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Will Golden Knights be surprise trade deadline buyers?

By Stephen Whyno (AP Sports Writer)

The Vegas Golden Knights’ unpredictable success has put them in an unexpected spot.

On pace for by far the best inaugural season for an expansion franchise in NHL history, the Golden Knights are closer to winning the Presidents’ Trophy as the team with the most points than they are to missing the playoffs. Going into the season, forwards James Neal, Jonathan Marchessault and David Perron all looked like potential trade bait in the final year of their contracts.

Now they are among the leading scorers for a team in first place.

Marchessault has already been re-signed to a $30 million, six-year contract, Neal was an All-Star and there are no signs that general manager George McPhee will do any kind of the selling off at the deadline that most expected.

“The plan was simple: If we’re in the hunt or a playoff spot, we want to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot,” McPhee said by phone last week. “And if we’re not, we’ll do what teams do when they’re not in the hunt. The focus every day is to be the best we can be and see where we are come the deadline.”

Vegas has a six-game road trip and a seven-game home stand before the Feb. 26 deadline. Visits to Central Division powerhouse Winnipeg, defending Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh and former McPhee stomping ground Washington will test the Golden Knights, but their jaw-dropping effort so far has given them a nine-point cushion atop the Pacific Division.

In addition to Marchessault, Perron and Neal, William Karlsson has been a revelation with a career-high 27 goals after scoring 28 in his first 183 games. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has been as good as everyone thought he would be after missing time with a concussion, and an unheralded blue line led by Nate Schmidt and Colin Miller has done the job.

Vegas has scored the third-most goals and allowed the sixth fewest. Can an expansion team top the list of Cup contenders? Maybe so, along with the Eastern Conference-leading Tampa Bay Lightning. Would McPhee see any way of being a buyer at the deadline and potentially cutting into the organization’s surplus of draft picks and prospects?

“It’s hard to answer now because that’s a month away,” McPhee said. “There’s a long way to go between now and then. At this point, we’ll try to stay in it. I don’t know whether we would add. I don’t have the answer to that question.”

Perhaps the Golden Knights’ only weakness is the power play, where they’re 21st in the league. One of the most available potential deadline pickups is Mike Green of the Detroit Red Wings, whose 13 power-play points are tied for ninth among defenseman. He was a 2004 first-round pick of McPhee’s with the Capitals.

Green has a full no-trade clause, so he can pick his destination.

“I think in this league there’s always uncertainty,” Green said during All-Star weekend. “I’ve been around long enough I know how it works and what to expect. I think that’s why I don’t think about it all that much other than I understand the process, and when the decisions have to be made I’ll be ready to make them.”

TAVARES WATCH

While Green is a pending free agent who’s expected to be available, New York Islanders captain John Tavares very much isn’t. Tavares is 27 and tied for fifth in goals and points. He’s also the face of a franchise that will soon be moving to the new Belmont Park complex, closer to many members of their Long Island fan base. In the same spot is fellow Canadian Steven Stamkos, who re-signed with the Lightning in the summer of 2016 just before hitting free agency, Tavares said he hasn’t sought out the Tampa Bay captain’s opinion or anyone else’s.

“I try to be myself and be the best I can,” Tavares said. “I don’t think because it’s my contract year my approach or my thought process and the way I play should change. I just go out there on a nightly basis and worry about playing and try and have success and contribute. None of the other stuff comes into my mind when it comes to playing.”

MVP RACE

When the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association conducted its midseason award voting, Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov edged out the Colorado Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon for the Hart Trophy. It might hinge on whether MacKinnon can get the Avalanche to the playoffs and who leads the league in scoring. Right now it’s Kucherov in the lead.

“His work ethic, his skill obviously is great,” Capitals star and fellow Russian winger Alex Ovechkin said. “In the next year or next couple of years, he’s going to be the best player or he’s going to be one of them.”

THEY SAID IT

“Hockey’s a funny game. It goes in 10-game segments. We started off 9-2 and then in our last 11, I think we’re 2-9-2. So what team are we?” — New Jersey Devils winger Taylor Hall, who returned Monday after missing three games with a right thumb injury.

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Toronto Maple Leafs visit the Boston Bruins on Saturday in what is becoming an increasingly likely first-round matchup.

LEADERS (through the All-Star break)

Goals: Ovechkin, 30; Assists: Jakub Voracek (Philadelphia); Points: Kucherov, 64; Ice Time: Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), 27:13; Wins: Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay), 29; Goals-against average: Tuukka Rask (Boston), 2.16; Save percentage: Vasilevskiy, .931.

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AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo, New York, and Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida, contributed.

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

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For more NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Devils, Hischier agree to seven-year, $50.75 million extension

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While the Devils don’t know yet if Taylor Hall will sign an extension to remain in New Jersey or find a new home next summer in free agency, GM Ray Shero has young locked down one of the team’s core pieces.

On Friday, Nico Hischier agreed to a seven-year, $50.75 million extension that carries a $7.25 million cap hit through the 2026-27 NHL season. The deal buys three unrestricted free agent years since the Devils forward has been playing since he was 18, per Cap Friendly.

“Nico is a special person who possess a team-first mentality combined with an inner drive to succeed,” said Shero in a statement. The entire organization is thankful to him and his family for believing in our future. We are excited that he will continue to play a prominent role with us for many years to come.”

According to the Devils, here’s the year-by-year breakdown:

2020-21: $7,000,000 (includes $3 million signing bonus)
2021-22: $7,250,000
2022-23:  $4,500,000
2023-24:  $7,750,000
2024-25:  $7,750,000
2025-26:  $8,000,000
2026-27:  $8,500,000

The extension also features a modified no-trade clause in the final three years.

In 157 NHL games, Hischier, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft, has 37 goals and 101 points while averaging over 17 minutes a night. His offense has been just fine with a 20 and 17 goals in his first two seasons, but his two-way game is what’s really boosted his talent.

The 20-year-old center joins the list of NHLers who passed on restricted free agency in 2020 to put pen to paper on a new deal, joining the likes of Alex DeBrincat, Clayton Keller, Thomas Chabot, and Sam Girard.

Mathew Barzal, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Dylan Strome, and Mikhail Sergachev are some of the other potential 2020 RFAs who will be looking for extensions before next season.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Helm fined $5K for slash on Flames’ Lindholm

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Darren Helm and Elias Lindholm had a little battle in the third period of Thursday’s 5-1 Flames win and it has resulted in a $5,000 fine for the Red Wings forward.

It all began during a face-off when Lindholm got taken down by Helm. The Flames forward took exception and skated after Helm as the puck entered the Calgary zone. The tiff continued on with Lindholm throwing an elbow at Helm, who responded by getting up off the ice and slashing Lindholm in the back of the leg.

“Their guy comes with an elbow that should have probably been called right away,” said Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill. “Then Darren reacts to that as most guys would, you get an elbow to the face for no reason you’re going to react. We got to be more disciplined in those situations, but he slashed him. I don’t think the slash was that super-hard, but it sure looked hard the way he went down.”

The fine is the maximum amount allowable under the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Helm was given a major for slashing and a game misconduct, while Lindholm got off with just an interference minor. Lindholm was helped to the dressing room and there’s been no update yet on his condition.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

LA Kings set Guinness World Record for ‘Largest Laser Show’

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The Los Angeles Kings may have dropped their third in a row Thursday night and fell to 2-5-0 on the season, but they set a world record during the first intermission.

The Kings’ game presentation department used 642 lasers as part of the Guinness Book of World Records “Largest Laser Show” at STAPLES Center. So, yeah, they were shutout, but they made history.

For the record, the first-period goals by Casey Mittelstadt and Conor Sheary did not, in fact, count toward the final laser total.

With Thursday being the 20th anniversary of the opening of the arena, which featured a Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band concert back in 1999, the Kings wanted to do something special, so they went and shattered the previous record of 342, per the team.

Now, if only one of those lasers could have destroyed the “cursed” Taylor Swift banner

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Kempny returns to Capitals’ blue line for first time since March

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Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer doing the ceremonial puck drop honors won’t be the only thing Capitals fans can look forward to Friday night. Defenseman Michal Kempny will make his long-awaited return to the ice against the Rangers after tearing his hamstring in March.

Kempny, who was paired with Radko Gudas during Friday’s morning skate, was given a four-to-six month timeline after undergoing surgery right before the end of last season.

“Yeah, I’m playing tonight. It’s been a long time. I’m very excited,” Kempny said. “There was a lot of hard days, especially from the beginning of the rehab, small steps make me happy. I think it’s part of rehab and all the bad is behind me and I’m just focusing now [on] today’s game.”

Kempny knows he won’t be logging heavy minutes just yet and wants to focus on getting back into the normal routine of a regular player. How his ice time is managed will be something his head coach has to worry about.

“We have a range we’d like to have him in and we’ll see how the game goes,” said Todd Reirden. “Obviously he’s fresh, he’s skating really well, he’s in unbelievable condition, so now it’s just to see how it transfers into game action and how his wind is and his conditioning.”

Braden Holtby is back between the pipes are being given a one game “reset,” as Reirden put it. How he fares against the Rangers will either pause the goalie controversy talk with Ilya Samsonov for now or only add more fuel to the fire.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.