The Columbus Blue Jackets will be closely watching all the action as they try to earn their first playoff berth in franchise history. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)
Author: The Hockey News
The NHL’s home stretch has arrived and with it, the pulse of just about every hockey fan has been raised exponentially.
Say what you will about the league’s smoke-and-mirrors standings system, but you can’t deny it has led to major-league intrigue and super-high stakes for just about every team, right up until the last game of the regular season.
Indeed, virtually all games this week – including all three Monday night and all seven on Tuesday – feature at least one team that has serious interest in grabbing two points, either (a) to help sew up a playoff berth; (b) to secure home ice advantage; or (c) to nail down the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team.
The playoff race is sure to provide all fans with their share of chewed-down cuticles and added grey for their hair. However, the last couple weeks of the regular season offer a special benefit to the game’s most fervent followers.
Only season-long observers can summon the pain that comes with the remembrance of a shootout loss in November. Only those people can recall the joy of a January showdown wherein their team scored a last-minute goal that sent the game into overtime – and more importantly, gave their favorite franchise one extra point in the standings that turned out to be the difference between making and missing the playoffs.
That degree of perspective will never be there for the Johnny-Watch-Latelys of the hockey world. Those folks can take pride in saying, “playoff hockey is the only hockey worth watching,” all they want, but all they’re really demonstrating is a profound ignorance of context.
Contrary to that line of thinking, the NHL’s regular season does matter. Each point, each win, each overtime tie and shootout loss, matters a whole bunch. And those wise enough to understand that will be rewarded from now until June in a far more meaningful manner than the game’s attention-deficient fans.
PROTEAU BLOG MOVIE REVIEW CORNER AREA
I caught Knowing, Nicholas Cage’s latest foray into apocalypse porn, over the weekend. It easily was the loudest movie I’ve ever been unfortunate enough to pay money for (and then request a refund after it ended).
I had two fingers jammed into each of my ears for most of the film and it still made sitting in the Air Canada Centre’s press box for NHL games seem like a Marcel Marceau impersonators convention.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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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.
Petr Mrazek has struggled mightily for the Red Wings this season, and that’s going to make Detroit GM Ken Holland’s decision about the future of his crease all the more difficult.
Before the season started, the Detroit Red Wings’ goaltending situation was a no-brainer. Veteran netminder Jimmy Howard had done his part, but with a sizeable cap hit and diminishing play, his time was up. Howard’s younger counterpart, Petr Mrazek, was the starter of both the present and the future, inked to a two-year, $8-million extension. It seemed like only a matter of time — be it by trade or by expansion draft — that Howard would find himself with a new home.
A lot can change over the course of a few months, however.
Though Howard has spent nearly a month on the sideline, he was, through the early part of the season, the lone bright spot for a Red Wings team more destined to finish with a shot at the first overall pick than at keeping their post-season streak alive. Across his 17 games, he posted a 1.96 goals-against average, .934 save percentage and, of goaltenders who have seen at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5, Howard ranks sixth with a .936 SP.
Meanwhile, Mrazek, the Red Wings’ expected goaltender of the future, has looked like anything but. Through 25 appearances, he has an unsightly .893 SP and 3.19 goals-against average, and in six of his 21 starts, he’s finished the game with a sub-.850 SP. Among the same grouping of netminders as Howard, Mrazek ranks 43rd out of 49 goaltenders with a .909 SP at 5-on-5. Those are far from starter calibre numbers.
The wildcard in all of this has been that with Howard out and Mrazek struggling, the Red Wings have turned to 25-year-old Jared Coreau, who has been their undisputed best option in goal as of late. An undrafted goaltender out of the NCAA’s Northern Michigan University, Coreau played his way into a job as an ECHL starter with the Toledo Walleye in 2013-14, turned that into an AHL starting gig by 2015-16 and has now gotten the call in seven of the past 11 games in Howard’s absence. Over that time, Coreau’s .915 SP and 2.48 GAA are leagues ahead of the .868 SP and 3.70 GAA Mrazek is sporting, and that’s not to mention the two shutouts Coreau has posted along the way.
All of this poses a major question for Detroit moving forward, too, and that’s how to approach their goaltending situation come this off-season because, no matter what, something has to give. The choice for GM Ken Holland won’t be an easy one, either, with pros and cons for each netminder he currently has in his stable.
When it comes to Howard, the clearcut veteran of the group, Holland will no doubt take a look at what the netminder has done for the team this season. Were it not for Howard, the minuscule glimmer of hope the Red Wings have at making something that even resembles a run up the standings would have been snuffed out by the time December rolled around. He’s got the experience in goal and has proven in several seasons that he can be an average-or-better starter in Detroit.
What works against Howard, though, is that his game has been littered with inconsistency over the past several years. His best seasons, with .920-plus SPs in 2011-12, 2012-13 and 2016-17, have bookended a three-year period in which he boasted an average SP of .909. And even when he has been at the top of his game, Howard has battled injury, missing 47 games in the past six seasons. Six of those absences have been knee or groin related, which has to be somewhat worrisome. None of this is to mention that Howard’s $5.292-million cap hit is the biggest reason many saw him as the odd-man out in the Detroit crease. It was too much money and too much term, with another two seasons remaining after 2016-17, for a goaltender who had been mediocre in the run up to this season.
As for Mrazek, the worry comes in understanding which goaltender the Red Wings are going to get. There have been two versions of Mrazek, and the current one isn't the one Holland or the Red Wings faithful had hoped they'd see this season. Rather, the hope was they'd be getting the Mrazek who stood on his head for a two-month period from December 2015 to February 2016, posting a 13-6-1 record, .942 SP and three shutouts in 21 games. Instead, he's been more like the Mrazek who went 6-6-1 with a .886 SP in his final 16 appearances during the 2015-16 regular season and lost the starting job to start the post-season. Mrazek has dealt with a continuation of his struggles from the end of the past season, though it could simply be a matter of the 24-year-old netminder trying to regain his confidence after having it shaken.
Regardless of the play in goal, Mrazek holds a decided edge when it comes to cap management. He’s nearly $1.3-million cheaper than Howard and comes off the books following the 2017-18 campaign. For a Detroit team that’s projected to have a mere $4.653-million in cap space at season’s end, any extra spending money under the cap could be huge. Right now, though, Mrazek is effectively a third-string netminder behind Coreau and Howard, whenever he's able to return. Is that enough to have Holland and the Red Wings' brass change their mind when it comes to Mrazek as the future in goal?
As far as the lock to stick around in Detroit, the only option in that regard is really Coreau. His $612,500 cap hit makes him a no-brainer for the backup role, especially if he can continue to push the starting netminder, be it Mrazek or Howard, with his own exceptional play. It’s not as if there’s a bluechip prospect on the way that will push Coreau out of the way, either. None of the 10-best prospects in the Detroit system are netminders, and unless there’s a dynamite signing to shore up the goaltending, Coreau looks like the best thing the Red Wings have going in terms of strong, second-string goaltending down the road. Even if he’s a flash in the pan who fizzles out at some point soon, Detroit would likely only be looking for him to be a serviceable backup next season.
The solution, of course, likely still lies in playing to the cap and hoping Mrazek turns it around. Despite what Howard has done this season, the Red Wings aren’t going to do all that much with top-tier goaltending, even if that’s what Howard winds up providing wherever he goes next. If Mrazek has difficulty again in the starting role next season or there are down years due to poor goaltending, the Red Wings can look at other options for the future. For the time being, though, Detroit’s a team in transition and it serves the organization better to put their faith in the pair of Mrazek and Coreau, hoping one or both push for the starting job and lay claim to the crease when the time comes for the Red Wings to contend again.
Ondrej Pavelec made his season debut one day after getting the call up to the Jets, and he brought the crowd to their feet with an awesome stick save that stole a sure goal from the Coyotes.
Ondrej Pavelec spent 99 days with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, and in his one day with the Winnipeg Jets this season, Pavelec already went out and made arguably the best stop any Jets goaltender has made this season.
Wednesday’s outing against the Arizona Coyotes started shaky for Pavelec, who was taking his first turn in goal since closing out the 2015-16 campaign with a victory over the Los Angeles Kings on April 9. Pavelec was beaten on the first shot he faced, a low wrister from Josh Jooris, and it seemed like it could be again one of those nights.
Pavelec corrected his play, though, and made a spectacular save in the second period. After the Coyotes flipped the puck in on goal, Tobias Rieder was able to beat Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien to the loose puck and cut towards the corner, spotting a trailing Alexander Burmistrov. The pass isolated Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey in a 2-on-1 situation, which led to Burmistrov faking a shot on goal before sliding the puck across to a wide-open Radim Vrbata.
Pavelec, who had committed to the fake shot, was down and out when Vrbata received the pass, but the Jets netminder stuck out his paddle, turning aside what should have been Vrbata’s 11th goal of the campaign.
It was the best stop Pavelec made on the night and one that came at a big moment. Had the Coyotes scored, the Jets would have entered the third period protecting a one-goal lead instead of entering the final frame with a comfortable two-goal cushion. The Jets gave Pavelec some extra room to work with in his return to the NHL, too, by netting two goals less than a minute and a half apart midway through the third for a 6-2 lead.
In a way, the first-shot-first-goal followed later by an awesome save perfectly encapsulates Pavelec’s time in Winnipeg. He has been shaky at times and had some difficult outings along the way, but his highlight reel is long, including a number of saves that, realistically, he had no business making.
Regardless of the victory, the Jets are still likely going to be looking for more from their starters down the line, be it Pavelec, Connor Hellebuyck or Michael Hutchinson. The three goals allowed by Pavelec marks the fifth-straight game and sixth in seven outings that the Jets have surrendered three or more goals against.
With Morgan Rielly sidelined, another one of Toronto's top defensemen comes to the fore. Can Gardiner continue to play strong with a bigger burden on him?
The Toronto Maple Leafs have been remarkably healthy this season – must be all that kid blood – but when Morgan Rielly went down with a leg injury early against Buffalo, the squad was put to the test. As the remaining left-shooting D-men, Jake Gardiner and Matt Hunwick were tasked the most. And Gardiner, who came into the NHL as a bit of a wild horse on the back end, proved why he is being trusted more this season.
“He was huge,” said center Auston Matthews. “Going down to five ‘D,’ he came up big. That was really positive for us, being able to shut them down and come out with a win.”
Gardiner ended up playing 29:24, the most any Maple Leaf has played in a game this season. And they seemed like hard minutes; Toronto had to come back from a 2-0 deficit, then defend right to the final buzzer as the Sabres unsuccessfully (but gamely) attempted to tie a 4-3 game. But for Gardiner, making simple plays and letting the forwards push the pace was the key: in the end, Toronto dominated possession 60-40.
“I don’t feel terribly tired,” he said afterwards. “It depends on the game – you play 29 minutes but it’s all in the offensive zone, but another game it’s all in the defensive zone, so it just depends.”
The evolution of Gardiner has been interesting to witness. He’s the best possession player on the team this year and has been one of the best for the past few seasons. He’s a little more responsible with the puck now and is on pace to smash his previous season high for points (his record is 31 and right now he’s at 22 with half a season to go), while playing the same amount of minutes he has been for the past couple years.
“My stats are better than they usually are, offensively,” Gardiner said. “But more importantly, I feel like I’m a more all-around player, playing against tougher competition at times. My goal was to be more consistent and I think I’ve done that.”
Gardiner was a hot-shot prospect back in his Minnesota high school days, playing for the Minnetonka Skippers. High school games in the state run 17-minute periods and teams aren’t very deep, which means top players get a lot more ice time than they would elsewhere. I asked Gardiner if the Buffalo game reminded him of his time with the Skippers and he had a laugh.
“Yeah, a little bit,” he said. “I played over half the game back in the day, for sure.”
Rielly is now listed as day-to-day and will miss Toronto’s game against the New York Rangers on Thursday. Given how much offense the Rangers can put up, this will be another good challenge for Gardiner, even though he won’t have to play as many minutes. Some folks have questioned whether or not Rielly is a No. 1 defenseman and while I feel he has the skills and just need a little more help (his partner is Nikita Zaitsev, an NHL rookie, albeit a good one), it certainly wouldn’t hurt the Leafs to have Gardiner evolve even further when it comes to defensive play. The spotlight will be on Gardiner for the short term, so let’s see what he can do.