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Filip Forsberg is a bigger star than many realize

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Vegas Golden Knights and the Nashville Predators at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

Injuries don’t just deprive us of the opportunity to see great players in action. They also tend to downplay just how dominant certain scorers are, as point totals shrink when you miss, say, 20 games.

Evgeni Malkin stands as a strong example of that phenomenon. As great as he is, would Malkin have been left of the NHL 100 list if he hadn’t been on the shelf so often?

Such thoughts come to mind when you consider Filip Forsberg‘s ascent with the Nashville Predators.

[Previewing tonight’s Predators – Golden Knights game]

Approaching elite production

If you just glance at last season’s 64 points, you might shrug your shoulders and think that it was business as usual. After all, Forsberg scored 63 in 2014-15, 64 in 2015-16, and 58 in 2016-17.

The difference, of course, is that Forsberg scored last season’s 64 points in just 67 games, leaving him close to a point per night. The Swedish sensation carried that strong work into the Predators’ overall-slightly-disappointing run in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, generating 16 points in 13 games.

It’s not just about impressive numbers with Forsberg, who is currently tied for second in goals with 10, and has 14 points in 11 games this season.

It’s the fact that Forsberg scores highlight reel goals, and has the courage to make unthinkable moves in high-pressure situations. His game-breaking ability can bring fans out of their seats and make defenders look outright foolish:

Since last season, Forsberg has exactly 78 points in 78 games; his (exact) point-per-game rate during that span matches Patrick Kane and Mark Scheifele. We’re approaching a moment where it’s fair to wonder if Forsberg’s making a leap from star to superstar.

Now, granted, the winger isn’t going to score almost a goal per game all season.

As talented as he is, Forsberg’s shooting percentage (25 percent, or 10 goals on just 40 shots on net) is bound to slip. Considering his career average of 13.1 percent, it may even slip by half.

Even so, it’s plausible that Forsberg is ascending among the NHL’s most potent wingers.

Help from his friends

It’s also worth noting that the Predators’ top line might just be able to hang with the other elite groups. Forsberg is joined by another volume shooter in Viktor Arvidsson, who has 28 SOG in 11 games (generating seven goals and 11 points). Arvidsson won’t continue his 25 shooting percentage either, yet he’s likely to continue making an impact on games; the Swedish jitterbug is currently in the middle of a five-game streak where he’s generated at least 3 SOG.

One pivotal factor in Forsberg’s climb toward more recognition is the play of Ryan Johansen, and his hot start might be the most promising sign of all … well, beyond the fact that Forsberg’s absolutely unleashing the puck so far this season.

Johansen carries an $8 million cap hit, yet he hasn’t always received plaudits for his work as a top center.

(For instance: Ryan Kesler‘s BFF didn’t land on Andrew Berkshire’s top 23 centers list heading into this season, falling behind the likes of Derek Stepan.)

So far, Johansen’s been off to a strong scoring start, collecting two goals and 13 points in 11 games.

It’s natural for Johansen to shoot less often than trigger-happy wingers like Forsberg and Arvidsson, yet he drew some criticism for being pass-first to a fault. The past two seasons were tough in that regard, with Johansen averaging a meager 1.63 SOG per game last season, and a not-much-better 1.88 SOG per contest in 2016-17.

This is a small sample size, but so far, Johansen has 23 SOG in 11 games. While that’s not an enormous uptick, this line gets scarier if Johansen isn’t telegraphing passes, and they’re combining for more than eight SOG per game between the three of them.

Shouldering a burden

It’s tempting to look at the Predators as a deep team at all levels.

The label is accurate for a defense featuring P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm. It says a lot about what the team’s built that Vezina winner Pekka Rinne can go on IR and few really panicked, as Juuse Saros is a gem in net. It also doesn’t hurt that hit-or-miss second-line center Kyle Turris is off to a promising start (eight points in 11 games).

Such factors distract from how crucial Forsberg and Nashville’s top line is to their success, though.

With Kevin Fiala going through early season struggles, the Predators’ offense depends upon that top line, that elite fleet of defense, and sporadic scoring (Turris, Ryan Hartman, few others). It makes you wonder why Eeli Tolvanen isn’t getting more immediate opportunities, but that’s a discussion for another day.

That tend is really just carrying over from the postseason, as Turris and Nick Bonino really failed to give Nashville the sort of supplementary scoring that contenders usually need. One can see the temptation of even spreading the wealth, although that would most likely qualify as messing with a good thing.

***

As strange as it might sound considering GM David Poile’s many great recent trades, a bigger-picture look at the Predators makes you wonder if another bold move could be in order.

On the bright side, there’s mounting evidence that Nashville’s top trio is for real, with Forsberg leading the way.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

NHL, NHLPA agree on protocols to resume season

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The NHL and NHL Players’ Association agreed Sunday on protocols to resume the season, a major step toward the return of hockey this summer.

Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told The Associated Press there was an agreement on protocols for training camps and games and the sides are still negotiating an extension of the collective bargaining agreement, which is crucial to the process.

A person with knowledge of the situation said the return-to-play protocols would only go into effect if each side votes to approve the full package of the CBA extension and return-to-play agreement. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because CBA talks are still ongoing.

To complete a return, two-thirds of the league’s board of governors and majorities of the players’ executive committee and full membership must vote in favor.

If everything is ratified, it will end a pandemic-forced shutdown that began in mid-March. Games would resume in late July or early August with 24 teams taking part in an expanded playoffs, finishing with the Stanley Cup being awarded in October.

The agreement was first reported by TSN.

The 47 pages of protocols outline the health and safety measures the league and players agreed to after several weeks of negotiations. Any player has until 5 p.m. EDT on Tuesday to notify his team if he’s choosing to opt out of participating in training camp and games.

For those playing, each team is limited to 30 skaters and an unlimited amount of goaltenders for camp and total roster of up to 31 players for games. Each team is limited to 52 personnel in its game city, a group that must include two trainers, a doctor and compliance officer in addition players, coaches and management.

They are expected to be quarantined from the general public during play at least for the qualifying and first two traditional playoff rounds. Family members will be permitted to join when play is moved to one city for the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final.

All team and league employees plus hotel, restaurant and arena staff coming in contact with players will be tested daily in the two ”hub” cities.

One player’s positive coronavirus test result is not expected to shut down play entirely. The league has said it would isolate any player or staff member who tests positive, acknowledging an outbreak would threaten the remainder of the season.

”The players will be pretty well-protected from being exposed,” Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson said during a conference call in June. ”It’s going to be a completely different way for you all and us watching hockey and being around a team because players will be really well protected throughout the process.”

The protocols include a provision for Commissioner Gary Bettman in consultation with NHLPA executive director Don Fehr to postpone, delay or cancel games in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Assuming the protocols are approved, teams are expected to open training camps July 13 before traveling to the two hub cities for games. Players have been able to skate and train off-ice in voluntary, small-group workouts since June 8 – nearly three months after hockey was halted March 12 with 189 regular-season games remaining.

Returning for the playoffs is seen as a stirring victory for the NHL, which like other top leagues faced the prospect of losing millions more without the television revenue tied to the postseason. There were deep concerns about canceling the rest of the season and word of positive tests didn’t help: 26 players since June 8, in addition to almost a dozen before that.

Boston defenseman Matt Grzelcyk called the positive test results ”eye-opening” but expected. A few players expressed concerns in recent weeks about the uncertainty surrounding a return.

”We have obviously a unique situation right now,” Montreal goaltender Carey Price said. ”The NHL and the NHLPA are trying to make the best of a very difficult situation. Moving forward I’d like to play, but we have a lot of questions that need to be answered and a lot of scenarios that need to be covered.”

If the protocols and an CBA extension cover those scenarios for enough owners and players, there will be a path forward to hand out the Stanley Cup. Only twice since 1893 has the Cup not been awarded: in 1919, when the final couldn’t be completed because of the Spanish flu pandemic, and 2005 when the season was wiped out by a lockout.

Seven hockey players suspended in Belarus match-fixing case

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ZURICH — Seven ice hockey players have been suspended during an investigation into match-fixing in the Belarus league.

The players — five from Belarus and two from Russia — told a domestic investigation they were paid to help arrange the outcome of a game in November, the International Ice Hockey Federation said on Friday.

“During the investigation, each of the players also admitted that they had agreed to exert an unlawful influence on the outcome of the game in exchange for illegal remuneration,” the governing body said in a statement.

The IIHF said its disciplinary board had taken over the case “for further review and sanctioning.”

The case involves Dynamo Molodechno’ losing to Mogilyov 6-5 in a Belarus Extraliga game.

The players have been suspended from taking part in any competition organized by the IIHF or its member federations.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL vs. viruses; Flat salary cap pain = Avs’ gain?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Lafreniere, COVID-19 hockey concerns, and how Avs may benefit from a flat salary cap

• Rank Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen among those expressing some misgivings about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [TSN]

• Breaking: Alexis Lafreniere is not a defenseman. In all seriousness, a look at some Maple Leafs possibilities … which might be complicated at No. 1 because of that positional point. Maybe? [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Speaking of those Maple Leafs, Buds fans are not pleased about the idea of a possible flat, $81.5M salary cap. There are teams who might take advantage of this situation, though. Here’s why the Avalanche could be one of those teams. [Mile High Hockey]

• A look back at the NHL’s “rivalries” with viruses. Does the history of the NHL’s dealing with such issues — even the Mumps — be a cause for concern amid COVID-19 outbreaks? [Arctic Ice Hockey]

• Earlier this week, PHT selected the best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere. What about getting even more specific? Andrew Berkshire shared his picks for some of the lines that would benefit most from adding the consensus No. 1 pick to their left side. [Sportsnet]

Other hockey links

• Sean Gentille put together an oral history for the Jean Claude Van Damme masterpiece “Sudden Death.” If you haven’t heard of the candidate for “so-bad-it’s-good” designation, how about the elevator pitch: “Die Hard at a hockey game.” [The Athletic (sub required)]

• On face value, this article focuses most on Rudy Gobert and Novak Djokovic and athletes feeling invulnerable to COVID-19. But it’s a really good read for hockey fans, players, and executives as cautionary tales with a return-to-play picking up steam. [The Score]

• Joe Pelletier of Greatest Hockey Legends wonders why the bar is set so high for goalies to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not an awful point when you consider that they play the most important position in the sport, and all. I wouldn’t mind Ron Hextall making a future cut, to name just one worthy goalie. [Greatest Hockey Legends]

• Five crossovers between hockey and Todd McFarlane. Yes, the “Spawn” guy. [PuckJunk]

• Taking a run at putting together the Sabres’ roster during the upcoming offseason. It gets elaborate, including potential trades. Yes, this scenario includes trading away Rasmus Ristolainen. Don’t they all? [Die by the Blade]

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.

Our Line Starts podcast: NHL, NHLPA nearing agreement; hub cities, Olympics, CBA

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Liam McHugh, Keith Jones, and Patrick Sharp react to the reports that the NHL and NHLPA are nearing the completion of a massive agreement that would not only cover this year’s Return to Play protocols, but also serve as an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The guys discuss Edmonton and Toronto emerging as hub city favorites, as well as what it would mean for the NHL to return to the Olympics. Plus, a breakdown of the Qualifying Round series in both conferences.

Start-4:45 Edmonton, Toronto new hub city frontrunners
4:45-8:45 NHL, NHLPA nearing CBA extension, including Olympic participation
8:45-13:00 Other return to play details
14:00-23:00 Eastern Conference Qualifying Round preview
23:50-End Western Conference Qualifying Round preview

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports