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Stars approach trade deadline with fascinating future

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As the smoke cleared for the Dallas Stars (after streaming from CEO Jim Lites’ ears), the team has been riding great goaltending and Tyler Seguin’s brilliant work to maintain the playoff spot they were struggling to keep before that on-the-record meltdown.

While strange things could always happen, the most likely question won’t be if the Stars can clinch a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but rather if they wrestle the Central’s third seed back from the Blues, or settle for a wild-card spot.

This brings up inevitable questions, then: should the Stars be buyers at the trade deadline, and if so, to what extent?

Stars GM Jim Nill told NHL.com’s Mike Zeisberger that he’s interesting in adding offense, yet Nill also admits that other teams are going after the same thing, and that the market is pretty unpredictable right now.

“We’re very open to anything,” Nill said. “I think there are a lot of teams, because of how tight things are in the standings, they’re waiting to see where it all goes. So over the next two weeks that’s something we’re going to watch. We’re very open to making a hockey trade if it’s going to make us better. If we stay in the hunt the way we are, we’re open to adding to our team.”

The Stars are in an interesting situation as it comes to the 2018-19 season, but the future could be even brighter if they make the right moves. Let’s analyze the situation.

Keeping the goals down

One thing that jumps off the page is just how great the Stars’ goaltending has been. Between Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin (plus two effective Landon Bow games), Dallas’s team save percentage is at an outstanding .923, compared to a league average of .908.

Is that the sort of thing that’s sustainable, though? There are a few arguments in favor of that continuing, and some points against it, too.

While the Stars tend to lose certain possession battles according to measures such as Corsi/Fenwick, they’ve been the seventh-best team at preventing high-danger chances against at even-strength, according to Natural Stat Trick.

The track records of Bishop and Khudobin are a mix, too. On one hand, Bishop’s had some great seasons, even if you ding him a bit for playing behind strong Lightning teams; meanwhile, Khudobin’s had quite a few strong years where he arguably should have been a starter or at least a 1B goalie on certain teams. The negative side is that injury concerns hover over Bishop, who’s a big goalie and is currently dealing with an ailment. Both goalies are 32. That’s not ancient, but as the league gets faster and more skillful, that number is more concerning.

The Stars have enjoyed goaltending success with Norris-level defenseman John Klingberg out for a chunk of the season, and with Miro Heiskanen needing to gradually earn more and more trust from his coach. It stands to reason that those young defensemen might provide even greater value as time goes on.

Goalies are unpredictable, and it’s tough for any group to play at the Stars’ level. There’s a decent chance they’ll be above league-average down the stretch, though — just maybe not to such an extreme.

A lane is opening up

There was a time when both Jamie Benn ($5.25M from 2012-13 to 2016-17) and Tyler Seguin ($5.75M from 2013-14 through this season) were dirt-cheap for the Stars, yet Dallas frustratingly failed to capitalize on such opportunities.

You’d think that the Stars would be doomed starting in 2019-20 with Benn currently on a long-term deal at $9.5M and Seguin about to begin an extension that carries a $9.85M cap hit, but this team could be in a shockingly strong position if they play their cards right. And get a little luck.

Between Jason Spezza ($7.5M), Marc Methot ($4.9M), and Antti Niemi‘s buyout ($1.5M), the Stars have a ton of bad money set to expire after 2018-19, and stinkers like Martin Hanzal‘s $4.75M evaporate after 2019-20.

When you consider the Stars’ -1 goal differential and other telling stats, it’s probably not the wisest idea to go all-in this trade deadline. Instead, Dallas could be in a very interesting situation if they decide to let the chips fall, although they could be excused if they went after a cheaper rental.

We’ve seen Matt Duchene with an acoustic guitar, so maybe he’d get on cowboy boots and settle in Dallas? Does Artemi Panarin consider Dallas the sort of city he craves? What’s Mark Stone‘s opinion about BBQ?

