NHL needs to crack down on growing interference problem

The maddening inconsistency of interference penalties is a problem the NHL needs to resolve, and fast.

The NHL needs to crack down on interference infractions. (Getty Images)
The NHL needs to crack down on interference infractions. (Getty Images)

Welcome to 10 Insights and Observations. Every week, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines, and general musings around the NHL.

This week we look at yet another Swede taking off in Detroit, a popular faceoff play, interference penalties, Steven Stamkos and much more.

NHL needs to crack down on 'pick' plays

In the playoffs last year, the referees in the Toronto-Tampa series made a call that haunts Maple Leafs fans to this day (when have you heard that before). John Tavares circled high with the puck, Justin Holl came down in the offensive zone and bumped into Anthony Cirelli, and with the space created Tavares was able to wind up and score. The goal didn’t count because Holl was called for interference.

Truthfully, I thought it was the right call at the time — he did set some form of a pick which set the table for the goal. Since that call though, we have seen a number of examples of that exact type of play not being called leading to goals. Perhaps the most egregious one of all occurred this week:

What are we doing here? I really try not to use this space to complain about officiating, but if that’s not interference, then just get rid of the rule. There’s nothing ticky-tacky about that play — that is an intentional pick that directly resulted in a goal.

The league has cracked down on other things before that led to all sorts of weak calls or adverse side effects (hello, offsides challenges). This is black and white, though — that’s a penalty. It’s not the first time it has happened, either. But worst of all is the whistle on it has been inconsistent at best, which is what drives fans crazy.

Detroit's newest Swedish sensation

When the Detroit Red Wings were making the playoffs 25 years in a row from 1991-2016, one of the big drivers of their success was all the players they mined from Sweden. They had, for my money, the best Swedish player of all time in Nicklas Lidstrom, along with Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall, Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom and Mikael Samuelsson, to name a few.

Lucas Raymond established himself as the next Swedish sensation in Detroit last season, and this season they have seen the emergence of what looks like another gem in forward Jonatan Berggren. A second-round pick in 2018, Berggren came over from Sweden last season and spent the year in the AHL, leading the Grand Rapids Griffins in scoring with 64 points in 70 games. He started this season in the AHL and had seven points in seven games before getting called up. Now, Berggren looks like he’s here to stay.

The 5-foot-11, 197-pound winger is playing a modest 13:20 per game so far, largely alongside Joe Veleno at 5-on-5, and getting power-play time on the second unit. He started off his career hot with nine points in his first 13 games and has settled in since then with 16 in 30 games on the season. Berggren is deceptive in the offensive zone, circling high to lose checkers and getting open to let the puck rip. He does it twice on this shift, scoring the second time:

He's also been playing his off-wing at times, which some guys prefer but is still a big ask for a rookie; picking up pucks along the boards is difficult when you aren’t on your strong side. But the talent is undeniable and it appears Detroit found another good one in Berggren.

The Bruce Boudreau situation is a disgrace

There’s no other way to put it: what’s happening with the Vancouver Canucks, Jim Rutherford and Bruce Boudreau is a mess. It's a cruel way to treat a hockey lifer who is one of the nicer people in the game.

At this point we all know he is going to get fired, and yet there he is just stringing out games in the middle of the season. In the summer, Rutherford was hesitant to extend Boudreau and consistently referenced his belief of needing to see him coach a full season. A month into the season, he called out the coach (and the players, too).

"I didn't like our training camp and how we continued into the early part of the season," Rutherford said. "In order for us to become a better team we have to play with a stronger system and really be more accountable for some of the things that some of the players are struggling with."

Before he came to Vancouver, Rutherford’s Pittsburgh Penguins tenure also had some curious coaching moments. He fired Dan Bylsma, who won a championship with the Penguins in 2009, the day he was named Pittsburgh's new GM after the team parted ways with Ray Shero following a second-round collapse against the New York Rangers in 2014. Bylsma was left twisting in the wind for three weeks — and thus not available to go to another team, like the rival Capitals at that time — before Rutherford came in swinging the axe.

It’s unclear how much Rutherford really had to do with that situation, in fairness, but he oversaw Mike Sullivan winning back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017 and in neither season did his contract get extended or reworked. And now we’re back to Boudreau, coaching out a string of games as everyone knows Rick Tocchet is going to be hired.

Here come the Avs

Given Colorado was 18th in points percentage when I grouped every team into tiers at the midway point of the season, I wasn't sure how much, if any, backlash I would get for having them among the league's elite. As it stands, there was hardly any disagreement and while there are no victory laps being taken just yet, the Avs are getting healthy and starting to surge.

Following an ugly 3-2 regulation loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, they crushed Ottawa 7-0, dominated Detroit 6-3, then beat Calgary 4-1. Nathan MacKinnon returned from injury on New Year’s Eve and it took him a few games to get going, but he is rolling now on a six-game point streak where he has 13 points. Valeri Nichushkin, a big play-driving winger also playing at a point-per-game pace, returned this week. Their IR report still features Gabriel Landeskog, Josh Manson and Bowen Byram. They still haven’t properly replaced Nazem Kadri either, but this team is coming. Don’t think anyone in the league is fooled by their record to date.

Giroux trade paying off for Flyers

It is very difficult to win trades when you move out a franchise icon. Even one of the best examples of all-time — the Leafs in essence trading Wendel Clark for Mats Sundin — was largely met with trepidation at the time.

The package the Philadelphia Flyers received in return for Claude Giroux likely isn’t going to net them a new franchise player — although there is still a conditional first-round pick coming from Florida at some point — but for early returns, Owen Tippett is showing he's a solid player in this league.

Drafted 10th overall in 2017, his calling card has always been his shot. In his draft year, he had 44 goals in 60 games. His shot and general ability to score did not translate very quickly to the NHL, however.

Tippett was given a seven-game cameo right away before being sent back to the OHL for two more full seasons. He then played a 46-game season in the AHL (he had 40 points) before finally getting back to the NHL the following season, three years after he was drafted. But the goals still did not follow. In his first 108 games in the league, which included last season split between Florida and Philadelphia, Tippett scored all of 18 goals. In 40 games so far this season, he already has 13 and is shooting a reasonable 12.9 percent.

That is an absolute rip of a shot. Pulls it back, curls in his hands to give him the angle to shoot through the defender's legs, releases from the top of the circle and beats a good goalie clean. That is a proverbial "goal scorer’s goal."

He can clearly shoot and he’s been developing the confidence to let it rip, averaging a career high 2.53 shots on per game so far. His line with James van Riemsdyk and Morgan Frost is surprisingly in the green in shot share and expected goals, and they've only been outscored by one at 5-on-5.

In a tough season you have to look for positives and Tippett, who is still just 23, developing and showing he is a player, is a positive.

Found money for Seattle

One of the quieter moves last deadline was the Washington Capitals trading Daniel Sprong and a fourth-round pick to the Seattle Kraken for Marcus Johansson. Johansson is having his usual productive season on a cheap contract ($1.1 million). He started his career with the Capitals and has generally fit in well there. On the other side of this story, Sprong has rather quietly become one of the best producing fourth-liners in the league.

He is averaging 11:18 ice time per game with 2:12 of that being on the power play, which is second unit deployment on the Kraken. In 37 games, he has 15 goals and 28 points. Those are both already career highs and he’s still just 25 years old. He’s shooting almost 19 percent which is way above his career average of 12.3 so he’ll likely come down to earth at some point, but his fourth-line production is found money at this point.

In a lot of ways he encapsulates what the Kraken have done so far — they have 13 players with at least 20 points so far, which is the most of any team. That is why they are fourth in the league in goals per game. They have been one of the best offensive teams in the league so far despite not having a player in the top 70 in points this season. It’s not like they are riding hot goaltending either, as they are 28th in overall save percentage.

Panthers power play thriving with 'unconventional' strategy

One of the more surprising starts to the season was the Florida Panthers power play starting the season 4-for-41 through the month of October. A power play with Matthew Tkachuk, Aleksander Barkov, Sam Reinhart, Carter Verhaeghe and Brandon Montour/Aaron Ekblad should not be that inept.

Since that month, their power play has been 10th in the league, much more in line with expectations. Funny enough, teams generally like to run just one defenseman on the point now but the Panthers generally like to run two with Ekblad and Montour. In October, Ekblad only played three games and and had one of those four power-play goals. Montour is top 10 in defensemen scoring so far this season with 38 points in 45 games.

They are actually using Ekblad in essentially the “Ovechkin” spot, as a one-timer threat. You can see the alignment here and how the puck is generally controlled by the forwards on the other side while Ekblad lingers as a shooting threat.

Montour is up top and having a career season as the power-play quarterback. It’s an interesting alignment that we don’t see much of anymore in the league. They got off to a tough start, but have been in the top third of the league ever since.

Seen Stamkos?

Congratulations to Steven Stamkos on netting his 500th career goal. Even though he didn’t have to do much, it was still a beautiful goal. He became the 47th player to hit 500 goals in the league and has since potted a few more, putting him in the top 45 all time.

Stamkos has come a long way since being drafted. Even though he was drafted first overall, the start to his career was not smooth.

After winning the draft lottery, the Lightning came up with a marketing campaign with the slogan “Seen Stamkos?” as billboards and bumper stickers popped up around town.

But then he started his career by going pointless through his first seven games and fans started saying “Seen Stamkos?” in a much different context. He finally got his first point in his eighth game, against Toronto because of course, and he scored his next game in a three-point night. He then went pointless in his next eight games.

Their head coach at the time, Barry Melrose, was fired 16 games into the season. He famously went on radio after and said "Steven is going to be a good player... right now he's just not strong enough physically to play against defensemen who are [6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4] that can skate as good as him.” Melrose also said "I hope Tampa Bay doesn't win a game in the next year."

It did take Stamkos time, but after the All-Star break that season he had 17 goals in 34 games to end the season. The rest, as they say, is history.

2016 first-round pick finds role in New York

There are countless examples of players drafted in the first round who take much longer to develop than expected. There are also countless examples of bigger players in particular that simply take time to grow into their bodies and figure out the league.

The New York Rangers might have found a player who is both.

He might not ever be a top-six forward, but Julien Gauthier is developing into an effective player, finally, at age 25. Gauthier was drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes 21st overall back in 2016. It took him four years after that to finally get a look in the NHL, playing five games for the Hurricanes in a year when they finally saw enough and traded him to the Rangers straight up for Joey Keane. Gauthier finished out the season with the Rangers and even got into a few playoff games. He played 30 games the following season and 49 last season, where he had a career-high three goals. He could take shifts but he couldn’t really contribute much offensively.

Gauthier isn’t lighting the league on fire this season by any stretch of the imagination, but six goals and nine points through 32 games is productive enough to carve out a fourth-line role. At 6-foot-4 and a good skater, once and awhile he even flashes a moment that makes you think the ceiling could be so much higher.

He needs to shoot more, though — 30 shots in 32 games isn’t nearly good enough. This season he’s playing on a bit of a grind line with Sammy Blais and Barclay Goodrow. They aren’t there for offense, but you still need to contribute to some degree on that side of the ice and he’s starting to show that he can.

The latest faceoff trend

One of the most popular faceoff plays making its way around the league is pulling a forward high off the draw in the offensive zone. Watch here how Mitch Marner pulls high after the faceoff scrum, which gives him all sorts of space to make a play that ends up being a goal.

Watch this one from Pittsburgh. It wasn’t a goal, but Kasperi Kapanen lines up on the outside wall and when the Penguins win the draw he cuts in and loops high, taking a defenseman with him, which gives Jason Zucker a lane to walk in.

Teams have trouble with this because defensemen traditionally do not go up to the high areas of the defensive zone, so there usually has to be an exchange between the defenseman and forward as to who is covering who in real time. If it’s off by a split second, it creates space and teams have all sorts of plays and counters to create offense from offensive zone faceoff wins.

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