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PHT makes the case for the Norris Trophy finalists

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While high-scoring forwards and dynamic goalies are precious entities, big-time defensemen also rank among the most important players in hockey. It’s a bit tougher to gauge which ones are the true greats – you can’t just “feel” your way to the best ones with 30 teams in play – but sometimes the elites are painfully obvious. The PHT staff weighs the strengths of all three candidates below.

Matt Reitz’s case for Zdeno Chara:

It’s an interesting year for the Norris voting. All three are captains, all are great leaders for their respective teams, and as much as the award as changed over the years, all three are true two-way defensemen. They put up points but they’re also defensive anchors for their respective teams. But of the three, Zdeno Chara puts it all together the best.

There are a lot of people who will disprove the importance of the plus/minus stat. Both Shea Weber and Chara were on the plus side of the ledger—but its debatable whether Weber is even the best player on his team. He’s a spectacular defenseman, but he also had the advantage of playing with Ryan Suter all season. If this were an award for best defensive pairing, they should win it in a landslide. Unfortunately for Weber, this is an award for best defenseman. He very well may be able to do it on his own—we just never saw him do it this season. When Suter was out with an injury, the entire term suffered.

When looking at the statistics between Nicklas Lidstrom and Zdeno Chara, it was hard to look past that Chara a league best +33 and Lidstrom is a minus player for the season. Both guys play against their opponents’ top lines, both score, and both are depended to play shutdown roles. The only difference is that Chara’s team scored significantly more than the opposition when he was on the ice. While Lidstrom was out there against the best, statistics prove that he didn’t thrive like he has before.

This season very well may prove to be Lidstrom’s swan song and he’s going out on a high note. You have to give him credit—he may have been the second best defenseman in the NHL year. Right behind Chara.

Joe Yerdon’s case for Nicklas Lidstrom:

He’s won the award six times already and after everyone was ready to start calling Nicklas Lidstrom an old man after his sub-par (for him) year last season, he came back with a vengeance. He was second on the Red Wings in points with 62, the most points he’s scored since 2007-2008 when he won the Norris Trophy. Points aren’t always where it’s at for defensemen of course and Lidstrom always plays the biggest minutes against the opponents top players. His 23:28 average time on ice was tops among everyone on Detroit that wasn’t a goalie. Oh right, and he’s 41 years-old.

We’re not going to pull the lifetime achievement card here for Lidstrom since he’s coming back next season, but given how he played this year, how important he was to Detroit’s success and how much the team relied on him at both ends of the ice he embodies what the Norris Trophy is all about. In a finalists class that has such other tremendous talent, Lidstrom is the guy both Weber and Chara hope to be when their careers are through.

James O’Brien’s case for Shea Weber:

With all due respect to Lidstrom and his outstanding 62-point season, Weber and Chara have been more important to their teams than the first ballot Hall of Famer from Sweden.

It isn’t easy to narrow it down between Chara and Weber, though. They both receive plenty of even strength, power play and shorthanded time on ice. Each player was above average in the overrated points categories (Weber had 48, Chara had 44) especially since their teams don’t generate buckets of scoring chances like Detroit does.

Chara gets a lot of attention for his intimidating size, but Weber was sixth among defensemen with 211 hits while Chara had 153. Despite this disparity in violence, Weber seemed to pick his spots a little better, being that he registered 56 PIM to Chara’s 88. Chara’s +33 rating definitely jumps out at you, but that is usually a team-based stat. Weber isn’t a slouch on the penalty kill, either.

He might not be the most obvious pick for the Norris, but Weber was the most valuable and well-rounded defenseman in hockey this season. (Although Chara was very, very close behind.)

Alzner: Capitals’ playoff letdown is ‘deep somewhere in our heads’

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 10:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins shakes hands with Matt Niskanen #2 of the Washington Capitals after the Penguins defeated the Capitals 4-3 in overtime in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on May 10, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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The mood is a “little sour” in the Washington Capitals locker room right now, and the discomfort goes deeper than losing back-to-back games for the first time in more than a year.

With it being early in 2016-17, maybe the Capitals aren’t totally over falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins after a resounding run to the Presidents’ Trophy.

“Last year, we were just so hungry all over the ice, and that’s why we had so much success. We just haven’t been as hungry right now,” Karl Alzner said, according to the Washington Post. “I don’t know if it’s because deep somewhere in our heads, we did that all season long and it still didn’t work for us, so maybe it’s just taking some time to build back up and as the season goes on, we get better. I don’t feel that in the front of my head, but maybe deep in the back, that’s kind of what’s going on. We’re better than how we’ve been playing.”

Credit Alzner for his candor, because that’s a remarkable admission of vulnerability.

Buying in

Not every member of the Capitals look at a few bumps in the road as a bad thing. Braden Holtby told the Washington Post that “a little bit of adversity never hurts to build a team,” and considering the rigors of an 82-game season, he’s likely correct.

As CSN Mid Atlantic notes, Barry Trotz understands the peaks and valleys of a lengthy campaign … but he still expects his players to buy-in.

“We’ve got the right elements to do what we can do. But there has to be a level of everybody [being] all in. You can’t be half in,” Trotz said. ” … You can’t let your foot off the gas in this league or you find yourself in a hole sometimes.”

Climbing that mountain once again

One can relate to the Capitals’ troubles in a way.

A negative type might feel a bit like Sisyphus here, wondering if it’s worth it roll that boulder up a hill all over again after that playoff loss pushed them down. “We did that all season long and it still didn’t work for us,” as Alzner said.

Maybe the Capitals are over-thinking this a bit.

They have a few days off to ruminate on things, but the compressed three-game road trip coming up might be valuable in demanding all of their thoughts.

It’s tougher to find time for an existential crisis when you face three away contests in Western Canada during just four days. From the sound of things, it might be the perfect type of challenge for this group.

Like all this scoring? Better enjoy it while it lasts

EDMONTON, AB - OCTOBER 12:  Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers celebrates a goal against the Calgary Flames on October 12, 2016 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

Just because Wayne Gretzky laced up his skates in an alumni game over the weekend doesn’t mean the NHL is back to the 1980s.

It just feels like it.

Goals are coming fast and furious through the first two weeks of the season, with scoring at a pace that hasn’t been seen in over a decade. Players are scoring an average of 5.98 goals a game, a far cry from the offense-happy days of Gretzky but an increase so far from every other year since 2005-06 when new rules were designed to boost scoring.

An influx of young players, the preseason World Cup of Hockey and more backup goaltenders playing because of injuries have kept red lights flashing around the league.

“Overall, the game is going younger, faster, more skill, so I think everything kind of combines and goes into it,” Arizona Coyotes winger Radim Vrbata said. “I think the penalties are called more now than late in the season last year. That’s normal, so you probably have more power-play goals. And you have all the guys who played at the World Cup, they’re in their midseason form already where normally it would take them a couple games to get going.”

The NHL, hoping to keep its fans entertained, has tried many things to get scoring up, from shrinking goaltending equipment to adopting 3-on-3 overtime. Yet goals have hovered around 5.3 per game over the past five years.

The jump early this season has as much to do with young talent like Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid and Toronto Maple Leafs rookie Auston Matthews as anything else.

McDavid and Matthews lead a wave of 16 teenagers in the NHL right now, players who dazzle with flashy moves and who sometimes aren’t afraid to take a risk and maybe turn the puck over. As hockey trends more toward speed and skill, the game becomes more unpredictable and coaches gain more gray hair.

“You have more skill players in the league, too, so they’re not as conscious with puck management,” Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “You talk to the coaches probably around the league that might be as much as anything, and (players are) finding the back of the net on those.”

Coyotes coach Dave Tippett joked that it’s a Team North America mentality, referencing the 23-and-under World Cup group that thrived playing end-to-end, fast-paced games and scored at a blistering pace. Beyond just Team North America, the World Cup got many of the league’s elite up to speed to start the year, and Philadelphia forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare believes he and the other 168 players who took part are already in December form.

“It definitely helps,” Flyers teammate Sean Couturier said. “I think guys have been in game situations at such a high pace, high level for a month and a half before the season actually started.”

Eight of the top nine scorers so far this season played in the World Cup, and surprise standout Richard Panik benefited from so many Chicago Blackhawks players being away by making the most of extra ice time in preseason. The Blackhawks are also doing their part to contribute to the goal fest by allowing a league-high 14 of the 138 power-play goals scored through Wednesday.

Carolina Hurricanes coach Bill Peters thinks power-play units are ahead of penalty kills and that five-on-five play is “looser” than usual.

Loose play plus a lot of backup goaltenders in the nets is a recipe for offense. Through 97 games, 61 different goalies have started at least once, compared with 85 in 1,230 games last season.

