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Teams asking more from their stars in short season

by John Kreiser

With the 2012-13 season reduced from 82 to 48 games, NHL teams are asking for more work from a lot of their top players in the early going.

Florida's Brian Campbell and Chicago's Duncan Keith topped all players last season with an average time on ice of 26:53. Three weeks into this season, seven players are averaging more than that, with Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson on top at 28:30 per game. Ottawa's Erik Karlsson (27:59), Los Angeles' Drew Doughty (27:52), Toronto's Dion Phaneuf (27:35) and Minnesota's Ryan Suter (27:23) also are over 27 minutes a game.

In all, 20 players are averaging at least 25 minutes of ice time a game so far this season, compared with just 11 in 2011-12.

Jack Johnson
Jack Johnson
Defense - CBJ
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 3 | PTS: 4
SOG: 26 | +/-: -4
No one has worked harder than Johnson, who averaged 23:46 while splitting 2011-12 between Los Angeles and Columbus. This season he's played more than 34 minutes in back-to-back games against Detroit (34:59) and Los Angeles (34:13) before seeing "only" 27:10 of ice time in Thursday's 4-3 overtime loss to Calgary. His ice time against Detroit last Saturday was the most of any player in a game this season and the most by anyone in franchise history. No NHL player had seen more ice time in a game since Dan Boyle, then with Tampa Bay, played 37:03 in a 5-3 loss to Boston on Feb. 23, 2008.

One of a kind -- Not surprisingly, the top of the ice time list is dominated by defensemen -- after all, teams have just three defense pairs as opposed to four forward lines, and a top defenseman will see action on the power play and penalty kill. That's what makes New Jersey's Ilya Kovalchuk so remarkable.

Kovalchuk is working hard for his money -- he's 10th among all players with average ice time of 26:02, making him the only forward among the top 60 and the only one averaging more than 22 minutes a game; the Islanders' John Tavares is second at 21:52, two seconds per game more than Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis. Kovalchuk was known almost exclusively for his offensive prowess before coming to the Devils three years ago, but he's now so solid defensively that the Devils use him as a penalty-killer -- his shorthanded goal Thursday keyed a 4-2 victory against Tampa Bay.

The big workload is nothing new for Kovalchuk -- he averaged 24:26 last season, 18th among all players and easily tops among forwards. He also was tops among forwards in 2010-11 at 22:33.

Different standards -- Teams figure to need anywhere from 53 to 56 points from this season's 48-game schedule to make the playoffs. But if the first three weeks of the season are any indication, that number will be a little higher for Western Conference teams, where the number of games going past regulation is far higher than in the East.

There have been 75 games played between Western Conference teams this season -- and 23 (30.7 percent) have gone to overtime or a shootout, meaning that the losing team took home a point.

Projected over this season's full schedule, Western Conference games would generate an extra 110 points; the East, where just 13 of 77 games needed more than 60 minutes to decide a winner, would generate only 61.

There's no inter-conference play this season, and that figures to be a good thing for Eastern teams -- the West has a winning record against the East in every season since the shootout was instituted in 2005-06.

Harbinger of victory -- James Neal scored for Pittsburgh on Thursday, so naturally the Penguins won.

Neal scored his seventh of the season in Pittsburgh's 5-2 victory against Washington as the Penguins improved to 6-0-0 when the 2012 All-Star scores a goal (he has one two-goal game). They were pretty successful when he scored last season as well, with a 24-5-3 record in the 32 games he needed to score 40 goals.

Change of scenery -- The Philadelphia Flyers got tired of waiting for James van Riemsdyk to live up to the potential that made him the second player taken in the 2007 NHL Draft, so they traded him to Toronto last summer.

So far, the Leafs have to be happy with what they've seen. Van Riemsdyk has six goals in the Leafs' first 11 games, including two on Tuesday against Washington. That's the same number he scored in his last 31 games last season.

Wrong place, wrong time -- The first 10 games of the season have been tough for the Colorado Avalanche, who are off to a 4-6-0 start and have been shut out three times.

It's been especially frustrating for defenseman Ryan O'Byrne, who leads the NHL in an inconvenient category -- he's been in the penalty box for five opposition power-play goals, the most of any player in the first three weeks of the season. He's been in the box for more power-play goals than four entire teams have allowed.

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