This was a weird week in the NHL. The most notable story was an odd scandal involving the league’s least-valuable team. That doesn’t mean there aren’t takes to be made. I’ll check in on players around the league that are flying under the radar that deserve your attention.
1. Coyotes Involved in Scandal
Over the last few weeks, the Arizona Coyotes have been the subject of an NHL investigation where they reportedly committed approximately 20 recruitment violations of draft-eligible players. According to TSN’s Darren Dreger, Arizona illegally worked out draft-eligible players before the NHL Combine. This is against league rules and each infraction carries a $250,000 fine.
Sources say it’s believed there are at least 20 incidents of the Arizona Coyotes fitness testing draft eligible players. NHL deputy commissioner, Bill Daly and NHL lawyers are now managing the case.
— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) February 8, 2020
While this is a big deal, it’s not the most interesting scandal the league has seen, at least not yet. If the Coyotes are only on the hook for a hefty fine, this ordeal will be swept under the rug quickly. Will any additional punishment is handed out? I would be most interested to see if Coyotes GM, John Chayka, is disciplined. That would make this a much bigger story. For now, it’s something worth monitoring but shouldn’t’ be at the forefront of any hockey fan’s mind.
2. Matthews Breaking Out
For those of you that read me weekly, you know that I’m a huge fan of Toronto’s Auston Matthews. I think he’s going to be remembered as not only one of the best players in NHL history but also as a hockey icon. Through his first three years, he’s been very very good, just not great. He’s also been hurt quite a bit. This year he’s stayed on the ice and has been one of the best players on it.
Matthews is currently tied for the league lead in goals with Alex Ovechkin and has also tied his career-high with 40. He also has 28 assists this year, 8 off his personal best of 36. He’s also almost a lock from destroying his previous career-high in points, needing 5 more to hit 73. He’s on pace to score 60 goals, 60 goals! And break the 100 point plateau with 101.
Will, he hit those projections? Maybe, maybe not. If he gets anywhere close, it’s safe to say that Matthews has officially arrived as one of the elite players in the NHL. And if he can produce in the postseason, they’ll build his statue in Toronto before you know it.
3. The Year of the Rookie Goalie
We’re all aware that goalies are rare creatures. With only 31 teams in the NHL, there are only 62 goalies active at the same time. Also, because the position isn’t as taxing on the body, they typically play longer than skaters. That being said, it’s noteworthy when a rookie goalie breaks out like Jordan Binnington did last year for St. Louis. It’s even more noteworthy when two first-year goalies break out in the same year. It’s happening this year, with Ilya Samsonov in Washington and Elvis Merzlikins in Columbus.
Samsonov has done a great job stepping up due to the struggles of Capitals’ number one goalie, Braden Holtby. In 22 games, Samsonov is 16-3-0-1 with a 2.19 GAA, and .923 sv%. Those are unreal numbers for any goalie, much less a rookie. Samsonov has outplayed Holtby this season and will force the team to consider letting Holtby walk in free agency this summer. May I remind you the Capitals are currently three points behind the Boston Bruins for the top spot in the league.
Coming into the year, most weren’t sure who would replace Sergei Bobrovsky in Columbus. Joonas Korpisalo was performing well as the Blue Jackets’ number one goalie, going 17-10-0-4 with a 2.49 GAA before getting injured during a shootout at the end of 2019. Since then, Merzlikins has done a stellar job between the pipes for Columbus. In 25 games, he’s 12-7-0-4, with a 2.19 GAA, and a .930 sv%. Numbers very similar to Samsonov. He’s been a huge reason why Columbus is currently in a playoff position, sitting in third in the Metropolitan.
The Calder vote will be a contentious one this year with Samsonov and Merzlikins playing so well. Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes might have more competition than they thought.
4. Stamkos Catches FireSteven Stamkos is one of my favorite players in the NHL. He’s accomplished a lot in his career and is still searching for an elusive Stanley Cup ring. Over the last few years, he hasn’t been scoring as much and his star-power has dwindled behind teammate, Nikita Kucherov. Over the last few weeks, Stamkos has reminded us why he’s one of the best in the game.
Stamkos is quietly having another great season. He’s on pace to finish with approximately 40 goals and 90 points. That’s because of the run he’s gone on over his last 10 games. In that span, he’s scored 9 goals and added another 6 assists. The Lightning are 8-1-1 over those games, so his scoring burst has helped in the win column. If Stamkos can keep up this level of play, the Lighting might once again be the favorites to run the table in the playoffs and lift the Stanley Cup.
5. Blues to Retire Pronger’s #44
The St. Louis Blues announced that Chris Pronger will become the eighth player to have his jersey retired by the franchise. Pronger played in St. Louis for nine of his 18 seasons in the NHL, his longest and most successful stint with any team.
Pronger was a force in St. Louis. During his time there, he was a four-time All-Star and a three-time member of the NHL postseason All-Star team. The 1999-00 season was his best, where he won both the Norris and Hart trophies.
This is a great honor for Pronger who is one of the best players in Blues’ history. The Blues franchise has continued to make waves over the past year winning last season’s Stanley Cup and hosting this season’s All-Star Game. ■