NHL All Star Weekend recap

The NHL just wrapped up its All Star Weekend at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Missouri on January 25th with the Pacific Division edging the Atlantic Division 5-4 in the three-on-three tournament. The Pacific doubled the Central Division 10-5 in their opening game while the Atlantic downed the Metropolitan Division 9-5.

Boston Bruins’ forward David Pastrnak chipped in with a goal and assist in the final game for the Atlantic Division after notching three goals and an assist in his first contest to take home the MVP Award. Tomas Hertl scored the game-winner in the final with just 2:36 remaining on the clock as the Pacific squad fought back to claim the million dollar prize after falling behind 3-1 in the first period.

The Pacific Division also won the event in 2018 and 2016 while the Metropolitan Division captured the prize in 2019 and 2017. Next year’s All Star Weekend will be held in Sunrise, Florida, at the home rink of the Florida Panthers. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the league may alter the format in 2021 and one possibility could see North American players taking on players from other nations.

The current format features teams from each of the league’s four divisions playing three-on-three games that are 20 minutes long with two periods of 10 minutes each. Each team plays the other squad in their conference with the two winners meeting in the final tilt. The NHL also holds a popular skills competition the night before the games are held.

Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders won the fastest skater event as he strode a lap of the rink in 13.175 seconds. The Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid, who won the competition the last three years, came second at 13.215 seconds. McDavid’s best time in the three previous seasons was 13.310 so Barzal did well and also improved on his 13.780 third-place finish of last year. Chris Kreider of the New York Rangers finished third in the eight-man event this weekend at 13.509 seconds.

In the goaltenders’ save streak competition, Jordan Binnington of the hometown St. Louis Blues came out on top with 10 consecutive saves. Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning was second with nine and Frederik Andersen of the Toronto Maple Leafs placed third with seven.

Defenceman Jacob Slavin of the Carolina Hurricanes won the shooting accuracy event by nailing all of the targets in a time of 9.505 seconds and was followed by Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers at 10.257 seconds and Jonathan Huberdeau of the Florida Panthers at 13.074 seconds.

As far as the hardest shot event goes, blue liner Shea Weber of the Montreal Canadiens blasted a 106.mph slap shot to earn the league’s hardest shooter bragging rights. Fellow defenceman John Carlson placed second at 104.5 mph while forward Elias Pettersson of the Vancouver Canucks was third at 102.4 mph.

The league introduced a new competition this year called shooting stars in which players shoot several pucks from a platform located high in the stands behind one of the end zones. The object is to hit targets that have been place in various locations on the ice. The inaugural winner was forward Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks with 24 points.

Kane and Mitch Marner of the Toronto Maple Leafs finished the event with 22 points each with Kane then scoring two points in a one-shot tie-breaking round. Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames came in third place with 20 points. In addition, the league held a three-on-three, 20 minute women’s game between the USA and Canada with the Canadians coming out on top by a score of 2-1.

NHL coaches walking on thin ice this season

It’s nothing new for NHL coaches to be fired midway through a season but the 2019/20 campaign has been especially harsh on bench bosses so far. We’re just three weeks into the new year but a total of seven head coaches have been relieved of their duties since the puck dropped on the season in early October. The latest to be let go was Gerard Gallant of the Vegas Golden Knights as he was sent packing on January 15th after his club lost its fourth straight game.

Gallant was the Golden Knights’ first and only coach and guided the franchise to the Stanley Cup Final in its inaugural season in 2017/18, losing to the Washington Capitals in five games. He was also named the NHL’s coach of the year that season for his work behind the bench. That didn’t help him hang onto his job though as he was replaced by Peter DeBoer, who was fired as head coach of the San Jose Sharks earlier this season.

Five head coaches have been let go due to the performance of their teams while Bill Peters was basically forced to resign from the Calgary Flames when he admitted to using racist language in the minor leagues a decade earlier. It was also revealed that Peters punched and kicked players on the bench when he was coaching in the NHL with the Carolina Hurricanes.

In addition, the Dallas Stars sacked head coach Jim Montgomery this season for what the club called unprofessional conduct. It’s believed Montgomery is now undergoing rehabilitation for alcohol abuse. Peters was replaced by Geoff Ward and Montgomery’s job was given to Rick Bowness.

It appears NHL owners aren’t afraid to fire coaches mid-season due to the recent success of coaching changes. For example, the St. Louis Blues relieved Mike Yeo of his post last season and replaced him with Craig Berube. The club sank to the bottom of the league ladder a couple of months later but then stormed all the way back to win the franchise’s first-ever Stanley Cup.

Mike Sullivan took over as head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins in December, 2015 and then led the team to two consecutive Stanley Cups. Darryl Sutter was hired as head coach of the Los Angeles Kings in December of 2011 and ended up winning the Stanley Cup that season and again in 2013/14.

Other head coaches to lose their jobs this season include Mike Babcock of the Toronto Maple Leafs, John Hynes of the New Jersey Devils and Peter Laviolette of the Nashville Predators. Like DeBoer though, Hynes has landed on his feet and is already back in the NHL as head coach of Nashville. Sheldon Keefe took over in Toronto, Alain Nasreddine in New Jersey and Bob Boughner in San Jose.

In total, there are 14 of 31 NHL coaches who are in their first year with their team this season and Berube has been with St. Louis for just 14 months. Just three coaches have been with the same club since 2015/16.  Jon Cooper has been with the Tampa Bay Lightning since March, 2013 while Paul Maurice has coached the Winnipeg Jets since January, 2014 and Jeff Blashill was hired by the Detroit Red Wings in the summer of 2015.

Making the playoffs is definitely harder for NHL coaches these days since 16 of 21 teams made the postseason back in 1987 and in 2019/20 16 of 31 clubs will make the playoffs. Soon it will be 16 of 32 franchises as Seattle is set to enter the league in 2021/22. With so many head coaches losing their jobs this year NHL teams may soon realize it’s not in their best interests to sign coaches to long-term deals anymore.

Babcock is a prime example of what can happen when coaches are signed to multi-season contracts as the Maple Leafs are still obligated to pay him for another three-and-a-half-years or until he takes another job. But if he’s raking in an average of $6.25 million on his eight-year deal there’s probably not much to motivate him into looking for a new job.

Tampa Bay Lightning equal franchise record of 10 straight wins

After quite a slow start to the 2019/20 NHL season the Tampa Bay Lightning eventually caught fire and recently reeled off a franchise-tying 10-game winning streak. They equalled the club high mark with a 1-0 away win over the Philadelphia Flyers on January 11th but saw the streak end with a 3-1 defeat in New Jersey to the Devils the next. The Lightning outscored their opponents 42-17 during the streak with nine of those goals coming in a 9-2 drubbing of the Vancouver Canucks.

Tampa Bay set their club record of 10 consecutive victories just last year when they were red hot between February 9th and 27th. Their recent streak equals this season’s NHL high mark as the New York Islanders also won 10 straight games earlier in the campaign from October 12th to November 5th. The Lightning are now the fourth club in NHL history to win at least 10 games in a row in two consecutive seasons.

The Columbus Blue Jackets achieved the feat in 2016/17 and 2017/18 while the Pittsburgh Penguins pulled it off in three straight seasons in 2010/11, 2011/12 and 2012/13 and the Philadelphia Flyers managed it in 1984/85 and 1985/86. Tampa’s loss in New Jersey snapped a five-game winning streak on the road but they’re still an impressive 8-2-1 in their last 11 away outings. The five-match road winning streak also equalled the second-longest road winning string in the NHL this season.

Tampa hadn’t given up a goal in 169:05 minutes of action until New Jersey scored in the second period of their game and fell just short of their franchise best of 184:06 which was set last February 12th to 18th. The Lightning also scored 13 straight goals before New Jersey tallied which meant they also fell short in their attempt to tie their franchise record of 14 consecutive goals which was also set lest February.

The recent hot streak has seen Tampa Bay soar up the standings in the Atlantic Division where they currently sit in second place with a record of 27-14-4 after 46 games. They trail the first-place Boston Bruins by seven points with a game in hand and have a four-point lead over the third-place Toronto Maple Leafs also with a game in hand.

Collectively, the Lightning have scored the fourth-most goals in the league at 162 and their 130 goals against ranks ninth best. The club’s special teams have also been pulling their weight as their power play is ranked second in the league behind the Edmonton Oilers at 27.8 per cent and the penalty killing is tied for fourth best with the Dallas Stars at 83.5 per cent.

Individually, right-winger Nikita Kucherov (last year’s Art Ross Trophy winner as the NHL’s top scorer), leads the way with 17 goals and 49 points and is followed by centre Steven Stamkos at 17 goals and 44 points. Defenceman Victor Hedman is next with nine goals and 41 points while centre Brayden Point has notched 18 goals and 40 points and centre Alex Kilorn has chipped in with 18 goals and 37 points.

The Lightning have also been getting solid goaltending from Andrei Vasilevskiy as he’s 22-9-2 with a goals-against average of 2.58 with a 91.5 save percentage. Veteran backup netminder Curtis McElhinney hasn’t been quite as sharp and is 5-5-2 with a 3.10 GAA and a 90.4 save percentage. The Lightning have recorded just two shutouts this season with Vasilevskiy posting both of them in the ninth and 10th games of their recent winning streak.

But even with the team’s recent hot run, the Lightning can’t afford to take the foot off the gas since they have just a five-point lead over the Florida Panthers and the last playoff spot in the Atlantic Division. They are also only two points in front of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference wild-card playoff race as of January 13th with each team having 37 games remaining in the regular season.

Canadian NHL hopefuls win Junior Gold

The final of the 2020 Under-20 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championships came down to Canada and Russia in Ostrava, Czech Republic on January 5th with the Canadian coming out on top by a score of 4-3. Meanwhile, Sweden captured the bronze medal with a narrow 3-2 victory over Finland in the third-place matchup which was the same result when the two teams met in group play earlier in the tournament. Finland entered the championships as the defending champion.

Russia made it to the final after an exciting come-from-behind 5-4 win over Sweden in the semifinals while Canada blanked Finland 5-0 in their final-four showdown. Sweden’s Samuel Fagemo, a 2019 second-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings, led the way in scoring with with eight goals and five helpers for 13 points in seven contests. Nineteen-year-old Rasmus Sandin, of the Toronto Maple Leafs was named best defenceman of the tournament as the Swede finished it with a position-high three goals and seven assists for 10 points.

Sandin was also named to the event’s All-Star Team along with fellow blue liner Alexander Romanov of Russia. Joel Hofer of Canada was named the All-Star Team’s goaltender while the forwards were Fagemo along with Barrett Hayton and Alexis Lafrenière of Canada. Lafrenière was also named the tournament’s most valuable player as he notched four goals and six assists for 10 points in five outings. The 18-year-old Lafrenière of Saint-Eustache, Quebec currently plays with Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and missed two games for Canada due to injury.

Lafrenière was named the Rookie of the Year in the QMJHL last season and also made the league’s first All-Star Team as he racked up 32 goals and 48 assists for 80 points in 60 games and added four goals and seven points in seven playoff contests. He then followed up with 105 points in his second junior campaign on 37 goals and 68 assists in 61 games with another nine goals and 23 points in 13 postseason appearances. The 6-foot-1-inch, 192 lb left-winger is expected to go first overall in the 2020 NHL Draft  in June and also captained Canada to the gold medal at the 2018 Under-18 Hlinka Gretzky Cup.

Canada captured their leading 18th  World Junior gold medal and 32nd overall against Russia at this year’s event with fourth-liner and Los Angeles Kings’ prospect Akil Thomas scoring the game-winner with 3:58 remaining in the third period. The goal, which was Thomas’s first and only of the tournament, capped off an impressive comeback as Russia held a 3-1 lead just six minutes and 42 seconds earlier. It was the fifth time in nine tries that the Canadians have beaten Russia for the gold medal since 1996  and it came after being thrashed 6-0 by the Russians in group play a week earlier.

The loss means Russia hasn’t won a gold medal at the prestigious event since 2011 and the nation has now lost four straight finals since then. It was an eventful tournament for Canada and head coach Dale Hunter as it was the country’s first medal since taking gold in 2018. They finished sixth place at home last year after losing to Finland in the quarterfinals. In addition, their 6-0 defeat to Russia in the group stage was Canada’s worst loss in the 44-year history of the tournament.