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Offseason changes to Capitals, Penguins could make the East wide open

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A handful of Pittsburgh Penguins players whose names are on the Stanley Cup, some of them twice or even three times, are gone.

The same goes for core players from the back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy winning Washington Capitals.

The goliaths of the East haven’t fallen apart, but maybe they’ve lost just enough to make the conference winnable for just about anyone. Pittsburgh no longer has forwards Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen, defensemen Trevor Daley or goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Washington couldn’t afford to keep Justin Williams, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk.

The Penguins and Capitals are still favored to finish 1-2 in the brutal Metropolitan Division, but improvements made by the New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes and a return to health for members of the Tampa Bay Lightning have cracked the Eastern Conference wide open.

“The competition level is as high as ever,” Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said. “There’s a lot of teams that have a chance to win the Cup. Making the playoffs, it’s very tough nowadays. I think we’re not the only team when we always say, `We want to make the playoffs and then we’ll see what happens’ because you just want to make the playoffs and then anything can happen. There’s no real favorites.”

Pittsburgh is still the betting favorite, and if Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Co. make it happen they’d become the first NHL team with three consecutive titles since the early 1980s New York Islanders dynasty. Then again, Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is healthy after a knee injury ended his 2016-17 season, the Hurricanes got a top goaltender in Scott Darling and the Toronto Maple Leafs are only expected to get better now that Auston Matthews and the kids have some playoff experience.

“Toronto obviously made a big step forward, Columbus is a team that has tremendous upside, made a big move this summer, and then you look at a team like Carolina who’s going to be knocking on the door in the next few years,” said Shattenkirk, who signed with the revamped Rangers.

In a league with considerable playoff turnover from year to year, there’s no rest for the eight teams that made it last year: the Penguins, Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets, Montreal Canadiens, Rangers, Ottawa Senators, Bruins and Maple Leafs. But Fleury, now the starter for the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, believes his old team has a chance to three-peat, and Alex Ovechkin said the Capitals will be good.

“Our goal is still to go out there and be the best team in the regular season and be the best team in the postseason,” Washington winger T.J. Oshie said. “It’s not a very far-fetched goal.”

Some things to watch in the Eastern Conference this season:

YOUTH IS SERVED

Matthews is only 20, but now there’s a whole new crop of potential teenage stars, including the New Jersey Devils’ No. 1 pick , Nico Hischier, and the Philadelphia Flyers’ No. 2 pick, Nolan Patrick. The Swiss-born Hischier turned heads with some big-time plays in the preseason and in the process ratcheted up expectations.

PRICE IS RIGHT

The Canadiens lost defenseman Andrei Markov and winger Alexander Radulov and traded their top defensive prospect for forward Jonathan Drouin. Montreal probably should make the playoffs despite all the changes because of goaltender Carey Price, who won the Hart and Vezina Trophies in 2014-15 and missed most of the 2015-16 season with a knee injury.

“He is the best goalie in the NHL,” Drouin said. “He’s proved it for a lot of years now.”

Price has some competition in Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky and Washington’s Braden Holtby, the past two Vezina winners. The play of those three and Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray will likely determine the order of finish in the East.

C’MON, CROSBY

After leading the league with 44 goals in the regular season and the playoffs with 27 assists, there’s no doubting Crosby has another MVP season in him. Teammates and opponents always expect him to sharpen another skill, though he could just keep scoring goals better than anyone else.

“He was always, I think, a passer a little more – always looking for other guys,” Fleury said. “But he doesn’t have a crazy hard shot. It’s just how quick the release is. He’s skating, he’s looking around and the shot comes (from) any angle. His backhand is good too, probably as hard as anybody.”

BRIGHT LIGHTS ON BIG CITY

The Rangers added Shattenkirk, re-signed Brendan Smith and traded Derek Stepan to retool while goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is still in his prime. Across town, the Islanders are hoping to re-sign captain John Tavares before he can become a free agent next summer New York is where it’s at, and there’s no shortage of drama.

SUNRISE REDUX

Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon has gone to great lengths to undo some of the moves made in the summer of 2016 when he was shifted out of a position of power. Defenseman Jason Demers and forward Reilly Smith are gone, Bob Boughner is the new coach and big things are expected in South Florida.

“We’ve got to go in one direction and never look back,” winger Jonathan Huberdeau said. “That’s what we want to do, and Dale Tallon knows that. We want to build something with Bob and we’ll see what’s going to happen.”

 

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.

SPHL gets creative, adopts ‘pick your opponent’ playoff format

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When discussion about the NHL’s playoff format comes up, there is a section of fans who would like to see the league allow for an even greater reward for top teams other than home-ice advantage.

That idea has become a reality thanks to the Southern Professional Hockey League.

The 10-team SPHL announced on Monday that they are overhauling their opening round and turning it into what’s being dubbed the “Challenge Round.” The top three teams will get to choose their first-round opponent during a “Challenge Round Selection” event which will be broadcast to fans on Sunday, April 8, the day after the regular season concludes. After the top three seeds select their opponents, the No. 4 team will be matched against the leftover side.

Every playoff series, including the President’s Cup Final, will remain best-of-three with re-seeding taking place for the second round.

The idea for this change came to SPHL commissioner Jim Combs over dinner in June with Axel Bammer, Chief Operating Officer of the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga. When Combs heard that the league’s top teams get to pick their opening round opponent, he could imagine the buzz it would generate. (Sweden’s Elitserien did this in the past as well.)

A week after meeting with Bammer, Combs met with the league’s owners and received zero pushback about the idea. The new playoff format was widely embraced as the group felt this was the future of hockey.

Feedback has been mixed on the change. But Mike Campos, who covers the SPHL for The Sin Bin, sees it being a big plus for the league.

One of the benefits of being at the bottom rung of the professional hockey ladder (second-lowest, if you consider the FHL a pro league) is there is flexibility to implement radically new ideas other leagues can not. If the “Pick Your Opponent” format change generates buzz among fans and rivalries between teams resulting in a spirited postseason, the decision could be a winner for the SPHL.

As Campos notes, lower levels of hockey allow for plenty of innovation while not straying far from the fundamentals of running a hockey league. This new format will certainly make the end of the regular season much more interesting and provide bulletin board material for teams and storylines heading into the playoffs. It’s an idea worth exploring, and the SPHL is no stranger to implementing ideas that catch on elsewhere.

It was the SPHL where 3-on-3 hockey began over a decade ago. It was deemed a silly gimmick at first, but now that we’ve seen it at the NHL level for two seasons, it’s clearly a welcomed change — one that’s made overtime hockey must-see television.

Combs said the league will see how this playoff format idea plays out in April before deciding whether to keep or tweak it in the future.

So what do you think? Would you want to see the NHL go in this direction for the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Stick-tap Scotty Wazz

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Sean Leahy is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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With Perreault out four weeks, Jets call on prospect Kyle Connor

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Kyle Connor has been a scorer just about everywhere he has played — the USHL, the University of Michigan, and the Manitoba Moose in the American Hockey League.

He’s only had a brief taste of life in the NHL, playing 20 games for the Winnipeg Jets last season, scoring two goals and five points.

The 2015 first-round pick hasn’t yet experienced the same success at the NHL level, although he’s about to get another opportunity with the Jets after getting recalled on Monday. The move comes after Winnipeg placed Mathieu Perreault on injured reserve. He’s expected to miss up to four weeks.

Perreault has yet to play a full 82-game schedule with the Jets because of injuries, but he’s been an important player when available, with consistent production and strong possession numbers. That said, the 20-year-old Connor is a promising prospect with the potential for significant upside, especially considering the role he should find himself in.

Per NHL.com on Monday, Connor skated on the wing with Bryan Little and sophomore scorer Patrik Laine. That, it would appear, is Winnipeg’s second line, which gives them a difficult top-six group of forwards — the top line consisting of the red-hot Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler — for the opposition to face.

“Speed. That’s the big piece that he can add to that line,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice. “Patrik’s such a great shooter. Bryan’s a really quick player. What Perreault did well was he got in and he got on it. He was quick enough to get in there to create some offensive zone time and allow those guys to do the things they do well and Kyle should be able to add that.”

The Jets have won three in a row, with Connor Hellebuyck giving them a trio of impressive performances in net. They host the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday, although according to Sara Orlesky of TSN, Steve Mason is expected to get the start.

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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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