Fall from grace complete: Minnesota mathematically eliminated from playoff contention

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This season will end the way each of the three previous to it have for the Minnesota Wild: Out of the playoffs.

The Wild’s loss to Washington yesterday mathematically eliminated the Wild from playoff contention and according to Michael Russo of The Star Tribune, things could possibly get worse for the team standings-wise.

That seems like an eternity ago, as does that Dec. 13 game at Winnipeg when the Wild was still first in the league. Now? It is 25th – but one point up on 29th, which would give the Wild the second-best possibility of winning the April 10 draft lottery and the right to pick No. 1 in the June draft. 

The Wild’s fall from grace is one of the more incredible feats we’ve seen this season and it’s impressive for all the wrong reasons.

Hockey Wilderness pointed out after yesterday’s game that Minnesota will be the first team to miss the playoffs after being in first place in December. The Wild were in first place as late as December 17 but since then they’ve gone a paltry 11-26-5. Minnesota won’t be alone in their fall-from-grace shame, however, as the Maple Leafs are on the brink of elimination themselves. Misery does love company after all.

Ducks are a mess and most obvious fix is also most painful

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On Wednesday night, the Vegas Golden Knights absolutely throttled the Anaheim Ducks. The score was 5-0, but it felt like Vegas could name its score, and they really took their foot off the accelerator during the third period.

Between injuries and Ryan Getzlaf‘s tendency to “ease into” some regular seasons, it’s likely tempting for the Ducks to explain their struggles away as the usual growing pains of a veteran-heavy team. After all, the Ducks’ mediocre record (8-9-3 for 19 points in 20 games) isn’t all that different from last season, when they were a fairly lousy 7-7-3 for 17 points in 17 games.

Those arguments provide a smokescreen for something that seems pretty clear if you’ve watched the team with any regularity: the Anaheim Ducks stink right now.

[Gibson was saving the day, until he couldn’t as often.]

Bottom of the barrel

Toggle through Natural Stat Tricks’ various team stats and you’ll see the Ducks rank in the basement in a ton of telling categories. Only the Islanders rank lower in Corsi For Percentage. Want to eliminate blocked shots from the equation? Oops, they fall all the way to last place.

Don’t try to use the “Well, they just give you the low-quality chances while taking away the high-price real estate,” as the Ducks generate 38.37 of the high-danger chances in their games, easily the worst rate in the NHL.

Too much jargon for you? They’re also the NHL’s worst team at even-strength when it comes to scoring chance percentage.

John Gibson looks like he was sent from some other hockey-playing planet like an NHL take on “Space Jam” lately, but even he can’t bail out the Ducks every night. That much was clear as he was pulled from Wednesday’s drubbing against Vegas.

Now, could you attribute some struggles to injuries? In the short term, sure.

Mounting evidence of an overmatched coach

The excuses start to melt away when you consider Randy Carlyle’s larger track record as a frequently – justifiably – criticized NHL head coach. Via Corsica Hockey, the Ducks have been the 11th-worst team in the NHL from a Corsi perspective since Carlyle took over in 2016-17. Carlyle’s previous work with the Toronto Maple Leafs provided ghastly results (second worst in Corsi during his run, also via Corsica), casting the veteran head coach as someone bandied about during ugly-funny analytics debates.

The Ducks have problems that are rooted deeper than Carlyle’s system. They had issues stemming from Boudreau’s days, and to some extent, they’re getting the bill for going all-in on the present and whiffing on their big chances.

That said, it doesn’t seem like the Ducks are going into liquidation mode, so the easiest (and potentially most effective) fix would be to admit that Carlyle’s ways simply don’t work in the NHL any longer. We could argue until our faces are blue about how long they haven’t worked, but the evidence is building that the Ducks are nearing a minor crisis.

You could almost imagine literal wheels of realization slowly turning for Carlyle and GM Bob Murray after the Ducks were brusquely swept from the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs by the San Jose Sharks. Consider what Murray said about the Sharks playing “faster” than the Ducks:

“Are Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski really fast skaters? Are they?” Murray asked, via Eric Stephens, then of the OC Register. “I had one of them in Team Canada. No. They’re good hockey players. But if your team plays fast, you can make players faster. And that’s the first thing that has to be addressed around here.”

Hmmm, the Sharks played too fast for the Ducks, yet Murray himself admitted that San Jose might not inherently feature faster players? You almost wonder if that might come down to the style of play, and the coach’s scheme? Nah …

This internal struggle has spilled out multiple times, even if you can mix the moments of at least acknowledging reality with exhibits of old-school, possibly out-of-date views on the game. For instance, earlier this season, Carlyle spoke about the Ducks playing “too cute” and needing to be dirtier.

Now, some of that boils down to inane hockey buzzwords, but any objective observer can see that the game is shifting away from grunting, grinding, low-talent work to puck-moving defensemen, smaller players, and speed mixed with skill.

The good news is that the Ducks actually possess quite a few players who can play that game, although it does hurt their transition game to lose Cam Fowler for some time. That’s particularly true on defense, as Anaheim has some very solid defenseman, with Hampus Lindholm standing tall as the most underrated piece of the bunch. And, while Getzlaf has never been known for being fast, Murray’s done a decent job of supplementing this roster with some skaters, from Ondrej Kase and Pontus Aberg to an aging speedster like Andrew Cogliano.

Is it a perfect group? No, but if Murray doesn’t want to aim for a soft-reboot, he must think long and hard about pulling the plug on Carlyle. Even if that means powering up the, uh, hot-take factory?

Firing a head coach is always easier said than done, yet that’s especially true in this case.

Fool me once, shame on you …

After all, if Murray were to do this, he would essentially admit that he was wrong to hire Carlyle … twice. Murray stuck his neck out for the guy who was bend the bench for the Ducks’ Stanley Cup win, and this quote from hiring Carlyle shows how personal the decision was:

“Everything came back to Randy in the end,” Murray said in June 2016, according to The Globe & Mail. “I know in my heart that this is the right move at this time for this hockey team.”

This situation is another reminder that, as analytical as GM moves can often feel, things can get messy when you’re so close to decisions. Frankly, one can openly speculate that many other head coaches could’ve guided a Ducks team featuring Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger to a Stanley Cup at that time; in Murray’s eyes, though, Carlyle brought him to that summit.

It wouldn’t be one bit surprising to see Murray and the Ducks doubling down on this decision, and considering how putrid the Pacific Division is, Anaheim could easily squeeze into the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Is that really the goal for this aging team? Murray himself wondered if the Ducks would have been better off missing the postseason altogether last season, so you probably don’t need to visit the hot-take factory to realize that it might be wise to be proactive rather than throwing away another season with a questionable ceiling.

Yes, we’re just 20 games into the Ducks’ season, but these aren’t exactly new problems, and it’s tough to imagine all but the most modest improvements.

We’re easily at the point where Murray might need to make an “agonizing” decision once again. If not, Murray runs a serious risk of going down with what looks like a sinking ship, and the coach who’s left them adrift.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Crosby, Chara, Subban headline brutal NHL injuries list

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If it wasn’t already clear that the grind of a grueling 82-game season was starting to set in, this list of injuries should drive the point home. Even by such standards, plenty of NHL teams are reeling – publicly or not – in mid-November.

This continues a tough stretch of injury news, as John Klingberg ranked among the biggest names in the last batch of unsettling updates.

  • Sidney Crosby is the biggest name, and the latest news from the Pittsburgh Penguins presents a mixed bag.

Whenever you hear the words “Sidney Crosby” and “upper-body injury,” the reflex is to worry that his career-threatening concussion issues have surfaced again. The good news is that, at least according to the Penguins, Crosby is not dealing with a concussion. While it’s worth noting that teams can be less-than-forthcoming when it comes to injury updates, we’ll have to take this as heartening for now.

(It helps their argument that it’s not exactly clear when the injury happened.)

The less promising news is that Mike Sullivan believes that Crosby will miss about a week, with number 87 carrying a day-to-day designation. Take a look at the remainder of the Penguins’ November schedule for some context:

Thu, Nov. 15 vs. Tampa Bay
Sat, Nov. 17 @ Ottawa
Mon, Nov. 19 vs. Buffalo
Wed, Nov. 21 vs. Dallas
Fri, Nov. 23 @ Boston
Sat, Nov. 24 vs. Columbus
Tue, Nov. 27 @ Winnipeg
Wed, Nov. 28 @ Colorado

So, if Sullivan is correct, Crosby would miss somewhere between 3-4 games. If things progress more slowly than anticipated, it could sting quite a bit more, considering the Penguins’ two back-to-back sets on Nov. 23-24 and Nov. 27-28.

The Penguins were already struggling, and no Crosby takes a little steam out of the acquisition of Tanner Pearson, but it sounds like things could have been a lot worse.

