2011-12 season preview: Winnipeg Jets

2010-11 record (as the Atlanta Thrashers): 34-36-12, 80 points; 4th in Southeast, 12th in East

Playoffs: Did not qualify

To some, it might be appropriate to throw out last season. The Atlanta Thrashers are now the Winnipeg Jets, transforming a team in a non-traditional (but huge) market into a second opportunity for a small but rapid Canadian market to support an NHL team. Kevin Cheveldayoff is the new general manager, Claude Noel will be the new coach and the jerseys and arena will be totally different.

That being said, the roster remains largely the same. They’ll just be playing with a bigger home-ice advantage and the higher level of scrutiny (honeymoon stage or not) that comes with it.

Offense

Normally it’s reasonable to keep defensemen out of this category, but when has Dustin Byfuglien been normal? The hybrid blueliner can play a wing or defensive position, but the general idea is the same: he should bull his way around the ice and unleash his terrifying slap shot without hesitation. Byfuglien earned an All-Star appearance with a blazing first half before falling apart in the second half. He may be a defenseman (or the Jets might decide to move him back to forward), but there’s no denying that he’s the catalyst of this team’s attack.

The rest of the forwards are rounded out by some players with size (Eric Fehr, Nik Antropov), guys who’ve had one strong season but need to prove they can do it again (Bryan Little, Andrew Ladd) and promising youngsters with unclear potential (Evander Kane, Alex Burmistrov). It might be hard to deny 2011 first-round pick Mark Scheifele a spot in the lower end of the lineup, if the team decides that he’s better off in that role at the NHL level (instead of getting higher profile reps at a lower level).

On paper, the Jets’ attack isn’t too frightening, but a lot of wild cards are at play.

Defense

For all the blustery praise about Byfuglien, he wasn’t quite the same when his talented scoring partner Tobias Enstrom got banged up. The small Swede put together two consecutive 50-plus point seasons that largely went under the radar because of the Thrashers’ woes. He should get some well-deserved attention if he puts together another strong campaign, even if he might get lost in Buffy’s shadow.

Zach Bogosian has been a disappointment so far – he’s seemingly an unshaped form of clay but has all the tools you’d hope for in a future star defenseman. It’s the intangibles such as hockey IQ that keep holding him back, but perhaps a change of scenery might help him reach his first-round potential.

Ron Hainsey is a three-time 30-plus point defenseman, but his scoring numbers keep tumbling. That’s not a huge problem with the offensive gems this team could sport from the blue line, as long as he uses his size to continue to improve in his own end.

Overall, defense is a strength for Winnipeg – at least from the perspective of scoring points. The Jets’ weakness though is keeping the puck out of their own net.

Goalies

Both Ondrej Pavelec and Chris Mason are in contract years, so each guy has a lot on the line. Pavelec hopes to show that his flashes of potential can turn into seasons full of sustained success while Mason needs to prove that he deserves to continue working at the NHL level.

Pavelec was outstanding at times last season, although consistency might be the key (that or not getting too frustrated with a defense that might hang him out to dry more often than other goalies). Mason produced some solid work in St. Louis and Nashville, so the Jets have reason to believe that he’ll bounce back from a rough season in which he sported an ugly .892 save percentage.

Coaching

Sure, he coached the Columbus Blue Jackets on an interim basis in 2009-10, but in the grand scheme of things, this is Claude Noel’s first real chance at a coaching job. Craig Ramsay did a nice job of getting the most out of an unusual roster, so Noel has his work cut out for him. Finding the right balance between getting the most out of the team’s greatest strengths (youth and dangerous offensive defensemen) and limiting the drawbacks of their weaknesses (such as the mistakes that come from being so aggressive) remains key. Perhaps his years as Ken Hitchcock’s assistant will influence him in a positive way.

Breakout candidate

Sure, he hasn’t been totally under the radar in his first two seasons – people still revere him for knocking out Matt Cooke – but Kane seems primed for a leap. Maybe it’s because he received Bobby Hull’s blessing to wear number 9 or perhaps it’s just the natural maturation of a power forward, but there are some who believe he could flirt with 30 goals this season.

Best-case scenario

Some might argue that this team should stock up on prospects, but honestly, the people of Winnipeg would go insane over a playoff run in the first year. The best-case scenario would involve the team earning a postseason bid thanks to an All-Star season from Pavelec, dynamic work from Byfuglien and a score-by-committee approach from their offense.

Reality

The Jets feature a strange mixture of players. The ceiling seems fairly modest (sixth seed), but it’s not crazy to at least think about a playoff run of some kind. On the bright side, fans would probably let a rough season slide, so the Jets are in as close to a win-win situation as an NHL team can enjoy.

That being said, winning is always appreciated, too.

Winter Classic Memories: Syvret’s first NHL goal comes at Fenway Park

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Every Tuesday in December we’ll be looking back at some Winter Classic memories as we approach the 2020 game on Jan. 1 between the Stars and Predators from the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas.

Danny Syvret was cautious not to get too confident about potentially being in the Philadelphia Flyers’ lineup for the 2010 Winter Classic at Fenway Park. The 2005 third-round pick had spent most of his professional career playing in the American Hockey League, but an opportunity arose that had him eyeing playing in that year’s outdoor game.

By the 2009-10 season, Syvret had only played in 28 NHL games. He found himself up and down between the Flyers’ AHL affiliate in Adirondack, and when Ryan Parent was injured a few days before New Year’s Day playing in the Winter Classic against the Boston Bruins took a big step towards reality. 

But due to life as a regular call up, Syvret wasn’t allowing himself to believe he was going to play. At least not yet. His parents flew in last-minute just in case he was given the opportunity. Yet it wasn’t until the Flyers’ New Year’s Eve practice when he took regular line rushes that belief started to take hold.

Aside from hoping to lock down a regular roster spot on the Flyers, Syvret was also carrying an NHL goalless drought. A scorer during his junior days with the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights and the previous season in the AHL when he popped in 12 goals, he had gone 43 NHL games without a goal.

As much as Syvret was focused on staying in the NHL, the drought was definitely on his mind.

“You’re an offensive guy in junior and an offensive guy in the minors and you want to transition that into your NHL game,” Syvret told NBC Sports recently. “And when you’re sitting with a goose egg, it just doesn’t look good. One goal is not much different, but when you’re looking at zero to one versus 12 to 13, it’s a big jump. 

“It weighed on me a little bit, but it’s not like I was trying to go out and score. I wasn’t changing my game. I knew I had to have some sort of offensive output or else my chances to play in the NHL were slowly going to diminish on me.”

While Syvret had a lot on his mind, one person was feeling good about what might happen in the game. The day before the 2010 Winter Classic, Syvret’s friend, NHL photographer Dave Sandford, predicted his pal would break that goose egg the next day on the Fenway Park ice.

Sandford, who took the above photo after the game, would turn out to be prophetic.

Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette included Syvret was in the Flyers’ lineup for the game. Now that he no longer had to wonder about playing, the then 24-year-old made sure to enjoy as much of the experience as possible — from the walk out of the dugout to the scenic view inside the historic baseball stadium to the Stealth Bomber flyover as the teams waited for puck drop in front of 38,112 fans.

Once the game began it was all business, and Syvret would soon add to memories by opening the scoring early in the second period.

Syvret’s first NHL goal nearly came moments before he twirled and fired from the faceoff circle to beat Tim Thomas. As a rebound from a Jeff Carter shot came out to the side boards, the left-handed shot defenseman, who made sure to shoot around an incoming Marc Savard otherwise a three-on-one was likely going the other way, fired a blast that was denied with a two-pad stack from the Bruins netminder.

Why was Thomas down on the ice? Well, Scott Hartnell being Scott Hartnell crashed the net and bumped into Thomas. As the puck squirted out to the circle, which was retrieved by Syvret, Thomas then decided to exact some revenge on the Flyers forward by giving Hartnell a shove. 

The only problem for Thomas was that at that same time Syvret was turning and whipping the puck on target, which would end up in the back of the net for a 1-0 Flyers lead.

“[The first shot] would have been a prettier goal if I would have elevated it a little more so Thomas didn’t make the two-pad stack,” said Syvret, who became the first NHL player to score his first goal in an outdoor game. “But a goal is a goal.”

Syvret had no idea about the Hartnell/Thomas commotion in front and was hoping for a deflection or rebound as he turned and fired the puck. He didn’t even realize Thomas was down on the ice until he saw a replay following the game, which the Bruins would win in in overtime, 2-1.

The goal drought was over and a short-lived streak was about to be born. Two games later Syvret would record his second career NHL goal with a laser during a win against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“That was a pretty one. I wish that would have been my first one,” Syvret said with a laugh.

A separated shoulder ended Syvret’s season three games later and he would play only 10 more NHL games in his career. After several years in the AHL, he finished as a professional playing parts of two seasons in Germany. 

Today Syvret works as a financial advisor with Canada Life and will be starting up his own firm in 2020. He also has gotten into coaching youth hockey with former NHLer Jason Williams. The pair lead the AAA Elgin Middlesex Chiefs in Ontario with a team full of OHL hopefuls.

Two years after Syvret’s first NHL goal, another Flyer would record his first outdoors when Brayden Schenn, like Syvret, opened the scoring for the Flyers by beating New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist at Citizen Bank Park during the 2012 Winter Classic.

Almost a decade later, the memories are still there for Syvret, whose first goal holds extra special meaning for him.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to play World Juniors, Memorial Cup, and obviously your first NHL game is big,” Syvret said, “but for me, that was probably the biggest NHL game for me because one, it’s outdoor, and two, I scored my first ever goal. 

“Forever I’ll remember playing at Fenway.”

NBC will air the 2020 NHL Winter Classic between the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators at the Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas, Texas, at 2 p.m. ET.

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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.

Stars fire head coach Jim Montgomery ‘due to unprofessional conduct’

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The Dallas Stars made a stunning announcement on Tuesday by firing head coach Jim Montgomery “due to unprofessional conduct.”

Here’s the statement from Stars general manager Jim Nill:

“The Dallas Stars expect all of our employees to act with integrity and exhibit professional behavior while working for and representing our organization. This decision was made due to unprofessional conduct inconsistent with the core values and beliefs of the Dallas Stars and the National Hockey League.”

Nill said during a Tuesday morning press conference that the reason behind the firing was not related to the abuse allegations issues that have come up in hockey and was not in reaction to the four-point plan announced by the NHL during the Board of Governors meeting on Monday. He also added that no current or former Stars players or employees were involved in the “act of unprofessionalism.”

“We approve [of] the NHL in creating this four-point initiative, their plan, but this decision was made before that initiative came out,” said Nill, who noted he had been in contact with the league. “There’s no connection between the two.”

Nill, who said he found out Sunday after receiving a phone call from someone he would not name, wouldn’t divulge details as to what happened with Montgomery, but did say it was not a criminal act and there will be no criminal investigation; it was all done internally.

Montgomery, who has two more years left on his contract, was hired in May 2018 and compiled a 60-43-10 record in parts of two seasons.

Assistant coach Rick Bowness, who was a head coach for five NHL franchises between 1988 and 2003 and was hired as Montgomery’s assistant in June 2018, will take over the role of interim head coach for the rest of the season. Derek Laxdal, who has been serving as head coach of the Stars’ AHL affiliate, will be added to Bowness’ staff.

The Stars currently sit in the first wild card spot in the Western Conference and are only five points out of first place in the Central Division.

“[The players] were very surprised,” Nill said. “I spoke to the team today and they’re very surprised, but we’re very fortunate. We have a good team, we’ve got great leadership and they’re going to get over this. The coaching staff does a great job and they’re going to get over this. It’s a bump in the road and they’re going to digest this and we’ll more forward and go from there.”

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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: Eichel looks to keep points streak going vs. Blues

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Buffalo Sabres. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Before the season Jack Eichel talked about the Sabres needing to have consistency, night in and night out, in order to bounce back from a 2018-19 campaign that ended in ugly fashion after beginning so successfully.

The Sabres are still in search of consistency having dropped 13 of their last 19 games after beginning the season 9-2-1. While his teammates have had their struggles, Eichel hasn’t, and has been the most consistent and reliable of any of his Buffalo teammates.

Through 31 games Eichel leads the team with 18 goals and 42 points. He’s currently on pace for 48 goals and 111 points, which is territory a Sabres player has not reached since 1992-93 when Pat LaFontaine and Alex Mogilny had seasons to remember.

Eichel enters Tuesday’s game against the Blues on a 13-game points streak, the longest of his career, and has gone consecutive games without recording a goal or an assist only twice this season. Tim Connolly holds the Sabres franchise record having picked up a point in 16 straight games during the 2009-10 season.

[COVERAGE OF BLUES-SABRES BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

A year ago Eichel hit career highs with 28 goals and 82 points and feels the pressure as captain to lead a turnaround in the Queen City.

“I think it is almost impossible to not feel it,” Eichel, the NHL’s Third Star of the Week, told NBC Sports before the season. “I think with the drought our franchise has been in and the ups and downs we’ve went through and being a high pick and coming in with a lot of these new young players like Rasmus [Dahlin], I think that we feel pressured to perform and bring success to Buffalo. It can be tough at times for sure, but sometimes it brings out the best of you and brings out that competitive side.”

How much of an influence has Eichel’s offensive prowess meant to the Sabres? Half of his 42 points have helped the team tie or take the lead.

“I think more than anything he’s now a leader who understands that sometimes it’s quality over quantity, and he can still concentrate on his game,” said head coach Ralph Krueger. “He’s just been a very natural captain, he’s enjoying it, he’s communicating in a really good, consistent way and he’s very positive in his influence on the team whether we’ve had a good day or a bad, and that’s what we need to continue.”

What’s working for Eichel? It’s the quality of shots he’s taking, not the quantity. His shots per game average is slightly down this season (3.58) from his career average (3.62) and from last season (3.98). The shots are going in as his shooting percentage has risen to 16.2% this season compared to 9.2% in 2018-19.

“I’ve been kind of shooting low,” Eichel said last week via the Sabres website. “I feel like in the past, I’ve had a lot of opportunities and just passed them by just missing the net. … You try and go high and miss the net, you don’t give yourself a chance to score or maybe someone else a chance to score. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Just trying to shoot different places, I think, and knowing that sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard you get it off. It’s just about surprising the goalie.”

Kathryn Tappen will host Tuesday night’s studio coverage alongside analysts Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones. Brendan Burke and Pierre McGuire will call the action from KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Ovechkin on Russia Olympic ban; tough times in Hockeytown

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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.

Alex Ovechkin on the Russia Olympic ban: “It’s always disappointing to hear something like that. I hope everything’s going to be well. We still have a long time ‘til the Olympics to figure out what to do. What’s better to do. Hope everything’s going to be fine.” [Washington Post]

• USA Hockey named on Monday 28 players to the preliminary roster of its entry for the 2020 World Junior Championship. [USA Hockey]

• As the Senators continue their rebuild, Brady Tkachuk is front and center. [Ottawa Sun]

• Does Taylor Hall fit with the Islanders’ needs? [Gotham Sports Network]

• Things are going not so good in Hockeytown. [TSN]

• The proposed reshaping of the NBA schedule is something the NHL should be thinking about as well. [Featurd]

• Jordan Kyrou, who’s been nearly a point-per-game player in the AHL this season, has been called up by the St. Louis Blues. [Post-Dispatch]

• How a small dip in production for Claude Giroux means good things for the Flyers. [Broad Street Hockey]

• Neal Henderson, head of the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, North America’s oldest minority-oriented youth hockey program, will become the first African-American to be enshrined in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame this week. [NHL.com]

• Can the Lightning’s issues this season be placed at the feet of Jon Cooper? [Raw Charge]

• Finally, meet Evan Yasser, a Devils fan on the autism spectrum who you might hear calling games some day:

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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.