Last week was a big one in the NHL. We saw Ovechkin reach another major milestone and the Lightning continue the quest for their next one. I also dive into the state of the Dallas Stars and predict another award.
1. Tampa Chases the Wins Record
I’ve written about this year’s Tampa Bay Lightning team enough; everyone has. They have already clinched the Atlantic Division crown and President’s Trophy. Nikita Kucherov will no doubt take home the Hart Trophy and Andrei Vasilevskiy has a strong chance to win the Vezina Trophy. There is just one regular season domino left to fall. The Lightning are 59-15-4 this season. That puts them three wins behind the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings who own the single-season record for most wins in a season with 62. With four games to play, Tampa would have to sweep their remaining games against Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, and Boston to set the record. All of those games are on the road.
As a die-hard Red Wings fan, I don’t want Tampa to set the new record. I don’t think they will because they won’t want to risk one of their stars getting injured as they have nothing left to play for. I bet they lose to Montreal on April 2nd because the Canadiens still have the most to play for as they fight to secure a playoff spot in the East. If there is anything to watch for in the NHL this week, it’s the Lightning and their quest for the wins record.
2. Unloved Team: Dallas Stars
It’s safe to say this season hasn’t exactly gone as planned for the Dallas Stars. They are still in the run for a playoff spot and anything can happen in the playoffs. The Stars are currently holding down the first wild-card spot and are three points clear of the Avalanche. They are fourth in a difficult Central Division where all seven teams are still in the hunt for the playoffs. Any division with both the Jets and Predators isn’t fair to anyone.
Their top offensive players have under-achieved this year. Superstar Tyler Seguin is fresh off an eight-year extension that will pay him $78.8 million. Seguin has been one of the best forwards in the show since being traded from Boston and is no doubt deserving of the money. He has scored 31 goals and added 44 assists this season. If the season ended today, this season would actually be his fourth-highest scoring season with Dallas in his six years with the team. That’s actually not that bad. But once the ink dries on that extension, anything less than an MVP caliber season isn’t good enough.
Speaking of extensions, Seguin and his linemate, Jamie Benn, caught quite a bit of flak from their CEO, Jim Lites, earlier this year. Lites ripped both stars for their lack of production after the team dished out huge money to both players (Benn is currently in the third year of his eight year/$76 million deal). Lites’ rant seemed to spark both players initially, but as the season comes to a close, only Seguin’s production increased. Benn was averaging .79 PPG before Lites’ rant and has averaged .59 PPG since. Seguin, on the other hand, has really stepped it up. He was averaging .84 PPG before Lites’ rant and averaged 1.08 PPG after.
I couldn’t talk about the Stars without mentioning Seguin and Benn’s linemate, Alexander Radulov. Outside of the Avalanche’s first-line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog, the Seguin/Benn/Radulov line might be the best in the NHL. Radulov has quietly put up another great season in Dallas, scoring 26 goals and notching 39 assists for 65 points. Radulov has proved that he here to stay in the NHL after returning from the KHL full-time in 2016.
Perhaps the biggest story of the Stars’ season has been rookie-defenseman, Miro Heiskanen. If there is anyone I snubbed in my Calder prediction last week, it’s Heiskanen. Heiskanen has put up great numbers for a rookie D-man with 12 goals, 21 assists, and 33 points. Most importantly, he has played a major 23:09 TOI and has only racked up 16 PIMS! To put that in perspective, only two other rookie blue-liners have cracked the 20+ TOI this season. Rasmus Dhalin is of course, the first. The second is Filip Hronek of the Red Wings. Seeing as those are the only two players it’s fair to compare Heiskanen to, let’s match up their numbers to see who has the edge. Yes, I’m going to compare Hronek to these two studs because I’m praying he ends up as good as them (Go Wings!)
After comparing the three, a few things jump out at you. First, Hronek obviously has played in half the amount of games as the other two, so he has had fewer opportunities to score points and change his +/-. Either way, he looks promising.
Heiskanen edges out Dhalin in multiple major categories, including goals, +/-, and PIM by a long shot. That’s crazy that a 19-year-old defenseman has only racked up 16 PIM in 78 games.
Both Dhalin and Heiskanen are second-pair defenseman. But, Dhalin has captained the first power-play unit for the Sabres. It shows considering his huge edge in PPG. For the Stars, John Klingberg is the team’s PP captain, which pushes Heiskanen down to the second unit.
Overall, Heiskanen is already a legitimate NHL player. He has the makings to be a superstar and has had just as impressive a season as Dhalin has. I look forward to these two battling for the Norris Trophy for years to come.
One more note on Dallas. Ben Bishop has also had a really great year. It’s hard to forget that he mans the net for the Stars now. He is clearly an upgrade over Kari Lehtonen. He is 26-15-0-2 with a 2.03 GAA, and a .933 sv%. His backup, Anton Khudobin, hasn’t been bad either. Khudobin 15-15-0-4, with a 2.51 GAA, and a .925 sv%. Goaltending is always massive come playoff time. If Bishop can get super-hot, I like the Stars to deliver a potential first-round upset over the Winnipeg Jets.
3. Award Watch: Jack Adams
This week in award predictions, we dive deep into the Jack Adams Award which is given to the league’s best coach. Below are my top choices and why they are worthy of the award.
The Jack Adams, or any coach of the year award for that matter, is always a difficult one to judge. It’s hard for the casual fan, and many writers, to gauge the impact of a coach. We don’t always notice or hear about the tweaks they make to their roster and/or strategy that lead to more wins. They are usually judged on narrative. If a team is expected to be bad, and the only addition is a new coach, naturally the coach must be the reason for the jump in play. Considering that is how most writers judge this award, I will as well.
My three finalists are, in alphabetical order:
1. Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning
2. Bill Peters, Calgary Flames
3. Barry Trotz, New York Islanders
The Lightning are in the hunt for the all-time wins record, which is reason enough for Cooper to make this list. Many will argue that a coach of the league’s best team, with the best players, doesn’t deserve to win the award. I disagree. A huge aspect of coaching is balancing egos and making sure your guys get enough ice time. The Lightning have players on their second line that play on the first line on almost every team. I think he has done a magnificent job keeping this team together and focused on taking down Washington in the East.
Peters is an obvious choice as a finalist for the Jack Adams award. In his first year as the Flames head coach, he has improved the team dramatically. Last year, the Flames finished in fifth place in the Pacific with 84 points. This year, they are the top team in the West and sit at 103 points. It’s no secret the Flames have talent. Their roster already boasted the likes of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Mark Giordano. But, it’s the emergence of Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk that catch my eye. Peters is getting the most out of each player on his roster and there is zero talent being wasted. The Flames are also the best team in the West, so that should help his cause.
Last but not least is Barry Trotz. The Islanders were expected to be in the basement of the Metropolitan Division this year. They finished seventh in the Metro last year, and that was with their franchise player, John Tavares. Tavares notably left for Toronto last summer, and many were expecting the Isles to crash even further. The Islanders have totally flipped the script this year and currently sit in second place in the Metro. If the season ended today, they would finish with 19 more points than last year with almost an identical roster minus Tavares.
Winner: Trotz will win the award because he is the sexiest choice. He transformed a team that was coming off a terrible season and had just lost their franchise player into a team that will host playoff games. That headline alone will get him votes. I give him the edge over the other two because of the lack of talent on the Islanders. Tampa is clearly the most talented team in the NHL and it’s hard to give a coach of the year award to a coach with the shiniest toys. Peters is hurt by this too because the Flames are also uber-talented. Overall, all three guys had tremendous seasons, but Trotz did more with less.
4. McDavid’s Highlight Goal
As a writer for Puck Junk, I like to think I provide a service to update you all on the news around the league. So for those of you that need to be updated, I present to you another Connor McDavid highlight. McDavid has already cemented himself as a top-three player in the NHL, if not the best. Not to mention he has once again set a new career high in points for the fourth year in a row. But he has yet put together a memorable cup run or signature highlight. Yes, he has dazzled us all with his speed and scored many amazing goals.
Any time a player scores a between-the-legs goal, it’s bound to end up on highlight reels. I would be doing you all a disservice if I didn’t force you to watch it again. So enjoy one of the best goals of McDavid’s young career.
5. Ovechkin Gets His 50th… and His 51st
He did it again. For the eighth time in his career, Alex Ovechkin scored 50 goals in a season. He did it on Saturday in a hard-fought game against the league’s best team, the Lightning. Not only did Ovi score his 50th goal, by the time I checked Twitter to make sure he had done it, people were also already tweeting about his 51st. Ovechkin is now the third player in NHL history to score 50 goals in a season eight times. Only Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy did it more, they each did so nine times. At 33-years-old, Ovechkin does not seem to be slowing down at all. It’s feasible for him to do it two more teams and own that record for himself. I surely won’t count him out. ■
Blake Isaacs is a die-hard Red Wings fan that doesn’t go to as many games as he should. He is also a big fan of 7-Eleven Slurpeees, Chipotle, and all things Michigan State. Follow him on Twitter @bisaacs1995.