Luke Kunin

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Five second-year players that will have breakout seasons

Not every NHL rookie enters the league with a bang. Not everyone can put up 100-point seasons in their first year like Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin. Some guys need that first year to get used to the pace of play at the NHL level. But a lot guys get a lot more comfortable in year two. So, we’re trying to pick out which players will be a lot more productive in their sophomore seasons.

You won’t find Elias Pettersson, Brady Tkachuk, Rasmus Dahlin, Jesperi Kotkaniemi or Andrei Svechnikov on this list. Those players will surely take steps forward this year, but they did enough damage last season that they’re not flying under the radar this year. We’re looking for guys who didn’t do much in the regular season that could have an offensive outburst this year. We’ll look at second-year players who picked up fewer than 25 points last season.

Here we go:

Michael Rasmussen, Detroit Red Wings: Rasmussen picked up a pair of goals against the St. Louis Blues in Thursday’s Kraft Hockeyville USA game in Calumet, Mich. The No. 9 overall pick in 2017 has a good combination of size (6-foot-6, 220 pounds) and skill. He had eight goals and 18 points in 62 games with Detroit last season. The Red Wings are in the middle of a rebuild, which means they could give their youngsters a lot of opportunity in 2019-20.

Jordan Greenway, Minnesota Wild: Greenway scored 12 goals and recorded 12 assists in his first full season with the Wild last year. The 22-year-old power forward could be a difference maker for an aging Minnesota team. Last year wasn’t just his first full season in the NHL, it was also his first full year in professional hockey. Here’s his goal from Thursday night’s game against the Stars. He dishes out a hit and goes to the net:

Henrik Borgstrom, Florida Panthers: Borgstrom managed to get into 50 games with the Panthers last season. The 22-year-old scored eight goals and 18 points in the NHL while adding 22 points in 24 AHL contests with Springfield. The Panthers have a new head coach in Joel Quenneville and new players like Sergei Bobrovsky and Brett Connolly. They should be able to make the leap into the playoffs this year and Borgstrom could be a big factor.

Sam Steel, Anaheim Ducks: Steel is currently sidelined by a lower-body injury, but it’s not believed to be serious. The 21-year-old will get an opportunity to play down the middle this season and he could play with veterans like Rickard Rakell and Jakob Silfverberg. He had six goals and 11 points in 22 games with the Ducks last season and he added 41 points in 53 AHL contests.

“There’s a big opportunity for Sammy Steel to step right in and play,” teammate Adam Henrique told The Athletic. “He looks awesome. Looks great. You could see it last year. I think he had an awesome summer. Really prepared himself to take that next step. Has looked great early in camp. Now it’s just a matter of continuing to get better. And that’s going to push our team a long way.”

Luke Kunin, Minnesota Wild: Ryan Donato was slated to start the season as the second-line center for the Wild, but they’ve now moved Kunin into that spot. He could play between Mats Zuccarello and Zach Parise, which could be great for his offensive output. The 21-year-old had six goals and 17 points in 49 games with the Wild last season. He also added 20 points in 28 AHL contests. He has a golden opportunity to make a difference this year.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Wild need to hope Parise, Staal are capable of another big season

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Minnesota Wild. 

When you look at the top returning scorers for the Minnesota Wild there is a pretty common theme among almost all of them.

Almost all of them are in their mid-30s.

The group of Zach Parise, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jason Zucker, and Mikko Koivu (the top-six returning scorers from last year’s team) will have an average opening night age of 33, while Spurgeon and Zucker are the only ones that will be under 30 (and even Spurgeon will turn 30 in November).

Add new free agent signing Mats Zuccarello (turning 33 this season) into that mix and it is just one more significant, big-money player on the other side of 30.

That is the bulk of their salary cap space and the players they will be relying on most to carry the offense. That could be a problem because eventually every player in the league slows down and has age take a bite out of their production.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

The big X-factor for the Wild this season will be how much their veterans have remaining in their tanks. Especially when it comes to Parise and Staal.

The 2018-19 season was a huge bounce-back for Parise as he rebounded across the board in almost every major offensive category. He generated more shots, scored more goals, was a better possession driver than he had been in previous seasons and put together what was his best season in three years.

Staal, meanwhile, had his third consecutive strong season with the Wild and continued what has been a career rebirth after looking to be finished as a top-line player at the end of the 2015-16 season. Since joining the Wild he has been one of the top-25 goal-scorers in the entire league and one of the primary drivers of the team’s offense.

But how much longer can they keep going at the rate they produced at last season? It’s an important question because unless a young player or two like a Ryan Donato, Kevin Fiala, Luke Kunin, or Jordan Greenway takes a big step forward the Wild are again going to be relying on players in their mid-30s to be the top offensive players on the team. That is a problem because players in their mid-30s don’t typically produce at a great level.

There were only 16 forwards in the NHL a season age 35 or older. Out of that group only one of them (Justin Williams) scored at least 20 goals, while only two (Williams and Joe Thornton) topped 50 points.

Over the past five seasons there have only been nine forwards (out of 63) age 35 or older that scored at least 20 goals and at least 50 points in the same season.

Staal barely topped those two numbers (22 goals, 52 points) a year ago at age 34, while Parise managed to do so for the first time in three years. There is no guarantee either one of them can do it again.

Any regression or decline from one (or both) could be even more costly because some of the younger, core players that have been top producers in recent years and helped keep the Wild competitive are now playing for different teams (Nino Niederreiter is in Carolina; Mikael Granlund is in Nashville; Charlie Coyle is in Boston).

If the Wild can not get their young players to take a step forward and become top-line players, or if veterans players like Parise, Staal, and Zuccarello do not continue to defy aging curves their offense could be in a lot of trouble this season.

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.

Flames’ Hathaway tossed after turn-buckling Wild’s Kunin

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You’ve seen this before, but it usually doesn’t happen in the NHL.

Calgary Flames forward Garnet Hathaway might have gotten away with this one if he was a wrestler in WWE, but on Saturday night he was an NHLer in a hockey game against the Minnesota Wild, where slamming a guys head into the boards is frowned upon.

Hathaway did just that to Wild forward Luke Kunin early in the second period. Kunin looked to hit Hathaway near the Wild bench but Hathaway had his head up and was able to evade the check before putting his arm over Kunin’s head and bringing it down onto the top of the dasher board.

The result looked ugly:

Hathaway was given a match penalty for intent to injure on the play. Kunin, meanwhile, left the game for a time before returning to the Wild bench.

This one will be debated. It looked a lot less malicious at full speed (more of an awkward situation than anything), but when you slow the video of it down, it looks worse for Hathaway.


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