Roundtable: Hot starts, biggest disappointments

Choosing from the teams off to strong starts in October, which one won’t last?

SEAN: The Canucks may very well wind up in the playoffs come April, but it feels like a matter or time before they slowly slide back into the wild card race and out of contention for the Pacific Division crown. The Lotto Line of Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and J.T. Miller has been unstoppable; Quinn Hughes is playing himself into the Calder Trophy conversation after one month; and the goaltending duo of Thatcher Demko and Jacob Markstrom has been solid with a combined .932 even strength save percentage. They’re banking important points this early in the season, but their 103 PDO will certainly slide back a touch.

Vancouver’s November schedule could pose some difficulty in keeping up this pace with games against the Avalanche (2), Penguins, Oilers, Blues, Predators (2), and Capitals. If they can reach December and find themselves still in one of the top three spots in the Pacific then that could go a long way toward proving doubters they’re for real.

JAMES: The Sabres [1.036] and Canucks [1.031] are marinating in that glorious, glorious PDO right now, and chances are, both will see their hot shooting and goaltending cool down. The question is: how much?

Considering the Canucks’ weak division, and quite a few promising underlying numbers for Vancouver, I think they might be able to squeak into a playoff spot. The Sabres, however, must run through what still figures to be a buzzsaw in the Atlantic — at least if the Lightning and Maple Leafs get their acts together.

So, Buffalo, in particular, falls under “Fool me once …” That said, I can’t totally blame someone who’s being lured in by the gravitational pull of that strong start.

ADAM: The skepticism around Buffalo is legitimate because of the way last year unfolded, but I still think they have a better shot to stick around this year because they are a little deeper and do not seem to be doing it with as much smoke and mirrors as they did early last season. What that means, I don’t know. That is still a brutally tough division and you have to imagine Tampa Bay and Toronto get their acts together. They may not finish high in the standings, but I don’t see a collapse here. The team that I think is still likely to fall off has to be the Oilers, and I hate saying that because Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are so amazing. I want to see them on a big stage. But they are literally carrying the offense again, and we have seen this movie before. They are great enough to do it in short bursts to help the team go on some hot streaks, but no two players are great enough to carry a team through an 82-game season unless one of those players is a goalie. There are still just too many flaws on this roster.

JOEY: I’m still skeptical about the Oilers. Yes, they have the high-end talent that most teams can only dream of, but I’m just not sold on the supporting cast. Is James Neal going to keep rolling? Are the other forwards going to do enough scoring to sustain Edmonton’s place in the standings? Can a duo of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen keep Edmonton in games? I have so many questions for this team it’s not even funny. Look, the Oilers probably won’t finish first in the division, but if they sneak into the playoffs that fan base should be happy with that. I just have a hard time seeing it right now.

SCOTT: The Ducks are 8-6-0 and I am not sure if that qualifies as a ‘hot start’, but I expect them to drop quite a bit the standings. The Flames and Sharks are too talented to remain near the bottom of the division and if they move up, someone has to slide down. Another team to keep an eye on is the Blues. With Vladimir Tarasenko sidelined for an extended period of time, will they be able to generate enough offense to remain competitive in a ferocious Central Division.

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Who is your biggest disappointment — player or team — so far?

SEAN: This could have been noted goon Aleksander Barkov, who has four penalty minutes already after not picking up his second minor last season until March 7… but my choice is the Lightning. Tampa is facing the adversity they noted after-the-fact last season hurt them in Round 1 against the Blue Jackets. A sluggish October that saw them win consecutive games only once, allow two or fewer goals only three times, and allow 3.5 goals (2.7 GPG last season) and three more shots on average per night has led them to a 6-4-2 start.

The challenge is clear for the Lightning: It’s Stanley Cup or bust. We’re going to see who the real Lightning are this season. They cruised for 82 games in 2018-19, and now the teams around them have improved. There wasn’t a lot to remember in October and how they respond will be an indicator of what to expect later in the season.

JAMES: The Sharks are a disaster by just about every measure to begin 2019-20. They’re sinking when it comes to most, if not all, possession stats. About the only thing that’s encouraging is that, unlike the bumbling Bolts, San Jose’s been mostly unlucky. While I fear that their goaltending will only rebound in marginal ways, I don’t expect their offense to remain so toothless.

ADAM: It has to be San Jose. Their commitment to the goalie situation just totally stuns me, but what is even more shocking is the fact the rest of the team seems to have forgotten how to play hockey this season. They are getting completely dominated at even-strength and this team is just far too talented to play like this. No team with Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns on the blue line, and with the talent they still have at forward (even after losing Joe Pavelski and Joonas Donskoi over the summer) should be playing this poorly. It is stunning.

JOEY: I realized that the Sharks were getting old in a hurry, but I didn’t expect them to have four wins in their first 13 games. The loss of Joe Pavelski has hit both sides pretty hard. Do you think the player and team would like a do-over there? Logan Couture is a fine captain, but he’s already had to call his teammates out a couple of times. Adding Patrick Marleau is a nice touch, but it just isn’t adding up to victories right now. The Sharks should be worried because it looks like their championship window has been slammed shut.

SCOTT: In Taylor Hall’s final season before reaching unrestricted free agency, GM Ray Shero made a couple of maneuvers this summer to help bolster his roster. With the additions of P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev, Wayne Simmonds and Jack Hughes, the Devils hoped to take advantage of a wide-open Metropolitan Division. However, the Devils have failed to protect leads, especially at home and find themselves competing for the top draft pick once again. Coach John Hynes could be the first coach to join the unemployment line if the Devils can’t figure it out on the ice.

QUICK AWARD PICKS AFTER ONE MONTH

HART
SEAN: David Pastrnak
JAMES: David Pastrnak
ADAM: Leon Draisaitl
JOEY: Sidney Crosby
SCOTT: Leon Draisaitl

VEZINA
SEAN: Tuukka Rask
JAMES: Tuukka Rask
ADAM: Tuukka Rask
JOEY: Tuukka Rask
SCOTT: Tuukka Rask

CALDER
SEAN: Quinn Hughes
JAMES: Quinn Hughes
ADAM: Quinn Hughes
JOEY: Cale Makar
SCOTT: Quinn Hughes

NORRIS
SEAN: Roman Josi
JAMES: John Carlson
ADAM: John Carlson
JOEY: John Carlson
SCOTT: John Carlson

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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.

Losses pile up for Red Wings as Blashill’s seat gets hotter

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It’s pretty wild to think that it’s been a month since the Red Wings last won a game, a 4-3 overtime victory over the Ducks. It’s even wilder to realize that was their third straight win and that streak began by beating the Bruins and Golden Knights.

One month later and Detroit has gone 12 games without a win, five NHL teams have made coaching changes — with differing reasons, of course — and Jeff Blashill remains behind the bench.

The Red Wings are currently approaching the franchise record for consecutive losses (14) set back in 1982 and are five defeats away from tying the NHL record (17) held by the 1974-75 Capitals and 1992-92 Sharks.

“When things go bad, they’re really bad right now,” said Dylan Larkin. “We don’t have an answer for that right now. But we need to find it. It’s not even Christmas yet and this has happened too many times. It’s not acceptable.”

How bad it is? Their goal differential is currently a a league-worst minus-62. The Devils are right behind them at minus-37. They’re ranked 29th in team even strength save percentage at .896, per Natural Stat Trick, with their goaltenders allowing five or more goals in half of their 32 games. The offense is averaging a paltry 2.09 goals per game.

The expectations were low this season, so playoff hockey wasn’t a thought for the team. With a new general manager in Steve Yzerman and a young roster, it was all about development and taking steps forward. Blashill signed a two-year extension in April, but there’s been a lack of progress. There’s a natural replacement on the Red Wings’ bench in Dan Bylsma, but perhaps Yzerman has someone else in mind?

While his future remains unknown, Blashill is trying to focus on the present.

“For me, all I’m doing is what I always do and that’s be solution-based and worry about what we can control,” he said following Tuesday’s defeat. “What we can control right now is learning from this game and make sure we are helping our team get better. Find solutions. Come Thursday and worry just about that. That’s it.”

It’s hard to know Yzerman’s thinking on the situation given he hasn’t spoken publicly about Blashill since last month’s general manager meetings when he said he was “seeing good progress” with the Red Wings and there’s still a “long way to go.” But clearly something’s got to give in Hockeytown.

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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.

Ron Francis speaks about handling of Peters situation while Hurricanes GM

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NHL Seattle general manager Ron Francis has responded to how physical abuse accusations against former Carolina Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters were handled when he was the team’s GM.

Speaking with The Seattle Times this week, Francis said he addressed the issue with Peters and defended giving him a two-year extension after the fact.

“We looked where the team was and how it was playing,” Francis said. “It was moving in the right direction. We’d made a huge increase from where it was the year before to where we were that year. And quite honestly, we looked at that (physical-abuse) situation, we addressed it and we felt it was behind him.”

“I think you deal with it the best you can with the situation you have at the time,” Francis said. “I think within the last week there have been some changes the league has made. I think that’s positive moving forward. I don’t claim to be perfect. I make mistakes. I try to learn every day from the people I talk with in situations. That’s what I try to do and take that knowledge moving forward. And hopefully you’re never in that situation again.”

Last month, after Peters was accused to uttering racial slurs at Akim Aliu, whom he coached in the American Hockey League, former Hurricanes defenseman Michal Jordan said that Peters kicked him in the back and punched another player during a game. The allegations for were confirmed by current head coach Rod Brind’Amour, who was an assistant under Peters.

Former Hurricanes majority owner Peter Karmanos told The Seattle Times that he would have fired Francis “in a nanosecond” had he been made aware of the allegations against Peters, even though Francis, who added there was a full vetting process during the hiring process, said he informed management of the situation.

Peters resigned as Calgary Flames head coach days after the allegations went public. In a statement that week Francis acknowledged he was made aware of the incidents and that he “took immediate action to address the matter and briefed ownership.” He did not reveal what he did to correct the matter in either his statement or in the interview with the Times’ Geoff Baker.

“When you look back, there were some things we did well and certain things we need to improve on to get better,” he said. “That’s part of the learning process, I think.”

The NHL revealed a four-point plan this week at the Board of Governors that will provide a guideline for teams in handling abuse allegations and other inappropriate conduct.

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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.

Wild’s Spurgeon 10 seasons into size-defying career

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The defining moment of Jared Spurgeon‘s hockey career came when he was just 13: His peewee coach in Edmonton moved him from forward to defenseman.

There was no going back for Spurgeon, even though he hasn’t grown much bigger since then. Minnesota’s 5-foot-9, 167-pound stalwart on the blue line has been defying size stereotypes ever since.

”I just fell in love with the position,” Spurgeon said.

The Wild have felt the same way about him over the last 10 seasons. The 30-year-old Spurgeon, who set career highs in games (82), goals (14), assists (29), shots (152) and hits (91) during the 2019-19 season, signed a seven-year, $53 million contract extension at the beginning of training camp.

Not bad for a sixth-round pick the New York Islanders ultimately declined to sign, paving the way for a tryout with the Wild two years after he was drafted.

”Probably the best in the NHL at breaking the puck out. Unbelievable on his edges. One of the smartest players in the game,” said Buffalo defenseman Marco Scandella, who played with Spurgeon in Minnesota for seven seasons. ”He’s got a lot of things in his toolbox, and he doesn’t even need the size.”

Spurgeon, who is halfway through an expected two-week absence for a hand injury sustained while blocking a shot, has ranked over the last four years in the top 20 among NHL defensemen in goals, power play goals, blocked shots and time on ice.

”That’s one of those players that you’re just like, ‘How?’ ” Scandella said. ”You just have to watch him over a season. Play with him, and you understand how good he is.”

The ability to skate – and pass – quickly will always be critical for a player with Spurgeon’s frame. Part of that is being fast enough to elude opponents, but it also means maximizing his power by maintaining leverage and balance for the moments when he does initiate or absorb contact.

”You don’t need to be huge and massive to be strong on your skates,” said St. Louis center Ryan O'Reilly, who faces Spurgeon frequently as a Central Division rival. ”You go in and forecheck, and he is so strong. It’s like going against a big guy.”

Awareness is just as important as fearlessness to succeed as a 5-foot-9 player, of course.

Spurgeon simply doesn’t get pushed around much because he’s rarely caught off guard by a big hit. The advantage of vision from the blue line, being able to see the plays develop in front of him, was one of the benefits that immediately drew Spurgeon to defense. He tried to emulate players who came before him like Brian Rafalski and Dan Boyle, sub-6-foot defensemen who were offensive threats but never a liability in their own zone.

”The emphasis of moving the puck and getting up ice and being able to contribute offensively as well is a whole lot different than it used to be, where maybe you had one of those guys before and a bunch of a big, mean guys,” Spurgeon said. ”But I think now the game is so fast that I think it gives the ability for smaller guys to play.”

According to Sportradar data, there are 41 defensemen who have appeared in at least one NHL game this season and are listed at 5-foot-11 or shorter. That number drops to 18 at 5-foot-10 or less and to six at 5-foot-9 and under.

In the 2005-06 season after the lockout, which brought rule changes to encourage more free-flowing action in the neutral zone and increase goal scoring, there were only 29 defensemen at 5-foot-11 or shorter, 11 at 5-foot-10 or less, and three at 5-foot-9 and under. Twenty years ago, there were fewer still: 22 players at 5-foot-11 or shorter, eight at 5-foot-10 or less, and just one at 5-foot-9 and under.

The Wild have two 5-foot-9 blue-liners with Spurgeon and Brad Hunt. Boston’s Torey Krug is another standout in the club. Those lanky veterans around the league like St. Louis’ Colton Parayko (6-foot-6), Carolina’s Dougie Hamilton (6-foot-6) and Boston’s Zdeno Chara (6-foot-9) have obvious advantages with reach and strength, but there’s plenty more to sound defense than being able to poke a stick at a puck.

”We have the quickness and the first two or three strides in order to close plays so that they don’t get the possession of the puck and move on. I think it’s just using our skating abilities,” Krug said. ”I think it’s been a long time coming, especially with the real changes in the way the game is trending. It’s funny, years ago to have one of those guys on your team, people kind of scoffed at that. Now we’ve got two and sometimes three in the lineup at once, and it creates really mobile back end.”

STREAKING

Pittsburgh goalie Tristan Jarry had a franchise-record scoreless run of 177:15 that ended during a 4-1 loss to Montreal on Tuesday, just the second defeat in eight starts for the backup to Matt Murray. Jarry stopped 82 consecutive shots during the streak, the longest in the league this season.

SLUMPING

The Detroit Red Wings are sliding toward a four-year absence from the playoffs after the end of their famous 25-season streak of making it. The Red Wings are on a 12-game winless streak, going 0-10-2 since Nov. 12, and have the worst record in the NHL at 7-22-3. They’ve dropped 10 straight games in regulation by a 47-16 margin.

Our Line Starts podcast: Montgomery’s firing; drafting the All-Decade Team

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Kathryn Tappen, Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp discuss the surprise firing of Stars coach Jim Montgomery. The guys also give their takes on Gary Bettman’s four-point plan to handle abuse. Pierre McGuire sits down with Sabres coach Ralph Krueger to talk about his time in Europe and his path from the Premier League back to the NHL. Plus, Jones and Sharp reveal their top defensemen and goalies of the decade. Do you agree with them?

Start-0:45 Intros
0:45-7:25 Reaction to Dallas firing Jim Montgomery
7:25-14:10 Gary Bettman and the NHL’s 4-point plan
14:10-32:50 Pierre interviews Sabres coach Ralph Krueger
36:05-End The guys begin to draft their All-Decade Team

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports