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NHL planning more outdoor games at U.S. service academies

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The NHL’s first outdoor game at a U.S. service academy probably won’t be its last.

After the Washington Capitals hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Naval Academy, the league hopes to play games at Army’s West Point and the Air Force Academy over the next few years.

It’s a significant foray into honoring and partnering with branches of the military that follows the lead of the NFL and Major League Baseball for a league that’s split between the United States and Canada.

“It’s unique and as we continue to move forward with the outdoor games, you look for new concepts and new themes and new things that’ll interest the fans,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Associated Press on Saturday. “Certainly the hope is, with a successful game (at Navy), we’ll continue the venture with the Army and the Air Force and we’ll see where we go from there.”

Daly said he’d be surprised if the sequel to Maple Leafs-Capitals at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium comes as soon as the 2018-19 season, though 2019-20 is a possibility. The Florida Panthers faced the New Jersey Devils inside in an exhibition game at West Point’s Tate Rink in 2006, and ownership connections to the Army make the Panthers and Vegas Golden Knights strong candidates for a potential outdoor game there.

American-born players taking part in the game at Navy said they were honored to get the opportunity. Told of the NHL’s future plans to attempt games at Army and Air Force, Maple Leafs defenseman Ron Hainsey called it “a great road for us to go down.”

“It’s a nice recognition and a little partnership almost that we’re able to play here,” American-born Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “I think means different things to different people. As a country, it means a lot, especially the Americans that play in the league and our fans.”

The NHL has 24 American- and seven Canadian-based teams and is made up of about 49 percent Canadian-born players. Members of the Canadian Armed Forces took part in pregame ceremonies with the Maple Leafs, and Daly said involving a team from north of the 48th parallel was a conscious decision that didn’t meet any resistance.

“I think North American forces are united,” Daly said. “I think there’s a real appreciation for the military wherever you are, north or south of the border. While it was something we certainly thought about, it certainly hasn’t been something that’s been an obstacle at all.”

When Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, native Mike Babcock moved to Spokane, Washington, he recalled the deep connections to the military from those stationed at nearby Fairchild Air Force Base or just residents who served or knew someone who was in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps. So he’s very attuned to the comparisons and contrasts for the military in the United States and Canada.

“When you talk to families in the U.S., there seems to be someone in every family that’s had someone in the family,” the Maple Leafs’ coach said. “When you do it in Canada, we don’t have as big a military, so we haven’t had that same thing. That doesn’t mean we don’t have tons of people doing a really good job and doing everything they can.”

Babcock said he didn’t know how the NHL would make an outdoor game work at a place like the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario, and Daly acknowledged the service academies are different in the United States. They also provide the kind of outdoor venues that fit hockey well.

“It’s just a different atmosphere,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson said before playing at 34,000-seat Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. I think football stadiums and baseball stadiums, which I’ve played in, they’re amazing. But to have a kind of unique atmosphere and history to this place and from a fan’s point of view the sightlines and all that are way better at a place like this than a 60,000-seat football field.”

Being part of a historic atmosphere is one thing players, American and otherwise, cited as an added value to this Stadium Series game.

“As Americans, I’m sure if you’re from a different country, it probably doesn’t quite feel that way, but for us it does feel really special,” Capitals right winger T.J. Oshie said. “It’s great for the NHL, it’s great for hockey and it’s great for the Americans that are able to play in the games.”

The NFL has partnered with the military for years, and the Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins played at Fort Bragg in North Carolina in 2016. The NHL is now wading into those waters with more to come.

“The recognition that (servicemen and women) deserve, I guess, is probably a lot more than everyone’s doing,” Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner said. “To play some sporting events at places like this is pretty cool.”

NHL renames GM of the Year Award after Jim Gregory

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The NHL’s GM of the Year award will now be known as the Jim Gregory GM of the Year Award.

Gregory passed away on Oct. 30 at the age of 83. Gregory was a longtime NHL executive, including serving as Toronto Maple Leafs GM from 1969 to 1979. Gregory was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007.

The name change was unanimously approved during the annual November GM meetings.

“This is a terrific tribute to a wonderful man by a group uniquely qualified to appreciate his many contributions to our game,” Gary Bettman said. “During his tenure as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Jim Gregory transformed the art of team-building. Through the many years he spent at the League, our general managers regularly sought his counsel. They universally revere his lifetime of service to the NHL.”

NHL.com notes that Gregory stood out for many reasons, including having an eye for international talent.

Gregory was a hockey ambassador around the globe and among the first NHL general managers to sign and import players from Europe — most notably, the legendary defenseman Borje Salming. Steeped in the game’s traditions, he was integral to the implementation of some of the League’s most transformational innovations — including the use of video to review goals and the expansion of the role of the Central Scouting Bureau.

The NHL’s GM of the Year award was first handed out in 2009-10. Boston Bruins GM Don Sweeney was the most recent recipient in 2018-19.

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.

Appreciating Stamkos’ underrated career at 400 goals

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Calling Steven Stamkos “underrated” never really feels right, but you might argue that his greatness is “too easily forgotten.”

Maybe you can chalk it up to Alex Ovechkin‘s even-more-impressive goal-scoring pyrotechnics, or perhaps to some mid-career injuries that diluted some of his career peaks, but either way, Stamkos’ career achievements can sneak up on you.

Take scoring 400 goals, for example.

Stamkos hit that mark in his last game, and with Tuesday’s Lightning – Blues contest soon to air on NBCSN (livestream link), this seems like a great time to consider what we’ve seen from Stamkos, and what else we might see going forward.

Rare company

Stamkos didn’t just hit 400 goals in Tampa’s Nov. 16 loss to the Winnipeg Jets; he also did it before age 30 (he’ll turn 3-0 on Feb. 7). Less than 20 players have reached 400 goals before age 30.

He’s one of only nine active players to hit 400, and did so the second-quickest among those nine, managing the feat in just 763 games. (Alex Ovechkin is first, getting there, somehow, in just 634 GP). Stamkos is also only the 98th player to reach 400+ goals, period.

Stamkos’ .52 goals-per-game average places him at 16th all-time among players with at least 300 games played, by Hockey Reference’s measures. That average is higher than the likes of Guy Lafleur (.50) and Eric Lindros (.49).

With 786 points in those 763 games, Stamkos ranks ninth among active players, and his 1.03 ppg average fittingly ties him with teammate Nikita Kucherov for sixth-best among active players.

Stamkos is a two-time Maurice Richard Trophy winner, and became a rare 60-goal scorer in 2011-12. Pretty lofty stuff.

And, naturally, it’s not all in the past.

Stamkos comes into Thursday’s game on a tear, having generated a five-game point streak (two goals, six assists). He already has 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists) in 17 games this season. The 2018-19 season ranks among his best, too, with 45 goals and a career-high 98 points.

[COVERAGE OF BLUES-LIGHTNING BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Passing fancy

It’s a bit absurd to ding Childhood Stamkos for not having much of a shot, but it’s kind of an adorable way to illustrate the point that the Lightning forward has grown his game over the years — which might come in handy if his shot becomes slightly less terrifying.

“When he was a kid, he couldn’t shoot,” his father, Chris Stamkos, told The Athletic’s Joe Smith (sub required) in a great story about Stamkos’ shot. “He could skate and pass, but he couldn’t shoot.”

Stamkos’ former partner-in-crime Martin St. Louis praised Stamkos to Smith, stating that Stamkos isn’t just a “one-trick pony.”

There was some concern that Stamkos’ shot might have been diminishing, but his 45 goals quieted a lot of worries. Normally a 19.2 shooting percentage would make you think fluke, but with a career average of 16.9, maybe he still has time as a an elite sniper?

Some of this comes down to the inevitable drive to create plays for Nikita Kucherov. Of course Stamkos will start to get his playmaking to sniping ratio closer to 1:1 when he’s paired with a winger who’s arguably already even more dangerous than him, right?

After all, his shot volume is still there.

Overall, his partnership with Kucherov should be heartening for the Lightning when it comes to Stamkos’ future. If Stamkos does indeed become less dangerous at sniping as he passes 30 — a common thing for mortal snipers, aka those not named Ovechkin — then he can conceivably tweak the dials to set up Kucherov more. He’s found quite the player to grow old with, as Kucherov and Stamkos even fit each other as left and right-handed shots respectively. It’s the ideal mix for one-timers, basically making them the hockey equivalent of a couple where one spouse prefers drumstick chicken wings while the other digs the flats.

Evolving game

Again, Stamkos has found ways to improve his overall game, which is promising if his scoring does drop off.

Amusingly, Stamkos noted how low his faceoff rating was when EA Sports named him the cover star for NHL ’12, and we’ve seen his acumen in that area rise — probably coincidentally. Stamkos’ early career faceoff percentage was just 46.4. Stamkos improved gradually over the years, and has really took off in that area since 2015-16, winning 53.7 percent of his draws. This season, Stamkos has won a whopping 60 percent.

While the impact of faceoff dominance can be overblown, the point is really that Stamkos continues to refine his game. He won’t be mistaken for a Selke frontrunner anytime soon, but by becoming more well-rounded, Stamkos faces a strong chance of mitigating the aging process by bringing more to the table than just scoring.

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So, yeah, it can be easy to forget how special Stamkos is in. Maybe winning that elusive Stanley Cup might shine that spotlight on him a bit more?

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Year after elevating Berube, Blues’ success continues

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

One year ago Tuesday, the St. Louis Blues fell to the Los Angeles Kings 2-0 and dropped to 7-9-3 on the season. The defeat was their fourth in five games and the Blues’ offense was blanked for a third time in four games. 

Enough was enough for Doug Armstrong, who later that evening fired Mike Yeo and replaced him with Craig Berube. Originally, the Blues general manager planned to cast a wide net in his search for a new head coach. He said he planned to have coaches from the European, junior and college ranks, along with names with NHL experience, like the recently fired Joel Quenneville.

It took some time, but it was clear that Yeo’s full-time replacement was already under contract with the organization, as we all eventually found out.

“He answered the bell,” Armstrong said last spring.

One year later, the Blues finally have a Stanley Cup title and the Blues are lacking any sort of championship hangover as they sit atop the Central Division with a 12-4-5 record and tied for the most points in the Western Conference with 29. They’ve maintained a strong start even after losing Vladimir Tarasenko for likely the rest of the regular season last month. In the 11 games since the winger underwent shoulder surgery St. Louis has a 7-2-2 record.

[COVERAGE OF BLUES-LIGHTNING BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Jordan Binnington, who’s recall last January helped spark the Blues’ second half run, had a goal this season to prove the doubters wrong. His five-month hot streak has continued into this season with his .923 even strength save percentage in the top 10 among all NHL goaltenders with at least 10 starts.

The Blues haven’t been scoring the lights out since Tarasenko exited the lineup, as they’ve averaged 2.72 goals per game. In fact, their 35 even strength goals are the third-fewest in the NHL this season. They done it with a strong power play (25%) and another balanced approached — much last season. Through 21 games, only Brayden Schenn (11) has hit double digits in goals scored and 18 different players have lit the lamp.

Berube’s message has stayed with the Blues and after a long search to find their identity, success has followed. When he took the job, he saw a team lacking in confidence. It was a good team he was inheriting, but there was one thing missing.

“Just got us to believe,” Schenn said during the Stanley Cup Final in June. “Believe in one another, believe we’re a good hockey team. He took down the standing board in the room and worried about one game at a time, and that’s really all it was.”

Players know where they stand under Berube, and that plays a huge role in earning their trust. That attribute is what turned an interim gig into a championship run and a full-time opportunity.

“He’s an honest guy,” Armstrong told Jim Thomas of the Post-Dispatch. “He speaks from the heart. He doesn’t waste a lot of words. I think he’s accountable to himself and accountable to the team as a whole. And I think he requires each individual to be accountable to the team as a whole also.”

Kenny Albert and Pierre McGuire will call the action from Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Mo. Paul Burmeister will host Tuesday’s coverage of NHL Live alongside alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter.

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Babcock betting on himself; impact of Fabbri trade

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Mike Babcock on the pressures he’s currently facing with the Maple Leafs struggling: “I’m going to do (the job) as hard as I can for as long as I can. I’ve always bet on Mike Babcock. I’m going to continue to bet on him.” [Toronto Star]

• It’s not been a fun season if you’re employed as a Maple Leafs backup goaltender. [One Puck Short]

• Brady and Matthew Tkachuk have turned into phenomenal NHLers. [TSN]

• It’s been a pretty good first 20 games for the Panthers under Joel Quenneville. [Miami Herald]

• ‘Scrappy’ Jets gaining an identity at season’s quarter-mark. [Winnipeg Free Press]

• Morgan Frost, one of the Flyers’ top prospects, has been recalled. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

• How Barry Trotz went from 50/50 sales to winning the Stanley Cup. [Sportsnet]

• What’s bugging the Predators of late? [A to Z Sports Nashville]

• The Bruins are eager to see Charlie McAvoy reached another level. [Boston Herald]

• Fun story from the NCAA over the weekend: Nine minutes before pregame warmups started, North Dakota’s Josh Rieger was eating a pound of buffalo wings. He got the call, rushed to the rink and scored his first goal. [Grand Forks Herald]

• How Robby Fabbri trade impacts Detroit Red Wings, Andreas Athanasiou. [Detroit Free Press]

• Five women who should be inducted next into the Hockey Hall of Fame. [Sporting News]

• Kris Versteeg asked to be released from his contract with the AHL’s Rockford Ice Hogs. [NBC Sports Chicago]

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Coyotes are benefitting from the addition of assistant coach Phil Housley. [NHL.com]

• Looking at the best and worst in the history of Flyers jerseys. [Hockey by Design]

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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.