Can Brad Richards revive Marian Gaborik’s career in New York?

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For one season, Marian Gaborik silenced critics who howled with laughter after the New York Rangers signed him to a risky five-year, $37.5 million contract. Gaborik played in 76 games in 2009-10 – not a small feat for the fragile winger – while tying a career high in goals scored (42) and setting a new high in total points (86). Gaborik was a consistent threat on a team that was very thin offensively that season, playing more than 21 minutes per game.

What’s to blame for Gaborik’s lousy 2010-11?

Of course, the question wasn’t ever really about Gaborik’s skill. The injury bug caught up to Gaborik to some extent last season, but even then, his lower productivity was noticeable. Even in other injury-ravaged seasons, Gaborik would approach or even best the point per game level. (He scored 23 points in his 17 games during his last season with the Minnesota Wild in 08-09.) Something was different in 10-11, though, as he only managed 22 goals and 48 points in 62 games.

When the NY Post’s Larry Brooks discussed Gaborik’s struggles, he pointed to injuries (Gaborik’s season was derailed by a separated shoulder and concussion issues) but also to a bevy of lackluster centers.

Fact is, Gaborik, who was limited to 62 matches primarily because of an early season separated shoulder and a late-season concussion, opened 21 times with Erik Christensen as his pivot; 21 times with Derek Stepan; 14 times with Artem Anisimov; five times with Vinny Prospal; and once with Chris Drury. Beyond that, Gaborik never started more than seven straight games with the same center, with that dubious milestone achieved with Anisimov from Jan. 16 through Feb. 1.

That brings up an interesting question: were Gaborik’s linemates that much better in 2009-10? Dobber Hockey’s line combination stats reveal that he spent the majority of his time with a combination of three players in 09-10: Erik Christensen, Brandon Dubinsky and Vaclav Prospal. Really, though, there are only two major differences between those combinations and the 10-11 ones: he enjoyed less stability and didn’t line up with Dubinsky very often, instead drawing time with Artem Anisimov and Sean Avery last season.

Can Brad Richards save the day?

Now, there’s no denying that having more consistent linemates (and having more time with Dubinsky, one of the Rangers’ best forwards) might have helped Gaborik’s cause, but does that explain him dropping from an outstanding 1.13 point per game average to .77, the third-worst rate of his 10-year career?

The more important question is the one Brooks posed, though: can Brad Richards revive the free-falling Gaborik? One thing seems tough to deny: Richards is leaps and bounds better than any center Gaborik’s ever played with in the NHL.

For the first time since Wayne Gretzky’s first year on Broadway in 1996-97, the Rangers have an elite play-making pivot. And while it would be an overstatement to suggest the Blueshirts decided to pay Richards $60 million as a free agent simply to form a partnership with Gaborik, it would be a gross understatement to suggest that the 31-year-old Slovak’s plight and needs weren’t significant factors in the signing.

“I respect all the players I’ve been with but I am very excited to get the chance to play with Richie,” Gaborik told The Post by phone yesterday. “I’ve watched him play throughout his career and always admired his game; the way he sees the ice, the way he moves the puck, the way he makes his teammates better.

How much does Richards improve his linemates? James Neal’s 2010-11 season might be the best recent example, although it’s important to note how small the sample is. Neal scored 21 goals and 39 points in 59 games playing primarily with Richards and (fellow 2010-11 All Star) Loui Eriksson in Dallas. After being traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Neal’s numbers plummeted to one goal and six points in 20 games. While it would be silly to draw too many conclusions from that drop (especially considering the offensive troubles in Pittsburgh), it did seem like Neal’s production suffered without Richards sending him beautiful passes.

Lots of big “ifs” for next season’s Rangers

Glen Sather’s haphazard team-building leaves the Rangers with an annual slew of huge “if” scenarios. That said, the Richards addition makes the questions a bit more tantalizing than usual. The Rangers could have two strong offensive lines if they re-sign Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan, if Richards can find chemistry with Gaborik and if Gaborik can stay healthy.

The Richards-Gaborik scenario will cost more than $14 million in cap space and $19.75 million in salary during the 2011-12 season, but at least there’s a better chance that they won’t waste $7.5 million on an ineffective Gaborik. Still, if Sather hadn’t sidestepped a million bullets already, one would have to wonder if he will still be the Rangers’ general manager if the team the Rangers miss the playoffs this year.

Max Domi ejected after punching, bloodying Aaron Ekblad

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Max Domi didn’t take long to make an impact with the Montreal Canadiens, but it might earn him a suspension for when the games actually start to matter.

Domi was ejected from tonight’s 5-2 exhibition loss to the Florida Panthers after landing what many call a sucker-punch on defenseman Aaron Ekblad. As you can see, Ekblad fell and was bloodied by the blow, and did not return to the contest.

The best news is that, so far, it sounds like Ekblad is OK. Being bloodied by such an exchange would already be a concern, but that was especially worrisome since the 22-year-old has a history of concussion issues.

Panthers coach Bob Boughner said that team doctors determined that Ekblad didn’t suffer a concussion or a broken nose, according to The Athletic‘s Arpon Basu. Now, it’s worth noting that sometimes concussion symptoms don’t truly surface until after the adrenaline wears off, so there’s a chance that an additional update about Ekblad could be less positive. Either way, it’s positive that the early word is optimistic.

Whether you think it’s a fair course or not, Ekblad’s relative health could be good news for Domi and the Canadiens, as the Department of Player Safety factors injuries into possible suspension decisions.

Domi, 23, received a one-game suspension back in March 2016 for instigating this fight with Ryan Garbutt:

Whether he’s suspended or not, this isn’t a great start for Domi, although some Habs fans will be happy to see Tie’s son assert himself. So there’s that.

In case you’re wondering, Alex Galchenyuk is making a positive first impression with the Arizona Coyotes, including scoring two goals in a recent exhibition. The hits just keep coming for Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin, but at least they aren’t in the literal form of Domi’s fists.

Did you note that these two teams are division rivals? They’ll take on each other four teams in 2018-19, so we’ll see if Luongo’s warning holds up.

“Bit of a gutless play,” Luongo said, via TSN’s John Lu. ” … We definitely won’t forget about it.”

The Panthers will have a chance to forget about it, or at least let the anger simmer down, as the two teams don’t meet in the regular season until a Dec. 28 contest in Florida.

UPDATE:

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.

Sabres are remarkably expensive, but relief is coming

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After finally hammering out a bridge deal with rising forward Sam Reinhart, the Buffalo Sabres’ roster seems more or less set for 2018-19.

There’s plenty of debate regarding whether this team will improve, take a step back after a minor step forward, or idle in the same mediocre position they were last season. But one thing is clear once you peruse their Cap Friendly page and other listings of their salary structure, even if it might sneak up on you: this team is expensive.

Following the addition of Reinhart’s new $3.65 million cap hit, the Sabres have committed $76,684,524 to the cap this coming season, leaving them with about $2.815M in cap space.

That’s staggering stuff, especially considering: a) their moribund lack of success in recent seasons and b) the profound savings they’ll enjoy from prominent players (Rasmus Dahlin, Casey Mittelstadt) competing on entry-level contracts.

Let’s take a look at the Sabres’ somewhat puzzling salary structure to try to see warning signs, reasons for optimism, and situations that could go either way.

Long-term commitments

Three contracts stand out the most for Buffalo, and they’re a mixed bag:

Jack Eichel, 21: $10M cap hit through 2025-26
Kyle Okposo, 30: $6M through 2022-23
Rasmus Ristolainen, 23: $5.4M through 2021-22

It would be wise to throw in two other deals, too:

Patrik Berglund, 30: $3.85M through 2021-22
Carter Hutton, 32: $2.75M through 2020-21

Plenty of people criticized (and still criticize) the Eichel deal. Personally, I think he’s worth it. Even if you make an impassioned argument that Eichel’s only worth, say, $8.5M, Buffalo would have gained little in playing hardball there.

Considering the impact of the aging curve, Okposo’s contract looks like a real problem right now.

That said, Okposo absolutely faced extenuating circumstances considering how closely the 2017-18 season followed profound health scares, so maybe things improve in 2018-19? Consider that, even last season, Okposo generated 35 points over 51 games from November through February, which would prorate to about 56 points during a full season. That’s not world-beating stuff, yet if Okposo could generate 55-60 points while producing positive possession, the $6M wouldn’t seem so outrageous.

Okposo is just one of those intriguing pivotal considerations for Buffalo, as we’ll get to Ristolainen soon.

The nice thing, again, for Buffalo’s salary structure is that young players give them some default bargains. While bonuses can cloud matters, they’ll be paying Mittelstadt below market value for two seasons, while Dahlin’s primed to begin his three-year rookie contract. Such considerations – not to mention the dream of Alex Nylander “figuring things out” and giving them another bargain – could make those riskier deals easier to stomach.

Passing the torch?

The best news is that Buffalo’s ugliest deals are largely going away, whether they’re ending after 2018-19 or 2019-20.

Especially bad deals off the books after 2018-19:

Jason Pominville, 35: $5.6M
Matt Moulson, 34: $3.975M

Worst deal expiring after 2019-20:

Zach Bogosian, 28: $5.143M

With Jeff Skinner (26, $5.725M) entering a contract year, the Sabres would enjoy plenty of room to extend him – if they want to – considering the money freed up by those expiring Moulson and Pominville deals.

The Sabres see more than just Bogosian’s deal expire after two more seasons, and by then, they should know if Marco Scandella (28, $4M) was merely overwhelmed by a huge jump in useage (he logged almost exactly four more minutes per game in 2017-18 versus 2016-17, averaging a career-high TOI of 23:19). They’ll be able to gather more intel on forwards Vladimir Sobotka (31, $3.5M) and Conor Sheary (26, $3M) as well. Oh yeah, and they’d cross the bridge to a new deal with Reinhart.

Now, it’s not guaranteed that all that expiring money will mean that Buffalo will suddenly be cheap to run, as it’s conceivable that a lot of that liberated cash will simply go to Mittelstadt, Skinner, Sheary, Tage Thompson, and Linus Ullmark.

Of course, even if that’s the case, Buffalo would see more money going to younger players, which is generally a positive step in today’s NHL.

Ripple effects

You know how fans often depict Erik Karlsson and other defensemen (maybe Dougie Hamilton?) as players who bring offense yet are glaring liabilities in their own end? Such a criticism holds more weight with a player like Rasmus Ristolainen, who’s sometimes a whipping boy among analytics-minded hockey fans.

Painfully enough, Ristolainen might even be a little overrated on offense, as Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool and other metrics suggest:

The Sabres’ defense has been a uniquely ugly beast, though, and it’s fair to wonder if the tide-changing addition of Rasmus Dahlin may very well – eventually? – produce a domino effect.

Basically, Dahlin’s ascent may gradually place Ristolainen and others (again, Scandella was leaned up far too often last season) in more comfortable situations. It’s unclear if Ristolainen will prove that he’s worth $5.4M per season, but he might at least be able to clean up his numbers if he goes from difficult zone start situations to being used as more of an offensive specialist.

At 23, it’s not outrageous to wonder if a) Ristolainen’s confidence has been shaken and b) there’s still time for him to improve.

As special as Dahlin appears to be, it’s a lot to ask for him to fix things overnight, or even quickly. Unfortunately, the Sabres have been asking their defensemen to do too much in recent years, already. Maybe Dahlin will be so outstanding, so quickly, that such missteps won’t matter so much?

Overall improvements may also help forwards and goalies to thrive at a higher level, too.

Eichel’s dealt with poor support at times during his Buffalo run, not to mention some rough injury luck here and there. While the Ryan O'Reilly trade stings, landing Skinner and Sheary while inserting Dahlin and Mittelstadt into the lineup could really raise the wider competence of this team. Bonus points if Hutton proves that he can be a true No. 1 goalie, or failing that, a good platoon member alongside Ullmark.

***

This Sabres team is prohibitively expensive, and faces a serious uphill battle in proving that they’re worth the money.

Ultimately, the franchise’s future may hinge on key fork-in-the-road moments, such as Eichel getting some offensive support, the goaltending situation panning out, and solutions emerging on defense.

Forecasting the future isn’t easy, but the Sabres should at least be fascinating to watch.

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.

Highlight-reel plays from Pettersson, Talbot spice up preseason

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We’re two weeks away from real, meaningful hockey being played in the NHL, so for now we’ll have to deal with preseason games with rosters featuring 70-80 percent of players who won’t be regulars beginning in October.

But it’s still hockey and there are still highlights to be seen. For example, Tuesday night’s Edmonton Oilers 4-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks featured a save of the season candidate, a great goal and a pair of broken ankles, courtesy of uber-prospect Elias Pettersson.

First up, Cam Talbot is looking for a rebound season and started things off with this robbery on Canucks forward Nikolay Goldobin, fooling everyone in the building:

Goldobin would get his revenge later for the Canucks’ second goal.

The Canucks would finally breakthrough against Talbot in the second period as Sven Baertschi, with his back to the goal, went between-the-legs to end the shutout bid:

Now we move to Pettersson, who is already giving Canucks fans something to look forward to this season. The Calder Trophy candidate didn’t score or help create a goal here, but just absolutely ruined Ryan Stome:

“To be honest, I was thinking of when I was younger and playing [EA Sports NHL] video games and I was dreaming to play here,” Pettersson said afterward via Sportsnet. “To play my first game here in Vancouver, it was a dream come true.”

Pettersson will turn 20 in November, which means many, many more highlights like that are ahead for us to enjoy.

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.

What ‘NHL 19’ is missing: An ‘NHL 20’ wish list

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On Tuesday, PHT broke down the biggest changes EA Sports’ “NHL 19” brings to the table. While we’re still not so sure about the death of poke-checks,* the gist is that those tweaks present a big upgrade over “NHL 18.”

If you’ve spent a moment on the Internet, or really with other humans, you know that there’s an urge for even more. It must be frustrating for the gang at EA Sports, or really anyone anywhere. We might as well have a little fun with it, though, right?

Considering the veritable bucket of modes and ways to play in “NHL 19,” it’s likely that people will have a slew of other changes/modes/etc. they’d love to see if there’s an “NHL 20.” So, feel free to add your own hopes in the comments, and don’t be shy about getting really specific.

* – For what it’s worth, it seems like EA is trying to address issues with tuner updates. Maybe they’ll find a perfect recipe for pokes?

Here are some of the things I’d like to see, or never see again:

Story Mode

The NBA2K series really set the tone, even getting Spike Lee to pen (an admittedly derided) story mode script, although a greed element has soiled the series. EA’s jumped into the fray, with Dan Marino giving your player guidance in a recent story mode.

So, it’s only natural for hockey fans to want their own version, even if you probably won’t ever get to limp over to a digital Herb Brooks and yell “I am a hockey player!”

Now, with a lot of requests for EA tweaking “NHL 20” – assuming, hopefully, that greedy hockey gamers continue to get the opportunity to play NHL games – one must understand that the team making these games doesn’t enjoy the same budget as those churning out yearly FIFA or Madden titles.

The good news is that it’s easy to picture a scenario where a story mode could be grafted on the creaky-but-still-fun Be a Pro Mode. As a team-building nerd, I wouldn’t mind seeing a “roleplaying” element come to the GM simulation that is Franchise Mode, but Be a Pro would be an easier transition. I could easily see them graft a story onto Be a Pro, while maybe pairing down the number of games you actually play in the well-executed third-person gameplay.

However they do it, a story mode would really freshen things up. They could even have a mini-game where you try to rack up experience points by filling your interviews with the maximum number of cliches and bland answers. That’s what we call a sim, folks.

Classic teams

One of the many things the NBA2K series does right is allowing you to play as nostalgia-heavy classic teams, including approximately 5 million iterations of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. (Still smarting over the lack of Charles Barkley Suns, though. Come on, Chuck.)

The NBA is uniquely suited for such a mode, as games are 5-on-5, and star players make an enormous impact on the game. Most teams only go so deep into their benches, so you can capture the vibe of a legendary team even if you only nab 8-10 players.

That’s tougher in sports like hockey, particularly when fans become enamored with bottom-six pluggers.

Here’s the thing, though: it might be worth the effort.

It wouldn’t be surprising if you’ve been engaged in a silly debate: would this year’s contenders be able to hang with the Gretzky Oilers, dynasty Islanders, or unparalleled vintage Habs? Allowing those debates to live out in digital form would be a blast.

Perhaps EA’s NHL team could focus on a small number of these classic teams, as to avoid some of the drudgery that would come with attempting to pump out as many retro squads as NBA2K regularly provides. Such a tweak could also get fans arguing about which versions of dynasty teams were the best, and maybe the ’91 Penguins could be in NHL 20, while the ’92 one could move to NHL 21?

(As someone who loves fantasy drafts in franchise modes, it would be that much more entertaining to put classic players in such situations. And not just because it would be endlessly amusing to create the Quebec Nordiques and force Eric Lindros to finally play for them.)

Graphics

Circling back to the point about limited budgets, I’m not sure how feasible it would be for the NHL games to convert to EA’s vaunted Frostbite engine.

I’d also like to state that, personally, the game playing well is infinitely more important than how the game looks, and the NHL games frequently look nice overall. But yes, there are some moments where individual players look, uh … US Gamer’s Kat Bailey put it well:

But the players themselves are just so ugly. Many of the NHL’s biggest stars are captured accurately, but many more look like weird Neanderthals with bulging foreheads and massive jawlines. NHL has leaned on the same tired character models going on four years now, and as a result it looks quite out of date when compared to basically every other sports game

Again, I sort of “get it” when it comes to the easier-said-than-done elements to improving graphics, but ignoring that beef would be like throwing a sheet over the elephant in the room for many who care more about that sort of thing.

Miscellaneous whining and nitpicks

OK, now let’s get to the granular stuff that still leaves many (OK, me) seething:

  • So, apparently EA’s finally implemented something I’ve been clamoring for: the ability to manually switch the player you’re controlling. The company line seemed to be that icon passing or switching ruined the presentation of games, but I’d often grumble at the title’s inability to easily let me control who I wanted. In especially tightly contested games, that’s the sort of thing that could make you wish you weren’t around other people so you could throw a fit.

You know, theoretically.

After a lucky Google search, apparently this was quietly added:

Huzzah. Now, I could quibble about maybe implementing the control scheme differently – this tweak is stealthy enough that I literally learned about this while constructing this post – but at least it’s, to steal an EA line, in the game.

  • Stay onside, computer teammates. *Glares*

Look, as a simulation, I get that you’d sometimes go offside in a game. That’s especially true when you’re obnoxiously dangling or deking while entering the attacking zone, as I’m wont to do. That’s fine.

Sometimes the AI can get a little ridiculous when it comes to prematurely entering the zone, however, to the point where you’re cursing your teammates like an NFL offensive lineman racking up false start penalties.

It’s to the point where I’d probably accept less aggressive computer teammates if it meant less teeth-gnashing offside infractions.

(There are also times when icing can be pretty ridiculous, but at least it’s reasonably straightforward.)

  • Menus – UI (user interface) has been a sore spot for the EA NHL games at least since they made the jump to the PS4/XBox One, and that remains the case in “NHL 19.” For all the areas of improvement (the slowdown in changing menus seems to be gone, or at least alleviated), there are a ton of other things that make it tedious to navigate the game.

That might sound like a minor quibble, and it’s not the end of the world, but when you consider how dense things get – particularly with Scouting and certain elements of Hockey Ultimate Team – it would be nice if EA pays some mind to the UI for future iterations.

  • Fancy stats, or more stats – This is simple enough. It would be nice if the NHL titles provided more stats, both from simulation and in-game readouts.
  • Partial sims – Back quite a few years ago, you could “intervene” in a game that was being simulated, taking over your team in, say, the third period.

This was a nice way of speeding up seasons if you didn’t want to play all 82 regular-season games, and wasn’t the worst way of adding a different type of difficulty to gameplay. Could you overcome a deficit in a limited amount of time?

I’m not certain which edition of the EA NHL games had this before – I’m guessing it was a feature from the XBox 360/PS3 era – but it was pretty nifty. It’s not as though EA is against the idea, either, as Madden recently featured a sped-up version of games where you’d sim games until there were key moments.

Either way, it was cool, and I’d love to see it again.

  • PC versions – It would be nice to see the NHL games on PCs.

Consider the mods that people could pump out. Granted, EA might not be as thrilled about people essentially warping the NHL games, yet it could allow a passionate community to add value to the titles.

As this PC Gamer article notes, such a possibility is at least being discussed. If so, it would break a decade-long absence for EA’s NHL titles.

***

In case the wave of words over the last two days didn’t make it clear, I’m generally pretty positive abou EA’s NHL series.

Are there issues, sometimes grating ones, with these games? Absolutely. Still, I can’t deny that I play these titles a lot, and get plenty of enjoyment out of them. Hockey has translated to video game forms in a pretty majestic way since the 8-bit era, and it remains that way today.

That doesn’t mean we can’t ask for more. Really, isn’t the half the point of the Internet?

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.