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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.

Puck and player tracking gets TV test at All-Star Weekend

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

Twenty-three years after Fox’s glowing puck made its debut, the NHL’s next big technological advancement will be on display this weekend during All-Star festivities.

NBC will showcase puck and player tracking as part of its broadcast of the skills competition Friday night and then as the centerpiece of a digital-only broadcast of the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament Saturday night. It’ll be the first chance for American hockey fans to get an up-close look at the system that could be in place as soon as next season.

With each player and puck fitted with a microchip, the amount of available information could be overwhelming. Look for everything from NASCAR-like bubbles over players’ heads to skating and shot speed to ice time and even a small trail behind the puck as NBC takes tracking technology in hockey for a test drive.

”Eventually it’ll go to possession time and more advanced (data), but right now it’s mainly focused on speed, shift time, distance traveled, mph on the shot and virtually connecting players on a goal,” NBC Sports producer Steve Greenberg said. ”We’re scratching the surface here, and what we’re able to display this weekend is not what we’re going to be able to display next year and in the future, but it’s going to be able to be a really good first look at what these chips are going to be able to give us.”

The NHL privately tested puck and player tracking in two regular-season games in Las Vegas earlier this month, but this will be the first time the data is available for public consumption. While other types of tracking technology were tested at previous All-Star Games and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, this is something of a dry run for the radio frequency system the NHL has been working with developers to perfect.

Much like the glowing puck was criticized by purists, there’s the danger of overloading fans with too much, too fast. So this is as big a test for NBC as anyone to experiment with how much puck and player tracking data can and should fit onto a TV broadcast.

”It’s a balancing act,” NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood said. ”Think about years ago when the yellow line came in for the first down in football. It’s now universal. There are going to be elements that’ll become universal in hockey telecasts based on what we learn over the next period of time.”

Kenny Albert, who will call the puck and player tracking-heavy telecast available on NBC Sports’ app and online, likens this to the kind of ball-tracking technology that has become ubiquitous in golf coverage. He was with Fox in the 1990s when the glowing puck was perhaps ahead of its time but thinks fans are ready for puck and player tracking on TV.

”We live in an age of information overload and people want stuff like ice time and the mph on a shot for example or how fast a player’s skating,” Albert said. ”I have two teenage daughters and I don’t think anybody in that generation now just sits there and watches TV. They want information, whether it’s looking at their phone, their iPad, their computer, and there’s so much information out there.”

Eventually, once the NHL implements player and puck tracking, fans will be able to take a deep dive into all the numbers and there will be an element of real-time sports gambling. But Commissioner Gary Bettman and other league executives have pointed out that the first goal was always to make it TV-ready.

Puck and player tracking is ready for its close-up this weekend with a focus on showing how fast hockey is.

”The most obvious thing that (viewers will) probably notice is just sort of the correlations tied to speed,” NHL senior vice president of business development David Lehanski said. ”It’s kind of the thing everybody talks about: how fast the game is, how fast the players are, how fast the puck moves.”

KARLSSON CONUNDRUM

Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson missed the final three games before the break with a lower-body injury, but there’s somehow still a chance he takes part in All-Star Weekend in San Jose. Obviously, coach Peter DeBoer said, the organization would love to have Karlsson on the ice in its home arena, but not at the risk of making it worse.

”If there’s more damage to be done, no one in their right mind would play,” DeBoer said. ”So I think it’s pretty simple.”

Karlsson returned to California for tests, and defenseman Brenden Dillon said it’s a positive for the team to play it safe with the two-time Norris Trophy winner. Karlsson has fit in well with San Jose after an offseason trade from San Jose and gives the Sharks the look of a Stanley Cup contender with the deepest blue line in the league.

”He’s an unbelievable talent and a guy that’s fit in our locker room great too,” Dillon said. ”It’s something where collectively as a group we realized that it was going to be a little bit less whether that’s in minutes or situations … I think for everybody it’s kind of been a little bit less is more and understanding the kind of common goal. So far, so good.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Buffalo Sabres get an early test in the second half of the season when they visit the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday in each team’s first game after the All-Star break.

LEADERS (THROUGH MONDAY)

Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 33; Assists: Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 56; Points: Kucherov, 78; Ice Time: Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), 26:41; Wins: Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas), 27; Goals-Against Average: Robin Lehner (N.Y. Islanders), 2.02; Save Percentage: Jack Campbell (Los Angeles), .931.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

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NHL announces 2019 All-Star game coaches

Wednesday Night Hockey: Golden Knights try to stay strong at home vs. Predators

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Nashville Predators and Vegas Golden Knights. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Predators enter the final game before the All-Star break two points behind the Winnipeg Jets for the Central Division lead and powered by the goal scoring efforts of Viktor Arvidsson.

Arvidsson leads the team with 19 goals despite playing just 27 games. He missed three games in November with a lower-body injury, and then in his return to the lineup, he broke his thumb which led to a 21-game absence. He’s currently on pace for a 40-goal season despite missing 24 games to injury. After scoring against Colorado on Monday, he has 11 goals in his last 14 games and is tied with Evander Kane for the NHL lead in goals scored (10) since the calendar turned to 2019.

“He’s the man. I’ve said it a lot, he’s the Energizer Bunny for our team,” said Ryan Johansen. “Every game, he brings it, and it’s contagious for our group. It’s evident when he’s going, our team’s going.”

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Like last season, the Golden Knights are one of the best home teams in the NHL, though they have lost two of their past three at T-Mobile Arena. They’re 16-5-3 at home this season compared to 13-13-1 on the road. Offensive and defensively their game has been much better in Vegas as they’ve scored 3.29 goals per game and allowed 2.17 goals per game compared to 2.81 goals for and 3.15 goals against on the road.

Some of that goal scoring has come off the stick is the team’s leading scorer, Alex Tuch. His goal on Monday against his old team, the Minnesota Wild, gave him 16 on the season, surpassing his total from 2017-18. Tuch has recorded 39 points in 43 games this season after missing the first eight games in October with a lower-body injury. The production he’s provided so far helped earn him a seven-year, $33.25M extension, which kicks in next season.

Kenny Albert (play-by-play), Eddie Olczyk (analyst) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Nev.

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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.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Capitals look to end six-game slide vs. Maple Leafs

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Capitals would like to head into their All-Star/bye week break with a victory, but one against the Maple Leafs would be a big relief.

Entering Wednesday, Washington is winless (0-4-2) in their last six games and are coming off an entertaining 7-6 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks. They haven’t dropped seven straight since Jan. 2014, and before losing Tuesday night had been 22-0-0 when Alex Ovechkin recorded a hat trick.

Ovechkin is playing against Toronto, which means he’ll sit for their Feb. 1 game against the Calgary Flames for deciding to skip the NHL All-Star Weekend for rest. The Capitals will be eager to use a full-power squad to end the first half on a winning note.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

“The only way we’re going to get out of it is to get back to work,” said head coach Todd Reirden. “The only way we are getting out of this is if we work our way out of it, because that’s where you are really going to gain something as a team. If we would have won that game 6-5, it still isn’t the right way to play hockey. It’s great because we feel good because we got the win, but to trade chances, that’s not how we are going to have success and we know that doesn’t bring you long term gain.

“So it’s disappointing. We’re going to work through it [Wednesday vs. Toronto]. It’s not going to stop there. [Wednesday] we are going to come out and I’m expecting us to work as hard as we possibly can to improve in the areas that we’re not. But it’s not stopping there. It needs to be worked on. That was certainly a tough way to lose.”

While the Capitals look to right things before the break, so too are the Maple Leafs, who have won three of their last 10 games and have hit an offensive skid with only 24 goals over that stretch. They’ve lost their last four games at Scotiabank Arena and watched as the Tampa Bay Lightning have extended their lead in the Atlantic Division.

“I think we’re going through some adversity as a team and we want to get out of it as soon as possible,” said forward Auston Matthews. “Hopefully in the long run this is something good for us and we learn from it. It just seems like night after night, it’s little things that are costing us goals and ending up costing us important points. For us, we need to be consistent for a full 60 minutes.”

Gord Miller (play-by-play), Brian Boucher (analyst) and Ray Ferraro (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call.

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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.

Injured Karlsson could still take part in All-Star Weekend

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

WASHINGTON (AP) — There is still a chance San Jose Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson takes part in NHL All-Star Weekend despite missing the final three games before the break with an injury.

Sharks coach Peter DeBoer says Karlsson went back to California for more tests on what the team is calling a lower-body injury. DeBoer didn’t have any further update on Karlsson before his team faced the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals.

”I guess it’ll all be depending on what those results are,” DeBoer said. ”I know he wants to play. If there’s a possible way that he can play without hurting himself, then he’s going to play.”

Karlsson is one of three Sharks players picked for the All-Star Game, which is being held in San Jose. Captain Joe Pavelski and defenseman Brent Burns were also selected to represent the Sharks.

DeBoer says Karlsson wants to take part in the skills competition Friday and the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament Saturday night but won’t risk making the injury worse.

”He’s going to make that decision with our doctors,” DeBoer said. ”If he can’t do any more damage, I know he wants to play in the game. I’m sure the organization would love him in the game. If there’s more damage to be done, no one in their right mind would play. So I think it’s pretty simple.”

Karlsson is in his first season with the Sharks after they acquired him in a trade from the Ottawa Senators, and he’s set to be a free agent this summer. The 28-year-old two-time Norris Trophy winner has three goals and 40 assists in 47 games this season with San Jose.

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

MORE:
NHL reveals 2019 All-Star Game rosters
Pass or Fail: NHL’s eco-friendly 2019 All-Star Game jerseys
NHL announces 2019 All-Star game coaches