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Boudreau, Wild aim to disprove belief they are on decline

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — After their six-year streak of making the playoffs came to an end, the Minnesota Wild went through an eventful summer in which the major change was made in the front office, not to the roster.

The Wild were the fifth-lowest scoring team in the league last season. Among their top seven point producers from 2018-19, four will be at least 35 years old by midseason.

There’s no surprise, then, that the external expectations for success are scant.

”That’s good. Let them pick us to be at the bottom,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. ”But we believe in ourselves, and we’re counting on surprising people.”

With stalwarts Zach Parise and Ryan Suter coming off strong post-injury performances in 2018-19, there is precedent for Mikko Koivu (knee) and Matt Dumba (shoulder) to do the same a year later after their absences last season contributed significantly to the decline. Just as helpful toward improvement might be an extra edge the Wild have brought to the ice this fall.

”Every team that didn’t win is going to say it has a chip on its shoulder,” Boudreau said, ”but all I know is when they predict you to be 32nd in a 31-team league, it might piss you off a little bit.”

The first jolt came at the end of July when owner Craig Leipold fired general manager Paul Fenton after less than 15 months on the job. Bill Guerin was hired to take over and restore some trust from the players.

”We’ve got guys who have won in this league for a long time,” Guerin said, ”and I’m confident this group is going to bounce back.”

WHO’S HERE

The last moves Fenton made before he was fired were signing free agents Mats Zuccarello (five years, $30 million) for more offense from the top-six forwards and Ryan Hartman (two years, $3.8 million) for more toughness on the fourth line. The length of Zuccarello’s contract raised eyebrows, considering the Wild now have five players 32 or older among their eight highest salary cap charges. His experience, however, can’t hurt a team that could have as many as five players 23 or younger (centers Luke Kunin and Joel Eriksson Ek and wings Kevin Fiala, Ryan Donato and Jordan Greenway) among the top three lines.

WHO’S NOT

After Fenton traded mainstays Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund last winter before the deadline, there wasn’t much left to change on the roster in the summer. Right wings Eric Fehr and Pontus Aberg and defensemen Nate Prosser and Anthony Bitetto, all bit players, were free agents who went elsewhere.

KEY PLAYERS

To keep up in the West, the Wild will need some of those under-24 players to break out. Fiala is under the most scrutiny, an underachieving 11th overall pick from the 2014 draft who came from Nashville in the deal for Granlund. Having a healthy Dumba, one of the NHL’s most productive defensemen, and Koivu, one of the best defensive forwards in the league, will go a long way toward helping the Wild play at their potential. Dumba had 12 goals in 32 games last season.

”If I can contribute 30 toward this team, I think we’re going to be pretty well off,” Dumba said.

OUTLOOK

After leading the league in percentage of goals by defensemen last season (20.9) and finishing tied for fifth in percentage of points by defensemen (26.3), the Wild have Dumba back to skate with Suter on the first pair. Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin are next, giving them one of the deepest blue line groups in the game.

While Devan Dubnyk has been one of the most durable goalies in the NHL, he has been more vulnerable lately. Last season, Dubnyk finished 14th in goals-against average among netminders with 27 or more games and tied for 21st in save percentage. Following their lowest goal total in five years, the Wild need a strong offensive start to the season to support Dubnyk during a daunting early schedule.

Starting Oct. 3 at Nashville, the Wild play six of their first seven games on the road. Including the home opener on Oct. 12 against Pittsburgh, they face three teams that hit the 100-point mark last season.

PREDICTION

The Wild tumbled down the stretch, going 4-9-1 over their final 14 games to finish 37-36-9. They landed in last place for the first time in 13 years, when they were in a five-team division under the NHL’s prior alignment. Even if Zuccarello can provide a scoring boost, Dumba re-establishes his pre-injury productivity and the presence of Guerin brings some badly needed positive vibes, the Wild face a steep climb back to the playoffs.

The Central Division is stacked, with defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis, Nashville, Winnipeg, Dallas and Colorado all having qualified for the postseason last spring. Boudreau has the second-best record among active head coaches, behind only Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper, but a best-case scenario would be getting one of the two Western Conference wild card spots. Missing the playoffs is more likely than not, with Guerin bound to take a patient approach to building a contender.

The Buzzer: McDavid, Draisaitl stay red-hot; Lightning torch Rangers

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers
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Three Stars

1. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers

There is a reason these two lead the NHL in points and a combined 11-point outing will certainly keep them there a bit longer. McDavid recorded his second hat trick in three games and his first career six-point outing. Draisaitl had five assists and extended his point streak to 11 games as the Oilers skated to a 6-2 victory against the Colorado Avalanche. If the Oilers feel that the rest of the lineup can provide enough support McDavid and Draisaitl can build on a dynamic partnership and help Edmonton return to the postseason.

2. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

A trip to Sweden was the perfect opportunity for the Lightning to find their form and in their first game back in North America, they proved they still are an elite offensive team. Kucherov capped off an explosive stretch when Tampa Bay scored three times in a span of 61 seconds and added three assists. It was the second time this season Kucherov recorded four points.

3. Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks

The Czech forward had two goals as the San Jose Sharks extended their winning streak to five with an important 5-3 victory against the Anaheim Ducks. Hertl was the beneficiary of a suspect call when he pushed John Gibson’s pad over the goal line in the opening period. But on his second of the night, the 26-year-old wired a wrister to even the score in the second period. After a slow start, the Sharks are hoping to climb their way back into the playoff race.

Highlights of the Night

McDavid doing McDavid things

Video game dekes are normally reserved for an alternate reality but Justin Dowling of the Dallas Stars showed his slick hands with an impressive toe drag.

Before a one-timer is launched, there are times you just know the player is going to connect. Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is one goal away from the 400-goal mark after this blistering slap shot.

Blooper of the Night

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins probably had a different plan for this celebration

Factoids

  • Connor McDavid became the fourth player in Oilers history to record two hat tricks in three games, joining Wayne Gretzy, Glen Anderson and Jari Kurri [NHL PR].
  • McDavid and Draisaitl are just the second Oilers teammates in the last 30 years to each record five points in a game [NHL PR]
  • The Hurricanes have not lost a game against the Sabres since March 22m 2016 and are one of five teams with an active win streak of 10+ games vs. one opponent [NHL PR]
  • Dougie Hamilton is the fastest defenseman in Hurricanes/Whalers franchise history to reach 20 points in a season (19 GP) [Sportsnet Stats]
  • The Lightning scored four goals in each of the first and second periods of a game for first time in franchise history [NHL PR]
  • Tampa Bay scored four goals in the first 6:42 of Thursday’s game. Only five teams have accomplished that feat faster in the last 25 years [NHL PR].

Scores

Lightning 9, Rangers 3

Hurricanes 5, Sabres 4 (OT)

Jets 4, Panthers 3

Wild 3, Coyotes 2

Oilers 6, Avalanche 2

Stars 4, Canucks 2

Sharks 5, Ducks 3

Kings 3, Red Wings 2

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Necas rewarding Hurricanes’ patience

Carolina Hurricanes forward Martin Necas
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Highly touted prospects are consistently called on to produce shortly after their draft year, sometimes hindering their growth as players.

Whether the club is competing for the Stanley Cup, looking to become a contender or facing a salary cap dilemma, young players on entry-level contracts have become a staple in the NHL.

For the Carolina Hurricanes, the patience they showed during Martin Necas’ development process has proven to be beneficial.

Necas has recorded 13 points through 19 games, including an assist on Dougie Hamilton’s game-winning goal Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres. The 20-year-old forward darted into the offensive zone and could not complete a breakaway opportunity midway through overtime. However, instead of losing his composure, Necas stayed with the play, retrieved the puck and set up Hamilton to help Carolina secure a 5-4 victory.

Carolina selected Necas with the 12th pick in the first round of the 2017 NHL draft. Necas played one game in the NHL that season before returning to the Czech Republic. Last year, Necas had a seven-game stint with the Hurricanes, but the organization felt he needed more fine-tuning in the American Hockey League, where he helped the Charlotte Checkers capture the Calder Cup.

The pressure surrounding a first-round pick is omnipresent during the development process and only heightens when the prospect needs additional time outside the NHL. The situation is even more magnified when the big club is contending for a championship and contemplating a major trade deadline acquisition or a promotion from within.

But Carolina’s front office resisted the urge to disrupt Necas’ development and is reaping the rewards from that tough decision this season.

If Necas continues to produce, he will be in contention for a different Calder Trophy this season. While an individual award is an accomplishment, Carolina is hoping its patience will be rewarded as the team looks to build on its Eastern Conference Finals appearance last season.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Maple Leafs GM gives interesting take on ‘polarizing’ players

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The Toronto Maple Leafs are mired in a three-game losing streak, and generally speaking, have seemed a bit underwhelming so far in starting 2019-20 with a 9-7-4 record (22 points, currently in second wild card).

Through 20 games, you’ll see players talk about getting “swagger” back, and you probably won’t be able to scroll Hockey Twitter without stumbling upon at least a few debates about the job Mike Babcock is doing.

With as passionate a fan base as the Maple Leafs have, you’ll see people really drilling down to parse even the depth aspects of the team. Maybe that explains why we got an interesting take from GM Kyle Dubas, who almost seemed to break “the fourth wall” when he acknowledged the many takes that defensemen Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie inspire.

Buffet of opinions

Dubas’ comments about Ceci are especially fascinating, as you can see from TSN’s Karen Shilton.

“Cody is an interesting one. I think it goes back to the war between data and subjective scouting [in that] he seems to be a very polarizing player,” Dubas said. “Even when everything underlying about him has been relatively solid, especially when you consider his usage [as a top-pairing defenceman who averages 22:19 of ice time per game], it seems to be every tiny thing that he does becomes a referendum on whether he’s good or not, which is mind-boggling to me. Every defenceman that plays that much and plays in that role is going to [make] mistakes. I think he’s been a good addition for us and has played above expectations from when we acquired him and we’re very happy with him.”

In particular, Dubas captures the tenure of some Hockey Twitter debates when he says “it seems like every tiny thing that he does becomes a referendum.”

But it’s not that hard to see where many of Ceci’s critics are coming from.

When the Maple Leafs acquired Ceci, and it became clear that he’d actually stick around for at least a while, the hope (for many) was that he wouldn’t have the same role as he did in Ottawa, where some believe the Senators promoted him to a level of incompetence. What if Ceci was in an easier role, with fewer minutes and lesser opponents? Instead, his ice time has been virtually unchanged from last season, and defensive measures like his Hockey Viz heat maps (via Micah Blake McCurdy) look as bad as ever:

But, truly, Dubas isn’t totally off base when he says that there are certain underlying numbers where Ceci comes across at least a bit more respectably.

There’s the argument, advanced by people like Jonas Siegel of The Athletic (sub required), that it’s too early to judge Ceci.

Maybe it’s too late; perhaps there’s an “eye test vs. analytics” divide that won’t be broken easily. It could be that the biggest uproar would come if the Maple Leafs brought back Ceci after his expiring deal melts away.

(Opinion: they absolutely should not bring Ceci back.)

Tyson not knocking it out of the park

In the grand scheme of things, the Ceci situation is basically going as prescribed.

The bigger disappointment might be Tyson Barrie, even if you ignore Nazem Kadri‘s promising early results in Colorado. The book on Barrie is that he can be an explosive offensive performer, although there were red flags about him negating much of that prowess with shaky defense.

Those red flags carry over to those Hockey Viz charts, as there’s a lot of the bad sort of red when you consider Barrie’s defensive impact (and arguably not enough of the good red on offense to justify that bleeding).

Keeping it as simple as it gets, Barrie barely has more points (zero goals, five assists, thus five points) than Ceci (one goal, three assists for four points). Those numbers are underwhelming even if you viewed Barrie as something of a paper tiger with superficial scoring stats coming in.

Maybe it’s telling that Dubas’ comments are more milquetoast about Barrie, stating that “we just want him to continue to work and get comfortable here.”

***

Barrie, Ceci, and the Maple Leafs face a familiar foe on Friday in the Boston Bruins. In the Bruins’ own way, they want to get back on track too, as they’ve lost four in a row.

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.

Flames’ Brodie hospitalized after suffering seizure during practice

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In what sounds like a scary scene from Calgary Flames practice on Thursday, defenseman T.J. Brodie fell to the ice and appeared to experience a seizure, according to multiple reporters on hand.

Brodie, 29, was hospitalized afterward, but the good news is that Flames GM Brad Treliving described Brodie as “alert and responsive.”

Treliving didn’t officially announce that Brodie had a seizure, instead referring to it as an “episode.”

The Flames postponed practice after Brodie was taken off the ice on a stretcher. Their next game is on Saturday, when they face the Arizona Coyotes on the road.

UPDATE: The Flames announced in an update that Brodie has been discharged and is doing well in recovery at home with his family.

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.