jmlilesunderrated

John-Michael Liles’ hot start deserves more attention

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Perhaps it’s especially appropriate to discuss under-the-radar performances this week, considering the fact that hockey fans, bloggers, writers and other people around the game might begin campaigning for write-in candidates regarding the All-Star Game voting.

One player who shouldn’t be ignored, even though he almost certainly will be is John-Michael Liles of the Colorado Avalanche. At one point not too long ago, the offensive defenseman was the source of derision, a scapegoat for the Avs’ newly found post-lockout struggles.

After putting up some solid but unspectacular numbers in his seven-year NHL career, Liles now finds himself quietly rising among the league’s leaders in points for defensemen. He nearly scored a hat trick tonight in Colorado’s dominant performance against St. Louis, scoring two goals and adding an assist to help the Avs beat the Blues 6-3.

Liles began the season red-hot. In fact, the 30-year-old defenseman broke an obscure scoring record for defensemen by earning at least one assist in the first nine games of the season, breaking a mark previously held by Ottawa’s Filip Kuba. It seemed like things were going back to “normal” after Liles went five games without a point, but he now has three games with at least one point (three goals and two assists overall) including his great game against the Blues.

That leaves Liles with an elite output to begin the 2010-11 season: he has almost a point per game with three goals and 13 assists for 16 points in 17 games. Sixteen points ties him for second place in the NHL for point scoring with Dustin Byfuglien; only Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang and Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom have more to their credit so far this season with 17 each.

Does this mean that Liles is an elite defenseman over the long haul? Not necessarily, but the veteran blueliner seems like he’s raising his game. His 22:57 average time on ice is a career high (he only averaged more than 20 minutes per game once in his career, during the 2008-09 season). He’s also making the most of those minutes; his +9 rating ties him for fifth place in the NHL in that category.

It’s not realistic for Liles to threaten a point per game pace for the entire season. Heck, that type of pace might be a bit much to expect from anyone not named Mike Green in this era of hockey. But one thing is certain: Liles isn’t getting the credit he deserves for an outstanding first 17 games.

If nothing else, he’s come a long way from the days when he was a popular choice when someone was looking for a scapegoat.

Pre-game reading: About that time Donald Trump considered buying the Panthers

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— Up top, Bob McKenzie discusses Paul Maurice’s status in Winnipeg. Is the Jets’ head coach on the hot seat?

— Did you know that Donald Trump once considered buying the Florida Panthers? He never did buy them, of course, but the Miami Herald’s George Richards recalls the time, “around 2000,” when Trump kicked the tires on the hockey club. The Panthers, oddly enough, are now owned by Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Army, Vinnie Viola. (Miami Herald)

— From The Journal Star newspaper in Peoria, Illinois: “A charter bus carrying the Columbus Cottonmouths team was in a rollover crash on Interstate 74 on Thursday afternoon as the Southern Professional Hockey League team was on its way into Peoria for a weekend series against the Peoria Rivermen.” Fortunately, there don’t appear to be any serious injuries — just some “bumps and bruises,” according to the team’s co-owner, Bart Rogers. However, two people were reportedly taken to the hospital in an ambulance. (Journal Star)

— The Washington Post spoke to Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer about the new streamlined pants that all NHL goalies must start wearing by Feb. 4. While Holtby isn’t too concerned about the changes, Grubauer had this to say: “I understand you want to get the game more exciting for the fans, but there’s a fine line between making the gear smaller and also keeping the goalies protected. If too many guys get hurt with those, it’s not a good thing. … What do you want to take away next? Goalies without sticks? Without skates?” PHT prediction: They’ll let goalies keep their skates on.  (Washington Post)

— An encouraging update from Bryan Bickell, who was diagnosed with MS in November. The Hurricanes forward has been taking a drug called Tysabri, and the results have been good. “I’m feeling a lot better. I’ve been on the ice a couple times. … Different people react differently to different drugs and I’ve been reacting good and we’ll see how it goes.” (NHL.com)

— The Nashville Predators picked up “another teammate” on Friday, but they’re still not sure if “Mario” will last the season as their good-luck charm. (The Tennessean)

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Enjoy the games!

Goalie nods: Preds turn to streaking Saros

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 28:  In his first career NHL game goalie Juuse Saros #1 of the Nashville Predators skates against the Buffalo Sabres during the first period at Bridgestone Arena on November 28, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
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Juuse Saros will get another shot at cutting into Pekka Rinne‘s playing time.

Saros, who has been excellent as Rinne’s backup since being recalled from AHL Milwaukee, will get the nod tonight when the Preds take on the Flames in Calgary. The decision comes after Rinne played well in a 1-0 loss in Vancouver on Tuesday, but the veteran Finn was no doubt displeased on the one goal he surrendered.

(FF to 3:36)

Tonight’s start will be Saros’ ninth of the season. He’s gone 4-3-1 with a 1.25 GAA and .957 save percentage in his previous eight — including his last one, when he stopped 35 of 36 shots in a win over Boston — and could make the case for even more starts with another solid effort tonight.

Nashville heads into Calgary just one point back of the Kings for the final wild card spot in the Western Conference, and needs all the points it can get.

For the Flames, Chad Johnson starts in goal.

Elsewhere…

— No rest for Mike Condon, as he’ll make yet another start when the Sens travel to Columbus. He’ll be up against Sergei Bobrovsky, who made 24 saves on 25 shots in a win over the Hurricanes on Tuesday.

Kari Lehtonen, who made 12 saves in relief of Antti Niemi in Tuesday’s 7-6 win over the Rangers, gets the start for Dallas in Brooklyn. The Isles are going with Thomas Greiss, who posted a 32-save shutout of Boston earlier this week.

We wrote about Henrik Lundqvist’s struggles earlier, and he’ll look to change his fortunes around in Toronto. The Leafs, as per usual, are going to Frederik Andersen in goal.

Jake Allen gets back in for the Blues after Carter Hutton started three in a row. The Caps will counter with Braden Holtby.

Mike Smith gets a rare night off for the Coyotes, who will give Louis Domingue just his third start of the month. Domingue will go up against Devan Dubnyk, who saw his four-game winning streak snapped with a loss against the Devils on Tuesday.

Semyon Varlamov is hurt again, so Calvin Pickard goes for the Avs in Anaheim. John Gibson‘s in for the Ducks.

Ben Bishop played on Monday and Tuesday, so Andrei Vasilevskiy gives him a breather as the Bolts take on the Sharks in San Jose. No word yet on who’s in goal for the home team.

Rielly’s injury means opportunities for Gardiner and Corrado

NEWARK, NJ - JANUARY 06: Morgan Rielly #44 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on January 6, 2017 in Newark, New Jersey. The Maple Leafs defeated the Devils 4-2.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The Toronto Maple Leafs will be without their best defenseman tonight against the Rangers, and possibly for a few more games after that. Morgan Rielly is day-to-day with a lower-body injury after crashing into the boards Tuesday against Buffalo.

With Rielly out, Jake Gardiner will step into the top-pairing role with Nikita Zaitsev. It’s a big responsibility for the 26-year-old Gardiner. The Leafs are right in the thick of the playoff race, and they don’t want to lose ground.

“You’re playing against the best guys every shift,” head coach Mike Babcock said, per the Toronto Sun. “The best guys tend to be harder on the defensemen, so you just have to handle it. Jake has become a way better defender and can move the puck, so he does not spend a whole lot of time in his zone. We will see how it goes here today, but Zaitsev is a good player to play with too and it should be a good pair for us.”

Gardiner has spent most of the season on Toronto’s second pair alongside Connor Carrick, who will now skate with Frank Corrado. The other pairing will stay the same: Roman Polak with Matt Hunwick.

Rielly’s injury also presents an opportunity for Corrado to prove he belongs in the lineup. The 23-year-old has been limited to just one game with the Leafs this season; he was recently down in the AHL on a conditioning assignment.

Read more: Frustrated Corrado sounds off

“I think he went down there and tried to work real hard and be a real good pro, which I think is real important when you’re a veteran guy and you play with those kids,” Babcock said of Corrado, per Maple Leafs Hot Stove. “That’s positive, and now he gets his opportunity here.”

Fiery Lehner won’t apologize for being fiery

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Robin Lehner‘s trademark intensity was on display — again — two nights ago, when he responded quite angrily to getting hooked in a 4-3 loss to the Maple Leafs.

He smashed his goalie mask, and stared daggers at head coach Dan Bylsma. Given the game was in Toronto, there were more than a few media outlets that made note of the outburst — and quickly, the incident went viral.

On Thursday, Lehner addressed the situation. He took responsibility for the outburst — “I’m not helping the team by showing my emotions and I’ve got to learn from it” — but also said he wasn’t going to change who he is.

“It’s hypocritical to apologize for who you are,” Lehner said, per the Buffalo News. “I’m a competitive guy who doesn’t want to get out of the net. I don’t want to leave the net.

“I want to sink with the ship or be able to stand in there and come back.”

This isn’t the first time Lehner’s, uh, passion has gone viral. Last season he had a lengthy stare down with then-Habs goalie Ben Scrivens, and unleashed the crazy eyes on Columbus.

Essentially, it’s part of the package. If you like Lehner and want him as your goalie, you’re going to accept such intensity — even if it boils over from time to time. That’s what Bylsma said in the aftermath, anyway.

“He should be upset with getting pulled,” Bylsma said on Tuesday, per the News. “That’s part of Robin’s game, that emotion. I have no problem with that.”