What the Golden Knights’ success tells us about the NHL

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The Vegas Golden Knights are on their way to the Stanley Cup Final and you, the hockey watching fan, probably have some thoughts, opinions and maybe even questions about this shocking development.

Maybe you think it’s an amazing story, or maybe you are a part of a long-suffering fan-base and are angered that a team that just showed up on the scene less than a year ago and is four wins away from winning a championship.

Maybe you are asking questions like: How did a first-year team reach this point, and what does it say about the NHL that it could happen?

Let’s try to tackle that a little bit because there is one massive lesson here that we can take from the success of the Golden Knights: This sport is almost impossible to predict and is more prone to randomness and luck than any other. This is true when it comes to the people running the teams, and those of us watching everything that happens as both partial and impartial observers. Basically, nobody knows anything.

We already discussed the disastrous moves that a lot of NHL teams made throughout the expansion draft process when several of them gave up more than they needed to or made bizarre decisions when it came to their protected lists. All of those criticisms are not only fair, but are richly deserved even if they are made with the benefit of hindsight. On one hand, it was the job of the teams to know what they had as far as protecting the right talent and making smart moves. But not even the Golden Knights front office expected this. Even with there being a lot of head-scratchingly bizarre decisions there was almost nobody that looked at that roster at the start of the season and said “yes, that team is going to be playing in the Stanley Cup Final this season.”

[Related: Don’t blame expansion draft rules for Vegas’ success]

But that is part of the craziness that makes the NHL what it is. It is a sport and a league that is driven by luck and randomness more than most will ever care to admit.

That doesn’t mean that skill and talent and having the best players isn’t important. Because it is. It is just that sometimes the game comes down to a player having a career year at the right time, or several players all having everything click for them at the same time.

It is, by nature, completely unpredictable. It is a game of bounces, mistakes, hot and cold streaks, and at times completely wacky results that do not make any logical sense. This can happen of course of a single game, or a playoff series, or even a full season. Goaltending can be one of the biggest and most important factors in all of that, and Vegas has been the beneficiary of some outstanding goaltending this season, particularly when it comes to the play of Marc-Andre Fleury. And at no time has he been better than he has been during these playoffs where he is authoring one of the greatest postseason performances in league history.

Nothing elevates a team — or sinks it — more than a goaltending a performance. A great one masks flaws and makes a team look better than it might otherwise be. A bad one can sink a contender. Both teams that played in the Western Conference Final this season were perfect examples of that this season. The Jets, with largely the same roster that missed the playoffs a year ago and hadn’t made the postseason in four years, were able to power their way to the NHL’s final four because they finally received a competent goaltending performance. That team should have been a playoff team long before this season, and likely would have been with better goaltending.

That is the biggest thing to draw from Vegas’ success — goaltending drives everything.

The other thing we can take from this season is the power of opportunity and what an increased role can do for some players.

How many players around the NHL are capable of big-time performances are being buried in another team’s lineup or organization without getting a serious look?

In Vegas we saw Erik Haula go from being, at times, a fourth-liner in Minnesota (still capable of scoring 12-15 goals) and end up scoring 29 goals this season for the Golden Knights.

Nate Schmidt was mostly a depth defenseman in Washington and when given an opportunity to be a top-pairing defender has shined for Vegas. The same can be said for Colin Miller.

William Karlsson was mostly an afterthought in Anaheim and Columbus, and even if you accept that he is not going to score 40 goals again because he will probably never have another season where he scores on 23 percent of his shots, he is probably better than the ice-time he was given in his previous two stops showed.

Even though his “breakout” season happened a year ago in Florida Jonathan Marchessault is another example of what opportunity can do for a player. A talented, productive player at every level of hockey he played at that was passed over and discarded probably for no other reason than the fact he is undersized. How many players like him have been stuck in the AHL in recent years or been passed over in the draft?

How many players are there around the NHL like Haula and Schmidt that are buried in another lineup never being given an opportunity to do more, either because they are stuck on good teams with deep depth charts, or simply through poor talent evaluation from their teams?

There are probably quite a few!

Vegas’ success is going to up the pressure on every general manager across the league because people are going to look at this season and say, “if they can go from nothing to the Stanley Cup in one year, what is our excuse?” But nobody is going to get a clean slate with an opportunity build a team like this (at least not until Seattle enters the league, and I don’t envy their general manager trying to follow up this act). And there really is not anyway to replicate or duplicate what they did this season. That doesn’t mean there still aren’t lessons about the league to take from this success. The two biggest ones are to embrace the unpredictability that comes with the sport and how much luck and randomness can drive it, and to understand just how important it is for some players to simply get an opportunity to play a meaningful role.

The Golden Knights aren’t a team of misfits.

They are a team of talented players (and a great, game-changing goalie) that finally received a bigger opportunity.

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

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.

Nylander already showing flashes of brilliance for Maple Leafs

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After a contract holdout that extended almost until the last minute on Dec. 1, William Nylander finally signed with the Maple Leafs, yet he was unable to generate a point in his first two games back. One could almost feel the restlessness build in Toronto, but there were breakthrough moments in the Maple Leafs’ 4-1 win against the Hurricanes on Tuesday.

Granted, there were also some breakdowns on Nylander’s part, too. Some of that is just the nature of the beast when it comes to NHL hockey, but rust is a factor, as well.

Nylander generated his first two points of 2018-19 in Tuesday’s win, both being assists.

His first didn’t seem like an assist at all, as Morgan Rielly was credited with a goal after it became clear that Dougie Hamilton was guilty of a tragicomic own-goal. Nylander’s second assist came on a brilliant pass to Patrick Marleau, who converted on what was the hockey equivalent of a layup:

Nylander might just deserve that token assist, really, as he made another brilliant pass to Marleau that did not result in a goal.

That’s some great stuff, and the Maple Leafs have the potential to be truly terrifying if Nylander, Marleau, and Nazem Kadri can make for a strong line while Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner also confound defenses at different times. We’ve seen a lot of NHL teams load up with supreme top lines, hoping that the gains would offset any losses. Toronto could score a monumental advantage over most opponents if they can really leverage this depth.

As tantalizing as those thoughts are, it’s not as though Nylander is a finished product.

The 22-year-old experienced some sloppy moments during that same game against Carolina, finishing the night with six penalty minutes. Maybe his high-sticking penalty ranks as one of those things that just happens, but Nylander essentially had to take an interference penalty out of exhaustion, as he was caught out on the ice during a shift that went too long.

After the game, Nylander acknowledged that some shifts went too long, while Mike Babcock had an interesting take on what the winger is going through.

“It’s going to take some time, let’s not get carried away,” Babcock said. “They’re all fine as long as the ice is open. As soon as it is in contact and you’ve got to get your legs going and you can get stuck out on a shift. He took a penalty the one time he got stuck out on a shift … It’s going to take some time. We’ll be patient and he has to be.”

Maple Leafs fans should be heartened by that last sentence: the team will be patient with Nylander. That’s crucial, and it’s especially promising coming from a coach who can sometimes be … hard-driving, like Babcock’s known to be.

Now, about that patience: when should the Maple Leafs expect Nylander to be at full speed?

Ignoring the potential advantages that come with skipping months of bumps and bruises by beginning his season in December instead of October, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that Toronto believes that a player gets truly up-and-running about 12 days after training camp.

By the best estimates of the Leafs sports science department, it typically takes a player 12 days after training camp before his heart rate levels out during exertion.

That would put Nylander on schedule to be functioning at his peak sometime in mid-January after hitting the ground running last week and so far playing more games (three) than he’s had full practices (two) with the Leafs.

As much as any other team, the Maple Leafs have the resources to research such sports science issues, so the league should keep an eye on developments like these. If any league could see a franchise exploit “rest versus rust” for, say, gains in the playoffs, it might be someone in the NHL. Plenty of franchises lack that eye for innovation, so those who do might enjoy at least a brief edge.

The thing is, it’s human nature to fixate on mistakes like Nylander’s interference penalty, and lose sight of the big picture (his assists, and strong overall play).

Consider that, according to Natural Stat Trick’s individual rates, Nylander’s Corsi For Percentage was 61.29-percent on Tuesday, the second-best mark of any Maple Leafs player in that game (Igor Ozhiganov topped all at 65.22). Perhaps you can nitpick that a bit being that Nylander didn’t face the toughest Hurricanes competition during much of the contest, but you’d be grasping at straws.

In other words, there’s already a lot to like about Nylander three games into his latest season, even if there are signs of growing pains. He could be a boon to the Maple Leafs in his current form, and chances are, he’ll get up to game speed and shake off all the rust, possibly quite soon.

Long story short, Nylander’s showing that he’s worth the wait.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Penguins heavy NHL odds favorite against beleaguered Blackhawks on Wednesday

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It is rare for a road team in the NHL to go as deep into minus money as the Pittsburgh Penguins are for their game against the reeling Chicago Blackhawks (8 p.m ET; NBCSN), meaning a trend could be shrugged off due to small sample size.

The Penguins are -195 road favorites on the NHL odds for Wednesday night with the host Blackhawks coming back at +155, while there is a 6.0-goals total at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

The Penguins are only 1-5 in their last six road games as a favorite of -190 or greater on the moneyline, as well as 3-7 in their last 10 road games, but are 4-1 in five road games this season against Western Conference teams.

The Blackhawks’ trends are even more abject; they have surrendered the first goal in 11 consecutive games and are also 2-6 in their last eight home games at the United Center. Chicago also played Tuesday night, losing 6-3 against the Winnipeg Jets, and is 4-16 in its last 20 games when it played the previous day.

Pittsburgh is 13-10-6 on the season, including a 6-2-2 mark over its last 10 games. The Penguins are well off of their Stanley Cup form of two seasons ago, but still have a strong first two lines centered by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Both Pittsburgh special teams units are in the top 10 of the NHL, with the power play ranking ninth (23.2 percent) and the penalty killing unit ranking sixth (83.5).

With No. 1 goalie Matt Murray (lower body) close to a return to health, the Penguins could have a choice between him and Casey DeSmith, who is 3-1-1 with a 2.16 goals-against average and .926 save percentage in five starts so far in December.

Chicago is 9-18-5, including 1-9 in its last 10 games, and there is little to suggest much in the way of an immediate turnaround. Captain Jonathan Toews‘ line is one of the least proficient first lines in the NHL and the next waves of attack, which include right wing Patrick Kane, have been just ok, which is why the Blackhawks have not scored more than three goals during any of their last eight home games.

The Blackhawks are also 31st, or dead last, in power play efficiency (11.6 percent) and 28th in penalty killing (74.4 percent).

Cam Ward played in the Winnipeg game, which would suggest the Blackhawks will start goalie Corey Crawford, who is winless in his last eight starts. Crawford is 5-14-1 with a 3.21 goals-against average and .901 save percentage, but his rate stats improve to 2.39 and .925 on home ice, which might provide a glimmer of hope for upset-minded bettors.

The total has gone UNDER in six of Pittsburgh’s last 10 road games against the Central Division, according to the OddsShark NHL Database. The total has gone UNDER in eight of Chicago’s last 10 home games.

For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

Rangers’ Shattenkirk out 2-4 weeks with shoulder injury

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NEW YORK (AP) — The New York Rangers say defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk will be sidelined two to four weeks with a shoulder injury.

Shattenkirk left in the second period of Monday night’s game in Tampa. He took a check around the left shoulder and had a sling on his arm postgame.

The 29-year-old was checked out on Tuesday. General manager Jeff Gorton announced Wednesday that Shattenkirk had a separated shoulder.

Shattenkirk has one goal, seven assists and zero penalty minutes in 29 games this season. He suffered a knee injury last January that ended his season.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Bruins’ David Backes takes skate to face, returns

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BOSTON (AP) Boston Bruins forward David Backes rushed himself off the ice Tuesday night after taking a skate blade to the face late in the first period but returned at the start of the second and finished the game.

Backes pushed Oliver Ekman-Larsson near the side of the net and the Arizona defenseman went to the ice, kicking up his left skate on the way down. It caught Backes in the face, and he went down before skating on his own quickly to the bench and out the tunnel.

Backes returned and won the faceoff to start the second period. He did not speak to reporters during the open locker room period but told The Boston Globe as he left the building he had a cut on the side of his nose that required a few stitches and some ointment.

“It’s always scary when your teammate takes a skate to the face, or really anywhere,” Bruins forward Brad Marchand said after scoring twice and adding an assist in the 4-3 victory. “He’s a little prettier now and no worse for wear.”

Backes required 18 stitches to close a cut on his leg after a game against Tampa Bay in March.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports