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The dangerous line Brad Marchand sometimes skates with the NHL

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On Tuesday night Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand made some headlines again when he tripped Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman in the neutral zone with his skate. He did not receive any additional punishment from the league for the play.

As an isolated incident involving two nameless, faceless players it probably wouldn’t have been a play that received anywhere near as much attention as it did. It would be easy, and perhaps somewhat reasonable, to conclude that it was simply a hockey play that involved a player turning to move in the direction of the puck, and at the very least, being guilty of a tripping penalty.

But the play did not involve nameless, faceless players.

It involved Brad Marchand.

On one hand, he is a tremendous player that over the past two years has blossomed into one of the game’s best forwards after getting an increased role in the team’s offense. He is a player that the 29 other general managers outside of Boston would absolutely love to have on their team.

If one of them said they would not want him on their team, you can just assume they are lying. Or are really, really bad at their job.

But he is also player that skates a very dangerous line with the league.

He is a player that had just been fined $10,000 in his previous game before the Stralman incident for a dangerous trip on Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Kronwall. He is a player that has an extensive history of plays in his career that involve him taking out his opponent’s legs.

He was already warned once this season for slew-footing (a play that is very different than a trip), an act that has earned him a suspension (two games in 2014-15) and a fine ($2,500 in 2011-12) previously in his career.

He has been suspended twice for clipping (three games in 2015-16 and five games in 2011-12).

In total, those five incidents, all plays that targeted the legs of an opponent, have cost him 10 games and more than $377,000 in lost salary (between fines and forfeited salary during suspensions) since the start of the 2011-12 season.

That is a lot, and still, the message does not seem to be getting through.

If the NHL’s department of player safety has shown us anything in its existence, it is that players with a history tend to get hammered when the message does not get through. When Matt Cooke kept getting called in for hearings and getting suspended for hits to the head, he eventually ended up crossing the line so many times that he finally got hit with a 17-game ban during the 2010-11 season (10 regular season games and the entire first round of the playoffs, which turned out to be a seven-game series).

When Raffi Torres couldn’t control himself from hitting his opponents in the head, he ended up losing half of a season.

Now, Marchand’s history of incidents aren’t quite on the same scale as those two, but the point remains: He has an extensive track record of a certain type of play, and it would seem reasonable to assume that at least one of these latest incidents would have warranted more than just a fine.

But this is where the NHL is in a tough spot with Marchand.

A player’s history does not become a factor until it is determined that a particular play is worthy of a suspension, and if there is another thing we have learned about the DoPS at this point it is that there are certain plays they do not tend to suspend for. Those are typically the plays that Marchand is involved in.

During the playoffs last year I went back through every suspension and fine the DoPS has issued since the department was formed at the start of the 2011-12 season and compiled a list of what does — and does not — tend to result in a suspension. I updated it to include this season’s 10 suspensions and five fines.

This does not include fines for embellishment or incidents not handled by the DoPS.

Notice where slew-footing and tripping, highlighted in yellow, sit.

suspensionsfines

Marchand’s borderline acts tend to be those that do not typically result in suspensions, mainly because one of the biggest goals of the DoPS in its development was to focus on direct hits to the head, or plays that could involve the head (boarding, elbowing, etc.).

Of the eight slew-footing incidents that have risen to the level of player safety, only two, including one for Marchand, warranted a suspension (and they were just a few weeks apart during the 2013-14 season). Six resulted in fines.

Astonishingly, two of the three clipping suspensions the league has handed out belong to Marchand.

The NHL, under the DoPS, has never suspended a player for tripping, and that is a precedent they are probably not going to break in the middle of a season unless it is an extremely egregious incident. Had the NHL suspended him for one of these past two plays (specifically the Kronwall one) he probably would have had a reason to appeal based on that, and would have stood a good chance of winning it.

There are two things that maybe the NHL as a league needs to consider here during the offseason.

The first is that maybe it should take into account a player’s history as soon as it looks at an incident. It might not be entirely fair, it might create the mindset that a particular player is getting picked on or targeted, but if it’s a player that has an extensive track record of similar plays it is probably a player that needs to be targeted.

The other is that the league — including the 30 general managers — need to set a new standard for what should happen on plays that target player’s legs like the ones we’ve talked about here. At this point it doesn’t seem to be a primary concern, perhaps because a slew foot or a trip (like the one involving Marchand and Kronwall) has not really resulted in a serious injury, whether it be to their leg or something worse after falling to the ice.

If it eventually did, you could bet that it would start to get more attention. Take, for example, the aforementioned Matt Cooke. When he wrecked Marc Savard‘s career with that horrendous hit a few years ago he did not receive a suspension for a play that everybody in the league — including his own team — wanted to see him suspended for because the league had a long-standing precedent that it was a legal play. Dirty. But legal.

When there was enough of an uproar, specifically because of that hit by Cooke a couple of other similar hits that season, it finally led to the creation of rule 48 and the development of the DoPS.

In the end, this is the fine line that you get with Marchand.

He is a great player. A top-line, possession driving scorer whose on-ice performance appeals to be the analytical and eye-test senses.

But he also skates a fine — and in certain areas reckless — line that makes him a thorn in the side of the NHL as much as it does his opponents.

The Buzzer: Canucks continue Red Wings’ slide

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Player of the Night: Sven Baertschi

Last season, Baertschi was a bright spot for a dismal Vancouver Canucks team, generating new career-highs in goals (18) and points (35) in 68 regular-season games.

The 25-year-old carried over some of that momentum early on, generating three points in seven games, but they were all assists. Sunday marked his best moment of 2017-18, as Baertschi scored his first two goals of the campaign (giving him five points in eight contests).

Bo Horvat is the honorable mention in the Canucks’ 4-1 win against the Detroit Red Wings, collecting his first two assists of the season. Jake Virtanen also found the net for his first goal of the season.

(As an aside, Derek Dorsett somehow has five goals already in 2017-18. Dorsett’s career-high is 12 goals, but he’s already in range of tying his second-best mark of seven.)

Highlight of the Night: Why not go with Baertschi’s two goals?

Factoid of the Night: This marks the fourth straight loss for the Red Wings, dropping them to 4-4-1 after a promising 4-1-0 start. But the hits could keep coming.

Beginning with Tuesday’s game against the Sabres in Buffalo, Detroit will play three straight road games and seven of their next eight away from home. The bright side is that they’ll enjoy a ton of contests at their expensive new pad starting in mid-November, but the next few weeks could really dim whatever optimism the Red Wings built up early on.

(For pro-tanking Red Wings fans, this might not be such a bad thing.)

Sunday’s lone score: Canucks 4, Red Wings 1

Can Golden Knights keep winning as they keep losing goalies?

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The Vegas Golden Knights confirmed today’s fearful report: Malcolm Subban is expected to miss about a month thanks to a lower-body injury suffered during another Golden Knights upset (3-2 in OT vs. the Blues) on Saturday night.

It makes for a dizzying run of turnover in the Cinderella expansion team’s net; Calvin Pickard went to the Toronto Maple Leafs as the odd man out, Subban is headed to IR, and Marc-Andre Fleury is sidelined with another concussion.

The spotlight, then, turns to Oscar Dansk, the 23-year-old goalie who stopped 10 of 11 shots against St. Louis when Subban went down with that injury.

Golden Knights GM George McPhee said the predictable, right things regarding Dansk and the situation:

“Injuries provide opportunities for others and that is the situation we have here,” McPhee said. “Our top two goaltenders are currently sidelined so we will now give our AHL goalies the chance to play in their absence. We felt Oscar Dansk performed well in relief on Saturday in his NHL debut.”

In a way, Dansk feels like a lower-level version of Subban. While Subban is/was a struggling former first-rounder, Dansk was the second-round version; the Columbus Blue Jackets made him the 31st pick of the 2012 NHL Draft.

(Hey, the 31st pick is now a first-rounder thanks to the Golden Knights, so there’s that.)

Dansk hasn’t been setting the hockey world on fire at other levels, but maybe that makes him an interesting fit for this weird situation, as the Golden Knights continue to defy odds and puck-gravity during a 6-1-0 start.

What to expect

While the Chicago Blackhawks boast the sort of firepower that could make for an unpleasant introduction for Dansk, at least the Golden Knights still have a few games remaining on their first-ever homestand:

Tue, Oct 24 vs Chicago
Fri, Oct 27 vs Colorado
Mon, Oct 30 @ NY Islanders
Tue, Oct 31 @ NY Rangers

That back-to-back to end the month could be Halloween-scary, but at least Vegas has some time to prepare. The losses are likely to come starting on Oct. 30, as they face a six-game road trip and eight of nine games away from home. That’s challenging, no expansion disclaimers needed.

How they’ve been playing

Some wonder if the Golden Knights should loosen their defensive logjam by trading for a netminder.

Rather than wading too deep into that discussion, this seems like a reasonable time to look at the Golden Knights seven games (and six wins) in.

  • One thing that stands out is Vegas’ penalty kill. They’ve been almost perfect if you exclude a rough showing in their overtime win against the Sabres (Buffalo went 3-for-5 in that game). Aside from that, they’ve only allowed one power-play goal. They’ve also only hit the penalty box three or four times most nights, with one night with just one trip and the five opportunities for the Sabres standing as the outliers.

The Golden Knights should expect more struggles in both regards, at least at times, this season. Maybe this long run of home-ice advantage and their expansion status helped avoid most whistles? Perhaps Gerard Gallant has them playing extra-smart?

  • So far, the shot counts have been pretty reasonable in five of seven games. They’ve only been heavily outshot twice so far: their first game (46 shots on goal for Dallas, 30 for them) and this past one vs. the Blues (49 for St. Louis, 22 for Vegas). That’s surprisingly competent stuff.
  • With any team enjoying success, close games can be a red flag, especially if there are OT wins. Vegas has three wins in overtime and one other one-goal win. Their 3-1 win against Boston included an empty-netter.

This isn’t to dismiss those wins, but sometimes close games are more like “coin flips,” and some of those will start going against the Golden Knights eventually.

  • The Golden Knights are a top-10 team in two luck-leaning categories: PDO and shooting percentage. That said, they’re not the top team in either spot, so it’s not outrageous to give them some credit.

***

Through some intriguing combination of competence and beginner’s luck, the Golden Knights are off to a shockingly good start.

It’s one thing to lose one goalie, but seeing both go down is brutal for any squad, let alone an expansion team. The Golden Knights have every excuse to start to fade, and were likely to see slippage even at full strength.

Even so, credit this team for being far better than anyone expected, and this hungry bunch will at least be able to point to doubtful bits like these if they need some “us against the world” motivation.

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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Appreciating Stamkos after he hit 600 points

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The modern NHL is no stranger to star players missing extended stretches because of injuries, opening the door for “What if?” frustrations.

As glorious as the last couple years have been for Sidney Crosby, the threat of another concussion looms like Michael Myers in the bushes. Connor McDavid lost half of his rookie season. Carey Price has already dealt with serious issues of his own.

Still, you can forgive Steven Stamkos and Tampa Bay Lightning fans for being especially miffed over the years, as his issues have bordered on the freakish. Stamkos has dealt with blood clots, his most recent right knee injury that required surgery, and broke his tibia after taking this bad-luck spill in 2013:

(Even about four years later, it’s still unsettling to watch Stamkos rapidly become aware of how bad his injury was.)

Stamkos has missed playoff time and saw at least two seasons short-circuited by injuries, as he only played in 17 games in 2016-17 and 37 in 2013-14.

Heading into this season, it was reasonable to try to limit expectations; most athletes struggle in the first year after significant surgeries. Maybe Stamkos will hit a wall at some point, but so far, he’s enjoyed the best start of his career, riding shotgun with budding superstar Nikita Kucherov.

It almost seems fitting, then, that Stamkos scored his 600th regular-season point during the Lightning’s 7-1 beatdown of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Even so, it’s resounding that – with all Stamkos has been through – he’s at that level at 27, and he’s done so in 595 games.

