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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.

NHL schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Final

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The Stanley Cup Playoffs continue on Saturday, Sept. 19 in the hub city of Edmonton. Now that we are through the conference finals, the full 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule has been announced.  

The top four teams during the regular season in both conferences played a three-game round robin for seeding in the First Round. The eight winners of the best-of-5 Qualifying Round advanced to the First Round.  

Rogers Place in Edmonton will host 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final.  

Here is the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule.

2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 2-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

CONFERENCE FINAL RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Lightning beat Islanders (4-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Stars beat Golden Knights (4-1)

***

SECOND ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Lightning beat Bruins (4-1)
Islanders beat Flyers (4-3)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Canucks (4-3)
Stars beat Avalanche (4-3)

***

NHL QUALIFYING ROUND / ROUND-ROBIN RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Philadelphia Flyers (3-0-0, 6 points)
Tampa Bay Lightning (2-1-0, 4 points)
Washington Capitals (1-1-1, 3 points)
Boston Bruins (0-3-0, 0 points)

Canadiens beat Penguins (3-1)
Hurricanes beat Rangers (3-0)
Islanders beat Panthers (3-1)
Blue Jackets beat Maple Leafs (3-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Vegas Golden Knights (3-0-0, 6 points)
Colorado Avalanche (2-1-0, 4 points)
Dallas Stars (1-2-0, 2 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-2-1, 1 point)

Blackhawks beat Oilers (3-1)
Coyotes beat Predators (3-1)
Canucks beat Wild (3-1)
Flames beat Jets (3-1)

***

FIRST ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Flyers beat Canadiens (4-2)
Lightning beat Blue Jackets (4-1)
Islanders beat Capitals (4-1)
Bruins beat Hurricanes (4-1)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Blackhawks (4-1)
Avalanche beat Coyotes (4-1)
Stars beat Flames (4-2)
Canucks beat Blues (4-2)

Nikita Kucherov’s postseason defined by redemption, consistency

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Like pretty much every other player on the Lightning roster, the 2018-19 playoffs ended up being a very forgettable experience for Nikita Kucherov.

During their four-game loss to the Blue Jackets, Kucherov managed just two points (both in their Game 4 loss), zero goals, and even missed a game due to a suspension for an ugly hit late in their Game 2 loss. It was a dreadfully disappointing end to a season where Kucherov had put together one of the finest regular season performances of the modern era for a record-setting team. He finished the season with 128 points (the most points the league had seen in 23 years) and took home the Hart Trophy (MVP) and Ted Lindsay Award (most outstanding player as voted by the players) on a team that won 62 regular season games.

But because of their inability to win even a single playoff against the No. 8 seed, it will mostly end up being a footnote to the season.

All of them — from Kucherov on down the roster — had to redeem themselves this postseason and flip the script on a team that was starting to become more known more for postseason shortcomings instead of for what it actually is — one of the league’s elite teams, driven by some of the best players in the world.

Entering Game 4 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final Friday night (8 p.m. ET, NBC; livestream), Kucherov and the Lightning are in the process of getting that redemption.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

They hold a 2-1 series lead and have looked like the far superior team these past two games.

Kucherov has been at the center of most of it.

His playmaking was on display in the Lightning’s Game 2 win by setting up a pair of power play goals to help power their fast start. In Game 3, he pounced on a Miro Heiskanen turnover in the neutral zone and buried a quick shot behind Anton Khudobin on a breakaway to help open the floodgates in a 5-2 win.

For the playoffs, he is already up to 30 points (seven goals, 23 assists) in 22 games, which is currently tied for the fourth highest total in a single postseason over the past 20 years, trailing only Evgeni Malkin (36) and Sidney Crosby (31) in 2008-09, and Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov (32) in 2017-18.

It’s not just that he is generating points that stands out.

He is driving the most dominant line in the league this postseason alongside Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat. His underlying numbers are also off the charts. Of the 98 skaters that have logged at least 200 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this postseason, Kucherov ranks second in total shot attempt share (63.6 percent), second in goals for percentage (76 percent), second in expected goals percentage (68 percent), fifth in scoring chance share, and second in high-danger scoring chances (67.9 percent). In most of those categories the only players that rank ahead of him are either Tampa defenseman Victor Hedman, or Palat, who is one of Kucherov’s current linemates.

Then we get to the consistency aspect of this, and just how steady his overall production has been.

There is no more overrated and overused word in hockey than “consistency,” at least as it relates to goal and point production. Every player in the league is inconsistent to a certain degree, and even the best players tend to score their goals and points in bunches. The season is a mountain range full of peaks and valleys. But Kucherov, for a few months now, has been residing on one of those mountains.

[Lightning vs. Stars: 2020 Stanley Cup Final schedule]

He has not gone more than two consecutive games without a point since the middle of January, and there was only one stretch of games this entire season where he went more than two games without finding the scoresheet — and even that was only a three-game stretch.

He also has eight multi-point games this postseason, and when you exclude the three Round-Robin games before the start of the playoffs that means he has recorded at least two points in more than 40 percent of his games this postseason.

That is a stunning level of production and dominance.

Just looking at recent Conn Smythe Trophy winners, Ryan O'Reilly had multiple points in only 20 percent of his postseason games for the Blues last season. Alex Ovechkin was at 33 percent in 2018. Sidney Crosby had multiple points in 33 percent (2016-17) and 20 percent (2015-16) in his most recent Conn Smythe seasons.

The Lightning have been one of the league’s best teams and Kucherov has been one of the best players for six years now. But because of the way their postseasons have ended there has always been that “yeah, but…” following them around, especially after last year’s dismal First Round showing.

They all needed to rewrite the story around themselves.

They are not exactly where they want to be just yet (they still have two more wins to get), but they have put themselves in a great position to finally accomplish their ultimate goal.

MORE: Conn Smythe Watch: Victor Hedman makes his move

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.

Trade: Penguins send Hornqvist to Panthers for Matheson, Sceviour

Trade Penguins Panthers Hornqvist Matheson
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After more than 24 hours of waiting, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Florida Panthers finally completed the rumored swap of forward Patric Hornqvist and defenseman Mike Matheson.

The trade breaks down as follows:

Penguins get: Matheson and forward Colton Sceviour

Panthers get: Hornqvist.

There is no salary retained in the trade, meaning the Penguins are actually taking on about $700,000 in salary for this season.

Hornqvist’s contract pays him $5.3 million per season through the end of the 2022-23 season.

Matheson, meanwhile, is under contract for six more seasons at a salary cap hit of $4.875 million. Sceviour’s deal has one more year remaining at a salary cap hit of $1.2 million.

The hold-up on the trade on Wednesday reportedly revolved around insurance on Hornqvist’s contract, as well as needing his approval for the deal due to his no-trade clause.

Breaking it all down

For the Penguins, it’s a pretty massive shakeup to the roster as Hornqvist had been one of their most fiery leaders and was a major contributor to two Stanley Cup winning teams. He was their most tireless worke, their most consistent high-energy guy, and as good of a net-front presence as there is in hockey. But he is also going to be 34 years old next season, and given his physically demanding style of play there comes a risk of him starting to decline and breakdown a bit. Given his salary cap number and the Penguins’ tight cap situation it is not a surprise that he was a candidate to be moved. Especially given the team’s desire to apparently shake things up after a second straight disappointing postseason exit.

This move does not save them any money, but it does help them achieve one of their stated offseason goals of getting younger and faster, two things that Matheson definitely brings to the table.

But he also creates a bit of a log-jam on defense where the Penguins already have a ton of money committed to the likes of Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Marcus Pettersson, and Jack Johnson. John Marino will also be due a raise after next season.

It seems likely that another move is coming at some point this offseason. This is already their third trade of the offseason.

The question for Florida is how much quality hockey Hornqvist still has remaining. He is the type of player that a perpetually disappointing team would look to acquire to change the culture of their roster. He will certainly bring effort and energy to the team, but it will still come down to what he can deliver on the ice.

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.

 

Marc-Andre Fleury wants to stay in Vegas, isn’t asking for trade

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The biggest question for the Vegas Golden Knights this offseason is going to be how they handle their suddenly complex goaltending situation.

Marc-Andre Fleury, the face of the franchise, remains under contract for two more seasons, while the team seems determined to try and re-sign Robin Lehner, who had taken over the starting job during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs after he was acquired at the NHL trade deadline.

While keeping both players would seem to be an ideal set-up (having two goalies capable of being a high level starter is a good thing!) the financial and logistical circumstances around it would seem to be incredible difficult.

Not only would it require a substantial salary cap commitment to a position where only one player can play at a time, there is also the delicate balance of playing time. Both goalies are starters, both will want to start, and both have earned the right to start. That has resulted in speculation that the Golden Knights could trade, or perhaps even buy out, Fleury this offseason.

There was also the school of thought that Fleury might ask for an exit given the way the goaltending situation unfolded this postseason.

That does not seem to be the case.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Fleury told The Athletic’s Jesse Granger this week that while he realizes the potential of a trade, he has no intention of asking the team for one this offseason and that he is still committed to finishing his career in Vegas.

Even if it means potentially sharing the net.

Via the Athletic (subscription required):

“I want to stay in Vegas,” he told The Athletic Wednesday afternoon. “I don’t know what the future holds, but I’ve loved every moment since I got here.”

Fleury emphasized that he is not seeking a trade, and if it were up to him he would finish his career in Vegas.

“This team means a lot to me, and the city has been so good to me,” Fleury said. “The fans, and (owner Bill Foley) have been so awesome. It’s a great team, and I thought when I came here that maybe I could retire here. I wanted to end my career here.”

Fleury added that he gets along great with Lehner, and that while his goal is to not be just a backup, he said he intends to “practice hard, try to play well, and hopefully get some games.”

The problem here is if Vegas is successful in re-signing Lehner it would probably carry a price tag similar to Fleury’s. That would mean Vegas would have somewhere in the neighborhood of $14-15 million tied up in net. The only team in the league this season that is slated to spend that much on goaltending is Montreal with the newly formed Carey PriceJake Allen duo.

Montreal has the salary cap space to make that sort of a commitment to the goalie position.  Vegas, on the other hand, may not. Not unless it makes a drastic cut somewhere else on the roster.

Even though the Golden Knights do not have any other significant free agents to deal with, they still have a handful of RFA’s to re-sign and are already crunched against the cap. Even if were to shed salary elsewhere to keep both goalies it would still probably prohibit the team from making any other outside addition via trade or free agency. It is a very good team, one of the very best in the league, but they are still going to want to make some improvements to the roster. That may be difficult, if not impossible, with both goalies on the roster.

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.