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Three questions facing the Buffalo Sabres

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future.

Today we look at the Buffalo Sabres.

[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Building Off a Breakthrough]

1. Will all the turnover on the roster amount to a turnaround on the ice?

There’s been a lot of change in Buffalo this summer.

A quick recap:

IN: Jeff Skinner, Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, Tage Thompson, Carter Hutton, Conor Sheary, Matt Hunwick, Scott Wedgewood

OUT: Ryan O'Reilly, Robin Lehner, Chad Johnson, Josh Gorges, Benoit Pouliot

Change can be good, and for the Sabres, any amount of change likely betters than compared to last season. But there’s not much of a guessing game here. Names like Skinner, Berglund and Sheary already mean good things for Buffalo, as does a certain Rasmus Dahlin.

It might be shaky at the start. There’s going to be a feeling out process for all these new guys. But there’s a good shell in Buffalo now that should equate to more wins, providing Hutton can handle the load of a No. 1 goalie in the NHL.

Buffalo has done enough to pencil its name into the playoff conversation.

2. Can Kyle Okposo rekindle his form from the New York Islanders years?

Two concussions in less than a year, and while they’re all scary, his first one was a nightmare.

That’s what Okposo has had to deal with, along with watching his production fall off from where it was on Long Island.

It’s been a tough couple of seasons with the Sabres. Playing on a lesser team, Okposo, concussions and all, hasn’t been able to reach the near point-per-game pace he found in his final three seasons with the Islanders.

It’s likely that Okposo will play on the right side of Casey Mittelstadt next season. Hopefully, a summer of healing from his latest concussion in March will turn into a bounce-back year from Okposo.

3. Speaking of Mittelstadt, can he turn a solid college season and an impressive debut with the Sabres into a productive season as a second-line center? 

Buffalo’s depth at center may be it’s strongest attribute, even after losing Ryan O’Reilly to a trade this offseason.

There’s a lot of guys who can play the position, be it full-time or in a pinch, including Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka, both who were part of the return for O’Reilly from the St. Louis Blues.

Options are good.

Mittelstadt had five points in six games to close out the season with the Sabres after his season at the University of Minnesota ended. He showed he can perform at the college level and found success early in the NHL.

If he can hold down the fort on the second line, it allows the Sabres far more flexibility with how they handle their other lines. Having Berglund center the third line, for instance, spreads the wealth of talent down further and the team wouldn’t have to consider moving Sam Reinhart off the wing where he put up a career-year last season, and place him at center.

Mittelstadt showed a brief glimpse of his worth at the end of last season. It will be interesting to watch what he can do to start the next one.


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

Wednesday Night Hockey: Jonathan Toews is back

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After seeing his production dip in under 60 points in each of the last three seasons, many believed that we’d already seen Jonathan Toews‘ best days. Last season, Toews posted 0.70 points-per-game which was a career-low for him in his NHL career.

Picking up 20 goals and 52 points in 74 games is far from a terrible year for most players, but Toews isn’t most players. He’s the captain of the Blackhawks and his contract comes with a cap hit of $10.5 million dollars. To make matters even worse, Chicago ended up missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2017-18.

It’s no secret that Patrick Kane has been the team’s MVP this season, but Toews hasn’t been too far behind.

The 30-year-old has picked up 28 goals and 60 points through 60 games and he’s picked up at least one point in 19 of his last 22 contests. He’s also scored in three straight games and he’s amassed 18 points in his last 11 contests. He hasn’t been a point-per-game player since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, when he had 48 points in 47 games.

“I guess you’re always looking to be better, no matter what,” Toews said, per the Chicago Tribune. “So if I’m comparing this season to my previous two years, yeah, things are better. But I still have a higher expectation for myself. Things are falling into place for our team and the power play’s looking better, so I feel I can relax and focus on my game and not worry about doing every single little thing right and maybe take some offensive risks and try to create some offense when our team game’s pretty solid.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

“I always want to create more offense, and even though I’m on the board here and there, I can do a better job of just being more dynamic and offensive every time I get on the ice.”

When taking a deeper look at the numbers, it’s easy to see why Toews has been more successful, especially in the goal department. In the previous two seasons, he had shooting percentages of 10.6 and 9.5 percent. This year, he’s up to 17.2 percent, which is his highest percentage since 2007-08 (17.4 percent).

Interestingly enough, a lot of his advanced numbers have taken a dip this season. Here’s what his advanced metrics look like from last year to this year:

CF%: 56.07 to 48.73
FF%: 53.16 to 47.06
HDCF%: 52.05 to 41.75

(All stats via Natural Stat Trick)

With Toews and Kane leading the way, the Blackhawks have found a way to get themselves back in the playoff hunt. Heading into tonight’s game, the ‘Hawks are just one point behind the Minnesota Wild for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The only problem, is that three other teams also have 59 points.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Bruins look to extend winning streak against Golden Knights

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Boston Bruins and Vegas Golden Knights. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Things have been going well for the Bruins lately. Really well. Heading into tonight’s clash against the struggling Vegas Golden Knights, Boston has won each of their last six contests. They also haven’t suffered a loss in regulation all month (their only loss came in a shootout against the New York Rangers).

This recent surge has allowed them create some space between themselves and the teams in Wild Card spots. As of right now, the Bruins have a two-point lead on Toronto, who is sitting in third place in the Atlantic Division. They’re seven points ahead of Montreal, who is in the first Wild Card position.

The Bruins have also found a way to start scoring with a lot more regularity. They’ve scored at least three goals in seven of their last eight games. The most impressive thing about this recent offensive surge, is that they’ve done it with David Pastrnak on the sidelines for the last four games. They’re 4-0-0 without Pastrnak and they’ve scored 19 goals without him. That’s impressive.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Even though his team has been filling the net, general manager Don Sweeney would still like to add a significant piece or two before Monday’s trade deadline.

“My feeling is that we would like to try and add without necessarily giving up what we know is a big part of our future,” said Sweeney. “We committed assets last year to take a swing where we felt we needed to address an area of need and we will try and do a similar thing this year. I can’t guarantee that’ll happen. This time of the year, prices are generally pretty high, but we’re going to try. We’re going to try because I think we still need it.”

The Bruins have been linked to names like Wayne Simmonds, Mark Stone or Artemi Panarin. If they could land one of those players, it would make a world of a difference. They still wouldn’t be as good as the Tampa Bay Lightning, but it would certainly close the gap between themselves and the Bolts.

Will Sweeney be able to pull off a move of that magnitude? We’ll find out by Monday at 3 p.m. ET. For now, the Bruins just have to worry about finishing off their Western swing as well as they started it.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Worst deadline trades; How Blues almost got Kessel

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• NHL.com takes a look at who will be buyers and who will be sellers at the upcoming trade deadline. (NHL.com)

• ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski breaks down the 20 worst deadline trades in NHL history. (ESPN)

• The Vegas Golden Knights and Vienna Capitals have entered into a collaborative partnership. “Our ambition is always to learn from the best. The Vegas Golden Knights are an outstanding benchmark in the hockey world and this partnership enables us a tremendous amount of opportunities to learn from this club. We are very proud to get the chance for this collaboration,” said Vienna Capitals General Manager Franz Kalla. (NHL.com/GoldenKnights)

• As part of Black History Month, P.K. Subban explains what it’s like to be a role model. (Sportsnet)

• A group of priests are trying to bring back the Flying Fathers, who are the hockey equivalent to the Harlem Globetrotters. (New York Times)

T.J. Oshie plays an energetic brand of hockey and he’ll probably never change. (Washington Post)

• Jaromir Jagr is back after a long absence. (CBC.ca)

• Robert Tychkowski can’t believe the Oilers are in the mess than they’re in. (Edmonton Journal)

• Dave Eastham is the trainer that helped Kevan Miller become a regular on the Bruins blue line. (WEEI)

• Red Wings forward Gustav Nyquist isn’t letting the trade chatter bother him. (MLive.com)

• Remember that time the St. Louis Blues almost traded Keith Tkachuk and David Perron for Phil Kessel? (St. Louis Game-Time)

• NBC’s Pierre McGuire could learn a thing or two from John Tavares:

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Miller, Ducks win again; Josi on a tear

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Three stars

1. Ryan Miller, Anaheim Ducks

A night after becoming the winningest American-born goaltender in NHL history, Miller produced a fantastic performance in a 31-save shutout against the Minnesota Wild.

The shutout was Miller’s first of the season and 44th of his career. The Ducks have now won two straight and are three points back of the Wild for the second wildcard spot in the Western Conference.

The Wild, meanwhile, lost their fifth straight, including their second straight game being banished from the scoresheet. The Ducks are faring well without John Gibson.

2. Roman Josi, Nashville Predators 

Josi scored twice in the third period, including the game-winner, and added an assist in the game for a three-point night

The elite defenseman now has four goals and 11 points in his past eight games for the Predators, who needed a win after going 1-3-1 over their past five games.

The Preds are now just a point back of the Winnipeg Jets for first place in the Central Division although Winnipeg has three games in hand.

3. Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers

Huberdeau scored twice and added an assist in a 4-2 win for the Panthers against the struggling Buffalo Sabres.

Huberdeau hadn’t scored in eight games prior to Tuesday’s contest and had just one goal in his previous 14.

Florida is nine points back of the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wildcard in the Eastern Conference.

Highlights of the night

Barkov with another dirty move:

Windmill:

Broke all the ankles:

Factoids

https://twitter.com/PR_NHL/status/1098065651539865601

Scores

Panthers 4, Sabres 2
Penguins 4, Devils 3
Lightning 5, Flyers 2
Rangers 2, Hurricanes 1
Canadiens 3, Blue Jackets 2
Blues 3, Maple Leafs 2 (OT)
Ducks 4, Wild 0
Predators 5, Stars 3
Coyotes 3, Oilers 2 (SO)


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