Mikael Backlund

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PHT Morning Skate: Do the Blues have the best first line in hockey?

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–Avalanche rookie Alex Kerfoot had an interesting Wednesday in Sweden, as he had an allergic reaction to something he ate in a small cafe. To make matters worse, he didn’t have his phone to contact anyone from the team, so he just went straight to a hospital. (NHL.com)

–The 2022 Beijing Olympics will be held in China, and the NHL is doing everything it can to grow the game in that market. There have been exhibition games there and teams have held youth and coaching seminars there, too. (NBCNews.com)

–Some Canadian filmmakers got an opportunity to take a deeper look at the North Korean National Team. Let’s just say their equipment and training methods are a little outdated though. (New York Times)

–Flames center Mikael Backlund is making just over $3.5 million in the final year of his contract. Calgary would like to keep him around, but they’re going to have to shell out a lot more money to lock him up. (The Hockey Writers)

–There have been rumblings about the availability of Oliver Ekman-Larsson via trade, but GM John Chayka made sure to set the record straight during a radio interview earlier this week. It doesn’t sound like the blue liner is going anywhere. (arizonasports.com)

Nathan MacKinnon hasn’t put up the numbers everyone expected him to over the last couple of years, but BSN Denver argues that he’s a much better player than most people think. (BSN Denver)

–Light House Hockey takes an in-depth look at a shift that got Josh Ho-Sang benched for a long time. After watching this, you’ll be able to understand why head coach Doug Weight has been frustrated with him. (Light House Hockey)

–A lot of people expected Mikhail Sergachev to stick with the Lightning this year, but there weren’t many who believed he’d have this kind of impact on the team in 2017-18. (Tampa Bay Times)

–There are a number of quality first lines in the NHL. When you break them all down, the Blues top trio of Brayden Schenn, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko might just be the best one in the league right now. (St. Louis Game Time)

–You may or may not have seen a photo of Islanders goalie Billy Smith sitting next to a pond (with all his equipment on) in the early 80’s. Well, many years later, The Score got the story behind this incredibly weird shoot. (The Score)

–Sabres goalie Robin Lehner will be honoring fallen K-9 officer Craig Lehner prior to Friday’s game. The netminder will wear a jersey with a C. Lehner nameplate during the warmup. Instead of wearing his usual number 40, Lehner will have number 43 on the back (the officer’s radio call sign). (Buffalo News)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

How should Flames use Jaromir Jagr?

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After an anxious summer where Jaromir Jagr got kind of weird about not getting a deal on Twitter, the Calgary Flames provided the hockey world with relief in signing the living legend.

It’s something we should all cherish, too, as Jagr admitted that there’s a “99.9 percent chance” that this will be his last season, according to Sportsnet’s Roger Millions.

Even at 45, Jagr still could conceivably benefit the Flames. As GM Brad Treliving said, Jagr still has the ability to snag the puck beyond the blueline, and he can still make plays.

Let’s have a little fun with this, then, and ponder the scenarios where the Flames can get the most out of Jagr (and vice versa).

Jagr with Sam Bennett and Kris Versteeg

So far, every indication is that Jagr will begin with the unfinished product of a prospect in Bennett and the journeyman winger in Versteeg. As this great Flames Nation piece by Ari Yanover states, this scenario would allow Calgary to roll out three potentially productive lines in the top-nine.

This scenario makes lot of sense, yet Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan should keep an open mind about how productive Jagr could be.

Jiri Jagr?

At the moment, the Flames’ top scoring line stands as Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Micheal Ferland.

Ferland, 25, has shown some promise in top-line situations. He’s also been able to do something with limited opportunities: he managed 15 goals and 25 points last season, which is more impressive when you consider that his time-on-ice average was a skimpy 11:34 per night.

Even so, the sample size with higher-end players isn’t huge, particularly with key catalyst Gaudreau. If Ferland struggles against top defensemen and checkers, Gulutzan shouldn’t be afraid to give Jagr a shot.

Really, Jagr might just be able to fit in with Gaudreau and Monahan like fellow veteran Czech winger Jiri Hudler once did. Hudler managed almost a point-per-contest (76 in 78) with those two young forwards as recently as 2014-15. It’s unfortunate that Hudler’s reportedly dealing with some personal struggles now, but it isn’t outrageous to claim that he was the best fit for those two so far. Maybe Jagr can emulate some of that, even at an advanced age?

Jagr and Hudler share at least one similar trait beyond nationality: they both have been splendid playmakers. In fact, their impact on shooting percentage was nearly identical in this intriguing study by TSN’s Travis Yost.

Sometimes it makes sense to try to spread the wealth. There’s not necessarily just one way to succeed in hockey, and maybe it would benefit Monahan and Gaudreau to have a puck possession genius who still possesses a blistering hockey IQ?

It could bring them up the first-line power rankings, for all we know.

Puck possession Voltron?

Look, on its face, it almost feels sacrilegious to break up “The 3M Line”* of Matthew Tkachuk, Michael Frolik, and Mikael Backlund.

On the other hand, injuries happen and coaches love to shake things up.

Imagine, for a second, that already potent puck-possession partnership becoming nuclear-level with a still-fancy-stats-friendly Jagr plugged in one spot? It’s fun to think about.

But, yeah, not the best idea.

Fourth line duty?

What, do you have a heart of coal? Never speak of that again.

***

Really, the Flames could experiment with a variety of alignments. If Jagr’s late-career journeyman status shows us anything, it’s that the icon can adapt and help his team in a variety of scenarios.

Just, seriously, don’t bury him in the lineup. That’s unacceptable.

* – Still a little bitter that my soup-inspired “MMM Line” nickname never caught on. Is that what this is all about, actually? Uh oh.

Under Pressure: Mike Smith

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This post is a part of Flames day at PHT…

Goaltending has been a major issue for the Calgary Flames in recent seasons and for the second year in a row they have completely overhauled the position, bringing in two new faces in an effort to fix it.

Replacing Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson this season (after Elliott and Johnson replaced Karri Ramo, Jonas Hiller and Joni Ortio the year before) will be the veteran of duo of Mike Smith and Eddie Lack.

Both goalies are looking to rebound with a fresh start in a new city.

Smith, acquired in an offseason trade with the Arizona Coyotes, is going to be the starter and is going to have the most pressure on him.

Not only because the Flames are still on the hook for the remainder of his contract (more than $11 million over the next two seasons) but because he is going to be playing behind a defense that is going to be one of the best in the NHL, led by Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie, Dougie Hamilton and Travis Hamonic. That is an outstanding group and even average goaltending should make the Flames one of the toughest teams in the league to score against.

Smith, however, has not always performed at that level in recent seasons.

Looking at his past three years total his even-strength save percentage of .920 places him 38th out of 61 goalies that have appeared in at least 50 games, while his overall save percentage of .911 places him 45th out of that group (his new backup, Eddie Lack, is 46th over that same stretch). Even if you look at only his performance from this past season in Arizona (a .914 save percentage) it wouldn’t be that big of an upgrade over what the Flames were getting out of the Elliott/Johnson duo.

Now, that was good enough to get the Flames into the playoffs and make them a middle-of-the-pack team when it came to preventing goals.

But the Flames are at a point now where their objective should be more than just simply “make the playoffs” or be an average defensive team.

If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have traded for a 35-year-old goalie and been willing to pay him more than $11 million over the next two seasons.

This is a team that has what should be on paper one of the best quartets of defensemen in the league, it has some outstanding young forwards that are just now entering the prime of their careers (Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, Mikael Backlund) and some emerging young stars in Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Bennett.

They are clearly in what they believe to be a “win-now” mode with a chance to compete in the Western Conference.

For them to do that they are going to need a big season from their new goaltender.

Looking to make the leap: Mark Jankowski

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This post is a part of Flames day at PHT…

When the Calgary Flames picked Mark Jankowski with the No. 21 overall pick in the 2012 draft it certainly raised a lot of eyebrows. It was the very definition of an “off the board” pick and was pretty much immediately panned by basically every draft analyst.

Things did not get much better during Jankowski’s for most of his first three seasons at Providence College where his production was decent, but not the level you would expect from a first-round NHL draft pick and top prospect.

Over the past two years, however, things have started to turn around for him in his development. After averaging more than a point-per-game during his senior season at Providence, Jankowski played his first full season of pro hockey during the 2016-17 season and had an extremely promising year for the AHL’s Stockton Heat.

He told NHL.com earlier this month that one of his goals last season after being sent to the AHL was to be a dominant player in the league.

“Last year,” Jankowski reflects, “was a good one for me. After I was sent down to Stockton, I had it in my mind that I wanted to start dominating games and as the year wore on I think I got closer and closer to doing it. Every shift I wanted to make an impact. Every time on the ice I wanted to affect the outcome, whether by scoring a goal, winning a big face-off or a quick stick in the D-zone.”

He ended up leading the team in goals (27) and total points (56) and was one of the league’s best rookies.

Now the next step for him is finally breaking through and getting a full time look at the NHL level.

It is not going to be easy.

The Flames were a playoff team a year ago and are bringing back a pretty deep roster that won’t have many open spots, especially at Jankowski’s natural position of center where the team already has Sean Monahan, Mikael Backlund, Sam Bennett and Matt Stajan. Important to keep in mind that Monahan and Bennett are both nearly the same age as Jankowski and are already established NHL players.

Whether he makes the roster from the start or gets a look later in the season it still looks like he has a chance to turn out to be a better player than was originally believed on the night he was picked by the Flames.

Matt Murray’s furry dog steals show during day with Stanley Cup

via Matt Murray's Twitter feed
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There’s been some awful news this weekend, to the point that even the NHL and Detroit Red Wings were tangentially involved.

In times like these, many of us turn to photos of dogs and birthday cakes. This post aims to provide both, along with some other lighthearted fun.

To start off, we have Matt Murray‘s day with the Stanley Cup, which includes this wonderful dog:

Apparently that’s a Newfoundland or “Newfie” dog. No word yet on the name, so for now we can go with either doggo or Furry Murray.*

That breed can weigh in anywhere from 100-150 lbs., according to this wonderfully detailed entry from “Dog Time.”

The Newfoundland is a large, strong dog breed from — wait for it — Newfoundland. He was originally used as a working dog to pull nets for fishermen and haul wood from the forest. He is a capable and hardworking dog, well suited to work on land or water. He is a strong swimmer and equally strong “pack horse.” Sweet-natured and responsive, he makes a wonderful family companion as well.

Furry Murray does, indeed, look like a wonderful family companion.

/Replaces Hockey Analysis with Dog Time in bookmarks

(Should we put Murray’s dog in the pantheon with Anze Kopitar‘s Gustl? Eh, it’s probably too early to have that conversation.)

In other fun and not particularly pressing hockey news, it’s Ales Hemsky‘s birthday, so enjoy this photo of his Nutella cake and evidence of him sporting somewhat unexpected ink:

If you need further distractions, Mikael Backlund was at a wedding, Aleksander Barkov is a breakfast master, and there’s also this huge thread of dogs that aren’t immediately hockey-related.

* – Apparently the dog’s name is Beckham. Almost as good as Furry Murray, right?