Phil Kessel

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Jack Eichel, Connor McDavid have wrong things in common right now

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As the top two picks of the 2015 NHL Draft, faces of beleaguered franchises, and recipients of eight-figure salaries starting next season, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel share a lot in common.

Sadly, though the first quarter of this campaign, their similarities mostly leave you kind of bummed out.

Sure, there are key differences, but if you paint in broad brushstrokes, the similarities are striking.

Varying degrees of blame

Look, it’s almost human nature to blame a team’s failures on its best player. The logic goes: they have the most power to change things, and they often draw the biggest checks (technically not true for McDavid and Eichel until next season), so they need to take the heat, right?

Well, maybe, but in almost every case in a team sport like hockey, it’s usually not on the best guy or even top guys on a team.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin sure seemed “in decline” for a while there, and then the Penguins brought in Phil Kessel, played to their strengths as an attacking team with Mike Sullivan in charge, and are now repeat champs.

Here’s hoping that McDavid and Eichel get some help, but with things sour for the Oilers (middle of the pack with contender aspirations) and Sabres (cellar dwellers despite dreams of big strides), the two are getting thrown under the bus at times.

The Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington wrote this about Eichel, and keep in mind this was before Buffalo dropped its sixth in a row in falling short against Columbus on Monday:

Eichel has five goals in 20 games, tallying just once in his last 11. He’s got a minus-9 rating for the season. Those are the numbers. Now let’s move to things you can’t measure.

Eichel’s body language has been terrible much of season. It’s a dirty little secret fans are finally figuring out that he floats off the ice far too much on the end of his shifts.

McDavid, meanwhile, saw his defensive struggles magnified during Edmonton’s frustrating loss to the Dallas Stars this past weekend:

Oilers Nation’s Cam Lewis felt the need to defend McDavid, and he wasn’t alone. That’s how bad things are getting for fans of the Sabres and Oilers, two teams who have been through these growing pains so often, they probably wonder if the light at the end of the tunnel is actually a mirage.

Varying degrees of success

You really don’t have to dig that deep to see that McDavid and Eichel stand among a handful of Oilers/Sabres who are carrying the scoring burden for their teams.

It’s especially stark with McDavid, who has 25 points while the second-highest Oilers scorer is currently Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (who has 15). Things are a little more even among Eichel and guys that he spends much of his ice time with, like a resurgent Evander Kane, but the broader view is the same: only four Sabres skaters are above 10 points while the Oilers only have five.

Yes, you can nitpick both players at times, but that requires the willful ignorance of looking the other way on an important point: few, if any, skaters are perfect. Especially during every night of an 82-game season.

The painfully obvious truth is that both McDavid and Eichel need more help and are being asked to do far too much. Harrington made an interesting point with this tweet, as it actually might apply to McDavid more than Eichel:

Deck chairs

From my vantage point, the situation might be more dire for the Oilers than the Sabres for a few reasons.

For one, it seems like Edmonton’s management has made its bed and now must lie in it. The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis said it well (sub required) in a piece titled “There’s no retreat from the course Peter Chiarelli has plotted for the Oilers.”

Chiarelli has essentially cast his lot with the likes of Milan Lucic and Kris Russell as key supporting cast members, and that hasn’t gone well, at all. Their bad contracts and trade clauses make them difficult to move.

And, really, how much do you trust Chiarelli to get the most out of moving, say, Nugent-Hopkins after he’s left behind a trail of shaky (at best) moves during his last years in Boston and his stay in Edmonton? To a lot of fans, he’s already a punchline.

Yikes.

In the short-term, the Sabres’ roster probably has bigger holes. Perhaps things might change as Kyle Okposo gets healthier, but the offense is a little slim beyond Eichel, Kane, Ryan O'Reilly, and Jason Pominville (though Sam Reinhart‘s showing some signs of promise).

While Edmonton’s actually fashioned a half-decent defense for itself, Buffalo’s a mess in that regard.

That said, this is the first season of the Phil Housley – Jason Botterill regime, and they deserve time to get things together. The best thing about this situation is that, while there’s a tough deal or two like that of Zach Bogosian, it’s a fairly clean slate in Buffalo. They don’t need to cling to bad moves out of pride or even to protect their jobs like, say, the Capitals stubbornly hanging onto Brooks Orpik and letting quality players slip by.

Essentially, these two teams are on different points in the board game that is team-building. The Oilers are advancing close to that make-or-break spot, which to some extent makes it scarier to see the same old problems bubbling up.

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No, their situations aren’t exactly the same, but it’s remarkable to see the parallels between Eichel and McDavid right now. You can even meme them in similar ways.

With the right mixture of luck, progression, and good management choices, maybe we can go back to focusing on the delightful things that make them similar: financial security and being absolutely spellbinding at hockey.

Right now, that’s a difficult thing to do.

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.

Penguins, Crosby, Kessel rally vs. Sabres

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Despite all of Jack Eichel‘s rage, the Buffalo Sabres still can’t seem to get it done against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Eichel, Evander Kane, and Sam Reinhart helped Buffalo generate some nice leads on Tuesday, as the Sabres were up 2-0 and 3-1 early on. Benoit Pouliot gave them another lead at 4-3, to boot.

It didn’t matter, aside from securing a “loser point” for the Sabres, as the Penguins ultimately won 5-4 in OT, with Sidney Crosby setting up Conor Sheary for his eighth goal of the season (and third game-winner). To turn the knife in a little bit, Eichel probably could have done a better job against Sheary on that overtime-clincher:

Really, the Sabres might not want to complain too loudly about loser points, as the Penguins have really taken it to them lately.

Sheary’s been deadly against Buffalo, with six points in his last six games against the Sabres after tonight’s two-goal performance.

Crosby’s been quiet – by his lofty standards – as tonight’s goal and assist pushes him to 15 points in 20 games.

Phil Kessel‘s deserving of a lot of credit for the Penguins finding ways to win games and/or at least claim standings points lately. Tonight was a nice example. He helped the Penguins tie things up twice: setting up Crosby on the power play and scoring the 4-4 goal that sent the game to OT:

Kessel continues to lead the Penguins with 24 points in 20 games this season. He extended a five-game point streak that includes three multi-point games (four goals, five assists during that span). Such strong work makes you wonder why the alleged hot dog lover continues to find himself in trade rumors, even after helping the Penguins to two straight Stanley Cups with strong postseason performances.

For the Sabres, it’s yet another reminder that they still need to close some distance to catch up with contenders like Pittsburgh.

While Eichel must be flustered, Robin Lehner might be the angriest member of the team tonight, as he took the L despite saves like these:

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: How does the Quick contract look six years later?

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Marc-Andre Fleury, who has been out with a concussion, skated at the Golden Knights’ practice facility on Wednesday. It sounds like he could be activated off injured reserve as soon as Friday. (sinbin.vegas)

–Isles owner John Ledecky went the extra mile to make a young fan have the time of his life at two home games. The fan got the VIP treatment simply because he went out to the city in his Islanders jersey. (silive.com)

–Puck Junk has a book review on “The O-Pee-Chee Hockey Card Story”. The company went from selling gum, to adding player cards in 1933-34. (puckjunk.com)

John Carlson was forced to take a faceoff during the overtime period of Monday’s game against Arizona. He didn’t win it (he looked awful doing it), but it didn’t come back to haunt his team. Now, the Capitals are thinking about making some changes to the way they approach 3-on-3 overtime. (NBC Sports Washington)

–Former Kings GM Dean Lombardi has been criticized for the contract he gave Jonathan Quick six years ago. But when you compare the deal to others around the league, you realize that it isn’t so bad. It’ll be interesting to see what it looks like as Quick gets older. (jewelsfromthecrown.com)

–Even though he isn’t lighting up the NHL, rookie Alex DeBrincat is focused on playing a complete game with the Blackhawks this season. He’s gotten some playing time with Jonathan Toews, which has also helped his development. “I think it’s good for me. I think learning when you don’t need to be breaking for, trying an offensive break and you’ve just got to play sound in the (defensive) zone,” DeBrincat said. “I think it’s definitely good for my development and learning where to be because he’s always talking and letting you know where to be.” (Sporting News)

–There’s no doubt that fighting is down in hockey and there are numbers to prove it. Less than 30 percent of games since 2012 have had a fight, which is remarkably low compared to previous years. (CBS Sports)

–Local merchants in Carolina have come out with a bunch of new products that they’ll be selling at Hurricanes home games this season. One of the items available for purchase are Hurricanes scented candles. Some of the proposed scents that were rejected were pretty unique. For example, there was unscented vanilla, Swedish fish, Cam Ward‘s glove, and many others. (section328.com)

Nico Hischier has been solid during his rookie season, but the Devils can do more to help him succeed, according to allaboutthejersey.com. For starters, they can take him off the top line (for now) and give him a more defined role on the man-advantage. (allaboutthejersey.com)

–November is “Hockey Fights Cancer” month, and there’s no denying that people in and around the Penguins organization have been affected by the disease. Mario Lemieux, Phil Kessel, Olli Maatta, former head coach Bob Johnson and Ashley Barrasso (Tom’s daughter) all showed remarkable courage in their respective fights against cancer. (thesportsdaily.com)

–The Predators’ bottom pairing of Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin played a big role in the team’s two wins in California. The fourth line of Cody McLeod, Frederick Gaudreau and Austin Watson also put together a solid performance during the trip. (ontheforecheck.com)

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: Malkin, McDavid, Jagr, dynamic duos

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Partners of the night: It felt like partners-in-crime ruled the roost on Tuesday, so let’s focus on some dynamic duos.

Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin – one goal, two assists apiece

These two are so effective, you wonder what they might accomplish if they didn’t hate each other, right columnists? Anyway, the two forwards were involved in all three Penguins goals in a 3-1 win against the Coyotes on Tuesday, including a moment where Kessel patiently avoided batted a puck in with high stick.

The man is an artist.

Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko – one goal, two assists apiece

After collecting four assists in his last game, Schenn remains red-hot for the Blues, generating three points on Tuesday. So far, he has 18 points in his first 16 games with St. Louis. If healthy, Schenn could smash his career-high of 59 points.

This helper on a Jaden Schwartz goal was just slick.

Connor McDavid (one goal) and Leon Draisaitl (goal, assist)

These two didn’t put up the same numbers as the others, but they made some beautiful plays in combining for both of the Oilers’ goals in a 2-1 OT win against the Islanders. These are the moments you dream of when you pay two hockey players $21M combined (though McDavid doesn’t get his raise until next season):

Highlight of the Night: Pierre Luc-Dubois befuddles P.K. Subban and Pekka Rinne.

Few players make Subban look bad, so be proud, P-L-D:

Actually, P.E. Bellemare might be the real winner:

Kings – Ducks probably ranks as the true highlights of the night, though, honestly. Insane game. The highlights might as well have the same run-time as “Return of the King.”

Factoids of the Night:

Wow, Geno.

Maybe Montreal can give Carey Price a little mental health vacation?

Can Jaromir Jagr finish his career on top of this list?

Scores and more

Sabres 3, Capitals 1
Blues 3, Devils 1
Oilers 2, Islanders 1 (OT)
Penguins 3, Coyotes 1
Hurricanes 3, Panthers 1
Predators 3, Blue Jackets 1
Canadiens 3, Golden Knights 2
Canucks 5, Flames 3
Kings 4, Ducks 3 (OT)

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.

Oilers show rare restraint by demoting Yamamoto

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Aside from “not messing up Connor McDavid,” the Edmonton Oilers haven’t inspired a lot of confidence in how they handle young forwards.

It’s not just about getting questionable returns for high picks like Taylor Hall, Nail Yakupov, and Jordan Eberle. There have been some bumpy development paths, and some of those wounds are self-inflicted, as management has a shaky track record of burning through rookie years in ways that are often wasteful.

Jesse Puljujärvi isn’t the only example one could reach for, but he’s the most recent. Puljujärvi finds himself below the NHL level at the moment, which isn’t a big deal – he’s still just 19 – yet he already burned through the first year of his entry-level contract in 2016-17 by playing 28 games.

Considering the Oilers’ recent history of paying huge premiums for second contracts (McDavid and Leon Draisaitl raising the already-high-bar that was $6M going to guys like Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins), that situation might make some a little queasy.

Then again, perhaps they’ll get their act together going forward?

Monday presented some reason for optimism, as the Oilers showed a rare bit of restraint (for them) in assigning Kailer Yamamoto to the WHL. They did so while preserving the high-value ELC years of his rookie deal, as they made this call before he exceeded the nine-game mark this season. This is usually simple stuff for NHL teams, but Edmonton bungles this often enough that it’s worth celebrating.

Goodbye Moto

This makes for quite the whirlwind few months for the 19-year-old.

It’s common to see high draft picks make an immediate jump to the NHL, and for guys hovering around the top 10 to at least get a cup of coffee. Yamamoto, however, was the 22nd pick of the 2017 NHL Draft. It’s rare to see guys in that range demand a long, immediate look, and so far it looks like the Oilers got a steal in the undersized forward.

He forced his way into some prominent situations, too.

While his ice time and opportunities were erratic, it’s worth noting that, per Natural Stat Trick, his most common even-strength linemates were Connor McDavid and Patrick Maroon. Yamamoto didn’t look out of place in his audition on that first line, providing a silver lining while Leon Draisaitl (another forward who burned through his rookie deal faster than maybe necessary) was injured.

Somewhat amusingly, Yamamoto might have actually made one of the better arguments to stay up, as his possession numbers and production indicated that he’s a quick study.

In the long run, this is a better move for the Oilers, especially since McDavid’s raise won’t kick in until 2018-19. They’ll need to find bargains going forward, so getting the most out of Yamamoto’s dirt-cheap rookie contract could be absolutely crucial.

Now, three full years of Yamamoto as he really kicks into gear could drive up the price of his second contract, too. Eh, worry about that when you get there … that’s practically the Oilers’ developmental model anyway, right?

Panthers send Big Red down

Owen Tippett drew some attention in getting a look with the Florida Panthers, in part by comparing himself to rookie Phil Kessel.

Tippett won’t be making that jump, as the Panthers demoted him today. He didn’t get a huge chance, generating a goal in seven games while only averaging 11:07 TOI per night. (At least Tippett fired away relative to spotty ice time: 17 SOG in seven contests isn’t bad in sparse minutes. The kid still seems confident.)

This situation is a lot clearer for the Panthers than it was for the Oilers, but either way, both teams probably made the right calls.

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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.