Jason Brough

Christmas Q&A: Who deserves a lump of coal?

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Brough: The NHL, if they bail on the Olympics. Look, I understand the owners’ reluctance — really, I do — but the fans want it and the players want it, and that goodwill should mean something beyond the bottom line. NHLers have been going to the Olympics since 1998. It’s part of the international schedule now, and to take it away is going to upset a lot of people, including one of the league’s marquee players, Alex Ovechkin. So go to South Korea in 2018, then go to Beijing in 2022 and try to make inroads into a huge Chinese market. In the process, make your customers and employees happy.

Gretz: Radko Gudas. After a suspension last season and a couple of other incidents that probably should have been suspensions he opened this season with a six-game ban for yet another bad hit. The problem with Gudas isn’t necessarily that he sometimes crosses the line with his physical play. It’s that he doesn’t need to cross the line. He has become a good enough player (and he is a pretty good player) that he can still play physical without resorting to the stuff that makes you scream, “What are you doing?!” He is the otherwise good kid that every once in a while ends up with a detention for something completely stupid. Sometimes that gets you coal.

Alfieri: I still can’t believe Cody Eakin only got four games for charging Henrik Lundqvist. I felt like the NHL had the perfect opportunity to send a message with a stiff punishment and they failed to do so. Thankfully, the Rangers goalie was able to return to the game, and he even shut out the Stars in the process. I realize that had Lundqvist been seriously injured, the NHL would have handed out a longer suspension, but I just don’t get that. Sorry Cody, you’re getting coal.

Tucker: Islanders general manager Garth Snow. Let’s just say some of the decisions that organization has made over the past several months — letting Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen go as free agents, for starters, and then the recent Cal Clutterbuck contract extension — shouldn’t exactly inspire a festive spirit for Islanders fans. 

O’Brien: The big bullies on either side of the “traditional” vs. “fancy stats” debate, particularly as it pertains to the Florida Panthers. Even if you disagree with how to build a team/how to play the game, why does it almost always devolve into personal insults? Sometimes it feels like especially grumpy people are expecting the “nerds” to force them to crack open a calculus textbook or something. Sports are supposed to be fun, gang.

Halford: Ignoring what the dork above me wrote, nobody deserves coal more than Patrick Roy. Are the Avs a bad team? Yes. Did he have the right to walk away? Also, yes. But there’s a way to do things, and the time to do them — and Roy picked the worst way, and the worst time. Bailing on the team six weeks before training camp was bad enough, but the fact he did it after Bruce Boudreau, Guy Boucher, Randy Carlyle, Mike Yeo, Glen Gulutzan and Todd Richards all had new jobs was especially brutal. Galling, really. Colorado is a troubled franchise, no doubt, but a coach should never quit on his team. That’s Bobby Petrino stuff.

Christmas Q&A: Who needs a hug from Santa?

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Brough: I’ll say Joe Sakic. The Avalanche are a total disaster, the worst team in hockey. And as general manager, he’s got some big decisions to make about the team’s future. Should he trade Matt Duchene? What about Gabriel Landeskog? While it might be tempting to do major surgery on an underachieving roster, there’s always the potential to make things worse. I think Sakic would love a hug from Santa. And if Santa could score a goal or make a few saves, even better.

Gretz: I think John Tavares could use a hug from Santa. Here you have a player that has been one of the best in the NHL for several years, playing on a below-market contract, for a team that is at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. There have been a lot of head-scratching decisions made by the Isles over the past year, from letting Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen go, to signing a 30-year-old Cal Clutterbuck to a long-term contract (I know, Tavares and Clutterbuck go back a long way, but you still have to be sensible about this stuff), to having that Andrew Ladd contract hanging out there. Tavares deserves better.

Alfieri: I think Santa should take some time out of his busy schedule to give Steven Stamkos a hug. Stamkos was fortunate enough to have signed a huge contract this summer, but he’s also faced plenty of adversity. The Lightning captain has been sidelined by injuries multiple times over the last couple of years and 2016-17 has proven to be no different. Thanks to a knee injury he suffered in November, he’ll be out of commission until March. This comes less than a year after he missed time with a blood clot and just three seasons after he suffered a broken tibia.

Tucker: You mean besides Gerard Gallant? How ’bout Willie Desjardins. He’s been on the hot seat in Vancouver for about a year now, and the criticisms about his coaching — player deployment being one — are fair. But he’s not responsible for what’s happened in Vancouver. The way their roster has been built, the Canucks are not playoff contenders and never should’ve been considered as such by management. 

O’Brien: This season hasn’t been especially kind to goalies who are in pivotal contract years, but my goodness, it’s hard not to feel bad for Brian Elliott. After years of being bypassed for options like Ryan Miller, Jaroslav Halak and ultimately Jake Allen in St. Louis, he gets a chance with the Flames … and flops. Worse yet, Chad Johnson puts up blazing numbers, limiting Elliott’s opportunities to make things right. Elliott could lose millions from this bumpy season, and even if you think Hitch’s system inflated his numbers in St. Louis, that’s a rough break for a guy who put up a fantastic .925 save percentage in his 181 games with the Blues. Along with a hug, Santa should save one of his cookies for Elliott. It’s been a tough haul for the poor guy.

Halford: While I remain somewhat skeptical about Santa’s proclivity for hugs — aren’t his handouts strictly candy canes and bad mall photos? — I’ll play along and say Riley Sheahan could use one. No forward in the NHL has played more games (34) and had more shots on goal (51) without scoring a goal. And that deserves a hug, and maybe a shoulder to cry on. 

Editor’s note: In all seriousness, we’d like to pass along our best wishes to Bryan Bickell, Nicholle Anderson, Dave Strader, and any others in the hockey community who are courageously battling life’s challenges. 

Christmas Q&A: What has been the NHL’s biggest surprise?

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Brough: This is an easy answer for me, because I thought the Columbus Blue Jackets would be terrible again. Oh, sure, I knew they had a talented, young defense, and I knew Sergei Bobrovsky had the potential to play like an elite netminder. I even thought John Tortorella might be a good fit with them. But I certainly didn’t foresee the rise of Alexander Wennberg, or the resurgence of Sam Gagner. I thought they’d have to hope and pray that Pierre-Luc Dubois would one day become a legitimate No. 1 center. How wrong I was. The young Jackets, with their “new culture,” have shocked the hockey world.

Gretz: I find the Ottawa Senators’ first half success to be a pretty big surprise. Maybe not quite on the same level as Columbus, but I didn’t really expect them to be in playoff contention. Erik Karlsson is probably one of the five best players in hockey, and they have a couple of decent pieces around him, but this just didn’t seem like a roster that had improved enough to make up the necessary ground in the Eastern Conference to get back into a playoff position, especially in a division that had Tampa Bay, Florida and a Montreal team that was going to get Carey Price back. But here they are now heading into Christmas with a pretty big cushion in the Atlantic Division playoff race. Yep, I’m surprised.

Alfieri: I’d like to say the Edmonton Oilers are the biggest surprise, but if you remember correctly, I predicted they’d make the playoffs this year. So, I’ll be a grinch and go with a negative surprise and say Filip Forsberg. Last year, the Predators forward netted 33 goals in 82 games, but he’s nowhere close to being that productive this season. Through 32 contests, he’s managed to find the back of the net just five times. It’s no coincidence that Nashville isn’t as high in the standings as many expected them to be at this point. If the Predators plan on turning things around in the New Year, they’ll need their star forward to find his game — and the back of the net — in a hurry.

Tucker: It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for Florida’s two NHL teams, that’s for sure. At the start of the season, it would’ve seemed foolish not to pencil in the Tampa Bay Lightning as a Stanley Cup contender in the East. Moreover, it would not have seemed likely that the upstart Panthers would be the first team to fire its coach. There’s still time for both squads to correct their respective courses, and, as the 2016 champion Penguins showed us, it’s not necessarily about what you do from October through December. But given the progress of both franchises in recent years, the fact they’re both trying to catch up to a playoff spot is a surprise.

O’Brien: As the optimistic soul/dummy who chose the Dallas Stars to win the 2017 Stanley Cup, I’d have to say that their struggles are right up there. While their defensive and goaltending issues are even more problematic than expected, it’s their modest offense that’s truly eye-popping, even with all of the injuries. It’s startling that such an explosive team could slip into the lower half of the league in scoring. That’s borderline criminal for a team that employs Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and John Klingberg (and seriously, what’s going on with Klingberg this season?).

Halford: The answers is the Rangers but, more specifically, how well GM Jeff Gorton’s moves paid off. Gorton was kinda painted into a corner this summer — New York needed to get younger, and faster, yet needed to do it on the cheap. No easy task. So he took low-risk fliers on the likes of Nick Holden, Michael Grabner and Brandon Pirri, made what looked like a “lose now, win later” trade (Derick Brassard for Mika Zibanejad) and landed Jimmy Vesey. It’s safe to say expectations were tempered, but the result? A team that’s currently on pace for 110 points, which would be nine more than last season. Given many saw the Blueshirts as a team on the decline, it’s a huge surprise.

Pre-game reading: Ranking the NHL’s best, young cores

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— Up top, Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg made quite the impassioned plea after an “embarrassing” home loss to Arizona. But it didn’t do much good, as Detroit has lost two of three since. The Wings play tonight at Florida before starting their Christmas break.

— TSN’s Frank Seravalli took on a neat task, ranking all 30 NHL teams by their four core players under the age of 24. The Edmonton Oilers, with no playoff appearances since 2006, rank first, with a core of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Jesse Puljujarvi and Oscar Klefbom. The Los Angeles Kings, with two Stanley Cup victories in the last five seasons, are last, with a core of Adrian Kempe, Kale Clague, Erik Cernak, and Jacob Moverare. (TSN)

— NHL.com’s goalie guru, Kevin Woodley, asked a bunch of netminders which of their counterparts’ skills they’d like to receive for Christmas. For example, Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk would take Carey Price‘s skating. “Price pushes and stops and he’s set like he’s floating out there.” Carolina’s Eddie Lack, meanwhile, would love to have Dubnyk’s puck-tracking ability. “He’s been the best goalie in the league, he’s really playing great and his biggest strengths are his tracking and patience.” (NHL.com)

— Speaking of Dubnyk and Price, Pierre LeBrun reached out to a few NHL general managers and asked them which goalie was leading the Vezina Trophy race. Said one GM: “Price, Bobrovsky, Dubnyk. I would say it’s Price’s trophy to lose.” Another also said Price. But another said Dubnyk, so don’t count anybody out yet. The Vezina Trophy is voted on by the 30 NHL GMs, so those opinions aren’t for nothing. (ESPN.com)

— Should the Washington Capitals be worried about Alex Ovechkin‘s production? “Ovechkin is averaging 3.94 shots per game this season, compared to 5.04 a season ago, and while he leads the Washington Capitals with 14 goals, that’s three fewer than he had through 31 games last season. If he maintains his current pace, he could finish with one of the least productive seasons of his high-scoring career.” (Washington Post)

— If the NHL bails on the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, would it even be allowed to send players to Beijing’s Games in 2022? That’s a pretty good question, because as commissioner Gary Bettman concedes, “China’s a very big country. There seems to be a growing interest in hockey, partly I suppose because they’re hosting the Olympics in 2022. I think there’s a great opportunity to grow the game there.” (Postmedia)

Enjoy the games!

Jackets sign prolific Russian scorer (and meteor survivor) Vitaly Abramov

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The Columbus Blue Jackets, coming off that big win over the Penguins, today announced they’ve signed Russian winger Vitaly Abramov to a three-year, entry-level contract.

Abramov, 18, was the Jackets’ third-round draft pick (65th overall) in 2016.

A smaller forward, listed at just 5-9 and 172 pounds — which likely hurt his draft stock — Abramov currently plays for the Gatineau Olympiques of the QMJHL. In 32 games this season, he has 23 goals and 22 assists. For comparison’s sake, his 45 points are 12 more than the second-leading scorer on his team.

From DobberProspects.com:

A dynamic offensive player who possesses excellent vision and offensive creativity. Has a wide array of moves, dekes and toe-drags with explosive acceleration and a high-end top gear.

And here’s another interesting tidbit, courtesy the Columbus Dispatch:

Vitaly Abramov will never forget all the broken glass and sense of panic that gripped his school.

The affable Russian winger knows how fortunate he was a giant fireball streaking across the morning sky on Feb, 15, 2013 didn’t enter the Earth’s atmosphere on a slightly different trajectory. His hometown of Chelyabinsk survived a spectacular meteor explosion which injured 1,500 people.  It packed an estimated energy release 20 times more potent than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan in 1945, according to various reports.

“It was terrible and I was scared,” Abramov said. “I saw it from the window . . . For the rest of my life I will remember it.”

According to Wikipedia, the explosion from the meteor “created panic among local residents, and about 1,500 people were injured seriously enough to seek medical treatment.” But fortunately, nobody was killed.

“I was in school and all the windows in my class crashed,” Abramov told NHL.com. “All windows in the city was gone. … It was like big panic because it was something none of us had ever seen. But after that it was fine when everyone said it was a meteorite and we’re still alive.”

Related: Draft-day shocker: Blue Jackets take Dubois over Puljujarvi