No NHL general manager will ever be able to assemble a roster of 20-plus men who all seamlessly mesh with the approach of the coaching staff. It is just a fact of hockey, the quintessential team sport that requires a vast conglomeration of diversely skilled individuals.
Still, that means there will be the occasional, inevitable case of a player who may have something worthwhile to offer, but also demonstrates a discrepancy with the system that must be harnessed with diligence.
Players with a stark shortcoming that contrasts their game with their coach’s philosophy can still have a place on that team. However, in order to garner and sustain a more satisfying role, they must be open to alteration in their own game.
Either that or they simply need to be utilized in a specific manner that exploits their strengths while not getting in the way of the system.
One or more of those descriptions apply to each of the following four players.
A nagging concussion history has not helped his cause, but there is also reason to believe that second-year coach Mike Yeo’s system, with an emphasis on aggressive hustle and physicality, has hindered Pierre-Marc Bouchard’s playmaking pace.
Two of his first three full years with the Minnesota Wild saw Bouchard break the 40-assist mark with 42 in 2005-06 and 50 in 2007-08. When his 2011-12 campaign under Yeo ended with a tumble back into concussion trouble, he was on pace for only 29 helpers had he dressed for all 82 contests.
The year prior, in another injury-shortened season and before Yeo arrived, the 5’11", 173-pounder had an 82-game pace for 36 assists. That would have been only one less than his “sophomore slide” of 37 in 2006-07.
With his relatively small frame and health history, the requisite puck possession to make plays can be harder for Bouchard to come by in a system such as Yeo’s. Contrast that with fellow eight-year Wild veteran Mikko Koivu, a 6’2", 200-pound forward who is tied for the team lead with seven helpers.
Adaptation on the player’s part is the only logical solution here. The Toronto Maple Leafs need Phil Kessel to be the offensive force that he is built to be, but the deployment of that offensive force needs to come from responsible defense as long as Randy Carlyle is behind the bench.
While Carlyle has only been the skipper since March 3 of last season, thus not yielding very much to gauge, Kessel’s firsthand scoring pace since the coaching change has been staggeringly lagging.
He finished his third season as a Leaf and sixth in the NHL with his fourth straight rush to the 30-goal range, posting a career-high 37 strikes.
So far this year, while he is steadily starting to thaw out, he has amassed two goals for a 13-goal, 82-game pace. In all, under Carlyle, Kessel is on a 19-goal, 82-game pace with seven strikes over 31 outings.
The good news is that Kessel is currently on a four-game point-getting streak with his two goals coming in the last three. He should have less trouble than necessary building on that provided he steps up his game on the home front and makes a stronger transitional threat of himself.
Like Kessel in Toronto, Craig Smith has been having brighter days with the Nashville Predators in the first half of the month of February. But time will tell if the young winger can permanently knead himself into the ideal mold of Barry Trotz’s line chart.
One sentence on the official profile page for Nashville’s head coach states, “Trotz’s modus operandi is using an aggressive system based on strong forechecking and sound defense to direct a hard-working group to the playoffs on an annual basis.”
When Smith submitted one of his better performances during a Feb. 2 visit to San Jose, Trotz evaluated him as follows for Josh Cooper of the Tennessean: “He’s coming. We need him to come…Now he’s starting to skate. He’s looking really good like the Craig Smith we know from last year.”
Naturally, those remarks imply that Smith was not skating with enough fervor and gusto beforehand, let alone generating and cultivating results. And in the four games since that San Jose bout, Smith has one assist but also a minus-one rating.
Being a second-year pro, Smith still has time to favorably establish who he really is at this level. But if he is to nail down his pegs on Trotz’s scroll, he must get back to contributing to an ensemble offense like he did with 14 goals as a rookie.
At the other end, he must be more efficient en route to a substantially better rating than the minus-nine that went with those 14 strikes last year.
He should keep it coming in that regard and stick to his specialty, because Steve Sullivan does not have much to boast about in five-on-five, which makes him a bit of a glitch in Dave Tippett’s defensive approach.
Leading only defenseman Michael Stone at the bottom of the plus/minus leaderboard, Sullivan has been on the ice for nine Phoenix goals, six of which have come on the man advantage. Likewise, two of his four goals and his lone assist on the year were power-play products.
On the flip side, when trying to defend at even strength, Sullivan has been present for seven goals against in 104 minutes and three seconds of action. That would translate to a 4.04 goals-against average if skaters had that stat on their record.
Throw in the one opposing power-play goal he has brooked and his GAA would be 3.61 with eight opposing strikes in a cumulative 132:50 of playing time. At 3.83, the Florida Panthers are currently the only team in the league with a more swollen GAA than that.