‘Hawks or Heat: Who ya got? A PHT-PBT original

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As you may have heard, the Chicago Blackhawks are on quite a roll.

As you also may have heard, so too are the Miami Heat.

You may also have heard some national pundits yelling at clouds discussing which streak is more impressive — Chicago going 23 games without a regulation loss, or Miami winning 15 in a row.

In the spirit of healthy debate (as opposed to loud noises), ProBasketballTalk’s lead writer, Kurt Helin, reached out to PHT’s Jason Brough for a pleasant email exchange.

To: Jason Brough, ProHockeyTalk
From: Kurt Helin, ProBasketballTalk

We have been brought here to discuss what seems to be the sports bar debate of the week — at least in some mythical sports bar where the NHL and NBA demographics overlap — and that is the Miami Heat streak of 15 straight wins vs. the Chicago Blackhawks streak of 23 games in a row earning a point.

The challenge is, this isn’t even comparing apples and oranges. It’s more like comparing apples and barbecue brisket. But because of my giving nature, I’m willing to concede one point from the start — the Blackhawks streak is already historic to its sport in a way the Heat streak is not yet. I think it’s just hard for some basketball (and maybe general sports fans) to get their arms around what the Blackhawks streak means, really.

So, what does it mean?

From: Brough, PHT
To: Helin, PBT

Oh, so that’s how you’re going to play this. Like a respectable human being. I was thinking we were going to argue LIKE THIS and belittle one team’s remarkable accomplishment, because that’s what sports in the modern age is all about. Think of the page views! And the vitriol in the comments section! Oh, the vitriol.

But I guess if you want to be boring, I’ll just answer your question politely.

Of all the remarkable things about the Blackhawks’ streak, perhaps the most remarkable is this: It’s really, really hard to build a dominant team in the NHL, where unlike the NBA with its luxury-tax system, there’s a hard salary cap. Chicago’s cap payroll is about $67 million. The lowest cap payroll in the NHL belongs to Phoenix, at about $50 million. And let’s not forget the best hockey player can, at best, play half the game. Nobody sits on the bench all game, except the backup goalie. Oh, and by the way, the ‘Hawks’ backup goalie has been great this season.

Have the Heat been getting unexpected contributions, or has it mostly been LeBron?

From: Helin, PBT
To: Brough, PHT

Oh, I’m not going to stay respectable — WE ARE GOING TO ARGUE! I expect we will degenerate into a dozens battle soon.

First though, it’s not just been LeBron James, although he remains the best basketball player walking the planet and that’s a good guy to have on your team. LeBron’s playing at a Jordanesque level right now and while that pisses off people who hate LeBron/want to defend Michael Jordan (as if he actually needs defending) it’s just a fact.

But like I said it’s not just LeBron, Dwyane Wade has been great during the streak. In his last five games Wade has been averaging 27.4 points a game on 59 percent shooting. Chris Bosh has had good games. They are defending. It’s a team thing, just with LeBron as the head of the snake.

Here’s where I see the streaks as different — the ‘Hawks streak is meaningless come the playoffs. Last season the eight-seed Kings won the Stanley Cup and got to take it around Manhattan Beach all summer. Playoff hockey and regular season hockey seem largely unrelated, and while Bill James and his stats friends embrace the randomness it means that this streak is dead come the playoffs.

It’s seeding and nothing more. In the NBA, only one team outside a top three seed has won a title since going to this playoff format (and that Rockets team traded for Clyde Drexler midseason). What the Heat are doing will carry over to the games that matter. What the ‘Hawks are doing becomes irrelevant.

Go ahead, tell me I’m wrong.

source:

From: Brough, PHT
To: Helin, PBT

You’re wrong. Not insanely wrong, but wrong nonetheless.

It still helps to have home-ice advantage in the playoffs. And in a league like the NHL, where parity reigns, any advantage is worth having. Have you seen the atmosphere at the United Center for ‘Hawks games? Let’s just say, it doesn’t have the same sad, Derrick Rose-less feel as when the Bulls play. Chicago will take as many home games as it can get.

As for the Kings, they were far from a typical No. 8 seed. They badly underachieved during the regular season given the players on their roster. (Sort of like another Los Angeles team you may be familiar with, though I’m not sure that one can win a title.) Plus, the Kings got Jeff Carter in a late-season trade. Not sure he had the same impact as Clyde with the Rockets, but he did score eight times in the playoffs, tied with Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar for the team lead.

That said, I will give you this: the Blackhawks are beatable. Are the Heat?

From: Helin, PBT
To: Brough, PHT

If you keep insulting basketball I’m going to bring up how foolish the NHL looked during its lockout. That was embarrassing. The NBA would never… oh, wait. Nevermind.

I heard an interesting thing All-Star weekend from a person with another team, who said the Spurs actually are the team best suited to beat the Heat. San Antonio has veterans who have won, they move the ball very well and move off the ball (which is how to attack the Miami pressure), they have size to score inside, and they have role guys who buy the system. It makes sense. Except I don’t see the Spurs getting past the Thunder (they couldn’t last year and the Thunder are improved). So while no team “can’t be beat” it’s hard to see how anyone beats the Heat if they are focused. And the reason they have won 15 in a row is they are focused.

Speaking of the lockout, I’m curious — how are guys holding up physically? The reduced recovery time of a condensed schedule wore down NBA players and, while the NBA is a physical league (just ask Blake Griffin), the NBA doesn’t allow checking and full contact.

(Unless it’s from J.J. Barea, then it’s just cute.)

source:

From: Brough, PHT
To: Helin, PBT

How are guys holding up? The answer is, not well.

Granted, how much all the injuries we’re seeing in hockey has to do with the lockout is tough to say. But I feel like I’ve written the word “groin” more than usual this season. And not in the “Serge Ibaka slapped one” way.

In fact, if the Blackhawks are going to be stopped, injuries may be what does it. So far, they’ve been pretty lucky in the health department. Dave Bolland and Corey Crawford have missed some time, but that’s nothing compared to what teams like the Flyers, Red Wings, Senators, Blues, and others have experienced. Fingers are always crossed in the NHL, especially when you have key players with concussion histories, as the ‘Hawks do with Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews and Brent Seabrook.

But for now, everything’s going swimmingly. The Blackhawks host struggling Colorado tonight and get the Avs again Friday night in Denver. Then it’s Edmonton and Columbus, two more bad teams. Which is to say, this streak could go on for a while longer.

Jinx!

From: Helin, PBT
To: Brough, PHT

Frankly, we’ve all been typing “groin” too much this season.

So to sum up, you admit that the Heat streak is better than the Blackhawks’, and that hockey is the sport for people who can’t understand the subtleties of NASCAR. At least that’s what I got out of it.

Maybe you saw it differently.

From: Brough, PHT
To: Helin, PBT

Basketball sucks.

Mixed feelings about Anaheim’s ‘Mighty Ducks’ retro-themed third jersey

via Anaheim Ducks
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When you’re mining nostalgia, there’s a risk of making us old, crusty types grumble about messing with our memories. One of the biggest ways to do that is to fall short when it comes to mixing the old with the new.

(But really, the biggest hurdle comes from our own faulty memories. That’s a discussion for a totally different blog, though.)

The Anaheim Ducks seem to realize that a significant chunk of their fans – and hockey fans who might buy sweaters even if they can’t stand Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf – prefer the goofy, yet lovable, “Mighty Ducks” logo. Between the charm of those looks and the bland, corporate font vibe they have going on right now, it’s pretty easy to understand the appeal.

So, the Ducks are rolling with the old-school look for their third jersey … well, kind of.

The team’s press release mentions that Guy Hebert, the goalie many associate with the team’s early days when they’re not thinking about Paul Kariya, was on hand to model the hybrid retro-new duds. As a reminder, here’s one of the uniforms Hebert sported back in the team’s duckling stages.

via Getty

The Ducks’ press release does a good job of capturing the vague “something’s not quite right” feeling about these third jerseys. Their hearts seem to be in the right place, yet there’s just enough “meh” to make this more of a double than a home run.

Anchored in black, the third jersey features the original “Mighty Ducks” crest with eggplant and jade striping from the Ducks iconic look of its inaugural 1993-94 season. Linking the team’s past and present, the jersey incorporates new into old with a touch of the Ducks current orange coloring represented in the crossed hockey sticks of the team’s original mark. Anaheim’s current jersey number and letter styling is used in the new third sweater, providing a cohesive look to the team’s 2018-19 uniform kits, while the interior collar denotes the franchise’s 25th silver season. The first of its kind to subtly incorporate each of the seven colors (Eggplant, Jade, Anaheim Ducks Orange, Anaheim Ducks Gold, Anaheim Ducks Silver, White and Black) the Ducks have worn throughout the club’s 25-year tenure, the jersey also features silver as a primary accent color in both the triangle of the crest and yoke, paying tribute to the team’s generational milestone.

As someone whose artistic abilities peaked at “doodles during high school lectures,” maybe I’m not the person to ask here, but I’d argue that it’s pretty tough to “subtly incorporate” seven colors.

While comparisons to the Sharks’ look rank as some of the better jokes related to this reveal, the unveiling actually reminds me a bit of the Los Angeles Kings. You see, they decided to evoke the Wayne Gretzky silver-and-black look:

via Getty

… Yet, at the same time, tinkering in a way that makes grumbly folks like me grumble. In the Kings’ case, the grumbling came from tweaking the logo.

via Getty

Each nostalgia-themed jersey got a lot right, and if you asked a focus group to pick favorites, they might go with the new looks. That’s the thing, though. When you’re milking hazy memories, you bring out people’s fussy sides.

Should the Ducks have just followed the Coyotes’ lead in essentially putting out a carbon copy of their old sweaters, rather than this tweaked look? That’s not for us to say.

Actually, scratch that. They should have. This is still pretty cool, though.

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.

Is Dumba’s five-year, $30M a good deal for Wild?

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Matt Dumba‘s been enjoying a meteoric rise up the rankings of the Minnesota Wild’s most important players. Now he’s getting paid as such.

The Wild confirmed that the 23-year-old defenseman signed what should be a fascinating contract to ponder over the years: five years, $30 million (so a $6M cap hit). With that, Dumba becomes the Wild’s third-highest paid player, trailing only the twin monster contracts for Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

It’s really remarkable to look at how much Dumba’s numbers leapt during the last three seasons. In 2015-16, he generated 10 goals and 26 points in 81 games despite modest ice time (16:50 per game). Dumba then saw a better role in 2016-17, collecting 11 goals and 34 points while averaging 20:20 minutes per night. Last season is when his numbers went from good to great; he generated an impressive 14 goals and 50 points while logging 23:49 per contest.

While the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs were generally frustrating for the Wild, Dumba’s work provided a tantalizing argument that the best may still be to come. Ryan Suter was on the shelf, so Dumba took charge, averaging a whopping 26:58 per playoff game against the Winnipeg Jets, and not really looking out of place in the process.

That said, Dumba’s possession numbers have generally been pretty run-of-the-mill, so this contract is far from unanimously approved. Wild GM Paul Fenton made some interesting comparisons between Dumba and P.K. Subban, as The Athletic’s Michael Russo reports (sub required).

“The risk has certainly allowed him to score in double-digit goals, for one,” Fenton said. “It’s hard to find right defensemen who have the ability to game-break, if you will. He’s got a bomb. You look at how guys have molded themselves over the years, there’s a risk-reward factor. P.K. Subban basically does the same thing in a lot of lights. You’re looking at him and saying, ‘Oh my god. He tried that in that particular point in the game or that position in the game.’ As he matures and goes forward, I think it will smooth itself out.”

The dream scenario is for the hockey world to look at the value of Dumba’s contract as an extension of Fenton’s days with the Predators, as Nashville’s knack for signing blooming defensive stars to team-friendly deals can be seen in the bargains for Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, and Mattias Ekholm. (Subban, as Norris-worthy as he tends to be, isn’t cheap at $9M per year.)

Paying Dumba $6M per season might seem steep today, yet considering the gold rush on defensemen now that Drew Doughty/Oliver Ekman-Larsson signed and Erik Karlsson‘s eventually awaiting a Brinks truck, this could very well be the sort of pact that ages very well.

Then again, it’s no doubt that people are making jokes about other long-term Wild commitments that haven’t exactly aged like fine wine.

During the past three seasons, Dumba’s tied with Ellis for 15th place among NHL defensemen in goals scored with 35. His 110 points during that frame tie him with Jake Muzzin for 29th. When in doubt, you pay young defensemen who can generate offense, and Dumba certainly fits that bill.

(This also allows the Wild and Dumba to avoid salary arbitration.)

Minnesota stands in an odd spot as far as the future goes, as you can notice from all the mockery related to the Parise and Suter deals. As a team that’s been consistently good but rarely able to find the next gear to great, some will be queasy about another player receiving another meaty contract.

That’s not Dumba’s fault, nor is it on Fenton, who is still just beginning his run as Wild GM. If Minnesota’s taking the next step anytime soon, it will be on the back of strong play from young pieces, and Dumba ranks among their most important talents.

For the most part, this is a very fair example of “the cost of doing business,” as Dumba brings a lot to the table. Still, if he remains mixed at best defensively and the Wild struggle overall, the heat could turn up on the player and his team for this contract. So, again, this one will be fascinating to look back on once we gain hindsight.

(Personally, it seems more than reasonable, but time will tell if that inkling is correct.)

This summer stands to get even costlier for the Wild, as Jason Zucker needs a new contract after a breakthrough of his own. His salary arbitration hearing is currently set for July 28, so expect movement on that front in the next week.

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.

Goaltending remains biggest question for much-improved Blues

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Sometimes it feels like the St. Louis Blues have faced questions in net for about as long as water’s been wet.

In signing Jake Allen to a four-year, $17.4 million contract a little more than two years ago, the Blues hoped that they might finally have a true No. 1 goalie after bouncing around from Jaroslav Halak to Ryan Miller to Brian Elliott. They even gave Martin Brodeur a brief shot during the twilight games of his career.

(No, you weren’t hallucinating. Brodeur really did play for the Blues.)

Instead, Allen’s been a liability, to the point that he briefly more-or-less lost the 2017-18 starting job to Carter Hutton.

Interestingly, both of the Blues goalies cross their fingers for a rebound next season. The transition from Hutton to Chad Johnson is disastrous on paper if you only judge the netminders by their 2017-18 numbers, yet the bigger picture argues that Johnson can be one of the more reliable backups. Despite a horrendous .891 save percentage from last season, Johnson still has a career average save percentage of .910.

You can’t ask for much better than that from your No. 2, but the Blues still missed the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs even after Hutton played like a great starter for chunks of the past season. Simply put, the Blues need more from Allen.

Let’s consider some of the factors that might impact Allen.

  • To some extent, the 27-year-old (who turns 28 on Aug. 7) is who he is. Allen already has 219 regular-season and 22 playoff games under his belt. His career .913 save percentage is pretty mediocre, thus there’s a fear that the Blues will need to overcome Allen on more than a few occasions.
  • That said, he did generate a .920 save percentage over 47 games in 2015-16, and strong work during the 2016-17 postseason argues that Allen has a higher ceiling than many might assume.
  • No doubt, Allen’s 2017-18 was abysmal, as he went 27-25-3 with a backup-caliber .906 save percentage.

It’s frequently wise to dig a little deeper to try to figure out why a goalie might struggle. In Allen’s case last season, it came down to special teams situations. While he boasted a virtually identical even-strength save percentage in 2017-18 (.919) compared to 2016-17 (.918), his shorthanded save percentage plummeted from a career-high .901 to a career-low .834.

There’s a real worry with some goalies who simply can’t cut it in PK situations, whether that comes down to questionable lateral movement, struggles to see around screens, or any number of explanations. Even after considering those long-term concerns, it’s comforting to realize that last season might just be an aberration.

  • The Blues aren’t that far behind powers like the Maple Leafs when it comes to improving during the off-season. One of the delights of their bold moves to try to contend is that they landed a near-Selke-level two-way player in Ryan O'Reilly.
  • Some good and bad news is that the Blues generally carried on the tradition of playing strong defense and hogging the puck last season. At even-strength, they allowed the fifth-fewest “high-danger” chances, according to Natural Stat Trick.

The bright side is that the structure could very well give Allen a chance to enjoy a rejuvenation. The less optimistic take is that Allen has struggled at times even with a sturdy team in front of him.

  • Such digging doesn’t immediately dismiss Allen’s shorthanded struggles. Apparently the Blues allowed the fifth-fewest high-danger chances on the penalty kill, also according to Natural Stat Trick. It’s up to Allen more than anyone else to turn around those bad PK numbers, or at least it appears that way on paper.

