Slater Koekkoek

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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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Kucherov’s star continues to rise, Stamkos sharp as Lightning best Penguins

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Look, it’s early in the season, and the Pittsburgh Penguins were closing off a tough back-to-back set after beating the Washington Capitals last night.

It’s dangerous, then, to draw too many broad conclusions from the Tampa Bay Lightning beating the Penguins 5-4 on Thursday.

Certain thoughts feel safe enough to at least express, though, so let’s throw one out: if Nikita KucherovSteven StamkosVladislav Namestnikov isn’t the best line in the NHL during this early season, it’s awfully close.*

For the Lightning, seeing a keyed-in Stamkos is enough after their captain’s 2016-17 season was derailed by another baffling run of bad injury luck. Stamkos scored his first goal in some time after testing Antti Niemi frequently:

The scary thing for the Lightning’s opponents is that Kucherov, 24, sure seems like the most brilliant star on that line. At least on many nights.

One can only wonder what kind of money Kucherov will receive after his sub-$4.8 million cap hit expires at the end of the 2018-19 season. He scored a goal and an assist in this win, and while he hasn’t been as flashy as the Ovechkins of the world, his relentless production is something to behold. Kucherov has a goal and an assist in three straight games after totally slacking to start the season with a mere goal.

The slick Russian winger also is firing away with a healthy 15 shots on goal in his first four contests.

To an extent, other Lightning players stole some of the thunder on Thursday. Slater Koekkoek scored the first two goals of his NHL career. Alex Killorn generated a career-high four assists.

Supporting cast members will need to come through for the Lightning to win big; they merely need to note that the repeat champs they beat tonight enjoyed big contributions from Jake Guentzel, not just the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Still, those stars do often drive the bus, and Stamkos – Kucherov looks like it could be one of the league’s dynamic duos if this first week is any indication.

Such observations aren’t anything to complain about, right?

* – Tough to argue with Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovJakub Vrana, agreed.

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.

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Lightning’s Koekkoek, Predators’ Girard shine on night of firsts

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Maybe Thursday will see other patterns form, but one theme is young NHL defensemen scoring their first goals, and in many ways helping their teams secure wins.

Samuel Girard, 19, is already distinguishing himself with a Nashville Predators team suffering from some problematic injuries on defense. (That situation might get worse if Yannick Weber misses extended time thanks to this hit by Dallas Stars center Martin Hanzal.)

Girard already had an assist in his debut, but Thursday was a real treat as his family was on hand; Girard scored the game-tying goal and picked up a primary helper on the game-winner as the Predators beat the Dallas Stars 4-1.

P.K. Subban looked almost as excited as Girard on that goal:

Girard isn’t a slam-dunk for “best night for a defenseman who scored his first goal,” though.

Tampa Bay Lightning blueliner Slater Koekkoek didn’t just score the first goal of his NHL career, he actually scored two. This was the second, which ended up being the game-winner as the Bolts edged the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-4:

Koekkoek, 23, had gone 42 regular-season games (and 10 playoff contests) without scoring that first tally, so this burst stands as a positive sign for Tampa Bay.

Finally, Ian McCoshen factored into the Florida Panthers’ 5-2 win against the St. Louis Blues with his first-ever NHL goal. McCoshen, 22, got to this spot in his sixth contest at the NHL level:

Yep, this has been a pretty good night of firsts for NHL blueliners. If there are any more of note, this post will be updated.

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.

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Lightning look to use Dan Girardi as a top-pairing D. In 2017.

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After years of debate, it seemed like most of the hockey world agreed recently that Dan Girardi might be a little … overmatched as an NHL defenseman. Even his biggest proponents would probably acknowledge that years of wear-and-tear have left him limited.

Even so, the generally shrewd Tampa Bay Lightning handed Girardi a polarizing two-year, $6 million contract. There might have been talk of Girardi scoring well based on their own internal metrics. It was weird.

MORE: After being bought out by the Rangers, Girardi wants to show he can still ‘play and contribute.’

The bottom line is that at least someone in the organization disagrees with the consensus against Girardi. And that voice – or those voices – proved loud enough to allocate precious cap space to him.

To really hammer home that belief, consider this: it looks like he’ll line up with popular PHT Norris pick Victor Hedman on the top pairing tonight against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Now, it’s true that there are some extenuating circumstances. The Tampa Bay Times’ Joe Smith notes that Jake Dotchin, Hedman’s most common preseason partner, looks to be a surprise scratch for the Bolts. It seems like Dotchin is still in Jon Cooper’s dog house for some murky “team rules violation.”

Perhaps it’s a balm for Bolts fans that Cooper told Smith that combos might be temporary?

“You look all around the league, I don’t know if there’s a d-core that has stayed completely intact,” Cooper said. “Maybe Nashville, but (Ryan) Ellis is hurt. Different guys have got to play and get a different feel for each other. It’s Game 1, there’s 82 in a season. You hope chemistry comes because we don’t know if this is going to stay together the whole time. But you’ve got a good veteran guuy that can protect the net and you’ve got a horse that leads the charge out there. For tonight, that’s how it’s going to go.”

Still, the Lightning clearly hold Girardi in higher regard than … just about any objective measure.

You might not see a more dramatic disparity between two HERO charts than Hedman vs. Girardi. Confession: I didn’t know that a player could score poorly enough on shot suppression to not even show up on the chart.

via Dom Galamini

OK, again, Hedman will make most defensemen look bad. And maybe there’s some thought that he can carry Girardi around; the other pairings appear to be Anton StralmanMikhail Sergachev and a less inspiring third duo of Andrej Sustr and Braydon Coburn, with Slater Koekkoek joining Dotchin in street clothes.

What about Girardi against, say, Dom Galamini’s standards for a bottom-pairing duo?

via Dom Galamini

Yeah, also not great.

Again, the Lightning’s lineup will probably look more sensible once Dotchin leaves timeout.

Still, as much as injuries and bad luck plagued the Lightning, it’s a little troubling to see certain patterns from Cooper & Co.

Sergachev could very well end up filling a serious need for the Bolts. Still, while Jonathan Drouin seemingly always struggled to gain Cooper’s approval, an extremely limited player like Sustr keeps getting chances, often taking away opportunities for defensemen with better potential. If Girardi serves a similar role, Lightning fans could grow increasingly frustrated, particularly if this places excessive pressure on Andrei Vasilevskiy to save the day.

It’s not the end of the world that Girardi is starting with Hedman, especially if it’s a short-term thing.

For a team that’s often seen as brilliant, decisions like these do make people scratch their heads, however.

Looking to make the leap: Mikhail Sergachev

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This post is part of Lightning Day on PHT…

Mikhail Sergachev, the talented defenseman Tampa Bay acquired in the Jonathan Drouin trade with Montreal, is ready to play in the NHL.

But circumstances beyond his control might keep him back.

On talent alone, Sergachev should push for a roster spot. The 19-year-old wowed in a four-game cameo with the Habs last season, and was a dynamic offensive force in junior with OHL Windsor. The 6-foot-3, 212-pound rearguard put up 10 goals and 43 points in 50 games for the Spits and, in January, starred on the international scene by helping Russia capture bronze at the World Juniors.

Sergachev says he’s ready to make the next step.

“I’ve played a lot in juniors and I learned a lot in those years,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. “And I feel like this is my time to play in the NHL and I’ll do my best and play my best to make the Lightning roster.”

But there are those aforementioned circumstances at play.

If Sergachev doesn’t play 40 games for Tampa Bay this season, then the Lightning will receive the Canadiens’ second-round pick in 2018, and the Canadiens will receive the Lightning’s sixth-round pick.

So in a roundabout way, there’s an incentive for the Lightning to return Sergachev to junior for another year. The Bolts would get a second-round pick for a sixth-round pick, and that’s a good trade.

There’s another factor to consider as well. The Lightning have Stanley Cup aspirations. As such, they’re not in a position to gift anyone a roster spot — especially if it costs them a second-round pick.

Right now, the club projects to ice a top-six defense of Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn, Dan Girardi, Slater Koekkoek and Andrej Sustr. Jake Dotchin is firmly in that mix as well, and Ben Thomas — a key part of the Syracuse team that made the Calder Cup Final last year — could also push his way into the conversation.

Still, the allure of getting Sergachev into the lineup is high.

His puck moving skills and creativity would be a boon for the power play, especially on a back end that’s essentially carried by Hedman. To that point: Hedman led the team in PP assists last year, with 29. The next closest blueliner was Stralman, who had six.

In the end, this decision could come down to the preseason. If Sergachev plays like a guy Tampa has to keep in the lineup, the club will probably respond accordingly. And if not? Well, the consolation prize is a second-round pick, which isn’t too bad.