‘It took him a few years, but Victor Hedman’s arrived’

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CHICAGO — Those who’ve been watching closely know Victor Hedman’s been among the NHL’s elite defensemen for a little while now.

Those who haven’t been watching closely, well, those people sure know now.

Hedman was brilliant in Tampa Bay’s 3-2 victory over the Blackhawks, on center stage in the Stanley Cup Final.

The 24-year-old’s excellence included a mighty assist on the game’s winning goal, when, with just over three minutes remaining in regulation, he picked up the puck at his own blue line, rushed his giant frame through the neutral zone, went wide on Brent Seabrook and used his reach to sling a perfect pass to Cedric Paquette, who directed it into the Chicago net.

“I said to him after the game, ‘How do you find those plays, man?'” said his defensive partner, Anton Stralman. “He’s very optimistic in that way. Likes to join the rush, usually makes really good reads, when to go, when not to go.”

Hedman was drafted second overall in 2009, right after John Tavares. He jumped into the NHL right away, but not with the spectacular results that some rookies have enjoyed.

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is the only player on the current roster that was on that 2009-10 team with Hedman.

“It’s tough to come into the league as an 18-year-old defenseman. I think that’s the toughest position to be put in,” said Stamkos. “Especially in the position that we were in. We weren’t a great team. He was getting some minutes against some quality competition, and our team was struggling. He was kind of thrown into the fire. He’s matured as a player, matured as a person. You see the confidence that he has now. He steps up in all big moments.”

“Hedman, what he’s doing, I mean, this is clearly his coming-out party,” added Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper.

On top of the pass that Hedman made on the winning goal, he also set up Ryan Callahan’s first-period rocket past Corey Crawford, on one of the longest bombs you’ll ever see in a hockey game.

“We were pressured in the zone a little bit and trying to calm the play down a little bit,” Hedman explained. “I wasn’t going to give it to him. I saw their d-man fell. Tried to put it there. He made a good catch on his backhand. It was a hell of a shot. That was obviously a big goal. We probably got a little lucky that their d-man went down.”

Perhaps, but there was no luck in the second period when Hedman made arguably an even better pass, sending the puck high off the glass to give Nikita Kucherov a breakaway.

“Words can’t describe the force that he’s been out there for our team,” said Stamkos. “We’ve known how good he is all along.”

“Just the plays he makes, it’s fun to watch,” said Cooper. “He’s really grown into that role. It took him a few years, but Victor Hedman’s arrived.”

Related: Hanifin feels he has NHL ‘mindset,’ but won’t be ‘mad’ if he goes back to college

Galchenyuk could really tie Coyotes’ offense together

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Seth Jones is the only returning player worth watching as the Columbus Blue Jackets take on the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday night.

While the Blue Jackets will see their Norris-caliber defenseman make his season debut, Alex Galchenyuk will finally play his first regular-season game for the Coyotes.

Late in the preseason, Galchenyuk suffered a lower-body injury that sidelined im on a week-to-week basis, forcing the slick scorer to miss Arizona’s first seven games. The concern was that, once again, the Coyotes would begin the season on a down note. With a 2-5-0 record and, somehow, just 11 goals scored through seven games, such concerns ended up being justified.

Injecting Galchenyuk’s scoring ability into that lineup could mean a big boost.

No, he’s not the sort of tide-changing star who would lift Arizona into the scoring stratosphere, but Galchenyuk is a one-time 30-goal scorer, has another 20-goal season his resume, and has reached 50+ points twice in his career. Not bad for a 24-year-old who will surely enter this season with a chip on his shoulder (and likely a refreshed feeling after exiting a toxic situation in Montreal).

Let’s go over why Galchenyuk’s addition could be big for the Coyotes:

Some help for Keller

Clayton Keller probably feels some empathy for Islanders wunderkind Mathew Barzal, as both have been asked to carry a huge burden of scoring for their teams entering sophomore seasons.

Players of any age can use someone who thinks the game at a higher level like them, and opens up space with smarts, skill, and finishing ability. Such a synthesis is plausible for Keller – Galchenyuk, whether that requires a few shifts or a few games to come to fruition.

With a big body like Lawson Crouse to – ideally – to some of the dirty work, and maybe shovel in some goals in front of the net, this could be a nice little scoring line.

Finishing touch on the power play, and in general

Circling back, the Coyotes created their fair share of chances, even during the early parts of their historically bad start. So far this season, the Coyotes suffer from easily the worst even-strength shooting percentage, connecting on just 2.96-percent of their shots on goal, according to Natural Stat Trick. No other team is under Anaheim’s 4.58-percent mark.

Oh yeah, they haven’t been much luckier on the power play, either, with their 10.5-percent success rate ranking second-worst in the NHL.

Again, Galchenyuk isn’t just going to sprinkle pixie dust all over these problems and make them go away by himself.

Still, his skill adds what could be some crucial finishing touch to a group that needs it at all levels. Galchenyuk has hit nine power-play goals twice in his career, and 30 of his 108 career tallies have come via the man advantage.

Left Wing Lock’s listings have Arizona’s top power-play unit as Galchenyuk, Keller, Derek Stepan, Dylan Strome, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Such a group won’t send the Capitals, Maple Leafs, and other high-end 5-on-4 groups tumbling down the stats leaders, but it could very well make special teams a coin-flip, rather than a disadvantage for the Coyotes.

Demoted to your level of competence

When you get a player back from injury, pieces can fall into more natural places. Even if Galchenyuk isn’t quite a top-line center (a genuine possibility), he might be able to help the Coyotes open up advantages at different levels.

For one thing, Derek Stepan probably makes more sense as a second-line or 1b center.

Stepan probably deserves more respect than he sometimes receives; five of his last six seasons were 50+ points, and he generated nearly a point-per-game the year he missed (ah, the streak-killing menace that was the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season …).

With zero goals and one assist so far this season, Stepan was really fighting it. Maybe he was straining to play above his means? It’s plausible that he’ll return to that 20-ish goal, 50+ point pace with a little less weight on his shoulders.

***

Viewing Galchenyuk as a savior is wrong.

If the Coyotes climb in a big way, it will be as much about finally getting the bounces they haven’t been receiving all that often this season.

Still, consider Galchenyuk as an extra paddle on that pinball machine, possibly moving that random luck in the right direction. At worst, it should be fun to see him create offense alongside a brilliant young forward in Clayton Keller.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Rusev and Lana turn Predators stars into WWE superstars

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The Nashville Predators are readying for a heavyweight showdown with the San Jose Sharks on NBCSN tonight, so what better way to hulk up then to get some lessons from WWE’s superstars?

NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the San Jose Sharks and the Nashville Predators at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

Being that it’s Rusev Day, it only makes sense that Roman Josi and Ryan Johansen listed two Predators fans/WWE superstars and power couple Rusev and Lana. As you can see in the video above, what resulted was something of a tag team match, as Lana transformed Josi into a new persona (where he evokes the mop-haired guy from “Workaholics”) while Rusev warps Johansen into the sort of cowboy-themed character who would have put butts in seats in the days of territories.

Some highlights of the clip:

  • Lana noting Josi’s handsomeness, and finding ways to make Rusev jealous.
  • Rusev getting jealous.
  • Rusev being a proponent of a leather cowboy vest because it gives Johansen an opportunity to “show a little peck bounce.”
  • Those shorts are probably a little small on Ryan Johansen. Maybe knee pads would have pulled the outfit together?
  • It seems like a little more attention could have been placed on entrance music. Going to have to knock it down from an A+ to an A because they didn’t use the Predators’ terrible-great goal song:

Regardless, it’s great stuff, and perhaps it will inspire the Predators to smack down the Sharks.

Which team and professional wrestler pairings would you like to see next? Maybe Bret Hart can teach the Flames the “excellence of execution?” So many possibilites.

(Oh, and let us add to the best wishes for Roman Reigns, who shared the stunning news that he’s battling leukemia. Here’s hoping he follows in Mario Lemieux’s footsteps by resuming his career after beating cancer.)

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Blues keep finding ways to lose

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There isn’t much shame to coughing up a lead against the Winnipeg Jets, a team that can become an offensive locomotive when it really gets going. No, for the St. Louis Blues, it was the way they lost last night’s game, seeing a 3-1 lead evaporate into a 5-4 overtime loss.

“I think we’re scared to lose games right now,” Jake Allen said. “We’re behind in the standings, we know that; we know that each point is crucial, and we’re playing in the third period like we’re scared to lose the game. If you lose, you lose, but you gotta go down swinging. We’re just giving teams opportunities, and a team as good as Winnipeg, they’re going to bury them. This loss is on us.”

” … They didn’t beat us. We beat ourselves.”

The Blues fell to a disappointing 2-3-3 record thanks to a disturbing trend: giving up leads and letting wins and points slip through their fingers. The numbers back that up, extending back to last season, but especially right now:

The Blues have only scored eight third-period goals, by comparison, so it’s a troubling sign.

Now, with any pattern established this early in 2018-19, it’s dangerous to make too many sweeping observations.

That aside, it’s also important to ask questions, or else you risk history repeating itself.

How much of this is on the style of play? To be more precise, is head coach Mike Yeo trying too hard to “sit on leads” rather than enhance them?

Sure, there are risks involved with being aggressive on offense, yet every second you spend with the puck on your stick in the opposing zone is another moment where the opposition isn’t threatening to score.

The Blues were getting rid of the puck as if it was a live grenade often through the third period of that eventual loss to Winnipeg. It got to the point where officiating became crucial in a sad way: borderline icing calls. At one point Jets fans serenaded referees for calling an icing after an earlier call was thwarted in part by an official getting in Jacob Trouba‘s way. Later on, it seemed like an icing might have been too hastily whistled against the Blues.

For all we know, a more aggressive approach might have left the Blues losing to the Jets in regulation, rather than at least getting a point in an overtime loss. Hindsight is 20/20, so it’s easy to armchair QB the Blues’ approach after the fact.

You can still wonder about some coaching decisions, however. Why, for instance, was recently scratched defenseman Jay Bouwmeester on the ice in so many crucial situations?

Such mistakes can come back to haunt the Blues in future games where they’re trying to protect leads.

Plenty has been made about buzzwords like “urgency,” as you can see from this Jeremy Rutherford piece from The Athletic (sub required) about a week ago. But how much of that lack of urgency stems back to Yeo’s system, how he might be playing to the score, and the players he’s putting out on the ice in certain situations.

The Blues boast a wealth of options on defense, from established difference-makers such as Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko to an interesting up-and-coming scorer like Vince Dunn. Is it really wise to hope Bouwmeester can carry such of a workload? Is this a case of outdated thinking? Could it be that Yeo was overreacting to this brutal late-game gaffe by Parayko?

Now, look, it’s not all bad for the Blues. Generally speaking, when you open up a 3-1 lead against the Jets – carrying big chunks of play in the process – you’re probably doing quite a bit right.

For one thing, the Blues might have stumbled onto some nice scoring balance, at least between its top two lines.

Early on, Ryan O'Reilly was anchoring a top line with Vladimir Tarasenko. After starting strong, the combo hit a lull, so Yeo reunited last year’s deadly first line (Tarasenko with Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz) while putting ROR with David Perron. So far, O’Reilly (six points in three games) and Perron (five in three games) have been generating serious offense. If that top trio can rekindle some of last year’s magic, they might just build up leads so robust that they can rest on their heels and still win plenty of games.

Nonetheless, the Blues bring high expectations into this season. They gave up some serious futures to land O’Reilly, along with landing Perron and Patrick Maroon in free agency.

On paper, the Blues seem like they should be a contender, even in the cutthroat Central Division. If St. Louis can’t convert that potential to real-life wins soon, the heat could really start to rise.

It’s up to Yeo and others to find answers, and soon.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Crosby looking to jump-start offense vs. McDavid, Oilers

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As fun as the “best hockey player in the world” debate has been through the early weeks of the season, that conversation has deflected some attention from Sidney Crosby not exactly being at his best.

About a week ago, PHT’s Adam Gretz discussed Crosby’s scoring struggles, noting the belief that it’s “only a matter of time” before number 87 finds his offense again. To be more specific, Crosby hadn’t scored a goal yet, and he still hasn’t; he now sits at zero goals and five assists in six games.

Of course, the Penguins have been off since blanking the Maple Leafs 3-0 on Oct. 18, so it’s not as though Crosby’s added many more goal-less games since then. Even so, that’s given him that much more time to stew over any frustrations that might be lingering – as early as we are in the season, Crosby’s nothing if not a perfectionist – which makes Tuesday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers that much more tantalizing.

[More on the best debate from AP; don’t sleep on Crosby’s buddy Nathan MacKinnon]

Could Sidney Crosby finally enjoy a truly transcendent performance against Connor McDavid?

It’s probably bittersweet (and all-too-familiar) for McDavid to review the four Penguins – Oilers games that involved the two superstars:

  • McDavid has been splendid, scoring two goals and five assists for seven points in those four contests.
  • For whatever reason, Crosby hasn’t really taken off in the battle of number 87 vs. number 97, as he’s only generated a single assist.
  • Despite that disparity, the Penguins won all four games.

That last point underscores the fact that hockey is a team sport, and underlines the greatest difference between the two right now: Crosby has a lot more help. After all, Evgeni Malkin (98 points) and Phil Kessel (92) finished last season with more points than Crosby, who generated 89 in 2017-18. That trend has carried over to this early campaign, as Malkin has doubled Crosby’s points (12 to 6) heading into Tuesday’s game.

So, yes, it’s overly simplistic to boil down this poster to a boxing or pro-wrestling style poster of Crosby and McDavid staring each other down.

That said, it’s not just the media and fans who are getting revved up for this one. Milan Lucic ranks among those who acknowledge the buzz around this game, as Sportsnet’s Mark Spector reports.

“It’s really special,” Milan Lucic said of the matchup. “It’s a game a lot of people tune into and I know, as an athlete, it’s a game you want to be in, playing in front of and with greatness. It’s kinda like back in the day when Mario and Wayne would play against each other.”

Interestingly, Crosby is playing more of the Gretzky role to McDavid’s Lemieux, at least in broad strokes.

Crosby’s team is deeper, as Wayne’s was during his Edmonton run; McDavid, meanwhile, might feel the same frustrations Mario did (although at least McDavid has Leon Draisaitl and some other quality players Lemieux lacked for some time). Crosby’s the guy who might be at the twilight of his peak, and he has the rings, while McDavid is that magical, almost-alien talent whose ceiling sometimes seems limitless.

This makes for incredible fodder, but again, there’s the question of whether Crosby can slip out of his funk.

Six games don’t give you anywhere near enough of a sample size to get too worried about anything. Much like Tom Brady, we’ve been down this road about wondering if Crosby’s finally hit the wall, only to have that door emphatically slammed shut. Let’s not forget that he’s close to a point-per-game, anyway.

It is, however, fair to note that – for his standards – Crosby has been pretty quiet.

As much as Crosby’s known as a passer, he tends to affect multiple levels of the game, so seeing barely more than two shots on goal per game (13 in 6, or 2.17 SOG each game) is noteworthy. Crosby’s developed into quite the volume shooter over the years, as his career average is 3.28 SOG per game, and last season’s 3.01 per contest marked his career-low.

Again, six games represent less than 1/15th of a hockey season, and Crosby’s adjusting to a new season, not to mention a mixture of wingers. While he’s clearly developed chemistry with mainstay Jake Guentzel over the years, the Penguins have placed his other winger in the old line blender, spitting out the likes of Derick Brassard, Patric Hornqvist, and Bryan Rust.

You wonder how long the Penguins can ask Crosby’s to carry another forward or two, as he’s managed for so much time. Perhaps this relatively slow start, if nothing else, calls for a little more help.

One way or another, Crosby is almost certain to find answers, and the net. Bonus points if it happens with the spotlight shining during tonight’s game against McDavid and the Oilers.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.