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Gaudreau injury a reminder as to how star players are defended and treated

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There has always been a perception among fans — and sometimes even among people within the game — that the NHL’s star players “get all of the calls” and get some sort of preferential treatment from the league.

Just think of how many times you’ve heard somebody say something along the lines of, “Well, if that had happened to Sidney Crosby, what would the response be? He would be suspended forever!”

And that’s not just message board fodder among fans, either.

That is a sentiment that has been shared by actual players and coaches in the NHL (Alain Vigneault literally made that exact argument once) . The likely answer to that question is that nothing would happen because in Crosby’s career he has been on the receiving end of exactly one play that resulted in a suspension. It was one game to Brandon Dubinsky for breaking a stick over his back on a cross-check.

While star players do tend to draw more penalties, that has more to do with the fact that they tend to have the puck more often than most players, and are usually defended “harder” than most players. All of that attention will eventually result in some penalties. But probably not as many as there could be. And it’s not because of some sort of bias from the league’s officials or preferential treatment.

If anything, the rest of the players in the league get an even longer leash against them than they would other players. It’s almost as if the skill works against the stars because there is a belief that they should be good enough to play through it, or that the playing field is somehow being leveled.

We were reminded of this when Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau was sidelined with a broken finger this past week, an injury that the team believes was the result of a slash from Minnesota Wild forward Eric Staal (it was one of many slashes Gaudreau was on the receiving end of during the game).

The Wild’s approach to defending Gaudreau, by far the Flames’ most dangerous offensive player and one of the most dangerous in the entire NHL, wasn’t anything out of the ordinary when it comes to defending top players. Teams will be willing to do whatever it takes to slow them down, and it usually involves everything from tight checking, to “playing them tough,” to some active stick work like we saw on Gaudreau.

One of Gaudreau’s own teammates, veteran forward Troy Brouwer, didn’t seem to be as upset as his team’s general manager because of the way he himself goes after other team’s star players.

“I know in my game I give a lot of top players good whacks and stuff,” Brouwer said via the Calgary Sun. “You obviously don’t want to let it be happening to your team, but star players are going to be keyed on. It’s no different than what we do (to the opposition).”

Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane argued on Friday that it is a method of defending that really doesn’t serve much of a purpose, and that it needs to be called more.

“I don’t like the play, I don’t like the slash to the hands,” Kane said, via TSN, referring to the Gaudreau injury. “I don’t know what it’s real purpose is, even as a defender, slashing the hands of another player. I don’t know what you can really accomplish with that play. We are always taught in here to keep our stick on the ice and go after the puck instead of slashing the hands. Only thing it can result in is maybe breaking a stick or taking a penalty. I’m not a big fan of the play. I’ve dealt with it in the past  where your fingers get slashed, and I know a lot of guys have dealt with it in the league, it’s just something that, I don’t know if you can really do anything about but it’s something that should be called more and it should be a penalty if you’re going to do that.”

He added that it’s come to the point where a star player had to get injured for everybody to take notice and that perhaps it will now be called more often.

But that seems like a long shot because, again, this stuff has been happening for years (generations, even).

For a while there was a thought process that the teams themselves could do the job of the league and put a stop to it by employing enforcers that would serve as a deterrent (the Gretzky-Semenko/McSorley strategy). But teams eventually realized that along with wasting a valuable roster spot on a player that wasn’t actually helping all that much, the enforcer didn’t really prevent that sort of physical play from happening, and if anything, helped create even more violence. When the Bruins employed Shawn Thornton and Milan Lucic for all of those years they seemed to be on the receiving end of more cheap shots than any other team in the league (you surely remember Matt Cooke on Marc Savard and John Scott on Loui Eriksson).

The enforcer or team toughness didn’t stop it or prevent it.

Oilers coach Todd McLellan was recently asked on more than one occasion about the treatment Connor McDavid receives from other teams, and seemed to accept that it is simply the reality of the NHL. He added that they can not always have a bunch of guys going over the boards to fight every time their star player gets touched.

And even if they did, it wouldn’t make much of a difference.

The game is too fast and decisions are made too quickly for a player to stop themselves from using their stick on an opponent because they are fearful that somebody might respond physically. If a player has it in his mind that he has to take a couple of extra whacks at Johnny Gaudreau, or Patrick Kane, or Sidney Crosby in an effort to slow them down, they are going to do it no matter who is lurking on the other team’s bench.

In the end, the only thing that stops it is a more emphatic crackdown from the league when it comes to the way the game is officiated and supplemental discipline is handed out.

As long as things remain the same in those areas, the league’s star players are going to keep taking extra abuse.

James van Riemsdyk on fatherhood, Flyers/NHL returning, and more

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Flyers winger James van Riemsdyk took a moment out of his day/put his car in park to chat with Mike Tirico on “Lunch Talk Live” on Friday. You can watch the full video above this post’s headline.

JVR didn’t do much to peel back the curtain on return-to-play issues, but he provided some useful information nonetheless.

  • Maybe most relevantly, JVR told Tirico that he’ll be close to 100 percent if the Flyers actually get to return to play. Van Riemsdyk injured his finger back in March.

JVR and Tirico didn’t really go into this, but the 31-year-old winger was heating up toward the end of 2019-20. Things didn’t start that smoothly, as Van Riemsdyk only managed five goals and 11 points through his first 17 games. Considering the $7M per year investment the Flyers made, JVR probably heard some grumbles.

But he played some of his best hockey with a still-fairly-new team before the injury and the pandemic struck. JVR scored 29 of his season’s 40 points (and 14 of his 19 goals) through the last 39 games. An updated version of Bill Comeau’s SKATR chart captures how much better JVR has been overall in 2019-20 after a disappointing return season with Philly:

JVR SKATR
via Bill Comeau

As disruptive as the pandemic has been, it had to be nice for JVR to be there for such a life event. An eager Tirico also learned that JVR’s child already has Gritty slippers.

(Please send Gritty slippers. I’m already quite googly-eyed from quarantining, anyway. At least my belly button doesn’t change colors [yet] though.)

  • He didn’t elaborate much, but JVR hinted that players prefer reseeding over a bracketed playoff format.

Really, though, the low-fi nature of the video pushes it to another level. Few things humanize a person quite like doing an interview in a parking lot. (Been there, JVR, been there. Kind of.)

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.

USA Hockey president Jim Smith facing investigations

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — USA Hockey president Jim Smith is the subject of two investigations surrounding his tenure as the president of Amateur Hockey Association Illinois.

USA Hockey spokesman Dave Fischer confirmed Friday that the organization has hired an independent investigator to look into Smith’s business dealings with AHAI. Fischer also said the US Center for SafeSport is investigating allegations that Smith was aware of sexual misconduct by a coach and didn’t take action against him during Smith’s tenure with AHAI.

The Athletic first reported on the two investigations.

Fischer said the US Center for SafeSport’s investigation is regarding allegations that were made against Thomas Adrahtas, a youth hockey coach. The Athletic reported in February that multiple players said Adrahtas had abused them.

The US Center for SafeSport said in a statement that ”consistent with best practices and federal law, the Center does not discuss matters to protect the integrity of the process and the privacy of the parties and any potential witnesses.”

Smith couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. He told The Athletic through a spokesperson earlier this month that ”in my time as president of AHAI, there were no reports alleging misconduct by Tom Adrahtas.”

Founded in 1937, USA Hockey is an organization focused on the support and development of grass-roots hockey programs. Smith was unanimously elected as president by the organization’s board of directors in 2015. He was unanimously re-elected in 2018.

Ducks’ offensive woes extend to rare 2-year playoff drought

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — The last time the Anaheim Ducks missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, they went all the way to their franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final just one year later.

Not many observers expect the current Ducks to duplicate the feats of those beloved 2002-03 Mighty Ducks after they complete another long offseason made even longer by the coronavirus pandemic.

These Ducks are still in full rebuilding mode after winning just 29 of their 71 games this season, including a Western Conference-worst 24 non-shootout victories. The Ducks were in sixth place in the Pacific Division standings primarily on the sturdy strength of goalies John Gibson and Ryan Miller, who bailed out their teammates all winter long.

Just three years after the Ducks reached the conference finals for the second time in three seasons, a long road back to Cup contention appears to loom in Orange County. Anaheim got largely disappointing performances from its collection of forwards – a star-free group outside captain Ryan Getzlaf – and the blue line was inconsistent while coach Dallas Eakins worked young talent into the lineup amid injuries and trade departures.

But during a second straight season without a playoff appearance – matching their total playoff-less seasons over the previous 13 years combined – Eakins and general manager Bob Murray saw signs of the team they want the Ducks to become. They’ll have an extra-long offseason to contemplate the next steps to get there.

”While we would have preferred to conclude our season normally and play 82 games, it became obvious over time that was not practical,” Murray said this week. ”We remain excited about our future and can’t wait for the 2020-21 season.”

SELDOM SCORING

Perhaps appropriately for a team with a long-standing reputation as an intimidating, defense-first organization, the Ducks’ biggest problems during their two-year playoff drought have been all about offense. Eakins was hired last summer to implement a speed-based system designed to produce more scoring opportunities, but it’s just not happening yet.

One season after Anaheim finished last in the NHL in goals, its minus-39 goal differential this season was the conference’s worst. Anaheim scored two or fewer regulation goals in a whopping 39 of its 71 games. Only Adam Henrique (26 goals) and Jakob Silfverberg (21) found the net with any frequency.

The Ducks’ problems ranged from Rickard Rakell‘s two-year regression to the disappointing numbers from youngsters who weren’t ready to produce at the highest level. Murray also curiously gave up on Ondrej Kase and Daniel Sprong in February, trading two young forwards with clear NHL-caliber scoring ability when they didn’t produce enough for his liking.

IN THE CREASE

Gibson and Miller didn’t post impressive statistics, but anybody who watched these Ducks knew their most valuable players were between the pipes. Gibson’s game has grown and matured even while his team has regressed, and the 39-year-old Miller still shows no drop-off in his abilities. If Miller decides to return for another NHL season, he’ll have the chance to pass Dominik Hasek on the NHL’s career victories list – and the Ducks won’t have to worry about this vital position for another year.

DROP THE BALLS

The Ducks have an 8.5% chance of getting the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL’s complicated draft lottery. Anaheim hasn’t had a top-five draft pick since 2005, when it snagged Bobby Ryan with the second overall choice. Murray and his scouting department have a long history of finding impressive talent outside the first round, but they’ll likely have the opportunity to choose a game-changing star this summer for the first time. The Ducks also have Boston’s first-round pick from their trade of Kase.

DARK BLUE LINE

Anaheim’s collection of defensemen appears to be thoroughly average, and none seems likely to get much better. Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson are solid pros, but they’re likely past the points in their development where they could become stars. The Ducks could use an injection of game-changing talent on the blue line.

GETTING BUCKETS

Linemates Henrique and Silfverberg bucked their team’s offensive struggles with a pair of impressive seasons, and they’ll be a foundation of the rebuilding effort. Henrique was particularly productive, leading the roster with 43 points. They’re both locked into long-term contracts.

GETZ BACK

The 35-year-old Getzlaf will head into the final season of his contract later this year when he begins his 16th season with Anaheim. The playmaker still racked up 29 assists this season despite finishing the year on a line with Danton Heinen and Sonny Milano, two 24-year-old recent additions with a combined 59 career NHL goals. It’s a long way down from his heyday with Corey Perry, but Getzlaf appears eager to keep working on the Ducks’ rebuilding project.

Supporters quickly raise $500K to try to save Alabama-Huntsville hockey program

UAH Hockey University of Alabama-Huntsville logo $500K
via UAH Chargers
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Mere days after it looked like the University of Alabama-Huntsville men’s hockey program was going to get cut, supporters raised a whopping $500K in hopes of keeping the UAH program alive.

With another $500K expected to come from boosters, the University of Alabama-Huntsville men’s ice hockey program reached the seemingly unrealistic goal of $1M to try to avoid the end of a program that stretches back four decades.

UAH supporters drove that $500K by combining a Go Fund Me account with T-shirt sales.

Now, this doesn’t outright guarantee the continuation of UAH’s men’s program.

“[School president Darren Dawson] did make us a verbal commitment that if you get to that number, we’ll make it happen,” former UAH player Sheldon Wolitski told AL.com. “We’re hoping he’s going to honor his word. We were asking for a formal statement from him to say that. It would be a shame to put all this effort and we raise it and he doesn’t follow through.”

Even if school officials stick to that verbal commitment, there are some hurdles to clear.

Not the first time the UAH men’s ice hockey program has been saved

Paul Gattis (also of AL.com) argues that the UAH men’s ice hockey program needs more than just money to survive. This is not, after all, the first time that this program needed saving. It was teetering on being canceled back in 2011 before victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Even so, it’s pretty remarkable, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Does it justify comparing UAH officials to “Dr. Evil?” I’d zip it on that one.)

Those fighting for the UAH men’s ice hockey program aim to preserve something quite unusual, as Joseph Goodman noted as fundraising intensified:

UAH hockey is the only NCAA Division I hockey program in the South. How cool is that? It’s one of one — a singular, special thing just like the city it skates for and represents.

Will we see this program survive after giving Cam Talbot and others the chance to chase their dreams? It seems a lot more likely after an eventful week.

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.