OTTAWA, ON - NOVEMBER 13: Eric Staal #12 of the Minnesota Wild prepares for a faceoff against the Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Centre on November 13, 2016 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
Getty

In praise of Eric Staal

2 Comments

When Minnesota addressed its need for a top-flight center this summer by signing Eric Staal, there was some consternation.

Staal, 32, was 10 years removed from his career-best 45-goal, 100-point campaign in 2006 — the same year he helped Carolina its first and only Stanley Cup.

What’s more, he was coming off a rough stint with the Rangers, in which he had just three goals in 20 regular-season games and went pointless in a brief first-round playoff ouster to Pittsburgh.

As a result, the Wild raised plenty of eyebrows when they said they needed Staal to be “the Eric Staal that he was in the past.”

Some wondered if it was possible. Some said it wasn’t.

So kudos are in order for what he’s done this year.

Staal has delivered top-six production thus far — impressive, given he’s on a relatively team-friendly deal ($3.5M average annual cap hit) — and is averaging 19:23 TOI per night, his highest since the ’13-14 campaign. He’s on pace for 18 goals and 58 points and has provided the Wild with a good one-two punch in the faceoff circles along with Mikko Koivu (the pair have combined to win 592 of 1,102 draws, a winning percentage of 54.)

“He’s been a great leader, a great captain,” Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau told the Star-Tribune after Sunday’s win over St. Louis, in which Staal scored career point No. 800. “Now he’s doing a great job for us.”

Staal’s a big reason why Minnesota’s streaking at the moment. The club has won four straight and, heading into tonight’s action, sits six points back of Chicago for top spot in the Central Division — but with three games in hand on the ‘Hawks.

Of course, if we’re going to praise Staal’s contributions, it’s only right to praise the guy that brought him in.

Signing Staal was a calculated risk by Wild GM Chuck Fletcher. Many saw the move as the old getting older. What’s more, Fletcher could’ve gone harder after “flashier” free agents Frans Nielsen or David Backes, but that would’ve been considerably more expensive, and those two are even older than Staal.

Another option would’ve been to trade for a center — perhaps somebody like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — but that would’ve cost the Wild a good, young defenseman like Jonas Brodin or Matt Dumba.

Instead the Wild chose the less splashy, more conservative path. Through the first two months of the season, it’s paid off nicely.

In praise of Victor Rask

ANAHEIM, CA - DECEMBER 11:  Victor Rask #49 of the Carolina Hurricanes looks on during a game against the Anaheim Ducks  at Honda Center on December 11, 2015 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Getty
6 Comments

It’s been a pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good start to the year for Victor Rask.

Rask, Carolina’s No. 1 center, has 10 points through his first eight games. What’s more, he’s had at least one in every contest, putting him within spitting distance of GM Ron Francis’ franchise-record point streak (Francis went 11 straight to start the ’84-85 campaign).

Rask’s playmaking ability has been a major catalyst in Jeff Skinner‘s season — Skinner sits tied for second in the league with 11 points, despite only playing seven games — and, slowly but surely, the talented Swede is turning heads around the league.

He’s turning his teammates’ heads, too.

“He’s pretty slippery,” veteran winger Lee Stempniak said, per the Raleigh News & Observer. “I’ve been very impressed. He’s a lot better than maybe I had appreciated.”

It’s not overly surprising Rask’s enjoying a breakout campaign.

Or that, prior to this, he flew under the radar.

This is just his third NHL season. He doesn’t play in a marquee market, he’s only 23 years old and while he was a decorated junior — winning gold and silver at the WJC with Sweden, starring for WHL Calgary — he lasted until the 42nd overall pick in his draft year.

But there were signs Carolina had found something special.

Rask avoided a sophomore slump in ’15-16, posting a career-high 21 goals while leading the club in power-play points. He also shouldered a heavy workload, appearing in 80 games while averaging just under 17 minutes per night.

Another sign? This past summer, when Francis signed Rask to a six-year, $24 million extension.

There were a few surprised onlookers, because of the raise — Rask went from making less than a million to $4M annually — and the term caught some off-guard as well, since Rask was a RFA with just two campaigns under his belt.

But Francis knew what he wanted — get Rask locked in for the long haul.

“He is a big part of this team’s present and future,” Francis said at the time. “We are thrilled to sign him to a longer-term deal.”

Rask’s skillset is impressive. The playmaking ability and vision are important — just ask Stempniak, as Rask has assisted on each of his last three goals — but his shooting ability is crucial, too.

