Associated Press

The Buzzer: Stamkos, Giroux post four-point nights; Holtby blanks Blue Jackets

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Three stars

1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning

Two goals and two assists for Stamkos, who helped the Lightning crush the Colorado Avalanche 7-1 and win their sixth straight game.

Stamkos scored the first two goals of the game 10:10 apart in the first period and they proved to be all the Lightning needed in the win.

Stamkos has been his steady self all season and has 12 goals and 30 points in 31 games now.

2. Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers needed a win. They had just two wins in their previous nine games coming into Saturday.

With Sean Couturier out of the lineup due to injury, ‘G’ made the move back to center and thrived, scoring and adding three helpers as the Flyers picked on the Buffalo Sabres in a 6-2 win. The Flyers scored all six of their goals after the Sabres took a 2-0 lead. Giroux scored the winner in the third.

Giroux now has three goals and four assists in a three-game point streak.

3. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals

Holtby needed that one after giving up 10 goals over his previous two starts — both losses.

On Saturday, there were no goals given up in a 28-save shutout against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets must be sick of seeing Holtby this year. In the spring, Holtby owned Columbus and he did so again on Saturday.

Holtby has two shutouts on the season now.

Other notable performances:

  • Alex Ovechkin had a goal and an assist to push his point streak to 11 games.
  • Jonathan Huberdeau had a goal and two assists in a 5-4 shootout loss to the New York Rangers.
  • The Kings, as a whole, deserve mention. Drew Doughty‘s ‘pathetic’ comment seemed to spark his team. Jonathan Quick made 29 saves in a 5-1 win against the surging Vegas Golden Knights.
  • Craig Anderson stopped 35-of-36 in a 2-1 overtime win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
  • Louie Domingue had another solid outing, stopping 29 shots against the Avalanche.

Highlights of the night

Bob was pulled on the night, but not before making this ridiculous save:

Yikes:

Making dreams come true:

Patience is a virtue:

Factoids

Scores

Flyers 6, Sabres 2

Kings 5, Golden Knights 1

Bruins 6, Maple Leafs 3

Senators 2, Penguins 1 (OT)

Islanders 3, Red Wings 2

Lightning 7, Avalanche 1

Rangers 5, Panthers 4 (SO)

Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 0

Sharks 5, Coyotes 3

Flames 5, Predators 2


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

Sabres fall apart against Flyers as losing streak reaches five

AP
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Life comes at you fast in professional sports. It was not even two weeks ago that the Buffalo Sabres were the talk of the NHL, the hottest team in the league, and riding a 10-game winning streak that was giving their fans reason to believe in them again.

While there are still plenty of reasons for their fans to believe, things have taken a near-180 turn for the Sabres in the games since and they now find themselves on a five-game losing streak thanks to Saturday’s 6-2 home loss to a Philadelphia Flyers team that was playing without one of its best players (center Sean Couturier).

This one was by far the worst of the current streak as the Sabres allowed six consecutive goals, including four in the third period, after jumping out to an early two-goal lead thanks to a pair of goals from captain Jack Eichel. That two-goal lead was the highpoint of the day for the Sabres as everything completely fell apart after that.

Claude Giroux helped lead the comeback for the Flyers with four points, including the game-winning goal just 2:49 into the third period when he scored shorthanded to give them their first lead of the day.

By the end of the third period the Flyers were just dunking all over the Sabres with passing plays like this…

That goal made it 6-2 midway through the third period.

It is just the Flyers’ third win in their past 10 games.

But what about the Sabres? Which team is the REAL 2018-19 Buffalo Sabres? The one that won 10 games in a row a couple of weeks ago, or this one that has lost five in a row?

The answer, of course, is neither. They are neither of those teams.

They were never as good as they looked during that winning streak because they were getting every possible break to go their way, winning nine of them by a single goal, including seven in overtime or a shootout. Whenever a team wins that many close games in a row everyone associated with them always wants to chalk it up to being a tough, hard-nosed team that just simply finds a way to win. The reality is they are probably getting some good breaks here and there that are contributing to an extended winning streak, and eventually those breaks are going to start working against them. It always happens.

They are also not as bad as this current losing streak because of, quite literally, everything just mentioned.

All of those one-goal and overtime games are suddenly starting to go against them with the first four losses on this streak all coming by just a single goal, including two in overtime. The Sabres didn’t suddenly forget how to win the close games they were piling up a couple of weeks ago. They are just not getting the same types of breaks or bounces they did on the winning streak. Saturday was just a clunker. It happens over the course of an 82-game season.

So what are the real 2018-19 Buffalo Sabres? They are a team that has still taken a pretty significant step from where they were a year ago when they finished as the worst team in the NHL for the third time in five years. They have a bonafide star, Eichel, that now has a legitimate top-line winger in Jeff Skinner to ride sidecar next to him on the first line. They have a young stud defenseman in Rasmus Dahlin that looks like he could be the impact player they have needed on the blue line throughout this entire rebuild. Along with all of that they also have some young, exciting pieces (Casey Mittelstadt, Tage Thompson) that could be worth building around. They are a young, improving team that has put themselves in a pretty good position to end what has been a seven-year playoff drought. They are a team that will play a lot of close games that will sometimes go in their favor, and sometimes not. Right now, those close games are not going in their favor.

 MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

PHT Power Rankings: 10 players helping themselves in contract year

In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we will be taking a look at 10 players in contract years (both potential restricted and unrestricted free agents) that have done the most to help themselves this upcoming summer.

The summer of 2019 is going to be a fascinating one because some of the league’s best young players will be eligible for new contracts, including Mikko Rantanen (Colorado Avalanche), Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner (Toronto Maple Leafs), and Patrik Laine (Winnipeg Jets). All of them are in the middle of massive seasons that could no doubt make their financial demands increase even more.

They are not the only players helping their own bottom line.

To the rankings!

1. Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche have what might be the NHL’s best line in Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. The latter two are both signed for at least the next three seasons at a combined salary cap hit of less than $12 million, an incredible bargain given what they produce and how important they are to the success of the team.

Rantanen might end up making nearly that much by himself.

Currently playing in the final year of his entry-level contract, he will be an RFA and has set himself up for an absolutely massive payday. How good has he been? As of Monday he is the NHL’s top scorer, and since the start of the 2017-18 season is fifth in the league in total points, trailing only Connor McDavid, MacKinnon, Nikita Kucherov and Claude Giroux.

Even if Rantanen is able to get somewhere in the neighborhood of $8-9 million (or more) out of the Avalanche that will still keep their big trio under $25 million total against the cap, and they should be absolutely ecstatic about that.

[Related: What Will Rantanen’s next contract look like?]

2-3. Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs. If you thought the William Nylander saga was something, just wait until this summer when the Maple Leafs have to do it again — times two! — with players that are better and more important to the franchise.

When the Maple Leafs signed John Tavares as a UFA last summmer it sent everyone in the NHL into a panic wondering how they’ll keep all of their top young players around his contract. The team’s company line is that they will need some of their core players to take less money in order to stay, and while the Nylander deal has been met with some skepticism (and even criticism) for how much he ended up getting, you could make an argument that he probably did take a little less than he could have. At the very least, if he continues on his current career path it will probably end up being a bargain by the end of it.

Given the years that Marner and Matthews are having, combined with what they have already done in their careers before this season, they are both going to be able to command top dollar on their next contracts.

The Marner hype coming out of Toronto is a runaway freight train at this point, but once you dig below the hyperbole and absurd comparisons he is a really good player and a legitimate top-line playmaker in the NHL. There is no reason he will not be able to get at least the same salary cap hit that Nylander got, if not more.

Matthews, on the other hand, is the big one. He is the franchise player, the one that this entire rebuild has been centered around. He will be — and should be — the most expensive of them all.

You will hear talk of offer sheets (no one in the NHL is bold enough to do that) and you will hear people argue the Maple Leafs will have to trade one of them. But you should ignore all of it, and so should the Maple Leafs. Keep your superstars, even if you can’t get them to “take less for the good of the team” and subtract around the edges. Maybe it costs you a Kasperi Kapanen or a Jake Gardiner or a Connor Brown in the long run, but it is a hell of a lot easier to find players like that than it is to find players like Matthews, Nylander, or Marner. And those are the players you need to win.

4. Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets. Oh, and then there is this guy, the player that looks to be the heir to Alex Ovechkin‘s goal-scoring throne. Since the start of the 2016-17 season Laine and Ovechkin are tied atop of the NHL with 101 goals entering play on Monday, while Laine has played in nine fewer games. He is leading the league in goals entering play this week and should be able to name his price with the Jets.

5. Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres. Skinner has a lot going for him right now. Not only has he been a top-tier goal-scorer throughout his entire career, but he is having what might be his best goal-scoring season to date — in a contract year! — and he still does not turn 27 years old until May.

He has been a huge part of Buffalo’s turnaround this season and should be one of the most attractive players on the open market (assuming he gets there) given his production, skill, and age.

[Jeff Skinner has been just what Sabres needed]

He already makes $5.75 million on his current deal and there is no reason he should not be able to top the $8 million figure this summer. Just for comparisons sake, James van Riemsdyk, who is a couple of years older than Skinner and offers similar goal-scoring value, got $7 million this past summer.

6. Artemi Panarin, Columbus Blue Jackets. In his two seasons with the Blue Jackets Panarin has shown that he can carry a line on his own and that his production in Chicago was not just the result of playing next to Patrick Kane. In 106 games with the Blue Jackets he is better than a point-per-game player, an elite possession driver, and one of the league’s overall best offensive players.

It seems all but certain he will be hitting the market after this season, while a report over the weekend surfaced that his former team — the Blackhawks — will be “all in” in trying to sign him. Given that one of the arguments in defense of trading him in the first place was the concern over what his next contract might look like, management would have to find a way to shed some of those undesirable contracts currently on the books in order to create the appropriate space for him.

7. Matthew Tkachuk, Calgary Flames. Another restricted free agent, and even though he is not on the same level as Rantanen, Matthews, Marner, or Laine, he is still turning into an excellent player for the Flames. Given his ability to cause havoc on the ice and annoy the crap out of everyone he comes across, while also producing points at a top-line rate, he is basically a younger, western Canada version of Brad Marchand.

[Related: Tkachuk brothers proving they are not just pests]

8. Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks. The Sharks are going to be in an interesting position this summer as Pavelski, Erik Karlsson and Joe Thornton will all be UFAs, while they also have to deal with the end of Timo Meier‘s entry-level deal. Thornton will probably keep coming back to San Jose as long as the Sharks want him (and as long as he can still play), so he’s probably not even worth discussing. While Karlsson has been better than his box score numbers might indicate, Pavelski is probably the pending free agent on the roster that has done the most to help his bank account this season.

Pavelski was one of the league’s top goal-scorers during the five-year stretch between 2011-12 and 2015-16, but saw his goal totals drop a bit the past two years. Only a quarter of the way through the 2018-19 season he is now just five goals behind his total from last season.

9-10. Matt Duchene and Mark Stone, Ottawa Senators. The Senators have shown some flashes this season of being a better team than anyone expected them to be, but they are still on track to finish near the bottom of the standings this season.

That of course is good news for the Avalanche, owners of the Senators’ first-round draft pick as a result of last year’s Matt Duchene trade.

Speaking of Duchene, he is making the best of a bad situation in Ottawa while having a great individual year just before he hits the open market. And there is absolutely zero reason to believe the Senators are going to re-sign him, given everything owner Eugene Melnyk has said about the short-term and long-term future of the team. He and fellow free agent-to-be Stone are both averaging more than a point-per-game this season and should both be among the most attractive players on the UFA market, right after Skinner and Panarin.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Flyers eye new approach in GM, unlike ‘unyielding’ Hextall

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The Philadelphia Flyers fired general manager Ron Hextall because – to swipe a page from their glory days – he was Broad Street Bullheaded.

Hextall preached patience.

The Flyers want to win now.

That clash of ideology turned toxic in Philadelphia’s front office, and it cost Hextall his job in his fifth season as GM. Paul Holmgren, the Flyers’ loyalist and team president, had few solid answers Tuesday as to why he made the move, other than to repeatedly call Hextall ”unyielding.”

Hextall’s arrival signaled a new era in Flyers history, one where short-term fixes, big-budget spending and mortgaging the farm system were no longer in vogue. He gamely tried to restock the farm system and refused to make a major trade for a star that could instantly inch the Flyers closer toward contention.

And when all that got the Flyers were a pair of first-round playoff exits and a 10-11-2 record this season, Hextall got the boot.

”He was unyielding in his plan and remained that way,” Holmgren said. ”Good for him. He’s a well-thought out, deep-thinking guy.”

The deep thoughts included packaging draft picks and prospects for All-Stars capable of carrying Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, Jake Vorcek and James van Riemsdyk at least into May.

The Flyers expect to hire a GM in weeks and he’ll have to make an urgent decision: keep or fire coach Dave Hakstol.

”I hate to say Dave Hakstol’s fate is in the next GM’s hands but it is,” Holmgren said. ”I’m not going to make that decision.”

Hakstol, 132-97-40 in three–plus seasons, was set to coach the Flyers on Tuesday night against Ottawa.

Holmgren said he never asked Hextall to fire the coach he hired with no NHL experience out of North Dakota. But Holmgren said Hextall had told him ”of course, I’m thinking about it.”

But, Holmgren added, ”he never did it.”

The Flyers did at least discuss the potential of adding Joel Quenneville after the Chicago Blackhawks fired the three-time Stanley Cup champion coach.

”I can tell you his name came up right away when he was let go,” Comcast Spectacor CEO Dave Scott said. ”I think Ron was set on, stay the course.”

With his biggest backer gone, and the Flyers wallowing, Hakstol’s job is in serious danger.

”I like Hak. I think he’s done a decent job under the circumstances he’s coached under,” Holmgren said.

”Decent” isn’t exactly an encouraging vote of confidence. Hakstol has had his issues – the Flyers are last in the NHL in the penalty kill (69.7 percent) – but Hextall’s decision to enter the season with two oft-injured goalies haunted the team. The Flyers have matched a franchise-high with five goalies this season while prized prospect Carter Hart lingers in the minors.

”Is he our long-term solution? I don’t know that,” Holmgren said. ”I’m not prepared to answer that. That’s another topic for the next GM.”

Holmgren punted about every major issue facing the Flyers to the next GM, and there are plenty of top candidates. The Flyers have about $7 million in salary cap space, and enough talent that should entice some heavy hitters for the job. Former Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi, who won two Cups and now works for the Flyers, told Holmgren he wasn’t interested. But Chuck Fletcher, Ron Francis, Sean Burke and Brian Burke are sure to pique the interest of a team eyeing its first Stanley Cup since the back-to-back titles in 1974 and 1975.

”What can we do now, today, to make the team better now? Not two years or three years from now,” Scott said.

Hextall was criticized for refusing to listen to scouts and advisers and had been accused of cutting off alumni from access to the team. Hextall, a star goalie and one of the franchise’s more popular players, had wanted his own process on his terms.

”His plan was his plan and we’re really hoping for a little more openness going forward,” Scott said.

Asked when the Flyers decided to shift from long-term rebuild to legitimate contention, Holmgren was blunt.

”We’re in the fifth year,” Holmgren said. ”That’s a long time in hockey years.”

The Flyers haven’t made the Cup finals since 2010 and haven’t won a playoff round since 2012.

”It’s a long time,” Scott said. ”We’re gonna go for it.”

The decision to dump Hextall was about dollars and cents as much as it was the state of the roster. Fan apathy is at a low, attendance is down and tickets are steeply discounted on StubHub. There is little buzz apart from the new googly-eyed mascot.

What’s more, the 76ers, their fellow Wells Fargo Center tenant, have overtaken the city in popularity, with big stars and packed houses.

”They were having some challenges and then (Jimmy) Butler coming certainly helps things,” Scott said.

So the Flyers need their own Butler?

”Couldn’t hurt, that’s for sure,” he said, laughing.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Hextall’s patience failed to move Flyers forward

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The Philadelphia Flyers did things a little differently.

After the Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Blackhawks, Edmonton Oilers, and St. Louis Blues all fired their head coaches over the past month as a result of their disappointing starts, the Flyers decided to go in a different direction on Monday by keeping their coach (for now) and instead parting ways with Ron Hextall, the general manager who assembled the roster.

Team president Paul Holmgren said in a statement that it had become clear they “no longer share the same philosophical approach concerning the direction of the team.”

What exactly that means still remains to be seen. Was there a disagreement on the fate of head coach Dave Hakstol, with Hextall maybe not wanting to fire with the guy he hired? Or was Holmgren and Flyers ownership simply fed up with a lack of progress and what has become a stale, consistently mediocre team?

The results do not lie. In the Flyers’ four full seasons under Hextall they made the playoffs twice, missed the playoffs twice, never recorded more than 98 points in a single season, never recorded fewer than 84 points in a season, never finished higher than third place in the division, and never got out of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

At times they would lose 10 games in a row, and at times they would win 10 games in a row.

There was never any consistency, except for the final mediocre result in the standings every year.

A quarter of the way through season five the team looks to be headed for a similar finish, and management had apparently seen enough.

[Related: Flyers fire GM Ron Hextall]

What stands out about Hextall’s tenure with the Flyers is that he didn’t really do anything to hurt the team long-term. They are not in a worse position today compared to when he took over. If anything, he did quite a few good things early on to help improve their situation. He ditched a lot of troublesome contracts in Vincent Lecavalier, Nicklas Grossmann, Luke Schenn, Braydon Coburn, and the end of the Chris Pronger contract, while also getting some decent value back in return.

In exchange for those five contracts he acquired Jordan Weal, Radko Gudas, and the first-round draft pick that would eventually become Travis Konecny, all of whom are still members of the team today. That is probably more than could have been reasonably expected based on what he was giving up at the time.

In the first round of the 2015 NHL draft they selected Ivan Provorov and Konecny with the seventh and 24th overall picks, both of whom are now core parts of the team.

They selected Carter Hart, their (hopeful) goalie of the future, in the second-round of the 2016 draft.

And while trading Brayden Schenn for Jori Lehtera may have downgraded the team in the short-term, the trade did net them first-round picks in 2017 and 2018, giving them multiple selections in each of those rounds.

His outlook was clearly more long-term, not only with the way he made draft picks the key part of the (Brayden) Schenn trade, but with the way he refused to part with any of the team’s young prospects in an effort to make the team better right now.

Just take a look at all of the players and assets Hextall traded since the start of the 2016-17 offseason.

Filppula, Tokarski, and Mrazek were all basically acquired out of desperation due to injury situations at center and in goal in those years, but the main focus is clear — draft picks and the future.

That patient approach was also evident when it came to free agency where the Flyers were mostly quiet under Hextall. It wasn’t until this past summer when they brought back James van Riemsdyk on a five-year contract that the really tried to make a big splash on the open market.

Before JvR, the two biggest free agent signings under Hextall were Dale Weise and Brian Elliott.

The common theme you keep coming back to here is simply, this move isn’t great, but it’s also not really terrible. Do you know what that gets you on the ice if you keep making moves like that? A team that isn’t really great, but also not really terrible. In the end that will probably be Hextall’s lasting legacy the Flyers’ general manager.

His patience and methodical approach to building the team might work out in the long-run, but it was clearly not working for an ownership that seemingly grew tired of not seeing any real progress at the NHL level.

It’s okay to have faith that Hart might one day, finally, solve the Flyers’ cursed goalie position. It’s okay to believe in Shayne Gostisbehere and Provorov as the foundation of the defense for the next eight years. It’s okay count on Nolan Patrick and Konecny to be your future at forward.

But you can still do all of that while also making some improvements in the short-term to try and take advantage of a roster that still has top-line veteran players in Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, and Wayne Simmonds on it.

You don’t have to keep turning to a revolving door of mediocre goalies as stop-gap options until Hart is ready.

You can try to find some better defenders to complement Gostisbehere and Provorov, even if it means trading one of your many first-round picks or a couple of prospects.

Hextall was seemingly unwilling — or unable — to do that.  It resulted in a team that was stuck in neutral for too many years, and leads us to where we are today.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.