James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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Saros is willing to be patient for Predators

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It feels like it’s only a matter of time before Juuse Saros gets a real shot at making an impact with the Nashville Predators, but he seems comfortable with the patient approach.

To be more specific, getting more seasoning in the AHL doesn’t seem like such a bad idea to him, as he told NHL.com.

“I think that would be the best thing to go there and get games there,” Saros. “Of course, the competition is tough every place, but for my development it would be good to play a lot there.”

That’s sensible enough, as the ideal scenario for Nashville would be Pekka Rinne playing the part of a $7 million workhorse.

After all, as promising as Saros’ first season in the AHL was – 29 wins and a strong .920 save percentage in 38 games – he’s still a little “green” in North America.

Back in July, Predators GM David Poile indicated to the Tennessean that Marek Mazanec would get the first look as Rinne’s backup in 2016-17.

That also makes sense; you don’t want a budding prospect sitting on the bench behind Rinne, right?

On the other hand, it’s not that hard to envision a scenario where Saros plays the role of Matt Murray while Rinne suffers a fate similar to Marc-Andre Fleury.

For one thing, Mazanec doesn’t exactly have the greatest job security considering his two-way contract.

Let’s face it … Rinne hasn’t exactly been setting the world on fire lately, either. Saros told NHL.com that Rinne is his “idol,” yet there may come a time when he surpasses his fellow Finn. Rinne’s numbers have been shaky-to-bad in three of the last four seasons, with only 2014-15’s output providing some solace.

So, kudos to Saros for showing maturity in accepting the idea of spending more time in the AHL than the NHL next season. For all we know, the Predators may not enjoy the luxury of such a patient approach, and that might not be such a bad thing.

A smart team would give Wisniewski a shot

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Not that long after being cut by the Tampa Bay Lightning, James Wisniewski tweeted “one door closed, another one opens.”

In an ideal, smart NHL, Wisniewski would be correct.

During just about every offseason, a quality player needs to fight to even get a chance to keep kicking around the league. Just look at the path Lee Stempniak took to a 19-goal, 51-point output in 2015-16.

Really, this current hockey climate should make Wisniewski a comparable bet.

Teams are giving up big contracts and considerable assets to lock up precious commodities in defensemen, so why not give him a try? Let’s look at a few reasons why he would be an interesting, low-risk addition:

  • He’s only 32, so it’s not like we’re talking about an ancient player.
  • Wisniewski isn’t that far removed from considerable success.

While his 2015-16 season was derailed by remarkably bad injury luck – he played all of 47 seconds for the Carolina Hurricanes – Wisniewski managed 34 points in just 69 games back in 2014-15. He’s two seasons removed from scoring 51 points for Columbus in 2013-14.

To provide some perspective, only 12 defensemen managed 51 points or more last season.

  • His possession stats have ranged from acceptable to quite good, so it’s not as if Wisniewski is only useful for offense. There’s even some grit to his game … sometimes too much.

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Now, this isn’t to say that Wisniewski is guaranteed to be a success.

One has to wonder about rust and his health after that catastrophe in 2015-16. He also admitted that he felt a little lost in the Lightning system. Prospective teams may need to deal with some growing pains.

Still, it’s not as though Wisniewski is likely to command a huge salary. He settled for a PTO with Tampa Bay, so there’s likely not much to gamble here.

Sure, he couldn’t crack the Bolts’ mix, but Tampa Bay boasts one of the league’s deeper defenses. What would be the harm for another team to give him a shot?

Is this it for Peter Mueller after Bruins end his PTO?

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Peter Mueller clearly wanted to return to the NHL in 2016-17, but that won’t happen with the Boston Bruins.

The team announced that they released Mueller, 28, from his PTO on Sunday.

It’s tough not to wonder if this is it – at least in NHL terms – for the eighth overall pick of the 2006 NHL Draft. Mueller hasn’t played at the highest level of hockey since 2012-13, when he scored 17 points in 43 contests with the Florida Panthers.

Mueller has experienced a career of starts and stops, yet it feels like he never truly recovered from the concussion he suffered thanks to a hard hit by Rob Blake.

Jonathan Bernier faces a different kind of pressure

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The OC Register features a great story about Jonathan Bernier relishing the lower-pressure atmosphere in Anaheim after those years in the Toronto pressure cooker.

Bernier’s right when he says “It’s a completely different mindset and lifestyle as well.” He’d know after starting his career with Los Angeles.

Here’s the thing, though: it’s true that Bernier won’t be under the same media scrutiny, but he’s actually facing a lot of personal pressure. At least he should be aware of as much.

At 28 and with a finite number of goalie jobs out there, Bernier enters the final season of his current contract.

On one side, some will give Bernier extra rope as a first-rounder (he was the 11th pick in 2006). On the other side, he’s had plenty of chances already, so another rough season could really limit his options.

There have been flashes of brilliance, especially during a stretch in the middle of his career:

2012-13: .922 save percentage in finishing off his days with the Kings.
2013-14: .923 save percentage in his first season with the Maple Leafs, and in 55 games to boot.

His big picture view is hit-or-miss, but there’s some reason to believe that he can get his career back on track. For all of Randy Carlyle’s faults, he might have a point in discussing Bernier with the OC Register.

“We think that he’s a higher-level goaltender than what he’s played in his previous experience in Toronto,” Carlyle said.

The OC Register notes that Carlyle referred to the tandem as a 1A and 1B situation, although it’s difficult to give Bernier even footing considering John Gibson‘s longer deal.

Still, it’s also worth remembering that Gibson is relatively unproven. Bernier’s experience of 213 NHL regular season games trumps Gibson’s meager 66-game sample.

If Gibson falters, the Ducks have a hungry goalie waiting to redeem himself. It could very well be a situation where everyone wins … at least for one season.

Blackhawks experiment with breaking up Panarin and Kane

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In the modern NHL, it’s rare for two linemates to spend virtually every shift together.

The Chicago Blackhawks presented an even more unusual situation, as a rookie (Artemi Panarin) managed to generate such instant chemistry with an established star (Patrick Kane) that they were almost attached at the hip.

That made for a second line that very much felt a lot like a top combo, with Panarin winning the Calder Trophy while Kane mopped up the Art Ross and Hart.

Some might say “Why mess with a good thing?” but as CSN Chicago notes, the Blackhawks are at least fiddling around with other arrangements during the preseason.

“Over the course of a season you know they’ll be together at times. But that’s something that’s going to get sorted out,” Joel Quenneville said. “The chemistry among the two of them is special. They’ll always (have) some shifts together. Whether (or not) they will be permanently together is something we’ll evaluate.”

It barely feels like hyperbole to say that they were permanently together last season.

Panarin saw 1,180:12 minutes of ice time last season, and of that time, Kane was on the ice for 1,004:06 with him. Artem Anisimov often accompanied them, and to really bring home the point, the next most common forward partner for Panarin was Jonathan Toews at 141:06.

To get an idea of how unusual that stability is, consider how often Toews skated with common linemate Marian Hossa by comparison (a little more than half of Toews’ shifts were with No. 81).

The draw of moving Panarin and Kane around is obvious, at least on paper.

They’re both wildly creative players who can make magic happen for others, so what if they can spread the wealth? Besides, the Blackhawks may want to determine how much of Panarin’s success comes from lining up with Kane before handing him a huge contract extension.

Coach Q must weigh the potential benefits of moving them around versus the possibility that they should just be glad to find a magical combination.

It’s not the worst problem to have by any stretch, yet it’s something to watch for a Blackhawks team that has some offensive questions to answer … at least relatively speaking.