NHL goalies do best to prepare for unexpected, unpredictable

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — NHL goaltenders prepare for the unexpected and unpredictable, ready for pucks deflecting off sticks, bodies, feet or even a divot in the ice past all the gear designed to help defend their net.

The freaky, fluky or simply weird goals can be laughed off by goalies who know sometimes the puck just takes a funny bounce.

The goals that eat away at a goalie are those he believes he could’ve – and should’ve – stopped. Not the goal allowed by Dallas goalie Anton Khudobin where the puck bounced off a Nashville forward’s back and over the net before hitting the back of the goalie’s helmet, then off his back and into the net.

”It stings anytime you give up a goal,” Predators goalie Pekka Rinne said Tuesday. ”That kind of goal, there’s nothing really he could’ve done. It’s a freaky goal, and I feel like those things maybe happen once, twice in a season. But yeah, the ones that hurt the most as a goalie, it’s the ones that you feel like you should’ve had it.”

Stick-handling in the NHL has improved right along with players’ speed and skating thanks to offseason workouts. That also has boosted the creativity for shooters looking to do a bit more than a simple slap shot, wrister or snap shot.

”There’s a lot of talent in the league, more maybe so now than there has been in years past,” Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog said. ”These young guys coming up, everybody has their own skills coaches and things like that. There’s a lot of skills. I don’t doubt there’s more highlight-reel goals.”

Goaltenders have to be ready for the next move dreamed up by the league’s stars to put the puck over the line. Scoring is up with the average number of goals scored per game increasing in each of the past four seasons, and the current average of 3.06 goals per game is on pace to be the highest since the 2005-06 season, according to Hockey-Reference.com

”Maybe it’s the skill of the players too, finding that one spot,” Colorado goalie Philipp Grubauer said. ”(Evgeny) Kuznetsov in Washington, he’s so sneaky in terms of what he wants to do and doesn’t want to do. He puts the puck in spots. Maybe you get a weird bounce, hit a guy’s shin pad or something like that.”

The NHL also keeps downsizing goaltenders’ pads, most recently chest protectors . Grubauer sees teams also changing how they break out on offense, attacking faster and giving goalies less time.

”Back in the days, you always used to go back and regroup and break out as a unit,” Grubauer said. ”I feel like the last couple of years, it’s always like, (snaps fingers) and up (snaps fingers) and up.”

Sometimes goalies get lucky, too.

Buffalo goalie Carter Hutton appeared to be losing his balance Sunday in the first period against Winnipeg with Adam Lowry coming in on a short-handed breakaway. Hutton put his glove down at the exact moment Lowry tried to slip the puck between the goalie’s legs for the save.

”You definitely get some fluky saves where you’re beat and a guy just hits you,” Hutton said.

The Sabres goalie also recalls being on his goal line when the puck came up, rolled over the top of the net, hit his neck and went in. He had another puck slip past him on a penalty shot in December against Florida.

”You make the initial save, and it lands on my pads sideways and just slowly rolls off,” Hutton said. ”That’s one where if it’s during a game, a D-man’s probably there to stop it or that puck lands flat on my pad and doesn’t go in. It’s unfortunate that it lands sideways and rolls off my pad. So that’s one that I would say this year that’s been fluky.”

There’s one goal so weird it’s called the Butt Goal.

Defenseman Mark Pysyk, now with Florida, got his first goal of the 2013 season right before Christmas in overtime after jamming at the puck, sending it into the air and into the pants of Coyotes goalie Mike Smith who then backed into his own net.

”I didn’t think they would call it a goal, because I didn’t think they’d see it, but they did,” Pysyk said. ”It was in his pants and he backed in. I think you could see me point at it. They counted it a little bit after, obviously, so I didn’t have a chance to celebrate normally. It was pretty funny.”

SURPRISING ISLANDERS

The New York Islanders are atop the Metropolitan Division in coach Barry Trotz’s first season despite losing John Tavares last offseason to Toronto. They just snapped a three-game streak Tuesday night with a 3-1 loss in Buffalo but are 6-2-2 in their last 10 games and remain second overall in the Eastern Conference.

To Buffalo coach Phil Housley, credit Trotz using the same philosophy and structure from coaching in Nashville and winning the Stanley Cup with Washington last summer.

”I really had a pleasure to work with him for one year and learned a lot from him,” Housley said. ”You can see he’s had success wherever he’s went.”

RIVALRY SERIES

The best of women’s hockey are back at it this week with the United States and Canada playing each other in a rare three-game ”Rivalry Series” that ends Sunday in Detroit at the home of the Red Wings. The U.S. beat Canada nearly a year ago for Olympic gold and then won a fourth straight Four Nations Cup title last November. Kendall Coyne Schofield will be the U.S. captain for the series, which will be aired on NHL Network.

”That’s something we’ve been fighting for, is more chances for us to play against Canada,” U.S. forward Dani Cameranesi said. ”It’s not that often that we get to play at the highest level. We don’t really have that many chances for that, but for them all to be … on NHL Network too and for us to get coverage on that is a really big deal.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Washington Capitals visit the San Jose Sharks on Thursday night in a matchup of two of the NHL’s top 10 teams.

LEADERS (after Monday games)

Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 38; Assists: Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 60; Points: Kucherov, 84; Ice time: Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), 26:45; Wins: Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas), 29; Goals-against average: Robin Lehner (N.Y. Islanders), 2.05; Save percentage: Robin Lehner, (N.Y. Islanders), .930.

PHT Power Rankings: 10 teams that could be most active at NHL trade deadline

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In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we start to get you ready for the trade deadline (which is now just two short weeks away!) by looking at 10 teams around the NHL that could be the most active leading up to trade deadline day.

Some of these teams are sellers. Some of them are buyers. All of them have the potential to be busy over the next two weeks.

Let’s take a look at who is out there and who could be made available.

1. Ottawa Senators — Senators management has a grand plan for what the future of the franchise will look like, but it remains to be seen how they actually get there. In the short-term the stage is set for them to potentially be the biggest sellers at the trade deadline because of the ongoing rebuild and the number of key players that are on expiring contracts, including Mark Stone, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel. Not to mention any other veteran player that could potentially be available. The Senators are trying to re-sign both Stone and Duchene, but the longer it goes without a deal and the closer we get to the deadline the more likely it seems that one or both could be on their way out. The Senators need to find a way to recoup a first-round draft pick after sending theirs to Colorado in the original Duchene trade, and they should be able to get at least one or two if they send out their pending UFA’s. It will not be the potential Jack Hughes pick they sent away, but a rebuilding team without any first-round picks isn’t off to a great start.

2. Detroit Red Wings — Ken Holland started the rebuild, at least a little bit, last trade deadline when he sent Petr Mrazek and Tomas Tatar away for five draft picks. He could be doing even more this season with free agents Jimmy Howard, Gustav Nyquist, Thomas Vanek, and Niklas Kronwall all on the roster. Howard and Nyquist are by far the most marketable pieces that he has to deal from and could fetch him a decent return at the deadline. As tempted as the Red Wings might be to try and re-sign Howard given their short-term (and long-term) goaltending situation they should resist that urge and cash in on what has been one of the best seasons of his career. Or at least one of his best seasons in recent memory. A mid-30s Howard isn’t going to be the difference between a good Red Wings team and a bad Red Wings team next season, so they should try to get what they can right now and hope one of the contenders that is a goalie away (looking at you, San Jose) wants to take a chance on a deadline rental to put them over the top.

[Related: Five teams that should be calling about Jimmy Howard]

3. New York Rangers — The Rangers have been shipping out core players for more than a year, dealing away Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller since the start of last season. There will undoubtedly be more moves coming over the next two weeks even though they have put together a nice hot streak here recently. Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello both look like they could be on the move, but would it surprise anyone if they also moved some players that still had term left on their deals or years of team control? Like a Pavel Buchnevich, Vladislav Namestnikov, or even maybe, if the price was right, a Chris Kreider?

4. Columbus Blue Jackets  — This is a totally fascinating team because I have no clue what they are going to do. The Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky contract situations mean that if they do something it is probably going to be massive. A potential playoff team shipping out top-tier players at the deadline would be huge news and significantly alter the course of several playoff teams and potential playoff teams. Or they could also keep them and load up around them for one more run, which would also be significant. Either way GM Jarmo Kekalainen has a chance to do something bold. Standing pat doesn’t seem to be an option. He is either selling or going all in.

5. Los Angeles Kings — Everything! Must! Go! The Jake Muzzin trade was a pretty clear sign that it is finally time to start looking for the future. They already sent away one pending unrestricted free agent on Monday by trading Nate Thompson to the Montreal Canadiens, and Carl Hagelin seems like he could probably be sent elsewhere as well. Their veteran players have some big contracts that might be tough to move, and I don’t expect them to even consider trading Anze Kopitar or Drew Doughty, but this still feels like a team whose complete teardown is imminent.

6. Florida Panthers — This is a team to watch because they are clearly trying to position themselves for a run at some big free agents this summer. There is the rumor that they are interested in trying to strike now and get Bobrovsky away from Columbus to sign him before he hits the open market, they are a potential landing spot for Panarin, and they have a few UFAs they can move for more draft picks, including Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan who were acquired in the big blockbuster with Pittsburgh. Will they ship out even more money in an effort to clear even more salary cap space? TSN’s Frank Seravalli mentioned the possibility of Jonathan Huberdeau on Monday, the type of move that would almost certainly indicate they would be all in on free agency.

[Related: PHT’s 2019 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker]

7. Boston Bruins — Simply put, they have to find some secondary scoring. All of their offense comes from the same five players — Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, David Krejci, and Torey Krug. They are all great, but five players alone producing offense will not get you very far in the playoffs. Especially against the teams they will have to face on their potential postseason path.

8. Pittsburgh Penguins — Jim Rutherford tends to strike early before the trade deadline, and he has done that with a few moves already this season (Tanner Pearson, sending Jamie Oleksiak back to Dallas, the big trade with the Florida Panthers) but I just don’t see him being done. He has never done. He is always tinkering with his roster and this roster right now, as currently constructed, is not where the Penguins expect it to be. Almost anything is on the table with this team.

9. Chicago Blackhawks — A lot of this is dependent on what they can do with some veteran players that have no-trade clauses, specifically Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, but there are a lot of bloated contracts here that they should explore moving. Not only Seabrook, but also perhaps Anisimov and Brandon Saad.

10.  Washington Capitals — I can’t imagine the defending champs are happy with the way this season has gone over the past few weeks or with the current state of their defense. That has to be high atop their shopping list as they look to make a repeat run at the Stanley Cup. I can’t see them doing anything drastic, but they could definitely use a move or two.

MORE: Defense should top Capitals’ shopping list

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.

Flyers’ winning streak ends in dramatic fashion

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With a minute remaining in Thursday’s contest against the Los Angeles Kings, it seemed like the Philadelphia Flyers would finally see their eight-game winning streak end.

It ultimately did, but not in regulation. Jakub Voracek scored the tying goal with just 17.6 seconds left, sending the contest into overtime. The overtime period featured plenty of drama, including a tremendous save by Anthony Stolarz, but the game required a shootout.

And even the shootout was pretty exciting.

For one thing, Claude Giroux made some beautiful moves to score in the shootout, and Philly held a brief lead. It looked like the Flyers would extend the streak to nine games, but then an Adrian Kempe shot that at first seemed to hit the post actually was a goal. Ultimately, Los Angeles won the shootout, earning a 3-2 (SO) victory, with Drew Doughty jawing at the Flyers.

Maybe it feels a little silly for a Kings team that is destined to hit the links by April, yet considering all that late drama, it was pretty understandable.

Here are some of the big moments.

1. Voracek’s goal. Jonathan Quick didn’t really stand a chance.

2. Stolarz save, even without his stick.

3. Tyler Toffoli‘s shootout-winner.

The Kings don’t have much to look forward to beyond getting answers around the trade deadline, and the Flyers still face such a steep climb that it’s tough to imagine a full run to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but this was an exciting way for Philly to see its exhilarating run end.

And, hey, the point streak is still going.

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.

Can Babcock, Maple Leafs get most out of Muzzin?

In my opinion, there’s really no question that the Toronto Maple Leafs improved by trading for defenseman Jake Muzzin. Instead, it’s a matter of: how much better does Muzzin make the Maple Leafs?

Without getting into the grittier details, it’s easy to look at this as a black-and-white thing: Muzzin’s a proven top-four defenseman (sometimes looking downright elite), and that’s the area where Toronto needed to improve the most. The fact that he’s locked up through next season, and at an affordable cap hit of just $4 million, makes the deal even sweeter. The Maple Leafs were even proactive in getting him about a month before the trade deadline, allowing Muzzin that much more time to get used to his new (and colder) surroundings.

That’s the thing, though: it might take some time to find the ideal fit.

[Kings trading Muzzin could be beginning of a teardown]

Lots of left, not much right

The Maple Leafs’ best three defensemen are all left-handed: Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, and Jake Gardiner. Some might argue that Travis Dermott – another LHD – may rank as their fourth-best option. (If not, there’s Ron Hainsey as the fourth guy, a left-handed defenseman who’s played quite a bit on the right side.)

In a perfect world, the Maple Leafs would have a balanced mix of lefties and righties on defense, but instead the right-handed options stick out like sore thumbs: Nikita Zaitsev and Igor Ozhiganov have their issues.

So something has to give. The Leafs have initially announced that Muzzin will pair up with high-scoring blueliner Rielly. That makes beautiful sense from a stylistic standpoint – Muzzin’s both a versatile and sturdy defenseman – but will it work out when handedness is taken into account? Maybe just as importantly, will Mike Babcock be able to stomach the bad that comes with the good?

Such a process may require some experimentation, and learning the right dance moves could make for some offbeat, awkward moments.

Experience on the right

Former Kings coach Darryl Sutter told the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons that Muzzin has “never” played the right side.

“Anybody who says he’s played the right side isn’t watching the games,” Sutter said. “He’s played zero times on the right side in L.A. I know they’re looking for the perfect guy to pair with (Morgan) Rielly. He might be that guy, but maybe Rielly has to switch to the other side.

“Some guys are better rushing on their off-side. You see a lot of left guys playing the right side but you don’t see a lot of right (shooters) playing their off side. It’s just the way it is.”

One common critique of Muzzin is that he’s been propped up by right-hander Drew Doughty (although others would argue the opposite), yet Muzzin’s actually skated most frequently with fellow LHD Alec Martinez, as you can see from Natural Stat Trick. Martinez had been the one who had played on the right side, and it sounds like Rielly will at least start off that way.

In a breakdown of Muzzin’s fit, The Athletic’s James Mirtle also notes (sub required) that Gardiner never really became comfortable playing on his off-side, so it’s possible that Babcock will be best off seeing which defenseman (Muzzin or Rielly) ends up most comfortable in such a situation.

There’s the risk that Rielly’s red-hot season might cool if he’s placed in a less-than-ideal scenario.

Babcock’s certainly familiar with these questions, even beyond his time with the Maple Leafs. Such questions undoubtedly came up during his Red Wings days, and also during international competition:

Give and take

In case you’re wondering, there is some data to back up coaches’ misgivings about pairing up two lefties (or in less frequent cases, two righties), rather than the typical, Adam Oates-friendly scenario. Back in 2014, Matt Cane did a deep dive to find such a drop-off, although he also noted at Puck Plus Plus that defensemen on their off-side also tend to see a jump in shooting percentage.

It’s all logical enough: it might be tougher to make breakout passes/exit your zone with two lefties, yet there are certain one-timer opportunities that could also sprout up for the defenseman on that off-side.

Some of this stuff might make your brain hurt a bit, but the bottom line is that the Maple Leafs look stronger in their top four with Muzzin replacing one of Hainsey or Zaitsev, and they probably look a lot stronger.

Interestingly, the Maple Leafs’ situation really isn’t that much different from their rivals in Tampa Bay, either.

If you look at the Lightning’s top defensemen, most of them are LHD: Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and as he progresses and earns Jon Cooper’s trust, Mikhail Sergachev. That’s especially true if Anton Stralman‘s lost a few steps, and since Dan Girardi‘s not really the sort of defenseman you want playing big minutes against the Marners and Matthews of the world.

For all we know, Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas might even have another trick up his sleeve, such as landing potential RHD and trade target Dougie Hamilton, although that would be quite the trick considering Toronto’s limited cap space.

Either way, having “too many” strong, left-handed defensemen sure beats not having enough.

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.

Muzzin trade should be the beginning of Kings’ teardown

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When the Los Angeles Kings traded defenseman Jake Muzzin to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday evening they took an important step toward doing something that was probably a year or two overdue — turning the page on their past glory and starting to finally look toward the future.

It’s time. It’s beyond time. Waiting any longer would have put this team in an even deeper hole that would have taken even longer to get out of.

Since winning their second Stanley Cup in 2014 the Kings have been stuck in neutral in the NHL’s worst possible place — the middle ground — somewhere between a contender and a lottery team, desperately trying to squeeze out whatever is left of an aging core by adding more aging pieces to it (Dion Phaneuf, Ilya Kovalchuk, Carl Hagelin, etc).

Yes, they made the playoffs twice since that last championship.

They also managed to win only a single game in those two appearances, losing in five games to a Sharks team that went on to win the Western Conference in 2016, then getting swept by the Vegas Golden Knights a year ago in a series that wasn’t anywhere near as close as the scoreboard. The two teams were playing a different sport for the four games, and while the Kings didn’t give up much, they never even seemed like they were close to scoring or were capable of doing anything to make Marc-Andre Fleury sweat even a little bit.

[Related: Maple Leafs bolster back end, trade for Muzzin]

In between those two emphatic first-round exits were two non-playoff seasons. More than halfway through the 2018-19 season they are tumbling toward another spring that will be spent at home.

Big picture, this has been an alarmingly mediocre team for going on five years now. Since the start of the 2014-15 season the Kings are 17th in regular season wins, which is about as middle of the pack as a team can get.

The only two teams with fewer than the one postseason win the Kings have during that stretch are the Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres, and they only reason they have won fewer is because they haven’t actually made the playoffs.

It has become increasingly clear that there is a sizable gap between the Kings roster and the way it plays and the way the rest of the NHL is built. That gap is only widening, and the only way it’s going to get fixed is if management makes the painful decision to take a blowtorch to the roster.

Trading the 29-year-old Muzzin and his remaining contract ($4 million per year through the end of next season) is a start.

It can not be the end, and based on what general manager Rob Blake said after the trade it likely will not be.

“I don’t want to get into specifics of players, but we are actively looking at making moves for the future of the organization, yes,” said Blake, via the Los Angeles Times, when asked about trading more veteran players.

Quite honestly, there probably isn’t a veteran player on the roster that should be untouchable. Given that the only two key unrestricted free agents they have are Hagelin and Nate Thompson it seems reasonable to conclude that big-name, core players are part of those discussions.

The Kings are in a pretty dire situation here where they are not only old (the third oldest team in the league), but they have those players signed to long-term contracts. Looking at their current roster they have nine players already over the age of 30, with six of them age 33 or older. Almost all of those players are signed for at least the next two seasons at pretty sizable salary cap hits.

Kovalchuk, 35, has two years remaining on his current deal that pays him more than $6 million per season. Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown, both in their age 34 seasons, are signed for three more seasons after this one at a combined salary cap hit of more than $11 million per season (though Carter’s contract significantly reduces in terms of actual dollars because it was so front-loaded when it was signed).

All of this is going to make a rebuild even more complicated because they don’t have a ton to trade.

It seems highly unlikely that Anze Kopitar or Drew Doughty would ever go anywhere, not only because of their importance to the franchise but also because of their contracts (both of which contain no-move clauses).

Dumping Brown, Phaneuf and probably Kovalchuk would probably require significant amounts of retained salary, or perhaps even giving up something of value to dump what is left of those salaries.

The real value is probably going to be in trading players like Tyler Toffoli and Alec Martinez.

At 26 years old Toffoli is actually one of the “young” players on the Kings’ roster, and even though he is having a down year is still at least capable of being a 20-goal, 45-point winger. He is not a foundational piece or someone you would ever center a rebuild around, but a contender would absolutely find value in him especially at his $4.6 million salary cap hit the next through the end of next season.

Martinez is in a similar position in that he is still very good and has an attractive contract. There is no reason to think he could not fetch the Kings a package similar to what the Kings received from Toronto for Muzzin. Or at least close to it.

Then there is the elephant in the room that is starting goalie Jonathan Quick.

Quick is another one of those cornerstone pieces, along with Kopitar and Doughty, that helped bring two Stanley Cups to Los Angeles, and Kings fans should be forever grateful for that. But he’s also a player whose perceived value has probably almost always exceeded his actual on-ice value. He’s been great at times, and in the brightest spotlight when all eyes were on him. And that matters. But he’s also been just average at a lot of other times, and that matters, too.

The former always overshadowed the latter, and that still may be the case today.

He is 33 years old, has four years remaining on his contract, and given all of that is probably closer to the end of his career than his peak years. Given the potential enormity of this overhaul, it would probably be in their best interest to see if they can find a taker for that contract right now because they’re not going to be in a position to win in the coming seasons.

It might be painful, but it also might be necessary.

The Kings have been mediocre long enough. Now it’s time to take a step or two back because it is the only way they can actually move forward as an organization.

Trading Muzzin, a popular core player that helped win championships and was still signed beyond this season, was a start. It can not be where they stop.

More: PHT Power Rankings: 10 people that will impact the NHL playoff race

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.