Chris Pronger

NHL on NBCSN: History of top-two picks facing off for first time

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko are always going to be compared. Not only because they were the top two picks in the 2019 NHL Draft, but because they are now going to be the centerpieces on each side of one of the league’s fiercest rivalries between the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers.

They will meet head-to-head for the first time on Thursday night when Hughes and the Devils host Kakko and the Rangers at Prudential Center in Newark.

With that in mind let’s take a little trip in the time machine and recall some of the more notable first-ever meetings between top-two picks in the same draft class.

2016-17: Patrik Laine (Winnipeg Jets) vs. Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs)

Date: October 19, 2016
Result: 
The No. 2 overall pick (Laine) ended up stealing the show in this game as the Jets overcame a 4-0 deficit to beat Matthews and the Maple Leafs in overtime thanks almost entirely to the play of Laine. He was outstanding on the night, scoring three goals — including the overtime winner — and giving Jets fans one of their first glimpses of his ability to take over a game and dominate it. Both teams have become contenders in the years since, but only Laine and the Jets have gone on any kind of a playoff run to get close to a championship to this point.

2015-16: Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers) vs. Jack Eichel (Buffalo Sabres)

Date: March 1, 2016.
Result: The Sabres spent the entire 2014-15 season losing hockey games — to the delight of their fans and front office — in a quest to finish with the league’s worst record to put them in a position to secure one of the top two picks in the draft where McDavid and Eichel would be waiting. The ultimate prize was McDavid, and the one that the entire season-long tankfest was inspired by. But instead of going to Buffalo, the league’s worst team over the previous two years, the Oilers snuck in to win their fourth draft lottery in six years to steal McDavid away from Buffalo. Eichel turned out to be a fine consolation prize, but in their first head-to-head meeting McDavid single-handedly drove the Oilers to a win by scoring both goals in a 2-1 overtime win. Neither team has found much sustained success in the years since, but both are off to great starts this season. 

2009-10: John Tavares (New York Islanders) vs. Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay Lightning

Date: Dec. 5, 2009
Result: This was an intriguing one because you could start a debate on what type of player you would rather build your team around — a star No. 1 center or a No. 1 defender. The Islanders ended up going with the center (Tavares) leaving the Lightning with the defender (Hedman) at No. 2. In their first meeting it was Hedman that got the better of it, playing 22 minutes and recording an assist in a 4-0 Lightning win. Tavares was a great player for the Islanders, but the team managed just one postseason series win before he left in free agency to return home to Toronto. Hedman is one of the best defenders in the league and remains a focal point of a Stanley Cup contender for a Lightning team that has been one of the league’s best over the past five years.

2006-07: Alex Ovechkin (Washington Capitals) vs. Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh Penguins)

Date: Dec. 11, 2006
Result: The top two picks in the 2004 NHL draft had to wait two years to face off due to an NHL lockout and Malkin not immediately making the jump to the NHL. When they finally met it was a hectic game with Malkin and the Penguins overcoming a 4-0 deficit to beat the Capitals, 5-4. Malkin scored the game-winning goal and added an assist, while Ovechkin had two helpers. The Penguins-Capitals rivalry always focussed on Crosby and Ovechkin, but the Malkin-Ovechkin dynamic was almost even more interesting because they were the top two picks in the same draft (with both teams rebuilding the year before trying to position themselves for Ovechkin), were from the same country, and for a while seemed to have a genuine dislike for one another.

[MORE: Hughes, Kakko unfazed ahead of first Devils-Rangers game]

1997-98: Joe Thornton (Boston Bruins) vs. Patrick Marleau (San Jose Sharks)

Date: October 11, 1997
Result: 
The intrigue here wasn’t necessarily what happened in this game (Marleau had one assist in a run-of-the-mill Sharks win), but what happened years later when Thornton and Marleau ended up becoming teammates in San Jose. The Bruins traded Thornton to the Sharks in the middle of the 2005-06 season, uniting him with Marleau where the two of them would be the focal point of the franchise more than a decade (they were reunited again earlier this season when Marleau returned to San Jose as a free agent).

1993-94: Alexandre Daigle (Ottawa Senators) vs. Chris Pronger (Hartford Whalers)

Date: Nov. 10, 1993
Result: The Senators were so bad at the end of their inaugural season 1992-93 season that they were accused of intentionally losing games in order to secure the top pick in an effort to select Daigle, ultimately helping to lead to the creation of the draft lottery. The Senators ended up picking Daigle No. 1 overall and hindsight would not be kind to this pick. Not only because Daigle was a bust, but because the player selected immediately after him (Pronger) went on to become one of the all-time greats on defense and one of the most impactful players in league history. In their first matchup Daigle actually got the better of it, scoring a goal (already his seventh in his first 13 games!) in a 4-3 win over Pronger and the Whalers.

1984-85: Pittsburgh Penguins (Mario Lemieux) vs. New Jersey Devils (Kirk Muller)

Date: Oct. 24, 1984
Result: The Penguins and Devils were two historically bad teams during the 1983-84 season and there was a huge prize waiting for the worst of the two in the 1984 draft — Mario Lemieux. The Penguins succeeded in being just a little bit worse and selected Lemieux. It was a franchise-altering moment that ended up saving the team for the first time. Muller and the Devils ended up winning the first game and it was one of the few times during Lemieux’s rookie season that he was held off the scoresheet.

Kathryn Tappen will host NHL Live on Thursday with analysts Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones. Kenny Albert, Mike Milbury and Pierre McGuire will have the call from Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

It’s Philadelphia Flyers Day at PHT

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Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The Philadelphia Flyers.

In 2013-14, the Philadelphia Flyers endured a terrible 1-7-0 start, but they improved as the campaign went on and still managed to make the playoffs. Last season they once again struggled out of the gate (0-2-2), but this time no comeback of significance was forthcoming.

There were silver linings to be sure. Steve Mason showed that his solid 2013-14 campaign wasn’t a fluke as he posted a 2.25 GAA and .928 save percentage in 51 games. After years of goaltending headaches, the fact that the 27-year-old netminder is secured for another two seasons with a reasonable $4.1 million annual cap hit is a big plus for Philadelphia. However, the Flyers largely squandered his strong play in 2014-15 as he had the NHL’s best GAA in losing efforts (2.67) among goaltenders that were charged with at least 10 defeats.

Philadelphia was credited with just 215 goals for, which left them in 22nd place. That’s despite the fact that Jakub Voracek stepped up in 2014-15 with 22 goals and a career-high 81 points in 82 contests.

Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds were the only other Philadelphia forwards that recorded at least 50 points as Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn weren’t able to make a significant leap offensively, Vincent Lecavalier was used sparingly under coach Craig Berube, and R.J. Umberger struggled in his first season following the Scott Hartnell trade.

That all culminated in Philadelphia ending the season with a 33-31-18 record.

Off-season recap

After missing the playoffs, Flyers GM Ron Hextall fired Berube and replaced him with Dave Hakstol, who previously served as North Dakota’s bench boss. Philadelphia stayed busy in the lead up to the UFA period by inking veteran KHL defenseman Evgeni Medvedev, shipping forward Zac Rinaldo to Boston for a 2017 third-round pick, and trading Nicklas Grossmann along with Chris Pronger’s contract to Arizona in exchange for Sam Gagner.

When it came to the draft, Philadelphia realized it needed a forward, but with Ivan Provorov available for the seventh pick, Hextall couldn’t pass on the opportunity to grab the highly regarded defenseman.

The Flyers were relatively quiet during the free agent period, likely due in large part to their cap situation, but they did ink 27-year-old goaltender Michal Neuvirth to a two-year, $3.25 million deal. A veteran of 168 games, he’ll enter the season as Mason’s understudy.

Philadelphia might not be done yet though as they do have eight defensemen signed to one-way contracts, so the squad might part ways with one via the trade market. There’s also always the possibility that the Flyers will find a suitor for Lecavalier, although the fact that he has three seasons left on his contract with a $4.5 million annual cap hit makes moving him a challenge.

It’s Arizona Coyotes day at PHT

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Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The Arizona Coyotes.

The Arizona Coyotes struggled both offensively and defensively last season, and as a result they finished 29th overall with a 24-50-8 record.

Their 11-25-5 record at Gila River Arena was their worst home record since moving to Arizona 19 years ago.

Arizona finished 29th overall scoring 2.01 goals-for per-game and allowed 3.28 goals-for per-game good for 28th overall.

“Not only couldn’t we score last year, we couldn’t defend,” GM Don Maloney told NHL.com.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson led the way offensively with a career-high 23 goals and 43 points in 82 games for the Coyotes in 2014-15. His 23 goals were the most by a defenseman last season. The 24-year-old also represented Arizona at the NHL All-Star Game in Columbus.

Up front, Sam Gagner led all Coyotes’ forwards with 15 goals and 41 points – both were his highest totals since the 2011-12 season while a member of the Edmonton Oilers.

Mike Smith carried the load in goal making 62 appearances going 14-42-5 while posting a 3.16 G.A.A. and a .904 save percentage.

Off-season recap

The Arizona Coyotes solved their off-ice dispute over a lease agreement with the City of Glendale last month. The new deal will keep the Coyotes at Gila River Arena for at least the next two seasons.

Not surprisingly, the team is already pushing to have the deal extended.

As far as on-ice moves go, Maloney brought back Antoine Vermette after trading him to the Chicago Blackhawks prior to the trade deadline. Arizona also signed free-agent forwards Steve Downie and Brad Richardson.

On the blue line, the Coyotes brought back Zbynek Michalek, who was dealt to the St. Louis Blues at the trade deadline. Arizona also acquired Nicklas Grossmann in the trade, which also landed them the contract of Chris Pronger.

In goal, the Coyotes signed Anders Lindback to back up Smith.

“I think we’ll play better defense in front of [Smith], which is important,” Maloney said. “I think we’ll have a better structure in front of Mike so he doesn’t feel like he has to be all-world every night and he can just do his thing.”

Oilers’ biggest question: What about the blue line?

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For all the young talent they’ve amassed up front, and even if the goaltending proves better next season, you can’t help but look at the Edmonton Oilers’ blue line and think, Oy, that’s not a very good blue line.

And in a league where it’s rare to win a championship without at least one elite defenseman, that’s a problem.

Case in point, when the Oilers made the finals in 2006, they had a guy by the name of Chris Pronger on the back end. He was traded that summer and they haven’t been back to the playoffs since.

From 2006 to 2012, Edmonton drafted 17 defensemen. The best was Jeff Petry, who’s in Montreal now. Today, the Oilers’ best veteran is probably the newly acquired Andrej Sekera. A solid player, sure. But certainly no threat to win the Norris Trophy. 

Which is why Oilers fans are so hopeful that 20-year-old Darnell Nurse, drafted seventh overall in 2013, can become a cornerstone defender, a la Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, etc.

It’s also why GM Peter Chiarelli doesn’t want to screw up Nurse’s development by throwing him into an NHL role too soon.

“For a defenseman, it is harder to break into the league properly,” Chiarelli said, per OilersNation.com. “With Dougie Hamilton (in Boston), he had a good strong core around him, and they are completely different players. Darnell is a defender and a puck transporter. He has a few more nuances to learn as far as defending, but I saw him play at the end of his playoffs and he played well. He has world class speed and strength.

“That is a hard one (whether Nurse is NHL ready). I want to be patient with these guys knowing that they are good young players and you’d like to have them help you as soon as you can.”

The Oilers have a few other promising defensive prospects, including Oscar Klefbom and Griffin Reinhart. They’re also still hoping Justin Schultz will realize the potential they see in him.

Bottom line: Without a much improved defense, even Connor McDavid will find it tough to bring the glory back to Edmonton.

Related: Todd McLellan is under pressure

Hextall: It’s status quo between Flyers, Lecavalier

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We’ve seen quite a few “impossible-to-move” contracts actually get traded lately (see: Chris Pronger’s dead money), but it sounds like Vincent Lecavalier and the Philadelphia Flyers are stuck together. For now.

GM Ron Hextall described the situation as “status quo” on Friday, as CSNPhilly.com notes.

“We’re status quo,” Hextall said. “We’re planning on going into the season with Vinny and see what happens. Do I get a call with interest? I don’t know. At this point, we’re status quo.”

Tough sell

Simply put, it’s not easy to market a 35-year-old who was an occasional healthy scratch on a non-playoff team and also happens to carry a $4.5 million cap hit through 2017-18.

Hextall was describing the salary cap situation as a whole when he called it “not ideal” yet manageable, but perhaps those descriptions work best for Lecavalier’s situation.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

One thing to note is that Philly has already stomached some of the biggest financial burdens of his deal, so his contract might be easier to move later on.

After receiving $6 million in salary during 2013-14 and 2014-15 (not to mention hefty signing bonuses), Lecavalier’s receiving $4.5 million in salary in 2015-16 and already received his $2 million bonus in July, according to CSNPhilly.com.

Things get more affordable toward the end of the deal: he receives $3 million in salary in 2016-17 and 2017-18 and his final bonus is a little easier to stomach: $500K in July 2016. Teams hoping to save some cash while getting to the salary cap floor in 2016-17 may just find Lecavalier more interesting right after he gets that half-million bonus next summer.

Waiting another full year to get rid of Lecavalier’s contract obviously isn’t the most desirable thought, but it might be the most realistic scenario.

You can bet that Hextall will take other general managers’ calls about the floundering veteran whenever they come, though.

Related: Flyers are still stuck in salary cap jail