Ryan Johansen

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Center stage: NHL contenders go deep down the middle

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A linesman orders Sean Couturier out of the faceoff circle and Claude Giroux shrugs before stepping in and winning the draw.

Two centers on the ice at once is a nice luxury for the Philadelphia Flyers to have.

”He’s one of the best in the league at faceoffs,” Couturier said of Giroux, who ranks third in the NHL. ”When you start with the puck, it’s a huge part of the game.”

Beyond just controlling faceoffs, having depth at center is a growing factor for success in the NHL. Contenders like the Flyers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets and two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins all boast depth down the middle and are spreading centers all over the lineup.

The flexibility gives teams potentially game-altering matchups with the playoffs coming up in a month.

”You can never have enough center-ice men on your team for lots of reasons,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Crucial faceoffs, injuries and defensive-zone coverage are many of the reasons to load up on centers who can almost always shift to wing and not miss a beat. Philadelphia has long followed the model of drafting and acquiring centers and moving them around, and now has nine natural centers on its roster.

The Penguins won the 2009 Stanley Cup going with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Max Talbot down the middle and captured it the past two years with Crosby, Malkin, Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen. The free agent departures of Bonino and Cullen left a void that Pittsburgh filled by trading for Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan to again look like a championship contender.

”To have the depth that we have at this point at the center-ice position is I think an important aspect of our overall game,” Sullivan said. ”We didn’t have that coming into training camp. I think our general manager, Jim (Rutherford), has worked extremely hard at making sure that he gave us what has become now I think a strength of our team.”

It’s also a strength of the Eastern Conference-leading Lightning, who are overflowing with center options beyond Steven Stamkos, Alex Killorn and trade-deadline pickup J.T. Miller. The Toronto Maple Leafs also roll deep with forwards who play center or have in the past, including Patrick Marleau and recent acquisition Tomas Plekanec.

”I can get a can’t-miss matchup,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. ”You’re not scared of any matchup as time goes on.”

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

It’s all about the matchups in the arms race that is the absurd Central Division. It wasn’t good enough that the Central-leading Predators had Ryan Johansen, signed Bonino last summer and traded for Kyle Turris in November; they welcomed center Mike Fisher back from retirement and still have Colton Sissons and Craig Smith.

The Jets acquired center Paul Stastny from the St. Louis Blues to add to an already forward-heavy roster. It paid immediate dividends with Patrik Laine extending his point streak to 13 games and Winnipeg cruising along after Mark Scheifele went down with an injury.

”We’ll be putting two centers out there for D-zone draws and whatnot,” said Andrew Copp, who thinks Winnipeg’s center depth stacks up with the best in the league. ”That’s really important, and then just depth with injuries. … Now we’ve got six, seven, eight guys that we can really lean on.”

It’s an increasingly popular strategy. The Flyers are vying for the league lead in faceoffs, handling the early-season crackdown on faceoff violations and compensating for a young, mostly unproven defense with versatile forwards.

”Being strong up the middle is important,” coach Dave Hakstol said. ”That’s the backbone of every line, so to have guys that are comfortable in that spot I think is important. Playing down low in your zone – there’s so much switching and interchanging that goes on from the wing to that down-low position in coverage, having somebody that’s comfortable being down there I think is a benefit, as well.”

Two centers are better than one not just for faceoffs but because the extra responsibilities of the position allow for better awareness in the defensive zone, where wingers typically are only tasked with defending their respective opposing winger in man-to-man schemes. Giroux shifted to wing on the top line with Couturier after spending the past eight-plus years at center and is approaching his career high in points and playing some of the best hockey of his career.

”We get a read off each other,” said Couturier, a leading candidate for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. ”It’s about chemistry and trying to trust each other out there. Guys can fill in different roles and it’s nice and it helps the team. That’s what you kind of want from having so many centermen is you want to fill in each other’s roles.”

Having extra centers is a substantial benefit – if they can handle the position change. Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler made a rapid adjustment from wing to center amid injuries, but just about everyone agrees it’s much easier to go the other way.

”There’s a real quick adjustment to going from center to the wing: figure out how to work the walls and find your point men,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. ”That’s a very difficult change.”

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

The Buzzer: Panthers keep rolling, Devils end Preds’ win streak


Player(s) of the Night

Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues: Entering play on Saturday the St. Louis Blues had won just one of their past 10 games and managed to score just 14 goals during that stretch. That included three shutouts and two other games where they scored just a single goal. They put all of that behind them on Saturday afternoon by absolutely crushing the Los Angeles Kings, 7-2, to help keep their playoff hopes alive. It was a big game for Schwartz as he finished with a goal and two assists.

Nazem Kadri, Toronto Maple Leafs: Toronto extended its home winning streak to a franchise record 10 games on Saturday night with a 5-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. Frederik Andersen made 38 saves in the win while Nazem Kadri helped drive the offense with a pair of goals.

David Krejci, Boston Bruins: No Patrice Bergeron? No Charlie McAvoy? No big deal for the Boston Bruins. They won their sixth game in a row on Saturday afternoon and continued to put up huge offensive numbers without two of their best players. Krejci had a huge game for the Bruins on Saturday with two goals in the 7-4 win.

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche: Thanks to their 5-2 win over the Arizona Coyotes and the Los Angeles Kings losing to the St. Louis Blues, the Colorado Avalanche were able to move back into a playoff position for the time being in the Western Conference. As usual, MacKinnon played a big part in the win by assisting on a pair of goals, giving him 49 assists and 81 total points on the season. He has only played in 60 games. That moves into fourth in the NHL in scoring. His 1.35 points per game average is tops in the NHL and would be a 110-point pace over 82 games.

Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers: The Edmonton Oilers are not going anywhere this season but they still have a chance to get Connor McDavid the scoring title. He added three more points on Saturday night (two goals, an assist) in the Oilers’ 4-1 win over the Minnesota Wild. That gives the Oilers three consecutive wins, while McDavid has pretty much single handedly delivered each of the past two. After scoring the lone goal in regulation earlier in the week and then getting the game-winning goal in the shootout against the New York Islanders, he had a hand in three of the four goals on Saturday night including scoring the first two. He is now third in the NHL scoring race with 84 points, four behind Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov.

Panthers win again

The Florida Panthers’ late season surge continued on Saturday night with a 4-3 shootout win over the New York Rangers. Vincent Trocheck scored the winner in the shootout to help lift Florida to its 15th win in the past 19 games. The Panthers are also now on an eight-game point streak to help pull them to within two points of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with still three games in hand on the second Wild Card team, the Columbus Blue Jackets.

It also helped them keep pace with the New Jersey Devils.

Speaking of which…

Devils put an end to Predators’ winning streak

The Devils are entering a brutal stretch of games here and it started on Saturday night with a trip to Nashville to take on a Predators team that entered the night having won 10 games in a row.

After allowing a late game-tying goal to Ryan Johansen to send the game to overtime, the Devils were able to come away with two huge points in the standings and put an end to the Predators’ winning streak. Brian Boyle scored the game-winning goal in the shootout after an exciting overtime period that saw Jusse Saros and Keith Kinkaid put on a goaltending clinic. Along with the shootout winner Boyle also scored a goal during regulation.

The most bizarre part of the overtime period though was probably when the Predators were given a power play with a minute to play in the extra period and came out with a power play unit that consisted of three defenseman (P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis) and one forward (Ryan Johansen).

The Predators did not score on the man advantage, sending the game to the shootout where the Devils were able to come away with the win.

Highlight of the Night

Nicklas Backstrom does not score a lot of goals with his slap shot but he scored a big one for the Washington Capitals on Saturday afternoon when he absolutely wired this shot by San Jose Sharks goalie Martin Jones. What a shot.

That would be the only goal the Capitals would need in a 2-0 win to move back into first place in the Metropolitan Division.

Factoid of the Night

Another milestone for the expansion Vegas Golden Knights thanks to their 2-1 shootout win over the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday afternoon. What a season. What a story.


Vegas Golden Knights 2, Buffalo Sabres 1

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, Montreal Canadiens 2

Philadelphia Flyers 2, Winnipeg Jets 1

Colorado Avalanche 5, Arizona Coyotes 2

St. Louis Blues 7, Los Angeles Kings 2

Washington Capitals 2, San Jose Sharks 0

Toronto Maple Leafs 5, Pittsburgh Penguins 2

Florida Panthers 4, New York Rangers 3

New Jersey Devils 3, Nashville Predators 2

Edmonton Oilers 4, Minnesota Wild 1


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.

