Getty

Six NHL rookies that are flying under the radar this season

19 Comments

The NHL’s rookie class for the 2017-18 season is an impressive one with what is sure to be a tightly contested Calder Trophy race at the top.

Forwards Mathew Barzal (New York Islanders), Brock Boeser (Vancouver Canucks), and Clayton Keller (Arizona Coyotes), as well as defensemen Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins) and Mikhail Sergachev (Tampa Bay Lightning) are all making tremendous impacts for their teams this season and are clearly the cream of the crop when it comes to first-year players around the league.

One of them (most likely Barzal or Boeser) is going to take home the Calder Trophy this season.

But they are not the only rookies that are standing out this season.

Let’s take a look at five more whose performances have slid under the radar. None of these players will end up winning the rookie of the year award this season, but they have been key contributors to their teams so far and deserve some credit for it.

Danton Heinen, Boston Bruins

The Bruins are a really intriguing team in the East. They have three of the best forwards in the league at the top of their lineup, a goalie that is capable of carrying the team when he gets hot, and they have rebuilt their defense over the past couple of years. They are also getting a ton of contributions from rookies. McAvoy has already blossomed into a top-pairing defenseman, and Jake DeBrusk, a 2015 first-round pick, is currently on a 20-goal pace.

They also have Heinen, a 22-year-old forward that is getting his first full-time look in the NHL.

Currently he is fourth among all NHL rookies in scoring with 38 points, while his 0.82 point per game average is third behind only Barzal and Boeser.

He has been especially good on a line with veteran forward David Backes. When Backes and Heinen are on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the Bruins are controlling 60 percent of the shot attempts and outscoring teams by a 14-10 margin (via NaturalStatTrick).

Alexander Kerfoot, Colorado Avalanche

After choosing to not sign with the team that drafted him, the New Jersey Devils, Kerfoot became an unrestricted free agent this past summer and ended up landing an opportunity with the Colorado Avalanche. It has paid off immediately for everyone.

The Avalanche are in surprising contention for a playoff spot this season, even after trading Matt Duchene, thanks in large part to the breakout year from Nathan MacKinnon.

Another key contributor this season has been the 23-year-old Kerfoot.

In his debut season he’s already recorded 30 points in 40 games and has been one of the team’s top point producers.

The Avalanche have been a disaster on the ice in recent seasons, but they are exceeding expectations this season and their top-four scorers (MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog and Kerfoot) are all age 25 or younger. Landeskog is the only one of that quartet that is over the age 23. And they also still have 19-year-old Tyson Jost.

There is still a pretty good young core here to build around.

Yanni Gourde, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning are looking absolutely terrifying this season — and for future seasons given their contract situations — with a bunch of superstars at the top of the lineup and a bunch of young, talented, cheap players sprinkled around them. We mentioned Sergachev up above as one of the Calder Trophy leaders, and they also have second-year forward Brayden Point lighting up the scoreboard (Point, by the way, is the third-leading scorer on the team).

Then there’s Yanni Gourde.

Gourde barely makes the rookie cut this season because he turned 26 in December and had played in 20 games a season ago, but by NHL rules he does still qualify as a rookie.

The Lightning have excelled in recent seasons by building around talented, undersized forwards that are capable of putting the puck in the net and Gourde is just the latest example. Listed at only 5-9, 172 pounds, Gourde is one of the smallest players in the league. Before getting his first real shot in the NHL he had been a productive player at pretty much every level of hockey that he played at.

He earned a regular spot with the Lightning this season and has proven to be a valuable addition. Along with his offensive production (14 goals, 16 assists in 44 games) he has also been a key contributor to their penalty kill.

Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins weren’t expecting to need Jarry this season, but when the Antti Niemi experiment proved to be a failure their plans had to change a little. So far, he has been excellent as Matt Murray‘s backup and has filled in admirably for him while Murray has been away from the team dealing with a personal family matter. With Murray again away from the team following his father’s passing this week Jarry is going to get even more opportunities to play in the immediate future.

So far this season Jarry is 9-3-2 in his 15 appearances and has a .923 save percentage that is tops among rookie goaltenders (minimum 15 games played).

Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets

The Jets have become one of the NHL’s most dynamic offenses with Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, and Nikolaj Ehlers are all shining at the top of the lineup.

They also have 2015 first-round pick Kyle Connor starting to make an impact.

Connor is currently third among all rookie forwards in goals scored, but is second only to Boeser when it comes to goals per game.

He is currently on what would be a 30-goal pace over 82 games.

The Jets’ rebuild has been slow — painfully slow, and probably slower than it needed to be — but their patience and desire to build almost entirely from within is finally starting to be rewarded with this group of forwards.

If they can keep getting solid goaltending they are going to be a tough team to knock out of the playoffs.

Jesper Bratt, New Jersey Devils

The Devils are another team that is getting significant contributions from rookies this season.

Currently the Devils are in a playoff position in the Metropolitan Division and are looking to return to the postseason for the first time since 2011-12. Leading the way is a trio of rookies that are all among the team’s top-four scorers. Included in that group are No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier and free agent signing Will Butcher.

It should not be much of a surprise that Hischier has played well and made an immediate impact. That is what you hope — and expect — from a No. 1 overall pick. Butcher has been outstanding and is currently the team’s top possession player.

The biggest surprise out of the group, though, might be 19-year-old Jesper Bratt, a sixth-round pick by the Devils in 2016.

Through the Devils’ first 42 games, Bratt is second on the team in scoring, is seventh among all rookies, and is playing close to two minutes on the penalty kill per night … as a 19-year-old rookie.

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.

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has better coaching?

NBC Sports
2 Comments

Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Barry Trotz doesn’t have a contract beyond the conclusion of this current season. He entered the year with no job security, no sense of what his future would hold and still steering his troops to the top of the heap in the Metropolitan Division, and now, the Stanley Cup Final.

Washington’s start to the season didn’t help and rumors of Trotz’s pending axing swirled. But the man who sits fifth all-time in coaching wins turned his team around.

Trotz has found another gear behind the bench and has guided the Caps with calmness during these playoffs. It’s paid off. The Capitals were able to exercise their demons against the Pittsburgh Penguins and then come back from being 3-2 down against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Oh, and he did this:

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

There isn’t a world where Gerard Gallant doesn’t win the Jack Adams this year for top bench boss in the NHL. He’s simply done the unthinkable with a team no one expected to be competing, never mind being one of two teams set to do battle for the Stanley Cup.

Look, Gallant was given a bunch of players from all over the league and a mandate to try and figure out how they all fit together, who plays on what line. Who pairs with who on defense. What the power play and penalty kill look like. It was a tall task to begin with, but Gallant has nailed it every step of the way.

There’s been lots of talk of how poorly the Panthers fared when they lost both Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith in the expansion draft. But one of Florida’s biggest losses was firing Gallant and leaving him on the side of the road.

That decision paved the way for Gallant to join the Golden Knights and smash nearly every record by an expansion team ever.

Gallant has given his players the controls. Mistakes don’t mean less ice time. Gallant has inspired his team and doesn’t have them playing scared. It’s a perfect approach and one that’s evidently paid off.

Advantage: Golden Knights

Trotz is a great coach, but there’s just something about the spirited way Gallant has Vegas playing that simply cannot be denied. We’ve seen it all season and all playoffs.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:

• Who has the better forwards?
Who has better defense?
• Who has better special teams?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has better special teams?

NBC Sports
Leave a comment

Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

There is no team with a better weapon on the power play than Alex Ovechkin (sorry, Patrik Laine). The fact of the matter is Washington has clipped along at damn-near 30 percent (28.6%) in the playoffs on the power play through three rounds. The only team better is the Boston Bruins, and well, they were ousted in the second round.

And it’s not just Ovi producing on the power play (he has nine points). Defenseman John Carlson leads the team with 10 power play points. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has been simply sensational in the playoffs, has nine, as does T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom.

One of the X factors in this series is going to be special teams, and for Washington, specifically, they’re going to need to tighten up on the penalty kill. They allow one goal every four opportunities they give to an opposing team on the power play. Couple that with the fact that they’re the most penalized team in playoffs (61 times shorthanded), and you can see where this all could go wrong. Perhaps the good news for the Caps here is that their road PK percentage (79.3%) is better than their home numbers (71.9%).

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

Vegas’ pedestrian 17.6 percent power play success rate is a full 11 percent behind the Capitals, so Washington has them beat in this regard. Vegas is the second-most shorthanded team in these playoffs (57). Forward Erika Huala leads the team with 12 power-play points while William Karlsson (8), Reilly Smith (7), and Jonathan Marchessault (6) round out their top-four point producers.

The Golden Knights could use a spark on the power play away from home, where they take advantage of just 13 percent of their man advantages.

Vegas has been much better than the Caps when shorthanded, however, at 82.5 percent. Given how many penalties the Golden Knights have taken — and the fact they played Patrik Laine and the Jets in the Western Conference Final — that’s pretty impressive. They muzzled the Jets all over the ice, but were particularly good at keeping Laine and Mark Scheifele off their game on the power play.

Vegas’ PK has been good both on the home and away from T-Mobile Arena — much like everything they’ve done this season.

Marc-Andre Fleury owns a .909 save percentage on the penalty kill, compared to Braden Holtby‘s .857.

Advantage: Capitals (ever so slightly)

Washington’s power play pushes them just over the top here, especially against a team that gives up so many opportunities. It has to be said though that this battle is very close on paper. Vegas has the better goalie in shorthanded situations and they have a better penalty kill all-around.

Special teams is certainly an x-factor in this series and should be fun to watch given the talent on both teams. 

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:

• Who has the better forwards?
Who has better defense?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

No contract, no problem: Trotz guides Caps into Cup final

4 Comments

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) One of the lasting images from the Capitals’ playoff run came the morning of Game 7 in the Eastern Conference final.

Usually Alex Ovechkin hustles around the rink in a hot lap prior to the morning skate. Only this time it was 55-year-old coach Barry Trotz, who answered the call from his players to do the lap.

“I was worried about the turns,” Trotz said. “The rudders haven’t been sharpened all year. … I almost bit it at the end there trying to imitate Ovi.”

The Capitals beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0 that night to punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final, but they might’ve won Game 7 at that moment. Rarely in previous postseasons had Trotz been that relaxed, the result of an unusual situation.

Trotz went into the season without – and still doesn’t have – a contract for next season, a circumstance that almost never happens to an experienced coach of a team with legitimate postseason hopes. But in a strange way, being a lame-duck coach might’ve helped Trotz not feel the pressure of past early exits and played a positive role in getting this far.

“I think it could be the same effect on a player, too, that’s becoming a free agent,” general manager Brian MacLellan said Friday. “He’s basically becoming a free agent as a coach, and what effect does that have? Do you have your best year when you’re a free agent?”

Trotz has. Even with the fifth-most victories of any coach in NHL history, until this spring he hadn’t made it past the second round in 18 previous seasons with the Nashville Predators and Capitals. He called it “luck of the draw,” running into championship-bound teams from Detroit, Chicago and Pittsburgh.

This improbable Capitals run that continues with Game 1 of the Cup Final on Monday in Las Vegas is not luck. It’s parts Ovechkin and goaltender Braden Holtby, and also the right moves by Trotz. He called on Philipp Grubauer to start the first round in goal before switching to Holtby in Game 2 against Columbus and watching him get on a roll. He put Jakub Vrana on the top line not long before the rookie scored the winner in Game 5 against the Penguins and pushed all the right buttons on rest and preparation.

Teams tend to read cues from a head coach, and those have been positive.

“I think his demeanor has changed a little bit,” MacLellan said. “He seems a little lighter, a little looser, a little less pressure, maybe a little more freedom in terms of how he goes about things.”

Despite back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies, MacLellan and Capitals management didn’t offer Trotz an extension.

Before the playoffs, Trotz said he hadn’t lost any sleep over his status and referred questions to MacLellan and owner Ted Leonsis. In March, Leonsis said he doesn’t talk about contracts, and MacLellan has repeatedly stated that any talks would wait until after the playoffs. There are currently no vacancies in the NHL.

Toronto’s Mike Babcock is the highest-paid coach at $6.25 million, Chicago’s Joel Quenneville is next at $6 million and Montreal’s Claude Julien comes in at $5 million. Those three have combined to win the Cup five times.

Trotz’s price tag has gone up however the Final goes against the Golden Knights.

“He’s probably going to benefit from this, too,” MacLellan said. “I think he’s done a good job managing it. To come in this year with so many questions – not from my point of view the lineup questions were that a big deal – but just the emotional state of our team coming in to start the year and how to handle that, I think he’s done an outstanding job.”

Trotz survived a 10-9-1 start that culminated with 6-3 and 6-2 losses at Nashville and Colorado, and the Capitals winning 12 of their next 14 games might have saved his job. Players’ response to Trotz reading them the riot act showed he certainly hadn’t lost the room.

But a journey of self-discovery last summer went beyond not having a contract.

“It gave me just some clarity on what defines me, what defines us, what defines you,” Trotz said. “If you don’t win any awards or anything, I’m not going to look at you any different. If you’re a good person and you treat people right and you live your life right, then I’m going to think really highly of you. If you don’t, I’m not going to think so much of you. And I started getting that clarity that everybody looks for the wrong in people rather than the right and it gave me a lot of clarity. And some things happened in my life that allowed me to see that and it’s been good.”

Happy, relaxed Trotz has made more appearances in these playoffs than buttoned-down, terse Trotz. He hasn’t soured amid the road bumps this postseason.

The Capitals have followed Trotz’s even-keeled approach and even been upbeat following losses. Like his players, he’s enjoying the ride.

“Playoffs are fun,” Trotz said. “They are a grind. But they’re fun. And they should be treated as fun. They’re sort of all the hard that you have to put in just to get there and it takes even more hard work to go farther, but it is fun. I’m finding I’m having a blast during the games.”

More Stanley Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/StanleyCupFinals

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SWhyno

Golden Knights success raising stakes for next NHL expansion

4 Comments

SEATTLE (AP) — From his office about 1,000 miles away from T-Mobile Arena, Tod Leiweke has watched the Stanley Cup playoffs with a growing appreciation for what is taking place in Las Vegas.

He was keeping an eye on the Golden Knights even before he became president of Seattle Hockey Partners LLC, the group looking to bring an expansion NHL franchise to the Pacific Northwest. Once he took charge of Seattle’s efforts , Leiweke’s interest intensified, just as Vegas began its run to the upcoming Stanley Cup Final.

”They’re playing the game with great joy and they’re having fun and it’s just inspirational to watch,” Leiweke said. ”We’re absolutely loving it and living vicariously through them.”

The Golden Knights’ success in their inaugural season has been unprecedented as Vegas prepares for Game 1 on Monday night against the Washington Capitals. It’s also seemed to have heightened the expectations for the next wave of NHL expansion.

Seattle is on deck. If the NHL awards the city a franchise, it could be on the ice as early as the 2020 season. It would require a $650 million expansion fee and a renovated arena. There’s also talk of future growth, with Houston mentioned regularly as a possible destination for the league.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has met with new Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, who is certainly more open to acquiring an NHL franchise for Houston than former owner Les Alexander. Seattle is certainly further ahead in the process by showing interest, but Houston has the arena and a potential owner already in place for the near future.

For now all the focus is on what’s happening in Seattle. And if Leiweke is feeling any additional pressure for his potential franchise given Vegas’ success on and off the ice, he’s not showing it.

”Well, to tell you the truth, I guess someone could interpret it that way that there’s all of a sudden this unusual pressure on us but in fact all they’re doing is helping us,” Leiweke said. ”They’re showing us how successful this league could be, the brilliance of the game, they’re showing us what happens when a team comes together and plays inspired hockey. We don’t at all see it as anything other than just a great thing for the National Hockey League. Those that come before us will set the table for us. When I think about what they’ve done my endorphins go off and I have such admiration and we’re truly inspired by it.”

The indications about six weeks ago, when Leiweke was hired, led those involved in the expansion process to believe some type of conditional approval would be granted by the NHL Board of Governors during their June meeting, to be followed by full approval in September. The staggered approach was to make certain construction on the arena would begin in late October as scheduled.

That has changed. Bettman told The Associated Press this week that the Seattle expansion won’t be formally addressed next month.

”What we have said to the people – David Bonderman’s group – is we’re on your timetable. There’s information that needs to be gathered after information is submitted. We have to finish doing our due diligence and our homework. We need to have the timetable understanding as to when the building’s going to get done. We can move as fast or as slowly as you want. There’s no rush,” Bettman told the AP. ”We’re in the middle of the process. They’re doing their homework, and they’re proceeding on two fronts because they’ve got to renovate a building and they’ve got to pursue the team and they’re doing both very nicely. They’re working with the city, they hired Tod Leiweke.

”Is it going to be on the June agenda? No. After that, could it be September? Could it be the annual meeting in December? It’s possible.”

Leiweke was hoping to have a true rooting interest in the finals, but the Tampa Bay Lightning were ousted in the Eastern Conference finals by the Capitals. Leiweke was the CEO of the Lightning from 2010-15 and was part of the group that turned around the organization, both with its on-ice success and in the stands, rejuvenating a fan base that had slumped following Tampa Bay’s title run in 2004.

The experience in Tampa Bay gave Leiweke an understanding of what it’ll take for Seattle to have a successful franchise. And while it may not be on par with what Vegas is accomplishing, Leiweke sees no reason why Seattle won’t have a chance to be a contender from the start.

”I won’t be foolish enough to say we’re going to make it to the Stanley Cup (Final) in our first year but I believe that we can absolutely build a team that is long-term competitive here,” Leiweke said. ”So when we think about this we don’t say look, we’re resetting a goal and our goal is to make the Stanley Cup in year one. But our goal is to replicate a good part of what they’ve done by building an incredibly competitive program where those players are proud to pull on that sweater.”

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.

More Stanley Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/StanleyCupFinals

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule