In a year when so many NHL starting goaltenders are either injured (Jonathan Quick, Pekka Rinne) or struggling (Henrik Lundqvist, Jimmy Howard, Cam Ward, Craig Anderson), it is rapidly evolving into the year of the backup (see Josh Harding, Minnesota Wild, or Justin Peters, Carolina Hurricanes) – where in many cases, the understudy is outshining the high-priced, high-profile star.
But no one is writing a better script right now than the Los Angeles Kings' rookie netminder Martin Jones, who started the year No. 3 on the organizational depth chart, but is in the running for player of the month in December – that is, if it isn't Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, whose personal rivalry is finally starting to hum again.
Jones, 23, is an undrafted free agent signed by the Kings from the WHL's Calgary Hitmen because they liked what they saw of him when he came to their 2008 training camp on a tryout basis. Since getting a chance to play following three weeks of warming the bench for Ben Scrivens, Jones merely won his first eight NHL starts, tying a record for consecutive winning games to begin a career – and his strong play is forcing the Kings to re-think their plans for him, with Quick scheduled to return sometime in early January.
Make no mistake about this: Internally, the Kings have known for a while what they had in Jones. He starred in the American League last season and it was his presence in the organization that permitted them to sacrifice Jonathan Bernier in the trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer. But they also thought one more year in the minors would make Jones's game more NHL ready; and in the meantime, Scrivens, who came over in the Bernier deal, would be a more than adequate backup for Quick.
Originally, the plan was to keep Jones around only as long as it took Quick to recover from a bad groin injury and then he'd go back down for the rest of the year, with a view to starting full time in the NHL next season. By then, Scrivens would have moved on – either via a trade at the deadline or as an unrestricted free agent.
But Jones has played so well – his 0.98 goals-against average and .966 save percentage would lead the league if he'd made enough starts – that the Kings are faced with a tough call: Would a return to Manchester actually set back his development?
He looks ready – more than ready – right now; and it may well be that when Quick returns, the Kings will carry three goalies for a while and test the market sooner than anticipated to gauge the interest in Scrivens.
Goalies, of course, are hard to move mid-season. The Nashville Predators were casting about for goaltending help earlier this year, but couldn't get anything going with the Anaheim Ducks, another California team up to its ears in netminding depth.
The Preds got bad news this week on Rinne – he's been asked to taper his conditioning workouts for the next two weeks – at which point they'll re-evaluate where he's at, recovering from a staph infection in his hip that's kept out since early November.
Without Rinne, the Predators have been muddling along near the bottom of the Western Conference, getting great goaltending some nights and average goaltending a lot of others, but they have no plans to move on a goalie now – crossing their fingers that Rinne will return sometime in January unless there's another setback. Rinne is signed for five more years after this one at $7-million per season, so for better or worse, the Predators need to be patient with him and ensure that above all else, he gets over this illness.
If the Kings do make Scrivens available, the problem is going to be getting value for him.
Teams will ask – fairly – are all the L.A. goalies just a product of the Kings' system? The answer is no, not entirely. Scrivens and Jones have actually been better, on balance, than Quick, who was having just an okay season (10-5, 2.35 GAA, .905 save percentage) before he got hurt. The Kings have lost just twice in regulation since Quick's injury Nov. 12, a monumental achievement and a testament to their relentlessly solid defensive play.
Style-wise, Jones and Quick look a lot alike. They are athletic, usually square to the shooter, great going post-to-post, getting the pads down on the ice and taking away the bottom of the net 100 per cent of the time. Jones is from Vancouver and played for the 2010 Canadian world junior team as the backup to St. Louis Blues prospect Jake Allen, but was never drafted. Much of his development can be credited to the Kings dynamic duo of goaltending coaches – Bill Ranford, who is on Darryl Sutter's coaching staff, and Kim Dillabough, who is their goaltender development coach. Ranford's instructional work in particular is starting to get noticed by, among others, Hockey Canada.
Jones, meanwhile, is fitting in nicely with the Kings' dressing room culture which is to say, he deflects all questions about his own strong play back by discussing team goals in the tried-and-true Bull Durham, how-dull-can-I-make-this-sound way. This is how Sutter wants it – all we, no me.
When Jones won Saturday afternoon and looked good doing so, Sutter wouldn't even answer questions about his record-setting day, saying: "I don't want to talk about it. Talk about the team. One guy doesn't win games." Jones, meanwhile, blamed himself for allowing the game's second goal – gasp – acknowledging that yes, "it has been good. I've said it before it's a good start, but it's something to build off of and make sure we keep getting better here."
Meanwhile, through no real fault of his own, Scrivens is back on the bench, where he started the season, despite being the NHL's official leader in save percentage (.941) and No. 2 in goals-against average behind Harding (1.66). Sometimes, life is all being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes, it's just the opposite.
SHOOTOUT THOUGHTS: Jones, incidentally, has stopped all 12 shooters he's faced this year in two shootouts, nine in an earlier win over the Anaheim Ducks, three more in Saturday afternoon's victory over Colorado.
Avalanche coach-of-the-year candidate Patrick Roy had an interesting take on that. After first allowing that he doesn't "mind a shootout," Roy said he "honestly" thinks the NHL should go back to the system they had prior to the 2005-06 season, in which a game not won in overtime finished as a tie. "In the end, these are big points that teams pick up," said Roy, "and I think it would make a bid difference in the standings."
Would it ever make a difference in the NHL's weirdly skewed accounting system, which makes some games worth three points and others two? Under the current system of extra points being awarded for games that go to overtime, 11 of the 15 Western Conference teams are five or more games above the current definition of the .500 mark, while two others (the Winnipeg Jets and the Predators) were at .500, with the Jets set to play Vancouver on Sunday night.
Technically, it means the only two teams with losing records in the West are the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers, who are dead last with an 11-24-3 mark and are currently on pace to challenge the worst season in franchise history (60 points in the 84-game 1992-93 season). Players and coaches alike have clearly run out of answers in Oil Country, where more Oil Changes may be necessary once again. Edmonton has lost a season-high six games in a row and has been shut out three times in the past five games. Yikes, it's bad and getting worse in the Alberta provincial capital.
Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov had an ugly night during Saturday's 6-0 loss to the St. Louis Blues, but he'd been okay prior to that. The problem was familiar. The Oilers played well enough in the opening period to get a lead, but couldn't score – and when they fell behind by a couple of goals, the bottom just fell out on their team play.
Afterward, an increasingly frustrated coach, Dallas Eakins, didn't mince words: "I'm pinning this loss on the boneheaded mistakes we make when we have everything going in our favor. It is like we love misery. It's like, 'Oh hold on a second, things are going too well here. Let's have some misery.' I've had enough misery already and we've got some players who have been here for a number of years that have to be done with it. There has to be a change in the commitment level and the accountability from within the room."
You never know, it could happen.
The NHL is in its annual Christmas trading freeze right now, but you'd have to assume general manager Craig MacTavish understands what's needed – some sort of shake-up that gets the players' attention and gets them out of their current lethargic state. Right now, morale is about as low as it can possibly go. The playoffs are hopelessly out of reach, but even if it costs them a top-three draft choice, the Oilers have to start winning in the second half, if only to convince themselves that it's possible to do so with the core young group they've committed salary and term to (Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins).
"The biggest thing I see in our game right now, the thing that separates us from good teams, is we're not on the same page," said forward Jordan Eberle. "We don't play like a team. It's been like that in too many games."
ONE FINAL SHOOTOUT THOUGHT: The San Jose Sharks pulled one out of the fire Saturday night, recovering from a 2-0 deficit to the Dallas Stars to tie the game in regulation and then win in the fifth round of the shootout. That's where coach Todd McLellan elected to send out Joe Thornton to try his luck – and he was the only shooter to score.
Thornton got his chance three places earlier than when he scored the game winner in the eighth round of a shootout against the Kings back in November. Thornton isn't known as a scorer, but with his long reach and his soft hands, is fully capable of scoring on a breakaways and McLellan noted after the game that the Sharks may call his name more frequently, since he's won two games for them already this season.
THE SHARK BITE: Tomas Hertl's rookie of the year bid was likely derailed last week, when he had a knee-on-knee collision with Kings' captain Dustin Brown and suffered a serious injury on the play. Sharks general manager Doug Wilson confirmed that Hertl would miss at least a month and said the team was prepared for it to be longer, depending upon what tests show after the swelling in Hertl's knee subsides.
Hertl had spent most of the season on the top line playing with Thornton and Brent Burns, but with the Sharks in an offensive funk of late, McLellan switched it all up, and had Thornton playing with Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau against the Stars. It left Burns to play on a second line with the slumping Logan Couture and the mystifying Martin Havlat.
Couture had such a promising start for the Sharks this season that it looked as if he had booked his place on the Olympic team, but he's been ice cold of late, and was a non-factor against the Stars (who are coached by Lindy Ruff, a member of Mike Babcock's Canadian Olympic coaching staff). The Avalanche's Matt Duchene has made a big push since returning to the lineup from injury (Sutter called him the NHL's best player Saturday, which may be stretching the truth, but it doesn't alter the fact that he is playing really well again after a bit of a mid-season lull).
Duchene has had four multi-point games in a row. He, Couture and the Stars' Jamie Benn (whose numbers have also been just okay in December) are among the young players under consideration for Canada's Olympic team. If only one of the three makes it, Duchene has to be the current leader for that spot.
Hertl had 25 points in 35 games, although the pace of his scoring had tailed off after October, he was still the NHL's leading rookie scorer by five points over the Avalanche's Nathan MacKinnon, who has worked his way up to Colorado's top line with Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly. The hottest position player among rookies has to be the Stars' Valeri Nichuskin, who had a slow start, but is up to 18 points and playing regularly on the top line with Benn and Tyler Seguin.
THIS AND THAT: Rinne's absence certainly puts his place in the Olympic pecking order for Finland in question. At the start of the year, Rinne was the favorite for the starting role in what could be a crowded crease – lots of good Finnish goalies dot NHL lineups. Right now, the Boston Bruins Tuukka Rask has moved to the front of the line, though the Finns will likely place Rinne on the roster just because teams can name three goalies and can change their rosters if needed up to 24 hours before their opening games ... Sweden is likely still going to start Lundqvist in goal, but he is struggling through one of the toughest seasons of his NHL career, with only 10 victories in 27 decisions and not playing with nearly the same consistency that saw him win 30 games or more in his first seven NHL seasons and lead the league last year with 24 wins in the shortened 48-game season ... Of late, the New Jersey Devils, behind a series of record-setting performances by Jaromir Jagr, have vaulted back into playoff contention, something goaltender Martin Brodeur will acknowledge has a lot to do with the NHL's new divisional alignment. "We feel that we're playing some decent hockey and we have the luxury of being in the weakest division," said Brodeur, in giving the woeful Metropolitan Division a little love. "We have to take advantage of it. We can't just say, 'We're in the weakest.' We're got to start putting points on the board, and the last four games we just dropped one point. If we continue to do that, good things will happen for us." The ageless Jagr had three points in Saturday's comeback win over Washington, including the 694th goal of his career, tying him with Mark Messier for seventh on the all-time NHL's scoring list. Jagr has 11 points in his last seven games ... Even though he's just been with them since the start of the season, Vincent Lecavalier has become an important dressing room voice for the Philadelphia Flyers and his absence on a couple of separate occasions because of injury have really set them back. After missing nine games with a non-displaced fracture in his back, Lecavalier returned to the Flyers' lineup in a 6-3 loss to Columbus Saturday night, about a week ahead of schedule. Lecavalier was pressed into service when Steve Downie went down. Columbus also had an important figure return – Marian Gaborik – who'd missed 17 games with a knee injury. He lasted less than a period when he broke his collarbone on a hit by Zac Rinaldo and was placed back on injured reserve ... Also back on IR: Calgary's Curtis Glencross, injured in Saturday's loss to the Penguins, after only recently returning to the Flames' line-up earlier on the team's five-game (1-2-2) road trip.
AND FINALLY: Anaheim has quietly moved to the top of the NHL's overall standings after recording a franchise record eighth consecutive win over the New York Islanders Saturday, a victory keyed by Ryan Getzlaf's third four-point game of the season. Getzlaf's 19 goals are just six shy of his career high of 25, a level he hasn't reached in five years. Noteworthy about the Ducks' lineup versus the Islanders – they scratched Dustin Penner for the game. As well as Penner has played at different times this year; his effort and energy levels are maddeningly inconsistent. What's more, it's hard to believe that anyone would seriously consider him as a candidate for Canada's 2014 men's Olympic team, an idea floated on Hockey Night in Canada during Saturday night's telecast. One thought on that: There are only 14 available places for forwards on Canada's roster. If you take someone from the fringes of contention, you have to subtract someone else. Sometimes, when you listen to television analysts, it sounds as if 30 different forwards are mortal can't miss locks to make the final cut for Steve Yzerman's roster because they playing so well that you couldn't possibly leave them off. Do the math people. It's 14. That's it. Every year, you could pick a second Canadian Olympic team that's going to be competitive. Penner isn't going to make it. As noted last week, if they want someone familiar with Getzlaf and Corey Perry, they'll take Chris Kunitz of Pittsburgh, who also happens to have something going with that Crosby kid as well.
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