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Which NHL player is having best contract year?

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NHL teams are getting more sophisticated when it comes to avoiding truly boneheaded free agent moves (sorry, would-be next Bobby Holik), but the truth is that contract years can still swing a player’s contract by millions.

Just ask John Carlson — no, wait, he’s currently swimming in money.

(Note: he’s probably not literally swimming in money.)

We’re only in November, so a lot can change. Injuries happen in the violent, sometimes-randomly unlucky sports of hockey. Hot streaks can go ice-cold. Coaches can lose trust in a player, killing power-play opportunities and sabotaging line combinations.

At the moment, though, these are the players who are off to red-hot starts that could really fatten their future paychecks (and drive up their trade value, too). Cap Friendly’s free agent list was very helpful in putting this together, while stats cited come from Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick.

(Also, this list focuses on pending UFAs, in case you were getting ready to holler at your screen about Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and other could-be RFAs.)

Mark Stone, Senators, 26, $7.35 million

Last night’s rousing five-point performance pushes Stone to six goals and 12 assists for 18 points in 15 games. Yes, you can note that his shooting percentage is a bit high (17.6), but his career average of 15.6 percent argues that he’s long been a talented – if selective – shooter.

There are other reasons why Stone should rank as high-end trade bait, yet will also be tough for Ottawa to let go. He’s still young at 26, and won’t turn 27 until May. Also, if wingers received more Selke attention, Stone would likely be in that conversation. Despite being deployed more defensively (starting 56-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, versus a career average of 47-percent), Stone’s possession stats are off the charts, especially compared to his often-overwhelmed teammates in Ottawa.

If you’re a contender who could land him in a trade, Stone might be worth quite the ransom if he’d also talk extension.

Matt Duchene, Senators, 27, $6M

Despite his Wile E. Coyote-level luck when it comes to finding himself in miserable situations, Duchene is not one of Stone’s overwhelmed Senators teammates. Granted, his possession stats haven’t been resilient like those of Stone’s, but the speedy center still has 15 points in as many games this season.

Old-school executives will also love his abilities in the circle, as he continues to be strong on faceoffs (winning 53.2-percent so far in 2018-19).

One request is for Duchene to shoot more often, as he’s been below 2 SOG per game (1.87), which is not in line with his career average of 2.46 SOG per night.

Artemi Panarin, Blue Jackets, 26, $6M

“The Bread Man” is on the other end of the spectrum, flexing his skills with a resounding 51 SOG in 15 games (3.40 per night, towering over his 2.62 career average).

It would be the latest example that Panarin is for real, except I believe people no longer need convincing that he’s a star. His 16 points in 15 games feels more like “business as usual.”

Of course, the actual business side is where things are most fascinating, as the Blue Jackets need to figure out what to do with Panarin (and struggling contract year goalie Sergei Bobrovsky). Whether he remains in Columbus or is traded somewhere else, motivation shouldn’t be an issue.

Jeff Skinner, Sabres, 26, $5.725M

with Jason Pominville, Sabres, 35, $5.6M

For one of Jack Eichel‘s linemates, it’s about Skinner lining up that first UFA mega-deal, whether it’s with Buffalo (possibly as extension?) or not. On the other end of the spectrum – and on the other wing – we have Pominville, who’s merely hoping to keep his career alive and vibrant.

Both are off to raucous starts, and both are at risk of slowdowns.

Skinner’s generated a fantastic 16 points in 15 games, with nine of those points being goals on a shooting percentage of 18. Then again, maybe the universe is merely repaying Skinner for his unlucky shooting season in 2017-18, when he only connected on an 8.7 success rate? He’s really been all over the place during his career, suffering four seasons with a shooting percentage below the general shooter’s Mason-Dixon line of 10-percent.

Skinner’s long been a very effective player who sort of leaves you hoping for even more, so maybe he’ll put it together at the most lucrative time?

Pominville felt like a nostalgia-friendly addition (and an expensive deal to make the money work) in the trade that netted Marco Scandella, yet the veteran winger has 14 points in 15 games. His eight goals come from some luck, as he’s connected on a whopping 19.5-percent of his shots. He’s also done so with a miniscule ice time average of a mere 13:43 per game, actually down from his recent years of decline.

Both are likely to slip from point-per-game play over the long haul of 82 games, but that’s fine. In Skinner’s case, he could easily exceed his career-high of 63 points. Meanwhile, Pominville could very well show that he still has a place in the NHL, possibly as the full-time “third-best guy on a good line.”

(Another Pominville-like, veteran impact who falls a little short of the top of this list is Jason Spezza, who’s managed a helpful 10 points in 15 games despite limited minutes.)

Anders Lee, Islanders, 27, $3.75M

Hey, maybe Lee is good, not just John Tavares-enhanced?

Either way, it’s been an impressive start to 2018-19 for Lee, who presents an interesting conundrum for the shockingly fast-starting Islanders: do you take advantage of him being the “hot hand” or do you pencil him in as a core player?

Lee has 13 points in 14 games, and his 12.5 shooting percentage is actually below his career average of 14.5 (OK, that might be the Tavares effect).

Interestingly, Lee is succeeding despite being deployed in a resoundingly different way. He’s begun 59.2-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, versus a career average of 45.1. Lee’s possession numbers aren’t the prettiest in every regard, yet they look rosier relative to his teammates.

Lee’s numbers might suffer if things really bottom out for the Islanders as this season goes along; while he’s not really riding inane puck luck, the Isles in many ways have been.

Still, it’s heartening to observe his start, whether you’re an Islanders exec pondering an extension or a team hoping to poach Lee.

Lightning round

  • Spezza: It sure seems like has a new lease on life unshackled from Hitch’s clutches.
  • Erik Karlsson and Jake Gardiner: These two defensemen are in interesting situations. Each are scoring at about a point-every-other-game pace, even though Karlsson hasn’t scored a goal and Gardiner has been limited to one. All three have the potential to go on red-hot streaks to up their value; all three will get paid nicely one way or another.
  • Jakob Silfverberg: Even at 27, it’s tough to tell if we’ve seen everything Silfverberg has to offer. Injuries diluted his totals, but his nine points are more impressive when limited to 11 games. He can’t expect to maintain a 21 shooting percentage, though.
  • Wayne Simmonds: So far, the intriguing winger has 10 points in 15 games. His value is tough to gauge, so his earning power may very well hinge on how 2018-19 shakes out.
  • Semyon Varlamov, Ryan Miller, Robin Lehner: Goalies who are having the strongest contract years so far, with Varlamov and Lehner playing bigger roles.
  • Keith Kinkaid, Jimmy Howard: Two goalies in very different situations, with very similar save percentages. A lot on the line for all of the goalies in UFA situations.
  • Bob, Mike Smith: Among the goalies penciled in as starters who are off to tough contract years. We’ll see if they can get back on track.

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.

If Bruins keep getting secondary scoring, look out

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The Boston Bruins have long been considered a “one-line team,” and that’s not such a bad thing when that one line features Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak.

You’d think that the Bruins would have lost Game 7 against the Maple Leafs and Game 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, what with that one line essentially being held scoreless.*

Nope. The Bruins won both of those games, which leaves them with a 1-0 series lead against the Blue Jackets to begin Round 2.

[Read all about the Bruins’ 3-2 OT win here.]

* – Bergeron scored an empty-netter in Game 7, but it was a 5-1 goal that barely beat the buzzer and meant even less to the outcome of that decisive contest.

Consider some of the less-obvious players who’ve come through for the Bruins lately, and we’ll ponder how likely it is that they’ll be able to continue to contribute.

David Krejci

But first, an obvious player, as Krejci is a player whose play (73 points this season, tying a career-high) screams that the Bruins really haven’t only been a one-line team, in the first place. It’s probably true that Krejci isn’t quite the pivot who topped all playoff point producers in 2012-13 (26, seven more than anyone else) and 2010-11 (23), but he remains worthy of more attention than he gets on a team with justifiable spotlight-takers in Bergeron, Marchand, and Zdeno Chara.

The Bruins might end up needing even more from the supporting cast members below if Krejci needs to miss some time. NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty reports that Krejci is considered day-to-day, and it’s possible he got hurt here.

Even if Krejci plays, there’s the chance he wouldn’t be at full-strength, so these players may need to continue to step up as the series moves on to Game 2 on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC; stream here).

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Charlie Coyle

The headline-grabber, naturally, is Coyle. He was already heating up during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but Game 1 was his masterpiece, as Coyle scored the goal that sent Game 1 to overtime, and then tapped home the 2-1 OT-winner.

If you ever want a snapshot of how dramatically luck can shift from terrible to incredibly friendly, you could do worse than to look at Coyle right after the trade deadline versus Playoff Coyle.

Through 21 regular-season games after being traded to Bruins: two goals, six points, a pitiful 4.8 shooting percentage on 42 SOG.

Through eight playoff games: five goals, six points, an absurd 35.7 shooting percentage on 14 SOG.

Obviously, the truth about Coyle is somewhere between the guy who couldn’t buy a bucket during the regular season with Boston, and the player who’s scored a goal on his last three shots on goal.

Coyle finished 2018-19 with 34 points, but he generally strikes as a 40-50 point player, and has shown a decent ceiling with a career-high of 56 points in 2016-17. You can’t really expect spectacular scoring from Coyle, but if this run really heightens his self-confidence, he could really give the Bruins a chance to win the depth battle, at least some nights. That’s not as spectacular as scoring OT goals, but in the likely event that the top line starts scoring again, it makes the Bruins frightening.

Marcus Johansson

Goal scorers are the guys who “hit the long ball” to a great passer’s Maddux, but you merely need to watch replays of the two Coyle goals to see that Marcus Johansson was just as instrumental in those tide-changing tallies.

It’s tough not to root for a player like Johansson. When he was traded from Washington to New Jersey, it seemed like the Capitals got cap-crunched, and the Devils were really building something. Unfortunately, thanks in large part to a bad hit by Johansson’s now-teammate Brad Marchand, Johansson suffered serious health issues, and really hasn’t been the same player.

The Bruins were smart to give Johansson a shot via a rental, though, and the B’s could really be onto something if he finds chemistry with Coyle. Johansson’s 30 points in the regular season are actually a lot more impressive when you consider that he was limited to 58 games played, and if he can stay healthy, the Swede could put together a stellar contract year (er, contract playoff run?).

Again, don’t expect Coyle and Johansson to do Game 1 things during the rest of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet the chemistry and confidence could start soaring at this rate.

(And, hey, Coyle’s contract ends after 2019-20, so really, they’re both more or less playing for their futures.)

Jake DeBrusk

As the Bruins’ frequent second-liner alongside Krejci, DeBrusk quietly put up 27 goals despite being limited to 68 games. He had some memorable moments during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and remains a strong contributor for Boston. In fact, if Krejci misses time, DeBrusk could show how much havoc he can create on his own.

Sean Kuraly/Noel Acciari/Joakim Nordstrom

OK, these guys weren’t exactly high-scorers during the regular season, and their contributions might not be super-dependable. Acciari’s goal on Sergei Bobrovsky to start the scoring in Game 1, and Kuraly’s big 3-1 goal against Frederik Andersen in Game 7 of Round 1 were both goals that the netminders really should have had. Still, if those guys can get the occasional goal and avoid being deep underwater on tougher nights, that could be big. (Some nights will be easier than others.)

Kuraly, in particular, shows a nice burst that can cause headaches for opponents, and his possession stats have been positive so far now that he’s managed to get healthy enough to appear in the playoffs.

***

Don’t let some hit-posts and other near-misses fool you; the Bruins are still going to lean heavily on their top trio, and barring health issues or a truly profound cold streak, they’ll likely deliver.

You need another players to pick up during the grind of the postseason, particularly against teams that are gameplanning to stop Bergeron, Marchand, and Pastrnak. The Bruins have been getting needed contributions from their supporting cast, and while that luck is almost certain to eventually cool off, there’s a solid chance that Coyle and Johansson could be bigger contributions than they were during the regular season.

That makes the Bruins a scary postseason opponent, especially if Krejci’s issues are short-lived.

The Bruins hope to build on their 1-0 series lead against the Blue Jackets in Game 2 at TD Garden at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday (NBC; stream here).

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.

Coyle’s clutch as Bruins take 1-0 series lead vs. Blue Jackets

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Some deadline deals never work out for teams once they hit the playoffs. Others take a little time to find their stride.

And then there’s some that make an immediate impact.

While Charlie Coyle‘s arrival in Boston earlier in the year wasn’t much to write home about, his presence in the Stanley Cup Playoffs has been nothing short of sensational.

And the Boston Bruins can thank Coyle for a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven Round 2 series against the Columbus Blue Jackets after he scored two monumental goals for the Bruins in a 3-2 overtime win on NBCSN on Thursday.

Coyle’s wasn’t the biggest name to get a plane ticket to a new destination. He was added depth for a Bruins team were bolstering their lineup for a run at Lord Stanley. But sometimes depth plays a crucial part for a playoff team, and Coyle now has five goals and an assist in eight playoff games with his new club.

Coyle came through in the clutch not once, but twice on Thursday.

Boston had jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first period on a shorthanded goal by Noel Acciari (more depth) as Boston tried to deliver the knockout blow in a flurry of offense in the opening period.

The Blue Jackets withstood the storm, much like they did against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round. As the game progressed, Columbus slowly found its stride. They hadn’t played in a week after sweeping the Lightning in the biggest shocker of Round 1. They looked, perhaps, too relaxed.

But when the third rolled around, a gift of manna emerged from the heavens in the forms of a 13 stretch where the Blue Jackets turn the game on its head.

Boston will probably say this one was just a blip on the radar after the win. Columbus, meanwhile, will say they stuck with it and use some solace.

Both statements have some semblance of truth embedded in them, but in a race to four wins, it only matters that the Bruins found a way.

And that way was directed by Coyle.

The former Minnesota Wild forward tied the game with less than four minutes remaining to ultimately send the game to overtime, where he’d write the conclusion to the story as he tapped in a perfect pass from fellow trade deadline acquisition Marcus Johansson to seal the victory.

Boston probably deserved to win, truth be told. The possession numbers and expected goals favored them heavily and they were able to rebound from the 180 that happened. The playoffs are as much about rebounding from adversity as they are about trying to avoid it altogether.


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

Blue Jackets’ magic hasn’t run out, pushes Bruins to Game 1 OT

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For a while there, the story of Bruins – Blue Jackets Game 1 seemed to boil down to Columbus failing to take advantage of a Boston team that came off a lengthy, challenging series against the Maple Leafs. But, instead of rest vs. rust, the focus is on Columbus pulling off another “did that really just happen?” moment.

The Blue Jackets hadn’t been able to get a goal past Tuukka Rask for most of Game 1, while Sergei Bobrovsky managed to keep Columbus in it when the team seemed to be shaking off rust (or simply getting outplayed by the Bruins).

It was only a 1-0 lead for Boston, though, and that flip-flopped to a 2-1 advantage for the Blue Jackets, as Riley Nash and Artemi Panarin scored two goals just 13 seconds apart. Check those goals in the video above.

The Bruins didn’t collapse after that stunning spree, though, as Charlie Coyle buried the 2-2 goal after a nice Marcus Johansson pass.

Round 1 provided hockey fans with 10 overtime games, and the first Game 1 of Round 2 now pushes it to 11. You can stream that game here; meanwhile, Blues – Stars Game 1 can be streamed via this link.

2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs: PHT predicts Round 2

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So after a Round 1 that was full of unexpected endings, what can even expect from Round 2? How many more brackets might get busted over the next two weeks — if they weren’t already busted after what we just witnessed?

Here are some fun facts about Round 1:

• 14 of the 16 top point producers from the regular season are not in the Second Round

• 5 of 8 winning teams overcame a series deficit

• 7 of the top 10 regular-season teams eliminated

• 3 Game 7s – most in the opening round since 2014 (3 Game 7s in entire playoffs last year)

• Ten games required overtime, matching the total from the entire 2018 postseason.

• For the first time in NHL history, the top team from each conference and all division winners were eliminated in the opening round. Washington’s defeat guarantees that there will be a new Stanley Cup champion for the 19th time in the past 20 seasons.

• Only three other rounds in NHL history have featured two Game 7s that required overtime, with each occurring on either the same day or on consecutive days: the 1997 Conference Quarterfinals (2 on April 29), 2011 Conference Quarterfinals (April 26-27) and 2012 Conference Quarterfinals (April 25-26). No postseason in NHL history has ever featured more than two Game 7s that have required overtime.

• Overall, 10 of 46 games required overtime in the First Round (21.7%), matching the total from the entire 2018 postseason (10 of 84 GP; 11.9%).

Now let’s move on to Round 2. Here’s who we think will advance to the conference finals. Who do you have moving on?

PHT’s Round 2 previews
Round 2 schedule, TV info

Questions for the final eight teams
PHT Roundtable
Conn Smythe favorites after Round 1