Ice wizards: NHL stars are embracing their creative side

Matthew Tkachuk watched Carolina’s Andrei Svechnikov from 20 feet away and knew something special was about to happen.

Svechnikov picked the puck up behind the net, cradled it on the end of his stick and rammed it past the goaltender from behind the net. Someone in the NHL actually pulled off the lacrosse-style move made famous by Mike Legg in a college game in 1996.

Tkachuk was impressed.

“I had the best seat in the house,” the Calgary Flames’ forward said. “That was a sick, sick goal. You see a lot of guys try it around the league, but nobody’s been able to perfect it yet like him.”

Tkachuk knew what the Hurricanes’ forward was going to do because he has practiced the move many times before and tried it in games. And two nights later, he one-upped Svechnikov by scoring an overtime winner through his legs at full speed.

The highlight-reel goals seem to be piling up. Thanks to an infusion of talented young players motivated to raise the bar with GIF-worthy goals, coaches willing to encourage risk-taking in the name of offense and revamped rules designed to light the lamp, there is more freedom than ever for players to express themselves creatively in the NHL. Svechnikov, for example, routinely gathers 10 pucks behind the net to work on his nontraditional move at practice.

“A lot of these kids now, they’re growing up trying these moves, practicing these moves,” Vegas forward Cody Eakin said. “Skill work has been such a huge part of kids’ development, now that when there is opportunities or time or space, they can get creative. When there’s room and the guys have the skill to make the plays, there’s some fantastic plays being made out there.”

Some players think goals like Svechnikov’s happen once a decade. Maybe not, not with players around the league watching and eager to figure out the next cool way to go viral.

Arizona’s Clayton Keller and Montreal’s Nick Suzuki check out the highlights every day and take those inspirations to the rink.

“I try to watch all of them every morning,” Keller said. “When you see different goals and stuff like that, maybe you try it in practice. It’s something I did as a kid, whether it was watching (Sidney) Crosby or (Patrick) Kane, seeing their breakaway moves and I would do it the next time in practice.”

Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov is a little bit older but still turns to YouTube to get his fix of beautiful plays across soccer and hockey. When he’s the one making the highlights, the leading scorer from Washington’s 2018 Stanley Cup run appreciates the green light from coaches and very quickly calculates the risk/reward of doing something unusual.

“You actually don’t have time to think about it out there,” Kuznetsov said. “You just do it naturally. I feel like every player is different. I was like that since a kid, and for me, it’s kind of what hockey’s about.”

Mostly gone are the days of a star player getting stapled to the bench for trying and failing on something on offense. Play within the team structure, don’t turn the puck over in the neutral or defensive zones and it’s all good.

“Coaches like when players use their creativity, but you’ve got to pick your spots,” Suzuki said. “You can’t be doing it to cost your team. I think you can be pretty creative down low on the other team’s net and trying to create offense.”

No one is creating offense better right now than Boston’s David Pastrnak, a playmaking wizard who leads the NHL in goals. One game, Pastrnak tried a drop pass on a breakaway and often keeps opponents and even his Bruins teammates guessing.

“He’s so confident you never know what he’s going to do with the puck,” linemate Brad Marchand said. “Even we don’t know. … He feels like he can do anything.”

Confidence is a big reason for some of this newfound offensive creativity. Svechnikov asked his brother Evgeny four years ago for help on a lacrosse-style goal but only tried it after scoring two goals in his previous game.

“When you’re not really confident, you kind of try just to chip the puck or do something,” Svechnikov said. “When you’re confident, you can do anything.”

It helps that the league has taken steps to give skilled players more space and leeway. A generation after cracking down on hooking, holding and other obstruction, there has been a push to eliminate slashing and big hits that can slow down some of the game’s best.

“From when I came into the league, there’s a lot less of those big defensemen that can grab you and not get penalized,” Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said. “From top to bottom, players can play. It’s not surprising that these days you’re seeing more scoring.”

The best part is it’s not just greasy goals or from scoring from the dirty areas – a time-honored hockey cliche that becomes more prevalent come playoff time. The skill level in hockey is so high that each game is another chance to see something different, which begs the question: What’s next?

“Ooh, I don’t know,” Tkachuk said. “I’ve seen a couple guys try it – and sometimes I try it – the behind the back goal, kind of through the legs. That’s hard. I don’t know. That might be the next one. But that really takes a lot of courage to do.”

Panthers’ Stralman wonders if NHL’s return to play would be worth the risks

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As the NHL pushes for a return to play, it’s fair to ask: “Is it worth it?” Chances are, plenty of players are quietly wondering that. Credit to Panthers defenseman Anton Stralman for actually saying it, though.

Stralman provided refreshingly candid insight to The Athletic’s Joe Smith (sub required) on Monday. It’s worth getting into Stralman’s specific risks, but also his wider views on the situation.

If you’re like me and you wonder about the risk-reward ratio of returning to play as COVID-19 uncertainty lingers, then you might risk injuring your neck nodding along with Stralman’s takes.

“I think you should be concerned,” Stralman told Smith. “There are so many ways to look at this thing. I know everybody wants hockey back, but safety has to come first. And it’s a little bit worrisome, I can’t deny that. Even though most players are young and healthy, I’m sure there are players like me that have underlying health issues. I don’t know how my body will react if I get this virus.”

[Stralman’s Panthers would face the Islanders in the Qualifying Round. More on the 24-team setup here.]

Stralman among NHL players at greater risk during a possible return

Stralman, 33, faces greater risks considering his lengthy battle with bronchiectasis, a lung disease where airways are damaged, preventing sufferers from clearing mucus from their lungs. Smith notes that Stralman just got off medication for bronchiectasis last year; judging by this 2014 report from NHL.com’s Dan Rosen, Stralman needed pretty heavy-duty medication:

Dr. Dimango had Stralman start a course of treatment tailored for people with cystic fibrosis. It featured a dosage of antibiotics three times per week. Stralman doesn’t have cystic fibrosis, but the treatment has staved off his infections.

It indeed seems reasonable if Stralman worries about how his “body will react” if he contracted COVID-19. The Canadian Lung Association notes that, while people with lung diseases aren’t more likely to contract the virus, they are more likely to suffer from a more serious case if they do contract it.

Would Stralman be forced to return if he doesn’t feel safe? Gary Bettman allowed some wiggle room for players with underlying risks, but also said he expected able-bodied players to return to action. In a hockey culture where you’re expected to play through pain, would Stralman be comfortable sitting things out for what could be an extended period of time?

So, yeah, it’s understandable that Stralman is worried. And he’s almost certainly not alone, even if others are silent (or have even bigger issues on their minds).

Voicing concerns about wider risks

To be clear, Stralman didn’t merely express his personal concerns to Smith in an interview very much worth reading. Stralman voiced plenty of big-picture worries about how others will be involved.

Stralman wonders about not just players involved, but workers in buildings being exposed to extra risks. Would running two “hub cities” with 24 teams require medical resources being diverted from those who need it the most? The NHL’s said all the right things about avoiding that, yet it’s still fair to wonder if it might happen.

“I think the main thing is safety,” Stralman said. “And I don’t think we should be obliged to be prioritized over people that actually need it way more than we do. There are so many people in this world right now that are going through some really tough times. I think all hockey players and owners should consider themselves fairly lucky to be where they’re at.”

In hoping for a return to play, there’s been a focus on if the NHL can pull off. And, to be fair, even those questions aren’t easy to answer. Yet, above all else, should the NHL return, at least in the near future?

That’s a tough call, so it’s refreshing that Stralman is willing to ask such questions.

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.

NHL post-quarantine: Recapturing team chemistry a challenge

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Claude Giroux’s Philadelphia Flyers were the hottest team in the NHL back when hockey was still being played.

That was more than two months ago and their next game could be two more months away. He can’t predict how things might go if the season resumes.

“I don’t know,” Giroux said. “Right now, everything’s unknown.”

