When I arrived to the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena last Saturday for the Milwaukee Admirals contest against the Grand Rapids Griffins I did so with an on edge feeling knowing just how last season came to a thunderous and unceremonious end. I also arrived with a trusted source informing me that Marek Mazanec would be heading up to the Nashville Predators after his start for the Admirals that night. It felt like that would be a quick AHL stint for the prospective NHL back-up goaltender but, that being said, that source informed me of that information long before he played the game that night. It was after that game was played when I felt like the information was due to change.
Mazanec didn’t just allow four goals from twenty-six shots against the Griffins that night. He darn near single-handedly lost the Admirals that game. A gusty effort in front of him, combined with some confidence building stops here in there in net, saw the Admirals climb out of a 3-0 first period deficit against one of the more polished and versatile teams you’ll find in the AHL. The Admirals outshot the Griffins 27-16 from the second period to the end of regulation in that comeback effort. It was an astonishingly good fight back and one that saw them claim a point on a night that could have just as easily been thrown in the garbage after a period of play. The momentum was 100% on the side of the Admirals heading into overtime. That was right up until Mazanec did precisely what he did to start the game which was passing it from his net to the opposition who would score almost instantaneously. Nail. Meet. Coffin.
At points such as that night on my end of things you get put in the very awkward position of asking questions you already know the answers to. Mazanec looked absolutely dejected after that performance and pretty much spoke to that regard as well.
“I saw our guy. He was looking at me and so I thought I could give it to him and he’s going to go,” said Marek Mazanec of the pass he made in overtime that would lead to the game-winning goal for the Griffins seconds later. “The pass didn’t work out for me as I expected. I wanted to make a difference in the game and it didn’t work well. It cost us the game.”
“You step into the game and want to be the difference maker in the game. Want to have a good game and help the guys. It just didn’t work out for me today.”
Anyone viewing Mazanec’s stint as a quick cup of AHL coffee to better himself, his sharpness in net, and bounce right back to the NHL simply doesn’t know Mazanec the human being away from the game. This stint saw him coming back to a place he considered to be a home away from home, Milwaukee. It was something you could tell he took to heart. Not only did he want to make sure he left a good impression back with the Admirals he wanted to do what he could for the team’s success. This is a results based game with a multi-tier system in place that sees players rise and fall at a moments notice. That last result really hurt him. It isn’t often I outright here a player take full responsibility for a loss but Mazanec did that. It was tough seeing and hearing that. He had a bad one. And he knew he had a real bad one. Because who was to say at that point he didn’t just seal an Admirals loss but a further duration in the AHL?
As it so happened that performance did end up being Mazanec’s last outing in the AHL before he was recalled by the Predators due to a day-to-day injury to starting goaltender Pekka Rinne. I was at morning skate the day that news took place and was more surprised than anything to see that news come paired with Predators goaltending coach Ben Vanderklok was on-hand at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena teaching up the likes of Jonas Gunnarsson and Mark Visentin. Would it not have made sense to have given Mazanec that one-day to go over the mistakes made against Grand Rapids with Vanderklok before meeting back up the next day with the parent club in Toronto? If Mazanec is back with the NHL group without the main goalie coach there to dissect and walk through moments from that last outing who was?
The slight bit of roster shuffling chaos of course boiled down to one key component: Rinne having a day-to-day injury. Shame, really, because he had just put on a twenty-seven save shutout performance prior to the injury announcement. No Rinne? Well, then you better bring Mazanec up to have two serviceable goaltenders for the game against the Toronto Maple Leafs regardless of whether or not Mazanec’s AHL stint was indeed over or not as planned.
Here comes the biggest question of all for me though towards the Predators coaching staff. Knowing full well how rough Mazanec’s last outing was at the AHL level for the Admirals, and how tough he took that performance, why would he be the best possible choice to start against the Maple Leafs last night? That is with zero disrespect said of Mazanec’s ability but it just makes no sense to take someone who was rattled in two outings at the AHL level with an 0.849 save percentage against AHL competition and throw him back into the deep end of the pool to see if he can swim. Mazanec was already fighting it previously and was in need of game shape sharpening, hence the reason why he was assigned to the AHL in the first place, and -naturally- he wasn’t that sharp. He had made two starts from the Predators opening eleven games of the season. Goaltenders can often be creatures of habit so to go through long stretches without playing and getting thrown into the fire can be rattling at times. Here is the thing though – that’s perfectly OK. Because that’s precisely why a platform such as the AHL exists.
If Mazanec needs time to sharpen back up, polish his mind, and knock some dust off rather than collect more watching Rinne play all the time – send him to Milwaukee. That’s no issue in relation to the player himself. It isn’t. But it is an issue with making sure the rotation of what is in place can allow for that process to work without coming back to blow up in the parent club’s face. It did last night. And it didn’t have to.
Mazanec starting last night’s game was the equivalent of a race car driving missing multiple races, hopping in a go-kart for a weekend, breaking his go-kart and finishing less than desired, and then being told to run in the Monaco Grand Prix. What did anyone truly expect was going to happen? If his confidence and game sharpness are in question, put more into question after a last game played in the AHL, Mazanec suddenly finding his groove once again at NHL game speed would be like catching a bullet in the dark. Do I expect Mazanec to allow as many goals as he did? No. Do I expect a less than quality-standard performance in net after what I just saw previously? Yes. And the Predators chose that option.
A major catch to all of this is to then assume that if Saros hopped in net last night that he would magically have saved the day. That also is simply not the case, either. As much as Mazanec being shaky in net and out of practice right now as he is there is still a massive team element to the game. The Toronto Maple Leafs won 6-2. Something tells me that scoreline doesn’t purely rest on the head of one individual. Accountability in such a resounding loss is shared by everyone. Plus, I also believe a bit of credit can be bestowed to the Maple Leafs on doing that damage. Let’s do a quick jog through of last night, shall we?
The goals scored against Mazanec essentially went as follows:
(2) The Maple Leafs break in on a three-on-two rush, James van Riemsdyk‘s initial shot gets blocked down off of Mattias Eklholm, Mazanec bit blocker side on the initial shot, van Riemsdyk stuck with the puck, and shot glove-side where Mazanec just gave up added space.
(3) Maple Leafs enter the zone on a three-on-three, Tyler Bozak glides down the right wing with Ekholm pressed on him, Craig Smith allows van Riemsdyk to win the foot race to the back post because he’s watching the puck carrier, and Bozak snaps a phenomenal pass across the net to create a back post a tap in.
(4) After a good cycle along the boards a puck gets over to Martin Marincin at the left point and his long range wrister deflected in off of the net front screening Leo Komarov – who Ellis left all alone directly in front of Mazanec. The Predators had three bodies around the net and allowed two Maple Leafs to camp in around one defender in front of the net on the redirect.
(5) On a face-off three Predators converged to the face-off dot against two Maple Leafs players to get a puck loose. The puck did get loose and, when it did Marner poked the puck past Ekholm in a small scale two-on-one with the lone Maple Leafs forward watching that face-off scramble taking place -van Riemsdyk- who then breaks in on Mazanec down the slot and delivers a stiff backhanded shot low glove-side before Viktor Arvidsson could race in and close him down.
(6) The Maple Leafs have a three-on-two rush breaking into the attacking zone with a trailing Predator, Filip Forsberg, in hot pursuit. The rush gets to the endboards. William Nylander hops opposite side of the cage away from the continual backcheck of Forsberg, fends off Ellis, and spins around to take a shot from the low right wing circle between Ellis and Ryan Johansen that catches Mazanec off guard to the near post as he was screened by Ben Smith – who turned out to be the forgotten man on the ice at the time, freely skating directly in front of Mazanec with no one watching him.
That is bad. That is an awful lot of bad. And, hey, it isn’t limited to a one-person issue. It probably wouldn’t have been made any better if Saros or Rinne himself were in net at the time, either. It was just plain sloppy from a tactical perspective for the Predators and done simultaneously while the speed, precision, and smart offensive reads by players on the ice for the Maple Leafs shined.
I can understand then the frustration, on a number of platforms, for Nashville Predators fans. How can a team that just won a 5-0 shutout one night lose 6-2 the next night? I suppose this is where a lot of the “Maz sucks” comments came pouring in last night. He was the difference in personnel between the two games after all, right? It has to be on him. It can’t be on any other solitary figure or groups of players on that roster. Mazanec is a wasteland of not good hockey player. He’s AHL quality. A vacuum of goaltending talent. The Robin to Magnus Hellberg‘s Batman. Fire Peter Laviolette. Fire David Poile. The World is burning and the time for panicking and abandoning ship is well and truly upon us all.
