Cale Makar

Getty Images

NBCSN’s Hockey Happy Hour: Cale Makar’s memorable NHL debut

This week’s Hockey Happy Hour on NBCSN will feature four notable milestone and record performances.

Just two days after finishing his college season at UMass, Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar scored his first career NHL goal, on his first shot, in his debut in Game 3. In becoming the first defenseman to ever score a goal while making his NHL debut in the postseason, Makar factored in Colorado’s 6-2 victory and two-games-to-one series lead.

Gord Miller and Ray Ferraro called the game action from Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo.

Wednesday, May 27 on NBCSN
#HockeyAtHome: Meet & Greet – 4 p.m. ET
Men in Blazers On Ice – 4:30 p.m. ET
• Flames vs. Avalanche (2019 Western Conference Round 1, Game 3) – 5 p.m. ET

Thursday, May 28 on NBCSN
• Blackhawks vs. Ducks (2015 Western Conference Final, Game 5) – 5 p.m. ET

#HOCKEYATHOME: MEET & GREET – WEDS., 4 P.M. ET
NBC Sports’ Kathryn Tappen co-hosts a 30-minute program that features Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel and Matt Duchene of the Nashville Predators meeting fans and answering their questions virtually during the league’s hiatus.

MEN IN BLAZERS ON ICE – WEDS., 4:30 P.M. ET
Roger Bennett, co-host of “Men in Blazers,” hosts an interview series featuring stars from around the NHL. Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin, Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper and Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews headline this episode.

Programming will also stream on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Happy Hour can be found here.

Guerin, Wild try to stay calm despite challenges in signing Kirill Kaprizov

Wild hope to sign Kirill Kaprizov eventually Bill Guerin
Getty Images

It’s rarely been simple or straightforward for the Wild to get treasured prospect Kirill Kaprizov to actually join the team. Sadly, for anxious Wild fans, it looks like the waiting game will continue. It’s also unclear how long this will feel like the neverending story.

Ideally, the Wild would be able to sign Kaprizov to a two-year entry level contract. The door would normally be open since his KHL deal expired.

The COVID-19 pause has complicated these eternally complicated matters, though. Such complications have prompted worries that the latest attempts at a Kaprizov deal might eventually fall apart.

To his credit, Wild GM Bill Guerin is trying to take the slow-and-steady approach with Kaprizov.

“I understand the anticipation of Kirill, and him getting signed, but this is just one of those things that’s gonna take a little bit of time,” Guerin told Dan Myers of the Wild website. “Would I have liked this done three weeks ago? Sure, I would have liked this done three years ago. But this is an unusual situation, and had things gone the way they normally would have, without coronavirus, things probably would have been different.”

(Wild fans nodded their heads so hard at the “three years ago” part.)

From fast forward to a pause

In previous seasons, teams have been able to sign prospects after their seasons ended at other levels, injecting talent late in a campaign, or even postseason. This sets up “everyone wins” scenarios. The teams get the boost of talent, while prospects were able to “burn” a year off their entry-level contracts despite limited games played.

Such benefits can sometimes be profoundly noticeable. Chris Kreider gave the Rangers a nice boost during the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. As recently as last postseason, Cale Makar became an instant smash-success for the Avalanche.

Under normal circumstances, the Wild would be able to bring Kaprizov in the same way by signing him to a two-year deal that would run through 2020-21. Unfortunately, amid all of the COVID-19 confusion, the NHL paused teams abilities to sign Makar/Kreider-type deals. If that remains, a Kaprizov contract couldn’t kick in until 2020-21.

As the Athletic’s Michael Russo notes (sub required), there’s mild hope that people might be able to change the NHL’s mind on the matter. That hope may not be justified, however, as a source told Russo that there’s “zero chance” the NHL will change its mind.

“To be honest, I don’t know. It doesn’t really look like [he’d be eligible to play this season],” Guerin said to Myers. “But I don’t want to put words in anybody’s mouth or make a call that hasn’t been finalized. We’re just taking it day-by-day with him and wait.”

Several ways Kaprizov situation could go sour for Wild

This process has already been riddled with headaches.

Almost exactly three years ago, rumors circulated and were later confirmed that Kaprizov signed a three-year deal to stay in the KHL. While there was some hope in bringing Kaprizov to the Wild as early as 2018-19, fans were instead teased with glimpses of his brilliance.

And make no mistake about it, there’s serious evidence that the 23-year-old can live up to the hype. If big numbers in the KHL and international play won’t convince you, these highlights should drop a jaw or two.

Of course, strong work — including 33 goals and 62 points for CSKA Moscow this season — makes it even more appealing to keep Kaprizov from leaving the KHL.

If the Wild can bring Kaprizov over for whatever’s left of 2019-20, then the uncertainty surrounding 2020-21 becomes a problem. What if the league doesn’t open things up until December? That would be a long time for Kaprizov to wait around, especially in the near-certain event that a KHL team can dangle a lucrative offer for next season.

Russo listed some alternative options for Kaprizov and the Wild. Those options range from the dicey prospect of “loaning” Kaprizov to a KHL (or other league) team, just signing him to a two-year deal and getting him to the U.S., or even just waiting a year.

Russo also points out another consideration:

One wrinkle is that once Jan. 1 passes, Kaprizov will be in his 24-year-old year even though he doesn’t turn 24 until April 26. That means he would only be able to sign a one-year entry-level contract, not a two-year deal.

Sheesh, right?

Guerin seemingly handling the Kaprizov situation well for Wild

Again, one can understand if the frustration is mounting.

With that in mind, it’s probably positive that Guerin is fairly fresh to the Wild job. Much of the grumbling happened during Chuck Fletcher’s tenure as GM, so maybe the slate is cleaner now?

Guerin told Myers that he believes Kaprizov is “actually being really smart in taking his time” with this process. Beyond that, Guerin’s been in frequent contact with Kaprizov, and it’s not always been just business. Russo even noted in an April article that Guerin texted Kaprizov happy birthday in Russian when the prospect turned 23.

If it eases any tension (probably not much, but still), the Wild only used a fifth-rounder on  Kaprizov (selecting him 135th overall in 2015). So if this eventually pans out, the Wild might still get a steal.

They just needed to work hard to pull off that heist.

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.

Biggest Vancouver Canucks surprises and disappointments

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Vancouver Canucks.

“Even better than expected” surprises for the Canucks

With the Canucks, good players often turned out very good in 2019-20. Delightfully very good players sure looked truly great.

Take, for instance, J.T. Miller leading the Canucks in scoring with 72 points. Many of us believed that Miller was a very, very nice winger with the Rangers and Lightning, but he exceeded just about all expectations.

Quinn Hughes managed similar feats. If you want to start a weird fight on Twitter, argue about Hughes vs. Cale Makar for the Calder Trophy. Simply put, though, Hughes being this good this fast was a pleasant surprise. Yes, we were expecting big things, but Hughes escalated that conversation.

Pettersson deserves his own section

Most of all, Elias Pettersson isn’t just a star. It’s fair to call him a superstar. You might not get that right away from good-but-not-top-level scoring this season (66 points in 68 games), but he’s a huge catalyst for Canucks success.

Take, for instance, the gap between Pettersson and every other Canuck on this xGAR chart from Evolving Hockey:

But, this isn’t about damning with faint praise, because Pettersson ranks among the best in the NHL if you look at the league overall by that same metric:

Impressive stuff, especially since Pettersson ranks second overall if you look at GAR, instead of its expected counterpart. Translation: he’s fantastic, and worthy of at least some Hart Trophy rumblings.

Pettersson wasn’t the only Canucks player who played a huge role in keeping the team in playoff contention, even with a flawed roster, and Brock Boeser missing time with injuries. Jacob Markstrom‘s .918 save percentage only tells part of the story about his value as the Canucks’ last line of defense.

But from propelling teammates such as Miller and powering a potent power play, Pettersson’s further ascent ranked as the most pleasant surprise for the Canucks.

Canucks disappointments revolve around free agency

Over time, Jim Benning’s looked like a more capable GM than we first realized. Certainly more than funny facial expressions and early memes suggested.

Really, it makes you wonder where the Canucks would be if they hid the checkbook from Benning around July.

Scroll back up to that first chart, and you’ll see plenty of regrettable signings ranked toward the bottom. Signing Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel ranked as perplexing to many of us when the moves happened, and those decisions don’t seem much wiser today. It sure doesn’t look like Tyler Myers was worth the big money, either.

(And making more than a passing mention of Loui Eriksson just feels cruel.)

With Markstrom headed for a raise as a UFA, and that unfair $3M+ per year Roberto Luongo recapture penalty on the books through 2021-22, it’s fair to wonder how much year-to-year room the Canucks will enjoy to make a solid team something truly outstanding.

Pettersson and others are so good that they can create more Canucks surprises, but it would be better if they had more help.

MORE ON THE CANUCKS:
2019-20 season summary
Long-term outlook

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.

Colorado Avalanche: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Colorado Avalanche.

Pavel Francouz the surprising star in net

If you were to look at the Avalanche roster at the start of the season and had to pick out an area of concern, goaltending might have been the easy choice.

Philipp Grubauer is a solid starter, but is he a championship-caliber goalie? After him, their top backup was the relatively unproven Francouz who entered the season with just two appearances in the NHL and only one season of professional hockey in North American. Given his age (29) and lack of an NHL resume, there had to be at least a little bit of a question mark regarding their goaltending depth.

Francouz has, instead, turned out to be one of the single biggest surprises on this year’s roster.

In 34 appearances he owns a 21-7-4 record with a .923 save percentage and was outstanding as the starter when Grubauer was sidelined due to injury. His overall play has been so good that the Avalanche already signed him to a two-year contract extension. He and Grubauer have turned out to be an outstanding duo and the underrated star of this year’s team.

Injuries have been a major disappointment

When it comes to performance it is really difficult to find a disappointment on this year’s team. The stars have been great, the scoring depth was addressed in a meaningful way over the summer with some great additions, the goaltending has been better than expected, and the young defensemen have excelled and are already blossoming into stars.

Instead of anything relating to performance, the biggest disappointment this season has been the bad injury luck.

Obviously that is not anyone’s fault, but it has kept us from really getting a sense of just how good this team can be when it is at full strength.

The injury list this season includes…

That is not only a lot of games, it is a lot of games for significant players.

Even with all of that the Avalanche have still been one of the league’s best teams and certainly builds some excitement for what their ceiling is when everyone is in the lineup.

Tyson Jost has not really taken a big step forward

If you did want to reach for a performance related disappointment Jost might be the player to look at. It is tough to say that because on one hand he is still only 21 years old and has a ton of talent. So the potential is absolutely there. On the other hand, he has also already played 200 NHL games and has not really shown significant improvement. After that many games it might be time to start wondering if this is the player that he is — a 10-goal, 20-point depth forward. Not saying he can not be more than that, and players do develop at different paces, but we are no longer talking about a small sampling of games here.

He was mentioned in trade rumors leading up to the deadline and it definitely seems reasonable to conclude that he could be moved at some point in the future.

Ryan Graves has been a great complement for Makar

The Avalanche have the potential for an outstanding long-term defense with Makar (the current Calder Trophy front-runner as the league’s Rookie of the Year), Samuel Girard, and 2019 No. 4 overall pick Bowen Byram. That trio, their talent, upside, and contract situations help make them one of the most important parts of the team’s core moving forward and will be the foundation of a potential championship team in the very near future.

There is another player that has emerged as part of that defense this season, and that is the 24-year-old Graves.

He has spent a significant portion of his season playing alongside Makar to help form an outstanding pair.

In close to 500 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this season the Avalanche have completely dominated the shot attempt and scoring-chance metrics and have outscored teams by a 31-17 margin with them on the ice. While it is easy to conclude that a lot of that is due to Makar carrying the duo, Graves has also excelled when playing next to Ian Cole.

Basically, no matter who he plays next to, it works.

For the season, Graves has nine goals and 26 total points and is a league-leading plus-40 while playing close to 19 minutes per game.

He may not be the impact player or star that Makar is, but his play has been an outstanding development this season.

MORE:
• Looking at the 2019-20 Colorado Avalanche
What is the Avalanche’s long-term outlook?

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.

A best on best mythical tournament: 23-and-under team

Jack Eichel #9 of the Buffalo Sabres prepares for a faceoff during an NHL game against Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers
Getty Images
1 Comment

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.