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New Year in fantasy hockey: East edition

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This column is a beefy fellow, so let’s keep the intro brief.

Last week, we pondered various tidbits and storylines for the Western Conference with 2018 brand new. The year might already have lost its new-car smell, but let’s finish this off with the East anyway.

[The West edition.]

Boston Bruins: Remember when people were worried about Tuukka Rask?

Before you scoff too much, note that it wasn’t that crazy. Between October and November, Rask really struggled. He was absolutely ridiculous in December: 9-0-1 with a .955 save percentage and two shutouts in 11 games. His start to 2018’s been dicey, but it’s only been two games. It’s easy to forget just how dominant up to this point; Rask carries a wonderful .923 career save percentage.

I’ll be curious to see if Rask continues to play at a near-Vezina-level this season. If so, I wonder how many people exploited the panic boiling within others to profit in a fantasy trade.

Buffalo Sabres: Two Sabres I’m especially interested down the stretch are: Robin Lehner and Kyle Okposo. Both are building some steam lately.

With Lehner, he’s a poor man’s Rask, as his December stats dwarf his other months, but he’s not quite getting the wins at the same rate as Rask.

The more inspiring story is Okposo, who really shouldn’t be dinged too much for a slow start. He suffered exactly that, only generating two points in 10 October games. Since then, Okposo has 22 points in his last 32 games, with seven coming in six 2018 contests. You don’t often see extenuating circumstances like Okposo’s, yet he’s a beacon in favor of keeping an eye on streaks, not just full-season stats.

Carolina Hurricanes: The Hurricanes are getting it together, and Sebastian Aho (not the Islanders version) continues his ascent among the ranks. He had a strong rookie season with 24 goals and 49 points, and he already has 15 goals and 35 points in just 43 games in 2017-18.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Don’t be alarmed by the Blue Jackets’ mild stumbles, as I’d wager being without Alexander Wennberg and Brandon Dubinsky really gummed up the works (keen on you, Pierre-Luc Dubois, but you’re not a top center just yet). Wennberg played his first game since Dec. 21 last night, while Dubinsky could return soon with a tinted visor, which will hopefully look like the one Ricky Williams used to wear.*

* – It won’t.

Detroit Red Wings: Unless they’re even more out of touch with the reality of their situation than they already seem, the Red Wings will eventually trade All-Star (in 2018!) Mike Green at some point.

I question if such a move would benefit Green owners.

While he’d conceivably get to play with better scorers, the upgrade might not be that steep, and his role could be quite different. Green leads Red Wings skaters in ice time by a bit more than two minutes per night at 22:39, with 2:26 coming on the power play. He’d likely be used as specialist on another team, which might actually bump that power-play time, but could easily be used minimally otherwise. The best-case scenario would be a Kevin Shattenkirk in Washington situation (good fantasy numbers, dicey reality situation), but Green isn’t quite at that level any longer.

Florida Panthers: A lot of times I like to target high-usage, young defensemen with offensive upside with my later D picks in drafts. Sometimes that means getting John Klingberg (a guy I seemingly reached for consistently) and sometimes that means settling for Aaron Ekblad.

Ekblad’s averaging just under 24 minutes per night, yet he only has 13 points in 42 games. I did a little NHL.com search to see defensemen who’ve played at least 20 games and averaged at least 20+ minutes per night, and I must say, Ekblad doesn’t exactly wow you scoring-efficiency wise. The seven goals ease some of the disappointment.

Montreal Canadiens: Alex Galchenyuk‘s been one of Montreal’s leading scorers even without the ice time you’d usually need to do so. Is Claude Julien finally letting him free? He’s been averaging more than 18 minutes of ice time per night in 2018, which is a tiny sample size, but … hey, we can dream.

New Jersey Devils: Sami Vatanen‘s numbers are pretty comparable in NJ vs. with Anaheim (though close to an extra minute of ice time per game is nice), but he’s shooting a bit more often, which is basically always welcome in fantasy hockey.

(Unless you’re in some horrific league with shooting percentage as a stat. Gross.)

New York Islanders: Goaltending continues to be a problem, which has to sting extra for their GM Garth Snow, a former backup. Bad side even if you don’t own Jaroslav Halak or Thomas Greiss: higher chances of racking up minuses. Bright side: little reason for scorers to ever relent.

New York Rangers: If you want to anger a Rangers fan, you probably only need to utter the name “Pavel Buchnevich.” To be fair, his fantasy owners likely nod their heads when those same fans gripe about Alain Vigneault.

Ottawa Senators: Matt Duchene might be getting it together. The speedy forward has six points in his last four games, split evenly with three goals and three assists.

That represents half of his production with the Senators (12 points in 28 games).

Philadelphia Flyers: With five points in his last three games, Ivan Provorov is on fire, pushing himself to a solid 20 points already in 2017-18. Provorov managed 30 in 2016-17; while he may never be as explosive as Shayne Gostisbehere, his all-around game might make him a guy who gets enough ice time to make it close in the future.

Provorov is somehow still just 20. The young talent in the NHL is just bonkers right now.

Pittsburgh Penguins: All of Daniel Sprong’s three points came in one game: a two-goal, one-assist contest against the Islanders on Jan. 5. His ice time has been a little sporadic, too.

The lure of him being the next Jake Guentzel is honestly quite understandable, though you would be wise to pay attention if you have them. There might be cases where you’d want to add and drop him more than once as the season goes along, if you’re the tinkering type.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Let’s hope Victor Hedman is OK. If not, Anton Stralman, Mikhail Sergachev, Jake Dotchin, and Braydon Coburn may all shoulder heavier burdens. The biggest loser would be Andrei Vasilevskiy, who’s been off the charts for most of this season.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Mitch Marner left Mike Babcock’s doghouse in a big way, generating 13 points in as many games in December. Or, if he’s still in the doghouse, it’s a really nice one with air conditioning and cable TV.

Washington Capitals: During the last two seasons, John Carlson finished with 37 and 39 points, with injuries limiting his production to varying degrees. He’s generally been in that high-30 range during his prime years, aside from a red-hot 2014-15 when he scored 12 goals and 55 points.

Carlson’s really nailing his contract year so far, collecting five goals and 29 assists for 34 points. It’s not really a matter of insane luck, and might be as much to do with Washington needing more from him thanks to free agent departures than any sort of “greed is good” fun.

Either way, he’s on track to set plenty of career-highs if he can stay reasonably healthy.

Contract years are the best … for fantasy, at least.

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.

El Paso Rhinos on rallying community after tragedy

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As you can see from the video above, NBC’s Anson Carter took a look at how the El Paso Rhinos responded to the Aug. 3, 2019 tragedy that claimed the lives of 22 people and injured at least 24 more.

Along with donating $10K, the Rhinos added proceeds stemming from a game against Mexico’s National Under-20 team on Sept. 28 and 29. Between the game and charitable jersey auctions afterward, Carter notes that the Rhinos almost doubled those $10K contributions.

One of the video’s best moments came when Carter revealed that, with the help of Bauer and the NHL and NHLPA’s industry growth fund, there’s a donation of 20 hockey gloves to Mexico’s National Under-20 team. You can see their head coach Diego De La Garma wearing what are apparently New Jersey Devils-themed gloves:

More on that here:

Good stuff, and another reminder that sports can often bring people together after tragic events.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Stuck on zero: Notable NHL players still searching for first goal

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We are a couple of weeks into the 2019-20 NHL season and there have been some surprising players at the top of the goal-scoring leaderboard, including James Neal, Anthony Mantha, Victor Olofsson, Brayden Schenn, and Erik Haula.

Perhaps just as surprising is the list of players still searching for their first goal, fighting through extended early season slumps.

Every player will go through hot streaks and cold streaks over the course of a season, and when those streaks happen now we tend to pay extra attention to them because there is nothing else around them to hide them. A first line player stuck on zero goals after six or seven games will stick out more than a six-or seven-game drought in the middle of March.

Here are eight notable players still trying to find that first goal. We are limiting this to players that have played in at least six games.

William Karlsson, Vegas Golden Knights
Games played entering Tuesday:
6
Shots on goal: 16

After scoring 67 goals over the past two seasons Karlsson has gone six games without a goal to open the 2019-20 season. The good news for him: He started each of the past two seasons with zero goals in his first six games before scoring in his seventh game each year.

Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 14

Barkov has become one of the NHL’s best all-around players over the past couple of years and is one of the reasons for optimism in Florida. He has not scored yet this season but he is doing literally everything else, having already recorded five assists while the Panthers are attempting more than 54 percent of the shot attempts when he is on the ice. Only a matter of time before the puck starts finding the back of the net for him.

Nino Niederreiter, Carolina Hurricanes
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 13

Getting a full season of Niederreiter is a big reason to like the Hurricanes this season. He was a significant addition in the middle of the 2018-19 season and is an outstanding two-way winger that can defend, drive possession, and help create offense. He is still helping to drive possession at an elite rate. He is not a big-time goal-scorer, but he is always a lock for at least 20 goals.

Joe Pavelski, Dallas Stars
Games played entering Tuesday: 7
Shots on goal: 10

The Stars have been one of the league’s most disappointing teams so far and Pavelski might be their most disappointing player through the first seven games. Not only as he failed to score a goal, but only generating 10 shots on goal in seven games is a concerning sign. Some regression had to be expected from his 38-goal campaign a year ago (he had a career-high shooting percentage at age 34, which was never going to be repeated) but this has to be discouraging. He also has just one assist.

Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 21 (combined)

The two recent No. 1 overall picks are two of the most important players on the Devils’ roster from a big picture outlook, and so far both have struggled. Hughes has failed to record a point in his first six games and can not seem to buy a goal. Just another thing that has gone wrong for the Devils in a season where nothing has gone as expected.

Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 6

Schwartz had a bizarre 2018-19 season, struggling through one of the worst regular season performances of his career (mostly due to a terrible shooting percentage) before being unstoppable in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The trouble for Schwartz this season (unlike last season) is he is not yet generating shots.

Milan Lucic, Calgary Flames
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 4

The Flames will try to sell you on the idea he is doing exactly what they want, providing physical play and serving as some sort of protection for their stars. But man, zero goals, zero points, only four shots on goal, a lot of penalty minutes, a huge contract, and the guy he was traded for (James Neal) can not stop scoring goals for their biggest rival. There is no way that trade is a win at this point.

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: Canadiens vs. Lightning on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

These Atlantic Division foes meet for the first of four times this season as the Canadiens continue with the third game of their four-game homestand. The Lightning, on the other hand, play away from home for the fifth time in six games this season.

One of the biggest questions for Tampa entering this season was when Brayden Point would re-sign. The 23-year-old is coming off a season in which he set career best marks in goals (41), assists (51) and points (92). On September 23, he signed a three-year contract to stay with the Lightning, the only team he’s played for as he begins his fourth season. Point missed the first three games this season while recovering from off-season hip surgery but made an immediate impact in his season debut, scoring twice against Toronto and adding an assist.

While the Canadiens, who are looking to return to the playoffs for the first time in three years (2017), are coming off an encouraging early-season win, the Lightning, after a record-setting regular season, have already lost as many games this season as they did the entire opening month of last season

Jonathan Drouin played a career-high 81 games last season (tied career high with 53 points). The 2013 third overall pick by Tampa has started this season by recording a point in every game for a total of six points in five games. If he adds to that in this game, he’ll be the fourth Canadiens player in the last 32 seasons to open the year with a point streak of six-plus games.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Tampa Bay Lightning at Montreal Canadiens
WHERE: Bell Centre
WHEN: Tuesday, Oct. 15, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Lightning-Canadiens stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

LIGHTNING
Steven Stamkos – Brayden Point – Nikita Kucherov
Alex KillornAnthony CirelliMathieu Joseph
Ondrej PalatTyler JohnsonYanni Gourde
Patrick Maroon – Carter Verhaeghe – Luke Witkowski

Victor HedmanErik Cernak
Ryan McDonaghKevin Shattenkirk
Braydon CoburnMikhail Sergachev

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

CANADIENS
Tomas TatarPhillip DanaultBrendan Gallagher
Artturi LehkonenMax DomiJordan Weal
Jonathan Drouin – Jesperi KotkaniemiJoel Armia
Paul ByronNate Thompson – Nick Suzuki

Victor MeteShea Weber
Brett KulakJeff Petry
Ben ChiarotChristian Folin

Starting goalie: Carey Price

MORE: Offseason work paying off for Canadiens’ Drouin

Paul Burmeister will host Tuesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter. Gord Miller and Pierre McGuire will call the action from Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec.

Cup champion Blues visit Trump at White House as full team

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump honored the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues on Tuesday, using the occasion to announce an envoy to Turkey, mention the economy and an agriculture deal with China and laugh off the possibility of impeachment.

For the Blues, it was more of a last chance to celebrate the first title in franchise history than a political statement. Like previous NHL champions, they decided to keep with the long-held tradition of visiting the president at the White House amid teams from the NBA and other leagues either declining or not receiving an invitation or being disinvited by Trump.

St. Louis has a heavy concentration of Canadians and just one American still on the roster from the group that beat the Boston Bruins in the Cup Final. Every returning player from the Cup champions took the tour, met with Trump and was present for the ceremony in the Rose Garden.

”No matter what we do, we do it as a group,” alternate captain Alex Steen said. ”I think that’s how we won. We’re a very tight-knit group.”

Trump veered off into talk about bringing soldiers home from overseas and the stock market and revealed Vice President Mike Pence was traveling to Turkey to try to reach a ceasefire deal. When he circled back to the Blues, he went through their improbable run from last place in the league to champions with nods to Steen, owner Tom Stillman, captain Alex Pietrangelo, goaltender Jordan Binnington, forward Jaden Schwartz – who he called ”Jason” – and playoff MVP Ryan O'Reilly.

”Being able to see (the Oval) Office and get a tour of the White House, it doesn’t get much better than that,” said Schwartz, who acknowledged he might have a new nickname. ”This is (something) you’ll remember forever.”

Trump even mentioned the Blues adopting Laura Branigan’s 1982 hit “Gloria” as their victory song, and the U.S. Marine Band played the team into the ceremony with that tune. Young fan Laila Anderson, who was the team’s inspiration while she fought a rare auto-immune disease, got her own mention.

”You inspired the Blues all season, and today you continue to inspire all Americans,” Trump said. ”We all know your story.”

Stillman, who presented Trump with a No. 45 Blues jersey, called it a ”light-hearted, fun kind of celebration.” He echoed Steen’s sentiments about why the entire team showed up – a departure from when goaltender Braden Holtby and forward Brett Connolly skipped the 2018 champion Washington Capitals’ visit in March in support of teammate Devante Smith-Pelly.

”I think this team acts as a team in everything they do,” Stillman said. ”They stick together. By and large, (I) like to keep politics and sports separate. This is a matter of a traditional honor, being invited to the White House by the presidency. It’s something you do. I’m really proud of our group for all coming together and having a good time of it, as well.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman; Pence’s wife, Karen; and Republican Sens. Roy Blunt and Josh Hawley of Missouri were among those in attendance for the half-hour ceremony.

Coach Craig Berube stressed the notion of the Blues’ playoff run as a team effort and brushed off Trump’s comment that the pressure was off after winning.

”We won the Stanley Cup, I think, once we got our team working together and playing together,” Berube said. ”When you play as a team, day in and day out – hard – you’re going to be hard to beat. So that’s what it basically boiled down to. These guys all came together as a team and played for each other, and we ended up being champions.”

The Blues paraded down the streets of St. Louis, raised their championship banner, donated a Cup ring to the Hockey Hall of Fame and capped it all off by going to the White House. Now, players are eager to move on to trying to do it all again.

”It’s a new year and new challenges and experiences,” Binnington said. ”We kind of still have this stuff lingering around, but obviously it’s positive and it’s amazing to experience that. But at the same time, yeah, it’s back to work and simplify things a little bit. It’ll be nice.”