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Slashing crackdown, infusion of youth boost NHL scoring

By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

The nets aren’t bigger, the goaltenders aren’t smaller and yet scoring is up significantly around the NHL.

Through the first two months of the season, goals are up more than 12 percent from the same time a year ago, including a whopping 14 percent increase on the power play and a 38 percent spike in short-handed goals.

”That’s what the league wanted,” San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc Edouard-Vlasic said. ”The league has done everything in their power to make there more goals out there, and that’s exactly what’s going on.”

The uptick can be credited to a concerted crackdown on slashing by issuing more penalties and a league-wide move toward younger and more skilled players. The current pace of 6.01 goals per game would be the highest since 2005-06, when a series of rule changes were put in to open up the game and get more scoring to attract new fans.

”Teams try to go for it more,” said New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, whose goals-against average is 2.66, nearly 13 percent higher than it was at this point a year ago. ”Most teams are trying to go for it, have this fast hockey, leave the zone quickly and it opens it up.”

Deputy NHL Commissioner Bill Daly said general managers are pleased with the current pace, which has lasted beyond the typical high-scoring October as defenses settle in for the season. Stricter enforcement of slashing was designed to reduce hand and wrist injuries, though it has had a positive effect on offense with defenders unable to whack at puck carriers’ sticks in an effort to stop them.

”I do think that has created certainly more room for our players to be offensive,” Daly said. ”I think over time, clearly since we increased the standard for hooking and holding and interference (in 2005-06), slashing has become a way to defend and an effective way to defend, and I think this year it’s a less effective way to defend.”

Players have noticed, even if some are frustrated at the varying degrees of what rises to the level of a slashing penalty. Every referee is watching closely.

”The last five years, you could do so much more with your stick and probably now lots of players are afraid to use their sticks,” Los Angeles Kings forward Jussi Jokinen said. ”I think everybody wants to see more goals, so scoring being up, I think it’s good.”

Everyone except maybe the goaltenders may think so, but it’s not like they’ve been terrible. Four goalies who have played at least 20 games have a save percentage of .930 or higher.

”The goaltenders, they haven’t been any better than they are right now and some of them are still getting lit up pretty good,” said Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who has the league’s leading goal-scorer in Alex Ovechkin.

Certainly the emphasis on slashing has helped players such as Ovechkin, Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau and New York Islanders star John Tavares, who can do wonders with even a few extra inches of space. Columbus Blue Jackets forward Josh Anderson, who scored 10 goals in his first 15 games, said slashing is on everyone’s mind and ”guys are not getting (their sticks) up into the hands as much as they used to.”

Slashing and otherwise, there have been 173 more power plays than last season and teams are converting on 19.7 percent of them. Almost half the league is at or above 20 percent. The massive increase in short-handed goals has a lot to do with aggressive penalty kills stocked with offensive-minded players more likely to score.

”That’s one more thing that the power play has to worry about,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. ”Now they don’t just have to worry about scoring goals. They have to worry about their turnovers, what plays they make, how risky they want to get because there is that chance if it goes the other way and it’s a 2-on-1, it could end up in the back of your net.”

Los Angeles coach John Stevens said teams are in ”attack mode” all the time now, and Trotz estimates that he spends three-quarters of time trying to figure out how to score more.

But risk is also inherent in the NHL getting younger and featuring so many rookie scorers such as Arizona’s Clayton Keller, Chicago’s Alex DeBrincat and Vancouver’s Brock Boeser. The average age of an NHL player is 27 and Daly said the number has dropped over the past several years. He said more scoring is a byproduct as junior hockey and college programs get better at making players NHL-ready sooner.

Team composition has also changed. There are fewer journeyman faceoff specialists and grinders, and more players kept for speed and skill.

”Just the mold of all teams is kind of changing: They’re going for smaller, skilled guys rather than guys who are two-way forwards and stuff like that,” said Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, who is all of 27. ”These young kids have unbelievable skill, too. It’s kind of crazy how much skill. They have things they grew up getting taught how to do those things, which we didn’t have access to when we were kids.”

For all the offense so far, there are those who don’t expect it to keep happening. Goals were up through October last season and the NHL finished averaging 5.54 per game. DeBoer said teams often tighten their systems and structure after Christmas, making it more difficult to score.

”I think it’s still early to say,” Blackhawks winger Richard Panik said. ”The game is going to get tighter. It always does before playoffs.”

