James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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Canucks’ kids smoke Crosby, Letang, Penguins

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With nine points in nine games so far this season, 20-year-old Vancouver Canucks forward Brock Boeser couldn’t keep this up.

It turns out he decided to pick up that pace at the Pittsburgh Penguins’ expense. Boeser generated a hat trick and an assist in the Canucks’ 4-2 win, and he actually probably robbed himself of a fourth goal when he selflessly tried to set someone else up for an empty-netter.

Boeser isn’t the only member of the Canucks’ kids line (does it have an agreed-upon nickname yet?) who stood out on Saturday. Bo Horvat, the more established member, scored a goal and three assists. While Horvat is 22, Sven Baertschi is the grumpy old man of the trio at 25. Baertschi collected a trio of helpers himself.

So, Boeser is now at 13 points, Horvat has 11, and Baertschi also has 11 over 10 games. They were involved in all four of Vancouver’s goals tonight. They’re a huge part of the Canucks improving to 7-4-2, while Jacob Markstrom helped to curb the Penguins’ push to get back into the game.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this dominant performance was that it came against stars like Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang:

This continues a passing of the torch in Vancouver, as consider this: Daniel and Henrik Sedin received less than 10 minutes of ice time apiece on Saturday. This was all-youth, and a brave decision by head coach Travis Green, who seems to be accelerating the Canucks’ ascent toward credibility.

Now at 8-6-2, you could see Crosby’s frustration, and not just due to a missed call late in the game. The Penguins mercifully end a five-game road trip with a 1-3-1 record.

Speaking of being on the road a lot, the Canucks will face a serious test this month. Vancouver will deal with 10 of its next 14 games away from home:

Mon, Nov 6 vs Detroit
Tue, Nov 7 @ Calgary
Thu, Nov 9 @ Anaheim
Sat, Nov 11 @ San Jose
Tue, Nov 14 @ Los Angeles
Thu, Nov 16 vs Vegas
Sat, Nov 18 vs St. Louis
Tue, Nov 21 @ Philadelphia
Wed, Nov 22 @ Pittsburgh
Fri, Nov 24 @ New Jersey
Sun, Nov 26 @ NY Rangers
Tue, Nov 28 @ NY Islanders
Thu, Nov 30 @ Nashville

The Canucks are off to a shockingly solid start, but we’ll get an even better idea of this team through that run.

Nights like these might be frustrating for the Penguins and a beautiful one for the Canucks, particularly their rising top trio of forwards. Time will tell if Vancouver can keep it going and if Pittsburgh can shrug off these early peaks and valleys.

Besides, it’s a long season, so Penguins fans should enjoy some comic relief:

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.

Duchene, Turris: The day after the non-trade

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From the sound of things, the trade that wasn’t involving Matt Duchene, Kyle Turris, picks, prospects, the Ottawa Senators, Colorado Avalanche, and maybe the Nashville Predators, might some day mutate into an actual transaction.

For more on that unusual situation, check out Adam Gretz’s post, which includes an interesting comparison between Turris and Duchene.

If you’re looking for some concrete updates on what needs to happen and/or what didn’t happen, a few things cropped up since then.

The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reports that things didn’t progress with Turris and the Predators to the point that extension talks happened. That’s highly relevant, after all, with Turris in a contract year and his value somewhat difficult to gauge.

Now, if you’re a fan of Duchene, the Avalanche, and/or trades, you might want an idea of what’s holding things up. It’s no secret that GM Joe Sakic seeks a considerable haul in return for Duchene, with TSN’s Darren Dreger providing more meat to chew on:

If nothing else, you have to credit Joe for shooting high (and knowing Sakic, while keeping his head up and not looking down).

Whether Turris sticks with the Senators for a while and the Duchene pain continues in Colorado or one/both get a change of address, the bottom line is that both forwards were asked to perform on Saturday, less than 24 hours after word broke of the near-trade.

Give each player some credit for taking a “business as usual” approach.

Turris plays reasonably well, Sens say the right things

The Athletic’s James Gordon reports (subscription required), the Senators more or less said all the right things about Turris’ attitude and handling the situation.

Well, they mostly said all the right things, as some might be a little beaten down by seeing the phrase “fake news” break into the escapist world of sports. Either way, Alex Burrows made a reference to “the fake news world” while ultimately concluding that scuttlebutt doesn’t matter.

