Kaplan: Rangers' rebound, latest on Blackhawks and more around the NHL

ByEmily Kaplan ESPN logo
Tuesday, December 20, 2022

On Dec. 3, the New York Rangers were nearing an abyss. Things came to a pressure point during the home game against the Chicago Blackhawks, one of the worst teams in the league. En route to another loss, captain Jacob Trouba had enough. The defenseman laid out two massive hits, got into two fights, and as he was escorted off the ice for a five-minute roughing major on the latter, threw his helmet into the boards. Along the way, he appeared to yell at his teammates on the bench: "Wake the f--- up!"

Did they ever.

Since then, New York has rattled off seven straight wins and is starting to look like the team that made it to the Eastern Conference Final last year. Coach Gerard Gallant admitted to our broadcast crew before Sunday's rematch against the Blackhawks (a 7-1 Rangers win) that his team suffered from a hangover to start the season. Because of what they achieved last season, they believed things would come easy to start this year. Instead, they had to work for it. His players agree.

"We weren't playing good hockey. We were in a little bit of a lull. We had expectations that we were just supposed to win games because of last year," Adam Fox told me on Sunday. "[Trouba] brought energy. Obviously he did what he had to do to get us going. Some emotion is what we needed to respond pretty well."

Added Vincent Trocheck: "Whenever your captain shows that much emotion, and he goes out of his way to make a hit or get in a fight to get the guys going, it's a message sent to our team that something's not right. After that game, we had a talk, and everything we talked about has kicked in."

During the second intermission of Sunday's game, Rangers assistant Gord Murphy told me he liked that his team was "finding a way" -- something that wasn't a guarantee for them a few weeks ago. "Our players are in a good place," Murphy said.

After the game, I asked Trocheck to describe the confidence level of the Rangers right now.

"It's higher than it was," Trocheck said. "I think it was pretty low at one point. But we've done a lot recently, and worked at doing everything the right way so that we can be more predictable on the ice. And our confidence is starting to build more and more."

A SIDE STORY brewed in that Dec 3 Blackhawks game: Blackhawks forwardAndreas Athanasiou, the recipient of a massive Trouba hit, questioned the captain's role on the team calling him "an $8 million player with zero goals."

"It didn't really bother me," Trouba told me before Sundays game, with a laugh. But he clearly remembered the moment. After scoring his first goal of the season a night earlier -- on an empty net -- Trouba doubled his total with a goal in the 7-1 blowout win against Chicago. Athanasiou was also on the ice, and Trouba immediately made eye contact with him, and appeared to mouth: "Do you want the puck?"

The rebuild in Chicago

After being between the benches for two Chicago Blackhawks games this past week, it's been tough to see the team in this way. They've picked up just three points since Nov. 14 (1-14-1 record) getting outscored 72-30 in that span. For context, the next closest teams in that span are Philadelphia and Arizona with 11 points.

This is all part of the Chicago front office's grand plan -- conduct a rebuild in earnest, leverage this season for future sustained success. But none of it has been easy on the players or coaching staff, who take pride in putting in a good effort. You can see the frustration on Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews nearly every shift. Kane has the lowest shooting percentage of his career; it's sub 4 percent, and his career average is 11.5. And after scoring seven goals in his first 11 games, Toews has just three in the 18 since. While they're frustrated, they're still committed to the team.

Coach Luke Richardson shared a great story about Toews making two mistakes in a game against the Oilers last month. Toews asked Richardson to show those clips in the video session with the team. Richardson didn't, but let the players know the captain had asked to, setting an example for accountability. The Blackhawks are expecting Kane and Toews to come to them sometime in the new year letting them know which direction they'd like to go at the trade deadline. Neither player is rushing into a decision, and it's not guaranteed they will be traded.

GENERAL MANAGER KYLE DAVIDSONtold me on Friday that he hasn't had any specific trade discussions on any of his players yet. The trade market has been slow this season. As one GM told me at the Board of Governors meetings, "It's impossible to get a trade done right now. Nobody can get anything done." Things are expected to pick up after the holiday freeze.

Aside from Kane and Toews, Davidson has told his GM peers that all of his UFAs will be available. But while the Blackhawks are looking to accumulate as many picks and prospects as possible -- and ideally spread them over the next few draft classes -- Davidson says he isn't just trading players for the sake of trading players. In other words, he's not giving away players for sixth-round picks just to say he did it.

ONE OF THE BLACKHAWKS players I believe has been generating value is defenseman Jarred Tinordi, who was an important waiver claim by Chicago in October. If he's healthy at the deadline, he would be a solid sixth or seventh defenseman pick up for a contender. But it was tough to see Tinordi leave the ice on Sunday leaking blood after taking a puck to the face. He was placed on IR with a facial fracture.

Tinordi took a skate blade to the face in a Dec. 9 game against the Jets, and received between 50-100 stitches (the team doctor said he lost count). Tinordi had been wearing a protective cage in his games since, and Sunday was the first time he took it off. Brutal break.

Richardson and Davidson were both effusive about Tinordi when I asked about him before Sunday's game, explaining how his role had grown. At age 30, this was the most regular role Tinordi has had in the NHL. He's spent his career on six different NHL teams, bouncing up and down between the NHL and AHL, and takes pride in being a sound, physical defenseman, but also a leader. His maturity makes him a beloved teammate. (When he went down on Sunday, the Rangers, one of his former teams, showed a great level of concern as well).

In the Friday game against Minnesota, goalie Petr Mrazek was disappointed by the second goal he let in, which trickled past him. At the TV timeout, it was Tinordi who came to chat with Mrazek, hyping him back up.

Wild find their game

BILL GUERIN HASdemonstrated, in his short time so far as GM of the Minnesota Wild, that he has a pulse for what his team needs. It began with his decision to buy out Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, knowing the locker room needed to turn over to new voices. It continued last year bringing in Marc-Andre Fleury, one of the most popular players in the NHL.

This year's addition of Ryan Reaves can't be understated. Reaves had his first signature moment last week, a massive open ice hit on Detroit's Filip Hronek which sparked Minnesota to victory. His impact goes further than that. "Everybody says we got bigger and more firmness because of him, but I think his presence is more than physicality," coach Dean Evason said. "He's not going to run people every game. He's very calm on the bench. He's very mature. His work ethic -- he's ripped up -- sets an example and he's just a really good teammate. I think that's more the impact."

Evason said before Wild power plays, Reaves gets absolutely jacked up, screaming "Let's go power play, pow pow!" before kicking the bench in front of him -- fully aware he's not going to go out there. Reaves is just pumped for the team, period. "Sure it's nice to have a guy who can beat the heck out of anybody he wants at any time, it makes everyone a little firmer," Evason said. "But he's a great teammate, and he also can play. If Ryan can't play the game, he's not going to be on our hockey club just to fight."

THE WILD HAVEhad to do some soul searching early, but seem to have found their stride.

Since Nov 27, they lead the league with 18 points, going 9-2-0. Last season, the Wild had a top five offense, scoring 3.72 goals per game. Evason can't quite describe it. "Last year we scored at will, it was crazy," he said. "Guys were having career years, pucks were going in all over the place. And it didn't this year."

This season, Minnesota is more middle of the pack, at 3.13 goals per game. And it was especially troubling early.

"It was hard to score, it's still hard to score for us," Evason said. "But our realization that this is who we are. And our realization that we need to defend first has really helped us become a better club."

Update on defending champs

While the injury bug hit the defending champion Colorado Avalanche hard, they're finding ways to stay afloat in the competitive Central Division until they get to full strength. Kudos to Mikko Rantanen, who has scored six goals in the six games since Nathan MacKinnon has been out, which is almost half of Colorado's goal total (13) in that time.

With so many new faces rotating in, coach Jared Bednar has had to make adjustments, adding in more video sessions, both for the group and individual players. "I'm definitely coaching different," Bednar said. "We changed a few things, play a little safer, going back to teaching conceptual things like protecting the middle of the ice." Those changes have showed up mostly in the neutral zone, as well as forecheck.

WHILE THERE WAS some excitement when Gabriel Landeskog got on the ice two weeks ago, it wasn't much of an update. The captain, recovering from knee surgery, went out on his own just to give it a twirl. Landeskog is still looking at a mid to late January return, hoping to get back before the All Star break.

Losing MacKinnon to an upper-body injury in early January was a huge blow -- especially pronounced on the power play. The injury, described to me as a new one for MacKinnon, is one that just needs time to heal. The team said four weeks, but nobody would be surprised if he got back sooner. MacKinnon has a history of coming back a bit sooner than expectations.

Keep an eye on the Avalanche at the deadline. Everyone in the league knows Colorado is in the market for a center, and have the ability to make a splash. Should either Kane or Toews decide to waive their no movement clause, Colorado would be on their shortlist.

What direction in St. Louis?

It's hard to know what to make of the St. Louis Blues right now. They're a veteran team built to win now, and GM Doug Armstrong feels like he successfully staved off a rebuild thanks to the smart drafting (and long-term signings) of Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas. And yet, the Blues can't consistently find their game, putting them currently outside of the playoff picture.

When I covered a game in St Louis on Dec. 11, the most-used word by players and coaches was frustration. "They're all frustrated. We're frustrated. There's a lot of frustration because we're used to winning," coach Craig Berube said. "We're going through it right now, but there's light at the end of the tunnel. All we need to do is string together a few wins here, and get those wins by playing the right way, and we can be right back in it."

ARMSTRONG TOLD MEhis staff has two plans in place for what direction they could go in at the trade deadline, though he wouldn't commit to a timetable for when he would make that decision. Two veterans become free agents this summer: Vladimir Tarasenko and captain Ryan O'Reilly.

Since Tarasenko has a no-trade clause, St Louis has had a hard time moving him. That's shaping up to be an offseason divorce. Meanwhile, front office executives on teams have told me they believe O'Reilly could be available.

Also, keep an eye on Josh Leivo as a sneaky depth pickup at the deadline, should St. Louis unload.

THE BLUES BRASS didn't shy away from answering questions about Jordan Binnington, who was making more noise for his antics -- picking fights on the ice, bumping other players -- rather than his play. Berube said it was a case of the goalie channeling his frustration by trying to do too much. He was trying to solve all of the team's problems, and lost mental focus along the way. Berube gave Binnington a few days off, and told him to focus only on his position.

"It's hard because he's a highly competitive guy, and you talk about frustration -- nobody is more frustrated than him in the room, nobody," Berube said.

Armstrong was also involved. "That's not a good look for a goaltender to do that," Armstrong said. "Those antics may have had an effect early, it doesn't have an effect anymore. I think it's run its course."

Since December 11 Binnington is 3-0 with a .940 save percentage, a 1.70 GAA and a shutout.

Rocky road in Philly

Kevin Hayes' healthy scratch didn't sit well with players across the NHL. It was a classic John Tortorella moment. But it's extremely rare to see a team's leading scorer scratched for performance reasons.

"I hate the precedent that sets," one veteran player texted me. "He's embarrassing a guy who works his ass off and is actually contributing, just to prove a point."

It feels like this could be the beginning of the end of Hayes' tenure in Philadelphia.

TORTORELLA HAS BEENtalking about building a process of playing the right way, but it's been a frustrating season in Philly. The latest blow is that veteran Cam Atkinson will miss the season with neck surgery.

More change is on the way. At the deadline, they'll shop a few of their players, hoping a market materializes for James van Riemsdyk. But there could be bigger structural changes too. Over the last several months, there have been too many mixed messages, too many changes of course. Philadelphia wants to be on a more consistent path and the franchise will figure out how to commit to that.