Carter Hutton

Five biggest surprises of NHL’s opening week

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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 Buffalo Sabres

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

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

Better or Worse: Significantly better. Colin Miller is an underrated defenseman who might be able to take on a bigger role than he played in Vegas. Henri Jokiharju provides another (eventual?) boost on the right side, possibly opening up room to trade Rasmus Ristolainen.

The forward group gets a boost from Marcus Johansson, and Jimmy Vesey if Vesey can take a step forward. Maybe most importantly, they didn’t lose Jeff Skinner.

Strengths: The high end of this team is powerful, and could get better, being that Jack Eichel is just 22, and Rasmus Dahlin is only 19. There’s also a little more help beyond the top guys than in 2018-19, where little good happened when Eichel, Dahlin, and Skinner were off the ice.

Weaknesses: Buffalo took some significant steps in improving the talent around their top players, but this is still not a very deep team. The Sabres badly need Casey Mittelstadt to make a dramatic leap as a sophomore. Even then, the bottom two forward lines seem pretty shaky, and their defense faces similar depth challenges. The Sabres also didn’t really address their goaltending situation, so they’ll have to cross their fingers that Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark (or someone else, eventually?) will work out better than they did in 2018-19.

[MORE: Under pressure | X-factor | Three questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): From 1997-2013, Lindy Ruff served as Sabres head coach. During the offseason, Ralph Krueger became the fourth Sabres coach since Ruff was fired in Feb. 2013. The Sabres have missed the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons (plus 10 of the last 12), and haven’t won a playoff series since 2006-07.

Ideally, Krueger’s seat would be ice cold, but patience is beyond thin in hockey-loving Buffalo. If the Sabres suffer more from the same under a coach who’s spent the last few years more interested in the 4-4-2 in soccer than the 1-3-1 in hockey, then the heat could start boiling pretty quickly.

But there does tend to be a grace period when a new coach takes over, so let’s call it a five or a six.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Jeff Skinner, Rasmus Dahlin, and Casey Mittelstadt.

Skinner got his money, stunningly so, to the tune of $9 million per season. Now he’ll face pressure to justify that price, and he’ll be following up a season where he played a little bit over his head, as his 40 goals came via a 14.9 shooting percentage, the highest of his nine-year career. If he’s closer to his 2017-18 numbers (24 goals, 8.7 shooting percentage), there will be grumbling.

Dahlin was absolutely dazzling as a rookie, to the point that I was arguing that the Sabres should have echoed the Dallas Stars’ handling of Miro Heiskanen by giving Dahlin even more ice time, just to see if he could handle it. Maybe the Sabres will drop any facade of the “training wheels” being on in 2019-20? I’d guess Dahlin can thrive even in tough, big minutes — particularly compared to the Buffalo’s less-than-ideal other options.

Again, Mittelstadt needs to be better in his second full season. He came into the NHL with Calder Trophy hype not that different from Dahlin, and 2018-19 readjusted expectations … but a leap in 2019-20 could be crucial for Buffalo’s chances to compete.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Sabres did a lot right, and if Krueger ends up being a big upgrade from Phil Housley as head coach, then Buffalo could leap even further.

Unfortunately, the Sabres are also in arguably the toughest division in the NHL. It’s difficult to imagine Buffalo being in range of last year’s top three Atlantic teams (Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto), and the Panthers spent a ton to improve on what was already an impressive core. There might not be a lot of seats left in this game of musical chairs, and my guess is that the Sabres will find themselves stumbling out of the mix once again.

It wouldn’t be shocking if Buffalo stayed in the bubble longer than last season, but I’d say they’re more likely to play the lottery than reach the postseason.

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.

Sabres goalies need to shake off tough month

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When the Buffalo Sabres look back on this season, they may consider January the month that broke their playoff hopes — or the month they survived.

Things certainly haven’t been easy lately, and you can see the strain most clearly in the way Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark have struggled.

Before the calendar hit 2019, Hutton went 13-11-3 with a .916 save percentage, while Ullmark managed an 8-1-3 record and .922 save percentage. Things went sideways in January, however:

Ullmark: 2-3-0, .893 save percentage.
Hutton: 2-2-0, .860.

That’s troubling, particularly since the Sabres seemed to decide to continue the transition from veteran Hutton (33 years old) to intriguing young netminder Ullmark (25).

It’s not all doom and gloom for the Sabres or their goalie duo, though. Consider a few factors:

  • Even with this slump, Buffalo’s enjoyed better team save percentage (.912) than the league average of .908.
  • The Sabres have found ways to win some of these tough games. Wednesday’s game against the Stars in Dallas won’t be easy (they’re closing off of a back-to-back set after holding off Columbus), but the good news is that they’ll end a five-game road trip. After that, they’ll begin what could be a fruitful seven-game homestand on Friday:

Feb 1: vs. Blackhawks
Feb 5: vs. Wild
Feb. 7: vs. Hurricanes
Feb. 9 vs. Red Wings
Feb. 10: vs. Jets
Feb. 12: vs. Islanders
Feb. 15 vs. Rangers

  • Having such a promising set of home dates is one reason why Buffalo’s goalies should shake off this slump. Another is simple enough: it’s still just a small sample size. You could probably zero in most precisely on the last six games as especially tough, as they’ve allowed 27 goals during that span.
  • Buffalo managed not to sink too far in the standings amid this turmoil. While they trail the Pittsburgh Penguins for the East’s second wild-card spot, it doesn’t seem like an insurmountable gap:

The Sabres face the Penguins two more times this season, and also have one more game remaining against the Canadiens, who sit at the third place in the Atlantic with 61 points in 51 games played (26 ROW), so Buffalo can influence its closest competitors, too.

None of this is to say that this will be an easy journey for a franchise that sorely hopes to end its playoff drought, but the Sabres could make up some ground if their confidence hasn’t been shaken.

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.

Soak it in: Buffalo Sabres are good

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Remember when the Buffalo Sabres were bad?

The answer is we all do. You don’t have to go that far back in the annals of hockey history to find some woefully bad Sabres teams.

But those days of Buffalo being the butt-end of jokes and all of that sort of thing seem to be over with. The western New Yorkers aren’t simply toiling as an embarrassing team anymore. It’s been a bit of a process to turn the ship around, but the fruits of that labor seem to be flourishing so far this season.

Case and point: Buffalo has now cobbled together five straight wins, including triumphs over the Tampa Bay Lightning — tops in the Atlantic Division — and the Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild, teams sitting second and third in the Central Division, respectively.

They’ve embraced the grind, have learned to weather storms and are still standing at the end of it.

In Winnipeg on Friday, the Sabres were outshot 12-4 in the first period and survived. In Minnesota on Saturday, they were again pelted in the opening frame, doubled up 18-9 on the shot counter, and still found a way to only be down by a single goal.

And in both games, they battled back in the third, tied the game and then won it late in regulation or in extra hockey, as was the case in Winnipeg. And they did it on back-to-back nights when you’d have forgiven them for packing it in early against Minnesota after Friday’s game, which needed 65 minutes and seven rounds of a shootout.

Summer acquisitions of Jeff Skinner and Carter Hutton have played massive roles in Buffalo’s ascent up the standings a month-and-a-half into the season.

Skinner has 14 goals and 21 points in 20 games this season after coming over from the Carolina Hurricanes.

Hutton is 4-0-0 in his past four games with a 1.42 goals-against average and a .950 save percentage.

Linus Ullmark is 4-0-1 in his backup role and Buffalo had the 11th best team save percentage coming into Saturday. 

Their penalty kill is in the top 10

Jason Pominville has turned back the clock with nine goals and 17 points thus far. Thirty-five years old and the wear and tear of 1,000 games? Pfft. Pominville is laughing at Father Time. 

And most importantly, they’re resilient.

“I just think we bent a little bit but we didn’t break,” Sabres head coach Phil Housley said after Friday’s win in Winnipeg. “I think last year we maybe would have broke a little more and gave the game away. We hung in there. That’s what’s great about this group, that they stick with it. We make some adjustments in between periods and they follow through with those adjustments. But it’s great for them, they’ve shown the resiliency up to this point in the season.”

The Sabres are simply an exciting team to watch these days and they’re positioning themselves to be in the playoff hunt, both this year and in the future.

Imagine that.


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

Carter Hutton makes early case for save of the year (Video)

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Desperation paddles saves are the best saves.

It’s not even close.

If you agree (and why wouldn’t you?) then here’s a dandy from Buffalo Sabres goalie Carter Hutton that you can pump straight into your veins.

What you don’t see here is the puck going into the back of the next after the whistle had blown.

After Hutton made the save, the refs blew the whistle as the puck was pushed across the goal line. The ref waived off the goal. The NHL’s Situation Room initiated a review on it and the ref indicated to them that he blew his whistle before the puck crossed the line. The call on the ice stood, preserving the save.

Everything leading up to that save fell into place perfectly.

Brutal defense by the Sabres to leave Elias Lindholm of the Calgary Flames wide open at the back door. Hutton is on the other side of the crease with no other option to get over other than to flail his right arm over. And a puck robbed of its life in the comfort of the back of the net.

As far as paddle saves go, this is right up there with the best of them.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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