Impressive. With this incredible head start of 18 points in nine games, a healthy Stamkos might match or exceed the work he did during his best days earlier in his career. Note how dominant he was from his second through fourth seasons (while Stamkos managed 29 goals and 57 points in the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season, his fifth):

2009-10: 51 goals, 95 points

2010-11: 45 goals, 91 points

2011-12: 60 goals, 97 points

The other eye-popping stat from that run: he played in all 82 regular-season games in each of those three campaigns.

For some perspective, during the stretch of 2009-10 to 2011-12, Stamkos’ 283 points ranked second in the NHL, with only Henrik Sedins’ 287 ranking higher. His 156 goals easily led all players for that three-year stretch.

If that’s not enough to make you wonder where a healthy Stamkos might rank among the NHL’s upper echelon, consider this: from his sophomore 2009-10 season through today, he’s third in points-per-game among players who’ve played in at least 200, slightly edging Patrick Kane (1.06):

  1. Sidney Crosby (1.28)
  2. Evgeni Malkin (1.14)
  3. Stamkos (1.07)
  4. Kane (1.06)
  5. Alex Ovechkin (1.03)
  6. Nicklas Backstrom/retired Martin St. Louis (1.01)

As you can see, Stamkos ranks among six active players who’ve averaged at least one point-per-game since 2009-10.

Chances are, Stamkos will cool off mainly because, as great as Kucherov is, he’ll settle down a bit too. The Russian winger currently boasts a 29.4 shooting percentage, nearly doubling his already-impressive career average of 15.1 percent.

Still, it’s plausible that Stamkos could enjoy one of the best seasons of his career, and the interesting wrinkle might be that this stupendous sniper may serve as something of a facilitator (he currently has three goals versus 15 assists).

Now, don’t forget that Kucherov has been the catalyst for this burst, even if Stamkos makes this one of the NHL’s most scintillating symbiotic relationships. Hitting the 600-point milestone is merely a friendly reminder that Stamkos shouldn’t get lost in the elite conversation, and that hockey fans should be very, very happy to have him around.

Just stay a while this time, Stamkos. We like seeing you.

(Many stats via the wonderful resource that is Hockey Reference.)

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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Throwing Babcock a bone? Leafs bring back Roman Polak

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Sometimes you need to zoom out from a shaky move and appreciate the bigger picture.

Mike Babcock nailed it when he described the Toronto Maple Leafs, at least at times, as dumb and fun. The Leafs currently lead the NHL with 37 goals, one more than the red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning, despite Toronto playing one fewer game. Still, these young Buds also must raise Babcock’s blood pressure at times with their double-edged sword style.

Credit Babcock, then, with mostly embracing what makes this team tick. More rigid coaches would strain against such designs, almost certainly lowering the Maple Leafs’ ceiling in the process.

The Maple Leafs raised some eyebrows on Sunday by handing slow-footed, limited veteran defenseman Roman Polak a one-year, $1.1 million contract. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that the Maple Leafs slumped some shoulders.

None of these Twitter reactions are really off-base, honestly.

Polak, 31, simply isn’t an ideal fit for the modern NHL, and the Maple Leafs are very much embracing the fast, attacking style that’s (delightfully) coming in vogue.

Here’s a working theory, though: even the best coaches (at least right now) have “their guys.”

“Their guys” are often well-traveled, gritty types. Some only help teams in minimal ways while taking spots from prospects who might eventually be able to make bigger impacts. Others are even worse: actively hurting their teams whenever they get on the ice while taking spots. New York Rangers fans are currently having Tanner Glass flashbacks.

Every GM in the NHL should limit the number of “guys” available to a coach. Otherwise, they’re echoing “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” by holding an intervention at a bar.

(By this analogy, Nazem Kadri is definitely wine in a can.)

Allow a hypothesis: with some injuries surfacing and the Maple Leafs generally playing well, and roaming free, signing Polak stands as something of a reward for Babcock’s patience.

It’s not great, and here’s hoping that Polak doesn’t take meaningful ice time away from better defensemen. There are some discouraging worst-case scenarios where Polak is used as a shutdown guy who really only shuts down the Leafs’ ability to counterpunch.

Ideally, Polak is used in a limited role and Toronto remains one of the most dazzling, heart-stopping, and successful teams in the NHL. That would make everyone happy (except the Maple Leafs’ opponents).

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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