Hockey Notes

Kovalchuk and mates can’t find the handle

By Kevin Paul Dupont
November 14, 2010

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The Devils are in town tomorrow night and, heavens to Mel Bridgman, they are a mess. It’s not often that we’ve said that in the last couple of decades. The long-lost cousins of the Kansas City Scouts haven’t been the flashiest or most exciting thing on double runners since moving to New Jersey in 1982, but they have been consistent and efficient and, before we forget, quite successful.

Witness the four conference championships and three Stanley Cups: 1995, 2000, and 2003. No one cares much about flash and dash when the guy dressed in tuxedo and white gloves hands over the big silver Cup.

Much of what ails the Devils centers on Ilya Kovalchuk, who is in year No. 1, week No. 7, of a 15-year pact that will pay him $100 million. The Kovalchuk the Devils thought they were getting (speedy, prolific scorer) has turned into the pricey free agent mega-bust that makes general managers, owners, and back-room bean counters break into night sweats.

Kovy’s stat sheet stands an emaciated 4-5—9 through 16 games, a pace for 46 points. He would have played in 17 games, but the elite Russian sniper reported late for one too many team meetings, and rookie coach John MacLean scratched him from the lineup Oct. 23 vs. Buffalo. That’s a lot of coin sitting on the sideline.

In the overall scheme of things, that’s one of the few things MacLean has done right thus far. No one, no matter how big his paycheck, can be bigger than the team.

The night out of the lineup as a “coach’s decision’’ appeared to get Kovalchuk momentarily refocused. He scored a goal the next night vs. the Rangers.

But the 27-year-old sniper went the next seven games without a goal and had only a pair of assists against Chicago Nov. 3 to show for two weeks of work (pronounced with a Maynard G. Krebs hiccup for emphasis).

The lowest of the low — to date — came Wednesday night when Kovalchuk failed to score in a shootout against the Sabres, a loss that dropped the Devils’ record on home ice to 0-5-2. Not only did he fail to score, he never got a shot off. In a shootout. Against rookie goaltender Jhonas Enroth. The next layer of indignity was the home crowd treating Kovalchuk to a sound booing for his failure to launch.

“The puck rolled off my stick,’’ said Kovalchuk, explaining the obvious.

The question underneath is whether that loss of control was the byproduct of a loss of concentration. Just as it takes a certain amount of mental commitment to arrive at meetings on time, a freebie from center ice requires focus and presence of mind. For 100 million smackers, the home crowd expected at least, you know, a shot on net.

“Never happened to me before,’’ Kovalchuk said later. “I saw it on TV and thought, ‘Oh, that’s funny.’ But when it happens to you, especially in those kind of moments, it’s not real funny. If I go [into] a shootout again, I will do the same thing because that’s how I try to get in a goalie’s head — handle the puck, that’s what I do all the time.’’

The Devils had Martin Brodeur return to the lineup Friday night after missing two-plus games with a bruised right elbow. At puck drop, the Devils ranked a dead-last 30th in the NHL with 10 points in 16 games. They still have 65 games to go, which is plenty of time to recover and avoid what would be their first playoff DNQ since ’96, which currently stands as their only miss since 1989.

But to get going, they first must find Kovalchuk, who had 338 goals and 642 points in 621 games prior to this season. He popped in No. 342 Friday night, getting the OT game-winner vs. Edmonton. With the blessing of club owner Jeff Vanderbeek, GM Lou Lamoriello forked out all that money for what he believed was a generational player. And maybe he’ll be that again — one of these many, many years to come.

Big difference in 6-7 Boyle With only 12 goals and 16 points on his NHL résumé since leaving the Boston College campus in 2007, towering Rangers center Brian Boyle appears to be recovering some of that scoring touch that had him pot 60 goals over his final three seasons at The Heights.

Never before with more than four goals in a season, be it with the Kings or Rangers, Boyle heads into today’s matinee vs. the Oilers with a line of 7-0—7 through 16 games. The 6-foot-7-inch pivot, who played his high school hockey at St. Sebastian’s, knocked in a pair Tuesday in the Rangers’ 5-3 loss to the Capitals.

“He has taken it upon himself to improve his game in all areas,’’ noted New York coach John Tortorella. “And he’s certainly paying dividends for us.’’

Specifically, Boyle buckled down over the summer and worked diligently with skating instructor Barbara Underhill, an ex-Canadian Olympian. The improvement in his skating stride is obvious, which not only helps him to get to pucks faster and unleash quality shots but makes him a much improved physical presence, too. He is finally using his size to his advantage, even making some menacing hits along the boards.

It’s not likely that the Bruins, who visit Madison Square Garden Wednesday night, will feel the need to keep 6-9 shutdown defenseman Zdeno Chara out against the huge kid from Hingham. But then again, Boyle ranks second only to Brandon Dubinsky (10) in Ranger goal scoring. Could be we get to see a clash of the titans.

