Oliver Ekman-Larsson

Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) pushes the puck forward on a break-away as Calgary Flames left wing Johnny Gaudreau
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A best on best mythical tournament: Players in their prime

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold, Pro Hockey Talk will be creating full rosters for an imaginary best on best tournament over the next few Thursdays. The first team created was a 23-and-under roster that would be fascinating to watch.

An NHL player usually reaches peak performance in his late 20’s and this roster is comprised of players in the prime of their career between the ages of 24 and 29. The combination of skill, size, wisdom and depth in this group will be difficult to match for any opponent. The most surprising part of building this team was seeing several superstars left on the sidelines.

Line Combinations

First line: Artemi PanarinNathan MacKinnonLeon Draisaitl

Thoughts: All three players are firmly in the conversation for the 2019-2020 Hart Trophy and the thought of them on the same team, let alone the same line would be highly entertaining. Panarin has established himself as one of the best passers in the NHL and having two lethal goal scorers alongside him should make for an explosive trio.

Second line: Johnny GaudreauMark ScheifeleNikita Kucherov

Thoughts: Both wingers don’t offer much size but Gaudreau and Kucherov are both electric players that have learned how to win in the corners despite their diminutive stature. Scheifele has long been one of the more underrated players in the league and should find instant chemistry with two players that possess elite on-ice vision.

Third line: Taylor HallMika ZibanejadMark Stone

Thoughts: Hall’s game has dipped since winning the 2018 Hart Trophy but still remains a top two-way forward. Zibanejad was one of the most controversial picks beating out the likes of John Tavares, Tyler Seguin and others. But No. 93 has improved his game since the New York Rangers acquired him in a one-sided traded.

Fourth line: Chris Kreider – Ryan O’Reilly – Jonathan Huberdeau

Thoughts: Kreider and O’Reilly have anchored shut down lines in the past but the addition of Huberdeau should add more offensive punch to a very responsible grouping. All three skaters play a disciplined, 200-foot game and could match up with any combination of forwards an opponent has to offer.

First D pairing: Roman JosiSeth Jones
Second D pairing: Victor HedmanDougie Hamilton
Third D pairing: Oliver Ekman-LarssonAaron Ekblad

Thoughts: It’s hard to find a flaw in this grouping of defensemen. These six players collectively possess all the attributes needed to shut down opponents and can quickly move the puck out of the defensive zone.

Starting Goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

Backup Goalie: Connor Hellebuyck

Just Missed: Aleksander Barkov, Erik Karlsson, John Klingberg, Tyler Seguin, John Tavares

Captain: Roman Josi

Alternate captains: Nathan MacKinnon, Leon Draisaitl

Analysis

It was surprising to see only one player on this team with a championship ring and just seven players have participated in a Stanley Cup Final. With that said, this team has experience in best on best tournaments at every level and have routinely been through the grind of an NHL regular season.

On paper, there are limited areas of concern. The team is comprised of players with diverse attributes to form an extremely well-balanced roster. It has several explosive goal-scorers in the top-six and responsible players in the bottom-six that have the ability to consistently produce on the offensive side of the ice.

In addition, the blueline is staggered with lockdown defensemen and two Vezina candidates guarding the crease.

One challenge for this team, and for any roster in a tournament of this nature, is the ability to find instant chemistry with line mates. In theory, Panarin can set up a few of the top scorers but does it work in reality?

Due to the balance of the roster and varied characteristics, I believe this team would have the inside track to winning this mythical tournament.

Surprising omissions

John Tavares: It wasn’t too long ago that Tavares was the most sought-after free agent in the summer of 2018, but it was challenging to find a spot for the Maple Leafs captain on this roster. It was a tight race between No. 91 and Mika Zibanejad for the third line center position, but the Swedish right-handed centerman has become one of the more dynamic players in the NHL. Tavares is a world-class player. He could easily slide back onto the roster and change the narrative with a dominant stretch when professional hockey returns.

Erik Karlsson: This Swedish defenseman used to terrorize the league with his smooth skating and incredible vision. However, Karlsson hasn’t looked like himself since being traded to the San Jose Sharks in September of 2018. He routinely crossed the 60-point plateau and set a career-high with 82 points in 2015-16, but injuries have slowed him down the past two seasons. This mythical tournament will require teams to perform at an incredibly high level and there is no room for someone who has not been at the top of his game.


