James O'Brien

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

WATCH LIVE: San Jose Sharks at Colorado Avalanche

The Colorado Avalanche enjoy another appearance on NBCSN after last week’s frustrating performance – that still had some flashes of brilliance – against the Chicago Blackhawks.

This time around, they’ll face the San Jose Sharks, a team that beat the Avalanche 3-2 in overtime on Saturday.

While the Avs are struggling merely to avoid being the worst team in the NHL, they do have some players to watch, at least if you’re a fan hoping to see your team add a piece at the trade deadline. (There’s no guarantee the Avs will move either one of Matt Duchene or Gabriel Landeskog in-season, but some fans will still daydream.)

Now, Duchene’s out sick tonight, but the Avs still have some interesting guys to follow. That includes goalie Spencer Martin, who’s set to play the first two games of his NHL career against the Sharks. Weird, right?

From San Jose’s perspective, they’re looking to win their fifth game in a row. And, perhaps, take a look at what Colorado has to offer in the rentals aisle?

Watch the game on NBCSN, online or via the NBC Sports App.

Click here for the livestream link.

Sending a message? Ducks make Sami Vatanen a healthy scratch


The Anaheim Ducks have been red-hot lately, going 7-2-1 since the calendar hit 2017. Sami Vatanen, however, has been ice-cold, with a healthy scratch on Monday representing a new low for his tough season.

Not seeing him suit up against the Winnipeg Jets is an eyebrow-raiser for those who aren’t hardcore Ducks fans, but all things considered, it might have been inevitable.

For one thing, as the Los Angeles Times’ Curtis Zupke notes, Vatanen suffered a -4 rating in Anaheim’s 5-3 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Saturday.

The bigger picture is actually uglier, though.

Vatanen’s struggles and his situation

The 25-year-old blueliner hasn’t scored a point in his past six games. He has just two assists in his past 13 contests. After scoring nine goals in 2015-16 and 12 in just 67 games in 2014-15, Vatanen has just two goals this season.

One has to wonder if Randy Carlyle should consider changing the way he deploys Vatanen during this time off.

His possession numbers are down considerably this season, and he’s getting more of a defensive role, with 55.7 pecent of his shifts being in the defensive zone. He’s never been higher than 48.9 percent in his career. His offensive zone starts show a similar flip, as he’s only starting 44.3 percent of his shifts in the o-zone vs. a 51.4 percent career average. (Numbers via Hockey Reference.)

In other words, Carlyle’s using him as more of a defensive defenseman than an offensive one, which might not play to Vatanen’s greatest strengths.

Even so, you’d expect the talented blueliner to be able to rise above his situation more than he’s done lately, so maybe spending the night in street clothes will help him turn things around.

Kovalev, Brodeur would’ve killed it at All-Star Game’s ‘Four Line Challenge’


It’s reasonable to bemoan the death of the Breakaway Challenge heading into the 2017 NHL All-Star Game, but we should also give its replacement “The Four Line Challenge” a shot.

Puck Daddy’s Greg Wyshynski provides a nice breakdown of some of the ways the event might be great and also why it may not work, stated well here:

This could also be the new “passing pucks into mini-nets,” as these players frustratingly miss shot after shot after reaching a certain distance and the crowd slips slowly into a coma.

Indeed. The event itself is kind of a brain-full to explain in words, so luckily the NHL laid it all out in this video:

Yeah, that’s a lot to digest.

After sorting things out a bit, it does kind of make you miss the sublime skill of Alex Kovalev, who probably would get a fairer shake these days. One of his old mix tapes is basically an argument for this event:

Martin Brodeur also would have been a game-changer, what with goalies getting bonus points later in the competition:

It almost makes you yearn for old-timers to get an invite to the festivities, eh?

Then again, the beauty of competitions like these is we get to find out which All-Stars boast the same freakish skills. There won’t be systems or opponents to get in the way of those displays, either.

Of course, as Wyshynski notes, it also opens the door for silent crowds and players frustratingly missing targets … but there’s a segment of the audience that will love that part the most.

Flames put Gaudreau back with Monahan, life makes a little more sense


Look, it totally makes sense for teams to strive for scoring depth. Just look at what spreading the wealth did for the Pittsburgh Penguins during their Stanley Cup run.

Even so, in these uncertain times, there’s also some comfort to seeing dynamic duos reunite, and the Calgary Herald indicates that will be the case for the Calgary Flames, as Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau are back together.

The wider consensus is that Monahan generally benefits the most from being with Gaudreau, something you can see plainly in “WOWY” stats.

This specific instance presents an interesting wrinkle, however, as it’s Monahan who has the hot hand.

He’s currently riding a five-game goal streak, and he’s also sprinkled in two assists for good measure. You can tell he’s confident even by looking at shots on goal; Monahan’s fired an impressive 25 on net during the past six games.

“I think I’m getting a lot of chances right now,” Monahan said, via the Calgary Herald. “When you’re getting chances, that means you’re doing things right. When you’re getting those chances, if you’re not putting the puck in the net, it can be frustrating. Right now, I’m getting some lucky bounces.”

(Hey, he might be on a hot streak, but he’s still, well, not a great quote.)

Gaudreau, meanwhile, has one goal in 2017. He has just three points in his last 12 games.

Some of that is failing to get the bounces Monahan mentioned, but maybe Gaudreau’s better off with his partner-in-crime, too? It can’t hurt for the Flames to experiment, especially considering the fact that they have something special in the “MMM Line” of Mikael Backlund, Matthew Tkachuk and Michael Frolik.

Really, the bigger question is probably still: who will ultimately fit with Gaudreau and Monahan? For now, the answer is Alex Chiasson, but the Flames are still searching for a better solution.

Gaudreau, Monahan and the rest of the Flames face an interesting test in the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight.

Hitchcock believes Blues’ Allen is ‘locked up mentally’


Things were already rough for the St. Louis Blues and their goalies (particularly still-pretty-newly crowned No. 1 Jake Allen) heading into Thursday, but the Washington Capitals really highlighted those issues in a 7-3 thrashing.

Blues fans and management must be wondering, then: what’s wrong with their goalies, especially with Allen? Head coach Ken Hitchcock seems resigned to allowing him to fight through it, if nothing else.

“There’s a lot going on right now. … He’s kind of locked up mentally and he’s going to have to fight through this,” Hitchock said, according to Lou Korac of NHL.com. “What we see at practice, we like. That’s why we put him in quite frankly.”

Alex Pietrangelo did the typical deflecting thing, nothing that this is a “team” and that there are “no individuals.”

Still, Hitchcock’s longer press conference makes you wonder how much trust there is in Allen and Carter Hutton.

From Hitch’s perspective, it sure sounds like he believes that the Blues are over-correcting to try to limit “goals, shots.” By trying to do too much, they might be putting themselves in bad positions. And that might stem from a lack of confidence in the guys in net, or in the team’s work in their own zone overall.

Let’s be honest. As much as we can play chicken-or-the-egg as far as a defense’s impact on a goalie, it’s tough to explain away save percentages under .900 in the modern NHL. At some point, your team needs more stops.

With the races for the lower spots in the Western Conference’s playoff picture seemingly tightening up, the Blues don’t have a ton of time to figure this out.