Mark Scheifele

Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) pushes the puck forward on a break-away as Calgary Flames left wing Johnny Gaudreau
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A best on best mythical tournament: Players in their prime

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold, Pro Hockey Talk will be creating full rosters for an imaginary best on best tournament over the next few Thursdays. The first team created was a 23-and-under roster that would be fascinating to watch.

An NHL player usually reaches peak performance in his late 20’s and this roster is comprised of players in the prime of their career between the ages of 24 and 29. The combination of skill, size, wisdom and depth in this group will be difficult to match for any opponent. The most surprising part of building this team was seeing several superstars left on the sidelines.

Line Combinations

First line: Artemi PanarinNathan MacKinnonLeon Draisaitl

Thoughts: All three players are firmly in the conversation for the 2019-2020 Hart Trophy and the thought of them on the same team, let alone the same line would be highly entertaining. Panarin has established himself as one of the best passers in the NHL and having two lethal goal scorers alongside him should make for an explosive trio.

Second line: Johnny GaudreauMark ScheifeleNikita Kucherov

Thoughts: Both wingers don’t offer much size but Gaudreau and Kucherov are both electric players that have learned how to win in the corners despite their diminutive stature. Scheifele has long been one of the more underrated players in the league and should find instant chemistry with two players that possess elite on-ice vision.

Third line: Taylor HallMika ZibanejadMark Stone

Thoughts: Hall’s game has dipped since winning the 2018 Hart Trophy but still remains a top two-way forward. Zibanejad was one of the most controversial picks beating out the likes of John Tavares, Tyler Seguin and others. But No. 93 has improved his game since the New York Rangers acquired him in a one-sided traded.

Fourth line: Chris Kreider – Ryan O’Reilly – Jonathan Huberdeau

Thoughts: Kreider and O’Reilly have anchored shut down lines in the past but the addition of Huberdeau should add more offensive punch to a very responsible grouping. All three skaters play a disciplined, 200-foot game and could match up with any combination of forwards an opponent has to offer.

First D pairing: Roman JosiSeth Jones
Second D pairing: Victor HedmanDougie Hamilton
Third D pairing: Oliver Ekman-LarssonAaron Ekblad

Thoughts: It’s hard to find a flaw in this grouping of defensemen. These six players collectively possess all the attributes needed to shut down opponents and can quickly move the puck out of the defensive zone.

Starting Goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

Backup Goalie: Connor Hellebuyck

Just Missed: Aleksander Barkov, Erik Karlsson, John Klingberg, Tyler Seguin, John Tavares

Captain: Roman Josi

Alternate captains: Nathan MacKinnon, Leon Draisaitl

Analysis

It was surprising to see only one player on this team with a championship ring and just seven players have participated in a Stanley Cup Final. With that said, this team has experience in best on best tournaments at every level and have routinely been through the grind of an NHL regular season.

On paper, there are limited areas of concern. The team is comprised of players with diverse attributes to form an extremely well-balanced roster. It has several explosive goal-scorers in the top-six and responsible players in the bottom-six that have the ability to consistently produce on the offensive side of the ice.

In addition, the blueline is staggered with lockdown defensemen and two Vezina candidates guarding the crease.

One challenge for this team, and for any roster in a tournament of this nature, is the ability to find instant chemistry with line mates. In theory, Panarin can set up a few of the top scorers but does it work in reality?

Due to the balance of the roster and varied characteristics, I believe this team would have the inside track to winning this mythical tournament.

Surprising omissions

John Tavares: It wasn’t too long ago that Tavares was the most sought-after free agent in the summer of 2018, but it was challenging to find a spot for the Maple Leafs captain on this roster. It was a tight race between No. 91 and Mika Zibanejad for the third line center position, but the Swedish right-handed centerman has become one of the more dynamic players in the NHL. Tavares is a world-class player. He could easily slide back onto the roster and change the narrative with a dominant stretch when professional hockey returns.

