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Neal off to an ice-cold start with Flames

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At times, James Neal can seem like a one-dimensional player. Unfortunately for the Flames – and certainly to Neal’s frustration – we haven’t really seen much of his vaunted goal-scoring in Calgary.

Through 13 games, Neal only has two goals and one assist for three points. Things have been especially lousy lately, as the 31-year-old only has one point in his last nine games. To rub a little salt in his wounds, Neal’s only point was the lone goal as the Penguins shellacked the Flames by the unreal score of 9-1.

It’s a bit mind-blowing to contrast this start with the way he began last season. To jog your memory: Neal somehow scored the game-winning goal in three straight games, opening his short Vegas Golden Knights career with a four-game goal streak (six tallies during that dizzying run).

How concerned should the Flames be about Neal’s slow start? Let’s consider some of the factors.

Age of decline?

The Flames likely knew that Neal’s contract is risky, at least when it comes to giving a 31-year-old winger such term. Much like with Milan Lucic and the Oilers, the struggles have come a lot sooner than expected, though.

Generally speaking, snipers tend to hit the aging curve the hardest, so Calgary might just need to accept diminishing returns.

Bad luck

That said, it’s unlikely that Neal will struggle this much, at least for the remainder of 2018-19.

As you’d expect with a goal-scorer who isn’t scoring goals, Neal’s not getting a lot of bounces. His two goals in 13 games have come from 33 shots on goal, translating to a 6.1 shooting percentage. To put it mildly, that poor shooting luck is out of the ordinary for a winger who enjoyed a 12.4 shooting percentage last season, and has connected on 12 percent for his career.

So, yeah, expect Neal to rebound. That said, will he rebound enough for the Flames not to regret committing to him for five years at $5.75 million per season, even now? It could be tough because …

Odd man out

Neal’s not exactly enjoying the most fruitful opportunities to score.

As you can see from these Natural Stat Trick teammates numbers, Sam Bennett is far and away his most common linemate, while those two have been joined by the not-exactly-imposing likes of Mark Jankowski. With 26 points during each of his last seasons (despite missing just one game during that span), Bennett continues to be an enigma for Calgary.

(Well, he’s either an enigma, or the puzzle’s been solved and he’s just not very good.)

The thing is, barring injuries, a third-line role honestly makes a lot of sense.

Elias Lindholm has been dynamite with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Even if Lindholm and Neal end up being equally effective, Neal would give that top trio three left-handed shots, while Lindholm brings versatility as a righty.

Perhaps there could eventually be some headway on the second line, as Michael Frolik‘s somehow been a healthy scratch this season. That’s not really an optimal situation, however, as Frolik combines with Matthew Tkachuk and Mikael Backlund to form the puck-hogging “3M Line.” Maybe Neal’s finishing touch would add a new wrinkle to Backlund/Tkachuk (for all that trio’s strengths, they tend to suffer from bad puck luck), but it sure feels like messing with a good thing.

Man advantage

There is one area where Neal could conceivably deliver more value: the power play.

So far, Neal’s on the second unit, while the first group goes with Gaudreau, Monahan, Tkachuk, Lindholm, and Mark Giordano. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where Neal might bring added value to a Flames top unit, as he can use his size to screen a goalie. Perhaps just as importantly, Neal isn’t afraid to pull the trigger and unleash his deadly shot, so that could be a solution if Bill Peters diagnoses a problem of over-passing.

***

It’s honestly pretty impressive that Neal’s always found a way to score at least 20 goals during his first 10 seasons in the NHL. He did it as a rookie, collecting 24. Neal did so even during the season he was shipped to Pittsburgh, when he couldn’t buy a bucket (1 goal on 52 SOG in 20 games after he already had 21 goals in 59 games with Dallas).

Remarkably, Neal even hit that mark during the streak-running, lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, as he generated 21 goals in just 40 games. (Neal sure was prolific alongside Evgeni Malkin, at least before that situation hit an iceberg.)

Injuries, trades, and even partial work stoppages haven’t really kept Neal from scoring goals, so chances are, he’ll get back on track soon. That doesn’t mean it will be as easy as he often makes it look, however.

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.

The Buzzer: Walk with Elias (both of them)

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Three Stars

1. Elias Pettersson

Last season, Brock Boeser dazzled as a sniping rookie for the Canucks, eventually becoming perhaps the most well-coiffed All-Star Game MVP in NHL history (only because Al Iafrate didn’t get it, agreed).

This season, Elias Pettersson is dazzling just as much. Honestly, in some ways, the 19-year-old’s been even more impressive, as he’s been mixing quality shooting with magical playmaking.

One thing’s clear: it’s the type of debate that must really delight Vancouver fans hoping that this rebuild is on track.

Pettersson scored two goals on Monday, giving him seven tallies in as many games as he storms out of the gate in the Calder race. The young Swede put together a brilliant all-around game, firing three shots on goal, enjoying a +2 rating, and even blocking three shots. Considering all of the injury headaches in Vancouver, the Canucks will probably ask him to maybe dial that habit back a notch or three.

2. Elias Lindholm

It’s such a good night for dudes named Elias, the headline just needed to be a reference to the WWE superstar. (Honestly, the Devils should have lowered Patrik Elias’ jersey just to raise it up again for this momentous occasion.)

Lindholm isn’t a rookie, yet he is new to Calgary Flames fans, and so far he’s – for the most part – been a dynamite addition to Calgary’s lethal top line with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.

Much like Pettersson, Lindholm generated the game-winning goal for his team on Monday. Lindholm’s assist was also a primary one, which boosts him a bit beyond Monahan (who had a goal and an assist, but his was a secondary helper … also his goal was the GWG).

This gives Lindholm 12 points in as many games. If reasonably healthy, he should demolish his previous career-high of 45 points.

3. Jacob Markstrom

OK, so Monday was a pretty strong night for Swedes, even ones not named Elias.

It’s easy to forget that Markstrom was once arguably the most hyped goalie prospect during his development years, frequently dubbed “the best goalie outside of the NHL” as he tried to claw his way to a full-time gig with the Florida Panthers.

The big netminder was sharp against the Flames, making 37 out of 39 saves, including all 17 in the third period as Minnesota was trailing. Markstrom’s start has been up-and-down, but he’s now improve to above .500 in 2018-19 (4-3-0).

Highlights of the Night

Much of the Maple Leafs’ best moments were “almost” moments, like this almost-goal (and Kasperi Kapanen making outstanding moves against Flames, but to no avail).

The Eliases both scored some emphatic one-timer goals. Pettersson probably scored the best one:

Yet Lindholm’s one-timer was pretty nice, too:

Factoids

  • Calgary has been up-and-down this season, but it’s promising that the Flames are closing out games so well.

  • If it weren’t for those trifling Eliases, Monday might have been the day of the Granlund clan. Markus Granlund opened the scoring for Vancouver, while Mikael Granlund extended his point streak to eight games with an assist.
  • No surprise that Pettersson’s making some history with his red-hot start:

Scores

Flames 3, Maple Leafs 1
Canucks 5, Wild 2

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.

Matthews-less Maple Leafs look clunky against Flames

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The Toronto Maple Leafs’ weak effort in a 3-1 loss to the Calgary Flames wasn’t merely about missing Auston Matthews. It wasn’t even about the Maple Leafs being without Matthews and unsigned winger William Nylander.

Still, there was a brief stretch that might remind you one of the sneaky things that makes the full-strength version of this Leafs team so potent: they boast the offensive talent to essentially outscore their problems on many nights.

After dominating the puck through two scoreless periods, the Flames finally started breaking through in the third. Sean Monahan made it 1-0 5:39 into the final frame, while his linemate Elias Lindholm hammered home a great pass from Johnny Gaudreau to make it 2-0 less than a minute later.

It looked like the Maple Leafs were going to lose the game with a big thud, and honestly, a deserving one.

Yet, during one comically odd and misleading moment, it seemed like the Maple Leafs somehow tied the game.

Let’s set the stage:

As rudderless as the Maple Leafs seemed for most of the contest, Toronto was gifted a pretty lengthy 5-on-3 opportunity late in regulation. Calgary provided some hearty efforts on the PK, but the Maple Leafs finally broke through once Morgan Rielly sent a great pass to Mitch Marner, who set up a Nazem Kadri with an even sweeter feed.

Then, with about 1:30 left, a chance seemingly beat Mike Smith, prompting Zach Hyman and other Leafs to boisterously celebrate, as it looked like Toronto tied things up 2-2 with its net empty.

Nope, the puck actually was stuck in the twine on the outside of the net, creating an optical illusion that tricked the Maple Leafs and thousands of their hometown fans. There was so much confusion that Toronto was lucky enough to see the play whistled dead.

Instead of it being 2-2, Michael Frolik eventually scored an empty-netter to lock things up at 3-1. Perhaps Matthews would have made the difference in Toronto getting that extra push to steal that game, but hockey justice was served: Calgary was way, way better.

It’s just one game, but the clunky work clearly irritated Maple Leafs fans. With Nylander still in limbo and Matthews on the shelf for at least one month, Toronto still has some credible talent – Kadri has proven to be the sort of center you could easily place on the second line, and John Tavares is John Tavares – yet you wonder if more earthbound ammo might leave Mike Babcock that much more trigger-shy.

However you place the blame, the Maple Leafs struggled in transition in this game, and often asked Frederik Andersen to bail his team out a lot like he’d be doing on his old team, the Anaheim Ducks.

Players like Matthews are special (and fun to watch) because they make difficult athletic accomplishments look easy. Chances are, this will be a grind with him on the shelf, and Monday showed that the Maple Leafs have some serious work to do.

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.

PHT Power Rankings: Best starts to 2018-19 NHL season

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a break from the overall team rankings to look at the best and most impressive individual performances to start the 2018-19 season.

The best individual performance (so far) does not reside in Edmonton or Toronto where there is a “best player” argument unfolding (actually, that argument is probably only taking place in Toronto), or in Washington, Nashville, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh or Boston where some of the league’s best teams reside.

The best performance is currently in …  Anaheim.

There might be one or two other surprises in there.

To the rankings, where we take especially in-depth looks at the top-five…

The best of the best … so far

1. John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks — If you take a quick at the Ducks’ record on Monday and see them sitting at 5-3-1 and in first place in the Pacific Division you might think, “hey, that is a pretty impressive start for a team that has been without three of its best forwards for most of the season.”

And it is an impressive start … if you look at only the record.

But here is the harsh truth about this team so far: It has stunk, and it has stunk bad. Part of that is due to only getting four total man-games from the trio of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Ondrej Kase (all four of them belonging to Getzlaf), three of the team’s top-five scorers from a year ago. But no matter the reason the team that is taking the ice every night has stunk.

They have spent the entire season getting absolutely caved in in terms of shots against and scoring chances against, they are giving up close to 40 shots per night, and they aren’t really great offensively.

The only reason the record does not reflect how much this team has stunk is because Gibson (and to a lesser extent, backup Ryan Miller when he has had to play two times), has been a miracle worker in the crease and kept the team afloat. In his first seven appearances this season he has a .949 save percentage that is tops in the league among goalies with at least four appearances, he has already made at least 37 saves four different times this season, only allowing more than two goals in one of those four games, and has somehow lost three of them, including a 42-save on 44-shot performance against Vegas on Friday night. Two of the Ducks’ wins in net have been one-goal decisions, including a 1-0 win over Arizona.

John Gibson is not only the Anaheim Ducks best player right now, he has been the most impressive player to start the 2018-19 season.

2. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — I love the way that McDavid referred to his record about most consecutive goals contributed to to start a season: “You know what, it’s whatever. I’m not overly proud of it. I don’t think it’s a stat we should be proud of either.”

They should not be. They definitely should not be.

It’s a perfect response, and the fact that McDavid has, quite literally, been the Oilers’ entire offense this season is a perfect representation of his first three-plus seasons in the NHL. When he does what he did this past week against Winnipeg when he single-handedly led a third period rally to steal a win, or when he ruined the Boston Bruins’ overtime two nights later, he can put an entire organization on his back and carry it to heights it has no business reaching.

As of Monday he has 11 points in six games and looks to be well on his way to winning yet another scoring title. The Oilers still only have 13 goals this season as a team, meaning they have only scored two goals this season that McDavid has not factored in on. Only one of those two goals has come during 5-on-5 play. It is not a stretch to say that McDavid is responsible for this team not being winless through six games. Do the rest of the players on the Oilers get tired of hearing that, that everything they do is because of one guy? They might. But it’s not their fault. There is no doubt they are doing their best and playing to the best of their abilities. The fault lies upstairs in the front office.

3. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche — This was going to be an interesting season for MacKinnon because even though he was coming off of an absolute monster season a year ago I still thought he was a bit of a mystery. He burst onto the scene in 2013-14 with a remarkable rookie season, and then his production kind of leveled off for a while. It wasn’t bad production at all, it just wasn’t anything, for lack of a better word, special. Then the 2017-18 season and he just completely erupted offensively. Which MacKinnon would we get this season? The 100-point pace guy from a year ago, or the 55-point pace guy from the three years prior? Or, more likely, something in between? It turns out, so far, we are seeing the 100-point pace guy as MacKinnon is once again leading the Avalanche. Through the first eight games he already has eight goals and 14 total points, with almost all of that production coming at even-strength. He is not totally dependent on the power play like another dominant offensive player that we will get to shortly.

[Related: Avs’ MacKinnon belongs in NHL’s best conversation]

4. Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs — Yes, there is a Maple Leafs player in the top-four. No, it is not the player you thought it would be. The Maple Leafs defense is a giant question mark and there is reason to doubt whether it is good enough as currently constructed to be a championship team this season. But Rielly has been awesome and, so far, been able to do something that almost no one else on his team has been able to do: Carry play at even-strength.

He is one of the few players on the Toronto roster that is keeping his head above water when it comes to shot attempts and scoring chances at 5-on-5, and when he is not on the ice there is a slight difference in the team’s performance versus when he is on. With him they are a positive shot attempt team, positive scoring chance differential team, and outscored their opponents by a 12-7 margin. Without him they fall into the red in all shot and scoring chance metrics and have been outscored by a 9-13 margin.

Oh, and he also has 14 points in nine games and is off to one of the best starts offensively for a defenseman in league history.

5. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs — Look, Matthews is great. He is one of the best players in the league and on a path toward superstardom, if he is not already there.

He is everything he was advertised to be in his draft year, if not more.

But Matthews, like the rest of the Maple Leafs team around, is still very much a work in progress.

He is not scoring 50-in-50. He is probably not even scoring 50 at all this season (and there is nothing wrong with that!) and for as great as his start has been, if I am looking at who has been the best player so far this season, and I am looking at players with nearly identical overall production and performance, I am going to give the slight edge to the players (McDavid and MacKinnon) that have carried the play at even-strength.

Power play goals count just as much as 5-on-5 goals and there is something to be said for starting the season with 10 goals in nine games (it was actually 10 goals in six games) and 16 total points.

None of this is to say that the Maple Leafs’ power play isn’t valuable. It is. It absolutely is. It is one of the most dominant five-man units in the league and it can carry the team for a long time during a season.

But eventually if you are going to be a Stanley Cup team you have to also do that when you don’t have a man advantage. Matthews and the Maple Leafs are not quite there. Yet.

The rest of the best

6. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals — He cooled off a bit from where he was in the first three games, but Kuznetsov still has at least two points in four of his first seven games and is picking right back up where he left off in the playoffs when he was a key cog in the Capitals’ run to the Stanley Cup. He is a remarkable talent and over the past two years has been putting it all together to become one of the league’s best players.

7. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins — The Bruins’ top line is as good as you are going to find in the NHL and it is almost impossible to separate the performances of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and Pastrnak. Individually they are all great, and when put together they become an unstoppable three-headed monster that can carry the Bruins every single night. Two of the three (Bergeron and Pastrnak) already have a hat trick this season, and the one that doesn’t (Marchand) already has two three-point games, including a four-point effort. Who has been the best so far? Pick one out of a hat if you want, but I think I have to go with Pastrnak to stand out above the rest, just because he is literally averaging a goal-per-game entering play on Monday and has scored some of the most beautiful goals in the league.

8. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes — A model of consistency so far for the Hurricanes. Aho has recorded at least one point in every game the team has played through the first eight games, including three multi-point games. He is still only 21 years old and is well on his way to becoming a star for a Hurricanes team that is finally — maybe? — becoming the team everyone has thought it could be for the past five years.

9. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames — Gaudreau is not only one of the best offensive players in the world, he is a one-man highlight reel nearly every single night. He put on an especially good show at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night in a win over the New York Rangers.

10. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins — Malkin’s season has been weird so far. The point production is better than everyone in the league (he is literally averaging two points per game) and is exactly where you expect Malkin to be. But he hasn’t always looked great so far or seemed as dominant as he can be. He has been really good; but he has another level to get to.

11. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — Like Malkin, I don’t think he has been at his best yet, but the production is still there. Which is scary to think about. He has some challengers for the goal-scoring crown but don’t be surprised if he ends up at the top of the list once again. That one-timer on the power play is still there, and no one can stop it.

12. Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks — Like Gaudreau, the lesson with DeBrincat is that if you are an NHL general manager or a head scout and sitting at your draft table on draft weekend, and you find an obscenely skilled, undersized forward that has shown an ability to score goals and put up points, you should probably take that player.

[Related: Alex DeBrincat is Blackhawks’ next rising star]

13. Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota Wild — Dubnyk has been one of the league’s most productive goalies since arriving in Minnesota (fourth best save percentage in the league among goalies with at least 100 games played) and he has been tremendous so far this season with a .944 save percentage to help the Wild earn 10 of a possible 12 points in his starts. He has allowed two goals or less in four of his first six starts, and in one of the two where he allowed more than two goals he still made 52 saves in an overtime loss to the Hurricanes.

14. Kyle Palmieri, New Jersey Devils — Palmieri deserves some extra attention because he has been overlooked and underrated ever since he arrived in New Jersey (he is the other forward Ray Shero stole for the team). He is not the best player on the Devils (that honor still goes to Taylor Hall), but Palmieri is a legitimate top-line forward in the NHL and has been a driving force for the Devils’ fast start this season.

15. Tomas Tatar, Montreal Canadiens — Not sure how long it will last this season, but so far this season has been the Tomas Tatar redemption tour. He has been a steady, consistent 25-goal scorer his entire career but was pretty much a punch-line in the second half of last season because George McPhee gave up a lot of draft picks to acquire him at the trade deadline, and then for whatever reason he never quite found his place with the Vegas Golden Knights. He didn’t suddenly forget how to play hockey, but the Golden Knights had an opportunity to get Max Pacioretty and sent Tatar to Montreal as part of that trade. With a fresh start in Montreal this season Tatar has been a wonderful addition for a surprising Montreal team that has, to this point, exceeded all of its expectations.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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: Lightning dominate, Sabres rally and Gaudreau shines

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Three Stars

1. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning. Point was a big part of the Lightning’s dominant offensive showing in Chicago on Sunday night when they scored six goals and put 55 shots on goal. Point was a factor in three of those goals, scoring one of them and assisting on two others to give him five goals and eight total points on the season. We know the Lightning have superstars at the top of the lineup, but it is the emergence of secondary players like Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Point himself over the past four years that have made this team such a force in the Eastern Conference.

2. David Rittich, Calgary Flames. With Mike Smith struggling in the early part of the season could backup David Rittich start to steal some playing time away from him? He has certainly made a strong case for himself over his past two starts, including Sunday’s game in New York where he stopped 43 out of 44 shots in a 4-1 Flames win. In his two starts this season he has now stopped 67 out of 70 shots.

3. Kyle Okposo, Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres ruined the Ducks’ celebration of Paul Kariya on Sunday night by scoring four consecutive goals to erase what was a two-goal deficit midway through the second period. Kyle Okposo started the rally with his first goal of the season late in the period, and then helped complete when he set up Rasmus Ristolainen‘s game-winning goal early in the third period. Okposo had recorded just three assists in his first eight games before Sunday, so it was a much-needed big night for him on the scoresheet.

Ducks defense looks awful again

The Anaheim Ducks have been relying on their goalies — particularly starter John Gibson — more than any other team in the league this season, surrendering shots and chances at an unsustainable rate.

So far, Gibson has been able to keep them in it and steal a bunch of wins.

This weekend Gibson and Ryan Miller were not able to bail them out.

After getting outshot by a 45-18 margin in a 3-1 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday night, they were outshot 45-28 in their 4-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday. That is 90-46 over two games in 48 hours. That is … terrible.

They are giving up more than 37 shots on goal per game and have been outshot by a ridiculous margin on the young season.

This team looks like a house of cards teetering on the verge of a collapse if their goalies slip up even a little bit. This is, quite simply, not a good hockey team right now no matter what their record says.

Highlights of the Night

Johnny Gaudreau was a big part of the Flames’ win in New York on Sunday night by scoring a pair of goals, both of them coming on wonderful individual efforts. His second goal — which was also his 300th career point — was the best of the two.

The Lightning were dominant all night and it started very early with this slick Nikita Kucherov goal to put them on the board first.

He made that look easy.

Factoids

The Tampa Bay Lightning set an NHL record for most shots in a single period when they recorded 33 in the second period (we highlighted that here). They also set a franchise record for most shots on goal in a game.

The Calgary Flames won their first game at Madison Square Garden since 2008.

Scores

Tampa Bay Lightning 6, Chicago Blackhawks 3

Calgary Flames 4, New York Rangers 1

Buffalo Sabres 4, Anaheim Ducks 2

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.