Dave Tippett had no pressure, no losses to keep him awake at night. As senior advisor to the expansion team that will begin play in Seattle in 2021 he could take time to make decisions and he didn’t have keyboard warriors calling for his head. It was a novelty for Tippett, who had a respectable playing career and made a strong transition to coaching in the minor leagues and an assistant’s role with the Kings before he spent 14 seasons coaching Dallas and Phoenix/Arizona.
Surprisingly, Tippett gave up that idyllic life to coach the Edmonton Oilers. And although he was frustrated after the Kings spanked the Oilers 5-1 last Thursday, he’s where he wants to be. “I was enjoying what I was doing in Seattle,” he said, “but I’d never played or never coached in a Canadian market. So when the opportunity was put in front of me it was just something that was worth a try.”
Coaching the Oilers is more complicated than opening the door to the ice and hoping runaway NHL scoring leaders Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl don’t fall and hurt themselves. The Oilers missed the playoffs the last two seasons and 12 of the past 13; their roster had been top-heavy, lacking secondary scoring and depth on defense. They’re still not perfectly balanced but they’re better overall and their penalty killing has gone from 30th to near the best.
“It’s been a good group. For the most part we’ve been a real dedicated group,” Tippett said. “They want to get better. I think the last few years have been tough for them here but we’ve made some changes. [General manager] Ken Holland came in and provided some penalty killers on the bottom of the lineup that have really helped our group.”
Kings coach Todd McLellan, who coached Edmonton the first 20 games of last season before he was fired, praised the power-play production of winger James Neal, who was traded to Edmonton for Milan Lucic last summer. “Lucic is a tremendous player but he didn’t provide those eight or nine security goals, if you will, on the power play. That makes a huge difference,” McLellan said. “They’re confident. They got off to a good start. They’re playing well.”
But like most teams that aren’t deep enough, they’re inconsistent. They were 7-1-0, then went 3-4-2 and have sometimes been exposed defensively. “We win games and play really well, and when we lose it’s not even close,” McDavid said after losing to the Kings. “So we’ve got to find a way to find that consistent play.”
Tippett is up for that task. “We think we’ve made some strides,” he said, “but there’s still a long way to go.”
Babcock takes the fall for Maple Leafs’ failures
Mike Babcock might have let his ego get too big and he might have had trouble communicating with Toronto’s young players, but he didn’t build a roster that’s heavy on skill and light on grit. Many people share the blame for the Maple Leafs’ shortcomings, but Babcock’s firing last week, in the fifth year of an eight-year, $50-million contract, was inevitable when they fell into an 0-5-1 slide and were 9-10-4. New coach Sheldon Keefe, who coached many of the Leafs’ kids with the American Hockey League Toronto Marlies, must fix their poor special teams play and motivate a group that has been eliminated in the first playoff round each of the past three seasons. He won his first game, on Friday at Arizona.
“Our game is not really meeting our expectations,” club president Brendan Shanahan said in announcing the moves. “We’re mistake-prone on defense, the attention to details aren’t there. And even the offense, the explosive offense that our team has been known for, has been missing for a while now. Sheldon’s record with the Marlies in terms of development and on-ice success during his time in our organization has compelled us all to feel that he is the right person to take us to the next stage in our evolution.”
Babcock probably won’t be out of work long. If struggling New Jersey doesn’t make a change and pursue him, Seattle should grab him. His name recognition and resume as a Stanley Cup winner in Detroit and two-time Olympic gold medal coach would make him marketable and a good first coach.
Quarterly report: scoring is up, game times are down
The NHL passed the one-quarter point of the schedule last week, and league statisticians produced some interesting numbers. Through the first 317 games, 1,956 goals were scored, an average of 6.2 per game and the second-highest in the last 23 years. Of those goals, 1,462 were scored at even strength in regulation or overtime. That’s the most at that stage of the season since 1992-93. Also, 11 players were on a pace to score 100 points. The last season with that many 100-point scorers was 1995-96, when there were 12.
The average length of regulation games was 2 hours and 28 minutes, the shortest since 2012-13. One reason: Changing the coach’s challenge rule to impose a minor penalty for an unsuccessful challenge has discouraged coaches from making challenges, which means quicker games. There were 32% fewer challenges through the first quarter of this season than the same period of 2018-19, and hooray for that.
Foul language, fair point
The Calgary Flames’ 50-win, 107-point performance last season provided many reasons to believe they’d be a Stanley Cup contender this season. Instead, they’ve been one of the NHL’s biggest flops.
Players held a closed-door meeting that began at the rink and continued at their hotel after they were shut out on Thursday for the third time in four games and extended their winless streak to six. General manager Brad Treliving on Friday made a frank but profane assessment of the situation. “It starts with the manager,” he said. “The manager has been horse ... ,” using a term for manure.
He was kinder to coach Bill Peters. “I don’t stay in tune to the social media world there, but the last couple of days I’ve been asked about changes,” Treliving said. “The coaches aren’t going anywhere, our top players aren’t going anywhere. So while the outside world wants to, and rightly so, count us out, this is when you bunker in, and you get in the foxhole and you try to make your team better.
“And it starts with making this group better. We’re underperforming. We have to get back to a level of performance that we’re capable of.”