Bulletin-board material: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup

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This is the third straight year (2013, 2014) we’ve done this, and so far we’ve only been wrong twice. Try and find more accurate NHL predictions than that. 

Calgary Flames: The worst team to make the playoffs. And we’re not even talking about their advanced stats, which are indeed awful. According to the standings, they were the worst team to make the playoffs. In a related story, it’s kinda funny how people are comparing this year’s Flames to last year’s Avalanche. Um, hello? The Avs won the Central and had a Vezina Trophy finalist in goal. The Flames finished third in the Pacific and have Jonas Hiller in goal. On top of that, they’re without Mark Giordano. Good. Night.

Vancouver Canucks: The second-worst team to make the playoffs. Somehow, the Canucks were lucky enough to match up with the Flames in the first round. Their luck won’t last long, though. Vancouver entered the season with the misguided goal of getting back to the playoffs, and can’t stop bragging that it accomplished that goal. While ownership will be happy with a couple of playoff gates, what this team really did was blow its chance to start a much-needed rebuild, and in a draft year with two “generational” talents to boot. Instead, the Canucks think they can “continue to build this team and be a playoff contender every year,” which is another way of saying they’d like to have their cake and eat it too. Question: if Jim Benning is such a genius at identifying talent, how does one explain Luca Sbisa?

Ottawa Senators: It’s hard to criticize these guys after what they did to make the playoffs. True, they got their coach fired because he was too mean to them, but 23-3-3 is 23-3-3. It’ll actually be too bad when Andrew Hammond falls back to earth over the next few weeks. The Hamburglar’s been a great story, from not being very good in college and the minors to what he’s done at the highest level of the game. He will fall back to earth though. The playoffs are a whole different animal, and Hammond — a 27-year-old undrafted rookie — is not the next Patrick Roy or Ken Dryden.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Remember when these guys were going to be the next great dynasty? It was funny then and it’s even funnier now, because we don’t recall the 83-84 Oilers needing to beat the worst team in the NHL on the last day of the season just to make the playoffs. But that’s what the Pens needed. And boy were they completely unconvincing against the Sabres. Talk about zero confidence. Talk about no killer instinct. The Penguins could’ve easily lost that game. “It hasn’t been easy,” said Ben Lovejoy. “I’m proud of the way we were able to close it out tonight.” Yeah, way to go. You showed a lot of heart losing five in a row then barely defeating a historically bad team. Good luck against the Presidents’ Trophy winners.

Detroit Red Wings: It’s one thing to bench your big-money goalie for a young guy who’s playing out of his mind. It’s quite another to park him for Petr Mrazek, a 23-year-old with no playoff experience and a save percentage (.918) that isn’t even that great. That’s how poorly Jimmy Howard played down the stretch. And make no mistake, the Wings have issues beyond goaltending. They were a mediocre possession team in the second half of the season, and there’s no way Pavel Datsyuk is 100 percent. Enjoy Mike Babcock while he’s still behind the bench, Wings fans. (Which should be about five, maybe six, more games.)

Winnipeg Jets: You have to be happy for Jets fans. It’s been a long time since meaningful hockey was played in Winnipeg, and it’s going to be a tough assignment to beat the home side at MTS Centre. Except, of course, for the fact the Jets are the least disciplined team in the league, as ably demonstrated here by Dustin Byfuglien. Oh, and they don’t really have an elite center either. Also, Ondrej Pavelec is their goalie. (Other than that, though.) And please, PLEASE don’t argue that Pavelec is good now. Yes, he had a strong finish. But he’s shown flashes in the past too, only to revert back to what he really is — a below-average NHL goalie.

Montreal Canadiens: Unlike Pavelec, Carey Price is decidedly not below average. He’s actually the favorite to win the Hart Trophy, which would make him the first goalie to win the award since Jose Theodore did it for the Habs in 2001-02. Hey, how did that turn out anyway? Oh right, Theodore was just OK in the playoffs and Montreal lost to Carolina in the second round. Goaltending: impossible to predict and incredibly risky to rely on. That’s why teams that are good at possessing the puck are better bets. Puck possession is a team thing, so if one guy falters or gets hurt, it’s not the end of the world. By the way, the Habs were the worst possession team to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.

Washington Capitals: One of the most improved teams in the NHL still doesn’t have what it takes to win it all. That’s basically what Barry Trotz admitted a few months ago, and he was absolutely right. Asking Evgeny Kuznetsov to play first- or second-line center in the playoffs is way too much to ask. He’s a 22-year-old rookie. Even if he’s “come a long way over the last two months,” he’s still got a ways to go. The Caps simply aren’t strong enough down the middle, period. (Admit it, you all thought this was going to be a screed against Alex Ovechkin, and how he’s never won anything of meaning and never will. Nah, we’ll wait until they’re eliminated for that.)

Minnesota Wild: Sure, we could point out that Devan Dubnyk got run into the ground by Mike Yeo and, come April, the goalie savior started to show a few cracks. But the reason the Wild won’t win the Stanley Cup is because they won’t score enough goals. The power play stinks, and if they’re counting on Thomas Vanek to produce in the playoffs, well, let’s just say he hasn’t always been at his best in big games. Need another reason? The Wild aren’t deep enough on defense, and that can be big-time problematic in the playoffs.

Anaheim Ducks: The most overrated team in the NHL. Goals per game: 11th. Goals against: 20th. Power play: 28th. Penalty kill: 15th. Those aren’t the numbers of a Stanley Cup champ. In fact, the Ducks (+10) had the worst goal-differential of the 16 teams to make the playoffs. “If you look at teams that have won the Cup, they’re high in the defensive standings — L.A. was the best defensive team last year, won the Cup. Chicago before that, won it. When Boston won … there’s definitely a trend there.” You know who said that? It was Bruce Boudreau.

Tampa Bay Lightning: What seemed like a savvy preseason pick doesn’t seem quite so smart anymore. Yes, the Lightning score a lot of goals, but they don’t keep them out of their net particularly well, ranking 12th in that category. The year after being named a Vezina finalist, Ben Bishop predictably regressed and finished with a so-so save percentage of .916. Also remember that Bishop, 28, has never played in the playoffs. This is a young team that may win a Cup in the future, but it’s not quite ready yet.

New York Islanders: Can the Isles win a playoff series for the first time since 1993? We only ask this question so we can point out the fact that the Isles haven’t won a playoff series since 1993. It’s pretty sad how far the standards have fallen on Long Island. A fan base that once celebrated four straight championships now holds up Jaroslav Halak as some sort of goaltending god for having a .914 save percentage. Meanwhile, everyone’s doing cartwheels because Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, two good-but-not-great defensemen that were deemed expendable by their former teams, actually agreed to re-sign. The Isles finished the regular season with four wins in their last 14. Maybe they’ll raise the bar when they get to Brooklyn.

Nashville Predators: Similar to the Islanders, the Preds got off to a great start and had people debating whether they were legit Stanley Cup contenders. This despite the glaring facts that Mike Ribeiro was their first-line center and they had a rookie by the name of Filip Forsberg who was piling up points at an unsustainably high rate. Yada, yada, yada, the Preds went 8-13-4 in their last 25 games, including six straight losses to finish the season. Bottom line: this team is gonna be done real quick if Pekka Rinne doesn’t find his game. He gave up 17 goals in his last five outings combined.

New York Rangers: Back in March, a handful of Rags faithful got all hot and bothered when we pointed out the Blueshirts were “good but not great” down the middle. As if hockey fans everywhere should marvel at the amazing talent the Rangers had assembled to play center for their spectacular team. Sorry, but Derick Brassard, Derek Stepan, Kevin Hayes, and Dominic Moore are pretty much the definition of “good but not great.” Which, hey, is better than “fine but not good”; however, when you consider the truly great centers that Cup champs almost always possess, not to mention the Rangers’ worrying possession numbers, it’s really not hard to doubt this team. On the bright side, at least Alain Vigneault has another Presidents’ Trophy to his name.

St. Louis Blues: The new San Jose Sharks. Or maybe the Sharks were the new St. Louis Blues. After all, the Blues were choking in the playoffs long before the Sharks started gagging away successful regular seasons. Six times in franchise history have the Blues amassed over 100 points, only to fall well short when the games start counting. This season was their seventh with more than 100 points, so of course they drew one of the league’s hottest teams in the first round. But it’s not a cursed history or tough opponent that will doom the Blues. It’s questionable goaltending (another Blues tradition) and a coach that can’t stop himself from over-coaching.

Chicago Blackhawks: Fun fact about the ‘Hawks: Out of the 16 teams to make the playoffs, only Ottawa and Winnipeg finished with fewer regulation/overtime wins. Another fact: If instead of going 9-3 in the shootout they’d gone 3-9, they’d have made the playoffs by one measly point. And yet the ‘Hawks remain Stanley Cup favorites in the eyes of many. Have people not been paying attention? The simple truth is, these guys have not been playing at an elite level since the Winter Classic. Antoine Vermette hasn’t been the answer, and Kimmo Timonen’s not the answer either, based on the 40-year-old’s dreadful possession stats. Just do us a favor and don’t act surprised when Chicago’s eliminated in the first or second round, OK?

