Artem Anisimov

Associated Press

The Buzzer: McElhinney with the McShutout, Schenn scores again

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Players of the Night: 

Curtis McElhinney, Toronto Maple Leafs:

McElhinney turned aside all 41 shots that came his way as the Leafs shutout the Edmonton Oilers 1-0. The Leafs backup improved to 3-2-0 on the season and his save percentage jumped from .900 to 9.25. Toronto has now won three straight and six of their past 10.

Brayden Schenn, St. Louis Blues:

Schenn notched his sixth goal in his past four games and extended his goal-scoring streak to four games with a goal 40 seconds into the game. The Blues are now winners of four straight and six of their past 10.

Eric Stall, Minnesota Wild & Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks: 

Both scored twice for their respective teams in an entertaining 4-3 win for the Wild in overtime.

Highlight of the Night: 

Vladimir Tarasenko catches the Sabres defense sleeping in overtime, scoring his first non-empty net goal in nine games:

Factoid of the Night: 

Patrick Kane didn’t score, but his two assists were instrumental in giving the Chicago Blackhawks a victory on Sunday.

Scores: 

Blackhawks 3, Coyotes 1

Blues 3, Sabres 2 (OT)

Maple Leafs 1, Oilers 0

Wild 4, Sharks 3


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

With aging, expensive core Blackhawks’ window is closing fast

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For the seven year stretch between 2008-09 and 2014-15 there was not a more successful team in the NHL than the Chicago Blackhawks. They played in the Western Conference Finals five times and won three Stanley Cups. They did it with a remarkably strong core of top-tier players that were all in the prime of their careers and that they were able to keep together at all costs, even if it meant gutting their depth when they were pushed to the limits of the league’s salary cap.

Because they always seemed to have a pipeline of talent coming through the organization they always seemed to be able to replenish that depth and continue to compete for Stanley Cups.

Until recently.

Despite a lot of regular season success the Blackhawks have not won a playoff series since their Stanley Cup win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2014-15, and more than a quarter of the way through the 2017-18 season find themselves sitting on the playoff bubble in real danger of actually missing the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season. They are not the dominant possession team they used to be, they have gone from being one of the best shot suppression teams in the league to one of the worst, and they don’t boast anywhere near the overall scoring depth they used to have.

Missing the playoffs at this point is legitimate concern, and combined with back-to-back first-round exits in the playoffs it’s worth wondering if the Blackhawks’ championship window with its current core is starting to come to a close.

If it hasn’t already closed completely.

The popular consensus with teams like the Blackhawks is that it is just too hard to compete when a team invests a significant chunk of money into a small number of players. This is ot a new thing for the Blackhawks, and it is not a new thing for Stanley Cup winning teams. I have beaten this drum for years when it comes to the salary cap and the Stanley Cup but every team that wins puts the majority of its allotted salary cap space into a small number of players. You need superstars to win, superstars cost money. The Blackhawks, even when they were winning, were always pressed against the salary cap and always had to make cuts elsewhere on the roster.

The same has been true for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings, the other two teams that have been most successful in the league’s salary cap era.

As long as those players are at the top of their game and among the game’s elite, the money is literally no factor. You can find another third-line center. You can rebuild your fourth line. You can’t find another peak Jonathan Toews or Duncan Keith or Sidney Crosby or Anze Kopitar, and you can not win without players like them.

The problem the Blackhawks are running into is the players they have committed to are starting to get old and are no longer at their peak.

And it is happening fast.

The Blackhawks have seven players signed through the 2020-21 season. Those seven players (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brandon Saad, Artem Anisimov, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Connor Murphy) already account for more than $50 million in salary cap space for each of the next four seasons. Add in Corey Crawford‘s contract over the next three and that’s more than $56 million to eight players.

Again, as long as those players are in their prime and producing among the league’s elite, that is not a big deal.

The problem is they no longer are, and that is not likely to reverse itself.

First, just for comparisons sake, let’s look at the past 10 Stanley Cup champions, a list that is made up primarily of the aforementioned three franchises. What this table shows is each team’s salary cap commitment to its top-seven players, what percentage of the league’s salary cap that commitment is, as well as the average age of those players.

The important thing to keep in mind here as it relates to the Blackhawks is the age category.

Other than the 2007-08 Red Wings, the overwhelming majority of them had their top players all between the ages of 27 and 28.

How are the Blackhawks looking this season? They have 66 percent their salary cap space going to their top-seven players.

The average age of those players this season: 30.

All of those players are signed for at least three more seasons, while six of them (Kane, Toews, Anisimov, Saad, Seabrook and Keith) are signed for at least another four. Four of them (Kane, Toews, Seabrook and Keith) are signed through at least 2023.

(Keep in mind, none of this includes Marian Hossa‘s contract that is still on the books through 2021 as well.)

At this point we obviously don’t know what exactly the NHL salary cap will look like in future seasons, but let’s just try to ballpark and assume it increases at a rate comparable to the past four seasons (about a $2 million increase per season). Here is what the Blackhawks could be looking at over the next four years.

Their cap commitments to their top-seven players are either higher, or at the same level as the highest cap commitments of any Stanley Cup winner over the past decade, while their average age is significantly higher than just about all of them with the exception of a Red Wings team from a decade ago.

The problem here, again, is the age and what the current players are going to be capable of in the future because a lot of them are already starting to slow down.

How good is a 31 or 32 year old Artem Anisimov going to be? Brent Seabrook, currently in his age 32 season, is already a shell of his former self and he is signed for nearly $7 million per season until he turns 38. Duncan Keith is still an outstanding defender, but he is already in his age 34 season and is signed for more than $5 million per season until he turns 39. Father time is undefeated and will eventually claim victory over Keith.

I realize it is sacrilegious to say anything about Jonathan Toews that is anything other than effusive praise but he will count more than $10 million against the salary cap through the end of the 2023 season. His offense has already started to decline, and since the start of the 2015-16 season is 44th in the NHL in scoring and is currently on pace for what could be — by a significant margin — his worst offensive season in the NHL. Is that offensive trend going to reverse as he crosses into his 30s? Is there any amount of defensive ability from a forward that justifies a $10 million salary for a good, but very far from elite offensive player?

These are the issues facing the Blackhawks moving forward.

So how can they fix it?

First, it would be a huge boost if a player like Alex DeBrincat becomes the superstar it looks like he has the potential to be.

Getting an impact player like him — especially over the next few years when the salary cap situation is what it is — at an entry level price would be a game-changing development.

They also need a player like Kane to maintain his current level of production because he remains the one player that can drive the offense. If his production starts to decline things could really start to fly off the rails. He is probably not going to be a 100-point player again like he was a couple of years ago when he won the scoring title, but if he falls too far below the point-per-game pace he has been at the past two years there is really nobody else on the roster (other than potentially DeBrincat) that can be a go-to player offensively.

It would also help to shed one of those mega contracts one way or another.

This is going to be easier said than done for a number of reasons.

Not only do the Blackhawks seem to have a ton of loyalty to the core players they won with (look no further than trading Artemi Panarin to bring back Brandon Saad; the various reunions with Brian Campbell and Patrick Sharp over the years) but it is going to be awfully difficult to find a team that not only wants to take on a contract like, say, Brent Seabrooks, but to also find a team that a player like Seabrook would be willing to accept a trade to.

In terms of on-ice success the past decade has been one of the best in the history of the Blackhawks’ organization.

They kept the players they needed to keep to make that happen and you can not really blame them for doing so, even if it meant creating a salary cap mess right now. But it seems as if that group has finally hit its wall.

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 Morning Skate: Jets give homeless man an incredible opportunity

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

–Check out the highlights from last night’s game between the Blackhawks and Rangers. Artem Anisimov came through with a hat trick in the third period for the ‘Hawks. (Top)

–Speaking of last night’s action, Sportsnet looks at three things we learned in the NHL on Wednesday night. (Sportsnet)

–A homeless man in Winnipeg wrote a letter to the Jets in an attempt to get help for his mental illness. Not only did the organization read his letter, they gave him a job. (NHL.com)

Lukas Sedlak isn’t a popular name in NHL circles, but the Blue Jackets have missed him way more than people realize since he was injured. (jacketscannon.com)

–The New Jersey Devils have surprised the hockey world with their incredible start to 2017-18, but they need to find a way to make their defense better as soon as possible because the offense is bound to drop off at a certain point. (njdab.com)

–Dallas has had a hard time finding secondary scoring throughout their lineup. That’s something they’ll need to change if they hope to make a return to the postseason. (defendingbigd.com)

–The Boston Bruins’ season has been less than stellar. Part of the problem, is that they’ve dealt with a lot of injuries. Still, there’s no point in them making a desperation trade at this point of the season. (WEEI.com)

–The Philadelphia Flyers let Steve Mason walk in free agency last summer, and he opted to sign with Winnipeg. It’s the best thing they could have done, according to NBC Sports Philadelphia’s John Boruk, who says some players informed him that Mason rubbed them the wrong way. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

–Flames Nation had an interesting one-on-one interview with Doug Gilmour. They touched on his experience in management, his experience in Calgary, and Sam Bennett‘s struggles. (flamesnation.ca)

Nikita Zaitsev and Jake Gardiner have struggled this season, but outside of trading for Darnell Nurse, how can the Leafs fix the pairings struggles? (pensionplanpuppets.com)

–Reports have surfaced about the Blues being interested in acquiring Buffalo’s Evander Kane. Even though they need a little more scoring, bleedinblue.com doesn’t think that overpaying for a player like Kane makes sense for the team. (bleedingblue.com)

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.

The Buzzer: Brawls, Larkin’s hockey genius

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Player of the Night: Artem Anisimov

As you can read about here, Artem Anisimov enjoyed the best night of a hectic game between the Blackhawks and Rangers, generating the first hat trick of his career. That contest presented some twists and turns, with Chicago ultimately coming out on top 6-3.

Anisimov and Alex DeBrincat have been providing a big chunk of the Blackhawks’ offense lately, and its been much needed. Even while taking a lull of three games without a point in mind, the 29-year-old has eight goals and one assist in his past nine contests.

Highlights of the Night: On a Larkin

That wild line brawl between the Flames and Red Wings didn’t just take some spotlight from Detroit’s 8-2 win; it also might have distracted people from an impressive night via Dylan Larkin, a player who clearly seems to be back on track for a Red Wings team that could be feistier than many expected.

The top highlight features Larkin’s remarkable sense of timing and hockey geometry. (Was he good at geometry at school? If so, I’m jealous.)

The second reminded me of some early moments in Sidney Crosby‘s career, as Larkin used his skating ability and smarts to turn on the jets, only to make a sudden stop, assess the situation, and create a splendid play.

Some nights, Larkin is skylarking like vintage XTC. If you’re interested in violence, the real highlight of the game really was that brawl, though. If so, head here.

(Note: Johnny Gaudreau is on a hot streak of his own, albeit without the W-related results he wanted tonight.)

Caveats of the Night: The Ducks deserve a heap of credit for sticking with it, even as injuries seem to keep mounting. Or at least, might continue to mount.

Wildly underrated defenseman Hampus Lindholm is now dealing with a lower-body injury, while Corey Perry seemingly bounced back from this:

I say seemingly because, sometimes a player will return to a game in the heat of the moment. Then, when they wake up in the morning and/or have a doctor look at an injury, they realize something’s wrong and miss time. Kris Letang scored a game-winner injured, Paul Kariya famously bounced back from the Scott Stevens hit he can’t even remember, and so on. So we’ll see.

For a Ducks team that is besieged by injuries, so this is troubling.

The Ducks keep scrapping and, in this case, winning, though.

Factoid of the Night: The Mike Green resurgence: still pretty delightful.

Not enough is being made about John Gibson‘s continued climb up the goalie ranks. Where would Anaheim be without him (spoiler: probably the cellar):

Scores and more

Red Wings 8, Flames 2

Blackhawks 6, Rangers 3

Ducks 4, Bruins 2

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.

Anisimov scores first hat trick, Blackhawks end Rangers’ win streak

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Artem Anisimov scored his first career hat trick to help the Chicago Blackhawks put end to the New York Rangers’ six-game winning streak in a 6-3 win on Wednesday.

Anismov, facing his former team, converted at 1:07, 5:14 in the final frame, with John Hayden‘s second of the season sandwiched between both to take a 4-1 lead early.

The quick succession of goals forced Alain Vigneault’s hand as the head coach pulled Henrik Lundqvist in favor of backup Ondrej Pavelec. Lundqvist had featured in all six of the Rangers wins during the streak and stopped 30-of-34 shots in the game, but New York needed a boost.

The change in goal did the tick and woke the Rangers up from their slumber. Goals from Kevin Hayes and Rick Nash came 4:48 apart, bringing the game back from the brink and the Rangers to within one at 4-3.

New York’s hope was short-lived, however.

Anisimov wasn’t finished with his old team and sent hats flying onto the ice at 16:12 after tipping home a centring pass from Michal Kempny.

It was quite the turnaround for the Blackhawks, who trailed 1-0 with less than a minute to go in the second frame.

The Rangers looked to have escaped the barrage in the second, with Blackhawks piling on the pressure to the tune of 16 shots. But Lundqvist’s could only negotiate 15 of them as Alex DeBrincat‘s wrist shot trickled through Lundqvist’s pads at 19:08 to cancel out Mike Zibanejed’s first-period marker (a thing of beauty following Chris Krieder’s backhand filthy pass.)

New York had a prime opportunity to push their 1-0 advantage in the first period as Hayden took a high-sticking double minor, but the Rangers were unable to convert as Corey Crawford turned aside all five shots the Rangers sent his way.

Crawford, who hadn’t won in his previous three starts, stopped 25-of-28 en route to his eighth win of the season, even with his shaky third period.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck.