Last weekend the Philadelphia Flyers and Ottawa Senators
played each other in a game with playoff implications. At the
time both clubs were still trying to scratch and claw their way in.
The game was tied with five minutes left, and in the rest of
regulation the teams combined for three shots on net. With a free point
awaiting each team, it was clear what they were trying to do.
In Ottawa’s next game they played Carolina and were faced with
the same situation, tied with five minutes to go. The difference this time was that
the Hurricanes were firmly out of the playoff picture and playing freely regardless of the situation, so in that game there
were eight shots on net in the final five minutes and a flurry of activity.
A few days after that, Colorado played Anaheim and they were tied. The final 20 seconds of that game was spent watching Tyson Barrie stand behind his own net waiting for the time to expire in order to collect a point, while fans booed.
So while the NHL has been brainstorming ideas to curb
shootouts, the real focus should be on more games ending in regulation.
Over at Sportsnet Jonathon Willis wrote about this very subject,
so I won’t get into too much detail, but if the league really wants to make
games more exciting and have fewer contests end in a shootout, they would do well to make regulation
wins count for three points, and extra time wins count for two.
Years ago the Leafs
were making a charge for the final playoff spot and playing a Flyers team they
desperately needed to beat, in regulation. With a minute and change left in a tie game coach Paul Maurice pulled his goalie because they needed the regulation win that badly.
Ultimately the game did go to overtime, but the last minute of play was about as
exciting as hockey can get.
Generally speaking though, teams are not faced with
these decisions with any regularity. They will take their point and see what
happens in OT or in the shootout. Adding a 3-on-3 element will probably
cause less games to go to the shootout, but it won’t put the focus on where it should
be—Winning in regulation.
Recently Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper spoke about the 3-on-3 play that his team participated in saying:
“That was the first real glimpse that I got to see of it and
it was pretty uneventful until (Boston) had one play … and got a great scoring
chance. I guess for me if statistically it proves, and it has in the American
League, that it’s ending games before the shootout in a higher rate, then I
would be for it.”
3-on-3 will result in an artificial increase in goals
scored and games ended, but ultimately coaches will figure it out. The same way
coaches have been able to get goal scoring down gradually since the lockout. Coaches and the players are too smart and too adaptive not to figure it out, so it will not
be a matter of if, but when. It’s why 3-on-3, if implemented, will be something of a Band-Aid.
Of course, as James Mirtle wrote about here, the league wants parity and is driven by it,
so it might not ever happen. Three on three overtime will lower the number of
shootouts, but the emphasis should be on regulation instead.
Vancouver is a worse possession team this year and
their goals for percentage has gotten worse, but their special teams have
improved with the PK going from ninth to third, and their power play going from
25th to 21st. The team has benefited largely from a hot
start, similar to Colorado last season, which obscures the fact that they are a demonstrably
worse team on paper from last season (Ryan Kesler is a better 2C than anything they have now, and Roberto Luongo is better than Ryan Miller). That said, one thing teams might take
note of is that they cleared out unhappy players and it has made for a much
smoother season with a lot less drama. Winning helps too, but the human factor
of moving out players who want out, including a coach that was on the edge, can
go a long way too.
That is something for the Leafs to keep in mind
because there is a lot of negativity around that team, but they do have more than
a handful of legitimate contributors. Elliotte Friedman noted that there are players on the team that are upset they were not freed from their disaster of a season at the deadline,
and that kind of negativity is something that rubs off on everyone and can make
coming to work a lot more difficult. Who they move out in the summer will be
more than just a symbol of who is part of their plans, it will show who did not
want to be part of the solution.
Another team who falls in this category? San
Jose. San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson has made headlines with his ongoing feud with star Joe
Thornton, but how it will end remains to be seen. Usually coaches
and/or management have one bullet in the chamber that they can use to get rid of a
star they are having problems with (Tortorella and Gaborik, Sutter and Phaneuf, Howson
and Nash, for example). Thornton is turning 36 this season, but he is still as
good as ever, second on the team in scoring, playing against top competition,
and working the walls and driving play. A team with Thornton, Patrick Marleau,
Joe Pavelski, Marc-Eduard Vlasic, Brent Burns, Logan Couture and a collection
of good young players should not be missing the playoffs even in the West. Something will have to happen here.
One final note on San Jose. In the behind scenes
TV show leading up to their outdoor game against the Kings, there was a clip
where Sutter was game planning for them and told his team that the Sharks are a
three line team, so he encouraged his group to be able to run out four lines
and tire them out. Over the summer, on top of the feud, turning the Sharks from
a four line team into a three line team was the biggest sin of all. That was
what made their trade deadline so interesting though, acquiring Ben Smith and
clearing some room for their young players to play in the bottom six. Their
current fourth line of Daniil Tarasov-Ben Smith-Barclay Goodrow is a lot
different than the John Scott-Andrew Desjardins-Mike Brown line they started the
Save for his first 20 games when the Penguins
acquired him, James Neal had 178 points in 179 regular season games with
Pittsburgh. So far in Nashville this season he has 35 points in 63 games. In
Nashville this season Neal’s offensive zone starts have actually increased and he
is playing against tough competition, but he did so with the Penguins too. In
case you were ever wondering how good Evgeny Malkin is, Neal’s production drop
might be a good example.
The Penguins are a team to watch. All-time they
are 29-13-6 without Crosby and Malkin. When they have Crosby but no Malkin they
are 93-49-18 and when they have Malkin but no Crosby they are 64-37-7. The team
is third in their division, tied for fifth in the conference, and tied for
ninth in the league. They are top ten in team Goals For percentage, Corsi and
Fenwick, but they are not in the elite of any of those categories. Pittsburgh
has committed to two number one centres, locked in their top defenseman
long-term, their goalie, and have signed a collection of good second tier
wingers (including trading a first rounder for one of them), considering where the rest of their money is allocated. In the last
four seasons they have won a total of three playoff series, and if they have
another poor showing eventually they are going to have to ask themselves some
really tough questions.
Garth Snow made two tremendous moves to start
the season acquiring Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk, and those moves have been a big part
in catapulting the Islanders up the standings. One thing that is often forgotten
though is that they do not have their first round pick this year because they
traded it last season in a package for Tomas Vanek. The possibility of the
Isles trading away the pick that could have been Connor McDavid was a point of
conversation all throughout the summer and even training camp, and you wonder
how much that forced Garth Snow’s hand in trading future pieces for help right
now. The Islanders have been stockpiling assets for years and Snow has never
been shy to make a big move, but how much something like that forced
him to be proactive is something to keep in the back of your mind. They had to go for it this season.
The Calgary Flames season is being hailed a
fluke, but whether it is or isn’t, one thing that can’t be argued is their
young players are all improving. Future core pieces like Sean Monahan, and TJ
Brodie have improved since last season, and other younger guys like Joe Colborne,
Mikael Backlund and even Kris Russell to a degree have too. One thing Bob
Hartley did last season was run regular practices on game days. The logic being
that in the NHL you do not get a lot of time to actually practice because of
all the travel and the tight schedule, so he took whatever time he could get
since the team was poor anyway. A lot of bottom feeding teams have been talking
about Calgary as a quick rebuild example, but one thing to learn from them
might be using that morning skate time to work on things for the future.
One rule change being proposed is face off
advantages going to the team in the offensive zone instead of to the team at
home. The advantage is always to the player who puts his stick down last
because it allows him to read what the player across from him is doing and
adjust to his hands and positioning. Players can and do try to hide their hands
so to speak when they have to put their stick down first, but a good faceoff
man has a significant edge if he is going last. I quickly looked at the average
percentage of the top 20 faceoff winners this season at home and their win percentage at the
dot was 55.9 percent, while on the road it was 50.91 (note, not all the players
were same). That five percent won’t completely alter the game, and it is an extremely small sample size, but every little
bit counts and that will create more goals, particularly on the power play. Just how much is what remains to be seen.
I would be remiss if I didn’t say a few words
about Matthew Wuest, the founder of Capgeek who recently passed away. I never
met him or really spoke to him save for a few cap related questions that he was
always quick to answer. All I really know is this; he created what is hands
down the best hockey website ever made. To me though, it wasn’t just his
accomplishment in doing so, it was how he conducted himself. His twitter
account simply posted facts and when he was challenged or asked questions,
he simply answered the question and didn’t have any attitude in doing so.
Hockey twitter has, unfortunately, become a place of snark, ridicule, and
criticism, that even mainstream media members partake in at times as well as
bloggers that have been rewarded and/or noticed by doing so. But Matthew always kept it professional, pouring his efforts into his work instead of wielding
the big stick that was his website over others. Thank you for everything you
did for hockey, and the example you set on how to conduct yourself.
“Ninety per cent of the kids that go to the American League,
what’s the one thing they need? It’s physical development. So what we’ve always
done is said, ‘You need to get stronger, but we’re going to send you down there
to play 1,000 games and then we’re going to bitch at you at the end of the year
because you didn’t get any stronger.’ And you’ll say, ‘Well with all the busing
and flying, there wasn’t time.’ The expectation is we’ll play fewer games, so
that means less travel. We’re able to rest and recover more; and those games
where we’re maybe playing four in a five or three in three, now that’s a recovery
day or a training day.” –Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving, on the new California division in the AHL.
Interesting anecdote from Brad Treliving, and something to
monitor moving forward. This goes hand in hand with note number eight about the
Flames practicing on game days last season…
“We played the best team in the league and nobody (has)
played them like that. It’s not over. We have 13, 14 games left. … We have to
win 11, 12 of the remaining games.” – Jaromir Jagr, after a game against the New York Rangers.
I don’t think the Panthers are going to make the playoffs,
to be clear, but Jagr has been in the league for three decades and seen it all.
He’s a great quote and smart guy, so I thought it was interesting to hear him
flat out call the Rangers the best team in the league.
“It’s definitely an area that we’ve identified as being an
issue at times [how much our team whines]. And you know what? We’ve put
ourselves in that position, and we have to be better. There’s no question… We
just have to flat-out be better. And that’s it.” – Penguins assistant GM Bill Guerin on his team’spropensity to whine.
The Penguins are averaging nearly 15 minutes per game in
penalty minutes which is tops in the league. Pittsburgh is one of the most
penalized teams in the league, but that does not necessarily mean it will be a
death sentence. Last season, for example, the Kings were shorthanded the third
most times in the league and they turned out okay. What might be a worry for
the Penguins though is not just whining, but mentally losing themselves and
focusing on the side show instead of the game. The Flyers have been excellent
at getting in their heads in the playoffs, so it is something to watch.