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It’s Dallas Stars day at PHT

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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 Dallas Stars.

2017-18

42-32-8, 92 pts. (6th in Central Division, 10th in Western Conference)
Missed playoffs.

IN:

Blake Comeau
Valeri Nichushkin
Roman Polak
Anton Khudobin

OUT:

Antoine Roussel
Dan Hamuis
Greg Pateryn
Mike McKenna
Curtis McKenzie

RE-SIGNED:

Mattias Janmark
Remi Elie
Devin Shore
Stephen Johns
Gemel Smith

It’s been two years since the Dallas Stars topped the Central Division with their 50-win, 109-point regular season, good for second-best in the NHL in 2015-16.

Since then, it’s been a little bit of free fallin’ in Texas.

Last season was better than the year previous, so there’s a bonus. Of course, it had to be because the Stars were atrocious in 2016-17. The addition of Ben Bishop in the crease last offseason helped, but the Stars had a single line that was able to score with regularity. Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov (also added last offseason), one of the best lines in hockey, each accounted for nearly a point-per-game. Of Dallas’ 231 goals last season, the lined combined for 103 of them and 229 of the Stars’ 609 combined points.

It’s a great line, but no one outside that trio had more than 20 goals or over 35 points. In fact, it was a defenseman — John Klingberg — who nestled in behind them as the team’s fourth-leading scorer. It was a hell of a season for Klingberg, take nothing away from that. But the gap between scoring is substantial and a big reason why the Stars couldn’t cobble together more wins. If their first line had an off night, the team lost. It was a simple formula for opposing team’s to key in on.

The Stars will have a new bench boss this coming season after Ken Hitchcock retired. Jim Montgomery and his puck-possession mindset take over the reins and one of his first tasks will be trying to find Jason Spezza‘s game. Spezza had an awful year, so much so he was made a healthy scratch in the wake of its terribleness. Father time hasn’t been kind to the 35-year-old over the past two seasons. He has one year left on a four-year deal that’s paying him $7.5 million per season.

The Stars do get a bit of a boost with the return of Valeri Nichushkin, who makes his return after two years spent back home playing in the KHL. Thus far, the Russian is the Stars’ biggest addition of the summer. Nichushkin seems primed to move into a second-line role and could be a part of Spezza’s revitalization.

Two scoring lines are better than one, so if Nichushkin can shock Spezza back to life, then the Stars might work themselves back into the playoff conversation.

It’s not the same type of hype train as, say, the additions of Bishop and Radulov in years’ past. Perhaps the quiet summer will bode well for Dallas.

The good news is Klingberg seems to be skating into his prime. He made a case for the Norris this year and has seen his game on the incline for a couple years now, becoming a vital part of Dallas’ offense with 67 points last season. There’s no reason to think that will change. Klingberg rebounded from a down year in 2016-17 to put up career highs, and when he played on Dallas’ good team three years ago, he put up solid numbers in just his second year in the NHL. That sky is the limit for Klingberg.

A new system put forth by Montgomery might spell good things for the Stars, who played under Hitchcock’s aging coaching style. A turnaround by the club this season might just help the Stars keep hold of Seguin, who is set for unrestricted free agency after this year.

Prospect Pool

Miro Heiskanen, D, 19, HIFK Helsinki (SM-Liiga) – 2017 first-round pick

The third-overall pick a year ago enjoyed a solid campaign in his native Finland, posting 11 goals and 23 points in 30 games while averaging the most ice-time of any player in the league with 25:06 per game. That all added up to a league all-star team nod and an award for Liiga’s best defenseman. Heiskanen looked the part at the Olympic Games in South Korea as well with one goal in five games and played in the world hockey championships and the world juniors to boot. A trifecta of sorts:

Jim Nill said he’s coming to North America this season. Some say he’s NHL ready. That could be a big boost for the Stars if he is.

Roope Hintz, LW, 21, Texas Stars (AHL) – 2015 second-round pick

The Stars like themselves some Finns. Hintz is another prospect from Finland who could make his NHL debut this season. He had 35 points in 70 regular-season games in his first pro season in the American Hockey League. In the playoffs, where the Stars were Calder Cup runners-up, Hintz had a further 12 points in 22 games.

“Roope has taken some huge strides,” Stars coach Derek Laxdal told NHL.com. “One of his assets is his speed. He is a big body (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) who can skate at a high speed, make plays at high speed. His biggest challenge throughout the year has just been playing with that consistency and playing a little heavier.”

Ty Dellandrea, C, 18, Flint Firebirds (OHL) – 2018 first-round pick

Dellandrea is the newest addition to Dallas’ prospect pool after being taken 13th overall in June’s draft. A center, Dellandrea stood out in Flint of the Ontario Hockey League despite his team’s rough season. He led the team with 27 goals and had 59 points in 67 games and models his game after Jonathan Toews, both on and off the ice. What’s not to like?

“Ty is an extremely talented two-way centerman with explosive speed, hockey intelligence and willingness to do whatever it takes to help his team succeed on the ice,” Stars director of amateur scouting Joe McDonnell said. “Over his two seasons with Flint, he has continued to improve every facet of his game and exhibits the character and work ethic that it takes to succeed in the National Hockey League.”


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

WATCH LIVE: Lightning face off against Blue Jackets on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Columbus Blue Jackets. 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.

The Lightning have won five straight games and have done so in dominant fashion. They’ve scored five-plus goals in four of the five wins, and have posted back-to-back shutouts, last allowing a goal in their 6-3 win over the Calgary Flames on Feb. 12. Tampa is 7-0-2 in the month of February (last regulation loss – Jan. 30 – lost 4-2 at PIT).

With 92 points, the Lightning occupy first place in the NHL, and are 15 points ahead of the Flames and San Jose Sharks (77 points) for most in the league. They’ve been in first place in the NHL since Nov. 29 and are looking to capture the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time in franchise history. They are currently on pace to win 61 games this season, which would be one shy of the NHL record (set by the Detroit Red Wings in 1995-96 – 62 wins).

Columbus beat the Chicago Blackhawks 5-2 on the road on Saturday, their fifth win in the last six games (5-1-0 record). This stretch of winning follows a five-game losing streak from Jan. 18 – Feb. 2 (all in regulation). Sergei Bobrovsky has led the way, starting all six games (5-1-0 record) with .924 SV% and 2.17 GAA.

Artemi Panarin, who leads Columbus with 67 points, scored tiwce goals in Saturday’s win against the Blackhawks. He now has four goals in the last four games and has recorded 22 pts (11G-11A) in his last 15 games.

While Panarin leads Columbus in points, it’s Cam Atkinson that leads the team with 32 goals, his second career season with 30-plus goals. He’s got 12 points (eight goals) in his last 13 games, including three goals in the last four games, and is averaging a point per game this season (32G-23A; 55 points in 55 games this season).

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

What: Tampa Bay Lightning at Columbus Blue Jackets
Where: Nationwide Arena
When: Monday, Feb. 18, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Lightning-Blue Jackets stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

LIGHTNING
Ondrej PalatSteven StamkosTyler Johnson
Yanni GourdeBrayden PointNikita Kucherov
Alex KillornAnthony CirelliJ.T. Miller
Adam ErneCedric PaquetteMathieu Joseph

Victor HedmanDan Girardi
Ryan McDonaghErik Cernak
Braydon CoburnMikhail Sergachev

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

BLUE JACKETS
Artemi Panarin – Pierre-Luc Dubois – Cam Atkinson
Nick FolignoBoone JennerJosh Anderson
Eric Robinson – Alexander WennbergOliver Bjorkstrand
Kole Sherwood – Riley NashLukas Sedlak

Ryan MurraySeth Jones
Zach WerenskiDavid Savard
Scott HarringtonMarkus Nutivaara

Starting goalie: Sergei Bobrovsky

John Forslund (play-by-play) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Patrick Sharp and Anson Carter.

Winning with Binnington: Blues goalie making most of chance

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

Jordan Binnington doesn’t let much get to him.

When junior goaltending coach Greg Redquest tried to put him through a post-practice skate, he came away seeing the same chill Binnington.

”He doesn’t sweat,” Redquest said. ”He’s just too cool.”

Binnington is playing cool and has made the St. Louis Blues the hottest team in the NHL. After finally getting his call-up from the minors at age 25, Binnington is 12-1-1 with four shutouts in his first 14 starts and the Blues have won 10 in a row to go from out of the race to firmly in a playoff position.

When Binnington made his first start Jan. 7, St. Louis sat dead last in the Western Conference, nine points back of a playoff spot. The Blues turned to him to make a difference. No pressure, kid.

”With a little bit of pressure comes opportunity, right?” Binnington said. ”You try to do your best to feel confident and prepared for the moment, so you just work hard off the ice and on the ice in practice, and when the moment finally comes, hopefully you’re prepared. That’s kind of how I looked at it.”

It has been a near-perfect look. Binnington has stopped 356 of 380 shots for a 1.58 goals-against average and .937 save percentage. He’s the first goalie since Curtis Sanford in 2005-06 with multiple 30-save shutouts.

That kind of play is just what the Blues needed to crawl out of a hole dug before Craig Berube replaced Mike Yeo as coach.

”He’s played really well,” Berube said. ”He’s stopped the ones he’s supposed to stop, and he’s looked really confident in net, and aggressive.”

A lack of confidence has never been the problem. Redquest, who coached Binnington for four seasons with the Ontario Hockey League’s Owen Sound Attack, said the goalie’s technique has always been on point, with the need for just a few tweaks here and there.

The mental part of the game was a work in progress. Redquest, who still works with Binnington in the summer, said if a bad goal gets in, sometimes he’d just ask about what Binnington did the previous night to get his mind off it and back on track.

Binnington hasn’t allowed many goals, but he has shown an uncanny ability to shake them off, not allowing more than four in a game so far.

”If the puck goes in, it doesn’t bother him,” Redquest said by phone Monday ”(Blues veteran goalie) Jake Allen, he plays a little bit deeper in the goal than Jordan. Jordan comes out and challenges a bit more and everything hits him, and it’s just hitting him. And he’s so patient. He won’t overplay anything.”

So what took so long for Binnington to get this chance? Mostly a numbers game, with the Blues committed long term to Allen and rotating Brian Elliott, Carter Hutton and Chad Johnson into the crease in recent years.

Binnington bided his time in the American Hockey League, competing and building a friendship with Pheonix Copley along the way. The two came to blows in a game last year but are now both in the NHL.

”I think we both understood that having that competition is healthy and it pushed us both to be better goalies and learn from each other,” said Copley, who is the Washington Capitals’ backup. ”We had a really beneficial relationship for both of us.”

Binnington earned AHL All-Star honors last year and had three shutouts in his first 16 games this season under head coach Drew Bannister and assistant Daniel Tkaczuk, whom he knew from juniors. When Johnson didn’t work out and was put on waivers, Binnington got the opportunity he had been waiting for, and fit right in with the Blues.

”That’s where your surroundings come in,” Binnington said. ”There’s good people around you that can keep you going in the right direction and believe in yourself. If the opportunity came, you want to be prepared for it, so that’s kind of what my mindset was. Thankfully, it came.”

The Blues are thankful, too. They’ve played better in front of their goalies since Berube took over, but Binnington making so many expected and unexpected saves has changed the course of St. Louis’ season.

”Obviously he’s playing outstanding,” center Ryan O'Reilly said. ”With Binner coming in with the way he’s been playing, I think it’s a spark. I think he’s coming in excited and playing with great energy. It provides a spark, for sure.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

Tarasenko’s resurgence helping Blues make their move in Western Conference

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There are a lot of factors behind the St. Louis Blues’ rapid climb up the Western Conference standings.

You should definitely start with the play of rookie goalie Jordan Binnington, who has been sensational since his call-up from the American Hockey League and helped stabilize what was a mess of a position earlier in the year.

There is also the recent play of star forward Vladimir Tarasenko who has now recorded at least a point in each of his past 12 games and 18 out of his past 20.

This recent surge has helped improve his overall season numbers to what should be his expected level of production, and now has him on pace for a very typical Vladimir Tarasenko season of around 35 goals and 70 points.

After the first three months of the season, it did not look like he was going to get there as he was off to one of the worst starts of his career with only 11 goals and 11 assists through the first 37 games.

Since then he has been exactly what you would expect Vladimir Tarasenko to be with 29 points in the 20 games that have followed, including his recent-12 game stretch where he has helped drive the Blues’ offense.

One way of looking at this season on an individual level is that it’s been incredibly streaky, and that would absolutely be correct. And it also goes back to a point I’ve made for years about elite players in the NHL — their streakiness when it comes to their point production isn’t a flaw. It’s what makes them great and such game-changers. Everybody always strives for “consistency” in the NHL, and whenever a supremely talented player puts together an unstoppable run they’re always hounded with questions like, “why can’t they do this all the time?” and “imagine if they played like this every night!”

Well, yeah. Imagine that. They would probably be the best player of all-time if they scored two or three points every single night. But that is just not a realistic goal. The players that are consistent and steady in their production — or at least somewhat consistent — are players that are, for lack of a better word, ordinary. Average. There is nothing wrong with being an “average” NHLer, of course, and it’s not a slight in any way to be called that. You’re still among the top people in the world at what you do to make it to that level. But those players are also not really capable of elevating their game to any level beyond that. The handful of players that can do that are the special ones because they make a significantly bigger impact in those six-to-10 game hot streaks than a player that just goes along recording their point or two every four or five games.

Take Tarasenko’s recent run as an example. It is not just that he has a point in 12 consecutive games that is helping the Blues. It is that six of those games (including each of the past five) have been multi-point games, including four games with three points. When an individual player records three points in a game their team wins more than 90 percent of the time. If you have three points, that means your team has at least three goals in the game and that is usually a pretty good starting point to get a win. He has probably single-handedly been the difference in at least three or four games for the Blues during this 10-game winning streak. In at least two of those three-point games the Blues were winners by two goals or less.

It is an impossible standard to expect a player to maintain that sort of pace over 82 games, especially in this era of offense.

It is always going to be a short-term burst of domination that probably gets followed by a cold streak where the points dry up.

You can live with that because those short-term bursts of domination are going to lead to more wins over the long-haul than a player that just tallies a single point on a regular schedule.

There is nothing wrong with being streaky. In the case of players like Tarasenko, it just means they are capable of elevating their game to a level few other players can and are able to carry the offense on their back for games at a time.

 

MORE: PHT’s 2019 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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.

Jagr, back from injuries, plays in Czech second-league game

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HAVIROV, Czech Republic (AP) — Jaromir Jagr is back again.

The Czech winger and 13-time NHL All-Star has recovered from a series of injuries that prevented him from playing for more than a year and appeared in a game Monday for the Kladno Knights, the hometown club he owns in the Czech Republic.

Jagr, 47, played on the top line alongside center Tomas Plekanec, another former NHL player.

He didn’t score in nearly 18 minutes but celebrated as Kladno, boosted by his presence, won 2-0 at Havirov in a Czech second-league game.

”Above all, I’m happy that I was finally able to play,” Jagr said. ”It’s not easy in my age just to train.”

Kladno, in fourth place, is seeking to reach the playoffs and qualify for the top league. It is 13 points behind first-place Jihlava but trails second-place Vsetin by three points with three more regular season games to go.

Jagr returned home after the Calgary Flames released the NHL’s second all-time leading point-scorer on Jan. 28, 2018, but he was injured in his fifth game for Kladno.

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports