Why the Sharks should practice patience with Antti Niemi

1 Comment

In this instant media age, it’s not surprising that the hockey public can turn on a goalie in a heart beat. Inexperience, bad luck and spotty defensive support are rarely accepted as excuses, even if there’s often more to a scoreboard meltdown than a shaky netminder.

Many NHL coaches are ridiculed for sticking with goalies in those bleaker moments, but let’s not assume that we know more about these individuals than the teams who handle them. The Philadelphia Flyers probably get a little too much heat for their history of goaltending struggles – they have been a consistently competitive franchise for a staggering amount of time, after all – but their recent carousel has been problematic. Was it really fair to pull the plug on Sergei Bobrovsky so quickly in Round 1 after he helped them so much during the season?

The polar opposite example is Roberto Luongo. He struggled against Chicago up until Game 7, but has been outstanding since then. He allowed one goal in that Game 7 OT win, pitched a shutout in Game 1 against Nashville and was beaten twice in last night’s double overtime loss. Maybe he has been upstaged by at times by Corey Crawford and Pekka Rinne, but he rewarded Vancouver’s patience by allowing just three goals in about 11 periods of hockey.

Niemi’s struggles against Los Angeles generates concern

Going into their second round series against the Detroit Red Wings, the San Jose Sharks faced (and still face) probing questions about Antti Niemi. It is indeed tough to deny that they should keep an eye on the Finnish sophomore netminder after he was pulled in two of the Sharks’ final four playoff games against the Los Angeles Kings.

Many people probably noted Niemi’s strong second half of the 2010-11 season and wondered if he’s melting down under the pressure, but if you review his game log from last year’s playoffs, it’s clear that Niemi is a feast or famine netminder.

Niemi’s hot-and-cold 2010 Stanley Cup run

During his 11 “good” nights, Niemi earned two shutouts, allowed only one goal three times and allowed two in six other instances. At the same time, he had 11 average-to-bad nights, allowing three goals four times and four or more during seven other starts.

On one hand, this shows that the team in front of him was very good, as he won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks while posting a 16-6 postseason record. That being said, Niemi also showed a pattern of following up a bad performance or two with streaks of red-hot play.

Why the Sharks should ultimately stick with Niemi, barring a total collapse

This indicates that he probably won’t be the type of goalie who carries his team every game – it seems like his only consistently dominant series was actually against San Jose last year – but it also suggests that he can help the Sharks win if they stick with him through the darker moments.

The Sharks have a tendency to bombard their opponents and generate the greatest amount of scoring chances, so they need a goalie who can handle counter-punching offenses. Sometimes they might need to deal with a shaky statistical night (or 11?), but Niemi could have the right kind of mental makeup to win behind this type of team.

Niemi produced a solid Game 1 against Detroit, turning aside 24 out of 25 shots in the Sharks’ OT win. Considering the Red Wings’ firepower, it almost seems inevitable that they’ll eventually “get” to him. The question is: will San Jose’s coaching staff have the patience to let him fight through it?

A patient strategy seemed to work out quite well for last year’s champion Blackhawks, at least.

Oilers face much bigger questions than what to do with Hitchcock

Getty Images
Leave a comment

When the Edmonton Oilers hired Ken Hitchcock, they were essentially hoping he could be the firefighter who could save the day as the franchise was surrounded by flames like a meme dog with a cute hat and a cup of coffee.

Now that it’s clear that the Oilers’ 2018-19 season is very-much-not-fine, it’s now time to ask a question that seemed almost beside the point at the moment of Hitch’s hiring: should Edmonton bring him back? Sportsnet’s Mark Spector posits such a point in a Tuesday article about Hitch’s “old-school style being just what the young Oilers need.”

For his part, Hitchcock wants to be back. As the Edmonton Sun’s Terry Jones reports, Hitchcock described coaching the Oilers as “the best experience of my life” and added the great line that “the way I feel, I can coach until I’m 99.”

But should the Oilers bring him back? And, really, how much does it matter compared to the real front office choice that will truly shape the future of this franchise? Let’s dive in.

Minimal impact

The Spector piece revolves around Hitchcock getting in the “face” of players, relying on emotion rather than “Xs and Os.”

And, no doubt, Hitch has a reputation for barking at players. One can debate all day about whether that approach is effective, and if it’s appropriate for the Oilers.

But what about his actual work behind the bench? When the Oilers fired Todd McLellan, they were a mediocre 9-10-1. With Hitchcock … they’ve been a mediocre 24-24-7.

Their underlying stats are actually worse, too. Through 20 games, Edmonton was basically middle-of-the-pack at even-strength under McLellan. They actually slipped even further under Hitchcock by Natural Stat Trick’s metrics.

Much of the same?

In a lot of ways, it shouldn’t be that surprising that there wasn’t a night-and-day difference. Back in October, I pointed to the Oilers’ system relying far too heavily on defensemen shooting pucks —  defensemen who, really, weren’t even the type of blueliners who seem to be especially adept at that practice.

Once you get by the usual suspects in the top three of shots on goal (Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins), there are a lot of pucks being fired by blueliners overall in 2018-19. Edmonton has eight players with 100+ SOG, and of that group, three are defensemen. Four of the top nine are blueliners, too. You might explain that away as Edmonton simply being top-heavy, yet look at another top-heavy offense – like, say, the Avalanche – and you’ll see the top shooters far more populated by forwards.

None of this is to say that Hitchcock is totally out of touch. As this great bit from The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis discusses (sub required), Hitchcock has a firm grasp on why successful teams are able to transition the puck in ways that are more successful than the Oilers.

Hitchcock hasn’t been able to transfer “using the middle of the ice” onto the current makeup of the Oilers, but maybe – just maybe – he’d be able to cook better meals with better ingredients. The true key, then, is for the Oilers to find a better grocery shopper.

The GM question matters far more than to keep or replace Hitch

Ultimately, hiring the right GM is enormously important. It’s key for any team, but especially for an aimless franchise like the Oilers, whose executive have made blunder after blunder.

Peter Chiarelli isn’t the only person to blunder far too often in Edmonton, yet looking at the salary structure at Cap Friendly, it’s clear that he’s “accomplished” the unlikely feats of leaving the Oilers with limited skill around their star players and limited cap space to fill in the gaps.

The Oilers slogan might as well be low skill, high bills.

Allan “Lowetide” Mitchell (also of The Athletic) went deep on the Oilers’ future in a multitude of ways lately, coming to two conclusions I share: 1) the Oilers need to emphasize speed and skill in future acquisitions and 2) fixing their problems might be more than a “one summer” job.

It won’t always be easy, and it probably won’t be a seamless transition, but the Oilers need more of the types of players who could move the puck the way Hitchcock described here:

“If you look at any teams that are quick transition, they find the middle of the ice and they’re not afraid to,” Hitchcock said, via Willis. “There’s a risk and a dynamic to play that way, but any of the successful teams use the middle of the ice way more than they use the boards. You can’t be a good transition team if you just keep putting it on the boards. You end up chipping it out and chasing it, you don’t end up with possession metrics at all. You can’t be afraid to use the middle of the ice on your exits.

The Oilers have been “chipping it out and chasing it” for far too long, valuing brawn and over-emphasizing buzzwords about “character” instead of searching for the sort of swift, slick players who would supplement superhuman speed genius Connor McDavid.

Would Hitchcock truly optimize a roster that had more skill and speed? It’s not clear one way or another, but what is clear is that the current plan isn’t working.

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.

Jon Cooper signs multi-year extension with Lightning

5 Comments

Even if the Tampa Bay Lightning’s historic season ends with a shocking first-round exit, head coach Jon Cooper has plenty of job security.

The Lightning announced on Tuesday that they have agreed to a multi-year extension with Cooper, one day after the sixth anniversary of his promotion to the job. At six years on the job, he’s currently the NHL’s longest-tenured head coach with a 301-157-44 record and .643 points percentage. Since his hiring, the Lightning have the second-most points in the NHL and the most wins over that span.

“I am very pleased to announce Jon’s extension today,” said Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois in a statement. “His ability to forge impactful relationships with everyone from players to staff has been a trademark of his tenure with the organization and he is the absolute best coach for our hockey team. Coop’s ability to develop a strong culture while continually adapting has been a big part of the team’s success. He has helped set high standards for our organization with his unrelenting drive for excellence. I would like to thank Coop and his family for their continuous commitment to the organization, as well as to the Tampa Bay community, and I look forward to working in partnership with Jon for years to come.”

In five full seasons behind the bench in Tampa Cooper has led the Lightning to the Eastern Conference Final three times and the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The two Conference Finals where they fell short — 2016 and 2018 — they lost in seven games to the eventual Cup champion.

This season, Cooper has led an All-Star cast of talent to the franchise’s first Presidents’ Trophy and the opportunity to top the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings’ regular season wins record (62) and match the NHL record for most points in a season (132), which was set by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens. Following Monday night’s victory over the Boston Bruins, the Lightning have 59 wins and 122 points with five games to play.

