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Without NHL players, Olympic tournament is ‘wide open’

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When Willie Desjardins coached Canada’s 2010 world junior team stacked with future NHL players Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Brayden Schenn, Alex Pietrangelo and goaltenders Jake Allen and Martin Jones, it took a wild final game with John Carlson scoring in overtime to win the gold medal for the United States.

Just like Canada was the most talented team back then, Russia is likely to have that role at the upcoming Winter Olympics. Desjardins isn’t concerned about that.

”In this tournament, anybody can win,” Desjardins said.

Goodbye, NHL players. Hello, unpredictability.

No NHL participation for the first time since 1994 threatens to upset the traditional world hockey order after Canada has won the past three best-on-best tournaments: the 2016 World Cup, 2014 Sochi Olympics and 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Russia is considered the favorite because it has former NHL players Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and Andrei Markov, though Finland could make gold its sixth medal in the past five Games or Sweden could win for the first time since 2006.

Coach Tony Granato’s American team was put together with players from European professional leagues, the NCAA and American Hockey League.

”This Olympics is wide open for a lot of reasons,” Granato said. ”Russia’s got the most talented players in the world. They’re going to have the team that steps on the ice with the most talented players. Does that make them the best team for two weeks? No. We all know that. We all know how sports works. All you’re looking for is an opportunity to make the most and be the best that you can be for that period of time.”

Because it’s such a short tournament with three pool-play games, a qualifying round and then quarterfinals, it could come down to which team gels first after limited preparation time. Or maybe another goaltender will pull off what Latvia’s Kristers Gudlevskis almost did when making 55 saves to give Canada a scare in the quarterfinals in Sochi.

”The goaltending matters, too, in an event like this,” NBC Sports analyst Pierre McGuire said. ”It always matters, but I think in this one, the underdog – if you have an elite goalie – can really do some damage.”

Who’s the underdog? It’s fair to say host South Korea, in its first Olympics in men’s hockey, fits that bill, along with Slovenia, Slovakia, Switzerland, Germany and Norway.

Yet being in a group with Slovenia, Slovakia and Russia is no easy task for the U.S., which boasts 38-year-old semi-retired captain Brian Gionta as its most experienced player. Granato said the U.S. ”has lots of pieces that other teams and countries don’t know about” and wonders if his team will be overlooked.

Mistake-prone play seems likely, though Gionta doesn’t think there will be any lack of sizzle.

”I know there’s been some talk that not having the NHL guys in, you don’t have your high-skilled guys,” Gionta said. ”I think that’s a bad representation of the people that are going over there and competing in these games. There’s a lot of great hockey players.”

ALL EYES ON DAHLIN

One of the most dynamic and offensively talented players is also the youngest: Sweden defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who’s projected to be the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft in June. Dahlin has 11 points in 29 games playing against grown men in the Swedish Hockey League and had six points in seven games at the world juniors. He’s just 17.

WHO ARE THESE GUYS?

When the NHL announced it was out of these Olympics, executives from USA Hockey and Hockey Canada were quick to say every team would have 25 great stories. There are players on almost every team who are familiar because they played in the NHL at one point. Most of the rosters are made up of journeymen plying their trade in pro leagues in Europe, such as Czech Republic captain Martin Erat, Germany’s Christian Ehrhoff and Canada’s Ben Scrivens. Americans Troy Terry, Jordan Greenway, Ryan Donato and Will Borgen are currently playing college hockey.

”The tournament in general is going to be built with teams with lots of guys that this is the greatest event for them and they didn’t necessarily think they were going to get this opportunity,” Canada GM Sean Burke said.

BIG ICE

If the Sochi Games proved anything, it was that the international-sized ice that’s 15 feet wider than NHL rinks doesn’t create more offense. The U.S. and Canada built rosters with the bigger ice in mind, prioritizing skating and mobility and playing a more European style. That doesn’t mean European teams won’t have an advantage, but it won’t be such a stark change as when North American NHL players need a few games to get used to it.

OAR PRESSURE

The Olympic Athletes from Russia team is a favorite to win gold, which would be the first since the Unified Team in 1992. But Russia hasn’t medaled since 2002, including a disappointing showing on home ice four years ago. The chance to draw all its players from the Kontinental Hockey League should benefit Russia, which has won four of the past 10 world hockey championships. But something about this stage has made Russia play like less than the sum of its parts before, which makes even a star-studded team beatable.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org

Looking at goals, Maurice Richard race from fantasy perspective

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During many seasons, the Maurice Richard race wasn’t very interesting. In a lot of cases, it boiled down to Alex Ovechkin leaving everyone else to battle for second place.

That’s not the case as of today, although it’s refreshing to see Ovechkin back in contention after people wondered if he’d start to fade as an elite sniper.

Ovechkin is neck-and-neck with Nikita Kucherov, Anders Lee, Sean Couturier, and John Tavares. William Karlsson is joined by Tyler Seguin and Brock Boeser, while there are some dark horse candidates at 20 goals in Patrik Laine, Evgeni Malkin, and Nathan MacKinnon.

Fourteen different players are at 20 or more, and seven more are at 19, including Vladimir Tarasenko.

With such a rich field of snipers in mind, it’s been a nice volume year for fantasy hockey. Let’s ponder snipers from a variety of perspectives in hopes that some of this advice might help you make better add/drops, trades, and lineup decisions.

Shooting machines

Ovechkin is no longer miles ahead of everyone else when it comes to shooting volume.

As of today, he’s actually tied with Vladimir Tarasenko for the NHL lead in shots on goal with 193. Now, Tarasenko’s gotten there in two more games, so Ovechkin’s still firing more often than him, but the gap is closing.

There are some other interesting names among the SOG leaders. Tyler Seguin comes in third with 187 SOG in 46 games, on his way to 22 goals. Last season, Seguin scored 26 goals versus 46 assists, suffering from mediocre puck luck (8.6 shooting percentage). If he continues to generate about four per game, his 22-goal pace isn’t that outrageous, and he is in a strong spot to beat his career-best of 37 goals, set twice.

Tarasenko seems like he’ll be in line for a bump, as his 9.8 shooting percentage would be a career-worst (easily) if it stands, and is short of his career average of 13.2 percent.

Two volume shooters who are experiencing better times lately: Brent Burns and Max Pacioretty. Burns now has seven goals on 183 SOG, with those coming after a goalless October. Patches, meanwhile, finally saw a four-game goal streak end on Wednesday; that was quite a refreshing run after he scored zero goals in 12 December games (and heard plenty about it).

Well isn’t that special

Sometimes, when leaning toward “fancy stats,” players get dinged a bit if they’re too reliant on the power play for scoring. In fantasy, power play production can be an added bonus, as a goal can often cover power-play points (or PPG) and even game-winning goals depending upon the context. (Ah, those sweet, sweet, overtime four-on-three situations …)

From a prognosticating standpoint, it’s a mixed bag; even-strength scoring might mean more reliable scoring from certain perspectives, but specializing doesn’t hurt either.

Ovechkin is still lethal from “his office” on the left faceoff dot, yet he hasn’t been as dependent upon special teams as in recent seasons. Eight of his 28 goals have come on the PP so far this season; compare that to 17 of 33 last season and you’ll see that he’s diversified his threat.

When it comes to the Lightning’s power play, Kucherov may actually be more of a facilitator. Only three of his 27 goals have come on the power play, while Steven Stamkos leads the NHL with 12 PPG (a huge chunk of his 17 goals total). Patrik Laine (11 of 20), Evgeni Malkin (10 of 20), and Filip Forsberg (9 of 15) are all scoring a ton on the man advantage through the first half-and-change, too.

In case you’re wondering, Aleksander Barkov leads the NHL with four shorthanded goals, representing all of his shorthanded points so far.

High percentages

Glancing at the top scorers, you’ll see a red flag or two. This doesn’t mean these guys won’t snipe for the rest of 2017-18, just beware that they also may be at risk of cooling off or tricking you into expecting too much.

Anders Lee is third in the NHL with 26 goals, and he figures to be dangerous all season alongside John Tavares and Josh Bailey. Still, his 23.4 shooting percentage is a bit high, even compared to last season’s 17.8 percent (career average: 14.6). He should improve on last season’s career-high of 34 as long as he sticks with those high-end linemates, just don’t overreact if you’re trading for him.

William Karlsson is the other name who stands out among the top 50 in goals. He’s currently ranked sixth with 23 goals, getting there on just 92 SOG (a whopping 25 percent success rate). Karlsson already has more goals (23) than he scored points in 81 games in 2015-16 (9 goals, 21 points) and is almost there versus 81 games in 2016-17 (six goals, 25 points). Of course, he didn’t have opportunities like these in Columbus, so there’s balance both ways. Still, he’s basically doubled his career shooting percentage average of 12.6 percent.

On the flipside, while Duncan Keith isn’t a guaranteed goal machine as a defenseman, he’s at zero goals on 105 SOG. Guys like Keith should get at least a bit more puck luck through the rest of 2017-18, so keep an eye on his ilk.

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.

What should Blackhawks do without Corey Crawford?

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Look, it’s quite possible that Corey Crawford will be back this season for the Chicago Blackhawks.

As of this moment, there are more questions than answers, with semantic arguments bubbling up about whether he’s dealing with concussion issues, vertigo, or what. Either way, it’s an unfortunate situation.

Let’s say the very bad happens and the Blackhawks won’t get their crucial goalie back as they try to claw their way into a playoff spot in the competitive Central Division. What should GM Stan Bowman do?

Here are a few scenarios.

Stay put

We can debate where Crawford ranks among the NHL’s best goalies (is he a top-five guy, top 10, elite?), but it’s fair to say that he’s had one of the toughest gigs. It’s a good thing that he produced a fantastic .929 save percentage this season, because Chicago’s defense isn’t what it once was. They’re tied for the eighth-most shots allowed per game (32.6) and are in the top 10 in most high-danger chances allowed (via Natural Stat Trick).

Jeff Glass is a great story, and he’s provided very acceptable backup-level work alongside Anton Forsberg (Glass’s save percentage is .910, Forsberg’s at .911).

That’s heartening, but the bottom line is that the Blackhawks rank at the bottom of the Central with this mix of Crawford’s great goaltending and respectable work from Glass/Forsberg. They may only sink with Glass and Forsberg, and that’s assuming that those two don’t fall apart altogether.

The more uncomfortable question is: maybe they should just “Take the L” and regroup for next season? As is, it’s tough to imagine the Blackhawks making the playoffs, or making any noise if they do make it.

If they would rather not punt this season, then a trade would be the best option to explore.

Go after an obvious guy

The Detroit Red Wings want to move Petr Mrazek. If Crawford goes on IR, Chicago might not even need Detroit to retain much/any of Mrazek’s $4M, possibly making the asking price more reasonable.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen the best of Mrazek (2015-16), but he’s only made 13 appearances in 2017-18, as the Red Wings still haven’t gotten the whole “rebuild” memo yet. Or at least they haven’t read it.

Mrazek would stand as a “high-risk, high-reward” acquisition. You could probably put Buffalo Sabres starter Robin Lehner under that heading, assuming Buffalo would let him go. Logically, you’d think Lehner would be more costly, considering his sneaky-strong individual stats.

TSN’s Frank Seravalli notes that San Jose Sharks backup Aaron Dell might draw some trade interest, with some looking at him as the next backup who might take the next step to become a starter. Chicago could provide Dell with quite the audition in that regard.

The road less traveled

Actually, Dell stands as a template for the type of guys who the Blackhawks might want to at least inquire about: backups who might not be long for their current teams.

Philipp Grubauer is one name that stands out. With a solid .916 save percentage this season and a sparkling .922 mark for his career (81 regular-season games), Grubauer’s excelled when given chances. The problem is that he plays on the same team as Braden Holtby, which means that those chances seldom come.

Grubauer is a pending RFA, and he’s likely to be too expensive for the Washington Capitals after this season. Maybe the Blackhawks can make it worth Washington’s while to acknowledge that likelihood, and get something for him rather than letting him go for less later?

The Blue Jackets still have Joonas Korpisalo through 2018-19, with his contract expiring at the same time as that of Sergei Bobrovsky, so a conversation about “Korpi” likely wouldn’t last too long. Still, why not ask?

One other off-the-beaten path consideration would be Antti Raanta.

The Blackhawks and Coyotes aren’t shy about making moves together, and Raanta’s debut season hasn’t gone as planned in Arizona. The Coyotes might not have necessarily soured on Raanta, but if they decide to go in a different direction in net in the future, maybe it would be worth moving him?

Chicago obviously has experience with Raanta, so that could make it a more comfortable transition as a “rental,” too.

