Nikita Kucherov

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Who can challenge Alex Ovechkin for NHL’s goal crown this season?

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Alex Ovechkin has been the NHL’s most dominant goal-scorer from the moment he entered the league and has a chance to finish his career as the league’s all-time goal-scoring leader. Even if he doesn’t eclipse Wayne Gretzky’s mark of 894, there were still be an argument to be made that he is the best ever at putting the puck in the net when you account for the era they played in. He has already finished as the leading scorer eight times, including six of the past seven seasons.

It has become a foregone conclusion that he is going to score at least 50 goals and outscore everyone. This past season the gap closed a little bit as Edmonton’ Leon Draisaitl finished just one goal behind and John Tavares four goals back.

Will anyone be able to finally overthrow him at the top this season?

Let’s take a look at some contenders.

The top contenders

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs: They key for Matthews will be staying healthy. Over his first three years in the league he has scored at a 42-goal pace over 82 games. That is the good news. The bad news is he has missed 36 games over the past two seasons. He is just now entering what should be his peak years in the league and (if he stays healthy) might have a shot at 50 goals.

Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets: He was expected to challenge Ovechkin a year ago, especially after an 18-goal month of November. But his shooting percentage cratered for the remainder of the season and he finished with only 30 goals. He is too talented for that to happen again. Expect big things from him this season.

Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning: Since Oveckin entered the NHL at the start of the 2005-06 season, only five players other than him have finished a season as the league’s leading goal-scorer (and only three of those five are still active). Stamkos is one of those players, and he has actually accomplished the feat twice. He is still one of the league’s best players, is on an offensive powerhouse team, and is coming off of a 45-goal season. He is always a threat.

The next tier

Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers: He is the best player in the world, but he is probably more of a playmaker than a pure “goal scorer.” Still, he has topped the 40-goal mark in each of the past two seasons and is entering the peak offensive production period of his career. He’s got a few 50-goal seasons in his future.

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche: His shot volume has skyrocketed the past two years and even finished with a league-high 385 shots on goal this past season. He’s a 40-plus goal guy and if he sees just a little bit of a spike in his shooting percentage to go with that added shot volume he could be capable of some special things.

Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning: He is one of the elite players in the league so he always has to be in the discussion, but I am not sure if he is going to be quite as dominant as he was a season ago.

The sleeper

David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins: He only needed 66 games to score 38 goals for the Bruins a year ago (a 47-goal pace over 82 games) and is quickly developing into an elite offensive player on a Stanley Cup contender. As long as he gets significant time next to Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand he is going to be surrounded by All-Stars and put into a great scoring environment.

Maybe not as close as they were

Leon Drasaitl, Edmonton Oilers: He was the runner-up a year ago, finishing just one goal behind Ovechkin. He is a great talent, a great player, and plays next to the league’s best playmaker. I am just not sure if he scores on 20 percent of his shots again. That might drop him down a tier or two on the goal leaderboard.

John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs: His first year in Toronto produced a career high in goals (47) and his highest ever finish in the goal race. He has talent around him and is a great player, but like Draisaitl I feel like there might be a bit of a shooting percentage regression coming in his future this season. Even if that only knocks a few goals off of his total, that might keep him out of the race.

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.

NHL expands reach into Russia with new streaming deal

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CHICAGO — Vladimir Tarasenko is thankful for the internet because it allows his grandfather back home in Russia to watch NHL games.

Starting this season, Tarasenko’s grandfather and the rest of Russia will be able to watch every single regular-season and playoff game. The NHL is expanding its reach into Russia with a new streaming agreement with Yandex that will more than triple the amount of games broadcast there.

”For most of the people who really love hockey, that’s huge,” said Tarasenko, who took the Stanley Cup home this summer after winning it with the St. Louis Blues. ”If you can see the best players in the world playing and not leave your house and watching the highlights and everything, for kids who really love hockey and enjoy it, this means a lot.”

The NHL and the Russian Federation have cooperated better in recent years than past decades. Down the road, the possibility exists that the NHL stages a game in Russia, and this broadcast agreement could be considered another step toward that.

”It’s a game-changer for us,” NHL executive vice president of international and media strategy David Proper said Wednesday. ”We’re more than dipping our toe into the market.”

Commissioner Gary Bettman said the agreement gives the league ”extraordinarily wide distribution to a hockey savvy market.” There have been internal discussions about playing an NHL game in Russia, though it’s not imminent.

”There are a variety of complicating factors, but at some point, with certain teams and certain players, I think it would be a lot of fun,” Bettman said. ”But there’s a long road between here and there.”

The NHL’s previous agreement called for 15 games a week to be broadcast in Russia. That gave a window into the league and its Russian stars such as Tarasenko, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Malkin, Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy, but the long-term goal is to create not just more fans but another generation of players.

Citing agreements in other countries with established pro leagues, Proper said the NHL is not trying to cut into the KHL’s market, but rather help the Russian-based league with more exposure.

”If things go really well, it rises all boats because people become hockey fans,” Proper said. ”For the most part they’re not on at the same times as KHL games, so this gives us the opportunity to show how great Russian players are and maybe hopefully that in some way helps just the overall growth of hockey in the market.”

Pressures of being Maple Leafs GM go beyond Marner

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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 Toronto Maple Leafs.

It’s easy to get lost in all of the distractions and lose sight of the fact that the Maple Leafs have, in a lot of ways, built something special in Toronto. And GM Kyle Dubas played a huge role in bringing in some of those special elements.

A mixture of contract/cap struggles and playoff letdowns obscure that notion, and it’s difficult to blame people when they’ve felt disappointed, if not downright anxious, about this Maple Leafs team. After all, despite splashy signings from John Tavares to Mike Babcock, this team still hasn’t won a playoff series since 2003-04.

Credit fans and media for being relatively calm and patient with the Maple Leafs’ rebuild over the years, but desperation is bubbling up, and Dubas is under pressure to hold everything together long enough for this team to finally deliver on all of that promise.

Consider the challenges Dubas faces and you’ll understand some of the pressure.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | X-factor]

Signing Mitch Marner: The most obvious challenge is also the most daunting one. It feels less like the elephant in the room and more like the room itself. (We haven’t gotten to the point where we’re spouting out “Oh Hi Mitch” yet, so at least it isn’t “The Room.”)

The Marner situation remains a mystery, as it’s unclear when he’ll sign, for what dollar amount, and for how long. We’re close to September, and the Maple Leafs’ cap situation is convoluted enough where you wonder if this could stretch out to Nylanderian lengths, maybe eating up regular season games.

Either way, it’s on Dubas to win this game of chicken, and you can argue that he’s had mixed results so far.

Nylander’s near-$7 million cap hit figures to be pretty team-friendly if he can get back on track, yet that protracted holdout almost certainly hampered his ability to keep his game in tidy rows. The Maple Leafs didn’t seem to get much of a discount on Auston Matthews, either, as he’s at $11.634M for just five seasons, not eating up much in the way of UFA years.

The Maple Leafs were bound to face cap issues, but they haven’t enjoyed the sort of sweetheart deals in the same way that their divisional foes in Boston and Tampa Bay have. If the ship has sailed on Marner drawing a Nikita Kucherov-type discount, Toronto at least needs to get something done there, so the pressure remains on Dubas.

Managing Mike Babcock: After another Game 7 exit at the hands of the Bruins, many wondered about the dynamic between Dubas and Babcock. Dubas said all the right things in bringing Babcock back for 2019-20, yet it seems like the two don’t always see the game the same way.

Frankly, for all of the impressive bullet points on Babcock’s resume, it sure feels like this talented Toronto team hasn’t always been “optimized” under Babcock lately. Matthews’ minutes could be more robust, and they’d ideally take time away from lesser players.

People will look for signs of this relationship cratering, particularly if moves like the trade to bring in Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot end up looking a little rocky.

Beyond the core: As tricky as it is to retain that nucleus of Marner, Matthews, Tavares, and Nylander, the toughest challenge is to find the right electrons at the right price. (Thus concludes any shaky scientific analogies I can make.)

So far, Dubas has done a pretty splendid job of maneuvering around the obvious guys, whether that involved getting rid of problem deals (Patrick Marleau, Nikita Zaitsev), retaining mid-level support (Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen), or identifying bargains (Tyler Ennis, and then maybe Jason Spezza).

But, like with any contender once star rookie contracts have all expired, the work will basically never be done. Dubas will need to eventually find replacements or new deals for Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie, who are both entering contract years. Frederik Andersen is in line for a raise once his $5M cap hit expires after 2020-21.

Ideally, the cap ceiling will rise more significantly in future offseasons than it did this year. Even if that happens, Dubas will be under pressure to find creative ways to make this all work.

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.

Looking at Nikita Kucherov’s offensive dominance

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Nikita Kucherov‘s MVP 2018-19 season was one of the single most dominant individual performances the NHL has seen in years.

His 128 points were 12 more than any other player in the league, and the most in the NHL since the 1995-96 season. It was also his second consecutive 100-point season (making him one of just eight active players to have two 100-point seasons in their career) and gave him one of the most productive two-year runs in the NHL in 25 years. It was such an incredible two-year run that the only players that have matched it (or come close to matching it) during that time are named Lemieux, Jagr, Thornton, Ovechkin, Crosby, and McDavid. All the greats of the modern era.

Here we take a quick look at the most productive two-year runs in the NHL dating back to the start of the 1994-95 season, and it is pretty clear that Kucherov has been on an elite level that only a handful of players can reach.

When it comes to the players ahead of him, keep in mind that Lemieux and Jagr were playing alongside each other for much of that 1995-96 to 1996-97 run and forming an unstoppable duo of legends, while Thornton’s two-year stretch came out of the 2004-05 lockout when penalties, power plays, and goals briefly skyrocketed to close to 1980s levels.

That two-year run for Kucherov also comes after he finished the 2016-17 season with 85 points in only 74 games, which translates to a 95-point pace over a full season. When it comes strictly to point production there are two clear leaders that stand out above the rest of the pack — Connor McDavid and Kucherov. Since the start of the 2016-17 McDavid tops the league with a 1.34 point per game average. Kucherov is right behind him at 1.33. After them, the next closest player is Boston’s Brad Marchand at 1.19. That is, on average, nearly a 15-point difference over 82 games.

The only thing his career is missing at this point is a championship. While he certainly shares some of the responsibility for this past year’s early exit (no goals, two assists, and a suspension in the four-game defeat) his career postseason performance stacks up with any other player in the league. By pretty much any objective measure he has been one of the most dominant offensive players in the league for three years now and is still right in the thick of his peak years in the league.

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.

Sergachev’s development huge X-factor for Lightning

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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 Tampa Bay Lightning.

One of the things that makes the Tampa Bay Lightning such a dangerous team is they not only have a collection of All-Stars, but also another wave of young talent coming behind them that serve as a perfect complement. You see it at forward with players like Brayden Point, Yanni Gourde, and Anthony Cirelli starting to emerge as impact players to go along with Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

The same thing is happening on the blue line where they have an all-world talent in Victor Hedman, and two really good veterans in Ryan McDonagh and Kevin Shattenkirk. But we know what they are capable of and what should be expected of them.

The most intriguing player on the defense this season might be third-year pro Mikhail Sergachev.

A top-10 pick by the Montreal Canadiens back in 2015, the Lightning acquired Sergachev in the Jonathan Drouin trade one year later and had huge expectations for him when he joined the organization. He has immense talent and potential, and has already shown flashes of becoming a cornerstone player.

He hasn’t yet been given a huge role (averaging just 15 minutes per game during his rookie season, then 17 minutes in year two) but has made the most of the minutes he has been given. Especially when it comes to driving the team’s offense. Over the past two years Sergachev has averaged 1.28 points per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, a number that places him 10th among ALL defenders in the NHL, and tops among all defenders on the Lightning (yes, even ahead of Hedman and McDonagh).

Even more impressive is that he has averaged 0.60 primary assists per 60 minutes, a mark that has trailed only the San Jose Sharks Norris duo of Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns.

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

He has done all of that while also posting great possession numbers, helping the Lightning to outshoot and outchance their opponents when he is on the ice. In short, he has been wildly productive in his minutes and has already shown he can be an elite playmaker.

Has that production come in a sheltered role that includes limited minutes and is heavy on the offensive zone starts? Of course it has, but even with that there are not many defenders that are able to produce the way he has during their age 19 and 20 seasons in the league. Not many defenders at ANY age are capable of producing that well.

Does he still have some areas to improve defensively? For sure, after all, he is still only 21 years old and has played just two full years in the league. He is far from a finished product. But he has shown over the past two years that he is more than capable of handling the role he has been given in Tampa Bay and has definitely earned a bigger role and some tougher assignments this season.

The Lightning already have a really good defense thanks to Hedman, a strong No. 2 in McDonagh, and a nice bounce-back candidate in Shattenkirk. But they have another potential monster in Sergachev lurking below the surface that could be on the verge of joining Hedman as a superstar at the top of the lineup if he can put it all together in a more expanded role. If he does that this season, already loaded Lightning roster becomes even more intimidating.

(Data via Natural Stat Trick)

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.