Previewing the 2019-20 Chicago Blackhawks

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

Better or Worse: After failing to make the playoffs again, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman had to shake up his roster. He didn’t really add a core player, but that’s fine considering he already had Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Alex DeBrincat on his roster. Instead, he decided to surround those players with some more quality depth. He was able to bring Andrew Shaw back into the fold in a trade with Montreal and he also improved his defense by acquiring Calvin de Haan from Carolina and Olli Maatta from Pittsburgh. With all the uncertainty surrounding the health of goaltender Corey Crawford, the ‘Hawks also signed Vezina-Trophy nominee Robin Lehner to a one-year deal. It’s hard to argue that Chicago isn’t better on paper heading into this season.

Strengths: There’s no denying that the Blackhawks have a lot of high-end talent up front. Kane posted a 110-point season last year, while Toews added 81 points in 82 contests during a bounce-back season. They also have DeBrincat, who found the back of the net 41 times last year and Brandon Saad, who can do more than he did a year ago (23 goals and 47 points). It’ll also be interesting to see if Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini continue to improve at a rapid rate. The Blackhawks shouldn’t have much trouble generating offense this year.

Weaknesses: Even though they’ve added Maatta and de Haan this summer, their defense still has to be considered a question mark. How much will they be able to get from veterans like Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith? Both players are in their mid-30s and you have to wonder how many minutes they’ll be able to log on a Chicago blue line that has to be better this year than it was in 2018-19. The goaltending situation, which was weak once Crawford went down last year, has been shored up by the addition of Lehner.

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): 2. It’s hard to imagine the Blackhawks getting rid of Jeremy Colliton during or after his first full year behind an NHL bench. Of course, if things get really ugly for them this season, anything is possible, but it’s tough to envision them dropping deeper into the standings than they have been over the last couple of seasons. Colliton had success with Chicago’s AHL affiliate and although that doesn’t necessarily guarantee he’ll do well in the NHL, it should buy him some time when it comes to putting his team together.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Strome, Lehner and Shaw are the players to keep an eye on this year. Strome is a former third overall pick that couldn’t seen to put it all together with Arizona. After he got traded to Chicago, all he did was score 51 points in 58 games. Can he continue producing at that rate? Can the 22-year-old actually improve his scoring clip? He could develop into a real difference-maker for this Blackhawks team.

As for Lehner, it’ll be interesting to see if he can build on the strong season he had with the Islanders in 2018-19. Can he produce similar results to last year now that he’s away from Barry Trotz’s smothering defense-first system? Will he play well enough to earn himself a long-term extension with a team that was only willing to give him a one-year deal? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered in this situation.

Shaw is back where it all began. He had a solid season with Montreal last year, as he scored 19 goals and 47 points in just 63 games. Those are significant numbers for a player that plays with an edge. The only question surrounding Shaw is whether or not he can stay healthy. He’s a small player that plays a physical style. The 28-year-old also has a long history with concussions.

Playoffs or Lottery: As much as the Blackhawks have added to their roster, it won’t be easy for them to sneak into a playoff spot in the Western Conference. They’ll likely be battling with St. Louis, Dallas and Colorado for the final Wild Card spots and that’s a battle they might not win. In the end, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them finish in ninth spot in the West. They’ll be in the race until the end though.

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: Laine off to Switzerland; Who will play with Crosby?

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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.

• Jets restricted free agent Patrik Laine will practice with SC Bern of the Swiss League. (Swiss Hockey News)

• With Laine and Kyle Connor still not signed, the Jets are relying on Mason Appleton and Gabriel Bourque. (Winnipeg Free Press)

• The re-signing of Mitch Marner is a clear message from Maple Leafs management. (Leafs Nation)

• Pension Plan Puppets argues that Marner’s contract is set up for him to fail. (Pension Plan Puppets)

• The Flyers are incredibly disappointed that Travis Konecny isn’t in training camp. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• The Matthew Tkachuk situation in Calgary could make things ugly for the Flames cap situation. (Flames Nation)

David Backes is hoping to have a great camp so that he can make an impact on the Bruins roster. (NBC Sports Boston)

• Is the Provorov extension a good deal for the Philadelphia Flyers? (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

Adam Fox is looking to carve out an important role on the Rangers this year. (Blue Seat Blogs)

• The Canucks need more than just two lines to score if they’re going to make the playoffs. (Vancourier)

• Ever wonder what happy to Robby Fabbri‘s tooth? (NHL.com/Blues)

• Who will play with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel this year? (Pensburgh)

• What’s new on the latest NHL 20 video game? (Game Spot)

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.

Maple Leafs expect Hyman, Dermott to miss significant time

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Once you get beyond the sticker shock of the $10.89M cap hit, the Mitch Marner contract is a reason for the Toronto Maple Leafs to rejoice. Rather than the saga drag on deep into the season like the William Nylander fiasco, Marner is gearing up in training camp.

Apparently the Maple Leafs will still be without a noteworthy player or two anyway, even though their losses aren’t nearly as significant as the prospect of being without Marner.

Head coach Mike Babcock estimates that forward Zach Hyman could miss approximately 14-15 games, while defenseman Travis Dermott may be sidelined for a similar span (12-14 games), according to TSN’s Karen Shilton.

If that forecast is correct, then the Maple Leafs could anticipate Hyman and Dermott back sometimes during this range:

Game 12 – Oct. 25: home vs. Sharks
Game 13 – Oct. 26: at Canadiens
Game 14 – Oct. 29: home vs. Capitals
Game 15 – Nov. 2: at Flyers

Naturally, when it comes to injuries, things can change. Ailments can worsen, or players can heal up faster than expected.

All due respect to two useful players in Dermott and Hyman, but the cap management aspect — particularly use of LTIR, and juggling once they’re ready to come back — is likely the most interesting part of this situation.

We already know that Nathan Horton ($5.3M AAV) and David Clarkson ($5.25M) will be on LTIR through the final season of their tragic contracts, providing $10.55M. Hyman carries $2.25M, while Dermott weighs in at $863K. The window for an LTIR stay is at least 10 games and 24 days, so one would expect that Hyman and Dermott would join Clarkson and Horton on LTIR. With Dermott’s cost fairly minimal, things would be most cramped once Hyman is healthy enough to play again. Will Toronto be forced to make a trade, or waive someone they’d rather keep?

Losing Hyman and Dermott for what sounds like close to a month isn’t great to begin with, but things could be especially tricky once they can actually play.

Although the Maple Leafs solved some of their biggest riddles, they’ll still need to answer more questions in the short term, so Babcock could be a busy man — almost as busy as Kyle Dubas.

(H/T to Rotoworld.)

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Bruins get another major bargain with McAvoy contract

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Over and over again, the Boston Bruins find ways to sign core players at stunning discounts. They pulled off another steal with budding star defenseman Charlie McAvoy on Sunday.

Remarkably, they signed McAvoy for slightly less than what the Blue Jackets gave Zach Werenski. McAvoy’s contract is for three years, with just a $4.9 million AAV. That’s … incredible value.

Like with Werenski, it’s structured in a way that can make a future contract hefty, and open the door for eventual UFA status. But for a team that’s focused on now as much as the Bruins happen to be, this is even better. It also makes affording Torey Krug‘s next contract feel a lot more feasible. Also, Cap Friendly points out that McAvoy needs more time to reach UFA status than Werenski and Timo Meier, two players who’ve set a standard for how many RFAs approached negotiations this offseason.

When people try to beat up on the Maple Leafs for their expensive top guys, they often (almost unfairly) bring up Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak only costing about $20 million combined – less than John Tavares and Auston Matthews put together. This could be another contract people cite when they shake their head in awe at what the Bruins have done.

(Now, they just need to make sure not to give away any contracts to the likes of David Backes.)

About the only knock on McAvoy, 21, is that he’s dealt with some injury issues. Beyond that, he’s a really well-rounded defenseman, one who’s been instrumental in extending Zdeno Chara‘s career.

Check out how his RAPM charts at even-strength stack up against Werenski, via Evolving Hockey:

McAvoy made a resounding first impression during the 2016-17 postseason, making his NHL debut at that stage, and impressively logging 26:12 per playoff game. He then started strong in 2017-18, generating seven goals and 32 points in 63 games. This past season provided much of the same, as McAvoy scored seven goals and 28 points in 54 regular-season contests and delivering strong work in postseason appearances.

Again, the main concern is staying on the ice, as otherwise McAvoy’s passed his early tests with flying colors.

Cap Friendly estimates the Bruins’ remaining cap space at about $3.2M, and it’s possible that RFA defenseman Brandon Carlo might eat up all of that, or almost all of that breathing room.

This is fantastic stuff by the Bruins. Again.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.