Chris Tierney

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The Buzzer: McDavid does it all, again; Point hits 60

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Three stars

1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

No team goes the way of their best player quite like the Edmonton Oilers.

McDavid played the role of McJesus on Thursday, saving the Oilers from another loss by scoring his second of the game with just eight seconds left on the game clock. With one point secured, McDavid made sure Edmonton took home the maximum, scoring the shootout winner against the Florida Panthers.

Yes, McJesus saves — including the blushes of his own teammates after this ugly own goal.

2. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning 

This kid should be an NHL All-Star (and he still could be if he wins the Last Men In vote).

He assisted on the tying goal in the second period on the power play and then rattled off back-to-back goals — his 27th and 28th — to secure a 3-1 come-from-behind win against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Point gets overshadowed by Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, but the 22-year-old is a special player and now has 60 points on the season. He now has back-to-back two-goal, one assist nights and has points 10 of his past 11 games.

Never mind being an all-star, he belongs in the Hart conversation.

3. Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers needed someone — anyone — to help them break out of their eight-game losing streak.

And it was Hart who produced that special effort, stopping 37 of 38 shots sent this way in a 2-1 win against the Dallas Stars. Hart was just 2:51 away from his first NHL shutout when Jamie Benn finally found a way past him in the third period.

Hart doesn’t have a great record at 3-4-1, but his .920 save percentage would be a godsend for the Flyers if he could keep it hovering around there. The lack of run support is a big deal, but games like the one Hart had on Thursday make the win still possible.

Other notable performances:

  • Jordan Binnington (the goalie you’ve never heard of) got his second straight win in as many NHL starts, stopping 28 of 29 shots. He picked up his first win in fine fashion earlier this week with a 25-save shutout on Monday.
  • Jason Zucker scored twice, including the game-winner as the Minnesota Wild held on in a 3-2 win against the Winnipeg Jets
  • John Tavares had two goals, including the game-winner, and an assist in a 4-2 Toronto Maple Leafs win against the New Jersey Devils.
  • Mat Barzal had a goal and two apples in a 4-3 win in the Battle of New York.
  • Robin Lehner made it eight wins in a row to help lift the Islanders past the Rangers.
  • Artemi Panarin, who is getting offers from all over the place to stay in Columbus, gave John Tortorella his 600th win with his overtime winner in a 4-3 defeat of the Nashville Predators. He also scored in regulation, along with Bonne Jenner’s brace.
  • Sven Baertschi had two goals, including a third-period game-tying goal that secured a point for the Canucks.
  • Richard Panik had two goals, including the game-winner to help the Coyotes beat Baertschi’s Canucks 4-3 in overtime.
  • Chris Tierney grabbed two goals in a 4-1 rout for the Senators against the Kings.

Highlights of the night

Factoids

Scores

Capitals 4, Bruins 2
Maple Leafs 4, Devils 2
Islanders 4, Rangers 3
Flyers 2, Stars 1
Blues Jackets 4, Predators 3 (OT)
Lightning 3, Hurricanes 1
Blues 4, Canadiens 1
Wild 3, Jets 2
Oilers 4, Panthers 3 (SO)
Coyotes 4, Canucks 3 (OT)
Senators 4, Kings 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

Senators handle Uber video nightmare in very Senators way

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The Ottawa Senators latest PR disaster (it’s already getting the “-gate” treatment) surfaced on Monday, as the Ottawa Citizen reported that an Uber video leaked of players trashing assistant coach Marty Raymond.

In true current-day Senators fashion, it seems like it’s only getting stranger from there.

One very “Senators” factor is that the players involved didn’t answer questions from the media after their morning skate on Tuesday. Instead, Mark Stone, Zack Smith, Mark Borowiecki, and head coach Guy Boucher were among those speaking for Thomas Chabot, Dylan DeMelo, Matt Duchene, Alex Formenton Chris Tierney, Chris Wideman and Colin White.

It’s crucial to note that, while the video leaked recently, it appears to have happened on Oct. 29, in the middle of a four-game losing streak where Ottawa lost to Vegas on Oct. 28 and the Coyotes on Oct. 30. That context helps explain why Stone and Boucher were among those explaining that the matter was already addressed, and that the team knew about it “long before” the footage surfaced.

“It was dealt with internally, the way it should be, we’re going to move forward and grow from it,” Stone said. ” … This is only going to make our team stronger moving forward.”

Such comments make you wonder if the video was leaked intentionally, or at least by an unhappy front office member. Considering how things are going – poorly – for the Senators from a PR perspective, management hasn’t exactly earned the benefit of the doubt.

Update: TSN’s Ian Mendes went in-depth to explain how the Senators knew about the video in advance, and more.

To paraphrase Heath Ledger’s Joker from “The Dark Knight,” what doesn’t kill the Senators might not make them stronger; it might just them stranger.

It’s tough to believe that any of this will really make the Senators kill penalties more effectively, score more frequently on the power play, or listen more closely in team meetings. Instead, this is just a reminder that the bloom is off the rose as they’ve fallen to 5-6-3 after a promising 4-2-1 start.

After all, it’s not exactly as if the Senators have rallied since … whenever this mystery team meeting took place. They’ve lost six of their last seven games, with their only win (4-2 against Buffalo on Thursday) immediately being followed by the Sabres getting revenge to the tune of a 9-2 shellacking on Saturday.

Now, to be fair, it’s not that unreasonable to imagine players on all 31 teams having conversations like the one Duchene & Co. enjoyed while unknowingly on candid camera. Zack Smith pointed out as much, saying that if a camera followed him around during his career, he doesn’t think he’d still “be in the league.” Some of this boils down to the fact that technology opens the valve for leaks like these to happen more and more often.

So, perhaps the distinguishing factor is that this surfaced, rather than being contained.

Whether it comes down to self-inflicted wounds or mishandling crises that would challenge even the most stable management, it’s been a dizzying stretch of terrible developments for the Senators.

  • If management had any sense of the trouble brewing between Mike Hoffman and Erik Karlsson, then it makes the drama that much tougher to stomach, particularly since embattled GM Pierre Dorion settled for pennies on the dollar in the eventual trades.
  • Now-former-assistant GM Randy Lee resigned over charges of harassing a hotel shuttle driver.
  • There are all sorts of questions about the Senators front office. A litany of moves look questionable, from the worse-by-the-day Duchene trade (and the draft pick implications), as well as Alex Burrows’ failed experiment ending with a buyout. Perhaps just as pressing: does Dorion really have any faith in Boucher, considering how he undermined him heading into what would be a turbulent summer?
  • Fair or not, a lot of the turmoil can be traced to owner Eugene Melnyk, whose bizarre video with Mark Borowiecki seems more and more like comic relief amidst all these nightmares.

Would the Senators even employ the same coaching staff that players criticized if their owner wasn’t so, um, budget-conscious? Could a crisis been averted or at least minimized if Karlsson was moved at the trade deadline? How unhappy are people behind the scenes? It’s easy to see why Senators fans aren’t pleased with many things, with the team’s owner ranking as possibly the biggest area of discontent.

The Senators ultimately face some crucial decisions after this latest headache emerged.

It would be rash to trade every player involved in that video, yet one cannot help but wonder if this is yet another sign that Duchene could find himself traded once again (the speedy, occasionally attention-lapsing forward is in a contract year). Chris Wideman is also slated to be a UFA. Conversely, Stone was not in that video and was instead tasked with facing the media, and he’s also in a contract year. What will Dorion do with players like these? How many of these players are part of the solution, particularly when all of these leaks feel like telltale signs of a sinking ship?

The Senators’ problems run deep, and putting them off might be why they’re in such a mess. Management has to start digging out of this hole, or the nightmares will just continue.

As poorly as the Sens have been playing, it’s probably a relief that they’re getting back on the ice, as Ottawa hosts the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday. Of course, if we’ve learned anything from the Senators, it’s that things can go sour fast … so expect fans to boo their own team, probably very soon.

Update: Matt Duchene spoke to the media following Ottawa’s 7-3 win against the New Jersey Devils.

Duchene made a brief statement before answering questions from reporters.

“I want to take this opportunity to extend my absolutely sincerest apologies to Marty Raymond,” Duchene said. “He’s a heck of a person and coach, and he did not deserve what we said. That’s all I can say on it right now, unfortunately. I sincerely, sincerely mean that, on behalf of myself and my teammates.”

Duchene said the win was big for the Senators, especially given the events over the past couple of days.

“We’ve dealt with things and everything in here is good,” he said. “Just how I feel, it’s hard for me to even talk about it because it makes me emotional. That’s not the person I am or any of us.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Senators players apologize after being filmed ripping assistant coach

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Six players from the Ottawa Senators have apologized to assistant coach Marty Raymond after their private comments were caught on tape and leaked to the public on Monday.

The video, which was first reported by the Ottawa Sun/Citizen, shows Thomas Chabot, Dylan DeMelo, Matt Duchene, Alex Formenton Chris Tierney, Chris Wideman and Colin White in an Uber in Phoenix on Oct. 29 trashing Raymond’s coaching style.

The video ranges from Duchene poking fun on the Senators woeful special teams play, which Raymond heads up, and at one point even saying he hasn’t paid attention in video meetings in weeks.

Wideman can be heard saying that Raymond doesn’t teach the players anything.

“Marty Raymond, the only coach in NHL history to have the worst power play and the worst PK within a calendar year,” Duchene says.

“Do you notice that when (Raymond) runs the video, if you actually do pay attention, he doesn’t ever teach you anything? He just commentates what’s happening,” Wideman adds.

“Here’s the other thing, too. We don’t change anything, ever. So why do we even have a meeting? I haven’t paid attention in three weeks,” Duchene responds.

The Senators released statements on behalf of the players and head coach Guy Boucher on Monday night:

Boucher:

“Nothing is more important to us during this rebuild than making sure our players and coaches are fully committed to our plan, our values and our system of play. We have every confidence in Marty Raymond’s coaching; in the effort and determination of our team; and in the sincerity of our players’ apology. We are now treating this as a team matter, and will be making no further comment to the media.”

The players:

“We want to apologize publicly to Marty Raymond, our teammates and coaches for our comments in Phoenix, Arizona on October 29. Our private conversation was recorded without our knowledge or consent. We’re passionate about our team, and focusing on growing together. We are grateful for the support of our fans and organization. This is an important learning experience, and we will do better.”

Uber Canada general manager Rob Khazzam took to Twitter on Monday night to condemn the recording.

“A video was released by the media today of several Uber passengers being filmed without their consent while having a private discussion during a trip in Phoenix. This is a clear violation of our terms of service and we worked vigorously to investigate this issue. Filming or recording passengers without their consent is totally unacceptable and if reported/detected we will investigate + take action to preserve our communities privacy and integrity. In this specific case, we made efforts to have the video taken down.”

The Senators host the New Jersey Devils Tuesday night. The media availability after their morning skate should be interesting.

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

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.

PHT’s 2018-19 Atlantic Division Preview

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(The 2018-19 NHL season is almost here. This week Pro Hockey Talk will be previewing all four divisions looking at strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

Metropolitan Division Preview
Central Division Preview
Pacific Division Preview

In 2017-18, the Atlantic Division was the only one of the four divisions that had three teams pick up at least 105 points during the regular season. The Lightning (113), Bruins (112) and Maple Leafs (105) each managed to have pretty strong seasons. Unfortunately for the rest of the teams in the Atlantic, those three organizations were the only three that made the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Panthers, who finished fourth in the division, missed out on the postseason by just one point. But in the end, five of the eight playoff teams in the East came from the Metropolitan Division.

What will the division look like this year? Let’s take a look:

BOSTON BRUINS:

Better or Worse: The Bruins didn’t make a major splash during the offseason, but they’re better simply because a lot of their young players are one year older. Guys like David Pastrnak, Jake DeBrusk, Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Anders Bjork and Ryan Donato are all capable of improving their overall game. That’s a scary proposition for the rest of the league when you consider Boston already has Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci, David Backes, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask.

Strengths: There’s no denying that the Bruins have one of the best first lines in the NHL. Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak were unstoppable at different times last season, and there’s no reason to believe anyone will be able to slow them down this year. Yes, Bergeron is banged up right now, but the Bruins managed to overcome a stretch of games where he was injured last year, too. He managed to finish the year with 63 points in 64 games, while Marchand had 85 points in 65 games and Pastrnak accumulated 80 points over 82 contests.

Weaknesses: The Bruins have a great first line, but do they have enough scoring to match teams like Tampa Bay or Toronto? David Krejci has a hard time staying healthy and David Backes isn’t the same player he once was. They have some good youngsters on the roster, but it’ll be interesting to see if they can pick up the offensive slack enough to carry the Bruins to a division crown.

2017-18 Highlight: The team scored plenty of nice goals, but there’s no highlight that stands out more from 2017-18 than the one of Marchand licking opposing players. It’s gross, but it’s all anybody talked about when it happened.

MVP Candidate: It has to be Marchand. He led the team in scoring last year, and even though he’s the guy other team’s love to hate, there’s no denying that he’s an effective hockey player. Sure, he crosses the line a lot, but when he focuses on playing hockey, there aren’t too many in the league that are better. He’ll have to continue taking his game to another level if the Bruins are going to hoist the Stanley Cup.

Playoffs or Lottery: Definitely playoffs. Assuming they stay healthy, this team will compete for the division and conference crowns. They should stack up pretty well with the Maple Leafs and Lightning.

BUFFALO SABRES:

Better or Worse: The Sabres may have been one of the worst teams in the league last year, but they should be better. The simple fact that they were able to add Rasmus Dahlin because they won the NHL Draft Lottery last year makes them an improved squad. Even though they traded away Ryan O'Reilly to St. Louis, they still managed to add a veteran scorer like Jeff Skinner at a very reasonable price. The Sabres may not make the leap into the playoff picture this year, but they’re definitely better.

Strengths: Buffalo has one of the best young centers in the game in Jack Eichel. Even though they’ve yet to make the playoffs since he came into the league, every team in the league would kill to have a player like Eichel to build around. GM Jason Botterill still needs to work on getting his star forward some more help, but finding franchise centers is a lot harder than getting a good supporting cast. So the toughest part of the job is done.

Weaknesses: They’ll have their share of issues on defense, but the addition of Dahlin improves the unit right away. Rasmus Ristolainen is another important piece on the back end and Marco Scandella is a useful player, but the rest of the group needs some work. Also, they still don’t have a proven number one goalie on their roster. Carter Hutton is a veteran, but he’s never been asked to shoulder a starter’s workload. Linus Ullmark is an unproven commodity at the NHL level. Keeping the puck out of the net will be an issue this season.

2017-18 Highlight: A “Jack-Trick” isn’t really a creative name, but it’s still something that happened last season. The fact that he managed to score two goals in under 10 seconds is also pretty impressive.

MVP Candidate: As you’ve probably been able to figure out at this point, Eichel will be the one to carry this team if they’re going to make it to the postseason for the first time in years. His point total has increased from 56  to 57 (61 games) to 64 (in 67 games), so it’s only normal to expect his offensive numbers to increase assuming he can stay healthy.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. The Sabres are on the way up with players like Eichel and Dahlin at their disposal, but making the playoffs is a bit too big of an ask from this group right now. Expect them to be improved through.

DETROIT RED WINGS:

Better or Worse: The Wings brought back Thomas Vanek and they re-signed Mike Green, but the fact that they lost Henrik Zetterberg to a back injury definitely makes them worse. After years of being a model franchise, Detroit is going through a rebuild right now. They have some solid youth to build around, but they’ll suffer through a few more lean years before becoming competitive again.

Strengths: As we mentioned above, there are some good young forwards on this team. Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou are right at the top of that list. Michael Rasmussen, Filip Zadina and Evgeny Svechnikov are also coming through the pipeline.

Weaknesses: The Red Wings have one of the worst bluelines in the NHL. Four of their top six defensemen are over 32 years old (Mike Green, Niklas Kronwall, Jonathon Ericsson and Trevor Daley). That group just isn’t good enough to make the Wings competitive. This roster needs a ton of work, especially on the back end.

2017-18 Highlight: There weren’t many memorable moments for the Red Wings during the 2017-18 season, but the opening of Little Caesars Arena was special.

MVP Candidate: Larkin will have to be great if the Red Wings are going to compete for a playoff spot. The 22-year-old posted a career-high 63 points in 82 contests last season. Those are impressive numbers, but he’ll have to be even better if Detroit has any chance of playing deeper into April.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery, again. The Red Wings just aren’t deep enough at any position to be pencilled into a playoff spot at this point. They don’t have enough scoring, they probably won’t be good enough on defense and there’s only so much Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier can do between the pipes.

FLORIDA PANTHERS:

Better or Worse: GM Dale Tallon did a good job of making his team better after they missed the playoffs by one point last year. They went out and acquired Mike Hoffman from San Jose (via Ottawa), which gives them another proven top-six forward. Some of their young players have gained experience and that should also make them a better team, overall.

Strengths: Have you seen Florida’s top two lines? They’ll likely open the season with Aleksander Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov and Nick Bjugstad on their top line, and Hoffman, Vincent Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdeau on their second line. Those are two lines that are capable of creating offense on a nightly basis. The Panthers will be tough to stop.

Weaknesses: Their goaltending isn’t a weakness, but it can become one if Roberto Luongo fails to stay healthy, again, this season. The 39-year-old was solid when he played last year, but he only managed to suit up in 35 games. If he can play the majority of the games, he’ll be fine. If he can’t, the Panthers will have to turn to James Reimer, which is less than ideal.

2017-18 Highlight: Luongo delivered this incredibly emotional speech after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

MVP Candidate: Barkov has emerged as one of the premiere two-way forwards in the game. The 23-year-old posted a career-high 78 points in 79 games last season. There’s no reason to think that he can’t get even better this season. The Panthers’ new captain will have more pressure on his shoulders, but he can handle it.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. They missed the postseason by a point last year, so they’ll use that to fuel their season this year. They have a solid blue line and some skilled forwards. If the goaltending cooperates, they’ll be just fine.

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MONTREAL CANADIENS:

Better or Worse: Things seem to be a little more positive around Canadiens camp right now compared to last year. But it’s hard to suggest this team is better though, especially because they won’t have Shea Weber until Christmas and because they traded away their top two goal scorers in Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk.

Strengths: Carey Price is still considered to be one of the best goaltenders in the league. Even though he struggled mightily last year, he still has the ability to bounce back in a big way. If Price plays up to his potential, the Canadiens might surprise the hockey world this season.

Weaknesses: GM Marc Bergervin still hasn’t addressed the defense. Losing Weber for months hurts, but they’re still lacking good puck-movers. Jeff Petry will serve as their number one defenseman until Weber comes back, but his defense partners this preseason have included Karl Alzner and Jordie Benn. Yikes.

2017-18 Highlight: This Price save against Tampa is just too pretty not to watch over and over again. Ridiculous.

MVP Candidate: There’s no doubt who the MVP is in Montreal. It’s Price. If he dominates between the pipes the Canadiens will have a chance. If he doesn’t, they’re toast. It’s as simple as that.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. They’re too thin on the defense, too thin down the middle and there’s too much pressure on the goalie. It feels like the Canadiens are heading in the right direction, but they aren’t ready to make the playoffs this year.

OTTAWA SENATORS:

Better or Worse: You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to argue that the Senators are a better team this year than they were last year. Trading away Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman will do that. Chris Tierney and Mikkel Boedker won’t be able to fill the voids left by the players that they were traded for.

Strengths: Even though they traded some of their best players away, they still have Mark Stone and Matt Duchene on the roster for now (they’re both free agents at the end of the season). Those two will have to drive the offense for the Senators this season. Will they finish 2018-19 in Ottawa? That’s a different question.

Weaknesses: Thomas Chabot has a bright future ahead of him, but there’s no number one defenseman on this roster now that Karlsson’s gone. They aren’t very deep up front. And if Craig Anderson struggles like he did last year, it’s going to be a very long year in Ottawa.

2017-18 Highlight: As bad as things were last season, at least the Senators took care of the Canadiens in that outdoor game in December.

MVP Candidate: Stone put up an impressive 62 points in 58 games last year, but he’s going to have to be a whole lot better in 2018-19 if the Senators are going to surprise. Of course, the better he plays, the more Eugene Melnyk will have to pay him next summer. So, is this a lose-lose for the Sens?

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. There’s so much drama around the Senators right now that it’s hard to imagine them going on any kind of run this year. Management has already come out publicly and said this is a rebuild (even though they have no first-rounder).

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING:

Better or Worse: The Lightning didn’t make a major splash over the summer, but they’ll benefit from having J.T. Miller and Ryan McDonagh for a whole season (they acquired both players at the trade deadline). The Bolts didn’t have to make a major move to be considered one of the elite teams in the division. They’re better.

Strengths: The overall depth of this team is scary. They’re loaded on the defense with McDonagh, Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman and Mikhail Sergachev. They also have Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson down the middle. And, of course, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn and Yanni Gourde on the wings.

Weaknesses: Ummmmm this team doesn’t appear to have any weaknesses on paper. They’ve got scoring, they’ve got quality defenders and they have one of the best goalies in the league in Andrei Vasilevskiy.

2017-18 Highlight: There’s no way Anze Kopitar didn’t have nightmares about this Vasilevskiy save.

MVP Candidate: There’s so many options, but Kucherov has to be the guy here. In the first half of last season, he was probably the favorite to win the Hart Trophy but players like Taylor Hall and Nathan MacKinnon eventually emerged as options. The Russian winger cracked the 100-point mark for the first time in his career. Don’t be surprised if he does it again.

Playoffs or Lottery: Too easy. This is a playoff team. They’re good enough to represent the East in the Stanley Cup Final, but there’s going to be a ton of competition in this division.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: 

Better or Worse: Any team that’s able to add John Tavares in free agency is automatically better (no kidding).

Strengths: There aren’t many teams that could go head-to-head with the Leafs down the middle. Auston Matthews and Tavares are one of the top two center duos in the league along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh.

Weaknesses: Their defense is still a question mark. Sure, they have Morgan Reilly, who is a quality defender, but they’re still lacking another top pairing guy. Maybe this is the year they’ll sacrifice some of their forward depth to make sure they go out and address that need.

2017-18 Highlight: This one was pretty funny. Matthews had a goal called back after video review, so the next time he put the puck in the net, he made sure to signal that it was a good goal.

MVP Candidate: There’s options here, but Matthews still has to be the go-to guy in this category. The 21-year-old scored 40 goals in his rookie year and 34 goals in 62 games last year, so it’s scary to think what he’ll be able to do if he stays healthy in 2018-19. He’ll need to be great if he wants to claim the division and conference crowns.

Playoffs or Lottery: Whether or not they make the playoffs isn’t the question. What everyone wants to know is: Will they make it out of the first round of the playoffs? No matter how good they are during the regular season, another first-round exit would be a huge disappointment in Leaf Land.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.