WHL hammers Winterhawks for undisclosed “player benefit violations”

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The Portland Winterhawks are being punished for what the Western Hockey League calls a “series of player benefit violations which have occurred over the past four seasons.”

The league announced today that the Winterhawks will be barred from participating in the first five rounds of the 2013 bantam draft and will forfeit their first-round picks in the following four drafts.

GM/head coach Mike Johnston has also been suspended for the balance of the 2012-13 season, plus the playoffs.

In addition, the organization has been fined $200,000.

“Our independent investigation in this case revealed there were multiple violations over an extended period for player benefits that are not permitted under WHL Regulations and were not disclosed to the WHL,” said league commissioner Ron Robison in a statement.

“It should also be noted through the course of the investigation there was no evidence of any payments or enhanced education benefits provided to players that would be contrary to WHL Regulations as previous media reports indicated.”

No specifics of the violations were disclosed in the announcement; however, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reports that the league’s investigation did not uncover any “irregularities” with regards to the club’s recruitment and acquisition of top prospect Seth Jones.

The sanctions come in the wake of a dramatic turnaround for the Winterhawks. When Johnston took over early in 2008-09, he inherited a team that had won just 47 games in the previous three seasons. Fast forward to the present and the team is coming off back-to-back appearances in the WHL finals.

Recent first-round NHL picks out of Portland:

2010: Ryan Johansen, 4th overall by Columbus
2010: Nino Niederreiter, 5th overall by NY Islanders
2011: Sven Baertschi, 13th overall by Calgary
2011: Joe Morrow, 23rd overall by Pittsburgh
2012: Derrick Pouliot, 8th overall by Pittsburgh

Update (4:25 p.m. ET):

The club has released a statement outlining the violations that it’s been found to have committed.

—- A player contract signed in 2009, involving flights for the player’s family and a summer training program
—- Over the last five years, seven families were provided flights 2-4 times per season based on financial need and their distance from Portland
—- Twice in the last five years the team paid for two players to each have a one-week summer training regimen
—- The Winterhawks provided a cell phone for its team captain for a period of three seasons

Not surprisingly, the club feels the punishment is overly harsh.

“After fully cooperating with the league’s investigation, we were extremely surprised at the excessive nature of the sanctions, and we don’t feel they are in line with the scope of the violations we were found to have committed,” Johnston said in the release.

“We believe that apart from recruiting trips and parents’ weekend, there is no prohibition in the rules governing flights for players’ parents, which were the majority of the infractions. We are currently exploring our options on how we will proceed. Despite our objections, the league has made its decision, and our players will continue to pursue the goal of winning a WHL championship.”

Image of Mike Johnston via winterhawks.com

NHL on NBCSN: Dominant Lightning still have chip on their shoulder

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Columbus Blue Jackets. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Lightning have put together an incredible season thus far. How great have they been? Well, just take a look at the league standings. Through 59 games, the Bolts have accumulated 92 points. That puts them 15 points ahead of the Calgary Flames, who are the second-best team in the NHL right now.

If you were expecting the Lightning to slow down with such a big lead, you were mistaken. Tampa Bay still hasn’t dropped a game in regulation this month, as they’re in the middle of a 7-0-2 stretch in the month February. And it’s not like they’re beating up on bad teams, either.

They’ve taken down the Islanders, who are the best team in the Metropolitan Division, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Calgary Flames, Dallas Stars and Montreal Canadiens over the last three weeks.

How do they stay motivated with a such a big lead in the standings? Clearly, they’re being fuelled by their lack of Stanley Cup Championships.

“We have a chip on our shoulder,” Steven Stamkos said, per USA Today. “I’m sure there are a lot of teams that would be happy to go to a Stanley Cup Final and three of the last four Eastern Conference Finals. That’s tough to do. But with the expectations being so high for our group, we came into this year thinking this was our year, our turn.”

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Here’s how good they’ve been in 2018-19:

• They have a plus-73 goal differential. The Maple Leafs are second in that category and they’re at plus-42.

Nikita Kucherov has 94 points in 59 games. He’s six away from setting a new career high. Oh, and Patrick Kane is second in scoring this season (87 points in 58 games).

• The Lightning have three players in the top nine when it comes to scoring. Kucherov, Brayden Point (75 points in 58 games) and Steven Stamkos (71 points in 59 games). Only Colorado has more than one.

• Tampa has the best power play in the NHL. They have a success rate of 29.7 percent. The Bruins are 3.2 percent away from the Lightning in this category.

• Their penalty kill is ranked second in the league at 84.6 percent. Only Arizona (85.2 percent) is ahead of them.

All impressive totals, right? So let’s take a look at the advanced numbers, too (all stats via Natural Stat Trick):

• The Lightning are eighth in CF% at 51.95 percent. San Jose, Carolina, Vegas, Montreal, Nashville, Boston and Calgary are all ahead of them.

• When it comes to scoring chances, they have a 53.16 percent share of those opportunities this season. Only Vegas, Carolina, San Jose and Minnesota have a bigger share of the scoring chances.

• When it comes to high-danger scoring, as you’d imagine, the Lightning find themselves with the sixth-highest percentage in that category.

The Lightning have been dominant all year and now they just have to hope that they can stay healthy before the start of the playoffs.

MORE: What should Lightning add at trade deadline?

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

NHL on NBCSN: Martin Jones might be key to long playoff run for Sharks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks. Coverage begins at 10:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Sharks have been one of the elite teams in the NHL this season. They’re in a tight battle with the Calgary Flames for the Pacific Division. As of right now, only the Tampa Bay Lightning have more points than San Jose’s 77. What makes this run even more impressive for the Sharks, is that they’ve done all this with subpar goaltending for most of the season.

Starting netminder Martin Jones owns a 28-11-4 record, which is far from terrible, but his individual stats leave a lot to be desired. He owns a 2.88 goals-against-average and a .899 save percentage in 2018-19. Those numbers include his recent surge, which tells you just how bad they were a little while ago.

In fairness to Jones, he’s been a lot better of late. The 29-year-old has rattled off six victories in his last seven games and he’s allowed two goals against in five of those contests. Since Christmas, he’s posted 14-3-0 record. So that’s encouraging. The Sharks just need to make sure he keeps rolling as the regular season comes to a close.

Backup goalie Aaron Dell hasn’t been much better (he hasn’t been better than Jones at all). In a smaller sample size, Dell has posted similar numbers to Jones. He has a 3.04 goals-against-average and a .892 save percentage.

What makes this issue a little more complex, is that general manager Doug Wilson can’t just go out and get himself another goalie. Wasting an asset or two on acquiring a goalie from another team when you’re paying Jones $5.75 million on a long-term contract isn’t good business. And it’s probably not the message you want to send Jones, who has five years remaining on his current deal.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Sure, Wilson could add Sergei Bobrovsky, Jimmy Howard or someone else, but there’s no guarantee that any of those goalies on the trade market will help get them further than Jones can. At this point, it seems like they’ve hitched their wagon to Jones, so he’s one of the players that will dictate how far they can go in the playoffs.

The Sharks have enough talent up front and on defense that they can overcome some average goaltending, but Jones can’t post a goals-against-average of three and a save percentage under .900 when the playoffs role around. There’s only so many more cracks this group of players will get at the Stanley Cup.

Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns are in their 30’s, while there’s no guarantee that Erik Karlsson will sign an extension to stay in San Jose.

If Jones can continue giving the Sharks some quality goaltending like he has been over the last few weeks, they have to be considered one of the favorites to win it all. If he reverts back to being average, they may only last a round or two.

All eyes will be on San Jose’s crease this spring.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Ducks retire Niedermayer’s no. 27; Is Simmonds heading to Tampa?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Hockey News provides us with top 10 lists of active players in different categories that mean the most. (The Hockey News)

• The Anaheim Ducks retired Scott Niedermayer’s no. 27 last night. (NHL.com)

• The Columbus Blue Jackets are starting to suffer trade deadline fatigue. Their fans are counting down the days until Feb. 25. (The Cannon)

• Campbell Weaver has been added to the Bruins analytics department. (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

• After the Lightning and Canadiens faced off on Saturday night, the Montreal Gazette made the comparison between the Bolts and 1976-77 Habs. (Montreal Gazette)

• Capitals head coach Todd Reirden found an interesting way to connect with some his foreign players. (Washington Post)

• Is Wayne Simmonds heading to Tampa? The Tampa Times answers five questions on that subject. (Tampa Times)

• The Maple Leafs are going to need their veterans to perform better than they are right now. (Toronto Star)

• The fact that the Islanders are going to be playing their first-round playoff series at Nassau Coliseum is nothing but good news. (Newsday)

• Should the Florida Panthers trade Mike Hoffman? (The Rat Trick)

• The Avs have plenty of cap space, so they should use it to buy bad contracts from other teams. (Mile High Hockey)

Mark Stone should be the Golden Knights’ top target at the trade deadline, according to Steve Carp. (Sinbin.Vegas)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Binnington posts another shutout; Barkov scores wonder goal

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Three stars

1. Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues

The kid has been in this category a pile of times since Jan. 7 when he made his first start of the season. That night, he recorded his first NHL shutout and grabbed his first NHL win.

Fast forward a month and a bit and Binnington’s flashy start hasn’t turned out to be a fluke. He shutout the Minnesota Wild with a 30-save performance on Sunday, three days after he shutout the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday night.

‘Winnington’ has four shutouts on the season now. That’s four since Jan. 7. He owns a 12-1-1 record. That’s also since Jan. 7. And he’s a big, big part of why the Blues have 10 straight wins, matching a franchise record.

There’s no hotter goalie in the NHL and subsequently, no hotter team.

2. Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers 

Barkov belongs on the list for this goal, alone:

But Barkov also had a hat trick on the night, including the go-ahead goal (the one above) and the insurance marker in the third period.

He added an assist for the four-point night.

3. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins needed someone to step up to keep ahold of their playoff spot and Evgeni Malkin’s two goals 2:31 apart in the third period gave the Penguins just what they needed in a 6-5 win.

Malkin missed five games because of injury and another because of suspension, but since he returned from his ailment, all he’s’ done is produce. He’s got four goals and two assists in three games since his return.

Pittsburgh is in a real fight for a playoff spot, so a hot Malkin, as opposed to a hot-headed Malkin, will be key down the stretch. They need his production in a big way.

Highlights of the night

The legend:

Ovechkin hits 40, again:

Odd but effective:

Factoids

Scores

Penguins 6, Rangers 5
Blues 4, Wild 0
Devils 4, Sabres 1
Flyers 3, Red Wings 1
Panthers 6, Canadiens 3
Ducks 5, Capitals 2

If you missed any of the Hockey Day in America stories, check out NBC Sports here. 


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck