Pittsburgh columnist says Penguins ‘still’ better off without Jagr

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Being an entertainer often comes down to “Giving the people what they want,” but in the case of Jaromir Jagr’s return to Pittsburgh, it depended on which people you were talking about.

Obviously, the boo birds at Consol Energy Center weren’t happy after he scored a goal to help the Philadelphia Flyers win 4-2. Yet the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Josh Yohe probably captured the entertainment value of Jagr’s visit the most accurately in this Tweet:

source:

The general takeaway is that Jagr’s comeback pleased the media, Flyers fans and observers without a horse in the race. Still, when you’re part of a team as long as Jagr was with the Pittsburgh Penguins, there might be a few media members who still don’t think very highly of you.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ron Cook certainly doesn’t appear to be a Jagr fan, as he called Jagr a “phony” and ultimately settled on the point that the Penguins are better off without him.

Things are going well for Jagr and the Flyers now. You wonder how he’ll be when things aren’t going his or the team’s way. How will he be if the puck stops going in for him or if his ice time gets cut? Maybe he really has changed, if you believe Laviolette. But I’m not buying it.

Cook’s argument revolved around Jagr’s moodiness and age, but it’s quite possible that Jagr might not have fit in for other reasons – such as his style. Then again, maybe it wouldn’t have worked out well simply because of the soaring expectations he likely would have faced.

It’s fascinating to imagine how well Jagr would have fit into the Penguins’ fold, but things have worked out nicely for both sides – even if it’s hard for everyone to be happy for Jagr.

Penguins – Maple Leafs is about as fun as it gets

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It’s too early to make sweeping observations about the quality of a team in 2018-19 (sorry Canadiens; you’re welcome, Coyotes), but it’s never too early to get excited about a game. You know, if your soul is still attached to your person, and you’re not too cool to get excited about things in general.

Now, sure, circumstances could change matters. Players could be tired or just have an off night. Maybe a coach will bench an exhilarating talent because they hit the snooze button one too many times.

But, at least on paper, it’s really difficult to imagine a more exciting matchup than Penguins – Maple Leafs, a matchup taking place in Toronto tonight.

(Yeah, it doesn’t hurt that the hockey-mad city gets to channel its sometimes over-the-top excitement into this one, either.)

Just consider all of the factors, narratives, and certain statistics that make this game stand out like a sign for “Kenny Rogers’ Roasters.”

[Maybe this is the perfect opportunity for Crosby to shake off a relatively slow start?]

The Ridiculous Wattage of Star Power

No matter how Mike Babcock and Mike Sullivan deploy their lines, you’ll see high-end talent during almost every shift on Thursday.

Most obviously, we’ll get to see a clash between two premium one-two punches at center, as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin trade scoring chances with Auston Matthews and John Tavares. That’s the sort of matchup that marketers and hockey fans alike would normally only dream about.

You could manufacture an exciting game if you sent out a bunch of fire hydrants with those guys, but the Penguins and Maple Leafs deploy other dangerous scorers, even with William Nylander‘s contract situation stuck in limbo.

Phil Kessel could easily have the best night of anyone in trying to spite his former team. Jake Guentzel tends to play his best when the spotlight shines brightest. Mitch Marner is a sensational talent who can take over a game in his own right.

Even the defensemen can bring some offense to the table, as Kris Letang and Morgan Rielly have begun 2018-19 on torrid scoring paces, while Jake Gardiner and others can contribute, too.

All the silliness that stems from all that star power

The goofy debates that stem from Auston Matthews vs. Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby vs. McDavid, and on and on, ultimately translates to entertainment. That goes for if you take barroom debates seriously, or are simply bemused by people believing that Matthews has reached McDavid after a couple scorching-hot weeks.

It’s not just columnists pumping out hot takes.

As you may remember, Lars Eller dismissed Matthews – Tavares because of the “been there, done that” feeling of facing Crosby – Malkin for all those years. You then have Babcock saying that McDavid vs. Crosby “isn’t even close,” while Mark Scheifele seems to feel the same way about McDavid vs. Matthews.

(You think we could get Edmonton to loan Connor to this game to really hammer home all of these points? Might be good for the fella’s morale.)

Oh yeah, there’s also Bryan Burke comparing Rielly to … Nicklas Lidstrom?

Some of this stuff is dopey. Some of it is instructive. Maybe there’s a combination of both at times. But it all adds to the fun, if you ask me.

All offense, no defense?

By winning two consecutive Stanley Cups while playing an attack-first, play-defense later style, the Penguins played a big role in the NHL placing an increased emphasis on skill, scoring, and more exciting hockey.

So far this season, the Maple Leafs feel like the gnarly evolution of that style.

By just about any measure, Toronto’s been playing high-event hockey this season. They’ve been scoring so much that it’s generally allowed them to shrug their shoulders at what’s frequently been a leaky defense.

The Penguins haven’t been as crisp so far this season, failing to walk the high-risk tightrope because their defense has really cratered.

That’s bad news for Pittsburgh’s hopes of, say, winning its division … but it sure opens the door for tonight to be fun.

Big goalies back in net

Barring late-breaking setbacks, the teams’ two starters (Matt Murray and Frederik Andersen) should suit up for their respective teams on Thursday.

If they play well, this showdown could feature at least some slowdown. Perhaps we’ll see a spectacular save or two from both goalies to keep the score reasonable? If they’re rusty, then the floodgates may open even wider.

Either way, the returns of Murray and Andersen add another wrinkle to a game that’s jam-packed with intrigue.

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Again, it’s possible that this game might not deliver the thrills you’d expect. Sometimes hockey is just that way in 2018, even with some progress made – thanks in part to these two talented teams.

Still, if you had to wager on a game being a ton of fun, Penguins – Maple Leafs is as safe a bet as you can get. You know, unless you’re the coach breaking down defensive lapses or the goalie trying to put out all of those fires.

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.

Looking at Johnny Gaudreau’s career, 100 goals in

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Johnny Gaudreau and the Calgary Flames likely experienced mixed feelings following their 5-2 win against the Boston Bruins last night.

Looking at the good side, the Flames won in part because a line other than Gaudreau’s top trio stepped up, as Michael Frolik trumpeted the reunion of the often-puck-dominant “3M Line.” Wednesday also represented a milestone moment for Gaudreau, who scored the 100th goal of his NHL career in his 318th game, putting him at that mark at age 25.

That milestone tally happened during a stretch where the Flames really overwhelmed the Bruins:

The bad news came right after Gaudreau narrowly fell short of NHL goal 101, as Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy injured the spritely forward with this questionable, late hit:

As much of a bummer as the injury is – especially if further updates indicate that “Johnny Hockey” would miss some time – it might be fitting that such an event happened. After all, defenders realize that they’re not often going to catch or out-think Gaudreau, so they often try to outright bully him. Let’s not forget that the many slashes he took during certain stretches helped inspire the NHL to cut down on the infractions heading into last season.

Generally speaking, such a vicious approach hasn’t stopped Gaudreau from lighting up scoreboards.

To review, the 25-year-old now has 100 goals and 197 assists for 297 points over 318 NHL games, so Gaudreau could hit two other noteworthy milestones in the near future — health permitting.

It’s fitting that Gaudreau scored a goal in his lone 2013-14 appearance, as he’s been a delight to watch basically since he entered the NHL. Perhaps it might be helpful to consider his place among the elite scorers after hitting the 100-goal plateau?

  • Since Gaudreau entered the NHL, he ranks 12th among all players with those 297 points. Gaudreau stands in front of Vladimir Tarasenko (293), Jakub Voracek (291), and Phil Kessel (290) despite appearing in fewer games.
  • That 100th goal stands out as a rare instance where Gaudreau was the player scoring the easy tap-in. Typically, he really sets the table for his linemates with brilliant playmaking, which is part of the reason why many pundits have been so reluctant to praise Sean Monahan.

Gaudreau’s 197 assists places him in a tie with Brent Burns for ninth-best in the NHL, and the burly Sharks defenseman played in 16 additional games (not to mention logging Norris-level minutes).

  • One remarkable thing about those impressive numbers is that Gaudreau hit the ground running right away as a rookie, while other players were, in many cases, far more experienced.

Gaudreau’s really impressed lately, generating 93 points in his last 86 games between this early season and 2017-18. Despite Sidney Crosby playing in two additional games last season (82 to Gaudreau’s 80), he tied the Penguins playmaker for seventh in the NHL with 60 assists.

While Gaudreau is – understandably – leveraged for heavy offensive usage, it doesn’t hurt that the puck tends to go in the right direction when he’s on the ice, either.

The Flames would be missing one heck of a scorer if Gaudreau needs to heal up before shooting for goal 101 (not to mention assist 200, and point 300 …). Beyond that, hockey fans will miss out on one of the NHL’s most splendid playmakers, so here’s hoping that this is just a minor hiccup.

Update: It looks like things are going well in that regard.

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.

Blackhawks finally get Crawford back

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The Chicago Blackhawks are off to a strong 3-0-2 start this season, but that doesn’t mean that Corey Crawford‘s absence hasn’t been glaring.

In those five games, the Blackhawks have scored 22 goals and allowed 21. They can attribute taking at least one standings point in all five games to some clutch performances from Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Alex DeBrincat.

Cam Ward? He’s been … well, like most critics expected. In starting all of Chicago’s games, Ward’s numbers are hideous: a 4.06(!) GAA and .879 save percentage is lousy stuff, even if the Blackhawks’ defense leaves a lot to be desired.

So … yeah, getting Crawford back is a huge deal.

The would-be workhorse goalie hasn’t played since Dec. 23, so you can’t really blame the Blackhawks for this adorably excited tweet:

Of course, as Bob McKenzie detailed last night (see the video above this post’s headline), the return of Crawford doesn’t exactly guarantee that he’ll return to the putting-the-team-on-his-back form that he developed in recent seasons for Chicago.

There were very reasonable concerns about Crawford even playing this season, as he’s battling brutal concussion symptoms.

Even with Crawford coming back, there’s no guarantee that he won’t suffer another setback, possibly as soon as Thursday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes. As former Blackhawk Dave Bolland told the Athletic’s Mark Lazerus (sub required), the fear can linger, and previous concussions increase the chances of history repeating itself.

“It’s easy to come back from a groin or a broken arm or something like that,” Bolland said. “Coming back from a concussion is a little tougher. You don’t know if you’re really ready. If you take another hit, you’re probably prone to taking another one. It’s hard not to think about that. Knowing when you’re ready to come back from a concussion, it takes a bit of time. You have to know that your brain is healthy and that it’s good. When I came back, it was always pretty tough convincing myself I was ready. I never wanted to come back and not be ready and end up hurting myself.”

On one hand, Crawford isn’t going to be engaged in the frequent puck battles that a skater would deal with. On the other, goalies must be mentally alert the entire time they’re on the ice, tracking the puck even when it’s not in the attacking zone. (Otherwise, you risk allowing a humiliating, long-distance goal, or simply not being ready if an opponent springs a quick breakaway.)

TSN’s Frank Seravalli reports that the NHL is increasingly concerned with goalie concussions, noting that 13 goalies were diagnosed with 15 concussions in 2017-18 alone. It’s such a serious consideration that the league is looking into ways to improve protection as soon as possible.

Servalli’s story focuses on shots off of goalie masks, yet this Marc-Andre Fleury quote from the article really cements the notion that Crawford might not be up to full speed, possibly for quite some time.

“I do think about it,” Fleury said of the dangers of being a goalie, and concussion risks in general. “This last one lasted a little longer than the previous ones, so I’m still thinking about it. Every day you wake up, you don’t feel great, you’re dizzy. It’s disturbing.”

Overall, there are a lot of obstacles in Crawford’s way.

Goalies can see their play slip for a ton of reasons. Sometimes they merely suffer an off year. Perhaps a change in system or new faces on defense can lead to confusion and miscommunication. Aging can mean a slight slip in reflexes, which can sometimes mean the difference between making that quick-twitch save or glove stop or allowing a goal (Crawford’s 33, so he’s vulnerable to Father Time’s attacks).

But beyond those universal factors, there’s also the threat of concussion symptoms resurfacing, or another one being suffered.

No doubt, Crawford’s return is huge for a Blackhawks team hoping to claw its way back into the playoffs. And, in all honesty, Crawford at 80 percent might be better than Cam Ward in the twilight of his up-and-down career.

The Blackhawks would be foolish to assume that this will be a seamless transition for Crawford, 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.

Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews on Tavares, learning to win (PHT Q&A)

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It’s been an historic start to the 2018-19 NHL season for Auston Matthews. As the Toronto Maple Leafs have lit up the scoresheet with 33 goals — 10 from Matthews alone — in seven games, the star forward has been setting records almost on a nightly basis.

Toronto’s 4-1 win over the Kings on Tuesday saw Matthews record a multi-point game for the seventh time this season. He’s also on a 17-game regular season points streak dating back to last Feb. 22. With his two points against Los Angeles, the 21-year-old joined the likes of Mario Lemieux, Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky and Kevin Stevens to record multiple points in his team’s first seven games of the season.

That’s a heckuva start for Matthews in a season where it wouldn’t be surprising if he ended it with 40-plus goals, 100-plus points and maybe a few trophies to take home from Las Vegas in late June. There is one specific trophy, of course, that he’d like to be lifting in six months. The addition of John Tavares has put the Maple Leafs in Stanley Cup contender talk, but there’s still lots to work out — hello, defense! — before they can reach that point.

“I think talking to [Maple Leafs GM] Kyle [Dubas] and the vision he has and when they were talking to John in the summer just what would happen, you know if you won a Stanley Cup in Toronto,” Matthews told NBC during NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago last month. “The hockey mecca of the world, it would be absolutely crazy. Obviously, we’re trying to build something to get to the top of that mountain and obviously accomplish that goal, but we got a long way to go and a lot of young players who are very hungry. It’s definitely something you think about every once in a while.”

We spoke with Matthews about the Tavares addition, learning from playoff failures and his wicked shot.

Enjoy.

Q. Go back to the day you heard that you had Tavares as a member of your team.

MATTHEWS: “Yeah, I was home and Kyle  actually called me, woke me up. I pretended like I was up for hours, but it was on a weekend, though, so it was OK. He was like ‘Hey, we signed John. We’re gonna announce it in the next hour so, just wanted to let you know’ and you know, I couldn’t really believe it. I was so excited by it. I didn’t really know what he was thinking. I heard the meetings went well with the management with Kyle and all of them, talking to him over the phone and he had a lot of questions and I tried to answer them as best as possible for him. So, he was kind of talking to a lot of different people, a lot of different teams, so you can kind of get a feel for it, but you just don’t know and obviously [I was] extremely excited when I found out he chose to sign with Toronto.”

Q. When you look at the Leafs, what have you learned, as a team, over the course of the last couple of seasons of how hard it is to win especially come playoff time? 

MATTHEWS: “Yeah, absolutely. That’s what it’s all about right there. Come playoff time it’s not easy, I mean, you look at Washington last year they almost didn’t make it out of the first round and then they went on the win the Cup. So I think that has been a good learning lesson for us young guys, just how hard it is even in the first round to get by, and you know when you have a player like John [Tavares], who has had that experience; obviously, he is still trying to reach that ultimate goal. Him coming here is definitely going to help us, but it doesn’t just make it a cake walk.”

Q. You being one of the young stars in the NHL, how can a guy like John Tavares help a guy like Auston Matthews?

MATTHEWS: “I think he can help me in a lot of different ways. Obviously he’s been in the league for a while, his resume speaks for itself; you know he is a top ten player in the league, a superstar center. He knows what he is doing as far as the way he treats his body on and off the ice nutrition, you know just taking care of those things that make such a big difference during the season. I think not only myself, but a lot of young guys can really look at that and not only ask questions but pick things that he does and kind of use it for ourselves as well.”

[What’s the ceiling for Auston Matthews this season?]

Q. Your release is something that is very unique and it’s something that’s so quick. How did you develop that, did you realize that is what separated you from a lot of other players you know with the skills that you had?

MATTHEWS: “You know, I think I’ve always been a shoot first mentality. I’ve always had a pretty decent shot, I think the summer before my draft year, maybe after my draft year, my first NHL season I basically just worked on my shot all summer. I was working with Darryl Belfry, who I still work with today. And it wasn’t just shooting; it was all different kinds of angles, different kinds of pucks in your feet, different areas being able to get the goalie moving one way or another, being able to find different spots. So, I know for myself I’m a shoot first kind of guy, and as you get up in levels, boys are just that much better, you don’t have that much time and space and being able to get your shot off quick and pick you corner makes a big difference.”

Q. The specifics of that trait, of working on your shot. Was it specifically on the ice stuff, or was it off the ice stuff like body position and hands, where the puck might be positioned on your stick?

MATTHEWS: “I think mostly on ice, to be honest. You know, I think training is a big part and especially in our summers being able to get stronger and more explosive. And that obviously helps with your shot, but you know I feel for myself, when I want to work on something I really improve on that, and the best way to do that is on the ice because that’s what we do for a living.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.