Colorado’s curious way to fill goaltending needs leaves Caps GM scratching his head

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When today’s free agent frenzy began, the Colorado Avalanche began the day with no goalies to speak of on their NHL roster. With that kind of immediate shopping list to fulfill and the pickings out there fairly limited, Avalanche GM Greg Sherman had some work to do. With Tomas Vokoun set to be the biggest goaltending name on the free agent list, the Avalanche seemed poised to open up the vault for him and bring him in. Not so fast.

Instead, Sherman went in a different direction. Rather than sign Vokoun, he swung a trade with the Washington Capitals for restricted free agent goalie Semyon Varlamov. Varlamov had been making rumblings about how he was set to jump to the KHL rather than deal with the Capitals and their goaltending situation, but now he’s set to be the man in Colorado as the Avalanche signed Varlamov to a two-year deal worth $5.5 million.

The package the Avalanche gave up for Varlamov, however, is stunning: Colorado gives Washington their 2012 first round pick as well as a 2012 or 2013 second round pick. With Colorado not shaping up to be a contending team next year, that pick could turn out to be a lottery choice. The Capitals probably don’t need that kind of help to improve, but Colorado gave it to them.

Capitals GM George McPhee was perhaps the most surprised guy around at the offer for Varlamov as CSN Washington’s Ryan O’Halloran finds out.

“We were hoping to have Semyon back this year and play a full season so we could get that kind of value for him next summer because we knew we would have to do something with one of the goaltenders,” McPhee said during a briefing Friday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “But we got that value now.

“Given the injuries, I was surprised we got it now but it was a good deal for Colorado – they got a kid who has lots of upside and if he can stay healthy, will be really good for them.”

Upside is the big thing here. Varlamov has played pretty well for Washington in his two and a half years in D.C. Varlamov has gone 30-13-12 in that time with a 2.39 goals against average and a .917 save percentage. The one major issue with Varlamov in his career has been staying healthy and not giving up the occasional soft goal. Injuries the last couple years opened the door to seeing both Jose Theodore and Michal Neuvirth to getting their fair share of starts and Neuvirth took the starting job over last season.

With that sort of track record, it’s stunning that Greg Sherman would fork over two draft picks that could turn into big time players. The 2012 draft is believed to be a very deep one and with the Avalanche potentially giving up a very high choice to Washington, they’d better hope that Varlamov can get comfortable and dominate in goal. Sherman did lock up some backup help and a mentor for Varlamov today as well in the form of Jean-Sebastien Giguere signing him to a two year contract worth $2.5 million.

The Avalanche’s plan in goal is beyond curious and the package they gave up to get Varlamov is mind-numbingly bad, especially given Varlamov’s big talk about going to the KHL. Sure, money talks and in this case it keeps him in the NHL but that kind of attitude heading into a situation where the team was as bad as they were last year you have to wonder what’s going through Varlamov’s head. McPhee says that all he wanted was the chance to be #1 unchallenged.

“There was a deal to be made,” McPhee said. “In fact, we were close last weekend. The issue really was that he wanted in his mind to be guaranteed that he’s the No. 1 guy and be paid like that and we couldn’t guarantee that with the competition we have at that position.”

The Capitals preferred to have a system for one more year that included Varlamov competing with Neuvrith and Holtby.

“You can’t really guarantee any player anything; they have to come in and prove themselves,” McPhee said. “Varly is committed to being a really good player and we said, ‘Come back and compete for it.’ He didn’t seem to want to do that and the indication was, if [the No. 1 job] wasn’t there, he was going to play in Russia for a year.”

Now Varlamov heads to Colorado where he’ll likely be the top guy as long as his play earns that status. With Giguere there as a safety net, he’s not really the guy you want starting every game, but if Varlamov suffers or gets hurt, it’s all on Giguere to try to keep the team alive. That’s a rough spot to be in from the get go. The Avs are taking a big chance on this situation and after how poorly they did last year, instead of getting a sure thing they think playing risky is how to get it done. It’s a gutsy move by Sherman to do it this way, but perhaps he’s on to something the rest of us aren’t clued in on with Semyon Varlamov.

Daniel Sprong making most of opportunity with Anaheim Ducks

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A breakup between Daniel Sprong and the Pittsburgh Penguins seemed inevitable. He clearly had the ability, but could not find a regular spot in Mike Sullivan’s lineup, hence the Dec. 3 trade to the Anaheim Ducks.

Since moving west, the 21-year-old Sprong has enjoyed his time on the left coast. In five games with the Ducks he’s scored three times — with all three goals being pretty meaningful ones. Compare that to the nine points he compiled in 42 career games with the Penguins over parts of three seasons.

His first goal came on his first shot in his first game with Anaheim on a tough angle against Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks.

On Saturday night, he scored both goals, including the overtime winner, during 2-1 victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

During his time in the AHL, Sprong showed he could score, but it never translated during his chances in Pittsburgh. He never played more than 18 games in a season during his three years there and averaged a total of only 9:40 of ice time a game. Now that he’s getting a bit of a bigger opportunity with the Ducks and playing an average of 14:50 a night, it’s clicking for him on a line with Adam Henrique and Nick Ritchie.

“The coaching staff and management gave me an opportunity to play the role I think I can play,” said Sprong after the OT win against Columbus. “Playing with Rico and Ritchie has really been helping me out. Right now I’m getting the looks and putting pucks on net. I’m excited to be here.”

He’s certainly firing the puck more now. Through five games he already has 15 shots on net. He had 61 shots in those 42 games with the Penguins.

Sprong will get a chance to show the Penguins what they’re missing as the Ducks visit Pittsburgh Monday night. Anaheim has won 10 of their last 12 games and five straight games away from Honda Center. They’ve been a resilient bunch as shown in the fact that they’ve either been tied or trailing in the third period of each of their last nine victories.

It will certainly be a meaningful one for Sprong.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: The issues in St. Louis; Schneider’s struggles

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• So how are things going with the St. Louis Blues? “We were terrible in the first period. Every player. Terrible.” [Post-Dispatch]

• Meanwhile, the Blues handed Robert Bortuzzo a three-year extension. [Blues]

• Seattle’s NHL arrival will only grow the already rich history of the sport in the community. [NHL.com]

• How Mikko Rantanen turned into one of the NHL’s top scorers. [Sportsnet]

• What’s next for struggling Cory Schneider and the New Jersey Devils? [NJ.com]

• This will be a fun headline to remember: “He’s baaaaack – Edmonton Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli looking like the resident genius” [Edmonton Sun]

Mikko Koskinen has been quite a find for the Oilers. [TSN]

• Knee surgery will likely keep Erik Haula of the Vegas Golden Knights out for the remainder of the season. [Las Vegas Review-Journal]

• A lower-body injury will keep Mike Green out of the Detroit Red Wings’ lineup for the next 3-5 weeks. [MLive]

• A busted finger means the Oilers will be without Oskar Klefbom for the next 6-8 weeks. [Oilers Nation]

• The Vancouver Canucks appear to have some interest in Washington Capitals forward Andre Burakovsky. [NoVa Caps]

• Which NHL players are carrying the biggest offensive burdens for their teams? [ESPN.com]

• Some ideas on how to fix the New York Islanders power play. [Gotham Sports]

• The Guy Lafleur disco album is really something. [Punk Junk]

• Washington Capitals roll out welcome for the Black Girl Hockey Club’s first meeting. [Color of Hockey]

• Injuries have really put a damper on the Arizona Coyotes’ season. [Featurd]

• Finally, our good friend Gritty had a special Christmas message for ESPN’s Katie Nolan:

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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.

The Buzzer: Bruins can’t handle Eichel; Jets beat Bolts

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Three Stars

1. Jack Eichel

Remember when people were really worried about Jack Eichel receiving $10 million per season? (Cups ears.) Hmm, not hearing much of that these days.

Eichel gave the Bruins more than they can handle on Sunday, collecting two primary assists (including a beauty on Jeff Skinner‘s game-winner) and two goals to help Buffalo beat Boston. He was really all over the place in this one, firing six shots on goal, enjoying a +3 rating in what was mostly a tight contest.

Buffalo’s captain now has 14 goals and 45 points in 34 games in 2018-19. A healthy portion of that total came during this current six-game point streak, as Eichel has nine goals and four assists for 13 points during that span.

The win was notable for the Sabres, as they at least briefly passed Toronto for second in the Atlantic.

Skinner’s two goals give him 24 for this season, matching last year’s total in just his 34th game of 2018-19.

2. Mark Scheifele

Once you go beyond Eichel, you really start splitting hairs, as there were a lot of three-point games on Sunday.

One tough call is Scheifele vs. his Jets linemate Nikolaj Ehlers. After all, while Scheifele’s three points came from one goal and two assists, Ehlers grabbed two goals and one assist. Under certain circumstances, you’d go Ehlers.

Scheifele assisted on Ehlers’ second goal, which sent the game into overtime. Scheifele then cleaned up a loose puck created by a nice drive to the net by Patrik Laine, ending the game with an overtime game-winner. It’s his second consecutive game with an OT-clincher, apparently.

It sounds like Scheifele has a knack for these situations.

3. Brent Burns

When in doubt, make a significant milestone a tiebreaker. Burns is a rare breed even when you ignore the notion that he could nest baby birds in his beard:

Brent Burns generated three assists as the Sharks took down the Blackhawks on Sunday. With that, he now has 600 points in his career. One can only imagine how many points Burns would have if he had blossomed earlier/a coach as smart as Peter DeBoer came along sooner and optimized his unique set of skills earlier. (His stats with Minnesota vs. San Jose are resoundingly stark, and he really started to get monster minutes around the time DeBoer took over, though Todd McLellan did get that started.)

Other highlights

Maybe a 48-save game wasn’t enough for Andrei Vasilevskiy? The Lightning’s ultra-talented goalie earned a second assist on Sunday, and it’s one of the primary reasons this is such a fun highlight. Just a fantastic goalie-pass:

If Linus Ullmark pans out like Buffalo hopes, opponents better watch out for the Sabres.

More Factoids

Marc-Andre Fleury continues to climb the list of all-time wins for goalies.

In case you’re wondering, Jacques Plante ranks eighth all-time with 437 wins.

Few teams can match the Flames’ top-end talent, and this Johnny Gaudreau/Matthew Tkachuk stat really drives that point home. Gaudreau’s one of those players who had three points on Sunday, by the way.

Scores

VGK 4 – NYR 3 (OT)
CAR 3 – ARI 0
CGY 7 – STL 2
BUF 4 – BOS 2
SJS 7 – CHI 3
WPG 5 – TBL 4 (OT)
VAN 4 – EDM 2

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Will Flyers’ disastrous road trip spell end for Hakstol?

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To put things mildly, there are a lot of reports and rumors revolving around the Philadelphia Flyers possibly firing Dave Hakstol to make Joel Quenneville their new head coach.

With a lot of conflicting information in the air (things do seem dire for Hakstol in most scenarios), let’s consider how the Flyers got to this point.

Terrible road trip

Look, the Flyers weren’t exactly setting the world on fire before the disastrous five-game road trip, which concluded on Saturday with a 5-1 thumping by the Vancouver Canucks.

Optics obviously matter, though, and things really devolved as this went along.

After beating the Sabres 6-2 on Dec. 8, the Flyers suffered a four-game losing streak, only managing a single standings point in a 6-5 OT loss to Calgary on Dec. 12.

Three of those four losses were absolute blowouts; Philly fell 7-1 to the Jets on Dec. 9, then really stunk up the joint during the last two losses, falling 4-1 to the Oilers on Friday and 5-1 to the Canucks on Saturday. There was little denying the negative feelings about that team, and Hakstol drew a lot of the blame for seemingly tepid efforts.

After scrapping their way to a somewhat surprising berth in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Flyers currently sit last in the Eastern Conference with 28 points in 31 games (12-15-4).

Good and the bad

If there’s one obvious tweak Hakstol made that produced huge dividends for the Flyers, it was moving Claude Giroux from center to the wing.

Heading into 2017-18, there were serious concerns about Giroux. It seemed like his offense was slowing down, possibly pointing to him hitting the dreaded low end of the aging curve. Instead, Giroux appeared to be liberated by the freedom of playing the wing, often ceding the center duties to Sean Couturier this season. Giroux enjoyed an MVP-like season, powering his way to career-highs of 34 goals and 102 points.

One can debate how Hakstol used younger players versus veterans. You could do that with many teams, not to mention other Flyers staffers, whether you’re pondering Carter Hart or, say, Travis Sanheim.

There have been some structural issues. Much like Todd McLellan in Edmonton, much of Hakstol’s tenure has been marked by a questionable strategy to lean heavily on shots from the point.

Sure, it’s nice to get the puck on the sticks of Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere when it makes sense, yet you’re far more likely to hit paydirt if you generate high-danger chances from the slot. Easier said than done? Yes, but some teams emphasize shots from defensemen to the detriment of creativity, making things too easy for the opposition.

The fall of a great power-play unit and a generally terrible PK might explain some of Hakstol’s struggles.

Since Hakstol came into the league in 2015-16, the Flyers’ PK unit has killed 77.1-percent of penalties, the worst mark in the NHL. If Quenneville or another coach could find answers where Hakstol and his crew failed, that could be a nice area of growth.

On the bright side, the Flyers have often had a deadly power play, although their overall mark (19 percent) under Hakstol is actually just tied at 17th.

Some of that might be tied up in Philly’s steps toward adding more talent over the years, but either way, that unit hit a big wall in 2018-19. They’ve connected on just 12.9-percent of their PP opportunities, the third-worst percentage in the NHL.

Hakstol didn’t sign the Flyers’ goalies, and it wasn’t his final call to opt against getting someone more established to compliment Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth. A new coach’s system could absolutely make life easier for whoever ends up in Philly’s net going forward, but that could still be an area of serious concern.

A new coach – if the Flyers were to make such a rumored change – might be able to install systemic changes that could help optimize this team. Some might come from finding more innovative special teams strategies, or maybe tweaking personnel decisions. Leaning on different players in different situations may also move the needle.

It’s not necessarily a matter of Hakstol being a terrible head coach, but rather that there could be areas of improvement.

Granted, the Flyers have dug themselves a big hole, so if they’re making changes, they might want to keep their expectations in check.

Big decision coming Monday, and more later this week?

Working past the understanding that people have been wondering about Hakstol for a long time, and beckoning for Coach Q to take over in Philly basically the second he was fired, things seemed to escalate on Sunday. Business picked up as the Courier-Post’s Dave Isaac reported that the Flyers would make that decision. Things got blurry from there, with TSN’s Darren Dreger describing the situation as “status quo” and that “no decision has been made.” Crossing Broad’s Anthony SanFilippo reports that Hakstol’s firing could be announced “within 24 hours,” but an interim coach may be named, possibly because there might be some wrinkles to iron out with Quenneville. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sam Carchidi backs that up, noting no change officially happening Sunday night, yet to expect a “busy” Monday.

Maybe some of this comes down to semantics (official versus looming?), it all seems a touch odd, and a bit confusing.

A lot to take in, right? PHT will keep you updated, whether Monday ends up being busy or just … awkward for Hakstol and the team, if nothing is actually happening. Buckle up.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.