Chris Stewart

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Wild get key weapon back in Nino Niederreiter

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The Minnesota Wild have been on an upward trend lately, with three wins in four games. Even so, their 4-3-2 record tells the fuller story that Bruce Boudreau’s bunch haven’t always been able to navigate some significant injury challenges early in 2017-18.

On the bright side, they’re calling in a key reinforcement on Tuesday, as Nino Niederreiter has been activated from injured reserve before tonight’s game against the Winnipeg Jets.

The 25-year-old hasn’t appeared in a game for the Wild since Oct. 12. Even with that in mind, this must be an antsy time for “El Niño,” who has yet to score his first point in 2017-18 after signing a five-year, $26.25 million contract during the summer.

MORE: Niederreiter expects the Wild to break through in the playoffs

Even with Charlie Coyle sidelined and Zach Parise dealing with some disturbing back problems, Niederreiter suddenly gives the Wild some balance on offense. These were their lines earlier today:

Nino Niederreiter – Eric StaalLuke Kunin

Jason ZuckerMikko KoivuMikael Granlund

Marcus FolignoJoel Eriksson EkChris Stewart

Tyler EnnisMatt CullenDaniel Winnik

Not bad, and you can imagine that group climbing to explosive with Coyle and (ideally) a semi-healthy Parise in the mix.

Niederreiter was already showing some promise early in his Minnesota career (three straight 20+ goal seasons), but 2016-17 seemed to signal a breakthrough to another level. The Swiss-born winger generated career-highs in goals (25), assists (32), and points (57), while also continuing to be a fancy stats darling with outstanding possession numbers.

Maybe the Wild lack outright superstars, but players such as Niederreiter are difference-makers at forward, and you can bet that he’s been sorely missed.

Considering the firepower on hand for the Winnipeg Jets, the Wild could really use the boost, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the two teams traded blows in a fun affair.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Kings climb to top spot

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When we last checked in with our Power Rankings we were trying to make sense of the early season standings, and in a lot of ways we still kind of are. The first month is a little crazy sometimes and this season is no exception (New Jersey in first place? Vegas with wins in eight of its first nine games? Edmonton stinks again?).

One of the more surprising results last time was the fast start by the Los Angeles Kings.

Two weeks later, it has not stopped.

What is perhaps most surprising about it is the fact they are currently seventh in the league in goals scored with largely the same roster that has been near the bottom of the league over the past couple of seasons. Also surprising: They have done it while getting just six games from Jeff Carter, one of their best, most consistent and most important offensive players.

Anze Kopitar, a seemingly reborn Dustin Brown and Adrian Kempe (already with six goals) are helping to pace the offense for a Kings team that is 9-1-1 to open the season.

They are the new top team in our Power Rankings.

Have a look at the rest of the rankings as we get ready to move into the second month of the NHL season.

1. Los Angeles Kings — It took Dustin Brown 24 games to record his 11th point last season. He has 11 in 11 games as of Monday.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning — Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos are the two most dominating offensive players in the NHL right now. It is still early, but it is very clear that the 2016-17 season was the fluke for the Lightning.

3. St. Louis Blues — Vladimir Tarasenko gets all of the headlines (rightfully so) but Jaden Schwartz has been the straw stirring the drink this season for the Blues. Where would they be without him?

4. New Jersey Devils — A trio of rookies (Nico Hischier, Will Butcher and Jesper Bratt) has the Devils at the top of the Metropolitan Division for the time being and gives their fans a lot of hope for the future.

5. Columbus Blue Jackets — The offense still probably has another level it can get to but Sergei Bobrovsky is following up his second Vezina Trophy with another stellar start to the season with a .938 save percentage.

6. Vegas Golden Knights — Is their success sustainable? Probably not! But it is a heck of a lot of fun to watch right now. We know they can win at home. Now we get to see what happens when they have to play a few road games.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs — Still the most exciting team in the league. They will score more than any team in the league … and they will give up more than just about anybody.

8. Ottawa Senators — If you are going to lose, lose in overtime when you can collect points and that is exactly what Ottawa has done this season. With only one regulation loss this season the Senators have managed to collect point in 10 of their first 11 games.

9. Vancouver Canucks — The Canucks were supposed to be one of the worst teams in the league, and given their roster they still might end up there when all is said and done. But with wins and five of their past six, including four in a row into Monday, they are one of the biggest surprises in the NHL so far.

10. New York Islanders — In his past four games heading into Monday John Tavares has seven goals and 10 total points, including a pair of hat tricks. Consider his slow start officially over.

11. Anaheim Ducks — If he stays healthy John Gibson can be a top-tier goaltender in the NHL for a long time. He has been downright dominant in his past five starts.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins — The Penguins still don’t look great, they still have some depth issues and they have won just one game in regulation in more than two weeks. They have been absolutely blown out three times this month. Not encouraging.

13. Chicago Blackhawks — After scoring 15 goals in their first two games the Blackhawks have managed to score only 23 in the 10 games that have followed. There were depth concerns at the start of the season. Maybe they are starting to show now.

14. Philadelphia Flyers — The Flyers wanted to see Sean Couturier take a step forward this season offensively and he has given them exactly that, averaging more than a point-per-game through the first 11. Put that production with his defensive game and you have one heck of a top-line center.

15. Winnipeg Jets — On paper this is still a pretty talented team that just needs to get some consistent goaltending. So far Conor Hellebuyck has given them that in his starts. How long that continues will determine how far the Jets are able to go this season.

16. Calgary Flames — This has the look of a breakout season for Johnny Gaudreau. Not only is he pacing the Flames with 15 points in 12 games but he is also sporting a dominating 55 percent Corsi mark. He is doing it all.

17. Minnesota Wild — The Wild are hanging around at the start of the season thanks to the stunning offensive performance of … *checks papers* … Chris Stewart? Well that is unexpected. After scoring just 13 goals in 79 games a year ago Stewart already has six in his first nine games this season. He has always been a streaky scorer and the Wild are getting one of those hot streaks at the right time.

18. Washington Capitals — It hasn’t been the offense that has been hurt by the offseason departures of Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams, it is the defense that has been the problem. Entering the week the Capitals are 26th in the league in goals against and 25th in shots against.

19. Nashville Predators — Pekka Rinne has been a question mark in recent seasons but so far this season he has been the Predators’ best, most valuable player. They somehow have six wins while getting just one combined goal from Ryan Johansen and P.K Subban.

20. Boston Bruins — With seven goals in his first nine games Brad Marchand has scored 83 goals since the start of the 2015-16 season. That is the fifth best mark in the NHL behind only Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko.

21. San Jose Sharks — After winning just three of their first four games the Sharks have won four out of their past six games, including a wildly successful five-game road trip.

22. Dallas Stars — So far this Stars season is going about as should have been expected. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn are carrying the offense and everything else is just kind of … average. Against playoff teams from a year ago they are only 1-3-0 so far this season.

23. Carolina Hurricanes — Here is a story you have almost certainly heard before: Goaltending has been an early season problem in Carolina. In his first taste as an everyday starter Scott Darling has an .897 save percentage.

24. Colorado Avalanche — Another team that has been hit by a sharp dose of reality after an early season surge. That 7-0 loss to an expansion team is going to leave a mark.

25. Edmonton Oilers — They are still better than their record indicates but the lack of secondary scoring is going to be a real problem. Maybe trading Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle for Adam Larsson and Ryan Strome wasn’t the best idea.

26. Florida Panthers — They have four players at the top of the lineup all averaging a point-per-game but things are not going well defensively or in net where Roberto Luongo remains sidelined.

27. Detroit Red Wings — A fast start has quickly turned into disappointment thanks to a six-game losing streak. This is more of what should have been expected from this team.

28. Montreal Canadiens — It has been the perfect storm of chaos in Montreal so far this season. A bad start, some off ice drama, the captain has just three goals (zero assists) in his first 11 games.

29. New York Rangers — At this point it is not quite clear if the defense is still an issue or poor goaltending performances are still clouding things. Either way, the Rangers probably did not expect to be near the bottom of the standings at any point this season. This team should not be this bad.

30. Buffalo Sabres — Jason Pominville has played well in his return to Buffalo and Jack Eichel is great. Everything else is lousy.

31. Arizona Coyotes — You really do not need to say anything when you look at the standings to see 0-10-1.

Coach Q after Blackhawks loss: ‘One play cost us the whole game’

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Thursday night was rough on Brent Seabrook and frustrating for the Chicago Blackhawks as a whole, as they dropped a 5-2 loss to a Minnesota Wild team that was hobbling and still may be hobbling through the weekend.

The worst moment came when Chris Stewart beat Seabrook on an odd-looking semi-breakaway that survived an offside challenge from an, um, none-too-pleased Joel Quenneville.

You can check out that Stewart goal above, which survived the challenge to Coach Q’s chagrin. Here’s an explanation from the NHL:

Watch Coach Q in the press conference below, as he becomes increasingly uncomfortable answering questions about the “one play that changed the game.” (NBC Sports Chicago’s Tracey Myers goes into more detail on the call here.)

This is the latest example of a failed challenge biting a team, as doing so garners a delay of game penalty as part of the NHL’s drive to cut down on more minute offside challenges.

If that wasn’t enough for Seabrook, he also suffered something of a blooper reel moment, as he was sent flipping into the bench thanks to Marcus Foligno:

Ouch. It wouldn’t be surprising if, even with that, Seabrook ended the night in a better mood than Quenneville.

Perhaps some of the frustration stems from the Blackhawks failing to take advantage of a Wild team that is really going to have to grind through some injury headaches. As The Athletic’s Michael Russo notes, things might not get better for a while.

Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle may join an increasingly troubling injury list for Minnesota.

You can understand why Bruce Boudreau heaped such praise on his team.

One coach’s gutsy effort is another coach’s, well, (insert angry gibberish.)

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.

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Report: Avalanche will soon have AHL affiliate in Colorado

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There are upgrades that improve teams in dramatic ways, and then there are moves that improve quality of life.

Mike Chambers of The Denver Post reports that the Colorado Avalanche will make a tweak that would likely be a big plus in the quality of life category: starting in 2018-19, the Colorado Eagles will be their AHL affiliate. The Eagles will be bumped from an ECHL team to the AHL.

At the moment, the Avs’ affiliate is the San Antonio Rampage (pictured). So, yeah, there will be a nice advantage in a) calling players up and b) management having more opportunities to keep an eye on prospects.

The Budweiser Events Center is about a one-hour drive to the Pepsi Center according to Google Maps, depending upon traffic. So yeah, that’s an easier situation than traveling from Texas.

The Avalanche haven’t made this news official; Chambers cites two anonymous sources. With the change coming for 2018-19, it’s possible that confirmation might not come for a while. More from Chambers:

The Avs, citing their contract with the Rampage, declined comment, but vice president Jean Martineau confirmed the team’s contract with San Antonio ends after the 2017-18 season. Eagles general manager Chris Stewart could not be reached for comment.

After developing players, ‘it’s a bit frustrating’ to possibly lose one in expansion draft

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) There were many years in Minnesota Wild history when assembling a list of their top 10 players would have been a breeze.

That was the biggest challenge this offseason.

The downside to the roster depth the Wild have built has arrived this week in the form of the NHL expansion draft, which will rob them of a valuable player on Wednesday night when the Vegas Golden Knights construct their inaugural team with one player from each of the other 30 clubs.

With defensemen Matt Dumba and Marco Scandella at the front of the queue, the Wild stand to lose as much as any team.

“They paid a large expansion fee, and the rules are set up that they’re going to get some tremendous assets out of this process, as they should,” Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said. He added: “It’s actually, I think, a compliment to our organization that we have so many tough decisions.”

Read more:

Wild could lose Dumba, Scandella or Staal in expansion draft

Wild didn’t make a move prior to trade freeze deadline

Fletcher and his top lieutenant, Brent Flahr, quickly realized last summer their vulnerability once the NHL revealed the expansion draft guidelines.

“We did the math very quickly, and we were like, `We’re going to lose a good player,”‘ Fletcher said last week, before the lists were submitted to the league .

The Wild chose the seven forwards (Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Mikko Koivu, Nino Niederreiter, Zach Parise, Jason Pominville and Jason Zucker), three defensemen (Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon and Ryan Suter) and one goalie (Devan Dubnyk) option, rather than the eight skaters (any combination of forwards and defensemen) and one goalie alternative.

That left Martin Hanzal, Erik Haula, Jordan Schroeder, Eric Staal, Chris Stewart and Ryan White among the unprotected forwards who factored into the postseason lineups and Dumba, Christian Folin and Scandella among the unprotected defensemen. With no-trade clauses in their contracts, veterans Koivu, Parise, Pominville and Suter were mandatory inclusions on the protected list.

“The good news is we can only lose one player. Sometimes at 3 in the morning when I wake up, I remind myself of that: `You can lose only one player. Go back to sleep,”‘ Fletcher said. “But when you’ve drafted and developed a lot of these players, it is a bit frustrating, I’ll admit that.”

The Wild could work out a trade with the Golden Knights to get them to agree not to pick a particular unprotected player, but Vegas general manager George McPhee has made clear he’s in it to win it . Without a first or second-round draft pick this year, the Wild would likely have to part with a player in that scenario, which would mean losing two of them instead of one.

Staal is a first-line center who had 28 goals and 65 points, his highest totals in five years, but at age 32 he’s less attractive. The Wild protected 25-year-old right wing Jason Zucker, a native of Las Vegas, instead.

Dumba, despite a penchant for sloppy and inconsistent play, is just 22 and coming off a career season with 11 goals and 23 assists. He has one of the hardest shots on the team. The 27-year-old Scandella was one of the few bright spots during the first-round loss in the playoffs to the St. Louis Blues.

“I’m pretty confident I know how we’ll look coming out of it,” Fletcher said, “and that’s still a heck of a hockey team.”