Among the unknowns about the NHL returning amid the coronavirus pandemic is what the on-ice product might look like. In a team sport that demands rhythm and chemistry, players will have to quickly adapt after so much time apart to recapture what it takes to jump right into the playoffs and compete for the Stanley Cup.

“We want to see great hockey played,” Toronto captain John Tavares said. “It’s not an exact science. It’s something we’ve never dealt with before, and we want to make the best and most conscious decision we possibly can to obviously make sure not only guys stay safe, but that the quality of hockey is extremely high.”

Unlike basketball, where one player can dominate a game and carry a team, hockey is predicated on players being in sync, knowing where teammates are — and will be going next — for tape-to-tape passes. Timing as a unit is an essential ingredient to success, and it’s that timing that could be missing early because of so much time off the ice.

With the exception of a handful of players who were rehabbing injuries, living in Sweden or somehow able to find an open rink, most haven’t skated since the season was halted in mid-March. Recapturing that skating stride and building back up to avoid injuries will be a big part of voluntary workouts before the anticipated start of training camps in July.

Some players have expressed concerns about their individual game skills, like Winnipeg winger Patrik Laine expecting himself to be “terrible” after so much time off. Many goaltenders don’t even have their gear with them, and getting back into a groove will take some time.

Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang thinks informal workouts limited to six players on the ice at a given time should be about all that and building up conditioning levels. He sees training camp as the time for coaches and players to do some team rebuilding.

“The skating and everything comes back pretty quick,” Columbus captain Nick Foligno said. “It’s the team mindset, the system play again, where you need to be — that feel. That’s the only stuff you can really get when you’re doing the reps over and over and over again.”

Knowing full well he won’t have a month to work with players before games resume, Edmonton coach Dave Tippett dug up his notes from the abbreviated training camp he oversaw with the Coyotes going into the 2013 lockout-shortened season.

“It’s different because you know the players already,” Tippett said. “It’ll be a little bit like the start of a season where you’ve got to get up and going pretty quick.”

Absent the usual drills to practice rushes, the power play or penalty kill for months, players will have no choice but to acclimate to each other quickly. Washington general manager Brian MacLellan said he isn’t worried.

“I think players adapt,” MacLellan said. “Timing and speed and systems play usually takes a few weeks. It’s no different than a training camp coming in, except it’ll be ramped up – the intensity part – quicker. I think players will adapt to it. I think might be scrambly at first, but it’ll be accelerated because of the seriousness and what’s at stake if you’re playing for a championship.”

Even though teams are expected to play a couple of exhibitions before games that count, rediscovering chemistry quickly could make all the difference, especially for those in best-of-five qualifying round series to get to the final 16.

“We’re going to have to find a way to feel good but also get to our team game, get the fundamentals down that way again,” said Foligno, whose Blue Jackets would play Tavares’ Maple Leafs. “The team that can get to their game quickest is going to have success.”

Florida GM Dale Tallon considers it a benefit to have all teams on a level playing field going into a 24-team playoff. But the newness of the situation adds a layer of unpredictability and could make this one of the most competitive chases for the Stanley Cup in history.

“There’s going to be some teams that are going to disappoint because they lost their momentum, there could be injuries in the training camp period of time if we rush too fast to get these guys up to speed,” Nashville GM David Poile said. “It’s going to be like nothing we’ve done before.”

NHLers speak out on death of George Floyd, U.S. protests

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In the wake of protests around the U.S. following the tragic death of George Floyd on May 25, NHL players have taken to social media to express their feelings on racial inequality.

Toews takes to Instagram

Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews called for everyone to “fight hate and fear with love and awareness” in a powerful statement made on his Instagram account.

“A lot of people may claim these riots and acts of destruction are a terrible response. I’ll be the first to admit that as a white male that was also my first reaction.

But who am I to tell someone that their pain is not real? Especially when it is at a boiling point and impossible to hold in anymore. It’s obviously coming from a place of truth. This reaction isn’t coming out of thin air.

I’m not condoning or approving the looting, but are we really going to sit here and say that peaceful protesting is the only answer? There has been plenty of time for that, and if it was the answer we would’ve given it our full attention long ago.

Listen to these two men debate. They are lost, they are in pain. They strived for a better future but as they get older they realize their efforts may be futile. They don’t know the answer of how to solve this problem for the next generation of black women and men. This breaks my heart.

I can’t pretend for a second that I know what it feels like to walk in a black man’s shoes. However, seeing the video of George Floyd’s death and the violent reaction across the country moved me to tears. It has pushed me to think, how much pain are black people and other minorities really feeling? What have Native American people dealt with in both Canada and US? What is it really like to grow up in their world? Where am I ignorant about the privileges that I may have that others don’t?

Compassion to me is at least trying to FEEL and UNDERSTAND what someone else is going through. For just a moment maybe I can try to see the world through their eyes. Covid has been rough but it has given us the opportunity to be much less preoccupied with our busy lives. We can no longer distract ourselves from the truth of what is going on.

My message isn’t for black people and what they should do going forward. My message is to white people to open our eyes and our hearts. That’s the only choice we have, otherwise this will continue.

Let’s choose to fight hate and fear with love and awareness. Ask not what can you do for me, but what can I do for you? Be the one to make the first move. In the end, love conquers all.

#blacklivesmatter”

The 46-year-old Floyd died last week after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pinned him to the ground with his knee for nearly nine minutes. The method used to restrain Floyd ended up cutting blood and air flow to his brain, causing him to die by mechanical asphyxia, according to pathologists hired by his family.

Floyd was heard saying “I can’t breathe” multiple times. Chauvin has since been fired and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

Other NHL players speak out

Last week, Evander Kane of the Sharks appeared on ESPN’s First Take and called on his fellow NHLers to use their voices for change.

“We need so many more athletes that don’t look like me speaking out about this, having the same amount of outrage that I have inside, and using that to voice their opinions, voice their frustration. Because that’s the only way it’s going to change,” he said. “We’ve been outraged for hundreds of years and nothing’s changed. It’s time for guys like Tom Brady and Sidney Crosby, those type of figures, to speak up about what is right and, clearly in this case, what is unbelievably wrong. Because that is the only way we’re going to actually create that unified anger to create that necessary change.”

Kane’s teammate, Sharks captain Logan Couture, supported his call to action in a Twitter post:

“I don’t know how to properly write this message. First of all, I applaud Evander for speaking the truth. Racism exists in society, it also exists in hockey, That’s a fact. Growing up in this game is a privilege. A times I think most of us have been at fault for turning a blind eye when it comes to racism. It cannot continue. I’ve had the opportunity to play with some incredible teammates. Black, white, all colors. Getting to listen to them talk about things they have gone through in hockey/life is eye opening.

“As a society and as hockey players we are only scraping the surface in fixing what desperately needs fixing. Thanks to Akim [Aliu] and Evander for speaking so loudly about this issue. We all need to learn, we need to love each other regardless of skin color.”

Iowa Wild forward J.T. Brown, who raised his first in 2017 in response to the National Anthem protests, Tweeted:

Days after Jets captain Blake Wheeler Tweeted “My hometown is burning. Businesses where I grew up are being boarded up. America is not OK,” he added to his social media comments with reporters.

“We have to be as involved in this as black athletes. It can’t just be their fight,” he said. “When Colin Kaepernick was taking a knee during the national anthem and trying to do it in a peaceful way in 2016 and trying to raise awareness of this in a peaceful manner, unfortunately there wasn’t more – and I want to be real clear, here. I look in the mirror about this before I look out at everyone else. I wish that I was more involved sooner than I was. I wish that it didn’t take me this long to get behind it in a meaningful way.

“But I guess what you can do is try to be better going forward. That’s kind of been my position on it. I want to be part of the change going forward. Whether that resonates with everyone, whether that spreads with everyone, is clearly, I’m only one person, but I do have a small platform to try to promote this and promote change.”

Blackhawks forward Zack Smith added his voice on Monday:

“As a privileged white man playing in the NHL (a predominately white league) I feel it’s as important now as ever to show support for the black community and encourage change. If you think the current way black people and other minorities are treated here today is ok…. you are a racist. If you don’t have an opinion or are ‘neutral’ on this subject then you are ignorant and very misinformed.

“I strongly disagree with rioting and looting of homes and small businesses but if you resent this movement because of the actions of a few vandals then you are missing the point entirely. As hockey players we sometimes come off as robots in our interviews and stay clear of opinions on most social issues and controversy.

“Personally I don’t like posting my opinions on social media these days for several reason(s). However with the amount of racist people (especially those in positions of power) being exposed during this movement I felt the need to show my support for the black community and the need for change. Please be safe and take care of each other out there.”

Smith’s former teammate in Ottawa, Mark Borowiecki, asked for supporters to make donations:

It’s been tough for me to find the words to say, so I haven’t,” Tweeted Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba on Tuesday. “I’ve been listening. Educating myself. Letting others educate me before I speak. I thought I understood, but I didn’t. As a privileged white male, it’s easy for me to live in this country. I’ve always heard about the pain and fear of others but I don’t know if I ever truly sat with it and tried to imagine. I know that I will never know what it’s like. And now I know that as important as it is to speak up, it’s equally important to listen. Talk with your friends about racism, Black and White. Start conversations, self-reflect, listen, and engage. Black lives matter.”

Miller reacts to Zoom call

Rangers prospect K’Andre Miller, who was the subject of a racist Zoom attack last month, spoke out about that and the current unrest around the country:

“I’ve struggled for months to find the words to express my frustration and anger over the Zoom conference call incident when I was to be introduced after signing my NHL contract. It’s something that I won’t ever forget. But with COVID19 taking a stranglehold on the nation, it seemed like there were so many other priorities in the world, that it wasn’t my place to speak out about the incident. This pandemic isn’t discriminatory, it has been difficult for everyone and the priority was to keep everyone safe.

“Now, in the midst of the sense death of George Floyd, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, the peaceful protests and violent riots have become the focus for all of us. I want to express my growing concern for the safety of our citizens of color, specifically in my home state (Minnesota), given recent events. I support the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I struggle because I’ve never been fully accepted by either the black community or the white community. I struggle because for years I have been one of the only people of color on my hockey teams. I have been targeted because of my race when I was in youth hockey by some coaches, parents and players, but I refused to give up because of my love for the game.

“You can only imagine how it felt to have an organization like the New York Rangers draft me, the hockey player. For that one moment in time I didn’t have to be defined by the color of my skin but rather on my hockey skills, athletic ability and character. This is how it should be all the time. It’s time for action, time for change and once and for all, it’s time to let black people be judged based on who we are not what we look like.”

Nearly every NHL team has put out a statement of their own or highlighted statements of their players as of Tuesday afternoon.

For more on the George Floyd protests around the U.S., follow the NBC News live blog.

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Draisaitl’s effect on German hockey; Makar and the Calder

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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.

• How badly does British Columbia want to be a hub city for the NHL? “The BC Provincial Health Officer noted that a different arrangement could be made for visiting NHL teams, allowing them to quarantine as a group, rather than in self-isolation. Her comments echo what Alberta’s top doctor said one day prior.” [CTV News]

• A piece of business that each eliminated team needs to address this off-season. [The Score]

• Penguins CEO and president David Morehouse assisted in saving a TV cameraman after he was attacked while covering protests in downtown Pittsburgh. [Tribune-Review]

• The Kings will not renew the contract of AHL head coach Mike Stothers. [LA Kings Insider]

• How Leon Draisaitl‘s Art Ross Trophy win will affect German hockey. [Forbes]

• Looking at how the summer 2019 additions helped the Avalanche to the season they’ve had. [Mile High Hockey]

• The Calder Trophy is a family affair for Cale Makar. [Denver Post]

• Playing in front of no fans will be a big adjustment for NHL players. [Tennessean]

• When play resumes, the Coyotes will be rocking the Kachina jerseys for every game they’re designated the “home” team. [Five for Howling]

• The culture of losing is the biggest obstacle in the way of the Sabres finding success again. [Featurd]

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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.