Bulletin-board material: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup

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We did this last year and went a whopping 15-1, with only the Chicago Blackhawks ruining our perfect game. Pretty impressive, right? Let’s see if we can do even better this year…

Columbus Blue Jackets: The worst team to make the playoffs. Which, hey, is better than the best team to miss the playoffs, but still doesn’t bode well for their Cup chances. The fact is, the Jackets are the picture of mediocrity. They don’t score a ton of goals, they aren’t great defensively, and their special teams are merely average. We suppose it’s nice they’re in the playoffs for the second time in franchise history. Maybe this time they can actually win a game.

Dallas Stars: Cue all the stats nerds crowing about the Stars’ Corsi. Here’s what people who actually watch the games see: a team that’s way too reliant on Jamie Benn, a 24-year-old with zero playoff experience, and Tyler Seguin, a 22-year-old the Bruins deemed too soft and too unprofessional to trust. Even if the Stars can get past the Ducks (we’ll get to those paper tigers shortly), their second-round opponents will be either the Kings or Sharks. At which point Dallas won’t even have Corsi on its side.

Minnesota Wild: Ilya Bryzgalov is their goalie. Shall we move on? OK, fine – here’s something else about the Wild: they can’t score. Minnesota’s offense ranked 24th in the NHL, right below the Calgary freakin’ Flames. For all the money this team has spent in the last few years, you’d think they could put a few more pucks in the net. Of course, first you have to get shots if you want to score, and only the Buffalo Sabres finished with fewer of those this season.

Tampa Bay Lightning: No más! No más! Apologies for the dated boxing reference, but how much can one team take before it throws in the towel? The Lightning cannot overcome an injured Ben Bishop. To suggest they can beat Montreal without him would be to ignore how well he played during the season. Frankly, it would be an insult. And please, don’t be fooled by Anders Lindback and the three decent games he managed to string together. His overall numbers are beyond atrocious, and he’s got next to no playoff experience.

Philadelphia Flyers: To win a Stanley Cup, a team typically needs a great goalie, a great defenseman, and a great two-way center. The Flyers have not one of those three things, and it shows in their statistics. Defensively, Philly ranks 20th in the NHL, allowing 2.77 goals per game. Last year, Chicago finished first in that category. The year before, Los Angeles finished second. The year before that, Boston was second. Are you sensing a pattern?

New York Rangers: It’s always entertaining, in a head-shaking kind of way, to hear Alain Vigneault portrayed as some sort of coaching genius who was brought in to rescue the Rangers from the medieval methods of John Tortorella. In reality, it’s Torts who’s got a ring and Vigneault who was behind the bench for one of the great choke jobs in Stanley Cup history. Vancouver lost 10 of its last 11 playoff games under AV. He wasn’t fired there for nothing. When the pressure’s on, his teams melt down. Oh, and by the way, the Rangers last season under Torts: 2.62 goals per game. This season under AV: 2.61 goals per game.

Montreal Canadiens: Canada’s only hope has, well, very little hope. The Habs were one of the worst possession teams in the NHL this season, ranking 26th in five-on-five, score-close Corsi. The only four worse than that? Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, and Buffalo. Not good company to keep. Having said that, Montreal does have Carey Price, and he might be enough to get the Habs past Team No Mas. But sorry, just because he was able to stand around and watch a stacked Team Canada win gold in Sochi doesn’t mean he’s impervious to pressure and can carry the Canadiens on a deep playoff run. Certainly, his career .905 save percentage in the postseason leaves a lot to be desired. As does a team that finished the season with the 21st-ranked offense.

Detroit Red Wings: What a nice story it was: an injury-riddled team pulls together to make the playoffs, extending its postseason streak to 23 while playing the “Red Wing way.” Too bad it’s a bunch of nonsense. The only reason the Wings made the playoffs is because the teams below them were a bunch of pathetic disasters. Consider: no playoff side finished with a worse goal differential than Detroit (minus-8), and no team finished with fewer regulation/overtime wins (34). Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk weren’t hurt the whole season. Everyone realizes that, right?

