James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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Vigneault picks shaky time for even mild Lundqvist criticism

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Look, on one hand, it would probably be cowardly for New York Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault to skirt all questions about his team’s struggles.

Still, with upper management avoiding the “Fire AV” debate altogether while discussing a looming rebuild, you’d think that Vigneault would walk on eggshells, particularly when it comes to Henrik Lundqvist.

The New York Post’s Brett Cyrgalis passes along some interesting quotes from Vigneault on the team’s goaltending, which while not necessarily inflammatory, might not sit well with Rangers fans who already want him fired:

“I believe that we’re a goaltender getting on a roll here to being back in the hunt and back into the playoffs,” Vigneault said. “We started our season 4-7-2 and we were a little inconsistent in the goaltending department. I felt we were playing better than our record indicated. Goaltending got better, we went on a [18-7-3] run. Came back from the bye week and since that time, we’ve been on a [3-10] run. A little inconsistent in the goaltending department.”

When you look at Henrik Lundqvist’s split stats, you can see that he’s experienced some rough months in October and now February, yet the overall picture is … well, handsome.

You could argue that such ups and downs fall on the netminder, yet could it also come down, in part, to the play in front of said netminders?

If you’re Vigneault, wouldn’t it be better off to say something vaguer, like “we’ve been inconsistent as a team?” Is it really wise to single out your goalies, particularly one who makes $8.5 million per year and is respected as one of the most consistent in the NHL?

You’d think comments like these won’t silence the whispers about Vigneault.

Management spoke of the team losing “familiar faces,” with speculation regarding any number of players being traded as part of a rebuild. There are even murmurs about Lundqvist being moved, possibly in part to spare him that process.

Maybe Vigneault knows that he might not be part of such rebuilding plans, either?

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.

Rangers’ Smith to AHL after clearing waivers

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NEW YORK (AP) The New York Rangers sent Brendan Smith to Hartford of the American Hockey League after the defenseman cleared waivers on Friday.

The move came one day after Smith – re-signed to a four-year, $17 million deal last June – was waived on his 29th birthday.

New York coach Alain Vigneault said captain Ryan McDonagh was out Friday night against Calgary due to an upper-body injury and could miss the team’s upcoming trip to Winnipeg and Minnesota. The Rangers will return to New York to visit the crosstown-rival Islanders next Thursday.

The Rangers called up John Gilmour from the AHL club and put him in the lineup against the Flames for his NHL debut. The 24-year-old defenseman had six goals and 20 assists in 44 games for the Wolf Pack this season.

Neal Pionk, called up from Hartford on Thursday, was also set to make his NHL debut, marking the first the the Rangers had two defensemen playing their initial games since Michael Del Zotto and Matt Gilroy on Oct. 2, 2009, at Pittsburgh.

Defensemen Marc Staal (neck) and Kevin Shattenkirk (knee surgery) are also out, along with forwards Chris Kreider (blood clot), Pavel Buchnevich (concussion) and Jimmy Vesey (concussion).

New York has lost 11 of its last 15 games and began the day in last place in the tight Metropolitan Division, three points behind Columbus and the Islanders for the last wild card in the Eastern Conference.

Senators extend GM, hint at rebuild

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The theme of this week might be “fledgling teams acknowledging a need to rebuild, even as they frustrate their fans in other ways.”

After the New York Rangers acknowledged reality while skirting the Alain Vigneault issue, the Ottawa Senators followed suit, but they also made the questionable decision to hand GM Pierre Dorion a three-year contract extension.

(The Senators did part ways with president/CEO Tom Anselmi, however.)

Press releases often read as dry material, yet in each case it was interesting to see the writing on the wall not get ignored. Granted, the word “rebuild” itself didn’t get thrown around; the Rangers website used “retool” while the Senators stated that Dorion would “concentrate on building a foundation of sustainable success.”

“Today’s announcement reflects a renewed commitment to scouting, drafting and development,” Owner Eugene Melnyk said. “It may require changes to our lineup. Rest assured, we will only tolerate pain with an endgame in mind: building an organization that wins – at all levels – year in and year out.”

Of course, it’s difficult to ignore that the Senators must “tolerate pain” that is, in many ways, self-inflicted.

It’s likely a relief that Matt Duchene has been picking up steam lately, yet the goal wasn’t just to add a player, but rather find a catalyst to at least make the playoffs. Ottawa wouldn’t have placed a first-rounder that will either be in 2018 or 2019 on the line if they really expected things to play out this way. The Mika ZibanejadDerick Brassard deal is another significant trade made under Dorion’s watch, and while many lean toward New York’s take since Mika Z is younger, the two centers’ play has been fairly even so far.

When you look at the Senators’ salary structure and see some shaky deals, it’s important to remember that some of those errors were made by previous GM Bryan Murray rather than Dorion, who’s only been in that position since April 2016.

Whether it’s trading Zibanejad or Kyle Turris, it’s important to remember that the Senators’ budget-conscious ways likely play a role in some of Dorion’s decisions, shedding some light on some deals where the Senators come across as if they’re paying a premium for lateral moves.

Even if you’re easy on Dorion, it’s kind of tough to believe that he’s not that far removed from being a finalist for GM of the Year, although hiring Guy Boucher had a lot to do with that.

Most important decisions ahead

One way or another, Senators fans aren’t most interested in whether or not their GM was getting an extension in the near future.

This merely clarifies that Dorion (and of course, Melnyk) will end up being involved in the absolutely pivotal decision regarding superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson, whose bargain $6.5 million cap hit expires after 2018-19.

Karlsson’s made no qualms about getting the best deal possible after Drew Doughty hinted at as much. As dire as the Senators seem at times lately, imagining Ottawa without Karlsson is downright frightening. That said, he’s dealt with some significant – and freakish – injuries during his career, and he’s already 27. Re-signing Karlsson likely means rolling the dice that at least a portion of what you’d expect to be a lengthy contract would cover some time past his prime.

Considering that such a deal might carry an AAV above $10M per year, such a contract could be scary.

The Senators have seen long-term pacts go sideways, too. Bobby Ryan‘s $7.25M cap hit runs through (somehow) 2021-22, while they only get slightly more relief with Dion Phaneuf ($7M, ending after 2020-21).

With Karlsson needing a new deal after next season and Mark Stone headed toward RFA status this summer, there are some crucial decisions to be made, and it looks like Dorion will make them, at least alongside his owner.

(Note: we’ve seen GMs and coaches get fired in situations like these, even sometimes in close proximity to extensions, so you can never be totally certain.)

As of this moment, extending Dorion seems like a questionable move, at best.

That said, it’s also questionable to have your GM in a “lame duck” position with an expiring contract in the first place, particularly with some huge decisions looming. If nothing else, the Senators can focus on the Karlsson decision and other choices now, rather than wondering if someone else will be in charge in mere months.

What a mess. Can Dorion clean it up? The Senators are gambling that he can.

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.

Rangers embrace rebuild, dodge questions about Vigneault

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Apparently placing Brendan Smith on waivers was a prelude to some intriguing statements from New York Rangers management, as GM Jeff Gorton and promoted-GM-now-president Glen Sather acknowledged a rebuild today.

Granted, on the team website, the term is instead “retool.” (At least they didn’t say “we don’t rebuild, we reload,” right?)

“We have not played well for a while,” Gorton said, via the Rangers website. “It’s becoming increasingly clearer as the days go on that we’re in tough as we go forward for the playoffs. It’s the reality of having to look forward and the decisions that we make going forward will be based on long term and not trying to save the season.”

One question about the team’s future is: will embattled head coach Alain Vigneault be a part of it? Gorton didn’t give a firm answer, so today wasn’t exactly a full reset.

Here’s the full presser with Sather and Gorton:

The Rangers also released an official statement from the two executives. You can read the full release here, which included some mild humble-bragging about the team’s solid success (without a Stanley Cup) before warning of potential trades:

So as we do every season, we have been continuously evaluating our team, looking for areas that can be improved to enhance our chances of winning. We began the process of reshaping our team this past summer, when we traded for assets that we believe will help us in the years to come. As we approach the trade deadline later this month and into the summer, we will be focused on adding young, competitive players that combine speed, skill and character. This may mean we lose some familiar faces, guys we all care about and respect. While this is part of the game, it’s never easy. Our promise to you is that our plans will be guided by our singular commitment: ensuring we are building the foundation for our next Stanley Cup contender.

Naturally, the question that fascinates us the most is: which familiar faces may they “lose?”

Most obviously, the Rangers are shopping pendings UFAs such as Rick Nash and Michael Grabner, though it remains to be seen if they’ll be able to land anywhere near the lofty assets they’re seeking. There’s also some question about players on short deals; both Mats Zuccarello and Ryan McDonagh see their deals expire after 2018-19, so would the team make the painful decision to move one or both?

(McDonagh, in particular, seems primed for a raise considering his relative bargain cap hit of $4.7 million.)

There are even questions about Henrik Lundqvist, whose $8.5M cap hit runs through 2020-21. At 35, the future Hall of Famer has to wonder how much longer he’ll be able to swing for that elusive Stanley Cup title.

It’s tough to imagine Lundqvist being moved, but beyond “King Henrik,” one has to wonder how many Rangers are safe. That’s especially true if another team would be willing to take on a problem contract like that of Smith or Marc Staal if it’s packaged with a quality young player like, say, J.T. Miller.

Rangers fans haven’t seen struggles like this in some time, and their bitterness is palpable. Fans want change, and unpopular trades could really sour the mood, especially if the team waffles regarding Vigneault.

Fans of the sport as a whole, however, must be fascinated with how all of this might pan out, and hopeful that their GMs can land some quality players, whether it means at the Feb. 26 trade deadline or during the offseason.

Buckle up.

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: Power play points, ponderings

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Earlier this week, I pondered Patrick Marleau‘s scoring slump, which a) really struck a nerve with Toronto Maple Leafs fans and b) spotlighted some debatable lineup choices by Mike Babcock.

One thing that sticks out with Toronto is how they handle power-play minutes, and it got me to thinking: what are some other power play tidbits that might be interesting, particularly to fantasy hockey obsessives?

Let’s dive in.

The Maple Leafs are pretty much locked into the third spot in the Atlantic, so Babcock should use the next two months to experiment with different alignments. The Athletic’s Tyler Dellow makes a fascinating argument for why Auston Matthews isn’t used on the top power-play unit, but why not use this as a chance to test a variety of scenarios?

  • Another power-play time decision that makes me scratch my head a bit: Dougie Hamilton only ranking third among Flames defensemen (and eighth overall) with an average of 2:10 per night. Mark Giordano‘s great and T.J. Brodie is quite effective, but I’d probably want Hamilton to be either tops or 1a/1b with one of those two. If that changes, it could make Hamilton that much more effective. He’s fine with 27 points in 53 games, but more reps would open the door for greater fantasy glory.
  • Now, moving onto a sensible factoid: Alex Ovechkin leads the NHL with 4:20 PPTOI, and he’s making great use of that time.

Ovechkin’s fired a league-leading 83 SOG on the PP, and he’s also missed 33 additional shots. Really, his nine PPG and 20 PPP are almost modest, at least compared to other upper echelon producers. For example: Patrik Laine (52 PP SOG) and Evgeni Malkin (56 PP SOG) lead the league with 13 PPG apiece.

  • The only power play trigger in Ovechkin’s range is Tyler Seguin, who’s fired 72 SOG on the PP, along with 22 misses. Fittingly, he only has nine PPG and 16 PPP. Even if some of Ovechkin’s and Seguin’s shots might be relatively lower-quality than others, you’d think that both forwards could be even more dangerous toward the last two months of the season (if you’re looking into high-level trades).
  • Kudos to Jeff Petry for being one of the most productive defensemen on the PP. He’s likely to cool off a bit (five PPG on 26 PP SOG is a bit much for a blueliner), so just be careful. Nice to see an underrated player get some bounces, though.
  • As long as John Carlson is healthy, he should be a strong bet to be a great fantasy find, and the power play explains some of his value. He’s been a useful volume guy before, and with a lot of money on the line in a contract year, this could be really something. Carlson already has eight goals and 41 points, his second-best output (55 is his peak) with two months remaining.

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As the fantasy season goes along, sometimes you need to look for granular advantages, and sometimes it’s helpful to note players on cold streaks who have a better chance to turn things around. Power-play time should be one of those things you monitor, especially if you notice a player who’s caught his coach’s eye and is getting better and better chances.

We might revisit this later in the season, possibly taking the monthly (or at least couple month) approach.

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.