Roundtable: Breakout players, bold predictions for 2019-20

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season begins with Wednesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals when the Blues raise their 2019 Stanley Cup banner. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. The NHL Faceoff doubleheader on NBCSN continues at 10:30 p.m. ET when the San Jose Sharks visit the Vegas Golden Knights. Coverage begins at 10:30p.m. ET.

What one playoff team from 2019 will not be back in 2020 and why?

SEAN: They’re division got a bit more competitive over the summer, and I don’t feel like the New York Islanders kept up. A lot, however, can change depending on how some of their kids like Noah Dobson, Simon Holmstrom, and Oliver Wahlstrom can find regular roles in the lineup at some point this season. Is Semyon Varlamov even a lateral move from Robin Lehner? Likely not. They found their way last season with great defense and goaltending, even if their offense was in the lower tier of the NHL. That area wasn’t addressed in the offseason, hoping the improvements can come from within.

JAMES: While I agree with Adam that the Blue Jackets are likely to be better than the grimmest expectations, I also believe that they’re a pretty average team once you take Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky (heck, even Ryan Dzingel) out of the picture. For every moment that John Tortorella seems sneaky-shrewd, there’s another moment where it feels like he holds his teams back.

That said, it wouldn’t surprise me if both the Blue Jackets and Islanders (two teams I pick to miss after making it in 2018-19) end up making it after all.

JOEY: I’m guessing most people will say Columbus, so I’ll go with a hot take. I think the St. Louis Blues will miss the playoffs. Yes, they’re the defending Stanley Cup Champions, but the long playoff run will take a lot out of them. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jordan Binnington take a step back this year. He’ll get a full workload and that’s not easy to deal with right away. The Blues will miss the postseason. You heard it here first.

ADAM: The Blue Jackets and Islanders are the obvious picks, and I could easily see one (or both) missing. But I am going to go with the Winnipeg Jets. I just see this as being a potentially brutal season for them, mainly due to the state of the defense. It is bad, and it is only going to get worse if Dustin Byfuglien really does walk away from the NHL. This looked like a team trending in the wrong direction a year ago, and I see an even bigger slide this season.

Who is a player ready to breakout this season?

SEAN: It may be a year of stepping back for the Blue Jackets, but Alexandre Texier will give them reason to smile more often than not this season. The 20-year-old forward from France has seen time this preseason with Cam Atkinson and Pierre-Luc Dubois and already has big-game NHL experience. He scored twice in Game 4 to help complete the sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning in April. He might even play his way into the Calder Trophy conversation.

JAMES: I’ve been on the Andrei Svechnikov bandwagon for quite some time, arguing that he deserved more reps and ice time as far back as December, so I might as well not play coy about the sniper’s chances of even bigger things as a sophomore. Maybe Rod Brind’Amour will unleash him a bit since he’s no longer a rookie?

If that isn’t bold enough, consider Andre Burakovsky, who should have new life — and maybe better opportunities — now that he’s with the Avalanche.
JOEY: Nico Hischier has put up some solid numbers in his first two NHL seasons (52 points in 82 games and 47 points in 69 games), but he’ll erupt offensively this year. He’s expected to skate on a line with Taylor Hall, which means they’ll be the offensive catalysts on an improved Devils team. It wouldn’t surprise me too Hischier put up over 80 points in 2019-20.

ADAM: Cale Makar made the jump from the NCAA to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and not only did not look out of place, he looked like he completely belonged. The Avalanche are going to relying on him and Sam Girard quite a bit this season and I think Makar is going to be an immediate star on that team. Maybe even a rookie of the year kind of season.

[PHT PREDICTIONS: EAST / WEST / STANLEY CUP]

Give us one bold prediction for this season.

SEAN: The Corey Perry move pays off in Dallas and the 34-year-old recovers from his broken foot and nets 20 goals for the first time since the 2015-16 season.

JAMES: We will soon look at Brendan Gallagher in the same way that we look at Brad Marchand: a pesty, smaller player who we thought was good, but it turns out he’s even better than we realized. Gallagher creates havoc for opponents, and I think there’s room for him to climb a rung or two on the imaginary ladder of NHL forwards.

JOEY: Bolder than the Blues missing the playoffs? Alright! I’m gonna say that the Boston Bruins will not finish in one of the top three spots in the Atlantic Division. They won’t miss the playoffs, but they’ll be a Wild Card team. They’re coming into the regular season a little banged up and their core is also getting older. I expect the Florida Panthers or Montreal Canadiens to grab the third spot in the division behind Tampa Bay and Toronto.

ADAM: Your NHL goal-scoring leader: David Pastrnak. Yes, someone finally takes over for Alex Ovechkin at the top of the league, and no it is not going to be Steven Stamkos, or Auston Matthews, or John Tavares, or Patrik Laine. David Pastrnak is the choice here.

MORE:
Which 2019 NHL playoff teams are in danger of missing this season?
2019-20 NHL Power Rankings
PHT’s 2019-20 season previews

Islanders are rolling: 14-0-1 stretch harkens to 1982 glory

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NEW YORK — The New York Islanders insist they don’t think about how well they are playing. They are too busy preparing for their next opponent.

However, win after win after win has added up to a point streak the franchise hasn’t seen since its Stanley Cup dynasty days,

Since opening the season with three losses in four games, the Islanders are 14-0-1 while matching the team points record set during a 15-game winning streak from Jan. 21 to Feb. 21, 1982, in the midst of their run of four straight Cup titles (1980-83).

“The teams they’ve had in the past, they’re legendary teams,” coach Barry Trotz said. “I don’t know if it means anything right now because we’re so focused on just the next game and then just this season. I think when you look back, when you’re done, you can say, ‘Hey, remember that streak we had?’”

The Islanders have earned points in 15 straight games for just the fourth time, with the previous three coming long before teams earned a point for losing in overtime and long before shootouts (1978, 1980 and 1982).

They have pulled it off different ways. The Islanders have given up the first goal seven times, trailed after one period four times and after two periods twice. They won three times in overtime and twice in shootouts. At Philadelphia on Saturday, the Islanders trailed 3-0 in the third period before scoring three times in the last 12:14 to tie it and then winning in a shootout. At Pittsburgh on Tuesday, New York scored twice in the last 4:19 to tie the score 4-4 before winning in overtime.

The two comebacks made the Islanders the first team in NHL history to win consecutive games in which it trailed by multiple goals in the final seven minutes of regulation.

“There’s going to be games when you’re down in the score and you have to find to kind of get back in the game,” said veteran forward Derick Brassard, who has had a resurgence in his first season with the Islanders.

Trotz, in his second year in New York, has repeatedly said his players are so focused on the upcoming game they wouldn’t know about it except for reporters.

“The media seems to keep bringing it up, so we’re understanding the numbers now,” he said, “but really the mentality has been just look at the next game.”

Mathew Barzal has led the way with nine goals, but seven other players have scored at least three goals in the run. The goaltending has been stellar, with Thomas Greiss 7-0-0 with a 1.69 goals-against average and Semyon Varlamov 7-0-1 (2.45 GAA).

“We have a group of people that put a great plan in place for us and then we’ve got a group of guys who have committed themselves to going out there and executing that plan 100% of the time,” veteran forward Cal Clutterbuck said. “It’s never perfect but our goal is to make sure that mental errors don’t get in the way of us winning hockey games, and I think we’ve been able to do that over time.”

To set a new team point streak record, the Islanders will have to do it against the Penguins in the back end of the home-and-home set Thursday night. Pittsburgh is responsible ending New York’s two longest winning streaks – the 15-game run in 1982 and the 10-game stretch earlier this month on Nov. 7. In that loss, the Islanders took a 3-0 into the third period at home before the Penguins tied it and then won in overtime for New York’s only blemish since Oct. 11.

The Islanders were a surprise team last year, reaching the playoffs in the first year under Trotz and president and general manager Lou Lamoriello. New York led the Metropolitan Division for a chunk of the season before finishing second and then reaching the second round. After the Islanders returned largely the same team this season without any big-name additions, many predicted a regression.

The Islanders are proving their doubters wrong again.

“Anyone that doubts us can doubt us, that’s up to them,” Clutterbuck said, “but there’s no doubt in here.”

Latest PWHPA ‘Dream Gap Tour’ stop to be held in Toronto

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TORONTO — The Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association’s latest barn-storming stop will be back in Toronto and feature six teams.

The PWHPA on Wednesday announced its fourth Dream Gap Tour stop will be held January 11-12 in northern Toronto. There will be 120 players participating, representing the largest turnout of the association’s four stops to date.

The series was launched in Toronto in September, followed by weekend events in New Hampshire and Chicago last month.

The PWHPA is made up of about 200 of the world’s top players and was established in May after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded. The players have pledged not to play professionally in North America this season in a bid to gain support to establish a single league with a sustainable economic model.

Capitals’ Hathaway suspended three games for spitting on Gudbranson

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The NHL announced that Washington Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway has been suspended for three games thanks to his “spitting incident” involving Anaheim Ducks defenseman Erik Gudbranson. The punishment was delivered by the league’s Hockey Operations department, not the Department of Player Safety.

It happened during the end of a pretty wild brawl between the Capitals and Ducks, leading to Hathaway being ejected. For what it’s worth, Hathaway said that he regretted spitting at Gudbranson after the game.

“Unfortunately, spit came out of my mouth after I got sucker punched and it went onto him,” Hathaway said. “It has no place. It was an emotional play by me. You don’t plan any of that stuff in your head, and it was a quick reaction and unfortunately the wrong one for me to a sucker punch.”

The Capitals face the Rangers on Wednesday, the Canucks on Saturday, and then the Panthers next Wednesday (Nov. 27) so Hathaway will not be eligible to return until a Nov. 29 home game against the Lightning. Here’s video of the incident:

Gudbranson might feel like the punishment is just.

“That’s about as low as you dig a pit, really,” Gudbranson said. “It’s a bad thing to do. It’s something you just don’t do in a game, and he did it.”

Do you agree with the three-game suspension? If not, what would be an appropriate punishment? It’s certainly tough to shake the notion that Milan Lucic‘s “sucker-punch” drew less of a suspension (two games) than spitting, especially when other after-the-whistle stuff like licking often goes virtually unpunished … but three games it is for Hathaway.

Being that it’s a shorter suspension, it doesn’t sound like Hathaway has a ton of recourse here, although maybe he can try to get some of the $24,193.53 back if he appealed?

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.

Surging Vrana might be capable of even bigger things for Capitals

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

From Alex Ovechkin for Washington to Artemi Panarin for New York, you’ll see plenty of firepower during Wednesday Night Hockey’s bout between the Capitals and Rangers. Even with Nicklas Backstrom sidelined for the game, I’m here to argue that you still might not see enough of one potential rising star: Jakub Vrana.

When you give Vrana’s 2019-20 stats a quick glance, they’re already impressive.

Not only does Vrana already have 10 goals scored in 23 games, but all 10 of them have come at even-strength, tying him for third in the NHL in that category alongside players like Auston Matthews, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vrana’s former Capitals teammate Andre Burakovsky. His eight assists rounds out his numbers to 18 points in 23 games; over an 82-game pace, Vrana would author 37-goal, 66-point season.

While he’s been riding some hot puck luck since 2018-19 with a 15.1 shooting percentage, the overwhelming message one gets from diving deeper into Vrana’s stats is that the Capitals should strongly consider finding more ways to get him on the ice.

[COVERAGE OF RANGERS-CAPITALS BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Despite Vrana’s 18 points in 23 games, he’s only averaging 14:15 TOI per game, which is a career-high and slight uptick from last season’s average of 14:02. Beyond getting some bounces, Vrana’s breakthrough in simple counting stats can probably be chalked up to an increasingly itchy trigger finger. After peaking with 1.96 shots on goal per game last season, Vrana’s getting almost one extra puck on net per evening, averaging 2.78 SOG per game (64 SOG in 23 GP).

It’s unclear if you can derive that from playing a more confident game, getting decent reps with a tremendous playmaker like Evgeny Kuznetsov, or if perhaps someone in the Capitals organization gave Vrana a directive to shoot more. Either way, it’s working out quite nicely, as he’s a significant part of the Capitals’ early work as the NHL’s most dangerous offense at even-strength.

Again, though, I must ask for more.

Just about every number seems to point a neon flashing arrow at “More Vrana.” His heat map at Micah Blake McCurdy’s Hockey Viz is, well, almost off the charts:

Wow.

Admittedly, it would be tough for Vrana to crack the Capitals’ top power play unit, and he’s getting some reps on the second unit (1:35 per game), but his all-around game makes me wonder if more PK work would be warranted.

It’s not as though Vrana is getting totally buried in the Capitals’ lineup, yet with Washington in a strong position (few teams enjoy the luxury of “Can we win the division again?” being one of their burning questions in November), I’d be tempted to see if Vrana would thrive in an even larger role.

And, hey, if all of that is boring … the skill is pretty obvious, too. Not everyone can pull off a Datsyukian shootout move, right?

Just saying.

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.