The Anaheim Ducks are in a difficult position right now, with respect to their goaltending. The club, in the midst of a heated playoff series with their California rivals, the L.A. Kings, recalled John Gibson due to an injury to Frederik Andersen. Gibson could potentially be an option to start in Game 4 of that series, although Jonas Hiller did come in to relieve an injured Andersen in a Game 3 victory for Anaheim.
By Tim Booth (AP Sports Writer)
KENT, Wash. (AP) — They showed up on a Tuesday night in early January to enjoy the 2-for-1 beers and hot dogs, the free parking, the $15 tickets a few rows off the ice and the chance to chant ”Portland sucks,” for three hours.
Some of the more than 5,000 people in attendance wore the jerseys of the Islanders, Sharks, Rangers, Maple Leafs, Bruins, Canucks, Golden Knights and of course, the hometown Seattle Thunderbirds of the junior-level Western Hockey League. Someday it may be the Sasquatch, Totems or Sockeyes or whatever a potential future NHL franchise in Seattle ends up adopting as its nickname.
This scene plays out regularly inside the ShoWare Center, about 20 miles southeast of downtown Seattle. Junior hockey in Seattle has a storied history. Hockey’s history in the Emerald City dates back more than a century to when the Seattle Metropolitans hoisted the 1917 Stanley Cup.
All indications are that the NHL and Seattle are on the verge of a marriage sometime in 2018. The arrival of an NHL franchise – likely in 2020 or 2021 depending on construction of a remodeled Seattle Center arena – will fill a void in the gloomy months of the sports calendar and drop the NHL into the biggest market in the country without a winter sports team.
But can a booming Seattle eventually become a hockeytown?
”It’s the last place in the United States in my opinion to catch on to hockey,” said former Philadelphia Flyers general manager and current Thunderbirds GM Russ Farwell.
”Everyone assumes that because we’re close to Canada we’re into hockey and that’s not the case,” Farwell continued. ”There is no reason this can’t be a good hockey town and I think there is a lot of pluses.”
The first test of Seattle’s willingness to embrace the NHL will arrive in the coming months when the prospective NHL ownership group begins a season-ticket drive, the same way the league tested Las Vegas.
But finding a foothold in Seattle will be an examination of how starved fans are for another team. Basketball is embedded in the DNA of the region thanks to 41 years of the SuperSonics until 2008 and a lengthy history of producing NBA talent. When the rain of the fall and winter drive young athletes inside, they grab a basketball and head for the nearest gym to play pickup games.
Basketball courts and coffee shops seem to be on every corner, but ice rinks are scarce.
”The chance to participate and stay involved and play the game needs ice rinks and that’s all it would take,” Farwell said. ”There’s no reason this couldn’t be grown to be a good hockey city and center and stuff but it’s not automatic and it’s not just going to happen.”
Any NHL team in Seattle would find a completely different landscape than a decade ago when the Sonics and NBA moved to Oklahoma City and the city lost its winter sports outlet.
Seattle’s skyline is filled with as many construction cranes as snowcapped peaks in the surrounding mountains. Amazon has taken over an entire section of the city, joined nearby by satellite offices of Google and Facebook. The amount of wealth now in the Seattle market is part of the reason Oak View CEO Tim Leiweke has regularly called Seattle ”a brilliant marketplace” and one of the most enticing expansion opportunities in pro sports history.
Seattle has become a city of transplants due to the booming local economy. A hockey franchise would provide those newcomers a team to rally around, much like what happened when the Sounders of the MLS arrived in 2009.
But it’s a different sports marketplace than a decade ago, when ticket sales and television revenues were driving franchise success. The globalization of sports due to technology has become a challenge for all leagues, said Jennifer Hoffman of the College of Education at the University of Washington.
”I think the question about our population is what sports are they interested in? And that’s going to be a challenge for all of our franchises, our big franchises and our smaller ones,” Hoffman said. ”It’s not a Seattle phenomenon but we’re a good case for this point in history where digital transition is really occurring and it’s really hard to know who your fans are and where they are.”
John Barr believes there are plenty of potential hockey fans in the Seattle market. A Bay Area transplant, Barr has become the voice of hockey fans with his NHLtoSeattle.com website and social accounts. Barr got hooked on the sport while attending San Jose games when the Sharks arrived the Bay Area. He’s regularly makes trips to Boston, Minnesota, Montreal, Nashville and Las Vegas for games.
”The Seahawks run this town and I think a lion share of people obviously want the Sonics back,” Barr said. ”I totally understand the hierarchy there, but I just think this is a great opportunity for the area to have the NHL and have a winter sport.”
Season tickets are just one of several significant obstacles. Arena construction won’t begin until later this year with an ambitious goal of completion in late 2020. There are also transportation issues near the arena site.
And the franchise needs to be awarded in the first place. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman wouldn’t even entertain discussion about Seattle recently.
”The application has not yet been filed so any speculation about Seattle is, at this point, a little premature,” Bettman said.
In the corner of his office, Thunderbirds Vice President Colin Campbell has a photo of Wayne Gretzky in the foreground with Campbell behind the glass. He grew up in Edmonton and was a Zamboni driver for the Oilers in his younger years. Now he ponders the future of hockey in Seattle with the NHL on the horizon.
”It always amazed me when I first got here that people didn’t even know there was a hockey team in town. Well, that’s still the case,” said Campbell, who moved to Seattle in 1995. ”It’s still out there, and yet we’re doing very well in this building and everything is going good. But it’s a big market, it’s a tough market to reach … so with an NHL team coming in and working together it will create new opportunities to grow.”
It wasn’t the easiest start to a career, but Jesse Puljujarvi of the Edmonton Oilers has used an AHL demotion to take hold of a regular NHL spot this season.
The No. 4 overall pick from the 2016 draft played 28 games last season in Edmonton before being sent down to Bakersfield for the rest of the year. It was the right move by general manager Peter Chiarelli, even though it should have happened earlier than it did, especially when you look at just how much his ice time had been declining.
Fast forward to training camp this past September and the 19-year-old Puljujarvi still needed some more seasoning in the AHL. Head coach Todd McLellan said at the time they expected him to be one of their nine-best forwards and weren’t willing to keep him up with the big club to be stuck on the fourth line.
“We didn’t feel like he won that position and therefore we wanted to get him to Bakersfield and have him start the season there and get him working on his game,” McLellan said after camp.
Puljujarvi got a second chance in November when injuries forced an opening on the Oilers’ right side. “He’s not going to be our savior,” McLellan said. “Everybody else has to contribute and help him feel comfortable.”
Had it not been for injuries, it was anyone’s guess when Puljujarvi would have received another shot. He wasn’t exactly lighting it up in the AHL with a goal and five points in 10 games. The call up was basically a test. We need a body on the right wing. Show us what you got. The answer so far has been a passing grade: nine goals and 14 points in 30 games.
Using his size — 6’4, 211 lbs. — Puljujarvi has positioned himself in and around the net more compared to last season and it’s reflected in where most of his 80 shots have come from, as HockeyViz.com shows. He’s also shooting more and is currently second in the league in shots per 60 at even strength (11.77), per Natural Stat Trick, up from 7.27 a season ago.
The production has resulted in more ice time, which is up three minutes from last season. As a young player, it’s common for the points to dry up and have that drought affect your play, but that hasn’t been the case for Puljujarvi, something the coaching staff has noticed.
“He’s played well. He’s played confident,” said McLellan earlier this week. “The big test for him is that he went dry for five, six, seven, eight games without anything. Was he going to regress and lose his confidence? I thought he looked very confident the other day so that tells me he’s continuing his growth and he’s able to fight off those negative demons, if you will. As a result, he gets a little bit more time on the power play and we’re trying to position him where he can use his shot somewhat. He’s really starting to understand the systematic part of it and he’s been fun to be around the last little bit because he’s believing in himself and everyone else is believing in him.”
On and off the ice, Puljujarvi has shown an infectious personality as he works on his English. The hanging tongue when he skates? “That’s my thing, I don’t know why I do it.” Videobombing Connor McDavid while eating pizza? “That’s one time!”
Then there was the one afternoon during Edmonton’s bye week where Puljujarvi hit up a local outdoor rink and ended up playing some shinny with a couple of stunned young fans, leaving them with some photos, a signed stick and plenty of memories.
“I just wanted to go outside and do something. It’s always fun to skate,” he said.
One thing to take out of an Oilers season that hasn’t had a lot of positives is Puljujarvi’s emergence. He took advantage of an opportunity and it appears as if his days in Bakersfield are behind him for good.
“The sky is as tall as he wants it to be,” said Connor McDavid. “He’s big, skates well, is confident, has a great shot. But I think it all goes back to his size. He’s 6-4, still young, trying to (grow) into his body. He’ll be that solid-on-his feet, good puck-battle guy. Good in front of the net. The sky’s the limit for him.”
At this point in the season there are really only seven or eight teams that you can safely say are out of the playoff race.
The Montreal Canadiens, sitting nine points out of a Wild Card spot and in 14th place out of 16 teams in the Eastern Conference, are almost certainly one of those teams.
