MONTREAL - Toronto and Montreal each have a game-time decision to make on a defenceman - the Maple Leafs' Bryan McCabe and the Canadiens' Francis Bouillon.
Both will be evaluated before their game Thursday night at the Bell Centre to see if they can play.
McCabe, who has been out with a broken left hand since Toronto's last visit to Montreal on Dec. 15, says he's ready to go.
"It swells up when I do stuff, but that's expected," said McCabe. "There'll be time for it to heal normally in the summer, but I think it's good enough to go."
Coach Paul Maurice said he would wait until McCabe gets to the rink on Thursday evening to see how the hand reacts to having taken part in the morning skate with the team.
"The healing's done, everything's where it's supposed to be, it's a question of comfort level for him," said Maurice, who appeared to be leaning toward putting McCabe back in the lineup. "He was probably feeling well enough a few days ago."
Bouillon is nursing a sore foot after blocking a shot in a 4-3 win over Ottawa on Tuesday night.
Coach Guy Carbonneau said that if Bouillon can't play, winger Michael Ryder will return to the lineup after sitting out two games. Mathieu Dandenault would then likely move from forward back to defence.
Defenceman Roman Hamrlik will miss a second straight game with an illness.
"It's a virus and I guess he caught a rash from the pills," said Carbonneau. "A lot of it is precaution. Obviously we don't want him to be around the other players. From what I hear, he feels a little bit better, so there's a good chance for (him to return) this weekend."
With the season all but lost and interim coach Doug Weight navigating through troubled waters, the Isles have an opportunity to put their kids to the test
Doug Weight got his first win as interim coach of the New York Islanders last night, as his charges took out their disappointing Western cousins, the Dallas Stars. Even with the win, New York finds itself mired at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. True, the team has games in hand over many squads, but they are still close to dead in the playoff race, with only Buffalo behind them in the East.
Here at THN, we had higher hopes for the Islanders heading into the season. Our pre-season predictions had them third in the Metropolitan Division, but clearly the loss of Frans Nielsen was greater than expected and the substitution of Kyle Okposo with Andrew Ladd did not quite work out. It happens.
So what do the Islanders do for the rest of the season? I would suggest they find out what they really have in their organization. New York has been criticized for not playing its young guys enough and while you can get into a pretty good circular argument about whether results come from ice time or ice time comes from results, this may be a golden opportunity to find some answers.
Ryan Strome has been the poster boy for the Islanders' development problems and for what it's worth, he was one of the team's best 5-on-5 possession players against Dallas. His 71 percent Corsi For percentage was much better than his season average of 44 percent. And sure; it's one game, the smallest of all sample sizes. But Strome also had more ice time than his season average (16:18 vs. 14:27, though he's been trending upward), so that's a positive sign. Rookie Anthony Beauvillier was also an even possession player and although he played just 11:28, I'm not as concerned with him, since he's still a teenager. In Strome, there are big questions about his future with the organization and I'm not going to come down on either side of the fence here, because I believe giving the youngster bigger, harder minutes (he already gets plenty of power play time) would be the perfect acid test. If he passes, then fired coach Jack Capuano may have been the problem. If he fails, then you trade him away to a team that believes Strome just needs a change of scenery. Get an asset in return – like the Isles did when they dealt Griffin Reinhart to Edmonton for picks, one of which became Matt Barzal – and move on.
And perhaps the Islanders call a couple kids up, just to see what they can do at the NHL level. Defenseman Devon Toews will be playing at the AHL All-Star Classic in his rookie pro season, so why not give him a look later in the campaign? Similarly, Michael Dal Colle and Josh Ho-Sang are two of the bigger names in the pipeline, but we haven't seen either in the NHL yet. Admittedly, I've only watched Bridgeport once this season, but I don't think that giving them a couple of games in The Show would foment a sense of entitlement – think of it as motivation. A call-up in 2016-17 is no guarantee of a roster spot in 2017-18.
If the Islanders can find takers for some of their veterans at the trade deadline, perhaps these kiddie call-ups happen organically anyway. But for an organization that has a lot of money and roster spots tied up in a mediocre bunch, the Islanders need to figure out the next step. And this lost season is the perfect time to do it.
The Bruins have dropped back-to-back games to non-playoff teams, resulting in calls for coach Claude Julien’s job. But Julien has continuously put the Bruins in a position to win, and firing him now could be a big mistake.
Claude Julien has been here before. When the Bruins missed the post-season in 2014-15, there were calls for his job. Again, narrowly missing the playoffs in 2015-16, it was believed he was on the hot seat. And now, with Boston dropping back-to-back games to opponents who are deeper in the lottery hunt than they are in the mix for post-season play, the talk of the Bruins showing Julien the door has started to heat up again.
It’s not hard to understand the argument from a pure wins and losses standpoint, which is what the game boils down to at its very core. The Bruins are 48 games into their season and only barely holding on to the second spot in the Atlantic Division. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators are nipping at Boston’s heels and faring better than the Bruins when it comes to points percentage.
And looking at recent results, the argument stands. Boston has lost to the New Jersey Devils, Carolina Hurricanes, Nashville Predators, New York Islanders and Detroit Red Wings — five non-playoff teams — in their past 10 games. Winnable games are turning into head-shaking losses and none have been quite as confounding as the Bruins squandering a three-goal lead heading into the second period against the Red Wings on Wednesday.
Despite back-to-back defeats, which have been paired with poor performances, the Bruins would do well to take a deep breath, look at the bigger picture and keep moving forward with Julien at the helm.
While the results have left much to be desired, Boston has been anything but poor in terms of putting themselves in the best position to win games. The hockey world has come to learn over the past few seasons the importance of controlling play and grinding teams down with puck possession, and it’s by those metrics that the Bruins have been almost inarguably one of the league’s strongest teams.
Consider that this season, no team has been as outright dominant in the possession game at 5-on-5 as the Bruins. They currently boast a 55.3 percent Corsi For percentage, sitting even ahead of the same Los Angeles Kings who have built a reputation of being the league’s most savvy possession team. When breaking it down game by game, too, the Bruins have been incredible in terms of winning the possession battle. In 39 of the team’s 48 outings, Bruins have completed the game with a possession rate over 50 percent at 5-on-5. They’ve been remarkably strong at owning play at even strength.
So, what’s gone wrong? Well, you can start with the team’s shooting percentage, which is downright atrocious. As of Thursday, Boston sits 29th in the league with an abysmal 6.17 shooting percentage at 5-on-5 through 48 games. The only team who’s fared worse is the Florida Panthers, and that’s by a mere seven-hundredths of a percent. To put that into context, when it comes to shooting percentage, only five teams in the past five seasons have finished with a shooting percentage lower than the Bruins’ current rate.
One need look no further than Patrice Bergeron for an idea of how poorly things have gone in Boston when it comes to actually finding the back of the net. Bergeron, a 10 percent shooter throughout his career, is on pace to fire more shots on goal this season than in any campaign prior. At his average shooting percentage, one would expect him to net close to 30 goals. Instead, he’s 45 games through his season with 10 markers to his name and is shooting at 6 percent. Bergeron’s struggle has been indicative of the roster’s trouble as a whole.
Julien’s detractors may posit that possession doesn’t exactly mean the team is getting scoring chances, and that a number of these pucks could be fired from the outside or low-scoring areas. And while that’s somewhat true — Boston is averaging only 7.4 scoring chances per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, good for 22nd in the league — it’s not as though they’re allowing enough chances against that it should be coming back to bite them as hard as it has. The Bruins are allowing 6.62 scoring chances against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, and the only team with a better mark is the Minnesota Wild. The difference between the Wild and Bruins in scoring chances for? Little more than half a chance per 60 minutes, yet Minnesota has nine more points in the standings with five games in hand.
Patience is often difficult to have in situations such as the one facing Boston, but there’s no reason to believe this won’t right itself over the back half of the season. There’s even recent evidence to suggest the Bruins are playing in a way that still makes them as much a Stanley Cup contender as any other club. Both the 2011-12 and 2013-14 Kings had great possession numbers — 54.7 and 56.8, respectively — with 5-on-5 shooting percentages that either were the league-worst mark or close to it. Both seasons, the Kings turned things around come playoff time and proceeded to win the whole thing. The same went for scoring chances, too, as the Kings were among the leaders in scoring chance percentage at 5-on-5 in both of their Stanley Cup years. That’s the same company the Bruins are keeping, sitting seventh in the league at 52.8 percent.
Of course, there’s no guarantee the Bruins’ fortunes are going to change. The Kings have continued to remain near the top of the league in underlying numbers only to narrowly miss the post-season in 2014-15 before getting ousted in the first round this past season. In a game where a single bounce can decide who wins and who loses, sometimes all you can do is put yourself in the best position to have that bounce go your way. Right now, though, those bounces aren’t happening for Boston.
None of this is to mention that Julien has done an admirable job with a roster that boasts a mixture of high-end talent and questionable depth. Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and David Krejci are a stellar group of top forwards, but a bottom-six that consists of Riley Nash, Jimmy Hayes, Austin Czarnik and Tim Schaller isn’t all that inspiring. Defensively, the team is still working to get back from the loss of Dougie Hamilton, even with Brandon Carlo looking increasingly like a future top-pairing guy. And it’s hard to fault Julien for being stuck with backups who have won one of 11 games when Tuukka Rask has gotten the night off. That’s simply not his fault.
All this is to say that firing Julien isn’t the answer. It wasn’t in 2014-15, wasn’t in 2015-16 and it’s not now. If there’s a change to be made and the Bruins are set on getting a new voice behind the bench, let that come in the off-season, because Julien’s coaching chops have earned him the right to see this one through given the job he’s done with a roster that could be much worse off without him. If the Bruins are going to get out of this hole, it will be Julien who leads them out of it, and if this Boston team wants to make noise going forward, keeping Julien at the helm is the way to do it.
Jake Allen has been pulled in each of his past three starts and is mired in the worst slump of his career. But what causes a goaltender to hit a rough patch and how do they go about correcting it?
The recent difficulties facing Jake Allen have been well documented. Over the past month, he’s allowed 14 goals against in five appearances and he’s been pulled in each of his past three starts. None of those outings have been quite as agonizing as Allen’s attempt to right the ship on Thursday night, though.
Against the Capitals, Allen stepped in hoping to bounce back from three consecutive outings in which he served as Carter Hutton’s backup, but the night got away from Allen early. He allowed two goals on the first three shots against and, in a move rarely seen since Mike Keenan’s heyday behind an NHL bench, was pulled for little more than two minutes before going back into play. In the second, Allen allowed another two goals in less than eight minutes and was yanked again, this time for good.
Allen’s recent stretch of dreadful starts has seen him allow 13 goals against on 64 shots in roughly 129 minutes of play, and it’s getting to the point where the Blues are simply looking for an answer when it comes to Allen. Coach Ken Hitchcock said the team needs to find a way to “unlock” the 26-year-old.
But what goes through the mind of a goaltender who’s struggling to sometimes make even the most routine of saves?
“After a couple of screw ups, it’s common to try and play it safer, hang back and be hesitant,” said Matt Cuccaro, a performance coach with Telos SPC. “For someone to stay on their toes and continue to move well and be more assertive in those moments is key…You have to be willing to be that last man on the line and possibly let a few in the net.”
Being hesitant and failing to make plays quicker can undoubtedly lead to more mistakes. As those mistakes pile up, some athletes can deal with the difficulty of letting their errors go. Sports psychologist John Stevenson, whose stable of netminders includes Braden Holtby, said it’s not uncommon for a goaltender mired in a slump to start to feel the losses more than they should.
“A lot of guys take it personally as opposed to realizing it’s not a reflection on them,” said Stevenson. “But let’s just work on the on-ice behaviour that we’re seeing right now and address it. That’s what I try and do with the guys. They realize that it’s OK, you’re human, you’re going to make mistakes.”
Getting back to a run of good play can be difficult for even the best goaltenders. An important thing to realize, however, is that there are supports in place. Cuccaro said one of the most important things is the understanding that the sport itself isn’t “a solitary endeavor.” Athletes can lean on teammates, coaches and even outside sources to fight through difficult periods. And Stevenson agreed, pointing to something as simple as a tap on the pads or some words of encouragement as something that can help a goaltender shake a bad loss.
One of the most important tools, though, is getting back to basics and finding a positive headspace. Stevenson explained that during his goalie coaching days he’d perform drills with the goaltenders that he knew they excelled at or enjoyed. He’d do that even if the drill itself wasn’t correcting an issue plaguing the goaltender. Simple things like puck tracking drills or goal-setting can help, too. The confidence boost from a strong performance in a drill could sometimes be enough to shake them out of trouble.
Another of Stevenson’s methods is goal-setting, and it can be especially helpful after a bad game. If a goalie can point to a few tough goals against and indicate how they’d correct that mistake, it can help reframe the experience as a positive, a way to learn. And when it comes to positive thinking, that should be the case regardless of the result.
“You have to treat winning and losing the same,” Stevenson said. “For the goalies I work with the first thing we do is always focus on what you did well. Last night, I would be talking to Jake and telling him he went back in. There’s always something. ‘You had some really good days of practice, your pre-game routine was really good.’ Always start off with what they did well.”
And in the darkest of days, it can help to take it out of the goaltender’s hands and show them the positives. A simple highlight reel that shows a goaltender performing at his best, making saves in different scenarios and situations, can reinforce the idea that a slump is only that: a slump. “That’s something I do all the time because I want them to know this isn’t who they are,” Stevenson said. “When you’re giving them that (positive) image, it helps tremendously.”
The usual suspects -- Bergeron, Kopitar, and Toews -- appear to be out of the discussion for the Selke Trophy. Here are five names that seem to have the best chance at stepping in.
When it comes to handing out hardware at the NHL Awards, the Selke hasn't been all that tough to figure out in recent seasons. For the last five years, the same three players have dominated the voting. Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews have accounted for all five wins, as well as eleven of the fifteen finalist spots.
But this year is shaping up like it could be different, with all three players slumping offensively. Maybe that shouldn't matter, since the Selke is supposed to be a defensive award. But over the years, it's morphed into a trophy that recognizes two-way play, which means you need to be scoring to get much consideration. If you pro-rate the lockout year, nobody has won the Selke with fewer than 55 points in the salary cap era. None of the Big Three are on pace to get there this year.
With half a season left to play, that could still change. And it's always possible that in the absence of a slam dunk candidate emerging somewhere else, voters could opt to play it safe and go back to one of the old familiars. But for the first time in years, the Selke really does seem up for grabs.
So who has a shot? Assuming that Bergeron, Toews or Kopitar don't take the trophy home this time, here are the five names that seem to have the best chance at stepping in.
Ryan Kesler, Ducks
The case for: The veteran is having his best season since 2011, and is on pace for about 65 points while playing tough minutes for a first-place Ducks team. His advanced stats won't blow anyone away, but they're good enough that the analytics guys shouldn't push back too hard, and everyone loves a good comeback narrative.
The case against: While it wouldn't be held against him by voters, Kesler doesn't really fit our "new blood" theme; he was the last player to win the award before the Bergeron/Toews/Kopitar trinity took over, and he finished third in the voting last year.
More importantly, there's at least an argument to be made that linemate Andrew Cogliano deserves the award, too. If that line of thinking catches on, the two could end up splitting votes and knocking each other out of the running.
Mikko Koivu, Wild
The case for: While it's meant as a single-season award, voters tend to like to treat the Selke as more of a career achievement; it's rare for somebody to win the award without having built up a resume over the years. That works in Koivu's favor, as he's been considered a strong defensive forward for a decade now, finishing as high as fourth in the Selke voting back in 2009. He hasn't come especially close since, but he's had votes every year.
New coach Bruce Boudreau has leaned heavily on Koivu in the defensive zone, and his ability to handle the duties has been a big part of Minnesota's unexpected success. With the Wild emerging as one of the one of the year's best surprises, voters will be paying attention.
The case against: Koivu's all-around numbers are good but not great, and he's benefitting from a sky-high on-ice save percentage and PDO that's unlikely to continue. With Devan Dubnyk looking like the Vezina favorite and Boudreau having a shot at the Jack Adams, voters might figure that their ballots are already getting crowded with Wild names.
The case for: Backlund seems to have emerged as a trendy dark horse pick in recent weeks. It's well-deserved: his numbers are excellent, and he's posting them in tough minutes for a young Flames team that asks a lot of him. His offensive numbers aren't jaw-dropping, but he's leading the team in scoring, and that should be enough to satisfy those "two-way" demands if he can keep it up.
The case against: While Backlund's been an underrated defensive player for a while now, he's never received a Selke vote. Again, you can argue that that shouldn't matter, but history has shown that it does. That could make it tough for him to get enough votes to win outright.
Aleksander Barkov, Panthers
The case for: At 21, Barkov would fit the new blood narrative perfectly. And he's already on voters' radars after finishing sixth in last year's balloting. He checks most of the boxes that voters tend to look for, posting solid offensive stats and strong possession numbers. And in a season where the biggest story has been the emergence of the next generation of star players, you could see the voters turning to one of the best young two-way forwards in the game.
The case against: Barkov is hurt right now and has already missed two weeks, so if he's not back soon he probably falls out of the running. He's also been playing a more offensive role this year under new coach Tom Rowe, which may be good for the Panthers, but probably not for his Selke chances. And given how things are turning out in Florida this year, voters may not be interested in having many Panther names on their ballot.
Nicklas Backstrom, Capitals
The case for: If building up enough support to win the award is a long-term process, this could be your guy. Backstrom generated plenty of Selke buzz last year, but finished just outside the top ten for the second straight year. It helps that he's putting up the sort of big offensive number that voters like to see. And after years of largely playing in Alex Ovechkin's shadow, he seems to be settling in as one of those guys that everyone in the hockey world decides has been underrated for too long. What better way to make it up to him than with some awards ballot love?
The case against: In terms of pure numbers, you could make a good case that Backstrom's defensive game was better last year than it is now. That won't necessarily hurt him with voters who feel like he's finally due, but it could keep him from getting the kind of widespread groundswell of support that would help push him past a strong candidate like Kesler.
Honorable mentions (and why they won't win):
- Brad Marchand (Bruins): He's getting some buzz, and has earned votes in the past. But has he really become a better option than Bergeron right now? And if not, how can you win the Selke when you're not the best defensive forward on your own team?
- Nazem Kadri (Maple Leafs): He's a relatively new candidate who'll face the same uphill climb as Backlund, with the added disadvantage that plenty of people don't seem to like him.
- Sidney Crosby (Penguins): He's been underrated in his own end for years, and you could see him getting some consolation ballots if voters decided to break for Connor McDavid for the Hart. But right now, the Crosby focus is still on the MVP race.
- Joe Thornton (Sharks): He gets votes every year and finally had his first top five finish last season, so the timing seems right. But his offensive numbers are down this year.
- Ryan O'Reilly (Sabres): He's been in the mix before. But the Sabres' disappointing season may doom him; there's never been a first-time Selke winner from a team that didn't make the playoffs.
- Jordan Staal (Hurricanes): He'd face the same hurdle as O'Reilly if the Hurricanes miss the playoffs, although these days that seem less and less likely. He may have the best case of anyone in this section.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.