Evgeni Malkin

Blues’ O’Reilly has ‘another gear’ after being playoff MVP

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Ryan O’Reilly stockpiled quite the hardware to show off at his Stanley Cup day.

On display next to the Cup he helped the St. Louis Blues win in June were the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. Any player would gladly celebrate with those shiny centerpieces, though O’Reilly — at 28 and on his third team — is only now showing he is this kind of elite player.

“I still think I have another gear to get to, and that’s my plan,” O’Reilly said. “There’s still many things to improve on. There are areas to be better. One thing, too, is I think power-play production for myself could’ve been a lot better, and that’s an area I need to grow. There’s some stuff I’ve been working on to try to improve that.”

O’Reilly had nine points in the Cup Final against Boston playing through a cracked rib. He was nearly a point-a-game player during the regular season. Yet, somehow he still seemed underappreciated outside his peers.

“People didn’t realize how good of a player Ryan O’Reilly was until this year,” Vancouver forward Bo Horvat said. “All the players knew how good he was and how big of a part of that team he was and how special of a player — just his two-way game, his faceoffs. Obviously his point production this year was outstanding. His play in the playoffs, winning MVP and obviously the Stanley Cup, it was a great year for him and I think he opened up a lot of eyes.”

O’Reilly said he figured something out during the playoffs: how to clear out some “garbage” in his brain to focus on what matters. The challenge now is trying to duplicate that during an 82-game regular season.

“Just go out there and completely be in the moment and go from there,” O’Reilly said. “That’s a big lesson for myself, trying to establish that more. Be clear and find a way to take all the noise and all the stuff that you don’t need in your head and just throw it out. It just seems like when I did that, I tend to get more bounces and things went my way.”

Winning the Selke was evidence enough of O’Reilly’s strong regular season. He ranked eighth in the league in faceoffs, which is part of what makes him so tough to play against.

“He’s just so competitive on draws,” Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. “I’m one of those guys I want to start every shift with the puck and if we’re going up against a guy like that that could catch fire, and we might be chasing it down for a whole period. He’s obviously not one of the fastest guys out there, but he’s so good positionally and just aware of where guys are and what to do with the puck. I think he’s just an all-around super intelligent player.”

Nathan MacKinnon

Already considered one of the fastest hockey players on earth, MacKinnon carried the Colorado Avalanche to within one victory of the Western Conference final and is the biggest reason they’re a fashionable Cup contender this season. Fellow Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, native Sidney Crosby said MacKinnon is in the category of Pittsburgh teammate Evgeni Malkin and Edmonton star Connor McDavid as players who can take over games.

“We saw a pretty good glimpse of that in the playoffs,” Crosby said. “He did it consistently. … I’d expect him to take another big step.”

Rookie Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar said it’s electrifying to watch MacKinnon on the ice. And the 24-year-old center is an example to his younger teammates and those around the league.

“He’s just a super committed guy,” Makar said. “He loves hockey, and that’s the way he plays. It shows on the ice. Just the way he handles his routine is very specific and you just learn from star players like that.”

Henrik Lundqvist

“The King” is 37, yet could be the difference between the New York Rangers missing the playoffs for a third consecutive season or contending ahead of schedule. The longtime starting goaltender isn’t fazed by young backup Alexandar Georgiev and top prospect Igor Shesterkin looming in the not-too-distant future.

“My approach will not change,” Lundqvist said. “I need to reach my top level no matter what, no matter who’s next to me or where the team is at.”

Lundqvist said the start of last season was the best he had felt in a while. He posted a 2.68 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in his first 22 starts last season, which would be great for an improved Rangers team with a better blue line and more firepower up front.

“That’s the level I just need to reach and sustain throughout the year, and then I know I can make a difference,” Lundqvist said.

Alex Ovechkin

The release of “Ovi O’s” cereal marked his 34th birthday. If anyone has shown age is just a number, it’s Ovechkin, who is now the Washington Capitals’ oldest player and still could score 50 goals. Even though Ovechkin said he’s “not a grandpa” and trained differently this summer, don’t expect him to alter his style too much.

“I’m still young, you know,” Ovechkin said. “I still want to play my game. … We’re here for 25 minutes or whatever it is — I just want to be here to win, whatever it takes.”

Ovechkin preceded O’Reilly as playoff MVP when he led the Capitals to the first title in franchise history in 2018. After a full summer off, he is refreshed to try to do it again.

“He’s obviously a different talent,” Washington winger Carl Hagelin said. “A guy like that doesn’t come around very often. He’s one of those energetic guys even though he’s 33, 34 years old. He comes to the rink with a smile every day. He does what he has to do.”

Mark Stone

There may not be a more complete winger in the NHL than Stone, who put up 12 points in the Vegas Golden Knights’ seven-game first-round series against San Jose. Stone is free of Ottawa’s long-term rebuild and starting a $76 million, eight-year contract with big expectations to help Vegas make another long playoff run.

“You get a No. 1 forward,” Golden Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault said. “He’s an unbelievable player. He does everything well on the ice. He puts up great numbers every year, and he’s a successful player.”

Vegas is one of several NHL teams without a captain. That might not last long with Stone in the fold.

“He’s not a guy that’s trying to be a leader,” Marchessault said. “He’s just a born leader, so it’s just natural for him.”

Rasmus Dahlin

The 2018 No. 1 pick had 44 points to lead all rookie defenseman. It was just the floor for where Dahlin wants to start.

“Of course I want to score more goals, have more assists and stuff like that,” Dahlin said. “Last season, I had more points than I expected, but this year, I always want more. That’s why I play.”

The Buffalo Sabres are counting on that in their first season under coach Ralph Krueger. Captain Jack Eichel has big expectations for Dahlin, who he believes “lived up to all the hype.”

“You look at how good he was last year in year one and how much more he knows now,” Eichel said. “I think he’s primed to have a monster season.”

Penguins excited for fresh start after disappointing finish

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CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — The Pittsburgh Penguins are excited for a fresh start.

Sidney Crosby and the Penguins became the first team in a generation to win consecutive championships a little more than two years ago. But the Penguins stumbled into an extended offseason last spring when the New York Islanders swept them from the first round of the playoffs.

That left general manager Jim Rutherford to wonder aloud after the season whether some of his players were too content because they’ve won a couple of Stanley Cups.

Crosby and the Penguins are out to prove that’s not the case.

”I think there’s a certain level of hunger and urgency and desperation you have to have if you’re getting through the playoffs,” Crosby said Friday as the Penguins opened training camp.

”Sometimes you think because you have experience that it automatically gives you an edge. It does if you use it, but if you don’t, it doesn’t do much for you.”

Coach Mike Sullivan believes his team can be a championship-caliber group again. But he stressed a daily focus and attention to detail, a brand of intelligent and responsible hockey Sullivan has tried to instill since he took over in December 2015.

”I think this team is capable of doing some real good things,” Sullivan said. ”But we have to earn it every day. It’s not inevitable. There’s a nice feeling around the team. I think everyone is excited about the opportunity and possibilities that we have.”

The Penguins traded winger Phil Kessel to Arizona for Alex Galchenyuk in the offseason.

The 31-year-old Kessel scored 27 goals and 82 points last season, his fourth with the Penguins. He was a vital part of Pittsburgh’s run to consecutive Stanley Cups, finishing second to Crosby for the 2016 Conn Smythe Trophy, while scoring 18 goals and 45 points, as the Penguins became the first team in nearly two decades to win back-to-back titles.

Rutherford spoke of a culture change in the dressing room following the season, and while Kessel is now in Arizona, the Penguins will still need to replace his production.

”Phil produced for us, it’s no secret,” Crosby said. ”Nobody has to come in here and put up the same stat lines he did. It’s pretty tough to fill those shoes. I think collectively we’re going to have to find ways to make up for that.”

Evgeni Malkin seeks a bounce-back season after the 2012 NHL MVP, and two-time scoring champion, ended a career-worst minus-25 with just 21 goals, his lowest full-season output in almost a decade. The 33-year-old spoke said Friday he wants to be a better leader this season.

”Last year, I’m not happy, for sure,” Malkin said. ”Now, it’s a new challenge this year. I want back, my highest level. I can still play at the top level. I want to show everyone I’m not done.”

Malkin skated alongside Galchenyuk and free agent pickup Brandon Tanev on Friday.

The 25-year-old Galchenyuk has put up five consecutive 40-point seasons, and can play both ends of the ice. The 27-year-old Tanev spent his first four seasons in Winnipeg, and also has a reputation as a strong penalty killer and a hard-working, two-way player. He set career highs with 18 goals and 29 points last year.

Pittsburgh also traded for forward Dominik Kahun in the offseason. The 24-year-old played in all 82 games for Chicago in his first NHL season and finished with 13 goals and 37 points. On Friday, Kahun played on a line with Crosby and 24-year-old Jake Guentzel, who scored 40 goals last season.

Crosby and the Penguins are eager to add the new faces into the mix.

”I think it’s exciting to build an identity and have a fresh start,” Crosby said. ”When we won, we didn’t sit here talking about June. Just like the fact that we got swept last year, it really doesn’t matter at this point. We’re all starting from the same spot.”

PHT Morning Skate: Werenski’s blueprint; Female referees gaining experience

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta still wants to own an NHL team. (Sportsnet)

• The structure of Zach Werenski‘s new deal could be used as a blueprint for future RFA deals. (TSN)

• What does the Werenski contract mean for Bruins RFAs Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy. (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

Alex Galchenyuk is starting to build some chemistry with Evgeni Malkin. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

• It looks like Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger is planning to start the season with Rasmus Ristolainen. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• What will the Blues bottom-six forward group look like come the start of the regular season? (St. Louis Game-Time)

• Barrett Hayden might be the most important addition for the Coyotes this season. (Arizona Republic)

• Female officials are thrilled to get NHL experience. (NHL.com)

• The Nashville Predators will look to dethrone the St. Louis Blues. (Predlines)

• The Lightning could easily find a way to use Patrick Maroon and Kevin Shattenkirk on their lethal power play. (Raw Charge)

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.

What should Penguins expect from Malkin?

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With the 2019-20 season approaching, we’re in that sweet time for NHL fans. Every team is undefeated, and our cups runneth over with “best shape of my life” articles.

To the credit of Rob Rossi’s piece on Evgeni Malkin at The Athletic (sub required), that piece goes far deeper than your typical offseason tropes. Rossi digs into Malkin’s seemingly frayed relationship with Phil Kessel, but also his struggles with isolation from his family, insecurities about language in America, and what was a tough 2018-19 season for “Geno.”

It’s a worthy read.

To some degree, the most “important” information comes at the conclusion of that lengthy article, as Malkin reveals that he wants to be with the Penguins over the long haul.

“It’s (a) huge next three years,” Malkin says. “I still want to play 100 percent — and sign (for) three more years with Pittsburgh.”

That’s an interesting comment, as few were really wondering all that much about Malkin’s status, being that his current $9.5 million cap hit runs through 2021-22. Still, with Malkin already 33 and Sidney Crosby now 32, questions about the Penguins’ future will only become more prominent.

That age related question figures in sharply with the most oft-asked non-Kessel-related questions revolving around Malkin’s offseason: can Malkin “bounce back,” and how much can he rebound?

Let’s dig into the details surrounding Malkin’s chances of answering those questions in a good way.

A body breaking down?

It’s tempting to give Malkin some leeway because he dealt with some injuries in 2018-19.

Unfortunately, it’s also tough to avoid the worry that, like with Letang, injuries might just be a consistent headache for Malkin. After all, hockey players with a ton of mileage on their frames don’t tend to get healthier at age 33 and beyond.

Malkin was limited to 68 games in 2018-19 after managing to appear in 78 in 2017-18. Unfortunately, 2017-18’s relatively healthy year feels like an outlier; Malkin averaged 62 games played from 2013-14 through 2016-17, and has been dogged by issues for a long time now.

To some extent, injuries might just be “the price of doing business” for Malkin, who thrives on occasionally trying to drive through multiple defenders, and who sometimes thrives on a sneaky nastiness. It brings a troubling thought to mind, then: even if Malkin stays on the ice, might his body betray him when he tries to dominate in the same ways as he did during his prime?

Rossi’s piece touches on that, discussing how Malkin sometimes strained to make plays last season:

He tried to compensate by cheating up ice. Except he could not get back fast enough to help defensively. He forced high-risk passes because he could not consistently burst through the neutral zone or dance around opposing skaters. He put himself in harm’s way with reckless dashes into the corners. Had he not, he never would have been able to win races to loose pucks.

A bar set too high?

Malkin might not be able to gain space like he used to, and it’s fair to wonder if he might go from a supernatural shooter to a merely … very, very good one.

From 2015-16 through 2017-18, Malkin’s shooting percentage never dipped below 16.7, and went as high as 17.6. To give you a sense of how rare that rate is, Malkin’s 17.2 shooting percentage was the fourth-highest of any player with at least 300 SOG during that frame, and Malkin easily led all with at least 500 (he scored 102 goals on 592 SOG).

In 2018-19, Malkin was still pretty efficient (scoring his 21 goals on 187 SOG, good for 11.2 percent), but no longer outrageous. Frankly, it was probably unfair to count on Malkin to keep this going …

Be careful what you wish for 

… Considering the likely players around him.

Yes, Kessel has become a drag defensively, but Alex Galchenyuk – a likely running mate for Malkin – is basically described as a lesser Kessel.

It sure feels like a lot is riding on the power of “chemistry,” as plenty of people believe that the Penguins took significant steps back this offseason. Malkin and other forwards figure to carry heavy puck-lugging burdens, at least when Kris Letang‘s pairing is off the ice.

***

Could Malkin have a much better year in 2019-20? Absolutely.

He might get a new lease on life with the Kessel drama behind him. Malkin may merely be healthier, or might get bounces where he didn’t the year before.

Still, it’s probably wise to keep expectations in check. Maybe Malkin hasn’t succumbed to Father Time totally just yet — hopefully he hasn’t, as a driving Malkin is still a frightfully wonderful sight — but he may lose those battles more and more at age 33 and beyond.

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.

Ovechkin now has his own cereal: Ovi-O’s

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Honestly, there may never be enough strange pro athlete product endorsements, particularly when some of the proceeds go to charities.

That thought comes to mind upon the delightful unveiling of “Ovi-O’s,” Giant Food’s Alex Ovechkin-themed cereal. The flavor of the cereal is honey nut, which seems a little mundane for such a vibrant personality as Ovechkin, but we’ll let it slide because a portion of the proceeds from the limited-edition cereal will go to Maryland’s Children’s Cancer Foundation, Inc. The cereal goes on sale on Sept. 17, when Ovechkin will (somehow, already) turn 34.

The box will be hard to miss thanks to Ovechkin’s smile:

As you might expect, footage of Ovechkin eating the cereal (and occasionally failing to eat the cereal) is good fun, too:

To add some strangeness to the promotion, there’s apparently an augmented reality game to accompany the cereal. Let’s imagine it’s an “Ovechkin’s office simulator.” Via the press release:

In addition, the Capitals teamed up with Balti Virtual to bring the Ovi O’s box to life with an augmented reality game, Ovi O’s Slapshot presented by Giant, using Snapchat’s Lens Studio. Customers who have purchased Ovi O’s can scan the box in Snapchat to access this interactive hockey game which gives fans the ability to control Ovechkin as he shoots the cereal at moving targets. After time runs out, players can share their score on social media to compete with friends or scan the box again to keep playing.

Again, stranger product endorsements usually are sequestered to players appearing in low-budget local business commercials, but sometimes we get moments that transcend athletes awkwardly reading off of cue cards, as if they’re in real-life ads from “The Detroiters.”

To me, it’s tough to top Jaromir Jagr having his own peanut butter with secret healing powers. Every now and then, we also had other NHL players getting their own answer to “Flutie Flakes,” with Brett Hull’s Frosted Flakes ad being especially nifty:

(Glorious, even beyond the kid with the bowl cut.)

Since the world needs more esoteric cereals inspired by hockey players, we thought we’d throw out a few NHL-themed suggestions:

Connor’s Cereal of Sadness: Really, you can change the name, but crucially, it would have to parallel Connor McDavid‘s experiences with the Oilers. In other words, one great ingredient surrounded by a bunch of slop. Maybe it could be Raisin Bran, only it was a box full of the blandest bran flakes available with just one raisin?

(OK, OK, Leon Draisaitl could make it two raisins.)

Gen-o’s: The Pittsburgh Penguins couldn’t possibly stand pat while their rival Capitals have a cereal, right?

Since Sidney Crosby hasn’t signed off on being a cover star of an EA NHL video game, let’s assume that only Evgeni Malkin would be game for the cereal box treatment. Bonus points if the cereal is black and gold.

UFA Flakes: You don’t realize that they’ve already expired, so you can only chew on with regret as you ponder their cheaper, tastier days.

Voodoo Goalies: Keeping with the mascot theme of “Count Chocula,” Voodoo Goalies presents a mystery with every box. Some bowls are worthy of a Vezina; others just ruin your day.

Brent Burns Bran: All kinds of weird stuff in here. Is that beef jerky?

Mitch Marner Munch: Taking forever to hit shelves, and we get the sneaking suspicion that it’s holding up other cereals from returning to stores, too.

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.