How will Golden Knights follow up historic first season?

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One of the most intriguing teams to watch heading into the 2018-19 NHL season has to be the Vegas Golden Knights because, well, we really don’t know what they are, what they can be, or what they will be.

We do know where they are coming from and what they were. What they were was an unbelievable first-year success story, the likes of which we have not really seen in any of the four major North American sports leagues. To take a first-year expansion team and not only finish with one of the league’s best records, but to also reach the Stanley Cup final and come within three games of winning a championship in the first year of existence is the type of goofy storyline that would be too unbelievable a movie.

Despite that initial success they still seem to be a bit of a mystery heading into this season because so many things went right for them in 2017-18. Typically when you have a team like that, things don’t typically repeat themselves the following year. At least not as you plan them to.

One thing seems inevitable for the Golden Knights heading into year two: There is going to be some regression from the players on this roster, because there were several had career years at the exact same time, from William Karlsson‘s out-of-nowhere 43-goal season, to Reilly Smith becoming a point-per-game forward, to Erik Haula scoring 29 goals, to Marc-Andre Fleury playing the absolute best hockey of his life in his mid-30s.

Another way of looking at it: Just about all of the most experienced players on the roster entering last season went on to have career years in terms of points (Karlsson, Smith, Haula, Jonathan Marchessault, David Perron) or in save percentage (Fleury) in Vegas.

On one hand you could maybe say this was a case of some of them getting an increased opportunity (Karlsson, Haula) and taking advantage of it. On the other, a team that has more than a third of its roster have career years at the same time would seem to be a prime candidate to regress the following season. That does not even take into account two of their top forwards offensively (Perron and James Neal) left in free agency.

Just think about where the regression could come from.

Maybe Karlsson is only 20-goal scorer instead of a 40-goal scorer.

Maybe Smith once again becomes the 50-point player he has been throughout his career instead of the player that was on an 80-point pace last season.

Maybe Erik Haula is better than he ever got to show in Minnesota, but isn’t a 30-goal forward.

Maybe Marc-Andre Fleury see his save percentage drop down to the .918-920 level he typically plays at.

All of those little regressions can add up into a big difference and lead to fewer goals for, and more goals against.

One way to combat that: Bring in better players around them to help make up for whatever regressions might take place. Vegas absolutely tried to do that this summer with the signing of Paul Stastny to a four-year contract in free agency and the acquisition of Max Pacioretty from the Montreal Canadiens.

[Related: Max Pacioretty saga ends with trade to Vegas]

Those are not insignificant additions, and together they should help form what could be an outstanding second line. The addition of Stastny is going to give them significantly better center depth than what they had a season ago, while everything about Pacioretty’s 2017-18 season and his track record in the NHL points to a big bounce-back season.

For as exciting as Vegas was last season a lot of their success was driven by their top line of Karlsson, Marchessault, and Smith. When that trio was not on the ice together during 5-on-5 play they were outscored by 18 goals as a team (97-115). The second line, which was primarily made up of Perron and Neal with either Haula or Cody Eakin, barely kept its head above water in terms of goal differential.

Improving the second line behind that top trio (and it appears that Vegas did) is going to be significant. It’s not all going to fall on the top line, and it provides a bit of a safety net for if and when that line regresses a bit.

The big questions are going to come elsewhere in the lineup, particularly when it comes to the bottom-six, where there is a pretty significant drop in talent from the top two lines.

[Related: Paul Stastny smart addition for Golden Knights]

They found a ton of success in the playoffs with a fourth line of Ryan Reaves, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and Tomas Nosek, and the group was legitimately good when it was put together, controlling more than 53 percent of the shot attempts and outscoring opponents by a 6-0 margin during the regular season and playoffs. You get that from your fourth line you are in good shape. The catch is that production came in less than 150 minutes of hockey. Can you count on that level of production from that group over an 82-game season?

Then there is perhaps the most mysterious aspect of this team: The defense. On paper, it looked to be the weakest part of the team entering 2017 even though there were some intriguing young players, including Shea Theodore, Nate Schmidt, and Colin Miller. Everyone on this group exceeded expectations, including Deryk Engelland who completed his transformation from part-time enforcer to 20-minute per night defender. But even with the surprisingly good results it was still, for the most part, an average, middle-of-the-pack team defensively when looking at the shot and scoring chance rates against. Most of their success preventing goals came from the fact their goalie — Fleury — played out of his mind throughout the regular season and playoffs.

He is a good goalie. A very good goalie. But he is not a .927 goalie.

Unless the Golden Knights do something to decrease the shot volume he faces, that is going to mean more goals against, especially with Schmidt, one of their top defenders, starting the year with a 20-game suspension.

Put it all together and you have a team that, on paper, should have an outstanding top-six even after some expected regression, a really good goalie, what is probably an average defense, and some question marks in the bottom-six.

Overall, that should be a pretty good team. Maybe not a a 109-point Stanley Cup Final team again. But a team that should be back in the playoffs.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Rangers vs. Blackhawks: How to watch Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

With just over six weeks to go in the regular season, the Rangers and Blackhawks find themselves on the wrong side of the playoff dividing line with several teams ahead of them in the Wild Card race. New York currently has three teams to jump ahead of to get into a playoff spot, while Chicago has four

New York’s season-high four-game win streak was snapped on Sunday at MSG against Boston, 3-1, as the Rangers now hit the road for away games in five of their next six contests. Overall, Chicago has lost six of its last seven games (1-4-2) with its sole win coming two games ago at Calgary, an 8-4 affair on Saturday – the Blackhawks most goals scored this season.

New York’s high-priced offseason acquisition, Artemi Panarin (7-year/$81.5M), leads the team in goals (29), assists (49), points (78 – fifth in NHL)– to name a few. The Russian playmaker, who set a career high in pts (87) last season with the Blue Jackets, is on pace to set new highs in goals, assists and points. The 28-year-old began his career with the Blackhawks (undrafted), winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 2015-16 before being traded to Columbus after two seasons

Chris Kreider has come on of late with 29 pts in the last 29 games after just 13 points in his first 28 games. Kreider, who is on pace for his first career 30-goal season, is set to become a free agent after this season. There were reports last week that Kreider’s agent and the Rangers have been discussing a possible contract extension, while he has also been linked with a possible trade to his hometown Bruins (from Boxford, Mass.). Kreider was drafted 19th overall by New York in 2009 and has spent his entire career with the Blueshirts.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: New York Rangers at Chicago Blackhawks
WHERE: United Center
WHEN: Wednesday, Feb. 19, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Rangers-Blackhawks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

RANGERS
Chris Kreider – Mika ZibanejadPavel Buchnevich
Artemi Panarin – Ryan StromeJesper Fast
Phil Di GiuseppeFilip ChytilKaapo Kakko
Brendan LemieuxBrett Howden – Julien Gauthier

Brady SkjeiJacob Trouba
Tony DeAngeloMarc Staal
Ryan LindgrenAdam Fox

Starting goalie: Igor Shesterkin

BLACKHAWKS
Dominik KubalikJonathan ToewsDrake Caggiula
Brandon SaadRyan CarpenterPatrick Kane
Alex DeBrincatKirby DachDylan Strome
Matthew HighmoreDavid KampfAlex Nylander

Duncan KeithAdam Boqvist
Erik GustafssonConnor Murphy
Slater KoekkoekOlli Maatta

Starting goalie: Robin Lehner

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call the action from United Center in Chicago, Ill. Ahmed Fareed will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Mike Milbury and NHL insider Bob McKenzie.

The Miracle on Ice – 40th Anniversary, featuring Al Michaels, who called the momentous matchup in 1980, and Mike Tirico, will premiere on Wednesday night at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. 40 years to the month, this 30-minute special will feature Tirico’s wide-ranging conversation with Michaels about the buildup to the game, his iconic call, as well as the legacy of the moment that became bigger than sports and still resonates today.

NHL Trade Deadline primer: Tomas Tatar, Montreal Canadiens

Tomas Tatar Trade
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With the NHL trade deadline getting close (February 24, 3 p.m. ET) the Pro Hockey Talk crew will be taking a closer look at some individual players that could be on the move. Today we focus on Montreal Canadiens forward Tomas Tatar.

Player: Tomas Tatar
Current Team: Montreal Canadiens
Position: Forward
Contract: One year remaining after this season with a $5.3 million salary cap number.

Why the Canadiens might trade him. If you squint really hard and give it your best effort you can maybe find a decent argument for why it makes sense for the Canadiens to keep Tatar.

He is an excellent player, and a very underrated one. He is signed through the end of next season and is not in danger of leaving as a free agent after this season. He has also been a great fit in Montreal since joining the team at the start of the 2018-19 season after coming over from Vegas in the Max Pacioretty trade. There is also the fact that the Canadiens might still believe they could be a playoff team next season, so it would make sense to keep your good players.

But all of that kind of goes out the window when you look at the current situation and the harsh reality that this team just is not very good.

The Canadiens are on track to miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. They are completely going down the tube this season with five consecutive losses, including a dreadful 4-3 loss to Detroit on Tuesday where they blew a 3-1 lead to go 0-4 for the season against a team that currently has just 15 wins for the season and might be single the worst NHL team of the modern era. On top of that, the Canadiens are going to have a ton of contractual decisions to make over the next two seasons regarding Max Domi, Brendan Gallagher, Philip Danualt, and Jeff Petry.

With Carey Price and Shea Weber signed to monster contracts, they can’t keep everyone.

And given the current situation, why would they keep everyone?

There is also the fact that the price for players with term remaining on their contracts is sky high right now. Pounce while you can.

Teams that could/should be interested. Colorado Avalanche, Boston Bruins, St. Louis Blues, New York Islanders

What he provides. Whether it is traditional box score numbers or a more analytical look, Tatar stacks up extremely well with other top-line two-way wingers around the league. He is on track for a career year offensively this season (close to 30 goals, more than 70 points) and in a normal year is still going to give you 25 goals and 50 points.

His possession numbers have always been strong no matter what team he has played for, and this year they have reached an elite level.

Maybe you have a sour memory of him as a trade deadline acquisition after what happened with him Vegas two years ago, but small sample size decisions lead to mistakes. He is a good player and could be a great addition for a contender.

The Colorado Avalanche would be an intriguing option because they have the salary cap space to take him on and could be in the market for a winger with Mikko Rantanen sidelined (and just to give themselves a better chance to win).

Worth noting that Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin is in Denver on Wednesday night to watch the Avalanche-Islanders game in person.

Predicted Destination. A team like the Avalanche has a lot to offer and the flexibility to do it, but I have a suspicion that Bergevin is going to set an extremely high price, not get the offer he wants, and stand pat with the belief this team is closer to contending than it actually is.

More NHL Trade Deadline:

• Trade Deadline primer: Chris Kreider
Trade Deadline Primer: Ilya Kovalchuk
• Trade Deadline Primer: Jean-Gabriel Pageau
• Trade Deadline Primer: Joe Thornton
• Trade Deadline Primer: Robin Lehner
• Teams that need to be active at trade deadline

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.

FORE-1-1 podcast: ‘Miracle on Ice’ 40th anniversary with Jim Craig

Miracle on Ice celebration Al Michaels
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Jim Craig, goaltender for the 1980 U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey team, joined Golf Channel’s Chantel McCabe to discuss hockey, his love of golf and his new book, “We Win!”.

This Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice,” the stunning upset by the U.S. Olympic hockey team over the heavily-favored Soviet Union at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics. The Americans would go on to top Finland in their next game to win the gold medal. Craig led all goaltenders in the tournament with a .916 save percentage, 419:36 minutes played, and 163 saves in seven games played.

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/fore-1-1-with-chantel-mccabe/id1481635240

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/fore11-with-chantel-mccabe

Golf Channel: https://www.golfchannel.com/fore-1-1-chantel-mccabe

NBC Sports: https://art19.com/shows/fore-1-1-with-chantel-mccabe

Join Golf Channel’s Chantel McCabe each month as she catches up with personalities from the golfing world and beyond.

The Miracle on Ice – 40th Anniversary, featuring Al Michaels, who called men’s hockey at the 1980 Winter Olympics, and Mike Tirico, will premiere tonight at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, following Wednesday Night Hockey coverage of Rangers-Blackhawks.

Caps hope trade for Dillon, adjustments solve struggles

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — For the first time since October, the Washington Capitals took the ice for practice as something other than a first-place team.

Defensive lapses and a glaring lack of structure have added up to losses in six of nine games and a .500 record over the past 10. It’s a struggle for the Capitals right now, but they hope a trade for defenseman Brenden Dillon and a few adjustments will shake them out of their midseason doldrums.

”The hard things to do, the defensive things to do, are always kind of the things that go first when you get into these kind of lulls in the season or whatever because they’re not the fun things to do,” goaltender Braden Holtby said Wednesday. ”Bringing a guy like him in, just an energy, a guy that’s been known to do those things – the hard things – and be a leader that way is good.”

Dillon could play as soon as Thursday night against Montreal, but he can’t solve all everything by himself. Even with Holtby finding a groove, the Capitals have allowed almost 3.5 goals per game during this stretch and not looked like a group that led the NHL for much of the year.

General manager Brian MacLellan said he probably would have sought Dillon from San Jose regardless of the recent drop in play, but the level of urgency to turn things around has increased.

”I think our team game is off, and that results in poor defensive efforts,” MacLellan said. ”I don’t think we’re playing the right way. … The forwards contribute to it, defense contributes to it, and we got to get all on the same page here and play a tighter game.”

Defensemen are getting the bulk of criticism and the blue liner certainly haven’t played up to expectations. Beyond John Carlson, who’s on pace for more than 90 points this season, the play of the likes of Michal Kempny, Dmitry Orlov, Nick Jensen and Jonas Siegenthaler has been inconsistent at best.

Carlson said the Capitals have been ”a little disjointed.”

”I think some other holes have crept into our details and systems that we all know we are capable of doing,” said Carlson, who could soon be Dillon’s defensive partner. ”Just simple things, whether it is mental or execution or just being out of position a little bit, matters a lot.”

Much of the chatter lately has been helping captain Alex Ovechkin score two more goals to reach 700 for his career. Ovechkin, MacLellan and others don’t think chasing that milestone has been a distraction, but Washington is 1-4-0 since he reached 698.

”We know exactly what we have to do,” Ovechkin said. ”It’s not a panic. It’s just a slump (that) every team goes through all seasons. Some teams go (through it) the beginning of the year. Somebody goes (though it) right now. It’s a good thing it’s happening now than in the playoffs.”

The Capitals are less than two years removed from their run to the Stanley Cup. They got knocked out in the first round last year and have retooled some things to try to win it all again.

Dillon brings the kind of physical play that is valued most in the playoffs. The 29-year-old has plenty of postseason experience and at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds blends right in with Washington’s big, heavy identity.

”When you’re standing in front of the net with him, it’s going to be a battle,” winger Tom Wilson said. ”That’s something we’ve tried to have with our team. When teams come into D.C., you want them to be like, ‘Oh, here we go, it’s going to be a tough game,’ and he’s just another piece that can really add to that.”