James O'Brien

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

Fight video: Byfuglien keeps punching Greer

23 Comments

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Even when he’s in a good mood, Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien can be pretty scary. A howling slapper and intimidating size make him an imposing figure.

When Byfuglien’s mad, though? Look out.

It’s already been an ornery month for Byfuglien, who was fined $5K for slashing Washington Capitals forward Jay Beagle. That nastiness continued on Friday, as Byfuglien went after A.J. Greer of the Colorado Avalanche.

As you can see from the video above this post’s headline, Byfuglien kept punching Greer, even on the ice, and even as officials were trying to break things up.

At least Byfuglien provided some comic relief during his time in the penalty box:

So: don’t get Byfuglien mad, but do invite him to karaoke night?

The Jets ended up handing the Avalanche a metaphorical beating, taking a decisive 6-1 victory.

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.

Islanders grab back-to-back, unlikely shutouts

Getty
3 Comments

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

As the NHL’s worst team when it comes to stats like shots allowed and high-danger chances given up, it would be pretty silly to pin all of the New York Islanders’ woes on their goalies.

Still, there’s a cut-off where you have to expect a certain level of competence even behind a faulty defense. Jaroslav Halak and especially Thomas Greiss have been part of the problem for much of 2017-18, but with the fan angst at a fever pitch to the point of generating money to buy “Snow Must Go” billboards, the Isles’ two goalies are doing the former-backup-turned-GM some serious favors.

On Thursday, the Islanders were bombarded with 50 shots on goal, yet Halak pitched a shutout against the New York Rangers on the way to a 3-0 win.

Tonight, Islanders coach Doug Weight gambled on putting Greiss in net instead of “riding the hot hand,” and instead rode the hot duo. The Islanders beat the Carolina Hurricanes 3-0 as well, even though Carolina nearly doubled them in shots on goal (45-23).

So, in a back-to-back set against Metropolitan Division rivals also fighting desperately for playoff positioning – albeit one also eyeing a possible rebuild at the same time – the Islanders suffered a 95-58 shots on goal disparity, yet won by a combined score of 6-0.

No doubt about it, these consecutive wins do little to quiet the argument that this team is really struggling to limit scoring chances. It’s fair to wonder about Weight, Snow, and others, even with these victories.

Still, a more confident goalie tandem could really move the needle.

Halak had already been showing some signs of improvement. He’s been heating up since the All-Star Break ended, in particular, with a .925 save percentage over the last eight games. The veteran goalie went on an impressive (if too-little, too-late) last season, so it’s possible that Halak might turn things around once again.

Greiss almost certainly needed his shutout more, though.

The 32-year-old carried a hideous .885 save percentage into this game. For a goalie with a respectable .912 career save percentage and no full season under .908,* it’s been a bewilderingly bad run for the German.

If Halak and Greiss could merely steal some wins here and there, the Islanders could turn their attention to adding a little bit of talent on defense, where they’re clearly ailing. Some injuries have made things more difficult, so improving in that area and getting better goaltending could make the difference in a postseason run versus another gut-punching finish.

Actually, considering the terrifying one-two punch on offense in John Tavares and Mathew Barzal, the Islanders could go from dour to downright scary if they merely become competitive in their own end.

* – Technically, he suffered an .860 save percentage with San Jose in 2007-08, but that was in just three games.

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.

Flames extend analytics darling Mikael Backlund

Getty
2 Comments

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

The line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Micheal Ferland (Ferland for now?) probably ranks as the Calgary Flames’ most important forward trio. If you spend a little time on Hockey Twitter, you’ll probably come across someone gushing about “The 3M Line,” maybe more than the bigger guns.

(Aside: I really tried to get a Campbell’s Soup-inspired nickname for that line, but it never took off. Probably for the greater good?)

With the trade deadline looming, the Flames took a big step toward keeping that line intact, signing underrated center Mikael Backlund to a six-year, $32.1 million contract extension. He’ll go from carrying a $3.575M cap hit in the final year of his current deal to $5.35M from 2018-19 through 2023-24.

This keeps “The 3M Line” together through 2018-19, assuming the team doesn’t want to split them up at some point.

The most infamous member of the trio is the least tenured of the three: Matthew Tkachuk will see his rookie contract expire after 2018-19. Michael Frolik, meanwhile, receives $4.3M per season through 2019-20. Tkachuk isn’t likely to go anywhere, mind you, but his inevitable raise could make it tough to keep all three of those puck-hogging forwards on the same roster that also boasts Gaudreau, Monahan, and pricey blueliners like Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton.

Backlund, 28 (soon to be 29 as of March 17), is a solid piece even if you look at his scoring stats alone. The 24th pick of the 2007 NHL Draft is trying to make this his third consecutive 20-goal season, although he’s been limited to 10 in 58 games. (He’s made up the difference with 24 assists.)

If you look at his possession metrics, you’ll see that Backlund consistently tilts the ice in his team’s favor, even with heavy-to-drastic defensive usage.

Ultimately, he brings a nice mix of the subtle stuff that might slip under the radar:

With enough scoring punch that he jumps off the charts even when you’re not, well, looking at charts.

Naturally, this is an expensive contract, so there’s some risk involved. Even so, most seem happy with the deal from the Flames’ end:

If you take a look at their salary structure, there’s really a lot to like in Calgary. Now the Flames need to start putting it all together on the ice.

Once that really starts to build momentum, Backlund could be the sort of player who really makes the difference in a tough playoff series. That’s what the Flames are paying him for, really.

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.

Trading Max Domi likely wouldn’t pay off for Coyotes

Getty
1 Comment

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

It’s dangerous to speak in absolutes when it comes to trades in the NHL.

For example: while Dion Phaneuf‘s contract is onerous, that deal has been far from impossible to move. That monster’s been traded twice, and very well could be moved again before it runs out after 2020-21.

So, yes, there may be a scenario where trading Max Domi on or before Feb. 26 actually benefits the Arizona Coyotes enough to do it, but it would almost certainly be smarter to wait. You know, if he’s even worth trading at all.

(Note: The Coyotes shopping him – though not necessarily aggressively – has been reported by multiple outlets, including Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman this past weekend.)

Let’s discuss why this is a terrible time to trade Domi.

Selling low

There’s no doubt that this has been a terrible season for Domi, and honestly, the past two seasons provide some reason for concern.

During a fabulous rookie season, Domi meshed well with Anthony Duclair, scoring 18 goals and 52 points in 81 games back in 2015-16. Since then, his shooting percentage has taken a terrifying nosedive:

2015-16: 18 goals on 156 shots on goal for an 11.5 shooting percentage.
2016-17: nine goals on 108 SOG in 59 games, 8.3 shooting percentage.
So far in 2017-18: four goals on 111 SOG in 57 games, 3.6 shooting percentage.

Recent history shows that teams may come to regret trading a promising young player on an unusual cold streak.

One prescient example is Jordan Eberle, and his struggles weren’t as extreme during his final season with the Edmonton Oilers. Eberle’s shooting percentage average overall with the Oilers was 13.4 percent, yet in 2016-17, it dipped to 9.6. The postseason was where things really plummeted: Eberle managed zero goals and two assists during that 13-game run, coming up empty on 22 SOG.

That’s a distressing run, especially for a $6 million player on a team that felt it was on the verge of contention like the Oilers.

Even if the Oilers wanted to trade Eberle in his normal form, they should have waited for a most likely return to his typical work. You don’t need to dig deep to see that Eberle has been fantastic for the Islanders, while Ryan Strome has been … well, Ryan Strome for the Oilers.

That’s the risk here with Domi. Maybe he’s a guy who will struggle to score at the NHL level, but do you really want to sell when his value couldn’t sink any lower? How much of a bummer would it be to see Arizona get a possibly squalid return after a middling Anthony Duclair trade? Getting very little for two promising forwards would be a real blow, especially since the Coyotes lack much in scoring punch beyond Clayton Keller and a few others beyond that.

Especially, you know, with Arizona’s own Strome (Dylan Strome) standing as something of a puzzle.

If that wasn’t enough …

There are some ancillary factors that make a panic trade even scarier.

At least in the case of the Oilers, Eberle was a pricey consideration for a team that would eventually need to make some cap decisions. The money concern actually could put a positive spin on Domi’s struggles.

Right now, Domi is a pending RFA whose rookie contract is about to expire. A budget team could really benefit from offering the 12th pick of the 2013 NHL Draft serious term in exchange for a deal with a low cap hit. In such a scenario, the Coyotes could conceivably either:

A) get a top-six forward at a bargain rate, with his numbers likely to rebound

or

B) retain a young player for a reasonable cap hit, so they can wait and trade him at a more optimal time even if they’re not sold on him.

There’s also the scenario in which the Coyotes hand Domi a shorter “bridge” contract, which would open the door for Domi to prove himself or at least drive his trade value back up.

Wasted development and time

Frankly, let’s also consider Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

If the Coyotes want to use the 2018-19 season to try to convince “OEL” to re-sign (seemingly a long shot now, but a year can make a big difference), then a resurgent Domi could help. Really, would Ekman-Larsson want to see Domi turn into not-yet-developed assets, which would be the most likely return?

Even beyond OEL, it’s clear from the Coyotes’ summer of moves that they’re growing tired of “rebuild mode.” Their aggressive moves didn’t work out, but how many times do you want to go back to the starting line?

A Domi extension, especially an affordable one, could be part of the solution in Arizona.

***

Again, there’s always a chance that a contending team believes in Domi enough to give up a robust offer.

