Dave Tippett

There’s plenty to be thankful for in hockey in 2019

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It’s Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. and it’s a quiet slate with only one game tonight. That leaves plenty of time for turkey, sides and lots and lots of dessert.

With it being a day to give thanks, some of the the NBCSports.com NHL staff wanted to say what we’re thankful for in 2019.

Please do let us know what you’re thankful for in the comments.

Sean Leahy, PHT Writer

Jaromir Jagr. He’s still playing hockey at age 47 and hopefully is able to fulfill his promise of playing beyond 50. His second tenure in the NHL ended abruptly thanks to injury, but No. 68 continues to give us a tiny slimmer of hope he may want to make another comeback before he hits 60.

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. It’s must-watch TV when those two are on the ice, especially in overtime when you know Dave Tippett is playing them for its entirety.

Offside reviews. Because they continue to suck the life out of games and bring people over to the side of hoping one day a “no offside” policy is installed, helping bump up offense around the league.

• NHL teams going retro. Whenever a team brings back a retro jersey design that everyone loves, they’re basically saying, “Sorry for all those crappy ones we put out since we originally debuted these beauties years ago!”

• The spreading out of outdoor hockey. Who would have thought a decade ago we’d see an outdoor game in Texas? Maybe there’s one coming to Carolina in the year or two. Vegas? Florida? The league is expanding the list of areas that may host an outdoor game, which is a good thing. It’s a different vibe in person, a fun one, and more fans around the NHL should be able to experience that.

James O’Brien, PHT Writer

I’m thankful for the Maple Leafs under Sheldon Keefe. They feel a lot like a wild turkey allowed to roam free after being caged for far too long. Will they eventually prove that they can fly? We’ll see, but it will be fun to watch them try.

The sheer speed of Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon, and how even micromanaging coaches can’t really slow them down. They basically warp everything on the ice like Sauron on a battlefield.

Scott Charles, PHT Writer

• Dave Tippett. Connor McDavid is a generational talent and deserves to be playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs year in and year out. For too long, the Edmonton Oilers would miss the postseason preventing the most talented player from reaching his full potential. Every NHL fan does not have to root for the Oilers, but seeing the brightest star have the opportunity to play in the most critical moments is good for spectators of the NHL. Hopefully Leon Draisaitl and McDavid have the chance to add to Edmonton’s rich history.

• New Video Review Rules. I am especially grateful that coaches cannot challenge plays without weighing the risk of a penalty. In the past, anyone could challenge a play without any consequence and often requested reviews if the play was close and a call might go their way if the stars were aligned. However, now a coach must believe he is right before forcing a delay in the action.

Adam Gretz, PHT Writer

I am thankful for Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith playing so good in the Edmonton net that we might finally get to see Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl play in the playoffs again and shine on the NHL’s biggest stage.

Also for David Pastrnak leading the league in goals and actually allowing one of my bold predictions to finally come true.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Hockey Editor

That the NHL and NHLPA decided in September not to reopen the CBA, allowing for NHL hockey to be uninterrupted through the 2021-22 season.

That the person drafting first picked Nikita Kucherov this season in one of my leagues, allowing me to take Connor McDavid.

NBC Sports presents the 2019 NHL Thanksgiving Showdown this Black Friday at 1 p.m. ET on NBC, when league-leading goal scorer David Pastrnak and the Atlantic Division-leading Boston Bruins host Artemi Panarin and the New York Rangers, marking the first of 12 NHL games that will air on NBC during the 2019-20 regular season.

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call the 2019 NHL Thanksgiving Showdown. NBC Sports brings NHL Live on the road for Friday’s game, with Kathryn Tappen hosting studio coverage on-site from TD Garden alongside analysts Keith Jones and Mike Milbury.

You can watch a livestream of the game here.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Canucks, Oilers are getting great goaltending so far

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When an NHL season is young, it’s easy to get fooled into thinking that “This is the year,” or that a great season is going to come tumbling down. Sometimes those assumptions end up being correct, but it’s often far too easy to be roped in by a strong sprint and forget how much of a marathon an 82-game season can be.

Well-oiled machine … running a bit on luck

The Edmonton Oilers came into 2019-20 with very low expectations, yet they’re off to a hot start, even after falling 1-0 in a shootout to the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday.

It’s been easy to focus on Edmonton’s skaters for much of the Oilers’ 7-1-1 start.

How could you not, really, with Connor McDavid looking even better than usual, Leon Draisaitl seemingly continuing to prove that he’s probably worth more than his $8.5 million AAV, and James Neal getting off to such a strong start that he’s already blown away his 2018-19 goal totals from that disastrous year with the Flames?

This strong start isn’t just about that, though.

Still-new head coach Dave Tippett made his reputation on insulating goalies with great defense, so he’s probably most excited about strong early returns in that area.

It’s too early to say that GM Peter Chiarelli should feel vindicated for the baffling final move of his run, as he signed Mikko Koskinen to a risky contract basically right before he got a pink slip. But there’s little denying that Koskinen is off to a strong start. The 31-year-old has a marvelous .934 save percentage and 4-0-0 record so far.

Tippett’s old buddy Mike Smith tended net on Friday, and produced what was likely the best game of his run with the Oilers. Yes, the Jets won 1-0 via a shootout, but Smith stopped all 23 shots he faced between regulation and a scintillating 3-on-3 OT period; 10 of those saves came on power play opportunities, as the Jets went 0-for-4.

Watch this sequence as Mark Scheifele makes a ridiculous move, Smith beats him, and Connor Hellebuyck stops Connor McDavid:

Smith is now at 3-1-1, and brought a .917 save percentage into Sunday, so he’s combined with Koskinen to help Edmonton be very stingy.

We’ve already seen Oilers scorers cool down ever so slightly from unsustainable paces, as McDavid sits at 17 points despite going pointless the past two games. Edmonton has to be delighted to manage three of four standings points during these rare pointless McDavid games, but it’s a reminder that they’re going to need more from other players.

Chances are, they won’t get this sort of elite goaltending over and over again, either. That said, if Tippett can figure out a way to get enough stops, the occasional grind-it-out win (or even “charity point”), and then ride some token “McDavid being five strides ahead of the world” games, Edmonton might just be able to make the most of this 7-1-1 start.

Canucks could also rise

After beginning the season 0-2-0, the Canucks have won five of their last six games, pushing their 2019-20 record to 5-3-0. That included a Sunday matinee win where they beat the Rangers 3-2 thanks to 38 saves by Jacob Markstrom.

Vancouver shares a promising development in common with Edmonton in net. Not only are both teams getting strong goaltending; they’re also getting great early play from two different goaltenders. In the Canucks’ case, it’s holdover starter Markstrom (2-2-0, but with a strong .926 save percentage) and potential goalie of the future Thatcher Demko (2-1-0 with a fabulous .943 save percentage).

While Markstrom’s .912 save percentage from 2018-19 won’t wow many, he managed those numbers on a team that really struggled in its own end, and you can see that he was a pretty good difference-maker from various metrics, including Sean Tierney’s goals saved above expectation chart, which uses data from Evolving Hockey:

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The Canucks and Oilers are riding some hot streaks right now, with Edmonton in particular profiting in the standings. We’re almost certain to see those goalies cool off, and even McDavid may not be able to score almost two points per game.

But can Travis Green and Dave Tippett manufacture above-average goaltending from their rotations for enough of 2019-20 to bring one or both of their teams to the playoffs? Stranger things have happened, and few positions in sports are as strange — and important — as goaltending tends to be in the NHL.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• 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.

NHL on NBCSN: Oilers’ Neal comfortable again in bounce-back season

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Wednesday’s matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and Edmonton Oilers. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Dave Tippett flew to Toronto in August to see a player he coached as a rookie and was now getting the opportunity to do so again a decade later. It was in 2008-09 that the Edmonton Oilers head coach, in his final season with the Dallas Stars, was introduced to a young winger with promise.

James Neal scored 24 goals in his first NHL season, and followed that up with 48 over his next 157 NHL games. He made his mark and let it be known he was a goal scorer at this level, one you can count for at least 20 a year. He did that, consistently, for his first 10 seasons, including hitting 40 while with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2011-12 and 31 in his second year with the Nashville Predators.

The goals kept coming in each of his first four NHL stops, but 2018-19 was clearly the aberration year. After playing in back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, Neal found himself in Calgary uncomfortable. Two straight short summers left his body beat up a bit and didn’t allow him the time for a proper training schedule he felt he needed in order to be ready. It showed in the results.

While the Flames were having success, Neal was struggling. Mightily. In 63 games he only scored seven times and his shooting percentage, which was a career 12.7% entering last season, tumbled down to 5%.

Change was needed and Neal was happy to move on to a new opportunity, thanks to Milan Lucic.

“I think we both just needed a fresh start,” Neal said last week. “I appreciate he had to waive his no-trade clause for us to switch spots. I thank him for that.”

When Tippett met with Neal over the summer, he saw a player who was motivated to erase a forgettable year and a player who had plenty to prove. Through six games, the “real deal” is back to his old self with an NHL-best eight goals.

“I give him credit. He’s come in here, he’s a real energized player, he’s helped our group,” said Tippett. “Not just scoring goals but giving us some juice in the locker room.”

“I’ve scored my whole career,” Neal said after netting four against the New York Islanders last week. “I’ve put pressure on myself to be a goal scorer and wanted that pressure. Last year was a tough year and I wanted a chance prove myself and obviously things worked out in the summer with the trade.”

Motivated, Neal put in another summer training with former NHLer Gary Roberts, who’s become one of the go-to workout gurus for hockey players. The two have worked together since Neal was 15, 

That was the physical part. The on-ice part was a simple change in his positioning. Neal started to rely too much on his shot, feeling his natural scoring ability would succeed more often than not. Last season it clearly didn’t. Neal found himself straying further from the net, leading to low-percentage shot attempts. He focused on what worked in the past: getting to those “dirty” areas of the ice for rebounds, redirects, tip-ins, and higher-percentage shots. That works, especially on the power play, as six of his eight goals so far have come with the man advantage.

“He’s around the net,” said Oilers coach Dave Tippett. “Look where he scores from. He’s around the net and the puck’s finding him.”

Indeed. Look where he scored from. Using IcyData’s shot map data, you can see where the concentration of Neal’s shots have come from dating back to the 2016-17 season, when he netted 23 goals. 

2016-17 Even Strength
2017-18 Even Strength
2018-19 Even Strength

Now we come to this season, and while still early, you can see that Neal is finding his spot — mostly on the power play — and capitalizing.

(L) 2019-20 Even Strength / (R) 2019-20 Power Play

The success on the power play for Neal is a result from all of the extra attention placed on Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. His left-handed shot, as well as McDavid being a lefty, has opened up space for better opportunities with the man advantage. In Calgary, Neal played a total of 17:49, per Natural Stat Trick, with the Flames’ top power play unit. He’s already up to 21:04 with Oilers after being given the chance due to an illness that sidelined Alex Chiasson at the start of the season.

Neal’s low shooting percentage and history of scoring goals made him an easy bounce-back candidate for this season. He’s in a situation where he’s set up to succeed. Playing for a coach who knows him; sought after by an organization that had confidence in him; and getting the opportunities to further erase the memory of last season. He needed the change of scenery and as he puts it, he’s having fun playing hockey again.

“That’s why we got him,” said Draisaitl. “Nealer’s a goal scorer and he’s done that so far. It’s great to see.”

Kathryn Tappen will host NHL Live on Wednesday with analysts Patrick Sharp, Roenick and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Chris Cuthbert and Ray Ferraro will have the call of Flyers-Oilers from Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Previewing the 2019-20 Edmonton Oilers

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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: The Oilers have a new GM (Ken Holland) and a new head coach (Dave Tippett), but as far as personnel changes go, this was a very quiet offseason.

Considering some of the blunders of the Peter Chiarelli era, there might be a feeling of “no news is good news,” although try telling that to Connor McDavid, who didn’t get much of a bright side to look on beyond hoping that Mike Smith channels his solid playoff production, rather than Smith’s more troubling body of work.

The Oilers are almost the same team as last year, although James Neal could be a nice upgrade over Milan Lucic.

Strengths: McDavid! OK, thanks for coming!

Alright, the Oilers also have Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and maybe some help coming – eventually – with prospects such as Evan Bouchard.

And, hey, having the best player in the world is a pretty big strength.

Weaknesses: … And squandering McDavid’s talents almost takes talent in itself.

You know you’re weak on the wings when people are hoping that James Neal is a solution, and crossing their fingers that Alex Chiasson can approach last season’s numbers.

This team is weak on the wings, and that’s far from their only issue. Their defense doesn’t play the sort of modern game that you’d want to propel McDavid in transition, and lacks elite skill overall. Maybe Tippett can scheme this group to competence, but it’s unclear how much potential has been untapped after Ken Hitchcock and Todd McLellan tried their hands at the same.

Oh yeah, their goaltending duo of Smith and Mikko Koskinen is a bowl of “meh,” too.

[More: Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Consider this: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is about to enter his ninth season in the NHL, and Tippett will be his ninth head coach.

The Oilers have been the definition of dysfunctional for a distressingly long period of time, and while there’s the feeling that McDavid and others are far beyond the point of being tired of losing, it’s time for some stability. That’s what Tippett represents: a steadying presence, something that must appeal to the deliberate approach Holland also seems to prefer.

That said, Edmonton’s also subject to about-faces, as that seems to be their M.O. Let’s put Tippett at a three.

Three Most Fascinating Players: McDavid, Koskinen, Darnell Nurse

Number 97 would be a pick every year based on his captivating speed and skill alone. Maybe eyes are fixed on him a bit more now, though, as he’s shown signs of frustration, occasionally actually letting that be known in vague media comments. If the Oilers unravel again, will McDavid vent in an even bigger way?

Re-signing Koskinen tied a baffling bow around the Chiarelli era. Along with Smith, it’s tough to know what exactly we should expect from Koskinen. If Tippett’s system dumbs games down and makes it all a slog, that might actually set the stage for some redemption. (James Neal is another fascinating redemption story.)

The Oilers have precious few defensemen of merit, so it’s crucial for them to see Nurse take additional steps forward. Then again, he’s entering a contract year, so they also probably don’t want to break the bank for the RFA. That should make Nurse intriguing to watch.

Playoffs or Lottery: It’s tough to pick against McDavid, especially since Draisaitl and RNH give him some support. One can imagine a decent formula of McDavid + stingy defense and goaltending = grinding out wins.

Hockey teaches us time and time again that one superstar rarely is enough to mask a ton of blemishes, though. While a weak Pacific gives some hope for Edmonton sneaking in, I’d lean closer to the lottery than the playoffs with Edmonton.

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.

Check out the Oilers’ new alternate jersey

Edmonton Oilers
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The Edmonton Oilers underwent a lot of change over the summer with the hiring of a new general manager (Ken Holland), a new head coach (Dave Tippett), and a handful of new players (most notably, James Neal and Mike Smith).

There is also going to be a small change in their look.

The team unveiled their new alternate uniforms on Thursday, a look they will sport for all Friday home games during the 2019-20 season.

Check it out.

The Oilers point out that the uniform “emboldens the iconic Oilers logo, removing all white accents to bring the crest alive on the ice.”

What do you think, hockey fans?

Is it a good look or not?

MORE:
• 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.