Edmonton's Taylor Hall shoulders the franchise's future, takes Kevin Lowe's number

taylorhall2.jpgWhile last year was one to forget for the Edmonton Oilers, the future is shaping up to potentially great. Today, the Oilers introduced three of their rookies who could be the cornerstones of the next wave of Oilers greats in Taylor Hall, Magnus Paajarvi and Jordan Eberle. One of those three will be wearing a number that’s been worn by only one other player in Oilers history.

With eyes fixed on the future, the Edmonton Oilers reached into their storied past Wednesday as president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe presented Taylor Hall with jersey No. 4.

In a symbolic and timely gesture, Lowe, the Oilers’ first-ever draft pick and only player to wear the number since Edmonton entered the NHL in 1979, passed his No. 4 to Hall, the centrepiece of a full-scale rebuild in Edmonton and the franchise’s first No. 1 overall draft pick.

“It’s a very cool number,” Hall said. “It’s just kind of passing the torch, you know?

“He’s been a big part of this organization for a very long time and I realize that. At the same time, they feel I’m a player who can come in and make an impact. Maybe wearing this No. 4 is going to do that.”

Hall wore No. 4 with the Windsor Spitfires in the OHL and after being drafted by the Oilers, most fans wondered if he would get to wear his number. With Lowe being an executive with the Oilers and being the only guy to wear the number, some thought it might not happen even though the number isn’t retired. Instead, Lowe gave Hall his blessing to wear it. Clearly, the Oilers aren’t worried about putting any pressure on Hall.

It’s expected that all three players in Hall, Paajarvi, and Eberle will start the year in Edmonton and stick there and why shouldn’t they? The Oilers were brutal last year and while Ales Hemsky and Sheldon Souray were out for most of the season and Nikolai Khabibulin’s back wouldn’t allow him to play, hopes are high in Edmonton and while it may not pay off immediately, the amount of fun young talent there will eventually pay off. This is just the beginning.

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    Konecny’s OT goal lifts Flyers to another win, puts them back in playoff spot

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    The Philadelphia Flyers are on some kind of a roll, and now they are back in a playoff position.

    They were 2-1 winners in Washington on Sunday afternoon thanks to an overtime goal from Travis Konecny, giving the Flyers their seventh win in their past eight games.

    Sunday’s win helped the Flyers jump over the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers for a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, while also bringing them to within a single point of the Columbus Blue Jackets for third place in the Metropolitan Division and just two points of the New Jersey Devils for second place.

    Considering that this is a team that lost 10 games in a row between Nov. 11 and Dec. 2 it is a pretty remarkable turnaround.

    Since that losing streak came to an end the Flyers are 15-5-1.

    The driving force behind the turnaround has been the trio of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier. Those three were relatively quiet from an offensive perspective on Sunday (Couturier did get an assist on Konecny’s winner) but the Flyers were still able to come away with the win.

    The big difference maker on Sunday was goaltender Brian Elliott thanks to his 27 stops. He was at his best in the first period when he made a handful of stellar stops on Alex Ovechkin, including this point-blank stop when the game was still scoreless.

    Elliott was in need of a game like this because he had not played well over the past few weeks, giving up at least three goals in each of his past seven appearances. Only once during that stretch did he record a save percentage higher than .900 in a single game, and even that game was only .903.

    Ovechkin did end up scoring his league-leading 29th goal in the second period, scoring on a power the play, but it was the only shot the Capitals would get behind Elliott.

    Michael Raffl also scored for the Flyers in the win.

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

    The Golden Knights keep getting better, more powerful

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    Here is a sentence that would have been laughable to even suggest back in October: If the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday night they will move into sole possession for first place in the entire NHL.

    At this point the Golden Knights, the NHL’s latest expansion team, are no longer just a fun story: They are a contender, a legitimate one, and they only keep getting stronger as the season progresses. There is a pretty convincing argument to be made that they actually are the best team in hockey at the moment.

    Entering play on Sunday Vegas is on a 15-3-3 run since Dec. 1.

    What is even more impressive than the record itself is the way they are starting to dominate games.

    When Vegas found its initial success it was easy to kind of downplay it as a team that was simply riding a wave of hot goaltending that would, inevitably, regress. Whenever that regression happened the expectation was that they would start to play like a regular expansion team and start losing.

    For a while, there was a lot of evidence to suggest that was going to be the case.

    In that first month Vegas was losing the shot bottle, it was losing the possession battle, and with Marc-Andre Fleury sidelined it was relying on a patchwork group of goaltenders to somehow steal games.

    But take a look at what has happened in each month since looking at their Corsi percentage (shot attempts at even-strength) and PDO (even-strength shooting percentage plus even-strength save percentage).

    The slow start is understandable. It was a new team with what was thought to be an undermanned roster that had never played together.  Since then they have steadily gone from being one of the worst possession teams in the league in the first month that got by on what was mostly percentage driven good fortune, to a team that has been, at least in January, the absolute best possession team in the league.

    If you look at December and January together (the aforementioned 15-3-3 stretch) the Golden Knights are the the seventh-best possession team. They have only been outshot five times in those 21 games, and only three of those teams outshot them by more than five.

    [Related: Revisiting the trades that built one of the NHL’s best lines in Vegas]

    By comparison, Vegas has outshot nine teams by at least five, including seven by at least 10 shots during that same stretch.

    There is still an element of some percentage driven luck here, especially when it comes to the goaltending. Fleury is not going to maintain a .945 save percentage for the rest of the season, and William Karlsson still can not miss when the puck is on his stick. He may have deserved more of a look in his previous stops in Anaheim and Columbus, but he is also not a 26 percent shooter every season.

    But the fact the Golden Knights are starting to drive possession and control the overwhelming majority of the shot attempts is not only incredibly impressive, it is extremely encouraging for their outlook for the remainder of the season.

    They are not just getting the results at the moment, the process driving the results is sound as well.

    From the very beginning absolutely everything has clicked for them. The goaltending has been sensational, their top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith has found immediate chemistry, and they are playing a fast, aggressive style of hockey that is starting to overwhelm teams.

    Even if Vegas played the remainder of the season at the level of a normal expansion team (let’s say a .400 points percentage) they would still finish with 94 points on the season. There is nothing to suggest they will play at that level. Instead, if they keep playing the way they have been for the better part of the past two months they are going to be giving Tampa Bay, Boston, and Nashville a run for the Presidents’ Trophy. In their very first season.

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz

    Team USA general manager Jim Johannson dies at age 53

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    Sad news from USA hockey on Sunday morning as the organization announced that Jim Johannson, the assistant executive director or USA Hockey and the general manager of the 2018 men’s Olympic hockey team, has died at the age of 53.

    According to the announcement, Johannson passed away in his sleep early Sunday morning at his home in Colorado Springs.

    “We are beyond shocked and profoundly saddened,” Pat Kelleher, executive director of USA Hockey, said in a statement released by the organization.

    “As accomplished as Jim was in hockey, he was the absolute best, most humble, kind and caring person you could ever hope to meet. His impact on our sport and more importantly the people and players in our sport have been immeasurable. Our condolences go out to his entire family, but especially to his loving wife Abby and their young daughter Ellie.”

    “In building the teams that achieved so much success for USA Hockey, Jim Johannson had a sharp eye for talent, a strong sense of chemistry and a relentless pursuit of excellence,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in a statement. “The NHL family’s respect for Jim’s contributions to hockey, at all levels, is exceeded only by our shock and sorrow over his sudden passing. We send strength, comfort and condolences to Jim’s wife, Abby, his daughter, Ellie, and his many friends in our sport. As we mourn his loss, we will remember the positive outlook Jim brought to his tireless efforts to advance USA Hockey.”

    He had been with USA Hockey since 2000. During his time Team USA won 64 medals (34 gold) at various international tournaments.

    He helped assemble the 2018 men’s team which will be using non-NHL players for the first time since the 1994 games.

    Johannson played hockey at the collegiate level for the University of Wisconsin and was a seventh-round draft pick by the Hartford Whalers in 1982. He never made it to the NHL but had a successful career in the International Hockey League playing for the Salt Lake Golden Eagles, Indianapolis Ice, and Milwaukee Admirals.

    Along with being one of the top executives for USA hockey for years, Johannson also represented Team USA on the ice as a player during the 1988 games in Calgary and the 1992 games in Albertville.

    He scored two goals for Team USA in Olympic competition.

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

    WATCH LIVE: Philadelphia Flyers at Washington Capitals

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    PROJECTED LINES

    Philadelphia Flyers

    Forwards

    Claude GirouxSean CouturierTravis Konecny

    Michael RafflValtteri Filppula – Jake Voracek

    Jordan WealNolan PatrickWayne Simmonds

    Jori LehteraScott Laughton – Tyrell Goulbourne

    Defense

    Ivan ProvorovShayne Gostisbehere

    Robert Hägg – Andrew MacDonald

    Brandon ManningRadko Gudas

    Starting Goalie: Brian Elliott

    [NHL ON NBC: FLYERS LOOK TO STAY HOT AGAINST CAPITALS]

    Washington Capitls

    Forwards

    Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson

    Andrei Burakovsky – Nicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie

    Chandler StephensonLars EllerBrett Connolly

    Devante Smith-PellyJay BeagleAlex Chiasson

    Defense

    Christian DjoosJohn Carlson

    Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen

    Brooks OrpikMadison Bowey

    Starting Goalie: Braden Holtby

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.