Maybe the Stars could be proactive and creative in doing a sign-and-trade to land a Panarin or Stone now, using Spezza’s big contract or something else to make the money work now. But the point is that the Stars shouldn’t settle for short-term gains when they could swing for the fences mere months later.

Yes, there are some worries. The aging curve seems to be hitting Jamie Benn hard already at 29. Bishop’s deal might not age well, since it runs through 2022-23. Despite some concerns, there are scenarios where things work really well for Dallas.

***

With Seguin settled, Klingberg on a bargain $4.25M deal through 2021-22, and Heiskanen’s entry-level contract running through 2020-21, Dallas has space opening up soon, without having too many big-ticket players to retain for some time.

Nill might feel like he’s on the hot seat, but for the sake of this franchise, hopefully the Stars don’t mess things up with panic trades, because some Texas-sized opportunities could open up very soon.

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.

NHL goalies do best to prepare for unexpected, unpredictable

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — NHL goaltenders prepare for the unexpected and unpredictable, ready for pucks deflecting off sticks, bodies, feet or even a divot in the ice past all the gear designed to help defend their net.

The freaky, fluky or simply weird goals can be laughed off by goalies who know sometimes the puck just takes a funny bounce.

The goals that eat away at a goalie are those he believes he could’ve – and should’ve – stopped. Not the goal allowed by Dallas goalie Anton Khudobin where the puck bounced off a Nashville forward’s back and over the net before hitting the back of the goalie’s helmet, then off his back and into the net.

”It stings anytime you give up a goal,” Predators goalie Pekka Rinne said Tuesday. ”That kind of goal, there’s nothing really he could’ve done. It’s a freaky goal, and I feel like those things maybe happen once, twice in a season. But yeah, the ones that hurt the most as a goalie, it’s the ones that you feel like you should’ve had it.”

Stick-handling in the NHL has improved right along with players’ speed and skating thanks to offseason workouts. That also has boosted the creativity for shooters looking to do a bit more than a simple slap shot, wrister or snap shot.

”There’s a lot of talent in the league, more maybe so now than there has been in years past,” Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog said. ”These young guys coming up, everybody has their own skills coaches and things like that. There’s a lot of skills. I don’t doubt there’s more highlight-reel goals.”

Goaltenders have to be ready for the next move dreamed up by the league’s stars to put the puck over the line. Scoring is up with the average number of goals scored per game increasing in each of the past four seasons, and the current average of 3.06 goals per game is on pace to be the highest since the 2005-06 season, according to Hockey-Reference.com

”Maybe it’s the skill of the players too, finding that one spot,” Colorado goalie Philipp Grubauer said. ”(Evgeny) Kuznetsov in Washington, he’s so sneaky in terms of what he wants to do and doesn’t want to do. He puts the puck in spots. Maybe you get a weird bounce, hit a guy’s shin pad or something like that.”

The NHL also keeps downsizing goaltenders’ pads, most recently chest protectors . Grubauer sees teams also changing how they break out on offense, attacking faster and giving goalies less time.

”Back in the days, you always used to go back and regroup and break out as a unit,” Grubauer said. ”I feel like the last couple of years, it’s always like, (snaps fingers) and up (snaps fingers) and up.”

Sometimes goalies get lucky, too.

Buffalo goalie Carter Hutton appeared to be losing his balance Sunday in the first period against Winnipeg with Adam Lowry coming in on a short-handed breakaway. Hutton put his glove down at the exact moment Lowry tried to slip the puck between the goalie’s legs for the save.

”You definitely get some fluky saves where you’re beat and a guy just hits you,” Hutton said.

The Sabres goalie also recalls being on his goal line when the puck came up, rolled over the top of the net, hit his neck and went in. He had another puck slip past him on a penalty shot in December against Florida.

”You make the initial save, and it lands on my pads sideways and just slowly rolls off,” Hutton said. ”That’s one where if it’s during a game, a D-man’s probably there to stop it or that puck lands flat on my pad and doesn’t go in. It’s unfortunate that it lands sideways and rolls off my pad. So that’s one that I would say this year that’s been fluky.”

There’s one goal so weird it’s called the Butt Goal.

Defenseman Mark Pysyk, now with Florida, got his first goal of the 2013 season right before Christmas in overtime after jamming at the puck, sending it into the air and into the pants of Coyotes goalie Mike Smith who then backed into his own net.

”I didn’t think they would call it a goal, because I didn’t think they’d see it, but they did,” Pysyk said. ”It was in his pants and he backed in. I think you could see me point at it. They counted it a little bit after, obviously, so I didn’t have a chance to celebrate normally. It was pretty funny.”

SURPRISING ISLANDERS

The New York Islanders are atop the Metropolitan Division in coach Barry Trotz’s first season despite losing John Tavares last offseason to Toronto. They just snapped a three-game streak Tuesday night with a 3-1 loss in Buffalo but are 6-2-2 in their last 10 games and remain second overall in the Eastern Conference.

To Buffalo coach Phil Housley, credit Trotz using the same philosophy and structure from coaching in Nashville and winning the Stanley Cup with Washington last summer.

”I really had a pleasure to work with him for one year and learned a lot from him,” Housley said. ”You can see he’s had success wherever he’s went.”

RIVALRY SERIES

The best of women’s hockey are back at it this week with the United States and Canada playing each other in a rare three-game ”Rivalry Series” that ends Sunday in Detroit at the home of the Red Wings. The U.S. beat Canada nearly a year ago for Olympic gold and then won a fourth straight Four Nations Cup title last November. Kendall Coyne Schofield will be the U.S. captain for the series, which will be aired on NHL Network.

”That’s something we’ve been fighting for, is more chances for us to play against Canada,” U.S. forward Dani Cameranesi said. ”It’s not that often that we get to play at the highest level. We don’t really have that many chances for that, but for them all to be … on NHL Network too and for us to get coverage on that is a really big deal.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Washington Capitals visit the San Jose Sharks on Thursday night in a matchup of two of the NHL’s top 10 teams.

LEADERS (after Monday games)

Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 38; Assists: Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 60; Points: Kucherov, 84; Ice time: Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), 26:45; Wins: Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas), 29; Goals-against average: Robin Lehner (N.Y. Islanders), 2.05; Save percentage: Robin Lehner, (N.Y. Islanders), .930.

The Buzzer: Boudreau fumes; Are Blackhawks for real?

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Three Stars

1. Jonathan Drouin / Phillip Danault

These two Montreal Canadiens forwards were Thursday’s two four-point producers. Drouin scored two goals and two assists, while Danault generated a goal and three helpers.

If you had to pick one for the top spot, it would probably be Drouin, as it really stands out how emphatic and confident he was. The once-maligned forward fired a whopping nine shot on goal, helping Montreal overwhelm Winnipeg.

(The Jets were not happy.)

There were a ton of very strong three-point performances on Thursday, but for the next two spots, goalies win out.

2. Anders Nilsson

Yes, the Ducks are terrible right now. On many nights, Anaheim’s been out-shot, even when the Ducks have fallen behind by quite a bit early on. Teams likely eased off the gas a bit, and the Ducks still didn’t put much pressure on opponents.

Thursday was a little different.

Nilsson needed to make 45 saves in this one, including a 1-0 first period where the Ducks generated a 17-8 SOG advantage. That’s quite the shutout, even against a team that’s basically in crisis mode.

3. Jordan Binnington

Hey, when you beat Andrei Vasilevskiy in a goalie duel, you’re doing something right.

OK, Vasilevskiy had this save and made 38 overall, but Binnington generated a 32-save shutout. The Blues needed every one of those in a 1-0 OT win, and Binnington delivered.

It’s also something of a “week-time” achievement award. Binnington’s been a huge part of the Blues’ bold surge back into the West postseason picture, and this win really highlighted that. Binnington’s only allowed four goals during a four-game winning streak, and his save percentage is now at .931 over 12 games.

Feel free to make other arguments in the comments, as Thursday was just brimming with great performances.

One not-so-great performance, though:

Boudreau’s had it

The Wild lost Mikko Koivu for the season, have lost four in a row, and should probably be sellers at the trade deadline.

Things are tense, and Bruce Boudreau has already been trying to squeeze every point out of a so-so roster. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that he’s losing his cool, but he really let players like Mikael Granlund have it after Minnesota fell 4-1 to the also-struggling Edmonton Oilers.

” … There’s some players there that are just a shell of the players I’ve known for the last two-and-a-half years,” Boudreau said during a grim presser.

Did Boudreau also make a sly “Seinfeld” reference?

If things really get bad, maybe Boudreau quits one day, then tries to walk into the locker room as if nothing happened?

Highlights of the Night

Anton Khudobin gave Vasilevskiy serious competition for save of the night.

Connor Hellebuyck made a beautiful stop, too. He was a Winnipeg Jet who showed up.

Mathew Barzal with a beauty.

Scary moments

With so many games on Thursday, there were some injuries and other developments that might become clearer on Friday or the weekend.

But we already know of some scary moments. Evgeny Kuznetsov seems to have avoided injury after a highly questionable Ian Cole hit, but Cole was punched many, many times for doing so, thanks to Tom Wilson. The Ducks also must cross their fingers after John Gibson was accidentally walloped by a teammate.

Finally, there’s this scare for Oilers defenseman Kris Russell.

Factoids

Speaking of records, the Blackhawks are suddenly looking more viable thanks to a six-game winning streak. The standings don’t look that promising yet, but Chicago’s chances have at least risen above laughable all of a sudden.

Considering how dire things looked at times this season, being two points back of the second wild-card team (St. Louis) is impressive. The caveats are crucial and obvious: there are teams ahead, and most have games in hand advantages. But ask those Blues and they’ll tell you that things can turn around quickly, at least considering how lousy the West bubble teams have often been.

Scores

CAR 6 – BUF 5 (OT)
FLA 3 – PIT 2 (OT)
NYI 2 – NJD 1 (SO)
LAK 3 – PHI 2 (SO)
WSH 4 – COL 3 (OT)
MTL 5 – WPG 2
OTT 4 – ANA 0
VGK 4 – DET 3
STL 1 – TBL 0 (OT)
NSH 3 – DAL 2 (OT)
EDM 4 – MIN 1
CHI 4 – VAN 3 (OT)
SJS 5 – CGY 2
CBJ 4 – ARI 2

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.

The Buzzer: Kucherov takes over scoring lead; Khudobin stops 49 shots

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Three Stars

1. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning. With his second consecutive four-point game in the Tampa Bay Lightning’s wild 6-5 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday night, Nikita Kucherov officially took over the lead in the NHL’s scoring race with 61 points so far on the season. He not only has at least four points in his past two games, but he is also on a run of four consecutive multi-point games. Over his past 20 games he has at least a point in 19 of them, at least two points in 13 of them, and at least three points in seven of them. He is on a roll.

2. Anton Khudobin, Dallas Stars. Anton Khudobin played one of the best games of his NHL career on Thursday night when he stopped all 49 shots he faced in a 2-0 win over the Nashville Predators.

3. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames. The Calgary Flames snapped a three-game losing streak on Thursday night with a big win over the top team in the Western Conference, the Winnipeg Jets. Leading the way, as he always does, was Johnny Gaudreau with a three-goal night. He continues to be on pace for career highs across the board offensively.

Other notable performances on Thursday

Phil Kessel scored two goals for the Pittsburgh Penguins in their 5-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings.

Paul Stastny had two points for the Golden Knights, including an assist on Brandon Pirri‘s game-winning goal, in their 2-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche.

Ryan O'Reilly scored against his former team, the Buffalo Sabres, in the St. Louis Blues’ 4-1 win.

Highlights of the Night

It came in a losing effort but Philadelphia Flyers forward Claude Giroux scored one of the best goals of the year against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

John Gibson has been the best goalie in hockey this season, and this is one of the best saves you will see.

The Columbus Blue Jackets extended their winning streak to five games thanks to Pierre-Luc Dubois‘ overtime goal against the New York Rangers.

Factoids

Elias Petterson just keeps on rolling for the Vancouver Canucks.

Patrick Kane‘s hat trick for the Chicago Blackhawks took him to the 20-goal mark for the season.

Brent Burns played in his 1,000th NHL game on Thursday night.

 

Scores

New Jersey Devils 5, Boston Bruins 2

Columbus Blue Jackets 4, New York Rangers 3 (OT)

Pittsburgh Penguins 5, Detroit Red Wings 2

Washington Capitals 3, Carolina Hurricanes 1

Tampa Bay Lightning 6, Philadelphia Flyers 5 (OT)

St. Louis Blues 4, Buffalo Sabres 1

Dallas Stars 2, Nashville Predators 0

Calgary Flames 4, Winnipeg Jets 1

Chicago Blackhawks 5, Minnesota Wild 2

Vancouver Canucks 4, Edmonton Oilers 2

Vegas Golden Knights 2, Colorado Avalanche 1

Los Angeles Kings 2, Arizona Coyotes 1

San Jose Sharks 4, Anaheim Ducks 2

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.

The Buzzer: Hart wins in debut; Bishop leaves, returns in shutout

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Three stars

1. Ben Bishop (and Anton Khudobin), Dallas Stars

Bishop and his backup edge Hart here due to the fact that Bishop got run over by Calgary Flames forward Garnet Hathaway, forcing him to leave the game in the second period with the Stars up 1-0.

Khudobin held down the fort while Bishop was getting checked out to close out the second period.

Bishop would only miss about six-and-a-half minutes as he led Dallas back onto the ice in the third and resumed where he left off. The duo combined for 24 saves for the shutout as Dallas won 2-0, making some history in the process.

2. Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers

Hart made history as he stepped onto the ice in his NHL debut, becoming the Flyers’ sixth goalie to appear in their first 35 games. That’s not a great record to hold, but he’ll be in the annals of hockey history for a while, I’d imagine.

History or not, Hart was solid in his inauguration. He turned aside 20 shots as he and newly-minted head coach Scott Gordon picked up their first wins at their respective positions.

Hart is facing a lot of pressure here. He’s dubbed as the future in Philly and for good reason. Some call the City of Brotherly Love a graveyard for goaltenders. Perhaps Hart can buck the trend. Who knows.

For now, he’s certainly earned another start.

3. Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks

An all-goalie lockout in the three stars tonight finishes with Jones.

The Sharks netminders earned his first shutout of the season, making 26 saves for career goose egg No. 20. Jones’ save percentage this season has left a bit more to be desired, so Tuesday’s effort was a good refresher for fans on what he’s capable of.

San Jose has now won five in a row as they continue their ascent to the top of the Pacific Division.

Other notable performances: 

Highlights of the night

As advertised, this is a nice goal:

Luuuuu:

Given how the Flyers crease situation has played out this season, Gritty may want to keep these goalies healthy:

Factoid

Scores

Panthers 5, Sabres 2

Maple Leafs 7, Devils 2

Rangers 3, Ducks 1

Flyers 3, Red Wings 2

Sharks 4, Wild 0

Blackhawks 2, Predators 1

Stars 2, Flames 0

Blues 4, Oilers 1

Islanders 3, Coyotes 1

Lightning 5, Canucks 2

Kings 4, Jets 1


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck