Tag Archives: Maroon

New Jersey Devils 2018-2019 Season Preview

New Jersey Devils

44-29-9, 97 points, fifth in the Metropolitan Division

Additions: RW Kurtis Gabriel, D Eric Gryba, D John Ramage, F Eric Tangradi, D Egor Yakovlev

Subtractions: G Ken Appleby (signed by Manitoba, AHL), C Christoph Bertschy (signed with Lausanne, NL), D Yaroslav Dyblenko (released; signed by SKA Saint Petersburg, KHL; traded to Spartak Moscow, KHL), F Brian Gibbons (signed by ANA), W Michael Grabner (signed by ARI), RW Jimmy Hayes (signed by PIT), C Bracken Kearns (signed by Black Wings Linz, EBEL), C Michael Latta (signed by Kunlun Red Star, KHL), LW Mario Lucia (signed by Stavanger Oilers, GET-ligaen), LW Patrick Maroon (signed by STL), D John Moore (signed by BOS), F Ben Thomson (signed by San Diego, AHL)

Offseason Analysis: As tempting as it is for me to use this preview to just write about how much I enjoy watching D Will Butcher play, I must resist.

Oops… Not a good start.

It may not look like it from the length of the lists above, but the Devils were actually pretty quiet this summer. Of all the players departing the organization, only Gibbons and Moore logged more than 50 games played with the senior club last season (59 and 81, respectively), meaning General Manager Ray Shero needed to find only one forward and one defenseman – whether from outside the system or within – to complete his 2018-19 roster.

With Gibbons’ hole residing on Jersey’s fourth line, there’s no doubt that just about any forward in the system is going to have the opportunity to audition for the role. However, leading favorites to claim the job as their own include RW Joseph Anderson and C Michael McLeod.

Selected with the 12th-overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, McLeod was the Devils’ first round selection from the Mississauga Steelheads. The hometown hero played four seasons with the Steelheads (including being named captain for two campaigns) to amass solid 76-131-207 totals in 215 regular season OHL games, highlighted by a 27-46-73 effort in 2016-17.

Speaking of that 2016-17 season, McLeod took the Steelheads all the way to the OHL Finals that season with an impressive 11-16-27 performance in 20 playoff games played. Mississauga cruised through the first three rounds of the tournament, dropping only three tilts before running into an Erie side that eliminated them in five games to claim the J. Ross Robertson Cup.

Devils fans should already be familiar with McLeod’s name, as there was an outside shot that he could have turned pro last season instead of returning home for a final season in juniors. However, he suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee during a preseason game with New Jersey last year that required surgery, so the logical course of action for the youngster’s rehabilitation was to keep him away from the bigger bodies in the professional ranks.

Also selected in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, Anderson was picked in the third round from the United States National Team Development Program. At 20-years-old, Anderson has spent the last two seasons playing for the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs. In 75 games played with the Bulldogs, Anderson posted 23-41-64 totals, including solid 12-25-37 marks during his freshman year.

Of note, both of Anderson’s seasons in Duluth ended with the Bulldogs playing for the NCAA Championship. In 2017, the Bulldogs fell to the Denver Pioneers 3-2, but not until he posted solid 2-5-7 totals in the four-game tournament – including the primary assist on F Alex Iafallo‘s power play goal in the second period that set the score at 2-1 in Denver’s favor.

2018 was a much more memorable experience for Anderson’s squad, as the Bulldogs beat the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 2-1 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Anderson failed to register a single point in the tournament last year after a season that saw him experience a bit of a sophomore slump, so I’ll be interested to see if his declining numbers are a sign of what is to come for his career or if he can use it as motivation to rejuvenate his play now that he is a pro.

As for the Devils’ hole on the blue line, it is likely that last year’s seventh defenseman, Steven Santini, will earn the promotion into consistent minutes. Over the past two seasons, Santini has made 74 appearances, averaging 18:07 per game. In those outings, he’s managed 4-13-17 totals, including last season’s 2-8-10 marks in 36 showings.

If Santini can’t prove his worth, I’d peg D Mirco Mueller – who’s likely going to be staying with the senior club as either the sixth or seventh defenseman – to steal the show. He played in 28 games with the Devils last season, averaging 16:41 per game and tacking on four assists.

One problem with being so quiet this summer is that RFA LW Miles Wood, New Jersey’s fourth-best goalscorer from a year ago with his 19-13-32 totals, has not been resigned yet. As such, he has not yet reported to training camp (I mean, who can blame him? I wouldn’t show up to work either if I didn’t have a job.), but I have a hard time believing an agreement won’t be reached sooner or later. Shero has over $18 million in cap space to play with for this season, and he’ll want to lock Wood up in anticipation of the 10 players reaching the end of their contracts following this campaign.

Offseason Grade: B

With such a young team that looks like it still has much room to grow, there wasn’t much reason to make too many moves this offseason considering the Devils made the playoffs ahead of schedule (at least in the opinion of some). New Jersey will earn a promotion to at least a B+ the minute it gets Wood under contract.

St. Louis Blues 2018-2019 Season Preview

St. Louis Blues

44-32-6, 94 points, fifth in the Central Division

Additions: C Tyler Bozak, F Brian Flynn, G Chad Johnson, D Joey LaLeggia, LW Patrick Maroon, D Niko Mikkola, F Jordan Nolan, F Ryan O’Reilly, W David Perron, D Tyler Wotherspoon

Subtractions: RW Beau Bennett (signed with Dinamo Minsk, KHL), F Patrik Berglund (traded to BUF), C Kyle Brodziak (signed with EDM), G Carter Hutton (signed with BUF), D Petteri Lindbohm (signed with Lausanne, NL), C Wade Megan (signed with DET), F Vladimir Sobotka (traded to BUF), F Tage Thompson (traded to BUF)

Offseason Analysis: The best metaphor for the Blues’ offseason just might be a fishing analogy.

While there was certainly a big fish to be caught (for those still in the dark, Toronto signing C John Tavares is by far the catch of the summer), General Manager Doug Armstrong won the volume competition, as he cast a wide net and brought in at least four offensive additions that should see significant playing time this season.

And that’s not to say Armstrong simply acquired anyone willing to move to the Gateway to the West. To continue our fishing analogy, Armstrong’s nets had large holes to grab only the biggest of names available this summer.

Bozak and Perron represent St. Louis’ primary signings from the summer’s free agency frenzy. Bozak, a player coming off posting 11-32-43 totals in Toronto last season, and Perron, who scored 16-50-66 marks (by far a career-high in assists) with the Western Conference champion Vegas Golden Knights, were both signed on July 1 and would have represented an excellent offseason simply between themselves.

Maroon, who has posted more than 40 points in both of his last two seasons, was signed nine days later to a one-year deal, but it was really the July 1 trade with the Sabres for O’Reilly that set the Blues apart and set such high expectations. For the price of two bottom-nine forwards, a prospect, and two draft picks (a first in 2019 and a second in 2021), the Blues added a legitimate top-six center that has posted at least 55 points in six of his last seven seasons (an injury limited his action to only 29 games in 2012-13).

Fifty-five points, with his best being a 64-point effort in 2013-14? Aren’t expectations a little high that he’ll be the one to propel the Notes back into the playoffs?

We need to remember that O’Reilly has only played for Colorado (2009-2015) and Buffalo (2015-2018) during his career – neither of which I would say were exactly abounding in talent during his tenures. Should he earn the role of starting center (as many expect he will) over F Brayden Schenn, he’ll be playing alongside one of the best right wings in the league in Vladimir Tarasenko and up-and-coming 26-year-old F Jaden Schwartz, who posted 14-21-35 totals in 30 games to open the season before suffering a lower-body injury that sidelined him for more than a month.

If we’re looking for something that smells fishy, I’d sooner look to St. Louis’ goaltending situation. Far and away, the Notes’ best netminder last season was Hutton with his 17-7-3 record on a .931 save percentage and 2.09 GAA. Instead of resigning him, Armstrong allowed him to take his talents to the Queen City, leading to former Sabres goalie Johnson making his way to the Gateway City.

With no new starter in sight (23-year-old G Ville Husso still needs more time in the AHL to develop), that means G Jake Allen (who just yesterday was reported to be struggling with back spasms that will keep him off the ice for much of training camp) will regain his starting job even though he managed only a 27-25-3 record on an abysmal .906 save percentage and 2.75 GAA last season.

