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Golden Knights hoping early season success continues as they hit the road

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BROOKLYN — It’s almost November and the Vegas Golden Knights have one of the best records in the NHL. That’s definitely a sentence you didn’t expect to read after June’s expansion draft, but here we are. An 8-1-0 record and plus-15 goal differential has been powered by six wins in seven home games.

After taking care of business at T-Mobile Arena, the Golden Knights now face their first big test of the season. Eight of their next nine games will be on the road, starting with Monday night’s tilt against the New York Islanders at Barclays Center. Head coach Gerard Gallant is emphasizing the old cliche “one game at a time,” and his players are on the same wavelength.

“Make sure you focus on the game ahead of you and not the whole road trip,” said Vegas forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare after Monday’s morning skate. “There’s no point of thinking of a game you’re not going to play anyway. That’s the biggest chance you have to burn yourself on the game that you have in-hand. Just make sure that you focus. For us, it’s the Islanders tonight. Just focus on that and nothing else.”

The Golden Knights’ success has been one of the feel-good stories in the NHL this season. While their league-high PDO (106) and possession numbers (46 percent Corsi), via Corsica, say they’ll come back down to earth eventually, their start is still a remarkable feat.

Hitting the road for a few weeks now allows players for some bonding time. Dinner Sunday night in New York City was a good start as the “getting to know you” process continues. (Gallant joked that he knows all of his players’ names now.) The majority of players in that dressing room had their career paths unexpectedly altered over the summer and it was up to them to immediately develop chemistry.

“The fact that we all come from different organizations and different teams, all of us had to make an effort to get to know the guy that was next to you,” Bellemare said. “When you come to a team, you have to [make] the effort to introduce yourself to everybody. In this team we all had to do the same job. We all had to try to learn [about] the next guy and his family and everything. I think we can keep it that way and because of that there is less room for cheating or trying to do it your way. It has to be the team way because this is the only way we can survive.”

The Golden Knights players also shared another thing in common: the chips on their shoulders. A new franchise. A lot of preseason predictions placing them with high draft lottery chances. Add it to the pile of internal motivations.

“Not one of us were protected [in expansion draft] so it was kind of a feeling like ‘Alright, we’re in this together, let’s make sure we show everybody else that they made a mistake,’” Bellemare said.

No matter how the rest of their first NHL season goes, the Golden Knights’ opening month success has been vital on two fronts. First, they’re creating more hockey fans in Vegas and converting previous casuals to die-hard status now. Their winning ways has also provided reasons to smile after the mass shooting earlier this month. The aftermath of that tragic day showed just how much of an impact they’re already making in the community.

“It’s still early in the season, but with what happened on October 1, it helped us get an identity right from the start,” Bellemare said. “We’re doing this not for each other. We’re doing this for the town and that’s the most important part.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Flames GM takes profane blame for struggles, shoots down trade/firing talk

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With the Calgary Flames mired in a six-game losing streak, and maybe still a bit shaken from how the Avalanche dominated them in Round 1 this year — and, yes, with bold change in the air thanks to Mike Babcock’s firing — some wondered if Brad Treliving might need to do something drastic.

Earlier this week, PHT recommended avoiding such measures, especially if such a move involved trading Johnny Gaudreau at his coldest.

It sounds like the Flames’ GM got the memo, or never needed it. Treliving shot down talk of trading a key player, and also of firing Bill Peters early on through the coach’s second season, while addressing the media on Friday.

The fact that Treliving used salty language only made the candid remarks reverberate further, as PostMedia’s Wes Gilbertson reports.

A GM only gets so many cracks at finding the right coach, so it makes sense that Treliving wouldn’t throw Peters under the bus. It couldn’t make much more sense not to trade Gaudreau and other players who are important to the Flames, too, so this additional quote is crucial.

The key phrases from Treliving, beyond all the horse-blank, are:

  • “The coaches aren’t going anywhere.”
  • “Our top players aren’t going anywhere.”

It’s understandable that Treliving is still leaving the door ajar for less-important players to be traded, but it’s reassuring that he won’t make a panic move.

Especially since, well, Peters and his staff might be taking on a little water, judging by the fact that Milan Lucic at least practiced as a member of the Flames’ (gulp) top power play unit.

While there’s some logic to using Lucic as a big-bodied screener who would be tough to move from the goalmouth area, it’s not necessarily the greatest sign, either. Personally, I’m also a little underwhelmed by the lack of right-handed shots on that top unit, too.

But those are smaller tweaks that might not even last for a full game, and one cannot blame Peters for tinkering when the team is desperate for answers. It’s also key for the Flames’ GM to zoom out and take a longer view of things, so Treliving’s comments count as a comforting sign.

… Granted, there still isn’t a ton of comfort overall. This is a team that recently needed a players-only meeting, and sports an ugly overall record of 10-12-3.

There’s a lot of work to do, and maybe changes need to be made on the periphery, but credit the Flames’ “Riverboat Gambler” of a GM for knowing when to be cautious (perhaps even hold/fold ’em) too.

Maybe Treliving’s vote of confidence and acceptance of blame might clear a few minds and help turn things around?

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.

Can surprisingly scrappy Senators find right competing-rebuilding balance?

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When you’re trying to rebuild an NHL team, winning isn’t the only thing. Sometimes it’s the thing you want to occasionally avoid.

Such a thought comes to mind with the surprisingly scrappy Senators, who’ve rattled off wins in four of five games (and eight of 12) to build a respectable 10-11-1 record. Their 10 regulation/OT wins rank ahead of the Maple Leafs and Lightning, both stuck at nine.

Strong Sens Surge

The Senators have enjoyed particularly great work from a red-hot Jean-Gabriel Pageau, a rising Brady Tkachuk, a sneakily effective Anders Nilsson, and hungry players looking to prove themselves, such as Anthony Duclair.

Ottawa can really hang its hat on just how challenging this red-hot stretch should be on paper, with eight of their last 11 games coming on the road.

It all brings up a fascinating-if-awkward question: how much success would be too much success? What are the best ways to find the right balance between not (at least overtly) sabotaging immediate results in the interest of taking bigger swings in the future?

Consider this a suggested blueprint for 2019-20.

Don’t be shameless about killing the fun

In a great piece for The Athletic (sub required), Hailey Salvian notes that Mark Borowiecki said that the Senators “are getting pretty fired up” about defying the odds, and that “it’s definitely fun.”

It brings to mind a key point: there’s an art to “tanking” while not torching the confidence and habits of the players you want to keep around for the better days. When you look at teams that have been stuck in agonizingly long rebuild cycles such as the Buffalo Sabres, you’ll note players like Ryan O'Reilly burning out at the constant losing, and sometimes getting shipped out of town right when Buffalo might have been more situated to restore his love of the game.

Ideally, the Senators will start to build a structure for the future, while also losing enough to bank some big lottery odds. Judging by head coach D.J. Smith’s comments to Salvian, it seems like the organization is taking a sober approach.

“This is a process,” Smith said. “For us, whether its three years, four years, however long it takes for these kids to develop … But that’s been the best part, we are finding ways to win with the young guys and they are getting minutes and they are getting better.

“My job is to make them better by the end of the year, and if we can win some games along the way, it’s great.”

Building up assets to sell at a high price

Along with developing young players, Ottawa should focus on pumping up the value of non-essential pieces for lucrative trade returns.

If you look at the Senators’ near-comical salary structure at Cap Friendly, you’ll notice a ton of players on expiring contracts, with these standing out the most:

  • Jean-Gabriel Pageau: It’s easy to see why the Senators would want to keep JGP around for the long haul, but if I were Senators GM Pierre Dorion, I’d try to maximize the return for a 27-year-old player who’s on a career-best hot streak, with an unsustainable 24.5 shooting percentage acting as a red flag for his impressive 13-goal, 17-point start through 22 games.

While Pageau’s $3.1M AAV will shrink even more for a cap-challenged contender around deadline time, Dorion should consider selling him at his peak value (right now) if a desperate team would be interested.

If there’s angst about letting Pageau go … well, Ottawa could bring him back in free agency next summer.

  • Craig Anderson: The cynical rebuilding thing to do would be to keep Anderson (not playing well) and Nilsson (playing very well) in a platoon situation to lose more games. There’s a different bonus that could happen here, though: if Anderson plays at least competently, a team might look at him as a decent insurance policy, even at 38. Especially if Ottawa retained some of his $4.75M AAV … which isn’t a guarantee with Eugene Melnyk writing the checks, but still.
  • Anthony Duclair, Mikkel Boedker, Vladislav Namestnikov, Ron Hainsey, etc.: The Senators have a wide variety of expiring contracts for different tastes, in some cases with unclear injury situations (Namestnikov is on IR). If Ottawa can get value from trading any of them — even Duclair — they probably should.

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For those grimacing at the notion of the Senators not putting their full weight behind a playoff push, consider a point Salivan made in passing: Ottawa had 21 points in 22 games last season, too.

The Senators’ greatest focus should be on the future, but they don’t need to totally look beyond the present to do so. Finding the right balance could really help in the construction of this rebuild.

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.

Beyond Benn and Seguin: Breaking down Stars’ hot streak

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If it weren’t for the virtually unbeatable New York Islanders, the Dallas Stars would probably be considered the hottest team in the NHL.

About a week ago, PHT’s Adam Gretz chronicled the revitalization of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, the Stars’ biggest stars (don’t mix up your capitalization there, gang). In particular, the strong work from Benn and Seguin stood out after yet another browbeating from management, in the latest case being head coach Jim Montgomery — who later apologized for throwing the two under the bus.

The numbers back up hot play from Benn and Seguin lately, but this video of Benn rampaging against Mark Scheifele and the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday presents the argument in a more violent and entertaining fashion:

Yet, in a team sport like hockey, you usually don’t go on a five-game winning streak without other players stepping up, and that’s especially true when you zoom out to Dallas’ 12-1-1 run since Oct. 19.

Truly, it’s remarkable to compare the Stars’ 2019-20 season through Oct. 18 (when they went 1-7-1) and this blistering run that’s improved the Stars to an overall record of 13-8-2.

Let’s take a look at the other forces driving Dallas’ success. Feel free to play the Stars’ cheesy and/or great Pantera-powered goal song while reading this post.

(Of course it’s called “Puck off.”)

As you’d probably expect, the goalies have been lights out

Last season, the Stars survived (and even thrived) on a steady diet of “Benn + Seguin + all-world goaltending from Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin.” You might not be surprised to learn that they’ve all been key catalysts for this impressive run.

Through the Stars’ ugly first nine games of 2019-20, they allowed 29 goals and only scored 17. Remarkably, the Stars have allowed fewer goals (26) in the 14 games since, while generating 49. I’m no mathematician nor am I a goalie coach, but if you’re allowing less than two goals per game in the modern NHL, you’re probably going to win a lot.

Bishop sports an outstanding .942 save percentage during the hot streak, and Khudobin is right behind him with a .941 in that span.

Scoring variety

When the Stars handed Joe Pavelski a deal with a $7.5 million AAV, they likely expected the veteran forward to help them find scoring beyond Benn and Seguin — even if Pavelski landed with those two, and merely opened up easier matchups for the likes of Alexander Radulov.

After a bumpy start, Pavelski and others have provided offense beyond Dallas’ dynamic duo. Pavelski matches Benn’s 10 points during the past 14 games, and they’re both tied with seemingly defense-only forward Radek Faksa.

(If Faksa turns into the Stars’ answer to Sean Couturier — a defensive forward whose considerable scoring touch was eventually unlocked — then watch out.)

Right behind Seguin’s 15 points in 14 games is a player who basically deserves at least his own paragraph: Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old defenseman has 12 points in his past 14 games, and while he’s soaking up puck luck that probably isn’t sustainable, the bottom line is that he’s a star. He continues to average the ice time of a workhorse defenseman, and may not have to wait long for Norris hype. (It’s promising, too, in its own way that the Stars are thriving while John Klingberg‘s had a tough go of things.)

With Corey Perry gearing up (nine points during the 14-game run) and Roope Hintz back in the mix after dealing with injury issues, it sure seems like Dallas’ attack is more varied than last season. That could be scary, considering how tough they were to contain as Hintz gave them a bit more variety once he really broke through during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Promising metrics

Expecting long-term world-class goaltending is dangerous, especially with older goalies like Bishop (33) and Khudobin (also 33).

But the promising thing is that there are a lot of positives to take away from Montgomery’s system. During this hot streak, the Stars haven’t just been riding some positive bounces, they’ve also generated the third-best differential for high-danger scoring chances during that time, and look good to great by just about all of Natural Stat Trick’s even-strength measures.

Money Puck’s expected goals differential chart for the Stars really drives the point home in an aesthetically pleasing and almost blunt way:

Yes, the Stars are playing a bit over their heads … but maybe not so far that this isn’t a sign that they’re here to stay?

The truth about the Stars is likely somewhere in between their red-hot 14-game streak and the rough nine-game start to 2019-20. It will be fascinating to see where they end up once 2019-20 shakes out, and considering the mix of youth and veterans on this team, what kind of ceiling this group might have.

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.

Off Script: Eddie Olczyk opens up about his battle with colon cancer

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NHL on NBC analyst and 2019 NHL Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador Eddie Olczyk discusses his career and fight with colon cancer in an interview with Kathryn Tappen in a 30-minute special.

Olczyk was named the NHL’s Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador earlier this month and November marks Hockey Fights Cancer Month throughout the league.

Olczyk was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in Aug. 2017 and after a long journey was deemed cancer-free seven months later. Since beating cancer, he has been dedicated to be an advocate for those fighting the disease and their families.

MORE: Book excerpt from Eddie Olczyk: Beating the Odds in Hockey and in Life

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