Demoted enforcer admits “the game has changed”

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Colton Orr wants to prove he’s more than just a fighter. The 29-year-old who was put on waivers and sent down to the Maple Leafs’ AHL team this week is hoping to use his stint in the minors to get back into game shape and develop the kind of hockey skills that don’t involve punching people in the face.

“The game’s evolving and changing, so you kind of have to go with it,” Orr said today, as per the Toronto Star. “I’m never going to give up. I’m going to keep working and do what it takes…and see where it goes.

“There’s still room for power forwards, checking forwards, a little fight once in a while.”

Orr played only five games for the Leafs this season, averaging just 4:29 of ice time per contest.

Twice Orr has appeared in all 82 games of an NHL season, but his job description has always been a narrow one – protect your teammates.

Unfortunately for players like Orr, there are fewer and fewer pure enforcers in today’s game. Coaches want to roll four lines, and they want their fourth liners to be responsible defensively, kill penalties and get in on the forecheck.

“It’s been a bit of a transition, so you’re not seeing the fighters in the game as much and you’re seeing a lot of speed,” said Orr. “The game has changed.”

Concussion worries loom as Predators put Rinne on IR

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Pekka Rinne‘s Friday-night start ended in a painful way: not only did the Flames score on his basically empty net, but he suffered an injury thanks to an unlucky collision with Predators teammate Kevin Fiala.

Rinne was removed from Nashville’s eventual 5-3 win against Calgary on the behest of concussion spotters, and now the reigning Vezina-winner has been placed on IR.

At minimum, Rinne will miss three Predators games: tonight’s contest against Connor McDavid and the Oilers, along with a Tuesday home game against the Sharks and a Thursday road date versus the Devils. He’d first be eligible to suit up again on Oct. 27, when the Predators visit the Oilers in Edmonton.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Rinne will actually be ready to return to play.

As usual with NHL teams, it’s unclear how serious Rinne’s issue is, and there’s no guarantee that Rinne suffered a concussion. It’s difficult not to worry about that being the case, as that’s been a growing concern around the league, as we’ve seen with the likes of Corey Crawford and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Rinne’s injury does bring about an interesting situation, as the Predators could choose to roll out promising backup Juuse Saros in more of a No. 1 starter-workhorse role.

Earlier this week, Bob McKenzie discussed the Predators wanting to sign Rinne long-term.

Considering how well Rinne played at times last season, and all the accolades he’s accrued and will likely pile up with this franchise, one can understand the drive to keep him around.

Still, Rinne’s 35 and probably won’t want to take too much of a cut from his current, expiring $7 million cap hit; meanwhile, Saros is just 23 and will carry just a $1.5M cap hit through 2020-21. There’s a scenario where Saros could be the guy, Rinne would move on, and the Predators would set themselves up to be in a decent situation to avoid losing a key skater.

That still-unresolved issue makes even a truncated Saros audition quite fascinating, then.

It’s never good news to lose your starter, particularly a long-time workhorse and reigning Vezina-winner like Rinne. Even so, Saros has shown that he’s quite capable when given opportunities, and it could be valuable to see what they really have here. If Rinne misses more than a week, then the Predators could really feed Saros some reps.

One would assume that the Predators would lean on Saros for most, if not all, of this stretch. If not, we might see called-up goalie Miroslav Svoboda play a bit, too. This would be a big step up for Svoboda, who has been playing for the ECHL’s wonderfully named Atlanta Gladiators, and was a seventh-round pick (208th overall) by Edmonton in 2015.

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.

Avs’ MacKinnon belongs in best in NHL conversation

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As you can see from this Associated Press piece, there are some hot “best in the NHL” debates going around, with people batting around names like Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, and Auston Matthews.

Colorado Avalanche speedster Nathan MacKinnon‘s name didn’t come up in that conversation, but quite frankly, he’ll be impossible to ignore if keeps this up.

The 23-year-old has scored at least one point in all eight games, and his numbers are positively eye-popping. MacKinnon generated six points in the past two games alone, leaving him with a ridiculous eight goals and six assists for 14 points. As of this writing, only Auston Matthews (16 points in eight games) has generated more offense so far in 2018-19, while MacKinnon’s running mate Mikko Rantanen also has 14.

[More on Rantanen becoming a “driving force” for Colorado]

Remarkably, MacKinnon isn’t subsisting on a red-hot power play, either, as only two of his 14 points have come from the man advantage. With that in mind, it’s less shocking that MacKinnon’s seven even-strength goals currently lead the NHL.

It’s dangerous to rely too heavily on season stats, particularly when we’re still in October, but zooming out to last season really cements MacKinnon’s rise among the league’s most exhilarating scorers.

When you combine last season with these early showings, MacKinnon generated a whopping 111 points in just 84 games, trailing only Connor McDavid (119 in 87) and Claude Giroux (113 in 90). MacKinnon’s 1.31 points-per-game average is second only to … you guessed it: McDavid, at 1.35.

MacKinnon slips under the radar almost as seamlessly as he flies by defensemen for a few reasons:

  • The Avalanche haven’t been very great lately. MacKinnon’s efforts helped Colorado make the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet before that, the Avs suffered a three-season drought. The Avs have only made the playoffs twice since 2010-11, and they’ve only won one playoff series since 2005-06.

Even so, looking back at the past illuminates how special MacKinnon’s start has been. MacKinnon scored a goal in his first six games, something Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk, and many other standout Avs failed to do:

Could he break more club records as he goes?

  • Maybe some of the reluctance to name MacKinnon among the best stems from the speedy center beginning his career as an effective scorer, yet not quite the guy people expected.

Through his first four seasons, MacKinnon only crossed the 60-point barrier once (63 on his way to a Calder Trophy in 2013-14), with his 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons inspiring real concern about his shooting ability. It’s one thing to have bad puckluck for a single season, but through the first four years of his career, MacKinnon shot under 10-percent on three occasions, and his peak was just a flat 10.0 during that rookie campaign.

Well, it’s not clear what precisely changed, yet it’s probably safe to dismiss those concerns already. MacKinnon probably would have hit 40 goals and 100 points if he played every game last season (finishing with 39 goals and 97 points in just 74 games), and he’s off to that red-hot start in 2018-19.

  • There were times when MacKinnon almost felt like comic relief in his apparently long-running Tim Horton’s commercials alongside Sidney Crosby.

Now? He’s still goofy, but in more of an “effective buddy cop movie character” sort of way.

His bond with Crosby and the Canadian coffee chain giant really peaked recently, as the two surprised members of Kenya’s senior men’s hockey team (more about that in this post):

Heartwarming stuff, right?

***

To recap: MacKinnon is a speedy center who’s scoring at a near-McDavidian-rate, and he’s building enough evidence that his quantum leap from 2017-18 could be the rule, rather than the exception.

With a rising winger in Rantanen, not to mention a productive, hard-nosed captain in Gabriel Landeskog, MacKinnon also pilots a top line that deserves consideration as the best trio in the NHL.

Oh yeah, MacKinnon also deserves serious consideration for having the best bargain contract in the NHL. Somehow, the Avalanche will receive five more prime-level years of MacKinnon’s services at the ridiculous rate of $6.3 million per season. That’s barely more than half of what McDavid’s getting — and McDavid is worth more than $12.5M.

So, MacKinnon’s on that rare McDavid plane of being lightning fast, yet still boasting the skill and hockey IQ to take advantage of that world-class speed. Maybe it took him more time to harness that, but this seems to be clear today.

It also seems like he’s kind of a goober, and can provide a salty quote here or there.

While it’s true that MacKinnon isn’t totally dismissed as a great player – he was a finalist, falling right behind Taylor Hall for the 2018 Hart Trophy – the point is that the latest Avalanche superstar is worthy of greater hype.

If nothing else, make sure you watch him play. Chances are, his name will pop up more often in “best in the league” conversations if you do.

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.

Who’s hockey’s best? McDavid, Matthews, Crosby stir debate

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TORONTO — Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews? Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid?

With debate ramping up about which player sits atop hockey’s throne – after some remarkable early performances – Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock’s goes in a different direction – Sidney Crosby.

”This is what I think,” Babcock began as he made his case for the Penguins captain before Pittsburgh’s 3-0 victory over Toronto on Thursday. ”I think one guy’s got two Olympic gold medals and three Stanley Cups.”

And the other guys?

”They don’t.”

McDavid, the Edmonton Oilers captain with blazing speed, has won back-to-back NHL scoring titles and the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. Matthews, the Maple Leafs’ deadly sniper, has the most points in the league, 16 in just eight games.

McDavid set an NHL record this week by becoming the only player to either score or assist on the first nine goals of his team’s season.

Matthews has a lethal shot that often leaves a goalie looking up at the replay for a glimpse at a puck that just whizzed by him. He is just the fifth player to have seven straight multipoint games to start a season.

Babcock is quick to acknowledge what these 21-year-old phenoms have done. But he says personal accolades matter only so much.

Crosby is 31 and has been on top of the hockey world for the better part of the last decade. He won the Cup in 2009, 2016 and 2017 to go along with gold medals for Canada at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics.

Had it not been for the concussions that limited him to 63 of his team’s 164 games between 2010 and 2012, the two-time Hart and Conn Smythe Trophy winner might own even more hardware.

Babcock coached Crosby at the Vancouver and Sochi Games, and again at the World Cup of Hockey in 2016, which Canada also won.

”Team success in the end, that’s how you’re measured,” he said. ”When you’ve been the best player on the best team, to me that’s totally different than being the best player on a team that’s not as good. As you’ve got people around you to raise your game and set a standard … to me, it’s not even close.”

Mike Sullivan became Pittsburgh’s coach during the 2015-16 season and immediately grew to appreciate Crosby’s gifts.

”Sid’s the most driven athlete I’ve ever been around,” he said. ”Not only is he an elite player, but he’s willing to put the work in to continue to try to be the best player he can be. … I have the privilege of watching him on a daily basis put the work in to be the player that he is.”

Toronto center Nazem Kadri says it’s tough to pick among Crosby, McDavid and Matthews.

”I still think Sid’s an incredible player and McDavid’s definitely up there,” he said. ”(Matthews) is creeping up there. … To me, McDavid’s speed is just incredible and so hard to stop. You can’t necessarily make a mistake when he’s on the ice because when you’re beside him you’re going to be behind him.”

Maple Leafs center John Tavares went head-to-head with Crosby for nine seasons while with the New York Islanders.

”He doesn’t take anything for granted and his work ethic’s tremendous,” Tavares said. ”He puts a lot of commitment into being the player that he is.”

Crosby has five assists in six games this season playing on a line with Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust – the first time he’s gone without a goal this long. But Sullivan’s admiration is undiminished.

”He leaves no stone unturned,” Sullivan said. ”He takes care of himself physically. He trains so hard, both off the ice and on the ice. We learn as much from Sid as I think he does from our coaching staff with just the way he thinks the game.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

PHT Roundtable: Early-season surprises, stand-out stats

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1. Carolina, Montreal, Ottawa, Chicago and Anaheim are off to surprise starts this season. Which team(s) do you see being able to maintain that success throughout this season and why?

SEAN: I can see teams like Carolina and Anaheim cooling off, but not to a degree like Ottawa or Montreal where they’ll fall way to the back of the pack. Then there’s Chicago, who now with Corey Crawford back, stand to be able to keep above water the rest of the season. Alex DeBrincat, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will do what they do and produce up front. It’ll be a matter of secondary scoring helping out. If Crawford stays healthy and regains the form that made him a Vezina Trophy candidate before suffering a concussion last December, the Blackhawks can find a way back to the playoffs.

JAMES: While the threat of bad goaltending looms like Michael Myers around Halloween, the Hurricanes’ deep defense and young offense gives them a great chance to break their interminable playoff drought. The Blackhawks and Ducks have a strong chance to at least be in the West bubble picture if they get some better health luck (even as Jonathan Toews’ shooting luck is certain to cool off at least a bit). Montreal and Ottawa? No, sorry, but at least the Habs might be fun to watch.

ADAM: Off the top of my head I would say most likely Carolina or Anaheim and maybe — MAYBE — Chicago. Anaheim’s hot start seems like it is entirely based off of John Gibson‘s play, and it pretty much is. But he is an elite goalie that can carry a team and they are going to start getting some of their forwards back at some point, at least as far as Ryan Getzlaf and Ondrej Kase are concerned. That will help. Every year I get fooled and sucked in by Carolina but I really think they have some of the right pieces in place, and that defense is pretty legit. It all depends on what sort of goaltending they get. Speaking of, if Corey Crawford comes back healthy and plays well he could be a huge difference-maker for Chicago. They have had a lot of things go their way in the early going, but Crawford can be a game-changer and Jonathan Toews looks like he might be back on track offensively. Montreal and Ottawa are nice early season stories, but I just do not see how either way sustains it.

JOEY: I think the Ducks can keep this rolling. First, John Gibson has arguably been the best goalie in the NHL from the start of the season. If he can stay healthy, there’s no reason to think he can’t be dominant more often than not. Secondly, they’ve been able to have success while dealing with a lot of injuries. Ryan Getzlaf, Ondrej Kase, Corey Perry and Patrick Eaves have all missed time early on. At some point, they’re going to start getting healthier which should make them better. The Ducks are in one of the tougher divisions, so they’ll be battling for positioning on a nightly basis, but there’s no reason to think that they can’t keep winning.

SCOTT: Carolina because they have a potent offense that seems to be able to drive possession and put up a pile of shots. That’s a recipe for scoring goals and scoring goals wins games. Their defense seems much improved and if they can get some league average goaltending, book that ticket to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Anaheim is the other team, and John Gibsons is a big reason for that. He’s been nothing short of stellar and helps Anaheim pull out some victories when the number of injuries they had might suggest they shouldn’t be winning. And now they’re beginning to get healthy, with names like Getzlaf, Kase, Perry and Kesler all making their way back into the fold. Sure, some of their stars are aging, but there’s still a bevy of talent there to propel them along.

2. What’s the most surprising player/team stat to you so far?

SEAN: Everything Connor McDavid is doing so far this season. I know we shouldn’t be surprised given his all-world talent, but it’s incredible to watch him have an impact on just about every Oilers goal. Edmonton has scored 13 goals through five games and McDavid has been involved in 11 of them with four goals and seven assists. It’s truly maddening to see the Oilers fail to build around him. Let’s hope this trend doesn’t continue as he continues racking up Hart and Art Ross Trophies.

JAMES: Look, the Canadiens boast some nice talent, but their hot start is quite surprising. More than the respectable record is the sheer brilliance of their early play. Heading into Wednesday’s game against the Blues, Montreal averaged almost 10 more shots on goal than they’ve allowed so far (36 vs. 26.6). In other words, their strong start isn’t just a matter of dumb luck.

(I still think they’ll miss the playoffs, though.)

ADAM: Probably the fact that Arizona is near the top of the league in shots on goal per game but somehow has still only scored three total goals (as of Thursday) and has not scored a single one at even-strength. How is that even possible? Even if they were near the bottom of the league in shots you would expect more than three goals in five games, even from a bad team. But to put that many pucks on net and still not score is just incredible. They have also been really good defensively so far, both in terms of shots against and goals against. So, like, there is some positive stuff happening there but the offense just quite literally cannot buy a goal right now. It is remarkable.

JOEY: I knew Sebastian Aho was a talented player, but I never expected him to get off to this kind of start. Only Auston Matthews, Patrice Bergeron and Morgan Rielly have collected more points than Aho, who has 12 points in seven games. The ‘Canes have desperately needed a forward to step in and become a go-to guy and it looks like they finally have that person in place. The 21-year-old won’t hit the 141 points he’s currently on pace to score, but he’s off to a really promising start.

As far as team stats go, how about that Sharks power play that’s clicking at 9.5 percent? Once they acquired Erik Karlsson from the Senators, most people assumed that they’d be clicking at an insane rate. That hasn’t been the case just yet. Of course, it’s nothing to be alarmed about if you’re a fan of the Sharks because they’re six games into their season. It’s only a matter of time before they figure out. With Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski, Evander Kane, Logan Couture and Karlsson on the roster, there’s no reason to think that this power play will continue slumping like it is right now.

SCOTT: New Jersey’s defense and goaltending is very good. Keith Kinkaid has allowed just eight goals in five starts this season. He’s already got two shutouts (and they weren’t against Arizona, either — both came against respectable offenses in Washington and Dallas). He’s arguably the best goalie in the NHL at the moment and I never expected to say that through the first few weeks of the season or, really, ever.

An honorable mention here goes to Carolina. I mentioned them in the first question and they deserve another here. They’re averaging 42 shots a game. A. That’s silly. B. It’s the best in the NHL. And they’re only allowing 25 against, second fewest. It’s no wonder that they’re pacing the Metropolitan Division early on in the season.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule