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Fischler Report: Grading the Top-Graded NHL Rookies

Stan Fischler's report grades six highly-regarded NHL rookies, analyzes the Pittsburgh Penguins, recaps Huberdeau and Weegar's return to Florida and more.
Shane Pinto

SIX SHOTS FOR A SUPER 10-SLATE TONIGHT

1. My three biggest pleasant surprises start with the Knights' strong showing under Bruce Cassidy, followed by Pete DeBoer's delightfully winning Stars and, finally, Seattle's rebounding Kraken whose cockamamie name still is cracking me up.

2. My three biggest flopperoos start with eight-in-a-row losing Buffalo, followed by For Sale – please – Ottawa at 6-10-1 and the Panthers who lost again Sunday night and have been playing more like kittens.

3. How about that Akira Schmid? The Devils' fourth-string goalie has three straight wins since arriving from Utica and was picked the second star in Saturday afternoon's 5-1 win in Canada's capital.

4. The Maple Leafs – 5-2 over Buffalo on Saturday – are alive, well and will survive the wounded because Marner, Matthews and Tavares will score enough – and often enough – to get them to playoff Loser Land.

5. It's nice to know that good guys Craig Berube and cousin Brucie Boudreau still have their gigs. And, hopefully, will still be driving the St. Louis and Canucks machines through spring.

6. Biggest Personal Mistake Of The Season So Far – Johnny Gaudreau leaving Calgary where he could have lived happily ever after.

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THE BOYS FROM NEWARK MEAN BUSINESS

Let's not kid ourselves; the Devils are not kidding around.

This is not a reasonable facsimile of a first-place team. Lindy Ruff's Rough Riders are as for real as the Hudson River and, currently, are flowing faster.

No, it's not just the usual suspects – Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Dougie Hamilton – who are making miracles in and out of Prudential Center. It's everybody.

Take your pick, from Yegor Sharangovich to Miles Wood to Dawson Mercer, right down to delectable D-man John Marino – who our Mike Stevens artfully noted – have come to the fore.

Even the Devils' streaks are off the charts. How about this one: They are the first U.S.-based team in NHL history with a road-winning streak of six-plus games all against Canadian teams.

Their record north of the border is 8-0-0, and they're pulling off these feats without their biggest off-season haul, Ondrej (How About That) Palat.

And one last uncanny stat: New Jersey's 15 wins are the most in franchise history after the first 18 games to start a season.

Are the Devils for real? If you don't believe me, ask the Senators or Maple Leafs or – well – you get the point.

Oh, yeah, one other thing: these Garden Staters are fast, creative, vibrant and just plain fun to watch.

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GRADING THE TOP-GRADED ROOKIES

The Hockey News' famed annual Yearbook featured a freshman review of potential Calder Trophy candidates. With more than a quarter of the season gone, our intrepid Sean McCaffrey offers a no-holds-barred, no Mister Nice Guy grading of his Top six – worst up to the best: See if you agree:

6. Shane Wright, Seattle Kraken

By now, everyone is familiar with the center's story – a build-up-to-a-letdown. He was once thought to be the no-doubt-about-it, first-overall pick of the 2022 NHL draft. Instead, Wright was shunned – one, two, three – and slipped to fourth before being plucked by now-competitive Seattle.

Ah, but Wright isn't part of the team's new-found success, at least not yet.

He's been a healthy scratch more times than not, and after seven games played, is still seeking his first goal. He also received eight minutes of ice time per game – a topic of much debate by the 'Krakheads.' The low rating was confirmed on Sunday night when the Kraken demoted Wright to the AHL "for conditioning purposes."

GRADE: F+

5. Mason McTavish, Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks' third-overall pick of the 2021 draft is already a Canadian hero, following the center's performance during the gold medal game of the 2022 World Junior Championship tournament.

Named MVP of that competition, his Fall of '22 hasn't been as successful.

Similar to the other young ducklings (Troy Terry and Trevor Zegras), McTavish has been able to pick up points. However, in his first 15 NHL games, he only has one goal to go along with his six assists.

GRADE: C

4. Juraj Slafkovsky, Montreal Canadiens

The Slovakian forward, the first-overall pick of the 2022 draft, recently made headlines following his two-game suspension for boarding Matt Luff of the Detroit Red Wings.

The Canadiens, winners of last year's draft lottery, were thought to be contenders for the 2023 incarnation. Instead, they've been able to put together a winning record thus far.

In his first 10 games, the left winger scored three goals and has already received loud ovations from the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge crowd.

Due to his status, Juraj will be one to watch all season.

GRADE: B-

3. Matty Beniers, Seattle Kraken

Going into the season, everyone had their eyes on the two young studs in Seattle. Of the two, it's center Matty Beniers, the second-overall pick of the 2021 draft, who's exceeding expectations.

While the "it's still early" disclaimer applies, Beniers is currently a contender to win the Calder Trophy, and here's why:

As Seattle's second-line man-in-the-middle, Beniers already has nine points in 16 games. However, his team-worst plus/minus rating impacts his grade, one that should improve the next time we revisit these rookies.

GRADE: B-

2. Owen Power (BUF), Buffalo Sabres

The first-overall pick of the 2021 NHL draft decided to play one more season at the University of Michigan following his selection by the Swordsmen.

At only 19, Power was wise to have delayed his rookie season.

A left-handed defenseman, Power plays on the Sabres' top-pair, with another first-overall pick by Buffalo by his side, 2018's Rasmus Dahlin.

Despite the Sabres current woes, the Dahlin/Power duo continue to excel.

Dahlin is second-best on the club in points (17), while Power has scored seven points in 15 games. The rookie is also playing over 23 minutes a night. He'll be a definite Calder candidate.

GRADE: A-

1. Shane Pinto (OTT)

A product of Franklin Square, Long Island, the center was drafted in the second round (32nd overall) by Ottawa. Despite a heavily-praised off-season, the Sens have continued to struggle and are currently one of the NHL's worst teams, but Pinto shouldn't shoulder any of the blame. Far from it.

In his first 15 games, he scored eight goals – the best among all NHL rookies.

It should be mentioned that Pinto has a leg-up on the competition, having played 12 games in 2020-21 and five more games in 2021-22.

GRADE: A

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A SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY – EXCEPT FOR DARRYL SUTTER

When good guys return to their former team, it's cause for smiles. Proof positive was the scene in Sunrise as our Al Greenberg reports.

More than a few people circled Nov. 19 on their calendars. The date represented the long-awaited return of fan favorites Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar to Florida as members of the Calgary Flames. They had a combined 15 years with the Panthers.

The day before, both teams practised at the Panthers’ training facility. Each player fielded questions from a large media gathering and each admitted to the anticipated butterflies. By game time, old friends were going to be rivals, notwithstanding that a group of them enjoyed a dinner together the evening before. Weegar said he expected to get under the skin of his old partner and still friend, Aaron Ekblad. Huberdeau jokingly said, “Maybe (Barkov) will pass to me.”

Huberdeau, who loved living and playing in Florida, summed up the situation best. 

“It was a great chapter in my life. I was here for 10 years. Great memories. We’ve been through ups and downs and that was cool. But trades happen. It’s the business and now it’s kind of time to turn the page.”

While Huberdeau was stunned by the deal, Weegar was mildly surprised. He knew that with a year left on his contract, the Cats did not have the cap room to extend him at his value. 

“I didn’t expect such a big trade. I thought, maybe, you know, just me, maybe just Huby. To be honest it was a big, big trade. I think both sides worked out for the best. We needed a change and I think 'Huby' and I are happy where we are right now.”

There were still butterflies and strong emotions at game time. Huberdeau, Weegar and Barkov were the last to leave the pre-game warmup after Barkov symbolically sent a pass to Huberdeau who put it in the net.

Once the video tributes were over, it was all business in the Flames' 5-4 shootout win.

Post-game Huberdeau admitted to pre-game jitters and was glad it was over. 

“Now it’s turn the page and focus on the year and everything else,” he said. 

Weegar said he was touched by the reception but when the puck dropped it was about winning. 

“I’m happy we got the two points. I think that was the biggest thing for me and obviously Jonny,” Weegar said.

Calgary coach Darryl Sutter didn’t think much of the hoopla. 

“Way too much talk about it. Guys get traded, guys sign. What’s the big deal? ‘Naz’ (Nazem Kadri) won a Stanley Cup last year. He played his first game against Colorado and it wasn’t a big deal… Good players move around. That’s what they do.”

The ritual begins all over again on Nov. 29 when Florida visits Calgary. Somehow, it doesn’t seem likely that Matthew Tkachuk will get the same hospitable welcome-back reception from the hometown fans.

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SHANE WRIGHT GOES WRONG, KRAKEN GO RIGHT

There's much joy in Seattle as the Kraken keep playing like a playoff team.

What's ironic is that they're succeeding mightily without highly-touted top draft pick Shane Wright. It's called addition by subtraction, and our Glenn Dreyfuss has the news, right here and now.

First-round pick Shane Wright should keep his GPS handy because he’s headed to Palm Springs, home of the Kraken's AHL affiliate.

Why? Because Wright was scratched on Saturday for the sixth straight game and has played in just seven of Seattle's 18 games, with an average TOI of 8:06, recording zero goals and one assist. While NHL rules don't allow players of Wright’s age and draft status to be sent to the AHL, an exception can be made for up to two weeks of "conditioning."

Next, Wright should familiarize himself with Moncton, N.B. A mere 3,304 miles from Climate Pledge Arena, Moncton is where Canada’s National Junior Team will hold its four-day selection camp, Dec. 9 to 12. It's entirely possible Wright will be loaned to Team Canada for the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship. Canada opens defense of its gold medal Dec. 26 in Halifax against Czechia.

Wright’s AHL “conditioning” assignment does not make him an immediate failure, but rather, he’s a potential asset in need of maturation and experience at other levels.

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WHO SAID IT? "For an NHLer who became a priest, Les Costello played the game hard." (ANSWER BELOW.)

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I'M JUST SAYIN'

* My old buddy Ray Ferraro claims current goalies are "Bigger and better than those of the past." But he's only half-right. Bigger? Yeah. Better? Not a chance.

* The reason is simple: Until Jacques Plante donned the first mask in 1959, not a single goalie wore one. How many contemporary goalies would have dared to face 'The Rocket', Gordie Howe or 'The Golden Jet' without face protection? Hmm?

* Every time the Capitals play without Tom Wilson, they discover that – after Alex Ovechkin – Wilson is Washington's second MVP.

* Brian MacLellan blew it with his goaltending. He never should have allowed Vitek Vanecek to leave and wind up a Devils star.

* New Jersey's Double V today is better than the Capitals' Darcy Kuemper – yesterday, today and tomorrow.

* The Caps have something going for them – they lead the league in Al's: 1. Alex Ovechkin; 2. Alexander Alexeyev; 3. Aliaksei Protas.

* The luckiest guy in Columbus has to be Blue Jacket Jack Roslovic. This hometown boy signed a two-year extension worth $8 million.

* None of my business, of course, but please lemme know when non-Joltin' Jack starts to really earn that kind of moolah.

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VALUES OF NHL FRANCHISES ARE DISCUSSED BY AN EXPERT

Sports business guru Evan Weiner tells us a lot about projected values. Listen up:

There are some people in journalism who have a lot of time on their hands, and those people put out their assessment of what a sports franchise is worth. But a sports franchise is worth only what a potential owner thinks its value is when completing a sale of the business.

For what it is worth, Sportico ranked the value of each NHL franchise from one to 32. The Toronto Maple Leafs’ business is at the top and the Arizona franchise is #32.

For whatever it is worth, Sportico has the Leafs’ franchise on top worth $2.12 billion, but the list does not indicate if it is in American greenbacks or Canadian loonies.

James Dolan’s New York Rangers business comes in at slightly more than $2 billion. Eleven of the NHL’s 32 teams have valuations of a billion dollars or more. Montreal, Chicago and Boston round out the top five. 

Some franchises have been or will be on the market. The Nashville Predators business, which is located in a small market, apparently will change hands and the cost of that transaction is a reported $775 million. The Ottawa Senators franchise is on the block, and this one might get interesting. Sportico has the Senators business worth $655 million, although it is not listed in U.S. or Canadian dollars. The present team ownership group has the right to build an arena in Ottawa, which could drive the team’s value up. Arizona is looking to build a Tempe arena-village, which could make that franchise more valuable.

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SWEET THOUGHTS ABOUT PETER MCNAB (Part 2 of three parts)

The recent passing of good friend Peter McNab has elicited continent-wide condolences. With them have been waves of stories. McNab's pal since childhood, Alex Shibicky, has another neat tale dating back to their youth – as well as other observations:

"This tale is rooted in a between-periods shoot-the-puck contest at a Vancouver Canucks game. It turned out that I was in attendance and the announcer called out a ticket number, and it so happened that Peter (the coach’s son) was independently selected for the contest.

"Although this fact was not announced to the crowd, there were some heavy discussions prior to the shot as to whether or not Peter should be allowed to participate. He told me that he immediately argued that he won fair and square and should not be denied the opportunity. 

"Understanding that this was almost 60 years ago and very much prior to the type of scrutiny this act would be under in today’s world, Peter was allowed to shoot from center ice at the little 6 inch hole. 

"What the hell, what’s the likelihood of him winning anyway? Not only was Peter allowed to shoot, but son-of-a-gun, if he didn’t put it right through the hole and won $750 for doing so. That amount of money was huge for a 12-year-old in 1964, and we were both able to laugh about it some 50+ years later.

"Just two years later, the McNab’s moved to San Diego, and I didn't see Peter until September 1970 at the University of Denver. He didn't have a hockey scholarship, but our coach, Murray Armstrong, had finagled a baseball scholarship for Peter and he was there on a full ride with the ability to play hockey and baseball. He was one helluva baseball player, as well. As it turned out, the following year, he went on an official hockey scholarship and gave up baseball and the rest, as they say, is history." (Part 3 Will Appear on Friday: The Personal Side of Peter McNab.)

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Yays and Boos

YAYS AND BOOS

YAY TO PETER DEBOER, who's not only the Stars' coach but sees movie stars in hockey players. 'Pistol Pete' has been comparing his reliable vet Joe Pavelski to the Hollywood immortal, Paul Newman of Slapshot fame. "Like Newman in the movie," claims DeBoer, "our Joe is a player and coach at the same time."

YAY TO MATTHEW BARNABY, one of my favorite interviews from yesteryear. Matty, The Batty, is now one of my favorite authors. His new book, Unfiltered, is filled with the memorable highlights of his colorful career. (But the bloke never mentions my interviews with him. Ugh!)

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WHAT'S UP WITH THE PENGUINS? DOES HEXY EVEN KNOW?

The Penguins were projected to finish third in the Metro Division while still fortified with future Hall of Famers. Since the season's start, they've been more up and down than a Bungy cord. Maybe our man in Pittsburgh, Vince Comunale can figure them out 'cause The Maven sure can't. Take it away, Vince:

The Penguins completed a perfect three-game road trip in Chicago on Sunday night, beating the Blackhawks 5-3. It wasn't easy, as the Penguins blew a three-goal lead, but their captain Sidney Crosby bailed them out as he so often does. Crosby had a four-point night and recorded 10 points over the three-game road trip. However, back to that blown three-goal lead, the Penguins still need to learn to play with a lead. They've given up 27 goals in the third period. Only Columbus and Anaheim have allowed more (28).

To start the road trip, the Penguins defeated the Minnesota Wild 6-4, but they allowed two goals in the third period of that game, including a shorthanded goal. This continued a troubling trend, but they were able to score three third-period goals to secure the win. 

Overall, the Penguins simply have not been great in playing with the lead. In fact, heading into Sunday's play, they were fourth-worst in the league with just a .556 winning percentage when leading after two periods.

Despite allowing late goals to Minnesota and Chicago during the road trip, sandwiched in between was, arguably, the Penguins' most complete game of the season on Saturday night in Winnipeg. Pittsburgh won that game 3-0 and played its most solid defensive game to date. If the Penguins can consistently play the style they did in Winnipeg, they'll find themselves firmly in the top eight in the Eastern Conference.

Of note, the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin played in his 1,000th game on Sunday night and notched a goal. Not to be outdone, his longtime teammate Crosby scored as well. This was the 111th time that both Malkin and Crosby scored a goal in the same game. The Penguins are an amazing 97-9-5 in such games. Further, Malkin entered the game with 1,166 points. The only other active player that had more points heading into their 1,000th game was Crosby with 1,278. Even in the later stages of their careers, the Penguins' offense still runs through Crosby and Malkin as evidenced by Crosby leading the team with 27 points and Malkin ranking second with 20.

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HENRIK SEDIN WINS THE STAND-UP HALL OF FAME COMIC PRIZE

From now on Henrik Sedin should be nicknamed 'Henny,' same as the King of the One-Liners, Henny Youngman. The Sedin "Henny" broke up the crowd last Monday with these four Hall of Fame lines: Take it away, Henny Sedin:

"I'm just recovered from COVID. It came down to a last-minute decision to attend. As our coaches always said, 'Henrik at 70 percent is better than Daniel at 100 percent.' "

"I started playing hockey when I was six years old. I skated a lap, realizing that skating was not easy. I retired for a year, and came out of retirement at seven."

"Alex Burrows – I'm not sure how we managed to have the success we had. You spoke French. We communicated like dolphins."

"To end the debate about who 'The Better Player' was, I missed 30 games during my career, and Daniel's production was not the same. In 2010, Daniel missed 20 games with a concussion; I had 11 goals and nine assists. So with Daniel, I was barely a 20-goal scorer. Without him, I would have been a career 45-goal scorer."

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BIG QUESTION (FROM TSN): WHY DID ALEX ELDER GET OFF WITHOUT PUNISHMENT FOR HIS 'QUESTIONABLE' HIT ON CONNOR MCDAVID?

BIG ANSWER FROM THE MAVEN: BECAUSE NOT EVERY HIT ON THE 5-STAR GENERAL MERITS A COURT MARTIAL.

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LETTER FROM A FRIEND – A SWELL GUY NAMED DICK IRVIN

A superior broadcaster for decades on Hockey Night In Canada, Dick Irvin – son of the Hall of Fame player and later NHL coach of the same name – also doubled as a historian and superior author. Now retired but still sharp as ever, Dick dropped this note to The Maven:

"We just passed an anniversary I always seem to remember – Nov. 3, 1940. It was the first time my Dad coached the Montreal Canadiens. The game ended in a 1-1 tie with the Bruins on a Sunday night at The Forum. Toe Blake scored the Habs' goal.

"The Canadiens had won just 10 games the previous season. My Dad always said that when he took over the team, there were only two players who belonged in the NHL – Blake and Ray Getliffe."

Ironically, Blake succeeded Irvin as Canadiens coach in 1955 after Dick had revived the Montrealers. While he was at it, Irvin molded the likes of Doug Harvey, Bill Durnan, Rocket Richard – and innumerable others – into stars.

Irvin left the Canadiens at the end of the 1954-55 season and spent one more NHL season coaching the Black Hawks.

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ANSWER TO WHO SAID IT? Toronto Maple Leafs linemate Flerming Mackell commenting on Stanley Cup-winner Les Costello after the latter quit hockey to become a priest.

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