Major NHL realignment plan “gaining steam”

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The CBC’s Elliotte Friedman led off last night’s Hotstove segment on Hockey Night in Canada with news that a plan to drastically realign the NHL’s current divisional system was “gaining steam” and that some teams were saying the chances of it happening were “50-50”.

Here’s the proposed plan:

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According to Friedman, each team would play a home-and-home series with the teams outside their division, with the remaining games played within the division. The first two rounds of the playoffs would also be contested within the division, the same as they were back in the days of the 21-team NHL.

The plan has both its supporters and detractors. The Blue Jackets and Red Wings would obviously be happy to play more away games that their fans could watch on TV without staying up past midnight, but Friedman says the Penguins are worried they’ll lose their in-state rivalry with the Flyers with just two games between the sides in the regular season.

For what it’s worth, I like the plan. The more playoff series between division rivals the better. Because while geography plays its part, it’s really the postseason that creates the hatred. Chicago and Vancouver aren’t close to each other, but the Blackhawks and Canucks have one of the fiercest rivalries in the NHL at the moment. Three best-of-seven series in three years will do that.

Admittedly, the current system is probably more fair. If four teams from each division are guaranteed to make the playoffs, there are going to be weak teams that qualify for the postseason while stronger teams don’t. The old Norris Division was a joke for much of the 80s, yet it still qualified four teams each year. What’s more, one of those four teams was guaranteed to make the conference finals, when most of the time it was really the Battle of Alberta in the Smythe Division finals that decided who went to the Cup finals.

There’s also the matter of two divisions having eight teams and two having seven. The old Patrick Division had six teams while the other three had five; however, since the Penguins and Devils were both terrible for much of the 80s, the issue of unfairness didn’t come up as much as it could have. But take the 1987-88 season when the Rangers (82 points) and Penguins (81 points) each missed the playoffs while the Hartford Whalers (77 points) nabbed the fourth and final spot in the Adams Division. Think the Rangers and Penguins were happy with that?

Of course, having a bad team make the playoffs isn’t always such a bad thing. In 1981-82, the Los Angeles Kings qualified with 63 points (not enough to make the playoffs in any other division) and knocked off the Edmonton Oilers (111 points) in the first round. Did the Kings deserve the chance to pull off arguably the greatest upset in NHL history? Answer: Who cares? That was an amazing series that nobody will ever forget, particularly Game 3, aka the Miracle on Manchester.

Now, should the proposed plan be implemented, it will be impossible for a team as bad as the 1981-82 Kings to make the playoffs, but it still opens up the possibility for unlikely story lines.

David Perron has been Blues’ overlooked star

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The St. Louis Blues were one of the NHL’s most active teams over the summer, going all out in an effort to improve an offense that was one of the league’s worst a season ago. Along with acquiring Ryan O'Reilly from the Buffalo Sabres and signing Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon in free agency, they also brought back veteran winger David Perron (after losing him in the expansion draft the previous year) on a four-year, $16 million contract for what is now his third different stint with the team.

So far, that addition has proven to be worth every penny the Blues have paid.

Perron scored two more goals and added an assist in the Blues’ 7-2 thumping of the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday night, bringing his season totals to 20 goals and 40 total points in 48 games. He is currently third on the team in goals scored and fourth in total points despite the fact he has missed more than 20 games and was sidelined for two consecutive months, having just returned to the lineup this past weekend.

In his first three games back in the lineup he already has three goals and two assists, including Tuesday’s big performance. If you go back to before his injury, he has now recorded at least one point in 16 consecutive games for the Blues and, when healthy, has been one of their most consistent and productive players this season.

It all continues what has been a fascinating career trajectory for Perron.

After showing some signs of being a top-line player early in his career with the Blues but never really fully reaching that potential, things kind of stalled out for him as he bounced around the league, going from Edmonton, to Pittsburgh, Anaheim, and then back to St. Louis between the 2014-15 and 2016-17 seasons.

But when he arrived in Vegas as part of the Golden Knights’ expansion draft haul his career seemed to be injected with new life.

He was instantly one of their top players and one of the key ingredients in their improbable debut season that resulted in a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. It was the best season of his career and resulted in a pretty decent pay day in free agency this past season. He has followed it up in St. Louis with what has been, to this point, the second best season of his career as he is currently on what would amount to a 34-goal, 68-point pace over 82 games. (Because of the time missed due to injury, he is probably likely to finish with around 24 goals and 50 points in 57 games … which is still excellent).

There is almost certainly an element of randomness and luck to some of his production this season, especially since he is currently carrying around a 21 percent shooting percentage this season, well above his normal career average. That number will almost certainly drop in future seasons, but you still can not take away what he has already done this season.

During 5-on-5 play he has been one of the Blues’ best players, averaging more points per 60 minutes (2.34) than every other player on the team, and by a pretty significant margin (O’Reilly is second at 2.15, while Oskar Sundqvist is the only player over 2.00). He is also one of the team’s leaders in primary assists, indicating that he is helping to drive the offense when he is on the ice.

The Blues badly needed more offensive playmakers to put around Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, and Brayden Schenn, and the additions of O’Reilly and Perron have really helped.

Now that Perron is back in the lineup, they are going to need him to continue the current pace he has been on so far this season as they get ready for the start of the playoffs.

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.

Injury roundup: Islanders lose Filppula; Stepan close to return for Coyotes

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It was a pretty brutal Tuesday night for the New York Islanders. Not only were they completely dominated and blown out by the Boston Bruins, but they also lost a couple of key forwards to injury.

The team announced on Wednesday that center Valtteri Filppula will be sidelined for the next four weeks due to an upper-body injury that he suffered early in the first period, forcing him out of the game after logging just 2:57 of ice-time.

Filppula was one of the many veteran forwards the Islanders acquired over the summer following the departure of John Tavares to Toronto, and in 71 games has scored 15 goals to go with 14 assists.

He is one of six players on the roster to have scored at least 15 goals this season.

He was not the only player to have an injury issue after Tuesday’ game.

The team also announced that Jordan Eberle is day-to-day with an upper-body injury of his own. Eberle has 14 goals and 31 total points in 69 games this season. While neither player is a superstar or among the team’s top-five scorers it would still be a pretty big blow to their depth to be without both for an extended period of time. Even with them in the lineup the Islanders are still only 20th in the league in scoring.

Cal Clutterbuck was also injured in Tuesday’s game but he was back at practice on Wednesday.

Injured Bruins returning to practice

Few contenders have been hit harder by injuries this season than the Boston Bruins, but they did get some good news on Wednesday when coach Bruce Cassidy announced that Matt Grzelcyk, Marcus Johansson, and Kevan Miller will join the team for practice in Florida. All three player have been sidelined for at least two weeks. Johansson’s injury came not long after he was acquired in a trade deadline deal with the New Jersey Devils. He suffered a lung contusion when he was on the receiving end of a big hit from Carolina Hurricanes forward Micheall Ferland.

[Related: Ferland’s big hit gives Johansson lung contusion]

Lightning’s Girardi out indefinitely

In other injury news, the Tampa Bay Lightning announced that veteran Dan Girardi is out “indefinitely” due to a lower-body injury.

Girardi has not appeared in a game for the Lightning since March 7, but in 61 games this season has four goals and seven assists while logging just over 17 minutes of ice-time for the Presidents’ Trophy winners.

Stepan getting closer to return

Finally some good injury news for the Arizona Coyotes, another team that has been crushed by injuries all season.

Center Derek Stepan is getting closer to returning to the lineup after being sidelined since the end of February due to a lower-body injury.

Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said on Wednesday, via Craig Morgan, that Stepan is “very, very close” to rejoining the team and that they could see him this weekend against either the New Jersey Devils or New York Islanders.

In 64 games this season Stepan has 13 goals and 19 assists and would be a big boost for the stretch run as the Coyotes look to secure a Wild Card spot in the Western Conference. They currently occupy the second Wild Card spot, still holding a one-point lead over the Minnesota Wild.

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.

Red Wings sign Jimmy Howard to one-year extension

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The Detroit Red Wings are prepared to enter the 2019-20 NHL season with the exact same goaltending duo they have this season after the team announced on Wednesday that it has signed starting goalie Jimmy Howard to a one-year contract extension.

Financial terms of the deal were not released by the team, but according to TSN’s Bob McKenzie, it could be worth upwards of $5.1M, with $1.1M of it available through playoff bonuses should the Red Wings qualify next spring.

The 35-year-old goalie said on Tuesday, via NHL.com, that he is perfectly willing to keep signing one-year contracts after this season because the Red Wings have treated him so well throughout his career and he does not want to do anything to hurt their chances to build a team. The Red Wings are the only team Howard has played for during his career after they selected him in the second round of the 2003 NHL draft. He has been their No. 1 goalie since the 2009-10 season and pretty consistently been a league average, to slightly above league average goalie.

The 2018-19 season has been a tale of two seasons for Howard as he started off with what looked to be one of the best performances of his career, especially when you consider he has been playing behind a rebuilding team that is currently one of the league’s worst.

But his production started to regress a bit throughout January and February and currently has him sitting with a .908 save percentage in 44 appearances.

With Howard’s deal now officially signed, the Red Wings’ goalie situation is totally set for next season as Jonathan Bernier will still be signed for two more seasons at a salary cap hit of $3 million. Howard’s new deal, however, does not include a no-trade clause, allowing the team to move him for the right deal.

The fact the Red Wings, a team that is supposedly rebuilding and looking toward the future, are prepared to enter another season with two goalies over the age of 30 that will eat up more than $7 million in salary cap space is a testament to just how thin they are at the position throughout the organization. At some point they are going to have to find a younger, long-term solution because neither goalie they have now will be a part of the next contending team in Detroit.

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.

McDavid, Marchand, Gritty top 2019 NHLPA Player Poll

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The annual NHLPA Player Poll has been released and there are very few surprises from the results. Over 500 players took part in the 20-question poll answering questions ranging from best forward to best shot to biggest trash talker to best mascot to best hair. The poll was conducted during the Players’ Association’s annual team meetings, which took place between late September 2018 and early January 2019.

You won’t be shocked to read that the players are big fans of both Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby. The Edmonton Oilers captain was voted “Best Forward” (63.6 percent), “Most Difficult to Play Against” (30.9 percent), and “Player You Would Select to Start a Franchise With” (60 percent). The Pittsburgh Penguins captain was the runner up in all three of those categories.

Reigning Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman was named “Best Defenseman” (31.7 percent) and Carey Price was given the title of “Best Goalie” (29.9 percent).

In some off-beat categories, Brad Marchand was a double winner. The Boston Bruins pest was voted “Biggest Trash Talker” (21.3 percent) and “Worst Trash Talker” (12.5 percent) by his peers.

Marchand was honored by his victories:

Gritty, as you’d expect, was voted “Best Mascot” (69.4 percent), Hilary Knight (27.6 percent) topped Marie-Philip Poulin (24.1 percent) as the “Best Current Female Player,” and Erik Karlsson (18.4 percent) was given the honor of “Best Hair,” beating out long-time champion Henrik Lundqvist (6.6 percent).

Check out the NHLPA site to see who the players believe is most underrated, who would make the best general manager after retirement, the funniest player, NHL arena with the best ice, and more.

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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.