What we learned from the last week of play in the NHL:
The big picture is good
There will always be arena or attendance issues somewhere, and yes, clouds are hovering on the labor front because the league and the NHL Players’ Assn. have the right to opt out of the current labor agreement and end it in 2020. Players are unhappy about losing big chunks of their salaries to escrow — money deducted to ensure a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenues after accounting — and they want to return to the Olympics, but owners are happy with what Commissioner Gary Bettman said last week are historically high revenues. They’re also happy they got $1.15 billion in expansion fees from Vegas and Seattle and didn’t have to share that with players. Unless owners get greedy it’s possible they’ll make compromises that would avert a fourth lockout in Bettman’s nearly 26-year tenure.
“We have stability. We have competitive balance. And the game has been able to grow and that’s been for everybody’s benefit,” Bettman said last week. “And I don’t just mean that financially: I also mean that competitively and aesthetically, which has been great for the fans. Hopefully we’re at a point where labor peace can be more important than anything else we need to accomplish, because I think the opportunities in front of us are even greater than what’s behind us.”
The product is better, and that’s crucial. More goals were scored before the break than at the same point of any season since 2005-06. Four players had 30 goals at the break, the most since eight players had 30 at the 2010 Olympic break, and 40 players had 20 goals, the most through 770 games since 2006-07. Thirty-three players had at least 50 points at the break; the last season as many players had 50 points at the same stage was 1996-97, when 36 players had 50 points. Forty-one players were averaging at least a point a game among those who had played at least 25 games. The last time the break arrived with so many players on a point-a-game pace was 1995-96, when 41 players did so.
“We are going to see 60 goals again,” said Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper, whose team averages a league-high four goals per game and ranks first overall with 76 points (37-10-2). “I truly believe that in the next couple of years we’re going to see 70 goals again. I think you’re going to see 130, 140, 150 points again.”
Amen to that, and amen to labor peace. But there’s room for skepticism after watching the three previous negotiations take nasty turns.
All-Star events should include more female players
U.S. Olympic gold medalist Kendall Coyne Schofield was a sensation in the skills contest Friday night as the first woman to compete in an event. She finished seventh of eight in the fastest skater competition and drew raves from NHLers. “It just shows the top players, men or women, belong,” said Coyne Schofield, who will join NBCSN’s broadcast crew for a Pittsburgh-Tampa Bay telecast on Wednesday. Her Olympic teammate, Brianna Decker, was terrific in demonstrating the passing accuracy event and was awarded $25,000 from equipment company CCM Hockey for her efforts. Canadians Rebecca Johnston and Renata Fast also were involved in the festivities and fans responded positively to the women’s presence. The NHL should invite more female players from the U.S. and Canada to next year’s game in St. Louis to compete against the men or against each other. Don’t bother claiming that would ruin the “purity” of the All-Star game. Whatever purity might have existed was lost a long time ago. The All-Star weekend is a promotional event for the game, and that should include female players.
Leaky Oilers try to get it right
Rarely has a team had so many resources and done so little with them as the Edmonton Oilers. They’re on a path to miss the playoffs for the 12th time in 13 seasons, a stretch that has included drafting No. 1 overall three straight years and in four of six, ending with Connor McDavid in 2015. General manager Peter Chiarelli, whose many mistakes included trading future league MVP Taylor Hall to New Jersey for middling defenseman Adam Larsson in 2016, was fired last Tuesday after three-plus seasons on the job. His successor will be the fifth GM since the start of the 2006-07 season. They’ve had eight coaches in that span. “We have to look at all parts of this organization,” Bob Nicholson, chair of the Oilers Entertainment Group, said at a news conference. “I want to emphasize again that we have some really good players. We have some really good staff. But there’s something in the water here in Edmonton that we don’t have right and we have to get that figured out.”
It’s not the water. It’s mismanagement and cronyism in hiring many players from the Oilers’ glory years. McDavid is in his prime and should be supported by a strong cast on and off the ice that’s capable of a Stanley Cup run.
The defending champion Washington Capitals, in an 0-5-2 slump. Alex Ovechkin, who tied Sergei Fedorov for most points by a Russian-born player (1,179), will serve his one-game suspension for skipping the All-Star game on Friday, when the Capitals face the Calgary Flames.
Also happy to take a break: the Ducks, flailing at 2-10-4 since mid-December but still in playoff contention, and the Colorado Avalanche, who lost three of four and 12 of 15 (3-10-2) before the break.
The All-Star break came at a bad time for …
The Metropolitan Division-leading Islanders, on a 7-2-1 surge. “I don’t know if I’m surprised but it’s obviously a little bit different than what people maybe pegged us as. I think we kind of like that,” said team scoring leader Mathew Barzal. “We weren’t pegged to do anything at the start of the year. A lot of guys wanted to prove something this year and a lot of guys are getting opportunity and making the most of it.”
The Minnesota Wild, who won three straight and four of five before the break and their bye week. “You certainly wish you could keep playing if they’re going to play like that,” coach Bruce Boudreau said.