Gary Bettman introduces five-point plan to prevent, identify concussions; PHT dissects it

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As you may already know, the NHL’s GM meetings began today amid plenty of controversy regarding hits to the head and concussions. From Sidney Crosby’s regrettable absence to the much-debated Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty, the league had to do something.

It looks like Gary Bettman and other NHL executives have a plan … a five-point plan, to be exact. The five different points cover a wide array of issues that factor into concussion problems, from equipment size, to how affected players are treated and – in an obvious nod to Montreal’s infamous stanchion – even how rinks are constructed.

Before we break down Bettman’s plan in a point-by-point fashion, it’s important to note that the NHLPA released a statement in favor of many of Bettman’s ideas. For this to work, it’s vital that the league and its players association stay on the same page, so that’s as good a sign as any.

Anyway, let’s start with point one.

1. Brendan Shanahan has been directed to focus on equipment, in conjunction with the Players’ Association, in an effort to reduce the size of the equipment without reducing its protectiveness but also without compromising the safety of an opponent who is contacted by that equipment.

You would think that the advances in sporting equipment would reduce injuries, but the problem with borderline body armor in athletics is that such protection almost encourages players to be reckless. One of the disturbing findings in Malcolm Gladwell’s game-changing study of NFL concussions was that football players almost use their helmets as weapons rather than for mere protection. In hockey, shoulder pads are often the equivalent of helmets in football in that way, so making that gear less dangerous to other players – while still providing NHLers protection during board battles and collisions – is a great idea.

Of course, finding a good, happy medium might prove difficult.

This issue didn’t directly address Mark Messier’s campaign to change helmets, possibly because there might still be a need to prove that those designs (or something similar) actually do reduce risks.

2. The NHL Protocol for Concussion Evaluation and Management has been revised in three areas: 1) Mandatory removal from play if a player reports any listed symptoms or shows any listed signs (loss of consciousness … Motor incoordination/balance problems … Slow to get up following a hit to the head … blank or vacant look … Disorientation (unsure where he is) … Clutching the head after a hit … Visible facial injury in coombination with any of the above). 2) Examination by the team physician (as opposed to the athletic trainer) in a quiet place free from distraction. 3) Team physician is to use ‘an acute evaluation tool’ such as the NHL SCAT 2 [SCAT stands for Sports Concussion Assessment Tool] as opposed to a quick rinkside assessment.

In my mind, point No. 2 is probably more important than the other concerns combined. To some, it might be stunning that these measures haven’t already been instituted, but they’re better late than never. Considering the undercurrent of thought – fair or not – that maybe the Pittsburgh Penguins erred when they didn’t sit Sidney Crosby after he took that David Steckel hit, these alterations will help teams identify concussions in a more scientific way. This measure takes the decision away from a player or trainer who might want to get a then-unclear concussion victim back on the ice.

After all, when it comes to concussion recovery, it’s not like you can just apply an ice pack or “rub some dirt on it.”

3. The Board will be approached to elevate the standard in which a Club and its Coach can be held accountable if it has a number of ‘repeat offenders’ with regard to Supplementary Discipline.

It’s probably overly simplistic to pin this all on that outrageous New York Islanders-Penguins fight frenzy, but such a rule will likely give the league more power to punish teams for carting out guys like Trevor Gillies to create havoc without any regard for their actual on-ice ability. Chance are, the Matt Cookes of the world will also be affected.

(Mario Lemieux wrote a letter to the league that gives more instructive ideas regarding how the league should handle these situations. We’ll get to that in another post.)

4. In the continuing pursuit of the ultimate in player safety with regard to the rink environment, a safety engineering firm will be used to evaluate all 30 arenas and determine what changes, if any, can and should be made to to enhance the safety of the environment. For the 2011-12 season, the teams that have seamless glass behind the nets, on the sides, or surrounding the entire rink will be directed to change to plexiglass.

Translation: teams will be forced to remove “turnbuckles” or stanchions if at all possible. If nothing else, maybe the league can make them less dangerous to players. (Even if such a measure might make it unsafe for Pierre McGuire and other pundits to stand between players’ benches, which would be a bummer since those segments often provide great insight.)

Getting rid of the seamless glass is almost a no-brainer. That’s a much easier and more obvious fix than handling the stanchions, but both are good changes.

5. A ‘blue-ribbon’ committee of Brendan Shanahan, Rob Blake, Steve Yzerman and Joe Nieuwendyk — all players who competed under the standard of rules enforcement that has been in place since 2005 — to examine topics relevant to the issue.

