Ovechkin walks the walk; Tom Wilson wreaks havoc as Caps beat Leafs

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Alex Ovechkin was the one ruffling feathers heading into Tuesday’s Capitals – Maple Leafs game, yet Tom Wilson created the most controversy.

Overall, Washington’s 4-3 overtime win against Toronto was brimming with storylines:

Alex vs. Auston (and some Carlsson)

It was quite a duel between Ovechkin and Auston Matthews. Matthews started strong by assisting on an Andreas Johnsson goal just 40 seconds into the game, and finished with a goal and two assists. Ovechkin got the last laugh, however, with the overtime winner, finishing the night with a tremendous four-point performance (2G, 2A).

John Carlsson also continued his molten-hot start to 2019-20, scoring Washington’s first two goals. Carlsson now has an absurd 23 points in 14 games.

If you dream up a Capitals – Maple Leafs game from a marketing standpoint, you want stars to deliver, and that’s exactly what Ovechkin, Carlson, Matthews, and Nicklas Backstrom (three assists) did.

More fodder for Tom Wilson debates

The league probably wouldn’t be as excited to mull over more polarizing hits by the Patron Saint of Polarizing Hits, Tom Wilson. Jake Muzzin left Tuesday’s game and did not return following this one:

The more questionable of the two hits was probably this late one on Tyson Barrie:

Wilson was only penalized for the hit on Barrie (charging and roughing), but we’ll see if there is any supplemental discipline. Whether either of those hits were truly bad or just part of the game, Wilson’s made a few more enemies after Tuesday.

TSN’s Mark Masters reports that Mike Babcock said Muzzin’s injury is a charley horse, rather than something knee related, which could end up being a relief. There’s no timeline on his issue, though, so we’ll see.

Work to do

Via The Athletic’s James Mirtle, Babcock remarked, “Holy God there was a lot of penalties.”

Washington ended up going 2-for-7 on the night, with Ovechkin’s OT-winner being one of those PP goals. Toronto ended up 1-for-8.

Babcock aims to clean up the sort of play that Ovechkin criticized, but as he told Masters and others, it’s not something that will happen overnight.

“Well, I don’t know if he’s wrong. He knows because he lived it,” Babcock said. “If you look at Steve Yzerman, he lived it. A lot of the guys live it until they’re 30. You’ve got to decide whether you wait until you’re 30 or do you want to figure it out now …”

Babcock admitted that those comments probably hurt players’ (and his) feelings, they might be part of the learning experience that gets them to where they need to go.

Of course, one can debate how much the Maple Leafs need to change, or how they should change. Would there be success by clamping down — even leaning on the “Yzerman learned to play defense”* bit that’s almost a trope at this point — or, on the other hand, finding ways to fully embrace your offensive-minded talent?

Ovechkin’s experienced that experiment first hand, although it’s easy to forget how much the Capitals went through in getting from the Bruce Boudreau era to the stage where they finally won the Stanley Cup. Washington arguably swung to too much of an extreme, particularly under Dale Hunter, before finding a better mix lately. It also didn’t hurt that they found some other nice players to help make life easier for Ovechkin, Backstrom, and others.

So … basically, the debate about finding the sweet spot between stingy defense and aggressive offense is just about as polarizing as arguments over the latest Tom Wilson hit.

What we do know for sure: Ovechkin and Matthews scored a lot on Tuesday, and the Capitals won 4-3 in OT.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Good, bad, and neutral: Breaking down Devils hiring Lindy Ruff as head coach

Good, bad, neutral of Devils hiring Lindy Ruff as head coach
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The wayward New Jersey Devils took major steps to chart a clearer course on Thursday — for better or worse. Tom Fitzgerald saw the “interim” tag lifted, making Fitzgerald their established GM. In tandem with that decision, the Devils hired veteran bench boss Lindy Ruff as their head coach.

Ultimately, we only know so much about Fitzgerald’s vision. He’s certainly put in his reps, especially as an assistant GM (first with the Penguins starting in 2009, then the Devils in 2015). Beyond that, we can only speculate regarding how Fitzgerald wants to rebuild New Jersey. Aside from what we can occasionally parse through buzzwordy quotes.

But is Lindy Ruff really the best fit for Devils head coach? Considering Ruff’s decades of experience at head coach and assistant coach levels, we have a lot of evidence to sort through.

Let’s tackle the Ruff – Devils fit question by looking at it three ways: the good (experience), the bad (recent results), and the neutral (some underlying stats and arguments).

The Good: If nothing else, the Devils gain experience with Lindy Ruff as head coach

Ruff served as an NHL head coach for 19 seasons, with his 1,493 games coached ranking seventh all-time. Ruff’s 736 wins place him sixth in league history, which will be a sexier talking point than a middling .561 career points percentage.

You can debate how well Ruff changed with the times, but he’s absolutely been employed as the style and pace of the NHL game twisted and turned over decades.

It’s worth noting that Ruff coached some very different teams. His early Sabres tenure revolved around forming a defensive shell around Dominik Hasek, without a lot of offensive support around him (sorry, Miroslav Satan, etc.). Yet, in that same market, Ruff presided over the “Buffaslug” era of the Sabres, when a run-and-gun team starring the likes of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury contended and even topped the NHL in scoring with 308 goals in 2006-07.

That wasn’t the only Ruff team that led the NHL in scoring. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn helped his Dallas Stars accomplish that feat with 267 goals in 2015-16.

So, for myself and others, the most reasonable best-case scenario with Ruff is for the Devils to emulate some of those high-flying teams. It’s not totally outrageous to imagine Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Kyle Palmieri, and others getting rejuvenated by throwing caution to the wind.

The Neutral: How much did any of it hinge on Ruff?

Sure, when you zoom out, it’s easy to see how experienced Ruff is. That might make the Devils feel like hiring Ruff is the “safe” decision.

But it gets harder to hammer the upside when you look at recent results, or even his larger resume. Ruff comes out looking a lot like an older Paul Maurice: a lot of volume, yet about as many lows and “mehs” as highs.

(And the highs were limited. That one 1999 Stanley Cup Final appearance, a handful of deeper runs, and three division titles over 19 seasons. Ruff doesn’t look awful, yet it’s hard to understand why the Devils wouldn’t be more excited about, say, Gerard Gallant, Peter Laviolette, or Bruce Boudreau. Maybe Ruff’s a lot cheaper?)

Averaging out between the brightest and bleakest scenarios, what if Ruff ends up being merely neutral — not good or bad, mainly replacement level? Is that really what the Devils need right now?

Ruff gives off the impression of being pliable, maybe versatile, if nothing else. There could be value in a pragmatic coach who will zig and zag depending upon the makeup of upcoming Devils teams. Considering how much turnover could happen with the Devils, that could be a useful attribute.

The Bad: Ugly recent results for Ruff with Rangers don’t scare off Devils

Don’t expect Ruff to wave a magic wand and make the Devils a top-10 defense, though. Not based on recent results.

The Rangers brought Ruff in ostensibly to help run the defense and their penalty kill units. Ruff … didn’t exactly solve their problems.

Yikes!

That’s not to say those issues were all Ruff’s fault. For one thing, Ruff merely served as an assistant. He didn’t necessarily get a full say in certain strategic decisions.

Even considering those caveats, the underlying numbers generally look somewhere between neutral to flat-out bad for Ruff. Devils management doesn’t have much of an argument for Ruff beyond bleating out “experience!”

Really, this duo of Devils decisions makes me feel dubious about the direction of the franchise.

For years, the Devils made progress on the analytics front. Hiring bright minds like Matt Cane seemed quite promising.

With these recent decisions in mind, I can’t help but wonder what Cane and his cohorts think. It’s possible they’re on board with this decision, but it doesn’t really seem as innovative as they’d likely prefer.

When the Rangers hired Ruff as an assistant in 2017, Adam Herman wrote about hockey’s “cronyism” problem. It’s difficult to shake the feeling that the Devils are merely leaning on “200 hockey men” and other antiquated ideas. A rebuilding situation gives teams opportunities to innovate, and set the foundation for future glories.

Maybe Ruff and the Devils will prove such feelings wrong, but as of now, it sure looks like these decisions are rooted in the past.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Devils hire Lindy Ruff as head coach, retain Fitzgerald as GM

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Lindy Ruff is back in charge of an NHL bench after he was hired as Devils head coach on Thursday. The team also announced that Tom Fitzgerald is taking over the executive vice president and general manager role.

“We are proud and excited to have Lindy Ruff join our organization as Head Coach,” said Fitzgerald in a statement. “He is one of the most successful and respected coaches in the NHL, not only today, but in League history. His personality, experience, knowledge, work-ethic and focus will provide a calm presence in our locker room. He is the right coach at the right time for our organization. Lindy has a proven track record of getting the absolute best out of his players across the board- stars, role players and everyone in between. His teaching ability, and communication skills will be well-suited for our team, especially our young, developing players. Throughout his career, his teams have been greater than the sum of their parts. I look forward to working together with Lindy as the organization moves forward.”

(AHL Hartford assistant Gord Murphy will take Ruff’s spot on the Rangers’ bench for the Stanley Cup Qualifying round.)

Ruff, who’s been a Rangers assistant since 2017-18, has been involved in professional hockey since entering the NHL in 1979 as a player with the Sabres. After a 15-year career he entered the coaching ranks and later was named Buffalo’s head coach in 1997. He’d hold the head coach position for 15 seasons before moving on to the Stars for four years.

Those Stars teams played high-event hockey considering the personnel at Ruff’s disposal. Over his final three seasons in Dallas they were a top-10 team in possession, expected goals for, and led the NHL in expected goals/60, as per Natural Stat Trick). It helped have the likes of Tyler Seguin, John Klingberg, Jamie Benn, and Jason Spezza on the roster. The quality may not be at that level for the Devils, but it could head in that direction with Jack Hughes, Nikita Gusev, P.K. Subban, Nico Hischier, Will Butcher, plus those in the pipeline.

[MORE: Good, bad, and neutral: Breaking down Ruff’s hiring]

After David Quinn’s hiring, Ruff’s experience was something the young coach said he’s benefited from. Though Ruff has handled a Rangers defense and penalty kill that struggled this season.

It remains to been what will happen with Alain Nasreddine, who took over as interim head coach in December after John Hynes was fired. During the NHL pause, Nasreddine interviewed for the position along with Gerard Gallant, Peter Laviolette, and John Stevens.

Fitzgerald drops “interim” tag

Fitzgerald took over as interim general manager in January after Ray Shero’s dismissal. He’s been with the organization since 2015 as assistant GM after following Shero from the Penguins. 

As with many hirings, there’s always a connection. The one here is that Ruff was a Panthers assistant during Fitzgerald’s first four seasons in Florida.

“When Tom took over the role of GM in January, we were committed to moving the organization in a new direction,” said Devils managing partners Josh Harris and David Blitzer. “Having gone through the process of interviewing various candidates, including Tom, and reviewing his work in the interim, we feel that he is the best fit for the New Jersey Devils moving forward. Our decision was solidified by his ability to stabilize the organization, get solid returns at the trade deadline, make impressive plans for player development and hire a new coach in Lindy Ruff. We are very optimistic about our future and know we have great deal of talent, both on and off the ice. Together, we are excited to start a new chapter and are committed to becoming a consistent contender, which our fans deserve.”

As the Devils went through the search process Fitzgerald worked as if he was keeping the job. He handled the trade deadline, last month’s draft lottery, and has continued preparing the draft and free agency in the fall.

MORE:
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft lottery results

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Winners, losers of NHL Olympic return; Training camp battles

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Training camp battles, NHL playoff previews, and other return-to-play links

• Jackets Cannon looks at Columbus’ biggest strength: defense. In particular, Rachel Bules looks at how the pandemic pause will allow the Blue Jackets to have some serious training camp competition for spots. The Blue Jackets will need to be sharp, too, because the Maple Leafs’ firepower presents a real challenge for any defense corps. [Jackets Cannon]

• Speaking of the Maple Leafs — and training camp previews — Emily Sadler put together a thorough breakdown for Toronto. Can Frederik Andersen go the distance? Tyson Barrie ranks as a player to watch. Plus much more. [Sportsnet]

• George Richards takes a look at the Panthers’ “2.0” roster for training camp. If I had to single out a most interesting item, it’s that Anton Stralman has been involved. You may remember him airing some concerns about an NHL return. [Florida Hockey Now]

• What various analytics say about how the Wild’s lines match up with the Canucks. [Zone Coverage]

• It’s one thing for the Coyotes to say that they want to “get a little more juice” out of their offense. It’s another thing to actually lay out how it might work. Craig Morgan rolls out a detailed approach of how that might happen, including activating weakside defensemen. [AZ Coyotes Insider]

• The pandemic pause ranks as the biggest curveball Carter Hart‘s seen in the NHL so far. That said, it’s far from the only one. If he keeps passing these tests, it might all be to the benefit of Hart’s career. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

Other hockey links

• As a pending UFA on a team that could face a salary cap crunch, Christopher Tanev knows he might not be back with the Canucks. Tanev said he hopes that he can return, and in particular, he’d love to remain Quinn Hughes‘ defensive partner for a long time. [NHL.com]

• It’s easy to look at the NHL’s return to Olympic participation as a good thing for everyone involved. As Ryan Kennedy points out, it depends on the outlook for different countries’ national teams. Kennedy presents the winners and losers for the NHL return to the Olympics, with Germany landing in an interesting spot. [The Hockey News]

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sabres drop lawsuit after assistant coach is granted a green card

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres dropped their lawsuit against the federal government after immigration officials reversed course by approving the team’s strength and conditioning coach’s petition for a green card.

“The matter has been resolved amicably between both parties,” with Ed Gannon receiving approval for an EB-1 visa, the Sabres announced in a text message Wednesday.

The Sabres sued U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in May by alleging officials wrongly denied the team’s visa petition for the British-born coach.

The announcement came a week after the Sabres’ lawyer notified the U.S. District Court in Buffalo that the team was voluntary dismissing the suit, with each side agreeing to bear their own costs and fees.

The Sabres accused immigration services of misstating facts and arbitrarily failing to follow its own rules in denying a green card to Gannon. They argued the decision potentially subjected the team “to substantial financial harm and disruption in developing (its) athletes.”

Gannon was hired by the Sabres in 2015 while the team was beefing up its player development staff. He previously spent 10 years as the lead strength and conditioning coach of a professional rugby club, the Leicester Tigers.

The Sabres filed the application for permanent residency on Gannon’s behalf in October. To be granted a green card, Gannon had to demonstrate that he was at the top of his field, and the Sabres argued that he proved his abilities under USCIS’ criteria.

The denial of Gannon’s petition came amid efforts by the Trump administration to limit legal immigration. A report last year by the Migration Policy Institute concluded that USCIS had become “increasingly active in immigration enforcement” and that the agency was intentionally slowing down adjudication of immigration benefits applications.