Does the Atlantic Division have a true favorite?

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Every year, sportswriters face tough choices when they make predictions. Can a surprise team find lightning in a bottle once again or will they prove to be one-hit wonders? Will the splashiest moves create a “Dream Team” or an expensive, embarrassing nightmare? Should you tab the best team on paper or try to chart intangible things like chemistry?

While most decisions are tough, there are certain situations that stand out by being unusually difficult to gauge. In my mind, the Atlantic Division race is far more difficult to forecast in 2011-12. You could make an argument for almost every team to win the title, although I don’t think the New York Islanders are “there” yet. (Expect significant strides from that young bunch, though.)

Let’s take a look at what makes each Atlantic team confounding.

New Jersey Devils

The Devils were expected to collapse like they did in 2010-11 during just about every season since the lockout. That’s the natural assumption when you keep losing great (Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer) and very good (Brian Rafalski, Paul Martin) defensemen while your star goalie slides further away from his prime.

New Jersey has burned many pundits for counting them out over the years, though. Before 10-11, they ranked high in the standings more often than not, even when they looked thin on paper. They’re a deeply flawed team, but it’s tough to count them out completely considering their organizational guile (not to mention the fact that they employ Zach Parise, Martin Brodeur, Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias).

New York Islanders

Again, I don’t expect them to be in the division title chase, but counting this rising team out of the playoff picture is foolish. The Isles could turn some heads, especially if Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo are healthy.

New York Rangers

Click here for a post full of questions about the team, but to play my own devil’s advocate, they have arguably the best goalie in the world (Henrik Lundqvist), one of the league’s best passers (Brad Richards), a fiery coach (John Tortorella) and a ton of worker bees to drop in front of shots and hustle for loose pucks. It’s not outrageous to put them in the mix.

Philadelphia Flyers

Not many division title winners trade away their captain (Mike Richards) and a potent, affordable sniper like Jeff Carter. Then again, the Flyers march to the beat of their own stone-faced drummer.

They still have a nice variety of forwards to work into the lineup, although that group won’t be as good in all three areas of the ice (especially on the penalty kill). It’s hard to tell what to expect from Jaromir Jagr and Jakub Voracek this year, in particular.

Oddly enough, public sentiment seems to be that Ilya Bryzgalov will be a bust. I disagree, even if I firmly nod my head when people discuss the risky nature of his contract. For all that’s been made about Dave Tippett’s defensive system, the Phoenix Coyotes allowed the third most shots per game (32.6) last season. Bryzgalov kept them afloat and should be able to clean up some messes for Philly, which is promising since Chris Pronger’s health is unclear – at best.

Pittsburgh Penguins

A lot of people – and at least one prominent video game – picked the Penguins to win the Stanley Cup, which probably means that they expect them to take their division as well. Two factors make that a risky proposition, though:

1. Obviously, Crosby’s health is a big question mark.

2. The Penguins earned just one division title since Crosby’s debut.

The team should be commended for its work without Crosby and Malkin last season, but they played with a tiny margin of error and scrapped out a lot of charity points in that time. Geno could indeed be explosive next season, but the Penguins’ aren’t a lock to win the Atlantic by any means.

Then again, who is?

Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe new head coach

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The Toronto Maple Leafs actually did it. The Maple Leafs announced Mike Babcock’s firing on Wednesday, and wasted no time he naming Sheldon Keefe as his replacement as head coach.

After another frustrating Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in 2018-19, the Maple Leafs went through a strenuous offseason. It all built up expectations (and angst) quite high, and the 9-10-4 Maple Leafs haven’t lived up to them so far in 2019-20.

An already tense situation really hit a new low lately, as the Maple Leafs have looked miserable on their way to a six-game losing streak. Despite Babcock’s significant name recognition (and his $6.25M price tag), the Maple Leafs decided it was time to move on.

 

Problems go from festering to boiling

If you’ve spent any time on Hockey Twitter during the last couple of seasons, you’ve likely seen people question a wide variety of Babcock’s decisions. Sometimes the nitpicking feels extreme, but other times, it’s easy to see where people are coming from. (“Why isn’t Auston Matthews on the ice more often?” is a talking point most would agree with.)

The grumbling turned to rumbling as the Maple Leafs simply haven’t been playing well lately. To pin everything on Babcock is obviously unfair, yet you wonder if Keefe might be able to play to strengths better. The Maple Leafs seemed to march to the beat of the wrong drum at times under Babcock, and that seemed glaringly true during the lowest moments so far in 2019-20.

More to come …

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.

Fumbling Flames must not panic — certainly not with Gaudreau

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Things are pretty miserable for the Calgary Flames right now.

After suffering their fifth consecutive loss, Calgary saw its current spot solidified: out of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, if they began today. They’re “below .500” at 10-11-3, and whenever they need to add insults to their injuries, they merely need to glance at the latest snarky update about James Neal vs. Milan Lucic.

Johnny Gaudreau (and to an extent, Sean Monahan) haven’t been immune to tough times, either. Their lackluster play relative to their usual work is a cause for concern.

One might look at, say, Gaudreau’s RAPM chart from 2018-19 (via Evolving Hockey):

Then compare it to the slow start so far in 2019-20:

And start to wonder if there are deeper concerns than merely a star player experiencing a slump that also is extending to a big chunk of the team around him, one that came into 2019-20 with pretty high expectations.

That’s when things start to get a little bumpy. On Monday, The Athletic’s Darren Haynes goes as far as wonder: if it’s time for the Flames to trade Gaudreau (sub required)?

Amusingly, in arguing that the Flames waited too long to trade Jarome Iginla, Haynes uses basically the exact same phrasing I would deploy to talk Calgary off the ledge if there was any notion of trading the superstar winger.

Iginla’s situation remains a textbook example of the perils of listening to the heart, not the head, when it comes to the handling of star players on a team getting worse, not better, or underperforming and in need of a shake-up.

For those who actually need it, here’s why the Flames would be using anything but their heads in the hypothetical knee-jerk reaction of trading away Johnny Gaudreau.

1. Obvious buy-low situation for other teams

Any team pondering a rash decision with a player should do one almost-agonizingly obvious thing: look at their shooting percentage, and general luck.

Ding, ding: Gaudreau’s shooting percentage is just 7.8 so far in 2019-20, well below his career average of 12.5, and a far cry from last season’s 14.7. On-ice shooting percentage is a decent (but not perfect) quick-reference way to see if a playmaker’s passes aren’t resulting in as many goals as usual, and Gaudreau is cold there, too, with a nine-percent mark versus his career average of 10.6 percent.

Basically every sign (including PDO) makes this point: if this sustained for all of 2019-20, it would be easily the unluckiest in Gaudreau’s career. As we’ve learned from players ranging from Taylor Hall to Jeff Skinner, the best way to become a notoriously ridiculed GM is to trade someone when their value is at an all-time low.

2. The Flames’ overall luck has been bad, too.

In 2018-19, quite a few Flames enjoyed the best years of their careers, with Mark Giordano finally winning a Norris Trophy and Elias Lindholm loving life with Gaudreau and Monahan. The problem with career years is that, sometimes, you won’t be able to repeat them.

The truth about Calgary is likely somewhere between the red-hot run of the 2018-19 regular season and the ice-cold 2019-20 start.

The instinct might be to make a bold move to shake things up, but that’s exactly the type of situation that could lead to other teams taking advantage of your desperation.

3. Gaudreau is a steal

Thanks to bargains on other second-contract stars like Nathan MacKinnon (somehow $6.3M AAV through 2022-23), Johnny Gaudreau’s contract isn’t the biggest steal in the NHL. Still, Gaudreau carrying a $6.75M AAV through 2021-22 is still “maybe you should have a little talk with your agent” material.

At 26, Gaudreau remains deep in his prime, and at an attractively cost-controlled price. Giving up on that value because of a brief swoon is the sort of mistake that makes you an eternal — and, honestly, justified — punchline on social media.

4. Gaudreau is really popular

Flames GM Brad Treliving has been described as a “riverboat gambler,” but trading Gaudreau would probably be close to losing his deed in a bad bet than even losing his shirt.

Trading away Gaudreau wouldn’t just run the risk of being a bad hockey move and a bad bit of cap management. It would also be a dangerous PR gamble for a team that’s already dealing with some frustrated fans.

***

Look, the truth is that the Flames might not be quite as potent as they thought they were. That’s a bummer, and it’s understandable that they might grasp for answers, but panicking would likely only make things worse — especially if that meant parting ways with Gaudreau.

Frankly, it would be a troubling sign if they’d even consider it.

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 are rolling: 14-0-1 stretch harkens to 1982 glory

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NEW YORK (AP) — The New York Islanders insist they don’t think about how well they are playing. They are too busy preparing for their next opponent.

However, win after win after win has added up to a point streak the franchise hasn’t seen since its Stanley Cup dynasty days,

Since opening the season with three losses in four games, the Islanders are 14-0-1 while matching the team points record set during a 15-game winning streak from Jan. 21 to Feb. 21, 1982, in the midst of their run of four straight Cup titles (1980-83).

“The teams they’ve had in the past, they’re legendary teams,” coach Barry Trotz said. “I don’t know if it means anything right now because we’re so focused on just the next game and then just this season. I think when you look back, when you’re done, you can say, ‘Hey, remember that streak we had?’”

The Islanders have earned points in 15 straight games for just the fourth time, with the previous three coming long before teams earned a point for losing in overtime and long before shootouts (1978, 1980 and 1982).

They have pulled it off different ways. The Islanders have given up the first goal seven times, trailed after one period four times and after two periods twice. They won three times in overtime and twice in shootouts. At Philadelphia on Saturday, the Islanders trailed 3-0 in the third period before scoring three times in the last 12:14 to tie it and then winning in a shootout. At Pittsburgh on Tuesday, New York scored twice in the last 4:19 to tie the score 4-4 before winning in overtime.

The two comebacks made the Islanders the first team in NHL history to win consecutive games in which it trailed by multiple goals in the final seven minutes of regulation.

“There’s going to be games when you’re down in the score and you have to find to kind of get back in the game,” said veteran forward Derick Brassard, who has had a resurgence in his first season with the Islanders.

Trotz, in his second year in New York, has repeatedly said his players are so focused on the upcoming game they wouldn’t know about it except for reporters.

“The media seems to keep bringing it up, so we’re understanding the numbers now,” he said, “but really the mentality has been just look at the next game.”

Mathew Barzal has led the way with nine goals, but seven other players have scored at least three goals in the run. The goaltending has been stellar, with Thomas Greiss 7-0-0 with a 1.69 goals-against average and Semyon Varlamov 7-0-1 (2.45 GAA).

“We have a group of people that put a great plan in place for us and then we’ve got a group of guys who have committed themselves to going out there and executing that plan 100% of the time,” veteran forward Cal Clutterbuck said. “It’s never perfect but our goal is to make sure that mental errors don’t get in the way of us winning hockey games, and I think we’ve been able to do that over time.”

To set a new team point streak record, the Islanders will have to do it against the Penguins in the back end of the home-and-home set Thursday night. Pittsburgh is responsible ending New York’s two longest winning streaks – the 15-game run in 1982 and the 10-game stretch earlier this month on Nov. 7. In that loss, the Islanders took a 3-0 into the third period at home before the Penguins tied it and then won in overtime for New York’s only blemish since Oct. 11.

The Islanders were a surprise team last year, reaching the playoffs in the first year under Trotz and president and general manager Lou Lamoriello. New York led the Metropolitan Division for a chunk of the season before finishing second and then reaching the second round. After the Islanders returned largely the same team this season without any big-name additions, many predicted a regression.

The Islanders are proving their doubters wrong again.

“Anyone that doubts us can doubt us, that’s up to them,” Clutterbuck said, “but there’s no doubt in here.”

Latest PWHPA ‘Dream Gap Tour’ stop to be held in Toronto

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TORONTO — The Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association’s latest barn-storming stop will be back in Toronto and feature six teams.

The PWHPA on Wednesday announced its fourth Dream Gap Tour stop will be held January 11-12 in northern Toronto. There will be 120 players participating, representing the largest turnout of the association’s four stops to date.

The series was launched in Toronto in September, followed by weekend events in New Hampshire and Chicago last month.

The PWHPA is made up of about 200 of the world’s top players and was established in May after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded. The players have pledged not to play professionally in North America this season in a bid to gain support to establish a single league with a sustainable economic model.