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Return on Duchene trade will help shape Avalanche’s defense for years

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Two years ago the perception of the Colorado Avalanche was very, very, very different than it is today.

At the start of the 2017-18 season they had missed the playoffs three years in a row and six of the past seven, while one of their best returning players, Matt Duchene, wanted out.

It was a wish that the Avalanche management eventually granted him early in the season.

It has turned out to be one of the franchise-altering moments over the past two years that has seen the Avalanche become one of the best young teams in the league, one that looks to be on the verge of becoming a fearsome Stanley Cup contender.

Nothing has played a bigger role in that rapid improvement Nathan MacKinnon turning into a top-5 player in the league and Mikko Rantanen becoming a star right alongside him. But do not overlook the importance of the Duchene trade given how much value they were able to squeeze out of that deal.

Just for a refresher on how it looked at the time, it was a three-team trade that saw Duchene to go to the Ottawa Senators, Kyle Turris go to the Nashville Predators from the Senators, and a collection of young players and draft picks from both teams going to the Avalanche.

That return for the Avalanche included.

  • Samuel Girard, at the time a 19-year-old defender and a top prospect in the Predators’ organization
  • Shane Bowers, the Ottawa Senators’ first-round pick (No. 28 overall) in the 2017 NHL draft
  • Vladislav Kamenev, at the time a 20-year-old forward and No. 42 overall pick from 2014
  • Goalie Andrew Hammond
  • Two draft picks that turned out to be Ottawa’s first-round pick (No. 4 overall) in 2019 and Ottawa’s third-round pick in 2019

With the 2019 NHL draft having taken place this weekend, the return on that trade continued to grow as the Avalanche used both selections on Friday and Saturday.

They used the first-round pick to select defender Bowen Byram from the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League, and the third-round pick (the first pick in that round) to select center Matthew Stienburg.

The number of young, premium assets alone makes it an incredible haul for an excellent, but not quite great, player that clearly wanted out of Colorado.

It is also a return that should have a substantial impact on the future of the Avalanche blue line for the next decade.

First you have Girard, who just turned 21 back in May, that took a pretty big leap forward this past season for the Avalanche, playing close to 20 minutes per night and demonstrating some of the offensive flare that made him such a key piece of the trade. When the playoffs rolled around the Avalanche had no reservations about throwing him on the ice with Cale Makar, another of their top prospects and the Avalanche’s own No. 4 overall pick in 2018. When that duo was on the ice together they looked like they had the potential to take over games.

Because the Senators immediately went in the tank after acquiring Duchene and eventually began a two-year fire sale, the Avalanche were in a position to pick Byram at the top of the 2019 draft and add yet another dynamic, offensive blue-liner to their roster.

Between him, Makar, and Girard the Avalanche will have three potential (potential being the key word) top-pairing defenders in their organization that are all age 21 or younger.

This also plays a role in allowing the Avalanche to have more salary cap flexibility than almost any other team in the league, and especially among potential Stanley Cup contenders. When combined with the fact that MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog are playing on long-term contracts that are laughably below market value, getting three talented defenders on entry-level contracts is a huge advantage for them.

This is an admittedly rosy outlook that assumes everything works out exactly as planned. It does not always work out the way when talking about 18 or 19 year old players. But based on what we have seen from Girard and Makar in their brief samplings, and the potential that Byram brings to the organization, there is every reason to believe the Avalanche have the chance to build a dangerous blue line over the next decade. They have the Duchene trade to thank for two of those three key pieces.

It is, at this point, abundantly clear that the Avalanche worked this situation as perfectly as they could have and no doubt came out ahead among the three teams in that trade.

The Senators did not even get two full seasons out of Duchene before trading him for less than they gave up to get him.

Turris has been a massive disappointment so far in Nashville and carries a substantial contract over the next few seasons.

The Avalanche, meanwhile, have several young, talented assets that could be the foundation of a powerhouse team in the NHL, especially with the salary cap space they still have to use this summer and in future seasons.

It is usually difficult to get fair value in a trade of that magnitude, and often times when you give up what is, at the time, the best player in the trade you often times come out on the losing end of it. The theory in these situations is that the trading team can get a kings ransom of players and picks that will one day re-shape the look of the franchise. It almost never works out that way.

The Avalanche made it work.

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.

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.