***

Blues GM Doug Armstrong made quite a few moves that lead you to believe that St. Louis is swinging for the fences heading into 2018-19. If a letdown costs him his job, at least he’d be going out with a bang by making some attractive tweaks.

As wise as Armstrong often appears, so far, the organization making Allen “the guy” in net has really backfired.

Ultimately, his job and the Blues’ fate probably lands on Allen’s shoulders. Improvement seems plausible, yet we’ll need to wait and see if he’ll improve enough to allow the Blues to take advantage of all the weapons they added this summer.

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.

Immediate jump unlikely to be best for Kotkaniemi, Habs

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The Montreal Canadiens shouldn’t ask “can Jesperi Kotkaniemi jump straight from the 2018 NHL Draft to the main roster?” Instead, they’re better off wondering if he should.

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said that the 18-year-old will get a chance to impress in training camp after performing well at development camp, according to NHL.com’s Sean Farrell.

“He got better every day, so we’re going in with an open mind,” Bergevin said. “I don’t know, but just the fact that he’s signed and he’s coming to camp and he’s closer to the NHL. Where he’s going to be Oct. 1, I can’t tell you, but we see a lot of potential and growth in this young man.”

That’s fair, and the Canadiens would be justified in giving the third pick of the 2018 NHL Draft the nine-game audition before sending him to Finland or the AHL instead of burning the first year of Kotkaniemi’s entry-level contract.

Cautionary tale

But, big picture, this is probably one of those situations where both sides would be better off if Kotkaniemi dips his toes in the water rather than diving right in. If Montreal needs a quick example of a player whose rookie deal hasn’t been used in an optimal way, they might want to consider Jesse Puljujärvi, who went fourth overall in 2016.

Puljujärvi only played in 28 games in 2016-17, making a minimal impact while pushing himself that much closer to ending his rookie deal. Things didn’t get that much better last season, as he only generated 20 points in 65 games. A breakthrough is quite possible in 2018-19, but the downside would be that the Oilers would then need to give him a raise, and would only really enjoy one high-value season from his entry-level contracts.

That’s the sort of poor asset management Montreal should be concerned about, especially if they’re being realistic about their chances next season.

Tension in the air

Now, it’s plausible – maybe probable – that things could go a little better in 2018-19. For the most obvious example, the Habs could conceivably be viable if Carey Price returns to elite form (and good health).

In all honesty, the Lightning and Maple Leafs seem slated to be light years ahead of Montreal. The Panthers and especially the Bruins head into the season with higher hopes, too. The Habs run the risk of falling short of the postseason even if they improve considerably, so why not just push Kotkaniemi’s contract back a year instead of possibly wasting it?

The Finnish forward only turned 18 on July 6, so you’d expect him to be a bit less polished compared to an older prospect like, say, Brady Tkachuk. The worst-case scenario might be if Kotkaniemi plays well enough to hit double digits in games played, yet generally struggles and ends up stunting his growth while wasting a year of that ELC.

It might not be the healthiest environment for Kotkaniemi to debut, either.

Bergevin and head coach Claude Julien must be at least a touch concerned about job security, and the atmosphere has a chance to be pretty toxic. Critics blast Julien for how he handles young players at the best of times, but how ugly might the scene be if fans are calling for Bergevin and Julien to be replaced?

Montreal seems pretty locked-in to its forward group this season, too, and that’s possibly accurate even if they actually pull the trigger on a Max Pacioretty trade. The return could be pretty modest if Kotkaniemi’s is merely a minor upgrade over a replacement-level player.

***

The Habs already made a divisive choice in selecting Kotkaniemi after lucking into the third pick in 2018. Many believe that Montreal aimed at need first and foremost, with the expectation being that Kotkaniemi will develop into the first-line center, a piece that’s eluded Montreal for ages. The pressure’s eventually going to be pretty fierce for the prospect to deliver, so the Canadiens would be wise to wait until he’s truly ready.

And, again, the decision need not be based on altruism alone. Instead, by doing what’s most likely best for Kotkaniemi, the Canadiens stand a better chance to take advantage of his cheap contract when they’d ideally be better prepared to contend.

There are worse problems to have, yet Montreal really needs to start getting these decisions right if they want to turn things around.

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.