The entire season has been a disaster on the ice.
Carey Price, the most important player and perhaps most important person in the organization, has had an uncharacteristically down year. The Canadiens have proven over the past few years that they only go as he goes, and when he is not one of the top-five goalies in the league their chances of success are virtually zero.
Shea Weber, the team’s best defenseman, has been limited to just 26 games this season due to injury, and even when he has played the team is only 10-13-3. That means they actually have a better record, 9-9-3, when he doesn’t play.
Max Pacioretty, the team’s best forward (and still one of the best bargains in the NHL under the salary cap) went through one of the worst goal droughts of his career in the middle of the season. He has since snapped out of it in a big way, but his struggles still hurt.
We still don’t really know how good Alex Galchenyuk is, and neither, it seems, do the Canadiens. He hasn’t really regressed, but he hasn’t really taken a big step forward, either. He’s a good, but not great player. Maybe this is what he is?
Jonathan Drouin, their biggest acquisition of the offseason, has spent the season playing out of position (something that has hurt him by the Canadiens’ own admission) and currently has fewer goals and points on the season (seven and 22) than the 19-year-old rookie defenseman he was traded for (Mikhail Sergachev has eight goals and 27 points for the Tampa Bay Lightning). That’s not to say the trade can’t ever work in the future, but if this is what you expected from him this season you’re lying.
There is probably more — there is definitely more — but those five developments alone are enough to sabotage an entire season for any team.
Now the Canadiens and general manager Marc Bergevin are left with the difficult task of trying to figure out how to fix it. According to Elliotte Friedman in his latest 31 Thoughts column Bergevin is looking to be active ahead of the trade deadline, and that outside of Price, Weber, Drouin and 19-year-old defenseman Victor Mete they would probably listen on anyone.
There seems to be some debate as to what it should be called — a rebuild, a re-tooling, something else — but the end result should be the same: The Canadiens should probably burn it all to the ground.
Here’s the problem with the way the Canadiens are currently constructed: They not only have some devastating flaws, from not having a No. 1 center, to being overly dependent on their goalie, to having an older and expensive defense, but it’s hard to see a path that will enable them to quickly turn it around fast enough to still be able to win with the core they have committed to.
Starting next season Price’s new $10.5 million per year contract kicks in. That will run alongside the $7.8 million per year price tag that Weber will carry for another nine seasons. After next season Pacioretty — assuming he has not been traded by then — will be playing on a new contract that will probably be paying him close to double what he is making now.
I am generally all for teams spending big bucks on their core.
The concerns over teams committing too much salary cap space to a small handful of players are almost always overblown because the teams that win Stanley Cups all do it. They have to do it.
But the Canadiens’ roster construction is a little different than the teams that have won Stanley Cups with that sort of roster construction. Most teams are paying that money to players (usually forwards — and specifically centers) that are still in their mid-20s or still closer to the prime of their careers.
Starting next season the Canadiens are going to be paying more than $18 million to a 33-year-old defenseman and a 31-year-old goalie through the end of the 2025-26 season.
No other team in the league has built its core around similar players. Certainly no successful team.
Bad news, folks: No matter how great Weber and Price have been in their careers, they are going to start slowing down and perhaps even breaking down. Their best hockey is probably in the rear view mirror. And again, the best forward on the team is going to need a new contract within the next year, at which point he, too, will be over the age of 30.
They have six defensemen under contract for next season (at more than $23 million in combined salary) and only one of them will be under the age of 30 (Victor Mete will be 20).
This is a team that this season is giving up more than 32 shots on goal per game. This is a team that is giving up 60 total shot attempts per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. Both place them in the bottom half of the league. In other words, it is already a mediocre at best defensive team and it’s not likely to get much better with the current cast of characters because there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this is what they are.
In his 31 Thoughts column Friedman mentioned the Colorado Avalanche and their turnaround as a reason as to why the Canadiens don’t want to use the word “rebuild,” and that it’s possible to turn things around quickly. And that’s fair. But are the really a lot of parallels here between this Canadiens team and the Avalanche? Is Jonathan Drouin capable of becoming a potential scoring champion and MVP next season the way Nathan MacKinnon is? Does Montreal have a Mikko Rantanen ready to break out? Are they going to pluck an Alexander Kerfoot out of free agency and get an immediate impact? Then there is this: Even with a 10-game winning streak and all of the things just mentioned, Colorado is still only a fringe playoff team more than halfway through the season and far from a lock to actually make the playoffs.
There just doesn’t seem to be a lot here to inspire much confidence that a sudden turnaround is right around the corner.
Sure, Carey Price could very easily rebound and return to form next season, but even if he does that only puts the Canadiens right back to where they were in recent years — a flawed team that has to rely on its goalie to carry them.
That recipe won the Canadiens one playoff series the previous three seasons and only got them out of the first round twice in seven years.
This team probably needs more than just a few tweaks here and there. It needs core players. It needs young core players.
It is not a great spot to be in, and the Canadiens really shouldn’t take any half measures. They need to go all in in one direction. Given the makeup of the roster the most sensible direction at this point would seem to be to just put up a for sale sign in the front yard.
Then comes the big question: Do you trust the current front office to actually orchestrate that type of rebuild? This roster pretty much belongs entirely to Bergevin. The only players that predate his time as general manager are Pacioretty, Price, Gallagher and Galchenyuk. The rest of it, including the defense, belong to him.
He brought you here, Montreal. Can he get you out of it?
WINNIPEG — There was a time in Winnipeg where a one-goal lead would end in a one-goal loss. A time when no lead was safe and it was oddly better to see the Jets trying to climb back from behind than leading heading down the home stretch.
The Jets have learned much since those days, as evidenced by their top spot in the Central Division.
A 90-second 6-on-4 to close out Sunday’s game against the Vancouver Canucks highlighted a new shift in how the Jets conduct their business on the ice.
The above scenario may have spelled doom more often than not in years gone by, but Sunday illuminated how the Jets have been able to overcome those demons and forge ahead with a new philosophy that deploys calmness instead of frantic, poise instead of instability.
The Jets simply bore down when times became tough late in Sunday’s game. Those 90 seconds showed the evolution of the maturity within the team’s defensive structure. They didn’t allow a single shot to touch All-Star goalie Connor Hellebuyck and time simply expired for the Canucks, who couldn’t solve Winnipeg’s riddle.
“I think we’re able to play in those tight games, those low-scoring games and feel we can win those,” said defenseman Josh Morrissey, who has been the Jets best blueliner this season. “I think that’s been a big growth point for our time.”
Winnipeg’s buy-in defensively has ushered in some outstanding results.
Hellebuyck has been nothing short of spectacular between the pipes for the Jets this season, with his recent All-Star nod a testament to an overall turnaround that went from him coming into the season as the No. 2 to the Michigan native being mentioned in part of any conversation that includes the name Vezina.
While the Jets have benefitted from timely saves from their No. 1, Hellebuyck has benefitted from the five in front of him.
No starting goalie in the NHL has seen less high-danger shot attempts than Hellebuyck.
“That’s part of the thing where we want to limit the chances against… limiting that second and third opportunity… sort of by not panicking in those situations when a scrum happens or a chance against happens and being able to have some poise and sort it out, so to speak,” Morrissey said.
The buy-in from the fifth youngest team in the NHL, and one that scores more goals than all but three other NHL outfits, is remarkable.
“I think they have a real strong understanding of what they’re supposed to be doing (defensively),” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said after Sunday’s win. “We’re still young in just age on some guys, but the overall structure their understanding’s good. I think the back end has really helped. You take two centers (Mark Scheifele and Adam Lowry) out of your lineup it puts an awful lot of stress on your defense.”
Maurice has spoken at length about the reasons he feels his team has figured out the defensive aspects of the game of hockey. He touched on part of the equation on Sunday.
“Having six NHL defencemen makes a difference,” Maurice said, alluding to the fact the Jets spent very little time healthy on the blue line last season. “Being healthy on the back end makes a difference. They control an awful lot of the play. (We’ve got a ) goaltender who’s got a lot of confidence in the pipes. And I go back to center ice. We’ve asked Blake (Wheeler) and Andrew Copp to be really strong and they have been.”
Even the team’s most offensive and offensively gifted player is seeing the light.
“As a team, it doesn’t matter if we’re chasing or leading, we want to play the same game,” said Patrik Laine, the Finnish phenom who leads the Jets with 21 goals this season. “We want to play tight defense and give them nothing and try to be patient. We can’t open up our game.”
Laine, who played his 100th NHL game only recently, has stumbled at times this season. His offensive capabilities haven’t left him, even if his confidence has at times this year, but he’s had little choice but to work on the game played in his own zone.
And the 19-year-old seems to have a keen understanding of what lies ahead for the Jets as they grind toward their second playoff berth since relocating from Atlanta in 2011.
“It’s going to be like this for the next couple of months but everybody here in this locker room is comfortable with that kind of game and that’s the reason why we’re winning,” Laine said. “We’re a tight defensive team and we’ve got to score on the few chances that we get.”