Alexander Radulov

Five biggest surprises of NHL’s opening week

4 Comments

We’re already through the first week of the 2019-20 season and there have been plenty of interesting storylines and surprises. There’s never been a greater amount of parity in the NHL and that makes for some fun nights. Even though it’s incredibly early, we’re going to run down some of the biggest surprises so far.

There’s an excellent chance that a lot of these trends won’t hold up, but they’re still significant enough for the hockey world to take notice.

Here we go:

Mika Zibanejad is lighting it up:

How good has Zibanejad been for the Rangers through one week of action? Well, he’s already picked up four goals and four assists in just two games. That puts him on pace for 328 points, which we’re pretty sure he won’t hit. He posted a goal and three assists in the opener against the Winnipeg Jets and he shredded his old team, the Ottawa Senators, with three goals and an assist on Saturday night.

The 26-year-old was fantastic for New York last year too, as he posted a career-high 30 goals and 74 points in 82 contests. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see that the Rangers won that Zibanejad for Derrick Brassard swap that happened in July of 2016.

His start to the season puts him in some pretty good company:

That’s impressive!

Stamkos isn’t impressed with Lightning’s play: 

The Tampa Bay Lightning ran away with the President’s Trophy last season only to get bounced by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Through three games, the Bolts have a 1-1-1 record which isn’t catastrophic by any means. If you look back to last season, they didn’t hit their third loss until the 10-game mark, so they have work to do if they’re going to match that.

After blowing a 3-1 lead against the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday, Steven Stamkos made sure to send a message to his teammates and the entire organization.

“Today was a [terrible] game for us,” Stamkos said, per NHL.com. “Unless we change things, it’s going to be a really, really long year. We rely so much on our goaltending and our power play and the passing. It’s three games into the season, that’s the good news. There’s lots of times to correct these things. I don’t want to get too down, but it’s frustrating knowing the group we have in here and we keep continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results.”

No one expected Stamkos to utter those words this early.

[NHL Fantasy Hockey: Olofsson, Haula highlight this week’s best adds]

• The Stars and Sharks have no victories: 

A pair of teams that made the playoffs last season have failed to come up with a win in their first three games of the year. The Sharks have dropped decisions to the Vegas Golden Knights (twice) and the Anaheim Ducks. To make matters worse, San Jose has only found the back of the net three times in three games. That’s clearly not good enough.

The good news, is that Evander Kane has finished serving his suspension for making contact with an official, so he should give his team a boost in their next game which is Tuesday night in Nashville. Again, there’s no reason to panic yet, but the Sharks need to get their act together soon.

The Stars are in the same boat. Dallas was an overtime goal away from making it to the Western Conference Final last year, but that hasn’t translated into success this year. There’s good news, as all three of their losses have been by a single goal.

Dallas’ top guys have to get going in a hurry if they’re going to get back on track. Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov have no points in three games, while Tyler Seguin and Joe Pavelski each have a point.

• The Detroit Red Wings are…fun? 

Not many experts picked the Red Wings to make the playoffs this season, but some of their young veterans have sent a clear message to the rest of the league during opening week.

The Wings are off to a 2-0-0 start thanks to two wins over Nashville and Dallas. Tyler Bertuzzi had a four-point night against the Predators and followed that up with an assist against the Stars, while Anthony Mantha had three points against Nashville and four goals against Dallas.

Mantha currently has a share of the lead in goals scored with Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews.

“[Mantha] gets exponentially better when he’s playing with confidence, and that’s what you are seeing now,” head coach Jeff Blashill said after Sunday’s win. “When he’s moving his feet and going like this, you are looking at a guy who is 6-foot-5 with speed and great hands and he’s showing that whole package.”

The 25-year-old had a career-high 25 goals in just 67 games with the Wings last season. Is this the year he hits 30?

The Buffalo Sabres aren’t bleeding goals:

Yes, most teams are two games into their season, but what fun would it be if we didn’t read too much into some of these trends. The Sabres, who entered the season with question marks on defense and in goal, have only allowed three goals in their first two games.

Goalie Carter Hutton has stopped 46 of 49 shots he’s faced against the Pittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils and that’s been good enough to earn two wins. Hutton deserves a lot of credit, but his teammates do too.

The Sabres have been really good!

Before we get all excited about the prospect of Buffalo finally being good, we have to remember that they got off to a strong start last year, too. They eventually fell apart and never recovered. Is this the year they get over the hump? Is this the year they shock the NHL? Well, we only have to wait another 80 games before we find out for sure.

What’s coming up this week?
Jack Hughes vs. Connor McDavid, Tues. Oct. 8, 7 p.m. ET

• Sharks vs. Predators, Tues. Oct 8, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)

Phil Kessel plays game No. 1,000 on Sat., Oct. 12, 9 p.m. ET vs. Avalanche

WEDNESDAY NIGHT HOCKEY
Devils vs. Flyers, Weds., Oct. 9, 7:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)

NHL on NBCSN
Kings vs. Canucks, Weds. Oct. 9, 10 p.m. ET (NBCSN)

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Dallas Stars

1 Comment

(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, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

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

Better or worse: The Stars were one of the most top-heavy teams in the league last season with Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, Jamie Benn, John Klingberg, and Miro Heiskanen driving almost all of the scoring. Only three forwards on the team managed more than 30 points, and if offense wasn’t coming from the Seguin-Benn-Radulov trio, it wasn’t going to come from anywhere. They attempted to address that over the summer with the signings of Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry. That should be an improvement. Perry is a bit of a wild card because his career has fallen off so much in recent years, but Pavelski should still be able to drive a second scoring line that the Stars desperately need. How much better remains to be seen, but they are better.

Strengths: Simply put, it is the top of their lineup and it is not limited to any one position. Whether it be at forward where they have a great top line (Seguin-Benn-Radulov), on defense (Klingberg and Heiskanen) or in net (Ben Bishop) each layer of the roster has top-line talent. That matters a lot. You can not compete for a championship without elite players, they are the toughest players to find and acquire, and the Stars have a bunch of them at the most important positions. Seguin is one of the league’s best offensive players, Klingberg is already a Norris contender, Heiskanen might one day join him, and Bishop has been a Vezina finalist three different times.

Weaknesses: If their strength is the top of the lineup, then it only makes sense that their weakness is everything after that. The Stars’ bottom three lines were so bad a year ago that when none of Seguin, Benn, or Radulov were on the ice at 5-on-5 the Stars were outscored by a 77-56 margin and controlled less than 48 percent of the total shot attempts. That is, in a word, bad. If the Stars are going to be more than just a playoff team and become a legitimate Stanley Cup contender that has to improve.

[MORE: X-Factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): In his first season behind the Stars’ bench Jim Montgomery had the Stars in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and was a double overtime Game 7 goal away from being in the Western Conference Final. It would take a complete meltdown for his job to be in any sort of jeopardy at this point. So we will go with a 1 out of 10 for him on the hot seat rating this season.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Heiskanen, Pavelski, and Roope Hintz are three players worth keeping an eye on in Dallas this season.

Let’s start with Heiskanen because the expectations for him are beginning to shoot through the roof. His rookie season was sensational and so good that Bishop already declared him to be one of the best defenders he has ever played with and a future Hall of Famer. He just turned 20 years old this summer and seems to have unlimited potential. How big of a step he takes in year two will be a fascinating development to watch.

When it comes to Pavelski the biggest question is what he is going to be capable of producing. He has been one of the league’s best goal-scorers over the past six years and is coming off a monster 38-goal performance (in only 75 games) for the San Jose Sharks. But he just turned 35 years old and had a career-high 20 percent shooting percentage a year ago. He is probably not going to be that efficient with his shooting this season so you should expect some kind of a regression. Even if he is a 25 or 30 goal player that is still a huge boost to the Stars’ lineup.

Hintz took a huge step forward over the final two months of the regular season, recording 17 points in 32 games between the beginning of February and the end of the regular season. He continued that strong play in the playoffs with 13 points (five goals, three assists) in the Stars’ playoff games. Him being able to build off that and become a strong complementary piece would go a long way toward solving some of the depth concerns.

Playoffs or lottery: This is a playoff team, and potentially a pretty good one. The Western Conference is still pretty wide open and there remains a pretty big gap between the playoff teams and the rest of the pack. Depending on how much they can get out of Palelski and Perry, as well as any improvement from returning young players (Heiskanen, Hintz, etc.) this could be a top-three team in the Central and potentially even compete for the top spot.

MORE:
Pavelski, Perry missing pieces for Stars?
• 
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.

Dallas Stars questions: goaltending, aging, and new faces

3 Comments

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Dallas Stars.

Let’s run through three questions for the Dallas Stars heading into 2019-20 …

1. How will the new guys fit in?

During the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, we saw how formidable the Stars could be when Mats Zuccarello helped their second line chip in a bit more offensively, supplementing Jamie BennTyler Seguin, and allowing Ben Bishop to do the rest.

They waved goodbye to Zuccarello during the offseason, but hope to boast an improved offense after making a hefty investment in Joe Pavelski.

Along with Pavelski, the Stars also took some interesting reclamation projects in Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera. If those two deliver above their (newly modest) levels of play, then things could really pick up for a Stars team that looks to be competitive in the Central Division.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | X-Factor | Under Pressure]

2. Will the Stars get elite goaltending again?

Last season, you might have expected slightly above average work from the tandem of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin. Instead, the Stars enjoyed the second-best even-strength save percentage last season, and Bishop managed the difficult task of carrying that outstanding work into the playoffs.

As stingy as Stars head coach Jim Montgomery’s defensive system was in 2018-19, it’s tough to imagine Bishop and Khudobin pulling that off again.

Bishop only played 46 regular season games last season, and was limited to 53 in 2017-18, so we’ve already seen how much the big goalie can be hindered by health. Bishop – Khudobin is a veteran goalie combo, opening the door to a decline related to aging, not just injuries.

Beyond all of that, goalies are just flat-out difficult to predict from year to year. It’s the most important position in the sport, yet also a very tough one to forecast, so relying too much on your netminders is very risky.

3. Can the Stars avoid being hit too hard by the aging curve?

Young talent supplies some of the Stars’ excitement, as John Klingberg (26), Miro Heiskanen (20), and Roope Hintz (22) are all key contributors. At 27, Tyler Seguin is in the meat of his prime, too.

The Stars are still slated to tussle with Father Time in a big way in 2019-20, however.

Jamie Benn is slowing at 30. It’s surprising that Joe Pavelski is 35, and Alexander Radulov is 33, yet maybe we shouldn’t be surprised if they suddenly look their ages. Bishop is 32, and Khudobin is 33. Corey Perry seems like a very old 34, and a reminder of how steep an age-related decline can be.

If enough Stars veterans hit the aging curve in a bad way this season, things could go sideways. Some teams like the Bruins get a little bit lucky when it comes to avoiding these drop-offs, in part because they’re able to shift some of the burden to younger players, and the Stars could pull that off too. Other teams aren’t so lucky, and the Stars haven’t even enjoyed the same peak years as the Kings, Ducks, or Blackhawks.

There are a lot of variables going on with the Stars (and other NHL teams), but the potential results of aging could be huge.

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.

What Devils can expect from Gusev

Getty
1 Comment

There is a very strong argument to be made that Nikita Gusev has been the best hockey player in the world that was not already playing in the NHL.

Now that he is officially a member of the New Jersey Devils we will finally get a chance to see what he is capable of in North America.

Anytime a player makes the jump from a European league to the NHL there is always some uncertainty as to what they will be able to do, and that always carries some risk when teams are investing millions of dollars in them. Sometimes the gamble works, and sometimes it does not.

If you are a Devils fan and looking for reasons for optimism that Gusev will be one of the success stories, it is that the players that are most similar to him in terms of age and production in the KHL have mostly succeeded in the NHL.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The table below is a quick breakdown of some similar players.

It looks at what each forward did in their two previous seasons in the KHL (sorted by points per game) and what they then produced after signing in the NHL. As you can see, the players most similar to Gusev have, for the most part, been extremely productive.

Radulov and Kovalchuk are, admittedly, not completely perfect comparisons here because they both had NHL experience before they went to the KHL (Kovalchuk was an NHL superstar) and there was at least some sense as to what they were capable of.

But Gusev’s production is right in line (or better) than what Artemi Panarin, Evgenii Dadonov, Radulov, and Kovalchuk did before making their jumps back to the NHL. All of them are currently top-line forwards.

Kovalchuk’s return to Los Angeles this season is viewed as a disappointment, but he is also significantly older than the others in that group and still managed to score at a 20-goal pace on a miserable Kings team that lacked any offensive creativity around him. The only comparable player that did not have any success in the NHL was Vadim Shipachyov, and the circumstances around his failure in Vegas are still a mystery as that relationship seemed destined for a divorce before it even had a chance to begin. We still don’t know what he could have been capable of with a real shot.

The only other players that really flopped in making the jump (Sergei Plotnikov, Valeri Nichushkin) were not even close to the same level of production in the KHL.

There are still no guarantees, but given his age and what he did recently in Russia there is at least reason to believe he can be closer to a Panarin, Dadonov, or Radulov than a Plotnikov or Nichushkin.

MORE DEVILS COVERAGE:
Devils acquire Gusev from Golden Knights, sign him for two years
One big question remains for Devils after busy summer

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.

Pavelski, Perry missing pieces for Stars?

Getty
6 Comments

In a lot of ways it’s pretty remarkable that the Dallas Stars were a double overtime, Game 7 loss (to the eventual Stanley Cup champions) from reaching the Western Conference Final.

In early December the organization looked to be a dysfunctional mess after the team’s CEO publicly put his best players on blast for not doing enough (even though they were carrying the team), while the roster around them was lacking in several key areas.

Even as the team turned it around in the second half and went on its run through the playoffs there was a pretty significant weakness throughout the roster.

Depth.

The 2018-19 Stars were the very definition of a “top-heavy” team that relied almost entirely on the top trio of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov, two elite defenders (John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen), and an outstanding goalie (Ben Bishop).

There were a few developments along the way that helped (the late season emergence of Roope Hintz, as well as the acquisition of Mats Zuccarello once he was healthy come playoff time), but the lack of forward depth was still a pretty significant Achilles Heel that was always going to hold them back when it mattered most.

General manager Jim Nill tried to address that on Monday with the free agent additions of Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry, adding to his extensive list of offseason victories that goes back to his first year on the job in Dallas.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Both players come with their set of risks.

In Perry’s case, he is 34 years old, played just 34 games in 2018-19, and has watched his production take a cliff dive over the past three years. In 2015-16 he was still an elite goal-scorer and topped the 30-goal mark (he scored 34) for the fifth time in six years. In three seasons since then he has scored just 42 goals. It is clear he is no longer a top-line player and given the Ducks’ willingness to buy him out, and the fact he had to settle for a one-year deal with a significant paycut shows just how far his value has dropped across the league.

The hopeful angle here is that it is a low-risk deal and that perhaps Perry can be capable of a bounceback season as the Stars catch lightning in a bottle.

It’s a long shot, but there is virtually no risk with it.

Pavelski is the player that provides the most reason for optimism because he is coming off of a monster season with 38 goals in 75 games. On a per-game level it was the most productive goal-scoring season of his career, and for the Stars to get him on a $7 million salary cap hit seems like a pretty strong deal.

The risk here is that Pavelski is entering his age 35 season and is coming off a season where he shot at a career-high 20.2 percent. That is important to keep in mind because he is highly unlikely to come close to that number in 2019-20, which means you should be expecting a pretty sharp decline in his goal production.

If he had shot at his normal career level in 2018-19 on the same number of shots he would have been a 23-goal scorer, which is the level he scored at in the two seasons prior.

The other factor here is that it is almost unheard of for a player that age to shoot at such a level. Pavelski was just the fourth different player in NHL history (at least as far back as we can track shooting percentage numbers) that scored on at least 20 percent of his shots (minimum 150 shots) in their age 34 season or older. Hall of Famer John Buyck did it three times (age 35, 37, and 40), Jim Pappin did it twice (age 34 and 35), and hockey legend Mario Lemieux did it once (age 35).

So there is not a lot of precedent for that sort of performance this late in a player’s career.

But the Stars don’t really need Pavelski to play at that level for him to make an impact.

They don’t need him to be a 40-goal scorer, they don’t need him to be a top-line scorer, they don’t need him to be the player to carry the offense.

They need him to be a secondary option that teams have to at least account for and worry about so they can not load up on trying to stop the Seguin, Benn, Radulov trio. Even if his shooting percentage regresses and he falls back to a 23-25 goal output that is still going to be a substantial upgrade for the Stars.

Just to get a sense of how thin the Stars’ forward depth was in 2018-19, they only had four forwards top the 30-point mark all season, and one of those players (Radek Faksa) had exactly 30 points. That was by far the lowest total of any Stanley Cup playoff team (the next lowest team had six such players).

They were also so bad that when none of Seguin, Benn, or Radulov were on the ice during even-strength play the Stars were outscored by an 84-65 margin, controlled just 48 percent of the shot attempts, and were outchanced. In other words, they were a bad team when the three best players were sitting on the bench. Every team will see a drop in that situation, but this was an extreme drop. It was not until Zuccarello showed up via trade (and was then healthy) that they finally had at least the threat of a second-line option.

The Stars have the most difficult pieces to find when it comes to constructing a championship roster: Impact players at the top of the lineup, and as long as Seguin, Benn, Radulov, Klingberg, Heiskanen, and Bishop play even close to the level they were at this past season the foundation will continue to be in place.

They just needed the secondary options to complement them.

Perry is going to be a lottery ticket that may or may not work out. But Pavelski, even if he regresses and declines should at least give them one or two more years of high level play and be just what they need.

Related: Ten things we learned from crazy first day of NHL free agency

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.