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Captain switch: Panthers give ‘C’ to Aleksander Barkov

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Often times in the NHL, the captain of a team is one of the better players on the roster. For the last few years, the Florida Panthers had been the exception to the rule, as Derek MacKenzie wore the ‘C’ on his jersey. But on Monday, the organization announced that they were removing the captaincy from MacKenzie and handing it to Aleksander Barkov.

The 23-year-old has arguably been Florida’s best player for the last three years, but the team obviously felt like he was still a little too young to burden such a responsibility. Now, a year after he posted a career-high 78 points and finished fourth in Selke Trophy voting, they feel it’s his time to take up more of a leadership role.

“Aleksander Barkov is ready to be the captain of the Florida Panthers,” GM Dale Tallon said in a release. “He has all of the qualities of a great leader: unrivaled work ethic, wisdom beyond his years and the respect and admiration of his teammates. Aleksander’s determination and passion for the game have made him one of the NHL’s best and most complete players. The time was right for Aleksander to be named the captain of this franchise and I’m certain that he will bring the same high standard of class and dedication to the captaincy that he brings to the rink every single day.”

If you’re expecting things to be awkward in the Panthers’ room now that they took the “C” away from one player only to give it to another player, it sounds like you have another thing coming.

“I’ve been honored to serve as Panthers captain and I’m proud to hand the captain’s ‘C’ off to a leader as mature and deserving as Aleksander is,” said MacKenzie. “We’ve got a strong team with a strong group of leaders going into this year and I’m extremely excited to be part of something special.”

Wearing a letter on your jersey in Florida doesn’t come with the same pressure as wearing it in markets like Toronto or Montreal, but it’s still an added responsibility. It’ll be interesting to see how Barkov handles being the guy everyone looks to when things aren’t going well. Of course, that responsibility doesn’t fall on his shoulders alone, but he’s going to be the one that will have to answer all the questions when things go off the rails.

Even though he isn’t the most vocal player in that dressing room, Barkov should be just fine.

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Three questions facing Florida Panthers

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.

WATCH LIVE: Sabres host Blues on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Buffalo Sabres. 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.

On Sunday, Buffalo avoided a winless trip through Western Canada by defeating Edmonton 3-2 in overtime on Colin Miller’s first goal as a Sabre (Miller was a healthy scratch the day before in Vancouver). The win gave coach Ralph Krueger a win in his first appearance back in Edmonton since being fired by the Oilers in 2013.

Though some from the outside have drawn parallels between last season’s plunge in the standings following the 10-game November winning streak, and this season’s dip in play following an 8-1-1 start, the team has a different view. The main reason is Krueger, who appears to have instilled a new culture in Buffalo.

Since the 8-1-1 start, the Sabres are 6-10-5. Despite this prolonged stretch of below-average play, the Sabres are still third in the Atlantic Division, as they look to snap the league’s longest active playoff drought:

The Blues are coming off a 5-2 loss against Toronto on Saturday – their second straight regulation loss. Jordan Binnington allowed four goals in the first period and was pulled in a regular season game for the first time. St. Louis has not lost three straight in regulation with Binnington on the team (most recent three-game regulation losing streak came last November).

This will be Ryan O’Reilly’s first game back in Buffalo since becoming a Stanley Cup champ; last year was his first with the Blues after being acquired from the Sabres in July 2018.

[COVERAGE OF BLUES-SABRES BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: St. Louis Blues at Buffalo Sabres
WHERE: KeyBank Center
WHEN: Tuesday, Dec. 10, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Blues-Sabres stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLUES
David Perron – Ryan O’Reilly – Tyler Bozak
Jaden SchwartzBrayden Schenn – Jordan Kyrou
Ivan BarbashevRobert Thomas – Troy Brouwer
Mackenzie MacEachernJacob De La Rose – Austin Poganski

Colton ParaykoAlex Pietrangelo
Jay BouwmeesterJustin Faulk
Vince DunnRobert Bortuzzo

Starting goalie: Jake Allen

SABRES
Victor OlofssonJack EichelSam Reinhart
Marcus JohanssonRasmus AsplundJimmy Vesey
Jeff SkinnerCasey MittelstadtEvan Rodrigues
Zemgus GirgensonsJohan LarssonKyle Okposo

Jake McCabeZach Bogosian
Brandon MontourRasmus Ristolainen
Colin Miller – Henri Jokiharju

Starting goalie: Linus Ullmark

Kathryn Tappen will host Tuesday night’s studio coverage alongside analysts Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones. Brendan Burke and Pierre McGuire will call the action from KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.

Q&A: Darcy Kuemper on Coyotes’ season, handling more minutes

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It’s early, but if you’re discussing front-runners for the 2020 Vezina Trophy, right now there’s no way to not have Arizona Coyotes goaltender Darcy Kuemper in the mix.

The 29-year-old Saskatoon native leads all NHL netminders who have made at least 15 starts with a .943 even strength save percentage this season. But if you ask Kuemper about individual honors like that or potentially finding his way to St. Louis for next month’s All-Star Game, he’ll give you the stock hockey player answer.

“I just basically try not to listen and just keep worrying about the team and our upcoming games and try to do my best to stay in the moment,” he told NBC Sports recently.

After five seasons as a backup with the Wild and a short stint with the Kings, Kuemper landed in Arizona in 2017-18, but his rise began after the calendar switched to 2019 and an injury to Antti Raanta opened the door for an increased workload with the Coyotes. He’s repaid head coach Rick Tocchet for the opportunity with play that’s resulted in a .946 ESSV% since Jan. 1, 2019, good for third-best in the NHL, putting him only behind Ben Bishop and Thomas Greiss in that category. His seven shutouts over that period are second only to Sergei Bobrovsky, who has eight.

We spoke with Kuemper recently about his reset mentality, goalie coach Corey Schwab’s influence, what makes this Coyotes team special, and more.

Enjoy.

PHT: You and Antti have seen a lot of shots this season, but the guys in front are doing a good job of allow you both to actually see many of them. Is that a coaching thing from Tocchet or is that more communication between the goalies and the guys in front?

KUEMPER: “Tocc’s done a great job of making sure we’re comfortable defending. Not every game’s like that, but if there is a game where we’re spending a lot of time in our own end we don’t panic, we stay comfortable and stay within our system, and I think that’s what allows us to have a chance in those kind of games and be able to win in different ways.”

PHT: You’ve only lost in regulation in back-to-back starts twice this season. Where does that reset mentality come from and is that something you’ve had to add to your game as you’ve gotten older?

KUEMPER: “For me, it’s something that comes with experience and age, being able to move on from games and just try to keep that consistent approach each game regardless of what has been happening or happened the game before. I think as a group we’ve done a really good job of that, just having that consistent approach. Even when we win a couple in a row you don’t see us get too high and if we lose a couple we don’t get too low. We just try to keep the same attitude and come to each game with the same approach.”

PHT: As your workload has increased over the last two seasons have you made any changes to your off-ice prep to handle more minutes?

KUEMPER: “Honestly, I always try to train like I always want to play as many games as possible, so I always have trained and try to prepare to be ready for that kind of thing. It hasn’t been that hard of an adjustment. I feel like I was well-prepared for it and built to handle that sort of workload. We have a great training staff here with the Coyotes. They do a great job of helping me recover and working on any nicks I get along the way to make sure I’m feeling great out there every game.”

PHT: What kind of effect has [goalie coach] Corey [Schwab] had on you the last two seasons? What are the biggest areas of improvement he’s helped with in your game?

KUEMPER: “He’s really helped me with consistency and making it obvious and pointing out what I’m doing when I’m being successful and when things start to slip a little bit what’s in my game that’s causing that to happen. Just having those thinking points and knowing what you need to do to play well out there, and for him to do a great job of making those ingrained in me, that allows me to know what I have to do and things to focus on to just go out there and play every night and try to be as consistent as I can.”

PHT: What were those first conversations with him like last season, especially as things starting going for you after the new year? What areas did he see needed the most improvement?

KUEMPER: “It wasn’t more areas of improvement but more areas that I need to have in my game all the time. That’s being in control, I’m good when my feet are set. I start moving around or I start to get too aggressive, sometimes you lose a little bit of that control of the game. When I feel like I’m set and ready for that shots that’s when my game kind of slows down and everything steps off of that.”

PHT: Last season it seemed every other day saw a new injury. What were the lessons the team learned from that that’s helped this season?

KUEMPER: “It’s never easy having that many guys go out and key guys, but I think we learned as a group if we play our system and play structured and everyone’s on the same page that’s when we’re going to have success. To carry that into this year and have guys healthy, I think that’s why we’ve so far have had continued to grow and continued to take steps in becoming a better team.”

PHT: How is Tocchet different from any coach you’ve had in your NHL career?

KUEMPER: “I’ve been fortunate enough to have good coaches. He’s a real players coach being a player himself and having such a great career. He gets it from our standpoint. He’s really good at communicating from a player’s perspective of what we need to be doing out there and he also understands what we’re seeing out there and what we should be seeing.”

PHT: What’s something that people may not know about this team that’s made it so special through two months of the season?

KUEMPER: “Our depth is unbelievable. We have different guys contributing every night. That’s why I think we’ve been having such a good start is we’re not relying on one or two guys. If they get shut down then we’re in trouble. It’s different guys every night and everyone’s capable of contributing. It’s been a lot of fun just being part of a group like that.”

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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.

Winter Classic Memories: Syvret’s first NHL goal comes at Fenway Park

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Every Tuesday in December we’ll be looking back at some Winter Classic memories as we approach the 2020 game on Jan. 1 between the Stars and Predators from the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas.

Danny Syvret was cautious not to get too confident about potentially being in the Philadelphia Flyers’ lineup for the 2010 Winter Classic at Fenway Park. The 2005 third-round pick had spent most of his professional career playing in the American Hockey League, but an opportunity arose that had him eyeing playing in that year’s outdoor game.

By the 2009-10 season, Syvret had only played in 28 NHL games. He found himself up and down between the Flyers’ AHL affiliate in Adirondack, and when Ryan Parent was injured a few days before New Year’s Day playing in the Winter Classic against the Boston Bruins took a big step towards reality. 

But due to life as a regular call up, Syvret wasn’t allowing himself to believe he was going to play. At least not yet. His parents flew in last-minute just in case he was given the opportunity. Yet it wasn’t until the Flyers’ New Year’s Eve practice when he took regular line rushes that belief started to take hold.

Aside from hoping to lock down a regular roster spot on the Flyers, Syvret was also carrying an NHL goalless drought. A scorer during his junior days with the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights and the previous season in the AHL when he popped in 12 goals, he had gone 43 NHL games without a goal.

As much as Syvret was focused on staying in the NHL, the drought was definitely on his mind.

“You’re an offensive guy in junior and an offensive guy in the minors and you want to transition that into your NHL game,” Syvret told NBC Sports recently. “And when you’re sitting with a goose egg, it just doesn’t look good. One goal is not much different, but when you’re looking at zero to one versus 12 to 13, it’s a big jump. 

“It weighed on me a little bit, but it’s not like I was trying to go out and score. I wasn’t changing my game. I knew I had to have some sort of offensive output or else my chances to play in the NHL were slowly going to diminish on me.”

While Syvret had a lot on his mind, one person was feeling good about what might happen in the game. The day before the 2010 Winter Classic, Syvret’s friend, NHL photographer Dave Sandford, predicted his pal would break that goose egg the next day on the Fenway Park ice.

Sandford, who took the above photo after the game, would turn out to be prophetic.

Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette included Syvret was in the Flyers’ lineup for the game. Now that he no longer had to wonder about playing, the then 24-year-old made sure to enjoy as much of the experience as possible — from the walk out of the dugout to the scenic view inside the historic baseball stadium to the Stealth Bomber flyover as the teams waited for puck drop in front of 38,112 fans.

Once the game began it was all business, and Syvret would soon add to memories by opening the scoring early in the second period.

Syvret’s first NHL goal nearly came moments before he twirled and fired from the faceoff circle to beat Tim Thomas. As a rebound from a Jeff Carter shot came out to the side boards, the left-handed shot defenseman, who made sure to shoot around an incoming Marc Savard otherwise a three-on-one was likely going the other way, fired a blast that was denied with a two-pad stack from the Bruins netminder.

Why was Thomas down on the ice? Well, Scott Hartnell being Scott Hartnell crashed the net and bumped into Thomas. As the puck squirted out to the circle, which was retrieved by Syvret, Thomas then decided to exact some revenge on the Flyers forward by giving Hartnell a shove. 

The only problem for Thomas was that at that same time Syvret was turning and whipping the puck on target, which would end up in the back of the net for a 1-0 Flyers lead.

“[The first shot] would have been a prettier goal if I would have elevated it a little more so Thomas didn’t make the two-pad stack,” said Syvret, who became the first NHL player to score his first goal in an outdoor game. “But a goal is a goal.”

Syvret had no idea about the Hartnell/Thomas commotion in front and was hoping for a deflection or rebound as he turned and fired the puck. He didn’t even realize Thomas was down on the ice until he saw a replay following the game, which the Bruins would win in in overtime, 2-1.

The goal drought was over and a short-lived streak was about to be born. Two games later Syvret would record his second career NHL goal with a laser during a win against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“That was a pretty one. I wish that would have been my first one,” Syvret said with a laugh.

A separated shoulder ended Syvret’s season three games later and he would play only 10 more NHL games in his career. After several years in the AHL, he finished as a professional playing parts of two seasons in Germany. 

Today Syvret works as a financial advisor with Canada Life and will be starting up his own firm in 2020. He also has gotten into coaching youth hockey with former NHLer Jason Williams. The pair lead the AAA Elgin Middlesex Chiefs in Ontario with a team full of OHL hopefuls.

Two years after Syvret’s first NHL goal, another Flyer would record his first outdoors when Brayden Schenn, like Syvret, opened the scoring for the Flyers by beating New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist at Citizen Bank Park during the 2012 Winter Classic.

Almost a decade later, the memories are still there for Syvret, whose first goal holds extra special meaning for him.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to play World Juniors, Memorial Cup, and obviously your first NHL game is big,” Syvret said, “but for me, that was probably the biggest NHL game for me because one, it’s outdoor, and two, I scored my first ever goal. 

“Forever I’ll remember playing at Fenway.”

NBC will air the 2020 NHL Winter Classic between the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators at the Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas, Texas, at 2 p.m. ET.

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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 fire head coach Jim Montgomery ‘due to unprofessional conduct’

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The Dallas Stars made a stunning announcement on Tuesday by firing head coach Jim Montgomery “due to unprofessional conduct.”

Here’s the statement from Stars general manager Jim Nill:

“The Dallas Stars expect all of our employees to act with integrity and exhibit professional behavior while working for and representing our organization. This decision was made due to unprofessional conduct inconsistent with the core values and beliefs of the Dallas Stars and the National Hockey League.”

Nill said during a Tuesday morning press conference that the reason behind the firing was not related to the abuse allegations issues that have come up in hockey and was not in reaction to the four-point plan announced by the NHL during the Board of Governors meeting on Monday. He also added that no current or former Stars players or employees were involved in the “act of unprofessionalism.”

“We approve [of] the NHL in creating this four-point initiative, their plan, but this decision was made before that initiative came out,” said Nill, who noted he had been in contact with the league. “There’s no connection between the two.”

Nill, who said he found out Sunday after receiving a phone call from someone he would not name, wouldn’t divulge details as to what happened with Montgomery, but did say it was not a criminal act and there will be no criminal investigation; it was all done internally.

Montgomery, who has two more years left on his contract, was hired in May 2018 and compiled a 60-43-10 record in parts of two seasons.

Assistant coach Rick Bowness, who was a head coach for five NHL franchises between 1988 and 2003 and was hired as Montgomery’s assistant in June 2018, will take over the role of interim head coach for the rest of the season. Derek Laxdal, who has been serving as head coach of the Stars’ AHL affiliate, will be added to Bowness’ staff.

The Stars currently sit in the first wild card spot in the Western Conference and are only five points out of first place in the Central Division.

“[The players] were very surprised,” Nill said. “I spoke to the team today and they’re very surprised, but we’re very fortunate. We have a good team, we’ve got great leadership and they’re going to get over this. The coaching staff does a great job and they’re going to get over this. It’s a bump in the road and they’re going to digest this and we’ll more forward and go from there.”

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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.