Johnny Boychuk

Getty

Stricter faceoff rules have put some defensemen in an ‘unnatural’ position

1 Comment

Well, this is awkward.

Stricter rule enforcement in the National Hockey League has led to more defensemen taking draws this season and, well, it has been a challenge – even for some of the best players in the world.

“It’s a little bit unnatural,” Arizona Coyotes defenseman Luke Schenn said. “It’s not something you see all the time. You see a D-man go in there, you’re probably not going to win too many of them.”

Such is life for NHL defensemen these days, thrown into the faceoff circle to do something they never figured was in their job description. Like position players taking the mound to pitch in a Major League Baseball game or NFL running backs having to throw a pass, defensemen aren’t accustomed to taking faceoffs and almost never work on it in practice. But this season, defensemen are finding themselves in unfamiliar territory much more often as officials order forwards out of the circle for failing to follow the protocol .

Faceoffs are one of the most tactical elements in hockey, a chess match played out over a couple of seconds between players who have spent much of their lives perfecting their craft to win possession of the puck. Blindingly fast work with sticks and leverage are key. It’s no place for bigger defensemen with their longer sticks, most of whom are far more comfortable handling the puck once it’s won back to them.

Eleven different defensemen have taken a faceoff so far this season and 64 since 3-on-3 overtime was instituted in 2015-16. No matter how many times it happens or how awkward, it’s on the highlight reel and becomes the subject of ribbing from teammates.

“They’re going to give you a hard time because they know it’s not something you do all the time,” Calgary Flames defenseman Michael Stone said. “If you do win one, it’s pure excitement, I think, from everybody.”

Defensemen have been involved in 92 faceoffs over the past two-plus seasons and have won only about a third of them. Maybe a few of the unlikely victories have come from being underestimated.

“It’s funny that when you get a D-man in, a lot of times those centermen relax and the D-men are all-in,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who grew up playing defense. “There’s a lot of cheers that go on when a defenseman goes in there and wins a draw.”

Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning is 6-foot-6 and a Norris Trophy finalist as one of the best defensemen in the league. He recently was pressed into faceoff duty on a penalty kill in overtime. No pressure, right?

Hedman put his stick down, beat Columbus center Nick Foligno and is now a perfect 1 for 1. He was stunned.

“The guys were probably as shocked as I was that I actually won it,” Hedman said. “I could probably not do it again. I guess my timing was perfect in that moment.”

Call it perfect timing, call it luck or call it whatever you want. New York Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk is 3 for 4 in his career but still remembers losing his first faceoff and getting mad about it.

Of course, Boychuk has put “zero” practice time into it and has a simple, albeit ugly, strategy.

“You just tie up,” Boychuk said. “Try to tie up, at least, and smack it to the wall. Tell the person that you’re going to try to shoot it to.”

Or maybe just lose it intentionally, suggested Jake Gardiner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, so everyone on your team knows where the puck is going. Because, c’mon, this is probably not going to end well.

“Centermen are so good at faceoffs now, you’re probably going to lose it anyway,” Gardiner said. “You’re kind of just going in there and hoping for the best.”

Hedman is no faceoff specialist like Patrice Bergeron or Jonathan Toews. And defensemen face another twist of pressure in addition to trying to a) win the draw and b) avoid taking a faceoff violation penalty trying to do something they aren’t good at:

“For a defenseman, if you lose it you’ve just got to make sure you get into your position right away and make sure you focus on playing D,” Hedman said. “Just make sure that you don’t lose it too clean that they get a scoring opportunity right away. You just try and do as good a job as you possibly can and try and win it obviously, but it’s pretty tough.”

In 19 NHL seasons, Islanders coach Doug Weight took thousands of faceoffs. But he hadn’t thought much about asking defensemen to practice faceoffs – until now.

“Later in periods it’s so prevalent getting thrown out now that you want guys that can come in and take a draw,” Weight said. “The only occasion where we’d have a D is if you’re down 4-on-3, 5-on-3. Obviously it’s a huge piece of puck possession.”

Puck possession? Sure, that’d be great, but most defensemen just don’t want to get embarrassed.

After years of practicing against his brother Mark, a forward for the Ottawa Senators, Stone wants to make sure he at least makes things interesting.

“I’m mostly just playing not to get beat clean,” Stone said. “I’m not looking to win a faceoff clean, especially on that kind of a play. You just try not to get beat clean, do whatever you can to kind of push that in the direction of your guys.”

When Washington defenseman John Carlson stepped in recently for a draw in overtime, he had a sterling record: He had won his lone NHL faceoff. But he lost this one an cursed teammates for not letting him practice faceoffs.

Even though Carlson lost his second career faceoff attempt, he scored the game-winning goal to quiet the razzing from his teammates. Hedman won his and wants his faceoff days to be over.

“Hopefully I don’t have to take any more,” he said, “so I stay 100 percent for the rest of my career.”

McAvoy ready to make an impact for Bruins

Getty
2 Comments

Prized Boston Bruins prospect Charlie McAvoy made his NHL debut for the Boston Bruins last postseason out of necessity. The team was dealing with a rash of injuries on the blue line, and McAvoy, the team’s first-round pick in 2016, just happened to be the next man up. At just 19 years of age and with only minimal pro hockey experience on his resume McAvoy found himself playing playing more than 26 minutes per night in the Stanley Cup Playoffs alongside a future Hall of Famer in Zdeno Chara.

Even though the Bruins’ season came to an end in that first-round matchup against the Ottawa Senators, McAvoy showed them a promising glimpse of their future on defense.

Now he is ready for a full-time role with the team this upcoming season.

He spoke to the Bruins’ website this week about that first NHL experience and what he can learn from that when it comes to making the Bruins’ opening night roster this season.

From Eric Russo of the Bruins website.

“I think that the experience I had last year was an unbelievable opportunity,” said McAvoy, who joined 13 of his teammates for a captain’s practice at Warrior Ice Arena on Friday morning.

“That experience was so valuable for myself to get familiar with the organization and the team itself, and I can use that now heading in for the full year, the rookie camp, opening the season, all of those things.

“I’m excited to have a full year and I can definitely use all of those experiences that I had to make sure I’m ready to go.”

McAvoy’s developmemt has to be exciting for the Bruins because their defense, the team’s greatest strength just a few years ago, has taken some significant steps backwards in recent seasons due to trades (Johnny Boychuk and Dougie Hamilton) and age (Chara getting older, Dennis Seidenberg moving on).

But there is hope on the horizon with some of the young talent that has been assembled on the back end.

Torey Krug has developed into one of the most productive offensive defensemen in the league, while Brandon Carlo had a really promising rookie season, appearing in every game and playing at a high level for a 20-year-old.

Now McAvoy is ready to join the picture and give the Bruins another young and potential impact player.

The Bruins have a lot of talent up front with Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci and David Pastrnak (once they get him signed) leading the way, and now they have a pretty strong group of young, offensive minded defensemen that can get the puck to them and help create chances.

Senators are getting a bargain now, but keep an eye on that Erik Karlsson contract situation

Getty
5 Comments

This post is part of Senators Day on PHT…

Erik Karlsson wasn’t playing at nearly 100 per cent during the Stanley Cup playoffs — and he was still by far Ottawa’s best player in their run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Not only was he Ottawa’s best player, he was often the best player on the ice between the Senators and their opponents, despite playing through a foot injury. That landed him a vote for the Conn Smythe, despite the fact his club came oh-so-close but ultimately didn’t make it to the Stanley Cup Final.

While brilliant in the playoffs, he paid quite a price.

The surgery on his injured left foot took place in the middle of June and requires a four-month recovery. The Senators remain hopeful that their best player will be ready for the beginning of the regular season in October.

While Karlsson gets plenty of accolades for the skill he possesses and his ability to log big minutes during regular season and playoffs — making it look easy at times, too — he may not get enough credit for just how durable he’s been over the last four years.

He had a string of three consecutive seasons in which he played the full 82-game schedule. That streak was interrupted in March at 324 consecutive games played due to his injury suffered right before the playoffs.

As Mark Stone aptly put it at the time: “He’s the best defenceman in the world. If you take him out of your lineup, it’s obviously a huge blow.”

The Senators have a number of key contributors like Craig Anderson in goal and Kyle Turris and Mike Hoffman — among others — up front. But the success of this team hinges greatly on Karlsson being in the lineup and healthy enough to play. Even on one healthy foot, he showed he was still capable of carrying Ottawa, but the Senators will gladly take him at 100 per cent health in two months time.

Off the ice, it’s worth mentioning that Karlsson has only two years remaining on his contract before he’s eligible for unrestricted free agency. At a $6.5 million cap hit, you could argue that for what Karlsson provides them every game — not just the points (71 in 77 games this past season) but being able to play almost 27 minutes per game on average — Ottawa is getting a bargain on that seven-year contract right now.

