Puck and player tracking gets TV test at All-Star Weekend

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Twenty-three years after Fox’s glowing puck made its debut, the NHL’s next big technological advancement will be on display this weekend during All-Star festivities.

NBC will showcase puck and player tracking as part of its broadcast of the skills competition Friday night and then as the centerpiece of a digital-only broadcast of the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament Saturday night. It’ll be the first chance for American hockey fans to get an up-close look at the system that could be in place as soon as next season.

With each player and puck fitted with a microchip, the amount of available information could be overwhelming. Look for everything from bubbles over players’ heads to skating and shot speed to ice time and even a small trail behind the puck as NBC takes tracking technology in hockey for a test drive.

”Eventually it’ll go to possession time and more advanced (data), but right now it’s mainly focused on speed, shift time, distance traveled, mph on the shot and virtually connecting players on a goal,” NBC Sports producer Steve Greenberg said. ”We’re scratching the surface here, and what we’re able to display this weekend is not what we’re going to be able to display next year and in the future, but it’s going to be able to be a really good first look at what these chips are going to be able to give us.”

The NHL privately tested puck and player tracking in two regular-season games in Las Vegas earlier this month, but this will be the first time the data is available for public consumption. While other types of tracking technology were tested at previous All-Star games and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, this is something of a dry run for the radio frequency system the NHL has been working with developers to perfect.

Much like the glowing puck was criticized by purists, there’s the danger of overloading fans with too much, too fast. NBC will experiment with how much puck and player tracking data can and should fit onto a TV broadcast.

”It’s a balancing act,” NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood said. ”Think about years ago when the yellow line came in for the first down in football. It’s now universal. There are going to be elements that’ll become universal in hockey telecasts based on what we learn over the next period of time.”

Kenny Albert, who will call the puck and player tracking-heavy telecast available on NBC Sports’ app and online, likens this to the kind of ball-tracking technology that has become ubiquitous in golf coverage. He was with Fox in the 1990s when the glowing puck was perhaps ahead of its time but thinks fans are ready for puck and player tracking on TV.

”We live in an age of information overload and people want stuff like ice time and the mph on a shot for example or how fast a player’s skating,” Albert said. ”I have two teenage daughters and I don’t think anybody in that generation now just sits there and watches TV. They want information, whether it’s looking at their phone, their iPad, their computer, and there’s so much information out there.”

Eventually, once the NHL implements player and puck tracking, fans will be able to take a deep dive into all the numbers and there will be an element of real-time sports gambling. But Commissioner Gary Bettman and other league executives have pointed out that the first goal was always to make it TV-ready.

”The most obvious thing that (viewers will) probably notice is just sort of the correlations tied to speed,” NHL senior vice president of business development David Lehanski said. ”It’s kind of the thing everybody talks about: how fast the game is, how fast the players are, how fast the puck moves.”

KARLSSON CONUNDRUM

Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson missed the final three games before the break with a lower-body injury, but there’s somehow still a chance he takes part in All-Star Weekend in San Jose. Obviously, coach Peter DeBoer said, the organization would love to have Karlsson on the ice in its home arena, but not at the risk of making it worse.

”If there’s more damage to be done, no one in their right mind would play,” DeBoer said. ”So I think it’s pretty simple.”

Karlsson returned to California for tests, and defenseman Brenden Dillon said it’s a positive for the team to play it safe with the two-time Norris Trophy winner. Karlsson has fit in well with San Jose after an offseason trade from San Jose and gives the Sharks the look of a Stanley Cup contender with the deepest blue line in the league.

”He’s an unbelievable talent and a guy that’s fit in our locker room great too,” Dillon said. ”It’s something where collectively as a group we realized that it was going to be a little bit less whether that’s in minutes or situations … I think for everybody it’s kind of been a little bit less is more and understanding the kind of common goal. So far, so good.”

SINKING CAPS

The defending champion Washington Capitals have lost six in a row for the first time since the disastrous 2013-14 season that led to the firing of general manager George McPhee and coach Adam Oates. After players-only meetings didn’t solve the problem, the latest gut punch was allowing a goal with 1 second left to cough up a two-goal, third-period lead to the Sharks on Tuesday in what turned into an overtime loss.

”I think it doesn’t matter how many meetings we have,” captain Alex Ovechkin said after his hat trick against San Jose wasn’t enough. ”It’s all about us and we know how to play hockey. We know when we play the right way we’re going to get success.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Buffalo Sabres get an early test in the second half of the season when they visit the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday in each team’s first game after the All-Star break.

