NHL Fantasy Hockey: Preseason standouts who could keep it up

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Welcome to the second fantasy hockey preview column before we start doing proper Add/Drop columns next week. This week we’re going to focus on some of the standout performers in the preseason who could carry that success into the 2019-20 campaign.

Before we do that, it’s worth conceding that preseason statistics can’t be taken at face value. For a quick and easy example of that, we need look no further than Boston’s 8-2 victory over Chicago on Saturday. In that game Jake DeBrusk and David Pastrnak each had a hat trick and registered an assist, but Chicago put forth a team of largely AHLers against them. In net for Chicago was 25-year-old Matt Tomkins, who spent last season in the ECHL, and 24-year-old Kevin Lankinen, who split 2018-19 between the AHL and ECHL. Now we already know that DeBrusk and Pastrnak are talented players anyways, but can we really read anything into them excelling against that level of competition?

That doesn’t mean the preseason can’t help provide insight though when coupled with some context. With that in mind, let’s dig a little deeper into some interesting cases.

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Max Pacioretty, Vegas Golden Knights – Pacioretty has been one of the most dominating players of the 2019 preseason with four goals and 10 points in four games. He used to be one of the league’s most consistent scoring threats, but his last two seasons have left something to be desired, so the question now is if there is reason to believe 2019-20 might be a bit of a comeback campaign for him. The addition of Mark Stone at the trade deadline should help here because Vegas seems set to roll out a line of Stone, Pacioretty, and Paul Stastny (who was limited to 50 games last season due to injury). That combination has a ton of potential and puts Pacioretty in a position to succeed. That along with Pacioretty’s preseason success and the hope that he’s fully adjusted to Vegas now that he has a year there under his belt, gives plenty of cause for hope.

Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa Senators – Tkachuk had a solid rookie campaign with 22 goals and 45 points in 71 games and he should be able to take a step up this season. If nothing else, he’s going to get significantly more than the 16:01 minutes he averaged in 2018-19. After all, the Senators no longer have Stone, Matt Duchene, or Ryan Dzingel on the roster, so this is a team that pretty much needs to revolve around Tkachuk offensively. We saw a preview of that at the end of last season with him scoring eight goals and 13 points in his final 16 games while averaging 17:59 minutes. The preseason has offered further evidence of that. Tkachuk has scored three goals and six points in four exhibition contests while averaging 19:35 minutes.

Connor Brown, Ottawa Senators – Sticking with Ottawa for the moment, Brown is another player who is in a position to benefit from playing for the offensively depleted Senators. Brown had 20 goals as a rookie back in 2016-17, but his role with the Toronto Maple Leafs quickly declined as their offense got deeper. Brown had eight goals and 29 points in 82 games last season while averaging just 13:48 minutes. By contrast, he could end up playing regularly with Tkachuk on the Senators. Brown had two goals and four points in four games while averaging 20:58 minutes in the preseason.

Adam Gaudette, Vancouver Canucks – If you’re looking for players who made a big impression during training camp, Gaudette would have to be high on the list. His work in the preseason has even been singled out by NHL’s Twitter account on a few occasions.

In the end, he finished the preseason with four goals and six points in six games. At the time of writing Vancouver’s roster hadn’t been finalized so it is possible that the Canucks will send him down because he wouldn’t have to clear waivers, but given how well he’s done, it’s more likely that he will start the season on the third line. That would allow him to take a significant step up from his rookie campaign. He had just five goals and 12 points in 56 games last season, but was averaging a modest 10:57 minutes. He showed he has a lot of offensive potential when he scored 30 goals and 60 points in 38 games with Northeastern University in 2017-18 as well as his 11 points in 14 games stint in the AHL last season. With him seemingly climbing up the depth charts, he’ll be someone to keep an eye on.

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Jordan Eberle, New York Islanders – Like Pacioretty, Eberle has usually been a consistent scorer, but he struggled last season with 19 goals and 37 points in 78 games. Part of that was Eberle needing time to adjust to coach Barry Trotz’s system and slowly earning the trust of his new bench boss. Once Eberle did that and developed chemistry with Mathew Barzal, he really started to shine. Eberle had five goals in his final seven regular season games and followed that up with four goals and nine points in eight playoff contests. He’s looking to build off that success and has gotten off on the right foot with four goals and seven points in five exhibition games.

Ethan Bear, Edmonton Oilers – Bear has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2019 preseason. The 22-year-old defenseman had two goals and five points in four exhibition games and he impressed Oilers coach Dave Tippett with the work he put in to get stronger over the summer.

“You like to see it,” Tippett said, per Sportsnet. “He put the work in. He’s changed a lot of his diet, he’s changed his mind set on how he wants to live, and how he wants to play. You love to see guys who do that have success, because it’s a model of how it works. He’s a good ‘today’s style’ NHL defenseman.”

Bear has always had offensive potential and we might start to see a bit of it show up in the NHL this season. That said, he’s one I’d rather keep an eye on for now than pick up in standard fantasy leagues.

Carter Verhaeghe, Toronto Maple Leafs – Verhaeghe certainly didn’t seem destined for big things early in his career. The Maple Leafs drafted him in the third round back in 2013 and two years later he was thrown in as part of a five-player deal to acquire Michael Grabner from the Islanders. Two years after that the Islanders shipped him to Tampa Bay in exchange for depth goaltender (and current KHLer) Kristers Gudlevskis. Verhaeghe took a huge stride forward last season though with 34 goals and 82 points in 76 AHL contests and he continued that strong player with two goals and five points in six preseason games. All that work has put the 24-year-old forward on the cusp of playing in the NHL for the first time.

“You look at the stats, he led the team in scoring in the preseason but that really wasn’t it,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper told The Athletic. “It’s how his game has evolved and he has been a pretty pleasant surprise from watching him in camp two years ago until now. You look at guys who have inched their way forward and really shown growth and improvement and he’s definitely one of them. He’s made a good case for himself.”

Of course, even assuming he’s on the Lightning’s opening game roster, he’s not guaranteed to stick with them. Part of the reason he’s in this position is due to injuries, so Verhaeghe is very much in a position where he’ll have to keep competing for his spot. It is worth noting though that he would be waiver eligible, so even if the deep Lightning ultimately don’t have room for him, it wouldn’t be shocking to see another team give him a shot.

[MORE: Under-drafted players who could help your team]

William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs – For Nylander, the fact that he had a training camp at all is a huge step up from last year. He didn’t even make his season debut in 2018-19 until Dec. 6 because he was a contract holdout and went on to record just a goal and three points over his first 19 games last season.

“I felt I was ready, but what I discovered was that other players were a step ahead of me,” Nylander said, per The Globe and Mail. “I fell behind. The transition was harder than I expected.”

This season he won’t have to deal with that and he’s poised for a major bounce back campaign as a result. He was solid in the preseason with a goal and four points in four games.

Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils – Not that you needed a solid preseason from Hughes to know he had potential going into 2019-20, but it doesn’t hurt. He had three goals and four points in four exhibition contests. The bigger point of interest with him going into training camp is who he’s likely to open the season alongside. Right now it appears he’s likely to play alongside Nikita Gusev on the second line. That’s a pretty interesting combination given Gusev is also a mix of high potential with an unknown factor. He’s attempting to make the transition from KHL star with 82 points in 62 games last season to NHLer. Both Hughes and Gusev could be significant factors in fantasy leagues this season.

Sammy Blais, St. Louis Blues – Blais went into training camp with a shot of making the roster and managed to secure his spot in part thanks to his strong play in the preseason. He had a goal and six points in five exhibition contests. He has just three goals and seven points in 43 career NHL games, but his lack of offensive production was at least partially due to the role he had. He averaged just 10:05 minutes per game whereas this time around he’s got a shot at serving in a top-nine capacity. It’s also worth noting from a fantasy perspective that even if Blais doesn’t do that much offensively this season, he would probably be one of the league’s top players in terms of hits if he plays regularly. Given that Yahoo leagues now use hits as a default category over penalty minutes that alone gives him some notability.

If you’re looking for more fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld has got you covered. Recently Michael Finewax released his first “The Week Ahead” of the season where he previews all 31 teams.

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Miracle on Ice team honored before Panthers-Golden Knights

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Amidst a sports-filled weekend that included the heavyweight championship boxing match and a NASCAR race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, hockey fans were reminded about believing in miracles on Saturday night.

Prior to the game between the Vegas Golden Knights and Florida Panthers, member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team were honored, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the team’s epic run to the gold medal in Lake Placid, New York.

”I think as time has gone on I’ve had a greater appreciation for my good fortune that I had and to be able to make that team and how it all worked out and that I could be a part of that,” John Harrington said. ”I think that as the years have gone on that it’s humbling to think that I was a part of that. I’m humbled because it’s still being talked about 40 years later and I was lucky enough to be a part of it.”

The only missing players were Mark Johnson, who is head coach of Wisconsin’s women’s hockey team, Bob Suter, who died in 2014, and forward Mark Pavelich, who was jailed last year on assault charges and ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial. Also missing was coach Herb Brooks, who was killed in a car accident in 2003.

The ceremony 40 years to the exact day veteran broadcaster Al Michaels asked the world, ”Do you believe in miracles?” culminated a two-day celebration that included President Donald Trump introducing the team during a rally and a meet-and-greet with fans on Friday night.

”Relive the Miracle,” originally planned for UNLV’s Thomas and Mack Center on Saturday afternoon, was canceled due to poor ticket sales.

Saturday’s sellout crowd greeted Michaels and the former Olympians with enthusiasm and pride, providing them with a standing ovation and a thunderous ”U-S-A!” chant as they exited the ice after Florida’s Aleksander Barkov and Vegas’ Max Pacioretty took the ceremonial opening puck from Team USA captain Mike Eruzione.

NHL Network analyst Brian Lawton, who became the first US-born hockey player drafted first overall in the NHL Entry Draft when he was taken in 1983 by the Minnesota North Stars, said although the league was not akin to American-born players back then, watching the U.S. team strike gold gave him a bolt of confidence he could play at the next level.

”You could count the number of first-round picks that were American on one hand back then,” said Lawton, who is still the only U.S. high school hockey player to be drafted first overall, and one of only eight Americans to be taken first overall. ”It was Canada’s game and Canada only, and I felt that my first few years in the league. For me it was significantly important. I wasn’t a great player in the NHL, but obviously just by virtue of no one else having done it before -I was the first American ever pick first and all that stuff – in some small way hopefully helped other kids down the road.”

Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon said while it was a tremendous sports story – one that was chronicled in several films, most notably the 2004 motion picture ”Miracle” – it was the opening puck drop for the evolution of ice hockey in the United States.

”It was the single most important event in the growth of hockey in the United States, McCrimmon said. ”When you compare the landscape of U.S. players today with what it would have been at that time, it’s incredible how the sport has grown. I just think it was on the front end of tremendous growth in the sport in the U.S.”

Hurricanes’ emergency goalie David Ayres beats Maple Leafs

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The Carolina Hurricanes had to turn to 42-year-old emergency backup goalie Dave Ayres on Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He not only held his own against one of the NHL’s most powerful offensive teams, he beat them.

Ayres, a Zamboni driver for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and the emergency backup for both teams on Saturday night, was forced into action midway through the second period after Hurricanes goalies Petr Mrazek and James Reimer had to exit the game due to injury. He ended up stopping eight out of the 10 shots he faced — while also recording a shot on goal of his own — in a 6-3 Hurricanes win.

The fact that an emergency goalie had to enter the game is fascinating enough.

But that he played as well as he did, and managed to get credit for the win makes it one of the most stunning accomplishments in recent NHL memory.

When Scott Foster, an accountant by day, made his emergency appearance for the Chicago Blackhawks two years ago he only had to play 14 minutes against the Winnipeg Jets. He also did not get credit for the win.

Ayres played double that on Saturday, on the road, against what should have been a desperate Toronto team that fighting to make the playoffs and avoid one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history. Instead, it was the Hurricanes that found an extra gear and completely dominated the game from the moment Ayres entered.

The Maple Leafs managed just 10 shots on goal against Ayres, and after scoring on two of their first three in the second period, were completely shutout by him in the third period.

For Ayres it adds another fascinating chapter to an already unbelievable story.

He has dressed as a backup for a number of American Hockey League games, and has also filled in at practice for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He is also a kidney transplant survivor.

The Hurricanes ended up in this situation after Mrazek — who was already filling in for Reimer, the Hurricanes’ starter on Saturday — was leveled in a collision by Maple Leafs forward Kyle Clifford.

Obviously the big concern for the Hurricanes now is the status of Mrazek and Reimer (there is a report out of Chicago that the Hurricanes already reached out regarding a potential goalie trade), but this is a massive win for the Hurricanes, both in the standings and emotionally. Imagine the boost that has to give them to be facing that situation and not only play the way they did, but also collect two huge points in the standings.

On the other side, well, this is bad.

While the hyperbole around the Maple Leafs can sometimes be way too much, whatever they hear regarding this game is going to be completely justified.

They, too, are in a fight for a playoff spot and not only laid an egg in a huge game, they were thoroughly embarrassed from the time Ayres entered the game until the final horn. They could not generate sustained pressure, they managed just 10 total shots in 28 minutes against a 42-year-old emergency goalie, and they just looked bad. Not only that, but it was also a Hurricanes team that was already playing without one of its top defenseman (Dougie Hamilton) and then lost another one (Brett Pesce) during the game.

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.

NHL stars praise Alex Ovechkin as he hits 700 career goals

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There’s a new member of the 700-goal club and his name is Alex Ovechkin. At 4:50 of the third period against the Devils on Saturday, the Capitals captain fired one by Mackenzie Blackwood to reach the historic mark.

Ovechkin scored goal No. 699 in an OT loss to the Canadiens after five straight games without a point. No. 8 controlled a rolling puck after Nicklas Backstrom won a faceoff cleanly in the offensive zone, then fired a wrist shot past Carey Price.

The Washington Capitals captain is now the eighth member of the exclusive NHL club. He joins Mike Gartner (708), Phil Esposito (717), Marcel Dionne (731), Brett Hull (741), Jaromir Jagr (766), Gordie Howe (801), and Wayne Gretzky (894).

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Ovechkin has been doing this since he broke in the league in 2005 and his peers continue to marvel at his goal-scoring exploits.

NBC Sports recently sat down with T.J. Oshie, Patrick Kane, Eric Staal, Sidney Crosby, David Pastrnak, Max Pacioretty, Nathan MacKinnon, and John Carlson to talk about Ovechkin’s career and his pursuit of Gretzky’s all-time record.

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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.

Alex Ovechkin scores 700th goal with a blast

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He did it. Alex Ovechkin scored his 700th career goal on Saturday as the Capitals faced the Devils.

Ovechkin scored his historic goal from the opposite faceoff circle from his typical “office.” It was a significant goal, tying Washington 2-2 with New Jersey a few minutes into the third period. Ovechkin reaching his 700th goal with such gusto really adds to the experience.

(Watch video of Ovechkin scoring his 700th goal in the video above.)

Ovechkin makes history with 700th goal

It marks his second goal in as many games after sitting at 698 goals for five agonizing contests. Well, they were agonizing for those anxiously awaiting number 700. Ovechkin’s response was basically “Whatever.” Ovechkin scored 30 of his 700 career goals against the Devils.

Ovechkin joins an illustrious group including Wayne Gretzky (894), Gordie Howe (801), Jaromir Jagr (766), Brett Hull (741), Marcel Dionne (731), Phil Esposito (717) and Mike Gartner (708). Ovechkin became the second player to score 700+ goals with a single team, as Howe scored 786 with the Red Wings before continuing a hockey journey that eventually included playing alongside his sons.

Jagr was the most recent player to reach 700 on March 1, 2014.

Ovechkin scored goal No. 699 in an OT loss to the Canadiens after five straight games without a point. No. 8 controlled a rolling puck after Nicklas Backstrom won a faceoff cleanly in the offensive zone, then fired a wrist shot past Carey Price.

Ovechkin, 34, became the second youngest and fastest player (1144 games) to score 700 goals, trailing Gretzky who was 29 years old (886 games) when he scored his 700th in January 1991 as a member of the Los Angeles Kings.

Earlier this month, Ovi also became only the second player to score 40 goals in 11 seasons, trailing Gretzky’s record of 12. Ovechkin now has 42 goals in 60 games this season, giving himself a shot at another Maurice Richard Trophy.

The Devils ended up beating the Capitals 3-2. Maybe Washington can get back on track now that Ovechkin got this 700th goal out of the way? Their struggles aren’t on Ovechkin, but the Caps are struggling as a team nonetheless. (They have to be pleased with Pittsburgh losing to the Sabres on Saturday, though.)

Ovechkin’s quest for 700th goal:

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.