Alex Ovechkin

Blues’ O’Reilly has ‘another gear’ after being playoff MVP

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Ryan O’Reilly stockpiled quite the hardware to show off at his Stanley Cup day.

On display next to the Cup he helped the St. Louis Blues win in June were the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. Any player would gladly celebrate with those shiny centerpieces, though O’Reilly — at 28 and on his third team — is only now showing he is this kind of elite player.

“I still think I have another gear to get to, and that’s my plan,” O’Reilly said. “There’s still many things to improve on. There are areas to be better. One thing, too, is I think power-play production for myself could’ve been a lot better, and that’s an area I need to grow. There’s some stuff I’ve been working on to try to improve that.”

O’Reilly had nine points in the Cup Final against Boston playing through a cracked rib. He was nearly a point-a-game player during the regular season. Yet, somehow he still seemed underappreciated outside his peers.

“People didn’t realize how good of a player Ryan O’Reilly was until this year,” Vancouver forward Bo Horvat said. “All the players knew how good he was and how big of a part of that team he was and how special of a player — just his two-way game, his faceoffs. Obviously his point production this year was outstanding. His play in the playoffs, winning MVP and obviously the Stanley Cup, it was a great year for him and I think he opened up a lot of eyes.”

O’Reilly said he figured something out during the playoffs: how to clear out some “garbage” in his brain to focus on what matters. The challenge now is trying to duplicate that during an 82-game regular season.

“Just go out there and completely be in the moment and go from there,” O’Reilly said. “That’s a big lesson for myself, trying to establish that more. Be clear and find a way to take all the noise and all the stuff that you don’t need in your head and just throw it out. It just seems like when I did that, I tend to get more bounces and things went my way.”

Winning the Selke was evidence enough of O’Reilly’s strong regular season. He ranked eighth in the league in faceoffs, which is part of what makes him so tough to play against.

“He’s just so competitive on draws,” Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. “I’m one of those guys I want to start every shift with the puck and if we’re going up against a guy like that that could catch fire, and we might be chasing it down for a whole period. He’s obviously not one of the fastest guys out there, but he’s so good positionally and just aware of where guys are and what to do with the puck. I think he’s just an all-around super intelligent player.”

Nathan MacKinnon

Already considered one of the fastest hockey players on earth, MacKinnon carried the Colorado Avalanche to within one victory of the Western Conference final and is the biggest reason they’re a fashionable Cup contender this season. Fellow Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, native Sidney Crosby said MacKinnon is in the category of Pittsburgh teammate Evgeni Malkin and Edmonton star Connor McDavid as players who can take over games.

“We saw a pretty good glimpse of that in the playoffs,” Crosby said. “He did it consistently. … I’d expect him to take another big step.”

Rookie Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar said it’s electrifying to watch MacKinnon on the ice. And the 24-year-old center is an example to his younger teammates and those around the league.

“He’s just a super committed guy,” Makar said. “He loves hockey, and that’s the way he plays. It shows on the ice. Just the way he handles his routine is very specific and you just learn from star players like that.”

Henrik Lundqvist

“The King” is 37, yet could be the difference between the New York Rangers missing the playoffs for a third consecutive season or contending ahead of schedule. The longtime starting goaltender isn’t fazed by young backup Alexandar Georgiev and top prospect Igor Shesterkin looming in the not-too-distant future.

“My approach will not change,” Lundqvist said. “I need to reach my top level no matter what, no matter who’s next to me or where the team is at.”

Lundqvist said the start of last season was the best he had felt in a while. He posted a 2.68 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in his first 22 starts last season, which would be great for an improved Rangers team with a better blue line and more firepower up front.

“That’s the level I just need to reach and sustain throughout the year, and then I know I can make a difference,” Lundqvist said.

Alex Ovechkin

The release of “Ovi O’s” cereal marked his 34th birthday. If anyone has shown age is just a number, it’s Ovechkin, who is now the Washington Capitals’ oldest player and still could score 50 goals. Even though Ovechkin said he’s “not a grandpa” and trained differently this summer, don’t expect him to alter his style too much.

“I’m still young, you know,” Ovechkin said. “I still want to play my game. … We’re here for 25 minutes or whatever it is — I just want to be here to win, whatever it takes.”

Ovechkin preceded O’Reilly as playoff MVP when he led the Capitals to the first title in franchise history in 2018. After a full summer off, he is refreshed to try to do it again.

“He’s obviously a different talent,” Washington winger Carl Hagelin said. “A guy like that doesn’t come around very often. He’s one of those energetic guys even though he’s 33, 34 years old. He comes to the rink with a smile every day. He does what he has to do.”

