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Central Division arms race only intensifying

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It’s the National Hockey League’s version of an arms race, a Cold War of sorts.

The developing and cultivating of assets has been rampant in the Central Division over the past few seasons, if not several more before that. Powerhouses have arisen, some likely — Nashville, for instance, and Winnipeg, too, with their drafting.

Others have forged different paths. The St. Louis Blues tricked the world in January when they sat in last place in the NHL, only to hoist the Stanley Cup in the middle of June in one of sports most remarkable comeback stories.

From Manitoba down through Texas, the Central has become and remained hockey’s toughest division, one where aggressiveness in the trade market, in the scouting department and on the draft floor has paid off in dividends for those who have been patient to allow their teams to blossom. And those who have been able to unload and reload, too, have found success.

Four of the past 10 Cup champs have come from the division, and while the Blackhawks have won three of those, others have come close, including the Predators who reached the Cup final in 2017.

The paths have been many, and it’s resulted in a division full of legitimate playoff contenders, if not Stanley Cup ones as well.

It’s a proper standoff.

Let’s delve a little deeper into the Central Division waters, shall we?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

On the rise

Dallas Stars: They have grown one of the best defenses in the league, command one of the best goalies in the NHL and added a lethal scoring threat in Joe Pavelski this summer, took a cheap and calculated risk on Corey Perry and took a chance on the oft-injured Andrej Sekera.

If the payoff becomes more goals, a rejuvenated leader in Perry and a stout defenseman that Sekera can be, the Stars, who were a goal away from the Western Conference Final this past season, could be a major player in the division.

Colorado Avalanche: The Avs have made their intentions clear. After an unlikely second-round appearance in this past year’s playoffs, the Avs have added the fourth-overall pick thanks to offloading Matt Duchene a couple seasons ago to the Ottawa Senators, who were horrible last season. They signed Joonas Donskoi in free agency, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, too, and pried Andre Burakovsky away from the Washington Capitals and Nazem Kadri from the Toronto Maple Leafs in an aggressive start to the offseason.

Colorado already has some of the best offensive weapons in the NHL with Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. It remains to be seen if their defense takes a hit with the loss of Tyson Barrie in the Kadri deal. But a young team got a good taste in the postseason this year and the additions made can only make the team better.

Still strong

Nashville Predators: The trade-off for adding Matt Duchene was shipping out P.K. Subban. It’s a steep price to pay, but one mitigated by having one of the best defensive cores in the NHL even without Subban’s services.

Duchene should add much-needed goal-scoring to the club, including on the power play where the Preds were abysmal last year (12.9%, 31st in the NHL). The Predators still ooze talent, and they’re a tough-as-nails team to play against, Subban or not. They’ll challenge once again for a third-successive division crown.

St. Louis Blues: The Stanley Cup champs found a way to make the best of the sum of their parts. It’s not that they didn’t have skill, but they also didn’t have a bona fide superstar, at least during the regular season.

But a rugged team that bands together seems to be a squad that can find success, despite whatever perceived lackings they have (see: Vegas, 2018). Jordan Binnington remains a question mark only because we need to see him play a full season at (or at least near) the level he produced after getting his first NHL start on Jan. 7. Ryan O'Reilly was exactly what the team needed and if Robby Fabbri can stay healthy, they could get a good shot of talent injected into the roster.

The Unknowns

Winnipeg Jets: Losing Jacob Trouba hurts. How much so remains to be seen, but taking a top-pairing defender off any team is going to expose a gap that can be exploited.

The Jets are going to get younger once again this season, especially on the back end where they’ve lost Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot. Those aren’t losses that will hurt the team nearly as much, but its experience not on the roster anymore. The Jets will have competition for those spots and could still make a move on the back end (perhaps Jake Gardiner if they could make it work) that would improve that situation.

Signing Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor comes first, however. Andrew Copp, too, along with Neal Pionk, part of their return for Trouba. The Jets still need to sort out their second-line center issue. Who plays with Laine is a big question with no answer at the moment. The Jets aren’t the Stanley Cup contender they were two years ago, and they won’t be riding the same hype train they rode coming into the past season. They also won’t be terrible. They’re still a playoff team, but the ceiling is unknown at the moment.

Did they improve?

Chicago Blackhawks: They’ve made some moves, giving Alexander Nylander a second chance while acquiring Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta to make their defense stouter. And they have a quality 1-2 punch in goal now with the addition of Robin Lehner, who is some of the best insurance you can have with Crawford’s injury proneness.

Will Dylan Strome continue to flourish as he did last season when he joined the team? Alex DeBrincat is a very good player and they still have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Part of their backend is still fossilizing, however. And can Corey Crawford remain healthy? They signed Robin Lehner, so that could take some uncertainty away.

I’m inclined to think Chicago has gotten better and can compete for a playoff spot. I’m just not sure they’re on the same level as the teams above.

The struggle

Minnesota Wild: One wonders where this team is heading. Signing Mats Zuccarello is a good addition and taking a cheap chance on Ryan Hartman isn’t half bad.

But even with that, where is the goal scoring coming from? They traded away Mikael Granlund and Zuccarello has broken the 20-goal barrier just once in his career. Zach Parise isn’t the player he used to be. Eric Staal isn’t getting any younger. Ryan Suter can only play so many minutes a night and Devan Dubnyk took a step down last season, along with the rest of the team.


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

The Buzzer: Streaks end for Capitals, Avs; Pageau, Islanders still on fire

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Three Stars

1. Anthony Duclair, Ottawa Senators

So far during his bumpy NHL career, Duclair has enjoyed one great NHL season. Back in 2015-16 (just his second year in the NHL, and his first full one, as he only played in 18 games in 2014-15), Duclair caught fire with Max Domi on the Coyotes, with Duclair generating by-far career-bests of 20 goals and 44 points.

There were red flags that his outburst was misleading (a 19 shooting percentage being the most obvious), yet it’s still been confounding that Duclair hasn’t at least found a permanent NHL spot, bouncing around from team to team and often finding his way to coaches’ doghouses, including that of John Tortorella.

When you’re a wayward team like the Senators, you often give players a second or even third chance, and Duclair is running with this opportunity.

He’s now on a four-game point streak, with at least one goal in his past three games. With two goals and an assist on Monday, Duclair’s generated five goals and two assists for seven points during the last four contests. Overall, Duclair now has 15 goals and 22 points in 31 games, firing 100 shots on goal for a high-but-not-outrageous 15 shooting percentage.

Does Duclair have his warts defensively? Sure, but I’m of the mind that his game is a net positive — especially if team can continue to employ him at a cheap price. Either way, it would be nice to see a speedy, talented player cement his place in the NHL, even if he’s likely to cool off at least a bit going forward.

2. Joonas Korpisalo, Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets had lost four in a row, and five of their last six, before rolling into what looked like a probable loss against the red-hot Capitals. Columbus has been putting forth decent efforts this season with some strong possession numbers, only for a mix of so-so shooting and sometimes shabby puck-stopping letting them down.

The Blue Jackets ended the Capitals’ six-game winning streak on Monday in part because of the efforts of Korpisalo, who stopped 37 out of the 39 shots he faced.

If Columbus wants more of a bright side to look on than just one nice performance, they can consider that Korpisalo’s also won six of his last nine.

3. Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames

Before Sean Monahan did a nice job finishing on an overtime game-winner that ended the Avalanche’s winning streak at six games,* Giordano broke up a Nathan MacKinnon chance that was looking awfully dangerous. Giordano received credit for a secondary assist on Monahan’s overtime game-winner, and had another assists on Monday, giving him two helpers for the night.

It had been an unusually quiet offensive stretch for the reigning Norris Trophy winner. Before Monday, Giordano had zero goals and one assist in his last 11 games. Maybe this could signal the start of a hot stretch for Giordano? It’s certainly a concern to see some slippage since he’s defied age for a while, but is still 36.

* – The Flames have now won all five games since Bill Peters left their bench, coincidence or not.

Highlight of the Night

Here’s that Flames OT-winner, starting with Giordano’s alert play, and ending with Monahan’s goal:

Lowlight

Tough one for Braden Holtby to give up, although sometimes those odd angle shots from behind the red line can really befuddle some netminders:

Factoids

  • The Islanders pasted the Lightning on Monday, and they’re now at 20 wins (20-7-2). By hitting the 20-win mark in just 29 games, the Islanders set a new franchise record for the fasted to that win total, according to NHL PR.
  • NHL PR notes that Jean-Gabriel Pageau‘s 13 goals since Nov. 1 remains tied for the most in the NHL during that span, locking him up with luminaries including Connor McDavid, David Pastrnak, and Sebastian Aho. Yeah, that’s ridiculous.
  • One more from NHL PR: Matthew Tkachuk passed the 200-point mark (he’s now at 201) before his 22nd birthday, which happens on Dec. 11. Tkachuk is the ninth U.S.-born player to reach 200 points before age 22. Looking at the list, only Jeremy Roenick probably gives him serious competition when it comes to agitating people, although I don’t think JR dangled a mouthpiece out of his mouth with such aggravating flair.

Scores

NYI 5 – TBL 1
CBJ 5 – WSH 2
OTT 5 – BOS 2
CGY 5 – COL 4 (OT)

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.

Bettman explains how NHL will handle abuse, other actions that ‘cross the line’

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The NHL’s Board of Governors meetings are taking place this week, so this served as an opportunity for the league to address issues of abuse, including Bill Peters’ racists remarks made toward Akim Aliu, which factored in the Calgary Flames parting ways with Peters.

