NHL first month

First month in review: One down, six to go

The first month of hockey for this season is in the books. Nine teams are currently in a playoff spot that were not at the end of last year. An expansion team registered 16 out of a possible 22 points. A pair of teammates are the top two point getters in the league. However, there were 118 more slashing calls than last season through the first 57 games and has continued to spiral.

Frustration has hit with these penalties, but hasn’t dissipated the entertainment value whatsoever. We are fans of the most consistently ultra-competitive league. Any team on any given night can win a hockey game. The parity in the NHL is unbelievable, which gives fans the hope that their team always has a shot and anything can happen. Adding that up with the overall entertainment of hockey, the first month was a success.

The Tampa Bay Lightning and St. Louis Blues are at the top of the Eastern and Western Conferences respectfully. Eight points and seven points separate those two teams from themselves and the two eighth seeded teams. Therefore, regardless of what the current power rankings indicate, we are in for a wild ride into mid April. Special teams may have been overkill this first month, but they have made games even more interesting at times. It’s a sample size, but we have no idea where everyone will be at the conclusion of the regular season.

Lightning Bolts and Musical Notes

The top teams in the NHL after one month reside in Tampa Bay and St. Louis. Each of these clubs notched 10 wins in their first 13 games. The top three scorers in the league play for both of these teams. They both battled one another in Tampa the second week with the Bolts winning by one goal. There are positives and negatives to both of these starts, but they have clearly proven to be where they stand.

NHL first month

Photo by Getty Images

Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are the best duo in hockey right now. Together, they netted 45 points and are a combined +13 to start the season. Their top goaltender, Andrei Vasilevskiy, is 10-1-0 with a 2.42 goals against average. Rookie defenseman Mikhail Sergachev had a great first month in the league with 11 points (four goals, seven assists).

However, not having Ben Bishop has put some pressure on their goalie situation as backup Peter Budaj let in eight goals and posted a .855 save percentage in his two starts.

St. Louis has one of the best lines in hockey with Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko. They totaled 42 points and were a combined +30 in October. Their defensive core has a league-high 14 goals. The Blues have the best goalie tandem with Jake Allen and Carter Hutton through the first month as they combined for a 2.07 goals against average and a .936 save percentage. Depth is the concern as only five of their 43 goals have come from their bottom six.

The Blues and Lightning have the potential to remain at the top of the standings with the pieces they have in place. They also can be removed in a day. Therefore, there is no time for any form of complacency. It’s a long way to go, but will these two link up in the finals?

Caps/Hawks Right in the middle

Two of the NHL’s regulars at the top of the standings have had mediocre starts to their seasons. Chicago finds themselves in the final Wild Card position and just a game over .500. Washington notched just five wins, a game under .500, and are out of the playoff picture after the first month. Both teams were the No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences a year ago. What has sprung this inconsistent start?

NHL first month

Photo by Getty Images

The Blackhawks made a number of offseason transactions. They traded away former rookie of the year Artemi Panarin. Niklas Hjalmarsson was sent to Arizona, which has put their defensive depth in question. Scott Darling got traded to Carolina, which has deeply weakened their goaltending situation. Corey Crawford has posted a 1.91 goals against average and recorded all of their wins, but backup Anton Forsberg has yet to get a win letting in 11 goals in his three games of work.

Last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winners are out of sorts at the start of November. Needed money was given to players in the offseason, but all of the scoring as been in one place. The Caps’ top line is still the best in the league with Nicklas Backstrom centering T.J. Oshie and Alexander Ovechkin. However, Barry Trotz has attempted to spread the wealth by putting Ovechkin on line two recently as those three have netted 19 of the team’s 35 goals. Braden Holtby has been less than what he has been to start the year with backup Philipp Grubauer 0-3-1 with a 4.08 goals against average and a .876 save percentage.

This could be what these teams need. They have never been in this position very much as of late. The Hawks and Caps both have new young talent that are waiting to get comfortable. Expect them to still be playoff fixtures once again come mid April.

Sustainable Hot Starts for Devils/Knights?

Parity is a huge element to the National Hockey League as discussed. Two teams not expected to be where they are, but find themselves near the top play in New Jersey and Vegas. The Devils won nine of their first 11. The Golden Knights won eight of their first 11 in their first month in franchise history. How did these clubs get off to such great starts?

NHL first month

Photo from CBS Sports

The New Jersey Devils landed the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft with Nico Hischier, but no one expected a 9-2-0 start. Everyone had them in rebuild mode. However, they have a superstar in Taylor Hall, who recorded 15 points in their 11 games. Rookie defenseman Will Butcher registered 11 assists. Furthermore, they have a formidable goalie tandem in Cory Schneider (6-1-0) and Keith Kinkaid (3-1-0).

Las Vegas has come in hot to the NHL. The Golden Knights grabbed 16 out of 22 possible points to begin their history. Most “NHL experts” and league followers had them in the cellar all year like most expansion teams. No one saw this coming, but expansion rules are different presently. There is more talent in the NHL than ever before and you can’t protect as many players in the draft.

Many teams get off to unexplainable hot starts that are very difficult to maintain over the course of a season. New Jersey and Vegas could be in the thick of it or easily well out of it by March and April. However, no matter the circumstances, these two clubs have added to this season’s already hectic news feed.

We’ve Only Just Begun

One month is a big enough sample size to get a feel for future results for one’s work. It’s also very small when you put it up against close to seven months worth of work. Therefore, we take note of what has happened already, but expect almost anything for the months ahead.

Hockey is a sport that is unparalleled in a multitude of ways. There are generally favorites in sports like football and basketball. This sport can never mess with that concept at this point in time. Tampa Bay had the third best odds to win it all in preseason, but St. Louis had the 18th best odds. Edmonton had the second best odds and only Arizona had a worse record in the first month of the year.

We can highlight good and bad team traits after one month of play, but this is just the beginning. No one knows where anyone will be at the end of the regular season. That is why hockey stands alone.

 

Featured image from NHL.com

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big brother little brother

Best NHL rivalries: Big brothers and little brothers

The NHL is full of great historic rivalries that are usually between two cities in close proximity. Bad blood runs deep on and off the ice. You see it during the games in the players and in the stands with the fans. These brutal hatreds are a part of what drives the emotional investments in what many call just a game.

Many of these mutual uneasy feelings involve one team playing the big brother role, with the other playing little brother. One usually has championship pedigree while the other has been in dire search for that particular respect for years. There is appeal to both sides. You either root for sustained excellence or the fighting underdog.

History deals with evolutionary concepts. This is what makes these rivalry stories so intriguing. Two teams have been hating each other ever since their existence. The hatred is passed down through generations of fans that must never fade away. You either pick a side or are born into a side that you must never switch.

Canadiens/Maple Leafs

One of the most historic rivalries in the sport is between two Canadian teams. Two franchises that are the oldest in the league.

Best NHL rivalries

Photo: NHL.com

The Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs joined the NHL in 1917 (league’s inaugural season). There has been no love lost between the two cities since.

A combined 24 Stanley Cups were won between the two from 1917 to 1967. The two teams were in a class of their own and a competitive rivalry ensued. However, Montreal would claim the big brother role of the feud as Toronto has yet to win a championship since 1967.

Thirty-seven cups have been won in total between the two organizations which is the most by any rivalry and any pair of teams. Twenty-four have been won by Montreal and 10 since the last time Toronto did so in ’67.

It is something the Leafs are reminded by every time they visit Montreal as they look up at each banner. Oct. 14 was the first Maple Leaf victory in Montreal in the last 14 tries thanks to an OT-winner from none other than Auston Matthews.

Now that these two hockey clubs are both playoff caliber teams, we may see the first postseason meeting between the two in 38 years.

Blackhawks/Blues

Fighting in the stands is never appropriate, but it seems to be when St. Louis and Chicago play each other. These two hockey communities are one of today’s biggest big brother/little brother rivalries.

Best NHL rivalries

Photo: St. Louis Post-Dispatch

These arch rivals are separated by under 300 miles and both fan bases find their way into enemy territory every time they link up. The dispute spreads further than the ice. It goes into the stands and onto the baseball diamond.

Both cities are crazy about their teams and it is a true war zone when they play. However, in terms of the teams on the ice, one of these teams has had all the fun recently when it comes to winning.

It used to be a true battle between the Hawks and Blues as both teams had two of the three longest cup droughts. Chicago had not won since 1961 and St. Louis had not since 1967. That changed in 2010 as the Hawks won their first of three championships within the last seven-year time frame.

Today, the two clubs have met 12 times in the postseason with Chicago winning eight of the 12 series. The Blues are still in search for their first Stanley Cup as the Hawks continue their reputation of being the league’s modern-day dynasty. This is truly a big brother/little brother rivalry with one team uncomfortably admiring the other and one team giving the other little respect. Nevertheless, the hate is very much mutual.

The Hawks and Blues meet for the first time this year on Oct. 18 at Scottrade Center in St. Louis.

Penguins/Capitals

A rivalry with undeniable similarities to Chicago/St. Louis is between Pittsburgh and Washington. One team has reached the top of the NHL mountain multiple times while the other has yet to capture such glory.

Best NHL rivalries

Photo: NHL.com

This could be the most lop-sided of the rivalries discussed. The two teams have met in the playoffs 10 times. Pittsburgh has won nine of those meetings and has captured five Stanley Cups since the berth of the rivalry.

This would usually make a similar matchup unwatchable. However, the 2004 and 2005 drafts have made this matchup unquestionably entertaining.

The No. 1 overall pick by the Washington Capitals in 2004 was Alex Ovechkin. The 2005 No. 1 overall pick by the Pittsburgh Penguins was Sidney Crosby.

These two have been the faces of the league since the 2005-06 season putting their teams near the top of the standings each year since. Ovechkin and the Caps have won three Presidents Trophies as the No. 1 team in the regular season. Crosby and the Penguins have eliminated the Capitals three times en route to three Stanley Cups in the Crosby/Ovechkin era.

The Penguins lead the all-time regular season series against the Caps with 145 wins including a win in their first meeting of the year on Oct. 11. Washington has yet to reach a conference final since Ovechkin arrived in the nation’s capital. However, as long as they have the talent they possess to compete with Pittsburgh with the potential to win, this rivalry will never be unwatchable.

Today’s most heated Rivals

Historic rivalries will never die, but today, California is host to three teams who may hate each other more than any two teams do in the NHL.

This is unlike the big brother/little brother rivalries in that all three of these teams have had success. Three Stanley Cup championships are combined by each organization since 1993. This is like three big business rivals fighting each other to be the dominant force. Each of these teams are in the same division and meet regularly. The battle of California is heated and is home to extremely passionate fans from Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose.

Rivalries are important. Professional sports and all forms of competition need motives to put those involved in the right frame of mind. Mental toughness and a teams’ psyche is one of the biggest components in winning a hockey game. The teams that win it all are the ones that are mentally tough. Therefore, there is no room to like the opposition.

 

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power rankings

NHL week one review

We have completed one week of hockey. Three stories headline the past week that involve the league’s best teams. Connor McDavid increased his speed in the offseason (if that’s possible). The Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks are really good. Alexander Ovechkin is a man among boys still on his team that dominates the regular season.

Referees have enforced the slashing a bit too much for my liking at times, but it was a great week. The Golden Knights won their first three games in franchise history, which no expansion team has ever done. We saw 235 goals scored. Jaromir Jagr signed with Calgary to prolong his illustrious career to a 24th season. This all took place in week one, but the excitement will continue to grow until early June.

There is always a chance something special could happen on any given night in the NHL. Keep your eyes open as this is only the beginning.

Well-Oiled Machine

NHL week one review

Photo: Matchsticks and Gasoline

Edmonton is off to a slow start, winning one of their first three, but no one is doubting where they will be at the end. Furthermore, if you haven’t seen Connor McDavid skate and possess the puck from end to end, you need to.

The 20-year-old league MVP has recorded four points in his first three games including a hat trick in game one.

