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.

PHT Morning Skate: Crosby closer to return; Heiskanen’s usage

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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.

• The AHL’s Cleveland Monsters and Rochester Americans will be taking part in a unique home-and-home series. The teams will host Nickelodeon nights on Dec. 26 (in Cleveland) and March 22 (in Rochester) and they’ll wear Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Foot Clan jerseys. [Amerks]

• “Mike Yeo had to go. This isn’t a free pass for him. But the core players on the St. Louis Blues have now been passengers on two ships that hit the iceberg.” [Post-Dispatch]

• The slow start by the Pittsburgh Penguins is as ugly as it looks. [Pensburgh]

• While Sidney Crosby is progressing towards a return to the Penguins’ lineup, Matt Cullen is now out “long-term,” according to Mike Sullivan. [Tribune-Review]

• A few days after Willie O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, his old team, the San Diego Gulls, honored him with throwback jerseys and a bobblehead. [Color of Hockey]

Mike Hoffman on returning to Ottawa Monday night: “It almost doesn’t feel like a road game. I spent a good chunk of my career here. I have a lot of good memories in this building. These are the fun games I look forward to, coming back to the place where you started.” [Ottawa Citizen]

• Another season of the Edmonton Oilers showcasing just how top heavy they are. [TSN]

• It’s time for Todd McLellan to go in Edmonton. [Edmonton Journal]

• Have you seen the pads Scott Darling will wear when the Carolina Hurricanes don the Hartford Whalers throwbacks? Beauty.

Brian’s Custom Sports

• The Sergei Bobrovsky / Artemi Panarin storyline continues to hover over the Columbus Blue Jackets. Will it turn out to be a distraction? [Sportsnet]

• The Dallas Stars’ usage of rookie defenseman Miro Heiskanen has been interesting and really makes most of his skillset. [Dallas Morning News]

• The Detroit Red Wings will be without Darren Helm for 6-8 weeks after the forward suffered a shoulder injury. [NHL.com]

• It’s time for the Anaheim Ducks to realize exactly what they are. [Anaheim Calling]

• Expand the NHL playoff format? No thanks. [Spector’s Hockey]

• How the NBA can be a blueprint for making hockey fun again. [Courier Post]

• A look at some of the most surprising developments so far of the 2018-19 NHL season. [Yardbarker]

• The soon-to-be 32nd NHL city has a rich history with the sport already. [Seattle Times]

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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.

Blues fire Yeo, name Berube interim head coach

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After falling 2-0 to the Los Angeles Kings, the St. Louis Blues fired Mike Yeo, naming Craig Berube interim head coach late on Monday night.

This continues an astoundingly terrible November for NHL head coaches. Last season, there were no in-season firings across the league. Yeo now stands as the third head coach in November alone, following John Stevens and Joel Quenneville.

[Read more: Coach Q out in Chicago / Kings can Stevens]

Considering that the Kings fired Stevens, you almost wonder if Willie Desjardins exchanged a knowing glance with Berube at some point.

The timing is interesting, even beyond the coaching change happening after the Blues lost to another team that fired its head coach.

Despite landing Ryan O'Reillywho’s been absolutely fantastic in St. Louis – the Blues fell to 7-9-3, suffering their third shutout loss in four games. The Blues currently rest in last place in the Central with 17 standings points; only the lowly Kings rank lower in the West with 15.

Such a start simply wasn’t acceptable for the Blues, particularly after Yeo failed to take them to the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Yeo leaves the Blues as an in-season firing not that long after being an in-season replacement. He took over for Ken Hitchcock during the 2016-17 season, coaching in 32 regular-season games as the Blues rallied to a postseason spot. Yeo was able to exact some revenge against his former team, the Minnesota Wild, as the Blues won the series in six games.

That would end up being the only playoff round Yeo would win as Blues head coach. They fell in six games to the Nashville Predators, and then St. Louis failed to earn a postseason berth in 2017-18. Now, 19 games into 2018-19, the Blues have made another change.

Much like Yeo, Berube traveled a path from NHL head coach (with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2013-14 and 2014-15) to assistant with the Blues, ultimately replacing Yeo now.

Teams certainly don’t aim to replace coaches, but especially while a season is in full swing. With that in mind, longtime Blues GM Doug Armstrong has to be feeling some serious heat after making that decision twice in three seasons.

As wily as Armstrong’s been at times (landing ROR, handily winning the Brayden Schenn trade, deftly timing the Kevin Shattenkirk trade), the Blues have been “good, but not good enough” for far too long.

Yeo wasn’t a disaster in St. Louis. In the end, it felt like the Blues were not necessarily adapting to the winds of change in the NHL.

The Blues need to get up to speed, and fast. If not, it might cost Armstrong and Berube their jobs.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

The Buzzer: Hat trick Laine returns; Juho who?

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Headlines from a hectic NHL night:

Three Stars

1. Matthew Tkachuk

Let’s consider this a dual top star pick with Johnny Gaudreau (1G, 3A), as both players collected four points as the Flames raced out to a 7-0 lead and an eventual 7-2 win against the Golden Knights.

Giving Tkachuk the slight edge over “Johnny Hockey” because he got an extra goal (2G, 2A) and both of his assists were primary points.

Gaudreau earned the rare distinction of grabbing his four points in one period, matching an Olli Jokinen achievement, but Tkachuk only needed 24 seconds into the second period to hit four points in the contest. Perhaps the Flames’ big guns could have poured it on even more against a Golden Knights team that might have been a little fatigued in closing out a back-to-back? Either way, impressive stuff.

2. Kyle Connor

Patrik Laine got the glory in collecting yet another hat trick as the Jets held off the Canucks on Monday, but Connor could have selfishly bagged his second goal of the night by aiming at an empty net instead of sending the puck to Laine.

Connor generated an extra point for Winnipeg, scoring one goal and three assists.

The sophomore winger was part of the Jets’ barrage of Vancouver, as Connor fired seven of Winnipeg’s 49 shots on goal, a team-high mark for Monday.

3. Juho Lammikko

Raise your hand if you weren’t super-familiar with this Finnish Florida Panthers forward before Monday. (C’mon, put it up.)

The third-rounder from 2014 (65th overall) came into the night with zero goals and six assists in 16 NHL games. Lammikko generated four assists in Florida’s wild win vs. Ottawa. Lammikko gets dinged a bit for being in a losing effort.

In case you’re wondering, here’s how to pronounce his name, via Hockey Reference: YOO-hoh lah-MIH-koh.

Highlights of the Night

  • Check this post for that memorable Carey Price save.
  • One can debate how much of a distraction Mike Hoffman was for a “broken” Senators locker room. Maybe some will grumble that he received a friendly ovation during his return to Ottawa. What you can’t deny is that he scored against his old team, and you might not even be able to argue against the notion that he did so with serious style:

(More on Hoffman in a moment.)

  • Tyler Ennis might need to turn up the difficulty level:

Factoids

Yes, Patrik Laine is earning “Hat Trick Laine” references for good reason.

Another astounding tidbit:

Yes, Monday’s goal was special to Hoffman, but it was also part of an outstanding run:

Hot take: as impressed as you might be by Pekka Rinne tying Miikka Kiprusoff, it probably means way more to Rinne.

Scores

TOR 4, CBJ 2
NYR 2, DAL 1
BUF 5, PIT 4 (OT)
WSH 5, MTL 4 (OT)
FLA 7, OTT 5
LAK 2, STL 0
NSH 3, TBL 2
CGY 7, VGK 2
WIN 6, VAN 3

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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 storm back to extend Penguins’ early season misery

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PITTSBURGH — These aren’t the Buffalo Sabres you have come to know over the past seven years.

These also are not the Pittsburgh Penguins you have come to know, either.

The two teams continued on their early season paths — which are going in completely opposite directions — on Monday night as the Sabres stormed back and erased a three-goal second period deficit to pick up a 5-4 overtime win on a Jack Eichel goal, leaving the Penguins stunned and still searching for answers.

For the Sabres, it continues what has been the team’s best start in close to a decade, extending their current winning streak to six games and giving them a 10-2-2 record in their past 14 games. Everything is clicking for them right now, from new acquisitions like Jeff Skinner stepping in and making a massive impact on the top line, to new starting goalie Carter Hutton giving the team capable goaltending every night.

[Related: The Sabres are good]

Hutton did not have a spectacular game on Monday overall, but he still made some huge saves early in the game to keep his team in it. He also played a huge factor on the penalty kill to help kill off a two-man advantage in the second period when the team was already trailing by three goals.

Once they killed off that penalty, Zach Bogosian scored to cut the deficit in half.

From that point on the Sabres completely took over the game and absolutely manhandled the Penguins in their own zone for the final 25 minutes.

“I think obviously there is that desperation in our game there in the third,” said Eichel. “We’ve been in that spot before. We’ve been a resilient bunch. There is that belief in the room every time we go out there we can make a push and find a way to get a point or two. We definitely want to work on our starts, but it’s great to see the way the team sticks together. It’s a credit to all the guys in the room to stick with it even when things don’t go our way.”

“There is a bit of confidence now because we’ve done it a few times,” Eichel continued. “I think it’s a trust and a belief in each other that the next guy is going to get the job done and set you up for your next shift. We’re a pretty tight bunch for how many new guys have come into this team and we’re doing it for each other. Everyone goes out there and doesn’t want to let the guy next to you down.”

While things are going wonderfully for the Sabres right now things for the Penguins are … well …  bad.

How bad? Look at it this way: They are left trying to find silver linings after their past two games. Those games — a 6-4 loss in Ottawa where they mounted a late — and ultimately futile — third period rally, and an overtime loss to Buffalo on home ice in which they had a 4-1 lead (while getting a 29-second two-man advantage) with 15 minutes to play in the second period.

For a team that was winning Stanley Cups just a couple of years ago and entered the season with a roster it thought was capable of winning another one, that is an astonishing and sudden slide.

Coach Mike Sullivan is trying to remain positive.

“On a couple of the goals they score, we make a couple of mistakes and they end up in the back of our net,” said Sullivan.  “Just seems like the way it is going right now. There was a lot to like about our game and our effort. We certainly have to clean up some areas defensively but there was certainly a lot to like in this game as well.

There definitely was a lot to like about the first 25 minutes, especially when it came to the team finding some even-strength scoring from players they need to get it from.

Derick Brassard, who has battled injuries and inconsistent play since arriving before last season’s trade deadline, opened the scoring with a much-needed goal, while recent acquisition Tanner Pearson scored a goal and recorded an assist. Those two points exceeded his total for the season between the Kings and Penguins entering the game.

From there, everything went south.

Defensive breakdowns, an inability to smoothly and efficiently exit the zone, no sustained offensive zone pressure, and more sub-par goaltending (this time from Casey DeSmith) turned what looked to be a much-needed win into yet another loss.

That is now nine losses in their past 10 games as the Penguins are tied with the New Jersey Devils for the lowest point total in the Eastern Conference.

Sullivan was asked if it is too early for things to be getting “desperate.”

[Related: NHL’s most impactful offseason additions]

“I don’t think it’s ever too early,”said Sullivan. “Every game is important, every point is important, and we’re scratching and clawing through it anyway we can. We are well aware of the position we are in. None of us are happy about it. We have a proud group. I do think we are getting better in a lot of areas. We’re not getting the results. We very well could have in a number of games, tonight being one of them. We have to clean up some areas I know we are capable of being better, we have to make sure we do not get down ourselves, and we keep the right attitude and the right energy around the rink so we can pull together.”

How they are able to start getting the results and how they can pull it together still seems like a mystery, but they better start figuring it out.

Captain Sidney Crosby is getting closer to a return, but there is only so much he can do. He also does not fix the issues on the blue line, in the goal crease, or in the bottom-six (though his return does push Brassard back down to the third-line role he was acquired to play in).

With Monday’s loss they now find themselves five points behind the Washington Capitals for the third playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division and seven points behind the second wild card team in the Eastern Conference. That is not an insignificant gap, even if it is still November. No team five or more points out of a playoff spot in 2017-18 on Nov. 20 (which is where the Penguins will sit on Tuesday) managed to make the playoffs.

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.