Reilly Smith

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PHT Morning Skate: The biggest surprises in the NHL so far

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–Vegas Golden Knights players knew they’d be in for a unique experience heading into this year, but they could have never imagined that they’d be helping a city heal from a significant tragedy. “It’s special to be here and to try to rebuild this city,” said forward Reilly Smith. “We’re trying to be a team that this city can stand behind.” (Miami Herald)

–Lightning defenseman Slater Koekkoek scored his first two career NHL goals in last week’s game against the Penguins. His mom, Karen, may have given him the nudge he needed to start producing. (Tampa Bay Times)

–ESPN hockey writers make their selections for the biggest surprise of the 2017-18 season so far. Hint: There’s plenty of Leafs and Blackhawks love to go around here. (ESPN)

–The rivalry between Montreal and Toronto is still very alive, but it’s changed quite a bit. As Don Cherry points out, the Habs used to have the skill, while the Leafs used to be the ones to crash and bang. That isn’t exactly the case anymore. (NHL.com)

–Predators defenseman P.K. Subban has started the “P.K.’s Blueline Buddies Program” in Nashville this season. At every home game, he’ll host a member of the police department, an underprivileged youth and a few others. “I think it’s important for athletes to set a tone in a way that we’re looking to build bridges,” Subban said. “That doesn’t take away from anybody’s right to do what they want to do or how they want to exercise their rights as an American citizen, but I think it’s really important for us to be role models in terms of building bridges and being a part of the solution to social issues and different things that go on in our community.” (NHL.com/Predators)

Connor McDavid is already one of the fastest players in the NHL, but his skating coach, Joe Quinn, believes he can get even faster in the future. That should keep a lot of defensemen up at night. (The Hockey News)

–Former NHL goalie Ken Dryden has been looking at ways to prevent concussions in hockey. He wrote a new book about how concussions affected Steve Montador’s life and he also wrote this essay for the Globe and Mail. “It begins with a simple ripple – no hits to the head. This ripple then runs backward, getting bigger, until it becomes a wave. In today’s NHL, a stick to an opponent’s face is a penalty – automatic – no excuses. A puck shot into the crowd in a team’s defensive zone is the same, a penalty – automatic – no excuses. No big deal. Players adapt. The game goes on.” (Globe and Mail)

–USA Today took offence to a series of tweets the Golden Knights Twitter account posted prior to last night’s game against the Boston Bruins. USA Today suggested the tweets were loaded with “sexism”. (USA Today)

–Former NHL enforcer Shawn Thornton’s grandmother dealt with Parkinson’s disease until the day she died in 2008. Now, Thornton is doing his part to raise money for people affected by this dreaded disease. (The Players’ Tribune)

–The Columbus Blue Jackets have been patient with top prospect Sonny Milano. Now, he’s rewarded them with some stellar production early on this season. It looks like he’s finally arrived. (jacketscannon.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.

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Panthers’ polarizing makeover continues with massive Matheson extension

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Dale Tallon’s do-over of the Florida Panthers seems less and less about saving money and more about restoring his vision.

After all, salary retention made the Jason DemersJamie McGinn trade pretty even financially. Tallon also spared no expense in reportedly signing promising young defenseman Michael Matheson to a whopping new deal.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman originally reported it, and TSN’s Bob McKenzie backs it up as a “done deal” of eight years, $39 million. That means Matheson will carry a $4.875M cap hit starting in 2018-19, as his rookie deal still has one year remaining. The Panthers have yet to confirm it, but this seems like a safe bet to be true.

Giving Matheson an eight-year deal could be understandable if it meant huge savings. Handing him almost $5M would be reasonable if you instead wanted a bridge deal to see if he’s really worth that money. The Panthers giving Matheson both is where things get hairy, and many reactions boil down to Matheson being good, but the contract being bad.

Now, it’s better to overpay a talented player than it is to say, give precious cap space to a more limited defenseman like the Panthers once did with late-stage Ed Jovanovski.

It’s one thing to lock up a player early in a contract year when that person is a huge part of your marketing plan and could very well cost you a ton of money a year later. There’s a reason why teams like the Buffalo Sabres are proactive with the likes of Jack Eichel.

Even as a prominent member of the Panthers’ defense, it’s a bit baffling to imagine that they wouldn’t want a bigger sample size before handing Matheson almost $5M per year. This is a guy coming off of a 17-point season. Would a strong 2017-18 season really hurt that Panthers that much in the wallet?

Now Matheson is opened up to potentially painful comparisons. Look at the Anaheim Ducks, who have one proactive deal that looks better (Josh Manson) and one strenuous RFA situation that fell very nicely for them (Hampus Lindholm).

The Panthers have already seen a promising defenseman struggle under the weight of a lofty new extension.

It’s plausible that Aaron Ekblad will get things back together, and a star defenseman is often worth the $7.5M he’s receiving – and then some. Still, at the moment, people feel a lot worse about Ekblad’s deal than they did before, and that was a more agreeable decision in the moment.

Between Ekblad, Matheson, and Keith Yandle, the Panthers will devote $18.725M to three blueliners beginning in 2018-19.

Overall, it’s tough not to criticize this process, even if there are still some things to like about Florida’s roster, and that includes Matheson. Did they really need to cut ties with Jaromir Jagr, Jason Demers, Reilly Smith, and Jonathan Marchessault so rapidly? Did this Matheson deal need to get done right away? It also feels a little slap-dash.

Again, things aren’t all bad, and Matheson has talent. The bigger picture could be prettier, though.

Tune in on Sunday for a breakdown of the good and the bad of this team’s structure.

Oilers, Golden Knights, Cali teams, and more in PHT’s Pacific preview

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Let’s cut to the chase and wrap up these division previews.

Check out these other previews: Atlantic DivisionCentral Division, Metropolitan DivisionPHT’s picks and predictions.

Anaheim Ducks

Poll/looking to make the leap

Arizona Coyotes

Poll/looking to make the leap

Calgary Flames

Poll/looking to make the leap

Edmonton Oilers

Poll/looking to make the leap

Los Angeles Kings

Poll/looking to make the leap

San Jose Sharks

Poll/looking to make the leap

Vancouver Canucks

Poll/looking to make the leap

Vegas Golden Kngihts

Poll/looking to make the leap

Catch up on Bruins, Sabres, Red Wings, more (PHT’s Atlantic Division preview)

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Between August’s “Team of the Day” series and all the other articles that gets published, Pro Hockey Talk generates a ton of material to get you hyped for the 2017-18 season.

With that in mind, it’s understandable if you missed some great stuff. While these collections aren’t comprehensive, consider these divisional previews to be a good way to get hyped for the rapidly approaching season.

For the PHT’s staff picks, click here.

Boston Bruins

Poll/looking to make the leap/

In more immediate Bruins news, Bergeron and Backes seem a little banged-up.

Buffalo Sabres

Poll/looking to make the leap

Detroit Red Wings

Poll/looking to make the leap/

Florida Panthers

Poll/looking to make the leap

Montreal Canadiens

Poll/looking to make the leap

In more immediate news, the Habs made a minor trade.

… And another one:

Ottawa Senators

Poll/looking to make the leap

Tampa Bay Lightning

Poll/looking to make the leap

Toronto Maple Leafs

Poll/looking to make the leap

Offseason changes to Capitals, Penguins could make the East wide open

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A handful of Pittsburgh Penguins players whose names are on the Stanley Cup, some of them twice or even three times, are gone.

The same goes for core players from the back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy winning Washington Capitals.

The goliaths of the East haven’t fallen apart, but maybe they’ve lost just enough to make the conference winnable for just about anyone. Pittsburgh no longer has forwards Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen, defensemen Trevor Daley or goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Washington couldn’t afford to keep Justin Williams, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk.

