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Blittner’s Blue Line: Around The NHL One Week Before Opening Night

By Matt Blittner, The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com

We’re almost there. You can feel it in your bones. The taste of arena pretzels, the smell of beer and the cheers of close to 20,000 fans permeating through the chilled air. 

The National Hockey League’s 2021-22 season is almost here; just one week stands between us and Opening Night. But first, the pre-season must conclude and several topics need to be addressed.

1) ROBIN LEHNER SAID WHAT?

Over the weekend Vegas Golden Knights’ netminder Robin Lehner went on Twitter and accused teams across the NHL of giving players benzodiazepines and ambien without prescriptions. He went as far as to single out the Flyers for pushing these drugs on the team’s players and even tweeted to “Fire #Vigneault.”

This led many to believe Philadelphia Head Coach Alain Vigneualt was one of the drug pushing parties. However, right around the time Vigneault steadfastly refuted those claims on Monday morning, Lehner told NHL Insider, Elliotte Friedman that his statement about Vigneault was not connected to the drug pushing accusations. 

We do know the NHL has reached out to Lehner for an “interview” to discuss the allegations of improper drug prescribing. Many have accused the league of wanting to simply sweep this under the rug, while others around the league claim Lehner is lying. The goaltender took to Twitter shortly after his initial comments to adamantly defend himself and stated he is telling the truth. 

It’s no surprise there are dueling sides to this story. Back in 2019, The Athletic’s Katie Strang reported a story that detailed rampant illegal drug use going on in the NHL. While Strang’s story talked about party drugs being abused by NHL players and not psychiatric drugs being pushed by teams, it nevertheless proved what had been whispered for years — the NHL has a drug problem that it doesn’t want to admit.

Only time will tell if Lehner’s allegations bring about much needed change.

2) SPEAKING OF ALLEGATIONS

If it’s not one thing it’s another in regards to Sharks’ forward Evander Kane. Kane hasn’t done himself any favors over the years and his list of allies is considerably shorter than his enemies list. But never has he had an off-season and pre-season like this. First came a bankruptcy filing. Then, his soon-to-be ex-wife accused him on social media of gambling on his team’s games.

The NHL took the story seriously — as it should — and investigated the matter, only to discover there was no proof of Kane gambling on his team’s games.

Then, when Kane must have felt like he was out of the woods, his soon-to-be ex-wife accused him of domestic battery and sexual assault. This too is being investigated by multiple parties and in the meantime the Sharks have asked him to not attend Training Camp. 

I’m reminded of an old saying, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

3) PRE-SEASON GM’S VS. PRE-SEASON COACHES

Every year people openly debate the merits of the Pre-Season. Some complain it’s too long while others overreact to every little thing their team does.

So, it got me thinking…What do the NHL’s GMs and Coaches get out of the Pre-Season?

Well, the league’s General Managers use the exhibition schedule to evaluate their teams’ prospects. They look at who might be a contributor down the line. Who is worth keeping? Who should they trade to fill a hole? How can they get the best possible production out of the team for the fewest amount of dollars?

Meanwhile, the league’s Coaches use the exhibition games to get their teams ready for the upcoming season. Lineup decisions need to be made. Who makes the jump from the minors? Which veteran gets to stay? Who gets shipped out? Who’s going to be a starter? Who will function as a depth player? What type of chemistry does the team have? What style of play will get the most out of the team? 

Obviously, these are just a small sample of the questions that need to be answered by the GMs and Coaches. But you can see the inherent conflicts. One side is looking to the future while the other is living in the present. No wonder we hear about so many squabbles between GMs and Coaches. Their jobs are so different, yet they must work together to build their teams.

It almost makes me glad I sit in the press box and can watch this unfold without having a horse in the race. 

4) METRO MUSINGS

The Islanders and Rangers both hope to be playoff teams this year; a feat that hasn’t been achieved by both at the same time since the 2015-16 season. 

At first glance, the Islanders should be one of the league’s elite teams this year. After consecutive trips to the third-round of the playoffs, this could very well be the Isles’ year in going to the Stanley Cup Final…and maybe even hoisting The Cup too.

As for the Rangers, they haven’t played past the regular-season since the 2016-17 season and are only just beginning to reap the rewards of their rebuild. Although, with an impatient Owner (Jim Dolan) at the helm and a new President/GM (Chris Drury), as well as a new Head Coach (Gerard Gallant) running the show, the rebuild must pay off in a big way or else more heads will roll.

For both clubs, there are some blue line questions that must be answered. In the Islanders’ corner, the team must decide how to deploy the 44-year-old Zdeno Chara and the 38-year-old Andy Greene. 

Chara was brought in to help replace Nick Leddy, although their games are nothing alike. Can a second-pair of Chara and Scott Mayfield be successful with zero skating speed? Or will Chara partner with 21-year-old Noah Dobson, whom he has been paired with for most of camp? Can Dobson, who played a sheltered average of 16:24 per game last season on the Isles’ third-pair, make the jump to 20+ minutes per night on the second-pair? And can Chara still be relied upon during a long season to play consistent second-pair minutes?

As for Greene, if he and Dobson are split up, that means he’ll partner with Mayfield as the third-pair. While that’s a reasonable slot for the veteran Greene, it would be a demotion for Mayfield, who was often the team’s best overall blue liner last season. 

Just throwing this out there, but the want-to-be-Head-Coach in me says the Isles should try pairing Dobson and Mayfield on the second unit while the veterans Chara and Greene can reside on the third. This arraignment, of course, comes with its own set of problems, so I’m actually glad I’m not in Barry Trotz’s shoes.

Meanwhile, the Rangers have me flummoxed. The Blueshirts have two stud defense prospects in Zac Jones and Nils Lundkvist. Jones showed well in his brief NHL call-up last season and has been one of the best defenders in camp. Lundkvist, who is finally in North America after spending the last few seasons in Sweden, has been as advertised with his silky sweet passing and skating.

Both are young, inexperienced and bound to hit some speed bumps during the season. I get the team wanting to pair one of them with a veteran like Patrik Nemeth while getting their skates wet on the third D-pair. Unfortunately, this leaves one of the two youngsters out in the cold. It’s a logical move by the team, but I disagree with it.

If Jones beats out Lundkvist, the Swede will be sent to Hartford for extra seasoning. At this point in Lundkvist’s development, that’s not going to make him significantly better. However, if Jones is the one sent down then it’s an undeserved demotion. 

Neither will gain anything from being the spare seventh defenseman, a role which likely belongs to Jarred Tinordi. 

The team clearly doesn’t want to, nor should it want to, trade Jones or Lundkvist, so how about pairing them together? A third-pair of Jones-Lundkvist would go against the team’s mandate to be physically tougher to play against, but what a dazzling tandem they would be. So, how about this?

The first-pair of Ryan Lindgren and Adam Fox should stay together. Then, instead of keeping K’Andre Miller with Jacob Trouba, how about you mix it up like this? Miller-Lundkvist and Jones-Trouba. Each could rotate between being the second- and third-pair on a nightly basis and it would allow Gallant to evenly distribute the minutes not given to Lindgren and Fox. The only downside is that Miller is still young and growing, which means he wouldn’t be much of a mentor to Lundkvist and Trouba is getting paid too much money to be on the third-pair.

Look, I never said it was a perfect solution, but it’s definitely one worth trying in my opinion.

5) GET WELL SOON

The hockey world was given some scary news over the past several days as Edmonton’s Josh Archibald was diagnosed with a heart condition called myocarditis, which was likely caused by a bout with COVID-19 over the summer. The other scary news was that Nashville Predators’ Assistant Coach Todd Richards suffered a heart-attack on Friday. Richards has already been released from the hospital and is expected to make a full recovery.

These are reminders you should never take life for granted and we wish them both speedy recoveries and hope to see them back at the rink in due time.

That’s all for this week’s Blittner’s Blue Line. Next week be on the lookout for a full season preview.

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