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Stanley Cup Finalists Capitals, Golden Knights are heating up

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Following up a run to the Stanley Cup Final is never really easy, but it seemed like an especially big challenge for the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights.

After all, the Capitals partied enough to kill a small town’s worth of brain cells, while the Golden Knights went on the sort of run we’ve never really seen for a contemporary expansion team in professional sports.

Yet, as we enjoy the final leftovers of Thanksgiving weekend, the two 2018 Stanley Cup Finalists seem to be rounding into form.

A familiar spot

By beating the New York Rangers 5-3 at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, the Capitals rattled off their fifth consecutive win. With that, the Capitals regained what almost feels like their rightful place atop the Metropolitan Division by way of nabbing 29 points in 23 games.

It’s not a huge lead, mind you. The persistent Columbus Blue Jackets are a mere standings point (28) behind the Capitals in the same number (23) of games played.

As far as what’s working, it also feels like much of the familiar. The Capitals’ 80 goals leads the Metro Division, helping them generate a +7 goal differential. Perhaps the least surprising element of all is Washington’s dangerous power play, as the Capitals’ 27.8-percent success rate slightly leads the Lightning for fourth-best in the NHL.

Capitals’ success and a keyed-in Braden Holtby tend to go together, too. Holtby’s now on a three-game winning streak, only allowing three goals overall during that span. After a tough October, Holtby generated an impressive .934 save percentage over eight November games.

It’s unclear if the Capitals will be able to finish ahead of the Blue Jackets and other rivals to win another division title, but overall, you can file this start under “so far, so good.” And you can mostly dismiss notions about a Stanley Cup hangover.

Digging the Golden Knights

Vegas isn’t in the same cushy spot that Washington is, at least not yet.

If the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs began as of this writing, the Golden Knights would not be in the mix. They’re currently ranked ninth in the West, as their 12-12-1 record for 25 points leaves them just behind the Anaheim Ducks for third (the Ducks have 25 points too, but in one fewer game played) in the paltry Pacific.

Sure, it’s been a slightly disappointing start through a quarter-and-change of this second season in the NHL, particularly since Vegas made some significant investments in free agency.

But the good news is that the Golden Knights clearly aren’t very far out of the playoffs, and they’re finally starting to get the sort of bounces that were (amusingly, from afar) weren’t there in 2018-19 after very much being there in 2017-18.

After battering the San Jose Sharks by a sobering score of 6-0 on Saturday, the Golden Knights have won three games in a row, with all of those victories coming against Pacific rivals. This small winning streak isn’t the only thing that’s promising, either; the Golden Knights can be especially heartened by who is heating up.

Most obviously, Marc-Andre Fleury is looking a whole lot more like the guy who stood on his head basically all of last season (until he ran into the Capitals in that 2018 Stanley Cup Final). After stopping 33 shots against the Sharks, “MAF” has now rattled off consecutive shutouts. Fleury’s won four straight games overall, only allowing five goals during his hot streak.

As Vegas’ starting goalie (and taking into account Malcolm Subban‘s considerable struggles), Fleury is the most important single element of the Golden Knights’ rise. Even so, it’s almost as refreshing to see Max Pacioretty seemingly shaking off his slow start.

“Patches” generated two goals in that rout of the Sharks, extending his point streak to five games (six goals, one assist for seven points). Pacioretty also has nine points in his last seven contests. That’s an enormous burst of energy when you consider that Pacioretty staggered through his first few weeks with the Golden Knights, starting off his stay with a troubling two points through his first 12 games.

Rattling off three straight wins won’t transform an 82-game season, but it’s worth noting because the Golden Knights have actually been arguing for their legitimacy with their work on the ice, only to not exactly reap the rewards.

Via Natural Stat Trick, the Golden Knights rank third in shot-share numbers like Corsi For and Fenwick For Percentage (not to mention actual shots for percentage). They only trail the puck-hogging Carolina Hurricanes as far as hogging the greatest number of scoring chances, and have had similar success in creating more high-danger chances than they’ve allowed.

They simply hadn’t been getting those precious, precious bounces. Their 6.8 even-strength shooting percentage ranks sixth-worst in the NHL, and their team save percentage (90.08) is third-worst at even-strength.

In other words, the underlying stats have argued for a while that the Golden Knights have actually been quite good in 2018-19, but they weren’t getting the saves and the luck.

It stands to reason, then, that the Golden Knights could be a very tough opponent if they merely enjoy league-average luck. With that in mind, Fleury heating up is a very good sign, unless you’re a West team trying to grind out a playoff spot.

***

Does all of this point to a rematch for the Capitals and Golden Knights in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final?

It would be foolish even to call that the league’s most likely matchup. With teams like the Jets, Predators, Lightning, and Maple Leafs standing in the way, both Washington and Vegas would face huge barriers in making deep runs once again.

That said, there were fears that both the Capitals and Golden Knights would stumble badly in attempting encores to their rousing performance last season. While there have indeed been challenges – and almost certainly will be more during what often feels like marathon NHL campaigns – both teams are bolstering arguments that they must be taken seriously once again.

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.

Rangers’ Panarin returns to Columbus the way he left: as a superstar

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Aside from no-brainer cases such as Nathan MacKinnon being paid essentially half of his on-ice value (maybe less), it can be tricky to say that an expensive free agent signing is “worth the money.” Especially since the New York Rangers have been worse than their 13-10-3 record would indicate.

So … maybe you’d argue Artemi Panarin hasn’t been worth every dime of his $11.64M AAV, but I believe emphatically that he’s at least justified the hype as the rare superstar to actually hit unrestricted free agency.

Thursday serves as a momentous occasion to consider that decision, as Panarin is playing against the Blue Jackets for the first time in Columbus since deciding to leave for the Rangers. Let’s look at this situation from a few different angles.

Still a superstar

As the headline suggests, Panarin remains a dynamic talent.

Even with a two-game pointless drought coming into Thursday’s game, Panarin has been producing, generating 12 goals and 33 points in 26 games. If Panarin managed to maintain this pace over an 82-game season, he’d set new career-highs with 39 goals, 67 assists, and 106 points.

He might not be able to maintain it. While Panarin’s shooting percentage isn’t totally out of order, his playmaking might cool ever so slightly (his on-ice shooting percentage – a decent way to see if a player’s assists might be a touch inflated – is very high at 15.6 percent, compared to a career average of 10.8).

Even so, if Panarin stays healthy, he’s off to a hot enough start that he might beat his career-high of 87 points.

Most importantly, Panarin is still extremely good, and brings more to the table than just the highlight reel passes and goals.

By most underlying numbers, Panarin is more or less the same player: a dynamic offensive presence who doesn’t seem to hurt his team defensively. Maybe you can chalk that up to the notion that the best defense is to not have to play defense because you have the puck all the time, but either way, he’s remarkable. Check out the past three seasons of his heat maps via Hockey Viz’s Micah Blake McCurdy:

(As a reminder, lots of red and a positive number up top, in the offensive side is great, and not lots of red and a negative number in the bottom [defensive] half is also great. So, basically, Panarin ruled and still rules.)

Via the Point Hockey’s stats, Panarin is tied with Mathew Barzal for the lead in offensive zone puck possession (1:12 per game) and Panarin’s 72 completed passes to the slot ranks fourth overall.

At this point, it’s not about if Panarin is still an elite player, but where he ranks among the cream of the crop.

Not downplaying the meaning of the game

Plenty of people involved with the Rangers acknowledge that Thursday’s return to Columbus means a lot to Panarin. Panarin himself admitted as much on Wednesday, as the New York Post’s Larry Brooks reports.

“I’m pretty excited. It’s not going to be a regular game for me,” Panarin said. “It’s going to be a different game, I’m going to try to show the best I can.”

Via The Athletic’s Rick Carpiniello (sub required), current Rangers and former Blue Jackets executive John Davidson believes that Panarin might be a “little apprehensive” about how he’ll be received. Going to the Rangers was basically Panarin’s first full-fledged choice (his options were limited when he came to the Blackhawks from the KHL, and it wasn’t his call when Panarin was traded to Columbus), so here’s hoping that Blue Jackets fans are as understanding as 1st Ohio Battery’s Chris Pennington recommends.

Breadless

So far, it’s been an up-and-down season for Columbus, who have lost two in a row and sit at 11-2-4.

While Sergei Bobrovsky‘s bloated contract and rocky start make his departure seem like a possible blessing in disguise, it’s tougher not to miss Panarin.

In particular, I’ve been curious to see how Pierre-Luc Dubois has fared without Panarin. He’s been glued to Panarin for the first two years of his career, making it difficult to tell just how good he is. (We knew PLD was a very useful player, but a star like Panarin can really shine you up.)

So far … mostly very good. Like Panarin, is heat maps look strong as ever:

With 18 points in 27 games (thanks to a dry spell of one assist in his last five games), Dubois isn’t quite on last season’s 61-point pace, but he’s not so far off, and has a shot at his first 30+ goal season.

Sure, Dubois proving himself doesn’t totally soothe things for a Columbus team facing ups and downs, yet it’s something they can hang their hat on as Panarin comes back to town.

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.

Slumping Stars make not so rad move by scratching Radulov

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When a team is on a losing streak, desperation can start to climb. Sometimes, that brings the best out of teams and management. Sometimes people get fired, or traded, or someone becomes a scapegoat.

The Dallas Stars made the eyebrow-raising decision to scratch winger Alexander Radulov heading into Thursday’s game against divisional rival Winnipeg. The Athletic’s Sean Shapiro reports that head coach Jim Montgomery explained that the move is “best for” the team, while Radulov declined the chance to comment.

If you make only a surface-level look at recent results, it’s easy to see what Montgomery is thinking.

Most obviously, the Stars are on a four-game losing streak, and one would argue that they might need a jolt. Putting a top player in street clothes could serve as a shock to the system to other players who might be perceived as underachieving — at least that’s the way such logic would go.

Before the Stars’ losing streak, Radulov scored two goals and one assist. During this four-game skid, Radulov has failed to score a point.

Maybe just as important, if not more, to Montgomery is that Radulov’s also taken three penalties (six PIM) during that skid. People have also noted that Radulov responded to his last healthy scratch with a hat trick.

… But I can’t say I really sign off on the move.

For one thing, Radulov’s been a scapegoat far too often during his underappreciated career, with the most memorable flare-up stemming from Barry Trotz’s harsh reaction to him missing curfew during a Predators playoff run many moons ago. Things … didn’t really work out in the long run there for the Predators, or Radulov.

Now, sure, it’s true that Radulov isn’t getting the same box score results as he had during his previous two seasons with the Stars. After scoring 27 and 29 goals along with 72 points in each of 2017-18 and 2018-19, Radulov has 15 points through 29 games, good for just a 43-point pace.

There are a lot of context clues hinting at why his production is down.

While Tyler Seguin remains his most common forward line mate at even-strength, Radulov’s spent about as much time with Seguin as without him, versus the past two seasons, where he spent about two-thirds of his ice time with Seguin.

Radulov’s underlying stats indicate that he’s still a tremendous offensive talent, while providing an underrated defensive impact:

It’s understandable if the Stars are a little disappointed with his production, but with reduced ice time compared to previous seasons (he’s averaging 17:16 minutes per night after logging about 20 minutes per game during his first two Stars campaigns) and less time with Seguin, it shouldn’t be surprising that there’s a drop-off.

That’s especially true since, frankly, Montgomery isn’t exactly unleashing the hounds. This Stars team can be sometimes agonizingly passive, and so it’s tough to be surprised when production is spotty.

(Hence why many of us hockey observers have been so frustrated when Jamie Benn and especially Seguin get thrown under the bus.)

Perhaps there’s a way to get more out of Radulov. Frankly, while I don’t really buy the armchair psychology of “motivating” Radulov through a healthy scratch, there’s a solid chance he’ll return and get back on track. Considering the fact that Radulov is 33, you could dress it up as (likely accidental) “load management.”

Not to blow any minds, but you have a better chance to win when you put better players on the ice, though, so I can’t say that I love this move. It doesn’t seem like Radulov thinks it’s all that rad, either.

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.

Bargain star MacKinnon says he’d take less money again to help Avalanche win

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If you could choose one active NHL player to build a team around, who would it be?

In a vacuum, the answer should be obvious: Connor McDavid. Yet, when you consider salary cap realities, the choice gets fuzzier thanks to the absolutely ludicrous bargain the Colorado Avalanche are enjoying with Nathan MacKinnon.

With all due respect to the steals teams like the Bruins enjoy with David Pastrnak, you can’t really beat the bang for the buck the Avalanche get for MacKinnon (unless you try to cheat with rookie contracts, which: tsk, tsk).

MacKinnon, 24, is currently in the fourth season of a contract that carries an outrageously team-friendly AAV of just $6.3M, and delightfully for Colorado, that deal won’t expire until after the 2022-23 season. That cap hit is barely more than half of the $12.5M AAV McDavid carries, and frankly, McDavid is worth every penny of the league maximum. (And MacKinnon likely deserves something in that range, too.)

You have to wonder if MacKinnon must want to fire his agent after seeing players like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner cashing in on their second deals, but the speedy Avalanche center mostly shrugged it off — though with some humor — telling Forbes’ Jordan Horrobin that, in the grand scheme of things, MacKinnon has “no regrets” about signing his contract.

After all, MacKinnon is doing just fine, with Cap Friendly estimating his career earnings at $27.025M so far. Yes, MacKinnon deserves more, but unless Elon Musk or Bill Gates is reading this post, you’d agree that it’s a good problem to have.

Even so, fans of teams with stars on less team-friendly contracts likely feel jealous when they see MacKinnon ripping through defenses at a cut rate. Those fans may grit their teeth, then, while Avs fans may want to throw up confetti when they realize that MacKinnon indicated to Horrobin that he’d sacrifice some dollars on his next contract if it helped the Avalanche win big.

“We have guys that we wouldn’t (otherwise) be able to bring in,” MacKinnon said. “On my next deal, I’ll take less again. Because I want to win with this group.”

Now, sure, “less” is likely to be a relative term. Maybe it would mean that MacKinnon would “settle” for a bit less than whatever the maximum salary would be. The league’s salary structure and revenues could really blossom by 2022 (the first summer where MacKinnon could sign an extension) or after 2022-23, when his deal expires. Or maybe MacKinnon would follow his buddy Sidney Crosby and give the Avalanche another extreme sweetheart deal.

And, obviously, things can change fast. The Avalanche could fall off the rails compared to their current seemingly skyrocketing upward trajectory, or MacKinnon could clash with management, making the prospect of leaving even more money on the table far less palatable down the line.

But the concept of getting another value contract with MacKinnon is ultimately extremely promising for the Avs.

After all, this bursting group of young talent figures to become pretty costly down the line. Cale Makar is already flirting with superstar status, and he’ll need a second contract after 2020-21. Philipp Grubauer only has two more years on his active contract, too, and could prove he’s worth far more than his current $3.33M AAV. Gabriel Landeskog‘s contract expires during that same offseason.

You can see how the belt could really tighten for the Avalanche down the line, and while MacKinnon should command a huge raise whenever he inks his next contract, it sounds like he might be willing to compromise to try to win a Stanley Cup (or, perhaps if he parallels Crosby in more than just taking less money for the team, winning multiple Stanley Cups).

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.

Coyotes’ Soderberg thriving despite blindness in left eye

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — The darkest time came right after the injury. Months in the hospital. Multiple surgeries. Pain, fear, little hope.

Playing hockey again was not even a remote consideration. Carl Soderberg had bigger concerns.

”I was more worried about my eye and would I get my vision back,” Soderberg said.

The Arizona Coyotes made the biggest splash of the offseason, trading for highly productive right wing Phil Kessel.

But the addition of Soderberg might have been Arizona’s biggest move.

A 6-foot-3, 210-pound center, Soderberg has given the Coyotes a big body to go with all those fast, skilled young players.

He’s a willing jostler outside the crease, creating traffic in front of opposing goalies and shooting lanes for his teammates. He’s the guy who goes into the corners to dig pucks out. Need a big hit, he’s Arizona’s guy.

Soderberg also is skilled, tied with Christian Dvorak for second on the team with eight goals. He’s also tied for fifth with 15 points through 29 games.

”He’s a guy that goes to the net. He’s always around the net,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. ”He’s just fit in and he’s a big body. It’s nice to have those big bodies. He’s done a nice job for us.”

The most amazing part of Soderberg”s NHL success: he’s legally blind in his left eye.

He was injured while playing in the Swedish Elite League in 2006 when an opponent tried to lift his stick and hit his eye instead. Soderberg suffered a detached retina, spent three months in the hospital because of pressure in his eye and lost track of how many surgeries he had, estimating between eight and 10.

A young player reaching his prime, Soderberg was in too much pain to think about his hockey career.

”The pressure in my eye was so high for months,” the 34-year-old said. ”It wouldn’t go down, so I was in constant pain, getting constant headaches and worried if I would ever be able to see out of my eye again. I just wanted to feel good again.”

Once the pressure started to go down, Soderberg began working out and, within about a year, was playing hockey again. His return was difficult, from figuring out how to play with limited vision to quashing the fear that comes with having been struck in the eye with a stick.

”It was a little different on the eyes, I was scared, afraid to get hit again,” he said. ”It took me a couple years to fully get back.”

Soderberg worked through the tentativeness and adjusted his game, learning to turn his head more to see the puck and having a better understanding of where everyone is on the ice.

”You have to be more aware, you have to listen to your teammates, look around you a little bit more,” Soderberg said.

Willie O’Ree knows what Soderberg is going through.

Playing at a time when players didn’t have helmets much less visors, O’Ree took a slapshot to his right eye during a game in 1956. O’Ree lost nearly all the vision in his eye and was told he would never play hockey again.

Undeterred, he started skating two weeks after leaving the hospital and adjusted his game. Being a left-handed left wing helped some, but seeing the puck to his right required turning his head all the way to the right so he could see it with his left eye.

O’Ree went on to become the first black player in the NHL in 1958 and played 21 seasons in a variety of leagues. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018, has an NHL community award named in his honor and currently serves as the league’s diversity ambassador.

”You never took an eye exam, so I said, if I’m good enough to make the team with one eye, just don’t tell them,” O’Ree said. ”I was getting hit a lot more than I did before, but I was able to play 21 years with one eye.”

Soderberg is playing his eighth NHL season while seeing little more than light in his left eye. He spent three seasons with Boston and four with Colorado before being traded to Arizona for Kevin Connauton and a draft pick last summer.

Soderberg, who has 94 goals and 166 assists in 511 career games, has been a big reason the Coyotes are off to one of the best starts in franchise history, entering Wednesday’s games a point behind Edmonton in the Pacific Division.

”I have a good feeling about us as a group,” Soderberg said. ”We should be at the top of our division at the end and that’s our goal.”

It’s hard not to trust Soderberg’s vision at this point.