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Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown have the Kings back on top

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After missing the playoffs in two of the past three seasons and getting bounced in the first round in the one year they did make the playoffs it seemed as if the Los Angeles Kings’ run as one of the NHL’s elite teams was coming to an end.

They were still posting consistently great possession numbers and were a strong defensive team, but the offense was a mess and the roster seemed to lack any sort of quality depth. Even worse, the talented players that were on the roster were starting to get older and had shown signs of slowing down.

Dustin Brown‘s career had seen him produce like a third-liner, while Anze Kopitar, one of the best two-way players in the NHL and the foundation of two Stanley Cup winning teams in Los Angeles, was coming off  worst offensive season of his career. It was hard to envision (at least for me) a scenario where the Kings could bounce back in a meaningful way without making any significant changes to a roster that seemed to be losing its luster and seemed to be short on talent outside of a very select group of players.

It turns out the scenario that could spark a change was pretty simple: Kopitar and Brown returning to being elite offensive players.

That is exactly what has happened so far for the Kings this season.

Entering play on Monday Kopitar is averaging more than a point-per game (31 points in 28 games), is in the top-10 in scoring, and is still playing a dominant two-way game in all situations. His 22 minutes of ice-time per game are second among all forwards (trailing only Aleksander Barkov).

In hindsight, we should have seen his bounce back season coming.

A lot of his decline last season can be attributed to the fact that he was absolutely crushed by percentages last season.

His shooting percentage dropped all the way down to 8 percent, not only a career low but also the first time in his career he shot below 10 percent in a single season.

Had he shot at his career average of 12 percent it would have been an additional six or seven goals to his total, and that doesn’t even take into account the six games he missed. With just slightly better shooting luck he could have easily been a 20-goal scorer. When an elite player like Kopitar goes through a season where they are hurt almost entirely by percentages they are usually a great candidate for a bounce back the following year.

Players that have that sort of track record don’t just suddenly lose their ability to score. Hockey can be a cruel game sometimes in that no matter what a player does or how well they play the puck sometimes just doesn’t go in the net.

This season Kopitar has experienced the percentage bounce back and it has him back to being the player he’s always been.

The far bigger surprise has been Brown’s return to glory.

For the past four years he had the look of a player that was, quite simply, finished as a top-six offensive player in the NHL. He was entering his age 33 season and had not topped 36 points in any of the previous four years. Only once during that stretch did he record more than 28 points.

So far this season he has already scored as many goals in 28 games (11) as he did in three of his previous four seasons and has already had a hand in 23 Kings goals.

He has probably been a little fortunate from a shooting percentage standpoint (14 percent this season after being under eight percent in the previous four years … and sometimes around five percent) but you can not take away what he has already done. And right now he and Kopitar are driving the Kings’ offense in a huge way, especially as Jeff Carter remains sidelined.

The interesting thing about this season for the Kings is that this is a team that has finished higher than 20th in goals scored just twice in the past six years, and only once higher than 14th.

As of Monday they are eighth in the NHL, and while Kopitar and Brown have seen a significant jump in their personal shooting percentages, the Kings as a team aren’t really benefitting from an unsustainable shooting percentage. As a team they are right in the middle of the pack across the league.

It is worth asking how much of an impact the coaching change from Darryl Sutter to John Stevens has had on the offense.

Under Sutter the Kings were a defense-first team built around suffocating and suppressing offense. So much so that it took away from their own offense. Almost immediately after the team named Stevens the new coach the message was about improving the team’s offense. Over the summer Stevens and general manager Rob Blake talked about how the Kings were near the bottom of the league in controlled zone entries and getting shots from the middle of the ice and how they wanted to improve all of those areas.

Given how little the roster has changed and how much the results have changed from one year to the next it seems at least possible that the Kings have succeeded in a lot of those areas.

It seems to have helped two of their top players return to form, which has helped the team start to look like a contender again.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Panthers ready to welcome Mike Hoffman, fiancee with ‘clean slate’

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When Dale Tallon was contacted by Pierre Dorion last week about potential interest in Mike Hoffman, the Florida Panthers general manager thought the asking price from the Ottawa Senators GM was a bit high. He put that conversation to the side until he was contacted Monday night by Doug Wilson of the San Jose Sharks. Then a deal was made.

It was a wild Tuesday morning that saw Hoffman traded twice in the span of a few hours. He first went from Ottawa to the Sharks and then was later flipped to the Panthers.

“We felt this would be a perfect fit for our team,” Tallon said on a conference call Tuesday morning. “He’s 28, he can score, he can skate, he’s got a cannon for a shot.”

Hoffman, who played with Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau for one year with the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs, has scored 104 goals over the last four seasons and was the type of player Tallon was looking to add to his lineup to potentially play alongside Vincent Trocheck.

