James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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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.

Ho-Sang/reason returns to Islanders’ lineup

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One can quibble about a flaw or two in a young player’s game, and NHL coaches certainly seem to focus on those errors, sometimes arguably while giving low-ceiling grinders a pass.*

Such decisions go from “frustrating the nerds” to irritating a wider range of a fan base after losses. Fair or not, that’s the nature of the beast.

So you can bet that there were some New York Islanders fans’ who went from irritated when Josh Ho-Sang was a healthy scratch for their season-opener to irate when the Columbus Blue Jackets dominated the Isles 5-0.

Ho-Sang might not have the same ceiling, but seeing Artemi Panarin dazzle with his creativity likely twisted the knife deeper.

Well, whether an injury to Cal Clutterbuck is the catalyst or not, Ho-Sang is back in the Islanders’ lineup as they take on the Buffalo Sabres tonight.

This is a delight not just for Islanders fanatics, but hockey enthusiasts at large, as Ho-Sang is one of those players who brings a little art to this fast, violent game.

Now, as much as Islanders fans are frustrated with Ho-Sang’s scratch, they can at least find company in such misery.

Really, the Vancouver Canucks scratching Brock Boeser is even more head-scratching than number 66 sitting for the Islanders, as Boeser stands as one of the few players some Vancouver fans look forward to seeing.

There also might be some sadness for Edmonton Oilers fans who wanted another glimpse of Kailer Yamamoto, although Oilers fans don’t have much to complain about these days.

Just looking at the New Jersey Devils running rampant with rookies, you wonder if some NHL teams are giving up precious points by being too afraid to hand the keys over to their more talented (and yes, maybe riskier) players.

The Islanders would be wise to keep Ho-Sang in their mix going forward.

* – As a reminder, Dan Girardi, for all the hustle-love he gets, made this blunder last night.

Butcher, Bratt (and Bernier) steal spotlight from Hischier in Devils’ opener

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As the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, Nico Hischier had plenty of eyes on him as the New Jersey Devils opened their season against the Colorado Avalanche.

Despite a strong showing in which he fired six shots on goal, Hischier wasn’t able to score his first goal or assist in the NHL.

Instead, the Devils other young players stole the spotlight … which isn’t so bad, when you consider that it resulted in a dominant 4-1 victory.

Avalanche fans hoping not to see much of Will Butcher were wise not to look at the box score, as Butcher became the first Devils player to ever record three points in a rookie debut. He notched those three assists through just 8:13 of ice time through the first two periods. The Devils got cheeky with a great tweet in that regard:

Harsh.

Jonathan Bernier kept a 4-1 game from getting out of hand with some absolutely spell-binding saves. You know a stop is special when there’s basically zero margin for error, as Damon Severson was able to elevate his attempt at a seemingly gaping net:

That was so good, it almost made people forget about Bernier goofing about Nelson Mandela.

Jesper Bratt was the other young Devils player to make an impression, scoring a goal and an assist himself. And yes, there were a slew of bad/great/bad-great brat-related puns.

Hischier might not have scored, but he looked great. He surely earned some brownie points with Devils fans for stepping in when Erik Johnson landed a knee-to-knee hit on Kyle Palmieri:

It remains to be seen if Palmieri misses serious time, while Drew Stafford was also hurt during the game. Beyond the Avalanche being, um, flawed, those issues put a slight damper on what must have been an exhilarating afternoon for Devils fans.

So much happened. And much of it looked very, very good for this fascinating rebuild.

Tough road ahead for Red Wings: October schedules in Atlantic Division

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On Friday, PHT pondered the opening schedules for the Pacific Division teams.

Let’s continue with the Atlantic Division, since they boast cities with alphabet-friendly names. (Very scientific way of deciding these, agreed.)

Don’t be surprised if these schedules prompt follow-ups as the season goes along. In some markets, a tough draw might be ignored while people wonder “What’s wrong with Team X?”

If the Red Wings can navigate their specific challenges, then “Detroit might not be so bad” stories might actually end up being justifiable.

Check out an in-depth preview for the Atlantic Division here.

