Thatcher Demko

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Rask, Rinne, Fleury are NHL’s hottest goalies so far

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With every team except the New Jersey Devils at 10 games played or more – New Jersey’s played nine – this seems like a good time to check in on the most important (yet also most unpredictable) position in hockey: goalies.

These netminders are off to the hottest starts so far in the young 2019-20 season.

Tuukka Rask

If forced to name a top goalie so far, I’d lean toward the Boston Bruins veteran.

Rask is 6-0-1 so far, with a league-leading .951 save percentage.

The 32-year-old sparkles in deeper categories, too. Rask ranks third in even-strength save percentage at .961. According to Hockey Reference’s Goals Saved Against Average (GSAA) – a metric that attempts to account for the difficulty of shots a goalie faces – Rask leads all goaltenders by a healthy margin with 8.69 GSAA.

Every single one of his starts has been considered a “quality start.”

Pekka Rinne

Big-time Finns are off to great starts.

Rinne is tied with Penguins backup Tristan Jarry for the league’s best even-strength save percentage at .964, and Rinne’s off to a great start in the standings, going 7-0-1. Rask and Rinne are in a four-way tie for first place in shutouts with two alongside Carter Hutton and Petr Mrazek.

Rinne’s 6.53 GSAA ranks third. There was a time when people chalked up some of Rinne’s success to the team in front of him, and a brief period (especially 2015-16) when Rinne struggled by any measure. That’s looking more like a blip in an increasingly brilliant career.

Darcy Kuemper

I must admit, I wondered if the Coyotes were being hasty in extending Kuemper, as great as he was basically since the calendar hit 2019. Instead, GM John Chayka’s proactiveness might pay off big time, as Kuemper’s carried over that great finish from 2018-19 to 2019-20 so far.

If Arizona can give Kuemper more consistent goal support (5-3-0), he might get the sort of wins that Vezina-voting GMs gravitate to. Otherwise, he checks out with a .933 save percentage and 5.62 GSAA.

Marc-Andre Fleury

At some point, it feels like the Golden Knights are going to overwork their workhorse. The 34-year-old remains sturdy and often spectacular right now, though.

His eight wins (8-3-0) lead the NHL at the moment, and his 334 saves top all as well (though John Gibson‘s generally being asked to do even more in Anaheim, which is sadly not much of a surprise). Fleury’s .928 save percentage might not be outright spectacular compared to the best on this list, but his second-ranked 7.14 GSAA helps illustrate just how much Vegas depends upon “The Flower.”

Lightning round

  • Robin Lehner: The Blackhawks have fond memories of Corey Crawford (.888 save percentage), but might want to ride the hot hand in Lehner, who has a .936 save percentage through six games. There are signs that Lehner might be able to bail out a shaky Blackhawks defense, considering a high GSAA.
  • When you consider how well Pittsburgh’s played despite injuries that are finally healing up, give Sidney Crosby a lot of credit. Don’t sleep on Jarry and Matt Murray, though, as they have put together great stats early on.
  • The Canucks renaissance is based on a hot top line, but also Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko, with Demko maybe arguing for a bigger slice of the starts with a .941 save percentage. Both have been lights out, though.
  • Connor Hellebuyck: For all the doom and gloom for Winnipeg, the Jets would be in bigger trouble without a so-far redemptive season for Hellebuyck, who has a .924 save percentage and has generally saved their bacon.
  • Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton have both been fantastic for the Sabres, ranking alongside each other at seventh and eighth in GSAA, and each have the requisite strong vanilla save percentages.
  • By John Gibson standards, a .920 save percentage is pedestrian, but again, the Ducks are asking him to work miracles. He’s pulling off magic, at minimum.
  • Last season, Thomas Greiss was almost as great as Lehner. So far in 2019-20, Greiss is … almost as great as Lehner (.931 save percentage, 4.02 GSAA).
  • To round out this post, Philipp Grubauer and Mikko Koskinen have had the occasional off start, but have mostly been strong for the Avs and Oilers respectively.

When you consider how many of these goalies are on teams that are mysteriously red-hot, maybe those torrid runs aren’t such a mystery. The bigger mystery is: how many of them can keep at least most of this up?

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.

Canucks, Oilers are getting great goaltending so far

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When an NHL season is young, it’s easy to get fooled into thinking that “This is the year,” or that a great season is going to come tumbling down. Sometimes those assumptions end up being correct, but it’s often far too easy to be roped in by a strong sprint and forget how much of a marathon an 82-game season can be.

Well-oiled machine … running a bit on luck

The Edmonton Oilers came into 2019-20 with very low expectations, yet they’re off to a hot start, even after falling 1-0 in a shootout to the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday.

It’s been easy to focus on Edmonton’s skaters for much of the Oilers’ 7-1-1 start.

How could you not, really, with Connor McDavid looking even better than usual, Leon Draisaitl seemingly continuing to prove that he’s probably worth more than his $8.5 million AAV, and James Neal getting off to such a strong start that he’s already blown away his 2018-19 goal totals from that disastrous year with the Flames?

This strong start isn’t just about that, though.

Still-new head coach Dave Tippett made his reputation on insulating goalies with great defense, so he’s probably most excited about strong early returns in that area.

It’s too early to say that GM Peter Chiarelli should feel vindicated for the baffling final move of his run, as he signed Mikko Koskinen to a risky contract basically right before he got a pink slip. But there’s little denying that Koskinen is off to a strong start. The 31-year-old has a marvelous .934 save percentage and 4-0-0 record so far.

Tippett’s old buddy Mike Smith tended net on Friday, and produced what was likely the best game of his run with the Oilers. Yes, the Jets won 1-0 via a shootout, but Smith stopped all 23 shots he faced between regulation and a scintillating 3-on-3 OT period; 10 of those saves came on power play opportunities, as the Jets went 0-for-4.

Watch this sequence as Mark Scheifele makes a ridiculous move, Smith beats him, and Connor Hellebuyck stops Connor McDavid:

Smith is now at 3-1-1, and brought a .917 save percentage into Sunday, so he’s combined with Koskinen to help Edmonton be very stingy.

We’ve already seen Oilers scorers cool down ever so slightly from unsustainable paces, as McDavid sits at 17 points despite going pointless the past two games. Edmonton has to be delighted to manage three of four standings points during these rare pointless McDavid games, but it’s a reminder that they’re going to need more from other players.

Chances are, they won’t get this sort of elite goaltending over and over again, either. That said, if Tippett can figure out a way to get enough stops, the occasional grind-it-out win (or even “charity point”), and then ride some token “McDavid being five strides ahead of the world” games, Edmonton might just be able to make the most of this 7-1-1 start.

Canucks could also rise

After beginning the season 0-2-0, the Canucks have won five of their last six games, pushing their 2019-20 record to 5-3-0. That included a Sunday matinee win where they beat the Rangers 3-2 thanks to 38 saves by Jacob Markstrom.

Vancouver shares a promising development in common with Edmonton in net. Not only are both teams getting strong goaltending; they’re also getting great early play from two different goaltenders. In the Canucks’ case, it’s holdover starter Markstrom (2-2-0, but with a strong .926 save percentage) and potential goalie of the future Thatcher Demko (2-1-0 with a fabulous .943 save percentage).

While Markstrom’s .912 save percentage from 2018-19 won’t wow many, he managed those numbers on a team that really struggled in its own end, and you can see that he was a pretty good difference-maker from various metrics, including Sean Tierney’s goals saved above expectation chart, which uses data from Evolving Hockey:

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The Canucks and Oilers are riding some hot streaks right now, with Edmonton in particular profiting in the standings. We’re almost certain to see those goalies cool off, and even McDavid may not be able to score almost two points per game.

But can Travis Green and Dave Tippett manufacture above-average goaltending from their rotations for enough of 2019-20 to bring one or both of their teams to the playoffs? Stranger things have happened, and few positions in sports are as strange — and important — as goaltending tends to be in the NHL.

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 Vancouver Canucks

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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, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or worse: They are definitely better, it is just a question of how much better and if it is enough to matter. Hopefully a full season from Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson having a year of experience under his belt, the arrival of Quinn Hughes, and the offseason additions of J.T. Miller and Tyler Myers all add something to the team. Trading a future first-round pick for Miller is a risk, and Myers’ deal is yet another bizarre long-term contract for a veteran that isn’t a core player, but they are short-term upgrades. Whether that gets them closer to being a playoff team remains to be seen, and it all kind of makes you question what the long-term plan actually is.

Strengths: For all of their flaws, the Canucks do have a lot of young talent they should be able to build around assuming they don’t screw it up. They have had Calder Trophy contenders in each of the past two seasons (Boeser and Pettersson, the latter of which won it) and could have another one this season (Hughes).

