James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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Paul Martin won’t be last problem contract Sharks will want to trade

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The Mercury News’ Curtis Pashelka reports that Paul Martin wants a trade from the San Jose Sharks, seeking an opportunity to play after injuries and shaky work have mostly kept him out of the lineup.

Other outlets have backed up this report, and Martin admitted as much himself in a clip you might enjoy more for the beard-stroking as anything else.

If Martin’s contract was expiring in 2017-18, it would be easy to imagine teams taking a shot at him. Such a mountain becomes tougher to climb when you realize that his problematic $4.85 million cap hit won’t expire until after 2018-19, according to Cap Friendly.

There’s no denying that Martin has an impressive resume, yet that costly contract, his advanced age (will turn 37 in March), and lack of play this season really make it tough to imagine the Sharks getting anything other than an equally ugly – or uglier – contract in return for the very-much-grizzly veteran.

The best news is probably just that his contract expires after 2018-19, so even if this remains a headache they can’t cure with a trade-based painkiller, the discomfort should lift soon enough.

The more worrisome thought is this: it’s easy to picture more headlines about the Sharks wanting to trade bad contracts, particularly for aging defensemen who were once very good, in the not-too-far-flung future.

Brent Burns is already 32, and his eight-year, $64M contract just kicked in this season, so that $8M cap hit runs through 2024-25. Burns turns 33 in March.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic is about to see his ridiculous bargain $4.25M cap hit expire after this season. The Sharks already made a-near-Burns-sized commitment to “Pickles,” handing him an eight-year, $56M extension ($7M cap hit) that expires in 2025-26. Vlasic will turn 31 in, you guessed it, March.

Burns’ yearly salary works out to make him a little bit easier to trade as his deal goes along, but the bottom line is that those contracts are still pretty scary.

The Sharks are making big bets on some aging core pieces remaining difference-makers for the long-term. Martin Jones turned 28 on Jan. 10 and will see his contract extension ($5.75M cap hit through 2023-24) kick in next season.

When you consider how sneaky-old Joe Pavelski is (33 already, only two years remaining on his deal) and Joe Thornton‘s shrinking window either as a difference-maker or as a difference-maker with the Sharks, you could practically hear the ominous music kick in.

Now, sure, some of this comes down to “the cost of doing business.”

That said, the Sharks likely weighed concerns about Martin’s age and dug themselves a hole with his contract, anyway. Such concerns may only become more abundant over the next few years.

For San Jose, the hope is that Father Time merely shows up late.

UPDATE: The Sharks placed Martin on waivers Monday afternoon.

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.

Who has better shot at playoffs: Penguins or Rangers?

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Yes, it’s just one game, but the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins both likely realize that these Metropolitan Division matchups are that much more important.

Update: The Penguins beat the Rangers 5-2, so now Pittsburgh has 51 standings points in 46 games played while the Rangers have 49 points in 44 games. The two teams have tenuous grips on the East’s two wild-card spots.

Read about the Penguins’ win here and a milestone night for Phil Kessel in this post.

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At the moment, both teams have 49 standings points, with the Rangers having a significant advantage in holding two games in hand (43 games played for Rangers, 45 for Penguins). As you can see from the standings, the Metro races are indeed skin-tight.

You’d think that the Rangers’ two games in hand would be enough to give them a substantial edge in the race, at least as of this writing, but it’s fascinating to take a look at which models smile more upon the Penguins or Rangers.

Sportsclub Stats gives the Rangers a 66.4 percent chance to make the playoffs, while handing the Penguins a dicey 36.1 percent chance. On the other hand, Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic’s model (sub required) favors the Penguins considerably, while others are very close.

To some extent, Penguins optimism comes from their past successes and some bad bounces in 2017-18. PDO is often used as a measure of luck, and Pittsburgh stands as the lowest-ranking team in that stat in the entire NHL (via Natural Stat Trick).

Another factor working against the Rangers is their remaining schedule.

Yes, they have games in hand on the Penguins (and in some cases, other rivals), but they’re also slated to pay for what’s been a remarkably home-heavy start to the season. The Rangers have played 26 games at home, the most in the NHL, while only playing 17 on the road, the least in the league.

Things start to heat up in a week:

Sun, Jan 21 @ Los Angeles
Tue, Jan 23 @ Anaheim
Thu, Jan 25 @ San Jose
Thu, Feb 1 vs Toronto
Sat, Feb 3 @ Nashville
Mon, Feb 5 @ Dallas
Wed, Feb 7 vs Boston
Fri, Feb 9 vs Calgary
Sun, Feb 11 @ Winnipeg
Tue, Feb 13 @ Minnesota
Thu, Feb 15 @ NY Islanders
Sat, Feb 17 @ Ottawa

You’d think a bye week would help, and it does break up some of the challenge, but it could also be rough if the Rangers limp into that break with a bad California road trip.

After tonight’s game, the Rangers and Penguins only meet one more time in the regular season, a March 14 match at Madison Square Garden. It’s quite possible that both teams will miss or make the playoffs this season, but it’s very difficult to say how things will ultimately shake out.

One can only put so much weight in one game during an 82-game campaign, yet looking at how small the margins seem to be, this could be an important decision. Especially if it ends in regulation.

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.

Debate swirls around Giordano hit on Aho, fight with Williams

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There are plenty of questions following Mark Giordano‘s hit on Sebastian Aho, and his subsequent fight with Justin Williams.

Giordano was ejected from the game and received a five-minute major for the hit, which didn’t ultimately cost the Calgary Flames much in-game, as they ultimately beat the Carolina Hurricanes 4-1. The first questions start to swirl about that check: should more punishment come?

As you can see in the video above this post’s headline, Keith Jones and others believe that it was either a clean hit or that the major was enough. The debate goes both ways, however, with others calling for a suspension.

Considering Aho’s rise as a scoring star with the Hurricanes, there are worries that he was injured. As Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters notes, there are worries about a head injury and possibly a knee injury. Peters also noted that there was head contact but didn’t exactly scorch Giordano with his assessment of the check.

“They’re talking about his knee a little bit, too, so there’s lots getting looked at,” Peters said, via Michael Smith of the team website. “I’m sure we’ll know a little bit more later.”

Beyond that, some wonder if the Hurricanes failed in responding to the hit, both in the moment and on the scoreboard.

Ouch.

Either way, this game highlighted the divergent paths for these two teams. On one hand, the Flames have now won seven games in a row. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes have dropped two in a row and only have two wins in their last eight contests (2-5-1). Not ideal for a team locked into competitive Metropolitan Division playoff races.

Losing Aho for an extended duration of time would only make matters worse.

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.

WATCH LIVE: New York Rangers at Pittsburgh Penguins

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CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Rangers

J.T. MillerMika ZibanejadMats Zuccarello

Rick NashBoo NievesJesper Fast

Jimmy VeseyDavid DesharnaisPavel Buchnevich

Michael GrabnerPaul Carey — Vinni Lettieri

Ryan McDonaghNick Holden

Brady SkjeiKevin Shattenkirk

Marc StaalSteven Kampfer

Starting Goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

Penguins

Dominik SimonSidney Crosby — Daniel Sprong

Carl HagelinEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist

Conor ShearyJake GuentzelPhil Kessel

Tom KuhnhacklRiley SheahanRyan Reaves

Brian DumoulinKris Letang

Olli MaattaJustin Schultz

Matt HunwickJamie Oleksiak

Starting Goalie: Tristan Jarry

New Year in fantasy hockey: East edition

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This column is a beefy fellow, so let’s keep the intro brief.

Last week, we pondered various tidbits and storylines for the Western Conference with 2018 brand new. The year might already have lost its new-car smell, but let’s finish this off with the East anyway.

[The West edition.]

Boston Bruins: Remember when people were worried about Tuukka Rask?

Before you scoff too much, note that it wasn’t that crazy. Between October and November, Rask really struggled. He was absolutely ridiculous in December: 9-0-1 with a .955 save percentage and two shutouts in 11 games. His start to 2018’s been dicey, but it’s only been two games. It’s easy to forget just how dominant up to this point; Rask carries a wonderful .923 career save percentage.

I’ll be curious to see if Rask continues to play at a near-Vezina-level this season. If so, I wonder how many people exploited the panic boiling within others to profit in a fantasy trade.

Buffalo Sabres: Two Sabres I’m especially interested down the stretch are: Robin Lehner and Kyle Okposo. Both are building some steam lately.

With Lehner, he’s a poor man’s Rask, as his December stats dwarf his other months, but he’s not quite getting the wins at the same rate as Rask.

The more inspiring story is Okposo, who really shouldn’t be dinged too much for a slow start. He suffered exactly that, only generating two points in 10 October games. Since then, Okposo has 22 points in his last 32 games, with seven coming in six 2018 contests. You don’t often see extenuating circumstances like Okposo’s, yet he’s a beacon in favor of keeping an eye on streaks, not just full-season stats.

Carolina Hurricanes: The Hurricanes are getting it together, and Sebastian Aho (not the Islanders version) continues his ascent among the ranks. He had a strong rookie season with 24 goals and 49 points, and he already has 15 goals and 35 points in just 43 games in 2017-18.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Don’t be alarmed by the Blue Jackets’ mild stumbles, as I’d wager being without Alexander Wennberg and Brandon Dubinsky really gummed up the works (keen on you, Pierre-Luc Dubois, but you’re not a top center just yet). Wennberg played his first game since Dec. 21 last night, while Dubinsky could return soon with a tinted visor, which will hopefully look like the one Ricky Williams used to wear.*

* – It won’t.

Detroit Red Wings: Unless they’re even more out of touch with the reality of their situation than they already seem, the Red Wings will eventually trade All-Star (in 2018!) Mike Green at some point.

I question if such a move would benefit Green owners.

While he’d conceivably get to play with better scorers, the upgrade might not be that steep, and his role could be quite different. Green leads Red Wings skaters in ice time by a bit more than two minutes per night at 22:39, with 2:26 coming on the power play. He’d likely be used as specialist on another team, which might actually bump that power-play time, but could easily be used minimally otherwise. The best-case scenario would be a Kevin Shattenkirk in Washington situation (good fantasy numbers, dicey reality situation), but Green isn’t quite at that level any longer.

Florida Panthers: A lot of times I like to target high-usage, young defensemen with offensive upside with my later D picks in drafts. Sometimes that means getting John Klingberg (a guy I seemingly reached for consistently) and sometimes that means settling for Aaron Ekblad.

Ekblad’s averaging just under 24 minutes per night, yet he only has 13 points in 42 games. I did a little NHL.com search to see defensemen who’ve played at least 20 games and averaged at least 20+ minutes per night, and I must say, Ekblad doesn’t exactly wow you scoring-efficiency wise. The seven goals ease some of the disappointment.

Montreal Canadiens: Alex Galchenyuk‘s been one of Montreal’s leading scorers even without the ice time you’d usually need to do so. Is Claude Julien finally letting him free? He’s been averaging more than 18 minutes of ice time per night in 2018, which is a tiny sample size, but … hey, we can dream.

New Jersey Devils: Sami Vatanen‘s numbers are pretty comparable in NJ vs. with Anaheim (though close to an extra minute of ice time per game is nice), but he’s shooting a bit more often, which is basically always welcome in fantasy hockey.

(Unless you’re in some horrific league with shooting percentage as a stat. Gross.)

New York Islanders: Goaltending continues to be a problem, which has to sting extra for their GM Garth Snow, a former backup. Bad side even if you don’t own Jaroslav Halak or Thomas Greiss: higher chances of racking up minuses. Bright side: little reason for scorers to ever relent.

New York Rangers: If you want to anger a Rangers fan, you probably only need to utter the name “Pavel Buchnevich.” To be fair, his fantasy owners likely nod their heads when those same fans gripe about Alain Vigneault.

Ottawa Senators: Matt Duchene might be getting it together. The speedy forward has six points in his last four games, split evenly with three goals and three assists.

That represents half of his production with the Senators (12 points in 28 games).

Philadelphia Flyers: With five points in his last three games, Ivan Provorov is on fire, pushing himself to a solid 20 points already in 2017-18. Provorov managed 30 in 2016-17; while he may never be as explosive as Shayne Gostisbehere, his all-around game might make him a guy who gets enough ice time to make it close in the future.

Provorov is somehow still just 20. The young talent in the NHL is just bonkers right now.

Pittsburgh Penguins: All of Daniel Sprong’s three points came in one game: a two-goal, one-assist contest against the Islanders on Jan. 5. His ice time has been a little sporadic, too.

The lure of him being the next Jake Guentzel is honestly quite understandable, though you would be wise to pay attention if you have them. There might be cases where you’d want to add and drop him more than once as the season goes along, if you’re the tinkering type.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Let’s hope Victor Hedman is OK. If not, Anton Stralman, Mikhail Sergachev, Jake Dotchin, and Braydon Coburn may all shoulder heavier burdens. The biggest loser would be Andrei Vasilevskiy, who’s been off the charts for most of this season.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Mitch Marner left Mike Babcock’s doghouse in a big way, generating 13 points in as many games in December. Or, if he’s still in the doghouse, it’s a really nice one with air conditioning and cable TV.

Washington Capitals: During the last two seasons, John Carlson finished with 37 and 39 points, with injuries limiting his production to varying degrees. He’s generally been in that high-30 range during his prime years, aside from a red-hot 2014-15 when he scored 12 goals and 55 points.

Carlson’s really nailing his contract year so far, collecting five goals and 29 assists for 34 points. It’s not really a matter of insane luck, and might be as much to do with Washington needing more from him thanks to free agent departures than any sort of “greed is good” fun.

Either way, he’s on track to set plenty of career-highs if he can stay reasonably healthy.

Contract years are the best … for fantasy, at least.

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.