Young scorers lead the way as NHL All-Star weekend arrives

By Josh Dubow (AP Sports Writer)

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — It is only fitting that Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and Nathan MacKinnon are serving as captains for this weekend’s NHL All-Star game.

The three high-scoring forwards are 23 or younger. They are part of a youth movement that is taking over the NHL and will be on center stage when the league’s best players gather at the Shark Tank for their annual midseason celebration.

”It’s a young man’s league,” said Chicago forward Patrick Kane, now an elder statesman at age 30. ”These guys come in and maybe in the past your prime was 26, 27 or 28. Now your prime is maybe 22, 23 or 24. It’s definitely become a younger man’s game. A lot of teams these days are expecting their young draft picks and younger kids to come in and help the team right away. You’ll see more of these young guys get a chance.”

Scoring is on pace for its highest mark in more than two decades heading into the All-Star break, thanks in large part to some skilled youngsters who will be on display this weekend like the three All-Star captains along with the league’s leading scorer, 25-year-old Nikita Kucherov of Tampa Bay, and 25-year-old Calgary star Johnny Gaudreau.

None of the league’s top six scorers heading into the break has turned 26 and there are more All-Star skaters this weekend 22 and younger (11) than in their 30s (8). In all, 58 percent of the goals in the NHL this season have been scored by players 26 or younger.

”That’s just the way the game is trending,” Matthews said. ”It seems a lot younger now, a lot faster, more speed and more skill. A lot of younger guys are coming in and making an impact immediately. That wasn’t the case in years past but it’s kind of changing now. It’s pretty fun to see.”

The league had long been looking to increase scoring by reducing the size of goalie pads, among other rules changes, and it seems to have finally materialized. Teams head into the break averaging 3.03 goals per game, which is on pace for the highest-scoring season since the 3.14 in 1995-96, when Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky were still among the league’s biggest stars.

There’s still a long way to go to get back to the level of the go-go 1980s, which featured a single-season team average of 4.01 goals per game in 1981-82 – the highest in the league since the end of World War II.

But there has been an 18 percent increase in scoring since the post-expansion low of 2.57 goals per game for teams in 2003-04, before a lockout canceled the following season and led to rule changes.

”The game’s being run by the twentysomethings now,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. ”Players have a positive arrogance when they come into the league that they can do anything and they try it. That’s what makes them so good. They’re not sitting there saying this might not be the right thing to do in this situation. Players are trying it and that’s why you’re seeing what you’re seeing with the skill level in this game. These players are so good.”

There was a big jump in the first year back in 2005-06 thanks to a crackdown on stick work and obstruction that led to more power plays. But scoring fell gradually in the ensuing years and was down to 2.67 three years ago before starting to rise again.

An influx of young stars like McDavid, Matthews, Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders and Vancouver rookie Elias Pettersson helped contribute to the 13 percent jump in scoring in a three-year span.

”I came in the league out of college and I was 22 or 23 and I was the youngest guy on the team,” Columbus 29-year-old forward Cam Atkinson said. ”Now it’s unheard of if you don’t have two or three guys under the age of 20. It’s great for the sport. It’s a fast game and that’s what the fans want.”

The surge hasn’t been limited to the youngsters. Washington’s Alex Ovechkin leads the NHL in goals with 37 at age 33 and was slated to be the fourth captain this weekend before deciding to stay home and rest.

Hometown favorites Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks are also among the players posting big numbers this season. Burns leads all defensemen with 55 points, and Pavelski is tied for ninth with 27 goals, putting him on pace for a career-high 42 at age 34.

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Flyers’ Giroux-Couturier duo is great, but they need help

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The Philadelphia Flyers may not have had much success as a team over the past few seasons but there have been two very important developments during that time.

The first is that Claude Giroux has re-emerged as one of the elite point producers in the league after a three-year decline. He has been so productive that since the start of the 2017-18 season only four players in the league (Nikita Kucherov, Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, and Sidney Crosby) have more total points than his 187.  Just looking at things strictly from an offensive perspective, this is the best two-year run of Giroux’s career.

The second big development is that Sean Couturier has gone from being a reliable, defensive-minded center to one of the most complete and best all-around players in the league, perfectly blending his shutdown defensive play to go with an emerging offensive game that has seen him produce consecutive 30-goal, 76-point seasons (only eight other players in the league matched that).

After finishing as the runner-up in the 2017-18 Selke Trophy voting, he finished sixth this past season and will enter this season as one of the favorites to win it.

[More: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

When the Flyers put them together they can be as good as any other duo in the league.

It is when one (or both) is sitting on the bench that things unravel for the Flyers and the team gets its doors blown off. The table below shows what the Flyers’ shot attempt, scoring chance, high-danger scoring chance, and goal differentials when both are on the ice, one is on the ice, and when neither is on the ice. This is all during 5-on-5 play.

(Data via Natural Stat Trick)

With both, the Flyers are as good as any team in the league. Without one or both they become one of the worst teams in the league. That is the look of a team that has no depth beyond its top few players, and that is simply not good enough to win in the NHL.

This is where Kevin Hayes and Nolan Patrick become so vital to the Flyers’ chances.

The Giroux-Couturier pairing obviously works, but it has left the team dangerously thin the past couple of seasons. The team has been so thin that when the Flyers tried to split them up and play them on different lines it ended up doing nothing but holding them both back because there was not enough talent around them. They work at their best when they are together, and that is the way it should remain.

For the Flyers to have a chance this season they will need Hayes to be able to provide a capable second-line presence down the middle and prove he was worth that seven-year, $50 million price tag, and for Patrick to continue to evolve and help drive the third line after struggling to breakout in his second year as the second-line center.

Without both of those things happening (and without Carter Hart solidifying the goaltending spot) the Flyers will once again struggle no matter how great Giroux and Couturier are.

MORE:
• 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.

Flyers could use breakout season from Nolan Patrick

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Philadelphia Flyers.

The success or failure of the 2019-20 Philadelphia Flyers will largely depend on the performance of starting goalie Carter Hart.

If he is good, the Flyers will probably be good. If he is not, there is a pretty good chance it will be more of the same from a year ago.

But for as important as Hart’s development is, the Flyers have another talented, highly touted young player on this roster that could help move them closer to a playoff sport with a big season. That player is 2017 No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick.

Thanks to some lottery luck the Flyers were able to rocket up the draft board and land Patrick, adding a potential impact player to the organization at a time when it probably was not expected. Two years into his career and he has shown some flashes of the potential that made him such a promising draft prospect, especially during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs when he was one of the Flyers’ best players in their Round 1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. During that series he was always looking like he had a chance to do something spectacular on any given shift. It may not have resulted in big numbers, but you could easily see the talent.

He seemed to be a prime breakout candidate heading into 2018-19 based on that showing and progression throughout his rookie year. It did not quite happen as he pretty much duplicated his mostly solid but unspectacular rookie performance while also seeing a concerning dip in his possession and shot attempt numbers.

[More: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | Under Pressure]

A top draft pick not immediately becoming an All-Star level player isn’t necessarily a huge concern. Not everyone is going to step right into the NHL and be Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid. Those players are rare, and there is usually a pretty steep learning curve for players trying to break into the league at 18, 19, or 20. There are a lot of really accomplished forwards in the league today that were high first-round draft picks and whose first two years were comparable to Patrick’s at a similar age, including Aleksander Barkov, Phil Kessel, Bo Horvat, Elias Lindholm, Josh Bailey and even Patrick’s own teammate, Sean Couturier.

Most of those players (specifically Barkov and Kessel, also top-five picks) started to take significant steps in year three.

That has to be what the Flyers are looking for from Patrick this season.

He does not need to be an All-Star right now, but there should at least be some kind of sign in his production and performance that he can start to trend in that direction.

If it does not happen in year three, it will probably be time to start wondering just what type of player he is capable of becoming.

The Flyers still have a couple of All-Stars at the top of their lineup in Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Couturier, they still have some really good secondary players, and they might finally have the goalie they have been trying to find for decades. There are question marks and holes that still need to be filled for sure, but there is the basic framework of a potentially good team here at some key positions at the top of the roster. Patrick emerging as a top-line player would help them get a lot closer to actually being a good team once again.

MORE:
• 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.

Flyers’ Hayes under pressure to produce after big contract

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Philadelphia Flyers.

In his short time as general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers, Chuck Fletcher has already proven to be far more aggressive than his predecessor (Ron Hextall) in building the team’s roster and re-shaping the organization.

His biggest player move to date might just be the sequence of events that saw him acquire the unrestricted free agent rights to forward Kevin Hayes, and then promptly sign him to a massive seven-year, $50 million contract.

The $7.1 million cap hit per season places him third on the team (behind only Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek) and among the top-50 players in the entire league. That sort of contract is going to bring some serious expectations regardless of what we already know about the player.

What we know about Hayes is this: He is a pretty good player and would be a fine complementary piece for a Stanley Cup contender. He will help the Flyers and probably make them marginally better.

But when you are one of the highest paid players in the league, taking up 9 percent of your team’s allotted salary cap space, and signed for seven years the expectation is going to be a lot higher than “pretty good player” and simply making the team a little better. For that price and that commitment you need to be getting an impact player that is going to dramatically change the outlook of your team.

For as solid as Hayes has been throughout his career he has never really come close to being that sort of player.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | Patrick the X-factor]

He has never scored fewer than 14 goals in a season, but has scored more than 17 just once (this past season).

He has failed to top the 40-point mark just once in five years, but has only topped the 50 point mark in a season one time (again, this past season).

He is not a player that dramatically drives possession and flips the ice territorially in his team’s favor (career 48 percent Corsi player; only twice over 50 percent in a single season).

You can pretty much pencil him in for 15 goals and 45 points every year and probably never miss the mark on him. He is consistently good, but never really takes a step above that. Now that he is entering his age 27 season it is fair to wonder if he will ever do that.

The question that has to be asked is if he continues to produce and play like he has over the first five years of his career how much patience will Flyers fans have for that? More importantly, how much patience will the Flyers themselves have for that?

Every dollar a team spends in a salary capped league is a dollar they can not spend on someone else, and tying up more than $7 million per season in a player that is only giving second-or third-line production without dramatically impacting the game in other areas is something that can quickly turn out to be problematic for a team that has hopes of building a contender. There is a reason most long-term free agent contracts end in either a trade or a buyout; teams have to pay a premium for a player that has probably already played their best hockey for someone else.

Hayes is a fine NHL player, but for the price the Flyers paid to get him they will probably need him to be more than that if they want to avoid buying out his contract or frantically trying to trade it in a couple of years.

MORE:
• 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.

Is Carter Hart the real deal?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Philadelphia Flyers.

Let’s take a look three questions facing the 2019-20 Flyers:

1. Is Carter Hart the real deal? 

This is the same sort of question that’s being posed about Jordan Binnington this offseason.

Both Hart and Binnington began their seasons, loosely, around the holidays. That meant they didn’t play full campaigns and weren’t exposed to the rigors that a full NHL season can bring.

But if you’re a Philly fan, you have to like the sample size you were given. Hart didn’t exactly fold under pressure. If anything, he seemed to thrive in the environment and fans certainly got behind him.

That being said, the expectations have been turned up to max at this point. And that’s where the real challenge for the 21-year-old begins.

And given his tender age, one could question whether or not he’s being rushed — even with his breakout performance in the second half.

For him to build off last year, the team in front of him has to follow. The Flyers allowed the second-most five-on-five goals last season. Team defense was flat-out atrocious at times, yet Hart put up a respectable .917 save percentage.

Hart may very well be the real deal. It’s up to the Flyers not to ruin that.

2. What impact will Kevin Hayes have? 

On paper, $50 million over seven years is a lot for a guy who has reached 50 points just once in his five-year NHL career.

But let’s put the money aside for a second and look at where Hayes may help the squad.

As the team’s de-facto second-center, Hayes now allows Claude Giroux to move out to the wing, where he scored 102 points two seasons ago. Giroux is a point-per-game player at center, surely, but diversifying and adding 20-ish more points isn’t a bad thing, and Hayes allows for that.

[MORE: 2018-19 summary | Under Pressure | Patrick the X-factor]

As the team’s second-line center, Hayes’ presence also allows Nolan Patrick to move to the third-line role where the former No. 2 overall pick can develop his game further while facing lesser competition. Patrick, despite his high draft position, could have used a year in the American Hockey League. He wasn’t afforded that chance.

Hayes can also bring solid contributions to the penalty kill, a real sore spot for the Flyers last season. He should complement Sean Couturier well in that regard and it should boost the teams 26th ranking at the same time.

3. Are the Flyers reverting to old ways? 

It’s a question I asked back in June after the Hayes signing and I think it still is worth pondering now.

Ron Hextall tried to do what has made other teams successful in the long run — a slow build, through the draft, developing talent in house and building up an asset base. His patient approach clearly wore on the impatient higher-ups in Philly.

Enter Chuck Fletcher. He’s the exact opposite of Hextall, preferring a win-now-style approach that has included trips to the bargain bin while casting a large contract to a middle-of-the-road centerman.

Methodical rebuilds aren’t a Philly thing. But maybe they should start, especially is Hart shows to be a legitimate No. 1 this season. That’s something you can build around, however enticing it might be to think you can just win now.

The last thing the Flyers need is to heap so much pressure on a young Hart that he implodes because of it. There’s been enough of that sort of thing with goalies in Philly over the years.

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


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck