Auston Matthews

Jack Eichel #9 of the Buffalo Sabres prepares for a faceoff during an NHL game against Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers
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A best on best mythical tournament: 23-and-under team

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold, Pro Hockey Talk will be creating full rosters for an imaginary best on best tournament over the next three Thursdays.

The first team to enter the competition will be a roster comprised of players 23 years of age or younger. Think a Team North America in 2020. In recent years, younger players have made an instant impact at the NHL level and this team is filled with already established superstars.

Line Combinations

First line: Sebastian Aho – Connor McDavid – David Pastrnak

Thoughts: Leon Draisaitl has benefitted greatly from playing alongside McDavid this season and the addition of two dynamic goal scorers (Aho, Pastrnak) should produce an explosive top line. Aho’s ability to light the lamp and create plays should be a perfect fit to round out the group.

Second line: Andrei Svechnikov – Auston Matthews – Patrik Laine

Thoughts: Matthews has the puck-handling skill and on-ice vision to be an elite distributor with Laine alongside him. The size of all three forwards will be tough for most defensive pairings to handle.

Third line: Kyle Connor – Jack Eichel – Mikko Rantanen

Thoughts: Can this line match up with the opposition’s best and still produce offensively? The trio has the skill to be a top line for most NHL teams, but these three will be relied upon to play a smart, efficient, two-way game.

Fourth line: Matthew Tkachuk – Dylan Larkin – Mitchell Marner

Thoughts: The inclusion of Larkin over a Mathew Barzal or Elias Pettersson will raise some questions, but he was the best option to be a fourth line center and contribute on the penalty kill. Matthew Tkachuk will provide some toughness and size to add an important element to the group.

First D pairing: Zach Werenski – Cale Makar
Second D pairing: Thomas Chabot – Charlie McAvoy
Third D pairing: Rasmus Dahlin – Adam Fox

Thoughts: The second pairing will likely match up against the opposition’s best, but each combination has a strong mix of complementary characteristics. I initially thought it would be tough to find a strong group of mature defensemen in this age range, but these players have established themselves as high-end D-men.

Starting Goalie: Carter Hart
Backup Goalie: Ilya Samsonov

Just Missed: Mathew Barzal, Quinn Hughes, Travis Konecny, Elias Pettersson, Ivan Provorov

Captain: Connor McDavid
Alternate captains: Zach Werenski and Charlie McAvoy

Analysis

This team should not struggle to score with a ton of fire power in the offensive unit. With two of the top three and six of the top 10 goal scorers from the current season, it will be hard to contain this prolific group of forwards.

Two areas of weakness for this team are its ability to play a strong two-way game in even strength situations and kill off timely penalties. Players of this ilk have the ability to play any style but the question will be if players like Eichel and Marner could buy in to a defensive oriented role.

Additionally, their goaltenders are unproven but have the talent needed to play against the world’s best.

Nevertheless, the amount of skill on this team should help them overcome any obstacles and be a formidable challenge for any opponent. The roster has several established leaders, but young stars of the NHL are always eager to prove they belong in the conversation with the game’s best. Channeling that emotion in the proper way could be the difference between a successful tournament run or an early exit.

Surprising omissions:

Quinn Hughes: The young blueliner has been sensational for the Canucks. He is currently in a tight race with Makar for the Calder Trophy awarded to the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the NHL. But the team will need size on the backend and cannot carry three undersized defensemen.

Elias Pettersson: The Swedish center is an excellent talent but didn’t fill a need when creating the lineup. While his talent is immense, this is a player that received the short end of the stick in order to build the most complete roster.


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Looking at the NHL’s race to 50 goals this season

NHL Goal Leaders
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Boston’s David Pastrnak and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin are currently involved in a back-and-forth race for the NHL’s goal scoring crown, with both sitting just two goals away from reaching the 50-goal mark for the 2019-20 season.

Pastrnak will have a chance to get there on Tuesday night when his Bruins visit the Philadelphia Flyers (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) and try to snap their current nine-game winning streak.

Barring injury, it seems to be a lock that both players will eventually get there this season, while Toronto’s Auston Matthews (46 goals entering Tuesday’s game) should be right behind them.

Overall, there is a very real chance for the NHL to see at least four, and perhaps even five, 50-goal scorers this season with Pastrnak, Ovechkin, Matthews, Leon Draisaitl, and Mika Zibanejad all having a chance at it.

This would be a significant accomplishment.

How significant? Just consider that before this season there were only five 50-goal seasons in the league between the 2013-14 and 2018-19 seasons, and four of those seasons belonged to Ovechkin (Leon Draisaitl was the other player, reaching the mark last season). Go back as far as the 2010-11 season and that number only goes up to eight.

In other words: You are lucky if you see one 50-goal scorer in a single season.

The last time the NHL had at least five in one season was the 2005-06 season, while there have only been four seasons since 2000 where they were more than two (the ’05-06 sesaon, and three each in 2000-01, 2007-08, and 2009-10).

Here is a quick look at the current contenders this season,

A few random factoids about the race for 50 goals, just for some historical context.

  • With two more goals this season Ovechkin will hit the 50-goal mark for the ninth time in his career, which will tie him for the most ever alongside Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy.
  • Pastrnak would be the first Bruins player to score 50 goals in a season since Cam Neely did it during the 1993-94 season.
  • Matthews would be just the fourth Maple Leafs player to reach it. Rick Valve scored 50 goals three different times during the early 1980s, Gary Leeman did it once, and Dave Andreychuk reached it most recently during the 1993-94 season.
  • Aho would need an absolutely incredible finish to the season to score 50, but it would make him just the second player in the history of the Hartford/Carolina franchise to do it. Blaine Stoughton did it twice for the Whalers (1979-80 and 1981-82). Even if he does not get to 50, he is still having an all-time great season for the Hurricanes. Eric Staal (twice) and Jeff O’Neil (once) are the only players to ever score 40 goals since the franchise relocated to Carolina.
  • It seems the only thing that is going to stop Zibanejad is the fact he has missed 13 games this season due to injury. Even with that he still has a decent shot at it. The only Rangers to ever score 50 goals: Jaromir Jagr (2005-06), Adam Graves (1993-94), and Vic Hadfield (1971-72).
  • Draisaitl’s current two-year run is already one of the most impressive and dominant runs the league has seen in decades. If he can score seven more goals that would give him back-to-back 50-goal seasons, which would put him on a very short list of players to do that over the past 25 years. That list: Ovechkin, Dany Heatley, and Mario Lemieux.

Even if it is just Pastrnak, Ovechkin, Matthews, and Draisaitl that get there it would still be a pretty dramatic change for goal scoring in the NHL after we went nearly a decade where only one player (Ovechkin) seemed capable of reaching it.

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.

Push for the Playoffs: Pressure is on Maple Leafs

NHL Playoff Race
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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2019-20 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

There is a potential Round 1 playoff preview in Toronto on Tuesday night when the Maple Leafs play host to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It is still only a potential Round 1 matchup at this point because the Maple Leafs are suddenly feeling quite a bit of pressure from a Florida Panthers team that is not quite ready to go away just yet.

Toronto enters Tuesday’s action riding a three-game losing streak (all on a Western Conference road trip that saw them lose to three of the league’s bottom teams) while having lost 10 of their past 17 games overall. It has been a maddening run of inconsistency where they have struggled to solidify their standing as a playoff team. Their recent slump, combined with the Panthers stacking a couple wins together (including Monday’s impressive 2-1 win against the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues) has closed the gap between the two teams to just a single point. They now face a very real risk of not only dropping into a Wild Card spot, but perhaps even out of the playoff picture entirely. It is something that seemed almost unimaginable at the start of the season.

Given the expectations this team had at the start, as well as their struggles at times this season, their precarious spot in the playoff race would create enough pressure on its own. Now they have an absolutely brutal three-game stretch ahead of them this week that will see them play Tampa Bay, Nashville, and Boston. If they are going to solidify their standing in the playoff race, they are going to have to earn it.

While much of the criticism for this year’s Maple Leafs team falls on their defense and goaltending, the big culprit on their recent losing streak has been an offense that has gone cold, scoring just three goals in the three games (including only one over the past two games).

On Monday, coach Sheldon Keefe put his lines into a blender in an effort to help jumpstart the offense. He split up the Auston MatthewsMitch Marner duo, putting Matthews with Zach Hyman and William Nylander, while Marner skated alongside John Tavares and Kasperi Kapanen.

The Maple Leafs are also getting top defenseman Morgan Rielly back on Tuesday night after he missed the past two months due to a broken foot.

IF PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Boston Bruins vs. Carolina Hurricanes
Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Philadelphia Flyers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

WESTERN CONFERENCE

St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Winnipeg Jets
Colorado Avalanche vs. Dallas Stars
Edmonton Oilers vs. Calgary Flames

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Toronto Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET
Nashville Predators vs. Montreal Canadiens, 7 p.m. ET
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New Jersey Devils, 7 p.m. ET
Boston Bruins vs. Philadelphia Flyers, 7 p.m. ET
Carolina Hurricanes vs. Detroit Red Wings, 7:30 p.m. ET
New York Rangers vs. Dallas Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET
New York Islanders vs. Vancouver Canucks, 10 p.m. ET

EASTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)

Boston Bruins — 100 percent
Tampa Bay Lightning — 100 percent
Washington Capitals — 100 percent
Philadelphia Flyers — 99.9 percent
Pittsburgh Penguins — 94.2 percent
Carolina Hurricanes — 76.2 percent
Toronto Maple Leafs — 67.1 percent
New York Islanders — 63.9 percent
Florida Panthers — 44.5 percent
Columbus Blue Jackets — 35.3 percent
New York Rangers — 18.5 percent
Montreal Canadiens — 0.4 percent
Buffalo Sabres — Out
Ottawa Senators — Out
New Jersey Devils — Out
Detroit Red Wings — Out

WESTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES 

St. Louis Blues — 100 percent
Colorado Avalanche — 100 percent
Vegas Golden Knights — 98.9 percent
Edmonton Oilers — 98.3 percent
Dallas Stars — 97. 9 percent
Calgary Flames — 66.5 percent
Vancouver Canucks — 64.1 percent
Minnesota Wild — 56.2 percent
Winnipeg Jets — 49.9 percent
Nashville Predators — 47.1 percent
Arizona Coyotes — 19.2 percent
Chicago Blackhawks — 2 percent
Anaheim Ducks — Out
San Jose Sharks — Out
Los Angeles Kings — Out

THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE

Detroit Red Wings — 18.5 percent
Ottawa Senators — 13.5 percent
Los Angeles Kings — 11.5 percent
Ottawa Senators* — 9.5 percent
Anaheim Ducks — 8.5 percent
Buffalo Sabres — 7.5 percent
New Jersey Devils — 6.5 percent
Chicago Blackhawks — 6 percent
Montreal Canadiens — 5 percent
New Jersey Devils** — 3.5 percent
Nashville Predators — 3 percent
Vancouver Canucks — 2.5 percent
New York Rangers — 2 percent
Florida Panthers 1.5 percent
New York Islanders — 1 percent

(* SJ’s 2020 first-round pick owned by OTT)
(** ARZ’s lottery-protected 2020 first-round pick owned by NJ. If top three, moves to 2021)

ART ROSS TROPHY RACE

Leon Draisaitl, Oilers — 110 points
Connor McDavid, Oilers — 96 points
David Pastrnak, Bruins — 94 points
Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche — 93 points
Artemi Panarin, Rangers — 93 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE

Alex Ovechkin, Capitals — 48 goals
David Pastrnak, Bruins — 48 goals
Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs — 46 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers — 43 goals
Mika Zibanejad, Rangers — 39 goals

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.

The Buzzer: Hats off to Ryan, Kubalik; Granlund’s late-game heroics

Mikael Granlund #64 of the Nashville Predators celebrates his game tying last second goal
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Three Stars

1) Bobby Ryan, Ottawa Senators

He struggled to fight off the tears as Senators fans chanted his name at Canadian Tire Centre late in the third period after Ryan completed his fifth career hat trick to seal Ottawa’s 5-2 victory against the Vancouver Canucks. It was Ryan’s second, and first at home, since returning from an extended absence in order to deal with an alcohol addiction problem. Ryan scored in a variety of ways including a slick redirection, a short-side snipe and an empty-net tally as Ottawa snapped a four-game losing streak.

2) Dominik Kubalik, Chicago Blackhawks

The Czech rookie starred in a five-goal third period for the Blackhawks as they defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning, 5-2. The 24-year-old collected goals 27, 28, 29 for his first NHL hat trick while Chicago snapped a two-game losing streak. Kubalik knotted the game at 2-2 shortly after Brandon Saad opened the scoring for Chicago. The Blackhawks’ rising star relentlessly followed the puck and finally lit the lamp on his third chance of the sequence. Chicago took a two-goal advantage when Kubalik fired a blistering one-timer past Curtis McElhinney. He would complete the hat trick with an empty netter in the final minutes of the third. The playoffs are out of reach for Chicago this season, but Kubalik’s emergence will help the Blackhawks return to the postseason in the coming years.

3) Mikael Granlund, Nashville Predators

The saying “every second counts” applied to the Predators as Granlund score with one-tenth of a second remaining to force overtime against the Calgary Flames. The Predators didn’t give up during the final moments of a hectic finish and Filip Forsberg slid a puck to Granlund’s stick before the equalizer. Granlund wasn’t finished until he notched the overtime winner to send Bridgestone Arena into a frenzy. A loss would have had costly ramifications on the Predators’ playoff pursuit, but Granlund’s heroics allowed Nashville to slide into the second wild card spot for the time being.

Highlights of the Night

Charlie Coyle batted the puck out of mid-air to even the game at 1-1 late in the first period.

Evander Kane kicked the puck to himself and then fed Logan Couture, who netted the game-winning goal in his second game back from an ankle injury.

Colton Parayko finished off the Islanders with this wraparound in overtime to lead the Blues to a 3-2 victory.

Tomas Tatar stickhandled back and forth until an opening presented itself.

Auston Matthews‘ 44th of the season helped Toronto capture an important 5-3 victory against the Florida Panthers.

Mathew Dumba scored twice including this one-timer as the Wild scored seven in their victory against the Red Wings.

Alexandar Georgiev turned the puck over but recovered with this spectacular save.

Stats of the Night

Scores

New York Rangers 5, Montreal Canadiens 2

Chicago Blackhawks 5, Tampa Bay Lightning 2

Toronto Maple Leafs 5, Florida Panthers 3

Boston Bruins 4, Dallas Stars 3

Ottawa Senators 5, Vancouver Canucks 2

Minnesota Wild 7, Detroit Red Wings 1

St. Louis Blues 3, New York Islanders 2 (OT)

Nashville Predators 4, Calgary Flames 3 (OT)

Winnipeg Jets 3, Washington Capitals 0

San Jose Sharks 3, New Jersey Devils 2 (OT)


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Can Maple Leafs survive on defense with Muzzin out one month?

Maple Leafs defense with Jake Muzzin out one month
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A season of extremes continues for the Maple Leafs, as their defense must find answers with Jake Muzzin out about one month. Muzzin broke his hand blocking a shot, souring Tuesday’s otherwise sweet win against the Lightning.

Everything about the timing fits the soap opera narrative of “As the Maple Leaf turns …”

  • Toronto lost Muzzin for a month in the first game after signing him to a contract extension.
  • It’s also the first game following a trade deadline that mixed the good with the bad. On one hand, it turns out that keeping Tyson Barrie was wise, warts and all. On the other, GM Kyle Dubas’ critics will argue that he still didn’t do enough.
  • Oh yeah, the Maple Leafs follow up this potentially devastating injury with an enormous Thursday game against the Panthers in Florida.

Woof. Dubas is a different cat, so naturally he tweeted out this very Zen approach to dealing with the Muzzin news.

(If you’re like me, you’re imagining Dubas trying to meditate after being thrown under the bus by Toronto media and fans. It’s kind of fun.)

The Maple Leafs defense has been, uh, flawed for some time now. Subtract Muzzin, and put him on an injured list that already includes Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci, and you might feel very UnDude.

Let’s take a look at the tattered remains of a Maple Leafs defense that may resemble seven wild horses.

Looking at the Maple Leafs defense with Muzzin out

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston and others shared the Maple Leafs’ defense pairings from practice:

Travis DermottJustin Holl
Rasmus Sandin – Tyson Barrie
Martin MarincinTimothy Liljegren
Extra: Calle Rosen

Do you look at that group as seven wild horses, or seven broken ones? (Don’t make any glue factory jokes, please.)

Long story short, this leaves the Maple Leafs with a relatively inexperienced group.

If you want a glimpse at Toronto’s confidence level in certain players, consider how Sheldon Keefe deployed Sandin on Tuesday. Through two periods, Sandin received just 5:27 time on ice. Once it was clear Muzzin wouldn’t return, Sandin’s ice time skyrocketed to 9:34 during the third period alone.

Dicey stuff, but what’s the best approach, Zen-like, or otherwise? What’s a good mantra for the Leafs going forward?

Accepting reality of the Maple Leafs defense with Muzzin out, and considering Panthers

Despite wildly different approaches and markets, the Maple Leafs and Panthers boast notably similar strengths and weaknesses. After all, they are the only teams in the NHL who’ve scored and allowed 200+ goals so far this season.

So maybe the Maple Leafs should embrace the perception of their most prominent, healthy defenseman in Tyson Barrie, and their perceived identity as a team that needs to outscore their problems, in general?

There’s also the potential silver lining of realizing that players like Sandin and Liljegren might be further along in their respective developments than Toronto realized. Interestingly, Dubas sort of touched on this during his trade deadline presser, before Muzzin was injured.

” … We need to see how our own guys develop,” Dubas said, via Pension Plan Puppets’ transcript. “In a perfect world your own guys develop and quell your concerns you have about the roster and that people on the outside may have about them as well.”

Both Sandin and Liljegren carry pedigree as first-rounders, and have produced some offense at the AHL level. Perhaps they can bring almost as much to the table as they risk taking away with mistakes?

Obstacles, and gauntlets thrown down on top Maple Leafs

When you dig deep on the Maple Leafs’ numbers, you get a more complicated look at their hit-and-miss defense. Either way, they need better goaltending going forward — even if that leads to awkward choices.

No, the Leafs don’t make life easy for Frederik Andersen, but he needs to improve on his .906 save percentage (his -4.25 Goals Saved Above Average points to some fault on his end).

Frankly, it might be just as important that the Maple Leafs show a willingness to turn to Jack Campbell instead. Through four games, Campbell’s generated an impressive .919 save percentage, going 3-0-1.

Of course, the onus is also on their big-money forwards. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and John Tavares have mostly delivered in 2019-20, but the team needs them now more than ever.

The challenge comes in balancing attacking with supporting embattled defensemen. Not hanging them out to dry for icing infractions would be a good place to start:

If patterns continue, there will only be more twists and turns for the Maple Leafs. Maybe they can end up better after facing all of these challenges, but either way, it doesn’t look easy, and might not always be pretty.

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.