Mike Fisher on Predators return: ‘This could be our year’

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Why is Mike Fisher (eventually) coming back to the Nashville Predators and the NHL? Well, for a lot of the reasons you’d probably expect.

Fisher, Predators GM David Poile, and head coach Peter Laviolette addressed the media about Fisher’s surprise return from retirement on Wednesday, giving some big-picture answers to some of the questions surrounding his comeback.

Why?

Poile joked that he saw photos of Fisher hunting, so he thought Fisher was “relatively happy” in retirement.

Fisher certainly didn’t paint a sad picture of retirement, noting that it was “weird” to watch Predators games as a fan. Still, around Christmas time, the absence really started to sting. He’d been having discussions with Laviolette, current Preds captain Roman Josi, and others here and there about a comeback.

“It always kind of bugged me when guys came back from retirement,” Fisher said.

” … I’m all in, I’m excited. I know it’s going to be a special year.”

Fisher explained that, even without winning the Stanley Cup during last year’s exciting run, that it was the best time of his 17-year NHL career, and he believes “this could be our year.”

(He’s already aligning with the Predators from a pronoun standpoint. That’s a good sign.)

Fisher has the support of his wife Carrie Underwood, if not the three-year-old he’s been chasing around the house in retirement, and it’s clear that the Predators wanted him back. So what’s next?

How might Fisher figure in, change Predators’ plans?

When asked about the trade deadline – which serves as something of a soft deadline for actually signing Fisher – Predators GM David Poile said that he likes where his team is, but “never say never.”

You wonder if Fisher’s return might open the door for the Predators to involve another player in a bolder move?

As it stands, Nashville already had plenty of options down the middle; from top guys Ryan Johansen and Kyle Turris, to supporting centers like Nick Bonino and Colton Sissons, with even players like Calle Jarnkrok having some experience at center.

Last season, Fisher seemingly ended his career on a high note, almost doubling his 2015-16 points total (42 to 23, with 18 of those 42 points being goals). It’s not really the points that the Predators are after, and all the leadership/character/intangibles talk isn’t the full story, either.

Fisher’s versatility could be useful, assuming he can return to game form.

In 2016-17, he won 54.9 percent of his faceoffs, and he’s won at least 52 percent of his draws since 2013-14. As you can see from Hockey Reference’s metrics, Fisher saw an increasing defensive role during his latter days with the Preds, starting just 39.6 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone last season.

Fisher stated that he’s eager to complement this team in whatever way works, and his recent play argues that point.

It will be interesting to see where he’d figure in, most likely in the bottom two lines. According to Left Wing Lock, this is what the Predators’ bottom six looks like right now:

Kevin Fiala — Bonino — Jarnkrok

Miikka Salomaki — Sissons – Austin Watson

With Filip Forsberg out, Pontus Aberg is currently occupying his spot on the top line, so Aberg would serve as another useful option. If everyone’s healthy, it could make for quite the jousting for lineup spots.

Via Natural Stat Trick’s teammate listings, Fisher’s most common forward linemates last season were Craig Smith, Colin Wilson, and Austin Watson. Perhaps Fisher would once again line up with Watson and also with Sissons, giving the Predators two faceoff options on that line? That wouldn’t be the worst scenario, considering how tweaked faceoff rules means that pivots get kicked out of the dot somewhat often.

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Again, it’s pretty easy to understand why Fisher is coming back. If you saw the wild, fun scene in “Smashville” – even on TV – you’d probably get why that pull is so strong.

Management notes that there is no specific timetable for his return, which might explain some of the vagueness about where he’ll fall in the lineup.

Those questions are tough to answer, yet it’s better to have too much of a good thing rather than not enough. When you note that the Predators came into this season with questions about center depth, the additions of Turris and return of Fisher now make an already formidable team that much more balanced.

It’s fair to say that Laviolette will have a balancing act on his hands if his team is reasonably healthy, though.

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.

Maple Leafs end skid in first Babcock-less game

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If it weren’t for Vinnie Hinostroza spoiling Frederik Andersen‘s shutout with 17 seconds left, Thursday would have been just about perfect for the Toronto Maple Leafs during their first game post-Mike Babcock.

Most importantly, the Maple Leafs ended their six-game losing streak with a win. (Yes, that makes brand-new head coach Sheldon Keefe 1-0-0.)

The symmetry starts to go up a notch when you consider that, on this night, Tyson Barrie finally scored his first goal of the 2019-20 season, which is also his first with the Maple Leafs. Barrie is up there when you picture Leafs with relief of Babcock grief, so scoring here almost feels on-the-nose:

That Barrie goal gave the Maple Leafs a coveted 1-0 lead, and that’s quite a reversal from how things could have felt if Andersen didn’t make this great glove save (which would have stood out even more if Tuukka Rask didn’t give Marc-Andre Fleury competition with an absolutely ludicrous stop).

The underlying numbers are promising, too. In particular, it has to be uplifting to see that the Maple Leafs managed an impressive 18-7 advantage in high-danger chances at all strengths, according to Natural Stat Trick.

There’s a lot to like for the Leafs, but there’s also no denying that the Maple Leafs have a lot of work to do — and a hole they need to dig out of. That win merely brought them back to “.500,” as they’re now 10-10-4 for 24 standings points in 24 games. They wouldn’t make it into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs if they began on Thursday night, and Toronto’s ninth place standing is even inflated when you realize that teams right behind them hold games in hand. (Toronto’s 24 games played ties for the most in the NHL, while teams like the Lightning [22 points in 19 GP] loom large.)

Ultimately, though, the Maple Leafs can only control what they’re doing on the ice. So far, so good then, when you consider how they’re playing with Keefe pulling the strings instead of Babs.

More on Babcock, Leafs:

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.

Blues’ Dunn levels Flames’ Mangiapane with huge hit

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These are painful times for the Calgary Flames … sometimes literally.

By falling 5-0 to the St. Louis Blues on Thursday, the Flames have now dropped six consecutive games. It’s hard not to think a little bit about the Toronto Maple Leafs firing Mike Babcock amid their slump when considering the Flames’ own struggles, both now and in their own disappointing showing in Round 1 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Talk of big changes (to coaching, Johnny Gaudreau, the GM, or anything else) can wait for another day … maybe one soon? For now, let’s bask in the fearful glow of Vince Dunn‘s hit on Andrew Mangiapane, as you can witness in the video above this post’s headline.

Is that hit symbolic of the Flames’ pains lately, or could you best embody that agony by comparing the team to its most snakebitten player, Sam Bennett?

Either way, these are uncomfortable times for the Flames, and not just Mangiapane.

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.

Islanders’ point streak hits 16 games, a new franchise record

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The Penguins spoiled the Islanders’ 10-game winning streak, but not the Islanders’ point streak, back on Nov. 7. The Islanders really haven’t slowed down since then, as Thursday’s 4-3 OT win against Pittsburgh extended their latest winning streak to five games, and allowed them to set a new franchise record.

By going 15-0-1 in their last 16 games, the Islanders set a new franchise mark for longest point streak. Yes, that means Barry Trotz’s odds-defying group has accomplished something the dynastic Mike Bossy-powered ’80s group never did.

At this rate, the Islanders might just bank enough standings points that it might not matter much when/if they “come back to Earth.”

In the spirit of Derek Jeter wedging his jersey number into a word where it only kinda sorta works, the Islanders embraced the history of the 16-game streak:

When you’re winning (or at least getting a point) as often as the Islanders have been, you’ll need to win in different ways. After some comeback wins recently, Thursday’s game against the Penguins was a back-and-forth affair where the two teams traded leads, and the Penguins needed a last-minute goal to even get the game to overtime. Brock Nelson‘s two goals were key, including his OT-winner:

There’s been a “cardiac kids” element to this run, especially lately. Thursday’s win marks the third consecutive game where the Isles’ action went beyond regulation, and six of the Islanders’ wins (plus their lone OT loss to the Penguins) have come via either a shootout or overtime goal.

This also marks the best 20-game start in franchise history for the Isles, according to The Athletic’s David Staple.

Just resounding stuff.

It says a lot about the Capitals’ own hot start (16-4-4, 36 points in 24 games played) that the Islanders still aren’t in the lead in the Metro. Of course, the Islanders could close a ton of ground considering their games in hand, as they’re 16-3-1 for 33 points in just those 20 games played.

Looking ahead, the Islanders will go on the road quite a bit as they try to extend this point streak even beyond 16 games. To start, they’ll take a California road trip, and the away-heavy stretch doesn’t end there.

Nov. 23: at San Jose
Nov. 25: at Anaheim
Nov. 27: at Los Angeles
Nov. 30: vs. Columbus
Dec. 2: at Detroit
Dec. 3 :at Montreal
Dec. 5: vs. Vegas
Dec. 7: at Dallas
Dec. 9: at Tampa Bay
Dec. 12: at Florida

As you can see, the Islanders face a run where eight of their next 10 games are on the road. You’d think that maybe there will be stumbles (dare I wonder, *gasp* maybe even a single regulation loss?) along that way, but the Islanders keep buzzing along, and they’re 6-1-0 on the road thus far this season … so who knows?

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.

Bruins’ Rask gives Fleury competition for save of the week/year

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When Marc-Andre Fleury flashed the glove for a ridiculous save, PHT’s Adam Gretz was right in wondering if calling it a save of the year candidate was an understatement. And then Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask came along and gave Fleury competition for save of the week.

Buffalo Sabres forward Evan Rodrigues had so much net to aim for, but also needed to get his shot off quickly. As much as the Bruins swarmed the situation — making for an even better visual — Rask ended up having to save the day, and that he did.

This would have been an amazing glove save, but Rask managing the feat with his blocker hand is just … wow. Watch in awe in the video above.

It sounds like even Rask was impressed.

Again, wow. Let’s take a paragraph break to just mutter wow a few times.

Now, let’s compare and contrast: was it more or less amazing than Fleury’s save? Don’t say it was a tie, cheaters.

Now, what do I think is the better save? Uh …

(Tries to throw a smoke bomb and run away, but Rask and Fleury keep batting it around between each other.)

The save ended up being important, as the Bruins narrowly beat the Sabres 3-2 on Thursday.

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.