Vegas Golden Knights forwards William Karlsson (right) and Jonathan Marchessault celebrate a goal against the Arizona Coyotes on Nov. 25.
Photograph by: Ross D. Franklin
Alexander Wennberg or William Karlsson?
If the Columbus Blue Jackets could do it all over again, which player do you think they would protect?
No question, a favourable expansion draft helped the Vegas Golden Knights get off to a better start than anyone could have imagined in their inaugural NHL season. But it didn’t have to be this way.
While Golden Knights GM George McPhee did a fantastic job of picking the right players, the 30 other general managers in the league sure gave him a lot of options. Teams were allowed to protect seven forwards, three defencemen and one goalie or one goalie and eight skaters regardless of their position.
Some, like the Toronto Maple Leafs (Brendan Leipsic), lost a player they hardly knew they had. Others, however, weren’t so lucky.
The Blue Jackets protected Wennberg, who is 23, rather than Karlsson, who is one year older. After 22 games, Wennberg has a goal and 10 points. Karlsson, who has 14 goals and 25 points in 27 games, would be far and away Columbus’ leader in goals and points.
Then again, it was only after joining the expansion team that he was given the chance to showcase his previously dormant talents.
“I was an offensive guy in Sweden,” Karlsson, who had 25 points in 81 games last season and has already exceeded his previous high of six goals, told NHL.com this week. “I kind of knew I always had it in me. I knew I had a chance here and I really wanted to take it.”
It’s not just Karlsson who is making the most of a bigger opportunity in Vegas — and at the same time causing his former GM a lot of regret.
Jonathan Marchessault, who is playing on Karlsson’s line, is tied with a team-leading 25 points. His production is less surprising, considering he scored 30 goals last season for the Florida Panthers. But that also made Florida’s decision not to protect him — and Reilly Smith, who has seven goals and 21 points after being included in a trade to Vegas — a curious one, especially since the Panthers are ranked 18th in goals per game this season.
The same goes for Boston, who protected defenceman Kevan Miller (no goals and four points in 24 games) rather than Colin Miller (four goals and 14 points in 27 games) and Minnesota, who protected Nino Niederreiter rather than Erik Haula (nine goals and 17 points).
It’s all hindsight, of course. But it’s also something to keep in mind a few years from now, when the NHL is expected to do this again with a prospective Seattle franchise.
Year of the (AHL) backups
Call it the year of the backup. Or in the Golden Knights’ and Pittsburgh Penguins’ case, the year of the No. 3 … or No. 4.
No team wants to lose their starting goalie, as the Montreal Canadiens showed when they went 4-4-2 without Carey Price. But others have been able to survive without as much as a hiccup. Vegas, which went 14-8-1 after losing Marc-Andre Fleury in the fourth game of the season, is the best example of this.
Not far behind is Pittsburgh, where 22-year-old Tristan Jarry has won four of five games and allowed just nine goals since being called up from the minors to fill in for Matt Murray, who had lost the previous three games before suffering a lower-body injury.
“I think there are similarities,” Penguins GM Jim Rutherford said of Jarry and Murray, who was also called up earlier than expected because of injury two years ago. “Ideally this year what I wanted was for him to continue developing at the American Hockey League and play more games. But it appears at this point in time, that’s going to have to be accelerated.”
Owen Tippett’s confusing omission
The announcement of any all-star or national team is always more about who isn’t on the roster rather than who is. So when Hockey Canada on Wednesday invited 32 players to next week’s world junior selection camp, most of the focus was on the omissions.
The biggest was perhaps Florida Panthers prospect Owen Tippett, who had been considered a lock to make the team after starting the season in the NHL.
“We’re always looking for offence and ways to produce offence. And (Tippett) can do that,” Hockey Canada head coach Brad McEwen told me in November. “We expect him to be part of the offence and certainly in the mix.”
Indeed, Tippett’s seven games of NHL experience, where he scored a goal, are more than any invite. And only four invites had more than the 44 goals he scored for Mississauga last year.
In other words, like the decision to leave Max Domi off the team that finished fourth in 2014 or Jakub Chychrun off the team that finished sixth in 2016, it’s something to tuck away in case Canada finishes off the podium.
The Russian Olympic team that’ll never be
The IOC’s decision to ban Russia from the Olympics obviously hurts the country’s hockey team. Not that it matters anymore, because the NHL isn’t allowing its players to participate, but the timing couldn’t be worse considering that this season has been the year when Russians are taking over the league.
Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov, who is second in the Rocket Richard Trophy race with 19 goals, leads all scorers with 40 points in 27 games. Washington’s Alex Ovechkin leads all players with 21 goals in 29 games. And Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who was last season’s Vezina Trophy winner, has a 2.11 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage.
Toss in Evgeny Kuznetsov (10 goals and 31 points), Vladimir Tarasenko (12 goals and 29 points) and rookie defenceman Mikhail Sergachev (six goals and 19 points), and this might have been Russia’s best assemblage of talent. Too bad the rest of the world won’t see it.
Rookie crop catches up to Keller
A quarter of the way through the season, the decision was unanimous: Clayton Keller, who had 11 goals in the first 16 games, was everyone’s early pick for the Calder Trophy.
A month later, the rookie race is heating up.
While Keller is still very much in contention with 11 goals and 23 points, he’s got considerable company. Matthew Barzal of the New York Islanders leads first-year players with 26 points, while Vancouver’s Brock Boeser leads rookies with 13 goals and has 25 points.
That’s not all. From Chicago’s Alex DeBrincat (11 goals and 20 points) and Colorado’s Alexander Kerfoot (eight goals and 20 points) to New Jersey’s Nico Hischier (eight goals and 20 points) and Tampa Bay’s Mikhai Sergachev (19 points), as well as many others, this should be a race that comes down to the wire.
Here and there
I don’t know what’s more surprising: that Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson each have just one goal or that the entire Buffalo Sabres defence still doesn’t have any … The only reason Montreal is currently in a playoff spot is because of Carey Price — and also because the Habs play in the Atlantic Division, where the third-ranked team has fewer points than the sixth-best team (New York Rangers) in the Metropolitan Division … While the most dangerous job in the NHL this year is being a goaltender, so far the safest has been head coach. By this time last year, Gerard Gallant was already gone in Florida, with four more fired before then end of February.
• Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @michael_traikos