Radek Faksa

Zuccarello is perfect complement for Stars’ top line

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The Dallas Stars had a problem for much of the 2018-19 season, and it was always a very easy one to identify.

Even when the team was at its lowest point, their top trio of Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn was doing what it had always done in carrying the team’s offense.

When Seguin and Benn came under irrational fire from their own CEO in the middle of the season, they were far from the biggest issue on the team. In fact, they weren’t even an issue at all and just five seconds of objective research should have made that clear. When they were on the ice the Stars were carrying the play, dominating the opposition, and performing exactly as you would want your franchise players to perform. Maybe the individual numbers weren’t what we have come to expect from them, but they were consistently outplaying and outscoring their opponents.

The problem was that they didn’t have any other forwards that could do the same thing. Their forward depth was so thin that only one other forward outside of the Seguin-Benn-Radulov trio topped topped the 30-point mark this season (Radek Faksa had exactly 30 points in 81 games). That is not anywhere near good enough. It wasn’t a “star” problem; it was a problem with players around the stars.

But because the top trio was so good, and because they received Vezina-worthy goaltending from Ben Bishop (and don’t forget about the play of backup Anton Khudobin, either) they were able to stay in playoff contention in a watered down Western Conference and continue playing their way toward the postseason. If they were going to do anything once they got there they were going to need somebody outside of their top line to provide some kind of a threat offensively.

This is where Mats Zuccarello comes in.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

He has only played seven games with the team entering Game 6 of their Round 1 series against the Nashville Predators on Monday night (8 p.m. ET; CNBC; Live stream), but his impact has already been noticeable.

The Stars acquired Zuccarello from the New York Rangers just before the NHL trade deadline and in his first game with the team made an immediate impact with a goal and an assist in a 4-3 win. It was exactly what the Stars needed for the stretch run. But because he was also injured in that game and missed several weeks they never really had an opportunity to see exactly what he could provide. They are seeing it in the playoffs where he has already tallied three goals (second only to Radulov) and has given them an additional threat offensively.

It’s even more impressive when you remember he is still finding his way with a new team and still probably isn’t all the way back to 100 percent.

In other words, he probably has room to get better.

When you look at his individual shot and scoring chance numbers he hasn’t created a ton of them, and so far is riding a short-term spike in shooting percentage to carry his postseason production. It would be fair to point to that as somewhat of a red flag for what it might mean in the future.

You have to keep in mind, though, that the injury not only took him off the ice, it also robbed him of an opportunity to develop chemistry with a new set of linemates. Getting thrown into what is still a new lineup, when you may not be totally healthy, and right in the middle of the madness that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs is not an easy thing to do. There is still probably a bit of an adjustment period taking place here.

What is important for the Stars, though, is that he is another high-level player that has the ability to capitalize on the chances he does get, and that is an element the team had been lacking all season.

He is a threat with a proven track record of production.

Zuccarello has been a criminally underrated player for quite some time now and has always been a lock to finish with 50-60 points over a full season. That may not seem great or anything that instantly jumps off the page at you, but it is top-line production, and top-line players are not always easy to acquire.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the year Zuccarello became a full-time player in the NHL, his 0.72 point-per-game average puts him 67th out of more than 570 players that have appeared in at least 200 games during that stretch.

Outside of Seguin, Benn, and Radulov there is not another forward currently on the Stars’ roster that sits in the top-100 out of that group.

Jason Spezza is the only other one in the top-200.

You have to go all the way down to Faksa at No. 296 to find the next one.

There just wasn’t enough impact talent elsewhere on the roster to help support the Stars’ top players.

Zuccarello gives them one, and his presence, along with the emergence of Jason Dickinson and Roope Hintz in this series, is a big reason they have been able to put themselves in a position to advance.

MORE: Hintz becoming important part of Stars’ lineup

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.

Predators vs. Stars: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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If you want to get cute with it, you can deem Predators – Stars as the battle of the team with a coach who worse a horse mask versus the team whose CEO called his own players, uh, horse-blank. And, hey, considering the “nontraditional” roots of both franchises, this also features teams with fans most likely to ride actual horses. It’s all enough to leave you hoarse.

But beyond all of that horsin’ around, the Predators and Stars truly are remarkably similar teams.

While the combination of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin has been far hotter this season, each squad boasts two goalies (Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros) who could conceivably be ridden to strong performances during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Most other West teams wish they merely had one such goalie.

Unfortunately, the Stars and Predators also need that great goaltending the most among West teams, at least judging by this season.

The Stars and Predators needed to rank in the top four in fewest goals allowed this season, as they weren’t setting scoreboards on fire.

Dallas scored just 209 goals this season, tied for third-worst, joining the Islanders as the only other playoff team in the bottom 10. The Predators weren’t that much better (236 goals, 13th-worst), and they languished with the NHL’s least efficient power play at a still-rather-shocking 12.9 percent.

Strange things can happen during hockey’s postseason, and goalies are a strange breed beyond that, but this sure seems like it’s going to be a tight-checking nail-biter of a series.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Wednesday, April 10, 9:30 p.m.: Stars @ Predators | USA, SN1, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 13, 6 p.m.: Stars @ Predators | CNBC, SN, TVA Sports
Monday, April 15, 9:30 p.m.: Predators @ Stars | NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports
Wednesday, April 17, 8 p.m. Predators @ Stars | USA, SN, TVA Sports
*Saturday, April 20, TBD: Stars @ Predators | TBD
*Monday, April 22, TBD: Predators @ Stars | TBD
*Wednesday, April 24, TBD: Stars @ Predators | TBD

FORWARDS

STARS: Despite Jim Lites’ criticisms, the Stars should thank the top line of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov for providing most of their scoring. Seguin (80 points) and Radulov (74 points) have the most points of any players in this series, and while Benn is no longer the player who once won the Art Ross Trophy, he ranked third among the Stars with 53 points, 27 of which were goals.

The drop off from the top forwards and everyone else is steep, as Radek Faksa is the fourth-highest scoring Stars forward with just 30 points. Faksa’s known for a strong defensive game more than anything else, so he’s not chopped liver, but the point is that this is a top-heavy bunch.

One interesting wild card is Mats Zuccarello, though. The poor soul got hurt blocking a shot in his first Stars appearance, but he’s slated to be in the lineup during Game 1, and the Stars are tinkering with a Zuccarello – Benn combination. Could a one-line team become a two-line team?

Of course, both Nashville and Dallas lean heavily on their defensemen to score, but that’s for the next section.

PREDATORS: At a quick glance, the Predators’ top line seems inferior, with Ryan Johansen‘s 64 points leading the way. Injuries cloud such judgments, though, as Viktor Arvidsson managed 34 goals in just 58 games (!) this season, while Filip Forsberg was his usual dynamic self with 28 goals and 50 points in 64 games. The gap between these two teams’ top line is small, if they aren’t outright even.

On paper, the Predators should boast better depth, but they really haven’t been able to click. Kyle Turris has suffered through a pretty miserable season, and Mikael Granlund‘s been mouse-quiet since being traded to Nashville. Meanwhile, Wayne Simmonds is struggling through an almost tragically rough contract year.

ADVANTAGE: Nashville, by a hair. While Faksa ranked fourth in Stars forward scoring with 30 points, the Predators had seven forwards who had 30+, and Turris almost certainly would have hit that mark if he wasn’t limited to 55 games. Granlund scored 54 points counting his superior totals with the Wild. Zuccarello makes the argument more fascinating, though.

DEFENSE

STARS: After Seguin, Radulov, and Benn, the Stars’ next three leading scorers were all defensemen: John Klingberg (10 goals, 45 points), Miro Heiskanen (12G, 33P), and Esa Lindell (11G, 32P). Klingberg managed to get that many points in 64 games, and as Stars fans will tell you until your ears are red, he’s very worthy of his hype as a future Norris hopeful.

Where the Stars’ top guys are grappling at least slightly with Father Time, the Stars’ trio is in their primes, with Klingberg at 26, Lindell 24, and Heiskanen somehow this great already at 19.