For at least the last two campaigns, Allen has made a horrendous habit of falling into cold streaks that extend longer than a month. In 19 appearances between December 12 and March 8 last season, Allen managed a terrible 2-14-0 record on a .897 save percentage and 3.17 GAA.

For a team with aspirations as high as the Blues’, I’m surprised this issue was not given more attention to result in a better acquisition than Johnson. While the goalie free agent market was fairly lean, Armstrong showed he was willing to make a blockbuster trade when he made the O’Reilly deal. Instead, this entire season rests firmly on Allen’s shoulders, as his incredible defense (the Blues’ 29.7 shots allowed last season was best in the Western Conference) can do only so much before he has to make a save.

Offseason Grade: B+

There’s no doubt the Blues were unhappy missing the playoffs last season. However, while they certainly did more than enough to improve an attack that already boasted three 20-goal scorers (Tarasenko, Schenn and Schwartz), I have major concerns with Allen getting handed the reins after being arguably the biggest problem last season. If he can’t rise to the challenge and return to his 2015-2016 form that led the Notes to second in the Central Division (remember, G Brian Elliott was in net when that team went all the way to the Western Finals), all this offseason work was for naught.


As a bonus interesting note, Perron has never signed a contract with any club other than the St. Louis Blues, even though he’s worn four other crests in his career and is embarking upon his third stint with the organization.

I don’t know how important that is, but now you’ll have an answer if you’re ever posed with that trivia question at your local watering hole.

2018 Offseason Preview: New Jersey Devils

Now that the current Colorado franchise is out of the way, next up in DtFR’s offseason previews are the former Colorado Rockies: the New Jersey Devils!

Ending a five-year playoff drought is hard, but maintaining and growing upon that success can often be harder.

Such is the situation facing this young Devils squad headlined by Hart-finalist F Taylor Hall. New Jersey finished the season with a 44-29-9 record that was good enough for fifth place in the Metropolitan Division and eighth in the Eastern Conference, staving off the Florida Panthers by only a lone point for the second wild card.

One of Jersey’s best strengths was its special teams, both of which were ranked among the top-nine in the NHL. However, the next step for this club is to improve its average play at even-strength, the status at which most action takes place.

2018 NHL Entry Draft

To help the Devils in that effort,  they have the opportunity to take advantage of this deep draft class with the 17th-overall selection. Especially given their cap flexibility (New Jersey has almost $20 million in space available for this season, and that only grows even higher until no current players are under contract for the 2023-24 season), there’s certainly potential the Devils could flip this pick for a major return in NHL-ready talent.

However, lets assume that General Manager Ray Shero wants to keep this pick, shall we?

Should he do just that, I think Shero will select D Adam Ginning (Linköping HC), D Ty Smith (Spokane Chiefs), C Akil Thomas (Niagara IceDogs) or D Bode Wilde (USNTDP).

Smith and Wilde represent yet another two-way defenseman option for a team that already employs the services of D Will Butcher and D Sami Vatanen, while Ginning is definitely of the traditional, stay-at-home variety.

Should Thomas end up being the most attractive option to Shero, he certainly won’t be disappointed. In his first two seasons in the OHL, Thomas has proven to be a 20+ goal scorer, and he’s also vastly improved at his puck distribution in this most recent season with 59 assists to his credit (32 more than his rookie campaign).

Chances are slim Thomas would be ready for the NHL this season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he ripens a bit quicker than his peers. After all, his 81 points this season exceed that of presumed No. 2 overall pick RW Andrei Svechnikov (72 points) and barely trail Czech LW Filip Zadina (82 points).

Pending free agents

Like Uncle Ben said in Spider-Man: “With great cap flexibility comes many new contracts.”

Something along those lines.

Looking just at the Devils forwards, eight players are pending free agents that need to be addressed before July 1. F Brian Gibbons, W Michael Grabner, RW Jimmy Hayes, W Patrick Maroon and W Drew Stafford are all currently slated to test unrestricted free agency, while F Blake Coleman, RW Stefan Noesen and LW Miles Wood are of the restricted variety.

Without a doubt, signing Maroon needs to be among Shero’s biggest priorities, as the former Oiler (how many of those currently play for the Devils?) provided .58 points per game last season – a mark that is made even better when only considering his production with New Jersey (.76 points per game in 17 contests). While Maroon’s 27-goal total from the 2016-17 season did drop off by 10 tallies last year, his usual production in even-strength play is just the help the Devils could use to improve.

10 players provided .58 points per game last season, amassing an average salary of over $3.25 million (three players earned $6 million). With 30-year-old Maroon coming off a three-year, $2 million deal, any contract under $4 million should be a win in Shero’s book.

27 goals in each of the last two seasons have seen Grabner revitalize his career just in time to test free agency and improve on the two-year, $1.65 million contract he signed with the Rangers a couple summers ago.

A pure goalscorer is a weapon Jersey could certainly use for a full season (unless you consider fellow pending free agent Gibbons’ 12 goals on 72 shots [.167 shooting percentage] to qualify him for sniper status), but there has to be fear that the Devils could end up with the same Grabner Toronto did three years ago: one making $3 million, but providing only nine markers and 18 points.

An interesting note in Grabner’s contract negotiation – whether it’s with New Jersey or any of the other 30 teams – will be the status of Stanley Cup champions W Andre Burakovsky and RW Tom Wilson. Both also finished their seasons with .45 points per game and will undoubtedly be receiving raises on their respective $3 million and $2 million contracts given their new hardware. If either are signed before Grabner, he’ll surely try to use their contracts as a benchmark in his own negotiations.

On the surface, a final 30-year-old worth a look is Gibbons, the player who brilliantly returned to the NHL last season after a 2.6-year stint in the AHL. Gibbons posted a breakout campaign with 12-14-26 totals in 59 games played. However, after suffering a broken right thumb in late January that required over a month to heal, he returned to provide only three assists in his last 16 showings (that includes the two playoff games against Tampa he participated in).

If it seems like he’s fully healed from that injury and ready to be a potent scoring threat from a bottom-six position, then perhaps Gibbons is worth another contract similar to the one-year, $650 thousand deal he played on last season. If not, Shero would be wise to let another team make the mistake of signing him based on his overall season statistics.

Simply put, neither Hayes and Stafford are worth big money. Shero can certainly afford to sign them to low-cost contracts, but he could also find players of a same or higher quality on the free agent market.

Wood represents the Devils’ best RFA, and at 23-years-old (as of September 13), he’ll likely get another contract. He’s coming off a three-year, $925 thousand contract and will likely receive a $1-1.5 million bridge contract.

John Moore and Steven Santini represent Jersey’s two defensive free agents, with the former being a pending UFA and the latter being a pending RFA. Both played top-four minutes per game last season, as well as averaging at least .22 points per game. They’re both worth new contracts.

Deal(t) with the Devil: Tampa fends off scrappy New Jersey to take Game 1

 

Funny thing, hockey.

In one corner we have the Atlantic Division champion Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that for long stretches of the year looked nigh-on immortal, and made ritual of beating basically everyone who dared stand in their path.

In the other corner stands a New Jersey squad that just squeaked into the playoffs in a wild card spot, have a roster with almost as many ‘misfit toys’ as the upstart Golden Knights, and… went undefeated against the Lightning in the regular season?

Well. Color me interested.

The Devils made a season of being the eternal underdogs. Apart from Hart Trophy favorite Taylor Hall, they really don’t possess much in the way of name value. Goaltender Cory Schneider spent much of the year hurt, and struggled upon his return. But career-backup Keith Kinkaid won 26 games this year (he’d won just 23 in four previous seasons combined) and stole the starting job heading into the playoffs.

New Jersey headed into Amalie Arena as perhaps the biggest underdogs in all the playoffs, and for good reason. Tampa Bay is as deadly a hockey team as you’ll find in the NHL today, boasting four stellar lines, six quality defensemen, and a Vezina candidate goaltender. For the first half of this game, the script went just as the numbers suggested it should.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper elected to start the game with his fourth line, and John Hynes elected to follow suit. It gave the start of the game some energy, and showed that neither coach is afraid to try something a bit off-the-beaten-path.

Apart from a follow-through on an attempted shot by Miles Wood treating Bolts defenseman Mikhail Sergachev to a bloody nose, the first few minutes passed without many notable incidents or quality chances, but saw Tampa controlling a good portion of the play. As the clock neared halfway point of the period, Tampa began to settle in and the chances started coming.

First it was Yanni Gourde chipping a loose puck past a pinching defender to create a two-on-one. The winger streaked into the zone and put Kinkaid out into about the fourth row of seats with a beautiful move, but just couldn’t quite direct the puck into the yawning cage as it rolled off the end of his stick. He wouldn’t need to wait long for another chance, as on his line’s next shift he corralled a loose puck out of a netfront scramble, but Kinkaid was able to track it through the mess of sticks and skates to shut the door on #37.

The very next faceoff saw a bouncing puck lure Kinkaid out of the blue paint while attempting to cover up, and the puck ended up coming right to – you guessed it – Gourde who wasn’t quite able to control it and get a shot away.

Finally at the 15:00 mark it would be Tampa’s second line going to work down low in the zone and Tyler Johnson would feed Ondrej Palat from below the goal line, and after a quick set of dekes the 2016 playoffs standout lifted a backhand shot over the pad of Kinkaid to put the Lightning up 1-0.

Still, the Bolts kept coming. Anthony Cirelli nearly scored on a wraparound with 2:30 to play, but the toe of Kinkaid was equal to the task.

Finally New Jersey got a quality chance, as Vasilevskiy turned the puck over attempting to play it behind his net, but was able to recover in time to cover up as everyone crashed the net and a scrum ensued.

With 28 seconds left to play, it would be Tampa’s second line again making plays deep in the offensive zone, this time with Palat and Brayden Point forcing a turnover, and Palat sending a perfect pass to the tape of a driving Johnson who made no mistakes and buried it over the glove of Kinkaid.

Shot clock only read a two-shot advantage (13-11) to Tampa at the end of one, but the quality chances were all on one end of the ice.

The momentum would continue in Tampa’s favor at the beginning of the second period, as an early power play opportunity presented itself and they made sure to cash in. Gourde, on what by my count was about his 42nd quality scoring chance of the game, hammered home a slam-dunk after a ridiculous kick-pass across the netmouth by Palat to put the home team up by three.

The very next shift is when things began to change, as Michael Grabner and Pat Maroon would combine for about three legitimate bids in quick succession, but Vasilevskiy was able to turn them all aside. Later in the frame it would be New Jersey with a power play opportunity, where they’d get three or four high-quality chances that Vasilevskiy had the answers to.

Finally with just over six minutes to play in the second, Hall (because who else?) would crack the goose egg and get his team on the board, pouncing on an egregious defensive zone turnover by Palat and burying the opportunity before Vasilevskiy could get set.

The Devils didn’t let up, nearly scoring again with just over a minute remaining on a big-time deflection (chest height to the ice in the blink of an eye) on a Mirco Mueller point shot that Vasilevskiy somehow managed to track and react to, kicking out the right pad in a flash and gobbling up the rebound to prevent further chaos.

Capitalizing on the big momentum shift, New Jersey heavily outshot the boys in blue to lead on the shot clock 26-20 after 40 minutes, hoping to carry it into the third and try to close down the two-goal margin.

Carry it into the third they did not. The Bolts would tally the first seven shots of the period, and at one point briefly thought they had scored when Alex Killorn tipped a shot at the side of the net that Kinkaid just barely managed to keep out (Killorn even momentarily raised his arms in celebration). The third line kept the Devils hemmed in their own zone after the near-miss, and finally a dominating shift came to an end when Gourde (obviously) took a cross-ice pass from Cirelli off of a turnover and ripped a one-time blast just over the crossbar and out of play. New Jersey would not register a single shot until nearly 9:30 into the third period.

But, at 9:35 of the third, Jersey’s second shot of the period was a power play goal by Travis Zajac (one of only two players on either roster to have played the last time these two teams met in the playoffs 11 years ago*) who deflected a beautifully-sold shot-pass by Hall just over the glove of Vasilevskiy to drag the visitors to within one.

*The other was Andy Greene

Now Tampa is on the back foot. New Jersey is charging. Can they complete the comeback? How will the Lightning survive the onslaught?

Oh hey look, it’s that Killorn-Cirelli-Gourde line again.

Yes, the unstoppable force known as Tampa’s third line did it again, this time with Gourde forcing a turnover by Maroon at the blueline, then leading his linemates on a three-on-two rush up the ice, eventually feeding it to the trailer Killorn in the high slot. Cirelli drove the net to create the diversion, but Kinkaid was never catching up to this one anyhow. PING goes the crossbar, an absolute laser by the Harvard grad restores the two-goal lead just under two minutes after it had been erased.

Tampa followed their goal with a solid fourth-line shift, capped off by a thundering check on Hall by the playoffs’ only four-time Cup winner Chris Kunitz, and the Devils star would be slow to his feet, though he would finish the game.

Kinkaid retreated to the bench with 2:30 to play, but it would be all-for-not, as with 1:12 left Nikita Kucherov (who had been mostly silent until that point) dangled a Devils defender and waltzed in to bury the dagger.

At the final horn, a good deal of pushing and shoving came about, with the Devils hoping to set a tone heading into Game 2 (which I’ll just so happen to be covering, as well) on Saturday afternoon.

The story of this game was really a tale of two major plots.

First was simply the unbridled speed of Tampa Bay. New Jersey is arguably one of maybe two teams in the league that have a legitimate shot at keeping up with Tampa’s pace, and in this one they were totally outclassed. If they can’t find a way to clog things up and slow the Bolts down, they are going to be in trouble.

Second, and probably the even more daunting challenge, is the sheer depth of the Lightning lineup. The Devils did a spectacular job of silencing Tampa’s lethal #1 line of J.T. Miller – Steven Stamkos – Kucherov, but the Devils simply don’t have the same top-to-bottom quality that the Bolts depth chart possesses.

Palat-Point-Johnson is a top line on probably a third of other NHL squads.

Killorn-Cirelli-Gourde is an impossible speed/skill matchup for nearly any other third line.

Kunitz-Paquette-Callahan will forecheck whatever is left of you into the ground.

Tack on one of the best one-through-six defense corps in the league, and it’s borderline impossible for any club to gain a matchup advantage, especially on the road where the home team gets last change.

Nothing is impossible in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but New Jersey is going to need some help from the hockey gods from the looks of things.

March 23 – Day 163 – A Devil of an opportunity

Loverboy says everybody’s “Working for the Weekend,” but is it truly work playing hockey?

In anticipation of said weekend, only five games are on this Friday’s schedule. The action gets started at 7 p.m. with two tilts (Montréal at Buffalo [RDS/TSN2] and New Jersey at Pittsburgh [NHLN/TVAS]), followed by another pair (Vancouver at St. Louis and Anaheim at Winnipeg) an hour later. Finally, Boston at Dallas completes the evening’s festivities with their 8:30 p.m. matchup. All times Eastern.

The Devils caught a break with Florida losing yesterday, but they’re still far from clinching a berth into the postseason. Let’s see how they fare tonight against Pittsburgh.

 

Tonight’s fixture is the finale of a six-game road trip for the 37-28-8 Devils. While the jaunt – which took them all the way to California and back in the span of 10 days – was an overall success (they’ve gone 3-2-0 so far, with victories over Nashville, Vegas and Los Angeles), a win tonight would certainly earn the trip a stamp of approval from Head Coach John Hynes.

There’s been little flashy about New Jersey during this road swing, but sometimes that’s all a team needs to find six points while clad in white.

Take, for example, the Devils’ offense. Averaging 3.4 goals over their last five games, the attack has certainly been the backbone of the Devils’ game lately, but it ranks only (t)12th-best in the league since March 10.

Far and away, my favorite Devil during this road trip has been LW Patrick Maroon, who’s posted 1-3-4 totals over his last four showings (he missed March 17’s game in Los Angeles with a lower body injury) to improve his season marks to 16-22-38 and be the only Jersey player to average a point per game since March 10. Even though he plays on the fourth line, the fact that he has F Brian Boyle (13-10-23 season totals) and F Blake Coleman (10-10-20) as linemates has given the Devils a potent attack regardless of which trio is on the ice.

As for New Jersey’s defense, we need look no further than tonight’s starter, 19-10-2 G Keith Kinkaid. Though he began the season as the Devils’ clear backup, 17-15-6 G Cory Schneider‘s struggles since returning from injury have given Kinkaid the opportunity to shine.

And shine he has. In his last four starts, Kinkaid has posted an impressive .932 save percentage and 2.42 GAA, even though he’s playing behind a defense that has allowed an eighth-worst 35.4 shots against per game since March 10. This recent run of success has improved his season marks to a .908 save percentage and 2.9 GAA.

Meanwhile, the 42-27-5 Penguins have fallen into a bit of a slump lately. Since March 7, Pittsburgh has posted only a 4-2-1 record that looks better than the club has actually played, as the Pens have alternated wins with losses over their last seven games.

If that trend continues tonight, the Pens should be concerned considering they beat the Habs Wednesday… But I digress.

The blame for the inconsistent play definitely does not lie on the shoulders of the Penguins’ skaters. Pittsburgh is averaging an impressive 3.43 goals per game since March 7 (ninth-best in the league in that time), due in large part to the stellar play of the two-headed monster known as F Evgeni Malkin (4-5-9 totals since March 7, 41-50-91 overall) and C Sidney Crosby (2-7-9 since March 7, 24-55-79 overall).

Similarly, the defense has also been solid lately, as Pittsburgh has allowed only 27.86 shots against per game over its last seven showings – the fourth-best mark in the NHL since March 7. D Olli Maatta (2.1 blocks per game since March 7) and D Jamie Oleksiak (3.3 hits per game over the past seven games) have played major roles in that success.

Instead the biggest issue for the Pens has been their goaltending. 5-4-1 G Casey DeSmith has earned most of the starts during this run, posting a .911 save percentage and 2.39 GAA in his four showings.

However, that situation got a major face lift Tuesday when 23-14-2 G Matt Murray resumed his starting duties after a month-long hiatus. Though he lost that game against the Islanders 4-1, his playoff experience and .909 season save percentage and 2.83 GAA is an immediate improvement over anything DeSmith can offer.

Trailing Washington by only four points, Pittsburgh is still eyeing the top spot in the Metropolitan Division, but more pressing issues have arisen following Columbus’ dominating 4-0 victory over the Panthers last night. With those two points, the Blue Jackets are now tied with the Penguins at 89 points, but the Pens still have tonight’s game in hand to pull back ahead. If Pittsburgh wants to stave off the streaking Jackets for home ice in the first round, it desperately needs to win tonight’s game.

As for the Devils, they’re also facing some serious pressure in the standings, though last night’s win by Columbus was also a win for them. New Jersey is clinging to a one-point advantage over Florida for the second wild card, but the ninth-place Panthers still have a game in hand that will double to two following tonight’s festivities. Any type of loss – even one that sees the Devils earn a point – by Jersey tonight puts a major damper on its playoff aspirations.

Through the first two meetings in the four-game series between these sides, the Devils have had a clear advantage over tonight’s hosts. They first squared off on February 3 at Prudential Center, where New Jersey earned a 3-1 victory (C Travis Zajac scored two goals, including the game-winner, in a three-point night). 24 days later, the Devils won again – this time with a 3-2 score at PPG Paints Arena (RW Stefan Noesen provided the lone tally in the third period to win the game).

This is a tough game to predict, but I’m leaning towards the Devils earning two points tonight. They seem to have had the Penguins’ number so far this season, and I think they’re champing at the bit to capitalize on Florida’s loss last night.


I expected a competitive back-and-forth matchup in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day at Nationwide Arena, but the Columbus Blue Jackets instead elected to dismantle the Florida Panthers 4-0 for their 10th-straight victory.

With a perfect 33-save performance, G Sergei Bobrovsky earned First Star of the Game honors as well as his 34th win of the season.

Unfortunately for G Roberto Luongo, he was not so lucky as he managed only 29 saves on 32 shots faced (.906 save percentage). Though he escaped from the first period without allowing a goal, Second Star RW Cam Atkinson (LW Artemi Panarin) needed only 59 seconds after the first intermission to score what proved to be the game-winning goal.

Turnovers have a way of being especially deadly during the second period when the long change is in effect. That point was no more apparent than when Panarin intercepted C Aleksander Barkov‘s lazy tap pass towards center ice. After ensuring he could get the puck back into his offensive zone without going offside, the Breadman drove towards Luongo’s crease before sliding a pass to Atkinson when they were even with the face-off dots, allowing him to beat the leaning netminder to the left post with a snap shot.

2:21 after the horn stopped blaring for Atkinson, F Sonny Milano (LW Matt Calvert and Third Star F Pierre-Luc Dubois) doubled the Jackets’ lead with a snapper, followed by D Seth Jones (Atkinson and Dubois) burying a power play slap shot at the 5:42 mark to give Columbus a swift three-goal advantage.

W Thomas Vanek completed the game’s scoring with an unassisted wrist shot on an empty net with 2:25 remaining in regulation, setting the 4-0 final score.

With the Blue Jackets’ home victory, the 90-53-20 hosts in the DtFR Game of the Day series have earned their 200th point of the season, a mark that is superior to the visitors’ mark by 35 points.

2018 Trade Deadline Preview: Metropolitan Division

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1. Washington Capitals– 31-17-5 (67 points, 53 GP)

After spending a couple of months figuring themselves out and weathering the storm that’s been Braden Holtby‘s second-to-last career worst season (his 2.76 goals against average and .915 save percentage in 39 games played are better and the same as his 2013-14 2.85 GAA and .915 SV% in 48 games played respectively).

It’s a bit of an off year for Washington, but even an off year for the Capitals is still a pretty good season, considering they’re currently first in a division that is more active than a lava lamp in terms of rising and falling.

Washington has a plus-11 goal differential through 53 games played despite the loss of Marcus Johansson in a trade with the New Jersey Devils this offseason and an injured Andre Burakovsky seeing limited time so far. That doesn’t even mention the loss of depth for the Capitals last July either– remember Justin Williams (signed with Carolina) and Karl Alzner (signed with Montreal)?

Luckily for the Capitals they only have about $412,000 in cap space as I write, so their trade deadline plans are pretty much already determined for them.

If they’re able to dump a guy like Brooks Orpik— and his $5.500 million cap hit that runs through next season– that would provide the organization with some much needed relief.

Potential assets to trade: F Jay Beagle, D Brooks Orpik

Potential assets to acquire: D Cody Franson (CHI), D Mike Green (DET), F Mark Letestu (EDM), F Patrick Maroon (EDM), D Nick Holden (NYR), D Ian Cole (PIT), F Thomas Vanek (VAN)

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2. Pittsburgh Penguins– 30-22-3 (63 points, 55 GP)

After bouncing around the Metropolitan Division standings, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins are currently four points behind first place in the division.

Much like his rival in Washington, Matthew Murray is having a season to forget. Injuries and the death of his father have taken a toll on the two-time Cup winning goaltender, limiting Murray to just 34 games thus far with a 2.97 GAA and .903 SV% (again, both career worsts– though he is in just his second full season since his 13 GP in 2015-16).

Despite their plus-three goal differential and gifted scorer (turned 2018 All-Star snub), Phil Kessel (24-41–65 totals in 55 games), the Penguins have been porous on defense. Pittsburgh’s best defenseman, Kris Letang, is a minus-15 through 52 games played.

Only Justin Schultz (plus-5, 38 GP) and Jamie Oleksiak (plus-6, 20 GP– split between Dallas and Pittsburgh) are positive plus/minus blue liners.

Since November, Pittsburgh has been trying to move defenseman, Ian Cole– though head coach, Mike Sullivan, has been forced to play him (thereby keeping him on the Penguins roster) due to injuries affecting Schultz and friends.

Antti Niemi didn’t pan out and bring stable backup goaltending to the Steel City (he’s since departed via waivers to Florida, then Montreal). Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith have been left to pick up the tab with some impressive performances at times.

Midseason acquisitions F Riley Sheahan, as well as Oleksiak, have not been enough to fill holes left by Nick Bonino (the forward signed with Nashville in July) and Trevor Daley (left via free agency, landed in Detroit) respectively.

But with roughly $425,000 in cap space to work with currently, the Penguins can’t afford to make much noise on February 26th– but they should definitely snag a defenseman and rental backup goaltender.

Potential assets to trade: D Ian Cole, D Brian Dumoulin, F Tom Kuhnhackl, F Carl Hagelin, D Matt Hunwick, F Riley Sheahan

Potential assets to acquire: F Sam Reinhart (BUF), D Cody Franson (CHI), D Mike Green (DET), F Mark Letestu (EDM), F Patrick Maroon (EDM), F Michael Grabner (NYR), D Nick Holden (NYR), F Derick Brassard (OTT), F Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT), G Aaron Dell (SJ), D Erik Gudbranson (VAN), F Thomas Vanek (VAN), D Jason Garrison (VGK), G Michael Hutchinson (WPG)

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3. New Jersey Devils– 27-17-8 (62 points, 52 GP)

New Jersey has almost $8.000 million to work with currently as things approach the trade deadline at the end of the month.

The Devils are one of the biggest surprises this season east of the Mississippi River.

First overall pick in the 2017 draft, Nico Hischier, has been quietly setting the tone with forwards, Miles Wood, Jesper Bratt and Pavel Zacha in the resurgence of youth. Travis Zajac is back in his dominant, physical, ways and the Sami VatanenAdam Henrique trade has worked out quite well for both teams.

And that’s not even mentioning Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri.

Will Butcher is quite the offensive threat on the blue line and John Moore is firing on all cylinders. Despite Marcus Johansson’s concussion, New Jersey hasn’t faced much adversity in overcoming injuries this year.

There’s a lot of cap room to work with, but not a whole lot that this team can really give up to bring in the best guys on the trade market, like Evander Kane, unless the Devils are comfortable parting ways with prospects and draft picks (spoiler alert, they might be).

New Jersey really should be in the hunt for Kane, Rick Nash, Max Pacioretty, David Perron and other great offensive assets– either as the front-runner or the stealthy dark-horse that’ll make one or two big moves to carry them to glory.

The Devils have the time and space to add a veteran forward or defenseman that might eat some salary, but put them lightyears beyond their Metropolitan counterparts.

It’s a buyers market.

Potential assets to trade: F Ben Coleman, F Jimmy Hayes, D Ben Lovejoy, F Drew Stafford

Potential assets to acquire: F Evander Kane (BUF), D Tyson Barrie (COL), D Mike Green (DET), F Patrick Maroon (EDM), F Alex Galchenyuk (MTL), F Max Pacioretty (MTL), F Michael Grabner (NYR), D Ryan McDonagh (NYR), F Rick Nash (NYR), F Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT), F Tyler Bozak (TOR), G Aaron Dell (SJ), F Thomas Vanek (VAN), F James Neal (VGK), F David Perron (VGK), G Michael Hutchinson (WPG)

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4. Philadelphia Flyers– 25-19-9 (59 points, 53 GP)

Aside from the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Vegas Golden Knights, the Philadelphia Flyers are one of the hottest teams in the league right now.

Goaltender, Brian Elliott, has found his top-notch form once again while Travis Konecny and Claude Giroux are rolling along. With almost $3.000 million to spend at the deadline, the Flyers could make some improvements to their team.

Trading away Brayden Schenn was costly for Philadelphia this offseason, but thankfully Jakub Voracek and the rest of the roster decided to pick up some of the points left behind by Schenn’s departure.

Adding Jori Lehtera, on the other hand, was a big mistake– both in production value and in cap management.

The Flyers could really solidify their offense with one or two moves and probably should anchor their defense with at least a depth blue liner or two coming down the stretch. Someone like David Perron, Patrick Maroon or Nic Petan could flourish in the Philly system. Meanwhile, a defenseman like Cody Franson would help put them over the edge if someone’s injured.

Potential assets to trade: D Radko Gudas, F Jori Lehtera, F Matt Read, F Dale Weise

Potential assets to acquire: D Cody Franson (CHI), D Jack Johnson (CBJ), F Mark Letestu (EDM), F Patrick Maroon (EDM), D Nick Holden (NYR), F David Perron (VGK), F Nic Petan (WPG)

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5. Columbus Blue Jackets– 27-22-4 (58 points, 53 GP)

After getting a fast start out of the gate the Columbus Blue Jackets have really cooled off. It’s not that they’re a bad team, but rather, they’re just average.

Sergei Bobrovsky can’t stop the puck and play every other position too. Otherwise, the Blue Jackets would probably be first in the division. But good news, Columbus, you’ve got some cap space to work with at the end of the month.

As I write, the Blue Jackets have about $5.000 million to work with in cap room.

That’s good enough to bring in just about any player without considering what the future impact on the team his cap hit might have (unless Jarmo Kekalainen brings in a clear-cut rental player that won’t be re-signed in July). The point is this, Columbus has enough room to mess around with something valuable at the deadline, but they’re going to have to re-sign a plethora of core/future core pieces of the franchise this offseason.

The Blue Jackets aren’t doomed– they know their future plans more than anyone else.

But what could they bring in to make this team better? Someone. Is there anyone they could snag now and really shake things up as a contender moving forward? Short answer, yes.

For all of the return of Rick Nash to Columbus talk, well, that’s not ideal. Kekalainen should consider someone like Ryan McDonagh from the New York Rangers before taking back a guy like Nash– who will only break the franchise’s heart again in July when he goes back to the Rangers *bold prediction alert*.

Potential assets to trade: D Andre Benoit, D Jack Johnson

Potential assets to acquire: F Evander Kane (BUF), F Sam Reinhart (BUF)F Blake Comeau (COL), D Mike Green (DET), F Max Pacioretty (MTL), F Michael Grabner (NYR), D Ryan McDonagh (NYR), F Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT), F Mike Hoffman (OTT), F Thomas Vanek (VAN)

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6. New York Islanders– 26-22-6 (58 points, 54 GP)

The biggest question heading into the 2018 trade deadline for the New York Islanders is the same one that’s been asked since Steven Stamkos signed his extension with the Tampa Bay Lightning– will John Tavares re-sign with the Islanders?

New York has expressed that they are not looking to trade Tavares should things go detrimentally south between now and February 26th, but if things do…

The Islanders have almost $1.500 million in cap space to play around with before the deadline. They also have 13 pending free agents at season’s end, meaning there’s plenty of options the franchise could pursue.

Should Tavares get a raise and a long-term deal? Absolutely.

The  Islanders could pack it up and go home on this season given their injuries, lack of defense and well, let’s just say, things aren’t going so great for the team that ranks 31st (out of 31 NHL teams) in average attendance this season.

Or they could be active in trying to scrap together a good team centered around their current stars (Tavares, Mathew Barzal, Joshua Ho-Sang and others).

Potential assets to trade: F Josh Bailey, F Jason Chimera, F Casey Cizikas, D Thomas Hickey, D Dennis Seidenberg

Potential assets to acquire: F Sam Reinhart (BUF), D Tyson Barrie (COL), D Mike Green (DET), F Mark Letestu (EDM), F Patrick Maroon (EDM), F Alex Galchenyuk (MTL), F Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT), F Zack Smith (OTT), F Tyler Bozak (TOR), G Aaron Dell (SJ), F Thomas Vanek (VAN), D Erik Gudbranson (VAN), F David Perron (VGK)

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7. Carolina Hurricanes– 24-21-9 (57 points, 54 GP)

New Carolina Hurricanes owner, Tom Dundon, might call an audible heading into this year’s trade deadline and decide to spend money on the roster. With almost $15.500 million in cap space, the Hurricanes are in the best possible position to land not just one or two of the big names floating around the rumor mill, but rather three or four quality pieces.

The trouble is, who would they get rid of, since their prospects and youth are worth keeping for further development and overall organizational growth?

Jeff Skinner is someone to build around. So are Teuvo Teravainen, Sebastian Aho, Elias Lindholm and Victor Rask.

Lee Stempniak might make his annual trip around the league, but other than that, who are the Hurricanes actually going to offer up from their forwards? If anything, Carolina would move a guy like Noah Hanifin given the contract extensions (and pay raises) that kick in next season for Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin.

Regardless, though they’re not out of contention, the Hurricanes could really use a goaltender to pull them through the stretch. This whole Cam Ward/Scott Darling thing isn’t working out.

Potential assets to trade: G Scott Darling, D Noah Hanifin, F Lee Stempniak, F Derek Ryan, draft picks

Potential assets to acquire: F Evander Kane (BUF), G Robin Lehner (BUF), D Cody Franson (CHI), D Tyson Barrie (COL), D Jack Johnson (CBJ),  D Mike Green (DET), G Petr Mrazek (DET), F Max Pacioretty (MTL), F Tomas Plekanec (MTL), F David Desharnais (NYR), F Michael Grabner (NYR), D Ryan McDonagh (NYR), F Rick Nash (NYR), G Aaron Dell (SJ), F Thomas Vanek (VAN), F James Neal (VGK), F David Perron (VGK)

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8. New York Rangers– 25-24-5 (55 points, 54 GP)

Look, the New York Rangers are still (technically speaking) in contention– but they absolutely shouldn’t waste another year of Henrik Lundqvist‘s career in the National Hockey League without a Stanley Cup.

The team they have right now? Yeah, they aren’t winning.

They’ve aged out. The core’s been decimated by the Vegas expansion draft and some offseason moves (namely trading Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta to Arizona after losing Oscar Lindberg to Vegas in June).

Not every player is washed up.

Some will find better homes and rejuvenate their careers before potentially signing with the Rangers in free agency and going back “home” *ahem, Rick Nash*.

Others will simply be a superb rental/long term participant in a franchise, like Michael Grabner.

Basically I’m saying that all the guys New York’s been rumored to trade should get traded and the team can pull off a quick turnaround with their up-and-coming youth, plus whatever they get in return for Nash, Grabner and Co.

And with only about $1.400 million in cap space, the Rangers could have some fun blowing things up (partially).

Build around Mika Zibanejad and friends. Do it, New York. Do it now.

Potential assets to trade: F David Desharnais, F Michael Grabner, D Nick Holden, D Ryan McDonagh, F Rick Nash, G Ondrej Pavelec, D Marc Staal, F Jimmy Vesey, F Mats Zuccarello

Potential assets to acquire: D Tyson Barrie (COL), D Jack Johnson (CBJ), F Alex Galchenyuk (MTL), F Mike Hoffman (OTT), F Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT), F Zack Smith (OTT), G Aaron Dell (SJ), F James Neal (VGK), F David Perron (VGK)

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 3

Player of the Week: Jakub Voracek

Stealthy good. Not only an apt description of the big Flyers winger’s week (and season), but really of his entire career. Voracek has been one of the best ‘under-the-radar’ players in the league for some time, and this week he was really flying (pun somewhat intended). On a team that finished the week 1-2-0, Voracek was a major bright spot, tallying 2 points in every game. The Kladno, CZE native notched an assist on both Flyers goals in a 6-2 thumping against Anaheim, then tallied 1 & 1 in each of their next two contests (a 5-4 loss to Ottawa and 4-2 victory over Toronto). Oddly, not a single one of his 6 points in those 3 games came on the power play, an area where Voracek usually excels.

Side note: Though Voracek is currently 3rd in points in the entire league (trailing only Tampa’s dynamic duo of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov), those goals in back to back games were just his 1st and 2nd tallies of the year. He’s 2nd in the league in assists with 14.

Team of the Week: Los Angeles Kings

One of the league’s resident surprises, LA has surged to the top of the standings with a 9-1-1 record, and though they suffered their first regulation loss this week, it wasn’t enough to prevent them earning this recognition.

With 8 players having recorded at least 5 points so far in the young season, and a goaltending duo both boasting sub-2.00 GAAs and >.930 save percentages, the resurgent Kings are getting contributions from seemingly everyone. Dustin Brown has burst back to life after multiple subpar seasons, seemingly flourishing in the system of new coach John Stevens. Anze Kopitar continues to make an argument for being possibly the most undervalued center in the league, and youngster Adrian Kempe has been sublime.

Only a 3-2 loss to Toronto managed to blemish an otherwise-flawless week, as the Kings toppled Ottawa 3-2, Montreal 4-0, and Boston 2-1. A long summer and a fresh face behind the bench may have been just what the doctor ordered for the battle-weary club, and other clubs may need to start worrying about how to deal with a Cup-hungry LA franchise once again.

Game of the Week: Dallas Stars 4 @ Edmonton Oilers 5, Thursday October 26th

I admittedly have an affinity to games decided in extra frames when it comes to this award, but the Stars and Oilers simply put on a barn-burner too good to ignore.

One of those matchups that just looks like it’s going to be fun on paper (two high-octane offenses backed up by less-than-stellar defenses), this tilt certainly delivered. 9 goals (3 on the power play), 67 shots, 56 hits, and even a fight (okay, more of a facial reconstruction on Antoine Roussel by Eric Gryba), this one had plenty of everything.

The opening period started with a bit of a goaltending duel, with Ben Bishop and Cam Talbot both making a handful of quality stops in the opening half of the frame. But as a penalty to Ryan Strome was expiring just past the 11 minute mark, Leon Draisaitl collected a loose puck and fought through a check along the boards to push the puck ahead to the newly-freed Strome, who flicked a no-look backhand from the boards into the middle of the ice, feeding a streaking Connor McDavid in full stride, who proceeded to shelf the puck over the blocker side of Bishop to give the hometown Oilers the 1-0 lead. A see-saw contest would develop from there, as just over 1 minute later opposing captain Jamie Benn would bury a sweet feed from Alex Radulov to knot things up. Patrick Maroon would see a centering attempt turn into a goal after bouncing off the skate of Dallas defender Marc Methot and into the net with just 25 seconds to play in the opening frame, sending the Oil to the locker room with a 2-1 lead.

Radulov and Benn would both tally power-play goals in the 2nd, with a Ryan Nugent-Hopkins goal splitting the two and sending the game into the 3rd period tied at 3. To break the streak of trading goals, Esa Lindell would bury Dallas’ 3rd PP tally after receiving a sweet cross-ice slap-pass from Jason Spezza just over halfway through the 3rd, giving the Stars their first lead of the night. Unfortunately for the Dallas faithful it would last just shy of 2 minutes, as RNH would net his second of the night to draw even at 4. Then with less than 3 to play, defenseman Matt Benning would give Draisaitl his 3rd assist of the night by burying a one-timer from the point (with a bit of help from the skate of Alexander Radulov) and giving the Oilers the final lead of the game.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Seriously, Golden Knights, about this Twitter campaign to be the next winning goaltender for your franchise? Oscar Dansk is 3-0-0 after being handed the starting job when both Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban went down with injuries, and boasts a ridiculous 1.34 GAA and .959 save percentage, along with a shutout.

I’m starting to actually believe anyone wearing goalie equipment could win the Vezina with this team.

 

Speaking of roster vacancies in Vegas, Vadim Shipachyov earned himself a suspension by going all ‘Russian’ on the franchise after being sent down to the AHL. He has supposedly gone AWOL from the Chicago Wolves, and his future with the Golden Knights (and potentially the NHL altogether) is looking pretty well decided.

Alex Ovechkin made headlines off the ice, as the Capitals superstar went out of his way to buy a sweater, coat, and hat for a shirtless homeless man he spotted while walking in Edmonton. Ovie downplayed his actions and attempted to avoid questions about it in interviews, stating that “It was nothing,” following up with “I think if you saw a guy almost naked out there with a cold temperature, I think every human can do something, a coat, a shirt, or whatever.” Autograph hounds throughout the league were seen disrobing and untidying their hair soon after word of Ovie’s actions reached the airwaves*.

*- I assume

Kevin Bieksa successfully utilized a ‘Superman Punch’ in a fight for the 2nd time in his career, with both instances occurring against the Philadelphia Flyers. Radko Gudas was on the receiving end of this most recent entry, while years ago it was Mike Richards. This does beg the question of why you would choose to fight Kevin Bieksa.

The Habs and Rangers had a contest to see who was the least worst, and in fitting fashion, it was an ugly thing. 9 total goals on Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist, the former getting the…better?…of the latter, with both teams looking sloppy and discombobulated. I suppose either team can take solace in knowing they are better than Arizona, but I don’t know exactly how much solace can actually be taken from that knowledge.

Can Arizona go an entire season without a victory? I think we should all get behind them in their efforts to set the least enviable record in hockey history. 10 down, 72 to go.

October 28 – Day 25 – Oil Capital of Canada

There may be some great college football games and the World Series on today, but remember to make room for hockey!

There’s only one matinee on the schedule today, and it occurs in Buffalo when the Sabres host San Jose (SN) at 1 p.m. The rest of tonight’s action starts at its usual time of 7 p.m. when six contests (Los Angeles at Boston, Philadelphia at Toronto [CBC], the New York Rangers at Montréal [CITY/NHLN/SN1/TVAS], Anaheim at Tampa Bay, Detroit at Florida and Arizona at New Jersey) drop the puck, followed by three more (Columbus at St. Louis, the New York Islanders at Nashville and Pittsburgh at Minnesota) an hour later. Chicago pays a visit to Colorado at 9 p.m., while Washington makes its yearly trip to Edmonton (CBC/SN1) 60 minutes later to complete the night’s festivities. All times Eastern.

Before the season started, I had the New York-Montréal fixture circled on my calendar for being a rematch from last season’s playoffs and an Original Six game. Considering how both those clubs have started their seasons, I’m reconsidering that decision and am instead far more interested in seeing W Alex Ovechkin and C Connor McDavid try to outscore each other.

 

Somehow, we’ve made it 25 days into this season without featuring the Oilers. I know they’ve had a slow start to a season of high expectations, but what kind of atrocity have I committed?

Yes, now that NHL coaches have had an offseason to prepare plans for taking on 3-5-1 Edmonton’s high-flying offense, life hasn’t been quite as simple as many orange-clad fans would have hoped while analysts were pegging the Oilers for a deep 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs run.

Figuring out what has been the Oil’s problem is a tall task, as it seems they’re under-performing on both ends of the ice. Of course, the most obvious struggles have occurred on the offensive end.

As we all so well remember, Edmonton’s offense last season was a truly thrilling pleasure to watch, as they averaged 2.96 goals-per-game – the third-best mark in the league. This year, the Oilers are performing a tribute to the 2010-’11 season that earned them the opportunity to select C Ryan Nugent-Hopkins first overall in the ensuing NHL Entry Draft, as their 2.22 goals-per-game is second-worst in the NHL.

Though it’d be easy to say that they’ve grown complacent after earning massive contracts this summer, this lackluster effort is no fault of F Leon Draisaitl or McDavid. Both are averaging more than one point-per-game (a benchmark for the best forwards in the game), and their first line (completed by LW Patrick Maroon) has accounted for nine of the Oil’s 20 goals on the season.

One player that has really stood out to me is Zack Kassian, the third-line right wing that had a major coming-out party in the playoffs by scoring two game-winning goals against the Sharks. So far this year, he only has an assist to his credit, well under his .31 points-per-game scoring rate for his career.

Perhaps Kassin is one of those “Mr. April”-types: a player that has a knack for coming through in the clutch. That’s all fine and well when the calendar is flipped to that month, but it can be a major burden on the club in the remaining six months of the season. For Edmonton’s sake, let’s hope he can find a way to rediscover his scoring touch.

If he – and the rest of his team, for that matter – can’t, you have to wonder how much longer Head Coach Todd McLellan will keep Draisaitl on the top line if the offense continues to struggle. Though the Oilers have solid depth at the center position (Nugent-Hopkins, Ryan Strome and Jujhar Khaira are currently the bottom-three at the position), moving the German to his natural position on the second line could spread the offensive spark needed to get this team going.

Of course, I say all this after the Oil posted a 5-4 victory over the Stars Thursday. Perhaps the offense is finally finding its groove after all and McLellan will be able to keep his super line intact.

While the better half of Edmonton’s game so far has been defense, it still has not been as exemplary as last season. For the entirety of 2016-’17, the Oilers allowed 207 goals against, or 2.52 goals-per-game, which was the fifth-best effort in the Western Conference and eighth-best in the entire NHL.

A major part of that success was G Cam Talbot, who rocked a .919 save percentage to a 2.39 GAA, both of which ranked eighth-best in the league among goaltenders with at least 49 starts. Making those numbers even more impressive was the fact that Talbot, then 29-years-old, started a whopping 73 games last season to 4294 minutes.

Remember, those are only regular season numbers. Add in the postseason, and Talbot saw 5093 minutes last year. The fact that he showed up for camp this year is a true testament to his character given that workload.

Maybe it’s last season’s work schedule that is playing its part on 3-4-1 Talbot this year, because he simply has not been as good in his eight starts this season (out of nine games played by Edmonton, for those keeping track). Though it doesn’t help that he’s playing behind a defense that gives up a 10th-most 31 shots-per-game, his .909 save percentage and 2.96 GAA are the biggest change from last year’s Oilers team to this one, so either he needs to return to last season’s form or McLellan needs to better utilize backup G  Laurent Brossoit, or else General Manager Peter Chiarelli will be forced to further tax his tight budget to improve the defense while keeping in mind Draisaitl and McDavid’s contracts.

One team that knows more than its fair share about the salary cap is the 4-5-1 Capitals. As a result of following a “this is the year” mentality for the last three seasons (at least), General Manager Brian MacLellan was forced to make some tough decisions that eventually resulted in D Karl Alzner, F Marcus Johansson, D Kevin Shattenkirk and RW Justin Williams all exiting the Washington fold.

What’s left is a team that is struggling on both ends of the ice, made most apparent by their two-game losing skid at the hands of Florida and Vancouver.

While the offense is far from its former form (the Capitals average a 13th-worst 2.9 goals-per-game), it has been G Braden Holtby that has been the biggest blemish on Washington’s efforts. Even though he has a defense in front of him limiting his workload to 32.7 shots-per-game (14th-most in the NHL), he’s managed only a .913 save percentage for a 2.87 GAA.

For a netminder that owns career .921 and 2.32 marks, this is the definition of a slump.

Unfortunately for Head Coach Barry Trotz, helping Holtby out of his tough stretch is not as simple as starting G Philipp Grubauer, as the backup has been even worse than the starter with an .85 save percentage and 4.67 GAA.

I think Grubauer is a fine backup, but I can’t vouch for his ability to bounce back and get his season turned around. Holtby, however? I’ll bet you every cent I own (it’s a depleting total, cash in now!) that he’ll find a way to get this campaign back under his control to help a downgraded, but certainly not talent-less Capitals team to a fourth-straight playoff appearance.

The question is, of course, if his comeback begins tonight. It’s certainly possible, but considering both of Edmonton’s top-two lines got on the scorecard at least twice in its last game, I think the Oilers can keep their positive momentum rolling in tonight’s tilt.


Behind the impeccable play of First Star of the Game G Pekka Rinne, the Nashville Predators beat the Chicago Blackhawks 2-1 at the United Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Rinne allowed only one goal on 44 shots faced for a .977 save percentage. Making that stat even better – or worse, depending on your perspective – his lone blemish was an unassisted shorthanded wrist shot by F Artem Anisimov with 26 seconds remaining in the first frame.

Though G Corey Crawford entered the second period in line for the win, he exited the ice for the second intermission in line for what proved to be his fourth loss of the season. The only way for that to happen was for Crawford to allow both of the Predators’ goals in the middle frame, and he did just that.

First up was C Calle Jarnkrok, who leveled the game only 57 seconds into the period  with an unassisted wrister, his first goal of the season. But it was Second Star F Craig Smith‘s (D P.K. Subban and LW Kevin Fiala) power play wrister, buried with 8:58 remaining in the frame, that proved to be the deciding goal.

The Predators’ extra-man opportunity owes its start to D Jan Rutta for tripping C Frederick Gaudreau at the 9:30 mark of the period. Chicago was within 28 seconds of a successful kill before Smith took advantage of C Colton Sissons‘ screen to beat a blinded Crawford’s blocker with a wrister from the top of the left face-off circle.

Though the Blackhawks would fire 15 shots in the third period, Rinne stood tall to earn his fifth victory of the season. Crawford took the loss after saving 28-of-30 shots faced (.933 save percentage).

Nashville’s victory helped road teams avoid the business-week sweep at the hands of the 14-7-4 home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series, but visitors still trail the series by eight points.

Edmonton Oilers 2017-’18 Season Preview

Edmonton Oilers

47-26-9, 103 points, second in the Pacific Division

Eliminated in the Second Round by Anaheim

Additions: F Jussi Jokinen, F Ryan Strome

Subtractions: C David Desharnais (signed with NYR), RW Jordan Eberle (traded to NYI), G Jonas Gustavsson (signed with Linköping), F Matt Hendricks (signed with WPG), F Anton Lander (signed with Kazan), D Jordan Oesterle (signed with CHI), F Tyler Pitlick (signed with DAL), LW Benoit Pouliot (signed with BUF)

Offseason Analysis: Going off the additions list, it seems General Manager Peter Chiarelli prescribes to an “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality.

Considering Anaheim needed all seven games to knock off his Oilers in the second round last season in Edmonton’s first postseason appearance since 2006, it’s hard to argue with him.

Of course, that also ignores the elephants in the room: centers Leon Draisaitl and Captain Connor McDavid – two players slated to cost $21 million when the 2018-‘19 season begins (McDavid’s $12.5 million AAV extension begins next year). Assuming next season’s salary cap stays at this year’s $75 million, 28 percent of Edmonton’s payroll belongs to those two players in a sport that features 19 players hitting the ice per game (to compare, one-nineteenth of $75 million is $3,947,368.42 – approximately D Kris Russell’s yearly salary).

Thus, the Oilers were prevented from making many moves. Oh, the joy of having this generation’s Wayne Gretzky and his beloved sidekick-that-could-also-be-a-first-line-center-for-almost-every-other-club on the same team.

The only free agent signing the Oilers made this offseason of much value was their one-year deal with 34-year-old Jokinen. Don’t be distracted by the seemingly pedestrian .57 points-per-game he posted in his three seasons with Florida, as you need to take into account the Panthers’ below-average offense last season. When Florida dominated its division in 2015-’16, he posted impressive 18-42-60 totals before following it up with an 11-17-28 performance last year. Additionally, in his lone full season in Pittsburgh with centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (a situation similar to Edmonton’s), he posted 21-36-57 marks – the second, third and third-best efforts, respectively, of his career.

Though it can be said for every player in the league, it’s much easier to do one’s job when surrounded by talented teammates and success. That’s no less true with Jokinen, and he should be able to provide even more versatility to last season’s eighth-best offense.

Instead, Chiarelli was forced to make trades if he wanted to make long-term plans – hence the deal with the Islanders that exchanged Eberle for Strome. Slated to make $6 million this season and next, Eberle had to make way for Draisaitl and McDavid’s contracts. Meanwhile, Strome is slated to be a restricted free agent after costing $2.5 million this season.

The deal makes perfect sense for Chiarelli and owner Daryl Katz’ pocketbooks, but will it pan out for Coach Todd McLellan?

With 20-31-51 totals, 27-year-old Eberle had his best campaign since his 2014-’15 63-point last season, but still significantly under the .33-.43-.75-per-game totals he’s posted over his seven-year NHL career. To compare, 24-year-old Strome posted 13-17-30 totals in only 69 games played last season – a decent effort that shows growth, but still a far cry from his impressive 17-33-50 sophomore season in 2014-’15. Strome played on the top line with Patrick Maroon and McDavid in Monday’s split-squad preseason game against archrival Calgary, scoring two power play points late in the contest, including a five-on-three goal.

Strome should know that this is a true audition season for him, both with the Oilers and elsewhere. If he helps Maroon and McDavid make even more fireworks than they did last year, he might become a staple for the future. But if that pesky budget gets in the way, he could be well on his way to a major payday with another squad if he takes advantage of this prime opportunity.

Oh yeah, there’s also the Stanley Cup to play for. He should probably help Edmonton win that too, because it could very well be in reach. Anything short of an Oilers Conference Finals appearance this season is a failure.

Offseason Grade: B+

Even though we knew it was coming eventually, Chiarelli doesn’t get a glowing review for signing Draisaitl and McDavid to exorbitant contracts. But beyond that, the Oilers’ offseason went splendidly, as they did exactly what they needed to: make a dangerous team lethal.

I’ve said it on a podcast this season, but it bears writing: we’ve seen highly paid super teams before, as recently as last year (read: Chicago and Washington). One came away from their dynasty with three Stanley Cups; the other with three Presidents’ Trophies. Hardware is nice, but Draisaitl and McDavid must ensure their story ends like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews’.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second Round – May 7

For the first and second rounds of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the authors at Down the Frozen River present a rapid recap of all of the night’s action. Tonight’s featured writer is Connor Keith.

 

St. Louis Blues at Nashville Predators – Game 6

With its 3-1 victory over the Blues at Bridgestone Arena, Nashville has advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Sometimes you start slow, but you’ve got to finish fast. It may not be an original game plan, but it worked like a charm for Peter Laviolette‘s Predators.

Of course, for that plan to work means a painful beginning to the game. That was represented by Paul Stastny‘s (Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz) wrist shot only 2:04 into the contest.  It was another scrappy, ugly playoff goal. Tarasenko ripped a wrist shot on net from the far face-off circle, but Third Star of the Game Pekka Rinne was more than able to make the save.

But there’s a big difference between simply making a save and containing a save. Rinne did only the former, leaving the puck exposed behind him in the crease. Stastny took notice and reached behind the goaltender to complete the play and give the Blues an early 1-0 lead.

Knowing St. Louis would have home ice for a deciding Game 7, the Preds clearly tightened up following Stastny’s marker. They managed only five shots in the first period due in large part to giving the puck away nine times before the first intermission.

Whether it was a message from Laviolette or Captain Mike Fisher, something got through to the club during the break because the score read 1-1 only 35 seconds after the beginning of the second period. Scoring his fourth goal of the playoffs, Roman Josi (Mattias Ekholm and First Star Ryan Johansen) scored a snap shot on Jake Allen‘s seventh shot faced of the game.

Both defenses yielded only seven shots in the second period to leave the score as it was for the remaining 19:25 before the second intermission. The physical play by both clubs had a big part in that effort, as St. Louis’ Colton Parayko and Smashville’s Colton Sissons both threw five hits during the game.

During the second intermission, it was the Notes’ opportunity to regroup and respond to the Predators’ second period. Instead, Johansen (Second Star Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg) scored what proved to be the game-winning goal 3:15 into the frame.

It was a beautiful breakaway goal befitting the title of series-clincher. Ekholm ripped the puck away from Tarasenko along the far boards in his defensive zone and passed to Forsberg near the far point. Upon seeing Ekholm’s takeaway, Arvidsson had been working his way towards the neutral zone and Forsberg dished across the blue line to him. The Swede raced up the ice into the offensive zone and passed from the far face-off dot to his trailing center to set up a one-on-one matchup with Allen. After making the netminder commit to the near post with a shot fake, he pulled the puck back across the crease and finished with a smooth backhander to give the Predators a lead they would not yield.

Allen departed his crease for the first time with 2:20 remaining in regulation. With the extra attacker, the Blues managed only two shots – neither of which required a save by Rinne. Instead, Calle Jarnkrok (Josi and Rinne) bolted down the ice to ensure Nashville its chance to fight for the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl by burying a wrister with 60 seconds remaining before the final horn.

Allen would desert his net for the sixth attacker again with 51 seconds remaining in regulation, but to no avail. The Blues could not manage a tally, much less a second they would have needed to force overtime.

The NHL has yet to release a starting date or time for the Western Conference finals, but Game 7 in the other Western Semifinal will be played Wednesday.

 

Anaheim Ducks at Edmonton Oilers – Game 6

With five goals in the first period, Edmonton stomped the Ducks 7-1 Sunday at Rogers Place to force the first Game 7 of the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals.

With an opportunity to advance to the Western Conference Finals with a win, nothing went right for the Ducks in the first period. They managed only eight shots on goal compared to Edmonton’s 16.

Instead everything went the Oil’s way. It started with First Star of the Game Leon Draisaitl‘s (Adam Larsson) wrist shot only 2:45 into the game and only escalated from there. Draisaitl (Milan Lucic and Darnell Nurse) scored again only 4:37 later, followed by Zack Kassian (Second Star Mark Letestu and Griffin Reinhart) at the 8:25 mark. Letestu was apparently impressed by Draisaitl’s two-tally frame, so he buried one (Kris Russell and David Desharnais) with 8:21 remaining in the period and another (Matt Benning and Draisaitl) 7:10 later on the power play.

Edmonton actually reached its sixth goal before the Ducks even fired their ninth shot of the contest. Anton Slepyshev (Patrick Maroon and Draisaitl) buried a wrister from the slot only 45 into the second period to truly break Anaheim’s spirit. Though Rickard Rakell (Corey Perry and Cam Fowler) did manage to get the Ducks on the board at the 8:56 mark of the period, Draisaitl (Lucic and Letestu) completed his hat trick with 4:33 remaining in the frame on a power play to neutralize his tally.

Allowing only one goal on 35 shots faced (97.1%), Third Star Cam Talbot also deserves much credit for Edmonton’s victory. He especially deserves credit for yielding a goal on any of the Ducks’ three power plays. Though Anaheim’s power play hasn’t been very potent this postseason at a 14.3% conversion rate, a man-advantage is still a man-advantage and requires extra focus from a netminder.

Though Game 7 is scheduled for Wednesday, the time of puck drop will be determined following the conclusion of Game 6 between the Capitals and Penguins.