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Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 14

Skater of the Week: Mathew Barzal

These bye-weeks are making things weird.

Barzal gets the nod for this week’s award having only played one game during that span. But what a game it was.

Helping his Islanders to a 7-2 rout of the rival Rangers, young Barzal tallied his second five-point game of his breakout rookie campaign with two goals and three helpers. Perhaps more amazing is the fact that all five points were scored at even-strength, no power play help needed. This also landed Barzal a perfect +5 rating for the night, to go along with a .5 shooting percentage and even tallying the official game-winning goal (probably not worth much in a rout, but it pads the stats all the same).

With 44 points in 44 games to this point in the season, Barzal continues to make a very strong case for a Calder Trophy nod come season’s end.

Tendy of the Week: Mike Smith

Posting a perfect 3-0-0 record this week on the strength of just four goals allowed in those contests to rack up a .963 save percentage and a GAA just a smidge over 1.30, Smith has his Calgary Flames scorching. (Pun entirely intended)

Smith started the week stopping 33-of-35 shots faced in an overtime victory against the Wild, before nullifying 33-of-34 against the league-leading Lightning and 38-of-39 against Carolina to extend his winning streak to six games.

Calgary went out and got Smith to fill the one glaring weakness they felt they had, and if he can keep this level of play up, they could be deadly.

Game of the Week: Boston Bruins 4 vs Montreal Canadiens 3 (SO), Saturday January 13th, 2018

The 739th all-time meeting between the Original Six arch-rivals had a little something extra to offer, as it was the first meeting of the two squads since Claude Julien‘s firing from Boston and hiring by Montreal late last season. A little bit of extra hype that this tilt ended up living up to.

In total this one saw seven goals, 62 shots, 77 hits, and two power play goals on five opportunities.

Max Pacioretty would get things rolling just 3:22 into the game, collecting the rebound from a deflected Victor Mete point shot and stuffing it just inside the near post behind Tuukka Rask to give the Habs the early advantage. Most of the first period would then pass by with little affair until Brad Marchand would streak in on the back door and receive a gorgeous Patrice Bergeron centering feed from the far board and bury it top shelf to even the score at the 17:40 mark on the power play, and the two teams would carry the 1-1 score into the first intermission.

The second period would see things really open up, starting with a Jake DeBrusk breakaway tally just 2:55 into the frame. Charlie McAvoy caught the Montreal defense standing still and fed a gorgeous tape-to-tape pass to a streaking DeBrusk who made no mistake en route to his 10th goal of the year. Just 2:50 later, though, Nic Deslauriers would pounce on a Zdeno Chara turnover at center ice and streak past the stumbling Boston captain into the high slot, where he would unleash a laser of a wrist shot past the blocker of Tuukka Rask to draw his Habs back even. Then just 3:06 later Montreal would retake the lead on the power play, as Alex Galchenyuk would receive a cross-ice pass from Jonathan Drouin, take a couple strides towards the net, and absolutely smoke a wrist shot over the shoulder of Tuukka Rask into the top of the net to put his team up 3-2. The Bruins controlled a lot of the play throughout the rest of the 2nd, but were met with some solid Carey Price saves at every opportunity until at the 17:42 mark David Krejci was able to corral a bouncing puck in the slot and wire it past a surprised Price and even the game at three heading into the second intermission.

 

The third period would see both teams register the most shots of any period (12 for Boston, 10 for Montreal), but strong play by both goaltenders (and a few clutch saves by the goalpost to the right of Rask) kept things knotted at three to end regulation and send the proceedings to three-on-three overtime. Montreal looked to have it won in the waning seconds when a Jakub Jerabek shot found it’s way up and over Rask, but a diving Torey Krug managed to bat the puck out of the blue paint before Pacioretty or Plekanec could get a stick on it.

So off to the shootout we went. Both Paul Byron and Jake DeBrusk would score in the first frame, but after that the two goaltenders shut things down for the remaining two shooters a side to force shootout overtime, where Rask would shut the door on Galchenyuk to allow Brad Marchand to streak in and bury the game-winner right through the five hole of Carey Price and directly into the hearts of the Montreal faithful.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

I saved the Phillip Danault story from the Boston/Montreal game for this section, because it definitely deserves to be highlighted. Danault is reported to be doing alright and was released from the hospital Sunday after an overnight evaluation. The Habs forward took a Zdeno Chara slapshot off the side of the head in Saturday night’s contest, and was eventually stretchered off of the ice. A truly sombering scene in a very exciting contest, Chara was one of the first to Danault’s aid and appeared to apologize to him as he was loaded up and carried off the ice. Between this and the Girardi/Frk incident last week, I’m thinking maybe people should stop trying to block the hardest shots in the game with their faces.

Speaking of near-disasters, Milan Lucic came millimeters from life-threatening danger himself when he tangled with Golden Knights forward Tomas Nosek and, upon the two falling to the ice, had his neck cut by Nosek’s skate. The picture of the stitch job is pretty unnerving, and according to Lucic the cut was mere millimeters too shallow to open up his jugular vein.

One of the NHL’s most impressive streaks is coming to an end. After 830 consecutive games, Anaheim’s Andrew Cogliano will be forced to miss the next two contests after being suspended for a very-not legal hit on Kings forward Adrian Kempe. A very heated contest led to a lot of physicality, and the play was certainly very out of character for Cogliano, who sacrifices a streak that could have broken the NHL record next season had it continued.

The Vegas Golden Knights have formed their first rivalry, but not exactly the sort you’d expect. The United States Army has filed a copyright challenge to the franchise on the grounds that they already possessed the rights to the name ‘Golden Knights’ for its West Point parachute jump team. The franchise’s response? A spectacularly sarcastic tweet, obviously.

Jack Johnson has requested a trade out of Columbus. A pending UFA, it is generally believed that Johnson wants to be traded to a team where he will have a chance at seeing more playing time in an effort to raise his stock on the market, after seeing his minutes plummet in recent weeks. While many CBJ fans (myself included) hold ‘JMFJ’ in high regards as a person, trading the defender had become a very common topic in Columbus long before the player’s request, as his production has dipped significantly, highlighting his defensive shortcomings and bringing about the argument for his replacement by younger options within the CBJ system.

Tampa has lost star defender Victor Hedman for 3-6 weeks with a lower body injury. I’m pretty sure if they lost every game in that time they would still be like 4th in the league, but still, it’s a bummer.

Am I the only one who thinks these Olympic Games are actually gonna be pretty fun? As rosters get released, obviously the star power we’re used to isn’t there, but convince me that these lesser-known guys, most of them being players who probably never even dreamed they’d get this chance, aren’t going to play their absolute hearts out every single second of every single game. I think it’s gonna be great.

On a final note, we learned this week via Doc Emrick that Pierre McGuire has undergone successful surgery to remove a cancer-infected prostate. He is recovering and is hopeful to rejoin the broadcast team in time for the Olympics. Now I, like many, can admit to yelling at Pierre to stop yapping on about whatever ridiculous stat or story he knows about some third-line player on a team I don’t like, but I think I speak for everyone when I say that cancer should take a Chara slapshot to the mush and a few skates to its main artery. So get well, Pierre, Eddy-O and everyone else that has to fight this miserable disease.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Weeks 12 & 13

With New Years and the GLI preventing me from posting last week (and being out of town this weekend pushing this yet another day back) I’ll be combining the past two weeks of action, because I make the rules here and you all just have to deal with it. So there.

Skater of the Week(s): Mikko Rantanen

Though the big Finn was overshadowed slightly by teammate Nathan MacKinnon by two points over this stretch, Rantanen’s 10 points in six games are still nothing to scoff at. An even split of five goals (one on the power play) and five assists (also one power play tally) to go with a ridiculous +9 rating over the six games put the 21-year old at 41 points in 41 games and dug him out of a -8 +/- hole to put him at a +1 on the season.

If Rantanen can continue producing at a point-a-game rate to go along with the incredible numbers MacKinnon is putting up, he may well lead the Avs (and my fantasy team) right into the playoffs.

Tendy of the Week(s): Tuukka Rask

(Special mentions to Jimmy Howard, Connor Hellebuyck, Jonathan Bernier and Ben Bishop, who all posted one more win than Rask over this span and all had terrific numbers of their own, as well.)

The Bruins are scorching hot right now and Rask is a huge part of that. The man with two Us and two Ks truly was too good over these past two weeks, posting wins in all three of his starts with a scarcely believable .974 save percentage and 0.67 GAA to his credit, along with a shutout (duh) for good measure.

Boston is never going to run down Tampa for the division’s top spot without some sort of extinction-level event befalling the Lightning, but with three games in hand over third place Toronto and the Grand Canyon between them and fourth place, the Bs look to be fairly comfortable in their push towards the playoffs. If Rask carries this play into the postseason, everyone should be scared.

Game of the Week(s): Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…………

Okay, so, admittedly I did not watch a lot of hockey over the past 14 or so days. I can tell you that Michigan vs Michigan State in the consolation game of the GLI was a lot of fun, and the Winter Classic looked like it was a barnburner. Also the Jackets and Panthers went eight rounds into the shootout Sunday night, a game that I was originally supposed to attend (you’re welcome, friend who I gave the tickets to), and all five goals scored were gross.

But if I’m being honest, I simply haven’t watched enough to make a solid pick this time around. So, tell you what, the game of the week is whatever you want it to be! Yeah, how about that? That’s me giving back to you, the reader.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

David Savard was fined $5,000 for Paul Bunyon-ing Vincent Trocheck, a move that Cap’n Cornelius would probably deem the most solid defensive play he’s seen out of Savard all season.

Dan Girardi blocked a Martin Frk shot with his head, which is definitely not recommended, but luckily had all concussion tests come back negative and is only listed as day-to-day. In Girardi’s defense, at least half of the time Frk lets a shot go, even he doesn’t know exactly where it’s going (a point Red Wings’ color analyst Mickey Redmond made himself after the play occurred). For those unfamiliar with Frk, I can tell you that he almost certainly has one of the hardest shots you will ever witness. Living in northwest Ohio, I’ve had multiple opportunities to watch him in action over the past few years when he spent time with Toledo of the ECHL, and even his wrist shot hits the boards with a sound unlike anything you’ll hear from 99 percent of other players. Maybe work on keeping them down, Marty.

Patrice Bergeron had himself a four-goal game, which I assume was just to remind all of us that he’s still the best hockey player that no one ever remembers exists.

Glen Gulutzan had a meltdown for the ages at Flames practice, highlighted by heaving his stick into the stratosphere. No one has seen the stick land yet, and I assume it has simply joined Jose Bautista’s bat on its eternal journey through the cosmos.

Speaking of the Flames, the team is reportedly looking to release Jaromir Jagr, in a move that would likely put them on a level of heel heat that would rival Vince McMahon post-Montreal Screwjob (Bonus points to any reader that actually understands that reference).

Nazem Kadri fought Joe Thornton (bad idea) and apparently thought ripping some of Jumbo’s beard out would cause Joe to lose some of his strength (decent theory, story of Samson and whatnot). It did not cause him to lose his strength, though, so a bad day for Kadri there.

The Oilers nabbed goaltender Al Montoya from the Habs in exchange for a conditional 4th round pick, in a move that could be titled “Two dumpster fires exchange things in attempt to convince livid fanbases that improvements are being made.”

Hey, why isn’t (insert NHL team here) playing?

Still trying to figure out why your favorite team has games all next week, but your rival gets to take five-straight days off? Or maybe you’re most concerned about your fantasy hockey team? Either way, *NSYNC has the answer:

The NHL is in Year 2 of its experiment with bye weeks. Some things – like the average length of each team’s break – stayed the same. 19 of the 31 clubs are taking the minimum five days off, while 11 others get an extra sixth before returning to action. Of course, the winners of the bye week lottery are the Ottawa Senators, who get a whopping seven days to rest, regroup and rediscover the art of ice hockey before hosting St. Louis.

But there are a few differences from last year, most notably where these breaks occur within the league schedule. Last season when the bye weeks debuted, the Islanders and Penguins had already started and finished their breaks by now, while others wouldn’t see the gap in their schedule until well beyond the All-Star Break or even the trade deadline. In fact, the Ducks didn’t take their week off until the beginning of March.

It was probably because Anaheim is on Pacific Time. That’s how time zones work, right?

Anyways, all 31 bye weeks this season – whether five, six or seven days – will start and end in the span of the 18 days between today and January 19.

Though initial thoughts were that the bye weeks were consolidated in anticipation of the NHL potentially releasing its players to their respective national federations for the XXIII Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, it instead will simply be an opportunity for the league’s scheduler to determine which format is better for business.

But we’re not worried about attendance, advertising dollars or TV ratings here at Down the Frozen River (actually, that’s a lie: we love to talk about that stuff during podcasts). Let’s talk about who’s going to be off when. Teams are presented in order of the league table as it stands entering play January 7, and you might find some notes from myself and @nlanciani53.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

29-9-3, 61 points, leading Presidents’ Trophy race

Final game before the bye: Hosts Calgary on January 11

Bye week: January 12-17 (six days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Vegas on January 18

Nick’s Notes: A hot team must cool off a bit and then play the Vegas Golden Knights on their first night back to action? Talk about a prison sentence. At least they’ve still got the Presidents’ Trophy (lead) as consolation.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

28-10-2, 58 points, leading the Western Conference

Final game before the bye: Hosts the NY Rangers on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Edmonton on January 13

Nick’s Notes: Son, where the Golden Knights are from, they don’t need no breaks. Polar opposites of the Tampa Bay Lightning bye week, Vegas plays a good team before taking time off. Then they play Edmonton. Next!

Connor’s Notes: That may be true, but there’s surely some concern among Gerard Gallant and his staff that the Knights just might lose some of this positive energy over the break. They’ve posted a 9-1-0 record over their last 10, and it’d be a shame if the only reason this club drops from Cloud 9 to Cloud 8 is just five little days off.

WINNIPEG JETS

24-11-7, 55 points, leading the Central Division

Final game before the bye: At Minnesota on January 13

Bye week: January 14-19 (six days)

First game out of the bye: At Calgary on January 20

Nick’s Notes: The Winnipeg Jets are vying for first place in the Central Division this season after missing the playoffs last year. Their second best point-scorer (that’s right, point-scorer, not goal-scorer, Patrik Laine), Mark Scheifele‘s been nursing an upper body injury and this break won’t hurt the team for a week while he remains out of the lineup.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS

24-11-6, 54 points, second in the Central Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Edmonton on January 9

Bye week: January 10-15

First game out of the bye: Hosts Vegas on January 16

Nick’s Notes: Most people think the party never stops in Vegas, but they’re wrong. The party never stops in Smashville and let’s just hope none of the Predators players get carried away on Broadway in their week off.

ST. LOUIS BLUES

26-16-2, 54 points, third in the Central Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Florida on January 9

Bye week: January 10-15 (six days)

First game out of the bye: At Toronto on January 16

Connor’s Notes: Any way to avoid playing games while Jaden Schwartz‘ ankle is still healing is a good thing. While he won’t be ready to go until the end of the month, the Blues will hope to get out of a rut that has led to them posting a 4-6-0 record over their last 10 games entering Sunday.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

25-13-3, 53 points, leading the Metropolitan Division

Final game before the bye: At Carolina on January 12

Bye week: January 13-17 (five days)

First game out of the bye: At New Jersey on January 18

Nick’s Notes: It’s not that Braden Holtby‘s been bad, but he’s having his worst season since 2013-14, so like, maybe send him to a remote mountain top or whatever it takes for Holtby to regain his form and focus (a water bottle usually does the trick). Seriously though, his 2.68 GAA and .917 save percentage is not great, Bob.

LOS ANGELES KINGS

24-13-5, 53 points, second in the Pacific Division

Final game before the bye: Hosted Nashville on January 6, lost 4-3

Bye week: January 7-12 (six days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Anaheim on January 13

Nick’s Notes: Best of luck to the Los Angeles Kings who will smash bodies against the boards with Nashville leading into their bye week and then smash bodies all over again with the Anaheim Ducks fresh off their vacations. It’s a grueling game. Ice those bruises.

BOSTON BRUINS

23-10-6, 52 points, second in the Atlantic Division

Final game before the bye: At Pittsburgh on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: At Montréal on January 13

Connor’s Notes: Similar to Vegas’ current run of success, with an 8-0-2 record over their last 10 games played entering Sunday, the Bruins arguably have the most positive energy to lose by going on break of any team in the Eastern Conference. Fortunately for them, they’ll play in what I expect to be a rivalry game that’s even more heated than usual given the Habs’ position in the standings to get right back into the swing of things.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

25-16-2, 52 points, third in the Atlantic Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Ottawa on January 10

Bye week: January 11-15 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts St. Louis on January 16

Connor’s Notes: While the Leafs aren’t currently certain he’ll be ready to go by then, the original hope was that sophomore defenseman Nikita Zaitsev‘s lower-body injury would be healed by the time Toronto returned to action against the Notes. If St. Louis’ offense is ticking that day, his presence in the defensive zone will be a big help to Frederik Andersen

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

22-11-7, 51 points, second in the Metropolitan Division

Final game before the bye: At the NY Islanders on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Philadelphia January 13

Nick’s Notes: The New Jersey Devils have been quietly good as of late. They’re this year’s biggest surprise outside of the Golden Knights. Nico Hischier just turned 19, so unless he’s going outside of the United States for his break, he can’t (legally) party hard.

DALLAS STARS

24-16-3, 51 points, fourth in the Central Division – first wild card

Final game before the bye: Hosted Edmonton on January 6, won 5-1

Bye week: January 7-12 (six days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Colorado on January 13

Nick’s Notes: Wouldn’t it be mean if nobody tells Kari Lehtonen when the break is so he just drives up to the practice rink on the first day like “where’d everybody go”? Just a thought.

NEW YORK RANGERS

22-14-5, 49 points, third in the Metropolitan Division

Final game before the bye: At Vegas on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts the NY Islanders on January 13

Nick’s Notes: Great, another week off means Henrik Lundqvist has to wait even longer for a Stanley Cup.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

23-16-3, 49 points, fourth in the Metropolitan Division – first wild card

Final game before the bye: Hosts Vancouver on January 12

Bye week: January 13-17 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Dallas on January 18

Nick’s Notes: The Columbus Blue Jackets have been the St. Louis Blues of the Eastern Conference this season. One week they’re amazing, the next week they’re losing. A lot.

Connor’s Notes: Nick is right, and the Jackets are in one of their losing funks right now. Entering Sunday, they’ve posted a 3-5-2 record over their last 10 games played. They won’t regain any of their four injured players during the break, but perhaps John Tortorella can find a way to regroup his troops before they lose any more ground in the Metro.

SAN JOSE SHARKS

21-12-6, 48 points, third in the Pacific Division

Final game before the bye: At Winnipeg on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Arizona on January 13

Nick’s Notes: Joe Thornton should use this break to regrow that part of his beard that got torn off his face by Nazem Kadri in Toronto.

COLORADO AVALANCHE

22-16-3, 47 points, fifth in the Central Division – second wild card

Final game before the bye: Hosted Minnesota on January 6, won 7-2

Bye week: January 7-12 (six days)

First game out of the bye: At Dallas on January 13

Connor’s Notes: Goaltender Semyon Varlamov should be prepared to return to action following the bye week after suffering a lower body injury on January 2, and there’s a possibility J.T. Compher get back into the lineup too. However, considering the Avs’ unbelievable position in the standings, does Jared Bednar even think about pulling Jonathan Bernier?

MINNESOTA WILD

22-17-3, 47 points, sixth in the Central Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Vancouver on January 14

Bye week: January 15-19

First game out of the bye: Hosts Tampa Bay on January 20

Nick’s Notes: Oft-injured and finally healthy, the Minnesota Wild should place everyone in bubblewrap for their bye week. Just a suggestion.

ANAHEIM DUCKS

19-15-9, 47 points, fourth in the Pacific Division

Final game before the bye: At Calgary on January 6, lost 3-2

Bye week: January 7-12

First game out of the bye: At Los Angeles on January 13

Connor’s Notes: With Corey Perry returning to action last night against the Flames, Anaheim is effectively at 100 percent once again after losing basically every star at one point or another this season. After seeing what an injured Ducks team was capable of, the Pacific Division should get ready, because a rested and healthy Ducks team just might wreck havoc against weak competition.

CALGARY FLAMES

21-16-4, 46 points, fifth in the Pacific Division

Final game before the bye: At Carolina on January 14

Bye week: January 15-19 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Winnipeg on January 20

Nick’s Notes: Whoever’s running the airport gates in Calgary should make sure that wherever the player’s are going doesn’t actually say “Seattle” on their ticket. Unless the gate agent is originally from Seattle. *dramatic Twin Peaks music plays in the background*

CAROLINA HURRICANES

19-14-8, 46 points, fifth in the Metropolitan Division – second wild card

Final game before the bye: Hosts Calgary on January 14

Bye week: January 15-19 (five days)

First game out of the bye: At Detroit on January 20

Nick’s Notes: One thing’s for sure, even with their potential new majority owner, none of the Carolina Hurricanes players are going back to Hartford for their break. What a shame.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

21-19-3, 45 points, sixth in the Metropolitan Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Boston on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Detroit on January 13

Nick’s Notes: Phil Kessel doesn’t like time off (remember the 2016 World Cup of Hockey?) and Matthew Murray should probably go to the same place as Braden Holtby for a week. Murray’s goals-against average is almost a 3.0.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

19-15-6, 44 points, last in the Central Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Detroit on January 14

Bye week: January 15-19 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts the NY Islanders on January 20

Nick’s Notes: Jeff Glass is the feel good story of 2018 so far, so why would anyone want to see him take five nights off? *Checks standings* Oh, right, this team isn’t in playoff worthy right now.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

18-15-8, 44 points, seventh in the Metropolitan Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Buffalo on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: At New Jersey on January 13

Nick’s Notes: Someone make sure the Philadelphia Flyers don’t try to move to the Atlantic Division over their bye week. They’ll do anything to make the playoffs this season.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

20-18-4, 44 points, last in the Metropolitan Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts New Jersey on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: At the NY Rangers on January 13

Connor’s Notes: The reason the Islanders have been making by with their horrendous defense, which was made worse by Calvin de Haan requiring a season-ending shoulder surgery, has been their explosive offense. Josh Bailey should be back at 100 percent following New York’s bye to reunite the BLT Line, allowing the Isles to get back to their version of Russian Roulette: finding out which goaltender is going to allow just one more goal than the other.

DETROIT RED WINGS

17-16-7, 41 points, fourth in the Atlantic Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Tampa Bay on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: At Pittsburgh on January 13

Nick’s Notes: If the Detroit Red Wings were a young, rebuilding, team I’d recommend a five-day long pizza party at The Pizza Box (Little Caesar’s Arena). Maybe they can figure out the right way to tank during their time off instead of winning a lot before the break.

FLORIDA PANTHERS

17-18-5, 39 points, fifth in the Atlantic Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Calgary on January 12

Bye week: January 13-18 (six days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Vegas on January 19

Connor’s Notes: Just as James Reimer is beginning to run out of steam, Roberto Luongo is expected to return to the Panthers’ crease with his club seven points outside playoff position. Whether he resumes his starting job before or after the bye, the break allows both of them to be fully rested.

EDMONTON OILERS

18-21-3, 39 points, sixth in the Pacific Division

Final game before the bye: At Vegas on January 13

Bye week: January 14-19 (six days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Vancouver on January 20

Nick’s Notes: Peter Chiarelli can’t possibly figure out how he’s going to save his team in six days when he spent $21 million on Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in about that amount of time over the summer.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

16-19-6, 38 points, seventh in the Pacific Division

Final game before the bye: At Minnesota on January 14

Bye week: January 15-19 (five days)

First game out of the bye: At Edmonton on January 20

Nick’s Notes: Like Mark Scheifele and the Winnipeg Jets, Bo Horvat and the Vancouver Canucks haven’t seen each other in a little while due to injury. Take some time and rest up.

MONTRÉAL CANADIENS

17-20-4, 38 points, sixth in the Atlantic Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Vancouver on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Boston on January 13

Nick’s Notes: I’m pretty sure you can’t trade players during your bye week, so don’t try to move Max Pacioretty while nobody’s paying attention, Montreal.

OTTAWA SENATORS

14-17-9, 37 points, seventh in the Atlantic Division

Final game before the bye: At Toronto on January 10

Bye week: January 11-17 (seven days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts St. Louis on January 18

Nick’s Notes: The Ottawa Senators will find a way to lose games over their seven day break. Meanwhile, Eugene Melnyk will have just enough time to figure out an escape plan while nobody’s at Canadian Tire Centre.

BUFFALO SABRES

10-22-9, 29 points, last in the Eastern Conference

Final game before the bye: Hosts Columbus on January 11

Bye week: January 12-17 (six days)

First game out of the bye: At the NY Rangers on January 18

Nick’s Notes: The Sabres should hold an exhibition matchup with some bantam teams while on their break. You know, so they can get better.

ARIZONA COYOTES

10-27-6, 26 points, last in the NHL

Final game before the bye: Hosted the NY Rangers on January 6, won 2-1 in a shootout

Bye week: January 7-11 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Edmonton on January 12

Nick’s Notes: Wait, you mean Arizona hasn’t already been taking time off all season?


Final notes: I strongly dislike how the NHL is abandoning entire markets for a week at a time. This is most noticeable in the United States’ two biggest cities: New York and Los Angeles. All five teams that play in those markets will be dormant for the same five days (January 8-12). Why didn’t they stagger these byes so those important markets would still have at least one squad active at all times? After all, if there’s one thing Devils fans love to see as much as a Jersey win, it’s a Rangers loss. Whether they take in that loss at Madison Square Garden or from their couch doesn’t ultimately matter. The fact that those markets could turn their attention away from the NHL to either the Clippers, Knicks or Friends reruns on TBS does.

But this extends further. The entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will be shut off from NHL hockey from January 8-12 (The same days as New York and Los Angeles? Who is making these decisions?), as neither the Flyers nor Penguins will be in action. Boston and Montréal? Nope, they’re both on the bye at the same time too (you guessed it, January 8-12). The Blues and Predators can vacation together as well – though I doubt they’d want to – as they are both out of action from January 10-15.

I’m sure the league’s competition committee is going to claim that they’re trying to reduce the possibility of one particular team getting too much of an advantage, but this just seems silly from a business perspective. If that is truly the case, perhaps one day when the league reaches 32 teams it will simply shut down an entire conference for five days and then the other (the odd number of teams right now makes scheduling a little… interesting in that scenario), or – the more likely of these two options – perchance expand the distribution of byes over the course of three weeks instead of just two. Who knows?

Beyond this issue, while I don’t necessarily like where it is in the schedule, I do like that the NHL has condensed the time period for bye weeks in the season. Keeping track of which teams had and hadn’t taken their week off last season was a bother, and this system eliminates that. Of course, we’ll know how NBC and Sportsnet react based on how these byes are arranged next year.

As for my final complaint, the byes have the possibility of creating a very staggered January. We just got out of the three-day holiday break 12 days ago. Each team has played an average of only 5.4 games since then. Now we have these bye weeks of at least five days, and the four-day All-Star Break (January 26-29) is only 20 days out. If those sentences were confusing, I’m concerned that’s how the month of January is going to feel – scattered hockey thoughts until Groundhog’s Day.

The NHL Players’ Association demanded these bye weeks in return for the league turning the All-Star Game into the divisional three-on-three format we have had for the past two years. They’re not going anywhere: the players obviously like the idea of getting some time off, and putting it near the midway point of the season seems like a logical idea.

However, how this change is impacting the league’s product is still being understood. Unless we could see a plausible situation where bye weeks don’t happen until the end of February or March (remember, that’s likely after the trade deadline), the existence of the midway-point byes could be yet another reason the NHL could axe the All-Star Game, eliminating that break altogether.

Throw in the fact that the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement could expire as soon as 2020’s offseason – should either party opt out early – and no later than the summer of 2022 and we could be looking at a whole heap of changes  – or a whole heap of no hockey – within the next four years.

NHL Power Rankings: Christmas Edition

The Holiday Break has come and gone, which brings us closer to the midway point of the season. Last week’s action was exciting to say the least, with many hot teams continuing their success. In this week’s Down the Frozen River Power Rankings, we’re bringing you a Christmas Edition. Just as Santa would do this time of year, we have divided our top (and bottom) teams into two categories. So, who got coal this year and who hit the jackpot?

Nice List

  1. New Jersey Devils (51)

The Devils are definitely at the top of the “Nice List,” as they have won seven of their last 10, while streaking through their past five games. Many questioned the early success of New Jersey, but they are proving they can sustain success with a more than capable offense. Their next game is tomorrow night against Buffalo.

  1. Vegas Golden Knights (44)

The Golden Knights are right with the Devils, as they have also won their last five games. The mysterious wonders continues to tear through their schedule, as they push closer to the playoffs. Last night, they defeated Anaheim 4-1, with a great performance from Malcolm Subban. It sure won’t be a Silent Night in Los Angeles tonight, as the Golden Knights look to continue their winning ways.

  1. Boston Bruins (44)

This week’s Power Rankings might just consist of teams that have won five straight games. Jokes aside, the Bruins are deserving of this accolade. They have gone 8-1-1 in their last 10 games, making up a lot of ground in the Atlantic Division. They are currently tied with Toronto for second place in the division. Boston will take on the Washington Capitals this evening. 

  1. Edmonton Oilers (37)

The Oilers have been playing a roller-coaster of a season to this point. While last night’s game against Winnipeg didn’t go according to plan, they still earn themselves a free pass. 6-4-0 in their last 10 games isn’t too shabby for a team that looked completely out of the playoff picture just a short while ago. Edmonton has given themselves a better opportunity, but they need to go out and earn it.

  1. Tampa Bay Lightning (25)

It’s odd to see a team that is 9-1-0 in their last 10 being at the bottom of our Power Rankings, but that just goes to show how well other teams have performed. The Lightning are still ahead of the competition, as they lead the Presidents’ Trophy race by four points.

Naughty List

  1. Arizona Coyotes (55)

You hate to kick a team while they’re down, but let’s just get on with it. The Coyotes are at the top of our “Naughty List” for fairly obvious reasons. Nearing the end of December, Arizona has just 23 points and are clearly out of the postseason mix. You hope that this organization will eventually turn the corner, but it won’t be this season.

  1. Ottawa Senators (48)

Losing the biggest trade of the year, rumors of relocating the club, only two wins in their last 10 games; what else could possible bring down the Senators? Ottawa appeared to be loading up for a big run after acquiring Matt Duchene from Colorado, but they have gone completely downhill. They continued their slump yesterday evening, as they were downed 5-1 by Boston. This team should be better, but with lackluster offense and an aging starting goaltender, Ottawa may need to rethink their approach to the future.

  1. Buffalo Sabres (37)

On paper, the Sabres should be a solid team. On ice, it is a different story. Last night, Buffalo was able to slow the red-hot offense of the Islanders, but they still lost 3-2 in overtime. That drops them to 3-3-4 in their last 10. Although not mathematically eliminated, Buffalo is way out of the playoff race. You may see this club make a few key deals closer to the trade deadline.

  1. Vancouver Canucks (35)

The Canucks appeared much improved from just a season ago, but their past has reared its ugly head. Brock Boeser has been a big success, but there are many other flaws in their armor. Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin can’t put up points like they used to and the rest of their offense hasn’t been executing. Although Vancouver is just six points out of a Wild Card position, they would need a huge boost to get there. 

  1. Detroit Red Wings (29)

Last, but certainly not least, the Detroit Red Wings. Honestly, Ken Holland is the last person I would want to be right now. The team isn’t good enough to do anything substantial, but they also aren’t bad enough to tank. Do you trade away a few members of the old guard and rebuild? Maybe wait it out and hope the ship gets turned around? Some tough calls to be made by Detroit’s management.

Merkle’s Christmas Bumblings

I will now attempt to write a coherent article as I lay near-comatose full of grilled chicken, hamloaf, turkey, mashed potatoes, corn, biscuits, rolls and whatever else I might have eaten that my holiday-overloaded mind can’t recall. Thumbs up, let’s do this.

Skater of the Week: Mathew Barzal

I told myself I wouldn’t pick Josh Bailey again, so this time I picked his teammate. I promise you I’m not actually an Islanders fan.

The Isles continue to score at a torrid pace, and while John Tavares and Bailey both matched Barzal’s six-point output in this week’s three games, I’m giving the nod to the rookie. A bit of a dark horse to even make the squad at the beginning of the year, I did make note of Barzal in my preseason preview article about the Isles, and he’s making me look smarter than I actually am.

With 35 points in 36 games so far this season, the 20-year-old from Coquitlam, B.C. has really come into his own in recent weeks. Currently riding a four-game point streak, Barzal chipped in four goals and two assists in three contests this week, including a hat trick Saturday night at Winnipeg.

If guys like Barzal and Bailey (not to mention Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle) continue to produce the way they are, the Isles look to be very dangerous, as they finally possess the complimentary firepower to free up some space for Tavares.

Tendy of the Week: James Reimer

Chill, Bruins fans (looking at you, Lanciani), I know Tuukka Rask had a crazy good week himself. But, considering their major stats were nearly identical, I’m giving the nod to Reimer based on him grabbing a shutout when Rask didn’t, and the fact that he faced 23 more shots than the Boston netminder.

Smilin’ Reimer was truly on it this week. Winning all three games, he allowed just four total goals, scooping up a 1.33 GAA and a .964 save percentage across the contests. With Roberto Luongo still on the shelf, the Panthers desperately need Reimer to continue playing at a high level for them to have any real shot at keeping pace in the Atlantic. At least for the time being, he’s doing just that.

Game of the Week: Basically the entire night of Thursday, December 21st

10 games. Seven of them needed OT or the shootout to decide them. Even the three regulation games were at least weird if nothing else. The Hurricanes toppled the Predators, the Stars blanked the Blackhawks, and the Oilers upset the juggernaut Blues.

Among the games decided in extra time, you had everything from defensive struggles (Bruins over Jets 2-1 in the shootout, Kings over the Avs 2-1 in OT), offensive showcases (Ducks over Isles and Sharks over Canucks, both 5-4 contests), and a couple rivalry showcases (Devils take out the Rangers 4-3, and Penguins edge the Jackets 3-2 in an extremely heated affair, both in shootouts).

Just one of those strange nights where the hockey gods decide that everything gets an extra sprinkling of awesome.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Radko Gudas got suspended for about 137 games for a slash, because at this point he has to be doing stupid stuff on purpose.

Boone Jenner had a game misconduct penalty retroactively rescinded (because that’s apparently worth something) by the league after being kicked from the CBJ/PIT game by possibly the softest game misconduct ever issued.

Alexander Burmistrov has ‘retired’ from the NHL to return to his native Russia and play in the KHL. A once-promising prospect of the Atlanta/Winnipeg organization, Burmistrov left the NHL for the KHL back in 2013 before returning in 2015. His NHL career never really blossomed into what was hoped, and it sounds like the 26-year-old simply enjoys playing at home much more than playing in North America.

Zac Rinaldo again finds himself amid controversy, staring a likely-lengthy suspension in the face. After laying a hard (though seemingly clean) hit on Nathan MacKinnon, Rinaldo sucker punched Avs rookie Samuel Girard who had come over to confront him after the hit. Erik Johnson then stepped in and used the fact that he is the size of a Chevrolet Silverado to his advantage, but by this point things had already entered into the category of line brawl. Girard never dropped his gloves, or even looked as though he had any intention of actually fighting Rinaldo, so it’s easy to see where the impending punishment has grounds to stand on (particularly in the case of oft-suspended Rinaldo), but counter-points have been made by more than a few people, most notably former NHL tough guy Paul Bissonnette, most to the tune of ‘Girard probably shouldn’t have gone after someone he didn’t intend to fight’. Regardless, expect to see a lot less of Rinaldo over at least the next few games.

Ken Hitchcock reached the 800-win plateau as a head coach when his Dallas Stars beat the Blackhawks in the aforementioned Thursday night 4-0 blanking. Hitch is only the 3rd coach in NHL history to reach the milestone, with just that night’s opposing coach Joel Quenneville and Scotty Bowman ahead of him.

Editor’s note: The common thread between those coaches? All three have coached the St. Louis Blues, yet none could lead the Notes to the Stanley Cup.

Weekly Bumblings for Week 8 with Special Guest Host, Cap’n Cornelius

While Peter is out enjoying a trip to see some hockey games in person, I’m filling in with a recap of the past week’s NHL action.

Player of the Week:  Blake Wheeler

Wheeler has been the definition of streaky, of late, but this week was the good side of the coin.  He broke a four-game pointless drought last Monday against Minnesota, getting one goal and two assists.

After being held without a point against Colorado, he put in another three-point performance (all assists) against Vegas.

But he would save his best for Sunday against the Ottawa Senators.  In a game that saw the Jets beat the Senators 5-0, Wheeler had a point on all but one of the goals, putting up one goal and three assists.  He had a beautiful cross ice pass to set up Mark Scheifele on the first goal of the night and the Jets never looked back tallying three of their goals on the power play.

Wheeler has passed Steven Stamkos to take the league lead in assists with 28 and has helped power the Jets to the top of the Western Conference, something few expected as the season began.

 Team of the Week: Los Angeles Kings

Just when it looked like the Kings might be fading after a hot start, they went 4-0 this week and moved six points ahead of the second-place Vegas Golden Knights in the Pacific Division, exactly as the media expected before the season began, right?  The Kings won the first three of those games by three goals each.

After one period of play in their Tuesday game in Detroit, the Kings found themselves down 1-0, but Dustin Brown, who has had a heck of a comeback season, evened it up at 1 and Anze Kopitar then put them ahead 2-1 before the second period was over.  LA would add two more in the third on goals from Adrian Kempe and Kopitar’s second of the night.

Next up for the Kings was another road game against the Caps.  Again, the Kings gave up an early lead on a goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov. Marian Gaborik would even it up, only for Kuznetsov to get a second goal.  Jonny Brodzinski would tie it again and nine seconds later Jussi Jokinen would put the Kings ahead.  After that, it was all Kings.

The Kings continued their road trip Friday with a visit to play the St. Louis Blues, one of the best teams in the league to this point in the season.  This time the Kings got the early lead on a Tyler Toffoli tally. Kopitar would then bang home a rebound to make it 2-0.  Before it was over, Kempe and Toffoli would add goals and the Kings would win 4-1 despite being outshot 40-28 on a stellar performance by backup goaltender, Darcy Kuemper.

The Kings finished their week and their road trip in Chicago on Sunday.  Through two periods the game was scoreless.  Christian Folin finally put the Kings up with just over 10 minutes left in the game.  Then things got a little weird with just over two minutes left in the game.  First, Brown would get an empty net goal.  Then the Hawks would answer on a goal from Jonathan Toews with 1:46 left to end Quick’s shutout bid.  But Kopitar would put the final nail in the coffin with 51.5 seconds left in the game with a final empty net goal.

As long as the Kings continue to get these types of performances from Brown, Kopitar and solid goaltending, they will have a very good chance to lock down the Pacific Division.

Game of the Week: Edmonton Oilers 7 @ Calgary Flames 5, Saturday, December 2, 2017

One of the first NHL games I can remember watching on TV was Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers against Lanny McDonald’s Flames.  This game was a throwback to that era when goalies for some reason spent much of their time standing up and, consequently, watching pucks go past them.  This is the type of game you hope to see with all of the offensive talent on these two teams and the reason you stay up to watch the late game on Hockey Night in Canada if you live in the Eastern Time Zone.

Connor McDavid skated around the Flames zone early and his persistence led to Jesse Puljujarvi cashing in on the rebound. The Oilers then had what looked like their second goal of the night from Patrick Maroon taken off the board as the goal was kicked.  Eric Gryba then set up Puljujarvi for his second of the night on a redirection of Gryba’s point shot.

Mikael Backlund then forced a turnover on the penalty kill that set up Michael Frolik for a short-handed goal to pull the Flames within one goal.  But the Oilers scored again before the first period ended to go up 3-1.  In the second period, Mark Letestu scored on a short-handed breakaway to expand Edmonton’s lead.  Gryba made another shot from the point which was tipped in, this time by Milan Lucic, to go up 5-1.

As the third period started, Mike Smith was replaced in net by David Rittich.  Unfortunately for the Flames, Rittich bungled a handoff behind the net and the Oilers capitalized to go up 6-1.  One might assume this is where the Flames might call it a night.  But Sam Bennett made a tough angle shot to get the score to 6-2.  Next, Micheal Ferland notched a power play goal to bring the Flames within three goals.  Bennett added a second goal on a 2-on-1 where he took the puck top shelf.  Suddenly the score was 6-4 with a lot of time left in the game.  Johnny Gaudreau then made another tough angled shot off a stretch pass, taking advantage of young Oilers netminder, Laurent Brossoit.  The impossible seemed possible with the score 6-5.  But Brossoit would make a key save on Gaudreau on a two-on-one to prevent the tying goal.

With 1:01 left, the Oilers’ Ryan Nugent-Hopkins tried to center a pass, but it bounced into the net off T.J. Brodie’s stick to salt away the win for Edmonton by a final of 7-5.  While the Flames couldn’t quite finish their comeback, it was the sort of game that reminded you why the Battle of Alberta was once such a big deal.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Trade Rumors seem to be starting earlier than normal and we have already seen one blockbuster and several smaller trades.

This past week saw Anaheim and New Jersey make a significant hockey trade if not a true blockbuster.  The Ducks sent right-handed defenseman Sami Vatanen and a conditional pick to the Devils in exchange for Adam Henrique, Joseph Blandisi and a third round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft.  The move was a much-needed improvement on the back end for the Devils, who are one of the surprises of the early season.  As for the Ducks, with Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler still out, Henrique can help at center and, when they return, he can provide forward depth.

Who is next?

Well, the name that seemed to be coming up repeatedly during the past week was Pittsburgh’s Ian Cole.  The left-handed defenseman was a healthy scratch and several sources had stated that his relationship with Mike Sullivan had been rocky, leading the Pens to consider a trade.  However, their asking price may be higher than what a willing buyer will give them for Cole—Pittsburgh is still seeking an improvement at center for their third line after Riley Sheahan has failed to impress.  Toronto is a destination that has been mentioned with Tyler Bozak falling out of favor and the Leafs wanting to upgrade their defense, but to this point nothing seems imminent.

The Edmonton Oilers have also been frequently mentioned in trade rumors.  While Ryan Nugent-Hopkins name has probably been mentioned the most, more recently the Oilers have been mentioned in connection with smaller trades that might see them shipping out the likes of Pat Maroon.  It is hard to see how Maroon would produce the sort of return that might get the Oilers back into contention in the Western Conference.

Another name that has been brought up repeatedly is Evander Kane.  Buffalo is one of the few teams clearly out of the hunt at this early date, but it seems most likely they will wait until the deadline to move Kane when they might extract the highest possible return for the wing, who will be a free agent this summer.

Jackets and Oilers Are Perfect Trade Partners

There have been a lot of rumors swirling in recent weeks about the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Edmonton Oilers. Jackets GM, Jarmo Kekalainen, was recently at the Oilers-Devils game.  Oilers GM, Peter Chiarelli, was at the Jackets-Sabres game on Monday.  Darren Dreger went on TSN 1050 in Toronto yesterday and had this to say:

“But things have changed a little bit. So let’s go back to the draft in Chicago. I know Columbus was willing to consider a top pick for Ryan Murray. Now they want player-for-player, and they’re in the market for a center. Is it Ryan Nugent-Hopkins out of Edmonton. Who might it be. Right now Nuge is playing great hockey for the Oilers, so I don’t think they’re interested in parting with him. But my sense is the asking price – if it’s Ryan Murray, or for most defenseman that the Oilers have some interest in – is still too high.”

Last night, the Oilers got absolutely hammered in St. Louis, losing to the Blues by a final score of 8-3. It is the second time in the last week they have lost to St. Louis, having lost 4-1 on November 16.  In between, they managed another blowout loss to Dallas, 6-3.  While Cam Talbot isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire with a 5-on-5 save percentage of 91.2 percent, he’s also faced more shots against 5-on-5 than all but two other goalies—Frederik Andersen and Andrei Vasilevskiy – not to mention facing the fifth-most high-danger chances against in the league.

No doubt, Edmonton is currently having some bad luck. The luck stat, PDO, has them third from the bottom with 96.67 percent combined shooting and save percentage.  Their shooting percentage is particularly noteworthy because they are shooting an abysmal 5.8 percent.  This is particularly interesting given that their expected goals for is top-five in the league.  This means they are not just getting shots, they are getting quality shots and for whatever reason they are not going in to this point.

So, what we know about the Oilers is that they are doing a good job in the offensive zone though they have been unlucky, and they are letting opponents get too many shots on net, which may be asking too much of Cam Talbot. If they were going to try and salvage this season, the fix has to be on defense.  Darnell Nurse has finally started to look like the player that people hoped he could be.  Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson have struggled a bit.  But the biggest problem is still Kris Russell.  It should be no surprise that Russell is their worst defenseman when you look at Corsi For Percentage as that has been a problem for Russell for a long time.

Meanwhile, Columbus’ struggles have been finding a center who can play with Artemi Panarin. An early experiment with Alex Wennberg failed when Wennberg became too passive.  There was no chemistry with team captain, Nick Foligno, who only converted to a center out of necessity.  While Pierre-Luc Dubois has shown some promise in recent games on a line with Panarin and Josh Anderson, the Jackets may not want to rush Dubois and may want insurance in case he hits the dreaded “wall” later in the season.  This is a team that is near the top of its division, a division that includes the Stanley Cup champs, despite not playing its best hockey and it is clear that management feels with an addition that the team can contend for a Cup this season.

Meanwhile, the Jackets top defensive pair of Zach Werenski and Seth Jones has been out of this world. With John Tortorella loosening the reigns and allowing Jones and Werenski to “rove” in the offensive zone, the dynamic duo has already accounted for 7 goals. You shouldn’t be shocked to learn that their possession stats are also quite good. What has been a surprise, has been the play of young Markus Nutivaara.  In just his second season, the 2015 seventh round pick of the Jackets has suddenly contributed offensively the way that Tortorella had hoped that he would, putting up 7 points and solid possession numbers.

On the other hand, David Savard and Jack Johnson have struggled and it isn’t the much maligned Johnson who has struggled the most, it has been Savard. Tortorella finally had seen enough and scratched Savard last week against the Rangers.  Savard was back in against Buffalo on Monday and both he and Johnson were significantly better.  If that pair can get back to playing at the level they did last season, the Jackets have a better shot of making it deep into the playoffs.  Don’t listen to rumors from out-of-town reporters that throw around Savard’s name.  It seems highly unlikely a team weak in depth on the right side is going to give up on Savard just because of some early-season woes.

The one regular defenseman I haven’t yet mentioned is Ryan Murray, who has spent the season paired with Nutivaara. As has been the case for most of Murray’s career, his role on that pair has been to be the “responsible defenseman” freeing up Nutivaara to roam in the offensive zone. He’s quietly excelled in this unheralded role, managing a positive Relative Corsi, but, more interestingly, the highest expected goals for percentage of any Blue Jackets defenseman.

The Jackets are blessed to have a seventh defenseman who is ready to take on a regular role. Gabriel Carlsson played for the Jackets during their playoff series against the Penguins and showed some promise playing a similar role to what Murray is currently playing.  And, while he still needs some work, Carlsson’s possession numbers aren’t bad in the limited minutes he’s been given.  The problem is that Carlsson won’t crack the lineup as long as the other six defenseman are on the roster and the AHL isn’t going to give Carlsson the development he needs at this stage, though it is a fine temporary solution to get him playing time.

Additionally, both Johnson and Murray will be free agents in the off-season. Murray is still a restricted free agent, but after taking a bridge deal on his last contract, he’ll be looking to get some real money this summer.  Meanwhile, the Jackets have another prospect in Vladislav Gavrikov who will be in Russia through the end of his current contract in the summer of 2019, but will then likely be looking to make the jump to the NHL.  With the Jackets re-signing Cam Atkinson and looking ahead to extending Werenski and potentially Sergei Bobrovsky in the summer of 2019, they may not be able to commit to Murray long-term.

Enter the Oilers and frequent trade rumor candidate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Nugent-Hopkins is having a great season from a production standpoint, despite finding his line mates changing with some frequency.  He’s on a pace to have his best season to date with 17 points including 8 goals through 21 games.  That’s roughly a 30-goal pace and nearly 70 points. On the flip side, his possession stats are not particularly stellar.  He has a negative Relative Corsi For Percentage and Relative Expected Goals For Percentage.  I do have to wonder how much of that is based on the line mates he is playing with to this point in the season.  He’s spent the most time out there with Milan Lucic (who has lost a step) and Ryan Strome.  At times they have had him out there with Lucic and Zack Kassian.  All of those players are negative possession players.  Kassian has only 3 points, all assists, to this point in the season.

With Leon Draisaitl counting $8.5 million against the cap and Connor McDavid’s new deal with a $12.5 million annual cap hit kicking in next year, it has been clear for a while that Nugent-Hopkins was the odd man out. Paying $6 million for your third line center or playing an $8.5 million center as a wing is not exactly the best use of resources when McDavid is already getting $12.5 million against the cap.  Using Nugent-Hopkins to land a defenseman to round out the top 4 and send Kris Russell down to anchor the bottom pair would be a wise move for the Oilers, but one they need to pull off sooner than later if they have any hope of making the playoffs this spring.  While I think there is a good argument that the deal should be one-for-one given Nugent-Hopkins’ $6 million cap hit, I think it is likely the Oilers want something more and that may be the hardest part for the Jackets.  I’d keep Sonny Milano or Boone Jenner in mind as a possible second piece in a deal.  Milano might fit the Oilers’ game plan better than he fits with Torts’ system.  Jenner is another possible cap casualty for the Jackets who is going to be coming off his bridge deal this summer.

While a deal makes sense for both sides and both sides seem to be investigating the possibility, that doesn’t mean it gets done. The Jackets hold the cards here in the respect that they are near the top of the standings and don’t need to make a move right now, particularly as long as Dubois and Panarin are playing well together.  If this deal doesn’t happen, there will be other options for the Jackets.  I’ll look at some of those options in my next column, barring a trade in the meantime.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 6

Player of the Week: Nathan MacKinnon

Remember that kid from the same town as Sidney Crosby that got drafted #1 overall by the Avs a few years ago? Yeah, I’m betting more of you than would care to admit didn’t.

MacKinnon has sort of fallen off the radar in recent years, though playing for a perennial also-ran in a smaller market can certainly take some blame. A promising rookie campaign was followed up by 3 less-than-stellar seasons, and MacKinnon sort of disappeared from the spotlight. Always producing enough to stay out of the doghouse, but never matching the lofty expectations, he seemed doomed to float around on a mediocre team and risk hearing the ‘bust’ associated with his name.

But this year MacKinnon has come out firing, and has helped the Avs to be…well, at least less bad than predicted. With 22 points in 19 games (in addition to eight on the power play, one shorthanded, and a rare +1 rating on a team that isn’t exactly the first word in positive goal differentials), he has shown flashes of the firepower that landed him that #1 draft spot.

In 3 games this week, MacKinnon tallied 2 goals and 5 assists for 7 points, including a 5 point night during the Avs’ 6-2 shalacking of Washington, and the game-winning OT goal against Detroit Sunday night. Take out a scoreless effort against Nashville, and it becomes an even more impressive week for the 22 year old.

With Matt Duchene gone, the Avs will look to MacKinnon to continue to carry the offensive load, so let’s see if he can pull that spotlight back his way and remind a few people of his existence.

Team of the Week: Winnipeg Jets

*insert horrible cliche’ something akin to ‘flying high’ here*

What has gotten into these guys, eh?

Winnipeg soared (oh no) through their three-game week with a perfect 3-0-0 record on the back of a ridiculous string of “Iceman” (stop) Connor Hellebuyck performances. Stopping 97 of 102 shots faced, and never allowing more than two goals in any game, the young netminder backstopped his team right to fourth place in the league. Patrik Laine (1G, 2A) and Joel Armia (1G, 3A) carried point streaks through the week (resisting “Maverick” and “Goose” reference), but perhaps more impressive was the balance of scoring throughout the team, as only three players that played in all three contests were held scoreless over the week.

The Jets are in the discussion for Canada’s best team. I’m not actually sure why that’s significant, but I’ll (barrel) roll with it. Hard to say whether or not the success will continue, I mean, at some point they have to use Steve Mason in net again, but Winnipeg has the afterburners lit (please help) for now.

Fans are just hoping that things don’t end up going inverted.

Game of the Week: Buffalo Sabres 4 @ Pittsburgh Penguins 5 (OT), Tuesday November 14th, 2017

In a game that saw nine goals, 77 shots, 63 hits, eight power plays (with three resulting goals), and the winning team never officially having the lead for an actual amount of time, the Sabres gave the defending Cup champs all they could handle.

Only 3:45 into the first period it would be Evander Kane converting on a 2-on-1 with Jack Eichel that would set the tone of Pittsburgh chasing the game. Sam Reinhart would add to the Penguins’ deficit later in the period when, while on the power play, he would jump on a rebound created by Marco Scandella‘s shot hitting the end boards at approximately 17,000 mph. But with just 19 seconds remaining in the first Patric Hornqvist would capitalize on a weird bounce of his own, collecting a misplayed puck from Sabres goaltender Robin Lehner and firing it off the Ryan O’Reilly‘s leg and into the net to halve the Buffalo lead.

But just 16 seconds into the second Sidney Crosby would make a drop pass to no one behind his own net, allowing Jack Eichel to pick up the puck and deposit it into the Pittsburgh net before Matthew Murray had any inkling of impending doom. Conor Sheary would draw the Pens back to within one just over four minutes later, before Crosby would atone for his earlier sin to even the score with a PPG at the 17:15 mark of the middle frame. In the dying minutes of the second, however, Ryan Reaves would take an elbowing penalty, and Benoit Pouliot would capitalize on the power play with just seven seconds remaining in the period to regain the Buffalo lead.

Lehner and the Sabres spent most of the third period trying to hold onto their lead, getting outshot 13-6 in the final frame, but with just over six minutes to play Evgeni Malkin would send the most picture-perfect saucer pass you could ever hope to witness across the ice to Phil Kessel who would make no mistakes and draw the game even. Conor Sheary would then win the game just 16 seconds into overtime, after Crosby dominated board play behind the Buffalo goal and sent a feed directly to his tape, sending the Pittsburgh fans into a frenzy and this Jackets fan who remembers last year’s first round series-clinching goal far too clearly into the fetal position.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Radko Gudas got a 10-game suspension for being Radko Gudas, Luke Witkowski got a 10-game suspension for being Luke Witkowski, and Matthew Tkachuk got a two-game suspension for being Matthew Tkachuk.

The NHL announced that the 2019 Winter Classic will feature the Chicago Blackhawks hosting the Boston Bruins at Notre Dame Stadium. This, partnered with the Flyers hosting the Penguins in the first announced Stadium Series game, goes to further prove that Gary Bettman acknowledges the existence of approximately 7-8 of the 31 teams in the league.

Speaking of underperforming teams that Gary Bettman loves, holy smokes are the Canadiens a dumpster fire. Complete disarray from the product on the ice all the way up to upper management, it’s almost like having possibly the worst defense corps in the league suddenly becomes extremely worrisome when you can no longer rely on the best goalie in the world to win every game for you because his limbs are falling off.

Some guy that apparently makes rap music (to steal a line from Dave Mustaine: “Two words combined that can’t make sense”) did a hockey-themed thing on SNL. I didn’t know who he was so I didn’t care.

Editor’s note: Poor Chance the Rapper.

Jason Zucker still hasn’t stopped scoring goals, but rest assured now that I’ve realized that he had been on the bench of my fantasy team throughout this entire hot streak, he’s 110% guaranteed to go colder than Red Deer in January.

Edmonton and LA made waves by trading Jussi Jokinen and Mike Cammalleri straight up for one another, in an absolute blockbuster of a deal circa 2009.

The Blue Jackets signed winger Cam Atkinson to a seven-year deal, mere hours after Aaron Portzline reported the two sides were apparently nowhere even remotely close to a deal. (This is newsworthy/funny to me, Cap’n, and pretty much no one else)

The Golden Knights used their 5th goalie of the season on Tuesday night, as Maxime Lagace seemed to be dealing with an injury during a blowout loss to the Oilers. WHL emergency call-up Dylan Ferguson played the final 9:14 of the 3rd period, allowing one goal, but living a dream in the process. Ferguson was all of us, citing that he was starstruck when Connor McDavid went out of his way to give the 19 year old netminder a tap on the pads and a “Good job, kid” at the end of the game. Lagace has played since, and Malcolm Subban is back off of IR, so it’s likely…okay, fairly likely…that Ferguson has seen the last of his NHL experience, at least for the time being.

State of the NHL: The Blue Jackets are Actually Good But Have Yet to Show They are Great

The Columbus Blue Jackets had their best start to a season after 10 games with their win a week ago, but they have yet to notch a quality win in the early season.  The Jackets’ losses have come against Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, Chicago and St. Louis.  Except for the Blackhawks, these teams all sit at the top of their respective divisions.  So, the Jackets can take some comfort knowing that the teams they have lost to are no slouches.

However, that is where the real issue lies for the Jackets.  In the past, being on a pace to have 113 points would have been enough, but management didn’t go out in the offseason and acquire Artemi Panarin to simply make another playoff appearance.  Nor did they attempt, in vain, to acquire Matt Duchene just to make another first round exit.  Management saw opportunity with the Capitals moving players because of cap issues and the Penguins losing some of their depth as a result of expansion and their own cap issues.

It looks like management was right.  The opportunity is certainly there for the Jackets to take over the Metropolitan Division.  Yet they currently sit in second place.  The team that has taken advantage of the opportunity presented by the Penguins early season struggles and the Capitals seeming decline, to this point, has been the New Jersey Devils. So, where do the Jackets fit in the pecking order of the NHL?

As a starting point, it should be pointed out there are good reasons to believe that the New Jersey Devils hot start is a mirage. For transparency, the stats you will see below are coming from Corsica.hockey, which is an excellent resource.   The Devils have a league-leading PDO of 103.77. That stat, as you may recall is the “luck stat” which takes team shooting percentage and adds it to team save percentage. An average PDO should be around 100 because basic math tells us that every shot on goal is either a goal or a save. So, a PDO of 103.77 is above the norm. There are teams that put up PDO’s above 100 and those teams are typically teams with excellent goaltenders—ex. Washington has finished recent seasons with a PDO above 100 and it isn’t too surprising when you consider who their goaltender is. It is also important to keep in mind that while PDO should typically be around 100 that there have been teams that have gone a whole season with an elevated PDO and there doesn’t seem to be much correlation between regular season PDO and playoff performance. So, the Devils could go on a magical run and win the Stanley Cup, but it isn’t likely when we start to look at other team stats. For one thing, it isn’t solid goaltending that is boosting the Devils, it is an elevated shooting percentage of near 10%. Nothing about the Devils’ lineup suggests to me this is sustainable. The Devils also don’t look good when we look at “possession” stats. They are in the bottom 5 in Corsi For Percentage and Fenwick For Percentage and rank 21st in Expected Goals For Percentage. (Sidenote: I find it interesting that Greg Wyshynski, devout Devils fan, hasn’t tackled the Devils early season luck with the same fervor he did when attempting to proclaim the Jackets weren’t for real a year ago. I’m sure it is just an oversight.)

So, what teams are good when we start to look at luck and compare it to performance? Interestingly, we get different results depending on what metric we choose to look at. So, it is important to understand what each metric measures. Corsi For Percentage divides the shots on goal, missed shots and blocked shots for a team versus the shots on goal, missed shots and blocked shots against a team. Fenwick For Percentage is similar to Corsi, but excludes blocked shots with the argument being that blocked shots are generally not from high danger areas and/or are not true scoring chances and so they should not be factored into the calculation of a scoring chances stat. Expected Goals For Percentage gets far more complicated because it factors in things like shot distance, shot angle, shot type, etc., but for those of us who criticized Corsi for failing to account for these things (i.e. twenty shots from the point are not the same as twenty shots from just outside the crease), Expected Goals For Percentage is, arguably, one of the better metrics we have as to how much a given team is pressuring its opponent rather than being pressured by its opponent…assuming the math that goes into calculating the stat is correct because, again, this is a more complicated statistic that looks at various factors and the more variables that enter the equation, the more room for error. Also, it is important to keep in mind that I’m looking at these stats for teams playing 5-on-5. The low percentage for time on ice for special teams can result in statistical anomalies which are ultimately less important than how a team performs 5-on-5, which accounts for the bulk of their time on ice.

If we start by looking at Corsi For Percentage in the NHL, it is interesting to note that some of the teams at the top of the standings are in the middle range for Corsi For Percentage—Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh are all clumped together between 13th and 17th. Indeed, some of the teams struggling the most at the moment are doing well in this traditional possession stat. Carolina, Edmonton and Montreal are your top 3 teams in Corsi For Percentage. Those teams are also near the top in Fenwick For Percentage, while St. Louis enters the top 10 at 8th (not surprising giving the high number of blocked shots St. Louis has), Pittsburgh is 12th, Los Angeles is 15th and Tampa is 18th.

Looking at Expected Goals For Percentage, we see Edmonton still on the top, St. Louis is 6th, Pittsburgh is 15th, Los Angeles is 18th, and Tampa is 19th. So, what is going on? Well, part of what is going on is luck. Just as with New Jersey, St. Louis, Tampa and L.A. all see PDO’s near or over 103. You can give L.A. a bit of a break when you factor in that L.A. has Jonathan Quick in goal. Do we really feel that’s the case in Tampa and St. Louis? Tampa’s shooting percentage is particularly troubling when you compare it to their Expected Goals For Percentage. It doesn’t seem that their shot quality is what is driving their team shooting percentage which is over 10%. Also keep in mind that we still have relatively small sample sizes and we may find that all of these teams are better possession teams than their stats would presently suggest.

You’ll notice I didn’t mention the Penguins above when talking about PDO. Why? Because it is something that should have teams in the NHL very worried. The Penguins may be an average possession team, but they have also underperformed…and still find themselves near the top of the Metropolitan. Their backup goaltending woes are well documented resulting in a sub .900 save percentage as a team. What has received less attention is their woeful 4.53% team shooting percentage. Does anyone believe that a team whose goaltending tandem is anchored by Matthew Murray will finish the season with a sub .900 save percentage? Does anyone believe a team that includes Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will have a shooting percentage below 5% for the season? Highly unlikely in both cases, meaning that teams in the Metropolitan have to expect the Penguins will make a big push at some point.

So, where do the Blue Jackets sit? The Blue Jackets have the 4th highest Corsi For Percentage in the league, the 4th highest Fenwick For Percentage in the league and the 2nd highest Expected Goals For Percentage in the league. Is that luck? With a PDO of 101.15 and a two-time Vezina trophy winning goaltender, any luck accounting for this is nominal. They’ve done this while having a Power Play ranked 30th in the league and a Penalty Kill ranked 7th.

So, why do I still feel the Jackets aren’t great? Because of their failure to beat teams like St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Tampa and because of their repeated failures at putting in a full sixty minutes. The Jackets still haven’t beaten a quality opponent a month into the season. Each time they have had the chance they have either come out flat-footed or slowed up when they got a lead. This was most evident in the loss to the Blues.  The Jackets, after yet another slow start, found themselves down 2-0.  To that point in the game, they had given up a horrific 19 shots and had only registered 10 of their own.  As if a switch was turned on, the Jackets suddenly started dominating possession and registered 15 shots to 6 from the Blues in the remainder of the second period.  Lines that had not been clicking earlier suddenly produced shots.  Players who had been content to skate on the perimeter were getting into the slot and taking quality shots.  It became crystal clear that the Jackets had not been outplayed because the Blues possessed superior skill, but merely as a result of being outworked.

This is a consistent storyline from the early part of this season though it is often more apparent on the individual level or when looking at the power play.  I have gone over and over the struggles of Alexander Wennberg, who found himself on the top line largely by default.  Since being removed from the top line, Wennberg has suddenly found the ability to shoot that has so often escaped him, putting in 4 shots on goal in his first two games after being removed from the top line. The moribund power play has been more focused on getting Artemi Panarin a one-timer than simply crashing the net and creating scoring chances. Much was made of coach John Tortorella essentially playing three lines earlier in the week and the message it was sending to the fourth line, but I think the message was being sent just as much to the top three lines, who waited too late to put effort in against the St. Louis Blues. The game against Boston was the equivalent of a bag skate and the team was fortunate to get two points. While they finally came out strong, they nearly gave away the game by resting on their laurels, giving up three straight goals to allow the Bruins to take the game to overtime and, eventually, shootout. It is hard to complain about a 7-3 victory, but the Jackets performance against Florida was as troubling for the play in their own end early in the game as it was encouraging to see the likes of Josh Anderson and Oliver Bjorkstrand continuing to show their potential.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that, while the Jackets are clearly very good, they will have to put in a full 60 minutes (or more) of effort to become a truly elite team and they have done so rarely to this point in the season, which explains why they have struggled against other successful teams. They cannot expect the Penguins to continue to struggle forever. If they are going to grab the opportunity to take the Metropolitan Division, they need to do it sooner rather than later and they will need to do it by beating not just the teams below them, but the other teams at the top of the standings. To do that, they are going to need to put in complete efforts night in and night out without taking periods or games off. How they do against Tampa this weekend will be another good test as to whether they can do that or whether they are merely a good team.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 3

Player of the Week: Jakub Voracek

Stealthy good. Not only an apt description of the big Flyers winger’s week (and season), but really of his entire career. Voracek has been one of the best ‘under-the-radar’ players in the league for some time, and this week he was really flying (pun somewhat intended). On a team that finished the week 1-2-0, Voracek was a major bright spot, tallying 2 points in every game. The Kladno, CZE native notched an assist on both Flyers goals in a 6-2 thumping against Anaheim, then tallied 1 & 1 in each of their next two contests (a 5-4 loss to Ottawa and 4-2 victory over Toronto). Oddly, not a single one of his 6 points in those 3 games came on the power play, an area where Voracek usually excels.

Side note: Though Voracek is currently 3rd in points in the entire league (trailing only Tampa’s dynamic duo of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov), those goals in back to back games were just his 1st and 2nd tallies of the year. He’s 2nd in the league in assists with 14.

Team of the Week: Los Angeles Kings

One of the league’s resident surprises, LA has surged to the top of the standings with a 9-1-1 record, and though they suffered their first regulation loss this week, it wasn’t enough to prevent them earning this recognition.

With 8 players having recorded at least 5 points so far in the young season, and a goaltending duo both boasting sub-2.00 GAAs and >.930 save percentages, the resurgent Kings are getting contributions from seemingly everyone. Dustin Brown has burst back to life after multiple subpar seasons, seemingly flourishing in the system of new coach John Stevens. Anze Kopitar continues to make an argument for being possibly the most undervalued center in the league, and youngster Adrian Kempe has been sublime.

Only a 3-2 loss to Toronto managed to blemish an otherwise-flawless week, as the Kings toppled Ottawa 3-2, Montreal 4-0, and Boston 2-1. A long summer and a fresh face behind the bench may have been just what the doctor ordered for the battle-weary club, and other clubs may need to start worrying about how to deal with a Cup-hungry LA franchise once again.

Game of the Week: Dallas Stars 4 @ Edmonton Oilers 5, Thursday October 26th

I admittedly have an affinity to games decided in extra frames when it comes to this award, but the Stars and Oilers simply put on a barn-burner too good to ignore.

One of those matchups that just looks like it’s going to be fun on paper (two high-octane offenses backed up by less-than-stellar defenses), this tilt certainly delivered. 9 goals (3 on the power play), 67 shots, 56 hits, and even a fight (okay, more of a facial reconstruction on Antoine Roussel by Eric Gryba), this one had plenty of everything.

The opening period started with a bit of a goaltending duel, with Ben Bishop and Cam Talbot both making a handful of quality stops in the opening half of the frame. But as a penalty to Ryan Strome was expiring just past the 11 minute mark, Leon Draisaitl collected a loose puck and fought through a check along the boards to push the puck ahead to the newly-freed Strome, who flicked a no-look backhand from the boards into the middle of the ice, feeding a streaking Connor McDavid in full stride, who proceeded to shelf the puck over the blocker side of Bishop to give the hometown Oilers the 1-0 lead. A see-saw contest would develop from there, as just over 1 minute later opposing captain Jamie Benn would bury a sweet feed from Alex Radulov to knot things up. Patrick Maroon would see a centering attempt turn into a goal after bouncing off the skate of Dallas defender Marc Methot and into the net with just 25 seconds to play in the opening frame, sending the Oil to the locker room with a 2-1 lead.

Radulov and Benn would both tally power-play goals in the 2nd, with a Ryan Nugent-Hopkins goal splitting the two and sending the game into the 3rd period tied at 3. To break the streak of trading goals, Esa Lindell would bury Dallas’ 3rd PP tally after receiving a sweet cross-ice slap-pass from Jason Spezza just over halfway through the 3rd, giving the Stars their first lead of the night. Unfortunately for the Dallas faithful it would last just shy of 2 minutes, as RNH would net his second of the night to draw even at 4. Then with less than 3 to play, defenseman Matt Benning would give Draisaitl his 3rd assist of the night by burying a one-timer from the point (with a bit of help from the skate of Alexander Radulov) and giving the Oilers the final lead of the game.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Seriously, Golden Knights, about this Twitter campaign to be the next winning goaltender for your franchise? Oscar Dansk is 3-0-0 after being handed the starting job when both Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban went down with injuries, and boasts a ridiculous 1.34 GAA and .959 save percentage, along with a shutout.

I’m starting to actually believe anyone wearing goalie equipment could win the Vezina with this team.

 

Speaking of roster vacancies in Vegas, Vadim Shipachyov earned himself a suspension by going all ‘Russian’ on the franchise after being sent down to the AHL. He has supposedly gone AWOL from the Chicago Wolves, and his future with the Golden Knights (and potentially the NHL altogether) is looking pretty well decided.

Alex Ovechkin made headlines off the ice, as the Capitals superstar went out of his way to buy a sweater, coat, and hat for a shirtless homeless man he spotted while walking in Edmonton. Ovie downplayed his actions and attempted to avoid questions about it in interviews, stating that “It was nothing,” following up with “I think if you saw a guy almost naked out there with a cold temperature, I think every human can do something, a coat, a shirt, or whatever.” Autograph hounds throughout the league were seen disrobing and untidying their hair soon after word of Ovie’s actions reached the airwaves*.

*- I assume

Kevin Bieksa successfully utilized a ‘Superman Punch’ in a fight for the 2nd time in his career, with both instances occurring against the Philadelphia Flyers. Radko Gudas was on the receiving end of this most recent entry, while years ago it was Mike Richards. This does beg the question of why you would choose to fight Kevin Bieksa.

The Habs and Rangers had a contest to see who was the least worst, and in fitting fashion, it was an ugly thing. 9 total goals on Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist, the former getting the…better?…of the latter, with both teams looking sloppy and discombobulated. I suppose either team can take solace in knowing they are better than Arizona, but I don’t know exactly how much solace can actually be taken from that knowledge.

Can Arizona go an entire season without a victory? I think we should all get behind them in their efforts to set the least enviable record in hockey history. 10 down, 72 to go.