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Which NHL player is having best contract year?

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NHL teams are getting more sophisticated when it comes to avoiding truly boneheaded free agent moves (sorry, would-be next Bobby Holik), but the truth is that contract years can still swing a player’s contract by millions.

Just ask John Carlson — no, wait, he’s currently swimming in money.

(Note: he’s probably not literally swimming in money.)

We’re only in November, so a lot can change. Injuries happen in the violent, sometimes-randomly unlucky sports of hockey. Hot streaks can go ice-cold. Coaches can lose trust in a player, killing power-play opportunities and sabotaging line combinations.

At the moment, though, these are the players who are off to red-hot starts that could really fatten their future paychecks (and drive up their trade value, too). Cap Friendly’s free agent list was very helpful in putting this together, while stats cited come from Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick.

(Also, this list focuses on pending UFAs, in case you were getting ready to holler at your screen about Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and other could-be RFAs.)

Mark Stone, Senators, 26, $7.35 million

Last night’s rousing five-point performance pushes Stone to six goals and 12 assists for 18 points in 15 games. Yes, you can note that his shooting percentage is a bit high (17.6), but his career average of 15.6 percent argues that he’s long been a talented – if selective – shooter.

There are other reasons why Stone should rank as high-end trade bait, yet will also be tough for Ottawa to let go. He’s still young at 26, and won’t turn 27 until May. Also, if wingers received more Selke attention, Stone would likely be in that conversation. Despite being deployed more defensively (starting 56-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, versus a career average of 47-percent), Stone’s possession stats are off the charts, especially compared to his often-overwhelmed teammates in Ottawa.

If you’re a contender who could land him in a trade, Stone might be worth quite the ransom if he’d also talk extension.

Matt Duchene, Senators, 27, $6M

Despite his Wile E. Coyote-level luck when it comes to finding himself in miserable situations, Duchene is not one of Stone’s overwhelmed Senators teammates. Granted, his possession stats haven’t been resilient like those of Stone’s, but the speedy center still has 15 points in as many games this season.

Old-school executives will also love his abilities in the circle, as he continues to be strong on faceoffs (winning 53.2-percent so far in 2018-19).

One request is for Duchene to shoot more often, as he’s been below 2 SOG per game (1.87), which is not in line with his career average of 2.46 SOG per night.

Artemi Panarin, Blue Jackets, 26, $6M

“The Bread Man” is on the other end of the spectrum, flexing his skills with a resounding 51 SOG in 15 games (3.40 per night, towering over his 2.62 career average).

It would be the latest example that Panarin is for real, except I believe people no longer need convincing that he’s a star. His 16 points in 15 games feels more like “business as usual.”

Of course, the actual business side is where things are most fascinating, as the Blue Jackets need to figure out what to do with Panarin (and struggling contract year goalie Sergei Bobrovsky). Whether he remains in Columbus or is traded somewhere else, motivation shouldn’t be an issue.

Jeff Skinner, Sabres, 26, $5.725M

with Jason Pominville, Sabres, 35, $5.6M

For one of Jack Eichel‘s linemates, it’s about Skinner lining up that first UFA mega-deal, whether it’s with Buffalo (possibly as extension?) or not. On the other end of the spectrum – and on the other wing – we have Pominville, who’s merely hoping to keep his career alive and vibrant.

Both are off to raucous starts, and both are at risk of slowdowns.

Skinner’s generated a fantastic 16 points in 15 games, with nine of those points being goals on a shooting percentage of 18. Then again, maybe the universe is merely repaying Skinner for his unlucky shooting season in 2017-18, when he only connected on an 8.7 success rate? He’s really been all over the place during his career, suffering four seasons with a shooting percentage below the general shooter’s Mason-Dixon line of 10-percent.

Skinner’s long been a very effective player who sort of leaves you hoping for even more, so maybe he’ll put it together at the most lucrative time?

Pominville felt like a nostalgia-friendly addition (and an expensive deal to make the money work) in the trade that netted Marco Scandella, yet the veteran winger has 14 points in 15 games. His eight goals come from some luck, as he’s connected on a whopping 19.5-percent of his shots. He’s also done so with a miniscule ice time average of a mere 13:43 per game, actually down from his recent years of decline.

Both are likely to slip from point-per-game play over the long haul of 82 games, but that’s fine. In Skinner’s case, he could easily exceed his career-high of 63 points. Meanwhile, Pominville could very well show that he still has a place in the NHL, possibly as the full-time “third-best guy on a good line.”

(Another Pominville-like, veteran impact who falls a little short of the top of this list is Jason Spezza, who’s managed a helpful 10 points in 15 games despite limited minutes.)

Anders Lee, Islanders, 27, $3.75M

Hey, maybe Lee is good, not just John Tavares-enhanced?

Either way, it’s been an impressive start to 2018-19 for Lee, who presents an interesting conundrum for the shockingly fast-starting Islanders: do you take advantage of him being the “hot hand” or do you pencil him in as a core player?

Lee has 13 points in 14 games, and his 12.5 shooting percentage is actually below his career average of 14.5 (OK, that might be the Tavares effect).

Interestingly, Lee is succeeding despite being deployed in a resoundingly different way. He’s begun 59.2-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, versus a career average of 45.1. Lee’s possession numbers aren’t the prettiest in every regard, yet they look rosier relative to his teammates.

Lee’s numbers might suffer if things really bottom out for the Islanders as this season goes along; while he’s not really riding inane puck luck, the Isles in many ways have been.

Still, it’s heartening to observe his start, whether you’re an Islanders exec pondering an extension or a team hoping to poach Lee.

Lightning round

  • Spezza: It sure seems like has a new lease on life unshackled from Hitch’s clutches.
  • Erik Karlsson and Jake Gardiner: These two defensemen are in interesting situations. Each are scoring at about a point-every-other-game pace, even though Karlsson hasn’t scored a goal and Gardiner has been limited to one. All three have the potential to go on red-hot streaks to up their value; all three will get paid nicely one way or another.
  • Jakob Silfverberg: Even at 27, it’s tough to tell if we’ve seen everything Silfverberg has to offer. Injuries diluted his totals, but his nine points are more impressive when limited to 11 games. He can’t expect to maintain a 21 shooting percentage, though.
  • Wayne Simmonds: So far, the intriguing winger has 10 points in 15 games. His value is tough to gauge, so his earning power may very well hinge on how 2018-19 shakes out.
  • Semyon Varlamov, Ryan Miller, Robin Lehner: Goalies who are having the strongest contract years so far, with Varlamov and Lehner playing bigger roles.
  • Keith Kinkaid, Jimmy Howard: Two goalies in very different situations, with very similar save percentages. A lot on the line for all of the goalies in UFA situations.
  • Bob, Mike Smith: Among the goalies penciled in as starters who are off to tough contract years. We’ll see if they can get back on track.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Chara’s month-long absence adds to Bruins’ blue line woes

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In a week where NHL injury news was seemingly non-stop, the Boston Bruins suffered another blow with the news that Zdeno Chara would be out indefinitely following a leg injury suffered Wednesday against the Colorado Avalanche. According to The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa, the captain is expected to miss the next 4-6 weeks.

The continued hits to the Bruins’ blue line saw them dress two players, Connor Clifton and Jakub Zboril, making their NHL debuts Friday during a 1-0 overtime loss to the Dallas Stars. Add in rookie Jeremy Lauzon and you had three defenseman on the ice with not even a combined 10 games of NHL experience. Along with Chara, Charlie McAvoy, Urho Vaakanainen, Brandon Carlo, Kevan Miller and John Moore were also absent.

This is something that head coach Bruce Cassidy has never experienced.

“No. Not this many at the same time,” Cassidy on Friday. “Clearly when you lose guys through the course of the year, five or six, but not at the same time. It will be a challenge, no doubt.”

Lauzon (24:52 TOI) and Matt Grzelcyk (25:27) made up the top pairing with Chara and McAvoy sidelined.

(Let’s also not gloss over that while Patrice Bergeron got banged up against the Stars and returned, there’s still plenty of concern about his status.)

The good news is that the blue line injury list could see fewer faces on it real soon. Cassidy said that Miller could be back Wednesday against the Detroit Red Wings. Any of Carlo, McAvoy or Vaakanainen may also be able to return to the lineup that night. The Bruins have three full days off after Saturday’s meeting with the Arizona Coyotes; plenty of time to recoup and possibly piece back together their defense corps.

In the meantime, the Bruins will rely on some of their kids to help them get through this stretch. It’ll be quite a period of evaluation.

“It’s the National Hockey League, you can either play in it or you can’t. We’ll find out with some of these guys,” said Cassidy. “Sometimes this is the best way to find out, that’s the positive in it. The negative is we’ve got a lot of good players out of the lineup back there. “If they want to play here it’s a great opportunity to show what they can do right now. That’s the way I look at it. This is kind of their dream to get here. Well, here you are, have at it.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

The Buzzer: Petersen gets first win for Kings; Skinner scores again for Sabres

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Three Stars

1. Cal Petersen, Los Angeles Kings. With injuries to Jonathan Quick and Jack Campbell, the Kings have had to resort to their third-and fourth-string goalies Cal Petersen and Peter Budaj. On Friday night in Chicago it was Petersen getting the start and he was absolutely fantastic in a 2-1 shootout win over the Blackhawks stopping 34 shots through regulation and overtime to pick up his first NHL win. This is only the sixth win of the season for a Kings team that has struggled from the start. It also snapped what had been a three-game losing streak. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, have now lost nine of their past 10 and have managed just four goals in their past four games.

2. Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres. Things are starting to look good for the Buffalo Sabres who have now won four in a row and five of their past six thanks to a 2-1 shootout win over the Winnipeg Jets on Friday night. At the center of this recent surge has been Jeff Skinner, their biggest offseason acquisition. His goal early in the third period on Friday was the game-tying goal and his 14th of the season, which keeps him in second place in the league’s goal-scoring race. He has been especially hot lately with five goals in his past four games and 13 goals in his past 12 games. He has been everything the team hoped he would be when they acquired him from the Carolina Hurricanes over the summer.

3. Ryan O'Reilly, St. Louis Blues. After his 10-game point streak came to an end on Wednesday night against the Chicago Blackhawks, Ryan O’Reilly was able to get back on the scoresheet with a pair of goals on Friday in a 4-1 win over the Vegas Golden Knights. O’Reilly has been the Blues’ best player by a substantial margin this season and is already up to 10 goals and 23 total points this season in only 17 games.

Highlights of the Night

The Washington Capitals were 3-2 overtime winners in Colorado on Friday night and it was Devante Smith-Pelly getting them on the board by finishing this beautiful tic-tac-toe passing play.

Morgan Rielly continued his incredible season on Friday night with the game-winning overtime goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs. With the win Toronto takes over the top spot in the NHL standings while Rielly continues to pace all defenders with 25 points in 20 games. Ottawa Senators rookie Thomas Chabot and San Jose Sharks defender Brent Burns are the only other players at the position with more than 20 points so far this season.

Factoids

This is a tremendous stat from the Washington Capitals-Colorado Avalanche game, where both Avalanche goalies are former long-time Capitals netminders, and the Capitals two goalies on Friday have barely played for the team.

The Dallas Stars win over the Boston Bruins did not have a lot of offense, but it certainly had a lot of excitement thanks in large part to Brad Marchand. Still, it was the Stars getting the 1-0 overtime win. That is something that had never happened in Stars franchise history.

 

Scores

Dallas Stars 1, Boston Bruins 0 (OT)

Buffalo Sabres 2, Winnipeg Jets 1 (SO)

Los Angeles Kings 2, Chicago Blackhawks 1 (SO)

Washington Capitals 3, Colorado Avalanche 2 (OT)

St. Louis Blues 4, Vegas Golden Knights 1

Toronto Maple Leafs 2, Anaheim Ducks 1 (OT)

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Brad Marchand pulls a Roger Neilson, waves ‘white flag’

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It was another eventful for night for Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand.

After a series of penalties in the second period of his team’s 1-0 overtime loss in Dallas, he decided to pull a Roger Neilson and wave the white flag by sticking a towel on the blade of his hockey stick and … well … waving it from the penalty box. This was presumably a form of surrendering to the referees.

Or simply Brad Marchand doing Brad Marchand things.

His adventure started in the second period when he was given a double-minor for roughing Radek Faksa after Marchand came to the defense of his linemate, Patrice Bergeron, who was sent flying into the boards at the hands of Faksa. Bergeron briefly exited the game before returning.

Here is the entire sequence.

After serving his four minutes for that altercation, Marchand returned to the ice and was almost immediately sent back to the box for slashing stars goalie Ben Bishop.

Nobody from Boston liked the call at all, with Marchand at being at the top of the list.

That was when he waved the white flag and was sent off for 10 additional minutes.

That might look familiar to you because you might recall former long-time NHL coach Roger Neilson doing something similar during the 1982 playoffs when he was coach of the Vancouver Canucks.

Marchand has been in rare form this season, even for him. Earlier this month he was given a 10-minute misconduct for mocking Nashville Predators forward Colton Sissons for embellishing a high-sticking call, which came after he bloodied Washington Capitals forward Lars Eller in the season-opener after Eller taunted the Bruins’ bench.

In the playoffs the NHL had to instruct Marchand to stop licking opposing players.

No matter what you think of Marchand as a player you at least have to admit this: It is never boring with him around.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Josh Archibald suspended two games for hit on Ryan Hartman

via NHL DoPS
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After holding a hearing with Josh Archibald earlier on Friday, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety suspended the Arizona Coyotes forward two games for his “high, hard hit” on Ryan Hartman of the Nashville Predators.

The league’s explanation video explains that Hartman’s head was “the main point of contact” and that contact with the head was avoidable.

During the game itself (a 2-1 win for the Coyotes on Thursday), Archibald received a minor penalty. He doesn’t have a history of supplemental discipline at the NHL level, which may have prompted a lighter punishment. Hartman eventually returned to that loss for Nashville.

Here’s the explanation video via the NHL’s DPoS:

Archibald will be eligible to play for the Coyotes again on Nov. 23.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.