Karlsson is a premier defenseman at the age of 27, and yet his $7 million salary for next season is at the same level as Jeff Petry, Alex Pietrangelo and Johnny Boychuk, per CapFriendly. For Karlsson, that number does bump up to $7.5 million in the final year of his contract.

That is, of course, going to change with his next deal.

The Senators have benefited greatly from having one of the game’s best players on their blue line. He showed that once again in the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs. He’s won the Norris Trophy twice and has four nominations in total.

And it won’t be long before the Senators will have to pay accordingly in order to keep Karlsson in Ottawa.

Islanders, de Haan avoid arbitration with one-year, $3.3 million deal

Getty
5 Comments

The Islanders and blueliner Calvin de Haan went right down to the wire.

Just hours before their arbitration hearing on Wednesday, the two sides agreed to a one-year, $3.3 million deal, per TSN. The contract comes after Sportsnet reported de Haan’s initial ask was $5 million, while the Isles offered $1.95M.

De Haan, 26, is coming off a solid campaign in which he posted career highs in games played (82), goals (five), assists (20) and points (25). He averaged just under 20 minutes per night, but that TOI figure is expected to increase following Travis Hamonic‘s trade to Calgary last month.

“Calvin is a home-grown product of the organization and has developed into one of our top defenseman during his time with the organization,” Isles GM Garth Snow said in a release. “He plays important minutes for our club and we’re excited to have him back for one more year.”

In the short term, this deal is a win for the Isles. It’s a more than affordable cap figure for a defenseman that logs the kind of minutes de Haan does, and makes for a very cost-effective blueline group. Snow now has just $21 million locked into eight guys for next season: de Haan, Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, Thomas Hickey, Adam Pelech, Dennis Seidenberg, Ryan Pulock and Scott Mayfield.

In the long term, though, this contract could come back to bite.

De Haan will be an unrestricted free agent next July and, should he put forth another solid campaign, will likely be looking for a long-term deal (possibly around the $5 million per mark requested in arbitration). That could be too rich for the Isles’ blood, especially if the John Tavares extension gets done.

That could create a scenario where de Haan is twisting in the wind all season, right up to the trade deadline. Then the conversation turns to where the Isles are at — if they’re in go-for-it mode, Snow would presumably keep de Haan and risk losing him for nothing at the end of the year.

Should Bruins take run at Will Butcher?

Getty
5 Comments

Assuming he does not sign with the Colorado Avalanche — and it appears as if he will not — 2017 Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher will be a highly sought after target on the open market when he becomes an unrestricted free agent on August 15. His agent has already said he would listen to an offer from the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, while teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings figure to be interested.

Pretty much every team could use a young, puck-moving presence on its blue line.

On Saturday, CSNNE’s Joe Haggerty argued that the Bruins should not be one of the teams interested in making a play for the 22-year-old rearguard even though the team has a need for a left shot on its blue line.

Writes Haggerty:

What the Bruins don’t need is another undersized, unproven youngster on their back end while 21-year-old Brandon Carlo enters his second full NHL season, and 20-year-old McAvoy readies for his first full pro hockey season in Boston. Instead, they really could have used a battle-tested, grizzled veteran D-man on the left side capable of being an on-ice tutor as McAvoy’s D-partner this season, and that’s what they were unsuccessfully looking for via free agency or trade earlier this summer.

He also mentions the collection of prospects knocking on the door as leaving little room.

Even with all of that, the Bruins were one of the first teams I thought of when it came to potential landing spots for Butcher. Due to the exits of long-time veterans like Johnny Boychuk and Dennis Seidenberg in recent years, the trade of Dougie Hamilton, and the fact that Zdeno Chara is closer to the end of his career than his peak their defense has taken a pretty significant fall in recent seasons and gone from being its greatest strength to, at times, its biggest weakness.

To be fair, the emergence of Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy as young players on that defense gives them a lot of hope for the future, and Torey Krug has become a tremendous point-producer on the back end. Adding a prospect like Butcher to that group would give them a pretty strong collection of young, cheap puck-movers, and that isn’t a bad way to try and win in today’s NHL. After all, the team that just won the past two Stanley Cups wasn’t exactly full of rugged, battle-tested veterans.

Basically, the Bruins shouldn’t let the fact they already have some prospects in the system and similar players on the roster prevent them from taking a shot at adding a player like Butcher. Not all of your prospects are going to pan out and you can never really have too much talent. And when you have a chance to add a talented young player for practically nothing it is a possibility that is always worth exploring.