Hockey Day Preview: Top 5 underrated players who will play in Sunday’s games

One of the great things about Hockey Day in America is how it’s going to shine the spotlight on the greatest game on ice for a day. Just take a quick look at the four games lined up and hockey fans will see visions of superstars taking on superstars. You see Alexander Ovechkin cutting to the middle of the ice and firing a shot towards Ryan Miller. Maybe you think of Claude Giroux and Danny Briere coming down on a 2-on-1 against Marc Staal and Henrik Lundqvist. You think of Pavel Datsyuk dangling on Brent Burns in front of a crazy crowd in the State of Hockey. You may picture Duncan Keith trying to escape an intense forecheck from Jordan Staal. Pick a game and there’s plenty of star-power.

But for all the stars that will be in the spotlight on Sunday, there will be plenty of unsung heroes who will play in the shadowst. We’re talking about the guys who are valuable to their team on a nightly basis; the types of players fans passionately love, and opponents hate to deal with. Because for every Patrick Kane or Chris Pronger on a team, there’s a Dave Bolland or Ville Leino helping their team become a successful team.

Here are 5 players to keep an eye on during Hockey Day in America. They may not be the superstars who get all of the publicity, but they’re the guys every team needs if they want to win:

Niklas Hjalmarsson

The Blackhawks rode an absolutely stacked blueline to the Stanley Cup last year and Hjalmarsson was a huge part of it. Sure, there are guys like defending Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, $7 million man Brian Campbell, and pending free agent Brent Seabrook, but Hjalmarsson is the guy in the top 4 who manages to fly under the radar with many fans outside of Chicago.

Don’t forget, Sharks GM Doug Wilson knew how good he was when the Blackhawks ousted his team from the playoffs last year. He wasted no time signing Hjalmarsson to an offer-sheet forcing the Hawks to choose between him and the goaltender who helped them win their first Stanley Cup in 49 years. Let’s put it this way: Antti Niemi is wearing teal now and Hjalmarsson is in the first year of a deal that will pay him $14 million.

Drew Stafford

One of the best Americans playing on Hockey Day in America, Stafford has started to fulfill the potential that made him the Sabres’ first round pick in the 2004 entry draft. In fact, on the day America celebrates the sport, the former University of North Dakota standout is 3rd among American born players in goals scored. Last weekend he scored his 4th hat trick of the season. FOURTH. Not bad for a guy who averaged about 15 goals per season before this year.

Ryan Callahan

Ryan’s the two-way type player that every team wishes they had on their team. He’d be much higher on the league’s scoring list if it weren’t for a broken hand that caused him to miss 6 weeks of action. Extrapolate his scoring pace and he’d be right up there with his Rangers partner-in-crime Brandon Dubinsky had he been healthy all season (we are contractually obligated to mention Dubinsky whenever Callahan is referenced). His 30 points in 39 games is just a tip of what he can do though. Like Dubinsky, the two-way play and energy he brings to each shift makes him one of the more exciting players to watch. He’s a restricted free agent at the end of the season—so it won’t be long until Glen Sather and the Rangers management show how they really feel about him.

Todd Bertuzzi

It might be weird to see a player with such an infamous past on this list, but somewhere between the Steve Moore incident and Hockeytown, fans may have forgotten that he’s a good hockey player. Since the ugly incident that clearly taints his name every time it’s mentioned, he’s reengineered his game to be a completely different player. Gone are the days when he was flying high with Brendan Morrison andMarkus N aslund as an elite power forward. Instead, he’s become a valuable piece to the Detroit Red Wings machine. He doesn’t score a point-per-game anymore (it’s about half of that), but he still brings much needed grit and hands to an immensely talented team. If the Red Wings want to compete for a Stanley Cup, odds are Todd Bertuzzi will have to be a productive player in his new role.

Nick Schultz

Nick Schultz isn’t going to have the type of stats that jump off the page at you. He has 3 goals, 11 assists, 32 PIMs, and a +1 rating. So what? A guy like that is a dime-a-dozen, right? Wrong.

Watch him play a few games, and each time you’ll notice him more and more. He’s big and he’s nasty—both of which are compliments for a shutdown defenseman. He’s out there against the opponent’s best players—his job is to not screw things up. It’s not a sexy job, but his success this season is one of the big reasons the Minnesota Wild are competing for a playoff spot and not looking to sell off spare parts at the deadline.

Honorary Mentions: Caps forward Brooks Laich, Wild Captain Mikko Koivu, Blackhawks center Dave Bolland, and Flyers defenseman Andrej Meszaros

In case you haven’t committed it to memory, here’s NBC’s schedule for Hockey Day In America.

Report: Stars make more changes in goal, hire ex-Detroit coach Bedard

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Suspect netminding has plagued Dallas for two straight years, and GM Jim Nill is switching things up accordingly.

On the heels of acquiring Ben Bishop and signing him to a long-term contract, Nill has reportedly hired veteran goalie coach Jim Bedard, per In Goal Magazine.

Bedard will replace longtime Dallas employee Mike Valley, who has been with the club since 2009 in a goalie coach/director of goaltending development role. In Goal reports that Valley told the club he wouldn’t be returning.

Bedard, 60, was with Detroit from the mid-90s to last summer, when he was relived of his duties. His unemployment didn’t last long. Within weeks of being dismissed, Bedard caught on as the goalie coach for OHL Windsor,

The connection to Dallas is quite obvious. Nill and Bedard worked together for years in Detroit, and won three Stanley Cups together.

Related: Bishop has ‘good relationship’ with Hitch, and that’s important

 

 

Penguins prepare for another Game 7, this time as favorites

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Two weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins played a Game 7 that the oddsmakers expected them to lose.

But the Penguins didn’t lose. They went into Washington and shut out the Capitals to advance to the Eastern Conference Final.

Which brings us to tomorrow, and another Game 7.

This time, the game is in Pittsburgh. And this time, it’ll be the Penguins as favorites. 

At online sportsbook Bovada, the Ottawa Senators are +170 underdogs, meaning a $100 bet on the Sens to win Game 7 would pay out $170. Conversely, to make $100 on a Penguins win, a bettor would have to risk $200.

This is not to suggest that betting on Ottawa is the savvy move. It might be, given the potential payout, combined with the fact hockey games are often decided by a lucky bounce or hot goalie.

But just remember: the Penguins beat Tampa Bay in Game 7 of last year’s Eastern Conference Final. The defending champs have proven their worth in these winner-take-all games.

“It’s not something that’s new to them,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “These guys have been involved in these experiences on a number of occasions, and they have those experiences to draw on. You know, I think they know what to expect, and now it’s a matter of going out and earning it and controlling what they can and doing your very best to get the result that we’re looking for.”

Veteran forward Matt Cullen added, “We’ve been there before. We’ve gone through this. We know what to expect out of our group. We have a comfort level with our plan and the way that we need to play. These are the fun games to play. So as a group, we go into it with a lot of confidence, knowing that we’re going to need our best game and expecting that we’ll bring it.”

For the record, Sens coach Guy Boucher has also experienced a Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. It came in 2011 when he was coaching the Lightning, who fell to the eventual champs from Boston by the score of 1-0.

Though it wasn’t the result he wanted, Boucher felt privileged to have had the experience.

“It was a tough game,” he said. “It was 0-0 with seven minutes left in the game. It was quite a game and a lot of pressure. What I remember most is the excitement of an opportunity that very few people get in their lives, and I’m part of that. I can’t be blessed more than that.”

Related: The modern-day Sens have never won a Game 7

Weight ‘not afraid’ to say he wants ex-NHLers behind Isles bench

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With the interim tag dropped, Isles head coach Doug Weight is in the midst of retooling his staff.

It began last week, when Weight added longtime NHL defenseman — and former Oilers teammate — Luke Richardson as an assistant coach. That was followed by reports the Isles were interested in hiring another of Weight’s old teammates, Kelly Buchberger, as well as two-time Stanley Cup champion Scott Gomez.

Buchberger was playing as recently as 2004, in Pittsburgh, where he was teammates with the likes of Marc-Andre Fleury and Brooks Orpik. Gomez suited up for 13 games in Ottawa last season.

Clearly, there’s a trend at play here. Weight wants guys like him, veteran NHLers not far removed from their playing days (Weight hung ’em up in 2011). And he isn’t shying away from addressing it.

“I’m not afraid to say it, it’s something I’m looking for and chasing,” Weight said, per the Post. “But that being said, I’m not just hiring guys who play 15 years or 20 years.

“You have to sit with them, you have to see how they view the game, how they are, how they view the players, how I view the game.”

Bob Corkum, a holdover from the Jack Capuano era, won’t be brought back as an assistant. The status of Greg Cronin, another holdover — and who never played in the NHL, it should be said — is still up in the air.

Weight said he’s interviewed eight to 10 candidates to join his staff.

 

Detroit signs Czech d-man Sulak

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The Red Wings have added some depth on defense.

On Wednesday, the club announced it has signed Czech rearguard Libor Sulak to a two-year, entry-level deal. Sulak, 23, is fresh off representing the Czechs at the World Hockey Championship and, prior to that, spent the last two years playing for Znojmo Orli of the Austrian League.

There, he was named the league’s rookie of the year in 2016, and followed that up with a career-high 10 goals and 28 points in 54 games last season.

It’ll be interesting to see if he can push for minutes in Detroit next season. Currently, the club has six d-men under contract — Mike Green, Danny DeKeyser, Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson, Nick Jensen and Ryan Sproul. Xavier Ouellet is also in the mix, but a restricted free agent.

The Red Wings also signed ’16 first-rounder Dennis Cholowski to his ELC last month, and he played one game for their AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids.