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Brian Gibbons taking advantage of NHL opportunity with Devils

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NEWARK, N.J. — Two full seasons in the American Hockey League, after a taste of NHL life, would give some players a mentality that a regular spot in The Show may never come again. Not Brian Gibbons.

The New Jersey Devils forward wasn’t wondering when he’d get another NHL shot after 66 games over two seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets. He was thankful just for the opportunity.

“[I was] lucky to play the game still. It’s not the NHL, but it’s still a lot of fun,” Gibbons, 29, told PHT on Wednesday. “Great guys down there. It’s tough hockey, good hockey.”

The Devils are one of the early-season surprises atop the Metropolitan Division with a 11-4-2 record. It’s not just that they’re having success, they’re actually fun to watch again. The speedy Gibbons is one reason why.

The leading goal scorer for the Devils isn’t Taylor Hall or Adam Henrique or Kyle Palmieri or even last June’s No. 1 overall draft pick Nico Hischier. Gibbons is the one currently holding that title with eight, which isn’t bad for someone whose last NHL goal before this season came on April 3, 2014.

What’s been the secret to his success? The answer is certainly not linemate Blake Coleman’s pickle juice, which Gibbons noted he stays “far away” from.

“I’ve just been trying to play the right way, really,” he said, “skate hard, work hard defensively. Obviously playing in the offensive zone as much as you can, try to get pucks behind their D and then once you’re in the O-zone try and make plays.”

Inconsistency plagued Gibbons earlier in his career, keeping him from earning a regular NHL job. His first professional coach is now his current coach — John Hynes. The two, along with Devils assistant coach Alain Nasreddine, were in Wilkes-Barre together for parts of three seasons from 2011-2014. Gibbons moved on to the Columbus, splitting the 2014-15 season between the Blue Jackets and their affiliate in Springfield. The next year he was in Hartford, trying to impress the New York Rangers for a callup that never happened. When no contract offers came his way in the summer of 2016, he earned a spot with the Devils’ AHL team in Albany after a tryout and planted the seeds for an NHL return.

A 16-goal, 38-points campaign impressed Hynes and Devils general manager Ray Shero (who was GM in Pittsburgh when Gibbons was there) enough that he earned an invite to main camp this fall. He fit into his role on the team and won himself a job.

“He’s really bought in to what his identity is as a player. He’s fast, he’s tenacious, he’s very smart. He’s a very good penalty killer. He understands how he needs to play,” Hynes said on Wednesday. “The biggest difference was when he was in Wilkes-Barre there was lots of pockets like that and inconsistencies, but the consistency level and professionalism he has now is allowing his talent and skill set to come out. It’s nice to see a guy like that come in and earn a job, and so far he hasn’t given it up. You want those things on your team because it helps drive internal competition.”

Gibbons and Coleman had a head start on chemistry development at the NHL level after a year of playing together in Albany. The transition was seamless and each knows what to expect from the other. The trio’s success is a small snapshot of a bigger picture. The Devils are one of the league’s top teams through nearly 20 games because of balanced scoring (14 different players have recorded a goal) and Cory Schneider’s play (.935 even strength save percentage) in net. It hasn’t always looked pretty, but they’ve been able to get the job done.

“[We’re] finding different ways to win games, whether it’s getting a lead and playing with a lead or coming from behind or goalies stealing us a game or power play getting a couple goals late,” Gibbons said. “It just seems, for the most part, that when we’ve needed a big play we’ve gotten it and we’ve gotten it from different guys, which is key when you don’t have to rely on one player and can just do it as a group.”

We’ll see if Gibbons can keep up the productivity and finally establish himself as a regular NHL player. When he was down in the AHL he never viewed his time there as one big tryout, hoping to impress a GM to get called up. He was only concerned with what he could control and that was helping his team.

That perspective can be credited to age and maturity.

“I’m at a different stage in my life,” Gibbons said. “Me and my fiancee have a little one-year-old. It’s nice to be able to share it with them. She was with me when I was in Columbus but he wasn’t around. It’s nice for them to be able to share this with me and just enjoying each day.”

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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.

Edmonton Oilers: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

Leon Draisaitl Art Ross Oilers surprises disappointments
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Edmonton Oilers.

We didn’t see Draisaitl’s peak in 2018-19

Last season, Leon Draisaitl adjusted what we believed to be his ceiling. It was already clear that he was a gem for Edmonton before, but a 50-goal, 105-point season? That was more than many projected.

And it wasn’t even the most he’s capable of. Draisaitl put himself in the Maurice Richard Trophy race with 43 goals in 2019-20, while he remarkably reached 110 points despite the season hitting that mid-March pause.

If you translate 110 points in 71 games to an 82-game season, Draisaitl would’ve reached 127-128.

The larger Hart Trophy debate can be a little thorny.

And it’s true that Draisaitl’s been living large on puck luck for two seasons now. He generated a 21.6 shooting percentage in 2018-19 and a 19.7 percent rate this season, while enjoying high on-ice shooting percentages too (12.4 in 2018-19, 14.4 in 2019-20, vs. 10.6 for his career). But it seems clear that he’s going to be a nightmare for defenses to deal with, whether he lines up with Connor McDavid or drives his own trio.

(Interestingly, evidence points to Edmonton being better off keeping their two mega-powers together.)

The Oilers dominating on special teams definitely ranks among surprises

With McDavid and Draisaitl on the roster, it’s not that surprising to see a dominant Oilers power play.

Granted, leading the league in PPG (59) with far and away the most efficient unit (29.5 percent, Boston second at 25.2) was a surprise. (After all, the Oilers managed a 21.17 rate in 2018-19, and was putrid at 14.76 at 2017-18.)

But the Oilers being so stingy on the penalty kill ended up being one of their biggest surprises. Edmonton tied with Columbus for the least power-play goals allowed (31) this season, while the Oilers’ 84.4 percent kill rate was second-best in the NHL. (For all that went wrong for the Sharks, theirs was the best at 85.7.)

Combining special teams percentages only tells you so much, but it’s a quick way to illustrate just how exemplary Edmonton’s units were. If you add that PP% (29.5) to that PK% (84.4), you get 113.9. The Bruins (109.4) and to a lesser extent Hurricanes (106.3) were the only other teams really in the Oilers’ ballpark.

McDavid + Draisaitl with semi-competent supporting cast members figures to be a formula for a strong power play most seasons. Maybe not “flirting with 30 percent” strong, but strong nonetheless.

Repeating such penalty kill success seems unlikely, however. Maybe Dave Tippett can manufacture at least a decent unit most seasons, though?

Oilers struggle enough at even strength to nearly negate positive surprises

One knock on Draisaitl’s Hart argument is that the Oilers give up almost as much as they create with him on the ice. The high-event back-and-forth is illustrated graphically by Draisaitl’s RAPM chart at Evolving Hockey:

Oilers surprises Draisaitl give and take

Even that vaunted power play drives home the risk-reward point. The Oilers allowed 10 shorthanded goals this season, tied for third-most in the NHL.

Despite Draisaitl enjoying an incredible season, McDavid being McDavid aside from an injury absence, and possibly unsustainable special teams dominance, the Oilers only managed a modest +8 goal differential in 2019-20.

What happens if Draisaitl cools off a bit, and they stop getting so many saves on the PK?

It’s foolish to fully dismiss any team with McDavid and Draisaitl on hand, particularly since the Oilers boast a few other helpful factors (including intriguing defensive prospects Evan Bouchard and Philip Broberg). Still, those two carry such a burden, and the Oilers have enjoyed enough luck in certain areas, that one can’t help but wonder if disappointments will be more abundant than positive surprises in the near future.

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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.

Roundtable: Best NHL teams to not win Stanley Cup

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Which NHL franchise (team or one from a specific season) over the last 25 years are you most disappointed did not win a Stanley Cup and why?

JOEY: I know they made it to a Stanley Cup Final in 2016, but the fact that the Sharks have never hoisted the Stanley Cup is pretty disappointing. The other California teams (Anaheim and Los Angeles) have each won at least one, but the Sharks just couldn’t get over the hump.

How can you not feel sorry for Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and company? Those guys played at a high level for so long and it’s unfortunate that they could never win it all.

Since the start of the 2000-01 season, this is where the Sharks have finished in the Pacific Division standings: first, fifth, first, second, second, first, first, first, first, second, third, second, fifth, third, third, third and second. That’s a lot of good seasons. To have only one Stanley Cup Final appearance to show for it is just brutal.

Even the Vegas Golden Knights, who have turned into a bitter rival for the Sharks, have made it to one Stanley Cup Final and that was in their first year of existence.

What’s even more frustrating for San Jose, is that based on what we’ve seen from them in 2019-20, it looks like their window to win is pretty much closed. Can general manager Doug Wilson turn things around quickly? Maybe. But they don’t even have their own first-round pick this year.

There’s been some great Sharks teams over the last 25 years, but they’d trade all that regular-season success for a single Stanley Cup.

SEAN: I agree with Joey. You can count on two hands how many in the last 15 years that the Sharks have been my preseason Cup winner pick. But I’m going to go in a different direction. The 2010-11 Canucks were a team that conquered demons along the way to reaching Game 7 of the Cup Final.

That Canucks roster was a total package. There were some likable characters (Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Roberto Luongo) and others who played the heel role very well (Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Max Lapierre, Raffi Torres). There was also Kevin Bieksa, who could probably find a place in both groups.

Years of playoff disappointment were carried like baggage heading into the 2010-11 season. After back-to-back Round 2 playoff exits at the hands of the Blackhawks, the Canucks were again Cup contenders, and needed to finally finish the job. They did their part initially, becoming the first team that season to clinch a playoff spot and picking up the first Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history.

Every Stanley Cup championship DVD has those flashpoint moments on the road to a title. The Canucks had that. From their regular season success to Burrows “slaying the dragon” with his overtime series clincher against Chicago in Round 1 to Bieksa ending the Western Conference Final against the Sharks in double OT to Vancouver winning the first two games of the Cup Final against the Bruins. It appeared as if the stars had finally aligned.

We know the rest of the story, but that team was both incredibly fun to watch with the talent on it and so easy to root against given the villains employed on the roster. All they needed was just one win in Boston to change history.

JAMES: Joey beat me to the Sharks, but honestly, I’m glad. In having to dig deeper, it conjured some great/tragic hockey memories and interesting thoughts.

For one: the last two Stanley Cup-winners emptied out metaphorical tonnage of angst. The Blues have been tormented by “almost” basically from day one, when they were pulverized in three straight Stanley Cup Final series (1967-68 through 1969-70) without winning a single game against the Canadiens or Bruins. There’d be ample angst if they didn’t win in 2019, and the same can be said for the Capitals. It’s difficult to cringe too hard at the Boudreau-era Capitals falling just short when Alex Ovechkin won it all, anyway.

My thoughts drift, then, to quite a few Canadian teams that rode high.

It’s tempting to go with the Peak Sedin Canucks, in and around that near-win in 2011; after all, while I didn’t grow up a Canucks fan, many were fooled into believing so because of my handle.

But, honestly, the team that might bum me out the most in recent years is the really, really good Senators teams that fell short of a Stanley Cup. (No, I’m not talking about the group that was within an overtime Game 7 OT goal of being willed to a SCF by Erik Karlsson and a few others.)

The 2005-06 Senators rank among the more galling “What if?” teams for me.

During the regular season, that Senators team scored more goals than anyone else (314) and allowed the third-fewest (211). Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson both enjoyed 103-point seasons, and Jason Spezza (90) probably would have hit 100+ if he played more than 68 games. This was a team that also featured Zdeno Chara, a Wade Redden effective enough to convince the Senators to choose Redden over Chara, and other talented players like Martin Havlat, Antoine Vermette, and Mike Fisher.

The biggest “What if?” there revolves around Dominik Hasek getting injured during the 2006 Winter Olympics, a groin issue that kept him out of the ensuing postseason. Even at 41, Hasek was dominant, posting a .925 save percentage. Ray Emery couldn’t get it done, and the Senators were bounced in the second round.

While the 2006-07 Senators were the rendition that actually made it to the SCF, they no longer had Chara or Hasek on their roster.

Instead of a possible Stanley Cup victory, the memorable images of those peak Alfredsson-era Senators teams were ugly ones. Marian Hossa lying, dejected on the ice after Jeff Friesen beat Patrick Lalime and the Devils won a Game 7 in 2003. Alfredsson snapping at shooting a puck at Scott Niedermayer. And then plenty of unceremonious exits.

For more casual hockey fans, that Senators’ surge will probably be all but forgotten, but it’s really stunning just how talented that team was.

(Side note on almost-Canadian champs: I’ll likely go to my grave believing that Martin Gelinas scored that goal for the Flames.)

ADAM: I want to see great players get their championship, especially when it is the one thing that their otherwise great resume is lacking. The Sedins are obviously in that discussion, as are those great Sharks teams with Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski.

I will add another name to that list: Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers. Especially that 2013-14 team that actually made it to the Stanley Cup Final only to lose to the Kings. I know they lost that series in five games but I still feel like it was a lot closer than that because they literally lost three games in overtime. Lundqvist was outstanding in that entire postseason — and that series — and it would have been the capper on his career.

On one hand, I feel like Lundqvist is absolutely respected for the goalie that he has been. But it still seems like there is a “yeah, but…” that always follows him around because he doesn’t have that championship that will keep him from being remembered as one of the all-time greats at the position. He has been a great goalie, a sensational playoff goal, and was always taking the Rangers to levels that they probably shouldn’t have been at.

So which team am I disappointed didn’t win? At least one team with Henrik Lundqvist on it.

SCOTT: The 2018-19 Lightning were an elite team that not only didn’t reach the Cup Final, they didn’t even win a game in the postseason.

The Blue Jackets won their first playoff series as a franchise in stunning fashion as they won four straight against a big Cup favorite.

The Lightning were a victim of their own regular-season success. With 14 games remaining in the regular season, Tampa Bay secured a playoff spot and had little to play for the rest of the way.

“In the end, it’s just we just couldn’t find our game,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper told reporters after the disappointing finish. “That was it. It had been with us all year, and for six days in April we couldn’t find it. It’s unfortunate because it puts a blemish on what was a [heck] of a regular season.”

The Lightning won 62 games that season and finished the regular season with 128 points. The Bruins, who ended up representing the Eastern Conference in the 2019 Cup Final, finished with 107 points.

“You have a historic regular season doing what we did and have basically a historic playoff in defeat,” Jon Cooper said.

Tampa will always be one of the most successful teams to not win the ultimate prize.

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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.

Sharks GM gives Boughner ‘upper hand’ to take over as coach

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San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson isn’t ready to remove the interim head coach tag from Bob Boughner’s title yet.

Noting the Sharks’ season is not officially over with the NHL on hiatus due to the coronavirus, Wilson voiced his support by saying Boughner has the edge in taking over the job on a permanent basis.

“Does Bob know our group and have the upper hand in this process? Absolutely,” Wilson said during a conference call Thursday.

“But I think you have to be thorough in this process because we have the time and the opportunity,” he added. “And when you have time like this you need to utilize it.”

Wilson was pleased with the improved style of play and structure he saw in the Sharks in 37 games under Boughner, who took over after on Dec. 11.

Wilson, however, stressed there is plenty he wants to evaluate regarding a team that will likely miss the playoffs for only the second time in 16 seasons, and was last in the Western Conference when play stopped on March 12.

It’s unclear when play will resume, and whether the NHL will complete the final month of the regular season or go directly into the playoffs. The Sharks (29-36-5) went 14-20-3 under Boughner. The record was mostly a reflection of a rash of injuries sidelining San Jose’s top stars.

Wilson was more definitive in providing injury updates, saying and defenseman Erik Karlsson are on track to return next season.

Wilson said Hertl is ahead of schedule and can fully extend his left knee some two months after having surgery to repair two torn ligaments. He said Karlsson is nearly fully recovered after in February.

Wilson added forward Logan Couture is feeling no after affects after missing San Jose’s final game with a concussion caused when he was struck in the head by a puck.

Boughner spent his portion of the 40-minute session looking ahead to next season.

“Who knows what’s happening with the rest of the season here, but if we’re talking about training camp, that’s what excites me the most,” Boughner said.

“We’re going to treat training camp as crucial,” he added.

This is Boughner’s second stint with the Sharks. He spent two seasons as an assistant in San Jose before being hired to coach the Florida Panthers.

Fired last April after two seasons in Florida, Boughner was hired as an assistant to DeBoer’s staff.

“I think Boughy and his staff did a lot of good things and they were certainly hamstrung with a lot of our players out,” Wilson said.

Wilson also addressed the status of Joe Thornton, who is playing on a one-year contract and completing his 22nd NHL season, and 15th in San Jose.

“Everybody knows how we feel about Joe,” Wilson said, adding he has regular discussions with 40-year-old forward.

Wilson was non-committal when asked if there’s a place in next year’s lineup for Thornton, saying only: “He’s a special man.”

Looking at the 2019-20 Edmonton Oilers

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the Edmonton Oilers.

Edmonton Oilers

Record: 37-25-9 (71 games), second in the Pacific Division
Leading Scorer: Leon Draisaitl 110 points (43 goals and 67 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves:

• Acquired Angus Redmond and a 2022 conditional seventh-round pick from Anaheim for Joel Persson.
• Traded a 2021 fifth-round pick to the Ottawa Senators for Tyler Ennis.
• Acquired Mike Green from the Detroit Red Wings for Kyle Brodziak and a 2020 conditional fourth-round pick.
• Traded Sam Gagner, a 2020 second-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick to the Detroit Red Wings for Andreas Athanasiou and Ryan Kuffner.

Season Overview: 

The Oilers are as top heavy as any team in the NHL. How top heavy? Well, the top two scorers in the league are on Edmonton’s roster. Draisaitl and Connor McDavid have combined to score over 200 points this season.

The Oilers have been rolling with these two guys for a while, but the new combination of general manager Ken Holland and head coach Dave Tippett have helped take the team to another level.

There aren’t many teams that got off to a better start than Edmonton did this year. They won their first five games and seven of their first eight. Obviously, they couldn’t keep that pace up, but they managed to stay within striking distance of top spot in the division thanks to their offensive capabilities.

Not only do they have those two top threats, they’ve also received solid contributions from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Oscar Klefbom, Zack Kassian and James Neal. Also, calling Kailer Yamamoto up from the minors was a game-changer for them.

The 21-year-old had 26 games of NHL experience before this season (he had one goal and four assists during that stretch). He’s suited up in 27 games this year and he’s found a way to collect an impressive 26 points. This youngster has given the Oilers another dangerous weapon in their arsenal. Even though they’re ranked 18th in goals against in 2019-20, they can make up for their with the attack.

Did Edmonton have enough to go all the way? Probably not. But when you have multiple superstars like McDavid and Draisaitl on your roster and you find some interesting supporting pieces you just never know.

Highlight of the Season:

Ironically enough, the most memorable moment of the season for Edmonton probably wasn’t a spectacular goal or an incredible offensive outburst.

The highlight everyone will remember most was the battles between Kassian and Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk.

If the playoffs were to start today, the Oilers and Flames would go head-to-head in the first round. A seven-game series between these provincial rivals would’ve been must-see TV.

Hopefully we get to see that. For now, we’ll have to settle for this:

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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.