Given the Lightning’s success, Cooper should be one of the three finalists this season for the Jack Adams Award, which is voted on by the NHL Broadcasters Association. But before that can be decided, he has his eyes on guiding his team to a second Stanley Cup title in franchise history, which would be a fitting end to a memorable year.

————

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.

Is Voracek right in saying the Flyers ‘choked?’

3 Comments

All too often, when an NHL team fails, people learn the wrong lessons. That can be troubling for many reasons, most pressingly: that if they don’t realize why they failed, they could be doomed to make the same mistakes.

To some extent, it doesn’t seem like Jakub Voracek totally understands what happened with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2018-19, or maybe he’s simply too close to everything to truly process it all. Emotions run high, and as we’ve seen before with Voracek, he often doesn’t mask those emotions.

(Hey, at least Voracek isn’t running his team while taking the wrong lessons. Looking at you, Bob Nicholson, who blamed Tobias Rieder for the Oilers’ failures. Consider Edmonton Exhibits A-Z in always trying to treat symptoms instead of the disease.)

While reflecting upon the Flyers’ season, Voracek said he doesn’t want to take anything away from it, and told the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sam Carchidi that they “choked.”

“We had a good push, but unfortunately, anytime we got close — three points, five points — and we played those big teams in front of us [in] those four-point games, we choked,” Voracek said. “We couldn’t find a way to win those big games, and that’s why we are where we are right now.”

The painful reality is that, frankly, the Flyers probably weren’t good enough to “choke.”

Instead, they’ve straddled that line between good and bad where their fates often boil down to the whims of luck.

Personally, it’s most instructive to go back to two phases of the Flyers’ season:

To start the season, the Flyers were a pretty strong possession team, finishing in the top 10 in various metrics (including controlling high-danger chances) by Natural Stat Trick’s measures. Amusingly, they were one of the absolute weakest teams by those same measures during their hot streak.

The differences, then, were some combination of Carter Hart and luck.

PDO combines a team’s shooting percentage and save percentage, giving you a handy (if broad and imperfect) snapshot of a team’s luck. Early on, the Flyers suffered from lousy goaltending and were shooting at a middle-of-the-pack rate. During their hot streak, they were the second-luckiest team in the NHL, and while Hart’s goaltending factored in, their 9.98 percent even-strength shooting percentage ranked second in the NHL.

Long story short, the Flyers have been an unlucky team with shabby goaltending, and then surged when they were getting all the bounces and all the stops.

Breaking: that was always unsustainable.

The question, then, becomes: how can they fix things for next season. Voracek’s comments to Carchidi are a good starting point … because it’s not necessarily an easy fix.

“Tough to say. It’s not my decision,” Voracek said. “I’ve got to prepare myself in the summer and come in here in shape and be a better player, more experienced. Hopefully, we won’t have to focus on digging ourselves out of a hole by December.”

Indeed, it really is tough to say. But maybe there are a few things the Flyers can do.

Getting the coaching situation right is a great start. Should they stick with Scott Gordon, or might they try to go bold and aim for Joel Quenneville?

For all of the good things Hextall did as GM – particularly cleaning up the enormous salary cap messes that stemmed from his predecessors going big all the time – maybe he was too stagnant in certain areas. Hextall didn’t pull the trigger on two key decisions: waiting too long regarding Carter Hart, and waiting too long to move on from Hakstol.

Would the Flyers be in a different spot if the team zigged instead of zagging with those two decisions?

Ultimately, such questions are only hypothetical, so it’s crucial to get the next decisions right.

Basically … they better not choke.

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’ Ladd out for season with torn ACL

6 Comments

Andrew Ladd‘s time with the New York Islanders has been difficult, to say the least.

After signing a seven-year, $38.5 million contract with the team in free agency prior to the 2016-17 season, his first two years with the team were filled with inconsistency and declining production.

Things have only managed to get worse this season.

After being limited to just 26 games due to injury, the Islanders announced on Tuesday that Ladd now has a torn ACL and will be sidelined for at least the next five months.

He’s expected to be ready for training camp in September.

General manager Lou Lamoriello said Ladd will undergo surgery this week, and also specified that it is not the same leg that he previously injured. It is the other knee.

Ladd played 12 minutes in the Islanders’ 2-0 win over the Arizona Coyotes on Sunday and will finish the year with three goals and eight assists in 26 games. That brings his three-year total to 38 goals and 31 assists in 177 games with the team. He still has four more seasons remaining on his contract after this season at a salary cap hit of $5.5 million per season.

The Islanders enter Tuesday tied for second place in the Metropolitan Division with the Pittsburgh Penguins, one point back of the Washington Capitals for the top spot.

The Islanders play the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday.

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.