Johansen, Kesler renew rivalry with a short scrap (video)

Fox Sports

You had a feeling this was going to happen.

Ryan Johansen on one side. Ryan Kesler on the other. On the heels of the Nashville Predators taking a 3-0 lead on a shorthanded goal by Austin Watson, and with two men with a firey history dating back to last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, the gloves finally came off near the end of the second period on Thursday night.

The dislike for one another dates back to last year’s Western Conference Final. Johansen took exception to Kesler’s trademark agitating style, calling him out in a post-game interview following Game 2 by questioning how he could play like he does in front of his family and friends.

Via Sportsnet during last year’s playoffs:

“He just blows my mind. I don’t know what’s going through his head out there,” Johansen said. “His family and friends watching him play, I don’t know how you cheer for a guy like that. It just doesn’t make sense how he plays the game. I’m just trying to go out there and play hockey, and it sucks when you have to pull a stick out of your groin after every shift.”

“He’s not my friend, he’s not going to be my friend, so he can say whatever he wants,” Kesler said in response. “Obviously, I know he doesn’t like it now and I’m not gonna let up just because he said something.”

Given Kesler’s track record as a No. 2 disturber, likely took it as a compliment at the time. If getting under Johansen’s skin was the objective, Kesler had accomplished the mission.

Johansen was able to swing one right hand in (it missed) before Kesler took over and Johansen turtled, to which Kesler made sure everyone in the arena knew what just transpired.

The scrap seemed to give the Ducks the jolt they needed. Rickard Rakell pulled the Ducks to 3-2 in the third period, but that’s as close as they came. Nashville sent the Ducks packing (quacking?) en route to their 10th straight win.

Kesler got a spot of revenge and a nice meme, but Johansen got the last laugh. Again.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Risk, reward, and Ron Francis


As PHT’s Scott Billeck chronicled upon word of the Carolina Hurricanes firing, er, “re-assigning” Ron Francis out of the GM position, goaltending is the one big thing that doomed Francis. At least in the big picture.

Publicly speaking, new Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon made it clear that he wants to take a hands-on role with some of the Hurricanes’ decision making. He told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that a cricket-chirp of a trade deadline wasn’t the deciding factor.

One thing Dundon disagreed with is the idea that something happened at the deadline that caused the final rift. He said the team was considering adding before a home-heavy stretch in February, but it didn’t go well. Therefore both he and Francis decided it wasn’t worth what it would take to acquire more at the end. The cost, in terms of Carolina’s best young players/prospects, was too great.

Still, it’s tough not to notice the timing of this firing and not think that this comes down to a tepid trade deadline, and Carolina’s slow-burn team-building approach.

What can other GMs learn from Francis’ demise, beyond “Make sure you’re on the same page as your owner?” Let’s see:

Not too hot, not too cold

When a GM runs too hot with trades, he could get burned. I mean, unless that GM is Steve Yzerman or David Poile. Then other GMs should just click the “ignore call” button.

Peter Chiarelli (Oilers) and Marc Bergevin (Canadiens) both could have done well to take a cold shower instead of making moves that look worse with each passing month.

Every night seems to bring about a new insult to Chiarelli, whether it comes from Mathew Barzal generating a highlight-reel goal or Taylor Hall bolstering his Hart Trophy credentials. Bergevin, meanwhile, gets to watch P.K. Subban chase a Stanley Cup while his locker room crumbles.

It must burn Francis to see Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff make a big splash after years of people making “dayo off jokes,” with Paul Stastny‘s parallels to Francis making for especially cruel timing. While Francis only served as Hurricanes GM for four seasons, Cheveldayoff has been at his perch since 2011. Cheveldayoff bests Francis in trade volume because just about everyone does, but this was really his first major trade since moving Evander Kane for Tyler Myers in 2015. Cheveldayoff got time to wait things out; Francis did not.

During the last few years, the Hurricanes assembled an enviable warchest of defensemen, hired a competent coach who’s helped them hog the puck, and collected some nice forward assets. That’s not enough in a tough Metro division, and so the Hurricanes idle by.

