Bryan Little

Flyers

Flyers’ Will O’Neill makes NHL debut 11 years after being drafted

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His first shift probably won’t be remembered years down the line, mainly because it lasted a whole four seconds. But Thursday night, Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Will O’Neill finally made his NHL debut.

The 29-year-old O’Neill stepped onto the ice at Scottrade Center in St. Louis 4,198 days after his name was called in the seventh round of the 2006 Draft by the Atlanta Thrashers. (Six rounds earlier they selected Bryan Little 12th overall.) When he hopped over the boards early in the first period of the Flyers’ 2-0 win, he was quickly back on the bench after a Dale Weise penalty ended his first shift after four seconds.

But he would hit the ice 11 more times and play 9:25 during the win as his mom, sister and best friend were in attendance.

“He did a good job. He did his part, he did his job,” Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said.

After O’Neill’s draft, it took him some time to finally reach professional hockey. He would spend two years in the United States Hockey League with the Omaha Lancers before becoming an integral part of the blue line with the NCAA’s Maine Black Bears. At the end of his senior season he made the jump to the American Hockey League’s St. John’s Ice Caps, one year after the Thrashers became the Winnipeg Jets.

Injuries to Radko Gudas, Shayne Gostisbehere and Andrew MacDonald forced Flyers general manager Ron Hextall to bring in reinforcements, and after 346 games in the AHL O’Neill, who was selected 210th out of 213 picks in 2006, finally got the call.

“It was pretty cool. It was the first one I’ve received like that,” he said on Wednesday. “I knew that someone was trying to call me, so I had a little bit of an idea. I was pretty cool for a few seconds there and then he told me. It’s exciting. It’s cool for me. I’m excited to be able to play the game.”

We see these stories every season, from Bracken Kearns to Pat Cannone — sometimes those long bus rides in the minors eventually do pay off with a chance in The Show. Who knows how long O’Neill’s stay in the NHL will be, but a goal was certainly reached Thursday night in St. Louis.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Jets’ Patrik Laine on struggles: ‘Hockey is really hard right now’

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The Winnipeg Jets are winning and sitting in a playoff spot in the Western Conference as the NHL season enters its second month. But Patrik Laine can’t relate to all those happy feelings at the moment.

Team success is great, of course, but the Jets forward, who’s scored four times in 11 games this season, is in a bit of a rut offensively. He’s pointless in his last four games, which includes an 0-fer during Sunday’s 7-1 rout over the Pittsburgh Penguins. Laine’s play of late is weighing on him, as he expressed after Thursday’s morning skate before facing the Dallas Stars.

“It feels like hockey is really hard right now, but I think everyone is going to have the same kind of feelings sometimes,” Laine said. “Just have to move forward and get through it somehow.”

Through the Jets’ first seven games, Laine was averaging 3.5 shots per game. Over this little skid, he’s fired a total of five shots in four games. Last season, he went two four-game spells where he went pointless. Both times he responded with a goal in the following game en route to a 36-goal, 64-point rookie campaign.

For now, Laine says he’ll work through by doing what he’s quite good at.

“Obviously I don’t have a lot of confidence, so just try to shoot a lot and try to be simple that way and just try to work hard every shift,” he said.

“Confidence is a really interesting one to get your head around,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “The standard is hey, you’re getting your chances, just keep doing the right things, and it’s a standard because that’s all there is for a shooter until the puck gets by the goalie. Hitting posts doesn’t give a guy a whole lot of confidence for a guy that really values the goal scoring part of his game. It’s got to get in behind him. So we would start with all of these basics that would go into that and then if you’re not scoring goals there’s a whole lot of other things you could do to that can help your linemates score and help your hockey team win.”

It helps that Laine’s isnt’t he focal point of the Jets’ offense. It’s been a pretty balanced attack with 10 other forwards contributing to their 33 goals this season.

Last season, Laine had most of his success playing next to Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers. Over this brief slide he’s spent most of his even strength time with Ehlers and Bryan Little. So while he battles through these confidence issues in his game, we can be quite confident that he’s going to break out of this “slump” sooner than later. The talent he possesses is just too good.

“I’ve had bad seasons. I’ve had tougher situations than this,” Laine said. “And always I’ve found a way to come out of there. Hopefully I can do the same thing right now. I think I’m gonna do that.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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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PHT’s Central Division preview: Blackhawks, Wild, Predators, and more

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For ages, it felt like the Central Division was the reigning champion as the toughest division in the NHL.

The Metropolitan Division seemed to knock the Central off its perch, right down to the Pittsburgh Penguins beating the Nashville Predators in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Still, much of those stumbles seemed self-imposed, as the Dallas Stars struggled, the Winnipeg Jets disappointed, and the Colorado Avalanche were jaw-droppingly bad.

Let’s take a look at PHT’s material on the Central Division with the 2017-18 season set to begin.

Click here for the Atlantic Division preview.

Click here for PHT’s staff predictions.

Chicago Blackhawks

Poll/looking to make the leap

Colorado Avalanche

Poll/looking to make the leap

Dallas Stars

Poll/looking to make the leap

Minnesota Wild

Poll/looking to make the leap

Speaking of signings, the Wild inked a deal with Daniel Winnik today:

Nashville Predators

Poll/Looking to make the leap

St. Louis Blues

Poll/looking to make the leap

One other Blues note:

Winnipeg Jets

Poll/looking to make the leap

PHT predictions for 2017-18: Stanley Cup picks, McDavid love, and more

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Expert take: Connor McDavid is really something.

OK, such a thought is evident to virtually every sentient hockey fan/person even vaguely interested in the NHL. The PHT staff covers that base in the predictions and picks below, but there are also spicier topics at hand. You be the judge if anything warms up to the level of a hot take.

So, rejoice, and bookmark this page in case you want to vengefully point out how your team was totally robbed of the things people grow up dreaming about: approval from hockey writers.

Of course, if these predictions end up looking good in hindsight, never mention them again. That’s how it works, right?

Also, NHL.com provides this handy guide to opening-night rosters.

Anyway, here are our picks, with staff members listed in alphabetical order:

Joey Alfieri

Art Ross: Connor McDavid. It’s the “boring” answer, but this kid is too good and too fast. I can’t go against him after what I saw last year.

Rocket Richard: Steven Stamkos. I’m not going out on a limb with my Art Ross pick, but I think this one will surprise some people. Obviously, we all know that Stamkos can put the puck in the net. The question with him is whether or not he can stay healthy. I think he’ll play enough games to score a lot of goals in 2017-18.

Hart: I think it’s McDavid again.

Vezina: Braden Holtby. A lot of people seem to think that the Capitals will take a step back this year (maybe they will), but I think they’ll be able to lean on Holtby.

Norris: Victor Hedman. He didn’t get as much spotlight as Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns last year, but he somehow managed to quietly put up over 70 points.

Calder trophy: Nico Hischier. He really impressed me during the preseason. I didn’t know if he’d be NHL-ready right out of the gate, but he answered all those questions for me. We’ll see if he can translate his preseason success into regular season success.

Division winners:
Metropolitan: Washington
Atlantic: Tampa Bay
Central: Minnesota
Pacific: Edmonton

SCF matchup: The Eastern Conference is still very wide open in my mind, so I’m not ruling out the Pittsburgh Penguins going back to the final for a third straight year. I’ll make it a Sidney Crosby vs. McDavid final, as I think the Oilers will make it out of the West.

Champ: Give me the Edmonton Oilers.

Worst team: The Vancouver Canucks will be worse than Vegas. Book it.

Wild card (team that could go very wrong or very right): Winnipeg Jets. They’re loaded with talent up front (see Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine, Bryan Little, Nikolaj Ehlers) and on defense (Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Josh Morrissey), but the goaltending duo of Steve Mason and Connor Hellebuyck might hold them back.