Leafs call out the reserves The Maple Leaf free-fall, which ultimately could net the Bruins another prime draft pick, finally led GM Brian Burke to call up prized prospect Nazem Kadri, chosen No. 7 overall in the 2007 draft. Kadri (above), a center, had a decent training camp, but the Leafs pushed him back to the minors, figuring they would rather have him develop in the AHL than get limited ice time on a No. 3 or 4 line. But with no pop from their pivots over the last two weeks, and all the equity of a 4-0-0 start gone, there was little choice but to call up Kadri as well as 6-5 defensive prospect Keith Aulie, once a Calgary pick, obtained in the January deal with the Flames that brought Dion Phaneuf to Toronto. Kadri and Aulie were expected to suit up last night, with the Canucks visiting Toronto. The power outage has been top to bottom on the Leafs roster, including the first-line likes of Tyler Bozak, Kris Versteeg, and Phil Kessel, who entered last night’s game a bankrupt 0-0—0 and minus-3 in his last seven games.

Hall monitor With Taylor Hall’s game too flat for Edmonton coach Tom Renney’s liking, the No. 1 pick in the June draft was benched Tuesday night in Carolina amid the Oil’s 7-1 shellacking (followed two nights later by a 6-2 thumping in Detroit). Hall didn’t play in the third period against the Hurricanes after logging only 8:47 across 13 shifts. Two nights later in Detroit, he again went 0-0—0 and logged an eyesore minus-3 in 19:15 of ice time. “He’ll be fine,’’ said Oilers president Kevin Lowe. “If anything, coming into the year, we thought he might be too aggressive in some situations, but he’s been smart out there. It takes time. People forget these are just kids, and other than in the rarest situations, it takes them time to adjust.’’

Brainstorms blow over The GMs met last week in Toronto, but all the jawboning produced little action. The idea of Florida’s Dale Tallon to allow a coach’s challenge in goal/no-goal situations gained little traction. Ditto for Detroit GM Ken Holland’s idea to expand overtime to eight minutes, reducing manpower to three skaters aside after four minutes, in hopes that fewer games would have to be decided via shootout. Toronto’s Brian Burke on video review of goal/no-goal situations: “Like killing a house fly with a bazooka. An overreaction of the highest magnitude.’’

Loui, Loui After Friday night’s game in Anaheim, winger Loui Eriksson is the Stars’ leading goal scorer with marks of 9-8-17 in 15 games. The 6-3, 200-pounder is fast and strong on the puck, and was viewed in this space as a reasonable comparable to Kessel when the latter approached free agency in July 2009. A ridiculous comp, according to many e-mailers at the time. Note to e-mail bashers: As of Friday morning, Kessel had 73 goals over his last two-plus seasons, while Eriksson had 74. Kessel went on to a five-year payday at $5.4 million per. Eriksson is now in the first year of a six-year pact that pays $4.27 million per.

Savings at Bob’s Years of bad goaltending decisions may have finally come to an end in Philadelphia, where the Flyers now have 22-year-old Sergei Bobrovsky (of the Novokuznetsk, Russia, Bobrovskys) saving their cheese steak on a nightly basis. In the dressing room, he goes by “Bob.’’ And when he makes a big save at the Wells Fargo Center, a loud “B-o-o-o-o-b-b-b-b-b-b-!’’ bellows over the PA. The event-entertainment folks clipped it from the 1991 movie “What About Bob?’’ featuring Richard Dreyfuss and Bill Murray. Bobrovsky sure looks like the real deal. The Flyers had the Panthers in town last night, and Bob stood an impressive 9-2-1 with a 2.09 goals-against mark and .931 save percentage. He signed as a free agent over the summer, a deal that will pay him a total of $5.25 million over three years. The Flyers, with No. 1 Michael Leighton recovering from a back injury (don’t worry, Bob can handle it), was one of seven netminders Philly dressed in 2009-10.

Dizzy spell Versteeg, as he feared after a lifetime of seeing his name bollixed in print, wasn’t all that surprised when the engraver hammered “Vertseeg’’ into the Stanley Cup. “A perfect example of my life,’’ said the one-time Bruins prospect. “Just something crazy and quirky that’s always happening to me.’’

Loose pucks Ex-Bruins assistant coach Craig Ramsay is using 6-3 Thrashers defenseman Zach Bogosian, ex- of Cushing Academy, to shut down some of the game’s top strikers, including Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in a recent Atlanta-Chicago matchup. “Being called upon like that is a special feeling,’’ said the 20-year-old Bogosian, selected No. 3 overall in the 2008 draft . . . The Hawks, struggling as expected after their summer of post-Cup salary shedding, have flipped Kane from right wing to left, and he’ll ride for a while with Dave Bolland (C) and Marian Hossa (RW) . . . As of last week, the Avalanche had four guys sidelined via concussions: Kyle Quincey, Adam Foote, Kyle Cumiskey, and Peter Mueller. Problem? Nahhhh . . . Brandon Bochenski, whom the Bruins acquired from Chicago in the swap for Versteeg, as of Friday had 24 points in 24 games with Astana Barys of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League . . . Joe Colborne, Boston’s top pick (16th overall) in the 2008 draft, has made impressive strides in his 6-7 weeks with Providence, and it’s possible, if not probable, that the 6-5 pivot will get a twirl with the varsity this season. Just how that happens with centers David Krejci and Marc Savard also working their way back remains to be seen . . . Here’s one the Players Association will copy, enlarge, and paste all over the walls of office HQs in Toronto: “I hate the salary cap.’’ Such were the words of Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch last weekend in Toronto, where he saw Jimmy Devellano, his former general manager, be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Ilitch was waxing nostalgic over the days when he could reach into his deep Little Caesars pizza purse and buy all the roster toppings needed to make his Winged Wheels champs. Makes sense. Why would a pizza guy ever want to be put on a diet?

Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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