This commentary has to stop. Period.
I know full well that the Predators had a world of hype behind them heading into this season. I know that the early stages to the 2016-17 season aren’t going that well right now. People want to search for answers as to why or excuses as to why not. It’s a patience issue and an over-expectations issue – wanting too much, too soon.
Is a back-up goaltender the difference between winning and losing last night’s game? The answer you’ll be shocked to find is no, no it is not. Is that position in particular a gray area for the Predators right now? Sure, but the cost effective and sound developmental process way of doing things was to give Mazanec his due after three full-seasons of development in North America. How are you ever to truly know if he is NHL quality or not until gets a chance such as this season to prove it? He had twenty-seven games of NHL experience with the Predators prior to this season. The hope was likely to meet a lesser figure such as Carter Hutton from a season ago. Is he? Certainly not now but who is to know until it actually happens?
If the leash for Mazanec is a short one than it is a short one but the way the goaltending position stacks up behind him tells a big story. Saros is going to be a good one. The emphasis in that last sentence is set on future tense. He split the deck in AHL starts a season ago with Mazanec and you would like for him as a way of the developmental process to see him have a full-season as a first choice goaltender eating up experiences and learning more about the North American pro game at an AHL level pace. I’m sure plenty can be learned kicking back and joining the Predators camp as a back-up goalie but if the starts are sporadic and the results become erratic than who benefits out of that situation both short and long term? Saros needs to play and be kept rolling. That start people might be gaga over, his first career NHL win, came after he started three games in the week leading into that effort. Predators fans haven’t seen Saros play a cold game, yet. What happens if it is bad? Does he get the “Saros sucks” treatment for it? It’s a learning process being conducted at NHL level pace with NHL level stakes. The right man of the two to play that game with right now is Mazanec based on experience and experience alone. If it isn’t enough? You better believe a trade is coming if it is such a problem area.
This same attitude towards Mazanec that I saw last night I already see enough of in relation to the blockbuster trade that took place in the off-season. The Predators acquired P.K. Subban from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Shea Weber. It was a straight-up one-for-one deal. High profile players involved. It’s something you don’t see that much of across sports that much anymore. What I feel mostly happened in that trade was that the Predators traded the soul of their locker room in order to acquire a superstar. It was a shakeup due to the previous years seeing a lack of success looking to inject a new kind of kick to the system. It is ambitious to trade away a franchise pillar level player in Weber and one that meant a tremendous amount on and off the ice. But a shake-up likely needed to be done in the sense of needing a change to make a change.
What I imagine has not been counted on as of yet is the void left from Weber’s leadership has likely been left like an open wound and others aren’t stepping in to heal it and fill that void. To lose one leader in a locker room is tough. To lose -the- leader in the locker room requires the ones that are left to really step up their accountability and those around them to strive for far bigger and better of themselves. If you think that is a process that was going to magically occur in the off-season or the first months of the season? You’re silly.
The beauty of all that takes place in a hockey season is that it can all feel shorter and more rapid than it actually is. The season is a long one. It very much is the case of a marathon versus a sprint. As much as everyone wants to see the Predators shoot to the Moon the reality is that there are a multitude of pieces, on and off the ice, that need to adhere. What most should rest their heads about is that the pieces to the puzzle are there. They just need to come together and stay together.
Does Mazanec suck? No. Do the Predators suck? No. Is the World going to end? Yes, but we’ll be long dead by the time it does so fret ye not. Hockey presents obstacles on a daily and game-to-game basis. It’s about winning and learning. There is no Doomsday Clock required. The Predators may have been, for the lack of a better term, spanked last night but they were also given a plethora of information from which to learn and improve. Patience is a requirement here. No amount of scapegoating or blame gaming will make the process run any better.
Bad games will happen. Rough stretches will happen. All teams have them. It’s the teams that learn from those situations the best that go the furthest. There is no reason to believe the Predators aren’t that sort of a team that can’t learn or couldn’t achieve what they set out to achieve this off-season. It’s mid-November. Let the narrative run longer.
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