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How Canadiens can exceed expectations this year

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PITTSBURGH — Maybe you looked at the Montreal Canadiens roster at the start of the season and had the same thoughts that I did. Among them: This just isn’t a very good team. Who is going to score the goals out of that group of forwards? What exactly is the long-term plan here? And that defense without Shea Weber to open the year … woof. 

But if there is one thing we should have learned by now when watching the NHL it’s that if there is one sport where seemingly improbable and unthinkable results can happen, this might be the one. Given where this team is coming from a year ago and the roster it is putting on the ice to start this season the Canadiens being a seriously competitive team would probably be a pretty big surprise.

It is important to point out that we are still in the first week of the NHL season, right in the thick of that time period on the schedule where it’s easy to jump to bad conclusions that can make you look like a doofus a few months later when we look back on it. But it’s still better to start the season with some success than it is to start the season without it, and through their first two games it would be fair to say that the Canadiens have done that.

Opening the year with games against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins, two of the best and most talented offensive teams in the league and a couple of Stanley Cup contenders, the Canadiens have managed to collect three out of a possible four points. They turned in their most impressive outing of the two on Saturday night in Pittsburgh when they absolutely demolished the Penguins by a 5-1 margin, leaving Mike Sullivan in a little disbelief as to where his team is in the early stages of the season.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the performance on Saturday is that the Canadiens entered the third period with a 4-1 lead, and instead of sitting back on their heels and nursing the lead, they took it to the Penguins, added another goal, and outshot them by a 14-3 margin over the final 20 minutes. It was exactly the way a team should want to close out a game on the road — and you almost never see it happen to that degree and executed with such perfection.

“Well that’s what I wanted from our team,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “It was important we didn’t play on our heels and let them come at us.”

So here we are, after two games, and the Canadiens sitting 1-0-1 and looking pretty decent in the process. What would it take for this team to build off of this start and actually exceed their expectations this season?

There are a few things that can help.

The simplest and easiest answer is simply, Carey Price.

We have seen the impact Price can make on the Canadiens when he is at his best and it can be season-altering. But his potential is obvious. It still has to be more than him.

The Canadiens raised some eyebrows early in the season by scratching veterans Tomas Plekanec and Karl Alzner for the first two games. The result has been a younger, faster team, with 18-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi being one of the most intriguing young players. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 draft has been thrown right into the deep end of the pool and he has not yet looked out of place, even if he has been sheltered a bit (which he should be as an 18-year-old rookie). For a team that has been in desperate need of a big-time center, a promising rookie season from him would be a big development no matter what happens for the team in the standings.

They also need big seasons from the veteran forwards they have up front, including Jonathan Drouin, Max Domi, and Tomas Tatar. Pretty much all of them have something to prove this season.

Drouin, after being one of the team’s big acquisitions a year ago, had an okay debut season in Montreal but was not really the breakthrough season that many expected.

Domi came to Montreal in exchange for Alex Galchenyuk, a trade that at the time seemed to be one-sided in Montreal’s favor given how much of a down year Domi had in Arizona, and how much has goal-scoring has dropped off the past two years.

Then there is Tatar, the main NHL asset acquired in this summer’s Max Pacioretty trade. Tatar has been a consistent 20-goal, 45-point player throughout his career and still has several years of term left on his contract. He is a better player than he showed during his brief time in Vegas, and could be one of the Canadiens’ best players.

But the veteran player that might do the most to help the Canadiens’ form some sort of an identity this season is Paul Byron, recently signed to a long-term contract extension to remain in Montreal after posting back-to-back 20-goal seasons. He was brilliant for the Canadiens on Saturday, scoring a pair of goals and setting up Joel Armias’ shorthanded goal late in the second period that was probably the knockout punch for the night.

He was one of the most talked about players in their locker room on Saturday night.

“He’s kind of like the coyote and the roadrunner, right?” said Julien on Saturday. “He’s a guy that disappears pretty quickly. He’s been a good player for quite a while. As I said a few weeks ago am so happy we got him re-signed, he’s a great addition to our team, and not only that he’s wearing a letter because he’s such a great leader. He’s an important part of our team.”

“He’s just consistent,” said teammate Brendan Gallagher. “You watch Paul, he’s going to be that way every game. He creates chances with his speed. You talk to anyone that plays with him, plays against him, you have to be aware of him. He’s one of the fastest players in the league and he definitely uses it. Game after game he’s an effective player for us.”

Again, this is just two games — the first two games of the season, no less — and we don’t want to make more out of this than it is at this point.

But you have to start someplace, and even though we don’t quite know what this team is yet the Canadiens probably couldn’t have had two tougher tests to open the year. So far they have passed them with flying colors.

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.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi making case to stick with Habs

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The Montreal Canadiens have been dying for a number one center for over two decades. Many centers have come through Montreal, but very few have been able to stick. Sure, there was Saku Koivu, Mike Ribeiro, Tomas Plekanec and a few others, but the Habs have been one of the weakest teams in the league when it comes to depth down the middle. That might not be the case for much longer.

Enter Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

The one good thing about the Canadiens’ miserable 2017-18 season, is that they ended up with the third overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. They used that selection to draft the Finnish product, who is a center. As excited as fans were about adding a center to the pipeline, many expected Kotkaniemi to head back to Finland after this year’s training camp.

After he struggled in his his first Rookie Showdown game against the Ottawa Senators at the beginning of the month, everyone was quick to point out that he was at least a year away from being a contributor at the NHL level. But once the preseason began and Kotkaniemi got to play with better players, he was able to elevate his game.

In his first exhibition game, the 18-year-old did this:

Even though he’s had success throughout the preseason, people were still split about keeping him in the NHL this season. So, when the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that they were coming to town with their A-lineup last night, everyone pointed to this game as a kind of measuring stick for Kotkaniemi’s ability to play in North America.

With Max Domi still out because of a suspension, Kotkaniemi got to center the top line with Jonathan Drouin on his left and Artturi Lehkonen on his right. Going up against Auston Matthews for most of the night, the kid did alright. It’s abundantly clear that he needs to get stronger, but it’s also obvious that he has the hockey sense to play in the NHL right now. He’s capable of playing effective hockey with and without the puck, which is pretty impressive for a player that just turned 18.

He also helped set up this Brendan Gallagher goal by making a nice pass to Victor Mete:

After the game, it was obvious that head coach Claude Julien was impressed with the way the rookie performed.

“In Kotkaniemi’s case, right now it’s pretty hard not to see him on our roster the way he’s played, the way he’s handled himself and all of that stuff,” Julien said after the game against Toronto, per Sportsnet. “I’m the coach, and we have management, and we’ll all sit together and make that decision obviously after Saturday’s game. But he’s showing us a lot of good things and it’s pretty hard not to see him with our group.”

The Canadiens have one preseason game remaining before they have to decide whether or not they’ll have Kotkaniemi on the opening-night roster. Even if they do keep him around, it’s just one of the hurdles he’ll have to climb to stick around all season. Once the campaign kicks off, he’ll have to show that he’s able to play at a high level on a nightly basis.

One thing is for sure, Julien, Marc Bergevin and the rest of the organization have an interesting decision to make in the coming days.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Fantasy Hockey: Sleepers, bargains for 2018-19

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There can be some crossover between a sleeper and a “bounce-back player”, so in some ways, consider this a supplement to Joey Alfieri’s recent fantasy post for PHT.

Either way, identifying bargains is often how you distinguish yourself from other comparably shrewd drafters. During one mock draft last season with Rotoworld writers who hauntingly wiser than I am, I somehow ended up drafting Nathan MacKinnon in the 12th round.

(If only such treasured moments happened with “real” fantasy teams, right?)

Anyway, before we get started, note that some “sleepers” are drowsier than others. In certain cases, you might want to draft someone just a little earlier than they usual go. In others, you’d be the only one who would drafted a true diamond in the rough. Considering the variety of stat categories and the swath of leagues (some shallow, some with a ton of teams or picks), this is meant as a generalized list of potential bargains.

Note: This post skews a bit toward how players are ranked/drafted in Yahoo leagues, although ESPN listings are also considered.

Players I’m especially excited about.

It’s easy to look at The Nuge’s production (tying a career-high with 24 goals, 48 points overall) and think “same old, same old.” As a former first overall pick, he’ll carry a stigma of “meh” for many.

Of course, RNH managed his 48 points despite being limited to 62 games, and he really took off once he was lined up with Connor McDavid. McDavid is the type of dynamic player who could push Nugent-Hopkins to incredible highs, to the point that he might be worth a mild reach (he’s ranked 135 in ESPN; while his ADP [average draft position] is 145 in Yahoo).

Sometimes it’s a fool’s errand to chase line combinations in Yahoo, so as a rule of thumb, make sure that the sleepers in mind can still fend for themselves outside of the cocoon of a great linemate. Nugent-Hopkins’ results are more likely to make you yawn if he loses McDavid privileges, but it won’t be “tear up your draft-day spreadsheets” bad.

We might as well stay on the subject of already-good players who could jump a considerable level if they can maintain robust linemate opportunities.

James Neal’s shown what he can do with great linemates before, scoring 88 goals in just 179 games in three seasons alongside Evgeni Malkin, with his production undercut quite a bit by a combination of injury issues and the stat-killing 2012-13 lockout.

It’s tantalizing to picture what the volatile winger might accomplish if he lands a semi-permanent spot with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Micheal Ferland scored 20 goals and 41 points riding their coattails last season, so big dreams aren’t too outrageous if you replace “Typo” with Neal.

Even if he slips down the lineup, Neal Just. Scores. Goals. He generated 25 with Vegas last season despite being limited to 71 games played. Granted, injuries are just about as frequent a consideration with Neal as goals are, so pencil in at least some mild frustration.

[More Fantasy: Pick up the Rotoworld Draft Guide]

  • J. T. Miller, C/RW

Transport yourself back to, say, the midpoint of the 2017-18 season, and recall how many people wished they had Vladislav Namestnikov on their teams. Through the first 38 games of the season, the then-Lightning forward generated 15 goals and 33 points, tying him with the likes of William Karlsson and Aleksander Barkov (while edging Patrik Laine‘s 32 points) at that moment in the campaign.

Namestnikov isn’t chopped liver, but you can chalk up much of that production to something obvious: he was riding shotgun with Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

It’s not too shocking, then, that J.T. Miller flourished once he popped into that spot following the Ryan McDonagh trade. In 19 games with the Lightning, Miller generated 10 goals and 18 points.

Miller is a decent-enough scorer on his own (22 goals and 56 points in 2016-17 with the Rangers), and there’s the possibility that he’d land with Brayden Point if he can’t stick on that super line. Still, it’s your duty to make sure that Miller at least doesn’t go undrafted.

If this post went up last week, Theo might not have been on this list for a simple reason: his contract situation was unsettled.

A week later, he isn’t on just on Vegas’ roster; he’s close to a lifer considering, with a seven-year deal. The Golden Knights have little reason to resist throwing Theodore out there in high-profile situations, meaning that the talented defenseman should receive ample power play reps, and should be the go-to guy. That’s especially true since Nate Schmidt is suspended for a quarter of the season.

If you can grab Theodore as your fourth or even third defenseman, you’re likely to be on a gravy train with biscuit wheels. Wait, is that even an efficient way to travel? Maybe we should table this “biscuit wheels” business …

[Again, you should read about rebounds.]

Ryan O'ReillyC

One of my minor quibbles with ROR, at least from a fantasy standpoint, was that he was sometimes a little trigger-shy. Heading into last season, he was under 200 shots on goal for three straight years. O’Reilly turned that around – maybe out of frustration? – by firing 230 SOG during his final season with the Sabres.

That peripheral stat might be dialed down in St. Louis, but if so, it would likely be for a good reason: O’Reilly would instead be passing to ultra-talented linemates in Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz.

If the Blues load up in that regard, that O’Reilly could be a bodacious bargain.

Other recommendations

I’m a bit more excited about the players listed above (at least relative to where they tend to be drafted, although Neal and Nuge are kind of all over the map), but these are worthy mentions.

  • Antti Raanta – Strong season as a No. 1 muted by early injury woes.
  • Jaden Schwartz – Actually, maybe you’d be better off getting him instead of Ryan O’Reilly? You could do worse than to draft one after the other goes, really.
  • Matt Duchene, Thomas Chabot, Mark Stone – Hey, someone has to score for the Senators.
  • Eric Staal – Somewhat quietly scored 42 goals and 76 points for the Wild last season, and has contract year motivation. He’s getting a little up there in age, though, as he’ll turn 34 on Oct. 29.
  • Ryan Pulock – Hey, someone has to score for the Islanders, and it can’t always be Mathew Barzal.
  • Nick Bjugstad – Looked awesome when he landed with Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. Not quite as exciting as Miller/RNH because he’s more dependent.
  • Daniel Sprong – Probably safer to “watchlist” rather than draft him, at least in relatively shallow, standard leagues. Then again, might be worth just pulling the trigger, considering that he seems likely to win The Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes.
  • Bo HorvatSomeone needs to score for the Canucks, and usually it’s going to be Brock Boeser, and the guys who are along with him. Horvat’s the best of those guys.
  • Paul Stastny – Could be awfully interesting in deeper leagues if he’s conjoined with Max Pacioretty, who may be in store for a monster season considering Vegas’ attacking ways.
  • Jonathan Drouin – Fantasy hockey is as much about fun as it is to pointing to your brain. You can get one of the most prominent scorers on a team, who also happens to be a ton of fun to watch, at least if you’re not a Canadiens fan hoping he can heal all wounds.
  • Carter Hutton – Your mileage will vary depending upon how much of a jump you expect from the Sabres, and how much of a threat you believe Linus Ullmark would be. To me, he’s a Dollar Store version of Raanta’s appeal as a respectable second or even third fantasy goalie. (Note: Dollar Store versions of things can be perfectly fine. Don’t growl at me, Giant Tiger/other beast-themed dollar stores.)
  • Petr Mrazek/Scott Darling – Honestly, I’m a little frightened by Carolina goalies, because duh. Still, they’re worth listing, especially if you’re expecting big things.
  • Tomas Hertl – Look, I’m only human, so I can’t ignore the lure of a forward who currently draws the rare LW/C/RW designation.

[More Fantasy: Rotoworld’s DFS Toolkit]

Any other sleepers come to mind? Go ahead and share some favorites in the comments.

Heck, feel free to gloat about previous sleeper successes, too. Why, I’ll never forget about grabbing 2005-06 Eric Staal in the final r— OK, I’ll cut it out.

MORE:
Bounce back candidates
Goalies and other risky picks

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.

Fantasy Hockey: 2018-19 bounce back candidates

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It happens every year. Fantasy hockey GMs draft a guy and expect a lot from him until he falls flat on his face. Oh the frustration. Well, the good news is that we’re here to tell you which of those players will bounce back in a big way in 2018-19.

Here’s the top bounce back candidates for the upcoming season:

Max Pacioretty – LW – Vegas Golden Knights

Pacioretty went into last season having scored at least 30 goals in each of his previous four seasons. Things went off the rails in a hurry in Montreal last season and it led to Pacioretty being traded to the Golden Knights. The incredible thing about Pacioretty’s production, is that it came without him ever having a top-end center. Paul Stastny isn’t necessarily a high-end center, but he’s better than anyone Pacioretty’s played with before. Don’t be surprised if the newest Golden Knight hits 35 this year.

Jonathan Drouin – C/LW – Montreal Canadiens

Drouin had an incredibly difficult first year with the Montreal Canadiens last season. Not only did he have to get used to a new team and new teammates, he also made the move from the wing to center. This preseason, the Canadiens moved him back to the wing and he looks a lot more comfortable. Don’t be surprised if the 23-year-old surpasses the 13 goals and 46 points he put up last year.

[More Fantasy: Pick up the Rotoworld Draft Guide]

Ty Rattie – W – Edmonton Oilers

Rattie comes into this season having put up 19 points in 49 career games in the NHL, but he’s getting the opportunity to play with Connor McDavid this preseason. As you’d imagine, things have gone pretty well. He picked up seven points in his first two exhibition games, so if he sticks with McDavid, there could be some serious fantasy value appeal there.

Elias Lindholm – W – Calgary Flames

Lindholm has been pretty consistent over the last four years. He’s put up between 39 and 45 points with the Hurricanes since 2014-15. Now that he’s with the Flames, he’ll have more offensive talent around, which means there should be more opportunities to pick up points as the season progresses.

Brandon Saad – W – Chicago Blackhawks

Saad had an incredibly disappointing first year back in Chicago. The 25-year-old scored just 18 goals and 35 points after hitting at least 52 points during the previous three seasons. Saad could get an extended look with Patrick Kane to open the season, so the upside for him to hit the 30-goal mark, again, is definitely there.

[More Fantasy: Rotoworld’s DFS Toolkit]

Anthony Beauvillier – W – New York Islanders

Beauvillier ended up finishing last season with a respectable 21 goals and 36 points in 71 games, but he had his share of ups and downs. The Islanders even felt the need to send him back to the minors mid-season. With John Tavares no longer in New York, Mathew Barzal will need someone new to step up. Enter Beauvillier. The 21-year-old could be one of the big surprises of 2018-19.

Kyle Okposo – W – Buffalo Sabres

After reading everything he went through while dealing with a concussion, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Okposo and his family. Now that he’s healthy again, the 30-year-old could get back to surpassing the 20-goal and 50-point marks this season. The Sabres are young, but there’s no denying that they have talent.

Justin Schultz – D – Pittsburgh Penguins

Schultz posted a career-high 12 goals and 51 points two years ago, but those numbers dropped 27 points last season. Of course, he also missed 19 games due to injury. Expecting him to score 51 points again might be a little ambitious, but he should be able to improve last year’s numbers.

Carey Price – G – Montreal Canadiens

The Canadiens probably won’t be a playoff team, but it’s hard to imagine that Price will be worse than he was last year. The 31-year-old had 16-26-7 record with a 3.11 goals-against-average and a .900 save percentage. Yeah, it was a brutal year for him. His new eight-year extension that comes with a cap hit of $10.5 million kicks in this year, so the pressure will definitely be on. Price should be fine.

Matt Murray – G – Pittsburgh Penguins

Murray’s first year as the undisputed starting netminder in Pittsburgh didn’t go so well. He had a solid 27-16-3 record, but that had more to do with the fact that he was on a good team. He added a 2.92 goals-against-average and a .907 save percentage in 2017-18. Now that he’s gone through one year without Marc-Andre Fleury, he’ll be better equipped to handle a heavy workload.

MORE:
Sleepers, bargains for 2018-19
Goalies and other risky picks

 

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.

Max Pacioretty – Habs trade/contract drama gets another wrinkle

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The hits just keep coming as far as Max Pacioretty, the Montreal Canadiens, a potential trade, and his next contract goes. You won’t need to sit down for this easy-to-foresee spoiler: it’s another case where the headaches only get worse for GM Marc Bergevin and the Habs.

Here’s the latest: sources say that Pacioretty won’t negotiate a contract extension once the 2018-19 begins, even if he’s a member of a team other than the Canadiens, according to Le Journal De Montreal’s Marc De Foy (via Eric Engels) and TSN’s Gino Reda.

Yikes.

As a reminder, this continues the trend of the Canadiens … not exactly winning the “PR battle” when it comes to the Pacioretty situation. During this increasingly tense offseason, word surfaced that the Canadiens have not discussed a contract extension with Pacioretty. There were also rumblings that a trade to the Los Angeles Kings fell through because an extension couldn’t be reached, arguably prompting Pacioretty to change to agent Allan Walsh, who then accused the Habs of leaking the information about the failed trade.

Out of context, it’s easy to see why this isn’t a simple situation for Montreal.

No doubt, Pacioretty’s an excellent scorer, and he’s almost certain to play at a higher level than last season if he’s reasonably healthy.

Still, there’s logic to the Habs saying goodbye, even if part of that argument would hinge on a rebuild Bergevin might not be crazy about overseeing (particularly since Montreal’s paying Carey Price $10.5 million per year to be more than a cellar dweller). After all, Pacioretty will turn 30 on Nov. 20, so if he – understandably – wants serious term, his next deal would kick in when he’s 31. If the team giving him a much-deserved raise also provides the security of a lot of years, they’ll be taking a huge risk.

The Canadiens are hurting their side of the perception battle by doing a poor job of making it look like they’d keep Pacioretty in a different system. Merely stating “Boy, we wish we could keep him, but the salary cap dictates tough decisions” might mend a fence or two. Or, hey, they could have at least given negotiations a token effort to save face.

Instead, it seems like they’re pushing Pacioretty away, and risking an even larger mistake by allowing his trade value to plummet. This unofficial deadline for extension discussions only make matters worse, yet it’s a tactic Montreal opened itself up to by letting things get nasty.

It’s not just us around-the-clock hockey fanatics who are giving Montreal the thumbs down, either.

Observers seem to be siding with Pacioretty, from former teammates such as Lars Eller:

To the Montreal Gazette’s Stu Cowan, who wrote today about an increasingly ugly divorce:

Bergevin stuck a knife in his captain’s back at the end of last season when he said attitude was the team’s biggest problem. Somehow, I thought P.K. Subban was supposed to have been the problem … or maybe it was Michel Therrien? The former defenceman and coach are gone, but there is still a problem and Pacioretty seems to have become the latest scapegoat.

But it’s Bergevin who should be looking in the mirror.

Uh oh.

No doubt about it, Bergevin’s painted himself into a corner. Some of that comes from these specific dealings with “Patches,” while the rest revolves around other gaffes. Subban was essentially run out of town, and now he’s racking up playoff runs along with accolades such as another Norris nomination; meanwhile, Shea Weber‘s run into health issues and wasn’t enough to solve Montreal’s defensive woes when he was there. There are parallels in what happened with Alex Galchenyuk – right down to a trade of immediately questionable value – and the (seemingly?) less character-related Jonathan DrouinMikhail Sergachev swap looks rough after one season.

Again, it’s not just “losing” trades, either. It’s fairly common to see a player absorb criticism on their way out the door following a trade (even when it’s bizarre stuff like the Dougie Hamilton museum rumors), but there have been multiple times in which this Montreal regime seemed to handle delicate situations with the precision of wild sledgehammer swings.

There’s still a chance that Bergevin will time this all perfectly and extract the perfect package of assets for Pacioretty. Snipers of Pacioretty’s caliber don’t grow on trees, and for all we know, the best deal may – against steep odds – really lie in the future, possibly even during the 2018-19 season.

Recent history suggests otherwise, and those unforced errors didn’t really come with Bergevin’s back truly against the wall.

Right now, this has “nightmare” written all over it, and a recurring one in that.

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.