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Center stage: NHL contenders go deep down the middle

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A linesman orders Sean Couturier out of the faceoff circle and Claude Giroux shrugs before stepping in and winning the draw.

Two centers on the ice at once is a nice luxury for the Philadelphia Flyers to have.

”He’s one of the best in the league at faceoffs,” Couturier said of Giroux, who ranks third in the NHL. ”When you start with the puck, it’s a huge part of the game.”

Beyond just controlling faceoffs, having depth at center is a growing factor for success in the NHL. Contenders like the Flyers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets and two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins all boast depth down the middle and are spreading centers all over the lineup.

The flexibility gives teams potentially game-altering matchups with the playoffs coming up in a month.

”You can never have enough center-ice men on your team for lots of reasons,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Crucial faceoffs, injuries and defensive-zone coverage are many of the reasons to load up on centers who can almost always shift to wing and not miss a beat. Philadelphia has long followed the model of drafting and acquiring centers and moving them around, and now has nine natural centers on its roster.

The Penguins won the 2009 Stanley Cup going with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Max Talbot down the middle and captured it the past two years with Crosby, Malkin, Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen. The free agent departures of Bonino and Cullen left a void that Pittsburgh filled by trading for Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan to again look like a championship contender.

”To have the depth that we have at this point at the center-ice position is I think an important aspect of our overall game,” Sullivan said. ”We didn’t have that coming into training camp. I think our general manager, Jim (Rutherford), has worked extremely hard at making sure that he gave us what has become now I think a strength of our team.”

It’s also a strength of the Eastern Conference-leading Lightning, who are overflowing with center options beyond Steven Stamkos, Alex Killorn and trade-deadline pickup J.T. Miller. The Toronto Maple Leafs also roll deep with forwards who play center or have in the past, including Patrick Marleau and recent acquisition Tomas Plekanec.

”I can get a can’t-miss matchup,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. ”You’re not scared of any matchup as time goes on.”

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

It’s all about the matchups in the arms race that is the absurd Central Division. It wasn’t good enough that the Central-leading Predators had Ryan Johansen, signed Bonino last summer and traded for Kyle Turris in November; they welcomed center Mike Fisher back from retirement and still have Colton Sissons and Craig Smith.

The Jets acquired center Paul Stastny from the St. Louis Blues to add to an already forward-heavy roster. It paid immediate dividends with Patrik Laine extending his point streak to 13 games and Winnipeg cruising along after Mark Scheifele went down with an injury.

”We’ll be putting two centers out there for D-zone draws and whatnot,” said Andrew Copp, who thinks Winnipeg’s center depth stacks up with the best in the league. ”That’s really important, and then just depth with injuries. … Now we’ve got six, seven, eight guys that we can really lean on.”

It’s an increasingly popular strategy. The Flyers are vying for the league lead in faceoffs, handling the early-season crackdown on faceoff violations and compensating for a young, mostly unproven defense with versatile forwards.

”Being strong up the middle is important,” coach Dave Hakstol said. ”That’s the backbone of every line, so to have guys that are comfortable in that spot I think is important. Playing down low in your zone – there’s so much switching and interchanging that goes on from the wing to that down-low position in coverage, having somebody that’s comfortable being down there I think is a benefit, as well.”

Two centers are better than one not just for faceoffs but because the extra responsibilities of the position allow for better awareness in the defensive zone, where wingers typically are only tasked with defending their respective opposing winger in man-to-man schemes. Giroux shifted to wing on the top line with Couturier after spending the past eight-plus years at center and is approaching his career high in points and playing some of the best hockey of his career.

”We get a read off each other,” said Couturier, a leading candidate for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. ”It’s about chemistry and trying to trust each other out there. Guys can fill in different roles and it’s nice and it helps the team. That’s what you kind of want from having so many centermen is you want to fill in each other’s roles.”

Having extra centers is a substantial benefit – if they can handle the position change. Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler made a rapid adjustment from wing to center amid injuries, but just about everyone agrees it’s much easier to go the other way.

”There’s a real quick adjustment to going from center to the wing: figure out how to work the walls and find your point men,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. ”That’s a very difficult change.”

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

More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

PHT Power Rankings: Early look at 2020 NHL free agent class

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The 2019 NHL free agent class has mostly been picked over and is now down to the bargain bin of reclamation projects (and, for some reason, Jake Gardiner).

So let’s start taking a look to the summer of 2020 and the list of names that could be available next summer.

There is a pretty extensive list of big names entering their contract year, including the captain of the 2019 Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, a recent NHL MVP, and two core players for the Washington Capitals.

Will all of them end up hitting the free agent market? Of course not, they never do because teams do not let their core players get away. But some of them will hit the open market, and it is never too early to start looking at the potential options.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take an early look at the list of potential 2020 free agents.

To the rankings!

1. Nicklas Backstrom Still one of the best all-around centers in the NHL. He is entering the final year of a 10-year, $67 million contract that proved to be an absolute steal for the Capitals given how much Backstrom has contributed over the past decade. The only potential flaws with Backstrom as a free agent: He will turn 33 years old in his first year of a new contract, so you will definitely not be getting the best hockey of his career, and, quite honestly, the Capitals are probably going to keep him.

