James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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Rangers, Sharks need to wake up from early slumps

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It’s already bad news that the New York Rangers (1-5-0) and San Jose Sharks (1-3-0) enter Tuesday’s games with a single win apiece.

There’s a simple reason why those slow starts should sting a little extra, though: these teams are squandering home-heavy stretches, or at risk of doing so.

More on the Rangers’ slow start here

Rangers need to wake up at MSG

There are some reasons to believe in both the Sharks and Rangers, with their long track records of recent regular-season success headlining such arguments. It’s worth noting that the Rangers have played two road contests versus four at home, so the situation isn’t too extreme. Yet.

Things could get ugly in a hurry, starting with a real challenge in hosting the Pittsburgh Penguin at Madison Square Garden tonight:

Tue, Oct 17 vs Pittsburgh
Thu, Oct 19 vs NY Islanders
Sat, Oct 21 vs Nashville
Mon, Oct 23 vs San Jose
Thu, Oct 26 vs Arizona
Sat, Oct 28 @ Montreal
Tue, Oct 31 vs Vegas

By the end of October, the Rangers will have played 10 of 41 home contests. At best, a creaky start could cost them seeding. At worst, they may look back at this when pondering how they missed the postseason.

(It doesn’t help their cause that they’re in the brutal Metropolitan Division, either.)

Beyond the established track record, the Rangers can also point to recent history as an act that travels well. In 2016-17, the Rangers boasted a better record on the road (27-12-2) than at home (21-16-4). While they were better at home in 2015-16, they were also 19-17-5 in away games then, too.

So, it’s not all bad for Alain Vigneault & Co., but they could make life much easier for themselves (and maybe see openings to rest Henrik Lundqvist more often) if they take advantage of these opportunities.

Sharks face erratic runs

San Jose ends a five-game homestand against the mercurial Montreal Canadiens tonight. A 2-3-0 mark in such a run wouldn’t be the end of the world, while going 1-3-1 or 1-4-0 would hurt.

While the Rangers look to October as a time where they need to create some breathing room, the Sharks need to take better advantage of future homestands, as their schedule seems to rotate road trips and runs of home games.

This veteran group readies for a five-game road trip, then they play eight of nine at home from Oct. 30 – Nov. 20.

***

Significant members of both the Sharks and Rangers have “been there before.” Players such as Joe Thornton, Lundqvist, and Rick Nash might view October as insignificant; they’ve each likely been on teams that shook off bad starts, even if it meant squandering bountiful opportunities at home.

You can understand a certain level of complacency, but you never know when you’ll no longer have the spring in your step to make it up that hill once again.

The next month or two isn’t “make-or-break” for the Rangers or Sharks, at least in a literal sense. Then again, wins and standings points weigh the same during an 82-game season, so why not stock up while the schedule bends in your favor?

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.

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More signs point to Bruins getting Bergeron, Backes back soon

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Patrice Bergeron is one of the finest two-way centers of his generation, so it makes sense that the Boston Bruins would miss him.

That’s especially true since David Backes has also been sidelined, even if he’s aiming to rebound where Bergeron’s mainly looking to sustain.

While neither Bergeron nor Backes is guaranteed to suit up for the Bruins as they host the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday, there’s some promise in their returns merely being possible, as NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty notes.

It’s plausible that both might be less than 100 percent when they get back, and Backes might lack some of his power game considering his involuntary weight loss.

Even so, after struggling with Riley Nash in the top center spot, Backes and especially Bergeron serve as the Lebowski rug for the Bruins line combos, tying everything together in a far more satisfying way:

Brad Marchand-Bergeron-Anders Bjork
Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciDavid Pastrnak
Tim Schaller-Nash-Backes
Matt BeleskeySean KuralyFrank Vatrano

Much better. Personally, I’d be tempted to move Vatrano into a better offensive opportunity, but an excess of options for head coach Bruce Cassidy sure beats glaring issues down the middle and in the top nine.

The Bruins might also feel a little more liberated to insert them back in the mix since their schedule is conducive to dipping their toes in the water. It’s pretty light for the rest of October, really:

Thu, Oct 19 vs Vancouver
Sat, Oct 21 vs Buffalo
Thu, Oct 26 vs San Jose
Sat, Oct 28 vs Los Angeles
Mon, Oct 30 @ Columbus

The Bruins could play Bergeron and/or Backes in just two games through Saturday, Oct. 28 and only have them miss two in the process. And so on.

All things considered, it says something about Boston’s system that the Bruins are still close to the top-10 in possession stats, even with a two-way monster like Bergeron among their missing pieces.

As PHT’s Joey Alfieri notes, it doesn’t absolve a 2-3-0 start, as the Bruins faced a relatively friendly schedule.

Still, the schedule is breaking in a way where the Bruins could ideally limit the damage if Bergeron and Backes can recover reasonably soon. Things can change with injuries – just note how optimism can turn to pessimism for, say, Zach Parise – but at the moment, there are some reasons to look at the glass as half-full.

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.

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Do it, Flames: Put Jagr with Gaudreau, Monahan

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After an agonizing wait, the Calgary Flames bit the bullet and signed Jaromir Jagr.

To little surprise, skipping the preseason and not having an answer about the future has made for a bit of a stilted integration for the 45-year-old, who is still something of a possession monster when the puck gets on his stick.

Jagr finally collected his first point (an assist) with the Flames on Saturday, during their 5-2 win against the Vancouver Canucks. It came, fittingly, on the power play.

If assisting on a Johnny Gaudreau goal wasn’t enticing enough, take a look at the Flames’ offensive lines on Tuesday, a tempting tease with their next game coming Thursday:

Circumstance could play a role in Jagr getting at least a look with Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. As Sportsnet’s Pat Steinberg noted, Kris Versteeg wasn’t around, so Glen Gulutzan might have been adjusting to Versteeg – Sam Bennett – Jagr not being an option.

(Micheal Ferland also has been a little banged up lately, although you can see that he at least suited up.)

Still, it’s fun to cross one’s fingers and hope that Jagr gets an extended look with the dynamic duo, especially since he enjoyed so much success in a similar situation with Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau during his time with the Florida Panthers.

So far, the Flames have already experimented with Jagr in such a situation. From an even-strength perspective, he’s spent about two-thirds of his time with Bennett/Versteeg and one-third with Gaudreau/Monahan, according to Natural Stat Trick’s numbers.

Flames Nation’s Ari Yanover provides a fascinating perspective: maybe the experimenting should continue, with Jagr being used in a variety of attacking zone situations.

Perhaps the focus is a little less on “who should Jagr be playing with” and more on “whoever is getting the most offensive zone starts, that’s Jagr’s line”. And typically, it’s Gaudreau’s line getting the offensive zone starts. So maybe, once Jagr is ready, that should be his line after all. We know he has it in him – not just because he’s, well, Jaromir Jagr, but also because that’s exactly what he was doing in Florida half a year ago.

Interesting.

Selfishly, as fans of the aging wonder, many of us simply want more Jagr.

Being selective with how he’s deployed might just be the ticket for the Flames. It’s sensible that Jagr’s getting 13 minutes of ice time per game (with almost exactly three of them coming on the power play), especially as he eases in. Greedily, we still want more, but it’s up to Calgary to decide if that’s actually the best way to optimize what they have.

As the season goes along, it will be fun to see how Jagr is used. There aren’t many weapons like him in the NHL, and that’s assuming that he can still get it done.

(So far, the answer seems to be “mostly yes.”)

For another look at how Jagr could fit into the Flames’ lines, check out this bit from before the 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.

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Why Oilers are struggling, and what needs to change

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Sure, Connor McDavid scored all three of their goals, but it was still electrifying to see the Edmonton Oilers open their season with a 3-0 win against the Calgary Flames.

For those who saw red flags, the last week must have felt like retribution, as the Oilers dropped three straight, with their most recent loss (6-1 to the Ottawa Senators) marking a low point.

With that 1-3-0 record in mind and Leon Draisaitl on the shelf, spirits are low and frustrations might be high in Edmonton. Let’s dig deeper to see which patterns should continue and how much this boils down to bad luck.

Plenty of shots, but maybe the wrong guys shooting?

The Oilers lead the NHL in Corsi For rating with 59.42 percent, and Edmonton sports the classic signs of bad luck: they fall in the bottom five in PDO and team shooting percentage. (Fancy stats via Natural Stat Trick.)

The takeaway there is quite basic: more bounces are bound to go their way. Just consider McDavid alone: he hasn’t scored a goal since that thrilling hat trick to start the season.

A lot of those trends will end merely by playing more games.

That said, the distribution of shots on goal is a bit troubling, and it’s something that Oilers head coach Todd McLellan should address either through tweaking lines or his system (or both?).

Check out the Oilers’ top five players in shots on goal:

1. McDavid (19)
2. Oscar Klefbom (15)
3. Darnell Nurse (13)
4. Draisaitl (12 in three GP)
5. Adam Larsson (11)

Yes, three of the Oilers’ top five shooters are defensemen. McLellan pointed out the team’s most glaring offensive deficit, so far, to Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal.

“We’re not getting enough from the wingers or our bottom six and if you’re not scoring (as a team), you can’t be giving up six (goals),” McLellan said.

Indeed, the Oilers need more from their supporting cast.

Most of those players should expect a rebound; the more frightening question is: how much can the Oilers really expect? Even in Milan Lucic‘s best days, he’s never been a volume shooter; his career average is well under two shots on goal per contest.

Ryan Strome hasn’t scored a point so far for the Oilers, but some of that might come down to a lack of opportunities. He’s averaging almost one fewer minute of ice time per game vs. his last season with the Islanders, which is a touch surprising since many expected this to be an opportunity for him to break through.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins simply needs to do more. While RNH has two goals so far, he’s only fired five SOG in four games. You can explain some of that away by explaining playmaking leanings, but when your team is struggling, sometimes a passer must be a bit more assertive, too.

Again, expect better things from RNH and Lucic in particular, not to mention Patrick Maroon, Kailer Yamamoto, and Jussi Jokinen. Even so, some of this might come down to the makeup of this team.

Depth can often be key for scoring in the NHL, and the Oilers have something to prove in that area.

Frustrations for Cam Talbot

Credit Edmonton Oilers workhorse Cam Talbot for accepting blame for his part in the Oilers’ 1-3-0 start, as the Edmonton Sun’s Terry Jones notes.

“I’ll find a way to fix it. I know I will because I’ve always done it before,” Talbot said. “We’re going to turn this around here, no doubt. It starts with me in net. Once I start making the saves I’m supposed to make, the guys in front of me can do what they’re supposed to do. It starts in net and we work our way out from there.”

If you want to look at the surest spot where things will improve for Edmonton, look to Talbot.

Much like a host of other NHL goalies, he’s off to a shockingly bad start. Talbot’s GAA is just under four (3.96) and his save percentage probably gives Grant Fuhr some unpleasant flashbacks (.880). Talbot’s numbers should rise considerably, even if he fails to match the heights of 2016-17.

In the meantime, the Oilers turn to Laurent Brossoit, who’s off to a solid start.

***

In most cases, the Oilers should settle things down.

Still, it’s important to remember that this team has Stanley Cup aspirations. For all the justifiable criticisms GM Peter Chiarelli receives, if he can identify issues during the season and address at least some of them with savvy “rentals,” then he’ll earn his place as the guy who lucked into having McDavid on his roster.

Things will get better. It’s just going to be a challenge when you consider how high they set the bar for themselves.

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.

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Plea to NHL: You can nix the All-Star Game, just keep skills competition

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During Saturday’s edition of Sportsnet’s Headlines (see video above), Chris Johnston reported that the NHL and NHLPA discussed the notion of “scrapping” the All-Star Game.

Johnston’s report gets a little fuzzier from there, as he goes into how the NHL wants to make more of a concerted effort to grow the game in Europe.* For all we know, the league might just want to bring some sort of modified All-Star weekend overseas. It seems like this is all in an early gestation period; Johnston said that more talks are expected to happen.

Beyond that, there wasn’t really a timeline specified, even if something significant does happen.

So, in case that wasn’t clear: it’s too early to say that All-Star Games will be no more.

Let’s assume that such a measure will be taken, though.

If that happens, allow PHT to beg for fellow hockey fans: whatever you do, don’t get rid of the glorious spectacle that is the skills competition.

(Heck, you can have one night for more normal stuff like the hardest shot and another for odder events.)

Seriously, aside from John Scott’s storybook experience, which moments do you remember most vividly? From Al Iafrate’s skullet to players aiming at hilariously small nets to Alex Ovechkin‘s goofy costumes and moments of friendship with Evgeni Malkin, chances are those great times came during a skills competition.

Also, any chance to get Sidney Crosby vs. Connor McDavid (or vs. Auston Matthews … or vs. Alex Ovechkin) at anything is probably in the best interest of the NHL/sports/humanity:

Honestly, NHL execs, you already broke a lot of hearts by getting rid of the fantasy draft process where players basically roasted each other. That experience was about 10 times more entertaining than your typical All-Star exhibition where the main goals are (understandably) to not get hurt or embarrassed.

Actually, this brings up the best idea of all: Phil Kessel hosting an All-Star hot dog eating contest.

Anyway, the NHL and NHLPA still have a long way to go before we see the end of the All-Star Game. Let’s just hope they don’t lose sight of the big picture, which just so happens to revolve around miniature nets.

* – During that same segment, Elliotte Friedman reported that the Edmonton Oilers would love to participate in games in China. One can picture Connor McDavid creating new fans there, 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.

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