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NBC Sports NHL Player Survey: Most underrated player

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NHL players love Aleksander Barkov.

That’s what we learned during the NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago earlier this month. When we asked a number of the attendees who, in their eyes, is a player who deserves more love and attention, the Florida Panthers star was a popular choice. (Does this no longer make him underrated?)

We tried to push the players to give us an underrated choice away from their own teams, but a few broke the rules, and that’s OK. 

Here’s who we were told is most underrated around the league when we asked, “Who’s an NHL player who deserves more recognition?”

Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes: “He’s starting to come into that light but Aleksander Barkov — a lot of guys would probably say him. His skill is unbelievable. I remember last year he battled one out of the air against us on his backhand, puck was probably going three, four feet wide but somehow he came across and tipped it in. He’s just an all-around solid player.”

Derek Stepan, Arizona Coyotes: “There’s more and more undercover guys that are starting to get recognition. I think a guy like Blake Wheeler in Winnipeg, Barkov. These guys are getting more but I believe that they should be getting more than that. On the other side of it, a guy on my own team that I’m a little biased with that doesn’t get as much is Nik Hjalmarsson. He’s a very underrated defensive defenseman that maybe doesn’t as much credit because his stats don’t really show up on a gamesheet afterwards other than blocked shots.”

Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks: “I like Barkov. He had a great season, doesn’t really get talked about that much. I don’t know if it’s the Florida market or whatever, but he was one of the best players in the league last year and you don’t really hear about him too much.”

Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche: “My answer to this is usually Mark Giordano, but now he’s won the Norris so he’s not underrated anymore.”

Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders: “Jordan Staal is a pretty underrated player in the league. Playing against him in the playoffs and playing against him in the Metro, I don’t think I’ve beat him on a faceoff in two years. He’s tough to play against and has got a great skillset for a big guy. He’s a really good player.”

Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames: “A player that jumps out at me is Josh Anderson on Columbus. He’s a guy that battles hard, plays hard, is tough, but can score goals as well.”

Max Domi, Montreal Canadiens: “Barkov in Florida. He’s very, very good.”

Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers: “Brayden Point. He’s a really good player and he deserves to be talked about.”

John Klingberg, Dallas Stars: “Probably this guy [pointing to Jonathan Marchessault]. He’s kind of a sick player, eh? I would say him or Nick Backstrom.”

Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights: “Obviously Barkov, Huberdeau, I think you don’t hear [about] them enough. They’re super good in Florida.”

Kevin Hayes, Philadelphia Flyers: “Probably Kyle Connor. I was with him in Winnipeg and he’s an elite player. He’s really good.”

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs: “I think Roman Josi. We only play against them twice a year so we don’t see much of them. I was able to skate with him a couple weeks ago for four or five days in Florida. He’s a guy that probably doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves even being the captain for Nashville. Just being on the ice against him, being on the ice with him, he’s a really special player and he does it all out there.”

Matt Duchene, Nashville Predators: “One guy I’ll talk about and I think he’s going to get there is Thomas Chabot. I think he’s got a Norris Trophy in his future. Because of the way things finished in Ottawa last he kind of flew under the radar. Start of the season he was top-two in scoring for defenseman for the first third of the year. I think he’s a guy we’re going to hear a lot about coming up.”

Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators: “Mark Stone. People know he’s good but I think people don’t realize how good he is because maybe he’s not as silky as Matthews and those guys. When you look at everything he does out there it’s special. The takeaways he does. The way he plays in his own zone, the way he plays in the offensive zone. Those are the special things that not many players have in this league.”

Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets: “He’s got it now, but a guy that I thought was a good player but I didn’t know he was this good was Ryan O’Reilly. He’s put up numbers, for sure. This year he took himself and the team to a whole new level and he’s a big part of what they did last season. He’s doing well.”

Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild: “Probably my boy Mikael Granlund. I definitely know his skill and how talented he is. Obviously you have to earn that and earn that ability to play more and have that new trust with a new team. I think they’ll see, they’ll understand in Nashville what they got this year. This guy’s got vision. It’s fun to talk hockey with him.”

Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars: “I’ll stay in-house and look at a guy like Miro [Heiskanen]. I think playing in a small market he didn’t get the respect that he deserved. He’s going to be a tremendous player.”

Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks: “It’s Barkov from Florida. He’s always underrated and I love how he plays.”

P.K. Subban, New Jersey Devils: “Now he’s getting more, but Nathan MacKinnon is a very, very good hockey player. In my opinion, he’s been in the top five forwards in the league for a little while. I’d like to see him get a little bit more. I just appreciate his work ethic, how he plays the game, and the way he impacts the game. It’s very difficult to do it the way he does it, with the speed, the skill, his power, [the way] he protects the puck, his ability to make guys around him better. There’s only a few players in the league like that that have that big of an impact. We know about [Connor] McDavid, we know about [Sidney] Crosby, but MacKinnon makes everybody on the ice better. I’d like to see him get some more love.”

MORE NHL PLAYER SURVEYS:
Commissioner for the day
2019-20 sleeper team
Change or keep current playoff format?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

No controversy yet as Samsonov gets another start for Capitals

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With long-time starter Braden Holtby set to be an unrestricted free agent after this season (and with the team also needing to re-sign superstar center Nicklas Backstrom) it seems likely that the Washington Capitals’ goal crease will one day belong to prized prospect Ilya Samsonov.

Samsonov has shined in his first two starts this season and will be in net again on Wednesday night when the Capitals host the Toronto Maple Leafs.

This comes after Samsonov entered the Capitals’ most recent game, a 6-3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche, after Holtby surrendered goals on each of the first three shots he faced.

Given Samsonov’s strong play, combined with Holtby’s early struggles, as well as the fact this is the type of high profile game a team would normally give to its starter, it would be easy start thinking about a goalie controversy in The District. But coach Todd Reirden attempted to throw a bucket of cold water on that talk on Wednesday, talking about this as a “reset” opportunity for Holtby.

“This is the choice we’re making,” said Reirden, when asked what message he has for Holtby at this point. “And this gives you a good chance to reset here. I know Braden is an outstanding goalie and has been for us in the past. Just like any other player, they go through times they can play better than others, and right now as he as alluded to he needs a little reset and he has been able to have that yesterday and today and that will get him ready for his next chance.”

“We’ll evaluate after this game and do what’s right for our team like I did for tonight’s game, what’s right for Braden, what’s right for everybody involved. We’ll evaluate every day. It’s not a goaltending controversy at this point, Braden’s our No. 1 goalie.”

He didn’t seem to mean anything by it, but that “at this point” is doing a lot of work in that sentence.

When he is at his best Holtby has been one of the league’s best goalies with a Vezina Trophy (plus a second place finish in 2017), a Jennings Trophy, and a Stanley Cup ring to his resume. He has also been an outstanding big-game goalie with consistently great postseason performances, including during the team’s 2018 Stanley Cup run. But he also just turned 30 years old and there is no way to avoid the fact that his production has dipped over the past two years. Add in a slow start this season (18 goals against in five games with an .886 save percentage) and an early strong showing from the goalie of the future and it is only natural that some sort of discussion about the No. 1 job would be up for debate.

As long as the two players keep performing the way they have this season, that is unlikely to change. Especially if Samsonov continues to play well on Wednesday night against one of the league’s best offensive teams.

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.

Teenage rookies Hughes, Kakko struggling early in season

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NEW YORK (AP) — Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko were the clear favorites all along to be the top two picks in this year’s NHL draft. So far, the 18-year-olds have struggled to generate a lot of offense in the opening weeks of the season.

Kakko, selected second by the New York Rangers after New Jersey took Hughes at No. 1, broke through with his first NHL goal on Saturday. Hughes nearly got his first on Monday.

Now, the two youngsters will get a close-up look at each other on Thursday night (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN) when the Rangers visit the Devils for the metropolitan-area teams’ first matchup of the season.

Despite Hughes’ struggles getting on the scoresheet, Devils coach John Hynes likes the way the teenager is learning and working on improving his game.

”He’s really understanding how hard you need to compete in this game and how much puck battles matter, attention to detail when you don’t have the puck, and he’s making strides in those areas,” Hynes said. ”He’s just a step away from really creating some pretty good offense.”

Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky, now part of the Oilers’ front office, cautioned about the high expectations immediately placed on young players who come into the league as top draft picks. He pointed to Edmonton star Connor McDavid, who was a No. 1 pick in 2015.

”It’s harder than people think,” Gretzky said. ”There’s a little bit more pressure on these young guys than people think. Connor’s been in the league a few years, he’s lived up to it. … Young Hughes is going to be a fine hockey player. I’ve watched him play quite a bit. He’s 18 years old, he’s in the right situation.

”It’s just going to take him some time, he’s going to get his feet wet, he’s going to get some growing pains but all in all you can tell his skill level and his passion for the game.”

Gretzky also talked about the adjustments a player like Hughes has to make as he adapts to the professional game and the higher level of competition.

”Now you’re playing against men, you’re playing against the best players in the world,” he said. ”Let’s be honest, we had fun and we were pretty good but these kids today with the level of skill and size and speed, they’re so much better than when we played. That’s not a knock against us. That means the game is growing and getting better all the time.”

With the Devils leading the Panthers 4-2 on Monday, Hughes had a chance to add to the lead. He got a bouncing puck on the left side of the goal, and batted it off the post and over the stick of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who was diving back, but the puck went along the goal line and hit the right post and stayed out.

Hughes, who had three goals and an assist in four preseason games, remained without a point in the regular season and New Jersey ended up squandering a three-goal lead in a 6-4 loss to Florida to fall to 0-4-2.

Two days earlier, Kakko got on the scoreboard with a nifty forehand-to-backhand move to give the Rangers an early lead in a 4-1 loss to Edmonton, New York’s first loss after opening the season with two wins.

”It was a special way for him to score,” said linemate Ryan Strome, who set up Kakko on the rush. ”A great goal, a great move. Hopefully the floodgates are open for him. He’s got all the tools to do it, so it should be fun to watch.”

Rookies who have already stood out in the opening weeks of the season include:

Victor Olofsson, RW, Buffalo. The 24-year-old has five goals and two assists in six games and set an NHL record with his first seven goals all coming on the power play. He had two goals and two assists in six games last season. His record-setting goal got the Sabres started in a 4-0 win against Dallas on Monday that improved Buffalo to 5-0-1.

Cale Makar, D, Colorado. Selected No. 4 overall by the Avalanche in the 2017 draft, he has six assists in five games, with four coming on power-play goals. Makar, who will turn 21 on Oct. 30, has helped the Avalanche open the season with five wins for the franchise’s best start since beginning with six wins in 2013-14.

– Sam Lafferty, C, Pittsburgh. With the Penguins missing forwards Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Galchenyuk and Bryan Rust, Lafferty has stepped up with three goals and two assists – all coming in the last two games, road wins against Minnesota and Winnipeg – to help push Pittsburgh to 4-2-0.

Ilya Mikheyev, RW, Toronto. The 25-year-old Russian, signed as a free agent in May, has two goals and three assists in seven games. Mikheyev had a sensational goal Saturday night against Detroit as he drew Jimmy Howard out far from the crease, went to his left and fired it into the wide-open goal.

– Ilya Samsonov, G, Washington. After coming over from the KHL, Samsonov spent last season with Hershey of the AHL. As Braden Holtby‘s backup, the 22-year-old won his first two starts, limiting the Islanders and Stars to one goal each with a .961 save-percentage. In relief duty against Colorado on Monday, he gave up two goals on 21 shots and took his first loss.

STREAKING

The Colorado Avalanche have opened the season with five straight wins. … The Devils have started the season with six straight losses (0-4-2). … Buffalo’s Carter Hutton, Nashville’s Pekka Rinne and Colorado’s Philipp Grubauer have won four straight starts to open the season, Carolina’s Petr Mrazek and Boston’s Tuukka have won their first three.

SLUMPING

Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk is 0-5-0 with a 4.44 goals-against average in five starts. … The Devils’ Cory Schneider is 0-3-0 with a 4.08 GAA in four starts, and Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick is 0-3-0 with a 6.43 GAA in three starts.

Are the Sabres the real deal?

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It’s way too early in the season to be asking this question, but we’re going to do it anyway. Are the Buffalo Sabres the real deal?

Through six games, the Sabres have rattled off a 5-0-1 record and they have the best goal differential at plus-12. Not bad, not bad at all. New head coach Ralph Krueger has seemingly pushed all the right buttons and his players have responded in a positive way. Now, all he has to do (easier said than done) is keep it going for 76 more games!

“Anytime you get off to a good start and get results, confidence naturally comes with that,” forward Jeff Skinner said after Monday’s win over Dallas. “What you have to do is keep working at your game and use the confidence in a positive way. We still have things to work on, we still have things we want to improve. Being able to get off to a good start results-wise is nice. Now we have to keep that momentum going.”

There’s a few things that stand out when you take a look at why they’ve been so good. First, their power-play has been lethal. Raise your hand if you thought Rasmus Dahlin, Jack Eichel and Victor Olofsson would all be in the top six when it came to power play points to start the season. What? Anybody? Thought so.

Buffalo has scored at least one tally on the man-advantage in five of their six games. They scored three power play goals against the New Jersey Devils, two against the Columbus Blue Jackets and two against the Montreal Canadiens.

The Sabres’ power play was ranked 16th last season at just under 20 percent. This year, they’re clicking at 42.9 percent while the league average is right around 21 percent. As dynamic as they are when they’re up a man, there’s no way they’re going to roll at over 40 percent all year. To put that number into perspective, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had the best power play in the league last year, were firing at just over 28 percent.

One of the other strong parts of their game has been their goaltending. Carter Hutton has been rock-solid between the pipes and Linus Ullmark has been really good, too. Hutton, who has started four of the team’s six games, has a 4-0-0 record with a 1.74 goals-against-average and a .931 save percentage this season. He’s coming off a 25-save shutout in a 4-0 win over the Dallas Stars.

“A lot of it is the fact that they both get to play then they both feel like they have a little bit of a rhythm going,” assistant coach Mike Bales, who works with the goaltenders, told the Sabres’ website. “One guy’s not going to sit for too long. So, they always feel game-ready because of that too. It helps a lot.

“You can practice all you want, but when you get into games it feels a little bit different. The traditional, old-school way of doing it where you have one guy play 65 games and the backup would come in and mop up once in a while, wouldn’t get that many starts, was tough on backups for rhythm and feeling ready so I think having two guys going all the time helps them be ready when they do play.”

Whether or not Hutton and Ullmark can keep this going remains to be seen, but it’s imperative that they get great goaltending if they’re going to earn a playoff spot in 2019-20. Ullmark hasn’t been a regular in the NHL for as long as Hutton, so it’s tough to get a gauge of what he can do over a full season. As for Hutton, he’s a veteran and he’s been around the league a lot. He got off to a very strong start last year before fading in a hurry in the second half of the season.

Another reason they haven’t lost in regulation yet is because of their balanced scoring. Through six contests, Buffalo has had 10 different scorers. Olofsson leads the way with five goals, Skinner has four, Marcus Johansson, Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel each have three, Conor Sheary has two, while Johan Larsson, Marco Scandella, Kyle Okposo and Dahlin have all found the back of the net once. Now that’s balance.

As fun as the Sabres have been, it’s tough to envision them staying ahead of teams like Boston, Tampa Bay and Toronto, but they don’t have to finish atop the Atlantic Division to have a successful season. Making it back to the postseason in a Wild Card spot would be a huge success. They still have plenty of work to do before they can reach that point, but this team filled with youth seems to be on the right track.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Patience, preparation part of Makar’s NHL path

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Colorado Avalanche. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

It all began in warmups for Cale Makar.

Before he became one of the NHL’s biggest young stars, the defenseman was leaving lasting impressions on coaches in warmups.

Ryan Papaioannou, head coach and general manager of the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s Brooks Bandits, first laid eyes on Makar during the Mac’s Midget AAA World Invitational Tournament. As the young blue liner prepared for a game with the Calgary Flames Midget AAA team, what he showed during warmups — his skating and ability to move the puck deceptively — was all Papaioannou needed to see to know this was a special player.

“Dynamic player with explosive speed. Very high risk and more than willing to make a play regardless of the risk/reward,” Papaioannou told NBC Sports. “He was an elite skater and the puck skills matched. We have always been an offensive-minded team, especially with our defensemen, so it was a natural fit with Cale.”

During his first year as head coach at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Greg Carvel flew out to Alberta to watch Makar play with the Bandits. Like Papaioannou, he immediately recognized how strong of a skater he was and the quickness of his hands. After one period, Carvel, who spent seven years in the NHL as an assistant coach with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and Ottawa Senators, was convinced the Minutemen would be getting a player who would make a big impact on the program.

I called my staff and said this kid’s a star, he’s going to be a high draft pick,” Carvel said.

Those were prophetic words. Makar was selected No. 4 overall by the Colorado Avalanche in 2017, becoming the highest drafted player to come straight out of the AJHL, and upon entering the NHL during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, immediately showed he can not only handle the highest level of hockey but also thrive in such a high-pressure environment.

Makar took his own route to get to the NHL, one that other players may have strayed from in order to reach their goal the quickest way possible. That’s not his makeup.

“He’s just so mature that he knew what the right decisions were to help him get prepared for what he’s doing now,” Carvel said. “When he arrived in the NHL, he wanted to be really prepared and I think he did it absolutely the right way.”

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The sky was the limit for Makar, even at a young age. Papaioannou saw that, and when the defenseman joined the Bandits at the end of the 2014-15 season there was no hesitation throwing him into the lineup for their playoff run, one that would see Brooks reach the AJHL final. Makar would play 20 games and record seven points.

“We really didn’t know how well he would do, but [we] certainly wanted to give him the opportunity as we saw such a high ceiling to his game,” Papaioannou said. “Some of the offensive plays he made with the puck, under pressure, showed his on-ice maturity. He was cool as could be and more than willing to show all the tools at his disposal. It was a game-by-game situation where he earned himself a spot in the lineup every night and we probably could/should have played him more that year.”

[COVERAGE OF AVS-PENGUINS BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

Makar has always been a realist about his limitations. When he was drafted by the Western Hockey League’s Medicine Hat Tigers in 2013, he could have gone that route for a path to the NHL. Small and not the most physically assuming back then, he chose Brooks and the AJHL with a long-term eye on his development.

In two full seasons in the AJHL, Makar dominated, posting 34 goals and 130 points in 108 games. He helped the Bandits to back-to-back league titles in 2016 and 2017 and was AJHL MVP for the 2016-17 season.

After committing to UMass in 2015, Makar faced a big decision as his AJHL career came to an end. The Minutemen fired John Micheletto, who recruited Makar, and hired Carvel. Would he honor his commitment or look elsewhere given the regime change at Amherst?

Makar chose to stay.

“I wanted to stay loyal and see what happened, and I knew they were going to hire somebody great,” Makar said at the 2017 NHL Draft. “I think I made the right decision with sticking there because Carvel and the assistants there are going to be immensely incredible for my development.”

“When they changed coaches he could have left and gone to another school,” Carvel said, “but I think the family did the research on me and they were comfortable with my history in the NHL coaching Erik Karlsson and other elite defensemen. They felt [UMass] was a good place and allowed them to stay loyal their commitment, which was consistent to the principles of that family.”

Once Makar arrived on campus, there was an adjustment period on the ice. While anyone could notice the hockey ability he possessed, there was plenty of room for improvement in a number of areas.

“Pound for pound he was probably one of the weaker kids physically, so that needed to be addressed,” Carvel said. “He was an 18-, 19-year-old in his first year and a lot of nights we had to sit him on the bench [for a breather]. His stamina as a player and his physical maturity was a big reason, he would admit to that. That was one of the bigger reasons why he didn’t sign [with the Avalanche]. He just knew he wasn’t physically ready for the demands of an NHL season.”

The Avalanche wanted to sign Makar following his freshman season when he scored five goals and recorded 21 points in 34 games. But the desire to start his professional career was beaten out by patience, knowing that in order to have sustained success in the NHL he needed more time to develop.

That was all part of the plan.

When Makar arrived at UMass, he sat down with Carvel and they mapped out a two-year plan. Following the Charlie McAvoy model at Boston University, the head coach knew from his experience and where Makar was at in his development that by the end of his sophomore season he would be ready to make the jump to the NHL.

Makar was on board with the plan, which included an agreement that in the best-case scenario his development showed he was NHL ready by the end of his freshman year, the two-year plan would be cut down to one. Having this timeline made the process easier for both the player and coach.

It was Makar’s final year at UMass, 2018-19, when he showed he had outgrown college hockey and was ready for the NHL. As captain of the Minutemen, he led the team in scoring with 16 goals and 49 points, won the Hobey Baker Award top NCAA men’s player, and led his team to the National Title game.

As Makar’s NCAA career dwindled down to at most two games following UMass’ run to the Frozen Four, there was plenty of speculation that he would sign with the Avalanche as soon as the season came to an end. Carvel didn’t inquire much with his star player about his future plans until the final weekend of the season, and that’s when the decision was made he was ready for the next level.

Despite all that was swirling around Makar at the time, Carvel said he never saw that outside noise affect his play on the ice. Four days later after UMass fell in the championship game, Makar was an Avalanche player, and scoring in his first NHL game.

Considering how mentally strong he knew Makar was, Carvel wasn’t surprised to see his former player be impactful despite a rollercoaster couple of days in his life.

“Pressure’s only something you create within yourself and he’s the kind of kid that he knew what he’s capable of doing,” Carvel said. “He was over-ready for that level. As good a skater as he is, he was rather passive, and we feel like we helped him become more aggressive in his skating style to be up the ice more and to be on top of players and better defensively using his skating. I think you saw that through the playoffs and the early part of the season that he’s an elite skater and that he uses it to its best.”

Around UMass, Makar is used as an example of being “overripe” and “over ready” and how you can never be too prepared before moving up the hockey ladder. As an NHL assistant, Carvel saw the early years of Karlsson, a two-time Norris Trophy winner, and saw the work ethic required for young players to have sustainable, impactful NHL careers. While Makar may not be at that level yet, his former coach is a firm believer he can get there.

“I think he’s a Norris Trophy winner someday,” said Carvel. “Who knows how long that takes because he’s able to produce offensively. He’s able to compete defensively and his skating is elite. To me, that’s a pretty complete player — a defenseman who can put up a point-a-game type numbers at the NHL level, but also be responsible using his feet and his strength. That will make him a really good defenseman.

“He’s a kid that believes in the growth mindset and he’ll always be looking to get better. He won’t get comfortable, and if he does he’ll hear it from somebody.”

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Avs-Pens from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa. Kathryn Tappen will host NHL Live with analysts Patrick Sharp, Jeremy Roenick and NHL insider Bob McKenzie.

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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.