Eastern Conference players who will be under big-time pressure next season

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There’s inherent pressure to making millions while playing a professional sport. You won’t get much sympathy if you fail (or fail according to other peoples’ perceptions, at least) because of those big paychecks and all the fame that comes with it. Most people don’t even realize that merely getting to the NHL level is an enormous success in its own right.

Yet while just about every NHL player will deal with some degree of pressure and scrutiny, there are certain ones who will feel the burn of that media gaze a bit more if things don’t work out. NHL.com’s John Kreiser pointed out 15 Eastern Conference players who will be on the “hot seat” next season, ranging from star goalie Ryan Miller to high-profile players who had “off-years” (Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin) to guys who hope to make good on breakthrough seasons (P.K. Subban and James Reimer).

It’s a great read so feel free to check that out at your leisure, but I thought it might be enjoyable to throw in a few more Eastern Conference players who might feel some added pressure in 2011-12. Some hope to bounce back next season while others carry a considerable burden on their backs.

source: APTim Thomas – Much like a music group trying to follow-up a groundbreaking comeback album, Thomas will be hard-pressed to match his 2010-11 season. Just look at the 09-10 season, when he struggled after winning the 08-09 Vezina Trophy and eventually lost the starting job to Tuukka Rask. My guess is that his performance next season will rest somewhere in between the two extremes, mainly because it’s difficult to imagine anyone putting two consecutive record-breaking seasons together. Rask will be waiting in the wings if the unorthodox goalie struggles, though.

Brad Richards – One thing that was lost in all the hype about Richards’ unquestionable talents was his immediate struggles after signing his last huge contract, so here’s hoping that history doesn’t repeat itself there and compared to the Rangers’ own recent woes with costly additions. The difference between Richards and guys like Chris Drury and Bobby Holik is that he’s a legitimate first line center while those Rangers free agent blunders were hopeful top guys. That being said, if Richards falls on his face, he’ll be just another of Glen Sather’s Follies.

Carey Price – I must admit, I didn’t expect Price to be as strong as he was in the 2010-11 season. It was a matter of underestimating both Price’s talent and Montreal’s defensive system. This will be a big campaign for the highly-touted prospect, though, as he stands to make a lot of money in a contract year and must face the constant pressure of being the Habs goalie.

Vincent Lecavalier – Kreiser rightly points to Steven Stamkos after he signed his big $7.5 million per year contract, but what about Tampa Bay’s other big-money pivot? Hopefully his postseason results (19 points in 18 games) will be a better forecast for his 2011-12 campaign than his regular season run of 54 points in 65 games, because his huge, long-term deal brings a lot of criticism with it.

source: APMartin Brodeur – The Devils are a tough nut to crack and their future Hall of Fame goalie is a big mystery in his own right. He had a strong 2009-10 campaign but injuries ravaged two of his three most recent seasons; could it be that Marty’s workhorse mentality finally caught up with him? New Jersey is banking quite a bit on the answer being “No.”

Mike Green/Alex Semin – The Capitals’ two most-criticized players are both in contract years next season, which means that Washington could decide to make a serious change in direction if they don’t perform well. A bad season from Green and Semin might even put Bruce Boudreau’s job in danger, too.

Dion Phaneuf – Phaneuf ranks as Part II of Brian Burke’s biggest trade gambles (Phil Kessel is Part I). The hard-hitting, somewhat defensively leaky blueliner will receive a $7 million salary next season. If the Maple Leafs miss the playoffs yet again, the Leafs captain might get just as much heat Burke, Ron Wilson, Reimer and Kessel. Come to think of it, maybe we should just throw the whole Maple Leafs roster on the hot seat, then?

Craig Anderson – $3.2 million per year isn’t outrageous for a starting goalie, but there are some who are not convinced that Anderson is a genuine NHL starter. I happen to think he has potential to be at least an average No. 1 goalie (which is actually strong praise since the goaltending position is very strong right now), but it might not be easy for him in talent-poor Ottawa. The team’s fortunes will be tied to his successes and failures more than any other player.

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So those are my nine additional players who will be under big-time pressure in the East this season. That isn’t a comprehensive list, so go ahead and share your own choices in the comments.

The Buzzer: McElhinney with the McShutout, Schenn scores again

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Players of the Night: 

Curtis McElhinney, Toronto Maple Leafs:

McElhinney turned aside all 41 shots that came his way as the Leafs shutout the Edmonton Oilers 1-0. The Leafs backup improved to 3-2-0 on the season and his save percentage jumped from .900 to 9.25. Toronto has now won three straight and six of their past 10.

Brayden Schenn, St. Louis Blues:

Schenn notched his sixth goal in his past four games and extended his goal-scoring streak to four games with a goal 40 seconds into the game. The Blues are now winners of four straight and six of their past 10.

Eric Stall, Minnesota Wild & Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks: 

Both scored twice for their respective teams in an entertaining 4-3 win for the Wild in overtime.

Highlight of the Night: 

Vladimir Tarasenko catches the Sabres defense sleeping in overtime, scoring his first non-empty net goal in nine games:

Factoid of the Night: 

Patrick Kane didn’t score, but his two assists were instrumental in giving the Chicago Blackhawks a victory on Sunday.

Scores: 

Blackhawks 3, Coyotes 1

Blues 3, Sabres 2 (OT)

Maple Leafs 1, Oilers 0

Wild 4, Sharks 3


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Alex Burrows fined $5,000 for roughing

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Alex Burrows won’t be on Dylan DeMelo‘s Christmas card list this year.

Not after Burrows swiped DeMelo in the face with the butt-end of his stick on Saturday night.

Burrows got slapped with a $5,000 fine for roughing on Sunday night, the maximum permissible under the CBA. The money is one thing, but Burrows and the Senators have bigger issues at the moment.

It didn’t help the little incident happened in the third period and the game all but over for the Senators. Here’s the slow-mo shot of the infraction:

DeMelo suffered a scratch cornea and narrowly missed a major eye injury, according to Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer. 

DeMelo was in the lineup for the Sharks on Sunday against the Minnesota Wild.

Burrows’ $5,000 goes to the player’s Emergency Assistance Fund.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Is it a slump or is regression setting in for the Winnipeg Jets?

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Might regression be hitting the Winnipeg Jets at the moment?

It’s a question Jets fans are asking themselves after a three-game road trip that produced just a single point and a goose egg in the win column.

It’s the first time the Jets have lost three straight all season. In year’s past, this wouldn’t have come as much surprise, but the Jets have thrown the status quo out the window this season and have sung a different tune.

The analytics would suggest the Jets were due for a fall back to earth.

For most of the season, they’ve been near the bottom of the league in terms of Corsi, with only recently climbing up that ladder with a help of a very lopsided game against the Ottawa Senators.

Regression in goal is also starting to happen, and a lot of Winnipeg’s early-season success had to do with how well Connor Hellebuyck had been playing.

Hellebuyck has been sensational most of the season and his 15-3-4  record supports that. But his save percentage has been trending in the wrong direction lately. In five of his past six starts, Hellebuyck has only achieved a .900 save percentage or better once, and that came in that 5-0 shutout against the Senators.

Nov. 27 vs MIN: .895
Nov. 29 vs COL: .885
Dec. 1 vs VGK: .871
Dec. 3 vs. OTT: 1.000
Dec. 5 vs DET: .844
Dec. 9 vs TBL: .857

The Jets give up a lot of shots, so the odds that Hellebuyck’s early season numbers would survive throughout the year were low.

The sky is by no means falling in Winnipeg. The Jets showed they can go toe-to-toe with the league’s best on Saturday. Overtime has just been the bane of their existence this season with a 0-5 record in free hockey.

The Jets touched the summit of the Western Conference last week, a pipe dream around these parts in recent times. They also possess two of the league’s top point-producers (Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler) and one of the league’s top goal scorers (Patrik Laine), not to mention having a rookie just outside top 10 in rookie scoring (Kyle Connor).

Prior to the road trip, Winnipeg’s power play had scored eight times in 19 attempts.

The Jets have also been largely healthy. Defenseman Toby Enstrom is the midst of an eight-week spell in the press box — and there’s a pending diagnosis coming for Dustin Byfuglien after he left Saturday’s game in Tampa Bay with a lower-body injury — but the Jets gotten by relatively unscathed thus far and managed well when Mathieu Perreault and Adam Lowry missed several games.

The Jets have made too many strides this season to regress too far away from where they are right now. Asking a team to go from outside the playoff line to tops in the division might be asking a tad too much. But with that said, the Jets are simply a good team these days and stacked with high-level talent.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Calgary Hitmen fans make 24K stuffed animals fly during Teddy Bear Toss (Video)

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Congratulations, Vladislav Yeryomenko, you were this year’s Teddy Bear Toss goal scorer for the Western Hockey League’s Calgary Hitmen.

Yeryomenko’s goal at 9:36 of the first period during their game Sunday vs. the Moose Jaw Warriors was the sign for Hitmen fans to launch their teddy bears inside the Saddledome. Boy, it sure did rain plenty of fur.

Here’s what it looked like:

And here’s a fan’s eye view:

After a clean up delay of approximately 40 minutes , the game resumed but the Hitmen would fall to the Warriors 6-3. The counting, as you would imagine, took some time, but when they were finished it was announced that an astounding 24,605 stuffed animals were collected, which will go to 60 local charities.

“It’s an unforgettable moment,” Yeryomenko said via the Hitmen website. “It’s possible it can only happen once in your life and it happened to me. I enjoyed the moment of it all.”

There were 23,924 stuffed animals tossed during last year’s game, and the Hitmen hold the record of 28,815 bears, which was set in 2015.

The Hitmen have been holding this event since 1995 and are their fans are the true leaders in tossing those bears. Including this Sunday’s total, the team has collected 347,948 stuffed animals for local charities. Just last weekend the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears held their Toss event and fans there set a team record with an impressive 25,017 stuffed animals hitting the ice.

This once again proves that the Teddy Bear Toss is the greatest promotion in all of sports.

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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.