James O'Brien

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

Matthews is red hot and Maple Leafs sure look like a playoff team right now


At this moment, the margin of error is small, but the Toronto Maple Leafs look more and more like a (gasp) playoff team after Friday’s 4-2 win against the New Jersey Devils. And Auston Matthews looks more and more like the Calder winner, too.

Since reaching the point of mediocrity (11-11-7) with a 3-2 shootout loss to the Coyotes on Dec. 15, the Leafs have been on a roll. They’ve gone 7-1-1 since then, failing to generate a standings point in just one contest.

Speaking of the standings, they’re now in third place in their division. Even with things looking tight, their outlook is promising, especially if the Ottawa Senators can’t keep up their own surprising pace:

Atlantic standings

1. Canadiens – 54 points in 39 games played
2. Senators – 44 points in 37 GP
3. Maple Leafs – 44 points in 38 GP

4. Bruins – 44 in 41 GP
5. Lightning – 42 in 40
6. Panthers – 42 in 40
7. Red Wings – 39 in 39
8. Sabres – 37 in 38

The inactive Bruins fell past the wild card ranks, as the Capitals (53 in 38) and Flyers (45 in 40) are ahead of the pack.

Considering the tight nature of the race for the last two spots in the Atlantic, it would be foolish to guarantee Toronto makes it. Still, things haven’t looked this good for the Maple Leafs in ages.

Then again, it’s been quite a while since they had a player as promising as Auston Matthews.

He already scored his 21st goal of his outstanding rookie season, and you really don’t need to qualify his accomplishments as “great for a rookie,” either.


Again, plenty can go wrong; Maple Leafs fans know that things can fall apart rapidly, even for a team that’s in prime playoff position pretty late in a season.

Still, for those optimists or for those willing to buy into the Matthews and Mike Babcock hype … this franchise might just be a little ahead of schedule.

Injuries keep piling up for Panthers in win; Luongo, Bjugstad hurt on Friday

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Earlier on Friday, PHT discussed all the tough times for the Florida Panthers. Whether they beat the Nashville Predators or lose, it’s clear that those tough times are continuing.

Injuries were a focus of that post and they kept piling on tonight. The game is still in progress, yet it looks like Roberto Luongo and Nick Bjugstad will headline the injured list.

Luongo may have suffered his upper-body injury during warm-ups, prompting the team to bring an emergency goalie into the mix.

The Panthers didn’t specify what, exactly, is ailing Bjugstad. They only said that he won’t return to the game. It may have happened during this faceoff:

Bjugstad missed significant time already this season, so 2016-17 could be a rough one for the forward.

With the likes of Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau on the shelf, Florida must hope that these are merely minor issues for Bjugstad and Luongo.

Knowing their luck lately, it’s tough to drum up a lot of optimism for these wounded Cats.

Update: The Panthers at least managed a win from a messy day. They beat the Predators 2-1 thanks to an odd game-winner by Jonathan Marchessault.

Predators reward Matt Irwin with one-year extension at $650K


P.K. Subban‘s injury situation means that the Nashville Predators’ off-season gets a grade of “Incomplete,” but one of the smaller moves has been working out wonderfully.

Defenseman Matt Irwin isn’t blowing anyone’s mind, yet he’s been a very nice piece for their defense, and the team rewarded him with a little future certainty by way of a one-year, $650K extension on Friday.

(Granted, that “certainty” could be questioned since the expansion draft creates a lot of questions for anyone outside of a team’s core … but let’s table that for a moment.)

As of right now, Predators defensemen under contract through at least 2017-18 currently include Irwin, Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Petter Granberg and Anthony Bitetto.

Irwin can provide a decent mixture of solid offense and respectable defense – he’s usually on the right end of possession stats – so this deal could be a subtle bargain … whether it stays in Nashville, or perhaps migrates to Vegas.

Leafs chase Schneider, put damper on Devils’ nostalgic night

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It’s been less pleasant to think of the present on an otherwise nostalgic night for the New Jersey Devils.

Cory Schneider gave up three goals on five shots (yes, that’s less than a 50/50 save percentage) before being pulled in favor of Keith Kinkaid (who quickly gave up the 4-0 goal) as the Toronto Maple Leafs are all over New Jersey to start this game. They ended the first period up 4-0.

On the bright side, fans can look to the past, although some of this action might evoke the earliest days of their run under Dr. John J. McMullen, the team’s first owner. McMullen is being inducted into the Devils’ Ring of Honor on Friday.

Plenty of big names were on hand, from Lou Lamoriello to Claude Lemieux to Patrik Elias (who notably didn’t wear a jersey, as if to remind us that he feels that his story isn’t over).

Here’s full video of the presentation:

Good stuff from the Devils organization. The team lagged behind a bit, at least to start.

Update: The Leafs ended up winning 4-2 on Friday. You could probably accuse them of, um, sitting on their lead a bit –

Injuries prompt Predators to give prospect Kamenev a look


A 6-1 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning may indicate that the Nashville Predators’ offense is on the rebound, but the truth is that they haven’t gotten much going lately.

They’ve been held to low shots on goal totals the last three games and have lost four of their last six.

With James Neal a late scratch for that last game and other Predators seemingly a little bruised in that lopsided win, there is one plus for Nashville as they face the Panthers in Florida tonight: they’ll get a look at forward prospect Vladislad Kamenev in his NHL debut.

The 20-year-old was a second-round pick (42nd overall in 2014) and is putting up solid numbers in the AHL, with 24 points in 31 games.

He won’t be asked to lug useless linemates up and down the ice, either. Kamenev is slated to line up with solid (if streaky) forwards Colin Wilson and Craig Smith today.

An interesting opportunity for Kamenev, and he could gain some favor with management if he helps the Predators earn some points to close out a back-to-back set in Florida.

In other news surrounding that game, James Reimer‘s playing for Roberto Luongo … who might have been hurt during warm-ups?