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Latest grim Rangers moment: Brendan Smith on waivers

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So, uh, things are pretty terrible for the New York Rangers right now.

After a dire start to the season that left Alain Vigneault’s seat boiling hot, the Rangers rallied for a decent chunk of 2017-18, but that hard work is starting to look like it merely delayed the inevitable. Losses in seven of their last eight pushed the Rangers to last place in the Metropolitan Division, shifting the focus from what’s happening on the ice to who might get traded and who should be fired.

In case you’re wondering if Vigneault is the only person whose decisions have been under a harsh spotlight lately, consider today’s surprising Rangers transaction: Brendan Smith has reportedly been placed on waivers.

(The New York Post’s Larry Brooks first reported as much, while it’s been backed up by the likes of Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic.)

The move lines up with the Rangers calling up defenseman Neal Pionk.

Waiving Smith is a serious indictment of the work of GM Jeff Gorton, whose shuffling of the Rangers defense has been costly, but not particularly effective.

Credit Smith with, if nothing else, putting together a fantastic contract year in 2016-17, a rebound the Rangers bought into in a big way by handing him a four year, $17.4 million contract in June. Mere months later, Smith isn’t even deemed useful enough to stick in Rangers’ flawed top six.

After averaging more than 20 minutes per game once the Rangers acquired him last season, it’s clear that Smith’s fallen out of favor, only logging 17:10 per contest. Smith hasn’t been scoring much (eight points in 44 games) and his possession stats have been pretty underwhelming.

About the only thing he’s done well is denying entries, as you can see via this handy tool from CJ Turtoro using Corey Sznajder’s data:

Dan Girardi‘s so-so (but honestly, better than expected) work with the Lightning is used as a comparison there for a reason: the Rangers made the reasonable decision to buy Girardi out this summer as part of a defensive makeover that’s looking a little disastrous right now.

(It would be foolish to assume another team would claim Smith, considering the four-year term of his problem contract.)

Consider this: the Rangers are committed to three costly defensemen for four seasons including 2017-18: Smith ($4.35M), Marc Staal ($5.7M), and Kevin Shattenkirk ($6.65M). The outlook seems grim for that trio, with the most optimistic thought being that Shattenkirk could be more effective once he heals up after playing through an injury that required surgery.

The Rangers are probably going to need to pony up for pending RFA Brady Skjei (expiring deal after this season) and then key blueliner Ryan McDonagh, whose solid $4.7M bargain dissolves after 2018-19.

Much is being made about what the Rangers want for Rick Nash and/or Michael Grabner, possibly among others, when it comes to trades. For all the talk about landing draft picks and assets, you wonder if the Rangers might relax such prices if a team would take on a problem contract?

For teams around the league, this is another reminder that contract years can be tricky, especially with small sample sizes (Smith only played in 18 regular season games and 12 postseason contests for the Rangers) and players who aren’t necessarily “core players.” Considering how reluctant the Red Wings have been to trade away all but the most obvious players, maybe it should have been a red flag that they were OK with shuttling Smith out of town?

Either way, these are very troubling times for the Rangers, and moves like these make it tougher to see light at the end of the tunnel.

The team’s press release is … interesting.

One team that might be especially happy about this is the Carolina Hurricanes, as this takes some of the focus away from their own mistake: taking Marcus Kruger off the Chicago Blackhawks’ hands.

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: Patrik Laine ends 15-game goal drought

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Three Stars

1. Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets. Winnipeg Jets forward Patrik Laine entered Friday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights stuck in one of the worst slumps of his young career. He had not scored a goal in 15 consecutive games and recorded just four assists during that stretch. Consider the slump now over. He scored a pair of goals for the Jets in their 6-3 win over the Golden Knights to reclaim the top spot, for now, in the Central Division by jumping back ahead of the Nashville Predators. The Jets still have two games in hand as well. Even with Laine’s goal drought he still has 27 goals in 61 games, which is still a 36-goal pace over 82 games. Just shows how good he is when he is at his best that he can go 15 games in a row without scoring a goal and still have a good chance to score more than 35 goals in a season. He was not the only Jets player to snap goal drought on Friday. Adam Lowry also scored to snap what had been a 17-game goal slump, and they ended their droughts by scoring just 27 seconds apart.

2. J.T. Compher, Colorado Avalanche. The Colorado Avalanche picked up two huge points and won for the fourth time in their past five games by defeating the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday night. J.T. Compher was one of the stars of the night for Avalanche and was one of two players (Carl Soderberg being the other) to score a pair of goals. Compher’s second goal was the big one as it went in the books as the game-winner with just under six minutes to play in regulation, giving the Avalanche their third win in a row and fourth win in the past five games.

3. T.J. Brodie, Calgary Flames. The Calgary Flames increased their lead in the Pacific Division to three points over the San Jose Sharks thanks to a 2-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks. Defender T.J. Brodie played a pretty big role in the win by contributing to both goals, scoring one and assisting on the game-winner.

Highlights of the Night

The save of the night belongs to Minnesota Wild forward (Yes! Forward!) Mikael Granlund for stepping up in net after this turnover by Devan Dubnyk. It helped lead to a huge win for the Wild in the Western Conference Wild Card race.

In more traditional saves, this stop by Anaheim Ducks goalie Ryan Miller was also pretty impressive.

Matt Duchene did not record a point in his debut with the Columbus Blue Jackets but he did play extremely well in their 3-0 win over the Ottawa Senators. He also received a video tribute and a standing ovation from Senators fans. His time with the team may not have gone as planned on a team level, but he was still very good in parts of two seasons with the team.

Factoids

  • Sergei Bobrovsky recorded the shutout for the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night, giving him 16 since the start of the 2016-17 season, tying him for the most in the NHL during that stretch with Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. [NHL PR]
  • It came in a losing effort but Patrick Kane extended his point streak to 20 games for the Chicago Blackhawks, making him the seventh player in NHL history to have multiple 20-game point streaks. [NHL PR]
  • Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice won his 685th regular season game on Friday night and moved into sole possession of eighth place on the NHL’s all-time coaching wins list. [NHL PR]
  • Carl Soderberg of the Colorado Avalanche became the ninth player in NHL history to record his first 20-goal season after their 33rd birthday. [NHL PR]
  • Speaking of which, this is the first time since the 2006-07 season that the Colorado Avalanche have had at least four 20-goal scorers in a single season. Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog are the other three this season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Columbus Blue Jackets 3, Ottawa Senators 0

Colorado Avalanche 5, Chicago Blackhawks 3

Minnesota Wild 3, Detroit Red Wings 2

Calgary Flames 2, Anaheim Ducks 1

Winnipeg Jets 6, Vegas Golden Knights 3

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.

Tough night for Blackhawks in playoff race

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Even though the Western Conference Wild Card race is a jumbled mess where nobody seems determined to want to secure the two spots, and even though the Chicago Blackhawks have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL over the past month, they still have very little margin for error the rest of the way.

That is the punishment for a terrible start to the season and the challenge that is trying to gain all of that ground back in the second half. No matter how well you play in the second half, a bad first half can make it all irrelevant.

That is why Friday was such a tough night for the Blackhawks.

First, they had a head-to-head meeting with the Colorado Avalanche, one of the teams they are in direct competition with for a playoff spot in your classic four-point game in the standings. A regulation win either way would be massive for whatever team ended up getting it, and in this case it turned out to be the Avalanche who came away with a 5-3 win in what was a back-and-forth game.

J.T. Compher‘s goal with just under six minutes to play went in the books as the game-winner for the Avalanche while Carl Soderberg put the game away with his second goal of the game (and 21st of the season) with an empty net goal while the Avalanche were killing off a 6-on-4 disadvantage in the final minutes of regulation.

That leaves now leaves the Avalanche two points ahead of the Blackhawks in the standings while Colorado still has a game in hand.

As if that was not bad enough for the Blackhawks, while they were losing to Colorado the Minnesota Wild were picking two important points against the Detroit Red Wings to move back into the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference, sitting one point ahead of the Avalanche and three points ahead of the Blackhawks.

With all of that in the books on Friday night, here are where things stand for the Blackhawks…

They are obviously not out of it by any means because, well, you can see standings and what the current field looks like, but that is not an ideal spot to be in.

The Blackhawks have done well to try and salvage their season and get back into the race, thanks in large part to an incredible run by Patrick Kane (who extended his point streak to 20 games on Friday) and some great play by Jonathan Toews, Alex DeBrincat, and Dylan Strome (all of whom also contributed to the offense on Friday), but there are a lot of signs that it is not really a sustainable run and that this team still has a lot of holes.

Elsewhere in this race, this was a huge night for the Avalanche who have now won three in a row and four out of their past five. Their season started to spiral away from them after a white-hot start and it is a near miracle they are still this close to a playoff spot considering they only went 8-17-6 between Dec. 1 and Feb. 12.

The Wild, meanwhile, have lost their captain Mikko Koivu to injury for the rest of the season, have made two trades involving veteran players that have almost certainly made them worse in the short-term, and have only won three of their past 12 games and are still currently in a playoff position.

The Western Conference Wild Card race, folks. It is … something.

Related: Blackhawks are back in playoff race, but are they a serious threat?

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.

Strong debut for Duchene as Blue Jackets dominate Senators

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On Friday morning Matt Duchene took a short walk down the hall from the home locker room in Ottawa, leaving behind the remnants of the Senators roster, and joined his new team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, in the visiting locker room to prepare to be in the lineup later in the day.

For the Blue Jackets, it was a sign that they are trying to push all of their chips to the center of the table and attempt to go all in with what they have this season, perhaps trying to take advantage of what little time they have left with Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky before they hit unrestricted free agency this summer.

For the Senators, it was a continuation of their scorched earth rebuild that is only likely to continue in the coming days with the inevitable trades of Mark Stone and Ryan Dzingel.

On Friday night, both teams played as one might expect given all of the circumstances as the Blue Jackets rolled to a 3-0 win and, for the time being, returned back to a playoff position in the Eastern Conference.

It was not really a competitive game, either, as the Blue Jackets doubled up the Senators on the shot chart, scored a shorthanded goal, and just completely dominated a young, overmatched lineup.

The Senators, who have already scratched Stone and Dzingel for precautionary reasons in an effort to protect their most valuable trade assets, have been stripped of almost all of their most dangerous offensive weapons over the past year and are a shell of the team that was in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final not even two full years ago. The result in the short-term has been a skeleton roster that has been shutout twice over the past 24 hours and has been outscored by a 7-0 margin during those two games.

Overall it was a successful debut for Duchene with his new team, even if it did not result in him recording a point on the stat sheet.

He spent the night playing on the team’s top line alongside Panarin and Cam Atkinson, while his 19:12 of ice-time was third among Blue Jackets’ forwards. He recorded five total shot attempts, three of which were on goal, while Blue Jackets also held a commanding 16-8 shot attempt advantage and a 12-4 scoring chance advantage when Duchene was on the ice during 5-on-5 play.

Next up for the Blue Jackets will be Duchene’s home debut on Saturday night against the San Jose Sharks. He seems ready for what is ahead of him, telling Brian Hedger of the Columbus-Dispatch on Friday that the Cannon used to celebrate Blue Jackets’ goals “scares the sh*t out of me every time.”

Related: Blue Jackets power up for playoffs by adding Matt Duchene

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.

Penguins ready to enjoy Stadium Series, but focus is on two points

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Saturday’s Stadium Series matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers from Lincoln Financial Field. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

PHILADELPHIA — For a number of the Penguins, they can claim “outdoor game veteran” status. Twelve of them have played in at least one Winter Classic or Stadium Series game, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin leading the way with four experiences outside.

But Saturday’s Stadium Series meeting with the Philadelphia Flyers will be a business trip for the Penguins, as is most outdoor games for the road team. There are fewer family members around and not as big of a demand for tickets as it was two years ago when these teams played at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. 

The Penguins’ can’t be too concerned with the pomp and circumstance that comes with being involved in an outdoor game. There are two big points on the line as they find themselves tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets on 71 points and relegated to the second Eastern Conference wild card spot due to a tiebreaker.

“We have to approach it the same way we approach every game right now,” said defenseman Kris Letang, who’s played in two outdoor games. “We have 21 games left. Every one of them are really important.”

“This team especially, they’ve had plenty of big games in their time,” said forward Nick Bjugstad, who will be an outdoor game first-timer on Saturday. “You can’t just really look at it as such a big spectacle. Obviously, enjoy the moment, enjoy being lucky enough to be able to play an outdoor game in front of all these people, but at the same time it’s just the same mentality of every game, and the same focus that you should approach. The adrenaline will be going pretty good with all these fans, especially in Philly. I’m sure they’ll be nice and rowdy for us. It’ll be pretty fun.”

After a 4-0 trouncing by the San Jose Sharks Thursday night at home, the Penguins are eager to get back out there and erase the memory of that defeat. The loss put them at 4-5-1 in their last 10 games and flirting with the notion of a playoff-less spring for the first time since the 2005-06 season, Crosby’s rookie year.

The Penguins are aware of their current situation in the standings and head coach Mike Sullivan sees it as an opportunity for his team to embrace. The players certainly understand every game is a chance to clean up the finer details, which could help them in the consistency department going forward.

“We just have to find ourselves. Last game was not our best and we all know it,” said Patric Hornqvist. “I think this is a great opportunity for us to actually have some fun and embrace this atmosphere. [If we] make sure we do the little things right we’re going to come out on the right side.”

MORE 2019 STADIUM SERIES:
Why Scott Gordon chose Elliott over Hart for Stadium Series start
Rain could be an issue for Penguins-Flyers Stadium Series game
Scott Hartnell Q&A

Six-time Emmy Award-winner Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick (play-by-play), U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk (analyst), and Emmy Award-winner Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pa. Liam McHugh will anchor studio coverage on-site in Philadelphia alongside Mike Milbury, Keith Jones, and Jeremy Roenick.

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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.