Around the rink – Tuesday, January 25th

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With the All-Star break approaching and the schedule lightening up a bit before then, teams are sort of playing out the string. Think of it like that last week of school before the break for the holidays in December. You should be taking some tests and still studying but you see vacation on the horizon and can’t help but think about that. All right so maybe it’s not exactly like that but we’re trying to keep it real around here. Here’s tonight’s schedule with all times being Eastern.

7:00 p.m.

Florida @ NY Rangers

The Rangers might want to avoid the shootout tonight but as long as Mats Zuccarello is around they’ll feel better about their chances if the game goes that far. Zuccarello is 4-4 on shootout attempts this year and given that their last two games have reached the skills competition and they’ve won them, they’re doing OK. Florida is looking to snap a four-game losing streak. The streaky Panthers are in the second game of a six-game road trip. Overtime and shootouts haven’t been kind to Florida recently though losing three of the last four games that have gone that far.

NY Islanders @ Pittsburgh

No Sidney Crosby in this one for the Penguins but that hasn’t mattered much lately as the Pens are winners of four of their last five games. Evgeni Malkin is also unlikely to play as well meaning that Jordan Staal will have to again take the reins as the top centerman and player up front. The Islanders have lost three of their last four games but are showing signs of improvement in that they’re at least scoring goals. It helps having Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen back in the lineup that’s for sure. Pittsburgh is looking to keep pace with Philadelphia in the division as they’ve fallen behind by five points.

Anaheim @ Columbus

The Ducks are looking to wrap up their four game road trip with their third win. Their two wins have come in the shootout but when you’re playing away from home a win is a win. The Ducks have been riding the great play of Jonas Hiller and Bobby Ryan to success and frankly they’re OK with that. Columbus, meanwhile, is on a two-game win streak of their own and protecting home ice against the Ducks would give them a lot of confidence. Getting solid consistent goaltending of late has helped Columbus get their act together as they’ve allowed two goals in each of their wins.

7:30 p.m.

Montreal @ Philadelphia

While the Flyers want to keep ahead of the Penguins and extend their lead in the Eastern Conference, the Habs can tie things up with Boston again in the Northeast Division with a win. Montreal’s skating wounded did well enough to get a big win two games ago over Ottawa but couldn’t get a shootout win against Anaheim on Saturday. The beat up Habs could be in a tough spot against the physical Flyers who haven’t exactly played nice with each other so far this season.

Buffalo @ Ottawa

This always used to be a great rivalry as these two teams hated each other something fierce. Now, the Sens are floundering and the Sabres are still searching for consistency before they fall too far back in the hunt for the playoffs in the East. While the Sens are busy with nostalgia, the Sabres can get back on track with a small win streak with a win here. They’ve won three of their last four as it is but a loss to Ottawa would be a real morale killer.

Toronto @ Tampa Bay

Toronto’s southern swing isn’t going so hot with a loss to Carolina last night. Dealing with the Southeast Division leading Lightning on the second night of a back-to-back sounds less-than optimal, especially with the chance of going up against Dwayne Roloson who has owned the Leafs of late in his career. Roloson is 4-1-0 in his last five starts against the Leafs dating back to 2008-2009 and that includes a 29-save effort to win in overtime earlier this year.

8:30 p.m.

Minnesota @ Chicago

The Wild roll into town as a team of streaks but playing better of late winners of three out of their last four games. Chicago is coming off of a poor performance against the Flyers on Sunday afternoon and looking to regain some composure in the Western Conference playoff race. If you didn’t look too closely, you’d see that the Wild are just three points behind Chicago in the West standings. While Chicago’s doing relatively well the Wild have rebounded well after a poor start to vault themselves into the race for the playoffs. Consider this a good test for both teams to see where they’re at.

9:00 p.m.

Edmonton @ Phoenix

After Dallas getting humbled last night, the door is open for Phoenix to make up some ground on the Pacific Division leaders. Having to deal with an Oilers team that has been just brutal lately. Phoenix has lost three of their last four but a win would pull them to within four points of the Stars. Every little bit does count and for the Coyotes that can be a big deal to make the end of the season potentially less stressful. Edmonton’s losing ways have resulted in a five-game losing streak and a stretch of games over the last month and a half that’s just brutal. The Oilers weren’t really a factor for the playoffs as it was, but seeing them doing this poorly is disheartening for a team that showed flashes of brilliant fun early on. Here’s to hoping Taylor Hall doesn’t get too frustrated being counted on to do too much for a bad team.

Connor McDavid betting favorite to win MVP, even though he’s still on Oilers

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Connor McDavid was the best player in the NHL during the 2017-18 season.

He won the scoring title for the second year in a row (the first player in more than 15 years to win it in consecutive years), he topped the 100-point mark for the second year in a row, he was voted by his peers in the league as the most outstanding player for the second year in a row, and had he played on a team that was anything other than a raging season-long dumpster fire he probably would have been a lock to win the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP for the second year in a row.

At the very least he would have a finalist.

But because he did play on a team that was a raging season-long dumpster fire, we were treated to another season-long debate on what value means and he ended up finishing fifth in the MVP voting behind Taylor Hall, Nathan MacKinnon, Anze Kopitar and Claude Giroux.

