Leafs’ Lupul: ‘We still believe’

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The Toronto Maple Leafs lost their sixth game in a row on Tuesday and didn’t look very good, either. While it’s true that the St. Louis Blues have done that to plenty opponents this season, it’s easy to see why Maple Leafs fans are losing hope.

The team itself generally put on a brave face, especially Joffrey Lupul, as the Canadian Press reports.

“Certainly we’re afraid of letting it slip away,” Lupul said. “The whole year we’ve thought we were a playoff team, and we still believe that now … Realistically we’re still right there with these other teams.”

James van Riemsdyk backed him up, telling Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston “we have a lot of fight in us.”

Still, the question of that minimal early effort in particular hangs in the air; Jonathan Bernier’s strong play helped them stay in the game early despite playing poorly enough that head coach Randy Carlyle described the team as “frozen” during the first 30 minutes.

Not everyone even addressed the loss, either.

Either way, the Maple Leafs are out of the East’s top eight, although Lupul is right in saying they’re “right there” as Toronto ranks among four East teams with 80 standings points.

Calgary Flames set with arena plans to replace Saddledome

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CALGARY, Alberta (AP) — The Calgary Flames have a tentative agreement for a new arena to replace the Saddledome.

The city, NHL team and the Calgary Stampede have agreed in principle to terms. The Stampede, a rodeo exhibition, owns the land.

The deal was to be presented to the City Council on Monday and then put to a vote. Calgary citizens would then have a week to voice their opinion before a council vote next week to ratify the deal.

The Saddledome is almost 36 years old. The cost of the event center is $550 million to $600 million. It is to have a seating capacity of about 20,000 for sports and would be the heart of a larger revitalized commercial and residential district.

Penguins sign Zach Aston-Reese to 2-year deal

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Penguins and forward Zach Aston-Reese avoided arbitration on Monday, agreeing to a two-year deal that runs through the 2020-21 season.

The deal is worth $1 million annually. The two sides came together minutes before heading to arbitration.

”We were actually setting up for the meeting and kind of right before it started, right at nine o’clock, it got done,” Aston-Reese said. ”Right on time.”

Aston-Reese, 24, posted career highs in goals (eight) and assists (nine) despite being limited to 43 games because of a hand injury. Aston-Reese – who skated alongside Sidney Crosby on the top line but also put in work with the fourth line – gives the Penguins more options as they try to bounce back from a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders.

”Zach is a responsible player who plays a solid two-way game,” general manager Jim Rutherford said. ”He has a heavy style of play that is especially effective on the forecheck and penalty kill.”

Aston-Reese admitted he was relieved to get a new contract ironed out before going through arbitration.

”It’s a little bit awkward and I was just really happy to get the deal done before that meeting began,” he said. ”You hear stories of things like that and it’s no coincidence that only what, 5% actually go through with the meeting. I was happy to avoid that.”

How Phil Kessel can transform Coyotes’ offense

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The Arizona Coyotes made a significant splash this offseason when they acquired Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins, adding a much-needed impact player to the top of their lineup. Getting him was a perfect confluence of events that involved the Penguins feeling desperate to shake up their roster, Kessel having almost full control over where he ended up going, and the Coyotes having a head coach (Rick Tocchet) the Kessel liked playing for in the past and wanted to play for again.

Despite an impossibly bad run of injury luck the Coyotes made a valiant push for a playoff spot only to fall just short, in large part because they did not have enough offense.

They finished the season 28th in goals scored, 20th in shots on goal, and 26th on the power play. None of that is promising.

One player alone can not fix all of that — especially a player that will be turning 32 at the start of the season — but adding a player like Kessel certainly helps.

A lot.

Acquiring Kessel is so significant because the Coyotes have simply not had a player like him in more than a decade. Maybe even longer.

A *bad* year for Kessel offensively is probably 25 goals and 60 points, while he is also still capable of being an 80-90 point player. Even the middle ground between those two is bonafide first-line production.

To put all of that that into perspective, just consider that since the start of the 2008-09 season the Coyotes have had only two players top the 70-point mark in a single season, and none since Ray Whitney did it during the 2011-12 season. No one has topped 80 points during that stretch.

Over that same stretch they have had only five 60-point performances (and only Clayton Keller has done it since 2011-12), only two 30-goal seasons (none since, again, 2011-12) and only three 25-goal seasons.

Twenty-five goals and 60 points are not huge numbers. Those are great second line numbers in today’s NHL and pretty good first line numbers. But even those have been almost unheard of in Arizona for the past decade. They just simply have not had anyone that is even close to being an impact forward.

Should Kessel be expected to be the same 80-or 90-point player that he has been the past two seasons? Probably not, not only because he will not have the luxury of Hall of Fame centers next to him, but also because he is also going to be another year older. There is a definite recipe for regression there, especially at even-strength. But he is still gifted enough of a player (and passer and playmaker, perhaps his most underappreciated skill) that he will still be one of the best and most productive offensive players to wear a Coyotes uniform in years.

But the area he should make the biggest impact is on Arizona’s dreadful power play.

The Coyotes have been one of the worst teams on the man-advantage for five years now, mostly because they just have not had anyone at forward that could really take over and run things.

The power play is where Kessel does a significant part of his damage.

Over the past three seasons Kessel is sixth in power play assists per 60 minutes (5.49), 11th in primary assists per 60 minutes (2.91), and third in total points per 60 minutes (7.47).

It is easy to write that off in recent years to playing alongside the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Kessel was often the one that unit ran through and it was far less dangerous when he was not on the ice. His passing, vision, and playmaking made him an elite weapon and one of the most productive players in the league on the man-advantage.

The Coyotes have had no one that even comes close to that level of performance over the past few years.

Kessel definitely has his flaws, and his defensive shortcomings are very real, but he remains an impact winger and a player that can still completely help transform a power play unit. He alone may not make them the best unit in the league, or even one of the best, but he is going to make them better. Very likely a lot better.

The Coyotes have been assembling a promising roster that is pretty good defensively and definitely has the potential to grow into a good team in the not too distant future. The biggest thing they have been lacking in this rebuild is a forward that can change a game and be a difference-maker offensively. Ideally, that player would be someone younger and still closer to the prime of their career and would better match up with some of their core players, but those players are nearly impossible to acquire without a lot of luck or a top-pick in the right draft year.

Kessel may not be perfect, but can definitely still help give them a lot of the elements they have been lacking offensively and help bring some firepower to an offense that has been one of the dullest and least dangerous in the league.

Combined with the addition of Carl Soderberg and, hopefully, some better injury luck and that should give the Coyotes a fighting chance to make up that ground in the Western Conference playoff race.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference)

Related: Coyotes acquire Phil Kessel from Pittsburgh Penguins for Alex Galchenyuk

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.

PHT Power Rankings: Early look at 2020 NHL free agent class

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The 2019 NHL free agent class has mostly been picked over and is now down to the bargain bin of reclamation projects (and, for some reason, Jake Gardiner).

So let’s start taking a look to the summer of 2020 and the list of names that could be available next summer.

There is a pretty extensive list of big names entering their contract year, including the captain of the 2019 Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, a recent NHL MVP, and two core players for the Washington Capitals.

Will all of them end up hitting the free agent market? Of course not, they never do because teams do not let their core players get away. But some of them will hit the open market, and it is never too early to start looking at the potential options.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take an early look at the list of potential 2020 free agents.

To the rankings!

1. Nicklas Backstrom Still one of the best all-around centers in the NHL. He is entering the final year of a 10-year, $67 million contract that proved to be an absolute steal for the Capitals given how much Backstrom has contributed over the past decade. The only potential flaws with Backstrom as a free agent: He will turn 33 years old in his first year of a new contract, so you will definitely not be getting the best hockey of his career, and, quite honestly, the Capitals are probably going to keep him.

2. Taylor Hall The 2017-18 NHL MVP is one of the best wingers in the league and contract talks between him and the Devils seem to be slow. If the team does not take a big step forward this season it might be all the incentive he needs to hit the open market. He lost most of this past season to injury, but he is still an impact, top-tier player and a big comeback year will only boost his value even more.

3. Jared Spurgeon This may seem a little high considering some of the other names potentially available next offseason, and especially on defense, but do you know what? Jared Spurgeon is really, really, really good. He may not put up the biggest offensive numbers among defenders in this class, but he is a darn good player that logs a lot of tough minutes, doesn’t get sheltered, and still manages to help his team finish on the plus side when it comes to goals, shots, and scoring chances when he is on the ice. He is a top-pairing defender and a great all-around player and the Wild seem to understand that. If we are to believe the words of general manager Paul Fenton this summer, they intend to re-sign him. Odds he actually hits the open market: Low.

4. Alex Pietrangelo Pietrangelo is an outstanding player, but you can be sure there is going to be a Stanley Cup tax attached to his next contract. Meaning, when you are the captain of a recent Stanley Cup winner your value immediately skyrockets even more. Given how important he is to the Blues (he is their best defender and one of their top players) they will probably be the team paying it.

5. Roman Josi Josi’s contract has been an unbelievable steal for the Predators for the past six years, counting just $4 million against the salary cap since the start of the 2013-14 season. During that time he has had four top-10 finishes in Norris Trophy voting and been one of the most productive defenders in the league, scoring at least 12 goals every season and currently sitting in fourth in total points and sixth in goals among defenders.

6. Braden Holtby Along with Backstrom, the Capitals also have to deal with a contract for their starting goalie. That is two significant core players whose contracts are expiring at the same time, and that is going to present a lot of challenges. If the Capitals have to choose to let one go, Holtby might be the smart choice. The Sergei Bobrovsky contract in Florida is probably the measuring stick for what Holtby can — and will — get, and that just may not be the best use of cap space for the Capitals.
Holtby can still be dominant, but he has shown signs of slowing down over the past two years.

7. Torey Krug Krug doesn’t look the part of a top-pairing defender and he doesn’t play the toughest minutes in Boston, but there is still a ton of value in an offensive, puck-moving defender that can help drive possession and offense. The problem for the Bruins in keeping him is going to be that they have a lot of contracts to juggle over the next year, including one major contract this summer with their best defender, Charlie McAvoy.

8. Tyson Barrie It is going to be interesting to see what happens to his production in Toronto. He has always been an outstanding and productive defender, and now he gets to feed the puck to a deep, talented group of forwards. Given Toronto’s salary cap situation, as well as the fact one of their other top-defenders, Jake Muzzin (more on him in a second) is also an unrestricted free agent after this season, they are going to have to let someone go.

9. Jake Muzzin — One of the most underrated defenders of his era because he was always overshadowed by Drew Doughty in Los Angeles. Muzzin is an outstanding defensive player but can also move the puck and chip in some offense.

10. Evgenii Dadonov Since returning to the NHL Dadonov has been one of the most productive forwards in the league. He will be 31 at the start of the next deal so you have to be prepared for some decline.

11. Justin Faulk Faulk has been the subject of trade rumors for years now, and he may finally be nearing the end of his time with the Hurricanes one way or another. He is not a perfect player, but he brings a lot to the table offensively and given how tight Carolina’s salary cap situation is starting to get as its young players get better and more expensive, it may not be possible to keep him.

12. Mikael Granlund His debut with the Predators after the trade probably did not go as planned for him or the team, but that’s a ridiculously small sample size and shouldn’t — and doesn’t — outweigh what he has done over the past few years. He is a top-line scorer and should still have a few years of top-line play ahead of him.

13. T.J. Brodie Everything about Brodie’s resume looks great, but there is one big concern that is a bit of a red flag — He is a different (and not as good) player when he is not on the ice next to Mark Giordano. They will not be going as a package deal.

14. Chris Kreider Given the Rangers’ rebuild and what is a reasonable future expectation for Kreider, the Rangers would be wise to consider trading him right now. As long as he does not lose his speed he should still be a good player for a few more years, but there is no guarantee he maintains his current level of play.

15. Mike Hoffman He is a bit of a one dimensional player, but the one dimension is a useful one. He can score. A lot. He is coming off of a huge season in Florida and another big season could price him out of the Panthers’ cap situation, especially if they want to also keep Dadonov.

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.