Sam Lafferty

Getty Images

The Buzzer: Rantanen dominates in return; Driedger gets shutout in first start

1 Comment

Three Stars

1. Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche. After being sidelined for more than a month Rantanen returned to the Avalanche lineup on Saturday and picked right up where he left off, recording four points in a complete destruction of the Chicago Blackhawks. He is now up to 16 points in 10 games this season, and with him back in the lineup the Avalanche dominant duo of Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon is going to start taking over games again. They are still without Gabriel Landeskog but have managed to keep piling up points thanks to the brilliance of MacKinnon and the improved depth throughout the roster. Given all of the salary cap space they still have they are going to have a chance to add a major piece before the trade deadline and be a force in the Western Conference playoffs. Joonas Donskoi also had four points for the Avalanche on Saturday, while MacKinnon added three. This game also featured one of the most random and unexpected fights of the season when Chicago’s Alex DeBrincat squared off against Colorado defenseman Samuel Girard.

2. Chris Driedger, Florida Panthers. With big-money free agent Sergei Bobrovsky off to a terrible start this season, the Panthers turned to the 25-year-old Driedger for his first career start on Saturday against the Nashville Predators. He made quite an impact turning aside all 27 shots he faced as the Panthers began a nine-game homestand. Before Saturday Driedger had only made three relief appearances (all with the Ottawa Senators) in his very brief NHL career.

3. Tanner Pearson, Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks have been waiting for some of their depth players to make an impact offensively this season, and it has finally started to happen over the past couple of games. Pearson had a huge game in their 5-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers, scoring two goals and adding two assists. Unlike Wednesday’s game in Pittsburgh, they were able to hold on to this three-goal third period lead to snap what had been a brief two-game losing streak.

Other notable performances from Saturday

  • Alex Ovechkin became just the fifth player in NHL history to record 15 consecutive 20-goal seasons to begin a career. He also moved into 10th place all-time with his 24th career hat trick. Read all about it here.
  • Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov teamed up for a shutout for the New York Islanders as they beat the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets were one of four teams to lose a defenseman to injury on Saturday.
  • The Toronto Maple Leafs won for the fourth time in five games under new coach Sheldon Keefe thanks to a John Tavares overtime winner against the Buffalo Sabres.
  • Alexandar Georgiev stopped all 33 shots he faced for the New York Rangers in a 4-0 win over their arch-rivals, the New Jersey Devils.
  • Big night for Calgary Flames forward Elias Lindholm as he scored two goals, giving him 14 on the season, in a 3-1 win over the Ottawa Senators.
  • Defenseman Justin Faulk scored his first goal as a member of the St. Louis Blues in a 5-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
  • Logan Couture scored two goals for the San Jose Sharks as they erased an early two-goal deficit to beat the Arizona Coyotes by a 4-2 margin.
  • Jack Campbell was outstanding for the Los Angeles Kings, stopping 32 out of 33 shots in a 2-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets.

Highlights of the Night

Ivan Provorov lifted the Philadelphia Flyers to a 4-3 overtime win against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday with this incredible goal in the extra period.

How the Penguins have become one of NHL’s best defensive teams

3 Comments

It is starting to look like Jim Rutherford was right.

Not long after his Pittsburgh Penguins were swept out of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, he defiantly proclaimed that the defense he had assembled was probably the best one his team had since he arrived in Pittsburgh. It seemed to be a rather dubious claim not only because of how the Penguins performed for much of the season (including the playoffs), but because he had also been the general manager for a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion in Pittsburgh.

But nearly two months into the 2019-20 season the Penguins have been one of the league’s stingiest teams defensively and that play is one of the biggest reasons they have been able to overcome a seemingly unending list of injuries to keep piling up points.

Just look at the defensive performance so far this season compared to the same date a year ago, as well as their final numbers from the 2018-19 season.

All numbers via Natural Stat Trick. The numbers in parenthesis are their league-wide rank.

They also boast one of the league’s best penalty killing units, not only in terms of success rate, but also in their ability to also limit shots and chances against.

The Penguins always had one elite defense pair in Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin but everything after that was always a question.

So what all has changed?

The arrival of John Marino and development of Marcus Pettersson. One thing that should be pointed out about Rutherford’s “best defense” comment is that there have been some personnel changes on the blue line since then that helped the team get back closer to the winning identity it had lost. Erik Gudbranson and Olli Maatta were traded, while the team also made the under-the-radar acquisition of John Marino from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for a sixth-round pick.

From the moment they acquired Marino, the Penguins seemed enamored with his potential. After watching him play for the past month-and-a-half it is not hard to see why. He has been a game-changer on the blue line and in his first pro season has already become a 20-minute per night player and has yet to look out of place. He brings some much-needed youth, mobility, and playmaking to a defense that badly needed all three.

Combine his presence with a full season of Marcus Pettersson (acquired in December of last year for Daniel Sprong) and suddenly the Penguins have two young, mobile defenders that can help drive play for what is currently a dirt cheap price against the salary cap. And both have the potential to continue getting better.

The forwards are helping more. One of the common themes throughout the Penguins’ offseason was that they needed to play “the right way,” and that the defensive deficiencies last season weren’t just about the defensemen themselves. They also needed more help from their forwards. They are getting that this season, and it’s not just because the returning players are playing smarter. The offseason additions of Brandon Tanev and Dominik Kahun, as well as getting a full season out of trade deadline acquisition Jared McCann, have brought three more fast, defensively responsible forwards to the lineup, and all are making significant contributions in every phase of the game.

Tanev’s signing drew harsh criticism (including from me) due to the term on the contract but so far he has proven to be everything the Penguins said he would be — a menace due to his speed and an always frustrating player for opponents to go up against. Combined with the arrival of young players Teddy Blueger and Sam Lafferty the Penguins injected a ton of speed, youth, and fresh blood into a lineup that the rest of the league had not only caught up to, but seemingly passed by the previous two years. With Phil Kessel and Arizona and Sidney Crosby currently sidelined the Penguins may not be as explosive offensively, but they are making up for that with their ability to shut teams down.

Better usage and a better identity. Mike Sullivan is turning in a Jack Adams level coaching performance this season and has pushed all of the right buttons so far. He has the team buying into how they need to play, they are back to play fast, and the personnel usage is far better (trusting Marino and Pettersson in big spots; playing Jack Johnson in the third-pairing/PK role he is best suited for).

Rutherford received his fair share of criticism the past couple of years (including from, again, me) and much of it was deserved. The team became too obsessed with “push-back” and getting more physical instead of getting faster and better. There was a constant revolving door of player transactions that made it seem like they didn’t really have a plan. Tom Wilson took up residence in their front office and seemed to drive every decision.

One of the most positive things anyone around Pittsburgh could always say about Rutherford is he is quick to admit his mistakes and move on. He definitely did that by making the team faster and getting it back to what it does best. It may not have been the most direct route, but for the first time in two years the Penguins have the look of the team that was winning Stanley Cups instead of the one that was getting swept in the first round. Better late than never.

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 remain hot with win vs. Avalanche

2 Comments

Brandon Tanev notched a shorthanded goal in overtime to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 3-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche.

Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel also scored as Pittsburgh recorded its fourth straight victory. Matt Murray added 26 saves.

Matt Calvert and Nathan MacKinnon found the back of the net for the Avalanche but their six-game point streak to open the season came to an end.

Crosby continues to dazzle

The Penguins captain has clearly moved on from a disappointing playoff run last year, which ended in a first-round sweep at the hands of the Islanders. Instead, Crosby is off to a tremendous start, recording points in each of Pittsburgh’s seven games and leading the club on the ice to a 5-2-0 record.

Crosby netted a highlight-reel backhander to tie the game late in the first period and then assisted on a Jake Guentzel tally in the second.

The superstar center craftily tipped the puck around Erik Johnson, played the puck with his glove, and then somehow had the wherewithal to outlast goaltender Philipp Grubauer until an opening appeared for him to slide a backhander into the net.

Early in the second period, Crosby intercepted a pass at the blueline, then set up Guentzel to help the Penguins grab a 2-1 lead.

While several notable players remain sidelined, Crosby will be expected to lead the Penguins on the ice, and continue to improve the players around him. Pittsburgh will need Crosby to play at the top of his game until reinforcements return over the next few weeks.

Avalanche upcoming free agents

After the Mikko Rantanen contract issue this past summer, the Avalanche have several pending RFA’s for next summer.

Colorado is expected to be a legit Stanley Cup Contender with a great mix of dynamic playmakers, infusion of youth and seasoned veterans capable of leading the way during turbulent stretches.

However, Bob McKenzie offered that general manager Joe Sakic wants to see how the first part of the season plays out before engaging in contract talks.

Andre Burakovsky, Tyson Jost and Nikita Zadorov headline the pending RFA class and all presumably have a role to fill moving forward.

Is Lafferty here to stay?

The Penguins have been bitten by the injury bug early and have been forced to rely on their organizational depth to stay afloat during a challenging stretch.

During their Stanley Cup-winning years, the Penguins have always been able to call up a role player to fill a specific need. Is Sam Lafferty the next player to seamlessly fit in?

Lafferty was close to making the team out of training camp according to Bob McKenzie, but fell victim to the numbers game of a roster. However, injuries to five impact forwards — Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust and Jared McCann — created a roster spot for him to slide in.

“We always felt like Sam was close coming into this training camp this year. But I think he has a whole lot more confidence in himself that he belongs here,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “And that’s great for him, and that’s great for us.”

The 24-year-old originally from Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, about two hours outside of Pittsburgh, Lafferty has taken advantage of the opportunity recording five points over the previous three games.

“He’s earned his playing time. He’s just playing terrific hockey,” Sullivan said. “He made a difference every game he’s been in. As a result, he’s getting more ice time. He’s a very good penalty-killer. I think he really understands his role and is taking pride in it. You can see it every shift. He’s gaining more confidence.”

The Penguins have done an excellent job in sliding players into appropriate roles, and Lafferty is just the latest example. Does the kid have what it takes to stick around for a full season and continue to make a difference? We will find out as the season goes on.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

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.

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Perron, Slavin lead this week’s top adds

Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. As always, the goal here isn’t to recommend 10 players you must add and five players that need to be dropped. Context is everything and the context of each league is different. What this is instead is a guideline so that if you’re looking to make a change, you have potential players to target and if you see players I’ve suggested to drop, you can evaluate your potential alternates.

Players Worth Adding

Jaccob Slavin, Hurricanes – D: For each of the previous three seasons, Slavin recorded 30-34 points, but at the age of 25 it’s not unreasonable to believe that we haven’t seen his peak. This campaign certainly has the potential to result in him setting new career-highs. He’s riding a five-game point streak, which has brought him up to two goals and five points in six games this season.

Zach Aston-Reese, Penguins – LW/RW: Aston-Reese was a standout in Northeastern University, but since turning pro in 2017, he’s needed time to gradually work up the Penguins’ ladder. He still has some climbing to do, but after playing in 14 games in 2017-18 and 43 contests in 2018-19 with Pittsburgh, he seems to have now secured an everyday role with the squad. Aston-Reese is still a borderline player in standard fantasy leagues, but at the least he’s worth keeping an eye on and in the short-term he’s worth gambling to ride his current hot streak of four points in his last two contests.

Justin Schultz, Penguins – D: Schultz had 51 points back in 2016-17, but he hasn’t come close to that level before or since. He’s off to a promising start in 2019-20 though with four assists in six games. What’s particularly noteworthy is that he’s averaging 3:41 minutes of power-play ice time, which is just barely behind Kris Letang. That power-play role has been huge for Schultz with three of those four assists coming with the man advantage. As long as he stays healthy, which was the big problem last season, he has a huge opportunity to be a big contributor.

David Perron, Blues – LW/RW: At the time of writing, Perron is owned in 60% of Yahoo leagues, which I see as on the low end given what he brings to the table offensively. He had 66 points in 70 games in 2017-18 and then 46 points in 57 contests in 2018-19, which translates to an average of 72 points per 82 games over that span. This season seems to be a continuation of that. He has three goals and five points in five games while averaging 18:25 minutes. While he’s an injury risk, he should be regarded as a high-end winger. 

[Ready for the season? Get the Rotoworld Draft Guide]

Ilya Mikheyev, Maple Leafs – LW: Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko are two of the biggest names in this season’s rookie pool, but neither has done much offensively yet. Instead, Mikheyev has been one of the league’s top rookies with two goals and five points in six contests. It helps that he’s been getting a good chunk of ice time for a rookie.  He’s averaging 15:55 minutes, which is the third highest for a rookie forward. Mikheyev is still owned in just 6% of Yahoo leagues, so there is still a chance to grab him.

Tomas Tatar, Canadiens– LW/RW: Tatar had 25 goals and a career-high 58 points in his first season with the Canadiens and his second campaign with Montreal has the potential to be similarly successful. He already has two goals and five points in five contests while averaging 16:58 minutes. It helps that he’s been playing alongside Brendan Gallagher, who surpassed the 30-goal milestone in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Ryan Dzingel, Hurricanes – LW/RW: Dzingel is one I’m more on the fence about in the long run, but I’m certainly interested in gambling on him at this moment. He’s gotten off to a hot start with two goals and five points in six contests. He’s only averaging 14:17 minutes, which makes it hard to see him sustaining anywhere near his current level of production. Still, he’s a fairly talented forward and he’s doing well enough to be worth taking a chance on at this time.

Sam Lafferty, Penguins – C/LW:  Lafferty is another lower profile rookie who has stepped up early. In his case though, it’s been all thanks to a surge in his last two games. He scored a goal and three points on Saturday and added another two goals on Sunday. Will he keep this up? I strong doubt it. Lafferty is someone to pick up for now while he’s hot, but drop as soon as he slows down.

Mike Smith, Oilers – G:  Smith left something to be desired in 2018-19 with Calgary, but his stint with Edmonton has gotten off to an encouraging start. He’s 3-0-0 with a 2.67 GAA and .907 save percentage in three starts. Edmonton has been one of the most pleasant surprises this season and if that keeps up, Smith will be a primary benefactor. Mikko Koskinen is worth considering for the same reason. Personally, I see Smith as the safer bet given his wealth of experience, but for what it’s worth, Koskinen has gotten off to the better start with a 2-0-0 record, 2.41 GAA, and .914 save percentage in two starts. They’re also likely to split the Oilers’ responsibilities fairly evenly.

Jonathan Drouin, Canadiens – C/LW: Drouin has been one of those players with a ton of offensive upside that seems to keep ending up short of that potential. He matched his career-high in 2018-19 with 53 points, which is solid to be sure, but there’s still that underlining belief that there might be more there from the 2013 third overall pick. Maybe this is the season we’ll get him to take that last step. He’s opened the campaign on a five-game point streak with two goals and six points over that span. 

Players You May Want To Drop

Dustin Byfuglien, Jets – D: This one might seem the most obvious, but it’s also the one I’m most on the fence about. Yes, Byfuglien isn’t playing and he’s been reportedly considering retirement, so he might not play at all this season. But to drop him now means potentially missing out on a 40-50 point defenseman if he decides tomorrow to return to the Jets. However, we’re two weeks into the season now and there’s been no indication that he’s even close to making a decision. Even if he did surprise me by saying today that he’s returning, he’ll need time to get up to speed and after missing training camp and the start of the season, that might be difficult. With every passing day, the odds of him living up to expectations even if he does play diminish and at a certain point you need to start thinking about cutting your losses.

[For more fantasy sports analysis, check out Rotoworld]

Jakub Voracek, Flyers – RW: Voracek has no points in three games, but what I find particularly concerning is that he’s averaging just 15:33 minutes. That’s down from 18:40 minutes in 2018-19 and 19:27 minutes in 2017-18. So far this season, the most Voracek has played in a game has been 16:06 minutes, which would have been in the bottom-10 for minutes back last season. With his role potentially changing, his offensive output might decline meaningfully.

Chris Kreider, Rangers – LW: Kreider does have two assists in three games, so he’s gotten off to a good start. However, he’s averaging 14:55 minutes per game, which is way down from 17:24 minutes in 2018-19 when he had 52 points in 79 contests. Given how borderline he was to begin with in standard fantasy leagues, that decline is concerning. On top of that, he recently sustained a lower-body injury.  It’s not believed to be long-term, but again he’s borderline to begin with so there’s not a lot of motivation to wait even minor injuries out.

Nazem Kadri, Avalanche – C: Kadri had just 16 goals and 44 points in 73 games last season with Toronto, but there was some hope that the move to Colorado might change things. After all, he’d be moving from a team that was using him primarily as a third-line center to one with a second-line spot for him. So far, that hasn’t worked out with Kadri being limited to a goal and no assists in four contests. Given that he only has center-eligibility, which is a very deep position, I’d be inclined to drop him for now in favor of someone who is offering more immediate help. He is still worth keeping an eye on though.

Jonathan Quick, Kings – G: So far Quick has been a disaster this season. He’s allowed at least five goals per game, which has given him a 0-3-0 record, 6.43 GAA, and .793 save percentage in three starts. That comes after his struggles in 2018-19 with a 16-23-7 record, 3.38 GAA, and .888 save percentage in 46 starts. Certainly the team in front of him isn’t doing Quick any favors, but the Kings are in a transitional phase, so they’re not likely to help him much for the remainder of the season either. This seems like a goaltending situation to avoid where at all possible.

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey.

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.