Big centers back: Getzlaf in for Ducks, Panthers regain Barkov

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The Anaheim Ducks would probably qualify as unlucky so far in 2017-18 even beyond an extremely unfortunate bounce of a puck fracturing Ryan Getzlaf‘s cheekbone.

That loss was especially severe with Ryan Kesler already recovering, as Getzlaf missed 19 games, last appearing in a contest on that painful night of Oct. 29. The Ducks get quite the treat, then, as both Getzlaf and Jakob Silfverberg are slated to return as they host the Carolina Hurricanes.

Check out how much better everything fits together with the returns of Getzlaf and Silfverberg, not to mention the recent addition of Adam Henrique (line combos via the Ducks website):

Rakell-Getzlaf-Perry
Cogliano-Henrique-Silfverberg
Blandisi-Vermette-Kase
Wagner-Grant-Shaw

The Ducks are still without Kesler, and Patrick Eaves is fighting a serious physical battle that puts hockey on the backburner, so there’s still some mystery to how the Ducks might look if they can get anywhere near full-strength this season.

As is, they look a whole lot better going into Monday’s game, something the Florida Panthers could relate to.

While Anaheim’s dealt with bad luck, you could chalk up Florida’s troubles to a mix of unforced errors (jettisoning depth, particularly to Vegas) and tough breaks of their own (Roberto Luongo‘s injury issues). Either way, management will look infinitely smarter when Aleksander Barkov is in the lineup than when he’s not, so the Panthers must be happy to welcome him back tonight.

Interestingly, Left Wing Lock lists Barkov along with Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad, rather than Denis Malgin taking Bjugstad’s spot (Malgin received looks, at least, once Evgenii Dadonov suffered an injury).

That would be quite the top-heavy approach for Florida, even if Malgin can mesh well with Vincent Trocheck.

While the Panthers have floundered at times, the Ducks seemed like they were finally starting to crater under the pressure of all those injury losses, as Anaheim only boasts two wins (2-4-4) in its last 10 games.

It’s true that the return of Barkov and Getzlaf would be important in just about any context for their teams, but each team likely feels especially relieved on Monday, as they can use all the help they can get.

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.

Byfuglien’s loss is Trouba’s gain with Jets

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Theoretically, you could attempt to make the “injuries open up the door for other players to succeed” argument just about all the time, but aside from a Kurt Warner discovery here and there, most of the time a star player being out week-to-week is abysmal for a team.

The Winnipeg Jets can’t be thrilled to learn that Dustin Byfuglien is considered week-to-week thanks to a lower-body injury, with PHT’s Scott Billeck reporting that they hope to get the bulky blueliner back sometime around the Christmas holiday.

The domino effect could be bad overall, yet this actually is one of those cases where an injury could open a door for a player capable of much more, as Jacob Trouba stands to gain some significant offensive opportunities with Byfuglien on the shelf.

That much was already made clear today, as Trouba took Byfuglien’s spot on the top power-play unit. As of this writing, Byfuglien was averaging a team-leading 3:34 PP TOI per contest this season, towering over Trouba’s average of 1:22 per night.

You could make a reasonable argument that finances might have played a role in Byfuglien getting such an opportunity advantage, as Buffy is taking in (an increasingly scary) $7.6 million through 2020-21, while Trouba’s 2017-18 will play a significant role in how much of a raise he receives from his borderline-insulting $2.8M mark.

If all things were equal, would Byfuglien get this much leash, considering somewhat disappointing totals (zero goals, 15 assists)?

[Are the Jets merely cold or is this reality starting to hit them?]

Look, it’s likely that Byfuglien was going to get some bounces, much like Brent Burns finally is getting in San Jose. Still, considering the focus Winnipeg’s incredible forwards can draw, you’d ideally want to see Byfuglien fire at least a few pucks in the net.

Last week, The Athletic’s Craig Custance wrote about (sub required) Trouba being willing to sacrifice offensive opportunities this season, even in a contract year. An anonymous NHL executive read many minds in wondering if Trouba was capable of more than he’s shown so far this season.

“I could see a guy like Trouba segueing into a more offensive role. Where he is today, I don’t think is necessarily the ultimate barometer,” said one Eastern Conference executive. “They have a pretty good team. They play a great team game. The forwards are awesome. Sometimes you have to just give it to (Patrik) Laine and watch.”

Perhaps that’s true, but again, players like Laine, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, and Nikolaj Ehlers create havoc for opposing defenses. Sometimes such threats force teams to cheat a little bit to try to reduce their chances, conceivably opening up potentially precious extra moments for other skilled players to take advantage of unusually large windows of opportunity.

Trouba’s game has clearly gone more conservative at times this season. You can see it even in just shooting; Trouba’s averaging 2.3 shots on goal per contest, down from 2.57 per night last season. That might not seem massive, but wouldn’t you expect a healthy dose of greed to push Trouba closer to three SOG per game, especially since it might actually benefit Winnipeg for a talented player to fire the biscuit that much more?

A cynical observer might wonder if the Jets were trying to have their cake and eat it too here: hold off on Trouba getting a bigger offensive push until after he signs his next contract, while reaping the benefits of having at least one more season of employing a top-pairing defenseman for less than $3M.

[Jets salary cap outlook, and more on how much Trouba could cost.]

Sly observers will see that Trouba is an excellent two-way piece, but when it comes to contract negotiations, sometimes a lack of goals and assists can mysteriously hurt a blueliner’s bottom line.

All of these factors make this tweak awfully interesting for Trouba, not to mention other Jets players, including the wonderfully named Tucker Poolman.

Deep down, Jets management might not want this experiment to be too successful, honestly.

In other Jets injury news, Steve Mason has been activated from IR. Check out more Jets fun from Billeck at NHL.com.

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.

Injuries derail best thing about Canucks this season

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Even if you wanted to douse the fire a bit with talk of lucky bounces, it was impossible to totally dismiss the excitement generated by the Vancouver Canucks’ young, shockingly effective top line of Sven Baertschi, Bo Horvat, and Brock Boeser.

As it turns out, regression isn’t what spoiled the party. Instead, two-thirds of that tremendous trio have been dealt significant injuries in a short span.

About a week ago, word surfaced that Horvat would miss about six-to-eight weeks with a broken foot. Monday’s update was similarly grim for Baertschi, as a fractured jaw is expected to cost the winger four-to-six weeks.

Here’s the update from Canucks head coach Travis Green:

You really need to crane your neck to find a silver lining in the dark clouds hanging over the Canucks, who’ve lost two straight games and five of eight.

Some will find it intriguing to see how Boeser, the Canucks’ lethal-scoring and well-coiffed winger, fares with both his partners in crime on the shelf for at least a month.

[Boeser recently channeled Pavel Bure with a sweet goal.]

To his credit, Boeser collected a goal in each of the two games with Horvat sidelined; perhaps some of his ability will simply override linemate concerns? His shot continues to befuddle goalies, as you can see from the video above and also read about in detail via this great breakdown by Justin Bourne of The Athletic (sub required).

When you consider the Canucks’ schedule going forward, what seems like a good opportunity instead becomes something of a mixed blessing.

Mon, Dec 11 @ Winnipeg
Wed, Dec 13 vs Nashville
Fri, Dec 15 vs San Jose
Sun, Dec 17 vs Calgary
Tue, Dec 19 vs Montreal
Thu, Dec 21 @ San Jose
Sat, Dec 23 vs St. Louis
Thu, Dec 28 vs Chicago
Sat, Dec 30 vs Los Angeles
Mon, Jan 2 vs Anaheim
Fri, Jan 6 @ Toronto
Sat, Jan 7 @ Montreal
Mon, Jan 9 @ Washington
Thu, Jan 12 @ Columbus
Sat, Jan 14 @ Minnesota
Fri, Jan 20 @ Edmonton
Sat, Jan 21 @ Winnipeg
Mon, Jan 23 vs Los Angeles
Wed, Jan 25 vs Buffalo
Mon, Jan 30 vs Colorado

As you can see, 2017 ends with some significant opportunities for the Canucks, as their road-weary start pays off to a lot of home-cooking in December. The new year gets off to a rocky start with that seven-game road trip from Jan. 6-21, but the overall haul without one or both of Horvat/Baertschi is reasonably friendly.

Such a stretch might end up sending mixed signals to management, however.

[Top line put on a show against Sidney Crosby and Penguins in early November.]

If the right path is to continue to rebuild while also enjoying unexpected returns thanks to youngsters like Boeser and clever work by Green, then treading water amid injuries might provide too much false hope. Yes, it must be refreshing to at least get the glimmer of a light at the end of the tunnel, but the Canucks still need to look at this situation realistically.

There’s also the possibility that Vancouver will rally, only to really hit a wall during that early-2018 road trip.

Being middle-of-the-road is less depressing in the moment than “tank mode,” yet there’s also the risk of puck purgatory: falling short of the postseason while ruining chances to add more franchise-altering young players like Boeser. He seems like quite the find as the 23rd pick of the 2015 NHL Draft, but recent history shows that you’re most likely to build a winner with lottery-level prospects rather than shrewd, late-first rounders.

Just about any way you slice it, this is a bummer for the Canucks, who lose precious weeks to better gauge a proper value for Baertschi (a pending RFA who should expect a hearty raise from $1.85 million).

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.

Trading with desperate Senators could bring smart team big rewards

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Aside from setting up an alternate reality in NHL 18, there aren’t many happy places to look if you’re a fan of the Ottawa Senators.

Take, for instance, their Cap Friendly page.

For a team often hamstrung by budget, they’re still spending a lot of money this season, and they currently lack their top two draft picks.* They have tough hurdles coming up with Erik Karlsson‘s deal expiring after 2018-19, Mark Stone hovering as a pending RFA, and Craig Anderson‘s new contract looking scarier by the day considering the fact that he’s already 36.

[Erik Karlsson’s interesting free agent comments.]

Looking at the standings and Matt Duchene‘s 14 games with the Senators vs. 14 with the Avalanche will make some fans weep a bit.

Checking out news coverage will only make you dig a deeper hole as a Sens fan. At the Athletic, James Gordon discusses an on-and-off-the-ice disaster, while former NHL executive Frank Provenzano laid out the case for trading Karlsson.

The source of true heart palpitations should come from increased rumblings of a big trade happening, especially if you glance at the early/mid-term returns in trading for Duchene, Dion Phaneuf, and Derick Brassard. The Ottawa Sun’s Bruce Garrioch mostly downplays the idea of trading Erik Karlsson, but Garrioch reports that the Sens might be fielding offers on the likes of Mike Hoffman, Brassard, Bobby Ryan, J-G Pageau, and Cody Ceci.

Not every bad/mixed Senators trade is on the head of GM Pierre Dorion. After all, he inherited the Phaneuf and Ryan contracts.

Still, he’s had his missteps, especially if Duchene’s struggles end up being more than a mere hiccup. So this paragraph from Garrioch should send chills up the spines of Senators fans while prompting other teams’ GMs to lick their chops like sharks smelling blood:

If Dorion is going to make a trade, though, it doesn’t make sense to do a small deal. If the point is to send a message to a struggling dressing room, then it’s got to have to a trade that strikes at the core of the team.

(Gulp.)

Let’s assume that Karlsson won’t be traded, even if Senators owner Eugene Melnyk was steamed about his free agent comments, which might explain why the superstar defenseman almost seemed to do damage control in this interview with Sportsnet.

Senators fans would probably delight with the idea of Dorion getting someone to take Ryan’s bloated contract off their hands, and most would probably agree that Alex Burrows was a mistake worth parting with.

The scariest name is Mike Hoffman, at least assuming that Mark Stone wouldn’t be in the mix.

The next Eberle?

To my eyes, the Senators could put themselves at risk of, essentially, a reversal of the pump-and-dump they suffered in taking Dion Phaneuf off the Leafs’ hands. There’s reason to wonder if Hoffman’s value is currently being hurt in Ottawa, opening the door for the Sens to get fleeced.

Hoffman, 28, really isn’t doing so bad with 21 points in 28 games, yet the 28-year-old is carrying a cap hit of a bit under $5.2 million per season through 2019-20. A clever rival GM could start to build the case that he’s worth parting ways with, what with Hoffman’s -9 rating (hey, it’s worth a shot) and that the Senators have struggled with him on the ice (his PDO this season is 96.5, so maybe management is getting frustrated with The Hoff).

If you look at Hoffman’s linemates for much of this season, you’ll essentially see a blending of the gross, like that opening scene from an episode of “Freaks and Geeks.”

In other words, Hoffman has the makings of another Jordan Eberle-type value, and that parallel might be useful in noting that he’s a good player who, like most, carries a flaw or two. In Hoffman’s case, some hockey people might be put off by his reputation for being something of a “perimeter shooter.”

There’s a significant recent history of teams becoming obsessed with the bad of a strong player – perceived flaws or real – and taking on poor value as a result. It’s basically the story of Peter Chiarelli’s worst mistakes in Edmonton, but there’s some evidence of questionable value judgments in Ottawa, too.

As tempting as it might be for the Senators to try to fix things and “send a message to the locker room,” bold moves have mostly blown up in this team’s face, so Ottawa’s probably better off going the potato route.

If I were an NHL GM, I’d probably call Dorion during breakfast, lunch, and dinner to try to make something happen. Considering recent history and the vulnerable position they’re in, the Senators might be wise just to turn off their phones and ignore all emails.

For the rest of us, it should be a fun, if bumpy, ride.

* – Conditions of the Duchene – Turris deal could cost Ottawa its 2019 first-rounder instead, but that might not be much of a consolation.

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.