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(In which Ryan Lambert takes a look at some of the biggest issues and stories in the NHL, and counts them down.)
8. The Sabres
Man, this team is awful. And it really shouldn’t be.
They’re barely scoring two goals a game. And that really sucks because their goals-against number is actually 12th in the league coming out of the break.
There are some things right with this team that are getting glossed over right now. There are some things wrong that were always going to be problems. And there are some things the team can’t necessarily control, like its third-from-the-bottom shooting percentage of 7.2 percent.
There’s a lot of talent on this roster. Maybe not on the blue line, but certainly up front. Losing Jack Eichel for 20ish games didn’t help anyone, but when your leading scorer is Rasmus Ristolainen things are just flat-out not going your way. Kyle Okposo, Sam Reinhart, Ryan O’Reilly? These are guys who should be scoring. They’re not. And you know what happens then.
To see all this land at the feet of Dan Bylsma, well, it’s tough but understandable. As always, you have to keep in mind a coach can’t tell his players, “Have you thought about, I don’t know, maybe scoring?” and then they all start scoring. Doesn’t work like that. You really can’t do much more to work your way through a shooting drought when you’re getting 55 or 60 percent of the scoring chances on any given night — the Sabres’ current 5-on-5 SCF% is fourth in the league.
So Bylsma has to do something to make it appear he’s not asleep at the switch, right? That means juggling the lines. That means putting guys in positions that aren’t conducive to their success. That means maybe continuing the scoring troubles. But if he doesn’t, he gets killed in the media and by the fans and maybe even by the front office. And if he does, well, the team still isn’t that good.
Maybe the hot seat is getting a little warm for Bylsma after all. Wouldn’t be fair, necessarily, but you’d get the impulse. But here’s what you have to ask yourself: Who out there is a better coach than Bylsma? Can’t imagine you find a candidate who doesn’t already have a job.
7. “Getting it right”
Speaking of not-scoring, it seems that the coach’s challenge is working as expected: It has taken away 34 goals this season for offside and goalie interference calls. It has only resulted in one no-goal becoming a goal.
2016-17 Coach's Challenge Tracker through NHL's Christmas break pic.twitter.com/xQtKHd6mDI
— Dave Stubbs (@Dave_Stubbs) December 27, 2016
So that’s a net loss of 33 goals from a league that is starving for scoring in the first place. And while that may not seem like a lot, it does tell you plenty about the kind of thinking — or lack thereof — that goes into this kind of decision-making.
Remember the playoffs last year, when they were reviewing every other goal for offside and if a guy had his foot off by literally a fraction of an inch eight seconds before the puck went in, they’d overturn a goal after a 10-minute review? It is almost impossible to think this kind of thing is still happening but it is.
All in the name of “getting it right.” Well frankly, you have to decide: Do you want it right, or do you want games to be entertaining? This rule was instituted because coaches hated when a guy was clearly offside or clearly bumped a goalie and no one called it. Now it’s a CSI investigation to see if maybe a guy’s stick grazed a goalie’s pad.
Even assuming every one of those calls was obviously blown by the on-ice official live, honestly, whatever. Let ’em play. Maybe people will care more if you let an extra 33 goals count and don’t take five minutes before saying, “Actually this game was lower-scoring than you thought before.”
6. The Winter Classic
I just kinda remembered this is happening again. And there’s also an outdoor game in Toronto for the league’s centennial.
Man, remember when this kind of thing was a big deal league-wide? Now only the cities where it’s happening care. And frankly not even that much.
5. Closing the gap
One of the weird things about World Junior in the last two or three years is the evaporation of the 9-0 blowout wins that used to be such a common feature in every game not featuring two of the world’s four or five best hockey countries.
Now Sweden is “only” beating Denmark — Denmark, folks! — by five goals. The US is doing the same to Latvia (but it would have been more with DeBrincat out there).
Cool. That’s good for hockey, full stop. Even if Canada thinks it means they need to prevent Dutch defensemen from playing in the CHL or something.
4. Nick Backstrom
Nice young Nicklas Backstrom is just three assists away from being the 139th guy to assist on 500 goals. Martin St. Louis played until he was about 57 and he only had 642, a number Backstrom can easily surpass within three years or so. Backstrom averages almost 60 assists every 82 games he plays, so the odds he gets into the mid-50s this year alone seem pretty good even if he’s slowing down a little bit.
So here’s the breakdown: He’d be the 112th guy to reach 550, and by the time it happens (when Daniel Sedin and Marian Hossa get there too) he’ll be 85th to reach 600. Now you’re getting into rarified air. Hitting 650 would tie him with Brett Hull. What about 700? That’d be two ahead of Andreychuk and Shanahan.
All those numbers are honestly within reach. Pretty wild to think about how little recognition Backstrom seems to get despite these accomplishments. First in shots on goal. First in expected goals. Second in actual goals.
3. Mike Sullivan
Given all the winning that’s taken place in Columbus, it’s easy to lose sight of how damn good the Penguins have been all year.
Their points percentage is second in the league. Again. They score a ton. Again. They don’t really give up a lot of goals. Again. So that three-year extension makes plenty of sense.
How good have the Penguins been under Sullivan? Since he took over on Dec. 12, 2015, the Penguins are an elite team across the board. Second in corsi. And that doesn’t include their dominant run through the playoffs, when they played some of the best teams in the league.
This might be the new juggernaut, or at least it will be as long as Crosby and Malkin can go. Which should be a while longer. Bad news for the rest of the league.
2. Calling it
Thanks to DowniLeaks last week, we know now that the unnamed NHL executive who asked John Scott if his kids would be proud of him was — don’t all shout it at once — Colin Campbell.
That’s the opposite of a surprise, honestly.
1. Jaromir Jagr
I bet that loser Mark Messier didn’t even say the word “ass” when talking about his milestone goal. Jaromir Jagr is no such coward.
(Not ranked this week: Appendices.
NHL players should start getting their appendix out when they’re in junior as a precaution. Treat it like a low-level Tommy John surgery. Get it over with!)
(All statistics via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)
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