NHL Roundtable: Berube's hot seat, early surprises, the Pronger conflict
Every Wednesday, a trio of SI.com staffers will sit down for a discussion of the hockey world's hot button issues. This week, Brian Cazeneuve, Sarah Kwak and I talk about Philadelphia's early stumbles, the season's pleasant surprises and the league's decision to add injured Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger to the Department of Player Safety. First up:
With the Flyers off to a dismal 0-2-2 start is Craig Berube now the favorite to be the first coach fired this season?
Brian Cazeneuve: I gather Berube feels the heat, but I don’t think he’ll be the first to get the ax. I can’t imagine anyone being on a shorter leash right now than Randy Carlyle. The Maple Leafs coach has scores of vultures circling and waiting for a definitive sign that Toronto is struggling again. At least in Berube’s case, there is a track record of Philly wobbling through last season's bad start before surging to a playoff berth. Toronto has made the playoffs only once in nearly a decade and that led to a crushing Game 7 fold against Boston in the first round. Last season, the team faded from view down the stretch. I’d say Carlyle is in more perilous shape than anyone, Berube included.
Sarah Kwak: Yeah, Caz, I agree. I don't think Berube's seat is the hottest in the league. As disheartening as a bad start can be, there is at least a lot of time to turn things around. The Flyers will have to begin in their own end where, without defenseman Kimmo Timonen, the group lacks an identity and a strong, capable leader. It is Berube's job to identify one, or GM Ron Hextall's job to go out and acquire one. Either way, the Flyers' D has got to improve. If that doesn't happen, then that will hang on Berube, but again, especially with the unexpected off-season news of Timonen's injury, I think Chief is afforded a little leeway.
Allan Muir: You're right, Sarah. The Eastern Conference is more forgiving of a bad start, and the Flyers' retooled blueline deserves some time to adjust to Berube's program as well as to the new roles that have to be assumed in the wake of Timonen's loss. It's also true that Hextall is regarded as a patient administrator. He's not going to make a panic call. Still, this is a team that's winless in four and there's a real chance that its problems could snowball in a hurry. The Flyers won't go winless in October, but looking at their schedule—they finish the month facing the Stars, Blackhawks, Penguins, Red Wings, Kings and Lightning—it could be close. If things continue to go south, a trade to upgrade the defense would be the logical first step. After that, it could be Berube's job on the line.
Cazeneuve: I would think some of this has to fall on the shoulders of the Flyers’ brass, too. I’m talking about Hextall, Paul Holmgren and Bob Clarke, all the decision makers who put the team together. Sure Timonen’s injury isn’t Hextall's fault, but look at the rest of the defense corps: Mark Streit, Luke Schenn, Andrew MacDonald, Niklas Grossman, Braydon Coburn. That sounds pretty thin at this point. Michael Del Zotto was a good pick up, but the balance goes beyond one player and the Flyers don't really have enough back there.
Muir: Del Zotto was a good pick up? Looks to me like he should be a healthy scratch by this weekend. No one expects him to be a shutdown guy but he's not making much of anything happen with the puck, either. To be fair, it doesn't help that he's saddled with Luke Schenn, another player who looks like he's lost his way. At this point, they may be the worst third pair in the East.
Now that we're through the first week of the season, which surprises have caught your eye?
Cazeneuve: I like what I’ve seen from the Islanders so far. They have three wins in three games and they’ve earned them. They were down, 2-1, against the Rangers midway through the game on Tuesday night and erupted for five unanswered goals within the next 16 minutes. What’s more, their defense has really gotten a boost from the additions of Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk. GM Garth Snow hasn’t always made the best decisions but he picked up both players from contending teams that were struggling to stay under the cap. Three teams have stood out from the crowd during the last five years— the Bruins, Blackhawks and Kings—and the Isles snared players from two of them. Both understand winning. Leddy is creative and productive. Boychuk is sturdy and reliable, with some skills, too. This is a big season for the Isles as they prepare for their move to a new building in Brooklyn and the early reviews are very good.
Kwak: I like the defensive additions that Snow made, too, feeding on cap vulnerability like a hyena, but do you really think that this D corps is durable and seasoned enough to make a lasting impression on the NHL? I'm still not quite sold. As much as I like Boychuk and Leddy, they were pieces that the Bruins and Blackhawks felt they could part with. So, I'm not calling them saving graces just yet. I'll be interested to see how the Isles respond to the inevitable bumps in the road.
Elsewhere around the league, how can you not be impressed by Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper? Two starts; two shutouts. Of course that won't last, but I do think it's very encouraging for Minnesota to see some long-term promise in net, especially after last season when they went through goalies like Tic Tacs. Long, lean and young—6'5", 207 pounds and only 24 years old—Kuemper is just what the Wild need. There's a new generation of goalies on the verge of making a splash in the league, guys like Anaheim's John Gibson or Dallas's Jack Campbell. I'm excited to see what they bring in the coming years.
Muir: It's always nice to see a long-suffering fan base like those wretched souls on Long Island finally get a payoff. It's not just the wins, although 3-0 is nice. It's seeing a kid like Brock Nelson or Ryan Strome start to deliver on the potential that this team has been selling for years. The organization needed them to take that step forward and the early indications are that they're ready to do just that.
Another guy that caught my eye? How about defenseman Stuart Percy in Toronto? I don't think many expected him to break camp with the Leafs, but he's built on a strong preseason and found a real nice chemistry with Roman Polak. He plays a really mature game. I think we expected the poise he shows with the puck—that was always his lead copy point. But what's really caught my eye is how well he's playing without it. There's no scramble in his game. He's in position, keeps guys to the outside, always seems to make the smart decision. He looks terrific.
The NHL raised more than a few eyebrows with its decision to add injured Flyer Chris Pronger to the Department of Player Safety. Good hire or a potential minefield?
Cazeneuve: Pronger will have a lot of credibility with players around the league because, like Brendan Shanahan, he's a Hall of Fame-caliber player with a mean streak. He certainly understood what it was like to play of the edge of fairness, and he sometimes stepped over it. Pronger knows what the trenches are like, and because of his history of concussions he's sensitive to what bad hits can do to a player’s career. Yes he has ties to the Flyers, but former disciplinarian Colin Campbell dealt with that problem. His son, Gregory, played for the Bruins, so Campbell had to recuse himself from situations that involved his son’s team. Pronger can do the same thing when the Flyers are involved.
Kwak: I'm confused why a league that has had to answer to awful, blatant conflict-of-interest ordeals in the past (see: Colin Campbell defending son Gregory in a leaked e-mail) would willingly open itself up to more potential conflicts of interest by hiring Pronger, a man who is still collecting money from an NHL team as a player. He will recuse himself from Flyers calls, sure, and I'm certain that he can be unbiased in his decision-making, but ultimately that is not the point. Conflict-of-interest rules and walls are set for a reason—not just in hockey but everywhere—and simply saying, "Well, I'm sure he won't be a problem" is simply undermining a system.
Muir: I don't have a problem so much with the team affiliation angle as I do the type of player Pronger was. Maybe you need a hacker to catch a hacker, but I'm just not sure a career spent playing on (and often over) the edge makes someone ideally qualified for this gig. If anything, I'd say that may have been the bane of Shanny's tenure—the pervasive sense that he looked at offenses through the eyes of the transgressor and, as a result, handed down rulings that erred towards lenience. That's not to say that Pronger can't do the job but I'd rather see someone who played a hard, honest game like Saku Koivu given a seat at the table than another "reformed" bad boy.
Cazeneuve: I think Pronger cares too much about the issue of head trauma to let any conflict-of-interest stand in his way. When you go through what he has endured—the shortened career, the memory issues, the headaches, the depression—you can’t help but think about the importance of rules that protect other players from the same sort of thing. I imagine people could also bring up the conflict issue if he assists Stephane Quintal in ruling on veteran guys that Pronger actually played against, because he has a personal history with many of them. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt, but again, I think given what Pronger went through, his loyalty will be with the safety considerations that can keep other players from debilitating injuries.