Hitchcock on new-look Wild: “They will be a real tough challenge for everybody”

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Last year’s proposed NHL realignment put the reigning Central Division champs, St. Louis, in a division with the Minnesota Wild.

After the summer Minnesota’s had, Ken Hitchcock is probably okay with that realignment plan being shot down.

The St. Louis Blues head coach recently spoke with the Post-Dispatch about the flurry of movement during summer’s free agent period, including Minnesota’s blockbuster signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Hitchcock feels the two marquee acquisitions will make the Wild a very difficult opponent in 2012-13.

“For me, it was whoever got Suter or Parise, they were the two players that were going to make a dramatic difference,” Hitchcock said. “The rest (of free agency) was going to be replacing Player A with Player B.”

The Blues are somewhat fortunate neither Parise or Suter ended up in the Central Division. Many pundits had them pegged for Detroit — one of the Blues’ fiercest rivals — but with them headed to the Northwest, St. Louis will have a much different task in defending their divisional title.

Three major stars have moved on: the Preds will be without Suter, the Wings without Nicklas Lidstrom and the Blue Jackets without Rick Nash.

Regardless, Hitchcock sees the Wild as a major threat in the West.

“They’ve loaded up,” Hitchcock said. “They will be a real tough challenge for everybody.”

Eddie Olczyk to return to broadcast booth for Blackhawks-Blues Rivalry Night showdown

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The Chicago Blackhawks visit the St. Louis Blues for Wednesday’s Rivalry Night contest on NBCSN, and there will be a familiar voice on the broadcast.

Eddie Olczyk will return to the broadcast booth for this contest — the first meeting of the season between these two Central Division rivals — just over two months after it was publicly revealed that he had been diagnosed with colon cancer and was undergoing treatment following surgery to remove a tumor.

“We have some dates that we have highlighted and hopefully I will be strong to do the job,” Olczyk told USA Today. “If I am not feeling good, I just have to be honest with everyone and tell them I can’t do it.”

Read more: Blackhawks announcer Pat Foley gives shout out to Eddie Olczyk at Wrigley Field

Olczyk played 1,031 NHL games for six teams, including the Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, New York Rangers, L.A. Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins, from 1984 to 2000, scoring 342 goals and 794 points.

After coaching the Penguins during the 2003-04 and 2005-06 seasons, Olczyk moved to the broadcast booth as an analyst for NBC Sports’ coverage of the NHL and also Blackhawks games on NBC Sports Chicago.

In a statement in August, Olczyk vowed to return to broadcasting after his treatment.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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‘Something didn’t feel right’ — Parise leaves practice early after suffering setback

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The beginning of a new week for the Minnesota Wild started with Zach Parise taking part in practice.

Shortly after, however, the 33-year-old forward, who hasn’t played a game this season because of an undisclosed injury, left the ice and didn’t return, per multiple reports.  

Parise has previously insisted the injury isn’t with his back.

“I talked briefly with Chuck, but he said it was a setback. I don’t know how much of a setback or anything,” said head coach Bruce Boudreau, per the Wild website.

“I know I talked to him before practice and he felt great. That’s why he was in a red color and was ready to go. The next thing I know, somebody told me he went off. I don’t know why he went off. Obviously, something didn’t feel right.”

All part of what’s been a disastrous few days for the Wild in terms of injuries to begin the year.

General manager Chuck Fletcher seemed hopeful this latest occurrence would only be a short-term thing, although there doesn’t appear to be a timetable for when their veteran forward, who scored 19 goals and 42 points last season, may return. The Wild last played on Saturday, and don’t play again until Friday when they visit the Winnipeg Jets.

The news surrounding Mikael Granlund, out the last three games with a groin injury, seemed far more promising at this stage in the week.

The 25-year-old Granlund enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2016-17 with career highs in goals (26), assists (43) and points (69), and eventually cashed in with a three-year, $17.25 million contract extension to avoid salary arbitration.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Add the Rangers’ poor start to list of surprises early this season

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Last October, the New York Rangers were the highest scoring team during the opening month of the 2016-17 season.

Rick Nash was at the time enjoying a resurgence while Jimmy Vesey‘s pro career was off to a fine start, helping New York to a strong record out of the gate.

The Rangers started this new season almost two weeks ago, and so far they’ve experienced the opposite end of the spectrum. Goals have been difficult to come by, with New York having scored only 13 times in six games, and that has hindered their record to just 1-5-0. They’re currently sitting on a three-game losing streak with the Pittsburgh Penguins in town tomorrow night.

The start of a new season always brings about surprises.

Where do we begin?

— The New Jersey Devils are among the higher scoring clubs right now, and being led offensively by two rookies not named Nico Hischier.

— The Vegas Golden Knights have enjoyed the best five-game start for an NHL expansion franchise since 1967-68, with four wins.

— Outside of their season opener, the Edmonton Oilers so far look nothing like the team that shrugged off a lengthy playoff drought and made it to Game 7 of the Western Conference Final.

— How many hat tricks have there been now?

You can add the Rangers’ start to the list as well.

Mika Zibanejad, who has been put into the No. 1 center role, has five of the team’s 13 goals so far and only one of his tallies has come at five-on-five. Meanwhile, Nash, the highest paid forward on their roster at $7.8 million this season and a pending unrestricted free agent, has just one goal through six games, albeit with a team-high 25 shots on net. So far, no points for Vesey.

After losing in the second round of the 2017 playoffs, the Rangers made a number of changes to their roster, with Derek Stepan, Antti Raanta, Dan Girardi, Kevin Klein and Oscar Lindberg all being moved through trade, buyout, retirement or the expansion draft. They brought in Kevin Shattenkirk and Anthony DeAngelo, and added diminutive center David Desharnais on a one-year deal, and there is usually an adjustment for new players in a lineup when it comes to the roles they are put into, as well as forward or defensive combinations.

Dating back to their most recent loss on Saturday, head coach Alain Vigneault liked what he saw from his team for just over half the game, but missed opportunities, costly mistakes and an opportunistic Devils team proved too much for the Rangers.

The Rangers are in the midst of a six-game home stand, with seven of the final eight games this month at Madison Square Garden. This was seen as an opportunity for them to gain early ground in the standings, but three straight losses have set them back.

It’s still probably too early to read too much into a poor start or great start for any team or player. It won’t get any easier, though, when the Rangers host the Penguins tomorrow. And another loss would only add to the growing unpleasantness of this early season surprise.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Clayton Keller focused on helping Coyotes as Calder Trophy buzz grows

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Clayton Keller received a special kind of rookie treatment last season moments before his NHL debut with the Arizona Coyotes.

Like other young players around the league, Keller’s teammates stayed behind in the tunnel and the rookie ended up taking a solo lap during warmups before a game against the St. Louis Blues last March. The moment was extra special for Keller, who grew up playing youth hockey in area under the tutelage of former NHLers Jeff Brown and Keith Tkachuk.

As a kid, Keller would attend Blues games with his father and grandfather, and it was there that his NHL dreams began to develop. As those dreams came closer to reality, it was his late grandfather who played a huge role in Keller achieving his goal of becoming a professional.

“He was probably the reason that I’m here today. He took me to everything growing up — hockey camps, school, hockey practice, and just about everything,” Keller told Pro Hockey Talk on Monday. “I know he’d be pretty proud today.”

Keller, the seventh overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft, spent most of last season at Boston University where he scored 21 times and recorded 45 points in 31 games. Two days after the Terriers were knocked out of the NCAA tournament, he was taking that lap around Scottrade Center as family and friends cheered from the other side of the glass. He would play three games for the Coyotes and get to experience that “Welcome to the NHL” moment every rookie remembers.

“It’s pretty cool to see [Vladimir] Tarasenko and Jamie Benn,” Keller said. “I lined up next to those guys. That’s pretty crazy because I grew up watching both of those guys.”

Those three games introduced Keller to the pace of the NHL, which he quickly adjusted to. After the season ended, he was invited to play for the United States at the World Championship where he’d finish with five goals, including a hat trick against Denmark.

“It really helped me out a lot. You never really know how hard the NHL is until you play in it,” Keller said. “I got lucky at the end of last year and got a nice taste and realized how hard I had to work. That was a huge advantage for me.”

The talent Keller showed as a youth player on the U.S. National Development Team and in his only year at Boston University has led to lots of Calder Trophy buzz for the 19-year-old forward. But that talk is not something he’s focused on.

“I try to block it out. I don’t really pay attention to it,” Keller said. “I just play my game and the rest will [come].”

At 5’10, Keller isn’t the biggest out on the ice, which is why he cites Patrick Kane and Johnny Gaudreau as influences — players who don’t have the size, but are skillful and quick. That skill has been on display through five games this season. Playing alongside Derek Stepan and Max Domi, Keller had potted three goals, meshing well with new Coyotes linemates and head coach Rick Tocchet’s desired style of play.

“We want to play fast, in-your-face type hockey. But also with lots of skill and [a] good defensive zone. It’s a great system, and it’ll show,” Keller said.

Life as an NHL rookie can be a difficult. Adjusting to a faster pace, dealing with the physicality and just going through the highs and lows of a season with a team can be expected. For Keller, he’s fortunate that he has plenty of friends around the league in the same situation. Former BU teammate and current Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy is someone Keller frequently exchanges exepriences with.

“Charlie’s one of my best friends. I played with him last year. We definitely talked about how the season has been going so far,” Keller said. “It’s good to have a friend like that around the league. He’s an awesome person and an even better player.”

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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.

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