2. Taylor Hall The 2017-18 NHL MVP is one of the best wingers in the league and contract talks between him and the Devils seem to be slow. If the team does not take a big step forward this season it might be all the incentive he needs to hit the open market. He lost most of this past season to injury, but he is still an impact, top-tier player and a big comeback year will only boost his value even more.

3. Jared Spurgeon This may seem a little high considering some of the other names potentially available next offseason, and especially on defense, but do you know what? Jared Spurgeon is really, really, really good. He may not put up the biggest offensive numbers among defenders in this class, but he is a darn good player that logs a lot of tough minutes, doesn’t get sheltered, and still manages to help his team finish on the plus side when it comes to goals, shots, and scoring chances when he is on the ice. He is a top-pairing defender and a great all-around player and the Wild seem to understand that. If we are to believe the words of general manager Paul Fenton this summer, they intend to re-sign him. Odds he actually hits the open market: Low.

4. Alex Pietrangelo Pietrangelo is an outstanding player, but you can be sure there is going to be a Stanley Cup tax attached to his next contract. Meaning, when you are the captain of a recent Stanley Cup winner your value immediately skyrockets even more. Given how important he is to the Blues (he is their best defender and one of their top players) they will probably be the team paying it.

5. Roman Josi Josi’s contract has been an unbelievable steal for the Predators for the past six years, counting just $4 million against the salary cap since the start of the 2013-14 season. During that time he has had four top-10 finishes in Norris Trophy voting and been one of the most productive defenders in the league, scoring at least 12 goals every season and currently sitting in fourth in total points and sixth in goals among defenders.

6. Braden Holtby Along with Backstrom, the Capitals also have to deal with a contract for their starting goalie. That is two significant core players whose contracts are expiring at the same time, and that is going to present a lot of challenges. If the Capitals have to choose to let one go, Holtby might be the smart choice. The Sergei Bobrovsky contract in Florida is probably the measuring stick for what Holtby can — and will — get, and that just may not be the best use of cap space for the Capitals.
Holtby can still be dominant, but he has shown signs of slowing down over the past two years.

7. Torey Krug Krug doesn’t look the part of a top-pairing defender and he doesn’t play the toughest minutes in Boston, but there is still a ton of value in an offensive, puck-moving defender that can help drive possession and offense. The problem for the Bruins in keeping him is going to be that they have a lot of contracts to juggle over the next year, including one major contract this summer with their best defender, Charlie McAvoy.

8. Tyson Barrie It is going to be interesting to see what happens to his production in Toronto. He has always been an outstanding and productive defender, and now he gets to feed the puck to a deep, talented group of forwards. Given Toronto’s salary cap situation, as well as the fact one of their other top-defenders, Jake Muzzin (more on him in a second) is also an unrestricted free agent after this season, they are going to have to let someone go.

9. Jake Muzzin — One of the most underrated defenders of his era because he was always overshadowed by Drew Doughty in Los Angeles. Muzzin is an outstanding defensive player but can also move the puck and chip in some offense.

10. Evgenii Dadonov Since returning to the NHL Dadonov has been one of the most productive forwards in the league. He will be 31 at the start of the next deal so you have to be prepared for some decline.

11. Justin Faulk Faulk has been the subject of trade rumors for years now, and he may finally be nearing the end of his time with the Hurricanes one way or another. He is not a perfect player, but he brings a lot to the table offensively and given how tight Carolina’s salary cap situation is starting to get as its young players get better and more expensive, it may not be possible to keep him.

12. Mikael Granlund His debut with the Predators after the trade probably did not go as planned for him or the team, but that’s a ridiculously small sample size and shouldn’t — and doesn’t — outweigh what he has done over the past few years. He is a top-line scorer and should still have a few years of top-line play ahead of him.

13. T.J. Brodie Everything about Brodie’s resume looks great, but there is one big concern that is a bit of a red flag — He is a different (and not as good) player when he is not on the ice next to Mark Giordano. They will not be going as a package deal.

14. Chris Kreider Given the Rangers’ rebuild and what is a reasonable future expectation for Kreider, the Rangers would be wise to consider trading him right now. As long as he does not lose his speed he should still be a good player for a few more years, but there is no guarantee he maintains his current level of play.

15. Mike Hoffman He is a bit of a one dimensional player, but the one dimension is a useful one. He can score. A lot. He is coming off of a huge season in Florida and another big season could price him out of the Panthers’ cap situation, especially if they want to also keep Dadonov.

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.

Lamoureux twins start foundation to help disadvantaged kids

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BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson and Monique Lamoureux-Morando, stars of the United States’ gold medal-winning hockey team in South Korea, are hard at work training to make another Olympic team in 2022. But they’re also carving out time to do good off the ice, launching a foundation Monday that seeks to help underserved children and communities.

The Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux Foundation will work with groups that support disadvantaged children through education and extracurricular activities, primarily in their home state of North Dakota. It’s an extension of the sisters’ hockey camps for girls and their work with cable and internet provider Comcast, where the twins promote such things as gender equity and internet access for low-income families.

”Sometimes there’s a lack of awareness around the need that the kids need, and so we’re hoping that we’re able to inspire more people to give back,” Lamoureux-Davidson said.

”We want to be part of bringing a solution around issues,” Lamoureux-Morando said.

The 30-year-old Grand Forks natives and University of North Dakota standouts helped the U.S. win the gold medal in South Korea in 2018. Lamoureux-Morando scored the game-tying goal late in the third period of the gold-medal game against Canada, and her sister scored the game-winner in the shootout.

The twins are now training six days a week on the ice to try to earn a spot on a fourth Olympic team in Beijing in 2022. Each gave birth to a baby boy less than a year after the Olympics, and the women’s children will accompany them at a USA Hockey camp next month in Lake Placid, New York.

”It’s a total game-changer being a parent,” Lamoureux-Morando said.

The twins said their mother, Linda, was a champion of the underdog, and taught them a lesson they have come to realize goes beyond the rink. And it has become the heart of their foundation aimed at helping the disadvantaged.

”She would always just cheer for the one that’s behind,” Lamoureux-Davidson said of her mother. ”In hindsight, it was meant for sport, but it’s really has really turned into something so much more for us.”

AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.

Can James Neal bounce back after ugly season in Calgary?

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James Neal figures he’s re-invigorated.

One can assume the salivating prospect of playing alongside Connor McDavid would have that sort of effect. For Neal, it could also mean putting behind him a horrible season where he failed to hit double-digit goals for the first time in his career and finished with just 19 points in 63 games.

The 2018-19 season made Neal the biggest bust of last year’s free-agent crop. Despite playing on the team that was tops in the Western Conference at the end of the regular season, the only thing Neal’s game topped was the scrap heap. It got so bad that when the Flames needed a win in Game 5 of Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Neal was parked in the press box as the Flames crashed out of the postseason.

But there’s hope in Edmonton after Ken Holland and the Oilers acquired Neal for Milan Lucic. Hope, because Holland has already done what those previous to him couldn’t: get Lucic out of town. And hope, because as bad as Neal’s season was last year, there’s optimism that he could turn it around this year.

That faith rests in his shooting percentage. Never before had Neal shot below 10 percent in all situations in his career over a full season and never below nine percent in five-on-five situations. Last year, his shooting success was just five percent in all situations and 4.63 percent in five-on-five.

As Willis points out, if that shooting percentage just returns back to the mean, Neal could double his goal total without much extra effort.

Neal’s shot contributions are very good. Using CJ Turtoro’s player comparison tool, you can see just how stark the contrast is between himself and Lucic, who replaces Neal in Calgary.

Take those shot contributions and put them on a line with McDavid and profit?

So there’s it’s a good bet that Neal can contribute. How much so remains to be seen.

He’s still a positive possession player, even during his down year last year (50.58%). Over the past three seasons, he’s been outscored five-on-five, something that hadn’t happened previously since 2008-09. His expected goals were the third-lowest of his career. And he shot just 141 times, the lowest total outside of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

Either last season was a sign of things to come or an outlier for a player fully capable of potting 20 goals. At 31, he isn’t a dinosaur by any means.

Shedding Lucic’s no-movement, $6 million a season contract was a win already. And if Neal is on McDavid’s wing, it will be interesting to see how big of a rebound season he can have.


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

PHT Morning Skate: Maroon’s future uncertain; Gillis wants NHL return

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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.

Patrick Maroon isn’t sure if he’ll be back in St. Louis this season. (NHL.com)

• NHL commentators with rave reviews for Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland on Milan Lucic trade. (Edmonton Journal)

• After fives years away traveling the world and expanding his hockey mind, Mike Gillis is ready to return to the NHL — just not as a general manager. (Sportsnet)

John Tavares knows Mitch Marner will play for the Maple Leafs this season. (NHL.com)

• Jets could find great value in acquiring Stars’ Honka. (Winnipeg Sun)

• The Vancouver Canucks have improved more than any team in the Pacific. (The Canuck Way)

James Neal is feeling re-invigorated after move to Edmonton. (Global News)

• Colorado Avalanche star forward Mikko Rantanen isn’t going to the KHL. (Mile High Hockey)

• Flyers need impact from Hayes, Vigneault. (NHL.com)

• After years of stunted talks, Calgary may be ready to build a new hockey arena. (Globe and Mail)

• What it may take for a player to reach 50 goals or 100 points this season with the New Jersey Devils. (All About the Jersey)

• Predicting how long the Penguins’ Stanley Cup window will stay open. (Pensburgh)

• The Predators should make a push for Nikita Gusev. (Predlines)

• Why Peter DeBoer is confident Sharks can fill Joe Pavelski‘s scoring void. (NBC Sports Bay Area)

• Coyotes need more offense from well-paid blue line. (The Athletic)


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