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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.”

 

Oilers coach on Draisaitl negotiations, cap crunch and more

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As NHL.com reports, Edmonton Oilers head coach Todd McLellan doesn’t seem too worried about Leon Draisaitl‘s contract negotiations.

“I’m confident we’re going to see Leon in an [Oilers] uniform,” McLellan said at a charity golf tournament. “We want him to be there, he wants to be there, and it’s just a matter of getting a few things done over the summer.”

Granted, as confident as McLellan is, he also admits that he doesn’t really get involved in that side of the hockey business, preferring to leave that to GM Peter Chiarelli.

On that note, McLellan said he’s aware that locking down Drasaitl, Connor McDavid, and other key members will likely leave the Oilers with a “tight wallet … and that’s not going to change for many years.”

(For an in-depth look at the Oilers’ salary structure, check out this deep dive.)

McLellan faces the challenge of aligning those big-ticket items with bargain signings, something that’s likely only to become a more common situation as time goes along. He also must deal with an obstacle that isn’t new to him considering his Sharks days, but will be unusual for many Oilers: no longer slipping under the radar.

“Expectations make it a little harder on a hockey club, mentally and physically, and we haven’t experienced that as a group yet and that’s why I still consider our team a growth team,” McLellan said. “We’ve got to go through that now. Teams will be ready for the Oilers. They’ll be prepared to play against us night in and night out, and people expect us, our fans in particular, to win on a more regular basis than we have in the past. Our task just gets tougher.”

If they fail, McLellan will shoulder much of the blame, even if management makes some poor decisions with that “tight wallet.”

Blues re-sign goalie Binnington

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Jordan Binnington, the netminder taken 88th overall by the Blues in 2011, has signed a one-year, two-way extension, the club announced on Friday.

Binnington, 24, has played almost exclusively with St. Louis’ AHL affiliate since turning pro four years ago, though he did spend some time in the ECHL.

Last year he worked alongside Ville Husso and Pheonix Copley in the Wolves’ goal, and will likely do so again with Husso moving forward (Copley was traded to Washington as part of the Kevin Shattenkirk deal.)

Binnington’s NHL body of work is brief — one 13-minute relief appearance during the ’15-16 campaign. Right now he’s jockeying with Husso to be the organization’s No. 3 netminder, a potential call-up should either Jake Allen or Carter Hutton get hurt.

Chris Neil wants a one-way deal, and says he’s received offers

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Here’s what we know about veteran tough guy Chris Neil.

He won’t be back in Ottawa, the city where he’s spent his entire 15-year career. But he does want to keep playing. What’s more, he’s not ready to accept a two-way deal or training camp PTO, because offers for a one-way deal have already come in.

“The offers I’ve had so far haven’t been [two way or PTO]. They’ve been a one-way deal,” the 37-year-old forward said, per the Ottawa Sun. “For me, that’s what I’d be looking for.

“It’s up in the air right now. There’s some interest. There’s some teams you’d prefer over others.”

Neil was informed by the Sens last month that he wouldn’t be brought back next season, which marked the end of an era. Ottawa took Neil in the sixth round of the 1998 draft, and he made his NHL debut three years later. He went on to become one of the club’s most recognizable players, in large part to his pugilistic ways — during the 2003-04 campaign, he fought a remarkable 24 times.

That trademark toughness could be something teams are interested in bringing aboard. There were rumblings St. Louis was eyeing him after trading Ryan Reaves to Pittsburgh, with Fox Sports Midwest reporting that Neil had three offers on the table.

If there’s one thing that’s for certain, it’s that Neil believes he can still play. After learning that he wouldn’t be brought back to the Canadian capital, he had some choice words for Sens head coach Guy Boucher and the perceived lack of opportunity Boucher afforded him.

“I have a lot of respect for Randy [Lee, Sens assistant GM] and Pierre [Dorion, GM] … I think, if it was up to them, I’d be back,” Neil explained, per the Citizen. “But they kind of put it in the coach’s hands and that had a lot to do with it. For whatever reason, Guy [Boucher] never really gave me the chance to show I can play.

“Even before I got hurt, I was a healthy scratch for a couple of games and I saw the writing on the wall.”

After tough year in Florida, Smith ready to reunite with ‘players-first’ Gallant

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For Reilly Smith, the anticipation of playing for Las Vegas next season goes beyond playing for the league’s newest team.

It’s also about playing for his old coach, Gerard Gallant.

“I think he kind of embodies the motto that it’s a players-first league and everything kind of revolves around that,” Smith said, per the Golden Knights website. “I know particularly last year in the Florida Panthers organization, there was a lot of change and things going on and I know one of the main messages that he always put forth was that whatever goes on outside, make sure you guys are a tight-knit group inside and play for each other.

“That was one thing that he definitely tried to convey to the team and try to get us to rally behind.”

Smith’s time in Florida was a two-part tale.

After coming over from Boston as part of the Jimmy Hayes swap — Marc Savard’s contract was also shipped to Florida — Smith had a terrific ’15-16 campaign under Gallant, posting career highs in goals (25) while helping the Panthers qualify for the playoffs.

In the postseason, he was a consistent scoring threat, finishing the series with four goals and eight points in six games.

Year two wasn’t nearly as successful.

Gallant was fired early on — controversially so — and Smith’s production dropped off. He ended with just 15 goals and 37 points, disappointing figures that were exacerbated by the big five-year, $25 million extension he signed in the offseason.

Reading between the lines, fair to suggest Smith struggled with the coaching change from Gallant to Tom Rowe. Things came to a head in early March, when Rowe called out Smith following a loss to Dallas.

On the Stars’ first goal, Smith seemed to lose his man in front of the net. Rowe was asked about it, and responded.

“We went over that exact play in team meeting and we haven’t learned our lesson yet,” he said. “That is the problem.”

Rowe wasn’t done there. Later, he was asked about Dallas’ winning goal, which may have been deflected in off a skate. The criticism went back to Smith.

“I don’t know,” said Rowe. “All I know is Reilly Smith was blowing the zone doing exactly what he is not supposed to be doing.”

Smith will certainly be a guy to watch this season. He’s still only 26 years old, looking for a bounce back, and noted that Gallant gave him the opportunity to play a larger role than he had with the Bruins (and, prior to that, the Stars).

One wonders if that’ll happen again, this time in Vegas.