James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.

Another hockey genius believes that hockey needs more genius


At times, it feels like hockey coaches sap the joy out of the sport in the pursuit of wins. The painful thing to admit is that such tactics are usually justified.

We’ve seen quite a few instances in which a great artist of the game finds the sport’s creativity a little lacking, and we can add Pavel Datsyuk to that list.

Some might bristle at what the departed NHL star had to say to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but it could be because the truth hurts.

“There are not many creative players now,” Datsyuk said on Sunday. “It’s less and less every year. There’s lots of talent, but teams are playing more systems.”

It’s important to note that the stickhandling magician isn’t really saying that players are bad. Instead, he’s arguing that much of that skill is being suffocated by excessive structure.

One cannot help but find the timing of these comments rather amusing, as the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons recently reported that Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg told the Detroit Red Wings that they wouldn’t re-sign if Mike Babcock was still around.

Why it was time for Mike Babcock to leave the Red Wings: In exit interviews in different seasons before this one, both Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk told management they would not re-sign with the Wings if Babcock was still the coach.

There are murmurs here and there that Babcock might scare off the occasional free agent, yet few would deny his acumen as a head coach.

In a way, that’s the point, really: to be effective, sometimes you have to be so rigid that you bore everyone to tears.

Circling back to an earlier point, Datsyuk is far from the only player who has criticized the style of play in the NHL as of late.

Losing a lot of Datsyuks

Some of the brightest minds align with the former Red Wings star. Consider what Wayne Gretzky said to the New York Times about the more grinding mindset in the modern game.

“When I was 10 years old, they’d throw a puck on the ice and say, ‘Go score,’” Gretzky said. “Now, at 10 years old, the kids are taught to play in their lanes. Defensemen stay back. Everybody blocks shots … It’s changed completely. I think the biggest thing we’ve lost is a little bit of our creativity and imagination in general.”

Igor Larianov, a legend so brainy he earned the nickname “The Professor,” seemed heartbroken in discussing this philosophical change in an article for The Players’ Tribune. This one line seems especially prescient since it came before Datsyuk decided to leave:

We lose a lot of Pavel Datsyuks to the closed-minded nature of the AHL and NHL.

(Chilling to think about, right?)


As we ponder why scoring continues to drop (or at best, continues to stagnate), there are methods to boost the game a bit here and there.

Bringing about more lasting changes would probably go a lot deeper, however, as you’d likely need to find a way to encourage coaches to do the thing they seem to fear the most: take risks.

Safe might not be death in the NHL, but it sure is boring.

Patrik Berglund replaces Rickard Rakell for Sweden


Whatever it is exactly that’s bothering Rickard Rakell, it’s bad enough that he’s now out of the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

Luckily for Sweden, they have a decent replacement in Patrik Berglund of the St. Louis Blues.

You could probably argue that Rakell boasts a higher ceiling than the solid-and-steady Berglund, but the latter brings more NHL experience to the table. One would speculate that he’ll be comfortable taking a less glamorous role behind Sweden’s higher-end firepower.

Rakell was hospitalized due to what sounds like stomach issues, and as NHL.com reports, it seems like they’re still trying to determine the issue.

“He didn’t feel any better [Sunday] so he went back to the hospital,” Team Sweden coach Rikard Gronborg said Sunday. “So far we haven’t found anything.”

Yikes. Hopefully they sort that situation out for the promising young Anaheim Ducks scorer.

Sweden’s next game is against Europe on Wednesday.

Pierre-Luc Dubois’ goal: Show that Columbus made the right choice at No. 3

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Here’s how shocking it was when Columbus Blue Jackets selected Pierre-Luc Dubois instead of Jesse Puljujarvi: even Dubois’ mom thought he “was kidding her.”

The Toronto Sun pegged that decision as the biggest surprise of the first round, with PHT in full agreement. Many believed that Puljujarvi was one of the draft’s “big three” of players, yet the Blue Jackets opted for Dubois instead.

At the moment, almost two-thirds of PHT voters believe that Columbus made the wrong choice.

Even Puljujarvi struggled to contain his disbelief:

Dubois realizes that the two will be linked – possibly for their entire NHL careers – especially since the Edmonton Oilers pounced on the chance to draft Puljujarvi fourth overall.

As he hopes to pivot from the winger to becoming a full-time center and also aims to make an immediate NHL jump, Dubois told the Columbus Dispatch that he indeed aims to prove that the Blue Jackets made a justifiable decision.

“(The Blue Jackets) drafted me third in front of the guy everybody thought they were going to draft, but I think they made the right decision,” Dubois said. “I want to prove that to everybody.”

Ultimately, it’s not just his reputation that’s on the line. Viewpoints will be shaped by Puljujarvi’s journey and Blue Jackets management will be judged based on the work of each prospect.

Will his character shine through?

Dealing with such expectations will likely test that character.

Get to know more about Dubois here.

Looks like Canada is sticking with Crosby, Bergeron and Marchand line

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If you’ve even lightly followed hockey over the years, you’re probably aware that coaches shuffle their lines quite often.

Still, from the sound of things, TSN’s Pierre LeBrun and others believe that Mike Babcock will stick with the Team Canada line combination of Sidney Crosby and two Boston Bruins (Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand).

Considering the star power available to Babcock, that might not seem like the sexiest combination, but sometimes it’s as much about chemistry, communication and cohesive styles.

Apparently this trio was something Babcock’s had in mind for months, and it’s no surprise to see the pairing of Crosby and Bergeron.

The two have been linked since as far back as 2005, and it seems symbolically fitting that a Hockey News story about Bergeron being more or less lucky to be there is a dead link. Bergeron is a nice scorer who also ranks as perhaps the absolute best two-way forward in the NHL.

Marchand, then, is the interesting addition, even considering his familiarity with Bergeron. His inclusion raises eyebrows even with those 37 goals from 2015-16.

“He earned his way on this team with the way he played last season,” Bergeron said, according to TSN. “He took a big step forward. He’s improved year to year, but last season he became truly an elite player in my mind.”

Bergeron and Babcock aren’t the only ones who can see why the talented-yet-pesky winger would be a good fit for such great linemates. Jonathan Toews played up Marchand’s all-around credentials, too, as NHL.com reports.

“He’s out there getting under guys’ skin, but he can make plays,” Toews said. “I played with him at the World Juniors a long time ago and I always knew he had the skill, the offense, but I didn’t know how smart he was, just positionally as well. I can see why he and [Bergeron] play so well together.”

Hey, let’s not kid ourselves either; sticking with Bergeron and Crosby at such a high level wouldn’t hurt Marchand in contract negotiations.

John Gibson is in for North America, but even he thinks Matt Murray is the guy


With the 2016 World Cup tune-up winding down, plenty of teams have some goaltending decisions to make. It sounds like the situation is pretty much settled for North America, however.

John Gibson gets the nod against Team Europe during Sunday’s exhibition, yet Gibson himself said that Matt Murray is still the No. 1 guy, according to ESPN’s Craig Custance.

Team North America certainly seems interested in making sure Gibson isn’t rusty:

Both goalie options are interesting in their combination of promise (Murray’s Stanley Cup win, Gibson winning the Anaheim Ducks’ top job) with inexperience.

Murray only has 13 regular season games and the 21-game playoff run to his name, yet Gibson isn’t exactly a seasoned workhorse either. He’s only played in 66 regular season contests along with six playoff games.

In other words, this isn’t one of those situations where a goalie is firmly established as the veteran guy. So why not just let Murray’s championship run be the tiebreaker?

More on Murray being the “lead dog.”

Meanwhile, Thomas Greiss will start for Team Europe.