Around the NHL at the All-Star break

Around the NHL at the All-Star break

Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011
Posted 8:38 p.m.

By Kevin Kurz
CSNPhilly.com

The first half of the NHL season has featured some surprising developments, some unsurprising ones, and another comeback attempt by Peter Forsberg.

Heres a quick look around the league as it shuts down for its annual Olympics-or-All-Star break.
Biggest surprise (team): Tampa Bay Lightning

When your biggest offseason acquisition is in the front office, its usually a sign that your team is in for a long season. Thats not the case in Tampa Bay, though, as NHL legend Steve Yzerman has turned the Lightning into a contender right away. It helps when you have the next NHL superstar (and leagues leading scorer) in Steven Stamkos, of course, but fellow forward Martin St. Louis is having a resurgence as the Lightning enter the break with a five-game winning streak and a four- point lead on Washington for first place in the Southeast Division. Veteran goalie Dwayne Roloson was a savvy pickup by Yzerman, and dont be surprised to see the Lightning make some noise in the postseason.
Honorable mention: Dallas Stars

You have to feel for the Dallas Stars, who are quietly leading the ultra-competitive Pacific Division yet struggling to fill their beautiful arena. No matter to Brad Richards and Kari Lehtonen, though, as the forward and goaltender look like they are primed to help end a two-year playoff drought for Texas only NHL team.
Biggest disappointment (team): New Jersey Devils
This ones easy. The Devils signed prized free agent Ilya Kovalchuk to a 100 million contract in the offseason and looked like a strong contender for their fourth Stanley Cup, but they have been anything but instead entering the break with the fewest points in the league. The team has gotten a little bit better now that Jacques Lemaire has returned and re-installed his sleep-inducing defensive system, and even Kovalchuk is starting to produce, but their season is essentially over.
Honorable mention: San Jose Sharks
The Western Conference regular season champions the last two seasons, the San Jose Sharks are fighting just to stay in the playoff race. A 4-0-1 stretch before the All-Star break offers some hope, but it came only after a six-game losing streak threatened to derail their season altogether. Rob Blakes retirement left a huge void on the blue line that was never filled, and the so-called Big Three of Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau are all off of their career scoring averages. There is some hope, however, as rookie Logan Couture looks like a future star and goalie Antti Niemi has played very well for the past two months.

Biggest surprise (player): Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

The Montreal Canadiens were roundly criticized for trading playoff hero Jaroslav Halak to St. Louis in the offseason, thereby handing the reigns to Price between the pipes. Price, though, who previously looked like a victim of the tremendous pressure heaped upon him by playing in the hockey capital of North America (sorry Toronto), has been outstanding. His 2.36 goals-against average and .920 save percentage at the break earned him an All-Star berth, but more importantly, he has the Canadiens in good position to challenge Boston for the Northeast Division crown.
Biggest disappointment (player): Dion Phaneuf, Toronto Maple Leafs

Kovalchuk would be the easy pick here, but it already feels like hes old news. Instead, lets go with the Maple Leafs captain, defenseman Dion Phaneuf. The big blueliner was acquired by Toronto last season in the hopes that his defensive presence and leadership skills would lead the Maple Leafs back to the playoffs for the first time since before the lockout. Well, better luck next year. Toronto is on its way to another long offseason, and while Phaneuf can still hit hard and be an effective player in his own zone, he has a paltry one goal and 10 assists in 33 games.
Rising star: Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

On a team full of offensive stars, the Flyers Claude Giroux may possess the most pure ability. Giroux can do it all shoot, pass, defend and contribute on special teams. He leads the first-place Flyers with 47 points (tied with Mike Richards) and has made a number of dazzling, highlight-reel plays that seem to suggest that the 23-year-old will be an NHL star for many years to come.

Falling star: Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils

Martin Brodeurs numbers are obviously somewhat of an extension of how bad his Devils have been as a whole, but he hasnt done anything to help the cause, either. In fact, backup Johan Hedberg has even started back-to-back games for the Devils with a healthy Brodeur on the bench something unheard of in Brodeurs heyday. The future Hall of Fame goaltender make look back upon the second half of last season and subsequent first round playoff defeat last April as the beginning of the end to a brilliant career.

Second half storylines:
Will the defending Cup champs turn it around?

Sure, theyve been hampered by injuries throughout the year, but the Chicago Blackhawks have been a portrait of inconsistency this season. They already had to deal with a huge roster turnover from their championship team, but they still have enough talent on both ends of the ice to make another run this season. With names like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp, dont count them out. They could be the one team no one in the West wants to face come postseason time.Will Sidney Crosby return to form after his concussion?

Sidney Crosby has been, undoubtedly, the best player in the NHL this season. But the fact that hes been out of the lineup for most of the month of January with a concussion has to be concerning for the Penguins (and for the NHL, which endlessly promotes his every move while overlooking some of the games other starsbut I digress). Crosby doesnt have any sort of history when it comes to head injuries, so theres not much reason to believe he wont pick up where he left off before he got hurt. Thats the thing when it comes to concussions, though they are terribly unpredictable.

Will Peter Forsberg return?

Its a shame that Peter Forsbergs name has become a punch line in the last few years, what with his multitude of comebacks always falling by the wayside. Hes again attempting to get back into the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche, and it might even happen. Even so, it may be painful to watch him try and regain his form from years past, if he ever makes it back into game action (see 2010 Olympics, in which he had one assist in four games).

Will the Capitals start scoring again?

The NHL leaders for most of last season thanks to a non-stop attack on offense, the Washington Capitals have inexplicably struggled to find the back of the net. That includes Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, who have a combined 10 goals in the last 25 games heading into the break (nine by Ovechkin). Its safe to say that no one expected the Caps to be tied for 17th in the NHL at this point in the year, with just 2.71 goals per game.

Can the Flyers and Canucks keep up their torrid pace?

Stanley Cups arent won in January, and thats likely the message that coaches Peter Laviolette and Alain Vigneault will give their respective clubs coming out of the break. Right now, however, theres little disputing that these are the two best teams in hockey right now. Philadelphia has arguably the deepest offense and deepest defense in the Eastern Conference, while the Canucks are led by Henrik and Daniel Sedin, who are in the prime of their careers and are nothing short of magical on the ice together. Seeing these two teams battle in the Stanley Cup Finals is a distinct possibility.

After trading Scott Darling, can the Blackhawks find another reliable backup goalie?

After trading Scott Darling, can the Blackhawks find another reliable backup goalie?

What we all expected to happen did happen on Friday night when the Blackhawks traded Scott Darling to the Carolina Hurricanes.

One way or another, be it via trade or just going to unrestricted free agency on July 1, Darling was headed elsewhere. He’s earned the opportunity to be a No. 1 goaltender, it wasn’t going to happen here, and now he’ll get that chance.

But this isn’t about where Darling’s career takes him from this point. This is about the Blackhawks and where they go from here. They’ve been in the enviable position of having some stellar backup goaltenders the past few seasons, from Ray Emery to Antti Raanta to Darling. So as this offseason continues, finding another one becomes top priority.

A few days ago Pat Boyle and I discussed a few topics on the HawksTalk Podcast, including what we considered to be on general manager Stan Bowman’s to-do list this summer. Getting a reliable backup goaltender has to be on there because the Blackhawks have shown over the past few seasons that having that great 1-2 punch in net has proven very successful.

Let’s go back to the 2013 offseason. In the summer of 2013 the Blackhawks signed two goaltenders. One was Nikolai Khabibulin, the other Raanta. We all remember how that went. Khabibulin, another former Blackhawks player brought in on the hopes that he had something left, didn’t. He started four games — two of which Corey Crawford came in and finished — suffered an injury in mid November and never played another game for the Blackhawks. Then on Dec. 8, Crawford, playing in his 27th game of the Blackhawks’ first 32 games of that season, got hurt. Enter Raanta, who went on a tear through December, going 8-1-3. That season highlights the need for reliable depth at that position more than any in recent memory.

You’re familiar with the other examples, too. Emery was outstanding when he had to be in the lockout-shortened 2013 regular season — please see that 45-stop outing vs. Calgary — and he and Crawford earned the William M. Jennings Trophy that year. Darling showed how dependable he could be several times the past few seasons, from his work in the 2015 first-round series against the Nashville Predators to his record (6-3-1) when Crawford was out with appendicitis through the first three weeks of last December.

That depth at goaltending has been especially critical the past two seasons. How many “goalie wins” did the Blackhawks have through the 2015-16 season, when they struggled to get consistent line combinations past their second one? How many did they have at the start of this past season before they did get that four-line rotation in February?

Crawford has played between 55 and 59 games in each full regular season dating back to 2010-11. Injuries happen. Slumps happen. Being overworked happens. Having a backup on which you can rely is something every team would love to have and something the Blackhawks have had recently, and they’ve benefitted from it.

It’s easy for us to sit here and say the Blackhawks need to do this. Actually finding that guy is an entirely different matter. But the Blackhawks have done it well lately, and despite the team’s quick exit this spring, there are still plenty of reasons for a would-be backup goaltender to come to Chicago.

Darling was the latest to embrace the backup goaltending role in his time here. His moving on was inevitable. Now the Blackhawks need to find the next guy who can keep their 1-2 punch in net going.

Why Scott Darling is a perfect fit for Hurricanes

Why Scott Darling is a perfect fit for Hurricanes

Chicago will always be home for Scott Darling. Literally.

He's a Lemont native who grew up rooting for the Blackhawks, signed with the franchise in 2014 and reignited his career by winning over the backup job, and enjoyed the highest level of success by becoming the first local kid to win a Stanley Cup in Chicago.

But as he said at the end of the season, Darling has paid his dues as a backup in the NHL and is ready for the next step of being a No. 1 goaltender.

The Blackhawks gave him that opportunity Friday, shipping his negotiating rights to the Carolina Hurricanes for a third-round pick in 2017.

And, assuming a long-term extension gets done, the fit couldn't be better for both Darling and Carolina.

The Hurricanes play such a structured game under Bill Peters, who is arguably the most underrated coach in the league. He served as the head coach for the Blackhawks' AHL affiliate Rockford IceHogs for three seasons from 2008-11, and was also part of Mike Babcock's coaching staff in Detroit for three years after that. He comes from a solid coaching branch. 

Peters preaches puck possession and team defense, and both categories have excelled during his tenure in Carolina.

Why is this good news for Darling? Because both of those areas have been vital in all three of the Blackhawks' championship runs this decade, meaning there won't be much of an adjustment schematically.

Over the last three seasons combined, the Hurricanes have been the sixth-best possession team in the league (controlling 51.7 percent of the even-strength shot attempts), have allowed the second-fewest shots on goal per game (27.7) and own the second-ranked penalty kill unit (84.4 percent success rate). 

Defense and dictating the pace of play has never been a problem for the Hurricanes; it's the goaltending that's been a sore thumb for a long time, and they've finally addressed it.

In the last three seasons, Carolina has finished 28th, 29th and 29th in even-strength team save percentage at 90.9 (2015), 91.5 (2016) and 91.2 (2017). This past regular season, only two goaltenders — Craig Anderson (94.0) and Vezina Trophy-favorite Sergei Bobrovsky (93.9) — who appeared in at least 30 games had a better 5-on-5 save percentage than Darling, who recorded a 93.7 percentage.

He is a significant upgrade from Eddie Lack ($2.75 million cap hit) and Cam Ward ($3.3 million), both of whom are under contract through 2017-18. (That's a situation Carolina GM Ron Francis will have to sort out as the expansion draft approaches, but there's no doubt Darling will head into training camp as the clear-cut starter).

There's reason to be excited about the Hurricanes' long-term vision and growth on the back end, too. They were the third-youngest team last year, and their blue line group is led by 25-year-old All-Star Justin Faulk and 20-year-old Noah Hanifin, the club's No. 5 overall draft pick in 2015.

The Hurricanes are right there. They're ready to take off after missing out on the postseason for eight consecutive years, in large part because they haven't gotten the goaltending needed to consistently win games.

With the addition of Darling, they hope to have finally found that missing piece to the puzzle.