NHL on NBCSN: Hungry Wild challenge battered Hawks

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NBCSN continues its coverage of the 2013-14 campaign tonight when the Chicago Blackhawks host the Minnesota Wild at the United Center at 8:00 p.m. ET. In addition to NBCSN, you can also watch the game online.

The defending Stanley Cup champions have already secured a playoff berth, but they want to do more than just limp into their probable first-round series against the hot Colorado Avalanche. That’s exactly what they’re doing right now though.

Chicago just returned from a three-game road trip where they were outscored 12-4 and didn’t earn a single point. On top of that they lost captain Jonathan Toews, who will join Patrick Kane on the sidelines for the rest of the regular season.

Editor’s Note: Pro Hockey Talk’s partner FanDuel is hosting a $1,000 Fantasy Hockey league for Thursday’s NHL games. It’s $10 to join and first prize is $200. Starts Thursday at 7:00 p.m. ET. Here’s the FanDuel link.

As deep as the Blackhawks’ offense is, that’s a ton of firepower sitting out of tonight’s game, which is music to the Wild’s ears. The duo has been a thorn in Minnesota’s side this season with a combined three goals and seven points in four games. Even with them though, Chicago is still down 1-3-0 in the season series.

So as much as the Blackhawks would like to avoid losing four straight contests in regulation for the first time since Feb. 2012, this will be a tough one for them.

It doesn’t help that this game means more to the Wild in the first place. Minnesota is in a good spot in the battle to secure a Wild Card spot, but every point remains critical.

That’s especially true given how hard the rest of Minnesota’s schedule is. On top of playing Chicago, the Wild will also play against Pittsburgh, Boston, and St. Louis in the last week and a half of the season. If they aren’t careful, the losses could still pile on and deny them a playoff spot.

The Wild aren’t completely health either. In fact, Ilya Bryzgalov is projected to start partially because goaltenders Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding, and Darcy Kuemper are all hurt. They are also likely to be without forward Mikael Granlund, who is dealing with a possible head injury.

Unlike Chicago though, they have their top two forwards in Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise. The duo has been hot lately with a combined six goals and 14 points in their last five games. The Wild will be looking for them to be the difference tonight and add to Chicago’s slump.

Florida Panthers aren’t afraid to change, but will they actually improve?

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Change is often a necessary thing in sports, and the results can be swift and brutal. There’s a fine line between rolling with the punches and blindly swinging, however.

The Florida Panthers’ history as a franchise makes you wonder if they’ll ever find the right balance between stability and innovation. Amid all these years of flip-flopping and regime tweaks, there may only be one unsettling constant: the on-ice product being middling-to-terrible.

Just look at the way they burn through coaches.

Six of their 14 head coaches were behind the bench for fewer than 82 games, including Tom Rowe, who was seemingly thrown out with the analytical approach last season.

Their GMs haven’t fared much better. Dale Tallon’s probably received the longest leash of them all, and this past year or so made a mess of that situation. And it’s arguable that things have only degraded as Tallon aims to clean up supposed “messes.”

The Panthers didn’t just lose cheap 30-goal scorer Jonathan Marchessault to Vegas; they also shipped Reilly Smith to the Golden Knights. Smith was a golden boy of sorts to the more stats-leaning members of the franchise, and while he struggled last season, it sure seemed like the Panthers were eager to get rid of him.

The same could be said about Jason Demers.

MORE: Welcome Demers to the trade rumor mill

As abrupt as the Gerard Gallant firing felt, the Panthers didn’t necessarily give the analytical approach much time. At least from an “optics” standpoint.

Now, parting ways with Marchessault, Smith, and possibly Demers may end up being reasonable in hindsight. Still, there’s no denying that Tallon made some mistakes in his stead; the “computer boys” didn’t sign an atrocious Dave Bolland contract and didn’t pick Erik Gudbranson over superior talent.

The bottom line is that the Panthers haven’t won a playoff series since John Vanbiesbrouck led them to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final. There’s legitimate concern that this franchise will keep making the same mistakes – and keep changing the cooks in the kitchen – while the results leave much to be desired.

Will Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau share the same frustrating path as Jay Bouwmeester and others before them?

This summer could serve as a serious fork in the road, as Tallon has some building blocks in place and an estimated $20 million in cap space. Even if the Panthers remain a budget team, they’re likely to have some room to work with.

Perhaps they’ll finally make the right changes?

Related

Panthers look to be aggressive in adding scoring

Devils will give top pick Hischier a chance to make team right away

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There’s at least some question regarding whether Nico Hischier is ready to jump straight from being the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft to becoming an immediate part of the New Jersey Devils’ roster.

If he went back to junior, it would break a lengthy trend of No. 1 choices going to the big time right away.

Devils GM Ray Shero seems pretty optimistic that he can handle that jump, though, as you can see from this presser via MSG:

MORE: Devils pick Hischier over Patrick

As one would expect, Shero said that the Devils won’t rush him if it’s “apparent” that the Swiss-born forward isn’t ready. Still, Shero seems convinced that Hischier has the size, skill, and smarts to earn a spot.

Much like Nolan Patrick with the Philadelphia Flyers, Hischier didn’t deny that he wants to make the big time right off the bat.

“Yeah, for sure. I mean, it’s my goal, so it is important for sure,” Hischier said on draft night. “I really want to achieve my goal, but I still know I have to prove a lot of things to play there.”

Hey, maybe Taylor Hall could even ease his adjustment?

Burns and Thornton pose nude for ESPN Body Issue, and yes, it’s weird

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Hey, have you ever wanted to see Brent Burns and Joe Thornton essentially line up against each other naked?

Well, ESPN the Magazine interrupted your answer either way, going ahead and doing it for their vaunted Body Issue.

Considering Thornton’s UFA status, there’s at least an outside chance that this will be their final action together as members of the San Jose Sharks.

This is your last chance not to scroll and see Thornton, Burns, beards, tattoos, and not a whole lot else.

/waits

Former teammate Jason Demers captured it on Twitter, making it his background, and generally winning the Internet for the day:

Did anyone else think about Thornton’s line after Tomas Hertl scored four goals? No? OK.

The real highlight might be Burns and Thornton giggling in robes, honestly.

Click here for more on that issue, including information on U.S. women’s ice hockey team members who will also be featured.

Hjalmarsson shocked by Blackhawks trade, but Coyotes could improve soon

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Who could blame Niklas Hjalmarsson for being surprised that the Chicago Blackhawks traded him? The move blindsided … well, just about everyone outside of the Blackhawks organization, after all.

“It’s going to take some time to get used to that thought,” Hjalmarsson said, according to the Arizona Republic. “At the same time, I’m trying to always be a positive guy.”

Indeed, the 30-year-old defenseman did his best to say all the right things about the Arizona Coyotes, praising a roster that includes “a lot of young and promising players.”

MORE on the trade here

Described by some as the NHL’s best pure defensive defenseman, Hjalmarsson also gives the Coyotes good reason to be excited by a blueline that’s suddenly quite competitive. Consider the quartet that GM John Chayka helped assemble:

Hjalmarsson: An often-underrated part of the Blackhawks’ run. Consider some of the praise he received even before this move was made.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson: One of the league’s best-kept secrets, “OEL” ranks as one of the most dangerous scoring defensemen. At 25, he’s still deep in his prime.

Alex Goligoski: When you consider the Dallas Stars’ lost 2016-17 season, don’t dismiss the absence of “Gogo.” He might not be perfect, but the 31-year-old is the sort of puck-mover you need to excel in the modern game.

Jakob Chychrun: At 19, he’s already getting reps at the NHL level. The Coyotes could pair him with a veteran and watch him grow.

***

When you look at those four, in particular, it’s easier to see Hjalmarsson’s excitement as more than just lip service. It probably doesn’t hurt that the Coyotes also added Derek Stepan, another sign that this franchise is taking the next step after absorbing other franchises’ problem contracts in the likes of Dave Bolland and Pavel Datsyuk’s last year.

Granted, it will still be an adjustment, as the Coyotes are likely aiming for “respectable” while anything less that a deep run was unacceptable for the Blackhawks.

Still, Hjalmarsson has plenty of power to make this move more palatable than it may have initially seemed.

And, hey, who would blame him for circling Oct. 21 on his calendar?