Bruins (opened with win against Predators)

Schedule

Mon, Oct 9 vs Colorado
Wed, Oct 11 @ Colorado
Sat, Oct 14 @ Arizona
Sun, Oct 15 @ Vegas
Thu, Oct 19 vs Vancouver
Sat, Oct 21 vs Buffalo
Thu, Oct 26 vs San Jose
Sat, Oct 28 vs Los Angeles
Mon, Oct 30 @ Columbus

Odd start for the Bruins, eh?

It’s strange to see a team skip the opening weekend, but that’s what is happening here, as the Bruins see an early-season break between Thursday’s opener and their second game on Monday. Considering their injury woes, perhaps it will serve as a serious benefit, particularly for guys who might just be day-to-day.

Even with a back-to-back coming next weekend, this is light overall, with another substantial gap in games between Oct. 21 and Oct. 26.

This opens the door for the Bruins to ease the likes of Patrice Bergeron in and out of the lineup, if needed. Heck, it might not be such a bad idea to spell Zdeno Chara here and there, either (if he’d allow it). November gets tougher for the B’s, however.

Sabres (lost in shootout to Habs)

Schedule

Sat, Oct 7 @ NY Islanders
Mon, Oct 9 vs New Jersey
Thu, Oct 12 @ San Jose
Sat, Oct 14 @ Los Angeles
Sun, Oct 15 @ Anaheim
Tue, Oct 17 @ Vegas
Fri, Oct 20 vs Vancouver
Sat, Oct 21 @ Boston
Tue, Oct 24 vs Detroit
Wed, Oct 25 @ Columbus
Sat, Oct 28 vs San Jose

Looking at Buffalo’s wider schedule, there could be some tough times, with February standing out as maybe their friendliest month.

Some rough waters loom up ahead, including in October. Their first back-to-back is part of the California tour (maybe amend that to Cali-Vegas run going forward?). They face four road games in that Oct. 12-17 stretch, including a back-to-back and three games in four nights.

The Sabres then follow that up with two back-to-back sets.

For a team trying to cement itself as a contender, they’ll be tested early.

Red Wings (opened new arena by beating Wild)

Schedule

Sat, Oct 7 @ Ottawa
Tue, Oct 10 @ Dallas
Thu, Oct 12 @ Arizona
Fri, Oct 13 @ Vegas
Mon, Oct 16 vs Tampa Bay
Wed, Oct 18 @ Toronto
Fri, Oct 20 vs Washington
Sun, Oct 22 vs Vancouver
Tue, Oct 24 @ Buffalo
Thu, Oct 26 @ Tampa Bay
Sat, Oct 28 @ Florida
Tue, Oct 31 vs Arizona

Ouch. Hopefully the Red Wings enjoyed that home-opener, because they will see the road more than home for a while. Tonight begins a four-game road trip and stretch of five of six away from Detroit. That trip includes a back-to-back, but at least that veteran-heavy team only faces one such set in October.

An end of October/beginning of November stretch could do a number on this team’s dim hopes.

From Oct. 24-28, they play three road games, then they get that Coyotes home match, and then begin November with a four-game trek through Western Canada. So that’s seven of eight games on the road, with a back-to-back nestled (against Oilers and Canucks) in that four-game trip.

With that opener in the books, only four of the Red Wings’ next 16 contests take place in Hockeytown.

Panthers (lost opener against Lightning)

Schedule

Sat, Oct 7 vs Tampa Bay
Thu, Oct 12 vs St. Louis
Sat, Oct 14 @ Pittsburgh
Tue, Oct 17 @ Philadelphia
Fri, Oct 20 vs Pittsburgh
Sat, Oct 21 @ Washington
Tue, Oct 24 @ Montreal
Thu, Oct 26 vs Anaheim
Sat, Oct 28 vs Detroit
Mon, Oct 30 vs Tampa Bay

Emotionally, the Panthers have to really want to get back at the Bolts to close out this home-and-home. If not, they’ll need to wait until Thursday to try to win their first game of the season.

After that, Florida faces what could be a harrowing five-game stretch. Four of the contests are on the road, two games against the Penguins (making that one home game potentially feel like a road one), and a back-to-back against the Penguins and Capitals.

The Panthers have an opportunity if they can weather the early storm. That Oct. 26 date against the Ducks begins a five-game homestand.

Canadiens (won opener vs. Sabres)

Sat, Oct 7 @ Washington
Sun, Oct 8 @ NY Rangers
Tue, Oct 10 vs Chicago
Sat, Oct 14 vs Toronto
Tue, Oct 17 @ San Jose
Wed, Oct 18 @ Los Angeles
Fri, Oct 20 @ Anaheim
Tue, Oct 24 vs Florida
Thu, Oct 26 vs Los Angeles
Sat, Oct 28 vs NY Rangers
Mon, Oct 30 @ Ottawa

Counting Thursday’s season-opening win, the Canadiens start 2017-18 with a three-game road trip and play six of their first eight on the road. They play their first back-to-back set this weekend against the Capitals and Rangers, providing intriguing barometers for all three teams.

That Oct. 30 visit to the Senators also kicks off a four-game road trip, so Montreal faces some early challenges.

They’ll be rewarded in November, though. After that late October/early November trip, they play six straight and nine of 11 at home. So the Habs just need to grind through this early bump in the road. At least they have fresh legs to start, right?

Senators (lost opener to Capitals)

Schedule

Sat, Oct 7 vs Detroit
Tue, Oct 10 @ Vancouver
Fri, Oct 13 @ Calgary
Sat, Oct 14 @ Edmonton
Tue, Oct 17 vs Vancouver
Thu, Oct 19 vs New Jersey
Sat, Oct 21 vs Toronto
Tue, Oct 24 vs Los Angeles
Thu, Oct 26 vs Philadelphia
Fri, Oct 27 @ New Jersey
Mon, Oct 30 vs Montreal

The Senators need to brush off injuries and early stumbles soon, because their early schedule opens up with a lot of home games once they get through that Western Canada kick in mid-October.

As you can see, there’s that five-game homestand starting on Oct. 17. It goes deeper than that; the Senators play 11 of 13 games in Ottawa from Oct. 17 – Nov. 18.

That’s about a quarter of their home games for the regular season. Botching that could really make life difficult for a team some expect to regress.

Lightning (beat Panthers in opener)

Schedule

Sat, Oct 7 @ Florida
Mon, Oct 9 vs Washington
Thu, Oct 12 vs Pittsburgh
Sat, Oct 14 vs St. Louis
Mon, Oct 16 @ Detroit
Tue, Oct 17 @ New Jersey
Thu, Oct 19 @ Columbus
Sat, Oct 21 vs Pittsburgh
Tue, Oct 24 @ Carolina
Thu, Oct 26 vs Detroit
Sat, Oct 28 vs Anaheim
Mon, Oct 30 @ Florida

The Lightning will take care of their in-state rivalry, as they’ll end October having played three games against the Panthers, continuing with tonight’s road contest.

Tampa Bay gets to avoid some of the extremes that many in the Atlantic seem to endure early on. Only facing one back-to-back set is nice. That’s not to say it’s a cakewalk, as that early three-game homestand comes against three potentially potent opponent in the Capitals, Penguins, and Blues.

Still, it seems pretty manageable early on.

Maple Leafs (dominated Jets in opener)

Schedule

Sat, Oct 7 vs NY Rangers
Mon, Oct 9 vs Chicago
Wed, Oct 11 vs New Jersey
Sat, Oct 14 @ Montreal
Tue, Oct 17 @ Washington
Wed, Oct 18 vs Detroit
Sat, Oct 21 @ Ottawa
Mon, Oct 23 vs Los Angeles
Thu, Oct 26 vs Carolina
Sat, Oct 28 vs Philadelphia
Mon, Oct 30 @ San Jose

After quieting the crowd in Winnipeg, the Maple Leafs play three consecutive games in Toronto in front of what is certain to be an exhilarated fan base.

There’s another three-game home run late in October, so the month now stands as friendly: seven home vs. four road games. That Oct. 30 game against the Sharks does begin a four-game road trip, however.

Scanning the full season, things seem balanced early. The big challenges (road-heavy) come in December, but then comparable opportunities come with a robust home slate to begin 2018 in January.

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.