Can Brad Richards revive Marian Gaborik’s career in New York?

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For one season, Marian Gaborik silenced critics who howled with laughter after the New York Rangers signed him to a risky five-year, $37.5 million contract. Gaborik played in 76 games in 2009-10 – not a small feat for the fragile winger – while tying a career high in goals scored (42) and setting a new high in total points (86). Gaborik was a consistent threat on a team that was very thin offensively that season, playing more than 21 minutes per game.

What’s to blame for Gaborik’s lousy 2010-11?

Of course, the question wasn’t ever really about Gaborik’s skill. The injury bug caught up to Gaborik to some extent last season, but even then, his lower productivity was noticeable. Even in other injury-ravaged seasons, Gaborik would approach or even best the point per game level. (He scored 23 points in his 17 games during his last season with the Minnesota Wild in 08-09.) Something was different in 10-11, though, as he only managed 22 goals and 48 points in 62 games.

When the NY Post’s Larry Brooks discussed Gaborik’s struggles, he pointed to injuries (Gaborik’s season was derailed by a separated shoulder and concussion issues) but also to a bevy of lackluster centers.

Fact is, Gaborik, who was limited to 62 matches primarily because of an early season separated shoulder and a late-season concussion, opened 21 times with Erik Christensen as his pivot; 21 times with Derek Stepan; 14 times with Artem Anisimov; five times with Vinny Prospal; and once with Chris Drury. Beyond that, Gaborik never started more than seven straight games with the same center, with that dubious milestone achieved with Anisimov from Jan. 16 through Feb. 1.

That brings up an interesting question: were Gaborik’s linemates that much better in 2009-10? Dobber Hockey’s line combination stats reveal that he spent the majority of his time with a combination of three players in 09-10: Erik Christensen, Brandon Dubinsky and Vaclav Prospal. Really, though, there are only two major differences between those combinations and the 10-11 ones: he enjoyed less stability and didn’t line up with Dubinsky very often, instead drawing time with Artem Anisimov and Sean Avery last season.

Can Brad Richards save the day?

Now, there’s no denying that having more consistent linemates (and having more time with Dubinsky, one of the Rangers’ best forwards) might have helped Gaborik’s cause, but does that explain him dropping from an outstanding 1.13 point per game average to .77, the third-worst rate of his 10-year career?

The more important question is the one Brooks posed, though: can Brad Richards revive the free-falling Gaborik? One thing seems tough to deny: Richards is leaps and bounds better than any center Gaborik’s ever played with in the NHL.

For the first time since Wayne Gretzky’s first year on Broadway in 1996-97, the Rangers have an elite play-making pivot. And while it would be an overstatement to suggest the Blueshirts decided to pay Richards $60 million as a free agent simply to form a partnership with Gaborik, it would be a gross understatement to suggest that the 31-year-old Slovak’s plight and needs weren’t significant factors in the signing.

“I respect all the players I’ve been with but I am very excited to get the chance to play with Richie,” Gaborik told The Post by phone yesterday. “I’ve watched him play throughout his career and always admired his game; the way he sees the ice, the way he moves the puck, the way he makes his teammates better.

How much does Richards improve his linemates? James Neal’s 2010-11 season might be the best recent example, although it’s important to note how small the sample is. Neal scored 21 goals and 39 points in 59 games playing primarily with Richards and (fellow 2010-11 All Star) Loui Eriksson in Dallas. After being traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Neal’s numbers plummeted to one goal and six points in 20 games. While it would be silly to draw too many conclusions from that drop (especially considering the offensive troubles in Pittsburgh), it did seem like Neal’s production suffered without Richards sending him beautiful passes.

Lots of big “ifs” for next season’s Rangers

Glen Sather’s haphazard team-building leaves the Rangers with an annual slew of huge “if” scenarios. That said, the Richards addition makes the questions a bit more tantalizing than usual. The Rangers could have two strong offensive lines if they re-sign Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan, if Richards can find chemistry with Gaborik and if Gaborik can stay healthy.

The Richards-Gaborik scenario will cost more than $14 million in cap space and $19.75 million in salary during the 2011-12 season, but at least there’s a better chance that they won’t waste $7.5 million on an ineffective Gaborik. Still, if Sather hadn’t sidestepped a million bullets already, one would have to wonder if he will still be the Rangers’ general manager if the team the Rangers miss the playoffs this year.

NHL reportedly asked Brad Marchand to stop licking opposing players

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Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman regals readers with many great nuggets in his regular “31 Thoughts” column, but this bit on how the NHL reportedly responded to Brad Marchand‘s obnoxious kissing/licking of Leo Komarov from Game 1 (see the video above) might just take/taste the cake:

22. After Game 1 of the Toronto/Boston series, the Bruins got a, “We’d prefer if you could tell Brad Marchand to stop licking people” phone call from the NHL.

Seems fair enough?

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

That said, you wonder if the NHL might have sent the Boston Bruins pest a better message by, say, handing him a fine for unsportsmanlike conduct? The league could have attached a helpful message, such as: “There are better ways to tell Leo Komarov that you like his cologne.”

(One can only imagine how harsh the discipline might have been if Sean Avery was the one committing this … infraction.)

As a reminder, Marchand addressed his actions after that Game 1 win, not exactly apologizing for his actions:

You could say that Marchand had the last laugh being that the Boston Bruins ended up winning the series in Game 7 thanks to last night’s 7-4 win. Then again, Komarov didn’t get to dress for that game, so it doesn’t seem totally fair.

The bottom line is that Marchand revels in this sort of controversy, even as he’s gone from a good player with bad habits to an elite one who still makes questionable decisions.

Even last night’s Game 7 was an example of the kind of competitor he is. While Kasperi Kapanen shook him off for a memorable shorthanded go-ahead goal, Marchand got the last laugh, celebrating after an empty-netter that sapped any remaining drama from the game.

While Marchand surely gives the Bruins headaches with his antics and sometimes suspensions – don’t forget that there were years of rumors that his behavior might get him traded, at least before he jumped another level or two – he’s a huge part of a dominant line with Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. For all we know, Marchand wouldn’t be the same player if he avoided some of the uglier stuff. Hockey is a violent, emotional sport, after all.

Still, if you’re the Tampa Bay Lightning, you must be wondering: “Could we be the team to get the better of Marchand?” Few teams have the firepower to match that top line (not to mention a defender to make life tougher for them in Victor Hedman), so maybe the Bolts will find a way to push Marchand closer to becoming a net-positive?

One thing’s for sure: the NHL will be keeping an eye on what Marchand does, so he better … watch his mouth.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hall, MacKinnon, McDavid are 2018 Ted Lindsay Award finalists

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Taylor Hall, Nathan MacKinnon, and Connor McDavid were named the three finalists for the 2017-18 Ted Lindsay Award.

This award often stands as a fascinating alternative (or supplement) to the Hart Trophy, as this is essential the players’ choice. The NHLPA votes on who is “most outstanding player in the regular season,” while hockey media (The PHWA) determines the Hart based on wording (“player judged most valuable to his team”) that fuels many obnoxious debates.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Case for Taylor Hall: Hall carried the Devils on his back this season, with the most obvious evidence being the gulf between his point total (93) and the second-best total on the team (Nico Hischier‘s 52). That might carry a bit more weight in Hart discussions, but it’s still very impressive.

Hall didn’t just hit 30 goals for the first time in his career, he nearly hit 40 at 39. His 54 assists also mark a new career-high, and it’s not as though he didn’t light up scoreboards even when he was scapegoated in Edmonton.

Hall brought his team up with him, certainly making life easier for Hischier during his rookie season.

The Case for Nathan MacKinnon: Nathan MacKinnon was right there (1.31) with Connor McDavid (1.32) in putting up point-per-game numbers relative to this era of scoring, generating 97 points in just 74 games. He mixes McDavid’s per-game brilliance with Hall’s “carrying his team to a playoff spot” factor.

The speedy center tied Brayden Point for the NHL’s most game-winning goals at 12.

Avalanche coach Jared Bednar rightfully gets kudos for turning the Avs around, but MacKinnon is the guy who made it easier to say goodbye to Matt Duchene (and move on from a historically bad 2016-17 season).

The Case for Connor McDavid: For the second straight season, McDavid broke 100 points, setting a new career-high with 108 (41 goals, 67 assists). Consider how he scored those points, too; while other 100+ point men Claude Giroux (103) and Nikita Kucherov (100) both scored 36 of their points on the power play, McDavid only generated 20 that way.

McDavid instead was an even-strength maestro, and even threw in four shorthanded points on top of that.

Much like Crosby and other star athletes adding wrinkles to their skill sets as time goes along, McDavid keeps getting better. That’s a frightening thing for the league, as he’s already the best.

McDavid was last year’s winner, by the way.

