Phil Kessel of the Bruins hits the post behind Mike Smith of the Lightning. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
A selection of our favorite photos from the NHL for the week of Dec. 8-14..
Phil Kessel of the Bruins hits the post behind Mike Smith of the Lightning. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
A selection of our favorite photos from the NHL for the week of Dec. 8-14..
The Blue Jackets celebrate a goal in their 10-0 win over the Canadiens.
After 20 or so games, the playoff hunt is starting to get much clearer and as surprising as it sounds, expect the Blue Jackets to be in the post-season.
Each month is an end and a beginning for NHL teams. String a few good months together and it probably means a playoff berth. A couple bad months though and it'll cost you.
Every month we like to highlight three teams that are trending up and three teams that are trending down to get a better sense of the landscape of the league. These aren’t your typical trends citing best and worst records in the league because those things can be fickle over a single month of hockey.
Instead we’ll dig a bit deeper toward each team’s underlying numbers. We've got a projection model that assesses each player’s value that’s updated daily throughout the season that can estimate point projections and playoff chances. It’s based on the past three seasons of a player’s Game Score and it’s what we used for season previews for each team. These posts are a way to check in with how teams have progressed, comparing how good they were projected to be at the start of November and how that’s changed since.
Here’s which teams are playing better and worse over the last month, as well as a look at the current projected playoff picture.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs aren’t exactly tearing up the league right now, but they’re definitely not the bottom-feeder many expected. They’re currently playing at an 86 point pace – a huge improvement from last season – but may be even better than that with a projected point total of almost 92 points. That probably seems far-fetched to a lot of you, but they’ve got decent shot rates, their goaltending is trending up, and they’ve got one of the most explosive offenses in the league. Last year’s team was a mess that couldn’t score, but when you add a full season of James van Riemsdyk plus three of the league’s best rookies, you get an offensive powerhouse. Defense is still a big concern and that’s why their expected win percentage is around .500 and not higher. Still, that’s likely much higher than most would expect and I doubt many see them just above 40 percent to make the playoffs, which they just might be.
Remember just a couple weeks ago when everyone was worried about the Predators? They’re now playing how we thought they would. They had the biggest Corsi jump this month going from a 26th ranked 47.2 percent in October to a third best 54.3 percent in November. To go along with that, they also had the third highest points percentage behind only Chicago and the next team on this list. By my model, the Predators are a top five team, an almost lock for the playoffs and a legit Stanley Cup threat this season. That’s pretty much what most of us expected from them before a slow start soured some opinions. While that’s understandable, this team should continue rolling along now that they’ve ironed out whatever issues plagued them in October.
Columbus Blue Jackets
A team that many thought would be competing with the Canucks and Coyotes for last place is somehow a top 10 team this year in points. Go figure. Not only that, they’re absolutely destroying some very good teams in the process. No one saw them being this good (and they won’t continue being this good), but I was cautiously optimistic about their chances before the season started, pegging them as a bubble team. They’ve surpassed that so far and have seen the biggest playoff chance increase this month going from 41.5 percent to 73.3 percent. What’s most important though, is that it isn’t all a transparent PDO mirage, the Blue Jackets are playing really good hockey lately. They controlled 52.3 percent of the shot share in November, a modest jump from their 48.9 in October, plus they’ve got some talented scorers and great goaltending that can out-score their possession rate, too. Columbus isn’t a great team, not unless they keep their possession rates up a bit longer, but it’s safe to say they’re at least an above average one right now.
Tampa Bay Lightning
After talking about one team lighting up better teams, we now arrive at one of those very teams. Columbus trounced Tampa Bay 5-1 on Tuesday and there was never really a point where the Lightning were really in it, getting dominated 27-13 in shots through the first two periods. The team has now lost three straight and face St. Louis and Washington next, so things might get uglier before they get better. By their expected win percentage, the Lightning dropped from an elite powerhouse at .551 to an okay playoff team at .526. Part of that is losing Stamkos, but they also just haven’t played really well either. SB Nation’s Lightning blog Raw Charge goes into this deeper here, but the basic gist is that the team isn’t dominating play like you’d expect a team with this much talent to. They were a bottom 10 Corsi team in November. That’s not a good sign, but with their roster, and Anton Stralman coming back soon, they should be able to bounce back.
I was much higher on Philadelphia than most before the season started, and that’s been somewhat justified by their consistent top 10 shot rate this season, yet the team continues to flounder with an 11-10-3 record. All of it comes down to goaltending as Steve Mason looks more like the Columbus version of himself than the one who’s given Philadelphia respectable goaltending during his tenure there. This year, Mason ranks 42nd among goalies with seven or more starts with a .898 save percentage. In the three seasons prior (this time looking at goalies with 50 or more games) he’s 11th with a .921. Up until this season, Mason has been a borderline top 10 goalie for the Flyers, but he’s looked like a sieve on numerous occasions this year. With the Blue Jackets surging, the playoffs are looking more and more unlikely for the Flyers with each passing game. Mason looked terrific in a win against the Bruins Tuesday, so all hope is not lost, but he needs to start doing that on a consistent basis for the Flyers to reach the post-season.
New York Islanders
Woof. Has there been a more disappointing team this season? Probably not, as many people had them in a playoff spot. Instead they’re challenging for worst in the league. The biggest problem here is that the losses of Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen have created some big holes that none of the young guys have been able to fill yet. John Tavares is practically on his own island as the lone good forward on the team. The Islanders rank second last in Corsi this season at 45.9 percent, ahead of only the Arizona Coyotes and have looked uninspired on most nights. It’s baffling that there hasn’t been a coaching change yet after their putrid start, especially considering some of the head-scratching decisions made by Jack Capuano. Among his most egregious decisions, he’s put Cal Clutterbuck on the first line, sent Ryan Strome to the press box, and placed Andrew Ladd on the fourth line. None of those moves make much sense, but the Islanders descent towards the bottom suddenly does.
THE PLAYOFF PICTURE
After 20 or so games, the playoff hunt is starting to get much clearer, but there’s still some teams that currently hold a spot that are likely to fall out, while the same is true for some of the teams on the outside looking in. Based on the games that have already been played, and what we think is likely to happen over the next 60 games, here’s how the playoff picture shakes out.
In the East, two teams currently in a spot – Ottawa and New Jersey – likely find themselves out of it by the time the season comes to a close in favour of two much stronger teams from the Atlantic: Boston and Florida. Yes, Florida has struggled, but they’ve had some big turnover and need some time to gel. They’ve also dealt with some big injuries early on. The next month or so will be critical in showing that the talent they’ve got on paper can translate onto the ice. In the West, everyone currently in a spot should stay that way, but there’s still a few teams that can make things interesting.
Virtual Locks (90 percent or more): Chicago, Pittsburgh, Montreal, San Jose, Los Angeles
Safe Bets (70-90 percent): Washington, Nashville, St. Louis, Rangers, Minnesota, Anaheim, Columbus, Boston
Squeaking In (50-70 percent): Florida, Edmonton, Tampa Bay
On The Bubble (30-50 percent): Winnipeg, Toronto, Philadelphia, Calgary
Fighting For Life (10-30 percent): Dallas, Ottawa, New Jersey, Detroit, Colorado, Islanders
Pretty Much Out (10 percent or less): Carolina, Arizona, Vancouver, Buffalo
Hockey Canada has named 32 players to its December camp and there will be many hard choices. We break down the teenagers who still have a shot at glory
And then there were 32. Hockey Canada announced its final selection camp roster for its world junior team yesterday with dual press conferences in Toronto and Montreal, the two cities that will host the event, starting on Dec. 26. Canada is coming off a disappointing sixth-place finish from the 2016 event in Finland and redemption is certainly on the menu. “There’s a number of players that feel they have something to prove,” said Scott Salmond, Hockey Canada’s vice president, hockey operations. “There was a level of, if you will, embarrassment, to the result last year. A guy like Dylan Strome is very focused on coming back and trying to redeem what happened.”
Strome will indeed be key for the Canadians, as the big center was recently returned to junior after a stint with the Arizona Coyotes. Other veterans from the 2016 squad are Mitchell Stephens (Tampa Bay), Thomas Chabot (Ottawa), Mathew Barzal (NY Islanders) and Julien Gauthier (Carolina). That’s a great start, but a little less than the nine coach Dominique Ducharme had spoke of in the summer – that’s because Mitch Marner, Travis Konecny, Lawson Crouse and Anthony Beauvillier are all busy in the NHL. Even Jakob Chychrun, who didn’t make the team last year, will likely be in Arizona with the Coyotes instead of at the tourney. “Certainly we’ve had the conversation with their GMs,” Salmond said. “We haven’t given up hope, but it’s doubtful.”
Another player the team won’t get a crack at is Kelowna Rockets defenseman Cal Foote. The 2017 draft prospect and son of former NHLer Adam Foote was declared ineligible for the team by the governing IIHF. Foote is a dual US/Canadian citizen, but lived and played in Colorado up until last season. According to IIHF rules, he needed to live in Canada for two years and play hockey there for 16 consecutive months (that is to say, multiple seasons – he doesn’t have to play in the summer). So Foote will be eligible for next year’s tournament.
One final note before I break down the roster: Nolan Patrick is the only 2017 prospect to make the cut. He’s been injured for a month and half, but Salmond said he spoke to the big, elite pivot last week and Patrick believes he’ll be ready for camp. The youngster had sports hernia surgery in the off-season and is now beset with an upper-body injury.
OK, onto the names…
Strome, Barzal, Gauthier and Stephens will be big, not to mention third overall pick Pierre-Luc Dubois (Columbus), who nearly made the team last year. Tyson Jost (Colorado) is one of only two NCAA players named to camp, but he played a lot of top-line minutes at the National Junior Evaluation Camp summer tourney hosted by Team USA in Michigan. Sam Steel (Anaheim) has really found his stride again in Regina, while Mathieu Joseph (Tampa Bay) has been excellent in Saint John.
So here’s my big question: Does Canada value speed over other skills when the final decisions are made? If the answer is yes, that will benefit players such as Mikey McLeod (New Jersey) and Austin Wagner (Los Angeles). If it’s not an absolute, I would find it hard not to see Taylor Raddysh (Tampa Bay) in the lineup, given how amazing he’s been as a goal-scorer with Erie this year. Nicolas Roy (Carolina) strikes me as a perfect shutdown guy, so speed may not factor in as much when it comes to his chances.
Honestly, there are many nice options on the blueline and I’m not sure which direction they’ll go – it may really come down to the final camp performances. Chabot is a lock, while Jake Bean (Carolina) is probably set, too. Same goes for Noah Juulsen (Montreal). I’d also put Boston University’s Dante Fabbro (Nashville) in that category, but now we’re starting to run out of slots. Jeremy Lauzon (Boston) was a late cut last year, while Philippe Myers (Philadelphia) has impressed. Guillaume Brisebois (Vancouver) seems like a perfect penalty-killer/No. 7, while Samuel Girard (Nashville) and Victor Mete (Montreal) both offer excellent offense and rushing skills.
Ah, the goaltending – Canada’s demon. The team will have competition this year, with three netminders vying for two slots. Salmond said it wouldn’t be fair to deprive a CHL team of its starter for a month if that kid was just going to sit in the stands, so they won’t carry three. But, if someone gets injured, the tournament is in Canada, so a recall is easy.
Carter Hart (Philadelphia) certainly has the inside track, as he has been the WHL’s goalie of the week twice in a row and is rocking a 1.67 goals-against average with Everett as a result. He didn’t look good at the summer NJEC, but Hart did show well in his WHL-Russia start, turning aside 33 of 34 shots for the win.
Connor Ingram (Tampa Bay) and Michael McNiven (Montreal) will therefore battle for the backup slot. Ingram has been the other great goalie in the WHL this season, though his international outings have been rocky. McNiven played great against Russia when the OHL beat them and his numbers with Owen Sound are solid.
But seriously, whoever ends up in the crease, Canada needs them to be good. That has not been the case at this tournament for years.
You’d think there would be some controversial omissions, but I can’t find any fault in the choices here. Tyler Benson, Logan Stanley and Cliff Pu could have gotten the call, but all three will be eligible next year as well. Canada’s major challenge now is to go from 32 players to 22. And then the thoughts turn to gold.
Craig Cunningham’s recovery is progressing but “there's a lot more progression and healing to be done,” according to friend and former teammate Milan Lucic, who visited Cunningham recently.
Tucson captain Craig Cunningham has remained in the thoughts of the hockey community since the moment he collapsed on the ice ahead of an AHL contest between the Roadrunners and Manitoba Moose on Nov. 19, but information regarding the health of the 26-year-old has been sparse.
The Arizona Coyotes, the parent club of the Roadrunners, have updated Cunningham’s status from time to time, often saying only that there has been little or no change, which is to say that Cunningham remains in critical but stable condition.
However, a promising update has come along regarding Cunningham from his friend and former teammate, Milan Lucic. The Oilers winger, who played with Cunningham with the WHL’s Vancouver Giants and again as a member of the Boston Bruins, said he couldn’t get into too much detail, but offered some positive news.
"The good news is he's progressed a lot from the state he was in last weekend," Lucic said, according to NHL.com’s Jerry Brown. "He's heading in the right direction, but obviously there's a lot more progression and healing to be done.”
Even with the good news, though, Brown reported that Cunningham “has not regained consciousness since collapsing.”
No cause for the collapse has been given by either the Coyotes or Roadrunners, but Tucson GM Doug Soetaert told the Arizona Daily Star on Nov. 21 that Cunningham was “critically ill.”
Cunningham was a fourth-round pick, 97th overall, of the Bruins in 2010, and has played 63 NHL games over the past several seasons. He was acquired by the Coyotes via waivers in 2014-15, finishing the season by playing 19 games with the Coyotes and recording one goal and four points. He skated in 10 games with the Coyotes in 2015-16, picking up an assist.
Cunningham was named the captain of the Springfield Falcons, then the Coyotes affiliate, in 2015-16 and had arguably the best AHL season of his career, posting 22 goals and 46 points in 61 games. He held on to the captaincy with the newly minted Roadrunners this season and had four goals and 13 points in 11 games.
The Roadrunners postponed two additional games following Cunningham’s hospitalization, but returned to action this past Saturday.
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The NHL’s verbal offer of a three-year extension to the collective bargaining agreement in exchange for Olympic participation is expected to be rejected as soon as next week.
If NHL players are going to participate in the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, it’s not likely to come by way of extending the collective bargaining agreement. Or at least not in the way the owners have initially offered.
It was reported in mid-November that, after the IIHF had secured funding to send the players to the tournament in South Korea, the league and its owners would be willing to acquiesce to the players’ interest in participating in the upcoming Olympics if the NHLPA would be willing to accept a three-year extension of the current CBA.
According to Darren Dreger, appearing on NBCSN’s coverage on Wednesday night, no formal offer was made by the league or the owners, with commissioner Gary Bettman instead making a verbal offer to extend the CBA to NHLPA executive director Don Fehr. The agreement would have included the players being allowed to play in a number of international events, including the Olympics in both 2018 and 2022, the latter of which are set for Beijing, China.
It was an offer from the league that seemingly came out of nowhere, and the initial reaction was there was little chance the players would accept the offer. Turns out that’s exactly the case.
“The response coming back from the Players’ Association from Don Fehr next Wednesday is expected to be, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ ” Dreger reported Wednesday. “Players aren’t interested in extending the (CBA) an additional three years. Whether or not it goes beyond that is going to be interesting because, historically, Don Fehr has countered with a proposal, but this (proposal by the league) was somewhat informal.”
The issue of Olympic participation has been one of the major talking points throughout the summer, through the World Cup of Hockey and now into the opening months of the season. And despite the fact the NHLPA is expected to shut down this offer from the league, it almost assuredly won’t be the last we hear of the league and players talking about a way to carve out a path for the players to play in the games while keeping the owners happy.
In fact, if anything, the discussions are only going to heat up over the course of the next month and a half. In early October, Christophe Dubi, the IOC's executive director of the Olympic Games, told the Associated Press the league had a drop-dead date for reaching a decision on participation of Jan. 15.
“Until (Jan. 15) it will be work between all parties involved to make sure that we get the participation of the very best, and that's for both Pyeongchang and Beijing,” Dubi told the Associated Press.
Players have continued to express their interest in playing in the Olympics, and while none have gone as far as Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin, who said he’s playing at the tournament whether NHL players are permitted by the league or not, it’s clear they’re hoping for the Olympic issue to be resolved in a way that allows them to play in Pyeongchang if given the chance.
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