Even though the Oilers are bringing back largely the same roster that finished with the fourth worst record in the Western Conference and was nearly 20 points out of a playoff spot, McDavid is set to enter the 2018-19 season as the odds-on favorite to win the MVP award this upcoming season.

The folks at Bovada issued some preseason MVP betting odds on Thursday, and McDavid at 10/3 was at the top of the list.

As long as he stays healthy he is probably going to be the best player in the league once again and, quite honestly, the only thing that can probably stop him from winning the MVP is if the Oilers stink again.

Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby is second at 13/2, while Toronto Maple Leafs teammates Auston Matthews and John Tavares and Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin round out the top-five, each at 10-1.

The reigning MVP winner, New Jersey Devils forward Taylor Hall, has the sixth best odds at 15/1.

Here is the complete list that Bovada released on Thursday:

Connor McDavid — 10/3
Sidney Crosby — 13/2
Auston Matthews — 10/1
Alexander Ovechkin — 10/1
John Tavares — 10/1
Taylor Hall — 15/1
Nikita Kucherov –15/1
Nathan MacKinnon — 15/1
Mark Scheifele — 15/1
Anze Kopitar — 18/1
Evgeni Malkin — 18/1
Patrick Kane — 20/1
Claude Giroux — 25/1
Brad Marchand — 25/1
Steven Stamkos — 25/1
Vladimir Tarasenko — 25/1
Jack Eichel — 33/1
Jamie Benn — 40/1
Patrik Laine — 40/1
Nicklas Backstrom — 50/1
Filip Forsberg — 50/1
Johnny Gaudreau — 50/1
Ilya Kovalchuk — 50/1
Evgeny Kuznetsov — 50/1
Artemi Panarin — 50/1
Tyler Seguin — 50/1
Blake Wheeler — 50/1
Logan Couture — 66/1
Phil Kessel — 75/1
Joe Pavelski — 75/1
Aleksander Barkov — 100/1
Jonathan Marchessault — 100/1
David Pastrnak — 100/1
Alexander Radulov — 100/1

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Under pressure: Carey Price

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Montreal Canadiens.

If the Montreal Canadiens are going to have any chance of being anything resembling a competitive team this season they are going to need a massive year from starting goaltender Carey Price.

Probably not just a good year. Probably not even a great year. But probably the type of season he had a couple of years ago when he won the Vezina and Hart Trophies and pretty much single handedly carried the team to the playoffs.

In other words: The Canadiens are going to maybe need an all-time great year from their goalie to have a chance to compete.

For the better part of the past five seasons the Canadiens’ success or failure has largely ridden on whether or not Price is healthy and on top of his game. When he has not been one or the other, they have been a colossal disaster. As unfair as it is to put that much on one player — and it’s terribly unfair, and even totally unreasonable — that alone is enough reason for Price to be facing some pressure this season.

It is not the only reason.

[Canadiens Day: Looking back | Breakthrough

Not only is he the most important and impactful player on the roster, and the one player that might be capable of turning them into something even remotely interesting, he is also coming off of what was perhaps his worst season in the NHL and is in need of a bounce back year. Not only for the short-term, but also because Price is entering the first year of an eight-year contract that is going to carry a salary cap hit of $10.5 million per season through the end of the 2025-26 season. That is an absolutely enormous investment for a goalie. It is $2 million more per season than the second highest paid goalie (New York Rangers starter Henrik Lundqvist at $8.5 million), while Price and Lundqvist are the only two goalies in the league to carry a cap hit north of $7.5 million this season.

Combined with defenseman Shea Weber — who will not be ready for the start of the regular season as he recovers from offseason surgery — the Canadiens long-term foundation is built around two players on the wrong side of 30 that will account for nearly $19 million in salary cap space through the end of the 2026 season. There is no other team in the league that has a salary cap structure quite like that at the top of its lineup, and the success or failure of the team centered around that duo will largely define general manager Marc Bergevin’s tenure with the franchise.

Given how much of an impact Price can make on the Canadiens he is probably worth every penny of that salary when he is at his best. There are only a handful of players in the NHL that can single-handedly change a team’s success as drastically as Price can, and in recent years we have seen both sides of that impact, from him carrying the team to an Atlantic Division crown in 2014-15, to the way the team self-destructed the following year when he was injured for all but 12 games of the season.

With the way the rest of this roster is looking right now the Canadiens are probably going to need a repeat of 2014-15 from Price.

Anything less than that will probably result in another poor season on the ice.

Another way of looking at it: It probably won’t be Price’s fault if the Canadiens miss the playoffs again, but he is probably their only chance to get back there.

That is pressure.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Building off a breakthrough: Brendan Gallagher

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Montreal Canadiens.

The 2017-18 season was pretty much a nightmare for the Montreal Canadiens. They finished as one of the worst teams in the league, pretty much every move they made seemed to backfire in their faces, and the long-term outlook for the team seems … let’s say bleak.

The one exception to all of that was the play of 25-year-old forward Brendan Gallagher who was probably the one consistent bright spot throughout the season.

On a team that at times seemed lost, disjointed and just plain bad, Gallagher brought an unmatched energy and effort almost every single night and delivered the best season of his career, finishing with 31 goals and 54 points, both of which were not only new personal bests, but were also top on the team.

His 31 goals not only paced the team, he was one of just two players on the roster to top the 20-goal mark on the season (Paul Byron, who scored exactly 20, was the other).

[Canadiens Day: Looking back | Under Pressure

Since arriving in the NHL Gallagher has always been an important player for the Canadiens, while every line he plays on seems to get a boost from his play. He can be a pest, but he is also a really good two-way player that has consistently posted great possession numbers despite playing on teams that have, at times, been caved in on the shot chart. And while he’s never been a big-time point producer you could always pencil him in for around 20 goals and 40 points, and when combined with everything else that he brings to the team that is a pretty valuable player. This past season the production spiked.

Given the way the rest of the roster looks, the Canadiens are going to need him to do it again. With Alex Galchenyuk now in Arizona, and Max Pacioretty‘s future with the team very much in doubt, the Canadiens are woefully short on players that can put the puck in the net. Keep in mind this is a team that finished the 2017-18 season 29th in the league in goals scored, while their big offseason move was to trade Galchenyuk (19 goals) for Max Domi (18 goals … in 141 games over the past two seasons).

Gallagher, it seems, is going to once again be one of their best options and a player they are going to have to lean on.

The good news for the Canadiens is that there is reason to believe Gallagher can at least come close to matching his production because there was nothing to indicate that his 2017-18 performance was much of a fluke. Entering his age 26 season he is still right in the middle of what should be his peak years in the NHL, and still signed for three more seasons at a salary cap hit of just $3.75 million he should be one of the most valuable assets the team has both now and in the near future.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

It’s Montreal Canadiens day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Montreal Canadiens.

2017-18:

29-40-13, 71 pts. (6th Atlantic Division; 14th Eastern Conference)

IN:

Max Domi
Joel Armia
Matthew Peca
Michael Chaput
Tomas Plekanec
Xavier Ouellet

OUT:

Alex Galchenyuk
Daniel Carr
Ales Hemsky

RE-SIGNED

Phillip Danault
Antti Niemi
Jacob De La Rose
Rinat Valiev

After getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs in 2017, the Canadiens put together a horribly disappointing season last year. None of their core players played well, which obviously didn’t help. Max Pacioretty didn’t score as often, Shea Weber suffered a serious injury and Carey Price wasn’t himself.

For the first time in five years, Pacioretty failed to hit the 30-goal mark. Now, he’s entering the final year of contract, and it sounds like a divorce between he and and the team is imminent. If the Habs ship their captain to another team, who will score goals for this team? They traded Alex Galchenyuk for a playmaker like Max Domi, so they don’t have any natural scorers left on the roster.

[Canadiens Day: Breakthrough | Under Pressure]

As for Weber, he’s fallen on hard times injury-wise. He got off to a great start (16 points in 26 games), but he eventually missed a good chunk of the season with a foot injury. The 33-year-old will also be out until at least Christmas because of knee surgery. Not having Weber will be tough overcome.

The biggest question surrounding the Canadiens upcoming season is whether or not Price can bounce back from the dismal season he had in 2017-18. He missed an extended period of time with lower-body injury and then a concussion. The team is light on talent, but if they can get Price back to where he was a few years ago, they’ll have a chance in every game they play. If he can’t get back to form, the next eight years will be incredibly long (they owe him $84 million).

This is a big year for GM Marc Bergevin. If botches a potentially Pacioretty trade, or if the team crumbles again, he might be looking for a new job. No matter what happens, it should be an interesting year in Habs land.

Prospect Pool:

Jesperi Kotkaniemi, C, 18, Assat Pori – 2018 first-round pick

The Canadiens have been searching for a number one center for years, and Kotkaniemi might finally be that guy. He’s a big body with good offensive instincts. Kotkaniemi is also capable of playing a strong all-around game. He has the ability to develop into a top-line player, but he might just need a bit more time to develop. The young Finn racked up 10 goals and 29 points in 57 games in the SM-Liiga

• Ryan Poehling, C, 19, St. Cloud State – 2017 first-round pick

Poehling made some huge strides in his second year at St. Cloud. He went from being a 13-point player in his first year to producing 31 points in 36 games last season. Like Kotkaniemi, Poehling is also big (6-foot-2, 200 pounds), but the American forward isn’t as gifted offensively. The biggest question around his game is whether or not his offensive abilities are good enough to make him a second-line center. Poehling is heading back to St. Cloud State for another year, but he could join the Canadiens next season.

Noah Juulsen, D, 21, Laval Rocket – 2015 first-round pick

Juulsen got his first taste of NHL experience during Montreal’s “lost” season last year and he certainly didn’t look out of place. He’s a good skater that can move the puck efficiently. He might not develop into a top pairing defenseman, but he’s certainly capable of being a top-four blueliner for years to come. Even though the Canadiens have several defensemen on one-way contracts, Juulsen has a pretty good shot at making the team out of camp.

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.