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WATCH LIVE: Oilers visit Golden Knights on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday night’s matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and Vegas Golden Knights. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Edmonton Oilers’ playoff hopes are hanging by a thread heading into their game on Sunday against the Vegas Golden Knights, and if they have any hope of pulling off the impossible and erasing what is a seven-point gap (and jumping over four teams!) over the next 11 games it is going to have to begin with a win tonight.

Standing in their way will be a Vegas Golden Knights team that has won seven of its previous eight games and is pretty much locked in to the third playoff spot in the Pacific Division. At this point it is simply a matter of whether or not they will have to play the Calgary Flames or San Jose Sharks in their first-round matchup.

The Oilers are led by Connor McDavid who enters the game riding an 11-game point streak, while also recording at least one point in 19 of his previous 20 games. That 20-game stretch for McDavid features 12 multi-point games, including seven in a row.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Edmonton Oilers vs. Vegas Golden Knights
Where: T Mobile Arena
When: Sunday, March 17, 2019, 10 p.m, ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Oilers-Golden Knights stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

Edmonton Oilers

Forwards

Milan Lucic – Connor McDavid — Zack Kassian
Tobias RiederLeon DraisaitlAlex Chiasson
Jujhar KhairaRyan Nugent-HopkinsSam Gagner
Joseph Gambardella – Colby CaveJosh Currie

Defense

Oscar KlefbomAdam Larsson
Darnell NurseKris Russell
Andrej SekeraMatt Benning

Starting Goalie: Mikko Koskinen

Vegas Golden Knights

Forwards

Jonathan MarchessaultWilliam KarlssonReilly Smith
Max PaciorettyPaul StastnyMark Stone
Tomas NosekCody EakinAlex Tuch
Ryan CarpenterPierre-Edouard BellemareRyan Reaves

Defense

Nate SchmidtDeryk Engelland
Brayden McNabbShea Theodore
Jon Merril – Colin Miller

Starting Goalie: Malcolm Subban

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.

Draisaitl’s season shows Oilers’ hope goes beyond McDavid

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If you scan a list of the NHL’s leading scorers, one name might surprise you: Leon Draisaitl.

Heading into Friday’s games, the Edmonton Oilers forward ranks sixth with 89 points, and his 42 goals leave him second only to Alex Ovechkin.

When you hear people express disbelief that the Oilers can fail this hard with Connor McDavid on their roster, perhaps that shock should be adapted to also include Draisaitl.

To some extent, that only makes the Oilers’ mismanagement more damning. They’ve landed a superstar in McDavid, someone between a star and a superstar in Draisaitl (depending upon your taste), and oodles and noodles of draft lottery luck, yet they find themselves in this profoundly sad state.

That’s grim in the present, yet the “they have McDavid and Draisaitl” talking point should at least provide Oilers fans with at least some faint hope for the future.

Now, no doubt, Oilers fans are probably jaded. They’ve heard one too many times about an alleged light at the end of the tunnel.

Well … sorry. Let’s try to squint to see some light.

More on Draisaitl’s year

Before I delve a little deeper, it’s fair to provide some qualifiers regarding Draisaitl’s 42 goals and 89 points in just 70 games.

For one thing, there’s no denying that Draisaitl’s numbers are buoyed by the time he’s spent with McDavid. Anyone with a pulse would see their production improve alongside number 97, and Draisaitl is no different.

That said, it’s not like Draisaitl is wholly tethered to McDavid in the way that, say, Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon barely ever play a shift without each other. As Natural Stat Trick’s listings show, McDavid is Draisaitl’s most common even-strength partner (648:10 with), yet Draisaitl’s also spent 435:24 without him.

The Oilers can wrestle with the loading up versus spreading the wealth question for years, but either way, it seems pretty clear that Draistail is for real.

This season’s numbers won’t be easy to match, though. Before 2018-19, Draisaitl showed some goal scoring ability, generating 29 in 2016-17 and 25 last season. His 42 goals come on an inflated 21.4 shooting percentage, much higher than his-already-fairly high career percentage of 15.7.

That number’s almost certain to go down, although maybe not catastrophically so if Draisaitl sticks with McDavid more often than not. (McDavid’s really that special.)

The best other pieces

Whether Draisaitl slides in on McDavid’s wing or serves as the 2C, the Oilers have two pieces just about anyone would clamor for at forward. So, what else?

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: Somehow, he’s only 25; it feels like he’s been suffering in Edmonton for our natural-born lives.

Maybe RNH won’t ever dazzle quite at the level that you’d want from a top overall pick, but he’s a steady scorer, generating 22 goals already this season (two short of his career-high), and already set a new career-high with 58 points.

Nugent-Hopkins seems like a perennial trade rumor target, but Edmonton would be smart just to keep him. Much like with Draisaitl, RNH gives Edmonton some versatility. He can be a center, or also give McDavid a more talented winger than the Oilers have normally been able to furnish. At this prime-age and at an affordable $6M cap hit through 2020-21, RNH is a nice asset.

(You could argue that maybe there could be actual value in trading RNH but … *gets interrupted by Oilers fans shrieking at the mention of another risky trade*)

Oscar Klefbom – A very good, very affordable, defenseman in his prime at 25. Even more than RNH, thank goodness the Oilers didn’t recklessly trade Klefbom for peanuts.

Varied value

Jesse Puljujärvi – Look, for all we know, he really might be a lost cause.

But even if he is, and the Oilers decide to part ways with Puljujärvi, they likely wouldn’t have sold lower than if they moved him during this fraught, lost season.

And there’s a possibility that things could go very right. Maybe a new coach would give the 20-year-old a clean slate? Perhaps he’s just a guy, but one who might sign a team-friendly contract as an RFA this summer?

His development could be key in the Oilers giving their top guys crucial support. There’s plenty of room for growth, and it’s not that outrageous to picture Puljujärvi actually figuring things out.

Kailer Yamamoto, Evan Bouchard – For Peter Chiarelli’s many many many foibles, he seemed to fall in line with conventional wisdom in recent drafts, which feels like a good thing. That can always change, as prospects are tough to project, but players like Yamamoto and Bouchard might be able to provide future boosts. That’s important if the Oilers remain cap-crunched thanks to lousy contracts like those of Milan Lucic and Kris Russell.

Adam Larsson, Darnell Nurse – We can go back and forth about how valuable these two defensemen are. Opinions likely range based on the ups and downs of their seasons. But, really, both have reasonable-enough contracts, and can probably help a team win. They sure beat many of the Oilers’ other options, whether they are in the system or free agency.

(Maybe a trade would actually make sen—*interrupted by another shriek*)

Andrej Sekera – It’s been a lost season for the veteran defenseman, but maybe he’s not as “done” as he seemed?

The 32-year-old’s been limited to 12 games played so far, and hasn’t scored much (two assists) or logged big minutes (16:33 TOI average), yet Sekera’s possession numbers are strong enough to prompt some positive thinking. If nothing else, maybe Sekera could take minutes from lesser defensemen, like Russell?

***

The Oilers have some fantastic pieces (McDavid, Draisaitl), and some undeniable problems (bad contracts, executive who still might not “get it”).

Ultimately, there’s no downplaying how important it is to hire the right GM, and to make sure that no one gets in the way, bungling things like always. It would be convenient if this was just a matter of Chiarelli messing things up, but Edmonton’s issues extend well beyond Chiarelli’s era of errors.

The thing is, if a new GM hit the right notes, the Oilers could actually become a team worthy of McDavid’s and Draisatil’s time — and maybe turn things around pretty quickly.

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.

Fight: Oilers’ Lucic, Devils’ Gabriel engage in marathon slugfest

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Fights are few and far between these days. They just don’t happen with the same regularity as they used to.

The scarcity also means less and less are we seeing two combatants engaging in a lengthy battle. Often, the gloves drop, a couple of haymakers are thrown, someone loses their footing and they’re patting each other on the back.

“Good job, buddy.”

Edmonton Oilers tough guy Milan Lucic and New Jersey Devils thorn-in-the-side Kurtis Gabriel didn’t exchange pleasantries after their battle Wednesday Night Hockey — maybe, perhaps, because they were just too gassed to do so.

Lucic and Gabriel went back and forth for a full minute before Lucic had enough. To Gabriel’s credit, he looked as if he could have gone a few more rounds. He seemed to get better as the fight played out, with Lucic running out of steam near the end. Hard to blame him, Gabriel was sticking him with the left jab pretty good. Lucic popped Gabriel’s helmet off with a hard right hand earlier in the bout.

Most don’t want a piece of Lucic but Gabriel seemed motivated by the challenge. The two had been pestering each other earlier in the game.


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

WATCH LIVE: Crosby’s Penguins vs. McDavid’s Oilers on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Never beating the Pittsburgh Penguins when Sidney Crosby‘s been in the lineup is the least of Connor McDavid‘s concerns, but it’s one of the many ways you can remind people that the Edmonton Oilers haven’t really put him in a position to succeed.

It’s almost too fitting that McDavid’s been fantastic in the five Oilers losses against the Penguins, generating nine points in those games, but not yet getting the win.

[Comparing McDavid’s early days to Lemieux’s troubles]

Both superstar players are hurting for a win, but not really because of an easily packaged rivalry.

Instead, their teams simply need it. The Oilers are a Dumpster fire right now, with things being so bad that Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman discussed rumblings about Ken Hitchcock straight-up wanting to walk away.

Things aren’t as dour for the Penguins, but they don’t have a large margin for error when it comes to making the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, so they’ll be keyed-in. With injuries mounting for the Pens, they might ask Crosby to do even more than usual. McDavid can relate.

One benefit for McDavid is that Evgeni Malkin won’t suit up, as he’s serving a one-game suspension for his wild stick-swinging at Flyers forward Michael Raffl.

Is it too greedy to hope that all of these circumstances will lead to another great duel between number 87 and number 97? Maybe, but let’s cross our fingers for that, anyway.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Edmonton Oilers at Pittsburgh Penguins
Where: PPG Paints Arena
When: Wednesday, Feb. 13, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Oilers-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

OILERS

Leon Draisaitl — Connor McDavid — Zack Kassian

Jujhar KhairaRyan Nugent-HopkinsJesse Puljujarvi

Milan Lucic — Brad Malone — Alex Chiasson

Tobias RiederColby CaveTy Rattie

Oscar KlefbomAdam Larsson

Darnell NurseKris Russell

Alexander PetrovicKevin Gravel

Starting goalie: Mikko Koskinen

PENGUINS

Jake Guentzel — Sidney Crosby — Bryan Rust

Tanner PearsonNick BjugstadPhil Kessel

Teddy Blueger — Jared McCannPatric Hornqvist

Zach Aston-ReeseMatt CullenGarrett Wilson

Brian DumoulinKris Letang

Juuso RiikolaJack Johnson

Marcus PetterssonChad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

John Forslund (play-by-play), U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk (analyst), and Emmy Award-winner Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. Pa. Pre-game coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Liam McHugh alongside Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Bob McKenzie. Additionally, Kathryn Tappen will be providing reports and conducting interviews on-site in Pittsburgh.

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.

Darling getting leave of absence is reminder of human element of hockey

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The Carolina Hurricanes granted Scott Darling a leave of absence without a stated timeline for his return. Darling, 30, had been playing for the Charlotte Checkers, the Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate.

Hurricanes GM Don Waddell confirmed as much to Chip Alexander of The News & Observer, going into detail on why Darling decided to take that personal leave.

“Since he’s been down there he’s had some good games and some bad games,” Waddell said. “He had a tough game the other night and his agent called me and said he would like to take a personal leave of absence and would we allow that to get his mind back together. That night he got rocked for about five (goals) and before he had a shutout (in regulation) before we lost in overtime 1-0. So we gave him the leave of absence.”

It’s easy to get wrapped up in numbers when you’re talking about hockey, whether you’re talking about losing streaks, records, cap hits, or who won head-to-head in fantasy that week. It’s almost inevitable, then, to forget that human beings are involved.

[PHT Q&A with Darling from January 2018]

Darling is in a situation that makes him especially vulnerable to becoming discouraged by numbers.

There’s no denying that he’s struggled since signing a four-year, $16.6 million contract (through 2020-21) with the Hurricanes. After putting together a sterling run as a Blackhawks backup (.923 save percentage in 75 games over three seasons), Darling’s seen his play plummet. His save percentage has been at an unsightly .887 save percentage in 51 games with Carolina, and things have been just as rocky in the AHL.

The big goalie is far from the only netminder who hasn’t been able to get it done for the Hurricanes, but he undoubtedly must have felt like he had been letting his team down, and not living up to his contract.

And don’t forget, this is a goalie who had to scratch and claw for opportunities.

Darling was barely drafted (a sixth-rounder, 153rd overall, by the then-Phoenix Coyotes in 2007), climbing from the SPHL to the ECHL to the AHL and finally the NHL. It must be a real shock to Darling’s system to hit this snag, and perhaps it doesn’t help that the sport has become so fast and skilled for a towering goalie.

There’s also the nature of the goaltending position.

It’s bad enough for Milan Lucic, a winger whose struggles and beefy contract make it tough to slip under the radar. But when a goalie is fighting it, there’s really no hiding.

With that in mind, allowing Darling to take a leave of absence doesn’t just need to inspire inevitable cynicism about him frankly not playing that well. Taking a break from beating himself up could really help Darling rebound, even if he’s never the goalie the Hurricanes rolled the dice with.

Waddell backed up such thoughts, merely saying that the Hurricanes will check in with Darling in about a week, and that the goalie will receive “100-percent support” from the team.

“We all know he’s had ups and downs in his career, and we’ll be supportive,” Waddell said. “He’s still under contract for two more years and we’ve got to see if we can get this thing back together.”

Darling’s struggled before, as he discussed in detail when saying goodbye to the Blackhawks in The Players’ Tribune back in June 2017.

The thing about alcoholism is that you never think you have a problem. That’s how it gets you. Because it always starts small. For me, it started as a way to cope with social anxiety. Ever since I was a kid, I kind of lived inside my own brain. I was an introvert, and I was so worried about what everyone thought about me at all times. Like if I walked into a room of 100 people, I wanted to make sure all 100 people thought I was cool. I was obsessed with being the best version of myself at all times.

Darling was able to get his career back on track despite those struggles, so perhaps he can do it again? Most importantly, here’s hoping that Darling finds peace of mind, because there are more important things than how many pucks he can stop.

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.