Jason Brough

Christmas Q&A: What has been the NHL’s biggest surprise?

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Brough: This is an easy answer for me, because I thought the Columbus Blue Jackets would be terrible again. Oh, sure, I knew they had a talented, young defense, and I knew Sergei Bobrovsky had the potential to play like an elite netminder. I even thought John Tortorella might be a good fit with them. But I certainly didn’t foresee the rise of Alexander Wennberg, or the resurgence of Sam Gagner. I thought they’d have to hope and pray that Pierre-Luc Dubois would one day become a legitimate No. 1 center. How wrong I was. The young Jackets, with their “new culture,” have shocked the hockey world.

Gretz: I find the Ottawa Senators’ first half success to be a pretty big surprise. Maybe not quite on the same level as Columbus, but I didn’t really expect them to be in playoff contention. Erik Karlsson is probably one of the five best players in hockey, and they have a couple of decent pieces around him, but this just didn’t seem like a roster that had improved enough to make up the necessary ground in the Eastern Conference to get back into a playoff position, especially in a division that had Tampa Bay, Florida and a Montreal team that was going to get Carey Price back. But here they are now heading into Christmas with a pretty big cushion in the Atlantic Division playoff race. Yep, I’m surprised.

Alfieri: I’d like to say the Edmonton Oilers are the biggest surprise, but if you remember correctly, I predicted they’d make the playoffs this year. So, I’ll be a grinch and go with a negative surprise and say Filip Forsberg. Last year, the Predators forward netted 33 goals in 82 games, but he’s nowhere close to being that productive this season. Through 32 contests, he’s managed to find the back of the net just five times. It’s no coincidence that Nashville isn’t as high in the standings as many expected them to be at this point. If the Predators plan on turning things around in the New Year, they’ll need their star forward to find his game — and the back of the net — in a hurry.

Tucker: It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for Florida’s two NHL teams, that’s for sure. At the start of the season, it would’ve seemed foolish not to pencil in the Tampa Bay Lightning as a Stanley Cup contender in the East. Moreover, it would not have seemed likely that the upstart Panthers would be the first team to fire its coach. There’s still time for both squads to correct their respective courses, and, as the 2016 champion Penguins showed us, it’s not necessarily about what you do from October through December. But given the progress of both franchises in recent years, the fact they’re both trying to catch up to a playoff spot is a surprise.

O’Brien: As the optimistic soul/dummy who chose the Dallas Stars to win the 2017 Stanley Cup, I’d have to say that their struggles are right up there. While their defensive and goaltending issues are even more problematic than expected, it’s their modest offense that’s truly eye-popping, even with all of the injuries. It’s startling that such an explosive team could slip into the lower half of the league in scoring. That’s borderline criminal for a team that employs Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and John Klingberg (and seriously, what’s going on with Klingberg this season?).

Halford: The answers is the Rangers but, more specifically, how well GM Jeff Gorton’s moves paid off. Gorton was kinda painted into a corner this summer — New York needed to get younger, and faster, yet needed to do it on the cheap. No easy task. So he took low-risk fliers on the likes of Nick Holden, Michael Grabner and Brandon Pirri, made what looked like a “lose now, win later” trade (Derick Brassard for Mika Zibanejad) and landed Jimmy Vesey. It’s safe to say expectations were tempered, but the result? A team that’s currently on pace for 110 points, which would be nine more than last season. Given many saw the Blueshirts as a team on the decline, it’s a huge surprise.

Pre-game reading: Ranking the NHL’s best, young cores

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— Up top, Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg made quite the impassioned plea after an “embarrassing” home loss to Arizona. But it didn’t do much good, as Detroit has lost two of three since. The Wings play tonight at Florida before starting their Christmas break.

— TSN’s Frank Seravalli took on a neat task, ranking all 30 NHL teams by their four core players under the age of 24. The Edmonton Oilers, with no playoff appearances since 2006, rank first, with a core of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Jesse Puljujarvi and Oscar Klefbom. The Los Angeles Kings, with two Stanley Cup victories in the last five seasons, are last, with a core of Adrian Kempe, Kale Clague, Erik Cernak, and Jacob Moverare. (TSN)

— NHL.com’s goalie guru, Kevin Woodley, asked a bunch of netminders which of their counterparts’ skills they’d like to receive for Christmas. For example, Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk would take Carey Price‘s skating. “Price pushes and stops and he’s set like he’s floating out there.” Carolina’s Eddie Lack, meanwhile, would love to have Dubnyk’s puck-tracking ability. “He’s been the best goalie in the league, he’s really playing great and his biggest strengths are his tracking and patience.” (NHL.com)

— Speaking of Dubnyk and Price, Pierre LeBrun reached out to a few NHL general managers and asked them which goalie was leading the Vezina Trophy race. Said one GM: “Price, Bobrovsky, Dubnyk. I would say it’s Price’s trophy to lose.” Another also said Price. But another said Dubnyk, so don’t count anybody out yet. The Vezina Trophy is voted on by the 30 NHL GMs, so those opinions aren’t for nothing. (ESPN.com)

— Should the Washington Capitals be worried about Alex Ovechkin‘s production? “Ovechkin is averaging 3.94 shots per game this season, compared to 5.04 a season ago, and while he leads the Washington Capitals with 14 goals, that’s three fewer than he had through 31 games last season. If he maintains his current pace, he could finish with one of the least productive seasons of his high-scoring career.” (Washington Post)

— If the NHL bails on the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, would it even be allowed to send players to Beijing’s Games in 2022? That’s a pretty good question, because as commissioner Gary Bettman concedes, “China’s a very big country. There seems to be a growing interest in hockey, partly I suppose because they’re hosting the Olympics in 2022. I think there’s a great opportunity to grow the game there.” (Postmedia)

Enjoy the games!

Jackets sign prolific Russian scorer (and meteor survivor) Vitaly Abramov

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 25:  Vitaly Abramov poses for a portrait after being selected 65th overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets during the 2016 NHL Draft on June 25, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes/Getty Images)
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The Columbus Blue Jackets, coming off that big win over the Penguins, today announced they’ve signed Russian winger Vitaly Abramov to a three-year, entry-level contract.

Abramov, 18, was the Jackets’ third-round draft pick (65th overall) in 2016.

A smaller forward, listed at just 5-9 and 172 pounds — which likely hurt his draft stock — Abramov currently plays for the Gatineau Olympiques of the QMJHL. In 32 games this season, he has 23 goals and 22 assists. For comparison’s sake, his 45 points are 12 more than the second-leading scorer on his team.

From DobberProspects.com:

A dynamic offensive player who possesses excellent vision and offensive creativity. Has a wide array of moves, dekes and toe-drags with explosive acceleration and a high-end top gear.

And here’s another interesting tidbit, courtesy the Columbus Dispatch:

Vitaly Abramov will never forget all the broken glass and sense of panic that gripped his school.

The affable Russian winger knows how fortunate he was a giant fireball streaking across the morning sky on Feb, 15, 2013 didn’t enter the Earth’s atmosphere on a slightly different trajectory. His hometown of Chelyabinsk survived a spectacular meteor explosion which injured 1,500 people.  It packed an estimated energy release 20 times more potent than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan in 1945, according to various reports.

“It was terrible and I was scared,” Abramov said. “I saw it from the window . . . For the rest of my life I will remember it.”

According to Wikipedia, the explosion from the meteor “created panic among local residents, and about 1,500 people were injured seriously enough to seek medical treatment.” But fortunately, nobody was killed.

“I was in school and all the windows in my class crashed,” Abramov told NHL.com. “All windows in the city was gone. … It was like big panic because it was something none of us had ever seen. But after that it was fine when everyone said it was a meteorite and we’re still alive.”

Related: Draft-day shocker: Blue Jackets take Dubois over Puljujarvi

With Matthews in town, a ‘pretty special’ night awaits in Arizona

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24:  Auston Matthews poses for a portrait after being selected first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in round one during the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes/Getty Images)
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There’s something quite different about tonight’s Arizona Coyotes’ game in Glendale.

There’s actually some hype.

That’s because Scottsdale native Auston Matthews, the first overall draft pick in 2016, is in town for his first-ever visit with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“It’s always a nice treat to come home,” Matthews said, per the Toronto Star. “I’ll have pretty much my whole family (at Friday’s game), so it’ll be nice. I know I talked to my coach, who coached me in midget and bantam and stuff, and he said they had to cancel practice. Nobody wanted to go to practice (Friday) because we’re going in there playing.”

The Leafs played last night in Denver, where they smoked the hopeless Avalanche, 6-0, and Matthews notched his 16th goal. As of this morning, there were still tickets available for tonight’s game, but it’s expected to be a larger crowd than the average one at Gila River Arena (12,648 so far this season).

Matthews’ dad, Brian, is looking forward to it.

“The fact he’s now going to be stepping on that ice and actually playing knowing 15, 16 years ago he was the one sitting on my knee watching,” he told the Arizona Republic, “it’s going to be pretty special.”

Matthews has already faced the Coyotes once. He scored a goal against them Dec. 15 in Toronto, but it was ex-Leaf Peter Holland who got the last laugh, notching the shootout winner for Arizona.

Related: A plan comes together: Leafs take Matthews first overall

‘That’s a dirty hit, for sure’ — Canucks want NHL to act after Perreault injures Hansen

RALEIGH, NC - JANUARY 16: Jannick Hansen #36 of the Vancouver Canucks carries a puck during their NHL game against the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena on January 16, 2015 in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)
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The Vancouver Canucks had a very bad night against the Winnipeg Jets.

Not only did they lose, 4-1, Thursday at Rogers Arena, they got burned for two goals by Nikolaj Ehlers, an “amazing kid” they could’ve drafted in 2014.

On top of that, they lost top-line winger Jannik Hansen to injury, just six games into his return from a previous injury that cost him 16 games.

Hansen will have an MRI today after getting kneed in the second period by Winnipeg’s Mathieu Perreault, who was, indeed, penalized for kneeing.

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“Jannik didn’t like it,” captain Henrik Sedin told The Province newspaper afterwards. “He felt it was knee on knee. … He tried it out and he took one or two strides and it buckled.”

Sedin added, “It took at least a couple of seconds before Perreault came. That’s a dirty hit, for sure. That’s something we can’t have in this league. We’ll see what the league does.”

Update: The league won’t do anything.

Hansen reportedly said the injury wasn’t as bad as it looked, but he won’t be traveling to tonight’s game in Calgary. His absence could open the door for Anton Rodin, who’s been recalled from a conditioning stint in the AHL.

Rodin has yet to make his Canucks debut, after tweaking his knee in the preseason. If he plays tonight, it would mark the end of a lengthy road to the NHL. Now 26, Rodin was Vancouver’s second-round draft pick all the way back in 2009.

Related: Rodin making a good second impression with Canucks