The NHL's stealth impact forces
Ex-head coach Tony Granato works wonders with the Penguins' penalty kill
Ryan O'Reilly is the Avalanche's other gifted center who was drafted in 2009
Blackhawks goalie coach Stéphane Waite is molding winners in Chicago's net
Yes, it is that time of year again. With a minimum of fuss -- something the five men on this list probably appreciate -- we present our annual Stealth List (past installments are linked at the bottom of this page), a brief compilation of people who generally fly below the figurative radar while making the NHL a better place.
Without further ado:
Tony Granato, Penguins assistant coach
Now, Granato hardly travels incognito. He scored 248 goals and compiled an oversized 1,425 penalty minutes as a firebrand winger for the Rangers, Kings and Sharks from 1988 to 2001. He has a Hall of Fame sister, Cammi. And he was the head coach of the Colorado Avalanche from almost midway through the 2002-03 season to the end of 2003-04, leading teams stacked with the likes of Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Patrick Roy, Rob Blake, Adam Foote (and later Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne, albeit without Roy) to one playoff series win. Not good.
The conventional wisdom at the time suggested that Granato, who would return to lead the rebuilding Avs in 2008-09, was overmatched in his first head coaching go-around. But his work on Dan Bylsma's staff in Pittsburgh has been exemplary, especially with the penalty kill, which topped the NHL last season.
During the first five weeks of this season, the Penguins have been arm-wrestling Buffalo for the most efficient unit. They also were tied for the league lead with three short-handed goals. Granato, who works with the Penguins' forwards, has an easy rapport with players. If he does get to run his own program again, his time in Pittsburgh -- an organization that isn't quite the Red Wings, but is not too far off -- will be a blessing.
Elliotte Friedman, Hockey Night in Canada broadcaster
Among the jugglers and the clowns at hockey's most renowned flying circus, Friedman stands out with his sure grasps of the facts and the medium of television. He doesn't get the attention of Don Cherry's Coach's Corner, of course, but Friedman is a major asset because he manages the rare feat of being both pointed and understated, an oasis on the chaotic Canadian institution.
Friedman's pregame features, in turn informative and touching, have set the standard for genre. With ace hockey newshound Pierre LeBrun's defection to TSN this season, Friedman has stepped in seamlessly as the principal info guy on the second intermission panel, an inspired in-house choice. He also delivers with his 30 Thoughts blog on the CBC website, a neat combination of facts, factoids and observations.
Sam Flood, the executive producer of NBC Sports, has upped the ante with his full-time hockey hires at his network (including the soon to be re-branded Versus). What Flood hasn't done -- yet -- is poach top-drawer "non-hockey" people who can dress up the telecasts, including Friedman and the nonpareil James Duthie from TSN.
Ryan O'Reilly, center, Avalanche
There is a swell 20-year-old center in Colorado ... and Matt Duchene isn't bad, either. Duchene, the third overall pick in 2009 NHL entry draft, is the poster boy for a curious franchise that used to have more big names on its roster than any Kardashian wedding but now ices an almost no-name lineup. But if the Avalanche continues to build into a playoff team, O'Reilly no longer will work in virtual obscurity.
The 2009 second-rounder does not have Duchene's pedigree, but, after a pair of 26-point seasons, he looks ready to double that production as a third-line center. O'Reilly had two goals and 10 points in Colorado's first 14 games. More impressively, he was winning 57.4 percent of his faceoffs, seventh-best in the league. For a center who will not be of legal drinking age until Feb. 7, his success in the daunting area of draws is especially impressive.
Michael Futa, co-director of amateur scouting, Kings
Dean Lombardi, who can always spy a rain cloud on the sunniest of SoCal days, has put together a team on the verge of a Stanley Cup challenge. So Dean, feel free to smile. OK, at least grin modestly because of the quality of the Kings' amateur scouting.
Michael Futa joined the organization in June 2007. Obviously he gets a pass on defenseman Thomas Hickey, the No. 4 overall pick that year who is now in his fourth season in the minors, but consider Futa's impact on the Kings after spending some time on the job:
OK, Drew Doughty at No. 2 overall in 2008 seems like a no-brainer now -- but only if you ignore Doughty's conditioning issues coming out of junior hockey and the wealth of high-end defensemen in that draft (Tyler Myers, Erik Karlsson and Luke Schenn to name but three). However, amateur scouts earn their money with picks out of the top 15, with players like, say, Viacheslav Voynov, a Russian defenseman the Kings took with the 32nd pick in the Doughty draft year.
After an apprenticeship in the minors, Voynov finally was called up for five games last month. The result: two goals (one game-winner), three points and a plus-three rating. Lombardi also was able to wheel some high draft picks, forward Brayden Schenn and defenseman Colton Teubert (drafted 13th overall by LA in 2008), in deals that netted Mike Richards and Dustin Penner, respectively.
Stéphane Waite, goalie coach, Blackhawks
He certainly isn't the first name among the plethora of NHL goaltender coaches from Quebec. Alphabetically, he might be the last. (The fabulous Allaire brothers, Fred Chabot, Jim Corsi, Pierre Groulx, Gilles Meloche ... etc.) But Waite, now in his ninth season in Chicago, has done steady and sometimes brilliant work with the Blackhawks goalies.
While he could not fix Cristobal Huet, Waite did develop the surprising Antti Niemi into a Stanley Cup winner. Corey Crawford is now Waite's star pupil. Crawford is not and probably never will be an A-lister, but he is steady enough to give Chicago's stacked lineup a chance to win most games.
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