Sean Avery Might Have Magic Powers

Sean Avery as a wizard

More and more I wonder if Sean Avery has some kind of magical power.

The Rangers traded for him in February 2007, helping to put Avery on a more prominent stage than he had in LA as a King. Avery’s antics and agitating suddenly seemed more noteworthy.

Avery loved it in New York but couldn’t come to a contract agreement with the Rangers, so in the summer of 2008, Avery signed with the Dallas Stars. Avery had a four-year contract, but he wasn’t playing for the team he wanted to be.

In Dallas, he made his infamous “sloppy seconds” comment and the Stars decided to part ways with Avery, whatever it took, whether it meant stashing him in the AHL for the rest of his four years, or simply paying him not to play for Dallas.

But then, the Rangers decided they wanted Avery back and claimed him off of Dallas’ hands, with the Stars on the hook for half of Avery’s salary.

Not only was Avery back in the NHL, he was back playing for the team he wanted to play for.

Magical.

And then, just a few weeks ago, Avery was once again sent to the AHL, told that the Rangers had no place for him. Avery’s NHL career seemed over. Again. Why would the Rangers ever recall him? What would they need Avery for?

And yet, here we are. Avery is once again on his way back to the NHL. As a Ranger no less.

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Rangers’ Young Core Might Have Already Peaked

New York Rangers Brandon Dubinsky (17) celebrates his empty net goal with Brian Boyle (22) and Ryan Callahan (24) during the New York Rangers 5-2 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The Rangers are getting a bit nervous about their lack of secondary scoring.

The team has just 12 goals in its first six games of the season. A third of those goals have come from Marian Gaborik. Another third have come from a combination of grinder Brandon Prust and sophomore defenseman Ryan McDonagh.

That pattern probably won’t be sustainable over the course of an entire season.

Much has been made of the lack of offense from players like Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, and Brian Boyle. All three players saw career high scoring last season.

And that just might be the problem. What if last season was the aberration and the slow start this season is the more typical performance?

Look at Boyle. In his first 107 NHL games, he scored just 12 goals. In the next 82 games, aka, last season, he scored 21 goals. And now, in his first six games of this season, he has just one goal.

But looking at Boyle’s career, which seems more typical? Last season’s goal-scoring outburst or this season’s slow start?

For Dubinsky and Callahan, last season’s performance jumps weren’t as dramatic as Boyle’s. Dubinsky jumped from 20 goals in 2009-10, to 24 goals last season. Callahan jumped from a career high of 22 goals in 2008-09 to 23 goals in 60 games last season.

The problem is that the Rangers’ organization has been acting like both players’ scoring abilities were on the rise. The assumption has been that both will do the same or better this year. But what if the high point has already passed? What if none of those players continues to improve?

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Martin Brodeur Injured At A Very Helpful Time

Los Angeles Kings right wing Dustin Brown (23) awaits a pass in front of New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur (30) during the first period of the game at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.

Devils’ coach Peter DeBoer got a little bit of a break in Martin Brodeur getting slightly injured so early in the season.

The Brodeur injury instantly grabbed the team’s attention, focusing them on winning without their franchise goalie, and took their minds off of last season’s horrible start.

DeBoer has been doing a lot of mental coaching to try and shake-up a franchise that, historically, has always seemed to create tightly-wound, neurotic players.

For one thing, DeBoer has been riding Kovalchuk while he’s looking good, giving him over 32 minutes of ice time against Nashville over the weekend. One reason is because Kovalchuk has been skating well. But also, Kovalchuk does well with a lot of ice time, a holdover from his time in Atlanta. If the Devils can’t give Kovalchuk complementary linemates to get him going, at least they can give him lots of ice time.

Historically, the Devils have never been a team to ride one player (although Jacques Lemaire certainly was inclined to go to Kovalchuk when he didn’t know what else to do), but DeBoer sees a chance to pile on the minutes for Kovalchuk, so he’s taking it.

The Devils are just four games into the season, so it’s hard to say how representative these first few games have been. But it’s interesting to see how DeBoer is taking advantage of Brodeur’s injury to change things up a bit. Players will complain about change, but when a team is compensating for an injured goalie, just about everyone understands that a team needs to do whatever it can to remain competitive.

DeBoer knows that and he’s using that as an opportunity to make some changes (like moving Petr Sykora off of the top line and down to the third) and to keep his team focused on surviving, rather than avoiding a bad start.

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Glen Sather and Icing Safety: Compassion or Gamesmanship?

New Jersey Devils defenseman Andy Greene (6) tries to control the puck as New York Rangers right wing Ryan Callahan (24) defends during the third period of the game at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. The Rangers defeated the Devils 4-3.

It’s nice that Rangers’ GM Glen Sather is coming out, very publicly, in favor of the NHL adopting some kind of no-touch icing rule. Sather’s in favor of the race to the puck stopping at the faceoff dots, rather than around the boards.

Sather was commenting on the state of icing in the NHL because of Oiler defenseman Taylor Fendun’s horrific leg injury, which occurred during a race for an iced puck.

But while I believe Sather is sincere in his comments, the timing, Fendun’s injury aside, is rather interesting. Because two games into a new season, the Rangers’ offense has been experimenting with a new (for them) strategy.

The team has been shooting the puck into the offensive zone from right inside the red line, an aggressive dump-and-chase maneuver. So far, it hasn’t been working for the Rangers, who lack the strength on their top line to get to the puck and lack the finesse on their second line to do anything productive when they have the puck.

But assuming the Rangers, and coach John Tortorella, stick with the dump-and-chase, especially one that starts right past center ice, there’s a good chance the team is going to be involved in a lot more icing races. So Sather, whose top line is two-thirds concussion victims, has a vested interest in doing whatever it takes to keep his players safe from the boards.

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Sean Avery’s Waiving Could Have Been Avoided

 New York Rangers left wing Sean Avery (16) grabs Washington Capitals center Matt Hendricks (26) and brings him down to the ice at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. where the Washington Capitals defeated the New York Rangers 3-1 to win the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

I can’t imagine anyone is surprised Sean Avery was waived yesterday. Avery has lived in coach John Tortorella’s bad graces since before Tortorella coached the Rangers. It’s vaguely sad, though, since there are things Avery and Tortorella could have done to make the relationship work. I hardly consider myself an Avery fan, but he’s an interesting character who makes the NHL a more interesting place (for better or for worse). It would have been nice if he could have somehow held onto a slot with the Rangers.

What Avery Could Have Done

Get Serious. Avery never figured out how to exist as a serious NHL player. He plays the pest very well. He’s great at drawing attention to himself on the ice. But he never developed a three-dimensional game. He was never great defensively or offensively, which is how he wound up getting waived. But it didn’t need to go down like that. Avery could have worked on his defensive positioning. He could have made more of an effort to backcheck. And he could have made himself useful to the Rangers’ offense. Toward the end of last season and much of this pre-season, Avery was great at working the puck down low, behind the offensive zone net. He could maintain possession for what seemed like minutes. But he couldn’t dish the puck out. He was basically eating time off of the clock, which is sometimes a useful thing to do. But sometimes a team actually needs to score some goals. If Avery could have figured out how to get the puck out from behind the net, he probably wouldn’t have been waived.

Find the Line. Tortorella shied away from Avery because of a general feeling of Avery not knowing the line between tough and irresponsible play. For much of his time under Tortorella, Avery played timidly, like he was scared to play with too much aggression. This did nothing to endear Avery to Tortorella. Avery, instead of ignoring that imaginary line, should have worked hard to explore its boundaries, so he could play aggressively, without taking needless penalties.

Don’t Upset the New Guy. Avery actually played with Brad Richards in Dallas. Although play is a strong word, as Avery was a Star for just 23 games. But given how many Stars seemed to dislike Avery, I’m curious if Brad Richards coming to the Rangers might have hastened Avery’s departure from the team. Avery didn’t seem to love playing in Dallas and his lack of professionalism got him claimed by the team he wanted to play for all along. There’s an interesting symmetry if his time in Dallas also somehow got him removed from the team he wanted to play for all along.

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Parise or Kovalchuk Should Consider Switching Sides

Philadelphia Flyers left wing Scott Hartnell (19) gets checked by New Jersey Devils left wing Patrik Elias (26) as Devils left wing Ilya Kovalchuk (17) tries to control puck during the first period of the Flyers 2-1 win over the Devils in the first round of the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Prudential Center in Newark, NJ

I’m always amazed how NHL teams will let their rosters fall out of balance. For example, how did the Devils not consider the ramifications of investing so much in left wings?

The Devils have a lot of money and talent in Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise, both of whom play the left side.

Last year, coach John MacLean tried to move Kovalchuk to the right side. It didn’t go very well for Kovalchuk and he soon found himself back on the other side of the ice. MacLean was moved off of the bench.

This season, new coach Peter DeBoer is keeping Kovalchuk and Parise in their natural positions. Parise has been playing with Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora, still on a tryout contract. Other than Elias and Sykora calling Parise Jason, the line seems very effective. Kovalchuk has been playing with Jacob Josefson and Nick Palmieri on a much less exciting line.

But having so much talent in the same forward position could burn the Devils down the line. As good as Sykora has looked in the pre-season, is he really a top line wing anymore? He has just two seasons with over 30 goals, and the last one was in 2003. What will he look like over the grind of the NHL season? History tells us Sykora’s production will eventually recede.

That will leave Elias, Parise, and Kovalchuk on two separate, incomplete lines.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to try and get the three players working together?

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Jaromir Jagr Looking Downright Contemporary for Flyers

Czech Repubulic's Jaromir Jagr #68 during a Men's Ice Hockey game between the Russia RUS and the Czech Republic CZE held at Canada Hockey Place during the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

I’m shocked by how good Jaromir Jagr has looked for the Flyers.

When he left the NHL in 2008, he looked exhausted. He was playing for a coach who didn’t mind static, half-court offensive sets without much stretch-passing or speed, but the league was changing around Jagr and around the Rangers. It was becoming harder and harder to consistently win without lots of strong skating.

Jagr could still score from a full-stop around the face-off circles, but his talents seemed to have an expiration date. He left the league for many reasons, but one of them was certainly that he just wasn’t built for the new NHL. At least not at his age.

Jagr went on to play in the KHL before returning to the NHL this summer, signing on to play for the Flyers.

But the Jagr we’ve seen in the pre-season has been a different one from the one that left the league three years ago.

This Jagr is skating well. He’s all about hustling into the offensive zone. He’s not scared to move into traffic now. He’s shooting from the slot. He’s not demanding the puck for his entire shift. But when he does get the puck, he still has that incredible shot you have to respect. Just because a goalie can see Jagr’s shot coming doesn’t mean he can stop it, as Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist saw (or didn’t see) last night. Twice.

What happened to Jagr?

Apparently, the KHL was good for his game. There was more practicing and more skating required. Jagr, who spent the bulk of his career dragging around hooking defensemen by their sticks, needed the practice. It had probably been decades since he had been able to skate freely.

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Two-Thirds of a Top Line Is Enough for Rangers

Colorado Avalanche left wing Wojtek Wolski (8) and New York Rangers right wing Marian Gaborik (10) during a regular season game between the Colorado Avalanche and the New York Rangers at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. The Rangers led 1-0 after the first period.

It looks like the Rangers are considering Wojtek Wolski for the top-line wing spot, which would have him playing with Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik.

It would be a nice gig for Wolski, especially since there were rumors the Rangers might buy out his contract this summer.

But the Rangers really don’t have many options for their top line. Coach John Tortorella probably wants to keep his Brandon Dubinsky-Artem Anisimov-Ryan Callahan line together. And any trade ideas the Rangers might have had are probably on hold while the team tries to figure out Marc Staal’s health after a concussion last season (although the team is shockingly deep on defense).

So it makes sense the Rangers would look for an internal candidate for that top-line spot. But maybe there’s another option.

Quite a few coaches over the years have worked with two-man lines, basically having two permanent members of a line, with a third player variable, depending upon who’s hot or who’s tough. Flyers’ coach Peter Laviolette works a fair amount with two-man units, too.

Tortorella has never been this kind of coach. When he’s had a top line at his disposal, he’s used that as much as he could. When he hasn’t had a top line, he’s been inclined to randomly throw players together when things start to go south.

Tortorella relaxed a bit with his random lines last season, but he still likes to mix things up when he feels the team needs some kind of boost.

Keeping that winger slot open would allow Tortorella the flexibility to mix lines up, without having players getting to know each other on the fly.

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Islanders Still Dream of a Healthy Rick DiPietro

New York Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro (39) looks in dejection after a goal by Dallas Stars left wing Brenden Morrow (not pictured) during the second period of the hockey game between the New York Islanders and the Dallas Stars at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.

Yesterday’s New York Post had a nice, long profile of New York Islander goalie Rick DiPietro.

DiPietro is perhaps best known for signing a 15-year contract in 2006, putting together two very strong seasons, and then spending the next three seasons being perpetually injured.

DiPietro is once again trying to get his career on track, to live up to the flashes of goaltending genius he’s shown over the years.

DiPietro’s fate has always been intertwined with that of goalie Roberto Luongo, since after drafting DiPietro, the Islanders traded away Luongo.

The thing of it is, DiPietro has never really lived up to his potential — at least at the NHL level. But that’s what makes him so attractive to fans. There’s always this idea that DiPietro will get healthy and be the goaltending savior the Islanders intended him to be.

Conversely, the shine is decidedly off of Luongo after his brutal performance in the Stanley Cup finals. Canucks fans saw everything Luongo has to offer and he came up short.

DiPietro has yet to show what he can do. He still has that glow of potential. He hasn’t been a success, but he has yet to demonstrably fail. DiPietro is a relatively clean canvas for Islander fans to dream upon.

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NHLers Enjoy Aggressive Coaching Just As Much As Fans Do

Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Guy Boucher wild eyed tries to direct his team on the bench during the Lightning game against the Bruins in The Eastern Conference Final game 5 at TD Bank Garden in Boston, MA

After the last NHL lockout, the league put an emphasis on trying to take trapping out of hockey, saying that fans didn’t want to watch a team trap for three periods.

So the league tweaked some rules and did what it could to put some more speed into the game. And for the most part it worked. But I always wondered how players felt about it. For many NHL players, trapping was all they knew. Some, like Scott Gomez, had refined their game to thrive in trapping situations. Players like that couldn’t have been too excited about the game moving away from that.

But now, here we are six years later, and it seems that younger players, players who didn’t play through the trap-dominated 90s, are anxious to play for coaches who err on the side of aggression.

Look at the Tampa Bay Lightning, about to start year two under coach Guy Boucher.

Boucher got a lot of notice at the start of last season for his aggressive, unusual-for-the-NHL systems, but he wound up getting a lot of respect by leading the Lightning to a surprise playoff run.

Boucher talked to The Tampa Tribune about what this season will be like:

We start back at zero, but I just go faster to solidify right away with, this is what we were and this is want we want to be and now let’s take this a step further once we re-master what we mastered before and start back at zero and not presume that the players remember, they don’t remember the details because there are too many details to remember and that’s why it’s a long process. It’s a year long process.

I’m not sure if Boucher had problems with player buy-in at the start of last season, but it certainly won’t be an issue this year. Players have seen what Boucher can do for a team. More importantly, players have seen what Boucher can do for an individual. Sean Bergenheim seemed destined to be another talented NHLer who couldn’t live up to the flashes of potential he occasionally managed to show. Under Boucher, his game came together in a lights-out playoff performance that Bergenheim parlayed into a four-year contract with Florida.

Bergenheim is practically a living infomercial for Boucher’s highly responsive systems.

So while Boucher is starting things at zero, in the sense that it’s the start of a new season, he really is starting a little further along. Players are much more inclined to listen to a coach when they believe the coaching will translate to success.

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