Nikolaj Ehlers

Getty Images

The Buzzer: Starting NHL season on a high note — or falling over

3 Comments

Three Stars

1. Mika ZibanejadRangers

If there’s a single player whose recent work has been lost in the shuffle of New York’s recent plummet, it’s Zibanejad. It’s still kind of hard to believe that the Senators really traded him for Derick Brassard.

There was a lot of scoring in New York’s home win against Winnipeg, and while Artemi Panarin had a nice debut, Zibanejad led the way, scoring one goal and three assists. He also fired seven shots on goal and even blocked two shots.

This could be a big season for Zibanejad, one that makes it impossible to ignore his brilliance — even if the Rangers experience a lot of peaks and valleys.

Fittingly, a lot of other players had big nights in that slugfest, including Jacob Trouba against his former team. Trouba generated a goal and two assists, managing three SOG and two blocked shots.

2. Nikolaj Ehlers, Jets

Good thing Winnipeg didn’t lose this guy in the offseason, as Ehlers topped a lot of wishlists for other fans dreaming of the Jets making a reckless trade. After all, Ehlers had a tough postseason, and if Kevin Cheveldayoff channeled his inner Peter Chiarelli, that might have inspired an overreaction.

This ended up being a good day for Kevin to take off.

Ehlers produced three assists on Thursday, also shooting with abandon (eight SOG). Impressively, all three of Ehlers assists were of the primary variety. If you prefer, you might instead choose linemate Blake Wheeler, who scored two goals on nine SOG.

There are plenty of other nights worth noting, including those of Mikko Rantanen and Conor Sheary, who managed two goals apiece for their respective teams.

3. Matt DuchenePredators

Quite a debut for Duchene.

The speedy center managed an impressive three assists, thwarted from a fourth thanks to a great stop by Devan Dubnyk. It’s quite possible that Duchene could form a fantastic top line with Mikael Granlund and Filip Forsberg. That trio created a lot of offense, and Nashville looks like it could have a winning balance.

Duchene only generated one SOG and “only” went 10-10 on draws, but it was an impressive performance.

Mikhail Sergachev ranks among the better honorable mentions with three assists of his own.

Highlight of the Night

While Dubnyk’s save might be the most impressive moment of Thursday, it was already covered here, and the Wild still lost to the Predators. So let’s honor a runner-up: sensational Sabres sophomore Rasmus Dahlin burned multiple Penguins for a tremendous goal in Buffalo’s 3-1 win. Dahlin shows the sort of hands you don’t normally see from a defenseman, even a very good one:

Blooper of the Night

The Rangers won a wild game against the Jets 6-4 on Thursday, but Lias Andersson didn’t get off to the greatest start, thanks to a pesky cord:

Factoids

Scores

TBL 5 – FLA 2
NYR 6 – WIN 4
BUF 3 – PIT 1
CAR 4 – MTL 3 (SO)
NSH 5 – MIN 2
BOS 2 – DAL 1
COL 5 – CGY 3
ANA 2 – ARI 1

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.

Jets’ turbulent offseason capped with injuries to Little, Beaulieu

Getty Images
1 Comment

Few teams come into the very beginning of the 2019-20 season quite as bruised and bewildered as the Winnipeg Jets.

After a tough end to last season that included a Round 1 exit, the Jets absorbed body blows that were more than just flesh wounds during the offseason. They waved goodbye to some key players from rental Kevin Hayes to defensive mainstays including Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers. Things were bumpy, to say the least, with Patrik Laine, from ambivalent comments about his future, not-so-kind comments about linemates such as Bryan Little, and finally a very short-term truce with the team via a two-year deal. There was also uncertainty with Kyle Connor until he signed a lengthy pact. If that wasn’t all enough, Dustin Byfuglien is contemplating retirement, and didn’t exactly give the Jets a ton of notice about what’s either a soul-searching sojourn or the end of a truly unique NHL career.

After all the corny (yet inevitable) “day off” jokes that once followed GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, one couldn’t blame the executive if he felt both relieved and exhausted as the season merely begins.

Unfortunately, the hits kept coming in the final days of an offseason that rarely felt like time off.

The Jets provided two unfortunate bits of injury news on Tuesday, as the team announced that Little is out indefinitely with a concussion, while defenseman Nathan Beaulieu is IR-bound with an upper-body injury that’s expected to sideline him for about four weeks. Both injuries happened during what ended up being a very costly 4-1 preseason win against the Minnesota Wild.

(This Luke Kunin hit injured Little, and Scott Billeck reports for the Winnipeg Sun that head coach Paul Maurice was understandably unhappy about it.)

All of these injuries, free agent losses, and Byfuglien-sized curveballs create some massive craters in the Jets’ lineup, which is troubling since Winnipeg looked so wobbly at times last season, even with the likes of Trouba in the mix. Money Puck’s month-to-month expected goals chart presented their plummeting play in a dramatic way:

Some of those months were without Byfuglien, but again, with Trouba. Taking Ben Chiarot and Beaulieu out of an already troubled group slices up that defense even more.

Meanwhile, the Little injury stacks the deck against Maurice and the Jets, too.

The team shared line rushes that would include Andrew Copp as a second-line center, with Adam Lowry possibly as the 3C.

That doesn’t inspire the highest level of confidence, although maybe this is a time where Maurice should be more willing to experiment. While this would be out of necessity, you never know when you might find different things that work, possibly giving you a Plan B (to Z!) for when matchups become tougher during playoff skirmishes.

What if Jack Roslovic could thrive in a 2C or 3C role? Is it possible that breaking up Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele could benefit the likes of Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers? Considering his traditionally impressive possession stats, would Mathieu Perreault be worth a look at one of those center spots, too?

It’s possible that none of those alignments would be optimal, but you don’t need to look too hard to see that these aren’t the most optimal times for the Jets.

Again, though, sometimes bigger challenges bring out the best in players. In the past, it might have felt like the Jets had a luxurious surplus of talent, maybe allowing some to believe – consciously or subconsciously – that they could “flip the switch” and turn things around, even with red flags waving.

Under the current circumstances, they’re going to depend on not just Scheifele and Wheeler, but also Laine, Ehlers, Josh Morrissey, and Connor Hellebuyck. Without pressure, you can’t get diamonds, and so maybe that thought will serve as the Jets’ silver lining.

Because, frankly, there are some uncomfortable forces bearing down on them as the season begins.

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.

Maple Leafs among Canadian teams looking to take next step

Getty Images
5 Comments

Auston Matthews watched the NBA champion Raptors parade through the streets of Toronto and couldn’t help but wonder.

What if instead of Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry, it was him and his Maple Leafs teammates celebrating the franchise’s first Stanley Cup title since 1967?

”I definitely get stuck thinking about stuff like that,” Matthews said. ”You kind of picture yourself in that situation.”

Matthews first wants to picture the Maple Leafs on a long playoff run after three consecutive first-round exits. For Toronto and all seven Canada-based NHL teams, this season is about taking the next step, whether it’s into Cup contender status, into the postseason or a long-term rebuild.

The Maple Leafs with Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander up front and a retooled blue line featuring former Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie on paper look like the best hope to end Canada’s Cup drought that dates to 1993. But they play in arguably hockey’s toughest division with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins and the improved Florida Panthers , so they can’t really be judged until they get into the playoffs and show what they can do.

”Obviously the Achilles heel has been that first round for us,” Matthews said. ”It’s tough to really measure a successful season without reaching that ultimate goal and accomplishing it. For us obviously it’s been frustrating, especially the last two years – the same team, same result. So for us just making sure that everybody’s really focused and dialed in and ready to kind of get over that hump.”

Toronto lost to Boston in Game 7 of the first round each of the past two seasons. The Bruins got to Game 7 of the Cup Final before losing to St. Louis.

”They were that close,” Matthews said. ”It’s always in the back of your mind kind of that ‘What could have been.”’

WESTERN POWERS

Out West, the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames are each coming off disappointing first-round defeats and have high expectations of burying those memories and advancing further this spring.

”We never really found that level that we did two years ago when we made it to the conference finals, and we need to get back at that,” Jets winger Nikolaj Ehlers said. ”We need to find that and we need to find it earlier. I’m excited for this year and I think the guys are, too.”

The Jets traded defenseman Jacob Trouba to the Rangers, lost Tyler Myers in free agency and are dealing with the possibility that Dustin Byfuglien could retire. The uncertain futures of unsigned restricted free agent forwards Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor add to the uncertainty in Winnipeg.

”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,” Ehlers said.

MONTREAL’S HUMP

The Montreal Canadiens just want to get back to the playoffs after missing in two of the past three seasons. They haven’t won a round since 2015, and forward Max Domi can’t imagine what his first home playoff game will be like in a city starved for it.

”I watch videos all the time of people with their iPhones at a live Bell Centre Montreal Canadiens game in the playoffs and just visualizing how cool that would be,” Domi said. ”It’s a dream of mine.”

Carey Price, who in 2015 won the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP and Vezina Trophy as the top goaltender, is the biggest reason to believe the Canadiens can overcome the odds and make the playoffs.

”He’s the best goalie in the world for a reason,” Domi said. ”It’s a major confidence boost, for sure. He’s outstanding.”

OIL SHORTAGE

The Edmonton Oilers have one playoff appearance in 13 years since reaching the 2006 Stanley Cup Final. They have a new general manager in Ken Holland, a new coach in Dave Tippett and new questions about captain Connor McDavid coming off a knee injury. Of course, the biggest question in Edmonton is if this once-proud franchise can put it all together and stop wasting McDavid’s prime.

”We all get frustrated at times,” center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. ”You’re kidding yourself if you say it doesn’t. We’ve got to find our way out of it. There’s no point dwelling on it, no point getting down about it. You’ve just got to push through and we’ve got to find a way to get out of it together.”

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

Swedish sensation Elias Pettersson gives the Vancouver Canucks hope that they can return to prominence with a new wave of young talent. It’s still a process for Vancouver, which will need to build up some more talent before contending.

Defenseman Thomas Chabot‘s $64 million, eight-year extension is similarly good news for the Ottawa Senators that a rising star wants to stay there and be part of the solution. The Senators need a handful more players like Chabot before they can reach the playoffs again.

Defending champion Blues surrounded by tough teams in West

1 Comment

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.

NBC Sports NHL Player Survey: 2019-20 sleeper team

Getty Images
4 Comments

We’re two weeks away from the start of the 2019-20 NHL season and the summer gives fans and teams reason to hope that this could be their year. Every season surprise teams emerge, defying the doubters and making noise after being written off by the hockey world.

While we as fans and media have our thoughts on who might surprise this coming season, we posed that question to players at the NHL Media Tour earlier this month in Chicago. You could probably guess two of the teams that were pretty popular considering the upgrades they made over the summer. Some players were confident enough to say their team could be thought of as a sleeper, while others were left with a lasting impression of a team that played them hard last season.

Here’s who NHL players told us will be the sleeper teams of 2019-20:

Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights: “I think Florida’s going to be good. The only problem is they’re in a tough division.”

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs: “Probably New Jersey. I’m not really sure they’re a sleeper team but they’ve made a lot of really good acquisitions this summer. They’ve got the first overall pick, [Nikita] Gusev from Vegas, P.K. [Subban], and they’ve got some pretty good young guys that have been there for a while like [Nico] Hischier and [Taylor] Hall. They missed the playoffs last year but they’re always a tough team to play against. They play fast and they’re going to be a team that surprises some other teams.”

Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks: “The ‘Hawks. I think we have a better group of guys. Our defensive units have been positive, the trades we made were positive and getting [Robin] Lehner is huge. No one wants to not make the playoffs again, so I think that’s a big thing in our locker room. We’re not going to accept it this year.”

Max Domi, Montreal Canadiens: “I think Arizona’s going to be good this year. They were close last year, they did a lot last year, especially with all the injuries they had. That [Nick] Schmaltz is a heck of a player. Adding Phil Kessel’s a big deal. Signing [Clayton] Keller to that extension will give him a lot of confidence.”

John Klingberg, Dallas Stars: “I’d say ourselves. I think we played good hockey after the All-Star break and we were pretty good in the playoffs, just lost that Game 7 to St. Louis and added some really good pieces. We’re going to be a really good team this year.”

Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings: “I’d say Detroit. Everyone’s healthy right now. We have good pickups that would add depth to our team and our young core of players coming up.”

Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames: “I’d say the Montreal Canadiens. They got a lot of really good young players. I remember playing against them. They compete hard, they’re tough to play against. They’ve got a lot of skills. Obviously, Carey Price in net. That’s a good goalie to have.”

Matt Duchene, Nashville Predators: “It’s so hard to pick now. I think Columbus is going to be a lot better than people have them ranked. Obviously guys leaving looks a certain way but I think they’re going to be very, very good team and very tough to be. They always are.”

Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars: “Staying in our division I think Chicago’s going to be a good team. They’re due for a bounce back. They made some key moves this off-season. I expect them to be a lot better this season.”

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins: “Florida Panthers.”

Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks: “I don’t know if there are sleepers anymore, to be honest. I think Colorado’s going to be good. Maybe Vancouver. I’ve found them to be a really good team. They worked so hard last year. There’s a lot of teams that are hiding in the weeds just waiting for their turn to make a surge for the playoffs and make it count when that time comes.”

Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets: “The two teams that I think besides Colorado, who I think is a great team, it wouldn’t surprise me if they made it far would be Arizona or the Rangers.”

Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes: “There was a lot of big off-season moves but I think one team that really improved is the Devils. Their additions on the back end, forward end, they’re going to be a pretty good team this year.”

Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks: “Florida. I think they have a great team, now they have a new goalie with [Sergei] Bobrovsky signing.”

Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche: “Florida. I don’t know if people are sleeping on them too much but I think they made some great additions and I’m interested to see how they do this year.”

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals: “New Jersey.”

Derek Stepan, Arizona Coyotes: “I’m biased. I really like what our team has done. I think we have good pieces. I would throw us in the mix. If we continue to do the things we did at the end of last year with the work ethic and the defensive side of things we could be a dangerous club.”

Kevin Hayes, Philadelphia Flyers: “I think people have the Flyers as a low-end team this year. I don’t think that’s going to be the case. We have a great goalie and have some new faces. It should all come together.”

Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators: “I’m very excited in what we can do, first things first. It’s a new coach, it’s a new team. We’ve got a lot of new guys coming in. Everybody’s put at the end of the standings already. It’s going to be a fun year. It’s going to be different than it was.”

Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres: “Florida Panthers.”

Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild: “I think they’ve been sleeping, but the Edmonton Oilers. Everyone’s kind of just waiting like, When is it going to happen? They’ve got a lot of pieces in play. I know a bunch of those dudes and they work hard. It just hasn’t come together. They do have arguably the best player in the National Hockey League. We’ll see, I guess.”

Bo Horvat, Vancouver Canucks: “I don’t know if they’re a sleeper but think Vegas is always going to be right up there and be good. They’ve got a lot of good players and the building’s tough to play in. I think they’re going to hold a grudge with what happened in the playoffs last year and they’re going to come out strong.”

Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers: “Philadelphia. New coaching staff and they added some depth defensively. They had a good team [last year] and they were tough to play against. They could surprise.”

MORE NHL PLAYER SURVEYS:
Commissioner for the day
Most underrated player
Change or keep current playoff format?

————

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.