James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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Do it, Flames: Put Jagr with Gaudreau, Monahan

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After an agonizing wait, the Calgary Flames bit the bullet and signed Jaromir Jagr.

To little surprise, skipping the preseason and not having an answer about the future has made for a bit of a stilted integration for the 45-year-old, who is still something of a possession monster when the puck gets on his stick.

Jagr finally collected his first point (an assist) with the Flames on Saturday, during their 5-2 win against the Vancouver Canucks. It came, fittingly, on the power play.

If assisting on a Johnny Gaudreau goal wasn’t enticing enough, take a look at the Flames’ offensive lines on Tuesday, a tempting tease with their next game coming Thursday:

Circumstance could play a role in Jagr getting at least a look with Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. As Sportsnet’s Pat Steinberg noted, Kris Versteeg wasn’t around, so Glen Gulutzan might have been adjusting to Versteeg – Sam Bennett – Jagr not being an option.

(Micheal Ferland also has been a little banged up lately, although you can see that he at least suited up.)

Still, it’s fun to cross one’s fingers and hope that Jagr gets an extended look with the dynamic duo, especially since he enjoyed so much success in a similar situation with Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau during his time with the Florida Panthers.

So far, the Flames have already experimented with Jagr in such a situation. From an even-strength perspective, he’s spent about two-thirds of his time with Bennett/Versteeg and one-third with Gaudreau/Monahan, according to Natural Stat Trick’s numbers.

Flames Nation’s Ari Yanover provides a fascinating perspective: maybe the experimenting should continue, with Jagr being used in a variety of attacking zone situations.

Perhaps the focus is a little less on “who should Jagr be playing with” and more on “whoever is getting the most offensive zone starts, that’s Jagr’s line”. And typically, it’s Gaudreau’s line getting the offensive zone starts. So maybe, once Jagr is ready, that should be his line after all. We know he has it in him – not just because he’s, well, Jaromir Jagr, but also because that’s exactly what he was doing in Florida half a year ago.

Interesting.

Selfishly, as fans of the aging wonder, many of us simply want more Jagr.

Being selective with how he’s deployed might just be the ticket for the Flames. It’s sensible that Jagr’s getting 13 minutes of ice time per game (with almost exactly three of them coming on the power play), especially as he eases in. Greedily, we still want more, but it’s up to Calgary to decide if that’s actually the best way to optimize what they have.

As the season goes along, it will be fun to see how Jagr is used. There aren’t many weapons like him in the NHL, and that’s assuming that he can still get it done.

(So far, the answer seems to be “mostly yes.”)

For another look at how Jagr could fit into the Flames’ lines, check out this bit from before the 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.

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Why Oilers are struggling, and what needs to change

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Sure, Connor McDavid scored all three of their goals, but it was still electrifying to see the Edmonton Oilers open their season with a 3-0 win against the Calgary Flames.

For those who saw red flags, the last week must have felt like retribution, as the Oilers dropped three straight, with their most recent loss (6-1 to the Ottawa Senators) marking a low point.

With that 1-3-0 record in mind and Leon Draisaitl on the shelf, spirits are low and frustrations might be high in Edmonton. Let’s dig deeper to see which patterns should continue and how much this boils down to bad luck.

Plenty of shots, but maybe the wrong guys shooting?

The Oilers lead the NHL in Corsi For rating with 59.42 percent, and Edmonton sports the classic signs of bad luck: they fall in the bottom five in PDO and team shooting percentage. (Fancy stats via Natural Stat Trick.)

The takeaway there is quite basic: more bounces are bound to go their way. Just consider McDavid alone: he hasn’t scored a goal since that thrilling hat trick to start the season.

A lot of those trends will end merely by playing more games.

That said, the distribution of shots on goal is a bit troubling, and it’s something that Oilers head coach Todd McLellan should address either through tweaking lines or his system (or both?).

