A year after Brent Burns finished in the top 10 in scoring and two years after Erik Karlsson was tied for fourth overall, the league’s top defencemen are back doing what their job title suggests: defending.
Neither Victor Hedman nor Drew Doughty, who are the presumptive favourites for the Norris Trophy, is in the top five in scoring. They are not even in the top five — or in Doughty’s case, the top 10 — among defencemen.
So where does that leave John Klingberg?
The Dallas Stars defenceman, who has led his position in scoring all season long, has 57 points in 69 games. That’s good enough for 43rd overall. But it’s probably not good enough to land him many first-place votes, not with how good Hedman and Doughty have been.
The other thing that is hurting Klingberg is the 25-year-old rarely kills penalties — he ranks seventh among Dallas defencemen in short-handed ice time — and is still viewed as one-dimensional. The problem is that one dimension isn’t quite at the Karlsson or Burns level.
“He plays both ends of the ice, which most people probably don’t see because he has such good numbers offensively,” St. Louis Blues defenceman Alex Pietrangelo said. “Playing against him, he’s a guy you circle. He’s a guy who, once he touches the puck, something’s going to happen every time. He can do damage every shift. You want to key in on. He’s having a heck of a season, lemme tell you.”
Dallas’ Marc Methot, who for years watched Karlsson get criticized over his lack of defence, agreed that Klingberg is more than just what his offensive stats might show.
“He’s very underrated in cutting guys off and using the wall and his speed to take away time and space from forwards who are coming into the zone,” said Methot, who compared Klingberg’s skills with Karlsson’s. “I probably would have been reluctant to say that, even during training camp, because I hadn’t seen him play enough. But yeah, he’s just so dynamic with the puck and he’s so good at finding the net from the point.
“He’s not a heavy guy. He’s very tall, but he’s very lean. I don’t even know if he’s 180 pounds. He’s a terrific skater, it gets him out of trouble.”
• I’ve got him behind Hedman and Doughty, but Columbus’ Seth Jones will win at least one Norris Trophy before his career is complete. He’s that good. And at 23, he’s that young. Jones, who has three game-winners in his last three games, has 14 goals, is ranked in the top 10 at his position in scoring, and is averaging close to 25 minutes per night.
• According to an NHLPA poll released last week, Washington Nicklas Backstrom is the league’s most underrated player. But for me it’s Mark Stone, who has 62 points in 58 games on an awful Senators team. Put him with players who can produce and he’d be a star.
• Matt Martin has played once in the last 20 games. But if the Maple Leafs meet the Bruins in the first round of the playoffs, the question will be whether he get backs into the lineup. I’d personally rather have Kasperi Kapanen or even Andreas Johnsson. Then again, I also wouldn’t want Brad Marchand rabbit-punching Auston Matthews in the face like he did in 2011 with Daniel Sedin.
• As we inch closer to next month’s NHL draft lottery, is there any way that wingers Andrei Svechnikov or Filip Zadina could overtake Swedish defenceman Rasmus Dahlin as the No. 1 pick? “Zero chance,” said North American Central Scouting’s Mark Seidel. “There’s always somebody who will try to put a spin on it and try to create drama, but there’s no way he doesn’t go first. In the scouting community, he’s at the (Connor) McDavid and (Auston) Matthews level. I haven’t talked to a guy who wouldn’t pick him at No. 1.”
• I asked Seidel whether the Senators, who owe the Avalanche a first-round pick in either 2018 or 2019 as part of the Matt Duchene trade, should give up their selection if they fall outside the top three. “That’s a risky play,” Seidel said. “You don’t want to miss out on a guy like Jack Hughes (who is the projected No. 1 pick in 2019). But this year’s draft is much stronger than next year’s. The guys in the four to eight (range) are difference-makers. They could be all-stars.”
• The worst time to get injured is right before the playoffs. But the best time to come back from an injury is right before the playoffs. Just ask Chicago’s Patrick Kane, who missed the final month of 2014-15, but looked refreshed when he returned for Game 1, scoring 23 points in 23 games en route to winning a Stanley Cup. That bodes well for Toronto’s Matthews, as well as Boston’s Patrice Bergeron and Charlie McAvoy.
• Toronto fans are griping that the Maple Leafs (third-best record in the East) will likely play the second-place Bruins in the first round of the playoffs. But it doesn’t get much easier in the West, where Minnesota (fourth-best record) looks like it could see Winnipeg (second best). “It’s going to be a dogfight,” Wild forward Eric Staal said. “But it’s the same for everybody. Everyone’s legit. Every one that gets in there — even the teams that the No. 1 and No. 2 are going to face — are going to give it to you. That’s just the way that it is.”
• The most intriguing UFA this summer is not John Tavares or Rick Nash or even Joe Thornton. It’s Carter Hutton. The St. Louis Blues backup goalie, who has played 30 games, has a league-best 2.02 goals-against average and .934 save percentage for a team that gave up on the playoffs. The only downside is that he’s 32. But if Scott Darling can get a four-year, $16.6-million contract, expect Hutton to get paid.
• Must be something about the sun. While Evander Kane has six points in six games since moving to San Jose, J.T. Miller has five goals and nine points after heading south to Tampa Bay. Of course, it helps when you’re playing alongside Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton, or Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, respectively.
• With three weeks remaining until the season ends, a few predictions that I’ll probably come to regret: Florida will catch New Jersey for the final wild-card spot in the East and Calgary will miss out on the playoffs; Patrik Laine will overtake Ovechkin for the Rocket Richard Trophy, while Evgeni Malkin, Nikita Kucherov and Connor McDavid will all reach the 100-point mark; and Tampa Bay — not Nashville — will win the Presidents’ Trophy. And then they’ll play each other in the final.
Still short one Cup
Alex Ovechkin, who scored his 600th career goal earlier this week, is going into the Hockey Hall of Fame once he retires. Heck, he was going in before he even scored his 500th. The question is whether the Rocket Richard Trophy leader is going in with his name on a Stanley Cup.
It’s not just the 32-year-old Ovechkin who is chasing that elusive trophy this year.
Joe Thornton, San Jose The 38-year-old, who reached the final in 2015-16, has missed close to half the season because of injuries. But with Martin Jones posting a .930 save percentage since the All-Star break, he could be due for another shot.
Patrick Marleau, Toronto Like Thornton, Marleau was in the Cup final with San Jose in 2015-16. But unlike Thornton, Marleau has a team that is younger, hungrier and just starting to crack open its window on contending.
Roberto Luongo, Florida Luongo got to Game 7 of the Cup final in 2011, but since then hasn’t even reached the second round. Don’t expect that to change this year. Even if the Panthers qualify for the playoffs, they likely would play the Lightning in the first round.
Rick Nash, Boston The 33-year-old wasted a lot of years playing in Columbus before reaching the Cup final with New York in 2013-14, when the Rangers lost in six games to the Los Angeles Kings. But now that he’s in Boston, he could have his best opportunity.
David Poile, Nashville The Predators general manager, who set the NHL record for most career wins, reached the final last season. This year, after acquiring Kyle Turris from Ottawa and Ryan Hartman from Chicago he’s got an even better roster.
Bruce Boudreau, Minnesota The underachieving head coach couldn’t get Washington or Anaheim over the hump. He’s arguably got less to work with offensively in Minnesota, but a defence-first approach could be the missing ingredient to Boudreau’s lac of playoff success.
Goalie interference baffles all
I give up. I don’t know what goalie interference is anymore. Apparently, neither do players, coaches, referees or off-ice officials.
And yet, that’s OK. While it’s frustrating that it feels like so many calls have looked wrong, this was never supposed to be a black-and-white issue. Goalie interference is not like reviewing an offside. It’s subjective. What I think was contact could be a love tap to someone else.
That doesn’t mean the league isn’t concerned.
Goalie interference will be a main — perhaps the only — topic of conversation at next week’s GM meetings in Boca Raton, Fla. According to a source within the league, everything will be looked at, including whether the definition around the rule should be changed.
Here are three suggestions to help achieve consistency:
Take the decision out of the refs’ hands Every referee has a different interpretation of the rule. Considering there are 34 full-time referees, that’s a lot of differing opinion. Right now, the referee is supposed to consult with the situation room in Toronto and then come to a conclusion. But why not skip a step and let the situation room make the decision.
Take away the blue paint IIHF Rule 184i states that “if an attacking skater establishes position in the goal crease, play will be stopped.” This takes away the grey area and makes the decision more black and white. But it also takes away offence, with frequent stoppages. Still, do you want more goals or more controversy?
Tell goalies to toughen up I understand that we want to protect the goalies. You don’t want Chris Kreider running Carey Price and causing a team’s Stanley Cup chances to go up in smoke. At the same time, if a forward and a defenceman both have to fight for position in front of the net, then so should the goalie — to a point, of course.
• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @Michael_Traikos