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Maple Leafs among Canadian teams looking to take next step

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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.

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Under-drafted players who could help your team

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Welcome to the first adds/drops column of the 2019-20 NHL season. Every Monday, we’re going to recommend players that you might want to consider letting go of or putting on your fantasy hockey team in standard Yahoo leagues.

Given that we’re still in the preseason though, we’re going to do something a little different. This week, we’ve highlighted some players taken in less than 60% of Yahoo drafts who I think have a good chance of becoming meaningful producers this season.  Not all of these players are ones who should be added right away, but all of them are worth keeping an eye on.

[Ready for the season? Get the Rotoworld Draft Guide]

Kevin Labanc, San Jose Sharks (LW/RW, Drafted: 56%) – In a summer where many RFAs were fighting to redefine the market, Labanc wasted little time in agreeing to a one-year, $1 million contract. It’s an awfully low price after scoring 17 goals and 56 points in 82 games, but it signals a willingness to bet on himself. If he comes up big this season, he’ll be due for a massive raise, especially given that he’ll have arbitration rights. He won’t lack for motivation and at the age of 23, he should be able to continue to trend upwards.

Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils (C, Drafted: 24%) – Not all first overall picks are created equal. Hischier was the top pick of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, but he didn’t come with the fanfare of Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews before him and the Devils’ latest first overall pick, Jack Hughes, is already looking like a bigger piece of the franchise’s future. All the same, Hischier does have untapped potential going into his third NHL campaign and with the Devils’ offense looking much deeper than it has in recent years, he should have more to work with too.

Nikita Gusev, New Jersey Devils (LW, Drafted: 20%) – Gusev is one of the most interesting X-Factors going into the 2019-20 campaign. If you looked at his KHL statistics alone, you’d be wondering if he was a potential superstar.  He had 17 goals and 82 points in 62 games with St. Petersburg SKA last season. To put that in perspective, Artemi Panarin had 62 points in 54 games with St. Petersburgh in his last season before his 77-point rookie showing with Chicago.  That said, KHL success doesn’t always translate directly into the NHL. Just ask Vadim Shipachyov or Ilya Kovalchuk. They were both stars with St. Petersburgh too, but Shipachyov’s NHL stint ended up including a goal in just three games while Kovalchuk was at best a mixed bag in his NHL comeback attempt. Still, there is certainly potential here and it seems like Gusev will get a chance to prove himself, likely as a mainstay on the Devils’ second line. Plus, for what it’s worth, he’s looked good so far in the preseason with two goals and four points in three games.

Kevin Shattenkirk, Tampa Bay Lightning (D, Drafted: 16%) – There’s no question that Shattenkirk’s tenure with the Rangers was a major disappointment and his stock has understandably tanked as a result. He’s still just 30-years-old though, so a comeback isn’t out of the realm of possibilities. He’s getting a fresh start with Tampa Bay and has plenty of motivation after being bought out over the summer. “This is obviously an important year for me to show everyone I’m back to my old self and prove that I can be a player in this League again,” Shattenkirk said via NHL.com.

Jaroslav Halak, Boston Bruins (G, Drafted: 13%) – If you’re not happy with your goaltending situation, you might want to take a long look at Halak. Obviously he’s not the starter in Boston and that’s not expected to change, but he’s likely to get far more work than your typical backup. He made 37 starts last season and that helped keep Tuukka Rask fresh for the Bruins’ run to the Stanley Cup Final. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bruins use Halak regularly again this season and he should often be solid when he is used.

[For more fantasy sports analysis, check out Rotoworld.]

Kasperi Kapanen, Toronto Maple Leafs (RW, Drafted: 10%) – This is more of a short-term pickup and even then, Kapanen is someone you want to keep an eye on during training camp rather than grab right away. He’s likely to spend most of the season as a third liner, but Zach Hyman will miss about a month of the regular season with a knee injury so that’s created a top-six opening that Kapanen is a favorite to fill. He’s been getting a chance alongside John Tavares and Mitch Marner so far.

James Neal, Edmonton Oilers (LW/RW, Drafted: 8%) – Calgary signed Neal to a five-year, $28.75 million contract over in the summer of 2018 and that ended up being a disaster. How bad was it? So bad that swapping Neal for Milan Lucic and his albatross contract actually made sense to Calgary. Neal had just seven goals and 19 points in 63 games while averaging a career-low 14:57 minutes last season, but Edmonton will give him every opportunity to bounce back. The Oilers are desperate for secondary scoring to complement McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Neal might be able to fit in better than he did with the Flames. He’s far from a safe bet, but there are far worse gambles out there.

Corey Perry, Dallas Stars (RW, Drafted: 5%) – Perry can’t seem to catch a break. After being bought out by Anaheim over the summer, his comeback attempt has already been delayed due to a broken foot. That said, there is still reason to pay attention to him. What I really want to know is how he’s going to do with a healthy knee – something he hasn’t had in years.  Keep in mind that after he suffered a torn meniscus during a preseason game in 2018 and needed surgery as a result, it was decided to take that opportunity to also repair a MCL injury that he had been dealing with for years. Because he missed a large chunk of 2018-19 and played in a limited role when he did return, it’s still not clear how he’d perform if he were fully healthy.  Perhaps we’ll get the answer to that in Dallas…provided he doesn’t suffer any other setbacks.

Ryan Dzingel, Carolina Hurricanes (LW/RW, Drafted: 4%) – Dzingel took a big step forward last season with 26 goals and 56 points in 78 games, but he was passed over in the early rush of UFA contracts. That worked to the Hurricanes’ advantage though as they were able to scoop him up to an affordable two-year, $6.75 million contract. The Hurricanes are a pretty interesting team this season and Dzingel is well positioned to play a significant top-six role there. Keep an eye on him during training camp and the early part of the season because it will be interesting to see who his linemates are. They might end up being Sebastian Aho and Nino Niederreiter, which would obviously be a pretty promising situation for Dzingel.

Alexander Nylander, Chicago Blackhawks (LW/RW, Drafted: <2%) – Nylander was taken with the eighth overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, but through three seasons as part of the Sabres’ organization, he only appeared in 19 NHL games.  Chicago acquired him over the summer and there’s potentially a huge opportunity for him with the Blackhawks. There’s an opening on the top line with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews that Nylander has been auditioning for. If he gets it, then he’ll definitely be worth taking a chance on in standard leagues.

Typically I’ll also be recommending players to drop in this column.  I’ll hold off on doing that this week because it’s too early to write anyone off.  I will say that there are some very obvious risky players who are being taken relatively early in fantasy drafts.  Mikko Rantanen (Avg. Draft Position: 24.2), Patrik Laine (42.3), Brayden Point (46.8), Dustin Byfuglien (56.2), Matthew Tkachuk (60.1), and Kyle Connor (115.7) all haven’t participated in training camp yet.  They’re out with the exception of Byfuglien, who isn’t with the team for personal reasons and is reportedly considering retirement.

Odds are their absence isn’t news to you, but it’s still worth repeating that missing training camp can hurt a player’s production during the regular season and the more time they miss, the bigger the impact will be even after they do return.  Drafting any of those players at this time is a big gamble and if you haven’t had your draft yet, then you’ll want to seriously consider avoiding them despite how good they can be under normal circumstances.  That of course changes if any of their situations are resolved in the next few days.

If you’re on the hunt for rankings, projections, strategy and advice on how to dominate your drafts, check out the all-new Rotoworld NHL Draft Guide. Now mobile-optimized with a new look and feel, it’s never been easier to take our award-winning advice with you to your drafts for that extra competitive edge! Click here to learn more!

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.

Previewing the 2019-20 Edmonton Oilers

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

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

Better or Worse: The Oilers have a new GM (Ken Holland) and a new head coach (Dave Tippett), but as far as personnel changes go, this was a very quiet offseason.

Considering some of the blunders of the Peter Chiarelli era, there might be a feeling of “no news is good news,” although try telling that to Connor McDavid, who didn’t get much of a bright side to look on beyond hoping that Mike Smith channels his solid playoff production, rather than Smith’s more troubling body of work.

The Oilers are almost the same team as last year, although James Neal could be a nice upgrade over Milan Lucic.

Strengths: McDavid! OK, thanks for coming!

Alright, the Oilers also have Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and maybe some help coming – eventually – with prospects such as Evan Bouchard.

And, hey, having the best player in the world is a pretty big strength.

Weaknesses: … And squandering McDavid’s talents almost takes talent in itself.

You know you’re weak on the wings when people are hoping that James Neal is a solution, and crossing their fingers that Alex Chiasson can approach last season’s numbers.

This team is weak on the wings, and that’s far from their only issue. Their defense doesn’t play the sort of modern game that you’d want to propel McDavid in transition, and lacks elite skill overall. Maybe Tippett can scheme this group to competence, but it’s unclear how much potential has been untapped after Ken Hitchcock and Todd McLellan tried their hands at the same.

Oh yeah, their goaltending duo of Smith and Mikko Koskinen is a bowl of “meh,” too.

[More: Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Consider this: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is about to enter his ninth season in the NHL, and Tippett will be his ninth head coach.

The Oilers have been the definition of dysfunctional for a distressingly long period of time, and while there’s the feeling that McDavid and others are far beyond the point of being tired of losing, it’s time for some stability. That’s what Tippett represents: a steadying presence, something that must appeal to the deliberate approach Holland also seems to prefer.

That said, Edmonton’s also subject to about-faces, as that seems to be their M.O. Let’s put Tippett at a three.

Three Most Fascinating Players: McDavid, Koskinen, Darnell Nurse

Number 97 would be a pick every year based on his captivating speed and skill alone. Maybe eyes are fixed on him a bit more now, though, as he’s shown signs of frustration, occasionally actually letting that be known in vague media comments. If the Oilers unravel again, will McDavid vent in an even bigger way?

Re-signing Koskinen tied a baffling bow around the Chiarelli era. Along with Smith, it’s tough to know what exactly we should expect from Koskinen. If Tippett’s system dumbs games down and makes it all a slog, that might actually set the stage for some redemption. (James Neal is another fascinating redemption story.)

The Oilers have precious few defensemen of merit, so it’s crucial for them to see Nurse take additional steps forward. Then again, he’s entering a contract year, so they also probably don’t want to break the bank for the RFA. That should make Nurse intriguing to watch.

Playoffs or Lottery: It’s tough to pick against McDavid, especially since Draisaitl and RNH give him some support. One can imagine a decent formula of McDavid + stingy defense and goaltending = grinding out wins.

Hockey teaches us time and time again that one superstar rarely is enough to mask a ton of blemishes, though. While a weak Pacific gives some hope for Edmonton sneaking in, I’d lean closer to the lottery than the playoffs with Edmonton.

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.

Rangers are one of NHL’s biggest mysteries going into camp

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Henrik Lundqvist wants training camp to begin with an honest conversation.

The longtime face of the New York Rangers sees this as an important time to define expectations for this season after watching the team fast-track a rebuild by signing winger Artemi Panarin, trading for defensemen Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox, and drafting Finnish sensation Kaapo Kakko.

”What type of pressure can we put on this team now? Where are we?” Lundqvist said. ”What you want and what the reality is is sometimes very different. I want to win games. I want to play playoff hockey. And I hope within the group and coaching staff, we talk about it before camp starts. ‘OK, this is what we’ve got?’ What’s realistic? You set the goal and then you work toward that.”

The Rangers will be watched closely as NHL training camps begin this week, a curiosity amid the traditional Eastern Conference powers in Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Pittsburgh. Across the river from New York, the New Jersey Devils look similarly primed to turn things around, but New York seems a threat to contend again after missing the playoffs the past two seasons.

”It was exciting to see the big steps we’re taking in the right direction,” Lundqvist said. ”We should be able to take that next step now with the additions and the younger guys need to take another step here in their development. But there’s so many teams I feel like in similar situations where if they do really well, they can get in.”

Signing Panarin to an $81.5 million, seven-year contract is the biggest reason to think the Rangers can get in. Now it’s a question of how the Russian point-a-game producer jells with center Mika Zibanejad and the rest of the forwards within coach David Quinn’s system. Kakko, the second overall pick, dazzled in a prospects tournament and New York’s blue line got a major boost with the trade for Trouba.

”There’s no question that we improved a lot over the summer,” Lundqvist said. ”Changes, big and small, can turn things around pretty quickly.”

MCDAVID’S KNEE

Connor McDavid is five months removed from tearing the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, which might now be the most scrutinized body part in the league. The Edmonton captain has surpassed 100 points each of the past three seasons, seems to skate at a different gear than his peers and is widely considered the best hockey player in the world.

There are plenty of questions about how the injury will affect all that.

”It’s tough to see anyone get hurt, especially a player of his caliber,” said Chicago forward Alex DeBrincat, who played junior hockey with McDavid. ”He said it’s getting better. Hope he’s ready for camp and would love to see him back on the ice.”

The Oilers said they won’t rush McDavid back. That’s a common refrain but easier said than done after missing the playoffs in back-to-back years and knowing what McDavid can do.

”He’s our leader; he’s our engine,” Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. ”But at the same time, he’s a young hockey player who you want to make sure he’s healthy and confident in his body. Whenever he’s ready to go, we’re going to be happy to have him back.”

NEW COACHES

Six teams go into camp with a new coach: Joel Quenneville in Florida, Alain Vigneault in Philadelphia, Ralph Krueger in Buffalo, Todd McLellan in Los Angeles, Dallas Eakins in Anaheim and Dave Tippett in Edmonton. All of them have previous NHL experience, most notably Quenneville winning the Stanley Cup three times with Chicago. Vigneault took the Vancouver Canucks in 2011 and the Rangers in 2014 to the Cup Final. Now he’s in charge of a head-scratching Philadelphia team that has alternated missing and making the playoffs the past eight seasons.

”He’s had success with two different teams,” Flyers center Sean Couturier said of Vigneault. ”I think he’s a coach that knows what it takes to go far in the playoffs and win.”

NOTABLE ABSENCES

A handful of prominent restricted free agents are signing new contracts on the eve of camp, but a handful of situations might drag on into the regular season. Toronto’s Mitch Marner and Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor don’t have deals.

”Obviously Mitch is a big part of our team,” Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews said. ”We want him there and we want him there as soon as possible.”

MORE YOUTH

Kakko isn’t even the biggest rookie to watch in the New York area thanks to Devils No. 1 pick Jack Hughes . New Jersey has depth at center with 2017 top pick Nico Hischer and veteran Travis Zajac that should allow coach John Hynes to protect Hughes from tough matchups as he adjusts to the NHL.

”I think the focus needs to be on his development as a player,” new Devils defenseman P.K. Subban said. ”He’s got a lot of time, and there’s going to be a learning curve. But he’s a tremendous talent, and you’re going to see that when the puck drops.

Oilers add Riley Sheahan on one-year deal

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In his first year as general manager of the Edmonton Oilers, Ken Holland has had the difficult task of trying to build up the depth around superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Given how little the Oilers had around them on the roster and how little salary cap space they had to work with, it has forced Holland to try and find bargains on the free agent market.

He continued that process on Thursday by signing veteran center Riley Sheahan to a one-year deal. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but it is reportedly worth $900,000 for the season according to TSN’s Ryan Rishaug. Holland has some history with Sheahan, having drafted him in the first-round of the 2010 NHL draft when he was still the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings.

In 447 career games he has scored 58 goals and 149 total points, including 19 points (nine goals, 10 assists) a year ago with the Penguins and Panthers.

The hope for the Oilers is that he can settle into a third-line center role and help give the team some useful minutes. The Oilers have two outstanding centers (McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) but very little depth down the middle behind them. It has been a massive problem for them and resulted in the team getting crushed when neither of the top two are on the ice. Whether or not Sheahan can help enough to make an impact in such a role remains to be seen, but it is a small price to pay to find out.

Along with Sheahan, the Oilers have also added Markus Granlund and Josh Archibald this summer, while also trading Milan Lucic for James Neal.

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.