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Nate Schmidt is underrated star of Golden Knights

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When it comes to the success of the Vegas Golden Knights the lion’s share of the praise is being thrown in the direction of starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and the top-line of Jon Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith. All of it, of course, is richly deserved. All four of them have been incredible all season and have arguably been even better in the playoffs. Other than the emergence of Karlsson — which is still kind of baffling — there was reason to believe that the quartet could make a positive impact immediately.

Fleury has been a No. 1 goalie in the league for more than a decade. His name is on the Stanley Cup three times. Everybody knew he was going to give them a chance to at least be competitive on most nights. Maybe we didn’t think he would be quite this dominant, but he has been good, is good, and will continue to be good. Likewise, pretty much everyone knew right away that the Jon Marchessault/Reilly Smith move had a chance to backfire on the Florida Panthers. Marchessault scored 30 goals last year! Smith has been a 50-point player in the NHL! It is not like their success this year is totally out of nowhere.

But perhaps the biggest actual surprise with this team has been the fact that the defense has been really, really good.

[Related: Deryk Engelland completely reinvented himself with Golden Knights]

Leading the way on that front has been former Washington Capitals defenseman Nate Schmidt who has finally had an opportunity to shine as a top-pairing defender.

It’s not that Schmidt wasn’t a useful player in Washington, because he was. He probably deserved more playing time than he was getting. He showed some offensive ability, he was consistently a positive possession player, and he always seemed to make an impact when he was in the lineup and on the ice. The problem was that he was playing for a team that was winning the Presidents’ Trophy every year, had a really good defense in place, and had invested a ton of assets in the players ahead of him on the depth chart, most of whom were really productive. The argument could be made that he maybe could have (should have?) been used a little more and players like Brooks Orpik and Karl Alzner a little less, but those were great Capitals teams and there’s only so much ice-time to go around.

He was a good young player that was blocked on a good team. It happens.

When it came time for the expansion draft this past June the Capitals were one of the teams that was stuck between a rock and a hard place and was going to became a victim of their own success.

While some teams (*cough* … Florida … Minnesota … St. Louis … *cough*) either paid through the nose to protect certain players, or just flat out made bizarre choices on their protected lists, there truly were some teams that were just going to lose somebody really good and there was nothing they were going to be able to do to change that.

The Capitals were one of those teams as they had no choice but to leave players like Schmidt and Philipp Grubauer unprotected, either of which would have been an excellent selection for Vegas. It is not like the players they did protect were controversial, either. Of course Braden Holtby was going to be their protected goalie. You can’t blame them for protecting John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Dmitry Orlov as their three defenders. They could not have gone with the eight skaters route and protected an additional defender because that would have left a top forward exposed.

It’s not like they protected Orpik or Taylor Chorney over Schmidt, or traded Andre Burakovsky and a first-round pick to keep Vegas from taking him.

They didn’t do anything stupid. They just accepted one player was leaving and let him go.

That player turned out to be Schmidt.

Joining a Vegas team that was starting from scratch the 26-year-old finally had a chance to do something he never could in Washington — get a real, honest look as a top-pairing defender.

He has excelled in that role.

[Conn Smythe Trophy Power Rankings: Scheifele, Marchessault make their case]

During the regular season no skater played more minutes during the regular season than Schmidt. He played close to 19 minutes per night in even-strength situations (nearly two more minutes than any other player on the team). He played on the power play. He played on the penalty kill. He recorded a very respectable 36 points from the back end (25 of them coming at even-strength, most among the team’s defenders) and was once again a positive possession player despite starting more of his shifts in the defensive zone than any other player on the team. He played big minutes and did a ton of the heavy lifting on the blue line.

In the playoffs, his game seems to have reached yet another level.

He is taking on an even bigger workload, already has six points in the first 13 games (most among Vegas defenders), has helped Vegas to a 12-5 goal differential when he is on the ice during 5-on-5 play, and despite playing 24 minutes a night against the oppositions best players has taken just a single minor penalty.

He is doing everything in what is one of the most critical roles for a team.

Given what is going on around him with the play of Fleury and Marchessault it is understandable that his impact is taking a bit of a backseat and is getting overlooked.

Goaltending is a difference-maker, especially in the playoffs, and Fleury is playing out of his mind right now. Goal-scoring and points will always get noticed over a quiet, steady impact from a defender.

None of that should take away from just how important Schmidt has been for Vegas and how big of a role he is going to continue to play for them as one of the building blocks on their defense.

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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.

Hart to tell: Crowded NHL MVP race has a dozen candidates

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Taylor Hall had just scored two more goals in another big New Jersey Devils victory when his general manager asked him a simple question.

”I said, ‘Taylor, what’d you get tonight?”’ Ray Shero recalled. ”He goes, ‘We got two points is what we got.’ He had a smile on his face. And I knew he was not going to say two goals. I knew it. We got two points.”

That’s what Shero wanted to hear from the player most responsible for New Jersey’s turnaround from lottery afterthought to playoff contender. Hall is without a doubt the Devils’ most valuable player but he is one of about a dozen candidates for the overall NHL honor. The race for the Hart Trophy is one of the most crowded, convoluted and subjective in decades.

An MVP case can be made for Hall, Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, Los Angeles’ Anze Kopitar, Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux, Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, Boston’s Brad Marchand, Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler, Nashville’s Pekka Rinne and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid. The award is given to ”the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.”

Reigning Hart winner McDavid leads the league in points and should take home the player-voted Ted Lindsay Award as most outstanding player, but the Oilers have long been out of playoff race, hurting his candidacy to some extent and showing how valuable the other contenders are.

Shero said matter-of-factly the Devils ”wouldn’t be in the race” without Hall. The same can be said for the Avalanche without MacKinnon, the Capitals without Ovechkin and the Flyers without Giroux.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

”Offensively, he’s such a big part of how we generate goals,” Ovechkin teammate T.J. Oshie said. ”Whether he’s scoring them or not, when he’s on the ice, he’s a concern for the other team. Where we’d be at? I don’t know. I’m not sure.”

Washington won the Metropolitan Division for the third consecutive year thanks in large part to Ovechkin after losing Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, Daniel Winnik, Nate Schmidt, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk from a group that captured the Presidents’ Trophy last season. Ovechkin averages 20 minutes a night, has scored 18.7 percent of the Capitals’ goals and leads the league with 46 while not missing a single game.

Kopitar is another ironman who leads all NHL forwards in ice time, is fifth with 91 points and has the Kings on their way back to the playoffs. GM Rob Blake said Kopitar means ”pretty much everything” to Los Angeles, particularly because the two-way star has done it all most of the season without No. 2 center Jeff Carter.

”When I look at that MVP race and importance to a team, I think Kopi’s head and shoulders above everybody: to do what he’s had to do without the advantage of having Carter come back on the ice after,” Blake said. ”He had to go with Nick Shore and Adrian Kempe on the ice every shift after. He leads forwards in minutes. His defensive stats and some of the advanced stats show the commitment that he’s had, and it’s from day one.”

Two-way play extends to Giroux, who has put Philadelphia on his back at times. Giroux has a career-high 97 points – trailing only McDavid and Kucherov – has won 58.6 percent of faceoffs and run the power play and played the penalty kill for a team that has needed to get wins from four different goaltenders.

”When you talk about that type of an award there’s a lot more to it and G does a heck of a lot more for this hockey team than just score points,” coach Dave Hakstol said. ”And believe me it’s hard to score points in this league, so I’m not downplaying that. I’m telling you how important a lot of the other things he provides are to our hockey team.”

MacKinnon has provided a spark with 38 goals and 56 assists for the Avalanche, who are still fighting to make the playoffs.

”He’s a threat to shoot, threat to take pucks to the net, delay and find people,” coach Jared Bednar said. ”He’s got a little bit more change of speed and change of gears on his attack this year.”

Given the success of the Lightning, Bruins, Penguins, Predators and Jets, it’s hard to discount Kucherov, Stamkos, Marchand, Rinne and Wheeler. Even Vegas’ William Karlsson or Columbus’ Artemi Panarin could get some consideration.

While Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff thinks Wheeler has shown his value beyond his league-tying 67 assists, he knows nothing about the Hart is a slam dunk.

”It speaks volumes to the league and to the importance these players have on their team,” Cheveldayoff said.

 

NHL Power Rankings: Blue Jackets entering playoffs as one of NHL’s hottest teams

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As of Monday afternoon the Columbus Blue Jackets have not yet officially clinched a playoff berth, but let’s face it, they are going to be one of the eight teams in the Eastern Conference. It would take a monumental collapse over the next three games combined with the Florida Panthers pretty much winning out for the Blue Jackets to fall out of the top-eight. They are returning to the playoffs, and once they get there they are going to be going in as one of the hottest teams in the league.

Let’s just take a look at what they have done over their past 20 games.

The record: 15-4-1, the third best record in the league during that stretch behind only the Boston Bruins and Nashville Predators.

They have outscored teams by a 74-48 margin, a goal differential of plus-26. Only Boston’s plus-28 mark over that stretch is better.

Their 74 goals are third most in the league (again behind only Nashville and Boston). Their 48 goals against are tied for the second fewest (with the Los Angeles Kings) behind only the Anaheim Ducks’ 41.

They are also a top-10 possession team during that stretch, meaning that the process is there along with the results.

Driving the offense over that stretch has been Artemi Panarin and Cam Atkinson. Panarin’s 30 points over the past 20 games are tied for the third-most in the league (behind only Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon) while Atkinson has really started to find his game after a tough first half. Panarin is the one that has a chance to be the real difference-maker for this Blue Jackets team.

For as good as they were a year ago during the regular season, they really seemed to lack a true go-to-threat offensively. Coming over in an offseason trade with the Chicago Blackhawks for Brandon Saad, Panarin has become just that player for Columbus. He is scoring at a nearly a point-per-game rate, has been one of the best possession driving forwards in the league this season, and is playing some of his best hockey right now.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

The two big questions for them: Will Sergei Bobrovsky give them a better playoff performance than he did in his first two postseason appearances (where his save percentage is only .896), and how will their center depth (probably their biggest weakness) hold up against a potential first-round matchup against Pittsburgh, Washington, Tampa Bay or Boston (all of which are potential first-round matchups)?

Those are two big questions, but for the moment the Blue Jackets have to be excited about the way their team is playing down the stretch. Right now there are few teams playing better.

That has them in the top-five of this week’s Power Rankings.

On to the rankings.

The Elites

1. Boston Bruins — They cannot seem to catch a break on the injury front but all they do is keep on winning. They have to be the favorites in the Eastern Conference right now.

2. Nashville Predators — It remains to be seen how much of an impact Eeli Tolvanen can make down the stretch and in the playoffs but he is certainly an intriguing addition to an already loaded team.

3. Winnipeg Jets — With wins in seven of their past eight games they are starting to get on a roll as the playoffs draw near. The only concern is only three of those recent wins have come in regulation.

The Rest Of The Contenders

4. Columbus Blue Jackets — They are the third place team in the Metropolitan Division, so why are they so high? It’s basically all about the way they are playing at the moment as we just described up above.

5. Washington Capitals —  They lost Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, and Nate Schmidt over the summer. All they did was come back and win a third consecutive Metropolitan Division title.

6. Tampa Bay Lightning — They have cooled off down the stretch and now Steven Stamkos is banged up. Not great.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs — We probably have not paid enough attention to the type of season that Mitch Marner has had. Already 69 points in 79 games to lead the team in scoring. He is 20 years old.

8. Pittsburgh Penguins — Still 9-4-2 in their past 15 games. You sometimes would not know it listening and reading to what people say about them at the moment.

9. Vegas Golden Knights — There probably wasn’t a more fitting way for them to clinch the Pacific Division title crown than William Karlsson scoring an absolutely unbelievable goal. Everything about this season for them — from the overall team success, to the success of a player like Karlsson, to that goal itself — has been absolutely unbelievable.

The Middle Ground

10. New Jersey Devils — They are on a six-game point streak and seem to have opened up enough of a lead over the Florida Panthers to get back into the playoffs. Taylor Hall is still driving the bus for this group.

11. San Jose Sharks — After winning eight in a row they have hit a little bit of a skid by dropping three in a row. They end the regular season with three in a row at home and then will open the playoffs at home. Good chance to get back on a roll.

12. Philadelphia Flyers — Claude Giroux has a pretty strong MVP argument given how much better the Flyers are with him on the ice versus when he is not. They get wrecked on the scoreboard when he is off the ice.

13. Anaheim Ducks — Those wins over Los Angeles and Colorado the past two games have been huge, especially that come-from-behind win against the Avalanche on Sunday night. Not a team that will be a fun first-round matchup. The biggest concern: John Gibson keeps getting hurt. Ryan Miller has been really good in his absence, but Gibson is still the best goalie on the team.

14. Los Angeles Kings — Anze Kopitar has always been one of the NHL’s best two-way players and a great player offensively. The latter part of his game has really taken off this season.

15. Minnesota Wild — Don’t let Eric Staal‘s huge season overshadow the breakout year Jason Zucker has had, already shattering his previous career highs in goals and points.

16. St. Louis Blues — They won six in a row to make up all of that ground then dropped two in a row and were absolutely demolished by the Arizona Coyotes.

17. Colorado Avalanche — Losing Semyon Varlamov and Erik Johnson for the rest of the regular season is going to complicate things for their playoff push.

18. Florida Panthers — Do not let anybody ever tell you games in October and November are not important. The Panthers are 20-8-2 in their past 30 games, the third best record in the league during that stretch. Even with that they are still seven points out of a playoff spot.

The Lottery Teams

19. Carolina Hurricanes — Carolina Hurricanes goalies have to be cursed.

20. New York Rangers — Neal Pionk has looked pretty impressive down the stretch.

21. Arizona Coyotes — The final record is going to stink, but they are 16-8-2 in their past 26 games and over the past week have beaten Tampa Bay, Vegas, and St. Louis. The Vegas and Tampa Bay games were on the road, too.

22. Calgary Flames — Their seven-game losing streak finally ended with a win over Edmonton. Still a really disappointing season for a team that entered the year with a lot of hype. Their lottery pick is also going to the New York Islanders.

23. Dallas Stars — After winning another offseason they are going to miss the playoffs for the second year in a row, third time in four years and eighth time in 10 years.

24. Vancouver Canucks — Four wins in a row and five of their past six. You are tanking all wrong! The big news in Vancouver right now is the fact the Sedin era is officially coming to a close with their retirement at the conclusion of the 2017-18 regular season. They were amazing for a long time.

25. Chicago Blackhawks — The Artemi Panarin for Brandon Saad trade has to be one of the more underwhelming offseason transactions. At least from a Blackhawks perspective.

26. Edmonton Oilers — The most fitting game of their season was the one where Connor McDavid had three points in the first period to give his team a three-goal lead. Then they gave up seven goals in a row to lose 7-3.

27. Detroit Red Wings — Anthony Mantha‘s 24-goal season is one of the few bright spots on this year’s team.

28. New York Islanders — They have given up 18 more goals than any other team in the NHL this season. That is astonishing.

29. Montreal Canadiens — They have not beaten a team in a playoff position since February 3, a win over the Anaheim Ducks. They only have eight total wins against any team over that stretch.

30. Buffalo Sabres — At least they are getting a good look at their future with Casey Mittelstadt showing up and recording a pair of assists in his first two games in the NHL.

31. Ottawa Senators — They have lost seven of eight and given up 32 goals during that stretch.

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Pittsburgh Penguins at Montreal Canadiens

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CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE – 7:30 p.m. ET

PROJECTED LINES

Pittsburgh Penguins
Jake Guentzel – Sidney Crosby – Conor Sheary
Carl Hagelin – Evgeni Malkin – Patric Hornqvist
Bryan Rust – Derick Brassard – Phil Kessel
Tom Kuhnhackl – Riley Sheahan – Carter Rowney

Brian DumoulinKris Letang
Jamie OleksiakJustin Schultz
Olli Maatta – Chad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

[PHT’s preview]

Montreal Canadiens
Paul ByronJonathan DrouinBrendan Gallagher
Alex GalchenyukJacob De La RoseArtturi Lehkonen
Charles HudonLogan Shaw – Nikita Scherbak
Nicolas DeslauriersByron Froese/Michael McCarron – Daniel Carr

Mike ReillyJeff Petry
Karl AlznerNoah Juulsen
Jordie Benn – Brett Lernout

Starting goalie: Antti Niemi

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

WATCH LIVE: Philadelphia Flyers vs. Montreal Canadiens

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Monday night, as the Montreal Canadiens host the Philadelphia Flyers at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here

PROJECTED LINES

Philadelphia Flyers
Claude GirouxSean CouturierTravis Konecny
Jordan WealNolan PatrickJakub Voracek
Oskar LindblomScott LaughtonMichael Raffl
Jori LehteraValtteri FilppulaDale Weise

Ivan ProvorovShayne Gostisbehere
Robert HaggAndrew MacDonald
Brandon ManningRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Petr Mrazek

WATCH LIVE – 7:30 p.m. ET

Montreal Canadiens
Max PaciorettyJonathan Drouin – Artturi Lehkonen
Alex GalchenyukPhillip DanaultCharles Hudon
Paul ByronJacob De La RoseBrendan Gallagher
Nicolas DeslauriersLogan ShawDaniel Carr

Victor MeteJeff Petry
Karl AlznerNoah Juulsen
TBD – Jordie Benn

Staring goalie: Charlie Lindgren