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Can Oilers’ McDavid and Draisaitl keep up league-leading pace?

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and San Jose Sharks. Coverage begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

As seemingly stabilized as the San Jose Sharks seem, they drew an unenviable task for Tuesday’s game on NBCSN: contain the league’s most dynamic duo at their most dynamic.

When you look at the NHL’s scoring stats, it’s not even close: Leon Draisaitl (43 points) and Connor McDavid (40) tower over everyone else. Only three other players have even crossed thirty yet: still-remarkably-hot defenseman John Carlson (34), and the league’s other dynamic duo of David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand (both at 32).

Let’s dig into the ridiculous runs for both players.

McDavid soaring

We very well might be witnessing the hottest stretch of McDavid’s career.

While Draisaitl leads the NHL in points, McDavid’s on an especially torrid stretch lately. In an overtime loss to the Dallas Stars, he collected three assists, but before that, he generated a hat trick and three assists. Yes, that’s nine points in two games.

McDavid truly feels like a cheat code. If you’ve ever created a player in a sports video game and then felt guilty about how no one could ever be that good, well, McDavid is here to clear your conscience.

During these healthy non-rookie seasons, McDavid’s points have climbed each season: from 100 to 108 to 116 last season, with 41 goals in each of 2017-18 and 2018-19. McDavid’s 40 points in 22 games would translate to about 149 points over 82 contests, so what might cool him off?

[COVERAGE OF OILERS-SHARKS BEGINS AT 10:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Injuries would be the most obvious worry, but aside from that freakish injury suffered against now-teammate Brandon Manning (that never stops amusing me, sorry), McDavid’s been sturdy, missing only four games since 2016-17.

A nearly two-point-per-game pace is asking a lot in the clutch-and-grabby NHL, and there are signs that McDavid’s playing a bit above even his standards. His shooting percentage this season (18.4) is higher than his career average (15). Most importantly for a playmaker like McDavid, his on-ice shooting percentage (16.9) is considerably higher than his career average (11.4).

While McDavid’s current pace is close to 150 points, safer bets might range from 120 (scoring at his career pace of 1.33 ppg over the remaining 60 games) to 130 (at last season’s 1.49 ppg pace) if McDavid can stay healthy. If anyone can keep his percentages this high over 82 games, it’s McDavid, though, so it will be fun to see where he finishes.

Because it’s fun to gawk, take a look at McDavid’s absurd heat map via Hockey Viz’s Micah Blake McCurdy:

Will Draisaitl dry up?

Leon Draisaitl is an even more fascinating example because of just how red-hot he’s been for a while now.

Last season seemed like it would present Draisaitl’s peak: 50 goals, 105 points, with a 21.6 shooting percentage. So far in 2019-20, he’s even hotter: 16 goals (15 of which, impressively, come at full strength), and 27 assists for a blistering 43 points in 22 games. His 2019-20 shooting percentage is even higher than last season, as he’s connecting at a ridiculous 22.5 percent.

Draisaitl’s on-ice shooting percentage (18.8) blows away his career average of 10.4, and also towers over last season’s touch-to-match 12.4 percent.

So … it’s especially clear that Draisaitl will cool down, but it’s also extremely difficult to say how much. After all, he’s been producing at this torrid pace now for 104 games between 2018-19 and 2019-20.

Either way, they’re lethal

It’s also worth mentioning that McDavid is 22 and Draisaitl is 24. Sometimes in sports, people fall into the trap of assuming that a young player will one day meet some imaginary standard of potential, but it’s easier to argue for someone improving when they’ve already produced results.

While it’s fair to ask bigger picture questions about keeping them together or trying to find better depth, it’s hard to argue with the synergy they’re forming right now.

Again, I expect them to cool off a bit, but they might still be the best one-two punch in the league even if the puck luck dries up. Consider that they’re the top two players in connecting on passes to the slot according to The Point Hockey, and that they’re dominant in expected goals, via Sean Tierney:

***

Maybe a cold streak is coming, but with any luck, fans on NBCSN will get to see what makes Draisaitl and McDavid so special. It should be a delight to watch — unless you’re cheering for/playing for the Sharks.

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.

Seven hockey players suspended in Belarus match-fixing case

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ZURICH — Seven ice hockey players have been suspended during an investigation into match-fixing in the Belarus league.

The players — five from Belarus and two from Russia — told a domestic investigation they were paid to help arrange the outcome of a game in November, the International Ice Hockey Federation said on Friday.

“During the investigation, each of the players also admitted that they had agreed to exert an unlawful influence on the outcome of the game in exchange for illegal remuneration,” the governing body said in a statement.

The IIHF said its disciplinary board had taken over the case “for further review and sanctioning.”

The case involves Dynamo Molodechno’ losing to Mogilyov 6-5 in a Belarus Extraliga game.

The players have been suspended from taking part in any competition organized by the IIHF or its member federations.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL vs. viruses; Flat salary cap pain = Avs’ gain?

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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.

Lafreniere, COVID-19 hockey concerns, and how Avs may benefit from a flat salary cap

• Rank Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen among those expressing some misgivings about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [TSN]

• Breaking: Alexis Lafreniere is not a defenseman. In all seriousness, a look at some Maple Leafs possibilities … which might be complicated at No. 1 because of that positional point. Maybe? [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Speaking of those Maple Leafs, Buds fans are not pleased about the idea of a possible flat, $81.5M salary cap. There are teams who might take advantage of this situation, though. Here’s why the Avalanche could be one of those teams. [Mile High Hockey]

• A look back at the NHL’s “rivalries” with viruses. Does the history of the NHL’s dealing with such issues — even the Mumps — be a cause for concern amid COVID-19 outbreaks? [Arctic Ice Hockey]

• Earlier this week, PHT selected the best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere. What about getting even more specific? Andrew Berkshire shared his picks for some of the lines that would benefit most from adding the consensus No. 1 pick to their left side. [Sportsnet]

Other hockey links

• Sean Gentille put together an oral history for the Jean Claude Van Damme masterpiece “Sudden Death.” If you haven’t heard of the candidate for “so-bad-it’s-good” designation, how about the elevator pitch: “Die Hard at a hockey game.” [The Athletic (sub required)]

• On face value, this article focuses most on Rudy Gobert and Novak Djokovic and athletes feeling invulnerable to COVID-19. But it’s a really good read for hockey fans, players, and executives as cautionary tales with a return-to-play picking up steam. [The Score]

• Joe Pelletier of Greatest Hockey Legends wonders why the bar is set so high for goalies to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not an awful point when you consider that they play the most important position in the sport, and all. I wouldn’t mind Ron Hextall making a future cut, to name just one worthy goalie. [Greatest Hockey Legends]

• Five crossovers between hockey and Todd McFarlane. Yes, the “Spawn” guy. [PuckJunk]

• Taking a run at putting together the Sabres’ roster during the upcoming offseason. It gets elaborate, including potential trades. Yes, this scenario includes trading away Rasmus Ristolainen. Don’t they all? [Die by the Blade]

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.

Our Line Starts podcast: NHL, NHLPA nearing agreement; hub cities, Olympics, CBA

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Liam McHugh, Keith Jones, and Patrick Sharp react to the reports that the NHL and NHLPA are nearing the completion of a massive agreement that would not only cover this year’s Return to Play protocols, but also serve as an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The guys discuss Edmonton and Toronto emerging as hub city favorites, as well as what it would mean for the NHL to return to the Olympics. Plus, a breakdown of the Qualifying Round series in both conferences.

Start-4:45 Edmonton, Toronto new hub city frontrunners
4:45-8:45 NHL, NHLPA nearing CBA extension, including Olympic participation
8:45-13:00 Other return to play details
14:00-23:00 Eastern Conference Qualifying Round preview
23:50-End Western Conference Qualifying Round preview

Where else 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

Mrazek vs. Reimer and other Hurricanes lineup questions readying for Rangers

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Beyond obvious outliers like the Penguins, the Hurricanes rank among the most legitimate of the NHL’s Qualifying Round teams. Yet as stable as the Hurricanes are compared to a field full of erratic teams, Carolina faces many of the same lineup questions as the Rangers, the team they’d face in a best-of-five series.

Some might argue that the Hurricanes face tougher questions than the Rangers. (Though, the Rangers aren’t off the hook in that regard.)

In particular, the Hurricanes may need training camp to find answers in net and on defense. For all we know, Hurricanes lineup questions could even persist beyond “Phase 3.”

Let’s glance at both the goalie and defense questions for the Hurricanes.

Who should start in Hurricanes playoff lineup: Mrazek or Reimer?

Reimer, Mrazek, Hurricanes Rangers lineup questions NHL playoffs
(Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With Henrik Lundqvist jousting with two young upstarts, some might wonder if the Rangers have too much of a good thing in net. The Hurricanes don’t enjoy quite the abundance of options.

Even so, coach Rod Brind’Amour faces a decision, as they lack a clear No. 1. Should the Hurricanes go with Petr Mrazek — who helped them during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs — or James Reimer (who boasts superior numbers this season)?

If Brind’Amour knows, he’s putting on a poker face.

“It’s easy to say right now, ‘OK, I’m going to go with Petr,’ but I don’t know,” Brind’Amour said in a recent interview, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “He may be in rough shape. I don’t know until I get to see them and see what they’re like.”

It’s unclear if that last playoff run explains why Mrazek would be the “easy” choice, or if that came down to Reimer entering the pandemic pause with injury issues. (The Hurricanes may also be concerned about Reimer’s rather lengthy run of injury hiccups, too.)

Because, again, Reimer performed at a higher level than Mrazek in 2019-20. Reimer boasts a better save percentage than Mrazek this season (.914 to Mrazek’s .905) and over their careers (.914 to Mrazek’s .910). Reimer takes most/all goalie “advanced stats” between the two this season, as well. Generally speaking, we’ve seen more from Reimer over the past few seasons than Mrazek, whose career was teetering on the edge here and there.

(But, to be fair, Reimer’s had his issues, too.)

Regardless, just about every team should take a long look at how their goalies are performing during training camps. Even teams with clearer No. 1 options.

Honestly, with the NHL not expected to limit the number of goalies at training camps, maybe the Hurricanes should even look at options like Anton Forsberg or Alex Nedeljkovic?

An unexpectedly crowded defense

Dougie Hamilton Hurricanes Rangers lineup decisions playoffs
(Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

During the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, the Hurricanes acquired Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen. As you may remember, those moves hinged at least partially on injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce. After the twists of those bad-luck injuries, the pandemic threw off Carolina’s rhythm once more.

The best news is that it sounds like Hamilton will be available. Don’t let the museum talk fool you. If Hamilton maintained his hot pace and didn’t get injured, he would have been a go-to choice for those making arguments against John Carlson‘s Norris credentials. Either way, Hamilton provides an enormous boost to the Hurricanes lineup — one they weren’t expecting during the deadline.

On the other hand, Brind’Amour told NHL.com’s Rosen that Pesce remains unlikely to return. However …

“It’s going to be a long shot, but the longer this goes the shot gets a little shorter,” Brind’Amour said.

(Anyone else visualizing that after that rather literal description from Brind’Amour? No? OK.)

So, Hamilton stands as probable while Pesce looks unlikely. Beyond that, the Hurricanes have two still-new faces in Skjei (just seven not particularly impressive games played) and Vatanen (who was injured and didn’t even get to suit up). Let’s say that represents three defensemen for the Hurricanes. Here are the other contenders for spots in the Hurricanes defensive lineup:

  • Jaccob Slavin, a lock.
  • Jake Gardiner, who dealt with a tough season, averaging only 16:40 TOI. Still, Gardiner is experienced, played in 68 games this season, and may have benefited from the break.
  • Joel Edmundson (68 GP like Slavin and Gardiner, averaged more TOI than Gardiner with 18:27 per contest).
  • Trevor van Riemsdyk (49 GP, less than 15 minutes per night; still, Hurricanes are very familiar with TVR).
  • Haydn Fleury (45 GP, averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game).

Realistically, Brind’Amour could have eight options on defense, and possibly nine if Pesce makes unexpectedly rapid progress. Being that some of those options are quite good, there are worse problems to have.

But it still adds to the notion that training camp could be quite important for Hurricanes lineup decisions. With both goalies and defense, Brind’Amour emphasized a wait-and-see approach. So … we’ll see?

More on the Hurricanes, Rangers, return to play, and similar subjects:

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.