Erik Karlsson: This Swedish defenseman used to terrorize the league with his smooth skating and incredible vision. However, Karlsson hasn’t looked like himself since being traded to the San Jose Sharks in September of 2018. He routinely crossed the 60-point plateau and set a career-high with 82 points in 2015-16, but injuries have slowed him down the past two seasons. This mythical tournament will require teams to perform at an incredibly high level and there is no room for someone who has not been at the top of his game.


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

NHL Power Rankings: The most underrated players

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we shift our focus to individual players. Specifically, the most underrated players in the NHL right now.

We are trying to keep this to players that are legitimately underrated, overlooked, and do not get the proper amount of attention they probably deserve.

So we are just going to put this out here at the front front: You will not see Washington Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom or Florida Panthers forward Aleksander Barkov on this list. They are staples on every underrated list or ranking that is compiled and both have reached a point where everyone knows exactly how great they are (pretty great).

Who does make this list?

To the rankings!

1. Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers. While everyone falls all over themselves to talk about how underrated Barkov is, the Panthers’ other star forward is actually still fairly overlooked. Especially when you consider just how productive he has been, and for how long he has played at that level. Huberdeau has been a monster offensively for four seasons now and one of the league’s top scorers. Since the start of the 2016-17 season he’s in the top-15 among in points per game among all players with at least 100 games played, and has climbed into the top-10 over the past two seasons.

2. William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs. There’s probably a lot of people that would put him at the top of a most overrated list, and it’s truly one of the more baffling narratives in the league right now. Nylander is a constant lightning-rod for criticism and is always the first player that gets mentioned as being dangled as trade bait. What makes it so baffling is that he is an outstanding hockey player. Outside of the 2018-19 season (disrupted by his RFA saga) he has been a possession-driving, 60-point winger every year of his career, is still only 23 years old, and is on pace for close to 40 goals this season. Here’s a hot take for you: His $6.9 million salary cap hit will look like a steal before the contract expires. 

3. Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets. The Jets have a pretty good core of players that get their share of recognition — Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler specifically. Even Conor Hellebuyck is getting the proper level of respect this season and is going to be a Vezina Trophy front-runner. But Connor just quietly slides under the radar casually hits the 30-goal mark every season. His pace this season would have put him close to the 45-goal mark.

4. Ryan Ellis, Nashville Predators. Ellis is underrated in the sense that he seems to be generally regarded as a really good defenseman and another in a long line of outstanding defenders to come through the Nashville pipeline. He is much more than that. He is actually one of the best all-around defensemen in the entire league.

5. J.T. Miller, Vancouver Canucks. Over the summer I thought the Canucks were insane to trade a future first-round draft pick for Miller given where they were in their rebuild. It is not looking all that crazy right now. If anything, it is looking pretty outstanding. He was always a good player with upside in New York and Tampa Bay, but Miller has blossomed in Vancouver and become a bonafide top-line player.

6. Anthony Cirelli, Tampa Bay Lightning. As if the Lightning were not already dominant enough, they had another young talent come through their system to make an impact. Cirelli is only 22 years old and is already one of the league’s best defensive forwards while also showing 25-30 goal, 60-point potential.

7. John Klingberg, Dallas Stars. Klingberg is an interesting case because he’s received some serious Norris consideration on occasion (sixth-place finish two different times), but he still probably doesn’t get enough recognition for how good he has consistently been in Dallas. He is one of the top offensive-defensemen in the league and is much better defensively than he tends to get credit for. Heck, he’s better in every area than he tends to get credit for.

8. Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes. Slavin might be starting to get into that Backstrom-Barkov area of underrated where he’s referred to as “underrated” so often that he is no longer underrated. But he is not quite there yet. He’s not going to light up the scoreboard or put up huge offensive numbers, but he is one of the best pure shutdown defensemen in the league.

9. Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens. Gallagher is generally viewed as a pest, but he is also on track for his third straight 30-goal season, is strong defensively, and is always one of the best possession players in the league. You may not like him when he plays against your team, but you would love him if he played for it.

10. Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils. He is a recent No. 1 overall pick and just signed a huge contract extension so there is a certain level of expectation that comes with all of that. Maybe you think he has not matched it. But that is probably setting an unfair bar. Not every top pick is going to immediately enter the NHL and become a superstar at a Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid kind of level. Sometimes it takes a few years. In the short-term, Hischier has already proven to have 20-goal, 50-point ability while playing a strong defensive game. There’s a lot more upside here, too. Don’t let the draft status and contract term trick you into thinking he hasn’t been good. He has been. He is also only going to get better.

Honorable mentions: Jeff Petry (Montreal Canadiens), Brian Dumoulin (Pittsburgh Penguins), Evgenii Dadonov (Florida Panthers), Tomas Tatar (Montreal Canadiens), Roope Hintz (Dallas Stars), Conor Garland (Arizona Coyotes), Jakub Vrana (Washington Capitals), Torey Krug (Boston Bruins), Ben Bishop (Dallas Stars), Jared Spurgeon (Minnesota Wild)

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: Scheifele lights the lamp three times; Binnington earns second straight shutout

Mark Scheifele #55 of the Winnipeg Jets
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Three Stars

1) Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

Scheifele picked up his third NHL hat trick in the Jets’ 5-1 win against the Ottawa Senators.  The overlooked centerman completed the milestone with 1:33 remaining in the third period. Nick Paul kicked off the scoring to give the Senators an early advantage, but the Jets stormed back with five unanswered. Scheifele scored his first two goals late in the first period to help Winnipeg gain control of the game. He collected a loose puck near the top of the crease and buried a wrister to even the game, 1:11 after the equalizer, Scheifele redirected Neal Pionk’s shot from the point to give the Jets a lead they would never relinquish. With the win, Winnipeg claimed the top wild card spot in the Western Conference for the time being.

2) Ben Chiarot, Montreal Canadiens

Chiarot recorded his second two-goal game of the season in the Canadiens’ 4-3 overtime victory against the Washington Capitals. The defenseman had two pretty goals, including the overtime winner when his blistering one-timer sped through the legs of Braden Holtby to help the Canadiens end a five-game losing streak. Early in the third period, Chiarot fired a wrist shot from the high slot to give the Canadiens a one-goal advantage. With two more years after this season remaining on his contract at an average annual value of $3.5 million, Chiarot is unlikely to be moved in the coming days even though the playoffs are a long shot for the Canadiens.

3) Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs and Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues

Andersen rebounded from a tough performance against the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier this week and posted his second shutout of the season in Toronto’s 4-0 victory. It was Andersen’s first win in four starts since returning from a neck injury that sidelined him for four games. Binnington has not been tested frequently in the past two games, but two consecutive shutouts is an accomplishment despite the limited save totals. Mackenzie Blackwood’s 36 saves and Antti Raanta‘s 45 stops also deserve recognition on a solid night from a few goaltenders in the NHL.

Highlights of the Night

The between-the-legs craze continued when Nick Foligno fooled Brian Elliott with this beauty.

Chiarot is not known for his offense but hammered this one-time feed from Max Domi.

It didn’t take long for Gabriel Vilardi to score his first NHL goal.

Raanta was nearly unbeatable, but Ryan O'Reilly finished a precise pass from Brayden Schenn to lead the Blues past the Coyotes.

Kevin Hayes‘ game-winning goal wasn’t anything special, but his celebration following was something to see.

Pavel Zacha threaded a perfect stretch pass and then Jesper Bratt mesmerized Martin Jones with a series of dekes.

Stats of the Night

Scores

Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 0

New Jersey Devils 2, San Jose Sharks 1

Montreal Canadiens 4, Washington Capitals 3 (OT)

Philadelphia Flyers 4, Columbus Blue Jackets 3 (OT)

Winnipeg Jets 5, Ottawa Senators 1

St. Louis Blues 1, Arizona Coyotes 0

Vegas Golden Knights 5, Tampa Bay Lightning 3

Los Angeles Kings 5. Florida Panthers 4


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

The Buzzer: Crosby sparks Penguins; Aho extends point streak

Pittsburgh Penguins Center Sidney Crosby (87)
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Three Stars

1) Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

Alex Ovechkin, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Boston Bruins have dominated the Eastern Conference storylines this season. But Sidney Crosby and the Penguins jumped into first place of the Metropolitan Division after a thorough 5-2 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs Tuesday. Pittsburgh’s captain recorded four points in his third consecutive multi-point game. Crosby has netted seven goals and dished out 16 assists in 13 games since returning from a core muscle surgery that kept him sidelined since mid-November. No. 87 has also tallied 11 points during a five-game point streak. The Penguins have flown under the radar for most of the season but should be considered one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference and a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

2) Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets

The Jets increased their winning streak to three games with a 6-3 victory against the Los Angeles Kings. Wheeler recorded two goals and added an assist as Winnipeg looks to keep pace in the Western Conference wild-card race. Wheeler was rewarded late in the second period for darting toward the back post during an odd-man rush. Mark Scheifele took the puck from Trevor Lewis in the defensive zone then raced up ice to set up the captain. Wheeler’s second goal of the night came late in the final frame when he redirected a shot from Neal Pionk into the back of the net.

3) Anthony Angello, Pittsburgh Penguins

No matter the circumstances, Jim Rutherford and Mike Sullivan expect every player in any lineup to contribute in a meaningful way. The Penguins have done a fantastic job integrating players from the minor leagues into their NHL lineup in recent years. Anthony Angello didn’t even expect to play Tuesday, but alternate captain Evgeni Malkin was unable to complete warmups and left an opening in the lineup. Angello participated in the pre-game skate and was ready to fill the void. In only his fifth NHL game, the 23-year-old scored his first career goal late in the first period. Sam Lafferty fired a shot from the top of the circles and Angello provided a screen and masterfully redirected the puck past Frederik Andersen. Patric Hornqvist retrieved the milestone puck for the young forward.

Other notable performances

  • Sebastian Aho extended his point streak to 10 games with a third-period goal in the Hurricanes’ 4-1 win against the Predators.
  • Jordan Binnington picked up his second shutout of the season as the Blues blanked the Devils for their first win since the Jay Bouwmeester incident.
  • Nikolaj Ehlers had two assists and the eventual game-winning goal in the Jets’ 6-3 win against the Kings.
  • Andreas Athanasiou scored twice as part of a three-goal third period to help the Red Wings snap a four-game losing streak with a 4-3 win against the Canadiens.
  • Artem Anisimov scored twice in the Senators’ 7-4 victory against the Buffalo Sabres.
  • Vladislav Namestnikov scored his fourth shorthanded goal. Ottawa Senators lead the NHL with 13 shorthanded goals this season.
  • Travis Konecny recorded three points as the Flyers gained ground in the Metropolitan Division with a 5-1 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Highlights of the Night

Auston Matthews hammered this pass from William Nylander to score his 43rd of the season. He took sole possession of the top spot on NHL goal-scoring list.

Sean Couturier whiffed but ends up with credit for the goal after Elvis Merzlikins lost sight of the puck before it trickled through his legs

Paul Byron stole the puck from Athanasiou then Nick Cousins set up Nate Thompson for the easy tap-in goal.

Stats of the Night

Scores

Philadelphia Flyers 5, Columbus Blue Jackets 1
Pittsburgh Penguins 5, Toronto Maple Leafs 2
Ottawa Senators 7, Buffalo Sabres 4
Detroit Red Wings 4, Montreal Canadiens 3
St. Louis Blues 3, New Jersey Devils 0
Carolina Hurricanes 4, Nashville Predators 1
Winnipeg Jets 6, Los Angeles Kings 3


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Jets’ playoff hopes alive thanks to Connor Hellebuyck

The first half of the 2019-20 NHL season went different than how the Jets expected. Injuries, slow starts offensively, and poor defense have put them outside the Western Conference playoff picture through 51 games.

Hope remains, however. Winnipeg is three points out of a wild card spot and six points behind the Stars for third place in the Central Division. The playoffs remain a reality because of Connor Hellebuyck, who was voted as Vezina Trophy winner in the Professional Hockey Writers Association’s midseason awards.

The 26-year-old Hellebuyck was in St. Louis last weekend attending his second All-Star Game. After a tough first half for the Jets, it was time for a much-needed break, which fell in line with their bye week.

Hellebuyck planned to “turn off the brain” and “put my mind on hold” and rest up for be an important final stretch. Through Thursday, he’s played the third-most minutes (2,318:40) and is the main reason why the Jets’ season hasn’t fallen apart.

“I think this break’s huge,” Hellebuyck said in St. Louis. “I wouldn’t say it’s ever been too much yet because I’ve managed it pretty well, and I’ve been turning my brain off when I need to. Definitely there’s some moments when I needed some rest and I think I got those. I think this is going to be really good for me now to just kind of wipe everything clean and come back right where I started at the beginning of the year.”

Hellebyuck for Vezina

Through 42 appearances Hellebuyck is leads the NHL in shutouts (four), is top 10 in even strength save percentage (.927) and has faced the most shots at 5-on-5 (1,030) among all goaltenders. The other stunning stat is his goals saved above average of 10.52, per Evolving Wild, which places him fifth. Of the four goalies ahead of him in that category none have come close to his 1885:25 time on ice. Buffalo’s Linus Ullmark is closest at 1572:10.

Hellebuyck’s strong stats on a mediocre Jets team are further highlighted by the fact that he’s faced the most high-danger shots against (283) in the NHL, per Natural Stat Trick. Combine them all and you could make an argument that, for the moment, he may deserve a place on a long list of Hart Trophy candidates as well.

After a down-ish year last season, Hellebuyck’s numbers are back to where they were in 2017-18 when he was a Vezina finalist and earned a six-year, $37M extension. He said he feels more patient and that there’s better balance in his game. “I feel way more on top of reads. I feel like I’m challenging very well, making more controlled saves,” he added.

No rest for the weary

As the Jets continue to ride Hellebuyck, his workload might challenge his career high of 64 starts that he made in 2017-18. He’s started 40 of Winnipeg’s 51 games and will continue to be relied upon for their playoff push.

Hellebuyck entered the break with a night off against Columbus, which came after he allowed 14 goals in three starts. He said he doesn’t feel worn down physically, but there have been times mentally he’s felt it.

“I think mental fatigue is worse than physical fatigue,” he said. “I could play 82 physically, but mentally there’s no way. There’s certain games that really drain on you mentally because you might not get a whole lot of shots but you have to read the play over and over again. Just because it doesn’t get to the net doesn’t mean it wasn’t a whole lot of mental effort just in case it did, right? I think that’s the biggest thing. 

“When you get a lot of pressure, you’re constantly making decisions. Not only that, but you’re trying to identify when is your moment, when is the moment you’re going to have to come and take a shot, and when is the moment you’re going to change the play. … That weighs on your brain, you know?”

The way Hellebuyck has continued to improve his game hasn’t gone unnoticed by his teammates. And they know just how important he is to their success.

“He doesn’t have any complacency in him,” said Jets forward Mark Scheifele. “He continues to work on his game, continues to come back every year a little better and he’s worked at it. His success isn’t just by chance or by luck he works at it. That’s something I always respect a lot is when a guy goes home and works on his game and gets better every year. That’s a very respectable quality.”

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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.