It’s more realistic to imagine a team trying to take advantage of Domi’s cold streak, which would almost certainly make for a weak return. The Coyotes are justified in “selling” to some extent during the deadline, although they don’t exactly boast a lot of veterans to auction off. Even if they eventually decide to trade Domi, now is almost certainly not the best time to do so.

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.

 

PHT on Fantasy: Phaneuf trade, Burns at forward

Getty
2 Comments

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

The trade deadline is looming, so expect the next few fantasy columns to be especially trade-heavy. The wave hasn’t really rolled in yet for the NHL, however, so it’s mainly the Dion PhaneufMarian Gaborik swap to consider.

That said, there’s another development today that brings back memories of this column about Brent Burns, Dustin Byfuglien, and the D/RW designation. So let’s get into those two developments.

Phaneuf: Better in fantasy?

Look, in reality, Dion Phaneuf isn’t very effective any longer. There might be flashy hits and powerful shots, but the bad tends to outweigh the good. Maybe the Kings will put him in a more nurturing environment, yet to my eyes, this seems like an expensive “name” acquisition that probably won’t move the needle a whole lot on the ice.

This is the chart I referenced for the trade, via this handy tool from CJ Turtoro using Corey Sznajder’s data

… but if you need more charts and other infographics:

That only matters so much in fantasy terms, aside from the notion that it might not mean much of a boost for, say, Jonathan Quick.

I’ve often liked Phaneuf as a depth defenseman in fantasy, however, at least in leagues with robust stats and now that his stature in the league has really dropped. Yahoo’s profiles can be quite useful in spotting “multi-tool” players the quickest, and you can see that with Phaneuf.

With three goals and 16 points, Phaneuf isn’t likely to jump out at you in leagues with simpler stats. Instead, he excels in racking up peripheral stats: so far in 53 games, Phaneuf has 34 PIM (100 last season), 108 hits, and 114 blocked shots. With 86 SOG, Phaneuf can check a lot of boxes.

Consider this: Phaneuf ranks among just 12 players (not surprisingly, all defensemen) with at least 100 hits and 100 blocked shots this season. Interestingly, Brayden McNabb – the useful blueliner the Kings lost to Vegas in the expansion draft – is also in that group.

So, Phaneuf is unlikely to blow you away at this point in his career. Still, if you’re in the right league, he can have some use in a “quantity over quality” sense.

Now, as far as Marian Gaborik goes? Meh.

Burns at forward?

Injuries are stacking up for the San Jose Sharks, which is opening the door for Brent Burns to return – at least briefly – to the forward position.

The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz reports that Burns is lining up with Joe Pavelski and Timo Meier, so he’s not exactly roughing it, either. Meier is also getting some reps on the Sharks’ top PP, so he could be worth a short-term add depending upon how deep your league is.

In a Fear the Fin article that hasn’t aged well – though it must be mentioned that Burns’ defensive work has increasingly come into question lately – “The Neutral” argued back in 2014 that Burns was better off as a forward. While Burns has obviously paid off on defense for the Sharks (and his checking account), it’s worth remembering that Burns was an absolute force at forward, and he might actually become more valuable during this experiment:

But we do know how dominant he is up front and the impact Burns can make on the wing is undeniable. Only Rick Nash, Corey Perry, Max Pacioretty, Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Toews scored more 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes than Burns did during his season-and-a-half at wing. Only twelve total forwards, all of them superstars except for Sidney Crosby comfort goat Chris Kunitz, averaged more points per 60. It isn’t merely about the individual scoring stats either; Burns’ impact on both even-strength offense and puck possession, as well as the additional marginal effects of moving players like Pavelski into roles they can crush, significantly improved the entire team in every conceivable category.

One area where Burns may really thrive is quality of chances. Despite firing a ridiculous 242 SOG in 57 games, Burns only has nine goals this season, a shooting percentage of just 3.7. Some of that comes down to an early-season slump, but it stands to reason that Burns was probably taking some lower-quality shots as a blueliner. Burns being closer to the net could mean higher-danger chances, and real headaches for goalies.

Even with an optimal lineup in mind, you wonder if this experiment might be something the Sharks consider revisiting in certain situations, like when they badly need a goal. Naturally, even that hinges on personnel, as a healthy team might be better off with Burns on the blueline, even in those situations.

The one potential downfall could be that, if he gets a longer run as a forward, his ice time might go down. Then again, with the Sharks’ injuries in mind, that might not be much of a worry. In the last two games, Burns logged 28:16 and 29:49 TOI.

Keep in mind that it would take a while for Burns to regain that fun RW/D designation even if the Sharks stick with him. Still, the mere possibility of that happening again is pretty entertaining for us fantasy dorks.

Maybe we’ll get Dustin Byfuglien back at forward, too, this season?

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.