Carey Price’s injury, and its implications on the Montreal Canadiens’ Stanley Cup chances, was a major talking point Monday, even here on the off day in the Western Conference final as well.
During Sunday’s 3-1 win, the Los Angeles Kings had their own close call with a goaltender they couldn’t afford to lose, when Jonathan Quick was bowled over by the Chicago Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews as he drove across the top of the goal crease. The goal was ultimately disallowed because of incidental contact and the great thing about Kings’ coach Darryl Sutter is that he isn’t going to change his assessment of the play the way the Montreal Canadiens’ Michel Therrien did.
The Price injury went from being an innocent to a reckless play in Therrien’s eyes and when the matter came up here, Blackhawks’ coach Joel Quenneville started off by saying even the coach figured it was an innocent play.
The problem with goalie interference calls is, as the Kings’ Justin Williams told me Monday, is that there’s a real grey area there. But Williams went on to say: “I think for the most part, as hockey players, we feel at the end of the day you’re going to get what you deserve. If you deserve to win that game, most likely you’re going to win it. If you don’t, you roll the dice, see what happens.”
That’s a mature outlook and it is one shared by a lot of the principals on this side of the NHL. Sutter, for one, is an unabashed supporter of Toews and so, when the question about Price’s injury came up, Sutter was just thankful that his own goaltender escaped serious injury.
The loss of a starter on the level of Quick, Price or the Blackhawks’ Corey Crawford can be incalculable at this time of year. It wasn’t that Dustin Tokarski played so badly for the Canadiens in Monday’s loss, it’s just that the guy at the other end of the ice, the New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist, was so much better. Goaltending is a factor in the game and when you get down to the final four, all-world is better than merely good enough. No one on Montreal’s side will ever blame Tokarski for the loss, but probably everyone would want to know how differently Game 2 would look if Price happened to be between the pipes.
“It’s such a fine line,” began Sutter. “If you look at the Montréal play, they’re both right. If you look at our play last night, they’re both right. One guy’s trying to score, which is what we try to do ever since we played the game, and the goalie’s trying to stop the puck, so...
“I’m just glad we’re not talking about that today because our goalie was hurt. Not that their Jonathan was trying to run into our Jonathan, just the point that our goalie wasn’t hurt.”
In the moment, Quenneville was upset that Toews’s goal didn’t count, but he acknowledged that it is hard for a team, any team, to have it both ways. As a coach, Quenneville wants his team to go hard to the net at one end of the ice and protect his goaltender vigorously at the other.
“We all know the line and the objective there,” said Quenneville. “But to say exactly how to prevent it, it’s something that can happen. It can happen to anybody.”
Sutter doesn’t believe that a coach’s challenge is the way to go. Interference on the goalie is not reviewable by the NHL’s hockey operations department in Toronto. The GMs have kicked around the concept of a coach’s challenge for a couple of years now, but there just hasn’t been enough momentum to adopt the change. Sutter doesn’t get a vote, but he believes it would be a mistake, on the grounds that the time needed to drop a flag and review a play would unnecessarily interrupt the flow of the game.
“Our game is not stop, start,” said Sutter, “It’s more on the fly. So the more that you pull those situations into it, the more it sort of spaces your game out.
“I’m not for that.”
When asked for a players’ perspective on the matter of driving the net, Williams made a revealing point: That NHL referees are talking to the players constantly on the ice, and making them aware of when they are pushing the limits.
“Whenever you’re near the net, there are always referees yelling at you,” said Williams. “If you’re in the blue paint, they say, ’Get out of it, get out of it.’ There are a lot of warnings out there, too. ‘Hey, I might not have counted that goal because you were obstructing him a little bit.’ You have to watch where you are. You have to watch where your feet are, and be aware of your surroundings. You don’t want to be that guy who has the obstructed goal taken back – because playoffs every goal and every play is important and has an impact on the series.”
WHAT WILL MARIO DO?: The early favourite to land the vacant Pittsburgh Penguins’ general manager job was Pat Brisson, the highly respected Los Angeles-based player agent, who happens to be a friend to owner Mario Lemieux and representative to their two top players, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. It would seem like a logical match, except that Brisson would have to relocate, take a major pay cut and move from a quiet king-maker position on the sidelines to on the hot seat. Why would he? Can’t see it happening.
It would only make sense if he was looking for a new challenge in his life – and I see Brisson all the time in the corridors at the Staples Center, post-game, and he seems very happy with the state of his life right now, working for the prestigious CAA Agency, settled, leading a charmed life. Yes, player agents have occasionally gone on to have successful careers as NHL managers – Pierre Lacroix, Brian Burke, Mike Gillis, Chuck Fletcher – all started as player agents and moved into NHL management, with various degrees of success.
Once upon a time, Lacroix represented Patrick Roy and ultimately, the two Stanley Cups they won together in Colorado were largely won because of that acquisition. But Ray Shero’s availability should reset the GM searches in both Washington and Vancouver, the only manager with a proven track record suddenly available on the open market.
Sorry, but from this far-away perspective, the decision to fire Shero seems both knee-jerk and ill-advised. Unexpectedly, somebody’s going to get a credible front-office – and the Penguins will be hard-pressed to find a comparable replacement.
Shero’s trade record was exceptional and those that complain about his draft record probably aren’t paying close enough attention to all the young defencemen coming through the Penguins’ pipeline. If anything, Pittsburgh’s biggest mistake was committing salary and term to Rob Scuderi, after he left Los Angeles last year as an unrestricted free agent, putting them in a sort of salary-cap purgatory.
The Penguins probably don’t have the money to sign the most attractive free-agent defenceman entering the market, their own Matt Niskanen.
The to-do list for the new GM in Pittsburgh should feature three main items: 1. Improving the quality of the team’s goaltending (too bad they didn’t get in on Jonathan Bernier last year when he was traded away for a song); 2. Finding someone to trade for Scuderi; and 3. Exploring the market for Kris Letang who, despite his salary, his injury history and the fact that he suffered a stroke last year, would oblige more than a few teams to enter bids.
That would be a bold move to make, but Pittsburgh is like San Jose and St. Louis in that regard – if all they ever do is tweak around the edges without trying to fundamentally alter significant parts of a team that consistently underachieves in the playoffs – nothing is going to change.
THIS AND THAT: The St. Louis Blues’ decision to sign Brian Elliott to a three-year, $7.5-million contract extension means their goaltending rotation is set for next year. Elliott will share time with rookie Jake Allen, who has been patiently biding his time in the minors, but is going to get the opportunity to win the No. 1 job starting in September. When the Blues traded away Ben Bishop to the Ottawa Senators a couple of years ago, they did so believing that Allen had the better upside. If they’re right, it means that Allen will eventually have Vezina Trophy potential – because in his first full season as an NHL starter, Bishop was exceptional on behalf of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Miller’s next landing place will be interesting. All along, the belief was that Miller wanted to be as close to the West Coast as possible because his wife is an actress. Since the Los Angeles Kings are set in goal and the Anaheim Ducks will likely go with a pair of youngsters, John Gibson and Frederik Anderson next year, Miller’s best opportunities might lie with the Vancouver Canucks and the San Jose Sharks.
The Canucks have two youngsters as well, Eddie Lack and Jacob Markstrom, while the Sharks were unhappy with how starter Antti Niemi played most of the season. After failing to help the Blues get past the Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round, it may well be that Miller’s asking price will have to drop – and he may also have to sign a short-term deal to prove to an organization that he really can provide the goaltending answers come playoff time.
Elliott had another solid season for the Blues, winning 18 out of 26, and finishing second in the league with a 1.96 GAA and is only two seasons removed from an exceptional year in which he was part of a Jennings Trophy winning tandem with Jaroslav Halak, posting a .940 SP, a 1.56 GAA plus nine shutouts. Halak is currently property of the New York Islanders, who acquired his rights in trade with the Washington Capitals. Next year, the Capitals could go with Braden Holtby and Phillippe Gruber as their goaltending tandem, or pursue Miller or Swiss veteran Jonas Hiller, who the Ducks are ready to part with, if they believe more experience is needed.
The Ducks locked up one of the NHL’s most underrated general managers, Bob Murray, for another four years, even though his current contract wasn’t going to expire until 2016. Murray is now under contract until the end of the decade, largely because Ducks’ management was aware of how well he’d done, managing a mid-cap team to one of the best cumulative records in the NHL over the past two years – and filling the Anaheim pipeline with excellent young prospects. Unlike some teams that had disappointing playoffs, and will have to make hard choices when it comes to next year’s roster, the Ducks have so many quality players coming through the system that they’re finely positioned to put young, reasonably priced NHLers in the lineup and can sit back and watch them blossom.
THE MIKE RICHARDS CONUNDRUM: Here’s a question that Kings’ general manager Dean Lombarid will need to answer this off-season? Does he offer Mike Richards a compliance buyout because the speed of the game has passed him by? Or does the fact that Richards seems to do so much better in the playoffs than the regular season make him safe? Lombardi tends to be like a lot of GMs – intensely loyal to the core group that helped him win. But unlike Jeff Carter, who has gotten better and better in his time in L.A., Richards has really struggled.
Richards’s contract, originally signed with the Philadelphia Flyers, kicked in at the start of the 2008-09 season and runs for 12 years at a total cost of $69-million. Richards earned a whopping $7.6-million this year and will make $7-million next year, but the contract shrinks after that – to $6-million, $5.5, $4.5 and then two years at $3-million before expiring in 2019-20. Since the cap hit remains a constant $5.75-million, but the actual dollar cost of making Richards go away is comparatively negligible, it is a course of action that they at least have to talk about internally.
Or to frame the discussion another way, if the choice comes down to signing Marian Gaborik or hanging onto Richards – because it will be different to do both – what would you do? A Richards buyout would cost the Kings $19.33-million spread out over 12 years, according to capgeek.com.
THE THOMAS VANEK CONUNDRUM: When times were good in Montreal, there was some talk that the Canadiens might actually consider bidding for Vanek in free agency. Now, it seems highly unlikely, given what a negligible impact he’s had on their run to the semi-finals. But will Minnesota welcome him now, after making inquiries at the deadline, but ultimately settling for Matt Moulson, because the acquisition cost and the dollars out were more affordable? Moulson wasn’t a great fit in Minnesota and the New York Islanders would do well to try and kiss and make up, after dealing him for Vanek in the first place. Minnesota has the great good fortune of having Dany Heatley’s $7-million cap hit disappear after this season, but committing that money to Vanek, a player of questionable playoff pedigree, seems ill-advised at this stage. The Wild seem to have a good thing going, with the group they’ve assembled now. Sitting out free agency this summer makes the most sense for them.
AND FINALLY: There is far less angst about the goaltending in Chicago this year, after Corey Crawford won the Stanley Cup last year – and en route, bested some of the best (Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles; Tukka Rask, Boston). Some thought he could have won the Conn Smythe (Kane eventually won it, though defenceman Duncan Keith was the thinking man’s choice), and midway through the playoffs, when the MVP race clarifies, he is getting some support, along with a couple of Kings, Kopitar and Drew Doughty. Said Toews of Crawford: “I think he keeps getting better and better. As a team, we want to keep raising our level of play as the stage gets bigger and bigger. If there’s anyone that’s doing it, it’s Crow. Whether it’s big penalty kills or us protecting situations late in games, he just seems to get better and better as the pressure mounts. We were talking a few days ago about the crowd chanting his name in Minnesota. Doesn’t matter how much pressure is on him, he just seems to keep playing. It’s an example that I think the rest of us can follow.”