The Fischler Report: 6/21/21

Roy the Hero in Montreal! Vegas levels the series. Catching up with Matt Moulson. What makes a winner? First look at Free Agency. Examining College Hockey Inc.

THERE'S A KNIGHTLY GOLDEN GOALIE CRISIS -- OR IS THERE?

Once upon a time when NHL Knights were golden the indomitable team from Nevada was laughing.

The source of their humor was the human comedy that thrust a mere four-year team into continuous contention starting with the baby year run to the Stanley Cup Final.

But that was long ago.

Even this season, the joke was on the rest of the league. Vegas' high command had amassed a strong, winning outfit and the beauty part was goaltending. 

Vagabond Robin Lehner now was nominated Number One while Old Reliable Marc-Andre Fleury was a back-up eventually to inspire even more Fountain of Youth headlines as a front-up.

All of these truisms pervaded right up to the Third Round semi-final against a Montreal team destined to be beaten.

But Mother Destiny did not arrive on time. Mother D could not have known it on time but her tardiness -- combined with Lady Luck --allowed the capricious Canadiens to stun the favorites in the strangest of ways.

The one way of ways featured the Fleury flub of the Ages that enabled a Canadiens comeback and eventual victory on Friday night.

Even Vegas coach Peter DeBoer took a tangential unpleasant toss at his embattled goalie suggesting the the infamous flub upset the team and helped lead to the overtime loss.

Come Sunday, Pistol Pete reached into his holster fame produced a very simple solution, spelled Lehner.

Robin crossed the crease and was assigned the job that everyone thought would have over and done by now; crown the Canadiens with a solid Vegas victory.

Thus, a series that seemed terribly tilted at first in favor of the Knights evolved into a melodrama that is as compelling in many ways to the Islanders-Lightning battle royal.

DeBoer's choice of Lehner as his starter was a wise one. Robin was sharp throughout, stopping rookie Cole Caufeld's  breakaway when the score still was 1-0 for Montreal in the third.

Lehner continued his alert play after Vegas tied the count on defenseman Brayden McNabb's shot from in close. Near goals were the norm right down to the end of regulation; which set up overtime.

Nicholas Roy settled it in no time at all before Lehner was tested in the first overtime. Carey Price was horizontal when Roy lifted in the winner.

But, it likely may never have happened had Lehner not stoned Caufield when it most counted. 

You can bet that Lehner will finish the series one way or another after last night's outstanding outing!


Gossip:

If the Sabres stall in trading Jack Eichel, they also have a potential prize in Sam Reinhart. Slingin' Sam reportedly would like to exit Western New York faster than his Jumpin' Jack colleague. All Reinhart's numbers are good -- from shooting percentage to age 25 and $5.2 million cap hit. 'Tis said that Sammy Boy would prefer a Western team. My pal, Travis Green, could use him in Vancouver.

I've got no quarrel with Rod Brind'Amour for the Adams (Best Coach) Award. But there's no way The Champs' Jon Cooper should have polled eighth. But the real disgrace is Barry Trotz down in 15th place. I mean how ridiculous can these voters get? Answer: VERY!

When the season began, The Hockey News rated Victor Hedman seventh-best NHL player. Brayden Point was two points behind and Nikita Kucherov tenth. Right now I'd place them one two and three with their goalie Andrei Vanselevskly right behind.

Habs g.m. Marc Bergevin has pulled off a pot of gold collection of acquisitions but the least mentioned is defenseman Jon Merrill -- ex of the University of Minnesota -- who has entered the postseason playing better than ever in his career.

Islanders fans are getting as much attention these days as their favorite team. And one of their favorite sons of yesteryear, Richie Pilon, has a son Garrett playing center in the Caps system.

Chris Drury waited on signing Gerard Gallant because he reportedly wanted to determine whether Rod Brind'Amour would re-sign with Carolina. That would indicate that Gallant was an automatic first choice for the Blueshirts.


Weekend Wrap with Rob Taub:

This season's Stanley Cup Playoffs have been full of a lot of memorable moments, but Saturday night's ending to Game Four of the Lightning-Islanders series might have topped them all. Ryan Pulock's game-saving stop on Ryan McDonagh's backhand attempt in the dying seconds of regulation to tie the series was truly an incredible moment. A sequence like that left everyone's jaw-dropped. Said Mathew Barzal: "Not like that. I think everybody's breath just got taken away... I thought it was going in and it was just a miraculous play by Puli. I'm not going to be forgetting that one."

A few weeks back during their series with the Jets, I had written about the Montreal Canadiens and shocking people in the playoffs. Now I'm starting to feel that sentiment was only the beginning. Because after how the Habs stole Game Three from Vegas, it's almost like the ghosts of the Montreal Forum have made their presence felt. Just ask Marc-Andre Fleury.

Matt Martin scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal on Saturday night. Funny enough, he had to miss his brother-in-law's wedding to play in the game. After it was over though, he had the perfect response when asked how special it felt to come through: "Yeah, it's special," he said. "Obviously it would have been nice to be there for their wedding. I'm very happy for both of them. But they know we got bigger things on our (the team's) mind and a Stanley Cup is what we're after. The Esiason's are a superstitious household, so we'll see if they want to re-do the wedding on Monday." 

An interesting dynamic about the three of the four teams left in the final four: The Lightning, Golden Knights and Islanders were all in the same spot last postseason. Those three clubs being back in the same place marks the first time since 1991-92 that the Semifinals has the same three of four participants from the previous postseason. Back then it was the Penguins, Bruins and Edmonton Oilers.

For the first time in his career, Aleksander Barkov was rewarded for his outstanding defensive play as a forward as he was named this season's Selke Trophy winner. The Panthers' captain led his team in SAT (Shot Attempts) and blocked shots during the season. "It feels unbelievable," Barkov said on Saturday. "This is one of the biggest honors I've had in my life, in my hockey career. It's a team sport and it would never have been possible without my teammates, without the coaches, trainers and [general manager] and everyone in our organization. So a big thank you to them and obviously it feels great, even to be nominated for this trophy. I always considered myself a two-way player and this is like the biggest honor you can get as a two-way player, so I'm really thankful for this honor."

With the Rangers' hiring of Gerard Gallant earlier in the week, three head coaching vacancies still remain open in Buffalo, Arizona and Seattle. Rick Tocchet, who parted ways with Arizona, still seems to be one of the top candidates in Seattle. Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reported on Saturday he's already been through three interviews with the Kraken. 


INTERVIEW WITH MATT MOULSON

TFR’s Rob Taub chatted with former Islander Matt Moulson about his time with the franchise and the current team’s success:

Moulson has been at a few of the games during the Isles’ run now. It’s a far cry from what things were like when the now 37-year-old first joined the organization prior to the 2009-10 season. Back then, he was an unknown forward who had yet to find his footing with the Los Angeles Kings. The Islanders signed him to a one-year deal in July, just a month after they had drafted his good friend, John Tavares, whom he grew up with, number one overall. No one knew what to expect, but as Moulson tells it, in those early days and years that followed, he and a lot of the guys were just trying to establish themselves.

“The teams we had during those times, obviously some great veteran leadership with older guys,” said Moulson.

“But for the most part, including myself, we were all trying to break into the league and do well. I tell people to this day it’s probably the closest team I ever played on. Some of those years how close we were on the ice and off the ice. Anytime anyone had any success, everyone was happy for them. Unfortunately we couldn’t get a couple more wins. But that team was one of the most enjoyable moments of my professional career.”

Moulson wasn’t wrong about the whole getting more wins part. The three seasons before the Isles finally made the playoffs in 2012-13, they finished dead last each time in the Atlantic Division. From an individual standpoint though, he reached the most success in his career during that time. He scored 30 or more goals each of those years, and in 2011-12 he notched a career-best 36 goals and 69 points. That feat hadn’t been accomplished by an Islander since Zigmund Palffy from 1995 to 1998.

“It was kind of perfect timing,” Moulson acknowledged. “I was coming out of an LA organization where I didn’t have the success I wanted. When I got to the Islanders, I knew Johnny [Tavares] well and I still remember that first training camp in Regina. We played that first game in Terrace, B.C., and I didn’t think the year was going to go the way it did for me personally after that first game. I should have maybe concentrated on getting a finance job with how well I played in that game. Things happened though, and luckily I was put on a line with Johnny and Kyle [Okposo] to start out the year and came out hot. Things took off from there. I think my confidence was as high as it ever was that first full year in the NHL. Being surrounded by great people really propelled me forward.”

During those years, Moulson was teammates with four of the players still on the team now — Josh Bailey, Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck. Moulson was a bit of the elder statesmen then while those guys were still kind of new (outside of Clutterbuck). Seeing the success they are having now puts a smile on their former teammate’s face. “Bails, Marty and Clutter I keep in close touch with. I’ve texted Bails after every point he’s gotten after each game,” he mentioned. “It’s great to see them doing so well. Just great people. You could see it when those guys were younger, not just as players.”

Full story can be read here: http://nyislesblog.com/matt-moulson-reminisces-on-years-with-islanders-and-franchises-turnaround/


WHAT MAKES A WINNER?

Do all Stanley Cup Champions share the same common traits? Is it a good power play, an excellent penalty kill, team toughness, or none of the above? TFR’s Vince Comunale takes a deep dive into the stats of the past two decades to determine the formula for success.

Is there a common formula that all championship teams share? Well, winning a lot of regular-season games is certainly no guarantee that a Stanley Cup is inevitable. Consider that only two of the past 20 Presidents’ Trophy winners, the 2007-08 Red Wings and the 2012-13 Blackhawks, have won the Stanley Cup. That number includes this season’s Colorado Avalanche who finished with the NHL’s best record, but were eliminated by Vegas in the second round. 

There is much talk every season about the importance of power plays, but it turns out that regular-season success on the power play does not equate to a deep playoff run either. In fact, none of the past 19 Stanley Cup champions finished the regular-season with the top power play unit. Only six Stanley Cup champions in the past 19 seasons have finished in the top-five in power play conversion percentage; the 2001 Avalanche (3rd), 2002 Red Wings (2nd), 2007 Ducks (3rd), 2008 Red Wings (3rd), 2017 Penguins (3rd), and 2020 Lightning (5th). 

Logic would tell you that if the power play success rate doesn’t necessarily equate to playoff success, then perhaps a superb penalty kill does. Well, that is not necessarily the case either. The only team in the past 19 seasons that finished first overall in regular-season penalty kill percentage and went on to win the Stanley Cup was the 2003 Devils. Five other teams in the past 19 seasons finished in the top-five in penalty kill and went on to win the Stanley Cup; the 2007 Ducks (5th), 2010 Blackhawks (4th), 2012 Kings (4th), 2013 Blackhawks (3rd), and 2016 Penguins (5th). 

When you look at the more disciplined regular-season teams, that trait does seem to equate to some success. Only one team in the last 19 seasons, the 2007 Ducks, finished in the top-five in penalty minutes and went on to win the Stanley Cup. The 2007 Ducks actually finished first in the NHL in penalty minutes (1,452) and fighting majors (71). Only two other Stanley Cup champions in the past 19 seasons finished in the top-five in fighting majors; the 2011 Bruins (2nd, 78) and 2020 Lightning (5th, 25). 

Conversely, seven of the past 19 champions finished the regular-season as one of the five least penalized teams. The 2007-08 Red Wings and the 2012-13 Blackhawks were the least penalized teams in the league and went on to win the Cup. 

Interestingly, the only Stanley Cup champion of the past 19 seasons to finish in the top-five in power play, penalty kill, penalty minutes, and fighting majors was the 2007 Ducks, who finished third, fifth, first, and first in those respective categories.  

Good goaltending can take a team a long way, but it’s not the biggest success factor. In fact, only one Stanley Cup champion in the years spanning 2001-2010 had a team save percentage in the regular-season top five; the 2002 Detroit Red Wings (5th). Conversely, each Stanley Cup Champion spanning 2011 to 2016 finished in the top four in save percentage; 2011 – Boston (1st), 2012 – Los Angeles (4th), 2013 – Chicago (2nd), 2014 – Los Angeles (2nd), 2015 – Chicago (2nd), 2016 – Pittsburgh (2nd). However, recently the trend has gone back in the other direction. The 2017 Penguins regular-season save percentage ranked ninth, the 2018 Capitals ranked 13th, the 2019 Blues ranked 13th, and the 2020 Lightning ranked ninth. 

What do all of these numbers mean? Overall, the numbers would suggest that a good power play, a good penalty kill, team toughness, or good goaltending guarantee playoff success. Rather, playoff success seems to depend just as much on health, luck, match-ups, and getting hot at the right time. 

In conducting this research, it was also interesting to see the trends in each category over the past 20 seasons. For example, fighting majors have decreased dramatically. The team with the most fighting majors during this period was the 2001-02 Panthers with 117. During the last full season, 2018-19, Boston led the NHL with just 26 total fights. That is a difference of 91 fights as compared to the 2001-02 Panthers! 

While fighting has trended downward, top power play and penalty kill success rates have only fluctuated slightly over the past 20 seasons. The best power play percentage over the past 20 seasons belongs to the 2019-20 Oilers, who converted at an impressive 29.5% success rate. In fact, the top three power play conversion rates in the past 20 years have all occurred in the past three seasons; the aforementioned 2019-20 Oilers, the 2018-19 Lightning (28.2%), and the 2020-21 Lightning (27.6%). Of course, two of those three seasons were not a full 82-game schedule. 

The top power plays over the past 20 seasons span average a 24.41% success rate. As for the penalty kill, the top success rate over the past 20 seasons belongs to the 2012 Devils at 89.6%. The average top penalty kill percentage over that span is 86.82%. Lastly, the top save percentage during this span was Ottawa in 2013 at .933; the average save percentage during this span has been .923.  

Numbers or advanced statistics can be used to prove just about any sports argument, but when it comes to playoff success in the NHL, it seems there is no rhyme or reason as to what makes for a successful run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but that’s what makes it so fun to watch. 


THIS YEAR’S FREE AGENT FRENZY – GET SET FOR A CRAZY RIDE

TFR’s resident pundit, Alan Greenberg, predicts a busy market.

Given the compressed off-season, free agent frenzy will be coming at us faster than an Alex Ovechkin one-timer. Over an eight day span in July we will have the Expansion Draft, the NHL Entry Draft and the start of the annual player auction. The maneuvering has already begun.

This year promises to be more hectic than usual given the many big names out there and the sheer volume of players who will be UFAs. Much of this was caused by last year’s flat cap – not getting larger this year – which caused many players, such as Taylor Hall, to go for short term deals, or others to accept “show me” contracts at reduced prices. Players on the bubble had little bargaining power and were often glad to accept one-year deals just to assure themselves of an NHL job. I use as an example my Florida friend, defenseman Mark Pysyk. In 2019-20 he had a career year and earned $3.5 million in Florida. As a UFA he ended up signing with Dallas for 2020-21 as a depth player for $750K.

The Expansion Draft adds more intrigue to the process. Seattle g.m. Ron Francis is probably sitting by his phone awaiting offers. If this expansion year is anything like the Vegas entry, Francis will be getting offers of draft choices and players in return for a) absorbing onerous contracts and, b) promising not to draft certain players.

The biggest UFA name is Alex Ovechkin and he’s not leaving Washington. He and others like him probably have handshake agreements to do nothing until after the draft so that they do not have to be protected. Taylor Hall solidified himself in Boston and will probably be re-signed. Beyond these two there are big names galore who will be out there testing the market. Dougie Hamilton is the biggest name seeking a change while others like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Gabriel Landeskog will stay put if a deal can be reached. Landeskog just came off of a seven year contract and will probably seek the same security.

Veteran Jason Spezza just re-upped with Toronto. Joe Thornton hasn’t announced his intention of another NHL campaign.  Other vet UFAs, such as Montreal’s Corey Perry and Eric Staal surely want to crank out another NHL season somewhere. It’s anybody’s guess where they might land.

The number of solid players available this year are almost too numerous to list. There will be interest in forwards like Zach Hyman, Brandon Saad, Alec Martinez and Paul Stastny. On defense, late season rentals Brandon Montour and David Savard are in play.

There will be no shortage of goaltenders on the carousel this year.  Phillip Grubauer is the most valuable of the selection. He more than earned his $2.7M with Colorado this year and now carries a higher book value. As for other “name goaltenders,” Tuukka Rask is going nowhere because of off-season hip surgery and if Pekka Rinne decides to keep playing he will stay in Nashville as Jusse  Saros’ backup. Some big names who may seek new pastures include Toronto’s Frederik Andersen and Detroit’s Jonathan Bernier. 

It’s the backup and depth goalies who do most of the off-season moving. There are perennial hired guns like Curtis McElhinney, Anders Nilsson and Calvin Pickard. Some veterans, like James Reimer and Brian Elliott, may have to settle for a short term deal because of the glut of goalies on the market.

Then there are some unusual cases, such as Philadelphia’s Carter Hart who was still on his entry level contract at $750K. After a great first two NHL seasons he had an off-year and may have a problem getting the big dollars. Conversely, in Florida, Chris Driedger outshined Sergei Bobrovsky for two seasons on a low-priced two-way contract. He will be looking for dollars, security and a starter’s job.

If you have any breath left after the Expansion Draft and NHL Draft sit back and enjoy this one. The action will be plentiful.


THE EXCITING GROWTH OF COLLEGE HOCKEY

Nate Ewell is the Deputy Executive Director of College Hockey Inc. He spoke with our Editor in Chief, Coby Maeir, about the growth of the college game and a possible new college hockey program. Excerpts follow:

HOW COLLEGE HOCKEY INC. HAS GROWN:

“College Hockey Inc. started about 11 years ago, and it was an initiative that was really led by college coaches and commissioners. They felt like we needed to have some sort of organization to spread the good word about college hockey and just how good college hockey is.”

COLLEGE HOCKEY INC.’S MISSION:

“It's evolved slightly but really the mission has remained the same. It's always been to try to make sure that people know just how good college hockey is, and there's a focus on making sure that young players and parents understand the benefits of college, the college route, and have that as something that they can aspire to.”

WHAT SPECIFICALLY DOES HE DO? COLLEGE HOCKEY INC.’s PURPOSE:

“We have three people on staff: it's our executive director Mike Snee, myself, and Sean Hogan, who's our Director of Education. Our prime goal is to make sure that young players and parents of young players and anyone who influences them understands the benefits of college and recognizes the path to get there.

“There are some requirements from the NCAA, things like amateurism and academic eligibility, that those young players need to make sure they take care of, and we try and help them navigate that. So, basically trying to eliminate any barriers to entry make sure that it's as easy as possible to follow that path.

“My role is focused a lot on our communications efforts. So, I do a lot with our digital communications: our website, social media, email newsletters, things like that.

“But when you have such a small staff of only three people there's a lot of overlap so we all sort of have a hand in everything that we do.

COMPARE THE STATE OF COLLEGE HOCKEY TODAY TO 15-20 YEARS AGO 

“It's never been better. Certainly, the quality of the game has never been better in terms of producing pros. College hockey is producing basically one out of three NHLers these days which, if you go back 20 years, it was about 20% of the NHL then. So that's a significant jump in a small amount of time.

“And at the same time, the quality of the college game itself has never been better so you're getting great parity between teams. You see success at all different levels in terms of big schools, small schools, all sorts of different schools can compete at the national level, which is a lot of fun. We see a lot of new national champions, UMass-Amherst this year being a perfect example of a first-time national champion. So, it's a sport that a lot of schools can contend in.”

“And then probably the first thing I should’ve mentioned, but one thing that we tend to overlook is that our student athletes are graduating at more than a 90% rate so they're getting the job done academically, as well as athletically.”

DESCRIBE THE COMPETITION BETWEEN COLLEGE AND MAJOR JUNIOR HOCKEY:

“I think we try to look at it and, this is one way I think that we've evolved as an organization, more as presenting our option than competition. We want to make sure that people understand what they might be giving up if they choose to go a different route than the college route. 

“And, well, it's innately competitive because we all want the best players. We look at it more as an alternative rather than a competition. So, if they understand all the benefits of the college offers, we feel comfortable that that's going to be the choice that most every player is going to make. Now obviously, it doesn't end up that way; there's good players that go both routes. But if we're communicating our message well, we think that it's going to work out in our favor.”

WHAT IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE NHL?

“We work closely with the NHL. They've been terrific supporters of the college game. In particular, Kevin Westgarth is our main liaison there and he and Mike Snee probably talk daily. Kevin, being a college alumn himself, is really supportive and has really been a big proponent of growing college hockey. That's become more and more of our focus, trying to entice more schools to add college programs and join the division one ranks.”

TALK ABOUT POTENTIAL OF HOCKEY AT TENNESSEE STATE UNIVERSITY:

“Yeah, it's great for the game and the NHL and NHLPA have been really supportive. They've agreed to fund these feasibility studies that look at what it would take to add a program at a place like Tennessee State. And we help sort of facilitate it. We try and find these institutions where it would be a good fit. But it's really the support of the NHL and NHLPA that make it happen. 

“I’m not sure exactly how many of these studies we've done now. It's probably getting close to ten. It hasn't produced any new programs yet. And I think COVID is a big reason for that because it sort of put everybody on pause in terms of any kind of growth. But what these studies do is give schools an idea of exactly what it would take and what college hockey could offer them.

“I think at a place like Tennessee State it's such a new fresh idea that you really do need to examine it and study it and get a better sense of what it would mean to a place like that. I think it would be great for the sport. It's just a matter of whether it would be great for Tennessee State. We think it would be, but this study will hopefully show that.”

HOW HAS COVID AFFECTED THE COLLEGE GAME?

“We had 10 schools that didn't play this year because of COVID concerns and that obviously was disappointing for those student athletes and those institutions. For the 51 that did play at the Division I level the biggest thing was doing so without fans. So much of the college game is the atmosphere, the student sections, and the bands, to not have that was really disappointing and tough. It was great that we were able to have games and crown a champion. But the prospect of getting our buildings full again is exciting.” 

WHAT DO YOU ATTRIBUTE THE GROWTH IN THE COLLEGE GAME TO?

“In the United States, in general, American players tend to play college. So, the better the American player is, the better college is going to be. I also think that the development setup that college hockey offers really works to get players to the level they need to be to play in the NHL. 

“The biggest thing there is the schedule: by playing games on Friday and Saturday you have time during the week to practice, and you have time to do strength and conditioning work. And that's really the space where players improve between what they put in in terms of practice hours and what they put in in the gym. That's going to allow them to get better, much more than playing 60 or 70 games. Then they have the games on the weekends to show off how they've improved. But the practices and strength and conditioning is the most important.”

HOW HAS THE US NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT TEAM PROGRAM AFFECTED COLLEGE HOCKEY?

“That's proven to be almost like a pre-college All Star team, looking at that roster. If you're recruiting from that roster, you're going to get a good player and they play college teams during the year so you get a sneak peek at the next group of college talent coming in. It's a great setup that they have there and it really does seem to benefit the American player.”

HIS ALL-PRE-2000 College Team:

G: Ken Dryden

D: Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch

FW: Paul Kariya, Mark Johnson, John Mariucci

HIS ALL-POST-2000 College Team:

G: Ryan Miller

D: Cale Makar, Adam Fox

FW: Johnny Gaudreau, Jack Eichel, Jack Connolly