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.

The Buzzer: Hats off to Duclair; Staal one point away from 1,000

NHL Scores Eric Staal Minnesota Wild
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Three Stars

1. Anthony Duclair, Ottawa Senators. This had to be a satisfying game for Duclair. He showed John Tortorella and the Columbus Blue Jackets that he does, in fact, know how to play the game by scoring three goals in a 4-3 win for the Ottawa Senators. That performance includes the game-winning goal in overtime. The 24-year-old Duclair now has 18 goals in 33 games this season and is on pace for more than 40 goals this season. Read all about his day here.

2. Bryan Rust, Pittsburgh Penguins. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Brian Dumoulin, Nick Bjugstad, and Patric Hornqvist out of the lineup the Penguins have more than $35 million in salary cap space sitting in the press box at the moment. They still keep finding ways to win. They picked up a 5-4 shootout win over the Los Angeles Kings in Saturday thanks to another huge game from Rust. He scored two goals and picked up an assist in regulation, then scored the game-winning goal in the shootout. Rust now has 12 goals and 22 total points in only 19 games this season for the Penguins. He has always been one of their most versatile — and valuable — players, and he is showing why this season.

3. Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild. Staal has been on a roll for the Wild and thanks to his two-goal effort in Saturday’s 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, he now has six points in his past five games and is up to 999 for his career. That means with one more point he would become only the 89th player in NHL history to hit the 1,000 point milestone. The Wild are one of the league’s hottest teams since the start of November with a 12-3-5 record in their past 20 games. They were 4-9-0 before in October.

Other notable performances from Saturday

  • David Pastrnak extended his lead in the NHL goal-scoring race with a pair of goals in the Boston Bruins’ 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers. He now has 28 goals on the season and is five ahead of Jack Eichel.
  • Warren Foegele scored two goals for the Carolina Hurricanes, James Reimer stopped all 32 shots he faced and Dougie Hamilton scored against his former team in a 4-0 win over the Calgary Flames.
  • Anthony Beauvillier was the overtime hero for the New York Islanders as they topped the Buffalo Sabres.
  • The New Jersey Devils gave Alain Nasreddine his first NHL win as a head coach while the Taylor Hall watch continues. Read all about it here.
  • Frederik Andersen stopped 36 out of 37 shots as the Toronto Maple Leafs sent the fading Edmonton Oilers to their fourth consecutive defeat. It is the 200th win of Andersen’s career.
  • Jonathan Bernier backstopped the Detroit Red Wings to their second consecutive win as they hold off the Montreal Canadiens.
  • Mika Zibanejad‘s two goals are not enough for the New York Rangers as they drop a 4-3 shootout decision to the Anaheim Ducks.
  • Ben Bishop turned aside 37 out of 38 shots to help the Dallas Stars crush the Nashville Predators.
  • Evander Kane and Logan Couture both record two points as the San Jose Sharks get a much-needed win over the Vancouver Canucks. It is the first win for Bob Boughner as head coach of the Sharks.
  • Tyler Bozak scored two goals as the St. Louis Blues stunned the Chicago Blackhawks. Read all about it here.

Highlights of the Night

Timo Meier finishes a great passing play for the San Jose Sharks with an absolute rocket of a shot to beat Jacob Markstrom.

Jonathan Quick has really struggled the past two years, and it came in a losing effort in Pittsburgh on Saturday, but this series of saves in overtime is pretty ridiculous.

Garnet Hathaway score with some style for the Capitals.

Give this fan a contract

This is a $50,000 shot between periods in Montreal.

Factoids

  • The Blues’ comeback is just the second time in franchise history they erased a three-goal third period deficit to win. [NHL PR]
  • Zibanejad’s first goal for the Rangers came just 10 seconds into the game, the fastest goal for the Rangers since the 1985 season. [NHL PR]
  • Jack Eichel extended his point streak to 16 consecutive games, making it the fourth longest in Buffalo Sabres franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • The Wild have earned a point in 12 consecutive home games, the second-longest streak in franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • Brad Marchand hit the 50-point mark for the season, the first Bruins player since Adam Oates during the 1995-96 season to reach that mark in 34 or fewer games. [NHL PR]
  • Marc-Edouard Vlasic played in his 1,000th career game on Saturday night, making him the 340th player in NHL history to reach that milestone. [San Jose Sharks]
  • Foegele’s two goals for the Hurricanes both came while shorthanded, making him the fifth Hurricanes player to ever accomplish that in a game. [NHL PR]

Scores

Ottawa Senators 4, Columbus Blue Jackets 3 (OT)
New York Islanders 3, Buffalo Sabres 2 (OT)
Anaheim Ducks 4, New York Rangers 3 (SO)
Carolina Hurricanes 4, Calgary Flames 0
Dallas Stars 4, Nashville Predators 1
Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Edmonton Oilers 1
Minnesota Wild 4, Philadelphia Flyers 1
Detroit Red Wings 2, Montreal Canadiens 1
Washington Capitals 5, Tampa Bay Lightning 2
Boston Bruins 4, Florida Panthers 2
Pittsburgh Penguins 5, Los Angeles Kings 4 (SO)
New Jersey Devils 2, Arizona Coyotes 1
St. Louis Blues 4, Chicago Blackhawks 3
San Jose Sharks 4, Vancouver Canucks 2

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.

Devils give Nasreddine first win as Taylor Hall trade watch continues

Devils Taylor Hall Trade Watch
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For the second game in a row the New Jersey Devils held star forward Taylor Hall out of the lineup as they continue to work toward a trade.

They were still able to give interim coach Alain Nasreddine his first win as an NHL coach by defeating the Arizona Coyotes, 2-1, thanks to a late goal from Kyle Palmieri.

Entering play on Saturday the Devils had been 0-4-1 since firing John Hynes and replacing him with Nasreddine.

The win also snapped a seven-game losing streak.

The big story, though, continues to be where Hall ends up as trade talks continue between the Devils and several teams around the league. Trade speculation has followed Hall and the Devils all season and reached a boiling point on Friday night when he was made a late scratch in Colorado for what the team called “precautionary” reasons. The fact he did not play again on Saturday seems to further drive home the point that a trade could be imminent.

At this point it simply a matter of where he ends up.

While the Avalanche remain the odds on favorite to land him, several other teams have reportedly emerged as possible destinations. One of those potential teams: Saturday’s opponent in Arizona.

Other teams that have been rumored to be interested include St. Louis, Florida, and Edmonton.

The Coyotes are an intriguing option because it would be a pretty clear sign that they are ready to try and win right now. Even with Saturday’s loss to the Devils they remain in first place in the Pacific Division and are off to one of their starts in years. They have a good young roster, but are still lacking impact forwards. Phil Kessel was supposed to help address that over the summer, but he is off to a slow start (only one even-strength goal) and has not yet been a difference-maker.

Adding Hall would be a huge win for the Coyotes not only because of the impact to their own roster, but it would also keep him away from a division rival In Edmonton.

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.

 

Blackhawks self destruct, blow 3-goal third period lead to Blues

Blackhawks Blues third period rally
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Just when it looked like the Chicago Blackhawks had hit rock bottom they found a way to keep digging.

Their disastrous three-game road trip came to a brutal end on Saturday night in St. Louis when they allowed a three-goal lead with 16 minutes to play turn into a 4-3 regulation loss to the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues.

The meltdown began when St. Louis’ Tyler Bozak scored just 30 seconds after Patrick Kane had given the Blackhawk a 3-0 lead, capitalizing on a terrible turnover by Alex Nylander.

The Blues completed the comeback with three goals in the final six minutes of regulation, including a pair of goals just 12 seconds apart to tie the game.

Just three minutes after that sequence Justin Faulk scored his second goal of the season for the game-winner.

1. The Blackhaws’ problems remain the same

It’s the defensive zone play. It has been the defensive zone play. It continues to be the defensive zone play.

At times the Blackhawks look like a team that has never had to play in the defensive zone before. Turnovers, missed assignments, blown assignments, and just about every possible defensive calamity that can happen to a team in the defensive zone happens to this team on a near nightly basis. All of that was on display in the final 16 minutes on Saturday and it once again left their goalie — in this case Corey Crawford — all by himself on an island.

2. Where they stand now

In last place in the Central Division and next-to-last place in the entire Western Conference, just one point ahead of the Los Angeles Kings. Needless to say, that is a brutal position for a team with one of the league’s largest payrolls to be in.

They are 3-8-2 in their past 13 games (only one of those wins in regulation), are nine points out of the second Wild Card spot and 12 points back of the top-three teams in the Central Division.

They were outscored by a 14-6 margin on their three-game trip that took them through Arizona, Vegas, and St. Louis.

At this point the season is not only getting away from them, it appears to be completely gone.

3. What happens next?

This is the type of stretch, and this is the type of game, that leads to change.

Or at least starts the ball rolling toward change.

Head coach Jeremy Colliton has been on the job for just one year, and firing him that quickly after he replaced a future Hall of Fame, three-time Stanley Cup winning coach would make it seem like the Blackhawks don’t really have much of a plan and don’t really know what they’re doing.

But do you know what? Maybe they don’t know what they’re doing, and maybe they don’t have a plan. General manager Stan Bowman gambled big on his core and that its strong second half a year ago was a sign of what the team was still capable of. That it maybe just needed a few tweaks to compete again. With every passing game this season, and with every defensive meltdown that seems worse than the previous one, it is becoming increasingly clear this team just isn’t very good and the right changes were not made.

In the end something is very wrong with this team and there does not seem to be much light at the end of the tunnel.

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.

 

Duclair’s revenge: Hat trick leads Senators over Tortorella, Blue Jackets

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Anthony Duclair knows how to play the game. He proved that to John Tortorella and the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday.

Duclair scored three goals in the Ottawa Senators’ 4-3 win — including the game winner in the video above — and was able to get some small amount of revenge against his former team and coach.

It’s such a big day for Duclair because it was a little less than a year ago that he was the focal point of Tortorella’s public wrath. In late February Tortorella ripped Duclair by saying, among other things, that he didn’t know if he knew how to play the game, while also referring to his play as being “off the rails.”

The focal point of the criticism centered around Duclair’s situational play away from the puck. Three days later the Blue Jackets sent him to Ottawa in a trade for Ryan Dzingel.

Fresh start for Duclair

Duclair’s game has started to blossom offensively since arriving in Ottawa. With his three-goal effort on Saturday he is up to 18 goals in 33 games this season. No player on the Blue Jackets has more than 10 goals.

He also has 26 goals in 53 games with the Senators since the trade.

Duclair is a fascinating player because he is still only 24 years old and is already playing for his fifth different organization. While he may still have some improvements to make away from the puck, there is no denying his talent level with it, while he consistently averages a 20-goal pace per 82 games. He is now on pace for more than 40 goals this season.

A smart team should be able to find a use for him, and right now the Senators are.

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.