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Changing face (and pace) of NHL underdogs

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Sports fans love underdogs, yet for far too long in the NHL, defying the odds meant slowing hockey down to an agonizingly boring level.

As surreal as it was to see the 2010 Canadiens shock the Capitals and Penguins thanks to an out-of-body experience by Jaroslav Halak, you wonder if upsets like those sent the wrong message: just turtle and hope your goalie can save the day. Such tactics made fans of the sport as a whole shudder back to the Devils trapping the Red Wings into oblivion during the 1995 Stanley Cup Final, and probably long before that. Maybe a team could steal wins with such tactics, but viewers became the biggest losers.

We’re still very much in the “don’t get fooled by early results” portion of the 2018-19 season, yet I can’t help but wonder: are NHL underdogs becoming … fun?

Pushing the pace instead of lagging behind

Amusingly enough, the current rendition of the Montreal Canadiens could be the latest example of a team realizing that they’re not particularly imposing on paper, shrugging their shoulders, and throwing caution to the wind.

The Habs are off to a 3-1-1 start, and while gravity will almost certainly pull them down a bit, they haven’t been riding good luck alone.

So far, they’re firing a hail of pucks on opponents, averaging 36 shots on goal per contest while giving up just 26.6 against. Even the NHL’s elite teams don’t tend to generate such a massive differential of scoring chances over the long haul of an 82-game season, but the point is clear: through five games, this Canadiens team has been relentless.

[How the Habs could exceed expectations this season]

That stretch included an overtime loss to the Maple Leafs, plus two impressive wins against the Penguins. In the past – and in past editions of the Habs – they probably would’ve merely tried to slow down those seemingly mighty teams.

Dice up the numbers in any variety of ways (high-danger chances, shots, scoring chances), and it’s clear that the Canadiens have been very aggressive to begin the season. It makes earlier comments from Claude Julien seem like more than just boilerplate material about playing with more speed.

“We’re trying not to get painted on the wall and stopped,” Julien said in late September, via Sportsnet’s Eric Engels. “I think we’re in movement a lot more this year and our transition game is better because of that. We talked about our speed and we just want to use our speed more. When you have to stop and take off again, it takes away from that speed. So it’s not about going in circles; it’s about making sure that you’re in movement all the time so that when you do get the puck you’ve already got some of that speed.”

Julien added that “with good transition and quick play you’re able to catch teams off balance,” and in all honesty, the Canadiens caught me off balance, too. It’s fascinating to see this Montreal squad shake off an ugly season and summer to just play, and this could be the latest example of what we should all hope is a larger trend of teams pushing the pace even during perceived rebuilds.

Young legs

Now, again, we aren’t even in November. The Canadiens are certain to cool off, with the main question being how much they slow down.

Early on, they’ve been embracing a youth movement. One thing that sticks out is how their defense is playing a more modern style.

While Shea Weber continues his murky knee injury rehab, slow-footed, expensive defenseman Karl Alzner hasn’t managed to suit up for Montreal yet this season. Instead, the defensive minutes are going to Mike Reilly, Jeff Petry (as usual), and Noah Juulsen. While Petry is 30, Reilly is 25 and Juulsen is 21.

There will be growing pains with such an alignment, and the Canadiens probably can’t manufacture too many wins with Antti Niemi in net instead of Carey Price. There’s also the very real threat of slipping into old, slow, habits once older, slower players return to the mix.

Still, it means a lot that this team is at least bringing energy and enthusiasm to the rink. Other fledgling teams should take note: let your young players play, and let them make mistakes. More often than not, the pros outweigh the cons when you allow skilled athletes to take chances. Really, wouldn’t it be better to lose and be entertaining than to lose and put your fans into a sad slumber?

Excusing mistakes and growing pains hasn’t always been Julien’s calling card, but by going younger on defense and embracing fresh faces like rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi, this Canadiens team has been far more exciting than expected.

“I just never knew where I stood; it was one mistake, you’re coming out of the game,” Reilly said, via The Athletic’s Arpon Basu (sub required). “That’s kind of the way it was, it was one mistake and no trust. So it feels good that you can kind of come in here – obviously you’re going to be held accountable – but if you make one little mistake you’ve got to move on. That’s what I like about this.”

[More on the burst Montreal receives from Kotkaniemi]

To some extent, the Ottawa Senators have also been more refreshing than expected, with Chris Tierney, Brady Tkachuk, and Thomas Chabot powering a respectable start. Their numbers indicate that there’s been more smoke and mirrors involved than with Montreal (again, the Habs have been dictating play).

The point that hopefully gets across to NHL teams – particularly coaches and GMs – is that you don’t need to bog down the game to try to save face, even if your team enters a season looking weak on paper.

Embracing the reality of a faster NHL

Refreshingly, there are examples with larger sample sizes.

The Colorado Avalanche essentially paralleled the Senators and Habs expectations entering 2017-18, only to make the playoffs and occasionally give the Predators fits with their speed and aggressiveness. The New Jersey Devils also carried low expectations into last season. Instead of, well, playing like most people expect the Devils to play, they went for a run-and-gun style that fit their roster and camouflaged a shaky defense. Both experiments were brilliant successes, and each team is off to promising starts in 2018-19.

Amusingly, this emphasis on skill and speed – or even “outscoring your problems” – could possibly be traced back to the repeat champion Penguins, who haven’t ranked as underdogs in ages.

The Penguins and other teams are forging a more lightning-fast NHL, so other teams must decide if they want to adapt or be left behind. Underdogs like the Canadiens aren’t likely to keep pace over the marathon of an 82-game season, but it’s more fun (and probably more effective) to see them race along rather than making like the tortoises of old.

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.

It’s Montreal Canadiens day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Montreal Canadiens.

2017-18:

29-40-13, 71 pts. (6th Atlantic Division; 14th Eastern Conference)

IN:

Max Domi
Joel Armia
Matthew Peca
Michael Chaput
Tomas Plekanec
Xavier Ouellet

OUT:

Alex Galchenyuk
Daniel Carr
Ales Hemsky

RE-SIGNED

Phillip Danault
Antti Niemi
Jacob De La Rose
Rinat Valiev

After getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs in 2017, the Canadiens put together a horribly disappointing season last year. None of their core players played well, which obviously didn’t help. Max Pacioretty didn’t score as often, Shea Weber suffered a serious injury and Carey Price wasn’t himself.

For the first time in five years, Pacioretty failed to hit the 30-goal mark. Now, he’s entering the final year of contract, and it sounds like a divorce between he and and the team is imminent. If the Habs ship their captain to another team, who will score goals for this team? They traded Alex Galchenyuk for a playmaker like Max Domi, so they don’t have any natural scorers left on the roster.

[Canadiens Day: Breakthrough | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

As for Weber, he’s fallen on hard times injury-wise. He got off to a great start (16 points in 26 games), but he eventually missed a good chunk of the season with a foot injury. The 33-year-old will also be out until at least Christmas because of knee surgery. Not having Weber will be tough overcome.

The biggest question surrounding the Canadiens upcoming season is whether or not Price can bounce back from the dismal season he had in 2017-18. He missed an extended period of time with lower-body injury and then a concussion. The team is light on talent, but if they can get Price back to where he was a few years ago, they’ll have a chance in every game they play. If he can’t get back to form, the next eight years will be incredibly long (they owe him $84 million).

This is a big year for GM Marc Bergevin. If botches a potentially Pacioretty trade, or if the team crumbles again, he might be looking for a new job. No matter what happens, it should be an interesting year in Habs land.

Prospect Pool:

Jesperi Kotkaniemi, C, 18, Assat Pori – 2018 first-round pick

The Canadiens have been searching for a number one center for years, and Kotkaniemi might finally be that guy. He’s a big body with good offensive instincts. Kotkaniemi is also capable of playing a strong all-around game. He has the ability to develop into a top-line player, but he might just need a bit more time to develop. The young Finn racked up 10 goals and 29 points in 57 games in the SM-Liiga

• Ryan Poehling, C, 19, St. Cloud State – 2017 first-round pick

Poehling made some huge strides in his second year at St. Cloud. He went from being a 13-point player in his first year to producing 31 points in 36 games last season. Like Kotkaniemi, Poehling is also big (6-foot-2, 200 pounds), but the American forward isn’t as gifted offensively. The biggest question around his game is whether or not his offensive abilities are good enough to make him a second-line center. Poehling is heading back to St. Cloud State for another year, but he could join the Canadiens next season.

Noah Juulsen, D, 21, Laval Rocket – 2015 first-round pick

Juulsen got his first taste of NHL experience during Montreal’s “lost” season last year and he certainly didn’t look out of place. He’s a good skater that can move the puck efficiently. He might not develop into a top pairing defenseman, but he’s certainly capable of being a top-four blueliner for years to come. Even though the Canadiens have several defensemen on one-way contracts, Juulsen has a pretty good shot at making the team out of camp.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Should Seguin re-sign with the Stars?

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Here’s a hypothetical hockey scenario you won’t encounter very often: “What if the Dallas Stars didn’t drop the ball when Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn were dirt-cheap.”

Consider this. From 2013-14 (Seguin’s first season in Dallas) through 2016-17 (the final year of Jamie Benn’s second-most-recent contract), the Stars allocated just $5.25 million in cap space to Benn and a mere $5.75M to Seguin. You could very fairly argue that Benn and Seguin were worth $11M apiece during that span, yet for four seasons, the Stars essentially deployed them at a buy-one, get-one-free rate.

Despite those incredible bargains, the Stars missed the playoffs twice and only won one playoff series during those four seasons. They squandered another bargain Seguin season in 2017-18, too, as they missed the postseason once again.

The Stars now enter 2018-19 with Seguin in a contract year, and GM Jim Nill told Mark Stepneski of the team website that the Stars hope to hammer out an extension, and that there’s “continued dialogue” on that subject.

From here, Nill touched on what should be some good advice for Seguin: he’s probably better off waiting to see if this team will finally put things together. Nill provided that comment when asked if an extension might happen before the season begins.

“I hope so. But I think I have mentioned from Day 1 that I don’t want people to panic if he is not signed when the season starts,” Nill said. “I think the biggest thing is we need to have a good season — get off to a good start. I hope he is signed by then, but I know if he isn’t, we’ll get a good year out of him and go from there. But like I said, I am hopeful we can get it done. We’ll have to see.”

Look, few would credibly question Seguin if he just decided to ink an extension this summer.

The threat of injuries makes an early extension very appealing, and the 26-year-old starring Star should make a bundle of money even if he leaves a healthy chunk on the table, which has to be a concern for a player who’s been sorely underpaid for his entire NHL career.

Seguin is presented with some undeniably relevant peripheral reasons to ink an extension beyond “wanting to swim in gold coins like Scrooge McDuck.” While the Stars have been disappointing during his stay relative to the ceiling many would picture, they have some fantastic supporting cast members, particularly Jamie Benn and John Klingberg. It’s almost certainly not lost on Seguin that Dallas features tax-related perks associated with “non-traditional hockey markets,” and also boasts a more easy-going media atmosphere than one he’d experience in, well, a “traditional hockey market.”

So don’t be surprised if he shrugs his shoulders and votes for the certainty and security that would come from a long-term contract.

It would be far more interesting if he waited things out, though, especially if Seguin values a chance at the Stanley Cup more than anything else. Let’s ponder some of the thoughts that might go through the splendidly talented forward’s head if he was assessing the Stars’ efforts and chances.

This isn’t exactly a “budget” situation – As great as Dallas has been at landing splashy trades and free agent signings, they’ve also made some big blunders. They’ve moved away from more modern-style defensemen (Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers), instead pursuing old-school types (Marc Methot, Roman Polak) who clash with the style that left opponents gasping for air during Dallas’ best moments. The struggles seem to continue regarding finding answers in net; Ben Bishop seems more stable than Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen, yet would the Stars be as excited to sign his risky deal in 2018 as they were merely in 2017?

So, yes, there’ve been some mistakes, but as much as the strikeouts sting, it’s better to swing for the fences than to walk away from possible solutions. It’d be far more dire if Seguin was pondering, say, the Senators’ outlook.

Seguin can confidently state that the Stars tried to leverage bargains like his deal, despite the lack of success. Some of those moves do work out, too, like the signing of Alex Radulov, so that would have to be a pretty big plus.

Testing out the new coach – Hey, it probably helps the Stars’ chances to move on from Ken Hitchcock. As wise as Hitch is, and even if he’s mellowed a bit with old age, he’d probably fall short of “players’ coach” status.

Jim Montgomery could end up being a taskmaster, too, yet there’s a strong chance he will – at minimum – lean toward a faster style, which would almost certainly appeal to a superbly talented player such as Seguin.

Some reasons to be optimistic – The Stars have a few players who might nudge them toward the sort of supporting cast that can finally give them sorely missing depth.

That’s true if Miro Heiskanen can make good on his potential as the third pick of the 2017 NHL Draft. Valeri Nichushkin‘s been a big disappointment, yet with the goal posts moved to a different position during his next Stars tour, he’d be a great find if he can merely fit in nicely on a prominent line. Some other young players may flourish under Montgomery, with Julius Honka standing out as a plausible beneficiary.

(There’s also the Erik Karlsson possibility, though those rumblings have died down for not just the Stars, but everyone else. Then again, the notion that the Stars are willing to spend money to make money might come back into focus there.)

Joyless division – I’d venture a guess that, as tuned-in as NHL players are these days, Tyler Seguin probably doesn’t factor the toughness of the Central Division much – or at all – into his future decision. Such a thought would likely be silly when considering a long-term contract, as things change fast in sports.

(Plus, Seguin might not be as plugged-in as others, considering that he at least claimed to have never heard of a “Gordie Howe hat trick.” C’mon, Tyler.)

That said, the ruggedness of the Central Division might hurt his viewpoint of Dallas’ chances as a contender if Seguin decided to really wait things out. The Stars could conceivably make big gains in 2018-19 and still fizzle out in the postseason simply because just about everyone’s likely to struggle against the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets. It’s conceivable that the Stars leap yet still end up with the third seed, fall in the first round despite a good effort, and still seem disappointing.

If that happens and Seguin hasn’t signed an extension, well, who knows? We could see a John Tavares-type situation, even in an arguably superior situation than the one the Islanders offered.

***

Ultimately, this could end up being a pretty simple situation for Seguin. Maybe he has a sweet spot in mind for term and/or AAV, or merely just some no-trade-type provisions. It would be silly to lampoon him for any of that, especially when he’s cashing checks, playing on what should be a competitive team, and not shivering during the winter.

On the other hand, the Stars haven’t enjoyed a ton of success since braining the Bruins in that Seguin trade, and the second pick of the 2010 NHL Draft might just want to explore the free agent market.

What would you do if you were in Seguin’s shoes?

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.

Sharks also lock up Hertl after signing Thornton, missing out on Tavares

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A day after failing to land John Tavares, the San Jose Sharks are keeping familiar faces in the fold.

Not long after inking Joe Thornton to a one-year, $5 million contract (more on that here), the Sharks announced a four-year contract for RFA forward Tomas Hertl.

The Sharks didn’t disclose Hertl’s cap hit yet for reasons, so this post will be updated when more is known about the financial terms. The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz reports that it is $5.625M per season, which would leave the Sharks with approximately $8.2M in cap space.

“Tomas took a big step forward last season, both on and off the ice, and we feel that he is just starting to hit his prime,” Sharks GM Doug Wilson said. “He has the ability to be a dominant player in this League and proved during the playoffs that he can take over any given game with his combination of skill and strength. His capability to play both center and the wing gives our team some flexibility, and he has one of the most infectious personalities in our dressing room. We’re excited he made this commitment to our organization.”

Hertl, 24, set a career high with 22 goals this past season while matching his career-best with 46 points. The Jagrloving, Czech-born forward already has two 20+ goal seasons to his name. He’s generally been a strong possession player for San Jose, although his numbers were more pedestrian in that regard during the 2017-18 campaign.

This constitutes most of the in-house moves on the docket for the Sharks, although Chris Tierney is still an RFA.

As mentioned earlier, the Sharks may also consider adding another piece or two. The free agent crop is already pretty shallow, however, especially with Thornton out of this mix and Rick Nash‘s future in question.

The trade route seems especially sensible, as wingers Max Pacioretty and Jeff Skinner could make a lot of sense, even just as stopgaps for San Jose. The team is structured to win now – Thornton celebrated his 39th birthday while signing his contract – so giving up futures for a longer rental could make quite a bit of sense.

One avenue that seems unlikely but interesting may also be firing out an offer sheet.

Considering how much the Senators are pinching pennies, would Wilson be smart in sending a “poison pill” to Ottawa’s Mark Stone?

While it seems unlikely, the Sharks rank as one of the only franchises that would at least consider it. As you may recall, they deployed that tactic against the Chicago Blackhawks when they unsuccessfully targeted Niklas Hjalmarsson during the 2010 summer when they eventually got Antti Niemi. That obviously was quite a while ago, but Wilson remains in the GM seat for San Jose, so it’s at least worth mentioning.

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.

Mason trade helps Jets’ chances of re-signing Stastny

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Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff found himself a taker for Steve Mason, which in the end is a big step towards re-signing Paul Stastny.

On Saturday the Jets sent Mason and forward Joel Armia along with a 2019 seventh-round pick and a 2020 fourth-round pick to the Montreal Canadiens for AHL defenseman Simon Bourque.

The move clears $4.1 million in cap space from the Jets’ books, a move that was imperative if they’re to have any shot at re-signing Stastny. They now has a little over $28 million in cap space, per Cap Friendly, and still need to re-sign the likes of Connor Hellebuyck, Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey, who are all restricted free agents, along with Stastny, who is set to become unrestricted on July 1.

As for Mason, his time in Montreal may not last very long. Already with Carey Price and the newly extended Antti Niemi, the Canadiens could buy out the final year of his deal or flip him to a team with a goaltending need. Saturday is the final day of the first buyout period of the off-season. (UPDATE: Mason has been placed on buyout waivers.)

The rising cap ceiling certainly helped Cheveldayoff’s summer to-do list, but given the names that the Jets want to retain, some money needed to be moved out in order to have the room.

The 32-year-old Stastny scored four times and recorded 13 points in 19 regular season games with the Jets following the February trade. He instantly clicked on the second line centering Patrik Laine and Nik Ehlers and his production continued into the postseason as Winnipeg marched to the Western Conference Final. He finished the playoffs with six goals and 15 points in 17 games.

Stastny enjoyed his time his time in Winnipeg and while he said he’s keeping his options open in regards to free agency, it’s clear there was a very good fit with the Jets. Now it’s up to Cheveldayoff to make it happen on a multi-year deal.

“We had a great exit interview together and that’s really my only assessment,” the Jets GM said this week. “Nothing’s changed in that regard. We know the cap number now and it’s time to go to work.”

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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.