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Coldhearted: The Don of the Desert

The continued struggles of the Capitals, the surprising success of the Coyotes, and the rest of the week in the NHL

The trade speculation began flying before the Phoenix Coyotes had even played their first game this fall. “It’s the perfect recipe for a trade rumor,” wrote Paola Boivin in the Arizona Republic on October 3. “A star player in the final year of his contract. An unstable franchise. Already, national publications have speculated on the scenario: Shane Doan will be bait at the trade deadline.

“Not so fast, hockey fans,” Boivin continued, adding that both Doan and GM Don Maloney had shot down the idea to the media a few days earlier. Doan, who has been with the franchise for the entirety of his 1,179-game career (he was originally drafted when it was still the Winnipeg Jets), felt the team was good enough to make a run for the playoffs and didn’t see why he’d leave to try to do it somewhere else. After all, they made the postseason last year.

Since making the postseason, though, where they were swept 4-0 by Detroit anyway, the Coyotes lost a trio of centers as well as their no. 1 goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov to free agency, then had to deal with a distracting holdout from forward Kyle Turris to start out the season. And with the bankrupt and ownerless Coyotes the ward of the league, the team had an additional disadvantage: a strict budget that was gatekept by the NHL itself. The chorus arose: Free Shane Doan! Rent out Ray Whitney! By February 3, the Coyotes were crippled with injuries, in 12th place in the Western Conference, and, one assumed, close to having to do something drastic.

When the Coyotes did make a trade yesterday, days away from Monday’s deadline, it wasn’t to clean house or to offer a Cup run with another team to a beloved lifer. Instead, it was this: Phoenix sent a backup goaltender and a second- and third fifth-round draft pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets — another team whose big-name players, Rick Nash and Jeff Carter, have been surfacing in all kinds of trade rumors all season — in exchange for center Antoine Vermette.

The trade may not have been much of a blockbuster, and the players exchanged weren’t exactly the ones who’d had everyone mindlessly chattering for months. But it was quite an illuminating transaction. For one thing, the Coyotes no longer needed to hold a fire sale. Since the All-Star break, they’ve gone 8-1-1, are back in seventh place in the West, and are breathing down the necks of the San Jose Sharks for the Pacific division lead. They’ve moved from assumed deadline sellers to methodical buyers just as quietly as their leading scorer, Radim Vrbata, has climbed up the league’s goal-scoring charts this season. (Vrbata is one of just five players to have hit the 30-goal mark, the others being Steven Stamkos, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and James Neal. Not bad company! And what’s more, a full third of them have been game-winning goals.)1

Of course, when you’re the Coyotes, even being a buyer ain’t easy, what with the meager allowance afforded by the league. Unable to go for the splashy names, Don Maloney has instead had to scour for players that will fit into coach Dave Tippett’s system without breaking the bank. In Vermette, who scored a career-high 65 points two seasons ago, Maloney feels that he found one.

That hadn’t been the case with Turris. “We clearly differed on his game,” Maloney said of the disgruntled forward, who held out until late November. “We thought he would be better suited lower down in the lineup, and he didn’t think so.” And so off went Turris to the Ottawa Senators, with the Coyotes getting defenseman David Rundblad and a second-round pick in return. It was the same second-round pick that Maloney shipped to Columbus yesterday for Vermette, turning a once-toxic situation into the beginnings of a one red paperclip story.

Maloney, of course, hasn’t done this alone — lots of credit is owed to Tippett, who has done a phenomenal job, and other members of the staff like Sean Burke, the goalie coach who has helped Mike Smith have his own breakout season. The example of players like Doan and Whitney in an otherwise pretty young locker room has been invaluable, too. But Maloney now has a proven track record of finding not just talent, but talent that fits. (Before arriving in Phoenix in 2007, he helped draft and develop guys like Brandon Dubinsky, Marc Staal, Ryan Callahan, and Henrik Lundqvist as an assistant GM of the Rangers.)

It must be a little embarrassing for certain other GMs, the types who reign over bloated spend-all-the-way-to-the-cap teams that turn out to be duds, to see Maloney in action, particularly when he’s operating with one arm tied behind his back in Arizona. He’s been doing for the Coyotes what Donnie Walsh did for the Knicks — cleaning up the mess — but he’s done so without the carrot of a Push for LeBron or a Settle for Amar’e in front of him. This is all he’s got to work with, and he has, and he does. He’s already earned one GM of the Year award, the first ever given out, in 2010, and the way he continues to operate suggests he may yet pick up a few more.

Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes

After losing seven straight games on either end of the All-Star Break, the Ottawa Senators have gone 5-0-1 in their last six — and what’s more, they’ve outscored their opponents 29-10 during that stretch. (They’ve won their last four games 4-0, 6-2, 6-0, and 5-2.) They’re now in seventh place in the Eastern Conference and just two points back from the Northeast division-leading Bruins — although it should be noted that Boston has played four fewer games.

Three players have been pivotal during the run, one being goaltender Craig Anderson, who has had two shutouts in his last four starts. The other two Senators, ascendant defenseman Erik Karlsson2 and playmaking center Jason Spezza, have been hard at work making opposing goalies miserable. Both players are on nice little point streaks — Karlsson has put up 12 points over the last five games, while Spezza has earned 14 in seven — and the two combined to score goals just 27 seconds apart in a complete trouncing of the Islanders on Monday.

(Spezza also added this impossible rip to extend the lead to 6-0 in the third period of that game.)

In other news, Jeff Carter scored his second hat trick of the season; Rick Nash was no slouch himself; Petr Sykora polished off a pretty pass from Adam Henrique; and Evgeni Malkin makes it look simple to score on Lundqvist.

Piling On the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performers

I’ve run out of things to say about the Capitals. (Though Justin Bourne’s frame-by-frame pictures are worth many thousands of words.) Nicklas Backstrom continues to be out with a concussion. Alex Ovechkin has been sidelined this week for reasons that have variously been identified as an “equipment issue,” a “lower body injury,” and, per Ovechkin himself on Wednesday morning, “It’s not injury. Just regular stuff.” The team’s goaltending situation has gone from shaky to totally shaken. Things overall have gotten so bad in Washington that now even their goal scoring is wreathed in agony:

Really, the only thing Washington has going for it at the moment is its placement in the NHL’s weakest division, the Southeast. For all the troubles they’ve had this season, the Capitals are still somehow just two points behind Florida and Winnipeg for the automatic third overall playoff seed. (With the insanity that is the MTS Centre rink and saves like this from Ondrej Pavelec, the Jets sure would be a tough team to have to face on the road in the first round.) Over a quarter of the Caps’ remaining games are within the Southeast; they’ll play Carolina and Florida once more this season, and face Tampa and Winnipeg twice. And the Jets will play Tampa tonight in a game that could further muddle the divisional waters — a Lightning win would boost them to being only a point behind Washington.

Taking It Coast-to-Coast: A Lap Around the League

  • The best part of this hockey bed is that it goes so far as to incorporate the referees’ armband. Also, is that Plexiglas up there on the headboard? I see they went for the seamless.
  • As the video shows … Teemu Selanne scored his 657th goal, vaulting him over Brendan Shanahan for 12th all-time. Anaheim plays the final contest of an eight-game road swing when they face the Carolina Hurricanes this evening, and it will be an essential game in more ways than one. The Ducks, who were as many as 20 points out of a playoff position in early January, have gone 4-1-2 on the road trip and now find themselves six points out of eighth place in the West, a so-close-yet-so-far distance that is at once tantalizing and taunting.3 For Teemu Selanne, it’s also the difference between staying in Anaheim or requesting a trade to a contender in what could be his final season in the NHL. “I know it’s my call,” said the 41-year-old winger, who has a no-trade clause. “We all knew that this trip is going to be do or die and so far we have played so well here that I don’t even have to think about other options.” The Ducks return home this weekend, where they will face another big pre-deadline test: the Chicago Blackhawks, who after a nine-game losing streak have won four in a row.
  • Many thanks to Craig Custance of ESPN.com for podcasting with me, and even more thanks to Dave Ogrean, the head of USA Hockey, who joined us to talk delightfully about the anniversary of the Miracle on Ice (he was the team’s PR guy at the time) and his thoughts on NHL players in the Olympics.
  • The Pittsburgh Penguins announced on Sunday morning that they signed James Neal to a six-year, $30 million contract. Neal, a 24-year-old left wing, was traded to Pittsburgh last year at the deadline and managed only one goal in his 20 games with the Penguins last season. (He scored one more in the playoffs.) He devoted his offseason to training with hockey hardass Gary Roberts, and as early as preseason it was apparent that he could do big things for the Penguins this season. And he has: Neal’s 30 goals and 57 points are each career highs, and there are still 22 games to play. According to Hockey’s Future, Neal and Malkin combined have contributed 33.8 percent of the Penguins’ offensive output. “I’ve got Geno passing me the puck,” Neal told Pittsburgh Magazine by way of explanation for his big year so far. And he’s right.
  • The Montreal Canadiens rolled out an absolutely pitch-perfect pregame tribute on Sunday to the late Gary Carter, the former Montreal Expo (and, later, New York Met) who passed away from brain cancer last week. The team dressed up its mascot, Youppi, in his old Expos gear4 for the occasion, and even the furry orange mascot looked like he might be on the verge of tears over The Kid.

  • ESPN.com’s Scott Burnside has an interesting look at the NHL’s player’s emergency assistance fund, which is essentially an overgrown version of a curse-word jar. All player salaries forfeited by suspensions, as well as disciplinary fines, are paid into a pool of money later used to help former hockey players (and some coaches, officials, and scouts) who have fallen upon tough times. The rise in suspensions under Brendan Shanahan has resulted in massive growth of the fund of late — it has had inflows of over $2 million this season alone — and necessitated a complete revamp of the way the money is administered and overseen.
  • Jonathan Toews, already out of the lineup with what many suspect to be a concussion, crashed his car into a transit pole in Chicago this morning but is reportedly fine. I assume all possible iterations of “clutch” jokes were already made hours ago.
  • Here are the results of this year’s Hockey Night in Canada / NHLPA Player Poll. Biggest takeaway: Pavel Datsyuk is smart, difficult, tough, and clean. Which kind of makes him sound like a serial killer. A SERIAL KILLER OF OTHER TEAMS’ CHANCES FOR VICTORY, THAT IS. My favorite Datsyukian moment over the past week? His game-winning goal with just seconds remaining in regulation that gave the Redwings their record-extending 22nd-straight home victory.5 They’re trying for no. 24 tonight, but they’ll be without Datsyuk, who had arthroscopic surgery on his knee and will be out for a few weeks.
  • Trade activity began to hum quietly throughout the last week. Among the transactions: The Flyers picked up a pair of big defensemen, the Stars’ Nicklas Grossman and the Lightning’s Pavel Kubina. The Sharks also shored up their blue line with a trade for the Lightning’s Dominic Moore, while Nashville took on the Canadiens’ Hal Gill in exchange for Robert Slaney, a second-round pick, and hockey scion Blake Geoffrion. (“I think he’ll have some butterflies when he steps on the ice [in Montreal],” his father, Danny, told Fox Sports in a great piece about the family’s hockey history, “with his grandfather and his great-grandfather’s jersey there, hanging in the rafters.”) Tampa Bay, which has been the most active team so far, pulled off a double transaction on Tuesday when the team traded right wing Steve Downie6 for defenseman Kyle Quincey, then turned around and shipped Quincey to Detroit for a first-round pick and defenseman Sebastien Piche. (Quincey was at the dentist during all of this.) 7 By the time this column is published, there will probably be five new trades, four of them involving the Kings.
  • Hey, look, the Flyers finally found themselves a franchise goaltender! [Ducks, runs, changes name to Mr. Thompson.]
  • I know remarking that professional athletes have to put up with quite a few, um, amorous fans is a total Captain Obvious move, but I do have to share something that brought this home in a hilarious way. Gabriel Landeskog, the puppy-hugging, baby-holding, Beiber-and-Britney-loving young8 forward, selected second overall by the Colorado Avalanche in the most recent NHL draft, recently joined Twitter. After a hike up in the Red Rocks on Wednesday, he posted a photo with the innocent but ill-fated question: “How about this view?” Responses included:

    Beautiful. Maybe you should take me up there with you next time #firstdate
    my bedroom has a better view why don’t you come look
    That view is almost as beautiful as you #Landylove #ahahaha
    the view of ur face is pretty freaking fine too #dontmindstarringatyourfaceallday #creepytweet
    not as good as the view of your fACE. Wow I’m smooth.
    yeah it’s beautiful and so is your face!!!!!!!9

    (On the popular subject of his face, Landeskog merrily wrote a fan recently: “I have a really good plastic surgeon!”) Anyway, something about the way everyone pounced on a tweet of a photo of a Colorado hike just totally killed me. No wonder so many celebrities devolve into monsters. On the other hand, and I say this sincerely: I’m pretty excited to see so many female fans of the game! There really are no wrong reasons, you know?

    Chirping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off

    Was Dallas Stars center Mike Ribeiro mocking Montreal fans Tuesday night, or was he just giving as good as he got? Ribeiro, a Montreal native, played for his hometown Habs until he was traded to Dallas in 2006 (you’ll be shocked to learn that he left on bad terms). He made his first regular-season return to the Bell Centre in six years on Tuesday, and, unsurprisingly, the reunion was not without incident.

    After a morning skate on the day of the game, Ribeiro bluntly but gamely held court with reporters, many of whom are Montreal-based. “Media is media and you have to do your job,” he told them. “I guess the only thing I would say is that maybe you could be more patient with the young guys, because a lot of times you get better as you grow. Montreal is ‘win now’ and a lot of times kids are not ready to win now. So then you get impatient and trade them, and sometimes they come back in my situation where maybe they were traded too quick.”

    In the third period of the Montreal game, Ribeiro scored to make it 2-0 (make sure you watch the one replay that just tracks him around the ice to see a lovely slip of his defenseman) and celebrated with pointed vigor. He pumped his fist, he bent his knee, he flapped his arms, he “whooo!”d. After the 3-0 Dallas win, Montreal fans voted him the game’s first star,10 and he skated back out and around in much the same way, though he exchanged the first pump for a salute.

    Some found it to be a showboaty “Mickey Mouse” display;11 others compared Ribeiro to an Internet troll, and still others found it kind of fun, another chapter in the colorful book on Ribeiro.

    Dallas coach Glen Gulutzan, meanwhile, had this to say: “It was a huge goal. You could see Ribby was as slick as ever tonight,” which sounds kind of gross. But it was not nearly as filthy as Stars broadcaster Razor Reaugh’s call last Thursday night of another big Ribeiro goal, this one in overtime to defeat the Calgary Flames 3-2. (Don’t listen with the volume turned up too loud unless you want your mother or coworkers to hear a lot of yelling and the words “sexy,” “spank,” and “stimulation.”)

    After that goal, which took place at home in Dallas, Ribeiro again made a memorable postgame appearance. “Hopefully you guys can invite your friends for next game, so we can have more people,” he suggested to fans in an on-ice interview. (The Stars have the third-worst attendance in the league, and the first-worst in terms of the percentage of seats filled.)12 No one really seemed to mind, though. He was just being honest, and he also may not have been entirely wrong.

    BONUS LATE-BREAKING RUNNER-UP ALERT: “Brad Marchand tells WEEI: ‘Buffalo is the worst place in the NHL.’” Heh. Shine on, you crazy ridiculous parody of yourself diamond.

    Hockey Haiku

    The indignities
    Suffered at the trade deadline:
    “They lost my luggage.”

Filed Under: Art, General topics, Movies, NHL, NHL Playoffs, NHL Viewing Guide, Sports, Ted

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes