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Building off a breakthrough: Matt Dumba

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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 Minnesota Wild.

Coming into last season, Matt Dumba already established himself as a pretty nice NHL defenseman.

Considering how inexact a science drafting can be, the Wild had to set out a sigh of relief that the seventh pick of the 2012 NHL Draft was paying at least some dividends. Even so, the 2017-18 season really put Dumba’s skills on display.

For the third season in a row, Dumba hit the 10+ goal mark, generating a career-high 14. He also achieved a new peak in points, seeing a big jump from 34 points in 2016-17 to 50 in 2017-18. Dumba’s 50 points ranked 19th among defensemen – more than Dustin Byfuglien and Dougie Hamilton – while his 14 goals tied him for 10th at the position.

Really, Dumba presented upgrades across the board.

He already saw increases in ice time (16:50 TOI in 2015-16 to 20:20 in 2016-17), yet this past season really showed just how prominent Dumba’s become for Minnesota, as he logged 23:49 minutes per game. With Ryan Suter sidelined during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Dumba shouldered an even larger burden, averaging just under 27 minutes per game as the Wild fell to the Jets in five contests.

After signing his new five-year, $30M contract, Dumba spoke of even greater growth going forward.

“I look back at my personal growth over the season and I want that to just be the start,” Dumba said in July, via NHL.com. “I think I started the year a little slow, to be honest, and if I can play at the pace I was down the stretch the entire season, I think, I hope, I’m just scratching the surface.”

[Looking back at 2017-18]

In that same NHL.com article, you can see new Wild GM Paul Fenton discuss the elite company Dumba is joining from an offensive standpoint.

There’s a lot to love about Dumba’s game already, and he’s probably worth fighting through whatever flaws he has in his game. Still, if he wants to break through from very good to truly elite, becoming more effective in his own end could be key.

You can see big areas of improvement from 2016-17 to 2017-18 in deployment and production via Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool, yet some of the finer defensive points still need some work.

Now, it’s unfair to argue that Dumba didn’t make any strides in his all-around game. While his possession stats seem underwhelming, he went from receiving cushy offensive-zone starts to carrying a fairly heavy defensive workload, so keeping his possession stats at more or less the same level is reasonably promising.

In a lot of ways, the Wild’s outlook feels a little glum going into 2018-19.

The aging curve (or just injuries?) seems to have hit Zach Parise pretty hard, and considering the way Ryan Suter’s season ended, his huge minutes might be taking their toll. Spending big money but failing to get to that next level in the postseason cost Chuck Fletcher his job, and the Central Division only seemed to get grizzlier this summer.

Seeing significant improvements from Dumba and Jason Zucker soothes some of those wounds in Minnesota. If we’ve seen their peaks, they already represent very useful players. The Wild might need even more from them if they really want to leap over the many hurdles in the West, though.

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.

Elvis thrives: Merzlikins is on fire for Blue Jackets

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Elvis Merzlikins advanced a bold goal lately: to be more than just a funny name. He is leaving opponents all shook  up absolutely red-hot for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

Elvis absolutely hound-dogged shut out the New Jersey Devils in Columbus’ 5-0 on Saturday, and that 41-save performance was far from his first standout evening. Merzlikins generated three shutouts in his last four games, allowing just two goals overall. The Blue Jackets won all four of those games.

(OK, this post includes enough cheesy Elvis jokes … arguably.)

During seven appearances between October and November, the 25-year-old goalie languished with sub-.900 save percentages. Since then, he’s started to take off.

Some “too perfect” moments for Elvis Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets

Maybe Merzlikins made a New Year’s Eve resolution to dominate? Perhaps it was because Elvis asked reporters to leave him alone? Merzlikins suffered only two losses since Dec. 31, winning eight of 10 games.

The lights-out play already makes the story endearing, but there are notes of the surreal. Consider a few facts about his hot streak:

“That’s what you like about him. He’s strong mentally,” Tortorella said after the Jan. 11 Vegas shutout, via Rob Mixer of First Ohio Battery. “He’s a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here…but he’s handled himself really well. I’m happy for him.”

  • Merzlikins ended up making it back-to-back shutouts, as he also blanked the Bruins with a 34-save shutout. His three shutouts have upped the ante each time: first 27 saves, then 34, then 41 against the Devils on Saturday.

Tortorella deserves ample credit for creating a cocoon for his goalies, of course.

Regardless, Merzlikins is playing a big role in helping the Blue Jackets stay in the East wild-card races. Here’s hoping that our jokes rise up the charts or we might just need to leave the building.

(Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

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.

Hat trick helps Ovechkin pass Lemieux, tie Yzerman for ninth on NHL goals list

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An historic week for Alex Ovechkin was capped off with a hat trick Saturday afternoon during a 6-4 win over the Islanders. His three goals pushes him past Mario Lemieux and into ninth place with 692, tying him with Steve Yzerman.

Ovechkin opened the scoring and then passed Mario Lemieux for 10th all-time in the third period as the Capitals mounted their comeback. He ended his day with an empty-netter to seal the win and tie Yzerman. The Islanders led 4-1 entering the third period.

Powered by two consecutive hat tricks, Ovechkin has eight goals in his last three games and 10 in his previous six.

That’s now three consecutive multi-goal games for Ovechkin, the first time he’s done that in his career. Earlier this week he not only passed Teemu Selanne for 11th on the all-time goals list but also hit the 30-goal mark for the 15th time in his career. He, along with Jaromir Jagr and Mike Gartner, are the only players to ever record 15 consecutive 30-goal seasons.

With three goals Saturday — the third time he’s recorded hat tricks in consecutive games — Ovechkin now has 34 on the season as he eyes a ninth 50-goal season. His hat trick was the 26th of his NHL career, tying him with Maurice Richard for eighth all-time.

Next in Ovechkin’s sights? Mark Messier, who finished with 694 goals in his career.

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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.

Stars’ Stephen Johns activated after missing almost 22 months

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Dallas Stars activated Stephen Johns before their game Saturday night in Minnesota, clearing the way for the defenseman’s first game in almost 22 months.

Forward Radek Faksa was placed on injured reserve to make room for Johns on the active roster.

Johns has been out since late in the 2017-18 season because of post-traumatic headaches. The Stars have said the condition isn’t related to concussions.

The 27-year-old Johns hasn’t played since March 29, 2018, at the Wild. It was the last of a career-high 75 games in his third NHL season. Johns missed the last five games that year before sitting out all of last season as headaches persisted.

He played two games on a conditioning assignment with the Texas Stars of the AHL before rejoining Dallas on Thursday.

The return of Johns could coincide with the Stars’ first game without defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old standout left Thursday’s loss to Buffalo with an upper-body injury.

Johns made his debut for Dallas late in the 2014-15 season and played in all 13 of the team’s playoff games as a rookie. He has 13 goals, 15 assists and 306 blocked shots in 150 career regular-season games.

Panthers down another goalie, injured Driedger to miss weeks

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Florida goalie Chris Driedger will miss several weeks with what’s believed to be a groin injury, the latest health issue at that position for the Panthers.

The Panthers announced the diagnosis Saturday, calling it a lower-body injury.

Driedger was hurt midway through the first period of the Panthers’ 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. He is 5-2-0 in nine appearances for Florida this season, with a 2.48 GAA.

The Panthers have also been without goalie Sergei Bobrovsky for much of January while he recovers from an upper-body injury.

Florida begins a stretch of six consecutive road games Saturday in Detroit. That six-game run also includes the All-Star break and the Panthers’ bye week.