James Neal loses (fake?) teeth thanks to high stick

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Sometimes, it feels kind of arbitrary that drawing blood serves as the difference between a single and double-minor for high-sticking. When you lose teeth (fake or not) from such an infraction, though? That seems pretty fair.

In a striking moment between the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks on Saturday, an Alex Biega stick caught James Neal up high, and sent his teeth flying. Actually, it sounds like they were fake teeth, so there’s the remote possibility that a different wayward stick got his real ones.

(Probably just a fist, though.)

The Flames did, indeed, receive four minutes of power-play time for that high-sticking infraction, but Calgary was unable to make Biega pay for such amateur (albeit efficient) dentistry.

This continues a tough first season for Neal in Calgary, as he came into this contest with only five goals and 14 points in 52 games. The jokes? They’ve been pretty good.

And, yes, people have given it sort of a “Zapruder” treatment to see individual chicklets.

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.

Trade deadline buyers should beware of Ferland

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Despite plenty of their fans wanting to keep the bruising pending free agent, the Carolina Hurricanes are likely to trade Micheal Ferland, according to Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic.

LeBrun places a potential price tag for a Ferland trade as a first-round pick and a prospect.

On paper, that’s a totally sensible move for a contender to make, with LeBrun adding the Pittsburgh Penguins to the list of potential suitors.

For one thing, Ferland is super-cheap in 2018-19. The 26-year-old only carries a $1.75 million cap hit, so a contending team could easily make Ferland merely part of a shopping spree, at least from the perspective of being under the $79.5M upper limit.

Depending upon the quality of the prospect, that potential trade is pretty reasonable for a solid rental. Ferland is coming off of a 21-goal season from 2017-18, and with 13 goals in just 40 games, is on an even better pace (.33 per game) in 2018-19. Just as enticingly, Ferland is the sort of rugged presence that teams believe they need for the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Considering some of the prices in previous years – the Predators giving up their first rounder for Ryan Hartman, the bucket of picks Vegas sent for Tomas Tatar – Ferland could be a nice find.

But this is a “buyer beware” situation, at least depending upon the potential plans of a would-be buyer.

Tom Wilson money”

Yes, Ferland is dirt-cheap today, but a team would be wise not to sign Ferland to an extension before seeing him play.

For one thing, there’s a Tom Wilson comparison that might inflate his market value. During a recent edition of Hockey Night in Canada, Nick Kypreos reported that Ferland is looking for Wilson-type money for his next deal. That would mean a six-year contract in the $31M range, or at least something coming in around a $5.167M cap hit.

There’s no denying that Wilson is having a career season, even with that hefty suspension in mind. His 13 goals puts him one behind last season’s career-high of 14 in 78 games, even though Wilson’s only played in 29 this year. Even so, Wilson’s on a five-game pointless drought, and his 20.6 shooting percentage indicates that he’ll be cooling down a bit more.

So, the market’s already inflated for a physical winger who can score. There’s also slight concern over Ferland’s scoring.

Nature vs. nurture

One thing certainly helping Wilson rise up the scoring ranks is his linemates, as he’s been regularly skating with the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Nicklas Backstrom.

That alignment makes great sense for the Capitals for a number of reasons, including the fact that they already paid Wilson, anyway.

But a would-be buyer should be cautious about extending Ferland for the simple reason that he’s basically had nothing but outstanding linemates during the past two seasons, when he’s generated far and away his best numbers.

Last season, he was glued to Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, a pairing that’s boosted Elias Lindholm to easily the best work of his career. As you can see from Natural Stat Trick, he’s frequently lining up on Carolina’s best line with Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, too.

Now, it says a lot about Ferland that he can hang with such high-level forwards. Plenty of other players have squandered opportunities with players like Gaudreau and Aho.

Still, if a team is investing in Ferland beyond 2018-19, it’s fair to wonder how Ferland would handle being the top guy on a lesser line, or otherwise show that he’s worth that Wilson-type money.

After all, it’s not as though Ferland’s lighting opponents on fire. Generating 25 points in 40 games this season, and 21 goals (and 41 points) in 2017-18 is promising, and fantastic value at $1.75M per season.

Would he really be worth something in the $5M range?

That question might only really matter when the free agent frenzy kicks in during July, but there’s no guarantee that a trade partner wouldn’t also be eager to keep Ferland around longer term.

***

There are risks involved even in giving up that first-round pick and prospect, but it’s easy to see why someone would want to at least rent Ferland. A longer lease option could be quite costly, though, so potential teams should really be careful here.

Considering how things have gone for the likes of James Neal, Patrick Maroon, and Milan Lucic, sometimes it’s dangerous to invest in power forwards, even when they’re well-marketed like Ferland seems to be.

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.

Golden Knights’ second act shaping up to rival first

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LAS VEGAS — Shea Theodore and Alex Tuch had to have faith.

When the Vegas Golden Knights decided to send them to the minors at the start of last season, Theodore and Tuch chose to believe what general manager George McPhee told them.

”The message was that we were part of the future of this team and he definitely saw us in that long-term plan,” Theodore said.

Within weeks, they were back in the NHL as part of the fastest-starting expansion team in history and played significant roles in the Golden Knights’ run to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. Each player got a long-term contract before he played his first game this season, and they weren’t alone as McPhee went about the process of turning Vegas from a one-year wonder into a perennial title contender.

He locked up 75-point forward Jonathan Marchessault through 2024, signed face-of-the-franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to a three-year extension, inked defenseman Nate Schmidt to a six-year contract that begins next season, signed center Paul Stastny as a free agent and acquired big winger Max Pacioretty in a trade with Montreal. Those moves have paid off so far with Vegas five points back of first place in the Pacific Division and looking like its second act could rival its first.

”We have a couple guys signed long term, and it’s fun because it means that we have a core and we’re building something,” Marchessault said. ”You want to be part of a story as a hockey player, and it feels like we’re part of one here.”

The Golden Knights’ story was a fairy tale: A team that looked on paper like it would be among the worst in the league won its division and steamrolled to the final before losing to McPhee’s former team, the Washington Capitals, in five games. Marchessault said he felt in June like this team could be a legitimate threat for years to come.

McPhee’s job was to ensure that. The veteran executive who got to build the Golden Knights from scratch through a wildly successful expansion draft understood he had the benefit of not having to dig out from bad contracts. But he also shouldered the burden of drawing up a whole host of new ones after one season during which seemingly everyone overachieved.

”We did have a lot of work to do because most of the guys that we acquired were either free agents or were on one-year deals and their deals had matured and it was time to negotiate again,” McPhee said. ”And we just thought, we know what they are, we’re comfortable projecting what they will be in the future and we had the cap space, so why not use it now because cap space is like perishable inventory. If you don’t use it, it’s gone at the end of the year. We just wanted some cost certainty moving forward, so it would help us to plan for things better in the future.”

Fleury got $7 million a year, Schmidt, $5.95 million, Theodore, $5.2 million, Marchessault, $5 million and Tuch, $4.75 million. Fleury leads the NHL with 26 wins, Schmidt has played over 23 minutes a game since returning from suspension, Theodore leads Vegas defensemen with 21 points and Tuch and Marchessault are 1-2 on the team in scoring.

Beyond cost certainty, it was money smartly spent to keep morale up, raise expectations and get bang for owner Bill Foley’s buck.

”When you have a guy believe in you like that, sign you to that kind of a term, you don’t want to make him look bad and I think every night you want to go out and you want to play your best,” said Theodore, who is under contract through 2025. ”I think it’s been paying off for us and hopefully will in the future.”

Even though only wingers James Neal and David Perron and defenseman Luca Sbisa aren’t back from the core group that went to the Cup final, McPhee couldn’t stand pat and think success would repeat itself. He consciously added Stastny, Pacioretty and Nick Holden to replace the lost production and provide an influx of talent.

”When you’re a couple games away from winning, I think you’ve got to try and do whatever you can,” Schmidt said. ”You have to add something in order to beat the best teams.”

The way Pacioretty looks at it, McPhee wasn’t scanning the aisles. He was shopping off a specific list. They weren’t part of the playoff run – Stastny was on the Winnipeg Jets team that Vegas beat in the Western Conference final – but brought some more balance.

”They wanted guys like me and Stas to come in and play a little bit of a two-way game,” Pacioretty said. ”That’s how we want to help our team. We know that especially offensively that this team last year had guys who were relied upon every night to create. And we still want to be those guys coming in, but we also know that there’s areas on both sides of the puck that we can help this team.”

Injuries have hampered Pacioretty and Stastny so far, but they and the Golden Knights will really be judged in the playoffs. After falling three victories short of a championship, players feel like they have what it takes to win this time and for years to come.

”As our owner said at the beginning of the year, we just don’t want to be a winning team. We want to have a winning franchise,” Marchessault said. ”Last year we really felt like we have something special, and we have some unfinished business.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Who needs a fresh start in 2019?

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New Year’s Day is right around the corner, so naturally many of us have already started thinking about our resolutions. Maybe you want to get into better shape, eat better, expand your knowledge on a certain topic, spend less time on your phone, or something totally different.

Hockey people and teams are just like us. They need a reset, too. So who’s most looking forward to Jan. 1 in the NHL?

Corey Crawford – Chicago Blackhawks: It’s been a really tough year for the Blackhawks netminder. The 34-year-old played in just 28 games last season because of a concussion. He managed to return to the lineup in October, but he’s now sidelined by another concussion. It’s hard not to feel sorry for him, and you have to wonder if the end is near for the veteran. We hope 2019 brings a lot more health to Crawford and we hope to see him back on the ice really soon.

Eugene Melnyk and the Ottawa Senators: It’s been a bad 12 months for the owner of the Sens. This snowball started rolling downhill last December, when he mentioned the possibility of relocating and it’s just gotten worse and worse for his franchise. Hopefully 2019 is filled with a lot less drama for Melnyk, GM Pierre Dorion and the rest of the Senators organization. From the situation between Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman to Uber-gate, the Sens were the organization that kept on giving when it came to headlines. But even we have to acknowledge that this is getting ridiculous. All the best in 2019, Ottawa.

Peter Chiarelli – Edmonton Oilers: Do I really have to explain this one? Chiarelli tried shuffling the duck with a pair of trades over the weekend, but that won’t calm the waters in Edmonton. He absolutely needs to push the right buttons so that his team can get their season back on the rails as soon as possible. The Oilers are still only four points out of a Wild Card spot, but they’re also just six points away from last place in the West.

Kyle Okposo – Buffalo Sabres: Okposo has failed to pick up a single point since late November. That’s right. He hasn’t scored or picked up an assist at all during the month of December. 14 games without any production is a long time for any player, especially one that makes $6 million per year. Okposo also had a significant injury scare last year, when he battled a concussion.

Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov – Philadelphia Flyers: After making the playoffs last season, the Flyers were expected to be back in the postseason this year, too. Unfortunately for them, things haven’t panned out that way. Goaltending has always been an issue for them, but in-zone coverage hasn’t been great either. They definitely expected more from their two young defenders. If this dynamic duo doesn’t figure things out soon, the Flyers will be watching the playoffs on television.

Dallas Stars: Alright, team president Jim Lites made some serious comments regarding Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Whether you agree with them or not, it’s time for the Stars to live up to their potential. They may not be the deepest teams, but there’s no denying that there’s talent on that roster. They all just need to regroup and find a way to grab one of playoff spots at their disposal.

William Nylander – Toronto Maple Leafs: Nylander didn’t report to training camp this year and he also sat out until December because of a contract dispute. Since his return to the lineup, he’s picked up just two assists in 11 games, and they both came in the same game. We know how talented the 22-year-old is, now he just needs to get up to speed with the rest of his teammates. All he needs is a little more time.

Karl Alzner – Montreal Canadiens: After signing a lucrative free-agent contract in the summer of 2017, Alzner found himself as a healthy scratch pretty regularly in the first half of the season. Then, to make matters even worse, the Canadiens assigned him to their AHL affiliate in Laval. Alzner has since been recalled, but he still doesn’t appear to fit in his team’s plans. A fresh start somewhere else may help him, but he’s just not built for this new NHL.

James Neal – Calgary Flames: Neal decided to leave Vegas to join Calgary on July 1st, but that decision is looking shockingly bad right now. The Flames gave the veteran winger a five-year, $28.75 million deal this summer, only to watch it blow up in their face so far. Neal has three goals and four assists in 38 games, and he hasn’t scored since Nov. 1 (24 games). Although he got a fresh start in Calgary a few months ago, it sure looks like he needs another one.

Tuukka Rask – Boston Bruins: The 2018-19 season has been a tough one for Rask. Not only did he have to leave the team for personal reasons earlier this year, he also hasn’t been very good on the ice. The Bruins made a nice move when they signed Jarolsav Halak last summer, but there’s no way they expected him to play as often as he has. Rask has to find a way to be more consistent if the Bruins are going to make a serious push in April and May.

Cory Schneider – New Jersey Devils: Not many NHLers had a worse calendar year than Schneider. Not only did he deal with some significant injuries, he also went all of 2018 without recording a victory, as he went 0-14-2 in 17 starts. Keith Kinkaid has done a nice job for the Devils, but they need their starting goaltender to play a much higher level.

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.

Are Flames finally ready to contend?

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During the last few seasons, the Calgary Flames have been one of the most frustrating and bewildering teams in the NHL.

Just look at the treasure trove of talent in Calgary. Johnny Gaudreau powers what’s perennially one of the best top lines in the league. Matthew Tkachuk and “The 3M Line” basically don’t allow opponents to touch the puck. Oh, and they also employ Mark Giordano, who’s a Norris defenseman without the trophy.

Considering all of those strengths, it’s been mind-boggling to see the Flames not only fall short of being an elite team, but miss the playoffs in two of the last four seasons, managing a single playoff series win during that span.

Along the way, they’ve surely teased us with moments of brilliance. With that in mind, maybe this post will be filed under “Fool Me Once …”

Yet … it does kind of feel like the Flames might be turning the corner.

Calgary won its fourth consecutive game in Thursday’s game against the Wild (which devolved into violence at the end), pushing their record to 18-9-2. That gives them 38 points in 29 games, which amounts to a pretty comfortable lead in the Pacific Division. Even more impressively, the Flames are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games.

This isn’t just a matter of beating up on the lesser lights in what’s admittedly a weak division. Calgary’s only a point behind the Predators and Avalanche (each with 39 points in 29 games) for the best record in the West.

At minimum, they’re in a strong position to at least land a berth in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Could they make an even bigger leap and become legitimate championship contenders? What’s been going so well during this 8-1-1 run? Let’s dig in.

Strong team numbers

Early on in 2018-19, the Flames must have given Bill Peters bad memories from his Hurricanes days, as Calgary was generating strong puck possession numbers but couldn’t get over dicey puck luck and wobbly goaltending from Mike Smith.

Overall, that seems to be leveling out now (their PDO is almost exactly at 1, which would indicate that the bounces are more or less “even”), and they remain a strong puckhogging group, via Natural Stat Trick and other site’s numbers.

To little surprise, they’ve been a high-end possession team during the last 10 games, as you can see at Puck on Net.

Granted, certain things are likely to sink, and a red-hot power play stands among them. During that 8-1-1 run, the Flames have connected on 31.6-percent of their chances, the fourth-highest rate in the NHL since Nov. 17. In their 19 previous games, the Flames were middle-of-the-pack at 18.5 percent, so that’s one obvious area where things could sink.

Overall, though, there are enough promising underlying numbers to suggest that the Flames have the making of a strong team.

Of course, we might as well consider their frequent Achilles Heel.

Role reversals in net

For most of this season, Mike Smith’s been struggling (10-7-1 record, .892 save percentage), while David Rittich saved the day (8-2-1, .919).

Things have been inverted during this 8-1-1 run, though. In six games, Smith’s 5-0-0 with a .939 save percentage; meanwhile, Rittich’s save percentage was .899 in five appearances.

In the grand scheme of things, this could be a fine development for the Flames. Yes, Rittich struggled, but still managed a 3-1-1 record thanks to some goal support. There must be increased organizational trust in the 26-year-old going forward.

But Smith gaining confidence is crucial. The big 36-year-old can get as hot as just about any goalie, so it’s promising to see him trending upward.

Are there caveats? Sure. Smith hasn’t always had the greatest injury luck throughout his career, and goalies his age usually don’t become sturdier with time. It’s nice that Rittich shows some promise, yet if Smith goes down, the Flames might still need to eye the trade market.

This still ranks as a promising stretch for a goaltending position that’s … let’s just say, vulnerable for the Flames.

Usual suspects, but with a supporting cast

You likely don’t need to ask who’s leading the way for the Flames when it comes to scoring.

With a whopping 18 points in 10 games (including eight in his last three), Johnny Gaudreau tops all Calgary scorers since Nov. 17. In fact, Gaudreau ties Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen for second-most points over that period of time, trailing only Nikita Kucherov‘s 22 points.

Gaudreau lighting up the scoreboard is really nothing new, as he now has 37 points in 29 games.

The difference is that the Flames are enjoying nice contributions from others. Sean Monahan (14 points) and Elias Lindholm (13) aren’t surprising as his linemates, and Matthew Tkachuk is going from “a handful” to a flat-out star, including getting 11 points in 10 games. Impressively Giordano rounds out the players with at least 11 points during this run.

It’s almost as promising to see some of the other names down the playbill.

Noah Hanifin‘s settling in, collecting eight points in 10 games. They’ve received six points from Derek Ryan. Sam Bennett‘s even offered five.

Some of those players will naturally cool off, but if the Flames can heat them up in decent intervals, they could be scary. Now if only they could get James Neal going …

***

As of early December, it looks like GM Brad Treliving’s “riverboat gambler” mindset has been paying off.

If Treliving wants to add that extra piece via a trade, he’d likely need to be creative. Cap Friendly places Calgary’s cap space at less than $900K, although their estimated deadline space would be about $4.08M.

That provides moderate wiggling room, yet they’re unlikely to make the sort of splash that, say, the Maple Leafs could consider.

Instead, if they clinch a playoff spot, they’re probably going in with largely the same group that Treliving put together entering 2018-19. If they can play anywhere near this recent level, the Flames may finally go from frustrating for their fans to frightening for opponents.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.