Teenage rookies Hughes, Kakko struggling early in season

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NEW YORK — 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.

Avalanche vs. Sabres: How to watch Wednesday Night Hockey

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

With just more than a quarter of the regular season to go for Colorado, the Avalanche sit in a divisional playoff spot as they vie with St. Louis, Dallas and Vegas for the top seed in the Western Conference. The Avs have won three straight and are one of the hottest teams over the last month and half, having gone 11-3-1.

Though the defending champion Blues are on top of the West, both the Avs and Stars are right on St. Louis’ heels. For the second straight season, it appears the Central will come down to the wire (last season, the top three teams – Nashville, Winnipeg, St. Louis – finished the season separated by just one point).

Philipp Grubauer left the outdoor game at Air Force against LA on Feb. 15 with a lower-body injury and has not played since. 29-year-old Pavel Francouz, who made his first NHL start earlier this season, has started all 4 games since Grubauer has been out and allowed just 6 goals (3- 0-1 record, 1.46 GAA, .941 SV%). On the season, Francouz is 16-5-3 with a 2.27 GAA.

The Sabres enter this game having won two straight and five of their last six games. Although they sit in sixth in the Atlantic, this run has managed to close the playoff gap between them and Toronto (third in Atlantic) and Florida (fourth) over the past two weeks, with each of those clubs struggling (Buffalo eight points back of Toronto).

At the beginning of the month it seemed the Sabres would be sellers at the trade deadline and looked to be headed towards another offseason without a playoff appearance. A strong two-week stretch has shifted things a bit as Buffalo is within reach of a playoff spot and did not approach Monday’s deadline as a sell-off.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Buffalo Sabres at Colorado Avalanche
WHERE: Pepsi Center
WHEN: Wednesday, Feb. 26, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Sabres-Avalanche stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SABRES
Victor OlofssonJack EichelSam Reinhart
Jeff SkinnerMarcus JohanssonWayne Simmonds
Jimmy VeseyCurtis LazarMichael Frolik
Zemgus GirgensonsJohan LarssonKyle Okposo

Brandon MontourRasmus Ristolainen
Jake McCabeHenri Jokiharju
Rasmus DahlinColin Miller

Starting goalie: Carter Hutton

AVALANCHE
Gabriel LandeskogNathan MacKinnonValeri Nichushkin
Tyson JostJ.T. CompherJoonas Donskoi
Vladislav NamestnikovPierre-Edouard Bellemare – Martin Kaut
Mark BarberioVladislav Kamenev – Logan O’Connor

Ryan GravesCale Makar
Samuel GirardErik Johnson
Ian ColeNikita Zadorov

Starting goalie: Pavel Francouz

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. John Forslund, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will have the call from Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo.

New-look Penguins play first game since trade deadline on NBCSN

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Hockey fans get their first post-trade deadline glance at the new-look Penguins on Wednesday. Then again, it’s also true that later versions of the Penguins will look different from the group that faces the Kings on NBCSN at 10:30 p.m. ET (stream here).

Penguins roll out new trade deadline additions in these lineups — for now

Like many other NHL coaches, Mike Sullivan likes to tinker with his combinations. Injuries forced Sullivan to do so anyway this season, and the Penguins’ trade deadline investments now give him a plethora of options. When/if certain players come back, the variety will only grow.

Let’s go forward line by forward line based on NHL.com’s projected combos for Wednesday, since that’s where Pittsburgh made acquisitions.

Jason ZuckerSidney CrosbyConor Sheary

As new-look as the Penguins feel, there seems to be warm-and-fuzzy feelings for the reunion of Crosby and Sheary. Personally, I never understood why Pittsburgh broke them up in the first place. (Especially if the answer is troublingly “to afford bad defenseman Jack Johnson.”)

In a lineup breakdown from The Athletic’s Josh Yohe (sub required), both Crosby and Sheary amusingly described each other as easy to play with. Sullivan’s comments provided a little more substance.

“He brings a speed element,” Sullivan said of Sheary. “He can finish. He’s good in traffic. A lot of attributes that Conor brings to the table are complementary to Sid.”

Sheary can think the game at a reasonable level with Crosby, and the early returns on Zucker indicate the same. (On paper, Zucker seems like a no-brainer fit for Crosby, but in reality not everyone clicks with 87.)

Still, there are a number of different factors that could break these fellows up. What if Jake Guentzel beats the timeline for recovery from his shoulder surgery, at least for the playoffs? Will Penguins eventually want a right-handed shot with Crosby instead of two other lefties?

This seems like a good mix overall, at least to start, though.

Bryan RustEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist

Business as usual there, basically. Rust and Hornqvist can work with Crosby if needed, so that’s nice.

Patrick MarleauEvan RodriguesDominik Simon

Trade deadline additions make two-thirds of this third line, and the potential is interesting. Simon ranks as the most feasible candidate to move up, possibly with Crosby again. While Marleau ranks as a bigger name, Rodrigues stands out as a fascinating wild card.

People have been noting Rodrigues’ potential as a hidden gem for some time.

(His underlying numbers still look good at Hockey Viz, although things slipped a bit in 2019-20 compared to more robust work in 2017-18 and 2018-19.)

The sheer variety of useful players in the Penguins’ top nine is really something, especially when you realize that Jared McCann could end up being a more regular fit as third-line center. Nick Bjugstad already feels like old news, considering the revolving door of Penguins forwards, yet he’s another interesting player if health eventually permits.

Sam LaffertyTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Then you have what seems to be a pretty strong fourth line from a defensive standpoint. Quite a group.

(Oh yeah, and there’s also Zach Aston-Reese. Healthy scratches could eventually become straight-up awkward if most/everyone actually gets healthy.)

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

Defense and other considerations for Penguins

NHL.com projects Pittsburgh’s Wednesday defensive pairings as such:

Jack Johnson — Kris Letang

Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz

Juuso RiikolaChad Ruhwedel

Naturally, injuries have been a factor for the Penguins’ defense (and also goalies including Matt Murray). Moving past players who have worked past injuries like Letang and Schultz, Pittsburgh has some significant blueliners on the shelf. It’s possible Brian Dumoulin may return with time to shake off rust before the playoffs, while rookie revelation John Marino is recovery from surgery after a wayward puck broke bones in his cheek.

In other words … the Penguins’ defense could continue to look quite different as things go along, much like their forward groups.

Despite all that turbulence, the Penguins figure to be a formidable opponent, particularly after stocking up with Zucker, Sheary, Marleau, and Rodrigues in recent times. Catch your first look at that new-look group against the Kings on Wednesday on NBCSN.

More: Kings aim to upset Penguins

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.

My Favorite Goal: NHLers reflect on Sidney Crosby’s golden goal

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Welcome to “My Favorite Goal,” a regular feature from NBC Sports where our writers, personalities and NHL players remember the goals that have meant the most to them. These goals have left a lasting impression and there’s a story behind each one.

Today, Matt Dumba, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Matt Duchene reflect on Sidney Crosby‘s golden goal from the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games.

The road to gold was a tough one for Canada’s men’s team at the 2010 Olympics. Faced with the pressure of winning on home soil in Vancouver, the team finished second in their group to the U.S. and found themselves needing to stay alive in the qualification playoffs. From there they topped Germany, knocked out Russia, and edged Slovakia to set up a gold medal final against the Americans, who beat them 5-3 in the final preliminary game.

What once was a 2-0 Canada lead evaporated and overtime was needed after Zach Parise‘s tying goal with 24 seconds left in the third period. It was then in overtime that Crosby called for a pass from Jarome Iginla and beat Ryan Miller to win gold.

You check out previous “My Favorite Goal” entries here.

Jay Bouwmeester will not play again for Blues this season

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Jay Bouwmeester met with the media on Wednesday for the first time since suffering a cardiac episode during a Feb. 11 game in Anaheim.

The defenseman, who began the press conference by thanking the training staffs of the Blues and Ducks, will not play again this season, according to general manager Doug Armstrong. While a comeback this season is out of reach, Bouwmeester has not closed the door on his future.

“There’s been a lot going on,” he said. “I think that’s something I’m going to definitely have to evaluate, but to say I’ve done that, I wouldn’t say fully yet. There’s decisions I’m going to have to make. That’ll come later.”

“We talked about longer term things that may or may not happen and both feel that it’s February,” added Armstrong. “You don’t have to make long term decisions at this point. He’s going to take time and again back in with his family and get around the team and he’ll address those things as the summer progresses.”

Bouwmeester, who will turn 37 in September, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. He was revived with defibrillator and quickly taken from Honda Center to a local hospital. He later had an implantable cardioverter defibrillator procedure to restore the normal rhythm of his heart.

“I’m at the point now where I feel pretty good,” Bouwmeester said. “That’s kind of the weird thing about this is you go from something that happened totally out of the blue and unexpected to being in the hospital for a couple of days and then now there’s some restrictions as to what I can do.”

The Blues-Ducks game was postponed and rescheduled for March 11.

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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.