AP Images

Amid bevy of head shots, NHL attempts to explain rationale

10 Comments

Drew Doughty watched other playoff games this season and couldn’t believe that George Parros, the NHL’s discipline czar, had suspended him for a head shot.

”I saw four hits last night that deserved more than that,” the Los Angeles Kings defenseman said.

Doughty’s one-game suspension was the first of several in the first round for a hit to the head of an opponent. Toronto’s Nazem Kadri got three games and Winnipeg’s Josh Morrissey and Nashville’s Ryan Hartman got one game each. Washington’s Tom Wilson and Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov were among those who got off without significant punishment.

The criticism, from Columbus to Colorado and from New Jersey to Los Angeles, was loud enough that the NHL’s department of player safety put out a video last week explaining its reasoning for suspending Doughty and Hartman but not Kucherov or Predators center Ryan Johansen.

”The illegal check to the head rule is often misunderstood or misstated,” the league said in the video. ”Illegal checks to the head and legal full body hits often look similar at first glance because the difference between legal and illegal can be a matter of inches in a sport that moves fast.”

Discontent over the goalie interference rule has been grabbing headlines for weeks, but the head shot discussion carries far more serious implications for a league still grappling with how best to protect its players. What’s acceptable has evolved from the early days of hockey through Scott Stevens’ then-legal crushing blow on Eric Lindros in 2000 to today, where checks to the head are parsed frame-by-frame to determine if a line was crossed. The NHL, too, is still facing a federal class-action concussion lawsuit filed by former players alleging it failed to warn them about the health risks associated with head injuries.

Meeting with Associated Press Sports Editors last week, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman insisted there was nothing new about the subject. Asked about player safety, Bettman said Parros is off to good start in the former enforcer’s first season as vice president of player safety. He said he is proud of player safety’s transparency in the form of videos detailing the reasons for suspending a player.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

”Sometimes we get accused of splitting hairs, but that’s exactly what they have to do,” Bettman said. ”I think he’s reached the appropriate conclusion when it’s been a hockey play that doesn’t transcend the rules and I think he’s been appropriately punitive in cases where it warranted it. There’s never going to be a shortage of critics of what they do.”

Doughty, a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman, said he hit Vegas forward William Carrier‘s shoulder first before his head in Game 1. Kings coach John Stevens added: ”As long as I’m on the earth, I’m going to agree to disagree with that decision.”

The league video emphasized that an illegal check to the head concerns a player’s head being the main point of contact, not the first point of contact. Based on experience, the league said, a player’s head snapping back on these kinds of hits indicates significant head contact.

Los Angeles general manager Rob Blake, who worked under Brendan Shanahan in the department of player safety from 2010-2013, said it’s a tough job while at the same time reiterating the organization was unhappy with the suspension of Doughty. Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen was upset forward Josh Anderson was ejected from Game 1 against Washington for boarding Michal Kempny and called a hit to the head of Alexander Wennberg from Washington’s Tom Wilson that got only a minor penalty ”dangerous.”

Wilson was not given a hearing or suspended. Wennberg missed Games 2, 3 and 4 and the hit was not included in the NHL’s explanation video.

Columbus coach John Tortorella didn’t want to weigh in on the lack of punishment for Wilson, a common refrain across the NHL because nothing can be done after the fact. For a more specific reason, Bettman doesn’t weigh in on suspensions because any appeals go to him. He does look at suspension videos before they are issued.

”I watch as a fan to make sure they make sense,” Bettman said. ”I want to make sure the videos we send out are clear.”

”I think player safety as a whole has done an extraordinarily good job of changing the culture,” Bettman said.” We have players not making certain types of hits anymore. We have players who are more accountable for their conduct and understand it and I believe that they’ve been consistent.”

AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, and Sports Deputy Editor for Newsgathering Howie Rumberg in New York contributed.

