Erik Gustafsson

Blackhawks add to Golden Knights’ troubles

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During a hectic stretch during an overall hectic game, it looked like the Vegas Golden Knights might end their losing streak by beating the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday.

The game turned on its head during a dizzying second-period sequence during what was overall a pretty dizzying game. Ultimately, the biggest takeaway is that the Blackhawks won 5-3, pushing the Golden Knights’ losing streak to four games.

Rough night/nights for the Knights

The Golden Knights opened up the game with a 2-0 goal lead 6:29 into Wednesday’s contest, but it (obviously) ended up being insufficient.

Things really tumbled out of control during what had to be a maddening sequence in the second period.

3:54 in: It seemed like Alex Tuch expanded Vegas’ lead to 3-1, only a review determined that the goal was not over the line. So the score remained 2-1 in Vegas’ favor.

4:09: About 15 seconds later, Calvin de Haan tied the game up 2-2.

4:54: One minute after that Tuch goal didn’t count, Erik Gustafsson gave Chicago a 3-2 lead.

If that wasn’t enough to make things miserable, the Golden Knights’ fear of a messy goalie situation – particularly if something happens to their starter – came to the forefront when Marc-Andre Fleury was shaken by a collision with Alex DeBrincat. It seems like MAF was OK, although it’s tough to overlook Vegas losing so convincingly despite generating a 42-26 shots on goal advantage.

Again, this pushes Vegas’ losing streak to four games in a row, and the headaches extend beyond that. The Golden Knights have only won one in their past seven games (1-3-3). Getting some charity points could end up being crucial if these struggles persist (and it’s worth mentioning that they’ve only won twice in their last nine, going 2-4-3).

[More on the Golden Knights’ worries in net.]

Scraphawks

With an eight-game homestand to begin the season, it seemed like the Blackhawks had a chance to start 2019-20 on fire. Instead, they limped to a 2-4-2 record during that span.

That’s bad, but they’ve been reasonably scrappy since then, as they’re now 7-7-4 after following that homestand with a fairly tough schedule. No, it’s not world-beating stuff, and this franchise probably isn’t comfortable shooting for “respectable” … but, hey, the Blackhawks might at least be a tough out at times this season. Five of the Blackhawks’ next seven games take place in Chicago, so maybe this time they can take advantage of some home cooking?

Young guns

Perhaps the most exciting development for Chicago is the work of developing players.

Yes, Corey Crawford was great (39 saves), as was Patrick Kane (one goal, two assists), but hopeful forwards of the future factored heavily in this win, too. Kirby Dach authored his first multipoint game with a goal and an assist. Dylan Strome is heating up; he generated three points on Wednesday, and now has eight points (one goal, seven assists) in his last four games. DeBrincat also pitched in two assists.

***

While the Blackhawks have the weapons to at least occasionally put up a decent fight, you could probably still mark this as an upset for the Golden Knights. That said, it will be upsetting for MAF & Co. if Vegas cannot right the ship soon.

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.

Crosby out vs. Rangers, injury still being evaluated

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Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan offered an injury update on Sidney Crosby on Monday afternoon and it was not exactly an encouraging one.

Crosby has already been ruled out for the Penguins’ game in New York on Tuesday night (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN) against the Rangers and he will not accompany the team on its current road trip (it is a two-game trip that takes them to New York and New Jersey).

According to Sullivan, Crosby’s injury is still being evaluated and he does not yet know if it will be a long-term situation.

Editor’s note: Need tickets for Tuesday? Click here

Crosby was injured during the Penguins’ 3-2 shootout win on Saturday night early in the third period. He played just one shift in that period that saw him take an awkward fall after being tangled up with Chicago’s Erik Gustafsson, and then block a shot with his foot.

He is another look at the sequence.

Jared McCann took Crosby’s place centering the top line at practice on Monday between Jake Guentzel and Alex Galchenyuk. Evgeni Malkin, still working his back from an injury of his own, remained on the second line between Dominik Simon and Bryan Rust.

The Penguins are already without Kris Letang and Patric Hornqvist, continuing what has been a season-long trend of significant injuries. Even with all of the injuries they are 4-1-1 in their past six games and 10-6-1 for the season.

Crosby has 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) in 17 games this season and is one of the biggest reasons they were able to overcome their early season injury issues and keep winning games.

Related: Penguins rally again but Crosby leaves with injury

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.

Penguins rally again but Crosby leaves with injury

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PITTSBURGH — For the second game in a row the Pittsburgh Penguins were able to come back from a multiple goal deficit to take two points in the standings, erasing a two-goal deficit to pick up a 3-2 shootout win against the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night.

This latest win came with a potentially big cost, however, as Sidney Crosby exited the game early in the third period after a tough shift that saw him get tangled up with Blackhawks’ defenseman Erik Gustafsson, and then later block a shot with his foot.

That was his only shift of the period and it is not clear what exactly caused the injury.

The only update Penguins coach Mike Sullivan had after the game was that Crosby was in the process of being evaluated for a “lower-body injury” and that an update is expected on Monday. The Penguins’ next game will be on Tuesday night against the New York Rangers.

Crosby is the engine that drives the Penguins’ team and he has been his usual dominant self this season in all phases of the game. Losing him would be a pretty significant blow, especially as the team is already playing without No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang and forward Patric Hornqvist.

The season is not even a quarter of the way old and injuries have been a constant issue for the Penguins from the very beginning. At various times they have been without Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust, Jared McCann, Nick Bjugstad, Brian Dumoulin, Letang, Hornqvist, and now — potentially — Crosby. They have only had their full roster as it was intended to look for a handful of games. They have dominated in those rare instances where they have been fully healthy, they have just not had a chance to see it very often.

Even with the injuries Saturday’s win improved the Penguins to 10-6-1 on the season. They are currently on a 4-1-1 run over their past six games. The only regulation loss came on Monday night in Boston when they erased a 3-0 deficit only to lose late in the third period.

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.

Depth, defense, Nylander will be Blackhawks’ biggest questions

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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 Chicago Blackhawks.

It is time to ponder three significant questions for the 2019-20 Chicago Blackhawks.

1. Did they do enough to fix their defense?

The Blackhawks have steadily devolved into one of the worst defensive teams in hockey over the past couple of years and seemingly hit rock bottom during the 2018-19 season, wasting what turned out to be a pretty good offensive team.

The front office spent most of the summer working to fix that problem by acquiring Olli Maatta from the Pittsburgh Penguins and Calvin de Haan from the Carolina Hurricanes. Both players should be at least marginal upgrades when they are in the lineup (de Haan may not be ready for the start of the regular season as he recovers from offseason surgery) but there are still a lot of unanswered questions on this unit.

Among them: How much do Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have left in the tank? Keith is one of the best defenders of his era and has a Hall of Fame resume, but he is also entering his age 36 season and has showed signs of slowing down the past couple of years. Seabrook has a terrible contract and is a shell of his former self, rapidly becoming an anchor on the team’s blue line.

Then there is Erik Gustafsson who is coming off of a monster year offensively (17 goals, 60 total points) but has to show it wasn’t a fluke.

The new additions might be fine for the 4-5 spots, but if the top-three aren’t able to play at a high level the new guys really won’t that matter much.

The curious move this offseason was the decision to trade Henri Jokiharju to the Buffalo Sabres for Alex Nylander. Jokiharju showed a lot of promise last year and figured to be a key part of the team’s future blue line. But he never seemed to gain the trust of new head coach Jeremy Colliton, was banished to the AHL, and then traded for a player that so far has been a massive disappointment. Trading him is a big risk that could backfire in a big way if they are wrong.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2. Do they have enough depth at forward?

What gives the Blackhawks a chance this season is the fact they still have impact players throughout their roster. Patrick Kane is still on of the league’s best offensive players, Jonathan Toews resurrected his career offensively a year ago, Alex DeBrincat looks like he has the chance to be a superstar, and Dylan Strome started to show some of the potential that made him a top-three pick in the draft. Their top two lines should be good enough to compete.

The issue is going to come on their third and fourth lines that seem to be produce more questions than answers.

Teams need to roll four lines that can score in today’s NHL, and even with the return of Andrew Shaw the Blackhawks’ bottom-six still leaves plenty to be desired.

One player that could go a long way toward helping that depth is the recently acquiring Alexander Nylander.

Speaking of him…

3. Will they be right about Alexander Nylander?

In a vacuum the decision to trade Jokiharju isn’t completely ridiculous. Teams deal top prospects all the time in an effort to get better, and given the numbers the Blackhawks have on defense it makes sense that someone at the position would get moved.

