MIke Yeo

Minnesota welcomes back an old friend: The neutral zone trap

When you bring up the neutral zone trap to fans anywhere across the NHL, they immediately start having flashbacks to the days in the mid-to-late 90s and early 2000s that saw the New Jersey Devils, among others, gain great success from employing the defense-first style of play.

One team that saw the trap more often than not was the Minnesota Wild. The Wild under coach Jacques Lemaire saw their greatest success with Lemaire in charge and slowing things down in the Western Conference. As things go with the hardcore neutral zone trap, the fans got bored of things and were eager for a change to add some excitement to their hockey-loving lives.

When Todd Richards replaced Lemaire, the trap was altered for the most part but the wins evaporated as well. Now with Mike Yeo in charge in St. Paul, the Wild are hoping to mix in the defensive strength and excitement of scoring goals and he’s going to do it by tweaking the trap. Michael Russo of The Star Tribune breaks the flashback-inducing news from Wild camp.

In the irony of all ironies, it’s Lemaire’s latest version of the aggressive neutral-zone forecheck that Yeo will deploy as the Wild coach and the one he unveiled during his exhibition debut behind the Wild’s bench Tuesday night against the Edmonton Oilers.

“Now when I say trap, you’re not going to see a team where five guys are just backing up,” Yeo said. “Like, look at our team last year in Houston. I mean, how many people would say we were a boring team to watch? We trapped in the neutral zone, but we were aggressive in how we did it.”

And before you start freaking out, let’s be clear: The Wild is not returning to the trap. The Wild never stopped trapping.

The facts are simple. While fans bug out about the trap, the trap is employed by every team in the league in some way, shape, or form. The Bruins and Canucks both played variations of it to great, Stanley Cup finals-reaching success. For Wild fans, they’re still scarred from Lemaire’s days of success and boredom and they think that when a coach readily admits he’ll be breaking it out again it’ll be a return to what happened before.

Fortunately for Wild fans and NHL fans all over, teams can’t bog things down the same way as they used to. Obstruction is now a cardinal sin and power plays are too dangerous to hand out like candy. Trying to bog things down like you used to is seen as playing things too safe and in the current NHL, safe is death.

Sure Wild fans are going to be a bit bothered to hear about an old friend like the trap coming back, but with offensive weapons like Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi in place as well as a healthy Pierre-Marc Bouchard and the always steady Mikko Koivu, that defense can turn into offense really fast.

Of course, if things go south expect to see fingers get pointed often at the trap.

Senator says Bettman, NHL are ‘in denial’ about concussions, CTE

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 30:  NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks with the media during a press conference prior to Game One of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the San Jose Sharks at Consol Energy Center on May 30, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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This isn’t the first time Gary Bettman denied or downplayed the link between concussions and CTE; it also isn’t the first time that someone has been stunned by his stance.

Even so, it’s difficult to look away from the bank-and-forth between the NHL’s commissioner and U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, most recently spotlighted by Sports Illustrated.

It began with Blumenthal’s letter to Bettman and the NHL, dated June 23, which cited the NFL acknowledging a link between football and CTE. He then asked Bettman nine questions related to how the NHL handles brain injuries and how it might be different from the NHL.

The New York Times passes along a response dated July 22, Bettman described the science linking CTE to concussions as “nascent” and reasserted his previous stance:

“The relationship between concussions and the asserted clinical symptoms of C.T.E. remains unknown.”

Blumenthal was “appalled” by Bettman’s take, according to Sports Illustrated and the Senator himself.

Perhaps you could chalk this up to a public relations battle of sorts, although TSN reports that this latest round of comments might provide fuel for lawyers working on a concussion lawsuit against the NHL.

“We should have the chance now to walk him through some of his denials and find out why he has made his statements and ask him what makes him so sure,” Lead counsel Charles Zimmerman said. “Why is he so willing to go against conventional science which says repeated blows to the head cause damage to the brain?”

As familiar as some of this might feel for those following the way the league is handling concussions, it could mean that the NHL will follow in the NFL’s footsteps in a costly way.

At minimum, it’s been a mess for the league, and it doesn’t seem like things will get easier anytime soon.

Rangers want Kreider to become a ‘nightmare for defensemen’ again

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 19: Chris Kreider #20 of the New York Rangers moves in on Matt Murray #30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Three of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at at Madison Square Garden on April 19, 2016 in New York City.  The Penguins defeated the Rangers 3-1. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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If Chris Kreider is penciled in to finish with about 20 goals and 45 points each season, the New York Rangers got a solid deal for the 25-year-old.

That nice $4.625 million cap hit could become a steal if Kreider blossoms into the 30-goal force the Rangers were hoping for, however.

NHL.com details how the Rangers hope he returns to the form that, to quote assistant Scott Arniel,* made him “a nightmare for defensemen.”

“I remember we had a conversation asking him about what kind of player did he think he was, and he didn’t say I’m a toe-dragging, stick-handling guy who can beat guys 1-on-1,” Arniel said. “He knew what he was. He said it. I wrote it down on a piece of paper and it was five things that a true power forward needs to do every game. Then he got away from those things [last season].”

As New York Newsday notes, Kreider shares that viewpoint, aiming to be “big, strong, fast, mean, imposing” and to play a “power forward game.”

(If you’re playing Power Forward Buzzword Bingo … yes, Kreider also talks about his north-south game.)

How much room is there to grow?

The biggest question circles back to the beginning; how much higher is Kreider’s ceiling than what we’ve already seen?

Kreider indicates that a strong finish to 2015-16 salvaged his numbers, but the end result is near-identical production compared to 2014-15. He spoke of pucks not going in early in the year, yet his shooting percentage was a career-high 13.5.

About the only difference that really stands out does possibly denote a dip in physicality, as his 58 PIM were low in comparison to 2014-15 (88) and 2013-14 (72). The Rangers probably don’t want him off the ice and in the box more often though, right?

Earning opportunities

Really, the big thing for Kreider might just come down to opportunities.

Despite becoming more experienced, he’s still averaging just under 16 minutes of ice time per game.

The key, then, might be for Kreider to convince Alain Vigneault to deploy him more frequently, which might come down to bring that physical edge more often.

* – That story is an interesting little peek into how the Rangers handle and develop players like Kreider. Arniel almost seems quaint at times in the piece, bringing to mind Dan D’Antoni’s inspirational notes to Leondaro Barbosa.

Linden: Virtanen must earn his spot on Canucks roster

VANCOUVER, BC - OCTOBER 10: Jake Virtanen #18 of the Vancouver Canucks skates during the pre-game warm up prior NHL action against the Calgary Flames on October 10, 2015 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
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The Vancouver Canucks are loaded with question marks for next season.

One of them will be about what is best for the development of right winger Jake Virtanen, who will turn 20 years old next month and is coming off his first NHL campaign. He scored seven goals and 13 points in 55 games as a 19-year-old rookie. On occasion, he showed an ability to drive the net and to be a physical forward capable of crushing the opposition.

That big, physical, powerful forward that can also score is something the Canucks need. Virtanen could still evolve into that player. (On a similar note: Evander Kane trade speculation has been rampant in Vancouver in recent weeks.)

Becoming a consistent performer, showing more than just flashes of potential, has been a talking point surrounding Virtanen this summer.

He’ll be eligible to play with the Utica Comets in the AHL next season, and there is competition at the right wing in Vancouver, with numerous veteran players also listed at that position. That means a spot on the roster won’t be guaranteed for Virtanen, taken sixth overall in the 2014 NHL Draft.

“Jake is going to be a big part of this team for years. It was a stepping stone for him and I was out there (Vancouver) for a week and saw him training and he looked good to me,” Canucks’ center Bo Horvat told Ben Kuzma of The Province newspaper.

“He doesn’t have the mindset that he’s on the team. He has to work for it. It’s the consistency part of the game and you can’t take a night off like in junior. You can take some off knowing it’s a for-sure win and an easier night. There are no easy nights in the NHL. On any night, any team can surprise you.”

Last season, the Canucks kept Virtanen and Jared McCann with the big club, despite the option of sending them back to junior and not burning the first years of their respective entry-level contracts.

It was a major step for a team as it transitions to a younger roster, a younger core. It also came with an abundance of growing pains, culminating in Daniel Sedin ripping into his team after a particularly poor effort versus St. Louis in March.

After the season ended, and the Canucks finished 28th in the overall standings, head coach Willie Desjardins threw down the gauntlet, saying the team would focus once again on trying to win, and putting the onus on the youngsters to be good enough to help in that aspect.

When it comes to Virtanen, his conditioning has turned into an emphasis this summer.

“I think Jake has … a very raw and very unique skill set,” Canucks’ president Trevor Linden told TSN 1040. “He’s come a long way. Last year was an important year for him, just having him see what it takes to get to the next level.

“Jake knows he’s going to have to come to training camp this fall and earn a spot.”

Related: Since World Juniors disappointment, Virtanen has been ‘a different player’ for Canucks

NHLPA hire Bruce Meyer brings a ‘wealth of knowledge,’ says Fehr

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Bruce Meyer’s résumé of victories as a lawyer is a long and impressive one, and he has now joined the NHL Players’ Association as a senior director of collective bargaining, policy and legal, the union announced Thursday.

During his tenure of more than 25 years at the law firm Weil, Gotshal and Manges LLP, Meyer represented the NHLPA, NFLPA and NBPA.

The NHLPA said in a statement that in his new position, Meyer “will focus on a wide array of policy and legal issues.”

In working for those unions, he was involved in matters such as collective bargaining and arbitration, as per his online profile.

“Bruce will be a great addition to the NHLPA’s staff. He brings a wealth of knowledge to this new role coming from his law firm where he gained three decades’ worth of valuable experience, including effectively representing the NHLPA and other Players’ Associations as outside counsel,” said NHLPA executive director Don Fehr in a statement.

The NHLPA said Meyer will begin at his new position in mid-August.

The news of this hire comes more than a month after the league sued the NHLPA after Dennis Wideman‘s 20-game suspension for hitting linesman Don Henderson was reduced to 10 games by a neutral arbitrator.

Related: Report: NHL dismisses neutral arbitrator who reduced Wideman’s suspension