NHL on NBCSN: Progress of youth ‘encouraging’ for Ducks’ future

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Wednesday’s matchup between the Anaheim Ducks and St. Louis Blues. Blues-Ducks stream coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Trevor Zegras’ call up on Feb. 21 and Isac Lundeström’s hat trick Monday were further steps in the youth movement going on in Anaheim.

The Ducks have not made the playoffs the last two seasons and haven’t won a playoff game since Game 4 of the 2017 Western Conference Final. Players that helped them sustain a run that saw them miss the postseason twice in 12 seasons are aging out. Some of those pieces, like Corey Perry, are long gone. Others, like captain Ryan Getzlaf, whose contract expires this summer, could be on their way out.

That roster turnover and focus on youth has been painful. The Ducks have seen drops in most statistical categories since 2017, like all situations goals per game (2.82 in 2017-18 to 2.05 this season); 5-on-5 shots per game (29.9 to 26, per Evolving Hockey); and on-ice save percentage (.932 to .911). It’s why general manager Bob Murray and his staff are banking on their last three drafts to lead the way forward.

Lundeström, 21, was their 2018 first round pick, while Zegras, 19, went ninth overall in 2019. This past October, the Ducks took defenseman Jamie Drysdale sixth overall and forward Jacob Perreault at No. 27. They join a prospect pool of developing players like Max Comtois (2017 second-rounder) and 2016 first-round picks Max Jones and Sam Steel. Throw in Jacob Larsson (23), Troy Terry (23) and Josh Mahura (22), and Murray is hoping they will form the core of this team over the next several years.

[BLUES-DUCKS COVERAGE BEGINS AT 9:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

The pressure is on those kids and Murray for this transition to work and work quick. John Gibson, who is under contract through 2026-27 with a $6.4M cap hit, turns 28 in July. He’s long been viewed as one of the NHL’s top goaltenders — but one stuck on a sub-par team. His .924 5-on-5 save percentage since 2017-18 is eighth-best among goaltenders and his 16.37 goals saved above average is 10th, per Natural Stat Trick.

That’s why it’s vital for Murray and head coach Dallas Eakins to go heavy on opportunity for their kids. Ducks fans weren’t expecting playoffs this season. But you want to see progress. You don’t want to be the Sabres. You want to see signs that brighter days are ahead. In Anaheim, after just 22 games this season, there is some sun beyond the clouds.

Comtois currently leads the team in goals (8) and points (14); Steel has seven points in 21 games; Jones has three goals, but has the third-best (56%) expected goals for percentage on the Ducks.

Lundeström made his NHL debut during the 2018-19 season and went his first 35 games without scoring a goal. He has five this season, highlighted by the hat trick during Monday’s loss to the Blues.

Zegras had four goals and nine points inn eight AHL games before his call-up. He is still searching for his first goal with the Ducks, but he’s certainly not lacking in confidence department.

[NHL Power Rankings: Kaprizov, Zuccarello helping Wild make big climb]

Zegras’ history shows he can be that offensive leader and the Ducks will take goals right now anyway they can. Forehand, backhand, lacrosse-style. You name it.

“The one thing we don’t ever want to take out of a player is creativity,” Eakins said. “If you can put the puck in the net that way, then put the puck in the net that way.”

Zegras is the prized prospect, and Eakins is easing him in. Even strength and power play ice time has increased with a heavy emphasis offensive zone starts (62.5%, per Natural Stat Trick). He said he wants to “bring him along at the right pace” and not throw too much at him immediately. That approach will help bring a comfort level that could lead to his offensive game making a consistent impact.

“They are moving in the right direction,” Eakins said of his young Ducks. “Obviously, Isac had a great night. All those guys have taken steps forward. Some bigger than others. So, that’s encouraging for the whole organization.”

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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.

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    Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

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    SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

    That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there Friday night.

    Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

    Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

    It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

    Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

    And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

    Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

    WELCOME HOME, LU

    Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

    In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

    He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

    Luongo was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

    “You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

    Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

    Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design paid tribute to his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks.

    He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night.

    REMEMBERING JIMMY

    Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

    Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

    Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

    Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

    ANTHEM POISE

    “The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

    Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

    And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

    SLAP SHOTS

    Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

    Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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    FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

    The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

    Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

    “Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

    Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

    The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

    Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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    LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

    The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

    This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

    But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

    Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

    Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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    DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

    Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

    The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

    According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

    The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

    Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

    Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

    The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

    The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.