Kyle Okposo's rise, Tomas Hertl's fall among NHL's plus/minus stories
The week's most notable positives and negatives from around the NHL:
• Sure he sometimes gets lost in the headlines under the top billing of John Tavares, but Kyle Okposo the Islanders’ power forward is, indeed, becoming a star on one of the NHL’s brightest teams. Okposo scored four goals on Jan. 16 against Pittsburgh, giving him 14 for the season. He added a goal and an assist the next night against Montreal. With 44 points in 46 games, he's roughly on pace to match the 69 in 71 he had last season. Almost as impressive, Okposo has taken just 10 penalty minutes despite playing a physical game.
• In his second full season, Slovakian winger Tomas Tatar is lighting it up for the Red Wings. He has 21 goals this season and eight points in his last six games as Detroit built a five-game winning streak. Tatar has had two minus games in his last 16 and he put up three points in a win against Nashville last week. He's a fun player to watch, with seemingly limitless options when he gets the puck on his stick. He's also a big reason behind Detroit’s unlikely rise to within a single point of the Eastern Conference lead at the All-Star break.
• Canucks goalie Ryan Miller has been on a hot streak during his last four games. In fact, the veteran went 200 minutes 45 seconds between goals allowed before Brandon Pirri beat him with 2:32 to play in Vancouver’s 2-1 victory against Florida on Monday night. Miller was coming off shutouts against the Flyers and Hurricanes, and he bested his previous career-high shutout span of 161:35 set back in 2010 when he was playing for the Sabres. While putting up three straight wins, he turned back 81 of 82 shots and now has 317 wins to show for his stellar career, good for 25th on the NHL's all time list.
• Has anybody done more with what he has than Ray Whitney? The 42-year-old forward announced his retirement this week after 23 years in the NHL, which is about 23 more than many people might have predicted for Wayne Gretzky’s old stick boy. The Sharks took Whitney in the second round of the 1991 draft. Though he had put up strong scoring numbers in juniors, many teams passed on the 5’-10” 180-pounder from Saskatchewan because of his size or lack thereof. He ended up playing for eight NHL teams, won a Stanley Cup for Carolina, and amassed maybe the least flashy thousand points—1,064 in 1,330 games—of any player in memory. He also put up 25 points in 30 games while representing Canada at four world championships and was one of the game’s more thoughtful and pleasant interviews.
• When then-Sharks rookie Tomas Hertl scored four goals, including a highlight-filmer between his legs in a game against the Rangers early last season, it marked the emergence of a star-in-waiting, a talented scorer with a personality to match his gifts. Hertl was leading all rookies with 15 goals when suffered a knee injury on Dec. 19, 2013 and he didn’t return until the Sharks’ final two contests in April. This season, in what was supposed to be a bounce-back year, he has produced only 17 points in 48 games. In his last 21, he has just two goals and two assists. On Thursday, Sharks GM Doug Wilson announced that he was sending Hertl down to Worcester of the AHL along with defensemen Dylan DeMelo and Barcley Goodrow. Wilson didn’t specify whether this was a real demotion or just a conditioning move that is timed with the All-Star break, but even if it’s the latter, this is a blow to a 21-year old who hasn’t taken the steps forward that were expected of him.
• Which was worse, the hit or the comments? Take your pick with the Flyers' Zac Rinaldo, who acted like a Broad Street Bully in the very worst sense both on and off the ice on Tuesday night. First, he left his feet to bounce Kris Letang’s head into the boards a good long stride after the Penguins defenseman had released the puck. Then he was utterly proud and by no means remorseful after the game, a 3-2 win by Philly in OT, when discussing his actions. “Yeah, I changed the whole game,” the ruffian said. “Who knows what the game would have been like if I didn’t do what I did?”
Rinaldo is a repeat offender. He served four games for a headshot last April and a two-game suspension for charging in 2012. He was fined for a late hit in another game that same year. It was probably smart for a guy who does himself no favors when he opens his mouth to decline the in-person hearing he was offered by the league. After the NHL chats with him by phone on Monday, Rinaldo should expect at least six games for actions alone and maybe even more because of his words.
• Stop us if you’ve heard this before: The NHL suspended Daniel Carcillo this week.
Yes, Rinaldo may have a rap sheet, but Carcillo has a rap album. The Blackhawks forward was docked six games for a cross-check against Mathieu Perreault last Friday—the stick foul against Perreault’s left arm took place after the whistle and the Jets forward has not returned to Winnipeg's lineup—marking Carcillo's ninth suspension. Nine! It’s one thing to play on the edge, but "Car Bomb" has too often left the edge in his rear-view mirror. It's too bad for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Carcillo has shown that he can be an effective player when he stays within the rules and sticks to a tough, clean game. He has 1,211 penalty minutes during his career, but he also has produced 99 points. That isn’t much offense, but it’s more than, say, John Scott can offer. Carcillo also has 14 points and is +9 in 45 playoff games. As a Ranger last season, he was particularly effective in New York’s seven-game playoff victory against Philadelphia.
• Okay, we’ve given them a minus before, but the league’s most perplexing team is back for more. At the All-Star break, with a six-game losing skid and just 47 points in 48 games, the Maple Leafs are now 10 full points behind fourth-place Boston in the Atlantic Division. And if they are thinking about getting a cross-over playoff berth, the Capitals, fourth-best in the Metropolitan Division, are also 10 points ahead. But it’s more than the results; it’s the way the Leafs players and organization are rebelling against the criticism that people are throwing their way. After a victory earlier this season, the team refused to salute the fans at center ice, as it had done in previous games, because the players were upset when the fans booed them during a loss.
Forward Phil Kessel, perhaps the game’s grouchiest player, called a reporter an idiot for asking him an albeit very pointed question about being "uncoachable", a term that former bench boss Ron Wilson had used to describe him. And on Monday, police at the Air Canada Centre arrested three fans and charged them under Ontario’s Trespass to Property Act for tossing Leafs jerseys onto the ice during Toronto’s 4-1 loss to Carolina. Yes, those policemen were doing their civic duty by protecting players who could have been injured had they stepped on the jerseys, but Nazem Kadri’s comments after the game only served to pour salt on the fans’ wounds. “I don’t know how that guy’s not taken by his shirt and dragged out of here,” Kadri said. “But what do I know?”
You should know that you are losing your fan base, Nazem.