Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl on target for Art Ross Trophy

With the 2019/20 NHL season heading into the stretch run it looks like the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer is Leon Draisaitl’s to lose. The 24-year-old native of Cologne, Germany had posted 34 goals and 61 assists for 95 points for the Edmonton Oilers after 60 games and had an 11-point lead over his closest rivals, David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins and Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche.

Draisaitl has also proved he has the flare for the dramatic and is a clutch performer as he was leading the league with 10 game-winning goals and had assisted on 12 game-winners by his teammates. There’s an outside chance that he reaches 50 goals this season and he’s currently leading the league in assists. The forward, who was drafted by Edmonton with the third overall pick in 2014, has already set a new career high in assists this year after notching 50 goals and 55 helpers for 105 points last season. He’s on pace for a career best 130 points this season.

Draisaitl had accumulated 125 goals and 187 assists for 312 points in 351 regular-season games after his first five seasons with the Oilers and came in second in team scoring to Connor McDavid over the past three campaigns. He also has 16 points in 13 playoff games. However, McDavid is currently injured and his reign as the team’s top scorer is likely to come to and end this year. With Draisaitl enjoying such a fine season there’s also a good chance he’ll be nominated for the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.

The young forward was scoring at a pace of 1.58 points-per-game after 60 outings this season to lead the NHL. He was also leading the league in ice time for forwards at at 22:33 per night as well as power-play points at 38. Draisaitl has proven he doesn’t have to depend on McDavid to produce points for the Oilers since he has posted 14 goals and 32 assists for 46 points in 45 games without his superstar teammate in the lineup. In the first four games without McDavid this season he notched three goals and seven assists.

If Draisaitl happens to win the Hart Trophy this season he’ll become the first German-born player to do so. However, his chances might fall if the Oilers fail to make the playoffs. Edmonton is in a dogfight in the Pacific Division with the the Vegas Golden Knights, Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames and Arizona Coyotes. With a quarter of the season to go any one of those teams could realistically finish the season as division champions or as low as fifth place in the eight-team division.

The San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings and  Anaheim Ducks occupy the bottom three spots in the Pacific and would need to catch fire down the stretch to have any hope of making the postseason. Draisaitl inked an eight-year deal with Edmonton in the summer of 2017 which sees him paid an average of $8.5 million a season. With five more years to go on the deal it looks like the Oilers have definitely signed themselves a bargain. But if Edmonton fails to make the playoffs this year it will be such a waste of a fantastic offensive season by Draisaitl.

NHL’s Department of Player Safety comes under fire

The NHL’s Department of Player Safety has come under fire recently, specifically by power forward Evander Kane of the San Jose Sharks. Kane was assessed a two-minute minor penalty for elbowing defenceman Neal Pionk of the Winnipeg Jets in the head on Feb. 14th and was then handed a three-game suspension for the hit.

Kane took to his social media accounts soon after being suspended and laid into the Department of Player Safety and George Parros, the department’s head. Kane didn’t exactly say his actions didn’t warrant a suspension but he questioned why other acts of violence in the league have recently gone unpunished or why the punishment didn’t seem to fit the crime.

A week before the Kane incident, Arizona Coyotes’ Lawson Crouse elbowed Charlie McAvoy of the Boston Bruins in the same manner and was given a two-minute penalty for roughing but received no additional punishment. In addition, Boston’s  veteran blue liner Zdeno Chara viciously cross checked Brendan Gallagher of the Montreal Canadiens in the throat and was handed just a $5000 with no suspension.

Chara was given a minor penalty on the play but so was Gallagher, who did nothing more than absorb the dangerous cross-check. Several days after that incident, Edmonton Oilers’ forward Zack Kassian attempted to kick rearguard Erik Cernak of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the chest and was suspended for seven games.

Kane released a public statement which basically said there have been dozens of incidents in the league over the past few years which were similar to his elbowing penalty on Pionk but they didn’t result in any fines and/or suspensions. He added that the Department of Player Safety lacks consistency as nobody seems to know what exactly does and doesn’t deserve a suspension.

Kane went on to say the players are baffled and he doesn’t understand how the players’ association agreed to the current disciplinary process. He claimed that some players get the book thrown at them while others get a free pass when committing borderline punishable hits. Kane then appeared to get plenty of fan support for his comments from others on social media platforms.

Some fans have questioned why Parros is in charge of player safety since he was an enforcer and fighter when he played. He scored 18 goals and 18 assists in 474 regular-season NHL contests and accumulated 1,092 minutes in penalties while playing an average of 5 minutes and 56 seconds per game. In fact, Parros also started a line of clothing called the Violent Gentlemen Apparel Company with one of it’s slogans being, “Make hockey violent again.”

It’s believed by many that Parros and his department aren’t being as strict as they should be and that’s why some players are getting away with violent conduct, which is leading to inconsistency when it comes to doling out punishment. In addition, the NHL Players’ Association represents players who have been suspended and want to appeal their sentence but the association doesn’t launch appeals on behalf of players who have been the victims of on-ice violence and have suffered from it.

According to Kane, the entire disciplinary process should be decided by an outside third party not the league itself. He believes that punishment should be handled by somebody who has no current or previous ties with the NHL and many fans seem to agree with him.

Columbus netminder Elvis Merzlikins is king of the crease

Luckily for the Columbus Blue Jackets they aren’t paying rookie goaltender Elvis Merzlikins his true worth this season. The 25-year-old native of Riga, Latvia, who was named after Elvis Presley, is making just $874,125 this campaign but has been one of the top goalies in the NHL lately.

Many Columbus fans expected the worst when two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky left the team as an unrestricted free agent last summer and signed a huge multi-year, contract with the Florida Panthers. This left the club with Joonas Korpisalo and Merzlikins as the team’s two untested goaltenders by default this season.

However, Korpisalo was injured at the tail end of December and Merzlikins has been on fire ever since replacing him as the number-one. Merzlikins posted his fifth shutout in eight games on Feb. 7th when he blanked the Detroit Red Wings 2-0 at home. It was also his second straight shutout and fifth of the season which is currently the tops in the NHL.

The victory against Detroit was the eighth in a row for the young goaltender but his streak was halted the next night with a narrow 2-1 loss at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche. Since taking over as the Blue Jackets’ starter, the rookie has posted an impressive record of 12-3. The eight-game winning streak is the longest in the club’s history for a rookie goalie and the longest for any rookie in 2019/20.

Washington Capitals’ newcomer Ilya Samsonov won seven straight outings earlier in the campaign between Dec. 27th and Jan. 31st. Merzlikins is now one of just nine rookie goalies in NHL history to post an eight-game winning streak. Jordan Binnington of the St. Louis Blues managed to reel off nine straight victories last season.

In addition, Merzlikins became just the sixth NHL netminder since 1930 to post five shutouts over a span of eight games. The last goalie to achieve the feat was the Phoenix Coyotes’ Brian Boucher in 2003/04. In fact, Boucher recorded five straight shutouts in his streak. However, just one other rookie has managed to pull it off and that came back in 1938/39 when the Boston Bruins’ Frank Brimsek managed it.

Due to the fine play of Merzlikins, Columbus has a record of 30-17-9 season for 69 points and is 9-1-1 over their past 11 games. They have also gone 19-3-5 since December 9th with 43 of their points coming since then. As of Feb. 9th they were hanging on to the third and final playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division, just one point ahead of the New York Islanders and two in front of the Philadelphia Flyers and Carolina Hurricanes.

Perhaps the play of Merzlikins shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise though. The 6-foot-3-inch, 180 lb goalie was taken in the third round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft by Columbus with the 76th overall pick. He then won several awards while playing internationally for Latvia and for HC Lugano in the Swiss National League. He was named the league’s top goalie in 2015/16 and 2017/18 and then signed with the Blue Jackets last March.

Merzlikins made his NHL debut in October of this season and was shelled for seven goals by the Pittsburgh Penguins. He was then sent down to play in the American Hockey League with the Cleveland Monsters in November before being recalled. He caught a big break when Korpisalo was injured on Dec. 30th and Merzlikins won his first NHL game on New Year’s Eve with a 4-1 victory over the Florida Panthers.

As of Feb. 9Th, Merzlikins was top-five in the NHL in goals-against average at 2.19, first in save percentage at 93.0 and first in shutouts with five. Unless he completely goes of the rails the rest of the way this season it looks like Merzlikins should be in for a big raise since his current contract is for just one year.

William Nylander contract could be a bargain for Toronto Maple Leafs

When William Nylander didn’t sign a new contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs until the very last minute in December, 2018 many fans felt the team highly overpaid the young forward. Nylander inked a six-year, $45 million deal worth a yearly average of $6,962,366 against the salary cap and then proceeded to score just seven goals and 20 assists in 54 contests over the remainder of the season.

If we fast forward to the current campaign though we see the 23-year-old is certainly earning his pay cheque. As of February 2nd, Nylander had posted a career-high 24 goals along with 23 assists for 47 points in 52 games. That placed him third in team scoring behind Auston Matthews’ 61 points and Mitch Marner’s 51. Nylander has served just eight minutes in penalties this year and his 18 even-strength goals ranked second on the team.

Nylander has achieved all of this while playing more than two minutes per-game less than Matthews per night and over three minutes fewer than Marner. Nylander’s game picked up following last season’s playoffs when the Leafs lost to the Boston Bruins in seven games and he headed to the IIHF World Hockey Championships. He led the tournament in scoring with 18 points in eight games ( 5 goals, 13 assists) and the confidence he gained there has carried over to the 2019/20 NHL season.

Supporters of Nylander feel he isn’t playing any differently this season but he’s finally scoring the goals he deserves. The main reason for this is due to his shooting percentage being a consistent 16.0 per cent which means he’s having more luck around the net. This is more than double last year’s total of 7.69 per cent while his career average is approximately 11 per cent.

He’s among the top Leafs in all scoring stats and has been silencing his critics by scoring most of his goals from the slot. In the past, he’s been accused of playing around the perimeter and being afraid to drive to the net. However, those claims have been proved wrong this season and in recognition of his fine play Nylander was named the Comeback Player of the year at mid-season by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association.

He started his career with back-to-back 61-point campaigns before last year’s disappointing numbers but that should have been expected since he missed the first 28 games. The winger was determined to prove to fans that last season was a fluke and he’s certainly been good to his word this year. Like several of his teammates, Nylander has also been much more effective since Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock as the team’s head coach in mid-November.

He recently scored goals in five consecutive outings and posted a string of 13 goals in 16 games. As long as he stays healthy down the stretch Nylander should easily set a new career high in points this season. If there is room for improvement it would be on the power play. Nylander’s already one of the better players in the league when it comes to 5-on-5 production and his numbers could easily grow with more contribution on the power play.

So far this year he’s scored six goals and seven assists for 13 points with the man advantage which isn’t too shabby. But as a rookie he posted 26 points on the power play to rank 13th in the NHL for forwards and first on his squad. Nylander managed just 12 points with the extra man in 2017/18 and just six last season. He’s on pace to rack up 20 points on the power play this year but if he can improve on that number next season he could easily become a point-per-game NHL’er.

At his young age and with added confidence, fans who were demanding the overpaid Nylander be traded last year have suddenly become quiet. And at an average salary cap of just over $6.9 million per season the Leafs may actually have a bargain with his contract. Only time will tell over the remainder of the deal, but Nylander’s certainly been on a hot streak so far in 2019/20.