The Chip ‘n’ Chase: Enough with all the shootouts, imagining an all warm-market Stanley Cup Final, and more!

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Every Wednesday we publish a little back-and-forth we have via email. We call it the Chip ‘n’ Chase. Yes, it’s a terrible name. Enjoy.

Jason Brough: Hey buddy, so you know how they say it’s important to have a purpose in life? I’m excited to say that I think I found mine. Something that will get me out of bed every day. Something that will drive me every hour I’m awake. And that something is…KILLING THE SHOOTOUT. Or, at the very least, making sure it’s not deciding so many games. Because it really is getting ridiculous. Did you know that one of the teams we’ll see tonight on NBCSN, the Washington Capitals, has gone to the shootout 14 times this season? That’s almost a third of their games being decided by hockey’s version of the home-run derby, or basketball’s version of the 3-point contest, or golf’s version of the long-drive competition, or football’s version of…I dunno…what do they do at the Pro Bowl — surfing? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate the actual act of the shootout, which can be quite entertaining. I just have a huge problem with so many valuable points being awarded to the winner of a competition that proves nothing about the quality of a hockey team.

Mike Halford: Not to be ageist, but that made you sound super old. Like, there’s a good chance you dictated that for your grandson to type out, then wrote him a $13 check for his birthday. I just don’t get what the big deal is. I’ve yet to hear a coach or player from a non-playoff team say, “Our downfall this year? Shootout, 100 percent.” And what’s the alternative? While I greatly respect the opinions of you and John Tortorella, saying you hate something without suggesting a viable alternative is a bit like complaining about the weather. What instead of the shootout — 4-on-4 followed by 3-on-3, then 2-on-2, then bubble hockey?

JB: Like I said, if shootouts can’t be eliminated outright, I would settle for fewer of them. Five minutes of 3-on-3 overtime, if it’s not settled 4-on-4, would accomplish that. Is 3-on-3 still gimmicky? Yeah, maybe a bit. But at least it involves all the elements of hockey, like skating, passing and defending. And while I’m at it, I’d also like to see a different points system, one that gives teams more of an incentive to win in regulation. Give them three points for getting the job done in 60 minutes. Just imagine how fun that would be down the stretch. Picture a team that needs to climb the standings going all out to get the full three points. Am I holding my breath waiting for that to happen? Nope, because that sort of system could lead to a wider gap in the standings between the haves and have-nots. The NHL’s worked so hard to achieve its parity; it probably doesn’t want to be like the English Premier League, where three points are awarded for a win and — let’s see here — after 21 games, first-place Arsenal has three times as many points as last-place Crystal Palace. As an English football announcer might say in his English-football-announcer way, all hope is surely lost now for Palace.

MH: There might be less parity in the NHL than you think, old boy. Anaheim is on 75 points, top of the league, while Buffalo sits bottom of the table with 31. Meanwhile, can Florida escape the relegation zone? One thinks they’ll have to be busy in the transfer window to make a push. (We should write more in English-football-announcer speak. You could call me Nigel if it helps.) Anyway, let’s steer this back towards hockey — well, sort of hockey. Have you seen what they’re putting in Dodger Stadium for the outdoor game between the Kings and Ducks? An ice rink, a street hockey rink, a beach volleyball court, two music stages and a bunch of palm trees. Here’s a rendering:

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The NHL also booked KISS as the headline act. KISS! That’s pretty indicative of how much the league is thriving now compared to a few years ago when, y’know, it had Chaka Khan doing the awards show.

JB: I absolutely love the planned set-up at Dodger Stadium. It’s basically a huge middle finger to everyone back east struggling through awful weather. They should have a tanning area too. And girls walking around in bikinis. Everyone always rips the warm-weather markets for not being true hockey markets anyway. Might as well embrace it. Get a load of the forecast for Jan. 25, the day of the game:

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Sunny with a high of 73 and a low of 54. Just a nice comfortable day. Aaaaaaaand cue all the terrible jokes about the ice melting. The game isn’t until the evening, so I’m pretty sure it’ll be fine. And if the ice does melt, oh well, everyone can just hang out and drink some margaritas.

MH: Now take it a step further and imagine an all warm-market Stanley Cup Final. Because if there’s a year for it to happen, this might be it. The California contingent is obviously in the mix — all three are in the NHL’s top seven — and Tampa Bay has played really well since the Stamkos injury (16-10-4). I think we should be talking much, much more about the Lightning. This is a team that’s played nine rookies and remains neck-and-neck with Boston for second place in the conference. It’s not by fluke, either. According to those fancy nerd stats you’re always droning on about, the Bolts rank pretty high.

JB: Oh man, Canada would lose its collective mind if there was an all warm-market final. As if it wasn’t bad enough that the last time a Canadian team won the Cup was 1993, when Montreal beat Gretzky and the Kings — since then, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Anaheim, and L.A. have each celebrated championships, and a team from Canada has lost in the final five times. I agree with you about Tampa Bay, by the way. The Lightning might be the most underrated team in the NHL. If I had to vote for a coach of the year right now, it would be Jon Cooper. And if I had to vote for the Vezina, it would be Ben Bishop. I was also pretty surprised Sweden left Victor Hedman off its Olympic roster. True, Pittsburgh and Boston probably have a better shot of coming out of the East than T-Bay, but does any Canadian squad have a better chance of making the final out of either conference? You could argue Montreal or even Ottawa in the East, but I don’t think so. Tom Sestito’s Vancouver Canucks are still probably the best Canadian team out of all seven, but their chances in the West look awfully grim.

MH: Even with Tom Sestito?

JB: Even with Tom Sestito.

Islanders need Varlamov to pick up where Lehner left off

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

When the Islanders needed to roll the dice on a goaltender last season, they decided to hand Robin Lehner a one-year, $1.5 million. The deal couldn’t possibly have worked out any better for them, as Lehner ended up being named one of the three finalists for the Vezina Trophy.

The 28-year-old posted a 25-13-5 record with a 2.13 goals-against-average and a .930 save percentage in 46 appearances with the Isles last season. It was, by far, the best year of his career. Of course, he had quite a bit of help. New head coach Barry Trotz used a defense-first system that limited the opposition’s scoring chances. That’s not to say that Lehner’s season wasn’t impressive though.

The Islanders netmider also helped his team sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Unfortunately for them, they were swept in the second round by Carolina Hurricanes. In the end, Lehner finished the postseason with a 4-4 record, a 2.00 goals-against-average and a .936 save percentage.

[MORE: Summary]

As good as he was, Isles general manager Lou Lamoriello wasn’t interested in committing to his goalie long-term. Once free agency opened on July 1st, Lehner signed a one-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks and the Isles decided to give Semyon Varlamov a four-year, $20 million contract.

Varlamov’s had his share of struggles over the last few seasons in Colorado. He ended up playing in 49 games last year, but eventually lost his starting job to Philipp Grubauer. The 31-year-old had a 20-19-9 record with a 2.87 goals-against-average and a .909 save percentage last season.

“Even [before last season] when we were looking for goaltenders, he was on the radar for the organization,” Trotz said of Varlamov via NHL.com. “He’s obviously been someone that I think we have a lot of confidence in. With Robin’s [contract] situation, when that didn’t materialize, [Varlamov] was the No. 1 guy that we were going to go after.”

So committing to him for four years is definitely a risky move, but Trotz’s system could help bring out the best in him.

“It’s very hard to play against the teams he’s coaching because of his system,” Varlamov said of Trotz. “Every team playing against a Barry Trotz-coached [team] is going to have a hard time because all the teams he’s coached, they play very well defensively. They play very tight in front of the net.”

There will be plenty of pressure on Varlamov’s shoulders heading into this season. Expectations will be higher for the Islanders this year because they were one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference last season. The beauty of Trotz’s system is that he just needs his goaltender to be solid. Most of the time, he doesn’t need his goalie to steal games. Can Varlamov handle that? Can the Isles replicate the success they had last season?

Varlamov is the biggest change the Isles made to their roster this off-season. If they drop off in 2019-20, a good amount of blame will be placed on his shoulders.

The pressure is definitely on the Russian veteran to provide the team with adequate performances between the pipes.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

It’s New York Islanders Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

2018-19
48-27-7, 103 points (2nd in the Metropolitan Division, 4th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Eliminated in four games in the second round by the Carolina Hurricanes.

IN:
Semyon Varlamov
Jared Coreau

OUT: 
Robin Lehner
Luca Sbisa
Dennis Seidenberg
Valtteri Filppula

RE-SIGNED: 
Tanner Fritz
Jordan Eberle
Tom Kuhnhackl
Anders Lee
Brock Nelson

2018-19 Summary

Did your team lose the captain/best player on the roster? Do you feel like you have no hope? Well if you’re looking for a reason to be optimistic, look no further than the 2018-19 Islanders. After John Tavares walked to Toronto in free agency, many predicted that the Isles would be one of the bottom-feeders in the NHL. Instead, they ended up being one of the greatest stories of the year.

The Islanders’ top point-getter last season was sophomore forward Mathew Barzal, who picked up 62 points in 82 contests. They had four players hit the 50-point mark (Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee). They also had just three players surpass the 20-goal mark (Lee, Nelson and Casey Cizikas). Despite those limited offensive numbers, the Islanders found a way to finish second in the Metropolitan Division which, again, no one expected.

How did they do it? Structure, structure and more structure.

Bringing in Barry Trotz as head coach proved to be a wise move for a team without an offensive superstar. Trotz’s defensive-minded approach ended up giving the Isles an identity. They weren’t very fun to watch, but they found a way to get the job done on most nights.

They also found a way to sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs before they were swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round.

Now, the question is whether or not they can do it all over again.

“We know other teams will take us maybe more serious than they did last year,” Lamoriello said, per NHL.com. “But that’s where we have to grow and that’s where our character that I have tremendous confidence in comes through, plus the coaching staff that we have.

“This is the first time that a lot of our players have ever gone through the playoffs, first time they experienced success, and then the lack of success in the second round and how it’s approached. You learn by experience. You never know what experience is until you acquire it.”

The Islanders brought back three core players in Eberle, Lee and Nelson. The biggest change will occur between the pipes, as they let Vezina Trophy nominee Robin Lehner hit free agency. Lehner had the best year of his career, as he posted a 25-13-5 record with a 2.13 goals-against-average and a .930 save percentage. Despite those awesome numbers, the organization wasn’t ready to commit to Lehner long term. Clearly, they felt that Trotz’s system helped the veteran netminder succeed (it probably did).

In fairness to the team, no other squad was willing to give Lehner a long-term deal, so he ended signing a one-year, $5 million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks.

With him no longer in the picture, Lamoriello had to sign a new starting goaltender. In the end, they settled on former Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov (he inked a four-year, $20 million deal). The 31-year-old has struggled over the last couple of seasons, but playing in Trotz’s system could help revitalize his career like it did for Lehner.

Whether or not he fits in as well as Lehner did remains to be seen.

This whole group proved a lot of people wrong last year. Can they do it again?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Top 20 defensemen; Canucks believe in Benning

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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.

• NHL.com breaks down the Top 20 defensemen in the NHL right now. (NHL.com)

• The Hockey News projects ahead to who the Canucks will protect come the 2021 expansion draft. (The Hockey News)

• The fact that the Canucks are extending Jim Benning shows that they believe in his plan. (Sportsnet)

• How can every team’s jersey be improved? (Puck Prose)

• Can Evan Bouchard crack the Oilers’ defense this year? (Edmonton Journal)

Charlie McAvoy continued developing during a big 2018-19 season. (Stanley Cup Chowder)

• How much can the Predators expect from Dante Fabbro? (Predlines)

• Here’s a list of forwards the Vegas Golden Knights could opt to sign late in the summer. (SinBin.Vegas)

• What would the Penguins front office look like without Bill Guerin? (Pensburgh)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Hughes has potential to take Devils to next level

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

Given all the changes in New Jersey this offseason, there’s no shortage of x-factors heading into the 2019-20 campaign.

One could argue, for instance, that P.K. Subban‘s arrival on the blue line is the biggest change of the offseason. I would disagree and a team that gave up as many goals as the Devils did could use a boost on the backend to take the pressure off their goaltending situation, which is suspect at best heading into the season.

But, in this scribe’s opinion, it’s the arrival of Jack Hughes who has the potential to make the biggest difference.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | Under Pressure]

The Devils need offense, plain and simple. Getting by on a leading point-producer who had just 50 points isn’t going to cut it in the NHL these days.

And while a healthy Taylor Hall will make a big difference as well, we know how big the gap can be between himself and the rest of the scoring on the team (see: 2017-18 season.)

With the potential for a breakout season for Nico Hischier — and one not limited by injuries — the addition of P.K. Subban to the power play and Nikita Gusev and Hughes to the forward contingent, the Devils should be miles ahead of their 25th-ranking in goals-for from last season.

And the expectation is Hughes will play a big role in that. He could start the season as the team’s second-line center and depending on usage, could easily hit the 20-goal mark, if not more.

“Jack’s play will determine to us what he can handle and how much,” coach John Hynes told NHL.com. “We’re not going to put pressure on him and we’re not going to put limits on him right away. We continue to put young players in situations they can handle while also challenging them in the right ways where they can have success but also see how they respond outside their comfort zone.”

Hughes does everything so well. His vision, speed and knack for scoring are all welcome additions to the Devils who sorely need more in each of those areas.

The key will be to find him the right linemates in training camp and let some chemistry develop. If it does, an 80-point season may take shape providing he’s healthy.

And, perhaps, a Calder Trophy for his efforts.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck