Miro Heiskanen

Defending champion Blues surrounded by tough teams in West

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St. Louis had better dig in for its repeat bid.

The defending Stanley Cup champion Blues will have their hands full in the Western Conference, which seems to have a slew of contenders. And, every team in the entire league is going to give the Blues its best shot each game.

”There’s going to be a whole different feel for us that we’ve got to figure out, ‘OK, how can we elevate our game?’ We’re not going to catch teams by surprise,” said Blues center Ryan O'Reilly, last season’s playoff MVP and top defensive forward. ”We’re going to need to make changes and grow ourselves to be better this year and to do it again.”

Dallas, Vegas, Calgary, Colorado, San Jose and Winnipeg all go into the season with a shot to knock off St. Louis and keep the Cup in the West after the coveted trophy was won by Eastern Conference teams the previous three years. And even though the Nashville Predators appears to be somewhat overlooked this season, it’s not wise to count them out in the race, especially with the addition of center Matt Duchene.

The Central Division, which may earn both wild cards again in the conference, may be the strongest in the NHL.

”It’s hard not to say the Central with the Blues being in it,” Arizona center Derek Stepan said.

SHINING STARS

Dallas seems set up for success with star players all over the place, giving the franchise a legitimate chance to reach the conference finals for the first time since 2008.

Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn provide plenty of scoring power. Second-year coach Jim Montgomery can roll four lines after the front office bolstered the team’s depth by signing 35-year-old Joe Pavelski, who was an All-Star last year with San Jose for the third time in four years.

”Getting a guy like Pavelski to us is going to be huge for us obviously with the net front (presence) and leadership-wise in the locker room,” defenseman John Klingberg said.

The 27-year-old Klingberg is potentially going into the prime year of his career and 20-year-old Miro Heiskanen is a future star on the blue line, coming off a 33-point rookie season in which he was durable enough to play all 82 games.

Goaltender Ben Bishop looks like he might be at his best at the age of 32. His save percentage led the league last year and he ranked second in the NHL in goals-against average, giving up fewer than two a game for the first time in his career.

THIRD TIME A CHARM?

The Golden Knights are hoping their third year is more like their first, when they reached the Stanley Cup Final, and not like their second season that ended in the first round with a Game 7 loss to the Sharks. Vegas returns its top nine scorers and three-time Stanley Cup champion goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury as the franchise makes another run with familiar faces. Talented forward Mark Stone starts his first full season with the Golden Knights after signing an eight-year deal in February.

”We have something to prove to show that we are a top team in the NHL,” Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault.

GROUNDED JETS

Winnipeg’s chances may hinge on when, or possibly if, restricted free agents Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor sign to stay with the franchise.

”If we don’t have those two guys for the whole season, which I don’t think is going to happen, then it does change our team a little bit because then we’ve lost a lot of players,” Winnipeg Jets winger Nikolaj Ehlers said.

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

Connor McDavid is one of the game’s greats and teammate Leon Draisaitl is a 100-point scorer, but the Edmonton Oilers might be relegated to playing only in the regular season for a third straight year and 13th time in 14 seasons.

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews may not have enough talent around them to avoid missing the playoffs a third straight year in Chicago for the first time in more than a decade.

– The Minnesota Wild signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to 13-year, $98 million contracts in 2012 and they may miss the playoffs two straight years for the first time since then.

– The Los Angeles Kings hired former San Jose and Edmonton coach Todd McLellan, but he will have a hard time stopping the franchise from falling short of the postseason in two straight years for the first time since a six-season drought that ended in 2010.

– Under first-year coach Dallas Eakins, the Anaheim Ducks may miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2000-2002.

– The Arizona Coyotes have failed to make the playoffs for seven straight years, a drought that trails only Buffalo’s in the NHL, and probably will extend the run this season. The Vancouver Canucks could sit out a fifth straight year, which would be a franchise record.

Previewing the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Significantly better. Colin Miller is an underrated defenseman who might be able to take on a bigger role than he played in Vegas. Henri Jokiharju provides another (eventual?) boost on the right side, possibly opening up room to trade Rasmus Ristolainen.

The forward group gets a boost from Marcus Johansson, and Jimmy Vesey if Vesey can take a step forward. Maybe most importantly, they didn’t lose Jeff Skinner.

Strengths: The high end of this team is powerful, and could get better, being that Jack Eichel is just 22, and Rasmus Dahlin is only 19. There’s also a little more help beyond the top guys than in 2018-19, where little good happened when Eichel, Dahlin, and Skinner were off the ice.

Weaknesses: Buffalo took some significant steps in improving the talent around their top players, but this is still not a very deep team. The Sabres badly need Casey Mittelstadt to make a dramatic leap as a sophomore. Even then, the bottom two forward lines seem pretty shaky, and their defense faces similar depth challenges. The Sabres also didn’t really address their goaltending situation, so they’ll have to cross their fingers that Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark (or someone else, eventually?) will work out better than they did in 2018-19.

[MORE: Under pressure | X-factor | Three questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): From 1997-2013, Lindy Ruff served as Sabres head coach. During the offseason, Ralph Krueger became the fourth Sabres coach since Ruff was fired in Feb. 2013. The Sabres have missed the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons (plus 10 of the last 12), and haven’t won a playoff series since 2006-07.

Ideally, Krueger’s seat would be ice cold, but patience is beyond thin in hockey-loving Buffalo. If the Sabres suffer more from the same under a coach who’s spent the last few years more interested in the 4-4-2 in soccer than the 1-3-1 in hockey, then the heat could start boiling pretty quickly.

But there does tend to be a grace period when a new coach takes over, so let’s call it a five or a six.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Jeff Skinner, Rasmus Dahlin, and Casey Mittelstadt.

Skinner got his money, stunningly so, to the tune of $9 million per season. Now he’ll face pressure to justify that price, and he’ll be following up a season where he played a little bit over his head, as his 40 goals came via a 14.9 shooting percentage, the highest of his nine-year career. If he’s closer to his 2017-18 numbers (24 goals, 8.7 shooting percentage), there will be grumbling.

Dahlin was absolutely dazzling as a rookie, to the point that I was arguing that the Sabres should have echoed the Dallas Stars’ handling of Miro Heiskanen by giving Dahlin even more ice time, just to see if he could handle it. Maybe the Sabres will drop any facade of the “training wheels” being on in 2019-20? I’d guess Dahlin can thrive even in tough, big minutes — particularly compared to the Buffalo’s less-than-ideal other options.

Again, Mittelstadt needs to be better in his second full season. He came into the NHL with Calder Trophy hype not that different from Dahlin, and 2018-19 readjusted expectations … but a leap in 2019-20 could be crucial for Buffalo’s chances to compete.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Sabres did a lot right, and if Krueger ends up being a big upgrade from Phil Housley as head coach, then Buffalo could leap even further.

Unfortunately, the Sabres are also in arguably the toughest division in the NHL. It’s difficult to imagine Buffalo being in range of last year’s top three Atlantic teams (Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto), and the Panthers spent a ton to improve on what was already an impressive core. There might not be a lot of seats left in this game of musical chairs, and my guess is that the Sabres will find themselves stumbling out of the mix once again.

It wouldn’t be shocking if Buffalo stayed in the bubble longer than last season, but I’d say they’re more likely to play the lottery than reach the postseason.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Dallas Stars

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or worse: The Stars were one of the most top-heavy teams in the league last season with Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, Jamie Benn, John Klingberg, and Miro Heiskanen driving almost all of the scoring. Only three forwards on the team managed more than 30 points, and if offense wasn’t coming from the Seguin-Benn-Radulov trio, it wasn’t going to come from anywhere. They attempted to address that over the summer with the signings of Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry. That should be an improvement. Perry is a bit of a wild card because his career has fallen off so much in recent years, but Pavelski should still be able to drive a second scoring line that the Stars desperately need. How much better remains to be seen, but they are better.

Strengths: Simply put, it is the top of their lineup and it is not limited to any one position. Whether it be at forward where they have a great top line (Seguin-Benn-Radulov), on defense (Klingberg and Heiskanen) or in net (Ben Bishop) each layer of the roster has top-line talent. That matters a lot. You can not compete for a championship without elite players, they are the toughest players to find and acquire, and the Stars have a bunch of them at the most important positions. Seguin is one of the league’s best offensive players, Klingberg is already a Norris contender, Heiskanen might one day join him, and Bishop has been a Vezina finalist three different times.

Weaknesses: If their strength is the top of the lineup, then it only makes sense that their weakness is everything after that. The Stars’ bottom three lines were so bad a year ago that when none of Seguin, Benn, or Radulov were on the ice at 5-on-5 the Stars were outscored by a 77-56 margin and controlled less than 48 percent of the total shot attempts. That is, in a word, bad. If the Stars are going to be more than just a playoff team and become a legitimate Stanley Cup contender that has to improve.

[MORE: X-Factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): In his first season behind the Stars’ bench Jim Montgomery had the Stars in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and was a double overtime Game 7 goal away from being in the Western Conference Final. It would take a complete meltdown for his job to be in any sort of jeopardy at this point. So we will go with a 1 out of 10 for him on the hot seat rating this season.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Heiskanen, Pavelski, and Roope Hintz are three players worth keeping an eye on in Dallas this season.

Let’s start with Heiskanen because the expectations for him are beginning to shoot through the roof. His rookie season was sensational and so good that Bishop already declared him to be one of the best defenders he has ever played with and a future Hall of Famer. He just turned 20 years old this summer and seems to have unlimited potential. How big of a step he takes in year two will be a fascinating development to watch.

When it comes to Pavelski the biggest question is what he is going to be capable of producing. He has been one of the league’s best goal-scorers over the past six years and is coming off a monster 38-goal performance (in only 75 games) for the San Jose Sharks. But he just turned 35 years old and had a career-high 20 percent shooting percentage a year ago. He is probably not going to be that efficient with his shooting this season so you should expect some kind of a regression. Even if he is a 25 or 30 goal player that is still a huge boost to the Stars’ lineup.

Hintz took a huge step forward over the final two months of the regular season, recording 17 points in 32 games between the beginning of February and the end of the regular season. He continued that strong play in the playoffs with 13 points (five goals, three assists) in the Stars’ playoff games. Him being able to build off that and become a strong complementary piece would go a long way toward solving some of the depth concerns.

Playoffs or lottery: This is a playoff team, and potentially a pretty good one. The Western Conference is still pretty wide open and there remains a pretty big gap between the playoff teams and the rest of the pack. Depending on how much they can get out of Palelski and Perry, as well as any improvement from returning young players (Heiskanen, Hintz, etc.) this could be a top-three team in the Central and potentially even compete for the top spot.

MORE:
Pavelski, Perry missing pieces for Stars?
• 
ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

All eyes turn to Quinn Hughes’ development for Canucks

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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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Vancouver Canucks.

Even though there seems to be no definitive plan with the Vancouver Canucks’ ongoing rebuild, there have at least been two huge developments during this process. In each of the past two years they have had a young player emerge as a franchise player and organizational building block, at least giving the team’s fans some kind of reason for hope that the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t just an oncoming freight train.

Two years ago it was forward Brock Boeser who burst on the scene with 29 goals and 55 points before a brutal injury cut his season short after just 62 games. It was enough to give him a second place finish in the Calder Trophy voting. He showed in year two it was not a fluke performance and that he is the real deal.

This past season it was Elias Pettersson instantly becoming one of the league’s must-see players and winning the rookie of the year award.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

This year the hope is that defender Quinn Hughes can follow in their footsteps and have a breakthrough rookie season.

The Canucks definitely need it.

For all of the flaws this roster currently has, there is no position that is thinner in terms of potential impact players than the defense which has become a black hole when it comes to creating offense.

Alexander Edler is probably the most accomplished player to ever play on the team’s blue line, and while he still has something to offer his best days are in the rear-view mirror. Chris Tanev is a solid defensive player, but is not going to break a game open. Tyler Myers will have a lot of pressure to live up to his contract, but he probably isn’t going to make a huge impact when it comes to making a meaningful improvement in the standings.

Hughes is the type of player that could do that if everything goes as planned.

He only appeared in five games for the Canucks at the end of the 2018-19 season and was eased into the lineup in a very sheltered role, but it was an impressive debut that saw him record three assists and show the speed, creativity, and type of talent the Canucks are desperately lacking on their blue line.

It would be putting way too much pressure on him to expect him to step in the lineup and duplicate the rookie performance of a Miro Heiskanen or Rasmus Dahlin (not everyone is going to be that good, that fast) but he has the potential to make a noticeable impact on the Canucks’ lineup. A big rookie season from him would do more to improve the team’s outlook than any other addition they made this summer, not only because of the position he plays and the impact it could make, but because of how important he is to the team’s long-term development.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Dallas Stars questions: goaltending, aging, and new faces

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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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Dallas Stars.

Let’s run through three questions for the Dallas Stars heading into 2019-20 …

1. How will the new guys fit in?

During the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, we saw how formidable the Stars could be when Mats Zuccarello helped their second line chip in a bit more offensively, supplementing Jamie BennTyler Seguin, and allowing Ben Bishop to do the rest.

They waved goodbye to Zuccarello during the offseason, but hope to boast an improved offense after making a hefty investment in Joe Pavelski.

Along with Pavelski, the Stars also took some interesting reclamation projects in Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera. If those two deliver above their (newly modest) levels of play, then things could really pick up for a Stars team that looks to be competitive in the Central Division.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | X-Factor | Under Pressure]

2. Will the Stars get elite goaltending again?

Last season, you might have expected slightly above average work from the tandem of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin. Instead, the Stars enjoyed the second-best even-strength save percentage last season, and Bishop managed the difficult task of carrying that outstanding work into the playoffs.

As stingy as Stars head coach Jim Montgomery’s defensive system was in 2018-19, it’s tough to imagine Bishop and Khudobin pulling that off again.

Bishop only played 46 regular season games last season, and was limited to 53 in 2017-18, so we’ve already seen how much the big goalie can be hindered by health. Bishop – Khudobin is a veteran goalie combo, opening the door to a decline related to aging, not just injuries.

Beyond all of that, goalies are just flat-out difficult to predict from year to year. It’s the most important position in the sport, yet also a very tough one to forecast, so relying too much on your netminders is very risky.

3. Can the Stars avoid being hit too hard by the aging curve?

Young talent supplies some of the Stars’ excitement, as John Klingberg (26), Miro Heiskanen (20), and Roope Hintz (22) are all key contributors. At 27, Tyler Seguin is in the meat of his prime, too.

The Stars are still slated to tussle with Father Time in a big way in 2019-20, however.

Jamie Benn is slowing at 30. It’s surprising that Joe Pavelski is 35, and Alexander Radulov is 33, yet maybe we shouldn’t be surprised if they suddenly look their ages. Bishop is 32, and Khudobin is 33. Corey Perry seems like a very old 34, and a reminder of how steep an age-related decline can be.

If enough Stars veterans hit the aging curve in a bad way this season, things could go sideways. Some teams like the Bruins get a little bit lucky when it comes to avoiding these drop-offs, in part because they’re able to shift some of the burden to younger players, and the Stars could pull that off too. Other teams aren’t so lucky, and the Stars haven’t even enjoyed the same peak years as the Kings, Ducks, or Blackhawks.

There are a lot of variables going on with the Stars (and other NHL teams), but the potential results of aging could be huge.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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.