James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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WATCH LIVE: Los Angeles Kings at Nashville Predators

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Los Angeles Kings

Alex IafalloAnze KopitarTyler Toffoli

Tanner PearsonAdrian KempeDustin Brown

Kyle CliffordTorrey MitchellTrevor Lewis

Marian GaborikNick ShoreAndy Andreoff

Kevin GravelDrew Doughty

Jake MuzzinAlec Martinez

Derek ForbortChristian Folin

Starting, returning goalie: Jonathan Quick

[Preview for Kings – Predators]

Nashville Predators

Filip Forsberg (he’s back!) — Ryan JohansenViktor Arvidsson

Scott HartnellKyle TurrisCraig Smith

Kevin FialaNick BoninoCalle Jarnkrok

Miikka SalomakiColton SissonsAustin Watson

Roman JosiRyan Ellis

Alexei EmelinP.K. Subban

Mattias EkholmYannick Weber

Starting goalie: Pekka Rinne

WATCH LIVE: Wednesday Night Rivalry – Flyers at Capitals

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Philadelphia Flyers

Claude GirouxSean CouturierTravis Konecny

Jakub VoracekNolan PatrickWayne Simmonds

Jordan WealValtteri FilppulaMichael Raffl

Tyrell GoulbourneScott LaughtonJori Lehtera

Ivan ProvorovShayne Gostisbehere

Robert HaggAndrew MacDonald

Brandon ManningRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Michal Neuvirth

[Flyers look to take down Capitals for second time in January]

Washington Capitals

Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson

Andre BurakovskyNicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie

Chandler StephensonLars EllerBrett Connolly

Devante Smith-PellyJay BeagleAlex Chiasson

Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen

Christian DjoosJohn Carlson

Brooks OrpikMadison Bowey

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

A look at Claude Giroux’s glorious rejuvenation

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Hockey fans get a chance to see a rising Philadelphia Flyers team as they take on the Capitals in Washington on NBCSN tonight, and they also get a chance to witness one of the best new lines of 2017-18 in action.

It’s funny how things happen in sports sometimes. Back in training camp, sliding Claude Giroux to the left wing, placing Sean Couturier as the Flyers’ top center, and filling out the trio with Jakub Voracek seemed like it might just be an interesting experiment. Even if Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol praised the way Giroux embraced the move.

“When your captain is as selfless as ‘G’ is, he [goes] all in,” Hakstol said, via NHL.com’s Bill Meltzer back in September. “Whatever the role is, he’s going to attack it… It’s early, but he’s had a very high-level camp.”

In this age of more analytics-minded writing, it’s often a goal to identify how much a player succeeds with or without another player, hence the use of “WOWY” stats.

PHT’s discussed how Giroux has factored into Couturier’s leap to stardom, but the beauty of certain hockey combinations is how well certain players blend together. Giroux and Voracek already formed quite the kinship – heck, there have been times when they’ve even looked like each other – yet it’s been profoundly interesting to see how Giroux and Couturier have served as catalysts beyond even optimistic expectations. (Again, Voracek probably helped quite a bit, too.)

While it’s fair to speculate that Giroux has rebounded thanks in part to better health (see here), it’s resounding to see the difference between 2016-17 and this season.

Last season, according to Natural Stat Trick, Couturier and Giroux played just five minutes and fifteen seconds together at 5-on-5. This season, just under 65 of Giroux’s minutes have been away from Couturier, while almost 645 have come with him.

You can see a change in Giroux’s game in a few ways.

  • Giroux is becoming more of an even-strength threat again. He already has more even-strength goals (nine versus six), assists (21 to 12), points (30 to 18), and first assists (11 to 5) in 49 games in 2017-18 than he had in 82 games in 2016-17, via Natural Stat Trick.
  • His possession stats are up, even with more shifts starting in his own zone.
  • Giroux isn’t as dependent upon the power play for his production, yet he’s still dangerous on the man advantage.
  • He’s been more of a playmaker than before. Via Hockey Reference, his .88 assists per game average is a career-high. Giroux’s been firing the puck less lately, but it’s especially pronounced now. He averaged 2.43 shots per game in 2016-17, and now it’s down to just 2.08. That’s a big drop from 2015-16’s 3.08, not to mention 3.44 from 2014-15. You can see the difference in Couturier’s game; he only averaged more than two shots on goal per contest once before (2.01 per pop in 2013-14), yet this season he’s averaging exactly 3.00 this season.
  • Couturier’s already blown away career-highs with barely over a season down, and Giroux is looking to have one of his best years in ages, if ever. Last season, Giroux scored 14 goals and 44 assists for 58 points in 82 games. He could eclipse those marks with a strong display on Wednesday; he currently has 14 goals and 43 assists for 57 points in just 49 games.

At 30 years old, Giroux’s $8.275 million cap hit was starting to look scary for the Flyers, considering that his contract won’t expire until after the 2021-22 season. Voracek, 28, has a similarly scary deal ($8.25M cap hit) expires way off in 2023-24.

That’s not ideal, but it’s easier to stomach a top line that also includes Couturier’s bargain $4.33M cap hit, which runs through 2021-22.

As time goes along, Giroux’s contract could look ugly again. Players can sometimes age drastically in the NHL, and that seemed to be the direction for him, until he lined up with Couturier (and got healthier).

That said, the good news is that Giroux is willing to change his role for the good of the team. Maybe his story is also a lesson to the Montreal Canadiens with Alex Galchenyuk and other situations: getting moved out of the center position can be more warmly received if it puts a player in a better position to succeed. In Giroux’s case, he wasn’t seeing a major drop in ice time or opportunities; instead, Giroux was merely being asked to take a simpler, more offensive-minded role after being asked to do a lot as the center and captain.

If only every experiment could go as well for the Flyers, NHL, and sports teams in general …

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.

Jaromir Jagr’s hockey future hinges on healing up knee

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The process is now, essentially, complete from an NHL perspective: the Calgary Flames waived Jaromir Jagr, he cleared waivers, and now he’s hoping to play for the team he owns in the Czech Republic.

When it comes to Jagr’s immediate future, the process is far from complete.

The knee injury that limited his productivity and then availability with the Flames is still an issue, as Jagr himself updated on his official Facebook page. Even a rough browser translation shows that he’s trying to warn excited fans that he’s not a guarantee to play. His goal is to be eligible to participate in the playoffs, but it’s not a sure thing because of that wonky knee.

NHL.com provides a more thorough translation, noting that Jagr doesn’t want fans to suffer as they watch “old grandpa hobble on the ice.” None of what he said is especially promising.

“But as games went on, it just got worse,” Jagr said. “The problem is also that when I bend the knee in a certain angle, it always weakens, the muscle just switches off. [This] is especially bad for me because my game has been based on physical play and one-on-one battles.”

Jagr is right about that. As his career has gone along and he’s no longer been able to leverage true superstar talent, he’s adapted his game, being able to use his stellar strength and fantastic hockey IQ to hog the puck when he can get it on his stick. With those knee issues, he’s been slowed even more, but maybe worse, his power has been limited as well.

Much of the focus is on that playoff push, and there’s no mention of the 2018 Winter Olympics, which are coming extremely soon.

The thought of Jagr having one more run in the Olympics – as remote a possibility as that probably was – seemed to be one silver lining for hockey fans hoping for one more glorious moment for the 45-year-old.

Let’s be honest. Not every star gets that John Elway moment, retiring with confetti coming down and a trophy in hand.

At least Jagr can retire knowing that he left without much of anything left in the tank, and on the bright side, this season was the only one in which the consensus was that he couldn’t really hang. (Some decried his lack of pace in Florida, but there were some great moments with the Panthers, too. And it’s not as though they’ve broken through without number 68 in the lineup this season.)

Here’s hoping that Jagr can play again in 2017-18, and maybe finish things off with some glory, even if it’s on a scale Jagr and his fans aren’t quite used to. It’s a testament to the fitness freak’s track record of maniacal training that injuries have been such a rare issue.

But yes, it’s still a bit sad to see things end this way, even if we’ve seen it happen with plenty of other greats before him.

(Not cool, Father Time. Not cool.)

More on Jagr’s days ending in the NHL

The day he (probably) saved the Penguins.

Jagr clears waivers, headed to Kladno.

The milestones Jagr nearly reached.

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.

Victor Hedman returned ahead of schedule for Lightning

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If Victor Hedman‘s recovery fell on the long end, he could have missed as many as six weeks. Instead, he only missed five games for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

He actually beat the three weeks that was considered the low end of that three-to-six week window, playing for Tampa Bay in a 3-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday. While he didn’t turn the tide for Tampa Bay, he wasn’t a negative presence, either.

Hedman actually logged exactly 25 minutes of ice time in that return. That’s impressive, although head coach Jon Cooper admits that it wasn’t exactly the blueprint, as NHL.com’s Tim Campbell reports.

“[Hedman] is our best defenseman and he probably had to play more minutes than we had planned,” Cooper said. “So we basically had to play the whole first period with five defensemen. But he’s missed three weeks, so it takes a little time to get back in the game. For missing that long, he’s a big part of our team, but he was fine tonight.”

(Dan Girardi was a little banged up in this game, hence the Lightning being limited to “five defensmen.”)

After losing their first two games without Hedman, the Lightning managed a three-game winning streak to cap off his absence heading into the All-Star break. Anton Stralman and Jake Dotchin served as the Lightning’s top pairing with Hedman out, while the big Swede replaced Stralman upon his return. Beyond Hedman’s superlative talent, the Lightning simply piece things together more reasonably with him in the lineup, as Hedman can prop up a player still learning to make it in the NHL in Dotchin while Stralman can provide similar guidance to Mikhail Sergachev (who, for all of his offensive accomplishments, had been a recent healthy scratch).

Generally speaking, the Lightning have been handling the challenges of a lot of road games and Hedman’s injury quite well. They still must weather some storms, though.

They played their last five games on the road, with the All-Star break providing a handy palate cleanser. Even so, they play three more games on this current trip, along with five of their next seven, and eight of their next 12 contests on the road.

Such a stretch might make it tough to totally hold off the red-hot Boston Bruins, who are making a somewhat surprising push for the Atlantic title.

On the other hand, this could be a helpful test for the Lightning. It gives Hedman some time to work his way back to full strength with the playoffs not that far away, and gives a dominant team some experience dealing with adversity during a season where they’ve largely rolled over competition.

Considering that a typical playoff series lasts no longer than two weeks, it’s likely helpful for a team to deal with injuries and other forms of bad luck now rather than trying to shake off those haymakers for the first time during the most important games of the year.

The Lightning now know that they can at least keep their heads above water without Hedman, even if they also realize just how crucial he is.

That said, maybe this is another push for management to add some useful depth to this defense at the trade deadline? Even a team as loaded as the Lightning could use a little help, at least with a Stanley Cup as the ultimate barometer for success in their case.

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.