Cam Tucker

Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella gives instructions during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh on Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
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‘That’s a crock’: Don’t ask NHL coaches to fix stagnant scoring, says Torts

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Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella is a big proponent of the NHL figuring out ways to increase scoring.

His only exception is any discussion that begins with the league placing the burden on coaches to solve the problem.

“That’s a crock,” Tortorella said, bluntly making his case that a coach’s job security relies on victories rather than how many goals a team scores.

“If everybody wants a wide-open game, guarantee the coaches a seven- or eight-year deal, and they’ll let them go play,” he said. “But when you struggle and you lose games, and you’re not winning, they’re looking at the coach. He’s the first one to go.”

Or as Sabres coach Dan Bylsma put it: “I don’t know of any coach that’s been fired because their team gives up zero goals.”

Concerns over a lack of scoring in what’s become known as the “Dead Puck Era” continue after offensive production remained stagnant during the regular season that ended Sunday. Teams combined to score 6,565 goals, just 16 more than the previous year, according to STATS. And it’s the fourth consecutive 82-game season the league has failed to top 6,600, which would mean teams were averaging at least 2.68 goals per game.

More troubling is this year’s total is a whopping 858 goals fewer than 2005-06, when the NHL revamped its rules to eliminate clutching and grabbing in a bid to open up offense. That was the last season goals averaged more than three goals per game.

What’s happened since is coaches have adapted to the new rules by devising ways to clog up the area in front of the net, and teaching defenders to steer puck-carriers toward the boards without interfering.

Another issue, which the league is set to address, is goalies wearing oversized equipment. The NHL is expected to introduce new rules next season in which the jersey and equipment worn by a goalie is based on a player’s individual size.

Talk of placing an emphasis on coaches teaching offense is not a new one.

The topic was brought up by members of the league’s competition committee in 2007, according to the minutes of the meeting released as part of the evidence in the class-action concussion lawsuit filed against the NHL by former players.

Former Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe proposed introducing some type of illegal defense rule to force teams to play differently. Former NHL goalie Marty Turco is noted as saying: “Drastic changes like bigger nets will be hard for most people to swallow. Agrees that illegal defense might be a possible solution.”

Former Atlanta Thrasher GM Don Waddell blamed the coaches in 2007, which is no different than what Sabres GM Tim Murray suggested in November, when he said: “Our coaches have to come up with offensive schemes to match defensive schemes.”

Murray, however, will acknowledge it’s easier said than done.

And like Tortorella, Bylsma said the inherent pressures that come with the job leads to coaches taking a more conservative approach.

“We can give lip-service by saying we need to coach more offense, but that’s not the reality,” Bylsma said. “It’s way easier to coach defense than it is it coach offense.”

Tortorella said reducing the size of goalie equipment should help. He also noted a proposal to redesign goal posts so they’re configured to angle pucks into the net.

The NHL’s offensive decline mirrors the drop in the number of penalties called.

In 2005-06, teams were averaging 5.85 power-play opportunities per game, which resulted in teams averaging 1.03 power-play goals. Last season, teams averaged just 3.11 power-play chances per game, which resulted in teams averaging 0.58 power-play goals.

On the bright side, the NHL’s decision to switch the four-on-four overtime format to three-on-three paid off with a large decrease in games being decided by shootout.

A league-high 168 games ended in overtime, while just 107 were decided by shootout last season. It marked the first time since the shootout was introduced in 2005-06 that more than half the games ended in overtime.

Minnesota Wild forward Jason Pominville called three-on-three good for the game.

“Goalies probably don’t like it, but as fans, we’re all fans of the game, I think it was really intriguing and fun to watch,” Pominville said.

Murray agreed.

“It’s only your better players that get on the ice, so your fans get an extra look at them,” Murray said. “A lot of open ice, so I’m good with it.”

 

Lundqvist prepares for challenge of backstopping Rangers versus high-scoring Penguins

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The Pittsburgh Penguins score a lot of goals. They finished third in the league in that category, behind only Dallas and Washington.

The New York Rangers give up a lot of shot attempts at even strength. They finished seventh worst in the league in that category, as per War-on-Ice, and not one of the six teams worse than them in that category made the playoffs.

Henrik Lundqvist, well, this is where he makes a difference for the Rangers, posting a .920 save percentage during the season.

And in a series against the Penguins, with Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel and Kris Letang, etc., Lundqvist will need to continue to provide stellar goaltending if New York is to advance.

(Check out the PHT staff predictions for the opening round. Not exactly flattering for the Rangers.)

“It’s always exciting to measure yourself against top players in the league and Pittsburgh has been a team over the last few years that has had a really strong team,” said Lundqvist, as per Sportsnet.

“They play a fast game, so for a team and especially for a goalie it’s always a lot of action, mentally and physically, technically you just have to prepare for that.”

According to reports, Lundqvist wasn’t feeling well and had to leave Monday’s practice. He returned to skate on Tuesday, with Game 1 of that series scheduled for Wednesday.

Related: With McDonagh (hand) uncertain, Rangers mull Diaz recall

‘It was unfair to blame Willie,’ says Linden, as Canucks stick with their coach … for now

Vancouver Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins yells from the bench during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Dallas Stars, Thursday, Oct. 29, 2015, in Dallas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
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The Vancouver Canucks appear to be sticking with Willie Desjardins.

That could be subject to change, however, depending on how they start next season.

After enduring the organization’s worst season since the late 1990s, which has landed the Canucks with the third best odds in the upcoming draft lottery (April 30), president Trevor Linden reiterated the vote of confidence he gave Desjardins back in March, as the losses and growing pains with a younger roster continued.

“It was unfair to blame Willie where we ended up this year — there are a lot of things that go into that,” Linden told reporters on Tuesday. “He was given a challenge and worked hard at it and will definitely be back next year.”

It’s unclear at this point if veteran forward Alex Burrows will be back next season. Ditto for Dan Hamhuis. And with pending free agents like Radim Vrbata and Matt Bartkowski and Yannick Weber, there could be even more change on a Canucks roster that underwent a huge transition to get younger this past season.

Next year’s roster will not include Brock Boeser. The impressive freshman forward and 2015 first-round pick has already declared on Twitter that he’ll return to North Dakota for his sophomore season in 2016-17, after winning a national championship over the weekend.

The Canucks now turn their attention toward locking up another impressive college player, and 2014 second-round pick, Thatcher Demko.

He finished his junior season at Boston College with an appearance in the NCAA Frozen Four and recognition as a Hobey Baker Award finalist.

“I’m confident and hope he decides that he’s going to turn pro sooner rather than later,” said Canucks GM Jim Benning.

“When we talked to all his representatives, I think he just wants to sit down with his parents and include them in the decision-making process and I’m hoping it gets done in the next couple of weeks.”

 

Capitals ‘entitled to nothing’ as NHL’s top regular season team entering playoffs

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ARLINGTON, Va. — Once again, the Washington Capitals are atop the NHL as the best regular-season team. Once again, the pressure’s on them as the favorite to win the Stanley Cup and prove this year won’t bring another early playoff exit.

Expectations have never been higher for Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals, six years after their first Presidents’ Trophy and with their window drawing to a close. Being the best team over 82 games was worth nothing to Washington in 2010 when it lost in the first round to the Montreal Canadiens, but this team isn’t running from the notion that it’s Stanley Cup or bust.

“We’re here to win a championship,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “Anything less than that is unsuccessful in my mind.”

MacLellan isn’t the only one who holds that belief. The Capitals finished 11 points ahead of the field and boast the top goal-scorer in Ovechkin, arguably the best goaltender in Braden Holtby and one of the deepest defenses around.

With the defending-champion Chicago Blackhawks looking not nearly as formidable as years past and no other dominant team in either the East or the West, this looks like the Capitals’ year. Ovechkin has heard that so much and yet hasn’t made it past the second round in seven previous tries.

“Every year you ask me the same question, `This is the year, this is the year?”‘ Ovechkin said. “You never know what’s going to happen in the playoffs. It’s a total different thing.”

The unpredictability of playoff hockey is the biggest obstacle standing in the Capitals’ way. So much has to go right, from health to matchups to goaltending, and only eight of 29 Presidents’ Trophy winners have gone on to win the Stanley Cup.

Coach Barry Trotz brushes off the idea that winning the Presidents’ Trophy is a disadvantage. He’ll take the home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, which is especially valuable to a team that won 29 of 41 games in its own rink.

“I can’t go to the bank and they’re going to give me anything,” Trotz said. “Other than (home ice), we’re entitled to nothing.”

The Capitals’ playoff shirts boast the slogan, “Entitled to Nothing,” to drive that point home. Their playoff hats read “XVI,” Roman numerals signifying the 16 wins needed to win the Cup.

