Nathan MacKinnon might be NHL’s most valuable asset

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There are few players in the NHL that have been more impressive and noticeable through the first week of the Stanley Cup Playoffs than Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon.

He looks like he is shot out of a cannon on every shift and is one of the biggest reasons his team has a 3-1 lead on the Calgary Flames and is on the verge of knocking off the top-seeded team in the Western Conference.

MacKinnon may not have the highest point total in the playoffs, but his impact has been massive.

The Avalanche have looked like the better team through the first four games, and one of the biggest reasons for that has been their team speed. They just look faster in every game, and at no time is that more evident than when MacKinnon and his line is on the ice.

There is no answer for him or anything he is doing, and you don’t have to dig too deep into the numbers to see it.

Following Wednesday’s come-from-behind 3-2 overtime win, MacKinnon is leading the league in total shot attempts (44), shots on goals (24), and scoring chances (25) and has been a driving force behind the Avalanche offense, just as he has been over the past two regular seasons where he has emerged as one of the truly elite players in the league.

He has been as dominant as it can possibly get at this level.

He is also one of the biggest current steals in the NHL when it comes to his total value under the salary cap, and from a team perspective has become the most valuable asset on any team in the NHL.

You won’t find anyone arguing that he is the best player in the league, but he is certainly on the very short list of players that stand out head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. Definitely top-10 at this point, maybe even starting to push the top-five. Just consider that since the start of the 2017-18 season only two players in the league (Nikita Kucherov and Connor McDavid) have recorded more points than MacKinnon, while only three have scored more goals.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

He scored 41 goals and 99 total points in 82 games this season, and was at 39 goals and 97 points in only 74 games a year ago (that would have been a 43-goal, 107-point pace over 82 games).

That sort of offensive brilliance is incredibly rare, and MacKinnon is showing no signs of slowing down.

There are two things that make this such a steal for the Avalanche.

The first is that MacKinnon is still only 23 years old, meaning that he still might have his best and most productive days in the NHL sitting in front of him as most scorers hit their peak levels of production between the ages of 22 and 26.

The second is that the Avalanche have him under contract at only $6.3 million per season for four more full seasons after this one.

That means he is under contract for all of his peak years at an astonishingly low rate for the team.

That salary cap hit is only the 62nd largest in the NHL, and putting him right between Keith Yandle and Alexander Radulov on the league’s pay scale.

The Avalanche are going to be getting a bonafide superstar, throughout probably all of his prime years in the NHL, for a price that is probably equivalent to a really good, but not great, first-or second-line player. That is a totally bonkers contract, and it gives the Avalanche an enormous advantage when it comes to building their team around him.

Add in the fact that Gabriel Landeskog makes even less over the next two years, and the Avalanche have only $11 million committed to a pair of top-line stars.

That is one of the biggest reasons you have to be extraordinarily excited about the future of this team, no matter what happens in this series or the remainder of the playoffs.

MacKinnon, Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen is as good of a trio as there is anywhere else in the league, and they are probably the biggest reason the Avalanche have made the playoffs the past two years.

Now they are on the verge of getting even more around them.

They have a top-four pick in Cale Makar that has made his arrival in the league and, in just two playoff games, already looks like he belongs. They have a pipeline of young players filled with the potential (some in the NHL already; some on their way) and another top-four pick coming this spring thanks to completion of the Matt Duchene trade. Because MacKinnon, Landeskog, and Rantanen are so young (and so cheap) they should all still be a part of the team that pipeline starts to make its biggest impact.

And because their two best players are tied to contracts that are probably for about half of what their market value should be, they have a ton of flexibility to not only keep their other young players (Rantanen, specifically) but also add around them. It is a huge advantage.

(Data via Natural Stat Trick)

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.

 

Kings give McLellan his third head coaching job

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The Los Angeles Kings officially announced former Sharks bench boss Todd McLellan as their new head coach on Tuesday.

This continues a tour of the Pacific Division for McLellan, as he was most recently fired by the Edmonton Oilers.

From 2008-09 through 2014-15, McLellan served as Sharks head coach; he then spent 2015-16 through a portion of 2018-19 behind the bench with the Oilers, before making way for Ken Hitchcock. While the Sharks made the playoffs in six of his seven seasons (the final being the failed year, which in part cost McLellan his job), things didn’t go so swimmingly with Edmonton. While their run to Round 2 in 2016-17 represents the best season the Oilers have enjoyed in years, Edmonton only made the postseason that one time under McLellan, so he bares the mark of “not being able to get it done while having Connor McDavid on his team.”

Of course, McLellan didn’t pick the groceries, he just tried to do the best he could with those ingredients.

Unfortunately, you could also argue that his “cart” is full of expired (or nearly expired) and/or overpriced items, as the Kings sure looked like a slow, broken-down mess at times in 2018-19. McLellan inherited a tremendous Sharks team upon leaving as a Red Wings assistant, and he also came into Edmonton during McDavid’s rookie season, so this is the least promising situation McLellan’s started with. At least on paper.

There were rumblings that the Buffalo Sabres were also after Todd McLellan, including this recent bit from Pierre LeBrun:

Maybe McLellan sees more potential in the Kings (particularly in getting a few more years out of an aging core featuring Anze Kopitar [31] and Drew Doughty [29])? Or maybe this as much a statement about the way the Sabres are running things than what Los Angeles might be doing well?

Whatever the explanation might be, the McLellan era is set to begin for the Kings. How do you feel about the decision to have McLellan sit in the throne?

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.

10 stunning numbers from the 2018-19 NHL regular season

Throughout the 2018-19 regular season we have looked at some stunning numbers from around NHL.

What stood out to us most as the Stanley Cup Playoffs are set to begin?

Let’s take a look…

1. Goal scoring goes up again. The average NHL game featured 5.96 goals per game this season, the highest it has been since the 2005-06 season when the league topped the six-goal per game mark coming out of the 2005 lockout.

If you remember, that was the year penalties skyrocketed around the league with the crackdown on obstruction and interference.

There are a lot of possibilities for the recent increase, including the smaller goalie gear to the continuation of 3-on-3 overtime, to any number of smaller changes in the league. It is never any one thing that leads to drops in scoring, and it is never any one thing that leads to increases. A lot of times it is simply a lot of smaller changes that add up into big changes, and there have been a few in the NHL in recent years with the goalies and overtime rules.

2. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The Edmonton Oilers’ teammates finished second and fourth respectively in the NHL scoring race, the first time a pair of teammates finished in the top-five since Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf did it for the Anaheim Ducks during the 2013-14 season.

It is the 15th time it has happened in the past 20 years.

What is stunning about it is the Oilers are only the third team out of that group to have actually missed the playoffs with two top-five scorers on their roster.

Two of the teams reached the Stanley Cup Final (one of them won it), three others went as far as the Conference Final, there was a Presidents’ Trophy winner, and a handful of teams that at least made it to Round 2.

The full list over the past 20 years:

Edmonton: 2018-19: Missed Playoffs
Anaheim 2013-14: Reached Round 2
Tampa Bay 2012-13: Missed playoffs
Tampa Bay 2010-11: Reached Eastern Conference Final
Vancouver 2010-11: Reached Stanley Cup Final
Washington 2009-10: Won Presidents’ Trophy, lost Round 1
Pittsburgh 2008-09: Won Stanley Cup
Tampa Bay 2006-07: Lost Round 1
Ottawa 2005-06: Reached Round 2
Colorado 2002-03: Lost Round 1
Vancouver 2001-02: Lost Round 1
Pittsburgh 2000-01: Reached Eastern Conference Final
Anaheim 1999-00: Lost Round 1
Anaheim 1998-99: Missed playoffs
Colorado 1998-99: Reached Western Conference Final

3. A big year for milestones. Alex Ovechkin and Draisaitl both hit the 50-goal mark this season, making it the first time since the 2011-12 season that two players did it in the same season. Draisaitl is also the first player other than Ovechkin to score 50 goals in a season since that year. There have only been 12 50-goal seasons over the past decade. Six of them belong to Ovechkin, two belong to Steven Stamkos, and Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Corey Perry, and Draisaitl all have one each.

There were also six player to top the 100-point mark, the most to do it in one year since the 2006-07 season when seven players did it.

4. All of the Lightning’s dominance. The Lightning’s 62 wins tied the NHL record for most wins in a single season, while their 3.89 goals per game average was the 20th best single season mark since 1990. All 19 teams ahead of them played between 1990 and 1995, just before the start of the NHL’s Dead Puck Era. They are one of only three teams in the top-40 that played after 1995.

Their 28.2 percent success rate on the power play was also the 10th best in NHL history. The nine teams ahead of them and the seven immediately after them all played in the 1970s or 1980s.

Not enough dominance? They became the first team since the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins to feature three 40-goal scorers in the same season (Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point).

5. Chandler Stephenson‘s historically clean season: The Capitals forward appeared in 64 games this season and did not take a single penalty, the only player in the league to play at least 60 games and not spend one minute in the penalty box. He is one of just 16 players in NHL history to play at least 60 games in a season and not take a penalty, and the first since Butch Goring during the 1980-81 season.

Dallas’ Valeri Nichushkin was close to joining him, going 57 games without a penalty (or a goal!).

6. Aleksander Barkov‘s penalty dominance. We know Barkov is one of the game’s best players thanks to his combination of shutdown defense and now dominant offense, but he is consistently one of the league’s most valuable players in terms of giving his team’s a special teams advantage. Barkov drew 35 penalties this season while only being called for, a penalty differential of plus-31, the best in the league.

Other players that excelled in this area include Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson (plus-28), Carolina’s Warren Foegele (plus-22), and New Jersey’s Nico Hischier (plus-19).

7. The Islanders succeeded in going worst to first. No team in the NHL gave up more goals than the New York Islanders during the 2017-18 season, and no team gave up fewer goals during the 2018-19 season. They improved their goals against number by 102 goals in one season. That is more than stunning, it is completely insane. Read more here on how they did it.

8. Fighting is still rapidly going away. Anyone that is paying attention to the evolution of the NHL game knows that fighting is quickly disappearing from the sport, but you might be shocked as to just how much it is going away. There was not one player in the NHL this season that dropped the gloves more than six times (there were 10). Only three teams (Boston, New York Rangers, Ottawa) had more than 20 fights for the entire season.

9. Drew Doughty‘s ugly season. From the moment he arrived in the NHL Doughty has been one of the NHL’s best defensive players. Between 2008-09 and 2017-18 there were only eight defenders in the NHL that had a better plus-minus than his plus-93. Say what you want about plus-minus (I know the flaws), but anyone that can play nearly a decade and be that far on the plus side in goals is probably pretty solid. This season? He finished as a minus-34, the second worst mark in the entire league, ahead of only Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. A lot of that is due to playing the most minutes on a lousy team whose starting goalie had a terrible year, but it is still unheard of to see Doughty that far down the list.

10. A stunning shootout stat. There were four teams that did not win a game in a shootout this season (the Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames, San Jose Sharks, and Ottawa Senators). Before this season there were only five teams in the entire shootout era that went a full season without a shootout win, and two of them came during the lockout shortened 2012-13 season. You can probably credit 3-on-3 overtime for that stat.

The Maple Leafs were only involved in two shootouts total this season, and both of them came in the final two weeks of the regular season.

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.

Lightning vs. Blue Jackets: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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Sometimes you can’t help but think that we’re all just writing off the Columbus Blue Jackets without one puck being dropped in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But then you give your head a smack, recompose yourself and realize that (insert deity here) might struggle against the behemoth that the Tampa Lightning have become.

Tampa is simply that good, and the reason why the secondary race (other than making the playoffs) was to finish in the first wildcard and avoid the unstoppable force in the first round. Sure, there might be that immovable object later down the line for Tampa, but Columbus certainly isn’t it. And that’s a bit of a shame given everything Jarmo Kekalainen did to improve his team (despite giving up nearly a full draft and a couple of nice farm pieces).

You see, John Tortorella can exclaim it from the top of Mount Everest that his team is up for the challenge. One, he has to. Two, well, he has to. But even then it’s a stretch.

There are levels to this, and Tampa is one that’s two or three floors above Columbus.

I mean, we’re talking about the far-and-away best offense in the NHL this year. We’re talking about a team with top point producer, a team with three guys with 40-plus goals, and a goalie that eats shooters for breakfast and snacks on the league’s best snipers.

Columbus needed to mortgage their future and take on massive risk by not trading pending unrestricted free agents in Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky at the trade deadline.

Tampa didn’t set an alarm that day.

Oh, and Tampa won 62 games, tying for the most ever in an NHL season. They never lost more than two in a row all season, and that only happened twice itself. There might not be a taller order in sports at the moment than the one that lies before Columbus.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Wednesday, April 10, 7 p.m.: Columbus @ Tampa Bay | USA, SN360, TVAS
Friday, April 12, 7 p.m.: Columbus @ Tampa Bay | CNBC, SN360, TVAS
Sunday, April 14, 7 p.m.: Tampa Bay @ Columbus | NBCSN, SN360, TVAS
Tuesday, April 16, 7 p.m.: Tampa Bay @ Columbus | CNBC, SN360, TVAS
*Friday, April 19, TBD: Columbus @Tampa Bay | TBD
*Sunday, April 21, TBD: Tampa Bay @ Columbus | TBD
*Tuesday, April 23, TBD: Columbus @ Tampa Bay | TBD

FORWARDS

BLUE JACKETS: It seems almost unfair to compare the two.

The Blue Jackets accounted for 256 goals this season, 12th most in the NHL if you’re a glass-half-full type of person. Cam Atkinson had a lot to do with it as he tucked 41 himself. Artemi Panarin had 28, and Pierre-Luc Dubois and Josh Anderson each bagging 27 each. Oliver Bjorkstrand was fifth on the team and rounded out the 20-plus goal men with 23.

Columbus will continue to ride their top two lines (Panarin-Duchene-Atkinson and Dzingel-Dubois-Anderson) for consistent scoring, and they’ll likely have to produce even better to beat Columbus, and a lot of it may need to come five-on-five. Columbus had the 28th-ranked power play, which surprisingly isn’t the worst among playoff teams — it was better than both the New York Islanders and Nashville Predators.

LIGHTNING: Nikita. Kucherov. Say it with me now… Seriously though, Kucherov did things this season and no one had done in the salary cap era. Perhaps he felt snubbed that he didn’t get the Hart last season, and boy did he come with a vengeance. Kucherov scored 128 points to establish a new career mark, besting his previous total by 28 points in two more games played. He beat Connor McDavid by 12 points in the Art Ross race.

And we’ve only talked about one player so far

The Lightning had three players with 40-plus goals, with Kucherov and Brayden Point each scoring 41 and Steven Stamkos leading the pack with 45. Ten of their 12 forward had double-digit goals, with seven having more than 18 apiece. They led the league with 319 goals-for, 30 more than anyone else (and the only team to eclipse 300). They led the with a 12.2 percent shooting percentage. They led the league with a power play that ran at 28 percent. They just led the league. In everything that matters. It’s a brilliant offense.

ADVANTAGE: LIGHTNING. I mean, if there’s one series that this is most clear in, it’s this one. It’s the Lightning by miles upon miles. The best scorer, the best offense and the best power play. It almost seems unfair and barring something divine, the Lightning aren’t going to be held at bay.

DEFENSE

BLUE JACKETS: Seth Jones and Zach Werenski will be leaned upon heavily as they shoulder a massive task in trying to shut down Tampa. The pair are a formidable shutdown duo, for sure, but the depth starts to fall off after that.

Jones plays nearly 26 minutes a night, with Werenski at nearly 23. From there, every other defenseman on the team is under 20 minutes aside from the injured Ryan Murray.

Not having Murray stings. He’s missed the past 24 games with an upper-body injury and won’t be available for Game 1, at least. Murray had 29 points in 56 games prior to getting injured, so they’ll be missing some production back there, too.

LIGHTNING: Victor Hedman practiced on Monday and it appears he might be ready to play in Game 1 after suffering an injury on March 30, forcing him to miss the last week of action.

Hedman’s presence is crucial. His size, ability to play monster minutes and in all situations is a big key to this juggernaut of a team. But Tampa is deep, no doubt. They finished eighth in fewest goals-against and can also rely on some offensive production from their back end. If there’s a weakness, it might be in the third pairing of Mikhail Sergachev and Jan Rutta.

ADVANTAGE: LIGHTNING. They have better depth and better scoring from the back end, both things that are paramount in the playoffs.

GOALTENDING

BLUE JACKETS: This is where the series could be decided.

If Sergei Bobrovsky and play out of his mind, Columbus has a snowball’s chance in hell, which is an improvement. If struggles, shut off the lights and head home. It’s over.

Bob’s season one of the worst of his career, statistically, with a .913 save percentage — a number that was made to look respectable as he closed out the season with multiple shutouts. Those numbers just won’t cut it against an offense of Tampa’s ilk.

LIGHTNING: Vasilevskiy is in a league of his own.

Like it or not, Vasilevskiy is probably winning the Vezina this year and he’s simply an elite goaltender who got a lot more rest down the stretch than he did last year. That means a more fresh Vasilevskiy. A more sharp Vasilevskiy. A quicker Vasilevskiy. That’s a goalie that’s tough to beat.

ADVANTAGE: LIGHTNING. Vasilevskiy brings it every night and hardly has a bad day at the office. He’s comfortable taking a lot of shots and he’s not going to be facing down a great power play. And Bobrovsky is hit or miss these days. And even if he hits, can he really deal with everything the Lightning will throw at him?

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

Can the Blue Jackets outgun the Lightning?

That’s really what it will come down to here. The Blue Jackets need to take advantage of every single opportunity they’re afforded and then play defense (tight gap, high pressure) like they’ve never done before.

Can they keep the status quo?

Basically, if the regular season Lightning shows up, this one is over before it begins. The Lightning need to remain the same team in the playoffs. They have a lot of pressure on them. They’ve earned it, given their season, and now need to respond to it.

PREDICTION

LIGHTNING IN 5. It’s possible the Blue Jackets catch the Lightning daydreaming. Tampa is just too good though.

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
 Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Blues
Islanders vs. Penguins
Predators vs. Stars
Capitals vs Hurricanes


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

McDavid shoots down trade rumors, addresses injury

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If you want an idea about how dark things can get for the Edmonton Oilers, consider that in the span of a week:

1) People were wondering if Connor McDavid would soon be on the verge of demanding a trade.

And

2) Sportsnet’s Mark Spector excitedly tweeted that McDavid attended Sunday’s exit interview while not on crutches.

Yeah, these have been trying times.

But, hey: McDavid was reasonably reassuring (to use his words, “fairly positive”) about the two most disturbing ways his season ended for the Oilers, beyond the team missing the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

McDavid noted that he still needs to get an MRI, so that “fairly positive” update could still be somewhat problematic if there’s soft tissue damage/structural damage/other bad things. That said, McDavid admitted that he feared the worst, saying that “I thought my leg was in two pieces” after Saturday’s terrifying fall:

Number 97 didn’t try to claim that he was happy with the Oilers results, stating that he’d be “a loser” if he wasn’t frustrated with the way things are gone, and that he expects changes in Edmonton’s front office. But McDavid did his part to shoot down trade rumors, stating that he wants to be part of the solution, and that he wouldn’t have signed an eight-year contract with the Oilers if he didn’t want to stay.

Now, sure, “part of the solution” is a phrase that brings back some bad memories of the Taylor Hall trade … yet it’s better than McDavid giving a non-answer altogether, right?

Also: don’t expect the speedy star to change the way he plays, even after another frightful moment. As you may recall, his other major NHL injury happened because he was tripped up while going all-out.

As Ken Hitchcock said after the Oilers received Saturday’s fairly positive update about McDavid, they’re not out of the woods just yet. If McDavid suffered an injury that inhibits his speed over his career, it would be a loss for hockey fans everywhere, not just for the Oilers and their fans. So keep that in mind, and keep your eyes on PHT for updates.

All things considered, it could still be worse, though.

(Oh, and no, McDavid didn’t think Mark Giordano made a dirty play.)

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.