Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s weekly Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week’s topics include teams and players who might be deceiving a month into the season; Ryan Getzlaf’s work-life balance; Stephen Weiss’ difficult adjustment from Florida to Detroit; the problems with extending supplemental discipline beyond the players; and who is the best at “legal interference.”
FIRST PERIOD: Things aren’t always as they seem at this time of year
It’s Halloween, and people are playing dress-up, masquerading a month into the NHL season. The best costumes:
— The Colorado Avalanche, as Central Division leaders: The Avs are allowing 32.6 shots per game, 7th-most in the NHL. They’re 10-1-0 mainly because goalies Semyon Varlamov (7-1-0) and Jean-Sebastien Giguere (3-0-0) have bailed them out with a combined save percentage of .955, best in the league. Now Varlamov faces domestic violence-related charges. Hockey is not the most important issue here, obviously. But the fairytale might be ending.
— The Toronto Maple Leafs, as the top team in the East: The Avs have won six games when outshot. Only one team has won more: the Leafs, who have won eight. The Leafs have been outshot 12 times in 14 games and yet are 10-4-0, flying in the face of the philosophy that possession leads to winning. In their defense, they made the playoffs like this last season, winning 21 games when outshot, four more than anyone else. This is now a 62-game sample size. Still, that 18-wheeler seems headed toward the cliff, and the teams in the rear-view mirror are closer than they appear. Everyone chasing the Leafs has at least a game in hand.
— Alexander Steen, as a 90-goal scorer: Steen leads the NHL in goals with 11, and he has played only 10 games, putting him on a 90-goal pace. But he has a shooting percentage of 35.5, and his career shooting percentage is 9.7. His career high in goals? Twenty-four. The St. Louis Blues need a dynamic scorer. The puck is going in right now, and it’s an awesome sight. But he’s Alexander Steen, not Alexander Ovechkin, let alone Wayne Gretzky.
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— The Metropolitan Division, as an NHL division: Maybe they should have renamed this division the East Coast Hockey League. Why not? The ECHL, like KFC, doesn’t actually stand for anything anymore, and other than the 9-4-0 Pittsburgh Penguins, everyone on this part of the East Coast is playing at a lower level. Seven teams are under .500. Their saving grace is realignment itself, which guarantees playoff spots to the top three teams. All the history you hear about poor starts doesn’t apply. No one is out of it yet, not even the 3-8-0 Philadelphia Flyers, five points out with a game in hand.
— Erik Karlsson, as a mortal: Karlsson complained to reporters that they had put him on a marble pedestal, saying they had talked about him like an “(effing) god or something.” Yes, he does have an Achilles heel. No, he hasn’t worked miracles this season as the 4-6-2 Ottawa Senators have searched for their identity. But he’s not fooling us. He does walk on frozen water, at least as an offensive force. For all his faults, months after a season abbreviated by lockout and injury, he’s tied with the Montreal Canadiens’ P.K. Subban for the scoring lead among defensemen with 11 points.
— Marc-Andre Fleury, as the Marc-Andre Fleury from 2008 and ’09: Did you see Fleury slide to his right and rob David Krejci on Wednesday night in the closing seconds of the Pens’ 3-2 victory over the Boston Bruins? The save looked like the one he made on Nicklas Lidstrom in the closing seconds of Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final, preserving a 2-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings. The playoffs have been the problem the past two years, not the regular season, and Fleury will have to prove himself come spring. But with a new goalie coach and a new approach, he’s off to a strong start – 9-2-0, 1.81 goals-against average, .927 save percentage.
— John Scott, as a hockey player: After drilling the Bruins’ Loui Eriksson last week, Scott had his hearing with the NHL’s department of player safety Thursday. (UPDATE: Scott was suspended seven games for the hit.) In a sense, that incident needs to be separated from fighting. He had no previous history of illegal checks to the head. But the fact remains he has five points and 324 penalty minutes in 187 games. He doesn’t want to be known as a goon, but if he isn’t a goon, what is he?
SECOND PERIOD: Work-life balance helps Getzlaf get his groove back
He had won a Stanley Cup. He had won an Olympic gold medal. He had put up more than a point a game in the NHL. But until his first child was born in February 2011, Ryan Getzlaf had never been a father, and until 2011-12, he had never tried to balance hockey and family.
When you’re home, you’re not home on game day – skating in the morning, napping in the afternoon, playing at night. When you’re on the road, you’re just gone – not there to help your wife, not there to see your kids develop. “I felt like I was missing everything,” said Getzlaf in an interview before this season. “Every time I left, I was guilty.”
The puck wouldn’t go in that season, either. Getzlaf’s shooting percentage was 5.9, by far the worst of his career, and he scored 11 goals, a career low. The Anaheim Ducks fired coach Randy Carlyle and replaced him with Bruce Boudreau, and they failed to make the playoffs despite a late run.
“I went through some struggles, obviously, emotionally,” Getzlaf said. “I learned a lot.”
Getzlaf had 15 goals and 49 points in 45 games last season, as the Ducks posted the second-best record in the West. He also signed an eight-year, $66 million extension. He and the Ducks are off to another good start this season. He has five goals and 13 points in 13 games, and the Ducks are 10-3-0.
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He and his wife, Paige, have two kids now – Ryder, 2-1/2, and Gavin, 10 months. He said they have “kind of figured it out.”
“My wife helped me a lot with that taking a lot of the responsibilities and still allowing me to be there for the kids as much as I could,” Getzlaf said. “We needed to figure out collectively how that was going to work. She was going to manage the family and make it a happy environment for both of us. I can’t come home and ruin her schedule just because I’m home.
“Now I think we just kind of go back and get back to playing hockey, knowing that what I’m doing is what allows our family to do what they do.”
THIRD PERIOD: Weiss struggling to adjust from Florida to Detroit
Valtteri Filppula, 29, left the Detroit Red Wings as a free agent and signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning, run by former Wings captain and front-office apprentice Steve Yzerman. The Wings signed Stephen Weiss, 30, to a five-year, $24.5 million contract. It was almost an even trade, but the feeling in Detroit was that Weiss would provide more grit and offensive upside at second-line center.
The early returns are not good for the Wings. While Filppula has four goals and nine points in 12 games with Tampa Bay, Weiss only has two goals in 13 games with Detroit. He has gone seven games without a point. The Wings have demoted him to the third line to take some of the pressure off.
But the Wings are still confident in Weiss in the long term. Remember that he had played only 17 games in a year-and-a-half, thanks to the lockout and a wrist injury last season, and he had spent his entire NHL career with the Florida Panthers. He needed to get his legs under him and learn the system.
Asked what was unnatural for him in Detroit, Weiss said: “Pretty much everything. Honestly all three zones are the complete opposite of what I’ve been used to my whole career. So that’s been a big change.”
Weiss said he had been thinking too much and trying too hard at times, and it had backfired.
“As soon as you start thinking too much, you slow down and you’re dead,” Weiss said. “So I’m trying to eliminate the thinking process and just go out and play. That’s where you’re going to be better off.
“It’s going to take time. You’ve just got to be patient and stick with it and keep trying to do what you’ve done over your career that’s made you successful, and eventually you’re going to get a bounce, and something good’s going to happen, and it’s going to turn around.”
OVERTIME: Should the NHL extend supplemental discipline beyond players?
In the wake of the Scott-Eriksson incident, there is buzz again about extending supplemental discipline to coaches, general managers and owners, making them share in the responsibility for the actions of their players.
Fining coaches and GMs for repeat offenders makes sense because they run the benches and build the rosters, and if someone keeps running around hurting opponents, at some point it’s on them for failing to change his behavior, for putting him out there or for giving him a job in the first place.
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But are they always responsible for what happens on the ice in a split-second or in the heat of the moment, and how do you judge their level of responsibility? What happens when teams change coaches or GMs, or when coaches or GMs change teams? What happens when teams change players or players change teams? Do you reset the clock or carry over the history?
Fining organizations seems to make sense. If suspensions affect the owners’ bottom lines, they should affect how GMs build rosters and how coaches run benches. After a Penguins-Islanders brouhaha in 2010-11, Pens co-owner Mario Lemieux wrote a letter to commissioner Gary Bettman suggesting a system in which teams would be fined based on the length of suspensions – from $50,000 for one or two games to $1 million for more than 15 games – with the fine doubling if the player was a repeat offender within that season.
But a system like that could be problematic, too. Would the fines affect how the NHL handed out suspensions – or would that be the perception, at least? Would this make big markets bullies? In other words, could a team like Toronto afford to be more truculent than, say, the Phoenix Coyotes? And lastly, are the owners ever going to approve fining themselves?
SHOOTOUT: Notes from around the NHL
— Darcy Regier did a hell of a job flipping Thomas Vanek for Matt Moulson, a first-round pick and a second-round pick, even if the Buffalo Sabres swallowed some of Vanek’s salary and allowed the New York Islanders to defer the first-rounder to 2015 if the pick is in the top 10 this summer. Regier has a history of dumping players for good assets, and he no doubt will dump more players – Moulson, goaltender Ryan Miller – for more assets. Scouts are heading to Sabres games to hover like vultures. The question is whether Regier is the right GM to handle those assets as the Sabres rebuild.
— Darren Helm finally should return for the Red Wings on Saturday night at Edmonton. But he has played only one game since April 11, 2012, because of back and groin injuries, and now the problem is his mind as much as anything. He needs to trust his own body to hold up, and he needs to trust himself to play at the NHL level again. The Wings don’t expect him to be himself – a player who can make a difference at center with his speed – for a while yet.
— New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, on the frustration of facing the Wings: “They’re probably the best in the league, or close to it, as far as making the legal interference.” The Wings make it difficult to get to open ice with their positioning – off the draw, especially, but with their skating and positioning in general. You have to manage the puck well so you don’t feed their transition game, and you have battle for your space.
— This is a brutal stretch for the Nashville Predators. Goaltender Pekka Rinne is expected to miss at least three more weeks recovering from a hip infection, and they are beginning the longest road trip in franchise history – 17 days, seven games, from Phoenix to Los Angeles to Colorado to Winnipeg to New Jersey to Long Island to Pittsburgh. They will rely on rookies Carter Hutton and Magnus Hellberg, who have appeared in six NHL games combined.
— Manny Malhotra, whose NHL career was cut short by an eye injury, is struggling in his comeback attempt with the American Hockey League’s Charlotte Checkers. He has zero points in eight games playing in a bottom-six role. One person who had watched him closely recently said he was not a factor, other than on faceoffs. Teams from Europe are inquiring about him, but Malhotra signed a one-year, two-way contract on Thursday with the Carolina Hurricanes, Charlotte's parent team, so the 'Canes appear willing to give him a shot – or at least more time.
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