Why Kuznetsov has been a nightmare to stop during playoffs

The NHL’s best playmakers can also double for the most frustrating forwards for a simple reason: they love to pass.

Sometimes that drive to make that “pretty play” can drive a coach mad, particularly when that translates to vetoing more of a sure-thing in the form of a shot. As Russian Machine Never Breaks’ Ian Oland noted back in November, Barry Trotz sometimes got frustrated with Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s bias toward setting up his teammates.

Which, to be fair, is pretty understandable when Alex Ovechkin is usually on your left wing.

” … I think what it does when he does shoot, it will open up his wingers for him, too, because everyone is shading to the wingers right now because they think he’s just looking for his wingers,” Trotz said in November. “He’s just got to shoot a little bit more. Be more of a threat. He’s a threat gaining the zone. He’s a threat when he gets to the top of the circles and then he’s looking to dish a little bit. And he can shoot the puck. I use his stick, I know. He’s learned from me. No, he can really shoot it and he’s accurate.”

Well, Kuznetsov takes those lessons to heart during the most important time of the year, as he really ramps up his shooting during the postseason. That’s been most abundantly clear during a 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs run where Kuznetsov’s already set a new Capitals franchise record for points with 27 (including 12 goals).

Via Hockey Reference, Kuznetsov averaged 2.37 shots per game during the 2017-18 regular season, which already stands as an improvement compared to his career regular season average (2.06). Kuznetsov’s almost like a different player during this postseason run, however, generated a lethal 85 SOG over 22 games (3.86 SOG per contest).

Despite playing with an apparent injury, Kuznetsov decided to shoot on this 2-on-1 during Game 3, and scored with the sort of accuracy you’d expect from a top-flight sniper … which maybe he’s becoming?

Whenever people ponder stopping Alex Ovechkin from firing in goals from “his office,” they often forget that the threat of that bread-and-butter shot opens up a lot of opportunities for other players. You can see that in how deadly T.J. Oshie has been on the power play.

Kuznetsov being just about as apt to shoot as he is to pass makes for a goalie’s nightmare, and he really seemed to be making all the right calls during Game 3. Considering how nice this setup was, only for Marc-Andre Fleury to make a highlight reel save on Ovechkin:

Usually, Alex Ovechkin ranks far ahead of any other Capitals forwards when it comes to firing shots on net, yet during this run, Kuznetsov isn’t far behind him. Ovechkin leads the postseason with 90 SOG, only five more than Kuznetsov. (John Carlson is fourth with 76, while Jonathan Marchessault comes in at third with 82 despite playing 18 games to 22 for Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. More on Marchessault here.)

While Kuznetsov’s increased trigger-happiness seems to be in part a transformation, it’s interesting to note that he ramps up his shooting as something of a springtime tradition.

2014-15: 42 SOG in 14 GP (five goals, 3 SOG per game) after 1.59 SOG per game in the regular season.

2015-16: 39 SOG in 12 GP (one goal, 3.25 SOG per game) after 2.35 in regular season.

2016-17: 43 SOG in 13 GP (five goals. 3.3 SOG per game) after 2.07 in the regular season.

Perhaps Kuznetsov kicks things up another notch when every contest matters that much more. After all, an 82-game regular season is a serious grind. Maybe some of this comes down to matching up against the same players for about two weeks. Defenders may key on Ovechkin that much more, making the on-ice calculus that much more obvious for Kuznetsov. You’d have to think that some of it comes down to his confidence going through the roof lately.

Then again, it might just boil down to Kuznetsov really wants to break out that “eagle flapping wings” celebration.

Whatever the explanation may be, defenders can’t just clog up passing lanes when Kuznetsov carries the puck in dangerous situations. Not during the playoffs.

As much as the Capitals’ run has revolved around Ovechkin looking as spry and mobile as we’ve seen in years, the dominance of the top line also comes down to Kuznetsov being a dual threat more than ever before.

The Golden Knights, like others, haven’t exactly enjoyed this rendition of “pick your poison.” There might not be an easy answer for it, either.

MORE:

• 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.

Liam Kirk 1st born-and-trained Brit selected in NHL draft

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DALLAS (AP) Liam Kirk has become the first player born and trained in England to be selected in the NHL draft.

The Arizona Coyotes picked the 18-year-old left wing 189th overall on Saturday with their seventh-round pick.

Kirk was home, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean about 4,600 miles away from Dallas, when he was drafted.

The 6-foot, 161-pound Kirk played this season for Sheffield Steelers in the Elite Ice Hockey League, the highest level of competition in the United Kingdom. He had nine goals and seven assists in 52 games for the Steelers in his second season with the team.

When Kirk attended this year’s NHL scouting combine in Buffalo, he became the first player born and trained in Britain to attend that annual pre-draft event.

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/tags/NHLhockey

Winners and losers from the 2018 NHL Draft

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DALLAS — The picks are in and the 2018 NHL Draft has come to a close. The weekend began with the Buffalo Sabres selecting Rasmus Dahlin No. 1 overall and it ended with the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals choosing Eric Florchuk with the 217th and final pick.

A lot happened, like some surprise selections, a few trades and plenty of intrigue as we approach free agency. Let’s take a look at some winners and losers from draft weekend.

Winner: New York Islanders

Landing Oliver Wahlstrom and Noah Dobson in back-to-back picks was something GM Lou Lamoriello probably didn’t expect when arrived at the draft, but that’s how things fell for the Islanders in the opening round. A dynamic offensive player in Wahlstrom and a good puck-moving blue liner in Dobson really add to the franchise’s prospect pool. The good off-season continues for them days after hiring Barry Trotz as their new head coach. Aside from finding a new goaltender, the biggest concern now facing the team is re-signing John Tavares, which we should know what his plans are within the next week.

Winner: 2018 NHL Draft music

The American Airlines Center DJ — Michael Gruber — spun an impeccable playlist during Friday night and Saturday afternoon. From the Beastie Boys to Weezer to Red Hot Chili Peppers to Sublime to Radiohead, the soundtrack to the weekend was flawless.

Loser: Fans who like trades involving players

One of the most exciting moments of the NHL draft is when Commissioner Gary Bettman steps to the podium and says, “We have a trade to announce!” Those words were uttered many times this weekend, but majority of the moves were teams swapping selections. Only two big trades that included players went down this weekend, which is kind of disappointing considering all of the speculation as the hockey world decended on Dallas. Maybe now that all of the teams are shifting their focus to free agency, some moves will happen this week before the market opens July 1.

Winner: Colorado Avalanche

The Avs made the first big move of the weekend by trading for goaltender Philipp Grubauer and defenseman Brooks Orpik from the Washington Capitals. Grubauer, a restricted free agent, is expected to sign a deal in the neighborhood of three years and $10 million, which gives Colorado a netminder for the future as Semyon Varlamov enters the final year of his deal.

Loser: Calgary Flames

The Flames dealt Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland and highly-touted defense prospect Adam Fox to the Carolina Hurricanes for Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm. That move breaks up one of the league’s top blue line pairings in Hamilton and Mark Giordano. Hanifin and Lindholm, who both rejected contract extension before being dealt, are set to become restricted free agents on July 1.

Winner: Sweden

With 28 Swedish-born players selected this weekend that matches the country’s record which was set during the 2011 draft. Also celebrating are England (Liam Kirk, Arizona) and Jamaica (Jermaine Loewen, Dallas). Kirk is first British-born and trained player to be drafted, while Loewen is the first Jamaican-born player to be picked.

Loser: Slovakia

While the number of Slovakian players drafted this year (5) is up from 2017 (2), the amount continues to remain low for a country that once regularly produced NHL players. Slovakia has seen only 15 players selected over the last six NHL Drafts.

Winner: Brooks Orpik

It’s been quite a month for the 37-year-old defenseman. First, he wins his second Stanley Cup. Then two weeks later he’s traded to the Colorado Avalanche along with goaltender Philipp Grubauer. But as soon as the deal was consummated, Avs GM Joe Sakic said the plan was to try and flip him or buy him out. No suitable offers were made, so Orpik was placed on waivers Saturday with the intent to buy him out. That sets up a situation that could see him headed back to the Capitals.

Loser: Adam Mascherin

Mascherin was originally a 2016 second round pick by the Florida Panthers, but could not agree to a contract wth the team. “He didn’t want to play for the Panthers. That’s what happened,” GM Dale Tallon said earlier this week. He was eligible to re-enter the draft this year and ended up dropping to the fourth round where the Dallas Stars picked him. In the two seasons since being picked by the Panthers, he’s posted 75 goals and 186 points in 132 games with the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers.

Winner: The Sutter legacy

The only thing that will outlast us all are cockroaches, Jaromir Jagr and a hockey playing Sutter. Riley Sutter was selected by the Capitals at No. 93 and is the son of Ron. The Sutter NHL tree dates all the way back to 1976 and doesn’t look like it will stop growing any time soon..

Loser: Max Pacioretty trade rumors

A rumor going around late in the draft was that Pacioretty was going to be traded to the San Jose Sharks. But that was quickly shot down despite it being “confirmed.” The only news about the Montreal Canadiens captain, who has one year left on his deal, was that he’s parted ways with Pat Brisson and has hired Allan Walsh as his new agent.

Winner: Unique names

There were 217 picks in the 2018 draft and many, if you scour all of the selections, featured some pretty interesting names. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Jett Woo, Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, Jasper Weatherby, Angus Crookshank, Blade Jenkins, Magnus Chrona, Dmitry Zavgorodniy, and Shamil Shamakov are just a handful of what we heard over the two days.

Loser: Nando Eggenberger

The Swiss winger who owns arguably the best name out of any of the eligible 2018 prospects did not get to hear his named called in Dallas. There’s always next year in Vancouver.

Winner: The Krygier family

Christian and Cole Krygier went five picks apart in the seventh round. The twin sons of former NHLer Todd Krygier, Christian landed with the Islanders while Cole ended up with the Panthers.

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Sean Leahy is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Goalie of the future: Avs reportedly sign Grubauer

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Heading into the off-season, the Colorado Avalanche’s future in net was a little blurry. Now it’s clear that Philipp Grubauer will be their go-to guy.

On Friday, the Avalanche sent the 47th pick to the Washington Capitals for Grubauer, also absoring Brooks Orpik‘s contract. Today, Colorado got the wheels turning on a buyout for Orpik, and reportedly agreed to a three-year deal with Grubauer.

Significant investment

The three-year pact will be worth about $10 million, according to TVA’s Renaud Lavoie. If that’s accurate, the 26-year-old would carry about a $3.33M cap hit from 2018-19 through 2020-21. Do note that the Avalanche haven’t made the signing official just yet.

So, let’s consider the cost, then:

  • Cap hit between Grubauer and Orpik in 2018-19: About $5.83M.
  • In 2019-20: About $4.83M.
  • 2020-21: Just Grubauer’s $3.3M.
  • Also, the 47th pick of the 2018 NHL Draft, which ended up being Kody Clark, Wendel Clark’s son.

Not exactly cheap, but the Avalanche have a pretty clean slate, and Grubauer was the most coveted goalie believed to be available this summer.

As usual with goalies, there are risks

Aside from brief struggles during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Grubauer’s passed just about every test thrown in way. In accruing 101 total regular-season games of NHL experience, Grubauer generated a strong .923 save percentage, the same mark he produced over 35 games during the 2017-18 campaign.

It’s easy to play hindsight 20/20 and say that Braden Holtby was “the clear choice” for the Capitals the whole time, but the truth is that Grubauer deserved that nod considering his superior play. While Holtby regained the starting job in Washington during the Stanley Cup run, Grubauer’s steadying presence was important.

Much like other rising backups, there’s a risk factor to investing heavily in Grubauer, who’s never carried a big workload.

The scariest comparison is probably Scott Darling.

Like Grubauer, Darling amassed a small but impressive resume as a backup for a good team. In Darling’s case, the towering goalie had only played 75 regular-season games for Chicago, generating a (wait for it) .923 save percentage, playing in 32 games during his final campaign with the Blackhawks. The Hurricanes are already regretting the four-year deal they handed to Darling, which carries a $4.15M cap hit.

There are plenty of counterpoints. Darling is three years older than Grubauer, and rarely excelled at other levels. Grubauer, on the other hand, put together respectable numbers in the ECHL and AHL before becoming a sturdy backup for the Caps.

Colorado likely hopes that Grubauer works out as well (or better) than more successful backup-turned-starters such as Antti Raanta and Cam Talbot.

Interesting setup

Will the Avalanche roll with a platoon situation involving Grubauer and Semyon Varlamov, whose $5.9M cap hit is set to expire after 2018-19? That’s at least the public plan right now.

It wouldn’t be one bit surprising if the Avalanche tried to find a trade partner for Varlamov, an expensive performer who’s dealt with some injury issues and other concerns in recent years. (One can’t help but note that, amusingly, the Avalanche also sent quite a bit of future assets to Washington in hopes that Varlamov would fix their goalie issues. Life moves fast.)

A Grubauer – Varlamov duo would cost about $9.2M in cap space, while Varlamov’s salary ($5.75M) is only slightly cheaper than his $5.9M cap hit next season.

You would think that would be too rich for the Avs, but maybe Colorado would just eat the coast with the advantage being that Varlamov’s presence could help Grubauer ease into the No. 1 role?

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With Varlamov seemingly on his way out sooner or later and valuable backup Jonathan Bernier headed out the door, the Avalanche are passing the torch to Grubauer.

We’ll see what happens regarding who the other goalie will be in Colorado, but either way, Grubauer gets his wish: to be the man. Will the Avalanche look back at this as a smart decision, or could this be another case where an understudy flops in a headlining role?

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.

Huge Flames – Hurricanes trade features Hamilton, Hanifin, Lindholm

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For a while, things were getting a little sleepy on draft weekend, but the Calgary Flames and Carolina Hurricanes changed that with a massive trade.

Here’s how the five-player trade looks for each side.

Calgary Flames receive: Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm.

Carolina Hurricanes receive: Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland, and defensive prospect Adam Fox.

There are a lot of facets to break down here.

Contract challenges

One factor is that both Hanifin and Lindholm need new contracts as RFAs, so the prices they eventually come in on for Calgary will play a big role in how we judge this franchise-altering trade.

The Hurricanes have changed huge portions of their front office, and this appears to be the first major shockwave stemming from the new regime.

Apparently the contract tiffs aren’t just on the Carolina end. There’s some belief that Fox, a well-regarded prospect who was taken in the third round (66th overall) in 2016, was not going to sign with the Flames. SBNation Flames blog Matchsticks & Gasoline posits that Fox could tip the scales of this trade depending upon how his development goes.

Prime-age players exchange hands on both sides, but one objective remark is that the Flames generally landed the younger players.

The talent is young and substantial enough that plenty of players involved could affect how we look back at this massive move. Let’s consider the biggest names.

Blue chippers, plus a big forward

It’s honestly bewildering to consider the high-end draft picks involved in this move.

Dougie Hamilton, 25, was drafted ninth overall by the Boston Bruins in 2011. This is the second time the high-scoring defenseman’s been traded, as the Bruins sent him to Calgary for a first-round pick and two second-rounders back in 2015.

Despite scoring a career-high 17 goals and continuing a four-season streak of 10+ tallies, Hamilton remains a divisive figure in the NHL, not unlike players like P.K. Subban and Phil Kessel, who he’ll be connected to for the rest of his career thanks to how his pick landed in Boston. Hamilton has been excellent for much of his days, yet plenty of people either believe that he’s ineffective in his own end, brings chemistry issues, or …?

Hamilton’s cap hit is $5.75 million running through 2020-21. Much like everything else with the defenseman, hockey people are likely divided regarding that contract being a bargain or being too rich.

(Fun.)

Noah Hanifin, 21, was the fifth pick of the 2015 NHL Draft.

While Hamilton’s resume is pretty robust with tangible evidence that he’s a difference-maker, Hanifin stumbled a bit out of the gate. He’s corrected in promising ways recently, however, generating career-highs of goals (10) and points (32) in 2017-18.

As much as anything else, it’s his youth, speed, and potential that makes him fascinating. Of course, on the other hand, you can talk yourself into expecting too much thanks to that high draft pick pedigree.

Elias Lindholm, 23, also went fifth overall, but in 2013.

The Swedish forward has been productive, yet not exactly spectacular, so far during his NHL career. He’s already played in 374 regular-season games, generating 64 goals and 124 assists for 188 points.

Micheal Ferland, 26, isn’t of the same draft pedigree, as he went in the fifth round (133rd overall) back in 2010.

You could make a reasonable argument that Ferland could be reasonably comparable to Lindholm from an immediate viewpoint, though. Ferland is coming off of a 21-goal, 41-points season from 2017-18.

Some of that production is likely inflated by playing with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Still, it’s worth noting that he fit in very nicely with those two players, bringing a big body and some nice finishing ability to the table.

Ferland has one year left on a team-friendly $1.75M cap hit.

If you want a fancy perspective:

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This is a really fascinating move for both teams. No doubt about it, the Flames’ take has to be heavily influenced by the hiring of former Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters. The contract situations for Lindholm, Hanifin, Fox, and eventually Ferland will play a role in how hindsight gazes upon this blockbuster.

Let’s get a feel for the immediate viewpoint, though. Who do you think got the better end of the trade?

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.