Roundtable: Teams that will fade; intriguing NHL awards races

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Which team having a good first month will fade as the season moves on?

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Nashville. The Predators have enjoyed a solid first month-plus with a 10-7-1 record and a fourth-place standing in the Central Division. Points banked in October and November are important for when those up-and-down stretches hit every team during the season. What might catch up to Nashville is when the likes of Colorado and Dallas straighten things out and the current outrageous shooting percentages of top scorers Matt Duchene (12 goals, 21.4 SH%), Ryan Johansen (6 goals, 23.1 SH%), and Tanner Jeannot (5 goals, 16.1 SH%) come back down to earth. Juuse Saros has picked up where his Vezina-worthy 2020-21 season left off with an .932 5-on-5 save percentage through 15 games. He carried them to the playoffs last season, but he cannot be relied upon to handle that much responsibility for another five months of the regular season.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: New York Rangers. This feels as dangerous to say as Artemi Panarin is in open space, but the Rangers are just riding outrageous luck so far this season. They’re absolutely putrid in just about every fancy stat category. Not just on defense as many expected, but even at the deeper elements of offense. Talent-wise, they could figure things out. Their coach is still newly installed. But it feels like cheating to name a team that’s just-not-miserable, like the Sharks or Blue Jackets. The Rangers’ place is inflated, and if they don’t correct their process, they’ll flatten out in the crowded Metro.

(Side note: also, can’t risk drawing even more ire from Ducks Nation,™ can we?)

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Detroit. The Red Wings have been a pleasant surprise, but I don’t see them as a playoff team when all is said and done. They are porous defensively and their early season success has been buoyed by a strong record against the Western Conference; against the Atlantic – the teams Detroit will face the most this year – the Wings have only won 2 of 8 games, getting outscored 34-21.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Anaheim. I think the Ducks finally have some long-term hope with guys like Trevor Zegras, Jamie Drysdale, and Mason McTavish, those guys have the potential to be franchise cornerstones and something you can build around. The Ducks have lacked those long-term building blocks and it really held back their long-term outlook. But I am not sure I fully buy into them being a playoff team right now. Maybe John Gibson turns into superman John Gibson and carries them there, but I still think they are a year or two away from reaching that point.

Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/EditorAnaheim. I cannot see the Ducks continuing to play this well. While most predicted the Ducks to finish in the basement of the Pacific Division, even behind the expansion Seattle Kraken, Anaheim has raced off to a 10-5-3 start as of Sunday night, good for third place in the Pacific. While Troy Terry and Ryan Getzlaf have been outstanding offensively, I cannot see them staying even close to their production in the early going. John Gibson has been outstanding in net but he will not be able to keep up with the onslaught that will occur. Still, they have been a great story thus far.

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Which major NHL award race is the most intriguing early on?

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Vezina. For me it is the Vezina because as of right not there are so many unexpected players at the top. Frederik Andersen‘s rebound is stunning to me, and how about Sergei Bobrovsky? Feel like that performance is not getting enough attention and if he keeps playing his way into that discussion you could be talking about a potential three-time Vezina Trophy winner. Only 12 goalies have ever done that, and 11 of them are in the Hall of Fame.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Vezina. Plenty of interesting races, but the Vezina’s mix of variety and novelty is a thing to behold. Before Sunday’s action, Jacob Markstrom already has five shutouts, easily his career-high. Sergei Bobrovsky could go from albatross to Vezina finalist. Former Maple Leafs starter Frederik Andersen is a frontrunner, as is the goalie (Jack Campbell) who backed him up. It’s not odd that John Gibson is in the mix, but it’s unexpected that the Ducks are good enough not to waste his efforts. Goalies aren’t much more predictable than tornadoes, so don’t be surprised if we check back in another month and the Vezina list looks dramatically different.

[NHL Awards races: Calder Trophy / Norris Trophy]

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Vezina. Even if Andrei Vasilevskiy will eventually run away with this award, there have been some intriguing performances so far. Does Jack Campbell become the first Maple Leaf to win the Vezina in over a half century? How about Toronto’s previous No. 1, Frederik Andersen, who has taken Carolina to the top of the standings? Or another old teammate of Campbell’s, Jonathan Quick, who is having a career renaissance for LA at age 35? We also won’t overlook Igor Shesterkin or Ilya Sorokin, fellow Russians who man the nets for rival teams in New York City.

Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: Calder. All the awards should be interesting but the Calder should be the most. Right now, Detroit has the top two candidates in Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider but the play of New Jersey’s Dawson Mercer has really surprised me. Raymond was selected fourth overall in 2020 and has 19 points which is tied for ninth place as of Sunday morning in the NHL. Mercer was selected 14 picks later and was not thought to be ready for the NHL this season. He was also regarded as more of a two-way center who had second line upside, but he has surprised so many early on with his offensive output as he has six goals and 12 points in 16 games. I think Seider will win it as he has been a major reason why the Red Wings are off to such a good start.  There are not too many rookie defensemen who will lead their team in power play time on ice but that is exactly what Seider is doing as he has 13 points thus far in 20 games. I think by the end of the season it will be Seider, Raymond and Mercer with Seth Jarvis finishing fourth.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Calder. It’s not a crazy thought that three Red Wings could end up as finalists for the award. Certainly three of them could be worthy of it at the end of the season between Moritz Seider, Lucas Raymond, and Alex Nedeljkovic, who was a finalist in 2020-21. There also could be a decent crop of goalies in contention outside of the Detroit stopping. Jeremy Swayman and Spencer Knight might get games to play their way into the conversation. But the number of skaters having good starts will make it a fun race to watch. Dawson Mercer and Trevor Zegras are hot, while Cole Sillinger, Bowen Byram, Jonathan Dahlen, and Tanner Jeannot could make some noise if their production kicks up the rest of the way.

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What storyline has captured your attention the most so far?

Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/EditorThe story that has intrigued me the most has been the play of the Seattle Kraken. So many people thought that it would be a repeat or close to it of the Vegas Golden Knights in their first season in 2017, but the Kraken have struggled mightily in the first six weeks of the season and have found themselves solidly behind most of the Pacific and in dead last with a 4-12-1 mark. They should have good goaltending with Philipp Grubauer and Chris Driedger but both have found out that playing with the Kraken is not the same as playing behind  the Colorado and Florida defense respectively. I thought at the start of the season that the Kraken would finish last because of a lack of offense, but their defensive play has been worse than I could have anticipated.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Apologies for going with the obvious, but how can you top “What will Connor McDavid do next?” Every other game, he’s accomplishing things you’re simply not supposed to be able to do in the modern NHL. Couple that with Leon Draisaitl arguably making an even bigger impact, and the Oilers become so must-watch, they might create a popcorn shortage.

(Add all that with how Connor McDavid seems to make some fans mad in the same way that pre-Stanley Cup Alex Ovechkin did, and you’re gaining even more entertainment.)

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Alex Ovechkin’s pursuit of history. Ovi has Wayne Gretzky’s career goals record in his crosshairs, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down at age 36, having moved from 7th to 4th on the all-time list already in the first month. An unexpected subplot this season is that he’s piling up assists as well, and is right up there among the league’s overall leading scorers. Beating out Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl for the Art Ross (an award he hasn’t won since 2008) would be another large feather in his cap.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: While we don’t know the full 50-55-man long lists for the countries participating in the 2022 men’s Olympic tournament, watching the play of some players who are not guarantees to make their respective rosters has been fun. Andrew Mangiapane had a strong World Championship and is playing his way into contention for Canada; While long lists were due in mid-October, can Troy Terry potentially serve as an injury replacement after his red-hot start?; Andrei Vasilevskiy was one of Russia’s first three players named to the team. Who will join him? Two of Igor Shesterkin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Ilya Samsonov, or Ilya Sorokin will round out their goaltending trio in Beijing.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: I think it is probably Vancouver, just because this team is such a consistent disappointment. You look at the top of the roster, and it should be a team with a good foundation that is ready to compete right now. But they have absolutely wasted so much salary cap space on the wrong complementary players and the wrong defense that it is just this perpetual state of mediocrity and they keep letting the same people lead them through it.

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    Former B’s coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

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    BOSTON – The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games on Monday night.

    The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

    Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

    In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

    They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

    Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

    Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

    Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

    “Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

    Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

    “This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

    The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

    Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

    “This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

    Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

    Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

    Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

    “We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

    Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

    TRIBUTE

    The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

    The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

    “It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

    FOR THE RECORD

    Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

    EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

    The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

    UP NEXT

    Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers on Wednesday.

    Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday.

    Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

    Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

    There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

    While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

    Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

    Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

    “It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

    Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

    The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

    “I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

    It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

    “This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

    Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

    Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

    “The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

    Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

    “We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

    LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

    Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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    LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

    Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

    Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

    L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

    For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

    The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

    “I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

    The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

    Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    “He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

    Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

    “I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

    Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

    Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

    “First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

    Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

    The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

    “The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

    Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

    “It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”