Check out the Oilers’ top five players in shots on goal:

1. McDavid (19)
2. Oscar Klefbom (15)
3. Darnell Nurse (13)
4. Draisaitl (12 in three GP)
5. Adam Larsson (11)

Yes, three of the Oilers’ top five shooters are defensemen. McLellan pointed out the team’s most glaring offensive deficit, so far, to Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal.

“We’re not getting enough from the wingers or our bottom six and if you’re not scoring (as a team), you can’t be giving up six (goals),” McLellan said.

Indeed, the Oilers need more from their supporting cast.

Most of those players should expect a rebound; the more frightening question is: how much can the Oilers really expect? Even in Milan Lucic‘s best days, he’s never been a volume shooter; his career average is well under two shots on goal per contest.

Ryan Strome hasn’t scored a point so far for the Oilers, but some of that might come down to a lack of opportunities. He’s averaging almost one fewer minute of ice time per game vs. his last season with the Islanders, which is a touch surprising since many expected this to be an opportunity for him to break through.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins simply needs to do more. While RNH has two goals so far, he’s only fired five SOG in four games. You can explain some of that away by explaining playmaking leanings, but when your team is struggling, sometimes a passer must be a bit more assertive, too.

Again, expect better things from RNH and Lucic in particular, not to mention Patrick Maroon, Kailer Yamamoto, and Jussi Jokinen. Even so, some of this might come down to the makeup of this team.

Depth can often be key for scoring in the NHL, and the Oilers have something to prove in that area.

Frustrations for Cam Talbot

Credit Edmonton Oilers workhorse Cam Talbot for accepting blame for his part in the Oilers’ 1-3-0 start, as the Edmonton Sun’s Terry Jones notes.

“I’ll find a way to fix it. I know I will because I’ve always done it before,” Talbot said. “We’re going to turn this around here, no doubt. It starts with me in net. Once I start making the saves I’m supposed to make, the guys in front of me can do what they’re supposed to do. It starts in net and we work our way out from there.”

If you want to look at the surest spot where things will improve for Edmonton, look to Talbot.

Much like a host of other NHL goalies, he’s off to a shockingly bad start. Talbot’s GAA is just under four (3.96) and his save percentage probably gives Grant Fuhr some unpleasant flashbacks (.880). Talbot’s numbers should rise considerably, even if he fails to match the heights of 2016-17.

In the meantime, the Oilers turn to Laurent Brossoit, who’s off to a solid start.

***

In most cases, the Oilers should settle things down.

Still, it’s important to remember that this team has Stanley Cup aspirations. For all the justifiable criticisms GM Peter Chiarelli receives, if he can identify issues during the season and address at least some of them with savvy “rentals,” then he’ll earn his place as the guy who lucked into having McDavid on his roster.

Things will get better. It’s just going to be a challenge when you consider how high they set the bar for themselves.

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.

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Plea to NHL: You can nix the All-Star Game, just keep skills competition

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During Saturday’s edition of Sportsnet’s Headlines (see video above), Chris Johnston reported that the NHL and NHLPA discussed the notion of “scrapping” the All-Star Game.

Johnston’s report gets a little fuzzier from there, as he goes into how the NHL wants to make more of a concerted effort to grow the game in Europe.* For all we know, the league might just want to bring some sort of modified All-Star weekend overseas. It seems like this is all in an early gestation period; Johnston said that more talks are expected to happen.

Beyond that, there wasn’t really a timeline specified, even if something significant does happen.

So, in case that wasn’t clear: it’s too early to say that All-Star Games will be no more.

Let’s assume that such a measure will be taken, though.

If that happens, allow PHT to beg for fellow hockey fans: whatever you do, don’t get rid of the glorious spectacle that is the skills competition.

(Heck, you can have one night for more normal stuff like the hardest shot and another for odder events.)

Seriously, aside from John Scott’s storybook experience, which moments do you remember most vividly? From Al Iafrate’s skullet to players aiming at hilariously small nets to Alex Ovechkin‘s goofy costumes and moments of friendship with Evgeni Malkin, chances are those great times came during a skills competition.

Also, any chance to get Sidney Crosby vs. Connor McDavid (or vs. Auston Matthews … or vs. Alex Ovechkin) at anything is probably in the best interest of the NHL/sports/humanity:

Honestly, NHL execs, you already broke a lot of hearts by getting rid of the fantasy draft process where players basically roasted each other. That experience was about 10 times more entertaining than your typical All-Star exhibition where the main goals are (understandably) to not get hurt or embarrassed.

Actually, this brings up the best idea of all: Phil Kessel hosting an All-Star hot dog eating contest.

Anyway, the NHL and NHLPA still have a long way to go before we see the end of the All-Star Game. Let’s just hope they don’t lose sight of the big picture, which just so happens to revolve around miniature nets.

* – During that same segment, Elliotte Friedman reported that the Edmonton Oilers would love to participate in games in China. One can picture Connor McDavid creating new fans there, right?

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.

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Jakub Voracek’s assist was straight out of a video game (Video)

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When you torch a team 8-2 like the Philadelphia Flyers did to the Washington Capitals in Philly’s home-opener, you’re going to stack up some impressive highlights.

Even so, it seems appropriate to take a step back and just gape in awe at the borderline-obscene work from Jakub Voracek, who undressed helpless Caps defenders before setting up Wayne Simmonds‘ goal.

You can see that absurd display of skill in the video above, although it might be even more fun to watch via the Flyers’ funky GIF, which practically begs for cheesy DJ scratching sound effects:

Goodness. That’s how you begin a five-game homestand.

While we’re sharing some Saturday highlights, a bit that will provide mixed feelings for the Flyers fans still in the room.

The good: James Reimer deprived the Pittsburgh Penguins of a goal with some beautiful work in net.

The bad, for Flyers and Panthers fans: Pittsburgh still beat Reimer and the Florida Panthers 4-3 on Saturday.

Finally, here is Jonathan Quick adding to the Buffalo Sabres’ frustrations with this save, contributing to the Los Angeles Kings’ 4-2 win:

Quick deserves a spare moment of recognition for his quietly strong start to the season, matching the Kings’ 3-0-1 opening record. He has a shutout, has only allowed seven goals in four games, and sports an impressive .943 save percentage.

(Most of those stops were probably by a wider margin than the save above.)

For a recap of Saturday’s events, be sure to check out The Buzzer.

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.

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Golden Knights lost more than just first game vs. Red Wings: Fleury goes to IR

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One of this early season’s best stories might have hit a serious snag.

The Vegas Golden Knights recently announced that Marc-Andre Fleury and Jonathan Marchessault have been placed on IR. Goalie Maxime Lagace and forward Alex Tuch were called up from the AHL in their absence.

As this oddly adorable update notes, Erik Haula is also out of action, opening the door for intriguing KHL import Vadim Shipachyov:

This most likely opens the door for an intriguing storyline on Sunday: could we see Malcolm Subban face the Boston Bruins not that long after the team waived him?

That’s kind of fun, but seeing “The Flower” get injured is a tough pill to swallow after the Detroit Red Wings handed them their first-ever loss (6-3 on Friday). Even with that tough game, Fleury’s early Vegas numbers sparkle: 3-1-0 with a strong .925 save percentage.

Place that on top of being an early “face of the franchise” and this injury hurts. This was almost certainly the moment that Fleury got hurt. (Update: Sportsnet shared video of the event; see above this post’s headline.)

(In case you’re wondering, Lagace seems like a pretty marginal 24-year-old netminder, at least judging by a glance at his numbers at lower levels.)

If Subban has a rough Sunday, there might be a least a couple murmurs about the organization letting Calvin Pickard get lost in the shuffle, eventually falling to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a trade that felt like just a small step up from losing him for nothing.

It’s possible that Haula got hurt thanks to this fight with Tomas Tatar:

All things considered, it seems like the Golden Knights lost in more ways than one against the Red Wings on Friday.

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.

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