Jakub Vrana

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Kucherov’s star continues to rise, Stamkos sharp as Lightning best Penguins

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Look, it’s early in the season, and the Pittsburgh Penguins were closing off a tough back-to-back set after beating the Washington Capitals last night.

It’s dangerous, then, to draw too many broad conclusions from the Tampa Bay Lightning beating the Penguins 5-4 on Thursday.

Certain thoughts feel safe enough to at least express, though, so let’s throw one out: if Nikita KucherovSteven StamkosVladislav Namestnikov isn’t the best line in the NHL during this early season, it’s awfully close.*

For the Lightning, seeing a keyed-in Stamkos is enough after their captain’s 2016-17 season was derailed by another baffling run of bad injury luck. Stamkos scored his first goal in some time after testing Antti Niemi frequently:

The scary thing for the Lightning’s opponents is that Kucherov, 24, sure seems like the most brilliant star on that line. At least on many nights.

One can only wonder what kind of money Kucherov will receive after his sub-$4.8 million cap hit expires at the end of the 2018-19 season. He scored a goal and an assist in this win, and while he hasn’t been as flashy as the Ovechkins of the world, his relentless production is something to behold. Kucherov has a goal and an assist in three straight games after totally slacking to start the season with a mere goal.

The slick Russian winger also is firing away with a healthy 15 shots on goal in his first four contests.

To an extent, other Lightning players stole some of the thunder on Thursday. Slater Koekkoek scored the first two goals of his NHL career. Alex Killorn generated a career-high four assists.

Supporting cast members will need to come through for the Lightning to win big; they merely need to note that the repeat champs they beat tonight enjoyed big contributions from Jake Guentzel, not just the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Still, those stars do often drive the bus, and Stamkos – Kucherov looks like it could be one of the league’s dynamic duos if this first week is any indication.

Such observations aren’t anything to complain about, right?

* – Tough to argue with Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovJakub Vrana, agreed.

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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‘Fun to watch’ — Devils rookie Jesper Bratt off to hot start

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Bovada has released its Calder Trophy odds, and the names on the list shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Clayton Keller of the Arizona Coyotes tops the list at 9/2, followed by 2017 first overall pick Nico Hischier, who recorded his first NHL point for the New Jersey Devils on Monday, and what a thing of beauty that was.

Here’s a look at the list:

Clayton Keller (Arizona): 9/2

Nico Hischier (New Jersey): 5/1

Anders Bjork (Boston): 7/1

Brock Boeser (Vancouver): 7/1

Charlie McAvoy (Boston): 7/1

Alex DeBrincat (Chicago): 8/1

Nolan Patrick (Philadelphia): 9/1

Dylan Strome (Arizona): 9/1

Tyson Jost (Colorado): 12/1

Jakub Vrana (Washington): 20/1

Kailer Yamamoto (Edmonton): 20/1

Again, nothing really out of the ordinary with that list, highlighted by top prospects and first-round draft picks. It’s still early and plenty can change, of course, but there is another first-year player that, if things continue the way they are going, should start to gain more attention throughout the league.

He isn’t a first-round pick.

No, you’d have to scroll all the way down to the sixth round and the 162nd overall selection in the 2016 NHL Draft to find this player’s name.

At 19 years of age, Jesper Bratt of the Devils has been able to fly under the radar to some degree because of the addition of Hischier with the top pick in June, and a number of acquisitions made this offseason to upgrade that club’s offense heading into the 2017-18 campaign.

Maybe not for much longer, though.

The first week of the new NHL season isn’t over yet, but so far Bratt leads all NHL rookies with three goals and five points in two games. He scored twice on Monday, as the Devils crushed the Buffalo Sabres.

“He’s a really good hockey player already. He’s young and he just got over here,” said Devils forward Marcus Johansson, per NJ.com. “It’s fun to watch, and I think everyone can agree on that. If he keeps going at this pace, it’s going to be pretty impressive.”

It should be mentioned that he’s currently sporting a shooting percentage of 100. That will, likely at some point in the next few days, begin to go down. Early on, though, he’s been a productive player for a Devils team that made several high profile moves over the past two summers to improve their woeful scoring attack.

There have already been a few surprises to begin this NHL season. You can add the early breakout of Jesper Bratt to that list.

Capitals sign Alex Chiasson for cheap

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The Washington Capitals added some veteran forward depth on Wednesday, upgrading Alex Chiasson’s tryout to a one-year, $600K deal.

(That’s official from the team. Hurray to cutting down on needless salary mysteries.)

Chiasson, 27, boasts 320 regular-season games and 14 postseason contests of NHL experience. The Dallas Stars selected him with the 38th pick of the 2009 draft.

After a rough 2015-16 season with the Ottawa Senators, Chiasson scored 12 goals and 24 points in 81 games with the Calgary Flames in 2016-17. He was unable to score in four playoff games.

The general rap for Chiasson is probably “inoffensive.”

The only area where this might be offensive in that Chiasson could take shifts and opportunities from younger players who, while possibly being rawer, might have higher ceilings for Washington.

Those are the types of questions that might make a generally nondescript addition a little less savory.

Caps’ Vrana hoping to earn spot with Ovechkin, Kuznetsov

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It looks like the Washington Capitals are going to give Jakub Vrana the opportunity of a lifetime.

Washington has given the young winger a chance to earn a spot on the right side of the top line with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin.

On Wednesday night, they got to put the chemistry to the test, as Vrana and the Caps played the Canadiens in Montreal.

Vrana finished the game with a power play goal (an innocent shot that went off Canadiens defenseman Brandon Davidson and in the net). Kuznetsov and Ovechkin registered the assists on the goal and the Caps won 4-2.

“We played fast today,” Vrana said, per the Washington Post. “We had some passes today, some chances. It’s always a good sign when you have chances. … You’re going to be confident when you play with guys like this. You’re just going to be confident on the ice with the puck. Just play fast and build some chemistry there.”

The 21-year-old got his first taste of real NHL action last season, but the production simply wasn’t there (three goals and three assists in 21 games). But the 13th overall pick in the 2014 draft did put up solid numbers in the AHL, as he had 36 points in 49 games last year and 34 points in 36 games with the Hershey Bears two years ago.

“He gets to space,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “He gets on the puck because he moves his legs and his speed is noticeable. Kuzy can get him the puck, and getting down ice, he can put some pressure to create a forecheck, too. He worked hard today, and I think we keep putting him with top players, because we think he’s going to be a top player.”

Oshie’s contract status underscores urgency in Washington

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The way he keeps scoring, T.J. Oshie‘s next contract isn’t getting any smaller.

The 30-year-old winger was today named the NHL’s third star of the week, after racking up six points (3G, 3A) in three games for the red-hot Washington Capitals.

Oshie now has 31 points (17G, 14A) in 38 games. A pending unrestricted free agent, he’ll no doubt be looking for a raise beyond his current cap hit of $4.175 million.

One comparable contract is Andrew Ladd‘s seven-year, $38.5 million deal with the Islanders.

Loui Eriksson‘s six-year, $36 million deal with the Canucks is another.

And one more for good measure: David Backes‘ five-year, $30 million deal with the Bruins.

All three of those contracts have a cap hit of around, or exactly, $6 million. Ladd and Eriksson are a year older than Oshie, while Backes is two years older. They’re all reliable veteran wingers, just like Oshie.

Now, the Caps could always try and convince Oshie to take a home-town discount. They may even be able to keep him without a discount.

That being said, their No. 1 priority has to be getting Evgeny Kuznetsov, a pending restricted free agent, locked up. And they also need to keep in mind John Carlson, their No. 1 defenseman who can become unrestricted in the summer of 2018.

“We’re going to have some decisions to make as far as veteran players, and our young guys are going to be due for some pay raises,” Caps GM Brian MacLellan said last season.

When he said it, MacLellan saw his team in a “two-year window.”

Alas, only one year of that window remains. Hence, the urgency to finally win the Stanley Cup this spring.

Like Oshie, Justin Williams and Karl Alzner are pending UFAs.

And like Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Brett ConnollyDmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, and Philipp Grubauer are pending RFAs.

The Caps host Carolina tonight.

Related: Kuznetsov sets table for Jakub Vrana’s first NHL goal