Mark Stone

Since losing ’18 Cup Final, Golden Knights look more like Caps

Leave a comment

Almost 18 months since the Vegas Golden Knights’ improbable inaugural season ended, they look much more like the team that vanquished them in the Stanley Cup Final.

If you can’t beat ’em, be more like ’em.

Once a ragtag group relying on more will than skill, Vegas is beginning to resemble the Washington Capitals they faced in the 2018 final. The Golden Knights don’t have carbon copies of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, but they added some serious skill in forwards Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone and could easily follow the Capitals’ championship model.

“They’ve done a great job,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “I think they’ve added another layer. I thought when we beat them, we were a little bit deeper team, especially up front. Then adding Stone, adding Pacioretty, signing Stastny – those are three really good players, so they have a whole new layer of offensive, really solid players on their team. In theory, I think they’re a better team than they were.”

The Golden Knights who went to the final in their expansion season had a first line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith and leaned heaviest on defensemen Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore and Deryk Engelland. All those players remain but have the pressures eased off them, given internal promotions and external additions.

Forward William Carrier, one of more than a dozen players left from the 2018 final, said this is a better team.

“Right now, we’re a more talented team,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “It’s a different team. We’re a more skilled team than we were back then. But back then we had that air about (us) – we were the hardest working team in the league. I want us to get back to that. We were a fast team, we were a quick team that first year and everything went our way. We had a lot of puck luck and a lot of good things that happened that first year.”

Those good things stopped when the Capitals wore down the Golden Knights with their depth and won the series in five games. Then, last spring, Vegas got knocked out in the first round when a blown call in Game 7 against San Jose snowballed into a disastrous third period.

Bouncing back from two tough playoff exits is another lesson the Golden Knights can learn from the Capitals, who kept getting stopped in the second round or earlier before breaking through and winning it all.

“We’ve had some disappointments,” said Kelly McCrimmon, who took over for George McPhee as Knights GM last summer. “That’s your ultimate opportunity to evaluate and to learn and to assess where you need to be better. … There’s things you need to do to get you to the playoffs, there’s things you need to do to get you through the playoffs. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been a playoff team both years, we’ve gained that experience.”

Capitals winger Tom Wilson looks at Vegas as a team built for the playoffs because of its size, skill and toughness. It’s almost like gazing into a mirror.

“They have a really stable team – they can establish all four lines and roll,” Washington’s Jakub Vrana said. “They play hard, and they work hard for every inch of the ice. That’s what’s been winning them games. We do the same thing.”

Blending the work ethic and the grittiness that got Vegas into the final with the talent that could get it over the top is now the challenge. Gallant doesn’t shy away from the comparison to the Capitals, who perfected that mix.

“The work comes before the skill, and when you get your talented guys and your skilled guys working real hard, then that’s when you’re going to have the right team,” Gallant said. “I think the team in Washington, that’s what they do. They’ve got some real talented hockey players, but when they work hard, they’re a great team.”

The next stage in becoming a consistently great team is integrating homegrown players, like Cody Glass and Nicolas Hague, who were picks from the Golden Knights’ first draft in 2017. Vegas is at the salary cap like the NHL’s best teams and isn’t afraid of the big expectations that come with that.

“We don’t feel or act or believe we’re an expansion team,” McCrimmon said. “We’re in Year 3 as a franchise, and like every other team, always trying to get better, always trying to win more games, always trying to be a playoff team and have success.”

FIRST TIMER

Lifelong Maple Leafs fan Ron Ruckstuhl, 52, was diagnosed with Lewy dody disease three years ago and told he had five to seven years to live. In August, son Joshuah sent a tweet to retired NHLer Paul Bissonnette hoping his dad could attend a game in Toronto for the first time.

“I’ve waited 52 years for something like this,” Ron said.

As part of the “NHL First Timer” video series, the league surprised Ruckstuhl at his house earlier this month and took him and sons Joshuah and Ryan to the Leafs’ game Nov. 5 against Los Angeles.

“I’d never seen my dad smile and laugh (like that),” said Joshuah, 28, who is his father’s full-time caregiver. “For a little bit, you didn’t realize he was sick. You could see him forget about being sick for just a little bit.”

The league is releasing video of the occasion Wednesday to mark World Kindness Day.

“This is what it’s all about,” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said. “To be able to put joy in somebody’s life like Ron’s and to be able to show his story to the world is quite an honor and it makes me proud to be a part of the NHL.”

NO LONE WOLF

Phil Kessel is fitting in just fine with the young Arizona Coyotes and has come a long way from playing in the shadow of – and winning two titles with – Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin in Pittsburgh.

“He fed off those guys in Pittsburgh really well,” said coach Rick Tocchet, who also was an assistant with the Penguins. “Sometimes he was under the radar, and he’d come up with some big goals because (opponents focused on) Malkin or Crosby. Now there’s a little bit more focus on him.”

Tocchet said Kessel has done more leading because he recognizes, at 32, he should. It’s working.

“Phil, the young guys love him and he’s taking pressure off guys,” Tocchet said. “When some guys aren’t scoring, to be honest with you, the media are not on the guy as much because Phil takes that pressure off. So he does take the pressure or the burden off some guys if they’re not scoring.”

Predators’ investment in Bonino is paying off

Sometimes, when a player is on an unsustainable hot streak, it can lead to overreactions. Every now and then, though, such a run of good fortune can shine a spotlight on a good player who normally gets the job done in more subtle ways.

Nick Bonino is off to that sort of start for the Nashville Predators.

Consider that, with eight goals, Bonino is currently tied with the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Mark Stone, and T.J. Oshie. Overall, Bonino has 12 points in his first 15 games to start 2019-20.

Circling back to that opening paragraph: yes, “Bones” has been undeniably lucky. His eight goals have come on a scant 31 shots on goal, good for a whopping 25.8 shooting percentage. Even for a player who has been a pretty lucky shooter since joining the Predators (no lower than a 14.4 shooting percentage in any campaign since signing before the 2017-18 season), that luck will cool off.

Again, though, that puck luck gives us an opportunity to appreciate just how effective Bonino has been, normally when you ignore the goals and assists.

The book on the Predators has been that, for all their bargains elsewhere on the roster — and getting premium defense, goaltenders, and wingers at high value is ultimately worth it — their centers haven’t been worth what Nashville has paid for. That risk continued when they signed Matt Duchene at $8 million per year, but you could argue the same for Ryan Johansen (also $8M AAV) and most troublingly Kyle Turris ($6M AAV, gulp, through 2023-24).

Bonino and his $4.1M AAV were lumped into that argument, but I’m not so sure how fair that ever was, and he’s been delivering some great play for some time now.

Hockey Viz’s aesthetically appealing heat maps show that Bonino’s had a knack for limiting opponents’ opportunities close to his net, while doing a decent job of creating positive opportunities on the flipside offensively:

Bonino did see a slight dip in 2017-18, his first season in Nashville and away from the glories of the “HBK Line” run with the Penguins, but overall he’s been a solid offensive contributor while seemingly making a considerable impact on defense.

We might explain Bonino’s redemption going under the radar because a) most of the time he’s not scoring like he’s done through the small sample of 2019-20 and b) the mood was generally sour in Nashville toward the end of last season. (It’s amusing that, for all the grief the Predators got for putting up banners, their last Central Division win was met with such indifference.)

Consider how much value Bonino brought to the table in 2018-19 in Goals Above Replacement value, as compiled by Sean Tierney using Evolving Hockey’s data:

Pretty impressive.

The Predators have leaned heavily on Bonino basically since day one, as he’s only begun 32.6 of his shifts in the offensive zone on average in Nashville, with this season so far representing the lowest at just 25 percent.

Such deployment makes it even more likely that Bonino’s offensive numbers will slide. After all, Bonino’s only passed 20 goals once (22), which happened in 2013-14, the only season he hit 40+ points with 49. He was limited to 35 points in 2018-19 and 25 in 2017-18, just to mention his Predators years.

This hot streak gives us a chance to really bask in the under-the-radar work he’s done. If you’ve ever wanted to argue for a player who brings more to the table than meets the eye, then make no “Bones” about Bonino being one of those guys.

If you need to throw out a bunch of Boninos in the process, then so be it.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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

NHL Power Rankings: The 10 most impressive players through October

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

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

Who makes the cut? To the rankings!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NHL Power Rankings: Fast starts most likely to continue

5 Comments

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we are taking a look at 10 fast starts around the league and which ones are most likely to continue, and which ones are most likely not to continue.

How are we defining a fast start? It’s pretty simple, actually — teams that as of Monday have a .640 points percentage or better so far this season. A .640 points percentage over an 82-game season would be a 105-point pace, so it is obviously pretty high level of play.

There are 10 teams that qualify, and not all of them will continue that level of play throughout the season. Just for comparisons sake, there were nine teams off to the same start through same date a year ago and three of them ended up missing the playoffs. In 2017-18, four of the nine teams off to a similar start also ended up missing. So it stands to reason that a handful of these teams are going to significantly cool off.

This isn’t necessarily a ranking of which of these teams has played the best so far, but a ranking of which ones are most likely to continue playing well.

Who is for real and who is not? To the rankings!

Fast starts that will continue

1. Colorado Avalanche. Entering play on Monday they are 7-0-1 on the season and have the best record in the league, earning 15 out of a possible 16 points in the standings. The scary thing about them? They may not be playing their best hockey just yet. 

2. Carolina Hurricanes. Speaking of not playing their best hockey yet, the Hurricanes have won six out of their first nine games and have just three goals from the trio of Sebastian Aho, Nino Niederreiter, and Andrei Svechnikov. It is a testament to the depth they have assembled that three of their top players can be off to such a slow start and the team can still win the way it has.

3. Washington Capitals. They are the highest scoring team in the league, have been one of the top possession teams, and still haven’t received great goaltending from Braden Holtby. The latter part should scare the rest of the Metropolitan Division because even if Holtby doesn’t return to his former Vezina Trophy form he can still be better than he has been.

4. Vegas Golden Knights. The top of their lineup is full of impact players (especially Mark Stone, who has been incredible to start the year) but one of the big wild cards on this team is the emergence of rookie Cody Glass. He already has six points in his first nine games.

Fast starts, but with some questions

5. Boston Bruins. The biggest question here is the same one they have had for the past two years — will they get enough secondary scoring after their top line? Right now if one of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, or Patrice Bergeron does not score a goal, no one is scoring. They managed to find enough secondary scoring to reach Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final a year ago, so it may not be a huge concern in the long-run, but this is still a very top-heavy team so far this season.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins. Interesting team so far in the sense they have probably overachieved given the injury situation that has taken half of their forward lineup away. They are playing the way coach Mike Sullivan wants them to play, and they have played extremely well, but we still haven’t seen the Penguins as they were meant to look this season. Still not entirely sold on the defense, and I question how much of this early success is entirely sustainable.

Fast starts, but with some real concerns 

7. Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks won five of their first seven games last year — thanks mostly to John Gibson — before completely falling apart. The one thing that should give a little more optimism this time around is Dallas Eakins seems to have them playing a more sustainable style of hockey — one that does not rely entirely on goaltending — and they have actually carried the play in some of their wins. The concern is I am just not sure there is enough offense here and their two goalies have a combined save percentage of .940. What happens when that drops a bit?

8. Arizona Coyotes. They barely missed the playoffs a year ago and have probably been better than you realize at the start of the season. The concerns here are the same as in Anaheim, where they are still very dependent on incredible goaltending and there is not a ton of offense to work with.

9. Buffalo Sabres. For the second year in a row the Sabres are one of the big stories in the NHL with a fast start, entering play on Monday with a 7-1-1 record. There is reason to believe they can avoid the total meltdown they experienced a year ago thanks to an improved roster (offseason additions of Colin Miller, Henri Jokiharju, Marcus Johansson, while Rasmus Dahlin has a full season in the NHL under his belt) and what seems to be a better coach. But there are also still some real concerns. Carter Hutton won’t keep stopping 95 percent of the shots he faces. Victor Olofsson won’t keep scoring on 30 percent of his shots. They still play in an extremely tough division. There is reason to expect some regression here as the season goes on.

10. Edmonton Oilers. It’s been amazing start, but James Neal is not going to keep scoring on 30 percent of his shots and once that stops this team has the same problem it has had for years in that there is not enough depth after Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. They have feasted on a light schedule so far (and those points still count) but this is a team that needs to prove it over a full season before anyone fully buys into it.

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.

PHT Face-Off: Carlson racking up points; Tight finishes

2 Comments

The first few weeks of the NHL regular season have been pretty exciting. Not every game has been tight, but it appears as though the schedule has been filled with one-goal games and teams trailing by a goal or two seem to be able to come back more than ever before. This is what the NHL wanted. It’s all about parity and excitement.

Here are the PHT Face-off storylines for this week:

• Tight finishes:

As we mentioned above, a lot of games seem to be coming down to the wire. This is clearly the dream scenario for the NHL. According to NHL Public Relations, 53.1 percent of games have been decided by one goal or a two-goal margin following an empty-netter from the team with the lead. If you look at the boxscore from each of Sunday’s five contests, you’ll notice that all of them fell into that category.

The fact that the losing team isn’t really out of the game until the end more than half the time is pretty impressive. We may not all be fans of the salary cap because it dismantles talented teams, but the parity level in the NHL is at an all-time high as we speak.

John Carlson is racking up points: 

If you check the list of scoring leaders in the NHL, you may be a little surprise to find a defenseman at the top of the list. The Capitals blue liner is currently ahead of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, David Pastrnak, Mark Stone and everybody else in the league when it comes to points scored.

Heading into this week, the 29-year-old has picked up three goals and 18 points in just 10 games. He’s registered at least one point in nine of his team’s 10 contests. The only team that has managed to keep him off the board is the Carolina Hurricanes.

It’s no coincidence that the Capitals have won three games in a row. Their success isn’t just because of Carlson, but he’s certainly a bit part of it.

“I’m just getting lucky,” Carlson said when asked how he’s leading the league in points and assists. “Guys are making some good plays to me. The guys I’m passing to are scoring right now. Especially as a D, it’s pretty streaky. You take it when you can. A lot of guys making a lot of plays out there.”

J.T. Miller trade paying off for Canucks

Eyebrows were raised when the Canucks traded a future first-round draft pick to the Lightning for forward J.T. Miller. After all, Miller was coming off a 47-point season, which is good, but that first-rounder had the potential to be a lottery pick down the road. To be clear, if the Canucks 2020 pick falls into the lottery, they will send their 2021 pick to Tampa, but that’s still a risky proposition for a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs in a while.

How has Miller fit in? Well, he’s been doing just fine on the Canucks’ top line with Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.

Through eight games, the 26-year-old has racked up four goals and four assists. He leads the team in goals and is tied with Pettersson for first in points.

“Our games are different, but I’ve played with some elite players before,” said Miller, per CBC.ca. “There are some things that I try to instill on them and help them out.

“I can retrieve pucks for them. I think I have enough skill to make plays at their level. They are two really elite players. I just try to get the puck to them when they are open and get to the net.”

So far so good.

Sidney Crosby is still good at hockey

After being swept by the New York Islanders in last year’s playoffs, many wondered whether or not the Pittsburgh Penguins would still be able to compete in the Metropolitan Division. To make matters worse, they’ve been hit by the injury bug pretty badly since the start of the year, as Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk and Nick Bjugstad have all been out.

But somehow, some way, Sidney Crosby has found a way to keep the Penguins afloat. Sure, he’s had plenty of help, but the captain has also racked up four goals and 12 points in nine games, which puts him tied for fifth in NHL scoring.

Included in those four goals is this beauty which happened during last week’s nationally televised game against the Colorado Avalanche:

That’s just not fair.

It’s still WAY too early to be talking about Hart Trophy candidates, but if there was an MVP award for the first month of the season, Crosby would definitely be in the mix.

• Are the Bolts dull?

Speaking of the Penguins, they’ll be on NBCSN again this week, as they’ll take on the Lightning on Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET).

Many (including myself) expected the Bolts to finish at the top of the Atlantic Division standings this season, and even though that still might happen, they haven’t looked like themselves just yet.

According to Sean Tierney’s awesome shot rate charts, the Lightning are right on the border of bad and dull. Who would’ve thought?

Nobody’s pushing the panic button. It’s still very early and they’re still an incredibly talented team, but it looks like they’re going to go through more adversity than they did last year. In the end, that might not be such a bad thing.

Tampa Bay currently owns a 4-3-1 record. After losing to Ottawa two weeks ago, they managed to beat Montreal and Boston before dropping a 6-2 home decision the Avs.

“Sometimes it turns into a game of mistakes, and the team that makes the most usually pays the price,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after the blowout loss to Colorado, per NHL.com. “I can’t sit here and say we made the most mistakes, but the ones we did make, it seemed like they put in the back of the net.”

What’s coming up this week?
• Bruins look to avenge Saturday’s loss to the Maple Leafs, Tue. Oct. 22, 7 p.m. ET.

Alex Ovechkin vs. Connor McDavid, Thu. Oct. 24, 9 p.m. ET.

Patrick Marleau and the San Jose Sharks return to Toronto, Fri. Oct. 25, 7 p.m. ET

WEDNESDAY NIGHT HOCKEY ON NBCSN
Penguins vs. Lightning, Wed. Oct. 23, 8 p.m. ET

NHL on NBCSN
Stanley Cup rematch alert: Blues vs. Bruins, Sat. Oct. 26, 7 p.m. ET.
Heritage Classic: Jets vs. Flames, Sat. Oct. 26, 10 p.m. ET.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.