Kings take Pacific Division lead on busy night in West

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If you want an illustration of the significant parity and “What have you done for me lately?” atmosphere in the NHL, take a look at the Dallas Stars’ Thursday night. With one regulation loss (2-1 to the Vancouver Canucks) and plenty of activity throughout the West, the Stars didn’t just lose their Pacific Division lead and the third seed that goes with it – they tumbled all the way to eighth place.

To keep things tidy, here’s an update of the West’s bubble and Pacific Division races, in order of where the teams are in the standings right now:

Kings edge Blues 1-0 in shootout, take Pacific lead

Point to the Jeff Carter trade, hiring Darryl Sutter or any number of other developments if you’d like, but the bottom line is that the Los Angeles Kings are red-hot. They won their sixth game in a row in the exact way you’d sardonically expect against the St. Louis Blues. The two punch-less/defensively savvy teams (depending upon how you look at it) enjoyed dual shutouts – Jonathan Quick made 35 saves while Brian Elliott stopped all 37 shots – before the Kings won it in the skills competition.

GM Dean Lombardi might smile, as Carter and Mike Richards scored the SO goals, overwhelming T.J. Oshie’s single triumph for St. Louis.

(4. Detroit – idle; 5. Nashvillelost to the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-1; 6. Chicago idle)

Coyotes curb Colorado

By no means can the Kings relax on the Pacific throne because the Coyotes have the same amount of standings points (86) thanks to a 3-2 regulation win against the Colorado Avalanche – who are now in 10th place. (Chalk that up as about the only bit of comforting news for Dallas.)

The Kings hold a game in hand advantage but that’s it – for now – as both Los Angeles and Phoenix have the same amount of wins (37) and regulation/OT wins (31).

Phoenix took a 3-0 lead and nearly coughed it up as the Avalanche scored two third period goals but Mike Smith earned the 100th win of his career. (Something tells me the next 100 won’t take nearly as long if he stays under Dave Tippett’s watch.)

Falling Stars, melting Avs

This leads me to Dallas, who gave the Canucks a solid fight but still lost 2-1. Henrik Sedin was a big difference even with his brother Daniel on the mend, assisting on both Vancouver goals while Corey Schneider stopped 25 out of 26 shots.

The good news for the Stars is that while they slipped to eighth place, the Avalanche are actually less of a threat than it seems. Both teams have 85 points but Dallas has two more games in hand. Unfortunately, the 10th place team is more of a threat …

Sharks slip by Bruins

Obviously, things have been bad for the San Jose Sharks lately. And, yes, the Boston Bruins aren’t the powerhouse they were a couple months ago.

Still, collecting a 2-1 win against the defending champions in regulation is heartening. Joe Pavelski scored a goal assisted by Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau while Daniel Winnik scored his first San Jose goal.

11. Calgary Flames gain a charity point while Brent Sutter puts a trash can on the IR.

OK, with that all out of the way, here’s how the standings look:

(3) Los Angeles – 86 points, 31 regulation/OT wins, eight games left

7. Phoenix – 86 points, 31 regulation/OT wins, seven games left
8. Dallas – 85 points, 33 regulation/OT wins, eight games left

9. Colorado – 85 points, 31 regulation/OT wins, six games left
10. San Jose – 84 points, 30 regulation/OT wins, eight games left
11. Calgary – 83 points, 31 regulation/OT wins, seven games left

Overall, it looks like the Pacific will produce three playoff teams – the division winner and perhaps the seventh and eighth seeds. What do you think, though?

Captaincy continues Aleksander Barkov’s growth as a player

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It was Shawn Thornton who requested that Aleksander Barkov move his stall closer to his within the Florida Panthers’ locker room. In Barkov’s second year in the NHL it was Thornton’s goal to get the shy young Finn to show off his personality a little bit more around his teammates.

The move happened and Thornton slowly pecked away and brought more and more of Barkov’s personality out.

“When you sit next to that kind of player and person, it helps you a lot,” Barkov told Pro Hockey Talk on Tuesday. “Even the first couple of days, you’re just shy and sit next to him and answer his questions. Then a little bit at a time you just get out of your shell and start talking to him, joking with him and just have fun with him. That helped me a lot. If you can be good friends with this guy, you can be good friends with everybody.”

That small change allowed Barkov to get comfortable in his early NHL days and was the first step in him feeling confident enough to take on the responsibility of team captain, which the Panthers announced on Monday.

Barkov was approached at the end of last season and asked if he felt ready should they decide to have him wear the ‘C,’ replacing Derek MacKenzie. He said he was ready for the honor but also fine with remaining as an alternate, which he served as last season.

You might think there would be some awkwardness with MacKenzie being asked to give up the captaincy, but when he was given the ‘C’ in 2016 he knew that he was just holding it before one of the team’s younger stars was ready for the responsibility.

[Captain switch: Panthers give ‘C’ to Aleksander Barkov]

So when the change became official, MacKenzie was thrilled to be passing it on to Barkov.

“He called me right away and congratulated me,” Barkov said. “I was really happy to hear him calling me and congratulating me and telling me he’s OK with everything and he’s actually fine with that and he’s going to help me. I learned a lot from him. He’s probably one of the best captains I’ve ever heard in my six seasons here.”

MacKenzie, along with Willie Mitchell and Ed Jovanovski were the three captains Barkov played for since breaking into the NHL in 2013. Each of them has left a lasting imprint on the 23-year-old Panthers star.

“Those three guys, they helped me so much,” said Barkov, who also added that former NHLer Ville Nieminen, who played with Barkov and his father in Finland, was also a big influence. “Not just being a captain, just being great people you can talk to about anything, even if everything is good you can just go to them and talk to them and they’re true professionals. I got lucky to be with them in the same organization.”

Barkov takes on the captaincy at an important time in the Panthers’ growth. He’s coming off a career season offensively and the team missed out on the Stanley Cup Playoffs by a point. Bob Boughner is entering his second year behind the bench, Mike Hoffman was acquired over the summer and highly-touted prospects Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett could make an impact. There are plenty of expectations that the trend continues upwards in 2018-19.

As far as leadership style goes, Barkov doesn’t expect much to change as they look to build off the last few seasons. The only thing that may change is how many dinners he may have to pick up as captain, but MacKenzie didn’t give him the heads up on that.

“No, nobody told me about that,” Barkov said laughing. “I’m just trying to keep quiet so nobody remembers that.”

————

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.

Bridge deal for Nurse could end up costing Oilers big time

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It took some time, but the Edmonton Oilers were finally able to re-sign restricted free agent Darnell Nurse on Monday afternoon. Instead of locking him up to a long-term deal, the Oilers opted for a two-year bride deal worth $6.4 million ($3.2 million AAV). But was that the right move?

It’s great that the contract is done. Nurse can now report to the team and the Oilers can get the talented defender to training camp. Of course, Edmonton is pretty thin on defense, so he’ll be a welcomed addition to the team. But you can’t help wondering if this was just a quick fix to a problem that will resurface in a couple of years.

There will be added pressure on the 23-year-old to perform, especially because Andrej Sekera is out indefinitely with an Achilles injury. Nurse is coming off a season that saw him put up six goals and 26 points in 82 games. He also had a plus-15 rating and 67 penalty minutes while averaging over 22 minutes of ice time per game.

After making it to the second round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Oilers fell flat on their face last season. They were bad. But looking at the data from last year, it’s easy to see that Nurse wasn’t the reason they failed to make the playoffs. Most of the numbers he put up ended up being better than the team average. For example, his CF% was 51.05 percent, while the team’s CF% was 50.59 percent, per Natural Stat Trick. He was also above the team average when it came to SCF%, HDCF%.

Nurse’s primary defense partner last season was Adam Larsson. The pair played just over 820 minutes together in 2017-18. The pairings’ CF% while together was 50.92 percent. While they were apart, Nurse’s CF% went up to 52.35 percent. Larsson’s dropped to 50.06 percent. That’s not a huge difference, but it’s noticeable enough.

Nurse is still just 23 years old, so there’s room for his game to grow. Getting him signed for $3.2 million per year over the next two years is a great deal given the numbers he posted last season. The problem with that thinking, is that it’s a little short-sighted. GM Peter Chiarelli might be getting a bargain now but if Nurse keeps getting better, his next contract will be long and expensive. Sure, the 26 points he put up are modest, but his points-per-game have increased in each of his three seasons. It’s not unrealistic to expect him to top 30 points this year.

The Montreal Canadiens are one example of a team that got burned by a bridge deal. In 2012, they signed P.K. Subban to a two-year deal worth less than $6 million in total. Subban held out, but eventually came back and won the Norris Trophy that season. The next time his contract expired, he ended up getting $72 million over eight years.

Yes, Nurse and Subban play a different style. And yes, this is an extreme example, but when you’re paying Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl big money ($21 million combined), getting long-term bargains on other players is important. The Oilers will benefit from having one of their top defenders signed to a team-friendly contract for two years, but Nurse, who will be an RFA again when this deal expires, could make them pay for it the next time his contract is up.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Nothing to ‘C’ here: Importance of NHL captains is changing

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Ryan Johansen remembers how the Columbus Blue Jackets didn’t have a captain until one day it clicked and everyone knew it should be Nick Foligno.

”There was just no doubt,” Johansen said. ”It’s just one of those things you don’t want to force. You don’t want to rush. You don’t want to regret. Once someone is a very clear option to being named captain, then it’s usually done.”

For more than a century, NHL teams have named one player the captain, equipment managers stitched a ”C” on his jersey and, if all went well, he was the one who’d accept the Stanley Cup and lift it first. It’s still a hockey tradition with special meaning at all levels of the game, but almost one third of the 31-team league could go into opening night without a captain, a sign of the times that it’s no longer a necessity and certainly not a distinction that management and coaching staffs want to jump into without a lot of thought.

It’s a hot topic right now in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs haven’t had a captain since trading Dion Phaneuf in early 2016 and are in no hurry to designate one. Longtime Islanders captain John Tavares and 2016 top pick Auston Matthews are the leading candidates, and each say they are fine with general manager Kyle Dubas waiting to make a decision.

”It’s very important to have a captain, but I also think the way Kyle’s handling it is the right way to do it because it doesn’t really make sense to just throw somebody the captaincy,” Matthews said. ”It should have to be the right person. I think it’s honestly been blown up a lot this summer with our team with, ‘Somebody’s going to get it, who’s going to get it?’ But I think in the end they’re going to make their decision and it’s going to be the right one.”

Sometimes the decision is not to have a captain at all. The New York Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final without a captain in 2014 after trading Ryan Callahan at the deadline, and the Golden Knights did the same last year after not having a captain in their inaugural season.

”For us last season all coming from different places, different teams, it was a good thing,” Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Everybody chipped in. I think we had a good group of veterans who played a lot of games. I think all together we kind of took charge of helping try to lead the team. It worked out pretty good for us.”

The Golden Knights lost in the final to the Capitals as Alex Ovechkin became the first Russian-born and just the third European-born and trained captain to win the Cup. No team has won it without a captain since the 1972 Boston Bruins.

”That tells you something,” said Minnesota’s Eric Staal, who was captain of the Carolina Hurricanes for six seasons. ”Sometimes it can be overblown with saying you really have to have one or this player can’t handle this or that. I don’t think players change – or they shouldn’t- if they have a letter or don’t. … I also think it’s a cool thing to be a captain or an assistant captain. It’s been part of the game for a long time. But every team chooses to do things differently.”

Teams certainly aren’t afraid to make big decisions with their captains. Within the past two weeks, Montreal traded captain Max Pacioretty to Vegas and Ottawa traded captain Erik Karlsson to San Jose, Carolina abandoned its two-captain system and gave the ”C” to Justin Williams and Florida promoted Aleksander Barkov to succeed Derek MacKenzie as captain.

The Islanders (post-Tavares), Rangers (after trading Ryan McDonagh last season), Golden Knights, Maple Leafs, Sabres, Canadiens, Senators and Canucks (after Henrik Sedin retired) all have vacancies, and the Red Wings are in a similar spot because captain Henrik Zetterberg‘s career is over because of injury. Consider them the AAA club because without a captain, three players are alternates each game.

”I don’t think that every team needs to have a captain,” Buffalo’s Jack Eichel said. ”It’s good to have somebody that makes the executive decision at the end of the day. But if you have enough good leaders on a team, I think that if they’re all on the same page, it kind of works as just serving as a group of captains.”

Sidney Crosby has won the Cup three times since being named Penguins captain at age 20. Two years ago, the Oilers made Connor McDavid the youngest captain in NHL history at 19 years, 273 days old.

Ovechkin was named Washington’s captain in 2010, the season after Crosby won the Cup, but during the playoffs last year, he called Nicklas Backstrom Washington’s leader. When the Cup was paraded down Constitution Avenue in June, Ovechkin and Backstrom and fellow alternate captain Brooks Orpik sat in the final bus with the trophy.

”It feels like we could almost have three ‘Cs’ because they lead in different ways, and all of them together kind of make one big super leader, really,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. ”It’s rare to find that kind of mixture that you have with those three guys.”

Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy said the ”C” could be cut up and a slice given to captain Zdeno Chara and lieutenant Patrice Bergeron. The Kings made a seamless transition from Dustin Brown to Anze Kopitar and the Sharks have thrived with ex-captain Joe Thornton and current captain Joe Pavelski co-existing and developing what Evander Kane called the best leadership structure he has ever played under.

More often than not it’s simple: Jonathan Toews has won the Cup three times as Chicago’s captain and unquestioned leader. But he even doesn’t think naming one captain is essential based on his years of help from players wearing ”As” like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp.

”I don’t see why you can’t have success with a bunch of guys that are alternates and maybe not having one guy wearing the ‘C,”’ Toews said. ”At the end of the day, each guy brings different elements to the table.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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Captain switch: Panthers give ‘C’ to Aleksander Barkov

PHT Morning Skate: Anonymous player poll; McKenzie’s pre-season draft rankings

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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 Montreal Canadiens have stocked their roster with former first-round draft picks. There are currently 13 of them with them in training camp. (Montreal Gazette)

• Speaking of Canadiens first-rounders, Jesperi Kotkaniemi scored a goal during his first preseason game at the Bell Center. He’s starting to look more and more comfortable on North American ice. (Sportsnet)

• The Ottawa Senators have a new assistant general manager, and his name is Peter MacTavish. (Canadian Press)

• Speaking of the Sens, GM Pierre Dorion insists that despite all the drama, they’re still headed on the right track. (CBC.ca)

• Sabres prospect Alexander Nylander‘s professional career has gotten off to a slow start, but he was outstanding during Monday’s preseason game against Columbus. (Buffalo News)

• The Chicago Blackhawks have changed up their power play structure so that it looks a little bit more the one Washington ran last season. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• TSN hockey insider Bob Mckenzie came out with his pre-season draft rankings already. To no ones surprise, Jack Hughes is at the top of the list. (TSN.ca)

• The Sharks welcomed Erik Karlsson to San Jose with a huge billboard and an ad in the local newspaper. (NHL.com)

• Even though it’s unclear if NHL players will be going to the 2022 Olympic Games in China, commissioner Gary Bettman is committed to growing the game there. (Inside the games)

• TSN’s Frank Seravalli conducted an anonymous player poll. It sounds like certain NHLers believe that the Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres will get things turned around pretty quickly this season. (TSN.ca)

• Many players on the New Jersey Devils surpassed their expected goal totals from last season, but what will they have in store for us in 2018-19? (All about the jersey)

• Hurricanes forward Victor Rask injured himself in the kitchen, which is really unfortunate. He’s expected to miss “months,” according to Rod Brind’Amour, so it’ll be up to players like Lucas Wallmark to step up. (Canes Country)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.