No pressure, kid: 15-year-old Nathan MacKinnon called ‘second coming’ of Sidney Crosby

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When people discuss prospects, there’s often a spot for an NHL comparison. A lot of times such comparisons draw guffaws from readers when a prospect is compared to, say, Joe Sakic. (Then again, the saddest times might be when a more lucid parallel is drawn to a decidedly marginal NHLer.)

It must be stomach-churning to be considered “The Next [Blank]” … even when an athlete embraces it. Kobe Bryant made an obvious nod to Michael Jordan when he changed his jersey number from 8 to 24, but it’s not like he could escape the comparisons anyway.

Sometimes the similarities run deeply enough that making comparisons only seems natural, even if it is still a bit unfair. That might be the case with 15-year-old prospect Nathan MacKinnon, whose name is often connected to Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby.

ESPN the Magazine’s Gare Joyce was one of the first – or at least most prominent – writers to spotlight the similarities between the two when MacKinnon was just 14 (subscription required).

Nathan MacKinnon is a little less like a lot of hockey-playing, 14-year-old Canadian kids, in that his life has eerily tracked Sidney Crosby’s. He was raised minutes away from the home where Crosby grew up, in the Halifax suburb of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. Eight years apart, they played at the same rinks, competed in the same tournaments, played ball hockey on the same sleet-pelted tennis courts, and skated on the same frozen ponds. And much as Crosby used to fire pucks into his basement dryer, Nathan shot at a beat-up net with plastic milk jugs hanging off the crossbar for top-shelf targets.

Nathan MacKinnon is not at all like other hockey-playing, 14-year-old Canadian kids, in that he just might be the second coming of Sidney Crosby. In fact, MacKinnon is pretty much a clone of the most famous hockey player in the world: so skilled, so dominant, that many insiders already call him the next Sid the Kid. A center — like Crosby — MacKinnon scored goals by the hundreds in the top local leagues that Crosby once ruled. Like Crosby, MacKinnon played with and against players two and three years older, some more than a foot taller. And like Crosby, Nathan had to leave home young to find challenges. Needless to say, both landed at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the hockey powerhouse in Faribault, Minn.

The latest person to point out the parallels between the two is Alex J. Walling of TSN, who also profiled Crosby when he was 14 years old. If MacKinnon’s success so far in his young hockey career (not to mention his regional background) weren’t enough to invite the comparisons, Walling points out that they will probably have the same representation.

The comparisons continue with Crosby having Pat Brisson as his agent.  I’m not sure if midget kids can have agents, so MacKinnon has an “advisor,” the same Pat Brisson.

Obviously, it’s wrong to assume that everything will work out for MacKinnon. A lot can change between now and when he’s draft-eligible, not to mention how far he’d have to go to justify those expectations if he makes it to the NHL.

Still, the startling thing about some of the can’t-miss hockey prospects is that many are identified from a similarly young age. Crosby was obviously one of them while the likes of Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky and so on dominated at a young age. We’ll have to wait and see if MacKinnon ends up in that group, but he has a long way to go.

The NHL has seen a pretty big spike in goal scoring this season

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If it seems like there have been more goals scored in the NHL this season you would be correct.

As the season gets ready to move into its second quarter the league announced that there have been 1,924 goals scored this season, the highest total since the 2005-06 season when the league had 2,008 goals scored through the first quarter.

Third on the list was the 2006-07 season when 1,905 goals were scored.

You might remember the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons as being that brief spike in goal-scoring coming out of the lockout when the league cracked down on obstruction and interference, resulting in far more power plays and power play goals. In the years since the league saw a steady decline in both power plays and goals.

The league has made a point to try and crackdown on slashing and faceoff violations this season. That has not really resulted in a significant increase in the total number of power plays, but teams are converting on more of their power play opportunities.

There has also been a pretty dramatic increase in even-strength scoring (that is up 10.9 percent from a season ago at the same point).

That overall increase in scoring has also trickled down to the individual player level where 30 players (minimum 10 games played) are averaging more than a point per game.

At Thanksgiving a season ago only 11 players were averaging at least a point per game.

Only eight players finished the season (minimum 40 games played) with a point per game average.

For years everyone has had theories as to why goal scoring has decreased and what can be done to change it. Bigger nets? Smaller goalie equipment? More power plays? The reality is that goal scoring did not decrease for any one reason, it was likely a combination of factors, from goalies getting bigger and better, to teams becoming more structured and defensive, to power plays decreasing. The league has made a few small changes along the way to help remedy it and so far this season it seems to be reversing a little.

Whether or not it continues remains to be seen. It is, however, a pretty encouraging start.


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.

How the Oilers became the NHL’s biggest disappointment

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At the start of the 2017-18 season the Edmonton Oilers were one of the top Stanley Cup favorites.

They were one game away from reaching the Western Conference Finals and they have the reigning league MVP and scoring champion (and arguably the game’s best player). All of that seemed to indicate a team that was on the verge of taking another major step and breaking through as one of the league’s elite teams. Their preseason Stanley Cup odds from Bovada were second best in the league to only the back-to-back champion Pittsburgh Penguins. The bandwagon was filling up.

Here we are not just a quarter of the way through the season and there is no debating that the Oilers have not only failed to reach those sky-high expectations, they are clearly the league’s biggest disappointment.

Entering play on Wednesday — and following an 8-3 drubbing at the hands of the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night — the Oilers have the third worst points percentage in the league, ahead of only the Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres. Their minus-19 goal differential is fourth-worst. They have managed to win just four games in regulation with only two of them coming over the past month.

So, how did they get here? Let us try to figure it out.

It starts with the people upstairs

Three years ago the Oilers were given a gift from the hockey draft gods when they won the lottery and the right to select Connor McDavid. It was the fourth time in six years they won the top pick and this time were able to pick a player that would quickly become the best offensive player in the league. Since McDavid entered the league he has more than lived up to the hype with a 1.18 points per game average that is tops among all players (minimum 100 games played) during that stretch.

As great as McDavid has been, he can not do it all on his own. This is not the NBA where one or two great players can carry a team deep into the playoffs (or even into the playoffs at all). There has to be a supporting cast around them, and the Oilers have quickly sabotaged their chances to do that through some brutal roster and asset management.

Let’s just examine some of the moves made by Peter Chiarelli since taking over as the Oilers’ general manager.

His first move was to trade two top-33 picks (No. 16 overall and No. 33 overall) to the New York Islanders for defenseman Griffin Reinhart. The Islanders used that pick to select Matthew Barzal, currently one of the top rookies in the NHL this season. Reinhart played 30 forgettable games with the Oilers before moving on to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights this season.

[On fire vs. fireable: Blues humiliate Oilers]

Then came the one-for-one trades: Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson, and then Jordan Eberle for Ryan Strome.

Both trades have played a significant role in reducing the team’s scoring depth.

Since being traded Hall’s 26 goals and 74 points would make him the third most productive player on the Oilers. His point total this season alone would make him the team’s second-leading scorer behind McDavid. Eberle’s 14 points would make him the team’s fourth-leading scorer.

The return for the Oilers has not come close to matching that production. Larsson is a solid, if unspectacular defenseman, while Strome’s offense has been non-existent. Even at his best Strome was never quite on par with what Eberle has shown to be capable of on a regular basis. Those trades have devastated the Oilers’ scoring depth and are now left with a team that is 27th in the league in goals scored and seems to be unable to generate any offense when McDavid is not on the ice.

In three years Chiarelli has traded two picks in the top-33 of a draft, a top-line forward and gave Kris Russell, a borderline second-to third-pairing defenseman to help improve the defense and the team is still desperate for defensive help.

That is a lot of bad roster management, and it is wasting what might be some of McDavid’s best years in the league.

Cam Talbot can’t get a break

Literally, he can not get a night off.

The Oilers’ goals against numbers improved dramatically a season ago and a lot of credit for that improvement was directed toward the additions of Larsson and Russel. The reality is that a lot of it had to do with Talbot helping to solidify the goaltending position.

His save percentage wasn’t anything spectacular and at .917 was fairly close to the league average. But Talbot played 72 games and if you can get average to slightly above league average goaltending for 72 games that is going to be a positive value to your team, especially with where the Oilers were coming from in recent seasons. His performance, combined with his durability to play that many games, probably shaved 15 goals off the Oilers’ goals against totals.

Talbot has not been as strong so far this season, and given that he has already played a league-high 19 games you have to wonder if maybe that workload is starting to catch up with him.

Since the start of the 2016-17 season Talbot has played in 93 regular season games. Only three other goalies have played in more than 80 and only one (Frederik Andersen, 85) has played in more than 83. He has faced 2,688 shots.

That does not include the 13 playoff games and 437 shots he faced in the playoffs. That is a ton of work for a goalie over a season-and-a-quarter.

The Oilers have no adequate backup that can give him any sort of a break.

Lucky or unlucky?

There does seem to be an element of some bad luck to the Oilers’ struggles this season. Their possession and shot attempt numbers are among the best in the league, and they do seem to be struggling with some poor percentages on the offensive end.

When it comes to the save percentage numbers and Talbot’s struggles it is worth wondering if that extensive workload over the past two seasons has started to wear him down.

It is also worth wondering if they had a lot of players play over their heads a season ago, specifically when it came to players like Patrick Maroon and Mark Letestu. That duo combined for 43 goals a season ago. They have combined for 8 so far this season. That puts them on pace for about 15 over 82 games. Combine that with the offense they are losing going from Eberle to Strome, as well as the absence of Hall and that is a big chunk of offense going away and helps explain how a team with Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkings all averaging close to a point-per-game is 26th in the league in goals scored.

You might be reading all of this and thinking to yourself, relax, Gretz, it’s only Thanksgiving. Still a lot of hockey left to be played. Sure, there is a lot of hockey remaining in the season. The problem for teams like the Oilers is NHL history tells us the standings do not tend to change much once the calendar rolls over to December. Currently the Oilers are already seven points out of a wild card spot in the Western Conference and eight points out of one of the three playoff spots in the Pacific Division.

Points are difficult to make up as the season goes on and teams that are already this far out do not tend to make them up.

Perhaps the Stanley Cup for this Oilers team was a little too premature, mainly because they have managed to squander any chance of building a competitive team around the best player in the world through some terrible roster management.

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.

Buffalo Sabres reveal 2018 Winter Classic jersey (Photos)

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Black Friday is two days away, so naturally it’s a great time for the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers to reveal their jerseys for the 2018 Winter Classic which will take place on Jan. 1 at Citi Field in Queens.

[2018 Winter Classic: Buffalo Sabres vs. New York Rangers at Citi Field]

While we await what the Rangers will wear, the Sabres are going with a classic look that will have you thinking of the days of Alex Mogilny, Pat LaFontaine and Donald Audette, as well as the 2008 Winter Classic.

That “NY” at the bottom of the logo? That’s a “marker of the interstate matchup,” according to the Sabres. The royal blue harkens back to their original color scheme from the 1970s and the jersey also features three secondary logos. The buffalo features SABRES on it, a pair of crossed swords on the pants and the Buffalo script wordmark on the helmet.

It’s a real sharp look with a solid color scheme and one of the more memorable logos.

What do you think?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL on NBCSN: Lightning look to keep rolling against Blackhawks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues on Wednesday night, as the Tampa Bay Lightning host the Chicago Blackhawks at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can stream the game by clicking here

After missing the playoffs last season, the Lightning couldn’t have envisioned getting off to a better start this season. Through 20 games, only the St. Louis Blues (33 points in 22 games) have picked up more points than the Bolts (32 points in 20 games). As you can see from the numbers, Tampa has games in hand on St. Louis and they only trail by one point.

The Lightning are coming off a 5-3 loss to the Islanders on Saturday, but that was their first regulation defeat since Oct. 28 in Anaheim.

There’s many reasons why they’ve been so good this season, but look no further than the line of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Vladislav Namestnikov. That trio has been lights out so far this season, as they’ve combined to score 88 points in 20 games.

Add the stellar play of blue liners Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, and Anton Stralman, as well as Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s dominance between the pipes, and it’s easy to see why they’re playing so well.

After tonight’s game, the Lightning will hit the road to close out the month. They’ll travel to Washington, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Boston over the next week.

Since falling apart in a 7-5 loss to the Devils on Nov. 12, the Blackhawks have won each of their last two games (6-3 over the Rangers, 2-1 against Pittsburgh).

If the playoffs started today, the ‘Hawks wouldn’t be in, but the playoffs don’t start today, so there’s plenty of time for them to figure out what’s gone wrong.

Tonight, they’ll have their hands full with the potent Tampa Bay attack, and they have to play a sound game if they want to come out on top.

“You have to know who’s out there, who can make plays,” goalie Corey Crawford said of the Lightning, per the Chicago Tribune. “Who is more of a drive-to-the-net, gritty player. You have to be patient. Their D-men are in the rush as lot. They’re going to have guys coming through the middle.”

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.