Coaching changes spark turnarounds; Vezina trophy race likely down to three

Takeaways: A weekly spin around the NHL

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Change the coach, get a boost.

It’s worked almost without exception in the NHL so far this season. Five teams have fired their coach and all, to some degree, have seen an improvement.

The Montreal Canadiens were the latest to make the move, replacing Michel Therrien with Claude Julien in mid-February. They’ve since reeled off eight wins in 11 games while maintaining their tenuous hold on the Atlantic Division. Perhaps the brightest star since the change: Carey Price, who has a sizzling .952 save percentage.

Julien’s former team in Boston, meanwhile, has fared excellently under Bruce Cassidy, boasting 10 wins in 13 games ahead of a Monday night clash in Vancouver. The Bruins’ special teams have remained superb since the change, goaltender Tuukka Rask has found his game again and the club is scoring a whole bunch more than before.

The New York Islanders have found similar success under Doug Weight (15-7-3). John Tavares has been humming at a point per-game with his former teammate in charge, buoyed by improved contributions from Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, Ryan Strome and Andrew Ladd, who has 11 goals in 22 since Jack Capuano was dismissed in mid-January.

St. Louis has gotten a decent (if somewhat misleading) bump since Mike Yeo got started as their head coach, going 11-6-0 before facing the Kings Monday night. The club has dropped off substantially in terms of puck possession though â€” from just outside the top-10 to 24th overall. The biggest difference for the Blues is suddenly great goaltending from Jake Allen and Carter Hutton, the worst tandem in the league when Ken Hitchcock was fired on Feb. 1.

Florida made the earliest change, dropping Gerard Gallant for general manager Tom Rowe after just 22 games in November. As was Rowe’s hope, special teams have gotten a boost, but otherwise the switch hasn’t provided a big lift for the Panthers, who are falling fast out of the Eastern Conference playoff race.

HOLTBY’S MANY WINS

Braden Holtby finally lost a game in regulation last week.

It was the first such defeat for the reigning Vezina trophy winner since Dec. 27 — a stretch of more than two months. Holtby went 19-0-2 during the 21-game point streak with a .946 even-strength save percentage and five shutouts. Holtby is one of only two goalies in NHL history to post two single-season streaks of 20 or more decisions, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, joining Pete Peeters who accomplished the feat with both Philadelphia and Boston.

THE VEZINA RACE

Winning the award for the first time last season, Holtby looks to be a top contender for the Vezina again this year. The race likely comes down to the 27-year-old, Minnesota’s Devan Dubynk and Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky. Price a distant fourth at this point despite leading in  a couple of overlooked categories.

A look at the contenders in a few key categories entering Monday’s action:

Even-strength save percentage

Price: .938

Holtby: .936

Dubnyk: .936

Bobrovsky: .936

 

High-danger save percentage

Price: .865

Bobrovsky: .852

Holtby: .833

Dubnyk: .825

 

Shutouts

Holtby: 8

Dubnyk: 5

Bobrovsky: 6

Price: 3

DON’T FORGET ABOUT DOUGHTY

He won’t repeat as the Norris trophy winner — Brent Burns has likely locked that down already — but Drew Doughty is still having an effective season for the Los Angeles Kings. Doughty, who plays more minutes than anyone but Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien (just over 27 minutes per-game), has spent most of the season alongside rookie Derek Forbort.

A look at puck possession numbers reveals how Doughty can lift up a lesser partner:

Dougthy and Forbort together: 52 per cent

Forbort apart: 48 per cent

Doughty apart: 62 per cent

LEAFS’ ROOKIES

Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander have rightly gotten most of the buzz, but a handful of other Leafs rookies are already playing big, important roles, specifically on Toronto’s ninth-ranked penalty kill.

Zach Hyman actually leads all NHL forwards in shorthanded ice-time (2:52 per-game), joined by Connor Brown (2:02), Nikita Zaitsev (1:44) and of late, Nikita Soshnikov (1:07). Soshnikov might be the best of the bunch; the Leafs have allowed only 81 shot attempts per-60 minutes when he’s on the ice killing penalties, easily the top mark on the team.

WILD SURGE PT. 1

Eric Staal this season for the Minnesota Wild: 22 goals, 52 points in 67 games

Eric Staal last season for the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers: 13 goals, 39 points in 83 games

WILD SURGE PT. 2

While Staal, a four-time all-star, has re-emerged with the Wild, teammate Mikael Granlund is shining brightly among the stars for the first time. The 25-year-old is hovering just outside the top-10 in league scoring with a career-best 63 points, also posting career-highs with 23 goals, 40 assists, 18 power-play points, and three shorthanded points.

Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press

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