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.”

Report: Sabres’ Bogosian requests trade

Zach Bogosian Trade Request
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With the Buffalo Sabres dealing with a logjam of defenseman, the team has been active in NHL trade rumors as general Jason Botterill tries to make a move to help address the team’s depth at forward.

It is not hard to connect the dots and assume a defenseman could be the player eventually on the move. And it seems veteran Zach Bogosian might be making the decision on which one to trade a little easier. According to TSN’s Darren Dreger, Bogosian has reportedly requested a trade out of Buffalo.

He is also not in the lineup for their game against the Nashville Predators and will be a healthy scratch as the team dresses seven defenseman, including second-year standout Rasmus Dahlin.

Dahlin will be making his return to the lineup after missing the past eight games due to a concussion.

As for Bogosian, he has been limited to just 10 games this season while injuries have been a constant issue for him throughout his career. That has been especially true during his Sabres tenure where he has never played more than 65 games in a season. He is in the final year of his current contract and will be an unrestricted free agent after this season.

The Sabres have 12 defensemen in the organization with NHL experience and are currently carrying eight on the roster.

As far as a potential return is concerned, expectations should be kept within reason given his contract status and inability to stay in the lineup over the past few years. It might be worth noting the Sabres have been rumored to be one of the teams interested in Pittsburgh Penguins forward Alex Galchenyuk as he continues to struggle to fit in with his new team.

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.

Sharks on fixing issues under Boughner: ‘It’s on all of us in this room’

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As with many coaches, after some time, the effect your voice has on your players wears off and new blood is needed. That’s been Peter DeBoer’s experience since becoming an NHL head coach in 2008.

Three seasons with the Panthers was followed by three-and-a-half yeah with the Devils, which brings us to his four-and-a-half season tenure with the Sharks, which ended Wednesday night with his firing. Each stop of his coaching journey has seen improvement, with his most successful job done in San Jose where the team made the Stanley Cup Final in his first season and reached the playoffs in his four full seasons in the Bay Area.

This 15-16-2 Sharks team should have been in the “Cup Contender” category nearly halfway through this season, but has turned out to be nothing but a disappointment. A five-game losing streak was the last straw for general manager Doug Wilson and it was time for a change.

“Probably, yeah,” said Joe Thornton when asked if a new voice was needed. “I love Pete. Pete’s a fantastic coach. He took this team to where it’s never been before. Nothing but heavy respect for Pete. But it might have been time for a new voice.”

The Sharks’ goaltending has been a huge issue since last season with a league-worst .892 even strength save percentage since the start of the 2018-19, per Natural Stat Trick. There’s also an issue of team defense. San Jose is tied with the Maple Leafs with 46 high-danger goals allowed, most in the NHL. It’s a baffling statistic given they also own the league’s best penalty kill at 88.3%. Systemically, there’s something wrong.

“We’ve talked about this since the beginning of the season,” Wilson said Thursday, “whether it’s focus, whether it’s attitude. Bob [Boughner] talked about when you’re killing penalties, it’s to prevent the other team from scoring, so you come back with urgency, even though you’re a man less. It’s positioning, sticks in the right lanes. I don’t like to use the word cheating, but you’re not hoping to go the other way. If you can apply that approach 5-on-5, you’d think you’d be very strong at it.

“If you can take the idea that it’s not just to prevent the other team from scoring, but now we want to get the puck back so we can attack offensively, that’s really the mindset you have to have. When we do that well, we’re a really good hockey team.”

Making a move to shake up this roster seems like a long-shot given the Sharks’ salary cap situation. The only notable move so far came in the way of bringing back Patrick Marleau, who has six goals and 11 points in 29 games.

The only change coming will be Bob Boughner moving from assistant to head coach and a new staff featuring San Jose’s AHL head coach Roy Sommer, and former Sharks Mike Ricci and Evgeni Nabokov.

“The players trust and believe in [Boughner],” Wilson said. “And I think he’ll bring that energy, juice and joy to the game I think our team is missing right now.”

We’ll see if Boughner learned from his two playoff-less seasons with the Panthers. Whatever new system and style he wants to institute will have to be executed by the players who have played their way into this situation.

“It’s on all of us in this room,” said Sharks captain Logan Couture. “When something like that happens, pro sports is such a what have you done for me lately business. As a player, when a coach loses their job, you feel you’re part of the reason why.”

“You put hockey aside. As a human being, you’re upset you’re not going to be able to work with that group anymore and see them every day,” Couture said. “I talked to most of them and just them that I had so much fun coming to the rink and playing for you guys.”

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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.

Tim Thomas details brain damage from hockey

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Former NHL goaltender Tim Thomas said Thursday that his post-concussion syndrome symptoms were so severe that he couldn’t make basic decisions and his brain wasn’t functioning well enough to even watch hockey.

In his first public appearance since walking away from the game, Thomas said a scan taken after he retired showed that two-thirds of his brain were getting less than 5% blood flow and the other third was getting less than 50%. The 45-year-old said it took significant time and help to even be able to communicate with former teammates and others.

He’s still not close to normal.

”I wake up every day and basically I have to reorder everything in my mind for the first couple hours of the day and then make a list and try to make some choices to get some stuff done,” Thomas said before being inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.

Thomas won the Stanley Cup in 2011 with the Boston Bruins and was named playoff MVP. He played parts of 10 NHL seasons before retiring in 2014 but said his experiences made him question if it was all worth it.

”It taught me a value for life and a value for my brain that I’ve never had before,” Thomas said. ”And I have appreciation for everything that I never had before. I don’t regret anything.”

Long considered reclusive, Thomas said he lived in the woods for a couple of years because he couldn’t handle human interaction. He got a chance to talk to some old teammates at a game Wednesday nights between the Bruins and Washington Capitals.

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.