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NBC Sports NHL Player Survey: 2019-20 sleeper team

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We’re two weeks away from the start of the 2019-20 NHL season and the summer gives fans and teams reason to hope that this could be their year. Every season surprise teams emerge, defying the doubters and making noise after being written off by the hockey world.

While we as fans and media have our thoughts on who might surprise this coming season, we posed that question to players at the NHL Media Tour earlier this month in Chicago. You could probably guess two of the teams that were pretty popular considering the upgrades they made over the summer. Some players were confident enough to say their team could be thought of as a sleeper, while others were left with a lasting impression of a team that played them hard last season.

Here’s who NHL players told us will be the sleeper teams of 2019-20:

Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights: “I think Florida’s going to be good. The only problem is they’re in a tough division.”

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs: “Probably New Jersey. I’m not really sure they’re a sleeper team but they’ve made a lot of really good acquisitions this summer. They’ve got the first overall pick, [Nikita] Gusev from Vegas, P.K. [Subban], and they’ve got some pretty good young guys that have been there for a while like [Nico] Hischier and [Taylor] Hall. They missed the playoffs last year but they’re always a tough team to play against. They play fast and they’re going to be a team that surprises some other teams.”

Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks: “The ‘Hawks. I think we have a better group of guys. Our defensive units have been positive, the trades we made were positive and getting [Robin] Lehner is huge. No one wants to not make the playoffs again, so I think that’s a big thing in our locker room. We’re not going to accept it this year.”

Max Domi, Montreal Canadiens: “I think Arizona’s going to be good this year. They were close last year, they did a lot last year, especially with all the injuries they had. That [Nick] Schmaltz is a heck of a player. Adding Phil Kessel’s a big deal. Signing [Clayton] Keller to that extension will give him a lot of confidence.”

John Klingberg, Dallas Stars: “I’d say ourselves. I think we played good hockey after the All-Star break and we were pretty good in the playoffs, just lost that Game 7 to St. Louis and added some really good pieces. We’re going to be a really good team this year.”

Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings: “I’d say Detroit. Everyone’s healthy right now. We have good pickups that would add depth to our team and our young core of players coming up.”

Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames: “I’d say the Montreal Canadiens. They got a lot of really good young players. I remember playing against them. They compete hard, they’re tough to play against. They’ve got a lot of skills. Obviously, Carey Price in net. That’s a good goalie to have.”

Matt Duchene, Nashville Predators: “It’s so hard to pick now. I think Columbus is going to be a lot better than people have them ranked. Obviously guys leaving looks a certain way but I think they’re going to be very, very good team and very tough to be. They always are.”

Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars: “Staying in our division I think Chicago’s going to be a good team. They’re due for a bounce back. They made some key moves this off-season. I expect them to be a lot better this season.”

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins: “Florida Panthers.”

Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks: “I don’t know if there are sleepers anymore, to be honest. I think Colorado’s going to be good. Maybe Vancouver. I’ve found them to be a really good team. They worked so hard last year. There’s a lot of teams that are hiding in the weeds just waiting for their turn to make a surge for the playoffs and make it count when that time comes.”

Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets: “The two teams that I think besides Colorado, who I think is a great team, it wouldn’t surprise me if they made it far would be Arizona or the Rangers.”

Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes: “There was a lot of big off-season moves but I think one team that really improved is the Devils. Their additions on the back end, forward end, they’re going to be a pretty good team this year.”

Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks: “Florida. I think they have a great team, now they have a new goalie with [Sergei] Bobrovsky signing.”

Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche: “Florida. I don’t know if people are sleeping on them too much but I think they made some great additions and I’m interested to see how they do this year.”

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals: “New Jersey.”

Derek Stepan, Arizona Coyotes: “I’m biased. I really like what our team has done. I think we have good pieces. I would throw us in the mix. If we continue to do the things we did at the end of last year with the work ethic and the defensive side of things we could be a dangerous club.”

Kevin Hayes, Philadelphia Flyers: “I think people have the Flyers as a low-end team this year. I don’t think that’s going to be the case. We have a great goalie and have some new faces. It should all come together.”

Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators: “I’m very excited in what we can do, first things first. It’s a new coach, it’s a new team. We’ve got a lot of new guys coming in. Everybody’s put at the end of the standings already. It’s going to be a fun year. It’s going to be different than it was.”

Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres: “Florida Panthers.”

Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild: “I think they’ve been sleeping, but the Edmonton Oilers. Everyone’s kind of just waiting like, When is it going to happen? They’ve got a lot of pieces in play. I know a bunch of those dudes and they work hard. It just hasn’t come together. They do have arguably the best player in the National Hockey League. We’ll see, I guess.”

Bo Horvat, Vancouver Canucks: “I don’t know if they’re a sleeper but think Vegas is always going to be right up there and be good. They’ve got a lot of good players and the building’s tough to play in. I think they’re going to hold a grudge with what happened in the playoffs last year and they’re going to come out strong.”

Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers: “Philadelphia. New coaching staff and they added some depth defensively. They had a good team [last year] and they were tough to play against. They could surprise.”

MORE NHL PLAYER SURVEYS:
Commissioner for the day
Most underrated player
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 at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Blues edge Flames in shootout; Eichel sets new career high

The St. Louis Blues celebrate their 5-4 shootout win over the Calgary Flames
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Three Stars

1) David Perron, St. Louis Blues

After making the All-Star Game for the first time in his NHL career, Perron started the second half of the season with a two-game point streak. He added a goal, an assist and a shootout tally as the Blues defeated the Flames 5-4 in a back-and-forth battle that ended in the skills competition. The 31-year-old forward notched his 22nd of the season when he hammered home a loose puck in front to knot the game at 2-2 late in the first period. Perron also made a nifty pass to help St. Louis exit the zone before Zach Sanford tied the game early in the final frame. Additionally, the Blues snapped a three-game losing streak.

2) Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames

The Flames alternate captain is still a bit behind his 82-point total pace from last year after surpassing his previous career-high by 18 points set the season before. Monahan remains a critical piece in the Flames’ lineup as they prepare for a playoff push in the tightly contested Pacific Division. The 25-year-old recorded his 400th career point when he snapped off a wrist shot from the slot at 15:43 of the first period to give Calgary a 2-1 lead at the time. He would go on to record his second of the game, another wrister from the slot, early in the middle frame to even the score at 3-3.

3) Mark Borowiecki, Ottawa Senators

It’s not often an empty-net goal helps an NHL player land on this list, but Borowiecki’s game-sealing tally late in the third period was quite the play in the Senators’ 5-2 win against the Sabres. Ottawa’s alternate captain willingly went down on one knee in order to block a one-timer from Marcus Johansson to help preserve a one-goal lead at the time. After the block, Borowiecki quickly gathered himself, collected a loose puck and fired it off the boards into the empty cage. The Senators lead the NHL with 11 shorthanded goals.

Highlights of the Night

Blues forward Robert Thomas feathered a beautiful cross-ice pass between a couple of Calgary Flames to set up Alexander Steen to open the scoring.

In his 500th NHL game, Jaden Schwartz recorded his 17th of the season when he redirected a pretty pass from Brayden Schenn.

[RELATED: Predators facing difficult road in playoff push | How the Canucks climbed to top of Pacific Division]

Blooper of the Night

Who should get credit for this empty-net goal?

Stat of the Night

Scores

Ottawa Senators 5, Buffalo Sabres 2

St. Louis Blues 5, Calgary Flames 4 (SO)

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Hall of Fame goalie Ed Belfour arrested on mischief, public intoxication charges

former Dallas Star and NHL alumnus Ed Belfour
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Hockey Hall of Famer Ed Belfour was arrested early Tuesday morning. The former NHL goaltender caused damage to a downtown Bowling Green hotel.

Police found the 54-year-old inside the Kentucky Grand Hotel and Spa around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, the Bowling Green Daily News said, citing the arrest report. He was arrested on charges of third-degree criminal mischief and alcohol intoxication in a public place, according to the citation. He was booked into the Warren County Regional Jail just before 3 a.m. Tuesday, according to the jail’s website.

