The mystery man in the Flyers' net, staged fight madness, more
Flyers coach Peter Laviolette was rewarded for trusting Sergei Bobrovsky
The Raitis Ivanans-Steve MacIntyre bout should revive the staged fight issue
Ilya Kovalchuk will take heat if the cap-strapped Devils keep playing shorthanded
What about Bob?
His name is Sergei Bobrovsky. That's Bob, for short. But it won't be Bob for a short time. With nominal No. 1 goalie Michael Leighton out for six to eight weeks because of back surgery, Bobrovsky will be half of the Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia Flyers' goaltending pair with veteran Brian Boucher.
This is what we know about Bob:
He is 22 years old. He is 6'-2", weighs 190 pounds. He is from Russia, and a contemporary of the more highly touted Semyon Varlamov of the Washington Capitals. The Flyers signed Bob as an undrafted free agent. He plays a hybrid style. He is quick laterally. He battles. And in the first game in Consol Arena in Pittsburgh -- The House That Sid Built -- Bob, the youngest Flyers goalie to start a season opener, survived a Penguins onslaught in the first 10 minutes and navigated a Pittsburgh power play in the last 74 seconds to help Philadelphia to a 3-2 win. Then, Monday in the Flyers' home opener, he made 25 saves in a 4-2 victory over Colorado.
Now, this is what we know about Bob's coach, Peter Laviolette.
The man has nerve. The easiest move -- the one that would not have been an engraved invitation to second-guessing -- would have been to start the seasoned Boucher in Pittsburgh, then come back with Bob against a moderately softer touch, the Blues. (Boucher played in St. Louis, making 23 saves in a 2-1 overtime loss.) For his fearlessness, Laviolette was duly rewarded by the spectacular play of the unknown goalie, whose career KHL record was a less than distinguished 16-42-5.
If you haven't noticed by now, Laviolette, behind his fourth NHL bench, has joined the upper echelon of coaches. Of course, he has the 2006 Stanley Cup with Carolina on his curriculum vitae. He also has the disappointing Team USA Olympic performance that same year on it, too, although given the American personnel in Turin, there probably wasn't too much more to squeeze from that group. But those are just headlines from a solid career. On a nightly basis, Laviolette runs a bench as intelligently as any coach this side of Detroit's Mike Babcock. He also generally has a good read on his dressing room, a coaching asset that is often underappreciated.
In the long, sorry and even sordid history of Flyers goaltending, there is no telling where Bob fits. He might be a curio. He might be a keeper. Certainly with Leighton, a journeyman, and Boucher, a star when he was young but a plugger now, the Flyers should give Bob every opportunity to develop into a frontliner. Since Ron Hextall's early years, spotty goaltending has been a primary reason why this high-end franchise has not won a Cup in the post-leisure suit era. You can tick off all the names: Ray Emery, Martin Biron, Robert Esche, Roman Cechmanek ... the list of wait-til-next-year goalies is depressing.
So, we'll see about Bob in the next several weeks.
But right now, we know everything we need to about the coach that trusted him.
Let's go back to another opener last Thursday. Battle of Alberta. A little more than two minutes remain. The frisky Oilers lead the bedraggled Flames 4-0 -- can Jordan Eberle's dangling tally close the nominations for goal of the season before the season really starts? -- and Calgary enforcer Raitis Ivanans and Edmonton counterpart Steve MacIntyre chat during a faceoff, presumably about a high stick that Ivanans had delivered to Oilers rookie Magnus Paajarvi earlier in the game. As play whirls around them, they continue their chinwag.
Stop me if you've seen this before.
They drop their gloves, and MacIntyre drops Ivanans with two straight rights, leaving him bloodied and on some planet other than this one.
The larger issue, of course, is whether the 30-year-old MacIntyre (two goals, one assist and 69 penalty minutes in 45 games) and the 31-year-old Ivanans (12 goals, six assists and 569 PIMS in 281 games) should even be on NHL rosters, but it is too early in the season to get all existential about the place of fighting in the league.
Rather than look at the big picture, let's consider a smaller picture -- the so-called "staged fight."
First, two observations:
* Ivanans must be a slow starter, and by that I mean October. In his first NHL fight on Oct. 11, 2005, Ivanans broke his orbital bone in a bout with Zdeno Chara, then with Ottawa, an injury that proved to be the lowlight of Ivanans' four-game stint with Montreal.
* The MacIntyre-Ivanans decision on hockeyfights.com, the dot-com Boswell of the fistic set, was not unanimous. What scrap were those one-point-something-for-Ivanans fans watching?
Back to the fight. While Ivanans-MacIntyre, a reprise of their exhibition bout of several days earlier, might have been a nod at the earlier incident in the game, mostly it looked like the classic you-wanna-go? sideshow. This all could have been dismissed as mere he-man posturing and message-sending if one of the combatants hadn't needed an escort to reach the dressing room.
The issue of staged fights was the rage in March 2009 when general managers attempted to tackle what they perceived to be a growing problem. Even Ol' Mr. Truculence himself, Brian Burke of the Toronto Maple Leafs, did not seem adamantly opposed to massaging the otherwise sacrosanct NHL fighting rules that expressly punish the act -- five minutes, the occasional instigator and misconduct -- while tacitly legitimizing it. Anyway, in the past 18 months, the subject of staged fights vanished as utterly as Sammy Sosa's English did in front of Congress.
Where do things stand now?
Potential reforms were scrapped because the Players Association rebuffed overtures to tweak the rules. Among the vocal critics of changes that would have clamped down on staged fights was Georges Laraque, the veteran enforcer whose community activism -- he is involved with the Green Party in Canada --apparently does not include safety-in-the-workplace issues. (Laraque, as visible as ever, is currently without hockey work. That includes, sort of, being eliminated this week on CBC's Battle of the Blades.) The topic remains dormant although the league is ready to revisit it, according to Mike Murphy, vice-president for hockey operations.
In response to our e-mailed question about staged fights, Murphy wrote:
"Following the March 2009 meeting, the GMs identified two aspects of fighting that they wanted addressed: I) the fight that ensues after a clean hit and, 2) the "staged fight" ... we addressed the first issue (without a rule change) by instructing our officials to be more vigilant in identifying the instigator of these fights. We believe that we have had some success in this area over the past year. With respect to the staged fights, you will recall that there were a number of the enforcers that were quite vocal in opposing what we were trying to do (reduce the # of staged fights). We engaged in a discussion with the NHLPA following that meeting and they proved to be totally resistant to us imposing a new rule (which would have been required) for staged fights. We would still like to deal with this issue and will see if there is any appetite with the new leadership of the PA to have this discussion."
At the time of those GM meetings in Florida 18 months ago, the NHL reported staged fights had increased by 30 percent in the preceding eight years. If that number isn't alarming, maybe the sight of Ivanans might have changed some hearts and minds of his association brothers.
If the PA ever does allow modification of fighting rules, maybe the one dimensional, four-minutes-a-game tough guys will be in jeopardy of losing their jobs. But unless the roster size is reduced, there will be no net loss of employment. No harm, no foul -- at least in terms of the global numbers. This really isn't about saving jobs; this is about whose jobs a union might be saving.
Ilya Kovalchuk is again the gift that keeps on taking. Because of injuries and a waiver move involving a suspended player, the hamstrung New Jersey Devils, trying to scrape by with a 20-man roster because of salary cap restraints linked, in part, to Kovalchuk's contract, dressed nine forwards and six defensemen on Monday against division-rival Pittsburgh. They took six penalties to the Penguins two and lost, 3-1.
Playing short-handed in the third game of the season is hardly Armageddon. Indeed, three-line and two-defense pair hockey (with a rotating fifth blueliner) was the norm about 25 years ago, and players now are far better conditioned to handle extra ice time, even in a faster game. But any coach would want a full complement of players available to him. If the Devils' roster is compromised, Kovalchuk -- and the arbitrator's voiding of the original deal that carried a $6 million cap hit -- will be a weekly topic in Newark.
Small sample size, small mercies. After finishing 30th in both power play and penalty killing last season, the Maple Leafs have scored a goal with the man-advantage -- okay, it was a two-man advantage -- and not allowed any on seven penalty kills while winning their first two games. (Toronto started 0-7-1 last year.) Leafs special teams are the bellwether for what could be a breakthrough season.