Get your game notes: Kings at Rangers

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Tonight on NBCSN, it’s the New York Rangers hosting the L.A. Kings on Rivalry Night at 7 p.m. ET. Following are some game notes, as compiled by the NHL on NBC research team:

TOP STORYLINES

• Stanley Cup Final rematch…The Rangers host the Kings tonight in the first meeting at Madison Square Garden since the Rangers staved off elimination in Game 4 (2-1 win) of last season’s Stanley Cup Final. The Kings won the series in Game 5 in LA (3-2 in 2OT; series-clinching goal by Alec Martinez) to capture their 2nd Stanley Cup in the last 3 seasons.

• This is the 2nd and final meeting of the season…In the first meeting, NYR won 4-3 at LA back on Jan. 8th during a stretch where the Rangers had ultimately gone 13-1-0 including a California sweep, winning at ANA, LA & SJ in the same season for the first time in franchise history.

• Contrary to the series last postseason, it was New York, not LA, who overcame a deficit in their first meeting this season for the win…down 2-0 in the 1st, NYR scored 4 unanswered goals…Martin St. Louis is credited with the game winner (LA overcame a 2-goal deficit to win Game 1 & 2 of SCF).

• Presidents’ Trophy outlook: No team in the NHL has more points than the New York Rangers…No team has played fewer games than the Rangers…The Blue Shirts are on the verge of being the first team to reach 100 points this season (their first 100-point season since 2011-12; 109 pts).

• Since the inception of the Presidents’ Trophy in 1985-86, New York has won the award twice, most recently in the 1993-94 season, when they went on to win their last Stanley Cup.

• The last 2 Presidents’ Trophy winners had different postseason fates: the Bruins lost in the second round last season while the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup back in 2013.

• Ultimate goals…The Rangers & Kings each look to become the first team to reach the Stanley Cup Final in consecutive seasons since the Red Wings & Penguins met each other in the Cup Final in 2008 & 2009.

• Late-season surges have been the identity of LA in recent years. In each of the past 3 seasons, they have not clinched a playoff spot until the very end
of the season.

• With 10 games to go last season, LA had 88 points and sat 3rd in the Pacific Division.

• What’s also at stake for LA…The Kings can become the first repeat champ since DET won in 1997 & 1998…on the other end of the spectrum, they could become only the 4th team since the 1967-68 expansion to miss the playoffs the season after winning the Cup, joining CAR (2006-07), NJ (1995-96) & MTL (1969-70).

• Best start in franchise history…The Rangers are challenging their best regular season in franchise history…

• For NYR, the last time they won the Stanley Cup (1993-94) was a record-setting regular season in both wins (52) & points (112), both marks still stand as franchise bests. Here is NYR through 71 games in club history:

• Division title…New York needs 12 points to clinch its 1st division title since 2011-12, when they reached the conference finals, and only 2nd in the last 20 seasons.

• With 4 more points, (potentially a win tonight and at OTT on Thursday), the Rangers would secure their 5th straight postseason appearance – their longest such streak since making 10 consecutive trips from 1978-1987.

• Crunch time for LA: Though the Kings are 6-2-2 in their last 10 games, they remain on the outside of the playoff picture with 10 games remaining.

• LA opened its challenging 5-game road trip with a 3-1 win vs. NJ last night.

• Though LA has a poor overall road record this season (13-14-7), they have improved of late going 8-2-1 in their last 11 road contests. The Kings only have 3 home games remaining out of their final 10.

• Rangers rolling…Teams might have longer active winning streaks than the Rangers but the Blue Shirts very well may be the hottest team in the league right now…New York has earned a point in 9 of its last 10 (8-1-1).

• During this 10-game stretch, the Rangers have still yet to allow more than 2 goals in a game and have only allowed 2 twice. This is the first time they have accomplished that since Feb. 20 – March 18, 1971 (12 GP).

• NYR in last 10 games: 11 total goals allowed

• Rangers offensive outburst…The Rangers scored a season-high 7 goals against the Ducks on Sunday night (after scoring 6 total goals in their previous 4 games and only 13 over their previous 8).

• The 7 goals at home were the most by NYR at The Garden since Mar. 6, 2011 (vs. PHI).

RANGERS TEAM/PLAYER NOTES

• Injury alert…The Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist, who suffered a vascular injury in his throat on Jan. 31 vs. CAR (and last played on Feb. 2 vs. FLA), was medically cleared to practice with the team last Tuesday.

• The next step in his recovery was skating with the team this morning, his first organized team skate since the injury. If all goes well, Lundqvist will dress for a practice on Wednesday and fly with the club for a 2-game road trip to OTT & BOS. The Rangers return home for a Sunday matinee game against Washington. It is unclear when he will make his first start back.

• Martin St. Louis (NYR) was originally expected to miss 10-14 days after suffering a lower-body injury on Mar. 15 vs. FLA. No update on his status has been given.

• Another variable in the mix which caused Lundqvist to miss practice on Friday is the fact that his wife, Therese, gave birth to their 2nd child, Juli (both girls), that day…Lundqvist posted to his Twitter account after:

“My little girl is here!!…Everyone is doing great. She did not get the memo of me returning to practice today so we’ll try that again. …”

• Rick Nash on Lundqvist, “For sure it will be great to have our leader back. He’s so competitive; that’s why he’s one of the best goalies in the world. Family comes first; that’s for sure. But now we know he will be back.”

• The Rangers have gone 17-3-3 without Henrik Lundqvist

• Winning with Cam: 27-year old undrafted goalie Cam Talbot, in his 2nd NHL season, has started 21 of the 23 total Rangers games since Lundqvist has been out. Sunday night vs. ANA, Talbot stopped 36 of 38 shots
including all 21 in the 2nd & 3rd period.

• Talbot has gone 7-1-1 in his last 9 start: 1.21 GAA, .961 SV%

• Talbot played in the LA game earlier this season: 3 GA on 31 shots

• Talbot this season: 19-7-4, 2.13 GAA (4th in NHL), .929 SV% (2nd in NHL)

• The Rangers lead the league with 11 shutouts on the season, including 5 by Talbot & 5 by Lundqvist. No other Ranger team has had two goalies each record at least 5 shutouts in the same season.

• Jennings Trophy…awarded to goalie (s) of the team with the fewest goals scored against on the season…the Rangers trail the Canadiens by 2 goals in this category for the league lead…

• Typically shared by 2 goalies (min. 25 GP necessary)…oddly enough, since Henrik Lundqvist entered the league in 2005-06, only in his rookie season has another Ranger goalie even played 25 games in a season (Kevin Weekes; 32) – Talbot has played 32 games this season.

KINGS TEAM/PLAYER NOTES

• Marian Gaborik had 2 assists last night in New Jersey. Now in his 14th season, the 33-year-old was the 3rd overall pick in the 2000 draft by MIN. After 8 seasons in MIN, Gaborik played for the Rangers for 3+ seasons (229 pts in 255 games). He has played for the Kings since March of last season when he was traded from CBJ.

• Gaborik led all players last postseason with 14 goals in 26 games, including 2 in the Stanley Cup Final.

• Mike Richards was recalled from Manchester (AHL) over the weekend, and he played for the Kings last night (0 points, 11:41 TOI) for the first time since Jan. 21st (missed 24 games).

• Richards was waived and subsequently sent to the minors in late January (14 points in 16 AHL games). His last game for Manchester was March 8, and he had since been in Southern California for on and off-ice tests to establish a baseline for his conditioning.

• Richards is in the 7th year of a 12-year/$69 million deal through 2020 (cap hit 5.75M).

• Richards, a 2-time Cup Champion with LA, has been with the Kings since the start of the 2011-12 season.

• LA has struggled to get goal-scoring from captain Dustin Brown. The Ithaca, NY, native has seen his goal production decline in every season since scoring 28 goals in 2010-11.

• He has just 10 goals in 72 games this season (on pace for his lowest total since his rookie season in
2003-04), including 15 straight without a goal (only 1 assist in that span).

• Anze Kopitar factored in all 3 Kings goals last night with 1 goal & 2 assists. He has led the team in scoring each of the past 7 seasons & once again leads LA with 57 points this season.

• Kopitar has points in 3 straight games and 12 points overall in his last 10 games.

• Andrej Sekera scored for the first time as a King last night – he opened the game’s scoring with a goal in the 1st.

• In 12 games w/ LA since being acquired from CAR, Sekera has 3 pts (1G-2A) while averaging 18:42 TOI/G.

• Alec Martinez (concussion) played his first game since Feb. 7th last night (missed 19 games). He had 3 shots on goal and registered 16:23 TOI.

• Martinez scored the Stanley-Cup winning goal last year against the Rangers in double overtime of Game 5.

• Jonathan Quick ranks t-2nd in the NHL with 62 starts this season. Since Feb. 7, his numbers are far more impressive than they were over the first half of the season including 19 saves on 20 shots last night at NJ.

Will Taylor Hall re-sign long-term?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

Let’s ponder three questions for the 2019-20 Devils:

1. Has all the offseason work enticed Taylor Hall to re-sign?

In early June, a report from The Fourth Period’s David Pagnotta suggested that Hall had no interest in re-signing with the club.

Fast forward a month, and the team that managed just 74 points in a dismal regular season now had Jack Hughes, the top prospect in the 2019 NHL Draft, P.K. Subban, one of the league’s best defensemen, and were about to embark on adding Wayne Simmonds and Nikita Gusev before August hit.

Ray Shero needed to do something to convince Hall that the Devils were heading in the right direction and perhaps it has worked, although there is still no long-term extension in place for the former Hart Trophy winner.

Hall’s agent, for what it’s worth, says there’s no rush. As does Shero.

And while that may be true, these sort of things only become distractions as the regular season hits in 2019-20. The Devils would certainly need to know by the trade deadline so they could avoid a John Tavares incident.

Two first-overall picks in the past three seasons and a genuine attempt to make the team better has to sit well in Hall’s camp. But there’s always going to be that allure of having the world at his feet with truckloads of money and the ability to chose his destination next summer.

2. What role will Mackenzie Blackwood take on this season? 

Cory Schneider went more than a calendar year without a win and he was horrific to start the season, posting a 0-7-2 record before finally getting that elusive ‘W’ in the middle of February.

From there, he went 6-6-2 with a .927 save percentage down the stretch as he finally looked like the goalie sans the hip issue that had plagued him (and was surgically repaired in May 2018.)

Schneider’s injuries and Keith Kinkaid not being very good allowed the Devils a chance to see what Blackwood could do. And 22-year-old didn’t disappoint, even with the mess in front of him.

In 21 starts he went 10-10-0 with a .918 save percentage and two shutouts.

While Schneider appeared to begin his bounceback from surgery in the last half of the season, Blackwood should see increased time (even if the former is making $6 million a season.) Blackwood appears to be the future in New Jersey and the Devils shouldn’t be married to Schneider being their de facto No. 1.

3. What, if anything, will Shero do the rest of his cap space? 

There’s roughly $8 million still sitting in his kitty, although the team still needs to sign restricted free agent Pavel Zacha.

Evolving Wild’s model has Zacha coming in around the $2 million mark in terms of annual average value, which gives the Devils $6 million-ish to work with they want to strengthen the team further.

Of course, the unrestricted free agent pool has shrunk over the summer, but you wonder if a guy such as Patrick Maroon might make for a good addition in terms of grit and experience.

What about a Ben Hutton on defense to make another improvement on the blue line?

There still may be some bargains out there and the Devils appear to have assembled a team worthy of playoff talk.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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

It’s New Jersey Devils Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

2018-19
31-41-10, 74 pts. (8th in the Metropolitan Division, 15th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN
Jack Hughes
P.K. Subban
Wayne Simmonds
Nikita Gusev
Connor Carrick
John Hayden

OUT
Kurtis Gabriel
Brian Boyle
Keith Kinkaid
Ben Lovejoy
Kenny Agostino
Stefan Noesen
Drew Stafford
Eric Gryba
Eddie Lack

RE-SIGNED
Will Butcher
Mirco Mueller

2018-19 season review

Season grade: F
Offseason grade: A+

Yes, it appears it can all change that quickly for some teams.

Much like the Florida Panthers, who I wrote about last week, the New Jersey Devils can rest easy knowing that last season is going to feel like a distant memory after the summer Ray Shero and Co. put together.

The Devils were very bad last season, so bad that, for the second time in the past three seasons, they were rewarded (thanks to a bit of luck) with the first-overall pick back in June.

They came into the draft lottery with the third-best odds but moved up to spots for the honor of selecting Jack Hughes.

They then shook up the hockey world, dropping a massive trade bomb on the second day of the draft as they acquired P.K. Subban to fortify their blue line.

Getting Hughes and Subban in the same weekend helped take the sting off a poor season where they couldn’t score much and couldn’t stop the puck a whole lot at the other end of the ice.

Just two players cracked the 20-goal plateau, only one player hit 50 points and their goaltending was abysmal. It didn’t help that Taylor Hall was limited to just 33 games because of injury and then there were the rumors of his long-term future not being in East Rutherford.

Some of those questions still remain, especially between the pipes, but there’s a reason for optimism after such a big summer.

Aside from Hughes and Subban, the Devils also added some grit in Wayne Simmonds. It’s a one-year ‘prove it’ sort of deal that will keep Simmonds hungry as he goes searching for a longer-term deal next off season.

And they added a player some consider the best who wasn’t playing in the NHL in Nikita Gusev, a former Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick who was then signed by the Golden Knights last year and then traded to New Jersey in July.

A lot of good has happened since the Devils played their final regular-season game of 2018-19. They’ve had to keep up in an arms race across the Hudson River as the New York Rangers took Kaapo Kakko right after New Jersey took Hughes and added Artemi Panarin in free agency and signed Jacob Trouba to a long-term deal.

Either way, gone should be the days where the Devils aren’t considered a perennial playoff contender.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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

Golden questions for Nashville Predators

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators. 

Let’s examine three key questions for the Predators next season …

1. Is this really a better winning formula?

The Predators could have a deeper offense by adding Matt Duchene, while still having one of the best defense corps in the NHL if Dante Fabbro can make up for enough of what Nashville lost in P.K. Subban. By subtracting from a strength in hopes of bolstering a weakness, maybe the Predators will find a perfect balance.

There’s an uncomfortable possibility that David Poile might have outsmarted himself here, though.

For one thing, what if the Predators sold low on Subban, whose struggles were a bit exaggerated in 2018-19, and was a Norris finalist as recently as 2017-18? It’s difficult to ignore that Subban’s still someone who wins the shot share battle, while Duchene’s possession numbers have regularly been negative/average.

It’s possible that Fabbro might stumble considerably, considering he’s only played in four regular season and six playoff games at the NHL level. It’s also possible that the Predators have overrated both Duchene as a difference-maker and Roman Josi as a defenseman.

One must also wonder if this team’s just made too many changes over the years. They’ve traded for Subban and traded him away, brought in Kyle Turris in a big trade, were fairly bold in trading Kevin Fiala for Mikael Granlund, and so on. If you’re a stickler for “chemistry,” aren’t you a touch worried?

Duchene hasn’t been on a ton of winning teams during his career, but this is the best roster he’s ever joined … so we’ll see if this works out. At least you can’t accuse the Predators of being too timid.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

2. What kind of goaltending will they get?

Pekka Rinne‘s had his critics over the years, yet he’s shut most of them up. But speaking of years … Rinne turns 37 on Nov. 3, so there’s a real threat for a decline.

If that drop-off comes in a dramatic way, will promising young goalie Juuse Saros be able to hold down the fort? The 24-year-old was fine in 2018-19 (.915 save percentage), but did stumble a bit at times. Where Rinne is a towering presence, Saros bucks the trend by being a smaller goalie. Might that get exposed with more reps?

If you forced me to choose a duo to roll with in 2019-20, this one would be one of the top options, but as we’ve seen with goalies, that doesn’t mean strong play is a guarantee. With Subban gone and Duchene not exactly a perennial Selke pick, the Predators goalie job could be tougher than ever, and there have been certain stretches where the Predators’ defense already depended upon their goalies more than some might think. (Example: they were middle-of-the-pack in high-danger chances allowed in 2018-19.)

3. Did they fix their power play?

Duchene changes the Predators’ personnel options, and they changed to a new power play coach in Dan Lambert.

Ideally, those tweaks will modernize a Predators’ man advantage that relied far too much on point shots from defensemen, and sputtered to the tune of a league-worst 12.9 percent success rate.

With Subban gone, that’s one less force pressuring the Predators to play that way, and maybe lean more toward a three-forward, two-defensemen setup, compared to the wider league trend toward four forward, one defenseman setups.

Will those changes be enough to improve that woeful unit? Maybe positive regression would have taken care of some of that bad production, anyway?

The Predators might flat-out need a better power play if their new-look team isn’t as impressive at even-strength, so we’ll see.

***

There are a lot of questions swirling around Nashville, but the most fascinating one is: are they actually better than they were last season? The Predators certainly are gambling a lot on that being the case.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Canucks reportedly give GM Jim Benning an extension

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If the Minnesota Wild – Paul Fenton fiasco reminds us of anything, it’s that as bad as a GM can be, a struggling NHL franchise usually comes down to more than one person flubbing major decisions.

That thought comes back to the forefront with Friday’s report from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that the Vancouver Canucks handed a contract extension to frequently (and usually justifiably) ridiculed GM Jim Benning. Rick Dhaliwal, also of Sportsnet, reports that the extension is believed to be for three years.

It’s important to note that, curiously, the Canucks have not officially announced that extension for Benning just yet. Some wonder if maybe the franchise realizes this sort of move isn’t something that will receive, um, unanimous support from Canucks fans, media, and other onlookers.

If there’s one silver lining even for Benning haters, it’s that Benning is no longer a “lame duck” GM, as he was slated to go into 2019-20 in the final year of his contract.

That’s relevant because a GM without job security can be a dangerous thing. Rather than focusing on the long-term future, an especially flawed GM might instead just focus on immediate returns, with a “that won’t be my problem anyway” attitude about drawbacks down the line. Such a prospect would absolutely be terrifying with Benning.

Unfortunately, Benning’s already running the team in that way, anyway.

Rather than taking a sober approach that the Canucks are better off with a steady rebuild, Vancouver’s instead taken one positive (Benning’s drafting netting them blue chippers in Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Quinn Hughes, etc.) and tried to accelerate to a level of contention by making highly questionable win-now moves.

The worst contracts really sting. Years after making a terrible $6M bet on Loui Eriksson, Benning showed how much he learned by making a terrible $6M bet on Tyler Myers. At best, spending $6M combined on Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel would be something a contender would do in hopes of getting over the top. Vancouver making that decision reeked of a delusional front office.

J.T. Miller‘s a fine player, but giving up a first-round pick for him is, again, something an obvious contender would do, not a team that could very well still miss the playoffs by a mile. As a true Benning trademark, it’s also a dubious value proposition, as the Lightning were looking to shed salary, yet they got Miller’s money off the books and got a first-round pick for their troubles.

(Conditions of that pick mean it is a 2021 first-rounder if Vancouver missed the playoffs in 2019-20, but who’s to say they won’t miss it in both of the next two seasons?)

Not every Benning signing or trade acquisition is a huge blunder, but the mistakes really pile up, and even more defensible ones (Micheal Ferland, keeping Alexander Edler) would make more sense if Vancouver’s contending chances weren’t so iffy.

All of these mistakes really start to stack up, to the point that they nullify Benning’s rare strokes of genius. Yes, he’s made some fantastic moves in the draft, but the Canucks aren’t in a great position to fully take advantage of strong players on entry-level contracts because of all of the bloated salaries around them.

That can be seen most clearly in the case of Brock Boeser still needing a deal as an RFA. The Canucks are, somehow, cap-challenged, with a bit more than $5M in room, according to Cap Friendly. That’s … honestly pretty inexcusable, and it all revolves around an inflated viewpoint of what this team is truly capable of at this time.

And this reported extension argues that it’s not just Jim Benning who has a faulty view of what the Canucks are capable of.

The Canucks haven’t spent their money very wisely lately, and they’ve missed the playoffs for four straight seasons, and five of their last six. There are some reasons for longer-term optimism, but this remains a flawed roster, with contracts that could box Vancouver into a corner.

You would think the Canucks wouldn’t be thrilled to sign up for more of that, but clearly the Canucks think differently. Time will tell if they end up being right, but the early returns aren’t very promising — at least when it isn’t draft weekend.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.