Wednesday Night Hockey: McDavid’s Oilers mirroring Lemieux’s early days with Penguins

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Barring some kind of a miraculous late-season turnaround it is looking like the Edmonton Oilers are going to fall short of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third time in the first four years of Connor McDavid‘s NHL career. If that turnaround is going to happen, it is going to have to start quickly, and collecting two points against a Pittsburgh Penguins team that will be without Evgeni Malkin (suspension) and Olli Maatta (shoulder injury) on Wednesday Night Hockey would probably be a good place to start.

Given that the Oilers are entering the Wednesday having lost seven out of their past eight games, and have only won six of their previous 22 games overall, nothing is going to come easy for them.

If the Oilers do end up missing the playoffs again it is going to be an incredibly disappointing start to the McDavid era in Edmonton.

Over the past decade the only sustained success the Oilers have had was winning No. 1 overall picks in the draft lottery. Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakupov all arrived in Edmonton with the hope and anticipation that a top pick can help rebound a franchise, but none of them came close to matching the McDavid hope. He was supposed to be the guy that would change the fortunes of the franchise and be the player that would lift them out of the doldrums of the league. Overall, he has probably been even better than anticipated and right now in year four is the most dominant, game-changing offensive player in the world. Offensively speaking, he is off to one of the best starts offensively in NHL history.

It is that development that makes the Oilers’ lack of success with him so shocking, and it remains an indictment of the organization around him that they haven’t been able to piece together a consistent winner.

The word “waste” has been thrown around a lot when it comes to McDavid’s early career and the Oilers. But I don’t think we truly grasp just how bad it has been.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

In the history of the league there have only been 16 players who have played at least 200 games and averaged at least 1.28 points per game through their first four NHL seasons. McDavid is one of those 16 players, while he is one of only three (Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin being the other two) who saw their careers begin after the 1995 season.

Take a look at the list and the number of playoff appearances and playoff games they had played in through their first four years (sorted by total playoff games).

Again, this is not an indictment on McDavid or his career personally. This is a statement about the Oilers’ inability to build a team around him. It is fair to point out that a number of these players began their careers in the 1980s when a far higher percentage of the league made the playoffs, so that might skew this a little bit. But even when you look at the more recent players (Crosby, Ovechkin, Forsberg, Lindros, Selanne) there is still a pretty sizable gap in terms of success.

Ovechkin’s Capitals, for example, missed the playoffs in his first two years. By year four, they had made consecutive appearances in the postseason, were in a Game 7 in the second-round following a 50-win regular season, and came back the next season to win 54 games and the Presidents’ Trophy on their way to being one of the most dominant teams in the league.

By year four, Crosby’s Penguins were playing in their second consecutive Stanley Cup Final … and winning it.

Does anyone think the Oilers are a year away from winning 54 games, the Presidents’ Trophy, or the Stanley Cup?

What’s even worse for the Oilers is that when the the likes of Crosby and Ovechkin joined their respective teams, they had far less impact talent around them than the Oilers did when McDavid joined them. They didn’t even really have anyone that was comparable to the young trio of recent top picks in Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, and Jordan Eberle that was already in place in Edmonton (Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal didn’t arrive in Pittsburgh until the year after Crosby; Nicklas Backstrom didn’t join the Capitals until the next year, while Mike Green only played in 20 games in Ovechkin’s rookie year). There should have been a solid foundation in place to build around.

Really, the only comparable to what McDavid and the Oilers have experienced so far is what happened with the Penguins and their franchise-saving player, Mario Lemieux, in the mid-1980s.

The early Lemieux era Penguins were so poorly constructed that even with a player that was on a Gretzky-ian level, and in a league where 16 of the 21 teams (76 percent) made the playoffs, they were unable to get there even once in his first four season. It wasn’t until year five that Lemieux made his first ever playoff appearance.

They were so hapless in the early stages of Lemieux’s career that this situation (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) unfolded at the tail end of year four with the team trying to get No. 66 what would have been his first-ever playoff appearance.

The Oilers haven’t been quite that bad, but the fact that team is the situation they are most comparable to in the early stages of a generational talent’s career is problematic.

A lack of playoff games is also probably not the early career comparison to Lemieux that McDavid wants.

If you’re an Oilers fan reading this and looking for positives it’s that the Penguins eventually got their act together and over the next few years assembled an arsenal of Hall of Famers around Lemieux, won two Stanley Cups, and were one of the league’s elite teams for more than a decade. But given how much work there seems to be needed around McDavid, the Oilers seem like they are several years away from getting there.

Even this year, in a season where McDavid is playing the best hockey of his career and on pace for 123 points, and in a year where the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff field is as mediocre as it has ever been, the playoffs are still falling out of reach. Of the 20 players who have topped 123 points since 1990, only two of them played on teams that missed the playoffs.

One player alone can not make a team in the NHL because they only impact a third of the game.

But history still shows it is awfully hard to squander an offensive player this dominant.

John Forslund (play-by-play), U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk (analyst), and Emmy Award-winner Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. Pa. Pre-game coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Liam McHugh alongside Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Bob McKenzie. Additionally, Kathryn Tappen will be providing reports and conducting interviews on-site in Pittsburgh.

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.

Unexpected hat trick gives Ducks’ Grant rare opportunity

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If you weren’t expecting Anaheim Ducks forward Derek Grant to record a hat trick this season — as he did in the Ducks’ 4-1 win over the St. Louis Blues on Saturday night — you weren’t alone in that thought.

That thought also extended to his closest friends and resulted in a friendly wager over the summer that now gives the Ducks’ forward an opportunity to name a childhood friend’s first-born child.

Grant first mentioned it during a between periods interview on Saturday, and expanded on it on Monday.

From the Ducks’ Adam Brady:

Another buddy had suggested that if he made a hole-in-one the next day on the links he should be allowed to name the baby.

“My one friend said he should get to name it if he gets a hole-in-one that day golfing,” Grant recalled with a chuckle. “I’m not quite as good a golfer, so he made it real for me if I get a hat trick this year, I’d get to name his first child.”

Grant added that even though his friend’s fiancee was a little skeptical of the idea at first, the couple is fully on board with him naming their child.

This probably seemed like a safe bet for his friend to make because before Saturday Grant had scored just 18 goals in 228 career games and had only scored two goals in a game once. He played 92 NHL games before scoring his first career goal during the 2017-18 season.

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.

 

Hurricanes’ Haula out with more knee issues

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A couple of years ago the expansion draft process gave Erik Haula an opportunity to get an increased role with the Vegas Golden Knights.

He took advantage of that opportunity with a breakout season that saw him score 29 goals and become a key part of one of the most improbable Stanley Cup Final teams ever.

It has been a tough road for Haula in the two seasons since due to injuries, and now his first year with the Carolina Hurricanes is being sidetracked by more knee issues.

Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour announced on Monday that Haula is “going to be out for a while” and that he does not think the forward will be playing anytime soon due to continued issues with his knee. Haula had recently missed four games this season due to soreness in his surgically repaired knee before returning to the lineup on Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres. He played in each of the Hurricanes’ past two games, logging 27 minutes of total ice time in a more limited role.

Haula was originally injured a little more than a year ago when an awkward fall during a game in Toronto resulted in him being stretchered off the ice. He did not play another game for the Golden Knights and was traded over the summer in salary cap-clearing deal.

He was off to a great start this year with eight goals in his first 16 games with the Hurricanes. That total has him just one goal off the team lead where he trails Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho, and Dougie Hamilton (all three have nine goals, while all three have played in all 20 games so far).

This is a tough injury for both the Hurricanes as a team and for Haula on a personal level.

First, the Hurricanes are losing one of their most productive forwards and a player that had already seemed to be a perfect fit in their lineup. His addition was a huge boost to their forward depth and so far everything had been working exactly as planned for a team that has its sights set on becoming a championship contender.

As for Haula himself, he is currently in the final year of his contract and given the way he has produced the past three years when healthy he was playing his way toward what could be a fairly significant raise this summer, whether it was with Carolina or another team. There is obviously still a chance he can return at some point this season and pick up where he left off, but the short-term outlook is definitely concerning.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Most dangerous duos in the league

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a break from ranking all 31 teams and instead look at some of the best, and most dangerous forward duos in the league.

We are looking at forward duos that are regularly used together on a line and can not only produce offense, but help carry their teams and drive play.

Which duos make the list? Let’s get to the rankings!

1. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. There is not a duo in the NHL right now that is even close to these two.

Individually, the are the top-two point producers in the league since the start of the 2018-19 season and both are among the top-three in goals scored.

When they are on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the past two seasons the Oilers have outscored their opponents by an 82-57 margin (when neither is on the ice the Oilers have been outscored 67-97) while they have been on the ice for more than 55 percent of the Oilers’ total goals (all situations) during that time. As they go, the Oilers go. It is not a stretch to say this is the most dominant offensive duo the league has seen since the days of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr in Pittsburgh. Breaking them up should be a fireable offense.

2. David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins. These two are so good that they have made Patrice Bergeron (still one of the best players in the league) arguably the third best player on his own line.

While Bergeron does drive a lot of the defensive play and plays the shutdown role to near perfection at center, the Pastrnak-Marchand duo on the wings is behind the offense. So much so that Pastrnak and Marchand have scored goals at a higher rate the past three years when they are playing without Bergeron than they do with him.

Goals per 60 minutes since start of 2017-18 season:

  • Pastrnak, Marchand, and Bergeron together: 3.64
  • Pastrnak and Marchand without Bergeron: 3.89
  • Marchand and Bergeron without Pastrnak: 3.49
  • Pastrnak and Bergeron without Marchand: 2.75

That is not to say the team would be better off without Bergeron centering the line, it is just a testament to how good Pastrnak and Marchand are offensively.

3. Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche. They have been to the Avalanche what the McDavid-Draisaitl duo has been to the Oilers. Top producers individually, completely dominant as a duo, and until this season the line that had to carry what was an incredibly top-heavy team. The Avalanche did serious work to address those depth concerns over the summer and it’s helped them stay afloat in the current absence of Rantanen (and the third member of that line, Gabriel Landeskog). When MacKinnon gets his regular wingers back the Avalanche should be considered one of the top Stanley Cup contenders.

4. Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins. It is easy to write off Guentzel’s success as being a product of playing next to Crosby, but here is the thing about that: A lot of players, many of them very talented, have spent significant time alongside Crosby throughout his career and have never approached the level of production that Guentzel has. He is the consistent finisher that Crosby never really had earlier in his career, and together they are the biggest driver of the Penguins’ offense.

5. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers. These two have really emerged as top-tier offensive players the past two years. Barkov still carries the “underrated” label even though everyone around the league knows exactly how good he is (you should know how good he is, anyway). The truly underrated one in this duo at this point is Huberdeau. Both players are among the top-10 scorers in the league the past two years and have been outstanding this year. If Sergei Bobrovsky ever plays like the big money goalie the Panthers signed him to be this duo will take the Panthers to the playoffs.

6. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning. They haven’t been quite as dominant as they were a year ago, but no one in Tampa Bay has been just yet. Plus, they are still both around a point-per-game offensively and they are carrying the play when the Lightning use them together (3.50 goals per 60 minutes; dominant possession numbers). They could be on the verge of a breakout at any moment.

7. Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty, Vegas Golden Knights. This duo became a thing last year after Vegas’ in-season trade for Stone last season, and it has been their best line ever since. Stone is one of the best all-around wingers in the NHL and should once again get serious Selke Trophy consideration, while Pacioretty still has the lightning quick release that can make him a 30-goal scorer. These two may not score as many goals as some of the duos on this list, but they control the pace of play and dictate the game as well as any duo in the league.

8. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals. You might consider this a nod to past dominance or their reputation, but these two still have it. The Capitals mix their line combinations up a bit (Ovechkin has spent a lot of time in recent years with both Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov as his center) but this is still the one that seems to work the best. Both players are in their 30s and still on track to put up huge numbers this season for a Capitals team that looks like it could win another Stanley Cup.

9. Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks. This duo might change everything in Vancouver. The Canucks have had comically bad luck in the draft lottery during this rebuild, never picking higher than fifth despite being one of the league’s worst teams the past few years. They have still managed to find some incredible building blocks with their top picks including Pettersson, Boeser, and Quinn Hughes. The Boeser-Pettersson duo is a must-see every night and has helped rapidly  accelerate the rebuild. The only thing that has held them back so far in their young careers are injuries.

10. Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames. Going from Carolina to Calgary has completely turned around Lindholm’s career thanks to the instant chemistry he found alongside Gaudreau. In the three years prior to his move to Calgary he scored just 38 goals in 235 games. He already has 37 goals in only 104 games with the Flames. Since the trade the Flames have outscored teams 68-48 with the Gauderau-Lindholm duo on the ice and averaged close to three-and-a-half per 60 minutes.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

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.

Sabres’ Okposo out with fourth concussion in less than three years

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Buffalo Sabres forward Kyle Okposo is out indefinitely after being diagnosed with his fourth concussion in a little more than 2 + years.

The Sabres provided the update in posting their weekly injury report Monday, two days after Okposo was hurt in a 4-2 win over the Ottawa Senators. It happened with five minutes left in the second period when Okposo took the ice and accidently collided with Senators defenseman Ron Hainsey.

This marks the fourth consecutive season the 31-year-old player has been sidelined by a concussion. The most serious one happened when he missed the final two weeks of 2017-18 and spent nearly a week in a hospital after what he called a routine hit in practice.

Okposo missed three games in March 2018 after a concussion from a collision with Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan. And he missed a week last February when punched in the face by New York Rangers defenseman Tony DeAngelo.

Okposo is a 13-year veteran in his fourth season in Buffalo. He has a goal and four assists in 19 games.

The Sabres also announced center Tage Thompson will be out three to five weeks with an upper body injury. He was hurt in a 4-1 loss at Chicago on Sunday and after being called up from the minors to replace Okposo.