Is there a truly terrible team this season?

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When Ken Hitchcock looks at the NHL, he doesn’t see much separation between the best teams and the worst.

“I don’t think there’s going to be much of a difference between first and last in each division,” the St. Louis Blues’ head coach said today, per NHL.com’s Nick Cotsonika.

He may have a point. Unlike the last two seasons, when certain clubs were clearly positioning themselves to draft franchise centers Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, and Auston Matthews, there is no such jockeying for the bottom this season.

Take the Toronto Maple Leafs, the NHL’s worst team in 2015-16. Head coach Mike Babcock expects his group to be “way better” with young forwards Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner in the lineup, not to mention Frederik Andersen in goal.

The Edmonton Oilers are coming off a 29th-place finish, but McDavid probably won’t get hurt and miss half the season again. The Oilers also improved their defense with the addition of Adam Larsson, and while it cost them Taylor Hall to do it, they signed Milan Lucic and drafted Jesse Puljujarvi to help stem the loss.

The Columbus Blue Jackets were arguably the most disappointing team last season, but if Sergei Bobrovsky can stay healthy, there’s reason to believe they could fare better. The Jackets have a promising young defense that head coach John Tortorella has called his team’s “engine.”

The Arizona Coyotes, Winnipeg Jets, and Calgary Flames finished 24th, 25th, and 26th, respectively, last year. But all three of those teams have a ton of young talent. There is more hope than dread in those markets.

Even the Vancouver Canucks are optimistic. Their general manager, Jim Benning, has said he can’t wait for the season to start in order to prove the doubters wrong. He believes it was injuries that cost his team last year. Vancouver’s goal is to get back into the playoffs, not draft Nolan Patrick.

“There’s that sense there’s something to prove,” said Canucks goalie Ryan Miller. “I hope we can take energy from the different points of motivation and do something really fun, really special.”

Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking on Miller’s part. That kind of thinking has been known to happen at this time of the year, before any games have actually been played.

But Hitchcock isn’t counting on any easy games.

“I just think it’s going to be so hard this year to get in the playoffs,” said Hitchcock, whose team plays in arguably the toughest division in the league.

While it would be a surprise if the Blues missed the postseason the year after reaching the conference finals, they did lose David Backes and Troy Brouwer to free agency, and they don’t have Brian Elliott anymore, so you never know.

In today’s NHL, there are no guarantees.

How aggressive should Blue Jackets be at trade deadline?

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We need to talk a little more about the Columbus Blue Jackets because they are one of the most fascinating teams in the NHL right now.

Not only for their recent hot streak, but for what might still be ahead of them over the next couple of months.

Thanks to their win in New York on Sunday night, capped off with an Oliver Bjorkstrand goal with 26 seconds to play in regulation, they hold the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference and are one of the hottest teams in the NHL. They are 15-2-4 since Dec. 9, while their overall record through 50 games is actually one point better than it was at the same point a year ago. Considering their offseason and the almost unbelievable run of injuries they have experienced once the season began, they are one of the biggest surprises in the league.

It all creates a pretty interesting discussion for what their front office does — or is able to do — before the NHL trade deadline.

1. They are in a position to buy, not sell

That is not up for much debate, either. This is the same team and front office that went all in before last season’s trade deadline at a time when they were still on the outside of the playoff picture. Not only are they in a playoff position right now, they are just one point back of the New York Islanders for the third spot in the Metropolitan Division.

There is also this: Their upcoming schedule through the trade deadline and end of February really softens up with only five of their next 16 games coming against teams that currently rank higher than 19th in the league in points percentage. Three of those games (two against Philadelphia, one against Florida) will be against teams they could be directly competing with for a playoff spot.

There is a chance to gain even more ground and solidify their spot even more.

2. What they need and what they have to spend

What they have to spend: A lot. The only teams with more salary cap space to spend ahead of the deadline are the New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators, and Colorado Avalanche. Out of that group, only the Avalanche will be in a position to buy. The Blue Jackets, in theory, could add any player that is theoretically available before the trade deadline.

