Can Cam Fowler avoid the sophomore slump?

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Having a great rookie season is a great accomplishment for any player in the NHL. After constant years of hard work, making the NHL and succeeding is a dream come true for any person who’s ever laced up a pair of hockey skates. Players will put in countless hours while they’re relentlessly chasing their dream—the closer they get to the brass ring, the harder they’ll work to make it.

With that in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when players take a step back in their second season in the league. Its goes by many different names: sophomore slump, sophomore jinx, Jim Carey, whatever. Many time’s it’s just a bit of complacency in an ultra-competitive game where thousands of players are fighting for a precious few spots on NHL rosters.

He was one of only five players to make the jump straight from the draft to the NHL last season and was the only defenseman to make the transition. He certainly didn’t disappoint. It may have flown under the national radar, but his 40 points as an 18-year-old rookie put him in the company of guys named Housley, Stevens, Bourque, Murphy, Berard, Myers, and Niedermayer. Not bad company for a guy who dropped like a rock at the 2010 Entry Draft.

The next step for Fowler to develop into a complete, two-way defenseman. “[I’m just] trying to develop into that top-tier defenseman,” the Fowler shared. “I want to be a guy that a team can build around. It seems like every premier team in the league has those one or two d-men that just stick out and play a lot of minutes and log a lot of ice-time out there. That’s something I want to do—I want to be able to play in all situations and just complete my game overall.”

That doesn’t sound like the kind of player who is content with his 40-point rookie season. Becoming a two-way defenseman will be imperative for the Ducks as they deal with injury problems on the blueline and look for players who can add a strong defensive game. He’s already getting more time on the penalty kill this season as Toni Lydman continues to recover from an injury that kept him out of the first two games in Europe.

Still, Fowler is a defenseman who has the potential to be an elite blueliner with his puck skills, on ice vision, and smooth skating ability. He hasn’t lost track of his bread-and-butter. His ability to jump into the play as a defenseman is something that that separates him from most other d-men.

“The coaching staff preached to me last year that that’s what they wanted me to do.” Fowler said. “Whether it was joining up in the play late to make it a 3-on-2 or whatever it may be, I think that’s an element of my game—that when I’m skating is when I’m at my best. The coaching staff, there are no reins on me or anything. Its go. They trust me when to make those reads, when to jump and when not to jump.”

Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle said the main difference between the beginning of last year and this year is confidence. Although even with the added confidence, the coaching staff didn’t think he had the best training camp—but it was different story once training camp ended and the games started in Europe.

“It’s all about his ability to get around the rink and read situations.” Carlyle said. “If the two games [in Europe] were any indication, we have Cam Fowler back.”

The coaching staff aren’t the only ones who see a difference in Fowler this year. Fellow 2010 draft pick Devante Smith-Pelly, who is fighting to stick with the team this year, says the difference has been night and day.

“It’s crazy what a year did to Cam,” Smith-Pelly said. “He’s a lot more mature, you can tell. He’s bigger, he’s stronger, he’s faster. He was obviously a great player coming into this team and no seeing him for a year and then coming back and seeing him every day, you can tell he’s gotten a lot better and a lot more mature.”

It’ll be critical for Fowler to use his maturity and have it translate to his play on the ice. If the team can depend on him for 25 minutes per game, it’ll ease the workload for bottom-pairing guys, and allow guys like Toni Lydman and Lubomir Visnovsky a breather every so often. Still, Carlyle is quick to make the distinction between an increased workload and increased pressure this season.

“I don’t want to put the pressure,” Carlyle said. “I don’t mind the workload, but it’s the pressure of having to accomplish more than he did last year. We would accept a young 19-year-old defenseman to accomplish what he did last year. If he was to come in and have 10 goals and 40 points, would we accept that as a good year? I would say yes. Our expectations are not for him to go to 20 goals and 60 points right off the bat. That’s not the pressure we’re putting on him. If he does it, that would be great. But we’re not going to put that kind of pressure on him or any of our younger players. We think that’s incorrect. We think its tough enough to play defense in the league as a 19-year-old. He did it as an 18-year-old. Sometimes those ‘sophomore jinxes’ do come into play, we don’t want to look at that as a possibility. [We want him to] just go out and play, give us your best, your best that you gave us last year was good enough.”

There won’t be any whispers of a sophomore slump if Fowler can pick up where he left off last season. Judging by his attitude at the beginning of the season and his willingness to improve upon his overall game, last season looks like it’s only a hint of the vast potential Fowler can bring to the Ducks.

The rest of the league should be afraid.

Bruins increase chances of home-ice with 7th win in a row

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The Boston Bruins are pushing to begin the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs with home-ice advantage, likely against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Even if that doesn’t pan out, at least the Bruins have been red-hot on the road, too.

It wasn’t easy, but the Bruins made their four-game road trip a perfect one by slipping by the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 in a shootout. This pushes the Bruins’ current winning streak to seven games, and they’ve also generated at least one point in 12 consecutive contests.

Boston generated two one-goal leads in Wednesday’s game, but the pace was often frenetic, and the Golden Knights refused to go down without a fight. This splendid Nate Schmidt goal sent the contest beyond regulation:

The Bruins were whistled for a too many men on the ice penalty during the overtime period, but Patrice Bergeron made some key plays and Jaroslav Halak cleaned up the rest to force the contest to what would end up being a lengthy shootout.

Ultimately, the Bruins won, and strengthened their lead over Toronto for the Atlantic’s second seed, although the Maple Leafs hold games in hand.

Bruins: 36-17-8, 80 points in 61 games, 34 ROW
Maple Leafs: 36-19-4, 76 points in 59 GP, 36 ROW

The Maple Leafs would need to win their two games in hand to tie the Bruins from a points perspective, while they’d lead in ROW even if both of Toronto’s wins came via shootouts. That could very well happen, but this Bruins surge certainly increases the odds of a potential Game 7 taking place in Boston instead of Toronto. For all we know, that could make an impact on what is setting up to be a fantastic first-round series.

Boston made a significant tweak on Wednesday by trading Ryan Donato and a conditional fifth-rounder for Charlie Coyle, possibly strengthening their depth in the process. This outcome reminds the hockey world that they’ve been pretty outstanding even when their top-end players have to do most of the heavy lifting.

More on that Coyle – Donato trade.

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.

Sabres GM fires down talk of firing coach Housley

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Buffalo Sabres GM Jason Botterill gave head coach Phil Housley the “vote of confidence” on Wednesday.

In an interview with reporters including The Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington and The Athletic’s John Vogl, Botterill said that he is not looking to make a coaching change.

“We’ve made progress as an organization compared to last year. We’ve been in a position where we’ve been in games,” Botterill said. “I see the results on the ice. I see the communication that we’re going through here. There’s not going to be a coaching change.”

No doubt about it, there are Sabres fans who are frustrated with a team that looks like it will see a playoff drought extend to eight seasons. Buffalo also hasn’t won a playoff series since 2006-07, having lost in the first round in their two postseason appearances since.

Still, Housley hasn’t exactly had a ton of time to turn things around.

That 10-game winning streak and brief spell at the top of the NHL’s standings raised expectations, so seeing Buffalo trail eight-seed Columbus by six points stings. It’s probably not much comfort that the Sabres have already exceeded last season’s 62 points by generating 63 standings points in 59 games.

Such an improvement comes from a lowly point, no doubt, but it’s fair to argue that Housley might deserve one more season.

This is only Housley’s second campaign with the Sabres, and it’s tough to ignore the instability this organization has struggled with. Housley joins Dan Bylsma, Ted Nolan, and Ron Rolston as the fourth coach the Sabres have hired since dismissing mainstay Lindy Ruff in 2013. Botterill’s also only been in place since 2017, so a big front office change would serve as a pretty sudden swerve.

On one hand, you don’t want to keep doing something that isn’t working, and plenty will argue that the Sabres would be guilty of exactly that if they stuck with Housley behind the bench.

On the other hand, when you look at some of the most troubled organizations in sports, a big chunk of them seem to keep changing regimes. For all the benefits that can come with new methods and voices, it can be rough on players, whether that means useful contributors getting shipped out for the sake of change, or merely incumbent players having to learn new systems and connect with new coaches.

With Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin leading the charge, there seems like some light at the end of the tunnel for Buffalo. Like it or not, it seems like Botterill is giving Housley more time to prove that he can be the vehicle who can transport this franchise out of that darkness.

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.

Patrick Kane powers another Blackhawks win

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Patrick Kane is unstoppable right now, and he continues to bring the Chicago Blackhawks with him.

Chicago couldn’t have been happy to see a 4-1 lead evaporate into a 4-4 tie against the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday. Overtime provided another opportunity for Kane to exert his dominance, though, as he netted the overtime game-winner.

Not a bad way for Mike Tirico to end his first NHL foray:

With that, Kane’s now on a 19-game point streak, and even if it was just for a little while, the Blackhawks climbed into a playoff spot. The Avalanche bumped them back out of the top eight by clobbering the Jets 7-1 later on Wednesday, but the difference is small enough that Chicago can gain some confidence.

With two goals, Kane’s ridiculous run is at a mind-boggling 16 goals and 26 assists for 42 points in those 19 games. That’s absurd stuff, even by the standards of this high-scoring season.

This isn’t his longest point streak ever, but it is Kane’s most explosive.

Kane’s now at a scorching 92 points in 60 games. Those 92 points stand as Kane’s second-highest ever, and with Chicago having 21 games remaining, his career-high of 106 from 2015-16 being in sight. The milestones continue to pile up, as Kane now sits at 350 career goals and eight OT tallies.

The Blackhawks improved to 26-26-9 on the season, giving them 61 points (25 regulation/overtime wins) in 61 games. The Blackhawks slipped back to outside the second wild-card spot, but the goal is within reach.

WC 1: Stars: 29-25-5, 63 points, 59 GP, 29 ROW
WC 2: Avalanche: 25-24-11, 61 points, 60 GP, 25 ROW

Blackhawks: 26-26-9, 61 points, 61 GP, 25 ROW
Wild: 27-27-6, 60 points, 60 GP, 26 ROW
Coyotes: 27-28-5, 59 points, 60 GP, 24 ROW
Canucks: 26-27-7, 59 points, 60 GP, 23 ROW
Ducks: 24-27-9, 57 points, 60 GP, 21 ROW

As you can see, the Avalanche have the same number of points and ROW, while holding a game in hand over Chicago. The Blackhawks also don’t have much of a buffer ahead of Minnesota, among the other bubble teams.

Even so, it’s pretty surreal that Chicago’s even in this spot, as they’ve won 10 of their last 12 games. You could say they’re almost as hot as Kane himself.

More: Could Blackhawks be a threat if they make the playoffs?

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.

Ducks hint at future by keeping, not trading, Silfverberg

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The Anaheim Ducks have taken Jakob Silfverberg off of the trade market with an unofficial five-year extension.

Reported details about the deal

Salary cap “tagging” issues could explain why the deal is unofficial – and could be unofficial until March – but various reporters (from The OC Register’s Elliott Teaford to Eric Stephens/Jon Cooper of The Athletic) confirm that the deal with Silfverberg, a 28-year-old who would have become an unrestricted free agent.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that the cap hit will be $5.25 million beginning in 2019-20, backing up Cooper and Stephens’ report (sub required) that it would-be in the low-$5M range. Cooper/Stephens indicate that Silfverberg’s deal will include a modified 10-team no-trade clause, too.

Again, this can’t yet be made official because of how tight the Ducks are to their spending limits for 2019-20.

Was it wise to extend Silfverberg?

Cooper and Stephens went deep on the pros and cons of keeping Silfverberg versus trading him, and it’s indeed a conundrum.

On the bright side, Silfverberg is an effective player right now, to the point that a potential $5.25M cap hit could be a nice value for Anaheim. Silfverberg even compares respectably well to Matt Duchene if you zoom out to their work since 2016-17. This SKATR comparison chart (by Bill Comeau with Corsica data) captures some of that spirit:

This isn’t to say that Silfverberg = Duchene, mind you, just that Silfverberg is likely better than people may realize.

But what about the future?

Silfverberg is already 28, so if the Ducks go through a protracted rebuild, he could very well be suffering from a steep decline by the time Anaheim figures things out.

Would the Ducks have been better off moving on from a quality player, thus landing more assets for a trade? What if the Ducks had managed to trade Silfverberg, then later sign him as a free agent, a scenario “The Mayor” John Hoven discussed hypothetically earlier on Wednesday?

Ultimately, the Ducks decided to just keep Silfverberg. It’s a decision that’s complicated – but not outrageous – in a vacuum, but what about the team’s larger trade deadline outlook, and general future?

Rebuild challenges

Some teams, like the New York Rangers, see the writing on the wall and end up in a great position for a quick/medium-sized rebuild.

If you ask me, the Ducks’ situation is more complicated and challenging.

There are some nice players in Anaheim’s system, with Maxime Comtois, Troy Terry, and Sam Steel already getting some cups of coffee at the NHL level. Perhaps prospects-oriented Ducks fans will disagree with me here, but broadly speaking, it doesn’t seem like the Ducks have a ton of stars-in-waiting, though.

As a team that’s intended to contend, the Ducks aren’t brimming with picks. They don’t have any extra choices as of this writing, according to Cap Friendly’s handy charts, and lack a third-rounder in 2019, plus seventh-rounders in 2019 and 2020. That’s not disastrous, but rebuilding teams (short and long-term) would obviously prefer to have more than the default number of a pick in all seven rounds, not less.

The Ducks seem primed to possibly trade Ryan Miller, according to Hoven, and perhaps some other smaller names could be sent out to add some assets. Still, this isn’t a team that seems primed to charge high prices for blockbuster rentals.

Good and mostly bad about veterans

The Ducks are currently paying a lot of money for aging players on problem contracts, but the bright side is that those contracts aren’t too long-lasting.

Ryan Getzlaf is getting up there at 33, but his $8.25M cap hit expires after 2020-21. Not ideal, but his situation really only gets scary in conjunction with bigger problems: Corey Perry (33, $8.625M through 2020-21) and Ryan Kesler (34, $6.875M through 2021-22) make for an expensive, fading Big Three.

GM Bob Murray must ponder what to do with those deals. Buyouts could be considered for Perry and Kesler, although that would spread out the pain. Trading Kesler or Perry might require a bribe, while moving Getzlaf would be an enormous, difficult decision.

If the Ducks just have to swallow those costs, at least they aren’t seemingly unending contracts.

The good stuff

While there are signals for the Ducks to at least do a short-term rebuild – as much as they even can – you can talk yourself into this team being competitive.

John Gibson‘s extension begins in 2019-20 at a very affordable $6.4M, so if he remains an elite goalie, the Ducks can steal wins some nights. Gibson’s been incredible, to the point of altering Anaheim’s potential ceiling … but then again, we’ve seen goalies go from bargains to problems. Cory Schneider sticks out as one of the most uncomfortable examples.

The Ducks’ other strengths mostly come from a young, mostly modern-style fleet of defensemen. Plenty of other franchises would be giddy to have a core group of Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson, Cam Fowler, and Brandon Montour.

That defense plus Gibson plus – ideally – a great new coach could really brighten the Ducks’ outlook, and quickly.

Most likely, optimists in Anaheim picture this as the winning play for the Ducks:

  • Gibson continues to be superhuman most nights (a dangerous gamble – because goalies – yet Gibson’s been the real deal so far).
  • That defense makes Gibson’s life easier and boosts a so-so group of forwards.
  • Silfverberg and especially Rickard Rakell combine with the likes of Terry and Steel to take on more of the scoring burden, while Getzlaf remains a beast.
  • The worst-case scenarios don’t play out for Kesler/Perry.

Such a scenario isn’t … impossible, right? Especially if this team had been underachieving under an overmatched coach in recently fired Randy Carlyle?

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The thing is, the Ducks likely boxed themselves into something of a corner. That’s not fun, yet it’s also the price of doing business when you want to win it all.

And, to reiterate, there are teams in bigger binds. Where other teams are conjoined to parasitic contracts for frightening terms, the worst stuff can dissolve for the Ducks in a few years. The Silfverberg extension seems to signal that the franchise hopes that they can stick more or less to the current blueprint, but simply execute better in the future.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that this will be an easy juggling act, though.

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.