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Alex DeBrincat is Blackhawks’ next rising star

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Alex DeBrincat spent three seasons between 2014 and 2017 absolutely dominating the Ontario Hockey League. He was one of the most productive and prolific scorers in all of junior hockey during his time with the Erie Otters, and never finished a full season with less than 50 goals or 100 points.

That sort of production, combined with his obvious talent level, should have made him one of the first picks in the 2016 draft class.

It didn’t. Mainly because he was listed at 5-7 and under 170 pounds, making him one of the smallest players in the class and, today, one of the smallest players in the NHL. As he slid out of the first round in 2016 there was always the potential for somebody to get a steal of a player.

That somebody turned out to be the Chicago Blackhawks, who ended up snagging him with the 39th overall pick in the draft.

Today, that pick is looking like one of the steals of that draft.

DeBrincat has been one of the offensive stars for the Blackhawks in the early going this season and already has nine points (including six goals) in the team’s first five games. That comes after a rookie season that saw him finish as the Blackhawks’ leading goal scorer. So far, he is one of the most productive players to come out of his draft class as the only players to outscore him have been Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Mathew Tkachuk, and Clayton Keller, all of whom were among the first seven players taken in the draft.

Only Matthews, Laine, and Keller have been better on a points per game basis.

All of this is a huge development for the Blackhawks.

Given their current salary cap situation they are going to need young players on cheap contracts to fill in around their big-money stars at the top of the lineup. DeBrincat is well on his way to giving them such a player and should be part of the organization’s next wave of young talent. And that next wave seems to have some promising prospects. Along with DeBrincat the Blackhawks are also getting a ton of production out of rookie defenseman Henri Jokiharju, the team’s first-round pick in 2017, and they also have Adam Boqvist, the No. 7 overall pick from 2018, waiting in the wings.

The lesson that the rest of the teams in the league should take away from this is to never let a player’s size stand in the way of giving them a chance. Over the past decade teams have been far more willing to take “undersized” players than they used to be, but they are still a little too fearful of that lack of size because there was nothing in DeBrincat’s production or play as a junior player that should have resulted in him being anything other than a first-round pick … and probably a very high one. Obviously if all things are equal with players the bigger, more physical player is preferable. But in cases like DeBrincat (and Johnny Gaudreau, and Nikita Kucherov, and so on and so on before him) all things are not usually equal.

DeBrincat has always been a highly skilled player that produced at an obscene level. There was always the potential for him to be a top-line player. A lot of teams couldn’t get past the lack of size and allowed him to slip all the way down to the second round. The Blackhawks were the team to take the “chance” on him and are being rewarded with an emerging star that could be a potential difference-maker for them for a very, very long time.

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.

NHL aims to get more teams involved in outdoor games

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CHICAGO (AP) — Clayton Keller took an eight-hour bus ride from Montreal to Boston for a hockey game at Fenway Park and won’t soon forget the experience of playing outdoors.

”It was pretty cool,” Keller said. He’d love to take the game outside again in the NHL with the Arizona Coyotes but will probably have to wait a while.

This season, the NHL is going back to familiar favorites for the Winter Classic between the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins at Notre Dame Stadium and the Stadium Series game between the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins at Lincoln Financial Field.

It’ll be the sixth outdoor game for the Blackhawks, fifth for the Penguins, fourth for the Flyers and third for the Bruins. While eight teams haven’t gotten a chance, those days could be approaching.

”I think we’re getting close to that point,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Thursday. ”Having said that, these are pretty scarce events. You want to position them in a way where they’re going to achieve the most success, however that’s defined. So having a game that’ll generate a bigger rating or being in an iconic stadium or venue, those are things that generate excitement and may get people to tune in. It’s important for these games to do well.”

The Coyotes, Carolina, Columbus, Dallas, Florida Panthers, Nashville, Tampa Bay and Vegas have yet to be scheduled for one of 26 outdoor games since the debut of the Winter Classic in 2008. Players from those teams understand why big-market counterparts are chosen instead but figure there’s value in spreading the wealth.

”We talk about growing the game, right?” Columbus defenseman Seth Jones said. ”You have to get nontraditional markets and put outdoor games in nontraditional markets in order to grow the game. You don’t need it to be grown in Toronto or Philly because those are already huge markets. But I understand why ticket sales, all that stuff plays a factor and ticket prices and that stuff. It kind of is what it is, but it would be pretty cool to be in an outdoor game.”

The Blackhawks in particular are ratings darlings given their run of success that included Stanley Cup titles in 2010, 2013 and 2015. Missing the playoffs last season doesn’t even hurt because Chicago and Boston are two of the league’s marquee franchises and Notre Dame’s home in South Bend, Indiana, is an iconic venue.

Boston’s Patrice Bergeron said playing outdoors never gets old. Chicago captain Jonathan Toews always finds himself checking the crowd and the scene during warmups and is looking forward to seeing younger teammates get their first taste of playing outside.

”It’s good to have the young guys, that excitement,” Toews said. ”It’s not like you act all spoiled like you’re not excited to be there. You just recapture that.”

Still, there has been criticism of the NHL for not getting some smaller-market teams involved in the outdoor rotation.

”As a team and as a community, even more than just a hockey game being played, it’s an event where you want to be a part of,” Predators center Ryan Johansen said. ”With the same teams keep playing the same games, I’m sure they look forward to it, but it doesn’t have as big of an impact as it would for Nashville.”

Blue Jackets-Penguins in the Horseshoe at Ohio State, Predators-Blackhawks at the University of Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium in Knoxville and Lightning-Capitals at the Buccaneers’ Raymond James Stadium would be attractive matchups. The Golden Knights could conceivably host a game at the Raiders’ new stadium when it opens outside Las Vegas in a couple of years, and the Stars could play at the Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium with the roof cracked open.

The NHL will likely stick to teams with significant national and international appeal. Daly said the goal is to make the Winter Classic annually ”a great rivalry in an amazing venue.”

The Heritage Classic allowed for each Canadian team to get a turn, and the Stadium Series – which could again be staged in multiple places in a season – provides the potential to stretch beyond traditional opponents.

”One of the original ideas behind adding the Stadium Series was really to be able to do that: make those more kind of local events that are big deals in those markets,” Daly said.

The Predators’ run to the 2017 Cup Final and the Blue Jackets’ development into a playoff team help their causes, and the Lightning could make just as strong a case with their ongoing success. The challenge for teams like the Hurricanes and Coyotes is to become perennial playoff contenders to make it worth their inclusions in outdoor games.

”I think if we keep trending upward and start winning some games then we’ll maybe get thrown in that conversation to do that,” Keller said.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno

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

NHL Team Previews: Examining past, present, future

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Throughout the month of August we examined different aspects of all 31 NHL teams. We looked back at their 2017-18 season, took a dip in their prospect pool, pointed out a player/coach/executive under pressure, highlighted a player coming off a breakthrough season, and asked questions about the future.

Thanks for reading and for the feedback on each post. Below are links to every team day post from the last month to get you ready for the 2018-19 campaign. Training camps open in two weeks!

2017-18 REVIEW
Anaheim Ducks
Arizona Coyotes
Boston Bruins
Buffalo Sabres
Calgary Flames
Carolina Hurricanes
Chicago Blackhawks 
Colorado Avalanche
Columbus Blue Jackets
Dallas Stars
Detroit Red Wings
Edmonton Oilers
Florida Panthers
Los Angeles Kings
Minnesota Wild
Montreal Canadiens
Nashville Predators
New Jersey Devils
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
Ottawa Senators
Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins
San Jose Sharks
St. Louis Blues
Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs
Vancouver Canucks
Vegas Golden Knights
Washington Capitals
Winnipeg Jets

UNDER PRESSURE
Jake Allen
Mike Babcock
Jim Benning
Bruce Boudreau
Scott Darling
Pierre Dorion
John Gibson
Connor Hellebuyck
Mike Hoffman

Carter Hutton
Jack Johnson
Evander Kane

Jarmo Kekalainen
Ilya Kovalchuk
Dylan Larkin
Robin Lehner
Nathan MacKinnon
Joel Quenneville
Carey Price
Antti Raanta
Tuukka Rask
Todd Reirden
Pekka Rinne
Cory Schneider
Tyler Seguin
Kevin Shattenkirk
Cam Talbot
Tomas Tatar
Brad Treliving
James van Riemsdyk
Steve Yzerman

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BUILDING OFF A BREAKTHROUGH
Mathew Barzal
Brock Boeser
Pavel Buchnevich
Thomas Chabot
Kyle Connor
Evgenii Dadonov

Alex DeBrincat
Jake DeBrusk
Travis Dermott
Pierre-Luc Dubois
Matt Dumba

Vince Dunn
Radek Faksa
Kevin Fiala

Brendan Gallagher
Noah Hanifin
Nico Hischier
William Karlsson
Ondrej Kase
Clayton Keller
Adrian Kempe
Travis Konecny
Anthony Mantha
Timo Meier
Darnell Nurse
Jamie Oleksiak
Brayden Point
Mikko Rantanen
Sam Reinhart
Teuvo Teravainen
Tom Wilson

THREE QUESTIONS
Anaheim Ducks
Arizona Coyotes
Boston Bruins
Buffalo Sabres
Calgary Flames
Carolina Hurricanes
Chicago Blackhawks
Colorado Avalanche
Columbus Blue Jackets
Dallas Stars
Detroit Red Wings
Edmonton Oilers
Florida Panthers
Los Angeles Kings
Minnesota Wild
Montreal Canadiens
Nashville Predators
New Jersey Devils
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
Ottawa Senators
Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins
San Jose Sharks
St. Louis Blues
Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs
Vancouver Canucks
Vegas Golden Knights
Washington Capitals
Winnipeg Jets

MORE:
Where should Jonathan Toews rank among NHL’s top centers?
Q&A: Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar
Back issue makes Henrik Zetterberg’s future ‘real unknown’
Panthers do one thing about as well as anyone in the NHL
Expect huge year from Max Pacioretty no matter where he plays
Rangers could once again be active in trade market
Will Sidney Crosby win another scoring title in his career?
Sabres’ Eichel focuses on keeping fiery emotions in check
• Maple Leafs should be NHL’s best offensive team

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Building off a breakthrough: Kyle Connor

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

Kevin Chevaldayoff and his staff have done one thing exceptionally well during their time in Winnipeg. They have drafted as well as (or better than) pretty much any other team in the NHL, particularly in the first round.

Since 2011 their first-round picks have included Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey, Nikolaj Ehlers, Patrik Laine, and Kyle Connor. That group has not only become the core of what is now one of the best teams in the league and what should be a Stanley Cup contender, but the Jets were able to get them while selecting mostly (Laine and Trouba excluded) in the middle of the first round. They weren’t really relying on lottery picks or tanking to get their franchise-changing players. Even the Laine draft was the result of some good fortune in the lottery (moving up from sixth to second).

In recent years Scheifele, Trouba, Ehlers, and Laine all had their breakout seasons.

This past season, it was Connor’s turn. And he was tremendous.

Playing in his first full year in the league, Connor burst on to the scene for the Jets by scoring 31 goals (most among all rookies) and finishing fourth in the Calder Trophy voting behind Mathew Barzal, Brock Boeser, and Clayton Keller.

[Jets Day: 2017-18 Review | Under Pressure| Three Questions]

After a brief trip to the American Hockey League early in the season, Connor eventually found a spot on a line with the big club alongside Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele, a dominant trio that helped drive the NHL’s second-best scoring offense. Even when Scheifele was sidelined for a significant chunk of the season from the end of December until early February Connor was still able to help drive the offense by scoring six goals (tops on the team) and adding six more assists.

If there was any sort of a red flag for Connor it was the simple fact he didn’t generate a ton of shots on goal (2.53 per game) and had a fairly high shooting percentage (16.8 percent), two developments that could indicate he might be due for a regression. But even that is probably a reach. If you look at comparable performances from recent NHL history it paints a pretty strong picture for what Connor could be capable of in the future.

Over the past 20 years the NHL has seen nine different players under the age of 22 put together a 30-goal season while averaging less than 2.6 shots on goal per game and carrying a shooting percentage over 15 percent (Connor scored 31 goals on 2.53 shots and 16 percent). That list includes Sean Monahan, Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews, Bryan Little, Simon Gagne, Mike Comrie, Jordan Eberle, and Connor. The least successful player on that list is probably Comrie, and even he scored 20 goals five different times in the NHL.

In other words, there is really nothing to indicate that Connor isn’t on his way to becoming one heck of an NHL player and being a significant part of a Stanley Cup contender.

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.

Building off a breakthrough: Clayton Keller

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

Even the most optimistic person in the Coyotes organization would admit that the team did not get off to a great start last season. There’s not much room for debate there, what with Arizona starting 2017-18 with a pitiful 0-10-1 record.

During that confidence-shattering time, Clayton Keller‘s stellar start was a balm for wounded Coyotes fans who expected a big leap after the team landed the likes of Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta.

Keller scored nine goals and six assists for 15 points over 13 October games, becoming an early Calder frontrunner and earning Rookie of the Month honors for the opening month of the season. You tend to develop that sort of buzz when you make other great rookies like Nico Hischier look downright silly on plays like these:

The slick-yet-undersized scorer generated such a hot start, people wondered if anyone else could catch him for the Calder. It turns out that the answer was a resounding yes, as Mathew Barzal left everyone else in the dust, and Brock Boeser turned out to be even more of an oasis in a desert of bad hockey than Keller for a comparably abysmal Canucks team. Still, Keller enjoyed a strong enough season to become a finalist for the award, generating 23 goals and 65 points while essentially being a first-liner (with the ice time that goes with that, as he averaged a veteran-like 18:05 TOI).

[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Three Questions | Under Pressure]

Back in November, PHT’s Joey Alfieri caught up with Coyotes head coach Rich Tocchet, who praised Keller as you’d expect. Tocchet, like others, came away impressed with just how beyond-his-years Keller ended up being.

” .. What marvels me is that he’s a 19-year-old kid,” Tocchet said of Keller, who turned 20 on July 29. “He’s only going to get stronger, and he’s going against top players against other teams and how he’s coming out of the corners with pucks. He’s got the puck on his stick and he’s making plays. That’s what’s really been surprising to me.”

Indeed, for a player who was arguably underestimated just a touch during the 2016 NHL Draft because of his size (Arizona selected him with the seventh pick), Keller distinguishes himself in part by having such a nose for the puck.

Sophomore slump approaching?

Keller might be in tough to top his brilliant breakthrough season, but context is key.

To some extent, he was “a big fish in a small pond” during this past campaign. Despite carrying just three games of NHL experience with him from 2016-17, Keller topped all Coyotes forwards when it came to power-play time, averaging three minutes and one second per contest. Only Oliver Ekman-Larsson was a more frequent fixture on the man advantage.

The power play pond could easily get a little more crowded next season.

While Max Domi was the fixture himself on the PP as the second-most frequently used forward, Alex Galchenyuk might eat up even more time. It’s also quite plausible that Dylan Strome may be used in such 5-on-4 situations, as that extra space might help him leverage his strengths (smarts, playmaking) while camouflaging concerns like his skating.

The Coyotes still seem likely to lean heavily on Keller, and being that he just turned 20, there’s a strong possibility that he’s merely scratching the surface of his prodigious skills. Consider that he didn’t really ride outrageous shooting luck last season, with a very repeatable 10.8 shooting percentage.

Let’s also acknowledge the chewy elephant in the room: much like fellow brilliant American scorer Patrick Kane, Keller loves gnawing on his mouthpiece. There’s quite a bit of photographic evidence of this, which seems crucial to note.

As you can see, he deploys such a strategy at home:

via Getty

On the road (main image) and possibly while playing defense/battling for the puck:

via Getty

Honestly, scouts must have been sleeping on this one. Did they not at least consider the undeniable correlation between mindless mouth-wear misuse and blistering talent? *Sigh*

Anyway, all (bad) joking aside, it sure seems like the Coyotes unearthed a gem in Keller. Even if his ceiling is as a 20-25 goal, 60+ point player, he ranks as the sort of scorer you need in the NHL. If 2017-18 ends up being a mere appetizer for a greater breakthrough next season or in the near future, then the future is so bright you might need shades.

Maybe don’t chew on those sunglasses, though.

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.