James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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How Drouin’s doing heading into Tampa Bay return

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Even Jonathan Drouin‘s critics would probably admit that they’re surprised by how little he’s been missed in Tampa Bay in the early months following that splashy Mikhail Sergachev trade.

With an NHL-leading 54 standings points and an unearthly duo in Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov (plus plenty of lesser-mentioned strengths), the Lightning are eyeing a possible Presidents’ Trophy one season after missing the playoffs altogether.

Such context makes it easy to understand this column from Tom Jones of the Tampa Bay Times, which hypothesizes that Drouin’s return to Tampa Bay will be met not really with boos or cheers but instead a shrug of the shoulders. For what it’s worth, Drouin said all the right things about Lightning fans, via Joe Smith, also of the Tampa Bay Times:

“Thanks for all the support,” Drouin said when asked if he had a message for fans. “Even through the rough times when I came back, didn’t know what to expect, but they were great. It’s a hockey town and people are starting to figure that out, that it’s a city that loves their hockey, they’re passionate about it. It was a great atmosphere. I always had most respect for all the fans in Tampa.”

(The full Q & A is worth your time, as he discusses the pressures of playing in Montreal and if he has any regrets about his time with the Lightning.)

So, the Lightning are doing great and the Canadiens are struggling mightily. Also, when you look directly at the simplest numbers, Sergachev seems to be having a better season that Drouin and it seems like he’ll stick around long enough that this will be close to a one-for-one swap. (A pick could have turned into a second-rounder if Sergachev didn’t stick around, but it sure looks like he will.)

Graphics like these do Drouin no favors:

Still, let’s dig a little deeper to see if the gap is that big. Either way, kudos to Lightning GM Steve Yzerman for getting strong value out of Drouin, a player who ultimately wasn’t part of the team’s future plans.

Success for Sergachev

Sergachev is currently in a comfy spot: being set up for success while being shielded from tougher assignments.

The talented teenager averages more power-play time per game (1:50) than shorthanded time served all throughout this season so far (53 seconds). Overall, he’s logging just 15:10 per game, ranking 14th on the Lightning.

It adds some perspective, although it also cements how remarkably dangerous he is offensively. Sergachev has eight goals and 23 points in 35 games; while some of that work will cool off (10.8 is a very high shooting percentage for a defenseman), you can forgive the Lightning for daydreaming about the kind of force he may become when he grows into more frequent reps.

Promoted to a level of incompetence?

Drouin, meanwhile, is in a tough spot with the Canadiens. Marc Dumont makes a strong argument at The Athletic that Drouin and Max Pacioretty should be split up (sub required), and you wonder if Drouin is the same not-quite-a-top-center that Alex Galchenyuk seems to be punished for arguably not being. (Despite getting less ice time than Sergachev at 14:55 per game, Galchenyuk has 21 points to Drouin’s 18, even with Drouin getting 17:41 on average).

Drouin is struggling by just about every measure, as you can beat him up for even poorer than usual work in the faceoff circle (41.2 percent, a career-worst, according to Hockey Reference). Drouin’s possession stats are suffering, and he’s only connecting on 6.6 percent of his shots on goal.

Obviously, things are going poorly, but it must be noted that the Lightning are putting Sergachev in a position to succeed, while the Habs are arguably setting Drouin up to fail by putting too much on his plate.

There could be a light at the end of the tunnel, though. At 22, Drouin has plenty of time to improve his all-around game, even if those steps might seem awkward at times under the harsh spotlight in Montreal.

It would be silly to deny his struggles so far in 2017-18 nonetheless.

For many, tonight will be a situation where Drouin gets humbled. Really, though, this is just another reminder of the mismanagement going on in Montreal, which contrasts especially harshly with the well-oiled machine they’re facing in Tampa Bay.

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.

Jets lose Mark Scheifele for 6-8 weeks

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In looking at the year in fantasy hockey, two Winnipeg Jets forwards ranked among the highest scorers for the calendar year of 2017: Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele, who both managed 87 points. Maybe they aren’t household hockey names, but those two scorers are tied for third in points since Jan. 1.

Now we’ll see how effective Wheeler can be without Scheifele, for quite a bit of time.

The Jets announced that Scheifele was placed on injured reserve today, with head coach Paul Maurice estimating his time missed at six-to-eight weeks.

No doubt about it, that’s brutal. PHT’s Scott Billeck reports that Wheeler described Scheifele as “irreplaceable” last night, following that scary spill into the boards (see the video above this headline).

Early on, it seems like Wheeler will need to step into Scheifele’s shoes in more ways than one, as the Jets will tinker with him being the team’s new top center. It will be interesting to see how much of the burden Kyle Connor can carry, while Patrik Laine rounds out the top trio. Mathieu Perreault also gets bumped up to the second line alongside Nikolaj Ehlers and Bryan Little.

Perreault allows the Jets to, at least possibly, maintain a standout strength: having two strong scoring lines. Depth remains a question.

The Jets are currently battling it out with the Predators and Blues for positioning in the Central Division, so this could deal a blow that might cost them to lose their grip on a round of home-ice advantage, something that’s not frequently discussed regarding this franchise. The Predators already had a decent cushion for the top spot, though it’s far from unassailable:

Predators: 49 points in 36 games played
Jets: 48 points in 38 games
Blues: 48 points in 39 games

Looking forward, the Jets face an erratic schedule where they’d likely lean on Scheifele to get through tough road runs in January and then try to stock up on points during a home-heavy February.

From Jan. 9-25, the Jets play six of seven on the road. They follow that up with a massive 10-game homestand from Jan. 30 – Feb. 20. If Scheifele were to miss two months or more, he’d be out for all of that time, so some of this comes down to how he heals.

A lot of this is tough to stomach, but consider what happened to Scheifele’s opponent last night, as Connor McDavid missed the rest of his rookie season after falling into the boards. It’s an unfortunate break, yet this could also be worse, especially if he recovers as expected (or better than expected).

And, let’s face it. The Jets haven’t navigated bumps in the road very often as a franchise stretching back to the Atlanta Thrashers days. You need to roll with the punches come playoff time, so perhaps this will give them some of that experience early?

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.

Penguins problems: Letang trade rumors, injuries abound

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Much like their division rivals in Brooklyn, injuries are really putting a damper on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Wednesday win, and health issues aren’t the only negative headlines plaguing the Penguins.

As he deals with his own injury issues, trade rumblings continue to swirl around struggling star defenseman Kris Letang.

Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos and Elliotte Friedman discussed the matter on Hockey Night in Canada recently, while Friedman backed up more of those rumblings in his latest “31 Thoughts” column, somewhat surprisingly discussing a possible move involving Montreal. DK Pittsburgh Sports’ Matt Gajtka backed them up, reporting that a source told him that Letang is “definitely” available on the trade market.

Yikes.

On one hand, Friedman lays out some of the Penguins’ concerns: Letang is costly both in salary and term ($7.25 million cap hit through 2021-22) and has had serious health issues, with not just concussion issues but even stroke symptoms.

Still, it’s not lost on observers that the Penguins would be “selling low” on Letang, a blueliner who’s struggled mightily at times in 2017-18.

Friedman rightly notes that Penguins GM Jim Rutherford isn’t afraid to make big moves, but run this exercise for a moment: try to picture a situation where Pittsburgh gets even close to equal value for Letang. Considering the team wants to take a few more swings at the fence rather than going into any sort of rebuild, it’s tough to imagine that working out well for anyone.

(Even a Letang for picks and prospects situation is very, very troubling.)

It’s all very unsettling, and it’s not the only bit of queasy information for Penguins fans who might just want to celebrate the team’s continued frustration of John Tortorella this afternoon.

The Penguins trotted out an array of injury updates on Thursday, and there’s a lot of bad. Along with Letang being out for Pittsburgh’s next game, Matt Murray won’t be available either, with the only good-ish news being that the goalie is only considered day-to-day. Defenseman Chad Ruhwedel is considered week-to-week while forward Bryan Rust is out “longer term,” with both dealing with upper-body injuries.

Considering that Justin Schultz is also on the shelf, the Penguins are once again dealing with a slew of ailments.

Oh yeah, and the Penguins also face tough sledding to make the playoffs; as of today, they trail the Rangers and Islanders (44 points in 37 games) by three points, and the Penguins have played in 38 games. That’s not an insurmountable gap, yet it’s not the happiest situation, either.

You know what would add clouds to an already dour forecast? Making a terrible trade involving Kris Letang. Penguins fans must hope that those rumblings end up being a distant memory in a few months, much like these struggles and injuries.

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.

Injuries could be issue for Islanders’ defense

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Life has generally been smiling on the New York Islanders lately.

On the ice, Mathew Barzal continues to rise as a star, including last night’s overtime-winner. The Isles also won a bid to build a new arena at Belmont Park. Correct or not, both developments make people optimistic about John Tavares sticking around beyond this season, the most important development of them all.

Not every headline is a happy one, though.

The Isles’ defense could be in for some serious challenges going forward, as two important blueliners could be sidelined for some time with injuries.

For one thing, around the holiday break, it was revealed that Calvin de Haan might need to undergo surgery, threatening to end his season. Today brought another unfortunate development, as the Islanders announced that Johnny Boychuk is considered week-to-week with a lower-body injury.

The Islanders recalled the other Sebastian Aho (139th pick in 2017), a blueliner who’s been quite impressive with 20 points in 29 AHL games so far this season.

That’s the good part: getting a young defenseman an opportunity. It’s tough to spin it too positively beyond that, unless you’re merely not sold on Boychuk and/or de Haan. So far, Boychuk ranks second among Islanders skaters in ice time (20:40) while de Haan comes in fourth (18:44).

To be fair, the two defensemen haven’t been setting the world on fire with those minutes in recent games, so maybe the drop-off won’t actually be so bad for the Islanders.

Still, in a brutally competitive Metropolitan Division, they don’t have a ton of room to stumble.

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.

2017: A Fantasy Hockey Odyssey (PHT Year in Review)

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(Pro Hockey Talk is taking a look back at the year in hockey. We’ll be presenting you with the best goals, saves, moments, players and much more as we bring you the best of 2017.)

You’ve likely read this already if you’re perused some best/worst of 2017 lists, but I’m not breaking rank: these 12 months were often a beatdown for humanity.

Luckily, pop culture, sports, and other distractions responded to the carnage like a bat signal, providing us with precious diversions as the universe crumbles. Fantasy hockey falls in line with that, if you ask me, so let’s look back at 2017, combining hearty portions of 2016-17 and 2017-18 for a kind-hearted retrospective.

This guy, That guy, and everyone else

If you want to look at the two most successful hockey players in the world, you’d probably go Sidney Crosby (Stanley Cup, strong regular seasons, international glories) against Connor McDavid (2016-17’s only 100-point season, freak of nature, plausible future glories).

From a fantasy perspective, it’s about two scorers … but only McDavid makes that duo, if you’re being harsh. And also if you’re ignoring playoff pools, which are denizens of randomness, if you ask a fellow who’s only delved into them a bit.

No, in using NHL.com’s refined results settings, two scorers stand alone during this calendar year (OK, Jan. 1 to today): McDavid and Nikita Kucherov. These are the only two scorers who’ve hit 100-plus points during that span, with the closest contenders stuck at 87 points (John Tavares, Patrick Kane, Blake Wheeler, and Mark Scheifele, with the latter player hopefully being OK as 2018 approaches).

Remarkably, you could very sanely argue that Kucherov’s been better, as goals are tougher to come by than assists, and he’s hit his near-identical mark in three fewer contests:

McDavid in most of 2017: 81 GP, 30 goals, 72 assists, 102 points, 242 shots on goal, +29, somehow just a 39.8 faceoff winning percentage, I felt the need to mention.

Kucherov in most of 2017: 78 GP, 51 goals, 50 assists, 101 points, 279 SOG, +21, eight GWG to McDavid’s six.

Again, no one else even hit 90 points during this span. Remarkable. It stands as another reminder that Kucherov’s brilliance needs to be trumpeted, preferably from a high vantage point, Ricola-style.

These two guys are special, but no longer seemingly aliens

If you drafted Brent Burns and/or Erik Karlsson high heading into 2017-18 (bless your soul and sanity if they were among your top three picks), then you’re well aware that the two seemingly-untouchable defensemen have looked decidedly human this season. Granted, Karlsson is still incredible, but the fantasy returns have been more minimal.

Well, the calendar year numbers back that up. Karlsson and Burns are up their among the four highest defensemen, but they’re joined by Victor Hedman and John Klingberg as the guys who’ve hit 60+ points. Burns leads with 65 (and a ridiculous 307 SOG, more than Kucherov and McDavid, by the way), Hedman has 64, while Klingberg and Karlsson are tied at 62.

When in doubt, draft Swedish defensemen and/or dudes who could pass as Chewbacca.

(Note: Karlsson scored his 62 points in 71 games, so … he’s still possibly a Martian.)

Braden Holtby is the new Martin Brodeur

In case you haven’t poked around Hockey Twitter much, or blogs for that matter, Martin Brodeur isn’t the no-brainer superstar some assume. Well, at least when you compare him to, say, Dominik Hasek. In certain communities, that is.

You see, Brodeur frequently hobbled behind the true elites in terms of save percentage, and many believe that his puck-moving skills didn’t make up that difference.

That said, on the fantasy side, Brodeur was often fried gold.

The all-time wins leader obviously won a lot, and for most of his career, you could count on him to play a ton of games. He’d nab a lot of shutouts, to boot. As unpredictable as netminders can be thanks to the teams in front of them and health breaks and arrests go, Brodeur was as steady – and effective – as you could really ask for.

Holtby is becoming that guy: tons of reps, dependable, very good but maybe not getting mentioned as the cream of the crop as often as, say, Carey Price or Sergei Bobrovsky. It makes perfect sense, then, that he’s unmatched when it comes to wins (though his .920 save percentage speaks for itself.)

Now, I was pumping his tires as the next Henrik Lundqvist earlier but … Henrik Lundqvist still seems like Henrik Lundqvist, so let’s go with The Next Brodeur for now.

Reigning rookies

In 2016-17, Auston Matthews led a crop of outstanding Toronto Maple Leafs youngsters while Patrik Laine looked like the heir apparent to Alex Ovechkin. Jake Guentzel really blossomed during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, while Matthew Tkachuk annoyed everyone in his path to fantasy glory.

Shockingly, 2017-18 is producing a comparable crop of rookies, to the point that the volume makes it difficult to name everyone.

Mathew Barzal and Brock Boeser are both (at least temporarily) altering the trajectories of their teams. Yanni Gourde and Jesper Bratt likely deserve a bit more credit for their teams’ startling improvements. Nico Hischier looks like he’ll live up to being a top pick, while Clayton Keller is making teams kick themselves for passing him up, even for a few picks. Defensemen like Will Butcher, Charlie McAvoy, and Mikhail Sergachev are making splashes of their own.

Rookies are tough to figure in fantasy, what with uncertainty about even staying with the big team and no/little prior NHL numbers to use as a reference. Taking chances on them, only to see them explode, makes the successes so much sweeter, then.

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So, those are some of the trends and stories that stood out to me in fantasy this year. No end-of-year list is complete without people groaning about choices, however, so share your omissions and opinions in the comments, on Twitter, or via email.

Previously:

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.