Joel Quenneville

Dual-role players? Defensemen as wingers show it can be done

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Brendan Smith caught his breath for a few seconds on the bench before New York Rangers coach David Quinn called his name again.

Smith had just skated a shift as a defenseman and was needed at forward, too. The natural defenseman hopped over the boards and got back on the ice at a different position.

”The more I do it, I get more comfortable,” he said.

Smith is one of a couple of throwback-style players bouncing between forward and defense this season. He and Florida’s Mark Pysyk are the latest to follow the lead of Hall of Famers Red Kelly and Mark Howe and present-day Brent Burns and Dustin Byfuglien, and their experience could open the door for more multiposition players in a sport that usually defines being a center, wing or defenseman very specifically.

”It’s definitely different,” Pysyk said. ”I think guys at this level probably could make the switch given enough time to get comfortable with their new position because everybody skates well.”

Kordell Stewart earned the nickname ”Slash” by playing quarterback and wide receiver in the NFL and slugger/pitcher Shohei Otani can star for the Los Angeles Angels in multiple ways in baseball. But specialization in hockey starts early as it does in other sports – forwards, defensemen and goalies all tend to be identified as such at a young age.

Smith as recently as Thursday shifted from his regular wing position back to defense to fill amid injuries, and the same night, Pysyk – back for another stint at forward – scored his third goal of the season. For one game in November, (almost) lifelong defenseman Tyler Lewington played a few shifts up front for the salary-cap strapped Washington Capitals when they could only dress 11 forwards.

”There’s a lot more to a forward’s game than I thought before,” said Lewington, 25, who hadn’t played forward since he was 10. ”It’s something that’s not easy.”

This kind of thing was more common in the 1920s and ’30s, Kelly played his first 12-plus seasons in Detroit as a defenseman and next eight-plus in Toronto as a forward, winning the Stanley Cup eight times – four at each position. Howe played his first three World Hockey Association seasons as a left winger alongside dad Gordie and brother Marty before switching to defense full-time.

Before video was more prevalent, Howe used to watch game replays late at night to figure out how to hone his game on the blue line. He made the Hall of Fame primarily for his time as a defenseman. Before and after his transition, he noticed differences like fewer scoring chances in practice as a defenseman – and more idle time on the bench as a forward biding his time for the next shift.

Now pro scouting director with the Detroit Red Wings, Howe called Smith the perfect example of a player who can adjust to the variations of playing forward and defense.

”(As a defenseman) it’s more of a game of you go when you can, but you have to be responsible defensively. You have to learn to read and when to jump up in the play,” Howe said. ”As a forward, you’re learning at key points of the game: ‘When do you try to make a play? When is it a smart play to dump the puck in the corner? When you definitely not want to turn a puck over?’ And with both (positions), you take different chances.”

While Pysyk hadn’t played defense since he was 6 or 7 until earlier this season, Quinn knew from recruiting Smith to Boston University that this dual role was possible. Quinn asked Smith last season to try it, and it worked so well that it has stuck, with Smith also killing penalties as a defenseman.

”You’ve got a guy who obviously plays forward 5-on-5 but he’s been one of our better (penalty) killing defensemen,” Quinn said. ”It gives you a little bit of flexibility on your roster, which is always nice game in and game out.”

Three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville trusts Pysyk the same way. He won the Cup in 2010 with Chicago moving Byfuglien back and forth and using the combination of his big frame, hard shot and smooth skating as an advantage.

”That versatility was a great asset to have in playoff series,” Quenneville recalled. ”Sometimes you could put him on a forward line to create space, I’d like to say, on power play (as a) net-front presence, but then you’ve got a big shot at the point. You could multitask with him in the course of the games.”

The same was possible for Burns when he played forward and defense with Minnesota earlier in his career. He became a full-time defenseman before a 2011 trade to San Jose and won the Norris Trophy as the best player at that position in 2017.

Quenneville likes having a defenseman at forward at times because they tend think of the game more conservatively.

”They usually have that mindset of being above the puck, so they keep themselves in the play, and defensively they have that responsibility,” Quenneville said. ”You get to handle the puck a little bit more, but I think they’re always in that position where offensively they’re complementing the guys they’re playing with, being either the safety guy or the extra guy that’s always going to be in the right spots.”

Pysyk, who’d prefer to play defense but can do both, is still getting used to the idea that he is not always the last guy back.

”It’s weird seeing a pass go past you and then chasing it from the other end,” he said.

Smith, who is in his 10th NHL season, is more comfortable on defense but thinks he could be a ”slash” player if need be.

”The biggest adjustment would be to change your mindset of defensive to offensive and knowing where to be at the right time because there’s so many moving parts,” Smith said. ”The hardest part is making sure that you can mentally prepare yourself for it.”

Vegas Golden Knights forward Reilly Smith sees his brother playing two different positions and knows he – and many others – wouldn’t be able to handle it.

”I can’t skate backward, can’t stop anyone,” Reilly Smith said. ”It takes a lot of versatility to be able to do that.”

Panthers still aren’t getting money’s worth with Bobrovsky

Panthers Bobrovsky
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Few teams needed better goaltending more than the Florida Panthers last summer. So, when Sergei Bobrovsky hit the free agent market, the Panthers ignored red flags like age and a mixed 2018-19 season to snatch Bob up.

On paper, the move makes a ton of sense. The Panthers disappointed last season, yet there was a feeling of “… But what if they could just get some stops?” Then, poof here comes a seemingly perfect opportunity. Goalies of Bobrovsky’s caliber rarely hit the open market. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time a two-time Vezina winner became available at least somewhat close to their prime years, yet there Bobrovsky was.

But, again, there were some red flags flashing.

During a busy Saturday afternoon in the NHL, the hockey world got a reminder that you don’t always get what you pay for when you hand $10 million per year to a goalie, even one as accomplished as Bobrovsky.

[Bobrovsky wasn’t off to a great start, in particular.]

Panthers pull Bobrovsky against Sabres

The Panthers likely already entered the first intermission vs. Buffalo with serious frustration. Despite managing an 11-5 shots on goal advantage through 20 minutes, the Sabres managed a 1-0 lead.

Things spiraled out of control for Bobrovsky and the Panthers during the middle frame, as Bob allowed two more goals. Joel Quenneville saw enough, pulling Bobrovsky after the 31-year-old gave up three goals on just seven SOG.

Blaming Bobrovsky alone is unfair, as he could only do so much. Take, for example, this Conor Sheary 2-0 goal:

 

Still, there’s only so much you can do when a goalie barely stops more than half of the attempts he faces.

Bobrovsky giving Panthers more of the same numbers

Teams who allow too many goals face chicken-and-the-egg arguments. That’s often fitting, really, because usually the problems are a mix: goalies should stop more pucks, but their teams could put them in better situations.

Panthers GM Dale Tallon either misdiagnosed the problem as mostly goalie-related, or was throwing up a Hail Mary pass that Bobrovsky could save his bacon.

Either way, it’s painful to note how similar the Panthers’ problems are despite throwing a ton of money and resources at goaltending.

Heading into Saturday, Bobrovsky sported a putrid .897 save percentage. Adjusting for context only helps so much; Bob’s -10.94 goals saved against average languishes among the worst in the NHL. By that standard at Hockey Reference, Bob has only been slightly more effective than the likes of Jonathan Quick and Martin Jones, starters suffering through profoundly miserable seasons.

Such numbers parallel the season-sinking work of James Reimer and Roberto Luongo from 2018-19. Uncomfortably so.

Also uncomfortable: comparing 2018-19 Reimer with the 2019-20 version. Nestled in the Carolina Hurricanes cocoon, Reimer improved his save percentage to .914 versus last season’s rough .900 mark. Reimer’s career average is also .914, making you wonder what happened in Florida — though it’s crucial to remember that, as always, “goalies are voodoo.”

Nature versus nurture

When the Panthers hired Quenneville, they described Coach Q as “transformative.” So far, the Panthers’ overall play seems … mostly middle of the pack?

The Panthers give the impression of probably deserving a little bit better from goaltending, but by how much? What portion of the blame goes to Bobrovsky and other goalies versus the team around them?

Panthers outscore some, but not all, of their problems

Florida deserves credit for hanging around the East playoff bubble considering their troubles stopping pucks.

While allowing a third-worst 3.35 goals against per game (before Saturday) qualifies as worrisome, the Panthers also rank third-best with 3.55 goals for per game. The Panthers generate more goals than they allow, so maybe the situation isn’t so dire.

Perhaps the Panthers’ well-compensated coach can turn enough knobs to make life easier for their well-compensated goalie?

After performances like Saturday’s dud against Buffalo, it’s easy to get pessimistic about Bobrovsky. An optimist may counter that Florida isn’t that far away from finding the right balance.

Unfortunately, a realist will note that the Panthers wouldn’t be in the playoffs if they began right now, and face a significant hill to climb in an Atlantic Division that’s starting to look stacked once again — at least at the top.

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.

Panthers’ Stralman returns to game after being bloodied by puck to head

Florida Panthers defenseman Anton Stralman got a real scare when he was bloodied by a puck to the head on Monday. While Stralman managed to brace for the puck a bit by lowering his head so it struck his helmet, it was still a scary scene.

You can witness that scary moment in the video above this post’s headline.

Stralman shrugs off being bloodied

Remarkably, Stralman didn’t need to be hospitalized right after the Lightning’s 6-1 win against Florida on Monday. In fact, Stralman returned to the game.

Muttering “hockey players are tough” can often come off as needy but … honestly, what else can you say?

Panthers coach Joel Quenneville provided a positive update on Stralman, as The Athletic’s George Richards reports (sub required).

“They did a pretty good job of sewing him up,” Quenneville said. “He is OK, but he took quite a gash. It’s a pressure cut, he got hit in just the right spot. He is very lucky.”

The Tampa Bay crowd cheered on Stralman as he was able to leave the ice with some help. The moment must have been even more comfortable than usual — which is saying something — as Stralman is only recently removed from his days as a defenseman with the Lightning. Former teammate Ryan McDonagh shot the puck, while Victor Hedman checked on Stralman.

Lightning and Panthers now neck-and-neck

The Lightning ended Florida’s three-game winning streak, and closed some distance between them. Tampa Bay improved to 18-13-4 (40 points in 35 games played). The Panthers lead the Bolts with their 18-13-5 record (41 points in 36 GP), but not by much.

As important as the game was for both sides, it’s a relief that Stralman seemingly avoided anything major. At least, it seems that way so far.

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 Power Rankings: Flames on the rise

NHL Power Rankings Calgary Flames
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In this week’s NHL Power Rankings the Metropolitan is still the league’s most dominant division, the defending champs are still picking up wins, while the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers both hit a little bit of a slump to fall a few spots.

One team on the rise has been the Calgary Flames as they have collected at least one point in 10 of their past 11 games and are finally starting to make a move in the standings. They are 6-1-0 since Geoff Ward took over behind the bench, Johnny Gaudreau is starting to break out of a slump that saw him go 10 consecutive games without a goal earlier this season, and even Milan Lucic has chipped in offensively after going 27 consecutive games without a goal to open the season.

Given the lack of a truly dominant team in the Pacific Division this season they are still right in the thick of that race even after their slow start.

They make a move up to No. 7 this week.

Where does every other team sit this week?

To the rankings!

1. Colorado Avalanche. The league’s best top line is united again, they have scoring depth, they have a young superstar on defense, and they have earned a point in 14 of their past 17 games. The best team in hockey.

2. Washington Capitals. John Carlson is still putting up absurd numbers and one of the most impressive offensive seasons ever for a defenseman.

3. New York Islanders. They will not score a lot of goals, but they give up nothing. It is working for them. Again.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins. They just keep finding ways to win and looking really good while doing so. Tristan Jarry has been their big star in recent weeks as he continues to earn playing time over Matt Murray.

5. St. Louis Blues. David Perron has stepped up in a big way to help fill the void offensively left by the absence of Vladimir Tarasenko.

6. Carolina Hurricanes. His performance is getting overshadowed by Carlson’s points production in Washington, but Dougie Hamilton is putting together a Norris-caliber season for the Hurricanes.

7. Calgary Flames. They have collected 19 out of a possible 22 points in their past 11 games to climb to within two points of first place in the Pacific Division. They are one of the hottest teams in the league.

8. Boston Bruins. Over an 82-game regular season even the very best teams are going to go cold on occasion. The Bruins hit one of those stretches lately. Nothing to be concerned about.

9. Winnipeg Jets. Every year there is that one team whose success comes out of nowhere and makes no sense. The Jets are that team this season.

10. Dallas Stars. No team in the league gives up fewer goals per game than the Stars. Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin are having outstanding years in net.

11. Minnesota Wild. Eric Staal recorded his 1,000th career point over the weekend, a testament to his longevity and productivity. But it’s not just about playing for a long time, either. He was a truly dominant offensive player early in his career. You might think this spot is too high for the Wild, but they have been one of the league’s best teams for the past month-and-a-half.

12. Arizona Coyotes. They have the defense and goaltending. They just need a little more offense.

13. Vegas Golden Knights. They were always better than their early record indicated. Now the results are starting to show up to prove it.

14. Philadelphia Flyers. The most hot-and-cold team in the league. They enter the week having lost four out of five while being outscored by a 20-10 margin.

15. Tampa Bay Lightning. Do you know what would really help here? If Andrei Vasilevskiy started to play like the Vezina caliber goalie that he is.

16. Toronto Maple Leafs. They had a great west coast road trip that saw them take six out of eight points. Thankfully for them the Atlantic Division has been so bad this season that their slow start did not totally bury them.

17. Buffalo Sabres. They enter the week in second place in the Atlantic, have one of the league’s best players who is playing the best hockey of is life, and have still lost more games (18, including overtime and shootout games) than they’ve won (16). If they make the playoffs Jack Eichel will be in the MVP discussion. He should be even if they do not.

18. Vancouver Canucks. Quinn Hughes is going to be a superstar, but he needs a lot of help on the blue line if the Canucks are going to take the next step in their rebuild.

19. Montreal Canadiens. Shea Weber is having an absolutely monster season and can still be an impact player.

20. New York Rangers. Artemi Panarin just keeps getting better and more productive. He is worth the price of admission all by himself.

21. Edmonton Oilers. They are trending in the wrong direction as this season starts to look disturbingly similar to the 2018-19 season.

22. Nashville Predators. They really miss Viktor Arvidsson. But will his return be enough to salvage what is one of the league’s most disappointing teams?

23. Florida Panthers. Joel Quenneville and Sergei Bobrovsky have not yet solved their goal prevention issues. When it comes to the former there is only so much a coach can do with the talent they have to work with. When it come to the latter, they have a lot of reason to be concerned given that contract.

24. San Jose Sharks. They clearly needed to change something, but a goalie is still probably the bigger priority over the coach.

25. Ottawa Senators. Anthony Duclair has been an incredible find for them and is showing what he can do with a real chance.

26. Anaheim Ducks. They have used eight players age 22 or younger this season, with six of them playing in at least 18 games. It is not a particularly good team, but at least they are giving their future a chance to play.

27. Chicago Blackhawks. They are a long way from contending again, and that loss on Saturday may have been rock bottom for them this season.

28. Los Angeles Kings. Jonathan Quick put together a couple of decent games for the first time this season. Does he have more of that in him?

29. Columbus Blue Jackets. John Tortorella was livid with his team’s effort against an undermanned Penguins team this past week, and for very good reason. It was bad. Then they followed it up by losing to Ottawa in overtime the next day. 

30. New Jersey Devils. Maybe it was time for a new voice behind the bench. That could be true. It is also true that the team given to him wasn’t good enough to compete.

31. Detroit Red Wings. They are four points behind New Jersey, the second-worst team in the league, even though they have played in three more games.

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.

The Buzzer: Eichel scores 4; Milestones for Stamkos, Coach Q

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Three Stars

1. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres. Entering play on Saturday the Sabres had lost seven of eight, were riding a six-game losing streak, and needed something to go their way to get things back on track. Their captain came to the rescue in a big way. Eichel scored four goals and provided all of the offense for the Sabres in a 4-2 win over the Ottawa Senators. It was the 10th four-goal game in Sabres franchise history and the first since Thomas Vanek did it during the 2009-10 season. It is already the the fourth four-goal game in the NHL this season, joining David Pastrnak, Anthony Mantha, and James Neal.

2. Derek Grant, Anaheim Ducks. Sometimes you need an unlikely hero to step up and the Ducks got that on Saturday when Grant scored three goals for his first career hat trick in a 4-1 win over the St. Louis Blues. The win snapped what had been a nine-game point streak for the Blues, as well as a five-game losing streak for the Ducks. Entering Saturday Grant had scored just two goals on the season and only 18 in 228 career games.

3. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche. The absence of linemates Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog has not slowed down MacKinnon one bit. He took over on Saturday night with two goals — including the overtime winner — and an assist in a 5-4 win for the Avalanche. His overtime goal was a highlight reel tally that helped the Avalanche secure the two points after allowing a two-goal lead to disappear in the final three minutes of regulation. He is now up to 29 points in his first 20 games this season and has three three-point games over the past five. Rookie defenseman Cale Makar also deserves some attention for his four-point game.

Two big milestones

Stamkos scores 400th goal. It came in a losing effort, but Steven Stamkos scored the 400th goal of his career on Saturday. It is a great accomplishment for one of the best goal-scorers of this era, and it also produces a pretty big “what if” question — how many goals would he have today had he not missed so many games in his peak seasons to significant injuries and a lockout? The only active player to hit the 400 goal mark in fewer games than Stamkos is Alex Ovechkin.

Quenneville wins 900th regular season game. Thanks to the Florida Panthers’ 4-3 win over the New York Rangers, Joel Quenneville became only the second coach in NHL history to record 900 regular season wins. Scotty Bowman is the only other coach to hit that number.

Other notable performances from Saturday

  • The Pittsburgh Penguins extended the Toronto Maple Leafs’ losing streak to five games in a dominant win. Evgeni Malkin and Dominik Kahun were the offensive stars for the Penguins as they dominated a Maple Leafs team that continues to look completely lost. Read all about this game here.
  • The Dallas Stars received big contributions from Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn as they overcame a two-goal third period deficit to beat the Edmonton Oilers in overtime. Read about how Seguin and Benn were difference-makers here.
  • Arizona Coyotes goalie Darcy Kuemper stopped all 38 shots he faced for his second shutout of the season. He also nearly sparked a goalie fight by slamming Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk to the ice. Read all about that game right here.
  • The Chicago Blackhawks no doubt remembered Pekka Rinne talking about what an “easy” game he had the first time he faced them this season. His night on Saturday was even easier because he only made it through half the game before being benched in a 7-2 rout. Alex Nylander scored two goals for the Blackhawks in the win.
  • Evgenii Dadonov scored two goals for the Panthers in their 4-3 win over the Rangers.
  • Andrei Svechnikov continued his strong sophomore season with an overtime winner for the Carolina Hurricanes. He is now up to nine goals this season.
  • Big win for the Winnipeg Jets against the Tampa Bay Lightning to improve to 8-3-1 in their past 12 games and remain surprisingly competitive in the NHL’s Central Division.
  • Here come the Sharks. Their 4-3 shootout win over the Detroit Red Wings improved their winning streak to six games.

Highlights of the Night

The New York Islanders’ point streak hit 14 games on Saturday (13-0-1) thanks to an incredible rally that saw them overcome a 3-0 deficit against the Philadelphia Flyers. Mathew Barzal scored the shootout winner and it was an absolute beauty of a goal.

The best shootout goal of the night, though, belonged to Washington Capitals forward Jakub Vrana for this Datsyuk-ian dangle to beat Jaroslav Halak in the fifth round of the shootout against the Boston Bruins. The Capitals won to improve to 14-3-4 on the season. That is the best record in the NHL.

We told you MacKinnon’s overtime winner was incredible, and here it is.

Blooper of the Night

It probably has to be that bizarre disallowed goal in Montreal where Phillip Danault, capping off a chaotic scramble around the goal line. Read all about it here.

Factoids

  • Jonathan Huberdeau now has more assists than any player in Panthers history. [NHL PR]
  • Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are the third set of teammates in the past 30 years to have at least 40 points through their team’s first 22 games of the season. [NHL PR]
  • Los Angeles Kings forward Jeff Carter skated in his 1,000th career game on Saturday, making him the 11th player from the 2003 draft class to reach that milestone. The only other draft class with that many was the 1979 draft class. The Kings were 4-3 winners over the Vegas Golden Knights on Carter’s big day. [NHL PR]

Scores

Carolina Hurricanes 4, Minnesota Wild 3 (OT)
Los Angeles Kings 4, Vegas Golden Knights 3
Dallas Star 5, Edmonton Oilers 4 (OT)
Arizona Coyotes 3, Calgary Flames 0
Winnipeg Jets 4, Tampa Bay Lightning 3
Washington Capitals 3, Boston Bruins 2 (SO)
Buffalo Sabres 4, Ottawa Senators 2
New Jersey Devils 4, Montreal Canadiens 3 (OT)
Florida Panthers 4, New York Rangers 3
New York Islanders, Philadelphia 3 (SO)
Pittsburgh Penguins 6, Toronto Maple Leafs 1
Anaheim Ducks 4, St. Louis Blues 1
Chicago Blackhawks 7, Nashville Predators 2
Colorado Avalanche 5, Vancouver Canucks 4 (OT)
San Jose Sharks 4, Detroit Red Wings 3 (SO)

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.