Patrice Bergeron

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NHL Awards: Under-the-radar Hart Trophy candidates

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Nikita Kucherov has received most of the mainstream buzz when it comes to the 2017-18 Hart Trophy discussion and rightfully so. The Lightning forward has led the league in points for most of the season and he’s currently third in goals behind fellow Russians Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, who are also obvious candidates to be named league MVP.

Kucherov’s teammate, Steven Stamkos, was in the conversation for a while too, but that talk seems to have died down a little bit. Everyone seemed to be jumping on the Nathan MacKinnon bandwagon before he got injured, but missing eight games has put a damper on the hype train.

Even last year’s winner, Connor McDavid, has put together a solid season, but with the Oilers out of the playoffs there isn’t really much hope for him to take home the award for a second year in a row.

But there are still some quality candidates that haven’t received as much press this season. It’s important to remember that the Hart Trophy isn’t necessarily given to the best player. It’s “given to the player judged to be the most valuable to his team”.

Here are some under-the-radar candidates that aren’t getting enough buzz:

Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils

The Hall-for-MVP talk started building over the weekend after the Devils forward picked up a point in his 18th consecutive game. No one picked the Devils to make the playoffs this season, so the fact that they’re currently in a Wild Card spot in pretty impressive. Hall isn’t the only reason they’re in a playoff position, but there’s no way they’re in this position without him. The 26-year-old has 24 goals and 62 points in 54 games this season. New Jersey has a 1-3-1 record with Hall out of the lineup this season.

Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets

Despite losing Mark Scheifele for over six weeks, the Jets managed to stay afloat for a few reasons. One of them is the way their captain played while Scheifele was on the shelf. Wheeler was forced to move to center for a little while and he definitely didn’t look out of place. In the 16 games that Scheifele missed, the Jets went 11-2-3 and Wheeler accumulated 16 points during that stretch. The 31-year-old is up to 67 points in 59 games this season.

Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings

Let’s be totally clear, if the Kings don’t make the playoffs Kopitar can’t be considered a serious candidate. As of right now, Los Angeles is two points out of the final Wild Card spot in the West. Regardless of whether or not they make the postseason, no one can deny that Kopitar’s been a two-way beast for them in 2017-18. After posting just 52 points in 76 games last season, the Kings captain already has 63 points in 59 games, which puts him on pace to pick up 88. It’s clear that playing under new head coach John Stevens has done the 30-year-old a lot of good.

Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers

Many people have already counted the Panthers out of the playoff race because they’re six points back of the final Wild Card spot, but what people fail to realize is that Florida (sort of) controls their own destiny. They have four games in hand on the last playoff team, Carolina. The major reason why they’re still in striking distance is because of Barkov, who has really emerged as an NHL superstar. He’s often compared to Kopitar, and it’s easy to see why. They’re both big centers that can contribute offensively while playing sound hockey in their own end. Barkov has amassed 54 points in 55 games so far. If the Panthers get in, he needs to be a major part of the Hart Trophy discussion. In the one game he missed this season, Florida got obliterated 7-3 by Colorado.

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

Yes, you could easily put Patrice Bergeron in this slot, but he’s been getting a lot of love throughout the NHL. Rask, who got off to a rocky start, has been lights out for the Bruins. Since Nov. 29, he’s lost just two games in regulation. Sure, the Bruins are clearly more than a one-man team, but we have to give Rask some love. He overcame adversity at the start of the year, and he’s arguably been the best goalie in the league for the last three months.

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.

The Buzzer: Faulk the natural; Tavares hits 600

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Player of the Night: Justin Faulk, Carolina Hurricanes

There were some other great performances on Tuesday, including Mark Scheifele powering the Jets past the Capitals with three points and Zach Werenski collecting three points of his own as a defenseman in Columbus’ win, but Faulk takes the cake when he correct for rarity.

Faulk generated not just a hat trick, but also a natural one, becoming just the fifth player in NHL history to achieve such a feat. You can see footage of that in the video above this headline.

Highlights of the Night

The Predators managed quite the comeback against the Blues on Tuesday, rallying from a 3-0 deficit almost halfway through the third period to send the game into overtime. Filip Forsberg took the cake in OT, locking down the win with a penalty shot. Watch all of their goals, which included a beautiful set of passes to set up one of Austin Watson‘s two tallies:

It’s been a middling season for the Red Wings, but Dylan Larkin has enjoyed a fantastic rebound. This time around, it was all about the takeaway:

This probably ranks as a lowlight, but still:

Factoids:

As lousy as that 4-1 loss was for the Islanders, John Tavares did collect his 600th career point. He hit that milestone in just the 645th game of his NHL career. Outstanding, especially for a guy who hasn’t always had the greatest linemates.

Another feather in the cap for the Vegas Golden Knights:

Put this in Taylor Hall‘s Hart Trophy file:

Then again, there’s this in Patrice Bergeron‘s favor:

Hot take: they’re both excellent. (No punches pulled.)

Scores

Bruins 5, Flames 2
Sabres 5, Lightning 3
Blue Jackets 4, Islanders 1
Devils 5, Flyers 4 (SO)
Penguins 6, Senators 3
Hurricanes 7, Kings 3
Red Wings 2, Ducks 1
Predators 4, Blues 3 (OT)
Wild 3, Rangers 2
Jets 4, Capitals 3 (OT)
Golden Knights 5, Blackhawks 2
Coyotes 2, Sharks 1

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.

PHT Power Rankings: Flyers worth watching

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The Philadelphia Flyers did something that should have been nearly impossible a season ago by winning 10 games in a row and then somehow missing the playoffs. How does that even happen?

This season they are trying to reverse that performance.

After losing 10 games in a row earlier this season the Flyers now find themselves in a pretty good position to make the playoffs.

After their win in Vegas on Sunday night (only the fourth team to win a game in Vegas in regulation this season) the Flyers find themselves in third place in the Metropolitan Division, just one point behind the second place Penguins and five points behind the first place Washington Capitals. They also have a five-point cushion over the pack of non-playoff teams in the Eastern Conference.

Since that 10-game losing streak came to an end the Flyers are 20-8-2 in the 30 games that have followed. That is a 115-point pace over 82 games.

How many teams have a better record over that stretch? Two. The Boston Bruins and the Vegas Golden Knights.

They have three of the top-17 point producers in the NHL in Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Sean Couturier (Giroux and Voracek are both in the top-seven), a great power forward in Wayne Simmonds, and some really intriguing young talent in Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, and Nolan Patrick. They just need to get a little more out of Brian Elliott to really be on to something.

They have been on the rise in our power rankings in recent weeks and check in this week just outside of the top-10.

Here is the rest of the list.

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — The Lightning have been the top team in the NHL from almost day one. Great group of forwards. One of the top defenseman in the NHL. A front-line starting goalie. Now try to imagine them with Ryan McDonagh on their blue line on top of all of that. It could happen.

2. Boston Bruins — Tuukka Rask went nearly two months between losses in regulation. With him playing like an elite goalie once again the Bruins look like they are going to be a force. Patrice Bergeron is having another wonderful season. Is he an MVP candidate? Maybe he should be. History is not kind to his chances though.

3. Vegas Golden Knights — The more I watch the Golden Knights the more I think they have a legitimate shot to win the Western Conference. Fast. Skilled up front. Good goaltending. They have a lot going for them.

4. Nashville Predators — How much will Mike Fisher be able to provide? Expectations should be kept within reason, but their center depth is ridiculous. That was their biggest undoing in the Stanley Cup Final a year ago. Should not be a problem this year.

The Strong Contenders

5. Winnipeg Jets — The fact they kept winning as much as they did without Mark Scheifele in the lineup is a great example as to how deep this team has become.

6. Washington Capitals — Are they as good as their record? Tough to say because they give up a ton of shots and their possession numbers are not great, but Braden Holtby is a game-changer. So is that Alex Ovechkin guy.

7. Pittsburgh Penguins — Their big three up front with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel is still on a roll right now. Also starting to get on a little bit of  a roll lately? Matt Murray. If he gets going again for this team, watch out.

8. Dallas Stars — Okay, maybe I undersold the Stars a bit in last week’s power rankings. Let’s try to correct that this week.

9. Toronto Maple Leafs — Their defense stinks, but they have a ridiculous group of forwards that can score with anybody in the NHL and a goalie that is playing really, really, really well. They have a tough path through the playoffs, but it is still an exciting team. They have also won eight of their past 10 games entering play on Monday.

10. St. Louis Blues — They do not seem to get a lot of love but they have a really good record, one of the best players in the world in Vladimir Tarasenko, and have won eight of their past 12 games.

Close To Contenders

11. Philadelphia Flyers — At least they are never boring. They have been one of the best teams in the league over the past two months.

12. Los Angeles Kings — I really don’t know what to make of this team. They enter the week on the outside of the playoff picture … but they are also two points away from being in second place in the Pacific Division. They also have the fourth best goal differential in the Western Conference and are still tough to score against and control possession.

The Middle Of The Pack

13. San Jose Sharks — After a slow start to the season Brent Burns is once again one of the top scoring defenders in the NHL. They are going to need him to carry the offense with Joe Thornton sidelined.

14. Minnesota Wild — This is where things start to get a little bit messy in the West. A bunch of teams all thrown together, only separated by a handful of points. The Wild with a healthy Zach Parise and Nino Neiderreiter could be an intriguing team out of that group.

15. Calgary Flames — They better hope Mike Smith‘s injury is not serious. He has been really good this season and they can not afford to lose him.

16. New Jersey Devils — They are trending in the wrong direction. Fortunately they built themselves a nice cushion early in the season, but that cushion is getting smaller and smaller with each loss.

17. Anaheim Ducks — I keep thinking a healthy Ducks team could make a big move but it hasn’t really happened yet. Losses in four of their past six have not helped.

18. Carolina Hurricanes — They keep hanging around and are not going away. They open the week in a playoff spot and have a pretty good shot to end that postseason drought.

19. Columbus Blue Jackets — Really disappointing team right now. I thought the addition of Artemi Panarin was going to be a game-changer for them. He has been great, but the rest of the offense has gone in the tank lately. Now they are in a fight just to make the playoffs.

20. New York Islanders — They are dangerously close to wasting what has been a great offense and great seasons from John Tavares, Josh Bailey and Mat Barzal. The latter is having one of the best rookie seasons we have seen in the NHL in years.

21. Colorado Avalanche — After winning 10 in a row the Avalanche have now dropped six of their past nine. Losing Nathan MacKinnon has hurt a ton.

22. New York Rangers — They pretty much admitted they are going to be sellers and trade off anyone they can. They are still “in it” but once they start dealing players like Rick Nash and Michael Grabner, and perhaps even Ryan McDonagh or Mats Zuccarello, it is hard to see them being in it for much longer.

Buy A Lottery Ticket

23. Florida Panthers — They had a nice winning streak to make things a little interesting, but it was probably too little, too late.

24. Chicago Blackhawks — After losing to the Minnesota Wild in regulation the Blackhawks sit 10 points out of a playoff spot with four teams ahead of them. That might have been it for the Blackhawks this season. Corey Crawford might be back soon but he can not save this season.

25. Detroit Red Wings — Having a 5-2 lead with six minutes to play and then losing by giving up four goals on a five-minute power play might have been one of the low points of the season.

26. Montreal Canadiens — The Canadiens current players are probably tired of hearing about P.K. Subban, but that’s too bad. Historically dumb trades that set a franchise back always get remembered and talked about.

27. Vancouver Canucks — They dominated the Dallas Stars to end what had been a pretty miserable four-game road trip. So they at least have that going for them.

28. Ottawa Senators — They did win four of their past six games but … this team is still not very good. Neither is the entire situation with the team. Like the Rangers they recently hinted that a rebuild is on the way.

29. Edmonton Oilers — There was a four-game stretch here recently where Connor McDavid scored seven goals and recorded 10 points. The Edmonton Oilers won only one of those games. That pretty much sums up what this team is right now. Connor McDavid then a bunch of guys just occupying the roster.

30. Buffalo Sabres — Jack Eichel was the only thing this team really had going for it right now. Now he is injured with a high ankle sprain.

31. Arizona Coyotes — It is not a matter of effort, it is simply a lack of talent. A ridiculously young team with too many holes to compete.

————

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Why Rangers’ McDonagh is worth steep trade price

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During this weekend’s Saturday Headlines segment on Sportsnet, Elliotte Friedman noted that the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins might rank as frontrunners for New York Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh.

That mention constituted just a tiny portion of the segment, as players’ names were batted around, yet McDonagh’s name captivates for a number of factors. If you want to dig deep into possible costs for McDonagh, Blueshirt Banter has a great, detailed rundown. As Joe Fortunato mentions, the Rangers don’t need to trade McDonagh, so that could help them fetch a steeper price.

While it wouldn’t be possible to know what the true asking price would be until we saw a deal come to fruition, I’d wager that McDonagh would probably be worth it, especially compared to the reported demands the Ottawa Senators have for Derick Brassard. If you’re talking about only a slight premium price for McDonagh (a top pairing defenseman, something incredibly tough to trade for) versus Brassard (a respectable center, which is valuable but not as rare), it becomes that much easier to stomach a hypothetical McDonagh deal.

[Rangers acknowledge rebuild, avoid Alain Vigneault questions]

Why, you (maybe) ask? Well, allow me …

McDonagh is affordable

There will come a time when McDonagh gets his money. He’ll be part of a defenseman gold rush lead by Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty, also featuring gems like McDonagh, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and Ryan Ellis. Some of those guys might sign extensions before their deals expire after the 2018-19 season, yet they all may influence how the crowd gets paid.

That’s certainly a concern for a team wanting to recoup some of the costs of trading for McDonagh by re-signing him, but as it stands, it’s better to be cheap now rather than never.

McDonagh’s an absolute steal at $4.7 million through this season and 2018-19. That makes him more affordable during this looming trade deadline, and easier to work in next summer, particularly if the cap rises as expected.

McDonagh might be a rare player who gets better after a trade

In a lot of cases, a big name struggles after a move. There are plenty of potential explanations for that, from off-ice (dealing with distractions like finding a place to live) to on the ice (chemistry with linemates, a different coach, a less fancy team jet if you’re Mike Modano).

Allow me to wager that McDonagh might actually flourish on a strong team like the Bruins or Lightning, or really any contender that could use someone like him (which, honestly, is just about any contender, especially if they move players along with futures in a trade).

Last season and for some time, McDonagh was chained to Dan Girardi. You can reasonably speculate that such an assignment limited McDonagh in some ways; check this ghastly HERO chart or merely note that the Rangers bought out Girardi, essentially paying him not to play for their team any longer.

This time around, McDonagh’s been lining up most often with Nick Holden only slightly less often than being on the ice at the same time as Henrik Lundqvist, according to Natural Stat TrickVia this handy tool from CJ Turtoro using Corey Sznajder’s data, you can see that Holden might be limiting McDonagh, too.

So, a buyer could look at acquiring McDonagh two ways: by imagining how much he might flourish with a more capable partner or by realizing that he might be able to drag someone limited along. It’s more fun to imagine the flourishing idea, but both scenarios bring value.

The window could always close

The Bruins are flying high in part because young players are stepping into notable roles, but let’s not forget how recently this team seemed like it was getting old and declining. Zdeno Chara is 40, Patrice Bergeron is 32, Tuukka Rask is 30, and even Brad Marchand is 29. Each of those four key players have a lot of mileage on them relative to their age; as we’ve seen with the Blackhawks, regression can close in on a roster with cruel speed.

For all we know, this might be the best rendition we’ll see of these B’s for some time. Maybe it’s best to take a swing for the fence?

The Lightning, on the other hand, seem set for years with a fresh core. Steven Stamkos feels like he’s been around forever, yet he’s still only 27.

That said, the salary cap could make it tough for the Bolts to retain this current surplus. Most obviously, superstar Nikita Kucherov won’t be a nigh-offensive $4.76 million bargain much longer; his deal expires after 2018-19. Why not load up now?

***

You can apply similar logic to a vast array of contenders, with the main limitation being whether or not said teams can muster the assets the Rangers would demand for McDonagh. We’ve seen big trades fall flat before, but there’s a strong chance that the talented, versatile blueliner could really move the needle.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Brodin undergoes surgery; Kapanen ready to stick with Leafs

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Up top, check out the highlights from last night’s tilt between the Rangers and Bruins.

• The Minnesota Wild are going to be without Jonas Brodin for three to four weeks. (NHL.com/Wild)

• ESPN W did a Q & A with Team USA women’s players Hilary Knight, Meghan Duggan and Kendall Coyne. (ESPN W)

• Speaking of the American women, here’s a look back at the last gold medal they won at the Olympics which came 20 years ago. (NBC Olympics)

• South Korea’s hockey team really is excited to about teaming up with North Korea. (Yahoo)

• The Islanders have a lot of players that can put the puck in the net. The problem is that they also give up a ton of shots and scoring opportunities in the process. (Sporting News)

• It sounds like Joffrey Lupul‘s career is over, and he seems fine with that decision. (Sportsnet)

• Here’s a bold prediction: The Avs will win the Stanley Cup by 2023. (Mile High Hockey)

Anders Nilsson was named “Hetero of the Year” in Sweden. (Daily Hive)

• Everyone’s favorite to win the Selke Trophy is Patrice Bergeron, but Radek Faksa deserves to be in the conversation. (Defending Big D)

Ryan Miller has been experiencing the challenges of being away from his young children lately. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• 42 years after he scored 10 points in a game, Darryl Sittler’s jersey from that historic outing has been found. (TSN.ca)

• Kasperi Kapenen has shown that he can keep up at the NHL level. (Elite Prospects)

• How important is Roman Polak to the Leafs’ penalty kill? (faceoffcircle.ca)

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.