Looking to make the leap: Simon Despres

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By now, you may know all about Simon Despres. The smooth-skating defenseman has gotten a more than a few looks the past three seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but now he’s at a bit of a crossroads.

As opposed to other players we’ve featured in our series, Despres is in a tricky position when it comes to making the leap. Instead of trying to blast his way out of junior or college hockey, he’s trying to make his way out of the American Hockey League.

The 23-year-old came in highly-touted when he was taken in the first-round, 30th overall in 2009 out of Saint John. He put up strong numbers for the Sea Dogs and turned pro in 2011. Since then, it’s been a bumpy ride that’s seen him get acclimated to taking the bus between Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Pittsburgh.

One of the highlights to his game coming out of juniors was his offensive play. In four seasons he had 134 points in 240 games (0.55 points per-game). Since turning pro, that part of his game has all but disappeared.

In 85 games with Pittsburgh, he has 16 points (0.18 PPG) and in the AHL he had 45 points in 107 games (0.42 PPG). On the bright side, his possession numbers during his time in Pittsburgh have been very strong, especially the past two seasons. On the other hand, he could never find a way to impress Dan Bylsma enough to stick around full-time.

Perhaps fortunately for Despres, Bylsma is gone and Mike Johnston is in. With Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik now in Washington, the Penguins are going to have one hole to fill on the blue line. Christian Ehrhoff should take over where Niskanen left off, but with puck possession becoming a more vital part to playing defense, the opportunity for Despres to make a good impression is there for the taking.

The problem he’s going to face in training camp, however, will come from other young defenseman itchy to make it to Pittsburgh themselves. Olli Maatta showed last season that age is but a number and solid play will help you stick around. It’s that example Scott Harrington, Brian Dumoulin, Derrick Pouliot, and Philip Samuelsson will be looking to follow.

With hefty competition amongst young defenseman and many others likely holding spots down already (Ehrhoff, Maatta, Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Rob Scuderi), the Pens blue line will be more than worth watching in training camp.

Perhaps fortunately for Despres, everyone will start with a clean slate for the new coach.

Test your might: Buckle up for fascinating night in NHL

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With 11 games on the schedule and a doubleheader on NBCSN, Tuesday provides a veritable buffet for hockey fans.

That volume opens up opportunities, such as getting closer to seeing where the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers really are at, and which one of the struggling San Jose Sharks and Montreal Canadiens can get their second win of the season (note: Montreal at San Jose closes off that NBCSN doubleheader).

It says a lot that a Penguins – Rangers game is intriguing, but not necessarily headline-grabbing.

Oh yeah, and we also get to see how the stubborn Ottawa Senators look now that Erik Karlsson is returning to lineup. There’s really something for everyone tonight.

For the sake of brevity, let’s limit this to four games that should be especially fascinating on Tuesday.

Toronto Maple Leafs at Washington Capitals

Remember that fantastic first-round series? The one that ended up being uncomfortably close for the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Caps?

Tuesday could be another thriller, as Alex Ovechkin‘s off to a heck of a start for the up-and-down Capitals (3-2-1), who host the dumb, fun Maple Leafs (4-1-0). It says a lot that, despite only playing five games, Toronto leads the NHL with 26 goals scored. Ovechkin vs. Auston Matthews is rarely not a fun time, in general.

This game may answer some questions, including: “How long can Mike Babcock really push Mitch Marner down the lineup?”

Tampa Bay Lightning at New Jersey Devils

These aren’t your older brother’s boring Devils, but this is increasingly looking like your older brother’s very good Lightning.

Anyway, Tampa Bay (5-1-0) already beat a surprisingly hot Red Wings team on Monday, and now they look to cool off another dark horse in the Devils (4-1-0).

Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos are doing their usual suspects act for the Lightning, while the Devils are off to the sort of start that has made them one of the most entertaining teams of this early season. It’s not just obvious guys like Taylor Hall or even 2017 top pick Nico Hischier, either, as Will Butcher already has eight assists and Jesper Bratt is currently second on NJ in scoring.

Tampa Bay is closing off a back-to-back, which might make it tougher for them to keep up with this young team in Newark.

This potential barnburner begins NBCSN’s doubleheader at 7:30 p.m. ET. To watch the game online, click here.

MORE: Full preview for Lightning – Devils, Canadiens – Sharks

Colorado Avalanche at Nashville Predators

Nashville isn’t too impressive just yet with a 2-2-1 record, but do note that they’re 2-0-1 in their last three games. They’re also getting a chance to eye Matt Duchene, whose feelings might not be totally soothed even though the Avs are off to a 4-2-0 start.

This one stands as an interesting test for the upstart Avalanche, but the Duchene angle might be most interesting. Is he facing his future team here? Could the two squads pull a “Moneyball” and have him change locker rooms tonight? (OK, that’s probably going too far.)

Columbus Blue Jackets at Winnipeg Jets

John Tortorella’s loaded, “safe equals death” group featuring the likes of Zach Werenski versus the ridiculously loaded Jets (Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele, so much more)? Yes, please.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Debuts, Returns: Penguins may get Cole back, Rinaldo ends suspension

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There are quite a few interesting lineup notes heading into a busy, fascinating Tuesday night of games. Let’s cover some of them in lightning round fashion.

(This collection isn’t necessarily comprehensive. If you need even more updates, Rotoworld’s NHL news section is your friend.)

  • Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan announced that defenseman Ian Cole is healthy enough to play and a game-time decision. In related news, Cole has relatives who are dentists, which might be the funniest profession for family members of hockey players.

  • Keep your heads up, Dallas Stars. Zac Rinaldo’s five-game suspension has ended, so he’ll make his Arizona Coyotes debut on Tuesday.

Rinaldo, 27, hasn’t made an NHL appearance since the 2015-16 season with the Boston Bruins. He spent last season with the Providence Bruins.

(See the bottom of this post for Rinaldo’s most recent suspension … in the NHL, at least.)

  • Rinaldo isn’t the only debut to watch in Arizona. With Antti Raanta injured and Louis Domingue unable to give the Coyotes their first win of the season, the team turns to Adin Hill for his first-ever NHL start.

Who is Adin Hill, you might ask?

Well, he’s a 21-year-old goalie with some pedigree, as the Coyotes selected him in the third round (76th overall) in 2015. Hill spent most of last season in the AHL, going 16-14-0 with a .906 save percentage for the aptly named Tucson Roadrunners. As you can see from this Sportsnet profile, Hill sports the sort of size NHL teams look for these days.

Left Wing Lock places Tippett on a third line with Jamie McGinn and Jared McCann. Is that enough of an opportunity to get a look at him?

“I have the upside of Phil Kessel—the speed, the shot, the way he can make plays. I also have some things I need to work on to be a 200-foot player,” Tippett said before Panthers training camp, via Sportsnet’s Luke Fox.

Panthers fans should already bat around nickname ideas. Perhaps “Big Red” would work for soda pop fans? Should he steal “Red Rocket” from Bengals QB Andy Dalton?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Rangers, Sharks need to wake up from early slumps

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It’s already bad news that the New York Rangers (1-5-0) and San Jose Sharks (1-3-0) enter Tuesday’s games with a single win apiece.

There’s a simple reason why those slow starts should sting a little extra, though: these teams are squandering home-heavy stretches, or at risk of doing so.

More on the Rangers’ slow start here

Rangers need to wake up at MSG

There are some reasons to believe in both the Sharks and Rangers, with their long track records of recent regular-season success headlining such arguments. It’s worth noting that the Rangers have played two road contests versus four at home, so the situation isn’t too extreme. Yet.

Things could get ugly in a hurry, starting with a real challenge in hosting the Pittsburgh Penguin at Madison Square Garden tonight:

Tue, Oct 17 vs Pittsburgh
Thu, Oct 19 vs NY Islanders
Sat, Oct 21 vs Nashville
Mon, Oct 23 vs San Jose
Thu, Oct 26 vs Arizona
Sat, Oct 28 @ Montreal
Tue, Oct 31 vs Vegas

By the end of October, the Rangers will have played 10 of 41 home contests. At best, a creaky start could cost them seeding. At worst, they may look back at this when pondering how they missed the postseason.

(It doesn’t help their cause that they’re in the brutal Metropolitan Division, either.)

Beyond the established track record, the Rangers can also point to recent history as an act that travels well. In 2016-17, the Rangers boasted a better record on the road (27-12-2) than at home (21-16-4). While they were better at home in 2015-16, they were also 19-17-5 in away games then, too.

So, it’s not all bad for Alain Vigneault & Co., but they could make life much easier for themselves (and maybe see openings to rest Henrik Lundqvist more often) if they take advantage of these opportunities.

Sharks face erratic runs

San Jose ends a five-game homestand against the mercurial Montreal Canadiens tonight. A 2-3-0 mark in such a run wouldn’t be the end of the world, while going 1-3-1 or 1-4-0 would hurt.

While the Rangers look to October as a time where they need to create some breathing room, the Sharks need to take better advantage of future homestands, as their schedule seems to rotate road trips and runs of home games.

This veteran group readies for a five-game road trip, then they play eight of nine at home from Oct. 30 – Nov. 20.

***

Significant members of both the Sharks and Rangers have “been there before.” Players such as Joe Thornton, Lundqvist, and Rick Nash might view October as insignificant; they’ve each likely been on teams that shook off bad starts, even if it meant squandering bountiful opportunities at home.

You can understand a certain level of complacency, but you never know when you’ll no longer have the spring in your step to make it up that hill once again.

The next month or two isn’t “make-or-break” for the Rangers or Sharks, at least in a literal sense. Then again, wins and standings points weigh the same during an 82-game season, so why not stock up while the schedule bends in your favor?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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More signs point to Bruins getting Bergeron, Backes back soon

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Patrice Bergeron is one of the finest two-way centers of his generation, so it makes sense that the Boston Bruins would miss him.

That’s especially true since David Backes has also been sidelined, even if he’s aiming to rebound where Bergeron’s mainly looking to sustain.

While neither Bergeron nor Backes is guaranteed to suit up for the Bruins as they host the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday, there’s some promise in their returns merely being possible, as NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty notes.

It’s plausible that both might be less than 100 percent when they get back, and Backes might lack some of his power game considering his involuntary weight loss.

Even so, after struggling with Riley Nash in the top center spot, Backes and especially Bergeron serve as the Lebowski rug for the Bruins line combos, tying everything together in a far more satisfying way:

Brad Marchand-Bergeron-Anders Bjork
Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciDavid Pastrnak
Tim Schaller-Nash-Backes
Matt BeleskeySean KuralyFrank Vatrano

Much better. Personally, I’d be tempted to move Vatrano into a better offensive opportunity, but an excess of options for head coach Bruce Cassidy sure beats glaring issues down the middle and in the top nine.

The Bruins might also feel a little more liberated to insert them back in the mix since their schedule is conducive to dipping their toes in the water. It’s pretty light for the rest of October, really:

Thu, Oct 19 vs Vancouver
Sat, Oct 21 vs Buffalo
Thu, Oct 26 vs San Jose
Sat, Oct 28 vs Los Angeles
Mon, Oct 30 @ Columbus

The Bruins could play Bergeron and/or Backes in just two games through Saturday, Oct. 28 and only have them miss two in the process. And so on.

All things considered, it says something about Boston’s system that the Bruins are still close to the top-10 in possession stats, even with a two-way monster like Bergeron among their missing pieces.

As PHT’s Joey Alfieri notes, it doesn’t absolve a 2-3-0 start, as the Bruins faced a relatively friendly schedule.

Still, the schedule is breaking in a way where the Bruins could ideally limit the damage if Bergeron and Backes can recover reasonably soon. Things can change with injuries – just note how optimism can turn to pessimism for, say, Zach Parise – but at the moment, there are some reasons to look at the glass as half-full.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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