Blues hoping to pick new captain in training camp

1 Comment

The Blues and their fans have a few new things to look forward to coming into next season. They’ll have new expectations as they hope to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season; and their first playoff win since 2004. They’ll have new veterans on the team to help bring success back to the Gateway City. They’ll even have a new slogan.

Most importantly from a leadership perspective, they’ll have a new captain leading them onto the ice.

There has been a vacancy at captain ever since the Blues traded away Eric Brewer to the Tampa Bay Lightning in middle of last season. They finished the season with three alternate captains sharing the leadership responsibilities—Alex Steen, Barret Jackman, and David Backes. Interestingly enough, the Blues aren’t sure if they’re going to pick one traditional captain or if they’re going to go with a group of rotating captains. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Jeremy Rutherford spoke to Blues GM Doug Armstrong about the captain situation for next season:

“We want to get the input of some of the other people in our organization – the coaches, some people in our management staff – and we’ll have that decision by the first day of training camp… whether we go with a group of players that will make up a leadership group or we name a captain.

“We’re further ahead that we were at the end of the season, but we’re not at the point where we’ve solidified what we want to do, and that’s something that we’ll spend the next three weeks discussing.”

Earlier this offseason, we here at Pro Hockey Talk looked at the Blues captaincy situation and explained that promoting David Backes seems like a no-brainer. But if the Blues were to go with a rotating situation similar to the Minnesota Wild under Jacques Lemaire, the list of candidates gets a little murkier. Would they want to go with the current group of leaders (Jackman, Steen, Backes) who have been with the Blues for a longer period of time? Would they want to go with newcomers who look like they could be future cornerstones like Alex Pietrangelo or Chris Stewart? Would they want to give the “C” to a veteran, free agent acquisition like Jason Arnott or Jaime Langenbrunner? Any one of those guys is capable of wearing the “A” over the course of the season—and each is capable of wearing the “C” for a period of time as well.

It gets into a much deeper debate about the role of a captain on an NHL team. Most coaches and general managers will tell you that they expect leadership from every member of the team—they don’t need a letter on their jersey to set a good example. From that standpoint, rotating captains puts the responsibility on the team as a whole to hold their teammates accountable. In theory, it makes sense.

On the other hand, there are those who think a team needs a strong leader who is the acknowledged leader in the locker room. He’s the guy who, whether the team has given him the captaincy or not, has the undeniable respect of his teammates. It’s more of a “buck stops here” attitude—a player who will face his teammates and the media when things aren’t going well. A player who can approach the coach and management when things aren’t going well and some sort of change needs to be made. In short: an undisputed leader.

The Blues will use the rest of the offseason to figure out their captaincy situation. What do you think would be better for St. Louis? Should they make a guy like David Backes the permanent captain or should they go with rotating captains?

Mikko Rantanen turning into ‘driving force’ for Avalanche

Getty Images
Leave a comment

One of the goals entering the 2018-19 NHL season for Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar was to push Mikko Rantanen to become a more consistent, impact player. Through seven games, the young Finnish star is leading the NHL in assists with 11 (eight of which are primary) and his team in points with 13, showing that even after a 29-goal, 84-point performance last season there’s more to come.

“He’s a hard-working guy in the off-season and also during the season. I think he’s just scratching the surface of his potential,” Bednar told Pro Hockey Talk recently. “He’s still a young player, both age-wise and from an experience standpoint in the league. I think that he has another level that he can get to, we’re going to try to push him to that level here this year as a coaching staff and demand more of him. He can still become more consistent. But he’s a real receptive guy. He’s a highly-intelligent, highly-skilled player and he’s got great size and strength, too. Sky’s the limit for Mikko.”

The soon-to-be 22-year-old Rantanen has registered a point in all seven Avalanche games this season, including a four-point night against the New Jersey Devils Thursday that saw him have a hand in all three of Gabriel Landeskog’s goals.

At 6-4, 215 lbs., Rantanen is able to use his size to his advantage to fend off opponents and has shown he can handle the responsibilities of playing on the Avs’ top line. Bednar thought he was the team’s best forward against the Calgary Flames and New York Rangers in the past week, describing him as the “driving force” of the trio with Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon.

Rantanen, the No. 10 overall selection in the 2015 NHL Draft, got his first taste of the NHL during a nine-game stint at the start of the 2015-16 season. With a revolving door of linemates, he averaged only 8:57 of ice time and failed to record a point. He was still going through the adjustment phase of transitioning from the big ice sheets in Europe while playing for TPS, his hometown team, to the smaller ones in North America, which force players into making quicker decisions.

Going down to AHL San Antonio and getting 20 minutes a night helped Rantanen greatly. He would score 24 goals and record 60 points in 52 games for the Rampage, a clear sign he was ready for a second shot at the NHL.

The Rantanen-Landeskog-MacKinnon line was put together during the 2016-17 season and it became apparent that the chemistry between the three would give Bednar a weapon to unleash. Rantanen would pot 20 goals and record 39 points that season and add power play duties to his list of responsibilities.

“I think knowing the league, knowing his opponents, pushing himself to be a difference-maker every night and getting more consistent in year two,” Bednar said. “[He] was healthy to start the season, he got dinged up his first year and it gave him a little bit of a slow start, so he was out of the gates right away playing well.”

The jump in production was a result of his linemates and experience. Rantanen’s off-season training routines haven’t changed much since arriving in North America. He’s always worked on improvement his quickness, but most everything else is pretty standard. The one change he did make was going from a 100 flex on his stick to a 90 as he looked for something whippier.

But while Rantanen, who credits Landeskog and Jarome Iginla as big influences during his rookie year, was finding success during his rookie season, his team wasn’t as the Avalanche failed to make the playoffs for the third straight season and finished dead last in the NHL. 

It was a tough balance between personal success and team failure.

“It’s not easy. Young guy, first full year in the league and we won only 22 games, so it’s really hard, actually,” Rantanen said. “I think it’s probably harder for the older guys because as a young guy everything is new. You go to the new rinks, you play first time wherever you go on the road. Everything is kind of new, so you’re still enjoying it even though it’s not nice to lose because then the team attitude is not great.”

Last season, with a year together under their belts, the Avalanche’s top line took off. MacKinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog finished top three on the team in points, with MacKinnon (39-58—97), who ended up a finalist for the Hart Trophy, and Rantanen (29-55—84) posting career years. Landeskog would finish with the second-most goals (25) and points (62) of his career and the team would grab the final wild card spot in the Western Conference.

“Our line was a big reason, we started pretty much right away,” Rantanen said. “We played the whole season together, so I think the chemistry builds up when you play together so long… I was more ready last year mentally than rookie year because you’ve been one year in the league, so you kind of know what to expect.”

Opponents know what kind of handful Rantanen, Landeskog and MacKinnon will be in trying to stop them on a nightly basis. So far, it’s been an uphill battle for other teams with MacKinnon netting seven goals, Rantanen recording 13 points and Landeskog chipping in five goals and eight points. 

The issue confronting other teams is that all three have dynamic skill sets. Landeskog is strong down low in creating chances; MacKinnon can out-skate anyone and has one of the league’s best shots; and Rantanen is a playmaker who can find himself in the right place at the right time.

As Bednar said, there’s still another level that Rantanen can reach, which bodes well for the Avalanche going forward and serves as a warning for the rest of the NHL.

“He’s so big and he’s got good vision. He sees the ice so well,” said MacKinnon. “He’s a great passer and he creates a lot of room for me. He protects the puck. He’s so good down low, so it takes a lot of heat off me. The way he controls the play. I’m lucky to play with him, for sure.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

————

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.

 

NHL on NBCSN: Stars look to get back to winning ways vs. Wild

Getty Images
Leave a comment

NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Friday night’s matchup between the Minnesota Wild and the Dallas Stars at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

Dallas heads to Minnesota looking to rebound after back-to-back losses to the Ottawa Senators and New Jersey Devils, games that saw them score a combined single goal in six periods of hockey.

That kind of production doesn’t win games and highlights how the Stars can struggle when their top line of Alexander Radulov, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin aren’t putting pucks in the back of the net. The line has combined for 28 points this season but only Radulov was able to notch an assist (a secondary one at that) in the past two games.

The good news for Dallas is they return home to American Airlines Arena where they are 3-1-0. Now, they need to start playing the same game as they were when they began the season strong out of the gate.

“We have to be five guys in the picture, whether on forecheck, or rush defense, or in the defensive zone,” Stars coach Jim Montgomery told NHL.com. “We’re just not connected. You don’t see the five guys together. That’s what we are missing now. We can’t sustain offense or get the puck out quickly because we are not together.”

[WATCH LIVE – 8 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Finding a way to win on the road will be top of the order for the Wild on Friday.

They’ve gone 0-2-0 in road games so far this season and are facing a Stars team that has been solid at home. That said, Minnesota has found success against the Wild in recent times, with an 11-4-4 record in their past 19 meetings (including a 5-3-2 record in their previous 10 games in Texas).

The Wild aren’t doing themselves any favors early on, allowing 38.2 shots per game. Their savior at the moment has been Devan Dubnyk, who’s been sensational with his .940 save percentage despite seeing nearly 40 shots per game in his five starts.

The Wild have struggled to find the back of the net as well with just 14 goals through five games. Couple that with their porous possession numbers (45.64% as a team), and it’s no wonder Dubnyk has been shelled game after game.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

PHT Morning Skate: McDavid or Matthews?; Goalie concussion concern

Getty Images
6 Comments

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The best player in the NHL debate rages on. (NHL.com)

Corey Crawford‘s lengthy absence due to a concussion has the NHL worried. (TSN.ca)

• Power play goals are up (as is scoring) in the NHL season. Here’s an analysis as to why. (Sportsnet)

• Your team might have one. Here’s a list of the NHL’s underperforming stars. (ESPN)

• Matt and Ashley Duchene brought out the creativity to announce their pregnancy. (Daily Hive)

• Like arena food? Here are some tasty looking options coming to a rink near you. (Business Wire)

• An excellent story here on the biggest “tells” in hockey. (The Athletic)

• The NHL paid USA Hockey to support the US Women’s National Team. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• A story on the wonderful art of fly-by stick replacement in the NHL. (Sports Illustrated)

• The search for Seattle’s AHL affiliate is on. (Sonics Rising)

• Tomas Hyka’s NHL odyssey lands him on the Golden Knights second line. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

• On Duncan Keith and his unfinished legacy. (The Hockey Writers)

• Ken Holland isn’t looking over his shoulder with Steve Yzerman on the horizon. (Sportsnet)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Buzzer: Murray shuts out Leafs; Raanta spoils Crawford’s return

Getty
3 Comments

Three Stars

1. Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins. It has been a tough start to the season for Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray. When he has been in the lineup, he has not played well. Then he was sidelined with the third concussion of his career and missed three consecutive games. Then he had to return to the lineup, on the road, against the highest scoring team in the NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs. How did that return to the lineup go? He stopped all 38 shots he faced and was sensational in the Penguins’ 3-0 win. He looked like the two-time Stanley Cup winning goalie in this game.

2. Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche. The Colorado Avalanche and New Jersey Devils were two of the most surprising playoff teams in the NHL a year ago, and were both led by MVP caliber performances from their best players (Nathan MacKinnon and Taylor Hall respectively, with Hall actually winning the award). They faced off in New Jersey on Thursday night and it was the Avalanche coming away with the win, handing the Devils their first loss of the season. MacKinnon and Hall both had big games (Hall had three points; MacKinnon had two) but it was Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog that was the star in this one, recording a hat trick, including two goals in the third period as the Avalanche rallied for the win. His goals in the third period were the game-tying and game-winning goals.

3. Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks. The other hat trick of the night belonged to San Jose Sharks forward Logan Couture in his team’s rout of the Buffalo Sabres. This game was a laugher from the beginning as the Sabres were just completely overmatched against a far superior team. It all started with a Buffalo double-minor in the opening minutes of the game that the Sharks turned into two quick power play goals, including Couture’s first. He added his second goal early in the third period and then completed the hat trick with an empty-net goal. He now has four goals on the season. This was also a big night for the Sharks power play as it scored three goals in the win.

Red Wings remain winless

There are only two winless teams remaining in the NHL — the Florida Panthers and the Detroit Red Wings. The Panthers had Thursday night off. The Red Wings did not. Their season-opening losing streak continued with a 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, dropping them to 0-5-2 on the season with what is — by far — a league-worst minus-18 goal differential. No other team in the league has a goal differential worse than minus-10. The Buffalo Sabres and Los Angeles Kings are tied for second-worst at minus-9. Speaking of the Kings…

The Kings look awful

General manager Rob Blake has not been happy his team’s performance so far this season, and they responded on Thursday night by getting completely dominated by the New York Islanders in what was a completely embarrassing 7-2 loss. They did not have Anze Kopitar as he was sidelined due to illness, and it was goalie Jonathan Quick‘s first game back from injury, but there is no excuse for how bad the rest of the team performed. The Kings cut what was a 3-1 deficit to just a single goal early in the third period, but then completely unraveled in the minutes after that by giving up four consecutive goals in eight minutes. There is nothing positive about this team right now.

Highlights of the Night

The highlight of the night was Anthony Duclair‘s goal against the Philadelphia Flyers. This is just ridiculous, one of the many great goals they scored on the night.

The other highlight of the night: Connor McDavid, doing Connor McDavid things. He is completely unstoppable right now, stealing wins for the Oilers every night.

Factoids

Corey Crawford made his return to the Chicago Blackhawks’ lineup on Thursday night and played pretty well in a 4-1 loss (he played better than the final score would indicate, anyway). It was the Blackhawks’ first regulation loss of the season and it came at the hands of Crawford’s former backup, Antti Raanta, who was absolutely outstanding for the Arizona Coyotes. He also loves playing at the United Center.

Speaking of the Coyotes, their four goals on Thursday night were more goals than the scored (three) in the first five games of the season. Combined. They also scored their first even-strength goals of the season in the win.

More Connor McDavid stats.

 

Scores

Pittsburgh Penguins 3, Toronto Maple Leafs 0

Colorado Avalanche 5, New Jersey Devils 3

Columbus Blue Jackets 6, Philadelphia Flyers 3

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, Detroit Red Wings 1

Winnipeg Jets 4, Vancouver Canucks 1

Arizona Coyotes 4, Chicago Blackhawks 1

Edmonton Oilers 3, Boston Bruins 2 (OT)

San Jose Sharks 5, Buffalo Sabres 1

New York Islanders 7, Los Angeles Kings 2

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.