Mario Lemieux

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Best season starts in league history

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New York Rangers forward Mika Zibanejad and Detroit Red Wings forward Anthony Mantha are two of the most surprising — and productive — players through the first week of the NHL season.

Zibanejad is already up to eight points in the Rangers’ first two games, while Mantha is coming off a four-goal effort on Sunday and already has seven points (including five goals) for the Red Wings.

With their fast starts in mind, we wanted to use this week’s Power Rankings to take a look back at some of the best individual starts to past seasons.

Which fast starts make the cut?

To the rankings!

1. Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton Oilers/Los Angeles Kings (1983-84 and 1988-89). Bless the 1980s NHL and its lack of defense and overmatched goaltenders. Gretzky’s 1983-84 season was one of those truly baffling years where no one could stop him. He opened with 15 points in five games and then went on to record at least one point in each of his first 51 games. He was held without a point in just three games all year! A few years later Gretzky moved to Los Angeles where he posted 13 points in his first five games in 1988-89 as part of a 22-game point streak to open the year.

2. Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh Penguins (1988-89 and 1992-93). Lemieux was a hockey cheat code in the late ’80s and early ’90s and had two different starts where he recorded at least 17 points in the first five games of a season. He first did it in 1988-89 with nine goals and 10 assists, including an eight-point game in a 9-2 win against the St. Louis Blues. He went on to finish that year with 85 goals, 199 points, and one of the most controversial second place MVP finishes ever. The ’92-93 season was Lemieux at his most dominant, and it began with him putting 17 points on the board in the first five games. He would go on to record at least two points in each of his first 12 games. This was also the year he missed nearly two months battling Hodgkin’s disease, only to return in early March and overcome a 17-point deficit in the scoring race to top Pat LaFontaine for the Art Ross Trophy.

3. Mike Bossy, New York Islanders (1984-85). This was a truly dominant start for one of the best pure goal scorers the league has ever seen. Bossy started the ’84-85 season with nine goals and 18 points in the Islanders’ first five games and he never really slowed down after that. He went on to score at least one goal in each of his first 10 games (including two four-goal efforts) with 32 total points.

4. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (2017-18). He opened the Capitals’ Stanley Cup winning season with seven goals in his first two games and nine in his first five. It was the best start to a season in his career. Those are the type of numbers you would have expected from the 1980s era NHL. Doing it during this era, and over the age of 30, was truly incredible.

5. Michel Goulet, Quebec Nordiques (1987-88). Goulet had some massive years for the Nordiques in the 1980s, with the ’87-88 season being one of his best. He finished with 48 goals and 106 points and it all started with a dominant run at the start that saw him score six goals to go with 12 assists in his first five games. He had nine three-point games before Thanksgiving, including four four-point games.

6. Peter Stastny, Quebec Nordiques (1982-83). The Stastnys were wildly productive players from the moment they arrived in the NHL. Peter opened the 1982-83 season with eight goals in his first three games. Since the start of the 1979-80 season, no player in the NHL has scored more goals in their team’s first three games.

7. Darcy Kuemper, Minnesota Wild (2014-15). His 2014-15 season did not end up being a great one overall, but he started the year about as well as any goalie has ever started a season in recent memory. He recorded a shutout in three of the Wild’s first five games, allowing just four total goals during that stretch.

8. Roberto Luongo, Florida Panthers (2005-06). Still probably the most under appreciated great goalie in NHL history simply because he never ended up getting his name on the Stanley Cup. During his first stint with the Panthers he took on a massive workload and was peppered with shots every night and almost always giving his team a chance. He opened 2005-06 with back-to-back shutouts in his first two games and had a save percentage over .960 through Florida’s first five games. It was the second year in a row he led the league in shots faced and saves. He was traded to Vancouver after the season.

9. Patrick Marleau, San Jose Sharks (2012-13). Marleau was one of the league’s top goal-scorers between 2008 and 2012 and looked like he was on track to continue that run when he opened the lockout shortened 2012-13 season with two goals in each of his first four games. Just for good measure, he scored one goal in his fifth game to give him nine goals in his first five games. He was never able to maintain that pace all year and finished with just eight goals over the remaining 43 games. He did, however, open the playoffs that year with a goal in five of his first six postseason games, including each of the first four. It was a very streaky year.

10. Mark Parrish, New York Islanders (2001-02). I mainly just wanted to include this one because I vividly remember it for its total randomness. Mark Parrish? Scoring all of the goals? For the early 2000s Islanders? It made no sense at the time. Parrish was in his second year with the Islanders after being acquired in the doomed-from-the-beginning Luongo trade and opened the 2001-02 season with eight goals in the team’s four games, and then 12 goals through 12 games. He went on to score 30 that year (the only 30-goal season of his career) and while he was a very good player, he was never productive enough to make up for being traded for Luongo and Olli Jokinen.

MORE:
• 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.

Where Kucherov hitting 115 points fits in recent NHL history

Nikita Kucherov isn’t merely content to shred defenses and poor, helpless opposing goalies. He’s like a hot knife going through butter when it comes to the best seasons in recent NHL history, too.

With an impressive two-goal, two-assist night in the Lightning’s 5-4 win against the Red Wings on Thursday, Kucherov now has a blistering 115 points this season. Kucherov has done so in just 71 games, so if he maintains his current (about 1.6197 points-per-game) pace and plays all 82 games, he’d finish either with 132 or 133 in 2018-19.

Just look at this nonsense, as Kucherov unlocked the “destroy the Gatorade achievement” for one of his goals:

Even if Kucherov stopped here, he’d be in some absolutely elite company.

The last player to reach at least 115 points was Sidney Crosby, who managed 120 back in 2006-07. A year before that, Joe Thornton (125) outdueled Jaromir Jagr (123) in a remarkable race for the Art Ross/Hart Trophy in 2005-06.

But, again, if Kucherov stopped at 115, he’d have put together one of the best runs since the calendar hit 2000. Here’s a short list of the best seasons since 2000-01:

1. Joe Thornton, 125 in 2005-06
2. Jaromir Jagr, 123 in 2005-06
3. Jagr, 121 in 2000-01
4. Sidney Crosby, 120 in 2006-07
5. Joe Sakic, 118 in 2000-01
6. Kucherov, 115 in 2018-19
7. Thornton, 114 in 2006-07

Remarkable.

If Kucherov came in around 132 or 133 points as he’s projected, he’d top Jagr’s 127 points from 1998-99. You have to reach back to Mario Lemieux’s 161 points in 1995-96 to see a better total than that projected 132-133 points, and players have only hit 130+ on nine occasions (eight players, with Lemieux doing it twice) since 1992-93.

Kucherov’s 115 points ties with Eric Lindros’ 115 points from 1995-96 as the 25th-best total since 1992-93 already.

This is truly jaw-dropping stuff, and it increasingly feels like Kucherov might only be stopped by injuries, or maybe a decision to give him a breather before the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. His points break down as 35 goals and 80 assists, so he’s just two helpers away from being a point-per-game player based on assists alone. That’s the sort of stuff we expected from Gretzky.

With all due respect to Connor McDavid, the other player to hit 100 points already (again), it’s tough to imagine any other player threatening Kucherov’s grasp on a much-deserved MVP trophy this season. Interestingly, Kucherov’s hit this mark with substantial ice time (19:42 TOI average), but not nearly being asked to carry the same burden as other potential finalists in McDavid (23:01) and Patrick Kane (22:26).

It’s a truly special season, one where Kucherov’s built on already-strong work to hit another level. At 25, it’s not outrageous to picture him approaching this level again, although he’s setting the bar incredibly high.

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: Tavares delivers in the clutch

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Three Stars

1. Kevin Labanc

Six players generated three points on Saturday, so you could make cases for plenty of players outside of tonight’s picks. Labanc was the only player who generated a hat trick, however, and it’s the first hat trick of the 23-year-old’s career.

Labanc’s been enjoying a pretty effective season. He has nine goals and 36 points in 56 games, leaving him four points short of last season’s career-high of 40.

All three of his shots on goal ended up finding the mark.

2. Alex Galchenyuk

It’s been an up-and-down first season in Arizona for “Chucky,” who’s watched as Max Domi‘s been flourishing in Montreal.

Saturday served as one of his best games with the Coyotes, as Galchenyuk generated two goals (including the game-winner) and an assist. He fired five SOG and had a +1 rating. About the only bummer of his game was that he only won 20 percent of his faceoffs.

3. Patrice Bergeron

When it comes to Galchenyuk and Bergeron making the top three, game-winners tipped the scales.

Bergeron’s three points came by way of that GWG, plus two assists. As you’d expect from Bergeron, it was quite the all-around performance; the Bruins center fired seven SOG, had a +3 rating, and won 54.2 percent of his draws. One of his three points came shorthanded, too.

It’s fair to ask what kind of major awards Bergeron might be pushing for if he hasn’t been dealing with some injuries. Despite being limited to 39 games this season, Bergeron has 20 goals and 50 points. In 2017-18, Bergeron generated 63 points in 64 contests.

You might be shocked to hear that he’s excellent.

Highlight of the Night

If Maple Leafs fans want some assurance that all of that salary cap worrying they shouldn’t be doing is worth it, they merely need to watch Mitch Marner show great instincts and timing by setting up John Tavares, who scored an excellent overtime-winner with a backhander.

Factoid

  • Sidney Crosby passed Mario Lemieux for 916 games played, the most in Penguins franchise history. It really highlights that injuries, cancer, and that pesky first retirement really deprived hockey fans of more Mario. The Penguins celebrated it in a cool way.

Scores

BOS 5 – LAK 4 (OT)
BUF 3 – DET 1
MIN 4 – NJD 2
NYI 4 – COL 3 (OT)
PHI 6 – ANA 2
OTT 5 – WPG 2
STL 3 – NSH 2
ARI 3 – DAL 2
TOR 4 – MTL 3 (OT)
TBL 5 – PIT 4
FLA 5 – WSH 4 (OT)
SJS 5 – EDM 2
VAN 4 – CGY 3 (SO)
CBJ 4 – VGK 3

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.

Nikita Kucherov somehow already has 71 points

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Even in the stunningly score-happy 2018-19 season, 71 points would be fantastic work for, you know, mere mortals.

After generating a goal and an assist in the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 4-0 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday, Nikita Kucherov already has that many points in just 43 games. Yeah.

Along with getting a primary assist on a Brayden Point goal, Kucherov connected for his 21st goal of the season with this tally:

To give some mind-boggling perspective, consider this: on Jan. 8, 2018, Kucherov topped all NHL scorers with 59 points in 42 games, seven points more than anyone else at that time. The slacker.

Kucherov isn’t just leading the NHL with those 71 points; he’s also rubbing elbows with some of the game’s greats. The league pointed out some staggering stats:

  • Kucherov is the first player to reach 70+ points in 43 games since Jaromir Jagr hit that mark in 38 contests, way back in 1999-2000. Former Lightning great Martin St. Louis managed to hit 70 in 53 contests back in 2006-07, which was the best pace between Jagr’s feat and Kucherov doing so on Tuesday.
  • His playmaking has been especially prolific. The NHL notes that Kucherov is the 10th player to generate at least 50 assists in 43 games. The most recent time that happened came from a scary 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins group of Jagr, Mario Lemieux, and Ron Francis. No big deal.

Kucherov’s 71 points in 43 games translates to about a 1.65-point-per-game pace. If he maintained that blistering productivity, Kucherov would author an absurd 135 point season. The 2017-18 campaign represents his career-high so far in the NHL, as he generated 100 points in 80 games.

Pretty zany stuff. For a deeper dive on Kucherov’s torrid last few months, check out this recent post from PHT’s Adam Gretz.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.