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

NHL Slapshot Nintendo Wii Wayne Gretzky
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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.

Crosby, McDavid, Gritty top 2019-20 NHLPA Player Poll

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The NHLPA delayed releasing the results of its 2019-20 player poll due to the league pause, but the answers finally arrived on Tuesday.

If you’ve ever wanted to know who makes up the NHL’s best bromance or who has the best fashion sense, as well as answers to the usual “best forward,” “most complete player,” and “worst trash talker” questions, today is your day.

First, the usual stuff. Nearly 600 players were polled before the league’s pause and they voted Connor McDavid (68.35%) the overwhelming “Best Forward.” Sidney Crosby (14.93%) was a distant second. Victor Hedman (37.88%) topped John Carlson (21.35%) as “Best Defenseman,” while Carey Price (41.55%) was tabbed “Best Goalie” over Andrei Vasilevskiy (17.09%).

Canada’s Marie-Philip Poulin (39.92%) was voted “Best Female Hockey Player in the World” over Hilary Knight (36.29%) and Kendall Coyne Schofield (15.52%) of the U.S.

Crosby (44.03%) did earn the “If you need to win one game, who is the one player (any position) you would want on your team?” award over McDavid (30.53%) and was also voted “Most Complete Player” with 45.56% of the vote over Patrice Bergeron (25.44%).

There were plenty of fun topics the players voted on, and Brad Marchand should be proud. For the second straight year the Bruins forward was voted the best and worst trash-talker in the NHL. He beat out Drew Doughty and Patrick Maroon for “Best,” while topping Doughty again, as well as P.K. Subban and Nick Cousins for “Worst.”

Who has the “best bromance” in the league? Well, that was a tough one. David Perron and Ryan O’Reilly narrowly edged out the combos of Joe Thornton/Brent Burns, Auston Matthews/Mitch Marner, Jamie Benn/Tyler Seguin, and Patrice Bergeron/Brad Marchand. Some players had a funny sense of humor giving Matthew Tkachuk and Drew Doughty 3.67% of the vote.

The players also showed their desire to allow more personality in the game. Over 40% said they’d like to see custom skate designs and 73% are in favor of relaxing the NHL’s game-day dress code.

In a surprise to no one Gritty took 69.72% of the vote in the “Best Mascot” category. His closest competitors were Gnash (Predators), Howler (Coyotes), Bailey (Kings), and Youppi! (Canadiens), who received just under 3%.

You can check out the rest of the awards at the NHLPA website.

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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.

NHL Power Rankings: Best 2019-20 free agent signings

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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we shift our focus back to the summer of 2019 and the free agent signings that have ended up working out the best so far.

Free agency is always a risky proposition for teams because it forces them into a bidding war for players that have most likely played their best hockey for somebody else. Most long-term contracts signed during the free agency signing period have a tendency to end in trades or buyouts. Not even one full season in and there are already a handful of contracts that are off to slow starts (Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida, Matt Duchene in Nashville, Joe Pavelski in Dallas).

Some of them, however, have worked out as planned. Those are the contracts we are focussing on here today.

When it comes to identifying the “best” contracts at this point we are trying to take into account overall performance and the value of the contract. Sometimes it is a long-term deal that looks good, other times it is a short-term “prove it” deal where everyone ended up getting exactly what they wanted.

Which free agents make the cut?

To the rankings!

1. Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers. While most long-term free agent contracts end up failing to meet expectations, this is one that looks like it is going to work. Panarin is having one of the best individual seasons in the history of the Rangers’ franchise and is playing at an MVP level. Maybe he will not play at a superstar level for the entire seven-year term of the contract, but there is little reason to believe he will not be an impact player in New York for several years. One of the league’s best offensive players.

2. Kevin Shattenkirk, Tampa Bay Lightning. This was one of those “prove it” contracts. After having his previous deal with the Rangers bought out, Shattenkirk found himself back on the open market this past summer and landed in Tampa Bay on a one-year, $1.75 million contract. It has worked out tremendously for the Lightning. Shattenkirk has bounced back across the board with an improved offensive performance and dominant possession numbers. He may not be a No. 1 defender, but as a No. 2 or 3 on a contender he can still make an impact.

3. Robin Lehner, Chicago Blackhawks (traded to Vegas). After being a finalist for the Vezina Trophy a year ago, the Islanders allowed Lehner to walk and become an unrestricted free agent. He ended up getting a one-year, $5 million contract with the Blackhawks and was one of the biggest reasons they were able to at least somewhat stay in playoff contention instead of dropping down toward the bottom of the league. They ended up trading him to Vegas at the trade deadline, and even though that return was underwhelming it was still a strong signing.

4. Joonas Donskoi, Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche entered the offseason armed with one of the league’s best young cores and the most salary cap space to play with. While they did not get the big ticket free agents, they did make some really smart moves. Donskoi’s four-year deal is right at the top of that list. He has been an outstanding depth addition and provided some much-needed secondary scoring.

5. Gustav Nyquist, Columbus Blue Jackets. He is not a superstar by any means, but Nyquist has given the Blue Jackets exactly what they thought he would: 15-20 goals, a 50-point pace, and all around solid top-six play. He has also been one of the few Blue Jackets players that has not missed significant time to injury this season. His $5.5 million salary cap hit over the next three seasons (after this one) is a more than fair price tag for what he provides.

6. Semyon Varlamov, New York Islanders. All things being equal he is probably a downgrade from what they lost in Lehner, but he has stayed healthy and been very good for the Islanders. The four-year contract seemed like a risk (and still is) but he has been productive so far.

7. Valeri Nichushkin, Colorado Avalanche. Nichushkin’s 2018-19 season was the dullest individual season in NHL history. I do not mean that as a knock. It legitimately was given that he played 57 games and did not score a single goal or record a single penalty minute (the first time any player ever did that). That resulted in him signing a one-year, $850,000 contract with Colorado. In 65 games he already has 13 goals, 27 total points, and has been another outstanding depth addition.

8. Tyler Ennis, Ottawa Senators (traded to Edmonton). Another one-year bargain. Ennis was one of the few bright spots in Ottawa this season before he was flipped to the Oilers at the trade deadline. Before this season his production had fallen off a cliff as he bounced from Buffalo, to Minnesota, to Toronto, and then to Ottawa. This was a nice bounce-back year for him.

9. Noel Acciari, Florida Panthers. Before this season Acciari scored 18 goals in 180 career games. In his first 66 games with the Panthers he has already scored 20 goals. He makes just a little more than $1 million per season. Is this goal scoring output a short-term fluke? Maybe. Does that make me overrate him right now? Probably. But finding a 20-goal scorer for just over a million against the cap is a steal no matter how you look at it.

10. Tyler Myers, Vancouver Canucks. I hated this contract at the time and thought it signaled more bumbling from a directionless Vancouver front office that was just trying to sneak into the playoffs to save face. Maybe that’s what it still is. But once I get beyond my initial criticism I have to admit that Myers has been a pretty solid addition to the Canucks’ defense. Maybe it won’t look that way in two or three years, but for now he has helped.

Honorable mentions

  • Brandon Tanev, Pittsburgh Penguins. Like Myers, I hated the length of this deal at the time, but he has been a great addition to their bottom-six and helped defensively.
  • Brett Connolly, Florida Panthers. The Bobrovsky contract might not work, but the additions of Acciari and Connolly were solid moves to add offense.
  • Mats Zuccarello, Minnesota Wild. My biggest complaint here is Zuccarello added another player on the wrong side of 30 to a team that already has a lot of them making big money. Overall, though, he has been good.
  • Jason Spezza, Toronto Maple Leafs. By no means is he a top player anymore, but as a veteran third-or fourth-line center he is great for that salary cap hit.

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.

Which NHL players might be considering retirement?

NHL players considering retirement Marleau Thornton
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When the coronavirus outbreak started to ratchet up in mid-March, hockey fans received at least one bit of soothing news. It turns out Joe Thornton doesn’t rank among the NHL players who might be considering retirement as the season hangs in the balance.

TSN/The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported that Thornton responded to a question about playing next season by texting back, “I have years to go!” If you’re like me, triumphant music might as well have been playing while you read that. (My choice: the “victory song” from Final Fantasy games.)

Check out LeBrun’s tweet. It’s been a while, so maybe you already saw it anyway, and could use a reason to smile?

Sweet, right?

A couple days later, The Athletic’s James Mirtle put together a thorough list of players who might have played in their final NHL games (sub required). I thought it might be useful to take a look at this group of aging veterans and wonder: should they have played their last NHL games? As we know, plenty of athletes don’t get to make the final call on retiring, instead being forced to fade from the glory because they couldn’t find any takers.

Forwards

Other aging forwards give Joe Thornton company when it comes to wanting to be back in 2020-21, and possibly beyond.

How many of them bring something to the table, though? Using Charting Hockey’s handy tableaus (which utilize Evolving Hockey’s data), here’s how some prominent aging forwards stack up in Goals Against Replacement:

NHL players considering retirement forwards GAR

 

Frankly, quite a few of these players should be of interest to someone, and I’d figure the biggest stumbling block might be fit. Would these players only suit up for a contender?

If there’s some flexibility, then many would make a lot of sense. There were some rumblings that the Sharks found a taker for Patrick Marleau because he’s still a pretty good skater, while a more plodding Joe Thornton made for a tougher fit. Similarly, some coaches will be more willing to overlook Ilya Kovalchuk’s defensive lapses than others. The Maple Leafs made an analytics-savvy move in adding Jason Spezza, and he remains an underrated option. Especially since he’s probably not going to break the bank. Justin Williams is likely poised to call his shot again, and justifiably so.

Someone like Mikko Koivu figures to be trickier. Koivu seemed to indicate that he wasn’t OK with being traded from the Wild, so if he remains Wild-or-nothing, that could get awkward.

The Stars made a reasonably low-risk gamble on Corey Perry, but that didn’t really seem to work out. Perry and (possibly AHL-bound) Justin Abdelkader might not have the choice.

Defensemen

Let’s apply the same Charting Hockey/Evolving Hockey GAR experiment to some defensemen who might be teetering:

NHL players considering retirement defensemen GAR

You can break down forwards into “surprisingly useful,” “some warts but probably worth a roster spot,” and then “broken down guys who’d live off of name recognition.”

An uncomfortable number of the defensemen above (Brent Seabrook, Roman Polak, Jonathan Ericsson, and Trevor Daley) could fall close to that broken down category. At least if you’re like me, and you hope Jay Bouwmeester bows out gracefully rather than risking his health after that scare.

Zdeno Chara stands tall as a “play as long as you want” option. Dan Hamhuis and Ron Hainsey mix the good with the bad, and could probably be decent options for coaches who simply demand veteran presences.

But the forward group is far richer, it seems.

Goalies

This post largely focuses on to-the-point analysis. Is this player good enough? Would they be willing to make some compromises to sign with a team?

But what about the human factor? This coronavirus pause is allowing players to spend more time with their families. For some, that might mean too much of a good thing/fodder for making a chicken coop. Yet, goalies like Ryan Miller might get another nudge out the door.

Back in June 2019, Ryan Miller explained why he came back to the Ducks. In doing so, Miller relayed this precious and heartbreaking detail about his then-4-year-old son Bodhi Miller pleading with him to retire.

“It’s not like he’s a little bit older and understands the full weight of his words,” Miller said to The Athletic’s Josh Cooper (sub required). “He was like, ‘If you aren’t doing that, you could be playing superheroes with me every single day.’”

(Personally, I wonder if Ryan Miller will eventually start playing “Nightcrawlers” with his son. It’s an imagination-based game, you see.)

Miller updated to Mirtle around March 19 that it’s “too soon — can’t even process what’s happening.”

Veteran goalies present their own brand of tough calls. How many of these goalies would be willing to play as backups, or as the “1B” in platoons.

  • Miller adjusted to life as such, but could Henrik Lundqvist accept a lesser role with a different team if the Rangers buy him out?
  • Craig Anderson suffered through multiple rough seasons after once developing a strange knack for rotating elite and “eh” seasons.
  • Jimmy Howard is no spring chicken at 36. After a sneaky-strong 2018-19 season, his play dropped significantly. He’d likely need to take significant role and pay decreases to stay in the NHL.
  • Mike Smith warrants consideration, too. He’s struggled for two seasons now, and is 38.

Closing thoughts on NHL players considering retirement

While family time might nudge some toward retirement, added rest — particularly if play doesn’t resume this season and playoffs – could also revitalize certain veterans.

Overall, it’s a lot to think about regarding NHL players who might be considering retirement. Which players should lean toward hanging their skates up, and who should NHL teams convince to stick around? This list isn’t comprehensive, so bring up names of your own.

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.