James Neal

Tkachuk billboard in Edmonton
via CJAY 92

‘Matthew Tkachuk Friendship Tour’ billboard starts popping up in Edmonton

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Fans must wait about a week for the next round in the “Battle of Alberta,” but if they need a reminder, the “Matthew Tkachuk Friendship Tour” billboard began showing up in Edmonton on Wednesday.

Calgary radio station CJAY 92 made it happen, and also helped to make this Tkachuk-centric trolling effort turn into a boon for charities. The billboards hype up the next meeting between the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, which happens in Edmonton on Jan. 29. Deliciously enough, the two teams then meet again in Calgary on Feb. 1. Think of all of the opportunities for friendship.

Take a look at the Tkachuk billboard in Edmonton

CJAY 92 shared photos of the billboards that began sprouting up:

You may, however, notice an omission. The final version includes Tkachuk’s name, the amusing “friendship tour,” and his jersey number. It does not, however, feature Tkachuk making a face like he smelled something rancid, or really didn’t appreciate that pun.

Yeah, that bitter beer face plus the heart background did kind of tie the billboard together.

That said, there’s the real fear of Oilers fans defacing the image in Edmonton. Heck, there’s the risk of someone getting injured trying to vandalize a billboard with Tkachuk’s actual face on it. Maybe it was also a rights issue with getting that picture?

So … yes, it’s a very, very mild letdown. Nonetheless, this adds another wrinkle to this fun, silly rivalry within a rivalry.

Recap of feud with Kassian

As a reminder, the ball got rolling as a feud formed between Tkachuk and Zack Kassian. Tkachuk delivered multiple hits — ones that Kassian found dirty — and then Kassian ragdolled the pesty winger. You could say that Tkachuk got the last laugh, as the Flames scored the game-winning goal during power-play opportunities stemming from Kassian’s penalties. The two also traded trash talk after the game.

After letting the two-game suspension sink in, Kassian warned that Tkachuk “messed with the wrong guy.” Kassian implied that the previous outing was merely a skirmish in a larger war (or, you know, “Battle of Alberta”).

This feud would rank as one of the most glorious in hockey if it stayed onto the ice. Yet, off ice moving and shaking really brings this to another trolly, splendid level.

Tkachuk billboard becomes a boon for charities in Edmonton and Calgary

Once CJAY 92 took care of the more fun aspects of the Tkachuk billboard, Mohamed Elsaghir’s Go Fund Me drive instead focused on raising money for ALS. Between that drive and a $10K donation by entrepreneur W. Brett Wilson helped bump the total contributions above $20K.

While that charitable run came via Flames fans, Oilers devotees made waves for a good cause, too. What started with a fun tweet and $25 donation from Oilers fan Samantha Costa ended up being a boon, too.

Brown Bagging It, one of the benefiting charities, summed everything up nicely:

***

Overall, great stuff. It makes you wonder: could enterprising Oilers fans come up with a billboard idea for the next game on Feb.1? Maybe something along the lines of, “Thanks for James Neal?”

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.

Matthews, Pastrnak set up thrilling Maurice Richard race

Matthews Pastrnak Richard race
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For quite some time, it looked like David Pastrnak (32 goals) would run away with the Maurice Richard Trophy. While Pastrnak remains atop that race, Auston Matthews is knocking on that door with 31 goals. If they keep this up, hockey fans are in for one heck of a battle.

Of course, it wouldn’t be one bit surprising if this turned into a three-horse race, or more. Alex Ovechkin demands attention as the most obvious threat, and he currently sits in a three-way tie for third place alongside Jack Eichel and Nathan MacKinnon at 26 goals.

Frankly, someone could alter the landscape with a hot month (or, for all we know, a hot weekend).

Pastrnak vs. Matthews is just too fun, and close, not to pick apart, though.

Before we burrow, consider the simplest facts:

Pastrnak: 32 goals , Bruins have 38 games remaining
Matthews: 31 goals, 37 GR

(Don’t worry, potentially aggrieved other fanbases; we’ll also discuss some of the other frontrunners to end this post.)

Matthews on fire, Pastrnak seemingly shakes slight cold streak

Chalk it up to Sheldon Keefe replacing Mike Babcock or not, the bottom line is Matthews is red-hot. After scoring an already-strong 14 goals during his last 23 games under Babcock, Matthews now has a ludicrous 17 goals in 22 games with Keefe at the helm.

Luck matters just as much as coaching. That’s worth noting considering how many bounces have been going Matthews’ way lately. Matthews has scored 15 goals on just 63 SOG over his last 17 games, a 23.8 shooting percentage since December. In November, he enjoyed a comparatively pedestrian 10.6 shooting percentage.

Pastrnak wandered through dramatic shifts of his own. The Bruins winger managed an absurd 30 percent rate in 10 October games. Pastrnak barely slowed down in November, but he seemed somewhat human in December, though he was still dominant (five goals and 18 points in 15 games, limited by an earthly 9.1 shooting percentage).

Overall, they’re both enjoying some bounces, with Pastrnak at 18.5 percent and Matthews at 18.3. Cold streaks could bring one or both of them back to the pack.

Pastrnak the power play phenom; Matthews’ interesting ice time notes

“Pasta” swiped the power play wizard torch from Ovechkin at some point, it seems. Pastrnak easily leads the NHL with 15 power-play goals, with James Neal being the only other player at double digits with 12.

Not too surprisingly, Pastrnak soaks up a lot of ice time on the power play, averaging 3:39 PP TOI. Time on ice remains an interesting topic with Matthews, actually …

During much of Babcock’s run, the veteran coach was (justifiably) chastised for using Matthews less than he should have. While Babcock did deploy Matthews more in his final season (19:50 TOI in 23 games, versus 18:33 in 2018-19), Keefe is giving Maple Leafs fans more of what they want. Matthews’ average climbed to 20:42 TOI per night under Keefe.

Interestingly, that boost is coming at even strength. After averaging 3:24 PP TOI per night during Babcock’s last run, Matthews’ power play average is actually down under Keefe to 2:38.

Overall, the response is “More Matthews, the merrier.” Matthews averages more time per game than Pastrnak since Keefe took over (20:42 vs. Pastrnak’s 19:29), while Pastrnak receives about an extra minute of power play time lately.

The two might indirectly make for some interesting quality vs. quantity debates if those trends continue. (That’s not a guarantee, mind you, as certain variables can change, but it’s a factor to watch.)

Considering the rest of the field

  • This is somewhat uncharted territory for Matthews and Pastrnak. Their youth and occasional injury issues make their ceilings unclear. Alex Ovechkin, meanwhile, delivers the goods, and lingers as a huge threat at 26 goals.

Ovechkin might be the greatest sniper ever, already boasting eight Richard trophies, including two in a row, and six of the last seven.

Ovechkin is firing the puck more than usual (210 SOG for 4.67 SOG per game, his highest rate since 2015-16), possibly because his shooting percentage is “just” at 12.4. Ovechkin’s track record and durability make him a strong pick to climb the ranks.

  • Nathan MacKinnon gives Ovechkin competition for trigger-happiness with 204 SOG. He’s right behind Ovechkin in SOG (4.64 per game), improving on what was already a career-high last season (4.45 in 2018-19, his first in the four range).

As spectacular as MacKinnon is, I wonder if his tendency to be a “volume shooter” might doom him in this race. If he maintained his current 12.7 shooting percentage, it would rank as the second-highest mark of MacKinnon’s career.

  • Jack Eichel completes that three-way tie for third, getting his 26 goals on 147 SOG (17.7 percent). Another Sabres swoon might take the wind out of his sails, although who knows?
  • Leon Draisaitl stands alone at sixth place with 25 goals. Patrick Kane and Connor McDavid have 24 apiece, while Sebastian Aho and Artemi Panarin round out the top 10 at 23. There are 16 players at 20+ goals so far in 2019-20.

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 Fantasy Hockey: Killorn, Schwartz highlight this week’s best adds

Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. As always, the goal here isn’t to recommend 10 players you must add and five players that need to be dropped. Context is everything and the context of each league is different. What this is instead is a guideline so that if you’re looking to make a change, you have potential players to target and if you see players I’ve suggested to drop, you can evaluate your potential alternates.

Players Worth Adding

Jaden Schwartz, Blues – LW: The 2018-19 campaign was a rough one for Schwartz, but he’s he’s more than making it for it this season. After being limited to 11 goals and 36 points in 69 contests last season, he already has 13 goals and 34 points in 40 games this time around. Part of that is thanks to his current hot streak though. He has four goals and 11 points in his last six games. He’ll certainly need to be re-evaluated after he cools down, but as long as he’s this hot he’s an easy pickup for those who can make the space.

Jake Virtanen, Canucks – RW: Virtanen is red hot right now with five goals and eight points in eight games. That makes him worthy of consideration at the moment, but I do caution that you should regard only as a short-term option. He averages just 12:19 minutes with Vancouver and has never been a major offensive contributor, so the odds of him being a significant fantasy asset in standard leagues for the rest of the season is low. All that said, I still like him as a short-term gamble. I recommend waiting until Wednesday before picking him up given that the Canucks are off until Thursday anyways. Then Vancouver will play against Chicago on Jan. 2nd, the Rangers on Jan. 4th, and Tampa Bay on Jan. 7th, which are all teams in the bottom half of the league in terms of goals allowed per game.

Alex Killorn, Lightning – LW/RW: Killorn had just two assists in his first six games, but he’s been great since then with 13 goals and 29 points in his last 29 contests. Over that 29-game span, he’s never gone more than two games in a row without recording a point. It’s true that Killorn was limited to 40 points last season, but his playing time has jumped from an average of 14:52 minutes in 2018-19 to 18:22 minutes this season. He’s still only owned in 48% of Yahoo leagues, so if he’s available for you then you should seriously consider grabbing him.

Tony DeAngelo, Rangers – D: DeAngelo is just someone to consider in general right now. He’s only owned in half of all Yahoo leagues despite having a very healthy eight goals and 28 points in 38 games. He’s been regularly chipping in throughout the season, never going more than two games in a row without getting a point. DeAngelo had 30 points in 61 games last season and with the strides he’s taken in 2019-20, he looks like he might be a great offensive defenseman for many years to come.

Tanner Pearson, Canucks – LW: Pearson has two goals and five points in his last three games, so he’s pretty hot right now, but beyond that he should be regarded as a good injury replacement, should you need one. Pearson isn’t going to turn heads for any prolonged period of time, but he’s a solid secondary scorer with 11 goals and 27 points in 40 games. If you’re hurting for a left winger at any point during the season, he’s a good fallback option until either you get healthy or you find an alternate solution, say on the trade market.

Sami Vatanen, Devils – D: I wouldn’t own Vatanen all the time, especially given how hot-and-cold he’s been so far, but he’s worth picking up during his hot streaks. He’s on one such run right now with a goal and seven points in his last six contests. It doesn’t hurt that the Devils also won’t be lacking for games in the short-term with them set to play eight times from Dec. 31-Jan. 14.

Ryan Strome, Rangers – C/RW: For years Strome has had potential, but hasn’t been able to live up to it. After struggles with the Islanders and Oilers though, it seems like he’s found his way with the Rangers. He has 10 goals and 35 points in 38 contests this season. Of course, it helps a great deal that he’s averaging 19:34 minutes in 2019-20, which is by far a career-high for him. That increased ice time makes the notion of him surpassing the 60-point milestone this season seem feasible and with him still available in slightly over half of all Yahoo leagues, you should give serious consideration towards adding him if you have the option.

Nikita Gusev, Devils – LW/RW: Gusev was an elite player in the KHL, but he’s been slow to getting going in his first North American season. He had five goals and 14 points in his first 29 games while averaging a modest 13:25 minutes. He’s managed to hit his stride recently though with two goals and eight points in his last six contests. He only averaged 14:12 minutes over that six-game span, so his ice time remains unimpressive, but there’s a real chance that he’ll have a strong second half as he gets used to North American hockey. If nothing else he’s an interesting short-term pickup, but this is one player you might end up holding onto for the remainder of the campaign.

Alex Iafallo, Kings – LW: Iafallo had 25 points as a rookie and 33 points in his sophomore campaign. With six goals and 21 points in 41 games this season, he’s well on his way to taking another step forward, but he’s still not a great option in standard fantasy leagues. In the short-term though, he’s not a bad gamble given that he’ll be going into Tuesday’s contest against Philadelphia on a four-game point streak. I wouldn’t recommend keeping him much beyond this point streak though so be prepared to swap him with a different option once he cools down.

Lucas Wallmark, Hurricanes – C: As is the case with Iafallo, Wallmark is a player who typically isn’t worth having on your squad, but is of temporary use given how hot he is. In the case of Wallmark, he has four goals and eight points in his last six games. If you have a slot open for a short-term pick and are debating between Wallmark and Iafallo, it really does just come down to positioning. Which forward position do you more need to fill over the next week or so? 

Players You May Want To Drop

Jake Muzzin, Maple Leafs – D: Muzzin has been okay, but not great offensively this season with three goals and 13 points in 38 games. I’d could still see the benefit of holding onto him under normal circumstances, but he hasn’t done enough to just hanging onto him while he’s recovering from the broken foot he sustained on Friday. Circle back to him once he’s healthy and if he’s still available at that time, consider picking him back up, but for now I’d drop him if the alternative on my team was him occupying a bench slot.

Jeff Skinner, Sabres – C/LW: Similar to Muzzin, Skinner is a recently injured player that I don’t think it’s worth holding onto for the duration of the injury. I feel stronger about Skinner than Muzzin though because I’d lean towards parting ways with him regardless. In fact, I recommended dropping Skinner two weeks ago while he was still healthy. Skinner scored 40 goals last season, but he’s fallen back to Earth in 2019-20 with 11 goals and 19 points in 39 games. Now that he’s set to miss the next three-to-four weeks with an upper-body injury, the chances of him bouncing back in any significant way this season have been further diminished.

James Neal, Oilers – LW/RW: Neal got off to an amazing start with nine goals and 10 points in his first eight games, but since then he’s been nothing special. Over his last 10 contests, he has two goals and three points and overall he has 16 goals and 23 points in 41 games even with that stunning start accounted for. If you picked up Neal early on hoping that the switch from Calgary to Edmonton would lead to sustained success, you should cut your losses at this point.

Andre Burakovsky, Avalanche – LW/RW: Burakovsky has enjoyed some big hot streaks this season. From Oct. 10-18 he had four goals and seven points in five games and from Nov. 14-23 he scored six goals and nine points in five contests. The problem is that he’s been very inconsistent with lows that have matched those highs. He has a goal and no assists over his last nine games. Keep an eye out for him for his next hot streak, but don’t bother holding onto him in the meantime.

Antti Raanta, Coyotes – G: Darcy Kuemper suffered a lower-body injury on Dec. 19th and was regarded as week-to-week as a result. It was a blow to the Coyotes, but it was also an opportunity for Raanta, who had been relegated to the backup role.  Unfortunately Raanta hasn’t taken advantage of the opportunity thus far. He’s 0-3-0 with a 4.37 GAA and .877 save percentage in his last three starts. It made sense to give Raanta a try, but it might be best at this point to look elsewhere for goaltending help.

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey.

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.

Oilers headed toward another collapse without major change

Edmonton Oilers
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Take a quick glance at the NHL standings and it is easy to conclude that the Edmonton Oilers have put themselves in a pretty good position.

They are just two points out of first place in the Pacific Division, and after a disastrous meltdown in 2018-19 it would seem first-year coach Dave Tippett and new general manager Ken Holland have made some significant strides this year.  But the current standings are only a history of what has already happened. They tell us nothing about what will happen — or is likely to happen — in the future.

When you dig a little deeper than just the win-loss record it becomes really hard to be optimistic about the direction this season could take. And before you argue that the record is all that matters and the team is playing better, keep in mind they are only one point better after 34 games than they were a year ago (40 points this year vs. 39 points a year ago).

All of the same flaws that have plagued the Oilers still exist today, and without some sort of a major change they could be headed toward the same fate as last year’s team.

It’s Still McDavid and Draisaitl or bust offensively

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are two of the best offensive players in the league, and when they are on the ice together they are the best duo the league has seen in decades. But the second the Oilers take them off the ice the team’s lack of depth is exposed and they are unable to compete. It’s been a problem for two years and is somehow even worse this season.

Just consider…

  • When one of McDavid or Draisaitl is on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Oilers have a plus-5 goal differential. Not great, but at least on the positive side. At this time a year ago it was plus-11.
  • When both of them are on the ice their goal differential is a plus-6. At this time a year ago it was plus-10.
  • When neither is on the ice their goal differential is minus-17. At this time a year ago it was only minus-7.
  • When neither player is on the ice the Oilers are averaging just 1.46 goals per 60 minutes. That is a drop from the same point a year ago when they were averaging 1.65 goals. Last year’s number was awful. This year’s is worse.

They attempted to address the scoring depth issue by adding James Neal from Calgary. While he has been better than Milan Lucic offensively, he has cooled off considerably after a white-hot start that seemed to be the beginning of a bounce-back year.

He has just six goals in his past 26 games, while almost all of his production this year has been power play dependent (when he is with McDavid and/or Draisaitl). During 5-on-5 play his overall play has become a hot mess. Once you get beyond McDavid, Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins there is not another forward on the roster that is capable of driving a line on their own.

They still can not stop anybody

When it comes to goals against the Oilers have shown marginal improvement this season. Probably not enough to matter (still 18th in goals against per game), and it’s not the type of improvement they should be relying on to continue because it is entirely dependent on goaltending.

Almost all of that improvement is the result of Mikko Koskinen playing better than expected over the first month of the season in net and masking the team’s many defensive flaws.

When it comes to shot attempts against, scoring chances against, and their ability to control the puck the Oilers remain one of the league’s worst teams. They are still lacking impact players on the blue line, and if their goaltending is not flawless (and it often isn’t) they do not have much of a chance to win.

Mike Smith is in the middle of his second straight sub-par season, while Koskinen has already started to show some signs of regression over his past few starts. If the goaltending doesn’t hold up things could quickly derail.

It’s all starting to catch up them already

The lack of forward depth. The lack of a true No. 1 (or even No. 2) NHL defenseman. The mediocre goaltending.

All of it.

Since starting the season by winning seven of their first eight games, the Oilers have gone 11-11-4 in the 26 games that have followed, including a 2-5-1 mark in their most recent seven-game stretch. While they remain in second place in the Pacific, they are still only four points ahead of the first non-playoff team (a Vancouver team that has two games in hand). On top of that, their upcoming schedule doesn’t get any easier as the next seven games are against Toronto, Dallas, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Montreal, Vancouver, and Calgary. If they can not successfully navigate through that stretch it is going to leave them in a tough spot where they might be in danger of wasting another fast start to the season.

What that change might be is hard to determine. It’s still a matter of talent and not having enough of it. There is only so much a coach can do with no forward depth and no top defenders. And there is only so much a GM can do to make changes when there are so few assets to trade.

In the end, it all goes back to the mess the previous front office left behind and is a reminder as to how much work Ken Holland still has to do in fixing it.

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.

The Buzzer: Another big night for Eichel; Neal’s bounce-back continues

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Three Stars

1. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres. Having lost nine of their previous 10 games the Buffalo Sabres desperately need to start stacking some wins together. They got a big one on Sunday when they crushed the Florida Panthers, 5-2, to snap what had been a three-game losing streak. Eichel was one of the big stars in this one as he finished with a goal and two assists in the win. He now has 12 points over his past six games.

2. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes. The Carolina Hurricanes’ 2-0 win over the Detroit Red Wings was a one-goal game until the final minute when they added an empty-net goal, but it was never really that close. Carolina was in control from the very beginning and ended up nearly doubling up the Red Wings on the shot chart, holding them to just 19 shots on goal for the game. Aho was the big star for the Hurricanes by scoring the game-winning goal and adding an assist on Teuvo Teravainen‘s empty-net goal. After a slow start that saw him record just one point in his first six games, Aho now has 19 points in the 17 games since.

3. James Neal, Edmonton Oilers. His bounce-back year continues. He scored his 14th goal of the season — and 10th on the power play — in the Oilers’ 4-3 shootout win over the Arizona Coyotes. Keep in mind this is the Oilers’ 26th game of the season. He scored seven goals in 63 games a year ago for the Calgary Flames before they traded him this offseason. No player on the Flames currently has more than 11 goals so far this season. Sunday’s win moved the Oilers into sole possession of first place in the Western Conference, moving them two points ahead of the St. Louis Blues.

Other notable performances from Sunday

  • James Reimer stopped all 19 shots he faced for the Hurricanes on Sunday to record first shutout of the season and his first as a member of the Hurricanes.
  • Zemgus Girgensons scored two goals for the Sabres in their win against Florida, while starting goalie Linus Ullmark stopped 43 out of 45 shots in net.
  • The Coyotes gained another point in the standings and defenseman Alex Goligoski played a big role in that with a three assist night.

Highlights of the Night

Eichel’s goal on Sunday was a great example of how he can make opposing defenders look silly and how quick his shot is.

Factoids

  • Andrei Svechnikov is the second teenager in Hurricanes/Whalers history to have a point streak of at least eight games, joining Ron Francis from the franchise’s Hartford days. [NHL PR]
  • Connor McDavid‘s point streak reaches 11 games, making it the second longest streak of his career. He also scored the game-winning goal for the Oilers in the shootout. [NHL PR]
  • The Sabres’ win snapped a six-game losing streak in Florida against the Panthers. [NHL PR]

Scores

Buffalo Sabres 5, Florida Panthers 2
Carolina Hurricanes 2, Detroit Red Wings 0
Edmonton Oilers 4, Arizona Coyotes 3 (SO)

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.