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Why It Clicked: NHLers explain their career seasons

September is here and opening night of the 2018-19 NHL season is three weeks away, which means everything resets. What happened last season doesn’t matter and players’ sole focus now is to try and look forward and either build off 2017-18 or completely forget it in some cases.

At the NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago last week, Pro Hockey Talk spoke to four players who enter this season coming off career years offensively. We wanted to know from them why it all came together last season.

Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers: 34 goals, 68 assists, 102 points

A huge reason why Giroux had the year that he did was that he was attached to the hip of Sean Couturier. Moving to the wing, the Flyers captain spent over 80 percent of his time at even strength with Couturier, per Dobber Hockey, which resulted in both forwards posting offensive bests.

“I think it was a little bit of everything,” he said. “Being able to go on the wing and have a new position… at first I was a little uncomfortable, but after a few preseason games and regular season games you get in a rhythm. Being able to play with Coots, he’s a very smart player. We just had that chemistry going.”

It was a competitive year for the Hart Trophy, and while a case could have been made for Giroux winning MVP, he ended up finishing fourth in the voting by the Professional Hockey Writers Association.

Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils: 39 goals, 54 assists, 93 points

The Devils returned to the postseason for the first time in six years, thanks heavily in part to Hall carrying the team on his back during the second half. Fully comfortable in his new settings, the 26-year-old forward recorded points on a regular basis, with his play resulting in the franchise being able to tout its first Hart Trophy winner.

[Hall not expecting complacency from Devils]

A newfound partnership with the 2017 No. 1 overall pick helped and there was likely some motivation to continue sticking it to the Edmonton Oilers’ brass, who dealt him away in a surprise trade in 2016 — a decision that Hall said made him feel “slighted.”

“We added a lot more talent to our team and we became a team that really played fast and really played tenacious,” Hall said last week. “I think that my game meshed perfectly with the team and [I] found some really good chemistry with Nico [Hischier] and then from there, I don’t know if a 26-game point streak is ever going to happen again. It was just one of those things that happened. As far as being a successful player, a successful offensive player, I have no doubt that I can do that [this season] for the Devils. I’m excited to see what happens.”

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche: 39 goals, 58 assists, 97 points

When you’re good friends with Sidney Crosby and spend your summers working out with one of the NHL’s best, you tend to pick up a thing or two. For MacKinnon, it was only a matter of time before he took the next step in his development following back-to-back 50-point seasons. With some better talent around him on a line with Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, 2018-19 was his year.

It all paid off as MacKinnon finished second in the Hart voting behind Hall as he helped the Avalanche back into the postseason.

“Experience. Just being my fifth year in the league, I got more comfortable with myself and my game,” he said. “It was all mental. I might have gotten a little bit better with my physical tools but nothing too drastic for the jump ahead. It was more mental.”

Vincent Trocheck, Florida Panthers: 31 goals, 44 assists, 75 points

The one constant for Trocheck for most of last season was Jonathan Huberdeau, who would score 27 goals. Spending a lot of time next to Huberdeau, Trocheck would take advantage of a bump in ice time and not pass up many opportunities to shoot en route to personal bests offensively.

The Pittsburgh native would also make good use of power play time, leading the team with 13 PPGs and 27 points with the man advantage.

“There was a lot of opportunity last year. I think a lot of it has to do with that,” Trocheck said. “The way the team was playing the first half of the year, I kind of had to take the onus on myself to take that extra step. And there’s a few of us, [Aleksander] Barkov, Huberdeau, guys like that, who stepped it up as well offensively. It was just a matter of clicking with each other, and I think there was a lot more chemistry.”

MORE: NHL Player Media Tour 2018 Notebook

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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.

NHL Team Previews: Examining past, present, future

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Throughout the month of August we examined different aspects of all 31 NHL teams. We looked back at their 2017-18 season, took a dip in their prospect pool, pointed out a player/coach/executive under pressure, highlighted a player coming off a breakthrough season, and asked questions about the future.

Thanks for reading and for the feedback on each post. Below are links to every team day post from the last month to get you ready for the 2018-19 campaign. Training camps open in two weeks!

2017-18 REVIEW
Anaheim Ducks
Arizona Coyotes
Boston Bruins
Buffalo Sabres
Calgary Flames
Carolina Hurricanes
Chicago Blackhawks 
Colorado Avalanche
Columbus Blue Jackets
Dallas Stars
Detroit Red Wings
Edmonton Oilers
Florida Panthers
Los Angeles Kings
Minnesota Wild
Montreal Canadiens
Nashville Predators
New Jersey Devils
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
Ottawa Senators
Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins
San Jose Sharks
St. Louis Blues
Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs
Vancouver Canucks
Vegas Golden Knights
Washington Capitals
Winnipeg Jets

UNDER PRESSURE
Jake Allen
Mike Babcock
Jim Benning
Bruce Boudreau
Scott Darling
Pierre Dorion
John Gibson
Connor Hellebuyck
Mike Hoffman

Carter Hutton
Jack Johnson
Evander Kane

Jarmo Kekalainen
Ilya Kovalchuk
Dylan Larkin
Robin Lehner
Nathan MacKinnon
Joel Quenneville
Carey Price
Antti Raanta
Tuukka Rask
Todd Reirden
Pekka Rinne
Cory Schneider
Tyler Seguin
Kevin Shattenkirk
Cam Talbot
Tomas Tatar
Brad Treliving
James van Riemsdyk
Steve Yzerman

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BUILDING OFF A BREAKTHROUGH
Mathew Barzal
Brock Boeser
Pavel Buchnevich
Thomas Chabot
Kyle Connor
Evgenii Dadonov

Alex DeBrincat
Jake DeBrusk
Travis Dermott
Pierre-Luc Dubois
Matt Dumba

Vince Dunn
Radek Faksa
Kevin Fiala

Brendan Gallagher
Noah Hanifin
Nico Hischier
William Karlsson
Ondrej Kase
Clayton Keller
Adrian Kempe
Travis Konecny
Anthony Mantha
Timo Meier
Darnell Nurse
Jamie Oleksiak
Brayden Point
Mikko Rantanen
Sam Reinhart
Teuvo Teravainen
Tom Wilson

THREE QUESTIONS
Anaheim Ducks
Arizona Coyotes
Boston Bruins
Buffalo Sabres
Calgary Flames
Carolina Hurricanes
Chicago Blackhawks
Colorado Avalanche
Columbus Blue Jackets
Dallas Stars
Detroit Red Wings
Edmonton Oilers
Florida Panthers
Los Angeles Kings
Minnesota Wild
Montreal Canadiens
Nashville Predators
New Jersey Devils
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
Ottawa Senators
Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins
San Jose Sharks
St. Louis Blues
Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs
Vancouver Canucks
Vegas Golden Knights
Washington Capitals
Winnipeg Jets

MORE:
Where should Jonathan Toews rank among NHL’s top centers?
Q&A: Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar
Back issue makes Henrik Zetterberg’s future ‘real unknown’
Panthers do one thing about as well as anyone in the NHL
Expect huge year from Max Pacioretty no matter where he plays
Rangers could once again be active in trade market
Will Sidney Crosby win another scoring title in his career?
Sabres’ Eichel focuses on keeping fiery emotions in check
• Maple Leafs should be NHL’s best offensive team

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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.

Q&A: Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar

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Training camps open in about a month’s time, which means it’s time for coaches around the NHL to really ramp up preparation for the new season. Some coaches have a lot of work ahead of them to try and turnaround poor seasons. For Jared Bednar, he’s hoping to build off of the success that his Colorado Avalanche had in 2017-18, improving by 47 points and returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2014.

After being at the NHL Draft in Dallas and going through the start of the free agency period and development camp, Bednar was able to get away for some vacation before turning full focus on the 2018-19 campaign.

“For me, I like to stick around at the end of the year, do a bunch of review and take a look at some things and get my plan together,” Bednar told Pro Hockey Talk on Thursday during his drive from South Carolina to Denver. “Then you get a little bit of time away and you go to the draft and we do our development camp following the draft, so that’s a good week of getting to know some of our new players, but also your coaching staff is all there and the schedule comes out around that time and you can put together training camp schedules and get a lot of that type of work done. And then it’s nice to take a breather and get away from the game for a little bit.”

Bednar is entering his third season as head coach of the Avalanche. Year one, which he described as “horrible,” saw him hired in late August after Patrick Roy’s abrupt resignation, something that affected preparation for that season. But year two was much better with a playoff berth and great seasons from Nathan MacKinnon, who was a Hart Trophy finalist, and Mikko Rantanen. He was rewarded by getting a trip to Las Vegas in June as a finalist for the Jack Adams Award.

We spoke with Bednar about his growth as a head coach, the plan for his two goalies and his brief time playing in Roller Hockey International with the Anaheim Bullfrogs.

Enjoy.

PHT: How have you seen yourself change in the 10 years since your first professional head coaching job?

BEDNAR: “Well, there’s a lot of ways, I think. I’m more patient now. The experience that you have. I believe I trust my players more now than I did when I first started coaching. Try not to worry as much. I always felt like the preparation was the key to success and still is. A lot of things have stayed the same but I would say I’m a little bit easier to deal with and less riding the roller coaster… Probably a little more calm now than I was as a younger coach.”

PHT: Is there more delegation on your part now?

BEDNAR: “Absolutely. Part of that’s the level of which you coach. In the ECHL you wear so many different hats and your staff is small. I was alone for my first year and then added an assistant my second year, so you’re kind of doing everything hockey related and [also] GM duties and just the things you need to get done for your players. A lot of interaction with your guys at that level, which is nice. But your staff is small so you’re kind of overworked and you have to be real good with your time down there, which is a good thing to learn because it seems like I’m back to that at the NHL level as well.

“You have to really manage your time because you get pulled in so many different directions as a head coach that you have to rely on other people. We’ve got a great staff. My staff has been amazing and they’re all very good at what they do. It’s kind of the more detailed work the higher you go and the bigger the staff you need and more attention you try and give your players, especially nowadays. Players like the back and forth with the coaches, a lot of communication, so it’s real important you have a good staff and a big staff.”

PHT: You’ve won a Kelly Cup (ECHL). You’ve won a Calder Cup (AHL). Was there a trait that those two teams shared and do you see that in this current Avalanche roster?

BEDNAR: “Yes. The leadership both times that I’ve won with was outstanding, and not just coaches. Our players taking over our room and the character of our leadership and the hunger, the willingness to come out and do things right every day… Those teams had it and they were hungry for more. The desire to win was deep and it started with our captain, Ryan Craig in Cleveland, Jaime Sifers, guys like that that kind of forced our team to have this daily mentality that we were going to get better and pay attention to the process.

“I saw it a lot last year in our group. The hunger that we had coming into the season after a horrible first year with me at the helm, I saw our leadership get passed to our young core, our star players, and they were focused and driven and resilient. They got along with each other. Our room was really tight and I think you have to have that in order to win. We still have a lot of work to do, but those are the things that lead you in the right direction and eventually will push you over the top. Hopefully we can continue to grow in those areas. But that’s the main thing, is that leadership and focus and determination that we had.”

PHT: How do you and your staff keep the complacency out after a season that saw huge strides?

BEDNAR: “We’ve talked with our guys, even during the off-season. The hunger has to be there again from our players, from our coaching staff, and I believe it is. Our division, our conference, I think is more competitive than ever and everyone’s building and adding and trying to get better and we’re no different. It comes down to the character of our players wanting to be coached, wanting to be pushed and willing to go the extra mile in order to get it done. We’ve got a talented group. We’re trying to fill in pieces around our core to make our team better. From my conversations with our guys they’re hungry, they want more. They had a taste of it last year and I think we’ve added some nice pieces in there, too.”

“It’ll be a little bit of a different feel this year, but I know that our key guys are hungry for more. Adding players to our roster like Philipp Grubauer, who just won a Stanley Cup; Ian Cole’s won a couple Cups. Having guys that have been through it before and that were able to achieve and win the Stanley Cup are great additions to our team, along with a guy like Matty Calvert, who’s hungry and comes over from the Columbus organization.”

PHT: If Semyon Varlamov shows he’s 100 percent healthy and with Philipp now in the fold, do you have a percentage split in mind for both guys this season?

BEDNAR: “It’s hard to say. I think there’s been some inconsistencies in Varly’s game because of his injury history over the last couple of years, right? We eased him into the season a little bit last year to make sure that he was feeling confident in himself and that he was feeling right, and it worked out. He had a tough break at the end because there’s a collision and he hurts his MCL. I don’t think that you can prevent that as a goalie. He’s there to make the save. It’s not something that was tied to his previous injury. 

“We need Varly to stay healthy and when he’s been healthy, especially last year, as he started to play midseason and go he’s proven that he’s a No. 1. Now you have a guy like Philipp Grubauer coming in and he’s hungry to be a No. 1, he’s pushing to be a No. 1. Certainly last year he took over the net at times in Washington. But at the end of the day it made him a better goalie and it made Braden Holtby a better goalie and he ends up going in and winning them the Stanley Cup. We want the best out of both of these guys and we’ll ride the hot goalie at times, but I’d like to see Varly stay healthy and be able to regain his form because I think he’s trending that way and it’s going to be a matter of health for him. I know he’s one of our hardest working guys and a real hungry guy and I feel like Philipp Grubauer is hungry to prove that he’s a No. 1 as well.”

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PHT: Nathan MacKinnon received a lot of attention last season and deservedly so, but Mikko Rantanen had a tremendous year playing alongside him. What kind of kid is he and how has it been to coach him?

BEDNAR: “First off, their success goes hand in hand. They play on the same line, the same power play, the majority of their ice time they’re on the ice at the same time. They got a great chemistry, they complement one another. Mikko is a really nice kid, had a breakout season. He’s a hard-working guy in the off-season and also during the season. I think he’s just scratching the surface of his potential. He’s still a young player, both age-wise and from an experience standpoint in the league. I think that he has another level that he can get to, we’re going to try to push him to that level here this year as a coaching staff and demand more of him. He can still become more consistent. But he’s a real receptive guy. He’s a highly-intelligent, highly-skilled player and he’s got great size and strength, too. Sky’s the limit for Mikko…

“Certainly, Gabriel Landeskog is part of that line and can’t be overlooked because they all play a different game but they find a way to complement one another and there’s a chemistry there that I’d like to see them continue to grow as a line. Last year, just being the first step, they can continue to improve as individuals and as a line, to be honest.”

PHT: Obviously playing with Nate and Gabe helped him a lot with the point jump in year two, but what areas did you see Mikko take major strides in last season? Was it a matter of playing with those two guys and just another year of experience or was there more?

BEDNAR: “I think there’s more. There’s certainly a comfort level there with Nate and Gabe. I think knowing the league, knowing his opponents, pushing himself to be a difference-maker every night and getting more consistent in year two. [He] was healthy to start the season, he got dinged up his first year and it gave him a little bit of a slow start, so he was out of the gates right away playing well. I also think that their success, you have to give their teammates some credit, too. We had some depth. We had a checking line with [Carl] Soderberg, [Blake] Comeau and [Matt] Nieto that freed those guys up to play in more offensive situations. I felt like the year before they were doing a lot of the heavy lifting defensively and still we had to try and rely on them to create offense. Last year a lot of the responsibility was split because of the depth we had. We had some secondary scoring with guys coming in like [Alex] Kerfloot and [J.T.] Compher and [Tyson] Jost. It’s also there’s a team perspective to their success as well.”

PHT: Finally, you’re one of a handful of people in the NHL with a tie to Roller Hockey International. How did that opportunity [six games with the Anaheim Bullfrogs in 1995] come up and did the ankle injury prevent you from playing again the following summer?

BEDNAR: “I was playing in the ECHL in Huntington [West Virginia] and Grant Sonier got hired as our coach and we got talking. They invited me out to go play. A lot of ECHL players were doing that. It was a way to stay in shape, to keep training. Heading out to the west coast in LA or Anaheim seemed like a fun idea. Enjoy the beach and train and continue working at hockey and then getting paid for the summer instead of going back home and getting a construction job or something, it was a way to keep training and continue to live like you would during the season and just put more into your training. That seemed like a no-brainer for me and [I] went out there and had a great time, met some great people. I did end up getting hurt, jamming my ankle into the boards and breaking it, so I spent a little time in a cast which set me back but it was just a risk that you take in order to try and continue to get better as a player and be able to train for the summer when you need to make some money and work. 

“I enjoyed it. I just decided not to go back. Because of the injury I was a little bit leery of competing all summer long again when I could put a little bit more time into my training, which it turned out to be a good decision.”

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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.

Three questions facing Colorado Avalanche

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Colorado Avalanche.

Some questions to ponder regarding the 2018-19 Colorado Avalanche…

[Avalanche Day: Looking back | Under PressureBreakthrough ]

1. How good will Philipp Grubauer be?

The Avalanche made a big splash this offseason by getting Philipp Grubauer from the Washington Capitals in exchange for a second-round draft pick and taking on Brooks Orpik‘s contract (which was then bought out, allowing Orpik to return to Washington on a cheaper salary). The Avalanche immediately signed him to a three-year contract, presumably to be their long-term starting goalie.

The question is just how good he can be?  In his limited playing time with the Capitals Grubauer performed as well as any other goalie in the NHL, and was so good this past season that Barry Trotz actually gave him the starting job heading into the playoffs. It was a role he kept for two games before being replaced by long-time starter Braden Holtby — who then helped lead the team to the Stanley Cup — but it was still an incredibly strong statement in the belief that the Capitals had in Grubauer.

His limited resume is very encouraging, and he has certainly at least earned the right to be a starter. But it is all still based on an extremely small sampling of data, while goaltenders can be extremely difficult to project.

The potential is certainly there for the Avalanche to have landed an excellent starting goalie, but it is still very much of a mystery.

2. What about the defense? 

The Avalanche have been a bad defensive team in recent years, giving up shots and shot attempts at a rate that has consistently placed them among the worst in the league.

Even with their turnaround in the standings this past season, that was still true. One of the things that bailed them out was the fact they received strong goaltending from Semyon Varlamov and Jonathan Bernier. This year the job gets passed along to Varlamov and Grubauer. Still, it would be beneficial for the Avalanche if they could become a better shot suppression team and not have to lean on their goaltenders so much.

Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie have been the mainstays on the blue line in recent seasons, and despite the trade rumors that always seem to follow Barrie around he is still a member of the team.

Nikita Zadorov, one of the pieces from the Ryan O'Reilly trade, took some positive steps forward this past season and is still only 23 years old. Samuel Girard, one of the players they picked up in the Matt Duchene trade is also loaded with potential and had a promising debut with the Avalanche this past season.

Then they also brought in Ian Cole in free agency on a three-year contract that will pay him more than $12 million (just over $4 million per season). Cole is a fearless shot blocker and logs big minutes on the penalty kill, and his role on a two-time Stanley Cup champion in Pittsburgh has certainly boosted his stock around the league. He is probably best served as a third-pairing defenseman, though, and if the Avalanche use him in that role (and with Johnson, Barrie, Zadorov and Girard all on the roster, that is possible) he could be a strong addition. An expensive third-pairing defender for sure, but probably a strong one.

3. Will anybody step up to take some pressure off the top line?

As mentioned in the Under Pressure look, there is going to be a huge expectation for Nathan MacKinnon (along with his linemate, Mikko Rantanen) to carry the offense this season, just as he did this past season. Whether or not he does that remains to be seen, but even if he does if the Avalanche are going to take the next step from a fringe playoff team to a contender in the Western Conference they are going to need another line (or two … or three) to emerge as a threat offensively. When the MacKinnon-Rantanen duo was off the ice this past season the Avalanche were still a team that was outshot and outscored. That is not going to be good enough, and if there is any sort of a regression from the top line it could erase all the positive strides the Avalanche made in 2017-18.

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.

Under Pressure: Nathan MacKinnon

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Colorado Avalanche.

Usually when we look at players that are “under pressure” heading into a season we focus on players coming off of a down year, or a coach on the hot seat, or a goalie that needs to prove themselves and carry a team, or a player going for a new contract.

It is not usually a player coming off of an MVP-caliber season the way Nathan MacKinnon is in Colorado. Even so, we are still going to take a look at him for this section because it seems like now that he had the season he had in 2017-18 the level of expectation for him going forward is going to be at an entirely new level.

That, too, is a form of pressure.

Especially when the Avalanche’s success and turnaround this past season was largely dependent on MacKinnon’s performance.

[Avalanche Day: Looking back at 2017-18 | Building Off Breakthrough]

This past season he finished fifth in the scoring race with 97 points. His 1.31 points per game were second best in the NHL. He recorded at least three points in a game 13 different times, the second highest total in the league (behind only Connor McDavid). He had a direct in hand 38 percent of the team’s goals during the regular season and then he was great in their first-round playoff race with six points (including three goals) against the Nashville Predators. The difference in the Avalanche’s performance with him on the ice versus when he was not on the ice was striking. As he went, so went the team.

MacKinnon’s career has followed an interesting path to this point. He burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2013-14 and put together a sensational rookie year that saw him finish with 24 goals and 63 points as an 18-year-old, playing a significant role in what had been a bad Avalanche team the year before return to the playoffs. His play didn’t really regress after that season, but he also didn’t take the significant leap that was expected, instead settling in as a 20-goal, 50-point player. Very good, but not quite a superstar level. That leap finally happened this past season and ended with him finishing second in the MVP voting behind Taylor Hall.

The question now becomes can he do it — or at least something close to that — again, because that might be what the Avalanche need to get back in the playoffs.

The Avalanche a nice trio of impact forwards in MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog up front, as well as some intriguing young players on this roster (Tyson Jost, Alexander Kerfoot, Samuel Girard). Even with that core in place it is still a team with very suspect depth and question marks on the blue line and in goal. Their success or failure will depend largely on how the players at the top (specifically MacKinnon and Rantanen) perform. It is not entirely fair to those players to expect them to carry that much of the load, but that is the situation the current roster probably puts them in.

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.