PHOTO BY MARK WILSON
Hockey Night in Canada's Don Cherry does a Photo Shoot for THN, featuring some of his finer suits.
PHOTO BY MARK WILSON
Hockey Night in Canada's Don Cherry does a Photo Shoot for THN, featuring some of his finer suits.
Penguins goaltender Matt Murray has a serious shot at finishing the season as a Vezina Trophy finalist, but there’s a chance he won’t even be named one of the three best rookies this season.
Patrik Laine did it again Tuesday night. For the third time this season, and third time before his 19th birthday, Laine scored a hat trick. He’s got 26 goals now, one off the rookie scoring lead and four back of league leader Sidney Crosby. And on the same night, Auston Matthews continued his dream rookie season, firing home two goals of his own to bring his total to 27 on the year, while Mitch Marner stayed ahead of all rookies with an assist that brought his point total to 48.
It’s not just those three rookies turning heads, though. There’s also been the superb play of William Nylander, a teammate of Matthews’ and Marner’s in Toronto, the continued emergence of Zach Werenski as a legitimate top-four defender in Columbus and a litany of others who have laid their claims to the title of league’s best rookie. Everyone from Matthew Tkachuk to Sebastian Aho has had their share of Calder talk.
But with everyone swept up in the top scorers and the brilliance of some of the fresh faces, it’s hard not to feel as if Matt Murray’s being overlooked in Pittsburgh. Tuesday, while Laine was torching the Dallas Stars and Matthews and Marner were helping their Maple Leafs blowout the New York Islanders, Murray was hard at work in Pittsburgh, stopping all 29 shots he faced en route to his third shutout of the season. Murray, we need remind you, is still a rookie.
Sure, Murray has a Stanley Cup to his name and he was at the very least in the conversation for the Conn Smythe, but by the league’s standards, Murray still counts as a rookie. He played only 13 regular season games prior to the start of 2016-17, and the 21 games Murray played in the post-season during the 2015-16 season don’t count toward his total. Take umbrage with that if you will, but the fact is that no matter how many games Murray saw in the playoffs, he was going to be a rookie this season.
We can debate the eligibility rules all we want, and that debate was surely had last year when it came to Artemi Panarin’s candidacy, and subsequent victory, given his time in the KHL, but Murray’s situation is not unique to him. John Gibson finished seventh in Calder voting last season despite having 30 combined regular season and post-season games under his belt prior to the start of the campaign, Jake Allen was eligible and finished 17th and 10th in Calder voting in back-to-back years, Torey Krug played 15 playoffs games before finishing fourth in 2013-14 and Logan Couture played 40 games — 25 regular season, 15 post-season — before his second-place Calder finish in 2009-10.
So, given that Murray is eligible, it might be time we start giving some consideration to his candidacy. And when he’s compared to rookie goaltenders, there’s no one even close.
There are 18 freshman goaltenders who’ve suited up this season, none of whom have seen more action than Murray and not a single one who has had near Murray’s level of success. In 31 games, Murray has a sparkling 21-6-2 record, and the next closest rookie netminder to Murray is Juuse Saros. The Nashville Predators rookie has won five of his 11 starts. Yes, that means there’s a 16-win gap between Murray and the next winningest rookie goaltender. It’s incredibly difficult to be named rookie of the year as a goaltender, however. Only eight netminders have managed the feat in the post-expansion era.
That means for a rookie goaltender to win the Calder, he almost certainly has to be one of the very best at his position in the league, which in turn puts him in the upper echelon of all players in the league for a given season. What better measure of that is there for a goaltender than finishing as one of the Vezina Trophy finalists?
Murray’s going to have a tough climb to put himself into the Vezina conversation, though, especially with the seasons Devan Dubnyk, Sergei Bobrovsky and Braden Holtby have put forth. But if there’s anyone who could sneak into contention, it might be Murray. As of Wednesday, he ranks fourth out of all qualified goaltenders with a .926 save percentage, sixth in the league with a 2.27 goals-against average, is tied for eighth with three shutouts and is one of only 16 goaltenders to have won 20 or more games this season. Murray’s case as a Vezina finalist is more impressive when you consider a couple of other numbers, too.
For instance, there are 38 goaltenders who have played 1,000 minutes or more at 5-on-5 this season, and of those only Dubnyk and Holtby have posted a better save percentage than Murray’s .937 mark. In addition, if Murray played more, he’d almost certainly be among the league leaders in wins. Consider that of all goaltenders to play at least 30 games, Murray boasts the second-best win percentage in the league, behind only Dubnyk.
This is to say that where it matters most, Murray has been one of the three-best goaltenders in the league for the duration of the season. He’s deserving of a Vezina nomination. Will he win? Almost certainly not. The Vezina is Dubnyk’s to lose at this point, but that Murray has a shot at becoming a finalist for the award is significant when it comes to the Calder.
Since 1981, when the Vezina turned into an award for the most outstanding goaltender, six of eight netminders who have been finalists for the award have also finished top-three in Calder voting. That list includes Grant Fuhr, Tom Barrasso, Ron Hextall, Ed Belfour, Jim Carey and Steve Mason. Coincidentally, the two odd-men out both played for the New York Rangers. Henrik Lundqvist and Mike Richter had identical third-place Vezina, fourth-place Calder finishes in 2003-04 and 1990-91, respectively. However, it seems as though Murray’s more likely to join the latter category rather than the former.
With the flashiness of this season’s freshmen and the number of players pushing for top rookie honors, Murray probably will be overlooked. The fact of the matter is Matthews is having a rookie season the likes of which we haven’t seen since Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin came into the league. The same goes for Laine, too, who has shown every bit the goal scoring flair that was promised. Throw in Marner, Nylander, Werenski and others and you’ve got a crowded field.
It’s a shame, too. Even if Murray wouldn’t have won either award, he’d be joining some elite company such as Fuhr, Barrasso and Hextall as a finalist for both awards in the same season. In any other year, against any other rookie crop or in a season he started more games, that very well could have been a reality. Instead, he might have to settle for a spectacular season that’s just a hair short of being given the credit it deserves.
Patrick Kane and Corey Crawford. Image by: Getty Images
With a 7-3 record in their past 10 games, the Hawks are beginning to look a lot like the dynasty that has won three Stanley Cups since 2010.
During the pre-game festivities at the United Center, the Blackhawks play a campy fight song called Here Come the Hawks! And as we enter the stretch drive of the season, that fight song could very well be a recurring theme.
Because, well, here come the Hawks. With a 7-3 record in their past 10 games and a seven-game winning streak on the road, the Hawks are beginning to look a lot like the dynasty that has won three Stanley Cups since 2010. Will the Blackhawks make any tweaks before the trade deadline? Well, the way some of their young players have been performing lately, that might not be necessary. With their current hot streak, particularly on the road, the Blackhawks find themselves atop THN.com’s weekly Power Rankings. (Last week’s rankings in parentheses.):
CREAM OF THE CROP
1. Chicago Blackhawks (3)
2. Florida Panthers (12)
3. New York Rangers (2)
4. Pittsburgh Penguins (5)
5. Washington Capitals (1)
6. Boston Bruins (7)
7. Minnesota Wild (4)
8. New York Islanders (16)
9. San Jose Sharks (8)
10. Toronto Maple Leafs (13)
Captain Serious Jonathan Toews is seriously heating up with 8-12-20 totals and five multi-point games in his past 12…The Panthers may have saved their season by sweeping a five-game road trip for the first time in franchise history...The Rangers’ power play has gone dry. It’s 1-for-18 in the past seven games and 3-for-39 in the past 14…Don’t look now, but the Penguins are only three back of Washington for first overall in the NHL. (The Caps have a game in hand). By the way, Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had the line of the year describing the Penguins 3-1 win over Carolina Tuesday night: “The first two periods of the Penguins’ 3-1 victory against Carolina Tuesday night at PNC Arena were, as hockey games go, a work of art,” Molinari wrote. “The kind a sleep-deprived first-grader might produce if working with a limited selection of broken crayons.”…The Capitals have used a league-low 26 players – goaltenders included – so far this season…Claude Who? The Bruins go into Wednesday's game in Anaheim 4-0-0 under interim coach Bruce Cassidy…Back in the lineup after missing four games with a knee injury, Matt Dumba was minus-4 in a 5-3 loss to Chicago Tuesday night…The Islanders are just 8-13-4 on the road, but started a brutal nine-game road trip with a 3-1 win over Detroit Tuesday night…The Sharks have lost just one regulation game in their past 10, but have dropped four in overtime and one in a shootout…After suffering a shoulder injury last week, rookie Leafs Mitch Marner is on injured reserve.
THE MUSHY MIDDLE
11. Tampa Bay Lightning (21)
12. Columbus Blue Jackets (11)
13. Ottawa Senators (20)
14. St. Louis Blues (6)
15. Montreal Canadiens (19)
16. Edmonton Oilers (10)
17. Anaheim Ducks (9)
18. Los Angeles Kings (18)
19. Calgary Flames (24)
20. Philadelphia Flyers (17)
Ben Bishop is not making things easy for the Lightning. They have a major decision to make before the trade deadline. Do they trade him to avoid losing him for nothing in the expansion draft, or do they ride his hot hand and hope they can make the playoffs?...Brandon Dubinsky is heating up for the Blue Jackets. He has 4-6-10 totals in his past nine games, including the overtime winner against his arch-rival Pittsburgh Penguins…Senators GM Pierre Dorion told TSN of Curtis Lazar, “We’re just not going to give him away.” So now they’re openly talking about trading him. Is it just me or do the Senators seem intent on ruining this kid?...With Kevin Shattenkirk and Patrik Berglund pending UFAs, Blues GM Doug Armstrong will be both a buyer and a seller at this year’s trade deadline…Paul Byron is the Canadiens’ secret weapon. He has both game-winners in the Habs’ two shootout wins this season…Brian Boyle and Martin Hanzal are the two players most linked to the Oilers at the trade deadline… In an effort to try to spread out the offense, the Ducks broke up the Andrew Cogliano-Ryan Kesler-Jakob Silfverberg line, but that didn’t last long. Coach Randy Carlyle put them back together in a 1-0 win over Los Angeles Sunday…The Kings’ 2-1 win over Colorado Tuesday night was Darryl Sutter’s 215th victory as coach, tying him with Andy Murray for No. 1 on the franchise’s all-time wins list. It was also his 1,262nd game, tying him with Jacques Lemaire for 13th on the all-time NHL list…Johnny Gaudreau had four assists in the Flames 6-5 overtime win over the Predators Tuesday night, but has just one goal in his past 20 games…The Flyers face Eastern Conference teams in 20 of their final 23 games.
VYING FOR THE PARTICIPATION BADGE
21. Winnipeg Jets (25)
22. Buffalo Sabres (22)
23. Nashville Predators (14)
24. Dallas Stars (28)
25. Arizona Coyotes (23)
26. New Jersey Devils (15)
27. Detroit Red Wings (29)
28. Vancouver Canucks (26)
29. Colorado Avalanche (30)
30. Carolina Hurricanes (27)
Patrik Laine is just the third active player – Jeff Skinner and Sidney Crosby are the two others – to score 30 goals as an 18-year-old…Evander Kane has 14 even-strength goals since Dec. 3, which is the most in the NHL in that time span…Talk about efficient. Filip Forsberg scored three goals on three shots in just 16:16 of ice time in Nashville’s 6-5 overtime loss to Calgary Tuesday night…Jamie Benn has 10-7-17 totals in his past 15 games, but the Stars are only 5-8-2 in that span…The Coyotes kicked off their annual Fire Sale by dealing pending UFA Michael Stone to Calgary last week…Just a thought here: With two years at a $5 million cap hit, is there any way 34-year-old Michael Cammalleri gets some attention at the trade deadline? Probably not…It’s pretty clear Henrik Zetterberg is doing everything he can to prevent the Red Wings from missing the playoffs on his watch. He has 5-10-15 totals in his past 13 games…Bo Horvat has 40 points this season, which matches his career high…Avs defenseman Nikita Zadorov is out for the year after breaking his ankle in practice…The Hurricanes have scored just four goals in the past five games, only two at even strength.
Jonathan Toews. Image by: Getty Images
The Blackhawks captain may look like he’s merely shaken off a big slump. But the underlying numbers suggest he’s emerged as a different player – more offense, less defense.
The three-goal, five-point night wasn’t the match that ignited Jonathan Toews’ season. It was a squirt of gasoline on an already-raging fire. Toews got piping hot over the past two months, and Tuesday was the boiling point.
The Chicago Blackhawks captain started 2016-17 posting the worst offensive numbers of his career. Even as his regular right winger Marian Hossa enjoyed a resurgent offensive campaign, Toews just couldn’t find the net. He sat at four goals and 12 points after 22 games. Plenty of fans and pundits scoffed on social media at his All-Star Game invite over teammate Artemi Panarin.
Typically, we’ve accepted that Toews trades a bit of offense to be an elite two-way pivot. He’s shown the highlight-reel hands to be an 80-point player – just look at his immortalized shootout performance for Canada at the 2007 World Junior Championship – but he’s let Patrick Kane be the scoring star and sacrificed some scoring to play a shutdown role. Still, even by Toews’ Selke Trophy-winning standard, his offense was pitiful through mid-December. He sat at 0.60 points per game and had never finished a season below 0.73.
Even more concerning: Toews wasn’t performing as well as advertised from a defensive standpoint, either. Per corsica.hockey, Toews rates as one of the NHL’s very best possession players since stats like Corsi and Fenwick were born. Among NHL forwards with 1,000 or more minutes played since his rookie campaign of 2007-08, Toews ranks 16th in 5-on-5 Corsi at 55.8 percent. That includes a Corsi For of 61.48 and a Corsi against of 48.68, representing a player equally adept at driving shot attempts for his team and preventing shot attempts against his team.
Toews, though, slipped to a 5-on-5 Corsi of 51.38 percent in that lackluster 22-game sample to start 2016-17, with a Corsi For per 60 of 58.51 and a Corsi Against of 55.37. Teams were having a much easier time than normal getting attempts on Chicago’s net with Toews on the ice.
But the possession stats did show a player still creating a lot of offensive action for his team, and he was scoring on just 7.3 percent of his attempts, so a positive regression was coming. Since that juncture at Game 22, Toews has ignited for 30 points in his past 29 games, including a whopping 20 in his past 12, sprinkled with four- and five-point performances. He’s doing it primarily playing with Richard Panik and rookie Nick Schmaltz, so it’s not like another star scorer is carrying Toews. He’s scoring on 12.6 percent of his shots during his hot streak, still below his career average of 14.7, so we could see this goal-scoring run continue for a while.
The most interesting change for Toews comes in his possession numbers since the 29-game binge started. Defensively, he’s actually been worse, coughing up a Corsi Against per 60 of 57.2, but he’s sizzling with a Corsi For per 60 of 64.54. Per stats.hockeyanalysis.com, Toews faced the toughest quality of competition of any NHL forward with at least 500 minutes played last season, as Toews’ opponents averaged a 5-on-5 Corsi of 50.8. This season, his opponents average 50.2, ranking him 124th among forwards in quality of opponents. So he’s facing weaker competition yet still faring worse defensively.
What, then, are we witnessing? This isn’t The Old Jonathan Toews making a triumphant return. The possession numbers suggest he’s instead reversed his career trend and sacrificed some defense for a major spike in offense. He’s still not bad defensively, as his relative Corsi Against per 60 is still among the better figures on the Hawks, suggesting the team as a whole has regressed defensively this season, not just Toews. But he’s currently not the smothering defensive player he’s reputed to be. His offense, meanwhile, is right up there with Artemi Panarin for the team’s best on the year if we judge it by Corsi For per 60 relative to teammates.
Interestingly, with Toews filling the net, the Hawks have won 14 of their past 20 games and seven of their past eight. Unlocking Toews’ scoring seems to correlate directly with Chicago re-emerging as a dangerous Western Conference contender.
Meanwhile, the first-place Minnesota Wild have dropped their past two meetings with the Hawks, including Tuesday’s. The Wild still own a five-point lead in the Central Division with a game in hand, but would anyone put it past the Blackhawks to stay hot and steal the division crown and home ice advantage for the playoffs? If that happens, watch out. Toews has not returned as a powerhouse two-way forward yet, but he has emerged as a new beast altogether, albeit in a small sample size. It’s tough to say if the Hawks are a better or worse team with Toews no longer playing great shutdown hockey, but so far, so good.
Patrick Kane. Image by: Getty Images
It wasn't easy to get off the ground, but 20 years after it began the National Team Development Program has become synonymous with grooming NHL stars like Patrick Kane.
For the current generation of supremely skilled, but not-so-big players, Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane is an inspiration. The Buffalo native has weaved his 5-foot-11, 177-pound frame through NHL defenses for years, winning Stanley Cups and numerous awards along the way. For Kane, it’s a little bit of a wake-up call to realize he’s an archetype.
“I guess it means I’m getting old, right?” he said. “It’s amazing I’m in my 10th season and how fast it goes by.”
One of the major reasons Kane is where he is today is the National Team Development Program, USA Hockey’s hothouse program that brings together some of the premier under-17 and under-18 players in the nation. This season represents the 20th anniversary of the NTDP and was a major talking point during Hockey Week Across America, which is on right now. During a call promoting HWAA, Kane extolled the virtues of his time with the NTDP.
“For me, at that age, to go into a program like that – I was very undersized and it was great for me,” he said. “It had a huge impact on my development.”
Whether it was the focus on weight room time or simply learning from different athletes, Kane wrung as much as he could out of the Michigan-based program before heading off to the OHL’s London Knights. There, he crushed the competition with a league-high 145 points in 58 games before being selected first overall in the draft by the rebuilding Blackhawks in 2007.
While the NTDP has become synonymous with grooming NHL stars such as Kane, Phil Kessel and Ryan Suter, kicking off the experiment was not easy. Jordan Leopold and Adam Hall are still venerated by the program for taking a risk when the NTDP was just starting and no one knew what to expect. But it was a necessary gambit for USA Hockey at the time.
“We were not getting it done in big tournaments,” said Dave Ogrean, the soon-to-be retired executive director of USA Hockey. “And if you look at the arc that we’ve been on in the past 20 years, there has been significant improvement.”
Indeed, on top of three world junior golds in the past eight years, the U.S. has dominated the world under-18s, using a squad made up almost entirely of NTDP kids (one or two outsiders are sometimes brought in) every year.
“When you’re at The Program, there’s two big things you gear up for,” Kane said. “First is the World Under-17 Challenge, then the world under-18s. To go into a short tournament and come out on top was special for us.”
This is actually an interesting year for the NTDP’s under-18 squad. Though phenoms such as Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel and Zach Werenski are all recent alums, there’s a distinct possibility that no NTDP kids will go in the top-25 picks at the draft this summer. Since both the under-17s and under-18s play against older competition in the USHL and NCAA ranks, the NTDP kids often struggle at the beginning of each campaign, until they get physically stronger. While this season’s under-18s seemed to struggle a bit more than usual early on, the team did just win the Five Nations tourney in Sweden and scouts see them as a favorite once again for the worlds in mid-April (Canada’s efforts at the tourney are always hampered by the CHL playoffs, which run at the same time).
As for the draft anomaly, it’s just kind of a down year for Americans. Casey Mittelstadt looks like a potential top-five pick, but is splitting his time between Minnesota high school and the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers. Kailer Yamamoto and Jaret Anderson-Dolan both play for their hometown Spokane Chiefs in the WHL. One of the NTDP’s most promising prospects is defenseman Quinn Hughes, but his late birthday means he’s eligible for the 2018 draft instead.
Nonetheless, the NTDP still looks vibrant for the future. Hughes, Bode Wilde (U17) and Brady Tkachuk (another late birthday) all look like blue-chippers for next year’s draft, with other big under-17 names such as Oliver Wahlstrom, Jake Pivonka and Jake Wise right behind them.
The hothouse experiment has been tried by other countries, such as Slovakia and Russia, without much success (in Russia’s case it was the worst ever, as the team had to be replaced before the world under-18s due to a drug scandal). It’s funny to think the Americans ever needed an about-face on international success, but that also speaks to the success of the NTDP in the past 20 years. Before we know it, Eichel and Matthews will be the ones wondering where their time in the NHL has gone.