NHL chief disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan explains the reasoning behind the five-game suspension handed to Edmonton's Andy Sutton for his hit on Colorado Gabriel Landeskog.
Jake Allen has been pulled in each of his past three starts and is mired in the worst slump of his career. But what causes a goaltender to hit a rough patch and how do they go about correcting it?
The recent difficulties facing Jake Allen have been well documented. Over the past month, he’s allowed 14 goals against in five appearances and he’s been pulled in each of his past three starts. None of those outings have been quite as agonizing as Allen’s attempt to right the ship on Thursday night, though.
Against the Capitals, Allen stepped in hoping to bounce back from three consecutive outings in which he served as Carter Hutton’s backup, but the night got away from Allen early. He allowed two goals on the first three shots against and, in a move rarely seen since Mike Keenan’s heyday behind an NHL bench, was pulled for little more than two minutes before going back into play. In the second, Allen allowed another two goals in less than eight minutes and was yanked again, this time for good.
Allen’s recent stretch of dreadful starts has seen him allow 13 goals against on 64 shots in roughly 129 minutes of play, and it’s getting to the point where the Blues are simply looking for an answer when it comes to Allen. Coach Ken Hitchcock said the team needs to find a way to “unlock” the 26-year-old.
“There’s a lot in his head, he’s kind of locked up mentally and he’s going to have to fight through this,” Hitchcock said, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Jeremy Rutherford. “So beating it up any more isn’t going to do us any good. We’ve got to get him unlocked, he’s just locked right up.”
But what goes through the mind of a goaltender who’s struggling to sometimes make even the most routine of saves?
“After a couple of screw ups, it’s common to try and play it safer, hang back and be hesitant,” said Matt Cuccaro, a performance coach with Telos SPC. “For someone to stay on their toes and continue to move well and be more assertive in those moments is key…You have to be willing to be that last man on the line and possibly let a few in the net.”
Being hesitant and failing to make plays quicker can undoubtedly lead to more mistakes. As those mistakes pile up, some athletes can deal with the difficulty of letting their errors go. Sports psychologist John Stevenson, whose stable of netminders includes Braden Holtby, said it’s not uncommon for a goaltender mired in a slump to start to feel the losses more than they should.
“A lot of guys take it personally as opposed to realizing it’s not a reflection on them,” said Stevenson. “But let’s just work on the on-ice behaviour that we’re seeing right now and address it. That’s what I try and do with the guys. They realize that it’s OK, you’re human, you’re going to make mistakes.”
Getting back to a run of good play can be difficult for even the best goaltenders. An important thing to realize, however, is that there are supports in place. Cuccaro said one of the most important things is the understanding that the sport itself isn’t “a solitary endeavor.” Athletes can lean on teammates, coaches and even outside sources to fight through difficult periods. And Stevenson agreed, pointing to something as simple as a tap on the pads or some words of encouragement as something that can help a goaltender shake a bad loss.
One of the most important tools, though, is getting back to basics and finding a positive headspace. Stevenson explained that during his goalie coaching days he’d perform drills with the goaltenders that he knew they excelled at or enjoyed. He’d do that even if the drill itself wasn’t correcting an issue plaguing the goaltender. Simple things like puck tracking drills or goal-setting can help, too. The confidence boost from a strong performance in a drill could sometimes be enough to shake them out of trouble.
Another of Stevenson’s methods is goal-setting, and it can be especially helpful after a bad game. If a goalie can point to a few tough goals against and indicate how they’d correct that mistake, it can help reframe the experience as a positive, a way to learn. And when it comes to positive thinking, that should be the case regardless of the result.
“You have to treat winning and losing the same,” Stevenson said. “For the goalies I work with the first thing we do is always focus on what you did well. Last night, I would be talking to Jake and telling him he went back in. There’s always something. ‘You had some really good days of practice, your pre-game routine was really good.’ Always start off with what they did well.”
And in the darkest of days, it can help to take it out of the goaltender’s hands and show them the positives. A simple highlight reel that shows a goaltender performing at his best, making saves in different scenarios and situations, can reinforce the idea that a slump is only that: a slump. “That’s something I do all the time because I want them to know this isn’t who they are,” Stevenson said. “When you’re giving them that (positive) image, it helps tremendously.”
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.
Sam Gagner struggled in consecutive years heading into 2016-17, but the adversity helped him get tougher and his belief he could still contribute has led to a bounce back season in Columbus.
There was a point during the 2015-16 season where it looked like Sam Gagner’s time in the NHL could be over. On a middling Philadelphia Flyers squad, Gagner was mired in the bottom-six, demoted to the AHL for a stint and finished the campaign having been in and out of the lineup while producing the worst point total of his big league career.
Worst of all, Gagner, 26, was supposed to be in his prime. The sixth-overall pick in the 2007 draft, Gagner had consistently been a 40-plus point player and everything looked as though it was coming together in the lockout-shortened year when he scored 14 goals and 38 points in 48 games for the Oilers. But having followed that up with a 37-point campaign in 2013-14, Gagner found himself out of Edmonton, the only NHL city he had known, and on his way to Arizona come 2014-15.
