Klingberg return could be boost Stars need to make playoffs

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For some time now, the Dallas Stars have ranked among the NHL’s most frustrating teams because, while they boast some outstanding high-end talent, they’ve rarely put it all together.

You might chalk a portion of that irked feeling to unfair expectations created by the dazzling early days with Tyler Seguin injected into the lineup, but still.

It’s probably unfair to dismiss the first season under Jim Montgomery as “same old, same old” for a simple reason: injuries.

To be more precise, the Stars – for all of their stumbles – hadn’t really dealt with the absence of near-Norris-level defenseman John Klingberg very often until 2018-19. He played every game in 2017-18, missed only two in 2016-17, and suited up for 76 in 2015-16, so missing six weeks is not a normal experience for the slick Swedish defenseman.

With that in mind, it’s not surprising that Klingberg is pumped to play against the Blackhawks on Thursday, representing his first bit of action since Nov. 8.

While rust might be a factor, Klingberg indicates that his recovered hand should be just about good as new, as he noted to The Athletic’s Sean Shapiro (sub required).

“It can’t get any worse or re-injured by playing,” Klingberg said. “As long as there isn’t a shot to the exact same place at the exact same angle.”

(Aside: did anyone else hear ominous music in their head when they read about Klingberg saying the “exact same place at the exact same angle?” Probably just me, after reading Bobby Ryan discuss why he was unhappy that Kyle Turris was slashing at his hand[s] before their unexpected fight.)

Beyond wins and losses, the Stars have been disappointing because they merely haven’t always been as exciting on the ice as they seem on paper, considering the fact that they’re ranked sixth-lowest at goals for and fifth-lowest at goals against.

It’s easy to forget how much of a difference Klingberg can make in altering the pace of Stars games.

Through 16 games this season, Klingberg had a whopping 13 points. Some of that was unsustainable (11.6 is a very high shooting percentage for a defenseman, well above Klingberg’s already-fairly-high 7.3 career average), but Klingberg is one of the NHL’s most explosive scoring defensemen, however you slice it.

He was also seeing an even bigger role under Montgomery, averaging a substantial 25:03 TOI per game, up from last season’s previous career-high of 24:04. Losing an elite defenseman who played almost half of every Stars game? Yeah, that will do a number on your transition game, not to mention overall play (as Klingberg is excellent from a possession standpoint at this stage of his career).

It’s also enticing to realize that the Stars could rapidly approach the sort of modern, puck-moving defense that thrives in the current NHL.

Esa Lindell and Miro Heiskanen have both been taking on significant minutes lately, and could each make sensible partners for Klingberg, what with Klingberg being a right-handed blueliner and those two being lefties. (At the moment, it looks like Lindell will go with Klingberg.)

Now, sure, it would be even more exciting if Julius Honka would also get in that space-age, top-six mix, but maybe that would be too greedy?

Speaking of lineups, these thoughts bring up another note: the Dallas Morning News’ Matthew DeFranks points out that the Stars have only had all of Klingberg, Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alex Radulov in the same lineup for seven of 34 games so far in 2018-19.

As of this writing, the Stars sit at ninth place in the West with a 17-14-3 record (37 points in 34 games). They’re two points behind second wild card Edmonton, who have 39 points in an extra game (18-14-3), so the Stars aren’t far off.

For all we know, Klingberg could stand as the difference between Dallas making the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, or once again coming up painfully short.

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.

Consistency the key as Eichel eyes end to Sabres’ playoff drought

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One of the main goals Jack Eichel believes that the Buffalo Sabres need to reach in 2019-20 is finding consistency in a positive way. Points dropped are points dropped and teams can leapfrog you in the standings easily if you’re going through a bit of a skid.

“There’s going to be games this year where we don’t have it — maybe we’ve been on the road, maybe we’ve been traveling, maybe it’s a back-to-back,” Eichel told NBC Sports during the NHL Player Media Tour earlier this month. “It’s a long season and every night’s not your best night. The best teams find ways to scratch a point out here or there or maybe win a game that they don’t deserve to win. For us, it’s about doing that, finding consistency night in and night out and giving ourselves the best chance to have success.”

The Sabres felt both ends of the consistency scale in 2018-19. After the first two months of season they were top of the NHL, powered by a 10-game win streak. Everything was going well and the dream of ending their then seven-season playoff drought was alive.

When the Sabres went for win No. 11 in a row against Tampa Bay in late November, that’s when the wheels began to fall off. That night would be the start of a five-game losing streak and a final 57-game stretch where Buffalo would tumble down the Eastern Conference standings, winning consecutive games only twice the rest of the season and losing 15 of their last 19 games.

A summer of change saw head coach Phil Housley replaced by Ralph Krueger and general manager Jason Botterill add Jimmy Vesey and Marcus Johansson up front, while bolstering the blue line with the acquisitions of Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju. Jeff Skinner was also re-signed long-term.

Eichel was impressed when he met with Krueger in Slovakia during the IIHF World Championship last spring. A chat over coffee turned into a multi-hour conversation ranging from hockey to politics to classic rock music.

“He’s so smart, he’s so intriguing as a person,” Eichel said. “I think he has a great vision for our group and I think all the guys are going to respond really well to him.”

[MORE: Krueger holds key to unlocking Sabres’ potential]

Eichel will have a close relationship with Krueger as the team’s captain. His first season wearing the ‘C’ was a mixed one. Personally, the 22-year-old forward hit career highs in goals, assists, and points, but that success came as the team he was leading stumbled in the final three-quarters of the season.

Year one as captain was a learning experience for Eichel. He understood the pressures that come with the captaincy, and now he feels he’s better prepared for the responsibilities that come with the role.

“I felt like I needed to up my game for our team to have success,” he said. “Unfortunately, we struggled in the second half, but the first half of the year a lot of things went well. [We’ve got to] try to emulate that for a full season this year.”

Eichel got a close-up view of what success in the NHL looks like in June. He was in attendance for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden cheering on former teammates Ryan O'Reilly (Sabres) and Matt Grzelcyk (Boston University). That experience has only motivated him even more.

The Sabres have made the postseason only once since Terry Pegula purchased the franchise in Feb. 2011. Money has been spent to try and turn the team into a consistent winner, but that’s failed so far. There’s still plenty of roster reshaping for Botterill to do, but another lost season in Buffalo could lead to more changes, and the players understand the pressure to win in the city and what’s at stake this season.

“It’s almost impossible to not feel it,” Eichel said. “With the drought that our franchise has been in for the playoffs, the ups and downs we’ve went through, being a high pick and coming in with a lot of these new young players like Rasmus [Dahlin], I think that we feel pressure to perform and bring success to Buffalo. 

“It can be tough at times, but sometimes it brings the best out of you and brings out the competitive side. We want to win. We want to win bad.”

MORE:
Previewing the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Detroit Red Wings

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or worse: This best hope the Red Wings have for significant improvement is some rapid development from a young player or two (Filip Zadina, Evgeny Svechnikov, Michael Rasmussen) and continued progress from players like Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, and Anthony Mantha. Even if all of that works out perfectly there are still significant question marks around the roster. They may not be worse, but they may not be significantly better, either.

Strengths: Not to be overly bleak about this team’s chances, but there are not a ton of strengths here. Larkin has become an outstanding player and even though it seems like he has been around forever, he is still only 23 years old. He is probably just now hitting his prime years and is coming off of a great year. Beyond him, the Red Wings have a ton of draft picks at their disposal, some intriguing young players coming through the farm system, and they hired one of the top general managers in the league (Steve Yzerman) to help try and turn this thing around. Long-term, that provides some hope. Short-term, things still look rough.

Weaknesses: They lack proven impact players, they lack depth at forward and defense, they were 22nd in goals scored a year ago, 27th in goals against, 19th on the power play, 27th on the penalty kill, and 23rd in team save percentage and a lot of the same players responsible for that performance are still there. In other words, there are weaknesses everywhere.

[MORE: Three questions | Blashill under pressure? | X-factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): This is an interesting one because the Red Wings have missed the playoffs three years in a row under Jeff Blashill, and while that is not necessarily his fault there are not many NHL coaches that get an opportunity to miss the playoffs four years in a row. Add in a new general manager that might want to go in his own direction and it would not be unreasonable to conclude that his seat is still warm. But he did sign a two-year contract extension after the 2018-19 season, so there is that aspect in play as well. We will put it at a 7 out of 10 for Blashill.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Larkin, Zadina and Athanasiou are three players worth keeping an eye.

Larkin simply because he is the team’s best player and is kind of fun to watch because of his speed. He had a monster year for the Red Wings in 2018-19 and really took a big step toward becoming a player they can count on and build around long-term.

Zadina is the prospect that can really move things along in a meaningful away in the Red Wings’ rebuild. He was regarded as one of the best pure goal scorers in his draft class (maybe even the best) and they were lucky to have a chance to pick him at No. 6 overall. He had a brief cup of coffee at the NHL level a year ago, scoring one goal in nine games. He is still only 19 years old so you don’t want to set the bar too high for him this season, but he is probably the most intriguing prospect with the highest upside in the organization.

When it comes to Athanasiou the intrigue here is simply whether or not he can be a 30-goal scorer again, or if he regresses back to the 15-20 goal player he was before that. He had always looked like a solid player but was one of the few bright spots on the team a year ago.

Playoffs or lottery: The Red Wings have been one of the NHL’s worst teams over the past three years and unless a bunch of young players emerge and become immediate stars, or if the goalies steal a bunch of games, it is hard to see a path for this roster to end their current playoff drought. This is a lottery team.

MORE:
Dylan Larkin on captaincy, getting Red Wings back to playoffs
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Blues’ O’Reilly has ‘another gear’ after being playoff MVP

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Ryan O’Reilly stockpiled quite the hardware to show off at his Stanley Cup day.

On display next to the Cup he helped the St. Louis Blues win in June were the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. Any player would gladly celebrate with those shiny centerpieces, though O’Reilly — at 28 and on his third team — is only now showing he is this kind of elite player.

“I still think I have another gear to get to, and that’s my plan,” O’Reilly said. “There’s still many things to improve on. There are areas to be better. One thing, too, is I think power-play production for myself could’ve been a lot better, and that’s an area I need to grow. There’s some stuff I’ve been working on to try to improve that.”

O’Reilly had nine points in the Cup Final against Boston playing through a cracked rib. He was nearly a point-a-game player during the regular season. Yet, somehow he still seemed underappreciated outside his peers.

“People didn’t realize how good of a player Ryan O’Reilly was until this year,” Vancouver forward Bo Horvat said. “All the players knew how good he was and how big of a part of that team he was and how special of a player — just his two-way game, his faceoffs. Obviously his point production this year was outstanding. His play in the playoffs, winning MVP and obviously the Stanley Cup, it was a great year for him and I think he opened up a lot of eyes.”

O’Reilly said he figured something out during the playoffs: how to clear out some “garbage” in his brain to focus on what matters. The challenge now is trying to duplicate that during an 82-game regular season.

“Just go out there and completely be in the moment and go from there,” O’Reilly said. “That’s a big lesson for myself, trying to establish that more. Be clear and find a way to take all the noise and all the stuff that you don’t need in your head and just throw it out. It just seems like when I did that, I tend to get more bounces and things went my way.”

Winning the Selke was evidence enough of O’Reilly’s strong regular season. He ranked eighth in the league in faceoffs, which is part of what makes him so tough to play against.

“He’s just so competitive on draws,” Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. “I’m one of those guys I want to start every shift with the puck and if we’re going up against a guy like that that could catch fire, and we might be chasing it down for a whole period. He’s obviously not one of the fastest guys out there, but he’s so good positionally and just aware of where guys are and what to do with the puck. I think he’s just an all-around super intelligent player.”

Nathan MacKinnon

Already considered one of the fastest hockey players on earth, MacKinnon carried the Colorado Avalanche to within one victory of the Western Conference final and is the biggest reason they’re a fashionable Cup contender this season. Fellow Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, native Sidney Crosby said MacKinnon is in the category of Pittsburgh teammate Evgeni Malkin and Edmonton star Connor McDavid as players who can take over games.

“We saw a pretty good glimpse of that in the playoffs,” Crosby said. “He did it consistently. … I’d expect him to take another big step.”

Rookie Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar said it’s electrifying to watch MacKinnon on the ice. And the 24-year-old center is an example to his younger teammates and those around the league.

“He’s just a super committed guy,” Makar said. “He loves hockey, and that’s the way he plays. It shows on the ice. Just the way he handles his routine is very specific and you just learn from star players like that.”

Henrik Lundqvist

“The King” is 37, yet could be the difference between the New York Rangers missing the playoffs for a third consecutive season or contending ahead of schedule. The longtime starting goaltender isn’t fazed by young backup Alexandar Georgiev and top prospect Igor Shesterkin looming in the not-too-distant future.

“My approach will not change,” Lundqvist said. “I need to reach my top level no matter what, no matter who’s next to me or where the team is at.”

Lundqvist said the start of last season was the best he had felt in a while. He posted a 2.68 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in his first 22 starts last season, which would be great for an improved Rangers team with a better blue line and more firepower up front.

“That’s the level I just need to reach and sustain throughout the year, and then I know I can make a difference,” Lundqvist said.

Alex Ovechkin

The release of “Ovi O’s” cereal marked his 34th birthday. If anyone has shown age is just a number, it’s Ovechkin, who is now the Washington Capitals’ oldest player and still could score 50 goals. Even though Ovechkin said he’s “not a grandpa” and trained differently this summer, don’t expect him to alter his style too much.

“I’m still young, you know,” Ovechkin said. “I still want to play my game. … We’re here for 25 minutes or whatever it is — I just want to be here to win, whatever it takes.”

Ovechkin preceded O’Reilly as playoff MVP when he led the Capitals to the first title in franchise history in 2018. After a full summer off, he is refreshed to try to do it again.

“He’s obviously a different talent,” Washington winger Carl Hagelin said. “A guy like that doesn’t come around very often. He’s one of those energetic guys even though he’s 33, 34 years old. He comes to the rink with a smile every day. He does what he has to do.”

Mark Stone

There may not be a more complete winger in the NHL than Stone, who put up 12 points in the Vegas Golden Knights’ seven-game first-round series against San Jose. Stone is free of Ottawa’s long-term rebuild and starting a $76 million, eight-year contract with big expectations to help Vegas make another long playoff run.

“You get a No. 1 forward,” Golden Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault said. “He’s an unbelievable player. He does everything well on the ice. He puts up great numbers every year, and he’s a successful player.”

Vegas is one of several NHL teams without a captain. That might not last long with Stone in the fold.

“He’s not a guy that’s trying to be a leader,” Marchessault said. “He’s just a born leader, so it’s just natural for him.”

Rasmus Dahlin

The 2018 No. 1 pick had 44 points to lead all rookie defenseman. It was just the floor for where Dahlin wants to start.

“Of course I want to score more goals, have more assists and stuff like that,” Dahlin said. “Last season, I had more points than I expected, but this year, I always want more. That’s why I play.”

The Buffalo Sabres are counting on that in their first season under coach Ralph Krueger. Captain Jack Eichel has big expectations for Dahlin, who he believes “lived up to all the hype.”

“You look at how good he was last year in year one and how much more he knows now,” Eichel said. “I think he’s primed to have a monster season.”

Report: Jets’ Byfuglien believed to be contemplating NHL future

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Dustin Byfuglien, currently taking a personal leave of absence away from the Winnipeg Jets, is believed using his time away from the team to contemplate his NHL future, according to a report from TSN’s Bob McKenzie.

There is currently no timetable for his decision.

Neither the Jets or Byfuglien’s representation were willing to comment.

When it was initially revealed by the team that Byfuglien would not be with them at the start of training camp, head coach Paul Maurice said there was nothing “sinister” at play and that Byfuglien and his family were healthy.

Byfuglien has two years remaining on a five-year contract that pays him $7.6 million per season.

TSN’s Frank Seravalli outlined the Jets’ roster options for how to handle the situation, and it could be any one of three different scenarios. If the Jets list him as an “active non-roster player” he will not count toward their 23-man roster, but his salary cap hit will remain on the books. They could suspend him and petition the league for his salary cap hit to not count. The other scenario is Byfuglien retires and his salary cap hit gets completely stripped away. The added salary cap space would be important as the Jets try to figure out a way to re-sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor and fit them under the salary cap. It would also allow them to try and find a replacement for Byfuglien on the trade market if he does indeed walk away from the game.

Byfuglien has been a member of the Jets organization since the franchise was based in Atlanta and has become one of the most impactful defenders in the league due to his physical play, booming shot, and overall production. He had 31 points (four goals, 27 assists) in only 42 games a year ago for the Jets. In 869 career games with the Jets/Thrashers and Chicago Blackhawks he has 177 goals and 525 total points.

The Jets’ defense is already facing a lot of issues this season following the offseason departures of Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, and Ben Chiarot. If Byfuglien decides to step away from the game the Jets would almost certainly need to make a trade to address another massive hole on a unit that wouldn’t even resemble the defense the team put on the ice a year ago.

Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen and Carolina’s Justin Faulk are two of the bigger name defenders that apparently available for trade. Both would be a downgrade from Byfuglien.

Along with the uncertainty regarding Byfuglien, the Jets are also still dealing with the fact two of their top forwards — Laine and Connor — remain unsigned as restricted free agents. Laine recently told a reporter in Finland that his linemates and usage are a factor in the ongoing contract negotiations.

MORE:
Byfuglien leave of absence adds more uncertainty for Jets

• 
ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.