The NHL's best and worst this week: Are new sticks to blame for shot-blocking injuries?

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On Thursday night in Montreal, Minnesota Wild forward Joel Eriksson Ek blocked a shot from Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber on the penalty kill. Ek hobbled a bit, but stayed on the ice. He then blocked another shot by Weber. Again, Ek was rattled. He stayed on the ice. And then Ek blocked his third consecutive shot by Weber — all in one shift. Ek finally was able to limp off, getting a big embrace from teammate Matt Dumba on the bench.

Michael Russo of The Athletic reported that the 22-year-old Ek left the arena in a boot; he’ll be out for a week or two.

Five nights earlier, in Colorado, Arizona Coyotes defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson blocked a shot from Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson. Hjalmarsson, one of the Yotes’ best blueliners, broke his fibula and is expected to miss about three months; this is a major blow for a team that led the league in man games lost last season with a freakish number of injuries.

After the Hjalmarsson news, I saw this tweet from former NHL goaltender Corey Hirsch, which got me thinking.

So this week, I decided to ask guys about it.

“Obviously sticks are a lot better,” Blackhawks goaltender Robin Lehner said. “When I got into the league a while ago [in 2010], you always had that group of guys on the team that had good shots. Then you had a group of guys on the team that didn’t have good shots. These days everyone shoots well. There’s no more divide.”

Lehner also mentioned the speed of the game as a contributing factor. “Ten years ago, you could always get into decent blocking position where you could be as protected as possible,” Lehner said. “But now, it’s hard to time it right. You only have like a half-second, and the shots that are coming are much harder.”

Said Hjalmarsson’s teammate, Nick Schmaltz: “It’s scary to think how fast that puck is coming at you, whether there’s going to be more injuries or whatnot. There’s always a risk of injury in our game, and hopefully it’s not increased that much. You see these young kids and everyone who comes up they all can shoot the puck so hard and you wonder if that’s going to keep getting harder and harder.”

Since StatsPass began tracking blocked shots in 2006-07, there has been an increase from 13.5 shots blocked per game to 14.3. Yes, it’s just one more blocked shot per game, but over the course of the season, it’s an extra 3,000-plus blocked shots (taking into account that the league has added an extra team in that span, too). And this isn’t just a thing for, say, a John Tortorella-coached team. Across the league, every single NHL team blocked at least 1,000 shots in each of the past two seasons (2017-18 to 2018-19). It’s a crucial part of the game.

“I mean in the sport, everything is getting better,” Oilers defenseman Oscar Klefbom said. “Skates are getting lighter, sticks have way more technology and people are learning to shoot harder. I don’t really have a good solution because it happens all the time, it’s part of the game. People are wearing shot blockers because it’s too painful to take a shot on the foot.”

Klefbom has tried shot blockers, and said “sometimes it helps, but honestly it doesn’t really matter because slapshots are so hard.”

“I think people’s priorities are to be very mobile and feel very light on the ice instead of having more pads,” Klefbom said. “The shot blockers feel heavier and make it a little harder to turn. I think as players we would rather risk getting injured because we want to be as light as possible, and as mobile as we can on the ice. We know in this game, you’re going to get hurt once in a while.”

Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews wanted to add a little more nuance to the discussion. “I think there’s less time than ever to wind up and take a full-on slapshot,” Toews said. “I think you see D-men take wrist shots pretty much. Brent Burns gets 10 shots a game, but all he does is take wrist shots.”

Toews also mentioned that while sticks are better, the league now has an abundance of smaller players. “They can really whip it because of the [newer] shafts,” Toews said. “It takes less effort to get the puck off, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the shots are harder.”


Jump ahead:
Emptying the notebook | What we liked this week
Three stars of the week | Biggest games coming up


Emptying the notebook

Even without Hjalmarsson, the Coyotes seem to be finding their stride. One player Arizona was happy to welcome back this season was Nick Schmaltz, who has eight points in seven games. He’s on a very productive line alongside Christian Dvorak — the two reunited after being linemates as teenagers for the Chicago Mission, which is pretty cool. Schmaltz had surgery on his meniscus in January, and said he felt it took him a few games this October to get back into a groove. “It was tough to jump right back into game situations and get back to speed,” Schmaltz said. “Just the timing and making those plays I’m used to making, little passes or reading the play and knowing where to be. But once I got my confidence back, I was making more plays and felt much more comfortable with the puck.”

There wasn’t one specific incident that led to Schmaltz’s knee injury. It was a gradual thing that got “worse and worse” every game since he was traded from the Blackhawks to the Coyotes. Then, in the final game he played last season, Schmaltz found himself unable to push off his injured leg, and that’s when he knew he needed to get it addressed. He figured it was better to get the surgery over with, so he could have a full summer of recovery. The Coyotes had so much faith in Schmaltz, they signed the 23-year-old to a seven-year, $40.95 million extension — despite his playing only 17 games with the club. After the surgery, Schmaltz spent six weeks in Philadelphia rehabbing before returning to Arizona. “It was tough for the trainers. They had guys that were playing to deal with, so I knew it would be tough to get one-on-one time with them,” Schmaltz said. “So it was best for me to get away, focus on the day-by-day of getting better. It was tough mentally to be away from the team, but looking back it helped me with my recovery.”

As for the Yotes … Schmaltz knows it’s a big year for the team. “We came into this year as an organization and this is one of the better teams we’ve had in — I don’t know how long, but a long time,” he said. “So there are a little higher expectations on us. We were so close last year, and you wonder what might have happened if we didn’t have all those injuries. A lot of them were the same injuries, which is crazy. Four or five guys had knee injuries. So hopefully, knock on wood, we can stay healthy. We don’t want to put too much pressure on ourselves, but we do know it’s important to build off last year.”

This tweet from Seattle director of hockey administration Alex Mandrycky got a lot of attention:

Seattle hired its first round of pro scouts — five in total — last month. GM Ron Francis and assistant GM Ricky Olczyk will also be part of the Seattle scouting staff this season, in order to keep costs down (they’ve been seen in press boxes across the league, already getting to work). After the scouting hires, Francis told me the organization would likely “hire a few people in analytics soon.” Those are the jobs Mandrycky posted about. After that, the majority of the hockey ops hires for the NHL’s newest team will happen next summer.

As far as scouting, Francis said Seattle will be covering major events this season, including the under-17 tournament in Medicine Hat, Alberta, and Swift Current, Saskatchewan; the under-20 Four Nations Cup in Helsinki; the IIHF World Junior Championships in the Czech Republic; the under-18 championships in Plymouth, Michigan; and the IIHF World Championships in Switzerland.

The Oilers have stormed off to a 7-1-0 start, and when they were in Chicago last week (following win No. 5) I asked defenseman Oscar Klefbom what feels different about the team this season. “It’s still early, that’s probably a more relevant question to ask me after two straight losses,” the Swedish defenseman said. “We’re winning, everyone is in a good mood, and all that. But I do have a really good feeling we have a really good mix of guys, a good group of guys. I have had a lot of different GMs, a lot of different coaches. And with these two — Ken Holland and Dave Tippett — it feels like we’ve got something really good going on.”

I followed up and asked how important he thinks continuity will be for his group. “It’s everything,” Klefbom said. “If you’re going to have success, you need some stability. That’s probably why consistent teams in the playoffs — Chicago, L.A., Pittsburgh, that always had the playoffs in years past — they had that same core group, that same philosophy and they were so consistent every year, you knew they were going to make the playoffs every year. We want to bring that culture here and it’s very, very important to have that chemistry and still be patient if it’s not working out. Because it takes some time to just get it working.”

I would be remiss to write about the Oilers and not mention Connor McDavid. The center is blazing through the early stretch — including some holy-cow-he’s-doing-this-all-by-himself goals — with 17 points in eight games. Nearly three weeks into the season, he had outscored more than a dozen NHL teams. Leon Draisaitl, once again, is impressive as well, with 16 points. Edmonton knows if the Oilers are going to sustain this success, they’ll need contributions from more than just those two. “That’s one thing we’ve talked about since day one as a team: It’s not just two players,” coach Dave Tippett said in Chicago. “Those two players, they have an impact on the game, they’re top, top players, but everybody has to have an impact on the game.” That’s why the Oilers feel great about the early offensive surge from James Neal. But there needs to be more. McDavid, Draisaitl and Neal have combined for 20 goals. The rest of the team? 10.

Mika Zibanejad is enjoying a terrific start to the season on the Rangers’ revamped top line, with four goals and six assists in his first five games. The Rangers’ roster is a diverse one, and Zibanejad (a native Swede) is flanked by two native Russian speakers: Artemi Panarin and Pavel Buchnevich. Zibanejad was on the ESPN on Ice podcast this week and discussed how he communicates with his linemates.

“[Panarin’s] English is better than people think,” Zibanejad said. “I just have to speak a little slower. It’s the same thing when I play with Pavel Buchnevich, who is actually on our line as well right now. That helps a lot. If there’s something [Panarin] doesn’t understand, I’ll just tell Buchy that, and he’ll translate it to Russian. A lot of the talks we have, I feel like we are on the same page. Sometimes the communication and the ways of communication — some of the messages that come across get mixed up a little bit. In terms of that, it’s easy to write on the board, it’s easy to show on the iPad or video or whatever. And it’s not that bad. It’s obviously easier when you have another Russian on your side that can help out.”


Three Stars of the Week

John Carlson, D, Washington Capitals

Carlson is making a nice Norris Trophy case early on this season. He currently leads the league in points (18) — which includes seven points this past week — while holding down the fort as the Caps’ No. 1 defenseman.

Carter Hutton, G, Buffalo Sabres

Who would have thought the Sabres would be leading the Atlantic Division, and who would have thought that Carter Hutton would be leading the league in goals-against average (1.39) and save percentage (.953)? A 47-save shutout against the Kings this week was a highlight.

David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins

In three games this week, the Bruins winger had seven goals and two assists. That includes his four-goal outburst against the (surprisingly good) Anaheim Ducks.


What we liked this past week

By now, you must have seen this adorable video of Washington’s Mite of the Nite (the courageous, but also a little shy tarantula and Ovech-a-kin enthusiast) Jackson Friedlander. Remember, this hockey column is not all about winning; it’s also about having fun. So here it is again:

I’m a sucker for any player interaction with young fan. It was really cool of Devan Dubnyk — on the road, no less — to let this kid try on his helmet:

Canadiens defenseman Victor Mete scored his first NHL goal in a 4-0 win against the Wild. It was Mete’s 127th game, the longest goal drought to start a career in Canadiens franchise history. The reaction from teammates was fantastic. As was Mete afterward. According to Sportsnet’s Eric Engels, reporters asked Mete why he was cracking up on the bench when the goal was being announced.

Mete: “I think it was [Shea Weber] who said, ‘Atta boy, Meat; medium-cheese, f—ing right,’ because I shot it mid-net.”

The video we have all been waiting for … Cale Makar makes a kale smoothie (by the way, it’s great how Makar leans into all of the Avalanche’s social media asks, and seems to be having fun doing it)

After a disappointing end to last season, the Predators needed more offense, and boy are they getting it. Through Sunday, they’re second in the league with 4.00 goals per game — a big uptick from last season, when they finished near the bottom of the league, with 2.88.

It’s early, but this is the leading candidate for goal of the year. It even left John Tortorella shaking his head.


What we didn’t like this past week

I hate this for Senators fans. This rebuild must suck:

Washington defenseman Michal Kempny got his first game action on Friday night after seven months, after dealing with a hamstring injury. In his first game back, I didn’t like this high hit from Rangers forward Brendan Lemieux. Caps defenseman Radko Gudas fought Lemieux as retaliation, and Kempny later scored in the game. Lemieux is a player who often toes the line, and I think he crossed it here.

Opposing players often comment that they don’t exactly look forward to traveling to Winnipeg for road games — unless they are from Manitoba — but they do enjoy the loud atmosphere at the arena. It’s a terrific place to play. This week, the Jets’ 312-game home sellout streak came to an end. This column in the Winnipeg Sun blames skyrocketing ticket costs as a big factor.

We knew the Central Division was going to be a grinder this season, but it’s been especially tough for two teams: the Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars. The Wild’s struggles are somewhat expected, and wading through this season (the first under GM Bill Guerin) might not be the worst thing if they’re able to get a high draft pick and spend the summer shuffling the roster.

The Stars, however, were expected to take steps forward after making the playoffs last season. Instead, Dallas is off to the worst start in franchise history. Goaltending has regressed a bit, and for a roster with plenty of star power in the forward group, goals have been hard to come by (they’re the only team in the league averaging less than two per game). They look old and slow. After a 4-2 loss to the Penguins this week, goalie Anton Khudobin vented his frustrations. “What else can you say? We just got another L, [expletive] I don’t know. We just have to keep going and do something.” If this keeps up, expect seismic changes in Dallas.


Games of the week

Tuesday, Oct. 22: Toronto Maple Leafs at Boston Bruins (ESPN+)

It’s a matchup of the first round of last season’s playoffs … and the season before that … and yeah, these two teams have history. The Bruins are looking like the class of the East. The Maple Leafs are trying to power through two weeks without John Tavares, who has a broken finger.

Wednesday, Oct. 23: Pittsburgh Penguins at Tampa Bay Lightning

How on earth are the Penguins pulling this off — looking like a decent team, despite a rash of injuries, including to Evgeni Malkin? It’s not all Sidney Crosby, though he has been pretty fantastic. Pittsburgh gets a strong test with the Lightning, who are still struggling to look like their 2018-19 dominant selves.

Sunday, Oct. 27: San Jose Sharks at Ottawa Senators (ESPN+)

Hey, there’s probably very few weeks we’ll put the Senators as a game of the week. But it’s Erik Karlsson visiting his former team, so this one is worth the watch.


Quote of the week

“I feel like Kylie Jenner right now.”

— Islanders center Mathew Barzal, in an interview on an MSG telecast, with a fat lip after taking a few high sticks to the face:

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