2018 NHL Award finalists
Jack Adams Award
Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award
King Clancy Trophy
Calder Trophy

Bill Masterton Trophy
Lady Byng Trophy
Norris Trophy
Selke Trophy
Vezina Trophy

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Second round begins with Crosby vs. Ovechkin, Sharks vs. Golden Knights

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Game 1: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals, 7 p.m. ET
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Call: Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, Pierre McGuire
Series preview
Stream here

Game 1: San Jose Sharks at Vegas Golden Knights, 10 p.m. ET
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Call: John Forslund, Joe Micheletti
Series preview
Stream here

More:
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second round schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Roundtable: Slowing the Sharks, X-factors

Stanley Cup Playoffs: PHT predicts NHL’s Second Round

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Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Boston Bruins

SEAN: Lightning in 6. The bump that Tampa hit towards the end of the season had some thinking that it could result in the New Jersey Devils giving them issues in the first round. That didn’t happen, and now healthy and with a likely less-tired Andrei Vasilevskiy in net, we’ll see a Lightning team that’s going to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final. The Bruins are coming off a tough seven-game series, and Tuukka Rask isn’t playing great, but the scoring depth that helped get them by the Toronto Maple Leafs will allow them to make this a series.

JAMES: Lightning in 6. As a perpetually groggy human, I put great value on rest. The Lightning basically got a bye week while the Bruins needed to grind out a seven-game series. Zdeno Chara is 41 and almost logged 30 minutes of ice time in Game 7, and it ended in regulation. The Lightning boast a comparable top line, better depth, their own behemoth star blueliner in Victor Hedman, and less wear and tear.

(Plus I might as well maintain some pick consistency, right?)

ADAM: Bruins in 6. There was a little too much made of the Lightning’s struggles down the stretch run, and winning round one in five games — even if some of the games were tight and close — was a pretty emphatic statement that they are still great. Still, there is just something about this Bruins team that seems a little better. I think the Bergeron-Marchand-Pastrnak line is going to be too much and for as great as Tampa Bay is I still think there are some areas that can be exploited there in a short series to be the difference, especially on defense. Don’t like the thought of Dan Girardi, for example, trying to match up with those forwards from Boston.

JOEYLightning in 6: The Bruins have the best line in the series with David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, but the Bolts are deeper up front. Tampa is also better on defense with Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Anton Stralman, Mikhail Sergachev and co. And after watching Boston’s first-round series against Toronto, it’s pretty clear that Andrei Vasilevskiy is playing better than Tuukka Rask right now.

SCOTTBruins in 7. I’m basically staying the course here. I picked the Bruins as my representative in the Stanley Cup Final out of the Eastern Conference, and while they had to grind out a series win in seven games against the Toronto Maple Leafs, I just feel, when running right, no one can beat them in the East — the Atlantic Division champions included. It’s probably less likely given that the Lightning had a week off and the Bruins will get only a couple days of rest. But I dug my grave and now I will lay in it. 

Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

SEAN: Penguins in 6. Every time these teams meet in the postseason we do mental gymnastics to find ways to make ourselves believe the Capitals will finally do it. Every time they come up short, and we realize we should have known better. Here we are again. Penguins win until the Capitals break the spell.

JAMES: Penguins in 7Pick consistency helps again here, which is nice because this is a tough call, especially with Evgeni Malkin missing at least Game 1.

It’s tough to pick against the law of averages. Don’t forget that the three Sidney CrosbyAlex Ovechkin series were all close, with one series ending in six games and the other two going the full distance for seven. The Penguins also looked more than a bit leaky against Philly.

Still, the Penguins inspired doubt during the 2016 and 2017 runs, and they still got things done. They tend to create more chances than they allow and enjoy the luxury of rolling out multiple lethal scorers.

ADAM: Capitals in 7. I don’t know, man. They have to win at some point, don’t they? This Capitals team is not as good as the past two Capitals teams that could not do it, but they are still good! Everything seems like it is just there for them this season. Evgeni Malkin is hurt. Carl Hagelin is hurt. I do not think Phil Kessel is 100 percent healthy. Matt Murray has not played as well as he has the past two years. Everything is there on the table for them. The door is open. Just go through it!

JOEYCapitals in 7. Yes, I’m going to be that guy. The Capitals have exceptional depth down the middle, while Evgeni Malkin is banged up for Pittsburgh. He won’t play in Game 1, so he’s clearly hurting. If Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Lars Eller continue playing well, the Caps will get the job done this time around.

SCOTTPenguins in 7. I took the Pens in six in the first round and they obliged me, and I’m taking them again (don’t let me down). 

Pittsburgh is the better team, despite what the standings suggested at the end of the regular season. Matt Murray is on his game (so is Holtby to a lesser extent, but he worries me). Evgeni Malkin missing Game 1 is a tough pill to swallow, but the Pens have own the Capitals, historically, in their playoff meetings. I don’t see that changing, even if the Caps push them to the limit. 

Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Nashville Predators vs. Winnipeg Jets

SEAN: Predators in 7. They were my pick in the West and I’m sticking with it, even as they face their toughest test of the season. Last year’s run to the Final helped the Predators this season. They learned what it takes to go on a deep run and now that they’re healthy — for now! — and GM David Poile added depth in Nick Bonino, Kyle Turris, Ryan Hartman and Mike Fisher, they can handle what Winnipeg offer, which is a scary offense with Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheiefele and Paul Stastny, among others.

JAMES: Predators in 7. Ah, now here is where leaning on past picks is especially helpful, as the Predators were my pre-season, mid-season, and pre-playoffs pick as champs. The Predators hold home-ice advantage and a coach I’m personally more confident in. Nashville doesn’t really have any major flaws, at least with Pekka Rinne playing at a high level. Winnipeg’s top-end talent is pretty scary, but this is the one opponent with the defensemen to potentially slow them down. A bit.

This should be an especially fun series, as you could argue this is a clash between the two best teams in the NHL.

ADAM: Predators in 6. They have been my pick in the Western Conference from day one and I just do not see any reason to change it. The Jets are awesome and should continue to be awesome for a long time with the young talent they have, but this Predators team just seems completely loaded and does not really have a significant weakness.

JOEYPredators in 7. The two best teams in the NHL are going head-to-head in the second round, which should make for an incredible series. The Predators arguably have the best defense in the league, while the Jets have one of the more explosive forward groups. There’s not much separating these two teams on the ice, but experience is on Nashville’s side.

SCOTTPredators in 7. Here’s hoping that his series goes the distance because everyone who loves watching hockey deserves that. The matchup is mouthwatering. High-powered offenses, Vezina-caliber goaltending and physicality for days. I picked the Predators to win the Cup this year, so I won’t pivot from that initial pick, but watching the Jets put on a masterclass in the first round has me second-guessing myself. The Jets, outside of Game 3, were simply dominate all over the place. The Predators, on the other hand, looked somewhat pedestrian in their series outside of their series-clinching Game 6 performance. This one is honestly a toss-up. I’m sticking with my initial pick, but wouldn’t be surprised to see the Jets move on either in the same number of games. 

Vegas Golden Knights vs. San Jose Sharks

SEAN: Sharks in 6. I think the magic run ends here. Marc-Andre Fleury needs to post that .981 even strength save percentage during their sweep of the Los Angeles Kings because the Golden Knights only averaged 1.75 goals per game in the first round and all four games were decided by a single goal. The Vegas offense that averaged 3.27 goals per game during the regular season will need to find itself again going up against a Sharks team that destroyed the Anaheim Ducks. San Jose received contributions from up and down the lineup, and that’s with Joe Thornton missing the entire series. Add in the stellar play of Martin Jones (.979 ESSV%) and it could spell the end for Vegas.

This, according to my predictions, will result in a Jets-Sharks conference final, which will bring back all those playful jabs San Jose players threw Winnipeg’s way earlier this season.

JAMES: Sharks in 6. That stuff about consistency carries over here: I keep doubting the Golden Knights, they remain a blast to watch and prove me wrong. Why stop now? The Sharks have been a locomotive lately, rolling over the Ducks in impressive fashion. San Jose has the defenders to inhibit the Jonathan Marchessault line, top scorers who are lighting it up, and a unique weapon in Brent Burns.

ADAM: Sharks in 6. This Sharks team is really underrated and they are going to be a challenge for Vegas in a way that Los Angeles was not. They are fast, they can score, they have some youth, I don’t know if Marc-Andre Fleury can stop every single shot he faces again (well, almost every single shot he faces). I think the Sharks take it and continue to make surprising runs in the playoffs long after everyone gave up on them as a Stanley Cup contender.

JOEYGolden Knights in 7. The Golden Knights’ run will not come to an end in the second round. This doesn’t mean I’m selling the Sharks short, I just believe that the depth that Vegas has up front will make the difference. Both Marc-Andre Fleury and Martin Jones have been great for their respective teams, and that’s why this will be a tight series.

SCOTT: Golden Knights in 6. I picked both of these teams — Vegas and the San Jose Sharks — to lose in seven games in the first round. What a mistake that was. Given how well Vegas managed to play in their own zone and how dominate they were in goal to shutdown the Kings, if all stays the same, there’s no reason to think they can’t stop the Sharks in the same manner. The Golden Knights gave up the least number of high-danger scoring chances and Marc-Andre Fleury stopped all of them when they did. That’s a hell of a recipe and another addition to the history books. 

More:
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second round schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Roundtable: Slowing the Sharks, X-factors