Dallas Eakins

Growing pains: Krueger, Eakins and McLellan staying positive

Buffalo’s Ralph Krueger, Anaheim’s Dallas Eakins and Los Angeles’ Todd McLellan had no illusions about quick fixes in their first seasons. But in a league that has seen plenty of coaching changes the past couple seasons, all three have remained consistent in their message since training camp in September.

“We have not discussed in our room anything beyond what we can take care of today. We’ve done this since September and we’re going to continue to do it, so, really, those are big-picture discussions,” Krueger said.

When it comes to this season, the Sabres, Ducks and Kings will not make the playoffs. Los Angeles and Anaheim once again are in a battle for the bottom of the Western Conference, but have shown strides in implementing more up-tempo styles of play.

Of the three teams, the Sabres have shown signs of the most improvement, despite losing their last four. After winning 10 straight to match a franchise record in Nov. 2018, Buffalo proceeded to win just 16 of its remaining 57 games (16-33-8), leading to Phil Housley being fired.

General manager Jason Botterill then went outside the box in hiring Krueger. The 60-year-old had extensive coaching experience in North American and abroad but had been out of hockey for five years, serving as a director and president of Southampton of the English Premier League.

Krueger has brought in a philosophy of wanting his team to “play connected,” meaning all five skaters working as one. It’s an attacking approach that emphasizes always moving the puck toward the opponent.

“It’s not like last year,” forward Jack Eichel said. “We’ve been through these times where we take a couple of hits at this time of year … and then all of a sudden the wheels fall off. That’s not happening here.”

Eakins was promoted to Anaheim’s top bench spot after four seasons with its San Diego AHL affiliate. He has characterized the organization’s philosophy as transitioning instead of rebuilding, equating it to the process Boston went through a couple years ago.

While Eakins has been pleased with his team’s effort and being more aggressive on the forecheck, the main thing he has been stressing the past couple weeks is trying to rush the net and getting more goals that might now show up in highlights.

“It doesn’t have to be a clean shot on the net. If you watch the highlights every night, there are a whole lot of dirty goals being scored everywhere,” he said. “That’s how we’re going to have to keep committing to getting pucks into the zone in front of the net. The biggest thing is to not be frustrated by it, dig in and stay after it.”

McLellan has always had the toughest rebuilding job of all. The Kings are hampered by veterans with large contracts while trying to slowly work in younger players. McLellan has liked that the veterans have bought in to a quicker pace of play, especially on the power play, but has stressed that the last quarter of the season will be an evaluation period for everyone.

“This is the group that is going to move the needle, as we talked about. Individually and collectively. It’s time to dig in,” he said. “The people that are in that locker room right now, the older players and veterans, we’ve addressed all of them and are aware what their roles could be and how hard they have to play in practice so everybody else can keep their eyes on them. Then there are the followers. The leaders and the followers have to do it all together.”

SIX DEGREES FROM EDMONTON?

McLellan, Kreuger and Eakins share one thing in common – they all coached Edmonton. Of the five teams with first-year coaches, the Oilers are the only one that may make the playoffs, as Dave Tippett has them second in the Pacific Division.

Joel Quenneville has had Florida in postseason contention for most of the season, but the Panthers are five points out of a wild-card spot.

Net gains: NHL’s load management is top goalies playing less

Marc-Andre Fleury plays when he’s told.

How much he plays has changed.

A decade ago, Fleury started 61 out of 82 games before backstopping Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup. He started 58 and 34 times on the Penguins’ 2016 and 2017 Cup runs splitting time with Matt Murray, then made 46 starts for Vegas and led the expansion Golden Knights to the final.

“As a player, I love being in there. I love playing the game,” Fleury said. “It’s tough to find like the perfect amount of games. Nowadays, I feel like we’re hearing more than ever how we’re going to manage two goalies and stuff.”

Consider it hockey’s version of “load management” that’s gained popularity in basketball. Don’t expect NHL teams to handpick games throughout the season to rest star players – except top goaltenders who are getting more nights off while their backups share the net with an eye toward playoff success.

Each of the past five Cup-winning goalies started fewer than 60 games in the regular season, along with three of the past five runners up. The days of Martin Brodeur starting 78 games are gone – only three goalies have 70-plus starts over the past five seasons – and teams think year-round about how to best prepare to play deep into June.

“The trend is definitely going the way that you split the net more,” said Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask, who carried the Bruins to Game 7 of the final last year after starting 46 times in the regular season. “It’s a tough thing because if your starter makes $8-9 million, you want him to play. But then you want to win the Cup, so you’ve got to think of it like, well, if this guy plays 70 games, is he going to play 25 in the playoffs at the same level? Versus OK we’re playing him 45, 50 really good games and then we got the other guy and the A guy’s going to play 25 really good (playoff games).”

Rask and Jaroslav Halak, Washington’s Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer in 2018 and Pittsburgh’s Murray and Fleury the previous two years are prime examples. Jordan Binnington didn’t make his first NHL start until January, but 32 games of work made him fresh to help the St. Louis Blues win the Cup last season.

It’s a delicate balance of having enough salary cap space to employ two capable goalies with playing time, plotting out the schedule for maximum rest benefits and collecting enough points to make the playoffs.

“It’s a collaborative discussion that all teams have,” Vegas general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. “What we’re doing is trying to win hockey games during the regular season, trying to keep both of our goalies sharp and trying to have all our players at the top of their game come playoffs.”

The New York Islanders have alternated Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov for their first 24 games and allow the fourth-fewest goals in the league. Anaheim’s coaching staff pencils in both John Gibson or Ryan Miller for all 82 games and revisits incrementally to adjust for injuries and workloads.

“It has very little to do with games,” Ducks coach Dallas Eakins said. “It has more to do with how much work. We had a game earlier this year where we were overwhelmed in the game against Vegas. I think they put up 50 shots, and we were in our zone the whole time. That went down as one game for John, but he really played two, so that’s kind of how we look at it.”

Miller previously preferred to skip a game with a couple days off on each end for a mental break. He sees so many teams splitting back-to-backs and understands it but also thinks battling some old-school fatigue can be good for a goaltender.

“I don’t think there’s a strict recipe,” said Miller, whose career high was 74 starts in 2007-08 with Buffalo. “I think some adversity is good to keep your mentality in the right place. It’s not going to be a cake walk and then playoffs hit and it’s like (you’re) dialed in. You’ve got to go through some stuff and work through it and battle through the harder situations so that’s just your mindset every night.”

NHL goalies believe modern games are more difficult with higher shot totals than past decades. Teams are averaging 30 shots a game in 2019-20, while the schedule has more back-to-backs.

“Nowadays there’s a lot more work for a goalie: a lot less hooking and holding up for the D-men, so there’s a lot more chances or a lot more in-zone time that you’re actually working,” said Philadelphia’s Brian Elliott, who’s part of a successful tandem with Carter Hart. “Even if you’re maybe not getting shots, you’re looking through screens, you’re doing a lot of work.”

Vegas coach Gerard Gallant appreciates Fleury wants to play all 82 games, and he’s not alone in wanting to grab the net and not let go.

“I’ve felt a lot better every year I played a lot more games,” said Holtby, who led the league with 73 games played in 2014-15. “It’s a little more of a feel game instead of an analytics game just because of the speed of it. … It’s one of those things everyone’s probably different. It probably has a lot to do with how you practice and everything.”

Some goalies are going to play more than others; Florida’s $10 million man, Sergei Bobrovsky, or Montreal’s Carey Price, the highest-paid goalie in the league, could start 60 or more just because his team needs an elite level of play.

“We’d love to have (Price) in every game, but it’s not realistic,” Canadiens coach Claude Julien said. “We give him some days off of practices because that’s not quite as important as him in games.”

The most important thing, of course, is the playoffs. It’s tough for starters who want to play all the time and it takes an adjustment, but the proof is in the names on the Stanley Cup that splitting the net works.

“Everybody wants to play,” Rask said. “The older you get, I think it becomes a little easier to realize that it’s not about me. I’m resting for the team.”

And resting with the hope that shouldering less of a load now makes a goalie more likely to raise a trophy over his shoulders at the end of the season.

PHT Morning Skate: Comfortable Pacioretty; Fitzgerald joins Devils’ bench

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

Jordan Binnington is going old school with his new mask, which is a tribute to Curtis Joseph. [Blues]

Max Pacioretty is feeling more comfortable in his second season with the Golden Knights and it’s showing on the ice. [NHL.com]

• The Devils have put assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald in an assistant coach role on John Hynes’ staff on a temporary basis. [Devils]

David Pastrnak’s four-goal game is another reminder of how he’s one of the NHL’s biggest bargains. [NBC Sports Boston]

• Dallas Eakins is hoping the Ducks’ power play issues won’t spiral out of control. [OC Register]

• How Zack Kassian persevered through personal issues to thrive with the Oilers. [TSN]

• There’s little hope for the Wild to turn around an ugly start. [Yahoo]

• Why it might be time for the Canadiens to cut back on Shea Weber’s special teams ice time. [Eyes on the Prize]

• Why the Coyotes will be this season’s breakout team. [RotoWorld]

• The Blackhawks third line is doing very well against top competition. [NBC Sports Chicago]

Ryan Callahan on post-retirement life and working at the NHL Network. [Sporting News]

• An in-depth look at the Jets’ beautiful Heritage Classic jerseys. [Hockey by Design]

• Chinese billionaire partners with L.A. Kings to bring hockey to China’s youth. [NBC News]

• A fun look at Jaromir Jagr’s time in New York and the impact he made with the Rangers. [The Hockey News]

• Finally, here’s Jagr showing off the guns:

View this post on Instagram

LAS VEGAS – natáčení klipu #jagr#fun#lasvegas

A post shared by Jaromír Jágr (@jj68jaromirjagr) on

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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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Anaheim Ducks

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Worse. The Ducks have been competitive for over a decade, so it wasn’t surprising to see them take a step back last year. Unfortunately for Anaheim, their core is getting older and they really didn’t improve their roster very much over the course of the summer. They lost Corey Perry and some other depth players, but they didn’t add any significant pieces. They hired Dallas Eakins as their new head coach, but it’ll be tough for him to make a significant difference. It’s tough to argue that this group is better.

Strengths: Their biggest strength is between the pipes. John Gibson put together an incredible season last year. His numbers may not jump off the page but make no mistake, he was the reason they weren’t out of it earlier than they were. The 26-year-old had a 26-22-8 record with a 2.84 goals-against-average and a .917 save percentage last season. If the Ducks are going to improve this season, they’ll need some of their kids like Troy Terry, Max Jones, Sam Steel, and Max Comtois to take steps forward and need their goalie to stand on his head on a nightly basis. Gibson is one of the top goalies in the league and that shouldn’t change in 2019-20.

Weaknesses: Their overall depth has taken a hit over the last few years. Sure, they still have good players like Ryan Getzlaf and Adam Henrique down the middle, and Rickard Rakell, Ondrej Kase and Jakob Silfverberg on the wings. They also have Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson and Cam Fowler on defense. The rest of the team has taken a bit of dip. Perry’s gone and Ryan Kesler is injured, and Patrick Eaves is likely retired. When you’ve been good for so long, these things will eventually happen.

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): 1. Let’s give Eakins some time. He’ll have plenty of challenges ahead with the edition of the Ducks. It’ll be important for him to assess the talent at his disposal quickly and he’ll need to figure out a way to get the most out of this group of players. Again, success probably won’t come as early as this season, but if the Ducks allow him to shape the roster how he sees fit, they could make strides in the near future. How much time he gets to build this program remains to be seen, but he can’t be on the hot seat yet!

[MORE: Three Questions | Under Pressure: Getzlaf | X-Factor]

Three Most Fascinating Players: It’ll be interesting to see how some of the young players perform this season. Daniel Sprong, Nick Ritchie and Brendan Guhle should all be part of this roster when training camp ends. How much will they contribute though?

Sprong was acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins last season. In 47 games with the Ducks, he put up 14 goals and 19 points, which isn’t terrible. Can he build on that season? We’ve mentioned that Anaheim’s depth may be a problem for them this year, so getting added contributions from talented youngsters like Sprong will be key. There’s no denying his ability on the ice, but the 22-year-old needs to put it all together now. 14 goals in 47 games works out to a 24-goal campaign over 82 contests. Can he flirt with 25 goals?

Ritchie is also a fascinating case. The 23-year-old was drafted 10th overall by the Ducks back in 2014, but he hasn’t had as big an impact as many expected him to since turning pro. Ritchie had nine goals and a career-high 31 points in 60 games in 2018-19. He needs to pick it up. He needs to lead the next waive of young players in the organization. He’s got size, he’s got skill and now he needs to make an impact on this Ducks roster. He can’t just be another depth player.

As for Guhle, he was acquired from the Buffalo Sabres last season. The former second-rounder played in just six games with Anaheim last season. The Ducks have Fowler, Manson and Lindholm on their blue line, but there are openings behind those three players. Guhle has to show that he’s capable of making this roster and eating up some important minutes for Anaheim this season. The 22-year-old needs to add stability to the Ducks on the back end.

Playoffs or Lottery: They’ll be in the lottery this year. Again, they have some talented players, but they don’t have enough of them. It’ll take some time for them to draft and develop the next generation of Ducks, but that re-tooling had to begin eventually. No playoffs for the Ducks this year.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Ducks should accept short-term pain for long-term gains

AP
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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Anaheim Ducks.

The Anaheim Ducks’ future may very well hinge on one x-factor among all others: GM Bob Murray’s self-awareness.

When a team has self-awareness, you can go from dour to hopeful with rocket speed, like the Rangers have. If you’re delusional, you can get stuck in hockey quicksand, like the troubled Wild.

Whether Murray wants to admit it or not, the Ducks seem headed toward that fork in the road in 2019-20.

[MORE: Three Questions | Under Pressure: Getzlaf | 2018-19 in review]

The road’s been bumpy up to this turning point, too. Randy Carlyle and Corey Perry are both out after a terrible 2018-19 season, and the Sharks summarily swept the Ducks in Round 1 to end 2017-18, so things have been dark for the Ducks for quite some time.

Despite all of the red flags waving around, one could picture Murray talking himself into this season being radically different.

  • What if Dallas Eakins fixes that broken Carlyle system, and seamlessly integrates young forwards like Sam Steel and Troy Terry?
  • Players like John Gibson, Ryan Getzlaf, and Cam Fowler could enjoy better injury luck.
  • Beyond the top three of the Sharks, Flames, and Golden Knights, the Pacific Division is pretty crummy. Why not us?

If you take an honest look at this Ducks team, though, ask yourself: what’s a realistic ceiling for this team?

When Ryan Getzlaf leads your team in scoring with 48 points despite being limited to 67 games played, and you basically flushed months of brilliant work from John Gibson down the toilet, you probably shouldn’t print those 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs tickets just yet.

GM Bob Murray’s perception of this Ducks team isn’t just Anaheim’s biggest X-factor for 2019-20, as the tug-of-war between seeking a playoff run and setting up this team for a better future could affect this team years down the line.

After all, Murray’s already dug a bit of a hole assuming that the Ducks have another run or two left.

Jakob Silfverberg and Adam Henrique are fine players, but at 28 and 29 respectively, each having five years remaining at about a combined $11M is pretty unnerving. The Silfverberg extension happened during this past, disastrous season, so there’s reason to worry that Murray might still need convincing that at least a soft rebuild or pivot is necessary.

The Ducks have some anchors in Silfverberg and Henrique, which contrasts with the Rangers, who had contracts teams wanted, including Mats Zuccarello.

That said, Murray could push things in the right direction if he’s realistic about this team’s rather limited potential.

For one thing, while the Ducks have unearthed solid talent even while lacking many high-end picks during their contending years, it seems like a lack of blue-chippers is catching up with them. Trevor Zegras (ninth overall in 2019) is a strong start, but the Ducks need more cornerstone pieces to build around.

If the Ducks can show some discipline in absorbing growing pains, they may very well turn things around.

Ideally, the Ducks would allow Eakins some breathing room to work with, and encourage a focus on getting younger players like Sam Steel and Troy Terry more minutes, even if that could push a mediocre team into becoming a cellar dweller. Not only would you get a better idea of what you have in Steel and Terry (and Eakins), but you’d also probably end up with better lottery odds to land someone like Alexis Lafreniere.

With Perry bought out, Ryan Kesler eyeing possible retirement, and Ryan Getzlaf looking understandably creaky lately, the Ducks probably don’t have much of a choice. As great as John Gibson can be — and I’d wager he was the best goalie in the world for stretches of last season — the Ducks still looked mediocre last season, even when he was standing on his head.

Yes, it would be painful to suffer through another abysmal season in 2019-20, but the Ducks have been willing to do painful things, like buying out Corey Perry. Besides, the pain could last a whole lot longer if Murray chooses to ignore the symptoms.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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.