The earliest indication from Joe Smith of The Athletic (sub required) is that Vasilevskiy could miss three-to-four weeks, although that could change. Considering how crucial mobility is for goalies – who can’t really be “hidden” in the lineup, compared to skaters who might get by at far less than 100 percent – this is a troubling injury.

On the bright side, the Lightning have at least built a playoff buffer for themselves, as their East-leading 25 points gives them a six-point cushion against the three teams outside on the bubble (Capitals, Hurricanes, and Flyers) right now. As Smith notes, the Bolts also don’t deal with the sort of back-to-back sets that could really exacerbate this problem, at least not until early-December (when they face road games against the Devils and Red Wings on Dec. 3-4).

They don’t have much of a lead in the daunting Atlantic Division, however, as the Maple Leafs (who won’t feel a lot of sympathy with Auston Matthews out) only behind by one point in the same 18 games played.

While Eddie Pasquale has been recalled to serve as a backup, Louis Domingue is set to be the workhorse until Vasilevskiy returns, unless the Lightning decide that they need to bring in outside help via a trade. This continues a remarkable journey for Domingue, who was pondering quitting the sport altogether not so long ago.

That’s a cool story, but it could be more maudlin if he struggles. The Penguins and Lightning play on Thursday night in a game that’s suddenly depleted of significant star power.

(Luckily, both teams are still pretty loaded, even if they’re more vulnerable to slumps now.)

The Bruins are expected to provide more information as they take a longer look at the 41-year-old’s knee, whether that examination happens on Friday or possibly later. NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty notes that the tree-sized defenseman has dealt with knee issues before, so here’s hoping that the fitness freak avoids the worst.

If nothing else, the B’s have been able to (mostly) weather the storm of defensemen injuries so far, as both Torey Krug and Charlie McAvoy have been limited to seven games played apiece so far in 2018-19. Granted, McAvoy is still out and Brandon Carlo is also banged up, so it remains to be seen if Boston can fight off all of these issues.

  • The Nashville Predators are off to a hot start to the season, which is comforting to think about as they grapple with some troubling injuries.

Not long after being activated from IR, scrappy scoring machine Viktor Arvidsson is back on it, as the team announced that he’s expected to miss six-to-eight weeks (ouch) with a broken thumb (double ouch). Winning the Central Division won’t be easy with that first-line spark plug missing such a big chunk of the season.

It’s not clear how long they might be without P.K. Subban. He’s currently considered day-to-day with an upper-body injury.

Nashville is rightly praised for amassing impressive depth during this salary cap era. That depth looks to be tested, particularly if Subban’s issue forces him out for more than a brief lull.

Moments after this post went up, Nashville announced that Subban is on IR, so that’s not promising.

  • The Washington Capitals are finally being bit by the injury bug after sporting freakish levels of repellant under the Barry Trotz regime. It’s unclear, however, how hard they’ve been bitten. It may not be clearer until Friday, if not later.

Still, it’s wise to keep an eye on Braden Holtby, T.J. Oshie, and Evgeny Kuznetsov going forward.

  • As a reminder, the Anaheim Ducks announced that surgery is scheduled for Cam Fowler on Friday, as he’s dealing with some nasty-sounding facial injuries. This could be quite the painful pill to swallow, considering how awful Anaheim’s looking on defense as of late. The specific timetable is unclear, but that doesn’t sound good.
  • Rotoworld’s injury listings could be handy for those who want even more updates, such as Tomas Hertl being day-to-day for the San Jose Sharks. That’s especially true for those who are deep in the woods from a fantasy perspective.
  • There hasn’t been a ton of great news, although it sounds like James van Riemsdyk is finally slated to return for the Philadelphia Flyers against the New Jersey Devils on Thursday.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Predators may have NHL’s best goalie combo on, off ice

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Pekka Rinne is off to an even better start than last season when he finally won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goalie, and backup Juuse Saros ranks among the league’s top 10 for victories.

With both goalies now signed to contract extensions, the Nashville Predators may have the best goalie situation both on and off the ice.

”There’s tandems that are much better than others, Nashville has one of them,” said Martin Biron, a former NHL goalie and now Buffalo broadcaster. ”And I think if you’re Peter Laviolette, if you’re the goalie coach and the staff, your job and your challenge is to keep them at the highest of levels for the whole season.”

So far, the defending Presidents’ Trophy winners are doing just that.

