James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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What October has in store for Pacific Division

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In an age of parity, a slump or hot streak can often be explained – at least in part – by a team’s schedule.

That’s not meant to discount strong play or wobbly goaltending, or any other factors that go into winning and losing. Even so, the answer to the question “What’s wrong with Team X?” can sometimes be “they’re tired and on a long road trip.”

With that in mind, let’s look at what October has in store for NHL teams. Since the Pacific Division features Anaheim and Arizona, we’ll start here. The goal is to cover all four divisions by the end of this weekend.

For a deep dive on PHT’s Pacific Division materials, check out this preview.

Anaheim Ducks (Beat Coyotes 5-4)

Schedule

Sat, Oct 7 vs Philadelphia
Mon, Oct 9 vs Calgary
Wed, Oct 11 vs NY Islanders
Fri, Oct 13 @ Colorado
Sun, Oct 15 vs Buffalo
Fri, Oct 20 vs Montreal
Tue, Oct 24 @ Philadelphia
Thu, Oct 26 @ Florida
Sat, Oct 28 @ Tampa Bay
Sun, Oct 29 @ Carolina

The Anaheim Ducks are dealing with a blistering array of injuries, making the start of their schedule a good news/bad news situation.

Beginning 2017-18 with four straight games at home (not to mention six of seven in Anaheim) makes for a more comfortable situation, even if few of their key players come back during this stand. (Ryan Kesler isn’t walking through that door anytime soon.)

On the flip side, if the Ducks stumble, they’ll also be losing home games. So far, they managed to beat the Coyotes, so at least there’s that.

Even when the road games start to pile up, the Ducks only face one back-to-back set in October.

Arizona Coyotes (lost to Ducks)

Schedule

Sat, Oct 7 vs Vegas
Tue, Oct 10 @ Vegas
Thu, Oct 12 vs Detroit
Sat, Oct 14 vs Boston
Tue, Oct 17 @ Dallas
Thu, Oct 19 vs Dallas
Sat, Oct 21 vs Chicago
Tue, Oct 24 @ NY Islanders
Thu, Oct 26 @ NY Rangers
Sat, Oct 28 @ New Jersey
Mon, Oct 30 @ Philadelphia
Tue, Oct 31 @ Detroit

After a narrow loss to begin the season against the Ducks, the Coyotes embrace a fairly Ducks-like schedule, right down to finishing October with a back-to-back set that’s part of at least four road games against East teams. (The Coyotes face a five-game trip, as you can see; they begin November back at home.)

The Coyotes face two home-and-home sets with teams that carry some mystery in the Golden Knights and Stars. Will Vegas be as vulnerable as expected? Could Dallas live up to the hype? The Coyotes will serve as an early barometer for both teams.

Overall, this is a friendly schedule for the upstarts.

Calgary Flames (lost to Oilers 3-0)

Schedule

Sat, Oct 7 vs Winnipeg
Mon, Oct 9 @ Anaheim
Wed, Oct 11 @ Los Angeles
Fri, Oct 13 vs Ottawa
Sat, Oct 14 @ Vancouver
Thu, Oct 19 vs Carolina
Sat, Oct 21 vs Minnesota
Tue, Oct 24 @ Nashville
Wed, Oct 25 @ St. Louis
Fri, Oct 27 vs Dallas
Sun, Oct 29 vs Washington

This is not exactly a friendly start, especially if the Jets’ 7-2 loss to Toronto was a mere hiccup for a dangerous team. The Flames face two back-to-back sets, with the first starting at home against the Senators and then transitioning to Vancouver the following day. Back-to-back sets stand as the most obvious opportunities to rest Jaromir Jagr, if Calgary goes down that route.

On the bright side, there aren’t any enormous road trips yet.

Calgary needs to get everything in order by the end of October; Oct. 27’s home date against the Stars begins a seven-game homestand.

Edmonton Oilers (beat Flames)

Schedule

Sat, Oct 7 @ Vancouver
Mon, Oct 9 vs Winnipeg
Sat, Oct 14 vs Ottawa
Tue, Oct 17 vs Carolina
Thu, Oct 19 @ Chicago
Sat, Oct 21 @ Philadelphia
Tue, Oct 24 @ Pittsburgh
Thu, Oct 26 vs Dallas
Sat, Oct 28 vs Washington

Connor McDavid and the Oilers get to ease into their roles as favorites with a light, low-impact October.

The Oilers get to play four of their first five games at home to start the season (counting the McDavid showcase to open 2017-18) and don’t face a back-to-back in October. Much like the Flames, they’ll want to finish the month on a high note; Oct. 26 begins a five-game homestand.

Los Angeles Kings (Shut out Flyers 2-0)

Schedule

Sat, Oct 7 @ San Jose
Wed, Oct 11 vs Calgary
Sat, Oct 14 vs Buffalo
Sun, Oct 15 vs NY Islanders
Wed, Oct 18 vs Montreal
Sat, Oct 21 @ Columbus
Mon, Oct 23 @ Toronto
Tue, Oct 24 @ Ottawa
Thu, Oct 26 @ Montreal
Sat, Oct 28 @ Boston
Mon, Oct 30 @ St. Louis

After one home game and one road contest to start the season, the Kings are slated for extremes of stands and trips.

At least there’s an opportunity to build early confidence, as Saturday’s road game isn’t exactly a cross-continent trek against the Sharks. Two back-to-back sets and that month-ending six-game road swing stand as big obstacles. That said, the Kings will enjoy a lot of home-cooking in early November, so they need to hang in there.

Another bright side is that the Kings aren’t expected to travel as rigorously as they have in the past.

San Jose Sharks (Lost 5-3 to Flyers)

Schedule

Sat, Oct 7 vs Los Angeles
Thu, Oct 12 vs Buffalo
Sat, Oct 14 vs NY Islanders
Tue, Oct 17 vs Montreal
Fri, Oct 20 @ New Jersey
Sat, Oct 21 @ NY Islanders
Mon, Oct 23 @ NY Rangers
Thu, Oct 26 @ Boston
Sat, Oct 28 @ Buffalo
Mon, Oct 30 vs Toronto

Much like their BFFs in Los Angeles, the Sharks see dramatic shifts in home and road runs. They didn’t begin their season-opening five-game homestand on a high note with a loss to Philly.

One nice thing for San Jose is that there aren’t any back-to-backs in October. That’s especially nice for an aging core, although those achy legs might have appreciated such a friendly schedule deeper into the season.

Oct. 30 begins a home-heavy run: five in a row and eight of nine at home stretching into November.

Vancouver Canucks (open season on Saturday)

Schedule

Sat, Oct 7 vs Edmonton
Tue, Oct 10 vs Ottawa
Thu, Oct 12 vs Winnipeg
Sat, Oct 14 vs Calgary
Tue, Oct 17 @ Ottawa
Thu, Oct 19 @ Boston
Fri, Oct 20 @ Buffalo
Sun, Oct 22 @ Detroit
Tue, Oct 24 @ Minnesota
Thu, Oct 26 vs Washington
Mon, Oct 30 vs Dallas

The Canucks are another team, like the Kings and Sharks, who rotate home and road runs. They face a road back-to-back wedged into that five-game swing in mid-October.

If the goal is to tank, you almost wonder if Vancouver would’ve welcomed an especially grueling start to the season.

Vegas Golden Knights (first-ever game tonight)

Schedule

Fri, Oct 6 @ Dallas
Sat, Oct 7 @ Arizona
Tue, Oct 10 vs Arizona
Fri, Oct 13 vs Detroit
Sun, Oct 15 vs Boston
Tue, Oct 17 vs Buffalo
Sat, Oct 21 vs St. Louis
Tue, Oct 24 vs Chicago
Fri, Oct 27 vs Colorado
Mon, Oct 30 @ NY Islanders
Tue, Oct 31 @ NY Rangers

The Golden Knights play their first game that “counts” against the Stars tonight, but must wait until Tuesday for their first-ever home game. Their patience is rewarded with a seven-game homestand, though.

Vegas will began as a franchise with a back-to-back set, one of two in October. Things go pretty road-heavy to end October and begin November.

