Erik Brannstrom

Brady Tkachuk quickly scores first goal of 2019-20

Pity anyone who showed up to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ season and home-opener against the Ottawa Senators just a little bit late.

Not only would you have missed John Tavares being named the 25th captain in team history, you would have also missed the first goal of the 2019-20 season if you got to your seats (or turned on the TV) merely 30 seconds late. The Senators took advantage of the Maple Leafs’ sloppy play trying to exit their own zone, with Brady Tkachuk ultimately scoring the first goal of any player just 25 seconds in.

A former Maple Leaf got in on the scoring, too, as Connor Brown was credited with the assist. Erik Brannstrom also registered a helper on that tally. You can watch video of that goal in the clip above.

If you want a trip down memory lane, enjoy a few season-opening goals from previous years.:

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Culture is key in developing NHL prospects, Devils GM says

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Whether it involves New Jersey rookie center Jack Hughes or any other prospect, Devils general manager Ray Shero says the most important aspects of a prospect’s development must be in place before first stepping into the locker room.

Simply put, the key is culture, and how it rubs off on an impressionable 18-year-old.

”If you have a bad group of guys, if you’re not in a good environment in terms of work ethic, you’re like, ‘OK, that’s how it’s done here, great. I’m not going to work, I’m going to stay out ’til 4 o’clock,”’ Shero told The Associated Press.

”If there’s accountability, and that’s really a big thing in terms with anything whether it’s business, sports, whatever … when you walk into that it’s ‘Oh, that’s how it’s done,”’ he added. ”There’s learning curves for everything on and off the ice. I think the better you support those guys as young kids and teenagers, the better off they’re going to be.”

The start of the NHL season this week places the focus on a new crop of youngsters set to make their debuts.

In New Jersey, all eyes are on Hughes, the under-sized, play-making center who became the eighth American-born player selected with the top pick in June. He joins a team that features two other No. 1 draft picks in Taylor Hall, who was selected first by Edmonton in the 2010 draft, and Nico Hischier, selected No. 1 by the Devils in 2017.

Nothing Hughes has done thus far should give Shero pause as the Devils prepare to open their season hosting Winnipeg on Friday.

The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Hughes displayed how much of a competitor he is in expressing how unhappy he was losing in his first NHL competitive setting – a 6-4 loss to Buffalo in in the Sabres prospects tournament last month.

”We kind of got lucky to put four on the board, and only gave up six. Disappointing game,” Hughes said.

The youngster responded once the preseason began by scoring twice, including the decisive goal, on a give-and-go with Nikita Gusev in a 4-3 overtime win in his preseason debut against Boston.

Devils defenseman P.K. Subban was so impressed, he referred to Hughes’ performance as ”nasty.”

And the player who spent the past two years setting USA Hockey’s National Development Program’s scoring record followed up by scoring a breakaway goal 34 seconds into a 4-2 win over the Rangers a few days later. Hughes finished the preseason with three goals and an assist in four games.

Coming from a hockey family in which his brother Quinn is a defenseman in Vancouver and father Jim a former coach, Jack Hughes understands he has not accomplished anything just yet. And he got a taste of what playing in the NHL would be like representing the United States at the world hockey championships in May.

”I went into this summer knowing I needed a lot of work to be done. I kind of figured it out that it wasn’t the USHL,” he said. ”It was kind of wakeup call to work on my game and get a lot better.”

The Devils are encouraging Hughes’ development by assigning him a locker next to Hall.

Hall sees his role as being someone Hughes can use as a sounding board

”He’s taking in a lot of information every day, so helping him with that. It’s more leading by example,” Hall said. ”I think it’s up to us as players as coaches as management to shelter him as much as possible to make sure all his energy is going toward hockey.”

Like any youngster, Hughes is bound to make mistakes. One issue that stood out in Buffalo was the number of times he coughed up the puck.

Former NHLer turned broadcaster Ed Olczyk isn’t concerned, believing Hughes will learn to adapt.

”He’s going to try things that he won’t in 50 games game from now or 100 games from now. You’ve going to have to take the good with the bad and vice versa,” he said.

Devils assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald said Hughes’ turnovers are no different than what he saw during his time in Pittsburgh with then-youngsters Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

”I just think you allow the player to be who they are, and that’s what he is,” Fitzgerald said. ”Jack’s a magician with the puck.”

Here’s a list of other youngster to keep an eye on this season:

D Cale Makar, COLORADO

After helping UMass make its first Frozen Four appearance in April, college hockey’s Hobey Baker Award-winner made the jump to the NHL by joining Colorado in the midst of its first-round playoff series with Calgary. He became the first defenseman to score a playoff goal in his NHL debut and finished with a goal and five assists in 10 games.

D Quinn Hughes, VANCOUVER

A play-making defenseman, Hughes spent two years at Michigan before closing last season with three assists in five games with the Canucks.

RW Kaapo Kakko, NEW YORK RANGERS

Selected second overall behind Jack Hughes, the 6-foot-2, 194-pound forward led Finland with six goals in 10 games at the world championships. His 22 goals in the Finnish Elite League last season were the most by a draft-eligible player.

LW ALEXANDRE TEXIER, COLUMBUS

The 20-year-old is being counted upon to be part of the Blue Jackets’ young core to step up following the offseason free-agency departures of Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene. Texier had two goals and an assist in eight playoff games with Columbus last spring.

D Erik Brannstrom, OTTAWA

Acquired in a trade that sent Mark Stone to Vegas in February, Brannstrom is expected to get plenty of playing time on a young Senators team.

F Victor Olofsson, BUFFALO

Nicknamed Victor ”Goal-ofsson” for his deft shooting ability, he had two goals and two assists in six games with the Sabres last year, and had a team-leading 30 goals in 65 games with AHL Rochester. A seventh-round pick, the 24-year-old rookie was a late-bloomer after playing five seasons in his native Sweden.

Three things to watch for on opening night

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The 2019-20 regular season is finally upon us!

There’s four games on the opening-night schedule, including a doubleheader on NBCSN (Capitals vs. Blues at 6:30 p.m. ET and Sharks vs. Golden Knights at 10:30 p.m. ET). One game doesn’t make or break a season, but there are certain things to look out for when the schedule begins tonight.

Here are three storylines we’ll be keeping an eye on during tonight’s games:

• Are the Ottawa Senators the worst team in the NHL?

The Senators were the worst team in the NHL last year by a considerable margin. That’s what happens when you move on from players like Mark Stone, Erik Karlsson and Matt Duchene. Ottawa finished with just 64 points last year, which put them in the basement of the NHL standings. The team directly ahead of them was the Los Angeles Kings and they finished with 71 points.

The Sens have some good pieces in place like Brady Tkachuk, Colin White, Thomas Chabot, Erik Brannstrom and a few others, but how long will it take them to be competitive? Given some of the size and grit on the current roster, it’s important to note that they probably won’t be easy out. They’ll be in your face, they’ll make life difficult for you, but they probably won’t win many games.

Ottawa gets their biggest rival tonight, the Toronto Maple Leafs. We’ll find out if they can push the Leafs and if they can be one of the big surprises in the league.

• Can Jordan Binnington pick up where he left off? 

The Blues made what seemed like an improbable run to their first Stanley Cup championship last year. They did so on the back of Ryan O'Reilly and Jordan Binnington. Nobody’s worried about O’Reilly’s ability to perform, but there are some questions when it comes to Binnington’s outlook. Can he continue being a strong number one goalie at the NHL level on a nightly basis? He’s no longer an unknown commodity around the league.

The Blues paid him during the off-season, as the two sides agreed to a two-year, $8.8 million extension. The 26-year-old has a tough act to follow. He finished last season with a 24-5-1 record, a 1.89 goals-against-average and a .927 save percentage.

It’s going to be tough to follow that up. It all starts against the Capitals tonight.

• How lonely will Connor McDavid be this year?

Earlier this week, McDavid was skating on a line with James Neal and Tomas Jurco during practice, which means Leon Draisaitl was on another unit. There’s no reason to believe McDavid can’t perform next to anybody, but the sad state of the Oilers is apparent when you look at the wingers they have on their roster. No disrespect to Neal, who has had a strong career, but he’s coming off a seven-goal, 19-point season in Calgary. As for Jurco, he was limited to just 33 games in the AHL last season.

Again, McDavid doesn’t depend on his wingers to produce, but it would be nice for him to get some help whenever he’s on the ice. General manager Ken Holland has a lot of work to do to improve this roster. The fact that the high-end talent is already in place within the organization is good news, but the supporting cast needs to be blown up in a hurry.

Can McDavid drag the Oilers into the playoffs? They open the season at home against the Vancouver Canucks.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: 10 most exciting rookies for 2019-20 season

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In this week’s NHL Power Rankings we continue to get you ready for the start of the 2019-20 season by looking ahead to some of the most exciting rookies in the league this season.

Included among them are the top two picks from the 2019 NHL draft class, a potentially overlooked New York Rangers prospect, and some key young players that could play big roles on contenders.

To the rankings!

1. Kaapo Kakko, New York Rangers. The highlight of a wildly successful offseason in Manhattan was the Rangers moving up to the No. 2 overall pick in the draft lottery and winning the opportunity to select Kakko. He has been a highlight reel at every stage of his development and is the most fascinating rookie in this year’s class. He has NHL size, incredible skill, and pretty much everything an NHL team could want in a potential franchise player. The Rangers added a ton of talent to their roster this summer and Kakko might be the most important long-term piece to join the team during this rebuild. You need superstars to win, and Kakko has that potential.

2. Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils. Just like their arch-rivals, the Devils had a huge offseason that saw them hit the jackpot in the draft lottery to to win their second No. 1 overall pick in three years. Hughes scored two goals in his preseason debut and is going to enter the season as one of the Calder Trophy favorites. The fierce rivalry between the Rangers and Devils, as well as the fact the Rangers took Kakko No. 2 overall, is going to be a great subplot to their careers and development.

3. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche. He was a late addition to the Avalanche’s postseason roster last spring and made an immediate impact. The Avalanche did not really shelter him much, and with Tyson Barrie having finally been traded after years of rumors they are going to have to lean heavily on Makar and Samuel Girard to play huge roles on their blue line.

4. Vitali Kravtsov, New York Rangers. Lost in all of the Kakko hype is that the Rangers’ have another top prospect ready to make his NHL debut this season. Kravtsov has spent the past three seasons playing in the KHL and more than held his own as a teenager, finishing the 2018-19 season as the third-leading scorer on his team. With him and Kappo making their NHL debuts this season there is plenty of reason for Rangers fans to be excited about their future.

5. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks. Even though the Canucks haven’t had any draft lottery luck over the past four years they have still managed to pick some franchise cornerstones with their top picks. Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson already look like stars at forward, and now they get to see what Hughes can do on the blue line over a full season. He doesn’t have great size, but he has a ton of skill and has top-pairing potential. For a team that desperately needs a young impact player on defense, Hughes is going to be an important part of the Canucks’ rebuild.

6. Sam Steel, Anaheim Ducks. Even though he played 22 games in the NHL a year ago, Steel will still barely qualify as a rookie this season (the cut off is 25 games before the current season). He showed a ton of potential last year with 41 points in 53 games in the AHL, while also scoring six goals in his first brief taste of the NHL. With Corey Perry gone and Ryan Kesler out for the season the Ducks need their young players to take a big step, and Steel should be the one capable of making the biggest impact.

7. Ryan Poehling, Montreal Canadiens. After spending three years at St. Cloud, the 2017 first-round pick had a chance to play one game at the NHL level last year and it could not have gone any better for him, scoring three goals including the game-winner against the Toronto Maple Leafs. He figures to play a big role for the Canadiens this season and alongside Jesperi Kotkaniemi gives the Canadiens two promising young forwards to build around.

8. Alexandre Texier, Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets have high hopes for Texier and they are going to need him to him to produce after the team said goodbye to Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel this summer. He never looked out of place a year ago, scoring three goals in his first 10 games (including two goals in eight playoff games).

9. Martin Necas, Carolina Hurricanes. While most of the attention in Carolina gets focussed on the quality and depth of their defense, they are quietly assembling quite a collection of forwards as well. Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Nino Neiderreiter are all already outstanding players, while Andrei Svechnikov looks like he is on track to be a star. This year they should add another young piece to that core with Necas. He had a great year in the AHL (his first full season of pro hockey in North America) and is just another outstanding young player in an organization that is already full of them.

10. Dylan Cozens, Buffalo Sabres. One of the players from the 2019 draft class after the top-two that has a real chance to stick in the NHL this season. That is still not a given at this point (and probably the biggest reason he is not higher on the list) but he has had a strong showing in camp and is giving the Sabres plenty of reasons to give him a look into the regular season. He still has junior eligibility, but the Sabres aren’t exactly loaded up front and would be an intriguing addition to alongside Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner.

Honorable mentions: Filip Zadina (Detroit Red Wings); Evan Bouchard (Edmonton Oilers); Owen Tippett (Florida Panthers); Eeli Tolvanen (Nashville Predators); Erik Brannstrom (Ottawa Senators).

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Mark Stone faces new pressures as highest-paid Golden Knight

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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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Vegas Golden Knights.

One of the many interesting things about the Golden Knights is that, through their first two years, they did a lot by committee. There wasn’t a “face of the franchise” beyond the smiling visage of Marc-Andre Fleury, and by the nature of the goalie position, Fleury could let the game come to him, rather than being expected to exert his will.

Don’t get this as a jab at the talent Vegas assembled with astonishing speed, mind you. It’s merely that the face of the franchise was more of a cerberus, maybe the three-headed monster of a top line in William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, and Reilly Smith.

It feels strange to say this since Mark Stone‘s only been with the Golden Knights since that momentous trade from late February, but this is now in many ways “his team.”

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three QuestionsX-factor]

Simply put, Stone signed on for a lot of pressure when he agreed to a mammoth eight-year, $76 million extension, and it makes a lot of sense that he’ll be under plenty of it in 2019-20, as he’ll be paid $12M between signing bonuses and his base salary.

Now, it’s true that Stone has become used to being a go-to guy, as he certainly played that part with the Ottawa Senators, right down to being the person who answered a lot of questions for Sens teammates who were caught blasting coaches in a video of a leaked Uber gripe session. At least he got plenty of “media training” in Ottawa.

But expectations have a way of ratcheting up the intensity.

Stone spent the past season making $7.35M after the Senators enjoyed the stunning steal of Stone only carrying a $3.5M cap hit from 2015-16 through 2017-18. Considering the term and the top dollar of a new Stone deal kicking in, few will be making arguments about him being underpaid any longer, and you might struggle to make an argument for underrated.

The bar has been raised in ways that go beyond the financial, too.

Despite the Golden Knights merely entering their third season in the NHL, people aren’t going to be looking at this team as scrappy underdogs like they often did with the Senators. This is a team with win-now aspirations, so if Vegas sputters, Stone will be a natural scapegoat as their biggest earner.

Speaking of win-now, it’s also clear that the Golden Knights carved up pieces of their future to be a more impressive team in the present, and Stone is the biggest example of that mindset, along with what Vegas had given up before for the likes of Max Pacioretty and Tomas Tatar.

Erik Brannstrom was (and is) a coveted defensive prospect, and if he continues to impress in conjunction with any Golden Knights struggles, then things could get a little awkward — even if Brannstrom’s potential continues to be seen mostly outside of the NHL. That’s the tricky thing for players involved in trades: they’re not judged by individual efforts and their team’s results alone, but they’re also compared to the player they were trade for, and how their former team performs.

The good news is that it sure seems like Stone can handle it.

And maybe just as importantly, Stone can bring value to the table even if he goes through cold streaks scoring-wise. We actually saw that right off the bat when he joined the Golden Knights in 2019-20, as he only managed a single assist through his first four games, and took six to record his first goal for Vegas.

Even then, Stone was making a positive impact with his two-way play, and few remember those early struggles thanks to the impact he made during the Golden Knights’ memorable Round 1 series against the Sharks. If you’re going to commit a $9.5M cap hit and bunch of term to any type of forward, you could do a lot worse than a winger who justifiably generates a ton of Selke hype as an all-around dynamo.

Stone should face a lot of pressure in 2019-20, with some anxieties being new, and others familiar. He’s generally well-equipped to hurdle over these obstacles, but that doesn’t make any of this easy.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.