One 2017 playoff team that won’t make it in 2018: The New York Rangers. I don’t like their situation down the middle. Also, if Henrik Lundqvist struggles during the regular season, Antti Raanta is no longer there to hold down the fort.

Team that missed last year that will make it in 2017-18: The Tampa Bay Lightning. They dealt with a lot of injuries last year and barely missed the postseason. I think they’ll get there in 2017-18.

Adam Gretz

Art Ross: Connor McDavid

Rocket Richard: Nikita Kucherov

Hart: Connor McDavid

Vezina: Carey Price

Norris: Erik Karlsson

Calder Trophy: Nico Hischier

Division winners:
Metropolitan: Columbus
Atlantic: Tampa Bay
Central: Nashville
Pacific: Anaheim

SFC Matchup: Columbus vs. Nashville
Champ: Nashville

Worst team: Colorado
Wild card: Carolina
Playoff team that won’t make it: St. Louis
Team that missed that will make it: Tampa Bay

James O’Brien

Art Ross: Connor McDavid

Rocket Richard: Alex Ovechkin. Don’t underestimate all the goals he’ll get from “his office.” Also, the Capitals need more from him this season. Maybe that will goose his shot attempts and numbers?

Hart: Connor McDavid

Vezina: Braden Holtby. He’s quietly wrestling the “most consistently great” torch from Henrik Lundqvist.

Norris: Victor Hedman. Erik Karlsson is a treasure, but his health is very worrisome.

Calder trophy: Nico Hischier

Division winners:
Metropolitan: Pittsburgh Penguins
Atlantic: Montreal Canadiens
Central: Minnesota Wild
Pacific: Edmonton Oilers

SCF matchup: Nashville Predators vs. Pittsburgh Penguins. Ryan Ellis‘ injury situation leads me to believe that Nashville will, once again, struggle a bit in the regular season. (Even at 100 percent, they might just be better suited for the playoffs.)

Champ: The Predators get revenge. It’s not foolish to assume that they get Matt Duchene, right? (Gulp.)

Worst team: The Vegas Golden Knights. Don’t despair, though, budding fans: this franchise is off to a strong start.

Wild card (team that could go very wrong or very right): The Dallas Stars. They’ve once again “won the offseason,” yet with every great move like adding Alex Radulov, there are troubling signs that this franchise is still behind the curve. What if Ben Bishop is another goaltending blunder? Did the game finally pass Ken Hitchcock by? Many sins will be forgiven if the Jamie BennTyler Seguin show rebounds after a rough 2016-17.

One 2017 playoff team that won’t make it in 2018: Ottawa Senators. The Boston Bruins also worry me.

One 2017 team that did not make the playoffs, but will in 2018: I’ll give you one for each conference: the Tampa Bay Lightning and Winnipeg Jets.

Cam Tucker

Art Ross: Connor McDavid

Rocket Richard: Nikita Kucherov

Hart: Connor McDavid

Vezina: Carey Price

Norris: Victor Hedman

Calder trophy: Charlie McAvoy. Off the board, perhaps?

Division winners:
Metropolitan: Columbus Blue Jackets
Atlantic: Toronto Maple Leafs
Central: Nashville Predators
Pacific: Edmonton Oilers

SCF matchup: Edmonton Oilers versus Toronto Maple Leafs. All of Canada can rejoice!

Champ: Well, I guess I have to pick one of those two teams, so I’m going to say…….the Edmonton Oilers. Sorry, Toronto.

Worst team: Colorado Avalanche. Again.

Wild card (team that could go very wrong or very right): The L.A. Kings. Fascinated to see the difference in style after an offseason coaching change. Still believe they’re a playoff team but last year was a massive disappointment.

One 2017 playoff team that won’t make it in 2018: Ottawa Senators.

One 2017 team that did not make the playoffs, but will in 2018: Tampa Bay Lightning. If Steven Stamkos can stay healthy, this offence — and by extension this entire team — should be a force. The Carolina Hurricanes are, to me, an honorable mention in this category.