Mark Stone

There may not be a more complete winger in the NHL than Stone, who put up 12 points in the Vegas Golden Knights’ seven-game first-round series against San Jose. Stone is free of Ottawa’s long-term rebuild and starting a $76 million, eight-year contract with big expectations to help Vegas make another long playoff run.

“You get a No. 1 forward,” Golden Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault said. “He’s an unbelievable player. He does everything well on the ice. He puts up great numbers every year, and he’s a successful player.”

Vegas is one of several NHL teams without a captain. That might not last long with Stone in the fold.

“He’s not a guy that’s trying to be a leader,” Marchessault said. “He’s just a born leader, so it’s just natural for him.”

Rasmus Dahlin

The 2018 No. 1 pick had 44 points to lead all rookie defenseman. It was just the floor for where Dahlin wants to start.

“Of course I want to score more goals, have more assists and stuff like that,” Dahlin said. “Last season, I had more points than I expected, but this year, I always want more. That’s why I play.”

The Buffalo Sabres are counting on that in their first season under coach Ralph Krueger. Captain Jack Eichel has big expectations for Dahlin, who he believes “lived up to all the hype.”

“You look at how good he was last year in year one and how much more he knows now,” Eichel said. “I think he’s primed to have a monster season.”

Kuznetsov ban could open door for Caps’ top pick McMichael

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Connor McMichael in his NHL exhibition debut made a no-look pass to set up a goal that junior coach Dale Hunter knows was no accident.

”He knew that guy had an empty net backdoor,” Hunter said. ”You can’t teach that. That’s a feeling of the game.”

McMichael’s feel for the game made him the Washington Capitals’ first-round draft pick in June. Combine that with Evgeny Kunzetsov’s suspension and the door could be wide open for the youngest player in training camp to earn a spot on the opening night roster.

Kuznetsov will miss the first three games of the regular season and the Capitals will need to fill a void in the middle of the ice behind Nicklas Backstrom and Lars Eller. McMichael, just 18, is in the running.

”There’s nothing out of the question,” coach Todd Reirden said. ”He made some really good plays in the scrimmage the other day, and he’s got the ability and our scouts speak very highly of him. We just want to put the best players on the ice we can that give us a chance to win.”

McMichael was the 25th overall pick in the draft. Aside from the top picks, very few players go right from the draft to the NHL.

Getting sent back to Hunter’s London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League was always the most likely outcome for McMichael, who is from suburban Toronto. But Capitals brass told him and other centers in camp that a potential suspension of Kuznetsov could change the outlook, and McMichael wants to seize his opportunity.

”You come into camp competing for a spot all the time,” McMichael said. ”When another thing opens up, obviously you want to be better, and I’m excited for that opportunity.”

McMichael is competing with established NHL players Travis Boyd and Nic Dowd for the cameo appearance as a top-nine forward. Boyd or Dowd sliding up the lineup in Kuznetsov’s absence would be the safest play for the Capitals, though McMichael has already made his presence known in the competition.

”I liked him a lot (in Sunday’s) inter-squad game, made a couple really good plays,” Reirden said. ”For him, it’s about the maturity and whether the right decision is for him to continue to stay here or (keep) going with his junior career and continue to build on what he did last year. All those type of things go into the equation of when to let those guys go back and play or continue to keep them here and an opportunity to stay here.”

McMichael was a point-a-game player last season in juniors and should be a big piece of the Capitals’ future, especially after Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin are gone. With that in mind, this preseason is a mix of long-range planning and a short-term reward.

Hunter, who led the Capitals to the 1998 Stanley Cup Final as their captain and coached them for much of the 2011-12 season, told McMichael to give it his all at camp because no one knows what will happen.

”He’s got to get his body a little stronger, but you can see his potential,” Hunter said Tuesday. ”The top end is untapped yet. He’ll get better and better.”

Hunter thinks McMichael will shoot the puck harder as he gets stronger, which will make an already unpredictable release even more difficult to stop. McMichael seems to understand what the Capitals want to see out of him and the elements of his game beyond offense that he needs to improve.

”Obviously I’m one of the young guys here, so they want to see me develop more and just get stronger and harder on the puck,” McMichael said. ”They like my game overall, so just keep playing how I’ve been playing and I should be fine.”

McMichael is already impressing older teammates. Forward Chandler Stephenson said McMichael shares some characteristics with Backstrom, who is going into his 12th season.

”He just sees the game and sees plays before they happen,” Stephenson said of McMichael. ”It just seems like he has a really good hockey IQ for an 18-year-old. He sees the ice really well.”

McMichael knows he isn’t there yet. He was nervous about his first scrimmage and first exhibition game, and understands it’s a significant leap to pro hockey.

”Just the strength, the speed,” McMichael said. ”Everyone’s smarter, they’re quicker. You’ve just got to get used to it.”

Previewing the 2019-20 St. Louis Blues

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or worse: The Blues are bringing back mostly the same team that won the Stanley Cup just a few months ago and that is generally a pretty good sign for a team’s chances. Whether or not they are any better or worse depends on your perspective and what your expectations are. There is a very good chance they finish as a better regular season team, but end up doing worse in the playoffs for no other reason than winning the Stanley Cup two years in a row is a brutally difficult task. If they finish with, let’s say, 105 or 106 points but get eliminated in Round 2 or 3 a year after winning the Stanley Cup are Blues fans going to be disappointed with that result? Going to guess they will not be.

Strengths: Their defensive play. They are a lockdown team that is one of the best in the league at limiting shot attempts against and as long as they get competent goaltending are one of the toughest teams in the league to score against. They have two great blue liners in Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko, do not really have a true weakness anywhere on their defense, and have one of the best shutdown centers in the league in Ryan O'Reilly. Their other strength: Having one of the league’s elite goal-scorers in Vladimir Tarasenko. Since the start of the 2014-15 season only Alex Ovechkin (236) and John Tavares (183) have more goals than Tarasenko’s 182. Tarasenko has also played in fewer games than both during that stretch.

Weaknesses: It is probably more of a question mark than a “weakness,” but what will Jordan Binnington be able to do over a full season? His call-up was a turning point in the season and he fixed the team’s biggest early season flaw. But can he play at that level from the start of the year and maintain through the playoffs? That is the big unanswered question for the Blues entering the season and it will go a long way toward determining what they are capable of.

[MORE: Three questions | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Craig Berube has been behind the team’s bench for less than a year and in that time the Blues went 38-19-6 during the regular season (that is a 106 point pace over 82 games) and then won the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. His coaching hot seat rating is a 1 out of 10. It is probably even lower than that.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Robert Thomas, Jaden Schwartz, and Robby Fabbri are three players to watch.

The final numbers for Thomas’ rookie season do not really jump off the page, but keep in mind that he was 19 years old and playing meaningful minutes for a championship team. That is impressive, and even though it did not always result in goals or points you could see the potential he has and why the Blues are so excited about what he is capable of in the NHL. Does he take a big step in year two?

Schwartz had what was probably the worst regular season of his career offensively, scoring just 11 goals in 69 games, a massive drop from what he normally produces. It was almost entirely the result of a 6 percent shooting percentage that was entirely driven by a lot of bad luck. Every other aspect of his performance was right in line with what the Blues expect and it was only a matter of time until he bounced back. He did just that in the playoffs with 12 goals in 26 games, exceeding his regular season total. There is no reason to believe he will not be a 25-30 goal scorer again this season.

Fabbri is going to be fascinating just to see if he can get his career back on track. He is talented and had such a promising start four years ago only to be robbed of three years due to injuries. Can he get some better injury luck and still become the player the Blues hoped he would be?

Playoffs or lottery: As long as Binnington does not have a massive regression there is no reason this is not a playoff team again. They were built to win a year ago and the slow start in the first half was simply the result of not having any goaltending. Once they fixed that, combined with the improvement they saw under Berube, this team was a machine. They are not going away.

More
Blues turn back the clock with alternate jersey
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Sharks open camp with new captain after Pavelski’s departure

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — The San Jose Sharks wasted little time in replacing Joe Pavelski as captain, giving the role to Logan Couture even before starting camp.

Figuring out who will wear the ”C” on the jersey will be easier than making up for all Pavelski provided the Sharks both on and off the ice over his years in San Jose.

”It’s not going to be the same,” Couture said Friday after the first practice at training camp since losing Pavelski to Dallas in free agency this summer. ”It’s the (bad) part of professional sports when friends move on. That’s the way it goes, unfortunate but we’ll move on with the group we have here.”

Pavelski had a major impact on the ice with his 38 goals, while also leading in the dressing room and on the ice. Teammates like Couture and new alternate captain Tomas Hertl called it ”weird” to not have him around anymore.

Pavelski debuted with the Sharks in 2006 and was captain the past four seasons in San Jose. He helped the team make the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history in 2016 and then helped take them to the conference final last year.

That playoff run featured Pavelski being knocked out with a concussion and getting stitches in his head after a bloody fall in Game 7 of the opening round series against Vegas. The injury sparked a comeback and Pavelski’s return to the arena during Game 5 in the next round against Colorado provided an emotional boost. He scored a goal in his return to the ice in the Game 7 win over Colorado that sent the Sharks to the conference final.

”Losing Pavs is obviously going to be a big hole to fill, the way he played and how established he was in this room,” defenseman Erik Karlsson said. ”Someone else will have to do his job and I think it will be a workload shared with different players throughout the course of the year. We’ll just have to find a way to evolve and try and adapt to the players that we have in this room now.”

Couture will have help with Hertl, Karlsson, Joe Thornton and Brent Burns serving as alternates. Thornton and Karlsson both have captain experience, with Thornton holding that role previously in Boston and for four seasons in San Jose and Karlsson doing it in Ottawa.

Couture, who is entering the first year of an eight-year, $64 million extension, got the nod as a result of his years of leadership since becoming a key part of San Jose’s team in 2010.

”I don’t think it will change anything,” he said. ”It’s really just a different letter on the jersey. I’ll be the same. I’m lucky here in San Jose there are a lot of leaders.”

Couture is coming off one of his most productive season, scoring a career high 70 points in the regular season and then leading the NHL with 14 goals in the playoffs.

Couture is outspoken and honest, holding teammates and himself accountable at all times. He has been at his best in the playoffs, where his 48 goals rank second to Alex Ovechkin since he made his first postseason appearance in 2010. His 101 points rank fourth in that span.

”Logan is the prototypical lead by example,” coach Peter DeBoer said. ”He’s going to go out, he’s going to block a shot, play injured. He’ll sacrifice his own personal stats for the benefit of the team by always doing the right thing. It’s just in his DNA. I also think he has the ability to stand up and be heard with a tough message when it needs to be delivered.”

NOTES: The only player not ready for the start of camp was D Radim Simek, who had season-ending knee surgery last March. … The Sharks play their first of six exhibition games next Tuesday against Anaheim. They will play Vegas twice in the preseason before starting the season with a home-and-home in a rematch of heated playoff series the past two seasons. ”Hopefully we won’t kill each other before the season,” Hertl said.

Uncertainty with Kuznetsov threatens to hang over Capitals

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ARLINGTON, Va. — They’re no longer defending Stanley Cup champions, don’t know if one of their best players will be eligible for opening night, are over the salary cap ceiling and face expiring contracts for two franchise cornerstones after the season.

That parade feels like a long time ago.

No bigger question confronts the Washington Capitals at the start of training camp than the uncertain status of center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who tested positive for cocaine at the world championships. Kuznetsov has already been suspended from international play for four years and could face further discipline from the NHL.

”Teammates, from what I’ve gathered, have been supportive,” general manager Brian MacLellan said Thursday. ”Also, I think they’d like to hear from him at some point and he’ll address the team and just talk about his situation. I think that would be an important step for the whole team to move forward.”

Kuznetsov voluntarily entered the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program and met with Commissioner Gary Bettman on Monday. The team did not make Kuznetsov available to reporters like other players on media day because the NHL has not decided whether to levy further punishment.

League officials are occupied with collective bargaining negotiations but should make a determination on Kuznetsov well before the regular season opens. Washington visits defending champion St. Louis in the season opener Oct. 2.

”He realizes he makes mistake,” captain and fellow Russian Alex Ovechkin said. ”Sometimes the best thing is just support him and be at his side.”

Kuznetsov has plenty of support from teammates but is far from the only unknown for the Capitals this season. They may need to make a move before camp ends to get under the $81.5 million salary cap and still need to work on getting extensions done with center Nicklas Backstrom and goaltender Braden Holtby.

MacLellan talked to Holtby’s agent a few days ago and plans to meet with Backstrom’s camp soon. Each player can be an unrestricted free agent next summer.

”We’re going to communicate with both players,” MacLellan said. ”Both guys have been a big part of our organization, big part of our success. We’d love to keep both. We’re going to play it out until the end here.”

Holtby said he watched fellow goalie Sergei Bobrovsky‘s situation with Columbus last season in the final year of his contract and wants to make sure everyone is on the same page. Bobrovsky signed a $70 million, seven-year deal with Florida that would seem to set the market for Holtby, who might be hard-pressed to fit under Washington’s cap.

”There’s always that area where you can work with, but at the same time you have a responsibility to the other players in the league, too,” Holtby said. ”When it comes down to something like that, you can figure out what’s best for all sides and go through that kind of thing.”

Holtby backstopped the Capitals to their first title in franchise history, but the presence of top goaltending prospect Ilya Samsonov and 2014 second-round pick Vitek Vanecek may make it easier for the team to move on. Samsonov and Vanecek will have the opportunity in camp to compete with Pheonix Copley for the backup job.

Backstrom has no such potential replacement coming. The 31-year-old Swede has been Ovechkin’s running mate for more than a decade and figures to play out the rest of his career in Washington – assuming a deal can be reached.

”We’ve been together since Day 1, and the chemistry that we have on the ice is tremendous,” Ovechkin said. ”I hope he’s going to stay.”

On the ice, the Capitals hope to have defenseman Michal Kempny back for the start of the season after surgery in April to repair a torn left hamstring. Winger T.J. Oshie‘s right shoulder is 100 percent after breaking his collarbone in the playoffs.