News and notes heading into the first weekend of the new season:
• Even before Boston’s humiliating 6-2 loss to Winnipeg in the Bruins’ home opener on Thursday night, there were whispers that coach Claude Julien was on a short leash. The very idea, of course, is preposterous. Julien is one of the absolute best in the business and there’s no sense that he’s lost the attention of his team. Finding someone better suited for the job would be nearly impossible.
Still, any time a new GM inherits an incumbent coach—as Don Sweeney did when he took over for Peter Chiarelli last May—there’s always a sense that a change behind the bench is only a matter of time. And a stinker like the Bruins delivered on Thursday won’t do anything to put that notion to bed.
Of course, no one should have expected a much better result given the state of Boston’s blueline. With both Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg on the sidelines, Julien was forced to play Torey Krug—ideally a third-pair defenseman—for 24:54 and Kevan Miller—ideally a minor leaguer—for 22:26. Not exactly Bobby Orr and Brad Park redux.
Injuries forced the D corps into a position to fail, and that’s exactly what it did. Can’t blame a coach for that.
But that defensive clown show wasn’t entirely on a group of overtaxed blueliners. The more troubling issue was the tendency of some of Boston’s forwards to leave the zone too early—and that is on the coach.
The message out of Boston’s front office all summer was that the B’s would become a more dangerous offensive team. Some players—Ryan Spooner, Brett Connolly, Jimmy Hayes, among others—apparently decided that meant they could hang the D out to dry while they focused on creating scoring chances.
“There was maybe a lack of respect on the other side of the game,” Julien said in his postgame comments. “And that’s where it ended up costing us. We might have gotten a little excited about our offense and forgot about the other part of our game.”
Fair to say that Julien would prefer a more buttoned-down brand of hockey, and he’ll demand that those players tighten their gaps and demonstrate more responsibility. But it could turn out that he and Sweeney have different visions of how to get the most out of these players. And if that’s the case, well, you know how that will play out.
• We could have our first significant trade of the season before the weekend is out.
The Sabres expect to know more on Friday about the status of goalie Robin Lehner, who appeared to injure his right ankle after getting his skate caught in a rut midway through that 3–1 loss to the Sens. If he is sidelined for an extended period—coach Dan Bylsma suggested Lehner was “more than day-to-day”—that could force GM Tim Murray to look for a veteran fill-in.
And if the Sabres are buying, the Flames are selling.
Calgary is carrying three goalies at the moment, and would be happy to move either Karri Ramo or Jonas Hiller, both of whom will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. Ramo was unimpressive in Calgary’s opening night loss to Vancouver, but is seen as the Flames’ 1A. Hiller is more experienced, but more expensive as well, counting $4.5 million against the cap.
The Sabres, though, have plenty of space, and a wealth of draft picks at their disposal. If the news on Lehner is bad, there could be a match here.
• There’s no need to micro-analyze Connor McDavid in the wake of his much-hyped NHL debut on Thursday night.
True, he failed to score and now must live with the shame of trailing Dallas Stars goalie Antti Niemi by two points in the league scoring race. He struggled at the dots, going 0-for-6 in the first period alone. And maybe he erred on the side of defensive caution on more than a few plays when he would have been better served by trusting his creative instincts.
But it’s hard to complain about the phenom’s effort in Edmonton’s 3–1 loss to the Blues. In fact, it felt like a veteran performance, defined by an awareness and a confidence that goes well beyond his years. Safe and smart might not wind up on the highlights, but it speaks to the strength of McDavid’s overall game that at 18 he can make a contribution that goes beyond the scoresheet.
But it wasn’t just a night for showing off his attention to details. There were also moments of pure exhilaration, like the one rush where he blew the doors off of St. Louis defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, one of the league’s premier skaters, on his way to a strong scoring chance. You see him turn on the jets and make a 2014 Olympic gold medalist look silly and it’s easy to picture how many defenders he’ll turn into pylons before this season is over.
A preview of coming attractions, and a solid overall effort.
• Jack Eichel’s debut offered the big moment that McDavid’s was lacking: a blistering one-timer that beat Ottawa’s Craig Anderson for his first NHL goal. That power play marker was the highlight of Buffalo’s 3–1 loss to the Senators and a beautiful display of Eichel’s power and positioning. The kid, like all the great ones, knows exactly where to be and what to do when he gets there.
It’s noteworthy as well that the goal came with the Sabres a man up. Buffalo was a garbage fire on the power play last season, ranking dead last with a miserable 13.4% success rate, but the way they executed on this sequence hints at better results this year.
“The compete on that goal from those guys, it was a power-play goal that kind of wasn’t a real power-play goal,” coach Dan Bylsma told The Buffalo News. “We got over the line and we literally battled it an inch at a time down to the corner.” The additions of Eichel and Evander Kane give the unit more skill and, importantly, a more physical presence. Should be fun to watch.
The Numbers Game
• Jack Eichel is now the youngest player in Sabres history (18 years 346 days) to score a goal in a season-opening game.
• By stoning the Flyers’ Claude Giroux in the first period and Scott Laughton in overtime on Thursday night, Ben Bishop became the first goalie in Lightning history to face multiple penalty shots in the same game and the first to face one in OT. He’s also only the fifth netminder of the NHL’s expansion era to stop two in the same game. The others: Michel Belhumeur of the Capitals (Oct. 23, 1974 at Blackhawks), Corrado Micalef of the Red Wings (Feb. 16, 1986 at Rangers), Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff (March 4, 2011 vs. Blue Jackets) and Roberto Luongo of the Canucks (Feb. 6, 2014 at Canadiens).
• Antti Niemi of the Stars is now the first goalie in NHL history to record a shutout and be credited with two assists in the same game.
• A Columbus Blue Jackets pick and a possible free-agent defector headline this list of the top-50 players to watch in college hockey this season.
• Despite icing the most dangerous lineup in the Eastern conference, the Tampa Bay Lightning will be hard pressed to upgrade the banner they unveiled on Thursday night.
• It's always worth a read when the great Mitch Albom talks hockey. Here he speaks with Brendan Shanahan about how the Leafs stole Mike Babcock away from the Red Wings. Some great stuff here.
• Now under new management, the New Jersey Devils believe they’re capable of silencing the doubters. Ah, hope springs eternal.
• Former referee Paul Stewart takes issue with the media’s understanding of the NHL rulebook. Hey, it’s a lot of reading. (I kid, I kid!)