Philadelphia Flyers v Boston Bruins

Is the neutral zone trap creeping back into the game?

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While the 2004-05 lockout was just about a complete disaster for the NHL, the league was forced to make a few changes that improved the game as a whole. It’s true that the elimination of the two-line pass rule was designed to open up the game, but the most important alterations didn’t involve the introduction of a new rule. Instead the league simply increased its emphasis on referees calling obstruction and interference penalties.

These changes helped (and still help) talented, speedy players make a bigger impact on the game and forced many plodding, low-skill skaters out of the league. While the influx of young talent during the last several seasons is evident, these changes allowed those youngsters to shine brighter and sooner.

Of course, there’s a fine line between opening up the game and neutering the physicality that helps fill the seats. Darren Eliot of Sports Illustrated writes that referees are gradually calling less penalties on minor infractions in the neutral zone and elsewhere, something that coaches such as Guy Boucher of the Tampa Bay Lightning and even typically aggressive coach Peter Laviolette of the Philadelphia Flyers are exploiting to considerable success.

Speed away from the puck was the main idea and it is the essence of the game at its best. Yet, neutral zone sludge is slowly beginning to build up across the league. The only way that happens is when defensive players who have little or no speed are allowed to clog lanes and slow their faster opponents by neutralizing them with subtle grabs, blocks and nudges instead of being forced to defend with equal quickness.

Offensive forechecking suffers when the area between the bluelines becomes a gauntlet of human speed bumps and rumble strips. Less speed means less quality time in the offensive zone, and that quality time is what the league wants. See: the recent ingenious tweaks to face-offs on icings (no personnel changes for the offending team) and for penalty calls (an offensive zone face-off no matter where the infraction occurred). But those are controlled situations that aid the offensive team. The intention of the 2005 no-interference mandate was to help the offense while play was underway.

The eyeball test tells me the game is now backsliding too much. Five players idling in the neutral zone in a 1-3-1 configuration has become more prevalent than the stretch pass. I even saw up-tempo aficionado Peter Laviolette of the Flyers pull all five of his guys into the neutral zone for long stretches recently. And why not? It conserves energy because less skating is involved. Defensive players are getting away with more while moving their feet less.

It’s not time to get alarmed, but the league must make sure that the quality of play remains at a high level. The NHL is probably feeling great about the steady overall improvement in ratings and general interest, but they shouldn’t see moderate success as an invitation to rest on their laurels.

The Crosby-Marchand Duo is dominating the World Cup

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 24: Brad Marchand #63 of Team Canada is congratulated by his teammates Sidney Crosby #87, Drew Doughty #8, Patrice Bergeron #37 and Alex Pietrangelo #27 after scoring a second period goal at the semifinal game during the World Cup of Hockey tournament at Air Canada Centre on September 24, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Canada has been, by far, the most dominant team at the 2016 World Cup, and thanks to their 5-3 win over Russia on Saturday night they are on their way to the championship round.

Leading the way for them has been the line of Sidney Crosby, Brad Marchand, and Patrice Bergeron. It has been, by far, the best line in the tournament, and they put on an especially dominant show on Saturday.

While Bergeron has been his usual rock-solid self, playing shut down defense and just playing great two-way hockey all over the ice, the Crosby-Marchand connection has been especially dominant for Canada on the scoreboard. Of the 19 goals scored by Canada through Saturday, one of those two players has had a hand in seven of them, including three on Saturday.

Crosby started everything with this individual effort to force a turnover and then beat Sergei Bobrovsky.

Later, he set up Marchand to tie the game at two after Russia had briefly taken the lead.

It should be no surprise that Crosby is putting on a show because, well, that is what he does. When you put him with a pair of great two-way players like Bergeron and Marchand and it should be a great fit.

But let’s talk about Marchand for a second, because he is really starting to make a name for himself as a top-line scorer. This tournament, even if it is a small four-game sampling at this point, has helped continue his transformation from always being considered nothing more than a pest that was also a pretty good hockey player to a legitimate top-line goal-producing force. This performance is no accident. Just remember that he scored 37 goals during the 2015-16 season (the sixth most in the NHL) and did not experience a significant jump in his shooting percentage (he actually shot slightly lower than his career shooting percentage), indicating that it may not have been a fluke performance. He simply took on a bigger role in the Bruins offense by receiving an extra two minutes of ice-time per game and being counted on to be a bigger part of the offense. He finally had a chance to shine offensively, and he took advantage of it.

The other thing that makes the obvious chemistry between Crosby and Marchand fascinating at this point is that it has already started the rumor mill for a potential reunion of the duo in Pittsburgh at some point given Marchand’s contract situation. Given the salary cap situations that is probably getting a little too far ahead, but it is at the very least an interesting “what if” discussion to be had.

Marchand is currently entering the final year of his contract and has not yet been re-signed by the Bruins.

No matter where he ends up signing, whether it is with Boston or another team, his next contract is probably going to be an impressive one.

Canada advances to World Cup final with 5-3 win over Russia

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 24: Corey Perry #24 of Team Canada is congratulated by his teammate Shea Weber #6 after scoring a third period goal against Team Russia at the semifinal game during the World Cup of Hockey tournament at Air Canada Centre on September 24, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Through two periods on Saturday night it looked as if Sergei Bobrovsky was going to give Russia a real chance to steal their World Cup semifinal game against Canada.

At that point he was still almost single handedly holding off a relentless Canadian offensive zone push and keeping his team in the game.

And then Canada finally kicked the door down in the third period on their way to a 5-3 win to advance to the World Cup final.

Canada will now play the winner of Sunday’s Sweden-Team Europe game in a best-of-three championship series to determine the winner of the tournament. That series will begin on Tuesday night.

Even though the score was tied through two periods on Saturday and the outcome of the game was still very much in doubt, this was still a pretty dominant performance from Canada from start to finish.

They completely shut down the Russian power play (which was abysmal throughout the entire tournament) and spent most of the night playing in the Russian end of the rink. They ended up finishing the game with a commanding 47-34 edge on the shot chart, and had it not been for a spectacular goaltending performance from Bobrovsky this game could have easily been even more lopsided on the scoreboard. Don’t let the five goals against fool you when it comes to Bobrovsky’s performance, either. He really was great.

The final score is simply a testament to just how good this Canadian team is, and how good it was on Saturday in all phases of the game.

They were great defensively, while the top line of Sidney Crosby, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron combined for three more goals in the win, including a highlight reel individual effort from Crosby in the first period to open the scoring.

Corey Perry and John Tavares also added goals for Canada to help them build a 5-2 lead before Artemi Panarin added a goal in the closing seconds for Russia to help make the score look a little closer than the game actually was.

Nikita Kucherov and Evgeny Kuznetsov also scored for Russia.

Since the start of the 2014 Olympics, Team Canada is now 10-0 in best-on-best tournaments and has outscored its opponents by a 36-9 margin in those games.

It is going to take an incredible effort from either Sweden or Team Europe to beat them two times over the next week.

 

Jets respond to Jacob Trouba’s trade request

BUFFALO, NY - DECEMBER 17: Jacob Trouba #8 of the Winnipeg Jets prepares for a face-off against the Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center on December 17, 2013 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jen Fuller/Getty Images)
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Word surfaced on Saturday night that Winnipeg Jets restricted free agent defenseman Jacob Trouba has requested a trade from the team so that he can, in his view, reach his full potential as a player.

It did not take long for the Jets to issue a statement responding to the request.

In a statement released by the team, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said that in his view Trouba “still represents an important part of the long-term future” of the club and that they working diligently to resolve the matter.

Here is his full statement, via the Jets:

“We are aware of the statement issued by Kurt Overhardt regarding Jacob Trouba.

“Over the last three seasons, Jacob Trouba has played a key role for the Winnipeg Jets and in our view still represents an important part of the long-term future of our club. As such, any decisions made regarding Jacob Trouba will be made in the best interest of the Winnipeg Jets Hockey Club.

“As an unsigned player, we cannot compel Jacob to report to training camp at this time. However, we will continue to work diligently to resolve this matter. We will have no further comment on this matter until such time as it is resolved.”

That is pretty much the type of response you should expect from the team given the circumstances, and they can’t just give him away in a trade just because he requested one. He is still an extremely valuable player and getting fair value in return is a must for the Jets.

It is also worth pointing out that these things sometimes have a weird way of playing out. Just this past season we saw two very public trade requests go through without a trade ever being completed when Travis Hamonic requested a move from the New York Islanders for family reasons and Jonathan Drouin had his situation play out with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Drouin situation seemed to be beyond repair on more than one occasion and he not only ended up returning to the team, but also playing a key role for the team in the playoffs. He once again looks like a key building block for their team going forward.

We will see how this situation plays out for Trouba and the Jets.

Jacob Trouba requests trade from Jets

CALGARY, AB - MARCH 16: Jacob Trouba #8 of the Winnipeg Jets in action against the Calgary Flames during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on March 16, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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While every hockey fan in Canada was focussed on their national team’s World Cup semifinal game against Russia, there was some pretty significant NHL news coming out of Winnipeg.

It was at that point that the agent for Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba announced that his client has requested a trade from the team.

Trouba, the Jets’ first round pick in 2012 (No. 9 overall), is currently unsigned as a restricted free agent.

With NHL training camps starting to get underway, Trouba has informed the Jets he will not attend camp and would like a trade so he can have “the opportunity to reach his potential as a right shot NHL defensemen.”

The statement also mentions that the trade request is not about money.

Here is the complete statement from Trouba’s agent, Kurt Overhardt, via Sportsnet.

“Our client, Jacob Trouba, will not be attending the Winnipeg Jets NHL training camp. Since May, we have been working with the Jets management in an effort to facilitate a trade of Jacob’s rights. Both parties continue to work on this matter.

There has been no negotiation regarding the terms of a contract between our client and the Jets over the course of the last several months. The situation is not about money; it is solely about our client having the opportunity to realize his potential as a right shot NHL defenseman.

To the Jets credit, the club has two outstanding right shot veteran defensemen and our client simply wants the opportunity to have a greater role. As a consequence of the Jets depth on the right side, we believe it is in both parties’ best interest to facilitate a mutually advantageous trade.

Our client has nothing but respect for the people and City of Winnipeg, the Winnipeg Jets, its fans, management and ownership – our desire to get him moved has everything to do with opportunity. We will continue to work with the Jets in good faith to achieve this end.”

This certainly creates an interesting preseason storyline in the NHL.

Even though a trade request would seem to hurt the Jets’ hand when it comes to negotiating a deal with another team, right shot defensemen are an extremely valuable commodity in the NHL, and it’s not often that a good one that is still only 22 years old becomes available. There should be no shortage of teams lining up looking to acquire his rights. The New York Rangers, Boston Bruins and Colorado Avalanche immediately come to mind as three teams that could definitely use a player like him.

In 211 career games Trouba has scored 23 goals and added 49 assists. He appeared in 81 games for the Jets this past season and logged more than 22 minutes of ice-time per game.