T.J. Oshie

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Slashing crackdown, infusion of youth boost NHL scoring

By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

The nets aren’t bigger, the goaltenders aren’t smaller and yet scoring is up significantly around the NHL.

Through the first two months of the season, goals are up more than 12 percent from the same time a year ago, including a whopping 14 percent increase on the power play and a 38 percent spike in short-handed goals.

”That’s what the league wanted,” San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc Edouard-Vlasic said. ”The league has done everything in their power to make there more goals out there, and that’s exactly what’s going on.”

The uptick can be credited to a concerted crackdown on slashing by issuing more penalties and a league-wide move toward younger and more skilled players. The current pace of 6.01 goals per game would be the highest since 2005-06, when a series of rule changes were put in to open up the game and get more scoring to attract new fans.

”Teams try to go for it more,” said New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, whose goals-against average is 2.66, nearly 13 percent higher than it was at this point a year ago. ”Most teams are trying to go for it, have this fast hockey, leave the zone quickly and it opens it up.”

Deputy NHL Commissioner Bill Daly said general managers are pleased with the current pace, which has lasted beyond the typical high-scoring October as defenses settle in for the season. Stricter enforcement of slashing was designed to reduce hand and wrist injuries, though it has had a positive effect on offense with defenders unable to whack at puck carriers’ sticks in an effort to stop them.

”I do think that has created certainly more room for our players to be offensive,” Daly said. ”I think over time, clearly since we increased the standard for hooking and holding and interference (in 2005-06), slashing has become a way to defend and an effective way to defend, and I think this year it’s a less effective way to defend.”

Players have noticed, even if some are frustrated at the varying degrees of what rises to the level of a slashing penalty. Every referee is watching closely.

”The last five years, you could do so much more with your stick and probably now lots of players are afraid to use their sticks,” Los Angeles Kings forward Jussi Jokinen said. ”I think everybody wants to see more goals, so scoring being up, I think it’s good.”

Everyone except maybe the goaltenders may think so, but it’s not like they’ve been terrible. Four goalies who have played at least 20 games have a save percentage of .930 or higher.

”The goaltenders, they haven’t been any better than they are right now and some of them are still getting lit up pretty good,” said Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who has the league’s leading goal-scorer in Alex Ovechkin.

Certainly the emphasis on slashing has helped players such as Ovechkin, Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau and New York Islanders star John Tavares, who can do wonders with even a few extra inches of space. Columbus Blue Jackets forward Josh Anderson, who scored 10 goals in his first 15 games, said slashing is on everyone’s mind and ”guys are not getting (their sticks) up into the hands as much as they used to.”

Slashing and otherwise, there have been 173 more power plays than last season and teams are converting on 19.7 percent of them. Almost half the league is at or above 20 percent. The massive increase in short-handed goals has a lot to do with aggressive penalty kills stocked with offensive-minded players more likely to score.

”That’s one more thing that the power play has to worry about,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. ”Now they don’t just have to worry about scoring goals. They have to worry about their turnovers, what plays they make, how risky they want to get because there is that chance if it goes the other way and it’s a 2-on-1, it could end up in the back of your net.”

Los Angeles coach John Stevens said teams are in ”attack mode” all the time now, and Trotz estimates that he spends three-quarters of time trying to figure out how to score more.

But risk is also inherent in the NHL getting younger and featuring so many rookie scorers such as Arizona’s Clayton Keller, Chicago’s Alex DeBrincat and Vancouver’s Brock Boeser. The average age of an NHL player is 27 and Daly said the number has dropped over the past several years. He said more scoring is a byproduct as junior hockey and college programs get better at making players NHL-ready sooner.

Team composition has also changed. There are fewer journeyman faceoff specialists and grinders, and more players kept for speed and skill.

”Just the mold of all teams is kind of changing: They’re going for smaller, skilled guys rather than guys who are two-way forwards and stuff like that,” said Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, who is all of 27. ”These young kids have unbelievable skill, too. It’s kind of crazy how much skill. They have things they grew up getting taught how to do those things, which we didn’t have access to when we were kids.”

For all the offense so far, there are those who don’t expect it to keep happening. Goals were up through October last season and the NHL finished averaging 5.54 per game. DeBoer said teams often tighten their systems and structure after Christmas, making it more difficult to score.

”I think it’s still early to say,” Blackhawks winger Richard Panik said. ”The game is going to get tighter. It always does before playoffs.”

Sharks coach livid over Capitals’ ‘premeditated’ revenge on Thornton

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Late in the second period of the Washington Capitals’ eventual 4-1 win against the San Jose Sharks from Monday, Joe Thornton delivered a questionable hit on T.J. Oshie, which ended the slick forward’s night with an upper-body injury.

The retaliation came early in the third, as Tom Wilson exacted revenge against Thornton by dropping him with a hard punch in a quick-but-violent fight. It was quite a spectacle between two teams you wouldn’t expect to build bad blood.

(You can see video of the fight above this post’s headline, while the hit is below. This post initially covered this situation.)

As it turns out, Sharks coach Peter DeBoer’s reaction to this carnage was arguably even more entertaining than the violence itself.

For one thing, cameras caught DeBoer jawing with Capitals assistant Lane Lambert following the Wilson – Thornton skirmish:

DeBoer didn’t clam up about it after the game, unloading on the Capitals for such a “premeditated” response. He used dirtier words to the media and unquestionably in arguing with Lambert.

“Well like I said, if someone would have grabbed Joe in the heat of the moment after the play because they thought a liberty was taken, then I’ve got no problem with that,” DeBoer said, via Kevin Kurz of The Athletic. “To go into the dressing room, think about it, come in the first shift, and do that premeditated crap is just garbage.”

Wow, that’s spicy. To DeBoer’s credit, he didn’t meltdown at a John Tortorella level, so we didn’t get to see a weird-awkward-awesome locker room argument.

Now, from the Capitals’ perspective, it’s not as though there was *that* much time between the hit and the fight.

Again, the check came late in the second, while Wilson dropped the gloves early in the third. Yes, there was the intermission, which could have served as an opportunity to diffuse the situation … but it’s not necessarily a given that anyone in the Caps room said “go after Jumbo Joe.” Wilson easily could have decided to stand up for his teammate on his own.

Speaking of moments from that game, the AP’s Stephen Whyno wonders if supplemental discipline is coming for Brenden Dillon:

If you want more drama, the good news is that the Capitals and Sharks meet one more time during the regular season. They’ll need to have long memories, though, as that second date doesn’t come until March 10.

Both teams seem like they’ll be battling for positioning – or perhaps their playoff lives – so the shenanigans could be limited anyway. Still, that game gets a little more sizzle to go with the Alex OvechkinNicklas Backstrom – Joe Thornton – Joe Pavelski steak, if nothing else.

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.

The Buzzer: Flyers end it at 10, Ovechkin magic

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Key happenings from PHT

Roberto Luongo might have suffered a serious injury.

Joe Thornton delivers a debatable hit on T.J. Oshie, then Tom Wilson makes him pay.

A big step for Seattle in its drive to get an NHL team?

The redemption of Ray Shero

Win of the Night:

The Philadelphia Flyers finally did it.

After losing 10 straight games (see a deeper look on that skid here), the Flyers made sure that Monday would mark the end of their suffering by way of a 5-2 win against the Calgary Flames.

In this case, it was a mixture of usual suspects (Jakub Voracek collected three assists) and less-than-expected names showing up (Scott Laughton generated a two-goal night). You can probably bet that Brian Elliott relished getting a win against a Flames team that passed on him after one up-and-down season. The veteran netminder stopped 43 shots for his first win since Nov. 9.

Michael Raffl won the Ric Flair robe. Hey, this team might not win much yet, but they’re stylin’ and profilin’ when they do.

It’s worth noting that the Flames scored first, but the Flyers tied it up about a minute later, and never relinquished their lead once they went from being up 2-1 to 4-1.

Can you really blame this team for being excited/relieved?

Player of the Night: Craig Smith, Nashville Predators

Voracek, Keith Yandle, and Vincent Trocheck all managed three-assist nights on Monday, so there’s some solid competition for this spot. When in doubt, I usually give the tiebreaker to the guy scoring goals, and Smith did so for his three points with two goals and one helper.

Smith continues to be red-hot for Nashville lately alongside Kevin Fiala (1G, 1A), who seem to be thanking the Predators for the early holiday present of Kyle Turris (two assists).

Smith, 28, already has 11 goals on the season, putting him one goal behind his rough 2016-17 campaign’s 12. His career-high for goals in a single season is 24, while he’s crossed the 20-goal plateau three times overall. Even if things slow down (his shooting percentage is a bit high at 17.2 percent right now), it’s easy to imagine him putting up the best numbers of his underrated career.

It sure looks like Nashville now has two dynamic lines to go with two great defensive pairings (when Ryan Ellis is healthy) and a duo of goalies that ranges from competent to splendid. Be scared, rest of the NHL.

Factoids

Alex Ovechkin will probably be a healthy distance ahead of Dr. Recchi by the time his career ends:

And another milestone for Ovechkin:

SO NOT CLUTCH.

Highlight of the Night:

Sorry, tough night for Ovechkin haters, as he generated this great setup:

Snub of the Night:

You know how teams do ceremonial puck drops? I think Evgeny Kuznetsov is owed a ceremonial fist bump.

Scores

Capitals 4, Sharks 1
Islanders 5, Panthers 4 (SO)
Predators 5, Bruins 3
Flyers 5, Flames 2

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.

Tom Wilson drops Joe Thornton in fight after hit on T.J. Oshie

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The easiest thing to agree upon about Joe Thornton‘s rear-end-first hit on T.J. Oshie is that it looked awfully painful.

Oshie was in an awkward spot, and he took quite some time to get up, with his head certainly seeming to absorb quite a bit of contact during Monday’s game between the Sharks and Capitals.

Thornton, 38, has some suspensions in his past, yet the most recent one came in 2010. “Jumbo Joe” seemed to take a less physical approach once he joined the Sharks after being a 100+ PIM machine during much of his Boston Bruins days.

Here’s a GIF of the hit, if you prefer that instead of video:

The reviews of the check seem a bit mixed at this time.

There was no penalty called on Thornton. PHT will be on the lookout regarding Oshie’s condition and if any supplemental discipline might come Thornton’s way.

Whether he faces a suspension, fine, or nothing else, apparently the Capitals decided to get revenge of their own just moments ago. As you can see, Tom Wilson exacted revenge with hard punch, quickly dropping Thornton:

To little surprise, Oshie’s night is over early. Beyond that, we’ll need to wait and see. The Capitals ended up beating the Sharks 4-1.

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 Morning Skate: Vincent Trocheck shares classic stories about Jaromir Jagr

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

–Check out the highlights from last night’s game between the Capitals and Predators. T.J. Oshie scored twice, but it simply wasn’t enough to propel Washington to a win. (top)

–The Sabres had high hopes for Jack Eichel, but he’s struggling to meet those expectations right now. “I feel like people are judged based off statistics so frequently, and so is the case with our league for a reason,” Eichel said. “That’s my job, my job is to produce. (Buffalohockeybeat.com)

–NHL hockey will be one of the sports featured on the new ESPN+ app which is set to launch next year. (Forbes)

–Bruce Boudreau’s Minnesota Wild are off to a slow start this year, but there’s reason for optimism. Two years ago, when Broudreau was coaching the Anaheim Ducks, he got off to a horrible start before turning things around. (Twincities.com)

–It’s been a tough month for the Chicago Blackhawks, as their special teams has struggled and they haven’t been able to score much. The problem is, there probably won’t be any outside help coming in the near future. They’ll have to play themselves out of this funk. (Chicago Sun-Times)

–The Surrey Knights of the Pacific Junior Hockey League haven’t won a hockey game in nearly two years. This horrible streak started after a bench-clearing brawl got their coach and co-owner suspended for six years. It was all downhill from there. (Globe and Mail)

–Here’s a bunch of interesting nuggets from Brian Burke. He admitted that the Flames thought about bringing back Jarome Iginla. Burke also touched on the red flag Jaromir Jagr had coming out of the draft, and how Sam Bennett would have been torn to shreds if he played in Toronto. (Sportsnet)

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have put up some strong numbers playing together this season, but the team remains last in goals scored. Is it time to separate them in an attempt to balance their lineup? (Oilersnation.com)

–George Gosbee, who was instrumental in keeping the Coyotes in Arizona, passed away at the age of 48 on Sunday. “It was shocking, it was sad and it was tragic,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “I don’t know how else to describe it. He was smart, he was affable, he was friendly and he just struck me as being an all-around good guy. Obviously, our deepest condolences go out to his family and friends.” (arizonasports.com)

Travis Zajac is close to returning to the Devils lineup, so it’ll be interesting to see how the team’s lines will change when he gets back. There’s a good chance he’ll slot in on the first line with Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri. (NJ.com)

Mathew Barzal has been an incredible playmaking center throughout his hockey career. That hasn’t changed in his first full NHL season. “One of my best attributes is my passing and head-up vision,” Barzal said. “I think guys like Nicklas Backstrom and Patrick Kane are pass-first guys and they’re both very good.” (NHL.com)

–For the last few seasons, the Washington Capitals have been the dominant team in the NHL during the regular season. This year, they’ve really struggled to find any kind of consistency. As we saw in last night’s loss to Nashville, the Caps are struggling to put three good periods together. (dcpuckdrop.com)

–If the Florida Panthers want to get back in the playoff hunt, they’ll have to find a way to go on a strong run over the next two months. It won’t be easy, but it’s been done before. (therattrick)

–Speaking of the Panthers, Vincent Trocheck wrote a great piece for The Players’ Tribune. In the story, Trocheck shares a number of classic stories about former teammate Jaromir Jagr, including his poor choice of music in the locker room. He also touched on his experience at the World Cup of Hockey and his family’s move from Pittsburgh to Detroit. (Players’ Tribune)

–The Four Nations Cup just concluded in the Florida area, and it went exactly how many expected. Sweden struggled, while Canada and the USA battled hard against each other. (victorypress.org)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.