December 17 — Missing You Versus Moving on & Operation Ovechkin

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Yesterday’s Games

Celebrity Shinny 2021 Tampa
Celebrity Shinny 2021 Tampa

NHL Standings

Editor’s Note: Yesterday, we regretfully referred to Chicago Blackhawks radio analyst Troy Murray as Tom. We here at the Morning Skate would like to send our sincerest apologies to Troy and his family. Chemotherapy is punishment enough!

Last Night’s News 📰

KICKING PUCKS: Former Pittsburgh Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham is leading the charge for youth girls hockey programs in Pittsburgh. Suisham began the program for his daughters when he was still in the NFL and has grown it to feature two under-10 and two under-12 teams this season.

ALL-STARS ALIGN: For the second year in a row, the ECHL has invited four women from the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHP) and Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) to play in its All-Star Game on Jan. 17 in Jacksonville, FL. It will be the first time both women’s professional leagues will have players represented at a joint event, as only the PWHP took part in the All-Star Game last year.

LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE: As in, two Tampa Bay Lightning players achieved milestones last night. Steven Stamkos became just the second Bolts player to record 900 career points, making him the 118th player in NHL history to reach the mark. Meanwhile, his teammate, Andrei Vasilevskiy, made 25 saves to record his 63rd win in the 2021 calendar year. That win put him ahead of Marc-André Fleury, who posted 62 wins during 2009.

Friday Favorites

Let’s look back at some of our favorite moments from this past week:

Canadiens Stop the Bleeding

It is no secret that the Montreal Canadiens have had a rough season. Cole Caufield had a stint in the minors, while the team has a point percentage of .274. The good news is they got their first win in eight games on Thursday night. It may have taken a shootout, but a victory is a victory. Jonathan Drouin was the only player to score in the shootout that led to the Habs finally earning two points.

A Hat Trick in St. Louis

Nathan Walker earned his first career hat trick, becoming the first Australian player to accomplish this feat in the NHL. He scored three goals against the Detroit Red Wings in front of the home crowd at Enterprise Center in St. Louis. The 27-year-old made history after being recalled on an emergency basis, making this story that much better. Way to go, mate!

The Great 8 Indeed

Alex Ovechkin is playing out of this world right now. He is chasing Gretzky’s goal-scoring record but has pulled even with another in the process. On Wednesday night, Ovechkin tied the NHL record for power-play goals. He is now even with Dave Andreychuk at 274. At 36 years old, he is playing some of his best hockey and keeps entertaining fans night in and night out.

Breaking up Is Hard (Or Easy) to Do

All offseason, the flat salary cap forced NHL clubs to get creative. Not only did some cap-crunched teams lack the space to bring back their free agents, but they didn’t necessarily have the resources to replace those players, either. It’s tight, challenging situations like those that can separate the savvy front offices from the also-rans.

As we delve deeper into the 2021-22 season, we’re getting a clearer picture of who found inspired solutions to their challenging vacancies and who haven’t managed to fill their glaring voids in the lineup. Among teams that faced a significant off-season departure, here are a few that have moved on successfully and some that haven’t:

Moving On: Toronto Maple Leafs (Zach Hyman → Michael Bunting)

While not quite a member of the club’s high-paid “Core 4” (Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander), Zach Hyman held similar value within the Maple Leafs’ organization for his physical, high-energy game. However, instead of matching the seven-year, $38.5 million contract that Hyman got from the Edmonton Oilers, Toronto landed Michael Bunting to provide many of the same elements (both players have 19 points) for two years and only $1.9 million.

Still Missing You: Montreal Canadiens (Phillip Danault → Christian Dvorak)

Replacing shutdown center Phillip Danault in Montreal has ultimately been more of a “by-committee” type of approach, with Nick Suzuki, Jake Evans, and Christian Dvorak all taking on added responsibilities. It still hasn’t been enough to offset the loss of the newest Los Angeles Kings forward, as the Habs have dropped from 18th in goals allowed a year ago to dead last this season. Being without Shea Weber and Carey Price hasn’t helped, but the club is feeling the loss of Danault, too.

Moving On: Carolina Hurricanes (Dougie Hamilton → Tony DeAngelo)

For some, no amount of points will validate the Hurricanes’ signing of controversial blueliner Tony DeAngelo. However, Carolina did its research before taking a one-year, $1 million flyer on the former New York Ranger, and the 26-year-old has paid off nicely to date. Being nothing but a positive contributor, DeAngelo currently has four more points than Hamilton, the New Jersey Devils’ free-agent signee who is making $8 million more this season than his replacement.

Still Missing You: Vegas Golden Knights (Marc-André Fleury → Robin Lehner)

Without shedding the $7 million owed to Marc-André Fleury this season, there’s no way Vegas could’ve landed Jack Eichel, regardless of how unpopular the trade of the reigning Vezina winner was among the Golden Knights’ fan base. Still, disappointing numbers from new starting goaltender Robin Lehner (3.05 goals-against average, .906 save percentage) haven’t made the loss of the Flower any easier for the under-achieving Knights.

His Best Season Yet

On Wednesday night, Alex Ovechkin moved back into first place in the points category among NHL players this season. After scoring his 46th point against the Chicago Blackhawks, it propelled him ahead of Edmonton Oilers forwards Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Let’s look at three reasons why the Russian forward is on pace to have his career-best season at age 36.

Impressive Playmaking Abilities

Having already improved his assist total from last season with 25 tallies to begin the year, it’s clear that Ovechkin has worked on that area of his game. He looks very engaged on the forecheck and continues to find the passing lanes for his teammates at an exceptional rate.

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

For a player who has won the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy nine times in his career, it appears he wanted to focus on finding his teammates instead of finishing the scoring chances himself.

Even-Strength Production

Ovechkin currently has nine more even-strength points than anyone in the league, which is surprising due to multiple factors. He hasn’t once cracked the top-10 list for even-strength points over the past 10 seasons and was generally considered to be past his prime.

Alex Ovechkin Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Only one of his 18 goals has been scored via his signature one-timer on the power play this season. This means he has been able to score in other areas and different fashions.

Evgeny Kuznetsov Bouncing Back

It can be easy to focus on the franchise player for an organization, but the main reasoning for Ovechkin’s improved play is multiple different players having career seasons. Kuznetsov stepped up his overall game compared to the worst season of his career last year.

Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Kuznetsov is on pace to finish with 86 points for an 82-game season. Many off-ice issues surround the center, but he appears to have turned a corner. For a team that’s looking to prove they still have the potential to win a Stanley Cup, their odds look better with the play of a motivated Ovechkin.

Today’s Games