Who’s going to win the Stanley Cup? Here are PHT’s picks…

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We didn’t so well with these last season, with not one of us predicting the Chicago Blackhawks would win the Stanley Cup. We’re going to blame the lockout for that and try again for 2013-14. No excuses this time around. Unless there are injuries. Then there are excuses. We may also think up other excuses.

Jason Brough: Los Angeles Kings over Detroit Red Wings

I look for three major things when I pick a Cup winner. First is goaltending. Second is a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman that can log big minutes. Third is at least one, preferably two, top centers. The Kings have all these things. I’m a little concerned about their ability to create offense, but if Willie Mitchell can stay healthy, that may allow Drew Doughty to get a bit more involved in that area. Picking a team out of the East was tough because there’s only one that unequivocally meets my criteria, the Bruins, and it’s really hard to put together back-to-back runs to the Stanley Cup Final. Meanwhile, I don’t like the Pens’ goaltending, and the Rangers, Caps, and Flyers don’t have that one great d-man. I ended up taking the Wings, but that back end will have to keep improving, and Stephen Weiss can’t be a free-agent bust.

Mike Halford: Los Angeles Kings over Boston Bruins

After winning it all two years ago and going back to the Western Conference finals last season, the Kings spent the summer tweaking what was already a pretty solid roster. They turned a backup goalie into another backup and arguably their fastest player (Matt Frattin); they added by subtracting Dustin Penner (who was mediocre at best last year) and, perhaps most importantly, got a clean bill of health for Willie Mitchell, the veteran defenseman that was a key cog on the Cup-winning side of ’12. The Kings are talented, deep, experienced and still bitter about getting dumped by Chicago in five games.

Ryan Dadoun: St. Louis Blues over New York Rangers

These are two teams I’ve liked for a couple of years now and it obviously didn’t pan out for me last season. Still, the Blues have what I believe to be the best group of defensemen in the NHL from top to bottom. They also have strong goaltending, especially if Jaroslav Halak can stay healthy during the playoffs. Their offense isn’t comparatively as impressive, but it’s well-rounded. While it includes some rising youngsters like Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko, its core has largely matured at this point.

James O’Brien: St. Louis Blues over New York Rangers

With parity reigning supreme in the NHL, depth is increasingly important, and the Blues might be the deepest of them all. Not many teams boast such a variety of scoring options (adding Derek Roy was shrewd), 2-4 top pairing-quality defensemen and 2-3 viable goalies. Each of the Blues and Rangers have the motivation (key contract years, bright coaches) and talent to get it done, but the Blues edge the Rangers. And, no, I’m not just picking them because EA Sports’ supercomputers did, either.

Joe Yerdon: Los Angeles Kings over New York Rangers

The Kings are one of a handful of teams that can hang with Chicago in the West. Their skill, toughness, and goaltending are as good as it gets. The Rangers shake out as a team that seems to have it more put together. If not having Torts in their ears makes the difference, and I think it will, they’ll be right there.

Cam Tucker: Washington Capitals over Chicago Blackhawks

Alex Ovechkin should be extra motivated considering what’s at stake for him personally. I do worry about a potential emotional letdown for No. 8 after the Sochi Olympics, but the Blackhawks didn’t have that problem in 2010 when Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook played for Canada in Vancouver. The Capitals should also enter the season fully adjusted to Adam Oates and his system. At some point, this team has to break through in the playoffs. Washington isn’t perfect, but what team is? Particularly in the East.

So there you have it. PHT has the Kings (thrice), the Blues (twice), and the Caps (once). Sorry about that, those three teams. There’s always next season.

WATCH LIVE: Lightning visit Blues on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Lightning are coming off a 4-3 loss at home to the Jets on Saturday – a defeat that snapped a three-game winning streak. A key turning point was Jon Cooper’s failed coach’s challenge in the second period on a Jets goal that gave Winnipeg a 2-1 lead. The goal was upheld, and 21 seconds into the ensuing power play, the Jets made 3-1 en route to a 4-3 win.

This game carries particular significance for Lightning forward Patrick Maroon, a St. Louis native who became a hometown hero for the Blues last season en route to their championship. Maroon took a hometown discount to sign with St. Louis on a one-year deal last offseason, but that was the extent of his tenure with the Blues. In late August, Maroon signed for one-year, $900K with Tampa.

This recent 3-1-0 stretch for the Lightning began with the team’s trip to Stockholm for the NHL Global Series, when the Lightning swept the Sabres in a pair of games before returning home to beat the Rangers 9-3 last Thursday. Though that winning streak was halted against the Jets, Tampa’s play is heading in the right direction

The Blues are coming off a 4-1 loss at home to the Ducks on Saturday – St. Louis’ third straight defeat (0-1-2). This losing streak is coming on the heels of a seven-game winning streak. Though the Blues have been up-and-down, most every game has been close, with seven of their past 10 going past regulation. In total, the Blues have played 21 games this season, with 10 of them extending past 60 minutes.

One of the players stepping up in Vladimir Tarasenko’s absence has been David Perron, who is tied for the team lead with 19 points (8G-11A). Of his eight goals, five have been game-winners. His five game winning goals are first in the NHL, and already are the most in a single-season of his career.

[COVERAGE OF BLUES-LIGHTNING BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Tampa Bay Lightning at St. Louis Blues
WHERE: Enterprise Center
WHEN: Tuesday, Nov. 19, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Lightning-Blues stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

LIGHTNING
Ondrej PalatSteven StamkosCarter Verhaeghe
Tyler JohnsonBrayden PointNikita Kucherov
Alex KillornAnthony CirelliMathieu Joseph
Patrick Maroon – Cedric PaquetteYanni Gourde

Victor HedmanKevin Shattenkirk
Ryan McDonaghErik Cernak
Mikhail SergachevLuke Schenn

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

BLUES
Jaden SchwartzTyler BozakBrayden Schenn
Sammy BlaisRyan O'Reilly – David Perron
Zach SanfordOskar SundqvistRobert Thomas
Mackenzie MacEachernIvan BarbashevKlim Kostin

Colton ParaykoAlex Pietrangelo
Jay BouwmeesterJustin Faulk
Vince DunnRobert Bortuzzo

Starting goalie: Jordan Binnington

Kenny Albert and Pierre McGuire will call the action from Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Mo. Paul Burmeister will host Tuesday’s coverage of NHL Live alongside alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter.

Can Oilers’ McDavid and Draisaitl keep up league-leading pace?

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and San Jose Sharks. Coverage begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

As seemingly stabilized as the San Jose Sharks seem, they drew an unenviable task for Tuesday’s game on NBCSN: contain the league’s most dynamic duo at their most dynamic.

When you look at the NHL’s scoring stats, it’s not even close: Leon Draisaitl (43 points) and Connor McDavid (40) tower over everyone else. Only three other players have even crossed thirty yet: still-remarkably-hot defenseman John Carlson (34), and the league’s other dynamic duo of David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand (both at 32).

Let’s dig into the ridiculous runs for both players.

McDavid soaring

We very well might be witnessing the hottest stretch of McDavid’s career.

While Draisaitl leads the NHL in points, McDavid’s on an especially torrid stretch lately. In an overtime loss to the Dallas Stars, he collected three assists, but before that, he generated a hat trick and three assists. Yes, that’s nine points in two games.

McDavid truly feels like a cheat code. If you’ve ever created a player in a sports video game and then felt guilty about how no one could ever be that good, well, McDavid is here to clear your conscience.

During these healthy non-rookie seasons, McDavid’s points have climbed each season: from 100 to 108 to 116 last season, with 41 goals in each of 2017-18 and 2018-19. McDavid’s 40 points in 22 games would translate to about 149 points over 82 contests, so what might cool him off?

[COVERAGE OF OILERS-SHARKS BEGINS AT 10:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Injuries would be the most obvious worry, but aside from that freakish injury suffered against now-teammate Brandon Manning (that never stops amusing me, sorry), McDavid’s been sturdy, missing only four games since 2016-17.

A nearly two-point-per-game pace is asking a lot in the clutch-and-grabby NHL, and there are signs that McDavid’s playing a bit above even his standards. His shooting percentage this season (18.4) is higher than his career average (15). Most importantly for a playmaker like McDavid, his on-ice shooting percentage (16.9) is considerably higher than his career average (11.4).

While McDavid’s current pace is close to 150 points, safer bets might range from 120 (scoring at his career pace of 1.33 ppg over the remaining 60 games) to 130 (at last season’s 1.49 ppg pace) if McDavid can stay healthy. If anyone can keep his percentages this high over 82 games, it’s McDavid, though, so it will be fun to see where he finishes.

Because it’s fun to gawk, take a look at McDavid’s absurd heat map via Hockey Viz’s Micah Blake McCurdy:

Will Draisaitl dry up?

Leon Draisaitl is an even more fascinating example because of just how red-hot he’s been for a while now.

Last season seemed like it would present Draisaitl’s peak: 50 goals, 105 points, with a 21.6 shooting percentage. So far in 2019-20, he’s even hotter: 16 goals (15 of which, impressively, come at full strength), and 27 assists for a blistering 43 points in 22 games. His 2019-20 shooting percentage is even higher than last season, as he’s connecting at a ridiculous 22.5 percent.

Draisaitl’s on-ice shooting percentage (18.8) blows away his career average of 10.4, and also towers over last season’s touch-to-match 12.4 percent.

So … it’s especially clear that Draisaitl will cool down, but it’s also extremely difficult to say how much. After all, he’s been producing at this torrid pace now for 104 games between 2018-19 and 2019-20.

Either way, they’re lethal

It’s also worth mentioning that McDavid is 22 and Draisaitl is 24. Sometimes in sports, people fall into the trap of assuming that a young player will one day meet some imaginary standard of potential, but it’s easier to argue for someone improving when they’ve already produced results.

While it’s fair to ask bigger picture questions about keeping them together or trying to find better depth, it’s hard to argue with the synergy they’re forming right now.

Again, I expect them to cool off a bit, but they might still be the best one-two punch in the league even if the puck luck dries up. Consider that they’re the top two players in connecting on passes to the slot according to The Point Hockey, and that they’re dominant in expected goals, via Sean Tierney:

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Maybe a cold streak is coming, but with any luck, fans on NBCSN will get to see what makes Draisaitl and McDavid so special. It should be a delight to watch — unless you’re cheering for/playing for the Sharks.

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.

NHL renames GM of the Year Award after Jim Gregory

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The NHL’s GM of the Year award will now be known as the Jim Gregory GM of the Year Award.

Gregory passed away on Oct. 30 at the age of 83. Gregory was a longtime NHL executive, including serving as Toronto Maple Leafs GM from 1969 to 1979. Gregory was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007.

The name change was unanimously approved during the annual November GM meetings.

“This is a terrific tribute to a wonderful man by a group uniquely qualified to appreciate his many contributions to our game,” Gary Bettman said. “During his tenure as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Jim Gregory transformed the art of team-building. Through the many years he spent at the League, our general managers regularly sought his counsel. They universally revere his lifetime of service to the NHL.”

NHL.com notes that Gregory stood out for many reasons, including having an eye for international talent.

Gregory was a hockey ambassador around the globe and among the first NHL general managers to sign and import players from Europe — most notably, the legendary defenseman Borje Salming. Steeped in the game’s traditions, he was integral to the implementation of some of the League’s most transformational innovations — including the use of video to review goals and the expansion of the role of the Central Scouting Bureau.

The NHL’s GM of the Year award was first handed out in 2009-10. Boston Bruins GM Don Sweeney was the most recent recipient in 2018-19.

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.

Appreciating Stamkos’ underrated career at 400 goals

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Calling Steven Stamkos “underrated” never really feels right, but you might argue that his greatness is “too easily forgotten.”

Maybe you can chalk it up to Alex Ovechkin‘s even-more-impressive goal-scoring pyrotechnics, or perhaps to some mid-career injuries that diluted some of his career peaks, but either way, Stamkos’ career achievements can sneak up on you.

Take scoring 400 goals, for example.

Stamkos hit that mark in his last game, and with Tuesday’s Lightning – Blues contest soon to air on NBCSN (livestream link), this seems like a great time to consider what we’ve seen from Stamkos, and what else we might see going forward.

Rare company

Stamkos didn’t just hit 400 goals in Tampa’s Nov. 16 loss to the Winnipeg Jets; he also did it before age 30 (he’ll turn 3-0 on Feb. 7). Less than 20 players have reached 400 goals before age 30.

He’s one of only nine active players to hit 400, and did so the second-quickest among those nine, managing the feat in just 763 games. (Alex Ovechkin is first, getting there, somehow, in just 634 GP). Stamkos is also only the 98th player to reach 400+ goals, period.

Stamkos’ .52 goals-per-game average places him at 16th all-time among players with at least 300 games played, by Hockey Reference’s measures. That average is higher than the likes of Guy Lafleur (.50) and Eric Lindros (.49).

With 786 points in those 763 games, Stamkos ranks ninth among active players, and his 1.03 ppg average fittingly ties him with teammate Nikita Kucherov for sixth-best among active players.

Stamkos is a two-time Maurice Richard Trophy winner, and became a rare 60-goal scorer in 2011-12. Pretty lofty stuff.

And, naturally, it’s not all in the past.

Stamkos comes into Thursday’s game on a tear, having generated a five-game point streak (two goals, six assists). He already has 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists) in 17 games this season. The 2018-19 season ranks among his best, too, with 45 goals and a career-high 98 points.

[COVERAGE OF BLUES-LIGHTNING BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Passing fancy

It’s a bit absurd to ding Childhood Stamkos for not having much of a shot, but it’s kind of an adorable way to illustrate the point that the Lightning forward has grown his game over the years — which might come in handy if his shot becomes slightly less terrifying.

“When he was a kid, he couldn’t shoot,” his father, Chris Stamkos, told The Athletic’s Joe Smith (sub required) in a great story about Stamkos’ shot. “He could skate and pass, but he couldn’t shoot.”

Stamkos’ former partner-in-crime Martin St. Louis praised Stamkos to Smith, stating that Stamkos isn’t just a “one-trick pony.”

There was some concern that Stamkos’ shot might have been diminishing, but his 45 goals quieted a lot of worries. Normally a 19.2 shooting percentage would make you think fluke, but with a career average of 16.9, maybe he still has time as a an elite sniper?

Some of this comes down to the inevitable drive to create plays for Nikita Kucherov. Of course Stamkos will start to get his playmaking to sniping ratio closer to 1:1 when he’s paired with a winger who’s arguably already even more dangerous than him, right?

After all, his shot volume is still there.

Overall, his partnership with Kucherov should be heartening for the Lightning when it comes to Stamkos’ future. If Stamkos does indeed become less dangerous at sniping as he passes 30 — a common thing for mortal snipers, aka those not named Ovechkin — then he can conceivably tweak the dials to set up Kucherov more. He’s found quite the player to grow old with, as Kucherov and Stamkos even fit each other as left and right-handed shots respectively. It’s the ideal mix for one-timers, basically making them the hockey equivalent of a couple where one spouse prefers drumstick chicken wings while the other digs the flats.

Evolving game

Again, Stamkos has found ways to improve his overall game, which is promising if his scoring does drop off.

Amusingly, Stamkos noted how low his faceoff rating was when EA Sports named him the cover star for NHL ’12, and we’ve seen his acumen in that area rise — probably coincidentally. Stamkos’ early career faceoff percentage was just 46.4. Stamkos improved gradually over the years, and has really took off in that area since 2015-16, winning 53.7 percent of his draws. This season, Stamkos has won a whopping 60 percent.

While the impact of faceoff dominance can be overblown, the point is really that Stamkos continues to refine his game. He won’t be mistaken for a Selke frontrunner anytime soon, but by becoming more well-rounded, Stamkos faces a strong chance of mitigating the aging process by bringing more to the table than just scoring.

***

So, yeah, it can be easy to forget how special Stamkos is. Maybe winning that elusive Stanley Cup might shine that spotlight on him a bit more?

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.