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Ovechkin sits as Caps return to ice against Canadiens

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The Metropolitan Division-leading Washington Capitals own a one-point lead over the Boston Bruins in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy as they return from a nine-day break to face the Canadiens in Montreal on Monday night.

The Capitals, who went into their bye week and the All-Star Game break on a three-game win streak, will be without Alex Ovechkin for the contest. Ovechkin must serve a mandatory one-game suspension for skipping the All-Star Game in St. Louis to rest up for the second half of the season.

Ovechkin was red-hot before the break, scoring eight goals over a three-game span, including back-to-back hat tricks in a 5-2 win over New Jersey and a dramatic 6-4 come-from-behind victory at the New York Islanders on Jan. 18 in their final game before the layoff.

Washington trailed 4-1 after two periods against the Islanders before exploding for five third-period goals, with Ovechkin scoring two of them — including an empty-netter to seal the win.

Ovechkin is tied with Toronto’s Auston Matthews for second place in the NHL in goals with 34, three behind Boston’s David Pastrnak (37). His last goal was the 692nd of his career, tying Steve Yzerman for ninth place on the NHL’s career goals list.

“It’s something special,” Ovechkin said. “It’s history. It’s pretty cool.

“I just left out there everything I had because I have a week off. Now it’s time to regroup and get ready for the second half of the year.”

Montreal also will be playing its first game in nine days and brings in a two-game winning streak. The Canadiens entered the break off a 5-4 shootout victory over the Vegas Golden Knights with leading scorer Tomas Tatar (17 goals, 26 assists) scoring the winner in the fourth round of the shootout.

Montreal is tied for fifth place in the Atlantic Division with the Buffalo Sabres with 51 points, 10 points behind third-place Florida and also 10 points behind Carolina for the second wild-card spot.

“A little reset here for the mental side of things and also the physical side of things, and now it’s time to hunt,” center Max Domi told NHL.com. “We believe in each other as a group, and we want to win some hockey games. We proved it time and time again and we know we can do it. We’ve just got to find ways put the right foot forward here.”

One Canadien who didn’t get the whole eight days off was All-Star defenseman Shea Weber, who won the hardest shot competition on Friday night with a blast registered at 106.5 mph. Washington defenseman John Carlson was second at 104.5 mph.

“Obviously, the fun’s kind of over with,” Weber said. “It’s time to get back to work in Montreal.”

This is the second of three meetings between the two teams. Montreal, behind a goal and three assists by Tatar and 26 saves by goaltender Carey Price, won the first one, 5-2, in Washington on Nov. 15.

The Capitals enter Monday night’s game with a 18-6-1 road record, best in the NHL. No other team has won more than 14 games away from home.

What should Canadiens do with Kovalchuk?

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When Ilya Kovalchuk and the Los Angeles Kings decided to part ways, it became clear that the veteran winger wanted to suit up for a contending team. Boston and Pittsburgh were immediately thought of as potential landing spots, but that never ended up working out.

Instead, he signed a low-risk contract with the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs aren’t contenders by any means, but they’ve been the perfect fit for Kovalchuk. But what does the team do with him now that the trade deadline is approaching?

Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin still has plenty of time to make his decision. The trade deadline isn’t until Feb. 24 anyway. But unless another team is willing to offer something the Habs can’t refuse, they should seriously think about keeping Kovalchuk around for another season.

For example, if any team is willing to ship them a first or second-round draft pick (very unlikely), Bergevin should take that deal. If not, there’s really no point in trading away a player who has fit in so well in such a short amount of time.

Let’s take a look at how well the 36-year-old has played since going to Montreal.

Montreal has suffered through some tough injuries this season. Jonathan Drouin, Brendan Gallagher and Paul Byron have all missed an extended period of time. When they brought Kovalchuk in, they were desperate. They had just lost Gallagher and they needed healthy bodies with the slightest amount of offensive upside.

He had three goals and nine points in 17 games with the Kings before leaving there. In eight games with the Canadiens, he’s managed to score four goals, four assists and a shootout goal. The Russian forward also hasn’t looked as slow as advertised in his small sample. He’s not a speedster by any means, but he’s been able to keep up with the pace of play on the ice. And his teammates really seem to like him.

“Obviously, he’s a legend first of all,” teammate Max Domi said, per the Montreal Gazette. “And you see the plays he can make now are like he’s still in his heyday. I know he’s getting older, but you can never tell. He’s got a great sense of humour, he’s a great guy. Super-positive, super-vocal, which I was surprised about. But he’s one of the most positive guys in our locker room in terms of keeping guys accountable and stuff like that. So it’s great to see and he’s a big part of our team.”

When he first joined the Canadiens, he spent some time on a line with Domi. Head coach Claude Julien quickly decided to move him to the top line with Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar in the absence of Gallagher. Kovalchuk isn’t known for his defensive awareness and the Danault line handles the heaviest defensive responsibilities. Somehow, he’s found a way to fit in really well with his teammates.

His advanced numbers also indicate that he’s been the perfect fit in Montreal. His CF% is at 56.03 percent, his FF% is at 56.83 percent, his GF% is at 77.78 percent, his xGF% is 63.25 percent and his HDCF% is at 55.10 percent.

51.76 percent of his starts have been in the offensive zone, but he’s also surprisingly been on the ice for 41 defensive zone starts, which is a little surprising.

Assuming the Canadiens don’t get blown away by a trade offer from another team, they should bring him back on a year-to-year basis. As good as Kovalchuk’s been, they can’t commit a multi-year deal to him. If he’s willing to sign a one-year deal at a reasonable amount of money, there’s no reason why a team like the Canadiens shouldn’t bring him back.

Yes, the Habs should probably be looking to get younger, but if Kovalchuk can produce at a level anywhere close to what he’s doing right now, there’s no sense in getting rid of him so quickly. Is he a 30, 40 or 50-goal scorer? No way. But if he can net you 20 goals, make your power play more dynamic and help recruit a free agent or two during the off-season, he’ll be worth the investment.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

How aggressive should Blue Jackets be at trade deadline?

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We need to talk a little more about the Columbus Blue Jackets because they are one of the most fascinating teams in the NHL right now.

Not only for their recent hot streak, but for what might still be ahead of them over the next couple of months.

Thanks to their win in New York on Sunday night, capped off with an Oliver Bjorkstrand goal with 26 seconds to play in regulation, they hold the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference and are one of the hottest teams in the NHL. They are 15-2-4 since Dec. 9, while their overall record through 50 games is actually one point better than it was at the same point a year ago. Considering their offseason and the almost unbelievable run of injuries they have experienced once the season began, they are one of the biggest surprises in the league.

It all creates a pretty interesting discussion for what their front office does — or is able to do — before the NHL trade deadline.

1. They are in a position to buy, not sell

That is not up for much debate, either. This is the same team and front office that went all in before last season’s trade deadline at a time when they were still on the outside of the playoff picture. Not only are they in a playoff position right now, they are just one point back of the New York Islanders for the third spot in the Metropolitan Division.

There is also this: Their upcoming schedule through the trade deadline and end of February really softens up with only five of their next 16 games coming against teams that currently rank higher than 19th in the league in points percentage. Three of those games (two against Philadelphia, one against Florida) will be against teams they could be directly competing with for a playoff spot.

There is a chance to gain even more ground and solidify their spot even more.

2. What they need and what they have to spend

What they have to spend: A lot. The only teams with more salary cap space to spend ahead of the deadline are the New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators, and Colorado Avalanche. Out of that group, only the Avalanche will be in a position to buy. The Blue Jackets, in theory, could add any player that is theoretically available before the trade deadline.

What they need: At the start of the season the easy — and expected — answer here would have been a goalie given the uncertainty of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins and their ability to replace Bobrovsky. After some early struggles, they have turned out to be the Blue Jackets’ biggest bright spot as that tandem has combined for the second-best five-on-five save percentage in the NHL and the third-best all situations save percentage. They have been great, and especially Merzlikins with his recent play.

What they really need now is some scoring. Getting healthy would help a lot (Cam Atkinson just returned to the lineup; Josh Anderson, Alexandre Texier are still sidelined) but they do not have a single player in the top-77 of the league in scoring (Pierre-Luc Dubois is 78th), and only two in the top-120 (Dubuois and Gustav Nyquist).

As a team, they are 24th in the league in goals per game.

Looking around the league, obvious forward rentals would include Tyler Toffoli (Los Angeles Kings), Chris Kreider (New York Rangers), Ilya Kovalchuk (Montreal Canadiens), and Jean-Gabriel Pageau (Ottawa Senators). Potential trade options with term still remaining might include Jason Zucker (Minnesota Wild) or Tomas Tatar (Montreal).

3. The problem: How aggressive can they be?

The downside to their “all in” trade deadline a year ago is that it absolutely decimated their draft pick cupboard for two years. They were left with just three picks in the 2019 class (none before pick No. 108) and as it stands right now they have just five picks in 2020, with only one of them (a first-round pick) slated to be in the top-100.

While players like Texier and Emil Benstrom are good prospects, their farm system is not the deep and the younger players currently on the NHL roster (Dubuois, Seth Jones, Werenski) are players they are going to build around.

That seriously limits what they can do.

Is general manager Jarmo Kekalainen in a position to trade another first-round pick to add to what is a pretty good, but probably not great team? Is there a player available that can a big enough difference to make that worth it? If there is, that player can not be a rental. It has to be a player that has meaningful term left on their contract and can be a part of the organization beyond just this season.

Even if you assume the Blue Jackets will not be able to maintain their current hot streak (and they will cool off at some point) they have at the very least put themselves in a position where they are going to be in the playoff race with a very good chance of making it. This is also not a team in a “rebuild” mode, either. When you are in that position you owe it to your fans and the players in that room to try to win. For the Blue Jackets, it is just a matter of how much they can do and how aggressive they should be over the next few weeks.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL Power Rankings: Top rookie performances so far

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we keep it on an individual player level and dig into the 10 best rookie performances so far this season.

It has been an interesting rookie class because two of the most anticipated rookies — top-two picks Jack Hughes and Kappo Kaako) have gone through some early growing pains and have not really played their way into the Calder Trophy discussion. That is nothing to be concerned about, either. Not every 18-year-old is going to jump right into the league and make an immediate impact. Sometimes it takes a year. Sometimes it takes two. They both still have great futures ahead of them and should be stars (maybe even superstars?) in the NHL.

It has, however, been a great first half for rookie defensemen (four in the top-ten) and a couple of rookie goalies.

Which rookies have stood out the most so far this season?

To the rankings!

1. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche. Makar entered the season as one of the Calder Trophy favorites, and he has not only met the high expectations placed upon him, he has probably exceeded them. He is already the best defenseman on one of the NHL’s best and most exciting teams. An exceptional skater, great passer, and a lightning fast release that just looks effortless and unstoppable. He is a one-man highlight reel almost every night.

(See it here, too)

2. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks. When the 2019-20 season began it was expected that a Hughes would be at the top of the rookie class. And there is. It’s just probably not the one (Jack, the No. 1 overall pick this year) that most thought would be this high on the list. For the third year in a row the Canucks have one of the league’s top-two rookies as Hughes joins their promising core alongside Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.

3. Victor Olofsson, Buffalo Sabres. One of the few bright spots in yet another massively disappointing season for the Sabres. At 24 he is a little older than your average rookie, but he has been a great fit next to Jack Eichel on the Sabres’ top line when he’s been healthy. As of Monday he still leads all rookies in scoring even though he has not played in close to a month due to injury.

4. John Marino, Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins acquired Marino from the Edmonton Oilers for a conditional sixth-round draft pick in a trade that few people noticed when it was announced. All Marino has done this season is help transform the Penguins’ defense into one of the league’s best. He is already a 20-minute per night player, helps drive possession, has great defensive metrics, and has helped bring back mobility and puck skills to the Penguins’ blue line.

5. Dominik Kubalik, Chicago Blackhawks. Stan Bowman has made some questionable trades and decisions over the past few years, but this is one that he knocked out of the park. The Blackhawks acquired Kubalik from the Los Angeles Kings for a fifth-round draft pick almost exactly one year ago. He was always considered a talented prospect with offensive upside (something the Kings could use!), but he hadn’t shown a willingness to actually sign with the Kings. So they traded him. The Blackhawks were the team that pounced and added some desperately needed scoring depth. He has 21 goals on the season, with 10 of them coming over the past two weeks. Recency bias plays a role here, but he has made a huge jump in the Calder Trophy discussion from where he was even a few weeks ago when he probably was not even on the radar.

6. Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals. The Capitals’ goalie of the future should probably be getting even more playing time in the present. In his 19 appearances this season he owns a 15-2-1 record with a .927 save percentage and is currently on a run where he has won 10 consecutive decisions. He has not lost a start since Nov. 15 against the Montreal Canadiens. His play is probably making it easier to say goodbye to long-time starter (and long-time top-shelf goalie) Braden Holtby this summer in free agency.

7. Elvis Merzlikins, Columbus Blue Jackets. Like Kubalik, he is another rookie that has picked up his play very recently. When Blue Jackets starting goalie Joonas Korpisalo went down with an injury, Merzlikins had yet to win a game in the NHL and had a sub-.900 save percentage. It would have been easy to write off the Blue Jackets’ playoff chances at that point. Instead, Merzlikins has helped carry the team into the first Wild Card spot (as of Monday) in the Eastern Conference thanks to an 8-2-0 record, three shutouts,

8. Adam Fox, New York Rangers. Not going to lie, I kind of hate putting him this low because I feel like it underrates the season he has had. He has been really good. But, I also think the top-four here are clearly the head of the rookie class. It is also hard to ignore how downright dominant Kubalik and Merzlikins have been recently and the role they have played for their teams. Fox was one of two key additions to the Rangers’ blue line over the summer alongside Jacob Trouba. Trouba has the big name and the massive contract, but there is no denying which player has been the better addition for the Rangers — it is Fox.

9. Martin Necas, Carolina Hurricanes. Necas is very quietly putting together a strong rookie season. He is the fifth-leading scorer on the team and his current scoring pace would put him on track for nearly 20 goals and 50 points with strong possession numbers. Not quite enough to be a Calder Trophy favorite, but that is still a heck of a season for a 21-year-old in his first full NHL season.

10. Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens. Suzuki was the key long-term player for the Canadiens in the Max Pacioretty trade, and they are getting their first taste of what he is capable of this season. He is still a bit of a work in progress, but he has improved dramatically over the past couple of months and is currently the fifth-leading scorer among all rookies. Pacioretty is having a career year for the Golden Knights, but Tomas Tatar (the other key player in that trade) having a great year of his own, and Suzuki showing a ton of potential, it is one that — so far — has worked out well for both teams.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL Power Rankings: 2020 trade deadline candidates

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In this week’s NHL Power Rankings we look ahead to the trade deadline and some of the players who could be on the move.

We have split the rankings into four different tiers focusing on the likelihood of a trade.

The first three tiers focus on players that are most likely to be traded for one reason or another (expiring contract, playing on rebuilding teams, requested a trade, etc.).

The fourth tier looks at players that could make a big impact and bring big returns, but aren’t anywhere near as likely to be traded.

To the rankings!

Tier 1: Players almost certain to be traded

1. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Ottawa Senators. This is a no-brainer for the Senators. With Taylor Hall already moved to Arizona, Pageau is the top rental available and there are going to be a number of teams lining up to acquire him in the hopes he can be their missing piece. Even as a rental his value in a trade will probably be worth more than his long-term value to a rebuilding Senators team that is still years away from contention.

2. Tyler Toffoli, Los Angeles Kings. He may not be a star, but I want to see what he can do on a better team with more talent around him. The Kings need to start turning the page on this core and Toffoli — a pending unrestricted free agent — is a good place to start.

3. Chris Kreider, New York Rangers. There is always the possibility that the Rangers could try to re-sign him, but you have to think if that was going to happen it would have already been done by now. He would be a great addition for a Colorado team that is all-in on winning right now. He would also be an intriguing replacement for Jake Guentzel on Sidney Crosby‘s wing in Pittsburgh, provided the two teams were willing to trade within the division.

4. Alex Galchenyuk, Pittsburgh Penguins. His value is at an all-time low, but there does not seem to be any chance he remains with the Penguins beyond the trade deadline. GM Jim Rutherford is quick to move on from mistakes or acquisitions that do not work, and this would qualify.

Tier 2: Expiring contracts that could/should be be traded

5. Brenden Dillon, San Jose Sharks. Even with their improved play as of late the Sharks are going to need a massive turnaround in the second half to make the playoffs. The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported that the Sharks are going to look to reset at the deadline, and that could mean a Dillon trade. As far as blue line rentals go he would be an intriguing option. He won’t put up a lot of points, but he makes a big impact defensively.

6. Robin Lehner, Chicago Blackhawks. Both of the Blackhawks’ goalies are free agents after this season, and Lehner doesn’t seem willing to take a below market contract again to stay in Chicago. Not keeping him creates another hole on a team that has too many to begin win. But can they re-sign him?

7. Erik Gustafsson, Chicago Blackhawks. He is not going to come close to matching his offensive output from a year ago, but he could be a good depth addition for a team that needs a little more scoring punch from its blue line.

8. Sami Vatanen, New Jersey Devils. Ray Shero’s firing kind of throws a wrench into the things for the Devils, but given their spot in the standings and the expiring contracts they have you have to think they are going to be sellers. Vatanen might have the most value out of that group.

9. Wayne Simmonds, New Jersey Devils. He was a good low-risk signing for the Devils, but he hasn’t quite bounced back as either side hoped. His pending free agency makes him a potential rental, but there may not be a lot left here.

10. Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators. One of the many veterans in Ottawa playing on an expiring contract. He is not the goalie he was during his prime years, but he could be a solid backup addition for a contender.

11. Mikael Granlund, Nashville Predators. Granlund was an outstanding player in Minnesota, but things simply have not worked for him in Nashville. If the Predators do not play their way back into a playoff position they could become sellers, and Granlund’s expiring contract might be at the top of the list.

12. Zach Bogosian, Buffalo Sabres. Bogosian already requested a trade earlier this season and the Sabres have dropped like a rock in the standings. It is probably a matter of when and not if he moves. Do not expect a significant return when he does.

Tier 3: The change of scenery candidates

13. Alexandar Georgiev, New York Rangers. Should they trade him? No. But they are currently carrying three goalies and seem to love Igor Shesterkin. The ideal situation is to simply keep both Shesterkin and Georgiev — two very good young goalies! — and see who emerges long-term. And if they both do? Even better! He will have more value to them that way than he will in a trade.

14. Kyle Turris, Nashville Predators. Maybe things change with John Hynes behind the bench, but Turris hasn’t worked out in Nashville and he still has a ton of money left on his contract.

15. Josh Ho-Sang, New York Islanders. Just because it has to happen at some point, right?

16. Lias Andersson, New York Rangers. He has requested a trade and a fresh start somewhere else would probably be in everybody’s best interest.

17. Jesse Puljujarvi, Edmonton Oilers. He can not play in the NHL this season but he has zero future with the Oilers and needs a fresh start somewhere else.

Tier 4: Really players that could make huge impacts, but probably won’t move

(Several of these players are the best players on the list and would make the biggest impact, but they are also far less likely to actually be traded this season than the players above)

18. Jason Zucker, Minnesota Wild. Former general manager Paul Fenton seemed determined to trade him but was never able to get it done. He is an outstanding two-way player that would bring a big return given that he still has a year remaining on his contract, but it would also be a pretty big white flag from the organization if the Wild move him.

19. Brandon Saad, Chicago Blackhawks. He doesn’t seem likely to be traded, but the Blackhawks would be wise to at least listen to offers. He is a good two-way player and has performed in big spots in the past. A contender would love to have him.

20. Alec Martinez, Los Angeles Kings. Out of all the potential trade candidates on the Kings’ roster Martinez might bring the biggest return given his position, ability, and contract (one full year remaining after this one at a fair price). Trading him would actually require a commitment to a rebuild, however.

21. Tomas Tatar, Montreal Canadiens. It is going to be fascinating to see what the Canadiens do at the deadline. They lack quality scoring depth so trading one of their most productive players would be a step backwards, but this team is going nowhere fast as currently constructed and might need to change course.

22. Kyle Palmieri New Jersey Devils. Trading him would be a pretty drastic move for the Devils, but all options should be on the table. He is an excellent player with another year remaining on his contract at a good price. His value would be high.

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.