Eight minutes into the third period of that game, McDavid took the puck from his own defensive circle. He then proceeded to skate past every player on the ice, posses the puck at full speed and put it past the net minder Smith- untouched.

The Oiler captain is impressive by his leadership on and off the ice. McDavid is always looking forward and knowing that tonight was great, but “we have a long way to go” (NHL.com). It is this mindset the third year superstar has that may prove the Oilers to be prominent contenders in the West this year.

Leafs/Hawks

Toronto and Chicago may have the two best offenses in the league. No club has registered more goals than these two.

You expect these numbers from teams like Chicago, but it’s nice to see a new face in the department. The Leafs scored 19 goals through their first three games and the Hawks notched 18. Both teams met Monday night in a thrilling game between two of the league’s current top tier hockey clubs. Will we see these two link up in late May and early June?

NHL week one review

Photo: SB Nation

The game started out with the Blackhawks jumping out to a 2-0 lead. Toronto would tie it in the third, fall behind 3-2, then tie it on the power play with under five minutes to play.

It headed to overtime where Auston Matthews would net one of the most gorgeous wrist shots you will see as the Leafs took the game 4-3 in overtime. A battle like this can be very telling even at this early stage of a season.

Teams are trying to put points in the bank right now and set themselves up to in good position in the second half. Two points in October is worth the same as two points in March.

The games played to start the year are played with such high energy. This one between the Hawks and Leafs definitely set the precedent of what we hope to see more of as this season progresses.

Alexander is still the great

So, Alexander Ovechkin recorded seven goals in his first two games. He became the first player to do so since the NHL’s inaugural season (1917-18). Alex attributes his two hat tricks to his sister-in-law because “every time she’s in town, like I score a hat trick,” he said (ESPN). His theory proved possible as he was held scoreless Monday night as his sister-in-law traveled back home. Ovy was said to have a down year last season after his 33-goal output which is amazing in itself.

NHL week one review

Photo: ESPN

The three-time MVP has never scored less than 32 goals (even in a shortened season) and has scored 50 or more in seven seasons. His speed is still there and his shot is obviously still there at the age of 32. No one doubts his ability to score and put up points. It is his ability to lead his team to victory and take the next step in his 13th season that is questioned.

The Washington Capitals have finished atop the league standings in each of the past two seasons, but have lost to Pittsburgh in the second round both years. The franchise has yet to reach a conference final in the Ovechkin era.

Therefore, each successful regular season will not be held in high regard until we witness the Capitals take the next step. Alex Ovechkin will still be looked at among the NHL’s elite, but like many of his counterparts, you are judged by wins, losses and championships at the end of the day.

Week one

I did not care for a few of the calls made this past week as I discussed earlier. However, the entertainment value did not diminish in the slightest.

This subtle protection package we have now may be somewhat of a blessing in disguise. There was an exceptional amount of offense this week, which is what we wish to see in all sports. We want to see more homers, touchdowns and goals. It would be very difficult to lessen the excitement of NHL hockey. Week one was a success, can’t wait for the next 35.

Good news is, we don’t have to wait..

 

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Get the Rallies Goin'

NHL fans: How much do they affect the game?

The art of waving rally towels and the overall buzz and hype in big games gets me. The relationship between the in-game experience and the play on the ice intrigues me. Fans unquestionably have an impact on the game. But, how much truth goes into that idea?

Management, coaching staff and the players themselves are always the number one reason for a team’s success. But, “without fans, there would be no game” said Hall of Famer Brett Hull. The crowd, atmosphere and electricity is always the most memorable part of a big game. A player’s duty is always to thank the fans after a win for their support. The fans are the fuel and the team is the race car.

Organizations across the league have gone through countless changes to their in-game experiences. And team success has immediately followed. The last 10 years have seen Washington, Chicago and now Nashville take on makeovers on and around the ice.

Capital one arena (capitals)

Alexander Ovechkin has reshaped the culture in the nation’s capital. But, the most overlooked piece to their return to prominence is how they “rock the red” on a nightly basis.

It’s not a common trend to change team colors. But, the Caps did so prior to the 2007-2008 season. They have made red stanchions around the arena to reflect the team’s colors. And they chant “rock the red” before every home game.

NHL fans

They Rock the Red in the District of Columbia. Photo Courtesy of Flickr

The Washington Capitals have qualified for the postseason each year since the changes. They have also had one of the better average attendances in the NHL.

Most notably in 2015, the Caps on average drew 19,500 fans per night, which is 110.5 percent capacity at the Capital One Arena. Business has been good for the organization. But, there is definitely room for improvement.

Caps fans have yet to see a conference final in the Ovechkin era. According to espn.com, the Capital One Arena has 100 percent of vendors inside the arena that are in violation of health requirements. The venue was recently renamed (formerly Verizon Center) and could also be revamped.

Change is difficult to execute because arenas are often not owned by the teams themselves. But, more change to the in game experience may be what the Caps need to take the next step.

united center (Blackhawks)

The Chicago Blackhawks are the modern day NHL dynasty. Their success began with the consecutive drafts involving Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. But it’s the deafening crowd at the United Center that makes it one of the toughest environments for the opposition.

NHL fans

Blackhawks celebrate their 1st Stanley Cup win on home ice. Photo Courtesy of Journal Star

Jim Cornelison (Blackhawks anthem singer) started working full-time at the United Center in 2007. It is one of the most authentic and unifying acts in the sport. Silence is golden typically when the anthem is being sung.

But at the United Center, the fans have stood and cheered during the singing since Cornelison took the reigns. Tickets are very expensive in Chicago, but a seat in section 300 has said to feel the same as any other.

An even more iconic song sung at the United center is that of Chelsea Dagger. It is sung in unison by the Chicago faithful after every Blackhawk goal scored. Rarely is a goal song widely known across the league. But, since 2008, Chelsea Dagger is one of the most recognizable facets of hockey in Chicago.

The significance of these facts is simple. The Blackhawks have won three Stanley Cups since 2007. Season ticket base has increased over 300 percent, and they have sold out 414 consecutive games as of April 5, 2017. The degree of difficulty there is high with United being the third largest arena (in terms of seating capacity) in the NHL. You cannot ignore the correlation between the crowd at the “Madhouse on Madison” and the team itself.

Bridgestone Arena (predators)

The Nashville Predators entered the NHL in 1998. Nineteen years later we witnessed their run to the Stanley Cup Final. And according to Pierre McGuire, “if you haven’t been here, you got to see a game in Nashville”.

The Music City heroes of this past year are still a young franchise that has not yet seen an enormous deal of success. But, this past spring the Preds went toe-to-toe with the champions of Pittsburgh. And all people could talk about was the roaring crowd of the Nashville faithful.

NHL fans

“You can’t stop Preds fans, you can only hope to contain them” – Bob Hille Photo Courtesy of The Sporting News

Small market teams do not usually get this kind of recognition, but this season was different than all others for this organization. They had their highest average attendance in team history, and almost broke the world record for loudest crowd roar during the postseason. The decibels inside the arena during the conference finals came in at 129.4, which nearly reached the Guinness book’s 130.4.

The team’s invigoration from the Nashville crowd helped them achieve the unthinkable. They swept the No. 1 seeded Chicago Blackhawks as an eight seed and carried that momentum all the way to the finals. The Preds even outplayed Pittsburgh for the majority of the series and fell just short.

Every fan wants to know that their crazed emotional investment is impactful. These teams undeniably prove that fact. The troubling times during rebuilds and being a new team in the league is rough. But, I guarantee the fan bases in these markets will tell you the wait was worth every second.

 

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Justin Williams free agency: Drawing interest as productive veteran

Justin Williams is going to get a ton of money, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

At 35 years old, Williams is on the final years of his NHL career. With the way he played last year, one wouldn’t know he’s on the wrong side of 30.

Last season, the 16-year veteran tallied 24 goals and 48 points in his second season with the Washington Capitals. According to Hockey Reference, he had his highest career shooting percentage at 14.4 percent. His Corsi and Fenwick ratings were both above 50 percent, signaling that the Caps possessed the puck well with Williams on the ice.

Williams’ contract with Washington expired, and with T.J. Oshie and Dmitry Orlov signing deals, it is unlikely the right winger reunites with them in the nation’s capital. And so, he hits the open market, presenting a quandary for front offices: how many years and how much money do we give an aging player who’s still producing?

Justin Williams’ Value

Justin Williams free agency

Williams won two of his three Stanley Cups with Los Angeles. Photo by Victor Decolongon, Getty Images.

He has the most value in his overall experience in the postseason. In 140 playoff games, he’s notched 94 points while winning three Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe trophy in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.

During that postseason, Williams scored nine goals and 16 assists. Even as the elder statesman with the Capitals this past year, he recorded nine points in 13 games. As perplexing as it is to outsiders, players and fans know that Justin Williams is reliable in the playoffs.

Justin Williams can help any team that needs a championship-caliber player with his playoff expertise. Combine his resumé with need and teams should fork over the dough to sign him.

Justin Williams’ Cap Hit and the RW Market

Looking at the rest of the free agent market, he can sign at about any time that he wants. Williams is the second-best right wing on the block. Alexander Radulov is the top name on the right side, but they’re both different players at different points in their careers.

Radulov enjoyed a breakout campaign with Montreal after a stint in the KHL. At 30 years old, he still has a handful of good years left. Teams are likely to ink him to a longer deal than Williams. Radulov will go to a team that wants him for the long haul. Williams should sign around a two to three-year deal.

The Capitals paid Williams a modest $3.25 million the past two seasons, per CapFriendly. He hasn’t made more than $4 million in his career. Based on his overall recent production, he should achieve that milestone. Justin Williams can use his play at an old age as leverage to raise the monetary value. Teams will balk at 35 years old. Anything more than three years is excessive. Two or three years, until his skating and his scoring declines, are the fairest lengths for both sides.

Justin Williams free agency prospects

Justin Williams has his own list of coveted places. His list is reportedly down to three, though it is unsure what those teams are. Yesterday, TSN’s Darren Dreger listed Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, and the New York Islanders as teams interested in him (he said the quoted tweet is incorrect so it has nothing to do with his commentary).

The Islanders are looking to add another productive scorer as they look to return to the playoffs. CapFriendly says they have $9 million to play with in cap, so they won’t pursue another big free agent if Williams signs there. Plus, they’d have to shuffle their lineup to accommodate him. Jordan Eberle, Josh Bailey, Josh Ho-Sang and Cal Clutterbuck are all right wingers. Williams would have to slot elsewhere or the Isles have to swap someone on the roster.

Justin Williams free agency

Justin Williams may join the orange and white next year instead of roughing them up. Photo by Rob Carr, Getty Images.

Would Justin Williams return to the city where he made his NHL debut? The Flyers have slightly more cap room than the Islanders, but still less than $10 million. However, Williams is a great fit for a team that needs to replace Brayden Schenn’s output. Williams can fit on the second or third line and help a team with postseason potential. Philadelphia is an up and coming team. With Williams’ veteran leadership, he can push them over the top in a daunting Metro Division.

Of these three teams, Tampa Bay makes the most sense. Williams would be their best winger not named Nikita Kucherov. With over $20 million in cap space, the Lightning can afford to overpay him while not restricting their budget. If that’s what it takes for Tampa to replenish their forwards, then they should’ve already been on the phone when midnight struck today.

Justin Williams, at 35 years old, is still a capable NHL player and is one of the better free agent options. Word is he wants to stay in the East, though it’s unknown what teams he is interested in playing for. Whichever team he signs with, they will pay big bucks to land him, but receive a valuable piece for it.

 

Feature image by Nick Wass, AP/Photo courtesy of the Washington Post.

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Capitals GM sheds light on Alex Ovechkin’s future

For the past 12 years, the Washington Capitals have written the same story. Since drafting main character Alex Ovechkin in 2004, the Caps have been a perennial playoff team, only to fall short of reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

After another Presidents’ Trophy season and another quick exit in the postseason last year, general manager Brian MacLellan wants answers. Rumors are floating about the improbable: trading the NHL’s leader in goals since 2005 in Ovechkin.

The thought of trading Ovechkin seems abominable based on his track record. He’s the all-time Russian-born leader in NHL goals and is third amongst active players with 558 scores. He’s the captain of the team and is the face of the franchise. However, he hasn’t taken his team to the Stanley Cup Final in his tenure. The team has only reached that spot once in 42 seasons.

Yesterday, MacLellan offered his thoughts on trading Ovechkin, per AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno:

“People are looking for a major solution to what we have going on. I think part of it is they watch certain things in this game and then it shows up and they say, ‘That’s not acceptable.’ But he’s a big part of our franchise, a big part of our history. He’s been a big part of where we’re at as an organization and just to casually say, ‘Let’s trade him for what or who?’ I don’t think it makes sense from an organizational point of view. Maybe at some point if there’s a legitimate hockey deal that came available, but I don’t know that that’s where we’re at right now. I just think he’s got a history here, he’s a big part of our franchise and he’ll continue to be going forward.”

Capitals GM Brian McLellan wants to keep Alex Ovechkin, but could trade him in the right deal.

Capitals GM Brian Brian MacLellan. (Photo courtesy of USA Today/Photo by Patrick Smith, Getty Images)

If there’s anything to admire about his comments, it’s that he is incredibly loyal to his cornerstone player. Fans may argue that Ovechkin hasn’t taken his team to the next level, but they also would not compete in the playoffs almost every season.

He’s ranked in the top ten in jersey sales across the NHL every year, and his community service with Ovi’s Crazy 8s has brought joy to underserved children and military personnel in the D.C. area. Trading the face of the Capitals may be easy for the fans, but not for the man pulling the trigger.

On the other hand, it’s stunning for MacLellan to even admit shipping Ovechkin to say the least. Most general managers will always say that no player on their roster is ever unavailable.

Despite that, there are players that logically, would never move from another team. Pittsburgh would ideally never trade Sidney Crosby at this juncture. Toronto is not moving Auston Matthews and neither is Edmonton with Connor McDavid. The latter two players are at a different point in their careers than Ovechkin, but they are just as important to their respective franchises. Ovechkin’s earned the right to be on that same level based on his career.

While MacLellan’s comments shed light on a shocking development, it shows Washington’s management and fans’ patience is waning. Ovechkin struggled to generate shots against the Penguins in this year’s playoffs. His play was so ineffective that head coach Barry Trotz called out his “star players” and booted Ovechkin to the third line.

This comes after a season where he endured long stretches without scoring. He played his fewest full-season minutes and posted the third-lowest point total of his career, just four more than the lockout season. Alex Ovechkin did not have a great season according to Alex Ovechkin standards.

If the Capitals still performed well this season with a slumping Ovechkin, is he more expendable? It isn’t that simple. Washington received more contributions than expected from T.J. Oshie’s career-high 33 goals and 48 points from 35-year-old Justin Williams. Both are unrestricted free agents.

The Capitals will have to replace their production or resign them, which is uncertain at this juncture. To say that Washington can afford to move Ovechkin and still contend in a stacked Metropolitan division is naïve.

Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8), from Russia, celebrates his goal in the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Sunday, March 1, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Will Alex Ovechkin celebrate goals the rest of his career with Washington? (Photo courtesy of The Washington Times)

Even if MacLellan says that Ovechkin can be traded for a legitimate deal, the odds of finding one is unknown. It’s not impossible; Wayne Gretzky was traded from Edmonton to Los Angeles for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, three first-round picks, and $15 million. Ovechkin may not earn the same value, but it could float towards that territory.

For 12 years, the story in D.C. has been Alex Ovechkin becoming a historic player in the NHL for Washington. However, the Capitals want to write a different ending than the one they’ve written in the playoffs. The front office does not wish to move their cornerstone player, but if nothing changes, then a new story, without the main character for its saga, may come to fruition.

 

Feature image via CBS Sports/USATSI

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Unpacking the NHL’s Concussion Controversy

Time stopped for Sidney Crosby on Monday night in Pittsburgh for the fourth time in his career.

Crosby, known as one of the best skill forwards in the NHL, sustained a concussion after a hit from the Capitals’ defenseman Matt Niskanen in the first period of Game 3 of the Penguins-Capitals playoff series. Crosby did not return for the rest of the game and missed the next one.

There is mounting concern for Crosby, who has four reported concussion-related injuries in his 12-year NHL career. There also could be more unreported injuries that went unnoticed. Crosby’s career length and well-being after hockey are up for debate.

Many former players with concussion histories have struggled with health issues in retirement. However, both the players and the NHL haven’t helped each other enough to combat the issues. From players’ hesitancy to report concussions in the past, to Gary Bettman’s denial of a link between concussions and CTE, the NHL has a concussion controversy.

This season, at least 13 players across all 30 teams were listed on injury reports with a concussion or a head injury. Concussions aren’t a recent issue in the league either. In 2011, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published a study that found 559 concussions amongst NHL players from 1997-2004. Pat LaFontaine, a talented forward in the 1980s and 1990s, suffered six in his career and ultimately retired at 33.  Eric Lindros had seven across 15 years.

Exported.;

Courtesy of NY Daily News/Photo by Chris Gardner, AP

The difference for Crosby, LaFontaine and Lindros though, is their overall ability. While they missed considerable time with concussions, their place on rosters was never in doubt. That wasn’t always the case for Bryan Muir.

Muir played with seven different NHL teams and constantly rode the shuttle to and from the minor leagues. He also suffered from multiple concussions, even reporting instances of vomiting on the bench after a hard hit. During his playing days, concussion tests weren’t as expansive. If x-rays couldn’t find his injury, he wouldn’t report it to the team for fear of being sent down.

This is the concussion culture in the NHL. Fringe players don’t want to admit they’re hurt because of their tenuous grip on an NHL roster. Many of these players sacrifice their health because of it. This leads to long-term health effects after their careers are over. While it’s understandable for players to feel this way, they’ve harmed themselves from doing it. Muir has mentioned he misses his playing days, but he also notices changes in his mood. He has a short temper and mood swings, and he’s unsure if it’s due to the concussions.

For others, like Dale Purinton and Dan LaCouture, substance abuse, depression, and memory loss riddled their post-career days and led to strains in their personal lives. Both were arrested at one point, and LaCouture lost his wife and custody of his kids. Athletes these days have to be aware of what their bodies tell them when sustaining heavy injuries.

Derek Boogaard and Steve Montador each suffered concussions during their playing days in the 2000s. Boogaard officially had three, and it led to impaired memory and depression later in his life. He accidentally overdosed on painkillers and died in 2011.

Montador retired shortly after a hit to the head in 2012. He died in his home in 2015 without a clear cause of death. Both had CTE, a brain injury that is only detectable after death. Symptoms of CTE include memory loss, depression and issues with impulse control.

These symptoms line up with injuries from concussions. Despite this, the NHL isn’t certain of a link between concussions and CTE, leading to dissent between the league and former players.

Last October, Commissioner Gary Bettman wrote to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce that the speculation of a link between head trauma and neurodegenerative diseases is unproven. He mentioned the gaps in the research of CTE as additional proof.

The Rotman Research Institute at Toronto’s Baycrest Health Sciences found recently in early testing that there isn’t a strong correlation between concussions and cognitive functions. Retired players, including a participating Muir, actually do well with it. Despite the early conclusions in that study, it doesn’t match what the players feel. Bettman’s stance is alienating the former players who have noticeably changed since their days in the league.

Previous athletes began to take action against the league for it. Over 126 former players who’ve had concussions are filed a lawsuit against the NHL. The suit claims the league did not do enough to protect them from head injuries and resulting health issues. It’s reached as far as the federal courts as the NHL maintains the absence of a causal relationship.

The former players and the league are taking the same path as the NFL.  The league denied the relationship too, and former players sued. Eventually, the two sides reached a settlement in 2015.

Courtesy of The Sarnia Observer/Photo by Shaun Best, Reuters

The NHL is fulfilling its duty now to prevent concussions.  Hybrid icing, concussion spotters and fines for violating protocol are important for preventing future head injuries. At the same time, they have an obligation to aid the former players that are suffering through the aftereffects of hockey. Likewise, the players have to be honest with doctors and coaches if they are suffering through injuries. Even if it’s a player fighting for his roster spot or a postseason game, the ramifications of the game have to take a backseat.

Sidney Crosby is skating with his teammates in practice. He is still questionable for Game 5 tonight, but if he’s healthy, he’ll likely play. If there’s even the slightest issue with his health, he must sit. As history has proved, the NHL and its players have to address the issue head on. Delicately, of course.

 

Featured Image by Drop Your Gloves

 

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Rivalry or Not, Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin is NHL’s Best Battle

Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa battled for the MLB’s home run title in the 90s. Basketball pitted Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the “Golden Age” of the NBA back in the 80s. These rivalries combined talented athletes with powerful teams looking to one-up the other for the ultimate goal.

The NHL has experienced its share of all-time greats facing each other. However, none have come close to the fanfare of Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin.

They’re arguably the two best forwards since entering the league in 2005. Ovechkin is an 11-time All-Star and collected three Hart trophies. Crosby has two Hart wins, six All-Star nominations, 1,027 career points and two Stanley Cups with the Penguins. Ovechkin’s 558 goals since 2005 are the best in the league, with Crosby right behind him at 382. Their superstardom sets the scene for their intense battles, but they don’t see it that way.

(Photo courtesy of Washington Post, taken by Bruce Bennett, Getty Images)

Rivalries occasionally have the connotation that bad blood between the players is crucial. Even though there was a mild spat in 2009, the two have expressed respect for one another.  Ovechkin was more vocal of their relationship, saying at the 2017 All-Star Game that they aren’t “best friends.”

There is no strife between them. Instead, there’s an appropriate balance of respect and understanding that they are fierce competitors who are vying for the same goal. Some may argue Ovechkin and Crosby’s blasé attitude towards each other eliminates the notion of a rivalry.  However, that’s not the reason why fans and the media hype it up.

The Capitals and Penguins have combined for 21 winning seasons since Crosby and Ovechkin joined the NHL. Both teams were under .500 in 2005-06, while Washington’s last losing season was the following year. The Capitals and Penguins are amongst the best in the NHL and play in the same division. It’s one of the top rivalries in all of hockey, and the two superstars make it that much more enticing.

It’s safe to say Crosby and the Penguins have the edge in the rivalry. Pittsburgh has won two Stanley Cups with Crosby, while Ovechkin has never seen his team reach the Conference Finals. In 2009 and 2016, the Penguins dispatched the Caps in the playoffs en route to those championships.

The Penguins have won 106 games against Washington compared to 95 for the Capitals against the Penguins.  This can make the rivalry more one-sided towards the Penguins, but it’s not exactly a landslide either.

In the 217 games in the rivalry, the Penguins have scored just 15 more goals. For years, these games have been close, and that was apparent on Thursday when Ovechkin and Crosby squared off for the 14th time in the playoffs.

Since it’s appropriate there’s history being made, this year’s playoff meeting is the first time in the shootout era that the top two regular season teams are meeting in the postseason. Crosby did not disappoint in the second when he notched two goals in 52 seconds in the second period. Just as Pittsburgh started to gain ground with a 2-0 lead, Ovechkin answered with a wrist shot to make it 2-1. The Capitals came back to tie it before Nick Bonino tallied the game-winner in the third and the Penguins took Game 1.

No matter the result, Crosby and Ovechkin were sharp once more against each other. Ovechkin has 22 points against the Penguins in the playoffs, while Crosby has 17. The two are tremendous in the postseason, but they always step it up against each other under the brightest lights.

(Photo courtesy of CBS Sports Radio, taken by Harry How, Getty Images)

We’ve witnessed plenty of exciting individual matchups in the NHL throughout the years. Like Crosby and Ovechkin, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux contended for the pinnacle of hockey’s top player in the late 80s and early 90s. However, Gretzky was on the West Coast while Lemieux was with Pittsburgh. Despite entertaining games between the two, their matchups were too infrequent to establish a long-standing individual rivalry.

The Crosby/Ovechkin rivalry has what Gretzky/Lemieux missed and blends traits of the classic rivalries of other sports. It’s the race for dominance that McGwire and Sosa had, and the magnitude of the matchups like Bird and Johnson in the NBA Finals.

Thursday’s game was a microcosm of the Penguins and Capitals rivalry since Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin entered the NHL.  Both players shine, but the Penguins end up ahead. Nonetheless, that game showed that these two have created a rivalry that has made their battles must-see hockey.  It may not be a heated rivalry based on their indifferent thoughts of one another, but their play on the ice and their teams capture the essence of a legendary clash.

 

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Division Rivalries, Top Goaltenders Highlight NHL Conference Semifinals

Still recovering from the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs?  That’s understandable, considering 18 of the 42 total games played went to overtime.  But now, the spotlight shines on the eight remaining teams.  The Conference Semifinals feature three series with divisional rivals as well as some of the league’s best goaltending.  Here’s a preview of the four series ahead.

Ottawa Senators vs. New York Rangers

(Courtesy of espn.com)

2017 Season Series: Ottawa 2-1-0/Getty Images

While it may not be a divisional battle nor have the playoff history of its Eastern Conference counterpart, this matchup features two teams with huge star power.  Henrik Lundqvist was stellar in helping the Rangers dispatch the Montreal Canadiens in the first round.  His 195 saves were two shy of Braden Holtby for most in the first round.  His .9466 save percentage in the series was three ten-thousandths shy of his career postseason mark against Washington in 2013.  The victory over Montreal wasn’t perfect, however.  Chris Kreider and JT Miller didn’t score, while Nick Holden and Marc Staal had costly turnovers and mental lapses at times in their own zone.  Lundqvist carried the team this far, but the Blueshirts play better when they get a more consistent effort on offense and defense.

The Senators enjoyed production from all units in their 6-game series win over the Boston Bruins.  Former Ranger Derick Brassard exploded for eight points, while Bobby Ryan added two game-winning goals.  Erik Karlsson, Dion Phaneuf and the blue line held the Bruins to just 13 goals in the six contests, making it easy for goalie Craig Anderson.  Karlsson showed why he’s a Norris Trophy candidate, leading the Sens in ice time while bearing two fractures in his left heel.  Ottawa received needed contributions from their top players, but do they have the depth to make a deeper run in the postseason?

 

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals

(Courtesy of japersrink.com)

2017 Season Series: Washington 2-0-2

This is the series you’ll want to tune in to every game for, and the NHL knows it.  They’ve played up the tensions between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin in the spots they run during commercial breaks.  The Presidents’ Trophy winner versus the runners-up.  Two division rivals with the two aforementioned superstars and both teams top five in the regular season on the power play.  Need I say more?

The Capitals had to fend off the budding Maple Leafs in six.  Braden Holtby’s 197 saves were tops among goalies in the first round as he neutralized Auston Matthews and company just enough.  Ovechkin was his usual self with two power play goals and three total.  But he has options around him that Washington hasn’t seen in quite some time.  TJ Oshie had seven points, Justin Williams shined in the playoffs again, and 11 other players recorded two or more points.  On paper, Washington is as stacked as they come on all sides.

Fortunately for Pittsburgh, they run just as deep on offense.  Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel are the notable names.  But Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust tormented Sergei Bobrovsky and the Columbus Blue Jackets all series. They benefited from their linemates and pressured up front to outplay their expectations.  Marc-Andre Fleury performed admirably in net filling in for the injured Matt Murray.  With Murray still not skating as of the weekend, Fleury still sits between the pipes.  Can a Pens defense missing Kris Letang cover up the holes they had in Round 1?

 

Nashville Predators vs. St. Louis Blues

Predators Blues Hockey(Courtesy of stltoday.com)

2017 Season Series: Nashville 3-2-0

The Predators being here is one shock.  The way they did it is another.  Pekka Rinne allowed a measly three goals in a four game sweep while making 123 stops in net.  The blue line was a force physically on the boards and in open ice as they neutralized Chicago’s stars.  What didn’t get enough credit, however, was the offense.  Down two goals in Game 3, Filip Forsberg and company outhustled Chicago to win in overtime.  The Blackhawks’ radio team noted in that game Nashville was energetic on both sides of the puck while Chicago was exhausted.  That sustained pressure should help them in this series too.

Netminder Jake Allen and the Blues dispatched a middling Minnesota Wild team in five games.  Allen’s .956 save percentage and eight goals allowed were second-lowest in the league only to Rinne.  He took the pressure off of the offense, which was quiet, if not tempered.  The Blues perform well across the board, but they don’t overpower you in one exact area.  Their penalty kill ranked third in the regular season at 84.8%.  Will it make a difference facing a Nashville team that produces better on even strength?

 

Edmonton Oilers vs. Anaheim Ducks

(Courtesy of nhl.com)

2017 Season Series: Edmonton 3-2-0 (Anaheim lost 2 overtime games)

Penguins/Capitals gets the attention because of the history, but this can be just as entertaining of a matchup.  These are two Pacific rivals that vied for the division title until the final week.  The Ducks and Oilers are also second and sixth in hits, respectively.  There are skill players that draw you to this matchup, but the physicality potential spices it up further.

The Oilers showed they’re the real deal after taking care of defending West champion San Jose.  Connor McDavid scored four goals in his postseason debut.  But here were the goal scorers in the last two games: Patrick Maroon, Mark Letestu, Oscar Klefbom, David Desharnais, Leon Draisaitl, Anton Slepyshev and McDavid.  That’s tremendous diversity on offense.  They won’t always get that production from some of those 3rd and 4th line guys, but this team doesn’t have to rely on McDavid to score.  Their success, however, relies on netminder Cam Talbot.  He had two shutouts in Games 2 and 3, but allowed five goals in Game 4.  They need Talbot to be on top of his game every night.

The Ducks are the NHL’s hottest team right now.  Following their four games sweep over Calgary, they’ve won 13 of their last 15.  The special teams unit is dangerous both on the man up and the man down.  Their penalty kill ranks third in the NHL and they accrued the second-most penalty minutes in the regular season.  They have playmakers at almost every forward position on their top three lines.  Defenseman Cam Fowler may return this series now that he’s resumed practice.  Their challenge is getting good goaltending.  John Gibson took a step forward as Anaheim’s leading tender.  However, this is his first full postseason.  What can we expect from him?

 

Predictions

New York-Ottawa: Derick Brassard and Mika Zibanejad play well against their former respective teams, plus we get another good matchup in net.  But the Blueshirts are just a little deeper on offense. Rangers in 6

Pittsburgh-Washington: We get another postseason classic from these two.  The Caps push Fleury to the brink, but the Pens survive thanks to secondary contributions and speed. Penguins in 7

Nashville-St. Louis: Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko are talented, but they have to show up for the Blues.  The Preds employ the same gameplan they had against Chicago to prevent the Blues to get to the net cleanly.  Peter Laviolette knows how to win here. Predators in 5

Edmonton-Anaheim: Fowler can make all the difference on defense for Anaheim.  However, if Edmonton plays physical, but smart on the boards, they have the talent to overcome a veteran Ducks team.  Oilers in 7

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Alex Ovechkin, NHL, IIHF, IOC, Olympics, 2018, Korea, NLHPA, Gary Bettman, Donald Fehr, Hockey, Wayne Gretzky, Washington Capitals, National Hockey League, International Ice Hockey Federation, 2018 Olympic Games, 2014 Sochi Games, PyeongChang, South Korea, Olympic Hockey

Olympic Hockey: The NHL Abroad

Olympic hockey as you know it may never be the same again.

Players badly want to represent their countries in the upcoming Olympics, but NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL owners see no benefit in allowing their players to compete overseas. It is now up to Bettman to find a suitable solution to this problem.

But how did we even get here?

Alex Ovechkin, NHL, IIHF, IOC, Olympics, 2018, Korea, NLHPA, Gary Bettman, Donald Fehr, Hockey, Wayne Gretzky, Washington Capitals, National Hockey League, International Ice Hockey Federation, 2018 Olympic Games, 2014 Sochi Games, PyeongChang, South Korea, Olympic Hockey

Gary Bettman (left) and Donald Fehr (right). Photo credit: Tom Szczerbowski, USA Today Sports

For the past twenty years, the NHL has participated in the Winter Olympics without interruption: Nagano, Salt Lake City, Turin, Vancouver, and Sochi. This young tradition may soon be coming to an end.

With the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang a little over a year away, the NHL has not yet decided whether or not they will allow their players to travel to South Korea and represent their respective countries.

The main actors at play here are the International Olympic Committee, the NHL, and the NHLPA (Player’s Association).

The whole question of whether or not the NHL should participate in the upcoming Olympics began when the IOC announced that they would no longer front the bill for travel and insurance costs. The estimated cost to cover these was over $10 million. This left a sour taste in the mouths of many NHL owners.

 

According to Bettman

There is a “strong negative sentiment” among NHL owners towards halting mid-season and allowing their elite players to compete overseas in 2018. Their concerns primarily revolve around the almost certain revenue losses, which inevitably come with an Olympic break, and potential player injuries. Both pose serious problems for owners routinely responsible for hundred million dollar payrolls. For Bettman, the solution was a matter of compromise, but not between the NHL and the IOC. Instead, Bettman and the NHL approached the NHLPA with a deal.

In return for the NHL fronting the travel and insurance bills, suffering the revenue losses, and risking their most valuable players to injury, the NHLPA was asked to extend the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, thereby waiving their opt-out clause in 2019. This would have extended the current CBA well into the future, ensuring players the opportunity to participate in international hockey for another two Olympics. It was, however, categorically rejected by the NHLPA.

And so here we are

Everyone is waiting for a decision to come down from the NHL’s top brass about whether or not we will see the world’s top talent compete in Korea in 2018. Some aren’t waiting though.

Washington Capitals star, and NHL icon, Alexander Ovechkin has repeatedly stated that his will to compete in the Winter Olympics is greater than that of the NHL’s to abstain. Even if the NHL refuses to participate, Ovechkin has said that he “and other players will definitely come [to the Olympics]” in 2018 and represent Russia. He made similar statements when the NHL’s participation was up in the air prior to the 2014 Sochi games.

Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky gave his two cents, stating that he happens “to love everything about the Olympic Games.” Gretzky knows, though, that his love of the games does not necessarily mean that the NHL has to participate. “I like the Olympic Games, but does that mean that the NHL is going to go? I don’t have a crystal ball, I can’t tell you,” he said.

While Gary Bettman and the NHL hope to reach a decision by early January, they continue to appear rather pessimistic in their potential participation, or lack thereof, in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Korea.

 

In the meantime

 

 

The League’s top super stars of past and present have spoken out against the NHL’s proposed divestment from Olympic hockey. Their representative, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, recently released a statement to the public on Sunday.

I’m more optimistic now than I have ever been, at least as far as we’re concerned, that we’ll be able to reach an appropriate agreement with the IIHF to allow for the players to go.

The problem is that this sentiment is not felt by the other parties involved. The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) has told the NHL that they will find a way to bridge the $10 million gap, but the NHL remains weary of their ability to do so.

The IOC has stoically remained silent on the subject.

The NHL has yet to release any more information other than the fact that they are no more inclined to send their talent to Korea in 2018 than they were before Fehr’s statement on Sunday.

This leaves us fans, sitting here, waiting patiently. Wondering what our respective teams will look like without their NHL talent on board. Wondering, perhaps, who will be willing to follow the likes of Ovechkin and company if the NHL does indeed pull their support for the games and what that will mean for the NHL, the NHLPA, and the IOC.

 

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