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More feuds, more personality means more fun for NHL

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For all we know, it might take decades for hockey players to totally shake off their generic “aw shucks” mentalities. Maybe it will never fully happen.

That said, it sure seems like we’re seeing a rise in trash talks, brutally honest conversations, and examples of bigger personalities during this goal-happy start to the new NHL season. The latest incident involves Lars Eller, Nazem Kadri, “bulletin board material,” the Leafs, Capitals, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. So, yes, it’s pretty entertaining.

To catch you up to speed, Eller half-dismissed the rising Maple Leafs after they beat his Capitals 4-2 on Saturday, as NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti reported:

“We’re used to playing against Crosby and Malkin,” Eller said. “Everything kind of drops from there, so it’s not that special.”

While Eller added that the Maple Leafs are “a good team” and that he thinks Toronto would make the playoffs, Nazem Kadri didn’t take those comments kindly.

“Bulletin board material,” Kadri said on Monday, via NHL.com’s Dave McCarthy. “I don’t know how he can be serious with that comment. I understand they’re coming off hanging a banner, but you’ve got to give teams respect that have earned it, and I certainly think we’ve earned it.”

Juicy stuff, right?

Here’s a request: teams and players shouldn’t be so stuffy. Instead of getting tense in the shoulders about “respect,” it would be a lot more fun for fans if there were more comments like those of Ellers, and if personalities continue to surface.

Now, don’t get this totally twisted. NHL players aren’t going to rival the NBA when it comes to gloriously flamboyant behavior, at least not yet. It’s fitting that Eller was already walking back his comments on the Maple Leafs, as Gulitti notes today:

Sure, it’s possible that people got a little carried away with Eller’s comments … but who does it really hurt?

OK, so maybe Eller himself was recently bloodied by Brad Marchand for showing some personality following a goal, so you can understand why he might want to pump the brakes a bit here:

Let’s not forget that, while there’s a lot on the line in the NHL, this is still about entertainment.

Thankfully, this latest crop of hockey players – particularly stars – are opening up in ways that are keeping us laughing and sometimes egging on a fight like a crowd watching high schoolers slap each other. And it’s great.

Consider the recent flourishes we’ve enjoyed:

Matthews’ fashion sense generates memes that are almost as fun as watching him score ridiculous goals.

  • Do the Hurricanes have a name for this celebration yet? “The Carolina Climb” doesn’t have the same ring to it (or the same accuracy) as “The Lambeau Leap.” Either way, it’s a fun celebration; it also shows that elder statesmen can get it on the fun, as apparently this is the masterwork of Justin Williams:

(And you thought the team undergoing “Team Grit” and “Team Grind” practices couldn’t have fun.)

  • The Ryan JohansenRyan Kesler feud hasn’t resulted in a parking lot brawl … yet. The real highlight is Johansen’s adorably weak smack talk, to be frank.
  • Patrik Laine is just about as quick with quips as he is releasing shots. The highlight might be the jab he sent Vancouver’s way regarding “Fortnite” habits, as PHT’s own Scott Billeck reported on Oct. 3:

Good stuff, and this list is really just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve already seen Connor McDavid embrace his funny side with commercials and that meme-generating awkward airport photo. Matthews isn’t the only Maple Leafs youngster who can take and/or dish out jokes, as we saw from those cheesy Mitch Marner as a child barbs.

Maybe this all boils down to a more social media-savvy, meta generation of hockey players. On the other hand, we all might need to step up our games to even briefly wrestle the attention away from Gritty.

Whatever the case may be, let’s hope these moments of personality become a consistent part of hockey fandom, and – if we’re really lucky – crop up even more often.

If this is just a brief wave before we land back into blandness, at least it’s been a good run.

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.

Hurricanes are young, fun, worth watching

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Every year we go through the same cycle with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Throughout the summer, in to training camp, and right up to the start of the regular season they are a hot analytically-driven pick to be the surprise team in the league.

Look at the possession numbers, we say. Look at how good the defense is, we scream. If only they could find a goalie, we plead. Then once the season actually begins they typically stumble out of the gate and put themselves in a deep hole, never recover from it because the goaltending never works out and they never have enough pure finishers to take advantage of the possession numbers, and then process repeats itself over the following summer.

It was the same story this summer, especially after the addition of Dougie Hamilton from the Calgary Flames to further bolster their defense, the drafting of Andrei Svechnikov with the No. 2 overall pick, and some of the other promising young forwards that are starting to hit the NHL.

But now that the games have started and the season is underway, things are for once looking a little different on the ice.

Is this the year things finally change? Maybe!

Thanks to Tuesday’s 5-3 win over the Vancouver Canucks, the Hurricanes are off to a 3-0-1 start, which is their best start to a season in years. Over the past six or seven years it’s typically taken them anywhere from ten to 12 games to record seven points in the standings. They have done it this year in four. Even more important than the early wins, is the way they are playing and the way the roster is constructed.

Bottom line: This team looks fun, and there are a lot of reasons for you to pay attention to them.

At the start of the season they are the fourth-youngest team in the NHL, and they finally seem to be working in the type of players up front that they had been lacking in recent years. Specifically, potential impact players.

They have one of the league’s most anticipated rookies in Svechnikov, who has already made a massive impact in what has been a very limited role. Through four games he has averaged less than 12 minutes of ice-time per game and has already averaged a point per game. His potential is massive and if he reaches it could be the franchise-changing player they have been lacking up front.

The rookie that is probably making the most surprising impact has been 22-year-old Warren Foegele, who has already scored three goals this season and , and we haven’t really seen anything from Martin Necas, the team’s 2017 first-round pick, quite yet.

Along with the core of young talent, there just seems to be a different energy around this team. The way they play, and the fact they are trying to just make things … fun.

Stuff like that won’t make a difference in the standings, but it can help build excitement. It can help get eye balls on the team. It can maybe help get more people in the building and give people a reason to take notice of them. And that, too, is important.

If you take advantage of those extra eyes and that extra attention by winning, it’s even bigger.

[Related: Hurricanes’ new victory celebration is pretty awesome]

I argued last season that even after years of preseason anticipation that never manifested itself in victories that this could still be a team on the verge of a Winnipeg Jets-like breakthrough. For years the Jets were another team that had strong talent on paper, would at times be a strong team analytically, but would always fall short because they lacked a couple of key ingredients, whether it be finishers up front or quality goaltending.

The drafting of Patrik Laine at No. 2 helped change that. The development of Mark Scheifele helped changed that. The emergence of players like Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor also helped change that.

While the Hurricanes do not have quite the level of talent that the Jets did up front (to be fair, who does?), the Hurricanes are further ahead of where the Jets were at the start of last season on the blue line.

They may not have quite the offensive depth up front, but they do have talent. Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen are legitimate top-six forwards, Jordan Staal and Justin Williams are solid veteran two-way presences, and we already talked about the rookies.  They still need some things to go right. They need Svechnikov to become their version of Laine. They need Necas and Foegele to work out, and they need somebody to emerge as a reliable starter in goal (though, to be fair, it would be nearly impossible for Scott Darling and Petr Mrazek to play worse than they did a year ago for their respective teams).

I don’t know if the Hurricanes are going to keep winning this year, and I don’t know if they are a playoff team just quite yet. But I do know based on what we have seen so far they are definitely a team worth paying attention and might be able to bring a level of excitement and intrigue that few others can. They also might be able to finally become the team we have been waiting for them to become for years.

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.

Hurricanes’ new victory celebration is pretty awesome

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Don’t look now but the Carolina Hurricanes are off to a pretty great start, and they seem to be having some fun!

After lighting up the scoreboard on Sunday in an 8-5 win over the New York Rangers — a game that was highlighted by some of the Hurricanes’ young forwards having huge days — the Hurricanes are now 2-0-1 on the young season, have earned five out of a possible six points, and probably played well enough to win the one game they did not win.

Sunday’s win over the Rangers was their first victory on home ice this season, and they used it as an opportunity to introduce a new victory celebration.

It all began with the entire team lining up across the blue line, captain Justin Williams leading the team in a Skol clap, and then everyone storming the length of the ice and jumping into the glass at the opposite end.

This is not something you usually see in the NHL (the most you might see is teams like the Rangers, for example, gathering at center ice and saluting the fans) and I imagine the “act like you’ve been there before, you are a professional hockey player” crowd will find some reason to complain about this. But you know what? Justin Williams is a 37-year-old, 18-year NHL veteran and a three-time Stanley Cup champion. He has been there, and he has done “it” before. This is just good fun, and some nice excitement for a team, franchise, and fan-base that is desperate for it.

The Hurricanes are capable of some good things this season. Hopefully they keep having some fun while they do it.

At the end of the day sports are supposed to be … you know … fun.

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.

Nothing to ‘C’ here: Importance of NHL captains is changing

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Ryan Johansen remembers how the Columbus Blue Jackets didn’t have a captain until one day it clicked and everyone knew it should be Nick Foligno.

”There was just no doubt,” Johansen said. ”It’s just one of those things you don’t want to force. You don’t want to rush. You don’t want to regret. Once someone is a very clear option to being named captain, then it’s usually done.”

For more than a century, NHL teams have named one player the captain, equipment managers stitched a ”C” on his jersey and, if all went well, he was the one who’d accept the Stanley Cup and lift it first. It’s still a hockey tradition with special meaning at all levels of the game, but almost one third of the 31-team league could go into opening night without a captain, a sign of the times that it’s no longer a necessity and certainly not a distinction that management and coaching staffs want to jump into without a lot of thought.

It’s a hot topic right now in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs haven’t had a captain since trading Dion Phaneuf in early 2016 and are in no hurry to designate one. Longtime Islanders captain John Tavares and 2016 top pick Auston Matthews are the leading candidates, and each say they are fine with general manager Kyle Dubas waiting to make a decision.

”It’s very important to have a captain, but I also think the way Kyle’s handling it is the right way to do it because it doesn’t really make sense to just throw somebody the captaincy,” Matthews said. ”It should have to be the right person. I think it’s honestly been blown up a lot this summer with our team with, ‘Somebody’s going to get it, who’s going to get it?’ But I think in the end they’re going to make their decision and it’s going to be the right one.”

Sometimes the decision is not to have a captain at all. The New York Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final without a captain in 2014 after trading Ryan Callahan at the deadline, and the Golden Knights did the same last year after not having a captain in their inaugural season.

”For us last season all coming from different places, different teams, it was a good thing,” Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Everybody chipped in. I think we had a good group of veterans who played a lot of games. I think all together we kind of took charge of helping try to lead the team. It worked out pretty good for us.”

The Golden Knights lost in the final to the Capitals as Alex Ovechkin became the first Russian-born and just the third European-born and trained captain to win the Cup. No team has won it without a captain since the 1972 Boston Bruins.

”That tells you something,” said Minnesota’s Eric Staal, who was captain of the Carolina Hurricanes for six seasons. ”Sometimes it can be overblown with saying you really have to have one or this player can’t handle this or that. I don’t think players change – or they shouldn’t- if they have a letter or don’t. … I also think it’s a cool thing to be a captain or an assistant captain. It’s been part of the game for a long time. But every team chooses to do things differently.”

Teams certainly aren’t afraid to make big decisions with their captains. Within the past two weeks, Montreal traded captain Max Pacioretty to Vegas and Ottawa traded captain Erik Karlsson to San Jose, Carolina abandoned its two-captain system and gave the ”C” to Justin Williams and Florida promoted Aleksander Barkov to succeed Derek MacKenzie as captain.

The Islanders (post-Tavares), Rangers (after trading Ryan McDonagh last season), Golden Knights, Maple Leafs, Sabres, Canadiens, Senators and Canucks (after Henrik Sedin retired) all have vacancies, and the Red Wings are in a similar spot because captain Henrik Zetterberg‘s career is over because of injury. Consider them the AAA club because without a captain, three players are alternates each game.

”I don’t think that every team needs to have a captain,” Buffalo’s Jack Eichel said. ”It’s good to have somebody that makes the executive decision at the end of the day. But if you have enough good leaders on a team, I think that if they’re all on the same page, it kind of works as just serving as a group of captains.”

Sidney Crosby has won the Cup three times since being named Penguins captain at age 20. Two years ago, the Oilers made Connor McDavid the youngest captain in NHL history at 19 years, 273 days old.

Ovechkin was named Washington’s captain in 2010, the season after Crosby won the Cup, but during the playoffs last year, he called Nicklas Backstrom Washington’s leader. When the Cup was paraded down Constitution Avenue in June, Ovechkin and Backstrom and fellow alternate captain Brooks Orpik sat in the final bus with the trophy.

”It feels like we could almost have three ‘Cs’ because they lead in different ways, and all of them together kind of make one big super leader, really,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. ”It’s rare to find that kind of mixture that you have with those three guys.”

Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy said the ”C” could be cut up and a slice given to captain Zdeno Chara and lieutenant Patrice Bergeron. The Kings made a seamless transition from Dustin Brown to Anze Kopitar and the Sharks have thrived with ex-captain Joe Thornton and current captain Joe Pavelski co-existing and developing what Evander Kane called the best leadership structure he has ever played under.

More often than not it’s simple: Jonathan Toews has won the Cup three times as Chicago’s captain and unquestioned leader. But he even doesn’t think naming one captain is essential based on his years of help from players wearing ”As” like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp.

”I don’t see why you can’t have success with a bunch of guys that are alternates and maybe not having one guy wearing the ‘C,”’ Toews said. ”At the end of the day, each guy brings different elements to the table.”

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

MORE:
Captain switch: Panthers give ‘C’ to Aleksander Barkov

Capitals try to forget Cup celebrations as NHL camps open

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When Alex Ovechkin embraced Josh Norman in a meeting of two of Washington’s biggest sports stars, the Redskins cornerback had a question for the Capitals’ Stanley Cup-winning captain.

”You still celebrating?” Norman asked.

”We’re done,” Ovechkin said. ”We’re done for right now.”

The Capitals seemed to celebrate as hard as any champion in NHL history. When they get on the ice for the first practices of training camp Friday, they will be just one of 31 teams chasing a title all over again.

”We have to forget already about that and focus,” center Evgeny Kuznetsov said. ”We have to move forward. When you taste that win, you want to do it over again. To do that, it’s not easy.”

A year after being written off as title contenders, the Capitals are now a focal point of the NHL as camps open. Elsewhere in the Eastern Conference, the rival Penguins will look to rebound from a second-round postseason exit, the Lightning are stacked even after general manager Steve Yzerman stepped down and the Maple Leafs look like Cup favorites after adding John Tavares.

The Western Conference-champion Golden Knights won’t have Nate Schmidt for any game in the preseason or the first 20 of the regular season after a performance-enhancing drug suspension , while the Blues loaded up on centers in a bid to move past recent playoff disappointments – like the Capitals did a year ago.

Some things to watch from training camps around the league:

ERIK GOES WEST

The NHL was busy Thursday with the Dallas Stars re-signing Tyler Seguin to a $78.8 million, eight-year extension, the Hurricanes naming Justin Williams captain and announcing Victor Rask is out indefinitely after slicing two fingers in a kitchen accident, and the Coyotes giving the ”C” to Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Oh, and the Sharks acquired star defenseman Erik Karlsson in a blockbuster trade with Ottawa.

”It still came as a shock and not something I prepared for or could’ve prepared myself for,” Karlsson said, adding that he hopes to be in San Jose for camp sooner than later after visa issues get worked out.

Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said they were ”looking for a difference-maker.” After missing out on Tavares, they got one in Karlsson and shifted the balance of power in the Western Conference.

TRYOUT TIME

At least 20 players will attend camps on professional tryout agreements, with defenseman Brandon Davidson in Chicago and winger Scottie Upshall in Edmonton among those most likely to earn a contract. The Oilers – who have the selling point of playing with Connor McDavid – also invited defenseman Jason Garrison and former Capitals forward Alex Chiasson to camp. Edmonton is the land of opportunity this month after missing the playoffs by 17 points last season. The young Bruins are bringing in veterans Daniel Winnik, Lee Stempniak and Mark Fayne on tryouts. Each one will have to wow the coaching staff to make it.

WHO’S NOT THERE

A handful of restricted free agents remain unsigned around the league, including Maple Leafs forward William Nylander, Golden Knights defenseman Shea Theodore and Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse. Nylander wasn’t listed on Toronto’s 73-player training camp roster released Wednesday. RFAs lack leverage and time, with the season coming up fast next month. Still, such situations are usually resolved before the opener and Nylander, Nurse, Theodore and the others should all sign before Oct. 3.

NEW COACHES

Washington’s Todd Reirden is one of six new coaches, but he has been on Barry Trotz’s staff the past four seasons and had a hand in winning the Cup. Rod Brind’Amour has plenty of familiarity with the Hurricanes after seven seasons as an assistant but an entirely different challenge as he looks to end a league-worst nine-year playoff drought. New faces in new places include Trotz taking his Cup ring to the Islanders, former Carolina coach Bill Peters in Calgary, Jim Montgomery in Dallas and David Quinn with the Rangers. Peters faces big expectations in trying to get the Flames back to contending status in the West.

ROOKIE WATCH

Buffalo No. 1 pick Rasmus Dahlin is the player to watch in the preseason to see if the smooth-skating Swedish defenseman can make the NHL look as effortless as previous endeavors. Dahlin will make the Sabres’ roster and could contribute immediately on a blue line that needs it. A handful of other top-10 picks have a chance to play on opening night, including Carolina’s Andrei Svechnikov, Ottawa’s Brady Tkachuk and Detroit’s Filip Zadina.

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

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