Golden Knights hoping to learn from mistakes and mount Cup comeback

LAS VEGAS — Nate Schmidt put the challenge facing the Vegas Golden Knights pretty succinctly.

“There’s really no Plan B or backdoor to go to here. There’s no side entrance to get into,” he said after Thursday’s practice. “You’ve got to face this thing head on. There’s no way to do it besides fight your way out of the corner.”

The Golden Knights face the prospect of their dream first season coming to an end Thursday night in Game 5. The Washington Capitals have won three straight after dropping Game 1 and the play of both teams has been heading in opposite directions. The challenge for Vegas is to try not to look at it as having to win three in a row. Just worry about one game.

“There’s nothing to focus on the big picture. Big picture’s not there if we don’t win Game 5,” said Golden Knights forward James Neal. “If you’re looking ahead then that’s not good. I think you’ve got focus on our first period, our first shift, take it a period at a time. I know that’s said, but that’s what you’ve got to do. You can’t overlook anything. We’re prepared.”

“I’m not thinking the series, I’m just thinking [Game 5],” said forward Jonathan Marchessault. “If you start thinking we’ve got to win the next three games, sometimes it gets demoralizing. We’re going to do what we did all year. We’re just going to focus on the next game and see where it takes us.”

Vegas hasn’t been able to figure out Braden Holtby since Game 1, scoring only three times at even strength in the last three games. They also haven’t been able to find successful passing or shooting lanes, thanks to the sticks and bodies of the Capitals getting in the way. It’s just another obstacle in the way for a Golden Knights team that has faced challenges all season long and overcome them. 

This challenge, however, is of a different sort. Vegas had trailed in series only once this postseason until after Game 3, and if they’re to do what was unthinkable a year ago and win the Stanley Cup, then they need to have already lost their final game of the season. There’s no more margin for error.

“A lot of people were saying we wouldn’t win that many games this year, we wouldn’t make it to the playoffs, and we find ourselves here,” said Neal. “For sure, we have the ability to prove people wrong and we’ve done that all year. We’ve got a solid group in here. We believe in each other. The first few games I don’t think we got to our game. We didn’t play how we wanted to play. For them, they did a good job of limiting our opportunities. I think we just need to play like we did last game.”

The Golden Knights, despite the 6-2 final score, did play better in Game 4 than they did in Games 2 and 3, but it still wasn’t good enough to best the Capitals. Six of their 11 goals in this series have come from their fourth line or their defense. They need their best players to be their best players in order to have a chance at a comeback, and they need Marc-Andre Fleury to be better as well. There’s still plenty to improve upon.

“That’s something when you look back at the first four games, you realize that’s not what you want. That’s not the gameplan or the blueprint of what makes us successful,” said Schmidt. “But at the same time it shows you the blueprint of what makes us not successful. You look at what didn’t work in the game, sometimes you have to go back and rewind the tape. You can’t look at everything as being sunshine and daisies. We look at what can be adjusted with our game and then you learn from that. 

“If you can’t learn from your mistakes then you deserve what you get.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide
• Stanley Cup Final schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Spezza wants to be more than a ‘good locker room guy’ for Stars

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Jason Spezza is unlikely to play like a $7.5 million guy for the Dallas Stars this season, but it’s tough to imagine things getting worse than they did last season.

Spezza mixed with Ken Hitchcock about as well as wolves get along with sheep in 2017-18, seeing his ice time plummet from 16:10 minutes per game in 2016-17 to a pitiful 13 minutes per night. To put things mildly, Spezza’s numbers suffered, with just 26 points in 78 games. Excluding the 2012-13 lockout (when he generated five points in as many contests), you’d need to go as far back as Spezza’s rookie season to see such a poor point total, and Spezza managed his 21 points in just 33 games all the way back in 2002-03.

Waning confidence could be seen in a number of areas, including a 5.8 shooting percentage, easily a career-low and just the second time Spezza’s endured a sub-10 shooting percentage over 15 seasons.

Brutal stuff, right?

The good news is that his shooting percentage is almost certain to level out, and the even better news – for Spezza, if not the Stars as a whole – is that Jim Montgomery replaced Hitchcock as head coach. That said, at 35, you wonder how much Spezza really has left in the tank.

If nothing else, Spezza told Mike Heika of the Stars website that he has a “fire in his belly” after that miserable 2017-18 campaign. A mixture of pride and the motivation of a contract year should make it certain that, if Spezza has anything left, he’ll show it this season.

“I’m here to play,” Spezza said. “I’ve produced my whole life and I want to do that again. I don’t want to just hang around for intangibles and being a good locker room guy. I’m here to produce — that’s what I expect of myself.”

Amid struggles that could prompt an existential crisis in a less confident athlete, Spezza continued to succeed in the faceoff circle last season, a sneaky-impressive area of his game. The former Senators center won 55.8-percent of his draws in 2017-18, while his career mark is a strong 53.5.

Such successes weren’t lost on Montgomery, who told Heika that he expects Spezza to take more faceoffs in the defensive zone this season. (Spezza began 43.4-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone last season.)

That’s an interesting idea beyond leveraging Spezza’s ability to win draws.

Most obviously, it could open the door for Radek Faksa to enjoy more favorable opportunities. The stealth Selke candidate began just 33.4-percent of his shifts in the attacking zone last season, and one cannot help but wonder if Faksa could enjoy a Sean Couturier-like leap if his workload was relaxed to a substantial degree. The Stars’ top centers (Faksa, Spezza, and Tyler Seguin) were all pretty effective at winning faceoffs last season, which would hopefully inspire Dallas to focus more on landing advantageous matchups, rather than obsessing over who might win or lose a draw.

Of course, Spezza wasn’t talking about faceoff wins when he was discussing production; he wants to put up points and land another NHL gig after this contract year.

The veteran center truly stands as a crucial make-or-break player for the Stars, especially if Dallas continues to load up with a top-heavy first line of Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alex Radulov.

Through one preseason game, Spezza primarily lined up with Valeri Nichushkin (another Stars forward who could go either way, really) and Mattias Janmark. Via Natural Stat Trick, Janmark stood out as Spezza’s most common linemate last season, so we’ll see if that combination sticks even with coaching changes. You could do worse than Spezza with Janmark and Nichushkin, a trio that would have a lot to prove, even if Spezza’s in a very different phase of his career.

It’s important to remember that Spezza’s not that far removed from being the productive scorer he hopes to be. He generated 50 points in 2016-17, and that total came in 68 games. Before that, Spezza rattled off three consecutive seasons with at least 62 points.

Considering his age and the possibility that Faksa and others might push Spezza for power play reps and other opportunities, it might be too much to ask for Spezza to hit 60+ points in 2018-19. Despite that $7.5M clip, the Stars would probably be quite happy if the veteran landed in the 50 range, especially if he can juggle that with increased defensive duties.

That would make him “good in the room” and on the ice.

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.

Will a goalie go in first round during 2019 NHL Draft?

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As much as you need an elite center and a star defenseman, goalie remains the make-or-break single position in hockey. Unfortunately, it’s easier to herd cats than predict goaltending performances.

With that in mind, it’s not that shocking that the Marc-Andre Fleury/Rick DiPietro/Roberto Luongo era of goalies going high in drafts is no more. Instead, it’s increasingly common for there to be zero goalies selected in the first round of a draft. None went in 2018, for example, as the Rangers were the first team to select a netminder when they tabbed Olof Lindbom in the second round (39th overall).

American goalie prospect Spencer Knight recently admitted to NHL.com’s Jessi Pierce that he’s pictured becoming one of the rare recent goalies to go in the first round.

“You do think about it, and if I told you I didn’t I’d probably be lying,” Knight said “You do think about all the different ways it could go, but I think the biggest thing is to worry about the small things, the everyday things. It’s very cliché but it’s true. You do have to focus on one day at a time and enjoy the process because all these things only come around once. You only play in this (All-American Prospects Game) once, you only get drafted once.”

Here’s a quick glance at goalies who went in the first round since PHT began draft coverage in 2010.*

2017 – Jake Oettinger (26th pick)
2015 – Ilya Samsonov (22)
2012 – Andrei Vasilevskiy (19)
2010 – Jack Campbell (10), Mark Visentin (27)

* – If I happened to miss one, please note in the comments, email, or social media.

It’s too early to tell if the Dallas Stars will be glad they selected Oettinger (although, oof, they could have landed Eeli Tolvanen), and the same can be said regarding the Washington Capitals and Ilya Samsonov. The Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning do a solid job of shining a light on the highs and lows of drafting goalies with such prominent picks.

While it was refreshing to see Campbell earn a few nice starts with the Kings, the goalie hasn’t justified his draft status. That said, the Stars themselves haven’t had much luck finding answers in net, whether they’ve tried in other rounds, free agency, or via trades. Instead, they’ve sunk a ton of money into bad options, and the hope is that Ben Bishop can reverse that trend (and maybe hold down the fort while Oettinger develops?).

On the other hand, the Lightning knocked it out of the park with Vasilevskiy, who’s on the short list of hyper-promising young NHL goalies. It almost makes too much sense that Tampa Bay’s success in drafting Vasilevskiy allowed them to part ways with (wait for it) Ben Bishop.

Ultimately, there are only 31 starting jobs, and only 62 NHL goalie gigs including backups, aside from those rare stretches where three netminders make a roster.

/nods to J-F Berube.

There have been some fascinating, semi-recent studies regarding drafting goalies early, and the high risk-reward factor.

Back in 2016, TSN’s Travis Yost laid out one of the many arguments against drafting a goalie in the first round. Yost, like many others – including, clearly, NHL teams – notes that there’s simply an incredibly heavy opportunity cost with such an investment. That’s particularly true since many of the NHL’s standout goalies come later in the draft. Henrik Lundqvist and reigning Vezina winner Pekka Rinne went in the seventh and eighth round of their respective drafts, as just two prominent examples.

On the other hand, the payoff from finding a high-end goalie can be enormous. Hockey Graph’s Matt Cane summarized such thoughts following Yost’s post:

Drafting is an inexact science; there isn’t a team in professional sports that hasn’t whiffed badly on their selections. As a New York Giants fan who’s marinating in the poor choice of Saquon Barkley at second overall (mesmerizing talent, terrible value), going against the grain can hurt that much more.

You ultimately have to trust your scouts and your gut while making the decision, whether it be with Knight in 2019 or any other prospect.

It makes you wonder: which teams might want to take such a plunge next year? One could picture a team with aging goalies looking for answers (maybe the Senators if they do manage to trade for a first-rounder?) or teams that seem to be in perpetual pursuit of puckstoppers (the Hurricanes come to mind, in particular).

The smarter, studied route may be to accrue information by seeing goalies succeed overseas, in junior/college hockey, in the AHL, or even on another NHL teams.

Still, if you can identify a Vasilevskiy, you can really reap the benefits. That’s easier said than done, much like goaltending in general.

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.

What should Sharks do with Joe Pavelski?

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Not that long ago, Joe Pavelski was the most pressing extension question for the San Jose Sharks. The acquisition of Erik Karlsson knocks Pavelski down a peg, yet CBA quirks might delay extension talks for the star defenseman, and Pavelski ranks as a crucial contract conundrum either way.

After all, Pavelski is San Jose’s captain. The Wisconsin-born forward has developed outstanding chemistry with the Sharks’ other big Joe (Thornton), and it shows in his goal totals; since 2011-12, Pavelski’s 214 goals rank fifth overall (edging Evgeni Malkin, Jamie Benn, and Patrick Kane).

On the other hand, it’s far from a no-brainer for the Sharks to lock Pavelski down, particularly if the forward – understandably – would demand some term.

It might sneak up on you to realize that Pavelski is already 34 years old. He’s about to enter a contract year for 2018-19, so he’d be 35 whenever his next deal kicks in during the 2019-20 season.

Given further context, it’s an even more challenging question. As much as Joe Thornton‘s Hall of Famer-caliber passing has made life easier for Pavelski, it’s worth noting that he’s not just scoring goals from “Ovechkin’s office.” Instead, Pavelski’s developed a world-class knack for tipping and deflecting pucks into the net, which often requires him to go to the “dirty areas” of the ice, which opens the door for dirty hits. So, it stands to mention that Pavelski could be an “old 35” once that contract comes around, and players don’t tend to become more durable with age.

The Sharks’ already-aging roster piles on even more context regarding risks surrounding a Pavelski contract extension.

Brent Burns is 33, and his $8 million cap hit could become worrisome as time goes along, as it doesn’t expire until after 2024-25. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is just about to begin a deal that carries a $7M AAV, and he’s locked up for one more season (through 2025-26).

Burns and “Pickles” are more obvious current-day red flags, yet other contracts get a little eyebrow-raising when you consider the learning curve. Logan Couture‘s 29, yet his eight-year ($8M cap hit) extension won’t kick in until 2019-20. He’ll be 30 once it does, and Couture’s commitment runs through 2026-27. Few goalies in Martin Jones‘ range (reliable, not quite elite) enjoy the sort of security he does, as the 28-year-old has six seasons remaining at $5.75M per year.

Add a possible extension for Erik Karlsson (already 28, will be 29 on May 31) to that mix, and especially worrisome types might go into a panic.

Now, don’t get this twisted; the Sharks are justified, in many ways, to go all-in. Even if they eventually foot the bill with an aging roster, not unlike their pals in Los Angeles.

All of those details illuminate how difficult the Pavelski decision could end up being.

With all of that in mind, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Pavelski’s agent Dan Plante told The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz (sub required) that there haven’t been any extension talks yet.

“Since there hasn’t been a whole lot of talks about a contract extension at all, I would say that they are lukewarm or tepid, at best,” Plante said. “It’s really kind of non-existent, so maybe non-existent is a better word.”

Plante indicates that Pavelski would prefer to stay in San Jose, amusingly telling Kurz that “he’s a Wisconsin kid, but he’s bled San Jose Sharks since the day that they drafted him.”

(If you too bleed San Jose Sharks, maybe call a doctor.)

Essentially, Sharks GM Doug Wilson can ponder the following avenues:

  • Trade him rather than losing him for nothing. This one is pretty self-explanatory. It’s somewhat tough to fathom that the win-now Sharks would trade their high-scoring captain during an all-in year.
  • Pavelski plays through the season, then the chips fall where they may. Note that Pavelski’s carrying an affordable $6M cap hit during the final year of his current contract.
  • Sign him to a substantial extension. Hey, the Sharks are already going for it, so why not roll the dice another time?

Really, the dream scenario would be that Pavelski accepts the same approach that fellow Joe-in-teal Thornton does with contracts, as “Jumbo Joe” has been content to sign one-year contracts lately. Of course, Thornton is 39, and his two short-term deals came amid questions about his health (one knee per contract, it seems). It would be a tough sell for Pavelski, whose deal carried that $6M cap hit from 2014-15 through 2018-19, not to mention a $4M cap hit during the stretch of 2010-11 to 2013-14.

Pavelski might feel like he’s owed a heartier commitment after ranking as a bargain for basically his an entire career, and justifiably so. Keeping him around might not be the best option for the Sharks, however, which explains the impasse.

What would you do regarding Pavelski if you were Wilson?

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.

Carolina looks for big things from rookies Necas, Svechnikov

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes were working on their power play during practice when first-year coach Rod Brind’Amour pulled first-round draft pick Andrei Svechnikov aside for some quick one-on-one instruction.

”Andrei,” the coach said, ”be a shooter.”

The Hurricanes likely will need plenty of shots – and goals – from Svechnikov and fellow first-round draft pick Martin Necas if they’re to finally snap the NHL’s longest active playoff drought.

But the way Brind’Amour sees it, nobody’s asking either of those teenagers to will the team to the Stanley Cup – like he did in 2006 as the team captain. In fact, to even think of the pressure in this situation as being on either of those rookies is misguided.

”I kind of view it the opposite – the pressure’s on us,” Brind’Amour said. ”We’re, ‘Man, we really hope he can play.’ It’s not on him.”

The Hurricanes seem confident that the 19-year-old Necas and the 18-year-old Svechnikov can handle everything being thrown their way during a critically important training camp for a franchise that has undergone a massive overhaul during the past nine months.

”The first couple of days (of camp), everything was confusing because it was new, the guys were new, bigger guys and the game is faster,” Svechnikov said. ”But every day I feel better.”

They’ve changed owners, general managers and coaches while unloading some key players, including their most recent face of the franchise, popular forward Jeff Skinner. Of the top eight point-scorers from last year’s team – one that missed the playoffs for a ninth consecutive season – three were traded away during the offseason.

With Skinner (49 points) now in Buffalo and Elias Lindholm (44) and defenseman Noah Hanifin (32) shipped to Calgary , the scoring has to come from somewhere else – and the two teenagers figure to pick up at least some of that load along with 21-year-old Sebastian Aho, who scored a team-best 29 goals last season and has been moved to center from a wing.

It’s still the preseason, but both players got off to a good start, with each scoring a goal in their preseason debuts this week and Svechnikov adding an assist.

”I don’t really think about” any pressure, Necas said. ”It’s important to not think about it, just play every game and try to play your best.”

Carolina spent the No. 12 overall pick in 2017 on Necas, a native Czech who played one game for the team last October before he was returned to his team back home to further polish his game as a playmaking center. Brind’Amour praised him after that successful debut, saying that ”when you give him a little time and space, he can make plays.

”It’s something that we’ve just got to keep teaching him,” he added.

The Hurricanes were among the winners at the NHL Draft’s lottery, falling into the No. 2 overall pick and using it on Svechnikov , a Russian winger and pure scorer who had 40 goals in 44 games for his junior team last season.

Their connection extends off the ice: Svechnikov says he and Necas are rooming together during training camp at a hotel, where they usually keep things low-key, going out to eat together or watching movies separately. Svechnikov says Necas plays more Fortnite than he does in those rare off hours, adding with a laugh that ”I don’t have time for that.”

On the ice, Svechnikov sure seems like a quick study so far – and that’s encouraging for his coach.

”I think for Andrei to be a successful player, the player we want, he’s got to make plays,” Brind’Amour said. ”That’s pretty obvious, stating the obvious, but at some point we know he’s going to be able to do that. It’s just, when? Can he do that as an 18-year-old? After (preseason) Game 1, you’d say there’s definitely promising things there, and he will be able to.”

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule