Getty

Central Division schedule analysis: What Blackhawks, others face in October

1 Comment

Teams can transcend back-to-backs and road trips. Conversely, it’s common for squads to squander the opportunities that come with long homestands.

Either way, it’s interesting to break down schedules; context can allow cooler heads to prevail. Sometimes you can see something extra-special forming when a team goes on a run even without factors working in their favor.

This is the third of four divisional breakdowns for October. Check out the Atlantic Division outlook here and the Pacific Division one in this post.

Also, click here for PHT’s in-depth season preview for the Central Division.

Blackhawks (won first two games, both at home)

Schedule

Mon, Oct 9 @ Toronto
Tue, Oct 10 @ Montreal
Thu, Oct 12 vs Minnesota
Sat, Oct 14 vs Nashville
Wed, Oct 18 @ St. Louis
Thu, Oct 19 vs Edmonton
Sat, Oct 21 @ Arizona
Tue, Oct 24 @ Vegas
Fri, Oct 27 vs Nashville
Sat, Oct 28 @ Colorado

After starting with two games at the United Center, the Blackhawks play six of their next 10 games on the road. It’s a fairly away-heavy schedule through late November, overall. None of it seems too outrageous, though.

The bigger issue might be back-to-back sets, particularly with a core that has a lot of mileage on it. Chicago faces three back-to-back sets in October alone.

Avalanche (One win and one loss, both games on road)

Schedule

Mon, Oct 9 @ Boston
Wed, Oct 11 vs Boston
Fri, Oct 13 vs Anaheim
Sat, Oct 14 @ Dallas
Tue, Oct 17 @ Nashville
Thu, Oct 19 vs St. Louis
Tue, Oct 24 vs Dallas
Fri, Oct 27 @ Vegas
Sat, Oct 28 vs Chicago

The Avalanche begin the season with a three-game road trip, which ends on Monday. They face a back-to-back set in mid October and late in the month. Starting with five of seven road games is a challenge overall.

Colorado’s schedule is generally heavy on road games through Nov. 19. The table is set for tough times, which might not be such an issue if the Avs count on “tanking,” anyway.

Stars (Lost twice, one at home and one away)

Schedule

Tue, Oct 10 vs Detroit
Thu, Oct 12 @ Nashville
Sat, Oct 14 vs Colorado
Tue, Oct 17 vs Arizona
Thu, Oct 19 @ Arizona
Sat, Oct 21 vs Carolina
Tue, Oct 24 @ Colorado
Thu, Oct 26 @ Edmonton
Fri, Oct 27 @ Calgary
Mon, Oct 30 @ Vancouver

Don’t be surprised if there’s talk of the Stars being inconsistent even if they start to get it together.

Tuesday begins a reasonably kind stretch, with four home vs. six road games.

They’ll be rotating home and road runs in more dynamic ways starting on Oct. 24. That visit to Colorado begins a five-game road trip, then Dallas will see three at home and three more away.

With one back-to-back remaining in October, it could be worse.

Wild (Lost two games, both on the road)

Schedule

Thu, Oct 12 @ Chicago
Sat, Oct 14 vs Columbus
Fri, Oct 20 @ Winnipeg
Sat, Oct 21 @ Calgary
Tue, Oct 24 vs Vancouver
Thu, Oct 26 vs NY Islanders
Sat, Oct 28 vs Pittsburgh
Tue, Oct 31 vs Winnipeg

The Wild will close off a three-game road trip on Thursday, although their season also starts with three of five games on the road. Some of that is tempered by the big gap in their loss in Carolina on Saturday vs. Thursday’s trip to Chicago. They begin a five-game homestand on Oct. 24, only to follow that with four away contests.

Minnesota’s going to have to grind to keep from a bad start. This isn’t the most extreme schedule, but it’s not the easiest by any stretch.

Predators (two losses, both on the road)

Schedule

Tue, Oct 10 vs Philadelphia
Thu, Oct 12 vs Dallas
Sat, Oct 14 @ Chicago
Tue, Oct 17 vs Colorado
Thu, Oct 19 @ Philadelphia
Sat, Oct 21 @ NY Rangers
Tue, Oct 24 vs Calgary
Fri, Oct 27 @ Chicago
Sat, Oct 28 vs NY Islanders

The Predators need to shake off this tough start to the season. With three of four games at home coming up, there’s an opportunity to get back on track (and for boisterous “Smashville” crowds to give this group a little more energy).

Oct. 19 begins a dicey stretch. They play three of five games on the road, but when you check the four-game trip that begins November, that’s seven of nine games away from Nashville from Oct. 19 – Nov. 7.

There are some solid opportunities after that, but the Predators need to keep their cool for the next month or so.

Blues (Won first two games, one at home and one away)

Schedule

Mon, Oct 9 @ NY Islanders
Tue, Oct 10 @ NY Rangers
Thu, Oct 12 @ Florida
Sat, Oct 14 @ Tampa Bay
Wed, Oct 18 vs Chicago
Thu, Oct 19 @ Colorado
Sat, Oct 21 @ Vegas
Wed, Oct 25 vs Calgary
Fri, Oct 27 @ Carolina
Sat, Oct 28 vs Columbus
Mon, Oct 30 vs Los Angeles

The Blues begin the season with two straight wins, an especially nice achievement considering all the injuries they’re dealing with.

It’s also useful considering what is ahead. Beginning on Monday, the Blues go on a four-game road trip against East teams, including a back-to-back set. The Blues also play six of seven games on the road (and face two back-to-back sets) from Oct. 9-21. Extending from Oct. 9 – 27, seven of nine games are on the road.

Yeah, not easy.

The Blues then get four straight home games and six of seven in St. Louis. Most of that comes in November, so this next month could be a struggle.

Jets (Two losses, one at home and one on the road)

Schedule

Mon, Oct 9 @ Edmonton
Thu, Oct 12 @ Vancouver
Sat, Oct 14 vs Carolina
Tue, Oct 17 vs Columbus
Fri, Oct 20 vs Minnesota
Thu, Oct 26 @ Pittsburgh
Fri, Oct 27 @ Columbus
Sun, Oct 29 vs Pittsburgh
Tue, Oct 31 @ Minnesota

Not the greatest start to the season or to a three-game Western Canada road trip for the Jets here. The good news is that their schedule is fairly reasonable, with only one back-to-back set and fairly standard home vs. away mixes.

Then again, as fun as probably will be to watch, two games apiece against the Blue Jackets and Penguins might not be the easiest draw.

Appreciating Stamkos after he hit 600 points in Bolts’ blowout of Penguins

Getty
Leave a comment

The modern NHL is no stranger to star players missing extended stretches because of injuries, opening the door for “What if?” frustrations.

As glorious as the last couple years have been for Sidney Crosby, the threat of another concussion looms like Michael Myers in the bushes. Connor McDavid lost half of his rookie season. Carey Price has already dealt with serious issues of his own.

Still, you can forgive Steven Stamkos and Tampa Bay Lightning fans for being especially miffed over the years, as his issues have bordered on the freakish. Stamkos has dealt with blood clots, his most recent right knee injury that required surgery, and broke his tibia after taking this bad-luck spill in 2013:

(Even about four years later, it’s still unsettling to watch Stamkos rapidly become aware of how bad his injury was.)

Stamkos has missed playoff time and saw at least two seasons short-circuited by injuries, as he only played in 17 games in 2016-17 and 37 in 2013-14.

Heading into this season, it was reasonable to try to limit expectations; most athletes struggle in the first year after significant surgeries. Maybe Stamkos will hit a wall at some point, but so far, he’s enjoyed the best start of his career, riding shotgun with budding superstar Nikita Kucherov.

It almost seems fitting, then, that Stamkos scored his 600th regular-season point during the Lightning’s 7-1 beatdown of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Even so, it’s resounding that – with all Stamkos has been through – he’s at that level at 27, and he’s done so in 595 games.

Impressive. With this incredible head start of 18 points in nine games, a healthy Stamkos might match or exceed the work he did during his best days earlier in his career. Note how dominant he was from his second through fourth seasons (while Stamkos managed 29 goals and 57 points in the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season, his fifth):

2009-10: 51 goals, 95 points

2010-11: 45 goals, 91 points

2011-12: 60 goals, 97 points

The other eye-popping stat from that run: he played in all 82 regular-season games in each of those three campaigns.

For some perspective, during the stretch of 2009-10 to 2011-12, Stamkos’ 283 points ranked second in the NHL, with only Henrik Sedins’ 287 ranking higher. His 156 goals easily led all players for that three-year stretch.

If that’s not enough to make you wonder where a healthy Stamkos might rank among the NHL’s upper echelon, consider this: from his sophomore 2009-10 season through today, he’s third in points-per-game among players who’ve played in at least 200, slightly edging Patrick Kane (1.06):

  1. Sidney Crosby (1.28)
  2. Evgeni Malkin (1.14)
  3. Stamkos (1.07)
  4. Kane (1.06)
  5. Alex Ovechkin (1.03)
  6. Nicklas Backstrom/retired Martin St. Louis (1.01)

As you can see, Stamkos ranks among six active players who’ve averaged at least one point-per-game since 2009-10.

Chances are, Stamkos will cool off mainly because, as great as Kucherov is, he’ll settle down a bit too. The Russian winger currently boasts a 29.4 shooting percentage, nearly doubling his already-impressive career average of 15.1 percent.

Still, it’s plausible that Stamkos could enjoy one of the best seasons of his career, and the interesting wrinkle might be that this stupendous sniper may serve as something of a facilitator (he currently has three goals versus 15 assists).

Now, don’t forget that Kucherov has been the catalyst for this burst, even if Stamkos makes this one of the NHL’s most scintillating symbiotic relationships. Hitting the 600-point milestone is merely a friendly reminder that Stamkos shouldn’t get lost in the elite conversation, and that hockey fans should be very, very happy to have him around.

Just stay a while this time, Stamkos. We like seeing you.

(Many stats via the wonderful resource that is Hockey Reference.)

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.

MORE FROM NHL ON NBC SPORTS:

Throwing Babcock a bone? Leafs bring back Roman Polak

Getty
3 Comments

Sometimes you need to zoom out from a shaky move and appreciate the bigger picture.

Mike Babcock nailed it when he described the Toronto Maple Leafs, at least at times, as dumb and fun. The Leafs currently lead the NHL with 37 goals, one more than the red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning, despite Toronto playing one fewer game. Still, these young Buds also must raise Babcock’s blood pressure at times with their double-edged sword style.

Credit Babcock, then, with mostly embracing what makes this team tick. More rigid coaches would strain against such designs, almost certainly lowering the Maple Leafs’ ceiling in the process.

The Maple Leafs raised some eyebrows on Sunday by handing slow-footed, limited veteran defenseman Roman Polak a one-year, $1.1 million contract. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that the Maple Leafs slumped some shoulders.

None of these Twitter reactions are really off-base, honestly.

Polak, 31, simply isn’t an ideal fit for the modern NHL, and the Maple Leafs are very much embracing the fast, attacking style that’s (delightfully) coming in vogue.

Here’s a working theory, though: even the best coaches (at least right now) have “their guys.”

“Their guys” are often well-traveled, gritty types. Some only help teams in minimal ways while taking spots from prospects who might eventually be able to make bigger impacts. Others are even worse: actively hurting their teams whenever they get on the ice while taking spots. New York Rangers fans are currently having Tanner Glass flashbacks.

Every GM in the NHL should limit the number of “guys” available to a coach. Otherwise, they’re echoing “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” by holding an intervention at a bar.

(By this analogy, Nazem Kadri is definitely wine in a can.)

Allow a hypothesis: with some injuries surfacing and the Maple Leafs generally playing well, and roaming free, signing Polak stands as something of a reward for Babcock’s patience.

It’s not great, and here’s hoping that Polak doesn’t take meaningful ice time away from better defensemen. There are some discouraging worst-case scenarios where Polak is used as a shutdown guy who really only shuts down the Leafs’ ability to counterpunch.

Ideally, Polak is used in a limited role and Toronto remains one of the most dazzling, heart-stopping, and successful teams in the NHL. That would make everyone happy (except the Maple Leafs’ opponents).

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.

MORE FROM NHL ON NBC SPORTS:

Flyers could gain in lengthy loss of Andrew MacDonald

Getty
Leave a comment

It’s not right to celebrate the injury of Andrew MacDonald, but it’s fair for Philadelphia Flyers fans to at least consider the silver linings.

The oft-criticized defenseman (who was booed during warm-ups during the Flyers’ season-opener) is expected to miss four-to-six weeks after blocking a shot by Edmonton Oilers forward Mark Letestu during Philly’s eventual win on Saturday.

MacDonald, 31, tried to fight through the pain and even briefly returned, gaining praise from teammates and coaches alike. Here’s the painful-looking play that caused the injury:

Flyers fans – and fans of other NHL teams, as almost all have a contract or two they’d like to give the “Men In Black” treatment to – should remember to hate the contract, not the player.

(If you’re going to boo anyone, do so to management, as that bad deal happened right around the time Ron Hextall was transitioning to GM. It’s probably not as much on Hextall, but it’s not inconceivable that he gave a thumbs up, too.)

Anyway, with the 31-year-old on the shelf and his $5M cap hit being IR-bound, the Flyers should have plenty of room to call someone up, if they’d like. That’s where things get interesting, as the Courier-Post’s Dave Isaac ranks among those pointing out intriguing defensive prospect Samuel Morin as a potential replacement.

Morin, 22, is a towering, Pronger-sized defenseman. He could slide into some of MacDonald’s roles, as both are going to be counted on for their own-zone work more than offense. Even in the AHL, Morin was known for stacking up penalty minutes more than points, although he’s off to a higher-scoring start so far this season.

While MacDonald has struggled from a possession stats perspective (as Flyers fans will likely tell you, possibly loudly), he’s far from alone in that regard. The team is middling in possession categories, and MacDonald doesn’t look all that out of place when you consider “relative” stats in 2017-18.

It will be fascinating to see if Morin can help in that regard, and really, how he fits into the modern NHL.

A defenseman his size will need to work harder to stay in position and not get burned against faster, attacking teams. With the Flyers’ host of fleet-footed, scoring blueliners, Morin could serve as a nice change-of-pace.

(Isaac also points to Mark Alt as an option, if the Flyers feel like now isn’t the time for Morin.)

With three wins in their last four games and a five-game homestand wrapping up against the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday, the Flyers have a lot of good things going. As promising as the present can be at times, it’s still the future that makes this group most tantalizing. Perhaps we’ll get a glimpse at how Morin might fit into the puzzle, then?

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.

MORE FROM NHL ON NBC SPORTS:

Coyotes d-man Chychrun back skating after offseason surgery, but no timetable for return

Getty
Leave a comment

It’s been a difficult start to the new season for the Arizona Coyotes, as they still search for their first win after eight games.

But they received good news Saturday when sophomore defenseman Jakob Chychrun skated, which, according to Craig Morgan of NHL.com, is the first time he’s done so since he underwent knee surgery at the beginning of August and was sidelined indefinitely.

Chychrun, a left-shooting blue liner with tremendous skating ability and size at 6-foot-3 tall and 200 pounds, had been talked about as a potential top five pick well ahead of the 2016 NHL Draft, but he eventually fell down the order all the way to 16th when the Coyotes selected him.

Despite going midway through that opening round, Chychrun made the Coyotes out of training camp at the age of 18 and remained in the NHL for the entire 2016-17 season, putting up seven goals and 20 points in 68 games on a young Arizona team.

While there is reason for optimism with this development, Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet still doesn’t have a timetable for when Chychrun could return to the lineup, which could certainly use a boost.

“I’ve got to give the guy (credit),” Tocchet told the Coyotes website. “When you talk about a commitment level, Jakob Chychrun’s got it. He’s got that commitment level, that accountability. He went to Philadelphia (to rehab) by himself, and he trained there with the proper guy. He’s there every day doing whatever it takes to get back into the lineup. I love that stuff. That sort of commitment is incredible. We need that around here.”

The Coyotes now begin a five-game road trip through the East, beginning Tuesday against the New York Islanders and ending on Oct. 31 versus the Detroit Red Wings.

————

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.