Pascal Leclaire hopes to rebound after two horrid seasons

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for leclaireagain.jpgWhile appearing on The Program Podcast Wednesday, I discussed the Northeast Division and made some (tentative) predictions. When the Ottawa Senators came up, we all agreed that one of the team’s biggest weaknesses will probably be in net.

There’s nothing especially wrong with Brian Elliott, but let’s face it, he’s average at best on most nights. The team might be able to scrape by with the decidedly average* goalie, but deep down, many Sens fans (and probably a few suits) hope that Pascal Leclaire will “figure it out.”

*People assume “average” is an insult, but it’s not meant to be … to a point. Elliott really is making the most of his career and talents, so I don’t begrudge him for being so-so. That just happens to be the only honest way to describe him.

Glass half-full types will point to Leclaire’s breakout season with the Columbus Blue Jackets, when he went 24-17-6 with a 2.25 GAA, a 91.9 save percentage and an outstanding nine shutouts during the 2007-08. They might also point to the fact that he helped the Senators win a ridiculous three-OT game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs. Negative Nancys, however, will call it the “One Year Ken Hitchock Effect,” pointing to Steve Mason’s flash-in-the-pan rookie year and also the fact that Leclaire has been atrocious since then (88.7 save percentage in 09-10 and 86.7 in only 12 games during 08-09).

However you slice it, Leclaire admits that he needs to improve next season. He spoke to the Canadian Press about how he feels about 10-11.

But after having a full off-season to prepare, the native of Repentigny, Que., is back and ready to take another run at proving that he’s capable of being that guy, or at least something close to it.

“I worked hard during the summer and we’ll see what happens,” Leclaire said Friday from Scotiabank Place, where the Senators opened their training camp with medicals and fitness testing. “The injuries — you guys are going to have new questions this year because it’s always the same stuff. I’m going to repeat the same thing all the time. Things happen and I can deal with them as best as possible. It’s a new season every year, you always have to start over and this year’s no different.”

Unlike a year ago, when he was coming off ankle surgery that had kept him out for the better part of eight months leading up to his Ottawa debut, he’s had a full off-season to prepare and is ready to work with Brian Elliott, the player who took over the Senators’ No. 1 role during last season.

“The big thing is to be feeling good on the ice and in the last month or so, speaking for myself, I felt good out there, even if it’s only summer hockey,” said Leclaire.

Well, he’s not exactly promising the world, but this season could be a pivotal one for the highly paid (and highly disappointing) former Blue Jacket. The Senators are banking on Leclaire and Elliott to help them grind their way into the playoffs, so a healthy and focused would increase their chances substantially.

And, really, he can’t be much worse than he was in the last two seasons, right?

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    Eddie Lack expects to be released from hospital on Monday night

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    As scary as the situation was for Carolina Hurricanes goalie Eddie Lack, the good news continues to pour in.

    First, the Hurricanes provided an update that he had “full feeling in his extremities” while under observation at a hospital. This followed the promising sign that he was able to give a “thumbs up” gesture while being taken off the ice on a stretcher after the Hurricanes’ 4-3 overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings.

    The best news came late on Monday night, however, as Lack himself tweeted that he expects to head back home as early as this late evening/early morning:

    That’s fantastic news. Video of that scary collision with Andreas Athanasiou can be seen in the video above this post’s headline.

    Blues, Flames take care of business (Islanders … do not)

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    For a while there, it seemed like the idle Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs would be Monday’s “winners.” That changed when the Carolina Hurricanes salvaged a standings point and the Tampa Bay Lightning stormed back to beat the Blackhawks.

    Still, there were some teams who came through (beyond the Lightning) and those who fell flat, so let’s cover some of the results in short.

    West teams get it done

    Unlike their counterparts out East, West teams jockeying for position avoided “unforced errors” in losing to non-playoff teams.

    The St. Louis Blues beat the Arizona Coyotes 4-1 while the Calgary Flames topped the Colorado Avalanche 4-2.

    This keeps the Blues and Flames in position to advance. St. Louis is one point behind the Nashville Predators for third in the Central while the Flames are a point behind both the Sharks and Oilers for second and third in the Pacific (while remaining in shouting distance of the division title).

    East teams stumble, some get over it

    Again, the Lightning fought through hurdles to win and the Hurricanes managed that “charity point.”

    Overall, East teams struggled. The New York Islanders fell to the Predators by a score of 3-1. Your mileage may vary on the Florida Panthers’ chances, especially after they fell 4-2 to the Buffalo Sabres.

    Here’s what the race for the final spot in the East looks like after tonight:

    Final wild card: Bruins – 84 points in 75 games played

    Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP
    Islanders – 82 points in 75 GP
    Hurricanes – 80 points in 74 GP

    Victor Hedman might just force his way into the Norris argument

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    For quite some time this season, the Norris Trophy race felt a bit like “Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and [insert token finalist].” As it turns out, Victor Hedman is making it a pretty interesting three-horse race.

    With Burns and Karlsson idle on Monday, Hedman continued to go on the best offensive tear of his already-impressive career, contributing three assists to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 5-4 overtime win against the Chicago Blackhawks.

    As much credit as forwards Nikita Kucherov and Jonathan Drouin deserve in pushing Tampa Bay in Steven Stamkos‘ absence, Hedman has been an all-world blueliner for a Lightning team with a defense that isn’t really surrounding him with great talent.

    He’s serving as a workhorse when his team needs him the most:

    Now, when you look at the numbers, it’s probably fair to say that Hedman comes in third among the likely finalists in simple categories:

    Brent Burns: 27 goals (!), 72 points in 75 games, +16 rating, 24:52 time-on-ice average

    Erik Karlsson: 14 goals, 67 points in 74 games, +7, 26:53 minutes per game (fourth highest average in the NHL)

    Victor Hedman: 15 goals, 65 points in 72 games, +2 rating, came into Monday with average of 24:15 minutes per game.

    Looking at those breakdowns, you might wonder why someone wouldn’t just flippantly hand Hedman the “bronze medal” and a pat on the back … but things get more interesting if you ponder the all-around impact of those three.

    Now, traditional-thinkers who slam risky defensemen for their mistakes often overstate such arguments. Both Burns and Karlsson tilt the ice in their teams’ favors, usually to profound degrees.

    Still … Hedman locks opponents down to a truly elite degree and scores at a similar rate. Hedman could very well own the “two-way” argument; you could perhaps see his case most clearly when you compare his “HERO” chart to those of Burns and Karlsson, especially from the perspective of conceding shots.

    Again, Burns remains the likely winner, and he would be a deserving one. You could make a solid Hart Trophy argument for Burns, in addition to tabbing him as the Norris frontrunner.

    Even so, voters would be wise to take Hedman’s case seriously, especially as the Lightning continue their improbable playoff push.

    Lightning storm back against Blackhawks, finish one point out of playoffs

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    Who would have thought that the Tampa Bay Lightning would rally back from a 4-1 deficit tonight? Then again, who expected them to be so close to a playoff spot mere weeks ago, when they were sellers at the trade deadline?

    The Lightning continue to show that they won’t just roll over and die, scoring four unanswered goals to beat the Chicago Blackhawks 5-4 in overtime on Monday.

    While Jonathan Drouin was a catalyst for the second-period rally, it was an unlikely scorer who clinched the victory, as Yanni Gourde ended a thrilling run of 3-on-3 chances with the overtime-winner.

    Really, it might have been fitting. Things looked glum when Tomas Jurco scored his first goal of the season against the Lightning, then the mood was totally flipped when Gourde’s second tally of 2016-17 grabbed a huge win.

    With the Islanders losing to the Predators, the Hurricanes only managing a “loser point” against the Red Wings and the Bruins idle, Tampa Bay is a breath away from a playoff berth:

    Final wild card: Bruins – 84 points in 75 games played

    Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP
    Islanders – 82 points in 75 GP
    Hurricanes – 80 points in 74 GP

    Yes, all of a sudden, a long-shot postseason run seems quite attainable.

    Maybe the Lightning would prefer it if we kept counting them out, though?