Some notes and thoughts on NHL doings heading into the weekend:
• That noise you heard sweeping across New England earlier this week? That was the sound of thousands of Bruins fans reacting to the hiring of Don Sweeney as Boston’s next general manager with a deep, simultaneous yawn.
And who can blame them? Sweeney was the least inspiring hire possible, someone moving down the hall to a slightly bigger office. Instead of empowering a fresh voice, the Bruins turned to the lieutenant of recently fired GM Peter Chiarelli.
Sure, Sweeney may end up surprising everyone, and now that he’s in place he deserves every opportunity to prove that he’s his own man and fully capable of returning the B’s to glory. But it’s hard to get worked up about the future when it seems like nothing is changing. And especially when during his introductory press conference the new man in charge seems to prioritize physical commitment over the team’s glaring need for speed and skill.
“We have to have more aggression in our game, ” Sweeney said in response to a question about his vision for the team’s identity, summoning to mind Brian Burke’s proclamation, “We require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence” upon his introduction as Toronto's new GM back in 2008.
That approach may be what sells tickets in Boston, but that’s not what wins championships. Not these days anyway.
Maybe it’ll all work out fine, just as it did when Chiarelli took over the club and led it to the 2011 Stanley Cup. But it feels more like a throwback to the Harry Sinden days when being good was good enough for the Bruins.
• Sweeney, on the future of Bruins coach Claude Julien: ”He’s the coach of the Boston Bruins, as of today.”
Not what you’d call a ringing endorsement but he hasn’t exactly earned one, has he? While Julien is certainly not entirely to blame for the team’s struggles this season, he bears some responsibility. His risk-aversion style appears to be wearing on his players and it led him to over-rely on aging vets at the expense of younger, more offensive-minded prospects. As a result, the Bruins were too slow and couldn’t generate enough (just 209 goals, 23rd in the league) to keep pace with the real contenders.
That said, Julien signed a contract extension believed to be worth $7.5 million over three years that kicks in next season. Sweeney might be inclined to fire him and bring in his own guy, but it’s hard to believe that team owner Jeremy Jacobs will want to tote that note. That means the new GM and old coach could be stuck with each other for a long time.
• There was a smarter way for Gary Bettman to handle a question about the existence of any connection between contact in hockey and the brain damage condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
The commissioner should have replied that the league is currently involved in litigation and then declined to speak any further. Evasive, sure, but perfectly understandable.
Instead, he told reporters in Chicago on Thursday this:
“From a medical science standpoint, there is no evidence yet that one necessarily leads to the other,” Bettman said. “I know there are a lot of theories, but if you ask people who study it, they tell you there is no statistical correlation that can definitively make that conclusion.”
It was a page ripped from the climate-change denial playbook, a classic head-in-the-sand defense. Appalling ... but then again exactly what you’d expect the man to say.
You can’t blame the reporter for asking, but Bettman doesn’t fall prey to gotcha moments. He’s not going to admit that CTE discovered in the autopsied brains of several recently deceased players including Derek Boogaard and Steve Montador might suggest a link to hockey activities. That would be bad for his bosses. And Bettman doesn’t do things that are bad for his bosses.
His responsibilities as commissioner are straightforward: to protect and enhance the interests of the 30 member teams and their owners. If those interests coincide with the betterment of the game and its players, great. When they run counter, as in this case, there should be no doubt which side of the line he’s on.
Fans shouldn’t be surprised by this callous approach. When you see the league take a socially mature position like its commitment to protect LGBT rights or cut back on greenhouse emissions, it’s worth putting it into context. Those are admirable, but they’re also no-risk, high-reward propositions, especially for a league whose primary demographic is Canada, Europe and the northern United States. In reality, the NHL isn’t a taking a stand at all. It costs the league nothing.
This is different. The concussion lawsuits could cost the NHL billions of dollars. That’s not a payout that Bettman is looking to expedite by coming clean in the press.
When change comes to the league, as it inevitably will, you can be sure of one thing: The force driving that change will be external.
• NBC commentator Mike Milbury aroused the ire of the Ducks and their fans when he said that the best way to diminish the impact of Corey Perry was to “hurt him in a painful and permanent way.” Probably not the perfect choice of words, but perfectly in keeping with the character Milbury is paid to be on the broadcast. And certainly not that big a deal. To my ears it sounded like old-school admiration for Perry and his impact in the playoffs and not a literal plea for someone to injure the grating Anaheim winger. That said, if the player was upset, Milbury owes him a phone call.
• Take note, Alanis. This here is ironic:
Slava Fetisov, a player whose struggle to leave the Soviet Union and pursue a career in the NHL was featured in two recent documentaries, is working to slam the door on younger Russians who are looking to do leave their homeland for greener pastures.
Fetisov, now a senator in Russia, told the Russian website SovSport that a federal law should be enacted to force players to remain at home until they turn 28. The reason? To preserve the integrity of the struggling KHL by keeping “our most talented guys, the ones who the people come to see.”
Fetisov essentially broke the old Soviet system when when in 1989 he became the first star-quality Russian to bolt to the NHL. He went on to win two Stanley Cups with the Red Wings but more importantly paved the way for hundreds of his countrymen to pursue lucrative professional opportunities outside their homeland.
You can understand how that’s hurt the development of local hockey, and why Fetisov would be motivated to do everything possible to work toward the long-term success of the KHL. But to now support restrictions rather than reform, especially after all he went through, makes him a truly sorry human being.
• Now that regular season sensation Andrew Hammond has been signed to a four-year, $3 million deal, the Senators have one goalie too many under contract for next season. Robin Lehner is still working his way back from injury and the 23-year-old’s value is driven more by potential than actual achievements, so the return would be minimal. Craig Anderson, on the other hand, has skins on the wall including a 2015 playoff run that saw him post a 0.97 GAA and a .972 save percentage. No one would expect him to maintain that success during the regular season, but for a team looking to take the next step he could be the answer. Expect Jim Nill, whose Dallas Stars desperately need an upgrade over Kari Lehtonen, to be in the mix, along with San Jose, Edmonton and Buffalo. If the Stars are involved, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the team then shop netminding prospect Jack Campbell. With the stock of 2013 pick Philippe Desrosiers rapidly rising, Campbell the former first rounder/Team USA bronze medalist might be expendable.
• Final thought: Not to panic anyone in Tampa, but the whole idea of Steven Stamkos going to Toronto when his contract expires at the end of next season doesn’t sound quite so crazy now, does it?