Trading him for Nylander, a player that is starting to border on being a bust, is what is so confusing.

If you are an optimist, you might point to the Blackhawks’ success with Dylan Strome after he blossomed following a trade with the Arizona Coyotes. The problem with that comparison is that Strome had at least shown the potential to be an impact offensive player. Prior to the trade to Chicago he was a point-per-game player in the AHL and was starting to produce a little bit in his limited NHL action, especially at the end of the 2017-18 season

Nylander to this point has done none of that.

Over three years in the AHL he managed just 30 goals in 165 games and was only a .522 point-per-game player.

Strome, on the other hand, scored 22 in only 50 games in his one full AHL season and doubled Nylander’s per-game point production.

If you are supposed to be an offensive player and you don’t score at the lower level, it’s hard to expect much production at the highest level.

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.

Werenski, McAvoy should be in line for huge contracts

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When it comes to the NHL’s restricted free agent market this summer most of the attention has been directed at forwards Mitch Marner, Mikko Rantanen, and Sebastian Aho. They are the stars, the big point-producers, and in the case of Aho, the rare player that actually received — and signed — an offer sheet from another team, only to have the Carolina Hurricanes quickly move to match it. For now, though, let’s shift the focus to the blue line where there are a few more big contracts still to be settled this summer with Jacob Trouba, Charlie McAvoy, Zach Werenski, and Ivan Provorov all waiting on new deals from their respective teams.

The two most intriguing players out of this group are Columbus’ Werenski and Boston’s McAvoy because they are already playing at an elite level among NHL defenders.

Just how good have they been?

Both are coming off of their age 21 seasons and have already demonstrated an ability to play at a top-pairing level on playoff caliber teams.

Since the start of the 2007-08 season there have only been four defenders that have hit all of the following marks through their age 21 season:

  • At least 100 games played
  • Averaged at least .50 points per game
  • And had a Corsi Percentage (shot-attempt differential) of greater than 52 percent at that point in their careers.

Those players have been Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, Werenski, and McAvoy.

That is it.

Pretty elite company.

Based on that, it seems at least somewhat reasonable to look at the contracts Karlsson and Doughty received at the same point in their careers when they were coming off of their entry-level deals.

They were massive.

Karlsson signed a seven-year, $45.5 million deal with the Ottawa Senators, while Doughty signed an eight-year, $56 million contract. At the time, those contracts were worth around 10 percent of the league’s salary cap. A similarly constructed contract under today’s cap would come out to an annual cap hit of around $8 million dollars, which would be among the five highest paid defenders in the league.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Are Werenski and McAvoy worth similar contracts right now? They just might be.

The argument against it would be that while the overall performances are in the same ballpark, there are still some significant differences at play. Karlsson, for example, was coming off of a Norris Trophy winning season when he signed his long-term deal in Ottawa and was already on track to being one of the best offensive defensemen ever (he was already up to .68 points per game!). Doughty, meanwhile, was a significantly better defensive player than the other three and had already been a finalist for the Norris Trophy.

Neither Werenski or McAvoy has reached that level yet, while Werenski also sees a pretty significant drop in his performance when he is not paired next to Seth Jones, which could be a concern depending on how much value you put into such a comparison. It’s also worth pointing out that Jones sees a similar drop when he is not paired next to Werenski, and that the two are absolutely dominant when they are together.

But do those points outweigh the production and impact that Werenski and McAvoy have made, and the potential that they still possess in future years?

What they have already accomplished from a performance standpoint is almost unheard of for defenders of their age in this era of the league. It is also rare for any player of any level of experience.

Over the past three years only 15 other defenders have topped the 0.50 points per game and a 52 percent Corsi mark. On average, those players make $7 million per season under the cap, while only three of them — Roman Josi, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Erik Gustafsson — make less than $5 million per year. Josi is also due for a huge raise over the next year that will almost certainly move him into the $7-plus million range as well.

Bottom line is that the Blue Jackets and Bruins have top-pairing defenders on their hands that still have their best days in the NHL ahead of them. There is every reason to believe they are on track to be consistent All-Star level players and signing them to big deals right now, this summer, will probably turn out to be worth every penny.

Related: Bruins face salary cap juggling act with McAvoy, Carlo

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.