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Analyzing the Blackhawks’ goaltending options

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There are lot of reasons the Chicago Blackhawks run of nine consecutive postseason appearances came to a sudden end during the 2017-18 season.

Those reasons included, but were not limited to, the fact Jonathan Toews has started to slow down offensively (don’t deny it, it’s happening) with several other core players joining him.

Marian Hossa‘s career came to an abrupt end.

The front office badly whiffed on the trade that saw them send Artemi Panarin to Columbus for a Brandon Saad reunion.

But the biggest issue was probably the fact starting goalie Corey Crawford was limited to just 27 games and none of the five — yes, five! — goalies they used in an effort to replace him where able to provide the team with anything close to adequate NHL goaltending.

The numbers speak for themselves: With Crawford in the lineup the Blackhawk were 16-9-2, a record that would have put them at a 103-point pace over 82 games. Crawford’s .929 save percentage, which was among the best in the NHL, was a significant part of that.

Without him in the lineup they were just 17-30-8, a record that would have put them on a 65-point pace over 82 games. In other words, one of the worst teams in the league. The combined .902 save percentage from Anton Forsberg, Jean-Francois Berube, Jeff Glass, Collin Deila, and emergency fill-in Scott Foster (to be fair, he did stop all seven shots he faced!) contributed significantly to those struggles.

On Wednesday, Berube was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Obviously the return of a healthy Crawford will be significant factor in whether or not the Blackhawks are able to rebound in 2018-19.

The problem: Nobody really knows anything about where Crawford is in his recovery from what the team will only refer to as an “upper-body injury.” Prior to the NHL draft this past week the Blackhawks offered an update on Crawford which really wasn’t much of an update at all.

Here is general manager Stan Bowman in a conference call with reporters, via the Chicago Sun Times:

“What I said at the end of the year is still the case now. We expect Corey to be back,” Bowman said during a pre-NHL draft conference call with media. “We don’t have any reason to think that’s not going to happen.”

“All the players are preparing for next season. Corey is in that same preparation mode. … Nothing has changed.”

Bowman all said the Blackhawks expect him to be available for the start of training camp in a couple of months. Until Crawford is back on the ice and actually taking shots in the Blackhawks’ net the entire situation will remain a mystery. And even when — if? — that does happen the Blackhawks should still probably be in the market for some sort of capable backup or insurance policy, because the quintet of players they used this past season was obviously not good enough.

[Related: PHT Power Rankings: The top-20 NHL Free Agents]

The question, of course, is where they go to find that insurance policy.

Scott Powers of the Athletic reported this week that the Blackhawks have reached out to Jonathan Bernier, Carter Hutton and Cam Ward, while TSN’s Pierre LeBrun mentioned that Ward could be a “strong” possibility to land in Chicago on July 1.

Jay Zawaski of 670 The Score also reported that a deal may already be in the works.

The concern there if you’re a Blackhawks fan is that Ward hasn’t been very good for the better part of the past six years.

Another way of putting it is that Ward has been one of the least productive goalies in the NHL.

Just consider that since the start of the 2012-13 season there have been 59 goalies that have appeared in at least 100 games in the NHL.

Cam Ward’s .906 save percentage during that stretch ties him for the worst mark in the league with Mike Condon, Anders Nilsson, and Ben Scrivens.

His .913 save percentage in even-strength situations again puts him in a tie for the worst mark along with Condon.

On one hand, the argument could be made that Ward has spent almost all of that time playing behind a team that hasn’t had much success and that joining the Blackhawks might help him. But for the past few years the Hurricanes have been one of the NHL’s best teams when it comes to suppressing shots against (the Blackhawks in recent years have become only mediocre in that area) and hasn’t had to face an extremely heavy work load. There is a strong argument to be made that goaltending is one of the biggest reasons the team has not had more success on the ice, with Ward being the primary goaltender for most of that run. He also is 34 years old and turns 35 in February, which isn’t exactly a prime age for goalies — especially ones that do not have a track record of consistently strong play.

The other potential free agent options are far more appealing.

On Wednesday, our Joey Alfieri argued that Robin Lehner, who was not extended a qualifying offer by the Buffalo Sabres, would make a lot of sense for the Detroit Red Wings. I would argue that he would probably be an ideal fit in Chicago. He is coming off of a down year in Buffalo — who wasn’t? — but had a lot of success in the two years prior while playing behind what has been a mostly dreadful team. He is not a star by any means but he might have the most upside of any of the free agents available.

Bernier is also an intriguing option because you know exactly what you’re going to get, and in a perfect world it is exactly what the Blackhawks might need — a solid, capable backup that can fill in for an extended period of time if Crawford’s situation remains what it is.

Among the same 59 goalie sampling mentioned above with Ward, Bernier finds himself sitting 30th and 25th in save percentage and even-strength save percentage out of that group. In other words, he is not going to steal you many games, but he probably will not lose you many games, either.

Even that would be a massive upgrade over what the Blackhawks were using in net a season ago. It would also be a far more intriguing option than a soon-to-be 35-year-old Cam Ward.

More NHL Free Agency:
• Ilya Kovalchuk, Kings agree to terms on three-year deal
• John Carlson gets $64 million payday as Capitals lock up defenseman

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.

The Buzzer: San Jose welcomes back Marleau; Big stats Stastny

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Three Stars

1. Paul Stastny, Vegas Golden Knights

With all of the talent in Vegas, and the fact that the Golden Knights have been able to add big names like Mark Stone more recently, it’s easy to forget that Vegas also bolstered its lineup with the addition of two-way gem Stastny. Especially since he hasn’t always been healthy since signing in Sin City.

Nights like Sunday make it pretty tough to forget about him.

Stastny scored two goals and two assists as the Golden Knights beat the Kings in Los Angeles, even with Taylor Swift’s banner covered up.

After going four games without a point, Stastny is heating up, as he had a goal against the Flames in Vegas’ last game.

Other Golden Knights players who had strong games include Max Pacioretty (1G, 2A) and Shea Theodore (2A).

2. Zach Aston-Reese, Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh went on an unlikely scoring tear this weekend, scoring 14 goals in 48 hours.

“ZAR” was arguably the biggest star of Sunday’s 7-2 drubbing of the Jets, as he scored two goals and one assist for three points, with one of his tallies coming shorthanded. Aston-Reese also had an assist on Saturday, so it was a strong weekend for the 25-year-old.

Sidney Crosby collected two assists, and Sam Lafferty scored two goals, including the game-winner. It was quite a collective effort, as you might expect when you generate that much offense.

3. Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks

All too often since 2018-19, the Sharks have been winning despite Jones.

The Flames generated a 33-20 shots on goal advantage against San Jose on Sunday, but Jones only yielded one goal.

Jones, 29, hadn’t just been on a three-game losing streak coming into this one. He had also allowed four goals in each of those losses. San Jose has to hope that Jones gained some confidence from this win, even if it’s going to be tough to ask him to make 32 out of 33 stops with much frequency.

(Then again … goalies, folks.)

Welcome back Patty

The Sharks are 2-0-0 since bringing Patrick Marleau back. To little shock, Marleau received a standing ovation on his return to San Jose as a Shark. He generated an assist, giving him three points in two games back with his longtime team.

Highlights of the Night

Marc-Andre Fleury stretched out his right leg for two tough saves against the Kings. Anze Kopitar may lose the most sleep over his attempt …

Factoids

Scores

PIT 7 – WPG 2
VGK 5 – LAK 2
SJS 3 – CGY 1

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• 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.

Crosby boosts Penguins to unlikely 14-goal weekend

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If someone told you that the Pittsburgh Penguins exploded for 14 goals in just two games on back-to-back nights, you might have assumed that key players like Evgeni Malkin returned to action. Failing that, maybe you’d ask if Sidney Crosby had been superhuman.

While Crosby was indeed fantastic during Saturday’s 7-4 win against the Wild (good enough to be one of the three stars on a busy day) and Sunday’s stunning 7-2 drubbing of the Jets, it wasn’t all him. Instead, it was a combination of a red-hot Crosby and a seemingly ragtag group of players coming together.

You can see the highlights of Sunday’s win in the video above, and check out Saturday’s score-fest against Minnesota here:

Pittsburgh’s games against the Jets seem to be all about subverting expectations. Earlier this season, Winnipeg won despite a ton of injuries to their defense; this time around, expectations were that Pittsburgh’s list of ailments would mean bad things, but instead the Pens won. In each case, the results were remarkably lopsided, too.

87 is on fire

Crosby’s strong play should not go unnoticed.

With two assists against Winnipeg, Crosby now has a three-game multi-point streak going, generating two goals and four assists for six points during that streak. The 32-year-old’s also scored at least one point during his first six games of 2019-20, collecting three goals and seven assists to total 10 points.

If the star center is slowing down with age, you have to really strain your eyes to see where he’s in heavy decline.

Not just Crosby

That said, 10 of those 14 goals didn’t involve Crosby points, so obviously it’s not just 87.

Sam Lafferty’s arguably had an even better weekend than Crosby. The 24-year-old is rapidly becoming more than a relative unknown who was a fourth-rounder (113th overall) from 2014. Lafferty scored two goals on Sunday after generating a three-point night (his first NHL goal, plus two assists) against the Wild on Saturday. So, yes, Lafferty generated five points to Crosby’s four on the weekend.

Managing five points in less than 27 minutes of total ice time is just kind of ridiculous, and ventures an argument that the Penguins should give Lafferty more opportunities to prove himself, particularly as injuries linger for more prominent players.

Zach Aston-Reese made an argument for player of the game on Sunday, though, generating a three-point night against the Jets (two goals, one assist).

It’s a testament to the Penguins’ knack for finding the occasional gems in the draft or in free agency, as for all we know, all of those injuries might open the door for someone to be a more regular contributor. Such a thing happened for Matt Murray, and to some extent, Jake Guentzel.

Speaking of finding ways to win, judging from this Natural Stat Trick heat map, you wonder if the Penguins might have scouted out a weak spot for Laurent Brossoit, attacked an especially weak spot of Winnipeg’s defense, or maybe it was just a coincidence that so many chances and goals came from the same general area?

via Natural Stat Trick

One wouldn’t expect the lesser-known Penguins to stay so hot for too long, but little bursts like these can make a difference between missing or making the playoffs, or for a team with greater ambitions like Pittsburgh, maybe earning a round or two of home-ice advantage. Piling up points in games that look like losses on paper may also help the Penguins gain enough breathing room to give Crosby some rest down the line. As great as Crosby was in 2018-19 (with his underlying stats inspiring some to wonder if he deserved more Hart buzz), there were signs that he was wearing down for a Pittsburgh team that needed to battle to make the postseason. In an era of sports where teams are more interested in “load management,” the Penguins might want to work a little harder to earn that luxury for Crosby and others.

Either way, the Penguins are showing some moxy, so don’t count them out when they face the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday (a game you can watch on NBCSN at 7 p.m. ET).

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• 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.

Kings are covering up Taylor Swift banner despite risk of bad blood

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Sometimes you come across things so silly, it’s honestly tough to shake them off. The Los Angeles Kings accomplished that recently, as they’ve announced that they will cover up a Taylor Swift banner for sold-out performances during Kings home games.

For all the talk of eyesores, don’t you think it’s weird that they’re forcing a blank space over the pop star’s already-goofy banner?

Before we ridicule the Kings too much, let’s let them finish. It seems that this is a response to fans’ general disdain, as the Los Angeles Times’ Arash Markazi reported.

“The connection to our fans is our highest priority and through our engagement they have made it clear that the banner shouldn’t be part of their Kings game experience,” Kings/AEG Sports executive Michael Altieri said. “We didn’t see an issue in covering it for our games and in fact see it as an opportunity to show our fans that we hear them.”

Because hockey fans are involved, this isn’t a purely aesthetic argument, as extremely silly superstitions also seem to be involved.

Yes, some Kings fans think that the team’s colossal plummet down the standings isn’t about a bunch of players hitting the aging curve beyond their wildest dreams; instead, it’s about Taylor Swift.

Riiiight.

There’s just something about Swift that brings out the illogical and petty in people, from Kanye West to the Kings. If nothing else, this goofy update draws some attention away from the Kings’ evergreen gloating about Jonathan Quick, who might just be losing his starting job to Jack Campbell.

This situation actually brings up some other interesting details.

Before reading about this, I personally hadn’t realized that the Los Angeles Clippers cover up Los Angeles Lakers banners during their games at Staples Center, which is such a profound gesture of insecurity that I find it kind of charming. It would be like covering up a sibling’s trophy chest during a high school date, or something. But it’s a reminder that the Kings aren’t the only sports team being weird about banners — even in their own building.

Then again, considering Ye’s journey to the deep end after crossing T-Swizzle, I’m not sure if the Kings should really encourage such bad blood.

(Also: Matthew Tkachuk and the Calgary Flames need to get on this by aligning with Swift. Maybe bring 1989 throwbacks full circle? Perhaps the Flames could play a bunch of Swift songs, like a happy version of the Miami Dolphins passive aggressively playing Jay Z songs to mock Kenny Stills?)

Anyway, hopefully you enjoyed this extremely hockey story, and it begs the question: what other NHL team – pop star feuds would you like to see? Prediction: the New Jersey Devils will not take on Bruce Springsteen … or even Bon Jovi.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• 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.

Petr Cech marks hockey debut with winning shootout save

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Legendary soccer goalkeeper Petr Cech traded in soccer cleats for ice skates this week after joining up with the Guildford Phoenix of the United Kingdom’s National Ice Hockey League.

The 37-year-old made his debut on Sunday, leading the Phoenix to a 3-2 win over the Swindon Wildcats after a shootout. Sporting a mask designed by the great Dave Gunnarsson which featured a tribute to fellow Czech Dominik Hasek and the logos of Arsenal and Chelsea, the two Premier League soccer teams he played for (and in Chelsea’s case, his current employer).

With the score tied at two, the Phoenix and Wildcats entered the shootout and Cech made two stops, including the final one of the game in front of a record crowd of 909.

For his part, Cech was named man of the match.

“I wanted to win, that was the main thing, and I’m glad we did,” Cech said afterward. “I was surprised that I wasn’t more nervous. I didn’t know what to expect so it was nice how quickly my body switched into matchday mode.”

Now, it’s back to work for Cech at Chelsea as the club’s technical and performance advisor until his next appearance in net for the Phoenix.

MORE: Petr Cech trades soccer goal for hockey net, signs with Guildford Phoenix

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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.