That’s in part a product of injuries to starters like the Los Angeles Kings’ Jonathan Quick, Boston Bruins’ Tuukka Rask and Arizona’s Mike Smith and also the compressed schedule forced because of the World Cup. Each team will have a five-day “bye week” in January or February.

“I’m sure because we have a lot of back to backs and we have the bye week – the games are probably compressed a little bit more together than it’s been in the last (few) years,” Capitals backup goalie Philipp Grubauer said. “If you’re good and play good and get the right numbers and win the games, I’m sure (backups) will get a few more starts.”

Backups will continue to play, but many around the NHL expect production to slide back to normal as the season wears on. So enjoy the throwback scoring while it lasts.

“I think things will tighten up as we go,” Peters said. “But it’s been enjoyable for the fans.”

Bolts ready to renew ‘budding rivalry’ with Habs

Torrey Mitchell, Ben Bishop
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The Canadiens know at the end of the year they’ll probably be jockeying with the Lightning for playoff positioning and, quite possibly, facing them in the postseason.

The Lightning know it, too.

Which is why tonight’s game has a certain amount of importance to it — yes, even though it’s just two weeks into the regular season.

“Montreal has a really good team,” Bolts head coach Jon Cooper said, per the club website. “Last year was just a speedbump year for them. Marc [Bergevin, GM] has done a great job in retooling the whole team and Mike [Therrien, head coach] does a helluva job behind the bench.

“When teams play each other a couple times in the playoffs, there’s a budding rivalry. We missed each other last year, but I have a feeling the way things are going, we’re probably going to meet up again at some point.”

In 2014, the Bolts were swept by Montreal in the opening playoff round. A year later, Tampa Bay flipped the script by defeating the Habs in the second round, en route to the Stanley Cup Final.

As Cooper mentioned, last year was something of an aberration in Montreal. The Habs are certainly proving as much with their play to start this year.

At 6-0-1, they’re the NHL’s lone undefeated team in regulation. They currently sit first in the league in goals against, fourth in goals for, seventh on the penalty kill and 15th on the power play.

The man advantage is, obviously, the only unit not at or near the top of the league. But Shea Weber‘s play has certainly made the PP more formidable — two goals and an assist with the man advantage thus far — and the group has found the back of the net in five of the last six games.

Speaking of the power play, let’s discuss the Lightning for a moment.

Tampa Bay has been annihilating opponents with the man advantage lately. The league’s third-best PP — clicking at a 30 percent success rate — has scored four times in the last two games. Jonathan Drouin is the leading power play scorer, with three points, but all the usual suspects are chipping in as well: Steve Stamkos, Alex Killorn Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman.

The Lightning are neck-and-neck with the Habs in the standings as well. They’re 5-1-0 to start the year, and are coming off consecutive wins over the Senators and Leafs.

So yeah. Tonight’s game should be a good one.

With Lindholm signed, Ducks GM hopes to keep team together

LAS VEGAS, NV - JUNE 24:  Bob Murray of the Anaheim Ducks speaks after being named NHL General Manager of the Year during the 2014 NHL Awards at the Encore Theater at Wynn Las Vegas on June 24, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Just because they got Hampus Lindholm signed doesn’t mean the Anaheim Ducks need to make a trade right away.

First of all, the 22-year-old defenseman won’t be able to play until he gets a work visa, and that could take a week or two.

Secondly, even when he’s back in the lineup, Simon Despres (who’s got a suspected concussion, which is a “very sensitive issue”) and Nate Thompson (who ruptured his Achilles and may not be back before the trade deadline) will not be.

And with Despres and Thompson on LTIR, GM Bob Murray has some wiggle room, at least for now.

“I wanted to give this group another shot, and I’m going to do everything in my power to keep it that way,” Murray told reporters on a conference call, adding that he was thankful for owners who’ve allowed him to spend to the cap.

Which brings us to Cam Fowler. Here’s what the O.C. Register had to say about him:

Cam Fowler has long been seen as a potential cap casualty once Lindholm signed, but the Ducks do not want to trade him, given Fowler’s ability and meaning to the team. Fowler, who’s off to a hot start with three goals and four assists in eight games, has two years left on his deal at $4 million per season.

The Ducks have gone 3-0-1 since dropping their first four to start the season. Their next game is Friday at home to Columbus.

Related: Fowler surprised he wasn’t traded at draft