“Our power play will be better, too. He’s got a great one-timer, great shot,” Tallon said.

[Sharks flip Hoffman to Panthers]

Dorion was seeking players in a return, presumably so the team could stay above the salary cap floor for next season with more trades likely on the way (Karlsson, Bobby Ryan?). Wilson, however, was merely looking for draft picks for Hoffman as he’s been clearing cap space with many believing he’ll go strong after Ilya Kovalchuk and John Tavares.

By acquiring Hoffman, that comes with the questions about last week’s allegations about his fiancee cyberbullying Erik and Melinda Karlsson. 

Tallon said he spoke with some of his players and staff and “had no pushback at all” when it came to bringing Hoffman and his fiancee, Monika Caryk, into the Panthers family. “I trust my guys. I trust my staff,” he said.

He also spoke with Hoffman directly and Tallon noted he has a good relationship with the player’s agent, former NHLer Mike Liut. He feels confident that Hoffman and Caryk will be embraced by the team and by the Panthers’ wives and girlfriends.

“Together, we discussed that what happened there is in the past and we’re moving forward with a clean slate,” Tallon said.

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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 flip Hoffman to Panthers; Clearing space for Kovalchuk, Tavares?

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Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Mike Hoffman has been traded.

Hours after going from the Ottawa Senators to the San Jose Sharks, Hoffman found himself on the move, again, as the Sharks flipped him to the Florida Panthers along with a seventh-round pick in 2018. In return, the Panthers gave up second-rounder in 2019, a fourth and fifth-round pick in 2018.

“Mike is a skilled, consistent and hard-working player who has proven himself to be a talented goal scorer in the NHL,” said Panthers general manager Tallon. “His speed, experience and offensive abilities will bolster our top-six group.”

Obviously, we know what the Panthers are getting in Hoffman. He’s scored at least 22 goals in each of his last four seasons, but he comes with some baggage. Hoffman’s fiancee, Monika Caryk, had an order of protection filed against her by Erik Karlsson‘s wife, Melinda, last month.The Hoffmans have since denied those allegations, but it made for a messy situation in Ottawa.

The Sens were motivated to unload Hoffman as soon as possible, but they obviously took an inferior deal to make sure he didn’t stay in the Atlantic Division. Unfortunately for the Senators, the Sharks seemed to have pulled a fast one on them.

You’re probably wondering why San Jose would acquire the 28-year-old from Ottawa just to ship him away hours later. Well, they managed to dump underachieving forward Mikkel Boedker‘s $4 million salary to Ottawa in the first trade and now they’ve sent Hoffman’s $5.187 million salary to Florida for draft picks.

“This series of trades has allowed us to accomplish several organizational goals,” Sharks GM Doug Wilson said. “We have witnessed some tremendous growth in our younger forwards over the past season and we feel that we have another group of players that are ready to challenge for additional ice time, including Kevin Labanc, Marcus Sorensen, Dylan Gambrell, Max Letunov, Rudolphs Balcers, Antti Suomela, Vincent Praplan and Lukas Radil. These transactions have also allowed us to add to our pool of draft selections, as well as free up a substantial amount of cap space for internal and external player options in the coming months.”

The Sharks have been linked to both John Tavares and Ilya Kovalchuk, so you’d have to imagine that this extra cap space they’ve created will go towards trying to sign one or both of those players.

The salary cap is expected to jump to anywhere between $78 million and $82 million. If we split the difference and project ahead to a cap of $80 million, that would leave the Sharks with $16.5 million. They still have to re-sign RFAs Tomas Hertl and Chris Tierney, so it’s more realistic to assume that they would only be able to afford one of Kovalchuk or Tavares. But if today’s trades have taught us anything, it’s that anything is possible when it comes to hockey transactions.

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.

Salary-cap increase makes for ‘more fun’ NHL offseason

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Thanks, Vegas.

That’s what NHL general managers are saying this offseason after the success of the expansion Golden Knights contributed to what’s expected to be a healthy increase for the salary cap. With elite center John Tavares, No. 1 defenseman John Carlson and a strong group of free agents available soon, the ceiling for player spending will rise to between $78 and $82 million from $75 million.

“The higher the better,” Washington Capitals Stanley Cup-winning GM Brian MacLellan said. “It makes it a lot more fun.”

Gentlemen, open your wallets – players like Tavares, Carlson and forwards James van Riemsdyk and Paul Stastny won’t come cheap. They’re just a few of the big-name players who could be on the move this offseason.

With GMs meeting Thursday in Dallas and around each other this weekend at the draft, trade talk is percolating before free agency opens in July. Ottawa forward Mike Hoffman, Buffalo center Ryan O'Reilly, Pittsburgh forward Phil Kessel, Montreal captain Max Pacioretty and Washington backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer could all be on the move in the next several days.

Ottawa captain Erik Karlsson is the star who will go to the highest bidder if the Senators are willing to trade the Norris Trophy-winning defenseman with one year remaining on his contract. GM Pierre Dorion is in a tough spot, potentially having to deal either Karlsson or Hoffman after it was revealed last week that Karlsson’s wife Melinda has filed an order of protection against Hoffman’s girlfriend, Monika Caryk, alleging harassment and bullying.

Decisions are far more immediate for the Islanders and Capitals. New York should probably make a move to re-sign Tavares before its face of the franchise can begin speaking with other teams June 25, and recently hired president of hockey operations Lou Lamoriello has to hire a new coach.

The Islanders might’ve gotten a fortunate bounce there when Barry Trotz resigned from his job with Washington less than two weeks after lifting the Cup. Re-signing Tavares and hiring a replacement for fired coach Doug Weight go hand-in-hand.

If it doesn’t work out and Tavares hits the open market, a contract with a salary approaching Connor McDavid‘s $12.5 million isn’t out of the question. Nashville GM David Poile said cap situations put five or six teams in position for top-end free agents and knock about half the league out of the running.

“We all have different commitments already of contracts,” Poile said. “Some teams have a lot of room. Some teams don’t have very much room.”

Big-revenue teams with money to spend include the retooling New York Rangers and the rising Toronto Maple Leafs. The Rangers are among several teams linked to Russian Olympic MVP Ilya Kovalchuk, who’s looking to return to the NHL after five seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League.

Former Los Angeles Kings defenseman Slava Voynov, who won an Olympic gold medal with Kovalchuk, is back in the U.S. and could also be on the way to returning. Voynov was convicted of domestic abuse and is suspended indefinitely by the NHL, which makes it unclear how a team will pave the way for him to play.

Even excepting Voynov, hundreds of current free agents don’t know where they’ll be playing next season. Beyond Tavares, Carlson is the most in-demand pending free agent after leading all defensemen in regular-season and playoff points.

Carlson plans to have his day with the Stanley Cup in Washington, but because of the uncertainty of the offseason, there’s no guarantee he’ll be there this fall.

“We’ll see what happens,” Carlson said. “We’ll talk and go from there. I don’t really know what else to say other than that. I love it here and all that, I want to stay here, but there’s more to it than that.”

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

PHT Morning Skate: Bob McKenzie’s final prospect rankings; Pens need to make moves

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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.

• TSN hockey insider Bob McKenzie came out with his final prospect rankings for the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. These are always must-see for every hockey fan. Yes, Brady Tkachuk is in the top three and Jesperi Kotkaniemi makes an appearance in the top five. (TSN.ca)

• Now that the Capitals won the Stanley Cup after many thought their championship window had closed, Sean McIndoe looks at eight teams who enter next season in a similar position. (Sportsnet)

• Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy had one of the best seasons between the pipes in franchise history, but is it enough for him to come away with the Vezina Trophy? Bryan Burns makes a case for Vasilevskiy. (NHL.com/Lightning)

• TSN’s Frank Seravalli looks at the three biggest priorities for every Canadian team in the NHL this summer. The Sens have already accomplished one of their three goals, so that’s pretty good! (TSN.ca)

• Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty made an appearance at the Open Door homeless shelter in Montreal. Pacioretty and his wife donated sandwiches and hors d’oeuvres to the shelter. (Montreal Gazette)

• Sportsnet breaks down all the latest news and rumors regarding the top 12 potential free agents. Yes, John Tavares is at the top of the list, but there’s also some other quality free-agent options. (Sportsnet)

• The best way to improve the Penguins roster is for GM Jim Rutherford to make a splash or two at this week’s NHL Draft. (Pittsburgh Hockey Now)

• Hall-of-fame defenseman Denis Potvin has some advice for Rasmus Dahlin: “I know the great career Phil (Housley) had as a player, the fantastic skating abilty he had and the way he was able to put up points so consistently. I just sure hope his focus is to make sure the young man plays defense first. And that will take teaching, I don’t care where he comes from.” (Buffalo News)

• Former NHL defenseman Sheldon Souray opened up about his battle with pain medication. “At the beginning, it was embarrassing. I never felt really like telling my story. All my friends know, obviously, and I’m very proud of it now. (Montreal Gazette)

• Adidas has created a custom Washington Capitals Stanley Cup Champion shoe. It looks exactly how you’d expect it to look. (BarDown)

• How would signing John Tavares affect the Vegas Golden Knights’ forward lines? Let’s just call that a classy problem. (SinBin.Vegas)

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.