Colorado Avalanche: Too much has already been written about the Avs and their poor underlying stats. By now, everyone knows how much they rely on Semyon Varlamov, so there’s no need to keep repeating how lucky they’ve been. All it does is encourage their fans to float more and more ridiculous theories about why the Avs are the exception that will prove the numbers wrong, like a pack of deranged gamblers who go on a nice little run at the tables and believe it’s their divine right to get rich playing blackjack. So instead of focusing on that angle, let’s focus on the Avs’ injuries. Because this is not a healthy team.

Los Angeles Kings: Speaking of lucky, say hello to the luckiest Stanley Cup champions in modern NHL history. In case you forgot (and we wouldn’t blame you if you did, given how boring this team is to watch), the Kings won their first championship ever in 2012, beating the basket-case Canucks, the banged-up Blues, and then – simply amazingly – the Coyotes and Devils, two teams that had no business advancing that far, and haven’t been back to the playoffs since. Last spring, the Kings were given the unenviable task of playing a legitimately good team in the playoffs, and lost in five to Chicago.

San Jose Sharks: Everyone’s favorite choke artists are back for another kick at the can. The Sharks got into playoff form early this year, dropping four of their last eight in regulation, thus blowing any chance they had at winning the Pacific Division and getting the cupcake Stars in the first round. Did we mention two of those four losses were at home to the Jets and Predators? Honestly, if the Sharks couldn’t take care of business against the likes of Winnipeg and Nashville, why would anyone think this group of career underachievers has developed the killer instinct it takes to win the Cup? Let’s just move on.

Anaheim Ducks: Not sure if anyone outside of Orange County has noticed, but the top seed in the Western Conference has a serious question mark in goal, which just so happens to be the most important position in all of hockey. Apparently, all signs point to rookie Frederik Andersen, a kid with 24 career NHL starts to his name, getting the nod in Game 1 versus the Stars. This was not how it was supposed to play out. It was supposed to be Jonas Hiller, and you’re crazy if you think Bruce Boudreau isn’t worried about it. And if he’s not worried, he’s the one that’s crazy.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Finished the regular season with just seven wins in their last 17, and didn’t have a single regulation victory in their last five. Injuries were a factor, sure, but one has to wonder about a team that openly admits it wasn’t motivated to win down the stretch. Truly great teams want to win all the time, regardless if the games are “meaningless” or not. The way the Pens have been eliminated their last two tries (read: melting down against the Flyers and going embarrassingly dry against the Bruins), one would think they’d be a touch more fired up. Heck, the only guy who seems to be rounding into playoff form is Marc-Andre Fleury, and that’s never a good thing.

St. Louis Blues: It’s sad, really. Expectations were so high for this team that’s been around since 1967 and, to this day, remains best known for getting posterized by Bobby Orr. The Blues lost their last six games by a combined score of 22 to 5. As punishment, they received a first-round matchup with the defending champs. Should we really be surprised though? This is a franchise with a long history of getting its fans’ hopes up, only to fall short when it counts. In hindsight, maybe the Blues shouldn’t have hitched their wagon to a goalie whose teams, from college to the pros, haven’t won a darn thing.

Boston Bruins: This won’t be easy to hear, B’s fans, so we’ll just come right out and say it – Zdeno Chara is old. Not old for the earth; but definitely for the NHL. In fact, only 12 defensemen league-wide are older than Chara, not one of them more important to his team’s success. Yes, Chara’s an extremely fit 37-year-old, but it’s no secret he got worn down last year. He was a combined minus-6 in the last three games against Chicago, and hasn’t gotten any younger since. Plus, he had to play in the Olympics. Throw in Dennis Seidenberg’s injury and the Bruins’ blue line is looking downright vulnerable. Look, put it this way: you know a team’s thin on the back end when it trades for a guy who was a regular healthy scratch in Philly.

Chicago Blackhawks: The last time they were the defending champs, they lost in the first round. There hasn’t been a back-to-back Cup winner in the age of the salary cap. The only champion that made it back to the final, the 2009 Red Wings, lost to Pittsburgh. Which is to say, history does not give the ‘Hawks a very good chance of repeating. Nor does common sense. It takes a massive commitment, physically and emotionally, to win 16 playoff games. Doing it back-to-back, in a league where parity rules, is just too much to ask. And that’s not even mentioning that the ‘Hawks two superstar forwards, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, have been out with injuries. PS – Is Michal Handzus still the second-line center? But…but…’Hawks fans told us Brandon Pirri was so amazing.

Blackhawks’ defense suddenly looks respectable

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Look, adding Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan doesn’t transform the Chicago Blackhawks’ defense into, say, the Nashville Predators’ group before they traded P.K. Subban for cap space, frankincense, and myrrh. These tweaks do make a return to the playoffs a whole lot more likely for Chicago, though.

[More: Blackhawks trade for De Haan, send Kahun to Pens for Maatta.]

Because, honestly, the Blackhawks’ defense was astoundingly terrible in 2018-19. To the point that it’s impressive Chicago even created the illusion of being semi-competitive.

In allowing 291 goals, Chicago finished second-worst in the NHL, only ahead of the putrid, sieve-like Senators. Their 72.7 penalty kill percentage was comfortably the worst in the league, which was quite uncomfortable. Things don’t get any better when you delve into deeper stats, either. Chicago’s high-danger chances percentage at even strength was league-worst at miserable 42.77 percent (686 for; 918 against), according to Natural Stat Trick.

Not ideal.

Again, all things considered, it’s surprising Chicago finished 10th in the West, technically two spots out of the postseason. That’s a bit of a mirage since the Blackhawks had 84 points versus 90 for Colorado as the final wild card, but the Blackhawks flirted with playoff contention quite a bit for a team with such an ugly defense.

What if the Blackhawks can merely improve to “meh” in 2019-20 from the “my house is on fire” rating they earned last season?

While offseason shoulder surgery might force Calvin De Haan to miss some time and/or start slow, the bottom line is that he could be an enormous upgrade over Gustav Forsling, who was also part of the Carolina trade.

(And that’s assuming that De Haan won’t play even better. He was hurt for at least some of 2018-19, likely diluting his stats.)

Both Maatta and De Haan were expensive luxuries their teams parted ways with. For Chicago, each could provide the sort of steady defense the Blackhawks rarely enjoyed in 2018-19.

It’s true that Maatta’s skating has been criticized, yet his all-around struggles might have more to do with mediocre defense partners than personal failings.

We can debate how much of a bump Chicago gets from adding these two, but these are two steps up, whether they be baby steps or giant leaps for hockey kind.

And it generally changes the discussion from having next to nothing to maybe having too many options on defense, as Charlie Roumeliotis discussed for NBC Chicago.

The Blackhawks now have some interesting options as left-handed defensemen, as Maatta and De Haan bolster a group that includes veteran Duncan Keith and younger option Erik Gustafsson, who quietly had a breakout season. The Blackhawks have plenty of right-handed options to sort through, too: Brent Seabrook and his troubled contract, joins younger options Connor Murphy, Henri Jokiharju, and Adam Boqvist. Slater Koekkoek and Carl Dahlstrom are also on the fringe of this conversation.

Roumeliotis goes into greater detail on that crowded situation, but again: too much sure beats not enough, and if there’s any chance that this influx also inspires Chicago to work harder to remove some problems (*cough* Seabrook *cough cough*), then even better. As is, this group seems upgraded in nice ways. Don’t expect excitement from De Haan or Maatta, aside from their ability to improve the Blackhawks’ chances of winning games.

Again, the “how much better?” argument is fairly interesting. The Predators lost Subban and the Jets didn’t get much more from trading away Jacob Trouba, so suddenly the Central Division is a little less foreboding — at least for now. We won’t really know if the path to a wild-card spot is clearer, but perhaps it could be.

That’s not to say that GM Stan Bowman should just snooze through July 1, mind you, as there’s still some work to do. For all the blueline improvements, Chicago’s roster is far from perfect, especially when you make that forward group even more top-heavy by removing a nice find like Dominik Kahun:

Bowman’s had a decent knack for finding supporting cast players for Chicago over the years, so it’s conceivable that the Blackhawks can make things work this summer. Perhaps third overall pick Kirby Dach could make an immediate jump to the Blackhawks, providing a big body and some talent while carrying a thrifty entry-level deal?

Adding some forward support is important, and frankly, Corey Crawford‘s health challenges should probably push Chicago to find a better backup option than Cam Ward. And, yes, if there’s any way someone would absorb Seabrook’s brutal deal, that would be nice for Chicago.

Expecting a team to clear all of that up before July is likely asking too much. The bottom line is that the Blackhawks have done a nice job of improving their team so far, as they’ve addressed their biggest weakness in substantial ways. Adding De Haan and Maatta doesn’t confirm a seat in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but that trip is far more probable for Chicago now than it was back when their season ended in April.

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.

Wickenheiser tops 2019 Hockey Hall of Fame class

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The 2019 Hockey Hall of Fame inductees were named on Tuesday. The class includes four players, in alphabetical order: Guy Carbonneau, Vaclav Nedomansky, Hayley Wickenheiser, and Sergei Zubov. Two builders were also inducted: Jim Rutherford and Jerry York. The induction ceremony will take place on November 18 in Toronto.

Let’s take a look at each member of this year’s class, starting with Wickenheiser.

Players

Wickenheiser: Sean Leahy pointed to Wickenheiser as the “lock” to make this HHOF class on Monday, and with good reason.

Wickenheiser becomes the seventh woman named to the Hockey Hall of Fame after winning four Olympic gold medals representing Canada, not to mention seven gold medals at the IIHF world championship. Wickenheiser was a two-time Olympic tournament MVP, and is Canada’s women’s leader in goals (168), assists (211) and points (379) after playing 276 games internationally.

Wickenheiser is currently in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, another testament to the immense respect she earned as a legend of the sport.

Zubov: The Russian defenseman won one Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers, and one with the Dallas Stars (where Carbonneau was one of Zubov’s teammates).

People, particularly Stars fans, have been debating Zubov’s HHOF merits for some time. As one example, Defending Big D pondered the argument as far back as 2013, with Erin Boylen comparing Zubov to the likes of Scott Niedermayer, Brian Leetch, Rob Blake, and other top contemporaries:

Over their respective careers, Zubov had better offensive numbers than Niedermayer and Blake, though not as good as Leetch. Both Zubov and Niedermayer, though not Blake, could have legitimately put up many more points if they didn’t play in defensively-focused systems for long stretches of their careers. He has essentially equal plus-minus statistics to Niedermayer, much better than Blake and Leetch. He was used in all situations and throughout his career was used as a top-pairing, shut-down defenseman.

The debates have been rampant enough among Stars fans that the Zubov HHOF debate has become a regular joke on the podcast “Puck Soup.” After all, for every Zubov proponent, there will be someone else who points out that he never won a Norris Trophy.

Maybe that debate will continue, but there’s some closure, as Zubov gets the nod.

Zubov finished his NHL career with 771 points in 1,068 regular season contests, spending 12 seasons with the Stars, three with the Rangers, and one with the Penguins. Zubov also appeared in 164 playoff games, and Hockey Reference lists some beefy ice time numbers during his Stars days, as he apparently logged 28:58 TOI per game over 114 playoff games with the Stars specifically.

Speaking of players who ended their Hall of Fame careers with the Stars …

Carbonneau: It’s difficult to shake the parallels between Carbonneau and Bob Gainey, but the good news is that such a comparison is a huge compliment to any two-way player.

Much like Gainey, Carbonneau was a tremendous defensive forward, winning three Selke Trophies during his career. Also like Gainey, Carbonneau made a huge impact on the Montreal Canadiens (where he won two Stanley Cups, and all three Selkes) before also making a considerable impression on the Dallas Stars (where Carbonneau won his third and final Stanley Cup as a player).

Carbonneau played 13 seasons with the Canadiens, five with the Stars, and one with the St. Louis Blues. Overall, he generated 663 points and 820 penalty minutes in 1,318 career regular-season games over 19 seasons. Carbonneau was captain of the Canadiens from 1989-90 through 1993-94, and also served as head coach for three seasons.

Nedomansky: As Shen Peng documented for The Hockey News, Nedomansky deserves a mention alongside Alex Mogilny and the Stastny brothers as one of the players who bravely defected to North America to play hockey at the highest levels.

Nedomansky’s path was especially circuitous, as he began his North American playing days in the WHA in 1974-75. “Big Ned” started his NHL career with the Detroit Red Wings in 1977-78, when he was already well into his thirties. He put up some nice numbers in both leagues, and you have to wonder if he’d be a more well-known player if he came overseas during the highest peaks of his prime, in much the same way one might wonder about Igor Larionov and other top Russian players who entered the NHL during the twilight of their careers.

His impact deserves to be documented, so Nedomansky making the Hall of Fame is a great way for more fans to learn about the mark he made on the sport. Peng’s piece is a great place for you to start.

Builders

Rutherford: Jim Rutherford is still a builder as the GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins, yet clearly, he’s already in the HHOF, even if he stopped today.

Rutherford played in 457 games during his lengthy NHL career as a goalie (his hockey db photo is worth the trip to the page alone), yet he’s here because of his front office work, helping both the Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes win Stanley Cups as a GM.

York: Jerry York is a legendary NCAA coach, having won four NCAA titles with Boston College, and one with Bowling Green. In 2016, he became the first NCAA coach to win 1,000 games, which is pretty mind-blowing considering the shorter seasons in college hockey.

Blues fans can relax: Berube signs three-year contract

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As silly as it seemed to worry about Craig Berube not being the St. Louis Blues’ head coach after the team won its first ever Stanley Cup, there were those who were sweating the lack of an announcement nonetheless.

After all, we’ve seen some instances in which a coach wins it all, only to change locales. In fact, it just happened with the coach before Berube, as the Washington Capitals didn’t bring back Barry Trotz after winning the 2018 Stanley Cup, only for Trotz to win the Jack Adams with the resurgent New York Islanders. (Also: Mike Keenan.)

With Trotz, there was a succession plan already in place in Washington, so they move on with Todd Reirden. The Blues clearly weren’t penciling in Berube as a sure-thing, either, what with Berube being a mid-season replacement for Mike Yeo, and Berube carrying the “interim” title for a curious amount of time.

Well, any mild concerns were put to rest, anyway, on Tuesday. The Blues announced that Berube has been signed to a three-year contract.

[Berube helped Blues find identity after early-season struggle]

It’s slightly disappointing that the money details haven’t leaked (yet?), as it would be intriguing to find out what Berube is getting paid. As much as winning it all drives up your bargaining power, there’s also not the greatest market for coaching jobs by late June, and Berube is likely relieved to not only coach a clearly talented team, but also to find a stable position.

(Stable by the almost inherently unstable standards of coaching jobs in the NHL, at least.)

The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford tracked down some quotes on the re-upping, including from Blues GM Doug Armstrong.

It’s been quite the whirlwind year for Berube. He took over for Yeo, saw the ascent of Jordan Binnington, earned a Jack Adams nomination, and then made some deft moves in helping the Blues win the Stanley Cup. Berube’s three-year extension is well-earned, and while he likely isn’t losing any sleep over it, you could very well argue that his Jack Adams case was even better than that of Trotz.

With this question answered, we can move on to the next one: can Berube and the Blues back this all with a strong encore?

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.

Trade: Avalanche clear space for free agency; Coyotes get Soderberg

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Are the Colorado Avalanche loading up for a big free agent push this summer, or are they merely worried about how much it will cost to re-sign RFA star Mikko Rantanen? Or is it a little of both?

Such thoughts come to mind with Tuesday’s trade, as the Avalanche send center Carl Soderberg to the Arizona Coyotes. It’s largely a cash-clearing deal from Colorado’s perspective, considering the current details reported by The Athletic’s Craig Morgan, TSN’s Darren Dreger, and others:

Coyotes receive: Soderberg, a 33-year-old forward whose $4.75 million cap hit expires after 2019-20.

Avalanche receive: Kevin Connauton, 29-year-old defenseman, whose $1.375M cap hit expires after 2019-20. Also, the Avalanche receive a 2020 third-round pick.

One team clears cap room, the other profits

If there’s a theme of recent moves, it’s that one team is hoping to land a big fish in free agency, while another is happy to take on another contract to get better in a more modest (and maybe safer) way.

The Nashville Predators received a paltry return for P.K. Subban in that stunning trade, and on face value, the Avalanche didn’t receive much for Soderberg, either.

But, of course, context matters: both the Predators and Avalanche made their moves to save cap space.

Puck Pedia places Colorado’s cap space at just a little bit less than $38M, with 14 roster spots covered, and Rantanen headlining an RFA list that also includes Alex Kerfoot. The Avalanche boast some absolute bargain deals – most obviously in Nathan MacKinnon, yet also getting nice value in Gabriel Landeskog and Tyson Barrie – and Soderberg’s expiring contract was another reminder that the future was bright. Apparently the Avalanche believe that the future is now … although they’d probably argue that they’re enjoying both, as their 2019 NHL Draft weekend was acclaimed after they nabbed Bowen Byram and Alex Newhook.

Don’t sleep on the Coyotes’ takeaway, though.

Soderberg a hidden gem?

Soderberg might not be the sexiest talent in every way, yet he might have been the best example of Colorado’s sneaky value outside of their top guys. The bad news is that MacKinnon, Landeskog, and Rantanen generated the vast majority of the Avs’ offense during the past few seasons. The better news is that players like Soderberg and Kerfoot were strong two-way players who could hold down the fort when those guys weren’t on the ice.

Soderberg scored 23 goals for Colorado last season, and his 49 points ranked fifth-most on the team. There are a number of ways where he seems sneaky-good, including where he falls on this Goals Above Replacement chart among Avalanche forwards (visualization by Sean Tierney; data via Evolving Hockey).

Impressive, right? Surprising, even, considering that Soderberg compares so well to Rantanen, at least by those metrics.

The Coyotes have been building their roster by taking on other teams’ cap concerns, as much as by drafting, particularly since some of their picks haven’t worked out quite as planned (Clayton Keller rules; if Dylan Strome is going to rule, it will be for Chicago).

In Soderberg, the Coyotes might only be leaning into what almost got them into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs: grinding opponents into a paste. On paper, the Coyotes figure to play a not-so-pretty style, but it’s increasingly trending toward being effective. At least, Soderberg inches them closer to having waves of quality players, maybe enough to wash over opponents and back into the postseason. Maybe their style will end up being desert-dry, but this gives them another quality two-way player, and at a reasonable price.

***

In a vacuum, this trade is a nice win for the Coyotes. However, if the Avalanche win by landing Artemi Panarin, then chances are, they’ll be OK taking the L in this one.

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.