Should the game's greatest defensive forwards receive more Hall of Fame attention?

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jerelehtinenplaysd.jpgIn many sports – particularly baseball – it seems like just about any action and tactic can be chronicled with a hard number statistic. Sure, you cannot put a number on chemistry, desire, heart and – let’s face it – the greed that can sometimes be the driving force behind sporting success, but it seems like numbers can explain a huge portion of what happens in games.

Hockey stats lag behind and for good reason: there are some things that are simply difficult to measure without just using your eyes and a fair share of subjectivity. Sure, you can look at a faceoff won or a goal averted as a “success” for a defensive forward, but that doesn’t always tell the whole story. Neither does a plus/minus or Corsi number.

This lack of data/benchmarks for great work by defensive forwards is obvious in everything from Selke Trophy voting and Hall of Fame inductions. The fantastic number-crunching blog Behind the Net took a look at the serious lack of shutdown forwards in the Hockey Hall of Fame beyond Bob Gainey and Bob Pulford and provides two compelling examples of worthy inductees.

Since the 1980s, I’d argue that there’s a reluctance to recognize the defensive forward, an important player lost in the astronomical offensive numbers we saw three decades ago, rarely to be recognized even when the defensive game re-emerged in the mid-90s. Sure, if there comes a player that joins point-per-game offense with relatively good defense, he enters the conversation, and when Selanne’s opportunity comes around his average defense will be sufficient. But what about those defensive forwards?

Case in point is a player that entered the league in Gainey’s waning years, and survived the 1980s and early 90s with his elite defensive reputation intact. Guy Carbonneau toiled over 19 NHL seasons, winning 3 Selkes and 3 Stanley Cups, all the while carrying the label of the league’s best defensive forward. Beyond that, he did something incredibly well that Bob Gainey rarely ever did: win faceoffs. In the process, Carbonneau played 1,318 games, scoring 260 goals, 403 assists, and 663 points along with a career +/- of +186.

Another more-recent example is a player currently without a job, Jere Lehtinen. Also the recipient of 3 Selkes and a Stanley Cup, Lehtinen has had a more prolific scoring career than Gainey or Carbonneau, but this was certainly not to the detriment of his defensive game. For sure, if you were to ask 100 hockey experts on the best defensive players of the period 1995-2010, Lehtinen would enter the conversation for almost every one. With 875 games played, 243 goals, 271 goals, 514 points, and a career +176, who could argue? He only had one season where he finished with a minus (Gainey had two, and Carbonneau four) despite playing on a number of suspect Dallas teams. He and Modano were constants on teams that boasted some of the most incredible goaltending statistics in NHL history, including Ed Belfour’s 1997-98 and 1998-99 and Marty Turco’s 2002-03 and 2003-04. Yet it is unlikely that Lehtinen will get his due, much like Carbonneau sees each year come and go without a chance to join his Montreal brethren in the hallowed Hall.

In a time when statistical analysts are bringing us ever closer to defensive player value, it’s time to remember that those Red Wings, those Devils, those Penguins, didn’t get there without Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, Jay Pandolfo, John Madden, Jordan Staal, etc. The defensive forward is still important, still integral to regular season success, playoff hockey, and the Silver of all Silvers. I’m not saying enshrine Michael Peca on principle, but I do believe that each generation boasts at least one defensive forward that deserves enshrinement along with the multitudes of point-per-gamers nominated from year-to-year by our hockey writers and dignitaries.

Both Carbonneau and Lehtinen seem like perfectly reasonable selections for the Hall of Fame, at least when you compare their impact on the game in relation to good-but-not-quite-elite inductees such as this year’s selection Dino Ciccarelli.

I think it comes down to a lack of education and data, though. Simply put, it’s difficult to know which forwards make a big impact beyond looking at team-based statistics such as plus/minus. If there were easier (or at least more prevalent) ways to measure how useful a forward is defensively, it would be easier for everyone to judge these players.

This is why the movement for deeper statistical analysis among bloggers (and the occasional mainstream writer) is such a great thing. Some of the number crunching can make you a little dizzy, but with time I think that the blogosphere and writers in general will develop stats that are both simple and sophisticated.

Then maybe we can finally give the New Age Gaineys their deserved recognition.

Who can challenge Red Wings’ Larkin as NHL’s fastest skater?

NEWARK, NJ - NOVEMBER 25: Dylan Larkin #71 of the Detroit Red Wings skates against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on November 25, 2016 in Newark, New Jersey. The Red Wings defeated the Devils 5-4 in overtime.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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As their core players from recent years have started to age and move on, the Detroit Red Wings have undergone a transition period with several new faces taking over the roster.

One of the players that is going to be counted on to be a key piece moving forward in almost certainly going to be 20-year-old forward Dylan Larkin, a top-five finisher in the 2016 Calder Trophy voting and currently one of the fastest skaters in the NHL.

He will be the focus from the Red Wings’ side of their Star Sunday matchup with the New York Rangers on NBC Sunday afternoon.

Larkin made a name for himself a year ago when he became the first teenager to make the Red Wings’ opening night roster in more than 15 years, and then followed it up with an outstanding rookie campaign that saw him finish as the team’s leading goal scorer (23) and third leading leading point producer (45), trailing only long-time Red Wings legends Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. While his assist numbers have fallen off a bit this season, he is still on pace to top the 20-goal mark again. If he does he would be just the 13th player over the past 11 years to have two 20-goal seasons before their 21st birthday (joining Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Matt Duchene, Taylor Hall, Patrick Kane, Anze Kopitar, Nathan MacKinnon, Sean Monahan, Jeff Skinner, Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews and John Tavares).

His performance a year ago earned him a trip to the 2016 All-Star game in Nashville where he helped steal the show at the skills competition by breaking Mike Gartner’s 19-year-old record.

Larkin won’t have a chance to defend his crown at the 2017 NHL All-Star weekend in Los Angeles, but there are a handful of players that might be able to make a run at his record.

Some of the favorites to win this year’s competition should include:

  • Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid (who was not at the All-Star game a year ago due to injury) would seem to be the leading favorite to not only win the competition this season if he participates in, but to perhaps also break Larkin’s record. When he is on the ice he always seems to be playing the game at a different speed than everybody else and is already one of the most game-breaking players in the league.
  • Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, currently one of the few bright spots on the Avalanche roster, is also a worthy contender and has been one of the fastest skaters in the league from the minute he arrived as the No. 1 overall pick in 2013. His acceleration is similar to Olympic speed skaters.
  • Erik Karlsson is probably the one defenseman in the league that could have a shot at winning the competition given the way he can blow past even the fastest forwards in the league every night.

NHL on NBC: Red Wings look to take advantage of Rangers’ struggling defense

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 19: Brandon Pirri #73 of the New York Rangers goes up against Justin Abdelkader #8 and Tomas Tatar #21 of the Detroit Red Wings at Madison Square Garden on October 19, 2016 in New York City. The Red Wings defeated the Rangers 2-1.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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NBC’s coverage of the NHL continues on Sunday afternoon when the New York Rangers pay a visit to the Detroit Red Wings. You can watch all of the action on NBC starting at 12:30 p.m. ET or on our live stream here.

It is another Star Sunday in Detroit on Sunday afternoon when the Rangers visit the Red Wings, with the focus of the game falling on New York defenseman Ryan McDonagh and Detroit’s Dylan Larkin.

For the Red Wings, the time is now for them to start accumulating points if they are going to extend their playoff streak to a 26th season. They enter play on Sunday in 14th place in the Eastern Conference with 47 points in their first 46 games, a pace that has them on track for only 80 points. That would be the organization’s lowest point total (excluding lockout shortened seasons) since 1990-91, the year their current postseason streak started.

The good news is they have already started to pick up some points in recent games and are carrying a four-game point streak into Sunday’s game against the Rangers. Still sitting four points back of a wild card spot (while the team they are chasing still has two games in hand) and five points out of third place in the Atlantic Division they are still going to have plenty of work to do to make up that ground over the next couple of months.

