Risk Factors: Pittsburgh Penguins edition

4 Comments

From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

Pittsburgh Penguins

1. The rookie head coach. That’s 57-year-old Mike Johnston, who’s spent the last six years behind the bench in WHL Portland. Aside from having no NHL head coaching experience — he was Marc Crawford’s right-hand man for eight years in Vancouver and L.A. — Johnston wasn’t even Pittsburgh’s first choice; that was Willie Desjardins, who opted to take the vacant Canucks gig instead.

So, is Johnston ready for this?

The Pittsburgh job is one of the NHL’s most complex. The Penguins have immense talent and are the only team in the league with two former Hart Trophy winners — Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin — but with that talent comes great expectations, and failure to meet said expectations can be costly… just ask Michel Therrien.

Or Dan Bylsma.

Or Ray Shero.

Johnston has tried to alleviate some of the pressure by preaching a “let’s have fun out there” mantra. From Yahoo:

“It’s so hard to get into the playoffs in the NHL, we’ve got to enjoy the process along the way,” Johnston said. “We’ve got to enjoy every win. We’ve got to enjoy great practices. We’ve got to enjoy getting in great shape as a group.”

Nice message, but will it work?

Johnston’s saying all the right things, but it’s important to remember he hasn’t faced any adversity yet, and that’s when things will get interesting — if the Penguins reiterated anything over the summer, it’s that failure has consequences. In addition to turfing Shero and Bylsma, the club dealt sniper James Neal to Nashville — just two season after inking him to a six-year extension — and let its longest-tenured player, Brooks Orpik, walk in free agency. It’s like that scene in Casino where all the dons are sitting around the courthouse; once the Pens lost to the Rangers, you knew people were gonna get clipped.

(It’s also worth mentioning failure has different meaning in Pittsburgh than other markets. Bylsma, for example, was fired with a .670 career winning percentage and one Stanley Cup on his resume.)

In short, the Pens are a “win now” team with little margin for error. Not exactly the best situation for a first-time coach to find himself in.

2. Are the bottom-six forwards any better? One of new GM Jim Rutherford’s first tasks on the job was to improve Pittsburgh’s third and fourth lines, which failed to provide much of anything last season, especially in the playoffs. Enter Nick Spaling, Steve Downie, Blake Comeau and, depending on how his training camp tryout goes, Daniel Carcillo — they, along with incumbents Brandon Sutter and Marcel Goc, comprise the majority of the new bottom six.

But it’s not like Pittsburgh hasn’t tried this before.

Shero had a revolving door of depth forwards over the last two seasons: Tanner Glass, Andrew Ebbett, Jussi Jokinen, Brenden Morrow, Lee Stempniak, Taylor Pyatt and Chuck Kobasew, to name a few. Some, like Jokinen, worked out well; most failed to make an impact and moved on to different locales. Advanced stats suggest that Spaling, Goc, Comeau and Downie are quality possession players that can drive shot attempts, which is something the Penguins need to improve — but none of these guys are sure things.

Downie’s missed a boatload of time to injury over the last two seasons, Comeau’s on his fourth team in four years, Spaling’s never played outside of Barry Trotz’s regimented system in Nashville and Carcillo is, well, Carcillo.

3. Goaltending, as always. It’s an annual rite of passage to ask if Marc-Andre Fleury can recapture the form that saw him backstop the Pens to the Stanley Cup in 2009. This year, though, that question comes with some addenda: Will newly-signed Thomas Greiss challenge for the No. 1 gig? And will murky futures have an effect on either?

Both Fleury and Greiss are UFAs after this season and, with WHL Edmonton standout Tristan Jarry still a few years away, Pittsburgh is essentially holding an open audition for its goaltending gig. This also marks the first time in Fleury’s career that contractual uncertainty becomes an issue; Pittsburgh inked him to a lengthy seven-year, $35 million deal after losing to Detroit in the ’08 Cup Final, and he’s pretty much been the starter ever since.

