By Pierre LeBrun
The NHL is not quite two weeks old and already we’ve got storylines galore, so many of them unexpected.
Some thoughts and observations:
Impact of New CoachesAnd the two-week Jack Adams Award goes to … Dave Tippett or Ralph Krueger?
The surprising Oilers and Sabres are two of the feel-good stories of the early NHL season.
I chronicled Krueger’s out-of-left-field hire during camp, and I don’t know how many times I need to repeat it, but there are few people I’ve encountered in 25 years doing this job that have left a bigger impression on me than Krueger. If anyone has a chance to figure out how the Sabres can take the next step, I feel strongly it’s him. It won’t be rosy all year, there are challenging times ahead, but this guy has the personality and acumen to handle it.
To me, the Oilers are an even bigger surprise, especially after top-four, shutdown guy Adam Larsson went down on opening night.
But Tippett, so far, has resurrected his track record from his Coyotes days, which is to maximize the potential on his roster.
When Ken Holland took over in Edmonton last spring, he told interim coach Ken Hitchcock the day before the news conference unveiling him as GM that he was going to make a coaching change.
“I just thought it was time to make a change, but I told Hitch, ‘Can you help me through the process of selecting the next coach,'” Holland told The Athletic on Monday.
Hitchcock is as plugged in with the coaching fraternity as anyone. Current head coaches reach out to him all the time looking for advice or using him as a soundboard. Hitch has a great feel for the coaches around the league. Holland’s decision to include Hitchcock as a strong voice in the Oilers’ coaching hire was rather brilliant.
“We had a list of somewhere between 15 to 20 names of people who fit the criteria,” Holland said of the process. “While I was open to some people who didn’t have (NHL) experience, for the most part I wanted experience. As I went through the research, I talked to a lot of people about Tipp, people he’d worked with and for. Players that had played for him. Everything was positive. I respected his resume, more than 1,200 games as head coach.”
Holland and Tippett talked a bunch of times, including a three-hour meeting in Vancouver in May that seemed to seal the deal.
While the hire already looks like a no-brainer, the intriguing part at the start was finding out if Tippett was ready to get back in the coaching saddle after ingraining himself with expansion Seattle as a consultant/executive the past few years. It didn’t take long for Holland to realize Tippett was itching to get back.
“It became very obvious to me right off the bat, he made it clear, his first love is coaching,” Holland said. “He loved what he was doing in Seattle but he wanted to get back behind the bench.”
And I wonder, quite frankly, when the NHL announced that Seattle’s debut would be pushed back to October 2021 rather than the original hope of October 2020, if that pushed Tippett into this path. Let me be clear, Tippett had never in our conversations shown any inclination of wanting to be the first coach in Seattle, but I can’t help but think, had the expansion team been ready to hit the ice next fall, that it wouldn’t have at least crossed his mind, which might have made him unavailable to Edmonton,especially with his old Hartford Whalers pal Ron Francis now the GM in Seattle.
But waiting until October 2021 to coach again would have been four years away from being behind a bench for Tippett, and I think he figured that was just too long.
Sandin Sent DownEyebrows were raise Monday in Leaf Land when Rasmus Sandin got sent down to the AHL Marlies.
My sense of this decision by the Leafs is that it’s about protecting a prospect they have high, high hopes for. He’s only 19. He had a great camp, which forced their hand and deservedly put him on the opening night roster. But playing 12 minutes a game and nearly zero on special teams isn’t the most ideal way over the long term to bring along a player the organization views as a future top-four star.
So this decision is about getting him bigger minutes and a more impactful role on the Marlies. It’s a decision I fully endorse. I’m not a fan of very young players playing low minutes at the NHL level. The AHL is an amazing league. It’s the perfect place to hone your skills. Organizations that marinate their players longer than others in the AHL tend to be the organizations that win Cups.
I also think Toronto coach Mike Babcock wants a certain kind of minutes from his third pairing. He’s got puck-moving, offensive studs in his top four, he doesn’t need his third pairing to be offensive. He just needs a third pairing that doesn’t get scored on.
Penguins More Than SurvivingThe injury-riddled Penguins scored 14 goals in a pair of weekend wins, and I’m sure you fantasy hockey players out there had Sam Lafferty, Zach Aston-Reese and Joseph Blandisi on your rosters.
Count me as among those who wondered if the Penguins had enough organizational depth to survive the injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust and Nick Bjugstad.
Years of going for it has cost the Penguins young assets, but here they are filling the net this weekend with some of the damage coming from their call-ups.
For the time being, it takes a bit of pressure off veteran GM Jim Rutherford to rush out and acquire a forward. On the other hand, he’s still carrying nine NHL defensemen and sources around the league confirmed again over the past few days that Rutherford is still trying to move a defenseman.
Which teams are looking for defense?
Winnipeg would make sense, although again, until the Jets get resolution on the Dustin Byfuglien front, I’m not sure how wise it would be to use his cap space only to have him return this season.
Anaheim tried to trade for Justin Faulk last month and has excess depth up front. Would Erik Gudbranson be a fit for the Ducks as far as giving them a little more grit on the back end?
Arizona got brutal news, which our own Craig Morgan put out there Monday, that shutdown defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson would be out three months with a cracked fibula. I mean, there’s no one available on the trade market that could do what he does anyway, but the sense early on at least is that the Coyotes will try to fill the void from within and not look at the trade market. I suppose, however, that could be re-examined later depending on results.
New Jersey? I don’t sense the Devils have inquired anywhere yet. But if their slow start to the season continues, it wouldn’t surprise me if a defense upgrade would be a priority eventually.
Not helping Pittsburgh’s quest to move a defenseman is the competition on the market, as Dallas is still actively taking calls on Julius Honka, and there’s also the Sabres, who once fully healthy on defense will have some moves to make.