All Star festivities over: NHL enters stretch run

With the NHL All Star weekend over the league now enters the stretch run with most teams having a busy time of it until the end of the regular season. With each club having a Christmas break, a five-day bye and another break for the All-Star Game it’s no wonder the NHL campaign is a marathon affair. The playoff drive starts in earnest now with the majority of teams still having a chance at making the postseason. However, a few of the stragglers such as the Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes will need a minor miracle to play more than 82 games this year.

The 31 teams all have between 31 and 35 games remaining in the 82-game schedule with 10 weeks to go before the postseason. Those who have playoff ambitions may attempt to fine-tune their rosters between now and trade deadline day which falls upon us on February 26th. Just before things start to heat up later this week, we’ll take a look back at the All-Star weekend at the Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay, Florida and review the games and skills competitions in case you happened to miss them.

As for the games themselves, which continue to use the three-on-three format, the Pacific Division won the $1 million prize by downing the Atlantic Division 5-2. It was the second time the Pacific has won the All-Star event since the format was changed three years ago and the third time they’ve reached the final. Rickard Rakell of the Anaheim Ducks was the scoring hero in the final game with a pair of goals to his name, which were the first and last of the contest. Other Pacific goals came courtesy of Vancouver Canucks’ rookie right winger Brock Boeser, Calgary Flames winger Johnny Gaudreau and Los Angeles Kings blueliner Drew Doughty.

Boeser was named the Most Valuable Player of the event with a pair of goals and an assist in the Pacific’s two victories as he helped his team crush the Central Division 5-2 in their opener. The 20-year-old scored the game winner against the Central and then added a goal and assists in the final. Boeser was awarded a 2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid for being named MVP. Mario Lemieux was the only other rookie to take home the MVP award in the game’s history as he achieved the feat back in the 1984/85 event. The Atlantic Division reached the final by downing the Metropolitan Division 7-4 in their first game. Tampa Bay winger Nikita Kucherov was the scoring hero of that outing with a hat trick under his belt.

The All-Star Game took place on Sunday afternoon, while the players put their skills to the test in a series of six competitions the night before. The fastest skater award went to Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers for the second year in a row with a time of 13.454 seconds for a lap around the rink. He was followed by Brayden Point of Tampa Bay at 13.579 seconds with Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres placing third out of the eight participants at 13.828 seconds. The passing challenge was won by
defenceman Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues at 46.610 seconds. Eric Staal of the Minnesota Wild was second at 54.679 seconds and Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins was third at 1:00.015.
The save streak competition gave the goalies a chance to shine and Marc-Andre Fleury of the Vegas Golden Knights took first place with 14 straight saves. Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators had a streak of 13 straight stops to place second while Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers came third with a five-save streak. When it came to the puck control relay, Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames won it with a time of 24.650 seconds. John Tavares of the New York Islanders was second at 28.242 seconds with Connor McDavid coming in third at 29.220 seconds.

The hardest shot contest was won by Russian sniper and future Hall of Famer Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals at 101.3 miles-per-hour. He also had the second-hardest shot in the event at 98.8 mph while defenceman P.K. Subban of the Nashville Predators had the third-hardest shot at 98.7 mph. The accuracy shooting competition was topped by rookie Brock Boeser of the Vancouver Canucks with a time of 11.136 seconds. Veteran forward Brian Boyle of the New Jersey Devils was second best at 11.626 seconds and he was followed by another veteran forward as James Neal of the Vegas Golden Knights posted a time of 14.262 seconds.

Boston Bruins streaking to the top of the NHL

With a current 16-game point streak of 12-0-4 the Boston Bruins are suddenly a legitimate contender for the President’s Trophy, which will be handed out to the NHL’s top team at the end of the regular season. As of Jan. 22nd the Bruins were sitting at 62 points with a record of 27-10-8. They were in second place in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, just three points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning with a game in hand. In fact, the Lightning and Vegas Golden Knights were the only two squads ahead of the Bruins in the 31-team league with Tampa being the only club to have a better goal difference than Boston’s plus 38.

The last time Boston tasted defeat in regulation time came back on December 14thwhen they were edged 5-3 at home by the Washington Capitals. In the meantime, they’ve outscored their opponents to the tune of 64-19 during their 16-game streak. Team-wise, the Bruins have the eighth-best power play in the league (21.1%), the sixth-best penalty killing (83.5%), the fifth-most goals per game (3.27) and the second-ranked goals-against average at 2.44 goals-per-game. However, while it’s been a total team effort, there’s no denying the club has been led by the red-hot line of David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.

They’ve been getting good secondary-scoring support from Ryan Spooner, David Backes, David Krejci and Danton Heinen while Torey Krug and Charlie McAvoy have been providing offence from the blue line. Boston has quite a bit of depth and this enables head coach Bruce Cassidy to roll four solid and effective forward lines each and every game without worrying about matching lines against the opposition on a regular basis. The play of goaltenders Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin has been solid if not spectacular and 40-year-old veteran defenceman and team captain Zdeno Chara has been exceptional at killing penalties and is still playing well over 20 minutes a game.

But while the veterans are all contributing, this Bruins team still features up to half a dozen rookies in the lineup each night such as McAvoy, Heinen, Jake DeBrusk, Sean Kuraly and Matt Grzelcyk. Things are looking pretty good for Boston right now, but that could all change once the dog days of the schedule come around in March when the team has a busy 16 games on the schedule. It’ll be interesting to see how the youngsters handle the workload once the final playoff push arrives and to see if Pastrnak, Bergeron and Marchand can keep up their production.

The line’s 200-foot success may have taken some fans by surprise considering that Marchand was the only one of the trio to be sitting in the league’s top-25 scorers by Jan. 21st. He had  48 points from 20 goals and 28 assists in 37 games which saw him ranked 17th in the scoring race. But the driving force behind this team may very well be Bergeron with his timely goals and overall veteran leadership qualities. He’s been as reliable as ever in both ends of the rink and could very well become the first NHL player to win four Frank Selke Trophies as the league’s top defensive forward. He’s currently tied with former Montreal Canadiens great and Hall of Famer Bob Gainey at four apiece.

With an 18-point lead over the fourth-place team in their division, the current streak has basically wrapped up a playoff spot for the Bruins unless they totally collapse in their final 37 games. They might as well shoot for the moon now though as first place in the league is well withing their grasp.  

Dallas Stars’ John Klingberg quietly becoming elite NHL defenceman

Most NHL teams don’t expect to get an elite NHL defenceman with a fifth round draft pick (131st overall) and the Dallas Stars were no exception when they took John Klingberg out of Sweden  in 2010. However, the 25-year-old from Gothenburg has been a pleasant surprise for the club. At just 5-feet-11-inches tall and 165 lbs as a junior in his homeland, Klingberg has grown to a solid 6-foot-2 and 180 lbs. and is now one of the Star’s alternate captains. He’s also a bargain for the team at the moment with a salary of $3.5 million per year.

Klingberg’s game improved after being drafted as he more or less remained in Europe until the 2014/15 season when he dressed in a 10 games for the Texas Stars of the American Hockey League (AHL). Between 2010 and 2014, the young defenceman’s skills, stamina, and skating were noticed by Swedish hockey officials and he was suddenly found himself playing for the country’s national team. Klingberg racked up four goals and eight assists in his 10-game stint with the Stars’ AHL team and it was no surprise when he got the call up to the NHL.

He proved he wasn’t just a flash in the pan as he was one of the league’s top rookies in 2014/15 with 11 goals and 29 assists for 40 points in just 65 games and was a plus-5. He led rookie defencemen in scoring and came in sixth in Calder Trophy voting for rookie of the year and was named to the league’s All Rookie Team as a reward for his fine play. The blueliner didn’t suffer from the sophomore jinx as he racked up 10 goals and 48 assists for 58 points in his second season with a mark of plus-22 in 76 games. He also led the league as he was on the ice for 132 goals for. His production dropped off slightly last season with 49 points from 13 goals and 36 assists in 80 games while going plus-2. However, he’s back on track again this campaign with six goals and 34 assists and is plus-9 as of Jan. 15th.

Overall, Klingberg’s played in 264 regular-season games and has chipped in with 40 goals and 146 assists for 186 points and is plus-41. Twelve of his 40 career goals have been game-winners and he leads all NHL defenceman in assists and scoring this season and is tied for 31st in overall scoring. Therefore, being named to the All-Star Game in Tampa, Florida on the Jan. 27/28thweekend shouldn’t have come as a surprise to NHL fans. John isn’t the first member of his family to play in the NHL, but he’s the first to play in an All Star Game. His older brother Carl Klingberg played a dozen times between 2010 and 2015 with the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets franchise.

But while Klingberg treats Dallas fans to his exceptional skills game after game, he’s rarely mentioned in conversations regarding the James Norris Trophy. However, he did come in sixth in voting for the Norris Trophy for the 2015/16 season. This is a bit of a surprise considering the right-handed defenceman’s arguably just as good as Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings, PK Subban of the Nashville Predators and the Ottawa Senators’ Erik Karlsson. But considering his age, Klingberg will almost certainly improve his game even more as he learns the ins and outs of playing defence in the world’s top hockey league.

Jonathan Marchessault hits the jackpot with new contract in Vegas

By signing a new $30 million contract over six years with the Las Vegas Golden Knights, forward Jonathan Marchessault has earned himself a 667 per cent raise. The 27-year-old from Quebec City will be cashing in $5 million worth of paycheques per year over the next half a dozen seasons after making just $750,000 a campaign on his current two-year deal, which is just $100,000 over the league minimum. The centre signed his present contract with the Florida Panthers and was taken by the Knights during the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft.

Marchessault made it to the NHL as an undrafted player by signing a three-year entry-level contract as a free agent with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2012/13. He played the first year of the deal in the AHL with the Springfield Falcons and led the club in scoring with 21 goals and 46 assists while making the league’s First All Star Team. Marchessault was sent to the Tampa Bay Lightning at the trade deadline in 2013/14 and racked up another 53 points in the AHL. He spent the 2014/15 campaign with the Syracuse Crunch with 67 points in 68 games and finally cracked the Lightning lineup as a regular the following season.

Marchessault contributed eight goals and 11 assists in  47 games for Tampa Bay and added an assist in five appearances in the 2015/16 playoffs. However, he left Tampa and signed a two-year deal with the Florida Panthers in the summer of 2016. Marchessault proved he belongs in the NHL as he broke out that season by leading the Panthers in scoring with 30 goals in 75 games and added 21 assists for 51 points. He was the first Florida player to reach the 30-goal plateau since David Booth achieved the feat with 31 goals back in 2008/09. 

For some strange reason the Panthers didn’t protect Marchessault in last year’s expansion draft and it was no surprise when Vegas snapped him up. The 5-foot-9-inch Marchessault has lived up to his billing with the Golden Knights and as of January 8th was leading the team in scoring with 16 goals and 24 assists for 40 points in 38 games and was also a plus-17. Marchessault’s excellent play has helped Vegas become the surprise of the season so far in the NHL as the expansion franchise had a 29-10-2 record for 60 points to lead the Western Conference and sit second in the league’s overall standings.

By signing Marchessault to a long-term contract along with locking up defenceman Brayden McNabb to a new four-year deal, the Knights realize they already have a possible Stanley Cup contending team on their hands and want to keep it together. Marchessault would have been an unrestricted free agent on July 1st and could have been moved at the trade deadline on February 26th, but general manager George McPhee has made a smart move by signing him until the end of the 2023/24 season at a reasonable price.

McPhee praised Marchessault by saying he works hard in all 200 feet of the rink and is an exceptional offensive player. He’s currently playing on a line with Reilly Smith and William Karlsson with the trio being one of the best and most effective units in the league. McPhee also believes Marchessault is just entering his prime and will continue to produce for the team for the next five seasons.