By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)
It wasn’t the 15-hour flight to China for training camp that had general manager Brad Treliving’s head spinning.
It was the pace of Bill Peters’ first practice as coach of the Calgary Flames.
”I was tired watching it,” Treliving said.
Peters has lost no time in helping the Flames improve and reach first place in the Pacific Division during his first season. In fact, the six teams that hired a new coach over the summer are all doing well – certainly when compared to the five that have dumped coaches already the season. Those clubs are a combined 47-60-11 since making those moves.
Peters and Todd Reirden, who took over the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals from Barry Trotz, will coach in the All-Star Game on Jan. 26 with their teams leading their respective divisions at the halfway mark.
Jim Montgomery’s Dallas Stars are third in the Central Division and Barry Trotz’s New York Islanders a point out of a playoff spot with extra games to play, while the New York Rangers are overachieving under David Quinn and the Carolina Hurricanes are taking steps forward after Rod Brind’Amour replaced Peters.
For Reirden and Brind’Amour, the challenge was moving up from a role as a longtime assistant. Capitals and Hurricanes players say the transitions have been smooth because each coach hasn’t altered his approach.
”(Reirden is) a completely different person, different personality, different style and I think he’s stuck to who he is,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson said. ”What’s helped him is just staying true to what we all expect out of him.”
With almost the same roster back, Washington was expected to make the playoffs and take a good shot at repeating. Expectations were fuzzier for the Flames, Islanders and Stars.
Calgary had alternated making and missing the playoffs under coaches Bob Hartley and Glen Gulutzan before Peters took over. The Flames’ 58 points have them tied atop the Western Conference and trailing only the powerhouse Tampa Bay Lightning in the overall NHL standings, a big testament to Peters’ puck-hounding style and straightforward communication.
”He’s a great coach,” star winger Johnny Gaudreau said. ”He knows how to win. It doesn’t matter if you’re top line, bottom line, if you’re not playing well you’re not going to be on the ice. He’s not going put you over the bench there. He expects a lot out of his players and it’s been great playing for him this year.”
Trotz has had a similar impact with the Islanders, bringing much-needed structure to a team that missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons and lost point-a-game center John Tavares to Toronto in free agency. Veteran GM Lou Lamoriello said with any coaching change three or four players get better and three or four get worse; he thinks Trotz has gotten the most out of a team far different than what he had in Washington.
”He’s extremely detailed, very consistent in his approach as far as planning, execution, system and delivery,” Lamoriello said of Trotz. ”He has an outstanding delivery to the players as far as no highs, no lows and holds them accountable to what is being asked of them.”
In Dallas, top-line center Tyler Seguin said Montgomery has done a good job of giving players rest, sometimes opting for video work instead of practice. Despite an uproar over pointed comments made by CEO Jim Lites about the performance of Seguin and captain Jamie Benn, the Stars hold a wild-card spot in Montgomery’s first NHL season after five years at the University of Denver.
Quinn spent five seasons at Boston University before GM Jeff Gorton hired him to coach the Rangers, and the returns on that decision are already positive. His job isn’t to get New York into the playoffs right away but rather instill good habits. He is also occasionally scratching players young and old to set a standard for quality of play.
”He’s trying to set a tone of accountability here,” Gorton said. ”I think he’s been consistent to who he is, and his philosophy is if guys aren’t doing the job, then I’ve got to put guys in that are going to do it.”
Consistency and familiarity have helped Brind’Amour with the Hurricanes, who lack scoring punch and have a league-worst nine-year playoff drought. The players respect his legendary work ethic.
”When he says it, you know he’s done it and it makes you want to do it, too,” defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk said. ”When he talks, he commands the room and I think he’s a guy you really like to play for.”
No player in the NHL is hotter right now than Gaudreau , who’s earning every bit of his ”Johnny Hockey” nickname. His 16 goals and 35 points in 18 games are the most in the league since Dec. 1 and inside the organization show the progression of the 25-year-old into an all-around superstar.
”There’s a maturity to his game,” Treliving said. ”He’s had a real defensive consciousness this year. Not that he hadn’t in the past, but when he doesn’t have (the puck), he’s tracking to get it back.”
The top four teams in the Metropolitan Division – the Capitals, Penguins, Blue Jackets and Islanders – were separated by just six points. That could mean a Trotz vs. Reirden showdown in the first round, Washington-Pittsburgh again or any combination of first-round matchups among teams that look evenly matched.
”It’s a challenge and it forces you to be on your game all the time,” Reirden said.
Nashville has dealt with major injuries to several key players. Defenseman P.K. Subban missed 19 games before Christmas, winger Viktor Arvidsson missed 24 of 25 and winger Filip Forsberg missed 17 in a row before returning Monday. Nashville endured a six-game losing streak in December but has somehow thrived amid injuries in the stacked Central Division.
”There’s no sense crying about it,” coach Peter Laviolette said. ”We’ve got to win hockey games.”
GAME OF THE WEEK
The Boston Bruins visit the Toronto Maple Leafs on ”Hockey Night in Canada” Saturday in what could be an Atlantic Division first-round playoff preview.
LEADERS (through Tuesday)
Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 30; Assists: Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 50; Points: Kucherov, 71; Ice time: Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), 26:38; Wins: Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas), 25; Goals-against average: Robin Lehner (Islanders), 2.18; Save percentage: Jack Campbell (Los Angeles), .930.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno