Chara speaks up about Pacioretty hit; Habs owner questions NHL, Canada’s Prime Minister and Donald Fehr voice concern

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There’s been a lot said from all sides about the Zdeno Chara-Max Pacioretty incident and the NHL’s subsequent failure to impose punishment on Chara for his dubious hit that broke Pacioretty’s neck and gave him a severe concussion. While Pacioretty was released from the hospital today the war of words and debate rages on everywhere.

It started earlier today with Zdeno Chara reaffirming his take on the situation and serving to further infuriate Canadiens fans and those who disagreed with the NHL not suspending him. CSNNE’s Joe Haggerty spoke with Chara who said he was relieved to not be punished.

“[Pacioretty] is in the hospital,” said Chara. “He has the right to be emotional, and I respect that. As hockey players, we all feel bad when something like that happens no matter whether you’re the home team or the visiting team. There’s always concern when somebody gets hurt.

“It was a hockey play. It wasn’t intentional. That’s not my style. I never try to hurt anybody. It’s not what I attempted to do.”

As for the talk of the incident being investigated by Montreal police, Chara is well aware of what’s going on there.

“I’ve got some media info on [the police investigation] this morning,” said Chara. “I’m focusing on the game and playing hockey. We’ll see”

While Chara had his say today, Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson issued a letter to Canadiens fans stating that they’ve made it clear to the NHL they do not agree with their decision. Molson joins Penguins owner Mario Lemieux as a member of the league’s Board of Governors who has publicly come out and lambasted the NHL for their lack of action concerning violent acts on the ice. While this incident differs greatly from what happened in Long Island between the Penguins and Islanders, it’s the alarming lack of safety for players that’s at the forefront of discussion.

Molson was direct and to the point with the NHL regarding his concerns.

Our organization believes that the players’ safety in hockey has become a major concern, and that this situation has reached a point of urgency. At risk are some of the greatest professional athletes in the world, our fan base and the health of our sport at all levels. Players’ safety in hockey must become the ultimate priority and the situation must be addressed immediately. As a proud father of three hockey players, I want to help create a healthy and safe experience for them, and I certainly never want any family to go through what the Pacioretty’s are experiencing at this moment.

We understand and appreciate hockey being a physical sport, but we do not accept any violent behavior that will put the players’ health and safety at risk. On this specific issue, I am asking for the support of the 29 other NHL owners, to address urgently this safety issue. And I am willing to play a leadership role in coordinating this group effort.

The words are powerful and Molson willing to embrace a leadership role rather than lecture from the pulpit takes what Lemieux did just last month and increase the vigor which league executives are trying to go about changing things. As always, our issue on matters like this when owners speak out is we’re wondering where the outrage and concern was when other players suffered horrible injuries because of terrible hits on the ice.

We know things matter differently when it affects you directly, but if things are boiling down this much so that teams are waiting until they’re dealing with a mess directly before speaking up about problems they see with the game, we’re in for a long wait before any sort of changes are made. After all, if teams continue to act disinterested as long as they’re not affected, change will never come about.

One of the sides in this whole affair that can help change things for the better as they see fit is the NHLPA. Executive Director Donald Fehr issued a statement pertaining to everything surrounding this situation. Disappointingly, Fehr made it more of a point to direct attention to how the rink is built rather than how players treat each other on the ice.

“Player safety has always been, and continues to be, a great concern to the Players’ Association. In that regard, issues involving the boards and glass in NHL arenas have been a longstanding focus for the players. The serious nature of the injury suffered by Max Pacioretty in Montreal this week reinforces the importance of maximizing the safety in this area and highlights the need to look further into the matter. We will be inspecting the rink in Montreal, and elsewhere, to make sure the appropriate padding is in place. We will continue to gather feedback from the membership, to ensure the safest possible work environment for our players.”

Dancing around the real problem of making sure players have some sense of respect for each other on the ice is disappointing but I suppose if they’re going to get the rinks to be safer that’s one very small step in the right direction. Whether that helps curtail the amount of violence players have toward one another remains to be seen. Addressing the players to make sure they’re not out to maim each other would make a bit more sense than simple architecture work.

As we’ve seen through this ordeal, it’s the sort of hot topic that brings out everyone to make a comment on things. Air Canada made their statement last night (to which commissioner Gary Bettman fired back upon today) and now Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is speaking his mind as well. Harper, in typically politically correct ways, spoke about how player safety should be a bigger concern in the sport.

“I just say this as a hockey fan, I’m very concerned about the growing number of very serious injuries, and in some cases to some of the premier players in the game,” Harper said at an event in Toronto on Thursday.

“I don’t think that’s good for the game and I think the league’s got to take a serious look at that for its own sake.”

Government figures speaking up on a hot topic is nothing new, but in the NHL is something a bit different. Getting noticed like that from on high doesn’t reflect well upon the the league and keeping off government radar in matters of safety should be a concern for the league.

We’re sure the NHL didn’t intend to have this much attention drawn to the sport in such a negative fashion, but we’re also pretty sure Zdeno Chara didn’t intend to break Max Pacioretty’s neck either. Unintended consequences are sometimes the hardest ones to deal with. We can only hope the NHL is prepared to continue facing up to the public backlash for not acting upon a violent hit that resulted in a horrible injury for the second season in a row.

The Buzzer: Canucks continue Red Wings’ slide

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Player of the Night: Sven Baertschi

Last season, Baertschi was a bright spot for a dismal Vancouver Canucks team, generating new career-highs in goals (18) and points (35) in 68 regular-season games.

The 25-year-old carried over some of that momentum early on, generating three points in seven games, but they were all assists. Sunday marked his best moment of 2017-18, as Baertschi scored his first two goals of the campaign (giving him five points in eight contests).

Bo Horvat is the honorable mention in the Canucks’ 4-1 win against the Detroit Red Wings, collecting his first two assists of the season. Jake Virtanen also found the net for his first goal of the season.

(As an aside, Derek Dorsett somehow has five goals already in 2017-18. Dorsett’s career-high is 12 goals, but he’s already in range of tying his second-best mark of seven.)

Highlight of the Night: Why not go with Baertschi’s two goals?

Factoid of the Night: This marks the fourth straight loss for the Red Wings, dropping them to 4-4-1 after a promising 4-1-0 start. But the hits could keep coming.

Beginning with Tuesday’s game against the Sabres in Buffalo, Detroit will play three straight road games and seven of their next eight away from home. The bright side is that they’ll enjoy a ton of contests at their expensive new pad starting in mid-November, but the next few weeks could really dim whatever optimism the Red Wings built up early on.

(For pro-tanking Red Wings fans, this might not be such a bad thing.)

Sunday’s lone score: Canucks 4, Red Wings 1

Can Golden Knights keep winning as they keep losing goalies?

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The Vegas Golden Knights confirmed today’s fearful report: Malcolm Subban is expected to miss about a month thanks to a lower-body injury suffered during another Golden Knights upset (3-2 in OT vs. the Blues) on Saturday night.

It makes for a dizzying run of turnover in the Cinderella expansion team’s net; Calvin Pickard went to the Toronto Maple Leafs as the odd man out, Subban is headed to IR, and Marc-Andre Fleury is sidelined with another concussion.

The spotlight, then, turns to Oscar Dansk, the 23-year-old goalie who stopped 10 of 11 shots against St. Louis when Subban went down with that injury.

Golden Knights GM George McPhee said the predictable, right things regarding Dansk and the situation:

“Injuries provide opportunities for others and that is the situation we have here,” McPhee said. “Our top two goaltenders are currently sidelined so we will now give our AHL goalies the chance to play in their absence. We felt Oscar Dansk performed well in relief on Saturday in his NHL debut.”

In a way, Dansk feels like a lower-level version of Subban. While Subban is/was a struggling former first-rounder, Dansk was the second-round version; the Columbus Blue Jackets made him the 31st pick of the 2012 NHL Draft.

(Hey, the 31st pick is now a first-rounder thanks to the Golden Knights, so there’s that.)

Dansk hasn’t been setting the hockey world on fire at other levels, but maybe that makes him an interesting fit for this weird situation, as the Golden Knights continue to defy odds and puck-gravity during a 6-1-0 start.

What to expect

While the Chicago Blackhawks boast the sort of firepower that could make for an unpleasant introduction for Dansk, at least the Golden Knights still have a few games remaining on their first-ever homestand:

Tue, Oct 24 vs Chicago
Fri, Oct 27 vs Colorado
Mon, Oct 30 @ NY Islanders
Tue, Oct 31 @ NY Rangers

That back-to-back to end the month could be Halloween-scary, but at least Vegas has some time to prepare. The losses are likely to come starting on Oct. 30, as they face a six-game road trip and eight of nine games away from home. That’s challenging, no expansion disclaimers needed.

How they’ve been playing

Some wonder if the Golden Knights should loosen their defensive logjam by trading for a netminder.

Rather than wading too deep into that discussion, this seems like a reasonable time to look at the Golden Knights seven games (and six wins) in.

  • One thing that stands out is Vegas’ penalty kill. They’ve been almost perfect if you exclude a rough showing in their overtime win against the Sabres (Buffalo went 3-for-5 in that game). Aside from that, they’ve only allowed one power-play goal. They’ve also only hit the penalty box three or four times most nights, with one night with just one trip and the five opportunities for the Sabres standing as the outliers.

The Golden Knights should expect more struggles in both regards, at least at times, this season. Maybe this long run of home-ice advantage and their expansion status helped avoid most whistles? Perhaps Gerard Gallant has them playing extra-smart?

  • So far, the shot counts have been pretty reasonable in five of seven games. They’ve only been heavily outshot twice so far: their first game (46 shots on goal for Dallas, 30 for them) and this past one vs. the Blues (49 for St. Louis, 22 for Vegas). That’s surprisingly competent stuff.
  • With any team enjoying success, close games can be a red flag, especially if there are OT wins. Vegas has three wins in overtime and one other one-goal win. Their 3-1 win against Boston included an empty-netter.

This isn’t to dismiss those wins, but sometimes close games are more like “coin flips,” and some of those will start going against the Golden Knights eventually.

  • The Golden Knights are a top-10 team in two luck-leaning categories: PDO and shooting percentage. That said, they’re not the top team in either spot, so it’s not outrageous to give them some credit.

***

Through some intriguing combination of competence and beginner’s luck, the Golden Knights are off to a shockingly good start.

It’s one thing to lose one goalie, but seeing both go down is brutal for any squad, let alone an expansion team. The Golden Knights have every excuse to start to fade, and were likely to see slippage even at full strength.

Even so, credit this team for being far better than anyone expected, and this hungry bunch will at least be able to point to doubtful bits like these if they need some “us against the world” motivation.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Appreciating Stamkos after he hit 600 points

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The modern NHL is no stranger to star players missing extended stretches because of injuries, opening the door for “What if?” frustrations.

As glorious as the last couple years have been for Sidney Crosby, the threat of another concussion looms like Michael Myers in the bushes. Connor McDavid lost half of his rookie season. Carey Price has already dealt with serious issues of his own.

Still, you can forgive Steven Stamkos and Tampa Bay Lightning fans for being especially miffed over the years, as his issues have bordered on the freakish. Stamkos has dealt with blood clots, his most recent right knee injury that required surgery, and broke his tibia after taking this bad-luck spill in 2013:

(Even about four years later, it’s still unsettling to watch Stamkos rapidly become aware of how bad his injury was.)

Stamkos has missed playoff time and saw at least two seasons short-circuited by injuries, as he only played in 17 games in 2016-17 and 37 in 2013-14.

Heading into this season, it was reasonable to try to limit expectations; most athletes struggle in the first year after significant surgeries. Maybe Stamkos will hit a wall at some point, but so far, he’s enjoyed the best start of his career, riding shotgun with budding superstar Nikita Kucherov.

It almost seems fitting, then, that Stamkos scored his 600th regular-season point during the Lightning’s 7-1 beatdown of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Even so, it’s resounding that – with all Stamkos has been through – he’s at that level at 27, and he’s done so in 595 games.

Impressive. With this incredible head start of 18 points in nine games, a healthy Stamkos might match or exceed the work he did during his best days earlier in his career. Note how dominant he was from his second through fourth seasons (while Stamkos managed 29 goals and 57 points in the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season, his fifth):

2009-10: 51 goals, 95 points

2010-11: 45 goals, 91 points

2011-12: 60 goals, 97 points

The other eye-popping stat from that run: he played in all 82 regular-season games in each of those three campaigns.

For some perspective, during the stretch of 2009-10 to 2011-12, Stamkos’ 283 points ranked second in the NHL, with only Henrik Sedins’ 287 ranking higher. His 156 goals easily led all players for that three-year stretch.

If that’s not enough to make you wonder where a healthy Stamkos might rank among the NHL’s upper echelon, consider this: from his sophomore 2009-10 season through today, he’s third in points-per-game among players who’ve played in at least 200, slightly edging Patrick Kane (1.06):

  1. Sidney Crosby (1.28)
  2. Evgeni Malkin (1.14)
  3. Stamkos (1.07)
  4. Kane (1.06)
  5. Alex Ovechkin (1.03)
  6. Nicklas Backstrom/retired Martin St. Louis (1.01)

As you can see, Stamkos ranks among six active players who’ve averaged at least one point-per-game since 2009-10.

Chances are, Stamkos will cool off mainly because, as great as Kucherov is, he’ll settle down a bit too. The Russian winger currently boasts a 29.4 shooting percentage, nearly doubling his already-impressive career average of 15.1 percent.

Still, it’s plausible that Stamkos could enjoy one of the best seasons of his career, and the interesting wrinkle might be that this stupendous sniper may serve as something of a facilitator (he currently has three goals versus 15 assists).

Now, don’t forget that Kucherov has been the catalyst for this burst, even if Stamkos makes this one of the NHL’s most scintillating symbiotic relationships. Hitting the 600-point milestone is merely a friendly reminder that Stamkos shouldn’t get lost in the elite conversation, and that hockey fans should be very, very happy to have him around.

Just stay a while this time, Stamkos. We like seeing you.

(Many stats via the wonderful resource that is Hockey Reference.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Throwing Babcock a bone? Leafs bring back Roman Polak

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Sometimes you need to zoom out from a shaky move and appreciate the bigger picture.

Mike Babcock nailed it when he described the Toronto Maple Leafs, at least at times, as dumb and fun. The Leafs currently lead the NHL with 37 goals, one more than the red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning, despite Toronto playing one fewer game. Still, these young Buds also must raise Babcock’s blood pressure at times with their double-edged sword style.

Credit Babcock, then, with mostly embracing what makes this team tick. More rigid coaches would strain against such designs, almost certainly lowering the Maple Leafs’ ceiling in the process.

The Maple Leafs raised some eyebrows on Sunday by handing slow-footed, limited veteran defenseman Roman Polak a one-year, $1.1 million contract. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that the Maple Leafs slumped some shoulders.

None of these Twitter reactions are really off-base, honestly.

Polak, 31, simply isn’t an ideal fit for the modern NHL, and the Maple Leafs are very much embracing the fast, attacking style that’s (delightfully) coming in vogue.

Here’s a working theory, though: even the best coaches (at least right now) have “their guys.”

“Their guys” are often well-traveled, gritty types. Some only help teams in minimal ways while taking spots from prospects who might eventually be able to make bigger impacts. Others are even worse: actively hurting their teams whenever they get on the ice while taking spots. New York Rangers fans are currently having Tanner Glass flashbacks.

Every GM in the NHL should limit the number of “guys” available to a coach. Otherwise, they’re echoing “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” by holding an intervention at a bar.

(By this analogy, Nazem Kadri is definitely wine in a can.)

Allow a hypothesis: with some injuries surfacing and the Maple Leafs generally playing well, and roaming free, signing Polak stands as something of a reward for Babcock’s patience.

It’s not great, and here’s hoping that Polak doesn’t take meaningful ice time away from better defensemen. There are some discouraging worst-case scenarios where Polak is used as a shutdown guy who really only shuts down the Leafs’ ability to counterpunch.

Ideally, Polak is used in a limited role and Toronto remains one of the most dazzling, heart-stopping, and successful teams in the NHL. That would make everyone happy (except the Maple Leafs’ opponents).

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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