Aleksander Barkov

Getty

NHL Awards: Under-the-radar Hart Trophy candidates

8 Comments

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Nikita Kucherov has received most of the mainstream buzz when it comes to the 2017-18 Hart Trophy discussion and rightfully so. The Lightning forward has led the league in points for most of the season and he’s currently third in goals behind fellow Russians Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, who are also obvious candidates to be named league MVP.

Kucherov’s teammate, Steven Stamkos, was in the conversation for a while too, but that talk seems to have died down a little bit. Everyone seemed to be jumping on the Nathan MacKinnon bandwagon before he got injured, but missing eight games has put a damper on the hype train.

Even last year’s winner, Connor McDavid, has put together a solid season, but with the Oilers out of the playoffs there isn’t really much hope for him to take home the award for a second year in a row.

But there are still some quality candidates that haven’t received as much press this season. It’s important to remember that the Hart Trophy isn’t necessarily given to the best player. It’s “given to the player judged to be the most valuable to his team”.

Here are some under-the-radar candidates that aren’t getting enough buzz:

Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils

The Hall-for-MVP talk started building over the weekend after the Devils forward picked up a point in his 18th consecutive game. No one picked the Devils to make the playoffs this season, so the fact that they’re currently in a Wild Card spot in pretty impressive. Hall isn’t the only reason they’re in a playoff position, but there’s no way they’re in this position without him. The 26-year-old has 24 goals and 62 points in 54 games this season. New Jersey has a 1-3-1 record with Hall out of the lineup this season.

Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets

Despite losing Mark Scheifele for over six weeks, the Jets managed to stay afloat for a few reasons. One of them is the way their captain played while Scheifele was on the shelf. Wheeler was forced to move to center for a little while and he definitely didn’t look out of place. In the 16 games that Scheifele missed, the Jets went 11-2-3 and Wheeler accumulated 16 points during that stretch. The 31-year-old is up to 67 points in 59 games this season.

Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings

Let’s be totally clear, if the Kings don’t make the playoffs Kopitar can’t be considered a serious candidate. As of right now, Los Angeles is two points out of the final Wild Card spot in the West. Regardless of whether or not they make the postseason, no one can deny that Kopitar’s been a two-way beast for them in 2017-18. After posting just 52 points in 76 games last season, the Kings captain already has 63 points in 59 games, which puts him on pace to pick up 88. It’s clear that playing under new head coach John Stevens has done the 30-year-old a lot of good.

Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers

Many people have already counted the Panthers out of the playoff race because they’re six points back of the final Wild Card spot, but what people fail to realize is that Florida (sort of) controls their own destiny. They have four games in hand on the last playoff team, Carolina. The major reason why they’re still in striking distance is because of Barkov, who has really emerged as an NHL superstar. He’s often compared to Kopitar, and it’s easy to see why. They’re both big centers that can contribute offensively while playing sound hockey in their own end. Barkov has amassed 54 points in 55 games so far. If the Panthers get in, he needs to be a major part of the Hart Trophy discussion. In the one game he missed this season, Florida got obliterated 7-3 by Colorado.

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

Yes, you could easily put Patrice Bergeron in this slot, but he’s been getting a lot of love throughout the NHL. Rask, who got off to a rocky start, has been lights out for the Bruins. Since Nov. 29, he’s lost just two games in regulation. Sure, the Bruins are clearly more than a one-man team, but we have to give Rask some love. He overcame adversity at the start of the year, and he’s arguably been the best goalie in the league for the last three months.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

NHL teams need new blood, new ideas

Getty
6 Comments

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Every now and then, it seems like the tortoise-like pace of progress in the NHL might actually pick up.

Look at the way the game is played. Scoring is up significantly this season, with franchises being more and more willing to dress four talented lines of forwards, rather than wasting valuable minutes on enforcers and other puck-stoppers. We’re seeing less dump-and-chase and more emphasis on skill.

We’re even seeing fewer big-money mistakes in free agency; even some of the missteps are easier to defend than the days of Jeff Finger and Bobby Holik getting “They gave him how much?” deals.

(Actually, for many in the case of Finger, the question was “Jeff who?”)

Yet whenever you get too excited about change, collars get a little stiffer on the country club, and you remember that progress isn’t always a straight line.

This week was one of those moments of “course correction,” as two of the messiest teams in the league handed their GMs contract extensions in the Ottawa Senators and Vancouver Canucks. It’s tough to deny that the NHL is simply more insular than other, more innovative leagues.

As you can see, NHL owners sure seem inclined to shake their head at the common reply for anyone who’s been bothered by a blog post or hockey article: “Did you ever play the game?”

Now, as the extended article (“Who’s Running the Show?” by Wave Intel’s Jason Paul) illustrates, mistakes aren’t solely made by former players in suits. After all, Pierre Dorion is on that “Non-Pro” list, and he’s had some issues, while Peter Chiarelli’s Harvard background would make you think he’d be more open to analytical suggestion.

Still, there’s evidence that NHL teams deal with a “Yes man” culture that rears its head in disastrous ways. You’d think there would be more debate, for example, over the Bruins’ notorious decision to trade Tyler Seguin:

A similar thing happened when the Montreal Canadiens traded P.K. Subban for Shea Weber. One subplot of that trade was that analytics staffer Matt Pfeffer strongly disagreed with the move, and was let go shortly thereafter. While he didn’t say that was why the Canadiens parted ways with him, it still drew headlines, such as his discussion with The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell.

“They didn’t tell me it was over that,” Pfeffer said in July 2016. “But I guess everyone knows now where I stood on the Subban-Weber trade. There are times when there’s some possibility that there would be another side to the argument, but this was one of those things where it was so, so far outside what could be considered reasonable. I made a pretty strong case, but I made the case that the analytics made. This wasn’t a personal thing.”

Pfeffer would later say he regretted criticizing the trade … though you wonder how much of that regret comes from ruffling feathers?

There are several examples of a “one step forward, two steps backward” pace when it comes to outsiders getting voices in NHL organizations. The Florida Panthers, at times, seem to represent the worst of both worlds. They briefly placed emphasis on analytics, with head coach Gerard Gallant being pushed out in the process. That only really lasted a season – really, less – before GM Dale Tallon regained true power, and then he cleaned out many of those contract, emboldening the Vegas Golden Knights in the process.

(Now that salary structure is a horror movie, although the saving grace of cheap contracts for Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vincent Trocheck remain a silver lining throughout.)

There have been movement to scoop up analytics minds like the memorable summer of 2014, and then there has been backlash, most dramatically in the case of the Panthers.

It’s crucial to realize that there’s not necessarily “one way” to do things, even as narratives about “old-school” philosophies battling with analytics even continue in the MLB, a sport that often seems light years ahead of the NHL. All but the least reasonable advocates on “each side” will agree that there’s valuable to many different approaches.

The real danger is in cronyism, as Jonathan Willis expertly discussed for The Athletic (sub required), while making a fascinating comparison to how France prepared for WWI (as he’s wont to do). Willis describes the best-practice process of very-much-connected Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, who’s distinguished himself as one of the league’s best minds:

Steve Yzerman’s Tampa Bay Lightning offers a useful example. He has some old colleagues from his time in Detroit there, including former teammates Pat Verbeek and Stacy Roest, though Verbeek mostly played for non-Red Wings teams and Roest mostly played in the minors and Europe as a pro.

But his top lieutenant is Julien Brisebois, the lawyer who worked his way into a hockey operations role in Montreal and did such fine work running their AHL team. His head coach is another lawyer, Jon Cooper, who took an unconventional path to the majors. The team employs a statistical analyst, Michael Peterson, who has history in baseball, an MBA and a master’s degree in mathematics. He also kept former interim GM Tom Kurvers on staff after taking over; he has a more traditional hockey background but comes from outside Yzerman’s immediate circle.

Such an approach was echoed by another great hockey mind, Mike Babcock, who promoted the practice of embracing diverse ideas in Craig Custance’s book “Behind the Bench.”

” … You never know where you’re getting your best idea,” Babcock said. “It could be from your rookie player, it could be from your power skating instructor, it could be from the guy who cooks breakfast. You have to be open-minded.”

***

To review: some of the brightest minds in the sport want to keep absorbing more and more ideas. Or, at minimum, they know that it’s wise to venture such an open-minded argument.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen several instances where “the old way” leaves teams in the hockey equivalent of debt: bad contracts, shaky prospect pools, and dire futures.

If you don’t want to listen to “the nerds,” just consider what Yzerman, Babcock, and other bright hockey people might say. NHL teams would be wise to throw out a wider net to find the next great thinkers.

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.

Struggling Panthers want to keep gang together

Getty
5 Comments

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

If you want a sign of a GM/front office with power, observe moments when a marginal player gets a somewhat bafflingly long contract extension.

On one hand, congrats to Colton Sceviour, who surely works hard for the three-year extension he signed today; it’s reportedly worth $1.2 million per year, according to TSN’s Bob McKenzie. He’s getting rewarded for being a diligent penalty killer, and this should help him limit the risk of becoming a “journeyman” player.

Still, it’s a little confounding that the Florida Panthers would be so compelled to lock up yet another piece of a roster that’s not exactly setting the world on fire.

You see successful teams fall into this sort of trap quite often. The Detroit Red Wings roster is littered with questionable decisions for non-core guys; you might gasp at remaining years for Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, and Luke Glendening.

At least those teams were trying to perpetuate past successes, though.

The Panthers, meanwhile, haven’t won a playoff series since their improbable run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final, and even with bargain contracts for fantastic players in Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vincent Trocheck, it’s tough to say if they’re much closer today. They’ve only made it to the playoffs twice in the last six seasons, and only four times since that John Vanbiesbrouck-fueled run.

You’d think this team would be light on commitments as something of a message to players to “earn” their deals, but instead there are a ton of players locked up to lengthy deals.

[Can the Panthers still make a playoff run?]

Again, in the case of Barkov, Huberdeau, and Trocheck, that’s a very good thing. Barkov and Huberdeau are absolute steals at $5.9 million per year, with Huberdeau covered until 2022-23, while Barkov’s locked up until 2021-22.

Still, it’s a little unsettling how “locked in” this team is, what with Florida almost certain to miss the playoffs once again.

Forwards signed through at least 2019-20:

Huberdeau ($5.9M through 2022-23), Barkov ($5.9M, 2021-22), Trocheck ($4.75M through 2021-22), Nick Bjugstad ($4.1M through 2020-21), Evgeni Dadonov ($4M through 2019-20), and Sceviour ($1.2M through 2020-21).

Defensemen signed through at least 2019-20:

Aaron Ekblad ($7.5M through 2024-25), Keith Yandle ($6.35M through 2022-23), Michael Matheson ($4.875M though 2025-26), and Mark Pysyk ($2.73M through 2019-20).

Both goalies locked up with considerable term:

Roberto Luongo (eternal $4.5M through 2021-22) and James Reimer ($3.4M through 2020-21).

***

Yikes, right?

Again, the Panthers’ roster construction looks a lot like that of a team in the middle of a championship window, where they’ve had to take on some risky contracts to reward successes. Only, the successes have been minimal in Florida. It’s tough not to think back to GM Dale Tallon commenting on being fully in control again, and then to observe what looks like a risk-heavy roster.

To be fair, there are some real bargains on this team, and they’ve shown flashes of brilliance even during a couple of dire years. They’ve also dealt with injuries to both Luongo and Reimer. While Bobby Lou might simply be in that phase of his career, you’d hope Reimer will enjoy better luck in the future. Oddly enough for a team with such lengthy, pricey investments in goalies, they might want to ponder another option, especially if Luongo is charting a course toward the LTIR in the future.

Beyond that, the Panthers need to get the most out of an expensive defense. That starts with Ekblad, who signed a mammoth deal that won’t be easy to live up to. Still, if he can make strides during his career, it will be much easier to stomach, especially since Florida is saving with other marquee guys at forward.

[Tallon is focused on the future]

All things considered, Tallon & Co. can salvage this, likely by finding decent bargains around those pricey core players, and also by making sure that they’re making the most out of coaching and development.

So it’s not all bad, yet it’s a bit head-scratching to realize just how many players have long-term security on a team that’s seemingly stuck in puck purgatory, year after year.

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.

NHL Playoff Race: Can the Panthers still make a run?

Getty
5 Comments

The bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff race is a bit of a jumbled mess at the moment with five times separated by six points for the final Wild Card spot.

Four of those teams are separated by just three points.

The latest team to try and enter into the fun is the Florida Panthers after winning four consecutive games heading into their contest with the Los Angeles Kings on Friday night. After their latest win the Panthers find themselves six points back of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, which normally would be a pretty insurmountable deficit at this point in the season, especially given the number of teams that are still ahead of them.

But the thing that makes the Panthers at least a little bit interesting is the fact that they have played fewer games than any other team in the league. Looking at the teams ahead of them they have two games in hand on the Columbus Blue Jackets, four games in hand on the New York Islanders, and three games each on the New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes.

The varying number of games played doesn’t always give you the clearest look at the playoff race, so let’s take a quick look at each team’s point pace at the moment to get an idea as to how big the gap really is.

Currently the Philadelphia Flyers and Columbus Blue Jackets occupy the two Wild Card spots.

So that’s not exactly encouraging for the Panthers because even with the multiple games in hand, even with a four-game winning streak, and even with the Blue Jackets going through an ugly slump recently, that is still a ton of work to do.

Remember, games in hand do not necessarily mean “wins” in hand. And those other teams are going to win some games, too.

If we assume the pace for that second wild card spot stays at around 89 points (not a guarantee) the Panthers would need to collect 38 points over their final 31 games to hit the 90-point mark.

If there’s anything working in their favor it’s that the Panthers still have 17 home games remaining (versus only 14 road games). The Panthers are 13-8-3 on home ice so far this season.

This shows just how difficult it is to make up points in the standings this late in the season. You see a team like the Panthers six points back, with multiple games in hand, with still more than a quarter of the season to play and it would be easy to think they are still in the race. But when you look at the math and what they actually have to do it shows just how big that gap is.

The Panthers have a really intriguing young core of talent led by Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Vincent Trocheck, all of whom are having great seasons and they are trying to make this season interesting, but that slow start may have put them into too deep of a hole to climb out of. This recent hot streak might be a case of too little, just a little too late.

————

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.

The Buzzer: Rask wins again and a brutal night for the Blackhawks

Getty
5 Comments

Player Of The Night: Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

The Bruins probably didn’t need Tuukka Rask to steal one for them on Tuesday night, but we have to give the man some credit for continuing to be pretty much unbeatable right now. By stopping 26 of the 28 shots he faced in the Bruins’ 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings, Rask pushed his personal point streak to 21 consecutive games.

He is now 19-0-2 in his past 21 decisions, a stretch that has seen him allow more than two goals just three times. He has not lost a game in regulation since November 26. With him playing the way he is and the team in front of him being as dominant as it has been the Bruins are going to be a true force to deal with in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

According to NHL, PR Rask is just the 11th different goalie in NHL history to record at least a point in 21 consecutive games. He is the fourth to do so as a member of the Bruins.

The Blackhawks Might Be Finished This Season

Tuesday night could not have gone worse for the Chicago Blackhawks and their playoff chances.

Not only were they 3-2 losers to the Calgary Flames, one of the many teams they are in direct competition with for a playoff spot in the Western Conference, but pretty much every other team they are competing with for a playoff spot that was in action on Tuesday night also came away with wins.

The Wild were 6-2 winners over the St. Louis Blues, the Anaheim Ducks were 4-3 winners over the Buffalo Sabres, the Flames picked up two points by beating Chicago, and the Colorado Avalanche were 3-1 winners over the San Jose Sharks.

The Blackhawks now find themselves sitting seven points out of a Wild Card spot in the Western Conference playoff race with four teams ahead of them. This late in the season that deficit is going to be nearly impossible to overcome.

Highlight Of The Night

With less than a minute to play in regulation Nicklas Backstrom broke a 2-2 tie with the Columbus Blue Jackets to give the Washington Capitals a 3-2 win to help them maintain a four point lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.

It was also a milestone goal for Backstrom. It was career goal No. 200.

Highlight Of The Night Part 2

The Philadelphia Flyers picked up a big extra point over the Carolina Hurricanes thanks to Jordan Weal‘s overtime goal with three seconds to play.

Probably the second best thing to happen to Philadelphia sports over the past couple of days.

Factoid Of The Night

It was a big night for Aleksander Barkov as he helped the Florida Panthers stay hot. Is it too little, too late to get them back into the playoff race? Maybe. But they are at least trying to keep it interesting.

Scores

Anaheim Ducks 4, Buffalo Sabres 3

Pittsburgh Penguins 5, Vegas Golden Knights 4

Philadelphia Flyer 2, Carolina Hurricanes 1

Washington Capitals 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 2

Ottawa Senators 5, New Jersey Devils 3

Boston Bruins 3, Detroit Red Wings 2

Florida Panthers 3, Vancouver Canucks 1

Minneasota Wild 6, St. Louis Blues 2

Winnipeg Jets 4, Arizona Coyotes 3

Calgary Flames 3, Chicago Blackhawks 2

Colorado Avalanche 3, San Jose Sharks 1

————

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.