Vancouver Canucks ’15-16 Outlook

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It was another eventful offseason in Vancouver, the second under GM Jim Benning, and it left both fans and media asking the same question:

What exactly are the Canucks doing?

To hear Benning explain it, the plan is simple in theory, yet difficult to execute — rebuild while staying competitive, giving young players a winning environment in which to grow.

“From the time I took the job (14 months ago) until 10 days ago, I went at it hard,” Benning explained, per the Vancouver Sun. “It hasn’t been easy. I’ll admit it — it’s been hard. I’ve had to make hard decisions to try to remain competitive while building for the future. It’s not an easy thing to do.”

“But for the most part, we’ve been able to accomplish that this summer.”

Some will argue with that last remark.

This summer, Benning took heat for a variety of his moves, most notably his trade of popular (and relatively successful) backup goalie Eddie Lack to Carolina for a third-round pick, which many saw as a middling return. After tiring of the Zack Kassian experiment, the Canucks cut bait and got what they could in exchange — 31-year-old Habs tough guy Brandon Prust — then paid a tidy sum to acquire third-line Pittsburgh center Brandon Sutter, paying him an even tidier sum to be their second-line center ($21.875 million over five years, specifically).

In the end, it’s tough to say the Canucks got any better this summer. It’s tough to say they stayed even. Most say they got worse.

And that makes next year’s outlook kinda bleak.

Sure, the same old suspects remain — the Sedins, Alex Burrows, Radim Vrbata, Chris Higgins, Jannik Hansen, Dan Hamhuis and Alex Edler — but they’re all a year older, and now surrounded by kids. Bo Horvat, 20, projects to be the No. 3 center while winger Sven Baertschi, 22, will get a shot at the top-six. Former first-round pick Jake Virtanen (18) figures to get a long look in training camp, and Frank Corrado (22) will likely be in on defense. Other prospects like Hunter Shinkaruk, Nicklas Jensen, Brendan Gaunce and Jared McCann could all get looks, too.

Which makes for an odd dynamic, especially since the Canucks were competitive last year, registering 101 points and a playoff spot. But their opening-round loss to Calgary only confirmed what most suspected — Vancouver was a flawed team, nowhere close to contending.

Now, the club heads into this season minus the services of veteran contributors like Kevin Bieksa, Shawn Matthias and Brad Richardson — jobs that will be filled by (the aforementioned) inexperienced players. And should injuries strike the team’s aging core, it could be grim; at no position is this more concerning than in goal, where 35-year-old Ryan Miller, who missed extensive time with a knee injury last season, is backed up by a total wildcard in Jacob Markstrom.

Oh, and lest we forget, the Canucks play in a tough Pacific Division in which the Ducks, Kings, Flames and Oilers all made significant upgrades this summer.

If you believe Benning, though, his moves weren’t designed to make the Canucks less competitive.

The way he sees it, the club is more versatile than ever.

“What we’re trying to do is build a team that can play whatever style the game dictates,” he explained. “So we’ve made some changes this summer. I thought maybe in the playoffs we didn’t play with the intensity and emotion to step up in a playoff series and win.

“We’ve got some good, young, skill players coming up. But we want to surround them with players who fit.”

NHL on NBCSN: Ovechkin just needs bounces to reach 700 goals

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Alex Ovechkin‘s been stuck on 698 goals for five games now, with Thursday’s game against the Habs serving as his next crack at 700.

If it’s getting to Ovechkin, then he’s not admitting it. He denied his quest for 700 being a distraction for himself and his Capitals teammates.

“I don’t think somebody thinks about it,” Ovechkin said, via NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti. “If it happens, it happens. It’s just a matter of time, tomorrow, after tomorrow, whatever. We’re focusing right now to get our game better, to secure a playoff spot, and then we’ll move on.”

Blaming Ovechkin solely for the Capitals’ recent struggles (four losses, all in regulation, over the past five games) is oversimplifying. Consider, for instance, that they just concluded a three-game road trip in Vegas, all against viable opponents.

Even so, when a player is chasing a big milestone, teammates sometimes feel obliged to try to force it. Capitals GM Brian MacLellan cautioned against that, as Gulitti reports.

“From observing, I would say I think everybody wants him to get it and are trying hard for him to get it and I think we would benefit from just let’s play our game and it’s going to happen organically,” MacLellan said. “It’s just going to take care of itself. But you’d have to ask him that specifically if it’s affecting him.”

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET]

Ovechkin shooting, not getting bounces yet to hit 700 goals

The gut reaction would be to say that Ovechkin has been terrible since trying to reach 700.

After all, Ovechkin hasn’t scored a goal. In fact, Ovechkin has been held pointless, suffering through a cumulative -6 rating.

Yet, if you dig a little deeper, Ovechkin’s drought is mainly a reminder that hockey is a game of bounces. Ovechkin’s been almost miraculously immune to sniping slumps during his already-illustrious career, but he does get snakebit from time to time.

The numbers certainly indicate that he’s trying.

Through those five games, Ovechkin fired a whopping 27 SOG. That’s even after starting slow with two SOG against the Flyers on Feb. 8. The NHL also credits him with nine missed shots. Ovechkin isn’t hesitating to shoot, he just needs a few bounces to reach 700 goals.

You wonder if Ovechkin might tweak his pregame superstitions, though.

Could Canadiens (unintentionally) provide the breakthrough?

Reviewing his play at all strengths at Natural Stat Trick, it seems like Ovechkin is honestly playing reasonably well. The results just haven’t been there lately, which happens in the bounce-heavy world of pucks.

The Canadiens could be a worthwhile target for Ovechkin, who fell short against the team he won a Stanley Cup against (and the franchise he scored “the goal” against). Through 49 career regular-season games against Montreal, Ovechkin’s scored an impressive 32 goals and 54 points. That translates to .65 goals per game, even better than Ovechkin’s remarkable overall career average of .61.

With a middle-of-the-pack 3.08 goals allowed per game and a middling 79.1% penalty kill success rate, the Habs could be just what the milestone-loving doctor ordered for Ovechkin.

Joe Beninati and analysts Craig Laughlin and Alan May will have the call from Capital One Arena.

MORE OVECHKIN:
NHL Power Rankings: Ovechkin’s top 10 goals
By the Numbers: Ovechkin’s 698 NHL goals
Stunning Numbers as Alex Ovechkin closes in on 700 goals
Can Alex Ovechkin break Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894 goals?
My Favorite Goal: Ovechkin scores ‘The Goal’

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.

Our Line Stars: NHL Trade Deadline special with Bob McKenzie

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Bob McKenzie joins as a special guest to give all the latest as the Feb. 24 trade deadline approaches. Would the Avalanche make a blockbuster trade for Henrik Lundqvist or Carey Price? Are the Bruins willing to pay the price for Chris Kreider? Does the addition of Alec Martinez put Vegas over the hump? Plus, why Chuck Fletcher’s deadline moves in his Minnesota days might mean he’ll be more cautious this year in Philly.

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

MORE: PHT’s 2020 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

PHT Morning Skate: Best fits for top trade targets; Bruins have room to work with

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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.

• Adam Gretz chooses ideal landing spots for top trade deadline targets. Chris Kreider making the Blues even more relentless? Yikes. (YardBarker)

• Gus Katsaros supplements that with an analytics-based look at those who have already been traded, and those who might move. (Rotoworld)

• Speaking of players who were already traded, Tyler Toffoli shares his experience hustling to join the Canucks. Yes, it involved sharing some joking texts with once-again-teammate Tanner Pearson. (Sportsnet)

• Breaking down how Brenden Dillon fits with the Capitals. Interesting point that while Dillon is prone to taking penalties, the Caps’ strong PK might mitigate that drawback. (Japers Rink)

• The Bruins possess healthy cap space, making a trade deadline move relatively simple by contender standards. They’d only need to juggle a bit if they landed a big-budget rental. (NBC Sports Boston)

• I’ve pondered how teams might practice “load management” with players plenty of times before. With that in mind, it’s nice to see a deeper discussion of the practice — or lack thereof — in the NHL. Dom Luszczyszyn discusses how parity makes NHL teams less likely to rest players than their NBA counterparts, but how smart hockey teams should explore similar tactics anyway. (The Athletic, sub required)

[MORE: PHT’s 2020 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker]

J.T. Miller has delivered at a staggering level for the Canucks on the ice. It turns out he’s elite when it comes to heartwarming gestures, too. (Canucks)

• Cycling back to Miller’s on-ice impact, The Point recently broke down his breakthrough. Sheng Peng discusses how well Miller gels with Canucks star Elias Pettersson. (The Point)

Braden Holtby has looked sharp lately. After struggling through much of this regular season, could Holtby be back on his game? (Nova Caps)

• Kim and Terry Pegula told Sabres GM Jason Botterill that they are not looking to hire a president of hockey operations. Botterill apparently said in the past that he prefers to report directly to ownership. All of that said, it’s not clear if the Pegulas might be looking for a new General Manager. (Buffalo News)

• Things were bad for Milan Lucic, particularly in November. With James Neal red-hot, people were making unkind comparisons. But even more directly, he found himself benched, and pondered retirement because the game just wasn’t fun anymore. Like a frosted tip, it seems like Lucic has his sparkle back at the moment, though. (Sporting News)

• Andrew Berkshire recently broke down the five best defensive pairings in the NHL, including Nashville’s Roman JosiRyan Ellis combo. (Sportsnet)

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.

The Buzzer: Pastrnak lifts Bruins to OT win; Kreider’s value continues to increase

David Pastrnak #88 of the Boston Bruins scores the game winning goal
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Three Stars

1) David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins

Great scoring opportunities often start with a smart play in the defensive zone. Pastrnak poked the puck away from Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse then took off in the other direction. David Krejci made a quick outlook pass to Pastrnak before he converted a breakaway to lead the Bruins to 2-1 overtime victory against the Edmonton Oilers. It was Pastrnak’s 43rd of the season and helped the Czech forward return to the top of the NHL goal-scoring list alongside Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews.

2) Chris Kreider, New York Rangers

No. 20’s three-point night led the Rangers to a 6-3 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks Wednesday. Kreider remains the top rental forward available ahead of the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline and his value increased with another strong performance. The speedy power forward corralled a pass from Mika Zibanejad and then blew by Blackhawks defenseman Adam Boqvist before netting his 24th of the season. NHL insider Bob McKenzie reported that the Boston Bruins, Colorado Avalanche, New York Islanders, St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals have all expressed interest in Kreider. The Massachusetts native has spent his entire NHL career with the Blueshirts, but will likely be sporting a new sweater this time next week.

3) Alex Galchenyuk, Minnesota Wild

The 26-year-old forward made his first goal with the Wild count as he knotted the game late in the third period and then scored the shootout-decider in Minnesota’s 4-3 win against the Vancouver Canucks. Galchenyuk converted a forehand-backhand combination in the skills competition and interim coach Dean Evanson picked up his first win since the organization fired Bruce Boudreau. Galchenyuk was the beneficiary of an odd bounce at 15:15 of the final frame when his wraparound attempt redirected off Canucks defenseman Troy Stetcher.

Highlights of the Night

Vincent Trocheck is ready for baseball season as he batted this puck out of mid-air at 10:50 of the second period.

Patrice Bergeron finished a breakaway with a nifty backhand-forehand deke to open the scoring in Edmonton.

Roope Hintz found Corey Perry at the far post for the easy tap-in power-play goal to give the Stars a first-period lead.

Kevin Fiala wires a wrist shot off the cross bar and in just over a minute into the game.

Stats of the Night

Scores

New York Rangers 6, Chicago Blackhawks 3

Boston Bruins 2, Edmonton Oilers 1 (OT)

Dallas Stars 3, Arizona Coyotes 2

Florida Panthers 4, Anaheim Ducks 1

Colorado Avalanche 3, New York Islanders 1

Minnesota Wild 4, Vancouver Canucks 3 (SO)


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