Author: James O'Brien

Chris Stewart, Anders Lindback

Sabres’ Stewart says tanking isn’t in his ‘DNA’


The Buffalo Sabres seem situated for a bright future if GM Tim Murray can make the right moves over the next season or three, but few expect much from them in 2014-15.

Chris Stewart isn’t that far removed from playing for a contender in the St. Louis Blues, so it’s not that shocking that he seems to bristle at “tanking” talk while discussing next season with The Hockey News.

“Look at the Colorado Avalanche two years ago,” Stewart said. “They were a last-place team, and they were arguably one of the best teams in the league last year. So the past is the past. You look at our team now and there are 13 or 14 new faces. So we come in and think of last year as an anomaly. There’s nothing we can do now. We can worry about the future. I hear everybody talking about tanking for Connor McDavid. That’s not in my DNA, personally. I was with St. Louis for four years, and we were Stanley Cup contenders every year. So that’s how I’m going to approach it. It’s playoffs or bust.”

If nothing else, the Sabres have a lot of players who should be motivate to prove that they belong in the NHL (or deserve big raises). Stewart’s $4.15 million cap hit is set to expire, yet he’s far from the only noteworthy player seeking a new deal; Drew Stafford has a lot to prove while both goalies Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth enter crucial campaigns.

Oh yeah, let’s not forget head coach Ted Nolan, a guy who knows all too well that opportunities shouldn’t ever be taken for granted in the NHL.

Ultimately, there’s only so much Stewart can do to avoid playing for a cellar dweller, but it’s easy to take his statements as more than mere platitudes.

Now, Buffalo’s front office? They might be OK with the idea of sacrificing this coming season for the future, even if they end up saying all the right things.

It’s Toronto Maple Leafs day on PHT

Randy Carlyle

Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The Toronto Maple Leafs.

For better or worse, the Toronto Maple Leafs rarely have been boring.

The short version of the 2013-14 season was a lot like the last: what started with promise (and maybe a few rather lucky breaks) ended in a stunning collapse. This time around, they didn’t even make the playoffs, as the Maple Leafs lost 12 of their last 14 games as they spiraled out of the playoff picture.

One might say that the advanced stats community laughed the Maple Leafs’ way out of the postseason – at least the more vindictive among that community – but the narrative took a surprise twist as Toronto eventually hired some of those howling critics.

While the executive structure of the franchise remains in flux, the Brendan Shanahan era seems to have begun with some surprising changes, even if head coach Randy Carlyle remains … at least for now.

Last season, it seemed like the onus was on Toronto’s two stars who were seemingly about to enter contract years in Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf. Those two are back and will remain on the hot seat like usual, yet the people who run the team will likely feel the heat more than anyone in 2014-15.

That’s not to say there aren’t quite a few players with quite a lot on the line next season, though. James Reimer may very well push Jonathan Bernier for starts even after he seemed like he was out the door. Players like Bernier, Nazem Kadri, Cody Franson and even new additions like David Booth have a chance to earn (or lose) a lot of money this season.

It’s a stretch to say that the “nerds won” in Toronto, but a transition seems to be happening — or at least is being considered. That’s a big reason why the Leafs should be fascinating to watch next season. As usual.

Oilers know Pouliot can help even if he isn’t scoring

2014 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Five

Outside of “advanced stats” quarters, Benoit Pouliot has long been considered a bust considering the notion that his scoring numbers haven’t matched up with the expectations that come with being the fourth pick of the 2005 NHL Draft. After all that time, it seems like the hockey world is finally ready to embrace what he can do well … only now he must justify that surprising five-year, $20 million contract.

While fans might want big goal and assist totals considering that $4 million cap hit, it sounds like the Oilers are properly identifying him as a potential possession-shifting forward.

GM Craig MacTavish gave off that vibe to, at least.

“It’s the work ethic really for me,” MacTavish said. “He’s an excellent skater who closes gaps and is able to get quickly to forechecks, and it’s something that was sorely lacking in our game throughout our lineup. We think that Benoit is going to provide that, and he’s got some ability to finish as well.”

Many have christened this “the summer of advanced stats” and the Oilers’ offseason signings make a pretty strong argument in that regard.

Again, Pouliot might not be well-equipped to silence some critics considering the likelihood that he won’t score dramatically more than before – he’s already 27, after all – but the signing could pay off if expectations are adjusted properly. Pouliot sounded comfortable with a role as a heavy-lifter while discussing that possibility with Oilers Nation, at least.

“Yeah, but that’s fine. You know what, I like that, I like that a lot,” Pouliot said. “I think that last year was the same way, we were a third line. They put us out there with the big players, even in playoffs. In Pitts we got stuck against [Sidney Crosby] the whole playoffs and we did a great job.

“So I thrive to be good defensively. I like it, I like to be able to get the puck out, have a good stick, or all of the details like that. I don’t mind that, it causes us to go on the forecheck on the offense and after that we take care of business.”

It might not always be pretty, but Edmonton needed more players who are adept at doing the dirty work.

Is Therrien the right coach for Montreal?

Michel Therrien

Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin maybe “lost” a bit in playing salary chicken with P.K. Subban, but his moves have mostly been solid-to-very-good. Age alone argues for P.A. Parenteau over Daniel Briere while other subtle moves – Max Pacioretty’s $4.5 million cap hit will probably look better and better before it expires in 2019 – speak to a general air of competence.

At some point, Bergevin might be forced to answer this question in a more confrontational way: is Michel Therrien the ideal head coach for the Habs?

The answer might be more complicated than both the pro and anti-Therrien camps might suggest. Habs Eye on the Prize’s Andrew Berkshire does a fantastic job of succinctly describing the dichotomy that is Therrien as Canadiens head coach 2.0:

Michel Therrien has been a Jekyll and Hyde coach for the Montreal Canadiens.

He was brilliant in his first regular season, the lockout-shortened 48-game shocker that saw the Canadiens leap from 15th to 2nd in the eastern conference. In his second season, he was a league-wide punchline, continually benching his Norris winning defenseman, and deploying a strategy that saw the Canadiens record the biggest year-over-year possession collapse in league history.

“In league history” could be misleading since possession stats haven’t been tracked for particularly long and Berkshire points out that Therrien returned to the style that worked well in 2012-13 once the 2014 postseason rolled around, but it’s still food for thought.

Disciplinarian or merely stubborn?

As an “old school coach,” many might expect his teams to be defensively sound, but with a more widespread belief that possessing the puck is more better than merely playing it safe, the picture is fuzzier.

Even beyond tactics, there’s the very real question of what kind of relationship Therrien has with $9 million man P.K. Subban. It’s not just about harsh quotes to the media in this matter; there have been some questions about whether Therrien will deploy the star in a way that makes sense for a guy who, you know, makes $9 million.

There are at least some who believe that Therrien has matured over the years, as this National Post story discusses.

“Honestly, when I look at Mike … I’ll start smiling,” Former Therrien player Terry Ryan said. “Because I know that he grew a lot as a person. And I’m proud of him.”

Ryan wasn’t exactly uniformly warm toward his former bench boss in that piece, yet many believe that fear is a better motivator than love (see: successful sports figures ranging from Bill Parcells to, some extent, Scotty Bowman).


The bigger questions about Therrien’s adaptability revolve around how he uses players, and Bergevin might have cleverly forced Therrien to dress more talented players by simply getting rid of arguably overly emphasized players like Douglas Murray, Josh Gorges and even Brian Gionta.

However you might feel about Therrien, it’s difficult to argue with his results from the 2014 postseason. Head coaching gigs in the NHL are rarely safe, however, and the Canadiens would be wise to survey if he’s really the right fit in hockey-mad Montreal.

Looking to make the leap: Nathan Beaulieu

Nathan Beaulieu

The Montreal Canadiens made some huge investments in re-signing defensemen P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov while arguably rolling the dice by parting ways with noteworthy names like Josh Gorges. While those alterations make an argument that Subban and Markov will shoulder a lot of pressure, there’s also another consideration: the Habs are opening the door for young defensemen to take the next step.

The first name that comes to mind is Nathan Beaulieu, the main focus of this post.

The 21-year-old may just represent something of a conundrum for the Canadiens going forward: will the team trust blue chips such as himself or will Michel Therrien & Co. lean too much toward veterans who may bring more name recognition than production? Beaulieu bounced back and forth between the AHL and NHL last season, but a Habs Eyes on the Prize review makes a strong argument that he should be a fixture with the big club in 2014-15:

Even once the playoffs had begun, it took an elimination situation in the Boston series for Michel Therrien to insert the puck-moving defencemen in the lineup. Beaulieu made an immediate impact, as the difference between he and Douglas Murray turned out to be a game-changer. Montreal would go on to win the series in seven games, partially thanks to Beaulieu’s ability to carry the puck, quick zone clears and crisp passes.

Beaulieu’s skills seems befitting of a first-rounder (17th overall in 2011), leading that same discussion to turn to an interesting thought: he might just be an ideal running mate for P.K. Subban.

(Talk about making the leap.)

As promising as he seems, it’s difficult to totally separate discussion of Beaulieu with the Habs other up-and-coming first-rounder (in this case, 22nd overall in 2010), Jarred Tinordi. While their styles vary, the early word on both is that they could fit right into the Montreal mix last season.

For the sake of comparison, that same great Habs blog provided a guardedly optimistic reading on his work:

Given fairly easy minutes, Tinordi crushed possession last year, especially while the game was close, the second straight year he’s shown himself to be a pretty dominant possession player in soft minutes. With that said, he didn’t have a great goal differential due to a fairly poor PDO. Some of that can definitely be chocked up to poor luck on both sides of the puck, but the fact is that Tinordi is still bleeding scoring chances against at a significant rate. The good thing is, that will change as he polishes his game and adjusts to the NHL.

It’s plausible that these two might need to out-duel each other to make a leap next season, yet there’s also a decent argument that they have the tools to round out what could be a sneaky-good set of defensemen in Montreal.

As with just about any blueliners, there will be mistakes, so the other big factor is whether or not Therrien will roll with their growing pains.