Reilly Smith

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The Buzzer: McDavid, Matthews deliver on opening night

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Three Stars

1. Leon DraisaitlOilers

The big Oilers forward blew away previous career-highs last season, scoring an impressive 50 goals and 105 points. Considering the 21.6 shooting percentage he rode, and previous seasons of 70 and 77 points, many expected Draisaitl to come down to Earth.

Well, he began the 2019-20 season just as hot.

Draisaitl was the only player to score three points on Wednesday (one goal, two assists), and the Oilers needed all three of them in a snug 3-2 win against the Canucks. Draistail also generated a +2 rating, six shots on goal, and logged a defenseman-like 26:46 TOI in that win (about five minutes more than Connor McDavid‘s 21:40).

2. Auston MatthewsMaple Leafs

Matthews continues to be a force on opening nights, generating two goals as the Maple Leafs shook off a shaky start to cruise against the Senators. One of Matthews’ two goals ended up being the game-winner, and both came off absolutely splendid passes (from William Nylander and Mitch Marner respectively).

John Tavares ended up being named captain instead of Matthews (understandably), but if you handed out an “O” for opening nights, you’d have to hand that letter to Matthews.

Matthews had a +2 rating and eight SOG.

3. Reilly SmithGolden Knights

If you prefer, you might name Mark Stone as the better Golden Knight of that dominant win for Vegas, as Stone generated two points (1G, 1A) of his own while being great all-around as always.

It felt like Smith was everywhere whenever given a chance, though. Smith scored two goals, including a shorthanded laugher, and could easily have had two shorthanded tallies if not for a great breakaway save by Martin Jones.

Wednesday was quite a display for Vegas’ long-running top (or 1A/1B?) line of Smith (five SOG), William Karlsson (two assists, six SOG), and Jonathan Marchessault (an unusually deferential one SOG).

Highlight of the Night

Connor McDavid’s goal wasn’t necessarily the prettiest of the first night of the 2019-20 season, but it ranks as one of those moments where McDavid makes NHL defensemen look overmatched and, well, not like professionals. While the Oilers haven’t been on most preseason picks lists, few would be that shocked if McDavid, Draisaitl, and a select few other players find a way to drag Edmonton to the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Especially after watching goals like these:

Factoids

  • Cody Glass already made history by becoming the first Golden Knights draft pick to play an NHL game for Vegas. He followed that up by scoring a nice goal, becoming the youngest Golden Knights player (20 years, 184 days apparently) to score a goal.
  • Again, Matthews is really good at this Game 1 thing.

Apparently this is McDavid’s sixth goal in an opener, setting an Oilers record.

Golden Knights did a thing

Scores

TOR 5 – OTT 3
WSH 3 – STL 2 (OT)
EDM 3 – VAN 2
VGK 4 – SJS 1

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’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.

Breaking down Golden Knights’ lopsided win vs. Sharks

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The Vegas Golden Knights closed out an exciting opening night of the 2019-20 season by easily handling the San Jose Sharks 4-1 on Wednesday.

Let’s bat around some takeaways from that contest while the Golden Knights hope Nate Schmidt‘s injury is minor, and the Sharks likely hold out the same hopes for Kevin Labanc.

Vegas probably could basically have “two first lines”

Early on in Wednesday’s game, Mark Stone reminded people of why he’s such a two-way force that he’s a rare winger who might be able to win a Selke Trophy. Stone emphatically opened the scoring on a booming power-play goal, added an assist later in the contest, and generally looked like an irresistible force. Cody Glass was Stone’s centermen alongside a possibly rejuvenated Max Pacioretty, while Paul Stastny occasionally took defensive zone faceoffs. Considering how easy Stone and Pacioretty made it for Glass on his first NHL goal, you get the feeling that any line with Stone could be a borderline top trio …

Yet, you can’t declare Stone the consensus player of the game.

That’s because Reilly Smith and the Golden Knights’ more established top line with William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault ended up being frighteningly dominant. Smith’s second goal of the night, a shorthanded tally, felt like the story of Wednesday’s game, as Karlsson and Smith passed back and forth against an overmatched Martin Jones.

It’s not just Erik Karlsson; it’s not just Jones

When it comes to the Sharks’ occasional struggles to keep the puck out of their net last season, a lot of people blamed the goalies, especially Jones. Some would say that Karlsson and Brent Burns make life tough for their own goalies, not just opposing ones.

While Burns was available Wednesday — as you could see in him colliding with a teammate during Smith’s SHG — Karlsson had to be a late scratch for personal reasons, and the Sharks still struggled mightily on defense. (Smith actually had another great chance on an early penalty kill, too, but Jones was game.)

Overall, Jones made some tough saves to keep the Sharks within striking distance at times, but this was such a lopsided contest that it didn’t matter.

This growing rivalry should be fun, unless you’re on the ice

Yes, this wasn’t an epic back-and-forth like that notorious Game 7, but these two teams boast the sort of firepower (and beef) that means there’s rarely a dull moment. Imagine if Evander Kane wasn’t suspended.

