Penguins fire their entire medical staff

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The Penguins have been relatively quiet this offseason, but they shook things up in a different way.

Rob Rossi and Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review report the team has fired their entire medical staff as headed up by Dr. Charles Burke.

The Penguins are replacing their medical team as part of a proposed move by 2014 to a hockey facility in Cranberry that will be in conjunction with UPMC, the team confirmed in a statement Friday.

Burke has an extensive history with the team treating Mario Lemieux’s bad back in his time playing as well as Sidney Crosby and his concussions. Twice Burke has cleared Crosby for action from his head injuries and he’s been an important person in the NHL’s concussion program as he once headed up the program. With Crosby’s health always under scrutiny, as well as previous injuries to Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin, it’s not as if it’s a quiet or low-profile job working for the Penguins.

NHL announces details of 2018 All-Star Skills Competition

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We know who’s going to Tampa this week for the 2018 NHL All-Star Game, and now we know what events will make up this year’s Skills Competition.

On Saturday night (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN), there will be six events focusing on individuality, with the winning player taking home $25,000 for each victory. The NHL Department of Player Safety will choose the players for each event. Sadly, it doesn’t look like Zdeno Chara or Shea Weber will be making the trip, which means the Hardest Shot will have a new winner for the first time since Sheldon Souray and Adrian Aucoin shared the title in 2004.

So Hardest Shot is back along with Fastest Skater, and there will be two new events, one old standard with a new look and one brought back for the first time since 2008. Here’s a rundown:

TWEAKED

Accuracy Shooting: “Eight players will compete in the Honda NHL Accuracy Shooting™, a timed event where a shooter is positioned 25 feet from the goal line and shoots pucks at five LED targets located in the net. On the referee’s whistle, one of the five LED targets will randomly light up for three seconds and the player will attempt to hit the lighted target. Hit targets will be taken out of the random sequencing and if the target is not hit within three seconds, the next target will be lighted. The clock stops when the player has successfully hit all five targets, the player that hits all five targets in the fastest time will be crowned the winner of the Honda NHL Accuracy Shooting™. If there is a tie for the fastest time, the tied players will compete again to determine the winner.”

No longer will players get to pick which targets to hit. It will all be done randomly and they’ll need some quick thinking in order to take out all five.

Puck Control Relay: “Eight players will compete in the Gatorade NHL Puck Control Relay™, a timed single-round event that includes three skills: (1) Stickhandling, where a skater controls a puck through a series of eight pucks in a straight line; (2) Cone Control, where a skater controls a puck through a series of eight cones in a zig-zag formation; and (3) Gates, where a skater approaches a gate and is required to shoot or otherwise guide the puck through the lighted rung of a gate. Each skill must be completed before moving on to the next skill. The referee’s whistles will signal completion of each skill and the player to complete the three skills in the fastest time is deemed the winner of the Gatorade NHL Puck Control Relay™. If there is a tie for the fastest time, the tied players will compete again to determine the winner.”

NEW

Passing Challenge: “Eight players will compete in the Dunkin’ Donuts NHL Passing Challenge™, which consists of three skills over one round, including  (1) Target Passing, where each player must complete four successful passes to targets that light up in a random sequence; (2) Give and Go, where each player must successfully complete the four required passes through a course set up in the neutral zone; and (3) Mini Nets, where each player must complete one pass over a barricade and into each of four mini nets, as well as an additional pass into the game net. Each skill must be completed before a player moves on to the next. The referee’s whistle signals completion of each skill. The player to complete all three skills in the fastest time is deemed the winner of the Dunkin’ Donuts NHL Passing Challenge™, and if there is a tie for the fastest time, the tied players will compete again to determine the winner.”

[NHL reveals 2018 All-Star Game rosters; who missed out?]

Save Streak: “Five goalies and all 36 skaters will participate in the GEICO NHL Save Streak™, a shootout grouped by division where goalies compete to make the most consecutive saves. Each goalie will face one opposing division and a minimum of nine scoring attempts. Each scoring attempt is officiated in accordance with NHL shootout rules and begins on the referee’s whistle. Players from each division will shoot in numerical order, lowest to highest, with the divisional captain shooting ninth. A goalie’s round at the GEICO NHL Save Streak™ cannot end with a save – if the divisional captain’s shot is saved, the goalie will continue to face shooters until a goal is scored. If the goalie makes a save on the divisional captain’s shot, the order of shooters to follow is the same as at the original order. The goalie with the longest consecutive save streak during his time in net is the winner of the GEICO NHL Save Streak™. If there is a tie for longest consecutive save streak, the goalie with the highest total saves made during his round will be crowned the winner.”

Where’s the fun for the goalies? We need to get them doing something other than stopping shots. Let’s get them back to trying to score, hitting targets down the ice like they were outlet passes or, hey, why not bring back the goalie race?

The Tampa Bay Lightning, who are celebrating their 25th season, and the city of Tampa will host the 2018 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend. The League’s midseason showcase will take place at AMALIE Arena and will include the 2018 GEICO NHL All-Star Skills Competition on Saturday, Jan. 27 (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS) and 2018 Honda NHL All-Star Game on Sunday, Jan. 28 (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

————

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.

Hurricanes should explore goalie trade market with Darling failing

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You can throw stats out there to explain how Scott Darling has been a disappointment for the Carolina Hurricanes.

The hulking goalie sports an atrocious .892 save percentage and a mediocre 9-13-6 record so far as the Hurricanes’ starter, with Cam Ward shining by comparison (yet still not good enough). There are lowlights aplenty.

The Raleigh News & Observer’s Luke DeCock provides a harsh one-liner that really sells the letdown, though: “He’s not even Eddie Lack.”

Ouch.

Looking deeper at the numbers, it’s tough to let Darling off the hook.

The Hurricanes aren’t really allowing a problematic number of high-danger chances, and they continue to hog the puck in the ways that made people so excited about them in the first place (first in Corsi For percentage, via Natural Stat Trick).

DeCock asks a fair question: will GM and team legend Ron Francis get another shot to identify a better goalie after whiffing once again?

In the case of Lack, it was at least not a ruinous contract. Darling’s $4.15 million cap hit runs through the 2020-21 season, so of course Bill Peters and others are doing what they can to throw their support around the big netminder.

But maybe DeCock and others are onto something when it comes to the 2017-18 season.

Proactive approach might be best

Cam Ward’s latest ill-advised contract ($3.3M cap hit) dissolves after this campaign. With that in mind, the Hurricanes will either promote a goalie from their system or search the free agent market for a backup.

Instead of waiting for that latter option, what if the Hurricanes traded for someone who might be able to help them now?

One can apply similar thoughts to the Chicago Blackhawks living without Corey Crawford.

The Hurricanes could aim for someone with some skins on the wall as at least partial starters, if they think they can rejuvenate Jaroslav Halak or Petr Mrazek. If they’d rather aim for potential, there are interesting backups hoping to climb in Aaron Dell and Philipp Grubauer.

There’s a chance that Darling might eventually turn his career around. The Hurricanes would be foolish to just assume that such a rebound will happen, though. They might need to cut their losses and make Darling an overpaid backup at some point, as fans must already be getting impatient with this “if only we had a solid goalie” song and dance.

Soul searching

Finding a solution might mean asking some tough questions.

Are there systemic issues here? Do the Hurricanes need to hire a different goalie coach, or add to their staff? What went wrong in evaluating Darling?

Looking at Darling’s career on hockeydb, it’s clear that he was never really a workhorse, whether that was due to his own shortcomings earlier on or teams never really giving him a shot. Darling never played more than 26 regular-season games in the AHL, though he played well when he did, even in the playoffs. In fact, his career-high was 42 regular-season games with the USHL’s Indiana Ice in 2007-08.

Such factoids make Darling’s success story quite inspiring, but you wonder if the Hurricanes were guilty of too much wishful thinking. Yes, Darling was good (.915 save percentage in 29 appearances in 2015-16) to great (.936 in 14 games in 2014-15, .924 in 32 games last season) with the Chicago Blackhawks. Still, he was dismissed frequently during his career, only getting picked in the sixth round (153rd overall) in 2007 by the then-Phoenix Coyotes.

Draft stature doesn’t mean everything, especially with goalies. Henrik Lundqvist went in the seventh round. Plenty of first-rounders don’t pan out.

***

The bottom line is that it’s tough to prognosticate how a goalie will react to a new environment, particularly when they’re going from backup to starter. The Hurricanes would be wise to explore their options in case Darling’s struggles are the rule rather than exception.

Why not get the ball rolling (puck dropping?) on a solution sooner rather than later?

For all we know, the Hurricanes might end up with two effective goalies if they try that approach; Darling might benefit from real competition rather than having a lame duck backup in Ward. They’d gladly take one instead of the far-too-common zero they’ve been dealing with for far too long.

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.

St. Louis Blues getting healthier at crucial time

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At one point during this season, it looked like the St. Louis Blues might run away with the Central Division. Failing that, it seemed like they would at least silence doubts about injuries submarining their campaign.

Then Jaden Schwartz got hurt.

OK, that’s a mild exaggeration. The accumulation of injuries was about more than Schwartz, and to some extent, the Blues’ stumbles come down to depth issues and Jake Allen‘s struggles.

To the credit of Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko, they’ve both been quite productive even with Schwartz out since Dec. 9. Either way, St. Louis has been losing ground, and you get the impression that attrition is at least part of the problem.

Monday brings some fantastic news, then, even if the gratification is delayed: Schwartz has been medically cleared to return. Early indications are that Schwartz will come back on Thursday instead of Tuesday, according to The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford and others, but either way that’s great news for a Blues team that could use a boost.

It will be intriguing to see how Mike Yeo handles the infusion of high-end talent.

On one hand, he may be tempted to put Schwartz right back with Schenn and Tarasenko to reunite one of the deadliest lines of 2017-18. On the other, the Blues have been quite top-heavy at times lately. Yeo’s actually already been experimenting with Schenn and Tarasenko on different lines (see this Left Wing Lock study of their last 10 games), so it’s a puzzle he’s already trying to solve.

Getting Schwartz back means players who were maybe straining while being “promoted to a level of incompetence” could then go back to more appropriate spots. Ivan Barbashev and Kyle Brodziak are two players more suited for depth roles, as just two examples.

With Patrik Berglund and Jay Bouwmeester healing up as well, the Blues might get back on track after some mild stumbling.

Not a moment too soon

As of this writing, the Blues are ranked third in the Central Division, but their standing (59 points) is inflated by the number of games they’ve played (49 games). Consider some of the most pressing threats to the Blues, and you’ll realize that a playoff spot is by no means guaranteed.

First, consider how close their Central Division rivals are to pushing the Blues into the wild card fray:

Blues: 28-18-3, 59 points, 49 games played

Stars: 27-17-4, 58 points, 48 GP
Avalanche: 26-16-3, 55 points, 45 GP
Wild: 25-17-5, 55 points, 47 GP
Blackhawks: 22-18-6, 50 points, 46 GP

Chicago doesn’t pose the largest threat, yet the Blackhawks could make things a lot more interesting if they win those three games in hand. And that’s the team that’s probably the least of the Blues worries, Central-wise.

You’d think that the Central Division has a strong chance to land five of the eight West playoff spots, but St. Louis can’t disregard some Pacific hopefuls.

Blues: 28-18-3, 59 points, 49 games played

Kings: 25-17-5, 55 points in 47 GP
Ducks: 22-17-9, 53 points in 48 GP

As you can see, Los Angeles could tie the Blues in points by winning those two games in hand. St. Louis would still have more wins in that scenario (28 to 27, Kings currently at 25), but the point is that the temperature could rise quickly.

***

The Blues began a four-game homestand on Saturday, and they play five of their next seven in St. Louis. While there’s a tough stretch here and there (late February to early March stands out), nothing on the schedule screams “meltdown.”

We may look back at this week as a turning point for the Blues, as Schwartz’s important return spotlights a larger trend of improved health.

They must hope that rust isn’t too much of a factor, as their margin of error is a lot slimmer than it was when the underrated winger got injured.

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.

Fantasy Adds & Drops: It’s Miller Time

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This weekly column will aim to help fantasy hockey general managers navigate through the rough waters of their league’s waiver wire. We’ll recommend players for you to pick up that are owned in less than 50 percent of Yahoo Leagues and we’ll also suggest players for you to drop, too.

Here we go:

Adds:

Colin Miller– D- Vegas Golden Knights (36 percent)

Miller has been one of the more pleasant surprises on the Golden Knights roster. He went eight games without getting on the scoresheet, but he managed to collect three points against the Hurricanes last night. Miller has six goals and 24 points in 46 games this season.

Bo Horvat– C- Vancouver Canucks (33 percent)

Horvat made his return to the Canucks lineup on Sunday after he missed 18 games with an ankle injury. Prior to getting hurt, he picked up four points in his six games. It might take him time to get back into the flow of things, but he could be an intriguing option between now and the end of the season.

Nick Schmaltz– C/LW- Chicago Blackhawks (33 percent)

The ‘Hawks are struggling, but Schmaltz hasn’t had any issues producing offensively of late. He’s racked up 13 points in his last 11 games. Schmaltz has played at least 17 minutes in his last 14 games. The fact that he can play multiple positions in Yahoo Leagues make him a solid addition in standard fantasy leagues.

[More Fantasy: Rotoworld’s Week Ahead column]

Sami Vatanen– D- New Jersey Devils (27 percent)

Vatanen seems to be adjusting quite well to his new surroundings in New Jersey. The blue liner didn’t pick up a point in Saturday’s game against the Flyers, but he’s accumulated nine points in his last 10 games. He’s also played at least 20 minutes in all but one of his games since joining the Devils from Anaheim.

David Krejci– C- Boston Bruins (26 percent)

Krejci’s had some injury trouble this season, but he and the Bruins have been rolling lately. The Bruins center is riding a five-game point streak. Since returning from an upper-body injury on Dec. 30, he’s racked up 10 points in nine contests. Krejci’s on pace to score 57 points in just 64 games this season. If he can stay off the injured list, he’ll be a solid addition to any fantasy lineup.

Drops:

Milan Lucic– LW- Edmonton Oilers (68 percent)

Lucic has now gone 11 games without finding the back of the net. He’s also registered just four assists during that stretch. The Oilers forward has also received under 16 minutes of ice time in each of his last six outings. It’s time for Lucic’s fantasy owners to cut bait with the veteran winger.

[Listen to Rotoworld’s Fantasy Hockey Podcast]

Patrick Marleau– C/LW- Toronto Maple Leafs (57 percent)

Marleau has brought some strong veteran presence to the Leafs lineup, but he hasn’t been very productive of late. He’s now gone eight games without accumulating a point. Toronto’s offense will find it’s groove again at some point, but fantasy owners can’t sit and do nothing. Marleau is on pace to pick up 41 points, which doesn’t make him relevant in most standard fantasy leagues. He can be dropped immediately.

Brendan Gallagher– RW- Montreal Canadiens (48 percent)

Gallagher is now owned in under 50 percent of leagues, but he could be dropped in even more leagues over the next few days. The winger has one goal in his last nine contests. Gallagher had a strong first half of the year, but he’s predictably come back down to earth.

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.