“That’s our mentality, and it’s a good thing,” Ovechkin said.

Center Nicklas Backstrom remembers that empty feeling from six years ago when hot goaltender Jaroslav Halak ended the Capitals’ season in seven games. When they were on the verge of winning the Presidents’ Trophy last month with seven games to spare, Backstrom deadpanned that “it doesn’t mean anything.”

That loss is still an open wound in Washington.

Five players remain who took part in that series, and defenseman Karl Alzner said this group is wiser and less arrogant than in 2010 when there was a noticeable “strut” in their step entering the playoffs. Ovechkin, Backstrom, Alzner, defenseman John Carlson and forward Jason Chimera are still around, but they’ve been joined by veteran defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, Cup-winning forward Justin Williams and blossoming star center Evgeny Kuznetsov – players who don’t bear those scars.

“I think that you have a mental block sometimes against teams, players, whatever it is – goalies,” Alzner said. “Bringing in new players, new faces that don’t have that mental block helps you get over it.”

Trotz is also fresh, in his second season with the Capitals after 15 years with the Nashville Predators. But this is also uncharted territory for Trotz, who said he’s never gone into a playoff series as the prohibitive favorite, something Washington will be when it opens against the Philadelphia Flyers.

The regular-season success made the Capitals justifiable Cup favorites. Ovechkin said this team is much stronger mentally than in years past, and former coach Bruce Boudreau sees a group more prepared for Presidents’ Trophy expectations than when he was behind the bench in 2010.

“When we won the Presidents’ Trophy, they were young,” said Boudreau, now coach of the Anaheim Ducks. “Sometimes when you’re young, you think you’ve got the world by the tail and everything is going to happen great. These guys have gone through some rough times since that time, and so they know what they’re doing. … They’re ready to have their turn.”

And not just the Capitals’ turn to make the conference final for the first time since 1998. That would be a step forward and a sign of progress, but with Ovechkin nearing the end of his prime and so much going for them, the Capitals have a bigger opportunity to seize.

“We’re here to win it all,” MacLellan said. “I don’t know that if we get to the third round, does it make us feel any better? No. The only thing that makes you feel better is you win. … We recognize where we’re at and we want to win a championship.”

‘It’s not the highlight-film position’: Kings GM believes Doughty should win Norris Trophy

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File this under ‘What else would you expect?’

L.A. Kings general manager Dean Lombardi has firmly entrenched himself in the camp of Drew Doughty for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman, and, based on the reports, he made an impassioned pitch as to why he is so steadfast in this belief.

Of course, the 26-year-old Doughty is up against a host of good blue liners in the NHL. None better than Senators star Erik Karlsson. All Karlsson, the reigning Norris winner and front runner for the award in 2016, did this season was lead the league in assists with 66 and was tied for fourth in league scoring with 82 points, playing just under 29 minutes a game to lead the NHL.

Doughty was third in the league in ice time, at 28:01, during the regular season. He had 51 points in 82 games, and almost half of his points were on the power play.

Both Karlsson and Doughty were strong possession players at five-on-five, with Doughty posting a 58.9 per cent Corsi For rating, as per War-on-Ice, on a Kings team that dominates in this element of the game.

Doughty’s had a rating of 0.6 points per 60 minutes, while Karlsson hit a staggering 1.6 points per 60 minutes.

Lombardi’s main message was to look beyond the statistics.

“It’s not the highlight-film position. It’s not supposed to be, and then we turned it (into one) because (of) Paul Coffey,” Lombardi said, as per L.A. Daily News. “I guess, he pulled it off. But at least Paul Coffey was in the playoffs. And this stuff that (Doughty) plays for a better team?

“How good do you think we are without him? How about the other way around?”

Yes, the Senators did not make the playoffs and, as a result, the fallout has been swift. The Kings are Stanley Cup contenders, though getting out of the first round against the San Jose Sharks will be quite a challenge.

Although, it really is hard to look past the season that Karlsson put together.

From the CBC:

It’s the first time a defenceman has finished in the top five of league scoring in 30 years, since Edmonton’s Paul Coffey was third with 138 points in the 1985-86 season. Karlsson is only the fifth blue-liner in league history to achieve the feat.

No blue-liner had reached 80 points since Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom racked up that many with the Detroit Red Wings in 2005-06, while Brian Leetch recorded 85 points with the 1995-96 New York Rangers.