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Revisiting the trades that built one of the NHL’s best lines in Vegas

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The driving force behind the stunning story that is the Vegas Golden Knights has been their top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith. The trio has spent much of the season together and has quickly become one of the most productive lines in hockey. And the numbers speak for themselves.

When Marchessault-Karlsson-Smith are on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the Golden Knights are outscoring their opponents by a 26-15 margin, have controlled more than 57 percent of the total shot attempts, and have close to 60 percent of the total scoring chances (data via Natural Stat Trick).

Those are dominant numbers and stack up favorably with any trio in the NHL.

Given that success it’s kind of amazing to look back at how Vegas ended up acquiring that group when they were piecing together their first roster.

A lot has been made of the expansion draft rules that allowed Vegas to put together a roster that was significantly better than any recent expansion team in NHL history, and they definitely had more talent to pick from than Columbus, Minnesota, Nashville, Atlanta, Anaheim, Florida, Tampa Bay, Ottawa and San Jose.

Those rules, which forced teams to expose players to the expansion draft that they probably did not want to lose, helped create a number of trades.

Two of those deals helped Vegas assemble its game-changing top-line.

Let’s start with Karlsson, who is currently the team’s leading goal-scorer and one of the top-five goal scorers in the NHL. Considering what Karlsson has done in his career before this season it is one of the unlikeliest individual performances in the league this season.

As part of the trade the Columbus Blue Jackets sent a 2017 first-round pick, a 2019 third-round pick, and David Clarkson to Vegas in exchange for the Golden Knights selecting Karlsson in the expansion draft.

What did Columbus get out of the trade? For one, it got out from the remainder of Clarkson’s contract that still has three more years on it. It also allowed the Blue Jackets to keep together what it figured to be a bigger part of its young core than Karlsson was going to be, specifically forward Josh Anderson and goalie Joonas Korpisalo.

Even before any of the players in the deal played a single game in the NHL this season Vegas managed to expand on that trade by taking Columbus’ first-round pick (No. 24 overall) and flipping it to the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for the No. 13 overall pick (Nick Suzuki) and a third-round pick in 2019 in exchange for the Golden Knights selecting veteran forward Chris Thorburn in the expansion draft. Thorburn, an unrestricted free agent on July, signed with the St. Louis Blues.

That means at the end of the day the Golden Knight received William Karlsson, Nick Suzuki (a top-15 pick), and a pair of 2019 draft picks (second-and third-round) in exchange for taking David Clarkson’s contract and simply not taking Anderson or Korpisalo in the expansion draft.

Given what has happened in the first half of the 2017-18 season it is a fascinating transaction and it is going to be extremely interesting to see how the careers of Karlsson, Anderson and Korpisalo progress from here (and that doesn’t even get into the three prospects they will get from the draft choices).

Right now it’s looking like an absolute steal for Vegas as Karlsson has almost as many goals (22) as Anderson has total points (24), while Korpisalo has a .904 save percentage in a backup role behind Sergei Bobrovsky.

Karlsson vs. Anderson is going to be the real development to watch. Anderson is a fine player and seems to be a great fit for the way Columbus plays. But he is not doing what Karlsson has done for Vegas this season, even if it is completely out of nowhere.

Before this season Karlsson had scored only 18 goals in 173 games with the Ducks and Blue Jackets. He has already exceeded that total in 41 games.

A big part of that success is the fact he is cruising along with a league-best 25.9 percent shooting percentage after scoring on only 8 percent of his shots before this season.

Of the eight players that have scored at least 20 goals this season Karlsson is not only the only one of them that has done so on fewer than 100 shots on goal, he still has not even hit 90(!) shots on goal. Anders Lee is the only other 20-goal scorer at the moment that is still under 110 shots (108).

If he maintains that shooting percentage for the entire season it would be almost unheard of in the modern NHL. In the history of the league there have only been 37 players that recorded at least 100 shots on goal in a season and finished with a shooting percentage north of 25 percent. Thirty of those performances came between 1978 and 1989 when goal-scoring in the NHL hit its peak. Only two of them (Cam Neely in 1993-94 and Mike Ribeiro in 2007-08) came after 1993.

Obviously, when a player sees that sort of a drastic shooting percentage spike out of nowhere the first instinct is to say that it’s unsustainable and the player is due for a big regression at some point. And that is almost certainly going to be the case here with Karlsson. It is just a matter of how much of a regression there is. And even if it is significant and eventually takes him back to his normal career levels, Vegas still has three future prospects coming through the pipeline as a result of that trade.  And that regression happens, the Golden Knights have one of the top goal scorers in the league this season. You can not take away those goals.

The other two parts of the line came from the Florida Panthers when they sent Smith and Marchessault to the Golden Knights in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick.

That trade came one year after the Panthers had signed Smith to a five-year contract extension that was going to pay him $5 million per season and include a partial no-trade clause. With Smith coming off of a down year in 2016-17 the Panthers traded him to the Golden Knights.

That came on the same day of the expansion draft where the Golden Knights selected Marchessault (though it was never officially confirmed, it was reported at the time that taking Marchessault being left unprotected and selected by Vegas was the incentive for the Golden Knights to take on Smith’s contract).

While Smith’s numbers dropped a bit for the Panthers in 2016-17, Marchessault was one of the players on that Panthers team that did not disappoint and excelled in his first full-time action in the NHL, leading the team with 30 goals.

So far this season Marchessault has proven that his 2016-17 season was not a fluke. He is on pace for another 30-goal performance, has already topped his assist total from a year ago, and has posted excellent possession numbers. His first half with Vegas has already landed him a six-year contract extension to remain with the team.

Smith, meanwhile, is right near his career averages when it comes to goal-scoring, shot generation and possession and has bounced back nicely from a down season. His assist numbers have spiked, though, and that is probably to be expected given that he is playing alongside one 30-goal scorer (Marchessault) and another player that is shooting the lights out the way Karlsson is. He has already assisted on 14 of Karlsson’s goals with 10 of them being the primary assist.

Vegas definitely took advantage of the opportunity to select better players than any other expansion team in league history and the front office deserves a lot of credit for capitalizing on that. It’s also been the perfect storm of a lot of things going there way, from Florida looking to get out from Smith’s contract and leaving a 30-goal scorer exposed, to Karlsson having an historical level of shooting success, to all three players forming an instant chemistry.

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.

What can slumping Stars expect from Perry’s debut?

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If the Dallas Stars are known for anything during the Jim Nill era, it’s big offseason acquisitions that create hope and increase expectations only to be followed by what is usually a disappointing season on the ice.

With just one win in their first seven games entering play on Wednesday night, you couldn’t possibly blame Stars fans if they were getting a sense of deja vu so far following the offseason additions of Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry.

While Pavelski is still searching for his first goal with his new team (he has just a single assist and only 10 shots on goal in seven games), Perry has yet to play after being sidelined with a broken foot during the preseason.

That will change on Wednesday when Perry will make his debut with the Stars when they play the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Will that be enough to make a difference for a team that needs any sort of spark it can get?

The Stars signed Perry to a one-year deal following his buyout from the Anaheim Ducks, and he was always going to be a pretty big wild card with his team.

The biggest problem the Stars had a year ago was that their roster was too top heavy and way too reliant on six players (the top line of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov; defenders John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen; starting goalie Ben Bishop). The complete lack of any dependable secondary scoring was a huge flaw and something that had to be corrected if they were going to be a serious championship contender.

Pavelski, coming off of a 38-goal season in San Jose, seemed like a great starting point to help drive another scoring line to complement the top line. It has not worked as planned just yet, but the season is still young.

Perry, on the other hand, was always more of a question mark in what he could actually provide. His play has obviously declined in recent years as his age climbs into his 30s, and he was limited to just 31 games a year ago due to injury. He scored six goals and four assists when he was in the lineup, production that would have projected out to 15 goals and 25 points over an 82-game season. Not exactly great numbers, and they simply continued the downward trend his career had been on in the two years prior to that. If anything the decline seemed to accelerate even more. How much of that was due to injury and the circumstances on a bad Ducks team remain to be seen. There is still some hope that he might be able to bounce back a little in a better environment.

It is expected he will play on the team’s second line on Wednesday night alongside Mattians Janmark and Roope Hintz, a duo that has been one of the very few bright spots on the team this season.

Perry will no doubt bring a physical presence to the lineup, but what the team really needs right now is some offense because no one — not even the big name players — are finding the back of the net. The Seguin-Benn-Radulov trio has combined for just four goals. Pavelski has the aforementioned goose egg on his stat line. The defense duo of Klingberg and Heiskanen has just one goal (belonging to Heiskanen). The biggest reason depth matters is for moments just like this. Your star players are not always going to be there to carry the team offensively, and when they go cold there has to be someone else to pick up the slack. The Stars have not had that, and the additions of Perry and Pavelski were supposed to help fix it.

Starting on Wednesday Perry gets his first chance to try and contribute to that and begin what the Stars are hoping can be a bounce-back season.

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.

No controversy yet as Samsonov gets another start for Capitals

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With long-time starter Braden Holtby set to be an unrestricted free agent after this season (and with the team also needing to re-sign superstar center Nicklas Backstrom) it seems likely that the Washington Capitals’ goal crease will one day belong to prized prospect Ilya Samsonov.

Samsonov has shined in his first two starts this season and will be in net again on Wednesday night when the Capitals host the Toronto Maple Leafs.

This comes after Samsonov entered the Capitals’ most recent game, a 6-3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche, after Holtby surrendered goals on each of the first three shots he faced.

Given Samsonov’s strong play, combined with Holtby’s early struggles, as well as the fact this is the type of high profile game a team would normally give to its starter, it would be easy start thinking about a goalie controversy in The District. But coach Todd Reirden attempted to throw a bucket of cold water on that talk on Wednesday, talking about this as a “reset” opportunity for Holtby.

“This is the choice we’re making,” said Reirden, when asked what message he has for Holtby at this point. “And this gives you a good chance to reset here. I know Braden is an outstanding goalie and has been for us in the past. Just like any other player, they go through times they can play better than others, and right now as he as alluded to he needs a little reset and he has been able to have that yesterday and today and that will get him ready for his next chance.”

“We’ll evaluate after this game and do what’s right for our team like I did for tonight’s game, what’s right for Braden, what’s right for everybody involved. We’ll evaluate every day. It’s not a goaltending controversy at this point, Braden’s our No. 1 goalie.”

He didn’t seem to mean anything by it, but that “at this point” is doing a lot of work in that sentence.

When he is at his best Holtby has been one of the league’s best goalies with a Vezina Trophy (plus a second place finish in 2017), a Jennings Trophy, and a Stanley Cup ring to his resume. He has also been an outstanding big-game goalie with consistently great postseason performances, including during the team’s 2018 Stanley Cup run. But he also just turned 30 years old and there is no way to avoid the fact that his production has dipped over the past two years. Add in a slow start this season (18 goals against in five games with an .886 save percentage) and an early strong showing from the goalie of the future and it is only natural that some sort of discussion about the No. 1 job would be up for debate.

As long as the two players keep performing the way they have this season, that is unlikely to change. Especially if Samsonov continues to play well on Wednesday night against one of the league’s best offensive teams.

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.

Teenage rookies Hughes, Kakko struggling early in season

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NEW YORK (AP) — Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko were the clear favorites all along to be the top two picks in this year’s NHL draft. So far, the 18-year-olds have struggled to generate a lot of offense in the opening weeks of the season.

Kakko, selected second by the New York Rangers after New Jersey took Hughes at No. 1, broke through with his first NHL goal on Saturday. Hughes nearly got his first on Monday.

Now, the two youngsters will get a close-up look at each other on Thursday night (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN) when the Rangers visit the Devils for the metropolitan-area teams’ first matchup of the season.

