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Ilya Kovalchuk quickly getting up to speed with Kings

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We’ll see how the skills we witnessed over 11 NHL seasons are following five years home in the KHL, but Ilya Kovalchuk is off to a good start after his first two preseason games with the Los Angeles Kings.

After picking up an assist in their first game, the 35-year-old Kovalchuk, who signed a three-year contract over the summer, scored a highlight-reel tally in a split-squad loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday night.

“That’s the type of player he is,” said Kings assistant Dave Lowry via LA Kings Insider. “He’s a very dynamic guy, he has the ability to break open games, he’s a very highly skilled guy.”

Is the NHL faster than what Kovalchuk remembers? “I’ll tell you after the [season opener],” he said. Playing on a line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, the Kings captain said they’re still working on developing chemistry as he gets used to going from Milan Lucic‘s “north-south” game to the Russian winger’s “east-west” style.

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Kovalchuk’s goal scoring abilities didn’t dry up during his time in the KHL, so he’ll be relied upon to play a big role in increasing the team’s offensive output in 2018-19. That will come. After two preseason games, he wasn’t ready to declare himself up to speed with the NHL’s pace just yet.

“Actually today, I felt much better than the first game, so a few more games will be more than enough,” he said.

MORE: Under Pressure: Ilya Kovalchuk

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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.

Karlsson trade caps dream summer of NHL moves

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This is the sort of off-season NHL fans dream about, if they even dare.

Chances are, if you’re reading about hockey right now, you’ve daydreamed about big moves before. Maybe it happened on a message board when you were younger (or now, no judging). Perhaps different scenarios popped in your head while scrolling through Cap Friendly, “Beautiful Mind” style.

Sadly, for fans of splashy moves and novelty in general, reality rarely competes with your imagination. At least, that’s been the case most times for NHL fans, who’ve been pressing up their faces at the storefront window while NBA fans get to revel in the latest whims of Lebron James.

Well, if you ever feel silly about spending such time picturing wild, league-changing scenarios, then take heart. For at least one offseason, NHL fans joined NBA devotees in enjoying the flashy new toys.

It almost makes too much sense that the Dallas Stars extending Tyler Seguin echoed the magic of unboxing an NES (even if, technically, Seguin’s extension falls into the more typical NHL pattern of killing drama before it really boils over):

Let’s review some of the biggest moves. When appropriate, we’ll recall how that sort of thing usually turns out.

John Tavares: In my eyes, Tavares joining the Toronto Maple Leafs is the move that stands out the most. He left the team that drafted him (rare) by choice (also rare), with money not being lone factor, and joined his boyhood team despite the immense pressure that will come from playing in Toronto (again, rare).

Depending upon who you believe, plenty of other prominent players would much rather go to a sunny, tax-lenient market, rather than the most hockey-obsessed place on the planet.

Tavares broke the pattern set by Steven Stamkos, in particular. Stamkos was the Great Toronto Free Agent Hope before Tavares, going as far as to tease such passions by liking a Tweet about his possible departure from Tampa Bay. Naturally, that did not happen.

(It’s not a 1:1 thing as the Lightning are and were in a much better situation than the Islanders find themselves in, Lou’s bluster notwithstanding, but the parallels are pretty close.)

Most directly, the Tavares signing is a win for Maple Leafs fans. You can see it in how many Twitter accounts double as months-long victory laps.

It’s a lot of fun for anyone who isn’t preoccupied with worrying about the Maple Leafs too, though. The team will face a lot of pressure to win it all over the next few years, but either way, it’s wildly refreshing to see a scenario that usually only opens in EA NHL video games: a superstar free agent becomes available, and goes to an already-loaded team.

The Maple Leafs were already a lot of fun. Now they’re must-see TV.

Erik Karlsson: The Senators loaded up on quantity in trading away their all-world defenseman and captain, but time will tell if they can successfully complete a rebuild from the wreckage – er, Dumpster? – they find themselves in.

However that goes, the Sharks didn’t give up a ton in present-day value (apologies, Dylan DeMelo and Chris Tierney), considering that Karlsson is a Norris-level defenseman still in his prime.

The Sharks were formidable last season even without Karlsson and with Joe Thornton on the shelf. Adding those two in the mix should make them a serious contender.

But more than that, they’ll be so much fun to watch. As this post details, making this defense corps fit together in the best possible way could be a challenge for head coach Peter DeBoer, yet it’s also a chance for him to engage his inner mad scientist.

It could be highly entertaining even if it doesn’t always work out as well on the ice as it does on paper.

Karlsson finally being traded feels like a relief, and is a reminder of all of those times when a move didn’t happen. There was no swap during the trade deadline or draft weekend, to the point that it almost felt like a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” situation. Until the wolf showed up, and now the Sharks should be outrageously fun.

Marc Bergevin continues to entertain, for better or worse: During the more barren times, hockey fans could thank – if not exactly respect – Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin for at least one thing: he kept things interesting.

Granted, Bergevin’s version of keeping things interesting is a lot like starting a fire and then gleefully running away, but it’s been quite the spectacle to behold.

The Max Pacioretty trade could very well maintain the Vegas Golden Knights as at least a playoff-viable team, and if more Vegas in your life isn’t exciting, then you’re probably an extremely grumpy person. (Or you just really dislike Imagine Dragons and “Medieval Times.”)

Thanks to the past week’s trades involving Pacioretty and Karlsson, the Pacific Division goes from being the weak link division to an arms race. The hapless drama surrounding Montreal trying to save face while moving Patches was just gravy on top, really.

Actually, the Patches situation was so overwhelming, you kind of forget that the Alex GalchenyukMax Domi trade happened during this same offseason. Bergevin is the gift that keeps giving … except if you’re a Habs fan.

(Sorry gang.)

Plenty of other teams making big changes

Karlsson, Pacioretty, and Tavares are grabbing a lot of the headlines, yet this summer saw some big changes in plenty of spots, which should make things really interesting for plenty of teams.

  • Winds of change: The Hurricanes changed their GM, head coach, and saw some big personnel alterations. Dougie Hamilton‘s now free to visit museums around Raleigh, while Jeff Skinner is gone. Andrei Svechnikov could make an immediate impact. Carolina’s a team to watch in 2018-19.
  • Going in with a roar without ROR: Buffalo enjoyed a fascinating summer, too. They landed Skinner, while trading away Ryan O'Reilly in the first big trade of the summer. Carter Hutton is the new guy in net, while they added some interesting pieces such as Conor Sheary. Of course, the biggest addition is landing top pick Rasmus Dahlin; for all we know, he could be worth the price of admission right off the bat.
  • Deep Blues: The Blues may enjoy a serious rebound after adding O’Reilly, particularly if Robby Fabbri can stay healthy and Robert Thomas proves to be a tuneful call-up. Bringing back David Perron opens the door for this to be a versatile Blues attack after St. Louis was too top-heavy last season.
  • He’s back: It feels like an afterthought, yet the Kings could be a lot more fun to watch late at night if Ilya Kovalchuk ends up being, well, Ilya Kovalchuk. Los Angeles would also enjoy a big boost in watchability if Jeff Carter‘s healthy.

(Also under the “he’s back” heading: James van Riemsdyk returning to the Flyers, giving that team a boost in the “fun” category, as well.)

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This post brings about some fun questions, yet one lingers: is this the beginning of a trend of more regular, impactful offseason movement in the NHL? That remains to be seen, particularly in a league where the CBA makes it relatively easy for teams to keep their core players together.

On that note, Taylor Hall wonders if the next CBA might open the door for more excitement and less stability, as he told The Athletic’s Craig Custance (sub required) a week ago:

“It’s becoming more accepted in basketball for players to just pick teams,” Hall said. “I have a feeling in the next CBA that the owners are going to push for shorter contracts and I think if they do that, that’s what’s going to happen. They’re going to cause players to do whatever they want with contracts.”

With Seguin, Drew Doughty, Ryan Ellis, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson ranking among the outstanding players who’ve already hashed out extensions instead of playing through contract years, it’s possible that this summer might be an aberration. At least as far as the current CBA goes.

(One would assume that Karlsson’s likely to sign an extension with the Sharks, possibly very soon.)

Still, that doesn’t mean there is no room for drama. Just look at the Columbus Blue Jackets, who need to figure out what to do with Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky.

Either way, the true excitement will come when the action starts for the 2018-19 season. If we’re lucky, these new combinations of star players will make plays we couldn’t even dream of.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Bergevin makes best of tough situation; Rebuilding Humboldt Broncos

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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.

• Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin gets his share of criticism, but he managed to make the best of a difficult situation with Max Pacioretty. Bergevin was able to parlay his captain into a solid return. (Sportsnet)

• On the flip side, Yahoo’s Ryan Lambert argues that the only reason Bergevin was in such a difficult position was because he put himself there. He believes it’s time for the Canadiens to get themselves a new GM. (Yahoo)

• So, now that Pacioretty is a member of the Golden Knights, where does he fit it? Well, it looks like their second line is going to be pretty tough to stop. (Knights on Ice)

• Committing long term to captain Blake Wheeler shows just how series the Winnipeg Jets are about winning a Stanley Cup. (Featurd)

• Rebuilding the Humboldt Broncos is going to be the toughest job in hockey, but new head coach Nathan Oystrick. (The Star Phoenix)

• Tricia Wack lost her son, Stephen, to the Humboldt accident. Now, she’s speaking out to make sure that wearing seatbelts on coach busses should be mandatory. “My son Stephen was killed in the Broncos bus crash when he was launched from his seat upon impact, smashing the back of his head and breaking his neck. Envision for a moment, if you will, that being your child or loved one. Following the results of the investigation into the crash, we were shocked to learn that there were, in fact, lap seatbelts on that bus. Seatbelts left unworn were rendered useless.” (Toronto Sun)

• The Boston Bruins won’t have it easy this year. They’ll be competing for top spot in the Atlantic Division with Toronto and Tampa Bay, but netminder Tuukka Rask is up for the challenge. (The Hockey News)

Ilya Kovalchuk is thrilled to be part of the Los Angeles Kings. “I just loved our meeting. They did a great presentation. They explained to me exactly what they want from me, and I think I can give that to the team. Plus, we have a great core here, the guys know how to win. Great goaltending, so I think we’re one of the teams, one of the contenders, for sure.” (LA Kings Insider)

• Barry Trotz loves the fact that the Islanders will be playing some of their games at the Nassau Coliseum. He believes that that’s where the Isles should be playing and he thinks that’s where the fans want to be. (Sports Daily)

• Speaking of the Islanders, Luca Sbisa has decided to join the team on a professional tryout. (TSN)

• Take a look back at how the Washington Capitals have partied harder with the Stanley Cup than any other team has in previous years. (Deadspin)

• If you’re a fan of the Dallas Stars, here’s a guide to how you should respond when you’re forced to ride the “Tyler Seguin re-signing rollercoaster”. (Blackout Dallas)

• Even though Jimmy Vesey will never meet the expectations that were initially placed on his shoulders, he can still be a useful player for the Rangers. (Gotham SN)

• Good NHL teams find a way to weaponize their cap space and capital. “NHL to Seattle” explains how they manage to do that. (NHL to Seattle)

• Players like Brock Boeser don’t come around too often, but the Calgary Flames have quite a bit of young talent coming through their ranks. But which one of their youngsters can become their version of Boeser? Flames Nation provides some intriguing options. (Flames Nation)

• Puck Junk ranks every hockey card set from the 1992-93 season. There’s some pretty sweets cards on display in this post. (Puck Junk)

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.

Would a healthy Thornton make Sharks Pacific Division favorites?

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The offseason is where you fill out your BINGO card of sports cliches, and this post undoubtedly leans on the “best shape of my life trope,” or something close to it.

Yet, you could almost picture the San Jose Sharks pulling out a favorite of a GM after a quiet offseason or trade deadline: “[Injured player] coming back is like landing a big player.” Such a tactic really fits here because a) the Sharks missed out on big-ticket free agents, despite lobbing a hefty offer at John Tavares and b) Joe Thornton is making promising statements about his health.

(Naturally, this marks that key moment where we first tap the brakes and remind you that plenty of athletes believe that they’ve healed, only to aggravate an injury, sometimes even during training camp. So, please, PLEASE don’t use this as a reason to bet your mortgage on the Sharks winning the Stanley Cup or something similar.)

On one hand, people might wonder: “What else is Thornton going to say?” That’s fair, although there are moments when the typical optimism of the summer can’t hide the cloudiness of certain injury updates. You’ll notice that when a player admits they “aren’t quite 100 percent” and other variations.

So, yeah, Thornton’s interview with The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz (sub required) seems promising, and not … too misleading? Hopefully?

“I feel good. I know my birth certificate says 39, but I think not playing a full 82 games and playoffs last year, my body feels really, really good and I feel healthy,” he said. “It’s kind of like a lockout year for myself, you get time to refocus and finally train a little bit and go again. I’m real excited for the year.”

Admittedly, to some extent, it might come down to Thornton’s vivid way with words in Kurz’s story. Adding details such as it almost being “like a lockout year” reminds me of Mike Modano and Teemu Selanne seemingly finding another gear following a full season lost. (Their rebounds didn’t make it worth it, but did dull the pain a bit.)

Of course, it’s one thing to be healthy, and another to actually be effective. Would the already slow-skating Thornton slip from “able to slow the game down” to being too slow to really be viable, much like what seemed to finally happen to Jaromir Jagr in 2017-18?

Again, Thornton had a quip for that, as Kurz reported:

“They’ve said that since I’ve been 16 years old, and I think I’ve had a pretty good career,” Thornton said.

“I think when I’m out there I dictate the play. It doesn’t matter who I play against, I usually dictate the play. I’ve had that criticism for 22 years. I think I’ve kept up pretty good.”

That’s the challenge with sports: an athlete is able to defy critics … until they can’t any longer. We can’t really know that until we actually see Thornton in action, and it’s possible that the sublime passer might not hit his groove right off the bat.

Let’s dig a bit deeper, and consider what this could mean for the Sharks.

Better than we remembered?

Much like David Krejci, Thornton was more effective than maybe some of us might recall in 2017-18, with some of those hazy memories influenced by lower totals thanks to missed games.

Thornton was limited to 36 points (though with 13 goals, thanks to shooting luck), yet he did that in just 47 contests. His .77 point-per-game average would translate to a 63-point output over 82 games. That’s fantastic stuff, especially since Thornton has developed into an increasingly effective two-way performer as San Jose’s spread the scoring wealth a bit.

A reasonably healthy Thornton could tie the Sharks roster together like a Lebowski rug, and I don’t say that just because Thornton’s beard may be lush enough to serve as a rug itself.

Greater expectations?

The Sharks already looked dangerous after landing Evander Kane, going 12-6-1 and sweeping the Ducks before the Golden Knights knocked them out, and that was with Thornton unable to play.

With Thornton, the Sharks could put together two dynamic forward combos (possibly Kane – Logan Couture, Thornton – Joe Pavelski), surround them with some other nice forwards (Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl come to mind), roll out two world-class defensemen (Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic), and deploy a respectable starting goalie in Martin Jones.

A healthy Thornton may also inspire GM Doug Wilson to push more chips to the middle of the table; maybe he’d go after Max Pacioretty, even as a rental, if it becomes clear that Joe is the difference-maker they expected?

It was disappointing for the Sharks to miss out on Tavares, along with some other big names. Those letdowns may sting further if Ilya Kovalchuk looks Thornton/Jagr-level ageless with the Kings.

Regardless, it’s tempting to pencil in San Jose as prohibitive favorites to win the Pacific Division if Thornton is as spry as he claims.

[Where they stand: Pacific Division in July]

Beyond the Sharks’ appealing balance and viable top-end talent, other Pacific teams carry question marks. The Golden Knights were already going to have their skeptics even before Nate Schmidt‘s 20-game suspension was announced. The Kings got Kovalchuk and may have their own healed-up center in Jeff Carter, yet that team has issues ranging from depth to aging concerns. There are worries about Anaheim taking a step back, Calgary once again watching a busy offseason flame out, the Oilers’ idleness haunting them, and the Coyotes still being a few strides short of true competitiveness. There’s also the Vancouver Canucks. They exist.

Back in late July, a small majority (27.32 percent) of PHT readers voted the Sharks as the favorites in the Pacific, edging Vegas (23.61 percent), and that was before this positive outlook on Thornton and the Schmidt news, among other developments.

Plenty can change during the span of the 2018-19 season, and even during training camp, but it’s tough to blame Sharks fans for feeling that much more exciting after today.

In fact, it could get to the point where “Pacific Division favorites” would be thinking far too small.

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.

NHL Team Previews: Examining past, present, future

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Throughout the month of August we examined different aspects of all 31 NHL teams. We looked back at their 2017-18 season, took a dip in their prospect pool, pointed out a player/coach/executive under pressure, highlighted a player coming off a breakthrough season, and asked questions about the future.

Thanks for reading and for the feedback on each post. Below are links to every team day post from the last month to get you ready for the 2018-19 campaign. Training camps open in two weeks!

2017-18 REVIEW
Anaheim Ducks
Arizona Coyotes
Boston Bruins
Buffalo Sabres
Calgary Flames
Carolina Hurricanes
Chicago Blackhawks 
Colorado Avalanche
Columbus Blue Jackets
Dallas Stars
Detroit Red Wings
Edmonton Oilers
Florida Panthers
Los Angeles Kings
Minnesota Wild
Montreal Canadiens
Nashville Predators
New Jersey Devils
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
Ottawa Senators
Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins
San Jose Sharks
St. Louis Blues
Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs
Vancouver Canucks
Vegas Golden Knights
Washington Capitals
Winnipeg Jets

UNDER PRESSURE
Jake Allen
Mike Babcock
Jim Benning
Bruce Boudreau
Scott Darling
Pierre Dorion
John Gibson
Connor Hellebuyck
Mike Hoffman

Carter Hutton
Jack Johnson
Evander Kane

Jarmo Kekalainen
Ilya Kovalchuk
Dylan Larkin
Robin Lehner
Nathan MacKinnon
Joel Quenneville
Carey Price
Antti Raanta
Tuukka Rask
Todd Reirden
Pekka Rinne
Cory Schneider
Tyler Seguin
Kevin Shattenkirk
Cam Talbot
Tomas Tatar
Brad Treliving
James van Riemsdyk
Steve Yzerman

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BUILDING OFF A BREAKTHROUGH
Mathew Barzal
Brock Boeser
Pavel Buchnevich
Thomas Chabot
Kyle Connor
Evgenii Dadonov

Alex DeBrincat
Jake DeBrusk
Travis Dermott
Pierre-Luc Dubois
Matt Dumba

Vince Dunn
Radek Faksa
Kevin Fiala

Brendan Gallagher
Noah Hanifin
Nico Hischier
William Karlsson
Ondrej Kase
Clayton Keller
Adrian Kempe
Travis Konecny
Anthony Mantha
Timo Meier
Darnell Nurse
Jamie Oleksiak
Brayden Point
Mikko Rantanen
Sam Reinhart
Teuvo Teravainen
Tom Wilson

THREE QUESTIONS
Anaheim Ducks
Arizona Coyotes
Boston Bruins
Buffalo Sabres
Calgary Flames
Carolina Hurricanes
Chicago Blackhawks
Colorado Avalanche
Columbus Blue Jackets
Dallas Stars
Detroit Red Wings
Edmonton Oilers
Florida Panthers
Los Angeles Kings
Minnesota Wild
Montreal Canadiens
Nashville Predators
New Jersey Devils
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
Ottawa Senators
Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins
San Jose Sharks
St. Louis Blues
Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs
Vancouver Canucks
Vegas Golden Knights
Washington Capitals
Winnipeg Jets

MORE:
Where should Jonathan Toews rank among NHL’s top centers?
Q&A: Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar
Back issue makes Henrik Zetterberg’s future ‘real unknown’
Panthers do one thing about as well as anyone in the NHL
Expect huge year from Max Pacioretty no matter where he plays
Rangers could once again be active in trade market
Will Sidney Crosby win another scoring title in his career?
Sabres’ Eichel focuses on keeping fiery emotions in check
• Maple Leafs should be NHL’s best offensive team

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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.