The Penguins are playing like they're trying to get Mike Johnston fired; John Tortorella shows the Blue Jackets who’s boss, plus eight more thoughts.
With a tip o' the cap to our buddies over at The Monday Morning Quarterback, here are 10 things I think I think:
1. I think all you need to know about Mike Johnston’s job security in Pittsburgh can be boiled down to one stat: Over their past 22 regular season games, the Penguins have scored a total of 36 goals. The same Penguins that dress Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang and, for the past seven, Phil Kessel. This is a team that should be putting up three goals a night without breaking a sweat, but it has managed to score that many in regulation just four times over that stretch. In the seven games they've played so far this season, the Penguins have been held to two goals or fewer six times. The one exception? A 3–2 overtime victory against the Panthers.
There are almost too many problems to list. The power play is an embarrassment, connecting just twice on 25 chances. The defense struggles to make plays in transition. The lineup is a case study in failed chemistry. But the real indictment against Johnston is the team's body language. This group looks like it's ready to crumble after every bad bounce. That's especially true for Crosby, who looks miserable. You can argue (and rightly so) that as the captain he should be the one putting the Pens on his back and carrying them through this mess. But the fact that he hasn’t speaks loudly of his regard for the current staff. Have to believe a change is coming.
2. I think I’m going to refrain from jumping on the Dallas Stars bandwagon just a little bit longer. Sure, they’ve been the league’s most entertaining team through their surprising 6-1 start and they’ve made real strides in their defensive zone (fifth in the league at 2.14 goals-against per game). But this team got off to a solid 4-1-2 start last season before stumbling to the finish line, so it’s fair to say that seven games is too early to start planning the parade route.
It’s worth noting that the Stars have benefited from a cushy schedule, with four games against teams that failed to qualify for the playoffs last season and two more against a Pittsburgh team that is playing like it wants to get its coach fired. And goalies Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi are posting numbers that dramatically exceed their career averages. Those will be tough to sustain.
On the plus side, blueliner John Klingberg hasn’t yet hit his stride—when he does, their second-rated power play could be unstoppable—and Patrick Sharp will eventually run out of ways to botch premium scoring chances, so it’s possible that we haven]t yet seen the best of these Stars. But until they prove themselves against some top-flight competition, it’s probably best to curb our enthusiasm.
3. I think John Tortorella’s first game back behind the bench suggests things are about to get really interesting in Columbus. In the grand scheme, Thursday night’s contest against the Wild was hardly a must-win. At 0-7, 0-8, what’s the difference, right? That said, the Jackets needed that game on an emotional level, and it was right there for the taking. But rather than go for the short-term relief a victory would have provided, Tortorella took the long-term approach of establishing his expectations for the team and benched star center Ryan Johansen for the final 6:10 of a game that they eventually lost, 3–2.
The right call? Absolutely. Johansen has been stuck in neutral pretty much all season, and despite putting forth a decent effort during the first period in Minnesota, he was back to coasting through his shifts by the second. That won’t fly with Torts, and if that meant holstering his most dangerous weapon with the game on the line, well, that’s a hill he’s willing to die on.
There’ll be questions now about Johansen’s fitness level, about his commitment, about whether or not he can co-exist with Tortorella. Those will all sort themselves out in the coming days. But we learned one thing for certain on Thursday night. This is John Tortorella’s team now, and the players can either get with the program or grab a seat.
4. I think the fact that the Canucks pocketed a greater return by firing Tortorella than they did by trading goaltender Eddie Lack to the Carolina Hurricanes illustrates how ridiculous the league’s executive compensation policy truly is. Despite the fact that they fired Tortorella more than a year ago, Vancouver was entitled to a 2016 second-round pick from Columbus in exchange for agreeing to free him from the remainder of his contract, which was set to run two seasons beyond this one. Not bad, considering they only got a 2015 third- and a 2016 seventh-rounder for Lack.
It makes sense to have this policy in place as protection against the poaching of front-office talent. But allowing a team to claim compensation for the services of a coach it no longer wants while already benefiting by getting out from under the remainder of his contract, is ludicrous.
Commissioner Gary Bettman suggested that the league would give the policy a full year before re-examining it. That year is up on Jan. 1. Expect a significant change on or before that date.
5. I think that the presence of Cody Goloubef and Dalton Prout on Columbus’s blueline shows just how much work GM Jarmo Kekäläinen has ahead of him. Both players have been exposed repeatedly by their bad decisions and poor execution, despite playing relatively sheltered minutes, and that’s led to long stretches of chaos in the defensive zone. After watching Thursday’s game, I can’t imagine that they endeared themselves to Tortorella with their series of turnovers and blown assignments. They’ll likely remain in the lineup for lack of better options, but the pressure is squarely on Kekäläinen to give Tortorella something to work with.
6. I think I’m rooting for Jordin Tootoo to score on a nightly basis. That chicken dance celly he threw down after scoring against the Senators on Thursday night was the best I've seen in ages.
7. I think the NHL’s Department of Player Safety made the right call in choosing not to assess supplemental discipline to Zac Rinaldo of the Bruins for his hit on former teammate Sean Couturier. More important though, it did a great service by releasing a video to explain how it reached that decision. The DOPS is never going to win with some fans, but by making its process more transparent it helps us all better understand its methods and the constraints under which it operates.
8. I think Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau made a strange call starting Anton Khudobin on Thursday night. Sure, the backup was coming off a solid performance but with Boudreau's Ducks struggling to gain traction—and his own job under scrutiny—it was the sort of call that could easily backfire. And it did, as the Ducks fell 5–1 to the Predators.
A top opponent like that calls for a team’s No. 1 goalie. Frederik Andersen hasn’t won a game yet this season but he’s posted a .947 save percentage and 1.57 GAA. Hard to justify having him sit that one out.
9. I think Lee Stempniak might be the best value in hockey right now. The veteran winger has six points in his first seven games with the Devils, including the game-tying goal with 32 seconds left on the clock and the shootout winner against Ottawa on Thursday. In the two games prior to that, he scored and assisted on consecutive OT clinchers. Not a bad return for a $850,000 investment.
10. I think this might be the coolest hockey game I’ve ever seen.
The numbers game
• Since his rookie season of 2005-06, Alex Ovechkin has scored 19 more game-winning goals than the number two player in that time frame: Daniel Sedin, 62. Only three active players have tallied more game-winners than Ovi: Jaromir Jagr (129), Jarome Iginla (94) and Patrick Marleau (88). Jagr is the NHL’s all-time leader.
• Rangers forward Rick Nash is now the first member of the NHL’s draft class of 2002 to reach 700 career points. Alexander Semin of the Candiens ranks second with 516)
• The Dallas Stars have swept a road trip of four or more games for the first time since Nov. 25 – Dec. 2, 2001 when they 4-0-0.
• For the first time in history, Canadian players account for less than 50 percent of NHL rosters. Here’s why it was inevitable.
• A group of hockey scribes was asked to describe NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in two or three words. Here’s what they had to say.
• If it seems like hockey players are returning from injuries faster than ever, it’s because they are. Check out this story of one athlete’s recovery process. Absolutely astonishing.
• William Douglas offers updates on Everett Fitzhugh, hockey’s first black play-by-play announcer, and the film Soul On Ice, which documents the history of black players in the NHL. Great stuff, as always, from The Color Of Hockey blog.