***

Look, the Blackhawks struggled with Crawford in the lineup, playing at an outstanding level. There’s no guarantee that landing a goalie would make the difference, even if that netminder generated great work and didn’t cost a ton in a trade.

On the other hand, this Blackhawks core isn’t getting any younger, while the Central is loaded with teams that have bright futures.

For all we know, this might be one of this team’s last, best shots. GM Stan Bowman needs to turn over every stone to try to find an answer, whether that ends up coming down to making a big move or accepting the painful status quo.

Personally, I’d rotate between grumbling and crying.

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.

Pass or Fail: Washington Capitals 2018 Stadium Series jersey

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The funny thing to think about when you see an NHL jersey reveal that is just real bad is that more than one person said, “Yes, that’s a winner.”

With that being said, on Wednesday, the Washington Capitals revealed the jersey they will wear for the March 3 Stadium Series game against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Navy–Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md. As you can see, it’s an interesting design from adidas.

Here’s a look at the back with the letter and number font:

 

That giant red stripe at the bottom? Why? Why do we need that? Is it a cummerbund? If you get rid of that and the red stripes on the arms, the jersey looks much cleaner. Even Alex Ovechkin isn’t impressed. The socks are sweet, as are the pants with the “W” and the three stars from the city flag.

This is a definite step back from the Capitals’ previous outdoor game jerseys from the 2011 and 2015 Winter Classic. Let’s hope the Maple Leafs have something good cooking when they finally show off their jersey.

What do you think?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Islanders rookie Mathew Barzal makes some history with another 5-point game

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The New York Islanders got a much-needed win on Saturday afternoon when they absolutely crushed their cross-town rivals 7-2. It was a completely one-sided game that saw Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist have to come on in relief and try to give his teammates a pep talk before entering the game.

(It did not work.)

The star of the game for the Islanders was rookie forward Mathew Barzal as he finished with a pair of goals and three assists in the win.

It was the second time this season that Barzal, a rookie, has recorded at least five points in a game.

That is kind of a big deal for a lot of reasons. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

— For one, Barzal is the only player in the NHL this season that has at least two five point games. The rest of the NHL has combined for seven as Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Hartman, Patrick Kane, Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, Artemi Panarin, and Thomas Vanek all have one each.

— He is only the 13th player since 2005-06 to have multiple five-point games in a season. Only Evgeni Malkin (four in 2011-12), Sidney Crosby (three in 2009-10) and Alex Ovechkin (three in 2007-08) have had more than two since then.

— Then we start to get into the fact he is still a rookie. The only other Islanders rookie to record a pair of five-point games in a season was Bryan Trottier during the 1975-76 season.

— Impressive. Even more impressive is the fact that in NHL history there have only been 73 five-point games from rookies. The only rookies to have one since 1993 are Barzal, Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, John Tavares, Alexandre Picard, Evgnei Malkin, Dan Hamhuis, and Ilya Kovalchuk.

— The list of rookies to have more than one is even shorter. It is made up of Barzal, Trottier, Peter Stastny, Anton Stastny, Marian Stastny, Cy Denney, and Joe Malone. That is it. Malone and Denney’s seasons came in the NHL’s first season in 1917-18. Malone is the only one that had more than two (he recorded three). So, basically, two guys that played when the NHL was first created, the Stastny family, and two Islanders.

The Islanders are in a tough spot this season. Their recent slump has put them on the playoff bubble and their two leading scorers, John Tavare and Josh Bailey, are both unrestricted free agents after this season. No matter what happens the rest of the way or with Tavares and Bailey in the summer the one bright spot they will definitely be able to take out of this season is the development of Barzal. He looks like he is becoming a star. He might already be one.

After Saturday’s performance his 44 points are tops among all NHL rookies, putting him four points ahead of Vancouver Canucks forward Brock Boeser. Barzal and Boeser are the only two rookies with at least 34 points on the season. It is pretty much a two-man race for the Calder Trophy right now.

Just a reminder: The Islanders acquired Barzal with a 2015 first-round draft pick that they acquired from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for defenseman Griffin Reinhart. Reinhart, to this point, has two points in 39 NHL games and is no longer a member of the Oilers’ organization (he is now a member of the Vegas Golden Knights organization. He currently plays in the American Hockey League).

What a trade for Islanders general manager Garth Snow.

(Historical data via NHL.com stats database)

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.