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

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This is the third straight year (2013, 2014) we’ve done this, and so far we’ve only been wrong twice. Try and find more accurate NHL predictions than that. 

Calgary Flames: The worst team to make the playoffs. And we’re not even talking about their advanced stats, which are indeed awful. According to the standings, they were the worst team to make the playoffs. In a related story, it’s kinda funny how people are comparing this year’s Flames to last year’s Avalanche. Um, hello? The Avs won the Central and had a Vezina Trophy finalist in goal. The Flames finished third in the Pacific and have Jonas Hiller in goal. On top of that, they’re without Mark Giordano. Good. Night.

Vancouver Canucks: The second-worst team to make the playoffs. Somehow, the Canucks were lucky enough to match up with the Flames in the first round. Their luck won’t last long, though. Vancouver entered the season with the misguided goal of getting back to the playoffs, and can’t stop bragging that it accomplished that goal. While ownership will be happy with a couple of playoff gates, what this team really did was blow its chance to start a much-needed rebuild, and in a draft year with two “generational” talents to boot. Instead, the Canucks think they can “continue to build this team and be a playoff contender every year,” which is another way of saying they’d like to have their cake and eat it too. Question: if Jim Benning is such a genius at identifying talent, how does one explain Luca Sbisa?

Ottawa Senators: It’s hard to criticize these guys after what they did to make the playoffs. True, they got their coach fired because he was too mean to them, but 23-3-3 is 23-3-3. It’ll actually be too bad when Andrew Hammond falls back to earth over the next few weeks. The Hamburglar’s been a great story, from not being very good in college and the minors to what he’s done at the highest level of the game. He will fall back to earth though. The playoffs are a whole different animal, and Hammond — a 27-year-old undrafted rookie — is not the next Patrick Roy or Ken Dryden.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Remember when these guys were going to be the next great dynasty? It was funny then and it’s even funnier now, because we don’t recall the 83-84 Oilers needing to beat the worst team in the NHL on the last day of the season just to make the playoffs. But that’s what the Pens needed. And boy were they completely unconvincing against the Sabres. Talk about zero confidence. Talk about no killer instinct. The Penguins could’ve easily lost that game. “It hasn’t been easy,” said Ben Lovejoy. “I’m proud of the way we were able to close it out tonight.” Yeah, way to go. You showed a lot of heart losing five in a row then barely defeating a historically bad team. Good luck against the Presidents’ Trophy winners.

Detroit Red Wings: It’s one thing to bench your big-money goalie for a young guy who’s playing out of his mind. It’s quite another to park him for Petr Mrazek, a 23-year-old with no playoff experience and a save percentage (.918) that isn’t even that great. That’s how poorly Jimmy Howard played down the stretch. And make no mistake, the Wings have issues beyond goaltending. They were a mediocre possession team in the second half of the season, and there’s no way Pavel Datsyuk is 100 percent. Enjoy Mike Babcock while he’s still behind the bench, Wings fans. (Which should be about five, maybe six, more games.)

Winnipeg Jets: You have to be happy for Jets fans. It’s been a long time since meaningful hockey was played in Winnipeg, and it’s going to be a tough assignment to beat the home side at MTS Centre. Except, of course, for the fact the Jets are the least disciplined team in the league, as ably demonstrated here by Dustin Byfuglien. Oh, and they don’t really have an elite center either. Also, Ondrej Pavelec is their goalie. (Other than that, though.) And please, PLEASE don’t argue that Pavelec is good now. Yes, he had a strong finish. But he’s shown flashes in the past too, only to revert back to what he really is — a below-average NHL goalie.

Montreal Canadiens: Unlike Pavelec, Carey Price is decidedly not below average. He’s actually the favorite to win the Hart Trophy, which would make him the first goalie to win the award since Jose Theodore did it for the Habs in 2001-02. Hey, how did that turn out anyway? Oh right, Theodore was just OK in the playoffs and Montreal lost to Carolina in the second round. Goaltending: impossible to predict and incredibly risky to rely on. That’s why teams that are good at possessing the puck are better bets. Puck possession is a team thing, so if one guy falters or gets hurt, it’s not the end of the world. By the way, the Habs were the worst possession team to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.

Washington Capitals: One of the most improved teams in the NHL still doesn’t have what it takes to win it all. That’s basically what Barry Trotz admitted a few months ago, and he was absolutely right. Asking Evgeny Kuznetsov to play first- or second-line center in the playoffs is way too much to ask. He’s a 22-year-old rookie. Even if he’s “come a long way over the last two months,” he’s still got a ways to go. The Caps simply aren’t strong enough down the middle, period. (Admit it, you all thought this was going to be a screed against Alex Ovechkin, and how he’s never won anything of meaning and never will. Nah, we’ll wait until they’re eliminated for that.)

Minnesota Wild: Sure, we could point out that Devan Dubnyk got run into the ground by Mike Yeo and, come April, the goalie savior started to show a few cracks. But the reason the Wild won’t win the Stanley Cup is because they won’t score enough goals. The power play stinks, and if they’re counting on Thomas Vanek to produce in the playoffs, well, let’s just say he hasn’t always been at his best in big games. Need another reason? The Wild aren’t deep enough on defense, and that can be big-time problematic in the playoffs.

Anaheim Ducks: The most overrated team in the NHL. Goals per game: 11th. Goals against: 20th. Power play: 28th. Penalty kill: 15th. Those aren’t the numbers of a Stanley Cup champ. In fact, the Ducks (+10) had the worst goal-differential of the 16 teams to make the playoffs. “If you look at teams that have won the Cup, they’re high in the defensive standings — L.A. was the best defensive team last year, won the Cup. Chicago before that, won it. When Boston won … there’s definitely a trend there.” You know who said that? It was Bruce Boudreau.

Tampa Bay Lightning: What seemed like a savvy preseason pick doesn’t seem quite so smart anymore. Yes, the Lightning score a lot of goals, but they don’t keep them out of their net particularly well, ranking 12th in that category. The year after being named a Vezina finalist, Ben Bishop predictably regressed and finished with a so-so save percentage of .916. Also remember that Bishop, 28, has never played in the playoffs. This is a young team that may win a Cup in the future, but it’s not quite ready yet.

New York Islanders: Can the Isles win a playoff series for the first time since 1993? We only ask this question so we can point out the fact that the Isles haven’t won a playoff series since 1993. It’s pretty sad how far the standards have fallen on Long Island. A fan base that once celebrated four straight championships now holds up Jaroslav Halak as some sort of goaltending god for having a .914 save percentage. Meanwhile, everyone’s doing cartwheels because Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, two good-but-not-great defensemen that were deemed expendable by their former teams, actually agreed to re-sign. The Isles finished the regular season with four wins in their last 14. Maybe they’ll raise the bar when they get to Brooklyn.

Nashville Predators: Similar to the Islanders, the Preds got off to a great start and had people debating whether they were legit Stanley Cup contenders. This despite the glaring facts that Mike Ribeiro was their first-line center and they had a rookie by the name of Filip Forsberg who was piling up points at an unsustainably high rate. Yada, yada, yada, the Preds went 8-13-4 in their last 25 games, including six straight losses to finish the season. Bottom line: this team is gonna be done real quick if Pekka Rinne doesn’t find his game. He gave up 17 goals in his last five outings combined.

New York Rangers: Back in March, a handful of Rags faithful got all hot and bothered when we pointed out the Blueshirts were “good but not great” down the middle. As if hockey fans everywhere should marvel at the amazing talent the Rangers had assembled to play center for their spectacular team. Sorry, but Derick Brassard, Derek Stepan, Kevin Hayes, and Dominic Moore are pretty much the definition of “good but not great.” Which, hey, is better than “fine but not good”; however, when you consider the truly great centers that Cup champs almost always possess, not to mention the Rangers’ worrying possession numbers, it’s really not hard to doubt this team. On the bright side, at least Alain Vigneault has another Presidents’ Trophy to his name.

St. Louis Blues: The new San Jose Sharks. Or maybe the Sharks were the new St. Louis Blues. After all, the Blues were choking in the playoffs long before the Sharks started gagging away successful regular seasons. Six times in franchise history have the Blues amassed over 100 points, only to fall well short when the games start counting. This season was their seventh with more than 100 points, so of course they drew one of the league’s hottest teams in the first round. But it’s not a cursed history or tough opponent that will doom the Blues. It’s questionable goaltending (another Blues tradition) and a coach that can’t stop himself from over-coaching.

Chicago Blackhawks: Fun fact about the ‘Hawks: Out of the 16 teams to make the playoffs, only Ottawa and Winnipeg finished with fewer regulation/overtime wins. Another fact: If instead of going 9-3 in the shootout they’d gone 3-9, they’d have made the playoffs by one measly point. And yet the ‘Hawks remain Stanley Cup favorites in the eyes of many. Have people not been paying attention? The simple truth is, these guys have not been playing at an elite level since the Winter Classic. Antoine Vermette hasn’t been the answer, and Kimmo Timonen’s not the answer either, based on the 40-year-old’s dreadful possession stats. Just do us a favor and don’t act surprised when Chicago’s eliminated in the first or second round, OK?

Trade: Flames get Lucic; Oilers receive Neal

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Call it a “change of scenery,” or probably most directly, trading problems. Either way, Alberta rivals the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers made a truly resounding trade on Friday, with the main takeaway being that Milan Lucic goes to the Flames, while James Neal is bound for Edmonton.

Yeah, wow.

Multiple reporters indicate that it’s close to one-for-one, although there are a few minor tweaks to consider.

The Calgary Herald’s Kristen Anderson reports that the Oilers are retaining 12.5 percent of Milan Lucic’s salary, which translates to $750K, while Edmonton is also sending Calgary a conditional third-round pick in 2020. It’s not clear yet what those conditions are.

If Anderson and others are correct, that means the trade boils down to:

Flames receive: Lucic, 31, minus $750K per year. That puts Lucic at $5.25M, with his contract running through 2022-23. Calgary also receives Edmonton’s 2020 third-round pick, if conditions are met.

Oilers receive: Neal, 31, who has a $5.75M cap hit that runs through 2022-23.

As you can see, the two players remain very similar in both cap hit, term, and even age. The Flames save $500K in cap space, while the Oilers add $500K, as Puck Pedia confirms.

Of course, when you’re talking about contracts teams largely want to get away from, it’s often about more than just cap hits. There are some significant ins and outs to that side of the discussion, including Lucic’s deal being essentially “buyout proof.” Neal, meanwhile, would be easier for the Oilers to buy out, if they decide to do that after an audition with the team.

On Saturday, PHT will try to wade through the variety of paths the two teams could take, whether it means sticking with Lucic and Neal respectively, or going for a buyout or trade. For now, let’s consider where they are in their careers.

Lucic’s tough times

After a productive first season in Edmonton where Lucic scored 23 goals and 50 points in 2016-17, Lucic plummeted down the depth chart and in production. This past season was rock bottom, as Lucic scored just six goals and 20 points in 79 games.

The bet on Lucic, some might say in part leading to the dreadful Taylor Hall trade, stands as one of the landmark gaffes of Peter Chiarelli’s Era of Error in Edmonton. It was clear that both the player and team needed to part ways, so now there’s at least peace in that regard.

A bumpy path for Neal, and brutal times in Calgary

Whether you like Neal – a player who absolutely goes over the line at times, when he loses his cool – or not, it’s tough not to feel for him after the last several years.

He was traded from the Stars to the Penguins in 2011, scapegoated a bit out of Pittsburgh on his way to Nashville in 2014, then scooped up by Vegas in the 2017 expansion draft, only to sign with the Flames (possibly in a relatively lukewarm free agent market) last summer. Now this trade sends Neal to Edmonton, making this the 31-year-old’s sixth NHL team, and his fourth in his past four seasons. Players as productive as Neal – aside from last season’s meltdown – rarely become journeymen like this.

Honestly, should we just get his nameplate ready for the Seattle [Unfortunately Not Supersonics] right now?

Despite that upheaval, Neal had been a guy who could score goals nonetheless. He peaked with 40 during his best days with Malkin in Pittsburgh (an 81-point output in 2011-12), but he sniped in multiple climates, generating 20+ goals in 10 consecutive seasons.

And then this Calgary season happened.

Neal never clicked with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, as Elias Lindholm instead took that plum gig. Neal slipped lower and lower in the lineup, sometimes becoming a healthy scratch, and ended 2018-19 with Lucic-like numbers (though in fewer games), as Neal managed only seven goals and 19 points. He was also an all-around disaster, as you can see from RAPM charts via Evolving Hockey that argue that, in some ways, Lucic was actually better last season, as Lucic at least wasn’t as much of a defensive disaster as Neal. Faint praise, but still:

Better times ahead, maybe?

Again, it’s easy to forget that both wingers are 31.

That’s not a great age to be when your contract looks inflated, but there’s also a chance that maybe both could turn things around, at least to some degree. With Neal closer to more productive seasons than Lucic, he’d seem to be a more likely candidate, especially if his rifle of a shot pairs nicely with Connor McDavid‘s all-world playmaking.

But both players have a shot at positive regression. Neal’s five percent shooting percentage from 2018-19 marked the only time in his career that he’s been below 10.4 percent, while Lucic shot at 6.8 in 2017-18 and 8.1 in 2018-19, compared to his career average of 13.5 percent.

Modest rebounds wouldn’t guarantee that either Neal or Lucic sticks around in their new climates. Improvements might just make each forward easier to trade, and more palatable to keep around while looking for trades. There’s simply a lot of room for “to be continued” elements to this move, from buyouts to trades and more.

***

As discussed above, there could still be twists and turns in these sagas, and some of those possibilities will be examined on Saturday. Yet, at this moment in time, this seems like the rare trade win for the Oilers. Maybe this is the start of a positive pattern now that Ken Holland is GM?

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.

Trouba gets seven-year, $56 million deal from Rangers

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The New York Rangers have locked up Jacob Trouba with a seven-year, $56 million contract.

Trouba saw his restricted free agent rights acquired by the Rangers last month from the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for defenseman Neal Pionk and 2019 first-round pick (Ville Heinola). General manager Jeff Gorton added up front by bringing Artemi Panarin to Broadway on July 1, so you knew that they were going to eventually come to an agreement to keep the 25-year-old defenseman in the fold following the June trade as they bulk up for a run in 2019-20.

“They’re building a winner tends to be the vibe I’ve gotten,” said Trouba following the trade to New York. “They treat the players first class. It’s very first-class organization. I mean, it’s New York so you’ve got a big stage and they expect a lot out of their team. We want to ultimately get to the Stanley Cup.”

 

Earlier this month Trouba had elected salary arbitration and had a July 25 date scheduled. But that was merely a formality to allow extra time for both sides to hammer out a deal.

According to PuckPedia, $22 million will be paid to Trouba over the next three seasons via signing bonuses and he has a no-move clause from 2020-21 to 2023-24 and a limited no-trade clause in the final two years of the deal.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The ninth overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, Trouba has spent the last six seasons with the Jets, playing 408 games and recording 42 goals and 179 points. In 2018-19 he set a career high with 50 points, making him the ninth defenseman 25 or younger to hit that mark in the past three seasons.

Gorton still has work to do this summer in deciding whether to re-sign RFAs Pavel Buchnevich (July 29 arbitration hearing), Brendan Lemieux and Tony DeAngelo, while working around the salary cap, which after this signing puts them over the ceiling. This could end up leading to a trade of Chris Kreider, who’s entering the final year of this deal carrying a $4.625 million cap hit but owed $4 million in salary for the coming season. They also have a 48-hour buyout window later this summer as well even if they settle with Buchnevich before his hearing.

MORE: Jets were never going to get enough for Trouba

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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.

Key defensemen enter contract years, possible free agency

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Despite being the most exciting offseason since PHT started in 2010, the NHL will probably always lag behind the NBA when it comes to stars moving in free agency.

Rudely, players like Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid don’t even flirt with drama, instead sticking with their teams by signing extensions, often almost at the first possible moment they legally can. Again, rude.

So, it’s important to get that disclaimer out of the way. Chances are, the fascinatingly robust list of pending free agent defensemen will narrow down, possibly starting before the 2019-20 season begins.

But, even so, it’s quite the list, and a lot of these defensemen will earn enormous, team-changing raises, whenever their next deals get signed.

And, hey, sticking with your team can still alter its course. Just look at how scary that Drew Doughty extension ($11 million AAV through 2026-27) seems today compared to when Doughty re-upped with the Kings in July 2018.

Let’s consider some of the most intriguing names, split by UFA and RFA designations. Cap Friendly’s listings were helpful in putting this together, and being that these lists aren’t comprehensive, you may enjoy digging deeper there to find even more.

Prominent UFAs

Alex Pietrangelo (Blues), Roman Josi (Predators), Tyson Barrie (Maple Leafs), Torey Krug (Bruins), Jared Spurgeon (Wild, more on them here), Justin Faulk (Hurricanes), Jake Muzzin (Maple Leafs), Justin Schultz (Penguins), Christopher Tanev (Canucks), T.J. Brodie (Flames), Sami Vatanen (Devils), Travis Hamonic (Flames).

The headliners of this list – particularly Pietrangelo and Josi – must have licked their chops when Erik Karlsson signed that mammoth eight year, $92M ($11.5M AAV) contract with the Sharks. Pietrangelo and Josi don’t boast multiple Norris Trophies, yet they might also be healthier than Karlsson when he signed his deal, so there could be interesting value debates.

Either way, Roman Josi’s borderline-insulting $4M won’t cut it after 2019-20.

The marquee names are the most intriguing, yet there are interesting situations as you go down a rung and more. And those are the players who are arguably more likely to sign with new teams.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Would Toronto be able to bring back even one of Barrie or Muzzin after next season? Are the Hurricanes destined to move on from Faulk, or would they instead keep Faulk and move someone else, like Dougie Hamilton? Players like Faulk, Schultz, and Vatanen could see their value shift in big ways depending upon how well or poorly they perform in 2019-20. Will P.K. Subban‘s arrival hurt Vatanen, or will the former Ducks defenseman thrive in a more relaxed role next season for New Jersey?

There are a lot of intriguing situations to watch there.

Notable RFAs

Josh Morrissey (Jets), Thomas Chabot (Senators), Samuel Girard (Avalanche), Mikhail Sergachev (Lightning), Ryan Pulock (Islanders), Darnell Nurse (Oilers), Brandon Montour (Sabres), etc.

These players don’t have the same leverage as they’re restricted, but it should still be interesting if there’s a ripple effect when the Jets have to pay Morrissey, and how strenuous negotiations could be between Chabot and the penny-pinching Senators. Tampa Bay’s really brought Sergachev along slowly, and you wonder if they’d be wise to try to extend him before a potential breakthrough?

***

Again, extensions will kill some of the wildest daydreams by crossing names off the list long before July 2020. Don’t assume your team will happen upon a Pietrangelo or Spurgeon.

That said, there are certain “something has to give” situations. The Maple Leafs may know that they’re only getting Muzzin and Barrie for a limited time. The Bruins have a tight squeeze happening, especially with Charlie McAvoy still needing an RFA deal this summer.

Either way, teams should savor deals like Josi at $4M, because they won’t last much longer.

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.

Maple Leafs’ Marner mum on contract negotiations

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It’s not much, but for Toronto Maple Leafs fans willing to hang on anything said by still-unsigned restricted free agent Mitch Marner, it was at least something.

When Marner stepped in front of a crowd of reporters on Thursday, he did undoubtedly knowing what the first line of questioning would be. And the second, and the third.

When is he going to sign?

“Hopefully sooner than later,” Marner said. “I want to be there for the start of camp, so hoping something can get done then.”

From there, Marner steered those questions toward his agent as he threw on his best pair dancing shoes and showed he could sidestep with the best of them.

If you’re looking for a t-shirt slogan, “You have to ask my agent” is right up there with the best of them in Toronto these days.

 

“My agent and Kyle are doing it, and they’re going to figure something out,” Marner said.

One thing Marner made pretty clear is he wouldn’t be at training camp without a contract.

“Probably not,” he said. “There’s so much risk with that. It’s just something you don’t want to risk.”

What about an offer sheet?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Marner whipped out the agent line once again, while saying he’s trying to stay out of all of that “stuff.”

So the uncertainty hasn’t affected you?

“None,” he said, before once again talking about his agent’s role in the negotiations.

What about fans’ concerns that you may not sign a contract with the Maple Leafs.

“I’m leaving all of that to my agent right now,” he said.

Those agents, man. Ruining Toronto’s summer for the second year in a row.

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Marner seemed unfazed by it all and appears to be enjoying his summer.

Why wouldn’t he? He’s about to get paid in a major way, but the Maple Leafs or any number of teams that would be willing to lavish cash upon him if given the chance.

Marner’s situation is one of several playing out this summer. He’s not the only big-ticket RFA without a deal so far.

Patrik Laine in Winnipeg, Brayden Point in Tampa Bay, Mikko Rantanen in Colorado are just a few others. It’s become commonplace for big names without arbitration rights on the RFA list to let negotiations span the summer, if not further.

Marner’s contract is only illuminated better because of where he plays. Dominating two national TV broadcasters on a daily basis in Canada.

And the fear in Leafs Nations is made only worse knowing all-too-well where this path can lead.

William Nylander‘s contract last summer dragged right into the regular season and Nylander and the Maple Leafs felt those effects throughout the season.

The same scenario with Marner would be worse, given he’s the team’s leading point-getter from last season.

A Toronto native, Marner said he’s well-accustomed to the media and said his phone has been shut off for much of the summer.

Like he said, his agent is running the show. Marner’s merely the main protagonist who has yet to be revealed in a complex script.

When he will is anyone’s guess.


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