Leafs grab Grabner, shed contracts in trade with Isles

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The Toronto Maple Leafs have acquired forward Michael Grabner in a trade with the New York Islanders. In return, the Isles have received forwards Taylor Beck and Carter Verhaeghe, defensemen Matt Finn and Tom Nilsson, and goalie Christopher Gibson.

Grabner is a pending unrestricted free agent with a $3 million cap hit. The 27-year-old speedster had a frustrating 2014-15, with health issues limiting him to just 34 games, in which he scored only eight goals.

From a recent Newsday article:

He needed hernia surgery in October that took away the second half of his training camp and the first half of the season, then he had trouble sticking in a lineup that had success without him.

He needed another hernia surgery in May but pronounced himself fit as camp approaches — a camp he might not have thought he’d be attending, with the Isles trying to hard to unload the 27-year-old most of the summer.

“A fresh start, I guess,” he said. “Trying to get healthy, get stuff back working. I had a lot of time in the summer, I think I used it properly.”

Grabner’s best season came in 2010-11, when he had 34 goals for the Isles, including six shorthanded tallies.

The Leafs have a number of veterans coming to training camp on professional tryouts, including Curtis Glencross, Brad Boyes, Devin Setoguchi and Mark Fraser.

As for the five youngsters sent the Islanders’ way, here’s more on them from the club’s press release:

Beck, a 24-year-old forward, appeared in 62 National Hockey League games last season with the Nashville Predators, scoring sixteen points (eight goals, eight assists). Nashville selected the St. Catherines, ON, native in the third round (70th overall) of the 2009 NHL Draft.

Finn, 21, was Toronto’s second round pick (35th overall) in the 2012 NHL Draft. The Toronto, ON, native spent his first professional season with the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League last season, recording a goal and two assists in 28 games. The defenseman led the Guelph Storm to an Ontario Hockey League Championship in 2013-14, while posting a league-best plus-57 mark.

Gibson is a 22-year-old goaltender from Karkkila, Finland. In 45 AHL games with the Marlies last season, he posted a 24-17-3 record with a 2.42 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage. The Los Angeles Kings selected Gibson in the second round (49th overall) of the 2011 Draft.

Nilsson, 22, played 44 AHL games with Toronto last season during his first year in North America. The defenseman from Mora, Sweden, was Toronto’s fourth-round selection (100th overall) in the 2011 Draft.

Verhaeghe, a 20-year-old forward from Toronto, served as captain of the Niagara IceDogs of the Ontario Hockey League last season. The Maple Leaf’s third-round (82nd overall) selection in the 2013 Draft, Verhaeghe won gold with Team Canada at the 2013 Under-18 World Junior Championships.

Our Line Starts podcast: Crosby and Marner injuries; Montgomery’s comments

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Paul Burmeister, Keith Jones, and Patrick Sharp discuss how Pittsburgh and Toronto will be affected by the injuries to Sidney Crosby and Mitch Marner, and offer their reaction to Jim Montgomery calling out Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Pierre McGuire interviews Arizona head coach Rick Tocchet, whose story from his rookie year under Mike Keenan got Sharp and Jones reflecting on unique motivational tactics implemented by their old coaches

0:00-1:50 Intros
1:50-4:25 How will Toronto handle Marner’s absence
4:25-9:30 Crosby the latest Pens casualty
9:30-16:55 Jim Montgomery rips his top players
16:55-30:55 An early look at 2020 Hall of Fame candidates
30:55-42:25 Pierre McGuire interviews Rick Tocchet
44:30-End Unique motivational tactics from old coaches

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 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

Since losing ’18 Cup Final, Golden Knights look more like Caps

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Almost 18 months since the Vegas Golden Knights’ improbable inaugural season ended, they look much more like the team that vanquished them in the Stanley Cup Final.

If you can’t beat ’em, be more like ’em.

Once a ragtag group relying on more will than skill, Vegas is beginning to resemble the Washington Capitals they faced in the 2018 final. The Golden Knights don’t have carbon copies of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, but they added some serious skill in forwards Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone and could easily follow the Capitals’ championship model.

“They’ve done a great job,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “I think they’ve added another layer. I thought when we beat them, we were a little bit deeper team, especially up front. Then adding Stone, adding Pacioretty, signing Stastny – those are three really good players, so they have a whole new layer of offensive, really solid players on their team. In theory, I think they’re a better team than they were.”

The Golden Knights who went to the final in their expansion season had a first line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith and leaned heaviest on defensemen Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore and Deryk Engelland. All those players remain but have the pressures eased off them, given internal promotions and external additions.

Forward William Carrier, one of more than a dozen players left from the 2018 final, said this is a better team.

“Right now, we’re a more talented team,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “It’s a different team. We’re a more skilled team than we were back then. But back then we had that air about (us) – we were the hardest working team in the league. I want us to get back to that. We were a fast team, we were a quick team that first year and everything went our way. We had a lot of puck luck and a lot of good things that happened that first year.”

Those good things stopped when the Capitals wore down the Golden Knights with their depth and won the series in five games. Then, last spring, Vegas got knocked out in the first round when a blown call in Game 7 against San Jose snowballed into a disastrous third period.

Bouncing back from two tough playoff exits is another lesson the Golden Knights can learn from the Capitals, who kept getting stopped in the second round or earlier before breaking through and winning it all.

“We’ve had some disappointments,” said Kelly McCrimmon, who took over for George McPhee as Knights GM last summer. “That’s your ultimate opportunity to evaluate and to learn and to assess where you need to be better. … There’s things you need to do to get you to the playoffs, there’s things you need to do to get you through the playoffs. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been a playoff team both years, we’ve gained that experience.”

Capitals winger Tom Wilson looks at Vegas as a team built for the playoffs because of its size, skill and toughness. It’s almost like gazing into a mirror.

“They have a really stable team – they can establish all four lines and roll,” Washington’s Jakub Vrana said. “They play hard, and they work hard for every inch of the ice. That’s what’s been winning them games. We do the same thing.”

Blending the work ethic and the grittiness that got Vegas into the final with the talent that could get it over the top is now the challenge. Gallant doesn’t shy away from the comparison to the Capitals, who perfected that mix.

“The work comes before the skill, and when you get your talented guys and your skilled guys working real hard, then that’s when you’re going to have the right team,” Gallant said. “I think the team in Washington, that’s what they do. They’ve got some real talented hockey players, but when they work hard, they’re a great team.”

The next stage in becoming a consistently great team is integrating homegrown players, like Cody Glass and Nicolas Hague, who were picks from the Golden Knights’ first draft in 2017. Vegas is at the salary cap like the NHL’s best teams and isn’t afraid of the big expectations that come with that.

“We don’t feel or act or believe we’re an expansion team,” McCrimmon said. “We’re in Year 3 as a franchise, and like every other team, always trying to get better, always trying to win more games, always trying to be a playoff team and have success.”

FIRST TIMER

Lifelong Maple Leafs fan Ron Ruckstuhl, 52, was diagnosed with Lewy dody disease three years ago and told he had five to seven years to live. In August, son Joshuah sent a tweet to retired NHLer Paul Bissonnette hoping his dad could attend a game in Toronto for the first time.

“I’ve waited 52 years for something like this,” Ron said.

As part of the “NHL First Timer” video series, the league surprised Ruckstuhl at his house earlier this month and took him and sons Joshuah and Ryan to the Leafs’ game Nov. 5 against Los Angeles.

“I’d never seen my dad smile and laugh (like that),” said Joshuah, 28, who is his father’s full-time caregiver. “For a little bit, you didn’t realize he was sick. You could see him forget about being sick for just a little bit.”

The league is releasing video of the occasion Wednesday to mark World Kindness Day.

“This is what it’s all about,” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said. “To be able to put joy in somebody’s life like Ron’s and to be able to show his story to the world is quite an honor and it makes me proud to be a part of the NHL.”

NO LONE WOLF

Phil Kessel is fitting in just fine with the young Arizona Coyotes and has come a long way from playing in the shadow of – and winning two titles with – Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin in Pittsburgh.

“He fed off those guys in Pittsburgh really well,” said coach Rick Tocchet, who also was an assistant with the Penguins. “Sometimes he was under the radar, and he’d come up with some big goals because (opponents focused on) Malkin or Crosby. Now there’s a little bit more focus on him.”

Tocchet said Kessel has done more leading because he recognizes, at 32, he should. It’s working.

“Phil, the young guys love him and he’s taking pressure off guys,” Tocchet said. “When some guys aren’t scoring, to be honest with you, the media are not on the guy as much because Phil takes that pressure off. So he does take the pressure or the burden off some guys if they’re not scoring.”

My Favorite Goal: Ovechkin scores ‘The Goal’ as a rookie in 2006

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Welcome to “My Favorite Goal,” a regular feature from NBC Sports where our writers and personalities remember the goals that have meant the most to them. These goals have left a lasting impression and there’s a story behind each one.

Today, James O’Brien remembers Alex Ovechkin‘s sprawling goal against the Coyotes during his rookie season in 2006.

The greatest goal scorer I’ve ever seen scored the greatest goal I’ve ever seen.

Hockey generally isn’t a sport that’s friendly to stars shining with huge individual moments, at least not compared to other sports. That’s what makes all of the symmetry so special, why even Ovechkin struggles to explain how he did it, and how his Capitals teammates couldn’t even replicate the moment in practice.

Unlike some other favorite goals, Ovechkin’s goal wasn’t directly important. It wasn’t even important in the game it happened; his crummy Capitals were already up 5-1 against the also-crummy Coyotes on Jan. 16, 2006 when Ovechkin scored “the goal.”

Ovechkin snatched the puck in the neutral zone, blasted past defenseman Paul Mara with a curl-and-drag move, but Mara took Ovechkin off of his feet. That should have been the end of it: a blur of speed and power that served as a reminder that Ovechkin can make something out of nothing.

And then he really made something out nothing.

Ovechkin was essentially spinning on his back and neck, yet he somehow found a way to not only get a shot off, but to hook his arm in a way that sent the puck right into the net. A sprawling Brian Boucher couldn’t do anything about it, and even Wayne Gretzky had to marvel at the replay during his darkest hockey days as coach of the Coyotes.

Gretzky’s face would be our face … if his jaw also hit the floor.

Ovechkin’s goal against the Coyotes was one of those albums that only gets better the more you listen to it, or a movie that only improves with further viewings. What I’m saying is that it was “The Big Lebowski” of goals.

Brooks Laich really tied the explanation together when he explained what made it so special to the Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan in a great retrospective of its 10-year anniversary in 2016:

” … This had so many facets: cutting across the ice, pulling the puck in tight, getting hit by a defender, rolling away from the net and facing away from the net and then hooking your arm around and getting it on the puck and directing it into the net,” Laich said. “There were so many variables in that goal that you really had to watch it so many times to really understand how special it was.”

What it meant to Ovechkin

“The goal” came at a powerful time for Ovechkin during a rookie season where he’d ultimately beat out Sidney Crosby for the 2005-06 Calder Trophy.

Ovechkin managed his first hat trick during the game before “the goal,” scoring three against the then-Mighty Ducks of Anaheim on Jan. 13, 2006. Managing a goal like that against the Coyotes, and doing so in front of Gretzky, had to feel like a “you made it” moment for Ovechkin as a rookie.

“Obviously lucky, but I’ll take it,” Ovechkin said, via the Canadian Press’ Stephen Whyno in 2016. “For that moment, it was unbelievable time. My dream was come true: I play in the NHL, I did that kind of special goal and Gretzky was there, as well.”

It’s tough to argue with former Capitals GM George McPhee’s assessment of Ovechkin: that he’s just that hungry to score goals.

“He never gave up on that,” McPhee said. “That’s why he’s a great goal-scorer: He just has a phenomenal shot, but it’s the desire to score. He’s always been so hungry to score.”

Zooming out

You might compare Ovechkin’s unthinkable goal to Odell Beckham Jr.’s seemingly impossible one-handed catch from November 2014. Both were superb physical talents doing impossible things, even as rookies, providing highlights that became downright iconic. Each player also can’t claim that the specific highlight reel moment was that important, as neither player’s team made the playoffs that year, and Beckham Jr.’s Giants even lost that game.

In considering Ovechkin’s goal, something emerged from my heart — or maybe my subconscious — for me, and maybe other hockey fans of a certain age, the early days of Ovechkin – Crosby had parallels to Sammy Sosa vs. Mark McGwire.

After an ugly MLB strike, the baseball world was captivated by Sosa and McGwire trading homers, and drumming their race quite amicably. The NHL needed its own ray of sunshine after the abominable full-season lockout of 2004-05, and it got some help from a bucket of goals (plus, not coincidentally, more penalties), but also the promise of two budding young superstars in Crosby and Ovechkin. Some grumbled at all the attention they received. Yet, in retrospect, those grumblings should have been silenced by that absolutely ridiculous sprawling goal.

That it happened in what was essentially garbage time made it powerful in its own way: if you miss a game, you might miss Ovechkin or some other superstar pulling off something mind-blowing.

The Ovechkin goal didn’t “save hockey,” nor did the Crosby – Ovechkin rivalry, or even any series or team.

That goal was a big part of soothing my hockey soul, as was that thrilling, and wild season. Although, come to think of it … maybe my jaw pops because of all the times it hit the floor while I stopped, paused, and rewound that astonishing video.

PREVIOUSLY ON MY FAVORITE GOAL
McCarty shows off goal-scoring hands during 1997 Cup Final

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.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Kuznetsov’s season back on track after suspension

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The start of the 2019-20 season couldn’t have been an easy one for Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov. The 27-year-old was suspended for the first three games of the year for a positive cocaine test. When the suspension was announced, he admitted he was crushed, but he also mentioned that he had “taken many steps in the right direction”.

After missing games against St. Louis, the Islanders and Carolina, he came back and picked up six points in his first five contests. He went a little cold after that sizzling start, as he saw his ice time and production dip (he accumulated three points in seven games, but two of those points came in the same game).

NBC hockey analyst Pierre McGuire shared a story about Kuznetsov during his daily hit on Montreal radio, yesterday. Here’s what McGuire had to say about the situation between Todd Reirden and his player:

“Here’s the little secret behind (Kuznetsov’s success),” McGuire said during the interview. “I had a long visit with Todd Reirden (on Monday) and I asked: ‘How did you get Kuznetsov back on the track?’ Reirden answered: ‘There were five games in a row where I played him for 15 minutes or less and he wasn’t pleased. I was trying to get his attention. So, he came to me in Calgary and said ‘I’d like to have a meeting with you.’

“So (Kuznetsov and Reirden) sat down after a practice in Calgary and Todd said: ‘You want more ice? You have to prove to me that you’ve earned it.’ And so from then on, this guy has just run wild. He’s run wild over the opponents and he’s run wild in practice. Again, the coach got the player’s attention and the player actually went in and talked to the coach. There was a meeting of the minds and it worked!” 

In the game before they left for Calgary (they were in Chicago), the Caps forward had played just 13:46. In the game before that (at home against the Rangers), he played 13:03. Since those two games, the Russian center has played between 16:04 and 23:28. He’s regularly hovering around 18 and 19 minutes every night.

The result?

[COVERAGE OF FLYERS-CAPS BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

He’s scoring more goals than he’s ever scored before. We’ve known him as a point producer, but his career-high in goals is currently 27. Now that he’s found the back of the net eight times in 16 games, he’s on pace to score 41 times this season. Can he keep that up? We’ll find out. But it’s nice to see him battle back from the personal issues that plagued him over the last little while.

The Capitals saw their six-game winning streak come to an end on Monday night, as they dropped a 4-3 shootout decision to the Arizona Coyotes, but they fought back after being down 3-0. Kuznetsov scored two of his team’s three goals in that one.

“You can tell when he’s feeling it and he’s going to be able to control the game, which he did most of the night,” teammate T.J. Oshie said of Kuznetsov’s performance in the game, per NHL.com.

This will be the start of a busy stretch for Washington. After traveling to Philly to take on the Flyers tonight, they’ll have a home game against the Canadiens on Friday, a road game against Boston on Saturday and another home game against the Ducks on Monday. Three games in four nights and four games in six nights are never easy.

The Caps are currently the top team in the East and in the NHL, with 30 points.

MORE: Why Flyers fans have reason for optimism

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp and NHL insider Darren Dreger. Kenny Albert, Mike Milbury and Brian Boucher will call Capitals-Flyers from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, PA.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.