NHL Roundtable: Rick Nash's hot start; endless Jets mess; more
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 the tragic news out of Ottawa, Rick Nash's hot start, Winnipeg's endless slide and the NHL's handling of the Slava Voynov domestic violence situation. First up:
Just an awful story out of Ottawa on Wednesday morning where it appears that multiple shooters have staged attacks across the city. Although it's well down the list of priorities right now, there was a hockey game scheduled for this evening between the Senators and the Maple Leafs. How should the league handle this?
Brian Cazeneuve: If law enforcement feels there's any threat to public safety, they have to postpone it. And that's just what the NHL did. It was the only prudent thing to do.
Al Muir: So many moving parts in this story, including the revelation that the Leafs are staying at a hotel attached to the Rideau Centre, reportedly the scene of one of the shootings. Ensuring they're safe is obviously the league's first priority. After that they can start thinking about the game. If there really are one or more shooters still at large, it's a no-brainer to postpone the game. Some people were getting a little antsy when we got into early afternoon and the league had yet to make a decision, but for what it's worth, it took about two hours after the Boston Marathon bombing for the NHL to postpone the Bruins-Senators game that had been scheduled for that evening.
On to more comfortable topics. Rick Nash scored again on Tuesday night, his league-leading eighth goal of the season. Is his hot start a sign that he's back or is this just an early-season mirage?
Cazeneuve: Remember that Nash was taking a ton of shots during the playoffs last season—83 to be exact, to lead the league, but he wasn’t finishing. He scored just three times in 25 games, which is fewer than he should get by going to the net and having a puck deflect off his shin pads. Some people say he was hurt, that there was something wrong with his hands. Maybe so. It could also be that a guy who spent many of his successful years in the witness protection program of Columbus will get jittery when the Broadway spotlights are on him. Apart from playing in the Olympics, where he didn't have to be a star, Nash has never had that career moment in the bright lights. It’s possible that the crucible of a Stanley Cup run in New York is too much for a guy who is pretty soft-spoken. There has to be an explanation for what happened in four rounds last spring. The sample size is just too large. In any case, he is a good player, with an excellent combination of size and skill. Another 40 goals? I wouldn’t be surprised.
Sarah Kwak: Reports out of training camp indicated that Nash worked incredibly hard this summer to improve on what was obviously a disappointing postseason for him personally. So I'm not surprised that he's off to a hot start. Not to mention, skating with Martin St. Louis will make just about any player better. I don't think Nash will maintain this pace over 82 games, but can he be a 40-goal scorer again? Yes, I think he can, and I think he will this season.
Muir: I'd tap the brakes on that 40-goal talk. He's shooting 32% right now, off the charts for a guy whose career high is half that (15.9%). Part of that can be attributed to doing the right things—crashing the net and shooting from 1-to-10 feet out instead of 20-to-30—and part looks to be the puck luck that just wasn't there for him during the playoffs, but clearly it's not sustainable. Plus, he's 30—not an age at which snipers are known for posting career-best numbers. I think he remains a vital part of New York's offense, but 30 goals seem like a more reasonable target. Give him credit, though. He's putting up these numbers without his regular center (Derek Stepan is still on IR) and without any fattening up on the power play. Pretty impressive.
The Winnipeg Jets are off to another dismal start (1-4) and their same ol' problems—lack of consistency and the inability to deal with adversity—are already front and center. Is there any reason to believe that this franchise can turn it around as constructed? If not, what has to change?
Kwak: Ah, those Winnipeg Jets … They seem to know what their problems are, but are just mentally incapable of turning a corner—any corner. Even with the rebranding, the relocation, the excitement and promise, perhaps all of that isn't enough to rid the organization of a deep-seated expectancy of failure. What has to change? I don't think it falls on coach Paul Maurice. He hasn't been there long enough to really take ownership of their failures yet. He inherited them. I don't know what needs to change. I don't think the Jets know what needs to change. It seems they have grown complacent in failure, and the only way to break that cycle is to have some success. I think they can start with little things, like maybe making their power play better than 0.0 percent, or focus on winning small battles like offensive zone draws more consistently. The Jets have not been active free agency participants during the past couple of years, instead believing in the group that they have, but what if that group has no belief in itself? That's sort of where I see Winnipeg right now.
Cazeneuve: I agree that this shouldn’t be dumped in Maurice’s lap so soon. But to talk about a turnaround, you need to overcome more than just a powerless power play and wonky goaltending. I don’t think anyone doubts that Winnipeg is a great hockey town, but it takes a whiff of success to breed more success, which will lead to free agents considering going there to be a part of something special, and existing players who want to stay there and build a winning club that can last a while. But what kind of success have the fans known in Winnipeg? In 20 seasons, including the club’s first iteration through the mid-'90s, the Jets have won two playoff series. In Phoenix, where the old Jets went, the franchise has only won two series, both in 2012. In Atlanta, the city that used to house the Jets, the team played in just one series during its 11 seasons and lost that one. Add the numbers from the Jets, Coyotes and Thrashers and you get four playoff series wins in 48 combined seasons. There has been no culture of playoff success at all in Winnipeg, before Winnipeg, after Winnipeg, with anything having to do with Winnipeg.
Muir: I'm with Sarah. This is a nervous team that plays like it is waiting for the other shoe to drop, where any hint of adversity is met with a “here we go again” exasperation. A mental rot has taken hold that shows up not only on the ice, but in too many postgame interviews. They talk about commitment and teamwork and sticking to the plan night after night. They just can't deliver. I don't for a moment believe that this group buys into GM Kevin Cheveldayoff's approach, that given enough time the kids will mature into viable players and everything will take care of itself. I think they look around the room and they don't see enough guys they can go to war with. Can't blame that on Maurice ... or expect him to fix it, either. I've brought this up before: Chevy was on the job more than three years before he made his first player-for-player trade earlier this month, and that one was inconsequential (Eric Tangradi for Peter Budaj and Patrick Holland). His paralysis has doomed the Jets to lower middle-class irrelevance.
The NHL wasted no time in suspending Slava Voynov after learning that he'd been arrested for suspicion of domestic violence. How do you feel about the league's reaction, and what do you think it does for the NHL's image vis a vis other leagues?
Kwak: I think the league's reaction to suspend him while the investigation is pending was a no-brainer. The fact that this hasn't always been the case—or only became a no-brainer in the aftermath of the NFL's Ray Rice episode—is what is preposterous to me. I don't think it really does anything for the NHL's image, though, because I don't think we should applaud common sense.
Muir: The boys in New York know which way the wind is blowing. This isn't the old days when stories about some players were well known but ignored because, hey, that's a private family matter. And it certainly isn't 2013 when “innocent until proven guilty” was deemed a reasonable response when Semyon Varlamov faced similar accusations. There are too many reputation points at stake here, too many corporate partners who don't want to be seen cozying up to enablers. Fair or not, it was the only option they had. And Voynov is still being paid while the case plays out.
Cazeneuve: Yeah, the league had no choice. Look at the justified criticism that the NFL has gotten for trying to stuff this kind of stuff under the rug. I’m sure Gary Bettman also saw the bad press that was heaped on Roger Goodell, who handled a situation poorly, and the good press given to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver for his swift response to racist comments by Clippers owner Donald Sterling last season. It would have been interesting to see what the league's response would have been with Semyon Varlamov if his incident had taken place this season. The league had to act swiftly and decisively with Voynov.