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.

PHT Morning Skate: Eichel, Skinner make donations; feel-good stories for NHL teams

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Buffalo Sabres forwards Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner are donating to the COVID-19 fight. (NHL.com)

• Edmonton Oilers coach Dave Tippett laments the team’s lost progress during season pause. (Sportsnet)

• PHPA and ECHL announce relief fund for ECHL players. (ECHL)

• The feel-good stories of the season for all 31 NHL teams. (ESPN)

• Who rules the NHL’s 3-on-3 format? (TSN)

• Does Quinn Hughes beat out Cale Makar for the Rookie of the Year award? (Vancouver Is Awesome)

• Florida Panthers not letting COVID-19 dictate the future. (Panther Parkway)

• Philadelphia Flyers forward James van Riemsdyk is awaiting the next step in his rehabilitation process. (NHL.com)

• The epic decline of fighting in the NHL. (NHL To Seattle)

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 contenders staying ‘optimistic’ about games resuming

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The NHL pause has made us all dream of the day hockey returns and we can finish the 2019-20 season.

That rings true for players as well, and there’s a strong feeling among teams that owned Stanley Cup dreams before everything shut down.

The defending champion Blues are reside atop the Western Conference and showed no signs of a Cup hangover through 71 games. Nearly three weeks since the NHL suspended the season, a potential repeat isn’t sitting heavily on the mind of their team captain.

“I don’t think any of us are thinking about [playoffs], we’re more just worried about taking care of ourselves and our loved ones,” Alex Pietrangelo said during a Tuesday video conference with reporters. “I think at the time, yeah, it’s frustrating, but again, we’re all optimistic that maybe we’ll have the chance to play again this year. So maybe we’ll have the opportunity. 

“The good thing about the break, is this time of year everybody’s banged up. We go through a lot during the year, so could be an opportunity to rest up. If we do get back, it’ll be one helluva playoff.”

The Blues had been without Vladimir Tarasenko since Oct. 24 due to a shoulder injury. He was expected back around the start of the playoffs, so a prolonged break would allow a return to full health and provide a boost to the defending champions.

Two teams hoping to derail the Blues’ repeat chances are the Avalanche and Stars, who entered the break in second and third place, respectively, in the Central Division. Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog said that this was the most confident he’s felt in his teams title chances since he entered the league.

“We were chasing down St. Louis and we’re two points behind with a game in-hand and we knew we had them coming up in game 82, last game of the season,” Landeskog said. “We were dealing with a lot of injuries and some key guys were out, but guys were starting to come back, so it came at a bad time. Some people would say it came at a good time because it’ll allow us come back and be healthy, but then again, we don’t know how long it’s going to last for either.”

The Stars are 10 points behind the Avalanche and trying to fend off the Jets and Predators, who are both right behind them in wild card spots. A break was certainly helpful, but the players are all itching to put their skates on again and play.

“It’s frustrating. We’re all in the same boat,” said Dallas captain Jamie Benn. “For the break, it couldn’t have come at a better time for us. We were slipping a bit. We lost six in a row. I know our group was like, all right, this ain’t so bad, but now that it’s been a few weeks and we don’t know how much longer it’s going to be, I think we’re all just wishing we could get back out there on the ice.”

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
McDavid on NHL resuming play: ‘A fair season is a full season’
Rask’s gas, McLellan no fan of No. 1 pick tournament, return of D-Boss?

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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.

PHT remembers video games: NHL Slapshot, a Wii oddity starring Wayne Gretzky

NHL Slapshot Nintendo Wii Wayne Gretzky
via EA Sports/Amazon
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Every Tuesday, PHT will remember a hockey video game, preferably one less obvious than the “Swingers”-immortalized “NHL 94.” Due to technological limitations many reviews will lean closer to recollections. Either way, hopefully these are fun — and maybe inspire people to scour a flea market or two when it becomes safe to do so.

When EA Sports announced NHL Slapshot for the then-red-hot Nintendo Wii, some groaned as if they blocked an actual slapper. It ended up working out better than expected, just not enough to be a smash hit.

Plenty of game companies tried to emulate the “even kids and grandparents can play it” genius of Wii Sports, but most failed. Mix that copycat mentality with all of the “shovelware” being released and expectations were low for NHL Slapshot. A game where you morph a video game controller into a virtual hockey stick? Yeah, good luck with that.

(Oh yeah, this was also around the time when EA was repeatedly being voted “the worst company in America,” which is almost too absurd to type. Avid gamers are not always the most reasonable people.)

Yet, instead of being a shameless, half-baked cash grab, NHL Slapshot ended up being … quite good. It simply didn’t put enough elements together to draw attention from enough of those kids and grandparents.

NHL Slapshot was better than expected, but maybe didn’t hit the sweet spot

This “controller trailer” captures many of the basics for NHL Slapshot. Basically, players would insert the Wii’s strange “nunchuk” controller setup into a plastic mini-stick included in the game’s box. Then they’d use it to play an arcade-style game.

EA Sports deserves a lot of credit — it was a pretty ingenious setup.

But, frankly, my overriding memory of owning NHL Slapshot was that dealing with the controller was kind of a pain. While it wasn’t that difficult to put together, it was just frustrating enough. Being that it was a MacGyver-style setup to turn that controller into a hockey stick, you’d have to take the controller out if you wanted to play another game. Unless you decided to have a controller devoted solely to NHL Slapshot. It could be a little uncomfortable at times, too.

That stick controller stands as a microcosm for the game overall. It was clever, but didn’t quite find that sweet spot. NHL Slapshot didn’t quite appease hardcore sports fans, and was a bit clunky for casual audiences.

Not quite there

Sometimes “better than it has any right to be” translates merely to a nice novelty that fades.

Matt Bertz captured the mixed-bag feel of NHL Slapshot in a Game Informer review back in 2010:

Performing the real-world gestures for crosschecks, slap shots, wrist shots, and poke checks triggers the corresponding moves in the game. The game tracks your checking and slap shot motions admirably, but the rest of the moves don’t have much accuracy. Backhands are particularly unresponsive, as are wrist shots in those moments where you pick up a loose puck around the net and must get off a shot in nanoseconds before getting checked or losing possession. The deking moves are very rigid in comparison to the analog stick movements in NHL 11, and given the slight controller lag, the poke check and stick sweep options aren’t effective strategies on defense.

Don’t take this as totally dragging EA, though. The game did quite a lot right, and that was reflected in some pretty solid reviews, as you can see at Metacritic. An aggregate score of 76 really isn’t half-bad for an experimental, family-friendly game like NHL Slapshot.

NHL Slapshot brought out Gretzky’s inner gamer

Even if the game was a total failure — which, again, it was not — this charmingly awkward footage of Gretzky playing the game would justify its existence.

This footage, unearthed from the game’s Amazon listing, includes:

  • Gretzky making the “I’m playing a game” face, especially in the beginning.
  • “The Great One” attempts to get his kid interested in playing a game, and largely being ignored.
  • Gretzky sounding like a kid when he says that he wants to play as Alex Ovechkin.

Tremendous, right?

Pondering slight potential for a spiritual successor

As I mentioned before, NHL Slapshot seemed a touch before its time. It was a noble effort, but the lack of a sequel cements the notion that it didn’t quite come together.

It does make me wonder, though. What if EA or another company put real effort into a hockey video game that takes advantage of virtual reality?

Now, that hypothetical game would absolutely count as a niche within a niche. Even so, virtual reality games sometimes go that far, and a company like EA could conceivably bundle a hockey game with golf, football, and other sports. Sure, that sounds like a long shot, but NHL Slapshot was unlikely (and pretty solid) too, so who knows?

MORE: Remembering NHL Championship 2000, starring Mike Modano.

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.

NHL roundup: Rask’s gas, McLellan no fan of No. 1 pick tournament, return of D-Boss?

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The NHL and its teams have been making players, coaches and general managers available to the media during the league pause. The availabilities continued on Monday and we learned a few things along the way.

Quarantine stinks: Rask’s gas would keep Chara away

One of the more unexpected things learned Monday was that Tuukka Rask possesses some powerful flatulence. When asked which teammate he’d least like to be quarantined with, Bruins captain Zdeno Chara picked his goaltender.

“The way he farts, the smell is awful,” Chara said. “He like his chicken wings. I sit behind him on the bus and I’ve got tell you, I’ve got control myself sometimes.”

During an Instagram Q&A session Monday, David Pastrnak said that due to Rask’s love of chicken wings and the fact that he owns a sauna at home, he would choose the netminder to be his quarantine buddy.

Pasta did confirm the strength of Rask’s gas.

“His farts are pretty bad, but I think I could overcome it,” Pastrnak said. “I would definitely not skate through his crease anymore than once at practice.”

Rask actually touched on his gassy powers during a 2014 radio interview with 98.5 The Sports Hub. After P.K. Subban revealed that he sometimes lets one rip in front of opposing goalies, the goalie said he wasn’t aware of any bombs dropped in his crease.

“I think in my case, it might be the other way around,” Rask said.

We need Tuukka mic’d up from now on for when action shifts to in front of him.

McLellan no fan of No. 1 draft pick tournament

A tournament with all of the non-playoff teams vying to win the 2020 No. 1 draft choice? Please, no, says Kings head coach Todd McLellan.

“I’m not a fan of it, one bit,” he said. “I don’t think the draft and the draft lottery was put in to reward the winner of a tournament. When you take teams that don’t make the playoffs … so team No. 17, if that’s the number, might miss the playoffs by one point. You compare them to teams at No 31 … there’s a big discrepancy between Nos. 17 and 31. No. 17 is going to have a greater chance of winning, and they’re less likely to need the first pick overall. So to me, it’s counterintuitive to do it that way. It makes no sense. But I’m only one voter.”

And he’s right. You think potential UFA Taylor Hall would want to play extra games to help the Coyotes, a team he may not even play for next season, win the first overall pick? We want to put meaningless mileage on Joe Thornton’s soon-to-be 41-year-old body? The NHLPA would shoot that idea down quickly.

Senators with coronavirus “doing well”

Of the four NHL players who tested positive for COVID-19, two are on the Senators. Brady Tkachuk was asked for an update on them and he said they are feeling good.

“We’re a tight group so we’re always in contact with one another,” he said, “but I think all of us are just concerned about them and everybody impacted by it.”

The players, whose identities were not revealed by the team, tested positive on March 17 and March 21, respectively. The Avalanche have also had two players test positive since the league pause.

Flyers’ Fletcher on keeping touch with his staff

It’s not just NHL players maintaining a group text while we maintain social distancing. Team executives keep them as well, according to Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher. He’s been in touch with his assistant GMs Brent Flahr and Barry Hanrahan about contracts and the draft, which was postponed last week. 

“They’re working hard on getting their lists for the draft, watching video, doing reports, having discussions on players and doing things that they would typically do at this time of the year with the obvious exception that we were are not able to watch games live right now,” Fletcher said. “Barry is working on contracts and cap related issues going forward. Obviously, we’ve been able to sign a couple of our unsigned draft choices, Tanner Laczynski and Wade Allison recently. Barry’s been on the forefront of those conversations. We stay in touch every day and try to coordinate things that we do. 

“Personally, I am trying to reach out to a lot of our support staff and scouts as well as people like Bob Clarke, Paul Holmgren, Bill Barber and Dave Scott to keep the lines of communication going. To speak to people on a regular basis and just to do what we can to stay busy.”

Fletcher is also staying in touch with his head coach, Alain Vigneault. There’s a lot that can’t be done until the NHL resumes, but there’s still plenty of planning that is taking place for down the road.

“He had been working on his golf swing for a while, but right now he’s like the rest of us, he’s going through notes and trying to stay safe,” said Fletcher. “I speak to AV every week, just once a week. I’ve reached out to quite a few of the coaching staff, scouting staff and supporting staff and try to stay in regular contact with them, whether it’s by a phone call, text or email. We’re all trying to stay in touch and do what we can. 

“Again, for obvious reasons, a lot of our business has been shut down right now. Most of the things we can focus on are matters going forward, whether that’s the draft or signing some of our players. Maybe planning some things for the future.”

Fletcher added that Oskar Lindblom, who was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in December, has stayed in Philadelphia to continue treatments and is doing well.

The return of D-Boss?

Several years ago video was unearthed of a teenaged Dylan Larkin and his buddy shooting pucks in his basement, a.k.a. “the dungeon,” for a little “snip show,” as he described it. In it, we learned the Red Wings star had given himself the nickname “D-Boss.”

Asked if a prolonged NHL pause could give the world some followup D-Boss videos, Larkin kept the door open.

“It might come, I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve got a little shooting area in the garage — The Dungeon 2.0. I’ll have to get out there and make a video. Fans might like it. We’ll see.”

Capitals GM on finishing the season

Brian MacLellan, whose Capitals are currently atop the Metropolitan Division, was asked about how the NHL should finish its season. There have been many ideas on the subject from playing out all 82 games to going right to the playoffs. He would like to see some number of games before the playoffs begin.

“Fair to me would be all teams play the same number of games both home and away,” MacLellan said. “Depending on the time you have, when or if we come back, you could set the schedule at 72, 74 games as close to possible home and away, if you could even those out, and go from there.”

As far as what a playoff format would look like, it would all depend on the timeframe to award the Stanley Cup.

“There’s no set answer to it because I don’t know how much time we’ll have,” he said. “If we have eight weeks, 10 weeks, do we have more than 10 weeks? Depending on that time frame and if that’s even legitimate at the time, you would have to set your schedule there. So could you shorten the series? Could you shorten the schedule? I think all those options are on the table. I think it’s just how the virus plays out and how we handle and how much time we’d have to get a season in – if we can get a season in at the end.”

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

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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.