National Hockey League
MONTREAL CANADIENS-Signed RW Michael Ryder to a one-year contract.
National Hockey League
MONTREAL CANADIENS-Signed RW Michael Ryder to a one-year contract.
The Blue Jackets have been the most pleasant surprise in the NHL this season, but it's still going to take convincing for the hockey world to believe they're for real.
We’ll totally understand if you’re having just a little trouble getting on board with the 2016-17 version of the Columbus Blue Jackets. After all, you’ve probably been burned before.
Their fan base certainly seems to be wary. Despite the fact the Blue Jackets are the surprise of the NHL and have emerged as one of the most dynamic and exciting teams in the league, they drawn fewer than 12,000 in three of their past four home games. Even their coach thinks the team has work to do to earn their fans’ trust. “I want our team to have a chip on their shoulder,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella told Michael Arace of the Columbus Dispatch recently. “I think they should. We’re trying to get respect in the league. Quite honestly, we should be disrespected because of where we’ve been.”
That won’t last long if the Blue Jackets keep this up. The league’s best power play continues to fuel one of the league’s hottest teams and has landed them at the top of thn.com’s weekly Power Rankings for the second time this season. Last week’s rankings in parentheses:
CREAM OF THE CROP
1. Columbus Blue Jackets (8)
2. Philadelphia Flyers (15)
3. Pittsburgh Penguins (6)
4. St. Louis Blues (2)
5. Chicago Blackhawks (5)
6. Montreal Canadiens (7)
7. New York Rangers (4)
8. San Jose Sharks (11)
9. Boston Bruins (20)
10. Calgary Flames (27)
Is there a bigger bargain or a shrewder off-season signing than Sam Gagner?...Steve Mason went from one of the worst goalies in the NHL early in the season to one of the best of late. His save percentage in his first 16 games was .892, but has improved to .947 in his past five… If Marc-Andre Fleury wants to get traded, he’s not doing himself any favor with his play lately…The Blues completed a 4-0-1 home stand with the game going into overtime…With Jonathan Toews and Corey Crawford already out, the Blackhawks lost defenseman Brent Seabrook in their 4-0 win over Arizona Tuesday night…How will the Canadiens and the surprising Alexander Radulov respond to the injury to Alex Galchenyuk?...The injury-ravaged Rangers saw Rick Nash go down with a groin injury and Matt Puempel to a concussion in their 4-2 loss to the Islanders Tuesday night…Joe Thornton passed Brendan Shanahan for 25th all-time on the NHL’s scoring list with an assist in a 2-1 win over Montreal last week…Anyone who predicted David Pastrnak would be in Rocket Richard Trophy contention a third of the way into the season is looking very bright at the moment…The Flames were already one of the hottest teams in the NHL without Johnny Gaudreau, then won their first two with him back in the lineup.
THE MUSHY MIDDLE
11. Washington Capitals (11)
12. Edmonton Oilers (14)
13. Ottawa Senators (12)
14. Los Angeles Kings (1)
15. New Jersey Devils (23)
16. Detroit Red Wings (16)
17. Nashville Predators (3)
18. Minnesota Wild (19)
19. Anaheim Ducks (10)
20. Winnipeg Jets (17)
Capitals coach Barry Trotz had some pointed words to Alex Ovechkin about his penchant for taking minor penalties of late. No cracks in the foundation, though. Just a frank discussion…The Oilers game Tuesday night against Buffalo was touted as Connor McDavid vs. Jack Eichel, the kind of narrative the Oilers have learned to accept. “Every night it’s Connor vs. Somebody,” said Oilers coach Todd McLellan…Goalie Craig Anderson started in the Senators’ 8-5 loss to Pittsburgh Monday night, but did not travel with the team for a three-game California trip to be with his wife as she undergoes treatment for throat cancer…The usually stingy Kings have given up 11 goals in their past three games. “That’s too many goals,” said Kings coach Darryl Sutter…Devils winger Taylor Hall on the aftermath of his clean, but devastating, hit on Philip Larsen Tuesday night: “I feel terrible.” Not to be trite, but Hall should not be feeling terrible about the way he has played since returning from a knee injury. He has five points in his past two games…Goalie Jimmy Howard will be back in uniform for the Red Wings when they host Columbus Friday night, but will have a difficult time pushing Petr Mrazek out of the crease…After missing four games with an upper-body injury, James Neal scored a goal in a 4-3 Predators’ win over Colorado Tuesday night…Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk, whose career was revived when he came to Minnesota, will make his 300th career start tonight in Toronto…Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle could not pull Jonathan Bernier during his team’s 8-3 loss to Calgary because backup John Gibson was battling a stomach virus…Over the past 30 years, only Teemu Selanne and Alex Ovechkin have scored goals at a better pace than Patrik Laine of the Jets is scoring them now.
