Braden Holtby

NHL Power Rankings: Top rookie performances so far

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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we keep it on an individual player level and dig into the 10 best rookie performances so far this season.

It has been an interesting rookie class because two of the most anticipated rookies — top-two picks Jack Hughes and Kappo Kaako) have gone through some early growing pains and have not really played their way into the Calder Trophy discussion. That is nothing to be concerned about, either. Not every 18-year-old is going to jump right into the league and make an immediate impact. Sometimes it takes a year. Sometimes it takes two. They both still have great futures ahead of them and should be stars (maybe even superstars?) in the NHL.

It has, however, been a great first half for rookie defensemen (four in the top-ten) and a couple of rookie goalies.

Which rookies have stood out the most so far this season?

To the rankings!

1. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche. Makar entered the season as one of the Calder Trophy favorites, and he has not only met the high expectations placed upon him, he has probably exceeded them. He is already the best defenseman on one of the NHL’s best and most exciting teams. An exceptional skater, great passer, and a lightning fast release that just looks effortless and unstoppable. He is a one-man highlight reel almost every night.

(See it here, too)

2. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks. When the 2019-20 season began it was expected that a Hughes would be at the top of the rookie class. And there is. It’s just probably not the one (Jack, the No. 1 overall pick this year) that most thought would be this high on the list. For the third year in a row the Canucks have one of the league’s top-two rookies as Hughes joins their promising core alongside Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.

3. Victor Olofsson, Buffalo Sabres. One of the few bright spots in yet another massively disappointing season for the Sabres. At 24 he is a little older than your average rookie, but he has been a great fit next to Jack Eichel on the Sabres’ top line when he’s been healthy. As of Monday he still leads all rookies in scoring even though he has not played in close to a month due to injury.

4. John Marino, Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins acquired Marino from the Edmonton Oilers for a conditional sixth-round draft pick in a trade that few people noticed when it was announced. All Marino has done this season is help transform the Penguins’ defense into one of the league’s best. He is already a 20-minute per night player, helps drive possession, has great defensive metrics, and has helped bring back mobility and puck skills to the Penguins’ blue line.

5. Dominik Kubalik, Chicago Blackhawks. Stan Bowman has made some questionable trades and decisions over the past few years, but this is one that he knocked out of the park. The Blackhawks acquired Kubalik from the Los Angeles Kings for a fifth-round draft pick almost exactly one year ago. He was always considered a talented prospect with offensive upside (something the Kings could use!), but he hadn’t shown a willingness to actually sign with the Kings. So they traded him. The Blackhawks were the team that pounced and added some desperately needed scoring depth. He has 21 goals on the season, with 10 of them coming over the past two weeks. Recency bias plays a role here, but he has made a huge jump in the Calder Trophy discussion from where he was even a few weeks ago when he probably was not even on the radar.

6. Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals. The Capitals’ goalie of the future should probably be getting even more playing time in the present. In his 19 appearances this season he owns a 15-2-1 record with a .927 save percentage and is currently on a run where he has won 10 consecutive decisions. He has not lost a start since Nov. 15 against the Montreal Canadiens. His play is probably making it easier to say goodbye to long-time starter (and long-time top-shelf goalie) Braden Holtby this summer in free agency.

7. Elvis Merzlikins, Columbus Blue Jackets. Like Kubalik, he is another rookie that has picked up his play very recently. When Blue Jackets starting goalie Joonas Korpisalo went down with an injury, Merzlikins had yet to win a game in the NHL and had a sub-.900 save percentage. It would have been easy to write off the Blue Jackets’ playoff chances at that point. Instead, Merzlikins has helped carry the team into the first Wild Card spot (as of Monday) in the Eastern Conference thanks to an 8-2-0 record, three shutouts,

8. Adam Fox, New York Rangers. Not going to lie, I kind of hate putting him this low because I feel like it underrates the season he has had. He has been really good. But, I also think the top-four here are clearly the head of the rookie class. It is also hard to ignore how downright dominant Kubalik and Merzlikins have been recently and the role they have played for their teams. Fox was one of two key additions to the Rangers’ blue line over the summer alongside Jacob Trouba. Trouba has the big name and the massive contract, but there is no denying which player has been the better addition for the Rangers — it is Fox.

9. Martin Necas, Carolina Hurricanes. Necas is very quietly putting together a strong rookie season. He is the fifth-leading scorer on the team and his current scoring pace would put him on track for nearly 20 goals and 50 points with strong possession numbers. Not quite enough to be a Calder Trophy favorite, but that is still a heck of a season for a 21-year-old in his first full NHL season.

10. Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens. Suzuki was the key long-term player for the Canadiens in the Max Pacioretty trade, and they are getting their first taste of what he is capable of this season. He is still a bit of a work in progress, but he has improved dramatically over the past couple of months and is currently the fifth-leading scorer among all rookies. Pacioretty is having a career year for the Golden Knights, but Tomas Tatar (the other key player in that trade) having a great year of his own, and Suzuki showing a ton of potential, it is one that — so far — has worked out well for both teams.

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.

Capitals sign Nicklas Backstrom to five-year, $46M extension

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The Washington Capitals face big questions about their future, but Nicklas Backstrom will remain a part of it. The Capitals were able to sign Backstrom to a five-year, $46 million contract extension on Tuesday.

Backstrom, 32, will see that $9.2M AAV kick in starting in 2020-21, and then expire after 2024-25. Interestingly, Evgeny Kuznetsov ($7.8M cap hit) and T.J. Oshie ($5.75M) also see their deals expire after that 2024-25 campaign.

Apparently Backstrom negotiated his own contract, focusing on getting top dollar, while the Caps wanted to account for his age:

Backstrom has ranked as one of the NHL’s more underappreciated stars for years. The Capitals note that he leads the franchise in assists (668) and is also the only active player to generate 50+ assists in six consecutive seasons. Backstrom ranks second in franchise history in points (908), second only to Alex Ovechkin (1,255).

A quick cap outlook after Capitals sign Backstrom

Going truly deep on the Capitals’ future decisions is probably the job for a full post, but we can take a quick peek.

Cap Friendly places Washington’s cap spending at about $71.1M on 16 roster spots heading into 2020-21. If the ceiling remains around $81.5M, that would leave the Caps with about $10.4M in space.

Such comments serve as a reminder that the Capitals face other tough decisions, both soon and off in the distance.

Most pressingly, Braden Holtby (30, current cap hit: $6.1M) needs a new contract after this season. Ilya Samsonov may or may not be the future. If the Capitals find some way to sign Holtby, it would probably require making painful omissions elsewhere.

The Capitals also must determine what Alex Ovechkin’s next contract will look like. The 34-year-old’s $9.538M cap hit runs out after 2020-21.

It will be fascinating to see how Backstrom ages. His smart, borderline Selke-worthy style may grow old quite gracefully. Still, it’s kind of startling to realize that he’s 32 already. Some old folks might take that as a reminder of our (er, their!) mortality.

Did the Capitals make the right call with this hefty extension? Did Backstrom make a mistake by haggling on his own? What should the Caps do with Holtby and others?

With the Capitals running rampant over the league and not that far removed from that glorious Stanley Cup, extending Backstrom certainly feels like a crowd-pleaser right now, at least. Frankly, the slick Swede was so underpaid before, it also seems fair.

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.

Full 2020 NHL All-Star Game rosters with Perron, Oshie, Marner, Hughes added

2020 NHL All-Star Game rosters Marner Oshie Hughes Perron added
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The 2020 NHL All-Star Game rosters are now complete after the four “last men in” were accounted for.

Toronto Maple Leafs winger Mitch Marner became the final addition to the Atlantic Division’s side. David Perron of the St. Louis Blues represents the Central’s last member. Speaking of All-Star Game host St. Louis, it should be a special time for former Blues forward T.J. Oshie. The Washington Capitals forward is the last man in for the Metro. Finally, Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes continues his impressive rookie season as the Pacific rep.

Again, it wouldn’t be one bit surprising if Oshie received a warm welcome from Blues fans.

“We all know he wants to go,” Capitals teammate Nicklas Backstrom said of Oshie, via the AP. “Especially it’s his former hometown too, St. Louis. That would be something special for him.”

Fans cast more than 18 million votes, with a maximum of 10 ballots permitted per user. (Somewhere, Rory Fitzpatrick felt a tingle.)

To refresh your memory, the four divisional teams engage in a tournament with three games over two rounds. Defense is even more optional than usual with a 3-on-3 format. St. Louis hosts NHL All-Star Weekend from Jan. 24-25, and you’ll be able to watch the fun on NBCSN.

[Pass or Fail? 2020 NHL All-Star Game jerseys]

Full rosters for 2020 NHL All-Star Game

Check out the full rosters for the four division-based teams. Asterisks denote fan-elected captains.

(Reminder: some players elected to skip the festivities. The NHL found Alex Ovechkin‘s absence especially irritating.)

2020 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend Rosters

Atlantic Division (All-Star Appearance)

F          *David Pastrnak, BOS (2nd)

G          Tuukka Rask, BOS (2nd)

F          Jack Eichel, BUF (3rd)

F          Tyler Bertuzzi, DET (1st)

F          Jonathan Huberdeau, FLA (1st)

D          Shea Weber, MTL (7th)

F          Anthony Duclair, OTT (1st)

D          Victor Hedman, TBL (2nd)

G          Frederik Andersen, TOR (1st)

F          Mitch Marner, TOR (1st)

F          Auston Matthews, TOR (4th)

Central Division (All-Star Appearance)

F          Patrick Kane, CHI (9th)

F          *Nathan MacKinnon, COL (3rd)

F          Tyler Seguin, DAL (6th)

F          Eric Staal, MIN (6th)

D          Roman Josi, NSH (3rd)

F          Ryan O’Reilly, STL (3rd)

G          Jordan Binnington, STL (1st)

F          David Perron, STL (1st)

D          Alex Pietrangelo, STL (2nd)

G          Connor Hellebuyck, WPG (2nd)

F          Mark Scheifele, WPG (2nd)

Metropolitan Division (All-Star Appearance)

D          Dougie Hamilton, CAR (1st)

D          Seth Jones, CBJ (3rd)

F          Kyle Palmieri, NJD (2nd)

F          Mathew Barzal, NYI (2nd)

F          Artemi Panarin, NYR (1st)

F          Travis Konecny, PHI (1st)

G          Tristan Jarry, PIT (1st)

D          Kris Letang, PIT (6th)

D          John Carlson, WSH (2nd)

G          Braden Holtby, WSH (5th)

F          T.J. Oshie, WSH (1st)

Pacific Division (All-Star Appearance)

G          Darcy Kuemper, ARI (1st)

F          Matthew Tkachuk, CGY (1st)

D          Mark Giordano, CGY (3rd)

F          *Connor McDavid, EDM (4th)

F          Leon Draisaitl, EDM (2nd)

F          Anze Kopitar, LAK (5th)

F          Max Pacioretty, VGK (1st)

F          Tomas Hertl, SJS (1st)

D          Quinn Hughes, VAN (1st)

F          Elias Pettersson, VAN (2nd)

G          Jacob Markstrom, VAN (1st)

*Fan-elected captain

Fans who enjoy complaining about “snubs” can have it now. Enjoy?

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.

Blackhawks have some big goaltending questions to answer

Blackhawks
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Robin Lehner was one of the many offseason additions for the Chicago Blackhawks this past summer, and probably the only one that has actually worked as expected.

After helping guide the New York Islanders to a surprising playoff berth a year ago, a performance that saw him finish the season as a Vezina Trophy finalist, Lehner signed a bargain one-year, $5 million contract with a Blackhawks team that was still trying to squeeze something out of its aging championship core.

Halfway through the season Lehner has been everything the Blackhawks could have hoped for him to be and has been one of the few bright spots for a team that still can’t stop anybody defensively.

He enter’s Saturday’s game with a .922 save percentage and is one of the biggest reasons the team is still reasonably competitive given the state of its defense. Along with his individual numbers, the Blackhawks have a .608 points percentage when he starts (99-point pace over 82 games) and a .363 mark when he doesn’t.

He is also eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season, which could cause some headaches for the Blackhawks.

1. Lehner wants his fair value

Lehner talked about his contract situation a little on Friday (via NHL.com), and while he made it very clear he would like to return to Chicago, he also made it clear he would like to get what he considers to be fair value on his next contract. He also wants a long-term home instead of signing another one-year deal.

His play the past two seasons makes it clear he has earned both.

Since the start of the 2018-19 season his .927 all situations save percentage is second in the NHL behind only Dallas’ Ben Bishop. His .930 mark at even-strength is fifth best. The only season out of the past five where he didn’t produce like a No. 1 goalie was the 2017-18 season in Buffalo when he played behind a Sabres team that was one of the league’s worst. By every objective measure he is a top-shelf goalie and at age 28 should still have some strong seasons ahead of him.

Complicating matters for the Blackhawks is their other goalie, Corey Crawford, is also playing out the final year of his contract.

2. Lehner should be the Blackhawks’ priority

For as great as Crawford has been for the Blackhawks, helping the team win two Stanley Cups, it is pretty clear that Lehner is the best option at the moment has to be the priority if winning is still the priority.

He has not only outperformed Crawford this season (and has for two years now), he is also seven years younger.

Bowman has always been extremely loyal to players he has won with (even re-acquiring several that won in Chicago after losing them in cap-related transactions), but that has also played a role in the team’s rapid decline into mediocrity the past three years.

At some point you have to turn the page, and for as much as Crawford has meant to the Blackhawks, if it comes down to an either/or situation the only sensible choice is Lehner. He is also probably the best option that will be available to them this summer.

Washington’s Braden Holtby is the other big-name goalie that could be available, but he seems to be a shell of his former Vezina Trophy self, while the early returns on Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida should make every team wary of giving out a massive contract to a soon-to-be 31-year-old goalie.

None of the other potential free agents (Jacob Markstrom, Jimmy Howard, Craig Anderson) can match up with Lehner.

He is the best option no matter where you look.

3. The other factors

And by other, we mean everything from the salary cap ramifications, to what exactly the short-term direction is for the Blackhawks and where Lehner might fit in.

Bowman added a ton of future money to the organization this past summer, and when combined with the mega-contracts that belong to Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith at the top of the lineup the salary cap is always going to be an issue. They could get some relief if they move Brandon Saad or another veteran or two.

But even if they do, is there enough space to fit in a long-term deal for Lehner and still make the necessary additions around him to make the team better?

Barring a drastic second-half turnaround, the Blackhawks are on the verge of a third consecutive non-playoff season and still have holes all over the lineup. The defense is again one of the worst in the league, the forward depth is lacking after Kane, while he, Toews, and Duncan Keith are going to be another year into their 30s next season.

The Blackhawks tried to stay in “win-now” mode this past summer and hoped a few tweaks could fix it. That has not been the case.

Even if they find a way to keep Lehner, they still have a lot of problems to fix to make the team competitive.

If he goes, it simply adds another problem and takes away one of the few remaining strengths the team still has.

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.

 

PHT Morning Skate: Islanders’ goaltending; Avs’ deadline targets

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.

Jacob Markstrom met his “mini me” prior to Canucks practice. (NHL)

Nikita Gusev has been a healthy scratch at different times this season, but his signing in starting to pay off for the Devils. (The Hockey News)

• How has goaltending impacted the Islanders’ success this season? (TSN)

• Why aren’t the Sabres closer to locking up a playoff spot than they actually are? (Rotoworld)

• Nobody should’ve counted out the Columbus Blue Jackets before the start of the season. (The Cannon)

• The Canadiens have struggled defensively, so Habs Eyes on the Prize suggests pointing the finger at Luke Richardson. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• Caps GM Brian MacLellan supports Alex Ovechkin‘s decision to skip the All-Star Game. (NBC Sports Washington)

• Raw Charge breaks down quality starts and steals for goalies this season. (Raw Charge)

• How should the Golden Knights handle Marc-Andre Fleury while he’s struggling? (Sinbin.Vegas)

Marc-Edouard Vlasic has been a special player ever since he first joined the Sharks. (NBC Sports Bay Area)

• Who should the Avs target ahead of the trade deadline? (Mile High Hockey)

Philipp Grubauer and Ilya Samsonov have both pushed Braden Holtby for playing time at different times in their career. How similar are those two situations though? (Nova Caps)

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.