Panthers’ Gilroy signs in KHL

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After just five seasons in the NHL, Matt Gilroy is on his way to Russia.

Gilroy has left the Florida organization to join KHL club Atlant Moscow Oblast, the team announced on Thursday. The move comes on the heels of a season in which Gilroy only made 16 appearances for the Panthers, spending the majority of his time with AHL San Antonio.

The 29-year-old rearguard, who won the Hobey Baker and NCAA championship in 2009 with Boston University, was once a highly sought-after collegiate free agent that inked a two-year, $3.5 million deal with the Rangers right out of school. He was allowed to walk following his stint with the Blueshirts and followed that up with is best season in 2011-12, when he scored 20 points in 67 games while splitting time between Ottawa and Tampa Bay.

From there, though, Gilroy has struggled to stay in an NHL lineup. He had an unsuccessful return to the Rangers last season and was a non-factor in Florida this year.

PHT’s 2018-19 Central Division Preview

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(The 2018-19 NHL season is almost here. This week Pro Hockey Talk will be previewing all four divisions looking at strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

Atlantic Division Preview
Metropolitan Division Preview

It’s been widely regarded as the toughest (and arguably the most talented) division in the NHL, and the Central Division certainly lived up to that moniker last season, sporting the top two teams league-wide in the Nashville Predators and the Winnipeg Jets, finishing with 117 and 114 points, respectively. The division doesn’t look like it will take a step back this season, either.

It’s one of the most interesting arms races in the NHL and there are no signs of that slowing down.

What will the division look like this year? Let’s take a look:

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: 

Better or Worse: This one depends on how the Corey Crawford situation plays out. It appears he’s getting close to returning, but it takes one puck or one bump in the crease to send Chicago’s season into a spiral again. Cam Ward is a serviceable backup, if not still a fringe starter in the NHL, so Chicago has that going for them at the moment.

The ‘Hawks are only getting older. See: Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, etc. Jonathan Toews’ production is slipping. Patrick Kane is likely still going to put in work, but I’m not certain it will be enough.

Strengths: Goaltending, if Crawford plays. His numbers last season were otherworldly until injuries derailed his bid for the Vezina. Ward, as mentioned above, should be a solid backup that could allow Crawford to rest a little more throughout the season but Crawford needs to play for the Blackhawks to have a shot.

Weaknesses: Defense. Keith and Seabrook at the team’s top defensive pairing and aren’t getting younger and are playing more minutes than what would be considered optimal. Both are overworked and it showed last year. Adding Brandon Manning over the summer offers some depth on the back end, but it’s simply not what it used to be in Chicago.

2017-18 Highlight: One name: Scott Foster.

MVP Candidate: Patrick Kane. He’s still one of the best playing the game currently, a point-per-game player that can put the Blackhawks on his back on any given night.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. The Central Division is simply too good to allow mediocre teams into the playoffs.

COLORADO AVALANCHE: 

Better or Worse: Was it a fluke? A team that was dismal a year prior went on to make the playoffs with their last possible chance on the final day of the regular season and then looked pretty darn good against the Nashville Predators at times in the first round.

They added depth in Matt Calvert and Ian Cole and made things interesting in the crease after acquiring Philipp Grubauer via trade. Can they build off last season, or will they experience the bumps young teams do as they grow together? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered.

Strengths: Special teams were a tremendous asset to the Avalanche last season. They finished eighth on the power play at 21.9 percent and fourth on the penalty kill at 83.3 percent. Those are some solid numbers from a young team like the Avs.

Weaknesses: The expectation that Nathan MacKinnon (and his line) needs to do it all. We saw it last year, and the Avalanche made the playoffs (barely) because of it. But that can’t be the expectation going forward. They’re still a team rebuilding, so the expectation is that will be cured with time.

2017-18 Highlight: Clinching a playoff berth in Game 82. (Don’t miss Landeskog getting mauled by his teammates after the clinching empty-netter.)

MVP Candidate: Nathan MacKinnon. Some say he got robbed of the Hart last year. He put the team on his back on the way to a playoff spot.

Playoffs or Lottery: Unfortunately, a couple teams have gotten better around them and that’s pushed the Avalanche out of the playoff spot and into the lottery.

DALLAS STARS:

Better or Worse: It has to get better, right? A new coaching style courtesy of Jim Montgomery might just do wonders for this team. It’s not like the talent isn’t there. They have one of the best top lines in all of hockey. Simply, if the Stars can score more, they have the rest of the tools to be a playoff team. A top 10 defense and solid goaltending are in place. Score. More. Goals.

Strengths: Defense. This seems to be a theme in this division. Dallas, despite their inability to score outside of their top line, was consistent on the backend, allowing the sixth fewest goals against in the league. Part of that is John Klingberg and Co. The other part is Ben Bishop. They had a decent penalty kill and allowed the fourth fewest number of shots per game.

Weaknesses: The Stars simply need more goals. It was their burden last season. They simply couldn’t find the back of the next enough to win hockey games. The teams’ top power-play unit needs to be better than their 19th ranking last season.

2017-18 Highlight: Here’s Jordie Benn hitting brother Jamie while their parents were in the stands to watch their sons play. Classic.

MVP Candidate: Tyler Seguin. No contract worries to think about. Just a sheet of ice and a swath of opportunities for goals.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. I simply don’t believe the Stars were as bad as their record showed last season. The switch of Hitchcock to Montgomery is a big one. And, to harp on the goals again, the Stars are a few more of those away from being a playoff team given their defense and goaltending.

MINNESOTA WILD:

Better or Worse: Better because Ryan Suter will be healthy. Better because they will start the season with Zach Parise.

Suter was ruled out for the rest of the season on March 31 and could only watch as the Winnipeg Jets decimated the Wild in the playoffs. Suter’s return is big for the team that added some depth in the offseason. The Wild dealt with a litany of injuries last season to top players such as Parise (who missed many games due to offseason back surgery), Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle. While Eric Staal may not score 42 goals again, a healthy Wild team is a dangerous Wild team.

Strengths: Devan Dubnyk has been rock solid in goal, and couple that with the Wild’s stingy defense, and there’s no reason to think he won’t have another great year again. The Wild are a good defensive team that can also score a pile of goals.

Weaknesses: The Wild are their own worst enemy. Minnesota is a good team that just can’t figure it out in the postseason. They finished 11th in goals for last season but only scored nine in five playoff games against the Jets. You can only shoot yourself in the foot so many times before it falls off. Calling on Bruce Boudreau to figure that out — it’s his job.

2017-18 Highlight: Eric Staal was sensational last season. Here’s a five-point night that included a hat trick for good measure.

MVP Candidate: Matt Dumba. A workhorse defenseman who anchors the power play and can score. He achieved career highs in goals with 14 and points with 34 last season and could take another step toward that elite plateau this year.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. They showed even without star players for various lengths last season, they had the depth to find a way in the back door. The Wild are a great team that shouldn’t have an issue making the playoffs.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS:

Better or Worse: They added a veteran presence on the backend in Dan Hamuis and have Eeli Tolvanen to look forward to upfront. They’re basically the same team that was in the Cup Final two years ago and have all that experience to lean on once again this season. They’re better through experience and a couple of added pieces that could finally fit this puzzle together.

Strengths: There’s still no better defensive core in hockey, right? Josi. Subban. Ellis. Ekholm – their top four is the envy of the NHL. They added third-pairing depth in veteran defenseman Dan Hamhuis, too. It heads into the regular season as the best back end in hockey (with San Jose hot on their heels).

Weaknesses: The Predators are one of those teams with few flaws. Adept at scoring, solid at defense and proficient at goaltending. Where’s the weakness? It could come from Pekka Rinne. I know, the Vezina winner from this past season? He’s set to turn 36 and struggled in the playoffs when the Predators needed him the most. Juuse Saros should help reduce the workload. That’s good, because if the Predators are going to win in their current window, they need Rinne at his very best at the most important time of the year.

2017-18 Highlight: The Knob Save (Josh Morrissey caught some mean whiplash on the play).

Bonus round: Viktor Arvidsson’s pre-game marriage proposal win.

MVP Candidate: Filip Forsberg. Became a point-per-game player last season even after missing time due to injury, and set a career high in assists.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, a no-brainer. They’re one of two legitimate Stanley Cup contenders in the Central Divison.

ST. LOUIS BLUES:

Better or Worse: The Blues were in upgrade mode all summer, adding the likes of Ryan O'Reilly, Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon, while welcoming back David Perron after his year in Vegas.

The Blues were on the bubble last season, and may have made the playoffs if they sort of give up around the trade deadline and deal Paul Stastny away. The Blues added scoring in the offseason, which will help their bottom-third showing in goals-for, and should help equate to more wins.

Strengths: Undeniably, it’s St. Louis’ defense. On a team with a starting goaltender that had a .906 save percentage, the Blue still gave the sixth-fewest number of goals last season. That’s no small feat, given the struggles Allen achieved last season.

Weaknesses: It has to be in goal. Jake Allen is the ultimate Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde goaltender. There are days where he appears elite and days where he belongs in the American Hockey League. If Allen can be steady, the Blues are going to be a playoff team. If not, welcome to the lottery.

2017-18 Highlight: Brayden Schenn‘s remarkable season.

MVP Candidate: Vladimir Tarasenko. It’s time for him to hit 40 goals again.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. Despite the question of Allen, the Blues just look like a solid team in front of him, one that can potentially make up for any shortcomings their goaltending may have.

WINNIPEG JETS:

Better or Worse:  Better by virtue of the team getting one year old and coming into this season armed with the knowledge of what it takes to get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs and then what it takes to make a deep run, as the Jets did last season.

And it should be noted that their Western Conference Final elimination should serve in the growth department. Learning to lose and learning from losing can be just as important. They lost Paul Stastny, but were a good team prior to Stasny’s arrival at the trade deadline last season.

Strengths: Winnipeg’s offense was one of the best in the NHL last season and there’s no reason that should change, barring catastrophic injuries to the likes of Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele. Laine could easily top 50 this season, and Wheeler and Scheifele are point-per-game players.

Winnipeg’s power play is lethal and they found secondary scoring in abundance last season. Their projected fourth line (or third, depending on how you look at it) was one of the top 10 lines in the league in terms of puck possession, goals-for percentage and expected goals-for percentage.

Weaknesses: The Jets have few faults, which is what you’d expect from a team that won 52 games last season. That said, questions marks on defense have dominated training camp. The team is trying Tyler Myers out on the left side with Dustin Byfuglien and early impressions aren’t favorable. The loss of Toby Enstrom, who the Jets couldn’t afford to re-sign, has created a hole that needs filling.

2017-18 Highlight: Winning Game 7 in emphatic fashion in the second round against the Nashville Predators to book a trip to the Western Conference Final.

MVP Candidate: Mark Scheifele. A 16-game absence robbed him from a solid run at the Hart last season. Wheeler will be in the mix, too, but Scheifele seems poised for a season that could creep close to the century mark in terms of points.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, and perhaps an improvement on their trip to the Western Final last year. They’re a Stanley Cup contender.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Red Wings need Larkin to step up in new era

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DETROIT (AP) — Dylan Larkin has suddenly become a veteran at the age of 22 for the Detroit Red Wings.

”It could be the first time I’m not the youngest guy on the team,” Larkin said. ”That’s why I’m growing out this beard.”

The rebuilding Red Wings are desperately hoping the talented, two-way center can quickly become a leader on and off the ice. They suffered a setback before the season even started when captain Henrik Zetterberg‘s back injury ended his career.

”It’s a massive loss,” general manager Ken Holland acknowledged. ”No one person is going to be able to replace one of the greatest Red Wings of all time.”

Larkin is likely the one player who can come closest to filling the void this season. He signed a $30.5 million, five-year deal last summer after leading the team with career highs in assists (47) and points (63) in his third season.

Detroit did not make the playoffs last year for the second straight year after earning a spot in the postseason 25 straight times. A lot will have to go right for the Red Wings to avoid missing out on the playoffs again, a three-year drought that would be their longest since 1979-83.

Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman led the franchise’s resurgence after being named captain in 1986 at the age of 21 until his retirement in 2006. Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom then wore the ‘C’ for the next several seasons before ending his career and starting Zetterberg’s run as captain.

”(Larkin) has a drive like those guys no doubt about it,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said as he prepared for his 15th season with the Red Wings. ”He stays on the ice late. Sometimes he’s on the ice before skates. And sometimes, he skates with Little Caesars (youth) teams because he just loves being on the ice.”

While Larkin seems like a likely candidate to become the next captain, he may have to wait.

”My guess is we would be we’d go with three alternates this year,” Kronwall said. ”Then over the next year or two, things will naturally have their way and the next guy will be the Red Wings’ captain for a long time. Larkin is a natural leader and hopefully he’ll take more steps to grow even more into that role and I would not be surprised if that happened down the road.”

UP FRONT

Detroit is retooling around a trio of promising, young forwards: Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou. All three signed multiyear contract last summer. Filip Zadina may not make an impact in the NHL right away, but teammates say the Czech winger taken No. 6 overall this year won’t take long.

”You can tell how he handles the puck and skates that he’s going to be something special,” Kronwall said.

THE D IN THE D

Defense appears to be the weakest part of the team. The back end is led by the 37-year-old Kronwall and Trevor Daley. Mike Green is expected to miss the season-opening game and it out indefinitely with a virus. Green signed a two-year contract worth $10-plus million after he had a season-ending surgery on his spine last spring.

IN NET

Detroit appears to have a solid tandem in goal: Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier. Howard, who made his Red Wings debut nearly 13 years ago, was 22-27-9 last season with a 2.85 goals-against average. He may not have to play 60 games again because Bernier has 10 years of experience and played in at least 37 games the previous three years for three teams: Colorado, Anaheim and Toronto.

”We think we have a solid 1-2 punch in net,” Holland said. ”That should help us stay in games and be competitive.”

COACHING CONTINUITY

Coach Jeff Blashill enters the final year of his contract with a 104-105-37 record over three years.

”The team played hard for him and we lost 27 games by a goal,” Holland said. ”There’s no doubt he’s a better coach than he was a year or two ago because of the experience.”

CAPTAIN COMEBACK?

Yzerman stepped down as Tampa Bay Lightning general manager earlier this month to become a senior advise and speculation swirled that the move paved the way for the former Detroit star known as ”The Captain,” to return to run the Red Wings. Holland has two years left on his contract.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Follow Larry Lage on Twitter at https://twitter.com/larrylage

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

PHT Morning Skate: Smith-Pelly’s conditioning; Replacing Lundqvist

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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.

• Up top, a highlight package from Wednesday’s Hockeyville game between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Buffalo Sabres.

• Devante Smith-Pelly’s absence from preseason games is conditioning related. (Washington Post)

• Take some makeup, a little creativity and a love for hockey and you get this. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• A review of each Carolina Hurricanes’ headshot for this season. (Section 328)

• Here’s an in-depth look at the players that are tasked with bringing the Stanley Cup back to Pittsburgh. (Pittsburgh Current)

• The Washington Capitals’ black owners say their Stanley Cup win is helping them expand their reach to minorities. (The Color of Hockey)

• Will Ryan Murray ever be healthy enough for Columbus? (The Hockey News)

• A look into the task of replacing Henrik Lundqvist. (The Trentonian)

• Mike Keenan is battling prostate cancer. (TSN)

• A look back on the career of Brian Gionta. (The Hockey Writers)

• A decision must be made on who is going to be the backup to Fredrik Andersen in Toronto, just not yet. (Sportsnet)

• Ranking every starting goalie in the NHL. (Yardbarker)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Kings hope to get over 1st-round playoff hump with Kovalchuk

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Los Angeles Kings made one significant addition during the offseason, but the question is whether it was enough to help them advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

While the top teams in the Pacific Division were busy, the Kings mostly stood pat. Their only major move was signing Ilya Kovalchuk, who returns to the NHL after five seasons playing in Russia.

The 35-year old left winger fits a familiar blueprint for the Kings – he’s over 30, has a big body and can control the puck but lacks quickness in getting up ice. Kovalchuk joins what is one of the oldest rosters in the league with nine players who are 30 or older. He will be paired on the top line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown.

Kovalchuk’s addition should add some punch to an offense that has struggled to score goals. The Kings averaged 2.89 goals per game last season, which was 16th out of 30 teams, and their 155 goals in 5-on-5 situations was the third lowest of a team that made the playoffs. They had only four skaters score 16 goals or more. Only Arizona and Edmonton had fewer skaters with three apiece.

Coach John Stevens said at the start of training camp that he was happy with some of the improvements made last year, which included creating more in the middle of the ice and scoring off the rush, but that more progress needs to be made.

”I don’t know if I want to say we want to do a whole lot of things different, but we want to do some things a whole lot better,” he said.

With the addition of Kovalchuk, Kopitar thinks the Kings can continue to build on some of the progress they made last season. He said early in training camp that last season was the best hockey they’ve played in the regular season since winning their second Stanley Cup in three years in 2014.

”I thought we showed more positives than negatives,” he said. ”We’re trying to look forward, draw on the positives and go about our business.”

Here are some other things to watch as Stevens begins his second season in charge:

KOPITAR’S ENCORE: Kopitar finished third in the Hart Trophy voting last season with a career-best 35 goals, 57 assists and 92 points. It is unlikely that he will repeat those numbers, but he shouldn’t revert to the form of 2016-17, where he struggled and had 52 points, which was the second-lowest of his 12-year NHL career.

SCORING BEYOND THE FIRST LINE: The Kings are hoping some of that comes from center Jeff Carter, who missed 55 games last season due to a lacerated ankle tendon.

Forwards Alex Iafallo (six goals, 11 assists) and Tyler Toffoli are expected to take another step. Toffoli (24 goals, 23 assists) was the only player not on the top line who had more than 16 goals.

COUNTING ON QUICK: Jonathan Quick was one of the league’s top goaltenders down the stretch last season with two shutouts and a 1.99 goals-against average in his last 11 regular-season starts. Managing Quick’s workload will be more of a priority this season as he usually ranks in the top 10 in minutes played.

Jack Campbell has emerged as Quick’s backup. He earned at least a point in all four of his starts last season and had a 2.47 goals-against average.

THE SCHEDULE: The Kings begin the season with home games against San Jose and Detroit before heading on the road for six of their next nine. They face Southern California rival Anaheim only once before March 9.

AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule