Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Over the Boards: Three trades, three winners

PHILADELPHIA -- More than two years later, the Philadelphia Flyers and Los Angeles Kings have no complaints about the returns they got in what amounted to three blockbuster deals involving star forwards Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. If the Columbus Blue Jackets become a perennial Stanley Cup Playoff contender with Jack Johnson as their cornerstone defensemen, they won't have any reason to gripe either.

All three teams could be in the playoffs this season.

"If you look at [the trades], it's worked out well for everybody," Philadelphia assistant general manager Ron Hextall told before watching the Kings beat the Flyers 3-2 on Monday.

Hextall is the go-to executive on this topic because as the Kings' assistant GM from 2006-13 he helped bring Richards, Carter and eventually the Stanley Cup to Los Angeles. Now as the assistant in Philadelphia, he knows why Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren was willing to part with two stars to revamp the culture in the dressing room and the team on the ice.


Do you think Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock deserves the Jack Adams Award considering if he gets Detroit into the playoffs? -- @LundStian

Yes, absolutely.

I've actually been banging this drum for a while now on Twitter and to colleagues. If Babcock gets Detroit into the playoffs this season, I think it would be his finest coaching job in the NHL.

Half the team is from Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League. The center depth is depleted. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are expected to miss a combined 80 games. Stephen Weiss has barely played. Jimmy Howard has missed time. Darren Helm, Jonathan Ericsson, Johan Franzen … the list goes on and on.

I know that's a bold statement about a guy who has been to the Stanley Cup Final three times and won the championship in 2008, but everything that could have gone wrong went wrong this season, and still the Red Wings could make the playoffs for a 23rd straight season. Babcock should be in the running for the Jack Adams if the team doesn't crash down the stretch.

What do you think about the Montreal Canadiens ending the Boston Bruins' streak? Are the Habs playoff-ready? How far would they go? -- @VPrincevac

Beating the Bruins is obviously big for confidence, even if that win came in a shootout. That's two straight divisional road wins for Montreal. Don't undersell the value in that. It's important that playoff teams know they can win on the road, and the Canadiens have done that this season (20-14-2 away from Bell Centre).

I'm not sure how to determine if they're playoff-ready because they're not playing playoff games now and they don't have any recent history that suggests they're playoff-tested. However, they're winning games and their power play is producing. Thomas Vanek seems like he's coming along and should get better with more time in the system. The defense is questionable, especially with the way Alexei Emelin has played, but Josh Gorges will help solidify it again when he returns to the lineup.

How far they go depends on matchups, but right now it looks like the Canadiens would play the Tampa Bay Lightning -- and I'd have to give the edge to the Lightning even though they don't have Martin St. Louis anymore. Montreal and Tampa Bay have played low-scoring, tight games this season. Steven Stamkos is back. Ondrej Palat is producing. Ryan Callahan is crashing and banging. Tampa Bay is also a better possession team.

Slight edge to Tampa Bay in my opinion. But very slight.

Who does Gustav Nyquist remind you of most? -- @JakeJohnson1340

It's still early, but Nyquist has some similar traits to Henrik Zetterberg in that he's a skilled skater, strong on the puck, defensively responsible, and obviously can produce points. They're both relentless players, and while not big, each is strong enough to play in the tough areas of the ice. They can take a hit to make a play.

The funny thing with Nyquist is up until now he's been more of an assist guy than a goal guy. Zetterberg was also that way before he got to the Red Wings, and then he scored more than 30 goals in four straight seasons, topping out at 43 in 2007-08. He didn't stop producing assists either. Nyquist has been more of a goal guy of late, but I'd expect him to balance that out soon.

It all started on June 23, 2011, when Holmgren shook up the hockey world on the eve of the NHL Draft.

First he turned Carter into Jakub Voracek, a first-round pick (center Sean Couturier) and a third-round pick (prospect Nick Cousins) in a trade with the Blue Jackets. Later that day, Holmgren turned Richards into forwards Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn, as well as a second-round draft pick that he later used in a different trade to acquire defenseman Nicklas Grossmann.

That equals four important forwards, a top-four defenseman and a prospect for two star players.

Voracek is the Flyers' third-leading scorer this season (53 points) behind Claude Giroux and Simmonds. He is in the second year of a four-year, $17 million contract.

Couturier has become one of the top defensive centers in the League.

"We can look now and say this or that, but the fact of the matter is you gave up a pretty darn good established player and took some risk, but you made well with your risk," Hextall said. "Obviously, Jake is a very good player, and [Couturier] is a very good player. They're huge parts of this team. That's a trade that worked out for the Flyers."

Simmonds and Schenn are working out just as well as Voracek and Couturier. They're linemates on Philadelphia's second line and have combined for 93 points this season, with Simmonds contributing 54 points, including 24 goals. Simmonds is in the first year of a six-year contract; Schenn is in the final year of his entry-level contract.

"It's actually funny because growing up, playing minor hockey, I used to watch Richards play on the [Kitchener] Rangers [of the Ontario Hockey League]," Simmonds said. "He was one of my favorite players in junior before I even got to junior. It's nice that they took a big leap of faith getting me and Schenn. I think it's worked out for both sides."

The Kings saw the Richards trade in a different light than the Flyers at the time they made it. Though Philadelphia was clearly looking to make sweeping changes, Los Angeles needed an established center to play behind Anze Kopitar and knew it would have to part with some good pieces to get that player.

Hextall said it took several weeks for the trade to be completed, and it was a hard deal to make from L.A.'s perspective because Hextall and Kings general manager Dean Lombardi knew the value they were giving up.

"You knew you weren't getting a player like Mike Richards without giving pieces up that you were going to be like, 'Oh, that's a good piece to give up,'" Hextall said.

Richards has recently been demoted to the fourth line because of his struggles this season, but he has for the most part been the Kings' No. 2 center behind Kopitar since arriving in L.A. He has 27 points in 35 playoff games with the Kings, including 15 in 20 during the 2012 Cup run.

"We needed that second guy behind Kopitar, and we didn't have it," Hextall said, using "we" to refer to the Kings. "Brayden was going to be a four- or five-year wait for what he had to do to be there. We couldn't wait."

Carter didn't make it in Columbus, but he has been the Kings' most dynamic offensive player since he arrived in L.A. via a trade on Feb. 23, 2012. He had eight goals in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, including four in the Stanley Cup Final. He had a team-high 26 goals in 48 games last season and leads the Kings with 25 goals in 63 games this season.

"The most explosive player I've coached since I've been here is Jeff Carter," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said, "and it's not even close."

Even though Carter was a bust in Columbus, Hextall said he thinks the Blue Jackets made out OK because they got Johnson and a first-round pick from the Kings in exchange for him.

It will be a while before the returns are in on the first-round pick, Slovakian right wing Marko Dano, but Johnson is a minute-munching, point-producing leader on the Blue Jackets' back end. Without him, Columbus doesn't go from being a cellar dweller to a playoff contender.

"He's almost a 26-minute a night defenseman," Hextall said of Johnson. "It's not easy to find those guys."

It's also not easy to find three blockbuster trades that work out for all teams involved, but the Kings, Flyers and Blue Jackets may have pulled off the hat trick.

How and why Nyquist landed in Detroit

Hakan Andersson would never do it because it's not his style to brag about himself and his accomplishments, but the Detroit Red Wings' chief European scout should once again be puffing his chest out with pride and telling everyone, "I told you so."

Andersson discovered Red Wings 24-year-old rookie Gustav Nyquist eight years ago, when he was playing junior hockey for the Malmo Redhawks in Sweden. He sent in reports on the young Swede, and then waited, debated and finally convinced former Detroit assistant GM Jim Nill and scouting director Joe McDonnell to use a fourth-round pick on him in 2008, Nyquist's second year of draft eligibility.

Almost six years later, Nyquist is setting the NHL on fire.

He was named the NHL's First Star of the Week last week and has nine goals in his past six games after scoring two against the Blue Jackets on Tuesday. He has 42 points in 47 games, including 20 goals and 12 assists in his past 25 games. If the Red Wings make the playoffs for a 23rd straight season, they might do it on Nyquist's back.

"The thing I liked about him is he was really tenacious, that if he lost the puck he'd chase the puck," Andersson said. "He doesn't give up on pucks. He keeps chasing. And he can take the puck in the corner and go make something happen with it by the net. That's what I liked, but I couldn't see him scoring like this."

Andersson said he had "to do some pushing" for Nyquist in 2008 because he was coming off an injury-plagued season and his numbers in his second full season of junior hockey dipped. Nyquist had 44 points in 42 games in 2006-07 and 31 points in 24 games in 2007-08.

What might have sealed the deal for Andersson was the fact that Nyquist was committed to play NCAA hockey at the University of Maine starting in the 2008-09 season. Andersson said Nill and McDonnell liked that because it gave them as many as four seasons to watch his development in the United States.

The Red Wings signed Nyquist after his third season at Maine.

What about Palat for Calder and Selke?

Ondrej Palat

Left Wing - TBL

GOALS: 19 | ASST: 32 | PTS: 51

SOG: 145 | +/-: 27

Tampa Bay Lightning rookie forward Ondrej Palat has played his way into the discussion for the Calder Trophy with 45 points in his past 47 games, including 19 in his past 16. He leads all rookies in scoring with 36 points since Jan. 1, and with 51 points in total, he is second behind Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon (55 points) among rookie scorers.

However, Lightning coach Jon Cooper said he thinks Palat is as good defensively as he is offensively, and that if he played center instead of left wing he would be up for the Selke Trophy too.

"I can't sit here and say that I was going to be sitting here now talking about him as rookie of the year, but I've always truly believed that if Ondrej Palat played center he would be in the final three for the Selke every single year," Cooper said. "But it's almost like the Selke is the centerman Selke Trophy now. It just seems like a centerman always wins that award."

Cooper has a point. Centers have won the Selke Trophy for the past nine seasons. Former Dallas Stars right wing Jere Lehtinen was the last non-center to win the Selke (2002-03). The Selke has been won by a center 27 times in the past 31 seasons since Bob Gainey, a Hall of Fame left wing, won it four times in a row from 1978-81.

So why doesn't Cooper play Palat at center?

He said it has as much to do with the Lightning's depth down the middle (Steven Stamkos, Valtteri Filppula and Tyler Johnson) as it does with how good Palat is on the walls.

"The one thing about centers is they kind of play inside-out all the time, and they don't have to stop and start as much," Cooper said. "They do have to play the whole rink, but Palat is so good on the walls, he's such a good battler, and he can make those little 3-foot to 6-foot passes through people that wingers have to do. He's been a winger his whole life. He played the wing with Couturier in junior."

Robidas adjusting after 'weird' start in Anaheim

Stephane Robidas didn't realize how strange it was to be part of a new organization until he played his first game with the Anaheim Ducks on March 18, two weeks after he was traded by the Dallas Stars and nearly four months after he broke his right leg in a game against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Robidas had been with the Stars since the start of the 2005-06 season, his second stint with Dallas, and had missed only 32 out of a possible 622 games until this season.

"I was here [in Anaheim] for maybe a week and a half before my first game, so I skated and practiced with the team, but that first game I realized that I wasn't with the Stars anymore, and it was really weird," Robidas said. "I was really nervous first to just get back on the ice and play a game, but everything was new, so it was kind of overwhelming."

Robidas has played two games since his Ducks debut. He said his timing is coming back and he's starting to feel more comfortable. He had an assist and was a plus-3 in Anaheim's 6-2 win against the Florida Panthers on Sunday. He's expected to be in the lineup Wednesday, when the Ducks visit the Calgary Flames to begin a three-game road trip.

Robidas also is quick to say, or rather thank, the doctors and medical trainers in Dallas and Anaheim. He appreciates how professional they were at the time he was traded, because it could have been a difficult situation for him going from one team to another while rehabbing his right leg.

He said the team doctors (Dr. Orr Limpisvasti in Anaheim and Dr. William J. Robertson in Dallas) and the team trainers (Joe Huff in Anaheim and Dave Zeis in Dallas) communicated and shared information on his rehab not only before the trade, but after the trade as well.

Biron on Smith's injury: 'It feels like you're trapped'

Former NHL goalie Martin Biron said he closed his eyes and turned his chair as soon as Phoenix Coyotes goalie Mike Smith went down with his knee injury Monday night at Madison Square Garden.

Smith missed the game Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Penguins and is listed as day-to-day. He is expected to also miss the game Thursday at Prudential Center against the New Jersey Devils.

"I know the feeling of being trapped," Biron said. "That's what it feels like. It feels like you're being trapped and your body has nowhere to go. Lucky for me, I've never had that popping feeling in the knee, hip or ankle that makes you feel that pain and have that reaction. Mike Smith is a tough guy, and when he was rolling around like that, I just couldn't bear to watch."


Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter on the difference between checking and defending in the NHL today:

"The strength of our team is we don't spend much time in our zone. There is very little of what is called defending done in the League now; there is a lot of checking. The teams that say they defend, they spend all the time in their own zone. Everybody has to figure out that these teams that defend backing up all the time, by April 12 or April 13, they're watching."

Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper on the impact Ryan Callahan has made since being acquired in a trade with the New York Rangers for Martin St. Louis:

"He is exactly what our team didn't have, and that's part of the reason his impact has been so big with us. The added bonus is he's a great guy, a leader, fun to be around, and he works his tail off. All those things are just part of the total package, but aside from [Ondrej] Palat we didn't have a bunch of guys who played below the dots, that knew how to play in front of the net and in the corners. We have a bunch of pretty good, skilled, fast, perimeter players. Losing Marty, obviously we're losing an elite, skilled player, but we've got skill guys that could jump into that role. They're not as good as Marty, but we could push another skill guy in there. We didn't have anyone to fill the role Callahan is filling. Especially when it gets into grind time, you need to have those guys around. He came in and right away fit in with us. He's been a coach's dream so far."

Biron was working the game as part of the MSG Network's New York Rangers broadcast team. He said he immediately knew what happened to Smith when Rangers center Derick Brassard fell on him, and the first thing he thought of was when Hall of Fame goalie Grant Fuhr sustained a knee injury in the 1996 Stanley Cup Playoffs after Nick Kypreos fell on top of him. Chris Pronger checked Kypreos into Fuhr, whose knee buckled upon impact.

"If you look closely at it, his left leg gives the old swing from underneath and releases, but his right leg has a little bit like a stutter step in that it's supposed to go, stops and then releases after," Biron said. "I've had that feeling before where you can't move and then you go, 'Thank goodness everything is OK,' but unfortunately, it wasn't that for him. You look at both legs, the way they release, and the right one just has that subtle little hesitation or pause, because the leg couldn't keep going in the normal fashion, something had to give."

Biron noted that Smith's injury was a fluke because, as he said, nine times out of 10 a goalie will get hit and fall backwards only to have his legs swing out from under him without any issues. He doesn't know why that didn't happen for Smith.

"There is that time when your skate blade might be caught in a rut and it doesn't release, or you're leaning in such a way that your body is not able to get your leg to kick out," Biron said. "If you saw the injury Buffalo goalie Jhonas Enroth suffered against Montreal 10 days ago, that was a freak thing. He gets run, his body kind of gives, but his right skate looks like it's right against the post and instead of moving backward freely to release the point of impact and to absorb the impact, it gets caught on the post for like a quarter of a second. That probably sent his leg and knee into a bit of a twirk, and there's a knee sprain right there. It doesn't take much, especially with the pressure you put on your hips and knees."

JD, Kekalainen keeping tabs on their old team

Even though they're wrapped up in Columbus' push for a playoff spot, Blue Jackets President of Hockey Operations John Davidson and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen like to occasionally go down memory lane as a refresher for how difficult it was to start building a winner in St. Louis and the patience it required.

Davidson was the president of hockey operations for the Blues from 2006-12; Kekalainen was the team's assistant GM and director of amateur scouting from 2002-10. They have their fingerprints all over the Blues' current roster.

"We talk about what our part was, how we made certain trades, how we drafted certain players, how the players were developed, what we could have done better, what we liked about what we did," Davidson said. "It's all things along those lines. It's all about experience. It's about the decisions that were made, were they good or were they not?"

Kekalainen played a major role in St. Louis drafting David Backes (2003), Roman Polak (2004), T.J. Oshie and Ryan Reaves (2005), Patrik Berglund (2006), Ian Cole (2007), Alex Pietrangelo (2008) and Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko (2010).

Davidson oversaw the trades that brought Alexander Steen, Vladimir Sobotka, Kevin Shattenkirk, Brian Elliott, Jaroslav Halak and Chris Stewart to St. Louis. Blues general manager Doug Armstrong used Halak and Stewart to acquire Ryan Miller and Steve Ott late last month.

"To see the young players that we spent a lot of time pulling for and not getting impatient with, just watching them develop, seeing them become men and very good players on a very good team, it's gratifying in a lot of ways," Davidson said. "You feel like we did some things right. We did some things that were part of building a hockey club and trying to build a hockey club that is going to be good for a long time. That's your biggest key, not just trying to build one that is going to be a flash in the pan."


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