According to report, he was “manifestly under the influence of alcohol to a point he was a danger to himself and others.”

Police responded to a complaint of an intoxicated person after Belfour tried to fight an employee and struck glass in anger. When cops arrived on the scene, they found Belfour on the second floor, kicking a spa door while “clutching a curtain rod that had been ripped out of the dry wall above a window next to him,” according to the report.

When detained, Belfour was not compliant with officers.

Belfour won the Stanley Cup in 1999 with the Dallas Stars and captured an Olympic gold medal during the 2002 Winter Games as a member of Team Canada. He currently sits in fourth place on the NHL all-time wins list.

How the Canucks climbed to top of Pacific Division

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For the first time in five years Vancouver Canucks fans have reason to be excited about their team. They are the hottest team in the NHL right now, and with their 3-1 win over the St. Louis Blues on Monday night are 12-3-0 over their past 15 games. That run has helped them climb to the top of the Pacific Division and put them in a position where they have a very good chance to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2014-15 season.

While it is true that the Pacific Division is very watered down this season — especially with the struggles of Vegas and San Jose — the Canucks still have something building here. They are exciting, they can score, and as of Monday have the third-best goal differential in the Western Conference.

Let’s take a look at what is driving their success so far this season.

Quinn Hughes has been better than advertised

Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser are the young cornerstones at forward, but Hughes is the player that’s really helped get this rebuild running in the right direction.

He may not win the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year, but he is almost certainly going to be Vancouver’s third straight finalist (following Boeser and Pettersson) as he competes with fellow rookie defenseman Cale Makar (Colorado Avalanche) for that crown. He’s already a 20-minute per night defenseman and fills one of the single biggest needs the Canucks have had the past couple of years — a young, impactful, top-pairing defenseman to lead their blue line. He’s the type of player that as soon as you watch him you know he’s going to be a star with the way he skates, moves the puck, and contributes to the offense.

But what’s really made him such a valuable piece is that he is able to do all of that while still being the team’s best defensive defenseman as a 20-year-old rookie. When he is on the ice during 5-on-5 play this season the Canucks are allowing the following:

  • 52.3 shot attempts per 60 minutes
  • 28.2 shots on goal per 60 minutes
  • 2.24 expected goals against per 60 minutes
  • 27.4 scoring chances per 60 minutes
  • 2.24 goals against per 60 minutes

Those numbers not only place him first among all Canucks defenders in every category, he is first by a significant margin in all of them.

(Data via Natural Stat Trick)

J.T. Miller has been the perfect support player

It’s been no secret the past two years that Boeser and Pettersson were the two players driving the bus for the Canucks offensively, and they still are.

It’s also no secret that two players alone can not carry a team on their own. And while the Canucks still have some depth concerns, Miller has been everything the Canucks could have hoped for him to be and more.

They raised some eyebrows when they traded a future first-round draft pick to the Tampa Bay Lightning for him, but it’s hard to argue with the results right now.

He is in the middle of a career year and currently on pace for more than 30 goals and 70 points, while also being one of the best possession-driving forwards in the entire league.

They paid a steep price, and the trade definitely carried some risk, but he is signed long-term, at a fair price, and has been a perfect fit within the core, while also being young enough to be a part of that core in future seasons. I was not a huge fan of the move at the time, but at some point you have to start adding talent to make your rebuild actually get somewhere. The Canucks have done that here.

Jacob Markstrom has been a rock in net

Markstrom hasn’t been one of the league’s elites in net, but he has been a rock solid starter since taking over that position in Vancouver. He may not steal a ton of games, but he’s not losing many games for them, either. He’s been a steady, and durable goalie that has consistently given them better-than-league average play the past few years. He has been even better this season.

While Hughes has been an immediate sensation on the blue line, this team still has its flaws defensively and gives up its share of shots and chances. They’re not yet a championship-level defensive team, and that makes quality goaltending even more vital for their chances. Markstrom is giving them that, and in the process is playing his way toward what could be a pretty significant raise this offseason.

MORE:
NHL Power Rankings: Looking at top Stanley Cup Contenders
The 6 coaches and general managers that can impact NHL playoff race
The 10 players that can impact NHL playoff race

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.

Headache-plagued Stephen Johns finally back on ice for Stars

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FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Stephen Johns sometimes wondered if he would play hockey again while missing nearly 22 months with headaches that may or may not have been related to concussions.

The Dallas Stars defenseman just didn’t appreciate it when doctors suggested as much.

“That just kind of pissed me off because it wasn’t their decision to make,” Johns said after a week-plus break for Dallas that came after his first game since March 29, 2018.

“Obviously there were times when I thought I would never play again, but that was probably when it was the lowest of my lows. Obviously I climbed out of it. In the back of my mind I knew I wasn’t done yet and I still had a lot to prove.”

The Stars didn’t have much to celebrate on the ice in a 7-0 loss to Minnesota in Johns’ return Jan 18. They liked the ending of his first home game a lot more, a 3-2 overtime win over Tampa Bay on Monday night.

Either way, there’s still an aspect to Johns being back that has little to do with scores and stats. Even the 27-year-old feels it.

“Trust me, it’s not frustrating,” he said. “Now I know where my game is. It’s a breath of fresh air almost to have something to work towards again.”

After sitting the final four games of the 2017-18 season, Johns missed all of 2018-19, which ended with Dallas’ Game 7 loss to eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis in the second round of the playoffs.

When training camp opened, general manager Jim Nill declared Johns still wasn’t ready to return and wouldn’t discuss it further. For Nill, it was about protecting a player who had been dealing for more than a year with issues bigger than getting back on the ice.

Post-traumatic headaches — the official explanation — were part of the mystery, and Nill said doctors couldn’t know for sure whether Johns’ history of concussions played a role. Ultimately, Nill said, the cause paled compared to the recovery.

“In the end, we’re just happy he’s back playing and feeling good,” Nill said. “He can feel good about himself and he looks like himself again.”

Johns was a top prospect for Chicago when Nill got him in a trade, with Patrick Sharp the headliner when the Blackhawks were dumping salary in 2015.

Late in the first season after the swap, Johns made his NHL debut and ended up playing all 13 playoff games. Dallas lost a Game 7 in the second round to St. Louis that year as well. Johns had to watch when it happened again three years later.

“It’s hell. It’s very simple,” Johns said. “A couple of guys stood back and watched us lose 7-0 to Minnesota. I know exactly what they were thinking sitting on the couch watching. It sucks watching.”

Captain Jamie Benn tried to be mindful of Johns being stuck on the periphery of the team for the daily routine, “pretty much rub elbows with them on my way out and they’re on their way in,” as Johns put it.

For Benn, it was diversions such as playing golf, and other ways to try to keep the focus off his teammate’s injury.

“I’m sure the amount of times were endless that he got asked how he’s doing,” Benn said. “When I talked to him, I didn’t really ask him. We all knew he wasn’t doing very good. So the last thing he wants to hear is, ‘How you doing?’”

Much better now, after a two-game conditioning assignment with the AHL’s Texas Stars before joining Dallas. Johns is still looking for his first point after averaging about 16 minutes in two games.

Interim coach Rick Bowness said Johns was too eager to show his physical style against the Lightning, leaving himself and the team in some bad positions after delivering hits.

“We’ve got to give the kid a chance to play,” Bowness said. “We knew this going in that he’s going to be rusty and there’s going to be bad decisions and bad timing.”

Nill figures there’s plenty of time to work on the timing of a player who looked to be a key piece on the Dallas blue line before Miro Heiskanen emerged as a 19-year-old rising star as a rookie last season.

“I’m happy to see him around the dressing room, with his teammates, smile on his face, feeling good about himself,” Nill said. “We know he’s a good hockey player. He knows he brings a lot to this team. Now he can start working on that.”