Alex Radulov feature displays his maturity since last NHL stint

A big storyline coming into the 2016-17 NHL season was the return of Alexander Radulov to North America after spending four years playing in the KHL in his native Russia, signing a one-year, $5.75 million deal with the Montreal Canadiens.

Once upon a time, Radulov was a high draft pick by Nashville (15th overall, 2004) but essentially ran himself out of the league following two stints in North America that didn’t work out. The second time, in particular, was especially ugly, benched during the second round of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs after violating his curfew. The Predators lost that series in five games to the Phoenix Coyotes as Radulov missed games three and four of that series after being spotted at a bar in Arizona with teammate Andrei Kostitsyn the night prior to the second game of the series, which prompted the discipline. Radulov was told to take a hike after the season, to the surprise of nobody.

While many felt Radulov had played his final NHL game following a second ugly exit from Nashville – he bolted in 2008 to join the KHL with a year remaining on his entry-level deal – Marc Bergevin was a man who believes in second chances. The Canadiens general manager brought Radulov in over the summer, signing the forward to a low-risk, high-reward that so far has reaped the awards and then some. Radulov is second on the Canadiens with 35 points in 39 games as Montreal holds a commanding eight-point lead in the Atlantic Division standings with 63 points, slotting the Habs fourth in the playoff standings with 34 games to play.

Radulov’s comeback and newfound maturity was highlighted in a Sportsnet piece over the weekend written by Ryan Dixon, documenting the 30-year-old’s time in the KHL to the mark he’s made on the Canadiens dressing room.

Of course, being 30 and a veteran playing for what potentially could be a big contract likely plays a big role in the evolution of Radulov as a player, on and off the ice. Your world view tends to change for the better as you get older (usually). But nonetheless a great story of a unbelievably gifted player who finally appears to be getting it.

You can put it in the box score score as another win for Bergevin, who seems to be having one of those ‘everything he touches turns to gold’ type of years.

Stat of the Day: Filip Forsberg has 11 goals in last 17 games

It’s been a rough past month for the Nashville Predators.

Banged up and still failing to meet lofty preseason expectations, the Preds lost P.K. Subban for over a month with a lower-body injury while James Neal and Colin Wilson have also missed time to injury. Ace defenseman Roman Josi is now out with a concussion, with no timetable for his recovery.

One of the bright spots, however, has been the production of star forward Filip Forsberg, something that was a major trouble spot early in the season. In 17 games going back to December 19th, Forsberg has 11 goals to bump his total up to 14. The total of 14 still isn’t the pace he’s expected to be on over a 82-game season, but it’s a much better pace than he had previously been on.

Flanking No. 1 pivot Ryan Johansen for a full season for the first time, Forsberg was expected to take off this season, his third in the NHL. Scoring 33 goals last season after burying 26 the season prior, the expectation for the 22-year-old was to rise to the level of counterparts Patrick Kane, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Jamie Benn among elite goal scorers in the Central Division. Instead, he was held scoreless to the first 13 games of the season and scored just three goals through the first 30 games of the season.

His run of late suggests that he’s back on track. Which is good for Nashville, which sits at third in the Central amidst a three-game winning streak. For good times to keep rolling in Nashville, Forsberg needs to sustain the run he’s currently on.

Subban present for Predators morning skate

P.K. Subban hasn’t played a game for the Nashville Predators since December 15 due to an upper-body injury. One January 1st, he was placed on the IR, with the team saying he’d be re-evaluated in two-to-three weeks.

Well, the two-week mark is approaching and while its still unknown as to when exactly the Predators defenseman will return to the ice, there was glimmer of hope on Thursday morning when the 27-year-old was present for the optional morning skate Nashville held ahead of its home game against Boston on Thursday night.

Subban won’t play Thursday and the timetable for his return still is unknown, but him being on the ice for the morning skate is at the very least a reason for optimism.

The Predators have gone 5-4-3 in the 12 games Subban has missed. Nashville is one point out of the second Wildcard spot in the Western Conference with 43 points, good for 10th place in the conference standings.

With Subban in the lineup, however, it wasn’t like the Preds were world-beaters, with a 13-12-4 record in the 29 games prior to Subban being sidelined, all of which Subban was in the lineup for. A team expected to be a contender in the West in the aftermath of trades for Ryan Johansen (last January) and Subban in addition to pushing eventual Stanley Cup finalist San Jose to a seventh game in the 2016 Western Conference semifinals, Nashville has been one of the bigger disappointments in the league this season. While he’s averaged more than 25 minutes of ice-time per night and had 17 points in the 29 games he’s played, Subban was a team-low minus-11.

Subban has never played fewer than 68 games in a season since breaking into the league on 2010.

Rise of Ryan Ellis Helps Predators Get Back on Track

Trading Shea Weber is easy when a player like P.K. Subban – a No. 1 defenseman as dynamic a player as any in the NHL – is one the other side of the transaction wire. Replacing Weber – a rugged, take-no-prisoners, do-everything, play-in-every-situation, no-nonsense big voice in the room, and oh by the way one of the best blue liners in the game – is another story.

The Nashville Predators learned just that early in the season as they stumbled off the starting blocks to a 2-4 start to the season. The once-airtight defense patrolled by Weber in Nashville allowed five-plus goals in three of those games.

Since a 6-1 loss in Anaheim on October 26 that rendered Nashville its fourth loss in six games, its been a return to normalcy for the Predators. The Preds have picked up points in nine of 12 games (6-3-3), allowing 27 goals in 12 games (2.25 per game) after giving up 21 through six (3.5). They’ve allowed just one powerplay goal on 33 chances over the last 10 games, in which the Predators have gone 6-2-2.

The 12-game stretch in which Nashville has climbed back on the map – now one point behind Minnesota in the Western Conference wildcard picture with two days to go before the world famous Thanksgiving Checkpoint – has come hand-in-hand with the expansion of the role of defenseman Ryan Ellis in Peter Laviolette’s gameplan.

Ellis has heavily factored into the Nashville’s lineup all season. He’s part of a heavily-relied upon top-four that also includes Subban, Roman Josi, and Mattias Ekholm, in which at least one has been on the ice for 84.5 percent of the Predators 1,082 faceoffs this season, according to PuckBase. Two have been on the ice for 82.5 percent.

 

In the last 12 games, there’s been a slight uptick in the ice-time of the defenseman who plays much bigger than his 5-10, 180-pound dimensions suggest.

While his usage over that span remains third among Predators defensemen behind Josi and Subban, Ellis has averaged 24:02, up from 23:11 over the first six games. In Monday’s 3-1 win over Tampa Bay, he averaged a game-high 25:30 while assisting one all three goals. It was the second time Ellis has led the Predators in time-on-ice this season, an honor that has largely gone to either Josi or Subban, as expected prior to the season.

In addition to the 23:44 overall average of ice-time for Ellis this season, he’s playing a team-high 2:48 shorthanded, on the ice for 62 of the 102 shorthanded faceoffs, according to PuckBase. That’s a similar rate as Weber’s dependency in the situation last season, on the ice for 292 of the Predators 442 man-down draws.

When Ellis and Josi are paired together on the ice, the Predators have outscored opponents 9-7 in five-on-five situations in 223 minutes together, according to corsica. Subban and Ekholm, the other pairing that has seen a bulk of five-on-five time (228:42), have been outscored, 9-6.

Ellis is a much different player than Weber. Weber is a 6-4, 232-pound behemoth who uses his size to set a physical tone among a bevy of other good things he does inside the glass. Ellis comes up short size-wise by six inches and 52 pounds. Any physical shortcomings he makes up for with good positioning, speed, and a good stick. Ellis doesn’t have the responsibilities Weber was pegged with for much of his time in Nashville.

When it comes to replacing Shea Weber, the Predators haven’t done so with adding more meat to the plate of Josi, or making Subban play outside his strengths of risk-taking and aggressive play. It’s been a quartet of strong blue liners starting with the two heavy-lifters followed by Ellis and Ekholm. It’s a new-age corps that predicates itself on speed, puck movement, and being a part of the rush.

The transition started with the trading of Weber for a player in Subban whose play suited that new style, having faith in Josi being an elite No. 1 defenseman.

The rise of Ellis is the latest step in making it complete.

 

Thoughts Are My Own: Night of Statement Wins

Thoughts after a rare Monday night of games and big wins.

*Start with the New York Rangers. Going into Pittsburgh’s building and coming out with a 5-2 win. Coming off a second loss in a row, losing Mika Zibanejad, it was all Blueshirts after a sluggish first period. We’ll see if they can keep it up.

*Who had Edmonton beating Chicago, 5-0? I’m sure even fewer had the Blackhawks being held to just three shots in the third period.

*Nice win by Nashville, topping Tampa Bay at home. The Predators are 6-2-2 in their last 10.

*Matt Tkachuk with a goal and assist while playing 15:52 in the Flames 4-2 loss to Buffalo. That’s his second multi-point game in the NHL and now has five goals and eight points in 17 games. He’s been one of Calgary’s few bright spots.

*Jake Guentzel the latest kid to splash on the scene in what has been the Year of the Kids so far in 2016. The young Penguin scored on his first career shot 1:02 into Monday’s game against the Rangers in Pittsburgh, the first of two first period goals for Guentzel in the 5-2 loss. A third round pick by the Pens in 2013, the 22-year-old forward had been a force at AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, with 17 points in 16 games this season. He had 14 points in 10 playoff games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last season after he went pro following his junior season at Nebraska-Omaha, where he led the Mavericks to a Frozen Four appearance in 2015 as a sophomore.

*Latest on the Craig Cunningham front. Nothing new but Bob McKenzie had a great piece on Cunningham, his journey to the NHL, and the relationship he holds with his mother, his lifelong friends, and his current peers. McKenzie writes Cunningham is ‘literally battling for his life.’

Game to Watch Tuesday Night

St. Louis at Boston: David Backes faces the team he captained for five years before leaving the Blues for a five-year, $30 million deal with the Bruins in free agency this past summer.

Hat Trick Pick

Victor Rask: The Hurricanes leading scorer has four goals in his last five games, and eight overall this season.

Thoughts Are My Own: Lots of Highlight-Reel Stuff

Thoughts as we sit exactly one week away from Black Friday:

*He didn’t get much help, but James Reimer turned in what will likely be one of the more putrid goaltending performances of the year. Sometimes it’s just about making that save. He made none of them.

*On the other hand, great night for Steve Mason in the Flyers 5-2 win over Winnipeg. Thirty-save effort, his stoning of Nikolaj Ehlers midway through the second period was game-changing.

*A nice goal by Sean Couturier got things going for the Flyers, as Couturier walked right in after puck-carrying Mark Scheifele lost his feet, leading to the turnover. It looked like Jakub Voracek got away with a trip on the play.

*The Flyers have won six straight against the Jets. Winnipeg hasn’t won in Philly since January 2012, a 2-1 shootout win.

*A play you missed gazing over Mitch Marner’s highlight-reel goal: Matt Read’s diving pass to set up a Michael Raffl goal. Read, in a puck battle with Winnipeg defenseman Josh Morrissey, makes a great read (no pun intended) on the play, seeing Raffl streaking down the middle of the ice, left alone after Morrissey gave chase to the puck after Dustin Byfuglien made a bad pinch that led to the two-on-one. Read’s dive shuffled the pass over to Raffl, who went in and beat Connor Hellebuyck for the easy score.

*Nice gesture by the Senators to acknowledge Mike Fisher’s 1,000th career game (which he did this past March, to clarify). The Predators captain played 675 of those games in Ottawa, from 1999 to 2011. Fisher was a key piece in those great Senators teams of the 2000s, and was integral in Ottawa’s run to the Stanley Cup in 2007.

*Nashville is 5-1-2 in its last eight. Pierre LeBrun wrote earlier this week the Preds appear to be hitting their stride. It would seem that way.

*Devan Dubnyk might be the best player in the NHL nobody talks about. Dubnyk’s league-leading fourth shutout of the season in Minnesota’s 1-0 win over Boston was his 14th since joining the Wild. He has a .952 save percentage and 1.47 GAA this season.

*Another play you missed gazing over Mitch Marner’s highlight-reel goal: Ben Bishop makes a diving save on a Kyle Okposo shot that looked like a no-doubter goal. That said, it was Bishop who threw the puck out into the big ice from behind the net, which met the tape of Okposo. It’s like he wanted the Sabre to score.

*Predators top goaltending prospect Juuse Saros made 35 saves in Milwaukee’s 1-0 win over Cleveland on Thursday night. Saros had a 1.74 GAA in eight games for the Admirals, which trails only Michael Leighton (1.62) in the AHL. His .940 save percentage is bested only Wilkes-Barre/Scranton netminder Casey DeSmith, who has a .963 save percentage but has played only four games.

*A big win for No. 6 UMass-Lowell, who went out to visit ninth-ranked Notre Dame and came out with a 4-1 win. The River Hawks are on the back end of a two-weekend stretch that includes trips to Orono and Indiana.

Mitch Marner’s Goal

As nice a goal as you’ll see. He does a good job getting a step on Panthers defenseman Michael Matheson as he gets the pass from James van Reimsdyk breaking out of the zone. From there, he’s able to create space for himself while outmuscling the big, strong Matheson as broke for the net, dancing around James Reimer and burying the puck.

Game to watch Friday night

N.Y. Rangers at Columbus: A pair of teams that account for two of the three-highest goal differentials so far this season; the Rangers leading at plus-34 while the Blue Jackets are third at plus-14. The Blueshirts do it by scoring (league-high 72 goals) while the Jackets play good defense (Eastern Conference-low 33 goals allowed).

Hat Trick Pick

Sidney Crosby: Sid has 96 points in 55 games against the Islanders, the Penguins opponent on Friday night. Crosby’s 30 goals against the Isles are second only to the Flyers (35). He has 10 goals through 10 games, the closest he’s ever come to a goal-per-game in his NHL career was in 2010-11, when he had 32 goals in 41 games.

Stat of the Day: Shea Weber Leads NHL in Goal Scoring Among Defensemen since 2005

While he came at the expense of P.K. Subban, defenseman Shea Weber has been a tremendous acquisition for the Montreal Canadiens.

In seven games, Weber has three goals and nine points while averaging 25:59 of ice time per night. His plus-12 rating leads the NHL; the next-closest is Detroit forward Darren Helm, with nine. The Canadiens are out to a 6-0-1 start.

Weber’s greatness, of course, is no secret. Prior to arriving in Montreal, he spent 11 seasons in Nashville. Over the 11-plus seasons, he’s scored 169 goals, which is tops among all NHL season going back to his 2006 debut. The output, which has come in 770 games, leads second-best Dustin Byfuglien (152) by 17.

Only Chicago blue liner Duncan Keith – who has multiple Stanley Cups and Norris Trophies to his credit – and the recently-retired Dan Boyle have more points than Weber’s 452 since he came into the league. However, he’ll become second in short time, as he sits just two points behind Boyle. Keith is 12 points ahead of Weber, with 464.

Two things Weber doesn’t have (through no fault of his own)? A Stanley Cup and a Norris Trophy. Who knows, both could be crossed off the list this year.