Saturday, March 14, 2015

Canadiens believe style of play will help them win


BROSSARD, Quebec -- The Montreal Canadiens play in a market that can be hard on its team, to put it mildly.


The Canadiens have gone 1-3-2 and scored eight goals in their past six games heading into their game at the New York Islanders on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports, City), but it remains a game between two teams fighting for first place in the NHL standings.


Every possible metric that can be used to measure the quality of a team, whether they are traditional statistics or newer analytics, shows the Canadiens to be flawed. Shots-for and shots-against, scoring chances-for and -against, shot-attempt percentage, unblocked shot-attempt percentage; pretty much any number you can find other than those representing the goaltending of Carey Price would suggest the Canadiens have no business fighting for the top record in the League.


Yet here they are, and this is not a one-shot deal.


The only Eastern Conference team that has more than the 117 regular-season wins the Canadiens have under coach Michel Therrien since 2012-13 is the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Montreal is tied with the Boston Bruins for fifth behind the Anaheim Ducks (126 wins), Penguins (126), St. Louis Blues (124) and Chicago Blackhawks (122).


Yet Therrien and his style come under attack whenever the Canadiens hit a bump in the road, like they have now.


The Canadiens hit a similar slump at nearly the exact same point last season, but this is a very different team, with 12 players on the roster who were there at this point last season. They came out of that slump to finish last season 11-3-1; now this group must show it is able to do the same thing.


Therrien said after practice Friday he welcomes the challenge and has no doubt this group can meet it, but it needs to deal with the unique wrinkle of doing it in the Montreal fishbowl.


"Sometimes we'll have success, or a player will have success, and they will put you up there [on a pedestal]. When things don't go your way they're going to put you right there," Therrien said, pointing toward the floor. "There's a balance. We have to find that balance. I don't see any problem with fighting adversity at times because it makes you realize as a team that to be successful, the No. 1 thing is attitude and competing. That's the No. 1 thing."


The Canadiens have had trouble scoring goals all season but it's never been quite this bad. The recent drought has brought their puck-possession problems to the forefront, and a lot of that stems from the way they play.


The Canadiens play a chip-and-chase style with the added threat of long passes to stretch opposing defenses in the neutral zone. Neither of those strategies leads to strong possession numbers, and none of it is going to change at this point.


Practice on Friday was focused heavily on offensive-zone entries and refining that chip-and-chase game rather than eradicating it.


"I pointed to that practice a long time ago to work on some different things, to make sure we're going to be comfortable in about a month," Therrien said. "But regarding systems and stuff like that, we're not changing [anything]. I don't think any teams, at this time of year, they start changing anything regarding the way that they play."


Therrien's players wouldn't want him to.


Defenseman P.K. Subban is the Canadiens' most important player when it comes to puck possession. When he and defense partner Andrei Markov are on the ice, the puck usually is in the offensive zone.


But when asked Friday if the Canadiens should alter their system in order to create more offense, to try to move away from a chip-and-chase game, Subban rejected the idea.


"When we won 14 of 16 games about a month ago [the Canadiens went 15-3-1 from Dec. 9 to Jan. 31], we were playing the same way but we were getting those pucks," he said. "So it's about winning battles, it's not about Xs and Os. I think it comes down to execution and winning battles. That's the difference right now."


There is a growing belief, with studies to support it, that chipping pucks out of your end or into the offensive end is not efficient, that it results in a turnover more often than not. Subban said he believes the Canadiens do it well enough to make it more efficient than it would be for other teams.


"It's called puck placement," Subban said. "I think if you're just giving it back to the other team that's not what you want to do. You want to chip to support, chip to a guy skating or put it in a spot where, we have a fast team, it's a foot race. I like our chances in those battles."


Therrien said after the Canadiens' 5-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday that offense was not the problem in that game, even though it stretched a streak without an even-strength goal against a goalie to 146:15.


Forward Lars Eller was the last Canadiens player to score against a goalie at even strength, in the second period of a 2-0 win at the Arizona Coyotes on March 7 (Brendan Gallagher scored an even-strength empty-net goal with two seconds remaining in regulation). But he agreed with the general premise of his coach, that a lot of the Canadiens' issues with zone entries would be remedied with better play in the defensive end.


"If we could carry it in [the offensive zone], we would carry it in," Eller said. "We are a fast team, we're fast skaters. But it starts way before that. Before we can do those other things it starts with the plays without the puck before we get it back. We have to do those things right to create space to skate it in. If we're dead tired chasing the puck for 45 seconds we won't have gas to skate it out and skate it in.


"If we play a little better defense we'll get better offense."



Bruins' Spooner, Pastrnak have become key elements


BOSTON -- When the Boston Bruins were protecting a two-goal lead on the road against the Ottawa Senators on March 10, coach Claude Julien joined left wing Milan Lucic with veteran forwards Gregory Campbell and Maxime Talbot for the last three minutes of a crucial 3-1 victory.


The switch left young forwards Ryan Spooner, who scored two goals, and David Pastrnak, who assisted on Spooner's second goal, on the bench for the end of the game.


Two nights later in a 3-2 shootout win against the Tampa Bay Lightning at TD Garden, Julien didn't shorten his bench with the score tied in regulation or overtime. The Bruins' two offensively gifted rookies got to take their regular shift with Lucic in regulation and were a pair during a stretch of 3-on-3 play in overtime.


Such is the development process for two players who went from part of the Bruins' future to key components of their present. As they've attempted to secure a spot in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Bruins have relied on Spooner and Pastrnak more in the past three weeks than they ever would have imagined when the season started.


Julien has been instrumental in the development from prospects to stalwarts of Lucic, Brad Marchand, David Krejci and others during his eight seasons. The coach has been doing his best to make sure 23-year-old Spooner and 18-year-old Pastrnak are cast in the best roles for success whenever possible.


Spooner and Pastrnak will be key parts of the lineup again when the Bruins visit the Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center on Saturday (1 p.m.; NHLN-US, TVA Sports).


"To me it was a matter of making sure I put them against proper lines," Julien said. "As you've seen, I kind of tried to do my best to keep them away from top lines. I don't think they have enough experience right now to do that, but they certainly have enough skill to play against other lines and they've been producing so I've been able to keep them together for this long. There may come a time where I don't have a choice and I have to break them up. But so far it's worked out well."


Spooner and Pastrnak have made strides defensively. However they have been known more for their offense, and their production on the attack has been their biggest contribution to the Bruins' recent run of success. With an assist on a Pastrnak goal Thursday, Spooner has a seven-game scoring streak. He has three goals and eight points during the longest scoring streak by a Bruins rookie since Brad Boyes' seven games in 2006.


Pastrnak's goal against the Lightning was his ninth of the season; he has three goals and seven points in his past seven games. Lucic has two goals and six points in the past seven games.


"When young guys come into the lineup you hope that they bring some sort of excitement and obviously young legs, skating legs and stuff like that ... you want to feed off their excitement of being up here in the NHL, and it's good to see them playing with that and gaining more confidence as they're playing more games," Lucic said.


The contributions from Spooner and Pastrnak couldn't have come at a better time. Krejci tore the medial collateral ligament in his left knee Feb. 20 against the St. Louis Blues and has been sidelined since. That loss capped an 0-4-2 stretch that put the Bruins' hopes for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in jeopardy. But since losing Krejci, the Bruins are 7-1-1.



Ryan Spooner



Center - BOS


GOALS: 3 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 9

SOG: 27 | +/-: 0



With Krejci out and center Carl Soderberg in a 21-game goal drought, Spooner and Pastrnak have stepped into the void. Spooner (5-foot-11, 181 pounds) has put his speed and elusiveness to use and complemented his excellent playmaking skills by using his elusive shot that's difficult to predict but somehow lands on goal from different angles.

Pastrnak (6-foot, 167) has overcome his weight disadvantage with powerful skating strides, creativity and fearlessness in the face of an opponent's physicality. Each player has provided the Bruins with elements they lacked for most of this season.


Not long ago Marchand was the upstart trying to spark older players. Now he's getting a jolt.


"These guys that are up right now, they're playing hard, they're playing for spots and they're looking really good," said Marchand, who has five goals in the past six games and leads the Bruins with 22. "And we need that youthful energy. It gets the guys excited. It gets the older guys going. It gets them more into the game. And we feed off that energy and we've needed it and it definitely helps us right now."


The Bruins selected Pastrnak with the 25th pick of the 2014 NHL Draft. He spent 24 games with Providence of the American Hockey League (he had 27 points) and played for Czech Republic at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship before settling in with Boston. He has 18 points in 31 games.


The Bruins waited longer for Spooner to make an impact. They picked him in the second round (No. 45) of the 2010 draft and he turned pro for the 2012-13 season. He spent most of his time in the AHL, but in 27 NHL games before this season he had 11 assists. He started this season in Boston, but after five games without a point he was sent back to Providence. He struggled there with a brief shift to left wing and some injuries. He got hot in February, with three goals and nine points in seven games before he was called up to replace Krejci.



David Pastrnak



Right Wing - BOS


GOALS: 9 | ASST: 9 | PTS: 18

SOG: 72 | +/-: 11



With a couple of other lines working well, Julien decided to plug in Spooner between Lucic and Pastrnak rather than split them or give them a better two-way linemate, Chris Kelly or Loui Eriksson, to keep the line honest. Julien has been forced to make in-game changes based on situations, but when an offense has ranked in the bottom third of the NHL most of the season and an eighth straight playoff berth is hanging in the balance, a coach and an organization have to be willing to tolerate some blemishes when the added firepower is such a benefit.

"It's a normal work in progress," Julien said. "I think some of those guys get caught in their own end and are still not quite comfortable at doing the thing. But nonetheless, I think right now the offense has been outweighing the defense. They're only going to get better with time, so you've got to live with those situations at times."


If the Bruins can continue to succeed the way they've been lately, they'll definitely be able to live with those situations.



Islanders' Strome impressing at both ends of ice


UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- The New York Islanders knew they were getting a gifted offensive player when they used the fifth pick of the 2011 NHL Draft to select forward Ryan Strome.


But Strome's ability to play a solid two-way game is what has made his first full season in the NHL so impressive.



Ryan Strome



Center - NYI


GOALS: 14 | ASST: 29 | PTS: 43

SOG: 156 | +/-: 19



Heading into their game against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports, CITY), Strome ranks third on the Islanders with 43 points (14 goals, 29 assists) in 69 games. He leads New York with a plus-19 rating.

"Plus/minus is a bit of a stat that's tough," Strome said. "I don't think it's a real great indication of a lot of things, but anytime you have good numbers I guess you just take it and roll with it. It's not really on my mind too much, but obviously you want be on for more [goals] than against."


Strome made his debut with the Islanders last season and did not look out of place, scoring seven goals with 11 assists in 37 games. New York was successful with Strome was in the lineup too; the Islanders, who finished 14th in the Eastern Conference, were 21-11-5 when he played.


The Islanders (43-23-4) trail the Canadiens, New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning by one point for first place in the Eastern Conference.


"It's a lot of fun coming to the rink," Strome, 21, said. "We have a great team in here, and we're an even better group of guys, so it's a lot of fun. It's going to be fun down the stretch here. I think we're all looking forward to the playoffs. It's going to be a lot of our first times, or for some of us at least, so it should be good. It's something we're looking forward to. It's a lot of fun winning. This is what you prepare for all season."


Strome had some familiarity with the Islanders the moment he was drafted. He began working out with John Tavares as a 15-year-old at the Athlete Training Centre in their hometown of Mississauga, Ontario. Since then, Strome has leaned on Tavares while becoming accustomed to life in the NHL.


"He's just a great role model and a good friend and a person to talk to," Strome said. "I like to think I think the game like he does. I think to have that similarity and be able to talk about plays in the game, I think that's been a huge thing for me. When we watch our games again or we watch other games on TV, just little plays, it's good to have a hockey mind like that. I'm striving to be what he is, so that's a great role model to have."


