Why we should lighten up on Alex Ovechkin, Dustin Penner and Dustin Byfuglien about their weight

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Not too long ago, hockey wasn’t necessarily high on the list of sports that required hard-bodied combatants. That’s not to say that the NHL stars were all George Costanzas on skates, but when you look back at a young Mario Lemieux’s viewpoint on off-season training (not getting fries with his club sandwich starting on August 1), it’s clear that times have changed.

Part of it’s probably due to sheer hockey-free boredom, but there have been four notable issues when it comes to players and their weight. We’ve already addressed how Ryan Nugent-Hopkins should be allowed to play at whatever level is comfortable for him, even if it means playing at a sprite-like size. But what about the players who might not exactly fit into the bronze statue-type mold?

Three players have made waves (sometimes literally we imagine, when they jump into swimming pools) for getting Super-sized this summer, whether those assumptions are fair or not. First it was Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin, who appeared to have a beer gut in a photo that didn’t exactly catch him at a flattering angle. Secondly, Los Angeles Kings whipping boy Dustin Penner became the source of niche mockery when an embarrassing photo of his bare beer belly surfaced. Finally, Dustin Byfuglien became a meme magnet after his already troubling arrest revealed that he weighed in at a whopping 286 lbs.

When teams hand out millions to hockey players, they want them to look like statuesque humans and/or underwear models. Yet deep down, if general managers really want to win, they should merely focus on how a player’s weight affects their on-ice play. If the book “Moneyball” teaches us anything, it’s that results should matter more than perceptions even though that doesn’t always happen. Let’s take a look at each case to see why the players’ teams should (and shouldn’t) be worried.

source: APWhy Washington shouldn’t be too worried about Ovi

The general consensus was Ovechkin’s belly was more about generating laughs than genuine concern that the Russian star wouldn’t be in shape to begin the 2011-12 season. The most important factor to remember is time: that unflattering photo surfaced in July, giving him plenty of time to work off whatever belly he might have developed during the off-season.

My only concern is that his long-term contract might make him fat and happy (more figuratively than literally). After all, it might be tougher to push that tire up a hill if you know you’re going to make almost $10 million in salary alone for the next decade or so either way.

Luckily, Ovechkin seems like he’s driven to bring a Stanley Cup to Washington, so everyone can be excused for having a little fun while ignoring their own bellies in the mirror when it comes to Ovi’s food baby.

source: Getty ImagesFacing reality with Penner

Greg Thomson made an astute – and hilarious – comparison between that Penner photo and “The Bare Midriff” episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Here’s the thing, though: Penner’s gut will be obstructed when he’s going to work, unlike Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld’s wardrobe-challenged secretary. Much like Byfuglien, Penner has always been a big guy, so it’s reasonable to wonder if he has had a bit of a gut even during the highest points of his career (like when he won a Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks).

Ultimately, the Kings can look the other way when the four-time 20+ goal scorer takes his shirt off because he should have every motivation to play at the weight that works for him since he’s in a contract year. Los Angeles should get what they can out of Penner in this situation, even if they need to dangle a bucket of gravy instead of a carrot in front of the power forward to get him going.

source: APWorrying a bit about not-so-Byfuglien

Big Byfuglien’s weight worries might be the most troubling of the three.

For one thing, his troubles emerged closer to training camp than Penner or Ovechkin. Much like Ovechkin, Byfuglien has his financial future secure for quite some time, so the worry is that the Winnipeg Jets might get burned by a small window of focus for an unusual specimen who developed a reputation for inconsistency in Chicago. Deadspin also posits the possibility that Byfuglien might even need a little help with his partying ways.

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Overall, I don’t think teams should freak out about their players weight, although training camp is a good time to give them a push in the right direction. While Byfuglien’s situation is a little troubling, the overall takeaway is that we can all have our fun and feel a little better about our physiques when seeing these players in a more human light, but it’s unlikely that these issues will mean much during the 2011-12 season.

More signs point to Bruins getting Bergeron, Backes back soon

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Patrice Bergeron is one of the finest two-way centers of his generation, so it makes sense that the Boston Bruins would miss him.

That’s especially true since David Backes has also been sidelined, even if he’s aiming to rebound where Bergeron’s mainly looking to sustain.

While neither Bergeron nor Backes is guaranteed to suit up for the Bruins as they host the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday, there’s some promise in their returns merely being possible, as NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty notes.

It’s plausible that both might be less than 100 percent when they get back, and Backes might lack some of his power game considering his involuntary weight loss.

Even so, after struggling with Riley Nash in the top center spot, Backes and especially Bergeron serve as the Lebowski rug for the Bruins line combos, tying everything together in a far more satisfying way:

Brad Marchand-Bergeron-Anders Bjork
Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciDavid Pastrnak
Tim Schaller-Nash-Backes
Matt BeleskeySean KuralyFrank Vatrano

Much better. Personally, I’d be tempted to move Vatrano into a better offensive opportunity, but an excess of options for head coach Bruce Cassidy sure beats glaring issues down the middle and in the top nine.

The Bruins might also feel a little more liberated to insert them back in the mix since their schedule is conducive to dipping their toes in the water. It’s pretty light for the rest of October, really:

Thu, Oct 19 vs Vancouver
Sat, Oct 21 vs Buffalo
Thu, Oct 26 vs San Jose
Sat, Oct 28 vs Los Angeles
Mon, Oct 30 @ Columbus

The Bruins could play Bergeron and/or Backes in just two games through Saturday, Oct. 28 and only have them miss two in the process. And so on.

All things considered, it says something about Boston’s system that the Bruins are still close to the top-10 in possession stats, even with a two-way monster like Bergeron among their missing pieces.

As PHT’s Joey Alfieri notes, it doesn’t absolve a 2-3-0 start, as the Bruins faced a relatively friendly schedule.

Still, the schedule is breaking in a way where the Bruins could ideally limit the damage if Bergeron and Backes can recover reasonably soon. Things can change with injuries – just note how optimism can turn to pessimism for, say, Zach Parise – but at the moment, there are some reasons to look at the glass as half-full.

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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Do it, Flames: Put Jagr with Gaudreau, Monahan

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After an agonizing wait, the Calgary Flames bit the bullet and signed Jaromir Jagr.

To little surprise, skipping the preseason and not having an answer about the future has made for a bit of a stilted integration for the 45-year-old, who is still something of a possession monster when the puck gets on his stick.

Jagr finally collected his first point (an assist) with the Flames on Saturday, during their 5-2 win against the Vancouver Canucks. It came, fittingly, on the power play.

If assisting on a Johnny Gaudreau goal wasn’t enticing enough, take a look at the Flames’ offensive lines on Tuesday, a tempting tease with their next game coming Thursday:

Circumstance could play a role in Jagr getting at least a look with Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. As Sportsnet’s Pat Steinberg noted, Kris Versteeg wasn’t around, so Glen Gulutzan might have been adjusting to Versteeg – Sam Bennett – Jagr not being an option.

(Micheal Ferland also has been a little banged up lately, although you can see that he at least suited up.)

Still, it’s fun to cross one’s fingers and hope that Jagr gets an extended look with the dynamic duo, especially since he enjoyed so much success in a similar situation with Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau during his time with the Florida Panthers.

So far, the Flames have already experimented with Jagr in such a situation. From an even-strength perspective, he’s spent about two-thirds of his time with Bennett/Versteeg and one-third with Gaudreau/Monahan, according to Natural Stat Trick’s numbers.

Flames Nation’s Ari Yanover provides a fascinating perspective: maybe the experimenting should continue, with Jagr being used in a variety of attacking zone situations.

Perhaps the focus is a little less on “who should Jagr be playing with” and more on “whoever is getting the most offensive zone starts, that’s Jagr’s line”. And typically, it’s Gaudreau’s line getting the offensive zone starts. So maybe, once Jagr is ready, that should be his line after all. We know he has it in him – not just because he’s, well, Jaromir Jagr, but also because that’s exactly what he was doing in Florida half a year ago.

Interesting.

Selfishly, as fans of the aging wonder, many of us simply want more Jagr.

Being selective with how he’s deployed might just be the ticket for the Flames. It’s sensible that Jagr’s getting 13 minutes of ice time per game (with almost exactly three of them coming on the power play), especially as he eases in. Greedily, we still want more, but it’s up to Calgary to decide if that’s actually the best way to optimize what they have.

As the season goes along, it will be fun to see how Jagr is used. There aren’t many weapons like him in the NHL, and that’s assuming that he can still get it done.

(So far, the answer seems to be “mostly yes.”)

For another look at how Jagr could fit into the Flames’ lines, check out this bit from before the season.

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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Why Oilers are struggling, and what needs to change

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Sure, Connor McDavid scored all three of their goals, but it was still electrifying to see the Edmonton Oilers open their season with a 3-0 win against the Calgary Flames.

For those who saw red flags, the last week must have felt like retribution, as the Oilers dropped three straight, with their most recent loss (6-1 to the Ottawa Senators) marking a low point.

With that 1-3-0 record in mind and Leon Draisaitl on the shelf, spirits are low and frustrations might be high in Edmonton. Let’s dig deeper to see which patterns should continue and how much this boils down to bad luck.

Plenty of shots, but maybe the wrong guys shooting?

The Oilers lead the NHL in Corsi For rating with 59.42 percent, and Edmonton sports the classic signs of bad luck: they fall in the bottom five in PDO and team shooting percentage. (Fancy stats via Natural Stat Trick.)

The takeaway there is quite basic: more bounces are bound to go their way. Just consider McDavid alone: he hasn’t scored a goal since that thrilling hat trick to start the season.

A lot of those trends will end merely by playing more games.

That said, the distribution of shots on goal is a bit troubling, and it’s something that Oilers head coach Todd McLellan should address either through tweaking lines or his system (or both?).

Check out the Oilers’ top five players in shots on goal:

1. McDavid (19)
2. Oscar Klefbom (15)
3. Darnell Nurse (13)
4. Draisaitl (12 in three GP)
5. Adam Larsson (11)

Yes, three of the Oilers’ top five shooters are defensemen. McLellan pointed out the team’s most glaring offensive deficit, so far, to Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal.

“We’re not getting enough from the wingers or our bottom six and if you’re not scoring (as a team), you can’t be giving up six (goals),” McLellan said.

Indeed, the Oilers need more from their supporting cast.

Most of those players should expect a rebound; the more frightening question is: how much can the Oilers really expect? Even in Milan Lucic‘s best days, he’s never been a volume shooter; his career average is well under two shots on goal per contest.

Ryan Strome hasn’t scored a point so far for the Oilers, but some of that might come down to a lack of opportunities. He’s averaging almost one fewer minute of ice time per game vs. his last season with the Islanders, which is a touch surprising since many expected this to be an opportunity for him to break through.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins simply needs to do more. While RNH has two goals so far, he’s only fired five SOG in four games. You can explain some of that away by explaining playmaking leanings, but when your team is struggling, sometimes a passer must be a bit more assertive, too.

Again, expect better things from RNH and Lucic in particular, not to mention Patrick Maroon, Kailer Yamamoto, and Jussi Jokinen. Even so, some of this might come down to the makeup of this team.

Depth can often be key for scoring in the NHL, and the Oilers have something to prove in that area.

Frustrations for Cam Talbot

Credit Edmonton Oilers workhorse Cam Talbot for accepting blame for his part in the Oilers’ 1-3-0 start, as the Edmonton Sun’s Terry Jones notes.

“I’ll find a way to fix it. I know I will because I’ve always done it before,” Talbot said. “We’re going to turn this around here, no doubt. It starts with me in net. Once I start making the saves I’m supposed to make, the guys in front of me can do what they’re supposed to do. It starts in net and we work our way out from there.”

If you want to look at the surest spot where things will improve for Edmonton, look to Talbot.

Much like a host of other NHL goalies, he’s off to a shockingly bad start. Talbot’s GAA is just under four (3.96) and his save percentage probably gives Grant Fuhr some unpleasant flashbacks (.880). Talbot’s numbers should rise considerably, even if he fails to match the heights of 2016-17.

In the meantime, the Oilers turn to Laurent Brossoit, who’s off to a solid start.

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In most cases, the Oilers should settle things down.

Still, it’s important to remember that this team has Stanley Cup aspirations. For all the justifiable criticisms GM Peter Chiarelli receives, if he can identify issues during the season and address at least some of them with savvy “rentals,” then he’ll earn his place as the guy who lucked into having McDavid on his roster.

Things will get better. It’s just going to be a challenge when you consider how high they set the bar for themselves.

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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Slow start pushes Marner to Maple Leafs’ fourth line

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The Toronto Maple Leafs were one of the pleasant surprises of the 2016-17 season. The biggest reason they were able to make the playoffs last year was because of the play of their three terrific rookies: Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner.

Matthews and Nylander are off to roaring starts (Matthews has eight points in five games, Nylander has five points in five games). But things haven’t gone as well for Marner, who has a four points in five games.

That’s far from a poor point total for the sophomore forward, but head coach Mike Babcock hasn’t been impressed with his overall play (for whatever it’s worth, he’s a minus-6 this season).

On Monday, Babcock tweaked his lines, which shocked the fans and media in Toronto. Marner was no longer skating on a line with Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk. Instead, he was with Dominic Moore and Matt Martin on the fourth line.

“Their line wasn’t going, so tie goes to the veterans,” Babcock said, per the Toronto Sun. “(Marner) just happens to be the kid on the line, that’s it. Let’s not read too much into that. You have to have all your units going and we’re trying to do that. It was a big win in Montreal (on Saturday), but saying that, we didn’t generate a lot and they did.”

If you thought the Leafs coach was just trying to send a message for one day on Monday, guess again. Marner was right back out on the fourth line during Tuesday’s morning skate ahead of tonight’s game against Washington.

It looks like Babcock is serious about this wake up call.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

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