PHT Morning Skate: Ovechkin on Russia Olympic ban; tough times in Hockeytown

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

Alex Ovechkin on the Russia Olympic ban: “It’s always disappointing to hear something like that. I hope everything’s going to be well. We still have a long time ‘til the Olympics to figure out what to do. What’s better to do. Hope everything’s going to be fine.” [Washington Post]

• USA Hockey named on Monday 28 players to the preliminary roster of its entry for the 2020 World Junior Championship. [USA Hockey]

• As the Senators continue their rebuild, Brady Tkachuk is front and center. [Ottawa Sun]

• Does Taylor Hall fit with the Islanders’ needs? [Gotham Sports Network]

• Things are going not so good in Hockeytown. [TSN]

• The proposed reshaping of the NBA schedule is something the NHL should be thinking about as well. [Featurd]

• Jordan Kyrou, who’s been nearly a point-per-game player in the AHL this season, has been called up by the St. Louis Blues. [Post-Dispatch]

• How a small dip in production for Claude Giroux means good things for the Flyers. [Broad Street Hockey]

• Neal Henderson, head of the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, North America’s oldest minority-oriented youth hockey program, will become the first African-American to be enshrined in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame this week. [NHL.com]

• Can the Lightning’s issues this season be placed at the feet of Jon Cooper? [Raw Charge]

• Finally, meet Evan Yasser, a Devils fan on the autism spectrum who you might hear calling games some day:

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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.

How concerning is Islanders’ recent play?

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It’s been a tale of two very different seasons so far for the New York Islanders.

It began with them storming out of the gate with a 16-3-2 record in their first 21 games. That start included a 17-game point streak where their only losses were a 4-3 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins — a game where they surrendered a three-goal third period lead — and a 2-1 overtime loss to the Sharks. They were less than 30 minutes and maybe two or three shots away from matching the longest winning streak in NHL history.

Since then? It’s been a very different story. In the 27 games that have followed the Islanders have been the definition of average when it comes to their results. Their 12-12-3 record during that stretch gives them a points percentage of exactly .500, while they have gone from what looked to be a slam dunk playoff team with home ice in round 1, to one that is just a single point clear of a wild card spot (Columbus is right on their tails, while they are six points back of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the second spot in the Metropolitan Division) and only three points clear of the non-playoff teams.

Depending on what happens on Tuesday in their game against the New York Rangers, combined with the results in Philadelphia (against Pittsburgh at 7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and Carolina (against a slumping Winnipeg Jets team), they could either maintain their current cushion, or see it shrink to as little as one point.

On one hand, every team is going to slump at some point during an 82-game season. But this is starting to become more than just a “slump.” We’re now at 27 games (more than 32 percent of the season) where they have struggled. They’ve been average to below average more than they’ve been successful at this point.

Digging down to a more recent sampling of games, the Islanders have won just five of their past 15 games with a few ugly losses in the middle of that. That includes two to the Rangers team they play on Tuesday, and a brutal loss over the weekend against Washington where they turned a 4-1 third period lead into a 6-4 defeat. This is currently the worst 15-game stretch they have had in a year-and-a-half under Barry Trotz, and their worst since they melted down during the stretch run of the 2017-18 season.

The Islanders are mostly the same team they were a year ago, not only in terms of the roster, but also the way they play. They do not score a lot of goals, they give up a ton of shots and regularly get outshot, but still remain one of the top goal prevention teams in the league overall. Lately, that has started to change.

In the 27 games since their point streak ended they have dropped down to 10th in the league in goals against per 60 minutes in all situations, and 14th in goals against per 60 minutes during 5-on-5 play. Over the past 15 games, they are down to 13th and 24th respectively. It’s tough for any team to win giving up that many goals. It’s next to impossible for a team as offensively starved as the Islanders.

There are two things that should be a cause for concern here.

The first one is they miss Adam Pelech on defense. He may not be a household name around the league, but he is one of their best defensive players and has not played since Dec. 31. While their struggles started before that, he’s a difficult player to replace.

The second is that a lot of the Islanders’ success the past year-and-a-half has been goaltending driven. A year ago it was the duo of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss. Lehner played at a Vezina Trophy level, and the perpetually underrated Greiss was a perfect complement in a platoon role. Every team that gets bombarded on the shot chart and still finds ways to prevent goals and wins thinks they’ve found the secret to something. But shot volume still matters, and if you’re giving up a lot of shots, it stands to reason that quality chances (and goals) will eventually follow. In the end, it still really comes down to elite goaltending.

Early this season the duo of Semyon Varlamov and Greiss was still giving them that, and the wins were still there.

Here’s the problem: They haven’t necessarily been bad lately. In the 27 game stretch that duo has a .915 save percentage which is not only FAR above the league average, it is 8th best in the league during that stretch. Of the top-14 teams in save percentage during that stretch, they are the only team that does not have a points percentage of at least .540.

Even during the past 15 games they are still getting exactly league average goaltending (.904). And they can’t win.

It’s not that the goaltenders have necessarily struggled lately, it’s that the Islanders’ success is built around them being great. When they are anything less than great — even if they are still very good — the team struggles. Badly.

Even before this recent regression they needed another scorer or two. With Pelech sidelined they might need another defensemen, too. But the biggest thing they need is for them to give their goaltenders more support and not be completely dependent on them.

 

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.

NHL On NBCSN: What’s behind Bryan Rust’s breakout season

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After a two-year detour the Pittsburgh Penguins have rediscovered their championship identity. They are playing fast, they revamped their defense to add mobility, and they have a balanced lineup (when healthy) with four lines that can contribute. They enter Tuesday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) as one of the league’s best teams and it is the usual suspects at the top leading the way for them.

Sidney Crosby has played like the best player in the world. Evgeni Malkin is rebounding from a down year in 2018-19 and is playing some of the best hockey of his career. Kris Letang has been great at the top of a dramatically improved defense, and Jake Guentzel was on track for a second straight 40-goal season before his injury. They also have had an infusion of young talent into the lineup (John Marino, Jared McCann, Dominik Kahun, and Teddy Blueger) to make an impact.

The surprising star of this team so far, however, has been the breakout performance of veteran forward Bryan Rust.

He enters Tuesday’s game with 21 goals and 43 total points, both of which are already new career highs. He has done that in only 35 games. That is an 82-game pace for 49 goals and 100 points!

Let’s dig into this.

Continuation of his 2018-19 finish

Rust has always been a valuable part of the Penguins’ lineup since becoming a regular in the middle of the 2015-16 season. He is an excellent defensive forward, he brings a ton of speed to the lineup, and he has always been able to chip in offense. He also has the versatility to fit into any role the team needs, whether it be as a first-line winger, a penalty killer, or a third-line winger. That solid all-around play earned him a four-year, $14 million contract extension that began a year ago.

But 30 games into that contract he scored just one goal, and it was easy to conclude that he was one of the players general manager Jim Rutherford was talking about when he criticized the team’s performance early on and that maybe some players had become content with their Stanley Cup rings and big pay days. But starting with a game on Dec. 12, 2018, Rust has been one of the most productive forwards in the entire league. He finished the 2018-19 season with 17 goals in his final 42 games (a 33-goal pace over 82 games), and in his past 77 games dating back to last season has 38 goals and 71 total points.

The Malkin effect?

Rust has spent a significant portion of his ice-time this season playing on a line next to Malkin, and there is no doubt that has helped give his production a boost. Those two have been magic together this season, and were even better when paired next to Guentzel before his injury. While it is fair to point that out, it should also be noted that a significant portion of Rust’s 5-on-5 ice-time over the previous three seasons has come on a line next to either Malkin or Crosby. So it’s not like this is the first time he’s ever played with a superstar center.

The biggest factor at play…

He is getting a more significant role in the offense

With Phil Kessel traded and all of the injuries (including Rust himself) they dealt with in the first half, the Penguins needed to someone to step in a top-line role. While Rust had seen a lot of top-line minutes in previous years, he has received consistent top-line minutes this season. That has been his role from the minute he returned to the lineup, and it has not only resulted in more time with Malkin, it has also simply resulted in more ice-time overall.

Entering play on Tuesday his ice-time average is a career-high 19:54 per game. That is a four minute per game jump from any of his previous seasons in the NHL. More ice-time means more opportunities. More opportunities more shots. All of that together means more goals.

While he has seen a slight boost to his shooting percentage (19.2 percent this season versus 12.4 percent the previous three seasons) the increased shot volume (3.1 shots per game versus 1.88 the previous three years) is probably the biggest driving factor here, and more ice-time has played a significant role in that.

The power play opportunity

Before this season Rust had played just 92 minutes on the power play in his entire career (22 seconds per game, mostly on the second unit) and had just five total power play points. This season? In 35 games he has already played 80 minutes on the power play and as of Tuesday has five goals and 12 total points on the power play.

Big picture, what you are seeing here this season is a talented player have the perfect confluence of events come together for a career year: A slight bump in shooting percentage, more ice-time, more ice-time with a great player, and an opportunity to play a meaningful role on the power play.

You should not expect him to maintain a 50-goal, 100-point pace forever, but if he keeps getting this sort of ice-time and opportunity there is every reason to believe he can continue to exceed his previous performances.

Gord Miller, Mike Milbury and AJ Mleczko will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET, hosted by Kathryn Tappen and analysts Keith Jones and Ben Lovejoy.

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.

Quenneville returns to Chicago with Florida Panthers

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CHICAGO (AP) — In some Chicago circles, certainly every one that includes a hockey rink, it’s just “Q.” Only one letter is necessary for a man so revered there is a Twitter account for his mustache with more than 40,000 followers.

Q returns Tuesday night.

Joel Quenneville leads the Florida Panthers into Chicago to take on the streaking Blackhawks for the first time since his wildly successful run in the Windy City ended some 14 months ago.

The 61-year-old Quenneville coached the Blackhawks to three Stanley Cup championships and nine playoff appearances in 10-plus years before he was fired when the team got off to a lackluster start last season. He was hired by the Panthers in April, setting up what almost certainly will be an emotional night for the coach and his former players.

“He’s like an icon in Chicago, whether it’s him winning three Stanley Cups, coming in and helping us become better players,” Blackhawks star Patrick Kane said. “What he’s done here in his career is amazing, he’ll get a warm reception and it’ll be good to see him. We’ll try to get a win against him and enjoy the time.”

Quenneville coaching against his former team is the big headline, but it’s also a matchup of two surging teams hoping to carry their momentum into an extended break. Kane got his 1,000th career point when Chicago beat Winnipeg 5-2 on Sunday night for its season-high fifth consecutive victory. Florida earned its season-best fifth straight win Monday night, topping Minnesota 5-4 on Noel Acciari‘s goal with 5.6 seconds left.

“Going into the break, so it will be an important game for both teams,” Quenneville said. “It will be fun being back there, for sure. Looking forward to it.”

Chicago had made just one playoff appearance in 10 years when Quenneville took over four games into the 2008-09 season, replacing Hall of Famer Denis Savard. Dale Tallon was the general manager for the Blackhawks at the time, and he hired Quenneville again with the Panthers.

The coaching change in Chicago sparked an unprecedented run for one of the NHL’s Original Six franchises.

Quenneville was the right choice at the right time for Chicago’s promising young core, and Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook blossomed with the former NHL defenseman behind the bench. The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015, and they also reached the conference finals in 2009 and 2014.

“Well, all great memories. There’s been special years there,” Quenneville said. “You think of all the people that you got acquainted with; the staff, management, players, training staff, everybody you had some great memories with and some great times. The fans were always special as well. It will be fun to be back in the building.”

Quenneville has Florida in contention for its first postseason berth since 2016. Keith Yandle had a goal and three assists in the victory over the Wild, and Jonathan Huberdeau is heading to the All-Star Game for the first time.

When Quenneville was fired by Chicago, Jeremy Colliton was promoted from the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate in Rockford to the top job. Colliton has been booed before some home games this season, but he sounds as if he is looking forward to the cheers for Quenneville.

“It’s a chance to honor Joel. It’s a big night for the organization,” Colliton said after the victory over the Jets. “He was great to me, so I want to honor him too. It’s a big part of the reason why I came here to begin with, because he was here.”

PHT Morning Skate: Kassian’s road to sobriety; Maple Leafs and the deadline

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

Zack Kassian opens up about his road to sobriety. [Pass it to Bulis]

• The Blackhawks are playing well. Are they for real? [NBC Sports Chicago]

• A lifelong fan of the Blackhawks, Kendall Coyne Schofield now works alongside the organization to inspire the next generation of girls’ hockey. [Blackhawks]

• A look at the NHL standings under a 3-2-1 points system. [ESPN]

• The Islanders’ current swoon can be blamed on veteran mistakes. [Islanders Insight]

• “Every year has in-season variance, but in 2019-20 it has all been in one direction. Teams are simply outscoring our expectations, repeatedly. And this isn’t some clunky model issue – league scoring is at the highest it has been since the 1995-96 and 2005-06 seasons. Year to date, expected goals have understated actual goals by 240.” [TSN]

• Get to know Quinton Byfield, one of the top prospects in the 2020 NHL Draft. [NHL.com]

• Let’s all welcome Elvis Merzlikins to the Calder Trophy discussion. [1st Ohio Battery]

• Is a Jeff Carter reunion in the works for the Flyers? [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

• A behind the scenes look at the making of the LA Kings Stadium Series jerseys. [Mayor’s Manor]

• What trade deadline moves should the Maple Leafs explore? [Sportsnet]

• How Peter DeBoer has changed the Golden Knights’ approach to the penalty kill. [Sin Bin Vegas]

• ‘Responsible’ Connor Brown taking game to new heights with the Senators. [Sporting News]

• Breaking down the best and the worst in the history of Senators jerseys. [Hockey by Design]

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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.