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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.

Golden Knights chase Gibson, demolish Ducks

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Heading into Wednesday’s 5-0 win for the Golden Knights, you could see Vegas and Anaheim as two teams suffering through very different circumstances.

On one hand, John Gibson was frequently bailing out Anaheim despite the Ducks allowing waves of scoring chances. Conversely, the Golden Knights fired shot after shot, yet found themselves on the wrong end of the scoreboard far too often to start 2018-19.

Well, the Golden Knights got to Gibson (and Ryan Miller) early and often on Wednesday, and it didn’t really require a barrage of shots … even if the dour Ducks defense sure seemed overwhelmed as ever.

Alex Tuch gave Vegas a 1-0 lead heading into the first intermission, but the Golden Knights truly shot as accurately as archers during the second period. They added two more goals to end Gibson’s night early (three goals allowed, nine saves), and it didn’t stop there. As if to cement the notion that this wasn’t all Gibson’s fault, Cody Eakin‘s second goal of the night looked alarmingly easy considering that it came shorthanded:

Sure, there were some odd moments, like Nick Holden receiving unlikely credit for this goal:

Perhaps Vegas receiving the bounces they haven’t enjoyed much this season (but practically bathed in during that magical 2017-18 campaign) amplified the score a bit, yet the Golden Knights seemed like the faster, more dangerous team when the game was actually in reach. They made it look easy at times against a Ducks team that honestly seems pretty hapless against oft-criticized head coach Randy Carlyle.

As you might expect in a lopsided contest, there were some promising overall developments for Vegas, ones that the Golden Knights likely hope to carry over beyond this one-sided affair.

While Gibson’s looked like his best self from last season much of this year (but not tonight), Marc-Andre Fleury has failed to channel his magic from 2017-18 on most evenings this season. He was dynamic when he needed to be against the Ducks, however, stopping all 29 shots for the 51st shutout of his NHL career.

The Golden Knights must be heartened by the work they saw from Max Pacioretty, too. “Patches” came into Wednesday with a paltry two goals and zero assists in 14 games, including a five-game pointless streak, prompting some to compare him unfavorably to Tomas Tatar already. One game isn’t going to keep this from being a tough start. Even so, two assists (on the first two goals of the game, when the match was still in dispute) could really boost the winger’s confidence.

Vegas still has some work to do, and Anaheim remains ahead of the Golden Knights following this result. The Golden Knights can take quite a bit from this win nonetheless, including some comfort in seeing that their efforts can yield results, from goals to victories.

Meanwhile, the Ducks get another reminder that Gibson can’t save their tails every night.

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.

The Buzzer: Rantanen, Avs beat Bruins in battle of NHL’s best lines

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Three Stars

1. Mikko Rantanen

Tonight’s game between the Avalanche and Bruins featured a heavyweight battle between possibly the two best top lines in the NHL, and those trios delivered.

While David Pastrnak (one goal and one assist) ranked among the B’s who contributed, the Avs really had no answer for Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog.

All three of those Colorado stars scored at least a goal in the Avs’ 6-3 win, yet Rantanen stood tallest with a goal and two assists. With that three-point performance, Rantanen now holds a pretty comfortable NHL points lead at 29 (MacKinnon, Patrice Bergeron, and Connor McDavid are tied at second with 26).

If you’re outrageous and need another nugget, consider that both of Rantanen’s assists were first ones, so he also racked up primary points on Wednesday.

2. Cody Eakin

The trio of Eakin (two goals), Alex Tuch (one goal, one assist), and Max Pacioretty (two assists) loomed large during Vegas’ dominant 5-0 win, doing their damage when the game was still within reach.

You could make an argument for his linemates – Tuch’s goal was the GWG, for one thing – but Eakin grabbed two goals, including a matter-of-fact backhander during a shorthanded rush.

As much as the Golden Knights must miss Paul Stastny, Eakin has been heating up lately. This impressive performance extends the former Dallas Stars center’s point streak to fie games (four goals, two assists).

3. Corey Crawford

OK, this is a tough one. After all, Marc-Andre Fleury‘s shutout (29 saves) features one more save than the one Corey Crawford authored (28 saves). “MAF” made some dazzling saves to maintain that goose egg, too.

It’s nice to spread the wealth to multiple teams in the three stars, and beyond that, the margin of error was different. While Fleury was maintaining a shutout, Crawford couldn’t make a mistake, as the Blackhawks only managed one goal in that 1-0 victory against the Blues. Maybe Chicago would have offered more if forced, although the Blackhawks’ 18 SOG don’t inspire much confidence.

The sheer meaning of Crawford’s shutout pushes it over the top.

Most immediately, it ended Chicago’s eight-game losing streak.

More personally, Crawford managed his first shutout in more than a year, and in doing so powered new head coach Jeremy Colliton to his first win as an NHL head coach.

Was Fleury’s shutout objectively better? Maybe, so consider him 3a to Crawford’s 3b if it’s really important to you.

Injuries

Highlights

Rantanen definitely helped MacKinnon score the game-winner:

Jake DeBrusk deserves three stars consideration thanks to his two goals in a losing effort for Boston:

Little Flower? MAFjr?

Nick Holden also had a two-point night, thanks in part to this odd tally:

Factoids

Blake Wheeler kept his point streak going, even if it was *yawn* just one assist. Slacker.

MAF is moving up the ranks.

Scores

CHI 1 – STL 0
WPG 3 – WSH 1
COL 6 – BOS 3
VGK 5 – ANA 0

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.

Which wrestling move did Jets’ Morrissey use on Capitals’ Oshie?

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Winnipeg Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey‘s takedown on T.J. Oshie of the Washington Capitals inspires some key questions:

  • Should there have been a penalty?
  • Should there be a suspension involved?

Former NHL player Jeff O’Neill believes that Morrissey’s infraction paralleled that of Michael Matheson on Elias Pettersson, which drew a two-game suspension earlier this season.

Let’s look at them side-by-side:

All of those questions pale in comparison to the burning one, though: what kind of professional wrestling move most resembles what Morrissey did to Oshie?

If you’ve spent time on Hockey Twitter, you’ll realize that there’s a remarkable convergence between hockey fans and fans of pro wrestling, whether it be WWE or the days when WWE was the WWF.

Personally, I was taken aback by comparisons to the DDT, which was (of course) made famous by Jake “The Snake” Roberts. I put it closer to “The Rock Bottom,” which was – naturally – administered by The Rock before he starred in every big-budget action film in existence.

There were some lively replies, with people mentioning “The Sidewalk Slam” (that could be the ticket) and a hurricanrana (I strongly disagree). What say you, PHT readers? I think we can all agree that it’s crucial that we get this right.

Oh yeah, and the Jets beat the Capitals 3-1 on Wednesday, while Washington is experiencing some injury worries for Braden Holtby and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

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.

Blackhawks blank Blues, end eight-game losing streak

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The St. Louis Blues hit some posts. Vladimir Tarasenko lost a tooth and thwarted an empty-net goal. But, for all their efforts, the Blues couldn’t score against Corey Crawford.

Instead, the Blackhawks won 1-0 on Wednesday, ending an eight-game losing streak (five under Joel Quenneville, three under Jeremy Colliton). This was a significant effort for a few reasons beyond the obvious need to get back in the win column:

  • 33-year-old Colliton gets his first win as an NHL head coach.
  • Crawford stopped all 28 shots for his first shutout since November of 2017.
  • Remember when Brent Seabrook was the butt of a few jokes? Well, he earned some retribution in this one, scoring the game’s only goal, with some help from Jay Bouwmeester, another occasionally hard-luck, expensive defenseman:

It was a low-event game overall, with the Blues generating a significant SOG advantage of 28-19, but they couldn’t solve Crawford. This was a painful evening for Tarasenko and others, sometimes literally:

The Blackhawks improve to 7-8-4 for 18 points in 19 games, remaining second-to-last in the Central Division. St. Louis continues to look up at Chicago and every other team in the Central, as the Blues’ record slips to 6-7-3 (15 points in 16 games).

As the Blackhawks adjust to a new head coach, it’s tough to shake the impression that the Blues might be teetering toward a similar change of direction. Fair or not, letdowns like being shut out by a shaky Chicago defense (albeit with an on-task Crawford) will not help Mike Yeo’s case.

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.