Wingers : 1-5

1 – Patrick Kane

The only winger I see as a slam dunk, no-its-not-up-for-debate top-5 player on the planet. Kane’s last two seasons have been his two best, recording 89 points last season after posting a league-high 106 in his Hart Trophy-winning campaign of 2015-16. Chicago’s top line of Kane, Artem Anisimov, and Artemi Panarin have carried the Blackhawks the last two seasons. While Panarin is gone to Columbus, I get the feeling Kane will be just fine.

2 – Jamie Benn

Benn makes up half of one of the league’s top tandems along with Tyler Seguin, whose impact on Benn’s numbers since he came to Dallas in 2013 I highlighted when I ranked the league’s best centers on Monday. Those numbers – 324 points in 322 games over the past four seasons, which ranks third in the NHL – are a combination of Seguin’s impact plus Benn coming into his own as a player through the prime years that are the mid-to-late 20s. Before dipping to 69 points last season in what was a disappointing year for just about everyone in Dallas, Benn won the Art Ross trophy in 2014-15 with 87 points before posting 89 in 2015-16, which was second in the league.

3 – Vladimir Tarasenko

Three wingers have won the Hart Trophy since the 2004-05 lockout (Kane, Alex Ovechkin, Corey Perry). Tarasenko could be the fourth. The 25-year-old has played four full seasons in the NHL and seems to get better every year, his points going on a yearly progression of 43-73-74-75 over that span. His goals over the last three seasons have gone 37-40-39. He’s due for a Rocket Richard Trophy.

4 – Nikita Kucherov

With Steven Stamkos injured last season, Kucherov carried the Lightning in the second half of the season. His usage spiked down the stretch last year, and the 24-year-old responded with as good a finishing kick as there was in the league over the final six weeks. Kucherov recorded 36 points over the final 23 games of the season.

5 – Alex Ovechkin

We’re at the stage of Ovechkin’s career where he’s beginning to knock down records and pass big names on the all-time lists. At 558 goals, he should pass Guy Lafleur (560), Mike Modano (561), Mats Sundin (564), and Joe Nieuwendyk (564) before Thanksgiving and could catch Mike Bossy (573) by Christmas. His 33 goals sent a few shockwaves after three straight seasons of 50-plus and four consecutive Richard Trophies (he has six overall in his career). Ovechkin’s offensive production at five-on-five was down, but was still one of the best in the league on the powerplay, and his shooting percentage (10.5) was the second-lowest of his career. So yes, there were drops in terms of shot volume, goals, and points, but nothing dramatic.

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ICYMI: Patrick Kane strike off faceoff

Patrick Kane has a knack for making things look easy.

Sunday night was a good example of that, scoring twice for Chicago in its 3-2 overtime loss to Minnesota.

It was the second of those two goals that he made a tough play look, well, relatively easy.

 

With Artem Anisimov and Charlie Coyle tied up off a faceoff, Kane came dashing in off the circle, taking the loose puck and sniping it past Minnesota netminder Devan Dubnyk for his 14th goal of the season. While the puck was loose, there was a good deal of traffic around it when Kane came in and said ‘thank you very much’ and did what he wanted to do. The release was so quick and so on point that Dubnyk – who made 35 saves in the win and now has a .940 save percentage and 1.78 GAA to accompany his 23-7-3 record – could barely react.

Sunday was the first multiple-goal effort of the season for Kane, who hasn’t connected at his normal pace this year after scoring 46 a season ago en route to his only Hart Trophy.

Granted, it’s not all bad for Kane, as he has 33 assists and 47 points in 46 games, which is right on the normal point-plus-per-game pace he’s been on going back to the 2012-13 lockout. The 28-year-old is the centerpiece of the Blackhawk’s premier line – in which Kane skates alongside Artemi Panarin and Anisimov – which has also been one the NHL’s best lines since it was assembled last season.

 

Quiet Friday Night Across the NHL

Fridays are never big night in the NHL, but theres still some games. Here’s what is being played: Chicago at Columbus, 7; Arizona at N.Y. Islanders, 7; Nashville at Detroit, 7:30.

Players to Watch

Chicago: Patrick Kane; The defending Hart Trophy winner has six points in his last two games. He has 15 goals and 42 points in 38 games against the Jackets.

Columbus: Brandon Saad; Helped the Blackhawks win two Stanley Cups in his three full seasons in Chicago from 2012-13 to ’14-15. He had 15 goals and 33 points in 67 games he played in the Stanley Cup playoffs over that span. Chicago won 10 of 11 playoff series in those three tournaments.

Arizona: Dylan Strome; Strome’s third career game will be his first against older brother, Ryan, who is a forward for the Islanders.

N.Y. Islanders: Ryan Pulock; The promising young defenseman will make his NHL debut.

Nashville: Pekka Rinne; Expected to start against once-division rival Detroit, Rinne is out to a nice start. In two games, the 34-year-old netminder has stopped 57 of 61 shots.

Detroit: Petr Mrazek; Now-backup Jimmy Howard was phenomenal in Wednesday’s 2-1 win over the Rangers. Meanwhile, Mrazek hasn’t looked sharp in three games.

#HatTrickChallenge

Patrick Kane: Kane has six points in four games but has just one goal, which he got in Tuesday’s 7-4 win over Philadelphia. His 16 shots lead the Blackhawks and is tied for 14th in the NHL.

Game of the Night

Nashville at Detroit: The Predators visit Joe Louis Arena for one final time. They have won just 13 of 46 games Nashville has played there.

Lock to Win

Nashville: The Predators get the important road win and avoid the 1-3 start.

Links

Friday is never a slow night in the college hockey circuit. Here’s a good read on Maine’s fast start to the season.

Scoring is up in the NHL. Here’s a look at what it means and what we should expect.

Lucas Sedlak will make his NHL debut for the Blue Jackets on Friday night.

Brothers Ryan and Dylan Strome set to faceoff against each other for the first time.

Central Division: Facts, Figures, Predictions

*The Chicago Blackhawks will go for its fourth Stanley Cup in eight seasons this upcoming spring (OK, they have to make it first). The last team to win four within eight years was Edmonton, who won five in a seven-year span from 1984-90.

*Patrick Kane’s 106 points en route to the Art Ross Trophy in 2015-16 was the highest scoring total in an NHL season since Evgeni Malkin posted 109 in 2011-12. No player has reached 110 since Henrik Sedin’s 112-point campaign in 2009-10.

*(Kind of) oldie but a goodie – the Blackhawks point total in 2012-13 adjusted to 132 (they had 77 in 48 games). That total would’ve tied a record held by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens.

*The Colorado Avalanche have won 39 games in each of the last two seasons; the first time the Avs failed to win 40 games two full years in a row since the NHL went to a 82-game schedule in 1995-96. Back when the franchise was in Quebec City, the Nordiques won 16 and 20 games, respectively, in 1991 and ’92, part of a stretch of six years of 40 wins or fewer from 1987-92.

*Matt Duchene scored 30 goals last season, the first Colorado player to reach that mark since Joe Sakic and Milan Hejduk tallied 36 and 35, respectively, in 2006-07. Hejduk is the most recent to score 40, when he buried 50 chances in 2002-03.

*In 2013-14, Seymon Varlomov led all goaltenders in wins (41), his .927 save percentage was tied with Carey Price for second, and ranked 10th with a 2.41 GAA among goalies who played 55 games. In two seasons since, he’s 15th in wins (55), his .918 save percentage tied for 11th, and his 2.68 GAA 15th.

*The Stars league-leading 3.23 goals-per-game last season was the highest since the Penguins led the league with 3.33 in 2011-12.

*There have been just six 30-goal seasons in Nashville Predators history. Filip Forsberg and James Neal accounted for two of them last season.

*The Blues have allowed the second-lowest goals per game over the past five seasons, a rate of 2.26 per game. Only Los Angeles (2.24) has allowed fewer.

Predictions

1. Nashville: You’re going to love the way this team plays hockey.

2. St. Louis: David Backes is gone, but all will be well up front as Vladimir Tarasenko scores 50 goals.

3. Chicago: The Hawks window is far from closed.

4. Dallas: The Stars overcome early struggles as its best recover from offseason injuries.

5. Minnesota: Bruce Boudreau effect gets underway, expect a higher finish than this.

6. Winnipeg: Patrik Laine finished with more points than Auston Matthews.

7. Colorado: The Avs are a franchise at a crossroads.

Central Division: Still the Class of the NHL

The Chicago Blackhawks are in the midst of the greatest run of success going back to the Red Wings around the turn of the century. The St. Louis Blues are the the most accomplished NHL franchise to not have a Stanley Cup in the trophy case. The Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars are on the cusp of title contention, and the Minnesota Wild might not be far behind.

The Central Division is the best collection of clubs the league has to offer, and has been for some time.

But for how much longer will that be the case?

If you’re wagering, you might want to bet against this division falling off for at least a few more years.

The Chicago Blackhawks are looking to become the sixth franchise to win four Stanley Cups within a decade, the first since the Edmonton Oilers pulled the trick back in the 1980s. The Hawks have three chances to complete that feat, with three titles going back to 2010.

The window in Chicago is even longer. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Duncan Keith; the core of the Blackhawks dynasty, remain fairly young. Kane and Toews have yet to celebrate their 29th birthdays. Keith just turned 33 over the summer. Marian Hossa will be 38 this season and appears to be on the back nine, but Artemi Panarin appears to be poised to take his place.

An interesting fact about the Blackhawk’s reign? They’ve won the division just twice over this six-season run, with third place finishes in each of the last three seasons.

The Blues have finished ahead of the Hawks in the standings each of the last two seasons and bounced Chicago from the playoffs in the Western Conference quarterfinals last season.

Half of the Blues’ eight 100-point seasons have come in the last four 82-game seasons for the Blues; the truncated 2012-13 campaign, in which St. Louis accrued 60 points in 48 games, adjusted to 102-point pace.

“Is this the year for the Blues?” has been a storyline repeated over the past few seasons. The answer has continually been ‘no’.

So..is this the year for the Blues?

We shall see. First, they’ll have to overcome the losses of David Backes and Troy Brouwer; the former the former team captain and a longtime fixture in the St. Louis lineup, the latter a key piece in Ken Hitchcock’s lineup last year, his only one with the Blues.

But there’s still plenty in the tank. Vladimir Tarasenko has emerged as one of the NHL’s premier goal scorers while Alexander Steen continues to give good all-around production, recording 50 points for the third straight year. Robby Fabbri, Jaden Schwartz, and Colton Parayko lead the youth movement. Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo goes into his first season with the ‘C’ on his chest, the team’s best player.

The Stars are coming off a breakout season, winning 50 games for the first time since 2007 in 2015-16. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin is the game’s premier center-wing combination while veterans Patrick Sharp and Jason Spezza lead the way on the secondary scoring front. John Klingberg is one of game’s rising stars on the back line.

The Minnesota Wild could be this year’s Stars, hiring head coach Bruce Boudreau known for taking upstarts like the Wild to the next level. Despite not winning the ultimate prize in parts of 10 seasons in Washington and Anaheim, the 61-year-old coach has left the respective clubs in better shape than when he arrived.

A Stanley Cup would not only be Boudreau’s first, but the first in hockey-crazy Minnesota. It can be done.

A team nobody is expecting to make a run?

That would be the Nashville Predators. Don’t count them out. The Predators made the splash of the 2016 offseason by trading captain Shea Weber for up-tempo defenseman P.K. Subban. The 2013 Norris Trophy winner will slide right in with what will be one of the top blue lines in the league, one predicated on pace and skating while being more than adept without the puck. Ace defenseman Roman Josi is quickly establishing himself as one of the best players in the world.

With Subban, Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis in the back and Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and James Neal up front there hasn’t been a team this good, this skilled in Nashville since opening for business in 1998.

Head coach Peter Laviolette has taken two different franchises to the Stanley Cup final.

In Winnipeg, the Patrik Laine era gets underway as the Jets look to avenge a disappointing 78-point season that followed Winnipeg’s first playoff appearance since the franchise moved northward from Atlanta in 2011.

Colorado rounds out the division, and will not be an easy out.

But of course, in this division, nobody ever is.

Blackhawks Could Be Putting New Faith in Panarin to Move Alongside Toews

The top nine is the new top six. At least for now.

It’s been a common strategy in the NHL for coaches to spread out what would be top-six forwards in recent seasons across three lines. It will almost certainly kick up this season after Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan moved top-line sniper Phil Kessel to the the third line last season en route to the Penguins run to the Stanley Cup. Kessel nearly won the Conn Smythe Trophy after being the headliner of the HBK line, skating alongside Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino.

Could Joel Quenneville be the latest to jump on the bandwagon?

Bob McKenzie is reporting that Joel Quenneville plans to spread the best of his forward group across the first, second, and third lines. A coach not known to be afraid of juggling lines and testing out new combinations, he’s willing to go as far as breaking up the left wing/right wing combo of Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin, which was among the league’s most potent offensive combo a year ago. Meanwhile, first line mainstay Marian Hossa is expected to be moved to the third line to skate alongside Marcus Kruger.

So to summarize: Kane will remain to the right of Artem Anisimov – as he was for a team-high 671 faceoffs last season, according to puckbase.com – while Panarin will move up to skate alongside Toews as Hossa moves to the third line.

Of course, this could mean multiple things.

The Panarin-Anisimov-Kane line that carried the offense much of the year, combining for more than 35 percent of the Hawks points with a combined 225 points. Outside that threesome, there was little continuity across the Chicago lineup. With Quenneville constantly juggling the three other lines, the Blackhawks finished the year tied 20th with Edmonton in five-on-five scoring. The Hawks had never finished lower than 14th going back to 2008-09, Quenneville’s first season in Chicago. This could just be the latest development in the search for that right combination, figuring breaking up last season’s top line could best the best for the four lines as a whole.

But here’s what this could be above all – Quenneville believing Panarin is the option on the wing Toews missed last season and Hossa, who turns 38 in January, someone just not getting the job done and suited best for a third-line role.

And the numbers back it up.

Panarin’s 77 points in 2015-16 was the 12th-highest by a rookie in NHL history, the most for a rookie since 2006-07, when Evgeni Malkin and Paul Stastny recorded 85 and 78, respectively. Patrick Kane, of course had the best year of his career. Of his 46 goals – which surpassed his previous career-high by 16 – 22 of those goals were assisted by Panarin. Twenty-three of Kane’s 60 assists, also a career-high, were Panarin goals. Of course, that could be turned around as Kane assisted on 23 of Panarin’s 30 goals.

Hossa had just 33 points in 64 games last season skating mostly alongside Toews, his worst offensive output in an 82-game season since 1998-99, his first full NHL season, where he notched just 30 points in 60 games. His 0.71 points-per-game over the last three seasons are down from the mark on 0.89 he posted through his first four years in Chicago.

As McKenzie noted, Hossa skating alongside Kruger could create a ‘high-end, two-way checking line’, adding an extra dimension to the bottom six against inferior competition.

We’ll see what it brings.

Patrice Bergeron Voted into All-Star Game

The NHL announced the rosters for the league’s all-star game in Anaheim, Calif. later this month, with Bruins center Patrice Bergeron the lone player representing Boston in the three-on-three tournament among the four NHL divisions.

Under the new format, a three-on-three tournament with the four divisions have 10 players selected by the league. Each division also has a captain selected by fans. Florida Panthers forward Jaromir Jagr was voted to represent the Atlantic, with his counterparts being Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin (Metropolitan), Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane (Central), and Arizona Coyotes forward John Scott (Pacific).

Yes, John Scott was selected as a captain. Fan votes never let us down.

The teams are composed of six forwards, three defensemen, and two goaltenders.

Bergeron is the Bruins leading scorer, with a 15-22–37 scoring line in 38 games, which ties for 12th in the race for the Art Ross Trophy. His 37 points is the second-highest total of his career through 38 games, the high-water mark coming in 2006-07, when he put up 42 (13-29) in his first 38 contests en route to a second straight 70-point season.

It’s the second straight year Bergeron will be flying solo at the event, barring injuries or withdrawals from other players. Candidates for replacements include Brad Marchand (15 goals), Loui Eriksson (34 points in 38 games), Zdeno Chara (plus-10 rating fifth-highest among defensemen in Atlantic), and Torey Krug (one of five defensemen in Atlantic with 20 points).