Why it might not be safe to expect a significantly improved Rangers team

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People love to trot out the Albert Einstein quote that insanity involves “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Yet in some ways, it’s almost as dangerous to assume the flip side of that: doing the same thing and expecting the same results.

Many New York Rangers fans probably had this thought at least a few times last year: “If only our team had more talent.” The 2010-11 squad seemed short on talent – and arguably their most gifted skater Marian Gaborik experienced one of the worst years of his career – but they hustled and scrapped their way to a playoff spot (along with a surprising +35 goal differential).

Those same fans must have been delighted when GM Glen Sather tried to answer that hypothetical question by hauling in the biggest fish of free agency: Brad Richards. Even weary Rangers fans likely rejoiced because unlike Chris Drury or Bobby Holik, Richards already showed that he could produce as a top-line forward.

It’s tempting to think that Brad Richards + 2010-11 Rangers = division title (or more), but there are a few crucial reasons why that’s a risky assumption. Let’s count them down, then.

Why Richards might struggle

Signing a 31-year-old playmaker to a nine-year deal is always risky, even if it’s a cap-circumventing contract. There are two other reasons that the Richards deal is even more worrisome, though:

  • Richards and Gaborik’s health: As you may remember, Richards dealt with concussion issues right as rumors heated up the most around last season’s trade deadline. One can only assume that he’s OK, but it’s not exactly the most promising sign – especially since his partner in crime is renowned for being wildly injury prone.
  • The inherent problems with free agents: Richards developed fantastic chemistry with Loui Eriksson during his time with the Dallas Stars. A passer like Richards should make most linemates better, but there’s no guarantee he’ll make the same great music with Gabby.

That being said, the Rangers should feel happy that they landed a player as talented as Richards. Most likely, he’ll be a difference-maker on most nights. He might be asked to do too much, though.

Breakout players already got paidsource: Getty Images

The Rangers saw a staggering array of important players hit free agency this summer. Mysteriously enough, they experienced career years just in time for their next contracts.

The most notable players who received fat raises were Marc Staal, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan and Brian Boyle. Most expected Staal to be in line for a huge bump entering the 10-11 campaign, but the other three – particularly Boyle – raised their profile considerably.

How sure can we be that they’ll be able to achieve at the same rate next season? Dubinsky and Callahan were particularly vital to the Rangers and certainly bring some great energy to the ice (especially Callahan), but it might be a little tougher for them to lay down in front of a slap shot now that their mortgages are settled. Then again, in Callahan’s case, that might be a good thing; he suffered two injuries after blocking shots last season.

Staal’s concussion issues

The Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t the only Atlantic Division team whose outlook is blurry because of a major player’s concussion problems. Staal might not be a marquee player like Sidney Crosby, but he’s extremely valuable to the Rangers. Their defense drops off substantially from their top guys to depth defenders, so his current prognosis is very troubling.

Henrik Lundqvist is used to bailing his over-matched teammates out, but with Staal sidelined for an unknown amount of time, the Swedish stopper will need to be even better than last season. (Unless Richards & Co. meet some lofty expectations on offense, that is.)

***

This doesn’t mean that the Rangers are hopeless. Still, it might be wise to temper expectations about a team who overachieved last season, even if they added a hugely talented player.

NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Lightning vs. Devils; Canadiens vs. Sharks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues with a doubleheader on Tuesday night. In the early game, the New Jersey Devils host the Tampa Bay Lightning at 7:30 p.m. ET. To watch the game online, click here

The Lightning are coming off a 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Monday night. For the sixth game in a row, Nikita Kucherov managed to find the back of the net (he actually scored twice, including the game-winner).

When injuries were piling up for the Bolts last season, the Russian winger was the guy they relied on to get the job done. This season, that hasn’t changed. The Lightning are healthier than they were a year ago, but he just keeps on rolling.

Another player who’s performed well, is goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. The young netminder became the full-time starter when the Lightning traded Ben Bishop to the Kings last season. Although he had some ups and downs last year, he’s been terrific this season.

His individual numbers might not jump off the page (3.00 goals-against-average and a .914 save percentage), but he’s come up with a number of big saves already in 2017-18. Last night’s game against the Wings was no different.

“He’s our starter for a reason,” head coach Jon Cooper said after the win over the Wings, per the Tampa Times. “If you want to win in this league, you have to check and you need your goaltender to bail you out on occasions. And the times we haven’t been checking, Vasy has bailed us out.”

After missing the playoffs last season, many expected the Lightning to be better now. The same can not be said for the Devils, but they’ve been one of the pleasant surprises so far.

New Jersey has a 4-1-0 record and they own a plus-8 goal differential. This young team has really come together early, and it’ll be interesting to see if they’re able to keep it together.

Rookies Will Butcher and Jesper Bratt have been nothing short of fantastic in the early going. Butcher, who the Devils signed as a college free agent this summer, has eight assists in five games. Bratt has accumulated six points in five contests, which isn’t bad for a 19-year-old drafted in the sixth round.

“He’s a good player,” forward Drew Stafford said of Butcher, per NJ.com. “You guys are seeing that. Doesn’t really surprise me anymore. He’s a heck of a player, so for him to have the success that he’s had so far — granted, it’s power play — but that’s something I feel like he can ride as far as he can.”

In the late game, the San Jose Sharks host the Montreal Canadiens at 10:00 p.m. ET. To stream that game live, click here

It’s been a tough start to the year for the Canadiens, as they’ve managed to come away with one win in their first five contests.

Despite adding Jonathan Drouin this off-season and having Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk and a few others, Montreal is still the only team in the league to has played five games and scored less than 10 goals.

They scored a season-high three goals against the Maple Leafs on Saturday night, but they fell 4-3 in overtime thanks to Auston Matthews‘ game-winner.

“I think our guys are focused on what needs to be done internally, inside the dressing room, and what we’re trying to accomplish here,” Claude Julien said, per the Montreal Gazette. “I think so far they’ve done a pretty good job of that. There’s no doubt when you got some guys that are goal-scorers that haven’t scored yet … it’s a normal thing that they might be squeezing the stick a little bit. But that’s what they got to overcome and that’s what we got to try and do and improve our game as we go along here.”

Pacioretty scored a goal in the season opener against Buffalo, but he hasn’t found the back of the net since. Drouin and Galchenyuk both netted their first goals of the season on Saturday night. Three goals in five games from those three players simply isn’t enough.

This will be the first of a three-game road swing in California that never seems to treat the Canadiens well.

Things haven’t been much better for the San Jose Sharks, as they have just one win in four contests.

“It’s on us as players,” Logan Couture said, per the San Jose Mercury News. “If we’re playing well, then the lines aren’t going to change. If we’re not, then they’re going to change them around. How we play will dictate what the lineup is.

“No one’s scoring. You could say our line’s not scoring and we’re not, but no one is. As a team, we’ve got to find ways to create some more offense.”

The Sharks have scored eight goals, like Montreal, but in one less game. Kevin Labanc has three of the eight markers.

If you’re a betting person, you may want to look at the under in this one, but weird things seem to happen when east coast teams go play out west.

Enjoy the hockey!

PHT Morning Skate: 5 players that are off to slow starts this season

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–The Score looks at five players that are off to slow starts in 2017-18. Brent Burns was incredibly productive in the first half of last season, but he’s been awfully quiet so far. (The Score)

–Speaking of players that are struggling, Antoine Roussel is off to a disappointing start with Dallas. He was one of the top possession players on the Stars roster, but the results just haven’t been there. There’s still plenty of time for him to turn things around though. (defendingbigd.com)

–The Montreal Canadiens are off to a rough start this season, but Montreal Gazette columnist Jack Todd believes they have what it takes to turn it around. Carey Price can be better, Jonathan Drouin can contribute more offensively and Max Pacioretty can score more goals. (Montreal Gazette)

–A lot of Nikita Kucherov‘s success comes from being unpredictable. One thing he worked on this off-season was improving his backhander. “It’s a tough league, you have to make chances out of nothing. Look at those guys, Kane, Crosby, watch them and it’s a huge part of their game. It’s something I want to add to my game and be better at.” (Tampa Bay Times)

–Even though the NHL added concussion spotters in 2015-16, their system is far from perfect. On Friday night, Marc-Andre Fleury took a knee to the head and he was allowed to stay in the game. Fleury is now out indefinitely. It’s time for the NHL to improve this whole process. (fanragsports.com)

–The Toronto Maple Leafs are one of the rare teams that are loaded with young depth at the AHL level. They’re so deep that some are wondering if they should loan out some of their prospects to other AHL teams instead of sending them to the ECHL. (faceoffcircle.ca)

–The Nashville Predators were one of the few eight seeds that made a run to the Stanley Cup Final. Before you draw hope for your team based on the Preds’ accomplishments, you might want realize that they weren’t your typical eighth seed based on the numbers they put up last season. (ontheforecheck.com)

–Every fall, EA Sports releases a new NHL video game that gets people excited for hockey season. Operation Sports looks at ways EA can improve game play. Better passing control? More elaborate dekes? Sign us up. (operationsports.com)

Taylor Hall is known for his play on the ice, but his social media game is pretty strong, too. Just ask former teammate Jordan Eberle, who found that out the hard way after he chirped Hall on Twitter. (Sports Illustrated)

–We don’t know if Matt Duchene will ever be traded. But regardless of where he plays this season, what kind of upside does he have? Although Duchene is off to a good start, there’s a good chance his numbers will come down a little bit. (milehighhockey.com)

–NHL.com’s Dave Stubbs sat down with former defenseman Hal Gill to ask him five questions. They discussed how the game has changed, what it’s like to win the Stanley Cup and they also talked about P.K. Subban. (NHL.com)

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.

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The Buzzer: Nikita Kucherov just keeps scoring goals

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Player of the night. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning have played six games this season. Forward Nikita Kucherov has scored a goal in all of them.

He continued that goal scoring streak on Monday night in the Lightning’s 3-2 win in Detroit by scoring a pair of goals, including the game-winner to help lift them to their eighth consecutive win over the Detroit Red Wings.

With that win the Lightning now have the best record in the NHL, while Kucherov’s seven goals are the second most in the league, trailing only Alex Ovechkin (nine).

Kucherov has seen his production increase every year he has been in the NHL. He set a career-high with 40 goals a year ago and seems like he is on track to top that mark this season. Now playing in his age 24 season he should be right in the thick of his prime years in the NHL. When it comes to pure skill and offensive production there are only a handful of players in the league that can top what Kucherov is doing.

Highlight of the Night.

Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilievsky stopped 29 shots on Monday night but perhaps none were better than this pad save to rob Tomas Tatar right on the door step.

Vasilevskiy had a slow start to the season but has been outstanding in his past two games, stopping 57 out of 60 shots in the Lightning’s wins over the St. Louis Blues and Red Wings.

Factoid of the Night.

Justin Abdelkader scored on a penalty shot for the Detroit Red Wings on Monday night becoming the first Red Wings player to do that in nearly 10 years.

Ten years?! That seems like a heck of a long time between penalty shot goals for a team.

Misc.

Mike Green continued his incredible start to the season by scoring his first goal of the season for the Detroit Red Wings. He is now up to nine points in five games this season.

Steven Stamkos picked up a pair of assists in the win for the Lightning, giving him eight on the season. Once he starts scoring goals (he only has one so far) he is going to be a force. His absence a year ago was a big reason why the Lightning fell just short of the postseason. With him back healthy they now have two of the top offensive players in the league (Nikita Kucherov).

Scores

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, Detroit Red Wings 2

Leon Draisaitl lands on injured reserve for Oilers

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After missing his team’s 6-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night, the Edmonton Oilers announced on Monday that forward Leon Draisaitl has been placed on injure reserve.

He was injured one week ago in a game against the Winnipeg Jets and has been sidelined with an eye injury and concussion symptoms ever since. It’s a big blow to an Oilers team that is off to a slower than expected start having won just one of their first four games.

Draisaitl signed an eight-year, $68 million contract over the summer making him a significant part of the Oilers’ core alongside Connor McDavid. He finished the 2016-17 season as one of the top offensive players in the league and is going to be counted on to help carry the offense again when he is healthy. The Oilers don’t have a ton of forward depth and are going to need McDavid and Draisaitl to be the focal points once again if they are going to live up to the preseason hype that made them one of the odds on favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

Before he was injured this season Draisaitl had recorded one assist in three games.

The Oilers host the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night.

It is not yet known how long he will be sidelined.