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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.

LA Kings set Guinness World Record for ‘Largest Laser Show’

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The Los Angeles Kings may have dropped their third in a row Thursday night and fell to 2-5-0 on the season, but they set a world record during the first intermission.

The Kings’ game presentation department used 642 lasers as part of the Guinness Book of World Records “Largest Laser Show” at STAPLES Center. So, yeah, they were shutout, but they made history.

For the record, the first-period goals by Casey Mittelstadt and Conor Sheary did not, in fact, count toward the final laser total.

With Thursday being the 20th anniversary of the opening of the arena, which featured a Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band concert back in 1999, the Kings wanted to do something special, so they went and shattered the previous record of 342, per the team.

Now, if only one of those lasers could have destroyed the “cursed” Taylor Swift banner

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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.

Kempny returns to Capitals’ blue line for first time since March

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Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer doing the ceremonial puck drop honors won’t be the only thing Capitals fans can look forward to Friday night. Defenseman Michal Kempny will make his long-awaited return to the ice against the Rangers after tearing his hamstring in March.

Kempny, who was paired with Radko Gudas during Friday’s morning skate, was given a four-to-six month timeline after undergoing surgery right before the end of last season.

“Yeah, I’m playing tonight. It’s been a long time. I’m very excited,” Kempny said. “There was a lot of hard days, especially from the beginning of the rehab, small steps make me happy. I think it’s part of rehab and all the bad is behind me and I’m just focusing now [on] today’s game.”

Kempny knows he won’t be logging heavy minutes just yet and wants to focus on getting back into the normal routine of a regular player. How his ice time is managed will be something his head coach has to worry about.

“We have a range we’d like to have him in and we’ll see how the game goes,” said Todd Reirden. “Obviously he’s fresh, he’s skating really well, he’s in unbelievable condition, so now it’s just to see how it transfers into game action and how his wind is and his conditioning.”

Braden Holtby is back between the pipes are being given a one game “reset,” as Reirden put it. How he fares against the Rangers will either pause the goalie controversy talk with Ilya Samsonov for now or only add more fuel to the fire.

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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.

Goaltending ‘legend’ Tre White tests hockey knowledge of Bills’ teammates

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Buffalo Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White was bit by the hockey bug after attending a Sabres game last season. He became a big fan of goaltender Carter Hutton, who he mistakenly called “Sutton” at first, and Tweeted out support for the team.

White tried to test the level of his Bills teammates’ hockey knowledge during this week’s episode of “Chill with the Bills.” It features White quizzing his teammates, who weren’t quite up to par. Though, Ed Oliver nailing the butterfly technique after failing at the rest of the test was quite the twist.

A “Louisiana hockey legend”, White was a “hockey All-American” and the “best player in Louisiana history” after not allowing a goal during his high school career, and he was an “inspiration” for Hutton, as the Bills documented earlier this month. White’s love of hockey was first promoted last December when the Bills created a video showcasing his goaltending abilities with a spoof ad for “The Tre’Davious White Goalie Academy of Louisiana at Buffalo.”

It’s quite good.

A Shreveport, La native, White’s hometown team, the Tier II junior Mudbugs, honored him last season during a February game.

Following back-to-back shutouts for Hutton this week and a 5-0-0 record to start the year, White surely has to be proud of his former goaltending protege.

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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.

What’s wrong with the Dallas Stars?

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The Dallas Stars were an overtime goal away from playing in the Western Conference Final last year. Unfortunately for them, the St. Louis Blues got a goal from Patrick Maroon in double OT during their second-round matchup last spring and the Stars were sent packing.

But heading into this season, expectations were sky-high for Dallas partly because they managed to sign Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry in free agency. Let’s just say they haven’t lived up to the hype so far.

Through eight games, the Stars have gone 1-6-1. Only the Minnesota Wild have collected fewer points (two) than Dallas (three) so far this season.

Look, it’s early enough that head coach Jim Montgomery could get this figured out, but they have to at least be concerned about where this season is heading.

“As frustrated as we are right now, there’s 90 percent of the season left,” goalie Ben Bishop told NHL.com after Wednesday’s loss to Columbus. “There’s still time to fix this ship, but there’s got to be more urgency from everybody from start to end. We’ve got to find ways to get [wins], no matter how it is.”

So what’s gone wrong for Dallas through eight games? What can they correct?

• Where are the Stars’ stars?

Alexander Radulov (four points in eight games), Tyler Seguin (four points in eight games) and Jamie Benn (two points in eight games) simply aren’t producing enough right now. Again, the sample size is small, but it’s hard for teams to win when their three most important offensive players aren’t putting the puck in the net.

That trio has spent a good amount of time together and it should be the best line the team has. There’s no way the Stars can have success if the all three players don’t produce at a 70-plus point clip. Even though it’s encouraging to see a youngster like Roope Hintz take the next step in his development, they still need their three veterans to come through for them.

The Stars are averaging less than two goals per game (they have 15 goals in eight contests) and their 4.2 percent power play isn’t striking fear in anybody. Is the power play being bad tied to their stars’ lack of production? Probably. No matter what the reason is, everyone involved has to get this figured out as soon as possible.

• Where are the new guys? 

The Stars invested big money in Pavelski and smaller dollars on Perry. Let’s just say that the return on investment hasn’t been there for them yet. In Perry’s case, it’s not really his fault. He was forced to miss the first seven games of the year because of a foot injury, but he was finally able to make his season debut on Wednesday night. The 34-year-old finished the game with an even rating and one shot on goal in just under 14 minutes of ice time. He was a nice addition, but not one the Stars were counting on to dominate offensively.

Pavelski is in a different boat. The 35-year-old changed teams for the first time in his career and he’s clearly not as effective as he was as a member of the San Jose Sharks. Pavelski scored his first goal as a Star late in Wednesday’s game against the Blue Jackets. Is that something he can build on? We’re about to find out. But they brought him in to be a secondary scorer behind Benn, Seguin and Radulov. Not only are those three not scoring, but Pavelski is also failing to do his part in that department.

They better hope the veteran figures it out because there’s still another two years left on the free-agent contract he signed in July.

The encouraging thing for Dallas, is that they rank ninth is high danger chances for percentage and they’re 13th in expected goals for percentage. Does that guarantee that the offense is coming? Probably not. But it’s something positive. (Stats provided by Natural Stat Trick)

• Bishop needs to get back to Vezina form

Bishop didn’t necessarily have the heaviest work load last season, but he managed to put himself in the Vezina Trophy discussion thanks to a solid season. Yes, the Stars did a great job of limiting high-quality scoring chances, but he still managed to step up when called upon.

Blaming him for the early-season struggles his team is having isn’t necessarily fair. It’s not so much that it’s Bishop’s fault, it’s more that he has to take his game to another level while the offense in front of him is struggling. It’s hard to imagine Dallas winning many games when they score less than two goals per game. The only way they can do that is if their goalie stands on his head.

The 32-year-old has a 1-4-1 record with a 2.84 goals-against-average and a .899 save percentage this season.

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.