It’s a bit odd that Blake is on the committee since giving Peter Mueller a concussion was one of the last things he did before retiring from the NHL, but the “blue-ribbon committee” is a good idea overall. Especially if they make their finds public and encourage open communication regarding this tough issue.

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Time will tell if these changes make a big difference, but it’s a much better way of attacking the problem than instituting Rule 48. These measures should eliminate some of the guesswork and gut reactions that come from identifying concussions, a crucial change considering the fact that repeated hits only increase the odds of greater problems.

It will be tough to stop concussions from happening altogether, but this plan has some promise in at least reducing them a bit.

Penguins will be without Evgeni Malkin in Game 6; Patric Hornqvist returns

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The Pittsburgh Penguins have another opportunity to try and win their first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday afternoon. If they do it they are going to have to do so without one of their top players, Evgeni Malkin.

Malkin did not take the pre-game warmups and will not be in the lineup after suffering an injury in their Game 5 loss on Friday night.

Here is a a look at the play where he became tangled up with Flyers forward Jori Lehtera in the first period.

Malkin left the game for the remainder of the period only to return for the second. He played the remainder of the game but did not get his regular workload and seemed to be struggling. After the game Penguins coach Mike Sullivan would only say that Malkin was fine.

Obviously he is not fine or he would be in the lineup on Sunday.

Malkin has three goals and two assists in five games this postseason.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Riley Sheahan took pre-game line rushes between Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin in place of Malkin, allowing the Penguins to keep the Derick Brassard, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary line together as it has played very well in this series.

While the Malkin injury is bad news for the Penguins they will be getting winger Patric Hornqvist back in the lineup after he missed the past two games due to an upper body injury.

Hornqvist is a difference-maker on the Penguins’ power play, a unit that struggled mightily in their Game 5 loss on Friday night, going 0-for-5 while also giving up a shorthanded goal. He will skate on the top line alongside Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Barzal, Boeser, Keller are 2018 Calder Trophy finalists

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Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders, Brock Boeser of the Vancouver Canucks, and Clayton Keller of the Arizona Coyotes have been named as the three finalists for the 2018 Calder Trophy. The award is voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association and given “to the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the National Hockey League.”

This year’s rookie class was dynamic and while Barzal, Boeser and Keller get to go to Las Vegas, you could easily make cases for Yanni Gourde (25 goals, 64 points), Kyle Connor (rookie best 31 goals) and Charlie McAvoy (32 points, 22:09 TOI), among others, to be included.

The winner will be announced during the NHL Awards show on June 20.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Case for Mathew Barzal: The Islanders forward went the first five games of the season without a point, but once he got going, he was an offensive force. Barzal led all rookies with 85 points and 27 power play points, and finished sixth in goals with 22. He was also the only rookie to average over a point per game (1.04). One of the highlights of Barzal’s rookie resume is that he recorded three 5-point games, making him the second rookie in league history to achieve the feat. The last to do it? Joe Malone in the NHL’s first season of 1917-18.

The Case for Brock Boeser: Injury cut short Boeser’s season, allowing him only to play 62 games, but it was still an impressive rookie campaign for the owner of the one of the league’s top flows. Boeser finished second in goals with 29 and fifth in points with 55. He led all rookies in power play goals (10) and was tied for second in power play points (23). In January, Boeser joined Mario Lemieux as the only rookies to take home MVP honors at the NHL All-Star Game one night after taking home the Accuracy Shooting title during the NHL Skills Competition in Tampa.

The Case for Clayton Keller: The Coyotes forward finished tops in average ice time among rookie forwards (18:05) and shots (212), second in points (65) and assists (42), third in power play points (20) and fifth in goals (23). He also led Arizona in goals, assists and points and recorded a 10-game point streak, which tied him for the third-longest in franchise history.

2018 NHL Award finalists
King Clancy (Monday)
Bill Masterton Trophy
Lady Byng Trophy
Norris Trophy
Selke Trophy
Vezina Trophy

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Flyers, Avalanche attempt to force Game 7s

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Game 6: Pittsburgh Penguins at Philadelphia Flyers, 3 p.m. ET (Penguins lead 3-2)
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Call: John Forslund, Eddie Olczyk, Pierre McGuire
Series preview
Stream here

Game 6: Nashville Predators at Colorado Avalanche, 7 p.m. ET (Predators lead 3-2)
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Call: Kenny Albert, AJ Mleczko, Brian Boucher
Series preview
Stream here

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Vegas Golden Knights provide a new template for expansion teams

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Dan Bouchard can appreciate, better than most, the Miracle in the Desert.

He was a goalie for the expansion Atlanta Flames back in the 1970s, so he knows how difficult it is to build a competitive team from scratch.

”It’s astonishing what they’ve done in Vegas,” said Bouchard, who still lives in the Atlanta area, when reached by phone this week. ”I think it’s the greatest thing to happen to hockey since the Miracle on Ice,” he added, referring to the seminal U.S. upset of the mighty Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics. ”It’s that good.”

Indeed, Vegas has set a new norm for expansion teams in all sports. No longer will it be acceptable to enter a league with a squad full of dregs and take your lumps for a few years, all while fans willingly pay big-league prices to watch an inferior product.

The Golden Knights have come up with a stunning new template for how this expansion thing can be done.

They romped to the Pacific Division title with 51 wins. In the opening round of the playoffs, they finished off the Los Angeles Kings in four straight games , casting aside a franchise that has a pair of Stanley Cup titles this decade while becoming the first expansion team in NHL history to sweep a postseason series in its debut year.

Imagine how storied franchises in Montreal and Detroit and Edmonton must be feeling right about now.

They didn’t even make the playoffs.

From Bouchard’s perspective, it’s all good. Vegas’ success right out of the starting gate will make everyone raise their game in the years to come.

”This will wake up the teams that are sitting on $90 million budgets and not doing anything,” he said. ”People will say, ‘If Vegas can do it, we can do it.’ That’s a paradigm shift in the game.”

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

When one considers how NHL expansion teams have fared over the years, the Vegas story becomes even more compelling.

The Golden Knights are the first new team in the NHL’s modern era to have a winning record in their inaugural season, a period that began in 1967 and encompasses 26 new franchises (including one, the ill-fated California Seals, who are no longer around).

Only six other first-year teams have made the playoffs – and that includes four that were assured of postseason berths in the landmark 1967 expansion. You see, when the NHL finally broke out of its Original Six format, doubling in size to a dozen teams, it placed all the new franchises in the same division, with the top four getting postseason berths even with sub-.500 records.

Until the Golden Knights came along, the Florida Panthers were the gold standard for NHL expansion. They finished one game below .500 in their first season (1993-94) and missed the playoffs by a single point. In Year 3, they had their first winning record and made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final, though they were swept by the Colorado Avalanche.

That remains the closest the Panthers have come to winning a title.

In Sin City, the wait for a championship figures to be much shorter. Heck, the Golden Knights might do it this year.

They’re 12 wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup in a city that has always had a soft spot for long shots.

”We’re still a few wins away from this being a great story,” said goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, a key contributor to the Golden Knights success.

Even now, it seems like a bit of dream to coach Gerard Gallant, who thankfully will be remembered for something other than getting left at the curb to hail his own cab after being fired by the Panthers.

”When this all started in October, we just wanted to compete,” Gallant said. ”Now we’re going to the second round of the playoffs. It’s unreal.”

For sure, the Golden Knights wound up with a much more talented roster than most expansion teams – partly through astute planning, partly through getting access to better players as a reward for doling out a staggering $500 million expansion fee, which was a more than six-fold increase over the $80 million required of Minnesota and Columbus to enter the league in 2000.

The expansion draft netted a top-line goalie in Fleury, who helped Pittsburgh win three Stanley Cups; center Jonathan Marchessault, a 30-goal scorer in Florida who was surprisingly left exposed by the Panthers; and winger James Neal, who had scored more than 20 goals in all nine of his NHL seasons. It also provided a solid group of defensemen: Colin Miller, Nate Schmidt, Deryk Engelland and Brayden McNabb.

In addition, the Golden Knights wisely nabbed young Swedish center William Karlsson, who hadn’t done much in Columbus but became Vegas’ leading scorer with 43 goals and 35 assists.

”They’ve got some top centers. They’ve got some real good defense. They’ve got good goaltending,” Bouchard observed. ”They went right down the middle. That’s how the built it. Then they complemented it with the fastest guys they could get their hands on. They went for speed.”

Previous expansion teams didn’t have it nearly as good.

Bouchard actually played on one of the better first-year teams when the Flames entered the league in 1972. They were in playoff contention much of the season and finished with more points than four other teams in the 16-team league, including the storied Toronto Maple Leafs.

But that was a team that had to struggle for every win. The Flames had only three 20-goal scorers and were largely carried by their two young goalies, Bouchard and Phil Myre.

”We didn’t have a bona fide 30-goal scorer,” Bouchard recalled. ”We had a lot of muckers.”

That was then.

The Golden Knights have shown how it should be done.

If expansion teams are going to fork over enormous fees for the chance to play, they should have access to a much better pool of potential players.

They should have a chance to win right away.

That way, everyone wins.

Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press.

AP Sports Writer Beth Harris in Los Angeles contributed to this column.

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey