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Tavares living up to hype for Leafs with Matthews out

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The Toronto Maple Leafs have a lot going on right now, and quite a bit of it is no good.

Auston Matthews‘ bad injury luck continues. The William Nylander contract impasse is dragging on far longer than most of us expected.

Good thing the Maple Leafs won The John Tavares Sweepstakes, then, right?

Thursday presented the latest example of that free-agent gift that keeps giving, as Tavares and the Maple Leafs beat the San Jose Sharks 5-3 in a game that was frequently filling. For some, it was a reminder that Tavares’ transition has been seamless compared to Erik Karlsson‘s growing pains with the Sharks. Such comparisons feel petty, really, when you consider just how joyous Tavares’ run has been so far with the team he rooted for (and slept on bedsheets for) as a child.

Consider that Matthews has last played on Oct. 27. Since then, Tavares has really embraced his role as the clear go-to guy for the Maple Leafs. While he was unable to generate a point in Toronto’s flat loss to the Flames in the first game following Matthews’ injury, Tavares has been trading off being electric and automatic since then.

The talented center managed to generate a point in every November game so far (five goals and five assists for 10 points). Tavares’ goal from Thursday also extended his goal streak to four games.

Sharks coach Peter DeBoer provided praise heading into that Leafs – Sharks game that ended up being prophetic.

“I just love the honesty to his game. He plays both ends of the rink, he wins battles, he goes to the dirty areas of the rink, he makes other people around him better, which you think is everybody in the NHL, but it’s not,” DeBoer said, via Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston. “That’s a short list of guys. You can put a John Tavares with almost anybody and he’s going to make a line go or make those guys better. Joe Thornton has that ability, too.

“He’s just a special player.”

Indeed, Tavares showed that he can score ugly just about as efficiently as he can set up beautiful chances.

Of course, the Maple Leafs aren’t subsisting on Tavares’ shrewd play alone. Morgan Rielly continues to put up highly impressive offensive numbers from the blueline. While the Maple Leafs’ hit-or-miss defense can sometimes hang him out to dry, Frederik Andersen builds a case as an underrated goalie, including making 42 saves against the Sharks in that 5-3 win. Kasperi Kapanen is taking advantage of a long-awaited opportunity to prove himself, and Mitch Marner has been just about as explosive as many expected when it became clear that he’d line up with Tavares. Nazem Kadri is thriving as a second-line center.

Still, Tavares stands out for his consistency and versatility.

” … He’s been a leader,” Rielly told the AP after the Maple Leafs beat the Kings 5-1 on Tuesday. “He’s been a 200-foot player. He’s been putting the puck in the net.”

With respectable-yet-unspectacular possession numbers, it’s true that Tavares stands out most for his offense (23 points, including 12 goals, three of which were game-winners).

Even so, it’s heartening to see that Tavares can carry the Maple Leafs during those stretches where their deadly one-two punch goes down to just one (or, at least, a solid but less spectacular two in Kadri).

Considering a slightly-high 16.9 shooting percentage, perhaps Tavares will cool off during the grind of an 82-game season. So far, he’s living up to the considerable hype … and, besides, Matthews might be back in time to warm things up if Tavares suffers a cold spell.

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 Morning Skate: Paul Martin retires; Nylander wait continues

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Up top, introducing “Desert Gold,” an inside look into the Vegas Golden Knights’ incredible run to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. Watch the first episode on Saturday, Nov. 27th on NBCSports.com and Facebook Watch.

• Paul Martin’s 14-year NHL career has come to an end as the longtime defenseman has announced his retirement. [Gophers]

Sidney Crosby‘s status for Thursday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning is unclear after he was evaluated for an upper-body injury following practice. [Tribune-Review]

• Did you hear about the Twitter accounts that were recently created and have put out a strong defense of the Ottawa Senators? Never a dull moment. [Silver Seven Sens]

• With six of their next seven games away from TD Garden, the Boston Bruins are hoping to build some momentum. [Bruins Daily]

• Cassie Campbell-Pascall and Mark Chipman will join the Hockey Hall of Fame Selection Committee, replacing writer Eric Duhatschek and the late Bill Torrey. [HHOF]

• The longer the Toronto Maple Leafs wait to sign William Nylander, the more beneficial it could be for them. [TSN]

• Speaking of Nylander, here are 29 reasons why the Tampa Bay Lightning should trade for him. [Raw Charge]

Erik Haula’s injury has opened the door for Cody Eakin as the Golden Knights forward showed Wednesday night. [Sin Bin Vegas]

• The 2019 NWHL All-Star Game will be held in Nashville as part of a doubleheader with the Predators on Feb. 10. [NWHL]

• The only choice for the Calgary Flames when it comes to Mike Smith is patience. [Flames Nation]

• How sustainable is this start by the Vancouver Canucks? [Sportsnet]

• NHL superstars talk about the key issues surrounding the next CBA. [ESPN]

• The next few weeks are pretty important for the future of the Anaheim Ducks. [Anaheim Calling]

• “For the first time in program history, Sun Devil Hockey cracked the top-20 in this week’s USCHO Coaches’ Poll at No. 18 after the best start in program history.” [Sun Devils]

• The Dallas Stars power play is really missing John Klingberg. [Blackout Dallas]

Niklas Kronwall’s presence has been impactful for the Detroit Red Wings this season. [Octopus Thrower]

• Finally, what a save by Worcester Railers goaltender Evan Buitenhuis:

The Buzzer: Taylor Hall does it all for Devils, Maple Leafs rout Kings

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Three Stars

1. Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils. The reigning league MVP played like it on Tuesday night as he contributed to all four goals in the Devils’ 4-2 win over the slumping Pittsburgh Penguins. Hall scored the game-winning goal 8:07 into the third period and then put the game away with an empty-net goal later in the period. Along with his two goals he also had the primary assist on the Devils’ first two goals, setting up Travis Zajac and Damon Severson. Hall is now up to 18 points in 16 games this season.

2. Tom Kuhnhackl, New York Islanders. We have to give some attention to Kuhnhackl here because this is the type of game he just does not have. He not only scored one of the weirdest goals of the season (watch it here) when he somehow slipped the puck behind Jakob Markstrom while falling to the ice and looking in the wrong direction, but then he went and added another goal later in the game to help the Islanders pick up a 5-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks. With his two goals on Tuesday night he now has three goals on the season in only seven games. Keep in mind he only scored two goals in 69 games a year ago, and only four in 57 games the year before that, and only five in 42 games the year before that.

3. John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs. This was not even a contest. The Maple Leafs completely rolled over the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday by a 5-1 margin in a game that was not anywhere near as close as the final score. John Tavares was the star of the night for the Maple Leafs with three points and seven total shot attempts (including four on goal). He is now up to 22 points in 18 games this season. The Maple Leafs, even without Auston Matthews and William Nylander, are very good. The Los Angeles Kings are struggling.

Other notable performances from Tuesday night

— Thanks to a three-point night from Mike Green the Detroit Red Wings were 6-1 winners over the Arizona Coyotes and have now won seven of their past eight games. Who saw that happening?

Tom Wilson returned to the lineup sooner than expected and had a crazy night. He scored a goal and got called for a penalty on the same play, got into a fight, and was a plus-two on the night. He was an assist shy of the Gordie Howe hat trick. The Capitals rolled to a 5-2 win over the Minnesota Wild.

Max Domi‘s 10th goal of the season (more than he scored in each of the past two seasons) was not enough for the Montreal Canadiens as they dropped a 6-2 decision to the Edmonton Oilers. The duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl was the difference for the Oilers as they each had three points on the night.

Jeff Skinner has been exactly what the Buffalo Sabres needed. He scored another goal in their big 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night.

Highlights of the Night

Just because it is worth one more look.

Joe Thornton hits the 400-goal mark with the game-winning goal against the Nashville Predators.

Factoids

It was not just a big night for Joe Thornton in San Jose. Erik Karlsson is still searching for his first goal of the season but he did reach a personal milestone of his own on Tuesday night.

The Florida Panthers are on a roll thanks in large part to Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov.

Mathew Barzal is one of the league’s best players and an exceptional playmaker.

Scores
New Jersey Devils 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 2
New York Islanders 5, Vancouver Canucks 2
Florida Panthers 2, Philadelphia Flyers 1
Buffalo Sabres 2, Tampa Bay Lightning 1
Detroit Red Wings 6, Arizona Coyotes 1
Washington Capitals 5, Minnesota Wild 2
Edmonton Oilers 6, Montreal Canadiens 2
Toronto Maple Leafs 5, Los Angeles Kings 1
San Jose Sharks 5, Nashville Predators 4

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.

PHT Morning Skate: World Cup 2020 talks; Seattle and Quenneville

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The NHL and NHLPA have engaged in discussions about a World Cup in 2020, but labor uncertainty could hold plans being finalized. “Daly said the NHL and NHLPA need to reach an agreement by the end of January at the latest to either waive their CBA reopener rights in September 2019 or push the deadline back if they want to have enough time to plan and execute a World Cup in 2020.” [NHL.com]

• Dave Tippett says he won’t be coaching the NHL Seattle expansion franchise. But what about his good friend Joel Quenneville? [Seattle Times]

• If you could replace one Hockey Hall of Famer with another player, who gets in and who gets taken out? [ESPN]

• European expansion is on the minds of the NHL’s leaders. But when will we see it? [Globe and Mail]

• Jack Hughes, the likely No. 1 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, is going to be a difference-maker when he arrives in the league. [Trentonian]

David Pastrnak‘s all-around game is helping him reach another level with the Boston Bruins. [Bruins Daily]

• How some small changes have paid off for the Carolina Hurricanes’ power play. [Section 328]

• “The Onus Of Nylander’s Contract Negotiation Is On Shanahan and Lamoriello, Too” [Maple Leafs Nation]

• Why the New York Islanders should pursue William Nylander. [Eye on Isles]

• The New York Rangers will be without Pavel Buchenevich for 4-6 weeks after he broke his thumb. [Blueshirt Banter]

Ondrej Kase is back for the Anaheim Ducks, and that’s good news for their offense. [OC Register]

• Are the Winnipeg Jets about to face a real big cap crunch? [One Puck Short]

• The Minnesota Wild are enjoying the musical choices from DJ Matt Dumba. [Pioneer Press]

• A statue outside Rogers Arena honouring hockey legend Pat Quinn has been defaced in an act of vandalism one Vancouver Canucks executive is calling “disrespectful and disappointing.” [CTV]

• A month into the season and the Metropolitan Division race is still wide open. [1st Ohio Battery]

• St. Louis Blues prospect Luke Opilka, 21, has retired due to hip issues. [Post-Dispatch]

• Finally, Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey gets his first taste of the NHL:

PHT Power Rankings: Wild still stuck in wrong division

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Before the start of the season I had what was, admittedly, an overly harsh assessment of the Minnesota Wild (No. 5 on the list here) that talked about how they just kind of exist as a franchise, and how I don’t really have any overwhelmingly strong opinions, positively or negatively, about them as a team. Mostly because for as good as they tend to be, they just never really go anywhere.

Every year you know exactly what they will do, where they will finish in the standings, when they will exit the playoffs.

They have a lot of really good players, but they don’t really have any true superstars.

They are a consistently good team (sometimes really good!), but no matter how good they are, there always seems to be that one team they inevitably meet in the first round that is just always a little bit better than them.

The result is a team that consistently finishes with 100 points, is usually in the top-10 in the overall league standings (top-eight the past two years; top-three this season as of Monday), but can never make a serious postseason run. You know they are going to be there in the playoffs and probably near the top of the standings, but deep down you just know they have no legitimate shot of winning the Stanley Cup. At least that is the way it seems.

Look at it this way: During the five-year stretch between 2013-14 and 2017-18 the Wild were 10th in the NHL in games won. That is a pretty good team. You would think with that much regular season success, and that many trips to the playoffs (all five years), that something might have come together for at least one decent run deep in the playoffs.

For most teams, it does.

For most teams, it did.

For the Wild, it didn’t.

They were one of just two teams in the top-12 in total wins during that stretch that did not make at least one Conference Finals appearance (the Boston Bruins, sixth in wins during that stretch, were the other).

Eight of the teams in the top-12 made at least one Stanley Cup Final appearance (St. Louis, Boston, Anaheim, and Minnesota were the ones that did not).

This season, the Wild are once again a good team. A really good team. A really good team with a great coach in Bruce Boudreau that is doing what he has done for every team he has coached — win. They dominate five-on-five goal-scoring. They dominate five-on-five scoring chances. They have a great penalty kill and an outstanding goalie.

If you are a Wild fan there should be every reason to look at this team and think “maybe we have a chance!”

For everyone outside of Minnesota, you can’t help but look at the situation and the division and the potential path through the playoffs and simply say, “there is no way they are beating both Nashville and Winnipeg in the first two rounds. It just doesn’t seem probable.”

This is the story of the Minnesota Wild in a nutshell. In any given year there may only be two or three teams in their conference that are better than them, and those teams will almost always — always! — be in their division, and be their likely first-or second-round opponents.

The same is true this season.

For years that team was always the Chicago Blackhawks during their mini-dynasty run.

This year — just like last year — it is Nashville and Winnipeg. The two teams they will almost certainly have to go through to go on a run and get out of the Central Division bracket.

It takes a lot of luck and good fortune to win a Stanley Cup. That luck can be anything and everything from getting the right bounce in the right moment, to having all of your key players healthy at the same time, to getting the right matchups along the way.

When it comes to the Wild, they almost never seem to get the latter. Every year it is a brutally tough draw in their division. That does not seem to be changing.

The Elites

1. Nashville Predators — Just an incredibly deep team that is dominating everybody. They have only allowed seven goals on their current five-game winning streak. In four of those games they allowed either one goal or zero goals.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning — Ryan McDonagh seems to have found the fountain of youth in Tampa Bay, and as if they weren’t already good enough, Victor Hedman is now back in the lineup. The Atlantic Division should be theirs for the taking once again.

3. Minnesota Wild — Once again stuck in the wrong division.

They are who we thought they were 

4. Boston Bruins — Jaroslav Halak has been a huge surprise this season. What has not been a surprise has been the domination of their top line. It is almost like a cheat code when they are on the ice. I don’t mean to exaggerate here, but splitting that trio up should be a fireable offense.

5. Winnipeg Jets — After recording a pair of points in their 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils on Sunday night, Blake Wheeler is now on a 10-game point streak. He has 19 points during that streak.

[Related: It is time to stop labeling Blake Wheeler as underrated]

6. Toronto Maple Leafs — They are still picking up wins even without Auston Matthews and William Nylander, but their loss over the weekend to Boston should concern them from a big picture outlook. They still have no answer for the Bergeron-Marchand-Pastrnak line and if the Maple Leafs are going to be anything other than a team that loses in the first-round they are probably going to have to get through Boston this season. Are you convinced they can do that?

Exceeding expectations, but the jury should still be out

7. Vancouver Canucks — This team still strikes me as a house of cards (that defense and goaltending … woof!), but Elias Petterson is a legit top-line talent and one of the league’s must-see players right now. I give them credit for winning early, because that matters, but I am still not ready to buy this team, this season. Yet.

8. Montreal Canadiens — Just about everything Marc Bergevin touched this offseason seems to be turning to gold. At least for now. How long that good fortune lasts will determine the success or failure of this year’s team.

9. Buffalo Sabres — Whether it is from Buffalo or somebody else, Jeff Skinner is putting himself in a position to collect a lot of money at some point over the next few months. He is still only 26 years old and it seems like he has been around forever.

They are who we thought they were, part 2

10. Columbus Blue Jackets — They enter the week in first place in the Metropolitan Division despite the fact their goalies, for the most part, have completely stunk this season. They need Sergei Bobrovsky to be Sergei Bobrovsky again.

11. Philadelphia Flyers — How does anyone that follows this team have a healthy blood pressure? They either look great or horrible and they seem to spend equal time on both sides of that spectrum. Lately, the great version has been here (at least offensively). Give it time, though, because the horrible version is probably lurking around the corner just waiting to appear again.

12. Dallas Stars — Middle of the pack seems to be the perfect way to describe the Stars. In any year and every year. Losing John Klingberg for a month is going to hurt, though. He is one of the game’s best blue-liners and should be in the Norris discussion once again.

13. Calgary Flames — The Flames are off to a pretty good start and one of the biggest contributors has been … David Rittich? The backup goalie is 5-1-0 with a .935 save percentage in six starts. Now if they could just get something out of James Neal

Hey, wake up, you are better than this

14. San Jose Sharks — Erik Karlsson has been better than his box score numbers would indicate, but zero goals in 18 games to start the season is not what anybody expected.

15. Washington Capitals — The defending Stanley Cup champions have won back-to-back games once this season. They have yet to win more than two in a row. They have also yet to lose more than two in a row.

16. Pittsburgh Penguins — The general manager was right to call out his team. But he also is the one that built the team, so he has to look in the mirror a little bit, too.

[Related: Obviously unhappy GM rips Penguins’ slow start]

17. St. Louis Blues — Three of their top-five scorers right now (Ryan O'Reilly, David Perron, Tyler Bozak) were acquired over the offseason in an effort to boost one of the league’s worst offensive teams. They fixed the offense just in time for the goaltending to abandon them.

Making their move … but is it already too late?

18. Florida Panthers — Entering the week they are 5-2-0 in their past seven games, but another slow start to the season may have been enough to bury them.

19. Arizona Coyotes — The Coyotes did not win their eighth game of the 2017-18 season until December 22, so they are more than a month ahead of last year’s pace. There is a lot to like about this team, especially the way they play defensively and on the penalty kill. They are not an easy two points for anyone.

20. New York Rangers — Honestly, not sure I expected this team to put together a six-game point streak at any time this season, but that is exactly what they have done over the past two weeks as part of a 5-0-1 run. Only two of those five wins came in regulation (the other three were shootout wins) so it’s probably not something that is going to sustain itself, but you can’t fault the effort.

21. Detroit Red Wings –– Same story as the Rangers. The effort is there, and it’s resulted in a nice little hot streak here recently (for the Red Wings, it is wins in six out of the past seven games, including three in a row where they have had to overcome a two-goal deficit) but even bad teams get hot at some point during an 82-game season.

The mystery teams

22. Colorado Avalanche — Two of the top-three scorers in the league, a top-three offense overall, top-10 in goals against per game … and they are, at the moment, a fringe playoff team that has lost six out of eight games.

23. New York Islanders — The argument in favor of the Islanders is that they are balanced, and getting contributions from everyone, and they are the definition of a team with a good system and a good coach in place. The reality is they are 21st in the league in goals per game, 30th in shots on goal per game, and are one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to possession and scoring chance differential. Unsustainable goaltending has masked all of those flaws for now.

24. Vegas Golden Knights — I still think this team is capable of putting together a run here if they get their goalies straightened out. But maybe they’re just not going to get the goaltending this season? Marc-Andre Fleury isn’t young anymore and the jury is still out Malcolm Subban.

25. Carolina Hurricanes — Such a promising start, too.

26. Edmonton Oilers — No forward depth. Bad defense. Cam Talbot is not playing well in goal. Everyone in charge of this team should remain on the hot seat.

27. Ottawa Senators — Young players like Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk have been great this season. That is the important thing for this team.

28. New Jersey Devils — After starting the season with a four-game winning streak the Devils are just 2-8-1 since then.

[Related: Struggling Devils]

29. Anaheim Ducks — Their strong start was always a mirage given the way they were actually playing. They have just one regulation win in their past 11 games. This has all the makings of another team destined for an in-season coaching change.

You probably fired the wrong person

30. Chicago Blackhawks — Whenever you think it is time to fire your head coach it is probably time to also look at the people that built the roster. This roster is not particularly good.

31. Los Angeles Kings —  Whenever you think it is time to fire your head coach it is probably time to also look at the people that built the roster. This roster stinks.

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.