Coaches early focus on who’s ready to play, not stars

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Since the NHL came back on Saturday with the start of their 48-game season fans got some of what they expected - thank you for their continued support and rust from the players who haven’t played (for the most part) since last season.

It doesn’t matter what level it is, the basics are all still there, but it definitely takes time to get back to that top level of play. Obviously these teams and players will get back to that level more quickly than the average person, but time is definitely needed.

Starting by watching Ottawa take on Winnipeg Saturday afternoon I watched straight through until the Anaheim win over Vancouver. There were a number of fantastic moments; Jonathan Huberdeau’s first NHL goal in Florida’s win over Carolina, Columbus winning in the first shootout of the season and Los Angeles raising the Stanley Cup banner (even though they got slammed by Chicago in the game).

One of the major things that obviously stood out to viewers and fans was the sloppy (relative to full seasons) passes, questionable defensive play and shades of the abilities everyone expects from the players. That said the defensive communication and positioning being off also led to a number of exciting plays.

In Winnipeg’s game Sunday afternoon, Boston’s Nathan Horton had multiple even strength chances from behind the Jets’ defence. At the other end Evander Kane and Kyle Wellwood ended up with breakaways because of passes that normally would be like a habit for the Bruins.

All that said, because of the rustiness it meant that coaches had to change their approach to the early games, playing some players more than they usually would. The reason was due to the fact some players were in Europe or playing in the AHL and the decisions have proved to be crucial. Those players could also be the difference in who makes the playoffs in the long run. In this 48-game season going down 0-2, like the Philadelphia Flyers did, it could prove costly.

In Saturday’s Montreal Canadiens season opener Toronto started Ben Scrivens between the pipes because of his time spent playing in the AHL during the lockout (14-7-1 in 22 games, 0.917 save percentage) as opposed to going with their “number one” goaltender James Reimer who hadn’t played all year.

The decision proved to be big for the Leafs, winning the game, with Scrivens making 21 saves. The other player that was busy with the Marlies this season was Nazem Kadri who scored the opening goal of the game for Toronto.

Although those are two minor examples in Sunday’s home opener for the Calgary Flames against the San Jose Sharks the payoff of having players that were active during the lockout truly stood out.

Calgary opened the scoring in the first period, which had the local broadcasters licking their chops saying that it didn’t matter that San Jose had more players that had been active. Heading into the game Calgary had four players that had been in Europe, but only one in the lineup. San Jose had nine players that had been playing in European leagues, including starting goaltender Antti Niemi, with eight in Sunday’s lineup.

Calgary’s 1-0 lead after one period diminished quickly as San Jose scored three goals in the second and one more insurance marker with one minute remaining in regulation time.

Of the players that had been playing in Europe in that game, for Calgary, Mikael Backlund (Vasteras – Swedish Elite League) had one assist for the Flames.

For San Jose, Logan Couture (Geneva-Servette – Swiss Elite League) had two assists, Joe Pavelski (Dinamo Minsk – KHL) had two assists, Joe Thornton (Davos – Swiss Elite League) had two assists and Niemi (Lahti – Finnish Elite League) had 31 saves in the game for the win.

By late next week the players that weren’t active and usually are leaned on should be back where they need to be, but in the meantime watch for coaches to continue to lean on those that have been busy playing elsewhere. They know that they won’t have time to make up losses like they normally would and need results quickly.

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