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

McDavid on NHL resuming play: ‘A fair season is a full season’

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Connor McDavid would prefer if the NHL played out the rest of the 2019-20 schedule once the coronavirus pandemic has passed and the league resumes play. Going straight into the playoffs after all this time off? Not ideal, the Oilers captain said on a Friday video conference with reporters.

“I think [the standings] look pretty good right now,” said McDavid of his second-place Oilers. “But you want a fair season. And a fair season is a full season. If we can do that, then that’s what we’d obviously prefer. I don’t think we can just step into playoffs, Game 1, Calgary comes to Edmonton, and guys are just running around killing each other and haven’t played a game in two months. It’ll end up the [AHL] Stockton Heat versus the Bakersfield Condors if that’s the case. We want to keep guys healthy and we want to make sure everyone’s up and ready to play some playoff hockey.”

Flames captain Mark Giordano would also prefer to see a full 82-game schedule played out, but a prolonged pause and an emphasis on not affecting the 2020-21 season would be a factor.

“I’ve thought a lot about this,” said Giordano, whose Flames are in third place in the Pacific Division, four points behind the Oilers. In a perfect world, you want to play a full regular season and whoever gets in, gets in. But I don’t think realistically we’re going to have that time.”

The Flames and Oilers have a bit of a cushion in their divisional playoff race, but what about a team like the Coyotes, who are four points out a wild card spot and five points behind Calgary in the division?

“I think it’s only fair to start where we left off here,” said Coyotes captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson. “It would be good for the playoffs too, to get those games going again and get into a playoff spot and be ready for a really good playoffs. I think that would benefit all of us.”

One playoff format idea that’s been floated is using points percentage and including a few more than the usual 16 teams. Giordano isn’t a fan of the points percentage idea, but is keen on 12 teams in each conference making the postseason with Round 1 byes for top teams.

One thing Giordano and his fellow Pacific Division captains agreed on was that should a 2020 postseason be played, the time off would ensure a quality tournament.

“If we can ever get back to playing, it’s going to be one of the best playoffs ever,” said Giordano. “You’re going to be playing the best version of every team.”

Follow this NBC News live update thread for more on the coronavirus pandemic.

MORE:
Players doing what they can to stay in shape during NHL hiatus
Crosby, Ovechkin fine if NHL chooses to go right to playoffs

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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.

Long-term outlook for the Arizona Coyotes

Long-term outlook Coyotes Keller Ekman-Larsson
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Arizona Coyotes.

Pending free agents

The Core

A pressing question — one of the most important in franchise history, frankly — is if the Coyotes should re-sign Taylor Hall, and if Hall would actually want to become part of the core.

Because, whether you feel convinced that this is the sort of group you can win a Stanley Cup with or not, there’s definitely a core to this team.

Extending Oliver Ekman-Larsson was crucial to the Coyotes, but he didn’t really look like an $8.25M defenseman during his first season being paid that way. Time will tell if Clayton Keller is really worth $7.15M per year, himself. (It’s fair to mention that big prices for prominent forwards almost always look better as time goes on.)

The Coyotes have handed big term to some interesting players, including Nick Schmaltz, who they received in moving out former third overall pick (2015) Dylan Strome. Christian Dvorak‘s contract was a little surprising at the time, but will probably be fine.

There are some other interesting questions to answer. Can Jakob Chychrun stay healthy enough to realize his potential? As great as Darcy Kuemper has been, will he be the goalie beyond his extension (running through 2021-22)? Will they retain Antti Raanta beyond 2020-21 to maintain a potentially outstanding platoon?

Clearly, the Coyotes also hope that Barrett Hayton will not just be part of the core, but a star for them. File another one under “We’ll see.”

Long-term needs for Coyotes

The Coyotes still lack that “game-breaking talent,” so to speak.

For all that the Coyotes do well (they’re quite viable), it’s not a great sign when your top two scorers are at 45 points (Schmaltz) and 44 (Keller) this late in the season. At least now that we’ve exited the dreadful “Dead Puck Era.”

Circling back to an earlier point, Taylor Hall lingers as a tough question.

While still a strong player, Hall might not quite be the guy anymore. Hall nonetheless is the closest answer Arizona currently possesses. (Opinion: Keller and Hayton seem more likely to settle in as “stars” rather than “superstars.”)

Also, for a team that’s missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons and stands at risk of an eighth, their prospect cupboard doesn’t bowl you over. The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler ranked their farm system 20th in late January (sub required), for example. While some might chalk that up to “early graduations,” Wheeler’s Athletic colleague Corey Pronman placed Arizona’s 23-and-under core at a middling 16th place.

The defense is also getting a little older in spots, particularly Alex Goligoski (34). Even OEL turns 29 on July 17.

Long-term strengths of Coyotes

Goalies are an unpredictable lot, but the Coyotes have done as well as anyone in acing these tests.

They’ve successfully targeted two backups in Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper. While receiving top-notch goaltending, the Coyotes also haven’t signed scary contracts like other teams. They merely signed Raanta for three years ($4.25M) and Kuemper’s extension ($4.5M for 2020-21 and 2021-22) looks like a super-steal right now. Even if Kuemper slides, few teams have made safer bets.

There are Plans C and on, too. Adin Hill has shown some potential, and Arizona boasts an interesting prospect in the pipeline in Ivan Prosvetov.

If Chychrun can get through this rough patch of injuries and Victor Soderstrom develops, the Coyotes’ defense looks pretty solid, too.

Yes, lots of “solid” can feel like a curse when “great” is usually the difference between clearing a hurdle and crashing. (Well, great matched with lucky, at least in this often-random sport.)

Still, the Coyotes keep putting themselves in a spot where they can get that extra boost. With plenty of Pacific Division teams looking to be in waning periods, there might just be an opening for the Coyotes.

MORE:
Looking at the 2019-20 Arizona Coyotes
Coyotes’ biggest surprises, disappointments so far

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.

Why Stars’ Benn avoided suspension for boarding Ekman-Larsson

Stars forward Jamie Benn avoided a suspension for boarding Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

The hit happened during Wednesday’s 3-2 win for Dallas. Taylor Hall scored on the ensuing five-minute major opportunity, but Arizona didn’t make the Stars pay beyond that. The Stars won the special teams battle overall, going 2-for-2 on their chances. That loss, and a lack of suspension, could leave Coyotes fans feeling extra bitter.

Explaining why Benn avoided suspension

Reporters did pass along the league’s potential reasoning for no further discipline, though.

To start, TSN/The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun explained some of the logic:

Matthew DeFranks of The Dallas Morning News passes along the league’s lengthy video explaining “contact along the boards,” including this portion:

Stars coach Rick Bowness shared a take that lines up with the Department of Player Safety.

“That’s a tough call,” Bowness said, via The Athletic’s Sean Shapiro (sub required). “Two guys are going for the puck, and one guy turns into the boards, and they are going to bang. It probably looks a lot worse than it is. I hope the guy is OK, and he finished the game, so he must be OK. It’s one of those — sometimes, you put a referee in a tough position. I think that’s one of those.”

Ekman-Larsson returned to Wednesday’s game, which likely also helped Benn’s cause. Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet told reporters that OEL’s neck was sore, but it doesn’t sound major.

Overall, there seems to be some precedent for not providing further discipline. Now, should the NHL consider setting new standards as we learn more about head or neck injuries? I’d say yes, but the league isn’t showing much haste in making sweeping changes.

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.

Benn ejected for boarding Ekman-Larsson (Video)

(UPDATE: Benn will not face any supplemental discipline.)

Jamie Benn was ejected midway through the second period for boarding Arizona Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The Coyotes captain stayed down on the ice for an extended period of time before heading directly to the locker room.

Ekman-Larsson did return for the third period.

Due to a rule change this season, the referees had a chance to review the major penalty but confirmed the call and sent Benn off for the remainder of the game.

Ekman-Larsson and Benn had a slight history dating back to December when the Coyotes blueliner caught the Stars captain with a blindside hit.

The NHL Department of Player Safety will certainly take a look and Benn could miss more time in the near future.


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.