Getty

Six NHL teams that improved the most this summer (so far)

29 Comments

The start of the NHL season is still a few months away and there is obviously time for a lot to change between now and then when it comes to roster movement.

Erik Karlsson is still likely to get traded.

Artemi Panarin and Max Pacioretty could get traded.

There are still probably a handful of bargain bin free agents floating around that are capable of making some sort of an impact. There are still ways for the 31 general managers to improve their rosters before the puck drops on the 2018-19 regular season.

So while it is probably still a little early to officially determine the winners and losers of the offseason, we can at least take a look at which teams have done the most to improve themselves so far.

1. Toronto Maple Leafs — Uh, this one is pretty obvious, right? The Maple Leafs, already loaded with young impact talent at forward, added one of the best players in the league in John Tavares on the first day of free agency and that alone makes them better.

The Maple Leafs still have some work to do when it comes to solidifying their blue line, but you can’t fault them for adding Tavares. When you have a chance to add a player of that caliber (and it is rare that you do) you have to take advantage of that. Now they have a 1-2-3 center group of Auston Matthews, Tavares, and Nazem Kadri that is every bit as good as any other center trio in the league.

[Related: John Tavares signs with Maple Leafs]

2. Carolina Hurricanes — A lot here depends on whether or not they trade Jeff Skinner and/or Justin Faulk and what they might end up getting for them in return. Overall, though, this has been a strong offseason for the Hurricanes. Still not sold on their goaltending situation and until that gets fixed that is probably always going to be the thing that holds them back, but can Petr Mrazek really be any worse than Cam Ward was? And, hey, Scott Darling really has nowhere to go but up after a dismal debut with the team. So there is that.

The real encouraging news comes from the fact they were fortunate enough to address probably their second biggest need (after goaltending) when they selected goal-scoring sniper Andrei Svechnikov with the No. 2 overall pick.

Then they went and traded for Dougie Hamilton (full trade here), a borderline elite defenseman, to strengthen their blue line.

Hamilton led all defenseman in goals last season, is a dominant possession player, is still only 25 years old, and is signed for three more seasons at $5.75 million per season, — a steal of a price given his production. Hamilton’s addition perhaps could give them some added flexibility to maybe trade Faulk for help elsewhere, or perhaps even better, simply keep him and continue to build what could be an outstanding defense around those two, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce.

Update: The Hurricanes continued to strengthen their defense on Tuesday by signing Calvin de Haan, formerly of the New York Islanders, to a four-year, $18 million contract in free agency.

3. Philadelphia Flyers — The Flyers seem like an intriguing possibility for Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, given need, cap space, and perhaps even assets that could be traded. Will it actually happen? Well, probably not, but it sure is fun to think about. As far as actual moves the team has made, bringing back James van Riemsdyk was a strong addition in free agency as it gives the Flyers some much-needed secondary scoring punch.

Once you got below Tavares on the list of available free agents van Riemsdyk was probably the best pure offensive name available on the market and still at an age where a long-term contract (in this case five years) wasn’t a massive gamble.

He has scored at least 27 goals in four of the past five seasons, a stretch where he has been one of the best goal-scorers (both at even-strength and in all situations) in the entire league.

[Related: Five logical landing spots for Erik Karlsson]

4. St. Louis Blues — The immediate reaction to the Blues’ acquisition of Ryan O'Reilly from the Buffalo Sabres seemed to be one of shock because of the number of pieces going the other way. But that is just it. It was a quantity over quality package, and when you break down the assets that the Blues gave up how many of them were actually something that they might truly miss?

Prospect Tage Thompson and the first-round pick are obviously the key pieces. But what else are the Blues going to miss?

Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka turned into contracts that the Blues probably no longer wanted, and a second-round pick (probably one in the second half of that round) is nothing more than a lottery ticket with low odds of turning into anything impactful. At the end of the day the Blues still got what was by far the best player in the trade.

They also added Tyler Bozak and David Perron in free agency, two players that will probably end up outproducing what Berglund and Sobotka provided (or will provde). The Blues were 24th in the NHL in goals this past season and needed to do something to address that. They absolutely did address it.

[Related: Blues acquire Ryan O’Reilly from Sabres]

5. Arizona Coyotes — There is reason for optimism in Arizona. They kept their franchise player in Oliver Ekman-Larsson on a long-term contract, they have some outstanding young talent starting to emerge from their farm system, and after a miserable first half of the 2017-18 season they finished on a very strong note by going 17-10-2 over their final 29 games (that would be a 101-point pace over 82 games). How much that carries over to this upcoming season obviously remains to be seen, but for the second offseason in a row they made some big additions.

They landed a potential impact player in Alex Galchenyuk in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens for Max Domi, and then dipped into the free agent market by bringing in speedster Michael Grabner. Grabner has his flaws, but his speed can cause havoc during 5-on-5 play and the penalty kill while they have more than enough salary cap space to handle his three-year, $10 million contract. Those additions, combined with what will hopefully be a full year from Antti Raanta and perhaps the development of Dylan Strome could make Arizona a surprise team in the Western Conference. Especially in a Pacific Division that is completely wide open.

6. Los Angeles Kings — The Kings didn’t really do much to make themselves younger or faster, and there are some questions as to how much he has left in the tank given his age and the fact he spent the past five years playing in Russia, but Ilya Kovalchuk gives the Kings the type of offensive weapon they desperately needed this past season. I still don’t love the Kings’ long-term outlook, but Kovalchuk could be a pretty big addition and makes them better in the short-term even if he is not the 40-goal, point-per-game player he was during his prime years in the NHL.

[ProHockeyTalk’s NHL 2018 free agency tracker]

More NHL Free agency:
Paul Stastny smart addition for Golden Knights
Kings add Kovalchuk on three-year contract
Penguins make it official with Jack Johnson, bring back Matt Cullen

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: McDavid filets Flyers; Kane raises Sharks

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Three Stars

1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

Look, this is Connor McDavid. He’s at the point where it’s tough to surprise us.

… Yet, I have to admit, he’s begun 2019-20 on an even hotter streak than I imagined, and for all that Edmonton might improve under Dave Tippett, it’s difficult not to chalk most of it up to McDavid, alongside Leon Draisaitl.

McDavid was outrageous on Wednesday, generating a very pretty goal and four assists for five points. Those four assists represent a career-high for McDavid.

Despite that great night, I was leaning toward giving the top star to Evander Kane until I saw this stat, which admittedly steps on the factoids section a bit:

Unless you get really obscure with a stat, it’s usually a great sign when you do something that hasn’t been done since Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky were still lacing up their skates …

2. Evander Kane, San Jose Sharks

After sitting out the first three games of the 2019-20 season thanks to a suspension, Kane generated one goal and one assist in three contests. Wednesday represented an eruption for his fourth game, then, as Kane generated a hat trick during the first period of the Sharks’ 5-2 win against the Hurricanes.

Kane also assisted on a Tomas Hertl goal, giving him a hat trick plus a helper for a four-point night.

If you think Kane deserves the nod over McDavid, I understand.

That said, three stars aren’t just a great opportunity to spotlight one wonderful performance, but also a time where it’s that much more pressing to point out a hot streak and great season. Which is why we pivot to someone whose great start might slip under the radar.

3. John Carlson, Washington Capitals

When the Caps signed Carlson to an eight-year, $64 million contract, it felt like a necessary evil. We’ve seen plenty of players age poorly, and Carlson blew away his previous career totals when he generated 15 goals and 68 points in 2017-18, helping Washington win that coveted Stanley Cup.

And then Carlson put together an even better 2018-19, scoring a resounding 70 points in 80 games.

At some point he has to slow down, right?

Maybe, but so far, it doesn’t feel like that time will be at age 29. Carlson produced three points (one goal, two assists) in Washington’s win against Toronto on Thursday, giving him an eyebrow-raising 14 points in eight games.

Those 14 points leave Carlson in third place behind McDavid and Leon Draisaitl — not just among defensemen. Suddenly, that $8M AAV starts to look like a bargain for the Capitals.

The runner-up to the runner-up for Highlight of the Night

Wednesdays aren’t usually the busiest NHL days, yet this one was ripe with great moments.

The moments have been great enough that Sidney Crosby‘s bedazzling backhander already got its own post, while Sonny Milano provided ample competition with his downright silly goal for the Blue Jackets.

The bronze medal provides gold of its own, though, as Connor McDavid reminded the world why it’s pretty easy to look like a dominant team when you can basically just lob the puck up blindly and assume that it might end up becoming a goal for 97:

Factoids

Scores

PIT 3 – COL 2 (OT)
WSH 4 – TOR 3
CBJ 3 – DAL 2
EDM 6 – PHI 3
ANA 5 – BUF 2
SJS 5 – CAR 2

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Oilers keep on rolling with win over Flyers

2 Comments

Talent has never been the question in Edmonton, it was always a matter of systems and execution.

Todd McLellan and Ken Hitchcock each saw glimpses in recent years, but Dave Tippett might have unlocked the secret formula for the Oilers to have long-lasting success.

With six wins in the team’s first seven games, including a 6-3 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday Night Hockey, Edmonton is starting to believe that it has what it takes to become a serious contender in the Western Conference.

Jakub Voracek had two goals and an assist for Philadelphia while Carter Hart was pulled after allowing four goals on 14 shots in his first start near his hometown Sherwood Park, Alberta, as the Flyers concluded a three-game road trip through Western Canada where they went 0-2-1. Oskar Lindblom also scored.

Connor McDavid led the way offensively with five points (one goal and four assists), while Leon Draisaitl added two goals of his own as the Oilers bounced back after their first loss of the season against the Chicago Blackhawks earlier this week. Mikko Koskinen stopped 49 shots and picked up his third victory of the season.

The Oilers recorded four consecutive goals, including three in the second that broke the game wide open. McDavid or Draisaitl’s ability to break a game open has rarely been an issue, but slowing down the opposition has been problematic. But through seven games this season, the team has allowed only 17 goals thanks to improved goaltending and more importantly, better team defense.

Last season the Oilers allowed 271 goals, good for seventh worst throughout the NHL. It’s the sole reason Tippett was brought in, to limit the damage in their own end of the ice, and allow their superstars to flourish offensively without ignoring their defensive responsibility.

Tippett has opted to play McDavid and Draisaitl together for most of the season, which has always been a delicate situation. Should a coach load up to form a powerful top line, or spread the wealth throughout the lineup so a high-end player is on the ice for the majority of the game?

The Avalanche have had great success keeping Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen on the ice as a pairing almost exclusively and the Oilers have been trending in that direction.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and James Neal provide options in the middle of the lineup but neither have the top-end talent equivalent to McDavid and Draisaitl.

However, if the Oilers are able to have a prolific first line, combined with strong structure throughout the neutral zone and in front of their goaltender, they will quickly become an elite team that could be a force to be reckoned with.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

McKenzie on Penguins injuries, Avs contracts … spider bites?

Leave a comment

When Alex Galchenyuk was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins, he likely breathed deep as he readied for a new coach, team, city, and system for the second straight season. Maybe there’s some fear about looking like a pale imitation of Phil Kessel, the other major part of that trade.

But did he factor in arachnophobia?

During a Wednesday appearance on NBCSN during the Penguins’ eventual 3-2 overtime win against the Colorado Avalanche, Bob McKenzie reported that Galchenyuk has been dealing with what could be a groin injury (or otherwise a soft tissue issue), which many surmised. What people didn’t realize is that Galchenyuk took a detour on his road to recovery because of a spider bite.

McKenzie reports that Galchenyuk had a significant allergic reaction to the bite, which seems a lot less fun than being able to climb on walls, swing on webs, and sense danger before it’s coming. (Theory: Brad Marchand may have “spider sense.” Although we’d probably need to brand it differently. “Pest-pathy?”)

Anyway, McKenzie reports that Galchenyuk is back on that road to recovery, although his precise window of recovery is unclear.

Via McKenzie, Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust are essentially week-to-week still, as their windows seem to be two or three weeks. McKenzie reports that Evgeni Malkin‘s injury remains fuzzier.

Speaking of fuzziness, it sounds like the Colorado Avalanche are keeping things opaque when it comes to players on expiring contracts. So, we might need to wait-and-see with Andre Burakovsky and Nikita Zadorov.

That’s … understandable, especially with Burakovsky, who’s still making early impressions. Colorado might be wise to pick and choose with this stuff in the future, though. Could the Avalanche have signed Mikko Rantanen for less than a $9.25M AAV if they were more proactive? We can only speculate …

But hey, at least no one got bit by a spider.

*shudders*

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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 remain hot with win vs. Avalanche

1 Comment

Brandon Tanev notched a shorthanded goal in overtime to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 3-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche.

Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel also scored as Pittsburgh recorded its fourth straight victory. Matt Murray added 26 saves.

Matt Calvert and Nathan MacKinnon found the back of the net for the Avalanche but their six-game point streak to open the season came to an end.

Crosby continues to dazzle

The Penguins captain has clearly moved on from a disappointing playoff run last year, which ended in a first-round sweep at the hands of the Islanders. Instead, Crosby is off to a tremendous start, recording points in each of Pittsburgh’s seven games and leading the club on the ice to a 5-2-0 record.

Crosby netted a highlight-reel backhander to tie the game late in the first period and then assisted on a Jake Guentzel tally in the second.

The superstar center craftily tipped the puck around Erik Johnson, played the puck with his glove, and then somehow had the wherewithal to outlast goaltender Philipp Grubauer until an opening appeared for him to slide a backhander into the net.

Early in the second period, Crosby intercepted a pass at the blueline, then set up Guentzel to help the Penguins grab a 2-1 lead.

While several notable players remain sidelined, Crosby will be expected to lead the Penguins on the ice, and continue to improve the players around him. Pittsburgh will need Crosby to play at the top of his game until reinforcements return over the next few weeks.

Avalanche upcoming free agents

After the Mikko Rantanen contract issue this past summer, the Avalanche have several pending RFA’s for next summer.

Colorado is expected to be a legit Stanley Cup Contender with a great mix of dynamic playmakers, infusion of youth and seasoned veterans capable of leading the way during turbulent stretches.

However, Bob McKenzie offered that general manager Joe Sakic wants to see how the first part of the season plays out before engaging in contract talks.

Andre Burakovsky, Tyson Jost and Nikita Zadorov headline the pending RFA class and all presumably have a role to fill moving forward.

Is Lafferty here to stay?

The Penguins have been bitten by the injury bug early and have been forced to rely on their organizational depth to stay afloat during a challenging stretch.

During their Stanley Cup-winning years, the Penguins have always been able to call up a role player to fill a specific need. Is Sam Lafferty the next player to seamlessly fit in?

Lafferty was close to making the team out of training camp according to Bob McKenzie, but fell victim to the numbers game of a roster. However, injuries to five impact forwards — Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust and Jared McCann — created a roster spot for him to slide in.

“We always felt like Sam was close coming into this training camp this year. But I think he has a whole lot more confidence in himself that he belongs here,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “And that’s great for him, and that’s great for us.”

The 24-year-old originally from Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, about two hours outside of Pittsburgh, Lafferty has taken advantage of the opportunity recording five points over the previous three games.

“He’s earned his playing time. He’s just playing terrific hockey,” Sullivan said. “He made a difference every game he’s been in. As a result, he’s getting more ice time. He’s a very good penalty-killer. I think he really understands his role and is taking pride in it. You can see it every shift. He’s gaining more confidence.”

The Penguins have done an excellent job in sliding players into appropriate roles, and Lafferty is just the latest example. Does the kid have what it takes to stick around for a full season and continue to make a difference? We will find out as the season goes on.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.