” … The world is changing for the better,” Gary Bettman’s statement read. ” … Our message is unequivocal: We will not tolerate abusive behavior of any kind.”

You can read the entire (lengthy) statement at the bottom of this post, but here are some of the key points.

  • Bettman claims that the Peters situation took the NHL by “complete surprise.”

“There will be zero tolerance for any failure to notify us and in the event of such failure, the club and individuals involved can expect severe discipline,” Bettman said in the statement.

  • Bettman laid out the early details on “a mandatory annual program on counseling, consciousness-raising, education and training on diversity and inclusion” that would involve all head coaches and minor league coaches under contracts with NHL teams, along with other front office members (GMs, assistant GMs, and assistant coaches). Bettman said that the program will be created by “outside professionals” and that the NHLPA and the coaches’ association would likely have input.
  • Bettman explained that the league hopes to create a platform (“perhaps a hotline”) for “a teammate, trainer, or even the player himself” to report incidents, “either anonymously or for attribution.”

When asked, Bettman clarified that there would be anonymity for “whistleblowers.”

Bettman also told reporters that investigations regarding Marc Crawford continue to be ongoing.

Considering that the “outside professionals” involved in a hotline weren’t named, and other details were outlined broadly, it sounds like quite a bit of these initiatives could be considered a work in progress.

Here’s the full statement from Bettman:

As one of the preeminent professional sports leagues in the world and the preeminent hockey league in the world, we recognize and embrace our role in setting an example.

We are now obviously aware of conduct that was and is unacceptable. Whether it happened 10 years ago or last week, the answer must be the same – it is unacceptable.

While we may not have known, the fact is that we as a League – on behalf of ourselves, our teams, and our players, coaches, organizations and fans – must respond in a clear, meaningful and appropriate manner. Professionalism and respect have always been important to the League, but it is now a particularly important time to discuss it because everyone is entitled to a respectful workplace.

The world is changing for the better. This is an opportunity, and a moment, for positive change and this evolution should be expedited – for the benefit of everyone associated with the game we love. And even while change is taking effect, we still must acknowledge things that were wrong in the past. That acknowledgment allows those who were wronged to be heard, and it gives all of us an opportunity to prevent these things from happening again.

Inclusion and diversity are not simply buzzwords, they are foundational principles for the NHL. It’s why we initiated the Declaration of Principles and why we invest so much time and effort, along with so many resources into our Learn to Play and Hockey is For Everyone programs. Our message is unequivocal: We will not tolerate abusive behavior of any kind.

So, let me now address how we move forward.

I’d like to convey to you exactly what was said to the Board of Governors during our meeting.

1. We don’t like surprises – the Bill Peters situation was a complete surprise.

Going forward, our clubs are on notice that if they become aware of an incident of conduct involving NHL personnel on or off the ice that is clearly inappropriate, unlawful or demonstrably abusive, or that may violate the League’s policies, involving NHL Club personnel, on or off the ice, we at the League office – Bill Daly or me – must be immediately advised. There will be zero tolerance for any failure to notify us and in the event of such failure, the club and individuals involved can expect severe discipline.

As it relates to incidents involving Bill Peters in Carolina – there seems to be some confusion between statements by Peter Karmanos and Ron Francis, which I still need to sort out. However, I am fairly clear that none of this has anything to do with Carolina under Tom Dundon, who was among the first to call me when Peters’ conduct came to light and he first learned about the Peters physical abuse allegations in Carolina.

2. While I do not believe most NHL coaches conduct themselves in an inappropriate manner – in fact, I believe most NHL coaches are professional and respectful in the way they coach and the profession is not deserving of blanket condemnation because of the conduct of some individuals – however in order to expedite a change in culture and make clear the expectations we have for the conduct of coaches and other personnel, we will formulate a mandatory annual program on counseling, consciousness-raising, education and training on diversity and inclusion.

This program will be required for all Head Coaches, Minor League Coaches under contract with NHL teams, Assistant Coaches, General Managers and Assistant General Managers. We will focus the programming on training and other exercises and initiatives to ensure respectful locker rooms, training facilities, games, and all other hockey-related activities; and teach to ensure bystander intervention techniques, anti-harassment, anti-hazing, non-retaliation and anti-bullying best practices.

The exact structure of the program will be created by outside professionals in the field and we will consult with the Players’ Association and the Coaches’ Association in the program’s creation. We will also discuss with the Players’ Association the extent to which this program or another customized program should be presented to the players. Also, under the direction of NHL Executive Vice President Kim Davis, we will form a multidisciplinary council to suggest initiatives, monitor progress and coordinate efforts with all levels of hockey. The council will also make resources available to help any organization that might reach out for assistance.

3. Inappropriate conduct engaged in by club personnel will be disciplined, either by the team, the League or both. While discipline as always must be on a case-by-case basis – it is my intention that it must be severe and appropriate and designed to remedy the situation and ensure that the conduct does not occur again.

4. In that light, the passage of time is not the most effective way to address these situations. Accordingly, we will create a platform – perhaps a hotline – where instances of inappropriate conduct connected to the NHL can be reported either anonymously or for attribution for us to follow up. It can be any team personnel such as a teammate, trainer, or even the player himself. In this regard, we understand the critical importance of ensuring that no one is retaliated against for raising a concern or participating in an investigation – again either anonymously or for attribution – and I guarantee we will take all reports seriously and follow up. My expectation is that this hotline can function like our SABH hotline, which has been credible and effective.

A couple of closing points:

Not everyone will approve of every coach’s methods. However, there are lines that cannot be crossed – clearly physical abuse and racial and homophobic language cross the line. And while we acknowledge that there may be other actions that could cross the line or fall in a gray area, we hope the program we create, and its attendant consciousness-raising will help better define what is and what is not acceptable conduct and will make for a better playing and coaching environment. Over time, we have been able to change the culture of our game as it relates to substance abuse and player safety. And while we have taken many important steps forward on diversity and inclusiveness, as well as respect and professionalism in hockey, we intend to do more and faster.

Calgary’s response initially to Akim Aliu’s allegations and then the Carolina issue, was timely, professional and appropriate. While none of Bill Peters’ inappropriate conduct occurred on the Flames’ watch, they undertook the important effort to try to understand what happened 10 years ago and thereafter. Once Calgary could satisfy itself as to what transpired, they achieved an appropriate result and I commend the Calgary organization and in particular, Brad Treliving, for their efforts and cooperation. I think it is pretty fair to say that from now on when a Club is hiring a coach, the due diligence a team conducts will go to levels never seen before. And, that is a good thing.

Finally, Bill Daly and I had a constructive meeting last week with Akim Aliu and his lawyers. We heard what they had to say, have initiated our own review and will ultimately determine how we believe most appropriate to proceed.

Rangers’ Brendan Lemieux fined $2,000 for elbowing Cody Glass

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The NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced on Monday that New York Rangers forward Brendan Lemieux has been fined $2,000 for elbowing Vegas Golden Knights forward Cody Glass on Sunday.

The incident, which you can see in the video above, took place late in the second period and forced Glass to exit the game. He did not return.

There was no penalty called on the play.

Lemieux closed in on Glass to finish a check, but as he approached him he spun around, hit him back first, and swung his elbow around making contact with Glass’ head.

The Rangers went on to win the game, 5-0, thanks to another huge game from goaltender Alexandar Georgiev.

Given that the DoPS deemed the play to be worth some sort of discipline it is a little bit of a surprise that Lemieux was able to avoid a suspension given that Glass was injured on the play.

Glass was the first-ever draft pick in Golden Knights history (No. 6 overall in 2017) and is playing in his first NHL season. He has four goals and seven assists in 32 games this season. Coach Gerrard Gallant called his injury an “upper-body injury.”

The only update from Gallant on Monday was that Glass was not with the team and that he went through concussion protocol on Sunday night.

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.

Senators’ Sabourin closer to return after scary collision

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Ottawa Senators forward Scott Sabourin is closer to returning to the lineup and was able to take a huge step in that return on Monday when he skated with the team for the first time since he was taken off the ice on a stretcher following a scary collision in Boston.

Sabourin has been sidelined since Nov. 2 when he was injured on an attempted check against Bruins forward David Backes. It was an innocent looking play that had a horrifying result as Sabourin was knocked out, suffered a broken nose and a concussion, and had spend the night in a Boston hospital.

He spoke to reporters for the first time on Monday and talked about his progress.

Via the Ottawa Citizen:

“I’m feeling much better,” said Sabourin, who spoke to reporters for the first time since the hit, on Monday morning. “It’s been a little while here and I’ve been taking my time recovering but we’re taking it day-by-day. I’m glad to be out there with the guys and I’m looking forward to the future.

“(Next is) getting back to shape I’d say. Six weeks off is a bit of time so we’re just trying to progress by getting the legs back under me and getting the confidence coming along with it and then hopefully back in the lineup sooner rather than later.”

The next step for him is to be cleared for contact, which has not yet happened. There is still no timetable for that — or his eventual return — but the fact he is back on the ice and skating with the team is a positive step for him.

The 27-year-old forward made his NHL debut this season after spending the first six years of his professional career playing in the American Hockey League after going undrafted.

He signed a professional tryout contract with the Senators this offseason and did enough to earn a spot on the opening roster, scoring a goal in his debut.

Related: Senators’ Sabourin stretchered off ice following scary collision with David Backes

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.