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New Year in fantasy hockey: West edition

So, the year is still pretty new. Let’s celebrate 2018 by considering every NHL team, whether it be asking burning questions, pondering make-or-break situations, and pointing out interesting tidbits.

This week, we’ll roll with the Western Conference, because they win the epic battle of alphabetical order and to reduce risks of people complaining about “East Coast Bias.” Next we’ll we go with the East.

Anaheim: What is this team?

Honestly, it’s easy to forget that Ryan Kesler is finally back. The pugnacious pivot is at five games played now, with his first goal coming last night against Edmonton. Between Kesler, Ryan Getzlaf, and plenty of others being hurt, injuries leave the Ducks’ with an “Incomplete” on their mid-term report card.

The good and bad news is that there’s some uncertainty with this team. Maybe you can take advantage of that?

Arizona: Antti Raanta could be a wild card.

Quietly, Raanta has actually been OK this season, sporting a .915 save percentage, in range of his .916 career average. Raanta stopped 37 out of 39 shots to help the Coyotes beat the Nashville Predators 3-2 in OT last night.

Wins should be tough to come by, but Raanta may be worth a look if you’re desperate for goaltending. With his next contract on the line, motivation won’t be in short order.

Calgary: Can Mike Smith keep this up? At 35, he’s carrying a big workload, and the Flames traded away a possible insurance policy – albeit a flimsy one – in Eddie Lack. Even if Calgary has some other goalies with future potential, is anyone ready if he hits a wall?

Chicago Jonathan Toews could be starting a hot streak with two straight two-point games after a six-game drought. Consider last season, when he scored more points after the All-Star break (30 points in as many games) than he did before it (28 points in 42 games).

Colorado: Will Nathan MacKinnon continue to rise among the NHL’s best, as he’s been doing – delightfully – so far? More on that here.

Dallas: John Klingberg already has 36 points in 42 games, leading NHL defensemen by five points. You don’t hear a ton about the 25-year-old blueliner thanks to Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, but he ranks as one of the great fantasy steals of this season.

Edmonton: Oilers in need of new contracts are the most intriguing, and recently suspended winger Patrick Maroon has quite a bit to lose if this team decides to sell, especially if Edmonton does so soon.

Beyond Maroon, interesting situations to watch include Darnell Nurse and Ryan Strome. Other guys, including Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, could also be up for grabs. It’s a mess, but it’s a mess worth monitoring.

Los Angeles: Is this Marian Gaborik resurgence real? Maybe it’s as real as Dustin Brown‘s rebound?

The often-injured scorer has 13 points in 18 games this season, with an active three-game point streak (two goals, two assists). Gaborik scored 21 points in 56 games in 2016-17 and 22 in 54 in 2015-16, so this would be quite the turnaround if this isn’t a fluke. Some of it very well could be considering his 17.1 shooting percentage, so be warned.

Minnesota: Devan Dubnyk sure seems to be back, and the same seems to be true of the Wild. Probably not a coincidence.

Dubnyk has won six times, lost once, and stopped all 10 shots in another period of relief work where he wasn’t credited with a win or a loss.

Nashville: With Filip Forsberg out four-to-six weeks, it’s crucial to keep an eye on who will trot out with Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson. Calle Jarnkrok first drew that assignment, while Pontus Aberg got the nod on Thursday. Then again, maybe it’s not worth the work if you’re the low-maintenance type.

San Jose: Joe Thornton is tied for the Sharks’ scoring lead alongside Brent Burns with 27 points, which is remarkable.

Also remarkable: Kevin Labanc isn’t far behind with 20 points. He’s getting dangerously close to convincing me that his last name shouldn’t have an “l” in it.

St. Louis: The Blues get a lot from guys you’d expect, but the boost comes from the unexpected. Brayden Schenn still leads the Blues in scoring with 42 points while Carter Hutton has an absurd .947 save percentage starting 11 games and appearing in 14.

Vancouver: This is a bad time to invest in the Canucks.

They start a seven-game road trip on Saturday, and during that time, they deal with two back-to-back sets. This team’s been way more competitive than expected, but it’s likely to be a tough January.

Vegas: William Karlsson, as an RFA, has a lot of incentive to keep his strong work going. So do a lot of Golden Knights, who also face a tough schedule in the near future. Karlsson stands out as a risk for regression, with an unsustainable 26.3 shooting percentage.

Winnipeg: Mark Scheifele‘s last game before that unfortunate injury came on Dec. 27. Since then, Blake Wheeler hasn’t really missed a beat as the new center of the top line, generating four goals and one assist in three games.

Reminder: the guy is a star.

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.

Predators place forward Viktor Arvidsson on injured reserve

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) The Nashville Predators have placed forward Viktor Arvidsson on injured reserve with a lower-body injury and recalled forward Frederick Gaudreau from the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals.

The Predators made the move Tuesday afternoon.

Arvidsson was helped off the ice Monday during practice, and The Tennessean reports he tested himself during Tuesday morning’s skate.

The forward ranks third on the Predators with 13 goals and fourth with 27 points. The Predators already have Filip Forsberg on injured reserve with an upper-body injury.

Gaudreau has played 18 games with the Predators with three assists. He had 14 points in 21 games with the Admirals this season.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

WATCH LIVE: Philadelphia Flyers at New York Rangers

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Tuesday night, as the New York Rangers host the Philadelphia Flyers at 7:00 p.m. ET.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Rangers

Rick NashMika ZibanejadPavel Buchnevich
Mats ZuccarelloJ.T. Miller – Vinni Lettieri
Jimmy VeseyDavid DesharnaisPaul Carey
Michael Grabner – Peter Holland – Jesper Fast

Ryan McDonaghNick Holden
Brady SkjeiKevin Shattenkirk
Marc StaalSteven Kampfer

Startling goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

[Flyers look to push winning streak to five games against Rangers]

Flyers

Claude GirouxSean CouturierTravis Konecny
Michael RafflValtteri FilppulaJakub Voracek
Jordan WealNolan PatrickWayne Simmonds
Taylor LeierScott LaughtonJori Lehtera

Ivan ProvorovShayne Gostisbehere
Robert HaggAndrew MacDonald
Brandon ManningRadko Gudas

Startling goalie: Brian Elliott

 

Golden Knights’ defense coming into focus with signings

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As the Vegas Golden Knights’ success gradually goes from shocking to accepted, there’s still the question of what this team might look like next season and beyond. Such questions are only natural when you consider all the key players who still need contract extensions.

Golden Knights management is chipping away at those questions regarding their defense in 2018-19, particularly this week.

On Monday, the Golden Knights signed local favorite and rugged defenseman Deryk Engelland to a one-year extension worth $1.5 million. (That deal includes $1M in potential performance bonuses, according to Cap Friendly.)

One day later, the team announced a two-year extension for Jon Merrill (pictured). The deal is for $2.75M overall, so it will make for a $1.375M cap hit in 2018-19 and 2019-20.

The Golden Knights now have five defensemen on their current roster who are signed through 2018-19, if not longer: Engelland, Merrill, Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, and Brad Hunt. McNabb is locked up the longest, with a $2.5M cap hit kicking in next season and expiring after 2020-21.

The most interesting remaining defensemen to sort out are Colin Miller and Shea Theodore, both pending RFAs. The Golden Knights have been buying up blueliners at bargain rates, but Theodore and Miller could be tougher nuts to crack contracts-wise. (Two UFA defensemen Luca Sbisa and Clayton Stoner on IR.)

Quick look at Engelland and Merrill

Engelland, 35, has been one of the Golden Knights’ ice time leaders with 19:39 per night, collecting 13 points while limiting his time in the penalty box (16 PIM in 41 games) compared to his usual numbers. He’s not perfect, but it’s conceivable that he’ll be worth that minimal cost to Vegas, especially since he’s an ambassador for the still-new franchise.

While Vegas hopes Engelland can bring that veteran presence for another year, they’re likely banking on Merrill to be more effective at a cheap rate.

The 25-year-old has been dealing with injuries and other issues, limiting him to 14 games played.

***

These defensive signings aren’t as important as locking up Jonathan Marchessault, nor is it as crucial as making the right call with the likes of James Neal and David Perron. With Malcolm Subban and Marc-Andre Fleury seeing their deals expire after 2018-19, management will need to make some goaltending decisions not that long from now.

A little bit of greed can inspire players to go that extra mile and stay that much hungrier, yet it’s also comforting to sometimes have some answers. After this week, there’s some clarity on the blueline, even if some decisions still need to be made.

And, hey, the Golden Knights haven’t really locked themselves into bad contracts yet. Old teams could probably learn a thing or two from these new kids.

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.

Johnny Gaudreau is playing best hockey of NHL career

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Maybe it’s because Johnny Gaudreau has been a productive scorer since day one. Almost literally.

Gaudreau scored a goal in his first NHL game with the Calgary Flames, his only appearance in 2013-14. The slick, undersized forward then generated 24 goals and 64 points as a rookie in 2014-15, and really hasn’t missed a beat.

While there were plenty of questions heading into 2017-18 for Calgary – goaltending, Jaromir Jagr, depth on defense and offense – everyone just assumed Gaudreau would keep scoring. So perhaps that explains why people aren’t making much of a deal about Gaudreau scoring even more than usual.

As of Tuesday, Gaudreau is in a four-way tie for second in NHL scoring with 54 points.

After scoring two goals and six assists for eight points in four games, the Flames forward was named NHL’s first star of the week, ahead of teammate Mike Smith (also red-hot). His point streak actually extends into 2017, a stretch of seven games, five of which were multi-point (two goals, 11 assists for 13 points).

Gaudreau set career-highs in goals (30) and points (78) in 79 games back in 2015-16. While he’s at a solid goal-scoring clip of 15 so far this season, his playmaking is what might make this his best work. Gaudreau is averaging 1.2 points-per game, a pace of about 98 points during an 82-game season.

Upon hearing about Gaudreau’s All-Star nod about a week ago, Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan did a great job summarizing what makes him so effective.

“I think he gets the best looks in the National Hockey League,” Gulutzan said, via the Calgary Sun. “He puts himself into position every game to create and shoot. Just the way he navigates himself on the ice and can handle the puck, it’s pretty amazing. For not a big guy, he can strip guys of pucks and get those kind of opportunities, too. It’s a combination of speed, agility and high hockey I.Q. that allows him to do it. He’s our engine for generating offense.”

This goal Gaudreau scored against the Stars on Nov. 24 is a great example of his ability to “strip guys of pucks,” and why he’s such a nightmare to defend.

Gaudreau and the Flames are currently resting up on a bye week, and hopefully not getting too rusty, as Calgary owns the longest active winning streak in the NHL at seven games. Beginning on Saturday, the Flames will play six of their next seven games at home, so there’s a solid chance that they’ll keep their strong play going.

If so, the Flames – and Gaudreau – will be difficult to ignore.

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.