Risk Factors: Chicago Blackhawks edition

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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.

Chicago Blackhawks

1. Did they really solve the 2C problem? Much was made of Chicago’s lack of depth at center last year, especially in the Western Conference Final when Michal Handzus — who gamely tried to fill the second-line center spot — was overwhelmed in the playoffs.

Zeus is gone now, though, and in his place steps Brad Richards, the New York Rangers castoff that inked a modest one-year, $2 million deal to join the ‘Hawks in July. On paper, Richards is a nice fit; a veteran presence with good playmaking ability that’s been to two Stanley Cup Finals, winning once.

But that’s on paper.

There’s no denying that Richards, 34, is in the twilight of his career. The Rangers opted to buy out the remainder of his nine-year, $60 million deal this summer following a tough postseason in which he scored two points over his final 10 games and was dumped to the fourth line during the Cup Final.

Chicago will rejuvenate Richards to a certain degree. He’s going to be surrounded by talent on a (projected) line with Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, and will run the point on the second powerplay unit. But in terms of strictly upgrading the 2C position, other contenders in the West did more.

The Anaheim Ducks acquired Ryan Kesler from Vancouver to slot in behind Ryan Getzlaf. The Dallas Stars traded for Jason Spezza to play behind Tyler Seguin. The Blues, who often used David Backes as their No. 1 center last year, added Paul Stastny to the mix. And lest we forget the quality tandems already in place in Colorado (Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene) and Los Angeles (Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter).

The Western Conference has become an arms race down the middle and if you can’t keep up, you could be out — just ask Stars GM Jim Nill.

“If you want to be one of the elite teams, you have to have it,” Nill told the Globe and Mail earlier this summer. “You look at the other teams that are winning on our side now, you need to have two elite centermen.”

2. The cap crunch. Per CapGeek:

source:

“[The salary cap’s] gotten a lot of attention, and rightfully so,” Hawks GM Bowman explained, per CSN Chicago. “But what I’ve tried to say all along is that we’re going to get it worked out and we’re going to be compliant come [the start of the season].

“It’s one of those topics where we’ve had a lot of discussions internally, we know how we’re going to make it work.”

Bowman wouldn’t reveal how Chicago will get cap compliant, though many have speculated one two defensemen — Johnny Oduya or Nick Leddy — will be traded. If that happens, it’s going to chip away at one of the club’s strengths; the next men up on defense are David Rundblad, Kyle Cumiskey, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Adam Clendening, and one of them might get called into action earlier than expected now that Michal Rozsival’s sidelined with an upper-body injury.

There’s another wrinkle to this cap situation. Compliance is one thing, but what about wiggle room?

Teams like to operate with some breathing space beneath the ceiling in the event something unforeseen happens. Injuries, slumps, ineffectiveness can often cause for a roster shakeup… and then there’s the trade deadline.

The ‘Hawks were hamstrung last year, resulting in Rundblad and Peter Regin being the lone acquisitions of significance — nice pickups, but ones that were relatively minor compared to what Los Angeles (Marian Gaborik), St. Louis (Ryan Miller, Steve Ott), Anaheim (Stephane Robidas) and Minnesota (Matt Moulson) did. Granted, not all of those deals worked out and the Kings were the only Western team to best Chicago, but the value of having trade deadline flexibility can’t be understated; during Chicago’s Cup championship in 2013, the Handzus pickup proved invaluable.

3. Age and health. Rozsival (36), Marian Hossa (35), Richards (34), Oduya (33), Patrick Sharp (33 in December) and Duncan Keith (31) have played an awful lot of hockey over the last two years, be it regular season — especially during the condensed ’13 campaign — playoffs, and international (everybody but Richards played in the Sochi Winter Olympics.)

At some point, it’s going to have an effect.

As mentioned above, Rozsival is currently sidelined with an upper-body injury. Hossa’s been dealing with a lower-body issue throughout camp and has a lengthy history of ailments while Sharp looked lethargic at times during last year’s run to the Western Conference Final, scoring just two goals in his first 14 games.

Health-wise, one of the more underrated stories over the last two seasons was the durability of Chicago’s regulars. Patrick Kane missed 12 games last year to a lower-body ailment, which was a rarity; he’s played 80 games or more four times in his career (and played 47 of 48 during the lockout-shortened ’13 season). Bryan Bickell missed 23 games with a variety of bumps and bruises, yet rebounded to show up when he often does — in the playoffs — scoring seven goals in 19 games.

But in the NHL, injuries are unavoidable. The grind and physical toll often wears down even the fittest of players and we’re talking about a collection of Blackhawks players that are getting older and have played a remarkable amount of games over the last 24 months.

It’s New York Rangers 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 Rangers.

2018-19
32-36-8, 78 points (7th in the Metropolitan Division, 12th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN:
Artemi Panarin
Jacob Trouba
Kaapo Kakko
Adam Fox
Greg McKegg

OUT: 
Neal Pionk
Kevin Hayes
Mats Zuccarello
Jimmy Vesey
Kevin Shattenkirk
Ryan Spooner
Fredrik Claesson
Connor Brickley

RE-SIGNED:
Pavel Buchnevich

2018-19 Summary

It was understood going into this past season in the Big Apple that by the end of it, the New York Rangers would be on the outside looking in.

A sell-off during the end of the 2017-18 season pointed to a re-build that would likely take a couple of seasons to fully mature.

And thus, the on-ice product for the Rangers was much less about winning games as it was about putting some of their young guns in positions to grow.

Alexandar Georgiev, for instance, was given 30 starts between the pipes as the Rangers let Henrik Lundqvist‘s heir-apparent get well-acquainted with the No. 1 spot he will one day own.

He showed well on a poor team, with the 23-year-old posting a respectable .914 save percentage.

Others, too, were given a chance to develop. The likes of Pavel Buchnevich, 24, Tony DeAngelo, 23, Filip Chytil, 19, and Lias Andersson, 20, saw significant action.

Everything was following the simple stream that is a slow rebuilding process. Well, at least until June.

In June, the Rangers found out they’d be picking second overall in the 2019 NHL Draft after moving up four spots from the six-best odds at the draft lottery. Welcome, Kaapo Kakko.

They’d acquire the rights to Jacob Trouba (and eventually sign the blue line stalwart to a seven-year deal.)

And then July 1 came and Artemi Panarin was handed $81 million over the next seven years.

The rebuild that was rolling along at a typical methodical pace suddenly slammed into sixth gear. The Rangers now added a bona fide superstar forward, a potential superstar forward and a top-pairing defenseman to the mix.

General manager Jeff Gorton wasn’t messing around, announcing his intentions to the rest of the league with his wallet open wide.

So now, the Rangers have smashed the fast-forward button. There’s no talk anymore about another growing season. Instead, the narrative has shifted to a team that could compete for a playoff spot at minimum, especially if Lundqvist can bounce back and retain his crown as ‘King’ in one final hurrah in his storied career.

The Rangers have kept pace with the New Jersey Devils and their own aggressive summer. The Metro is quite the division — perhaps the best in hockey — and the Rangers should be right back in the mix in 2019-20.

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

PHT Morning Skate: Aho reveals offer-sheet decision; Ristolainen to Red Wings?

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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.

Sebastian Aho reveals why he signed an offer sheet from the Canadiens. (Sportsnet)

• NHL farm system rankings: Best, worst prospect pipelines for 2019-20, from 1 to 31. (The Sporting News)

• Should the Red Wings trade for Rasmus Ristolainen? (The Hockey Writers)

Matthew Tkachuk‘s agent says they gave the Flames a fair offer back in June. (Sportsnet)

• Overlooked teams in fantasy for 2019-20. (NHL.com)

• The All-Decade Team for all 31 NHL teams. (ESPN)

• Breaking down the format for a potential 2021 World Cup of Hockey. (Sportsnet)

T.J. Oshie is healthy and ready to take another run at the Stanley Cup. (NHL.com)

• When adding staffers, NHL Seattle must navigate complex minefield with those currently under contract elsewhere. (Seattle Times)

• Once healthy, Shea Weber’s value to the Canadiens remained high. (Eyes on the Prize)

• Who are the biggest Penguin killers in the NHL today? (Pensburgh)

• NHL “nowhere near a resolution” on allowing players to compete at 2022 Winter Olympics. (Inside the Games)

• NHL teams as dog breeds: The complete list of hockey dogs. (FanSided)

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

NHL Free agent roundup: Islanders re-sign two RFAs; Nichushkin joins Avalanche

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It didn’t involve any of the big names that are still unsigned, but there was some movement on the NHL’s restricted free agent front on Monday afternoon thanks to the New York Islanders, while the Colorado Avalanche took a gamble on an intriguing unrestricted free agent.

Let’s take a look at the signings.

Islanders re-sign Josh Ho-Sang and Michael Dal Colle

The Islanders reached deals with two of their remaining RFAs when they announced new deals for forwards Josh Ho-Sang and Michael Dal Colle.

Dal Colle’s contract is a two-year deal, while Ho-Sang gets a one-year deal that will probably be a make-or-break season for him with the Islanders.

Anthony Beauvillier remains the Islanders’ only unsigned RFA at this point in the offseason.

Ho-Sang is the intriguing one here because he has such enormous potential but has not yet put everything together in the NHL or earned the trust of the organization. If he manages to do all of that he could be a huge X-factor for the Islanders this season.

He has 24 points in 53 career games at the NHL level.

The 23-year-old Dal Colle appeared in 28 games for the Islanders this past season, scoring three goals to go with four assists.

Avalanche get Nichushkin

After spending two years in the KHL, Valeri Nichushkin returned to the NHL for the 2018-19 season and signed a two-year, $5.9 million contract with the Dallas Stars.

It proved to be a disappointing and uneventful deal for both sides. He failed to score a goal in 57 games while recording just 10 total assists. His contract was bought out by the Stars following the season, making him an unrestricted free agent.

On Monday, he signed a one-year deal with the Colorado Avalanche with the hopes that he can bounce back.

Nichushkin’s 2018-19 season was one of the most bizarre seasons in league history as he became the first player to ever play at least 50 games in a season while scoring zero goals and recording zero penalty minutes.

After a promising rookie season back in 2013-14, Nichushkin’s development offensively has completely stalled, resulting in just nine goals and 31 assists in 144 NHL games. He is a fine defensive forward but has not shown any ability to make much of an impact with the puck.

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

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.

Barzal is Islanders’ game-changer

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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.

The New York Islanders have their share of questions entering the 2019-20 season but there is one thing they can be sure of — they have one of the game’s most exciting young players and a franchise cornerstone in Mathew Barzal.

Even though his point totals may have regressed in year two, the 22-year-old Barzal was the Islanders’ most dynamic and impactful player during the 2018-19 season and is on a trajectory that should take him to stardom in the NHL.

He has an incredible mix of speed, vision, and playmaking ability that makes him perfect for the modern game and a force to be reckoned with when he has the puck on his stick.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

He has already become one of the best and most productive playmakers in the league and could be on the verge of taking his production to an entirely new level based on what he has already done.

Two comparisons to consider for Barzal entering this season.

1.  Over the past two seasons (his first two in the league) he is one of just 11 forwards (minimum 100 games played) that has averaged at least 0.65 assists per game, 0.89 points per game, and posted a 52 percent Corsi rating. The others on that list are are Sidney Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon, Brad Marchand, Nikita Kucherov, Steve Stamkos, Claude Giroux, Johnny Gaudreau, Mikko Rantanen, Artemi Panarin, and Mitch Marner.

Excellent company to be in, especially when you consider just how young he is and is just now entering his age 22 season.

2. It’s the latter point (his age) that is the key. Barzal is one of just 11 active forwards to average at least 0.89 points through their age 21 season in the NHL, a list that includes Crosby, Stamkos, Marner, Connor McDavid, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane, Ilya Kovalchuk, Nicklas Backstrom, Auston Matthews, and Alex Ovechkin.

Marner, Matthews, and Barzal are all the same age, but the other eight combined to score at a 100-point pace in their age 22 season.

The biggest difference between Barzal and most of the players on that list is that he is not quite the goal-scorer that some of them are and is more known for his ability to drive play and set up his teammates, so a lot of his point production will be tied to what the players around him are able to do once he gets them the puck. He can definitely help put them in better positions to score, but it is still up to them to finish the play. It is also possible he could develop into more of a goal-scorer if he takes on more of a shoot-first mentality. He has never been a low-percentage shooter, and while passing and playmaking is his greatest strength offensively, he could probably put himself in a position to average more than two shots per game. Especially if he does not have elite talent around him at the given time.

No matter what direction he takes, Barzal is the Islanders’ best player and the one player that can swing a game in their favor.

His rapid development into a top-line player is one of the reasons the Islanders were able to overcome the free agent departure of John Tavares without completely falling apart. They already had a star on the roster ready to fill that No. 1 role, and his best days are still ahead of him.

This is the hardest type of player to acquire in a rebuild, and it usually takes a top draft pick to get one.

The Islanders were fortunate enough to be able to get one in the middle of the first-round and have the piece they need to build around.

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

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.