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Penguins redefining defense by committee

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When the Pittsburgh Penguins lost defenseman Kris Letang for the entire postseason it was thought be a crushing blow to their chances to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. Especially with a path that was likely to include two of the NHL’s best teams in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Not only is Letang one of the best defensemen in the world, he is one of the most important cogs in the Penguins’ machine. During last year’s Stanley Cup run he played close to 29 minutes per game and did so at an incredibly high level. Losing that sort of workhorse is nearly impossible to replace.

But even with Letang’s absence (and even additional injuries to defensemen Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz) the Penguins find themselves one win away from returning to the Stanley Cup Final without really having a true No. 1 defenseman to turn to.

This is almost unheard of in today’s NHL.

Every team that goes on a deep run in the playoffs has a minute-eating defenseman that can be counted on to play a significant portion of the game. Letang. Drew Doughty. Duncan Keith. Erik Karlsson. Zdeno Chara. Players like that.

When it comes to the playoffs, teams tend to roll with their top-four defensemen the most and do their best to hide or shelter their third pairing by limiting their minutes as much as they can. The Penguins have not had that luxury without Letang.

That means everybody has had to step up and take on an expanded role. Just about everybody is playing more than they are used to while there is virtually no difference between each role.

First, consider that every team (22 of them) that has reached the Stanley Cup Final since the 2005-06 season has had at least one defensemen average more than 22 minutes of ice-time per game. Twenty-one of those 22 teams have had at least two players log more than 22 minutes, while 18 of them have had at least one player average more than 25 minutes of ice-time per game.

The 2016-17 Penguins currently have none.

Brian Dumoulin is currently their ice-time leader, playing just over 21 minutes per game.

Let’s take a look at what that looks like from a usage perspective.

The table here looks at this year’s Penguins, the remaining final four teams this season, and every Stanley Cup Finalist dating back to 2011-12 and what percentage of a 60-minute game each of their top-six defensemen played on an average night. This year’s Penguins should stick out as a massive outlier.

 

Other than the 2014-15 Lightning and 2011-12 Devils every other team on here had a No. 1 defenseman that was on the ice for more than 40 percent of the game on a given night. And the Lightning and Devils were very close to it.

All of them had a No. 2 defenseman that played more than 36 percent of the game on a given night.

Again, the Penguins currently have nobody taking on that sort of a workload in either spot.

Every team on there was able to limit their playing time of their third pairing (some more than others) while there was a significant gap between the ice-time for their No. 1 and No. 6 defenseman.

For Pittsburgh, their third pairing plays almost as much as their second pairing, while there is minimal difference between the workload for their top pairing and their third pairing. Last year, as an example, Letang averaged more than 13 additional minutes per game than their No. 6 defenseman.

This year Dumoulin is only averaging three more minutes than their No. 6.

It really is a defense by committee approach and it has been kind of fascinating to watch.

They are clearly lacking the elite puck-moving presence that a player like Letang can provide, and at times their ability to smoothly and efficiently exit the defensive zone has been a struggle.

It is also a situation where a lot of players are being thrust into roles they are not used to playing.  This has at times led to extended zone time for their opponents and put them in a situation where they are giving up way more shots per game than they want. They are also fortunate to have two outstanding goalies in Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury that have been fantastic this postseason to keep pucks out of the net. But overall it is a unit that has seemingly taken on a whatever it takes approach to get the job done.

It runs counter to everything we have seen from contending teams in recent years when it comes to the makeup of a defense, but they have somehow found a way to make this patchwork unit work. Now here they are, just one win away from getting back to the Stanley Cup Final.

McDavid, Gretzky, Toews to be enshrined in toast

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Ever wanted the face of (a hockey) God etched on the side of your toast as you awake from your nightly slumber?

Perhaps you’ve always wanted to give the gift of toast during the holiday season.

By some well-timed divine intervention, your prayers have been answered.

The Son of Hockey, McJesus (or Connor McDavid for those living under the meme rock) will be available to all who are willing to receive its breakfast blessings come Nov. 20 from Canadian Tire.

Canadian Tire has teamed up with McDavid, the ‘Great One’ Wayne Gretzky and ‘Captain Serious’ Jonathan Toews to #GiveAToast, and to help advertise the new face-on-toast engravers, three satirical (and quite frankly hilarious) commercials have been released on YouTube.

All proceeds from the sale of McDavid’s divine toaster, along with Gretzky’s ‘The Great Toaster,’ winner of four “Stanley Crusts” and Toews’ ‘The Toewster’ will go to help support Canadian Tire’s Jumpstart program, which “gives kids from families in financial need the same chance to participate in sport as their neighbours, their classmates and their friends.”

All three commercials are really well done, but Toews’ shines above the other two.

The three-time Stanley Cup champion claims his toaster studies the opponent in his commercial. He professes that he doesn’t even eat toast but that he uses it to toast the chia seeds he throws into his smoothies (it won’t actually toast chia seeds, or at least that’s what on-screen pop-up warns.)

It remains to be seen if these bread crispers turn into the next Furby or Tickle Me Elmo and cause mass hysteria.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Red Wings on Witkowski suspension: ‘Punishment doesn’t fit the crime’

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A sports league doles out suspensions and fines for a variety of reasons, including the hope that losing game checks might deter future bad behavior.

When it comes to the fans, many want justice, and that’s where things can get a little fuzzier. It’s especially interesting to consider areas of subjectivity vs. rules that are as plain as day.

One can see shades of the frustration that comes from the over-the-glass delay of game penalty in the reactions to Detroit Red Wings winger Luke Witkowski getting an automatic 10-game suspension for returning to the ice during that wild brawl, egged on by Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames.

Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill hit the nail on the head in that regard.

For Witkowski, it’s a painful lesson that he needs to find a happy medium between following the rules and engaging in “old-time hockey.”

“It’s unfortunate,” Witkowski said, via the Red Wings website. “Honestly, I didn’t know that was a rule. I obviously, I know now. I knew it was a rule you couldn’t jump the boards. It’s kind of a gray area with still being on the bench and the door being open. But lesson learned, I guess. Move on from here.”

The sad truth for Witkowski, 27, is that he won’t be eligible to move on in the form of a game until Dec. 9. And that’s assuming that he won’t get passed by as far as roster changes go.

Perhaps the silver lining is that other players might learn from Witkowski’s mistake and avoid drawing that automatic suspension. We’ve seen it before, such as with David Clarkson‘s delayed debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs, so there are some examples for NHL players willing to play attention.

Besides, it’s tough to miss a brawl like that, which you can watch one more time in the video above this post’s headline.

As far as Tkachuk goes, we’re still waiting to find out if he’ll sit a few games himself. He’s reportedly having a telephone hearing with the NHL to determine supplemental discipline.

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.

Streaking Maple Leafs could get Matthews back at just the right time

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Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock must be delighted by how his team is winning games.

Most obviously, they’ve been doing so without Auston Matthews, who’s currently dealing with an upper-body injury. The Leafs won their fifth consecutive game 1-0 in OT thanks to William Nylander‘s slump-breaking goal, and Toronto’s played the last four without Matthews.

The variety of wins – some in overtime, some with outstanding goaltending, many likely boosting other talents who step up – must really encourage Babs. And that confidence could come in handy very soon.

The Athletic’s James Mirtle breaks down how they’ve been winning and who’s stepped up in Matthews absence, so check that out for more in that regard (sub required).

That’s all good stuff, but here’s the thing: the Maple Leafs are lucky that Matthews seems like he’s nearing his return, because the rest of 2017 presents a beast of a schedule. Before we get to that, consider that Matthews appears to be a gametime decision for Saturday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens:

So, obviously, that’s not a guarantee that he’ll play. It implies that he’s at least getting closer, though.

Feast your eyes on the remainder of the Maple Leafs’ schedule during this calendar year, which might prompt a New Year’s resolution of “Let’s just try to forget what we just went through.” The away games are bolded, with back-to-backs underlined.

Sat, Nov 18 @ Montreal
Mon, Nov 20 vs Arizona
Wed, Nov 22 @ Florida
Fri, Nov 24 @ Carolina
Sat, Nov 25 vs Washington
Tue, Nov 28 @ Calgary
Thu, Nov 30 @ Edmonton
Sat, Dec 2 @ Vancouver
Wed, Dec 6 vs Calgary
Sat, Dec 9 @ Pittsburgh
Sun, Dec 10 vs Edmonton
Tue, Dec 12 @ Philadelphia
Thu, Dec 14 @ Minnesota
Fri, Dec 15 @ Detroit
Tue, Dec 19 vs Carolina
Wed, Dec 20 @ Columbus
Sat, Dec 23 @ NY Rangers
Thu, Dec 28 @ Arizona
Fri, Dec 29 @ Colorado
Sun, Dec 31 @ Vegas

The Maple Leafs play 15 of their next 20 games on the road. The final stretch is especially rough, with a five-game road trip and eight of nine away from home. There are also five back-to-back sets.

So, it’s great that the Maple Leafs have manufactured ways to win without their brilliant top forward. That said, as Mirtle points out, they’ve been outplayed pretty badly at times in those games, and you wonder how long that luck (and timely work, to be fair) can last.

From the look of things, the Maple Leafs might not have to worry too much about that, and Matthews’ return couldn’t come at a much better time.

Not that it will be easy even with him, especially since he might not be at full-strength right away.

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.

PHT Fantasy: Teaming with the enemy

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If you’re a fan of the Los Angeles Kings, Detroit Red Wings, or civil correspondence, you probably think that Calgary Flames ragamuffin-forward Matthew Tkachuk is just the worst.

With that in mind, you’re probably not going to enjoy today’s advice: it’s fun and often productive to draft your most hated players in fantasy hockey.

Think of it this way. If Tkachuk helps you win your league next season, you can imagine yourself as some evil fantasy hockey baron, emitting a villainous cackle, possibly with a cigar jutting from your mouth. If Tkachuk stinks, then you can continue to despise him, and even blame your larger fantasy failings on that snotty-nosed kid who just won’t stop poking his mouthpiece outsomeone stop him.

(Now, some of you will respond: “But what if winning with villains on your team ends up souring the sweet taste of victory?” Allow me this response: [Points in other direction, runs away])

My personal villain of choice was once Todd Bertuzzi. Do note that this was vintage, All-Star Todd Bertuzzi, and not sad, sort-of-broken-down Detroit Red Wings Todd Bertuzzi.

The strange wrinkle is that a younger version of myself often picked him as a villain even before that ugly Steve Moore incident. As of today, I can’t recall what precisely rankled me about Bertuzzi before that scene; perhaps it was stubble envy?

It’s important to note that Team Villain (not to be confused with Team Putin?) works much better in leagues with PIMs, aka penalty minutes. Now, that’s not to say that every conniving-type will be sitting in the box all the time, it’s just that the Tkachuks of the world bring extra value because they can score and they can infuriate.

So far this season, Tkachuk has 13 points and 29 PIM in 19 games. Last year, he combined 105 PIM with 48 points, and the young forward happens to be part of a Flames line that dominates puck possession. (That latter point doesn’t always translate to fantasy gold … although it could if their continued strong play earns them more opportunities as time goes along.)

When you ponder the PIM-getters, it’s clear that Tkachuk is fairly rare.

[Rotoworld prepares you for the fantasy hockey week ahead]

On one hand, you have guys who can really pile up PIM and can at least secure a roster spot, but their offense isn’t always dependable. Tom Wilson is a prime example; he now has a whopping 674 PIM in 329 regular-season games, yet only 75 points. Wilson is an interesting example of how opportunities can fluctuate for pests who can play, though, as he has six points so far this season. If he can flirt with a point every game or two, then Wilson suddenly rises up the list of ruffians in fantasy.

Antoine Roussel, meanwhile, might be sliding. The Stars antagonist has generated just under 15 goals and 30 points in recent seasons, which is quite lovely when you consider his robust penalties (711 PIM in 359 games). There’s always the worry about a reduced role, and that – or bad luck – is happening in Dallas; so far he only has three points in 2017-18.

There are also stars who sneakily add mid-level PIMs. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both lose their temper often enough to rub fans and opponents the wrong way, and that seems to translate to respectable PIMs.

Still, there are only a few who score while regularly generating 100+ PIM.

Tkachuk isn’t the only “polarizing” player who’s made recent news and also possibly deserves a spot on your fantasy team.

Radko Gudas has been a buried treasure in fantasy leagues with deeper stats for some time now. Oh, and he’s also regularly making waves with … well, his worst-ness.

It makes sense that Gudas is something of an under-the-radar fancy stats darling, as he tends to fill up peripheral categories, even if his point totals are often modest. So far this season, Gudas has 57 PIM in 17 games versus just two assists, yet he fires the puck pretty frequently. With 33 SOG in 17 games, he’s close to two per night. That can help if Gudas is, say, your fourth or fifth defenseman.

[The Rotoworld Hockey Podcast ponders Carey Price’s problems]

As the stats go deeper, Gudas becomes a guy who can help you steal certain categories. He’s delivered 1,097 hits and blocked 533 shots in 286 games, via Yahoo’s handy stats. Via NHL.com’s real-time stats, since 2012-13, Gudas ranked eighth among skaters in hits, and that’s among players who often played about 100 additional games. He comes in 57th in blocked shots, and that’s again while noting that he’s missed some time.

And that’s the thing; with guys like Tkachuk and Gudas, you sort of have to pencil in some lost games. Whether it’s sitting in timeout for a bonehead suspension or getting injured because of their rugged styles, don’t draft or add/drop these guys expecting them to suit up every night.

***

If the last year or so drives any point home, it’s that sometimes the bad guys win.

On the bright side, that can come in handy. When it comes to prestige television and fantasy hockey, rooting for the antihero can sometimes be quite enjoyable.

Though, honestly, cable dramas probably should have curbed that trend after Walter White hung up his undies.

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.