Six teams who made the wrong moves in net during this off-season

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It’s reasonable to expect NHL teams to make decisions that seem disagreeable from time to time. On occasion, they simply have more information about a given player or situation than the general public. Every now and then, they’re just flat-out wrong even if their hearts and minds are in the right place.

If there’s one area in which teams shouldn’t be given much benefit of the doubt, it’s when they make wild risks with their goalies. The goaltending position can be a very unpredictable one, but smart teams hedge their bets. Here are a few teams who simply dropped the ball this off-season.

Anaheim – Let me start this off by saying that I’m a huge fan of Jonas Hiller. The Swiss-born goalie isn’t underpaid ($4.5 million per year), but he might be underrated. Unfortunately, he’s dealing with vertigo problems that could endanger his career; the unusual malady isn’t exactly something he can “ice” or “walk off” either.

It’s a tough situation for the Ducks, especially since they’re a very budget-conscious team. All of that aside, I still cannot fathom why they wouldn’t try to bring Ray Emery just in case Hiller remains in limbo. Judging by his willingness to accept a meager training camp tryout, Emery probably would have taken a two-way contract, which would have reduced the risk of adding Emery if Hiller ended up fine. Instead, Anaheim might be forced to throw Dan Ellis to the wolves.

source: APToronto – The Maple Leafs are putting a whole lot of eggs in the James Reimer basket, aren’t they? Brian Burke warned Reimer of the dangers of being a one-hit wonder goalie, but all the motivational ploys in the world can’t change the fact that Reimer has only played 37 games in his career. It’s not the worst gamble on this list, but Burke won’t hear the end of it if Reimer falls flat.

Columbus – Read this post for all you need to know about the Blue Jackets’ blind gamble with Steve Mason, who might as well be a cautionary tale for Reimer. Columbus decided to double down on risk when they allowed experienced backup Mathieu Garon to depart via free agency in favor of Mark Dekanich, who has exactly one NHL game on his resume.

Edmonton – Obviously, the Oilers are in a pickle because they cannot get rid of Nikolai Khabibulin’s 35+ contract. Still, the Oilers decided to stand idly by and hope for the best, which means that their starting goalie battle will come down to Khabibulin vs. Devan Dubynk. Even Fox’s Celebrity Boxing matches were less depressing.

source: APFlorida – The Panthers’ situation might be the least acceptable of all because they had the most options. Going into the off-season, it made sense that they would part ways with Tomas Vokoun. Yet when you consider that the Panthers were basically dying to give away money and Vokoun needed a home, was it unreasonable for them to give the statistical darling of a netminder a hefty one-year deal? Maybe he wouldn’t have taken it, but whatever gains they made with their ridiculous free agent spending spree might be lost thanks the enormous talent gap between Vokoun and odds-on starter Jose Theodore.

Phoenix – I think Mike Smith could make a nice career for himself as an above average backup, much like Dan Ellis. The problem is that he’s the Coyotes starting goalie, which means he’ll get little goal support and less defensive help than some might expect (at least if Phoenix’s troubling 2010-11 shots allowed stats weren’t a fluke). Smith probably wouldn’t be in this situation if not for Dave Tippett, so we’ll see if the 2009-10 Jack Adams award winner is as brilliant as he seemed two seasons ago. Logic points to things getting ugly in the desert.

Two teams who could go either way

Islanders (if they trade Evgeni Nabokov) – You can kiss that “dark horse candidate” talk goodbye if the Isles hitch their hopes to Al Montoya and Rick DiPietro. That might be the same if Nabby sticks around, although that situation would be a whole lot more interesting.

Colorado – For some strange reason, I have a weird feeling that the Semyon Varlamov experiment might just work out for the Avalanche. That being said, they overpaid to get both of their goalies so that’s often a recipe for disaster.

***

Again, goalies can be an unpredictable bunch. It’s possible that one or more of these teams could find a Sergei Bobrovsky-type prospect who comes out of nowhere to save their season. That being said, I think that the Ducks, Blue Jackets, Maple Leafs, Oilers, Coyotes and Panthers will kick themselves for their decisions during this off-season. Where do you come in on these and other teams’ situations in net, though? Let us know in the comments.

