Welcome to December in the NHL, where parity reigns more than ever and no lead is safe. And while I’ve heard plenty of theories on why — defense taking a backseat, special teams mattering more, a rash of injuries, the rebuilding teams improving faster than expected — do we really care to figure out why? It’s been a thrilling season on the ice, and the game arguably has never been in a better place.
Off the ice, things have been a bit quieter for now. But storylines should ramp up by the end of the month following the holiday freeze. In the meantime, here’s the buzz I’m hearing about teams, trades, hot seats, injuries and more.
Let’s begin with one of the buzziest players in the league at the quarter mark:
Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill has long known Jason Robertson had star potential. But even the GM admits: He didn’t know the 23-year-old would be this dominant this soon. “We knew he was a good player, but what he’s doing right now is very special,” Nill told ESPN on Friday. “He’s taking it to the next level.”
Riding an 18-game point streak into Tuesday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+/Hulu), Robertson is leading the league with 23 goals and has a legitimate shot at MVP. He’s turning into appointment television. As the hype train rolls on, Nill can pinpoint the exact reason for Robertson’s success.
“He’s so committed to getting himself better,” Nill said. “He has a special gift. He has great hockey sense, great hands, great puck skills. But he simply doesn’t stop working. He works all the time.”
Rewind to late August when I visited Robertson at his offseason home outside of Detroit to film a video feature, which airs on “The Point” on Tuesday (6 p.m ET, ESPN2). It was amid Robertson’s prolonged contract negotiations with the Stars, which bled into the preseason (he eventually signed a four-year, $31 million deal).
Robertson told us if we wanted to experience an authentic summer day with him, we’d have to show up early. He typically arrived at the rink before the sun came up, getting his first skating session in at 6 a.m. A week prior, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were playing at Comerica Park. As a rock fan, Robertson wanted to go — but decided against it. He knew if he stayed out late, it would mess up his skating session the next morning.
The work ethic was instilled by his family. Robertson’s mother, Mercedes, was born in the Philippines and moved to the U.S. when she was three. His father, Hugh, is a lawyer.
“My mom always told me, ‘Filipino culture is about hard work and family,'” Robertson said. “Growing up, that’s pretty much what our lifestyle was.”
The Robertsons built a synthetic rink in their backyard in California so the kids could get more ice time — until neighbors complained to the homeowner association, and they had to take it down. When Jason was 10, his family pulled him and his brother Nick (now a forward with the Maple Leafs) out of school and relocated them to Michigan, where there were more competitive hockey opportunities. They were homeschooled, which brought the brothers even closer.
The Stars saw Robertson’s work ethic come through as soon as he went pro. He slipped to the second round of the 2017 draft, mostly because of questions about his skating. He kept that work ethic in the AHL, working closely with Rich Peverley on the Stars development staff. And after Robertson went through the entire 2020 playoff bubble as a Black Ace — spending 66 days in Edmonton without getting a single minute of game action — Peverley found a team in Europe where Robertson could get some playing time. Robertson respectfully declined; he believed what was best for him was going to Michigan to work on getting faster and stronger. He returned to Dallas the next season, and was the runner-up for the Calder Trophy, with Kirill Kaprizov taking home the honor.
As for why it’s all clicked for him in the NHL? Robertson credits his teammates and the organization for giving him space to find his game.
“When you’re a skill player, and you do things that skill players do, and it doesn’t work, you can’t lose that confidence or ability to say, ‘OK I’m going to try again because it will work out in the end,'” Robertson said. “I’m fortunate that the coaching staff allowed me to do that, they were pretty open with me trying things, knowing the type of player I am. And my teammates are great at keeping me honest. That allowed me to keep trying things, and stay persistent, until I could find my own momentum.”
THE STARS HAVE exceeded expectations early, leading the competitive Central Division. Most importantly in the big picture: They successfully staved off a rebuild. There was a time it felt inevitable, given Dallas had nearly $20 million in salary cap space devoted to two players (Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin) who appeared to be regressing.
Instead, it’s been a retool on the fly.
“In this business, we’re all greedy,” Nill said. “I don’t want to go through the highs and lows. But we’re fortunate here, I think we got through our dip. We were able to be patient, not overreact to things, and right now we feel like we’re in good shape.”
The Stars wouldn’t be this well-positioned if they didn’t hit on so many draft picks over the last several years. They’ve seamlessly transitioned to a new core, including 2015 second-rounder Roope Hintz (who just signed an eight-year, $67.6 million extension last week) plus Miro Heiskanen, Jake Oettinger and Robertson, all drafted in 2017. Nill is also giddy about their AHL depth, citing a handful of players “on the cusp” of breaking through in the NHL.
Nill cautions you never know how long a player’s development path will take, adding that the pandemic messed up some timelines. So what we’re seeing now is a confluence of good drafting, good development and good timing.
But the 2022-23 Stars would not be seeing this success without the resurgence of their highest paid veterans, specifically Benn, who has nearly doubled his point-per-game pace from last season, with 26 points and 10 goals in his first 25 games.
“He’s rejuvenated,” Nill said. “He changed his training last summer. He lost some weight. He was on the ice all summer, less weight, more speed training. He knew his game needed to get quicker and faster.”
Nill said Benn is enjoying the assignment of playing with younger players like Wyatt Johnson and Ty Dellandrea.
“He’s still the old Jamie Benn,” Nill said. “He plays a physical game, and the way he plays he’s fighting his way the whole time. There’s not a lot of players like that in today’s game.”
Seguin is also looking better — which Nill credits to time and patience following the 30-year-old’s double hip surgery following the 2020 bubble.
“I don’t think people understand how hard it can be on the player,” Nill said. “People think, you have surgery, you’re better now. But it really takes a year, year and a half to get you back to where you are. So right now, we’re reaping the rewards.”
Latest on coaches
There haven’t been any coaching changes this season, but there are a few situations to monitor.
It’s an important few games coming up for the New York Rangers, who find themselves at a pressure point. Monday night was a key come from behind win against the Blues, and if the Rangers keep it up, all will be well. But I’ve been told that Rangers owner Jim Dolan has been paying close attention to Gerard Gallant recently. According to sources, Dolan wants Gallant to take more accountability for the team’s recent swoon. While it seems crazy to fire a coach this soon after a trip to the conference finals, such is life in professional sports and specifically the New York market.
The Vancouver Canucks had explored options to replace Bruce Boudreau last month, then the team started to win again. But his tenure in Vancouver is hanging on by a thread. Boudreau is in the last year of the deal and the expectation is that there will be a new coach in Vancouver next season, no matter how this one shakes out.
And while the Ottawa Senators under D.J. Smith have underachieved so far, it would be surprising to see a change before the new ownership group takes over.
Trade market slow to pick up
Things have been relatively slow on the trade front; typically we get at least one or two transactions by Thanksgiving. Talks are expected to heat up around the league after the holiday freeze around Christmas, though we are starting to get a clearer picture of what teams and players could be in play.
Defenseman Jakob Chychrun is the big name, but the Arizona Coyotes have maintained a high asking price; it’s greater than the first-round pick, two second-round picks and two players that the Anaheim Ducks received for Hampus Lindholm last season ahead of the trade deadline.
The Los Angeles Kings are believed to be in the mix for Chychrun. At the same time, they are trying to clear a log jam on the right side of their defense. The Maple Leafs are looking to add and the priority is defense given how banged up their blue line is. The Calgary Flames could aggressively add, and always keep an eye on the Tampa Bay Lightning for making a sneaky splash.
The Florida Panthers have been so pressed for cap space they’ve been unable most nights to dress a full 23-man roster. While it was initially pressing to clear space for Anthony Duclair, who could return as soon as this month, Patric Hornqvist going on long-term injured reserve buys them some time.
THE TEAMS EXPECTED to unload multiple players with expiring contracts at the deadline include the Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks. All of those teams, plus the Coyotes, could also act as third-party brokers as retaining salary is expected to be a big trend once again this season.
Will Patrick Kane or Jonathan Toews be traded at the deadline? Blackhawks CEO Danny Wirtz has made it clear to both players that their numbers will be retired one day and has promised them that the organization would treat them with respect through the process. So the ball is in their court. GM Kyle Davidson is waiting for Kane and Toews, who both hold no-movement clauses, to come to him with whatever direction they’d like to go; he’s not going to push them either way.
On Kane specifically, I’ve been told he’s not looking to move, but as the wheels are expected to come off even more for Chicago on the ice over the next month, he’s keeping his options open.
Many in the league are curious how aggressive the New Jersey Devils will be considering their blazing hot start. When I saw GM Tom Fitzgerald in New Jersey on Monday, he reiterated what he told me earlier in the year: He’s always looking for ways to improve, but philosophically believes a team is built during the summer, not during the season. So he’s looking for “hockey trades” with the long-term vision in mind.
The Washington Capitals must remain flexible to clear room for when Tom Wilson and Nicklas Backstrom return, which means they’re limited in how much they’ll be able to add. The Columbus Blue Jackets are looking to make some moves. With the news that Jakub Voracek is taking time away to deal with concussions — and could potentially be done playing — it’s a strong possibility he goes on LTIR.
Kraken a second season surprise
One of the biggest surprises is how improved the Seattle Kraken have been in their second season. With a seven-game winning streak before losing Saturday, they’re second in the Pacific Division and top five in goals scored per game. Not bad for a team that finished with the NHL’s third worst record last season.
“We believed our play was better than our record said last season,” GM Ron Francis told ESPN on Friday. “At the end of the day, your record is what it is. But it’s no secret we struggled with our goaltending. We didn’t feel we were giving up as much as the goals were going in. That’s changed this year. And of course, scoring also helps. We’re not a team that can rely on a superstar or a guy that can carry us night in and night out. But the beauty is we’re getting contributions all over the lineup.”
Matty Beniers, Seattle’s first draft pick (No. 2 overall in 2021), is maybe better than advertised with 10 goals and 21 points in 24 games — including a breakaway overtime winner against the Capitals last week. And it helps to have a healthy Jaden Schwartz (limited to 37 games last season) and Brandon Tanev (30).
The Kraken aren’t looking for pity for why last season derailed, but there are legitimate reasons. A false positive COVID scare before the season opener was hardly ideal. As the players and families adjusted to the new city, the team had a hard time galvanizing.
“We had several team-building things planned last year, to try to get to know each other,” Francis said. “We had to cancel all of them. Every single one [because of COVID]. This year we had a normal training camp. We were able to get a few golf trips and team dinners in, and that certainly helped us feel more like a team.”
FRANCIS SAID THE team will decide over the next month what direction they’ll go at the trade deadline. But after unloading six players at last year’s deadline, including captain Mark Giordano, the Kraken may be able to pivot this time around if they keep winning. Francis feels great about how many draft picks the Kraken have in the coming years, and will have to weigh how many assets they’re willing to give up to make a playoff push this year.
Max Pacioretty could be Canes’ biggest addition
The Carolina Hurricanes are in decent shape despite a string of early injuries — though they’d be more comfortable if they could consistently score more. It’s one of the biggest reasons they traded for Pacioretty this offseason, who is still rehabbing from Achilles tendon surgery in August.
There’s no timetable for Pacioretty’s debut, but he’s been ramping up his training. Over the last two weeks, the winger has had a cadence of skating for two days, then taking a day off. Pacioretty is anxious to play. He hasn’t had any setbacks and has been feeling good skating. But those around him are preaching patience. Red Wings defenseman Mark Pysyk also underwent Achilles tendon surgery in July. In one of his first practices back in late November, Pysyk reinjured the tendon — a reminder that no matter how good the athlete feels, there’s a natural healing process that needs to take place.
The Canes return from a long road trip Dec. 15. Around that time, Pacioretty will undergo more X-rays and MRIs, which should provide clarity on his timeline.
The Hurricanes are viewing Pacioretty as their “trade deadline add,” but that doesn’t mean they aren’t exploring other options too. When I asked GM Don Waddell if his team could be a third party broker at this year’s deadline, he said, “We’d rather use the cap space with LTI to see if we could help our team.” Scoring is the team’s biggest need.
An underreported story of the Canes is the emergence of 23-year-old goalie Pyotr Kochetkov, who agreed to a four-year, $8 million extension last month.
“Goaltenders are always risky, but we saw enough from him in the KHL, last year in the playoffs and saw there was an opportunity to sign him to a long-term deal,” Waddell said. “It could fizzle out from our end. If he keeps up his play on his end, he may have left money on the table. But at the time, both parties were really happy. He’s making an NHL salary now, which allows him to take care of his family.”
A few shoutouts
In making calls this week, many sources wanted to share kudos for players and coaches having great seasons.
Let’s begin with a team: the Detroit Red Wings. One veteran player in the Eastern Conference could not stop gushing about Detroit to me after playing them last month.
“That team is going to be so legit so soon,” the player said. “They have the talent, they also have the swag. Watch out for them.”
I asked one assistant coach in the Eastern Conference to identify a breakout player for the 2022-23 season. He focused on Buffalo.
“The Sabres also impress me, they’re never out of games, they compete hard,” the coach said. “Tage Thompson is a player that came out of nowhere for me — not a guy I knew a lot about, and all of the sudden he looks like a dominant guy in this league. He’s showing a lot of versatility and creativity. Works hard on every shift. More than just a big body.”
The Sharks have the best penalty kill in the league right now. Give credit to assistant coach Ryan Warsofsky, who runs San Jose’s penalty kill and defense. At age 35, he is a rising star in the coaching industry. He led the Chicago Wolves to the Calder Cup last season and should get head-coaching looks over the next few years.