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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.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins host Bruins on NBC

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NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Two of the NHL’s top teams meet for the second time in four days as the Bruins head to Pittsburgh to take on the Penguins. Sunday’s matchup will be the third and final game between these two this season. Boston won the first two meetings

After losing in Boston Thursday, the Penguins had a chance to get right back to it with a game against the Red Wings Friday night. Pittsburgh started slow, trailing 1-0 to the league’s worst team through two periods. But early in the third Bryan Rust scored his 20th of the season on the power play to even the score. And in overtime it was the captain Sidney Crosby who netted the game-winner on the power play to help Pittsburgh escape with a win.

Since returning from his 28-game absence, Crosby has 6 points (3G-3A) and has scored a goal in each of his three games.

With All-Star goalie Tuukka Rask (concussion) on injured reserve, the Bruins are now relying on Jaroslav Halak as their primary goalie. After starting the season on a tear, Halak has not been as sharp over the past six weeks.Halak has started (and won) both games against the Penguins this season. Over his career, he is 11-8-2 in 21 starts against Pittsburgh, with a 2.53 GAA and .921 SV%.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12:30 P.M. ET ON NBC]

WHAT: Boston Bruins at Pittsburgh Penguins
WHERE: PPG Paints Arena
WHEN: Sunday, Jan. 19, 12:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Bruins-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BRUINS
Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak
Jake DeBruskCharlie CoyleAnders Bjork
Danton HeinenPar LindholmKarson Kuhlman
Joakim NordstromSean KuralyChris Wagner

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy
Torey KrugBrandon Carlo
John MooreMatt Grzelcyk

Starting goalie: Jaroslav Halak

PENGUINS
Jared McCann – Sidney Crosby – Dominik Simon
Dominik KahunEvgeni Malkin – Bryan Rust
Alex GalchenyukAndrew AgozzinoPatric Hornqvist
Zach Aston-ReeseTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Jack JohnsonKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJohn Marino
Jusso Riikola – Chad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will have the call of the Bruins-Penguins matchup on NBC from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

NHL on NBC: Bruins want to be more than ‘teddy bears’ vs. Penguins

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NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Considering the Bruins’ comfortable lead atop the Atlantic Division, most teams would gladly take on Boston’s “problems.”

Still, for the Bruins — and few other teams, but yes, also the Penguins, their opponents on Sunday afternoon — it’s about more than division titles. After falling a Game 7 shy of winning the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, this group boasts lofty aspirations.

The Bruins aim to fine-tune during this stretch of the 2019-20 season, and to some, that means reestablishing their identity.

Bruins try to shed ‘Teddy Bears’ criticism

The B’s didn’t just lose Tuukka Rask to an injury on Tuesday when Emil Bemstrom delivered an errant elbow during Columbus’ 3-0 win. Their perceived lack of a response meant that some lost respect for this group.

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty went as far as to call the Bruins “teddy bears.”

The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa also opined (sub required) that “The Big, Bad Bruins are dead.”

Bruins players seemed to get the memo in beating the Penguins 4-1 on Thursday. Haggerty and others praised the team’s physical response, including a rare Torey Krug fight against Patric Hornqvist.

“It’s not about going out there and trying to run them out of the rink. Looking at our roster, we don’t have that kind of group anymore,” Krug said after that win, via Haggerty. “But we talked about sticking together and competing harder and sacrificing a little more. That doesn’t mean putting a guy through the glass, but it means going into the corner and having the willingness to get hit, or to hit somebody else, in order to come out of there with the puck. I think that desperation was lost there for a few games, so hopefully this is a step in the right direction and we can kind of grasp that concept again. It’s been part of our DNA for years, so as long as we can get back to that [we’ll be good].”

Some lingering questions for Bruins

Again, you could argue there’s some mild soul-searching going on for Boston.

Blame it on a drop in physicality, or perhaps some other factors, but I’d personally be a little more concerned about dipping underlying numbers.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12:30 P.M. ET ON NBC]

Looking at sites like Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference, there’s been a dip in key categories. They’ve hogged the puck less often, and have been on the wrong end of high-danger chances (owning just 45.6 percent of that category, via Hockey Reference).

These numbers shouldn’t make anyone pull a fire alarm. It’s not that the Bruins have been terrible. Instead, there are some red flags that the Bruins should improve their play. Sean Tierney (Charting Hockey)’s expected goals share chart captures the sometimes middle-of-the-pack feel to the Bruins’ stats:

Bruins xg

Would the Bruins dominate the puck if they add more edge? Maybe, but either way, there are signs that the B’s have room to improve.

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will have the call of the Bruins-Penguins matchup on NBC from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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.

The Buzzer: Elvis, Ovechkin, and others who rocked

Elvis Ovechkin three stars pht buzzer
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Three Stars beyond Elvis and Ovechkin

1. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago blowing out Toronto will lead to some hand-wringing, no doubt. Yet, as much as that was on a tough night for Frederik Andersen, give the Blackhawks some credit. Toews topped all in that game with an outstanding four-point performance (two goals and two assists).

Saturday continued what’s been one heck of a month for Toews. The Blackhawks captained pushed his January total to 15 points (5G, 10A). Toews reached that total in just eight games, scoring at least one point in seven contests.

Scratch that. Toews has been on fire for a while now. He started off ice-cold with only two points in 11 October games. Toews took off after that, and has generated an impressive 41 points in his past 28 contests.

Underrated rookie Dominik Kubalik contributed to Chicago’s win, too, with three points (2G, 1A).

2. Riley Sheahan, Edmonton Oilers

Sheahan scoffs at Toews’ slow start. The journeyman forward failed to score a point in 12 October games, and managed one in 11 November contests. Sheahan went and matched his December points total (four in 14 GP) in one contest on Saturday.

That’s right, he generated four points, scoring an empty-netter plus three assists. Connor McDavid dominated in his own right with two goals, but Sheahan helped the Oilers rout the Coyotes. Josh Archibald generated three points (1G, 2A) as well.

This just in: the Oilers have a lot of “that guy’s still around?” forwards. It’s honestly cool to see some of them have such a strong day, and maybe take a bit of the pressure off McDavid here and there.

3. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets

It’s as though Atkinson never missed any time. After scoring a goal and an assist in his first game in almost one month on Thursday, Atkinson generated three points (2G, 1A) on Saturday. This gives Atkinson seven points (4G, 3A) in his past four contests.

Others give Atkinson a run for his money, even beyond the next section. Jason Zucker (1G, 2A) and James van Riemsdyk (1G, 2A) both contributed to their respective teams’ blowouts. Atkinson’s extra goal gives him the edge.

OK, now let’s consider Elvis and Ovechkin

Saturday featured enough strong performances that it feels better to give these two a mention. After all, they already received their own posts. Yes, these two probably rank as the “real” third and fourth stars of Saturday, or higher, depending upon your personal taste.

Highlight of the Night

Marc-Andre Fleury is suffering through a tough season, big-picture wise. “The Flower” keeps adding to his resume of breathtaking saves, though:

Comic relief

Jamie Benn provides us with a reason to laugh. At least those of us who aren’t immediately transported to our own memories of hilarious blunders.

That video summarizes the Stars’ night succinctly, as the Wild beat them 7-0.

Factoids

  • Ovechkin nabbed consecutive hat tricks to push his career goals total to 692. He passed Mario Lemieux (11th all-time, 690) and tied Steve Yzerman for ninth all-time (692). Mark Messier sits just two goals away at eighth with 694. Ovechkin also generated consecutive hat tricks for the third time in his career. In doing so, Ovechkin joined Joe Malone (four times) and Wayne Gretzky (three) as the only players to generate consecutive hat tricks three or more times, according to NHL PR. Again, this post delves deeper into Ovechkin’s latest accomplishments.
  • Ovechkin’s teammate John Carlson reached 60 points. Carlson managed the feat in just 49 games, getting to 60 faster than any Capitals defenseman; Mike Green held the previous mark with 60 by game 57. Opinion: Green deserved better treatment from hockey folks during his peak years.
  • Merzlikins authored the 18th instance of a rookie goalie getting a shutout of at least 41 saves, via NHL PR.
  • Cale Makar scored his 11th goal, setting a new record for goals by a rookie Avalanche defenseman.
  • Dominik Kubalik reached 20 goals in his 47th game. NHL PR points out that Kubalik ranks among sixth Blackhawks to reach 20 goals in 50 games or less.

Scores

WSH 6 – NYI 4
COL 5 – STL 3
EDM 7 – ARI 3
OTT 5 – CGY 2
CHI 6 – TOR 2
MTL 5 – VGK 4 (SO)
FLA 4 – DET 1
PHI 4 – LAK 1
CBJ 5 – NJD 0
NSH 2 – BUF 1
MIN 7 – DAL 0
VAN 4 – SJS 1

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.

Elvis thrives: Merzlikins is on fire for Blue Jackets

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Elvis Merzlikins advanced a bold goal lately: to be more than just a funny name. He is leaving opponents all shook  up absolutely red-hot for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

Elvis absolutely hound-dogged shut out the New Jersey Devils in Columbus’ 5-0 on Saturday, and that 41-save performance was far from his first standout evening. Merzlikins generated three shutouts in his last four games, allowing just two goals overall. The Blue Jackets won all four of those games.

(OK, this post includes enough cheesy Elvis jokes … arguably.)

During seven appearances between October and November, the 25-year-old goalie languished with sub-.900 save percentages. Since then, he’s started to take off.

Some “too perfect” moments for Elvis Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets

Maybe Merzlikins made a New Year’s Eve resolution to dominate? Perhaps it was because Elvis asked reporters to leave him alone? Merzlikins suffered only two losses since Dec. 31, winning eight of 10 games.

The lights-out play already makes the story endearing, but there are notes of the surreal. Consider a few facts about his hot streak:

“That’s what you like about him. He’s strong mentally,” Tortorella said after the Jan. 11 Vegas shutout, via Rob Mixer of First Ohio Battery. “He’s a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here…but he’s handled himself really well. I’m happy for him.”

  • Merzlikins ended up making it back-to-back shutouts, as he also blanked the Bruins with a 34-save shutout. His three shutouts have upped the ante each time: first 27 saves, then 34, then 41 against the Devils on Saturday.

Tortorella deserves ample credit for creating a cocoon for his goalies, of course.

Regardless, Merzlikins is playing a big role in helping the Blue Jackets stay in the East wild-card races. Here’s hoping that our jokes rise up the charts or we might just need to leave the building.

(Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

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.