Kings shift focus to extending Doughty, addressing offense

Getty Images
6 Comments

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) The Los Angeles Kings believe they are still Stanley Cup contenders, even after being swept by the upstart Vegas Golden Knights in the first round. How close they are to that goal might be reflected in how negotiations go with defenseman Drew Doughty this summer.

General manager Rob Blake said Friday that working out a contract extension with Doughty is the team’s top priority. The Kings and Doughty can begin holding talks on July 1, with his current deal set to expire at the end of the 2018-19 season.

“I always wanted to be an LA King and I want to stay an LA King,” Doughty said.

Doughty is one of three finalists for the Norris Trophy presented to the league’s top defenseman after winning it in 2016. He had 10 goals and 50 assists in his most productive NHL season yet, but Doughty believes he can still improve his scoring output.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

“I wasn’t too happy with my goal totals this year,” Doughty said. “I think I only maybe scored one or two one-timer goals, which in my career probably half of my goals are one-timer goals, so I was pretty disappointed about that this year. I can definitely improve on that and have an even better season and hopefully set some new career-highs.”

The Kings scored just three goals in four games against the Golden Knights. Developing a more reliable offense is the one glaring weakness that needs be addressed, and lifting the Stanley Cup for the third time is a reasonable goal provided it gets solved going into next season.

“Everybody is still here that was here in ’14 and almost in ’12 for that matter, too, so we’re not that far off,” center Anze Kopitar said. “It’s going to take a lot of work, yes, but we’re not far off.”

CAREER YEARS

Kopitar set personal bests with 35 goals and 57 assists while averaging a career-high 22:05 of playing time. His 92 points represented a 40-point improvement over his lackluster 2016-17, leading Kopitar to joke he is “aging like wine.” Dustin Brown had 61 points to top his previous high of 60 set in 2007-08, his fourth season in the league. Doughty broke free with 60 points after reaching the 50-point plateau once in the previous seven seasons. Doughty’s usual defensive partner, Jake Muzzin, had 42 points. Even depth forward Trevor Lewis got into the act with 26 points and 14 goals in his most productive campaign.

FORWARD THINKING

Rookie Adrian Kempe was fourth on the team with 16 goals despite not finding the back of the net in the final 29 games of the regular season. Stepping in at center when Jeff Carter missed 55 games following surgery to repair a cut tendon in his ankle, Kempe showed a surprising toughness to go along with his natural quickness. If Kempe can continue to develop, he could decrease the reliance on Kopitar, who will be 31 when next season starts, and the 33-year-old Carter.

“I’m pretty sure he’ll be the first one to tell you he can offer more, and that’s a learning process,” Kopitar said. “That’s his first full year in the league. Speaking from experience, it takes a little bit of time to figure out your routines and what’s working for you and what’s not.”

LOOKING FOR DEPTH

Short of dealing in the offseason, the Kings should return essentially the same roster next season. Speedy forward Tobias Rieder is a restricted free agent, and Torrey Mitchell is an unrestricted free agent. The 25-year-old Rieder showed some chemistry with Carter, posting four goals and two assists in 20 games. Defensemen Christian Folin and Kevin Gravel are both unrestricted free agents.

HOME IMPROVEMENT NEEDED

The Kings went 23-15-3 at home, the second-fewest wins by a playoff team. It seemed like they were getting better as the season went on, going 9-4-0 down the stretch, only to lose both home playoff games and fall to 0-5 at Staples Center in their last two postseasons. Their 118 goals at home in the regular season was tied for 21st in the NHL. The power play contributed 25 percent of that output, underscoring the need for 5-on-5 improvement.

COMING ATTRACTION

Clearly in need of more contributors on offense, center Gabriel Vilardi could be an option for the Kings next season. Selected No. 11 overall in the 2017 draft, Vilardi has been a force in the OHL playoffs with 11 goals and nine assists in his first 12 postseason games. Vilardi also has the size and 200-foot game that fit a Kings team that still emphasizes defense.

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

Doughty, Hedman, Subban are 2018 Norris Trophy finalists

6 Comments

Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings, Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning and P.K. Subban of the Nashville Predators have been named finalists for the 2018 Norris Trophy. The award, voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Assocation, is given “to the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position,” will be handed out during the NHL Awards show June 20 in Las Vegas.

This is the fourth time Doughty has been name a finalist. He won the award in 2016 after finishing second the year before. Hedman finished third in the voting last season and this is the second time he’s finished in the top three. Subban, like Doughty, has a Norris Trophy on his resume (2013). This is the third time he’s been up for the award.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Case for Drew Doughty: The Kings blue liner finished sixth in scoring among defensemen with 60 points, which included 10 goals. He also led all NHL players in total ice time with 2,200:31, finishing with an average of 26:50 per game. He had a strong possession game with a 53 percent Corsi and a 4.39 Relative Corsi, meaning LA fired nearly five shots more per 60 minutes when Doughty was on the ice.

“I’m not starting the season, thinking ‘oh I got to get the most points I can, so I can win the Norris,’” he told The Athletic last month. “I’m starting the season, thinking, ‘I’ve got to get my defensive game even better, because that’s where my team needs me the most – to lead the charge in that area. It’s a team game and it’s about winning championships.”

The Case for Victor Hedman: Hedman finished tied for first among defensemen in goals scored with 17 and finished fourth in points with 63. He set a career high in ice time with 1,990:30 total minutes, averaging 25:51 per night. The possession stats for the Lightning defenseman were solid as well, with a 52 percent Corsi and a 0.38 Relative Corsi.

“I’m fortunate to be on an unbelievable team that helped me out through my first decade in the league, to help me grow into the player I want to be,” he told Sports Illustrated in February. “Still got stuff to work on and get better at, but obviously winning the Norris would be something that I want to do. I want to be at the top of my game. I want to play my best every night.”

The Case for P.K. Subban: Subban was right behind Hedman in goals scored (16) and right behind Doughty in total points (59). He logged 1,977:24 of ice time, playing in all 82 games for the Predators this season. As you’d expect from a Norris finalist, his possession stats were good, as he finished with a 52 percent Corsi and a 0.3 Relative Corsi.

Earlier this season, Subban told the Tennessean he felt his defensive game was overlooked. “The offensive part of my game has always been there,” he said. “The defensive part has always been there as well, but for whatever reason, I don’t seem to get the credit for what I do in my (defensive) zone and how I contribute defensively for our hockey club.”

2018 NHL Award finalists
Lady Byng (Friday)
Selke Trophy
Vezina Trophy

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Predators’ Ryan Hartman suspended one game for illegal check to head

Getty
2 Comments

When the Nashville Predators attempt to close out their series against the Colorado Avalanche on Friday night they will be without forward Ryan Hartman.

The NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced on Thursday afternoon that Hartman has been suspended one game for an illegal check to the head of Avalanche forward Carl Soderberg during the Predators’ 3-2 win in Game 4 on Wednesday.

Here is the NHL’s explanation for the suspension.

He was given a two-minute minor penalty for charging on the play. It happened early in the third period.

It turned out to be a pretty eventful night for Hartman as he was also penalized in the second period for roughing and holding the stick during a sequence that saw him get speared by Avalanche forward Sven Andrighetto.

Andrighetto was given a roughing penalty during the sequence, but to this point has not received any supplemental discipline for the spearing incident.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This is already the fourth suspension of the playoffs as Hartman joins Drew Doughty (one game), Nazem Kadri (three games), and Josh Morrissey (one game) as players to sit for at least one game.

There was only one suspension during the entire 2017 playoffs.

The Predators acquired Hartman at the trade deadline from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Victor Ejdsell, a first-round pick, and a fourth-round pick. In 78 games this season between the two teams he scored 11 goals to go with 20 assists. Three of those goals game as a member of the Predators. So far in the first-round series against Colorado he has scored one goal for the Predators.

Related: Avalanche to start Andrew Hammond in Game 5

————

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Sharks showed in Round 1 they’re not done yet

Getty
16 Comments

For the better part of the past two decades the San Jose Sharks have been a near constant in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, making 18 appearances in 20 years. Because that run has not yet resulted in a Stanley Cup — and at times resulted in some crushing, premature postseason exits — they have usually been more of a playoff punchline than a celebrated success story for being a contender almost every year. With every passing year that does not result in a championship, and with every year that foundational  players like Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski get older, we seem to forget about them a little more.

It’s usually the old “their window has closed” situation as we wait for them to fade into obscurity.

Then two years ago, after everyone seemingly gave up on them being a serious threat to ever win it all, they finally had a breakthrough and reached the Stanley Cup Final.

They entered the playoffs this year as somewhat of an afterthought once again (hey, I admit, I was guilty of that too), lost beneath the hype of the Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets, and even their second-round opponent, the Vegas Golden Knights. But after making quick work of an overmatched and hapless Ducks team in round one, outscoring them by an 16-4 margin in a clean four-game sweep, they are now in the second-round of the playoffs ready to take on the Vegas with a trip to the Western Conference Finals on the line. They have done all of this while only getting 47 games out of Thornton who has not played since the end of January.

So what has been the key to their success? For one, they finally have a goalie they can count on in the playoffs.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

One of the biggest issues that plagued some of the great Joe Thornton/Patrick Marleau teams in the early-mid 2000s were some truly disastrous postseason goaltending performances from the likes of Evgeni Nabokov and Antti Niemi that completely sunk the team’s chances. Those postseason shortcomings were then hung on the two guys at the top of the lineup (Thornton and Marleau) even though they almost always produced.

Now the net belongs to Martin Jones, and in what is his third playoff run with the team he is once again playing some of his best hockey at the right time of year.

Jones was incredible in the first-round sweep of the Ducks, turning aside 128 of the 132 shots he faced. In his 34 playoff games as a member of the Sharks he now has a .930 save percentage. Of the 18 goalies that have appeared in at least 10 playoff games during that stretch, that would be tied for the third best mark in the NHL. That sort of goaltending will always give you a chance.

For as good as Jones has been, it is not just the goaltending that is sparking the Sharks right now.

They have also managed to reshape their roster a bit and work in some youth and speed, even from what the team looked like just one year ago. The Ducks, a classic rough-and-tumble “heavy hockey” Pacific Division team, were overmatched it by from the drop of the puck in Game 1.

When looking at the skaters that played in the first-round this season versus the first round a year ago (when they lost to the Edmonton Oilers) you can see where the changes come in.

After being a healthy scratch in all six playoff games a year ago, 22-year-old Kevin Labanc not only played in all four games in the first-round, he recorded two assists, was not on the ice for a single goal against, and generally played great two-way hockey. The same was true for 23-year-old center Chris Tierney as he came off what was a breakout regular season performance. Twenty-one-year-old Timo Meier, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2015, saw an increased role this season and after scoring 21 goals during the regular season contributed three points in the first-round against the Ducks.

That influx of young talent has been a great complement to the established veterans already on the roster, including Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, and Tomas Hertl, a trio that combined for six goals against the Ducks. And that doesn’t even include trade deadline acquisition Evander Kane whose two goal effort in Game 1 helped lead the Sharks to their first win of the playoffs.

Including playoffs, the Sharks are 16-6-1 since that trade while Kane has had three multiple-goal games during that stretch.

Given how impressive Vegas was in its first round sweep of the Los Angeles Kings — a series that pretty much mirrored the Sharks’ win, where a faster, more skilled team overwhelmed a slower, bigger, more physical team — the Sharks are certainly going to have their hands full in round two. But they have put themselves in a great position to make another deep run in the Western Conference in another year where everybody kind of forgot about them.

The Sharks are still here. They are still good. Given the makeup of their roster, they are not ready to go away anytime soon.

————

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.