Penalty Minutes: Malkin on superb pace; NHL’s financial outlook positive

Who’s Hot: Evgeni Malkin


Once again the Pittsburgh Penguins’ pair of former Hart and Art Ross Trophy winners are staging an intramural competition to see which is the best player in the NHL.


In a game on Tuesday in which Sidney Crosby scored the tying goal in the third period and a highlight-reel game-winner through three New York Islanders defenders in overtime, Evgeni Malkin extended his points streak to nine games with two assists.


Malkin, who leads the league in assists with 30 in 29 games, ranks second in the NHL to Crosby overall in points, 38 to 37, and during the the nine-game points streak (Malkin is tied for having the longest active streak in the league with Anaheim’s Corey Perry) Malkin has 19 points overall. Only twice during those nine games has Malkin gone with just a single point, one coming in Pittsburgh’s only regulation loss during that span (7-1-1).


Not surprisingly, Malkin helps fuel a Pittsburgh power play that sits atop the league (26 percent). Following a four-point game on Saturday against Florida, Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he saw it all coming.


“You could tell he was just about to bust out earlier in the season,” Niskanen said. “He’s just working so hard. It was a matter of time. He just has that ability to take over.”


Malkin deflected credit to the return of linemate James Neal from injury on Nov. 9 and said he is not paying attention to whether he or Crosby has more points.

Nonetheless, such production will continue to fuel the debate as to who is better: Sid or Geno?


Here is one stat in Malkin’s favor: his 21 assists in the month of November were the most by any player in the NHL since Wayne Gretzky recorded the same number in January 1996.


Another telling chapter in this friendly rivalry will come in February at the 2014 Socchi Olympics in Malkin’s native Russia. Canada and Russia each will be favorites. A gold medal game between them would, at a minimum, decide bragging rights while possibly bringing a little more clarity to the question. Temporarily, any way.


Who’s Not: Ottawa Senators


Did Daniel Alfredsson, in a Dr. Evil-style maneuver, steal the Ottawa Senators’ mojo?


For a team that advanced to the second round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Senators sure have not looked themselves this season. Entering Wednesday, Ottawa ranked 12th in the East, five points behind Battle of Ontario rival Toronto for the conference’s final playoff spot. In their last 10 games, the Senators have one of the league’s worst records at 4-6. The only two teams worse than them in the Atlantic Division, Florida and Buffalo, also happen to have the two worst records in the league.


On the surface, the Senators do not seem so different, rendering their problems harder to comprehend. Alfredsson, their former captain and the heart and soul of the franchise, left for Detroit and a one-year deal following a contract dispute with Senators management in the offseason. At 40, Alfredsson has proved highly productive for the Red Wings, ranking third on the team in points with seven goals and 14 assists in 23 games. He added insult to injury on Sunday when, in his first game as a visitor in Ottawa, he scored an empty-net goal that iced a 4-2 victory.


But it’s not as if the Senators lack for scoring. They entered Wednesday ranked eighth in the NHL in goals per game at 2.93. Their blockbuster offseason deal for Bobby Ryan has provided them with offense — Ryan has 14 goals, tied for seventh in the league — and former Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, who leads all NHL defensemen in points with 27 and ranks second in the league in time on ice per game at 27:48, remains one of the NHL’s best at his position.


The bigger issues with Ottawa appear to on the defensive side of the puck and, particularly, in goal. The Senators rank 26th in goals against per game (3.18) and No. 1 goalie Craig Anderson, who led all NHL goalies last season in both goals against average (1.69) and save percentage (.941), has not been himself. In fact, the 32-year-old sits on the underside of the NHL goalie’s version of the Mendoza Line (.900 save percentage). Among the 76 goalies to play this season, Anderson ranks 57th at .897 in save percentage and his GAA has ballooned to 3.42 in his 18 games while his back-up, Robin Lehner, has outplayed him with a 2.44 GAA and .933 save percentage in 13 games.


Last Thursday, the home fans cheered as Anderson was pulled from the game after giving up four goals on 15 shots in 26 minutes.


“We’ve got to start being way more consistent and playing much harder to win from shift-to-shift and period-to-period,” coach Paul MacLean told reporters after that game. “It’s a game of mistakes and we make way too many. We turnover pucks in our zone, didn’t execute on faceoff assignments and it cost us goals.”


The Senators’ performance is even affecting things at the box office. Almost all seven Canadian NHL teams fill their buildings at 100 percent capacity or more, bolstering the attendance of the entire league as a whole. But the Senators did not sell out their home opener and on Nov. 1 — a Friday — they drew 15,589 against the New York Islanders, one of their smallest crowds in five years, according to the blog The 6th Sens.


On Tuesday, the Sens won a game that could have kept them from falling deeper into the abyss. Down 2-0 at Florida, they rallied for four straight goals to win 4-2.


Could that be a sign of better things to come — or just a momentary abatement until the messianic Alfie returns next season with their mojo back?


Top Five

San Jose: The Sharks have won six straight, the longest current streak in the league.


Chicago: On a seven-game road trip the Blackhawks lost the first game then won the next six, including an 11-round shootout over Dallas last Friday.


Los Angeles: The Kings have lost only once in regulation in their last 10 games.


St. Louis: Two straight road losses, including a 6-3 defeat at San Jose, knock Blues from last week’s top spot.


Pittsburgh: The Penguins own the best record and best goal differential (plus-23) in the East.


Bottom Five   

Calgary: Injuries are killing the Flames: defensemen Dennis Wideman is out six to eight weeks with a broken hand and top rookie Sean Monahan has a broken foot.


New York Islanders: They haven’t won in regulation since Nov. 12 and now embark on a five-game Western road swing.


Edmonton: The Oilers’ luck is rotten. Goalie Ilya Bryzgalov stopped 61 of the first 62 shots he faced before having to leave his second game with what seems to be a concussion.


Florida: The Panthers have lost three straight.


Buffalo: The Sabres remain the only team in the NHL averaging fewer than two goals per game at 1.61.


Game of the Week: Florida at Chicago

Usually a matchup between one of the best teams in the league and one of the worst isn’t grounds for excitement, but this game will have something of a grudge match quality to it. 

A few weeks ago Panthers general manager Dale Tallon shipped forward Kris Versteeg out of town and Versteeg took exception to some of Tallon’s comments that perhaps Versteeg had succumbed to the pressure of a contract that averages $4.5 million per season. Tallon, the former general manager of the Blackhawks, has engineered deals for a number of former Chicago players, including defenseman Brian Campbell and forward Tomas Kopecky, both of whom played on the Blackhawks’ 2010 Cup championship team. Meanwhile, the remaking of the Panthers continues. Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov was a healthy scratch on Tuesday, fueling rumors that the player will be traded imminently. 
For this one, the most entertaining part might be in the locker rooms after the game. 

Stat Line of the Week: Chris Kreider, New York Rangers

In a 5-2 victory on Saturday over Vancouver, coached by Kreider’s former coach with the Rangers, John Tortorella, the 22-year-old left wing recorded his first career hat trick and finished plus-3 with four penalty minutes, six shots, three hits and one giveaway in 14:31. What made the performance all the more special for Kreider was that he was a frequent resident in Tortorella’s doghouse. Kreider only has six goals on the season but playing on a line with Derek Stepan and Rick Nash seems to suit him. 

“I think if you play with Derek Stepan and Rick Nash,” he was quoted as saying on, “the game is going to slow down for you.”


Honorable mention: Darren Helm, Detroit. In a 5-0 win over the New York Islanders on Friday, Helm scored two goals, including one shorthanded, won 56 percent of his faceoffs (9-of-16) and finished plus-4 in 17:34. One of the fastest players in the league, Helm has been snakebit by injuries the last couple of seasons. In the 2012 playoffs, he suffered lacerated tendons in his forearm in the first game and missed the rest of the postseason. Last season, the center played only one game because of a back injury and at the outset of this season he missed 14 games with a groin injury. He is a key player whom the Red Wings have missed in recent seasons and will be even more integtral in the short term with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, their two top players, presently out with injuries.


Dishonorable mention: Carl Soderberg, Boston. In a 6-1 loss to Detroit last Wednesday, the 28-year-old Swedish center played only 10:37 at even strength (he played 13:08 overall with the help of some power play time) and managed to be on ice for three goals, causing him to finish minus-3 — making him the only player on his team to pull off such a feat. He was on ice for goals by the Red Wings’ Justin Abdelkader, Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist — not exactly Detroit’s snipers.

Spotlight: The NHL’s $5.2-billion Canadian TV rights fee deal

While hockey has its share of detractors and might never be the most popular sport in many parts of the United States, there’s no questioning the upward arc of the NHL in financial terms, especially when adding Canada in the equation.


It was not that long ago that the league’s television deal in the United States paid it about $77 million (or about $2.5 million per team) and that annual league-wide revenues were less than $2 billion. Now, the NHL realistically believes that a $4-billion revenue season is within its grasp. On top of the 10-year, $2-billion deal the league signed with NBC in 2011, last week the league announced a 12-year, $5.2-billion deal with the Canadian communications giant Rogers – adding a great deal of possibility to that $4-billion goal.


One way that all that money could affect the on-ice product would be in the form of a substantial increase in the salary cap over the life of those deals — which would be a good thing for those teams in desperate need for some salary cap relief. According to the website, which tracks NHL salary information, 13 teams are currently having to use Long-Term Injured Reserve to be able to ice a full roster.


Such an increase also could have the potential to keep some of the league’s top teams together. For example, Chicago’s two best forwards, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane — players who have helped the organization to win the Stanley Cup twice in the last four seasons — both become free agents in 2015. Each currently has a salary cap hit of $6.3 million — a number that could grow by at least $2 million apiece per player, which could make for a tight squeeze.


In August, Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Friedman reported that the salary cap, currently set at $64.3 million, could grow to as high as $80 million by 2017-18, a move that would clearly benefit a team like Chicago, which has twice had to make drastic moves to its championship teams just weeks after winning the Cup.


In an email to Penalty Minutes, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the league would not share publicly information such as potential salary cap increases and each team’s individual share of the new television deal until it meets with the Board of Governors in December. But he did add that “the projections we will end up sharing with the Board won’t be vastly different than earlier projections we had shown them in September, as we were already expecting a fairly large increase in Canadian rights fees” — all of which lends credence to Friedman’s $80 million figure in four seasons from now.


Once the Canadian TV deal kicks in, the NHL should receive an average of roughly $630 million per season over the next seven seasons starting in 2014-15 just from the U.S. and the Canadian television deals. Daly cautioned that “both contracts have different ascending amounts year over year from beginning to end” so depending on how much those deals escalate on a year-to-year basis, it, in turn, will affect how much the cap rises on a year-to-year basis. (If you’re a Blackhawks fan, you’re hoping for a dramatic jump in 2015-16.)


While big-market teams will benefit, it’s possible that smaller ones also will become healthier from both this deal and the new collective bargaining agreement forged in January. The new CBA pledged an increased amount in revenue sharing from its predecessor, up to $200 million. With added television revenue coming from this Canadian rights deal, ideally, smaller revenue teams also stand to benefit financially.


The bottom line of all this is how it will affect the competitive balance between rich teams and small teams — the trickiest aspect for any pro sports league to negotiate. Some suggest that sports leagues are best served by dynasties and it’s true that during the last few seasons the league has enjoyed ratings success in the United States as some of its biggest markets and traditional powers — Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles — have competed for the Cup.


But as the NFL has proven, it’s also necessary to have the smallest markets remain healthy and competitive. Under the NHL’s former CBA, teams had to send a minimum of $16 million below the cap, which proved a stretch for some as the cap continued to rise and rise. The new CBA provides for a greater spread between the cap and the floor, which could be both good and bad. Good in the sense that a smaller market team will not have to spend more than it can afford but, possibly, bad in that rich teams can outspend them. Again, that will be the long-term test — for any league — but adding to the financial health of all league members should represent nothing but a positive.