NHL goaltenders putting on puck-stopping clinic in playoffs

Nearly 20 years ago, Kevin Weekes and goaltending coach Sudarshan Maharaj rented some ice time at a Toronto arena with a Chinese food buffet above them and worked on the fundamentals of the position.

It took Weekes’ game to a new level and he was reminded of the extra work as he watches these unusual NHL playoffs. Goaltenders are putting on a clinic in the crease, combining for a .922 save percentage through 66 games, up from .910 in the regular season and .916 in the playoffs last year.

”It’s as if they’ve had the opportunity to go to goalie school right before playoffs start,” said Weekes, an NHL goalie for 11 seasons who is now an NHL Network analyst. ”I’ve heard several guys tell me that they feel like their focus is even sharper.”

The improvement can be traced to a combination of things: Goalies had time to recuperate after the season was called off in March. They were able to practice on fundamentals before the playoffs began. And they are playing in empty arenas without distractions, with all due respect to the lights and music from the NHL production staffs in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta.

Little if any ability to sharpen specialized skills while quarantined threatened to put goalies at a disadvantage when the season resumed with 24 teams in the playoffs – and eight of them facing elimination right away. Suddenly, every save mattered after months of not being able to put on gear, let alone face live shots.

”It was really tough,” Dallas goaltender Anton Khudobin said. ”I was going to the gym and stuff like that. I was working off the ice. But I wasn’t able to find the ice in my city at that time because everything was on quarantine and was closed. Me and my coach back home, he found a way how we’re gonna work and I only skated on the ice just a little bit, only five times.”

Getting back on the ice for voluntary workouts and training camp allowed netminders to get back to the basics. There have been fewer bad goals allowed and more stellar performances from the likes of Montreal’s Carey Price, Columbus’ Joonas Korpisalo, Arizona’s Darcy Kuemper and Calgary’s Cam Talbot.

There have already been 12 shutouts through 66 games after just nine the entire 2019 playoffs (87 games).

”It’s amazing the goaltending that’s been played so far,” said Kirk Muller, who has taken over for Claude Julien coaching Price and the Canadiens 27 years after winning the Stanley Cup with goaltender Patrick Roy.

”If there’s one area that if someone said you could make a comparison of when we played and today’s game, I’d say the most improved obviously is goaltending: the teaching, these guys now, they’re in such great shape, they’re athletic, they’re competitive and they’re big,” Muller said. ”It’s difficult to score on these goalies today.”

Two coaches who have successfully rotated goalies in the playoffs have different theories on why that is.

Peter DeBoer, who coached New Jersey to the Cup Final in 2012 with Martin Brodeur and San Jose there in 2016 with Martin Jones, knows goalies have more energy than usual in this situation. That was on display when his Vegas Golden Knights put up 49 shots and lost because of Chicago’s Corey Crawford.

”A lot of these guys come playoff time have already got 50, 60 games under their belt of wear and tear, and you’ve got a bunch of healthy goalies out there right now that are ready to play,” DeBoer said. ”We’ve played enough games now they’ve got their timing down, so they’re getting better every day.”

Carolina’s Rod Brind’Amour thinks defense is outpacing offense after a long layoff and that playmakers are a little rusty. Still, he marvels at the play in net around the league and what the Hurricanes’ Petr Mrazek and James Reimer have done after committing to adjustments before training camp.

”I know our guys put in a lot of work,” Brind’Amour said. ”Especially in that pause, I think Reimer picked up his game where maybe a lot of guys would have not. He found a way to get better.”

No fans may help, too. The sight lines aren’t much different than normal, but the tarps put in place by the NHL over the empty seats in the lower bowls of the arenas allow for uniformity in vision and might even make it easier to see.

”Once the game starts, I haven’t really noticed there’s no crowd there,” Kuemper said. ”It’s only between the pauses and the anthem and things like that that you really notice the empty building.”

Cup-winning St. Louis goalie Jordan Binnington compared it to being inside a video game. Washington’s Braden Holtby enjoys that the lack of noise allows him to hear more. Philadelphia’s Carter Hart, who shut out Montreal on Sunday night, praised the NHL for transforming the arena with video screens and those tarps to make it feel more full.

Weekes said he loved to play in front of crowds from the time he was a kid to when he hung up his pads for good. Absent the energy of that, the goaltending fraternity has become ”more lasered in” without the risk of outside distractions.

”When the puck drops, you don’t even think about it,” Korpisalo said. ”There’s one thing and one thing only: I try to stop the puck.”

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    Stars expect to open camp without unsigned scorer Jason Robertson

    Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
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    FRISCO, Texas — Young 40-goal scorer Jason Robertson is expected to miss the start of training camp for the Dallas Stars because the team and the restricted free agent haven’t agreed on a new contract.

    General manager Jim Nill said there’s been steady, ongoing negotiations over the last couple of weeks with Robertson and his representatives. Nill wouldn’t say what has kept the two sides from reaching a deal, adding there have been “very good discussions.”

    The Stars, with new coach Pete DeBoer, open camp Thursday in Cedar Park, Texas, at the home of their AHL team. They have three days of work there before returning to North Texas for their exhibition opener at home on Monday night. They open the regular season Oct. 13 at Nashville.

    “I think he’s disappointed he’s not at camp, we are too,” Nill said before the team departed for the Austin area. “I think it’s very important for a younger player and as you mentioned, the (new) coaching staff. … We do have some time on our side, but we wish he gets here as soon as he can.”

    Robertson had a base salary of $750,000 last season, the end of a $2.775 million, three-year contract. He still has five more years before he has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.

    The left wing turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when he had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

    A second-round draft pick by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. He had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

    DeBoer said he looks forward to coaching Robertson, but that the forward’s absence won’t change his plans for camp.

    “It doesn’t impact what I’m doing,” DeBoer said. “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here. So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

    Nill said the Stars are open to a long-term extension or a bridge contract for Robertson, who was part of the team’s top line last season with veteran Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz. They combined for 232 points, the second-most in franchise history for a trio.

    “We’re open to anything. But other than that … I’m not going to negotiate through the media,” Nill said. “As I said, we’ve had good conversations. We’ll see where it goes.”

    Training camps open around NHL after another short offseason

    Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
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    Training camps open around the NHL after another short offseason, a third in a row squeezed by the pandemic. That doesn’t bother Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon one bit.

    For one of hockey’s best players and his teammates, it’s already time to get back on the ice and defend their Stanley Cup title, less than three months since they knocked off the back-to-back champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

    “I still feel like I just was playing,” MacKinnon said. “I took two weeks off, and then I started skating again. It’s just fun. I enjoy it, and I like the short summer. It feels like the season’s just kind of rolling over again.”

    The NHL rolls into fall coming off an entertaining playoffs and final with the chance to finally get back on a normal schedule. That means full camps for teams that got new coaches and the benefits of a regular routine.

    That means a mere 88 days between Game 6 of the final and the first-on ice practice sessions.

    “We’re kind of used to it now,” Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy said after he and the Lightning lost in the final for the first time in three consecutive trips. “It’s a little harder, of course, because you don’t have that much time to rest. It’s basically a few weeks and you have to get back at it. But, yeah, I can’t complain. You want your summers to be short every year.”

    It was a little longer for Connor McDavid and the Oilers after losing to Colorado in the West final. Despite the lack of downtime, McDavid “wouldn’t trade that in for anything” and aims to make it even further since Edmonton shored up its goaltending situation by adding Jack Campbell.

    A few spins of the goalie carousel ended with the Avalanche acquiring Alexandar Georgiev from the New York Rangers and Cup winner Darcy Kuemper landing with Washington. Joining new teammates, many of whom hoisted the Cup in 2018, Kuemper is not worried about less time off.

    “It was definitely a very unique summer,” Kuemper said. “With how short it was, you start getting back into the gym and you’re kind of a little bit worried that your training’s going to be so short. But you kind of felt like you weren’t getting back into shape. You were already there.”

    NEW COACHES

    The Oilers are one of several teams settling in for training camp under a new coach. Jay Woodcroft took over as interim coach in February but has the full-time job now.

    “Looking forward to a camp with him,” McDavid said. “He did a great job coming in during the middle of the season, but it’s never easy on a coach, for sure. I’m sure there’s things that he wanted to touch on that you wasn’t able to kind of in the middle of the year, so he’ll be able to to touch on all of it this year.”

    The same goes for Bruce Boudreau in Vancouver, 11 months since being put in charge of the Canucks. Philadelphia’s John Tortorella, Boston’s Jim Montgomery, Vegas’ Bruce Cassidy, Dallas’ Peter DeBoer, Florida’s Paul Maurice, Chicago’s Luke Richardson, Detroit’s Derek Lalonde and the New York Islanders’ Lane Lambert are all starting the job fresh.

    CAMP TRYOUTS

    Roughly 40 players are attending a camp on a professional tryout agreement with the chance to earn a contract for the season. James Neal has that opportunity with the Blue Jackets, and Derek Stepan returned to Carolina to seek a job with the Hurricanes.

    The most intriguing situation involves 37-year-old center Eric Staal, who agreed to the tryout with Florida the same time brother Marc signed a one-year contract. Younger brother Jordan was with Eric and Marc on the 18th green at Pebble Beach to witness the occasion.

