What to watch for in the NHL on October 9, 2014.
What you missed last night:
• Reports are popping up that Chris Pronger has interviewed for a job with NHL's Department of Player Safety, even though he's still under contract with the Flyers.
What to watch for tonight:
• The Penguins, who open their season on Thursday night at home against the Ducks (7 p.m. ET, PRIME, ROOT), have found a replacement for James Neal on their second line. The problem is, they may have created a bigger hole at center.
It's not the first time the natural pivot has moved out of the middle. Malkin has shifted to the right when skating with Sidney Crosby in the past. But the pairing was done more as a “shock and awe” combo, a dare to other teams to try to stop the combined prowess of the two players. First-year Pittsburgh coach Mike Johnston is making this move to get Malkin to shoot the puck more. It might also help the Penguins boost their possession time. For all his talent, Malkin struggles to break even on the draw (he won just 48.8% of his face-offs last season). Sutter was even worse (just 47.7%), though he put up those numbers on the defensive-minded third line. He'll be replaced there by Marcel Goc, whose presence in the circle (57.7% in 12 games with Pittsburgh last season) could significantly improve the Penguins' defensive zone performance.
• Pittsuburgh cut bait on winger Kasperi Kapanen, sending the 2014 first-round pick back to Finland on Thursday morning to spend the season with KalPa.
• The Cup-contending Blackhawks may be the NHL's glamor franchise, but all eyes will be on the Stars when Dallas hosts Chicago on Thursday night (8:30 p.m. ET, CSN-CH, FS-SW). Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky will be making their debuts in green, anchoring a new second line that gives the Stars the ability to go toe-to-toe with any offense in the league.
Erik Cole will probably complete the trio eventually, but the veteran forward will start the season is the press box after showing up for practice late earlier this week. Patrick Eaves drew the lucky straw and will skate with the pair on Thursday night.
Spezza and Hemsky will create match-up chaos at five-on-five, but they'll be even more dangerous when Dallas has the man advantage. Coach Lindy Ruff has them working with Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Trevor Daley on a unit that looked positively Globetrotter-esque during the preseason. The Stars were flat out lousy on the power play last year, ranking 23rd, at just 15.9%. If they can get their power play clicking, it could be their ticket to bolting up the Western Conference standings.
• Will Ryan Johansen be in the lineup on Thursday night for the Blue Jackets when they take on the Sabres? (7 p.m. ET, FS-O, MSG-B, Bell TV). All signs point to yes. Whether that's the best idea though is up for debate. The 33-goal scorer says he's ready to go despite missing all of training camp because of a contentious contract dispute, but that's what every player in his situation says. It's one thing to be in shape. It's something else to be in game shape. Johansen wasn't up to that standard during Wednesday's practice, and while the team desperately needs him in the lineup with Nathan Horton (back), Boone Jenner (broken hand) and Brandon Dubinsky (abdominal surgery) watching from the stands, there's no reason to risk injury in game one.
Still plenty to watch in this one, though—2013 first-rounders Marko Dano and Alexander Wennberg are expected to make their NHL debuts for Columbus against Buffalo center Sam Reinhart, the second pick in the 2014 draft. Reinhart skated with Cody Hodgson and newly minted captain Brian Gionta in practice this week, so he should see heavy action.
• Plus-minus ratio may be the redheaded stepchild of the #fancystats era, but that doesn't mean that Alex Ovechkin gets a pass for his miserable –35 rating last season. New Capitals coach Barry Trotz has asked him to commit to playing defense this season and, so far anyway, Ovechkin appears to be buying in.
"He’s actually quite detailed," Trotz said. "He goes to people a lot more. There’s no fly-bys. I think him getting to the point coverage has been really, really good. He’s blocked some shots."
That's the kind of effort that will turn that ugly number around in a hurry. Ovechkin might also want to thank the league's schedule makers if he gets off on the right foot on Thursday night when Washington hosts Montreal (7 p.m. ET, SN360, RDS, CSN-DC). Ovechkin was +3 against the Canadiens last season, and –38 against the rest of the NHL.
Rest of the schedule: Devils at Flyers (7 p.m. ET, MSG Plus, CSN-PH), Bruins at Red Wings (7:30 p.m. ET, TVA2, NESN, FS-D), Panthers at Lightning (7:30 p.m. ET, FS-F, SUN), Rangers at Blues (8 p.m. ET, MSG, FS-MW); Senators at Predators (8 p.m. ET, RDAS2, TSN5, FS-TN), Avalanche at Wild (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), Flames at Oilers (9:30 p.m. ET, SN360), Jets at Coyotes (10 p.m. ET, TSN3, FS-A)
• Must read: The Bruins may be the most despised team in the league, but even their most strident haters might find themselves cheering for rookie center Craig Cunningham after reading this inspirational piece by John Buccigross.
• Wanna see something cool? If you subscribe to NHL Gamecenter Live, check out the overhead net cam option. It's the same view the league uses to call questionable goals, and also offers a unique look at how goaltenders go about their business.