Mike Halford

You've heard the expression "let's get busy?" Well, Mike Halford is a blogger who gets "biz-zay!" Consistently and thoroughly.
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Slumping Devils ‘can’t just sit there and start pointing fingers’

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After a nice start to the year — they were 9-3-3 on Nov. 15 — the Devils have hit the skids lately. Sunday’s 5-0 blowout loss to the Rangers was their third in a row and, all told, they’re just 3-7-3 in their last 13 games.

Needless to say, New Jersey needs to turn things around.

“We got in this together, we have to get out of it together,” captain Andy Greene said, per NorthJersey.com. “We can’t just sit there and start pointing fingers and blaming guys, blaming someone else.”

Of course, there are individuals that could shoulder some blame.

A big reason for New Jersey’s hot start was the play of netminder Cory Schneider (and, to a lesser degree, backup Keith Kinkaid). Schneider has come back to earth recently, though, and Sunday’s loss was the eighth time in the last nine starts he’s given up at least three goals. As a result, his numbers on the year have come back to earth as well — 9-8-1, 2.83 GAA and a .907 save percentage.

Head coach John Hynes didn’t exactly call Schneider out after the Rangers game but did say that he, along with the rest of the Devils, needed to be better.

Offensively, the club has scored just three times over the current three-game losing streak. Kyle Palmieri, who scored a career-high 30 goals last year, has just four through 26 games and is on pace for a mere 12. He’s found the net just once over his last 12 contests.

The Devils could also be feeling a sense of deja vu.

They got off to a good start last year, too — 10-6-1 in mid-November — but couldn’t sustain that success, and finished 12 points back of the final wild card berth in the Eastern Conference.

All of this makes for a hugely important rest of December, but it won’t be easy. New Jersey has a tough, quirky schedule — after playing the next three on the road, it returns home for dates against the Preds and Flyers. Then it’s a home-and-home series against the Penguins on the Dec. 23 and 27, followed by another home-and-home against the Caps on the 29th and 31st.

These are tough times for the Lightning, from Yzerman right on down

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This is not where the Bolts expected to be 29 games into the season.

Buoyed by this summer’s extension of captain Steve Stamkos — and the long-term contract for cornerstone d-man Victor Hedman — the Lightning were picked by many as a Stanley Cup favorite.

But after Saturday’s 4-3 loss to the Penguins, a game in which they led 3-1, the Bolts found themselves with a mediocre 14-13-2 record, sitting fourth in the Atlantic Division.

“This is probably one of our worst [stretches] if not our worst in the last couple of years,” head coach Jon Cooper told the Times of a seven-game stint in which the Bolts went 1-5-1. “You go through the resume the last three or four of years of the all the ups and downs this team had.

“This is just a different one.”

A quick rundown of the issues plaguing Tampa Bay:

• Stamkos suffered a major knee injury in November and, following surgery, will be out four-to-six months. A huge blow, to say the least. Health problems have also plagued forward Ryan Callahan, who’s still recovering from offseason hip surgery.

• After a terrific ’15-16 campaign that culminated with a Vezina nomination, Ben Bishop has struggled. He’s said he’s trying not to let his contract situation become a distraction — he’s a UFA on July 1 — but one has to think that, after an offseason filled with trade speculation, Bishop might be sidetracked by his uncertain future. He could also be somewhat rattled by the impressive play of Andrei Vasilevskiy, long considered to be the club’s goalie of the future.

• GM Steve Yzerman might like to make a move, but is hamstrung by the club’s financial picture (the Bolts are pressed right up against the salary cap ceiling). That could part of his growing frustration, illustrated here in a piece from longtime Bolts beat writer Erik Erlendsson:

In speaking to a few people around the building, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman was visibly upset during Thursday’s loss to Vancouver and left his spot in the press box by the end of the second period and headed straight for the locker room area, presumably for the coach’s office (he rarely spends any amount of time in the players’ areas).

• Speaking of the coach, Cooper had some telling remarks about his group following that aforementioned Vancouver loss. In particular, the club’s inability to rally after a setback.

“I thought we came out, we were outstanding and they come down, one shot, it’s in the net (and) it seemed that was it,” Cooper said, per Lightning Insider. “The little bit of adversity hits, which I didn’t think was any at all. There’s 55 minutes left and I thought we were playing hard. Guys were doing some good things and then we just kind of stopped.”

• In his latest 30 Thoughts column, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman had this:

Always wonder about teams with good goal differentials that are outside a playoff position. Tampa Bay is there now, plus-5 and one point out in the East.

“They get pushed around a lot,” one opposing coach said.

• The angst isn’t solely reserved for coaching and management. Slater Koekkoek, the 10th overall pick in 2012 who looked as though he’d finally secured a spot on the club’s defense, was sent to the minors recently… and wasn’t happy about it.

“Koekkoek was upset at his latest demotion to AHL Syracuse Friday, and it’s hard to blame him,” wrote the Times’ Joe Smith. “You can argue the former first-round pick deserves more of a chance to stick in the NHL.”

Needless to say, it’s a dicey situation in Tampa Bay right now.

It’ll be curious to see how the club responds this week, in a three-game Western Canada road swing through Calgary (on Wednesday), Vancouver (on Friday) and Edmonton (on Saturday).

In praise of Eric Staal

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When Minnesota addressed its need for a top-flight center this summer by signing Eric Staal, there was some consternation.

Staal, 32, was 10 years removed from his career-best 45-goal, 100-point campaign in 2006 — the same year he helped Carolina its first and only Stanley Cup.

What’s more, he was coming off a rough stint with the Rangers, in which he had just three goals in 20 regular-season games and went pointless in a brief first-round playoff ouster to Pittsburgh.

As a result, the Wild raised plenty of eyebrows when they said they needed Staal to be “the Eric Staal that he was in the past.”

Some wondered if it was possible. Some said it wasn’t.

So kudos are in order for what he’s done this year.

Staal has delivered top-six production thus far — impressive, given he’s on a relatively team-friendly deal ($3.5M average annual cap hit) — and is averaging 19:23 TOI per night, his highest since the ’13-14 campaign. He’s on pace for 18 goals and 58 points and has provided the Wild with a good one-two punch in the faceoff circles along with Mikko Koivu (the pair have combined to win 592 of 1,102 draws, a winning percentage of 54.)

“He’s been a great leader, a great captain,” Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau told the Star-Tribune after Sunday’s win over St. Louis, in which Staal scored career point No. 800. “Now he’s doing a great job for us.”

Staal’s a big reason why Minnesota’s streaking at the moment. The club has won four straight and, heading into tonight’s action, sits six points back of Chicago for top spot in the Central Division — but with three games in hand on the ‘Hawks.

Of course, if we’re going to praise Staal’s contributions, it’s only right to praise the guy that brought him in.

Signing Staal was a calculated risk by Wild GM Chuck Fletcher. Many saw the move as the old getting older. What’s more, Fletcher could’ve gone harder after “flashier” free agents Frans Nielsen or David Backes, but that would’ve been considerably more expensive, and those two are even older than Staal.

Another option would’ve been to trade for a center — perhaps somebody like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — but that would’ve cost the Wild a good, young defenseman like Jonas Brodin or Matt Dumba.

Instead the Wild chose the less splashy, more conservative path. Through the first two months of the season, it’s paid off nicely.

Quick still in ‘rehab mode,’ return doesn’t sound close

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Those expecting to see Jonathan Quick back in goal for the Kings anytime soon got a harsh reality check on Sunday.

“He’s still very much in the rehab mode,” head coach Darryl Sutter said, per L.A. Kings Insider. “They’re still talking about a month before he could even begin to say what that next step was.

“It’s not in this [calendar] year before there’s any sort of update.”

Quick suffered a significant groin injury in the first period of Los Angeles’ season-opening loss to the Sharks, and hasn’t played since.

That was on Oct. 12.

Originally, Quick was expected to miss “about three months” with the ailment. Today marks month No. 2 on the shelf, so it’s understandable why Sutter was asked for an update — and without reading the tea leaves too much, it sounds like Quick could miss even more time than first thought.

The Kings have survived without Quick — posting an 14-11-2 record — but have hardly thrived, which isn’t at all surprising. He’s been one of the league’s busiest workhorses over the last three seasons, including a ’15-16 campaign in which he led all NHL netminders in games (68) and minutes (4034) played.

In addition to the Quick injury, backup Jeff Zatkoff has also been hurt for considerable time this season. That’s meant Peter Budaj has become the majority starter and, to his credit, has fared about as well as could be expected. The 34-year-old veteran is 13-7-2 with a 2.18 GAA and .910 save percentage,

Based on Sunday’s news, Budaj and Zatkoff could be in line for even more starts over the next while.

Gretzky defends McDavid’s outburst after Manning incident

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PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) As the primary target of opponents over his Hall of Fame career, Wayne Gretzky can certainly empathize with the frustration of Oilers star Connor McDavid.

McDavid and Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning jostled all evening long in a 6-5 Edmonton loss. McDavid denounced the tactics of his opponent after the game, claiming Manning intentionally injured him last season; McDavid missed 37 games with a broken collarbone.

“I guess we can put the whole ‘if he did it’ thing to rest because what he said out there kind of confirmed that,” said McDavid, who taunted Manning after scoring the second goal in the Oilers’ loss.

“I think anybody who knows me or who has played with or against me along the road here, knows that I am not that kind of player,” Manning said, according to a statement released by the Flyers. “I am not out there intentionally trying to hurt people. I’m a guy who plays the game hard and I take pride in that.”

Gretzky didn’t mind seeing that fire in McDavid, saying competitiveness is part of what makes the great ones great. And he said the targeting comes with the territory of being a superstar. It was something he and Mario Lemieux dealt with, too.

“And Connor, he’s going to get tested every night, but this is not new for him,” Gretzky said Friday at the NHL board of governors meetings. “He’s been tested since he was a kid and then playing junior hockey and now in the NHL and he’s always responded and done his part.”

Related: McDavid accuses ‘classless’ Manning of injuring him on purpose