How to improve the NHL’s product? Dress more skaters
Its exhibition schedule now less than two months from puck drop, the NHL will open for business in September with the same 20-man staffing levels it has employed for decades, with a limit of 18 skaters and two goalies per game.
Team payrolls, limited by the cap ($81.5 million for the upcoming season) are tailored, in part, around funding the 20-man game roster.
Across the NHL’s Original 31 rinks, benches are constructed to accommodate the 13 skaters and one backup goaltender . . . and little else other than water bottles, hockey tape, iPads, and vid screens. In fact, in a few cities, the backup tender is told there is no room at the inn and that he must find a seat in the runway leading to the dressing room.
A bigger bench, be it measured by length or depth, would mean eliminating high-priced loge seats and diminished hockey related revenue (HRR) across the league. Not a popular idea among owners or players, who share 50-50 in that HRR.
The NHL allows no substitutions for injured players, so the coach who loses a defenseman or two, must fly the plane with his back line manpower seriously diminished. Manpower among the forwards, typically 12 in number to start the night, typically isn’t as impaired when one or two forwards go down. Double shifting or scaling back to a three-line attack can fill the void.
Past practices, finances, and sheer bench size aside, the NHL would do well to borrow from the European leagues. Other than Finland, all the professional Euro leagues dress 20 skaters, with coaches typically electing to go with 13 forwards and seven defenseman. By and large, unless there is need to fill in for an injury, each extra sees limited playing time.
“There is a reason why teams play seven D sometimes,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, dwelling on the current NHL model of 18 skaters, and the more typical practice of dressing only six blue liners. “I know a lot of guys don’t like it, but you can manage that better — split minutes, say, with one guy on the power play, another on the penalty kill, as your sixth and seventh guy. That’s a little easier and much more valuable.”
According to Szymon Szemberg , the managing director of the Alliance of European Hockey Clubs, Finland remains the only team over there that follows the NHL’s 12-6-2 model. Otherwise, all the other clubs staff games at the 13-7-2 level.
No telling, said Szemberg, if the larger rosters aid in cutting back the overall number of injuries, but they unquestionably serve to fill in for injured players during games. Perhaps more significantly, they serve as a way for inexperienced players to adjust to a game that is generally faster and harder hitting than what they’ve been accustomed to in their previous leagues.
“My feeling,” said Szemberg, “is that the extra bodies have a very marginal role in mitigating injuries. The biggest advantage of that system is that it allows the teams to stay with four lines and six defensemen in case of injury. And it allows coaches to give the opportunity to slowly match in youngsters from those extra positions — three shifts one game, nine shifts the next, etc.”
To that latter point, Cassidy, in his two-plus seasons on the job here, often has noted that today’s NHL is, in part, a developmental league. Mostly due to payroll limitations, clubs are forced to stock game rosters with two or three players who need a season or two to grow into the NHL games. If the league were to adopt the 13-7-2 Euro model, it’s all but a guarantee the spots would be filled with kids being groomed for expanded roles or veterans playing for the $700,000 league minimum.
According to the Geneva-based Szemberg, the top team in Europe, Frolunda Gothenburg in Sweden, routinely rotates the seven defensemen. The No. 13 forward only sees playing time if one of the starting 12 is injured, has a bad night, or is running out of gas late in the game.
“Sometimes — and this is difficult to understand — coaches simply let their seventh defenseman and 13th forward sit on the bench the entire game,” noted Szemberg. “Really a waste.”
For his part, Cassidy sounded intrigued by some of the European model. Many of the great Soviet teams, he recalled, played with 22-man rosters, and divvied the skaters into four five-man “blocks”, each with three forwards and two defensemen. They practiced in blocks and then rolled out in the same five-man groupings in games.
“I do believe that helped team chemistry,” said Cassidy.
Cassidy played three years in Europe in the early ’90s and leagues then, he said, dressed 19 skaters, including one commonly referred to as a “joker,” a swing player capable of playing either forward or defense.
“You don’t see many guys who can play both anymore,” said Cassidy, chuckling. “I don’t know. Maybe they just didn’t like being called jokers.”
“Those Jimmy Roberts/Rick Chartraw types were more common earlier,” added Szemberg, recalling the names of a couple of NHL swingmen from long ago. “They’re very rare today — even rare in Europe.”
One advantage of having an extra body or two on the game roster, noted Cassidy, would be the opportunity to back off the minutes of veteran players, particularly late in games when working with a lead.
“Let’s say we are up three goals in the third,” mused Cassidy. “So we can shut [Patrice Bergeron] down, and throw the extra guy in. I can see in the long haul, maybe Bergy goes from 18:00 to 15:00. But now you are playing a guy for four minutes at the end of a game and he hasn’t played much. That would be your greatest challenge as a coach.
“That guy has been sitting around since warm-up, and now you’re throwing him in the game at 9 o’clock at night — and you have barely used him. I think it would be hard to find the appropriate minutes, but, as a coach, would you want that? Absolutely. For the good of the team. It’s sacrifice, right? Sacrificing guys at the low end of the totem pole for the guys at the top.”
LARGER THAN LIFE
Thornton still hitting after 21
No deal has been announced, but the Sharks sound convinced Jumbo Joe Thornton will return for what will be the Bearded One’s 22nd NHL season. He turned 40 on July 2 after playing last season on a one-year deal that paid the former Bruins No. 1 pick $5 million.
“My understanding is that Joe Thornton is gong to play,” Sharks coach Peter DeBoer told nhl.com last week. “I’m moving forward as if he’s going to be in our lineup in September.”
Thornton, a lock for the Hall of Fame (following the three-year cool-down period) ranks No. 8 all time in assists (1,065). He posted a 16-35—51 last season and now, with captain Joe Pavelski moved on to Dallas for three years/$21 million, it looks as though the Sharks will need at least that level of productivity again from Jumbo if they’re to remain a force in the West.
San Jose’s biggest investment in the offseason was the mega-extension handed Erik Karlsson, which will pay the former Senators defenseman a whopping $11.5 million for each of the next eight seasons. At $92 million, it stands as the biggest total dollar outlay made in the free agent market. The Rangers signed ex-Blue Jacket Artemi Panarin for $11.642 million a year, but for seven years and a total investment of $81.5 million — a touch over the $80 million the Blue Jackets paid as their expansion cover charge some 20 years ago.
With Pavelski out of the Tank, the Sharks need a couple of their young forwards, namely Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc, to increase their minutes and production. Both were impressive last season, Meier with 66 points and Lebanc with 56. But Pavelski went 38-26—64 as the club’s top goal scorer. No easy fix for that kind of pop — only 13 NHLers across the league scored more goals, and injury limited Pavelski to 75 games.
Headed into the weekend, Thornton remained one of seven players who made $5 million or more last season who are still seeking deals for 2019-20. It’s quite possible that none of them, including ex-Sharks linemate Patrick Marleau ($6.25 million with Toronto) will find NHL work.
The others: Dion Phaneuf ($7 million); Jason Pominville ($5.6 million), Derick Brassard ($5 million), Andrew MacDonald ($5 million), and Matt Moulson ($5 million).
Spooner heading for Switzerland
Ex-Bruin center/wing Ryan Spooner, still on the job here when Cassidy became coach in February 2017, won’t be in the NHL next season unless added on after the trade deadline.
“Spoons” was bought out last month by the Canucks and is headed for Switzerland. He will play the 2019-20 with Lugano, just over the border north of Milan. Spooner, who was dealt to the Rangers in the 2018 deadline deal to acquire Rick Nash, only last July signed his richest NHL deal, a two-year pact paying $4 million per.
By November, his line a paltry 1-1—2 through 16 games, Spooner was dished to the Oilers for Ryan Strome, only to be pushed over to the Canucks some 90 days later after posting a dreadful 2-1—3 line in 25 games. Reunited with GM Jim Benning, the former assistant GM in Boston, he flatlined for a third time (0-4—4 in 11 games) and finally was cashed out in June. His $4 million will be trimmed to $2.67 million, which he’ll receive across the next two seasons.
In Lugano, the 27-year-old Spooner will fill a roster spot vacated by ex-Canadiens pivot Maxim Lapierre, who recently signed on with Eisbaren Berlin for the next two seasons. Lapierre, who played in parts of six seasons with Montreal, had been with Lugano for four years.
The Swiss teams are allowed five “imports” and Lugano GM Hnat Domenichelli targeted Spooner as his primary offseason acquisition after the ex-Bruin garnered limited interest in the UFA market here.
Domenichelli, originally a Whaler draft pick (No. 83 in ’94) was named GM this spring, replacing the dismissed Roland Habisreutinger after Lugano lost to Zug in the playoffs. Born in Edmonton, Domenichelli played 13 seasons in Switzerland, nearly half of them in Lugano, and recently coached Lugano’s under-15 squad.
Not that Spooner ultimately had the option here, but his best chance of truly establishing an NHL career likely would have been under Cassidy, a fellow proud son of Ottawa. Cassidy understood his strengths and limitations, and spotted him into the lineup accordingly.
Though unlikely, it’s possible Spooner could get back on the radar here next season as a spring acquisition — provided Lugano’s season wrapped up in time for Spooner to transition back to the NHL.
The oft-injured Adam McQuaid, 32, remains without a contract after splitting last year between the Rangers and Blue Jackets. The well-liked ex-Bruin was injured yet again and could not suit up against the Black-and-Gold in Round 2 of the playoffs. He made $2.75 million last year, which was year No. 4 of an $11 million extension he signed under GM Don Sweeney. If Quaider is ready to call it quits, don’t be surprised if the Bruins offer him a spot in the organization, be it in a coaching, scouting, or a development role . . . The Bruins haven’t said yet if they’ll be offering any tryouts in September’s training camp. Ex-UNH standout Daniel Winnik was among last September’s auditions and showed some promise, only to get cut and then sign with Geneve-Servette in Switzerland. He liked it so much over there, Winnik in February signed an extension that will keep him at the mouth of the Rhone for the next two seasons . . . The expansion franchise in Seattle certainly made a popular hire in appointing ex-Whaler Ron Francis as its first general manager (play pegged to begin in October 2021, following an expansion draft that June). Francis is bright, engaging, cordial, and checks the box as the face of the franchise. But he had the gig in North Carolina for around five years and the Hurricanes never qualified for the postseason. The key now will be to see the hires he makes to run scouting and player development . . . Great choice by the Bruins last week, hiring ex-center/wing Chris Kelly as player development coordinator. In his five-plus seasons here, and across his 845 NHL games, Kelly proved a smart, gritty, and most of all reliable player with a high tolerance for getting hit. Perfect guy to have help grooming kids from the time they enter the system as draft picks or free agents . . . Ex-first-round pick Chris Stewart (Avalanche, No. 18, 2006) agreed last week to a September tryout with the Flyers. He played part of last season in England, with the Nottingham Panthers . . . With Danton Heinen’s $5.6 million contract extension officially on the books, the window has passed for the Bruins to buy out any contracts ahead of the upcoming season. They currently have just over $8 million in cap space and need to reel in primo RFAs Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo . . . Ex-Bruin Ryan Donato, dealt to the Wild at the deadline to acquire Charlie Coyle, signed a two-year extension in St. Paul that will bring the former Harvard player $3.8 million over the next two seasons. Like Heinen, he was arbitration eligible, but local agent Matt Keator wrapped up talks well ahead of a hearing. Remains to be seen how he fits into the Wild’s top six, but he’ll get plenty of opportunity — even strength and power play — on a squad coached by the offense-lovin’ Bruce Boudreau . . . The forever-Cap-challenged Blackhawks picked up $1.3 million in cap room by wheeling forward Artem Anisimov to the Senators for Zack Smith. No winner in that deal. Smith is a solid, well-liked character, and was surprisingly waived by the Senators last September — only to remain on the Senators varsity payroll for the entire season. Now the ’Hawks have him on the books for two more years, at $3.25 million per, hoping that he can find a valuable role in the bottom six . . . TD Garden tweeted out pictures last week of its “Legendary Transformation” of the building on Causeway Street. Part of that legend includes new seating that already had generated complaints — season ticket holders say they’re being asked to jimmy themselves into narrower space. Paired with the building’s constant onslaught of high-volume music (i.e. audioporn), sounds like a dandy in-arena experience, one just right for a $13 draft beer. Cheers.