The Predators went into Tuesday night’s game in San Jose atop the league standings while also first in the NHL both in goals allowed (37) and 2.12 goals-against per game with Rinne and Saros (7-2-0) splitting the first 18 games. Rinne has been ”ImPekkable” with a 6-1-1 record, leading all goalies with at least eight starts with a 1.47 goals-against average and .951 save percentage.

”Every day he is and continues to be the backbone of this organization and team and has probably had the biggest impact on this organization,” Laviolette said.

Rinne is 3-0-1 with a .740 goals-against average and .976 save percentage and a shutout, stopping 121 of 124 shots faced since returning from injured reserve on Oct. 31. The Predators signed Rinne to a two-year extension taking him through 2020-21 on Nov. 3, and the goalie celebrated both the contract and his birthday with his second shutout of the season.

Biron said Tuesday that he doesn’t see a big competition for the starting job in Nashville.

”It’s Pekka’s job, and Nashville giving him that two-year deal I think is basically saying that ‘We want Pekka, and it’s going to be like that,”’ Biron said.

Rinne has been a Vezina finalist four of the past eight years, making the seven-year, $49 million contract he signed on an earlier birthday in 2011 worth every penny. That deal ties him for the fourth-priciest contract among goalies with Marc-Andre Fleury (33) of Vegas and Boston’s Tuukka Rask (31). Fleury is under contract through 2021-22, and Rask hits free agency after the 2020-21 season.

The Predators signed Rinne to a two-year extension worth $10 million on Nov. 3. General manager David Poile also signed Saros, 23, to a three-year extension in July worth $4.5 million. That means Nashville is projected to drop from seventh with $8.5 million of its salary cap invested in goaltenders to ninth next season with a $6.5 million average annual value, according to Sportrac.com.

Rinne could’ve pushed for more money. Montreal’s Carey Price, 31, is getting $10.5 million a year, while Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers is being paid $8.5 million a year through 2020-21.

Biron calls Rinne one of the hardest-working goalies he’s ever seen who’s in unbelievable shape. He also sees Rinne simplifying his game as he got older, like Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek and Eddie Belfour. Rinne still can scramble and react, which Biron thinks will keep Rinne playing at a high level for possibly four more years like Lundqvist.

”Pekka can play at least through this next contract, and then after that we’ll see,” Biron said.

It’s up to Nashville to make that extra cap space pay off after losing the 2017 Stanley Cup Final in six games and then in seven games in the second round last May. Poile persuaded defenseman Ryan Ellis to take a bit less money with an eight-year deal for $50 million in August, and his next task will be trying to get captain Roman Josi to agree to an extension next summer before the final year on the defenseman’s current deal.

”Hopefully this helps in a way that makes this team stay together moving forward,” Rinne said. ”I think we have an opportunity to keep this same team. And I think that’s David’s goal and obviously I like the sound of it. I love this group, and I really think we have a chance this year and years to come.”

EARLY RETURNS

Tom Wilson of the Capitals returned to the lineup Tuesday night at Minnesota after arbitrator Shyam Das reduced the forward’s suspension by six games to 14 for his illegal check to the head of St. Louis forward Oskar Sundqvist at the end of the preseason.

He made an immediate impact, scoring a first-period goal in a 5-2 victory.

Nashville forward Austin Watson is eligible to return to the ice Thursday night when the Predators wrap up a road trip in Arizona after Das cut his suspension from 27 games to 18 after he pleaded no contest in July to a domestic assault charge.

Das is the same neutral arbitrator fired by Major League Baseball in 2012 after he overturned Ryan Braun’s drug suspension. The NHL fired arbitrator James Oldham in 2016 after his decision to reduce Dennis Wideman’s 20-game suspension to 10 for striking and injuring an official, and either the NHL or NHLPA can fire the neutral arbitrator after each season.

NWHL ALL-STAR GAME

The Predators, who hosted the 2016 NHL All-Star Game, will be hosting the 2019 NWHL All-Star Weekend capped by an NHL-NWHL doubleheader on Feb. 10. This is the third straight year the NWHL has held its All-Star Weekend in an NHL market, starting with Pittsburgh in 2017 and Minnesota in 2018.

Nashville will host St. Louis with a morning faceoff, and fans will be invited to stick around for the NWHL All-Star Game starting soon after the NHL matinee. The All-Star game will feature a pair of 25-minute halves with Shannon Szabados, goalie for the Buffalo Beauts and a three-time Olympian with Canada, captain of one team and Minnesota defender Lee Stecklein, a U.S. Olympic gold medalist in February, captain of the other team.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Patrick Marleau and the Toronto Maple Leafs visit his old team in San Jose on Thursday night with Erik Karlsson still settling in with the Sharks.

LEADERS (through Tuesday)

Goals: David Pastrnak (Boston), 16; Assists: Mikko Rantanen (Colorado), 20; Points: Mikko Rantanen, (Colorado), and Connor McDavid, (Edmonton), 26; Wins: Frederik Andersen (Toronto), 10; Goals-against average: Pekka Rinne (Nashville), 1.47; Save percentage: Pekka Rinne (Nashville), .951.

AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow contributed to this report.

Anders Lee and the friend he’ll never forget

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Arcade games, pizza and his good friend Fenov. It’s a day that Anders Lee will never forget.

As the New York Islanders captain and his wife Grace spent an afternoon with Fenov Pierre-Louis, you wouldn’t have been able to tell what the teenager was going through.

At age nine, Fenov was diagnosed with Stage IV neuroblastoma, a type of childhood cancer that forms in the nerve tissue of the adrenal glands. He experienced chemotherapy, immunotherapy, numerous surgeries, radiation treatments and stem cell transplants that led to some victories, but also relapses. He fought for nearly half of his life.

“You learn from someone like that who’s going through some really tough times, a lot of treatment, a lot of pain and not necessarily a good outlook,” Lee told Pro Hockey Talk this week. “But to have a smile on his face like he did and how optimistic he was and how positive he was, it kind of just puts life into perspective a little bit. To go through a tough time in the rink, sometimes it’s feels like it’s everything around you, but it’s really not, it’s a small part of our lives. That part of gaining a little bit of perspective and enjoying this and making the most of it really is special. He was a perfect example of that.”

Lee first learned of Fenov after seeing a speech the teenager gave following a 2016 event. At that time, the Islanders forward was researching ways to make an impact in the community. The KanJam event and helping pediatric cancer patients matched what he was looking for. He was already familiar with the game, having played it regularly while at Notre Dame.

The two Anders Lee Kancer Jams have raised over $225,000. All proceeds benefit Cohen Children’s Medical Center, a Long Island hospital that Islanders players have visited annually.

Sadly, Fenov passed away in July at the age of 17, two months after he joined Lee in Denmark as the Islanders forward represented the U.S. at the IIHF World Championship and later fulfilled a lifelong dream of touring Italy. His absence at this year’s event, which will take place after Sunday’s afternoon game versus the Dallas Stars, will give it a different feel.

“It changes. You have this wonderful friendship with someone and it’s for such a short period of time and it was so special,” Lee said. “But now that we’ve lost Fenov, this does mean a lot even more to me and to Grace, to everyone involved. It’s definitely going to be tough the first time without him. He was the one who I handed the mic to first because he always had something special to say. This year I’m obviously not going to be able to hand it to him. I’ll have to fill his shoes a little bit.”

The idea for Jam Kancer in the Kan was hatched in 2014 by Jamey Crimmins, who raised money for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center by running with “Fred’s Team” during that year’s New York City Marathon. Crimmins’ father-in-law and close friend passed away from cancer and after playing Kan Jam that summer, he decided to use the popular outdoor frisbee game as another way to fundraise. The first event in 2014 raised $14,296 with 24 teams participating.

Current NHLers Kevin Shattenkirk of the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian held events last season. Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller of the Tampa Bay Lightning will host their own “Kan Jam” in February.

Lee’s Islanders teammates will all be on hand Sunday. The tournament will feature players paired up against teams of two who have raised at least $2,000. There will also be some pediatric cancer patients in attendance, allowing them a few hours away from hospitals and treatment for smiles and some fun.

To Lee, Fenov was “the toughest guy” he knew. The relationship left a lasting impact on the Islanders captain. Never one to allow a slump or tough times to wear on him, being able to be around the teenager and see him inspire others while going through a battle of his own was something that will not be forgotten.

“Any one who had a chance to meet him understood how wise beyond his years he really was and the presence that he had when you were around him and with him,” said Lee. “Fenov was one of the most caring people I’ve ever met. You never would have known what he was going through, that’s how strong he was. He didn’t ever let it get to him. He always had a smile on his face. [He was] one of those people that comes in your life and just makes an immediate impact on you.”

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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.