James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.

Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond retires; let’s watch that fight one more time

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TSN’s BarDown points out that former NHL enforcer Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond recently announced his retirement from hockey during the weekend.

He did so in a strange three-part message that initially made it seem like he wasn’t thanking anyone.

Instead, it was sort of a neater, politer form of an award acceptance speech. “PL3” simply didn’t want to forget anyone:

The budding real estate agent noted his journeyman experience:

Forgive referring to him as Letourneau-Leblond, as it seems like he’s merely going by Pierre-Luc Leblond these days (so … “PL2, then?”). The extra-long name is simply how many of us remember him, along with that deeply absurd fight he once had with Cam Janssen.

You can see it in the video above this headline; they threw punches for multiple minutes, eventually running out of gas. Being that Janssen was a former New Jersey Devils enforcer and PL2/3 was their current one, the bout almost had the feel of a rite of passage.

That fight is part of his legacy, as is a ridiculous fight card at Hockey Fights. Some quick notes there:

  • He fought 29 times in the QMJHL in 2003-04 and then 28 times the next season.
  • In 2005-06, he fought 13 times in the AHL and 13 times in the UHL.
  • Leblond’s final NHL fight came in 2014-15 (though it was a pre-season game, if you’re a stickler). Fittingly, Bobby Farnham also received a penalty during that exchange; Leblond exchanged a fun barb or two with Farnham following his retirement announcement.
  • As you can see, Leblond was a multi-tasker. That included squeezing in three NHL fights and 20 AHL fights in 2008-09 and one NHL fight and 26 in the AHL in 2010-11.

As far as NHL play goes, Leblond finishes with 41 regular-season games, 101 penalty minutes accrued, and three assists. he also played in five postseason games, all during the Devils’ 2010 run.

He will be remembered, in part, by the fight that was almost as long as his name.

(H/T to Rotoworld by way of Reddit.)

It’s Colorado Avalanche day at PHT

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Woof. Ouch. Yikes. A series of expletives.

When looking at the 2016-17 season for the Colorado Avalanche, a wide array of responses seem reasonable.

They generated 21 fewer standings points that any other team, scored 17 fewer goals than anyone else, and were the only squad with more than a -100 goal differential. “Historically bad” is a perfectly fair label for the 2016-17 squad.

Overall, there wasn’t much to take from the season that passed. At least Jared Bednar gets some time to gather his wits? Mikko Rantanen looked pretty good. For better or worse, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog remain on the roster.

The summer saw some churn, yet the roster hardly looks much better heading into 2017-18.

Defense remains, remarkably, maybe an even larger problem. Nikita Zadorov has his issues, yet his lack of contract remains a question. Patrick Wiercoch is gone, and the team almost certainly won’t see Will Butcher sign. Things look awfully dicey beyond Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie.

The Avalanche added Colin Wilson, Nail Yakupov, and Jonathan Bernier, but is that much for net gains when they also lost the likes of Mikhail Grigorenko and Calvin Pickard?

Really, the best reasons for optimism revolve around “It can’t get much worse.”

As this Quant Hockey graph attests, the Avalanche’s “PDO” – their save percentage and shooting percentage combined – was easily the worst in the league. Now, no doubt about it, bad teams are more likely to suffer from bad luck, yet PDO is one of the surest harbingers of bad bounces you can find. Chances are, if nothing else, Semyon Varlamov and Bernier should at least be somewhat closer to league average.

Matt Duchene is another key player likely to enjoy at least a mild rebound.

After scoring 70 points in 2013-14, 55 in 2014-15, and 59 in 2015-16, he only managed 41 in 2016-17. Duchene failed to score at least 20 goals for the first time in 2012-13, when he generated 17 goals in just 17 games.

(His other season under 20 goals? That was 2011-12, when he collected 14 goals in 58 games.)

In other words, Duchene is highly likely to improve in 2017-18 … even if he’s either hoping to play somewhere else or auditioning to play somewhere else.

So, the Avalanche seem dour right now, but maybe not as dour as the 2016-17 edition? Yeah, not an easy sell. Enjoy a wide variety of Avs fun facts today.

Jacob Trouba could really make Jets pay with next contract

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This post is part of Jets Day on PHT…

Here’s something you come to realize if you nerd out about the league’s salary cap for long enough: not all bargain contracts are created equal.

Now, look, any GM worth his salt should be able to take advantage of those precious windows where players are exceeding the value of their deals. The 2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks are the gold standard in that regard: they won that first contemporary Stanley Cup thanks in part to Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane being on the last year of their rookie deals, allowing them that extra Dustin Byfuglien here and Brian Campbell there.

If a player is talented and healthy enough, you’ll eventually need to pay up. That’s why there’s some serious wisdom to locking down talented guys to longer deals when they’re especially young. (Just look at how ridiculous the deals look for, say, John Tavares and Duncan Keith.)

The Winnipeg Jets faced some serious contract impasses with Jacob Trouba and his agent Kurt Overhardt, yet eventually they enjoyed an eye-popping bargain. With the risk of sitting out a season hanging over his head, the RFA leverage was too much for Trouba, who signed for two years and $5 million.

Even with things oddly prorated, that’s a ludicrous steal for Trouba. And, of course, everyone said all the right things when a deal was reached, even as trade rumors festered into November 2016.

“I’ve committed to sign here,” Trouba said while confirming he’s rescinded his trade request, per the Winnipeg Sun. “When I signed that piece of paper, everything changed in my mind.”

A pessimist – and, possibly, a realist – might amend that last bit to “everything changed in my mind … for now.” (Possibly adding in some ominous music.)

When it comes to tough negotiations, we’ve seen some examples of short “bridge” deals that end up costly, and sometimes those same players end up traded somewhere else.

If you’re an emotionally vulnerable Jets fan, maybe just console yourself with Trouba remaining an RFA and scroll to a different post, because these examples might be less than ideal:

P.K. Subban: misses some of 2012-13, signs two-year, $5.75M deal with Montreal. Then he gets $9M per season for eight years, and traded to Nashville before 2016-17.

Ryan O'Reilly: strenuous negotiations lead to $6M at two years, making things awkward with the likes of Matt Duchene. Now makes $7.5M per year with Buffalo after being traded.

Ryan Johansen: Another Overhardt client whose relationship soured with his team. He was ultimately traded to Nashville, where he makes $8M per year thanks to that new deal.

(Note: Overhardt also represented Kyle Turris, who eventually left the Arizona Coyotes, who must wince every time he scores a big goal for the Ottawa Senators. As evidence that there’s another way, Overhardt appears to be Viktor Arvidsson‘s agent, so it’s not like he’ll outright refuse to sign longer deals that might ultimately benefit the teams involved. Of course, Arvidsson never had that contract-dispute-baggage with Nashville so …)

Now, before you claim that Trouba is far below those players, note that he has a season to compile more impressive counting stats with superior defensive partner(s) …. and he already shows potential from a “fancy stats” perspective. He seems to settle nicely into the top defenseman prototype, by HERO chart measures, as just one example:

With the right opportunities, Trouba could really drive up his value. Such motivation could be very beneficial for Winnipeg in 2017-18, but at what cost in the future?

In a recent edition of “The Hockey PDOcast,” Garret Hohl hypothesized that, while Trouba may compare to the likes of Seth Jones, he might end up costing the Jets more than the $5.4M per year that Jones receives with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Beyond sheer inflation, one might ascribe some of that to something of a bitterness tax. The Jets got their bargain and won that battle, but much like with Subban and others, a talented player might just win the war.

Two decades of Paul Maurice, NHL head coach

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This post is part of Jets Day on PHT…

If a typical NHL coach listed perks of the gig, “great job security” wouldn’t make the cut very often. Even a Stanley Cup ring (or two) won’t save them from the cutting block in plenty of cases.

With that in mind, let’s take a step back and just admire the persistence of Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice. Is persistence the better word, or would it be wiser to describe his longevity as … stealthy?

It might be hard to believe, but Maurice has been employed as an NHL head coach consistently since 1995-96. No, that’s not a typo. Check out his hockeydb page if you need proof/also want to see a photo of Young Paul Maurice.

Long story short: Maurice has been an NHL head coach since before the Carolina Hurricanes and “South Park” existed.

A timeline of Paul Maurice’s career

I’ve added some notes for bigger achievements, changes, and so on. Note that this rundown lists every time his teams made it to the postseason. (If a season isn’t mentioned, it’s because he remained employed but his team missed the playoffs.)

1995-96: becomes assistant and then head coach for the Hartford Whalers, coaching 70 games.
1997-98: The Whalers become the Carolina Hurricanes; Maurice can’t get them to the playoffs for a third straight season.
1998-99: Maurice’s first team makes it to playoffs, loses in first round.
2000-01: Another first-round exit
2001-02: Hurricanes fall in the 2002 Stanley Cup Final, Maurice’s lone appearance.
2003-04: Maurice is fired 30 games into the season.

So, in his first stint with Carolina/Harford (1995-96 to 2003-04), his team missed the playoffs five times and made it three times. There were two first-round exits and that remarkable run to the 2002 SCF.

2005-06: Takes Toronto Marlies to AHL playoffs in lone season with the team … they lose in first round.

2006-07 to 2007-08: Fails to bring Toronto Maple Leafs to playoffs in two seasons.

2008-09: Second stint with Hurricanes begins with 57 regular season games. Hurricanes lose in Eastern Conference Final.
2011-12: Fired by Hurricanes 25 games into season.

2012-13: Took KHL’s Metallurg to playoffs … first-round exit.

2013-14: Misses playoffs during first season with Winnipeg, coached 35 regular-season games.
2014-15: Lone playoff appearance as Jets coach. Thrashers/Jets franchise still lacks a single playoff win.
2015-16 to 2016-17: Misses playoffs.

/wipes sweat off brow

In summary, Maurice’s teams made the playoffs five times during his NHL coaching career. Two of those runs included series wins, with five overall. His teams won two Southeast Division titles. Check the bottom of this post for more perspective on his “quantity vs. quality” career.

Young and resilient

All of that aside, the point here isn’t that Maurice is necessarily a “bad coach.” Instead, it’s meant to remark upon just how rare his situation is.

Really, you can get into a philosophical discussion about how much any coach could have managed in Maurice’s situations. The Hurricanes/Whalers faced struggles in building rosters and in their market. The Maple Leafs are the only true “big budget” team Maurice coached, and he came in during a difficult time for the franchise. Just ask Ilya Bryzgalov about how much of a free agent “lure” Winnipeg can be in the eyes of many, a factor that likely didn’t help the Jets in the often-grueling Central Division.

Maurice became the second-youngest NHL coach to reach 500 wins (at the time) in 2015, and he weathered quite the storm with the Hurricanes/Whalers early on, learning the ropes at just 28. And other coaches noticed, as San Jose Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer related to NHL.com:

“There’s only a handful of guys I know that you could stick behind a bench at [28] and they could survive and still carve out a career,” DeBoer said. “That shows you how special his communication skills are, how big of a presence he is in a dressing room.”

Maurice has two decades of NHL coaching experience, yet he’s only 50.

He’s always looking to learn, and Maurice rarely deployed star-studded rosters … and especially rarely enjoyed great goaltending.

***

Is Maurice great, bad, or somewhere in between? That’s tough to say, but give him credit for fighting hard enough to at least always be around.

If Steve Mason and Connor Hellebuyck can actually deliver steady goaltending for the Jets, we may finally get a better idea of what Maurice is truly capable of.

Bonus: More on his resounding longevity

According to Hockey Reference, Maurice has coached 1,365 regular-season games and 57 postseason contests. His regular season record overall thanks to the NHL’s shifting standings systems is: 596-569-99-101, with a points percentage of .510.*

Hockey Reference’s NHL Coach Register has some useful listings to provide some context for his career. Maurice has coached the 11th-most games according to their listings. One must reach down to Brian Sutter (1,028 games coached, .517 points percentage) to find a comparable coach.

Looking to make the leap: Kyle Connor

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This post is part of Jets Day on PHT…

Kyle Connor didn’t make “the leap” with the Winnipeg Jets last season, but he took quite a few baby steps.

He appeared in 20 regular-season games with Winnipeg in 2016-17, managing two goals and five points. The majority of his appearances came early in the campaign with one exception: an April 8 appearance where he carried over strong AHL work with a goal.

Sadly, Connor received an unfortunate “welcome to the NHL” moment already, as this boarding hit by Kyle Clifford served as an uncomfortable introduction to the physical side of the league:

That aside, Connor really was impressive with the Manitoba Moose, and he seems to be a pretty quick learner overall.

In just 52 games in the AHL, Connor scored 25 goals and 44 points. This continued the momentum from his season with Michigan in the NCAA, when he managed 35 goals and 71 points in just 38 games as he became a Hobey Baker finalist in 2015-16.

Every sign points to the 20-year-old being an impact player, right down to being a high draft pick (17th overall in 2015).

That said, Connor did suffer some growing pains – literally and figuratively – and told NHL.com’s Tim Campbell that an AHL demotion sent quite the message last season.

“You have to experience it,” Connor said. “Once I moved down [to Manitoba], it was a bit upsetting, of course, and it took a couple of games more than I wanted to adjust. But once I did, I worked with the staff really well and the stuff they wanted me to implement into my game. I thought that made a huge difference, and you could see it toward the end of my season.”

Jets fans might get to see that difference in 2017-18, especially after Winnipeg parted ways with some veterans who might have otherwise stood in the way of Connor and fellow promising forward Jack Roslovic.

(Roslovic could probably be considered the “1b” to Connor’s “1a” as far as Jets looking to make the leap.)

It should be fascinating to see how Paul Maurice might use Connor if he does indeed cement his status as an everyday NHL forward.

Will Connor still need to earn Maurice’s trust after only averaging 12:13 time on ice during his rookie looks last season? Connor could conceivably benefit if the Jets try to spread the wealth with talented forwards or possibly suffer a bit if the team instead loads up (i.e. putting Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, and Mark Scheifele on the same, potent line once again).

There are a variety of ways this could turn out, with the possibilities including another AHL demotion.

Even so, it looks exceedingly likely that Connor will continue his upward trend with the Jets this coming season.