While there’s some talk about the Golden Knights greasing the wheels for Francis’ exit, it’s difficult to shake the notion that the Hurricanes failed to add that “extra oomph” to their lineup while other teams did.

Sure, it might make you flinch to trade a young defenseman, whether that is Noah Hanifin or an older, still-young piece like Justin Faulk, but look at the Predators. It couldn’t have been comfortable to trade Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen, and maybe history will smile upon the Blue Jackets’ take more than Nashville’s when it’s all over. That trade, and others like it, helped Nashville go from a team of extremes to a more balanced attack. It wasn’t long before they were two wins away from a Stanley Cup.

The Hurricanes, meanwhile, stand as fancy stats darlings that haven’t tasted playoff play since 2008-09, and that was their only playoff appearance since that stunning Stanley Cup win in 2005-06.

No doubt, if you look at the Hurricanes PDO (or shooting percentage and save percentages individually, if that’s more your speed), you’ll see that they’ve been unlucky much of the time. Still, sometimes you have to “make your luck.”

(And do note that, bad goaltending aside, this team scored goals at a rate far fewer than league average. Wouldn’t that lack of punch inspire you to hit the phones a little harder during deadline time? Just saying.)

Backup plan

And, hey, it’s not like Francis took zero risks.

You can bellow about hindsight being 20/20 all you want, but there were some leaps of faith when it came to goaltending moves. For one thing, there was little evidence that Cam Ward would deliver on the two-year, $6.6 million extension he’s playing out. (Few deals truly say “We don’t have any better ideas” quite like that.)

There’s little sense arguing that Scott Darling was a safe choice, either.

Now 29, the big goalie didn’t come in with much pedigree as the 153rd pick of the 2007 NHL Draft. His pre-NHL stats are a mixed bag, though he was starting to pick up steam starting in 2013-14.

No doubt, his .923 save percentage with the Chicago Blackhawks was fantastic, yet that mark came in just 75 regular season games. It makes you wonder if the Hurricanes should have hedged their bets a bit. That said, few would have expected the Darling signing to blow up in Carolina’s face to this degree.

Goalies are a tough breed to gauge, with even mostly bright franchises whiffing at times. Still, maybe the Hurricanes were better off following their overall MO of not making bold, dangerous moves for the sake of making them? If you’re not truly certain a goalie is a franchise fit, maybe it’s better to leave your options open?

This Hurricanes situation provides additional evidence that NHL teams might be wise to put more resources into finding capable backups, whether it mean scouting, cap space, or both.

Take a look at the Calgary Flames. They defied critics by landing Mike Smith, who’s been great … only now he’s injured, and even after taking care of business against Buffalo last night, Calgary is up against a tough haul to fight its way back into the playoffs. Some of that is bad luck, some of it’s poor preparation; after all, Smith is 35 and has an injury history.


Look, it feels quite unfair to see Francis get such a short leash while other GMs continue to blunder away, even though they seem less capable. Even with the nitpicks in this post, it’s important to note that Francis leaves Carolina behind in a position to contend in the near future.

Sports, like life, can be cruel and unfair, though.

There’s a thin line in managing risk and reward. Ultimately, Francis couldn’t successfully walk that tightrope. It’s a reminder to other front offices just how difficult it can be to find the right balance.

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.

Ryan Johansen receives game misconduct for spearing Canucks’ Gudbranson (video)


Ryan Johansen, what were you thinking?

The Predators forward let his emotions get the better of him during Friday night’s game against the Vancouver Canucks. With Vancouver leading 2-1 midway through the third period, Johansen decided to spear Canucks blue liner Erik Gudbranson.

Take a look for yourself:

Johansen received a five-minute major and a game misconduct as a result of the play.

As you might remember, Johansen openly complained about Ducks forward Ryan Kesler spearing him after Game 2 of last spring’s Western Conference Final.

“He just blows my mind, I don’t know what’s going through his head out there,” Johansen said of Kesler at the time, per Sportsnet. “His family and friends watching him play, I don’t know how you cheer for a guy like that.

“It just doesn’t make sense how he plays the game. I’m just trying to go out there and play hockey, and it sucks when you have to pull a stick out of your groin after every shift.”

Oh, how the tables have turned.

By the way, Daniel Sedin scored on the ensuing power play, but Nashville still managed to win the game, 4-3, in overtime.

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.