Jonathan Huberdeau

Getty Images

Surging Vrana might be capable of even bigger things for Capitals

Leave a comment

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

From Alex Ovechkin for Washington to Artemi Panarin for New York, you’ll see plenty of firepower during Wednesday Night Hockey’s bout between the Capitals and Rangers. Even with Nicklas Backstrom sidelined for the game, I’m here to argue that you still might not see enough of one potential rising star: Jakub Vrana.

When you give Vrana’s 2019-20 stats a quick glance, they’re already impressive.

Not only does Vrana already have 10 goals scored in 23 games, but all 10 of them have come at even-strength, tying him for third in the NHL in that category alongside players like Auston Matthews, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vrana’s former Capitals teammate Andre Burakovsky. His eight assists rounds out his numbers to 18 points in 23 games; over an 82-game pace, Vrana would author a 37-goal, 66-point season.

While he’s been riding some hot puck luck since 2018-19 with a 15.1 shooting percentage, the overwhelming message one gets from diving deeper into Vrana’s stats is that the Capitals should strongly consider finding more ways to get him on the ice.

[COVERAGE OF RANGERS-CAPITALS BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Despite Vrana’s 18 points in 23 games, he’s only averaging 14:15 TOI per game, which is a career-high and slight uptick from last season’s average of 14:02. Beyond getting some bounces, Vrana’s breakthrough in simple counting stats can probably be chalked up to an increasingly itchy trigger finger. After peaking with 1.96 shots on goal per game last season, Vrana’s getting almost one extra puck on net per evening, averaging 2.78 SOG per game (64 SOG in 23 GP).

It’s unclear if you can derive that from playing a more confident game, getting decent reps with a tremendous playmaker like Evgeny Kuznetsov, or if perhaps someone in the Capitals organization gave Vrana a directive to shoot more. Either way, it’s working out quite nicely, as he’s a significant part of the Capitals’ early work as the NHL’s most dangerous offense at even-strength.

Again, though, I must ask for more.

Just about every number seems to point a neon flashing arrow at “More Vrana.” His heat map at Micah Blake McCurdy’s Hockey Viz is, well, almost off the charts:

Wow.

Admittedly, it would be tough for Vrana to crack the Capitals’ top power play unit, and he’s getting some reps on the second unit (1:35 per game), but his all-around game makes me wonder if more PK work would be warranted.

It’s not as though Vrana is getting totally buried in the Capitals’ lineup, yet with Washington in a strong position (few teams enjoy the luxury of “Can we win the division again?” being one of their burning questions in November), I’d be tempted to see if Vrana would thrive in an even larger role.

And, hey, if all of that is boring … the skill is pretty obvious, too. Not everyone can pull off a Datsyukian shootout move, right?

Just saying.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL Power Rankings: Most dangerous duos in the league

5 Comments

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a break from ranking all 31 teams and instead look at some of the best, and most dangerous forward duos in the league.

We are looking at forward duos that are regularly used together on a line and can not only produce offense, but help carry their teams and drive play.

Which duos make the list? Let’s get to the rankings!

1. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. There is not a duo in the NHL right now that is even close to these two.

Individually, the are the top-two point producers in the league since the start of the 2018-19 season and both are among the top-three in goals scored.

When they are on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the past two seasons the Oilers have outscored their opponents by an 82-57 margin (when neither is on the ice the Oilers have been outscored 67-97) while they have been on the ice for more than 55 percent of the Oilers’ total goals (all situations) during that time. As they go, the Oilers go. It is not a stretch to say this is the most dominant offensive duo the league has seen since the days of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr in Pittsburgh. Breaking them up should be a fireable offense.

2. David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins. These two are so good that they have made Patrice Bergeron (still one of the best players in the league) arguably the third best player on his own line.

While Bergeron does drive a lot of the defensive play and plays the shutdown role to near perfection at center, the Pastrnak-Marchand duo on the wings is behind the offense. So much so that Pastrnak and Marchand have scored goals at a higher rate the past three years when they are playing without Bergeron than they do with him.

Goals per 60 minutes since start of 2017-18 season:

  • Pastrnak, Marchand, and Bergeron together: 3.64
  • Pastrnak and Marchand without Bergeron: 3.89
  • Marchand and Bergeron without Pastrnak: 3.49
  • Pastrnak and Bergeron without Marchand: 2.75

That is not to say the team would be better off without Bergeron centering the line, it is just a testament to how good Pastrnak and Marchand are offensively.

3. Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche. They have been to the Avalanche what the McDavid-Draisaitl duo has been to the Oilers. Top producers individually, completely dominant as a duo, and until this season the line that had to carry what was an incredibly top-heavy team. The Avalanche did serious work to address those depth concerns over the summer and it’s helped them stay afloat in the current absence of Rantanen (and the third member of that line, Gabriel Landeskog). When MacKinnon gets his regular wingers back the Avalanche should be considered one of the top Stanley Cup contenders.

4. Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins. It is easy to write off Guentzel’s success as being a product of playing next to Crosby, but here is the thing about that: A lot of players, many of them very talented, have spent significant time alongside Crosby throughout his career and have never approached the level of production that Guentzel has. He is the consistent finisher that Crosby never really had earlier in his career, and together they are the biggest driver of the Penguins’ offense.

5. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers. These two have really emerged as top-tier offensive players the past two years. Barkov still carries the “underrated” label even though everyone around the league knows exactly how good he is (you should know how good he is, anyway). The truly underrated one in this duo at this point is Huberdeau. Both players are among the top-10 scorers in the league the past two years and have been outstanding this year. If Sergei Bobrovsky ever plays like the big money goalie the Panthers signed him to be this duo will take the Panthers to the playoffs.

6. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning. They haven’t been quite as dominant as they were a year ago, but no one in Tampa Bay has been just yet. Plus, they are still both around a point-per-game offensively and they are carrying the play when the Lightning use them together (3.50 goals per 60 minutes; dominant possession numbers). They could be on the verge of a breakout at any moment.

7. Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty, Vegas Golden Knights. This duo became a thing last year after Vegas’ in-season trade for Stone last season, and it has been their best line ever since. Stone is one of the best all-around wingers in the NHL and should once again get serious Selke Trophy consideration, while Pacioretty still has the lightning quick release that can make him a 30-goal scorer. These two may not score as many goals as some of the duos on this list, but they control the pace of play and dictate the game as well as any duo in the league.

8. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals. You might consider this a nod to past dominance or their reputation, but these two still have it. The Capitals mix their line combinations up a bit (Ovechkin has spent a lot of time in recent years with both Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov as his center) but this is still the one that seems to work the best. Both players are in their 30s and still on track to put up huge numbers this season for a Capitals team that looks like it could win another Stanley Cup.

9. Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks. This duo might change everything in Vancouver. The Canucks have had comically bad luck in the draft lottery during this rebuild, never picking higher than fifth despite being one of the league’s worst teams the past few years. They have still managed to find some incredible building blocks with their top picks including Pettersson, Boeser, and Quinn Hughes. The Boeser-Pettersson duo is a must-see every night and has helped rapidly  accelerate the rebuild. The only thing that has held them back so far in their young careers are injuries.

10. Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames. Going from Carolina to Calgary has completely turned around Lindholm’s career thanks to the instant chemistry he found alongside Gaudreau. In the three years prior to his move to Calgary he scored just 38 goals in 235 games. He already has 37 goals in only 104 games with the Flames. Since the trade the Flames have outscored teams 68-48 with the Gauderau-Lindholm duo on the ice and averaged close to three-and-a-half per 60 minutes.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

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: Eichel scores 4; Milestones for Stamkos, Coach Q

Getty
3 Comments

Three Stars

1. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres. Entering play on Saturday the Sabres had lost seven of eight, were riding a six-game losing streak, and needed something to go their way to get things back on track. Their captain came to the rescue in a big way. Eichel scored four goals and provided all of the offense for the Sabres in a 4-2 win over the Ottawa Senators. It was the 10th four-goal game in Sabres franchise history and the first since Thomas Vanek did it during the 2009-10 season. It is already the the fourth four-goal game in the NHL this season, joining David Pastrnak, Anthony Mantha, and James Neal.

2. Derek Grant, Anaheim Ducks. Sometimes you need an unlikely hero to step up and the Ducks got that on Saturday when Grant scored three goals for his first career hat trick in a 4-1 win over the St. Louis Blues. The win snapped what had been a nine-game point streak for the Blues, as well as a five-game losing streak for the Ducks. Entering Saturday Grant had scored just two goals on the season and only 18 in 228 career games.

3. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche. The absence of linemates Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog has not slowed down MacKinnon one bit. He took over on Saturday night with two goals — including the overtime winner — and an assist in a 5-4 win for the Avalanche. His overtime goal was a highlight reel tally that helped the Avalanche secure the two points after allowing a two-goal lead to disappear in the final three minutes of regulation. He is now up to 29 points in his first 20 games this season and has three three-point games over the past five. Rookie defenseman Cale Makar also deserves some attention for his four-point game.

Two big milestones

Stamkos scores 400th goal. It came in a losing effort, but Steven Stamkos scored the 400th goal of his career on Saturday. It is a great accomplishment for one of the best goal-scorers of this era, and it also produces a pretty big “what if” question — how many goals would he have today had he not missed so many games in his peak seasons to significant injuries and a lockout? The only active player to hit the 400 goal mark in fewer games than Stamkos is Alex Ovechkin.

Quenneville wins 900th regular season game. Thanks to the Florida Panthers’ 4-3 win over the New York Rangers, Joel Quenneville became only the second coach in NHL history to record 900 regular season wins. Scotty Bowman is the only other coach to hit that number.

Other notable performances from Saturday

  • The Pittsburgh Penguins extended the Toronto Maple Leafs’ losing streak to five games in a dominant win. Evgeni Malkin and Dominik Kahun were the offensive stars for the Penguins as they dominated a Maple Leafs team that continues to look completely lost. Read all about this game here.
  • The Dallas Stars received big contributions from Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn as they overcame a two-goal third period deficit to beat the Edmonton Oilers in overtime. Read about how Seguin and Benn were difference-makers here.
  • Arizona Coyotes goalie Darcy Kuemper stopped all 38 shots he faced for his second shutout of the season. He also nearly sparked a goalie fight by slamming Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk to the ice. Read all about that game right here.
  • The Chicago Blackhawks no doubt remembered Pekka Rinne talking about what an “easy” game he had the first time he faced them this season. His night on Saturday was even easier because he only made it through half the game before being benched in a 7-2 rout. Alex Nylander scored two goals for the Blackhawks in the win.
  • Evgenii Dadonov scored two goals for the Panthers in their 4-3 win over the Rangers.
  • Andrei Svechnikov continued his strong sophomore season with an overtime winner for the Carolina Hurricanes. He is now up to nine goals this season.
  • Big win for the Winnipeg Jets against the Tampa Bay Lightning to improve to 8-3-1 in their past 12 games and remain surprisingly competitive in the NHL’s Central Division.
  • Here come the Sharks. Their 4-3 shootout win over the Detroit Red Wings improved their winning streak to six games.

Highlights of the Night

The New York Islanders’ point streak hit 14 games on Saturday (13-0-1) thanks to an incredible rally that saw them overcome a 3-0 deficit against the Philadelphia Flyers. Mathew Barzal scored the shootout winner and it was an absolute beauty of a goal.

The best shootout goal of the night, though, belonged to Washington Capitals forward Jakub Vrana for this Datsyuk-ian dangle to beat Jaroslav Halak in the fifth round of the shootout against the Boston Bruins. The Capitals won to improve to 14-3-4 on the season. That is the best record in the NHL.

We told you MacKinnon’s overtime winner was incredible, and here it is.

Blooper of the Night

It probably has to be that bizarre disallowed goal in Montreal where Phillip Danault, capping off a chaotic scramble around the goal line. Read all about it here.

Factoids

  • Jonathan Huberdeau now has more assists than any player in Panthers history. [NHL PR]
  • Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are the third set of teammates in the past 30 years to have at least 40 points through their team’s first 22 games of the season. [NHL PR]
  • Los Angeles Kings forward Jeff Carter skated in his 1,000th career game on Saturday, making him the 11th player from the 2003 draft class to reach that milestone. The only other draft class with that many was the 1979 draft class. The Kings were 4-3 winners over the Vegas Golden Knights on Carter’s big day. [NHL PR]

Scores

Carolina Hurricanes 4, Minnesota Wild 3 (OT)
Los Angeles Kings 4, Vegas Golden Knights 3
Dallas Star 5, Edmonton Oilers 4 (OT)
Arizona Coyotes 3, Calgary Flames 0
Winnipeg Jets 4, Tampa Bay Lightning 3
Washington Capitals 3, Boston Bruins 2 (SO)
Buffalo Sabres 4, Ottawa Senators 2
New Jersey Devils 4, Montreal Canadiens 3 (OT)
Florida Panthers 4, New York Rangers 3
New York Islanders, Philadelphia 3 (SO)
Pittsburgh Penguins 6, Toronto Maple Leafs 1
Anaheim Ducks 4, St. Louis Blues 1
Chicago Blackhawks 7, Nashville Predators 2
Colorado Avalanche 5, Vancouver Canucks 4 (OT)
San Jose Sharks 4, Detroit Red Wings 3 (SO)

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Bruins blow big lead; Troubling Crosby report

Getty Images
4 Comments

Uh oh

The Athletic’s Rob Rossi reports (sub required) that Sidney Crosby is considering undergoing surgery for a sports hernia, among other treatment options.

Rossi reports that Crosby recently aggravated the injury, but it was something that had been bothering throughout 2019-20. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ host of injuries explained why Crosby didn’t undergo a procedure sooner.

If Crosby undergoes such a surgery, Rossi explains that the typical recovery window is four-to-six weeks, although Crosby’s been told it may only sideline him for a month. There are other possibilities to try to avoid surgery, as Rossi outlines, although delaying the inevitable could lead to aggravating the issue again.

Personally, I’d bite the bullet and have Crosby go under the knife now, rather than risking losing him during an even more important time of the year. We’ll see how it goes, whether Crosby opts for surgery or tries alternate options. It doesn’t seem like the rosiest update overall, though.

Three Stars

1. Andrew Werner, Colorado Avalanche

This post goes into greater detail, but in short, Werner made his NHL debut after Pavel Francouz was injured seconds into Tuesday’s game against the Jets. Not only did the 22-year-old Werner win for Colorado, he also stopped all 40 of Winnipeg’s shots on goal.

Technically, Werner won’t get a shutout, as Francouz started the contest and played for about one minute. It was a functional shutout in every other way, though — Werner even stopped all eight of Patrik Laine‘s shots on goal — so he nabs the top star of Tuesday.

2. Nathan MacKinnonalso of the Colorado Avalanche

… Unless you think his teammate is more deserving.

With Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog still on the shelf, MacKinnon showed that he can still generate high-level offense, as he factored into all four Avalanche goals (2G, 2A).

It’s been a little all-or-nothing for MacKinnon lately. Along with Tuesday’s four points, he also generated a four-point game (1G, 3A) on Nov. 7. Yet, in three of his five most recent games, MacKinnon was held pointless. Eight points in five games still rocks, mind you, but maybe that feast-or-famine pattern shows where MacKinnon might miss his partners in crime.

Either way, it’s been a superstar-status-affirming start to 2019-20, as MacKinnon has 11 goals and 26 points in 18 games.

3. Keith Yandle, Florida Panthers

The Panthers missed out on a Mike Hoffman power-play opportunity when the lights went out temporarily in Boston, and to make matters worse, were behind 4-0 during the third period. Instead of folding, Florida scored four goals during that third period, then beat the Bruins 5-4 via a shootout.

Yandle played a big role in that rally (1G, 2A). The high-scoring defenseman collected primary assists on two Panthers goals, and also scored the goal that sent the game to overtime.

There were other players who generated three points on Tuesday, including Yandle’s teammate, Jonathan Huberdeau. The importance of Yandle’s goal, or primary nature of Yandle’s assists, made his night stand out, though. (Huberdeau’s assists were secondary, and Tanner Pearson‘s goal was an empty-netter, as two examples. Oh, and Huberdeau is now tied for first in Panthers history with 249 assists, alongside Stephen Weiss.)

Highlight of the Night

Brendan Lemieux‘s tremendous pass + Kaapo Kakko‘s great move to finish things off for a goal already received plenty of attention, but sorry, it’s the clip of the night.

Factoids

  • Tuesday marked just the third time in Bruins history where an opponent tied the game after Boston carried a four-goal lead into the third period, via Mike Biergard of the NHL. The Bruins lost 7-6 in OT to the Maple Leafs in 1989, and won 5-4 against the Kings in 1981.
  • From the Panthers’ perspective:

  • Erik Karlsson was another player who authored a three-point game, generating three assists as San Jose beat Edmonton. That’s his 37th three-point game, the most of any defenseman since Karlsson entered the league in 2019-20, via NHL PR.
  • One more from NHL PR: Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar joins Larry Murphy (Kings, 1980-81) as the only two rookie defensemen to generate at least one point in 14 of their first 18 regular season games.

Scores

FLA 5 – BOS 4 (SO)
MTL 3 – CBJ 2 (SO)
NYR 3 – PIT 2 (OT)
ARI 3 – STL 2 (SO)
COL 4 – WPG 0
VAN 5 – NSH 3
DET 4 – ANA 3 (OT)
LAK 3 – MIN 1
SJS 6 – EDM 3

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

NHL Power Rankings: The 10 most impressive players through October

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a break from the team level and dig into some individual performances, specifically the most impressive individual performances through the first month of the 2019-20 season.

This is not to be taken as a ranking of the best overall players in the league right now, but simply a look at whose performance has impressed the most to this point.

Who makes the cut? To the rankings!

1. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins. If the Bruins score a goal right now it is a good bet that Pastrnak has a direct hand in it. He is just the fourth player since 2006 to score at least 13 goals through his team’s first 13 games (Alex Ovechkin in 2010, Alex Steen in 2014, Nikita Kucherov in 2018 are the others) and enters the week tied for the league lead in goals (with Leon Draisaitl) and owns the lead in total points. He has played two fewer games than every other player in the top-five in scoring.

2. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. A year ago he became just the eighth different player in 20 years to top both the 50-goal and 100-point marks in the same season. If you were expecting some kind of a regression, you are not yet getting it. All he has done so far this season is open up with 13 goals and 26 points in the Oilers’ first 15 games to help carry the team to top of the Pacific Division standings.

3. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins. The Bruins have some depth questions but they are great where it matters most — on the top line and in net. Entering play on Monday Rask has appeared in eight games and has yet to have a save percentage lower than .912 in any of them. He has been over .930 in six of them. He has been the single most dominant goalie in the league so far this year.

4. John Carlson, Washington Capitals. After finishing in the top-five of the Norris Trophy voting the past two years he might actually crack the top-three this year if this scoring continues. And while he may cool down a bit there is no reason to believe it will be a huge drop (he did finish with 70 points a year ago). Are we putting him here strictly based on offense? Yeah … sort of. But when you’re a defenseman and are contributing an historically high amount offense to a team that is 11-2-3 that is pretty darn impressive.

5. Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks might actually be really good this year, and Pettersson is one of the players driving the bus for them. After winning the Calder Trophy a year ago he has started his sophomore season looking like one of the league’s most valuable players. He has scored at an elite rate and the Canucks have a 60 percent shot attempt share when he is on the ice. That is MVP level stuff.

Correction: We initially wrote that Pettersson started the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone, which was a mistake. He has, however, started more shifts in the defensive zone recently than he did earlier in the year.

6. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers. I still wouldn’t bet against him when it comes to winning the scoring title this season. He and Draisaitl form the league’s most dominant scoring duo and it is probably going to be up to them to carry the team to the playoffs.

7. Sidney Crosby Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins were crushed by injuries early in the season and Crosby’s line was one of the biggest reasons they were able to keep pace with the other playoff teams in the Eastern Conference. He is still one of the five best offensive players in the league and is an outstanding defensive player.

8. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. He just turned 34 years old and is still playing like he did when he was 24. Or at least close to it. He has 12 more shots on goal than any other player in the NHL and is on a pace to score 55 goals this season. The best goal scorer of all time continuing to do what he does best.

9. Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes. There is an argument to be made he might be the most underrated player in the league. He is currently leading the Hurricanes in scoring, is their top possession player on defense, and plays huge minutes. A No. 1 defender in every way and he counts just $5.75 million against the cap, an absolute steal of a rate.

10. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes. Don’t let their current spot in the standings fool you, it is mostly due to having only played 13 games. Their points percentage is fourth best in the Western Conference entering Monday, and the play of their goalies is one of the biggest reasons why. Kuemper has been the best of the two, owning a .942 save percentage (second only to Rask in the entire NHL) through his first nine starts.

Deserving mentions: Brad Marchand (Boston Bruins), James Neal (Edmonton Oilers), Brock Boeser (Vancouver Canucks), Nathan MacKinnon (Colorado Avalanche), Mark Stone (Vegas Golden Knights), Jonathan Huberdeau (Florida Panthers), Jack Eichel (Buffalo Sabres), John Gibson (Anaheim Ducks)

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.