The Golden Knights have only existed for two seasons plus this opener, yet they’ve been a strong Western presence, accelerating the disdain with opponents, especially their Pacific Division rivals in San Jose.

San Jose needs its top guys to stay healthy

The Sharks did a pretty good job navigating a ton offseason. They could have lost Erik Karlsson. They might have taken a big risk on an aging Joe Pavelski. Timo Meier could have broken their salary cap breathing room.

Even so, losing Pavelski and other players (like sneaky-good Joonas Donskoi) means that the Sharks aren’t as deep as they’ve been in the past. If Karlsson or Burns gets hurt, that defense starts to look shaky pretty quickly. Possibly losing Kevin Labanc could be brutal for a team that’s a little thin on the wings.

In general, the Sharks might be vulnerable to lulls this season when they’re core players can’t suit up. Actually, it might be something head coach Peter DeBoer should try to mitigate; maybe you rest a burdened guy during a back-to-back, or lighten minutes when you have a lead?

To be fair to the Sharks, they didn’t exactly get an easy draw. Even with Schmidt out, Vegas is a daunting opponent, particularly at home.

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Vegas Golden Knights

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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: Far worse.

The Golden Knights cringed under a cap crunch during this offseason, losing intriguing KHL import Nikita Gusev, valuable scorer Erik Haula, and underrated defenseman Colin Miller while getting table scraps in return.

Luckily, the Golden Knights have been feasting lately, as Mark Stone is really only getting started after being a late addition around the 2018-19 trade deadline.

Strengths: The Golden Knights’ forward group is remarkable. Stone basically elevates Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty to the equivalent of a top line, and Vegas already had one (or, at worst, a strong “1B”) in Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith. They also have a top-six-quality winger in Alex Tuch if someone goes cold or gets hurt. Few teams can match that group, and it remains resounding that Vegas built this group up so quickly.

Bonus points if Cody Glass ends up making the team and getting meaningful minutes.

When he’s hot, Marc-Andre Fleury can still steal games for his team.

Weaknesses: It sure feels like the Golden Knights are rolling the dice a bit in net, though. Fleury turns 35 on Nov. 28, and their backup options leave a lot to be desired. That netminder situation sometimes resembles a wobbly Jenga tower.

While I like Nate Schmidt and Shea Theodore, and believe the latter may have “another gear,” it’s fair to wonder if the Golden Knights’ defense is a stride or two behind the NHL’s best. They’ve done well to craft a pretty good defense in a short time, but that group isn’t as impressive as their forwards.

Gerard Gallant has made some magic, but like with any NHL head coach, he has his quirks. If he indulges in leaning too much on Fleury, Ryan Reaves, and Deryk Engelland, it could be to the Golden Knights’ detriment.

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

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Gallant won the Jack Adams in 2017-18, and has managed to bring Vegas to two playoff berths in as many seasons. About the only glaring criticism you can muster (beyond those smaller aforementioned quirks) is that maybe — just maybe — Gallant could have done more to settle his team down after Cody Eakin drew that notorious major penalty in Game 7 against the Sharks.

Overall, Gallant is pretty safe, although the Golden Knights aren’t shy about spending, so they expect to be a contender. Let’s put Gallant at a two.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Theodore, Glass, and Stone.

Theodore had a cancer scare a few months ago, and thankfully, it sounds like he took care of that matter. Here’s hoping that he’s 100 percent to start the season, because he’s a blast to watch.

Glass is intriguing as a prospect who could, ideally, give Vegas another weapon — if he makes the team.

After a tumultuous final season with the Senators and trade to Vegas, Stone gets to settle in. This could be a good time for those in the hockey world who didn’t already know it to clue into something: he’s probably even better than he’s hyped up to be.

Playoffs or Lottery: With a weak Pacific Division in mind, the Golden Knights should be focused on winning a Stanley Cup, not merely making the playoffs.

It’s strange to say this so early in the team’s existence, but a trip to the lottery would be as disastrous as owing an old mob casino a bunch of money.

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.

Golden Knights have big decisions to make after Karlsson extension

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The Vegas Golden Knights are one of the teams that are going to be hit the hardest by the lower-than-expected salary cap ceiling for the 2019-20 season.

As of Sunday the team has, quite literally, zero salary cap space and is reportedly on the verge of signing restricted free agent William Karlsson to a long-term contract extension this upcoming week. According to The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, Karlsson’s new contract is going to be a max-term eight-year contract, with TSN’s Bob McKenzie adding that the salary cap hit will come in at “a shade under” $6 million per season. That is yet another hefty contract handed out by the Golden Knights, something that they have done pretty regularly over their first two years in the league.

In a vacuum, Karlsson’s extension seems pretty fair.

The eight-year term is significant, but he is still only 26 years old and isn’t likely to fall off a cliff in his production for several years. The cap hit is also probably significantly less than he could get on the open market, which is probably a tradeoff with the longer term.

He is probably never going repeat his improbable 40-goal season from two years ago, but he showed this past season that he can still be an excellent all-around player. There is a lot of value in a possession-driving, 25-goal, 55-point forward (assuming Karlsson is able to maintain that sort of production).

Once Karlsson’s deal becomes official, the Golden Knights will have six players signed through the end of the 2024 season. That group doesn’t include the long-term contracts recently signed by Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty, and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Given that the Golden Knights will still need to fill out three more roster spots even after making the Karlsson contract official the salary cap situation means that somebody, somewhere on the roster, is going to have to go.

That means first-year general manager Kelly McCrimmon is going to have some major decisions to make over the next couple of months.

It is probably a safe assumption that Fleury, Mark Stone, Jonathan Marchessault, and Alex Tuch are fairly secure with their spots in the organization because they are pretty clearly the foundation of the team. Fleury and Marchessault have been from day one, while Stone just signed a massive contract extension following his acquisition from the Ottawa Senators at the trade deadline. Tuch is still only 22 years old and is on a contract that looks like it could be a steal for the team.

After that, all bets should be off.

Max Pacioretty could be an option and would shed $7 million per year after the team’s cap number, but that would be a complicated deal to make work and justify. Not only does Pacioretty have some control over where he goes (he had a modified no-trade clause) but trading him after just one season would be a tough pill to swallow given the sequence of events and the price they had to pay to get him. The Golden Knights traded Tomas Tatar (after trading three draft picks, including a 2018 first-rounder) and a top prospect in Nick Suzuki to get Pacioretty and then immediately signed him to a new long-term contract that, technically speaking, has not even started yet.

It is also doubtful they would be able to come out ahead by trading him given that he will be 31 this season, carries a pretty big cap hit, and is not the goal-scorer he was during his prime. Are you going to get back anything close to what you gave up for him just one year ago?

He had a fine year in 2018-19 when he was healthy, but his days of pushing the 40-goal mark are probably in the rear-view mirror.

Sticking with potential top-line players to be on the move, Paul Stastny and Reilly Smith both count more than $5 million against the cap, but like Pacioretty also have some control over where they go with limited no-trade clauses. The other issue is that Pacioretty and Stastny were great together on a line, and Vegas probably doesn’t want to break that up (nor should it).

After that you get into the depth players. Erik Haula, Cody Eakin, and Ryan Reaves all count more than $2 million against the cap and while all have proven to be quality depth players, none of them are irreplaceable.

Defender Colin Miller is another player whose name has been mentioned in trade speculation, but his cap hit is relatively small and he has been a pretty big part of an underrated defense.

No matter who goes, and whether it is a significant core player or a bunch of smaller depth players, the Golden Knights are set to be one of the busiest and most active teams in the league in the coming days and weeks. They really have no other choice.

Related: Pressure ratchets up on cap-strapped teams

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.

 

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has better special teams?

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

There is no team with a better weapon on the power play than Alex Ovechkin (sorry, Patrik Laine). The fact of the matter is Washington has clipped along at damn-near 30 percent (28.6%) in the playoffs on the power play through three rounds. The only team better is the Boston Bruins, and well, they were ousted in the second round.

And it’s not just Ovi producing on the power play (he has nine points). Defenseman John Carlson leads the team with 10 power play points. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has been simply sensational in the playoffs, has nine, as does T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom.

One of the X factors in this series is going to be special teams, and for Washington, specifically, they’re going to need to tighten up on the penalty kill. They allow one goal every four opportunities they give to an opposing team on the power play. Couple that with the fact that they’re the most penalized team in playoffs (61 times shorthanded), and you can see where this all could go wrong. Perhaps the good news for the Caps here is that their road PK percentage (79.3%) is better than their home numbers (71.9%).

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

Vegas’ pedestrian 17.6 percent power play success rate is a full 11 percent behind the Capitals, so Washington has them beat in this regard. Vegas is the second-most shorthanded team in these playoffs (57). Forward Erika Huala leads the team with 12 power-play points while William Karlsson (8), Reilly Smith (7), and Jonathan Marchessault (6) round out their top-four point producers.

The Golden Knights could use a spark on the power play away from home, where they take advantage of just 13 percent of their man advantages.

Vegas has been much better than the Caps when shorthanded, however, at 82.5 percent. Given how many penalties the Golden Knights have taken — and the fact they played Patrik Laine and the Jets in the Western Conference Final — that’s pretty impressive. They muzzled the Jets all over the ice, but were particularly good at keeping Laine and Mark Scheifele off their game on the power play.

Vegas’ PK has been good both on the home and away from T-Mobile Arena — much like everything they’ve done this season.

Marc-Andre Fleury owns a .909 save percentage on the penalty kill, compared to Braden Holtby‘s .857.

Advantage: Capitals (ever so slightly)

Washington’s power play pushes them just over the top here, especially against a team that gives up so many opportunities. It has to be said though that this battle is very close on paper. Vegas has the better goalie in shorthanded situations and they have a better penalty kill all-around.

Special teams is certainly an x-factor in this series and should be fun to watch given the talent on both teams. 

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:

• Who has the better forwards?
Who has better defense?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule


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