All posts by Josh Gold-Smith

Hart Trophy Power Rankings: McDavid, Matthews going toe-to-toe

We're still less than halfway through the 2021 NHL season and dozens of games have been rescheduled due to COVID-19. However, while the sample size remains relatively small, it's large enough to have a better idea of who's in the Hart Trophy running.

Two otherworldly players have put some distance between themselves and the field. While they each have a compelling case as the front-runner, one of them has been more valuable than the other so far.

Here are our top five MVP candidates at this juncture:

5. Nathan MacKinnon

Christian Petersen / Getty Images Sport / Getty
GP G A ATOI xGF% SCF%
15 4 14 20:32 59.21 62.07

MacKinnon hasn't lit the world on fire in terms of goal-scoring this season, but he remains elite at playmaking and driving possession. The perennial Hart Trophy candidate has produced exceptional analytic figures, recording a 61.52 Corsi For percentage and a high-danger Corsi For percentage of 55.

The Colorado Avalanche have played fewer games than many other teams due to COVID-19 postponements; perhaps those interruptions have made it tough for MacKinnon to establish his typical clockwork scoring. Nevertheless, he's still one of the league's best players, and he's been exceedingly valuable to a very strong Avalanche club.

MacKinnon has figured in on 39% of Colorado's goals this season, so even though he isn't lighting the lamp at his usual rate, he's still helped create more than one-third of his team's offensive output. He leads the Avalanche in points and has racked up four more than his next-closest teammate. These trends show how much even a deep team like Colorado heavily relies on MacKinnon's contributions.

4. Leon Draisaitl

Jeff Vinnick / National Hockey League / Getty
GP G A ATOI xGF% SCF%
22 10 24 22:03 49.78 46.95

Draisaitl isn't a top three Hart contender this time around, but the 2019-20 recipient has been excellent this season.

The German center has again proven he can excel without Connor McDavid at five-on-five, though he still benefits from playing alongside the 2017 MVP on the Edmonton Oilers' effective power play.

However, Draisaitl's underlying numbers at five-on-five are illuminating - his expected goals for percentage in those situations is under 50, and significantly lower than his goals for percentage of 75.

Still, he's piling up points at an impressive clip. While the 25-year-old has scored half of his goals with the man advantage, he deserves recognition for picking up where he left off offensively in 2019-20.

3. Patrick Kane

Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images Sport / Getty
GP G A ATOI xGF% SCF%
21 10 21 22:13 43.9 45.21

Kane has been a dark horse candidate for most of the season. The Chicago Blackhawks superstar is the biggest reason his team has exceeded expectations despite numerous injuries and long-term absences.

The 32-year-old has only one more goal than Alex DeBrincat, but Kane is creating more offense than his linemate. Kane's assist total is more than double the number of DeBrincat and Dominik Kubalik's helpers (10 apiece), and Kane has 13 more points than DeBrincat, his next-closest teammate.

Kane has been on an unreal tear lately, notching five goals and 15 assists in his last 10 games, including a four-point effort Tuesday night - his second such performance this season. He already has nine multi-point nights in 2021. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Chicago, but the game-breaking winger's exploits have the Blackhawks in a playoff spot.

2. Auston Matthews

Claus Andersen / Getty Images Sport / Getty
GP G A ATOI xGF% SCF%
20 18 13 21:54 56.1 59.13

Matthews has cemented his spot as a serious Hart Trophy contender with a remarkable scoring run. The Toronto Maple Leafs dynamo, who leads the NHL in goals by a wide margin, scored 10 tallies during an eight-game streak before notching seven goals over a four-game run.

Toronto's franchise cornerstone has amassed twice as many goals as his next-closest teammate, Mitch Marner. Marner is one point behind Matthews thanks to his team-leading 21 assists, but 11 of those helpers came on Matthews' markers. The American center has scored a whopping 24.3% of Toronto's goals in 2021.

Matthews has also improved defensively, ranking at or near the top of the NHL among forwards in puck battle wins, stick checks, blocked passes, and blocked shots, according to Sportlogiq's Mike Kelly.

His performance is even more impressive considering his wrist has bothered him for most of the campaign. Matthews would be a shoo-in for this honor if not for one man.

1. Connor McDavid

Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire / Getty
GP G A ATOI xGF% SCF%
22 14 26 22:33 61.11 58.43

McDavid is the NHL's most talented player, and he's been the league's most valuable one in 2021.

The Oilers megastar has authored stellar underlying numbers across the board, in addition to his typically excellent conventional figures. His expected goals percentage is higher than his goals for percentage. It's the opposite for Matthews.

McDavid has played at a Hart Trophy level for most of the season. He's figured in on an astounding 51% of the Oilers' goals, though Draisaitl has helped create 43% of them. McDavid isn't scoring at Matthews' blistering pace, but that isn't the lone consideration when it comes to the MVP race.

In addition to the eye-popping analytics and McDavid's hefty share of Edmonton's offensive production, he's also leading the NHL in points and ranks second among forwards in average ice time behind Marner.

Honorable mentions: Marc-Andre Fleury, Anze Kopitar, Mark Scheifele, Marner.

(Analytics source: Natural Stat Trick)

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Keefe: Matthews has battled wrist injury ‘virtually all season’

Auston Matthews' bid for the Hart Trophy looks even more impressive following a postgame revelation from Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe.

Matthews didn't take the first faceoff in overtime during the Maple Leafs' 2-1 win over the Calgary Flames on Wednesday night, and Keefe explained why afterward.

Keefe added that the injury will be treated and monitored, but he doesn't believe it's any worse than what the superstar forward has dealt with throughout the campaign, according to TSN's Kristen Shilton.

Matthews, who leads the NHL with 18 goals, assisted on both of William Nylander's markers against the Flames on Wednesday.

In doing so, Matthews became only the third player in Maple Leafs history to notch a point in at least 18 of his first 20 contests in a season, joining Babe Dye (19 in 1921-22) and Darryl Sittler (18 in 1975-76).

The 23-year-old center put together a pair of stellar scoring runs earlier in 2021, racking up 11 goals over 10 games from Jan. 16 to Feb. 8 and amassing another seven across four contests from Feb. 15 to 20. He's averaging nearly 22 minutes of ice time.

It's unclear if it's related, but Matthews sat out last season's on-ice All-Star events to receive treatment for an ongoing wrist condition. He did attend the festivities.

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KHL never received any complaint linked to Panarin abuse allegation

The KHL says it was never apprised of any matter pertaining to Andrei Nazarov's recent abuse allegation regarding Artemi Panarin.

The league has "not been aware of or received a complaint in relation to any incident involving Artemi Panarin in December 2011," the KHL said in a statement to ESPN's Emily Kaplan.

If a complaint had been made, the league insisted Wednesday it would have investigated, "as we take any allegations of misconduct incredibly seriously."

Panarin is at his home in Connecticut and doesn't intend to fly home to Russia at the moment, reports Kaplan.

The New York Rangers star stepped away from the team indefinitely Monday in the wake of Nazarov's allegation that Panarin got into a physical altercation with an 18-year-old woman on a KHL road trip to Riga, Latvia. The Rangers called the story "fabricated" and "unfounded," while throwing their full support behind the forward.

No evidence has been presented, no victim has come forward, and no court or police records have been found that would corroborate Nazarov's allegation since Panarin took leave, according to Kaplan.

Nazarov, a former NHLer who coached Panarin with KHL club Vityaz at the time, is a known supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Panarin has shown solidarity with opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was sentenced to more than three years in prison earlier this month after being poisoned over the summer.

The Rangers believe Nazarov's claims are in retaliation for Panarin's Instagram post in January, according to Kaplan. Panarin captioned the post "freedom for Navalny" in Russian.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league is also looking into the allegations.

Several of Panarin's former teammates with Vityaz questioned the allegations and defended him Tuesday.

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Gallagher fumes after Canadiens’ late winner overturned on review

Brendan Gallagher wasn't happy after officials disallowed what would have been the winning goal for his Montreal Canadiens against the Ottawa Senators in the dying seconds of regulation.

Phillip Danault appeared to score with about two seconds remaining in the third period to give the Canadiens a 5-4 lead, but the NHL's Situation Room initiated a goaltender interference review and nixed the goal. The game ultimately went to overtime, and the Senators won in a shootout.

The league explained postgame that Gallagher "impaired Ottawa goaltender Matt Murray's ability to play his position in the crease prior to the puck entering the net."

Gallagher disagreed with that assessment.

"I get knocked on my ass - I have time to reset, you can't tell me the goalie doesn't have time to reset," the Canadiens forward said, according to Sportsnet's Eric Engels.

Gallagher added that the NHL shows teams a video depicting goaltender interference every season, and he saw one in which Toronto Maple Leafs netminder Frederik Andersen got pushed but was able to recover, so the goal stood. Gallagher said the officials received the same video, and he wasn't happy about what he viewed as inconsistency in that regard.

The veteran forward believes video reviews have had a negative effect on the sport.

"To me, it's ruined the product," he said, according to The Athletic's Arpon Basu.

Tuesday's disallowed goal was the second controversial ruling impacting the Canadiens in a span of three days. On Saturday night, the NHL initially upheld a Montreal goal that cut the Maple Leafs' lead to 4-3 in the second period. However, the Leafs then challenged the play for goalie interference, and the goal was overturned. Toronto won that contest 5-3.

Canadiens head coach Claude Julien chose not to use a coach's challenge following the official review Tuesday night.

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Panarin’s ex-KHL teammates dispute assault allegation

Several of Artemi Panarin's former teammates in the KHL are questioning Andrei Nazarov's allegation that the New York Rangers star committed assault over nine years ago.

"(Panarin) was a great kid, I have nothing but nice things to say about him, so when I heard that, I was like, 'Oh, that doesn't sound like him,'" Jon Mirasty told the New York Post's Mollie Walker. "And I'm pretty sure I would have heard something like that, you know, being one of the older veteran players there.

"I never heard anything like that, so I was kind of blown away. I'm obviously not saying it didn't happen, but if I were to guess, (it didn't.) And why is it coming out 10 years later?"

Mirasty also said the allegation doesn't "add up to me."

Another one of Panarin's then-teammates, Kip Brennan, echoed that sentiment.

"I didn't know or hear that something like that ever happened," Brennan said. "He was a great guy, he was hilarious in the locker room. He always worked on his English with the North American guys and was a very talented young player."

Two other former teammates, who wish to stay anonymous, concurred with Mirasty and Brennan's assessments.

They all played with Panarin on KHL club Vityaz in 2011-12. Nazarov, a former NHLer who was the team's head coach at the time, recently told a Russian tabloid that Panarin got into a physical altercation with an 18-year-old woman during a road trip in Riga, Latvia, in December 2011.

Panarin took an indefinite leave from the Rangers on Monday, and the NHL club said the star forward "vehemently and unequivocally denies any and all allegations in this fabricated story." The club also called Nazarov's allegation "unfounded" and expressed its full support for the player.

Nazarov has been a vocal proponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Panarin has expressed support for opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was sentenced to three and a half years in prison earlier this month after being poisoned in August.

Panarin shared an Instagram post captioned "freedom for Navalny" in Russian in January, and Mirasty told Walker he's seen Panarin decry the Putin-led government.

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NHL reschedules 31 games

The NHL has altered the dates and/or start times for dozens of games.

These 24 contests have all been fully rescheduled:

All times in p.m. ET.

Away Home Original Date New Date (Time)
Tampa Bay Lightning Dallas Stars Feb. 18 March 2 (8:30)
Philadelphia Flyers Pittsburgh Penguins April 13 March 6 (1:00)
Nashville Predators Stars Feb. 15 March 7 (8:00)
Stars Columbus Blue Jackets March 15 March 14 (5:00)
Lightning Stars Feb. 20 March 16 (8:30)
Predators Stars Feb. 16 March 21 (8:30)
Florida Panthers Lightning March 16 March 21 (4:00)
St. Louis Blues Colorado Avalanche April 20 April 2 (9:00)
Flyers Boston Bruins March 7 April 5 (7:00)
Bruins Flyers April 5 April 10 (2:00)
Stars Predators April 29 April 11 (8:00)
Flyers Washington Capitals Feb.9 April 13 (7:00)
Lightning Predators April 12 April 13 (8:00)
New York Islanders Bruins April 14 April 15 (7:00)
Chicago Blackhawks Predators April 4 April 19 (8:00)
Avalanche Blues Feb. 7 April 20 (8:00)
Flyers New York Rangers Feb. 14 April 22 (7:00)
Stars Lightning March 1 April 29 (7:00)
Stars Lightning May 4 May 5 (7:00)
Blackhawks Carolina Hurricanes Feb. 20 May 6 (7:00)
Stars Lightning May 10 May 7 (7:00)
Stars Blackhawks May 6 May 9 (7:00)
Hurricanes Predators May 7 May 10 (8:00)
Stars Blackhawks May 8 May 10 (8:00)

These six games have new start times:

Away Home Date Original Time New Time
Stars Blue Jackets March 13 7:00 5:00
Predators Lightning March 15 7:00 4:00
Arizona Coyotes Anaheim Ducks March 20 10:00 8:00
Blackhawks Lightning March 20 7:00 4:00
Predators Panthers March 20 7:00 2:00
Blues Avalanche April 3 3:00 9:00

Lastly, the Lightning-Panthers game originally slated for May 6 will be rescheduled on a date to be announced later.

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Sabres’ McCabe expected to miss 6-8 months with knee injuries

Jake McCabe's season appears to be over.

The Buffalo Sabres defenseman will likely be out six-to-eight months after hurting the ACL, MCL, and meniscus in his right knee during a win over the New Jersey Devils on Saturday, the Sabres announced Monday.

More to come.

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Canadiens’ goal vs. Maple Leafs overturned on 2nd review

The NHL reversed its initial ruling to nullify a Montreal Canadiens goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night.

The Canadiens scored to cut the Maple Leafs' lead to 4-3 late in the second period.

The officials reviewed the play and upheld the goal, but the Maple Leafs then used a coach's challenge, claiming there had been goaltender interference. Montreal forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi appeared to push Toronto goaltender Frederik Andersen's pad into the net along with the puck.

The goal was reviewed for a second time, and the league overturned the initial call.

The NHL later issued an explanation but only referenced the goaltender interference challenge, saying it wiped out the goal because Kotkaniemi did indeed push Andersen's pad.

Kotkaniemi scored earlier in the second period to cut the Maple Leafs' lead to 2-1.

The Maple Leafs defeated the Canadiens 5-3, thanks in large part to Auston Matthews, who racked up two goals and two assists.

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Avalanche-Golden Knights game at Lake Tahoe delayed until 9 p.m. PT

The NHL delayed the resumption of Saturday's outdoor game featuring the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights until midnight ET due to poor ice conditions caused by extreme sun.

"We've played in rain, we've played in snow," the commissioner said while confirming the suspension of play on NBC, according to the Toronto Star's Kevin McGran. "Sunshine has always been our enemy."

The two teams completed the first period, with the Avalanche taking a 1-0 lead into the intermission. The start of the second frame was delayed for over an hour before Bettman made the announcement.

When play resumes, the game will air on Sportsnet and TVA Sports in Canada. It will shift from NBC to NBCSN in the United States.

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Krueger: Sabres ‘don’t believe in themselves’

Ralph Krueger believes his Buffalo Sabres are dealing with a crisis of confidence.

The head coach said it was evident in a 3-1 loss to the Washington Capitals on Thursday.

"One of my biggest takes out of that game was the fragile psychological state of the team right now," Krueger told the Buffalo News' Mike Harrington on Friday. "And (the importance of) managing that properly so that there is an edge, but that the edge doesn't go over to being too tight - which is exactly what is our biggest enemy at the moment. Everybody's trying to play within the right principles, they're trying to execute properly and almost squeezing our sticks too hard.

"They're fragile right now," he added. "They don't believe in themselves and they don't see themselves celebrating; they see themselves missing the net, hitting the shaft of the goalie, not finding the hole between the legs that they usually find."

Buffalo entered Friday's action ranking near the bottom of the league with a 4-7-2 record. The Sabres did not play at all in the first two weeks of February due to postponements after many of their players landed on the NHL's COVID-19 protocol list and Krueger tested positive. However, Buffalo has lost three straight games since resuming play, scoring only two goals combined in those defeats - both coming on the power play.

Before Friday's games, the Sabres ranked last in the league in goals for percentage at 35.71, but sat 13th in expected goals percentage with a favorable rate of 51.51, according to Natural Stat Trick.

The team's best players have been largely unlucky to begin the season. Jack Eichel has produced 12 points but only two goals in 13 games and has authored a 4.5 shooting percentage. That's well below his average of 10.8 from previous campaigns. Taylor Hall has collected only a goal to go along with his eight assists in 13 contests while shooting at just a 3% clip, down from his average of 10.4 in past seasons.

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