Around the NHL: An Unpleasant Homecoming, a Big Signing, and a Rebuild Complete

By Ryan Black, Sports Talk Philly staff writer 

Last week, when we looked around the NHL, we talked about the rough stuff, and how fighting seems to be joining flowing mullets and wooden sticks in the dustbin of hockey tradition history. Well, the entire NHL obviously read last week’s column, because the last week was the most fight-filled of the season, with 10 total scraps.

The Chicago Blackhawks’ frustration with a second-straight losing season produced a pair of those fights. Future Hall-of-Fame defenseman Duncan Keith got himself ejected from a game against the Nashville Predators just minutes in — but not before the Preds had already scored three times — for jumping Miika Salomaki after a seemingly clean hit on Saturday.

It’s hard to blame Keith for his anger. The Blackhawks are still losing games left and right after firing coaching legend Joel Quenneville, going just 3-9-2 since his dismissal. Other teams with new coaches aren’t faring too well, either. The St. Louis Blues are just 2-4-0 since ousting Mike Yeo and bringing in Craig Berube, while the Los Angeles Kings are 3-5-0 since swapping John Stevens for Willie Desjardins.

The Edmonton Oilers, meanwhile, are 4-1-1 since dropping Todd McLellan in favor of veteran bench boss Ken Hitchcock. That might have a lot to do with Mikko Koskinen, however. The 30-year-old goalie, playing his first NHL games since a cup of coffee with the New York Islanders in 2011, has posted an impressive 8-2-1 record with two shutouts and a .928 save percentage after emerging out of the blue. Who knew that a coaching change and steady goaltending could help turn a team around?

Erik Karlsson’s visit to his old home was unpleasant: For him and his team, at least. The star defender, traded from the Ottawa Senators to the San Jose Sharks, was a longtime fan favorite in Canada’s capital, and received a standing ovation from the crowd and a nice video tribute from the organization. But his former teammates showed little mercy in a 6-2 drubbing on Saturday, which Karlsson finished minus-2 and without a point.

Both his current and former teams are off to bizarre starts. The Senators, widely picked to finish last in the league, have been surprisingly interesting to watch. They’re two points out of a wildcard spot, playing in the insanely competitive Atlantic Division, and are the third-highest scoring team in the league, averaging over 3.6 goals per game. They’re also the worst team in the league defensively, and are the only team averaging over four goals against per game.

The Sharks, meanwhile, aren’t bad, but are not the unstoppable super team many predicted when they acquired Karlsson for pocket change. They’re a middling squad sitting in the middle of a middling division, and Karlsson has only accrued 15 points through 27 games — extremely pedestrian numbers by his high standard.

Our long Nylander nightmare is finally over: Toronto Maple Leafs restricted free agent William Nylander finally ended his holdout minutes before the signing deadline. RFAs without a contract before 5 p.m. on Dec. 1 are ineligible to play for the season, so speculation had been roaring as to whether the team would be able to get a deal done or would opt to trade him.

Nylander is 22 years old with a great pedigree, a pair of 60-plus point seasons, and now a huge contract. The deal will pay him $41.77 million over the next six seasons for an annual cap hit of $6.9 million. Much of the money comes as signing bonuses. Next season, he’ll carry a base salary of just $700,000 with an $8.3 million bonus on top.

Toronto’s contract headaches are likely just beginning, however. This offseason, they’ll have about $55 million committed to just seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie, with a salary cap likely between $80-85 million and players like Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen, and, oh yeah, Auston Matthews left to sign.

The Sabres might be for real: The Buffalo Sabres have not seen the playoffs since the Flyers vanquished them in the first round in 2011 — good memories. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2007. But their long-awaited resurgence is seemingly upon us.

After a mediocre start, the Sabres went 11-3-1 in the month of November, including an eight-game winning streak that featured six comeback wins. Winger Jeff Skinner, acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes in the summer, scored an eye-popping 14 goals in the month. Franchise center Jack Eichel scored only once in the month, but added 19 assists. Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin was named Rookie of the Month.

The Sabres look pretty real, though their long winning streak was mostly against middle-of-the-pack or bottom-of-the-barrel squads. They’ll get to really show their mettle this week, as they face the Nashville Predators and Toronto Maple Leafs on back-to-back nights Tuesday and Wednesday. The Flyers will visit them again on Saturday.

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