James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.

Sharks sign ‘natural goal-scorer’ Rudolfs Balcers to rookie deal

The San Jose Sharks reached an entry-level contract with Latvia’s Rudolfs Balcers on Thursday.

San Jose drafted Balcers in the fifth round (142nd overall) in 2015. He enjoyed a strong 2016-17 season in the WHL, finishing second in Kamloops Blazers scoring with 77 points in 66 games.

That included 40 goals, which wasn’t lost on the Sharks.

“Rudolfs is a natural goal-scorer who has proven that he can find the back of the net when his team needs it most,” Assistant GM Joe Will said. “His first season in North America showed he could keep up with a more physical game, while still being one of the more dynamic snipers in the league. We’re excited to see him continue his development with our organization.”

Balcers is listed at just 165 lbs., so one would think that the Sharks expect him to bulk up a bit if he hopes to eventually make a jump to the NHL. At 20, he has plenty of time to do so.

Here are some older highlights of the sniper:

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    Andrew Ference retires after 16 seasons, one Stanley Cup win


    Andrew Ference got fined for flipping the bird, made a funny video about fans yelling “Shooooot!,” and played 16 seasons in the NHL. Not a bad run.

    The 38-year-old announced his retirement on Thursday, essentially making the end of his career official one year late.

    During his time in the league, Ference won a Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins and became the captain of the Edmonton Oilers.

    Ference appeared in 907 regular-season games and 120 playoff contests. His last appearances came in 2015-16, when he played in six games, but Ference’s contract ($3.25 million cap hit/salary) ran out after 2016-17.

    Considering his ability to entertain, it wouldn’t be surprising if he enjoyed a successful broadcasting career.

    Here’s the beginning of Ference’s farewell, which you can enjoy in total at the Oilers website:

    “As I graduate from my time of playing in the NHL, I realize I have the problem of being unable to properly thank the hundreds of people who have helped me achieve my goal of playing in the best league in the world. No one gets here on their own, especially average sized guys with average skills. If you think you deserve a thank you from me, you probably do…Thanks!” 

    Jets sign Andrew Copp for two years, $2M

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    The Winnipeg Jets signed forward Andrew Copp to a two-year, $2 million contract, according to TSN’s Aaron Ward and Darren Dreger. The team confirmed the deal on Thursday.

    Copp, 23, finished his second full season with Winnipeg, generating career-bests in categories including goals (nine) and points (17) in 64 contests. He also averaged 12:21 TOI per game, representing a big jump from the eight minutes he averaged over 77 regular-season games in 2015-16.

    Late in 2015, Copp went from the University of Michigan to Winnipeg, who drafted him 104th overall in the 2013 NHL Draft.

    This covers just about every concern for the Jets except for one: RFA goalie Connor Hellebuyck still needs a deal.

    Wrong side of the whistle: NHL teams hit hardest by penalties


    Earlier this week, PHT looked at the teams who tend to go on the power play far more often than they enter the penalty box, with the San Jose Sharks clearly leading the way. By a lot.

    What about the other end of the spectrum? Well, it depends upon how you look at things.

    Most time in the box

    Chalk it up to strong coaching, great goaltending, or other factors, but some teams are hit harder by poor discipline than others.

    Let’s start off in looking at sheer volume of penalty box trips, with help from NHL.com’s many handy stats.

    Team Times shorthanded PPGA
    1 Anaheim Ducks 281 43
    2 Calgary Flames 277 51
    3 Winnipeg Jets 275 62
    4 Colorado Avalanche 274 64
    5 Washington Capitals 272 44
    6 Boston Bruins 265 38
    7 St. Louis Blues 263 40
    8 Arizona Coyotes 260 59
    9 New Jersey Devils 260 53
    10 Tampa Bay Lightning 258 48
    11 Pittsburgh Penguins 257 52
    12 Toronto Maple Leafs 251 44
    13 Dallas Stars 249 65
    14 Montréal Canadiens 249 47
    15 Philadelphia Flyers 247 50

    As you can see, the Ducks were shorthanded more than any other NHL team. Even so, they only allowed 43 power-play goals in 2016-17, tying them with the Edmonton Oilers for the 10th-fewest given up.

    What if you expand the view beyond last season and look at how teams fared since the lockout? You got it, and in this case, here are numbers for all 30 NHL teams.

    Winnipeg Jets 376 1294 256
    Arizona/Phx Coyotes 376 1284 284
    Anaheim Ducks 376 1277 210
    Philadelphia Flyers 376 1275 236
    Detroit Red Wings 376 1253 230
    Ottawa Senators 376 1242 236
    Washington Capitals 376 1241 219
    St. Louis Blues 376 1239 188
    Blue Jackets 376 1229 227
    New Jersey Devils 376 1225 218
    Los Angeles Kings 376 1224 213
    Montréal Canadiens 376 1222 213
    Toronto Maple Leafs 376 1214 223
    Pittsburgh Penguins 376 1212 206
    Boston Bruins 376 1205 194
    Colorado Avalanche 376 1205 236
    Tampa Bay Lightning 376 1197 213
    Dallas Stars 376 1193 241
    Vancouver Canucks 376 1181 210
    Florida Panthers 376 1176 243
    Buffalo Sabres 376 1164 243
    Edmonton Oilers 376 1151 221
    Nashville Predators 376 1097 218
    New York Islanders 376 1084 211
    Calgary Flames 376 1082 215
    New York Rangers 376 1081 197
    Chicago Blackhawks 376 1044 192
    Minnesota Wild 376 1040 193
    San Jose Sharks 376 1037 190
    Carolina Hurricanes 376 998 173

    The Arizona Coyotes are easily the most assaulted by the broader numbers, which makes sense since they’ve dealt with some of the leanest years. The Buffalo Sabres are fittingly in the top ranks by similar logic.

    It’s more interesting to consider teams who seem to go to the box more based (arguably) on style, and who suffers from poor PK units the most.

    Remarkably, the Ducks once again find themselves in the lower third of the NHL as far as goals allowed, even though they take a lot of penalties.

    Unfortunately for Anaheim, those wild ways hurt them when it mattered the most. They gave up a whopping 15 power-play goals during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, easily the most of the postseason. (Somehow, Nashville only allowed seven while the Penguins won it all despite yielding 12.)

    Other observations

    Let’s rattle off a few other notes, then.

    Calm Hurricanes- The Hurricanes have already been tabbed as a team that could break through soon. If they can keep up their tendency to avoid penalties, they really might be onto something.

    They’re the only team under 1,000 times shorthanded in that list above. Meanwhile, they join the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings as the only three teams with less than 100 major penalties since the last lockout.

    It’s no surprise, then, that the Hurricanes allowed the fewest power-play goals with 173 during that span.

    Hitchcock the key for Stars turnaround?- That said, the Blues stand out as the most efficient PK unit of that span.

    Here are the top seven PK percentages from 2012-13 to 2016-17, with PPG allowed and times shorthanded:

    1. Blues – 84.8 percent (188 allowed on 1,239 TS)
    2. Bruins – 83.9 (194 allowed, 1,205)
    3. Ducks – 83.5 (210 allowed, 1,277)
    4. Penguins – 83 (206 allowed, 1,212)
    5. Hurricanes – 82.7 (173 allowed, 998)
    6 (t) Kings – 82.6 (213 allowed, 1,224)
    6 (t) Canadiens – 82.6 (213 allowed, 1,222)

    Meanwhile, the Coyotes, Sabres, Panthers and Stars are the only teams under an 80-percent kill rate.

    A lot can go into a unit being successful or unsuccessful. Even so, could Ken Hitchcock whip the Dallas Stars into shape? It’s at least a possibility.

    Carlyle loves the rough stuff- Randy Carlyle might be a changed man in Anaheim, but he still loves his ruffians.

    If you look at teams with the most major penalties in individual seasons since the lockout, Carlyle-helmed teams dominated the top list:

    1. His 2013-14 Maple Leafs (48 majors)
    2. His 2012-13 Maple Leafs, with 46 majors in just 48 games.
    Tied for third: Last season’s Ducks, with 46 in 82 games.

    Now, it’s true that Bruce Boudreau’s 2015-16 Ducks were pretty ornery with 43 majors of their own, but it does seem like Carlyle is OK with a bit of carnage either way.

    On the other end, there are five seasons’ worth of teams under 10 majors for a full campaign.

    Penguins (2015-16) and Red Wings (2013-14) – nine majors
    Red Wings in 2014-15 and 2015-16 – eight majors
    Fittingly, Hurricanes in 2016-17: six majors.


    Much like with most studies in an age of parity, the majority of teams seem to fall in the middle when looking at penalties (either from a pessimistic or optimistic standpoint).

    Interestingly, there are teams that can survive their own mistakes and others who aren’t always exploiting their advantages, but perhaps we’ll see changes in 2017-18 and beyond?

    Sidney Crosby wasn’t aware of concussion talk during Stanley Cup run


    HALIFAX, Nova Scotia (AP) Sidney Crosby said Wednesday he did not pay attention to those questioning whether he should continue playing hockey after suffering another concussion during the playoffs.

    Crosby was too focused on capturing another Stanley Cup for his Pittsburgh Penguins to worry about outside opinions on his health.

    “I don’t really read or listen to that stuff during the playoffs,” Crosby told reporters at his annual hockey camp in his hometown of Cole Harbor, Nova Scotia.

    Crosby has suffered multiple concussions during his career, including one during Game 3 of the second round against Washington in May. He missed one game before returning for Game 5, prompting questions about whether he should consider retirement.

    The Penguins went on to win a second straight Cup, defeating the Nashville Predators in the final.

    Crosby said he understands why concussions generate so much controversy.

    “It’s a hot topic,” he said. “That’s the nature of it right now.”

    He said more information on how to deal with head injuries is becoming available all the time.

    “You have to continue to listen to your body to make sure before you go back that you’re good to go,” he said. “There’s things in place to help with that.”

    More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey