Vincent Trocheck

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Metro movement: Flyers gain on Capitals, Penguins

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Every now and then, it’s convenient to group the highly competitive Metropolitan Division’s games into a lightning round post. That was especially true here, but it seems reasonable enough tonight, too.

Let’s start at the bottom: the New York Rangers are just short of waving the white flag, as they lost to the Montreal Canadiens. The most relevant thing they did on Thursday was to make Ryan McDonagh, Rick Nash, and Michael Grabner healthy scratches, a nod to the trade deadline. They’re stuck at 59 points in 61 games.

[BREAKING: Rangers reportedly send Grabner to the Devils(!)]

Now let’s rattle off the relevant results, going from the first-ranked Capitals and stepping down the ladder.

Inactive on Thursday: Penguins (74 points in 61 games played), Hurricanes (64 points in 60 GP)

Capitals drop emotional loss to Panthers, and (barely) in regulation

It seemed like Washington would shake off Roberto Luongo‘s much-see speech and grab a win during an emotional night in Florida. They had a 2-1 lead fairly deep into Thursday’s game.

The Panthers wouldn’t be denied. They ended up tying the game with less than four minutes remaining, and then Vincent Trocheck won it with just 20 seconds left in regulation. Leaving this one empty-handed stings for the Caps, although in the grand scheme of things, it was nice for Florida to get to W.

[Luongo’s speech, Panthers’ emotional ceremony.]

Flyers virtually tie second-ranked Penguins, beat Blue Jackets in regulation.

On paper, this wasn’t a pretty 2-1 win for the Flyers. Prevailing in regulation against a divisional opponent, thus limiting at least one threat from chipping away at their buffer? Now, that’s beautiful for Philly.

If you want a summary of how rapidly fortunes can change in the NHL, consider this: the Flyers have a very real chance to win this division mere months after losing 10 games in a row. Sports, everyone.

Both teams only managed 20 shots on goal, making for a pretty friendly way for Petr Mrazek to make his Flyers debut. Claude Giroux (goal, assist) and Shayne Gostisbehere (two assists) really powered the victory, too, as they were involved in both goals.

The Flyers are showing that they can win a variety of games … and with a variety of goalies. They’re now on a four-game winning streak, and are even better when you zoom out, going 8-0-2 in their past 10 games.

Mrazek got the Ric Flair treatment:

The bright side for the Blue Jackets is that they’re currently in the final wild-card position, even with frustrations piling up. Still, this was an opportunity to create some distance from opponents that are breathing down their necks …

Islanders fall to Maple Leafs, but it was in a shootout

… as the Islanders grabbed a “charity point.”

While the Blue Jackets are at 65 standings points in 61 games played for that final wild-card spot (and fifth in the Metro), the Islanders are close by with 65 points in 62 GP.

It was a thriller in Toronto, and while Doug Weight’s bunch deserves some kudos for hanging in there, they did see 2-0 and 3-2 leads dissolve.

The brightest side is probably that they might be making modest gains on defense, as they’ve limited opponents to 32 and 31 shots on goal during the past two contests. That’s progress for a team that recently saw goalies make 45 and 50-save shutouts.

Taylor Hall remains hot, but not enough for a win (again)

The New Jersey Devils fired 40 shots on goal, and Taylor Hall kept his remarkable scoring streak going. (Officially, his 26th goal of 2017-18 pushed him to 13 games, while others believe it’s 20 in a row.)

You’d think that would be a winning combination, but not exactly the quietly climbing Minnesota Wild, who ended up winning 4-2.

Still, that Hall kid is going to be OK, eh?

***

So, here is how the Metro looks after all of that action.

Capitals: 75 points in 61 games played (31 ROW)
Penguins: 74 points in 61 GP (33 ROW)
Flyers: 74 points in 61 GP (31 ROW)
Devils: 70 points in 61 GP (27 ROW)
Blue Jackets: 65 points in 61 GP (24 ROW)
Islanders: 65 points in 62 GP (26 ROW)
Hurricanes: 64 points in 60 GP (24 ROW)
Rangers, if you must: 59 points in 61 GP (24 ROW)

The Penguins also have 35 vanilla wins, while the Flyers are at 32.

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 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.”

***

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: Blackhawks may have hit rock bottom

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It can only getter better from here, right?

The Chicago Blackhawks entered play on Monday night having lost five games in a row and 10 of their past 13 to fall 10 points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Things did not get much better in Arizona where they were blown out, 6-1, by a Coyotes team that had won just 13 of its first 55 games. The Blackhawks’ losing streak now sits at six games (with losses in 11 of their past 14 games) as they failed to gain any ground on any of the teams ahead of them in the standings.

They remain 10 points out of a playoff spot with still four teams ahead of them.

Not great.

It was another ugly night for the goaltending situation as starter Anton Forsberg had to be benched after giving up three goals on 13 shots, including a really ugly goal from a terrible angle by Tobias Reider to make it 3-1.

That performance came after Jeff Glass allowed three goals on 19 shots in their previous loss to the Minnesota Wild over the weekend. Glass did not do much better in relief of Forsberg on Monday by giving up three goals on the nine shots he faced.

Corey Crawford‘s absence has obviously been a huge issue for the Blackhawks. The defense is not very good and Forsberg and Glass could never be expected to adequately replace one of the best goalies in the league, and arguably Chicago’s most important player at this point. But even if Crawford returns to the lineup there just does not seem to be much chance for the team to make up all of this ground. For as much as of an upgrade as Crawford would be in net, the team in front of the goaltenders is still shaky defensively and has not exactly been an offensive powerhouse lately.

Lot of problems in Chicago right now.

Player(s) Of The Night: William Nylander and Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs have some flaws but holy cow are they a fun team to watch.

They played a wildly entertaining game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday night that saw their young superstars dominate early, then let a 3-0 lead slip away, then get a game-winning goal from James van Riemsdyk to help them improve to 9-2-0 in their past 11 games.

Nylander and Matthews were the big stars of the night for the Maple Leafs.

Nylander scored a pair of goals while Matthews added three assists in the win.

How far can the Maple Leafs go playing this style of hockey with that defense? That is up for a lot of debate, but with that group of forwards and Frederik Andersen playing the way he is (and he was very good once again on Monday night, even while giving up three goals) they will have a chance against anybody.

Player Of The Night Part 2: Vincent Trocheck, Florida Panthers

The Florida Panthers offense came through in a big way on Monday night with seven goals, with five of those goals coming from Vincent Trocheck and Evgeny Dadonov.

Trocheck was the big star by recording a hat trick in the win.

Highlight Of The Night

Aaron Ekblad opens the scoring for the Florida Panthers in their win over the Edmonton Oilers with a bank shot from an impossible angle.

Factoid Of The Night

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have combined to score 12 goals for the Edmonton Oilers over the past six games.

The Edmonton Oilers record in those six games: 1-4-1.

If a team has two players combine for that many goals over that many games it seems almost statistically impossible to only get one win out of that stretch.

Scores

Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Tampa Bay Lightning 3

Arizona Coyotes 6, Chicago Blackhawks 1

Florida Panthers 7, Edmonton Oilers 5

————

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.

 

Struggling Panthers want to keep gang together

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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?

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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.

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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.