NHL injury/news updates: Eichel, Kucherov, MacKinnon, Matthews

During the first week of the 2021-22 NHL season, there are injuries, players trying to recover from injuries, and other bits of news. Let’s round up some of the most noteworthy updates on Jack Eichel, Nikita Kucherov, Nathan MacKinnon, Auston Matthews, and more.

Report: Sabres don’t want to retain salary in an Eichel trade

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek provided some interesting details about Jack Eichel, John Klingberg, and others.

Both Eichel and Marek noted the Golden Knights and Avalanche at points showing at least some interest in Jack Eichel. Yet, the parameters of a trade set up a wall: the Sabres reportedly don’t want to retain salary in an Eichel trade.

They might be amenable to taking back money in the form of other contracts to make the Eichel contract work, however. Some supplementary thoughts:

  • Most immediately, Vegas has injury worries that would make an-already-cap-challenging Eichel trade tough to even imagine. Could there be room for some creativity, particularly if they moved Eichel onto LTIR?

Two contracts stick out: Evgenii Dadonov ($5M cap hit for two more seasons) and Reilly Smith ($5M, expires after this season). Tough to imagine the Golden Knights pulling off an Eichel trade. That said … they’ve pulled off bold, cap-defying moves before.

[Rink Wrap: catch up on Saturday’s NHL action.]

  • Ultimately, the lack of salary retention might matter most to the Avalanche. That’s because Nathan MacKinnon’s hyper-steal $6.3M cap hit evaporates after 2022-23. Managing everything with Eichel at full freight ($10M through 2025-26) would be difficult with MacKinnon’s raise, alongside big deals for Gabriel Landeskog, Cale Makar, and Mikko Rantanen.

That said, there are some deals that could be moved. Some expiring contracts stand out (Andre Burakovsky, $4.9M; Nazem Kadri, $4.5M), at least if you mix in some two-year commitments (Erik Johnson at $6M; J.T. Compher at $3.5M). But would the Avalanche risk that much future flexibility? Sounds like the answer is no, at least without salary retention.

  • To some, this provides added motivation to gripe about the way the Sabres do business. To an extent, that’s fair.

However, at least some people may not consider that, if the Sabres retained salary for Jack Eichel, it would be for the five remaining seasons of his deal. Eventually, they’re hoping to compete; if they’re paying Eichel $1-$2M to compete for someone else, that’s wasted.

Yes, it’s part of doing business. Teams feel the same sting with a costly buyout. But the Sabres balking at salary retention in an Eichel trade isn’t totally out of bounds. At minimum, it should drive the asking price up considerably.

Interesting Stars – Klingberg rumblings

In that same Sportsnet segment, Marek and Friedman also discussed the expiring contract of Stars defenseman John Klingberg.

After watching other defensemen cash in, Marek reports that Klingberg wants a deal that could fall in the eight-year, $62-$66M range. That hypothetical contract would carry a cap hit between $7.75M – $8.25M.

It’s an interesting situation, overall.

On one hand, Klingberg’s raise is a long time coming. He’s been underrated for years, and also underpaid — his current $4.25M cap hit has been in place for seven seasons. That said, Klingberg is 29, and will turn 30 before his next contract begins (Aug. 14).

By a variety of metrics, there are red flags that Klingberg could go from underrated and underpaid to overpaid. Consider his SPAR (standings points above replacement) chart from Evolving Hockey:

Klingberg SPAR EVO NHL injury news trade updates
via Evolving Hockey

No shame in going from great to good, but teams should be picky when handing out max term and big salaries.

Also, even if Klingberg returns to his previous borderline-Norris level, he might run into something Dougie Hamilton experienced. Sometimes, a team just isn’t convinced you’re an $8M-ish defenseman.

  • Last season, Klingberg averaged less time on ice (22:42) than Miro Heiskanen (24:58) and Esa Lindell (23:11).
  • That also happened in 2019-20, with Lindell (23:25) managing a slightly larger gap (Klingberg – 22:10). Klingberg last topped the Stars in ice time in 2018-19, Heiskanen’s rookie season.
  • If the Stars view Klingberg as their third defenseman, that price tag would already be a hurdle. There’s also the larger question of the direction of this team. In the event that they miss the playoffs in 2021-22, would they really want to pay top dollar for Klingberg? Was the Ryan Suter signing already a signal that they’re moving on?

No doubt, if the Stars don’t sign Klingberg, he’d get a lot of attention on the trade and/or free agent markets.

NHL injury/COVID news: Kucherov, Matthews, MacKinnon, and more

  • The Maple Leafs received a mix of good and bad injury news.

The bad news is that Petr Mrazek is expected to miss about two weeks with a groin injury. Toronto will likely roll with a Jack CampbellMichael Hutchinson combo in Mrazek’s absence.

