PHT Morning Skate: Leafs have problems; Crosby’s Hart Trophy case

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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.

Sidney Crosby‘s offensive production will have him in the mix for the Hart Trophy, but it’s his defensive contributions that make him a legitimate threat for the award. (The Hockey News)

• Take a look inside the new arena construction in Seattle. (NHLSeattle.com)

• The Leafs are going through a tough stretch, but the fact that they are going through these issues isn’t necessarily a bad thing. (Leafs Nation)

• On the flip side, the Leafs defense is just bad, and that’s probably the main reason why they won’t win the Stanley Cup this season. (Spector’s Hockey)

• 3-on-3 overtime has been a problem for the Wild this year, but here’s a way to fix that. (Hockey Wilderness)

Jared Spurgeon had his doubters, but he’s proved so many people wrong. (StarTribune)

• It’s time for Claude Julien to give Jesperi Kotkaniemi some added responsibility. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• White hockey sticks have become all the rage with some of the youngsters in the NHL. (Japers’ Rink)

• The WHL didn’t grant Matt Savoie exceptional status, so he decided to commit to the University of Denver. (Mile High Hockey)

• The AHL’s Hershey Bears have made it a point to help people with disabilities play hockey. (WBALTV)

• In 1948, Larry Kwong become the first person of color to play in the NHL. (Blue Shirt Banter)

• Alex Nylander believes he’s ready to become a full-time NHLer. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• Steve Mayer makes sure that major musical acts get to play at big NHL events. “I don’t care where we are, we’re going to do the same thing we’ve done the last two years. And we’re going to go bigger and grander and better, because what I have now is a music community who’s now really into this.” (Forbes)

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Renaming Conn Smythe Trophy; Binnington’s success

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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.

• It took Jordan Binnington a while to get to the NHL, but now that he’s here he’s making the most of it. (NHL.com)

• Larry Brooks argues that the NHLPA should re-name the Conn Smyth Trophy after Red Wings legend Ted Lindsay. (New York Post)

• Can a regular guy stop a 98 mph slapper? A GQ staffer tried to and he chronicled the whole the thing. (GQ)

• The proposed renovations for PNC Arena in Carolina could cost $200 million. (News & Observer)

• J.T. Brown surprised a black girl hockey club by donating $3,000 to their GoFundMe page. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• Take an in-depth look at which teams have scoring depth and which teams don’t with the Win Column’s point share shells. (The Win Column)

• The people in charge of women’s hockey have to sort through their mess at this important time. (Sportsnet)

• Now that Michigan’s season is over, Quinn Hughes has signed his ELC with the Vancouver Canucks. [Canucks]

• Michael Leighton made his 500th appearance in the AHL. (The AHL)

Jesperi Kotkaniemi‘s defensive game hasn’t slipped as much as some people have suggested. (TSN)

• Les Canadiennes advanced to the Clarkson Cup Final by beating the Markham Thunder. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• The Predators made a great decision by keeping Dante Fabbro in their farm system. (Predlines)

Ryan McDonagh was named to the Minnesota state hockey tournament’s 75th anniversary team. (Tampa Bay Times)

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.

Canadiens rest Kotkaniemi, believe he ‘hit a bit of a wall’

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To some degree, the Montreal Canadiens making Jesperi Kotkaniemi a healthy scratch served as inspiration for people to rave about an uncanny rookie season.

The 18-year-old was already beating tough odds by going straight from being the third overall pick – and a slightly controversial pick in that – in the 2018 NHL Draft, all the way to becoming a regular for the Habs. But apparently he’s done a lot more than merely manage to stay in the lineup — until this point.

Evolving Wild went as far as to throw “Selke” around regarding Kotkaniemi.

And, it turns out that such comments look quite reasonable. You can see that Kotkaniemi has been beyond-his-years defensively from heat maps to strong possession numbers, even on a Canadiens team that’s been pretty adept at hogging the puck.

When you consider how sturdy Kotkaniemi has been defensively, 32 points in 66 games goes from acceptable to downright impressive.

Actually, it’s to the point that it might be fair to wonder if Claude Julien’s making the right call in scratching Kotkaniemi for Tuesday’s game against the Los Angeles Kings. After all, Montreal doesn’t have much margin for error in The Playoff Push.

Julien explained the decision as a positive, stating that Kotkaniemi will get a chance to regain “momentum” after hitting a “bit of a wall.”

Julien doesn’t just see Kotkaniemi during games, but also during practices and other functions, so he likely has a better idea of the Finn’s energy levels than we do. The point about Kotkaniemi never playing this many games is certainly a reasonable one.

Interestingly, though, it doesn’t seem like Kotkaniemi is struggling by all measures. If you look at this handy game log at Natural Stat Trick, you’ll see that he won the possession battle most of the time in recent games, often by significant margins.

It’s also noteworthy that Kotkaniemi isn’t exactly carrying a brutal workload, as he’s only averaging 14:04 TOI per game.

Despite those qualms, emphasizing rest is a good sign, and if Montreal’s going to get away with resting a useful player in any game, it would be against a team like the Kings. Also, if Julien is down on Kotkaniemi’s play, he’s doing a great job of concealing those thoughts, as his tone was very positive.

We can debate this smaller decision, but in the bigger picture, it’s remarkable to see Kotkaniemi pick up the defensive side of the NHL game so quickly. Hopefully the young center focuses more on his accomplishments than the disappointment of sitting out Tuesday’s game.

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.

Canadiens surprisingly exceeding expectations

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The Montreal Canadiens’ trade for Nate Thompson on Monday afternoon isn’t anything that is going to make the rest of the Eastern Conference sit up and take notice. It is not going to put the fear of God in the Tampa Bay Lightning or Toronto Maple Leafs, or change the course of the playoffs and impact where the Stanley Cup ends up. It is a likely playoff team adding a role player to its lineup for a small price and trying to find any small upgrade it can. Nothing more, nothing less.

What’s important is what it says about the Canadiens as a team this season.

They are buyers and looking to add.

This is a surprising development because of where they were, or at least seemed to be, at the start of the season.

Consider the fact they had one of the worst records in the league a season ago that ended with a disastrous second-half collapse.

In the offseason, they traded two of the best offensive players (on what was a bad offensive team) in Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk for a package of players that, at the time, didn’t seem to make them better. In exchange for Galchenyuk, they received Max Domi‘s whose development had badly stalled with the Arizona Coyotes and had produced only a fraction of what Galchenyuk had with the Canadiens. It looked like a clear downgrade.

In return for Pacioretty, one of the league’s best goal-scorers over the past six years, they received Tomas Tatar, a historically solid performer that was coming off of a terrible postseason run with the Vegas Golden Knights, and a lot of potential in the future. Again, it didn’t seem to make them any better in the short-term.

Then on top of all of that there was the fact that their top defender, Shea Weber, was going to be sidelined for most of the first half of the season.

There was little reason for optimism, and I will admit to being extremely critical of the moves and the direction the team seemed to be going in, especially with how much money they have tied up in Weber and Price, both of whom are on the wrong side of 30. That should still be a long-term concern, but sometimes you’re wrong in the short-term.

For them to exceed expectations it was almost as if they would need Carey Price to do what he did during the 2014-15 season and single handedly carry the team and sweep all of the major postseason awards.

[Related: Claude Julien has Canadiens playing fast, aggressive]

Now more than 50 games into the season, and with all of the factors above working against them, the Canadiens have more than exceeded all preseason expectations and barring another late season collapse look to be a solid lock to return to the playoffs. And they’ve done it without Carey Price being … well … Carey Price. He’s been good overall, and he’s been great lately, but he hasn’t been consistently great from the start, and he even had a really tough start to the season where he was playing significantly below his normal career level.

Despite that, the Canadiens kept winning, which is a positive development for the short-term outlook of the franchise. Why? Because everything about this team right now is legitimately good. They are playing with an aggressiveness and a level of speed that has been lacking in Montreal for years. Their possession and scoring chances numbers are among the best in the NHL. Their 5-on-5 shot attempt share is the third-best in the league, while they are in the top-five in scoring chance share and top-10 in High-Danger scoring chances.

Weber has been great since returning to the lineup, Domi has become the player Arizona always thought he would be, while Tatar has returned to the form he showed in his pre-Vegas career. Along with those developments, Philip Danault has taken a massive step forward this season both offensively and defensively, and the arrival and rapid development of rookie and No. 3 overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi looks like it could fill a long-term hole at center.

It’s not easy for the Canadiens to slide under the radar in the NHL just because of the history, the legacy of the franchise, where they are located, and the mystique around them. In most seasons Claude Julien would probably be a lock for the Jack Adams Award given how well the team has played and how much better it has been than originally expected. But given the surprising success stories with the New York Islanders and Calgary Flames the Canadiens have managed to do the impossible  and have a really good team that has gone relatively unnoticed in the NHL.

It might be time to start taking notice because not only are they really good and playing really well, their best player and biggest game-changer — Price — is starting to play like they expect him to. Those two developments working together could make them a fierce matchup for somebody early in the playoffs.

More: PHT’s 2019 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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: More Ovechkin history; Blue Jackets end skid

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League-changing contract?

In case you missed it, the Toronto Maple Leafs signed superstar Auston Matthews to a beefy five-year extension. Should you be worried about the salary cap implications?

Three Stars

1. Brendan Gallagher

If the dwindling Ducks struggled in part because of the fatigue that comes with closing off a back-to-back, then credit Gallagher and the Habs for taking advantage of that waddling with a strong start.

Gallagher and fellow top-three star Jonathan Drouin did much of their damage in the first period of Tuesday’s 4-1 win. Gallagher scored a goal and two assists, with a goal and an assist in the opening frame, and then a secondary assist early in the third.

The rambunctious winger generated a +3 rating, two shots on goal, and two assists in that win. Gallagher now has 21 goals this season, building off a tremendous 31-goal campaign from 2017-18, when he was one of Montreal’s few bright spots. Things are sunnier these days.

[The Ducks’ nightmare continued on Tuesday thanks to the Canadiens.]

2. Anze Kopitar

While Gallagher and Drouin did their damage early, Kopitar was the catalyst of a dominant third period for Los Angeles.

All three of Kopitar’s assists came during the final frame, transforming a tied 1-1 game to a 5-1 laugher. Speaking of laughers, Kopitar set up a revenge goal for Ilya Kovalchuk. It also helps that Kopitar’s three assists were all primary ones.

[Read more about Kovalchuk’s return to New Jersey in this post.]

3. Jonathan Drouin

Like Kopitar, Drouin’s three assists were all of the primary variety. This thought gives him a slight advantage over another three-point performance in Roman Josi, as the Predators standout enjoyed a one-goal, two-assists output … but his goal was an empty-netter.

(You have to split hairs with the three stars most nights.)

Drouin now has seven points in his past five games, giving him 39 points in 53 contests overall in his second season with Montreal.

Highlights of the Night

Patrice Bergeron had already scored a goal in his 1,000th game, but David Pastrnak earned serious Good Teammate Points by dropping this pass to him for an empty-netter. If you’ve had a bad Internet day or night, this might be precious enough to raise your spirits.

This is what scientists would call “trickeration.”
Some of the best goals happen when players combine in downright harmonic ways.
In this one, Sergei Bobrovsky makes a tough save on an aggressive Tyson Barrie. From there, Artemi Panarin fires off the sort of breakout pass that would inspire Erik Karlsson to tip his cap. After that, Cam Atkinson makes a fantastic move to score his 29th goal of the season.
Brent Burns and the San Jose Sharks have been killing it in OT lately. This time, Burns set up Joe Pavelski for the clincher:
Factoids

Scores

BOS 3 – NYI 1
BUF 5 – MIN 4 (SO)
STL 3 – FLA 2
LAK 5 – NJD 1
CAR 4 – PIT 0
WSH 3 – VAN 2
MTL 4 – ANA 1
VGK 3 – TBL 2 (SO)
NSH 5 – ARI 2
SJS 3 – WPG 2 (OT)
CBJ 6 – COL 3
CHI 6 – EDM 2

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.