Elias Pettersson

Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes set up fascinating Calder race

The Colorado Avalanche get Cale Makar back on Friday, providing a worthy excuse to consider his exceptional rookie season. Remarkably, Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes presents a worthy argument for the Calder Trophy, as well.

Back in 2018-19, Miro Heiskanen and Rasmus Dahlin blessed hockey fans with their stupendous seasons, yet Makar and Hughes seem primed to set the bar even higher.

Fittingly, forward Elias Pettersson won the 2018-19 Calder, while Buffalo Sabres sniper Victor Olofsson cannot be ignored for 2019-20. For the sake of simplicity, this post’s deeper discussion will mostly focus on Makar and Hughes, though.

Makar, Hughes both light up scoreboards

First, the part you likely already know: both of these smaller defensemen can score.

With eight goals and 28 points in just 29 games, Makar dazzles the most. That said, Hughes is no slouch, generating 27 points in 37 games. Hughes managed 15 power-play points already, which earns a tie for second-best among all NHL defensemen. (Makar looms not all that far behind with 12 PPP, tying the likes of Dougie Hamilton and Roman Josi despite missing time with injuries.)

Nathan MacKinnon already ranks Makar among the best — not just among the best rookies.

“I am surprised,” MacKinnon said, via the Canadian Press in early December. “In the playoffs he was so amazing, but I think he’s the most dynamic defenceman in the league.”

Expect Makar’s production to settle down — even electric defensemen don’t steadily shoot at 13.8 percent — but not to an extent that he won’t remain dangerous for the Avs.

Makar and Hughes: more than just scorers

Look, there’s no denying that Makar and Hughes are being played to their biggest strengths. While both average more than 20 minutes of ice time per game (Hughes’ average: 21:20; Makar: 20:10), they’re both logging less than 10 seconds of penalty kill time each night.

Penalizing them too much for that can be silly, particularly since such decisions sometimes boil down to coaches being too timid.

Either way, their overall play is remarkable.

Consider this side-by-side RAPM chart comparison of their even-strength play, via Evolving Hockey:

Both excel by any standards, not just “rookie defensemen” standards.

Hughes recently achieved the rare goal of surviving a game against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl with his dignity intact, drawing praise.

“For sure, he surprises me,” Jay Beagle said of Hughes on Monday, via Sportsnet. “I knew he was a great skater coming in. You could tell that from Day 1. Great with the puck. But there are obviously things that you learn about a guy just from playing more games with him, (and) his play away from the puck and his reads, it takes a long time for some guys to get that. He has it right away, which is good for us.”

Hughes and Makar aren’t making many big mistakes

Neither Hughes nor Makar are giving their coaches many excuses to plant them on the bench. (Hockey coaches almost trip over their feet to chastise a young player for a bad penalty or turnover.)

You could argue that Makar’s most impressive stat so far isn’t his wild 28 points in 29 games. Instead, “200 Hockey Men” might lean on Makar’s zero penalty minutes so far. Hughes rarely makes trips to the box, either, with a mere eight PIM in 37 games.

Olofsson also shines

Olofsson deserves credit for making this more than just a race between Makar and Hughes.

People might have been too quick to dismiss Olofsson because of just how hot his shooting start was, as he remains extremely impressive. His 16 goals easily leads all rookies, as Dominik Kubalik is the only other in double digits with 10. Olofsson also leads all rookies with 34 points in 38 games. Olofsson ties Makar with a rookies-leading three game-winning goals.

Makar and Hughes stand above Olofsson from an all-around standpoint, in my opinion. Olofsson’s Evolving Hockey RAPM charts provide some context:

Regardless, if Hughes, Makar, and Olofsson stay in the ballparks of their current play, they’d make for a formidable trio of Calder Trophy finalists. Hockey fans — not just Canucks, Sabres, and Avs fans — should consider themselves lucky.

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.

The Buzzer: Red Wings snap skid; hats off to Panarin

Artemi Panarin Hat Trick Rangers
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Three Stars

1. Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks probably had no business winning this game. They were badly outshot, outplayed, and needed to rely on their goalie to keep them in it. Fortunately for the Canucks, Markstrom was up to the challenge and played one of the best games of his career as he stopped all 43 shots he faced in a 1-0 overtime win. He held on just long enough for Elias Pettersson to score the game-winning goal thanks to a fluky assist from an unlikely source. Read all about it here.

2. Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers. The Rangers spoiled Bob Boughner’s San Jose coaching debut with a 6-3 win that was highlighted by another huge game for Panarin. He scored three goals and added an assist in the win to continue his incredible 2019-20 performance. His first year with the Rangers has been everything the team could have hoped for as he is now up to 18 goals and 41 total points in 31 games. The Sharks, meanwhile, are now 0-5-1 in their previous six games.

3. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres. His point streak is now up to 15 consecutive games thanks to a two-goal effort in a 4-3 win over the Nashville Predators. It is the second game in a row that Eichel has scored a pair of goals as he continues to climb the NHL’s scoring leaderboard. He is unstoppable right now and trying to carry the Sabres to a playoff spot all by himself.

Other notable performances from Thursday

  • The Detroit Red Wings’ losing streak has finally come to an end. They were winners for the first time since Nov. 12 thanks to a 5-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets to snap what had been a 12-game losing streak. Robby Fabbri continued his strong play since joining the team with a pair of goals while Filip Zadina recorded three points.
  • The Calgary Flames improved to a perfect 7-0-0 under new coach Geoff Ward thanks to a 4-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Johnny Gaudreau scored a pair of goals as part of a three-goal third period for the Flames to get the win.
  • Tristan Jarry recorded his third shutout in his past four starts for the Pittsburgh Penguins as they were 1-0 winners over the Columbus Blue Jackets. Columbus coach John Tortorella had no words for his team’s lackluster performance. Read about it here.
  • Clayton Keller scored a pair of goals for the Coyotes in their 5-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks to put them back in sole possession of first place in the Pacific Division.
  • Eric Staal was in the lineup after a scary injury on Tuesday and scored a goal in the Minnesota Wild’s 2-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers.
  • Oskar Sundqvist had a goal and an assist for the St. Louis Blues in a 4-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights.
  • Another strong start for Jonathan Quick as he stopped 36 out of 37 shots for the Los Angeles Kings.
  • Steven Stamkos scored twice for the Tampa Bay Lightning in a huge 3-2 win over the Boston Bruins.
  • Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee each had a pair of points in the New York Islanders’ 3-1 win over the Florida Panthers.

Highlights of the Night

It came in a losing effort, but Nashville’s Matt Duchene scored an absolute beauty of a goal in Buffalo.

Check out this quick tic-tac-toe passing by the Islanders to set up Mathew Barzal for a power play goal against the Panthers.

 

Eichel’s goal to extend his point streak was an absolutely perfect shot.

Blooper of the Night

The puck ended up getting lost in Markstrom’s equipment and he needed a lot of assistance in finding it.

Factoids

  • Panarin’s hat trick on Thursday was the third of his career, all of them coming with different teams. [NHL PR]
  • Joe Thornton played in career game No. 1,600 on Thursday, making him and Patrick Marleau the first set of teammates to have 1,600 games played in their careers. [NHL PR]
  • The Islanders’ points percentage of .733 is the second highest in franchise history through the first 31 games of a season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Buffalo Sabres 4, Nashville Predators 3
Tampa Bay Lightning 3, Boston Bruins 2
New York Islanders 3, Florida Panthers 1
Pittsburgh Penguins 1, Columbus Blue Jackets 0 (OT)
Detroit Red Wings 5, Winnipeg Jets 2
St. Louis Blues 4, Vegas Golden Knights 2
Minnesota Wild 6, Edmonton Oilers 5
Calgary Flames 4, Toronto Maple Leafs 2
Arizona Coyotes 5, Chicago Blackhawks 2
Los Angeles Kings 2, Anaheim Ducks 1
Vancouver Canucks 1, Carolina Hurricanes 0 (OT)
New York Rangers 6, San Jose Sharks 3

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.

Pettersson gets lucky assist from abandoned stick on OT winner (Video)

Sometimes you need a little bit of luck to win in the NHL.

The Vancouver Canucks received a healthy dose of it on Thursday night.

They were 1-0 winners against the Carolina Hurricanes thanks to an incredible goaltending performance from Jacob Markstrom and an overtime goal from emerging superstar Elias Pettersson. Markstrom’s performance gave them a chance, but it was a stroke of good fortune and a filthy finish from Pettersson that put them in the win column.

While the stat sheet will officially give the assist on Pettersson’s goal to Brock Boeser, the real assist came from an abandoned stick that previously belonged to Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin. As the Canucks controlled play in the offensive zone, Slavin lost his stick in a battle for the puck with Boeser.

