Five players to watch leading up to this year’s trade deadline

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The NHL trade deadline arrives on Monday at 3 p.m. ET and this year’s deadline has been made more interesting thanks to all the activity leading up to it this time around. Since February 9th when Toronto traded Francois Beauchemin to Anaheim for Joffrey Lupul and Jake Gardiner, there have been 22 trades involving 46 players and 19 draft picks changing hands.

Given that we’ve still got the weekend to get through and rumors continue to swirl around almost virtually everyone, we’re giving you five players to keep your eye on when it’s time for GMs to lay it all on the line and decide whether they’re going for it or not. Keep in mind, this list comes from the copious amounts of speculation we’ve read and by no means are any of these guys as good as traded by the deadline. For appropriate irony’s sake, making up this list likely keeps all five of these guys from being moved at all.

1. Brad Richards – Dallas Stars

He’s out with a concussion but now he’s started skating and could be back soon. He’s easily the best player rumored to be out there and his ability to help create offense and set other players up is a hugely desired quality. He’s done it through his whole career with Tampa Bay and Dallas and he’s an impending unrestricted free agent. In a perfect world, Dallas signs him to a massive contract extension and everyone goes home smiling. But with the Stars ownership being up in the air and no major financial commitments being allowed, his future in Dallas may not be long.

Whether the Stars opt to hang onto him and then look to deal him before July 1st if their ownership mess isn’t cleared up or if they strike now while the price would be the absolute highest is the dilemma facing Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk. The number of teams ideally interested in Richards would be many and the Rangers are an obvious landing spot given their desperate need for a top center and Richards’ former coach in Tampa, John Tortorella, being there. Any deal made would then see that team try their hardest to lock Richards up long term, so there’s an element of risk for anyone wanting to get involved as without that extension trading for Richards is a really expensive rental.

Oh yeah, Dallas is also smack in the middle of trying to make the playoffs. It seems crazy that they’d deal their best player, but if the reality in Dallas is that things aren’t going to loosen up off the ice, the Stars might have to make a move to get a big return to help them in the future.

2. Stephen Weiss – Florida Panthers

Weiss has made it clear before that he’d stay in Florida for as long as they’d want him to. Panthers GM Dale Tallon says it would take a huge offer to make him consider moving Weiss, but the Panthers playmaker is viewed as a guy that would make a nice second prize should Dallas not want to move Richards. With 16 goals and 24 assists this season, his numbers seem pedestrian but on the offensively-starved Panthers he’s their top scorer, a distinction he’s had the two years previous including last year when he had a career-high 60 points, including 28 goals.

For a lot of teams he wouldn’t be an ideal #1 center, but for most contenders he’d be a perfect fit as a #2 center. It’s a shame for the Capitals that the Panthers share a division with them and would then seem less likely to want to make a deal with them involving Weiss. Weiss has a no-trade clause but we’d assume if the right contending team came calling he’d waive it and look to play in the first playoff series of his career.

3. Bryan McCabe – Florida Panthers

Sure, we could put a few more Panthers on this list (David Booth, Tomas Vokoun) but there’s only so many spots we’ve got. McCabe is in the final year of his contract before becoming an unrestricted free agent which makes him a prime target for a team needing defensive help with a hint of offense along the blue line. The Panthers captain has been battling injury this year but his imminent return to action means he’ll be well rested and ready to roll for anyone that acquired him. McCabe had his share of frustrations when he played for Toronto seasons ago, but he’s settled down into a solid, serviceable defenseman.

With five goals and 17 assists this season through 47 games, he can still chip in well offensively but his biggest number may actually be his plus/minus rating of +3.  On a team that’s often been giving up goals like candy, keeping that number positive is astounding. Teammate Dennis Wideman’s -26 rating tells you how bad it can get there.

4. John-Michael Liles – Colorado Avalanche

The offensive-minded Avalanche defenseman has seen interest in him pick up in a big way of late and with the Avs acquiring Erik Johnson from St. Louis last week, signs are pointing towards Liles being moved out of town to change things up even further in Denver. Toronto is supposedly heavily in the mix for Liles and with GM Brian Burke’s affinity for American defenseman that played college hockey it’s no wonder. What Liles can do is help spark the offense as he’s got six goals and 33 assists this season. He can run the point on the power play and help set everyone else up. One area where he struggles is defensively but in Toronto that wouldn’t be a big problem as he could be paired up with anyone else and get proper help. Yes, even in Toronto.

One catch for acquiring Liles is that he comes with a stiff price tag with a cap hit of $4.2 million that carries into next season. If a team wants him bad enough, they’d better be committed to paying for his offensive production and be able to look past his defensive shortcomings at that price.

5. Ales Hemsky – Edmonton Oilers

The super talented forward is one of a few guys in Edmonton that are rumored to be on the move and while either he or Dustin Penner would be the biggest gets of the pack, Hemsky’s abilities and offensive creativity make him the more attractive option. Hemsky has 13 goals and 28 assists this season and in the past, when he’s been healthy, he’s been the Oilers most dynamic scorer and playmaker. He was an All-Star this season (for whatever that might mean to you) and there’s talk leaking about that even the Capitals might have interest in him.

The problem with gunning for Hemsky (or Penner) is the asking price. The Oilers reportedly want a solid roster player, a prospect, and a draft pick in any deal involving either of these players. With that kind of price attached, it’s tough to see either of them going anywhere. All told, the Oilers might be better off hanging on to them and allowing Taylor Hall to keep emerging as the top talent that he is while having these veteran running mates. Whether or not Oilers GM Steve Tambellini gets blown away by an offer or not remains to be seen.

The Buzzer: Auston Matthews’ late-game heroics; Pens move into top spot in Metropolitan

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Players of the Night:

Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers: Giroux notched a goal and two assists in Sunday’s win over the New York Rangers. The goal was the 200th of his career. He’s been incredible this year. The Flyers forward is up to 69 points in 59 games, which puts him on pace to score 96 points. Giroux now has four multi-point performances in his last six outings.

Travis Konecny, Philadelphia Flyers: Like his teammate Giroux, Konecny also picked up a goal and two assists. He’s now accumulated 18 points in 15 games. Konecny is currently riding a four-game point streak.

Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers: Even though the Oilers are struggling this season, McDavid has found a way to remain productive. His hat trick in Sunday’s tilt against the Avalanche was his third of the season. After scoring 100 points last year, he’s on pace to hit 98 right now.

Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins: Guentzel’s three-point night helped propel the Penguins to victory against the Blue Jackets. Guentzel now has five points in his last four games.

Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks: Pavelski had a three-point night of his own against the Dallas Stars. If you scroll a little lower, you’ll see his spin-o-rama goal. The veteran isn’t having his best season, but he’s managed to pick up nine points in his last six games.

Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets: The Jets are an offensive machine that not many teams can stop right now. Connor picked up a pair of goals against the Panthers, which means he’s already scored 19 times in his first full NHL season.

Highlights of the Night:

Taylor Hall comes up clutch against the Hurricanes:

If you like spinning backhanders, Joe Pavelski has you covered:

How about this save from Semyon Varlamov:

The hand-eye coordination from Evgenii Dadonov is pretty ridiculous:

Sometimes it takes two to keep the puck out of the net:

Connor Hellebuyck made a sweet save of his own against the Panthers:

Factoids of the Night:

Auston Matthews‘ late-game heroics against Detroit:

The two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions are in top spot in the Metropolitan Division:

Hall is en fuego:

Scores:

Flyers 7, Rangers 4

Oilers 4, Avalanche 2

Devils 3, Hurricanes 2 (OT)

Penguins 5, Blue Jackets 2

Maple Leafs 3, Red Wings 2

Sharks 5, Stars 2

Jets 7, Panthers 2

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Golden Knights don’t want to focus on big picture

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LAS VEGAS (AP) The Vegas Golden Knights have done an excellent job of not looking too far ahead in their inaugural season.

It has served them well during their amazing run as an expansion team, all the way to the top of the NHL standings.

After Saturday’s 6-3 win over the Montreal Canadiens, the Golden Knights lead the NHL with 82 points.

According to the league, Vegas is the first expansion team in its inaugural season to hold the outright lead in the standings this late into a season – 58 games played – besting the 1967-68 Kings, who led the league through 19 games on Nov. 24, 1967.

But as veteran goalkeeper and three-time Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury said, there is a point in the season every team is either trying to get into the playoffs or stay positioned where they are for the postseason.

“Right now, we’re in good shape,” Fleury said. “We are aware where we are, but we can’t just sit back. We have to keep chasing those points night after night.”

The cliche of “one game at a time” has transitioned into playing with a sense of urgency with seven weeks left in the regular season.

Four games into a seven-game homestand, Vegas has won three straight since losing to Philadelphia on Feb. 11. The Golden Knights responded with wins over Chicago, Edmonton, and the Canadiens, outscoring the three by a combined 15-6.

“We’re in a good spot right now, we’re happy where we are, but we’re a team that’s always going to have something to prove,” defenseman Brayden McNabb said.

“I think everyone probably watches the standings, a little more closer in the West than the East. It’s one thing about having a lot of points early and being in first place in the West.

“It’s a little different with this group, we all have something to prove still. We’re an expansion team, no one ever thought we’d be here, where we are right now.”

Nevertheless, McNabb said coach Gerard Gallant has done a good job of keeping his players focused, ensuring they’re performing their best each game.

“The whole point of taking it day by day is you’re not focused on the big picture and I feel like that’s a good approach for our team to have,” defenseman Shea Theodore said.

“You can’t look too far ahead, it’s just kind of how we’re rolling and we’re doing a good job with that. I feel like we’ve done a good job of showing the league we’re for real.”

Even team owner Bill Foley has gotten in on the act of not looking too far ahead. After Saturday night’s win, Foley expressed concern over Theodore’s recent throat infection that kept him out of the lineup, he spoke about Pierre-Edouard Bellemare getting injured during the game and said while he is happy with his team’s success it’s important not to become complacent.

“But it is fun, it’s great,” Foley said. “One thing we did when we did the expansion draft, it was a lot of hard work, and we put a lot of planning into it. We had five mock draft sessions in the expansion draft. We knew other teams as well or better than they knew themselves. So, we knew what we were getting. And (general manager) George (McPhee) did a phenomenal job in making some key deals. The result is what we have.

“We have guys that have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder and they want to play hard, and they really play hard against their former teams.”

With Saturday’s win over one of the NHL’s Original Six teams, Vegas improved to 22-4-2 at T-Mobile Arena, matching the 1979-80 Hartford Whalers (22-12-6) for the most home wins by a team in its first season.

It doesn’t get any easier for Vegas, which is 14-1-1 against Pacific Division teams, and faces key games this upcoming week against Anaheim on Monday, Calgary on Wednesday and Vancouver on Friday.

“The schedule is going to be tough with a lot of games coming up,” Fleury said. “We gotta find a way to be consistent all those nights and keep fighting. We still gotta focus playing one game at a time. You don’t want to think too far down the road. Every game is important.”

Veteran defenseman Deryk Engelland agreed.

“We’ve been doing a good job all year of taking it one game at a time and treating every game as a must win. It’s a tight division, it’s a tight conference and we just have to take it one game at a time.

“Come April 8, we can maybe gear up from there, but from now `til then it’s one game at time and get ready for the next one.”

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Should Zach Hyman’s goal on Petr Mrazek have counted?

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There may or may not have been a controversial call in Sunday’s game between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs.

With the score tied at zero in the first period, Zach Hyman appeared to have opened the scoring for the Leafs, but the goal was waved off because Red Wings netminder Petr Mrazek‘s mask came off.

As you can tell from the video below, Auston Matthews‘ shot catches Mrazek in the mask. Right before Hyman buries the buck into the net, Mrazek shakes his mask off because a strap snapped out of place. It’s definitely not an easy call to make in the moment.

Take a look for yourself:

Here’s what rule 9.6 of the NHL rulebook says about these kind of plays:

When a goalkeeper has lost his helmet and/or face mask and his team has control of the puck, the play shall be stopped immediately to allow the goalkeeper the opportunity to regain his helmet and/or face mask. When the opposing team has control of the puck, play shall only be stopped if there is no immediate and impending scoring opportunity. This stoppage of play must be made by the Referee. When play is stopped because the goalkeeper has lost his helmet and/or face mask, the ensuing face-off shall take place at one of the defending team’s end zone face-off spots.

When a goalkeeper deliberately removes his helmet and/or face mask in order to secure a stoppage of play, the Referee shall stop play as outlined above and in this case assess the goalkeeper a minor penalty for delaying the game. 

It’s clear that Mrazek removed his helmet intentionally, but he only did so because at least one of the straps snapped off. Also, the referee could have blown the play dead because he assumed that one of the two Red Wings in the slot would take control of the puck. Instead, both Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi whiffed on it.

But according to the rule, the play can only be stopped if the opposing team doesn’t have an immediate or impending scoring opportunity. Was Hyman’s chance an immediate or impending scoring opportunity? It sure looks like it, but that’s at the official’s discretion.

There’s a bit of a grey zone with this rule, so it’s hard to say if the referee applied the rule correctly or not.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Connor McDavid spoils Nathan MacKinnon’s return

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Sunday’s game between the Edmonton Oilers and Colorado Avalanche was supposed to be all about Nathan MacKinnon‘s return to the lineup, but Connor McDavid had other ideas.

The Oilers might be struggling, but McDavid had some individual success this month. On Sunday, the Oilers captain picked up his second hat trick of the month in Edmonton’s 4-2 win over Colorado.

In eight games this month, the 21-year-old has accumulated an impressive 11 goals.

Here’s his first tally of the game:

McDavid finished the game with a plus-3 rating, five shots on goal and a huge save in 19:52 of ice time. That’s right, a huge save. With the Avs leading 1-0 in the first period, McDavid prevented the opposition from going up by two.

His second tally tied the game at two, while his hat-trick goal was scored into an empty-net.

According to NHL Public Relations, He’s the first Oiler to score three hat tricks in a season since Petr Klima in 1990-91.

Meanwhile, MacKinnon returned the lineup after missing eight games with an upper-body injury. He had a minus-2 rating, four shots on goal and one hit in 22:20 of ice time. Only Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen had more ice time among Avalanche forward.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.