Tyler Seguin

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NHL teams need new blood, new ideas

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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.”

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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.

The Buzzer: Ups and downs for Islanders

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Players of the Night:

Do you go with the guy who collected a hat trick with the overtime game-winner, or the rookie who generated five assists for yet another five-point night?

Nelson’s the fellow who generated the hat trick, and he’s been hot lately. Maybe 24 points on the season is a little disappointing for Nelson, but he’s really heating up, collecting four goals and three assists for seven points during a four-game run. Impressive.

Mathew Barzal collected five assists, giving him 58 points in 56 games in 2017-18. It’s already his third five-point night of his rookie campaign.

He probably gets the nod if you can only choose one player of the night, as he’s achieved something that hasn’t been reached in 100 years:

  • Three helpers: Jamie Benn and Derek Forbort aren’t players you’d picture in the same breath, yet here they were, generating three assists tonight. Remarkably, it’s Forbort that is the player who was a first-rounder (15th overall in 2010), while Benn went 129th(!) in 2007.

Highlights

Curtis Lazar‘s struggled to score at the NHL level more than the hype suggested, but at least this was a cool one:

Wait, there’s a turbo button in this game? Apparently Carl Hagelin can still fly.

Alexander Radulov + Tyler Seguin + Jamie Benn = glorious.

Factoids

C’mon, it has to be Islanders related, right?

The not-so-good side of the Isles:

Leon Draisaitl is quietly heating up:

Scores

Islanders 7, Red Wings 6 (OT)
Rangers 4, Flames 3
Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 2
Kings 3, Panthers 1
Hurricanes 4, Canucks 1
Blues 5, Jets 2
Stars 4, Penguins 3 (SO)
Ducks 3, Oilers 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.

The Buzzer: Schenn fights, scores twice; Hoffman hits 100

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Players of the Night:

Brayden Schenn, St. Louis Blues: Another player who scored twice on Thursday night. Schenn set the tone early, fighting Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog three seconds after puck drop in the first period. He backed that up with his 22nd and 23rd goals of the season.

Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames: Boring Sean Monahan has 27 goals on the season after scoring a brace in the Flames 3-2 win against the New Jersey Devils.

P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators: Subban also score two goals, including the game-tying goal late in the third period to force overtime against the Ottawa Senators. Subban’s second goal was his 15th of the season, matching a career-high.

Nick Cousins, Arizona Coyotes: OK, last one. Cousins scored twice, and his second with 19 seconds left in the third period forced overtime, where Clayton Keller fired home the winner to give the desert dogs a 4-3 come-from-behind win.

Other two-goal scorers: Tyler Seguin, Travis Konecny and Joe Pavelski.

Highlights of the Night:

Mike Hoffman scored his 100th NHL goal in style:

Tic-tac-goal:

Kyle Turris got a nice welcome back to Ottawa:

Factoids of the Night:

A reminder of how good John Klingberg has been:

Boeser doing more things:

MISC:

Scores:

Flames 3, Devils 2

Flyers 5, Canadiens 3

Senators 4, Predators 3 (OT)

Lightning 5, Canucks 2

Blues 6, Avalanche 1

Coyotes 4, Wild 3 (OT)

Stars 4, Blackhawks 2

Golden Knights 5, 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

PHT on Fantasy: Power play points, ponderings

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Earlier this week, I pondered Patrick Marleau‘s scoring slump, which a) really struck a nerve with Toronto Maple Leafs fans and b) spotlighted some debatable lineup choices by Mike Babcock.

One thing that sticks out with Toronto is how they handle power-play minutes, and it got me to thinking: what are some other power play tidbits that might be interesting, particularly to fantasy hockey obsessives?

Let’s dive in.

The Maple Leafs are pretty much locked into the third spot in the Atlantic, so Babcock should use the next two months to experiment with different alignments. The Athletic’s Tyler Dellow makes a fascinating argument for why Auston Matthews isn’t used on the top power-play unit, but why not use this as a chance to test a variety of scenarios?

  • Another power-play time decision that makes me scratch my head a bit: Dougie Hamilton only ranking third among Flames defensemen (and eighth overall) with an average of 2:10 per night. Mark Giordano‘s great and T.J. Brodie is quite effective, but I’d probably want Hamilton to be either tops or 1a/1b with one of those two. If that changes, it could make Hamilton that much more effective. He’s fine with 27 points in 53 games, but more reps would open the door for greater fantasy glory.
  • Now, moving onto a sensible factoid: Alex Ovechkin leads the NHL with 4:20 PPTOI, and he’s making great use of that time.

Ovechkin’s fired a league-leading 83 SOG on the PP, and he’s also missed 33 additional shots. Really, his nine PPG and 20 PPP are almost modest, at least compared to other upper echelon producers. For example: Patrik Laine (52 PP SOG) and Evgeni Malkin (56 PP SOG) lead the league with 13 PPG apiece.

  • The only power play trigger in Ovechkin’s range is Tyler Seguin, who’s fired 72 SOG on the PP, along with 22 misses. Fittingly, he only has nine PPG and 16 PPP. Even if some of Ovechkin’s and Seguin’s shots might be relatively lower-quality than others, you’d think that both forwards could be even more dangerous toward the last two months of the season (if you’re looking into high-level trades).
  • Kudos to Jeff Petry for being one of the most productive defensemen on the PP. He’s likely to cool off a bit (five PPG on 26 PP SOG is a bit much for a blueliner), so just be careful. Nice to see an underrated player get some bounces, though.
  • As long as John Carlson is healthy, he should be a strong bet to be a great fantasy find, and the power play explains some of his value. He’s been a useful volume guy before, and with a lot of money on the line in a contract year, this could be really something. Carlson already has eight goals and 41 points, his second-best output (55 is his peak) with two months remaining.

***

As the fantasy season goes along, sometimes you need to look for granular advantages, and sometimes it’s helpful to note players on cold streaks who have a better chance to turn things around. Power-play time should be one of those things you monitor, especially if you notice a player who’s caught his coach’s eye and is getting better and better chances.

We might revisit this later in the season, possibly taking the monthly (or at least couple month) approach.

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.

Some shrewd draft picks are boosting Bruins

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If the NHL were to recreate the 2014 NHL Draft with the power of hindsight, where would David Pastrnak go? Here’s a bold claim: sooner than 25th overall, when the Boston Bruins selected him.

It’s amusing to realize that the 2017-18 Boston Bruins are a deeper, more dangerous team because of some bright draft picks when you consider how much heat GM Don Sweeney & Co. absorbed after the 2015 draft.

As a reminder, Sweeney set himself up for a pivotal first draft after replacing Peter Chiarelli by lining up picks 13, 14, and 15 in 2015. Ultimately, the Bruins had three consecutive chances to snatch potential 2018 Calder winner Mathew Barzal, and they chose three other players instead. Hockey Twitter enjoyed many laughs at their expense.

Maybe it was a rough start, but Sweeney’s decisions have been looking a lot brighter lately.

One could consider Pastrnak a parting gift from Chiarelli, although Sweeney was likely a part of that (and many other Bruins decisions) as a longtime member of the front office, including serving as an assistant GM.

So far, Jake DeBrusk is the only player of those three mid-first-rounders to play in the NHL, scoring 26 points in 46 games. The 2015 draft hasn’t been a total bust, however, as they spotted promising defenseman Brandon Carlo with the 37th pick.

Pastrnak isn’t the only 2014 pick who’s been helping out this season. Danton Heinen (fourth round, pick 116) is ranked fourth in team scoring with 35 points in 46 games, while Anders Bjork (fifth round, 146) has shown flashes of brilliance as well.

You wouldn’t expect to see too many immediate dividends from 2016 and 2017, but then again, few defensemen show as much promise as rookies as Charlie McAvoy has. The blueliner has been a quick study, and could really stand as a steal at the 14th pick.

When you consider the early returns on moving from Claude Julien to Bruce Cassidy, the big picture with Sweeney in control – and the transition from Chiarelli, considering that fruitful 2014 draft – is looking brighter by the day.

Getting the likes of Pastrnak and McAvoy in recent drafts goes a long way in easing the pain of trading away young talent such as Dougie Hamilton and Tyler Seguin. Just like that, a team that seemed to have fringe potential now must be taken very seriously as the playoffs approach.

Maybe it’s fitting, then, that neither Brad Marchand (71st in 2006) nor Patrice Bergeron (45th in 2003) were first-round picks?

Either way, the Bruins show how much of a boost you can get from hitting picks out of the park, even when you don’t dominate or even participate in the lottery.

Now, the next question is: how will these drafts look even further down the line?

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.