Gagner’s points per game dropped for the second-straight season during his year with the Coyotes, and when he was shipped to Philadelphia ahead of the 2015-16 season, it was seen as another chance at a fresh start. Instead, it was one of the most difficult seasons of his career.
“It’s always hard to go through those struggles,” Gagner said of the consecutive down years in Arizona and Philadelphia. “But I truly believe that if you handle them the right way, the adversity can help shape you and help make you stronger. I feel like coming into this year I’m a lot stronger mentally than I maybe have been in the past.”
And if mental strength has been the biggest change in Gagner’s game, the 27-year-old might want to think about entering his brain into a strongman competition because the changes in Gagner’s play — and, most notably, his production — have been remarkable.
Entering the off-season as an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, he landed a one-year, show-me deal with the Blue Jackets. It pays $650,000, which is more than $4 million less than Gagner had earned during the 2015-16 campaign. Gagner couldn’t care less about that, though, because he only wanted the shot at showing his game hadn’t gone anywhere.
“I still felt like I had a lot to give as a player and if I was able to get some opportunity, that I could help a team be successful,” Gagner said. “I think coming into Columbus, I got the chance to do that, I’m playing some really important power play minutes and in a lot of different situations. It’s definitely helped me add another level to my game, and it’s been a good fit.”
Good fit? There’s an understatement. The Blue Jackets, looking for someone to produce in the bottom-six and possibly push some of the youngsters to earn their place in the top-six, called on Gagner and he’s been dynamite. Through 45 games, his 14 goals and 33 points have him on pace for the best offensive season of his career. It’s been eye-opening for those thinking Gagner’s time as a productive player int he NHL was over. Least surprised of anyone, though, is Gagner, who said he expected this of himself and knew he put the work in to make it a reality.
“I feel confident in my game,” Gagner continued. “Obviously there are ebbs and flows during a season in terms of offense and whether the puck goes in the net or not, but it’s just a matter of staying consistent with it and having a proper mindset. A lot of the struggles in the past help you with that mindset.”
Gagner’s focus is shifting as the season progresses, however. While maintaining consistency in his game, he wants to help the Blue Jackets take the next step forward. For the organization, that's going to mean not just a playoff appearance, but actually winning a round. And a Blue Jackets team that went on an unthinkable 16-game win streak has designs on a deep run.
Going on a month-long winning streak has no bearing on playoff success, to be sure, and there has been bumps in the road since Columbus’ win streak ended. Though if there’s anyone familiar with turning a tough time into a period of success, it’s Gagner.
“You learn a lot about your team in a streak like that, and I think all that pressure that comes on you when you start to build up those wins, that only helps you come playoff time,” Gagner said. “I think it was a good thing for us, and now you go through a little adversity and fight your way through it. It’s all part of an 82-game schedule, and you learn from everything.”
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.
Eeli Tolvanen with the Sioux City Musketeers. Image by: Courtesy of USHL
The USHL wants to stay competitive with the CHL, and maintain its reputation as a solid developmental league for American prospects.
The United States Hockey League has grown in leaps and bounds in the past decade and now the Midwestern circuit is changing its rules in order to stay competitive with the CHL, and maintain its reputation as a solid developmental league for American prospects.
After meetings with the Board of Governors and USA Hockey, the USHL has decided to institute a number of changes for the next two seasons.
The first significant change regards Canadian import players. Currently, any non-American player is considered an import and teams are allowed four per season. Starting in 2017-18, franchises can count two Canadians as non-imports, hypothetically bringing the total number of non-Americans on the squad to six. On top of attracting more players such as Shane Bowers (2017 draft) and alumni Cam Morrison (COL) and Brett Murray (BUF), the move also allows the USHL to stay competitive with the CHL and particularly the OHL, where a number of high-profile Americans play.
“We’re bullish on American talent,” said USHL commissioner Bob Fallen. “The world juniors and World Jr. A Challenge said a lot for the state of hockey here, but we want to level the playing field. They have an outstanding league, but we think we can compete at that level.”
The biggest difference between Canadian major junior and the USHL is that the USHL is NCAA compliant, meaning players do not receive any money for playing there. Talent-wise, the average major junior team would beat a USHL team, but in terms of high-end players, the USHL is producing many NHL first-rounders now, from Brock Boeser to Clayton Keller.
Two of the biggest names in the USHL this year are import forwards – Finland's Eeli Tolvanen, a 2017 draft prospect for Sioux City, and Russia's Andrei Svechnikov, a 2018 prospect with Muskegon.
The USHL has also become a big incubator for European goalies lately, thanks to the CHL’s ban on import netminders. And while USA Hockey floated the idea of a similar stance, the USHL instead compromised and will limit teams to one non-American goalie, starting in 2018-19. That import goaltender will also count as two import spots, so teams must be sure. Right now, four of the top five goals-against averages in the USHL belong to Europeans and the Green Bay Gamblers have an all-Euro platoon of Maksim Zhukov and David Hrenak.
Fallen said the USHL didn’t want an outright ban because having competition from top European and Canadian kids would push American goalies to be better. For the league’s GMs, finding those import gems is going to be even more important now.
“Certainly you’ll have to be more mindful of who you bring in,” said Lincoln Stars coach and GM Jon Hull. “You want your imports to be impactful.”
Hull, who has a pretty good young American netminder in Cayden Primeau with the Stars, mused that the rules might even bring younger goalies more opportunity in a league dominated by older teens. He thinks the same of the Canadian import rule, because now a team might be more inclined to bring in a younger Canadian skater who would need more time to make an impact, but may have a high ceiling.
For goalies who need an extra year of development before college, the USHL will allow teams to carry an overage netminder without him counting toward the team limit of four overagers (which, this season, refers to 1996-born players).
Another major shift for 2017-18 will be the schedule. Teams will still play 60 games, but the season will begin two weeks later and last 26 weeks instead of 28.
“There was genuine agreement that our season was too long,” Fallen said. “We were saying, ‘Guys, this is junior hockey and we’re here for almost nine months?’ ”
The shift back will also help teams that live in college football-crazy markets such as Madison and Lincoln.
“We’re living in a city where the Nebraska Cornhuskers are No. 1 on every level,” Hull said. “As soon as the football season is over, it becomes a hockey town. So the less games we play in September and October, the better it is for us financially.”
Along with the schedule moving back, the playoffs will be extended from eight teams to 12, with the top two seeds in each conference getting a first-round bye.
It’s a lot to digest, but it will be interesting to watch. The USHL has opened eyes in recent years and trying to keep up with the titans of major junior clearly doesn’t intimidate them.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins can focus on his defensive play as a No. 2 center. Image by: Andy Devlin/Getty Images
The Oilers are very likely bound for the playoffs for the first time in a decade, and former No. 1 overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will be crucial to their success.
Without a doubt, the resurgence of the Edmonton Oilers this year is being driven by Connor McDavid. The sophomore phenom is in position to win the Art Ross or the Hart or both, while his team is firmly locked in a playoff position for the first time in more than a decade.
I feel at this point we're past talking about if the Oilers will make the post-season and can move on to what they will do once they arrive there. Because as great as McDavid has been for the offense, the Oilers will need balance. And that’s where Ryan Nugent-Hopkins comes in.
Remember the Nuge? He’s not exactly obscure, being a No. 1 overall pick overall. But like fellow Edmonton lifer and linemate Jordan Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins has toiled in Alberta for years without playoff hockey. That’s about to change and for a player who has largely been out of the limelight for some time, Nugent-Hopkins will be crucial to Edmonton’s long-term success this season.
Right now, Nugent-Hopkins is below his usual career offensive clip, but the Oilers are also winning a lot more and have a healthy McDavid in the lineup ahead of him.
“Every team in the league has two or three scoring lines now, it seems,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “Obviously Connor’s a great player and I want to produce offensively as well, but I have to be a 200-foot player and grow my defensive game.”
Nugent-Hopkins is a decent possession player and is better on faceoffs than McDavid, though neither is great. The Nuge can take on tough defensive assignments and that will be important going forward, unless the Oilers bolster their forward corps with a trade for another responsible center.
It’s interesting to see where Nugent-Hopkins is at this point in his career. He was the top prospect in the 2011 draft, though it wasn’t a fever year in that regards – while Adam Larsson and Gabriel Landeskog were also thought of highly, the best players to date from that class are probably Johnny Gaudreau (104th overall), Nikita Kucherov (58th) and Mark Scheifele (seventh).
Nugent-Hopkins was seen as a slight player with incredible vision who may have needed one more year of junior before hitting the big time, but he bucked those predictions and went straight to Edmonton, earning All-Rookie Team honors in the process.
Unfortunately, in the center’s six NHL seasons, he has already had six coaches with the Oilers. That’s one of several factors that have kept Edmonton out of the playoff picture and undoubtedly hurt the development of some players (Nail Yakupov comes to mind). But with Todd McLellan now in his second year with the squad, Edmonton has a coach who has seen a fair share of playoff games and owns a Stanley Cup ring from his days as an assistant coach in Detroit.
“He’s been great,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “He’s definitely an experienced guy, being in San Jose for a lot of years. He brought that to us – we were a younger team and we still are. He keeps us accountable and definitely teaches us, so it’s good.”
The next step will be the most fun and the most daunting. All of a sudden, there are expectations for the Oilers outside of Northern Alberta. We all want to see how this team will handle playoff hockey and while McDavid is the head, he can’t be expected to go it alone. Cam Talbot must be great in net and the defense will have to hold up. If Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle can be that secondary scoring threat while also playing sound 200-foot hockey, the Oilers will be more than just a nice story in the post-season.