Getty

Challenges for Penguins and Caps, Opportunity for Rangers: Metro in October

1 Comment

If the Metropolitan Division isn’t the best division in the NHL once again, it probably still ranks as the most prominent.

You have the repeat defending champions in the Pittsburgh Penguins going toe-to-toe with the Washington Capitals, who’ve won consecutive Presidents’ Trophies. The New York Rangers are fixtures in the playoffs, and the Columbus Blue Jackets are aiming to join them. The Carolina Hurricanes hope to push one of those teams out of such status. Meanwhile, both the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils are making strong cases for their rebuilds being ahead of schedule, while the New York Islanders hover as an intriguing wild card.

Check out the Atlantic Division outlook here, this Central Division outlook, and the Pacific Division one in this post.

Also, for an in-depth preview for the Metro, check here.

Carolina (beat Wild in season-opener at home)

Schedule

Tue, Oct 10 vs Columbus
Sat, Oct 14 @ Winnipeg
Tue, Oct 17 @ Edmonton
Thu, Oct 19 @ Calgary
Sat, Oct 21 @ Dallas
Tue, Oct 24 vs Tampa Bay
Thu, Oct 26 @ Toronto
Fri, Oct 27 vs St. Louis
Sun, Oct 29 vs Anaheim

After a slow start with their season beginning at home on Saturday, things get tougher on the weekend, following Tuesday’s game. (One must wonder if the young Hurricanes really enjoy the way this schedule fell, at least to begin.)

Beginning with that road game against the Jets, they’ll play four in a row and five of six away from Carolina. Stretching into November, they’ll play eight of 12 on the road from Oct. 14 – Nov. 10. There’s also a lengthy road trip in early December, so the Hurricanes might need to work through some self-doubt early.

On the bright side, the Hurricanes only have one back-to-back in October. Even a young team can appreciate that.

(Justin Williams doubly appreciates it.)

Columbus (Won opener at home, lost on the road to Chicago)

Schedule

Tue, Oct 10 @ Carolina
Fri, Oct 13 vs NY Rangers
Sat, Oct 14 @ Minnesota
Tue, Oct 17 @ Winnipeg
Thu, Oct 19 vs Tampa Bay
Sat, Oct 21 vs Los Angeles
Wed, Oct 25 vs Buffalo
Fri, Oct 27 vs Winnipeg
Sat, Oct 28 @ St. Louis
Mon, Oct 30 vs Boston

The road and home games seem like a reasonable mix. While they’re currently on a stretch of four of five games on the road counting that loss at the United Center to the Blackhawks, they’ll then play four straight and five of six at home.

Following that, they’ll open November with a three-game road trip.

They do face two back-to-back sets, so they’ll want to rest up between home games on Oct. 21 and Oct. 25.

New Jersey (handily won first two games  [one at home, one on the road])

Schedule

Wed, Oct 11 @ Toronto
Fri, Oct 13 vs Washington
Sat, Oct 14 @ NY Rangers
Tue, Oct 17 vs Tampa Bay
Thu, Oct 19 @ Ottawa
Fri, Oct 20 vs San Jose
Fri, Oct 27 vs Ottawa
Sat, Oct 28 vs Arizona

Sort of an odd start to the season for the Devils, as things are spaced out but New Jersey also faces three back-to-back sets in October alone. They might want to hope that the Senators are in a rut, as two of those sets feature single contests against the Sens.

Getting a week between the second and third back-to-back sets should help navigate some of the fatigue, which might make one stretch (Oct. 17 vs. Lighting plus a back-to-back on Oct. 19 and Oct. 20) tougher.

November’s likely the bigger concern, as it begins with seven of 10 games on the road.

Islanders (1-1-1 start, one road vs. two home games)

Schedule

Wed, Oct 11 @ Anaheim
Sat, Oct 14 @ San Jose
Sun, Oct 15 @ Los Angeles
Thu, Oct 19 @ NY Rangers
Sat, Oct 21 vs San Jose
Tue, Oct 24 vs Arizona
Thu, Oct 26 @ Minnesota
Sat, Oct 28 @ Nashville
Mon, Oct 30 vs Vegas

As you can see, the Islanders face some challenges, with their upcoming four-game road trip including a three-game tour of California. They also play six of their next eight away.

The Islanders only have one back-to-back in October, so there could be some “Yes!” chants if they fare well through this stretch.

Their schedule is relatively mild for a while, so it’s on this team to gain traction. That’s still a work in progress.

Rangers (Lost two of three, two of three games were at MSG)

Schedule

Tue, Oct 10 vs St. Louis
Fri, Oct 13 @ Columbus
Sat, Oct 14 vs New Jersey
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

Wow, what an opportunity for the Rangers.

Counting the three games they’ve already played, October is a home-packed month for the Rangers. Ten of their 13 October games take place at Madison Square Garden, including a six-game homestand beginning this coming weekend. Aside from winning their last game, the main plus of their bumpy start is that none of those losses came against Metro rivals.

Scanning their big-picture schedule, some of the heavier road runs seem concentrated in late January and beyond, so the Rangers would benefit from a strong start to 2017-18 (even if they’ve had a recent history of being a good-to-great traveling team).

Philadelphia (2-1-0, with all three games on the road)

Schedule

Tue, Oct 10 @ Nashville
Sat, Oct 14 vs Washington
Tue, Oct 17 vs Florida
Thu, Oct 19 vs Nashville
Sat, Oct 21 vs Edmonton
Tue, Oct 24 vs Anaheim
Thu, Oct 26 @ Ottawa
Sat, Oct 28 @ Toronto
Mon, Oct 30 vs Arizona

The Flyers are already showing promise in the standings, but when you consider that every game’s been on the road, these upstarts look especially intriguing so far.

(It’s noticeable that they’ve fired at least 31 shots on goal in all three contests and kept two of three opponents under 30, to boot.)

This four-game road trip wraps up with a significant challenge: beating a winless, angry Predators team playing its first home contest of 2017-18. If they can get a point or even a win out of that, then this is quite the start.

They can put a lot of energy into that game, as their five-game homestand doesn’t begin until Saturday. Nine of 13 games are in Philly from Oct. 14 – Nov. 11. Interesting stuff, especially without any back-to-backs remaining in October.

Pittsburgh (1-1-1, two at home vs. one road)

Schedule

Wed, Oct 11 @ Washington
Thu, Oct 12 @ Tampa Bay
Sat, Oct 14 vs Florida
Tue, Oct 17 @ NY Rangers
Fri, Oct 20 @ Florida
Sat, Oct 21 @ Tampa Bay
Tue, Oct 24 vs Edmonton
Thu, Oct 26 vs Winnipeg
Sat, Oct 28 @ Minnesota
Sun, Oct 29 @ Winnipeg

The repeat champs are used to fighting through bumps on the road, but even so, there are some suspension-challenging potholes up ahead. Their three back-to-back sets in October all take place on the road, for instance.

It’s bad enough that they also play seven of their next 10 games away from home, but November looms with more challenges. That Oct. 28 game in Minnesota actually begins a five-game road trip, and a run of seven of eight games on the road.

From now until Nov. 11, they play 12 of 16 games on the road and deal with five back-to-back sets. If this team has a strong record in mid-November, give them some kudos. If things are rough, these breaks could be a factor.

Washington (2-0-1, two road vs. one home)

Schedule

Wed, Oct 11 vs Pittsburgh
Fri, Oct 13 @ New Jersey
Sat, Oct 14 @ Philadelphia
Tue, Oct 17 vs Toronto
Fri, Oct 20 @ Detroit
Sat, Oct 21 vs Florida
Thu, Oct 26 @ Vancouver
Sat, Oct 28 @ Edmonton
Sun, Oct 29 @ Calgary

Counting the three previous games, the Capitals play eight home games vs. four road contests to start the season, so getting at least a point in their first three contests is a nice plus.

Washington’s schedule isn’t much easier than that of the Penguins, as they also face three back-to-back sets (mostly on the road) in October. Things lighten up for the Caps in November, though, especially with a lot of home games in late-November to early December.

Maybe Ovechkin can keep his hot streak going when the Capitals can use some power-play goals to ease the challenges early on?

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.