LEADERS (through Tuesday)

Goals: Ovechkin, 36; Assists: Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 56; Points: Kucherov, 78; Ice time: Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), 26:41; Wins: Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas), 27; Goals-against average: Robin Lehner (N.Y. Islanders), 2.02; Save percentage: Lehner, .931.

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

MORE:
NHL reveals 2019 All-Star Game rosters
Pass or Fail: NHL’s eco-friendly 2019 All-Star Game jerseys
NHL announces 2019 All-Star game coaches

Who will win the six 2019 All-Star Skills events?

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The NHL announced the six events for the 2019 SAP NHL All-Star Skills (competition no longer) on Friday, noting that the winner of individual events will receive $25K. The event will air on NBCSN, with things slated to run at Friday, Jan. 25 at 6 p.m. PT/ 9 p.m. ET.

Here’s a quick look at each event, with some speculation regarding who might win:

  • Bridgestone NHL Fastest Skater

Last year, Connor McDavid became the first-ever repeat winner of fastest skater, but Dylan Larkin owns the best-ever time from 2016. Larkin isn’t slated to be at the ASG weekend (barring injuries?), but Mathew Barzal could conceivably push McDavid.

It would be cool for McDavid to threepeat, even if it would be way more fun if 97 was instead winning, you know, more actual hockey games.

  • Enterprise NHL Premier Passer

This event has been a “wild card” of sorts in the skills competitions past, right down to the particulars. Usually there are adorable mini-nets, and this year’s will include that too. Here are the three phases of competition, via the NHL:

(1) Breakout Pass, where each player is given 10 pucks to attempt to make a pass to three “players”; (2) Mini Nets, where each player must complete a pass over a barricade and into each of four mini nets; and (3) Target Passing, where each player must complete successful passes to all targets that randomly light up every three seconds. 

It’s tough to say that anyone would really have the “inside track” on this event. Alex Pietrangelo won in 2018.

The randomness is part of the fun, though … especially when trying to hit a tiny net in tough situations also leads to frustrations.

The players might not love it, though.

  • Ticketmaster NHL Save Streak

In 2018, Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 14 shootout attempts in a row, beating Pekka Rinne by one. Fleury and Rinne will get a chance in the 2019 version, while Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s sheer athleticism makes him a great bet to push the two veterans this time around. This shootout-related competition lends itself to some fun and absurd moments, so expect nothing less in 2019.

  • Gatorade NHL Puck Control

In the last edition of this event (which goes through three phases of puck control, with the “gate” portion providing particular zaniness), Johnny Gaudreau absolutely killed it. He figures to be tough to beat in this regard, although the NHL is brimming with talented puckhandlers, so who knows?

  • SAP NHL Hardest Shot

The savage simplicity of all those slap-shots has made the hardest shot one of the most entertaining portions of All-Star weekends for decades now. Reigning champion Alex Ovechkin is sitting this year out, so the field opens up.

Actually, quite a few of the go-to choices for hardest shot aren’t slated to be in the 2019 edition. Frequent threats Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber aren’t on the rosters, and Dustin Byufglien would otherwise present a possible threat. Maybe Brent Burns will take it in 2019 in front of a partisan crowd, even after he wasn’t rifling them like many expected last time?

  • Honda NHL Accuracy Shooting

Last year, Brock Boeser began his magical All-Star weekend by winning the accuracy challenge. It looks like Boeser won’t be around to defend that title (nor his 2018 ASG MVP), though.

This eye-friendly competition often comes down to who has the hot hand, but when you look at who’s shooting a high percentage despite heavy volume this year, some favorites emerge: Elias Pettersson (if healthy), Jeff Skinner, and Auston Matthews rank as just a few of the players who could shoot with the highest level of precision.

It would be pretty fun if the Vancouver Canucks saw one ray of hope (Pettersson) follow another (Boeser the year before) in All-Star Games, especially since Pettersson’s just been so much fun.

Who would you expect to win each competition, though? Which events do you look forward to the most?

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills Competition will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

Looking back at the 2018 All-Star Skills

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.

Golden Knights’ second act shaping up to rival first

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LAS VEGAS — Shea Theodore and Alex Tuch had to have faith.

When the Vegas Golden Knights decided to send them to the minors at the start of last season, Theodore and Tuch chose to believe what general manager George McPhee told them.

”The message was that we were part of the future of this team and he definitely saw us in that long-term plan,” Theodore said.

Within weeks, they were back in the NHL as part of the fastest-starting expansion team in history and played significant roles in the Golden Knights’ run to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. Each player got a long-term contract before he played his first game this season, and they weren’t alone as McPhee went about the process of turning Vegas from a one-year wonder into a perennial title contender.

He locked up 75-point forward Jonathan Marchessault through 2024, signed face-of-the-franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to a three-year extension, inked defenseman Nate Schmidt to a six-year contract that begins next season, signed center Paul Stastny as a free agent and acquired big winger Max Pacioretty in a trade with Montreal. Those moves have paid off so far with Vegas five points back of first place in the Pacific Division and looking like its second act could rival its first.

”We have a couple guys signed long term, and it’s fun because it means that we have a core and we’re building something,” Marchessault said. ”You want to be part of a story as a hockey player, and it feels like we’re part of one here.”

The Golden Knights’ story was a fairy tale: A team that looked on paper like it would be among the worst in the league won its division and steamrolled to the final before losing to McPhee’s former team, the Washington Capitals, in five games. Marchessault said he felt in June like this team could be a legitimate threat for years to come.

McPhee’s job was to ensure that. The veteran executive who got to build the Golden Knights from scratch through a wildly successful expansion draft understood he had the benefit of not having to dig out from bad contracts. But he also shouldered the burden of drawing up a whole host of new ones after one season during which seemingly everyone overachieved.

”We did have a lot of work to do because most of the guys that we acquired were either free agents or were on one-year deals and their deals had matured and it was time to negotiate again,” McPhee said. ”And we just thought, we know what they are, we’re comfortable projecting what they will be in the future and we had the cap space, so why not use it now because cap space is like perishable inventory. If you don’t use it, it’s gone at the end of the year. We just wanted some cost certainty moving forward, so it would help us to plan for things better in the future.”

Fleury got $7 million a year, Schmidt, $5.95 million, Theodore, $5.2 million, Marchessault, $5 million and Tuch, $4.75 million. Fleury leads the NHL with 26 wins, Schmidt has played over 23 minutes a game since returning from suspension, Theodore leads Vegas defensemen with 21 points and Tuch and Marchessault are 1-2 on the team in scoring.

Beyond cost certainty, it was money smartly spent to keep morale up, raise expectations and get bang for owner Bill Foley’s buck.

”When you have a guy believe in you like that, sign you to that kind of a term, you don’t want to make him look bad and I think every night you want to go out and you want to play your best,” said Theodore, who is under contract through 2025. ”I think it’s been paying off for us and hopefully will in the future.”

Even though only wingers James Neal and David Perron and defenseman Luca Sbisa aren’t back from the core group that went to the Cup final, McPhee couldn’t stand pat and think success would repeat itself. He consciously added Stastny, Pacioretty and Nick Holden to replace the lost production and provide an influx of talent.

”When you’re a couple games away from winning, I think you’ve got to try and do whatever you can,” Schmidt said. ”You have to add something in order to beat the best teams.”

The way Pacioretty looks at it, McPhee wasn’t scanning the aisles. He was shopping off a specific list. They weren’t part of the playoff run – Stastny was on the Winnipeg Jets team that Vegas beat in the Western Conference final – but brought some more balance.

”They wanted guys like me and Stas to come in and play a little bit of a two-way game,” Pacioretty said. ”That’s how we want to help our team. We know that especially offensively that this team last year had guys who were relied upon every night to create. And we still want to be those guys coming in, but we also know that there’s areas on both sides of the puck that we can help this team.”

Injuries have hampered Pacioretty and Stastny so far, but they and the Golden Knights will really be judged in the playoffs. After falling three victories short of a championship, players feel like they have what it takes to win this time and for years to come.

”As our owner said at the beginning of the year, we just don’t want to be a winning team. We want to have a winning franchise,” Marchessault said. ”Last year we really felt like we have something special, and we have some unfinished business.”

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

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

An appreciation of the underappreciated Rick Nash

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Rick Nash announced his retirement from the NHL on Friday, officially ending a 15-year career that was far better than it was ever given credit for being while it was happening.

He is a perfect example of how team success drives the narrative around an individual player, and just how difficult, if not impossible, it can be for one player to alter the path of an entire organization — especially in a sport like hockey where one player can never carry an entire team on their own.

When you look at what he actually did in the NHL, he was outstanding. He was one of the best goal-scorers of his generation and a constant force when he was on the ice. He could drive possession, he became one of the league’s most dangerous and effective penalty killers, and he had immense skill that produced some breathtaking plays with the puck, such as this goal that happened nearly 11 years to the day.

Still, his entire career seemed to be dogged by criticism for what he didn’t do, as opposed to what he was doing.

And what he was doing was scoring a hell of a lot of goals and at a level that few other players during his era ever reached.

He spent the first nine years of his career (and his best years in the NHL) stuck on a fledgling Columbus team that could barely get out of its own way and seemed completely incapable of building anything around him.

[Related: Concussion issues force Nash to retire from NHL]

Anytime a player is taken No. 1 overall (as Nash was in 2002) there is always going to be an expectation that they are going to be the turning point to help lead a franchise stuck at the bottom of the league out of the darkness they are in.

In the NBA, one superstar can do that because of how much they play and how much of an impact one player can make due to the size of the rosters and how much the best players handle the ball.

In the NFL, a quarterback can do that because of the importance of the position and the impact it has on every game.

But in the NHL the best players only play, at most, a third of the game. When they are on the ice the puck is probably on their stick for about a minute of actual game time … if that. That is not enough time to carry an entire team.

Not even a player like Connor McDavid is capable of lifting a team on his own.

Just consider what Nash did during his time in Columbus.

During his nine years there he scored 289 goals, a number that put him among the top-eight players in the entire NHL. That’s an average of more than 32 goals per season, and the only two years where he didn’t score at least 30 were his rookie season and the 2006-07 season when he scored 27 in 75 games.

He won a goal-scoring crown in his second year in the league at the age of 19. Jarome Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk (nine each) were the only players to have more 30-goal seasons during that stretch. In the end he did what was expected of him. The problem is that during those nine years there was nobody else on his team that was anywhere close to him, or anything close to being an impact player.

Only one other player in a Blue Jackets uniform scored more than 90 goals (R.J. Umberger scored 94) during that stretch, and only other other (David Vyborny) scored more than 80. With all due respect to Umberger and Vyborny, both of whom were solid NHL players, if they are the second and third most productive goal-scorers on your team over an entire decade then things are probably not going to go well for your team.

There was never anybody else that could help carry the load offensively.

For his career, he ended up tallying 437 goals, a number that was topped by only three players during his years in the NHL (Alex Ovechkin, Jarome Iginla, and Patrick Marleau).

He was not only an outstanding player, he was one of the most underappreciated players of his era.

He was one of a handful of players from his era that were better than they were given credit for during their primes.

Among them…

Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau — These two were the foundation of the San Jose Sharks organization for more than a decade and both put together Hall of Fame worthy careers. The thing is, they spent most of their time together being more of a punchline because the Sharks were never able to get over the hump in the playoffs. As the best players on the team, they were often the ones wearing the target for the criticism when things went wrong in the playoffs.

By now you have probably seen the stat that was circulating around last week regarding Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin having the same number of points from the start of the 2005-06 season when they both entered the league. It was impressive, and awesome, and a testament to their dominance in the league.

What stood out to me was the fact that Thornton was third on that list. Despite those years all coming in the second half of his career when he should have been, in theory, significantly slowing down. He never really did. He just kept dominating.

As for Marleau, well, just consider that he has scored 72 postseason goals in his career. No player in the NHL has scored more than him during the duration of his career. Even if you take into account that his career started way before many active players, he is still in the top-four since the start of the 2005-06 season.

Tomas Vokoun — In the 10 years he spent as a starting goaile between 2002-03 and 2012-13 there were only four goalies in the NHL that appeared in at least 200 games and had a higher career save percentage than him — Tim Thomas, Henrik Lundqvist, Roberto Luongo, and Pekka Rinne. Vokoun wasn’t just underappreciated, he was legitimately one of the best and most consistent goalies of his era. There is an argument to be made that Luongo also falls in this category, but he’s been around long enough and accomplished enough that I think the league has started to appreciate him for how good he has been. But Vokoun never really got the recognition, mostly because he spent the bulk of his career as a starter stuck on a bad Florida Panthers team. The only three times he had an opportunity to play in the playoffs, he was just as outstanding as he was during the regular season.

During the 2003-04 postseason in Nashville he recorded a .939 save percentage in a six-game first-round series loss to a heavily favored Detroit Red Wings team. During that series he allowed two goals or less in four of the six games … winning only two of them. In 2012-13, when he was a backup to Marc-Andre Fleury in Pittsburgh, he took over early in the first-round of that postseason and helped backstop the Penguins to the Eastern Conference Final with a .933 save percentage. That postseason run ended very similarly to his 2003 postseason by playing great for a team that could not give him any offensive support.

Patrik Elias — Elias’ career was fascinating because he spent the bulk of it playing in one of the worst eras ever for offense, on a team that was synonymous with defense, and yet … he was still one of the most productive players of his era. And everyone outside of New Jersey just kind of forgets that he existed. He played 1,200 games in the NHL, he topped 1,000 points, and he was a top-15 player in goals and total points during his career.

He is one of just 56 players in league history to have played in at least 1,200 games and record at least 1,000 points. Out of that group, 37 of them are already in the Hall of Fame and over the next decade there are probably quite a few more that will join them (Jaromir Jagr, Thornton, Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Jarome Iginla).

Given all of that Elias had a borderline Hall of Fame career, especially when you factor in the fact he was a top player on two Stanley Cup winning teams, and he is mostly just kind of … forgotten.

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.

Penguins sign goalie DeSmith to cheap, smart extension

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The Pittsburgh Penguins are guilty of their fair share of salary cap snafus (screams in horror at Jack Johnson‘s contract), but they’re among the NHL’s sharpest when it comes to handling their goalies.

Yes, Marc-Andre Fleury has been absolutely outstanding in Vegas, but there are many teams that saddle themselves with problem contracts.

Instead, the Penguins have found ways to carve out impressive flexibility at the position by being proactive.

While Matt Murray‘s struggled with injuries and the occasional bout of inconsistency, he’s only carrying a $3.75M cap hit through 2019-20, and Pittsburgh locked him up after his brilliant work in their 2015-16 championship run.

Now they’ve managed to land some cost certainty with Casey DeSmith, as the team announced a three-year extension that will carry a paltry $1.25M cap hit beginning next season.

“Since joining the Penguins’ organization, Casey has excelled for us at every level, first in Wheeling and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and now here in Pittsburgh,” GM Jim Rutherford said. “We’re pleased to have him signed with our organization for the next three-and-a-half seasons.”

Rutherford isn’t wrong there.

Obviously, Smith’s NHL numbers jump out at you first. The 27-year-old is 12-7-4 with a splendid .924 save percentage this season, and he also has a .923 save percentage over 40 career NHL games. Sean Tierney’s visualization of Corsica’s Goals Saved Against Average numbers show that DeSmith’s been one of the more valuable netminders so far in 2018-19:

Now, sure, it’s likely that DeSmith will cool off from here, but the Penguins aren’t really making that large of an investment in him. This decision compares nicely to the Predators locking down Juuse Saros for three years at $1.5M a pop (Saros has the better pedigree; DeSmith’s having the better 2018-19).

And, as Rutherford mentioned, DeSmith’s had success at other levels.

Check his AHL and NCAA numbers and you’ll see that DeSmith’s enjoyed success in most other seasons. That might not sounds like much, but compare his work at other levels to, say, Scott Darling, who faced a bumpy road through the ECHL and other leagues before things took off for him starting in 2013-14.

It’s not that difficult to picture a scenario where DeSmith got a much richer deal if he waited, particularly if he was the guy who helped Pittsburgh make a big run.

Instead, the Penguins went low-risk, with some enticing potential rewards.

The best-case scenario is that DeSmith ends up being a legitimate difference-maker who can sport something close to a .920 save percentage at that bargain-basement price. The worst? Maybe DeSmith flops and the Penguins have to buy him out or bury his contract in the AHL, while possibly stunting the growth of Tristan Jarry and others.

Cutting in between, it’s quite possible that DeSmith could be a useful backup who might be able to provide relief if Murray struggles or gets hurt.

***

Looking at the Penguins’ salary structure at Cap Friendly, there are a lot of players above the age of 30 who are receiving a lot of money and sometimes-scary term. There are risks of the Penguins slipping into a Kings-like lull if too many players hit the wall.

Still, Murray and DeSmith will carry just a $5M cap hit next season, compared to $6M per year for 32-year-old Jonathan Quick.

Sure, it’s easier to herd cats than predict which goalies will excel in a given year, but all things considered, this is some masterful work by the Penguins.

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.