Report: Canucks have “dangled” Luongo

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Curious tidbit in Bruce Garrioch’s weekly NHL rumors piece for the Ottawa Sun. According to Garrioch, “The talk among league executives is the Canucks have dangled [Roberto] Luongo in trade circles, but haven’t been able to find anybody interested in his $5.3-million cap hit and contract that runs through the 2021-22 season. [Cory] Schneider will be shipped out at some point.”

Vancouver’s goaltending debate has been one of the more contentious ones this season, but I can’t recall a reporter – albeit a reporter whose trade rumors have been ridiculed in the past – citing league sources that the Canucks have explored dealing Luongo.

Decide for yourself how much credence to lend to this particular rumor.

At the very least, it begs the question, could the Canucks trade Luongo if they wanted to? It’s easy – and quite possibly correct – to say no, given his questionable play and marathon contract.

However, we’re still talking about a goalie that’s coming off his third Vezina-nominated season while backstopping the Canucks to within a game of winning the Stanley Cup. Which is to say, there are worse résumés than that.

It should also be noted that, while his contract technically runs until 2021-22, he earns minimal salary the last four seasons of the deal.

Finally, there’s the matter of the new CBA that will (hopefully) be in place in time for next season. Could the new agreement include clauses that make moving big contracts easier? Maybe a team will be able to trade a player while maintaining responsibility for part of his salary.

For what it’s worth, I don’t see the Canucks trading Schneider before the playoffs. If they did, it would have to be an amazing deal. Otherwise, the time is now for Vancouver. If Schneider can help, it makes sense for him to stay.

The spark the Penguins need might already be in their organization

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The Pittsburgh Penguins are in need of a spark, and general manager Jim Rutherford seems to know it.

On Wednesday he told Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he is close to considering a “major” trade to potentially shake things up if things do not start to turn around on their upcoming three-game road trip. It is a bold statement from the general manager of a team that has won the past two Stanley Cups, but nearly halfway through the season it is becoming increasingly clear that this team is lacking … something.

That something could be any number of things.

Defensively they have not been great. They have been plagued by dreadfully slow starts in recent games. They lost a ton of depth over the summer with the free agency departures of Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, and Ron Hainsey (as well as the expansion draft departure of Marc-Andre Fleury), and while their power play is as dangerous as any team in the league, they have been one of the absolute worst teams in the league when it comes to scoring during 5-on-5 play.

Put all of that together and you have a team that enters play on Thursday sitting on the playoff bubble in a highly competitive Metropolitan Division.

I have already written about the Penguins’ depth issues this season, and in the weeks since then the gap between their top-six production and their bottom-six production has only widened. That is a big problem.

The greatest strength the Penguins had the past two years on their Stanley Cup runs was their forward depth and every line’s ability to contribute to the offense. As great as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel are they are not going to score every single night. There has to be some offense coming from the other two lines, and this season the Penguins are not getting that. Even with the concerns on the blue line (made worse now by the injury to Justin Schultz) this seems like the biggest area to address.

It might also be the easiest because the solutions might already be knocking on the door.

In each of the past two seasons the Penguins have received huge contributions from call-ups from their Wilkes-Barre/Scranton farm team. In 2015-16 it was Matt Murray, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and even Tom Kuhnhackl helping to bring a spark to the team.

Last season it was Jake Guentzel, joining the team around this time of year and the scoring 29 goals over 65 games, including a league-leading 13 in 25 playoff games. Finding that sort of cheap production from young talent is essential for teams like the Penguins given their salary cap situation. They do not always have the flexibility under the cap to swing a major trade without giving up a major piece in return.

They might have a couple of options that could provide similar value and a similar spark this season in Dominik Simon and Daniel Sprong, both selected in the 2015 draft.

Simon, who had 16 points in 20 games in the AHL before his recent recall, has been a bright spot in his first two games with the team. He recorded a pair of assists in his season debut against the Toronto Maple Leafs and eventually found himself skating on a line with Crosby. He was one of the few players that seemed to be a real threat to score in their 2-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche earlier in the week and demonstrated some real skill as a playmaker.

Take, for example, this play where he set up Crosby for a one-timer opportunity in the third period.

A little better shot placement, or a goalie that wasn’t as locked in as Jonathan Bernier was that night, and we’re talking about a highlight reel goal right now.

During Wednesday’s practice Simon was skating on a line with Crosby and Guentzel and seems poised to play there on Thursday night when they take on the Vegas Golden Knights.

Following Saturday’s loss against Toronto Simon spoke about playing alongside Crosby and called it, “unbelievable,” adding that “he makes the game so much easier for you. If you lose the puck, he’s there to support you. It felt great.”

It seems, at least in the short-term, he is going to get an opportunity to keep playing on that line. It would be the third time in as many years a call-up gets that chance alongside Crosby as Simon tries to follow in the footsteps of Sheary and Guentzel.

That brings us to Sprong, the team’s second-round pick in 2015 and currently its top prospect.

After ripping apart the QMJHL the past three years (and getting a brief cup of coffee with the Penguins to start the 2015-16 season) Sprong is currently into his first full year of pro hockey. It has been a mixed bag of results at times. He has been streaky at times and he was a healthy scratch a couple of weeks ago, but he is only 20 years old, already has 14 goals in 23 games and is leading the team in both goals and total points by a pretty significant margin.

A couple of weeks ago Rutherford commented on Sprong’s development and said he had received no indication from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coaching staff that he was ready for a promotion to the NHL.

Given the aforementioned healthy scratch it is clear that his game is not perfect at this point.

Even with that being said he can still do something — or at least has the potential to do something — a lot of current players on the Penguins roster right now can not do. That, of course, is having the ability to put the puck in the net.

No matter how much the Penguins try to make him one, Sprong may not ever be a great defensive player. But you still need to score goals, and right now the Penguins have a lot of forwards in their lineup that can play a safe, responsible, defensively sound game but are providing them with absolutely zero offense.

They have Ryan Reaves playing five minutes a night providing … well … whatever it is he provides. For whatever reason, NHL teams seem to prefer that sort of one dimensional play (whether it be the dimension Reaves provides, or the play-it-safe, all defense, no offense dimension) over the one dimensional play that can change a game with a quick goal.

It would not hurt the Penguins at all to remove a Reaves or even a Carl Hagelin to insert somebody that can potentially inject some offense into the lineup. At the moment a team that has two top-lines and two fourth-lines. That is not the type of balance they need to compete for another Stanley Cup, let alone win one.

At some point before the trade deadline they are are probably going to have to address the third-line center spot from outside the organization. Even with a couple of goals in his past few games Riley Sheahan is probably not the answer there (though, he might be a decent fourth-line option).

But they can still make some in-house changes on the wings to potentially spark the offense without having to swing a major trade, something that at this point is probably easier said than done. A real look for Simon and perhaps Sprong at some point could potentially balance out the lineup a lot more than it currently is, whether it be with one of the younger players getting a look at the bottom of the lineup, or somebody else getting bumped down a spot while the youngsters get a look up top. Keep in mind the fourth line in their Stanley Cup clinching game this past spring had Matt Cullen (13 goals in 72 games), Bryan Rust (15 goals in 57 games) and Chris Kunitz (nine goals in 71 games, and more than 250 career goals) skating on it.

They need to find that sort of balance again. Before they turn to a trade, it might be wise to see if their own in-house prospects can help deliver it.

It has worked for them before.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

PHT on Fantasy: Tools of the trade

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So far in this weekly space, I’ve been aiming to help out fantasy hockey players who might lean more casual or intermediate. The debut bit is the easiest example, as it’s basically a guide to being reasonably competitive without putting in a lot of work.

The painful truth is that the devil is often in the details with fantasy hockey.

Now, sure, you can burn yourself by getting too deep in the muck.

Sometimes tinkering to an extreme might prompt you to accept a bad trade because you feel burned by Brent Burns, or maybe you’d drop a guy worth keeping because you’re trying to grind out every rotisserie point or head-to-head battle.

There might be some wisdom to taking a zen approach, but what if you want a mix? And what if you’re an intermediate type who wants to ratchet the intensity up a level or two? This post aims to share a few tools that could help you if you feel the urge to push a little harder.

Naturally, the Internet is a cornucopia of different options, so this is an especially strong case of speaking up in the comments section regarding your own suggestions (just don’t let your league opponents see it). If the responses between that, email, and Twitter replies end up being robust, perhaps we’ll even follow up on this in the future with another set of tools.

Anyway, while this isn’t comprehensive, here are a few things that might help you get an edge. Some are pretty simple, others might be new to even the more obsessive out there.

Drop down, climb up

Apologies to ESPN fantasy owners, as I haven’t been in one of those leagues in a few years, but I’d imagine that their tools boast some similarities.

In this specific instance, allow me to shout out Yahoo’s drop-down categories, which you can peruse by clicking on “Players.”

There’s a lot of jelly in these donuts, and it seems to me that the information becomes more robust with each year. The best stuff can be found under “Stats.” One category that’s either new or I hadn’t previously noticed is “opponents,” which lists each player’s schedule for the next two weeks. If you want to get really granular with things, or you’re in a league where it makes extra sense to live week-to-week, at least with your fringe players, that opponents tool could be your buddy.

Over the years, I’ve really found some value in cutting the season into chunks to identify who’s on a hot streak, who’s cold, and sometimes which players might be getting a boost in ice time.

Yahoo gives you the option to sort by “Last 7 days” and “Last 14 days,” which could be useful in cases of injuries and so on. Personally, the 30-day option probably gives you the best sample size, and this becomes increasingly useful as you get deeper into the season. Maybe an AHL call-up is quietly gaining more confidence with his coach? Perhaps an early-season cold streak obscures a talent who’s regained their status?

Recency bias can be an issue whenever you’re parsing through results, but here’s the thing: coaches suffer from recency bias, so you might as well see who might be the apple of their eye, even if it’s a flavor of the month thing.

Some references

It’s a great idea to gather “cheat sheets” for drafts, but quick references are helpful during the season, too.

Rotoworld NHL boasts a slew of great features, but allow me to single out Michael Finewax’s Week Ahead feature. It’s like the “opponents” bit from the above section, only Finewax goes deep to provide more context on each team.

Daily Doses are great too, yet another gem is Rotoworld’s injuries page. It might be the best single-page source for injuries, if you’re in a hurry or just want to look at the league as a whole from a health standpoint.

Now, there are some references that come down to habit or preference, as a lot of sites provide options along these lines.

For what it’s worth, I often go to Goalie Post for starting goalies, but feel free to share your preferences in the comments, as many sites provide their own updates.

Along similar lines, Left Wing Lock is a handy guide for line combinations, as they share regular, timely updates. They also provide tools to check power-play units and you can go back and see which line combinations were most common during the season and other stretches. Such considerations might help you identify a forward who has higher odds to stick with high-level linemates versus a guy who merely is getting a fleeting audition.

This is more esoteric, but NHL.com’s team power play stats can be a quick way to sort which teams have played a lopsided amount of home games (sort by “Home GP”) and the same with road (sort by “Road GP”). If you need a tie-breaking mechanism when pondering an add/drop, it might come down to which player’s team has more home games remaining.

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Again, many thing in the “references” section come down to personal taste, as many sites provide robust options if you want to geek out to get the most information possible.

If you really want to spelunk in that fashion, just tinker in ways that you can stand/entertain you. I’m not the type to drum up a spreadsheet unless it’s for work, but if you are, then have at it.

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.

Matt Beleskey and the risks of NHL free agency

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Four years ago Matt Beleskey came out of nowhere to score 22 goals for the Anaheim Ducks.

It was a perfectly time breakout season because it just so happened to take place in what was a contract year for Beleskey and made him one of the top free agents on the open market the following summer. Not only was he a big forward that could play a tough, physical game, but now there was some offensive production to go along with it. He was the type of player that general managers were going to love.

He ended up signing a five-year, $19 million contract with the Boston Bruins.

On Monday, with still two-and-a-half years left on the deal at $3.8 million per season, he was placed on waivers.

Clearly, things have not gone as either side had planned.

Since signing that contract with the Bruins, Beleskey has not been able to consistently match that production from his final year in Anaheim. He came close to it in his first year, but things have rapidly declined in the two years since.

This season has been especially tough for Beleskey as he has yet to record a point in the 14 games he has played.

Given how much is remaining on Beleskey’s contract, as well as his lack of production the past two seasons, it seems highly unlikely that anyone will claim him, opening the door for him to perhaps be sent to Providence of the American Hockey League once he clears.

Beleskey’s situation in Boston does give us another reminder to the risks of free agency and signing players to long-term contracts off of what amounts to one big season.

Had he been able to repeat his 2013-14 performance, or at least come close to it, his $3.9 million salary cap hit would have been a perfectly reasonable deal for that level of production and play.

But the issue was always whether or not he was going to be able to repeat it, and there were a lot of red flags that he probably would not be able to.

Prior to his 22 goal season with the Ducks (which came in only 65 games) he had only once scored more than 10 goals in a singe season and never scored more than 11.

His breakout season with the Ducks was the result of a career-high 15.2 percent shooting percentage  Based on that he was a clear candidate for a significant regression and there was a significant amount of risk with such a long-term contract. It’s one of those areas where analytics can play a big role in helping to avoid a costly mistake and why they can be a great complement for scouting and the eye test. When you have a player that performs that far above his normal career levels it’s worth taking an extra look at that to determine if it’s something that can be repeated or if it’s something that was simply a one year outlier.

In Beleskey’s case, it is becoming increasingly clear that one year in Anaheim was an outlier.

The problem with free agency is that by the time players hit the open market they are often times in one of two situations: They are either past their peaks years of production and teams end up getting into bidding wars and paying top dollar for players that have already played their best hockey for somebody else, or they are players in Beleskey’s situation that had a well-timed career year that may not be repeated.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Watch the first episode of Sabres-Rangers ‘Road to the Winter Classic’

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We’re less than two weeks away from the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers meeting on a hockey rink at CitiField in New York for the 2018 Winter Classic.

This is the 10th anniversary of the game, typically played on New Year’s Day, and features one of the teams that took part in the inaugural event against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008. The Penguins would win that one 2-1 after a shootout during a snowy day Ralph Wilson Stadium. Memories were created that afternoon in Buffalo, but so was a staple event on the NHL’s annual calendar.

With participation in the Winter Classic comes the requirement of starring in the all-access show that follows both teams leading up to the New Year’s Day game. This season, “Road to the Winter Classic” has moved to NBCSN. The first episode premiered Wednesday night and will air each week NBCSN, Sportsnet and NHL Network.

You can watch the first full episode here

“Road To The NHL Winter Classic” presented by Honda on NBCSN (all times Eastern)

Premiere – Wednesday, Dec. 13 at 11:30 p.m. immediately following Boston Bruins-Detroit Red Wings
Episode 2 – Wednesday, Dec. 20 at 11:30 p.m. immediately following Detroit Red Wings-Philadelphia Flyers
Episode 3 – Wednesday, Dec. 27 at 11:30 p.m. immediately following Washington Capitals-New York Rangers
Episode 4 – Sunday, Jan. 7 at 11 p.m. immediately following Boston Bruins-Pittsburgh Penguins

“Road To The NHL Winter Classic” presented by Honda on Sportsnet (all times Eastern)

Premiere – Thursday, Dec. 14 at 7 p.m.
Episode 2 – Friday, Dec. 22 at 7 p.m.
Episode 3 – Thursday, Dec. 28 at 7 p.m.
Episode 4 – Friday, January 5 at 7 pm (SN1)

“Road To The NHL Winter Classic” presented by Honda on NHL Network (all times Eastern)

Episode 1 – Sunday, Dec. 17 at 10 p.m.
Episode 2 – Sunday, Dec. 24 at 10 p.m.
Episode 3 – Sunday, Dec. 31 immediately following live World Junior Championship coverage (approximately 10:30 p.m.)
Episode 4 – Monday, Jan. 8 at 10 p.m.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.