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The Buzzer: Wheeler keeps dealing; big apples

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Three Stars

1. Blake Wheeler

What a night for the wildly underrated Winnipeg Jets captain.

Wheeler scored a goal and four assists, crossing 400 for his (again, wildly underrated) career. That milestone helper came as he read Nathan MacKinnon to create a turnover and set the table for Nikolaj Ehlers. Three of Wheeler’s four assists were primary helpers, too.

As usual, the winger brought a great all-around game, earning a +3 rating and logging a significant 3:13 of shorthanded time.

This virtuoso performance extended Wheeler’s point streak to nine games (two goals, 15 assists). Wheeler’s now at 21 points on the season, with 18 of them being assists, which ranks second in the NHL.

Mark Scheifele had a strong game against the struggling Avs, too, scoring a goal and two assists.

2. Mikael Granlund

The Wild absolutely dominated the Ducks, who seem to have no gear other than “hope John Gibson and a few deadly shooters can save the day.”

Granlund and Jason Zucker both generated three points, so you could consider them tied for the second star. Granlund gets the slight edge because he scored two goals and one assist, while Zucker generated two assists and one goal. Again, you could make the argument that Zucker should get that nod instead (or be the third star, if you’re really being difficult), as he had five SOG to Granlund’s two, and Zucker’s tally was the GWG.

Still, Granlund enjoyed a slightly more impressive night, including really making it easy for Zucker on his goal.

The Wild are quietly heating up, with wins in nine of their last 11 games. Bruce Boudreau just finds ways to keep his team’s regular-season-relevant, doesn’t he? Granlund and Zucker deserve serious credit for stepping up with Eric Staal banged up.

3. Chad Johnson

Friday was a solid night for goalies around the NHL. Sergei Bobrovsky earned praise from Torts and had the same number of saves (33) as Johnson. Like Bob, Frederik Andersen only allowed one goal while making 38 stops.

Chad Johnson is the only goalie who earned a shutout on Friday, though.

Considering Jake Allen‘s substantial struggles, the Blues might want to lean on Johnson for a while, as the journeyman goalie has – on occasion – shown that he can carry a team in net at times during certain stretches. The Blues have been able to occasionally create a really nurturing atmosphere for hot-and-cold goalies (like Brian Elliott, Johnson’s creasemate from last season), so perhaps Johnson could go on a mini-run? If nothing else, this was a nice win, especially if Mike Yeo is in any way looking over his shoulder at Joel Quenneville.

In other Blues news, Ryan O'Reilly is on a nine-game point streak.

Highlights

It didn’t translate to a goal, but this bit of Scheifele wizardry was magical:

Speaking of magical, Nick Foligno‘s beautiful pass to Oliver Bjorkstrand played a trick on three Capitals opponents:

Andreas Athanasiou ranks as one of Friday’s honorable mentions, scoring the goal that sent Detroit’s game against the Rangers into OT, then setting up Dylan Larkin for this OT game-winner:

Lowlight

Here’s hoping referee Brad Meier is feeling OK after this uncomfortable fall:

Factoids

Wheeler’s 400th assist wasn’t the only milestone from Friday. Patrick Marleau didn’t do a whole lot for it (Nazem Kadri ended up batting down a puck for a nice goal), but most of his 600 career assists have surely been impressive. (These two assist milestones explain the big apples part of this post’s headline, in case that wasn’t clear.)

Kinda cool to see his old buddy Joe Thornton on this list with him:

Chad Johnson’s enjoyed some nice peak moments in the NHL, but it’s been a while since he’s enjoyed a night like Friday.

Rarely a bad time to see your name next to Wayne Gretzky’s, eh, Blake Wheeler?

Scores

TOR 6 – NJD 1
CBJ 2 – WSH 1
DET 3 – NYR 2 (OT)
STL 4 – SJS 0
WPG 5 – COL 2
MIN 5 – ANA 1

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Red Wings keep sending mixed signals about rebuild

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Every time I start to feel some doubt about questioning if the Detroit Red Wings are truly committed to rebuilding, something silly surfaces.

Wednesday provided the latest head-scratcher, as MLive.com’s Ansar Khan reports that the Red Wings are “committed” to keeping Jimmy Howard, and are likely to hand the 34-year-old goalie a multiyear extension.

Considering the circumstances, such a decision would be downright baffling.

Old goalies, and the same old mistakes?

Again, Howard is 34. Goalies might age better than, say, snipers, but even that might be changing, as the NHL gets speedier every year.

My guess is that Howard would receive a lower AAV than his current $5.29 million cap hit in an extension, yet I’d also wager that he’d be be paid far more handsomely with a proactive extension – with a team that sure seems more smitten with him than virtually any other front office in the league – than what he’d get on the free agent market.

The Red Wings would essentially be negotiating against themselves here.

If such a move came to fruition, it could be a prime example of a team falling too deeply in love with their own players, and Detroit is in this mess, in part, because GM Ken Holland’s had his blinders on when it comes to overpaying supporting cast members like Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm.

Worse yet, the Red Wings already made a fairly bloated investment in an aging, fine-but-unspectacular goalie in signing 30-year-old Jonathan Bernier to a three-year contract at $3M per year.

Khan writes that “the Red Wings see no point in searching for a better alternative in July’s thin free-agent market,” which is confounding for a number of reasons. To start, The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun recently noted there could end up being some rather interesting choices. As we’ve seen in cases like Robin Lehner so far providing a .928 save percentage at a $1.5M clip for the Islanders, teams can find serious bargains in reclamation projects (and, again, even Howard could possibly be much cheaper if he endures an average season). If nothing else, Detroit might be able to take a swing at a younger option.

What’s there really to lose if the Red Wings end up losing? Logically speaking, they’d likely benefit from tanking for a bit, so why spend what would likely be serious cash on creaky combination of Bernier and Howard?

Well, the more you wonder, the tougher it is to shake the impression that the Red Wings are either in denial of this truly being a rebuild, or refuse to believe that this process will take very long.

Holland & Co. really need to be objective and ask: what’s the ceiling for this situation?

Perhaps there are too many feelings involved here, which would only strengthen arguments that it might be about time for Holland to step aside as GM. If there’s any truth to rumblings about Steve Yzerman being the heir apparent, why saddle him with more risky contracts for older players?

I mean, unless Holland is actively trolling Stevie Y …

Howard’s value

Howard is a fine goalie, yet he’s far from irreplaceable.

The aging netminder’s save percentage is .917 this season, slightly up from his middle-of-the-pack save percentage of .915. That mark ties Howard for 23rd in the NHL among goalies who’ve played in at least three games this season. Not exactly “we can’t let this guy go” material.

This post isn’t meant to deny that Howard has value. Plenty of NHL teams could use a steady, experienced goalie, even if it’s fair to wonder how frequently Howard can flirt with elite play.

The Red Wings should take advantage of other teams’ goalie worries to net a nice return for Howard. It’s easy to picture the Flames, Kings, and other teams paying a decent ransom for Howard, especially if Detroit offered to take a short-term cap headache back to make the money work and receive even better future assets. Basically, there’s at least some room for Holland to make Howard the next Tomas Tatar: a perfectly suitable but contextually expendable player who could be moved for – hopefully – a strong return.

Even if a trade isn’t possible, let’s not forget that there have been multiple stretches where Red Wings fans and hot stove enthusiasts wondered if there was any way that the Red Wings could get out of what once seemed like an interminable Howard contract.

Now that they’re mere months of being liberated from that problem deal, they want to invest once again? The Red Wings must be snoozing through recent history classes.

***

To be clear, Howard’s an OK goalie. Sometimes he’s excellent; sometimes he struggles. It’s fine if you like him more than the average No. 1 guy. But, really, it would be pretty tough to make an emphatic argument that he truly moves the needle, especially since Howard isn’t getting any younger.

Keeping Howard around seems like the safe move. He’s familiar. The Red Wings don’t love the idea of bottoming out.

If they’re being honest, the Red Wings would admit that the risks far outweigh the rewards here. They also need to look in the mirror and realize that a rebuild is very much happening, and it will only drag on longer if they don’t embrace reality.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

PHT Morning Skate: O’Ree’s Hall call; landing spots for Quenneville

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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.

• The Remembrance Day jerseys that the ECHL’s Brampton Beast will wear this Sunday are phenomenal.

• The Washington Capitals held a 50/50 raffle during Wednesday night’s game and raised over $19,000 for Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. [RMNB]

• It’s been 60 years since Willie O’Ree broke the NHL’s color barrier. Now he’s finally getting the call to the Hockey Hall of Fame. [SI.com]

Jakub Voracek is no fan of the Uber driver who released that video of Ottawa Senators players ripping their coach: “Who gives a s—? He’s a f—ing idiot. Do your job. You’re an Uber driver, drive cars. Don’t try to sell copies to make some money. Get the f— out of here. You know what I mean, he’s a loser.” [NBC Philadelphia]

• Meanwhile, the Senators are demanding that the Ottawa Citizen take the video down. The paper will not do that. [CBC]

• “Following a report that the Coyotes would soon change ownership, the team has said that it is open to opportunities to improve its organization but would not say that any changes are imminent.” [Arizona Sports]

• The New York Islanders are off to a great start, but will it last? [The Hockey News]

• Five possible landing spots for Joel Quenneville. [Featurd]

• Jimmy Howard is playing well for the Detroit Red Wings, which might just earn him an extension. [MLive]

Marcus Sorensen is really coming on for the San Jose Sharks. [NBC Bay Area]

• Brody Roybal, a two-time Paralympic gold medalist and the PyeongChang hockey tournament MVP, climbed Willis Tower’s 2,149 stairs using his upper body, arms and hands on Sunday. [Olympic Talk]

Elias Pettersson has some around the NHL believing he’s a young Pavel Datsyuk. [NHL.com]

James Neal’s tough start with the Calgary Flames boils down to a lack of opportunities. [Sportsnet]

• Jussi Jokinen has joined Swiss side EHC Kloten until Dec. 5. [Swiss Hockey News]

• “Mika Zibanejad and the case of being a true 1C” [Blue Seat Blogs]

• Shorter video reviews and other changes the NHL should make. [Jets Nation]

Nate Schmidt joined his Vegas Golden Knights teammates for practice on Wednesday. He’s eligible to return on Nov. 18. [Review-Journal]

• The update on Erik Haula is that he’ll travel with the Golden Knights on their current road trip and not play in their next three games. More information will be available soon, according to Gerard Gallant. [TSN]

• Finally, what’s Mike Fisher been up to in his second retirement? Well…

————

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.

Which NHL player is having best contract year?

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NHL teams are getting more sophisticated when it comes to avoiding truly boneheaded free agent moves (sorry, would-be next Bobby Holik), but the truth is that contract years can still swing a player’s contract by millions.

Just ask John Carlson — no, wait, he’s currently swimming in money.

(Note: he’s probably not literally swimming in money.)

We’re only in November, so a lot can change. Injuries happen in the violent, sometimes-randomly unlucky sports of hockey. Hot streaks can go ice-cold. Coaches can lose trust in a player, killing power-play opportunities and sabotaging line combinations.

At the moment, though, these are the players who are off to red-hot starts that could really fatten their future paychecks (and drive up their trade value, too). Cap Friendly’s free agent list was very helpful in putting this together, while stats cited come from Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick.

(Also, this list focuses on pending UFAs, in case you were getting ready to holler at your screen about Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and other could-be RFAs.)

Mark Stone, Senators, 26, $7.35 million

Last night’s rousing five-point performance pushes Stone to six goals and 12 assists for 18 points in 15 games. Yes, you can note that his shooting percentage is a bit high (17.6), but his career average of 15.6 percent argues that he’s long been a talented – if selective – shooter.

There are other reasons why Stone should rank as high-end trade bait, yet will also be tough for Ottawa to let go. He’s still young at 26, and won’t turn 27 until May. Also, if wingers received more Selke attention, Stone would likely be in that conversation. Despite being deployed more defensively (starting 56-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, versus a career average of 47-percent), Stone’s possession stats are off the charts, especially compared to his often-overwhelmed teammates in Ottawa.

If you’re a contender who could land him in a trade, Stone might be worth quite the ransom if he’d also talk extension.

Matt Duchene, Senators, 27, $6M

Despite his Wile E. Coyote-level luck when it comes to finding himself in miserable situations, Duchene is not one of Stone’s overwhelmed Senators teammates. Granted, his possession stats haven’t been resilient like those of Stone’s, but the speedy center still has 15 points in as many games this season.

Old-school executives will also love his abilities in the circle, as he continues to be strong on faceoffs (winning 53.2-percent so far in 2018-19).

One request is for Duchene to shoot more often, as he’s been below 2 SOG per game (1.87), which is not in line with his career average of 2.46 SOG per night.

Artemi Panarin, Blue Jackets, 26, $6M

“The Bread Man” is on the other end of the spectrum, flexing his skills with a resounding 51 SOG in 15 games (3.40 per night, towering over his 2.62 career average).

It would be the latest example that Panarin is for real, except I believe people no longer need convincing that he’s a star. His 16 points in 15 games feels more like “business as usual.”

Of course, the actual business side is where things are most fascinating, as the Blue Jackets need to figure out what to do with Panarin (and struggling contract year goalie Sergei Bobrovsky). Whether he remains in Columbus or is traded somewhere else, motivation shouldn’t be an issue.

Jeff Skinner, Sabres, 26, $5.725M

with Jason Pominville, Sabres, 35, $5.6M

For one of Jack Eichel‘s linemates, it’s about Skinner lining up that first UFA mega-deal, whether it’s with Buffalo (possibly as extension?) or not. On the other end of the spectrum – and on the other wing – we have Pominville, who’s merely hoping to keep his career alive and vibrant.

Both are off to raucous starts, and both are at risk of slowdowns.

Skinner’s generated a fantastic 16 points in 15 games, with nine of those points being goals on a shooting percentage of 18. Then again, maybe the universe is merely repaying Skinner for his unlucky shooting season in 2017-18, when he only connected on an 8.7 success rate? He’s really been all over the place during his career, suffering four seasons with a shooting percentage below the general shooter’s Mason-Dixon line of 10-percent.

Skinner’s long been a very effective player who sort of leaves you hoping for even more, so maybe he’ll put it together at the most lucrative time?

Pominville felt like a nostalgia-friendly addition (and an expensive deal to make the money work) in the trade that netted Marco Scandella, yet the veteran winger has 14 points in 15 games. His eight goals come from some luck, as he’s connected on a whopping 19.5-percent of his shots. He’s also done so with a miniscule ice time average of a mere 13:43 per game, actually down from his recent years of decline.

Both are likely to slip from point-per-game play over the long haul of 82 games, but that’s fine. In Skinner’s case, he could easily exceed his career-high of 63 points. Meanwhile, Pominville could very well show that he still has a place in the NHL, possibly as the full-time “third-best guy on a good line.”

(Another Pominville-like, veteran impact who falls a little short of the top of this list is Jason Spezza, who’s managed a helpful 10 points in 15 games despite limited minutes.)

Anders Lee, Islanders, 27, $3.75M

Hey, maybe Lee is good, not just John Tavares-enhanced?

Either way, it’s been an impressive start to 2018-19 for Lee, who presents an interesting conundrum for the shockingly fast-starting Islanders: do you take advantage of him being the “hot hand” or do you pencil him in as a core player?

Lee has 13 points in 14 games, and his 12.5 shooting percentage is actually below his career average of 14.5 (OK, that might be the Tavares effect).

Interestingly, Lee is succeeding despite being deployed in a resoundingly different way. He’s begun 59.2-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, versus a career average of 45.1. Lee’s possession numbers aren’t the prettiest in every regard, yet they look rosier relative to his teammates.

Lee’s numbers might suffer if things really bottom out for the Islanders as this season goes along; while he’s not really riding inane puck luck, the Isles in many ways have been.

Still, it’s heartening to observe his start, whether you’re an Islanders exec pondering an extension or a team hoping to poach Lee.

Lightning round

  • Spezza: It sure seems like has a new lease on life unshackled from Hitch’s clutches.
  • Erik Karlsson and Jake Gardiner: These two defensemen are in interesting situations. Each are scoring at about a point-every-other-game pace, even though Karlsson hasn’t scored a goal and Gardiner has been limited to one. All three have the potential to go on red-hot streaks to up their value; all three will get paid nicely one way or another.
  • Jakob Silfverberg: Even at 27, it’s tough to tell if we’ve seen everything Silfverberg has to offer. Injuries diluted his totals, but his nine points are more impressive when limited to 11 games. He can’t expect to maintain a 21 shooting percentage, though.
  • Wayne Simmonds: So far, the intriguing winger has 10 points in 15 games. His value is tough to gauge, so his earning power may very well hinge on how 2018-19 shakes out.
  • Semyon Varlamov, Ryan Miller, Robin Lehner: Goalies who are having the strongest contract years so far, with Varlamov and Lehner playing bigger roles.
  • Keith Kinkaid, Jimmy Howard: Two goalies in very different situations, with very similar save percentages. A lot on the line for all of the goalies in UFA situations.
  • Bob, Mike Smith: Among the goalies penciled in as starters who are off to tough contract years. We’ll see if they can get back on track.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Red Wings rebuilding while recalling franchise’s famed past

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DETROIT (AP) — A Detroit Red Wings home game looks and sounds a little like a memorial these days.

The lights are dimmed as images of the franchise’s glorious past flash digitally onto the ice before the puck drops, reminding the relative few fans in the stands how good things used to be. And, they were good. Really good.

Detroit’s 11 Stanley Cup banners are lowered from the rafters where retired jerseys are also displayed, rekindling memories of the four titles from 1997 to 2008 and the seven championships from 1936-55. The most successful U.S.-based NHL franchise has had some of the game’s all-time greats wear its sweater, adorned with a winged well, from Gordie Howe to Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom.

The good times fade during the lights-and-sounds pregame show as the pace of the music picks up and a video montage shows the current team, mostly a mix of role-playing veterans and not-ready prospects. When the lights are turned up closer to game time, more seats appear to be empty than occupied on some nights.

Detroit is among the worst teams in the league this season – as expected and by design. The Red Wings hope a painfully poor season will help get them on the fast track to retool with difference-making players in the draft along with some help from veterans in free agency.

”I knew it was coming and I was prepared for it,” said Red Wings senior vice president Jim Devellano, who is in his 37th season with the team and his 52nd in the NHL. ”I don’t like it. It upsets me, but not to the point that I’m going to go off the deep end.”

The Red Wings appear destined to miss the playoffs for a third straight year after a remarkable run of 25 consecutive postseason appearances. Other than the current players and coaches, who are trying to win every game, losing is seen as a necessary evil. Some fans, though, appear to be so fed up they don’t even sit in seats they paid for to attend games.

In an effort to make the sparsely filled sections at Little Caesars Arena stand out less in person and on TV, the backs of red seats have been temporarily covered in black. They will eventually be replaced by black chairs at a considerable cost in a 1-year-old arena that is the centerpiece of a $1.2 billion project.

Detroit got off to the worst start in franchise history by opening with seven losses and winning only one of its first 10 games. The Red Wings have bounced back with four wins in their last five.

”I wouldn’t say it takes the sting out of the slow start, but it’s something to build off of for sure,” forward Justin Abdelkader said during the recent surge.

Winning could prove to be counterproductive for the Motor City’s hockey team this season.

Part of what has held the Red Wings’ rebuilding effort back is the fact they haven’t had a No. 1 overall pick in the draft in recent years to get a generational player. If they lose enough this season and have some luck in the NHL draft lottery to get the top pick, Jack Hughes would give the franchise and its followers a desperately needed boost. Hughes is a playmaking center for USA Hockey’s 18-under team, which trains and plays in suburban Detroit. His skill would help the team on the ice, though perhaps not right away, and his presence would provide a boost in interest for a team struggling to regain its standing as one of the most popular in a sports-crazed state.

The Red Wings have also hurt their chances of continuing the success they had for two-plus decades by drafting players, particularly on the blue line, that didn’t pan out. And while Detroit is close to the bottom in the NHL standings, its payroll is larger than about 20 teams in the league.

The team has invested in its 2014 first-round pick, 22-year-old center Dylan Larkin , by giving him a $30.5 million, six-year contract last summer. It is trying to surround him with players to push the franchise back toward the playoffs and eventually championship contention.

”We’ve got to rebuild by drafting, developing and being patient,” general manager Ken Holland said early in his 22nd season in charge and 36th with the franchise. ”I believe we’re headed in the right direction with a lot of young kids we think are ready to come of age.”

Chris Ilitch, the most powerful person in the organization, seems to agree with him. The president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, which owns the team and the arena, gave Holland a two-year contract earlier this year to continue guiding a long-term rebuilding project that is counting on 30-plus draft picks from 2017-19.

”Kenny Holland has done a marvelous job at accumulating picks, which are so important to executing a successful rebuild,” Ilitch said. ”I think you’re starting to see the fruits of the labor.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The defending champion Washington Capitals host Pittsburgh on Wednesday night, the first meeting between the teams since the Penguins won their season opener. Pittsburgh has lost a season-high four straight games after a strong start, while Washington has dropped three of five.

LEADERS

Goals: David Pastrnak (Boston), 12; Assists: Mikko Rantanen (Colorado), 19; Points: Mikko Rantanen (Colorado), 24; Wins: Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay) and Frederik Andersen (Toronto), 8; Goals-against average: Jaroslav Halak (Boston), 1.45; Save percentage: Jaroslav Halak (Boston), .952.

More AP NHL: https://www.apnews.com/NHL and https://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports