McDavid shouldn’t shut up (or hold his breath) about penalties

McDavid shouldn't shut up (or hold his breath) about penalties
Claus Andersen/Getty Images
3 Comments

For some, there was exhaustion as John Tortorella and Connor McDavid sparred about drawing penalties. Personally, that argument instead inspired nostalgia.

Indeed, there’s a “pleasure and sadness” caused by remembering something from the past, although maybe not a yearning to return to that feeling.

This conversation feels familiar because, frankly, many of us watched this movie before. It’s on repeat more than “A Christmas Story” airs during the holidays.

Frame it in three acts:

  1. Superstar cannot be contained — legally. So teams clutch and grab said superstar, daring officials to call a bunch of penalties.
  2. Officials let most of the penalties go uncalled. Superstar, understandably, complains. Maybe sprinkle in some fans and media criticizing said superstar for a) complaining or b) not winning championships anyway.
  3. Nothing meaningful changes in the NHL. Then we wait for the inevitable sequels and reboots.

Personally, it’s difficult to imagine Connor McDavid’s complaints bringing about major changes. Just consider past experience — whether it brings about nostalgia or feeling jaded.

Mario Lemieux complained about the NHL protecting “marginal players,” and little changed. Bored hockey fans grimaced through “The Dead Puck Era” with few meaningful changes to clutch-and-grab.

Since at least (if not) before Gary Bettman began his lengthy reign as NHL commish in 1993, these debates crop up. Typically, little happens beyond people settling down before getting mad again.

Should Connor McDavid “shut up” about drawing penalties? No. But McDavid also shouldn’t hold his breath about anything but the most superficial changes.

That said, it would be delightful if the NHL proved us wrong, and actually improved in meaningful ways.

McDavid, Tortorella on drawing penalties

To catch you up, John Tortorella spoke about changes he believes McDavid needs to make. Part of that was about defense, but he also indicated that McDavid shouldn’t complain about not drawing penalties.

In response, Connor McDavid said “guess I just gotta shut up about this.”

There’s a nice, salty exchange there. But it’s important to realize that McDavid has a point about drawing penalties.

Despite being someone who can score goals at will against multiple defenders, McDavid doesn’t draw penalties in parallel to his skills. Most memorably, McDavid didn’t draw a single penalty call as the Jets swept his Oilers. It turns out, McDavid actually didn’t draw a penalty in consecutive playoffs.

This isn’t to say McDavid gets no calls; inevitably, he gets whistles. Just not enough.

Maybe some of it is simply human nature. Yes, hockey fans grumble at the mere mention of Tim Peel. Yet, in a September interview with Daily Faceoff, Peel provided interesting insight into why officials may hesitate to call certain would-be penalties in McDavid’s favor.

Some of the things that make McDavid so hard to defend — great edgework, being strong on his skates — may make that small difference in a penalty being called or not. That’s why it might be key to impress a larger directive on officials: call penalties as you see them, don’t avoid making calls just because it’s a close game in the third period.

So it’s not the easiest situation.

The solution probably revolves around a league-wide focus. Emphasize calling penalties in all situations — close games in the third period, the playoffs. Don’t slip into the bad habits of “game management.”

Ideally, such tweaks would finally allow the NHL to call penalties in fair enough way to allow McDavid and other stars to shine. It would be a welcome, and long-awaited change.

McDavid shouldn't shut up (or hold his breath) about penalties Getzlaf
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Long lagging behind other sports when it comes to stars and penalties

It’s been mentioned before, and it’s painfully true. While other sports put their stars in better situations to succeed, the NHL mostly just shrugs and moves on.

Naturally, neither league is perfect. No one wants a hockey league full of James Hardens exploiting every nook and cranny of the rulebook to get cheap penalties. And there are those who complain about the NFL swinging too far in favor of offense.

Big-picture, though? People want to see superstars do super things.

Yet, gesturing at the success of the NFL and NBA hasn’t moved the needle when it comes to NHL officiating. Maybe more existential threats would?

In 32 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman notes some soft NHL attendance, and wonders if that might be the factor that starts getting more penalty calls for McDavid and other stars.

As far as major officiating pushes go, the most notable surge of the Bettman era came when the NHL was in its most desperate situation. Following the full-season 2004-05 lockout, the sport faced a borderline existential crisis. And the whistles finally came out.

via Hockey Reference:

Average power-play opportunities per game, 2003-04: 4.24
Average power-play opportunities per game, 2005-06: 5.85

As teams adjusted to the changes, things settled down. For this discussion, that’s not the main point. Instead, note that the NHL actually did make genuinely crucial changes with its back against the wall.

If the NHL addresses penalties, some might credit McDavid. I’d guess that the real factor would be if attendance remains a bit soft.

Penalties very slightly up, but they’ve been way down for a while

Let’s zoom out from Connor McDavid penalties, and look league-wide.

Without prior knowledge, you might assume that the modern NHL calls more penalties than the days of the “Dead Puck Era.”

The good news is that, very early in 2021-22, penalty calls are up there for recent years. The bad news is that penalties have been way down for quite some time. Consult this chart of the last couple decades (stats again via Hockey Reference):

Season power-play opportunities
2021-22   3.05
2020-21   2.89
2019-20   2.97
2018-19 2.92
2017-18 3.04
2016-17 2.99
2015-16 3.11
2014-15 3.06
2013-14 3.27
2012-13 3.32
2011-12 3.31
2010-11 3.54
2009-10 3.71
2008-09 4.16
2007-08 4.28
2006-07 4.85
2005-06 5.85
2003-04 4.24
2002-03 4.42
2001-02 4.13
2000-01 4.59

In case you’re wondering, average power-play opportunities only dipped below four per game once from 1981-82 through 2000-01 (3.87 in 1982-83). Beyond that, PPOs ranged fairly wildly, including reaching 5+ on multiple occasions.

For whatever reason, officials really started to put their whistles away from 2009-10 on, and things haven’t changed much since 2014-15.

Maybe people didn’t notice the drop in NHL penalty calls because scoring improved?

  • From 2010-11 through 2016-17, the goal-per-game average ranged from 2.71 to 2.79.
  • An interesting jump took place between 2016-17 (2.77 gpg) to 2017-18 (2.97). Scoring’s been around that low-3 range ever since.

Broadly speaking, it seems like scoring has increased — subtly — even as penalty calls dried up.

Perhaps the NHL believes its reached an acceptable balance? Ultimately, that depends. Is the league at its best when teams average about three goals per game?

McDavid might as well keep pushing for penalties — to a point

Amusingly, McDavid’s Oilers go into Thursday’s games as the only NHL team currently averaging four goals per night. At times, are officials merely being merciful? If McDavid drew more penalties, would the Oilers power play (42.6-percent success rate) challenge competitive balance?

Such questions should embolden McDavid to keep the penalties conversation front-of-mind. As much as people want hockey players to just shut up and play, suffering in silence doesn’t put the other team in the box. It would be gross if McDavid starts falling to the ice like peak penalty-drawing Dustin Brown, but officials are human. If you force the issue, they might need to make the call.

Also, let’s not forget John Tortorella’s own experiences when it comes to complaining about penalties.

Early in his Blue Jackets tenure, Tortorella wasn’t exactly silent about his beliefs that the Penguins got some calls. Do recall that Sidney Crosby was pretty vocal about his feelings, something he later toned down. But, hey, even if Crosby rubbed some the wrong way, he also won a lot.

So, again, maybe it’s about striking the right balance. Considering how slowly the NHL often embraces change, it’s unlikely that McDavid’s penalty talks will push those PPO’s from the 3’s to the 4’s.

But, who knows, maybe those discussions will stick in officials’ minds the next time defenders try “water-skiing” McDavid in a big playoff game?

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.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

Rasmus Sandin
Julian Avram/Getty Images
1 Comment

TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

marc-andre fleury
David Berding/Getty Images
2 Comments

ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.

Stars expect to open camp without unsigned scorer Jason Robertson

Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

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
3 Comments

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.”