Friday November 21st, 2008

Even if you've never met Randy Carlyle, it won't be too difficult to pick him out of a crowded room. Just look for the guy who is completely blue in the face.

He's tried being patient. He's tried being impatient. He even held one-on-one meetings with each of his players on Monday. But after Wednesday's 6-4 loss to the Capitals -- a score that reflects too kindly on the home team's efforts -- the coach of the Anaheim Ducks finally seemed to be at the breaking point with his team.

Who can blame him? Watching the Ducks take 10 minors and commit about two dozen more turnovers than the eight listed on the scoresheet would be enough to push any coach over the edge.

It's one thing to play tough, honest -- or just the other side of honest -- hockey. That's something the Ducks did so well on their way to the 2007 Stanley Cup. But what these Ducks are doing is neither of those things. This is caught-out-of-position hockey. This is just-got-beat, better-hook-'em hockey.

These are not the excusable mistakes of a young team. This group is loaded with vets of the Cup run, guys who know full well the folly of taking shortcuts -- at least they should know after last year's blink-and-you-missed-it trip to the playoffs. Yet for prolonged stretches this season, they've played like the laziest team in the NHL.

"We've only talked about it about 250 million times, so obviously it has to resort to some drastic measures," Carlyle told the media on Wednesday night. "We're going to continue to make changes and make lineup changes. We had people who sat out like Brad May and Ryan Carter and Nathan McIver, so there are options for us."

After watching the Capitals score three goals on their first five chances with the extra man -- by which point it was game over -- Carlyle no doubt feels he has to do something. But while he's got the right idea, he's sending the wrong message. Not to say that May, Carter and McIver were blameless in previous losses, but exactly how impactful is the benching of a trio of fringe players, none of whom is averaging more than 10 minutes per game?

The issue isn't with the benchwarmers. It's with the stars. Problem is, while it might be tempting to dramatically whittle down the time of a star -- or even send one to the press box -- that approach rarely works. That's why the answer has to come from the players themselves. And it starts with Scott Niedermayer, the player who is wearing the C but doing little of late to earn it.

Discipline shouldn't be an issue on a team led by Niedermayer, but it is. The bad habits developed by the Ducks last season while he was on his journey of personal discovery as Chris Pronger wore the C have continued this year. They fail to execute in their own zone. The transition game is a turnover machine. And then there are the penalties...

Leading the league in majors, which they do, isn't a problem. Leading the league in minors (133 through 20 games) is. Especially when the PK ranks 23rd overall, and the confidence of goaltenders J-S Giguere and Jonas Hiller is being whittled away by too many high quality chances.

New GM Bob Murray may feel the urge to mess with the chemistry, especially if Mats Sundin makes himself available. Sundin's addition would certainly impact the team's secondary scoring, an issue that's plagued the Ducks since Murray's predecessor (what was his name again?) dealt Andy McDonald away in order to address cap issues.

Murray has already given Carlyle a pair of new bodies in Brett Festerling and Bobby Ryan. The duo was recalled from the minors when the season-ending injury of Francois Beauchemin cleared up some salary space.

But adding a couple of new faces won't address these long-festering issues. It all starts with Niedermayer, who has taken more than a few lazy penalties this season, including a hooking call early in the third against the Caps that the Ducks managed to kill off. But with the team already down 5-2 at that point, this was one of those lack of composure mistakes that is at the root of the team's problems.

The Ducks are about to become a team in transition. They have 10 players who are 30 or older, and just eight have signed past this season. There should be a sense of urgency, a desire for one last kick at the can together, so their lack of composure is difficult to understand.

Here's the thing: Composure isn't a coaching issue. It's a player issue, something that a veteran like Niedermayer or Pronger or any of the leadership core can address on the ice and in the room. Until they do, the Ducks will struggle to find consistency.

No one can say Carlyle's job is safe if this pattern continues. It's still easier to replace one coach than 20 players, and if the Ducks keep making the same mistakes, then something has to give. But it shouldn't be Carlyle who pays the price. This one's on the players. It's up to them to fix it.

Tavares to Spits in the wind

The top junior team in Canada lost out on one prize in their quest to bolster their Memorial Cup chances, but they might be honing in on another. Buzz around the OHL suggests that the Windsor Spitfires (22-2) are looking to acquire top prospect John Tavares.

Oshawa coach and assistant GM Chris DePiero confirmed that the Spits were among a number of teams who had called about Tavares, but added that the Generals had not yet committed to moving the gifted center. Tavares's 17 goals and 36 points in 23 games rank him third in the OHL scoring race behind Windsor's Taylor Hall and Ryan Ellis.

On the surface, it's an odd decision. The team is strong down the middle, and looks to get stronger if the Islanders return first-rounder Josh Bailey. But the Memorial Cup may be the toughest trophy to win in sports, and if you're within striking distance, you add talent and then trust the coach to make the pieces fit.

And if you're a team like the Generals, one with no shot at all, you have to start thinking about the future. If they decide to move Tavares, it'll set them up nicely for two years down the road. They have until Jan. 9 to make a decision.

The one that got away for the Spits was goaltender Brandon Maxwell, whose junior rights were acquired last week from the Erie Otters. But the 17-year-old was playing for the American national team development program, and was refused his release by USA Hockey.

Maxwell, a top prospect in this summer's draft, recently backstopped the Americans to a gold medal at the Four Nations tournament and has rescinded his verbal commitment to attend Boston College. He'll join the Spits next season.

Loose lips on the Hawks?

The decision by the Blackhawks to scratch Dustin Byfuglien and Brent Sopel on Thursday night in Dallas had the press box buzzing about an impending trade. Rumors have been swirling that the duo would be headed to Washington for Michael Nylander, the second line center the Hawks clearly covet. Chicago officials denied a deal was imminent after the game, but center Dave Bolland seemed to let something slip during a televised interview: "We've bonded a lot and played great together. It's so sad to see Buff..."

At that point, he was cut off by Hawks broadcaster Ed Olczyk. There are always rumors floating around, but this one bears watching more than most.

Lemieux refuses to quit

Count me among those who wrote off the thought of a Claude Lemieux comeback as some kind of middle-age crisis that would better have been resolved with a shiny new sports car. But give the 43-year-old some credit. When no team in the AHL was interested in signing him, he took the road less traveled to prove the seriousness of his intentions.

By signing with the China Sharks, Lemieux sent a message to potential NHL employers that this is not a lark. Hard to imagine that he'd stay in China very long (he had one assist in two games), and sure enough on Tuesday (Nov. 25) he inked an AHL deal with San Jose's Worcester Sharks. After that, who knows? Injuries and slumps have a way of creating opportunities for familiar names.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.