This is a modern group, and while they’re not as hyped or as well-compensated as the Predators’ blueliners, they’re gaining fast as far as on-ice effectiveness is concerned.

PREDATORS: For the standards of Nashville’s defensemen, you could count 2018-19 as a bit of an off-year, but they likely remain the deepest group in the NHL, or at least rank highly in that regard.

Much like Dallas, three of Nashville’s defensemen ranked in the top six in overall team scoring: Roman Josi (15 goals, 56 points), Mattias Ekholm (8G, 44P), and Ryan Ellis (7G, 41P). Despite being limited to 63 games played, P.K. Subban almost hit double digits in goals with nine, and finished with 31 points. Missing time likely exaggerated worries about Subban’s overall game, as he remains a strong two-way player.

It will also be interesting to monitor Dante Fabbro. He’s a fairly well-regarded prospect, but coaches are reluctant to trust rookies, especially late-arriving ones, and Laviolette is not really an exception. (See: Tolvanen, Eeli.) Fabbro could give Nashville’s third pairing a boost, and while that wouldn’t be a revolutionary change, it could matter in a series where the margin of error figures to be slim.

ADVANTAGE: Predators, but not by as much as some would think. Dallas’ defense is underrated, but Nashville’s group is among the most potent and polished in the NHL.

GOALTENDING

STARS: If Ben Bishop stayed healthy (an unfortunately common phrase for Bishop), he’d get some heavy Vezina hype. He generated a .934 save percentage this season, brilliant even compared to his very strong career average of .921. Bishop put together an absurd .969 save percentage over nine March games, with a league-best .959 save percentage since February (among anyone who played at least two games, sorry Christopher Gibson).

Anton Khudobin hasn’t been far behind, producing a strong .923 save percentage in 41 games.

Jim Montgomery’s system and some strong young defensemen helped, but this Stars team shut opponents down because of stellar goaltending.

PREDATORS: If you had to wager on the best goalie pairing heading into 2018-19, you could have done worse than the (“father – son”) combination of Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros.

Goalies are about as easy to predict as cats are to herd, so they haven’t been the best … but they’ve still been fine. Rinne sported a solid .918 save percentage this season, and after a rough start, Saros ended up with a respectable .915 mark.

Of course, Rinne’s had his playoff nightmares, so people will wonder if those demons will crop again. Maybe the more interesting question is: if they do, will Laviolette go to Saros if needed?

ADVANTAGE: Stars, with mild concerns that Bishop isn’t 100 percent. Of all the West series, this is the one where you could be reasonably confident about both tandems. Again, though: they’re goalies.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

What if the Stars’ first line is horse manure?

One could imagine some Stars executive gloating about giving Seguin “tough love,” but this was really about Seguin finally getting the bounces that didn’t go his way, pre-horse-bleep. If that luck dries up once again, can other lines shovel in some goals?

(Note: yes, you could ask similar questions about the Predators’ depth, too.)

Can the Predators’ power play do something?

NHL officials are notorious for “putting away their whistles” during the playoffs, relative to the regular season, but special teams will still be prominent. Actually, considering how tight this series could be – and how much each team struggles to score goals – getting a few markers on the man advantage might just swing the series.

If nothing else, the Predators spent big to improve this weakness. Wayne Simmonds has slipped, but his resume as a PP specialist is robust. Brian Boyle‘s big body is useful in screening goalies, even a jumbo-sized one like Ben Bishop. Things have looked better at times recently, but overall, the power play looms as a potential problem for the Preds.

PREDICTION

NASHVILLE IN 6. These two teams are structured very similarly, so here’s betting that the Predators are just a little better at making this formula work.

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
• Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
 Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Blues
Islanders vs. Penguins
Capitals vs Hurricanes

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.

Trade: Ducks get younger, ship Cogliano to Stars for Shore

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The Anaheim Ducks, losers of 11 in a row, and the Dallas Stars, who have dropped three of their last four, made a good ol’ hockey trade Monday morning by swapping forwards Andrew Cogliano and Devin Shore.

On Sunday night Ducks general manager Bob Murray released a statement following yet another defeat stating he was sticking with head coach Randy Carlyle and he would be focused “on our players, specifically with who is going to step up in this situation.” A goal by Cogliano Sunday night was apparently not enough to keep him in Orange County.

“In acquiring Andrew, we are able to add a conscientious player who brings a veteran-presence to our room,” said Stars GM Nill in a statement. “His explosive speed, 200-foot game and iron-man mentality will help our team both on and off the ice.”

The Stars have their own issues this season, as have been documented, and while this move to acquire a veteran in Cogliano (3-8—11 pts.) will give them an upgrade in their bottom-six, he also carries some cap implications. He’ll turn 32 in June and his contract, which carries a $3.25M cap hit, expires after the 2020-21 NHL season. As someone who’s missed only two games in his entire 12-year career — and only due to suspension — he’ll be a veteran presence who will allow Jim Montgomery to re-jigger his lines and free up someone like Radek Faksa, who can provide more offense than he has this season.

Shore (5-2—17 pts.) will be 25 in July and carries a $2.3M cap hit through the end of next season. He’ll bring a bit of a two-way presence and help the penalty kill and, more importantly for the Ducks, is younger, cheaper and not signed as long as Cogliano.

The Ducks are in the midst of a big losing streak and the Stars were called out by their head coach on Saturday for having a “culture of mediocrity”. Both Murray and Nill may be seeking bigger trades to shake their teams out of their respective funks, but those deals aren’t always out there or beneficial to one side.

We’ll see if this move is a precursor to more wheeling and dealing from each GM, but for the time being it’s an upgrade with speed for the Stars, and for the Ducks it’s youth plus cap help in the future, as well as an attempt to wake-up his team.

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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.

Brutal NHL injury news, including for Bruins’ Bergeron

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The bad hockey news just keeps pouring in lately … well, unless you’re Ken Hitchcock, Craig Berube, Willie Desjardins, Jeremy Colliton, and Joel Quenneville’s accountant.

It’s not just about coaches getting fired, either. We’ve experienced a rough couple of weeks of injuries around the NHL, and Tuesday’s updates didn’t exactly add much sunshine to the mix.

To review, on Nov. 15, PHT rattled off a troubling list including Sidney Crosby, Andrei Vasilevskiy, P.K. Subban, Zdeno Chara, Viktor Arvidsson, and various Capitals. About a week before that, it was noted that John Klingberg ranked among some NHL players who are still recovering from ailments.

The hits just keep coming for a dark November.

  • Bruins fans should scold those among them who whimpered: “Can it get any worse?” The injury demons (let’s not credit them as gods, honestly) replied: “Hold my pitchfork.”

Bruins star Patrice Bergeron is no stranger to dealing with injuries that sound downright frightening, from early career-threatening struggles with concussions to dealing with a concussion and a hole in his lung.

Add another ailment to the list, as the Bruins announced that Bergeron will be re-evaluated in about four weeks after suffering a “a rib and sternoclavicular injury” on Friday. The perennial Selke candidate appeared to suffer that injury during a collision with dark horse Selke candidate Radek Faksa of the Dallas Stars:

If you’re like me, you probably blinked at your screen a few times at “sternoclavicular,” wondered if it’s just the word sternum + clavicle, and then had that confirmed after some Googling. That sure is more specific than just calling it an “upper-body injury,” eh, Bruins?

Hockey players often beat these diagnoses, yet it’s worth repeating that Bergeron will be re-evaluated in four weeks, so this could possibly linger even longer than that.

Bergeron’s just about certain to move to IR, joining Chara, who is also expected to miss at least four weeks with his knee injury.

The Bruins are less big and more bruised these days, as their defense is ravaged by injuries beyond Chara, with Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, and John Moore all considered day-to-day.

Boston has shown a pretty good knack for fighting through injuries, as Bergeron missed his fair share of time last season. That said, the B’s are pretty top-heavy these days, so losing big names is discouraging.

Also discouraging: the Atlantic Division looks ferocious right now; the Bruins are ranked fifth in the division with 25 points. While they have a halfway decent lead for the East’s second wild card spot (three points ahead of the Islanders, though New York has a game in hand), that could evaporate during this depleted month.

If Bruce Cassidy can guide the Bruins through this stretch relatively unscathed, then he deserves even more credit as an underrated NHL head coach.

Do note that the Panthers haven’t confirmed or denied that report just yet. Considering how nasty the injury looked, it’s no surprise that he’ll need surgery. Here’s hoping he can return to NHL action eventually as the same player – or close to his peak level – because he’s been an underrated gem for Florida for some time.

Speaking of Florida, it’s fair to wonder what the Panthers should do in response to this awful bit of news.

The Athletic’s George Richards brings up a good point (sub required) that the Panthers might want to call up Henrik Borgstrom, a promising former-first rounder (23rd overall in 2016). In all honesty, it was surprising that:

A) Borgstrom had such a short leash with Florida to begin with, as he only received four games of NHL action, only averaging 12:40 in ice time.

And B) that it would even take an injury for him to get another look. The 21-year-old’s been fantastic in the AHL, scoring 14 points in as many games.

There aren’t many silver linings to Florida losing Trocheck, but perhaps Borgstrom can pick up some of the slack?

The Stars should probably work on being more aggressive, yet losing Bishop might hit the brakes on such an idea. They’re currently averaging 29.8 shots on goal per game, the eighth-lowest mark in the NHL, while averaging about one more allowed per night.

  • The Capitals largely avoided injuries – for some unknown or at least unspoken reasons – under Barry Trotz. The bill seems to be coming now that Todd Reirden is in control.

Washington got Braden Holtby back in its thrilling win against Montreal on Monday, yet T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov are still banged-up. Add Brooks Orpik to that injured list, as the team announced that he’ll miss four-to-six weeks after undergoing “a successful outpatient arthroscopic surgical procedure on his right knee.”

Orpik, 38, appeared in 10 games so far in 2018-19, although he hasn’t suited up for the Capitals since Oct. 27. It’s a tough break for the veteran defenseman, although some might argue that he’s at the point in his career where losing him isn’t much of a deficit for Washington.

  • Canadiens defenseman Noah Juulsen is out indefinitely with a facial fracture after taking two pucks to the face against the Capitals on Monday. About the only good news there is that he won’t need surgery, according to TVA’s Renaud Lavoie.

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.

Brad Marchand pulls a Roger Neilson, waves ‘white flag’

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It was another eventful for night for Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand.

After a series of penalties in the second period of his team’s 1-0 overtime loss in Dallas, he decided to pull a Roger Neilson and wave the white flag by sticking a towel on the blade of his hockey stick and … well … waving it from the penalty box. This was presumably a form of surrendering to the referees.

Or simply Brad Marchand doing Brad Marchand things.

His adventure started in the second period when he was given a double-minor for roughing Radek Faksa after Marchand came to the defense of his linemate, Patrice Bergeron, who was sent flying into the boards at the hands of Faksa. Bergeron briefly exited the game before returning.

Here is the entire sequence.

After serving his four minutes for that altercation, Marchand returned to the ice and was almost immediately sent back to the box for slashing stars goalie Ben Bishop.

Nobody from Boston liked the call at all, with Marchand at being at the top of the list.

That was when he waved the white flag and was sent off for 10 additional minutes.

That might look familiar to you because you might recall former long-time NHL coach Roger Neilson doing something similar during the 1982 playoffs when he was coach of the Vancouver Canucks.

Marchand has been in rare form this season, even for him. Earlier this month he was given a 10-minute misconduct for mocking Nashville Predators forward Colton Sissons for embellishing a high-sticking call, which came after he bloodied Washington Capitals forward Lars Eller in the season-opener after Eller taunted the Bruins’ bench.

In the playoffs the NHL had to instruct Marchand to stop licking opposing players.

No matter what you think of Marchand as a player you at least have to admit this: It is never boring with him around.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.