Tavares, 24, was the first pick in the 2009 NHL Draft and was named Islanders captain prior to the 2013-14 season.


"You always talk and you communicate, and I think for him, too, it's just going through the experience and maybe what it was like for me," Tavares said. "You help in any way you can, but at the same time I think everyone has their own process and how they go through things. His [road to the NHL] has been a little similar to mine. When I'm there if he needs any advice, or wants to ask any questions to not just me but any of the guys, [we're here to help]."


Strome has spent much of this season on a line with Anders Lee and Brock Nelson; the three first crossed paths while playing for Bridgeport in the American Hockey League.


Nelson has 18 goals and 21 assists in 70 games, and Lee was the NHL's Rookie of the Month for February when he had seven goals and eight assists in 15 games.


"It's incredible. [Ryan's] such a young guy," said Lee, a Calder Trophy candidate with 23 goals. "Just in the last two years getting to know him and seeing him as a player progress, it's incredible. He's going to have a fantastic career. He's fun to play with. The way he sees the ice and makes plays, it really helps complement with me. We both try to bring a lot of energy to the game and just go out there and work hard."


Islanders coach Jack Capuano said has pushed Strome to become a better two-way player.


"He's done some good things, but he knows his play away from the puck has got to be better and we're on him all the time about that. That's the one area," Capuano said. "We know he's got the offensive instincts and he's very creative, but he's got exposed a few times, which is a good thing. I think as a young player you learn from that. He's definitely learning.


"We didn't expect some of these guys to be in our lineup at the start of the year. I give them credit. They've worked extremely hard and they've made an impact on our hockey club this year."


Lee is 24 years old, and Nelson is 23.


"When you look at [Ryan] and how Brock and Anders have played, the only other teams I can think of with that kind of young impact is maybe Calgary and Tampa Bay," Tavares said. "To have those guys play at such a high level at such a young age, it bodes well for us this year and obviously for many years ahead."


Strome scored 97 goals in three full seasons with the Niagara IceDogs in the Ontario Hockey League and 49 points in 37 AHL games last season.


"His skill set and the way he sees the ice is pretty special," Tavares said. "His ability to think the game and find the open areas and be able to read the play is at a very high level. I think when you saw him come up last year, he just had to get to the middle of the ice a little bit more, and maybe not always trying to look for that guy just because of how good teams are defending and tracking back and picking up the late man. You see him now behind the net, around the net, in the middle of the ice making a lot of plays. He's shooting the puck and being a dual threat that way, so it's been great for his game. He's so smart that he's going to adapt. I think you're certainly seeing that."


There could be another Strome in the NHL as early as next season. Ryan's younger brother, Dylan Strome, has 116 points (39 goals, 77 assists) in 63 games for the Erie Otters in the OHL. He's expected to be a top-10 pick at the 2015 NHL Draft.


Ryan said he speaks with his brother at least a couple of times per week.


"He's having fun and they're winning a lot of hockey games there," Strome said. "He's busy, and I know the stress of a hockey season in a draft year, so he's taking it all in stride.


"He's such a smart kid and he's so mature, beyond what I was [at that age]. He's just learning from that with my experiences and just going through it himself, he doesn't really ask too much. I just tell him to keep it even-keel. I think he's having a lot of fun."


Will his younger brother go higher than No. 5, and if so, will there be some verbal jabbing?


"I don't know. Hopefully [it's] just a good situation," Strome said. "He's already surpassed me in a lot of things. I like being the underdog anyways.


"He's a left-handed shot and a lot bigger than I am (Ryan is 6-foot-1, 196; Dylan is 6-foot-3, 187). I think he's a bit more of a natural scorer than I am. He's good around the net. Not that he's not a great passer, but I think he's got a great shot, a real deceptive scorer. I think if there's a little bit of a difference [between us], that might be it."


About seven months from now, there's a chance Ryan will play against Dylan in the NHL.


"That's kind of crazy to think about," Ryan said. "Obviously it's quite the journey to get here. I hope he gets here as quick as he can. That'll be really fun, for sure."


For now, Strome's main concern is helping the Islanders secure home-ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. Six months ago, he was trying to make their roster. Though he's still working out the kinks, he's been an integral part of their success.


"I think I still have a long ways to go," he said. "I put a lot of pressure on myself and I'm pretty hard on myself. I think at times I've been good, but I know I can get better and I'm going to be better. It's all part of the learning process. I just want to continue on that upward trend."


---



Friday, March 13, 2015

Graovac rewarding Wild with breakout AHL season


At 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, Tyler Graovac is hard to miss.


But all 30 NHL teams did just that, bypassing Graovac 190 times until the Minnesota Wild finally selected him at No. 191 with their last pick in the 2011 NHL Draft.


"I knew when it came down to [draft weekend], I wasn't really expected to go high," Graovac said. "Getting picked seventh round by Minnesota was a little bit of a shock because I had had a lot of interviews with teams that year and Minnesota was the only one who didn't interview me. But it's been going great. They've been very patient with me."


That patience has paid dividends, as the 21-year-old center has excelled in his second season with their American Hockey League affiliate, the Iowa Wild. Fifty-eight games into the 2014-15 season, Graovac has nearly doubled his offensive output from last season, leading Iowa in goals (19), points (40), power-play goals (eight), and shots on goal (163). He's had 10 multipoint games.


Graovac made his NHL debut with Minnesota on Dec. 29, 2014, and the three games he spent there became the only AHL time he's missed with Iowa, lending credence to the workhorse ethic lauded by the Iowa coaching staff.


"Tyler's going to be one of the leaders here if he doesn't make the big team [next year]," said Iowa head coach John Torchetti, whose resume includes a Stanley Cup title as an assistant with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. "It's something that comes with his film work, his off-ice work in the training room, his work habits. He's putting the time in after practice with our skating and skill coach and our assistant coaches, and those are all the little things that are going to help him be a pro, and that's what he wants to be."


A native of Brampton, Ontario, Graovac played his first game in the NHL on Canadian soil, receiving more than nine minutes of ice time as the Wild edged the Winnipeg Jets 3-2 at MTS Centre.


"You always ask guys, 'What's it like?' and everyone kind of says it's a dream. I've said this before, but it felt like a video game," Graovac said. "I made it from [being] at prom on draft weekend to playing in front of thousands of people. It was very, very exciting, and a really fun time for me and for my family. Hopefully it will happen again soon."


Graovac's gratitude for his family's support may not be a revelatory thought in hockey, a world of 5 a.m. practices, long car rides and 100-percent focus on that end goal. But his absolute awareness of what may have been given up in order for him to give it all jumps right off the page.


"I owe so much to my family," he said. "My parents sacrificed a lot of their life the last 20 years to get me in the right direction. They put so much time and money into my life, and not only just my immediate family, but my grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles -- they all put me almost No. 1 and ahead of their lives.


"That says a lot to me. I had my dad there in Winnipeg, and my cousin came down, and I remember saying to them after the game, almost like a 'we made it' type of thing. That was the best feeling for me. Even better than the game, to be honest."


Graovac played junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League, scoring 58 goals and 130 points in 228 games between Ottawa and Belleville (2009-13). He capped his final season with an impressive playoff performance for Belleville, with 22 points in 16 playoff games, and earned the Canadian Hockey League's Sportsman of the Year award for 2012-13.


"He's a quiet kid. He takes a lot of pride in his game. I think he's starting to come out of his shell," Torchetti said. "People expect him to be this physical, dominating player, but he's a puck possession guy. He's a smart guy, and he knows what to do without the puck and [how to get] into open spots. He really wants to be a consummate pro, and that's one thing that he's really improved upon, being consistent."


Iowa has struggled on the ice this season, and Torchetti has leaned on first- and second-year players to step up and produce each night. For Graovac, no longer a rookie on paper, the adversity has helped his game grow even more.


"I try to go into every game thinking that I'm going to be a game-changer and do everything I can to help the team win. I want to be that guy," he said. "Compared to last year, I was just kind of getting into the league and being a sponge and trying to adjust as quick as I can. This year, I'm just saying I'm going to take this and run with it."


Of the 30 players drafted in the seventh round in 2011, eight have played in the NHL, with Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ondrej Palat leading the way with 159 games. Six, including Graovac, have made their debuts this season.


"Maybe on paper, I'm a seventh-rounder," he said, "but in my mind, I know I'm more capable than that and I think I've proved that."


For more news, scores, and stats from around the American Hockey League, follow @TheAHL on Twitter and visit theahl.com .



No Bull Moments: Hurricanes' Semin, Wings' Nyquist


Presidents' Trophy race six-way tie hitting stretch run


How close is the race for the Presidents' Trophy this season? Historically it's never been closer.


With about one month left in the regular season, the New York Rangers, St. Louis Blues, Montreal Canadiens, Tampa Bay Lightning, Nashville Predators and Anaheim Ducks are tied atop the standings with 91 points.


Since expansion in 1967, it's the first time this many teams have been tied for first place in the League on March 13. The previous mark was two teams, the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings with 97 points in 2008-09 and the Canadiens and Calgary Flames with 90 points in 1987-88.



2014-2015 Standings



ROW = total number of regulation plus overtime wins. For tie-breaking purposes, wins obtained in a shootout are not counted. For full standings tiebreakers, click here.

03/13/15 10:57AM




There already was a logjam at the top heading into Thursday, with the Rangers, Canadiens, Predators and Ducks at 91 points.


The Canadiens and Predators had chances to separate themselves from the pack, but the Canadiens lost at home 5-2 to the Ottawa Senators, and the Predators were shut out by the San Jose Sharks 2-0.


The Lightning, who started one point back, joined the pack with the point gained in their 3-2 shootout loss to the Boston Bruins.


Then the Blues jumped into the fray with their 1-0 shootout win against the Philadelphia Flyers.


The only constant is the Rangers still leading the field based on tiebreakers; they've amassed their 91 points in 66 games; only three teams have played fewer games.


The Blues, who have played 67 games, are next, followed by the Canadiens, who have played 68 games.


The Lightning, Predators and Ducks have played 69 games, but the Lightning have the edge based on their 40 regulation/overtime wins, compared to 36 for the Predators and 34 for the Ducks.


As tight as the standings are now, there's a chance for it to be a seven-way tie after play Friday. The New York Islanders have 90 points, and an overtime or shootout loss against the Senators, plus a regulation loss by the Ducks at the Minnesota Wild, would jam things up further.


And it's not just the Presidents' Trophy race that's jammed up. The Canadiens and Lightning are tied for first in the Atlantic Division, the Predators and Blues lead the Central Division, and the Rangers have a one-point lead on the Islanders in the Metropolitan Division.


In the Pacific Division the third-place Calgary Flames and fourth-place Los Angeles Kings are tied with 79 points, and the Sharks are three points behind them. And the Kings, who beat the Vancouver Canucks 4-0, passed the Winnipeg Jets for the second wild card in the Western Conference; they have a one-point lead on the Jets and three-point lead on the Sharks, and are two points behind the Wild for the first wild card.


All that shows that with about a month left in the regular season, the intensity and the importance of each game, and each point, is going to continue to pick up.



Flames credit comeback success to fitness level


CALGARY -- From an office overlooking the fitness facility in the bowels of Scotiabank Saddledome, Calgary Flames strength and conditioning coach Ryan van Asten took a moment and paused.


Then, peering out from his desk in the direction of his other, bigger office of gym equipment, van Asten suggested he knew at least part of the reason the Flames have found success in the second season of what is supposed to be a rebuilding process.


Fitness.


"You kind of have to look at it as so many different variables," he said atop an exercise ball. "I like to think that piece of the puzzle is paying off, what we do in the gym. We train every day. There are so many different factors. One of them is, we've done it so many different times, is confidence. At the end of the day, if you don't have the physiological resources, it's all for naught.


"There's no doubt in my mind they have full confidence in their physical abilities coming late into games, into overtime. They're not afraid to overexert themselves because they know they can recover."


The Flames led the NHL with 12 wins after trailing after the first period, 10 when trailing after the second, and 13 in overtime. Their 18 wins after allowing the first goal were second to the Nashville Predators' 19.


The Flames, who host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday (8 p.m. ET; SNW, TSN4), believe it has everything to do with fitness.


"We believe it. We believe it," coach Bob Hartley said. "We can't compare ourselves to other teams because we don't have the data of other teams, but we believe it. It's in our minds. They believe that our conditioning can make the difference. They believe in their abilities. You combine those two together, we feel we have a chance to always come back."


Hartley gives credit to van Asten, who was with the Los Angeles Kings for Stanley Cup championships in 2012 and 2014, and with the Canada women's team for a gold medal won at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.


"Huge. Huge. This guy is a magician," Hartley said. "This guy is so good. Great communicator, always ready, has lots of new ways to train, new methods. Guys are very excited with this. He's been a huge addition. It's his personality also. It's who's in the shoes that make the call. He's a great one."


The Flames signed goaltender Jonas Hiller, defenseman Deryk Engelland and forward Mason Raymond as free agents on July 1. That also was van Asten's start date.


"Everyone was really welcoming," he said. "Where I came from and what I've been able to be a part of the past few years really helped a lot. Guys really bought-in right away. These guys know they're in shape. There's no way around it. It started right at the beginning of the year. The coaches are driving that as well. It's 100 percent buy-in with the players with what I'm doing."


Flames players didn't need much convincing to follow van Asten's lead.


"When we were down in L.A., he [was given] his second ring," Calgary forward Joe Colborne said. "There were quite a few guys staring at it pretty good. It's huge. That's our goal. We want to get there and he's seen it done. He knows how to get through a long season and a couple long playoff runs like they've had. He's well equipped to handle whatever we have thrown at us.


"He's stepped in and he's got such a quiet demeanor about him, but he's got so much respect from the top on down. He has been able to step in and instantly become part of the team. There was no period where it took him to get acclimated. Obviously he's had success with the Kings. When he says something, most of the guys are quick to listen. It's been working."


The come-from-behind victories prove that. The Flames' eighty-five third-period goals are second to the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have 87 but have played two more games. No NHL team has allowed fewer in the third period than the Flames (48).


"I said this at Day One of camp," Hartley said. "Looking at the commitment our players have shown in their training regimen over the summer, looking at the results of our fitness tests, I knew that we were putting ourselves in a situation where we would have a chance. Looking at the way we compete in third periods, looking at the way we compete in back-to-back games, we have lots of gas, and that's the team commitment that they've given us."



Super 16: Norris Trophy race has no clear-cut favorite


With about a month left in the season, the top three or four candidates for every major individual award except one are pretty clear.


That one is the Norris Trophy, and this might be the most wide-open race of any individual award in the past several seasons. Mark Giordano of the Calgary Flames was considered a favorite by many prominent pundits, but his injury has left as many as 15 or 16 defensemen with a case to be in the conversation.


There is no clear-cut favorite. If someone says there is, that someone isn't paying nearly enough attention to the data available to judge defensemen.


More than the other two positions on the ice, it is extremely difficult to judge a defenseman's play by just watching the games, and even viewing every game a defenseman plays doesn't provide enough context in an argument involving guys from 10 other teams.


Let's take a look at the top 14 defensemen that could be in the discussion for the Norris (apologies to Anton Stralman, Ryan Suter and anyone else who just missed the cut). Below is a table with lots of relevant information, followed by three player usage charts generated at Rob Vollman's website, http://bit.ly/1MwSAJY.


















































































































































































NameGoalsPointsSAT%SAT%relSC%*SC%rel*TOI/gameSPSv%
Dougie Hamilton103955.745.855.15.121:28:00987
Mark Giordano114848.365.749.87.125:10:001013
T.J. Brodie103646.603.947.34.125:11:001029
Justin Faulk134454.173.751.92.824:11:00963
Duncan Keith73756.835.055.43.525:41:001010
Drew Doughty53856.463.054.63.229:23:00988
Jake Muzzin73257.843.755.32.623:06:00968
P.K. Subban124952.386.350.13.626:08:001016
Roman Josi114749.73-4.451.2-4.526:34:001023
Shea Weber154350.08-5.151.8-3.526:30:001019
Nick Leddy102956.314.856.54.120:04:001004
Erik Karlsson165052.684.654.55.627:03:001009
Kris Letang105155.855.455.66.225:48:001002
John Carlson104650.63-0.852.30.023:05:001002
*scoring chance percentage and scoring chance percentage relative to team average, from www.war-on-ice.com

Norris QOC

(Click image to enlarge)



Norris QOT

(Click image to enlarge)



Norris QOTrel

(Click image to enlarge)



After looking over all of that data, does any player stick out like an obvious frontrunner for best defenseman?


Here's the case for (or against) each of the viable candidates, presented alphabetically by team:


Dougie Hamilton , Boston Bruins : Hamilton has had a great season and deserves to be on the fringe of this discussion. He has played well with and without Zdeno Chara. He might be the most likely guy to not breach the top 10 in the voting in this group.


Mark Giordano , Calgary Flames : It's going to be almost impossible for him to win after missing a quarter of the season. He might still deserve to be in the top five or so of the voting in a month.


TJ Brodie , Calgary Flames : His case, at this point, is not as strong as Giordano's but he has a real chance to strengthen it in the final month. His possession numbers are almost certain to suffer depending on his partner.


Justin Faulk , Carolina Hurricanes : The most underrated performance of the 2014-15 season in the NHL. Faulk's traditional numbers could be even better if his shooting plus save percentage (SPSv%) wasn't so depressed. Players on bad teams don't typically win major awards, but there's a strong case for him to finish in the top five or six of the voting.


Duncan Keith , Chicago Blackhawks : He doesn't have the gaudy point total, but the 2014 winner has still been great this season. Not playing against tougher competition might hurt him this time (along with teammates not shooting as high a percentage as they did last season).


Drew Doughty , Los Angeles Kings : No one has played better in more minutes than Doughty. Pretty much any non-analytical argument for Shea Weber is actually a better argument for Doughty, and Doughty's advanced stats are clearly superior.


Jake Muzzin , Los Angeles Kings : Muzzin has seen more ice time away from Doughty this season and continued to excel. Any notion he's not an elite defenseman is simply folly at this point. Could he finish ahead of Doughty in the voting? Probably not.


P.K. Subban , Montreal Canadiens : Subban isn't getting enough credit for Montreal's success, because Carey Price has been incredible. When Subban is on the ice, the Canadiens are a competent possession team. At this point, he deserves to be a finalist and could make a move to the top with a big final month.


Shea Weber , Nashville Predators : There are plenty of people who think Weber is going to win the Norris. There is almost no statistical basis for arguing Weber has been the best defenseman in the NHL this season. His point total and plus-minus are inflated by a high SPSv%.


There is almost no statistical basis for arguing Shea Weber has been the best defenseman in the NHL this season. (Photo: Michael Martin/NHLI)


The advanced statistics can be wrong. Some of Weber's problem could be usage. That said, the numbers have to be really wrong and that is much harder to believe. In years past, the Predators were a middling possession team, so Weber's numbers didn't look so out of place. This season Nashville has been a great possession team, and it's hard to accept his numbers compared to the other top Norris candidates.


Roman Josi , Nashville Predators : Josi is hard to separate from Weber. If Weber gets a lot of first-place votes, maybe Josi cracks the top 10. If not, he's in Hamilton's territory with this group.


Nick Leddy , New York Islanders : If Leddy played more, there could have been a strong argument for him to win. Jack Capuano hasn't let any of his defensemen play 22 minutes per game though, and now the injury isn't going to help. He's been fantastic this season, and a huge part of New York's turnaround.


Erik Karlsson , Ottawa Senators : He could end up with the most goals and points, and that's typically good for at least an invite to Las Vegas. He's better defensively than some pundits still think, and the Senators' recent surge has probably pushed his name back into the group of top contenders.


Kris Letang , Pittsburgh Penguins : An incredible story given what he's gone through, Letang has thrived with new coach Mike Johnston. His relative numbers look great as well, though some of that is because of more sheltered usage compared to some of the other top candidates.


John Carlson , Washington Capitals : A fascinating case, Carlson has the worst possession and scoring chance numbers of anyone here besides the Nashville duo. He also has the most even-strength points and has played with noted possession suppresser Brooks Orpik the entire season. He feels like a wild card, like he could have the widest range of placement on voters' ballots of anyone here.


So who deserves to win the Norris? That remains an unanswered question. There could be a half-dozen candidates with a strong case, and a half-dozen more who could be deserving of a top-five or top-six finish.


It says here, on March 13, that Doughty, Subban and Giordano are the three best candidates, with Karlsson, Faulk and Letang not far behind and Weber, Muzzin and Brodie the three just off the pace that could make a late surge.


DISCLAIMER: While the Super 16 is NHL.com's weekly power rankings, it focuses more on the "power" than the "rankings" when determining the order. It's not always going to look like the League standings and likely will take more of a long view than a short one. If two teams are close the tiebreaker almost always is this: If the two teams started a seven-game series right now, who would prevail? Stop by to see where your favorite team ranks, but stay for the information. All rankings, records and statistics are through the games played Wednesday night.


1. Chicago Blackhawks


The Blackhawks have been one of the best teams at preventing goals all season, and losing Patrick Kane didn't stop that. Adding Antoine Vermette and especially Kimmo Timonen might even help in that department. Chicago has allowed 10 goals in the past six games (when Kane was injured) and they are 4-1-1 in that span. The Blackhawks are second in the League in goals-against per game to Carey Price.


2. Los Angeles Kings


In each of the two seasons when the Kings won the Stanley Cup, their team shooting percentage was low before they starting pouring in goals near the end of the regular season and into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Are the Kings going to score in bunches deep into the spring this year?


Los Angeles' shooting percentage at even strength on Feb. 4, the day before the start of the eight-game winning streak, was 7.2 percent at even strength. That's a little low, but not comically so like last season. Since then, the Kings are 11-3-1 and they're shooting 9.4 percent at evens. Right now their SPSv% for the season is sitting at 1001. Expecting them to average three goals per game for another 16 games plus a playoff run might be a stretch, but they should continue to score more than they were earlier in the season.


3. Detroit Red Wings


The Red Wings have forged nearly a quarter-century of consecutive playoff appearances in large part because of their ability to mine later rounds in the NHL Draft for elite talent. From Nicklas Lidstrom and Sergei Fedorov to Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and many others, Detroit finds players (especially in Europe) later in the draft better than anyone else.


That has continued in recent seasons. Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar have joined Datsyuk and Zetterberg among the Red Wings' top four scorers this season. Tatar, at No. 60 in 2009, is the earliest any of the quartet went in the draft.


There are 24 teams with at least one top-10 pick (by any team, not just homegrown players) among their current top four scorers. The other five teams (Nashville, St. Louis, Buffalo, Anaheim and Montreal) all have at least one first-round pick among their top four. Montreal's Max Pacioretty, at No. 22, is the lowest in the League other than Tatar at 60.


4. Tampa Bay Lightning


Whether someone prefers to call them "The Triplets" (there are T-shirts with that name available in the team store at Amalie Arena) or "That Line," the trio of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov has been a revelation this season for the Lightning. They have combined for more points while on the ice together than any other forward trio, and by a significant margin as the graph with data from www.dobberhockey.com shows.



Some coaches don't like to stick with lines. Some teams just can't because of injury or poor performance. These three have been fantastic together all season, and the chemistry is evident. Palat will miss 2-3 weeks with a lower-body injury, the Lightning announced Thursday, but that should have him back before the playoffs begin. What should be terrifying for other teams in the Eastern Conference is that second graph. Not only has it been the best line in the League this season, it's easily the youngest of that group.


If Jonathan Drouin develops into a trusty sidekick for Steven Stamkos, the Lightning could roll out two frightening lines for years to come.


5. St. Louis Blues


The Blues have clearly benefited from stability with their top two lines (see the graph above). That makes Paul Stastny the best No. 3 center in the NHL, and a real advantage in a playoff series provided Jori Lehtera holds up. Once St. Louis gets healthy on defense, it is still possible the two best teams in the West will meet in the first round.


6. New York Rangers


The Rangers are a pretty strong advertisement for college hockey these days. Seven of their top 11 scorers are NCAA alums. Some are homegrown, like Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider, and others have been added through free agency and trades. Even the star of the moment, backup goaltender Cam Talbot, is an NCAA guy. He might be the most famous Alabama-Huntsville alum, but he's not the most accomplished (yet). Jan Davis went into space three times and John Hendricks created the Discovery Channel.


7. Anaheim Ducks


Speaking of No. 3 centers, Rickard Rakell has earned that role with the Ducks, fending off fellow prospect William Karlsson (since traded) for a spot in the middle behind Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler. Except he's not really getting No. 3 minutes. It's more of a 3A/3B situation with Nate Thompson than a true 3/4 split.


Rakell has superior possession numbers, scoring chance numbers both for and against (based on data from www.war-on-ice.com) and offensive production. The gap between his play and Thompson's cannot be explained away by zone starts (Thompson sees more in the defensive zone, but it's not an extreme difference) or quality of competition (Rakell faces tougher, actually). It seems like a veteran versus youth trust issue for the Ducks. There's easily 2-3 minutes per game in Thompson's workload that could be going to Rakell.


8. Nashville Predators


The goals have dried up of late. Nashville has 24 in the past 11 games, and only one regulation win in that span. Filip Forsberg has had a marvelous rookie season, but he has three points in his past 13 games. Johnny Gaudreau has closed the gap to three points in the rookie scoring race, but more importantly it could mean more voters consider Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad for the Calder Trophy.


In better news, here is a graph of the top scoring defense partnerships to accompany the forwards earlier. Calgary's Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie might have run away with this if not for Giordano's injury, but Shea Weber and Roman Josi have been a consistently productive pairing. As discussed earlier, the analytics-friendly crowd is less impressed with their overall body of work though.



9. Pittsburgh Penguins


While the Penguins appear to be a longshot to win the Metropolitan Division given how well the Rangers are playing, their schedule might give them a chance to get on a run. Their game Thursday against the Edmonton Oilers started a stretch in which 12 of the final 16 are against teams in the bottom 12 of the NHL standings, and after this weekend it is 11 of the final 13. Pittsburgh's four games against top-18 sides are also all at Consol Energy Center.


10. Minnesota Wild


In the first 42 games of the season, the Wild allowed four goals or more 16 times and went 2-13-1 in those games. In the 25 since Devan Dubnyk took control of the crease, the Wild have allowed four goals once, and still earned a point in that contest.


11. Montreal Canadiens


In Price's past four starts, the Canadiens have managed to score three goals and lose three times despite the Hart Trophy favorite making 127 saves on 135 shots. Price could carry the Canadiens deep into the postseason, but an offensive outage would certainly mean an early exit.


12. New York Islanders


Nick Leddy, as previously mentioned, is a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate and maybe the most important addition any team made from the end of last season until opening night. The Islanders are set for a nice boost from the return of Kyle Okposo, but Leddy has become arguably their second-most important player. With him, the Islanders can win the East. Without him, they would be hard pressed to advance, especially considering how tight the Metro is.


13. Washington Capitals


Brooks Orpik missed a game Wednesday. This was significant because it was the first game a member of Washington's top two defense pairings has missed this season. Nashville is the only other team with three defensemen who have played in every game, and the Predators' fourth guy, Mattias Ekholm, has missed two games. Also, Orpik's place on that list of potent defense pairings above is another reason John Carlson deserves Norris Trophy consideration.


14. Winnipeg Jets


It's a really, really small sample size, but it's been a month since the big trade with the Buffalo Sabres. Before the trade, Zach Bogosian's shot attempts percentage (SAT%) relative to his team's average was minus-2.7 percent. Since arriving in Buffalo, it is 2.7 percent. Tyler Myers' SAT%rel with the Sabres was minus-4.9 percent and with the Jets it is minus 4.7 percent.


Myers is facing about the same level of competition and actually seeing more offensive zone starts with Winnipeg. He also has a much better partner (Tobias Enstrom) than he did in Buffalo (Josh Gorges).


It's still early, but the Jets need Myers to help them into the playoffs for the first time since moving to Winnipeg, and it's hard to say he's been much of an upgrade from Bogosian at this point. He does have nine points in 11 games, but defensive scoring, especially assists, can fluctuate because of a lot of factors beyond said defenseman's control.


15. Boston Bruins


The Bruins lost their second-best center to injury, then traded for some offensive help and that guy got hurt as well. The Florida Panthers added Jaromir Jagr and the Ottawa Senators started playing a goaltender who suddenly went from average at best in the American Hockey League to Carey Price-like in the NHL.


Things were bleak in Boston, and not because of the snow banks. A week later, the Bruins suddenly look safe. They won the games in hand on the Panthers and won a game in regulation against the Senators. They are six points up on Florida with 16 games to go. That's a pretty good place to be, with possibly a chance to play the underdog role against the rival Canadiens looming as well.


16. Vancouver Canucks


The Canucks are pretty much the opposite of the Capitals. None of the defensemen have played more than 60 games. Vancouver also doesn't have a defenseman with more than six goals. The only other teams who don't are the Buffalo Sabres, Edmonton Oilers and New Jersey Devils.



Thursday, March 12, 2015

Fantasy top 30 goalies: Evaluating Talbot, Hammond


Every Thursday during the season, NHL.com's Evan Sporer will provide you with in-depth analysis of goaltenders. From updated weekly top 30 rankings to trending players and more, Sporer will be your go-to guy for advice on fantasy goalies all season long.


UPDATED TOP 30 GOALIE RANKINGS

What's made the appeal and allure of goaltenders like the New York Rangers' Cam Talbot and the Ottawa Senators' Andrew Hammond so high this season is the element of here and now.


Goaltending can be broken down into a series of events over the course of a season. We try to select players in fantasy hockey, to the best of our ability, based on prior results and how consistent goalies have been in the past; at what chances we think they have of duplicated high levels of productivity.


With Talbot and Hammond, all that was known was the unknown.


An interesting debate when it comes to goaltending is what constitutes an appreciable sample size. A goalie doesn't play 82 games in a season, so how many games does he need to play -- and can be isolated -- for someone to make a meaningful judgment?


Is 60 games enough? Eighty games? One-hundred games?


Wherever you stand in that debate, Talbot and Hammond fall well below those thresholds. Before Talbot began his recent run of play taking over for the injured Henrik Lundqvist, he had played just over 30 games. Hammond, a rookie, is completely new to the NHL.


The paradox is, no matter how Talbot and Hammond project out long-term, and what kind of goaltenders they become, these smaller samples they're producing now are irrefutably valuable fantasy-wise.


Talbot appeared in 21 games last season with a .941 save percentage. It was obvious he wasn't going to sustain that level because, in the history of the NHL, no goalie has ever been able to do that.



Cam Talbot



STATS PRIOR TO MAR. 12 GAMES


RECORD: 16-6-4

GAA: 2.23 | SVP: .924



Again, goaltending can be broken down into events. If Talbot is a .920 save percentage-caliber goalie, and plays 21 games at .941, he's going to end up facing an equal workload below .920 to average everything out.

That has begun to happen as he's taken on the role of starter. His win-loss record may not purport a goalie playing under his previous numbers (12-2-3 in Lundqvist's absence) but that's essentially what has happened. His save percentage in those 17 starts has been .922, 11th in the League over that span among goaltenders playing at least 480 minutes, according to war-on-ice. Still, 12 wins in 17 starts with two shutouts are incredibly valuable stats in fantasy hockey.



Andrew Hammond



STATS PRIOR TO MAR. 12 GAMES


RECORD: 7-0-1

GAA: 1.43 | SVP: .954



Hammond is even more of a wild card. Over that same stretch of hockey, Hammond has had the highest save percentage in the League at .954. He's won seven of his nine starts with two shutouts. He won't continue this productivity should he continue to play because, again, no goalie in this League has ever had a .954 save percentage, and to make the numbers work, he won't start stopping pucks at a .940 clip, but one far lower.

All of this can create difficult decisions for fantasy hockey owners, especially in these shorter-term situations. Craig Anderson is back healthy for the Senators. Lundqvist will return for the Rangers. Yet this flash-in-the-pan concept is a huge key to being successful in fantasy hockey. To be able to take advantage of a hot streak before it burns out is one of the few in-season maneuvers one can make to actually add true value to his or her roster.


Talbot and Hammond will surely see their numbers regress moving forward. But when it comes to the here and now, and what's really relevant, they're both turning in major fantasy performances.




TRENDING UP


Cam Talbot , New York Rangers


Some quick Talbot stats: He's 7-1-1 in his past nine starts, with a 1.54 goals-against average, .948 save percentage and two shutouts. In his past five starts, he's 4-0-1, with a 0.99 GAA, .966 save percentage and one shutout. Those past five starts came against the Washington Capitals, the New York Islanders, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Detroit Red Wings and the Nashville Predators. This is the definition of "trending up."



Kari Lehtonen



STATS PRIOR TO MAR. 12 GAMES


RECORD: 27-13-10

GAA: 2.94 | SVP: .906



TRENDING DOWN

Kari Lehtonen , Dallas Stars


There was a brief period where Lehtonen seemed like he might turn the corner, but that period has since passed. Since Jan. 1, Lehtonen has a .902 save percentage. The Stars have even got better in front of him (a 52.2 shot attempts percentage since Jan. 1), but the goaltending results simply haven't been there.


KEEP AN EYE ON


Calvin Pickard , Colorado Avalanche


The extent of Semyon Varlamov's latest injury is unknown. But considering it's a groin injury, the fourth time Varlamov has missed time this season with such an ailment, there's certainly a chance Pickard will get to make some starts down the stretch. His latest was arguably his worst of the season, as he was pulled after allowing three goals on eight shots against the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday, but Pickard could be valuable in Colorado's final 15 games.




TOP 30 FANTASY GOALIES


These modified re-rankings are a projection of a goalie's fantasy output for the entire season. Our ranks are based on volume categories like games played, wins, saves, goals-against average (GAA) and save percentage (SV%). The plus or minus for each player is movement based on our most recent rankings from last week (NR means not ranked in previous rankings). It is important to note that our rankings reflect sheer fantasy value, not talent. A less-talented goalie could be ranked higher due to their team's strong defense and offense.































































































1Carey Price, MTL (SAME)16John Gibson, ANA (-1)
2Pekka Rinne, NSH (SAME)17Frederik Andersen, ANA (-1)
3Marc-Andre Fleury, PIT (SAME)18Steve Mason, PHI (+1)
4Braden Holtby, WSH (+1) 19Michael Hutchinson, WPG (-2)
5Tuukka Rask, BOS (-1) 20Andrew Hammond, OTT (NEW)
6Cory Schneider, NJD (+1) 21Craig Anderson, OTT (SAME)
7Roberto Luongo, FLA - DTD 22Eddie Lack, VAN (+1)
8Corey Crawford, CHI (+1) 23Sergei Bobrovsky, CBJ (-1)
9Devan Dubnyk, MIN (+2) 24Antti Niemi, SJS (-1)
10Brian Elliott, STL (-2) 25Andrei Vasilevskiy, TBL (+2)
11Jaroslav Halak, NYI (-1) 26Calvin Pickard, COL (NEW)
12Jonathan Quick, LAK (+1) 27Kari Lehtonen, DAL (-3)
13Ben Bishop, TBL (-1) 28Alex Stalock, SJS (SAME)
14Jimmy Howard, DET (SAME)29Jake Allen, STL (SAME)
15Cam Talbot, NYR (+6) 30Scott Darling, CHI (SAME)

Dropped out: Karri Ramo


Key injuries: Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Miller, Semyon Varlamov, Robin Lehner


DTD : Day-to-day; NR - IR : Not ranked last week because of injury


---