VYING FOR THE PARTICIPATION BADGE
21. New York Islanders (26)
22. Tampa Bay Lightning (22)
23. Carolina Hurricanes (25)
24. Buffalo Sabres (29)
25. Florida Panthers (24)
26. Vancouver Canucks (18)
27. Toronto Maple Leafs (13)
28. Dallas Stars (28)
29. Arizona Coyotes (21)
30. Colorado Avalanche (30)
With points in each of their past five games, four of them wins, the Islanders are easily on their most successful string of the season…The Lightning could get Ryan Callahan, Jason Garrison and Jonathan Drouin back for their home game against Vancouver Thursday night…Jordan Staal, sidelined for the past four games with a concussion, likely won’t be available to the Hurricanes for a three-game road trip through California that begins tonight…After playing almost 500 games in the minors, defenseman Erik Burgdoerfer made his NHL debut in the Sabres’ 3-2 overtime win over Washington Tuesday night… Panthers have gone to overtime in four of their five games GM Tom Rowe has been behind the bench. They’ve won one in overtime, lost two in OT and one in a shootout…Philip Larsen, who was taken off the ice on a stretcher after a hit from Taylor Hall Tuesday night, was released from hospital in New Jersey Wednesday morning and was cleared to return to Vancouver while the Canucks continue on a five-game road trip…After waiving Jhonas Enroth, the Maple Leafs search for a backup goalie continues. They signed Karri Ramo to a professional tryout contract and assigned him to their farm team. That should cure everything…The Coyotes have been outscored 14-6 and have averaged 41 shots against per game in an 0-3-1 month of December…All nine of Matt Duchene’s goals this season have come on the road. The Avs could use that kind of production at the Pepsi Center, where they’re 4-8-1 this season and recently went 0-4-1 on a five-game homestand.
The Rangers started the season as one of the league’s hottest teams, but have come back down to earth lately. Getting back on track will be a bit harder without the services of Rick Nash for the next week.
Another year, another ailment for Rick Nash, but luckily for the New York Rangers winger this one won’t be keeping him out of the lineup long-term.
Nash, 32, was forced to the leave the Rangers’ loss to the New York Islanders early on Tuesday, suffering a lower-body ailment that put him out of the game, and an MRI on Wednesday revealed that Nash will be sidelined for somewhere in the neighborhood of one week due to a groin injury.
Considering Nash was forced out of action due to the injury, that he’ll miss only one week is about as good as the news could be. Most Rangers fans would have thought the worst when Nash was forced to leave the game, especially given he missed nearly a quarter of the 2015-16 campaign due to a knee injury.
Being out for a week would force Nash, currently third on the Rangers in scoring behind J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes with 18 points, to miss anywhere from four to six games, depending when he’s feeling fit to return to action. Only one of those games are divisional games, which is a slight bonus, but the set of games against the Chicago Blackhawks is certainly a pair the Rangers could use Nash for, and getting by the New Jersey Devils and Winnipeg Jets without Nash in the lineup is going to require someone else stepping up.
Nash is in the midst of quite the bounce back season, too. While it may be a far cry from his remarkable 2014-15 campaign in which he scored a career-best 42 goals to go along with 69 points, Nash has already potted 11 goals this season and, prior to his injury, was on pace for another 30-goal campaign.
Even if Nash reaches the 20-goal mark this season, though, it would be a step up from his past campaign. He managed only 15 goals and 36 points in 2015-16, making for the lowest full-season goal total of his career.
Nash isn’t the only injury concern for the Rangers right now, however. New York will also be without Matt Puempel for the foreseeable future due to a concussion and Mika Zibanejad’s broken fibula will likely keep him out of action for at least another month, if not more.
The Rangers, who started the season as one of the league’s hottest teams, are just 4-5-1 in their past 10 games.
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Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland has thrown his support behind a play-in wildcard game for the playoffs. Holland has never had a bad idea...until now.
It’s not often, if ever, that your trusty correspondent disagrees with one of the brightest, most progressive voices in hockey. But when it comes to the notion of holding a wildcard play-in game to give one more team per conference a chance to make the playoffs, that’s where I have to draw the line with one Ken Holland.
Speaking to Gary Lawless of tsn.ca, the Detroit Red Wings GM and the man who brought us 3-on-3 overtime opined that he would like to see the playoff pool expanded to essentially have three wildcard teams instead of two. The wildcard team with the best regular-season record of the three would be guaranteed a playoff berth, while the next two would hold a one-game, winner-take-all event to decide the second wildcard team.
There hasn’t been much of an appetite for this sort of thing among the game's power brokers, thank goodness, but there wasn’t much of an appetite for 3-on-3 overtime at one time, either. Holland can be very persuasive. Not sure if he hypnotizes his fellow GMs by swinging one of his four Stanley Cup rings on a string in front of their eyes, but he has a way of getting them to come around his way of thinking. Here’s hoping they resist the temptation this time.
Here’s why. Because any excitement the wildcard race would create in the markets that are involved would be mitigated by the notion that the league is once again rewarding mediocrity. These teams have 82 games to prove they’re in the top half of the league. That doesn’t seem, at least to these eyes, to be too much to ask. A better idea would be to just give each of the No. 9 seeds a nice, shiny Participation Trophy and send them home for the summer.
Geez, Louise, don’t we have enough parity shoved down our throats by the NHL already? Let’s see, when a team is killing a penalty it is allowed, for reasons nobody seems to be able to explain, to ice the puck with impunity. And if it gets scored on, the penalized player is allowed back on the ice. Players can glove the puck ahead in the defensive zone, but not the offensive zone. The NHL has a draft to ensure that all the best players are distributed fairly. The NHL has a salary cap to prevent rich, large market teams from having a competitive advantage. Teams that lose in overtime or the skills competition get a single loser point for just showing up, which already creates trumped-up playoff races and bogus .500 teams. Someday when the league and the players can agree on it, they'll get around to streamlining goaltending equipment. The NHL awarded a trophy to the best defensive forward for more than 20 years before it decided to get around to establishing one for the league’s top goal scorer. Rather than reward excellence, the NHL has time after time tailored its rules and philosophy to bringing great teams down to the others’ level.
And this would just be another example of that. Last season, the Minnesota Wild limped into eighth in the Western Conference and lost their last five games of the season. The Colorado Avalanche finished five points behind the Wild, losing each of their last six games of the season. Wow, that would have been some game, eh? The only problem is that the way those teams were playing down the stretch, the league might have had to postpone the start of the playoffs to let them finish the game. When you take into account the 11 bogus points the Wild gained for losing in overtime and shootouts, they lost six more games than they won last season. And they still made the playoffs. That’s quite enough, thank you.
Had there been a play-in game in 2011-12, the Los Angeles Kings would have had to play the Calgary Flames in Game No. 83 of the season. If the Flames had won, the Kings would not have gone on to win their first Stanley Cup. If there had been one in 2014-15, the Winnipeg Jets would have faced the Kings and had they lost, we would have been deprived of their first-round series against the Anaheim Ducks, one that went four straight, but might have been the closest, most intense and competitive sweeps in the history of the game.
Look, most teams are already in the playoff race until the last quarter of the season. Unless they’re really bad, like say, Colorado is this season. The league constantly trumpets how close its games are, conveniently failing to point out the fact that it’s only that way because nobody scores goals anymore. The NHL loves its parity, but enough is enough. It reminds me of house league hockey where scorekeepers stop adding goals to the winning team if the margin between the teams is more than five goals, as if the kids are too dumb to figure out that they’re actually losing 14-0 if the scoreboard only says 5-0. It’s all a part of the everybody-gets-a-trophy mentality that many observers think is adding to a sense of entitlement in kids that they are now taking into adulthood.
I’m not about to wade into that debate at the moment, but one thing I do know is that there’s no place for it in the best league in the world where the players are also smart enough to know when they don’t belong in the playoffs. And it’s the NHL, which stands for National Hockey League, not National House League.
From big off-season acquisitions struggling to oft-maligned players proving their worth, the NHL has its fair share of players who are hard to figure out.
I'm still confused.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the NHL's five most confusing teams, at least from my perspective. These were the teams that I just couldn't figure out. Were they good? Bad? Somewhere in the middle? I'd spent the season trying to work it out, and come up empty.
As it turned out, I wasn't alone. More than a few readers confessed to being confused by those teams too, not to mention several others. It was like having a support group. A support group of confused hockey fans, all watching the games unfold with their heads tilted like a puppy seeing a toilet flush for the first time.
Well, today I'm going to call another meeting of the confused hockey fan network. But this time, we're not looking at teams. No, today we're going to dive into some specific players that have me perplexed. In most of these cases, I thought I had a handle on things. But now I'm not so sure.
Maybe you can help me out. Or maybe you're just as confused as I am. Either way, I think it will be good for my soul to admit that I just can't figure these guys out.
What I thought I knew: After an up-and-down start to this NHL career, Elliott had settled in to a predictable pattern with the Blues. He'd play well. He'd post strong numbers, sometimes even league-leading ones. And then, just when push came to shove, the Blues would lose faith in him and hand the starter's job to someone else. Maybe it was the backup. Maybe it was a pricey trade acquisition. Maybe it was even a semi-retired legend, in a move we'd all agree to just pretend never happened. But time and time again, the Blues had no faith in Elliott.
And I was convinced that they were wrong. This was the classic case of a team over-thinking things, or maybe letting dressing room politics or a faith in intangibles override basic logic. The numbers didn't lie: Elliott was one of the best goalies in the league. And when the Flames nabbed him at a discount in the offseason, I was sure that they'd found their starter.
Where I'm at now: Sitting around wondering what happened. Which is also where Elliott finds himself most games these days.
Chad Johnson has been a great story, and you can't blame the Flames for riding the hot hand. Elliott got off to a bad start, and when you're a young team that hasn't earned a ton of self-confidence quite yet, you can't let yourself fall too far out of the race. The Flames are being smart here.
But… Elliott is still good, right? Every goalie has the occasional slump, so we can't panic over 13 games. Then again, Elliott's never really done much outside of Ken Hitchcock's goalie factory, and the Blues still didn't believe in him. Did they know something that the rest of us, including the Flames, somehow missed?
What I thought I knew: Remember when Ryan was left off of Team USA in 2014, partly because Brian Burke didn't think he could spell "intense"? What a ridiculous snub that was. Hey guys, 30-goal scorers in their prime don't exactly grow on trees.
Where I'm at now: Has anyone noticed that Bobby Ryan doesn't score 30 goals anymore?
Well, sure, I imagine Senator fans were already in the loop on this one. But it feels like the rest of us have been slow to realize that Ryan just hasn't been the same player in Ottawa that he was in Anaheim. His best year since the 2013 trade was only 23 goals, and that was back in 2013-14. This year, he has just three goals through 21 games.
In hindsight, maybe we should have seen that coming. Ryan was 26 when the trade went down, and in today's NHL, that's already past the peak of many forwards. But the Senators clearly thought they were getting an elite player with some big seasons left in him – remember, we're just two years removed from them handing him a $50-million contract.
Ryan's had to overcome some tough hurdles in his life, including the loss of his mother this summer. It still feels like he could rebound and reclaim his status as a first-line player. But if not, the budget-conscious Senators may be stuck with an ugly-looking contract that they can't really afford.
What I thought I knew: Any Leaf fan who was paying attention was in on this one. Sure, Bozak had put up some decent stats over the years, but he'd done it as Phil Kessel's sidekick, inexplicably getting all the playing time with Toronto's best player and reaping the rewards. And even then, his numbers had been just OK, never topping 50 points in a season and struggling in his own end.
It was a classic case of a superstar propping up an also-ran. And once Kessel was shipped out of town, we'd see the real Tyler Bozak.
Where I'm at now: Hey, it turns out the real Tyler Bozak is pretty good.
Not "first line center" good. Certainly not "team MVP" good, despite some of the sillier hype from the Kessel era. But his production hasn't cratered without his superstar wingman. In fact, it's improved slightly, and he's on pace for the most productive season of his career this year.
Maybe he's benefitting from the Leafs finally having some depth at center. Maybe he's embracing his role as the "dad figure" on one of the league's youngest rosters. Or maybe he was just better than I thought he was all along.
What I thought I knew: He's easily one of the best young offensive defensemen in the league.
Where I'm at now: Pretty much the same place. Which is why what's going on in Dallas right now is so hard to figure out.
Last month, Lindy Ruff made Klingberg a healthy scratch, and everyone went "What?" Then we found out that Klingberg had missed a team meeting, so fair enough — the rules apply to everyone. But then last week he was scratched again, this time for performance reasons.
And sure enough, he hasn't been great this year. He's on pace for the worst offensive totals of his career, and he's getting creamed on possession, where he'd previously been very solid. Sure, maybe nobody would look good in front of that Dallas goaltending. And Ruff is carrying eight defenseman, which makes his decisions tougher. But Klingberg really has looked off this year, and with a 98.5 PDO, this isn't all about bad luck and shaky percentages. Something's wrong.
We're talking about a guy who finished sixth in the Norris voting last year, in just his second NHL season. It looked like the Stars had themselves a poor man's Erik Karlsson in the making. Maybe they still do. But this season has turned a sure thing into a major question mark.
What I thought I knew: No clue. None. He seems like a good guy. Smallish, and without any especially flashy numbers, but he always seemed like a nice underdog story who'd overachieved over the years on a long path towards earning some respect. I usually like those kind of stories.
But over the last few years, Russell has somehow morphed into the poster child for the debate between analytics and old school. And you're not allowed to stake out a middle ground. You have to either think he's the second coming of Scott Stevens, willing his team to victory by sheer force of heart, or you have to think he's hot garbage. Those are your only two options. And you better choose quickly, because as soon as his name get mentioned, everybody is going to start yelling.
Where I'm at now: SO MUCH YELLING!
Honestly, I have no idea. When Russell hit free agency this summer, I thought the big numbers being thrown around were a little ridiculous. So did the league, apparently, since he had to settle for a one-year deal with the Oilers. That seemed like a good fit, and you figured Russell could settle in, put together a decent season, and take another shot at a big UFA payday next year.
No such luck. No, apparently we all have to keep fighting the Great Kris Russell Battle until the end of time. Is he good? Bad? What position does he even play? Nobody remembers.
We have always been at war with Kris Russell. Now pick a side and go yell at somebody about it.
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.