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preseason

10 things learned during preseason

Connor McDavid adjusting to Oilers' captaincy, Mikhail Grigorenko surprising for Avalanche

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

Training camp and preseason games gave coaches an opportunity to determine the makeup of their team and learn about the future through extended viewings of their prospects.

It also allowed players returning from the World Cup of Hockey 2016 a chance to gradually work their way back into their respective lineups.

Now that the 15-day, 106-game preseason slate is complete, it's time to make some tough decisions. Rosters have to be set at a maximum of 23 players by 5 p.m. ET on Tuesday. The regular season begins Wednesday with four games, highlighted by the Edmonton Oilers playing in their new arena, Rogers Place, against the Calgary Flames.

Here are 10 things we learned during the preseason:

 

Video: VAN@EDM: McDavid beats Markstrom short side for PPG

Captain Connor ready for duty

Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid appears primed for a big season.

McDavid led Edmonton with four goals and six points in four games. He also had a plus-1 rating and a 28.6 shooting percentage.

He missed three months last season because of a broken left clavicle, but had 48 points in 45 games, and his 1.07 points per game average was third in the League behind Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks (1.29) and Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars (1.09). McDavid was third in voting for the Calder Trophy, which was won by Chicago Blackhawks forward Artemi Panarin.

McDavid was named the youngest captain in NHL history Oct. 5. At 19 years, 266 days old, he was 20 days younger than Gabriel Landeskog was when he was named captain of the Colorado Avalanche in 2012. Sidney Crosby was 19 years, 297 days when he was named captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2007, and Vincent Lecavalier was 19 years, 315 days when named captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2000.

"No, it doesn't feel overwhelming at all; I just feel normal about it," McDavid said. "I'm very humbled to wear it and excited about it. But having the support of the teammates and all that, that's the main thing, and that's what makes it so much easier."

 

Video: NYR@NJD: Zibanejad cuts deficit to one with PPG

New look Rangers

There were plenty of new faces circulating throughout the lineup and making an impression upon New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault.

The biggest surprise might have been center Brandon Pirri, who signed a one-year, $1.1 million contract Aug. 26. He led the Rangers with four goals and tied for the lead with six points in five games. Last season with the Florida Panthers and Anaheim Ducks, he had 14 goals and 29 points in 61 games. 

"There's no doubt that he's got the knack to find the net and score," Vigneault said. "There's other areas where I need to be sure he's going to be able to make the play, but there's no doubt offensively that he's got good hands and he can find the back of the net."

Mika Zibanejad (two goals, six points in four games), and rookies Pavel Buchnevich (one goal, three points in four games) and Jimmy Vesey also had productive camps.

Vesey, 23, had one goal and took seven shots on goal in four games and didn't seem out of place wherever he was in the lineup. He likely will begin the season in a top-nine role and play alongside long-time friend and fellow Boston-area native Kevin Hayes.

"Once you get the puck here it seems like guys are right on top of you," Vesey said. "In college I was on the bigger end of the spectrum in terms of size (6-foot-3, 207 pounds), and now I'm kind of just average. It's adjusting to the strength of the guys and learning how to absorb that first hit and spin off."

 

Video: COL@LAK: Grigorenko beats Quick to tie the game late 

Grigorenko leads unbeaten Avalanche

The Colorado Avalanche finished 6-0-0, outscoring their opponents 16-5.

One of the biggest surprises was the play of center Mikhail Grigorenko, who tied Pirri and McDavid for the League lead with four goals.

Grigorenko avoided salary arbitration in July when he signed a one-year contract with the Avalanche. He had been acquired from the Buffalo Sabres in a trade for Ryan O'Reilly on June 26, 2015, and had six goals and 27 points in 74 games last season. 

"I think he has a high-hockey IQ, and he has the ability to make plays with and without the puck," coach Jared Bednar told the Avalanche website. "I just think he's a smart player, and if you give smart players opportunity, they are going to find a way to get the job done."

 

Auvitu gains confidence

The New Jersey Devils may have uncovered a diamond in the rough when they signed French defenseman Yohann Auvitu (5-11, 191) to a one-year, entry-level contract May 27.

Auvitu, born and raised in Ivry-sur-Seine, France, made an impression on Devils general manager Ray Shero and coach John Hynes during the 2016 IIHF World Championship. In five preseason games Auvito led the Devils with six points, all assists.

"For [Auvitu] it really isn't about work ethic because his work habits are excellent," Hynes said. "It has been about technique and understanding how to use his stick, how to use his leverage, how to use angles to defend on a smaller arena and how we want to defend and end plays quick in the defensive zone."

Auvitu, 27, was named the best defenseman in Liiga, Finland's top professional league, last season with HIFK. His style of play and path to NHL is similar to former Devils defenseman Brian Rafalski, who spent four seasons in Europe, including two with HIFK, before signing with the Devils in 1999 at age 26.

 

 

NHL ready

Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski and Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov are expected to remain in the NHL all season.

Provorov, chosen by the Flyers with the No. 7 pick of the 2015 draft, could prove valuable to a defense that allowed 30.7 shots per game last season, eighth-most in the League. Werenski, selected by the Blue Jackets with the next pick, might offer greater stability to a defense that allowed 31.1 shots per game, fourth-most in the League.

Each player should earn a top-four role to begin the season.
 
Werenski, 19, had three points and a plus-3 rating in four games to lead Blue Jackets defensemen, and had 11 shots on goal. He got a taste of professional hockey last season, signing with the Blue Jackets on March 29, and had five goals, nine assists and a plus-8 rating in 17 American Hockey League playoff games with Lake Erie (now Cleveland) to help them win the Calder Cup.

Provorov, 19, had two assists, a plus-2 rating and 10 shots on goal in six preseason games. Last season, he helped Brandon of the Western Hockey League win the WHL championship, was third among WHL defensemen with 21 goals, led the league with a plus-64 rating and was named the top defensemen in the league and Canadian Hockey League.

"I think when we sent Ivan back last year, the message to Ivan was, 'Go back to Brandon and be the best defenseman in junior hockey,'" Flyers general manager Ron Hextall told Philly.com. "So Ivan goes back to Brandon and he is the best defenseman in junior hockey. Then he comes to camp and plays real well. So he's made this team."

 

Video: DAL@LAK: Niemi makes pad save on Martinez's slapper

Goaltending situation in Dallas

It was an interesting preseason competition between Dallas Stars goaltenders Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen.

Each played three preseason games, and it would appear Niemi could lead the race to start the season opener against the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday. He went 2-0-0 with a 1.83 goals-against average and .941 save percentage. Lehtonen went 0-2-0 with a 2.42 GAA and .885 save percentage.

Niemi and Lehtonen almost had identical numbers last season, but Lehtonen got the bulk of the work during the Stanley Cup Playoff, playing 11 games, finishing 6-3-0 with a 2.81 GAA and an .899 save percentage. 

 

 Video: TOR@MTL: Matthews beats Price with PPG

Auston powers

Toronto Maple Leafs rookie center Auston Matthews, the first pick of the 2016 draft, had one goal, three points and 12 shots on goal in four games.

He spent part of training camp playing with Team North America at the World Cup. He tied for first on the team with two goals and was second with three points. Once he returned to the Maple Leafs, he seemed to form good chemistry with Zach Hyman and William Nylander during four preseason games.

Matthews is viewed as a generational talent but likely will start on the third line to relieve some of the pressure on him. 

 

Video: NYI@WSH: Holtby gloves wrist shot, freezes the puck

Holtby doesn't miss a beat

Braden Holtby picked up where he left off last season when the Washington Capitals goalie won the Vezina Trophy as the League's best goaltender.

Holtby, who this season is trying to become the third goalie in League history to win 40 games in three consecutive seasons, went 2-0-1 with a 1.11 GAA and .957 save percentage in four preseason games.

The only other goalies to win 40 games in three straight seasons are Martin Brodeur (2005-08 with the New Jersey Devils) and Evgeni Nabokov (2007-10 with the San Jose Sharks).

Holtby served as the third goalie for Team Canada at the World Cup but didn't see any game action.

"There are still some times in the game where I'm a little bit sloppy," Holtby told the Capitals website. "But the reps are getting more and more and making it easier and easier. So I have one more game to clean it all up and make sure I'm ready for game one." 

 

 Video: PHI@BOS: Backes puts a huge check on Voracek

Backes leading Bruins

Right wing David Backes has made an impression on Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien. 

Backes, 32, led the Bruins with six points, all assists, and a plus-7 rating in three games. He's in this first season with the Bruins after signing a five-year contract July 1 and has provided leadership and energy in the locker room and on the ice.

"We knew what we were getting there," Julien told the Bruins website following a 1-0 overtime win against the Flyers at TD Garden on Saturday. "He's a former captain in St. Louis, so we knew we had a good leader. He's been great on the ice. But he's also been great off the ice. He's talking to the young kids and helping them out; I hear him on the bench making sure that he's talking to them all the time and letting them know what's expected."

Julien has used Backes at right wing on a line with center David Krejci and left wing Ryan Spooner since Backes return from playing for Team USA at the World Cup. 

"We're communicating well, learning new linemates, new teammates, all those things kind of roll into an equation where we need to talk every time we get off the ice," Backes said. "[Spooner's] got the asset of speed and great skills. I can use my size. And Krejci [can use his] creativity and great ability to distribute the puck. We just need to all get on the same page and read off each other."

 

Rookie impact

Seven players selected in the first round of the 2016 NHL Draft remain on training camp rosters as the season-opening deadline nears. 

In addition to Matthews, who is expected to stay with the Maple Leafs all season, forward Patrik Laine, chosen No. 2 by the Winnipeg Jets, also is projected to fill a large role.

Blue Jackets center Pierre-Luc Dubois (No. 3), Oilers right wing Jesse Puljujarvi (No. 4), Calgary Flames left wing Matthew Tkachuk (No. 6), Montreal Canadiens defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (No. 9) and Arizona Coyotes defenseman Jakob Chychrun (No. 16) also are close to making their NHL teams. They can play up to nine games and be returned to their junior teams without their entry-level contract starting. 

Tkachuk had two goals and 10 shots on goal in four games; Sergachev, who the Canadiens said would open the season in the NHL, had two assists and five shots on goal in four games; Laine had no points, but had six shots on goal in four games.

"It's a young man's game, and I think with the salary cap it really forces teams to go young and forces a lot of these young players in the National Hockey League into roles on their specific teams," NBC NHL analyst Eddie Olczyk said. "That's just the nature of the beast because you have cost control for the first couple of years of these guys coming into the League. They may be better than 75 or 80 percent than anybody in your organization. Maybe you'd like to keep them under wraps for a year or two, but if they're good enough and they're obviously cost friendly, I think that plays into it.

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