    “They’re both just super pumped, as was I,” said Jordan Staal, who is the captain of the Hurricanes. “Eric is excited about the opportunity and Marc, as well. Really cool. Really cool thing.”

    EARLY START

    Before the puck drops on the NHL season in North America on Oct. 11, the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks play twice in Prague on Oct. 7 and 8. And those are not exhibitions.

    “We still play two important games,” said Sharks forward Tomas Hertl, who is a native of Prague. “It’s not just preseason where you coming here to warm up.”

    Colorado and Columbus will also play two games in Tampere, Finland, on Nov. 4-5 as part of the NHL’s Global Series.

    And just as the league gets used to a regular schedule, work is ongoing between the league and NHL Players’ Association to stage a World Cup of Hockey in February 2024, which is popular among players even if it knocks the calendar off kilter again.

    “I think they missed out on a huge, huge portion of the international game that’s really going to be missed,” McDavid said. “We need to figure out a way to get an international tournament in as quickly as possible.”

    Matthew Tkachuk, Panthers ready for 1st training camp together

    Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports
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    CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — Aleksander Barkov was sound asleep at his home in Finland when the trade that brought Matthew Tkachuk to the Florida Panthers was finalized, which isn’t surprising considering it was around 4 a.m. in that part of the world.

    He woke up and read texts from friends reacting to the deal.

    And it wasn’t too long before he got a message from Tkachuk.

    “The first message was `(expletive) right’ and how he was excited to come to Florida,” Barkov, the Panthers’ captain, said at Florida’s media day. “`Let’s take this next step, let’s be a winning team for many years to come.’ That’s who he is. He wants to win. He wants to bring that character to this organization. And I think he’s done some damage already.”

    With that, Barkov was sold.

    And after a few weeks of informally skating with one another, the Panthers start the process of officially seeing what they have in Tkachuk when the team’s training camp – the first under new coach Paul Maurice – opens.

    “We’ve basically had everybody here for a few weeks,” Tkachuk said. “I feel like I’ve been in training camp for a couple of weeks. So today doesn’t feel that new to me. I’ve gotten to know everybody … so let’s get these games going. I’m sick and tired of just practicing and working. I want to start playing some games. I think everybody feels the same way.”

    Maurice was hired over the summer as well, inheriting a team that won the Presidents’ Trophy last season and went to the second round of the playoffs — the first series win for Florida since the run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996.

    He’s as eager as the players are for the first formal practice, calling it “our first Christmas.”

    “The house is bought. Most of the boxes are unpacked,” Maurice said. “I’ve got two kids that kind of came with me; one’s in Coral Gables, one’s in Estero. Their places are unpacked. They’re out of our house. Once you get down here, for me, you spend most of your days at the rink. So, experiencing all of South Florida, we haven’t gotten to that yet.”

    As part of the deal that went down on July 22, the 24-year-old Tkachuk signed a eight-year, $76 million contract. That’s not the only big cost that the Panthers had to agree to while executing the trade; they also sent Jonathan Huberdeau, the franchise’s all-time scoring leader, and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar to the Calgary Flames in exchange for a left wing who had career bests of 42 goals, 62 assists and 104 points last season.

    “I wish all the best to Huby and Weegs,” Barkov said. “They’re great. Everyone loved them. Only good things to say about them. It happens, and for sure, it was best for the team and organization to do this. We move on, and we’ll get ready for a new season.”

    BOBROVSKY’S SUMMER

    Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is Russian, still makes his home in St. Petersburg, and went there for the bulk of his offseason.

    He said it was not logistically difficult to travel there (or return to the U.S.) this summer, even as the war that started when Russia invaded Ukraine continues. Bobrovsky said last season that he was not trying to focus on anything but hockey, and when asked if it was difficult to be back in Russia as war continues he kept the same approach.

    “I had a good summer,” Bobrovsky said. “I saw friends, I saw family. It’s all been fine. I don’t want to talk about what’s going on. I’m not involved in that stuff.”

    CAMP ROSTER

    Florida is opening camp with 56 players – 31 forwards, 19 defensemen and six goalies. That group includes brothers Eric Staal and Marc Staal; Marc Staal signed as a free agent in July; Eric Staal is with Florida on a tryout contract.

    Coyotes sign Barrett Hayton right before training camp

    Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
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    SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Coyotes signed forward Barrett Hayton to a two-year contract right before the start of training camp.

    Terms of the deal were not released.

    The 22-year-old Hayton was a restricted free agent and not initially listed on Arizona’s roster for camp.

    Hayton had 10 goals and 14 assists in 60 games with the Coyotes last season, all career highs.

    Arizona drafted the Peterborough, Ontario native with the fifth overall pick of the 2018 NHL draft. He has 13 goals and 18 assists in 94 career games with the Coyotes.