At this point, you’re probably aware that the St. Louis Blues have been a far better team since Ken Hitchcock took over. Still, it’s pretty stunning to see the Blues ahead of the mighty Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings in the Central Division standings, yet that’s where they are today. The NBC Sports Network gang tackles the somewhat surprising success story in St. Louis.This video is no longer available. Click here to watch more NBC Sports videos!
It’s been a tough couple of years for Canadiens fans when it comes to the team’s roster movement, but they finally got some better news on Sunday morning when the team announced that it has signed speedy forward Paul Byron to a four-year contract extension worth a total of $13.6 million.
That comes out to a salary cap hit of $3.4 million per season.
The 29-year-old Byron would have been eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season had the Canadiens not signed him to a new deal.
He has been one of the better additions made by general manager Marc Bergevin during his tenure in Montreal, as Byron has completely turned his career around carved out a nice role for himself with the Canadiens.
The Canadiens snagged Byron on waivers from the Calgary Flames prior to the 2015-16 season, and in the three years since he has become one of their most consistent — and productive — forwards. He is the only player on the roster to have topped the 20-goal mark in each of the past two seasons, plays on the penalty kill, and has been a positive possession player on a team that tends to get outshot. He has also managed to top the 20-goal mark in each of the past two seasons while getting very little power play time.
He is not a player that is going to significantly alter the course of the Canadiens’ rebuild, or whatever it is they are calling this current phase, but he is a good, solid NHL forward whose contract isn’t going to break the team’s salary cap structure.
DENVER (AP) — Mention a topic, just about any topic, and sharp-shooting Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon takes his elusiveness to a whole new level.
Not appearing on the cover of the NHL’s latest video game? ”Don’t care,” he responds. The pressure of becoming one of league’s top stars after a 97-point season? ”Feels normal,” the top pick in the 2013 draft quips. Taking another step in his evolution on the ice? ”Hopefully a few,” he offers.
It’s not like the speedy, 23-year-old shies away from the spotlight he has earned through his electrifying play. Rather, he’s just highly focused on helping Colorado return to the playoffs after a stirring run a year ago behind his hard-to-keep-up speed and hard-to-stop shot.
”He’s a legitimate, bona fide superstar in our league,” said defenseman Ian Cole, who joined the Avs after spending last season with Pittsburgh and Columbus. ”He’s one of the most dangerous players in the league.”
MacKinnon finished with 39 goals and 58 assists last season. He finished second to New Jersey Devils forward Taylor Hall in voting for the Hart Memorial Trophy, which is given to the player who means the most to their team. That didn’t exactly sit well with MacKinnon’s line mate, captain Gabriel Landeskog.
In Landeskog’s view, seeing is believing in MacKinnon’s skills.
”The hockey world is big in the East and they don’t see Nate as much, or us as much,” Landeskog said. ”We all know how good he is. It’s a matter of time. But he doesn’t need the recognition from anybody else – we just need him to keep doing what he’s doing as far as being a really good offensive player.”
MacKinnon turned in a breakout season in which he posted stats that hadn’t been seen in Colorado in a while, including:
– Most points by an Avalanche player since Joe Sakic had 100 in 2006-07
– Most shots (284) since Sakic during the Stanley Cup championship season in 2000-01
– 12 game-winning goals, matching the Avalanche record set by Sakic in ’00-01
– 13 three-point games, which was the most since Peter Forsberg had 14 in 2002-03.
Quite a list – and one he hopes to top this season. That’s why his summer consisted of working out every day and skating three times a week. Maybe an occasional round of golf , but his world revolved around the rink.
”I’m always thinking about hockey,” MacKinnon said . ”Not stressing over it, but definitely always thinking about it. I worked hard because another 100 points isn’t going to be handed to me. It’s tough to get that many. I don’t know if I will get that many this year. But I’ll try to and see what happens.”
MacKinnon’s prepared to embrace the pressure of being one of the game’s elite players. Then again, expectations have never weighed down MacKinnon, a native of Halifax, Nova Scotia.
”Growing up, I was always a top prospect, and I went first overall. So it just feels normal,” said MacKinnon, who signed a seven-year, $44.1 million deal in July 2016. ”It’s somewhere I expect to be. It’s not like I won the lottery here. I feel like I’ve earned that.”
He wasn’t one of the cover players for EA Sports’ NHL ’19 , which features Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban, Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky, Winnipeg winger Patrik Laine, and Toronto center William Nylander on respective editions.
”I really don’t care,” MacKinnon said. ”I just don’t.”
More on his mind is getting the Avalanche back to the postseason. The team earned the No. 8 seed with a win in their last contest of the season before being eliminated in six games by Nashville.
”We’re trying to prove ourselves,” said MacKinnon, who missed eight games in February with a shoulder injury. ”I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing – keep getting better by doing the little things. Be very consistent every night and making sure I’m healthy and feeling good.”
That sort of mentality is music to the ears of Avalanche coach Jared Bednar.
”He’s one of the hungriest guys I’ve ever met. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever met,” Bednar said. ”He’s hungry to prove that (last season) wasn’t a one-off – that’s who he is. He expects to be even better this year.”
Maybe even the best in the league.
”I’d like to. I’m working for that,” MacKinnon said. ”I’m trying to be the best me, and hopefully that’s the best player in the NHL.”
For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL
Jason Spezza is unlikely to play like a $7.5 million guy for the Dallas Stars this season, but it’s tough to imagine things getting worse than they did last season.
Spezza mixed with Ken Hitchcock about as well as wolves get along with sheep in 2017-18, seeing his ice time plummet from 16:10 minutes per game in 2016-17 to a pitiful 13 minutes per night. To put things mildly, Spezza’s numbers suffered, with just 26 points in 78 games. Excluding the 2012-13 lockout (when he generated five points in as many contests), you’d need to go as far back as Spezza’s rookie season to see such a poor point total, and Spezza managed his 21 points in just 33 games all the way back in 2002-03.
Waning confidence could be seen in a number of areas, including a 5.8 shooting percentage, easily a career-low and just the second time Spezza’s endured a sub-10 shooting percentage over 15 seasons.
Brutal stuff, right?
The good news is that his shooting percentage is almost certain to level out, and the even better news – for Spezza, if not the Stars as a whole – is that Jim Montgomery replaced Hitchcock as head coach. That said, at 35, you wonder how much Spezza really has left in the tank.
If nothing else, Spezza told Mike Heika of the Stars website that he has a “fire in his belly” after that miserable 2017-18 campaign. A mixture of pride and the motivation of a contract year should make it certain that, if Spezza has anything left, he’ll show it this season.
“I’m here to play,” Spezza said. “I’ve produced my whole life and I want to do that again. I don’t want to just hang around for intangibles and being a good locker room guy. I’m here to produce — that’s what I expect of myself.”
Amid struggles that could prompt an existential crisis in a less confident athlete, Spezza continued to succeed in the faceoff circle last season, a sneaky-impressive area of his game. The former Senators center won 55.8-percent of his draws in 2017-18, while his career mark is a strong 53.5.
Such successes weren’t lost on Montgomery, who told Heika that he expects Spezza to take more faceoffs in the defensive zone this season. (Spezza began 43.4-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone last season.)
That’s an interesting idea beyond leveraging Spezza’s ability to win draws.
Most obviously, it could open the door for Radek Faksa to enjoy more favorable opportunities. The stealth Selke candidate began just 33.4-percent of his shifts in the attacking zone last season, and one cannot help but wonder if Faksa could enjoy a Sean Couturier-like leap if his workload was relaxed to a substantial degree. The Stars’ top centers (Faksa, Spezza, and Tyler Seguin) were all pretty effective at winning faceoffs last season, which would hopefully inspire Dallas to focus more on landing advantageous matchups, rather than obsessing over who might win or lose a draw.
Of course, Spezza wasn’t talking about faceoff wins when he was discussing production; he wants to put up points and land another NHL gig after this contract year.
Through one preseason game, Spezza primarily lined up with Valeri Nichushkin (another Stars forward who could go either way, really) and Mattias Janmark. Via Natural Stat Trick, Janmark stood out as Spezza’s most common linemate last season, so we’ll see if that combination sticks even with coaching changes. You could do worse than Spezza with Janmark and Nichushkin, a trio that would have a lot to prove, even if Spezza’s in a very different phase of his career.
It’s important to remember that Spezza’s not that far removed from being the productive scorer he hopes to be. He generated 50 points in 2016-17, and that total came in 68 games. Before that, Spezza rattled off three consecutive seasons with at least 62 points.
Considering his age and the possibility that Faksa and others might push Spezza for power play reps and other opportunities, it might be too much to ask for Spezza to hit 60+ points in 2018-19. Despite that $7.5M clip, the Stars would probably be quite happy if the veteran landed in the 50 range, especially if he can juggle that with increased defensive duties.
That would make him “good in the room” and on the ice.
As much as you need an elite center and a star defenseman, goalie remains the make-or-break single position in hockey. Unfortunately, it’s easier to herd cats than predict goaltending performances.
With that in mind, it’s not that shocking that the Marc-Andre Fleury/Rick DiPietro/Roberto Luongo era of goalies going high in drafts is no more. Instead, it’s increasingly common for there to be zero goalies selected in the first round of a draft. None went in 2018, for example, as the Rangers were the first team to select a netminder when they tabbed Olof Lindbom in the second round (39th overall).
American goalie prospect Spencer Knight recently admitted to NHL.com’s Jessi Pierce that he’s pictured becoming one of the rare recent goalies to go in the first round.
“You do think about it, and if I told you I didn’t I’d probably be lying,” Knight said “You do think about all the different ways it could go, but I think the biggest thing is to worry about the small things, the everyday things. It’s very cliché but it’s true. You do have to focus on one day at a time and enjoy the process because all these things only come around once. You only play in this (All-American Prospects Game) once, you only get drafted once.”
Here’s a quick glance at goalies who went in the first round since PHT began draft coverage in 2010.*
* – If I happened to miss one, please note in the comments, email, or social media.
It’s too early to tell if the Dallas Stars will be glad they selected Oettinger (although, oof, they could have landed Eeli Tolvanen), and the same can be said regarding the Washington Capitals and Ilya Samsonov. The Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning do a solid job of shining a light on the highs and lows of drafting goalies with such prominent picks.
While it was refreshing to see Campbell earn a few nice starts with the Kings, the goalie hasn’t justified his draft status. That said, the Stars themselves haven’t had much luck finding answers in net, whether they’ve tried in other rounds, free agency, or via trades. Instead, they’ve sunk a ton of money into bad options, and the hope is that Ben Bishop can reverse that trend (and maybe hold down the fort while Oettinger develops?).
On the other hand, the Lightning knocked it out of the park with Vasilevskiy, who’s on the short list of hyper-promising young NHL goalies. It almost makes too much sense that Tampa Bay’s success in drafting Vasilevskiy allowed them to part ways with (wait for it) Ben Bishop.
Ultimately, there are only 31 starting jobs, and only 62 NHL goalie gigs including backups, aside from those rare stretches where three netminders make a roster.
/nods to J-F Berube.
There have been some fascinating, semi-recent studies regarding drafting goalies early, and the high risk-reward factor.
Back in 2016, TSN’s Travis Yost laid out one of the many arguments against drafting a goalie in the first round. Yost, like many others – including, clearly, NHL teams – notes that there’s simply an incredibly heavy opportunity cost with such an investment. That’s particularly true since many of the NHL’s standout goalies come later in the draft. Henrik Lundqvist and reigning Vezina winner Pekka Rinne went in the seventh and eighth round of their respective drafts, as just two prominent examples.
On the other hand, the payoff from finding a high-end goalie can be enormous. Hockey Graph’s Matt Cane summarized such thoughts following Yost’s post:
Drafting is an inexact science; there isn’t a team in professional sports that hasn’t whiffed badly on their selections. As a New York Giants fan who’s marinating in the poor choice of Saquon Barkley at second overall (mesmerizing talent, terrible value), going against the grain can hurt that much more.
You ultimately have to trust your scouts and your gut while making the decision, whether it be with Knight in 2019 or any other prospect.
It makes you wonder: which teams might want to take such a plunge next year? One could picture a team with aging goalies looking for answers (maybe the Senators if they do manage to trade for a first-rounder?) or teams that seem to be in perpetual pursuit of puckstoppers (the Hurricanes come to mind, in particular).
The smarter, studied route may be to accrue information by seeing goalies succeed overseas, in junior/college hockey, in the AHL, or even on another NHL teams.
Still, if you can identify a Vasilevskiy, you can really reap the benefits. That’s easier said than done, much like goaltending in general.