Golden Knights’ top line could torment opponents for years

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The Vegas Golden Knights’ top line of Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, and Jonathan Marchessault weren’t just a great combination “for an expansion team” in Game 2 of the 2018 Western Conference Final. No, they were too much for the loaded, ultra-talented Winnipeg Jets to handle, joining Marc-Andre Fleury as the main reason this series is tied.

Teams around the NHL have to hope that this combination is a mere flash-in-the-pan, because if not, they could be a fixture for quite some time.

And, the scary part is that two-thirds of that line is on the sort of team-friendly deals that can allow GM George McPhee to build a consistent contender, with no need to even consider expansion team caveats.

Let’s consider each player for a moment.

The next Martin St. Louis?

OK, Jonathan Marchessault doesn’t play exactly like the former Lightning star. For one thing, he shoots right-handed.

Still, there are broader, big-picture similarities. Both players went undrafted despite being productive players at other levels. They each took quite a bit of time to truly get a chance. St. Louis ended up breaking through in Tampa Bay, while Marchessault showed early signs of brilliance with the Bolts before lighting it up with Florida and then (well, if you spend a moment on Hockey Twitter, there’s a chance you’ll hear a joke about the Panthers trading Marchessault and Smith). Of course, each scorer had to fight so hard to grab attention because of the NHL’s dismissive attitude toward smaller players.

Like St. Louis, there’s the feeling that Marchessault might take some time to truly clue people in that he’s not just good, he could be great.

Consider his Game 2 performance: two goals, eight shots on goal, and generally one of those drag-your-team-on-your-back outputs. That second goal really crushed the Jets’ spirit after it looked like they might get back into the game. Accomplishing things like this with considerable frequency sure makes you look like a star:

Remarkably, Marchessault’s body of work at the NHL level is still slender for a 27-year-old, so maybe he’s playing a little bit over his head. Still, when you look at his work in the QJMHL and AHL, it’s clear that he produces wherever you put him.

Marchessault’s career-insecurity probably helps to explain why he signed what currently looks like an extremely team-friendly contract extension back in January. He’ll carry just a $5 million cap hit from 2018-19 to 2023-24, covering what would likely be the remainder of his prime.

That contract feels a lot like Viktor Arvidsson‘s with Nashville: a smaller, productive first-line forward who needed to gain notice by sheer force of will, signing a contract that’s all about long-term security, even if it means giving his team a possible bargain.

Then again, there’s a more local comparison to Marchessault’s contract …

No fooling

Maybe it makes sense that Reilly Smith was born on April 1, as teams have been fooled into giving up on him to a puzzling extent.

Smith, also 27, began his career as a third-round draft pick with Dallas. He didn’t really gain traction in the NHL until he joined the Boston Bruins as sneakily the B’s best takeaway from the ill-fated Tyler Seguin deal. Despite generating a 20-goal, 51-point season at 22 and a solid 40-point output in 2014-15, Smith was traded to Florida almost exactly two years later.

The pattern continued. Smith had a great first season with the Cats (25 goals, 50 points in 2015-16), dipped a bit a season later, and then was dumped to Vegas. Spoiler: that worked out really well for the Vegas Knights.

Smith’s strong debut season with Vegas probably flew a bit under the radar because of injuries. Despite being limited to 67 games, he was a regular scoring presence, collecting 22 goals and 60 points. For whatever reason, his shooting luck has dried up in the postseason, but he’s still racking up assists (as PHT’s Joey Alfieri spotlights here).

One of Smith’s standout assists came in Game 3 of Vegas’ eventual sweep of the Kings. Watch as the Golden Knights’ top line created havoc against Drew Doughty & Co., setting the stage for Karlsson’s first goal of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs:

The delightful thing about Smith and Marchessault is that there’s ample evidence that, while their offense may ebb and flow, their possession games have been strong for much of their careers. At worst, they seem like they’ll be valuable players for Vegas for years.

Smith’s contract brings added value, too. He was traded to Vegas with a $5M cap hit that runs through 2021-22. One could easily speculate that McPhee was able to use his deal as a measuring stick for Marchessault’s asking price, which brings us to the wild-haired wild card of the trio:

Playing the percentages

There’s something fittingly “Vegas Golden Knights” about Karlsson’s place in this group.

While Marchessault and Smith very much fit into the misfits group in Vegas as players who were discarded by multiple teams, it feels safe to at least pencil them in as useful, if not dominant, top-six forwards. Karlsson’s much tougher to figure … yet he also topped the team with 43 goals and 78 points.

It’s almost unavoidable to hear doubters chuckle when discussing Karlsson’s incredible campaign. When it comes to the regular season, that’s fair. No one – not Alex Ovechkin, Patrik Laine, Mike Bossy, Mario Lemieux – can sustain a 23.4 shooting percentage over the long haul.

The heartening thing for Karlsson and Vegas is that he’s been productive and dangerous during the playoffs, even as his luck is settling down. The 25-year-old has generated a point-per-game (12 in 12) despite a more earthly 13.5 shooting percentage.

He’s a slick, smart player who can really skate. There’s a lot to like, whether he’s a true first-liner or merely a very nice forward. If he can stick with Marchessault and Smith, Karlsson could remain a threat.

And that’s where it all gets interesting.

Karlsson needs a new contract, as he’s a pending RFA.

Will that 78-point season land him the sort of contract that Vegas might regret? Could both sides acknowledge that explosive season but also an otherwise skimpy track record of NHL success with Columbus and opt for a “prove it” contract? If Vegas offered a clone of the Marchessault deal, would that make the most sense?

***

There are a lot of questions there, but the good news is that Vegas is in a great position. If they make the right call(s) with Karlsson, they’ll have a prime-age trio of forwards who are currently sticking with – and sometimes skating right by – some of the best players in the NHL.

It should all be fascinating and fun to watch … but not quite as fun as watching Smith, Marchessault, and Karlsson exasperate defenders and fill highlight reels.

MORE:
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Conference Finals schedule, TV info
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NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

Andrei Kuzmenko
Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.

Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

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DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.

UP NEXT

Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

He found a little of both.

The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

“I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

“It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

“That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

“We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

“It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”

UP NEXT

Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.