Boston Bruins v Montreal Canadiens

Pacioretty fallout: Air Canada threatens to pull sponsorships over NHL headshot problem

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In the wake of the decision by the NHL not to fine or suspend Bruins captain Zdeno Chara for his hit on Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty, a hit that has left Pacioretty with a broken neck and a severe concussion, a lot of the discussion that has surrounded the situation has centered on the NHL’s willingness to let things go so long as it’s a “hockey play.”

Matt Cooke’s hit on Marc Savard went unpunished because it was a “hockey play” last year, before Rule 48 came about anyhow, and now Chara’s brutal hit on Pacioretty falls under the same header whether fans like it or not. The NHL’s lack of action has gotten the attention of one of the NHL’s largest sponsors and they are not pleased at all.

Air Canada’s director of marketing and communications Denis Vandal has written the NHL and the governors of all six Canadian teams to tell them they are not pleased with the league’s actions in the wake of the Pacioretty incident and that if things don’t change with the NHL, they’ll withdraw their sponsorship in the NHL.

Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun shares the blockbuster revelation and the letter from Vandal.

“We are contacting you (Wednesday) to voice our concern over (Tuesday night’s) incident involving Max Pacioretty and Zdeno Chara at the Bell Centre in Montreal,” wrote Vandal. “This is following several other incidents involving career-threatening and life-threatening headshots in the NHL recently.”

Vandal noted the controversial issue is becoming bad for Air Canada’s brand.

“From a corporate social responsibility standpoint, it is becoming increasingly difficult to associate our brand with sports events which could lead to serious and irresponsible accidents; action must be taken by the NHL before we are encountered with a fatality.

“Unless the NHL takes immediate action with serious suspension to the players in question to curtail these life-threatening injuries, Air Canada will withdraw its sponsorship of hockey.”

“As a strong supporter and sponsor of NHL Hockey in Canada and several U.S. cities, Air Canada is very concerned with the state of hockey today,” Vandal noted.

“While we support countless sports, arts and community events, we are having difficulty rationalizing our sponsorship of hockey unless the NHL takes responsibily to protect both the players and the integrity of the game.”

Having a major sponsor like this speak up and speak out about their concerns with the game is virtually unheard of. Air Canada of course owns the naming rights to Air Canada Center in Toronto and, as Garrioch notes in his piece, it’s believed that they have sponsorship deals with all six Canadian teams.

Air Canada’s bombshell tactic to shake the NHL into action does come with a bit a curious PR angle too. Air Canada is based out of Dorval, Quebec, near Montreal. Doing right by the home team to shake your wallet at the league when they feel the NHL didn’t act appropriately could be viewed as a gross abuse of power.

There’s also the part of this in which if the league does jump as Air Canada threatens to pull their money, that if the league made sweeping changes to protect the players with this as the motivation and not countless awful blows to the head, there’s no amount of public relations mastery to help the NHL look good. After all, if money is the motivation for change and not the players health that’s an equally heinous possibility. It also kicks the door open for other sponsors to make threats if there are other parts of the game they don’t like and would like to see changed because they dislike the association it makes for them. (Fighting, anyone?)

Air Canada being proactive like this is stunning. If they’re honest about this and they’re seeking hockey to make changes for the better, good for them for showing the compassion and care for the game and the players that those in charge of the NHL have seemingly lost their way with in recent years.

If there’s other motivations at work here for Air Canada, be it them taking care of business at home in Quebec or trying to drum up their own business by taking a side in a very public affair which most fans share their opinion, then this is nonsensical PR buffoonery and exploitation at its absolute worst. The NHL has to take their threat serious enough to hear them out, but the ball is in Air Canada’s court now in how they handle this.

Report: Potential Shattenkirk trade fell apart over contract talks

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 9:  Kevin Shattenkirk #22 of the St. Louis Blues waits for a faceoff against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on February 9, 2017 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Blues defeated the Maple Leafs 2-1 in overtime. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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Kevin Shattenkirk‘s name has been floating around the NHL’s trade rumor mill for sometime now, and according to reports from TSN’s Bob McKenzie and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the Blues came very close to dealing him six weeks ago only to have the trade fall apart when the new team and Shattenkirk were unable to reach an agreement on a new contract.

It is not the first time that has happened over the past year.

According to reports from TSN’s Bob McKenzie and Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Blues recently had a Shattenkirk trade in place with an Eastern Conference team that was believed to be the Tampa Bay Lightning. But when Shattenkirk turned down a long-term contract extension with the team that would have paid him $42 million over seven years, the trade fell apart.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman mentioned on Thursday night that the Arizona Coyotes also had permission earlier this season to speak to Shattenkirk about a new contract but were unable to reach a deal. A similar situation unfolded in the offseason when the Edmonton Oilers also tried to acquire the veteran defenseman.

The Lightning would make a ton of sense as a trade partner for the Blues here because they have been in desperate need of another big-time defenseman to add to their blue line along with Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman. They also have several restricted free agents (and a pretty tight cap situation) to deal with this summer that could have been part of a return in a Shattenkirk trade.

If the reported contract terms are correct, it’s a pretty good sign that Shattenkirk thinks he can get a massive payday on the open market this summer as a free agent. And he is probably not wrong. Since the start of the 2011-12 season Shattenkirk has been one of the most productive defensemen in the NHL, currently sitting 10th among all blue-liners in points (241) and posting dominant possession numbers.

A $6 million per year cap hit would put him in the same salary range as Mike Green, Johnny Boychuk, and Erik Johnson.

He outperforms all of them.

Even though Shattenkirk is one of their top players, and the Blues seem on track to make the playoffs, the team still seems determined to move him before the deadline rather than risk losing him for nothing over the summer.

Blackhawks keep rolling with another dominant offensive performance

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Another night, another hat trick, and another dominant offensive showing from the Chicago Blackhawks.

On Thursday night it was Patrick Kane becoming the second Blackhawks forward in as many games to record a hat trick — following the three goal (and five point) effort Jonathan Toews had on Tuesday night — to help lead the Blackhawks to a 6-3 blowout win over the Arizona Coyotes.

Along with Kane’s three goals, Toews picked up two more assists to continue his recent scoring surge that has seen him pick up 23 points in his past 15 games. Keep in mind he only had 21 points in the 37 games prior to that.

Even more than Toews is the fact the entire Blackhawks team is clicking right now offensively.

Their win on Thursday is their eighth in the past nine games and every one of those wins has been a display of total offensive dominance, scoring 40 goals during that stretch. That is more than four goals per game. Everybody is contributing to it at this point as seven players (Toews, Kane, Richard Panik, Artemi Panarin, Nick Schmaltz, Artem Anisimov and Duncan Keith) all have at least eight points during this run.

It’s a stretch that has helped the Blackhawks gain some ground on the Minnesota Wild in the Central Division race, as they now sit three points back of the top spot.

Just about the only bad news for the Blackhawks on Thursday night was defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson leaving the game with what coach Joel Quenneville described as an upper body injury.

The Blackhawks knew he wasn’t 100 percent going into the game and dressed a seventh defenseman, Michal Rozsival, as a precaution in case Hjalmarsson could not finish. After skating just four shifts in the first period — a first period that saw the two teams combine for six goals — he exited the game and did not return. Rozsival ended up playing a pretty significant role in the game scoring his first goal of the season just two minutes into the second period for what ultimately prove to be the game-winner.

Lundqvist stays hot as Rangers move ahead of Blue Jackets

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 11:  Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers laughs as Kevin Klein #8 misses an attempt at a hattrick during the third period against the Colorado Avalanche at Madison Square Garden on February 11, 2017 in New York City.  The Rangers defeated the Avalanche 4-2.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Remember those few weeks earlier this season when Henrik Lundqvist was struggling, he was losing playing time to Antti Raanta, and everybody in the NHL was freaking out about the Rangers’ goaltending situation?

At this point it seems like an eternity ago.

Lundqvist has been on an absolute roll over the past month and has helped the Rangers finally gain some ground in the Metropolitan Division.

After his 32 save performance — in the Rangers’ 2-1 shootout win in Toronto on Thursday night, the Rangers are now in the third spot in the Metropolitan Division, moving ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets who for the time being move down to the top Wild Card spot. The Rangers are now just two points back of the Pittsburgh Penguins for a spot that would get them home ice in the first round.

Leading the way lately during this recent surge has been Lundqvist as he plays his best hockey of the season. In his past 13 starts the Rangers own a 10-2-1 record, while Lundqvist is carrying a .938 save percentage.

Even though the Rangers took huge steps over the summer to improve their forward depth — and it has absolutely paid off — it is still a team that is weak on the blue line and is only going to go as far as Lundqvist can carry it in the playoffs.

But with the way he is playing right now, and with the way the Rangers can roll four solid lines and score (3.28 goals per game, fourth best in the NHL) this could be a potentially scary team come playoff time.

Islanders shut out Canadiens for huge road win

NEWARK, NJ - FEBRUARY 18:  Thomas Greiss #1 of the New York Islanders in action against the New Jersey Devils on February 18, 2017 at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. The Devils defeated the Islanders 3-2.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
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Overall this season the New York Islanders have really struggled away from the Barclays Center, a point of concern when you consider how many road games they have down the stretch as they try to overcome their miserable start to climb back into the playoffs.

Their current nine-game road trip is off to a promising start with wins in the first two games, including a 3-0 shutout win over the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night to improve their record to 12-4-2 under new coach Doug Weight.

The Islanders received goals from Anthony Beauvillier, Anders Lee and John Tavares in the win, while Thomas Greiss stopped all 24 shots he faced to record his third shutout of the season.

With the win the Islanders hold sole possession of the second wild card spot in the East for the time being, two points ahead of Florida and Boston (the Bruins are in action right now) and continue their stunning second half turnaround.

But while things are going great for the Islanders right now, the struggles in Montreal continue.

With their loss on Thursday they failed to put any extra distance between themselves and the rest of the Atlantic Division that has suddenly closed the gap on them. They remain just two points up on Ottawa and only four points ahead of Toronto. The loss also continues what has been a particularly brutal stretch over the past couple of months that has seen the team win just seven of its past 20 games.

It’s probably too early to start fully panicking in Montreal, but given the way the end of last season went this can’t be a promising development for Canadiens fans.