Jason Brough

Pre-game reading: On the importance of the backup goalie

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— Up top, Jack Eichel knows the Buffalo Sabres have to win a lot of games down the stretch if they want to make the playoffs. But he did not answer any questions about his haircut.

— We’ve written a lot on PHT about the importance of backup goaltending, and how it has the potential to cost bubble teams a playoff spot. Here’s another take on the same topic from Sportsnet’s analytics columnist Dimitri Filipovic, who writes: “Teams tend to be conservative and they prefer the safe back-up goaltending option they’re familiar with because they theoretically know what they’ll get. The issue with that line of thinking is that it generally comes at the expense of actual ability — there’s usually a reason why recycled back-ups haven’t cemented a regular spot for themselves.” (Sportsnet)

Related: Tuukka Rask has been one busy goalie 

— A very enjoyable read from ESPN’s Craig Custance on the short-lived California Golden Seals, who at the very least left some great stories. “Like counting fans one Christmas Eve and finding 976 people in the building. Or the time a woman called the front office to ask what time the game started, only to be asked right back, ‘What time can you get here?'” (ESPN)

— It may not have been his intention, but Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis provided a great reason for the NHL to maintain its participation in the Olympics — even if it means sucking it up and going to the 2018 Games in South Korea in order to get the real prize. “We believe and I believe that China is the next great market for hockey. The Winter Olympics will be played in China (in 2022). The Chinese government, the Chinese people, the universities and secondary schools are committed to the game.” (NHL.com)

— On the future of Ryan Miller in Vancouver, where the 36-year-old netminder is enjoying his best season as a Canuck in the final year of his three-year contract. Said Miller: “I have to talk to management at some point and see if they’re interested in something. They’d have to give me an indication of a guideline — or what the plan will be — and kind of go from there. I’ve become more comfortable here and I’ve been trying to make the best of this year.” (The Province)

— We already wrote about this a couple of days ago, but here’s some clarify from NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly on what Vegas GM George McPhee will soon be able to do, possibly even before the March 1 trade deadline: “(McPhee) can’t acquire players who are still playing in the 2016-17 season. But he can acquire draft picks, unsigned draft choices … and he can start making deals related to the expansion draft.” (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Enjoy the games!

Mike Babcock still sees William Nylander as a center

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According to Mike Babcock, the plan is still for William Nylander to be a center.

“I see Willie as a center for sure,” the Maple Leafs’ head coach said this morning, per the Toronto Sun.

But if that’s the case, the big question in Toronto remains — When?

Tonight in St. Louis, Nylander is expected to be on the wing, the position he’s played the most as an NHLer.

That’s no major indictment, as Nylander is still only 20. There’s a lot of responsibilities that go with playing center, especially defensively.

Besides, the Leafs already have two established NHL centers in Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak, plus a rookie center by the name of Auston Matthews. If Babcock wants Nylander in the top nine, then wing is the only real option when Matthews, Kadri, and Bozak are all healthy.

Still, Babcock did say back in December that Nylander has to get “way better defensively, way more competitive” if he wants to play the middle, and it remains to be seen if the eighth overall pick in the 2014 draft will ever develop the type of two-way game that the coach demands of his centers.

If not, the Leafs will still be in pretty good shape down the middle, with Matthews and Kadri under club control for years to come. But GM Lou Lamoriello may have to think twice about trading a guy like Bozak, who’s only signed through next season before he can become an unrestricted free agent.

Or, if Bozak isn’t part of the future, Lamoriello may have to come up with a new third-line center, either via trade or free agency. While it’s true that Frederik Gauthier is still only 21, the former first-round draft pick has not yet proven he’s an NHLer, let alone a future 3C.

Nylander himself has been the subject of trade speculation this season. After all, Toronto’s blue line could use another top-4 defenseman, and James van Riemsdyk may not possess the value to garner one.

But it would have to be an excellent defenseman for the Leafs to trade a guy as young and skilled as Nylander. Even if he’s never a center, he’s already a pretty productive winger, and that’s not nothing.

Starting tonight, the Blues will try to ‘become a team again’

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The day after their head coach was fired, the St. Louis Blues woke up and found themselves outside the playoff picture in the Western Conference.

The Calgary Flames, with a convincing win over the Wild last night, leapfrogged the Blues into the second wild-card spot.

For new head coach Mike Yeo, the challenge of replacing Ken Hitchcock begins now. If the Blues can beat the visiting Maple Leafs tonight, St. Louis can leapfrog the Flames right back.

“I’m excited for our group and I’m excited about the challenge,” Yeo said this morning, per the Post-Dispatch. “We wake up this morning and we found ourselves sitting outside of a playoff spot, but I think there’s a lot of belief inside of our locker room. I know that tonight will be a tough challenge. I know that we’re not just going to make a change like this and all of the sudden things are going to be better. We’re going to have to make them better.”

Read more: Yeo must make better use of Blues’ speed

Yeo is not expected to make any major changes to the Blues’ system — not yet anyway.

If anything, firing Hitchcock was management’s way of giving his players a jolt. An emotional Doug Armstrong said yesterday that the Blues had become a group of “independent contractors,” and that they needed to “become a team again.”

Yeo concurred.

“We need to start playing together,” he said. “Whether it’s when we have the puck, whether it’s when we don’t have the puck, we have to start playing as a five-man unit on the ice.”

Jake Allen will start in goal tonight. Suffice to say, if the Blues’ goaltending doesn’t improve, no amount of teamwork will salvage their season.

The Blues also fired goaltending coach Jim Corsi yesterday. He’ll be replaced by Martin Brodeur and Ty Conklin, who will share the job of trying to get Allen back on track.

“Jim Corsi has coached Hall-of-Fame goaltenders and Vezina-winning goaltenders, but there was a disconnect for whatever reason,” Armstrong said, per NHL.com. “I’m not blaming the goalies, I’m not blaming Jimmy. I’m just saying right now we’re near the bottom of the league, certainly in the last couple of months, in save percentage and goals-against, and that has to change.”

Blues goaltending since Dec. 1

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A big Olympics meeting will reportedly take place tomorrow

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A big meeting is reportedly planned for tomorrow in New York, where IOC president Thomas Bach and IIHF president Rene Fasel will discuss Olympic participation with the NHL and NHLPA.

According to Sportsnet’s John Shannon, it will be the first time there has been “direct contact” between the NHL/NHLPA and IOC about the 2018 Games in South Korea. To date, the IIHF has played the “middle man” in negotiations, says Shannon.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall when Bach and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman exchange views.

This past weekend in Los Angeles, Bettman took direct aim at the IOC, blaming it for opening a “whole can of worms” when it said it would no longer cover out-of-pocket expenses for NHLers to go to South Korea.

“What I think has happened…you know, there were probably some owners over time who always thought the Olympics were a good idea, there were some owners who always hated it,” said Bettman, “and there were probably a bunch of clubs that really didn’t give it much thought until the IOC said we weren’t going to pay the expenses. And then I think it caused a number of clubs to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, if that’s how they value our participation, why are we knocking ourselves out?’”

For those still hoping a deal can be struck, and that includes the players, it’s at least promising that a meeting is taking place. If the NHL really didn’t want to participate anymore, it could’ve just said no already.

The clock is certainly ticking, though. One deadline has already passed without consequence. If an agreement isn’t struck soon, time will run out for real.

Related: Bettman argues that Olympic participation hurts NHL product

Tuukka Rask has been one busy goalie

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If there was any doubt that Claude Julien has next to no faith in his backup goalies, consider what Tuukka Rask has done in the past week.

Seven days ago, Rask made his ninth straight start for the Bruins, making 19 saves in a 4-3 win over the Penguins.

He then traveled from Boston to Los Angeles for All-Star weekend, where he participated in the skills competition and played one half of a 3-on-3 game.

After he was finished in L.A., he flew all the way back across the country to Florida and started Tuesday against the Lightning, making 18 saves in a 4-3 win over the Bolts.

He wasn’t done there. The very next night in D.C., he started against the Capitals and allowed five goals on just 22 shots in a 5-3 loss.

Oh, and he also hurt himself late in the third period.

“Yeah, I’m alright. I just popped my groin a little bit,” said Rask, per CSN New England. “But it’s nothing major.”

The Bruins had better hope Rask is okay, because there’s only Zane McIntyre, Anton Khudobin, and Malcolm Subban behind him.

Frankly, it is starting to look a bit like the 2014-15 season, when Rask played a ridiculous amount down the stretch because 1) he was playing pretty well and 2) Julien had lost faith in Niklas Svedberg.

The big difference now is that Rask isn’t playing all that well. Since the beginning of January, he’s 6-6-1 with an .874 save percentage — and one naturally wonders if fatigue has become a factor.

The good news? It’s about to get a lot less busy. The Bruins don’t play again until Saturday when they host Toronto. In fact, thanks to their upcoming bye week, they only play four games between now and Feb. 18, and all of them are at home.

That should give Rask plenty of time to rest up and get ready for the stretch drive. It starts with a tough trip to California, and there aren’t many chances to recuperate after that.

Bruins netminders this season

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