What they need: At the start of the season the easy — and expected — answer here would have been a goalie given the uncertainty of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins and their ability to replace Bobrovsky. After some early struggles, they have turned out to be the Blue Jackets’ biggest bright spot as that tandem has combined for the second-best five-on-five save percentage in the NHL and the third-best all situations save percentage. They have been great, and especially Merzlikins with his recent play.

What they really need now is some scoring. Getting healthy would help a lot (Cam Atkinson just returned to the lineup; Josh Anderson, Alexandre Texier are still sidelined) but they do not have a single player in the top-77 of the league in scoring (Pierre-Luc Dubois is 78th), and only two in the top-120 (Dubuois and Gustav Nyquist).

As a team, they are 24th in the league in goals per game.

Looking around the league, obvious forward rentals would include Tyler Toffoli (Los Angeles Kings), Chris Kreider (New York Rangers), Ilya Kovalchuk (Montreal Canadiens), and Jean-Gabriel Pageau (Ottawa Senators). Potential trade options with term still remaining might include Jason Zucker (Minnesota Wild) or Tomas Tatar (Montreal).

3. The problem: How aggressive can they be?

The downside to their “all in” trade deadline a year ago is that it absolutely decimated their draft pick cupboard for two years. They were left with just three picks in the 2019 class (none before pick No. 108) and as it stands right now they have just five picks in 2020, with only one of them (a first-round pick) slated to be in the top-100.

While players like Texier and Emil Benstrom are good prospects, their farm system is not the deep and the younger players currently on the NHL roster (Dubuois, Seth Jones, Werenski) are players they are going to build around.

That seriously limits what they can do.

Is general manager Jarmo Kekalainen in a position to trade another first-round pick to add to what is a pretty good, but probably not great team? Is there a player available that can a big enough difference to make that worth it? If there is, that play can not be a rental. It has to be a player that has meaningful term left on their contract and can be a part of the organization beyond just this season.

Even if you assume the Blue Jackets will not be able to maintain their current hot streak (and they will cool off at some point) they have at the very least put themselves in a position where they are going to be in the playoff race with a very good chance of making it. This is also not a team in a “rebuild” mode, either. When you are in that position you owe it to your fans and the players in that room to try to win. For the Blue Jackets, it is just a matter of how much they can do and how aggressive they should be over the next few weeks.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Top rookie performances so far

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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we keep it on an individual player level and dig into the 10 best rookie performances so far this season.

It has been an interesting rookie class because two of the most anticipated rookies — top-two picks Jack Hughes and Kappo Kaako) have gone through some early growing pains and have not really played their way into the Calder Trophy discussion. That is nothing to be concerned about, either. Not every 18-year-old is going to jump right into the league and make an immediate impact. Sometimes it takes a year. Sometimes it takes two. They both still have great futures ahead of them and should be stars (maybe even superstars?) in the NHL.

It has, however, been a great first half for rookie defensemen (four in the top-ten) and a couple of rookie goalies.

Which rookies have stood out the most so far this season?

To the rankings!

1. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche. Makar entered the season as one of the Calder Trophy favorites, and he has not only met the high expectations placed upon him, he has probably exceeded them. He is already the best defenseman on one of the NHL’s best and most exciting teams. An exceptional skater, great passer, and a lightning fast release that just looks effortless and unstoppable. He is a one-man highlight reel almost every night.

(See it here, too)

2. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks. When the 2019-20 season began it was expected that a Hughes would be at the top of the rookie class. And there is. It’s just probably not the one (Jack, the No. 1 overall pick this year) that most thought would be this high on the list. For the third year in a row the Canucks have one of the league’s top-two rookies as Hughes joins their promising core alongside Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.

3. Victor Olofsson, Buffalo Sabres. One of the few bright spots in yet another massively disappointing season for the Sabres. At 24 he is a little older than your average rookie, but he has been a great fit next to Jack Eichel on the Sabres’ top line when he’s been healthy. As of Monday he still leads all rookies in scoring even though he has not played in close to a month due to injury.

4. John Marino, Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins acquired Marino from the Edmonton Oilers for a conditional sixth-round draft pick in a trade that few people noticed when it was announced. All Marino has done this season is help transform the Penguins’ defense into one of the league’s best. He is already a 20-minute per night player, helps drive possession, has great defensive metrics, and has helped bring back mobility and puck skills to the Penguins’ blue line.

5. Dominik Kubalik, Chicago Blackhawks. Stan Bowman has made some questionable trades and decisions over the past few years, but this is one that he knocked out of the park. The Blackhawks acquired Kubalik from the Los Angeles Kings for a fifth-round draft pick almost exactly one year ago. He was always considered a talented prospect with offensive upside (something the Kings could use!), but he hadn’t shown a willingness to actually sign with the Kings. So they traded him. The Blackhawks were the team that pounced and added some desperately needed scoring depth. He has 21 goals on the season, with 10 of them coming over the past two weeks. Recency bias plays a role here, but he has made a huge jump in the Calder Trophy discussion from where he was even a few weeks ago when he probably was not even on the radar.

6. Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals. The Capitals’ goalie of the future should probably be getting even more playing time in the present. In his 19 appearances this season he owns a 15-2-1 record with a .927 save percentage and is currently on a run where he has won 10 consecutive decisions. He has not lost a start since Nov. 15 against the Montreal Canadiens. His play is probably making it easier to say goodbye to long-time starter (and long-time top-shelf goalie) Braden Holtby this summer in free agency.

7. Elvis Merzlikins, Columbus Blue Jackets. Like Kubalik, he is another rookie that has picked up his play very recently. When Blue Jackets starting goalie Joonas Korpisalo went down with an injury, Merzlikins had yet to win a game in the NHL and had a sub-.900 save percentage. It would have been easy to write off the Blue Jackets’ playoff chances at that point. Instead, Merzlikins has helped carry the team into the first Wild Card spot (as of Monday) in the Eastern Conference thanks to an 8-2-0 record, three shutouts,

8. Adam Fox, New York Rangers. Not going to lie, I kind of hate putting him this low because I feel like it underrates the season he has had. He has been really good. But, I also think the top-four here are clearly the head of the rookie class. It is also hard to ignore how downright dominant Kubalik and Merzlikins have been recently and the role they have played for their teams. Fox was one of two key additions to the Rangers’ blue line over the summer alongside Jacob Trouba. Trouba has the big name and the massive contract, but there is no denying which player has been the better addition for — it is Fox.

9. Martin Necas, Carolina Hurricanes. Necas is very quietly putting together a strong rookie season. He is the fifth-leading scorer on the team and his current scoring pace would put him on track for nearly 20 goals and 50 points with strong possession numbers. Not quite enough to be a Calder Trophy favorite, but that is still a heck of a season for a 21-year-old in his first full NHL season.

10. Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens. Suzuki was the key long-term player for the Canadiens in the Max Pacioretty trade, and they are getting their first taste of what he is capable of this season. He is still a bit of a work in progress, but he has improved dramatically over the past couple of months and is currently the fifth-leading scorer among all rookies. Pacioretty is having a career year for the Golden Knights, but Tomas Tatar (the other key player in that trade) having a great year of his own, and Suzuki showing a ton of potential, it is one that — so far — has worked out well for both teams.

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.

PHT Face-Off: Kovalchuk’s trade value; Who hits 1,000 points next?

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It’s the start of a new week, which means it’s time for the PHT Face-off. We’ll look at numbers and trends around the NHL ahead of all the action coming your way over the next seven days.

Let’s go!

Who will hit 1,000 points next?

On Sunday, Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane hit the 1,000-point mark for his career. The 31-year-old did it pretty quickly, as it only took him 953 games to reach the milestone. But which active players are scheduled to hit that number next?

Assuming good health, Ducks forward Ryan Getzlaf should be the next one to 1,000. He currently has 956 points, which means he should reach 1,000 sometime next season. Again, it depends how healthy he is, but it should come sooner than later.

Leafs forward Jason Spezza has 933 points, but he appears to be running out of steam. Will he play long enough to accumulate 67 more points? He’s on pace for 34 this year. That means he’ll get 16 more than he already has, which would leave him 51 points away. Is he going to play two more seasons?

Kings center Anze Kopitar is right behind Spezza with 931 points. The 32-year-old has 43 points in 50 games in 2019-20. That would put him on pace for 71 points this year. Like Getzlaf, if Kopitar stays healthy, he should find a way to reach this milestone sometime next season.

And considering Nicklas Backstrom just signed a new extension with the Washington Capitals, he should have plenty of time to hit 1,000. Backstrom has 911 points in his career and he’s currently at 38 points in 41 games this season. The 32-year-old has been pretty healthy during his career, so he should be able to get to that number in short order.

Merzlikins on quite a roll

Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins has turned his season around since Joonas Korpisalo was injured on Dec. 29. The 25-year-old is 8-2-0 in 10 games since Korpisalo went down, and he’s given up two goals or fewer in seven of those outings. The Jackets have one more home game (Wednesday against Winnipeg) before they get to enjoy their lengthy break.

What has this recent run meant for the Blue Jackets?

Well, as of right now, they’ve found a way to put themselves in the first Wild Card spot. There’s several reasons they’ve been able to overcome the losses of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, but the recent play of their goaltenders is near the top of the list.

Whether or not Merzlikins can keep this up remains to be seen.

Are the days of the $9-million (or more) goalie done? The Blue Jackets sure seem to be poking holes in the “pay big money for a goalie” theory.

What’s Kovalchuk worth on trade market?

Earlier this month, not many teams were willing to roll the dice on Ilya Kovalchuk. The Montreal Canadiens did, and the move has paid off in a pretty significant way so far. The 36-year-old has looked nothing like the player that suited up for the Los Angeles Kings over the last two years. He’s been quicker than advertised and he’s found ways to put up points.

In eight games with the Habs, he’s scored four goals and four assists. He also added a goal in the shootout against the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday night.

Now, Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin has to decide whether or not to keep Kovalchuk or trade him before the Feb. 24 deadline. With the Habs seven points out of a playoff spot, you’d think that they may look to get an asset or two in return for the veteran winger. Maybe there’s a trade and a side deal reached for next year, but it’ll be interesting to see what the market him is at this point.

Three weeks ago, nobody was willing to touch him. Now, could there be a bidding war for Kovalchuk? If he can keep rolling at this pace (that’s a big “if”), teams will be interested. What makes him even more of an intriguing addition, is that his cap hit is for $700,000. He’s only going to play half a season, so in reality he’ll make just $350,000 this year.

Teams looking for secondary scoring could do worse than Kovalchuk. Bergevin has the opportunity to turn this into a home run move.

What will Penguins do in goal?

What are the Pittsburgh Penguins going to do with their goaltending situation in the second half of the season? It’s an interesting question. Tristan Jarry has carried the load for the last little while, but Matt Murray appears to be played himself back in the picture recently.

Murray has started and won back-to-back games. Now, those games haven’t been perfect, but they’ve been encouraging. After he stopped 28 of 29 shots in a win over Detroit on Friday night, head coach Mike Sullivan went to him again on Sunday afternoon against Boston.

The 25-year-old and his team got off to a rocky start in the first period. They went down 3-0 and the Pittsburgh faithful even gave their starting netminder the Bronx cheer. But Murray settled down and the Pens eventually came back to win the game.

So, who gets the start against Philadelphia on Tuesday night? Do they go back to Jarry or do they give Murray a third straight opportunity right before the break?

Here’s an interesting stat:

What’s coming up this week?
• Afternoon Hockey: Red Wings vs. Avs, Mon. Jan. 20, 3 p.m. ET.
• Islanders vs. Rangers for the third time in eight days, Tue. Jan. 21, 7 p.m. ET.
• Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville is back in Chicago for the first time since his firing, Tues. Jan. 21, 8:30 p.m. ET.

NHL on NBCSN
• Penguins vs. Flyers, Tue. Jan. 21, 7:30 p.m. ET.
• NHL Skills Competition, Fri. Jan. 24, 8 p.m. ET. (NBCSN)

NHL on NBCSN
• NHL All-Star Game, Sat. Jan. 25, 8 p.m. ET. (NBC)

Wednesday Night Hockey
• Red Wings vs. Wild, Wed. Jan. 22, 8 p.m. ET. (NBCSN)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Bjorkstrand, Dvorak highlight this week’s top adds

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Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. As always, the goal here isn’t to recommend 10 players you must add and five players that need to be dropped. Context is everything and the context of each league is different. What this is instead is a guideline so that if you’re looking to make a change, you have potential players to target and if you see players I’ve suggested to drop, you can evaluate your potential alternates.

Players Worth Adding

Jordan Eberle, Islanders – RW: Eberle had a disappointing first half of the campaign, but he’s picked up the pace lately with four goals and six points in seven games. He’s a tough one to gauge. Certainly when he’s at his best, he’s worth owning and he had some very strong seasons earlier in his career. The last two seasons though have featured stints of strong play from Eberle, but he’s been more miss than hit over that span. There’s the hope that his recent play will be the start of a second half turnaround, but that’s far from a safe bet. What I will suggest is that you should be weary of him. Pick him up for now and hope for the best, but be prepared to drop him in a couple weeks if things aren’t playing out as you wished.

Tanner Pearson, Canucks – LW: Pearson’s first full season with Vancouver got off to a quiet start. He had just two goals and six points in 18 games through Nov. 10th. He’s found another gear since then though with 12 goals and 31 points in 31 games. He’s been playing alongside Bo Horvat and that combo has worked well together. With Pearson still only owned in 37% of Yahoo leagues, you should check on his status in your league and pick him up if he’s available.

Phillip Danault, Canadiens – C: Danault is on a three-game point streak with a goal and five points over that span. That’s a solid start to what will hopefully be a longer hot streak, but even putting that aside, he’s had a great campaign with 12 goals and 36 points in 50 contests. His center-only eligibility means that he’s still something of a borderline option in standard leagues, but he’s worth taking a chance on while he’s off and he’s good enough to hang onto even when he’s not.

Oliver Bjorkstrand, Blue Jackets – LW/RW: Bjorkstrand scored five goals and seven points in four games from Dec. 16-21, but in the last game during that stretch he suffered a rib/cartilage contusion and an oblique strain. He made his return from those injuries on Sunday and picked up right where he left off with another two goals. It helps that he’s been averaging 17:18 minutes this season, which is a huge leap from the 12:20 minutes per game of work he got in 2018-19 when he finished with 36 points in 77 games.

Mike Smith, Oilers – G: Smith has certainly not been an ideal goaltender this season, but he’s been great lately and has asserted himself as the Oilers’ starter in the process. So far in January he’s 5-0-1 with a 2.50 GAA and .924 save percentage in six games. I don’t trust him to stay strong for the rest of the second half, but if you’re in need of goaltending help, Smith is probably your best option right now among those who are available.

Anthony Cirelli, Lightning – C: Cirelli had a hat trick on Friday, which gives him six points in his last three games. Immediately following the break might be a good time to bet on the Lightning in general. They’ll kick off with a four-game road trip that takes them to Dallas, Los Angeles, Anaheim, and San Jose. The Stars are a tough team defensively, but the other three teams in the trip are pretty vulnerable and that could lead to some high scoring games for Tampa Bay in the near future.

Radko Gudas, Capitals – D: If you want help offensively, Gudas isn’t a great bet. He has contributed two goals and 14 points in 49 games, so he’s not a pure stay-at-home defneseman, but he’s very useful in other fantasy categories. He’s tied for sixth in plus/minus at 22 and ranks fifth among defenseman with 135 hits. He’s also been taking a lot of shots lately, accumulating 19 in his last seven games. He’s more of a situation pickup to grab if you’re hurting in categories that are a bit easier to neglect than the more eye-catching offensive statistics.

Alexander Steen, Blues – LW/RW: Steen had a terrible start to the season with five assists in his first 24 games. He may have turned a corner though with four goals and nine points in his last nine contests. This might just be a hot streak and if that’s the case then he’s only worth a short-term pickup. However, Steen’s a good enough player that he might end up having a strong second half of the campaign.

Christian Dvorak, Coyotes – C/LW: Dvorak has 13 goals and 30 points in 51 games in 2019-20, which puts him in that borderline range where he could conceivably be on a fantasy squad year round without looking out of place, but in many cases there are better options out there. For now though he’s hot, having recorded a point in each of his last four games, so if you’re looking for a short-term pickup, he’s an option worth considering, especially given his left wing eligibility.

Zach Parise, Wild – LW: Parise isn’t the star he once was, but the 35-year-old is having a great season with 18 goals and 30 points in 48 games. Right now he’s on a goal scoring streak with four markers in his last three games, so he’s worth considering right now, to ride for as long as he’s hot. It’s worth adding that aside from a bad start to the season where he scored three goals and had no assists in 13 games, he’s been a pretty stable contributor in 2019-20, so he’s also not a bad player to grab simply as an injury replacement if you have a hole to fill on the left wing.

Players You May Want To Drop

Antti Raanta, Coyotes – G: Raanta made his return from a lower-body injury on Saturday, but was chased from that contest after allowing six goals on 18 shots. That’s not the primary reason I’m recommending dropping him though. The All-Star break is just around the corner and Darcy Kuemper will likely return shortly after it. Once he does, Raanta will be relegated to backup duties and won’t have much value as a result.

Dougie Hamilton, Hurricanes – D: Hamilton is still owned in 86% of Yahoo leagues and unfortunately, I’d advise that you drop him unless you’re in a keeper league. Hamilton has had an amazing season, but after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured left fibula, he’s likely to miss most if not all of the rest of the campaign. To be fair, we don’t know exactly how long Hamilton will be out because Carolina didn’t provide a timetable, but this is a major injury and half the season is already done so the situation is rather bleak.

Esa Lindell, Stars – D: Lindell had a five-game point streak from Dec. 29-Jan. 9, recording eight assists over that span. He’s been held off the scoresheet over his last four games though, with the lone silver lining being his goal on Jan. 14th. He’s a solid defenseman, but not quite good enough offensively to warrant holding onto at all times unless you’re particularly hurting for blueliners or you’re in a deep league.

Jared McCann, Penguins – C/LW: McCann had a good run from Jan. 5-14 with four goals and five points in his last five games, but he’s been held off the scoresheet in his last three contests. He’s a solid secondary scorer for the Penguins, but isn’t good enough to hold onto outside of his hot streaks. For that reason, I’d recommend dropping him for now and just keeping an eye on him if you’re interesting in grabbing him again once he starts to heat up.

Rasmus Sandin, Maple Leafs – D: Sandin was called up on Jan. 13th and made a great first impression with two assists on Jan. 14th. That excited some fantasy owners given the 19-year-old’s potential, but Sandin was held off the scoresheet in the two games that followed. I think Sandin will eventually be a great defenseman, but right now he’s mostly with the Leafs to fill a hole. He’s only averaged 16:03 minutes over his three games since being summoned. I don’t think he’s going to have much use to fantasy owners in standard leagues in the near future.

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey.

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.