Jonathan Toews’ red-hot run generates Hart Trophy attention

When Jonathan Toews was on top of the hockey world upon hoisting the Stanley Cup and receiving the Conn Smythe Trophy, I couldn’t help but temper the “best player in the world” talk ever so slightly.

People often take anything but boisterous praise as a statement that Player X isn’t any good, but that wasn’t the point at all. For one thing, it was difficult for me to accept the idea that Toews was on the highest rung of NHL players when his career high for points was 69. Beyond that, the Chicago Blackhawks also amassed an outrageously rich supporting cast that made it possible for Toews to simply play his world-class game without having to carry the team’s offense every night. Sure he was great, but probably not on the absolute highest level right then.

Ultimately, I ended with this point: we’ll see how great he is this season, when every team is gunning for his team and the salary cap dilutes that once-staggering depth.

For a while, it seemed like he finally met his match. The team was struggling to the point that a playoff berth was looking questionable at best (not to say they’re guaranteed to land one today) and his offensive numbers weren’t at an all-world level early on. It’s not fair to put all the blame on one player, but as the team captain, the spotlight shined the brightest on Toews.

Toews is on fire when his team needs him the most.

Yet now it appears that Toews is earning every bit of the somewhat-hasty plaudits he received last year. From his rookie year on, he’s exhibited a stunningly versatile game for such a young player, but his offensive output has never been better. After peaking at 69 points in his previous three seasons, Toews is producing his first point-per-game campaign in the NHL. He already has 28 goals and 40 assists for 68 points in 66 games so far in 2010-11.

The best part – though by no means the most surprising one – is that Toews is producing his greatest work when his team needs him the most. He scored a staggering nine goals and nine assists for 18 points in his last 11 games. The only time he didn’t score a point during that span was on March 8th, when the Florida Panthers beat the Hawks 3-2. He also received the league’s player of the month award for February, scoring 21 points in the shortest month of the year.

Toews forces himself into the Hart Trophy discussion.

Toews currently ranks ninth in the NHL with those 68 total points, but it’s that aforementioned all-around play and his lead-by-example mentality that causes many to consider him a worthy Hart Trophy candidate. (It probably doesn’t hurt that Toews has the best plus/minus rating among the league’s top 10 scorers, with an impressive +24 mark.)

One of the most underrated parts of his game is his work in the faceoff circle, by the way. He leads the league with 758 faceoffs won and also has an outstanding 57.4 winning percentage this season. That’s not an ability that will get you on highlight reels, but it’s one of those hard work/attention to detail areas that reveal Toews’ do-everything mentality.

So who knows if Toews will ever make it easy for Hart Trophy voters by putting up 100-point seasons and piling up Art Ross Trophy wins, but he’s the NHL’s answer to a “five-tool player” in baseball. He can score highlight reel goals, provide plenty of assists, displays responsible defensive positioning, is willing to apply the elbow grease necessary to score “dirty” goals in the playoffs and wins more than his far share of draws.

Despite losing the likes of Dustin Byfuglien to free agency, this Chicago team still sports plenty of firepower. Yet it seems like their fate is tied to the work of “Captain Serious.”

Toews is responding by pulling his team – and his already sterling reputation – into the upper echelon of the league’s elite.

Ovechkin limped off the ice during Capitals practice

Getty
1 Comment

There was a scare involving star forward Alex Ovechkin during Washington Capitals practice on Monday.

Per reports, Ovechkin limped off the ice after getting tangled up with a teammate during drills. He left the ice and reportedly didn’t return, which would certainly be cause for concern.

Capitals head coach Barry Trotz seemed to quell that a little bit afterward.

“I think he’s going to be okay,” said Trotz, per NBC Sports Washington. “I got to talk to the trainers here. He got tangled up there; it’s a contact sport.”

The news wasn’t so good for winger Andre Burakovsky, who will miss “a little bit of time,” according to Trotz on Monday.

The Capitals, who have lost five of their last seven games, don’t play again until Thursday, when they visit the Vancouver Canucks to start a three-game road trip that also includes stops in Edmonton and Calgary.

On an individual level, the 32-year-old Ovechkin has enjoyed a great start to the season, with 10 goals, which puts him into a tie atop the league in that category with Nikita Kucherov of the red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning.

————

Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

Kucherov, Stamkos and the Bolts are lighting it up

Getty
1 Comment

The Tampa Bay Lightning are off to quite a start in the Eastern Conference, and Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are at the middle of it.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that on Monday, the linemates received recognition from the NHL for their efforts, with Kucherov being named the NHL’s second star for last week and Stamkos the first star.

(By the way, remember that column about tempering expectations on Stamkos early in the season? Yeah, about that . . .)

Last week, Kucherov had to endure a brutal one-game scoring slump but did manage to capture five goals and eight points in four games, and is battling with Alex Ovechkin for the league lead in goals with 10. Stamkos, who has most recently had to battle back from knee surgery last season, had 11 points in four games, capped off with a four-point performance and a career milestone against the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday.

“You can’t overlook the fact that 600 points — that’s a lot of points in this league,” said coach Jon Cooper on Monday. “He’s just shy of 600 games right? So, to play that many games and be above a point-per-game player … it’s one thing to do that in 10 games but to do it in 600 games is pretty impressive.”

The Bolts and Toronto Maple Leafs continue to duke it out for not only the highest scoring team in the league right now, but also top spot in the Atlantic Division. The Lightning currently have a three-point lead.

While Kucherov and Stamkos have been a big part of Tampa Bay’s hot start, this club has received healthy contributions throughout their lineup. Their linemate Vladislav Namestnikov has gone about his business with 10 points, which has him tied in that category with Brayden Point.

Defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, who is still 19 years old and eligible to return to junior, is on the verge of playing his 10th game, but he’s currently Tampa Bay’s most productive blue liner (eight points in nine games), which makes it virtually a guarantee that he’ll remain in the NHL beyond that mark, using up the first year of his entry-level contract.

“There’s a really good chance you’ll see him tomorrow,” said Cooper of Sergachev.

Oh, and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy has been impressive early on with a .933 save percentage through his eight starts.

Kucherov and Stamkos are obviously worthy of this recognition, and it’s probably not the last time they’ll receive such kudos from the league as this season continues. But the danger this team poses to the opposition goes beyond its stars.

————

Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

Backup options limited for Penguins after waiving Antti Niemi

Getty Images
6 Comments

Saturday’s 7-1 drubbing at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning was the last straw for the Pittsburgh Penguins and their need for Antti Niemi as a backup goaltender.

On Monday, the 34-year-old Niemi was waived as general manager Jim Rutherford continues his search to give starter Matt Murray some help in goal. In three starts this season, Niemi has allowed 16 goals on 63 shots and has posted an ugly .828 even strength save percentage. (The only goaltender with a lower ESSV%? His old crease mate Kari Lehtonen, who has an .815 in two appearances.)

While Niemi was dealt a bit of a tough hand in his three starts — all coming on the second night of a back-to-back — those numbers are just plain obscene and a clear sign that the Penguins needed to move on. It’s unsure what the plan is when he clears waivers on Tuesday. Will the team look to terminate the one-year, $700,000 deal he signed in the summer, or will they, as head coach Mike Sullivan mentioned, allow him to use the AHL as a place to find his game?

“That would be a great option, to give him an opportunity to get in some ideal circumstances and give him an opportunity to build his confidence in an environment that’s not as high stakes as the one we’re in here,” Sullivan said on Monday.

When Rutherford signed Niemi in the summer, he said the plan was to give him between 30 and 40 games this season, allowing Murray to not be overworked before the Stanley Cup Playoffs and give Tristan Jarry or Casey DeSmith continued development at their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre.

The short-term option here is calling up one of the two kids, but if Niemi clears and they want to rehabilitate him, that’s time taken away from giving Jarry or DeSmith much-needed minutes. DeSmith has shined in three starts this year, winning all three games and only allowing three goals in 184:14 minutes played. It’s not ideal, but unless Rutherford can swing another deal to fill another void in the lineup — like he did on Saturday to get Riley Sheahan as the team’s new No. 3 center — the search could take a while.

The free agent market isn’t flowing with options and teams like Arizona, Boston and Vegas having goaltending issues, it won’t be easy to find someone.

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

‘We need more’ — Struggling Habs demote slumping Galchenyuk

Getty
6 Comments

The Montreal Canadiens, as an entire team, have been mired in a brutal scoring slump to begin the season.

The result has been a seven-game losing streak that, believe it or not, took an even uglier turn last week when the Habs were swept in embarrassing fashion on a three-game trip through California.

Among the players continuing to have difficulties producing is Alex Galchenyuk, who has one goal in eight games, produced one shot on goal in more than 18 minutes versus the Anaheim Ducks last week and only 14 shots on the season, and practiced on the fourth line with Michael McCarron and Nikita Scherbak ahead of tomorrow’s home game with the Florida Panthers.

This isn’t the first time this season that head coach Claude Julien has skated Galchenyuk on the fourth line. He offered a rather simple explanation on Monday, after situating a 30-goal scorer from only two years ago — and a player signed to a three-year, $14.7 million contract extension this summer — now situated in the bottom six of a lineup that is dead last in the league in scoring.

“Right now, I don’t think Alex has given us enough to … continue playing on our top line for the time being,” said Julien. “We certainly need more. At the same time, hopefully those guys I put him with are going to make him work and hopefully get better. At one point you’ve got to do something as a coach to get players that maybe deserve to be up, such as (Paul Byron) — he needs to be up there because he’s playing well, he’s scoring goals. You reward people that deserve it and at the same time, other guys have got to give you more.”

The aforementioned Byron, who skated Monday on the top line, Jonathan Drouin and Brendan Gallagher are currently tied for the team lead in goals — with two each. That’s through eight games. Yes, it’s bad. Max Pacioretty, a five-time 30-goal scorer, has just one so far, and he’s been candid about his complete lack of production so far.

“That is the challenge … how am I going to go tell my teammates that we got to be better when I’m the worst one on the ice,” he said last week, per Sportsnet.

There are individual players, specifically Alex Ovechkin and Nikita Kucherov each with 10, who have scored almost as many goals as the Habs as an entire team.  And after such a disastrous start, the heat is now on general manager Marc Bergevin for some of his moves in recent years, and for him to try to turn it around by perhaps pulling off a trade to upgrade their offensive attack.

————

Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.