You could probably give Turris a little bit of extra credit, as he didn’t just play a day later, his (for now?) Senators fell 5-4 to the Vegas Golden Knights in an tilt that began in the afternoon. Turris collected one assist, fired three shots on goal, and won 65 percent of his draws.

The only Senators forwards who logged more ice time were Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman, as Turris played just under 20 minutes. It doesn’t really seem like Guy Boucher was gluing him to the bench.

Duchene has a nice game

The Avalanche are now on a three-game winning streak after edging the Philadelphia Flyers 5-4 via a shootout.

Duchene scored a timely goal in this one, making it 1-0 with about two seconds remaining in the first period. He also produced the lone assist on Nail Yakupov‘s fourth goal of the season, the Avs’ last tally of the contest beyond the skills competition.

Duchene wasn’t able to connect on a shootout attempt. Like Turris, he ranked third among his team’s forwards in ice time. He didn’t get a ton of reps on the power play, but that might have had something to do with Colorado going 2-for-3.

If nothing else, Duchene might be used to all that trade talk by now, even if he probably doesn’t enjoy it.

*ahem*

So, if there are any performance issues that stem from such distractions, they weren’t immediately obvious in either Duchene or Turris. We’ll see how many games they end up playing for their respective teams, assuming they get traded at all.

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.

Rangers go on a run, powered in part by Lundqvist, Shattenkirk

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The New York Rangers finished Saturday a stone’s throw from .500 (6-7-2), with Kevin Shattenkirk and Henrik Lundqvist ranking as key parts of their surge.

Perhaps everything’s going according to plan, and it merely is just coming together late enough to make people a little nervous?

Either way, the Rangers have now won three straight games after edging the comparably hungry Florida Panthers 5-4 in overtime tonight. There’s a larger trend of not-always-pretty but scrappy play, as they’re now 5-2-2 in their last nine games after a deeply discouraging 1-5-1 start to 2017-18.

While Alain Vigneault is likely breathing a sigh of relief after it looked like he was going from the frying pan to the fire as far as hot seats go, management must feel a touch vindicated to see a strong run from Shattenkirk. Tonight was maybe his best night of this run, as he scored two goals, including the overtime game-winner:

Shattenkirk took a “hometown discount” for stretches like these: he now has eight points (those two goals plus four assists) during a four-game point streak. They’ve been eventual bits of production, too, as he generated the primary assist on J.T. Miller‘s overtime-winner in Thursday’s 2-1 OT win against the Lightning:

The secondary assist went to (wait for it) Lundqvist. Now, the stupendous Swede isn’t shutting the door altogether each night, but that might just be the nature of the beast for this edition of the Rangers. Much like in 2016-17, this team may find themselves needing to win end-to-end thrillers, possibly forcing Lundqvist to take a Grant Fuhr-like demeanor.

(Perhaps you’d instead want to compare Lundqvist to an NFL cornerback who must adopt a mindset of letting that last deep bomb go.)

Now, it’s dangerous to get too excited if you’re a Rangers fan.

Even with this win, New York is currently ranked second-to-last in the viciously competitive Metropolitan Division, and the Rangers’ lead over last-ranked Carolina is deceptive. The Hurricanes have generated 10 points in 11 games as of this writing, while the Rangers have 14 … but in 15 regular-season games.

That was part of the reason why there was rebuild-on-the-fly talk, and there might be some again if the Rangers slip once more.

Vigneault & Co. still have a lot of work to do, but if nothing else, the Rangers saved some face, and possibly their season. For now?

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.

With Tortorella in town for Cup memories, is this best Lightning team since?

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When sports teams milk nostalgia, like the Tampa Bay Lightning did on Saturday by remembering their 2003-04 Stanley Cup run, it often comes with that tinge of sadness that is part of the word’s meaning.

With John Tortorella watching on from the opposing bench of a very good Columbus Blue Jackets squad, the Lightning’s 5-4 shootout win brought about some different feelings tonight. Granted, coughing up a lead made it tenser than the Bolts probably hoped for, yet it also opened the door for Steven Stamkos to collect the shootout-winner.

The Stanley Cup memories and Tortorella’s presence inspire a bold question: is this the best team the Lightning have boasted since that championship run?

Before we dive into that, here’s video of the ceremony:

And a shot of modern players in those slightly-old throwbacks:

The game itself was a thriller, as the Blue Jackets stormed back from a 4-2 deficit to tie things up 4-4, forcing an eventual shootout. Former Tortorella acolyte Dan Girardi delivered a thunderous check on Matt Calvert during the contest:

Remarkably, the Lightning have reached some pretty high marks even though they haven’t sipped from the silver chalice since the season before the NHL went dark. They’ve enjoyed three deep runs since Torts left town:

2010-11: Finished second in their division (103 points), fell to Boston Bruins in Game 7 of a memorable Eastern Conference Final. The Bruins eventually won it all.

2014-15: Finished second in their division (108 points), lost to the Chicago Blackhawks 4-2 in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.

2015-16: Finished second in their division (97 points), lost to Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of Eastern Conference Final. Penguins won it all.

Those three deep runs are a helpful reminder that there have been some very good Lightning teams, from Guy Boucher’s brief run to a transition away from Martin St. Louis under Jon Cooper’s reign. It’s interesting to note that the eventual champions knocked out the Bolts in all three of those runs, likely inspiring some fun/wistful “What if?” discussions for hardcore fans in Tampa.

Let’s consider a few facets of this Lightning team, which may just be their best since 2003-04:

  • They’re running away with the Atlantic Division so far. As strong as those previous seasons were, the Bolts peaked in the playoffs. Maybe the Lightning can combine strong regular season work and postseason play, much like in those championship days?
  • They have an identity in net. Do not underestimate how well Andrei Vasilevskiy has been so far in 2017-18. The Ben Bishop – Vasi combo was very strong, but there are advantages to having a clear-cut top guy.
  • A deadly duo: Some of the best Lightning teams have deployed some dynamic duos. St. Louis and Stamkos constituted a prolific partnership, yet Stamkos – Nikita Kucherov might be even better. In a fun twist, Stamkos has taken the Marty role early on, as he’s been more of a facilitator to Kucherov.
  • Interesting supporting cast members: In retrospect, the magic of “The Triplets” line may have largely come from Kucherov. Still, there are some nice players who may be able to help generate some points for the Lightning, with Brayden Point seemingly being GM Steve Yzerman’s latest deft discovery.
  • A brilliant, dangerous defenseman: As great as Dan Boyle was, Victor Hedman is truly special. The addition of Mikhail Sergachev may also help the rest of the blueline maintain a solid level of play.

It’s too early to say that the 2017-18 Lightning will rank among the best in team history. Stamkos and Kucherov need to stay healthy and productive. Cold streaks are bound to come.

Even so, nights like these make it tough not to at least think about such comparisons.

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.

KHL may nix 2018 Winter Olympics involvement, which could affect U.S. too

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Depending upon how an investigation into Russian Olympic athletes and doping goes, the KHL may very well prohibit its players from participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Considering that the KHL brings in high-quality hockey players from Canada, the U.S., Sweden, and other countries beyond Russia, such a move could make a big impact on how those rosters look.

A wide variety of outlets are reporting on such a possibility. Such outlets include Russian news agency TASS, the Associated Press, and Chris Johnston of Sportsnet.

Here’s some added background, via Johnston:

In a statement, KHL president Dmitry Chernyshenko said the IOC “is destroying the existing world order in sports” by pursuing doping cases against Russians in other sports who are suspected of using banned substances.

At this point, the International Ice Hockey Federation is reluctant to wade into the fray publicly. IIHF president Rene Fasel politely declined an interview request on Saturday.

That doesn’t seem promising. TSN’s Darren Dreger shared the viewpoint that these are bad early signs, although he does bring up a valid point: it might be too early to panic. (But it’s probably fair to worry.)

Seeing no KHL involvement would definitely impact Canada, Sweden, and the U.S. – among others – along with the obvious in Russia. Still, seeing the likes of Ilya Kovalchuk not suiting up for a Russian team that could, conceivably, be asked to play under a “neutral flag” would likely make it that much tougher to forecast a frontrunner for the tournament.

Here’s the statement from KHL brass:

Earlier this week, Dreger discussed some players to watch for the United States, a bit that might be even more relevant now. Could prospects playing in the NCAA earn star turns during the 2018 Winter Olympics? Without KHL players, their chances would only increase, and perhaps the tournament would feel like, say, the world juniors on steroids.

(Uh, the odds are against the IIHF stealing that elevator pitch, considering the circumstances.)

The AHL’s also discussed possibly allowing its players to participate, at least under certain circumstances.

It’s all a big mess, frankly, and a bit hard to get your head around. Maybe cooler heads will prevail for a cooler tournament for the coolest game on Earth? We’ll have to wait and see.

For more on the possible doping ban, head to Olympic Talk and check out posts like these.

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.