challenge in Sweden on Wednesday while Russia’s next game comes against an up-and-down Finnish squad.

For many hockey fans, it’s difficult to accept the possibility that Team North America may not last much longer.

Thanks a lot, Bob.