The NHL’s Gray Problem

By BILL WHITEHEAD

It would be easy to start by saying “Toronto, we have a problem,” but surely the powers-that-be in the NHL know they have big trouble in the goalie crease. Perhaps even recent talk of it earned the Florida Panthers two points and cost the Detroit Red Wings at least one on Saturday.

That’s right, we’re talking goaltender interference here. And while cheap blows and head shots leading to screwy disciplinary issues continue to plague the league, goalie interference (GI) is an altogether different animal.

It’s a predator colored in gray and patterned in confusion.

I’m sure the Red Wings would second that.

After yet another controversial moment in the blue paint in the final 10 seconds led to a thrilling 3-2 Florida win in regulation, I had the choice of heading to either dressing room – the one of the victorious Cats or angry Wings.

The Cats’ room would have been a breeze, an easy choice as the Panthers surely celebrated by saying all the right words. “Well-earned win,” “greasy goal” and “build on the momentum” were likely going to be floated around the room.

But Detroit? That promised to be a little more bombastic – stewing and emotional, perhaps even R-rated (which rarely occurs). If nothing else, they weren’t going to give me the status quo quote.

I’ve never been a fan of players saying the expected, the borderline cliché quote with a feel-good touch to it. Rather, I’ll take the off-the-cuff, upset, brutally honest remark of a player operating outside his comfort zone any day of the week, especially on a Saturday night in front of a great house with crucial points on the line against a divisional rival.

So naturally I made the hard left turn off the elevator that sent me to Motown.

To say the Red Wings were upset is about like noticing the Panthers couldn’t come close to hitting the net in the first 30 minutes. Really, those were some of the most open looks I’ve seen for a Florida shooter in a long time.

Yep, these Wings were hot, fiery and spicier than anything ordered up the following day for the Super Bowl, and while profanity-free, all three players and coach Jeff Blashill spoke their piece on how the refs got it all wrong at the game’s end.

Captain Henrik Zetterberg, a fine spokesman for Detroit, cut right to the chase.

“Yeah, I do,” Zetterberg responded when asked if he disagreed with the decision. “The inconsistency in this league right now – if it’s the refs, the guys in Toronto, the suspensions, the fines – it’s hard for us as players to know what rules we’re playing under.

“You see it over and over again. Losing a game like this that’s really important that yesterday could have been called goalie interference and tonight it’s not.”

Not yesterday, but maybe the week before the All-Star Weekend.

The league discussed GI at length in Tampa during its midseason break. The Detroit side felt that the tendency before the break was to wave off goals due to the slightest contact with the netminder; however, following the exhibition in Tampa the Wings said they didn’t know what to expect from night to night and that all bets were off after Jonathan Huberdeau made contact with Petr Mrazek.

“It shocks me that they call that a goal,” said Detroit forward Justin Abdelkader, who to his credit talked about the play for over six minutes. “Everyone around the league – players-wise, coaches, general managers – don’t know what’s a goal and what’s not with goaltender interference.

“There’s such a gray area. It’s just amazing with contact like that in the crease, (Huberdeau’s) foot’s in the crease, that they call that a goal…That was an easy one, I thought…If the goalie can’t make the save because of contact, it’s got to be no-goal.

“There’s no clear-cut answer to why it’s a goal or it’s not. It seems to be different every night.”

Abdelkader said he thought “it was an easy call,” which led to Detroit’s frustration. If it was so easy, then why was the goal confirmed so quickly? I then asked Abdelkader what the remedy was.

“I don’t know if it can be corrected in the short term before the season’s over, but it’s something for sure through our (players’ association), the players and the league to make sure that we make it as black-and-white as possible,” he said.

“There can’t be a gray area because you get calls like this or ones from the past month or two where players are leaving shaking their heads, questioning what’s the call.”

Last season, Florida had a much more egregiously bad call go against them when the officials ruled Nick Bjugstad was in the crease and interfered with Detroit’s Jared Coreau, despite Bjugstad being pushed into the crease and making no contact with the backstop. The Panthers saw their 4-1 lead trimmed by a goal on the disallowance then lost in a shootout.

From my standpoint, Saturday’s game ended as it should.

Huberdeau did appear to make contact with Mrazek, who was much calmer in describing the play to the media than he was when the call was confirmed as a good goal, sinking Detroit’s hopes of getting four points in two nights. But Mike Green leaning into Huberdeau was the first contact on the play, and it created a domino effect. Plus, Mrazek may have oversold the contact a bit.