Paul Byron gets four-year, $13.6 million contract from Canadiens

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It’s been a tough couple of years for Canadiens fans when it comes to the team’s roster movement, but they finally got some better news on Sunday morning when the team announced that it has signed speedy forward Paul Byron to a four-year contract extension worth a total of $13.6 million.

That comes out to a salary cap hit of $3.4 million per season.

The 29-year-old Byron would have been eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season had the Canadiens not signed him to a new deal.

He has been one of the better additions made by general manager Marc Bergevin during his tenure in Montreal, as Byron has completely turned his career around carved out a nice role for himself with the Canadiens.

The Canadiens snagged Byron on waivers from the Calgary Flames prior to the 2015-16 season, and in the three years since he has become one of their most consistent — and productive — forwards. He is the only player on the roster to have topped the 20-goal mark in each of the past two seasons, plays on the penalty kill, and has been a positive possession player on a team that tends to get outshot. He has also managed to top the 20-goal mark in each of the past two seasons while getting very little power play time.

He is not a player that is going to significantly alter the course of the Canadiens’ rebuild, or whatever it is they are calling this current phase, but he is a good, solid NHL forward whose contract isn’t going to break the team’s salary cap structure.

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.

Fast-skating Avs center MacKinnon speeds toward success

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DENVER (AP) — Mention a topic, just about any topic, and sharp-shooting Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon takes his elusiveness to a whole new level.

Not appearing on the cover of the NHL’s latest video game? ”Don’t care,” he responds. The pressure of becoming one of league’s top stars after a 97-point season? ”Feels normal,” the top pick in the 2013 draft quips. Taking another step in his evolution on the ice? ”Hopefully a few,” he offers.

It’s not like the speedy, 23-year-old shies away from the spotlight he has earned through his electrifying play. Rather, he’s just highly focused on helping Colorado return to the playoffs after a stirring run a year ago behind his hard-to-keep-up speed and hard-to-stop shot.

”He’s a legitimate, bona fide superstar in our league,” said defenseman Ian Cole, who joined the Avs after spending last season with Pittsburgh and Columbus. ”He’s one of the most dangerous players in the league.”

MacKinnon finished with 39 goals and 58 assists last season. He finished second to New Jersey Devils forward Taylor Hall in voting for the Hart Memorial Trophy, which is given to the player who means the most to their team. That didn’t exactly sit well with MacKinnon’s line mate, captain Gabriel Landeskog.

In Landeskog’s view, seeing is believing in MacKinnon’s skills.

”The hockey world is big in the East and they don’t see Nate as much, or us as much,” Landeskog said. ”We all know how good he is. It’s a matter of time. But he doesn’t need the recognition from anybody else – we just need him to keep doing what he’s doing as far as being a really good offensive player.”

MacKinnon turned in a breakout season in which he posted stats that hadn’t been seen in Colorado in a while, including:

– Most points by an Avalanche player since Joe Sakic had 100 in 2006-07

– Most shots (284) since Sakic during the Stanley Cup championship season in 2000-01

– 12 game-winning goals, matching the Avalanche record set by Sakic in ’00-01

– 13 three-point games, which was the most since Peter Forsberg had 14 in 2002-03.

Quite a list – and one he hopes to top this season. That’s why his summer consisted of working out every day and skating three times a week. Maybe an occasional round of golf , but his world revolved around the rink.

”I’m always thinking about hockey,” MacKinnon said . ”Not stressing over it, but definitely always thinking about it. I worked hard because another 100 points isn’t going to be handed to me. It’s tough to get that many. I don’t know if I will get that many this year. But I’ll try to and see what happens.”

MacKinnon’s prepared to embrace the pressure of being one of the game’s elite players. Then again, expectations have never weighed down MacKinnon, a native of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

”Growing up, I was always a top prospect, and I went first overall. So it just feels normal,” said MacKinnon, who signed a seven-year, $44.1 million deal in July 2016. ”It’s somewhere I expect to be. It’s not like I won the lottery here. I feel like I’ve earned that.”

He wasn’t one of the cover players for EA Sports’ NHL ’19 , which features Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban, Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky, Winnipeg winger Patrik Laine, and Toronto center William Nylander on respective editions.

”I really don’t care,” MacKinnon said. ”I just don’t.”

More on his mind is getting the Avalanche back to the postseason. The team earned the No. 8 seed with a win in their last contest of the season before being eliminated in six games by Nashville.

”We’re trying to prove ourselves,” said MacKinnon, who missed eight games in February with a shoulder injury. ”I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing – keep getting better by doing the little things. Be very consistent every night and making sure I’m healthy and feeling good.”

That sort of mentality is music to the ears of Avalanche coach Jared Bednar.

”He’s one of the hungriest guys I’ve ever met. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever met,” Bednar said. ”He’s hungry to prove that (last season) wasn’t a one-off – that’s who he is. He expects to be even better this year.”

Maybe even the best in the league.

”I’d like to. I’m working for that,” MacKinnon said. ”I’m trying to be the best me, and hopefully that’s the best player in the NHL.”

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Spezza wants to be more than ‘good locker room guy’ for Stars

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Jason Spezza is unlikely to play like a $7.5 million guy for the Dallas Stars this season, but it’s tough to imagine things getting worse than they did last season.

Spezza mixed with Ken Hitchcock about as well as wolves get along with sheep in 2017-18, seeing his ice time plummet from 16:10 minutes per game in 2016-17 to a pitiful 13 minutes per night. To put things mildly, Spezza’s numbers suffered, with just 26 points in 78 games. Excluding the 2012-13 lockout (when he generated five points in as many contests), you’d need to go as far back as Spezza’s rookie season to see such a poor point total, and Spezza managed his 21 points in just 33 games all the way back in 2002-03.

Waning confidence could be seen in a number of areas, including a 5.8 shooting percentage, easily a career-low and just the second time Spezza’s endured a sub-10 shooting percentage over 15 seasons.

Brutal stuff, right?

The good news is that his shooting percentage is almost certain to level out, and the even better news – for Spezza, if not the Stars as a whole – is that Jim Montgomery replaced Hitchcock as head coach. That said, at 35, you wonder how much Spezza really has left in the tank.

If nothing else, Spezza told Mike Heika of the Stars website that he has a “fire in his belly” after that miserable 2017-18 campaign. A mixture of pride and the motivation of a contract year should make it certain that, if Spezza has anything left, he’ll show it this season.

“I’m here to play,” Spezza said. “I’ve produced my whole life and I want to do that again. I don’t want to just hang around for intangibles and being a good locker room guy. I’m here to produce — that’s what I expect of myself.”

Amid struggles that could prompt an existential crisis in a less confident athlete, Spezza continued to succeed in the faceoff circle last season, a sneaky-impressive area of his game. The former Senators center won 55.8-percent of his draws in 2017-18, while his career mark is a strong 53.5.

Such successes weren’t lost on Montgomery, who told Heika that he expects Spezza to take more faceoffs in the defensive zone this season. (Spezza began 43.4-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone last season.)

That’s an interesting idea beyond leveraging Spezza’s ability to win draws.

Most obviously, it could open the door for Radek Faksa to enjoy more favorable opportunities. The stealth Selke candidate began just 33.4-percent of his shifts in the attacking zone last season, and one cannot help but wonder if Faksa could enjoy a Sean Couturier-like leap if his workload was relaxed to a substantial degree. The Stars’ top centers (Faksa, Spezza, and Tyler Seguin) were all pretty effective at winning faceoffs last season, which would hopefully inspire Dallas to focus more on landing advantageous matchups, rather than obsessing over who might win or lose a draw.

Of course, Spezza wasn’t talking about faceoff wins when he was discussing production; he wants to put up points and land another NHL gig after this contract year.

The veteran center truly stands as a crucial make-or-break player for the Stars, especially if Dallas continues to load up with a top-heavy first line of Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alex Radulov.

Through one preseason game, Spezza primarily lined up with Valeri Nichushkin (another Stars forward who could go either way, really) and Mattias Janmark. Via Natural Stat Trick, Janmark stood out as Spezza’s most common linemate last season, so we’ll see if that combination sticks even with coaching changes. You could do worse than Spezza with Janmark and Nichushkin, a trio that would have a lot to prove, even if Spezza’s in a very different phase of his career.

It’s important to remember that Spezza’s not that far removed from being the productive scorer he hopes to be. He generated 50 points in 2016-17, and that total came in 68 games. Before that, Spezza rattled off three consecutive seasons with at least 62 points.

Considering his age and the possibility that Faksa and others might push Spezza for power play reps and other opportunities, it might be too much to ask for Spezza to hit 60+ points in 2018-19. Despite that $7.5M clip, the Stars would probably be quite happy if the veteran landed in the 50 range, especially if he can juggle that with increased defensive duties.

That would make him “good in the room” and on the ice.

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 goalie be selected in first round of 2019 NHL Draft?

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As much as you need an elite center and a star defenseman, goalie remains the make-or-break single position in hockey. Unfortunately, it’s easier to herd cats than predict goaltending performances.

With that in mind, it’s not that shocking that the Marc-Andre Fleury/Rick DiPietro/Roberto Luongo era of goalies going high in drafts is no more. Instead, it’s increasingly common for there to be zero goalies selected in the first round of a draft. None went in 2018, for example, as the Rangers were the first team to select a netminder when they tabbed Olof Lindbom in the second round (39th overall).

American goalie prospect Spencer Knight recently admitted to NHL.com’s Jessi Pierce that he’s pictured becoming one of the rare recent goalies to go in the first round.

“You do think about it, and if I told you I didn’t I’d probably be lying,” Knight said “You do think about all the different ways it could go, but I think the biggest thing is to worry about the small things, the everyday things. It’s very cliché but it’s true. You do have to focus on one day at a time and enjoy the process because all these things only come around once. You only play in this (All-American Prospects Game) once, you only get drafted once.”

Here’s a quick glance at goalies who went in the first round since PHT began draft coverage in 2010.*

2017 – Jake Oettinger (26th pick)
2015 – Ilya Samsonov (22)
2012 – Andrei Vasilevskiy (19)
2010 – Jack Campbell (10), Mark Visentin (27)

* – If I happened to miss one, please note in the comments, email, or social media.

It’s too early to tell if the Dallas Stars will be glad they selected Oettinger (although, oof, they could have landed Eeli Tolvanen), and the same can be said regarding the Washington Capitals and Ilya Samsonov. The Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning do a solid job of shining a light on the highs and lows of drafting goalies with such prominent picks.

While it was refreshing to see Campbell earn a few nice starts with the Kings, the goalie hasn’t justified his draft status. That said, the Stars themselves haven’t had much luck finding answers in net, whether they’ve tried in other rounds, free agency, or via trades. Instead, they’ve sunk a ton of money into bad options, and the hope is that Ben Bishop can reverse that trend (and maybe hold down the fort while Oettinger develops?).

On the other hand, the Lightning knocked it out of the park with Vasilevskiy, who’s on the short list of hyper-promising young NHL goalies. It almost makes too much sense that Tampa Bay’s success in drafting Vasilevskiy allowed them to part ways with (wait for it) Ben Bishop.

Ultimately, there are only 31 starting jobs, and only 62 NHL goalie gigs including backups, aside from those rare stretches where three netminders make a roster.

/nods to J-F Berube.

There have been some fascinating, semi-recent studies regarding drafting goalies early, and the high risk-reward factor.

Back in 2016, TSN’s Travis Yost laid out one of the many arguments against drafting a goalie in the first round. Yost, like many others – including, clearly, NHL teams – notes that there’s simply an incredibly heavy opportunity cost with such an investment. That’s particularly true since many of the NHL’s standout goalies come later in the draft. Henrik Lundqvist and reigning Vezina winner Pekka Rinne went in the seventh and eighth round of their respective drafts, as just two prominent examples.

On the other hand, the payoff from finding a high-end goalie can be enormous. Hockey Graph’s Matt Cane summarized such thoughts following Yost’s post:

Drafting is an inexact science; there isn’t a team in professional sports that hasn’t whiffed badly on their selections. As a New York Giants fan who’s marinating in the poor choice of Saquon Barkley at second overall (mesmerizing talent, terrible value), going against the grain can hurt that much more.

You ultimately have to trust your scouts and your gut while making the decision, whether it be with Knight in 2019 or any other prospect.

It makes you wonder: which teams might want to take such a plunge next year? One could picture a team with aging goalies looking for answers (maybe the Senators if they do manage to trade for a first-rounder?) or teams that seem to be in perpetual pursuit of puckstoppers (the Hurricanes come to mind, in particular).

The smarter, studied route may be to accrue information by seeing goalies succeed overseas, in junior/college hockey, in the AHL, or even on another NHL teams.

Still, if you can identify a Vasilevskiy, you can really reap the benefits. That’s easier said than done, much like goaltending in general.

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.