Fight: Jamie Benn’s vicious bout with Josh Anderson

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In the rare moments when a star player fights, you usually grade them on a scale. You don’t really need to do that with Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars.

The big winger isn’t afraid to drop the gloves, and he’s done so with some big names – and big humans – such as Dustin Byfuglien. Benn engaged in another frightful fight on Monday, as Benn and Columbus Blue Jackets forward Josh Anderson were throwing bombs.

(You can watch that fight – which seems like it’s going to end quickly, but then just keeps going – in the video above this post’s headline.)

Earlier this season, Benn fought with New Jersey Devils forward Miles Wood. Benn’s already matched his two fights from 2017-18 (vs. Byfuglien and Corey Perry). Considering we’re not even halfway through November yet, this could be an awfully ornery season for Benn.

You have to wonder if he’s tempting fate a bit – you’d call Benn’s hands soft when they’re not landing haymakers – in risking injuries with these fights. You can’t debate that by losing his temper, Benn’s leaving the ice for long stretches (decisions that can be especially onerous if he gets additional penalties).

On the other hand, hockey’s a rough sport, and perhaps being so physical helps Benn stay engaged?

Selfishly speaking, it wouldn’t be the worst thing to see him keep up this habit, as it’s quite the spectacle. Nothing will top his fight with Joe Thornton from many moons ago, which set the stage for a photo that would make for a great Fathead-style wall-sized poster:

via Getty

Classic.

Despite playing in different conferences, this game has had the nastiness of a heated divisional rivalry. You could see it in moments beyond Benn’s fight, particularly when Seth Jones was whistled for a nasty hit on Jason Dickinson.

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.

Dustin Byfuglien looked like man against boys vs. Devils

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When Dustin Byfuglien is at his best (and scariest), he physically dominates in ways that make you think of:

  • A man among boys.
  • A bowling bowl clobbering pins.
  • A hot knife through butter.
  • The windshield that bugs are flying off as a car barrels down a highway.

(OK, that last one might just be me, but still.)

Sunday presented some examples of Byfuglien’s frightening prowess.

Early on in a game that the Winnipeg Jets are currently running away with, Byfuglien shed New Jersey Devils forward Blake Coleman in a domineering moment of puck possession, basically shrugging him off.

It turns out that wasn’t even the most dominant moment for Byfuglien. Instead, it came when he delivered a vicious hit on Devils forward Brian Boyle, another forward who brings robust size to a league where beefier players are becoming less abundant. On that check, Boyle looked downright undersized.

Moments later, Ben Lovejoy tried to send a message to Byfuglien, who replied by knocking Lovejoy to the ice.

Again, there are times when you need to accept the inevitable: death, taxes, and Byfuglien being too much for you to contain.

As far as chatter about supplementary discipline might go, note that Byfuglien didn’t receive a match penalty. According to NHL.com’s box score, he was whistled for charging and unsportsmanlike conduct for that boisterous stretch.

Should there be more? Two different observers provided conflicting responses moments apart, including PHT’s Scott Billeck:

Paul Maurice had an interesting take on Byfuglien being penalized.

“It was a car wreck, right. Somebody had to go to jail,” Maurice said, via Billeck. “Just two enormous men coming together. And something bad had to have happened.”

One way or another, it’s best to avoid any collisions with Byfuglien, whether you believe they’re dirty or squeaky clean. Byfuglien’s beast mode seems to translate to morphing into Godzilla.

UPDATE The Jets ended up beating the Devils 5-2. Byfuglien generated an assist in Winnipeg’s win.

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.

It’s time to stop labeling Blake Wheeler as underrated

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Shortly after Blake Wheeler exploded for a career-high five-point night on Friday, the labels began to flow from the mouths of those affiliated with the Winnipeg Jets.

In a paraphrased sentence of several combined players and a coach, it looked like this:

“Blake Wheeler is an elite player, the heartbeat of Jets and the guy who drives the bus.”

If we are to extrapolate on this joint statement of sorts, we can glean that Wheeler enjoys high regard among his closest peers, is the most vital organ to his NHL team and the man who leads its charge.

Of course, a five-point night from anyone in the NHL will often lead to superlatives by the truckload. And Wheeler undoubtedly deserved the due recognition he received from his teammates after a special night at the rink.

The thing is, his teammates and coaches have always known. They see his work ethic and what the 32-year-old puts in so that he’s able to produce at the level he does. It’s normal to hear those closest to a team heap praise on their comrades.

But pilling on plaudits outside of Winnipeg’s sphere? It hasn’t always been the case for the Jets captain.

Wheeler’s underrated status has tagged alongside him for much of his career. The argument can be made that, up until last year, Wheeler was known as a good player — a productive power forward — but not one that came with the same clout as, say, a Nikita Kucherov.

Then Wheeler hit 91 points, tied for the NHL lead in assists with 63 and finished eighth in Hart Trophy voting last season. Many started to wake up to Wheeler’s worth, even if he was a near-point-per-game player for several seasons prior.

The highlights from Friday night’s game were a clinic on what an elite passer looks like. Wheeler’s nine-game point streak is nothing to scoff at.

Yet, the underrated label endures. Last week, Wheeler was voted the third-most underrated player in the NHL by 61 of his peers, behind Aleksander Barkov and Nicklas Backstrom. Given that Wheeler has always seemed to operate in the shadows of the league’s top righties, it wasn’t all that surprising.

What might surprise you to know that since 2011, Wheeler has the third most assists among right-handed shots in the NHL, behind only Claude Giroux and Patrick Kane, neither of whom would be categorized as underrated.

There’s more, too. In all situations, here’s where Wheeler sits in a variety of categories during that time frame.

  • Primary points/60: 3rd
  • Primary assists/60: 1st
  • Primary assists: 1st (226)
  • Points/60: 5th
  • Expected goals-for: 3rd

I suspect if you polled players for each position around the league as to who they think of first when they hear ‘Winnipeg Jets’, it might go something like this:

Furthermore, I’d venture a guess that many fans outside of Winnipeg might levy similar answers, too.

Perhaps Wheeler falls victim to a little of the ‘East Coast Bias’ we often hear about.

Taylor Hall, for instance, admitted on the Spitting Chicklets podcast last week that he probably benefited from some of that bias when it came pipping Nathan MacKinnon to the Hart Trophy last year.

It’s possible Wheeler, a fellow Central Division player like MacKinnon, gets overshadowed in that regard as well.

Why?

“I don’t have an answer for you on that,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said on Saturday.

Maurice has opened the taps of praise for Wheeler many times during his Jets tenure. Maurice says Wheeler’s dominance isn’t lost in coaching circles.

“I know that other coaches do [notice Wheeler],” Maurice said. “So when you’re at the coaches meetings in the summer or you have colleagues you talk to, especially guys after you play, it’s like, ‘My god, Blake Wheeler is a dominant man out there.’ And they really see it, probably because he didn’t have a 50-goal season at 21 or 22 that brought the spotlight to him.

“He really built his game over the years, maybe in kind of the way Mark Scheifele did it early on in the first two or three [years]. He didn’t explode in his first few years. They are always very exciting young players that come in and put up numbers that are designated superstars from a young age. I think Blake has built this. He’s built his body to a machine that can drive as hard as anybody I’ve ever coached. And all of that has led to the skills I think he always possessed coming out.”


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

How worried should Avs be about five-game skid?

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The biggest story of the Winnipeg Jets’ 5-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche was the dominant play of Blake Wheeler, who generated a career-high five points. (Stay tuned for more on Wheeler in tonight’s Buzzer.)

Five was a sobering number for the Avalanche beyond Wheeler’s tremendous game, though. With this loss, the Avalanche have now dropped five straight defeats, slipping to 7-6-3.

Once again, it seems like the Avalanche are mirroring their Eastern Conference cousins (and long-ago Stanley Cup Final opponents) in the New Jersey Devils.

Both teams rode MVP-quality performances from Taylor Hall and Nathan MacKinnon, managing to shock the hockey world with appearances in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Each squad were expected to come back down to reality in 2018-19, yet stormed off to strong starts. And now it seems like gravity is pulling each team down.

[Read up about New Jersey’s tough stretch here.]

Perhaps taking a deeper look at the Avalanche’s season will give us sense of how worried they should be.

The top line and everyone else

While the deadly trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog failed to generate a point in Friday’s loss to the Jets, this bumpy stretch isn’t on them. Granted, Wheeler did accomplish the rare task of making MacKinnon look silly in collecting his 400th assist:

Regardless, it’s telling that there are only two other skaters who are in the double digits in points (Tyson Barrie with 12, Alexander Kerfoot with 11), and Barrie is a defenseman who is frequently on the ice with that big three.

Breaking up that top line might be too much to ask of Jared Bednar, but one way or another, the Avalanche could really use more secondary scoring.

Goalies becoming human

The Avalanche’s hot start didn’t just come down to that outrageous first line.

Semyon Varlamov began his contract year on a tear, only allowing 13 goals during eight October appearances, sporting an elite .950 save percentage. While Varlamov made some tough stops before ultimately succumbing to the Jets’ deadly attack on Friday, allowing four goals against Winnipeg means that he’s given up 13 goals in three November contests, the same total he yielded during that unsustainable start.

Speaking of unsustainable, quite a few numbers seemed to indicate that the Avalanche were due for regression. Heading into this loss, Natural Stat Trick listed Colorado’s 9.6 shooting percentage at even-strength as the sixth-highest in the NHL, while their PDO (a stat that’s helpful shorthand for luck) ranking fifth at 1.021.

Calming context

To be fair to the Avalanche, they haven’t been getting routed in the same way that the Devils have.

Even Friday’s 5-2 loss was close at times, as Colorado decreased Winnipeg’s leads to 2-1 and 3-2 in the third period before the Jets pulled away.

Four of this young team’s five consecutive losses have come on the road, and the Avalanche have played eight of their last 11 games away from home. Their opponents haven’t been cupcakes, either. While the Flames and Wild have talent but have been hit-or-miss, Colorado fell to a surprisingly feisty Canucks squad, lost to the red-hot Predators, and then those imposing Jets.

A harsher critic would wave away all of those details as mere excuses, and it’s not such a tough schedule that the Avs deserve a free pass. Nonetheless, it provides some context and solidifies the notion that Colorado shouldn’t get too bent out of shape about this stretch.

***

Long story short, the Avalanche weren’t as strong as their 6-1-2 start indicated, nor are they as rudderless as a five-game losing streak might imply.

The truth is somewhere in the middle, and that should be fine for a very young, fast team that played way beyond expectations last season (not to mention a franchise that owns the Ottawa Senators’ potentially lucrative 2019 first-round pick).

Now, will the Avalanche be competitive enough to earn a playoff spot despite playing in the loaded Central Division and the unfriendly West? Check back after a few more cold and hot streaks.

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.

Maple Leafs shine harsh light on Devils’ struggles

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As part of the 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame ceremonies, Martin Brodeur was on hand to see the New Jersey Devils get dominated in a way he didn’t have to experience all that often during his vaunted, record-breaking career.

The Toronto Maple Leafs dominated much of the play on Friday, ultimately stomping the Devils to the tune of a 6-1 win, giving Mike Babcock’s Buds three consecutive victories.

The Devils frequently struggled when it came to limiting the Maple Leafs’ attack, which was deadly even as Auston Matthews remains on the shelf. John Tavares got on the board, but it was really a team effort for Toronto.

The Devils came roaring into 2018-19 with a four-game winning streak, prompting optimism that maybe last season was the start of something special, rather than an example of a team playing over its head.

On Friday, Keith Kinkaid and the Devils were instead in over their heads:

It’s the sort of night that got people trolling Kinkaid for his fabulous knack for post-game emoji analysis:

Things haven’t exactly been going swimmingly for the Devils in recent weeks. New Jersey fell 7-3 to the Senators on Tuesday, so they’ve really been springing leaks defensively. After a heartening 4-0-0 start, the Devils have lost eight of their last 10 games, watching their overall record tumble to 6-7-1.

Beginning the season on such a strong note should reduce the urge to panic, especially New Jersey’s Metropolitan Division rivals aren’t exactly throwing together hot streaks, either.

It’s not the largest sample size, yet with all those caveats, you wonder if Devils head coach John Hynes might be wise to make some tweaks. As this breakdown from About the Jersey points out, Taylor Hall has been struggling a bit at even-strength early on, adding credence to concerns that the reigning Hart Trophy winner might not be able to carry the Devils to the same lofty heights as last season.

(Going on that run felt quite a bit like a tightrope walk, as Hall truly willed a flaw [but often fun] Devils team to the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.)

Granted, it’s not necessarily the end of the world if the Devils really hit the wall this season.

Instead of overreacting to the Devils overachieving last season by making a bunch of risky, possibly recklessly expensive additions in free agency, GM Ray Shero instead mostly stood pat. He probably could have brought Patrick Maroon and Michael Grabner back, but instead showed discipline.

(As much as Hall could use more help, do note that the St. Louis Blues made Maroon a healthy scratch on Friday.)

Kinkaid has been a pleasant surprise in net extending back to last season, yet it’s unlikely that he’s the type of goalie who can steal wins all year long. And, again, as fantastic as Hall usually is, he can only do so much.

There are still reasons to be positive about the Devils’ potential to build a contender around Hall. This stretch merely argues that there also may be some growing pains before they can make the leap from a hit-or-miss squad to a more lasting contender, something they haven’t been since Brodeur hung up his pads.

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.