The league wants more scoring, but these controversial calls aren’t the way to go about it. If a player gets an inch or two into the crease with no punishment, they’ll take a few more inches, then both skates, then goalies are being pummeled. These situations escalate in proportion to what players can get away with.

The NHL needs to address this situation now, not in the summer. Make a quick fix, play it that way through June and tinker with it in the summer if necessary.

At the beginning of the movie The Grey, Liam Neeson plays a marksman who is hired to kill wolves around an oil drilling site. Neeson kills them daily, using skilled precision to dispose of the threat they pose to other workers.

The NHL has its own dangerous gray animal prowling at its 31 hockey arenas, but the threat is inside the cold rinks, not outside lurking in the wilderness like in the flick.

The best bet for the league would be to hurry up and kill this gray beast before it stalks a steely path all the way to the postseason.

Follow Bill on Twitter: @BillWhiteheadFL

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The Next #FlaPanthers Coach is Available

By Bill Whitehead

On Monday I put forth the notion the Florida Panthers should look past the joy of Jonathan Huberdeau and Sasha Barkov returning to the lineup and do even more to improve the team by trading for a veteran.

The name I tossed out was Detroit’s Thomas Vanek, who scored his 13th goal last night in the Red Wings’ tough 3-2 loss to Columbus. It was the 10th overtime loss for Detroit, which is the number they’ll look at when this season ends poorly for them.

The response to the proposition of a Vanek acquisition varied. Most thought it was a good idea but would be harder and take a sweeter deal than I proposed. Some felt Vanek would loaf in the playoffs and be of no help; others felt the Cats should wait a bit and see what unfolds on the road trip.

I said the Panthers should move right now and try to pry away the 33-year-old Vanek before the Penguins or another playoff club needing a veteran forward steps in. In fact, I said to “act fast.”

But when it comes to the search for the next coach to walk behind the Panthers’ bench, I have more urgent advice.

Act faster.

The Boston Bruins, who have frankly played better than most would have expected this year, handed bench boss Claude Julien and his 419 career wins and Stanley Cup championship a pink slip yesterday morning.

GM Don Sweeney, whose own future could be hanging in the balance, axed Julien, the league’s longest-tenured coach, as the Patriots were getting ready to celebrate their Super Bowl win with a parade through Boston.

A fellow hockey scribe suggested the Panthers, Jets, Avalanche, Islanders and Canucks should start the calls ASAP to Sweeney asking permission. Julien’s services will be in high demand, and you can rest assured Vegas and GM George McPhee will be interested in Julien’s services, too.

As Mike Babcock pointed out yesterday, when you fire someone with the numbers Julien has posted, you’d better have someone better in place. The Bruins now have Bruce Cassidy, who once referred to Jaromir Jagr as a “coach killer.”

Florida put the interim tag on Tom Rowe for a reason, and regardless of what he does this season, it’s hard to envision him being back as coach. He took over after 22 games and will receive the lion’s share of the blame if the Cats miss the postseason.

If they get in, well, he’d better win a round or two because he isn’t a fan favorite. That’s partially due to how Gerard Gallant was dismissed and also to the team’s performance. Whatever the reason, I’m guessing Rowe likely re-assume his former position after this season ends.

Which leads us back to a new coach.

That hasn’t been discussed much, mainly because so many teams still believe they have a viable playoff shot and aren’t willing to make a change at the top.

Plus, there’s no guarantee of a coach keeping his job when occupying a playoff spot. Ken Hitchcock was fired while the Blues held the second wild-card position, and Julien’s Bruins were in third in the Atlantic Division over the weekend.

Though his teams play well for him right away, Hitchcock is 65. Jack Capuano failed with a good Islanders roster. Gallant’s obviously not a candidate.

This column didn’t need writing then when those coaches were fired, but it does now, which takes us back to the 56-year-old Julien.

Unless Tampa Bay fires Jon Cooper any time soon (and the Bolts are playing better), this is a real no-brainer decision for the Panthers.

Hiring Julien right away demonstrates the organization’s commitment to winning, which they’ve shown with the Keith Yandle signing, trying to improve the team through trades and locking up the young core.

I’m not sure of the relationship Dale Tallon has with Julien, but they both seem like both old-school hockey guys who have deep backgrounds and like to ice teams that play with an edginess and tons of size.

Florida has some of the former but very little of the latter. However, a good coach coaches around what he has and gameplans to his strengths.

And there’s no denying that Julien is a good coach. Surly at times? Sure. Always appearing disgruntled while pacing behind his team? Yep.

But this isn’t a popularity contest. See Bill Belichick or Nick Saban on that front and how the word “championship” factors into their legacies.

It’s about winning a Stanley Cup, and Julien has done that.

Rumors are that Julien already has a couple of offers out there, but he hasn’t been hired as of this writing.

Tallon and the Florida Panthers need to change that.

**Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and with the Associated Press and SportsXchange

#FlaPanthers Should Make a Move Now

By Bill Whitehead

Have we all safely returned from the adrenaline high of that 2-1 win on Friday night? Have we sufficiently come back to normal, drawn down to earth after the exhilaration of suddenly having Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau thrust into the lineup and watching the latter score the game-winning goal off a slick pass from the former?

The answer is maybe yes — a great ending to the Super Bowl unfolded in between then and now — but the Panthers need not sit back on their heels after beating a pretty good gathering of Ducks.

So what now for a team aspiring for the playoffs and just barely on the outside looking in?

Make a trade. And do it quickly before next week’s difficult four-game road trip against three playoff teams and one in a similar situation to the Cats waylays the positive uptick and good mojo of the current three-game winning streak.

The winning streak was the first of its kind for Florida this season. The defense is playing better and will continue with the return of Alex Petrovic, and James Reimer has been outstanding in his starts in place of Roberto Luongo.

Now the Panthers need to strike quickly and improve the lineup. As always with this club, scoring goals is the key problem — has been, currently is, maybe won’t be in the future. However, until the Cats start averaging 2.9 goals a game or better, I’m not content on leaving the roster as is, especially when a playoff spot is at stake.

So do what should have been done in August. Add a veteran piece.

There was a small hole on the third line in the offseason along side Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Marchessault. The hope was that a prospect like Kyle Rau, Shane Harper, Denis Malgin or Jared McCann would step up and permanently make his presence known in that spot. All have had shots; ultimately, all have been sent down to Springfield in a revolving door of promotion and demotion.

The hole at third-line winger grew bigger with the loss of Bjugstad in Dallas, but Nick has returned. That puts us back to where we were before his preseason injury.

Florida passed on signing PA Parenteau or Thomas Vanek on the cheap to fill a veteran presence six months ago. Sam Gagner and Michael Grabner are two others who inked less expensive deals but who have contributed immensely to their clubs, both of which are in playoff position.

Therefore, I’ll whittle that list to one — Vanek.

Detroit’s playoff hopes are slimmer than the Panthers’, trailing Boston in the divisional race by five points. A playoff regular for over two decades, Detroit’s move away from the postseason is apparent. Some around the club has said privately that this has been years in the making, and the Wings barely made it in last season. That will make them sellers over the next three weeks, and Vanek’s name has come up.

Florida should jump in now on the 33-year-old Vanek. Yeah, he’s had health issues this season, forcing him to miss 12 games, plus his production over the past few years hasn’t lived up to the standard he’s set. However, this campaign has been a rebirth. His 32 points in 40 games ranks second on the Wings and would have him tied for second on Florida’s stats page with Marchessault despite playing in five fewer games.

Money won’t be an issue as the Cats would pay less than $1 million for Vanek’s services the remainder of the year, which is the final one in his contract before becoming a UFA. All it would likely take would be a mid-round pick or mid-level prospect, but not both. He could slide in beside fellow Golden Gopher Bjugstad and Marchessault, giving Florida three dangerous offensive weapons in its bottom six, improving secondary scoring.

But as the ads always say, act fast. Pittsburgh has lost forward Conor Sheary until March, and the Pens are hungry to repeat as Stanley Cup champs. Florida should move soon and not let next week’s tough road trip be their Waterloo. Maybe sweeten the pot a tad on an offer, but not too much.

Basically, the Panthers have the opportunity of a do-over in making the team much better with a proven veteran instead of gambling on a prospect. Don’t think that the excitement of Friday night is enough to get it done; improve the team with some real talent, salvage the season and hope for some April action.

This is just good old-fashioned doubling-down. Sure, the Cats are better with top-liners Barkov and Huberdeau, but let’s don’t stop there.

Playoff teams and Cup winners don’t just “stop there.”

Trading for Vanek would undo the undone that wasn’t done in the first place but should have been.

**Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and with the Associated Press and SportsXchange

#FlaPanthers: Coaching Change Inevitable

By BILL WHITEHEAD

We’ve been told for a long time that a picture is worth a thousand words. With that in mind, the images that we saw Sunday night about 10:00 must be worth at least 100,000 words.

Or maybe something closer to epic proportions, somewhere in the neighborhood of War and Peace.

There was Gerard Gallant, bags in hand, grabbing his own cab. One Carolina Hurricanes employee was assisting him, which accentuated the matter even more.

In his time of departure from the Florida Panthers and lowest point within the organization, Gallant’s sole help was a worker from a former Southeast Division rival.

In the high stakes game of Optics, which is enormous these days (Google “National Election” images), the Panthers came off looking terrible on a Sunday night.

Worse than the worst segment ever of 60 Minutes. Or if you’re over 45, the most woeful melodramatic episode ever of Murder, She Wrote.

Rumors had been swirling like a furiously forming funnel cloud that Gallant’s days in Florida could be coming to a close. A 3- or 4-game losing streak might just be Gallant’s last straw, but one loss? One particularly bad loss to a mediocre  Hurricanes team that is extremely young and played most of the game without its top center?

Seems extreme, no?

Unabashedly, I admit to liking the Panthers. I’ve covered them since Pete DeBoer’s first season, and my duties have expanded greatly in that time beyond anything I had ever imagined.

When they lose, it stings some. Hey, prosperity’s a good thing, and business is better for everyone when the Cats are winning like last season, breaking records and being the lead NHL story on occasion.

When my wife saw me sulking a bit and asked, “Is someone upset because his team lost?”, my eight-year-old son — the real hockey fan in the house — looked over his shoulder from his computer hockey game and set the record straight.

“Everyone gets upset when their team loses,” he said simply.

Apparently that goes for Florida’s management, too. And it literally is their team.

That said, Sunday night won’t go down as one of the better moments for the Florida Panthers.

Gallant was a great guy to work with. Even when angry or perturbed by something, that grin seemed to widen and those teeth flashed as he prepared to deliver the reasons why. He didn’t single out players often, but he didn’t cover up the mistakes that were made either.

He’s appreciated around the league, and the perception of him is a good, strong one. The media likes him, and he’s viewed as a good hockey guy.

If you’re setting the scene at home, management will be playing the role of the Big Bad Wolf in this story, folks.

But the bottom line is this: There was a gulf that existed between Gallant and management. Gallant bristled at some of the decisions made by the brass, but their final one that concerned him was inevitable.

It could have happened last night or in Chicago or Detroit later in the week, but it was coming. That funnel cloud finally formed over Gallant, and he couldn’t escape it.

The growing discontent between Gallant and management would never go away.

Now it’s on ownership, though, and they’re just as culpable as Gallant.

They secured the future by making long-term decisions and locking up the core. That’s great. But with over $5 million left in salary cap, they failed to address the present state of secondary scoring, which has usually been a problem for the Panthers as long I’ve been here.

Particularly of issue is the third line and the team’s offense, which ranks in the NHL’s lower half in almost every significant category.

Some players on the third line are rookies, castoffs, borderline AHLers or some with marginal skills that should be playing on the fourth line. With Nick Bjugstad out, Gallant tinkered with that line incessantly, trying to make something out of it and establishing some consistency, but he couldn’t.

While spitballing some hot stove talk in July, a colleague and I often talked about many possible free-agent acquisitions. Two that came up frequently were Austrians Michael Grabner and Thomas Vanek.

An energetic player like the former 30-goal Michael Grabner or proven scorer like Vanek were both available on the cheap to shore up the third line, even before Bjugstad’s late preseason injury.

Both wingers are having standout years. Grabner has 12 goals and is his usual reliable self on the PK, and he’s a ridiculous plus-20 for the Rangers. Vanek has been nicked up a bit but is almost a point a game for Detroit.

The Rangers paid less than $2 million per Grabner, Detroit slightly more for Vanek. Meanwhile, the Panthers still have a hole at wing.

One of these seasoned vets could have brought production to a line that had gaping holes on both wings and kept Bjugstad in the middle, but management hope a youngster would step up.

It was a gamble that hasn’t paid off.

Grabs or Vanek would have helped offensively and pushed players getting third-line minutes to  the fourth line, too, making it more productive in the process.

I didn’t want Gallant necessarily, but I grew to like him. No one asked me, but I had my sights on Guy Boucher and his Mad Scientist approach to coaching.

Boucher took the Lightning to within one goal of the Stanley Cup Final with a goalie tandem of Dwayne Roloson, Dan Ellis (remember him?) and Mike Smith. Think about that for a minute.

Now Boucher is in Ottawa, the Senators are in second in the Atlantic Division and GM Tom Rowe is the Panthers’ new bench boss.

It’s quite an ascendancy from Rowe’s stint in the AHL to Florida’s front office and now to the bench, albeit in an interim role. The onus will be on him to get the team, which is likely a little ticked off at losing Gallant, back on task of chasing Montreal,  Ottawa and Tampa for a divisional spot.

Last night was a lot about Gallant — those images, again, were bad and will be played out too much for anyone’s liking — and the players will always have to own up to their play on the ice.

But now with Rowe coaching the team, this is mostly about the brass, less on the players and not on Gallant at all.

It’s on management now.

Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in newspapers at TCPalm.com

A Few Reasons to Love Women’s Hockey

By Bill Whitehead

When the thought of women’s Olympic hockey came up early Wednesday morning, I jumped at the opportunity. No hockey for a long time is really bad for the soul, and the chance to get a good taste of a heated rivalry like the USA against rival Canada was enticing. There’s pure, unadulterated hatred between the two clubs.

The game didn’t disappoint.

As an American, I was, of course, dismayed by the outcome. I thought the USA moved the puck around and possessed it better in the first period, but it took three outstanding saves by netminder Jessie Vetter to keep the game scoreless after one period. After trailing 1-0, feisty Team Canada played a stronger game and took advantage of a controversial second goal by Hayley Wickenheiser to pull ahead 2-1. Once the Canadians stretched it to 3-1, Team USA scored one and had a two-man advantage inside the last minute after Canada committed a minor for too many (wo)men on the ice, but the Yanks simply ran out of town.

It was a great win for Team Canada, and it was just Round 1. There’s a good chance these two clubs, who truly dislike one another, meet in the medal round, perhaps playing for gold. If that happens, I’d like the USA’s speed to outlast Canada’s tough physical play and come away the winner in the rematch.

Three observations from the game:

HELLO, OLD FRIEND – It was nice to see Kevin Dineen pop up again on my TV. I always found Dineen to be a personable chap during his tenure behind the Florida Panthers’ bench, and it’s great to see him have some success – even at the expense of Team USA. Dineen had to have been shocked to be on the winning side of Wickenheiser’s controversial/reviewable goal because he lost about 95 percent of those with Florida. That’s the good for Dineen. On the negative side, well, let’s just say we saw those too many men on the ice infractions way too often with Dineen as the Cats’ coach.

GREAT GAME, GREAT TIME – Watching the game reminded me of the World Junior Championships two years ago when Vincent Trochek and Rocco Grimaldi paced Team USA in the gold medal game over Sweden in the wee hours of the morning over here stateside. I can remember getting up at 3:59 a.m. for those 4:00 ET starts, making a pot of coffee and cheering on Vinnie and Rocco, who sounded like a pair of mobsters, with the house all to myself. Nothing quite like getting up way too early and enjoying some java and puck. It’s the same thing I do with the British Open golf tournament – just without the hockey.

GIRLS ROCK – If you haven’t been exposed to the women’s game, you’ll be surprised: These girls can play. Team USA is incredibly fast, and the skill level is quite high. Plus, they communicate well. In fact, certain NHL teams could learn to stay onside like these women who fly up and down the ice with their ponytails swishing around because they always seem to be on the same page, again communicating and playing well with one another, not making many mental errors or silly passes.

I don’t like the players being referred to as “ladies.” We don’t call the male members of the NHL “gentlemen” — ever. Maybe at the Lady Byng Trophy presentation, that’s about it. And I doubt all the things heard on the ice in Sochi would qualify as lady-like. But that’s a minor gripe.
When the NHL was locked out in the fall of 2012, I expanded my DirecTV package to include more sports in an effort to see more college hockey, especially the University of Minnesota for Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau, and North Dakota to watch Grimaldi play. What I didn’t get to see then or didn’t notice at the time was any of the women’s game.

That’s a shame – again — because these girls can play and it’s a fine quality of hockey.