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Blocking shots ‘mandatory,’ but how many is too many?

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Nothing says sacrifice for a hockey team like blocking a shot, no matter how dangerous.

Ian Laperriere took a puck to the face during the Flyers’ run to the 2010 Stanley Cup Final and was heralded as a hero, even though post-concussion symptoms blamed on the blow ended his career the following fall. Gregory Campbell could barely skate on a broken leg after blocking a shot in 2013, but finishing his shift during the Bruins’ run made him into a cult phenomenon in a sport that glorifies taking frozen rubber fired at more than 100 mph off whatever part of your body you choose – as long as you keep it out of the net.

Shot-blocking is still an essential part of playoff hockey, though the risk-reward value of the time-honored tradition filled with bruises and broken bones is being questioned like never before.

“I think shot blocking’s a last resort,” said Ian Cole, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ shot-blocker extraordinaire. “It’s not something that you try to go out and search for.”

Hockey’s analytics awakening has put a premium on holding on to the puck and attempting more shots than your opponent. By that measure of success, blocking too many shots means you’re on the defensive too much.

“If you’re blocking an absolute ton of shots, you’re probably not having a very good game,” Washington Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “You don’t have the puck much and you’re not closing on people. You’re slow. They’re playing way faster than you. They have too much space.”

The best teams still block shots, a necessary evil this time of year with scoring usually at a premium. Coaches insist it’s still part of what it takes to win.

“When you’re blocking shots, it’s an element of playing team defense,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “We’d like to spend less time in our end zone, we’d like to make sure that we hang on to pucks in the offensive game, we establish a puck-pursuit game, we try to get out of our end zone clean with our breakouts.”

The Penguins blocked 18 shots a game on the way to the championship last season and are averaging 19.3 so far in these playoffs. Ottawa Senators coach Guy Boucher said his team should block 22 to 25 every game and called the 11 blocks in Game 3 against the New York Rangers “not even close to our standards.”

Read more: Rangers ‘just wanted it more than us,’ says Sens coach

Some teams like Pittsburgh and Ottawa rely on shot-blocking, and the improvement in that area of Senators captain Erik Karlsson helped earn him another Norris Trophy nomination as the NHL’s top defenseman. Karlsson also played during the first round with two microfractures in one of his feet from blocking a shot late in the regular season, somehow still playing better than everyone else on the ice in the process.

Karlsson, of course, is unique.

“With the way guys shoot the puck with these kinds of sticks now, you see a lot of those teams with a lot of injuries,” Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “I’m sure there’s some people that think it’s great sacrifice, and I’m sure there’s some people that think it’s stupid and pointless.”

There is an in-between. Teams like the Penguins have two or three layers of potential shot-blockers as part of their defensive-zone coverage, like the teams of Sullivan’s friend and colleague John Tortorella, who made laying out on the ice something of an art.

Even for teams that would rather defend than block shots, sometimes getting in the way of a slap shot is like encountering a grizzly bear.

“You have to try to make yourself as big as possible,” Niskanen said. “Even if you don’t want to block it, you’re making them shoot somewhere where they don’t want to.”

More than likely a team blocking a ton of shots is enduring a ton of injuries. Capitals center Jay Beagle broke his foot in the second round against the New York Rangers in 2012, an injury that contributed to a Game 5 loss and an absence that cost Washington the series.

But there’s no perfect way to block a shot without loading up on equipment like plastic shot-blockers.

“You don’t know where the guy’s shooting,” Beagle said. “You know around the vicinity of where he’s going to shoot when he releases it, but usually I’m so close to a shooter that it’s coming off his stick and `Boom!’ I’m hoping that it hits my body. There’s little ways where you don’t expose yourself to vulnerable areas, but sometimes you have to in order to get that block.”

As Sullivan and Washington’s Barry Trotz pointed out, there isn’t a coach around who will tell a player to get out of the way. Nor is there a player with his sights set on the Cup who will get out of the way even if it’s risky.

“It’s still mandatory,” Niskanen said. “Every team’s going to get opportunities to shoot the puck, so it’s still a requirement to block it.”

That’s why Cole, who’s second in blocks in the playoffs behind Edmonton’s Kris Russell, is such a valuable piece of the Penguins’ defense: He’s good at something he doesn’t necessarily want to do every shift.

“It’s something that there’s a high desperation level come playoffs and everybody’s doing it,” said Cole, who has 31 blocks in nine games. “You don’t want to try to force it, you don’t want to try to dive in front of every shot, but it the opportunity arises, you want to try to get the shot blocked.”

 

After playing for Canada, journeyman Chris Lee reportedly leaving KHL for NHL

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His numbers in the KHL jump right off the page.

And he just won a silver medal with Canada at the Worlds.

So it’s no huge surprise to hear, via Aivis Kalniņš, that defenseman Chris Lee has left Magnitagorsk Metallurg to pursue a shot in the NHL.

Lee, who turns 37 in October, had 65 points (15G, 50A) in 60 games for Metallurg this season. He was partnered with Viktor Antipin, the 24-year-old who will reportedly join the Sabres next season. Predictably, there has been speculation that Lee could be on his way to Buffalo.

A late bloomer, Lee was never drafted and has never played an NHL game. He spent most of his North American pro career in the AHL, after getting his start in the ECHL following four years at SUNY-Potsdam. He left for Europe in 2010 and played in Germany and Sweden before arriving in the KHL.

Lee was the only non-NHLer on Canada’s roster at the Worlds.

“Lee fit,” coach Jon Cooper said, per Sportsnet. “You wouldn’t have thought he wasn’t an NHL player.”

‘Many teams’ interested in Leafs prospect Toninato, who could go UFA

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Here’s a name to keep an eye on as this summer progresses: Dominic Toninato.

Toninato, 23, was Toronto’s fifth-round pick way back in 2012. From there, he went the collegiate route and put together a strong four years at Minnesota-Duluth. His NCAA career culminated with a senior season in which he served as team captain, set a personal high in points and led the Bulldogs to the Frozen Four final.

Though his rights are currently owned by the Leafs, Toninato would become an unrestricted free agent on Aug. 16 if he and the club don’t reach an agreement. You’d think, based on his body of work, Toninato would be a major priority for GM Lou Lamoriello, but it’s not that simple. Thanks to years of stockpiling draft picks, Toronto has a ton of prospects — but can only have 50 players under contract at the NHL level.

Adding to the complexity? There are other teams lined up to make Toninato an offer.

“Dom’s a good player. Will teams be interested? Yes. There will be many teams interested in him,” agent Neil Sheehy told the Star. “The process right now is working with the Leafs. They hold his rights till Aug. 16.

“They have a lot of things that they’re trying to figure out.”

Reading between the lines, it doesn’t sound especially promising in Toronto. The club offered Toninato a deal last summer, which he turned down to return to school. They could offer him an AHL contract — there’s no limit on those — but Sheehy said his client isn’t interested in that.

Sheehy said he hopes to have more clarity in late June, following the expansion and entry drafts.

 

 

Expansion draft will force Ducks to make some big decisions

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Bob Murray managed to keep the Anaheim Ducks together for a shot at the Stanley Cup.

But after losing to Nashville in the Western Conference Final, Anaheim’s general manager will now have to make some big decisions — especially with the expansion draft looming.

If the Ducks decide to protect seven forwards and three defensemen, the blue line will definitely be worth watching. Hampus Lindholm will be protected for sure, and Shea Theodore and Brandon Montour are each exempt. But that only leaves two spots for Sami Vatanen, Kevin Bieksa, Cam Fowler, and Josh Manson.

Bieksa, 35, has a no-movement clause, so unless the Ducks find a way to get around that, they’ll need to protect him. (Chances are, they’ll seek a way around it, either via trade or buyout or just convincing him to waive.)

Fowler, meanwhile, only has one year left on his contract before he can become an unrestricted free agent. And after the season he just had, with 39 points in 80 games, the 25-year-old won’t be cheap to re-sign. For that reason, it’s possible Murray may choose to shop Fowler instead. Or perhaps it’s Vatanen that goes on the block.

Yes, there is the option to protect four defensemen and four forwards. But Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Ryan Kesler all have NMCs, and the Ducks won’t want to expose Rickard Rakell or Jakob Silfverberg.

In goal, the Ducks have John Gibson under club control for years to come, but they’ll need to choose a backup. Jonathan Bernier is an unrestricted free agent, and even though he played well during the regular season, his performance against the Predators wasn’t great. Murray may want to at least consider his options there.

Related: Fowler surprised he wasn’t traded

Carlyle says Ducks were dealt ‘tough hand’ by schedule-makers

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Call it sour grapes if you wish, but Randy Carlyle thinks the Anaheim Ducks got screwed by the NHL’s schedule-maker.

The head coach launched his complaint last night after his Ducks fell to the Nashville Predators in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final.

“I don’t think we played poorly in the series,” said Carlyle. “I think that the toughest part I have about the whole thing is that this was our seventh game in 13 days.

“Now, there’s various reasons for that, but I think there’s got to be some consideration in the scheduling in the future between series. We finished on a Wednesday and had to open again on Friday, whereas other teams had to open on Saturday. An extra day would have given us a chance to recover. And we know how tough these games are. And that was a tough hand that was dealt to us.”

The “other” team to which Carlyle was referring is Pittsburgh. The Penguins beat Washington in Game 7 of the second round on May 10, then opened against Ottawa on May 13.

The Ducks, on the other hand, knocked out Edmonton in Game 7, also on May 10, then had to start against Nashville on May 12.

Fatigue may, indeed, have been a factor early in the series against Nashville. In Game 1, the Ducks were badly outshot, 46-29, and lost, 3-2, in overtime.

Carlyle said afterwards that the extra rest had made a difference for the Preds, who’d eliminated the Blues in six and gone four days without a game.