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Flames are saying right things about Mike Smith’s workload

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The Calgary Flames put all their eggs (goaltending-wise) in the Mike Smith basket last season, and that worked out better than most expected … yet they still failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

That thought has to gnaw at all but the most optimistic people involved with the Flames. At least, it should, as for all the bold changes “riverboat gambler” GM Brad Treliving made, they’re rolling with the same goalies behind Smith in 2018-19.

As a reminder, the rotation of David Rittich, Jon Gillies, and Eddie Lack absolutely flopped last season, with Rittich’s less-than-ideal .904 save percentage representing the high water mark behind the often-dazzling Smith.

One of the criticisms of the Smith acquisition revolved around his injury history, and when that issue reared its head last season, the Flames really took on water. Players don’t exactly become sturdier as they age, so it would be foolish for Calgary just to “hope for the best” with the 36-year-old netminder, especially since Smith is one of many towering NHL goalies who are tall enough to serve as an NBA small forward. That big frame doesn’t exactly lend itself to longevity.

It’s also not as if Smith’s enjoyed a low-impact stroll to 36; this isn’t the equivalent to, say, Tim Thomas not really logging those big NHL reps until he was 31.

Since joining the then-Phoenix Coyotes in 2011-12, Smith’s played the seventh-most games (367), and tellingly, faced the second-largest volume of shots (11,256, only trailing Henrik Lundqvist). Smith could be a Zdeno Chara-level fitness freak, and he’d still be jarringly susceptible to additional injuries.

So, there are enough red flags to make you worry.

Yet, while the Flames decided to cross their fingers that they’d settle upon an in-house solution (barring a desperate training camp phone call to, say, Steve Mason?), they aren’t sticking their hands in the sand about the fine line they need to walk with their grizzled veteran of a goalie.

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

“The wear and tear, remember, isn’t just the shots, it’s getting ready, getting the gear on. You hear people say: ‘Oh, he wasn’t very busy tonight. Only 26 shots’ … well, he’s mentally preparing on every shot,” Treliving said, via George Johnson of the Flames website. “There might’ve been 12 blocks and 20 misses. So he’s still preparing for 58. How many up-and-downs is that? It can take a toll.

“We’ve got a plan but a lot of it is predicated on Mike. But it’s a balancing act. He wants to get his work in but there’s a time once the season is up and going where discretion is the better part of valour.”

Treliving brings up an important point even beyond all of the “ups-and-downs,” as goalies need to focus and track the puck all game long. When Braden Holtby discussed fatigue during that hiccup during the 2017-18 regular season, his emphasis was as much on the mental rigors of the game as the physical challenges.

“Physically, I actually feel way better this year than last,” Holtby said. “If you’re fatigued physically, that’s on you. That’s not on anything else. But mentally, it does catch up.”

Holtby (who recently turned 29) and Andrei Vasilevskiy (now 24) both acknowledged being tired last season, and they’re far younger than Smith, so it’s positive to see Treliving discuss taking an approach with Smith that would echo the way MLB teams obsessively protect the arms of their pitchers.

Of course, it’s one thing to say all of the right things in mid-September, but what about if the Flames need those critical points in March, particularly if Smith is once again lapping his backups?

It’s also worth asking if Bill Peters – a coach who must be agonizingly anxious to finally clinch a playoff berth – would be willing to look big picture and give his big goalie needed rest. That would be a concern with any coach, yet especially one who admitted to handling things poorly with Eddie Lack, and whose goalies floundered in Carolina.

(There’s no guarantee that Peters is at fault for faulty Hurricanes goaltending, or to what degree he might be to blame. Still, he was a common denominator as Carolina struggled in that area.)

Even for those of us who thought they erred in trading away underrated defenseman Dougie Hamilton, the Flames look like a fascinatingly dangerous team on paper.

On the other hand, they looked just as formidable heading into last season, only to fall well short of expectations, even with a mostly spry Smith. For a team that clearly holds some pretty lofty ambitions, it’s awfully scary to risk so much on the health and freshness of their 36-year-old goalie.

At least they don’t seem totally oblivious to the risks they’re taking.

MORE PHT FLAMES COVERAGE:
Three questions facing the Flames
Under Pressure: Brad Treliving

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.

The Buzzer: Bruins can’t handle Eichel; Jets beat Bolts

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Three Stars

1. Jack Eichel

Remember when people were really worried about Jack Eichel receiving $10 million per season? (Cups ears.) Hmm, not hearing much of that these days.

Eichel gave the Bruins more than they can handle on Sunday, collecting two primary assists (including a beauty on Jeff Skinner‘s game-winner) and two goals to help Buffalo beat Boston. He was really all over the place in this one, firing six shots on goal, enjoying a +3 rating in what was mostly a tight contest.

Buffalo’s captain now has 14 goals and 45 points in 34 games in 2018-19. A healthy portion of that total came during this current six-game point streak, as Eichel has nine goals and four assists for 13 points during that span.

The win was notable for the Sabres, as they at least briefly passed Toronto for second in the Atlantic.

Skinner’s two goals give him 24 for this season, matching last year’s total in just his 34th game of 2018-19.

2. Mark Scheifele

Once you go beyond Eichel, you really start splitting hairs, as there were a lot of three-point games on Sunday.

One tough call is Scheifele vs. his Jets linemate Nikolaj Ehlers. After all, while Scheifele’s three points came from one goal and two assists, Ehlers grabbed two goals and one assist. Under certain circumstances, you’d go Ehlers.

Scheifele assisted on Ehlers’ second goal, which sent the game into overtime. Scheifele then cleaned up a loose puck created by a nice drive to the net by Patrik Laine, ending the game with an overtime game-winner. It’s his second consecutive game with an OT-clincher, apparently.

It sounds like Scheifele has a knack for these situations.

3. Brent Burns

When in doubt, make a significant milestone a tiebreaker. Burns is a rare breed even when you ignore the notion that he could nest baby birds in his beard:

Brent Burns generated three assists as the Sharks took down the Blackhawks on Sunday. With that, he now has 600 points in his career. One can only imagine how many points Burns would have if he had blossomed earlier/a coach as smart as Peter DeBoer came along sooner and optimized his unique set of skills earlier. (His stats with Minnesota vs. San Jose are resoundingly stark, and he really started to get monster minutes around the time DeBoer took over, though Todd McLellan did get that started.)

Other highlights

Maybe a 48-save game wasn’t enough for Andrei Vasilevskiy? The Lightning’s ultra-talented goalie earned a second assist on Sunday, and it’s one of the primary reasons this is such a fun highlight. Just a fantastic goalie-pass:

If Linus Ullmark pans out like Buffalo hopes, opponents better watch out for the Sabres.

More Factoids

Marc-Andre Fleury continues to climb the list of all-time wins for goalies.

In case you’re wondering, Jacques Plante ranks eighth all-time with 437 wins.

Few teams can match the Flames’ top-end talent, and this Johnny Gaudreau/Matthew Tkachuk stat really drives that point home. Gaudreau’s one of those players who had three points on Sunday, by the way.

Scores

VGK 4 – NYR 3 (OT)
CAR 3 – ARI 0
CGY 7 – STL 2
BUF 4 – BOS 2
SJS 7 – CHI 3
WPG 5 – TBL 4 (OT)
VAN 4 – EDM 2

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.

Will Flyers’ disastrous road trip spell end for Hakstol?

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To put things mildly, there are a lot of reports and rumors revolving around the Philadelphia Flyers possibly firing Dave Hakstol to make Joel Quenneville their new head coach.

With a lot of conflicting information in the air (things do seem dire for Hakstol in most scenarios), let’s consider how the Flyers got to this point.

Terrible road trip

Look, the Flyers weren’t exactly setting the world on fire before the disastrous five-game road trip, which concluded on Saturday with a 5-1 thumping by the Vancouver Canucks.

Optics obviously matter, though, and things really devolved as this went along.

After beating the Sabres 6-2 on Dec. 8, the Flyers suffered a four-game losing streak, only managing a single standings point in a 6-5 OT loss to Calgary on Dec. 12.

Three of those four losses were absolute blowouts; Philly fell 7-1 to the Jets on Dec. 9, then really stunk up the joint during the last two losses, falling 4-1 to the Oilers on Friday and 5-1 to the Canucks on Saturday. There was little denying the negative feelings about that team, and Hakstol drew a lot of the blame for seemingly tepid efforts.

After scrapping their way to a somewhat surprising berth in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Flyers currently sit last in the Eastern Conference with 28 points in 31 games (12-15-4).

Good and the bad

If there’s one obvious tweak Hakstol made that produced huge dividends for the Flyers, it was moving Claude Giroux from center to the wing.

Heading into 2017-18, there were serious concerns about Giroux. It seemed like his offense was slowing down, possibly pointing to him hitting the dreaded low end of the aging curve. Instead, Giroux appeared to be liberated by the freedom of playing the wing, often ceding the center duties to Sean Couturier this season. Giroux enjoyed an MVP-like season, powering his way to career-highs of 34 goals and 102 points.

One can debate how Hakstol used younger players versus veterans. You could do that with many teams, not to mention other Flyers staffers, whether you’re pondering Carter Hart or, say, Travis Sanheim.

There have been some structural issues. Much like Todd McLellan in Edmonton, much of Hakstol’s tenure has been marked by a questionable strategy to lean heavily on shots from the point.

Sure, it’s nice to get the puck on the sticks of Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere when it makes sense, yet you’re far more likely to hit paydirt if you generate high-danger chances from the slot. Easier said than done? Yes, but some teams emphasize shots from defensemen to the detriment of creativity, making things too easy for the opposition.

The fall of a great power-play unit and a generally terrible PK might explain some of Hakstol’s struggles.

Since Hakstol came into the league in 2015-16, the Flyers’ PK unit has killed 77.1-percent of penalties, the worst mark in the NHL. If Quenneville or another coach could find answers where Hakstol and his crew failed, that could be a nice area of growth.

On the bright side, the Flyers have often had a deadly power play, although their overall mark (19 percent) under Hakstol is actually just tied at 17th.

Some of that might be tied up in Philly’s steps toward adding more talent over the years, but either way, that unit hit a big wall in 2018-19. They’ve connected on just 12.9-percent of their PP opportunities, the third-worst percentage in the NHL.

Hakstol didn’t sign the Flyers’ goalies, and it wasn’t his final call to opt against getting someone more established to compliment Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth. A new coach’s system could absolutely make life easier for whoever ends up in Philly’s net going forward, but that could still be an area of serious concern.

A new coach – if the Flyers were to make such a rumored change – might be able to install systemic changes that could help optimize this team. Some might come from finding more innovative special teams strategies, or maybe tweaking personnel decisions. Leaning on different players in different situations may also move the needle.

It’s not necessarily a matter of Hakstol being a terrible head coach, but rather that there could be areas of improvement.

Granted, the Flyers have dug themselves a big hole, so if they’re making changes, they might want to keep their expectations in check.

Big decision coming Monday, and more later this week?

Working past the understanding that people have been wondering about Hakstol for a long time, and beckoning for Coach Q to take over in Philly basically the second he was fired, things seemed to escalate on Sunday. Business picked up as the Courier-Post’s Dave Isaac reported that the Flyers would make that decision. Things got blurry from there, with TSN’s Darren Dreger describing the situation as “status quo” and that “no decision has been made.” Crossing Broad’s Anthony SanFilippo reports that Hakstol’s firing could be announced “within 24 hours,” but an interim coach may be named, possibly because there might be some wrinkles to iron out with Quenneville. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sam Carchidi backs that up, noting no change officially happening Sunday night, yet to expect a “busy” Monday.

Maybe some of this comes down to semantics (official versus looming?), it all seems a touch odd, and a bit confusing.

A lot to take in, right? PHT will keep you updated, whether Monday ends up being busy or just … awkward for Hakstol and the team, if nothing is actually happening. Buckle up.

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.

Corey Crawford leaves Blackhawks game after hard collision

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As the hockey world wonders what’s going on with former Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville (is something happening with Philly?), Chicago worries about more immediate concerns.

Sunday’s game between the Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks already began as a tough one for goalies, as Martin Jones was eventually pulled after allowing three goals, including two on Chicago’s first two shots. The night is rougher for Crawford, however, as he left the contest late in the first period after a very hard collision involving Blackhawks teammate Dylan Strome.

Crawford isn’t that far removed from vertigo and other issues that prompted at least some concerns about his career being in jeopardy, so seeing his head hit the post so hard is very disconcerting:

Not good. The Blackhawks announced that Crawford will not return to Sunday’s game. We might know more about the situation later tonight.

Some have wondered about the Blackhawks possibly hitting the “reset” button by trading Crawford (among others), yet you wonder if other GMs would be worried about health challenges. This would only make those concerns worse, particularly if it ends up being as troubling as it looks.

PHT will monitor updates on Crawford (not to mention the situation involving his former coach, Joel Quenneville.)

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.

Ilya Sorokin submits save of the year candidate at Channel One Cup

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With a little more than two weeks left in 2018, goaltender Ilya Sorokin wanted to make sure he got his name on the list of potential saves of the year during Saturday’s Channel One Cup game against the Czech Republic.

During a 7-2 victory, the Russian netminder, a third-round pick by the New York Islanders in 2014, made an incredible stick save to keep the Czechs at bay. One that you will really appreciate once you see it through the various camera angles.

There’s a chance we see Sorokin later this season in the NHL. As Arthur Staple of The Athletic reported earlier this month, the 23-year-old Sorokin could join the Islanders once his season with the KHL’s CSKA Moscow ends. Through 24 games he’s posted a 1.18 goals against average and a .943 save percentage, continuing a trend of strong numbers since the 2015-16 season.

As the Islanders figure out if their answer in goal for the future is Robin Lehner, Thomas Greiss, or maybe even Sergei Bobrovsky, Sorokin’s presence gives them a possible in-house option to ponder.

Stick-tap Jeff Veillette

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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.