Steven Stamkos

Stamkos, Hedman fight for Lightning during same period

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Your results may vary, but from here, novelty carries a lot of weight when it comes to noting an NHL fight.

Two superstar Tampa Bay Lightning players dropped the gloves in the same period against the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday, and while neither showing was especially boisterous or violent, the rarity really drives the point home.

As that tweet spoils, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman were the Bolts players who got a little testy in this one.

First, Stamkos went after Karl Alzner in defense of running mate Nikita Kucherov (see the video above this post’s headline). Some might argue that this was less of a fight and more of an aggressive hugging, but it’s still an unusual sight. According to Hockey Fights’ listings, Stamkos has only fought on two other occasions in the NHL: against Brad Marchand (2014-15) and Nik Zherdev (2008-09).

Hedman, meanwhile, dropped the gloves despite a considerable height advantage over Brendan Gallagher. You can see a portion of that fight in this GIF:

While this might explain the anger:

This would be Hedman’s sixth fight.

Theory: Lightning players are just as anxious as the rest of us to see if they’re going to land Erik Karlsson.

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.

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.

Phil Kessel doesn’t really care about scoring title: ‘I have two Cups’

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A couple of weeks ago we looked at the possibility of Pittsburgh Penguins forward Phil Kessel potentially winning the NHL scoring title this season.

Since then Nikita Kucherov has kind of distanced himself a little bit in the race and has re-opened an eight-point lead over the rest of the pack, as well as a 10-point lead over Kessel.

On Friday, Kessel was asked about winning the scoring title and if he’s following the race between his teammates Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Kucherov, Johnny Gaudreau, Steven Stamkos, Connor McDavid, and Claude Giroux.

He gave a pretty honest — and awesome — answer.

“I got two Cups,” said Kessel, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Doesn’t really matter.”

That pretty much settles that, doesn’t it?

[Related: Phil Kessel Joins Exclusive Hot Dog Hockey Card Club, Thanks To Upper Deck]

As of Friday Kessel is tied with Crosby, Malkin, McDavid and Giroux, all of whom have 66 points.

Stamkos is third in the league with 67 points, one point back of Gaudreau with 68 points.

All of them are chasing Kucherov’s 76 points.

The scoring title wasn’t the only thing that prompted Kessel to reference the Penguins’ past two Stanley Cup wins. With the team that traded him to Pittsburgh — the Toronto Maple Leafs — in town for a game on Saturday night Kessel was asked if he still gets fired up to face his former team, to which he responded (via @PensInsideScoop): “I don’t really care anymore. It’s my third year and we’ve won twice. It’s in the past.”

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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.

PHT on Fantasy: Phaneuf trade, Burns at forward

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The trade deadline is looming, so expect the next few fantasy columns to be especially trade-heavy. The wave hasn’t really rolled in yet for the NHL, however, so it’s mainly the Dion PhaneufMarian Gaborik swap to consider.

That said, there’s another development today that brings back memories of this column about Brent Burns, Dustin Byfuglien, and the D/RW designation. So let’s get into those two developments.

Phaneuf: Better in fantasy?

Look, in reality, Dion Phaneuf isn’t very effective any longer. There might be flashy hits and powerful shots, but the bad tends to outweigh the good. Maybe the Kings will put him in a more nurturing environment, yet to my eyes, this seems like an expensive “name” acquisition that probably won’t move the needle a whole lot on the ice.

This is the chart I referenced for the trade, via this handy tool from CJ Turtoro using Corey Sznajder’s data

… but if you need more charts and other infographics:

That only matters so much in fantasy terms, aside from the notion that it might not mean much of a boost for, say, Jonathan Quick.

I’ve often liked Phaneuf as a depth defenseman in fantasy, however, at least in leagues with robust stats and now that his stature in the league has really dropped. Yahoo’s profiles can be quite useful in spotting “multi-tool” players the quickest, and you can see that with Phaneuf.

With three goals and 16 points, Phaneuf isn’t likely to jump out at you in leagues with simpler stats. Instead, he excels in racking up peripheral stats: so far in 53 games, Phaneuf has 34 PIM (100 last season), 108 hits, and 114 blocked shots. With 86 SOG, Phaneuf can check a lot of boxes.

Consider this: Phaneuf ranks among just 12 players (not surprisingly, all defensemen) with at least 100 hits and 100 blocked shots this season. Interestingly, Brayden McNabb – the useful blueliner the Kings lost to Vegas in the expansion draft – is also in that group.

So, Phaneuf is unlikely to blow you away at this point in his career. Still, if you’re in the right league, he can have some use in a “quantity over quality” sense.

Now, as far as Marian Gaborik goes? Meh.

Burns at forward?

Injuries are stacking up for the San Jose Sharks, which is opening the door for Brent Burns to return – at least briefly – to the forward position.

The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz reports that Burns is lining up with Joe Pavelski and Timo Meier, so he’s not exactly roughing it, either. Meier is also getting some reps on the Sharks’ top PP, so he could be worth a short-term add depending upon how deep your league is.

In a Fear the Fin article that hasn’t aged well – though it must be mentioned that Burns’ defensive work has increasingly come into question lately – “The Neutral” argued back in 2014 that Burns was better off as a forward. While Burns has obviously paid off on defense for the Sharks (and his checking account), it’s worth remembering that Burns was an absolute force at forward, and he might actually become more valuable during this experiment:

But we do know how dominant he is up front and the impact Burns can make on the wing is undeniable. Only Rick Nash, Corey Perry, Max Pacioretty, Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Toews scored more 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes than Burns did during his season-and-a-half at wing. Only twelve total forwards, all of them superstars except for Sidney Crosby comfort goat Chris Kunitz, averaged more points per 60. It isn’t merely about the individual scoring stats either; Burns’ impact on both even-strength offense and puck possession, as well as the additional marginal effects of moving players like Pavelski into roles they can crush, significantly improved the entire team in every conceivable category.

One area where Burns may really thrive is quality of chances. Despite firing a ridiculous 242 SOG in 57 games, Burns only has nine goals this season, a shooting percentage of just 3.7. Some of that comes down to an early-season slump, but it stands to reason that Burns was probably taking some lower-quality shots as a blueliner. Burns being closer to the net could mean higher-danger chances, and real headaches for goalies.

Even with an optimal lineup in mind, you wonder if this experiment might be something the Sharks consider revisiting in certain situations, like when they badly need a goal. Naturally, even that hinges on personnel, as a healthy team might be better off with Burns on the blueline, even in those situations.

The one potential downfall could be that, if he gets a longer run as a forward, his ice time might go down. Then again, with the Sharks’ injuries in mind, that might not be much of a worry. In the last two games, Burns logged 28:16 and 29:49 TOI.

Keep in mind that it would take a while for Burns to regain that fun RW/D designation even if the Sharks stick with him. Still, the mere possibility of that happening again is pretty entertaining for us fantasy dorks.

Maybe we’ll get Dustin Byfuglien back at forward, too, this season?

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.

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?

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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.