Rask has a terrific wrister, which makes both him and the shot-happy Skinner a dual threat every time they’re on the ice.

Related: Carolina has a talented young blueline, too

(Video) PHT Extra: In praise of Braden Holtby

New York Rangers v Washington Capitals - Game Three
11 Comments

Before we get to the video, did you know that Braden Holtby’s career save percentage in the playoffs is .936?

And did you know that, among all active goalies with at least 10 postseason appearances, only Mike Smith (.945) has a higher career save percentage than Holtby’s?

It’s true.

Now, the video:

In praise of Vrbata, who’s ‘just kind of an assassin’

cd0ymzcznguwzdbhnduynddiytjhm2yyzthlmtjjotqwyyznpty2mmq3otljnjhhzdfmmdg5odq5otu1nja3ytzjnjk0
18 Comments

Of all the unrestricted free agents who joined new teams this summer, it’s hard to find one who’s had a bigger impact than Radim Vrbata has with the Vancouver Canucks.

Vrbata scored the game-winner in last night’s 5-2 victory over the Jets. The goal was his 29th of the season. Only nine players in the entire league have more than that.

“He’s just kind of an assassin,” said teammate Chris Higgins, per the Associated Press. “It’s pretty incredible watching him around the net — so much poise and patience. He’s very aware of how much time he has.

“It’s pretty impressive to watch.”

Vrbata signed on July 3 for two years and $10 million. He wasn’t GM Jim Benning’s first choice to provide more scoring, either. That was Jarome Iginla, who chose the Avs instead.

As it turns out, Vrbata hasn’t been such a bad consolation prize.

In praise of the Hamburglar

Patrick Wiercioch, Andrew Hammond
14 Comments

The NHL’s best story of the last few weeks comes from a 27-year-old undrafted free agent out of Bowling Green, with a nickname derived from the thief of McDonaldland.

That, of course, is Ottawa goalie Andrew Hammond.

Hammond, the NHL’s reigning first star of the week, continued his run of improbability on Wednesday night by stopping 35 of 36 shots in a 3-1 win over Winnipeg. Since making his regular season debut on Feb. 16, the Hamburglar has gone 6-0-1 with a 1.35 GAA, .957 save percentage and two shutouts — lifting the Sens from nine points back of Boston for the east’s final wild card spot, to just four heading into tonight’s play.

“We can’t say enough good things about him,” Sens teammate Kyle Turris said following the Winnipeg win, per CBC. “We love him. He is playing great, and we’re just trying to rally for him.”

What makes Hammond’s story so compelling is where it came from: Out of nowhere. He was a good goalie on some bad Bowling Green teams during his college days and wasn’t a standout in the American League; after making a brief NHL debut last season — one 34-minute relief appearance — he seemed firmly entrenched as the Senators’ No. 3 netminder behind Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner, especially after both inked contract extensions last summer (they’re carrying a combined $5.3M cap hit this year.)

Then, injuries happened.

Anderson went down with a hand ailment and Lehner suffered a concussion, which thrust Hammond into a starting role. Despite this, the Sens didn’t seem to adapt any and still struggled with the same issues they had when Anderson and Lenher were in goal — sloppy defensive coverage, too many shots allowed.

But now they’ve got the Hamburglar bailing them out.

Ottawa still sits bottom-five in the NHL in shots allowed per game (32.5) and Hammond’s stats over the last seven games reflect that. He’s faced 33.5 per night, including a combined 74 in his last two outings — a 3-2 shootout loss to Minnesota and the aforementioned 3-1 win over Winnipeg.

Hammond admits he didn’t foresee this run of great play, but also said it’s not a surprise.

“It’s something that you don’t really envision starting this way, but when you put the work in you don’t feel like it’s unwarranted,” he explained, per NHL.com. “You definitely don’t envision it unfolding this way, but you do think you can be successful at this level.”

The big question now, of course, is what happens when Anderson and/or Lehner is ready to return. The former seems close and, given Ottawa has made contractual commitments to both guys, there could be the pressure to turn the net back over to Anderson as soon as he’s ready to go.

Heck, Anderson was slated to start last night’s game against the Jets before ruling himself out with some lingering discomfort in the hand. Head coach Dave Cameron acknowledged Anderson needs to get back in the net soon, but how will he justify not starting Hammond in light of the club’s reignited playoff chances?

To hear Sens players explain it, the roll Hammond’s on is something special — and maybe something you don’t want to mess with.

“Hammy’s standing on his head for us,” Turris said. “I can’t even explain how well he’s playing.

“It’s unbelievable.”