Off The Draw
News and notes from another fun weekend of hockey:
• Poor Mike Babcock. Two weeks out from the playoffs and the Red Wings’ coach still has no idea about who he can trust between the pipes. With starter Jimmy Howard struggling badly (18 goals allowed on the last 123 shots he’s faced), it looked like Petr Mrazek might get the chance to step up down the stretch. The rookie was excellent in a 23-save shutout of the Lightning on Saturday, but given a chance to cement himself as the new No. 1 on Sunday he allowed four goals on 11 shots and was pulled 16 seconds into the second period of a 5–4 loss to the Islanders—who had themselves been struggling to score for the better part of the previous three weeks. Some of the responsibility fell on Mrazek’s teammates, who at times veered from their responsibilities, but it also was clear from the goal he allowed to Frans Nielsen that the keeper was off his game. And that’s certainly not a first. Mrazek has been pulled from four of his 25 appearances this season, which is probably three too many for Babcock’s comfort. Howard was solid in relief against New York, stopping 15 of 16 shots, but wasn’t tested enough to know whether it meant that he was back on form. Detroit has seven games remaining, including a tough one on Tuesday night at home against the desperate Senators. It’s likely that Howard will get the start in that one, but he’s probably there on a save-to-save basis until he turns things around.
• Another reminder of how badly we miss CapGeek: The conventional wisdom on the contract status of Ottawa goalie Andrew Hammond is that the rookie sensation will be a restricted free agent after the season. Turns out, that’s not the case. Despite what the team’s own website suggests, Hammond will become unrestricted after the season, according to Article 10.1(a)(i) of the CBA:
“Any Player who either has seven (7) Accrued Seasons or is 27 years of age or older as of June 30 of the end of a League Year, shall, if his most recent SPC has expired, with such expiry occurring either as of June 30 of such League Year or June 30 of any prior League Year, become an Unrestricted Free Agent. Such Player shall be completely free to negotiate and sign an SPC with any Club, and any Club shall be completely free to negotiate and sign an SPC with such Player.”
As a 27-year-old, Hammond is free to choose the team of his liking. That may well be the Senators, but it could also be the Sabres, whose GM, Tim Murray, was the man behind Ottawa’s decision to sign Hammond out of college in 2013 when Murray was working for the Sens.
• Loved this quote in Sunday’s New York Times from the even-keeled Tim Murray, on Connor McDavid: “I watch him too much and I think too much about him. I wish I could help myself.” It might literally break Murray’s heart if Buffalo doesn’t win the draft lottery.
• The consensus for much of this season has been that Boston College defenseman Noah Hanifin will be the first player selected this June after the draft’s grand prizes, McDavid and Jack Eichel, come off the board. That may no longer be the case. In fact, he may be in for a Seth Jones-like drop.
Hanifin’s an excellent prospect—he has the potential to become a solid top-pairing defenseman—but the buzz has been building for OHL scoring champ Dylan Strome, the younger brother of Islanders forward Ryan Strome. The Erie Otters star might not be an elite scorer in the NHL, but he’ll be the sort of big-bodied, two-way center that championships are built around. As one scout said recently, Strome isn’t Anze Kopitar, but that’s the kind of player he could be.
And you know what they say about out of sight, out of mind. Hanifin’s Eagles were eliminated from the NCAA tournament on Saturday, and unless he’s invited to play for Team USA at the World Championships in May (a distinct possibility) he’s done for the season. Meanwhile, Strome’s Otters are lined up for a playoff run that could go into May. A strong playoff performance that's still fresh in mind might make him irresistible.
• The expectation now is that the Panthers will re-sign 43-year-old winger Jaromir Jagr to an extension after the season, and for good reason. For all the knocks he’s taken lately for his ability to deliver in the clutch, Jagr came up big in a must-win situation on Saturday, scoring twice in a 4–2 win over the Senators. More important though might be the impact he’s had on his young teammates. Jonathan Huberdeau has 16 points in 14 games since Jagr was acquired from the Devils. Aleksander Barkov has 10. Both players have benefited not just from time spent on the ice with Jagr—he still creates time and space for linemates like few others—but from his experience and work ethic off of it. For a team that has plenty of room under the salary cap, it’s just a matter of finding the right number.
• Jean-Gabriel Pageau is the sort of player who typically slips under the radar, but he’s earned some attention as a solid contributor during Ottawa’s recent run at a playoff berth. The 23-year-old fourth-line center scored his seventh goal of the season, delivered eight hits and played a season-high 18:07 in Sunday’s 4–2 loss to Florida. The pending RFA now has eight points in his last 11 games and looks like a player who could be a nice piece for this team down the road.
What to watch tonight
On Monday night, the Big D will stand for Desperation. The Stars’ loss to the Oilers in Edmonton on Friday all but raised the white flag on their season. But Dallas’s win on Saturday over the Canucks, coupled with the Jets’ loss on Sunday night to the Blackhawks, left the Stars with a 0.7% chance to earn a spot in the dance. Not good, but maybe enough to inspire a memorable effort against another club whose fate is also up in the air. Calgary leapfrogged the Kings on Sunday with a 5–2 win over the Predators, but the Flames could have tired legs for the second game in this back-to-back set. They’ll also be in tough against Kari Lehtonen. The Dallas starter is playing his best hockey of the season, going 9-2-0 with a 2.30 goals-against average in March. A win on Monday night would be his 35th of the season, a new career high. Calgary is likely to counter with Jonas Hiller, who was excellent against Nashville, and is 3-1-1 in his last five starts.
Kings at Blackhawks (8:30 p.m. ET; TVA, NBCSN, SNO, CSN-CH)
While the Flames work to strengthen their hold on a playoff spot in Texas, the defending Stanley Cup champs are hoping to keep pace in the no-margin-for-error West. With 88 points, Los Angeles trails Calgary by one for third place in the Pacific Division, and trails Winnipeg by two for the final wild card position, with one game in hand on both teams.
Chicago enters this contest after a stunning comeback to beat the Jets on Sunday night—an effort that coach Joel Quenneville called his team’s biggest win of the season. It was a sorely needed result after a pair of non-compete efforts against the Flyers and the Blue Jackets earlier in the week had raised questions about the Blackhawks’ ability to kick into a higher gear with the playoffs approaching. The victory was far from a perfect effort, but the dramatic finish—Patrick Sharp tied it late, setting up Jonathan Toews for some last-second heroics—proved there might be some life left in this group after all.
Rest of the schedule:Lightning at Canadiens (7:30 p.m. EST; SUN, RDS, SNE); Canucks at Blues (8 p.m. EST; SNP, FS-MW); Oilers at Avalanche (9 p.m. EST; SN1, ALT); Sabres at Coyotes(10 p.m. EST; MSG-B, BELL TV, FS-A PLUS)
What you missed
• A video surfaced of a former NHL enforcer reenacting a scene from Slap Shot during warmups of a game in Sweden last week.
• NBCSN broadcaster Brian Engblom took some rubber to the noggin and was left in stitches.
The Bruins joined this season’s continuing saga of teams using emergency backup goalies.
The numbers game
• Tonight’s possible clinchers: St. Louis can secure a berth if it wins in regulation or overtime. The Blues will also get in if they win in a shootout andeither the Flames or L.A. lose, or if St. Louis earns one point and Calgary loses in regulation, or if the Flames lose in any fashion while the Kings fall in regulation. Got all that? Meanwhile, Tampa Bay needs one point to punch its ticket to the dance. The Ducks will clinch the Pacific Division crown if Vancouver loses.
• The Lightning are 4–0 against Montreal this season, and 7-0-1 in their last eight regular-season games against the Canadiens. Montreal will try to find inspiration on Monday night in their four-game sweep of the Lightning in the first round of last season’s playoffs.
GALLERY: NHL’s Most Underrated Players
Most Underrated NHL Players
15. Blake Wheeler
It’s not often that a top-five draft selection flies under the radar, but that’s the downside to skating in Winnipeg. In another market, Wheeler would be celebrated as the winger who symbolizes the new game. He plays the game at top speed and with clear purpose, and is an excellent playmaker and finisher who is dogged at both ends of the ice. “He’s been our most consistent driver,” said coach Paul Maurice.
14. Antoine Roussel
To casual observes, Roussel’s one of those “players you love to hate.” He’s an agitator, a chirper and a cheap-shot artist whose willingness to venture well over the line has him fifth in the NHL with 128 penalty minutes. But here’s what you’re missing: He’s a relentless defender, a premier penalty killer and an excellent playmaker and finisher. He’s also a player who fearlessly (and consistently) ventures to the most dangerous parts of the ice. “He really makes things happen,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff.
13. Mikael Backlund
Another player whose reputation was snowed under by a slow start to his career, Backlund has finally emerged this season as a high-end two-way center who is capable of shutting down opposing forwards while generating his share of offense on the counterattack. “He’s someone who can handle tough minutes and always seems to be on the right side of the puck,” said coach Bob Hartley.
12. Cory Schneider
Yes, everyone pretty much agrees that Schneider’s good. But that doesn’t mean the man is getting his due. He faces a higher shot volume than any other goalie (1,830), is top-five in both save percentage (.928) and GAA (2.17) and he’s second only to Carey Price in quality starts during the past three seasons. He won’t get the wins in New Jersey he needs to enter the mainstream conversation, but Schneider clearly is one of the very best in the game.
11. Tyler Ennis
At 5' 9", Ennis is used to being overlooked, and playing on a historically bad team doesn’t exactly boost his profile. But he’s transformed his game this season, growing from a solid, if limited, player into someone who drives the offense and makes everyone around him better. While he’s putting up numbers that are as good as any in his career, he’s become a top-notch forechecker, a committed physical presence, a smarter defender and a more effective attacker, along with a power play QB. “He does so many things so well,” said coach Ted Nolan. “He's made himself into an impact player.”
10. Corey Crawford
Despite backstopping a Stanley Cup winner, Crawford has been regarded by many as the weak link in Chicago’s armor, a beneficiary of reflected glory. That’s just not the case. Consider his play this season, wherein the absence of Patrick Kane has stalled the offense and put more pressure on the Hawks’ defense. Crawford responded with numbers that could top his career bests, including a .925 save percentage and 30 wins. “As the games get bigger,” said coach Joel Quenneville, “he gets bigger.”
9. Max Pacioretty
What’s an Olympian and an All-Star doing on this list? Simple—no one talks about MaxPac outside of Montreal. And that’s ridiculous. Sure, P.K. Subban’s big personality and the Ken Dryden-like excellence of Carey Price draw a lot of attention, but look at the numbers: Since the start of the 2012-13 season, just two players (Rick Nash and Corey Perry) have scored more goals at five-on-five than Pacioretty (55). He deserves to be recognized as an elite sniper.
8. Derick Brassard
Brassard hasn’t yet shaken the reputation that he earned early in his career for being wildly inconsistent, and the truth is that it’ll probably haunt him for some time. But he’s proved this season that he can be a more reliable player. That’s earned him more ice time, career-high stats and high praise from teammates.
7. Frans Nielsen
He’s the guy you want your kids watching when they’re learning how to play the game. Nielsen’s numbers will never dazzle, but his tireless work ethic and commitment to a high energy two-way game make him an invaluably part of the Islanders’ success at five-on-five and with the man advantage. “He’s a guy who always plays the right way,” teammate Kyle Okposo told The New York Times. “Never takes a short cut or the easy way out.”
6. T.J. Brodie
Playing alongside Mark Giordano—another player who knows something about being under appreciated—Brodie’s matured into an outstanding top pairing defender for the Flames at just 24. “I’ve rarely seen a young defenseman progress at such a quick pace,” coach Bob Hartley raved to the Calgary Sun. “He has so many good details—his positioning, the way that he angles a player, his stick ... his skating.”
5. Chris Tanev
A classic late-bloomer who almost gave up the game as a teenager, Tanev has emerged as an excellent, if unlikely, top-pairing defender for the Canucks. Since being signed as a free agent out of RIT in 2010 he’s proved to be much more than the sum of his parts, and while the absence of one defining skill is likely to keep him under the national radar, he’s appreciated at home. “He’s a goalie’s best friend,” said teammate Eddie Lack.
4. Ondrej Palat
While linemate Tyler Johnson is building some buzz after being selected to appear in the All-Star Game, Palat quietly goes about his business as the best all-around player on one of the league’s best teams. “He plays in every situation,” said coach Jon Cooper. “He plays on the power play. He kills penalty. He’s out there in the last minute whether we’re up or down a goal.”
3. Bryan Little
First-line centers typically don’t fly under the radar, but Little has always played the game in stealth mode. Quiet and unassuming, he’s been overshadowed while larger personalities like Dustin Byfuglien and Evander Kane have dominated the conversation around the Jets. But there’s no denying that he’s the engine that powers Winnipeg’s attack, a crafty playmaker with an excellent shot who manages to generate offense despite matching up against the league’s largest and toughest checkers.
2. Anton Stralman
Stralman will likely never get his due, but it won’t be for a lack of tire pumpers. “He’s a great player,” said former Rangers partner Marc Staal. “He doesn't get near the attention he deserves.” Former coach Alain Vigneault once said Stralman “Does so many things well for us. A very underrated player.” While it’s clear that he’s a defensive stalwart, he isn’t often hailed for his ability to impact Tampa Bay’s possession game. His 56.7% Corsi For ranks second among all defensemen despite a workload that features a preponderance of defensive zone starts.
1. Tyson Barrie
He’s the best offensive defenseman no one talks about. There are players who have put up more points than Barrie during the past two seasons, but only two—Victor Hedman and Erik Karlsson—have been more effective at generating offense during five-on-five play. Barrie scores an average of 1.3 points per 60 minutes played, making him more productive than Duncan Keith (1.15), P.K. Subban (1.04) and Shea Weber (0.99).
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