PHT’s midseason trophy picks (Joe Yerdon’s choices)

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Most teams are approaching, at or beyond the 41-games played mark, so the PHT gang will make its choices for the NHL’s trophies at this point in the season. Feel free to call us evil/wrong in the comments. If you missed James’ picks yesterday, fear not, we’ve got your hookup right here.

Hart Trophy – Sidney Crosby

Yeah, really going out on a limb here but Crosby has been, by far, the best player in the NHL . Crosby’s season has been so good to this point he’s made the other Hart candidate, Steve Stamkos, seem average by comparison and that takes serious effort. Crosby’s absence from the Penguins lineup of late and the Penguins lack of success only shows how important he is to them.

Suffice to say, when you’ve got 32 goals and 34 assists through 41 games you’re doing pretty damn well and worthy of the platitudes that are given to you. Love him or hate him, Sid is the real deal and he’s proved it this year. Now if only he can keep his melon safe the rest of the way.

Vezina Trophy – Ondrej Pavelec

Contrary choice I know but let’s discuss things here. Tim Thomas has been great this year and would likely be the #1 choice on anyone’s ballot and rightfully so. That said, whether it’s through pity or looking to reward a guy for putting in “harder” work, I’ve always been more on the side of guys that don’t play behind stifling defensive systems. I was never a Brodeur guy, I was always a Hasek guy.

In this case, Ondrej Pavelec is playing the role of Dominik Hasek while Tim Thomas is Martin Brodeur (save the fat jokes for now). Pavelec doesn’t play behind a team that makes defense their first priority and his numbers are astounding in leading the Thrashers. His .932 save percentage is incredible while his 2.27 goals against average is equally stunning. Before you ask, no, I’m not being swayed by what a great story this would make after how Pavelec’s season began with him passing out on the ice before the start of their first game. Pavelec has simply been the rock-solid starter Atlanta desperately needed and he’s proved himself.

That said, if the award were to be handed out today I have absolutely zero doubts that Tim Thomas would be a runaway winner and rightfully so. I’m sticking with Ondrej.

Norris Trophy – Nick Lidstrom

How do you not pick Nick Lidstrom? It’s a virtual no-brainer this year. After struggling last season being one of the only Red Wings to not suffer an injury, Lidstrom has bounced back in a huge way this year with 11 goals and 28 assists all while being the Wings’ most dependable guy going the other way. He’s 40 years-old and leads all Red Wings skaters in time on ice playing an average of 23:44 per game.

He plays as much time on the power play as he does shorthanded and he’s the straw that stirs the drink in Detroit. There’s a reason they call him “The Perfect Human” there and it’s always steady play on the blue line that does it. His main competitors this year in Dustin Byfuglien and Chris Pronger are great at what they do and are/were having great seasons by anyone’s standards, Byfuglien in particular, but Lidstrom’s work is on another level. It’s tough being perfect.

Jack Adams Trophy – Craig Ramsay

By far this is going to be the toughest choice this season if things hold up. James and I had an Internet arm wrestling match over who to pick on this one and you can decide on who you think the winner was, but my choice was made easy getting to pick Atlanta’s Craig Ramsay. Ramsay compares well with Tampa’s Guy Boucher, and while both teams were bad last year, with the Thrashers dumping Ilya Kovalchuk confidence was very low in what Ramsay would be able to do there.

Instead, Ramsay has turned the Thrashers into a hard-nosed team with Andrew Ladd leading the way with the forwards with Evander Kane emerging as a star. Ramsay’s noted work with defensemen is paying off in big ways with Dustin Byfuglien as he leads the team in scoring, but also with Tobias Enstrom who is no longer a strictly offensive blue liner and has become the team’s ice time horse averaging over 24 minutes a game. Add in those factors along with Ondrej Pavelec’s great season and you’ve got yourself a guy in Craig Ramsay who’s made something out of nothing overnight with no superstars to speak of.

Calder Trophy – Logan Couture

This one is a tighter race than just about any of them and we’re sure people are going to complain about the prior work Couture got to do last season and in the playoffs but frankly that doesn’t sway me. He’s got 19 goals already this year and has emerged as one of the most reliable Sharks scorers on a team loaded with star power.

Other Calder candidates are still looking very good and some might not get more consideration because of their position. Guys like Carolina’s Jeff Skinner, Colorado’s Kevin Shattenkirk, Philly’s Sergei Bobrovsky, Edmonton’s Jordan Eberle, and Nashville’s Anders Lindback are all seriously in the hunt here but it’s Couture who’s shown the most grace under pressure, something which his superstar teammates should take note of to improve their games.

Selke Trophy – Ryan Kesler

You can put Pavel Datsyuk of Detroit down here as 1B to Kesler’s 1A in the race for this award. You could choose either of these players and not have to hear anything from fans of the other team because both guys are equally as great as defending forwards. Kesler’s game has evolved greatly over the past few seasons to the point where Kesler is getting the call consistently against top forwards. Kesler’s game is also improving in ways that help him finally catch up to the heights Datsyuk has reached over the years in that he’s added the ability to make opponents pay for their mistakes with goals.

If we told you that Kesler had 23 goals already this year, you’d likely think we’re nuts but that’s how it is right now. He’s the forward that averages the most time on ice on the Canucks roster and considering that includes the incredible Sedin twins that’s saying something. Much like with the Vezina race, we’d expect that Datsyuk gets the call to win this award but Kesler is making the decision a lot harder and I’d expect some votes to change this year if Kesler keeps potting goals while shutting down opponents.

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Got some points you want to raise? Hit us in the comments with your barbs and wisdom. Not comfortable with that? E-mail us at prohockeytalk@gmail.com to let your voice be heard.

Kotkaniemi gives Canadiens something to be excited about

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Montreal Canadiens fans haven’t had much to cheer about lately.

It makes sense, then, that Jesperi Kotkaniemi experienced the sort of ovation he’ll never forget after scoring a goal on his first shot in his first pre-season NHL game.

Kotkaniemi flashed some of the brilliance – not to mention a big, affable smile – that made him the third pick of the 2018 NHL Draft on the play. Not only did he manage to handle a rolling puck and send it into the net, but he also showed poise in shaking off a hard hit while making a pass that really got things rolling.

“That was sick,” a giggly Kotkaniemi told the media after Montreal’s 3-1 preseason win against New Jersey Monday night. “I’ve never heard a crowd that loud. It was pretty unbelievable.”

Habs fans clearly relished that moment, lavishing Kotkaniemi with additional praise once he was announced as the game’s third star:

Canadiens head coach Claude Julien underscored the on-ice adjustment Kotkaniemi faces as an 18-year-old with limited exposure to NHL-sized rinks and NHL-sized players (whom he compared to “superheroes”).

“He’s still a junior player to a lot of people’s eyes, and this is North American hockey on a smaller rink,” Julien said, via Sportsnet’s Eric Engels. “We play a much more aggressive style than they do where he’s from. But, again, I think you have to appreciate the way he handled himself tonight in the game and showed his skill level. He showed his patience. He’s also learning on the fly and I think he’s getting better and better on a daily basis. So it’s encouraging to see how well he’s doing so far.”

[Montreal mismanagement: Canadiens wasted opportunity with Max Pacioretty]

It would be a steep learning curve for any player, but the transition overseas is unlikely to be smooth. The Athletic’s Arpon Basu notes (sub. required) that Kotkaniemi really hadn’t seen on-ice fights until last night, and didn’t really know how to conduct himself during pre-game warm-ups.

Even so, there are those positive moments, and early feedback – including from Julien himself – that Kotkaniemi’s skating might be better than advertised.

So, would the Canadiens (and Kotkaniemi) be better off if Finnish forward makes an immediate jump to the NHL, or would it be better if he continued to polish his game before burning off a year from his entry-level deal?

Well, i’s complicated.

Center of attention

On Monday, Kotkaniemi basked in the thrill of being the apple of the crowd’s eye.

Still, if we’ve noted anything about hockey-obsessed markets, it’s that the “honeymoon period” can be short-lived in a place like Montreal. Growing pains are probable whenever a young player makes the jump, yet throwing Kotkaniemi into the deep end right off the bat could only expose a lack of polish that much more.

Such a decision would run the risk of shaking Kotkaniemi’s confidence.

There’s another factor not unlike Filip Zadina possibly soothing some pain in Detroit: a reasonably productive and promising Kotkaniemi could give Canadiens fans a sorely needed bright side to look on. The Max Pacioretty trade – not to mention picking third – sent at least a partial rebuild message, so if 2018-19 is as rough on the ice as it is on paper, it might be nice to glimpse some of the light at the end of the tunnel.

The bottom line is that, at some point, the pressure will really rise on Kotkaniemi to be the Canadiens’ long-sought-after high-end center. Considering how short the fuse can be when it comes to Marc Bergevin assessing a player’s usefulness in that regard, it could be a cruel test for the Finn.

Cautionary tales

The modern NHL treasures speed, skill, and smarts. Sometimes that translates into young players managing instant success, as we saw with Nico Hischier being a quick study after a splendid jump from being the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft.

There are some examples of the immediate jump going wrong, or at least being handled poorly, and you can look at some recent third picks as warnings for Montreal.

Alex Galchenyuk – Like Kotkaniemi, Galchenyuk was a could-be center (and could be one in Arizona) who Montreal selected third overall. In the case of “Chucky,” it was the third pick in 2012.

Galchenyuk jumped right from that 2012 draft to the 2012-13 season, at least once the lockout dissipated. He played in all 48 regular-season games (and five playoff contests), acquitting himself quite nicely.

Yet, patience wasn’t in great supply for the talented forward, as Bergevin shut the door emphatically on Galchenyuk’s bid to be a center, and the atmosphere sure felt toxic pretty quickly.

Would Galchenyuk’s game been more well-rounded if he didn’t make the jump right away? Was stepping from the draft to the pressure cooker of Montreal hockey an example of “too much, too soon?”

In my opinion, it’s absurd to look at Galchenyuk as a failure. That said, the Canadiens failed to handle his situation properly, and it’s unclear if Bergevin & Co. truly learned from their mistakes. Rushing Kotkaniemi into the NHL could end up being an unpleasant example of history repeating.

Jesse Puljujarvi – While Kotkaniemi was a mild surprise in rising to the third pick, plenty were surprised that fellow Finn Puljujarvi slipped below the third choice, instead going fourth overall in 2016.

It’s far too early for this to be a permanent judgment, but at the moment, the Blue Jackets’ bold decision to go with Pierre Luc-Dubois instead may end up being the correct call.

Either way, it’s been a bumpy ride for Puljujarvi, and a considerable portion of the blame falls on the Edmonton Oilers, an organization that hasn’t exactly developed the greatest track record of handling all but the most can’t-miss of prospects. (They haven’t messed up Connor McDavid, although they’ve blundered spectacularly when it comes to giving him help.)

Puljujarvi burned a year off his entry-level contract by making an immediate jump in 2016-17, a move that proved to be ill-fated, as he was demoted to the AHL. He’s spent the past two seasons going between the AHL and NHL, with some legitimate concerns about stunted growth.

Even if Puljujarvi pulls out the sort of season that would justify his draft placement, the Oilers have already squandered most of his rookie contract. Edmonton’s essentially written the blueprint on how not to handle Kotkaniemi in the form of his countryman Puljujarvi.

The North American Game

Although the above scenarios inspire some fear of mishandling Kotkaniemi, the Habs could theoretically see some advantages in keeping him around, even if a 2018-19 season isn’t a smash success.

As mentioned before, Kotkaniemi hasn’t experienced much exposure to the North American game. The Canadiens might reason that he’d be better off not returning to Finland for this next campaign, then.

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With plenty of cap space and a lot of forwards under contract (according to Cap Friendly’s listings), it’s not as though the Canadiens badly need to get solid production from a cheap rookie contract. If expectations are as low in-house as they are on the streets of Montreal, then sliding the first year of Kotkaniemi’s entry-level deal to 2019-20 might be a lot more prudent.

Overall, there are some notable pros and cons to Kotkaniemi making the immediate jump, so the Canadiens better look before they leap.

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.

Captaincy continues Aleksander Barkov’s growth as a player

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It was Shawn Thornton who requested that Aleksander Barkov move his stall closer to his within the Florida Panthers’ locker room. In Barkov’s second year in the NHL it was Thornton’s goal to get the shy young Finn to show off his personality a little bit more around his teammates.

The move happened and Thornton slowly pecked away and brought more and more of Barkov’s personality out.

“When you sit next to that kind of player and person, it helps you a lot,” Barkov told Pro Hockey Talk on Tuesday. “Even the first couple of days, you’re just shy and sit next to him and answer his questions. Then a little bit at a time you just get out of your shell and start talking to him, joking with him and just have fun with him. That helped me a lot. If you can be good friends with this guy, you can be good friends with everybody.”

That small change allowed Barkov to get comfortable in his early NHL days and was the first step in him feeling confident enough to take on the responsibility of team captain, which the Panthers announced on Monday.

Barkov was approached at the end of last season and asked if he felt ready should they decide to have him wear the ‘C,’ replacing Derek MacKenzie. He said he was ready for the honor but also fine with remaining as an alternate, which he served as last season.

You might think there would be some awkwardness with MacKenzie being asked to give up the captaincy, but when he was given the ‘C’ in 2016 he knew that he was just holding it before one of the team’s younger stars was ready for the responsibility.

[Captain switch: Panthers give ‘C’ to Aleksander Barkov]

So when the change became official, MacKenzie was thrilled to be passing it on to Barkov.

“He called me right away and congratulated me,” Barkov said. “I was really happy to hear him calling me and congratulating me and telling me he’s OK with everything and he’s actually fine with that and he’s going to help me. I learned a lot from him. He’s probably one of the best captains I’ve ever heard in my six seasons here.”

MacKenzie, along with Willie Mitchell and Ed Jovanovski were the three captains Barkov played for since breaking into the NHL in 2013. Each of them has left a lasting imprint on the 23-year-old Panthers star.

“Those three guys, they helped me so much,” said Barkov, who also added that former NHLer Ville Nieminen, who played with Barkov and his father in Finland, was also a big influence. “Not just being a captain, just being great people you can talk to about anything, even if everything is good you can just go to them and talk to them and they’re true professionals. I got lucky to be with them in the same organization.”

Barkov takes on the captaincy at an important time in the Panthers’ growth. He’s coming off a career season offensively and the team missed out on the Stanley Cup Playoffs by a point. Bob Boughner is entering his second year behind the bench, Mike Hoffman was acquired over the summer and highly-touted prospects Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett could make an impact. There are plenty of expectations that the trend continues upwards in 2018-19.

As far as leadership style goes, Barkov doesn’t expect much to change as they look to build off the last few seasons. The only thing that may change is how many dinners he may have to pick up as captain, but MacKenzie didn’t give him the heads up on that.

“No, nobody told me about that,” Barkov said laughing. “I’m just trying to keep quiet so nobody remembers that.”

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Bridge deal for Nurse could end up costing Oilers big time

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It took some time, but the Edmonton Oilers were finally able to re-sign restricted free agent Darnell Nurse on Monday afternoon. Instead of locking him up to a long-term deal, the Oilers opted for a two-year bride deal worth $6.4 million ($3.2 million AAV). But was that the right move?

It’s great that the contract is done. Nurse can now report to the team and the Oilers can get the talented defender to training camp. Of course, Edmonton is pretty thin on defense, so he’ll be a welcomed addition to the team. But you can’t help wondering if this was just a quick fix to a problem that will resurface in a couple of years.

There will be added pressure on the 23-year-old to perform, especially because Andrej Sekera is out indefinitely with an Achilles injury. Nurse is coming off a season that saw him put up six goals and 26 points in 82 games. He also had a plus-15 rating and 67 penalty minutes while averaging over 22 minutes of ice time per game.

After making it to the second round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Oilers fell flat on their face last season. They were bad. But looking at the data from last year, it’s easy to see that Nurse wasn’t the reason they failed to make the playoffs. Most of the numbers he put up ended up being better than the team average. For example, his CF% was 51.05 percent, while the team’s CF% was 50.59 percent, per Natural Stat Trick. He was also above the team average when it came to SCF%, HDCF%.

Nurse’s primary defense partner last season was Adam Larsson. The pair played just over 820 minutes together in 2017-18. The pairings’ CF% while together was 50.92 percent. While they were apart, Nurse’s CF% went up to 52.35 percent. Larsson’s dropped to 50.06 percent. That’s not a huge difference, but it’s noticeable enough.

Nurse is still just 23 years old, so there’s room for his game to grow. Getting him signed for $3.2 million per year over the next two years is a great deal given the numbers he posted last season. The problem with that thinking, is that it’s a little short-sighted. GM Peter Chiarelli might be getting a bargain now but if Nurse keeps getting better, his next contract will be long and expensive. Sure, the 26 points he put up are modest, but his points-per-game have increased in each of his three seasons. It’s not unrealistic to expect him to top 30 points this year.

The Montreal Canadiens are one example of a team that got burned by a bridge deal. In 2012, they signed P.K. Subban to a two-year deal worth less than $6 million in total. Subban held out, but eventually came back and won the Norris Trophy that season. The next time his contract expired, he ended up getting $72 million over eight years.

Yes, Nurse and Subban play a different style. And yes, this is an extreme example, but when you’re paying Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl big money ($21 million combined), getting long-term bargains on other players is important. The Oilers will benefit from having one of their top defenders signed to a team-friendly contract for two years, but Nurse, who will be an RFA again when this deal expires, could make them pay for it the next time his contract is up.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Nothing to ‘C’ here: Importance of NHL captains is changing

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Ryan Johansen remembers how the Columbus Blue Jackets didn’t have a captain until one day it clicked and everyone knew it should be Nick Foligno.

”There was just no doubt,” Johansen said. ”It’s just one of those things you don’t want to force. You don’t want to rush. You don’t want to regret. Once someone is a very clear option to being named captain, then it’s usually done.”

For more than a century, NHL teams have named one player the captain, equipment managers stitched a ”C” on his jersey and, if all went well, he was the one who’d accept the Stanley Cup and lift it first. It’s still a hockey tradition with special meaning at all levels of the game, but almost one third of the 31-team league could go into opening night without a captain, a sign of the times that it’s no longer a necessity and certainly not a distinction that management and coaching staffs want to jump into without a lot of thought.

It’s a hot topic right now in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs haven’t had a captain since trading Dion Phaneuf in early 2016 and are in no hurry to designate one. Longtime Islanders captain John Tavares and 2016 top pick Auston Matthews are the leading candidates, and each say they are fine with general manager Kyle Dubas waiting to make a decision.

”It’s very important to have a captain, but I also think the way Kyle’s handling it is the right way to do it because it doesn’t really make sense to just throw somebody the captaincy,” Matthews said. ”It should have to be the right person. I think it’s honestly been blown up a lot this summer with our team with, ‘Somebody’s going to get it, who’s going to get it?’ But I think in the end they’re going to make their decision and it’s going to be the right one.”

Sometimes the decision is not to have a captain at all. The New York Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final without a captain in 2014 after trading Ryan Callahan at the deadline, and the Golden Knights did the same last year after not having a captain in their inaugural season.

”For us last season all coming from different places, different teams, it was a good thing,” Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Everybody chipped in. I think we had a good group of veterans who played a lot of games. I think all together we kind of took charge of helping try to lead the team. It worked out pretty good for us.”

The Golden Knights lost in the final to the Capitals as Alex Ovechkin became the first Russian-born and just the third European-born and trained captain to win the Cup. No team has won it without a captain since the 1972 Boston Bruins.

”That tells you something,” said Minnesota’s Eric Staal, who was captain of the Carolina Hurricanes for six seasons. ”Sometimes it can be overblown with saying you really have to have one or this player can’t handle this or that. I don’t think players change – or they shouldn’t- if they have a letter or don’t. … I also think it’s a cool thing to be a captain or an assistant captain. It’s been part of the game for a long time. But every team chooses to do things differently.”

Teams certainly aren’t afraid to make big decisions with their captains. Within the past two weeks, Montreal traded captain Max Pacioretty to Vegas and Ottawa traded captain Erik Karlsson to San Jose, Carolina abandoned its two-captain system and gave the ”C” to Justin Williams and Florida promoted Aleksander Barkov to succeed Derek MacKenzie as captain.

The Islanders (post-Tavares), Rangers (after trading Ryan McDonagh last season), Golden Knights, Maple Leafs, Sabres, Canadiens, Senators and Canucks (after Henrik Sedin retired) all have vacancies, and the Red Wings are in a similar spot because captain Henrik Zetterberg‘s career is over because of injury. Consider them the AAA club because without a captain, three players are alternates each game.

”I don’t think that every team needs to have a captain,” Buffalo’s Jack Eichel said. ”It’s good to have somebody that makes the executive decision at the end of the day. But if you have enough good leaders on a team, I think that if they’re all on the same page, it kind of works as just serving as a group of captains.”

Sidney Crosby has won the Cup three times since being named Penguins captain at age 20. Two years ago, the Oilers made Connor McDavid the youngest captain in NHL history at 19 years, 273 days old.

Ovechkin was named Washington’s captain in 2010, the season after Crosby won the Cup, but during the playoffs last year, he called Nicklas Backstrom Washington’s leader. When the Cup was paraded down Constitution Avenue in June, Ovechkin and Backstrom and fellow alternate captain Brooks Orpik sat in the final bus with the trophy.

”It feels like we could almost have three ‘Cs’ because they lead in different ways, and all of them together kind of make one big super leader, really,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. ”It’s rare to find that kind of mixture that you have with those three guys.”

Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy said the ”C” could be cut up and a slice given to captain Zdeno Chara and lieutenant Patrice Bergeron. The Kings made a seamless transition from Dustin Brown to Anze Kopitar and the Sharks have thrived with ex-captain Joe Thornton and current captain Joe Pavelski co-existing and developing what Evander Kane called the best leadership structure he has ever played under.

More often than not it’s simple: Jonathan Toews has won the Cup three times as Chicago’s captain and unquestioned leader. But he even doesn’t think naming one captain is essential based on his years of help from players wearing ”As” like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp.

”I don’t see why you can’t have success with a bunch of guys that are alternates and maybe not having one guy wearing the ‘C,”’ Toews said. ”At the end of the day, each guy brings different elements to the table.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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Captain switch: Panthers give ‘C’ to Aleksander Barkov