Blake Wheeler

PHT Morning Skate: Brady Tkachuk is a pest; Leafs have no identity

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Former Humboldt Broncos player Ryan Straschnitzki has begun moving his legs again. (CBC)

• NHL popularity is growing in Sweden now that the Global Series has arrived. (NHL)

• The Swedish hockey experience is much different than what we’re used to in North America. (TampaBay.com)

• The non-Swedes on the Sabres roster have been enjoying their time in Stockholm. (Buffalo News)

• A five-person committee created the Stars winter classic jersey. (Dallas News)

• The Toronto Maple Leafs still don’t have an identity after 16 games. (Toronto Star)

Lars Eller is having a pretty good year for the Capitals. (Japers Rink)

Blake Wheeler will have to fill in at center for the foreseeable future. (Winnipeg Sun)

Brady Tkachuk has turned into an awesome pest for the Ottawa Senators. (Sporting News)

• Craig MacTavish wrote about his crazy three-month experience in the KHL. (TSN)

Jordan Binnington believes he should have won the Calder Trophy over Elias Pettersson. (Daily Hive)

• The Sharks need Timo Meier and their young players to start producing offensively. (NBC Sports Bay Area)

• There’s a Mighty Ducks TV series in the works. (Hollwood Reporter)

• Here’s how a failed Steelers tryout kick-started a daughter’s Olympic hockey dream. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Travis Konecny and Oskar Lindblom have had really strong seasons for the Flyers. (NBC Sports Philly)

• Check out this list of top 10 hockey jerseys in pop culture. (Hockey by Design)

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.

The Buzzer: Hellebuyck earns his bucks; MacKinnon, Isles stay hot

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Three Stars

1. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

The Jets’ early struggles have kept Hellebuyck’s strong start under the radar (for the most part), but an Oct. 29 showing against the Ducks wasn’t so great, as Hellebuyck allowed five goals on only 19 shots on goal in about a half-game’s worth of action. Hellebuyck made up for that in a big way against Anaheim’s neighbors in San Jose.

The Sharks managed a commanding 53-19(!) SOG advantage on Friday, but they didn’t even get a pity point for their considerable efforts. Hellebuyck basically had a night’s work in the second period alone, allowing just one goal despite a 28-SOG barrage by San Jose.

Hellebuyck ended up making 51 out of 53 stops, so chances are, his strong work is now noticed … if the Sharks, if by no one else.

2. John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks

Goalies had a tendency to steal games involving California-based teams on Friday.

Despite the Canucks generated a 19-5 SOG advantage through the first period, the Ducks ended the first 20 minutes up 1-0 thanks to a Jakob Silfverberg shorthanded goal. Vancouver went on to generate a 40-29 SOG advantage overall, yet the Ducks won in overtime thanks to all-world goaltending by their all-world goalie.

Perhaps the Ducks are playing a little better under Dallas Eakins as they didn’t under Randy Carlyle, but this team still depends on Gibson as much as just about any NHL team leans on a goalie these days.

3. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes

Feel free to replace Aho with one of Friday’s other three-point players, if you’d prefer.

You may, for example, be more impressed with Tom Wilson‘s ferocious hit, nifty deflection goal, and overall night (1G, 2A). Wilson’s teammate Michal Kempny made a fantastic keep-in to help set up that deflection goal, and finished the night with three points (all assists) of his own. Anders Lee also managed one goal and two assists, helping the Islanders push their league-leading winning streak to a resounding eight games. And so on.

When in doubt — and there’s usually doubt in such an exciting, skilled league, especially on busy nights — I tend to go with goals over assists, and so one. Two of Aho’s three points were goals, and his assist was a primary one.

It also rarely feels like a bad time to mention Aho, who deserves more mentions as one of the NHL’s great stars.

Highlight of the Night

Since we already covered Sean Couturier pulling “The Forsberg,” enjoy this great overtime goal by the Ducks. Troy Terry makes a highly impressive long-distance bomb of a pass, then Ryan Getzlaf manages to settle it down, avoid an aggressive pokecheck attempt from Jacob Markstrom, and steal that stolen win for the Quack Pack:

Markstrom’s earlier glove save could be an honorable mention.

Bullet dodged?

The early word is that Canucks rookie Quinn Hughes isn’t too badly hurt after this scary-looking tweak. Here’s hoping that early word is accurate, because yikes:

Factoids

  • Speaking of Aho, Nathan MacKinnon is apparently just a little bit hotter to start 2019-20 than Aho was to begin 2018-19:

 

Scores

PHI 4 – NJD 3 (SO)
NYI 5 – TBL 2
WSH 6 – BUF 1
CAR 7 – DET 3
STL 4 – CBJ 3 (OT)
DAL 2 – COL 1
ANA 2 – VAN 1 (OT)
WPG 3 – SJS 2

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Heavy Lifting: Five NHL lines that are carrying their teams

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Let’s take a quick look around the NHL at five lines that are doing the most to carry their teams (or at least their offense) through the first month of the season.

This is always kind of a good news/bad news situation because the good news is your team has a dominant top line that can change a game every night. The bad news is that one line teams do not tend to do very well in the long run. Balance is important!

We are focussing on 5-on-5 production with this look and right now these five teams are fairly dependent on these lines to carry the play.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

Edmonton Oilers
The Line: Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Zack Kassian

This line might be the definition of “heavy lifting.”

This trio has been on the ice for nearly 30 percent of the Oilers’ total 5-on-5 minutes, a substantial workload even by top line standards. Individually, McDavid and Draisaitl are the top-two forwards in the league in even-strength ice-time per game (Kassian is 22nd), both averaging more than 18:30 per game (Mathew Barzal is the only other forward that plays more than 18 minutes of even-strength ice-time per game).

Then we get to the production.

In 124 minutes this trio has outscored teams by an 11-3 margin and been completely dominant. That is 60 percent of the team’s 5-on-5 goals, while the team has been outscored by a 6-8 margin at 5-on-5 when this trio is not on the ice.

It is the same story as it has always been for the Oilers where they need to skate McDavid and Draisaitl into the ground to compete. So far this season it has worked. But we have seen over the past four years that it is not really the best long-term recipe for sustained success.

Boston Bruins
The Line: Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand

When these three are together they are as good as it gets in the NHL.

Bergeron and Marchand are two of the best all-around players in the league, while Pastrnak is quickly turning into one of the most dangerous goal-scorers around. The big question for the Bruins has always been their depth around this line and if they can get enough offense from lines two through four to complement them. Through the first month of the 2019-20 season that concern is still very much the same.

This line has only played 86 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together (about 22 percent of the team’s 5-on-5 total) and has already scored seven goals in those minutes. The Bruins have just six 5-on-5 goals in the remaining 306 minutes of 5-on-5 time that they have played this season, and two of those goals came when Marchand and Pastrnak were together without Bergeron.

As this line goes, so go the Bruins.

Winnipeg Jets
The Line: Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler

With the Jets’ defense in shambles following the offseason, the team has had to rely on the strength of its forwards to remain competitive.

The big line of Scheifele, Laine, and Wheeler has certainly done its part to make sure that happens. Not only in terms of their own production, but also in how much the rest of the team has struggled when they are not on the ice. In nearly 300 minutes of 5-on-5 play without any of these three on the ice, the Jets have managed a grand total of four goals.

Pittsburgh Penguins
The Line: Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Dominik Simon

You could put together a pretty good forward lineup with the players the Penguins have out of the lineup right now. One of the biggest reasons they have kept winning through all of the injuries has been the play of their top line of Crosby, Guentzel, and Simon.

The latter member of this line is a point of much contention in Pittsburgh because he never scores goals himself, but the team loves him on the top line alongside Crosby and Guentzel and the overall numbers justify his existence on that line (it scores more goals with him than it does without him). So far this season Crosby is playing at an MVP level, Guentzel is doing his best to show his 40-goal season a year ago was no fluke, and Simon keeps making plays that keeps the play alive in the offensive zone and leads to offense. In 111 minutes together this trio has already combined to score eight of the the team’s 20 five-on-five goals this season.

New York Rangers
The line: Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad

The third member of this line has mostly been Chris Kreider or Pavel Buchnevich at different times, but the main drivers here are Panarin and Zibanejad.

Panarin has already scored four goals in the team’s first six games and has been everything the Rangers could have expected and hoped when they signed him in free agency. Zibanejad, meanwhile, is off to one of the best offensive starts in franchise history with 11 points in six games. When that duo is together the Rangers have doubled up their opponents on the scoreboard and scored like one of the league’s elite lines.

The problem with this Rangers team in the short-term was always going to be the lack of depth around them, and so far the Rangers have looked rather punchless at even-strength when their top duo is off the ice.

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: Starting NHL season on a high note — or falling over

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Three Stars

1. Mika ZibanejadRangers

If there’s a single player whose recent work has been lost in the shuffle of New York’s recent plummet, it’s Zibanejad. It’s still kind of hard to believe that the Senators really traded him for Derick Brassard.

There was a lot of scoring in New York’s home win against Winnipeg, and while Artemi Panarin had a nice debut, Zibanejad led the way, scoring one goal and three assists. He also fired seven shots on goal and even blocked two shots.

This could be a big season for Zibanejad, one that makes it impossible to ignore his brilliance — even if the Rangers experience a lot of peaks and valleys.

Fittingly, a lot of other players had big nights in that slugfest, including Jacob Trouba against his former team. Trouba generated a goal and two assists, managing three SOG and two blocked shots.

2. Nikolaj Ehlers, Jets

Good thing Winnipeg didn’t lose this guy in the offseason, as Ehlers topped a lot of wishlists for other fans dreaming of the Jets making a reckless trade. After all, Ehlers had a tough postseason, and if Kevin Cheveldayoff channeled his inner Peter Chiarelli, that might have inspired an overreaction.

This ended up being a good day for Kevin to take off.

Ehlers produced three assists on Thursday, also shooting with abandon (eight SOG). Impressively, all three of Ehlers assists were of the primary variety. If you prefer, you might instead choose linemate Blake Wheeler, who scored two goals on nine SOG.

There are plenty of other nights worth noting, including those of Mikko Rantanen and Conor Sheary, who managed two goals apiece for their respective teams.

3. Matt DuchenePredators

Quite a debut for Duchene.

The speedy center managed an impressive three assists, thwarted from a fourth thanks to a great stop by Devan Dubnyk. It’s quite possible that Duchene could form a fantastic top line with Mikael Granlund and Filip Forsberg. That trio created a lot of offense, and Nashville looks like it could have a winning balance.

Duchene only generated one SOG and “only” went 10-10 on draws, but it was an impressive performance.

Mikhail Sergachev ranks among the better honorable mentions with three assists of his own.

Highlight of the Night

While Dubnyk’s save might be the most impressive moment of Thursday, it was already covered here, and the Wild still lost to the Predators. So let’s honor a runner-up: sensational Sabres sophomore Rasmus Dahlin burned multiple Penguins for a tremendous goal in Buffalo’s 3-1 win. Dahlin shows the sort of hands you don’t normally see from a defenseman, even a very good one:

Blooper of the Night

The Rangers won a wild game against the Jets 6-4 on Thursday, but Lias Andersson didn’t get off to the greatest start, thanks to a pesky cord:

Factoids

Scores

TBL 5 – FLA 2
NYR 6 – WIN 4
BUF 3 – PIT 1
CAR 4 – MTL 3 (SO)
NSH 5 – MIN 2
BOS 2 – DAL 1
COL 5 – CGY 3
ANA 2 – ARI 1

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Jets’ turbulent offseason capped with injuries to Little, Beaulieu

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Few teams come into the very beginning of the 2019-20 season quite as bruised and bewildered as the Winnipeg Jets.

After a tough end to last season that included a Round 1 exit, the Jets absorbed body blows that were more than just flesh wounds during the offseason. They waved goodbye to some key players from rental Kevin Hayes to defensive mainstays including Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers. Things were bumpy, to say the least, with Patrik Laine, from ambivalent comments about his future, not-so-kind comments about linemates such as Bryan Little, and finally a very short-term truce with the team via a two-year deal. There was also uncertainty with Kyle Connor until he signed a lengthy pact. If that wasn’t all enough, Dustin Byfuglien is contemplating retirement, and didn’t exactly give the Jets a ton of notice about what’s either a soul-searching sojourn or the end of a truly unique NHL career.

After all the corny (yet inevitable) “day off” jokes that once followed GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, one couldn’t blame the executive if he felt both relieved and exhausted as the season merely begins.

Unfortunately, the hits kept coming in the final days of an offseason that rarely felt like time off.

The Jets provided two unfortunate bits of injury news on Tuesday, as the team announced that Little is out indefinitely with a concussion, while defenseman Nathan Beaulieu is IR-bound with an upper-body injury that’s expected to sideline him for about four weeks. Both injuries happened during what ended up being a very costly 4-1 preseason win against the Minnesota Wild.

(This Luke Kunin hit injured Little, and Scott Billeck reports for the Winnipeg Sun that head coach Paul Maurice was understandably unhappy about it.)

All of these injuries, free agent losses, and Byfuglien-sized curveballs create some massive craters in the Jets’ lineup, which is troubling since Winnipeg looked so wobbly at times last season, even with the likes of Trouba in the mix. Money Puck’s month-to-month expected goals chart presented their plummeting play in a dramatic way:

Some of those months were without Byfuglien, but again, with Trouba. Taking Ben Chiarot and Beaulieu out of an already troubled group slices up that defense even more.

Meanwhile, the Little injury stacks the deck against Maurice and the Jets, too.

The team shared line rushes that would include Andrew Copp as a second-line center, with Adam Lowry possibly as the 3C.

That doesn’t inspire the highest level of confidence, although maybe this is a time where Maurice should be more willing to experiment. While this would be out of necessity, you never know when you might find different things that work, possibly giving you a Plan B (to Z!) for when matchups become tougher during playoff skirmishes.

What if Jack Roslovic could thrive in a 2C or 3C role? Is it possible that breaking up Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele could benefit the likes of Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers? Considering his traditionally impressive possession stats, would Mathieu Perreault be worth a look at one of those center spots, too?

It’s possible that none of those alignments would be optimal, but you don’t need to look too hard to see that these aren’t the most optimal times for the Jets.

Again, though, sometimes bigger challenges bring out the best in players. In the past, it might have felt like the Jets had a luxurious surplus of talent, maybe allowing some to believe – consciously or subconsciously – that they could “flip the switch” and turn things around, even with red flags waving.

Under the current circumstances, they’re going to depend on not just Scheifele and Wheeler, but also Laine, Ehlers, Josh Morrissey, and Connor Hellebuyck. Without pressure, you can’t get diamonds, and so maybe that thought will serve as the Jets’ silver lining.

Because, frankly, there are some uncomfortable forces bearing down on them as the season begins.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.