Since losing ’18 Cup Final, Golden Knights look more like Caps

Almost 18 months since the Vegas Golden Knights’ improbable inaugural season ended, they look much more like the team that vanquished them in the Stanley Cup Final.

If you can’t beat ’em, be more like ’em.

Once a ragtag group relying on more will than skill, Vegas is beginning to resemble the Washington Capitals they faced in the 2018 final. The Golden Knights don’t have carbon copies of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, but they added some serious skill in forwards Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone and could easily follow the Capitals’ championship model.

“They’ve done a great job,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “I think they’ve added another layer. I thought when we beat them, we were a little bit deeper team, especially up front. Then adding Stone, adding Pacioretty, signing Stastny – those are three really good players, so they have a whole new layer of offensive, really solid players on their team. In theory, I think they’re a better team than they were.”

The Golden Knights who went to the final in their expansion season had a first line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith and leaned heaviest on defensemen Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore and Deryk Engelland. All those players remain but have the pressures eased off them, given internal promotions and external additions.

Forward William Carrier, one of more than a dozen players left from the 2018 final, said this is a better team.

“Right now, we’re a more talented team,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “It’s a different team. We’re a more skilled team than we were back then. But back then we had that air about (us) – we were the hardest working team in the league. I want us to get back to that. We were a fast team, we were a quick team that first year and everything went our way. We had a lot of puck luck and a lot of good things that happened that first year.”

Those good things stopped when the Capitals wore down the Golden Knights with their depth and won the series in five games. Then, last spring, Vegas got knocked out in the first round when a blown call in Game 7 against San Jose snowballed into a disastrous third period.

Bouncing back from two tough playoff exits is another lesson the Golden Knights can learn from the Capitals, who kept getting stopped in the second round or earlier before breaking through and winning it all.

“We’ve had some disappointments,” said Kelly McCrimmon, who took over for George McPhee as Knights GM last summer. “That’s your ultimate opportunity to evaluate and to learn and to assess where you need to be better. … There’s things you need to do to get you to the playoffs, there’s things you need to do to get you through the playoffs. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been a playoff team both years, we’ve gained that experience.”

Capitals winger Tom Wilson looks at Vegas as a team built for the playoffs because of its size, skill and toughness. It’s almost like gazing into a mirror.

“They have a really stable team – they can establish all four lines and roll,” Washington’s Jakub Vrana said. “They play hard, and they work hard for every inch of the ice. That’s what’s been winning them games. We do the same thing.”

Blending the work ethic and the grittiness that got Vegas into the final with the talent that could get it over the top is now the challenge. Gallant doesn’t shy away from the comparison to the Capitals, who perfected that mix.

“The work comes before the skill, and when you get your talented guys and your skilled guys working real hard, then that’s when you’re going to have the right team,” Gallant said. “I think the team in Washington, that’s what they do. They’ve got some real talented hockey players, but when they work hard, they’re a great team.”

The next stage in becoming a consistently great team is integrating homegrown players, like Cody Glass and Nicolas Hague, who were picks from the Golden Knights’ first draft in 2017. Vegas is at the salary cap like the NHL’s best teams and isn’t afraid of the big expectations that come with that.

“We don’t feel or act or believe we’re an expansion team,” McCrimmon said. “We’re in Year 3 as a franchise, and like every other team, always trying to get better, always trying to win more games, always trying to be a playoff team and have success.”

FIRST TIMER

Lifelong Maple Leafs fan Ron Ruckstuhl, 52, was diagnosed with Lewy dody disease three years ago and told he had five to seven years to live. In August, son Joshuah sent a tweet to retired NHLer Paul Bissonnette hoping his dad could attend a game in Toronto for the first time.

“I’ve waited 52 years for something like this,” Ron said.

As part of the “NHL First Timer” video series, the league surprised Ruckstuhl at his house earlier this month and took him and sons Joshuah and Ryan to the Leafs’ game Nov. 5 against Los Angeles.

“I’d never seen my dad smile and laugh (like that),” said Joshuah, 28, who is his father’s full-time caregiver. “For a little bit, you didn’t realize he was sick. You could see him forget about being sick for just a little bit.”

The league is releasing video of the occasion Wednesday to mark World Kindness Day.

“This is what it’s all about,” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said. “To be able to put joy in somebody’s life like Ron’s and to be able to show his story to the world is quite an honor and it makes me proud to be a part of the NHL.”

NO LONE WOLF

Phil Kessel is fitting in just fine with the young Arizona Coyotes and has come a long way from playing in the shadow of – and winning two titles with – Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin in Pittsburgh.

“He fed off those guys in Pittsburgh really well,” said coach Rick Tocchet, who also was an assistant with the Penguins. “Sometimes he was under the radar, and he’d come up with some big goals because (opponents focused on) Malkin or Crosby. Now there’s a little bit more focus on him.”

Tocchet said Kessel has done more leading because he recognizes, at 32, he should. It’s working.

“Phil, the young guys love him and he’s taking pressure off guys,” Tocchet said. “When some guys aren’t scoring, to be honest with you, the media are not on the guy as much because Phil takes that pressure off. So he does take the pressure or the burden off some guys if they’re not scoring.”

Blackhawks sign Ian Mitchell, will join team in 2020-21

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CHICAGO (AP) — Ian Mitchell will have to wait until next season to join the Chicago Blackhawks.

The 21-year-old Mitchell, one of the organization’s top prospects, agreed to a three-year contract in April. But there was some question about when the defenseman’s entry-level deal might begin.

Mitchell is ineligible for the resumption of the NHL season, and the team announced Thursday it had finalized a contract with the former University of Denver star that begins with the 2020-21 season rather than burns a year right now so he can practice with the team.

The Blackhawks face Edmonton in Game 1 of the qualifying round on Aug. 1.

The team also announced it had agreed to a two-year contract with defenseman Wyatt Kalynuk and a one-year deal with forward Pius Suter. The deals for Mitchell, Kalynuk and Suter each carry a $925,000 salary-cap hit per season.

Mitchell was selected by the Blackhawks in the second round of the 2017 draft. He was a first-team All-American during his junior year at Denver, collecting 10 goals and 22 assists during the regular season. He also served as team captain.

He finished his career with the Pioneers with 18 goals and 71 assists in 116 games.

Mitchell and Kalynuk join a promising group of young defensemen that includes 19-year-old Adam Boqvist, a first-round pick in the 2018 draft. Nicolas Beaudin, who doesn’t turn 21 until October, also could be a factor as soon as next season.

The 23-year-old Kalynuk had a career-high 28 points in 36 games during his junior season at the University of Wisconsin, finishing with seven goals and 21 assists. He also served as a team captain with the Badgers.

Kalynuk was originally selected by Philadelphia in the seventh round of the 2017 NHL draft.

Suter, 24, won the MVP award for Switzerland’s National League-A last season, collecting 30 goals and 23 assists in 50 games for the ZSC Lions.

2019-20 Lady Byng finalists: MacKinnon, Matthews, O’Reilly

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The NHL announced Nathan MacKinnon (Avalanche), Auston Matthews (Maple Leafs), and Ryan O'Reilly (Blues) as the three finalists for the 2019-20 Lady Byng Memorial Trophy. The Lady Byng is awarded to the player “player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.”

As usual, the Professional Hockey Writers Association votes on the award.

Panthers center Aleksander Barkov won the Lady Byng in 2018-19. O’Reilly finished among the finalists that season.

[2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule, now with start times]

The Lady Byng Trophy cases for finalists MacKinnon, Matthews, O’Reilly

Quick case for Nathan MacKinnon

MacKinnon, 24, managed another great season (93 points, Ted Lindsay Award finalist) while posting a career-low 12 PIM in 2019-20. Considering his significant ice time (21:13 TOI average), it’s impressive that the speedy scorer kept his PIM totals so low. This is his first Lady Byng nomination.

Matthews becomes Lady Byng finalist after tumultuous offseason

No doubt, Auston Matthews finishing as Lady Byng finalist will create controversy. Honestly, it’s easy to understand such critiques.

While Matthews’ disorderly conduct was dismissed in November, plenty will wonder why he finished among the top three. Would Teuvo Teravainen (63 points, eight PIM) served as a better choice, for example? Maybe Ryan Suter (12 PIM despite workhorse duties) instead?

From an on-ice perspective, Matthews makes a case as a Lady Byng finalist. Matthews produced 47 goals and shouldered a substantial ice time burden while only being whistled for eight PIM.

Ryan O’Reilly aims for another Lady Byng Trophy

As great as it’s been to see “ROR” get recognition as a Selke winner, O’Reilly has been a Lady Byng fixture for years. In fact, the dominant two-way forward won the Lady Byng in 2013-14. This marks O’Reilly’s third season in a row among Lady Byng finalists.

Remarkably, this marks the sixth of O’Reilly’s 11 seasons where he finished with 10 PIM or less. O’Reilly scored 61 points, excelled as a two-way player as usual, and kept his PIM to a neat 10 in 2019-20.

NHL AWARD FINALISTS ANNOUNCEMENT DATES
Ted Lindsay Award: Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, Artemi Panarin
Calder Trophy: Quinn Hughes, Cale Makar, Dominik Kubalik
Jack Adams Award: Bruce Cassidy, John Tortorella, Alain Vigneault
• Masterton Trophy: Stephen Johns, Oskar Lindblom, Bobby Ryan

• Friday, July 17: Willie O’Ree Award, Vezina Trophy
• Monday, July 20: Norris Trophy, Selke Trophy
• Tuesday, July 21: Hart Trophy

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.

Johns, Lindblom, Ryan are 2019-20 Masterton Trophy finalists

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Stephen Johns of the Stars, Oskar Lindblom of the Flyers, and Bobby Ryan of the Senators are the three finalists for the 2019-20 Masterton Trophy. The award, which is voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association, is given “to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”

Robin Lehner was last season’s winner.

Each local chapter submits one nominee and the full PHWA membership votes at the conclusion of the regular season. You can find the full list of nominees here.

[2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule]

Stephen Johns’ story: The Stars defenseman missed 22 months due to post-traumatic headaches. He made his NHL return in January and played over 18 minutes that night against the Wild. He would play 17 games this season and scored his first goal at Madison Square Garden in a win over the Rangers. “Throughout this whole process, it wasn’t just me going through hell,” he told the Dallas Morning News in June. “As parents, they want to help and for them to be here and see that, I probably know my dad was for sure crying. I’m pretty excited to go see them and give them both a big hug.”

Oskar Lindblom’s story: It was in December that the Flyers forward was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a type of bone cancer. At that time he was tied for the team lead in goals scorer (11) through 30 games. After months of treatment, the 23-year-old got to ring the bell at Abramson Cancer Center at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia earlier this month as his treatments came to an end. He won’t play in the postseason, but there is hope he can rejoin the team for next season.

Bobby Ryan’s story: Ryan left the Senators in late November to enter the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program to deal with an alcohol problem. He returned in February and recorded a hat trick in his first game back in Ottawa. That led to emotional standing ovations and Ryan being name the game’s No. 1 star. He hopes to continue to tell his story to help others. “Because I’ve been open and candid about that, I think people have looked at me and said, ‘There’s a very relatable person,'” Ryan told the Ottawa Sun. “Through my family stuff and now with alcohol issues, I’ve never hid from it and I’ve always said, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to have to do it in the public eye and I’m going to have to be candid with it.”

The winner will be announced during the conference finals.

The trophy was presented by the NHL Writers’ Association in 1968 to commemorate the late Bill Masterton, a player with the Minnesota North Stars who exhibited to a high degree the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey and who died on Jan. 15, 1968.

A $2,500 grant from the PHWA is awarded annually to the Bill Masterton Scholarship Fund, based in Bloomington, Minn., in the name of the Masterton Trophy winner.

NHL AWARD FINALISTS ANNOUNCEMENT DATES
Ted Lindsay Award: Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, Artemi Panarin
Calder Trophy: Quinn Hughes, Cale Makar, Dominik Kubalik
Jack Adams Award: Bruce Cassidy, John Tortorella, Alain Vigneault
• Lady Byng Trophy: Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan O'Reilly

• Friday, July 17: Willie O’Ree Award, Vezina Trophy
• Monday, July 20: Norris Trophy, Selke Trophy
• Tuesday, July 21: Hart Trophy

————

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Oskar Lindblom reflects on battling cancer

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Lindblom’s battle, key Wild decisions, and more

• Alex Prewitt shares a detailed, touching account of Flyers forward Oskar Lindblom‘s battle with cancer. [SI]

• USA Hockey announced the cancellation of the 2020 World Junior Summer showcase. The event was originally scheduled for July 24-31, but it makes sense to err on the side of caution. [USA Hockey]

• Ken Campbell believes the Wild took care of the present by dropping the interim tag from head coach Dean Evason, and secured the future by signing Kirill Kaprizov. I’d say the jury is still out on Evason, but getting Kaprizov signed is huge — even if COVID-19 presents more bumps in the road. [The Hockey News]

• How about some more detail on Evason, then? Tony Abbott breaks down why Wild GM Bill Guerin might have been impressed with Evason. In particular, it’s interesting to see that the Wild picked up the pace with Evason after firing Bruce Boudreau. [Zone Coverage]

• A fun one from John Matisz on various skills that hockey players find difficult to master. Some covet Nicklas Lidstrom’s ability to walk the line. Kevin Shattenkirk marvels at the deceptive “hitch” Nikita Kucherov can put on his shot. [The Score]

• Ranking the Detroit Red Wings’ jerseys, from worst to first. That 1928-29 Cougars logo is choice. [Hockey by Design]

NHL training camps, insight on playoff matchups, and free agency

• The Maple Leafs don’t view training camp as merely an opportunity to tune up. Instead, such activities are being framed as competition for playoff roster spots. I imagine players like Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Morgan Rielly don’t have to worry too much, though. [Sportsnet]

• Sin Bin Vegas transcribed key Robin Lehner quotes about his free agent future. Over and over again, it seems clear that Lehner craves term in contract offers, making me wonder if a savvy team might be able to bring his AAV down by giving him some stability. Goalies are unpredictable, but you could make worse bets than Lehner, who’s been outstanding since at least 2018-19. [Sin Bin Vegas/TSN 1200 interview]

Really, the biggest story for today’s PHT Morning Skate might be Lehner’s silly leg pads:

 

• Count Brenden Dillon among the pending UFAs who would prefer to stick with their teams. In Dillon’s case, it’s the Capitals, whom he’s still becoming acquainted with. Looking at the Capitals’ cap situation, Dillon returning isn’t out of the question, although that might boil down to what kind of deal the rugged defenseman expects. Also, it may hinge on other decisions, such as what to do with Braden Holtby. [Nova Caps Fans]

• As the Canadiens await, which players are the biggest X-factors for the Penguins? [Pensburgh]

• Being that the Flames and Jets only met in an outdoor game, Paul Maurice doesn’t believe there’s much video to use in preparing for Calgary. He also explains how NHL systems are like battleships. Hopefully the return to play doesn’t flop like that movie. [Winnipeg Free Press]

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.