Kucherov

Nikita Kucherov: The sudden superstar

Nikita Kucherov has emerged as one of the NHL’s best. Having the league-lead in points (66) is not something to take lightly. Kucherov has gone from an above-average rookie to a superstar in less than five seasons.

Humble beginnings

Kucherov made his NHL debut with the Tampa Bay Lightning on November 25, 2013. On his first career shot, Kucherov scored his first NHL goal. This was a significant accomplishment, and one that came against the great Henrik Lundqvist. Kucherov couldn’t have dreamed up a better start to his rookie campaign.

As the season went on, the rookie produced eight goals and three assists through his first 27 games. In his final 25 games, the youngster found the back of the net only once while adding six assists. While a respectable outing, this compares nothing to the player he is today.

Is that really Nikita Kucherov?

Kucherov

(Al Bello/Getty Images)

In 2013-2014, Kucherov entered the league with a slightly different image. Yes he was younger, but as a rookie he actually started with the “Bolts” as number 56. No other player wore number 86 on the Lightning, so why 56?

Possible explanations:

  • He couldn’t speak English well and 86 turned into 56
  • As the youngest on the team, Kucherov didn’t get a choice
  • Stamkos was hurt, had a good idea, he got 86 turned to 56

What do you think?  [CLICK HERE] 

I think all of us are grateful that number 56 has turned into the 86 we love to watch. After changing his number to 86, Kucherov has only been better each year. His points-per-game (P/GP) average has sored higher and higher each year.

Kucherov Goals Assists Points Per Game
2013-2014 9 9 .346
2014-2015 29 36 .793
2015-2016 30 36 .857
2016-2017 40 45 1.149
2017-2018 27 39 1.245

The smoothest of them all…

Kucherov has become one of, if not the most valuable assets the Lightning have. The fans love to watch this guy, the players are made better for his presence on the ice, and the opponents fear him. Thus Kucherov has established himself as an elite player, a superstar so coveted in the NHL.

Kucherov is always a “plus”

Everywhere Nikita has gone, he is a “plus” to have on the team. Throughout his whole career he has been a player you want on the ice. In every season of Kucherov’s career he has finished with a plus rating. While he has become a superstar, he has maintained his level of play in his defensive end. Continuing this stunning stat, Kucherov finished out last season at +13. He is currently at +12 a little over halfway through this season. With as many goals as his line scores and the dominance they have shown, look for him to finish in the high 20s.

Proven in the playoffs

Not only is Kucherov elite in the regular season, he has proven to be lethal in the playoffs. In his 45 games of playoff hockey, he has “lit the lamp” 22 times and produced 20 assists.

Only 24, this guy has everything every team dreams of.

There is no limit to how far Nikita can go. It is almost certain that he will lead his team to the Stanley Cup, if not this year than in years to come. Add guys like Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman to his team and there you find the NHL’s best team.

Featured image courtesy of Mike Carlson/Getty Images.

 

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Calder

Calder Trophy race heating up

As we close in on the final quarter of the 2018 regular season, it’s time to take a look at the Calder Memorial Trophy race. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the award is given to the most proficient player in his first year in the NHL. Past winners of the trophy include some names you’ve probably heard before, such as Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon, Patrick Kane, Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin.

Lets take a look at this season’s current front-runners:

1. Mathew Barzal: C – New York Islanders

Calder

Photo from msgnetworks.com

Barzal was a first round pick of the Isles back in 2015 where they took him 16th overall. He currently sits 16th in the points race in the NHL with 53 points. He’s ahead of household names such as Patrick Kane, Brad Marchand and even Tyler Seguin.

Barzal is a large reason that the Islanders are in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. He’s third in points on the team behind John Tavares (59) and Josh Bailey (57). He’s provided an additional spark to the Islanders as he’s cemented himself as a reliable second-line center between Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee. He leads all rookies in assists with 37, which is 10 more than the next rookie Will Butcher of the New Jersey Devils.

2. Brock Boeser: RW – Vancouver Canucks

Calder

Photo from Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press

Boeser was drafted 23rd overall in the same draft as Barzal, the 2015 draft. Boeser is one of the lone bright spots for the Canucks this season. He leads his team in points with 46, which is nine more than the veteran in second, Thomas Vanek. Boeser has five points over his last five games and participated in NHL All-Star weekend.

At the All-Star weekend he took home the MVP award after the All-star game and also won the accuracy-shooting competition. Boeser has closed the gap between himself and Barzal for the Calder with his play and accomplishments of late.

3. Yanni Gourde: C – Tampa Bay Lightning

Calder

Photo from lightningstrikehockey.com

Gourde is apart of the extremely efficient Tampa offense that leads the league in scoring with 3.56 goals per game. He went undrafted but signed a one-year AHL contract with the Syracuse Crunch in 2014. This is his first full season playing up with the Lightning and he hasn’t disappointed. They’ve re-signed him to a two-year contract worth $2 million.

He sits third in rookie points with 38 and sixth on the Lightning in total points. He leads all rookies with a +23 in the +/- category and is only +2 behind Victor Hedman (+25) for the team lead. His stellar +/- shows the positive impact he’s had when on the ice while contributing from the third line.

Calder Dark-horses:

In most years you’ll see the Calder Memorial Trophy be awarded to a forward, but in some cases that hasn’t been true. Three times in the last 14 seasons the award was given to a blueliner. Aaron Ekblad in 2014-2015 with the Florida Panthers, Tyler Myers in 2009-2010 with the Buffalo Sabres and Barret Jackman in 2002-2003 with the St. Louis Blues. Two rookie defenseman have turned heads this season and deserve a good, hard look before the award winner is decided.

1. Will Butcher: D – New Jersey Devils

Calder

Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Butcher was drafted back in 2013 by the Colorado Avalanche in the fifth round, 123rd overall. This season he was given the chance to play in the big league with the Devils and has run with the job.

Butcher leads all Devil defenseman in assist (27) and points (29). The most astounding fact is that he’s done it while playing on the third defensive line and with only 16:09 average-time-on-ice (ATOI). His ATOI is the eighth least out of nine New Jersey defenders per espn.com.

 

2. Charlie McAvoy: D – Boston Bruins

Calder

Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

McAvoy was taken off the board at 14th overall in the 2016 draft by the Bruins. He played last season for the team in the playoffs as they were shorthanded at the defensive position and was a pleasant surprise as he provided a huge spark to the team. In six games played last season, all in the playoffs, he tallied three assists and logged heavy ice-time.

This season he’s played in 46 of the team’s 50 games and has accumulated 25 points. He plays on the top defensive unit along side Zdeno Chara with 22:43 ATOI, which is over four minutes more than the next rookie skater. The Bruins have earned at least one point in 20 of their last 21 games. McAvoy’s stellar play on defense, indicated by his +19 rating (2nd best among rookies), has directly contributed to this astonishing streak the team is riding.

 

 

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Vegas setting a new standard for expansion franchises

The Vegas Golden Knights have put together a historic first season so far and continue to impress game after game. The Golden Knights have taken the bar set by previous expansion franchises and raised it to an unimaginable level. Following the team’s 34th win of the season on Thursday night, let’s reflect on their historic season thus far.

 

A Hot Start

Vegas came out of the gate ready to play. They started out winning their first three games and eight of their first nine. This was easily the best start for an expansion franchise in the history of the NHL. The team went to overtime in three of their first seven games, and came out the winner in all three. They showed early that they weren’t a team to be taken lightly just because they were new to the league.

 

Goaltending Depth

The Golden Knights have been forced to start four different goaltenders this season. During the first quarter of the season there was a stretch of games where the team was plagued by multiple goalie injuries. Marc-Andre Fleury went down after just four games and Malcom Subban got the starting nod in his place. Even without their starting goalie, Vegas didn’t miss a beat and kept the wins coming. Fleury and Subban have accumulated incredible stats this season when healthy. Fleury owns a 14-4-2 record with an incredible 1.79 goals-against-average (GAA) and a .942 save percentage. Subban has earned a sparkling 11-3-1 record this season when between the pipes.

 

Expansion

Starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury
(Photo from AP Photo/LM Otero)

Eventually Subban would go down with an injury and third-stringer Oscar Dansk was asked to carry the load. Again the Golden Knights carried on seemingly unfazed as they rolled to three wins in four of his games played. Dansk owns great numbers in his limited action, a 3-0 record with a 1.78 GAA and .946 save percentage.

 

As if it couldn’t get worse, Dansk would also fall victim to an injury. Fourth-stringer Maxime Lagace was the next man up between the pipes. While his numbers aren’t as stellar as the three other netminders, he helped the team to a 6-6-1 record during his play. That’s 13 out of a possible 26 points that the team earned with him in net. His play helped keep the team afloat as their goaltending depth wore thin, there’s not much more you can ask from a fourth-string goalie.

Reliable Goalscoring

The Golden Knights are a team made up mainly of players that weren’t retained by the other 30 NHL teams. While you’d expect these players to produce subpar numbers, that hasn’t been the case. Vegas has three 20+ goal scorers and another two close to that milestone. Plus, they have three skaters with over 40 points and another three above the 30 point mark.

Expansion

Golden Knights leading scorer Jonathan Marchessault
(Photo from sportingnews.com)

Jonathan Marchessault has produced 18 goals and another 30 assists to lead the team with 48 points. He’s averaging exactly a point per game as he’s played in 48 of the team’s 51 games. Marchessault was a breakout player for the Florida Panthers a season ago, but was shockingly not protected after the season. Vegas wasted no time and nabbed him during the expansion draft.

Marchessault has made sure to make the Panthers pay for not protecting him. Vegas doesn’t plan on making the same mistake, they’ve since locked him up long-term with a 6-year $30 million deal.

David Perron and William Karlsson round out the top three in points for Vegas. Perron with 46 points and Karlsson with 44. Karlsson, selected from the Columbus Blue Jackets in the expansion draft, leads the team in goals with 27. That number puts him tied for third in the league in that stat and only five goals behind the league-leader, Alex Ovechkin. Perron holds the team lead in assists with 33, only two short of his season-best from back in 2008-2009, but he still has 31 games to play.

The Record

It only took 50 games for the Golden Knights to set a new record for most wins in an inaugural season by an expansion franchise. By downing the Winnipeg Jets in overtime on Thursday night, Vegas set the new record at 34 wins, breaking tie with the 1993 Florida Panthers. The craziest part, is that the Golden Knights still have another 32 games left on the schedule following Thursday night’s win over the Jets. Given how well they’ve played this season, it’s not crazy to imagine that they push the record to somewhere between 50-55 games.

Current Standings

With 31 games left the Golden Knights sit atop the Western Conference standings with 72 points. They only trail the Tampa Bay Lightning by one point for the league lead and own a 2-0 head-to-head record against them this season.

Not only do they lead the West in points, but they also lead the West in goals for (173). They’re tied for second in the league with the New York Islanders (173) and only trail the Tampa Bay Lightning (183).

It’s beginning to look like the Vegas Golden Knights will be the first expansion team in the last 26 years to secure a postseason berth.

 

A New Expansion Standard?

However long it takes for the next NHL expansion franchise to come to fruition, they better start preparing now. They’ll be heavily scrutinized and compared to the incredible season the Golden Knights have put together. Most wouldn’t expect the first season of an expansion franchise to do this well, but Vegas has raised the bar very high. There’s no longer a free-pass for a subpar first season, competing for a playoff spot could be the new expectation set by the greatest NHL expansion franchise of all time.

 

Featured picture courtesy of nhl.com/goldenknights

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Why The Lightning Keep Dominating

Why The Lightning Keep Dominating

The Tampa Bay Lightning keep dominating the NHL, and it comes at the hands of a very balanced attack. Tampa Bay is getting it done on both the offense and defensive side of the puck, and the goaltending play of Andrei Vasilevskiy has been at an elite level. If the Lightning keep this up there is a good chance that they will be hoisting the Stanley Cup at the end of the season.

Offensive Attack

Lightning Keep Dominating

(Photo By: Karen May Martin)

Part of the reason the Lightning keep dominating is that of their elite offense. Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point headline the point leaders for a team that is averaging an NHL best 3.7 goals per game. Tampa is a team that goes four lines deep and can score at any time.

On the power play, this season the Lightning have been excellent, scoring an NHL second best 25.2 percent. They are handling teams, not because of the volume of shots, but because of the quality of the shots, they have taken. Tampa ranks 12th in the NHL in shots per game with 31.3. Tampa is also doing a good job not turning the puck over with a takeaway to giveaway ratio of .9; this ranks 9th in the NHL.

Even though Tampa has a majority of the stats to back them up, the most significant reason they are playing the way they are is because of the team’s chemistry. Tampa Bay’s players take pride in playing team hockey. It is a testament to guys like Kucherov and Stamkos who have set aside their name to better team performance. In turn, this has increased their productivity tremendously.

Defensive Stoppers

For most teams, a great offense means an average defense, but Tampa has both great offense and great defense, and it is part of the reason why the Lightning keep dominating. The Lightning are second in goals given up with 92 and are ranked ninth in shots against. The defense does a good job keeping Vasilevskiy clean, and it is a big part of his success.

Defensemen Anton Stralman, Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev are the headliners of Tampa’s break out defense. Stralman leads the Lighting in plus/minus with a plus 27 rating. Hedman leads all defensemen in points with 29 so far this season. Sergachev might be one of the most underrated breakout players of the season. At just 19 years of age, Sergachev has 25 points and a plus/minus of plus 17.

The Defense of the Tampa Bay Lightning has done a fantastic job so far this season. With an amazing offense in front of them, they have taken their role and excelled with it. The defense is a major reason as to why the Lightning have taken the NHL by storm.

Goalie Play

Lightning Keep Dominating

(Photo By: Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

Andrei Vasilevskiy has overtaken as the full-time starting goalie for the Tampa Bay Lightning season and has played at a very high level. Vasilevskiy’s 1.95 goals against average is good for second best in the NHL along with his .937 save percentage. Andrei leads the league in shutouts as well with six so far on the year.

At 23 years of age, Vasilevskiy should be around to stop shots for the Lightning for a long time. His record stands at 26-5-1 and is as much a testament to the team around him as well as him individually. As the season goes on Vasilevskiy seems to be getting stronger as well as the offense and defense around him.

 

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keep peppering

NHL success: Just have to keep peppering

Much of my inspiration comes from watching my hometown team. The range of emotions I have during the 82-game regular season is overwhelming to say the least. Coming into Thursday my club has gone an underwhelming 1-2-1 in their last four. It hasn’t been all that bad in terms of their play and how they continue to “keep peppering” the opposing net minders.

Devan Dubnyk and Carey Price are two premier goaltenders in this league, as we know. These two faced off against my team during this somewhat average time frame. The game against Dubnyk and the Minnesota Wild saw the Blues post 42 shots.

In the game against Price and the Habs, the boys posted 30 shots. St. Louis beat Dubnyk just once and quadrupled their scoring against arguably the best goaltender in the NHL in Price on Tuesday night.

All together, the Blues hit the net 151 times the previous four games prior to hosting Dallas Thursday night. They found the back of those nets just eight times. Therefore, good teams will run into great goaltending throughout the regular season. However, a lot can be said about a “good” or “average” hockey club based upon how often they pepper their opposition.

Are the Knights really that Golden?

keep peppering

Photo: Stanley Cup of Chowder

If the playoffs started today, the Golden Knights of Las Vegas would have home ice in the first round of the playoffs. Yes, they’re a scrappy bunch that have benefited from new expansion rules. Yes, they have great novelty in the sense that absolutely no one thought they would be this competitive. Looking at their overall play, is this really sustainable for 50+ more games?

The Knights hit the net on average 32 times a game and surrender 30 a game. On paper that is somewhat solid. However, it does not show up in their goal differential where they are just +9.

On average, that is not a typical top 10 club (Knights are currently seventh in NHL). They are scoring 3.44 goals a game which is great, but are giving up 3.11 goals a game. The Knights pepper, but they get peppered just as much, which can’t happen when you don’t have a true #1 goalie (Malcolm Subban).

Las Vegas might make the playoffs, but no one knows for sure at this point. My estimation tells me that they will slowly start to slide and their weaknesses will unfold soon. It has been a phenomenal story thus far and nothing can take away from that, but you need a goalie. If the Knights make it to the postseason it will be remarkable, but I wouldn’t bet on them going much further.

Lightning Strikes in Bunches

keep peppering

Photo: Upper Deck Blog

As of Dec. 6, and for much of the season so far, Tampa has sat atop the league standings. They have gone about their business with great peppering, 5-on-5 play and goaltending. Having the best line in hockey has also helped their cause (Namestnikov/Kucherov/Stamkos).

The Lightning are seemingly a complete team who are healthy and ready to make another cup run like they did in 2015 and 2016.

Tampa Bay hits the net the same amount as their opposition hits their own (32) on average. The leg up the Lightning have is that they have a former first rounder guarding their crease (Andrei Vasilevskiy).

They have scored an average of 3.7 GPG and given up 2.51 GAPG, which is fantastic. This group leads the league in goal differential at +32. They are a legitimate Cup contender for their impeccable strengths on both ends of the ice and their lack of weaknesses.

It’s not just in their stats, it’s in their overall play. They are relentless on 50/50 pucks and are hounds along the boards. It all starts from the goal line still. Having a #1 in Vasilevskiy with no controversy with another #1 (Ben Bishop) there will help them go on a long run when the playoffs start.

So, maybe it’s not the peppering. Maybe it’s just the boring and simple fact that you must have great goaltending and be solid offensively and defensively.

“What does it all mean Basil?”

I’ve changed my mind. Peppering is a solid act that helps open the flood gates in any hockey game. However, it is almost never the single most important piece to a contending team in winning a hockey game. Ask the 2012 and 2014 Los Angeles Kings. Those guys won a Cup as an eighth seed and had both occurrences happen with dominant goaltending from Jonathan Quick.

The goalies are always the most important pieces like pitchers and quarterbacks in the playoffs, which is all anyone cares about. Three-time Cy Young award winner Clayton Kershaw will always say “if you don’t win, what’s the point”  (MLB Network) in having a great regular season?

The shots are a nice stat that can draw a couple conclusions to how a game was played, but not really why a team won or lost. Why else would players overuse the phrase ‘we got pucks to the net’?  It’s because hockey is such an intricate game where the only obvious and understandable postgame lines involve ‘pucks in deep’ and ‘pucks to the net.’

You need to score more than the other team. Anyone can do that during the regular season, but not everyone can 16 times in the postseason. I don’t believe the Knights can, but the Lightning certainly can. I like saying “we need to pepper” whatever goalie my team is playing against, but really we just need to battle and score more goals than the other team.

Hockey is very simple for fans at the end of the day.

 

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NHL first month

First month in review: One down, six to go

The first month of hockey for this season is in the books. Nine teams are currently in a playoff spot that were not at the end of last year. An expansion team registered 16 out of a possible 22 points. A pair of teammates are the top two point getters in the league. However, there were 118 more slashing calls than last season through the first 57 games and has continued to spiral.

Frustration has hit with these penalties, but hasn’t dissipated the entertainment value whatsoever. We are fans of the most consistently ultra-competitive league. Any team on any given night can win a hockey game. The parity in the NHL is unbelievable, which gives fans the hope that their team always has a shot and anything can happen. Adding that up with the overall entertainment of hockey, the first month was a success.

The Tampa Bay Lightning and St. Louis Blues are at the top of the Eastern and Western Conferences respectfully. Eight points and seven points separate those two teams from themselves and the two eighth seeded teams. Therefore, regardless of what the current power rankings indicate, we are in for a wild ride into mid April. Special teams may have been overkill this first month, but they have made games even more interesting at times. It’s a sample size, but we have no idea where everyone will be at the conclusion of the regular season.

Lightning Bolts and Musical Notes

The top teams in the NHL after one month reside in Tampa Bay and St. Louis. Each of these clubs notched 10 wins in their first 13 games. The top three scorers in the league play for both of these teams. They both battled one another in Tampa the second week with the Bolts winning by one goal. There are positives and negatives to both of these starts, but they have clearly proven to be where they stand.

NHL first month

Photo by Getty Images

Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are the best duo in hockey right now. Together, they netted 45 points and are a combined +13 to start the season. Their top goaltender, Andrei Vasilevskiy, is 10-1-0 with a 2.42 goals against average. Rookie defenseman Mikhail Sergachev had a great first month in the league with 11 points (four goals, seven assists).

However, not having Ben Bishop has put some pressure on their goalie situation as backup Peter Budaj let in eight goals and posted a .855 save percentage in his two starts.

St. Louis has one of the best lines in hockey with Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko. They totaled 42 points and were a combined +30 in October. Their defensive core has a league-high 14 goals. The Blues have the best goalie tandem with Jake Allen and Carter Hutton through the first month as they combined for a 2.07 goals against average and a .936 save percentage. Depth is the concern as only five of their 43 goals have come from their bottom six.

The Blues and Lightning have the potential to remain at the top of the standings with the pieces they have in place. They also can be removed in a day. Therefore, there is no time for any form of complacency. It’s a long way to go, but will these two link up in the finals?

Caps/Hawks Right in the middle

Two of the NHL’s regulars at the top of the standings have had mediocre starts to their seasons. Chicago finds themselves in the final Wild Card position and just a game over .500. Washington notched just five wins, a game under .500, and are out of the playoff picture after the first month. Both teams were the No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences a year ago. What has sprung this inconsistent start?

NHL first month

Photo by Getty Images

The Blackhawks made a number of offseason transactions. They traded away former rookie of the year Artemi Panarin. Niklas Hjalmarsson was sent to Arizona, which has put their defensive depth in question. Scott Darling got traded to Carolina, which has deeply weakened their goaltending situation. Corey Crawford has posted a 1.91 goals against average and recorded all of their wins, but backup Anton Forsberg has yet to get a win letting in 11 goals in his three games of work.

Last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winners are out of sorts at the start of November. Needed money was given to players in the offseason, but all of the scoring as been in one place. The Caps’ top line is still the best in the league with Nicklas Backstrom centering T.J. Oshie and Alexander Ovechkin. However, Barry Trotz has attempted to spread the wealth by putting Ovechkin on line two recently as those three have netted 19 of the team’s 35 goals. Braden Holtby has been less than what he has been to start the year with backup Philipp Grubauer 0-3-1 with a 4.08 goals against average and a .876 save percentage.

This could be what these teams need. They have never been in this position very much as of late. The Hawks and Caps both have new young talent that are waiting to get comfortable. Expect them to still be playoff fixtures once again come mid April.

Sustainable Hot Starts for Devils/Knights?

Parity is a huge element to the National Hockey League as discussed. Two teams not expected to be where they are, but find themselves near the top play in New Jersey and Vegas. The Devils won nine of their first 11. The Golden Knights won eight of their first 11 in their first month in franchise history. How did these clubs get off to such great starts?

NHL first month

Photo from CBS Sports

The New Jersey Devils landed the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft with Nico Hischier, but no one expected a 9-2-0 start. Everyone had them in rebuild mode. However, they have a superstar in Taylor Hall, who recorded 15 points in their 11 games. Rookie defenseman Will Butcher registered 11 assists. Furthermore, they have a formidable goalie tandem in Cory Schneider (6-1-0) and Keith Kinkaid (3-1-0).

Las Vegas has come in hot to the NHL. The Golden Knights grabbed 16 out of 22 possible points to begin their history. Most “NHL experts” and league followers had them in the cellar all year like most expansion teams. No one saw this coming, but expansion rules are different presently. There is more talent in the NHL than ever before and you can’t protect as many players in the draft.

Many teams get off to unexplainable hot starts that are very difficult to maintain over the course of a season. New Jersey and Vegas could be in the thick of it or easily well out of it by March and April. However, no matter the circumstances, these two clubs have added to this season’s already hectic news feed.

We’ve Only Just Begun

One month is a big enough sample size to get a feel for future results for one’s work. It’s also very small when you put it up against close to seven months worth of work. Therefore, we take note of what has happened already, but expect almost anything for the months ahead.

Hockey is a sport that is unparalleled in a multitude of ways. There are generally favorites in sports like football and basketball. This sport can never mess with that concept at this point in time. Tampa Bay had the third best odds to win it all in preseason, but St. Louis had the 18th best odds. Edmonton had the second best odds and only Arizona had a worse record in the first month of the year.

We can highlight good and bad team traits after one month of play, but this is just the beginning. No one knows where anyone will be at the end of the regular season. That is why hockey stands alone.

 

Featured image from NHL.com

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The Ultimate Battle

The ultimate battle in hockey is overcoming injuries. A study shows $218 million in salaries is lost each season due to injuries. The research was done three years ago. That number is now greater due to the league’s higher market value.

Franchise players dash their team’s ability to make the postseason or winning it all every year. Sidney Crosby gets hit in the head in consecutive games midway through the season in 2011 turns into a first round exit. Connor McDavid breaks his collar bone last year, which puts the Oilers back in the cellar for one more season. Steven Stamkos’s absence from the ice the last two years has not allowed Tampa to take the next step. Lightning lost in the finals three seasons ago, one game away form the finals two seasons ago and missed the postseason altogether last year.

Hockey is a sport of matchups. Four trios of forwards and 3 pairs of defenseman, which makes chemistry paramount in a team’s success. One injury to a forward or defenseman puts a team’s alignment into a puzzle. However, the reality is that lineups are drastically shaken up throughout the course of the season.

The St. Louis Blues

The faithful in the Gateway to West will be without four top 9 forwards (Steen, Berglund, Sanford, Fabbri) and one defenseman (Bouwmeester) to start the year. However, one of which (Robby Fabbri) has been ruled out for the entire regular and postseason.

ultimate battle

Robby Fabbri had surgery, rehabbed all offseason and was medically cleared in July. A big hit for the 21 year old that was entering a contract year. Photo courtesy by NHL.com

Two rookies (Tage Thompson, Klim Kostin) now have every opportunity to show and prove they belong on the Blues’ roster. Depth was an issue during the playoffs last season as the Blues were ousted in the 2nd round by Nashville. Pressure and responsibility may or may not be what these hungry rookies need, but that is what they are getting. This could shapeup as a very exciting or struggle-filled start to St. Louis’s season.

These injuries have General Manager Doug Armstrong looking at not just the rookies, but potential replacement players to fill the current voids. Jaromir Jagr, a 45 year-old future hall of famer has been discussed as a potential signing. It would most likely come after the olympics if it does happen because of Jagr’s desire to play in the tournament. The #2 all-time scorer has shown he still has enough in the tank to compete as he recorded 16 goals and 30 assists last season.

The Importance of depth

The saying “we gotta roll four lines and bang bodies” is crucial to the success of any hockey club. Contributions must be made by each top 12 forward and top 6 defenseman in a push for the playoffs and run to the Cup. Goons and enforcers are few and far between in today’s NHL. Every line has to have offensive output for a team to win with great regularity.

ultimate battle

Mark Letestu of the Oilers is a 4th liner, but tallied 16 goals last season (11 on the powerplay). Edmonton later made their 1st playoff appearance in 10 seasons. Photo Courtesy of Canoe Sports

Injury occurrence forces reshaping of lines, which reforms game plans. Coaches have to be on their toes and be prepared to battle just like his players. The man in charge on the bench is the most underrated person of value in a hockey game. He is the one who executively decides who goes onto to the ice at every point in time.

Some matchup their lines differently. The home coach gets to decide. Some go with their first line against the opposing team’s 4th line or the opposite. The point is that a coach’s decisions are constantly altered due to the injuries. Mike Yeo (Blues head coach) is facing these challenges all at once before the season even starts, but countless more will follow.

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NHL Expansion

The next NHL expansion destination

NHL expansion occurred for the 13th time since the original six this offseason. The Vegas Golden Knights take the ice as the league’s 31st franchise on Oct. 6 in Dallas.

Cities are discovering and rediscovering the game through expansion. There is no telling what will work, but in baseball terms, the NHL is hitting for a high average in knowing where hockey needs to be.

The total number of teams has gone from six to 31 since 1967. NHL commissioners have put hockey in 19 cities through expansion that still have teams today. Franchises stretch all across the United States and Canada. However, with the addition of hockey in Vegas, the number of teams is unbalanced.

Where will hockey travel next?

Can it/will it work?

Hockey does not sound right at first in certain areas, which is the first order of skepticism in expansion. It then asks the question of can it and will it work?

The San Jose Sharks became an NHL franchise in 1991 and many had already seen a team (Oakland Seals) fail in the Bay Area. The team notched 28 wins in their first two seasons, but made the playoffs in year three. By year four they were averaging 17,000 fans a night at their home games. The Sharks have been to a Stanley Cup Final, notched six division titles and averaged 17,000+ fans in 18 of 25 seasons. It has worked out just fine.

NHL Expansion

The Inaugural Season for the San Jose Sharks was in 1991-1992 and are set for their 26th this year. Photo Courtesy of Hockey Across The Pond

Central Florida has never been a hotbed for the sport historically. However, the Lightning have changed that narrative to a degree since joining the NHL in 1992.

Their first year saw 10,000 fans on average at games, but as of 2017 we now see an average of 19,000. It took them 12 years to win a Stanley Cup (won in 2004). Three teams (Washington, St. Louis and Buffalo) are still searching for their first after 40+ years.

Las Vegas was awarded with an NHL franchise in 2016 after three failed attempts with pro football and three failed team relocation proposals. Many are curious, but hockey is not new to the city.

Six semi-professional teams have played in Vegas and has played host to an annual preseason game the last 20 years. Forbes recently published a poll where 62 percent of people said they see Vegas as a good home for professional sports. The Golden Knights are the first, but soon the city will be home to two pro franchises when the now Oakland Raiders come to town in 2019.

back where they belong

The North Stars moved to Dallas in 1993 after 26 years in Minnesota. The move was not personal as the team had great success on the ice and in the city. A famous “Norm Sucks” chant pointed at former owner Norm Green ensued after word of the team’s moving. Green faced pressure from his wife who said she would leave him if he did not move the team. The state was without hockey for seven years.

NHL expansion in 2000 saw Columbus awarded with a team (Blue Jackets) and hockey’s return to Minnesota with the Wild. This was the first of two restorations from commissioner Gary Bettman in his current 24-year tenure. Xcel Energy Center has since been sold out for 646 straight games as of April 4, 2017. The NHL is meant to be in the Twin Cities and won’t be leaving anytime soon.

NHL Expansion

Night after night, Wild fans show why NHL hockey belongs in Minnesota. Photo Courtesy of NHL.com

Winnipeg was given an NHL franchise in the 1979 expansion that turned into the Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes in 1996. Another business decision was made that year as the Jets were last in home attendance.

Economic pressures initiated this move. The love and passion for the sport within the community remained. The wholesale city was without professional hockey for 15 years.

Mr. Bettman brought the NHL back to the Manitoba capital in 2011. One writer said “an 0-82 season would not simmer the excitement from the fans” upon their return. The MTS Centre (Jets home arena) has averaged capacity each year since 2011 despite zero playoff wins. The arena is filled at the start of warmups. This too is another area where NHL hockey belongs.

The next destination

There are four divisions in hockey. Three have eight teams while one has seven. Another hockey town will soon be born or restored.

NHL Expansion

Quebec City has been without an NHL franchise for 22 long years. Photo Courtesy of SBNation

Twenty one of 31 “high profile” NHL players stated that Quebec City should be the next to be awarded a team in expansion. Seattle and Houston are among the other candidates. Seattle is considered “logical” due to its location in the Pacific Northwest (Western Conference is unbalanced) and it would expand the league’s footprint in the U.S.. Houston would expand hockey communities in the South and be placed in the Central (the division with seven teams). There are arguments for each city, but the case for Quebec is the most intriguing.

The Nordiques started play in Quebec’s capital in 1979 before moving to Colorado and becoming the Avalanche in 1995. An issue with expansion at times is the readiness of an arena. This city already has a brand new arena (Videotron Centre) that seats 18,000-plus. It would call for realignment of divisions/conferences, but that would be the least of problems in this future expansion.

Adding another Canadian team would flirt with the idea of an all Canadian division. Expansion is a slow process, but interest and appeal runs deep in figuring out if it will work in any given market. We have witnessed the rejuvenations in Minnesota and Winnipeg. There is little reason to not see that in Quebec City. That community, is one starving for more hockey.

 

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Justin Williams free agency: Drawing interest as productive veteran

Justin Williams is going to get a ton of money, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

At 35 years old, Williams is on the final years of his NHL career. With the way he played last year, one wouldn’t know he’s on the wrong side of 30.

Last season, the 16-year veteran tallied 24 goals and 48 points in his second season with the Washington Capitals. According to Hockey Reference, he had his highest career shooting percentage at 14.4 percent. His Corsi and Fenwick ratings were both above 50 percent, signaling that the Caps possessed the puck well with Williams on the ice.

Williams’ contract with Washington expired, and with T.J. Oshie and Dmitry Orlov signing deals, it is unlikely the right winger reunites with them in the nation’s capital. And so, he hits the open market, presenting a quandary for front offices: how many years and how much money do we give an aging player who’s still producing?

Justin Williams’ Value

Justin Williams free agency

Williams won two of his three Stanley Cups with Los Angeles. Photo by Victor Decolongon, Getty Images.

He has the most value in his overall experience in the postseason. In 140 playoff games, he’s notched 94 points while winning three Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe trophy in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.

During that postseason, Williams scored nine goals and 16 assists. Even as the elder statesman with the Capitals this past year, he recorded nine points in 13 games. As perplexing as it is to outsiders, players and fans know that Justin Williams is reliable in the playoffs.

Justin Williams can help any team that needs a championship-caliber player with his playoff expertise. Combine his resumé with need and teams should fork over the dough to sign him.

Justin Williams’ Cap Hit and the RW Market

Looking at the rest of the free agent market, he can sign at about any time that he wants. Williams is the second-best right wing on the block. Alexander Radulov is the top name on the right side, but they’re both different players at different points in their careers.

Radulov enjoyed a breakout campaign with Montreal after a stint in the KHL. At 30 years old, he still has a handful of good years left. Teams are likely to ink him to a longer deal than Williams. Radulov will go to a team that wants him for the long haul. Williams should sign around a two to three-year deal.

The Capitals paid Williams a modest $3.25 million the past two seasons, per CapFriendly. He hasn’t made more than $4 million in his career. Based on his overall recent production, he should achieve that milestone. Justin Williams can use his play at an old age as leverage to raise the monetary value. Teams will balk at 35 years old. Anything more than three years is excessive. Two or three years, until his skating and his scoring declines, are the fairest lengths for both sides.

Justin Williams free agency prospects

Justin Williams has his own list of coveted places. His list is reportedly down to three, though it is unsure what those teams are. Yesterday, TSN’s Darren Dreger listed Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, and the New York Islanders as teams interested in him (he said the quoted tweet is incorrect so it has nothing to do with his commentary).

The Islanders are looking to add another productive scorer as they look to return to the playoffs. CapFriendly says they have $9 million to play with in cap, so they won’t pursue another big free agent if Williams signs there. Plus, they’d have to shuffle their lineup to accommodate him. Jordan Eberle, Josh Bailey, Josh Ho-Sang and Cal Clutterbuck are all right wingers. Williams would have to slot elsewhere or the Isles have to swap someone on the roster.

Justin Williams free agency

Justin Williams may join the orange and white next year instead of roughing them up. Photo by Rob Carr, Getty Images.

Would Justin Williams return to the city where he made his NHL debut? The Flyers have slightly more cap room than the Islanders, but still less than $10 million. However, Williams is a great fit for a team that needs to replace Brayden Schenn’s output. Williams can fit on the second or third line and help a team with postseason potential. Philadelphia is an up and coming team. With Williams’ veteran leadership, he can push them over the top in a daunting Metro Division.

Of these three teams, Tampa Bay makes the most sense. Williams would be their best winger not named Nikita Kucherov. With over $20 million in cap space, the Lightning can afford to overpay him while not restricting their budget. If that’s what it takes for Tampa to replenish their forwards, then they should’ve already been on the phone when midnight struck today.

Justin Williams, at 35 years old, is still a capable NHL player and is one of the better free agent options. Word is he wants to stay in the East, though it’s unknown what teams he is interested in playing for. Whichever team he signs with, they will pay big bucks to land him, but receive a valuable piece for it.

 

Feature image by Nick Wass, AP/Photo courtesy of the Washington Post.

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Kevin Shattenkirk free agency: Best options

Ever since the end of the Stanley Cup Final, the NHL offseason hasn’t slept. The expansion draft built the Vegas Golden Knights while New Jersey and Philadelphia selected Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick, respectively. One of the top free agents expected to hit the market, T.J. Oshie, heads back to the Capitals on an eight-year deal.

With Oshie settled in the Capitol, the best all-around player available is former Caps defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. The seven-year veteran is the most talented offensive blue liner.

This season, he finished with 56 points, trailing Norris finalists Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman. He’s notched 27 goals the past two seasons with both St. Louis and Washington. Defensively, he’s a solid skate who can move the puck from zone to zone.

Where he has the most value is on special teams. His eight power play goals and 27 points were second-most for a defenseman this season. His shot percentage has improved each season since 2013-14. He can lead the attack on the man advantage.

While his plus-minus isn’t pretty to look at the past two seasons, it improved on a stable Capitals blue line. Teams will keep that and the price he will garner in mind when signing him. What teams are in the running for him?

The Favorites

Boston Bruins – Kevin Shattenkirk has been linked to Boston for a few years. He played college hockey at Boston University after growing up in Greenwich, Connecticut. Boston inquired about him at the trade deadline, but the Blues reportedly wanted two first-round picks and David Pastrnak, which was way too high.

The Bruins have a young core of defensemen with Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo. Torey Krug does well on the power play, but he was the main quarterback on special teams. McAvoy had two assists on the power play in the playoffs, but he may need more time.

With Shattenkirk, Boston gets a proven asset that makes their blue line fast and deadly on offense. Its roughly $13.5 million in cap space means they can afford him if he stays around the $6-$7 million AAV range. He provides that leadership for a young core. General Manager Don Sweeney has to think about if Shattenkirk’s offense is enough of an upgrade without breaking the bank.

Kevin Shattenkirk free agency

Shattenkirk (left, playing with Blues) could join the Rangers in free agency. Photo courtesy of Newsday/Photo by Mary Altaffer, AP

New York Rangers – On paper, the Rangers and Shattenkirk is a perfect marriage. New York now has $20 million in cap space after buying out Dan Girardi and trading Antti Raanta and Derek Stepan. Rumor has it Shattenkirk favors the Rangers for its location close to home.

On the ice, he fills a dire need for the Blueshirts. Girardi, while a gritty player, is not the same puck mover as Kevin Shattenkirk. On the power play, their special teams were 3-for-39 in the postseason after a top 10 finish in the regular season. Shattenkirk can replace Brady Skjei on the second unit, giving them a Ryan McDonagh-Shattenkirk combo on the man advantage.

Despite the recent trade for Anthony DeAngelo, New York still needs help on defense. Brendan Smith is still in play for New York, and they can still sign both. He checks every box on both sides. Even if the Rangers may look to get younger and cheaper after shedding Stepan’s contract, Shattenkirk can still make them competitive and fill multiple needs.

Dark Horses

Tampa Bay Lightning – Tampa’s interest in Kevin Shattenkirk is one of the worst-kept secrets in the NHL. In January, the Lightning tried to trade for the blue liner from St. Louis. It did not come to fruition. Now, the Tampa Bay Times reported GM Steve Yzerman is kicking the tires on Shattenkirk.

Even after snagging Montreal’s pristine defensive prospect, Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa is looking for top-four defensive help. Shattenkirk joining Hedman gives the Lightning one of the best combos in the league. His offense and his right-handed stick, according to Times’ writer Joe Smith, is a fit for Tampa Bay.

Ultimately, Shattenkirk’s willingness to come to Tampa Bay is the biggest obstacle. He rejected a seven-year, $42 million extension and a deal to head to the Sunshine State. Does he want to be there? Are the Lightning built to succeed in the next few years? With Shattenkirk, they can, but it’s hard to see unless they gain more pieces.

Kevin Shattenkirk free agency

Shattenkirk (left) could become teammates with Miles Wood next season. Photo courtesy of My NHL Trade Rumors/Photo by USATSI

New Jersey Devils – Any Rangers fan might have a tough time reading this, but it has some traction to it. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported in March he wouldn’t be surprised if the Devils threw money at him.

New Jersey has $24 million free in cap space, so their offer could blow almost every other team out of the water. They have five total defensemen and a restricted free agent on their roster at the moment. Andy Greene and Damon Severson were their best defenders, and they were -16 and -31 for a weak team last season.

Basically, Kevin Shattenkirk becomes their best blue liner if he signs. New Jersey should make him their biggest priority. An offense with Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri and now Nico Hischier is impressive, while Cory Schneider is strong in net. However, he needs help badly in front of him. Shattenkirk helps them out, and they have room to look at other names such as Cody Franson or Karl Alzner.

Other Possible Destinations

Buffalo SabresTSN’s Darren Dreger reported last week of the Sabres’ interest. Like the Devils, they have a vast amount of cap space. They have a nice defensive core already in Rasmus Ristolainen and Zach Bogosian. Buffalo is very young, so Shattenkirk would have to be patient with them.

Montreal Canadiens – No surpise here, but Montreal needs to shore up their defense. They have space with $21 million, but there hasn’t been a lot of mutual interest. Plus, if they deal Alex Galchenyuk and lose Alexander Radulov, they may need to prioritize finding some forward help.

 

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