Tennessean

The Buzzer: Red Wings win; Laviolette lost a bet

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Three Stars

1. Mark Stone

The fantastic two-way winger performed at a high level for Ottawa, generating two goals (including the impressive overtime game-winner) and an assist while logging a busy 20:53 time on ice.

On a night where stone generated a +2 rating, the 26-year-old fired four shots on goal, delivered two hits, and blocked two shots. Stone was probably the biggest reason the Senators won a battle of not-as-dour-as-expected teams.

(See his booming OTGWG in the highlights section.)

2. Nathan MacKinnon

Gabriel Landeskog‘s two goals (and five goals in two games) grabs your attention, but MacKinnon actually had the better overall game.

MacKinnon scored one goal, already his eighth of 2017-18, and also generated two assists. They were primary helpers on both of Landeskog’s goals.

It was an all-around effort for the speedster, as MacKinnon finished +2, generated five SOG, and also delivered a hit and a blocked shot. About the only thing you’d ask for is more success on draws.

Philipp Grubauer was crucial to Colorado’s success, too, stopping 42 out of 43 shots.

(For more on MacKinnon’s rise to stardom, click here.)

3. Jeff Skinner

You could point out plenty of other three-point games from Saturday; perhaps you’d highlight Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jakub Voracek, or Patrick Kane instead?

Regardless, Skinner’s starting to heat up for Buffalo, with all six of his points coming during the Sabres’ last four games. Skinner’s hat-trick goal itself was an empty-netter, but his Saturday was still sterling; he scored on all three of his SOG and sported a +4 as Buffalo added to the Kings’ miseries. Jack Eichel was fantastic in his own right, collecting three assists.

This sort of result really has to be heartening for the up-and-down Sabres.

Highlights

When in doubt, go with overtime game-winners. There were a few to choose from on a busy Saturday around the NHL, but let’s go with Stone’s authoritative shot:

And Gustav Nyquist taking advantage of a nice play by Dylan Larkin to earn Detroit’s first win of the season:

In what might have been the real highlight of the night, Peter Laviolette lost a bet, and well, this happened:

Factoids

Not bad, Marc-Andre Fleury.

This is quite the zany group of former Senators:

What was that line? Living well is the best revenge?

Scores

Flyers 5, Devils 2
Avalanche 3, Hurricanes 1
Sabres 5, Kings 1
Jets 5, Coyotes 3
Blues 4, Maple Leafs 1
Senators 4, Canadiens 3 (OT)
Red Wings 4, Panthers 3 (OT)
Blackhawks 4, Blue Jackets 1
Wild 5, Lightning 4 (OT)
Canucks 2, Bruins 1 (OT)
Golden Knights 3, Ducks 1
Predators 3, Oilers 0
Sharks 4, Islanders 1

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

PHT’s 2018-19 Central Division Preview

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(The 2018-19 NHL season is almost here. This week Pro Hockey Talk will be previewing all four divisions looking at strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

Atlantic Division Preview
Metropolitan Division Preview
Pacific Division Preview

It’s been widely regarded as the toughest (and arguably the most talented) division in the NHL, and the Central Division certainly lived up to that moniker last season, sporting the top two teams league-wide in the Nashville Predators and the Winnipeg Jets, finishing with 117 and 114 points, respectively. The division doesn’t look like it will take a step back this season, either.

It’s one of the most interesting arms races in the NHL and there are no signs of that slowing down.

What will the division look like this year? Let’s take a look:

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: 

Better or Worse: This one depends on how the Corey Crawford situation plays out. It appears he’s getting close to returning, but it takes one puck or one bump in the crease to send Chicago’s season into a spiral again. Cam Ward is a serviceable backup, if not still a fringe starter in the NHL, so Chicago has that going for them at the moment.

The ‘Hawks are only getting older. See: Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, etc. Jonathan Toews’ production is slipping. Patrick Kane is likely still going to put in work, but I’m not certain it will be enough.

Strengths: Goaltending, if Crawford plays. His numbers last season were otherworldly until injuries derailed his bid for the Vezina. Ward, as mentioned above, should be a solid backup that could allow Crawford to rest a little more throughout the season but Crawford needs to play for the Blackhawks to have a shot.

Weaknesses: Defense. Keith and Seabrook at the team’s top defensive pairing and aren’t getting younger and are playing more minutes than what would be considered optimal. Both are overworked and it showed last year. Adding Brandon Manning over the summer offers some depth on the back end, but it’s simply not what it used to be in Chicago.

2017-18 Highlight: One name: Scott Foster.

MVP Candidate: Patrick Kane. He’s still one of the best playing the game currently, a point-per-game player that can put the Blackhawks on his back on any given night.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. The Central Division is simply too good to allow mediocre teams into the playoffs.

COLORADO AVALANCHE: 

Better or Worse: Was it a fluke? A team that was dismal a year prior went on to make the playoffs with their last possible chance on the final day of the regular season and then looked pretty darn good against the Nashville Predators at times in the first round.

They added depth in Matt Calvert and Ian Cole and made things interesting in the crease after acquiring Philipp Grubauer via trade. Can they build off last season, or will they experience the bumps young teams do as they grow together? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered.

Strengths: Special teams were a tremendous asset to the Avalanche last season. They finished eighth on the power play at 21.9 percent and fourth on the penalty kill at 83.3 percent. Those are some solid numbers from a young team like the Avs.

Weaknesses: The expectation that Nathan MacKinnon (and his line) needs to do it all. We saw it last year, and the Avalanche made the playoffs (barely) because of it. But that can’t be the expectation going forward. They’re still a team rebuilding, so the expectation is that will be cured with time.

2017-18 Highlight: Clinching a playoff berth in Game 82. (Don’t miss Landeskog getting mauled by his teammates after the clinching empty-netter.)

MVP Candidate: Nathan MacKinnon. Some say he got robbed of the Hart last year. He put the team on his back on the way to a playoff spot.

Playoffs or Lottery: Unfortunately, a couple teams have gotten better around them and that’s pushed the Avalanche out of the playoff spot and into the lottery.

DALLAS STARS:

Better or Worse: It has to get better, right? A new coaching style courtesy of Jim Montgomery might just do wonders for this team. It’s not like the talent isn’t there. They have one of the best top lines in all of hockey. Simply, if the Stars can score more, they have the rest of the tools to be a playoff team. A top 10 defense and solid goaltending are in place. Score. More. Goals.

Strengths: Defense. This seems to be a theme in this division. Dallas, despite their inability to score outside of their top line, was consistent on the backend, allowing the sixth fewest goals against in the league. Part of that is John Klingberg and Co. The other part is Ben Bishop. They had a decent penalty kill and allowed the fourth fewest number of shots per game.

Weaknesses: The Stars simply need more goals. It was their burden last season. They simply couldn’t find the back of the next enough to win hockey games. The teams’ top power-play unit needs to be better than their 19th ranking last season.

2017-18 Highlight: Here’s Jordie Benn hitting brother Jamie while their parents were in the stands to watch their sons play. Classic.

MVP Candidate: Tyler Seguin. No contract worries to think about. Just a sheet of ice and a swath of opportunities for goals.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. I simply don’t believe the Stars were as bad as their record showed last season. The switch of Hitchcock to Montgomery is a big one. And, to harp on the goals again, the Stars are a few more of those away from being a playoff team given their defense and goaltending.

MINNESOTA WILD:

Better or Worse: Better because Ryan Suter will be healthy. Better because they will start the season with Zach Parise.

Suter was ruled out for the rest of the season on March 31 and could only watch as the Winnipeg Jets decimated the Wild in the playoffs. Suter’s return is big for the team that added some depth in the offseason. The Wild dealt with a litany of injuries last season to top players such as Parise (who missed many games due to offseason back surgery), Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle. While Eric Staal may not score 42 goals again, a healthy Wild team is a dangerous Wild team.

Strengths: Devan Dubnyk has been rock solid in goal, and couple that with the Wild’s stingy defense, and there’s no reason to think he won’t have another great year again. The Wild are a good defensive team that can also score a pile of goals.

Weaknesses: The Wild are their own worst enemy. Minnesota is a good team that just can’t figure it out in the postseason. They finished 11th in goals for last season but only scored nine in five playoff games against the Jets. You can only shoot yourself in the foot so many times before it falls off. Calling on Bruce Boudreau to figure that out — it’s his job.

2017-18 Highlight: Eric Staal was sensational last season. Here’s a five-point night that included a hat trick for good measure.

MVP Candidate: Matt Dumba. A workhorse defenseman who anchors the power play and can score. He achieved career highs in goals with 14 and points with 34 last season and could take another step toward that elite plateau this year.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. They showed even without star players for various lengths last season, they had the depth to find a way in the back door. The Wild are a great team that shouldn’t have an issue making the playoffs.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS:

Better or Worse: They added a veteran presence on the backend in Dan Hamuis and have Eeli Tolvanen to look forward to upfront. They’re basically the same team that was in the Cup Final two years ago and have all that experience to lean on once again this season. They’re better through experience and a couple of added pieces that could finally fit this puzzle together.

Strengths: There’s still no better defensive core in hockey, right? Josi. Subban. Ellis. Ekholm – their top four is the envy of the NHL. They added third-pairing depth in veteran defenseman Dan Hamhuis, too. It heads into the regular season as the best back end in hockey (with San Jose hot on their heels).

Weaknesses: The Predators are one of those teams with few flaws. Adept at scoring, solid at defense and proficient at goaltending. Where’s the weakness? It could come from Pekka Rinne. I know, the Vezina winner from this past season? He’s set to turn 36 and struggled in the playoffs when the Predators needed him the most. Juuse Saros should help reduce the workload. That’s good, because if the Predators are going to win in their current window, they need Rinne at his very best at the most important time of the year.

2017-18 Highlight: The Knob Save (Josh Morrissey caught some mean whiplash on the play).

Bonus round: Viktor Arvidsson’s pre-game marriage proposal win.

MVP Candidate: Filip Forsberg. Became a point-per-game player last season even after missing time due to injury, and set a career high in assists.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, a no-brainer. They’re one of two legitimate Stanley Cup contenders in the Central Divison.

ST. LOUIS BLUES:

Better or Worse: The Blues were in upgrade mode all summer, adding the likes of Ryan O'Reilly, Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon, while welcoming back David Perron after his year in Vegas.

The Blues were on the bubble last season, and may have made the playoffs if they sort of give up around the trade deadline and deal Paul Stastny away. The Blues added scoring in the offseason, which will help their bottom-third showing in goals-for, and should help equate to more wins.

Strengths: Undeniably, it’s St. Louis’ defense. On a team with a starting goaltender that had a .906 save percentage, the Blue still gave the sixth-fewest number of goals last season. That’s no small feat, given the struggles Allen achieved last season.

Weaknesses: It has to be in goal. Jake Allen is the ultimate Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde goaltender. There are days where he appears elite and days where he belongs in the American Hockey League. If Allen can be steady, the Blues are going to be a playoff team. If not, welcome to the lottery.

2017-18 Highlight: Brayden Schenn‘s remarkable season.

MVP Candidate: Vladimir Tarasenko. It’s time for him to hit 40 goals again.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. Despite the question of Allen, the Blues just look like a solid team in front of him, one that can potentially make up for any shortcomings their goaltending may have.

WINNIPEG JETS:

Better or Worse:  Better by virtue of the team getting one year old and coming into this season armed with the knowledge of what it takes to get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs and then what it takes to make a deep run, as the Jets did last season.

And it should be noted that their Western Conference Final elimination should serve in the growth department. Learning to lose and learning from losing can be just as important. They lost Paul Stastny, but were a good team prior to Stasny’s arrival at the trade deadline last season.

Strengths: Winnipeg’s offense was one of the best in the NHL last season and there’s no reason that should change, barring catastrophic injuries to the likes of Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele. Laine could easily top 50 this season, and Wheeler and Scheifele are point-per-game players.

Winnipeg’s power play is lethal and they found secondary scoring in abundance last season. Their projected fourth line (or third, depending on how you look at it) was one of the top 10 lines in the league in terms of puck possession, goals-for percentage and expected goals-for percentage.

Weaknesses: The Jets have few faults, which is what you’d expect from a team that won 52 games last season. That said, questions marks on defense have dominated training camp. The team is trying Tyler Myers out on the left side with Dustin Byfuglien and early impressions aren’t favorable. The loss of Toby Enstrom, who the Jets couldn’t afford to re-sign, has created a hole that needs filling.

2017-18 Highlight: Winning Game 7 in emphatic fashion in the second round against the Nashville Predators to book a trip to the Western Conference Final.

MVP Candidate: Mark Scheifele. A 16-game absence robbed him from a solid run at the Hart last season. Wheeler will be in the mix, too, but Scheifele seems poised for a season that could creep close to the century mark in terms of points.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, and perhaps an improvement on their trip to the Western Final last year. They’re a Stanley Cup contender.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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

PHT’s 2018-19 Metropolitan Division Preview

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(The 2018-19 NHL season is almost here. This week Pro Hockey Talk will be previewing all four divisions looking at strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

Atlantic Division Preview
Central Division Preview
Pacific Division Preview

The Metropolitan Division produced the Stanley Cup champion for the third season in a row, yet you couldn’t call it a familiar sight.

After decades of heartbreak as a franchise and a decade of heartbreak for signature star Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals finally did it. After seeing their Presidents Trophy run end and “only” winning the Metro, the Capitals won their first-ever title. Fittingly, they ended up needing to get through the Penguins, a team that’s crushed their dreams multiple times in the past. In hindsight, it HAD to happen that way.

Five Metro teams ended up making the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, with the surprising Devils, persistent-if-frustrated Blue Jackets, and rising Flyers joining the Capitals and Penguins. Few would bat an eye if the division once again sent a maximum of five squads to the postseason in 2018-19, although the cast of characters could change.

This post winds through the ups, downs, dreams, and fears for all eight teams.

CAROLINA HURRICANES:

Better or worse?: Oh dear, that’s a loaded question.

One thing’s for sure: they’re different. They changed their coach and GM, so we’ll see if Rod Brind’Amour can maintain the possession-happy ways that partially explain why the Hurricanes have frequently been go-to dark horse candidates. (Here’s hoping that “Rod the Bod” is more progressive and modern than “Team Grit” and “Team Grind” would indicate.)

They’re also wildly different on the ice, with the biggest tweaks being Dougie Hamilton, Petr Mrazek, and Andrei Svechnikov joining the mix while Jeff Skinner, Cam Ward, Noah Hanifin, and Elias Lindholm are out of town.

Let’s lean toward better because, frankly, it’s tough to imagine their goaltending declining from last year’s season-sinking mess.

Strengths: Hamilton and free agent signing Calvin de Haan bolster a defense that already ranked among the deepest in the NHL. That’s especially true if the Hurricanes hang onto Justin Faulk, even if Brind’Amour will need to juggle to get everyone proper ice time. (Most other NHL GMs are sarcastically playing the world’s smallest violin.)

Beyond defense, Carolina boasts a ton of youth, and Svechnikov only strengthens that point.

Weaknesses: Goaltending, duh.

Mrazek didn’t exactly stop every puck that came his way after being traded from Detroit to Philadelphia, and while he showed flashes of brilliance in the past, his best Red Wings days are moving further away in the rearview mirror. Mrazek and Scott Darling could be OK, yet they don’t exactly inspire utmost confidence.

Also, while that offense has some pieces, it’s fair to wonder if there are enough gamebreakers. Trading away Skinner did not help.

2017-18 Highlight: The team kindly collects the best of last season in this clip.

MVP Candidate: Hamilton may put on an exhibition that will make him the guy in Carolina, but let’s bet on Aho, who led the team in scoring last season and is just 21 years old. Aho isn’t a household name, yet if you turn on a Hurricanes game, he’ll likely be the player who captivates you.

Playoffs or Lottery?: As “fool me once” as this feels, Carolina leans closer to the playoffs. No, this is not a recording; yes, it will be tough for them with plenty of other viable teams in the East. Whether they actually make it or not, Carolina is much more likely to be in the bubble than in the cellar this season.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

Better or worse?: Worse, in some ways for matters that are out of their hands. The uncertainty surrounding Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky – two enormously important players – hangs over Columbus like a dark cloud. If one or both gets traded away, you can move this from a soft worse to a hard worse.

Strengths: Zach Werenski and Seth Jones might comprise the NHL’s most dazzling young defensive duo, and if they continue progressing in this current direction, you might not need the young caveat much longer.

Also, the Blue Jackets currently have a high-end forward (Panarin) and a Vezina-quality goalie (Bob). Currently.

Weaknesses: It could all come crashing down if they move Bob and Bread. We can all acknowledge that Pierre Luc-Dubois was a success as a rookie, but how good is he really if he doesn’t have one of the world’s most explosive wingers helping him out? They might need to go back to a rat-like mentality if they lose their stars.

2017-18 Highlight: If this John Tortorella medley isn’t enough, enjoy that awesome Artemi Panarin overtime game-winner from the Capitals series.

MVP Candidate: Panarin and/or Bob if one or both stays. If not, Seth Jones was really drumming up Norris Trophy buzz, although he’d need to fight off his buddy Zach, who’s generally an even more explosive scorer.

Playoffs or Lottery?: It’s easy to forget that the Blue Jackets generated 108 points in 2016-17, and were quite potent with 97 last season. They haven’t met their goals during the postseason yet, but they’ve been a force during regular seasons. Of course, losing their stars could warp that outlook …

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

Better or worse?: If you’re comparing them to the team that made the playoffs, they’re worse, as they lost rentals (Patrick Maroon and Michael Grabner) along with defenseman John Moore.

Generally speaking, they’ve mostly just stayed in place, but call it a step back.

Strengths: Taylor Hall faces long odds in producing back-to-back Hart Trophy seasons, but he’s a spectacular winger who absorbed a comically outsized array of abuse during his Edmonton days. Hall is awesome, and the Devils have some other nice forwards, including Nico Hischier, who immediately backed up his status as the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft. Kudos to New Jersey for embracing its strengths on offense last season, and there’s little reason to expect them to turn away from what worked.

Weaknesses: Cory Schneider was basically in a crisis in 2017-18, and it’s not as if that defense is really equipped to bail him out. The Devils’ forward group has some other nice pieces (especially if Marcus Johansson can get healthy), yet they still ask Hall to pull off one too many miracles.

2017-18 Highlight: All Hail Hall.

MVP Candidate: Uh, duh, the reigning MVP.

Playoffs or Lottery?: Last year, it was a no-brainer to be lottery, and then the Devils made a stunning run to a playoff berth. GM Ray Shero deserves some credit for not overreacting and messing things up by adding a bunch of short-term investments, but New Jersey is unlikely to walk that tightrope again. They’re closer to lottery fodder heading into 2018-19.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS:

Better or worse?: (Laughs awkwardly.)

Strengths: Mathew Barzal should soothe some of the John Tavares-related wounds, as he is a splendid scoring wizard of a sophomore. Sure, it will be tough to ask him to top or match last season, especially with a lot more pressure on his shoulders and far more attention from opposing defenses. Barzal, Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, and Nick Leddy provide the sort of offensive spark that might make the Islanders fun to watch, at times.

Also, Barry Trotz could help clean up that disastrous defense.

Weaknesses: Good grief, that defense was horrendous last season, and the goaltending couldn’t clean up matters, either. Both stand as likely problems heading into 2018-19, although improvements are easy to imagine simply because the bar is so long. Unfortunately, no Tavares means that their offense is weaker by a face of the franchise-sized margin.

2017-18 Highlight: The Islanders might as well put up a Barzal billboard.

MVP Candidate: Sorry to heap all of these expectations on you, Barzal, but there’s no other choice. The 21-year-old scored 85 points in 82 games last season, and who’s to say that isn’t just the tip of the iceberg?

Playoffs or Lottery?: Lottery, by a mile. On the bright side, the Islanders hit it out of the park during the 2018 NHL Draft, and could very well land another blue chipper in 2019. Jack Hughes could look really nice as a one-two punch with Barzal, eh?

NEW YORK RANGERS

Better or worse?: Worse, yet by design. Management acknowledged that a rebuild is in motion. The fascinating question is: how long will they commit to that plan? What happens if Artemi Panarin really does heart New York?

Strengths: If there’s one person who can derail a Rangers’ tanking attempt, it’s Henrik Lundqvist, even at age 36. They aren’t totally bereft of talent, either, with Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich, and Mats Zuccarello coming to mind. Kevin Shattenkirk might deserve a mulligan after last season’s injury issues. Also, David Quinn could be a huge upgrade over Alain Vigneault, for all we know. (Plenty of Rangers fans almost wanted to co-opt their rivals’ “Yes!” chant right there.)

Weaknesses: That defense is a tire fire inside a Dumpster fire transported by a train wreck. Holy smokes. Also, Lundqvist may indeed be feeling his age and all of that past hockey mileage, and the offense is unlikely to hang with other explosive groups in the Metro. So, let’s broadly say “lots.”

2017-18 Highlight: Pavel Buchnevich made a fan’s day last season.

MVP Candidate: If anyone’s even in the realm of Hart chatter, it has to be King Henrik. Even Rangers management might root against that, consider New York’s eyeing of the basement.

Playoffs or Lottery?: Lottery, and expect the Rangers to chase more chances at first-round picks. Could they trade Zuccarello? Maybe the question is actually, “Who won’t they trade?”

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

Better or worse?: The glorious return of James van Riemsdyk gives a boost to a power play that already consistently ranked among the NHL’s most terrifying groups. Considering how Nolan Patrick ended last season, it wouldn’t be surprising if he made a nice jump – if not leap – this season, too.

Strengths: Remember that bit about Columbus’ defensive duo? Philly readers might have been yelling at their screens while eating decadent sandwiches (seriously, I need to get to Philly one of these days). Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere are right up there with the best young duos in the NHL. With Claude Giroux revamped last season, Sean Couturier climbing the Selke ranks, and other scorers looking promising – opponents can’t be happy that Travis Konecny blew up once the calendar turned 2018 – this offense should be potent.

It sure seems like GM Ron Hextall’s vision is coming into focus, and it’s a sight for sore eyes.

Weaknesses: Head coach Dave Hakstol isn’t exactly beloved by Flyers fans, so that’s something to watch if Philly stumbles out of the gate.

Brian Elliott tends to play best when people count him out, and all three of Philly’s potential goalies should have motivation (contract years for Elliott and Michal Neuvirth, Carter Hart wanting to prove himself as NHL goalie now). Still, goaltending is the eternal question for the Flyers, and this year probably won’t disappoint.

2017-18 Highlight: Giroux clinched a Flyers playoff spot in style.

MVP Candidate: Giroux crossed the triple-digit barrier for the first time last season, collecting a whopping 102 points. If he can avoid the erosion of age – he turned 30 in January – then the Flyers captain could be in the Hart discussion once again.

Playoffs or Lottery?: Playoffs. Considering the young players Philly boasts, it’s not outrageous to daydream about exponential growth for the Flyers. If they see more baby steps than leaps, they’re still likely to at least be in the bubble.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Better or worse?: While there were smaller moves, you can boil down Pittsburgh’s summer to giving up valuable forward Conor Sheary to make room for ( … polarizing?) defenseman Jack Johnson. The Penguins are resolute that Johnson is a great fit, but they’re making a dangerous leap of faith.

On one hand, Matt Murray is likely to enjoy a better season, and the hope is that Kris Letang will be healthier. On the other, this team’s getting older; considering how star-dependent this team can be, any slippage from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin could really sting.

Strengths: Still, those stars.

Crosby and Malkin remain among the cream of the crop. All of the drama around Phil Kessel really distracts from the remarkable feat he accomplished in 2017-18, setting a new career-high with 92 points, including 34 goals.

This team has a lot of weapons, and a coach willing to actually deploy them. It’s plausible that Derick Brassard will rebound during a contract year, too.

Weaknesses: This Penguins team gives up almost as much as it produces, and that puts a heavy burden on Murray. If Brassard and others can’t get it together, Pittsburgh will continue to ask the world of their world-beaters. In a team sport like hockey, that frequently translates to asking too much.

2017-18 Highlight: Last season felt like an elaborate MLB tryout for number 87.

MVP Candidate: The Penguins remain a pick your poison proposition: will Crosby be the top star this year, or will Makin snatch the crown? Despite playing four fewer games in 2017-18, Malkin generated 98 points to Crosby’s 89. Sometimes it’s as simple as which superstar center enjoys the most help. In that regard, did you know that Jake Guentzel is entering a contract year?

Playoffs or Lottery?: Playoffs. This team’s managed to clinch berths even during seasons when multiple star players miss huge chunks of time due to injury. The Penguins remain all-in, and the window to contend remains open. We’ll see if they can put it all together.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Better or worse?: Worse, yet not to the extreme that plenty of championship teams encounter. They managed to bring back key pieces of their magical curse-breaking Stanley Cup run, with John Carlson‘s re-signing ranking as arguably the biggest surprise. They didn’t even break the bank with depth players, generally speaking, as many championship teams do. That Michal Kempny deal was remarkably reasonable.

Then again, they did give Tom Wilson a gobsmacking amount of money, and Barry Trotz is out. Also, they killed untold number of brain cells celebrating their epic victory …

Strengths: The Capitals feature the many building blocks of a juggernaut. Alex Ovechkin is the high-end sniper. They have a great one-two punch of centers in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, while their supporting cast features a nice veteran (T.J. Oshie) and intriguing young scorers such as Jakub Vrana and Andre Burakovsky. For all the worries about Todd Reirden taking over for Trotz, he might be more willing to unleash Vrana and Burakovsky. The defense has some nice pieces, and Braden Holtby shook off a tough regular season to remind us why he’s one of the league’s most reliably great goaltenders.

There just aren’t a lot of holes on this team.

Weaknesses: Reirden’s never been a head coach, and he’s facing a huge challenge in trying to repeat. Like the Penguins, the Capitals aren’t ancient, yet Father Time is at least hovering as a threat, at least when it comes to competing at the highest levels. With Philipp Grubauer in Colorado, Washington may not have much of a safety net if Holtby once again falters.

2017-18 Highlight: Pick your favorite.

MVP Candidate: People expect Ovechkin to stagger through the first few months of the season after knocking the biggest, silver item off of his bucket list, and understandably so.

On the other hand, he’s Alex Ovechkin. Despite playing a physical style where he receives and delivers a raucous number of hits, Ovechkin’s managed to play almost every game possible. Ovechkin’s played in far more games than Crosby (1,003 to 864) despite his rambunctious style.

What I’m trying to say is that Ovechkin is nigh-indestructible. This Russian Machine May Not Break.

Playoffs or Lottery?: Most seasons, it’s more reasonable to merely wonder if the Capitals will win the Presidents’ Trophy, or just their division. With a coaching change, less certainty at backup, creeping age, and the Stanley Cup hangover, maybe the Capitals will relinquish the Metro crown. Regardless, they still have the tools for a playoff berth.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

NHL clears Capitals on trading, signing Orpik after buyout

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — The NHL questioned the Washington Capitals about re-signing Brooks Orpik after trading him to Colorado and cleared the Stanley Cup champions of any wrongdoing.

General manager Brian MacLellan said the league questioned the Capitals for trading the veteran defenseman and then bringing him back at a cheaper salary after the Avalanche bought him out. MacLellan said the Capitals were above board in everything they did and would face no consequences.

”They put us through a thorough questioning,” MacLellan said Friday. ”We did everything above board, and we answered the questions honestly. There was no repercussions, so I think we’re good.”

In an email to The Associated Press, deputy commissioner Bill Daly confirmed MacLellan’s assessment that the league investigated Washington and found nothing to be amiss with Orpik’s situation.

At the draft in June, the Capitals traded Orpik and backup goaltender Philipp Grubuaer to Colorado for a second-round pick, a move made largely to clear salary-cap space. Avalanche GM Joe Sakic said almost immediately after the trade that he’d be buying out the final season of Orpik’s deal that carried a salary of $4.5 million and a cap hit of $5.5 million.

Orpik signed with the Capitals about a month later, a one-year deal worth $1 million with $500,000 in incentives. If the 37-year-old defenseman reaches those incentives, he’ll combine to make the same amount he would have if he weren’t bought out.

MacLellan assumed some rival teams wondered about the Capitals’ handling of the situation but was never worried that they broke any rules. A team isn’t allowed to re-sign a player after buying him out, but because Colorado went through that process, Washington signing Orpik was legal.

”We did everything by the book,” MacLellan said. ”We did everything straight.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

MORE PHT CAPITALS COVERAGE:
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Avalanche hope to turn playoff appearance into another run

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DENVER (AP) — Heading into last season, the theme was a ”something-to-prove” refrain from captain Gabriel Landeskog and the Colorado Avalanche.

This season, it’s more of a ”need-to-be-respected” tune.

The Avs caught a lot of teams by surprise a season ago when they improved by 47 points to make the postseason. They know they won’t be catching anyone off guard this time around. They also know they have the speed, youth and the scoring skills of Nathan MacKinnon to help them make another playoff appearance.

”We can’t sell ourselves short,” said Landeskog, whose team kicked off training camp this week. ”We have to make sure we come in with some swagger. We know what we accomplished last year, getting to the playoffs, and how there weren’t a whole lot of people who thought we’d do that. We have to remember how much hard work we put into that and know we aren’t going to catch anybody sleeping.

”Everybody knows we’re a good team and here to stay.”

Colorado’s roster looks similar to a season ago, with a couple of tweaks. The team added more of a veteran presence with left wing Matt Calvert and defenseman Ian Cole. They also traded with Washington to acquire goaltender Philipp Grubauer as an insurance policy in case the injury-plagued Semyon Varlamov gets hurt.

A return trip to the playoffs won’t be easy – the Central Division is stacked with Stanley Cup contenders.

”Are we one of them?” Landeskog quickly added.

”It’s important to realize there’s a difference between being confident and being cocky,” said Landeskog, whose team lost in six games to Nashville during the first round last April. ”We have to make sure we’re confident and have that swagger, but not thinking we’re better than we are, either.”

Not an issue.

They still remember 2016-17, when they accumulated a league-low 48 points. They rebounded to 95 points last season, making the postseason on the final day by beating St. Louis 5-2 in a winner-take-all showdown.

”Last year we had something to prove and had a chip on our shoulder,” defenseman Tyson Barrie said. ”That worked well for us. Not a lot of people expected much out of us. It felt really good to prove them wrong.”

Colorado was one of the youngest teams in the league last season, with 11 different rookies dressing. They brought energy to an already speedy team.

”That injection of young guys coming in, really enthusiastic and excited to play, really rubbed off on a lot of guys,” Landeskog said. ”It showed in the way we played. We’re still young, and it’s just a matter of taking that next step.”

MacKinnon is coming off a monster season in which he had 97 points (39 goals, 58 assists). It was the most points by an Avalanche player since Hall of Famer turned general manager Joe Sakic had 100 in 2006-07.

MacKinnon wants to elevate his game to an even higher level.

”I’m trying to be the best me, and hopefully that’s the best player in the NHL,” said MacKinnon, the top pick in the 2013 draft. ”I’m doing everything I can to get better.”

Varlamov was solid in net for the Avalanche, before suffering a knee injury against Chicago on March 30 and missing the rest of the season, including the playoffs. He’s healthy again and ready to contend with Grubauer for playing time.

”Every year is a big, big year,” Varlamov said. ”Every year you try to improve yourself.”

Grubauer, who is coming off a Stanley Cup win with the Capitals, was asked how many games he hopes to start.

”I want to play every one,” he cracked. ”I’m really stoked to be here. I think there are big things coming up here.

”The team is really young and that makes it really exciting for everybody. In Washington, the last couple of years, we learned from our mistakes. You saw it a couple seasons ago – Colorado wasn’t the best and then the next season they took off. We’ve got to build on that from last year, for sure.”

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