It was just a few weeks into his career as a Calgary Flame when Joe Colborne noticed something was seriously different about Mark Giordano.
“I was the most shocked guy for probably the first nine or 10 games,” Colborne said. “I kept thinking, ‘Wow, that was a really good game he played,’ ‘Wow, that was a really good game he played.’
“All of a sudden you realize that’s how he plays every game.”
The realization that Giordano is special is spreading. After entering the outskirts of Norris Trophy talk last season, Calgary’s captain is the focal point this year. The NHL’s First Star of the Month for November leads defensemen in points and continues to change games as much as anyone in the league.
“Gio is getting recognition, and it’s well-deserved,” Calgary coach Bob Hartley said during a recent visit to Buffalo. “I’ve seen this guy in the gym every day. I’ve seen this guy in practice. I’ve seen this guy prepare. There’s basically no flaws in his preparation and in his game and in his commitment.
“You can only go up when you’re doing every part of this game right.”
Giordano may seem like an overnight success with his sudden leap into the spotlight, but it’s been a long road to stardom for the 31-year-old. Never drafted, he earned an entry-level deal after a training camp tryout with the Flames. After failing to become a regular, he packed his gear and moved to Russia. He’s been solid since coming back in 2008, but he reached a new level last season.
Giordano recorded 14 goals and 47 points, good for 11th place among blue-liners despite missing 18 games with a broken ankle. His advanced stats were even better. Giordano led all defensemen with a relative Corsi rating of 22.8, which in its most basic terms means the Flames had the puck when he was on the ice and didn’t have it when he was on the bench.
“As a defenseman, you’re a good player and you learn the game, but you don’t find that patience you need in your own zone until you’ve played a bunch of games,” Giordano said. “It took me a bit longer probably than most, but every year I tried to get better and more comfortable, especially in my own zone.”
Giordano credits his trip to Russia and defense partner T.J. Brodie for helping him transition from forward thinker to all-around player. Giordano went overseas as a 23-year-old.
“At the time I wasn’t an everyday player,” he said. “As a player and financially, I thought it was a good decision. I didn’t really know if I’d ever come back. I thought I could be a good player in Europe for a long time if I had to, but the opportunity came for me to come back.
“Looking back now, it was a bit of a risky decision, but I think I played a lot of minutes there, bigger ice surface, and it helped my game, for sure.”
Giordano is putting up nearly a point per game this season (eight goals, 31 points in 33 outings), and his relative Corsi again ranks in the top 10. For Colborne, however, numbers take a back seat to what he sees every day.
“We all call him ‘The Machine’ because he never does anything wrong,” the left winger said. “He’s the backbone of this team. His warmups are the best. His workouts are the best. His practicing habits are the best, and it pays off in the game.”
Miller hits a slump
Ryan Miller couldn’t have asked for a better start in Vancouver. He opened with a 15-3 record, 2.32 goals-against average and .914 save percentage.
Then he went home and got lost.
The Michigan native’s 5-3 defeat in Detroit on Nov. 30 sent Miller and the Canucks into a tailspin. Miller was 1-4 with a 4.11 GAA and .844 save percentage in his last five starts heading into the weekend.
“It’s frustrating,” Miller said. “I care a lot about the way I perform and how I contribute to the team. This last stretch, it doesn’t feel good.”
The 34-year-old didn’t even last two periods against the team he normally owns. Toronto chased him with four goals in 26 minutes. Miller’s season save percentage has plummeted to .900, 40th in the NHL.
“How to temper yourself to survive these ups and downs, that’s really what makes an NHL-caliber player,” Miller said. “You have to be able to weather things.”
Pressure’s on Wild
Minnesota continues to muddle along, stuck in a win-one, lose-one rut for the last month. Coach Mike Yeo senses time is running out for his team, which is out of a playoff spot despite spending wildly the last few years on Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek.
“We’re tired of being on the cusp, we’re tired of being close,” Yeo said. “We need to demand better than what we’ve been bringing. We’re better than what we’ve been showing consistently.
“It would be a mistake to not think that our backs aren’t against the wall a little bit here. We’re behind. We’re not at the level and we’re not where we want to be right now. If that’s the motivation we need, that’s fine. Let’s use it. We should not be accepting of where we’re at right now, and we need to demand more.”
Hall, Oshie on block?
Two big names have spiced up the rumor mill, with Edmonton’s Taylor Hall and St. Louis’ T.J. Oshie getting looks.
Boston, which needs a big right winger, is watching Oshie with the Sabres’ Chris Stewart struggling. The Bruins would need to shuffle salary to acquire the U.S. Olympian, who makes $4.175 million per season.
Hall is part of the continued chaos in Edmonton, which fired coach Dallas Eakins last week and could land the first overall draft pick for the fourth time in seven seasons.
“It would be a shame to leave this group now, wouldn’t feel right,” said Hall, the No. 1 pick in 2010 who has eight goals and 18 points in 27 games. “We want to make it to the final stage, a contending team in this league. There has been almost zero success since I’ve been here.
“Maybe one coach you think, ‘Maybe the next one is going to be the guy to bring us there.’ But after a while, you start looking in the mirror. I haven’t been my best this year.”
On the fly
• Jay Harrison is in Winnipeg because of the Sabres’ Nicolas Deslauriers. Jets defenseman Mark Stuart got hurt fighting Deslauriers and is out until February. In need of blue-line help, Winnipeg picked up Harrison from Carolina for a sixth-round pick.
• Toronto entered Saturday night with a chance to become just the fifth Maple Leafs team since 1977-78 to win 20 games before Christmas. The Leafs were on a 10-2-1 run.
• Detroit is just 1-6 in shootouts, and coach Mike Babcock has had enough of the breakaway challenge. “They don’t have a home run derby after a tied ball game,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”