By Allan Muir
• A couple months from now, we all may be applauding Hockey Night In Canada’s producers for the patience they showed while allowing the new five-man panel to work through some early growing pains. But hey, we might be raving about Lance Armstrong’s appointment as the head of WADA too, right?
If the group–host Ron MacLean, and commentators Elliotte Friedman, Kevin Weekes, Glen Healy and P.J. Stock — were simply an embarrassment of riches, then it might just be a matter of letting them find their rhythm. But outside of consummate professional MacLean and Friedman, who has established himself as the game’s top studio presence, the rest of the crew came off like the unprepared guy at the meeting who feels like he has to say something, anything, to impress the boss. They were bland and noisy as they flailed to claim some space as their own. It all made for lousy TV.
The loss of Pierre LeBrun is considerable, but this is the wrong response. Look, Weekes is warm and personable and performs well in his NHL Network duties. HNIC clearly loves the excitable Stock, but they haven’t quite found a fit for him. Healy is an acquired taste, but he does have a unique voice. He just needs to find the right foil. Put one or two of them on the panel alongside Ron and Elliotte, maybe you have something. Drop all three at the desk? You have a mess.
One bad show doesn’t mean they’ll abandon the five-man experiment. But here’s hoping it’ll be on a very short leash.
• The brilliance of HNIC’s opening montage almost overcame the life-force suck of the panel.
• You’ll hear lots of whining from Flyers fans about how bad officiating was all that stood between them and a win in Buffalo on Sunday, but when your penalty kill allows five goals on 10 chances over the weekend, striped conspiracies aren’t exactly your biggest problem. A successful PK has to take away time or space from the attackers, but the Flyers allowed plenty of both to the Pens and Sabres. Look for that to be the practice priority before Tuesday’s tilt against the Devils. On the plus side, rookie Scott Laughton was impressive in both games. While some of his more experienced teammates were running around, his positioning and reads were excellent and he displayed a nice physical edge. It could be a mirage–Laughton might just have live legs from playing in the OHL all season–but he sure looks a keeper.
• Maybe Detroit GM Ken Holland wasn’t sandbagging when he suggested his post-Lidstrom Wings might not be a playoff team. They were wildly outclassed in a 6-0 loss to the Blues on Saturday, allowing four power play goals and another shorthanded. No one expected a smooth transition, but they were surprisingly uncompetitive, landing just 14 shots on Jaroslav Halak while allowing St. Louis to score three times on breakaways. Rookie Brendan Smith was wildly overmatched, on the ice for three goals against despite playing just 15:52.
• John Tortorella, surprisingly calm after dropping a pair to open the season, called new Ranger Rick Nash the team’s best player. “He’s the full package. You can see that,” Torts said to the assembled media. Nash had a shortie for his first as a Blueshirt, but seemed to spend a lot of time trying to defend in his own end against the Pens and Bruins. Then again, so did the rest of the scrambly Rangers.
• Never know what Calgary coach Bob Hartley’s going to do with his lines, but he might want to keep first-round picks Mikael Backlund and Sven Baertschi together. Even as the rest of the Flames melted down in a 4-1 loss to San Jose, the duo displayed some chemistry, especially in a dynamic first period. There was lots of jump and flash in those young legs.
• Derek Roy is historically a fair-to-middling faceoff man, making his early success in the circle for Dallas something of a surprise. The veteran followed up his 16-for-23 effort in a 4-3 win over Phoenix on Saturday with a 17-for-25 record in a 1-0 loss to the Wild on Sunday. Makes it a lot easier to play a puck possession game when you’re winning draws at that rate.
• Minnesota goalie Josh Harding, diagnosed with MS over the summer, can’t just be a good story for the Wild. He has to be a good goalie. He was both on Sunday, rejecting 24 shots to lead Minnesota to that 1-0 win over Dallas. His stop on a streaking Ray Whitney in the final minute of the third was his best of the night. Rookie Matt Dumba was scratched for the second game in a row, suggesting he’ll be returned to Red Deer as soon as Jonas Brodin is ready to go.
• The Leafs signed Joffrey Lupul on Sunday to a five-year deal averaging $5.25 million per. He’s a solid citizen and was arguably the team’s best player last season, but his lengthy injury history suggests the 29-year-old winger is a break-even investment at best. Might have made sense to see how this year played out before making that kind of commitment.
• Oilers rookie coach Ralph Krueger hinted during camp that he would treat the shootout as a third special team. “We’re going to work with a team of five or six players, just like the power play,” he told the Edmonton Journal. “[Assistant coach] Freddy Chabot has analyzed the goaltenders in the league. We’ve put some good information together … then we’ll go on hunches during the games.” After a 3-2 win over the Canucks in the season-opener, that system’s looking pretty savvy. He called on veterans Sam Gagner and Ales Hemsky and both scored against Roberto Luongo on similar mid-speed, zig-zagging moves with late releases.