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NHL On NBCSN: Penguins, Oilers need to start turning things around now

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues with a doubleheader on Tuesday night as the Pittsburgh Penguins visit the Philadelphia Flyers (7pm ET), followed by the Edmonton Oilers hosting the Los Angeles Kings (9:30pm ET). Click here to watch live on our NBCSN Live Stream.

At the start of the season the Pittsburgh Penguins and Edmonton Oilers were the top-two favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

The Penguins were entering the season as back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.

The Oilers took a huge step forward in 2016-17 as part of their seemingly never-ending rebuild and not only returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2005-06, but were just one game away from reaching the Western Conference Finals.

The Penguins have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel on their roster and got back their best defenseman (Kris Letang). The Oilers have the NHL’s reigning scoring champion, MVP and arguably the current best player in the world in Connor McDavid who is accompanied by Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

Today, as the 2018 portion of the season kicks off and we prepare to head into the second half of the season both teams are on the outside of the playoff picture in their respective conferences and have a lot of work to do before they can punch a ticket for postseason.

They are both in action on Tuesday night as part of an NBCSN doubleheader and need to start turning their seasons around right now.

In the first game, the Penguins visit their cross-state rivals in Philadelphia for a huge game in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Penguins enter the game just one point ahead of the Flyers while the Flyers still have two games in hand. They enter the night three points out of a playoff spot, and while they may not seem like a huge deficit with still half of the season remaining there are a few things worth remembering.

First is that the Penguins have played more games than most of the teams they are competing with and currently have the worst points percentage in the Metropolitan Division. Their 5-on-5 offense has been non-existent this season and they have no scoring depth to speak of beyond their top-two lines.

If we assume it takes 95 points to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference — which it has in each of the past three seasons — the Penguins will need to collect 54 points over the next 42 games. That would be a .642 points percentage. Below we see the Penguins’ points percentage broken down into rolling 42-game segments to show how often they have played at that sort of pace (the red line is a .642 points percentage).

In other words, they need to play the next 42 games the same way they played most of the 2016-17 season. With a roster — particularly at forward — that does not really resemble the 2016-17 one. Without a couple of roster moves to help replenish that depth that is going to be a challenge, unless they see a pretty significant regression to the mean in regards to their team shooting percentage. With half of the forward roster being what it is, that does not seem like it is terribly likely to happen.

In somewhat of a surprise move, the Penguins are going with Tristain Jarry as their starting goaltender tonight and not Matt Murray. Murray has struggled this season and is getting a rest for the first time this season when he is not injured or as part of a back-to-back situation.

The Flyers, meanwhile, are trying to find some consistency. Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier have been outstanding offensively but the team has experienced extended lows (a 10-game losing streak), extended highs (a six-game winning streak), and extended mediocrity (their current 2-2-1 run over the past five games).

The Penguins and Flyers face off at 7 p.m. ET.

[WATCH LIVE: PITTSBURGH PENGUINS VS. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS]

In the late game the NHL’s other disappointment, the Edmonton Oilers, will be hosting the Los Angeles Kings.

If the Penguins’ situation in the playoff race seems like it is going to be a struggle, the Oilers’ situation looks completely dire.

The Oilers not only have to make up more points (seven) to get into a playoff spot, they also have to jump over more teams (five for a wild card spot; three for one of the Pacific Division spots).

The preseason hype around the Oilers was probably a bit too much, even with their success a year ago. It is still a team that is largely dependent on McDavid being able to single handedly carry the offense. A lot of their winning a year ago was based on the fact that McDavid had one of the best offensive seasons the league has seen in a decade and Cam Talbot played nearly every game at a reasonably high level helping to mask a lot of flaws on defense. Talbot has missed time this season due to injury and has not repeated his performance when he has been on the ice. That has created a lot of problems and the Oilers are back to being one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to preventing goals.

The second wild card team in the West right now is on pace for 91 points, meaning the Oilers would need to hit the 92-point mark to get in. That would require 55 points over the next 43 games, a points percentage of .639. Are the Oilers, as currently constructed, capable of such a run? Based on what they have shown this season, it seems really unlikely.

On Tuesday they are hosting a Kings team that is going through a bit of a resurgence after missing the playoffs in two of the past three seasons.

The driving force behind their success this year has been bounceback seasons from Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown.

Kopitar is playing at an MVP level this season and is back to being one of the best two-way players in the game, matching his shutdown defensive play with a point-per-game offensive performance. Brown is having his best offensive season since 2011-12.

Puck drop for their game is at 9:30 p.m. ET.

[WATCH LIVE: LOS ANGELES KINGS VS. EDMONTON OILERS]

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.

 

Examining the options for Kings, Kovalchuk

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It seems that Ilya Kovalchuk‘s time with the Los Angeles Kings is going to be coming to an end one way or another in the not too distant future.

The team made him a healthy scratch on Tuesday night, and he will reportedly be out of the lineup for the foreseeable future as the team looks to get younger, shed salary, and finally begin turning the page over to a new chapter in a long overdue and much needed rebuild. The biggest question that remains with Kovalchuk is what, exactly, they are able to do with him.

Because of Kovalchuk’s contract the Kings options seem to be severely limited.

The key points regarding his contract…

  • He has one year remaining on it after this season at a salary cap hit of $6.25 million.
  • He is due a signing bonus in December worth $5.3 million, meaning any team that traded for him after that date would only be on the hook financially for a prorated salary of $700,000 for the rest of this season.
  • Because the contract is a 35-plus contract the Kings would still be on the hook for the entirety of his remaining salary cap hit if they were to buy him out or release him. And they would only be able to release him if Kovalchuk agrees to walk away from the remaining money he is owed, which seems unlikely.
  • His contract also contains a no-move clause and a modified no-trade clause, which could limit where he ends up in a trade.

Not an ideal situation to be in for the Kings.

The most logical option might be waiting until after his bonus is paid next month and digging back into the trade market when a team won’t have to commit as much financially. The issue, though, is still the fact that Kovalchuk is 36 years old, still has one year left after this one, and just hasn’t really been any kind of an impact player since returning to the NHL. He has scored at a 20-goal pace with the Kings, so there is still some offensive production there. Even with that he has clearly been a miserable fit in Los Angeles for where the team is and where it is looking to go in the future.

Are there any teams that would have an interest in taking that on? Look at it this way, if the Edmonton Oilers can move Milan Lucic‘s contract, there is absolutely a chance for the Kings to move this one.

Let’s speculate a bit on some potential landing spots.

New York Islanders. Before you completely dismiss this and yell about how he would never fit within their system or be good enough defensively to play for Barry Trotz, stop and think for a minute about who their general manager is. Lou Lamoriello is the one that went all-in on signing him to that original massive contract years ago with the New Jersey Devils, while there were also rumblings the team was interested in signing him when he returned to the league last summer. For as good as the Islanders have been they could still use another goal-scorer, there is history between the player and GM, and they have the salary cap space to take on that cap hit. It could be an interesting lottery ticket for a team that is still probably a piece or two away from really being able to make some serious noise in the playoffs. There are worse potential landing spots.

Columbus Blue Jackets. Another team with salary cap space that is in desperate need of offense. Even after their offseason  free agency exodus and slow start through the first month, the Blue Jackets do not seem ready to throw in the towel on this season. The problem: their offense has been completely non-existent to this point. Their goals per game average is the second lowest in the league, ahead of only the Detroit Red Wings.

San Jose Sharks. The salary cap would make it complicated so there would have to probably be some maneuvering done to make it work, but the Sharks are already trying to win with a bunch of superstars from 2008 so why not add one more to the mix?

St. Louis Blues. Not sure how they would make this work with the salary cap, especially next season, so it is probably a really long shot in the dark, but with Vladimir Tarasenko sidelined for the next five months they could really use another goal-scorer.

Carolina Hurricanes. Now here is an intriguing option. If the Kings are going to trade Kovalchuk one of the options might include them throwing in a valuable asset (draft pick, prospect, young player) as a sweetener to convince another team to take such an ugly contract. Do you know what team has had a lot of success in making those kind of moves over the years? These folks. It’s how they ended up with Teuvo Teravainen, as well as an additional 2020 first-round pick from the Toronto Maple Leafs for absorbing Patrick Marleau‘s contract. Would it really be a shock if they picked up the phone, gave the Kings a call, and said, “hey, we hear you have a contract you don’t want. Let’s talk about that…” This is right in their wheelhouse.

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.

 

Roberto Luongo back with Panthers as special adviser

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Roberto Luongo retired from the Florida Panthers. He just never left.

And now the goaltender is officially part of the franchise again.

Florida’s all-time leader in wins and shutouts has agreed to become a special adviser to general manager Dale Tallon, a move that has been in the works for some time and was formally announced Wednesday.

His hiring was no surprise: Luongo has been a regular fixture at games with the Florida front-office brain trust this season, only now wearing suits instead of skates and having conversations in press boxes instead of locker rooms.

”I’ve had the honor and privilege to work with Roberto during his time playing for the Panthers and am proud to welcome him to our franchise’s hockey operations staff,” said Tallon, who is both Florida’s GM and president of hockey operations.

The 40-year-old Luongo retired this past summer after 19 seasons in the NHL, 11 of them with Florida, and indicated then that he would be interested in staying with the Panthers in some capacity. His plan was to take some time and figure out in what role, and how quickly.

Turns out, the five-time NHL All-Star didn’t need that long to think.

Luongo and his family are remaining as residents of Parkland, Florida – the city where he lived at the end of his playing career – and since he’s sticking around, it was always assumed that he was going to be with Tallon again before long.

”Roberto always approached every game with an unmatched work ethic and we are confident he will take to this new role with the same passion,” Tallon said. ”A cornerstone player in our franchise’s history, we are thrilled that Lu will be a part of shaping our franchise’s future.”

Luongo joins Panthers senior vice president Shawn Thornton, director of player personnel Bryan McCabe and assistant coach Derek MacKenzie as former Florida players who have remained with the team after retirement in various key roles.

The Panthers are retiring Luongo’s No. 1 jersey on March 7, before a game against Montreal, his hometown team.

Luongo was the fourth overall pick in the 1997 draft by the New York Islanders, with whom he made his NHL debut on Nov. 28, 1999. Luongo then spent five years with Florida, the next eight with Vancouver and returned to the Panthers on March 14, 2014. His last game was April 6, two days after his 40th birthday.

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.”