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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:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
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.

Oilers finally fire GM Chiarelli: report

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It is done.

It would appear that a loss to the last place Detroit Red Wings was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back. And man, that camel was a stubborn such and such.

The Oilers reportedly fired general manager Peter Chiarelli late Tuesday after another miserable outing in a 3-2 loss on Tuesday, a move that the club is expected to formally announce on Wednesday.

The move, of course, was a long-time coming.

Chiarelli had failed to move the team forward, and in the eyes of many Oilers fans, only moved the team in the opposite direction.

The Oilers went from the Western Conference Final to one of the most disappointing teams in 2017-18. Perhaps it was just a fluke. Surely, a team sporting the best player in hockey couldn’t be held down for too long.

Tuesday’s loss, Edmonton’s third straight and perhaps most embarrassing of the season, was proof even McJesus can’t save this bunch alone.

The Oilers own a 23-24-3 record, shockingly just three points out of a playoff spot and yet still likely insurmountable.

In his wake, a litany disastrous moves that may take a while to make right after Chiarelli’s three-and-a-half years in northern Alberta.

We’re reminded of Milan Lucic’s contract, that Griffin Reinhart deal and others that saw good players — Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle — leave with less than adequate players coming to replace them.

More recently, the trade of Drake Caggulia for Brandon Manning, and the very recent three-year, $13.5 million deal for Mikko Koskinen, one based on less than 40 NHL games, a career .905 save percentage, and equipped with a limited no-trade clause just so Chiarelli’s legacy will live on in Edmonton all the longer.

Yeah, there’s a mess on a few aisles that need a major cleanup.

But by who? What the future holds is anyone’s guess at the moment.

In the interim, Sportsnet’s John Shannon said a member of the Gretzky family will take the reins in some fashion.

Keith Gretzky will assume many of Chiarelli’s duties in the next few weeks, with Vice Chairman Bob Nicholson being more involved until they find a new GM.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Ken Hitchcock, who just took over as head coach earlier this season after the team fired Todd McLellan, take over the post at some point. He appears to want to stay in Edmonton.

It also wouldn’t be surprising to see some recycling, either. That’s kind of par for the course in Edmonton, re-using old parts hoping they work like new again. Canning a GM mid-season isn’t common.

That would be a shame, however.

Edmonton deserves a clean slate, from top to bottom. This isn’t going to be the first “rebuild.” It’s not the second or third either.

Connor McDavid deserves a better fate.

Oilers fans deserve a better team. God knows they’ve been starving for one for a long while.


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

Capitals’ Ovechkin to play Wednesday, sit first game after all-star break

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Alex Ovechkin will serve his punishment for missing the 2018 NHL All-Star Game in the Washington Capitals first game back after the break.

Ovechkin, who could have chosen to sit Wednesday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, is choosing to play instead as the Capitals look to end a six-game losing streak before an extended weekend off.

Ovi will now miss the team’s Feb. 1 meeting with the Calgary Flames.

The move appears to be purely based on where the Capitals are at the moment, and that’s in a rut. The six-game losing streak has a seen them fall out of first place with just three wins in their past 10 games.

Despite the back-to-back nature of Wednesday’s game — the Caps blew a two-goal third-period lead in a 7-6 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday — Ovechkin and the Caps will host a Toronto team that’s lost three straight and seven out of their past 10. The game, then, is a better opportunity to snap the winless skid. There isn’t a team hotter than the Calgary Flames, so it makes sense.


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

The Buzzer: Hertl, Ovechkin trade hat tricks in 13-goal game

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Three stars

1. Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks

In a game that featured 13 goals and two hat tricks, it was Hertl’s night that stood out amongst his peers.

Hertl scored one of the hat tricks and added an assist for his four-point night. Hertl was instrumental in the third period, scoring the goal to bring the Sharks to 6-5 and then assisting on Evander Kane‘s second of the game with one second left in the third period to send it to overtime.

In the extra hockey portion, Hertl finished the hat trick, scoring the game-winner at 1:48. It’s his second hat trick of the season, and second this month.

The Sharks won 7-6.

Here are the highlights:

2. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

It’s almost as if Ovechkin dangles the thought of someone catching him in the goal-scoring race, only to separate himself every time someone gets close. He’s just playing with those chasing him down.

Ovechkin notched another hat trick on Tuesday, scoring goals No. 34 thru 36 in the Capitals sixth straight loss. That’s 23 career hat tricks for Ovi, which are broken down here:

3. Luke Glendening, Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings will head into their mandated week off on a high (and not in last place in the NHL) after Glendening scored a brace in a 3-2 win over the embattled Edmonton Oilers.

His first of the game came as he slipped in behind the Oilers defense and tapped in a shot past Mikko Koskinen. His second, the game-winner, came on a nice move to the net, slipping the puck past Koskinen.

Highlights of the night

The Hands of Kane:

Talk about cutting it close:

Factoids

Scores

Sharks 7, Capitals 6 (OT)
Coyotes 3, Senators 2
Blackhawks 3, Islanders 2 (SO)
Flames 3, Hurricanes 2 (SO)
Red Wings 3, Oilers 2


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

New contract, same result as Koskinen, Oilers fall to Red Wings

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A shiny new $4.5 million contract couldn’t help Mikko Koskinen stop the puck any better, nor could it help the Edmonton Oilers outscore their opponent on Tuesday night.

A day after the most puzzling contract extension in a long time, Koskinen allowed a couple softies to the basement-dwelling Detroit Red Wings as the Oilers lost 3-2 in another miserable effort on NBSCN.

All eyes were on Koskinen and the Oilers after Monday’s developments. After 40 minutes on Tuesday, Oilers fans were booing their team off the ice. Not a good sign, but perhaps not one that was all that surprising or unfamiliar.

Allowing goals like this was a big part of the problem for the Oilers, and Koskinen — despite the big-money deal — hasn’t been preventing too many of them lately.

Just listen to Ray Ferraro’s reaction on this one:

Koskinen actually made a couple of quality saves in the game, but then there was this sort of thing where he just chucked sound goalie positioning out the window.

After two periods, it was so bad that NBCSN’s Jeremy Roenick put the Oilers on blast.

“I’m just sitting here watching this game and shaking my head,” Roenick said. “I’m boggled that this is a professional hockey league team. The Edmonton Oilers are so bad. They can’t put two passes together. Their passing decisions. Their positioning defensively. They look, in all three zones, they looked confused. They have no idea where they are going. They are throwing hope-for passes up the ice hoping that they catch somebody in a rush where they can get an out-numbered situation. They might have good skaters, fast skaters, but their feet and their hands go so much faster than their brains. They have no idea what they are doing out there and it shows so much.

“You’ve got the Detroit Red Wings, and God bless them, the worst team in the National Hockey League by points [with] 43, and they look like the Stanley Cup champions compared to this Edmonton Oilers team. I can understand why Connor McDavid is as frustrated as he is. He’s on the only guy that’s working, the only guy doing something smart with the puck.

“We talk about hockey IQ, and some players with great hockey IQ. This team might have, from 18 players, the lowest hockey IQ I’ve seen in a long time, the way they’re playing this game. It’s embarrassing. I can understand why there were boos for this team going off the ice after the second period. It’s just awful to watch.”

The Oilers responded, scoring twice in the third period, including this one from Leon Draisaitl to give fans some hope.

It wouldn’t be enough, however.

Jimmy Howard continued his dominance against the Oilers, now 14-2-0 in his past 16 starts against Edmonton after making 32 saves.

Koskinen finished with 24 saves on 27 shots for another sub-.900 save percentage outing — his third straight. Koskinen has a .910 save percentage on the year and is .905 in his brief NHL career.

The Red Wings moved out of the NHL’s basement with the win while the Oilers lost their third straight and sixth in their past 10. The crazy thing is Edmonton is just three points back of a playoff spot as of Tuesday night.

The saga continues…


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