It would prove to be costly for the Hurricanes because, well, watch for yourself in the video above.

Maybe Pettersson still ends up collecting the puck and scores the winner anyway if that stick isn’t sitting there. But Slavin’s stick sitting in the exact perfect spot made it significantly easier for him to score the winner.

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.

Penguins rally vs. Canucks in wild 14-goal game

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins 8-6 win over the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday night was a result they absolutely deserved.

It was also a minor miracle that they were actually able to pull it off.

They were the better team for most of the game only to find themselves trailing by three goals with 15 minutes to play in the third period, mostly due to one of starting goalie Matt Murray‘s worst performances of the season (and a tough luck goal against backup Tristan Jarry after he came on in relief). It was at that point that they rallied for five consecutive goals as part of a six-goal third period to win their third game in a row and extend their current points streak to six games.

Let’s take a look at some of the madness.

1. At one point a win seemed nearly impossible for the Penguins. The Penguins opened the game by scoring two goals in the first 12 minutes and were holding a 12-0 edge on the shot chart. The crazy thing? The game itself was probably even more one-sided than those numbers indicated. It was total domination. But the Canucks found a way to turn the tide in their favor, took advantage of another off night from Murray, and scored six goals in just under 30 minutes of game-time to somehow hold a three-goal lead with 15 minutes to play in regulation.

They were also set to go on a power play at that point after Penguins defenseman Kris Letang was whistled for delay of game. That should have been game over.

According to the hockey analytics site Moneypuck, the Penguins had only a 1.5 percent chance of winning the game at that exact moment.

But after a J.T. Miller hooking penalty negated the power play, the Penguins started their rally with a Dominik Kahun goal at four-on-four which was then followed just 68 seconds later by an Evgeni Malkin power play goal to bring the Penguins to within one.

Just three minutes after that, Zach-Aston Reese scored his fourth goal of the season to tie the game, which was followed by a Kris Letang goal with under four minutes to play to regain the lead for the Penguins. Vancouver made a desperation offside challenge hoping to have the goal overturned, but the call was upheld. Coach Travis Green admitted after the game they weren’t very optimistic about the challenge but felt they had to take the chance.

Malkin added an empty-net goal with less than a second to play, capping off another dominant night for him and his line.

“As I said to the players after the game we love the resilience this group shows,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “It’s just a never say die attitude regardless of what the score is or the challenge is in front of us. We just go out and play.”

The frustrating thing for the Canucks is they were not only in a position to win, but they received offensive contributions from players beyond their top duo (Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser) and were still unable to finish it.

“It’s unfortunate,” said coach Travis Green. “This could have been one of our best wins of the year.”

2. The Penguins need to get Matt Murray right. This is the one big concern for the Penguins right now. The biggest reason they even needed that late rally was because of the continued struggles of their starting goalie. Wednesday’s game was the sixth time in his past eight appearances that Murray finished with a save percentage under .900, and the seventh time in that stretch he was at .905 or lower.

His 10 save on 14 shot performance on Wednesday lowered his season save percentage to just .901 in 19 appearances. That is simply not good enough. With the way Jarry has performed in his limited work this season he has absolutely earned more starts in the short-term. They have the defense to win. Now they just need to get the goaltending.

3. Evgeni Malkin is back. The big wild card this season for the Penguins was always going to be Malkin’s ability to bounce-back from what was by his own admission a down year.

He is back, and he is dominating.

With Sidney Crosby sidelined due to injury, Malkin has taken the center spot on the top line between Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust, a trio that has been taking over games for the past month. That trio combined for five of the Penguins’ eight goals against the Canucks and has been a complete nightmare for opposing defenses to try and slow down since they were put together.

He finished with five points (his first five-point game since 2012) and is now up to 19 points in 14 games. They have the depth, and now they have one of their best players playing close to his highest level.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Most dangerous duos in the league

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a break from ranking all 31 teams and instead look at some of the best, and most dangerous forward duos in the league.

We are looking at forward duos that are regularly used together on a line and can not only produce offense, but help carry their teams and drive play.

Which duos make the list? Let’s get to the rankings!

1. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. There is not a duo in the NHL right now that is even close to these two.

Individually, the are the top-two point producers in the league since the start of the 2018-19 season and both are among the top-three in goals scored.

When they are on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the past two seasons the Oilers have outscored their opponents by an 82-57 margin (when neither is on the ice the Oilers have been outscored 67-97) while they have been on the ice for more than 55 percent of the Oilers’ total goals (all situations) during that time. As they go, the Oilers go. It is not a stretch to say this is the most dominant offensive duo the league has seen since the days of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr in Pittsburgh. Breaking them up should be a fireable offense.

2. David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins. These two are so good that they have made Patrice Bergeron (still one of the best players in the league) arguably the third best player on his own line.

While Bergeron does drive a lot of the defensive play and plays the shutdown role to near perfection at center, the Pastrnak-Marchand duo on the wings is behind the offense. So much so that Pastrnak and Marchand have scored goals at a higher rate the past three years when they are playing without Bergeron than they do with him.

Goals per 60 minutes since start of 2017-18 season:

  • Pastrnak, Marchand, and Bergeron together: 3.64
  • Pastrnak and Marchand without Bergeron: 3.89
  • Marchand and Bergeron without Pastrnak: 3.49
  • Pastrnak and Bergeron without Marchand: 2.75

That is not to say the team would be better off without Bergeron centering the line, it is just a testament to how good Pastrnak and Marchand are offensively.

3. Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche. They have been to the Avalanche what the McDavid-Draisaitl duo has been to the Oilers. Top producers individually, completely dominant as a duo, and until this season the line that had to carry what was an incredibly top-heavy team. The Avalanche did serious work to address those depth concerns over the summer and it’s helped them stay afloat in the current absence of Rantanen (and the third member of that line, Gabriel Landeskog). When MacKinnon gets his regular wingers back the Avalanche should be considered one of the top Stanley Cup contenders.

4. Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins. It is easy to write off Guentzel’s success as being a product of playing next to Crosby, but here is the thing about that: A lot of players, many of them very talented, have spent significant time alongside Crosby throughout his career and have never approached the level of production that Guentzel has. He is the consistent finisher that Crosby never really had earlier in his career, and together they are the biggest driver of the Penguins’ offense.

5. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers. These two have really emerged as top-tier offensive players the past two years. Barkov still carries the “underrated” label even though everyone around the league knows exactly how good he is (you should know how good he is, anyway). The truly underrated one in this duo at this point is Huberdeau. Both players are among the top-10 scorers in the league the past two years and have been outstanding this year. If Sergei Bobrovsky ever plays like the big money goalie the Panthers signed him to be this duo will take the Panthers to the playoffs.

6. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning. They haven’t been quite as dominant as they were a year ago, but no one in Tampa Bay has been just yet. Plus, they are still both around a point-per-game offensively and they are carrying the play when the Lightning use them together (3.50 goals per 60 minutes; dominant possession numbers). They could be on the verge of a breakout at any moment.

7. Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty, Vegas Golden Knights. This duo became a thing last year after Vegas’ in-season trade for Stone last season, and it has been their best line ever since. Stone is one of the best all-around wingers in the NHL and should once again get serious Selke Trophy consideration, while Pacioretty still has the lightning quick release that can make him a 30-goal scorer. These two may not score as many goals as some of the duos on this list, but they control the pace of play and dictate the game as well as any duo in the league.

8. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals. You might consider this a nod to past dominance or their reputation, but these two still have it. The Capitals mix their line combinations up a bit (Ovechkin has spent a lot of time in recent years with both Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov as his center) but this is still the one that seems to work the best. Both players are in their 30s and still on track to put up huge numbers this season for a Capitals team that looks like it could win another Stanley Cup.

9. Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks. This duo might change everything in Vancouver. The Canucks have had comically bad luck in the draft lottery during this rebuild, never picking higher than fifth despite being one of the league’s worst teams the past few years. They have still managed to find some incredible building blocks with their top picks including Pettersson, Boeser, and Quinn Hughes. The Boeser-Pettersson duo is a must-see every night and has helped rapidly  accelerate the rebuild. The only thing that has held them back so far in their young careers are injuries.

10. Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames. Going from Carolina to Calgary has completely turned around Lindholm’s career thanks to the instant chemistry he found alongside Gaudreau. In the three years prior to his move to Calgary he scored just 38 goals in 235 games. He already has 37 goals in only 104 games with the Flames. Since the trade the Flames have outscored teams 68-48 with the Gauderau-Lindholm duo on the ice and averaged close to three-and-a-half per 60 minutes.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

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.