Risk Factors: Minnesota Wild 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.

Minnesota Wild

1. Goaltending. Obviously. When the dust settled on a dysfunctional offseason — one that included Darcy Kuemper’s lengthy contractual impasse, Josh Harding busting his foot kicking a wall, and Ilya Bryzgalov — the Wild emerged with an unexpected tandem to start the regular season: Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom, with no clear message on who’s the No. 1.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Wild had hoped that Kuemper, still just 24 years old with 32 games of NHL experience, would be in AHL Iowa while veterans Harding and Backstrom backstopped the parent club. Granted, the Harding-Backstrom punch was far from a sure thing — both have a history of health concerns — but it gave Minnesota, at the very least, some depth and experience… not to mention the option of calling up Kuemper if things went sideways.

Now, that security blanket is gone.

And it’s left the Wild with a series of unknowns. Can Backstrom stay injury-free? Is Kuemper ready to play more than the 26 games he got last year? Will either emerge as the clear-cut starter? If not, can the Wild get consistent enough goaltending from a platoon situation?

Not even head coach Mike Yeo knows. Following a year in which five different goalies got games — Harding, Kuemper, Backstrom, Bryzgalov and John Curry — Yeo just wants some semblance of consistency in net.

“I would enjoy that a lot, that’s for sure,” Yeo said, per the Pioneer Press. “The one part I wouldn’t mind is if we have competition. If we have two guys — and we have had that in the past — pushing each other and both guys are performing at a high level where it’s a difficult decision as far as who you’re going to put in the net.

“If one guy were to really step up and win that position, there’s no question that makes our job a lot easier. But what I’m hoping for is that both guys are performing at a high level.”

2. Exhausted Ryan Suter. Earlier this summer, Brough asked if the Wild played Suter too much. It was a good and legitimate query; Suter, who turns 30 in January, averaged a league-high 29:24 TOI last season — overall he skated almost 200 more minutes than the second-most-deployed skater, Erik Karlsson, did for the Ottawa Senators.

It’s been this way since Suter landed in Minnesota two years ago. The organization seems to constantly teeter between two schools of thought: 1) We need to monitor his minutes and keep him from getting burnt out, and 2) We need him out there because he’s our No. 1 d-man and at his best when he plays a tonne.

Yeo adhered to the latter during last year’s playoffs.

“This is a guy that we’ve seen when he plays more, he plays better,” the head coach explained, per the Pioneer Press. “We’ll be aware of the schedule and we’ll make sure we’re managing him and his ice time how we need to in the games, but let’s not kid ourselves, he’s a great player.

“And when he’s fresh and we can have him on the ice, we want him there.”

There are inherent risks with playing Suter this much, of course. Fatigue is an obvious one, and so is injury — prior to starting last year’s opening-round series, the Avalanche made a point of saying they wanted to hit Suter as much and often as possible. During Game 3 of the Chicago series, Suter appeared to hurt his arm/shoulder in a tangle with Marian Hossa and while his minutes didn’t decrease in the following games, his performance did; Suter went minus-2 over the final two games of the series, recording just one hit and two blocked shots in the Game 6 OT loss.

3. Thomas Vanek’s bust potential. The former Golden Gopher did what everybody expected this summer by coming home to Minnesota, thanks to a three-year, $19.5 million deal signed on the opening day of free agency.

But is the homecoming a little too late?

Vanek is not, and I hate myself for using this term, a spring chicken. He turns 31 in January and is now five years removed from his last 40-goal campaign. The decline of goalscoring wingers as they get older is well documented, especially in Minnesota; Dany Heatley, who’s departure freed up the money to sign Vanek, experienced a sharp decline once he got on the wrong side of 30:

source:

At this point, it’s worth mentioning Vanek’s lacklustre playoff with Montreal. While some were quick to offer the Austrian a mulligan for last season given its volatile and unpredictable nature — he was traded twice and played for three different teams — that didn’t take away from the fact Vanek was average at the most crucial time of the season. Michel Therrien benched and called him out during the second-round series against Boston and after Montreal was eliminated by New York in the Eastern Conference Final, Hockey Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur blasted Vanek for disappearing under adversity.

The Wild can’t afford for Vanek to underwhelm. Aside from committing a significant amount of cap space to him, the team really needs someone to step up and score — Minnesota finished 23rd in the NHL in goals last season, with 207, and 59 of those came from two players (Jason Pominville and Zach Parise).

Penguins keep heating up; Struggling Stars sink lower

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Is it time for the Dallas Stars to throw Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn under the bus again?

We’re still in October, and things are looking unsettling for a team that navigated some serious highs and lows in 2018-19 to eventually drum up lofty expectations for 2019-20. So far, the Stars have flopped in their encore performance, like a band tripping over all of their instruments while the crowd raises its lighters.

On paper, you’d think it would be the Pittsburgh Penguins who were struggling against the Stars on Friday. After all, they are the team still dealing with injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust, while the Stars recently got interesting offseason addition Corey Perry back in the lineup.

Instead, the two teams continued on their opposite trajectories. The Penguins keep finding ways to win, in this case riding two Kris Letang goals to a 4-2 win against the Stars, pushing Pittsburgh’s winning streak to five games. Dallas, meanwhile, lost its fifth game in a row (0-4-1), and the Stars saw their overall 2019-20 record sink to a deeply unsettling 1-7-1.

Former PHT editor Brandon Worley captured much of the mood among Stars fans after another dispiriting loss.

Most are shaking their heads in dismay, with some feeling like it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Like many, I didn’t expect Ben Bishop, Anton Khudobin, and other Stars goalies to combine for a .923 team save percentage like they did in 2018-19, which towered over last season’s league average of .905.

It absolutely was a red flag that the Stars only marginally outscored the opposition (209 goals for, 200 against) last season despite that Herculean goaltending.

Still, there were signs that Jim Montgomery’s system was putting Bishop and Khudobin in a situation to succeed, and there are elements of a modern puck-moving defense in place. One could picture another step for sizzling sophomore Miro Heiskanen, and the Stars made the playoffs despite dark horse Norris candidate John Klingberg being limited to 64 regular-season games. More Heiskanen, more Klingberg, another step for Roope Hintz, plus the additions of Joe Pavelski and, to a much lesser extent, Corey Perry? There were worse formulas for success heading into 2019-20, so fools like me wondered if the Stars might be able to rekindle that magic.

Luck should improve

And, to be fair, counting the Stars out just a little more than two weeks into 2019-20 would be hasty.

Hintz and Heiskanen are some of the only Stars off to the starts you’d expect, with Seguin parked at four points in nine games, Pavelski only managing one goal and one assist, and Klingberg being limited to a single point.

Things should regress in a positive way, even in the highly likely instance that neither Bishop nor Khudobin will rekindle that 2018-19 magic. Much like the slow-starting Wild, the Stars have played most of their games on the road (six of nine away from home) so far. After Saturday’s trip to Philly to play the Flyers, the Stars play six of seven games in Dallas from Oct. 21 through Nov. 5. The outlook could look quite a bit rosier by the end of that stretch.

It doesn’t change the fact that the Stars dug themselves a formidable hole. While the Stars have a hapless divisional neighbor in the Minnesota Wild, the bottom line is that the Central Division figures to be unforgiving.

A matter of philosophy?

Maybe it’s too early to panic, but it’s absolutely time to ask tough questions. The Stars aren’t that far removed from being one of the most electrifying teams in the NHL, only to turn their back on that formula at the first signs of pushback, instead going the “safer” route of becoming more defensive-minded under Ken Hitchcock and then Montgomery.

It was easier to watch that beautiful thing die when the Stars were winning, yet it’s debatable if dumbing things down by going all-defense is truly the “safe” route, especially with a team fueled by offensive talent from Seguin and Alexander Radulov on offense and skilled defensemen like Klingberg and Heiskanen on the blueline.

Maybe losing to a depleted Penguins teams at least provides another chance to do some soul-searching?

The Penguins carried the Stars’ outscore-your-problems torch once Dallas wavered, and Pittsburgh marched to two consecutive Stanley Cups despite defense that ranged from shaky to shabby. Then, for reasons even more perplexing, the Penguins began to lose confidence in that approach, and ended up losing some ground in the process.

As of Friday, the Penguins and Stars are moving in very different directions, and one can bet that they’ll see other dramatic shifts over an 82-game regular season. Maybe both can provide each other lessons about playing to your strengths and knowing who you are, though.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Nationals’ Scherzer drops ceremonial baseball before Capitals game

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The Washington Nationals have some time to kill before the 2019 World Series after sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals, so why not take in a Washington Capitals game … and maybe put a new knuckleball-like spin on a common hockey photo-op?

Instead of dropping the ceremonial first puck before Friday’s Capitals – Rangers contest, three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer elected to drop a baseball instead. You can watch video of that fun ceremony (which vaguely reminded me of Auston Matthews doing a little Globetrotter spin with a Raptors basketball) in the video above. Sports city synergy is fun, is what I’m trying to say.

As a baseball not-knower, this brings up a lot of questions — some I can answer, some not so much.

  • Was it one of those new-fangled “juiced” baseballs? Scherzer probably doesn’t like those, if they’re really a thing.
  • I was wondering about Scherzer’s (maybe somewhat intimidating) different-colored eyes. Apparently Scherzer was born that way, although one eye was blue and the other was green, originally. (The blue eye turned bluer, while the green one turned brown.) Dany Heatley is a hockey player who comes to mind with that, but his story is less fun and more upsetting.
  • CNN clears up the Nationals’ connection to “Baby Shark,” which I wondered about thanks to this:

(Even Capitals fans would probably admit that this is swimming a bit close to San Jose’s waters.)

  • In case you were wondering, that sports city synergy went both ways, as you can see from Alex Ovechkin hugging Scherzer before a Nationals game in June 2018 (via Getty):
(Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

As of this writing, the Capitals lead the Rangers 3-2 and the New York Yankees are trying to protect a 4-1 lead against the Houston Astros in Game 5 of the ALCS. If the Astros win, they’ll face Scherzer’s Nationals.

… And that about concludes my baseball-knowing.

/chews imaginary tobacco/Major League Chew

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Devils, Hischier agree to seven-year, $50.75 million extension

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While the Devils don’t know yet if Taylor Hall will sign an extension to remain in New Jersey or find a new home next summer in free agency, GM Ray Shero has young locked down one of the team’s core pieces.

On Friday, Nico Hischier agreed to a seven-year, $50.75 million extension that carries a $7.25 million cap hit through the 2026-27 NHL season. The deal buys three unrestricted free agent years since the Devils forward has been playing since he was 18, per Cap Friendly.

“Nico is a special person who possess a team-first mentality combined with an inner drive to succeed,” said Shero in a statement. The entire organization is thankful to him and his family for believing in our future. We are excited that he will continue to play a prominent role with us for many years to come.”

According to the Devils, here’s the year-by-year breakdown:

2020-21: $7,000,000 (includes $3 million signing bonus)
2021-22: $7,250,000
2022-23:  $4,500,000
2023-24:  $7,750,000
2024-25:  $7,750,000
2025-26:  $8,000,000
2026-27:  $8,500,000

The extension also features a modified no-trade clause in the final three years.

In 157 NHL games, Hischier, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft, has 37 goals and 101 points while averaging over 17 minutes a night. His offense has been just fine with a 20 and 17 goals in his first two seasons, but his two-way game is what’s really boosted his talent.

The 20-year-old center joins the list of NHLers who passed on restricted free agency in 2020 to put pen to paper on a new deal, joining the likes of Alex DeBrincat, Clayton Keller, Thomas Chabot, and Sam Girard.

Mathew Barzal, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Dylan Strome, and Mikhail Sergachev are some of the other potential 2020 RFAs who will be looking for extensions before next season.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Helm fined $5K for slash on Flames’ Lindholm

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Darren Helm and Elias Lindholm had a little battle in the third period of Thursday’s 5-1 Flames win and it has resulted in a $5,000 fine for the Red Wings forward.

It all began during a face-off when Lindholm got taken down by Helm. The Flames forward took exception and skated after Helm as the puck entered the Calgary zone. The tiff continued on with Lindholm throwing an elbow at Helm, who responded by getting up off the ice and slashing Lindholm in the back of the leg.

“Their guy comes with an elbow that should have probably been called right away,” said Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill. “Then Darren reacts to that as most guys would, you get an elbow to the face for no reason you’re going to react. We got to be more disciplined in those situations, but he slashed him. I don’t think the slash was that super-hard, but it sure looked hard the way he went down.”

The fine is the maximum amount allowable under the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Helm was given a major for slashing and a game misconduct, while Lindholm got off with just an interference minor. Lindholm was helped to the dressing room and there’s been no update yet on his condition.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.