Despite Hughes’ struggles getting on the scoresheet, Devils coach John Hynes likes the way the teenager is learning and working on improving his game.

”He’s really understanding how hard you need to compete in this game and how much puck battles matter, attention to detail when you don’t have the puck, and he’s making strides in those areas,” Hynes said. ”He’s just a step away from really creating some pretty good offense.”

Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky, now part of the Oilers’ front office, cautioned about the high expectations immediately placed on young players who come into the league as top draft picks. He pointed to Edmonton star Connor McDavid, who was a No. 1 pick in 2015.

”It’s harder than people think,” Gretzky said. ”There’s a little bit more pressure on these young guys than people think. Connor’s been in the league a few years, he’s lived up to it. … Young Hughes is going to be a fine hockey player. I’ve watched him play quite a bit. He’s 18 years old, he’s in the right situation.

”It’s just going to take him some time, he’s going to get his feet wet, he’s going to get some growing pains but all in all you can tell his skill level and his passion for the game.”

Gretzky also talked about the adjustments a player like Hughes has to make as he adapts to the professional game and the higher level of competition.

”Now you’re playing against men, you’re playing against the best players in the world,” he said. ”Let’s be honest, we had fun and we were pretty good but these kids today with the level of skill and size and speed, they’re so much better than when we played. That’s not a knock against us. That means the game is growing and getting better all the time.”

With the Devils leading the Panthers 4-2 on Monday, Hughes had a chance to add to the lead. He got a bouncing puck on the left side of the goal, and batted it off the post and over the stick of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who was diving back, but the puck went along the goal line and hit the right post and stayed out.

Hughes, who had three goals and an assist in four preseason games, remained without a point in the regular season and New Jersey ended up squandering a three-goal lead in a 6-4 loss to Florida to fall to 0-4-2.

Two days earlier, Kakko got on the scoreboard with a nifty forehand-to-backhand move to give the Rangers an early lead in a 4-1 loss to Edmonton, New York’s first loss after opening the season with two wins.

”It was a special way for him to score,” said linemate Ryan Strome, who set up Kakko on the rush. ”A great goal, a great move. Hopefully the floodgates are open for him. He’s got all the tools to do it, so it should be fun to watch.”

Rookies who have already stood out in the opening weeks of the season include:

Victor Olofsson, RW, Buffalo. The 24-year-old has five goals and two assists in six games and set an NHL record with his first seven goals all coming on the power play. He had two goals and two assists in six games last season. His record-setting goal got the Sabres started in a 4-0 win against Dallas on Monday that improved Buffalo to 5-0-1.

Cale Makar, D, Colorado. Selected No. 4 overall by the Avalanche in the 2017 draft, he has six assists in five games, with four coming on power-play goals. Makar, who will turn 21 on Oct. 30, has helped the Avalanche open the season with five wins for the franchise’s best start since beginning with six wins in 2013-14.

– Sam Lafferty, C, Pittsburgh. With the Penguins missing forwards Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Galchenyuk and Bryan Rust, Lafferty has stepped up with three goals and two assists – all coming in the last two games, road wins against Minnesota and Winnipeg – to help push Pittsburgh to 4-2-0.

Ilya Mikheyev, RW, Toronto. The 25-year-old Russian, signed as a free agent in May, has two goals and three assists in seven games. Mikheyev had a sensational goal Saturday night against Detroit as he drew Jimmy Howard out far from the crease, went to his left and fired it into the wide-open goal.

– Ilya Samsonov, G, Washington. After coming over from the KHL, Samsonov spent last season with Hershey of the AHL. As Braden Holtby‘s backup, the 22-year-old won his first two starts, limiting the Islanders and Stars to one goal each with a .961 save-percentage. In relief duty against Colorado on Monday, he gave up two goals on 21 shots and took his first loss.

STREAKING

The Colorado Avalanche have opened the season with five straight wins. … The Devils have started the season with six straight losses (0-4-2). … Buffalo’s Carter Hutton, Nashville’s Pekka Rinne and Colorado’s Philipp Grubauer have won four straight starts to open the season, Carolina’s Petr Mrazek and Boston’s Tuukka have won their first three.

SLUMPING

Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk is 0-5-0 with a 4.44 goals-against average in five starts. … The Devils’ Cory Schneider is 0-3-0 with a 4.08 GAA in four starts, and Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick is 0-3-0 with a 6.43 GAA in three starts.

Are the Sabres the real deal?

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It’s way too early in the season to be asking this question, but we’re going to do it anyway. Are the Buffalo Sabres the real deal?

Through six games, the Sabres have rattled off a 5-0-1 record and they have the best goal differential at plus-12. Not bad, not bad at all. New head coach Ralph Krueger has seemingly pushed all the right buttons and his players have responded in a positive way. Now, all he has to do (easier said than done) is keep it going for 76 more games!

“Anytime you get off to a good start and get results, confidence naturally comes with that,” forward Jeff Skinner said after Monday’s win over Dallas. “What you have to do is keep working at your game and use the confidence in a positive way. We still have things to work on, we still have things we want to improve. Being able to get off to a good start results-wise is nice. Now we have to keep that momentum going.”

There’s a few things that stand out when you take a look at why they’ve been so good. First, their power-play has been lethal. Raise your hand if you thought Rasmus Dahlin, Jack Eichel and Victor Olofsson would all be in the top six when it came to power play points to start the season. What? Anybody? Thought so.

Buffalo has scored at least one tally on the man-advantage in five of their six games. They scored three power play goals against the New Jersey Devils, two against the Columbus Blue Jackets and two against the Montreal Canadiens.

The Sabres’ power play was ranked 16th last season at just under 20 percent. This year, they’re clicking at 42.9 percent while the league average is right around 21 percent. As dynamic as they are when they’re up a man, there’s no way they’re going to roll at over 40 percent all year. To put that number into perspective, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had the best power play in the league last year, were firing at just over 28 percent.

One of the other strong parts of their game has been their goaltending. Carter Hutton has been rock-solid between the pipes and Linus Ullmark has been really good, too. Hutton, who has started four of the team’s six games, has a 4-0-0 record with a 1.74 goals-against-average and a .931 save percentage this season. He’s coming off a 25-save shutout in a 4-0 win over the Dallas Stars.

“A lot of it is the fact that they both get to play then they both feel like they have a little bit of a rhythm going,” assistant coach Mike Bales, who works with the goaltenders, told the Sabres’ website. “One guy’s not going to sit for too long. So, they always feel game-ready because of that too. It helps a lot.

“You can practice all you want, but when you get into games it feels a little bit different. The traditional, old-school way of doing it where you have one guy play 65 games and the backup would come in and mop up once in a while, wouldn’t get that many starts, was tough on backups for rhythm and feeling ready so I think having two guys going all the time helps them be ready when they do play.”

Whether or not Hutton and Ullmark can keep this going remains to be seen, but it’s imperative that they get great goaltending if they’re going to earn a playoff spot in 2019-20. Ullmark hasn’t been a regular in the NHL for as long as Hutton, so it’s tough to get a gauge of what he can do over a full season. As for Hutton, he’s a veteran and he’s been around the league a lot. He got off to a very strong start last year before fading in a hurry in the second half of the season.

Another reason they haven’t lost in regulation yet is because of their balanced scoring. Through six contests, Buffalo has had 10 different scorers. Olofsson leads the way with five goals, Skinner has four, Marcus Johansson, Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel each have three, Conor Sheary has two, while Johan Larsson, Marco Scandella, Kyle Okposo and Dahlin have all found the back of the net once. Now that’s balance.

As fun as the Sabres have been, it’s tough to envision them staying ahead of teams like Boston, Tampa Bay and Toronto, but they don’t have to finish atop the Atlantic Division to have a successful season. Making it back to the postseason in a Wild Card spot would be a huge success. They still have plenty of work to do before they can reach that point, but this team filled with youth seems to be on the right track.

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.