Weaknesses: They lack quality depth at forward, they have holes on defense, the goaltending is probably average, and for a team that has been one of the worst in the league for the past four years and does not have a single player making more than $6 million per season they are somehow completely capped out and have no wiggle room to work with financially. They invested too much money and too many years in veteran, declining depth players and just don’t have enough around their top young players to seriously compete for a playoff spot. That all points to their biggest overall weakness: The front office.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | X-Factor | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Travis Green has been the Canucks’ coach for two non-playoff seasons, but what does that mean? Do we know what kind of coach he is? What exactly has he had to work with here? Still, any time a coach is looking at the potential for a third consecutive non-playoff season you have to think their seat is at least a little warm. We will put him at a 7 out of 10.

Three most fascinating players: Pettersson, Hughes, and Thatcher Demko.

Pettersson is fascinating simply because he is the team’s best, and most exciting player and it is going to be interesting to see what he does in year two. His rookie season was great, but he cooled off considerably after the first month of the season when it came to scoring goals, and a lot of his goal-scoring success was the result of an incredibly high shooting percentage. Can he sustain that?

Hughes is an important player for the Canucks because they really need him to be an impact player simply due to the position he plays. They need someone on defense that can be a young, top-pairing defender and he definitely has that sort of potential. There are certainly going to be growing pains for him as a rookie, but the potential for stardom is absolutely there.

Jacob Markstrom has been pretty solid the past two years as the team’s starting goalie under less than ideal circumstances, but is he a long-term solution in net? He is an unrestricted free agent after this season and an already cap-strapped team has a big decision to make. That is where Demko comes in because he could be a long-term solution. Markstrom has earned the right to open the season as the starter, but Demko’s play when he gets his opportunities could create an opportunity for the Canucks to move Markstrom and turn the net over to their potential long-term goalie.

Playoffs or lottery: Even with their impressive young talent this is still not a playoff team. They are also not a team that is going to be bad enough to be one of the worst teams in the league. That leaves them in that messy middle ground that is really difficult to get out of.

MORE:
Boeser gets three-year bridge deal with Canucks
• 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.

Video: Boston University hands Boston College first home loss

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Evan Rodrigues scored twice and Nikolas Olsson added a goal and an assist as the Terriers upended the Eagles 5-3 Friday night.

Highly touted prospect Jack Eichel netted his fifth goal of the season for BU while Matt O’Connor turned aside 27 shots for his fourth win of the season.

Boston Bruins 2013 fourth-round pick Ryan Fitzgerald scored a pair for Boston College while Chicago Blackhawks 2012 third-round pick Chris Calnan had his third of the season for the Eagles.

Vancouver Canucks 2014 second-round pick Thatcher Demko made 21 saves in a losing cause and saw his record drop to 4-4-0 on the season.

Highly touted defensive prospect Noah Hanifin finished a minus-4 in the loss.

PHT Morning Skate: Canucks prospect Demko shows California pride

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PHT’s Morning Skate takes a look around the world of hockey to see what’s happening and what we’ll be talking about around the NHL world and beyond.

Vancouver Canucks first-round pick Thatcher Demko is a California kid headed to Boston College and eager to show Canada what he’s got in the future. (Metro West)

Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher is homeless now. OK not really, but now that his old landlord, Josh Gorges,  is in Buffalo he’ll need to find some new digs. (Montreal Gazette)

Did you know the Philadelphia Flyers nearly had an unbelievable nightmare of a third jersey in the ’90s? Let’s just say the orange and black nearly had teal invited to the party. (Icethetics)

In better Flyers news, they signed 2014 seventh-round pick Jesper Pettersson. (Flyers)

The Nashville Predators are slightly altering their goal song by swapping in The Black Keys in place of Gary Glitter. That’s probably a really good idea. (Section 303)

Twitter is a fun thing – especially when it leads to insane stuff like wondering if Steven Stamkos favoriting a story about him that concerns the Toronto Maple Leafs gets the news cycle going. Oy Linden Vey, is it training camp yet? (The Hockey News, The Leafs Nation)

Former Blackhawks and Kings assistant coach Jamie Kompon is excited for his next, non-NHL challenge. (ESPN Chicago)

Finally, looks like Tim Murray will be bringing a familiar face with him from Ottawa to Buffalo in scout Rob Murphy.