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Simplicity, consistency key for one of the NHL’s most unheralded lines

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WINNIPEG — Paul Maurice says he saw it long before the underlying metrics pointed out that he owned one of the NHL’s top lines.

And we’re not talking Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler.

When you think of elite lines in the NHL, there are several that come quickly to mind.

Lines with Rantanen and MacKinnon, Matthews and Nylander, Stamkos and Kucherov, Couturier and Giroux and many others spring to mind.

What you wouldn’t expect to see is a line known more for, at least through an observer’s eye, a grinding style that’s tasked with shutting down opposing team’s top lines, being called one of the top 10 lines in the NHL based on advanced metrics.

So it was surprising to see Adam Lowry’s line with Andrew Copp and Brandon Tanev in a story done over the summer by the folks at Broad Street Hockey.

Devoid of household names around the NHL, the line affectionately known as the ‘TLC’ line in Winnipeg, has nevertheless exhibited elite attributes as a trio.

Maurice knew who I was talking about long before I finished my preamble about the line in question.

“I know there was a stretch of time where — and I don’t have the exact dates — they ran top four in the NHL for chances-for based on a certain definition of chances-for, which is a really high number,” Maurice said. “What’s unique about that line is offensive zone time and chances for, and that’s why I think they’re so effective.”

Maurice pointed out that his ‘shutdown’ line is spending most of the time in the other team’s offensive zone. Given the competition they’re thrown over the boards to play against, it’s remarkable.

“Exactly,” Maurice said.

* * *

Broad Street’s story used several metrics to come up with their list of lines, added some parameters on how long the line had to have played together to get a sample size worthy of being compared, and then let the numbers tell the story.

That story showed that the Lowry line accounted for a 66.67 percent goals-for percentage, meaning the Jets accounted for more goals with the line on the ice than it did against with the same unit on the ice. The bare minimum aim here is 50 percent. As you can see, the TLC line was much higher.

In terms of possession numbers, there was no better line in the NHL than Winnipeg’s trio with 60.56 percent. That is to say that, simply, the line outshot their opponents.

Using the numbers Broad Street compiled, no other line topped 60 percent. They also were best-in-show when it came to expected goals-for at 62.28 percent, meaning the Jets were more likely than not outscore their opponents with the TLC line on the ice.

Winnipeg’s unequivocal top line of Scheifele, Connor and Wheeler? They didn’t crack the Top 10.

It’s nothing magical, according to Lowry.

Lowry is the guy in the dressing room you go when you want a scouting report on the team in town for a game or just insight on any player in the league. He knows other teams lines and their tendencies. He’s prepared.

As complex as some of the numbers might be, Lowry simplifies what his line does right and why perhaps the underlying numbers are what they are for his line.

“You look at Schiefele’s line, for example, they’re not getting the third and fourth chances off the rebound because they’re goalscorers, they’re in the other team’s zone and they’re one and done, you know?” Lowry said. “They could have a lower Corsi, let’s say they’ve given up seven shots and only had three for but have scored on two of them.

Lowry says the predictable play of his line feeds into how effective his line is. Interdependency between the three is high.

“We might not necessarily have that high-end skill, but it makes our game so much simpler to read,” Lowry said. “I know there are about three options when Copp has the puck about the way it’s going to go. I know with Andrew and Brandon, we don’t have to be the fastest but we’re going to play faster because we know, generally, what we’re going to do. It makes us going to the right spots easier because they’re really smart players.”

Copp likes to call it consistent, but he says it means the same thing as Lowry saying predictable.

“It’s more chemistry than anything else,” Copp said, admitting there’s no way to really account for what that means. “I think it comes from consistent play. You look at Schiefele and Wheeler and Kyle Connor. There’s consistency. Our line, we’re consistent in our routes, in our play and our work ethic. We’re not trying to stray or do anything secretive.”

Copp says if they’re the resulting high numbers comes down to how it happens.

“It’s constant pressure in their zone,” he said. “It’s how good we can be defensive that leads to that, too. We’re not Nikita Kucherov creating chances, but we defend so hard and so well that it leads to a lot of opportunities.”

A simpler game?

“I’d say more direct than simple,” Copp said.

Tanev agrees. Given the lines consistency on the ice, it’s not surprising it spills into the dressing room and in front of the media.

“We know where one another is going to be, and that makes it so much easier in the offensive zone,” Tanev said. “We trust one another. It makes us hard to play against.”

Lowry says analytics have their worth. In the same breath, however, when he jumps over the boards, he’s not thinking about trying to even up a lopsided Corsi rating.

“You just can’t think like that, it will throw you off your game,” he said. “We’re going to have good numbers based on good play.

“It’s important, though. If you’re a bad Corsi player or whatever, you’re giving up a lot of high-danger chances, there are probably areas to improve on.”

* * *

Maurice says his team is not a Corsi team.

He says there’s a threshold when it comes to how much he wants his team to be shooting the puck, but as an example, he says he doesn’t want Patrik Laine shooting a puck he doesn’t want to shoot.

“I do like the idea of controlling the puck,” Maurice said, adding that philosophies among coaches across the league differ. “Some shoot everything and I mean shoot everything. I believed in that for a long time, but then the players here changed.”

Maurice then asked his own question.

“What’s the value of even?” he said, adding that he knows someone is going to mock him for it.

“If Adam Lowry goes out and he’s even and Mark Scheifele goes out and he’s even, is it the same value?” Maurice said, nevertheless. “For me, the answer is no.

“If Adam goes out an he’s even and he’s playing against the other team’s best, he’s not done less than you would have hoped offensively, but he’s done more defensively.

“Now, if Scheifele goes out and he’s even, he’s probably done what you thought he would do defensively but far less offensively. There has to be a different value.”

Maurice said when he got to Winnipeg, the analytics crew they used looked at how their players compared to the top two offensive players in the league.

“Our numbers were terrible, which tells you don’t have a consistent line to play or a group to play against their best,” Maurice said.

The remedy that started the turn around for the Jets was putting Andrew Ladd with Bryan Little and Michael Frolik, and putting Scheifele with Wheeler.

“We had a pretty good run,” Maurice said as a result.

The Jets made the playoffs in 2014-15, Maurice’s first full year behind the bench, for the first time since the team moved to Winnipeg in 2011.

The progress from there has turned Winnipeg into a team that won 52 games last year and reached the Western Conference Final.

More importantly, it’s helped to the Jets grow into a Stanley Cup contender.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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

Panthers sign Brian Boyle to one-year deal

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The Florida Panthers added to their center depth on Sunday afternoon by announcing a one-year deal with 34-year-old Brian Boyle.

Financial terms of the deal were not released by the team, but TSN’s Bob McKenzie reports it will pay Boyle $940,000 this season.

“With over 700 games played in the NHL and over 100 more in the playoffs, Brian brings a wealth of experience to our club,” general manager Dale Tallon said in a statement released by the team. “He adds versatility and character to our lineup.”

Boyle spent the 2018-19 season split between the New Jersey Devils and Nashville Predators, scoring 18 goals in 78 games. That performance came just one year after he won the Masterton Trophy after coming back from chronic myelogenous leukemia, a type of blood and bone cancer. In October of 2018 he announced that his leukemia was in full remission.

Boyle’s addition to the lineup comes one day after Aleksander Barkov, the team’s No. 1 center and best all-around player, had to exit Saturday’s shootout win over the Nashville Predators with an apparent injury.

The Panthers were one of the busiest teams of the offseason adding Sergei Bobrovsky, Brett Connolly, Anton Stralman and now Boyle to their lineup, along with the addition of Joel Quenneville as the team’s new coach. They are trying to snap a three-year playoff drought. Through eight games they have a 3-2-3 record this season.

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.

What will Mathew Barzal’s next contract look like for Islanders?

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After the way the RFA situation unfolded this past summer, with almost every top player remaining unsigned until well into training camp, teams seem to be a little more proactive for this year’s upcoming group with several already signing new deals.

Alex DeBrincat (Chicago), Clayton Keller (Arizona), and Nico Hischier (New Jersey) have all recently signed new deals to avoid restricted free agency this summer, and according to Chris Johnston on Saturday’s headlines segment on Sportsnet. the New York Islanders would like to get Mathew Barzal, their top player, signed before the summer as well.

Barzal was asked about his contract situation before Saturday’s game in Columbus by Newsday‘s Andrew Gross and insisted it is not something on his mind at the moment.

From Newsday:

“At this point, it’s really just between my agent and Lou [Lamoriello] right now,” Barzal told Newsday on Saturday before the Islanders concluded a two-game road trip against the Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena. “I don’t talk to Lou about contract stuff. If it happens in the next two months or if it happens in June, it doesn’t really matter to me. I’m just focused on the season right now.

“It’s something that eventually is going to happen,” Barzal added. “I’m pretty good at just kind of pushing that stuff aside and just worrying about what’s going on right now.”

Barzal and Columbus’ Pierre-Luc Dubois are two of the bigger name players still unsigned beyond this season that are set to hit restricted free agency this summer.

If the Islanders are able to accomplish that goal they could be looking at a significant contract for Barzal.

First, let’s take a quick a look at the three recent contracts signed by potential RFAs Keller, DeBrincat, and Hischier simply because they are at the same experience levels and signed their new deals with still one year remaining on their entry-level contracts.

  • Keller’s deal in Arizona was an eight-year, $57.2 million deal with a $7.1 million cap hit.
  • DeBrincat signed a shorter, bridge deal that is worth $19.2 million over three years with a salary cap hit of $6.4 million.
  • The Devils signed Hischier to a seven-year, $50.7 million contract with a salary cap hit of $7.2 million per season.

You can bet that Barzal’s salary cap hit will be higher than all three.

He has already proven to be more impactful — especially offensively — than everyone in that group, and if you compare what he has done through his first two full years in the league he is probably going to be closer to the Mikko Rantanen and Mitch Marner pay scale than the Hischier, Keller, DeBrincat group.

Through two years he has outproduced what Marner, Rantanen, and even Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point did through their first two years in the league — and significantly so at even-strength, and with less talent around him — and has arguably been more impactful as a two-way player. Remember, it wasn’t until year three that Marner, Rantanen, and Point really had their breakout seasons offensively to become superstars.

Barzal pretty much had his breakout moment in year one, and while his offense regressed just a bit in year two he was still very good and seemed to take even more strides forward defensively.

This doesn’t seem like a potential bridge contract situation (like Point in Tampa Bay, or DeBrincat in Chicago, or even Patrik Laine in Winnipeg) and seems far more likely to end in a long-term deal. Barzal is clearly the team’s best player, and while they are not swimming in extra salary cap space, it is not exactly facing a salary cap crunch, either. Given what he has already proven, his importance to the Islanders, and his long-term potential there is no reason to think that a seven-or eight-year deal at around $8 or $9 million is out of the question. And he would probably be worth every penny of it.

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: Fleury shuts out Penguins; hats off to Jost

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Three Stars

1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. The Pittsburgh Penguins did everything they could on Saturday night, and probably even had the better of the play against the Golden Knights, but Fleury stopped all 29 shots he faced — including a couple of highlight reel saves — to get the shutout against his former team. Fleury is off to a great start this season and now has a .934 save percentage in his first six starts.

2. Tyson Jost, Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche improved to 7-0-1 by rolling over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night thanks in large part to a hat trick from Jost. Expectations were sky high for the Avalanche at the start of the season and they have done nothing but justify them so far. They have the best top line in hockey, an exciting young defense, and strengthened their secondary scoring during the offseason. It is now really difficult to find a clear weakness on this team.

3. Corey Perry, Dallas Stars. Style points don’t matter for the Stars right now. They were not particularly strong on Saturday night in Philadelphia, but they still managed to snap a six-game losing streak with a 4-1 win to get two points that they desperately needed. The star of the game was offseason Perry, scoring his first goal as a member of the Stars and recording two assists. How bad as the Stars offense been this season? Entering play on Saturday the Stars only had five players on the team record more than three points for the entire season (over nine games!).

Other notable performances on Saturday

Highlights of the Night

This is some vintage Anze Kopitar hockey here, turning defense into offense and scoring a slick shorthanded goal to help the Kings roll.

Look at the patience from Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck to wait for Pekka Rinne to make the first move and then beat him with a slick backhander.

Here it is again, the first NHL goal for the 2019 No. 1 overall pick, Jack Hughes. The only goal in a 1-0 win over the Vancouver Canucks.

Blooper of the Night

Jost ended up getting a splash of water to the face in celebration of his first NHL hat trick.

Factoids

  • The Vegas Golden Knights won the 100th game in franchise history on Saturday, needing just 173 games to reach it. That is the second fewest games needed to reach 100, trailing only the 165 games the original Ottawa Senators franchise needed back in 1917. [NHL PR]
  • Jack Hughes became the ninth player in league history to score their first NHL goal in a game against their brother. [NHL PR]
  • Morgan Rielly‘s overtime goal on Saturday night was the fourth of his career. Only Tomas Kaberle has more among Maple Leafs defenders in franchise history. [NHL PR]

Scores

New Jersey Devils 1, Vancouver Canucks 0
Montreal Canadiens 5, St. Louis Blues 2
Arizona Coyotes 5, Ottawa Senators 2
Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Boston Bruins 3 (OT)
Colorado Avalanche 6, Tampa Bay Lightning 2
Dallas Stars 4, Philadelphia Flyers 1
Vegas Golden Knights 3, Pittsburgh Penguins 0
New York Islanders 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 2 (OT)
Florida Panthers 3, Nashville Predators 2 (SO)
Los Angeles Kings 4, Calgary Flames 1
Buffalo Sabres 4, San Jose Sharks 3

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.

Drew Doughty, Matthew Tkachuk have another chaotic encounter (Video)

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The Los Angeles Kings put together their best game of the season on Saturday night, defeating the Calgary Flames 4-1 to pick up their third win.

A lot of good things happened for the Kings in this game, starting with the fact that they actually scored a few goals after being shutout for more than 130 consecutive minutes of hockey (including back-to-back shutout losses) entering the night. Then there was starting goalie Jonathan Quick, stuck in a miserable slump to open the season that has seen him allow 19 goals in his first three games, stopping 23 of 24 shots for his first win of the season. The only goal he surrendered was a late penalty shot goal to Mikael Backlund.

If we are being honest, though, the biggest reason anyone outside of the Kings and Flames fanbases would be keeping an eye on this game would be to see if Matthew Tkachuk and Drew Doughty would continue their ongoing feud.

To the surprise of no one, they did.

Midway through the third period Doughty managed to take out Tkachuk with a low hit that set off a chain reaction pile-up that also included Flames defenseman Mark Giordano flying in from the top rope and taking out Kyle Clifford.

Tkachuk ended up getting two minutes for tripping, two minutes for roughing, and a 10-minute misconduct, while Clifford picked up two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct. No other penalties came out of that sequence.

This feud has been ongoing for three years now starting with Tkachuk — during his rookie season — earning a two-game suspension for elbowing Doughty in the face. Since then they have gone back and forth through the media and constantly been involved in on-ice incidents.

In their first meeting this season Tkachuk scored a late game-tying goal against the Kings to send it to overtime where Doughty would win it and then taunt the Flames’ crowd.

So far this season Doughty and the Kings have managed to get the best of Tkachuk and the Flames.

They will have to wait until Dec. 7 to face each other again.

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.