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Just how big is the rift between Eichel, Bylsma?

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First, the major news out of Buffalo this morning — per WGR 550 radio, sophomore sensation Jack Eichel reportedly isn’t interested in signing an extension if Dan Bylsma remains head coach.

Eichel’s agent, Peter Fish, shot the rumor down, saying his client is “100 percent” on board with an extension, adding the decision has nothing to do with Bylsma’s status.

“I don’t know where anyone is getting these reports,” Fish said, per the Buffalo News. “But they are ridiculous.”

Fish’s remarks may snuff out reports about an extension, but questions remain about the coach-player dynamic.

Eichel, the team’s best player and face of the franchise, just wrapped year two of his three-year, entry-level deal and is eligible to sign on July 1.

In his end-of-year media address last week, Sabres GM Tim Murray said extending Eichel was a massive priority, adding that if he didn’t hear by Fish on July 1, he’d be calling him the very next day.

But now it appears Murray’s in quite the bind.

Bylsma has three years left on his contract at $3 million per, according to CapFriendly. He was hand-picked by Murray as head coach just weeks before Buffalo selected Eichel second overall in 2015 and, at the time, people were already connecting the dots: Bylsma’s experience coaching superstars, like Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh, made him uniquely qualified to coach Eichel.

“You understand immediately the spotlight that is on those types of players, the star quality players,” Bylsma said of his experience coaching elite talent. “I think you understand the pressure they’ll be going through, the analysis and the little eyes on them from just about everybody.”

Two years in, there are obvious problems with the Bylsma-Eichel dynamic.

This latest report comes after widespread speculation the 20-year-old was both displeased and frustrated with his head coach throughout the season. Eichel seemed to be at odds with how Bylsma conducted things, right down to player discipline. When teammate Sam Reinhart was benched for an entire game after showing up five minutes late to a team stretch, Eichel suggested the punishment didn’t necessarily fit the crime.

“We’re obviously not going to hold it over his head here,” he said. “[Reinhart] really didn’t do too much wrong.”

Which brings us back to the headline. How big is this rift? And can Murray fix it?

He has several reasons to do so. The first, as mentioned above, is that Bylsma is his guy. The hire was a signature moves of Murray’s GM tenure and, in order to get Bylsma, he had to dismiss Ted Nolan — with Nolan still owed two years on his contract.

Which brings us to another reason Murray needs to make this work.

Bylsma’s five-year, $15 million deal made him one of the NHL’s richest coaches. Paying him not to work for the club could be a large request — especially, as many have pointed out, since Murray would have to ask owner Terry Pegula for permission. Pegula, remember, is already shelling out substantial bucks for Rex Ryan not to coach the Bills.

This could be why Murray’s putting the heat on Bylsma. There were some telling comments at the GM’s end-of-year presser, especially when he said players had “legitimate gripes” about the coaching, before dropping his now-infamous ‘coffee’ line.

“The video that they do and the preparation is exhausting,” Murray explained. “I do have an opinion, and think that sometimes maybe they’re stuck in that room preparing and working hard, but maybe they can put a coffee in their hand once in a while and do two hours of video instead of three, and get out and get to know our players and talk to our players.

“It’s about coaching individuals a little more and coaching system a little less. That’s my opinion and I believe that’s the right way.”

Reading between the lines, it sure sounds like Murray was telling Bylsma he needed to change — and, in doing so, told Eichel he’s confronted the coach about adjusting his style.

This might help in repairing the Eichel-Bylsma relationship.

Unless it’s past the point of repair.

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.

Chris Neil retires an Ottawa Senators lifer

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Chris Neil announced his retirement from the NHL on Thursday after 1,206 games, all with the Ottawa Senators franchise.

“Chris Neil exemplifies the best qualities of both our city and the Senators franchise,” said Senators owner Eugene Melnyk. “His career personified grit, drive and resilience; there was never a day that he was not there for his teammates. Chris earned everything he achieved in the league through his hard work and dedication to the game and he will go down in history as one of the great character players to ever wear the Senators jersey.”

It won’t be long before the 38-year-old Neil, a 1998 sixth-round pick, gets to put on a Senators jersey again. He’ll participate in this weekend’s Senators alumni game as the city celebrates the NHL 100 Classic at Lansdowne Park against the Montreal Canadiens.

While Neil had his offensive moments — he finished with 112 career goals and reached double digits in that category five times — he was known as an agitator and one not afraid to drop the gloves. HockeyFights.com has him at over 150 career regular season fights and he leaves the game as the franchise’s all-time leader in penalty minutes with 2,522.

Neil’s role diminished last season under Guy Boucher and the Senators decided against re-signing him over the summer. After seeking a new gig and turning down a reported PTO offer from the Montreal Canadiens, he chose to hang them up.

“I miss playing the games. Those are the fun times and that’s what you put all the hard work in for,” Neil said. “For me, I don’t miss the grind of the day-to-day that goes on behind the scenes, but I truly do miss being there with the guys. That’s the fun part. That’s something I’ll always have to look back on.”

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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.