Stanley Cup Playoffs: Fresh teams pave way for new breakout stars

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When Rod Brind’Amour watched pregame shows during the regular season, he didn’t think much thought was put into analyzing his Carolina Hurricanes.

”They’d look at the stat sheet and they’ll say: ‘Oh, Sebastian Aho is a good player. Watch for him,”’ Brind’Amour said recently.

Now that the Hurricanes are in the Eastern Conference final as part of a fresh final four in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin is among the breakout stars who are now in the limelight. Boston’s Brad Marchand, San Jose’s Logan Couture and Brent Burns and St. Louis’ Ryan O'Reilly are a bit more established, but they’ve replaced the stars of NHL playoffs past like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin who aren’t playing anymore.

Even with a lot of hockey’s household names gone, there’s still plenty of star power and story lines for those who look a little closer.

”The more kind of crazy the playoffs get, the more interest is driven, and that’s really exciting,” NHL Network senior coordinating producer Josh Bernstein said. ”There’s so many great story lines going on in the playoffs right now, and I feel like it really piques everybody’s interest. It’s great for the game. ”

Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen dazzled for two rounds, Columbus winger Artemi Panarin showed why he deserves a massive July 1 payday, and Dallas goaltender Ben Bishop put himself back in the conversation among the best in the league. But those guys are gone now, too.

Still in the playoffs, Couture leads all scorers with 11 goals and 17 points. His 45 playoff goals since making his debut in 2010 trail only Ovechkin over that time, and his all-around game has him as a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate this year.

”Logan Couture, if he’s not the top two-way center in the league, he’s in that conversation,” San Jose coach Peter DeBoer said after his team’s Game 1 victory against St. Louis on Saturday. ”He plays a 200-foot game, always on the right side of the puck, always making the right reads. When your centerman is like that, he drives the guys around him to play as honest a game as that.”

Couture isn’t driving the Sharks by himself, of course. Brent Burns, who two seasons ago won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman, is second in the playoffs in scoring and standing out with more than just his offensive acumen.

”He’s always been a good defensive player,” goaltender Martin Jones said. ”He’s always been tough to play against in the D-zone. He’s a big guy, chews up a lot of ice. He swarms you.”

One of the Sharks’ biggest challenges in the West final against St. Louis is containing O’Reilly, who hasn’t put up the points as much as he did in the regular season, but was among the best players on the ice in Game 1. O’Reilly is a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward and said he’s re-energized by this playoff run after missing the postseason each of the past four years.

”It brings back that life and that excitement, for sure,” said O’Reilly, who has 10 points in his first playoffs since 2014. ”This is what it’s all about: playing for the Stanley Cup. That’s what you train for in the summer and every time you touch the ice the goal is to get to playoffs and compete for it.”

No one on the Blues’ active roster has won the Cup, and Jones – as a backup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2014 – is the only Sharks player with his name on the trophy. That’s not true for several core Bruins players who are still around after winning it in 2011.

That includes Marchand, who might be known more outside hockey as the player who licked an opponent last year but is making waves with his play and mostly staying out of trouble now. There was that time against Columbus that he stepped on Cam Atkinson‘s stick and broke it, but there is also an Eastern Conference-best 15 points through 14 games.

”He’s been in these big games,” Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”He’s a Stanley Cup champion, so he understands maybe a little more than meets the eye sometimes. There’s a time and a place where you really have to be disciplined.”

Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, like Jones, has a Cup ring as a backup and is trying to earn one as a starter. His .938 save percentage is best among playoff goalies who have been in at least four games.

Incredibly in a sport where the aim is to score goals, Carolina’s biggest breakout star is Slavin, who hasn’t scored one. But he does lead the Hurricanes with 11 points – all assists – and averaged over 26 minutes a game while also drawing the toughest defensive matchups.

Slavin is no slouch, and the Hurricanes have known for a while what he’s capable of. Now the rest of hockey is seeing it and lavishing some much-deserved attention on him.

”It’s part of the game,” Slavin said. ”Anyone would be lying if they said it’s not nice, but I’ve still just got to go out there and play well and obviously play for the team.”

Penguins keep heating up; Struggling Stars sink lower

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Is it time for the Dallas Stars to throw Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn under the bus again?

We’re still in October, and things are looking unsettling for a team that navigated some serious highs and lows in 2018-19 to eventually drum up lofty expectations for 2019-20. So far, the Stars have flopped in their encore performance, like a band tripping over all of their instruments while the crowd raises its lighters.

On paper, you’d think it would be the Pittsburgh Penguins who were struggling against the Stars on Friday. After all, they are the team still dealing with injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust, while the Stars recently got interesting offseason addition Corey Perry back in the lineup.

Instead, the two teams continued on their opposite trajectories. The Penguins keep finding ways to win, in this case riding two Kris Letang goals to a 4-2 win against the Stars, pushing Pittsburgh’s winning streak to five games. Dallas, meanwhile, lost its fifth game in a row (0-4-1), and the Stars saw their overall 2019-20 record sink to a deeply unsettling 1-7-1.

Former PHT editor Brandon Worley captured much of the mood among Stars fans after another dispiriting loss.

Most are shaking their heads in dismay, with some feeling like it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Like many, I didn’t expect Ben Bishop, Anton Khudobin, and other Stars goalies to combine for a .923 team save percentage like they did in 2018-19, which towered over last season’s league average of .905.

It absolutely was a red flag that the Stars only marginally outscored the opposition (209 goals for, 200 against) last season despite that Herculean goaltending.

Still, there were signs that Jim Montgomery’s system was putting Bishop and Khudobin in a situation to succeed, and there are elements of a modern puck-moving defense in place. One could picture another step for sizzling sophomore Miro Heiskanen, and the Stars made the playoffs despite dark horse Norris candidate John Klingberg being limited to 64 regular-season games. More Heiskanen, more Klingberg, another step for Roope Hintz, plus the additions of Joe Pavelski and, to a much lesser extent, Corey Perry? There were worse formulas for success heading into 2019-20, so fools like me wondered if the Stars might be able to rekindle that magic.

Luck should improve

And, to be fair, counting the Stars out just a little more than two weeks into 2019-20 would be hasty.

Hintz and Heiskanen are some of the only Stars off to the starts you’d expect, with Seguin parked at four points in nine games, Pavelski only managing one goal and one assist, and Klingberg being limited to a single point.

Things should regress in a positive way, even in the highly likely instance that neither Bishop nor Khudobin will rekindle that 2018-19 magic. Much like the slow-starting Wild, the Stars have played most of their games on the road (six of nine away from home) so far. After Saturday’s trip to Philly to play the Flyers, the Stars play six of seven games in Dallas from Oct. 21 through Nov. 5. The outlook could look quite a bit rosier by the end of that stretch.

It doesn’t change the fact that the Stars dug themselves a formidable hole. While the Stars have a hapless divisional neighbor in the Minnesota Wild, the bottom line is that the Central Division figures to be unforgiving.

A matter of philosophy?

Maybe it’s too early to panic, but it’s absolutely time to ask tough questions. The Stars aren’t that far removed from being one of the most electrifying teams in the NHL, only to turn their back on that formula at the first signs of pushback, instead going the “safer” route of becoming more defensive-minded under Ken Hitchcock and then Montgomery.

It was easier to watch that beautiful thing die when the Stars were winning, yet it’s debatable if dumbing things down by going all-defense is truly the “safe” route, especially with a team fueled by offensive talent from Seguin and Alexander Radulov on offense and skilled defensemen like Klingberg and Heiskanen on the blueline.

Maybe losing to a depleted Penguins teams at least provides another chance to do some soul-searching?

The Penguins carried the Stars’ outscore-your-problems torch once Dallas wavered, and Pittsburgh marched to two consecutive Stanley Cups despite defense that ranged from shaky to shabby. Then, for reasons even more perplexing, the Penguins began to lose confidence in that approach, and ended up losing some ground in the process.

As of Friday, the Penguins and Stars are moving in very different directions, and one can bet that they’ll see other dramatic shifts over an 82-game regular season. Maybe both can provide each other lessons about playing to your strengths and knowing who you are, though.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Nationals’ Scherzer drops ceremonial baseball before Capitals game

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The Washington Nationals have some time to kill before the 2019 World Series after sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals, so why not take in a Washington Capitals game … and maybe put a new knuckleball-like spin on a common hockey photo-op?

Instead of dropping the ceremonial first puck before Friday’s Capitals – Rangers contest, three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer elected to drop a baseball instead. You can watch video of that fun ceremony (which vaguely reminded me of Auston Matthews doing a little Globetrotter spin with a Raptors basketball) in the video above. Sports city synergy is fun, is what I’m trying to say.

As a baseball not-knower, this brings up a lot of questions — some I can answer, some not so much.

  • Was it one of those new-fangled “juiced” baseballs? Scherzer probably doesn’t like those, if they’re really a thing.
  • I was wondering about Scherzer’s (maybe somewhat intimidating) different-colored eyes. Apparently Scherzer was born that way, although one eye was blue and the other was green, originally. (The blue eye turned bluer, while the green one turned brown.) Dany Heatley is a hockey player who comes to mind with that, but his story is less fun and more upsetting.
  • CNN clears up the Nationals’ connection to “Baby Shark,” which I wondered about thanks to this:

(Even Capitals fans would probably admit that this is swimming a bit close to San Jose’s waters.)

  • In case you were wondering, that sports city synergy went both ways, as you can see from Alex Ovechkin hugging Scherzer before a Nationals game in June 2018 (via Getty):
(Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

As of this writing, the Capitals lead the Rangers 3-2 and the New York Yankees are trying to protect a 4-1 lead against the Houston Astros in Game 5 of the ALCS. If the Astros win, they’ll face Scherzer’s Nationals.

… And that about concludes my baseball-knowing.

/chews imaginary tobacco/Major League Chew

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Devils, Hischier agree to seven-year, $50.75 million extension

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While the Devils don’t know yet if Taylor Hall will sign an extension to remain in New Jersey or find a new home next summer in free agency, GM Ray Shero has young locked down one of the team’s core pieces.

On Friday, Nico Hischier agreed to a seven-year, $50.75 million extension that carries a $7.25 million cap hit through the 2026-27 NHL season. The deal buys three unrestricted free agent years since the Devils forward has been playing since he was 18, per Cap Friendly.

“Nico is a special person who possess a team-first mentality combined with an inner drive to succeed,” said Shero in a statement. The entire organization is thankful to him and his family for believing in our future. We are excited that he will continue to play a prominent role with us for many years to come.”

According to the Devils, here’s the year-by-year breakdown:

2020-21: $7,000,000 (includes $3 million signing bonus)
2021-22: $7,250,000
2022-23:  $4,500,000
2023-24:  $7,750,000
2024-25:  $7,750,000
2025-26:  $8,000,000
2026-27:  $8,500,000

The extension also features a modified no-trade clause in the final three years.

In 157 NHL games, Hischier, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft, has 37 goals and 101 points while averaging over 17 minutes a night. His offense has been just fine with a 20 and 17 goals in his first two seasons, but his two-way game is what’s really boosted his talent.

The 20-year-old center joins the list of NHLers who passed on restricted free agency in 2020 to put pen to paper on a new deal, joining the likes of Alex DeBrincat, Clayton Keller, Thomas Chabot, and Sam Girard.

Mathew Barzal, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Dylan Strome, and Mikhail Sergachev are some of the other potential 2020 RFAs who will be looking for extensions before next season.

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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.

Helm fined $5K for slash on Flames’ Lindholm

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Darren Helm and Elias Lindholm had a little battle in the third period of Thursday’s 5-1 Flames win and it has resulted in a $5,000 fine for the Red Wings forward.

It all began during a face-off when Lindholm got taken down by Helm. The Flames forward took exception and skated after Helm as the puck entered the Calgary zone. The tiff continued on with Lindholm throwing an elbow at Helm, who responded by getting up off the ice and slashing Lindholm in the back of the leg.

“Their guy comes with an elbow that should have probably been called right away,” said Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill. “Then Darren reacts to that as most guys would, you get an elbow to the face for no reason you’re going to react. We got to be more disciplined in those situations, but he slashed him. I don’t think the slash was that super-hard, but it sure looked hard the way he went down.”

The fine is the maximum amount allowable under the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Helm was given a major for slashing and a game misconduct, while Lindholm got off with just an interference minor. Lindholm was helped to the dressing room and there’s been no update yet on his condition.

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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.