The Penguins and Capitals are still favored to finish 1-2 in the brutal Metropolitan Division, but improvements made by the New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes and a return to health for members of the Tampa Bay Lightning have cracked the Eastern Conference wide open.

“The competition level is as high as ever,” Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said. “There’s a lot of teams that have a chance to win the Cup. Making the playoffs, it’s very tough nowadays. I think we’re not the only team when we always say, `We want to make the playoffs and then we’ll see what happens’ because you just want to make the playoffs and then anything can happen. There’s no real favorites.”

Pittsburgh is still the betting favorite, and if Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Co. make it happen they’d become the first NHL team with three consecutive titles since the early 1980s New York Islanders dynasty. Then again, Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is healthy after a knee injury ended his 2016-17 season, the Hurricanes got a top goaltender in Scott Darling and the Toronto Maple Leafs are only expected to get better now that Auston Matthews and the kids have some playoff experience.

“Toronto obviously made a big step forward, Columbus is a team that has tremendous upside, made a big move this summer, and then you look at a team like Carolina who’s going to be knocking on the door in the next few years,” said Shattenkirk, who signed with the revamped Rangers.

In a league with considerable playoff turnover from year to year, there’s no rest for the eight teams that made it last year: the Penguins, Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets, Montreal Canadiens, Rangers, Ottawa Senators, Bruins and Maple Leafs. But Fleury, now the starter for the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, believes his old team has a chance to three-peat, and Alex Ovechkin said the Capitals will be good.

“Our goal is still to go out there and be the best team in the regular season and be the best team in the postseason,” Washington winger T.J. Oshie said. “It’s not a very far-fetched goal.”

Some things to watch in the Eastern Conference this season:

YOUTH IS SERVED

Matthews is only 20, but now there’s a whole new crop of potential teenage stars, including the New Jersey Devils’ No. 1 pick , Nico Hischier, and the Philadelphia Flyers’ No. 2 pick, Nolan Patrick. The Swiss-born Hischier turned heads with some big-time plays in the preseason and in the process ratcheted up expectations.

PRICE IS RIGHT

The Canadiens lost defenseman Andrei Markov and winger Alexander Radulov and traded their top defensive prospect for forward Jonathan Drouin. Montreal probably should make the playoffs despite all the changes because of goaltender Carey Price, who won the Hart and Vezina Trophies in 2014-15 and missed most of the 2015-16 season with a knee injury.

“He is the best goalie in the NHL,” Drouin said. “He’s proved it for a lot of years now.”

Price has some competition in Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky and Washington’s Braden Holtby, the past two Vezina winners. The play of those three and Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray will likely determine the order of finish in the East.

C’MON, CROSBY

After leading the league with 44 goals in the regular season and the playoffs with 27 assists, there’s no doubting Crosby has another MVP season in him. Teammates and opponents always expect him to sharpen another skill, though he could just keep scoring goals better than anyone else.

“He was always, I think, a passer a little more – always looking for other guys,” Fleury said. “But he doesn’t have a crazy hard shot. It’s just how quick the release is. He’s skating, he’s looking around and the shot comes (from) any angle. His backhand is good too, probably as hard as anybody.”

BRIGHT LIGHTS ON BIG CITY

The Rangers added Shattenkirk, re-signed Brendan Smith and traded Derek Stepan to retool while goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is still in his prime. Across town, the Islanders are hoping to re-sign captain John Tavares before he can become a free agent next summer New York is where it’s at, and there’s no shortage of drama.

SUNRISE REDUX

Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon has gone to great lengths to undo some of the moves made in the summer of 2016 when he was shifted out of a position of power. Defenseman Jason Demers and forward Reilly Smith are gone, Bob Boughner is the new coach and big things are expected in South Florida.

“We’ve got to go in one direction and never look back,” winger Jonathan Huberdeau said. “That’s what we want to do, and Dale Tallon knows that. We want to build something with Bob and we’ll see what’s going to happen.”