On the bright side, Auston Matthews is slated to make his season debut against the Rangers on Monday. After that, the Maple Leafs face a back-to-back set on Friday and Saturday.

  • Speaking of the Rangers, they placed Kaapo Kakko on injured reserve.
  • Unfortunately, Nathan MacKinnon still tested positive for COVID. The Athletic’s Peter Baugh reports that MacKinnon won’t travel on at least the first portion of Colorado’s upcoming road trip. It’s a three-game trip (at Washington on Tuesday, Florida on Thursday, and Tampa Bay on Saturday). Overall, the Avs play four of their next five games on the road.
  • Nikita Kucherov left Saturday’s OT win with an injury the Lightning said “didn’t look good.” Steven Stamkos said they’re praying Kucherov is OK, according to Joe Smith of The Athletic.

Sometimes a minor-looking exchange can result in an injury:

For even more player news, check out NBC Sports Edge.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL Rink Wrap: Bennett, McDavid enjoy Saturday hat tricks

Players of the Night

Sam Bennett, Panthers

Was Sam Bennett playing over his head after joining the Panthers in a trade? After all, Bennett scored more goals (six) and points (15) in 10 Panthers games than he managed in 38 games with the Flames last season (4G, 8A for 12 points). He couldn’t possibly match that pace over a full campaign, could he?

Probably not. But it’s still impressive that Bennett notced a hat trick, and did so against the normally-stingy Islanders.

Connor McDavid, Oilers

McDavid recorded his first three goals of the season during Edmonton’s 5-2 win over Calgary in this season’s first Battle of Alberta. The hat trick was the Oilers captain’s 10th of his career. Three of those 10 tricks have come versus the Flames.

Highlights from Saturday in the NHL

Brandon Tanev made moves with this goal …

… worthy of dusting off that Brandon Tanev face from his mugshot.

Pittsburgh Penguins Headshots
(Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

Some doofus predicted a rebound season for Patrik Laine. Calling 40 goals for Laine was especially excessive, but maybe he can find his smile again? After starting the season with two assists, Laine generated the overtime game-winner as the Blue Jackets beat the Coyotes:

Alex Ovechkin once again doing Alex Ovechkin things:

Congrats to Katie Guay for becoming the first woman to ref an American Hockey League game. Guay wore the stripes for Saturday’s tilt between Lehigh Valley and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton:

Three Takeaways from NHL on Saturday

The Canadiens’ offense looks awful

Heading into the 2021-22 season, people focused on some of the losses the Canadiens endured possibly dooming them after that Cinderella run to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final. Yet, most of those losses were about losing defense. Shea Weber may never play again. Carey Price entered the player assistance program.

Even some of the departed forwards bring much of their value in limiting offense. (See: Phillip Danault.)

After going winless (and pointless) in their first three games, Montreal’s biggest offense is a lack of offense.

Before their deep playoff run, the story of the Canadiens was often about a team that could hog the puck, but not put that puck in the net. Maybe that’s an issue that will carry over to this season? Honestly, even during their playoff wins, it was often about suffocating opponents. They rarely lit up scoreboards.

With Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield, the Canadiens have a duo that’s likely to start clicking. And even though Mike Hoffman looks lab-made to get in the doghouse and get scratched, he at least can shoot.

Overall, it’s best not to get too concerned. That said, the Canadiens have been one of those teams especially vulnerable to scoring slumps. This is at least a cause for some alarm.

Blunders aplenty for Blackhawks blueline

Imagine the frightful monster you’d get if you crossed the Canadiens’ offense with the Blackhawks’ defense.

(Sorry, but Halloween is near.)

Through three games, the Blackhawks have allowed a terrifying 13 goals, scoring six themselves. At times, Marc-Andre Fleury and Kevin Lankinen carried some blame for those goals. Big-picture, though? The Blackhawks’ defense has been absolutely porous.

Consider their 5-on-5 high-danger chance results so far, via Natural Stat Trick:

  • In a 4-2 loss to the Avalanche, the Blackhawks lost the high-danger chance battle 11-3.
  • On the bright side, the Blackhawks salvaged a “charity point” while losing to Jack Hughes and the Devils 4-3 in OT. The Devils notched a 12-8 high-danger chance advantage there.
  • On Saturday night, the Blackhawks lost the high-danger chance battle to the Penguins (8-4), as Pittsburgh won 5-2.

No, the Blackhawks don’t have to play perfect defense to improve. Several NHL teams accept a certain number of mistakes, believing that they’ll create more than they allow.

But there’s not much defending how the Blackhawks are playing. That’s because they’re not doing much defending at all.

The Panthers sure look like a powerful scoring machine again

If you watched enough Panthers games last season, you likely ended up dazzled by their relentless attacking style. That said, some might downplay Florida’s success after a first-round exit (even if it came against the eventual, repeat Stanley Cup champ Lightning). Others might just wonder if the Panthers couldn’t repeat those results.

Drop that “it’s early caveat” in here, and throughout other takeaways. Nonetheless, the early signs are promising.

The Panthers didn’t just beat the Islanders, they hammered them 5-1. Speaking of high-danger chances, the Panthers generated an 8-3 edge in that department. (The volume was there, too, but the Islanders emphasize those Grade-A opportunities.)

Things weren’t as lopsided vs. the Penguins, but the Panthers created a ton of chances there too, scoring five goals as well.

Sometimes depth is overrated in the NHL. With the Panthers, an approach that emphasizes waves of offense — with some standouts, like Aleksander Barkov — could work a lot more often than it falls short.

Sunday’s big story

Stars vs. Senators

On Saturday in the NHL, hockey-lovers had to pick and choose. During especially busy hours, that even went for those who set up more screens than Batman did to catch the Joker. It can be a bit much. Even those with fortress-like bladders will need a rewind.

On Sunday, NHL fans have one choice: Stars at Senators, at 5 p.m. ET.

There, you can get a look at where the Stars might be pointed. Will this team be more like last season’s disappointment, or the surprise 2020 Stanley Cup Finalist?

And, you get a look at the upstart Senators. When’s that unparalleled success going to kick in, again?

Saturday’s NHL scores

Hurricanes 3, Predators 2
Blue Jackets 2, Kraken 1 (OT)
Lightning 2, Capitals 1 (OT)
Penguins 5, Blackhawks 2
Red Wings 3, Canucks 1
Maple Leafs 3, Senators 1
Bruins 3, Stars 1
Rangers 3, Canadiens 1
Panthers 5, Islanders 1
Sabres 2, Coyotes 1 (SO)
Wild 2, Kings 2
Oilers 5, Flames 2
Sharks 4, Jets 3
Blues 5, Avalanche 3

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL Rink Wrap: The Jack Hughes Show highlights Devils win

Player of the Night

Jack Hughes, Devils

New Jersey built up a 3-1 lead thanks to Dougie Hamilton‘s goal 17 seconds into the game and Hughes’ first of the season in the second period. But the Blackhawks scored twice in a 3:27 span late in the third to force overtime. It was there the young Devils star put on a brilliant solo display to win the game and then gifte a fan at Prudential Center a game-used stick.

Hughes’ first goal from Friday was pretty nifty, too.

Highlights from Friday in the NHL

The first of Carter Hart‘s rough goals felt a bit like “the nature of the beast.” The second cringe-worthy goal Carter Hart allowed, though? Pretty brutal. Elias Pettersson (again) put Hart in a bad spot, and J.T. Miller took care of the rest:

Marcus Foligno dropped the gloves with Max Jones in the first period and had the last laugh with a game-winning goal with 7.2 seconds left to help the Wild edge the Ducks:

Before that game, Trevor Zegras was just showing off:

The Blackhawks and Devils honored the late Jimmy Hayes Friday night:

Two Takeaways from NHL on Friday

So far, so very good for Devils and Dougie

As you can see above, Hamilton celebrated his big contract with the Devils by scoring right away. Then Jack Hughes did the rest to secure a debut win to kick off the Dougie days.

By the simplest terms, that’s a great debut.

But when you dig deeper … Dougie Hamilton shines even more.

Via Natural Stat Trick, the Devils dominated shot volume with Hamilton on the ice. Whether you count blocked shots (21 Corsi For, 7 against at even-strength), or not (17-6 Fenwick For), Hamilton tilted the ice in New Jersey’s favor.

• Hamilton’s Devils debut was strong in more than just “empty calories” ways. At 5-on-5, the Devils generated a 14-5 scoring chance advantage. As far as high-danger chances go? That’s a 7-3 mark. Just lights-out stuff.

• The simple stats are there, too. Hamilton earned a +3 rating, with the Devils generating three goals with him on the ice at 5-on-5, and not allowing one.

Vigneault sticks with Carter Hart after those tough goals

After four goals — including two especially painful ones — people were making jokes at Carter Hart’s expense. Or, they were making jokes about the Flyers’ backup plan of, uh, Martin Jones.

Of course, it’s far, far, far too early to assume Hart won’t rebound from his disappointing 2020-21 season. Plenty of people would’ve spared Hart the exposure of playing through the third period.

Instead, Alain Vigneault took the risk of added damage to Hart’s psyche. The young goalie bounced back with 15 saves in the third period, helping Philly gain a “charity point.”

Now, the Canucks still beat the Flyers. And Hart did allow Vancouver to score on both shootout chances. They’re not out of the woods by any means …

… But, hey, Vigneault stood by his goalie. It might just work out.

(Maybe Vigneault doesn’t have much of a choice, anyway?)

Saturday’s big story

Plenty of NHL season-openers

The 2021-22 NHL season’s been in action since Tuesday, yet quite a few teams open things up on Saturday. Here they are:

• Bruins host Stars at 7 p.m. ET.

• The Blues 2021-22 season begins the way their last one ended. They’re facing the mighty Avalanche at 9 p.m. ET after Colorado swept the Blues during the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

• The Sharks kick off their 2021-22 season by hosting the Jets at 10 p.m. ET.

• Finally, the Flames begin their season against the hated Oilers at 10 p.m. ET.

We’ll get to see a retooled St. Louis lineup, and see how a mostly-intact Flames team handles what should be a high-pressure season. Should be a fun, busy Saturday in the NHL.

Friday’s NHL scores

Devils 4, Blackhawks 3 (OT)
Canucks 5, Flyers 4 (SO)
Wild 2, Ducks 1

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL Rink Wrap: Big upsets, but not vs. Lightning; First Kraken win

Player of the Night

Tyler Bertuzzi

Considering the Lightning’s ludicrous comeback from down 6-3 with mere minutes remaining in the third period, you might want to hand this to a Bolt. The argument is there. You could easily name Nikita Kucherov (1G, 3A) or Victor Hedman (four assists) as the player of Thursday night in the NHL.

After all, they earned that all-valuable last laugh.

But Tyler Bertuzzi still forced Tampa Bay to pull off those heroics thanks to a blistering four-goal night. During the second period alone, Bertuzzi notched a hat trick. When he scored his fourth, Bertuzzi put the Red Wings up 5-3. Clearly, that wasn’t enough; heck, another goal wasn’t enough.

Impressive stuff nonetheless from a player the Red Wings might want to be able to bring to Canada this season.

Highlights from Thursday in the NHL

The Blue Jackets honored Matiss Kivlenieks with a ceremony before their season-opener.

Truly, it’s a lot of fun when a scoring chance is so promising, an announcer gets fooled. That’s what happened when Braden Holtby robbed Ryan Strome on a truly golden opportunity:

Drop your jaw in awe of that 11-goal overtime stunner between the Lightning and Red Wings. One big highlight reel, really.

Three Takeaways from NHL on Thursday

No Red Wings upset, but two other significant ones

After 82 games, we might not look at the Sabres beating the Canadiens or the Senators holding off the Maple Leafs as big upsets. Sometimes, teams make big jumps (and drops) in the NHL.

Right now, though? It absolutely feels bizarre to picture even a competent season from Buffalo.

If the Lightning didn’t come back, that would’ve been another big one. Maybe the larger lesson is that we shouldn’t take things for granted in the NHL? (Or, at least, this early part of the season could introduce some chaos.)

This could be a long, long season for the Coyotes

Heading into 2021-22, it seemed like the Sabres and Coyotes would engage in a tanking war. It would seemingly be the most brazen of its kind since … well, the last time the Coyotes and Sabres tried to be as bad as possible.

At least on Thursday night, the Sabres didn’t play that role in a presumed race to the top of the 2022 NHL Draft Lottery.

The Coyotes, though? They fell 8-2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Again, hindsight could tell a different story. But, heading into openers and early season games in the NHL on Thursday, it sure seemed like the Blue Jackets’ future skews closer to Arizona’s than contention (or even the playoff bubble).

Yet, in this one, the Blue Jackets cruised.

With two goals and two assists, Oliver Bjorkstrand made his own argument for player of the night for Thursday in the NHL. Max Domi notched three points. Patrik Laine, Jakub Voracek, and Jack Roslovic collected two assists apiece.

Plenty expected the Blue Jackets to beat the Coyotes. The sheer margin of defeat might be an upset, or at least upsetting, if you’re the ‘Yotes.

Kraken get their first win

After a tough loss in their debut on Tuesday, the Seattle Kraken are in the win column for the first time in their franchise history thanks to a 4-3 win in Nashville on Thursday night.

The Kraken used a perfect 2-for-2 not on the power play, as well as a pair of goals from Brandon Tanev, to get the win. Tanev scored one of the power play goals and also added an empty net goal late in the third period to make it a 4-2 game. Because Nashville scored just a minute later Tanev’s second goal, the empty net goal, goes in the books as the game-winner. Jared McCann (power play) and Alex Wennberg also scored goals for Seattle in the win. Philipp Grubauer stopped 27 out of 30 shots in the win.

Tanev’s empty-net goal was Seattle’s only shot on goal of the third period, but it was enough to get the two points.

Friday’s big story

A peek at the new-look Flyers

So far, we’ve seen the Seattle Kraken twice. The Blackhawks’ blueline makeover faced a big challenge. And, despite all of those changes, the Hurricanes look like they’ll keep opponents on their toes.

On Friday, we’ll finally get our first look at the Flyers after some bold offseason changes.

Can Ryan Ellis return to near-Norris-form after injuries derailed his 2020-21 season? Will the Flyers look smart after taking a chance on much-maligned blueliner Rasmus Ristolainen? Most importantly, was last season just a hiccup for Carter Hart, or a new reality?

Of course, we won’t get every answer about the Flyers one game into an 82-game marathon. Friday’s Flyers – Canucks game should be a better proof of concept than any exhibition though.

(And, hey, the Canucks made plenty of changes themselves.)

Thursday’s NHL scores

Sabres 5, Canadiens 1
Senators 3, Maple Leafs 2
Panthers 5, Penguins 4 (OT)
Stars 3, Rangers 2 (OT)
Blue Jackets 8, Coyotes 2
Hurricanes 6, Islanders 3
Lightning 7, Red Wings 6 (OT)
Kraken 4, Predators 3
Kings 6, Golden Knights 2

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL Rink Wrap: Ovechkin makes more history

Player of the Night

Alex Ovechkin

Independent of some history, Alex Ovechkin aleady had a claim for the player of Wednesday in the NHL. The 36-year-old enjoyed a brilliant season-opener, collecting two goals and two assists. Those four points all happened on special teams: three power-play points, one shorthanded.

If he needed a tiebreaker, making history should do.

With his first goal of the 2021-22 season, Ovechkin tied Marcel Dionne for fifth all-time. That same night, Ovechkin finished all alone at fifth all-time with 732 goals.

Highlights of Wednesday in the NHL

Watch Ovechkin pass Dionne with goal 732:

Jack Johnson isn’t the first person you’d expect to score this type of goal. It was nifty stuff from the journeyman defenseman, and a sign of a long night to come for Marc-Andre Fleury.

Mason McTavish becomes the youngest player in Anaheim Ducks franchise history to score a goal.

Three Takeaways from NHL on Wednesday

Don’t count Ovechkin out of … any goals race, really

By reaching that milestone on Wednesday, plenty pondered Ovechkin chasing Gretzky’s 894 goals. Certainly, it will be something we think about whenever Ovechkin lights the lamp, especially more than once.

But Ovechkin looked spry enough on Wednesday that we shouldn’t dismiss him in more immediate NHL races. (He even generated offense away from his “office.”)

To be specific, are we certain that Ovechkin can’t threaten to win the 2022 Maurice Richard Trophy?

Last season, Ovechkin finished with 24 goals, earning a tie with several other players (including Sidney Crosby) for 13th in the NHL. Combine Ovechkin being 35 with Auston Matthews‘ 41 goals (in just 52 games!), and it’s understandable that people wonder if his Richard days are over.

Don’t forget that Ovechkin tied for the Richard Trophy as recently as the 2019-20 season. Ignore his continued sniping ability at your goalie’s peril.

The Blackhawks weren’t ready (at least not for the Avalanche attack)

The NHL’s schedule-makers stumbled upon some real trials by fire to open the 2021-22 season.

First, the Kraken had to play their first-ever NHL game against the powerhouse Golden Knights. Impressively, the Kraken looked like they belonged, and absolutely had a chance to win.

Heading into this season, the Blackhawks look dramatically different. Their defense is wildly changed, with Seth Jones as the headliner (but not the only tweak). Most expected Marc-Andre Fleury to face a significant upswing in chances, even if Chicago improved.

Well, the NHL didn’t exactly let Chicago ease in. Even without Nathan MacKinnon, the Avalanche can attack with the best of them.

If you’re generous, you’d say the Blackhawks settled things down after they went down 3-0. But they still seemed overmatched. Over time, we’ll see if that’s a larger trend, or just the nature of facing the Avalanche.

Ducks recipe for this season on display

If the Anaheim Ducks are going to do anything other than be a bottom team in the Western Conference this season they are going to need two things to happen.

The first is a big season from star goalie John Gibson.

The second is some young players to take big steps forward and become impact players.

That recipe was actually on display on Wednesday night in their 4-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets. Gibson stopped 33 out of 34 shots, while 18-year-old rookie Mason MacTavish scored his first NHL goal and added an assist. Rookie defenseman Jamie Drysdale also added an assist in the win. McTavish, Drysdale, and Trevor Zegras need to be the difference makers for the Ducks this season.

Thursday’s big story

First test of Hurricanes makeover

Give the Carolina Hurricanes credit; they march to the beat of their own drum.

During the offseason, the Hurricanes decided to change both of their goalies. They allowed a Norris-range defenseman leave in Dougie Hamilton. Then, they brought in Tony DeAngelo, one of the league’s most polarizing players.

Oh yeah, then they gained revenge by way of Jesperi Kotkaniemi offer sheet. Busy folks.

Some of their moves carried the air of “smartest guys in the room.” If they finally break through, then we’ll look at those changes as key catalysts. That said, the Hurricanes are running out of benefit of the doubt — and maybe some of their lovable charm.

Did they become actual jerks? That might be worth it if they also become big winners.

Wednesday’s NHL scores

Capitals 5, Rangers 1
Maple Leafs 2, Canadiens 1
Oilers 3, Canucks 2 (SO)
Avalanche 4, Blackhawks 2
Ducks 4, Jets 1

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Capitals – Rangers about Ovechkin passing Dionne, not Tom Wilson

Like it or not, Tom Wilson was on the tip of many tongues heading into Wednesday’s Rangers – Capitals season-opener. Ultimately, goals win games, not knuckle-sandwiches. Maybe Alex Ovechkin‘s big game (and the Capitals’ 5-1 win) can serve as such a reminder for a Rangers team hoping to take a step toward contending.

Ovechkin passes Dionne for fifth all-time in goals

Heading into Wednesday’s Rangers – Capitals game, it wasn’t even clear if Alex Ovechkin could play. Naturally, he didn’t just play — Ovechkin starred.

Not surprisingly, Ovechkin and the Capitals did their greatest damage against the Rangers on the power play. At first, though, it was Ovechkin notching assists.

Just 4:39 into the first period, Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov collected assists on a T.J. Oshie power-play goal. About midway through the second, Ovechkin and Kuznetsov also assisted on a Justin Schultz PPG.

Then, in the third period, Ovechkin returned to goal-scoring mode. First, Ovechkin tied Marcel Dionne for fifth all-time in goals with number 731. (Yes, it was on the power play.)

Next, Ovechkin scored goal 732 (technically) shorthanded, moving all alone to fifth in NHL history. Watch Ovechkin pass Dionne for fifth-all time with goal 732 in the video above this post’s headline.

Dionne wished Ovechkin the best, noting that he’ll likely pass Brett Hull (fourth, 741 goals) soon. It’s a fun watch, as Dionne discusses Ovechkin’s pursuit of Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky, too.

Take a look at where Ovechkin sits among the NHL’s all-time goal scorers after goal 732:

  1. Wayne Gretzky – 894 goals.
  2. Gordie Howe – 801 goals.
  3. Jaromir Jagr – 766 goals.
  4. Brett Hull – 741 goals.
  5. Alex Ovechkin – 732 goals.
  6. Marcel Dionne – 731 goals.

Heck of a way to show that Ovechkin’s not slowing in his pursuit of Gretzky’s record. At least not yet.

Quiet night on the Rangers vs. Tom Wilson front

Did the Rangers focus on anti-Tom-Wilson-weaponry this offseason? If so, they didn’t want to admit it. (Wilson doesn’t want to either, it seems.)

Either way, Tom Wilson wasn’t much of a focus in the Rangers – Capitals season-opener. That’s true even though Lead Wilson Deterrent Ryan Reaves ended up being available.

Perhaps this 5-1 game hit the sweet spot: not competitive enough to get truly nasty, not embarrassing enough to set off a series of fights?

For those wanting Tom Wilson – Rangers fireworks, they’ll need to wait quite a while for the next chance. The two teams don’t face off again until Feb. 24 in Washington.

Maybe Ovechkin will be breathing down Jagr’s neck (766 goals) by then?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Rangers’ young talent is only thing that will make rebuild a success

The New York Rangers underwent some pretty drastic changes this offseason in an effort to turn their ongoing rebuild into a success.

General manager Jeff Gorton was fired and replaced by Chris Drury. Head coach David Quinn, the man hired to usher in the young talent of this rebuilding phase, was replaced by Gerard Gallant. They also made a little bit of a philosophical shift to the roster by targeting toughness — and a lot of it — by bringing in Ryan Reaves, Barclay Goodrow, Jarred Tinordi, and Patric Nemeth to fill out the bottom of the lineup.

When it comes to the latter point, it is really easy to connect the dots back to that late season game against the Washington Capitals when they had their run-in with Tom Wilson that resulted in Wilson being fined, the Rangers blasting the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, and the league fining them $250,000 for said criticism. It was a wild sequence of events.

The Rangers can say the Wilson incident — or the mere presence of Wilson in their division — was not the inspiration for those moves all they want, but it is too much of a coincidence that they decided to take that direction at this point in time.

[Related: NHL Rink Wrap: Begin the Kraken; Tom Wilson vs. Rangers]

They would also not be the first team in the Metropolitan Division to have that sequence of events play out where Wilson angers them, they criticize the league’s inaction, and then try to take matters into their own hands by changing the roster. Heck, the Pittsburgh Penguins tried the exact same thing with the exact same Wilson nemesis (Reaves) a couple of years ago. It is the exact same playbook Wilson pushes teams to follow for some reason.

So with all of that in mind it is kind of fitting that the Rangers open their 2021-22 season by playing Wilson and the Capitals so all of this chaos can play out right from the start.

But for all of the bluster about Reaves’ addition, and all of the changes they made behind the bench and the front office, there is only one thing that is going to make the Rangers’ rebuild a success. And it has absolutely nothing to do with any of those offseason changes.

The success or failure of the Rangers’ rebuild depends entirely on the development of their recent top draft picks and prospects, and them becoming franchise cornerstones.

Without that, everything else is simply window dressing and focus on a particular secondary narrative.

Having established stars in Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad certainly helps a rebuild. As does lucking your way into an Adam Fox that only wants to play for your team. But when you get the opportunity to pick in the top-10 (and top-two!) as often as the Rangers have over the past few years you can not miss on them. Because if you get them right, you are probably going to have a Stanley Cup in your future.

So far, the early returns for the Rangers have been less than encouraging. And that might be the most concerning element of the team’s current trajectory.

Between 2017 and 2020 the Rangers had eight first round draft picks, including four picks in the top-10. The early returns so far have been mixed.

[Related: Rangers extend Zibanejad]

The Rangers already jettisoned one of those top-10 picks (Lias Andersson) last year for a second-round draft pick, while another, Vitali Kravtsov, might soon be on his way out the door after he failed to make the opening day roster and did not report to the American Hockey League. He has reportedly been given permission to seek a trade with other clubs. To this point, the Rangers received five goals in 86 man games from those two players. Not great.

The jury is still very much out on the other late first-round picks. Filip Chytil and K’Andre Miller have shown flashes of impact potential in the NHL, but are not consistently there yet.

All of that is just part of what makes the most recent top picks, No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko and No. 1 overall pick Alexis Lafrenière, so important.

They are ultimately going to be the players that dictate where this thing goes and if it works.

Kakko is entering what might be a pivotal year in his development and if he is going to become a star player you would want to think it would start to happen this season. He took a significant step forward in a lot of ways last year, becoming one of the Rangers’ best possession drivers and scoring chance creators. It did not always translate into offense, though, or make a noticeable difference in his individual production. Some of that could have been how he was used and the talent he had around him, not to mention the number of minutes he received. He is slated to start Wednesday’s game on the second line next to Panarin and Ryan Strome, which should put him in a position to succeed.

Then there is Lafrenière. After an extremely slow start to his rookie season he started to flash some of the talent and potential that made him the No. 1 overall pick later in the season and finished strong, perhaps setting the stage for a big sophomore year. He is opening Wednesday night on the top line alongside Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. Like Kakko, it is an ideal situation for him to thrive in.

If you look at pretty much every Stanley Cup winning team in the modern era almost all of them have at least one top-two pick on their roster that became a superstar. In some cases, more than one. Those players, if you get them right, are franchise changers and championship building blocks.

So much focus this offseason has been spent on the Rangers’ changes and what they might mean for the culture and attitude around the team’s mindset. But if the potential young impact players do not become actual impact players, none of it is going to matter.

NHL commissioner Bettman says just 4 players unvaccinated

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the league has only four unvaccinated players as it opens up the 2021-22 season.

Bettman was in attendance for the regular-season opener between the back to back Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night.

“Everybody banding together to do the right thing,” Bettman said. “Maybe that’s why hockey is the ultimate team sport.”

Bettman said NHL officials and all the personnel that come into contact with the players are vaccinated.

““It’s something we take seriously,” Bettman said. “Health and safety has been and will continue to be paramount.”

There are still COVID-19 cases involving players that are fully vaccinated.

The expansion Seattle Kraken will be missing a number of players due to Covid-19 protocols for their first game Tuesday night at Las Vegas.

The Lightning have expressed a continuing interest in hosting an outdoor game in Tampa, Florida but the weather conditions in the state remain a major obstacle.

“Do I have severe weather concerns, the answer is yes,” Bettman said. “Weather, particularly in a warm climate can be a challenge, and the safety of the players is paramount. If it were doable, it would be great. We’re just not sure it’s doable because of the weather.”

PHT Morning Skate: Tkachuk still unsigned; Kessel’s future in Arizona

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.

• The 2021-22 season is under way and Senators forward Brady Tkachuk remains unsigned. [Ottawa Sun]

Phil Kessel‘s time in Arizona looks like it will be coming to an end at some point this season. [The Hockey News]

• Why the Blackhawks will find their way into the Western Conference playoff picture. [NBC Sports Chicago]

• Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon will miss tonight’s opener against the Blackhawks after testing positive for COVID-19. He is asymptomatic, according to GM Joe Sakic. [PHT]

• “The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) will assess the need for harsher sanctions in response to a racist incident in Ukraine and plans to pressure leagues around the world to amend their rule books to define sanctions for racist behaviour, the new IIHF president said.” [Reuters]

• Fantasy hockey news and notes as hockey season has begun. [NBC Sports Edge]

• “I don’t think the Bruins got a lot worse this offseason, if at all. We all know that’s not good enough, though. Last year’s Bruins team wasn’t ready to compete for a Cup, not by a long shot. They went into the offseason needing significant improvements to take the next step and be a cup contender, and I don’t think they did that.” [Black and Gold]

• “Has Ken Holland, finally out of salary cap hell, made most of the right moves? Is he about to direct another Stanley Cup era? We begin to find out now.” [Edmonton Sun]

• Korea, Italy, and Poland advanced into the final round of women’s Olympic hockey qualification. The last spots in the tournament will be determined next month. [The Ice Garden]

• After not making the Rangers’ roster, Vitali Kravtsov has been given permission to seek a trade. [Blue Seat Blogs]

Boone Jenner has been named the Blue Jackets’ seventh captain in franchise history. [Blue Jackets]

• A look at the faces in new places for the 2021-22 season. [Yardbarker]

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy

NHL Rink Wrap: Begin the Kraken, Tom Wilson vs. Rangers

Player of the Night

Max Pacioretty

Really, you could take your pick from the Golden Knights’ dynamic duo of Pacioretty and Mark Stone. Chandler Stephenson (GWG, assist) deserves a mention as the speedy center supplementing those two great wingers, too.

Both Pacioretty (2G, 1A) and Mark Stone (three assists) notched three points in the Golden Knights’ slim win over the Kraken. Pacioretty was a truly overbearing presence, firing an impressive eight shots on goal, notching a +3 rating, and blocking a shot.

Honestly, Pacioretty – Stephenson – Stone probably deserve more mentions among the NHL’s best lines. They’re a nightmare for most opponents.

Highlights of NHL opening night

With only two NHL games on opening night, why not get highlights from both opening night contests?

The Penguins beat the Lightning 6-2, inflated by an absolute bucket of empty-netters.

Meanwhile, the second-newest team in the NHL beat the newest one as the Golden Knights (barely) leashed the Kraken. Ryan Donato scored the first goal in Kraken history, helping Seattle turn a 3-0 deficit to a 3-3 tie.

The Golden Knights won on a heartbreaker of a goal, though. The other standout highlight was Jonathan Marchessault‘s excellent 2-0 tally:

Three Takeaways from opening night in NHL

Two games, yet three takeaways? You bet.

Kraken didn’t back down

From the start, the Seattle Kraken were aggressive in their first NHL game. Considering how well they played, plenty of teams — not just expansion ones — would have wilted after going down 3-0.

Rather than giving up, the Kraken kept pushing. Remarkably, they fired back from that 3-0 deficit to make it 3-3.

No, that push didn’t result in the first Kraken win. Or even their first “charity point.” It was a heck of a showing, however. Throw out all of the 4-3 goal controversy, and the tough breaks, and the larger story is still that Seattle came to play.

Truly, the Kraken belonged with the Golden Knights — a team that ranks among the heaviest Stanley Cup favorites.

Whether it’s that Corsi chart from Natural Stat Trick, or the good-old-fashioned “eye test,” the bottom line is that the Kraken popped in their first NHL game. If this is a sign of things to come, then look out. We may indeed see another immediately competitive NHL expansion team.

Underdog Penguins earned that upset over the Lightning

To be clear, the 6-2 final score of Penguins – Lightning is very misleading.

The real story is that the Penguins ovewhelmed the Lightning all game. You’d think the Penguins were the defending repeat champions, and the Lightning were missing top stars. Instead, it was Pittsburgh saying “No Sidney Crosby? No Evgeni Malkin? No problem.”

OK, they whispered that at most. Obviously life is easier with your future Hall of Famers.

Some Stanley Cup hangover for Lightning

Was it just an off night? Is there a certain level of drag one should expect after a team raises its Stanley Cup banner?

Either way, Steven Stamkos and other Lightning players admitted it. Their loss to the Penguins was a “dud.”

One defeat is probably a bit much for a true wake-up call, but the Bolts need to be better. An extended sleepy start could make life tougher in what’s expected to be a top-heavy Atlantic Division.

Wednesday’s big story

Admit it or not, the Tom Wilson show begins

Ryan Reaves might not even be able to play in the Rangers’ season-opener. Even if he does, the Rangers and even Tom Wilson himself would like people to opt against framing New York’s offseason as one big Tom Wilson overreaction.

But … it pretty much was.

If Reaves and Wilson are both available, they can renew long-running hostilities. If not, expect another Rangers tough guy to step up.

Beyond the threat of violence, it should also be interesting to see if the Rangers show signs of making those next steps. Expectations vary wildly for a team that enjoyed a lot of recent luck in draft lotteries.

NHL opening night scores

Penguins 6, Lightning 2
Golden Knights 4, Kraken 3

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.