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They sure teased us there during the first two weeks of the season. But we should have known all along that the NHL would go back to its defensive ways.
Boy, the NHL sure had us there for a while. During the first two weeks of the season, players were filling the nets like it was the Bill Clinton administration. The first three nights of this season, there was an 11-goal game, a 10-goal game, three nine-goal games and two eight-goal games. Rookie Auston Matthews turned in a record on the first night of the season by scoring four goals in his NHL debut and his team still lost the game.
Good times. Yup, good times. And like all good times, it inevitably had to come to an end. Because NHL. The orgy of scoring we saw early in the season has been replaced with what seems like a record number of loop passes from the defensive zone. And why are defensemen doing this at such a regular pace? Because trying to get the puck through the neutral zone along the ice is almost impossible.
Through the first 356 games of this season, NHL teams have scored a total of 1,880 goals. Those are real goals. The phony ones teams are awarded for winning the NHL’s skills competition are not included. That means teams are scoring at an average of 5.28 goals per game this season, which if it sticks, will mean scoring is at its lowest in the NHL since The Dead Puck Era™.
To put that into perspective, consider this: the Edmonton Oilers scored a total of 2,114 goals in the five seasons that spanned from 1981-82 through 1985-86. Even if they had recorded a shutout in every one of those 400 regular-season games, they’d still have averaged more goals per game (5.285) all by themselves than what both teams are scoring this season. Think about that for a minute.
Whatever the effect there was on goal scoring early in the season has clearly dissipated. After the first two weeks of the season, teams were scoring at a clip of 5.92 non-shootout goals per game. Since then, teams are scoring at just 5.04. As Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter recently put it, “Then NHL is a 3-2 league.” Unless it’s 2-1 in a shootout.
There were a number of theories as to why scoring was so high early in the season. Some thought it was because the 168 NHL players who played in the World Cup were in mid-season form and therefore, so much further ahead of their teammates. Another theory held that there were so many young players in the league who were not only dazzling fans with their scoring, but making the kinds of mistakes that result in goals going in on their own net. The third was that some early-season injuries to goalies were forcing a number of teams to use backups.
Whatever the case, the NHL has adapted the way it always does. Of course it doesn’t help that the NHL allows the Minnesota Wild to hack away at Johnny Gaudreau’s hand, with Eric Staal finally dealing the killing blow and breaking it with a third try, with impunity. Then you have Gaudreau’s own teammate Troy Brouwer basically saying he does that kind of stuff a lot, so all’s fair, then goes out and proves it by going after leading Calder Trophy candidate Mitch Marner’s hand with a two-hander a couple of weeks later. When these things go unpenalized, few in the hockey community point out that, you know, you’re not supposed to do that and it’s not such a good idea to target the best young players in the league. And those who do get shouted down by hockey people who claim these kids should be wearing more protective gloves to guard themselves from something that happens a hundred times a game. Well, if that’s the case and it does actually happen a hundred times a game, that tells us something about why scoring is so low in the first place.
While other leagues try to encourage offense, the NHL does almost nothing. Certainly nothing radical. It’s been more than a decade since the league reinvented itself after the 2004-05 lockout, but much of what the league has eliminated has crept back in. The league and NHL Players’ Association continue to work toward streamlining goalie equipment at what seems like a sloth’s pace. Ideas to limit shot blocking or reconfigure the goal posts so more pucks will go off the post and into the net are seen as far too radical.
Meanwhile, the goals continue to dry up. According to the Elias Sports Bureau at this point last season scoring was slightly lower than it is this season, but rallied to end up at 5.34 goals per game. Each of the past five years, goal scoring totals have been essentially identical, never going below 5.31 or above 5.34. That could very well be where we end up this season. The biggest difference between this season and last, said Bob Waterman of Elias, is that scoring didn't vary that much from Day 1 to the end of the season in 2015-16, but there was a glut of goals early this season.
The modern-day low for scoring is 5.14 goals per game in 2003-04, the season before the NHL unshackled its star players. If it breaches that number, it would hit a 61-year low (5.07 was recorded in 1955-56). Perhaps that might be enough to push the NHL to do something about it. Or not.
Connor McDavid (left) and Sidney Crosby
The two phenoms from different generations are staking their claims early and this is the first of what will likely be several showdowns for MVP honors
So there was some nice hockey played Thursday night. You may have seen it. You may have also noticed that two of the biggest names in the sport were right in the thick of the matter. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby notched his league-leading 16th goal of the campaign, while Oilers captain Connor McDavid kept his perch atop the NHL scoring pile by tallying three assists, giving him 34 points through 25 games.
This is fun, people. Because this is the first year in which Crosby and McDavid will go head-to-head for the Hart Trophy. We probably have a couple seasons of this happening, as eventually age will catch up with Crosby, while Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews and others attempt to catch up with McDavid.
So with all due respect to Nikita Kucherov, Carey Price and Vladimir Tarasenko, let's take a look at the debate. First, let's take a look at Sid's artistry:
Ohhh, that's the good stuff. Not to be outdone, McDavid had an excellent scoring chance against the Jets last night by stripping the puck off defenseman Paul Postma in what can only be described as a spiritual de-pantsing. To put it another way, both Crosby and McDavid are hot right now. And barring injury – which has basically been the only thing to slow these players down in the past – we're looking at McDavid collecting his first-ever Art Ross Trophy as NHL scoring champ this season.
The Edmonton phenom is on pace for 111 points and as impressive as that is, his team is in a playoff position right now. As an explainer for Millennial Oilers fans, the playoffs happen after the NHL's 82 regular season game schedule. It's almost as exciting as the draft lottery.
Sarcasm aside, McDavid isn't the only one on his team having a good season and that means the world. I'm not calling them contenders just yet, but a post-season berth looks very real.
Meanwhile, Crosby has the best points-per-game mark in the NHL at 1.39. Missing the first six games of the year due to a concussion is the only thing keeping him from the scoring crown right now and even if he can't quite continue his torrid pace, he still has a great shot at 50 goals and the Rocket Richard Trophy. Right now, he's on pace for 106 points in 76 games.
Crosby has a slight edge in possession numbers (58 percent Corsi For vs. 55 percent for McDavid) and is better on faceoffs. But his supporting cast is also better in Pittsburgh – Evgeni Malkin is, himself, a Hart Trophy winner – so how do you compare the Penguin to the Oiler?
It may come down to the "feel" a bunch of writers get. The Hart, like most awards, is determined by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association (or "FWAH!" as I pronounce it. And yes, I am a member). Crosby is widely acknowledged as the best player in the game right now, so does that give him a bit of an edge, should both players finish with similar stats? Or does the newness of McDavid propel him over the top? I mean, Sid's already got Harts, right?
We also have higher standards for the Penguins. Pittsburgh should make the playoffs, as the defending Stanley Cup champs. If they don't win the division, is that a knock on Sid? Meanwhile, McDavid getting Edmonton to the post-season would be seen as a big accomplishment.
It's a great debate and one we'll likely be hearing for quite some time. And the best part is, it involves two incredibly gifted players putting up a bunch of points and highlights.
Auston Matthews and Jonathan Toews
The best way to describe Auston Matthews and Jonathan Toews squaring off in a pure shooting competition is pure destruction. The rookie Maple Leaf and veteran Blackhawk destroyed anything they could find.
Ahead of the draft, the comparisons for Auston Matthews were plentiful, but Jonathan Toews was one of the oft-mentioned modern era players that Matthews was projected to be similar to.
But what better way to compare the Blackhawks captain and the Maple Leafs rookie than seeing them go head-to-head in a shot-for-shot competition?
The video, released by Bauer to promote the Nexus 1N stick, is fantastic. Even the acting to kick it all off isn’t half bad, all things considered. Matthews and Toews take aim at just about everything possible on the rink, but it’s hard to be impressed by anything more than Toews picking out the crossbar on his first attempt. It’s made that much better by Toews’ fist pump and Matthews’ silence followed by a subtly muttered, “I hate you.” Take a look:
The destruction of the objects surrounding the rink makes everything about this more fun, too. Toews’ chortle when Matthews hits the “director’s chair” is Santa-like, and the way the coffee cup explodes with the short saucer pass from Matthews is great.
From there, Toews takes on a light and Matthews absolutely destroys a camera, and Matthews and Toews battle over the destruction of the craft services table, which offers some of the best jabs throughout the video.
Matthews first calls out Toews for his love of vegetables — seriously, Toews grows his own herbs, lettuce, spinach and greens in his home in Chicago — and then makes fun of the veteran Blackhawks star for not being able to destroy the ice sculpture with a slap shot that doesn’t even manage to touch the table.
As for Matthews eschewing Toews’ ‘Captain Serious’ moniker in favor of calling him ‘Veggie Man,’ hard to imagine that one’s going to stick. But if you see Matthews and Toews battling on the ice, maybe Matthews will bust it out to try to get under Toews’ skin.
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A salary cap league means getting bang for your buck is imperative, and these five players have been the best low-risk, high-reward pick ups of the off-season through the campaign’s first two months.
Sam Gagner has embodied the very definition of a low-risk, potentially high-reward off-season signing.
Having come off the worst year of his career, Gagner was looking for the opportunity to prove he still had something left in the tank. At 26, Gagner had just finished one of the most disappointing seasons he’s had to battle through. He managed just eight goals and 16 points with the Flyers, had been sent down to the minors during the campaign and the one time Edmonton Oilers first-liner had turned into a seldom-used bottom-six utility player in Philadelphia.
The Columbus Blue Jackets were the team who finally stepped up and inked Gagner, signing him to a one-year, $650,000 deal. It was a cheap signing and one that had little chance of blowing up in Columbus’ face. If it backfired, the Blue Jackets could simply shuffle Gagner to the minors and forget the whole thing.
The good thing is that the Gagner signing has been far from a disaster. Through 20 games, Gagner has eight goals and 13 points, he’s providing a bottom-six offensive punch and he’s been a good hand on the power play. And with a cap hit that’s not breaking the bank on a team that’s right up against the upper limit, that’s a useful kind of player to have.
Gagner doesn’t top the list of the most cost-effective off-season signings, though. Here are the five unrestricted free agents who have provided the most offense on a budget:
(Note: The players listed below have to have at least 10 points. Additionally, all players have to be in new locales. Matt Cullen, for instance, re-signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins and has 10 points in 23 games at a $1-million salary. You won’t find him, or any other re-signees, on this list. All cap figures via CapFriendly.)
5. Michael Grabner, New York Rangers — Cost per point: $103,125
The only player who’s really tipping the scales in terms of annual salary on this list is Grabner, but he’s making his $1.65-million cap hit seem like a song for the Blueshirts. They just hope he can keep it up.
The 29-year-old has had a hot start and an unexpected hat trick is to thank for his big numbers. He opened the season with two goals in three games, went quiet for five games and then put up three on the Lightning on Oct. 30. He’s actually stayed pretty consistent since then, but he’s currently riding a five-game pointless drought.
His 12 goals are already the most he’s scored since 2013-14, and with 16 points, he’s only 11 shy of posting his best season in the past five seasons.
4. Radim Vrbata, Arizona Coyotes — Cost per point: $66,667
As far as cost per point goes, this is about as technical a case as it gets. As of right now, Vrbata’s cost the Coyotes next to nothing, but in the (albeit unlikely) scenario he doesn’t register another point in his next nine games, his cost per point is going to jump by 50 percent.
Vrbata signed a one-year, $1-million deal in Arizona, but it’s bonus-laden. He gets an additional $500,000 after 30 games, another $500,000 if he hits either the 20-goal or 40-point plateau and there’s an additional $1.25-million tied to playoff bonuses, though it seems rather unlikely he’ll be hitting many, or any, of those.
There’s something about Vrbata and the Coyotes, though. It’s uncanny. He’s always played his best hockey in Arizona, and his eight goals and 15 points in 21 games have him on pace to more than double his output from 2015-16.
3. Rene Bourque, Colorado Avalanche — Cost per point: $65,000
No one will forget where they were during the great Rene Bourque sweepstakes of 2016. The hockey world waited anxiously to learn where the 34-year-old would sign, in hopes that he could bring a boost and Stanley Cup dreams to…Who are we kidding? No one would have predicted this.
On a roster with players such as Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and intriguing rookie Mikko Rantanen, it’s Bourque, with eight tallies in 19 games, who leads the Avalanche in goals. That’s already good for the second-best goal scoring season he’s had since 2011-12.
His signing in Colorado was seen as the Avalanche taking a flyer on a veteran who could potentially have some scoring punch in him, with hopes he could recapture the three-straight 20-goal years from his days as a Calgary Flame. The one-year, $650,000 deal is looking pretty good so far with Bourque third on the team with 10 points.
2. Sam Gagner, Columbus Blue Jackets — Cost per point: $50,000
Gagner’s season is one to watch for reasons beyond the fact that he’s coming off of a terrible year, because not only has he found his game again in Columbus, he’s done so at a rate that could potentially make this the best campaign of his career.
The best season of Gagner’s career remains his rookie year, when he potted 13 goals and 49 points in 2007-08. That was good enough to earn him a handful of votes and finish seventh in Calder Trophy voting. His next best year was his lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, as he scored 14 goals and 38 points in 48 games, good for .79 points per game.
Gagner isn’t in line to bust that points per game pace, but he is staring at potential career highs in goals and points. Right now, he’s on pace to crack the 20-goal mark for the first time in his career and his 52-point clip would signal the highest scoring season of his 10-year career.
1. Jonathan Marchessault, Florida Panthers — Cost per point: $41,667
If you saw this coming, you’re either a liar or a witch.
Over a span of just 23 games, Marchessault is one point shy of doubling his career point total in roughly half the games. He has already scored more goals this season than he did in 45 outings with the Tampa Bay Lightning during the 2015-16 campaign. Marchessault has been nothing short of outstanding in Florida, and the signing is proving to be a fantastic one by the Panthers.
There’s certainly some reasons for the uptick in scoring, such as injuries allowing him to play more than 18 minutes a night and skate on a line with Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr, but credit where credit is due. Marchessault has been consistent and he’s been effective.
The only thing about this deal that bites is that Marchessault inked a two-year, $1.5-million deal. That means Florida doesn’t have to be in any hurry to re-sign him if he continues to have a big year, and the 25-year-old might have to prove himself again next year in order to get a payday.
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