Henrik Lundqvist

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.”

Rangers begin training camp with goal of making the playoffs

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The New York Rangers have two clear goals this season: to keep improving and return to the playoffs after a two-year absence.

The addition of forwards Artemi Panarin and Kaapo Kakko, and defenseman Jacob Trouba this summer helped accelerate the team’s rebuild, and now the Rangers believe they are ready to take the next step in the second year under coach David Quinn.

”We want to make the playoffs,” Quinn said Friday at the team’s practice facility in Greenburgh, New York, ‘Obviously it’s something we want to accomplish. The moves we made over the summer are just a continuation of what we’ve been doing over the last 16, 17 months. Within the walls of our locker room and the walls of this building, we feel good about the direction we’re going in and we’re going to continue to get better daily.”

The Rangers went into rebuilding mode by dealing some veterans at the trade deadline in 2018 and continued it at last season’s deadline. There were a lot of ups and downs in the first full season of the makeover, and they finished 32-36-14. New York had just five wins in its last 21 games (5-10-6) to end up seventh in the eight-team Metropolitan Division, 20 points out of the last wild card in the Eastern Conference.

Now, the team that began training camp with on-ice testing on Friday has even higher expectations than the one that left for the summer five months earlier.

”I want improvement,” Rangers team president John Davidson told reporters one day earlier: ”Playoffs is a goal for sure, but there’s got to be improvement the right way that you can count on long-term to get gratification out of the season.”

Quinn believes the familiarity the returning players have with his system should help their second training camp together get off to a better start than a year ago. And they should be better prepared for their coach’s physical demands.

”They certainly have done everything we’ve asked them to do away from the rink,” Quinn said. ”They look in better shape, they’re a little bit older, a little bit more mature. We just want to continue to build on the progress they made last year.”

Signing Panarin in free agency was a big boost. The 27-year-old had 28 goals and 59 assists last season while helping Columbus get the last wild card in the Eastern Conference and then beat Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay to advance to the second round. He brings career totals of 116 goals and 204 assists in 322 games over four seasons with Blue Jackets and Chicago Blackhawks.

Kakko was selected with the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s NHL draft, and Trouba was acquired in a trade with Winnipeg and then signed as a restricted free-agent.

Davidson, who rejoined the organization in May after stepping down as the president of the Columbus Blue Jackets, knows Panarin well.

”He’s competitive, really competitive,” Davidson said. ”The big spots in games, he likes to find a way. … He’s’ a guy that’s going to show up for work every day and you don’t have to worry about him.

”He’s very strong, strong on the puck, strong in loose-puck battles.”

Some other things to know as the Rangers head into their first practice sessions on Saturday:

BETWEEN THE PIPES: Henrik Lundqvist back for his 15th season after going 18-23-10, with career-worst of a 3.07 goals-against average and a .907 save-percentage. It also marked the first time he had fewer than 24 wins.

Alexandar Georgiev is coming off a solid season as the backup, going 14-13-4 with a 2.91 GAA. The 23-year-old could be challenged for the No. 2 spot by Igor Shesterkin, the Rangers’ fourth-round pick in the 2014 draft, who has come over from the KHL.

Davidson and Quinn both said they don’t have a target for games in mind for Lundqvist, but don’t want to overuse him.

”We want him to have a great season so that when we do make the playoffs he’s in a position where he’s fresh,” Quinn said.

LINE COMBINATIONS: Quinn said he plans on starting camp with Pavel Buchnevich joining the first line with Panarin and Mika Zibanejad. Filip Chytil will get a look at centering the second line with Chris Kreider on the left wing and possibly Kakko or fellow rookie Vitali Kravtsov on the other side.

Lias Andersson and Brett Howden will get chances in the middle on subsequent lines. Ryan Strome is likely to start out on a wing, but could also see some time at center.

O CAPTAIN, MY CAPTAIN: The Rangers haven’t had a captain since trading Ryan McDonagh at the deadline in 2018, and there doesn’t appear to be a standout favorite to fill that role.

”I think we’d like to have a captain but that’s something that’s going to evolve,” Quinn said. ”We’re in a situation where it’s going to happen and the captain will pick himself in a lot of ways.”

Lundqvist hoping Rangers can take ‘one big step’ forward

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The second half of the 2018-19 NHL season took a toll on New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. As the losses piled up, which saw the team finish the season with only five wins in their final 20 games, the 37-year-old netminder had a difficult time dealing with the lack of success.

Two seasons without playoff hockey can wear on a player, especially one like Lundqvist, who has two years remaining on his contract and knows the opportunities to win a Stanley Cup are dwindling. So after the season the netminder took a month off to reflect and think about the good and the bad of the previous seven months.

“I remember last year the first two, three months I felt as good as I’ve felt in a few years,” Lundqvist told NBC Sports during the NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago last week. “I played at a level where I feel like I was making a difference, but then the second half was a lot tougher and we traded a couple of guys and the last couple of months was a battle, for sure, mentally. It was probably the toughest stretch of my career to try to deal with that. But you learn a lot about yourself. You try to look at the big picture, as well.”

The big picture included the youth in the Rangers’ system, which is highlighted by the likes of Vitali Kravtsov, Lias Andersson, Filip Chytil, and was boosted by the offseason additions of Adam Fox and No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko. That bright future was mixed with the present day and general manager Jeff Gorton’s summer where he reeled in the biggest fish in free agency, Artemi Panarin, and acquired and signed defenseman Jacob Trouba. Suddenly, some sun began to squeak through the clouds.

“It was an important summer also for the organization,” Lundqvist said. “To see the signings, the draft picks, I think we’re all pretty exciting going into this year. I feel like we’re taking a big step in the right direction. I look forward to camp and seeing what we can do.”

[MORE: Can Henrik Lundqvist bounce back for Rangers?]

The topic of Lundqvist pulling a Ray Bourque and seeking a trade out of New York to pursue a Stanley Cup has been out there for some time, but his love for the organization and the city, and, of course, his no-move clause makes that a tough avenue to go down unless both the player and team are willing to sit down and discuss that option.

“It’s so hard to picture myself anywhere else,” Lundqvist said. “I know things can change so fast, the way the organization feels and how I feel. But so far it’s been hard for me to picture that. Even now coming back after the summer, coming back to New York and preparing for another season, go to practice rink, go to the Garden again, I don’t know if I would ever give that up. I take a lot of pride in being part of that organization. Again, some things you can’t control, it’s not in my control all the time either.”

Lundqvist will be 39 when his contract ends in 2021 and he said his body still feels good and his excitement level, when you factor in the Rangers’ offseason and the budding young stars on the roster, is higher than it’s been for a few seasons. For now he’s taking things year-by-year and his passion for the game remains strong.

After tasting the Stanley Cup Final in 2014, Lundqvist’s goal and motivation is to get back there and ultimately see another championship banner raised to the Garden rafters. He wants to be a Ranger “forever” and he wants that winning feeling to return as he’s witnessed how great of an atmosphere in New York City can be when its sports teams are doing well.

“But I think now during camp you have to sit down and talk about as a group what are our expectations now, what’s realistic for this team,” Lundqvist said.

And what’s realistic?

“I don’t know yet,” he said. “I think that’s something we have to discuss. I hope that we can take at least one big step in the right direction. We should. For the young guys to improve and develop you need to raise the bar. I think with the additions we have with the team we should definitely raise it. The question is, how high.”

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

Rangers are one of NHL’s biggest mysteries going into camp

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Henrik Lundqvist wants training camp to begin with an honest conversation.

The longtime face of the New York Rangers sees this as an important time to define expectations for this season after watching the team fast-track a rebuild by signing winger Artemi Panarin, trading for defensemen Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox, and drafting Finnish sensation Kaapo Kakko.

”What type of pressure can we put on this team now? Where are we?” Lundqvist said. ”What you want and what the reality is is sometimes very different. I want to win games. I want to play playoff hockey. And I hope within the group and coaching staff, we talk about it before camp starts. ‘OK, this is what we’ve got?’ What’s realistic? You set the goal and then you work toward that.”

The Rangers will be watched closely as NHL training camps begin this week, a curiosity amid the traditional Eastern Conference powers in Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Pittsburgh. Across the river from New York, the New Jersey Devils look similarly primed to turn things around, but New York seems a threat to contend again after missing the playoffs the past two seasons.

”It was exciting to see the big steps we’re taking in the right direction,” Lundqvist said. ”We should be able to take that next step now with the additions and the younger guys need to take another step here in their development. But there’s so many teams I feel like in similar situations where if they do really well, they can get in.”

Signing Panarin to an $81.5 million, seven-year contract is the biggest reason to think the Rangers can get in. Now it’s a question of how the Russian point-a-game producer jells with center Mika Zibanejad and the rest of the forwards within coach David Quinn’s system. Kakko, the second overall pick, dazzled in a prospects tournament and New York’s blue line got a major boost with the trade for Trouba.

”There’s no question that we improved a lot over the summer,” Lundqvist said. ”Changes, big and small, can turn things around pretty quickly.”

MCDAVID’S KNEE

Connor McDavid is five months removed from tearing the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, which might now be the most scrutinized body part in the league. The Edmonton captain has surpassed 100 points each of the past three seasons, seems to skate at a different gear than his peers and is widely considered the best hockey player in the world.

There are plenty of questions about how the injury will affect all that.

”It’s tough to see anyone get hurt, especially a player of his caliber,” said Chicago forward Alex DeBrincat, who played junior hockey with McDavid. ”He said it’s getting better. Hope he’s ready for camp and would love to see him back on the ice.”

The Oilers said they won’t rush McDavid back. That’s a common refrain but easier said than done after missing the playoffs in back-to-back years and knowing what McDavid can do.

”He’s our leader; he’s our engine,” Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. ”But at the same time, he’s a young hockey player who you want to make sure he’s healthy and confident in his body. Whenever he’s ready to go, we’re going to be happy to have him back.”

NEW COACHES

Six teams go into camp with a new coach: Joel Quenneville in Florida, Alain Vigneault in Philadelphia, Ralph Krueger in Buffalo, Todd McLellan in Los Angeles, Dallas Eakins in Anaheim and Dave Tippett in Edmonton. All of them have previous NHL experience, most notably Quenneville winning the Stanley Cup three times with Chicago. Vigneault took the Vancouver Canucks in 2011 and the Rangers in 2014 to the Cup Final. Now he’s in charge of a head-scratching Philadelphia team that has alternated missing and making the playoffs the past eight seasons.

”He’s had success with two different teams,” Flyers center Sean Couturier said of Vigneault. ”I think he’s a coach that knows what it takes to go far in the playoffs and win.”

NOTABLE ABSENCES

A handful of prominent restricted free agents are signing new contracts on the eve of camp, but a handful of situations might drag on into the regular season. Toronto’s Mitch Marner and Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor don’t have deals.

”Obviously Mitch is a big part of our team,” Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews said. ”We want him there and we want him there as soon as possible.”

MORE YOUTH

Kakko isn’t even the biggest rookie to watch in the New York area thanks to Devils No. 1 pick Jack Hughes . New Jersey has depth at center with 2017 top pick Nico Hischer and veteran Travis Zajac that should allow coach John Hynes to protect Hughes from tough matchups as he adjusts to the NHL.

”I think the focus needs to be on his development as a player,” new Devils defenseman P.K. Subban said. ”He’s got a lot of time, and there’s going to be a learning curve. But he’s a tremendous talent, and you’re going to see that when the puck drops.

Sharks will sink or swim based on goaltending

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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 San Jose Sharks.

Sometimes, when you get a little time and separation from a narrative, you realize that maybe the thing people were obsessed about wasn’t really a big deal.

Well, Martin Jones‘ 2018-19 season doesn’t exactly age like fine wine. The output is far more vinegar.

With Aaron Dell not faring well either, and the Sharks losing a key piece like Joe Pavelski during the offseason, the Sharks’ goaltending is an X-factor for 2019-20. Simply put, as talented as this team is, they might not be able to lug a dismal duo of goalies in the same way once again.

Because, all things considered, it’s surprising that the Sharks got as far as the 2019 Western Conference Final with that goalie duo.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Jones suffered through his first season below a 90 save percentage, managing a terrible .896 mark through 64 regular-season games. The 29-year-old had his moments during the playoffs; unfortunately, most of those moments were bad, as his save percentage barely climbed (.898) over 20 turbulent postseason contests.

The Sharks didn’t get much relief when they brought in their relief pitcher, either. Dell managed worse numbers during the regular season (.886) and playoffs (.861), making you wonder how barren the Sharks’ goalie prospect pipeline could be. After all, it must have been frightening to imagine it getting much worse than those two.

And, as much as people seem to strain to blame Erik Karlsson for any goalies’ woes, it’s pretty tough to pin this on the Sharks’ defense.

About the most generous thing you could say is that the Sharks were close to the middle of the pack when it came to giving up high-danger scoring chances. Otherwise, the Sharks were dominant by virtually all of Natural Stat Trick’s even-strength defensive metrics, allowing the fewest shots against and the fourth lowest scoring chances against, among other impressive numbers.

The Sharks managing to be so stingy while also being a dominant force on offense is a testament to the talent GM Doug Wilson assembled, but again, Pavelski’s departure stands as a reminder that there could be some growing pains, particularly at the start of 2019-20.

With that in mind, the Sharks would sure love to get a few more stops after dealing with the worst team save percentage of last season.

The bad news is that, frankly, Jones hasn’t really stood out (in a good way, at least) as a starting goalie for much of his career. Having $5.75 million per year through 2023-24 invested in Jones is downright alarming when you consider his unimpressive career .912 save percentage, even if you give him some kudos for strong playoff work before 2018-19.

It was easy to forget in the chaos of San Jose’s Game 7 rally against the Golden Knights, but Jones allowing soft goals like these often sank the Sharks as much as any opponent:

The better news is that last season was unusual for Jones.

Consider that, during his three previous seasons as the Sharks’ workhorse from 2015-16 through 2017-18, Jones went 102-68-16 with a far more palatable .915 save percentage. That merely tied Jones for 22nd place among goalies who played at least 50 games during that span, but it tied Jones with the likes of Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist.

The Sharks had often been accustomed to better play from Dell, too, including a strong rookie year where Dell managed a .931 save percentage during 20 games in 2016-17.

It’s up to Jones and Dell to perform at a higher level in 2019-20, and for head coach Peter DeBoer to determine if there are any structural issues that need fixing.

As powerful as last year’s Sharks could be, next season’s version could have an even higher ceiling if they even get league-average goaltending, making Jones (and their goalies) a big X-factor.

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.