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Around The NHL: Changes Behind The Bench As Playoffs Start

Sixteen teams began this week in preparation for their quest for the Stanley Cup. The other 14 began their offseason preparations. For some of those teams, that meant a change behind the bench.

Usually sports fans associate Black Monday with the NFL. Better known as the first Monday after the final regular season when non-playoff teams fire their head coaches. NHL teams tend to make a change behind the bench during the season. Five such in-season changes occurred during the 2016-17 season.

However, the NHL had their own version of Black Monday earlier this week, as four teams canned their current bench bosses. The news wasn’t all bad for the head coaching fraternity. One of those three teams made an immediate hire. Another team removed the interim tag off their head coach. While the expansion Vegas Golden Knights announced the hiring of their first head coach.

We’ll dive into the changes behind the bench across the league, postseason awards, the draft lottery, and the start of the playofs in this week’s look Around The NHL.

Kings axe both Sutter and Lombardi

For the second time in three years, the Los Angeles Kings failed to make the playoffs. As a result, they dropped the guillotine on both of the architects of the greatest stretch in franchise history. Darryl Sutter was relieved of his duties behind the bench while long-time general manager Dean Lombardi also lost his job.

Lombardi pieced together the rosters of the Kings’ 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup championship teams. Sutter served as the head coach. The Kings also made it to the 2013 Western Conference Finals. Things haven’t gone as well since then, as the Kings missed the playoffs in 2015. They bowed out in a five-game first round series to rival San Jose last year, then missed the playoffs by eight points this season.

L.A.’s heavy, grinding style focused on defense first appears to be out of vogue, as the rest of the league shifts to speedier, skilled rosters. Lombardi made several long-term commitments to members of the Kings’ Cup teams. Big contracts for Dustin Brown, Marian Gaborik, and Anze Kopitar put the Kings in a salary cap bind. The long-term deal signed by Anze Kopitar in 2016 looks questionable after the All-Star center had the worst non-lockout shortened season of his career.

Luc Robitaille, the Kings’ president of business operations for 10 years, was promoted to team president, overseeing all hockey and business operations. Rob Blake, who served as Lombardi’s assistant, is the new vice president and general manager. While there’s a nice core of players in L.A., the question is whether or not they retool on the fly or enact a more protracted rebuild. The Kings have not named Sutter’s replacement as of this writing.

Canucks fire Desjardins as rebuild is underway

Entering 2016-17, expectations were not high outside of Vancouver. Canucks management was attempting an on-the-fly retool rather than a full-fledged rebuild. However, despite injuries, an aging core, and mounting injuries, the Canucks sat in the second wild card spot at the end of January with a 23-20-6 record. They went 7-23-3 the rest of the way, costing head coach Willie Desjardins his job.

Desjardins finished his three-year run in Vancouver with a record of 109-110-27. The Canucks declined from 101 points in 2014-15 to 75 points last year to 69 this season. Management decided to begin the rebuild, sending Jannik Hansen and Alexandre Burrows to San Jose and Ottawa, respectively, in separate trades. They also signed prospect Brock Boeser late in the season and bringing him into the fold.

Expect Travis Green to be a leading candidate to be promoted to the Canucks’ head coaching gig. Green is the coach of Vancouver’s AHL affiliate, the Utica Comets. Green had the Comets in the race for a playoff spot despite injuries and multiple call-ups to the parent club. Despite some up-and-coming prospects in the system, this franchise has a long way to go before they can call themselves a contender again.

Stars bring back Hitchcock to replace Ruff

As this season dragged on, it became more apparent the Dallas Stars wouldn’t retain Lindy Ruff as their head coach. Ruff, who was in the last year of his contract, was dealt a bad hand this season as the Stars dealt with a litany of injuries. However, the team’s defensive play got worse over his tenure and their goaltending situation remains a nightmare. The Stars finished with just 79 points, a whopping drop of 30 points in the standings. This was just one season after finishing with the best record in the Western Conference. Not only did Dallas deal with injuries, porous goaltending, and bad defensive play, they couldn’t outscore their problems anymore. Just a season after scoring the most goals in the NHL, the Stars finished this year 18th in that department.

Enter a face from the team’s glory years of the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Former St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock, who led the Stars to their only Stanley Cup title in 1999, returns for his second tour behind Dallas’s bench. The 65-year-old Hitchcock was lost his job in St. Louis this season after a protracted midseason slump. However, Hitchcock is still considered one of the best coaches to ever stand behind an NHL bench. Even though he had hinted at retirement, few bought the notion that he would actually call it quits.

It’s a risky move going back to your past to try and give your team a shot in the arm for the present and the future. But if there’s a team and a coach in which it makes sense, it’s the Stars with Hitchcock. Dallas doesn’t lack for offense. Hitchcock knows this, as his teams with the Blues had no trouble scoring goals. The area that Hitchcock’s presence will make the most difference is in the defensive zone. He’ll demand perfection and stress the details of playing defensive hockey. And he’ll expect it even out of his star players. Hitchcock has never been a players’ coach, as he tends to grate on his players. No matter where Hitchcock ends up, his team’s win. If Dallas upgrades their goaltending, there’s no reason he can’t turn the Stars around next season.

Panthers demote Rowe, place Tallon back in the GM’s seat

The last 12 months in Sunrise have been nothing short of bizarre for the Florida Panthers. After finishing last season with team records in both points and wins, the Panthers revamped their roster due in large part to an approach based in analytics. As a result, ownership bumped general manager Dale Tallon upstairs into a different role. Tom Rowe took over as the new GM. Following an uneven start, former head coach Gerard Gallant lost his job after a loss in Raleigh to the Carolina Hurricanes. Photos surfaced of Gallant hailing a taxi after the team just left him at PNC
Arena before continuing their road trip. Rowe took over as interim head coach, going 24-27-10.

As a result, the team relieved Rowe of both his coaching duties and his role as GM. The team announced they’re retaining Rowe as a special adviser to the team’s new GM….Dale Tallon. Okay, so Tallon’s not exactly new to the job, but let’s be honest. He never should’ve been reassigned in the first place. Tallon put together the core of this roster. After the team won the Atlantic Division last year, there was no reason to fix what wasn’t broken. Perhaps Panthers owner Vincent Viola realized the mistake, saying that Tallon’s word will be final on all major matters. Whoever the Panthers hire as their new coach will be taking the job knowing he’s not going to get the final say on personnel.

Vegas tabs Gallant as their first head coach

Although the Panthers received plenty of scorn for firing Gallant this season, the consensus across the hockey world was that he’d land on his feet with a new job behind an NHL bench sooner rather than later. Known as a players’ coach, Gallant was very popular with his team in Florida. On Thursday, the Vegas Golden Knights named Gallant as the first head coach in franchise history. Vegas GM George McPhee, whose team begins its inaugural season in October, cited the respect he commands from his players, his experience, and his track record as the main reasons for bringing Gallant into the fold:

“He is an experienced coach, has had success at multiple levels and has a great reputation amongst the players who have played for him,” McPhee said.

McPhee stated before that he wanted a coach with NHL experience to lead the league’s newest team. It looks like he’s got his guy in Gallant. The next step for the Golden Knights is the expansion draft, which takes place from June 18-20. The hockey staff and the head coach are in place in Las Vegas. Now it’s time to bring in the rest of the coaching staff and the players.

Islanders remove the interim tag from head coach Doug Weight

In the first half of the season, the New York Islanders were in trouble. Mired in last place in the Eastern Conference in January, the team relieved former head coach Jack Capuano of his duties. Assistant coach Doug Weight took over on an interim basis, and the team played with a renewed sense of purpose, going 24-12-4 in their final 40 games. They narrowly missed out on a playoff spot, going neck-and-neck with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs down the stretch before the Leafs clinched the last spot in the East on the second-to-last day of the season. The effort was enough for the Isles to remove the interim tag from Weight’s title as head coach.

Following their efforts down the stretch, this is definitely the right move for this team going forward. Weight owns a Stanley Cup ring from his playing days. He paid his dues with the Islanders as an assistant GM and assistant coach before getting his shot behind the bench. The Isles needed a new voice after their bad start this season. Based on the team’s second half performance, Weight’s voice obviously commands respect. While nobody is going to confuse the Islanders with a legitimate Cup contender, they should be an intriguing team to watch with Weight behind the bench for a full season.

Art Ross, Rocket Richard, and Jennings Trophy winners clinched

Although most of the major NHL awards are a subject of intense debate, we won’t know the eventual winners until June 21. You’ll have to wait to find out who’s walking away with the Hart, Vezina, Norris, and Selke Trophies. In the meantime, the recipients of trophies for regular season statistical dominance. Connor McDavid became the third-youngest player in NHL history to walk away with the Art Ross Trophy, given to the league’s leading scorer. He paced the league with 100 points on the strength of 30 goals and 70 assists, 11 more than Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane, who tied for second place with 89. The only two Art Ross winners to capture the award at a younger age than the 20-year-old McDavid? Crosby and Wayne Gretzky.

Speaking of Crosby, he clinched the second Rocket Richard Trophy of his career as the league’s leading goal-scorer. Crosby finished the season with 44 goals in 75 games, four ahead of Nikita Kucherov and Auston Matthews. Crosby won his first Richard Trophy in 2010, as he and Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos tied for the league lead with 51 goals. That was the only time Crosby has hit the 50-goal mark in his career. He also ended the season with the second-highest shooting percentage of his career at 17.3 percent. His 30 even strength goals placed him second in the league behind Matthews’s 32.

The Washington Capitals came away with the Jennings Trophy, give to the team with the goaltenders allowing the fewest goals against. Caps goalies Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer combined to allow only 182 goals this season. This was the fewest in an 82-game season in franchise history. Holtby led the league with nine shutouts, while Grubauer had three. The 12 combined shutouts are the most in a season in Capitals history. Washington became only the fifth team in the last 15 seasons (2001-17) to post 12 or more shutouts in a season and the first to do so since Los Angeles posted 13 clean sheets in the 2013-14 season.

Not only did Holtby lead the NHL in shutouts, he tied for the league lead in wins (42). He finished second in goals-against average (2.07), and placed fourth in save percentage (.925). He is one of two goaltenders (Sergei Bobrovsky is the other) to rank in the top-five in the NHL in wins, shutouts, goals-against average and save percentage this season.

Draft lottery odds are set

If you’re one of the non-playoff teams (or you acquired the first round pick of a non-playoff team) it means you’re a participant in the NHL Draft Lottery. On Tuesday, the league announced that this year’s lottery takes place on Saturday, April 29 at 8 pm. There are three different drawings, one each to determine who is picking first overall, second overall, and third overall. The Vegas Golden Knights will take part and will have the same odds as the team with the third-worst record. They could end up winning the lottery, but they’ll pick no lower than sixth.

The league reduced the odds of winning for all other participating teams due to Vegas’s addition. Last year, Toronto had the best odds at 20%, and they ended up winning it. This year, the last-place Colorado Avalanche own the best odds at 18%. The list of lottery teams and their odds of winning are as follows:

Colorado Avalanche: 18.0%
Vancouver Canucks: 12.1%
Vegas Golden Knights: 10.3%
Arizona Coyotes: 10.3%
New Jersey Devils: 8.5%
Buffalo Sabres: 7.6%
Detroit Red Wings: 6.7%
Dallas Stars: 5.8%
Florida Panthers: 5.4%
Los Angeles Kings: 4.5%
Carolina Hurricanes: 3.2%
Winnipeg Jets: 2.7%
Philadelphia Flyers: 2.2%
Tampa Bay Lightning: 1.8%
New York Islanders: 0.9%

The Stanley Cup Playoffs are underway

Much was made about the return of Canadian teams to the playoffs. Five of the league’s seven Canadian franchises are in the postseason just one year after not sending any teams to the playoffs. All five of those teams lost the opening games of their series. Two of those teams, Edmonton and Toronto, jumped out to 2-0 leads before allowing San Jose and Washington to rally and win 3-2 in overtime in each contest. Montreal’s offense didn’t show up in a 2-0 loss on home ice to the New York Rangers. Ottawa held Boston without a shot in the second period of Game 1, but costly turnovers led to both of the Bruins’ goals in a 2-1 loss. Calgary held a 2-1 second period lead on the Ducks, but Anaheim rallied for a 3-2 win.

Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray left pregame warm-ups due to injury just before Game 1 of the Penguins’ series against Columbus. Marc-Andre Fleury stepped in and made 31 saves, 16 in the opening period, in a 3-1 win. Fleury is expected to get the start for the Pens in Game 2. The Minnesota Wild dominated Game 1 against the St. Louis Blues, but came up empty in a 2-1 overtime loss. Jake Allen was spectacular in net for St. Louis, stopping 51 shots for the victory. The Wild outshot St. Louis 52-26. Nashville came up with a big Game 1 win at the United Center, blanking Chicago 1-0 thanks to a 29-save performance by Pekka Rinne and a first period goal by Viktor Arvidsson.

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