Zuccarello is perfect complement for Stars’ top line

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The Dallas Stars had a problem for much of the 2018-19 season, and it was always a very easy one to identify.

Even when the team was at its lowest point, their top trio of Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn was doing what it had always done in carrying the team’s offense.

When Seguin and Benn came under irrational fire from their own CEO in the middle of the season, they were far from the biggest issue on the team. In fact, they weren’t even an issue at all and just five seconds of objective research should have made that clear. When they were on the ice the Stars were carrying the play, dominating the opposition, and performing exactly as you would want your franchise players to perform. Maybe the individual numbers weren’t what we have come to expect from them, but they were consistently outplaying and outscoring their opponents.

The problem was that they didn’t have any other forwards that could do the same thing. Their forward depth was so thin that only one other forward outside of the Seguin-Benn-Radulov trio topped topped the 30-point mark this season (Radek Faksa had exactly 30 points in 81 games). That is not anywhere near good enough. It wasn’t a “star” problem; it was a problem with players around the stars.

But because the top trio was so good, and because they received Vezina-worthy goaltending from Ben Bishop (and don’t forget about the play of backup Anton Khudobin, either) they were able to stay in playoff contention in a watered down Western Conference and continue playing their way toward the postseason. If they were going to do anything once they got there they were going to need somebody outside of their top line to provide some kind of a threat offensively.

This is where Mats Zuccarello comes in.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

He has only played seven games with the team entering Game 6 of their Round 1 series against the Nashville Predators on Monday night (8 p.m. ET; CNBC; Live stream), but his impact has already been noticeable.

The Stars acquired Zuccarello from the New York Rangers just before the NHL trade deadline and in his first game with the team made an immediate impact with a goal and an assist in a 4-3 win. It was exactly what the Stars needed for the stretch run. But because he was also injured in that game and missed several weeks they never really had an opportunity to see exactly what he could provide. They are seeing it in the playoffs where he has already tallied three goals (second only to Radulov) and has given them an additional threat offensively.

It’s even more impressive when you remember he is still finding his way with a new team and still probably isn’t all the way back to 100 percent.

In other words, he probably has room to get better.

When you look at his individual shot and scoring chance numbers he hasn’t created a ton of them, and so far is riding a short-term spike in shooting percentage to carry his postseason production. It would be fair to point to that as somewhat of a red flag for what it might mean in the future.

You have to keep in mind, though, that the injury not only took him off the ice, it also robbed him of an opportunity to develop chemistry with a new set of linemates. Getting thrown into what is still a new lineup, when you may not be totally healthy, and right in the middle of the madness that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs is not an easy thing to do. There is still probably a bit of an adjustment period taking place here.

What is important for the Stars, though, is that he is another high-level player that has the ability to capitalize on the chances he does get, and that is an element the team had been lacking all season.

He is a threat with a proven track record of production.

Zuccarello has been a criminally underrated player for quite some time now and has always been a lock to finish with 50-60 points over a full season. That may not seem great or anything that instantly jumps off the page at you, but it is top-line production, and top-line players are not always easy to acquire.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the year Zuccarello became a full-time player in the NHL, his 0.72 point-per-game average puts him 67th out of more than 570 players that have appeared in at least 200 games during that stretch.

Outside of Seguin, Benn, and Radulov there is not another forward currently on the Stars’ roster that sits in the top-100 out of that group.

Jason Spezza is the only other one in the top-200.

You have to go all the way down to Faksa at No. 296 to find the next one.

There just wasn’t enough impact talent elsewhere on the roster to help support the Stars’ top players.

Zuccarello gives them one, and his presence, along with the emergence of Jason Dickinson and Roope Hintz in this series, is a big reason they have been able to put themselves in a position to advance.

MORE: Hintz becoming important part of Stars’ lineup

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.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.

Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.