More, from the Globe and Mail:

There doesn’t seem to be much of a push, if any, to get a new contract in place for Fleury. How he performs this season and in the 2015 playoffs could heavily influence what approach the Penguins take under will new coach Mike Johnston and new general manager Jim Rutherford.

“We try to stress the process — following through with the process and trying to do the right things every day so you’re not looking too far ahead,” Penguins goaltending coach Mike Bales said. “Marc’s good at that and that will obviously have to be his focus this year.”

“I just want to go play, go win,” said Fleury, who’s had his fair share of distractions during his tenure in Pittsburgh. “What’s going to happen is what’s going to happen. I’m not worried too much about it.”

Fleury might not be worried, but should the Penguins be? Aside from his uncertain future, the club also has uncertainty with the backup position, where Greiss — who many figured was signed solely to push Fleury — is still locked in a battle with the incumbent, Jeff Zatkoff, for the No. 2 spot.

Where Avs are at after re-signing J.T. Compher

Getty Images
1 Comment

The Colorado Avalanche’s offseason continues to come into focus, even as we’re in more of a housekeeping mode, rather than a more exciting time of dramatic renovations.

Earlier, the Avalanche signed intriguing new addition Andre Burakovsky at a bargain $3.25 million rate. While I would’ve been even more excited if the Avalanche would have bought more term, it’s still a nice move, and Burakovsky’s still slated to be an RFA after this one-year re-up expires.

The medium-sized moves continued on Wednesday, with Colorado handing forward J.T. Compher an interesting four-year deal reportedly worth $3.5M per season.

Overall, it’s fairly easy to understand. Compher scored both 16 goals and assists on his way to 32 points last season, despite being limited to 66 games. He quietly logged a lot of minutes (17:29 TOI per game), and had some utility, although the Avalanche might be wise to ease some of his PK duties going forward.

You can dig deeper into certain numbers, or make some tough comparisons, and start to feel not-quite-as-good about Compher’s new contract.

After all, Compher possesses the same contract as now-former teammate Alex Kerfoot, who will carry $3.5M for four seasons with Toronto. On one hand, it’s not as though Colorado necessarily chose to keep Compher over Kerfoot; it’s very plausible that the analytics-savvy Maple Leafs wanted Kerfoot to make that Nazem KadriTyson Barrie deal work, in the first place. On the other hand, the comparisons are natural when you consider their identical deals. Comparing the two using visualizations including Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus (RAPM) makes this contract look less appealing:

via Evolving Hockey

Compher doesn’t need to equal or exceed Kerfoot’s value to be worth $3.5M per year to the Avalanche, though, and there’s a solid chance that they’ll be fine with this contract.

It does open up an opportunity to ponder where Colorado is, though.

The Avalanche still have a big-ticket item to re-sign, as Mikko Rantanen is one of the many RFAs heading for a big raise alongside the likes of Mitch Marner and Brayden Point. If Colorado can convince Rantanen to sign somewhere in the team-friendly range that the Carolina Hurricanes enjoy with Sebastian Aho, or the borderline insane deal the San Jose Sharks landed with Timo Meier, then Colorado would continue to look like one of the smartest people in the room.

But how many steps have the Avs taken after upsetting the Flames in Round 1 and pushing the Sharks hard in Round 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Tom Hunter of Mile High Hockey projected next season’s lineup, figuring that Compher will center a third line with two sneaky-good analytics wingers in Colin Wilson and Joonas Donskoi, while Kadri could center a second line with Tyson Jost and Andre Burakovsky around him.

Losing Kerfoot stings, but on paper, that does seem like a middle-six that could ease some of the burden for that all-world trio of Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog. It’s also plausible that the Avs could try to move different pieces around to see if one of MacKinnon or Rantanen could carry their own line, thus diversifying the Avs’ attack.

Yet, with the Central Division continuing to look like a beastly group, it’s tough to say where Colorado fits. Is this team more wild-card material, or will a boosted supporting cast push them to a new level? There’s also the possibility that things don’t work out the same way as they did in 2018-19, from that MacKinnon line slowing to maybe the goaltending falling short.

Whatever value Compher ultimately brings, along with newcomers like Burakovsky, Kadri, and Donskoi, a mild itch for something bolder remains for some of us (I blame the NBA’s run where the West is revolutionized every week, seemingly). At least Avs fans can let their imaginations run wild, as there could be some space left over, even after Rantanen gets paid:

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.

Golden Knights make dream come true for young fan battling cancer

5 Comments

He may not be on the payroll, but 13-year-old Doron Coldwell is a Vegas Golden Knight through and through.

But his story begins long before the Golden Knights stepped onto the ice for their inaugural season in 2017-18. As documented during a “My Wish” segment this summer on ESPN, Coldwell’s connection with the Golden Knights began with some heart-breaking news.

At first, the tests were inconclusive.

In June 2013, Coldwell’s mother Liat, a nurse, had noticed that his glands were swollen but a series of tests didn’t result in any concrete diagnosis of a problem.

“That started the rollercoaster ride for the next two years of he doesn’t have this, he doesn’t have this, he doesn’t have this,” said Brett Coldwell, Doron’s father. “But he wasn’t getting any better.”

Liat feared the worst.

“I had a very bad feeling that we were dealing with cancer,” she said.

Those fears would become reality. The diagnosis would finally come: Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His chemotherapy began in 2017.

Weakened by his treatments, Brett said that at one point Doron told him that “worst-case scenario, I guess I get to go be with Jesus.”

Instead, Doron, with a little help from the Golden Knights, began to heal.

“The chemo was working,” Doron said.

Gold being the color of pediatric cancer, Liat refers to her son as her ‘Golden Knight’.

And through the Make-A-Wish Foundation and with the help of the team that helped him heal — his cancer in remission — Doron recently became an official Golden Knight for a day.

Doron got a chance to meet the team. A locker bearing his name was in the team’s dressing room and for the first time, he got outfitted in goalie gear and received the full pre-game experience, including being introduced to an assembled crowd at City National Arena, the team’s practice facility.

With a little instruction of Marc-Andre Fleury, Doron was stopping Vegas’ top goalscorers with ease on an unforgettable day.

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

PHT Morning Skate: Stamkos best of an era; Russian Rangers revival

Getty Images
2 Comments

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.

Steven Stamkos is the best shooter of the salary cap era. (Raw Charge)

• What active NHLers are Hall of Fame worthy? Here they are, ranked. (Yardbarker)

• Pittsburgh has players who rank among the best, worst at converting shots into goals. Who are they? (Pensburgh)

• Russian invasion fueling Rangers revival. (Featurd)

• Why the folding of the National Women’s Hockey League could be best thing for the sport. (AZ Central)

• Panthers view Bobrovsky signing as needed element for return to playoffs. (NHL.com)

• It’s time to move on from Jon Gillies. (Matchsticks & Gasoline)

• Competition aplenty as under-the-radar depth piece Nicolas Aube-Kubel re-signs with Flyers. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• NHL stands out when strengths of major pro leagues are pondered. (StarTribune)

• The latest on the changes and improvements coming to NHL 20. (Operation Sports)


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

Seattle close to naming Ron Francis as GM

Getty Images
5 Comments

SEATTLE (AP) — Seattle’s NHL expansion team is close to an agreement with Hockey Hall of Famer Ron Francis to become its first general manager, a person with direct knowledge tells The Associated Press.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday because the team had not made an announcement.

The expansion Seattle franchise is set to begin play in the 2021-22 season as the NHL’s 32nd team.

After longtime Detroit GM Ken Holland went to Edmonton, adviser Dave Tippett left Seattle Hockey Partners LLC to become Oilers coach and Vegas’ Kelly McCrimmon and Columbus’ Bill Zito got promotions, there was a limited pool of experienced NHL executives to choose from for this job. Francis fits that bill.

The 56-year-old has been in hockey operations since shortly after the end of his Hall of Fame playing career. All of that time has come with the Carolina Hurricanes, including four seasons as their GM.

Carolina didn’t make the playoffs with Francis in charge of decision-making, though his moves put the foundation in place for the team that reached the Eastern Conference final this past season.

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports