James O'Brien

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

With Bishop out, Stars’ hopes hinge on Lehtonen again

1 Comment

If this is Kari Lehtonen‘s final season with the Dallas Stars, then it’s uncomfortably fitting that, like it or not, the team’s playoff hopes hinge on his performance.

With Ben Bishop‘s latest injury sidelining him for at least two weeks (more on that here), Lehtonen stands as the go-to goalie for most – if not all – of the remaining regular-season games.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

That’s unfortunate news, but the silver lining is that Lehtonen’s performance hasn’t lined up that poorly compared to the work Bishop’s been able to put in when he hasn’t been injured.

Bishop: 53 games played, 26-17-5 record, .916 save percentage
Lehtonen: 29 games played, 12-10-3 record, .913 save percentage

Lehtonen, 34, is putting together his best work since he generated a .919 save percentage over 65 games back in 2013-14. So, that’s the good news.

There are certainly plenty of reasons to worry about this setup, though. For one thing, Lehtonen hasn’t been able to eke out a win in four straight starts, getting tagged with the “L” in three of them. Back when the Finnish netminder was a starter, the knock on him was that he’s injury prone.

That was how Stars GM Jim Nill spun things when the Stars made the ill-fated decision to bring in Antti Niemi, actually.

Instead of the Stars sporting a two-headed Finnish monster in net, both goalies struggled, sometimes spectacularly. While it sure felt like Niemi was meant to replace Lehtonen as the top guy in Dallas, it didn’t really work out that way. Lehtonen played 43 games in 2015-16 and 59 in 2016-17, even though his save percentage never rose above the level of “frustrating backup.”

In handing Bishop a Bishop-sized six-year, $29.5 million contract, the Stars were hoping to finally find that stability in net. The big former Bolts goalie hasn’t been a disaster, yet this season has been a frustrating one of fits and starts.

[What’s holding back the Dallas Stars?]

And, so we have it: the Stars can’t escape living or dying by Lehtonen, or at least they’ll go through at least one more of such scenarios, as his $5.9M cap hit expires after 2017-18.

Even Stars fans might rub their eyes when they look at the numbers: the former Thrashers franchise netminder has been with Dallas since 2009-10, appearing in a whopping 437 regular-season games (with the same .912 save percentage he sported with Atlanta, strangely enough).

The grass has seemingly been victory greener with other goalies for the last three seasons, if not more, yet it always seems to come back to Kari.

That said, it’s up to his teammates – and coach Ken Hitchcock – to avoid adding what might be a frustrating final chapter to his long stay with the Stars.

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.

Ducks lose Bieksa for 2-5 weeks


ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) Anaheim Ducks defenseman Kevin Bieksa will be out for two to five weeks after surgery to remove scar tissue from his left hand.

Bieksa is having surgery Friday, the Ducks announced.

The 36-year-old Bieksa has eight assists in 59 games this season for Anaheim, which is fighting to get into playoff position with three weeks left in the regular season.

Anaheim recalled defenseman Korbinian Holzer from its AHL affiliate in San Diego before facing the Detroit Red Wings at Honda Center on Friday night.

The Ducks have won five consecutive Pacific Division titles and made five straight postseason appearances, reaching the Western Conference finals last season. But Anaheim (35-24-12) began this weekend out of playoff position and in fourth place in the Pacific.

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/tags/NHLhockey

Avalanche top line isn’t just about MacKinnon

1 Comment

With 85 points in just 62 games played, Nathan MacKinnon isn’t just blowing away any other season he’s enjoyed in the NHL, he’s scoring at a pace that parallels some of Joe Sakic’s best moments in Colorado.

Despite missing time with an injury, MacKinnon ranks fourth with those 85 points, and his 1.37 points-per-game average is better than those of top scorers Nikita Kucherov and Evgeni Malkin. It was also clear that the Avalanche struggled with MacKinnon sidelined from Jan. 30 until Feb. 18.

Whether you go shallow or deeper, there are a lot of ways to talk up MacKinnon’s Hart credentials.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

While you can’t ignore that MacKinnon is the speedy, clever catalyst of that wrecking crew of a top line, the other key figures deserve some love, too. So consider this an opportunity to shine the spotlight on Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog and fantastic Finn Mikko Rantanen.

Strong support

Much like MacKinnon only being 22, the youthfulness of this line is the first thing that stands out.

Landeskog has been around the block already, so it might be surprising to realize that the sturdy Swede is only 25. He made an immediate impact in the NHL, going from being the second pick of the 2011 NHL Draft to winning the Calder Trophy in 2011-12. Amusingly enough, Landeskog collected exactly the same goals (22) and points (52) during that rookie campaign as he has so far in 2017-18, although in this case he’s gotten there in 66 instead of 82 games.

Rantanen, 21, is quickly developing into one of the better young scorers in the NHL.

After failing to score a point during a nine-game audition back in 2015-16, Rantanen emerged as one of the lone bright spots for the Avalanche last season, scoring 20 goals and 38 points in 75 games, averaging more than 18 minutes of ice time per night.

This season, Rantanen’s made another quantum leap. He already has 25 goals and 74 points in 69 contests. Rantanen was especially impressive during last night’s 4-1 win against the Blues, scoring two goals and two assists.

That game also provided a moment that illustrated that they’re dangerous in their own right, as Landeskog sent a tremendous stretch pass to Rantanen, who finished the play with a great backhand goal.

While we’re at it, MacKinnon’s brilliance and an injury absence also pushes Tyson Barrie‘s explosive output under the radar. Consider how big of a gap there is between Barrie, the Avalanche’s top line, and Colorado’s other scorers:

MacKinnon: 85 points, 35 goals
Rantanen: 74 points, 25 goals
Landeskog: 52 points, 22 goals
Barrie: 48 points, 10 goals in 56 games

Alexander Kerfoot: 36 points, 15 goals
Carl Soderberg: 33 points, 15 goals

MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Landeskog are the only Colorado players with 20+ goals so far in 2017-18. Despite being limited to 56 games, Barrie is tied for 10th place among NHL defensemen in scoring with 48 points. His .86 point-per-game pace is the best among all NHL defensemen who’ve played in at least 20 games.

Now, it’s totally valid to point out that MacKinnon is still the driving force; this post is by no means a way of refuting his MVP argument. Both Landeskog and Rantanen saw their scoring rates slow down with MacKinnon on the shelf for a couple weeks, for example. Instead, the point is that MacKinnon is the leader of a truly impressive trio, with Rantanen in particular standing out as a fantastic “Robin” to his “Batman.”

Contract concern

Actually, the Avalanche may want to find out how Rantanen might operate without MacKinnon, even if they wait until 2018-19 to do so. So far, Rantanen’s been tethered to MacKinnon. According to Natural Stat Trick, only about 96 minutes of MacKinnon’s even-strength ice time has come without Rantanen. The two joined forces for most of 2017-18, too.

The Avs are fighting for playoff positioning, so it would be foolish to gamble on this current chemistry by breaking up lines right now.

But, in 2018-19, it might be wise to see how Rantanen can produce without MacKinnon. The Avalanche already have Landeskog ($5.57 million cap hit through 2020-21) and MacKinnon (ridiculous bargain of $6.3M through 2022-23) locked up to long-term deals, yet Rantanen’s rookie deal runs out after 2018-19.

The risk is that, by chaining him with MacKinnon, Rantanen’s value might be inflated. You could see such a scenario play out with the Oilers, as Leon Draisaitl was able to ramp up his stats during his contract year riding shotgun with Connor McDavid.

Finding two forwards with high-level chemistry is fantastic, yet in a salary cap league, sometimes you want to spread the wealth. If Rantanen ends up costing a lot of money, the Avalanche would be wise to gauge how much offense he could produce as the driving force of his own line.

Again, you can file this under “good problems to have” but it’s something GM Joe Sakic, head coach Jared Bednar, and other Avalanche front office members should at least consider.


To reiterate, MacKinnon is “the guy” for the Avs. As he goes, so does Colorado.

Even so, Rantanen and Landeskog deserve a cut of the credit, too, as they’re enjoying fantastic seasons in their own right. This trio could very well make the Avalanche an upset threat in the playoffs as well.

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.

Caps’ Holtby discusses fatigue before return


Tampa Bay Lightning goalie (and Vezina hopeful) Andrei Vasilevskiy isn’t the only netminder who’s acknowledging being tired, at least to some extent.

Braden Holtby, the Washington Capitals’ frequent workhorse, admitted as much while praising the recent work of upstart backup Philipp Grubauer, as NBC Sports Washington’s JJ Regan reports.

To be more specific, Holtby admits to some mental fatigue, rather than being tired physically:

“Physically, I actually feel way better this year than last,” Holtby said. “If you’re fatigued physically, that’s on you. That’s not on anything else. But mentally, it does catch up.”

Since 2014-15, Holtby leads the NHL in wins (160), games played (250), and saves (6,442) during the regular season. Only Pekka Rinne (42) has played in more postseason games than Holtby (38) during that same stretch of time.

Considering that workload – not to mention how mentally draining it must have been to win two straight Presidents’ Trophies with the Capitals, only to fall in the second round against the Penguins two years in a row – the hockey world probably should have seen all of this coming.

If you want a convenient view of Holtby’s slippage, consider his numbers before and after the All-Star break, via Hockey Reference:

Before: 25-9-2, 2.66 GAA, .917 save percentage
After: 4-6-2, 4.31 GAA, .875 save percentage

On March 7, PHT recommended that the Capitals really give Grubauer a chance, at least for much of the playoff push (and maybe even the playoffs). The suggestion wasn’t meant to degrade Holtby; instead, the goal would be to rejuvenate the workhorse goalie while also seeing how far Grubauer might take them, considering that the young netminder is hoping to earn a new contract as an RFA.

A day later, former NHL goalie Brent Johnson put up a detailed analysis of Holtby’s fatigue, and how goalies handle and hide fatigue in general, in a thread on Twitter. Johnson began with a salient point: now, more than ever, the game of hockey is played at an incredible pace. Such a speedy game makes things more taxing for a goalie, who must keep track of the puck at all times. Asking a goalie to be a workhorse now is maybe an unrealistic demand.

Johnson added that goalies will rarely share that they’re tired with the media or coaches. Some of that might come down to the culture of the sport – “hockey tough” – and other factors, possibly in some cases related to job security. Such a sentiment makes it so refreshing to see Vasilevskiy and Holtby acknowledge the obvious.

Johnson also stated that Grubauer carrying more of a workload would actually help Holtby, and that seems to be a sentiment that the Capitals goalie also shares. As Regan reports, Holtby said that Grubauer’s “held our team together” and “that takes a lot of pressure off the rest of us.”

The nice thing for the Capitals is that they’ve been able to monitor this issue in March, rather than when the playoffs kick off in April.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

This doesn’t just serve as a warning and a lesson for Barry Trotz and the rest of the Capitals organization. It should also serve notice to the rest of the NHL that it’s foolish to ignore the warnings that come from sports science, sports psychologists, and others who warn against wearing out athletes.

Honestly, it should really be common sense.

You can be a “tough team” and still take measures to keep your most important players rested. After all, it’s easier to get over the hump/go the extra mile/run through that brick wall if you have more energy, right?

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: Winnin’ MacKinnon; Laine the teen dream


Players of the Night

  • James Reimer collected a big win for the Florida Panthers, who bested the Boston Bruins 3-0 on Thursday. Shutting out the Bruins is a tough task in 2017-18, as this was their first goose egg since October. It wasn’t an off night either, as Reimer made 46 saves.
  • Anze Kopitar collected a goal and three assists in leading the Kings to a 4-1 win against the Red Wings. More on that match here.
  • Quite a few players enjoyed three-point outputs. Nathan MacKinnon probably steals the show thanks to context, though, as he extended a 10-game point streak by collecting two goals and one assist, pushing his season scoring total to a ridiculous 85 points in just 62 games.


Check out Oliver Bjorkstrand scoring from down on one knee:

Let’s not forget about MacKinnon’s linemates in Colorado. If it helps, watch Gabriel Landeskog send a tremendous pass to splendid sophomore Mikko Rantanen, who buried a high-skill backhand goal:

Evgeni Malkin scored his 40th goal of the season, gently reminding the hockey world that he can do amazing things during a relatively healthy campaign:

Want a lowlight and maybe some comic relief? Watch as poor ‘ol OEL (Oliver Ekman-Larsson) gets elbowed by an official calling him for a penalty. Sheesh.

Teen Spirit

Patrik Laine might occasionally sport the sort of facial hair that makes him look like he could have starred in a John Lithgow classic, the Winnipeg Jets winger is actually still a teenager. (Laine turns 20 on April 19.) Laine is also still scoring,

More fun facts

Patrick Marleau climbs the ranks.

Nashville Predators: still red-hot.


Maple Leafs 5, Sabres 2
Capitals 7, Islanders 3
Blue Jackets 5, Flyers 3
Penguins 5, Canadiens 3
Panthers 3, Bruins 0
Avalanche 4, Blues 1
Jets 6, Blackhawks 2
Predators 3, Coyotes 2
Kings 4, Red Wings 1

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.