Atlanta Thrashers v New York Islanders

Dustin Byfuglien sets Thrashers goal scoring record by a defenseman and its just December

During the Thrashers 4-3 overtime win over Ottawa, Thrashers defenseman-turned-forward-turned-defenseman Dustin Byfuglien scored his 11th goal of the season late in the second period. For Byfuglien, that goal set a new Thrashers team record for goals scored by a defenseman.

He’s broken a franchise record in just December, a record that took just 31 games to break. If you’ll recall, we wondered aloud if moving Byfuglien back to his normal position on the blue line, one he played while coming up in the Chicago system, was a good idea. We know that Jeremy Roenick thought it was a really bad decision but perhaps that’s why he’s not a head coach. After being such a success as a forward and taking up space in front of opposing goalies all throughout the playoffs last year, it seemed like new Atlanta head coach Craig Ramsay was taking a risk.

As it turns out, Ramsay knew exactly what he was getting and that by putting Byfuglien back where he felt most comfortable has worked out pretty well for the Thrashers. Ramsay said he envisioned Byfuglien being a 15-goal scorer as a defenseman. That goal total is one that took him virtually a full season to reach in each of his last three years in Chicago. Now, he’s just four goals away from reaching 15 and you have to think that making a run at 20 isn’t out of the realm of possibilities.

Talk about silencing your critics. Byfuglien has been a major part of the rise of Atlanta this season and giving them something they haven’t really had before in team history, a defenseman that can score be a power play threat, is the key. Now Atlanta is in striking distance of the Capitals in the Southeast Division and they’re playing a brand of hockey that’s tough while also getting tremendous goaltending from Ondrej Pavelec. Sounds like the kind of team that might be a real pain in the butt to play in the playoffs, doesn’t it?

The Thrashers are hoping that they’ll be able to keep riding high to make it that far this year and have Dustin Byfuglien’s assistance and experience to rally around for it. For now though, the Thrashers are happy to continue climbing the ladder in the East and with the conference being as wide open as it is, who’s to say they can’t shake things up in the spring.

Sens sign Smith to four-year, $13 million extension

Pittsburgh Penguins v Ottawa Senators
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Two weeks ago, we passed along word that Ottawa and Zack Smith had engaged in preliminary extension talks.

On Monday, the two sides wrapped ’em up.

Smith and the Sens have agreed to a four-year deal worth $13 million — an average annual cap hit of $3.25 million, as announced this afternoon. It’s a pretty nice pay bump for the 28-year-old, who’s in the final year of a deal that pays $1.88M.

Smith had a breakout performance last year, scoring a career-high 25 goals while averaging a healthy 15:24 TOI per night. This year he’s been equally effective offensively — 11 goals and 22 points in 43 games — and has thrived at times playing on a line with Derick Brassard and Mark Stone.

Smith also earned the praise of his coaching staff, particularly assistant bench boss Marc Crawford.

“He is so strong on the puck and he has got a very good shot,” Crawford explained, per the Citizen. “He’s fearless and he goes to the net.”

This new extension kicks in next season, and will keep Smith in the Canadian capital through 2021. The only players on the current roster locked in for that long are Dion Phaneuf and Bobby Ryan.

 

Pre-game reading: Remembering the ’74-75 Caps, who were just terrible

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— Up top, Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh recalls his high-school hockey days in Minnesota, where he won a state championship with Cretin-Derham Hall and received the 2007 Minnesota Mr. Hockey award.

— An enjoyable look back at the NHL’s worst-ever team, the 1974-75 Washington Capitals. “To date, no team has played at least 70 games while posting fewer points (21), wins (8) or road wins (1) than the 1974-75 Capitals. Nor has any mustered a lower points percentage (.131), allowed more total goals (446), or dropped more contests consecutively (17).” The expansion Caps lost 67 games that season, including ones by scores of 10-4, 11-1, 12-1, 10-0, 10-3, 12-1, and 10-2. Click here to see their entire season. (Sports Illustrated)

— Speaking of expansion teams, Sportsnet recently caught up with Vegas president Kerry Bubolz, who had the following to say about the Golden Knights’ unique market: “We are setting aside some of our ticket inventory for that convention or leisure traveler, but the vast majority of our inventory is going to be sold locally. The local who happens to be from another market, maybe their hometown is Philadelphia or Boston or Chicago… we’re going to be embracing the fact that they may be fans of another team. But we’re going to encourage them to join our team as well. You can only play those other teams once a year.” (Sportsnet)

— A touching tribute from Paul Holmgren to his late brother, Dave, who gave him a gift he’ll never forget. All these years later, Holmgren only wishes he’d made more of an effort to say thanks. “I don’t remember thanking him, even though my father had specifically told me to. And even if I did, I’m convinced that I didn’t thank him enough.” (Player’s Tribune)

— The Boston Globe remembers the last Bruins team to make the playoffs. “Tuukka Rask was doing his thing. Zdeno Chara and Dougie Hamilton formed an excellent top defensive pairing. Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand were emerging as the best 200-foot tandem in the league with Reilly Smith riding shotgun. Musclemen Milan Lucic and Jarome Iginla flanked David Krejci. Carl Soderberg and Loui Eriksson were chewing up bottom-six forwards and third pairings as third-line partners.” Indeed, it’s a different-looking group today, and management must accept much of the responsibility for what’s gone wrong. That doesn’t mean Claude Julien’s job is safe, but the Globe’s analysis is worth a read. (Boston Globe)

— The NHL has hired an artist to paint 100 portraits of the league’s 100 top players. It’s quite an undertaking for one artist, but for Tony Harris, it’s also “maybe the greatest job I could ever get.” (NHL.com)

Enjoy the games!

The goaltending market is going to be very interesting this summer

New York Islanders goalie Thomas Greiss makes a save during the third period of the NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in New York. The Flyers defeated the Islanders in overtime 3-2. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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Thomas Greiss is the NHL’s second star of the week, and his New York Islanders suddenly have a flicker of hope.

Greiss went 2-0-1 with a .971 save percentage and two shutouts last week. Even the game he didn’t win was a good performance, as he made 44 stops in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Flyers on Sunday.

Greiss, 30, is a pending unrestricted free agent. And given his numbers over the last two seasons combined (35-18-7, .928), he’s got every right to seek out a significant raise from his current cap hit with the Isles of just $1.5 million.

For that matter, so does Scott Darling, who’s been so good as Chicago’s backup behind Corey Crawford. Ditto for Buffalo’s Anders Nilsson, New Jersey’s Keith Kinkaid, Ottawa’s Mike Condon and Calgary’s Chad Johnson. All are pending UFAs. And all are enjoying good to great seasons.

Another pending UFA who’s playing well is Vancouver’s Ryan Miller. Granted, his situation is a bit different in that he’s 36 years old and proven as an NHL starter.

Read more: What does the future hold for Ryan Miller?

But all these goalies playing well, and none of them with contracts beyond the current season, could sure make for an interesting summer — and that goes double for a summer that will start off with an expansion draft.

As you surely know by now, each team is only allowed to protect one goalie. It’s already created quite the debate in places like Pittsburgh, where the youngster, Matt Murray, has outplayed the veteran, Marc-Andre Fleury.

Meanwhile, goalies like Brian Elliott, Ben Bishop, Steve Mason, and Michal Neuvirth have hurt their value. Each had an excellent 2015-16 campaign. Alas, they’ve all struggled quite badly this season, to the point any GM would have to think long and hard about signing one to a big-money, long-term contract. All four are — yep, you got it — pending UFAs.

With almost half a season, plus the playoffs, to go, there’s still plenty of time for goalies to make their cases, or lose them. We’ll have to wait and see how the market looks come July 1.

But it’s going to be interesting to watch. Goaltending is inherently unpredictable. There will probably be a surprise or two more.

Related: Anton Khudobin hasn’t solved the Bruins’ backup goalie problem

Goalie nods: Days after debuting against the Sharks, Martin gets second career start… against the Sharks

SAN JOSE, CA - JANUARY 21:  Spencer Martin #30 of the Colorado Avalanche plays in goal against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center on January 21, 2017 in San Jose, California. This is Martin's first NHL game.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Haven’t run this one through the folks at Elias yet, but Avs goalie Spencer Martin might be on the verge of history.

Martin, who made his NHL debut in Saturday’s OT loss in San Jose, will be right back in goal as the two teams flip venues — Colorado hosts the Sharks tonight at the Pepsi Center.

So Martin — a 21-year-old rookie — first makes his big-league debut, then gets a second consecutive start, all against the same opponent. Can’t imagine that’s happened too many times.

There’s an interesting dynamic at play beyond the historical stuff, too.

Last week, the Avs shut down Semyon Varlamov until after the All-Star break so he could deal with a lingering, troublesome groin injury. Around the same time, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman speculated that Colorado might look to change its situation in goal, writing “I’m not sure Colorado is too secure in what they have.”

Given this season is toast, it would appear the Avs are analyzing what they’ve got in Martin. He does have some pedigree — the 63rd overall selection in 2013 — and has played reasonably well for AHL San Antonio this year. Of course, gauging Martin will be tough. He’s playing behind one of the worst teams in the league, and is still really inexperienced. In fact, he’s the second-youngest goalie to appear in an NHL game this season.

For the Sharks, Martin Jones is in goal.

Elsewhere…

Henrik Lundqvist, fresh off a 21-save shutout of Detroit on Sunday, will go back-to-back when the Rangers host the Kings at MSG. No word yet on who starts for L.A.

— Carolina gave Cam Ward a rare night off on Saturday, as Michael Leighton was in for a loss to Columbus. Ward returns to the starter’s crease tonight in Washington, where he’ll face Braden Holtby.

Brian Elliott, who came on in relief of Chad Johnson in Saturday’s blowout loss to the Oilers, gets the start for Calgary in Toronto. The Leafs will counter with Frederik Andersen.

— Ondrej Pavelec looks for his third straight win since being recalled as the Jets host the Ducks. Jonathan Bernier, who came on in relief of the injured John Gibson on Saturday, appears to be in for Anaheim.

Mike Smith, who made 45 saves in a win over Tampa Bay this past weekend, goes for the Coyotes. No word yet on who starts for the visiting Panthers.