The Rangers, meanwhile, still have a solid hold on a playoff spot and have continued to fill the net as one of the NHL’s best offensive teams.

The problem is they can’t seem to stop anybody from scoring right now, either.

Over their past 12 games dating back to Dec. 20 the Rangers have held teams to less than three goals just three times, and have allowed more than four goals seven times. That includes three games where they have allowed at least seven goals. Overall, they have allowed 50 goals during the past 12 games (that is more than 4.1 per game).

Defense was a huge question mark coming into this season for the Rangers, and there has been nothing during the season that has eliminated that concern. In recent years when the defense has been an issue (especially last season) Henrik Lundqvist has always been good enough to mask whatever problems existed. But at 34 years old there is going to come a point where his play starts to a dip a little bit and we might have started to reach that point this season. He carries a .902 save percentage into Sunday’s game which would be the worst mark (by far) of his career to this point.

Puck drop on Sunday afternoon is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. ET. Catch all of the action on NBC or on our live stream.

‘It’s embarrassing,’ says Gulutzan after lopsided loss to Oilers

DALLAS, TX - NOVEMBER 21:  Head coach Glen Gulutzan of the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center on November 21, 2011 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The Battle of Alberta was a tad lopsided Saturday.

The Edmonton Oilers scored early. They scored often. And despite holding a distinct advantage in shots on goal and puck possession, the rival Calgary Flames couldn’t get much going until the third period and by then the damage had been done.

The Oilers, tied in points with the San Jose Sharks, are one point back of the Anaheim Ducks for the Pacific Division lead after their 7-3 win over the Flames. Laurent Brossoit also collected his first career NHL victory.

This game wasn’t even six minutes old when Jordan Eberle scored to give Edmonton a three-goal lead. Chad Johnson was promptly pulled from the Calgary net, making one save on four shots faced.

The Flames were bad from the start. They didn’t get any better in the second period, falling behind five goals after 40 minutes and watching as the likes of Eberle and Connor McDavid piled on for a regular-season series sweep of Calgary.

Flames coach Glen Gulutzan had some strong words to describe the play of his team, which still holds down a wild card spot in the West.

“It’s embarrassing,” he said, per the Calgary Sun. “Our resolve to stick to it wasn’t there.”

“That’s a bunch of games in a row now where we’ve fallen behind and haven’t been able to get any push-back. And in our rink, it’s unacceptable,” added Mark Giordano.

The coach was utterly perplexed by his team’s breakdown on Edmonton’s third goal, which started off as a rush in the neutral zone and finished with Eberle, wide open down the right wing with a clear path to the net, beating Johnson on the shot.

“I don’t know what we were doing,” said Gulutzan. “I actually have no explanation for what our ‘D’ were doing on the third goal. It was a complete mistake.”

That should be concerning for the Flames.

They hold a playoff spot, but just barely with the Vancouver Canucks one point back and with two games in hand.

Talk about a Wild comeback for Minnesota

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The Minnesota Wild took back sole possession of the lead in the Central Division, thanks to a thrilling comeback win over the Pacific Division-leading Anaheim Ducks on Saturday.

Minnesota trailed 3-1 early in the second period. Jason Zucker closed the deficit in the middle period, before they took the lead for good thanks to a frenzy of three goals from Erik Haula, Ryan Suter and Zucker in 1:59 late in regulation for a 5-3 victory.

“When we came in in between the second and third, knowing we were only down a goal, and knowing our history, we didn’t think we were out of it,” said coach Bruce Boudreau, per the Pioneer Press.

And so the Wild remain one of the hottest teams in the league, leading Chicago by two points.

While it’s a comeback for them, the Ducks don’t quite see it the same way.

“It’s not what they did, to be honest. We self-imploded. Gave up too many opportunities, left our goalie out to dry,” said Cam Fowler.

Additional bad news for the Ducks, however, was that goalie John Gibson left the game in the second period with an upper-body injury, and didn’t return.