What We Learned on NHL Opening Night

The NHL season opened Tuesday night with three games — a classic rivalry matchup that saw the Leafs beat the Habs 4-3, the Blackhawks earn a 6-4 win over the Capitals on Stanley Cup banner-raising night, and the Winnipeg Jets beat the Oilers 5-4 on their first visit to Edmonton in 17 years. Needless to say, we watched all of it.

Here are 10 vaguely connected thoughts from six hours of opening-night hockey.

The good and the bad of pregame ceremonies

The first game on the schedule came to us from Montreal, so you know there had to be a pregame ceremony. And indeed, the new season was welcomed into existence by this:

I know I can lose my Canadian passport for saying this, but that was awful, right? It was a ceremony involving the Habs and dimmed lights and a torch, so we’re all supposed to nod reverently and pretend that it was fantastic (and most Montreal ceremonies are). But that one didn’t work.

The basic premise was apparently “What if we made every Canadiens player awkwardly hold a torch at center ice while everyone stared at them for 30 seconds?” As it turns out, a player in that situation has only a handful of options:

• Stare straight ahead like a badass (P.K. Subban)

• Try to stare straight ahead like a badass and fail (Alex Galchenyuk)

• Frantically chew gum (Peter Budaj)

• Look like your internal monologue consists entirely of the phrase I hate this I hate this I hate this (everyone else)

An hour later in Chicago, the Blackhawks’ banner-raising ceremony was a mix of emotion, drama, and curiously unrehearsed speeches:

It gets points for featuring a highlight video that included the clip of Jonathan Toews busting a move. But it also involved the unveiling of a “Division Champions” banner, and those are always kind of lame.

So I was torn on this one, right up until Gary Bettman’s name was mentioned and the fans booed him. You won me back over, Chicago. Good job.

Our first look at hybrid icing

Midway through the first period of the Leafs-Habs game, we got our first official look at one of this year’s new wrinkles: hybrid icing, which was officially added to the rulebook on … Monday.

In fairness, the rule had been proposed during the summer and was being evaluated during the exhibition season. The league had to wait for the players to vote on it, and that didn’t wrap up until the weekend.

But still, does all of this seem odd to anyone else? Do other sports add rules the day before a season starts? It’s not like the presence of hybrid icing is going to radically alter game plans, but this still feels like the league was cutting it kind of close.

Put it this way: You know how mad you get when the commissioner of your hockey pool changes one of the settings the day before the season? Bettman and the NHL basically just did that. Which is ironic, considering hybrid icing was supposed to prevent frantic last-second races that end up looking ridiculous.

Speaking of new rules

One of this year’s other new rules adds a minor penalty to any player who takes off his helmet before a fight. Shedding helmets has become a bit of a thing among fighters over the past few years, often when one of the players wears a visor and doesn’t want to be seen as seeking an advantage (call it the Jarome Iginla move). That’s obviously dangerous, so the league decided to put a stop to it.

Which is nice, except that the new rule won’t stop anything. It was already reduced to farce early in the preseason, when Brett Gallant and Krys Barch figured out that they could just adorably remove each other’s helmets. That led to a hasty clarification from the league that mutual helmet-doffing would still count.

Could things get more ridiculous? Yes, as we learned Tuesday night. Edmonton’s Luke Gazdic removed his helmet during a fight and somehow didn’t get a penalty, but that was overshadowed by Mark Fraser and Travis Moen, who engaged in an extended negotiation that dragged on so long that I expected somebody to hand one of them a torch.

Well-intentioned as it is, the new rule doesn’t work, and it’s yet another example of the league’s continuing attempts to please everyone when it comes to fighting. As we were reminded yet again Tuesday night, fighting in hockey can be dangerous. If you want players to be safe from the risk of fighting, then there’s a solution available: Eliminate it. Or don’t, and accept that there are risks. But all these half-measures and baby steps won’t help anyone, with the possible exception of the plaintiffs in the inevitable lawsuit.

So let’s talk about that Phil Kessel deal

Phil Kessel signed an eight-year, $64 million deal Tuesday morning, keeping his pledge that he wouldn’t negotiate once the season had started. Leafs GM Dave Nonis had been on a recent winning streak when it came to negotiating cap-friendly deals, but he had no leverage here. He could pay up to keep his best player, or lose him for nothing.

There have been eight forwards who’ve signed max-length extensions heading into their UFA years under the new collective bargaining agreement: Evgeni Malkin ($76 million), Corey Perry ($69 million), Claude Giroux ($66.2 million on a deal that included one year of RFA eligibility), Ryan Getzlaf ($66 million), Kessel ($64 million), Patrice Bergeron ($52 million), Dustin Brown ($47 million), and Travis Zajac ($46 million).

Based on that list, Kessel is slotted in just about right, isn’t he? Bergeron is a better player, but everyone agreed his deal was head-scratchingly low when it was announced. Meanwhile, you could make a strong case that, factoring in their ages, Kessel is a better value than Getzlaf and maybe even Perry.

The new eight-year max on contracts killed the ridiculous front-loaded deals that plagued the last CBA, but also guaranteed that twentysomething superstars would all be signing eight-year deals. We knew that those deals would come with a higher cap hit (because they were shorter) but we didn’t know how high the number would get. Now we do: It’s $8 million, give or take a few bucks. So Kessel’s deal was about right.

That doesn’t mean this contract can’t be a disaster, since eight years is a very long time in the NHL and we’ve seen snipers who seemed unstoppable in their twenties who were done by their early thirties. But the possibility of the second-best player your franchise has had in 20 years walking away for nothing is also a risk, so Nonis took the option that had at least some chance of paying off. It’s not a good deal for the Leafs, but it’s good enough under the circumstances.

OK, that’s enough about Toronto. I write about them way too much, don’t I? I’m working on that. Let’s flip back over to the Washington-Chicago game and talk about something other than the Maple Leafs.

Former Maple Leaf Mikhail Grabovski records his first career hat trick

The Leafs used a compliance buyout on Grabovski’s contract in July, making him a free agent. After several weeks of unemployment, he signed with the Capitals in what just about everyone agreed was close to a perfect fit. It was hard to imagine a scenario where he wouldn’t go to Washington and become an ideal second-line center.

Unless he becomes a first-line center, I guess, which didn’t seem all that far-fetched during his regular-season Capitals debut. Grabovski notched his first career hat trick to go with an assist, and almost added a fourth goal to tie the game in the dying seconds. While that won’t have Nicklas Backstrom looking over his shoulder quite yet, it’s yet another sign that Grabovski could end up being this year’s best free-agent value (not to mention the top Week 1 waiver wire pickup is hockey pools around the world).

What I’m trying to say is that the Leafs buying this guy out and giving his money to Tyler Bozak instead was a disaster. But all the smart people already knew this, so let’s drop the subject.

Speaking of Caps-Hawks …

Holy crap that Caps-Hawks game was fun

With apologies to the four Canadian teams, Washington-Chicago was the night’s most entertaining game. You had the emotion of the banner raising, loads of star power, and a back-and-forth game featuring plenty of offense. There was even a pair of puck-over-the-glass penalties to remind us that not all of the league’s stupid rules are new.

Seriously, who could have watched that game and not been thoroughly entertained? What’s that? Who? Oh, right, that guy. Probably should have seen that coming.

But still, watching your favorite hockey team can be so much fun. Oh, wait, some of you wouldn’t know, because …

The opening-week schedule is interesting

Tuesday night marked the season opener for six teams, with five more debuting tonight. But most of the league doesn’t start until Thursday, and some teams don’t play their opener until Friday.

As Backhand Shelf overlord (and former player) Justin Bourne eloquently pointed out, that’s rough on the players. But it’s also pretty brutal for the fans. Did you grow up in one of those houses where everyone had to open their presents one at a time on Christmas morning? Did you ever have to skip the first few turns and just watch everyone else have all the fun? No, because your parents weren’t sadists. But that’s basically what the NHL is doing to fans of the Senators, Hurricanes, Islanders, and Blue Jackets.

(Actually, it’s kind of nice to see Blue Jackets fans knocked down a peg. Those guys have been living the good life for way too long.)

Ondrej Pavelec watch

We touched on this in the season preview, but here’s the deal with Ondrej Pavelec: Jets fans seem to think he’s pretty good. Jets management seems to think he’s pretty good. This YouTube user seems to think he’s pretty good, at least when set to “Enter Sandman.”

But those pesky numbers suggest otherwise. Pavelec has a career save percentage of .907 and a GAA of 2.95, neither of which are especially encouraging in the modern NHL. He’s often described as a workhorse, which is true in the sense that he led the league in games played last year. But a struggling workhorse doesn’t help a team win, and Pavelec has given up more goals than anyone else in hockey in each of the past two seasons.

(Also, he makes small children cry uncontrollably. So there’s that.)

There are teams in the league that have enough talent to get by just fine with OK goaltending. The Jets aren’t one of them. This team needs Pavelec to be at least above-average if they’re going to make the playoffs, and then need even more from him if they’re going to scare anyone once they get there.

All of which brings us back to Tuesday night. Pavelec was beaten four times before the game had reached the halfway point but then shut the door the rest of the way as the Jets mounted their comeback. By the end, he’d given up four goals on 38 shots in a performance that could best be described as “uneven.” But it was enough for the win, and on the road against the talented young Oilers, I suspect Jets fans will take it.

Speaking of the Oilers

You don’t get to claim moral victories when you’ve been spinning your rebuilding wheels for as long as Edmonton has, but the Oilers controlled the game for long stretches Tuesday night. They even outshot the Jets during Winnipeg’s third-period comeback, choosing to press the play rather than go into a defensive shell. It didn’t add up to a win, partly due to a poor outing from goalie Devan Dubnyk, but there were positives.

We also got our first look at new coach Dallas Eakins, who’s promised to defy some of the league’s conventional wisdom. One such area is in pulling the goaltender — Eakins is on record as saying that coaches tend to wait too long, and the math seems to agree with him. So when the Jets took a too-many-men penalty with 2:34 to go in a one-goal game, Eakins was true to his word and had Dubnyk on the bench by the two-minute mark.

It’s going to be fun to see what happens the first time the strategy backfires and the Oilers give up a quick empty-netter. Will Eakins stick with it, or let himself be shoved back toward the conventional thinking?

What was with all the goals?

Opening night featured 26 goals, well above the league’s average output over the past few years. Last season, only six teams averaged three goals a game; on Tuesday, the Habs’ three goals was the lowest output of the night.

What was going on? Was it the smaller goalie equipment? Leftover rust from the preseason? An emphasis on more exciting offensive systems? Small sample size?

It’s the small sample size, isn’t it? Yeah, you’re right. We’ll probably see a few 2-0 snoozers tonight just to even out the karma. But for one night at least, it was fun to imagine that this could be a new direction for the NHL. So let’s go ahead and pretend that all that opening-night offense was more than just a fluke, and that the defense-at-all-costs NHL might finally be ready to pass the torch to the next generation of young snipers.

Um, unless you’re the Montreal Canadiens. No more torch-passing for those guys, please.

Filed Under: Chicago Blackhawks, Hockey, NHL, Toronto Maple Leafs, Washington Capitals

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Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at his blog, Down Goes Brown. His first book, The Best of Down Goes Brown, was released last September.

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