If some early wins help draw in extra fans, this could work out nicely for the Golden Knights.

Pickard probably biggest loser in Maple Leafs – Golden Knights trade

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Curtis McElhinney may have a two-year contract in hand, but the Toronto Maple Leafs likely realize he’s only a stopgap at age 34. They made a move in possibly securing the future behind franchise goalie Frederik Andersen on Friday, acquiring Calvin Pickard in a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights.

The Golden Knights initially waived Pickard, as they had a three’s a crowd situation after claiming Malcolm Subban. Subban serves as Marc-Andre Fleury‘s backup, then.

Vegas’ takeaway in this trade is meager: Tobias Lindberg and a sixth-round pick in 2018.

Simply put, it seems like Pickard was the odd man out.

The road ahead for Pickard is pretty murky, as the Leafs announced that he’s headed to the AHL. Pickard, 25, likely slots in at third on the Toronto depth chart ahead of Garret Sparks.

This is shrewd move for the Maple Leafs, who gave up very little for Pickard. He somewhat surprisingly already cleared waivers alongside defenseman Martin Marincin, so the Maple Leafs can allow him to marinate with the Marlies.

And, boy, does this serve as quite a bum deal for Pickard.

Consider that, in 2016-17, Pickard played 50 regular-season games for the Colorado Avalanche. He struggled in that situation, but then again, so did the Avalanche. Historically so.

Even with that troubled run, Pickard has produced a .914 career save percentage in 86 NHL games, which argues that he’s at least too good to be in the AHL. He turned some heads in international play this summer, making an argument that Pickard could prosper on a more even playing field.

It’s not even that outrageous to ponder a best-case scenario where he’d be part of a productive “platoon.”

The Avalanche ultimately opted to expose Pickard in the expansion draft, yet it seemed like the netminder would still get a chance to be a backup. Fans of teams with struggling starters or goalies may soon wonder why Pickard didn’t get claimed on waivers today, too.

Instead, the Maple Leafs’ nice gain is Pickard’s clear loss, and there’s even a chance that he’ll face more turbulence in the future if he gets moved again. Overall, it’s a bad break for a goalie who showed some promise.

It’s also another testament to the challenges a goalie faces without a beefy contract.

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.

Ready your awful Australian jokes for Nathan Walker’s NHL debut

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Even as a noted cheeseball joke enthusiast and shameless dispenser of puns, it’s difficult not to shudder at the potential barbs* that are ready to surface as Washington Capitals forward Nathan Walker is primed to become the first Australian to play in the NHL.

Let’s ponder all the bad jokes that could come about. Maybe this will serve as “pulling off the Band-Aid” or purging?

(No, it will probably only make things worse. Sorry.)

“That’s a stick? This is a stick.”

“He protected that puck as if it was in a kangaroo pouch.”

(Just imagine the Outback Steakhouse references if Walker takes a penalty.)

“Walker: Australian for hockey.”

Yeah, this could go poorly. Others have shown better taste in pumping up the 23-year-old’s impending debut.

Also, considering his speed, it’s probably OK for the occasional “Crikey, that guy is fast” comment. Let’s just try not to get too carried away with it. Don’t want to let this boomerang out of control.

Read more about the Capitals forward in this edition of “looking to make the leap.”

* Shrimp on the barbs? Oh no, what have I done?

WATCH LIVE: Red Wings open new arena vs. Wild

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The Detroit Red Wings have some work to do to prove that they’re better than many expected.

On this season-opener, a different kind of work will be appreciated one way or another, as they play their first game (that counts) at Little Caesars Arena. They’ll do so in a self-proclaimed regional clash between “The State of Hockey” vs. “Hockeytown,” as the Red Wings host the Minnesota Wild.

(The Wild aim to be the spoilers, as you can see here.)

The first puck drops around 7:30 p.m. ET, but you can also get ready for the game with coverage on NBCSN. You can also stream the game online and via the NBC Sports App.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

In other notes, the Wild aim for a “special season.”

Meanwhile, there could be some other milestones for Detroit.