Craig Custance and Pierre LeBrun are concerned about the recent play of some star goalies. How would they handle the situations?
Custance: Good morning, Pierre. Hope your evening last night went better than the Buffalo Sabres’ did. Ryan Miller is pulled after six minutes of play and Ville Leino's time centering the Sabres top line lasted a good three shifts. You can't help but feel for Leino, who probably wanted a better performance than the one he turned in against his former team Wednesday. He hasn't scored a goal since the season opener and is far and away the leading candidate for the year's biggest free-agent bust. There were certainly some eyebrows raised when Leino signed a six-year, $27 million deal on July 1, and right now, Flyers GM Paul Holmgren is looking pretty smart for passing on spending that money to sign Leino and using it elsewhere. Especially with the way Jaromir Jagr has established immediate chemistry with Claude Giroux.
"Their chemistry moving the puck around and exercising those little give and goes that great players can do is pretty fun to watch," Holmgren said when we were recently chatting about that duo.
But it raises the question: Do we need to be concerned about the Sabres? They've now lost four of five games, and the surprising Toronto Maple Leafs are actually creating some space on top of the Northeast.
LeBrun: Yes, the car horns were honking here in the streets of Toronto last night after another win by the Maple Leafs. Just kidding, of course. It’s not December yet. The Sabres have surprised me -- and not in a good way. I really thought they were going to come flying out of the gates. Yes, I know they have some new faces and sometimes that can lead to an adjustment period, but I felt the trip overseas would help accelerate the chemistry process. I was wrong. The Sabres are having problems playing 60 consistent minutes of hockey. They look terrific at times, disjointed at others. I had a short chat with Ryan Miller this morning and asked him why he thought the team was inconsistent.
“We’re just not playing our system,” Miller told ESPN.com.
His concern is that this is what happened a year ago, and the Sabres dug themselves an early-season hole.
Head coach Lindy Ruff is showing his impatience now by juggling lines. He’s had a hard time, as you mentioned, getting Leino going. You have to wonder if signing the biggest contract of his career has put too much pressure right now on the Finnish forward. It’s always easier, mentally, to be the guy claimed off waivers with no expectations like he was in Philly. Everything he did was gravy in that context. Now he’s an offseason marquee signing, and that carries a burden. Miller, meanwhile, knows a thing or two about pressure, having been named 2010 Olympic hockey MVP. Sabres fans were on him last night, but let’s be honest: Two of those goals were near-perfect shots.
“Honestly, if you want to break it down, and if you really know hockey, those were two really nice shots,’’ Miller told me. “I’d like to at least get a piece of them, but they were nice shots. What are you going to do? Most days I think you can get a piece of those.’’
In other words, there will be another day. I know some Sabres fans were asking me on my chat Wednesday about whether Jonah Enroth can push Miller for the starting job. It’s a little early for that talk, even if Enroth has looked terrific. Everyone take a deep breath in Western New York. Miller is an all-world goalie, folks.
Custance: Yeah, I'm not ready to ship Ryan Miller out of town but I certainly don't think it would hurt the Sabres if they rode Enroth a little bit if he's on a hot streak. He looked good in relief of Miller last night, stopping all 15 shots he faced.
The bigger goalie question for me is in New Jersey where Martin Brodeur allowed five goals to the Maple Leafs. It was Brodeur's first game back from his shoulder injury. We'll allow for some rust from the future Hall of Famer. His stick save on Phil Kessel in the third period shows he still can still come up big, but you can't help but wonder how much Brodeur has left at this point in his career. The loss dropped Brodeur to 0-2 in three starts this season, and he has a goals-against average of 3.88. It's a small sample size, for sure, but Johan Hedberg was great in Brodeur's absence (with a .924 save percentage), and I think it may be time for a more balanced workload between the two veteran goalies.
If I'm picking between the twos for a starter in Game 7 of a playoff series, it's definitely Brodeur. But they have to make the playoffs first, and managing Brodeur's ice time may be the best way to get there.
LeBrun: The dicey thing with that, though, Craig, is that in order for Brodeur to get back into a rhythm, he needs to play. It’s a catch-22 in that regard. But overall, certainly not the kind of start, at 4-5-1, the Devils were hoping for, and it doesn’t get any easier with a date in Philadelphia tonight.
“Well, we’ve shown signs of what we can do, but we haven’t done it on a consistent basis. It’s as simple as that,’’ Devils GM Lou Lamoriello told me this morning. “Until we get everything consistent, we’re going to be just as we are now. The good news is that we know what we can do; the bad news is we’re not doing it yet.’’
Star winger Ilya Kovalchuk has only two goals in 10 games. I know he’s been hampered by the injuries at center for the Devils, but at the money he’s making, he’s got to produce for this team to have any chance.
“He’s working hard; he’s doing everything that’s asked,” Lamoriello responded when I asked him about Kovalchuk. “The end results will come. It’s about the right play at the right time and that goes for everyone. There’s no finger-pointing here.’’
Custance: His struggles certainly aren't from a lack of playing time. Kovalchuk loves to be on the ice, and Pete DeBoer must be endearing himself to his star winger with how much he's sending him out there. His 25:35 leads all NHL forwards in ice time per game, and it's not even close, but you're right, Pierre: He needs to produce when he's out there. It'll be interesting to see if they can bounce back tonight against the Flyers. But the game I'm looking forward to the most tonight is out West, where the Sharks are hosting the Penguins. These two were my preseason picks to play each other in the Stanley Cup finals, and I'm sticking to my guns on that one.
The Sharks showed me a lot during their six-game road trip that they finished 5-1. I especially liked that they were hacked off after losing to the Rangers. It would have been easy for them to go home happy with a great road trip, but they weren't thrilled with that loss. It's been a challenging early schedule for San Jose, and so far, they're passing nearly every test.
"We take the schedule as it comes. We had a great start opening night against Phoenix, played really, really well and then didn't play for a week after that," Sharks GM Doug Wilson said. "As we integrated eight or nine new players, the key was to just play hockey and get into a rhythm."
They did that on the road; now they need to avoid the letdown that often comes in the first game back home following a long trip. A high-profile game against the Penguins should help.
LeBrun: Yes, Pens-Sharks is our game of the week at ESPN.com, and our pal Scott Burnside will have a preview story on the game. As you know, I also picked the Sharks to win the Cup this season, although I have Washington representing the East. Nice early-season test for the Sharks tonight. I'll certainly be watching.