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Like all this scoring? Better enjoy it while it lasts

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Just because Wayne Gretzky laced up his skates in an alumni game over the weekend doesn’t mean the NHL is back to the 1980s.

It just feels like it.

Goals are coming fast and furious through the first two weeks of the season, with scoring at a pace that hasn’t been seen in over a decade. Players are scoring an average of 5.98 goals a game, a far cry from the offense-happy days of Gretzky but an increase so far from every other year since 2005-06 when new rules were designed to boost scoring.

An influx of young players, the preseason World Cup of Hockey and more backup goaltenders playing because of injuries have kept red lights flashing around the league.

“Overall, the game is going younger, faster, more skill, so I think everything kind of combines and goes into it,” Arizona Coyotes winger Radim Vrbata said. “I think the penalties are called more now than late in the season last year. That’s normal, so you probably have more power-play goals. And you have all the guys who played at the World Cup, they’re in their midseason form already where normally it would take them a couple games to get going.”

The NHL, hoping to keep its fans entertained, has tried many things to get scoring up, from shrinking goaltending equipment to adopting 3-on-3 overtime. Yet goals have hovered around 5.3 per game over the past five years.

The jump early this season has as much to do with young talent like Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid and Toronto Maple Leafs rookie Auston Matthews as anything else.

McDavid and Matthews lead a wave of 16 teenagers in the NHL right now, players who dazzle with flashy moves and who sometimes aren’t afraid to take a risk and maybe turn the puck over. As hockey trends more toward speed and skill, the game becomes more unpredictable and coaches gain more gray hair.

“You have more skill players in the league, too, so they’re not as conscious with puck management,” Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “You talk to the coaches probably around the league that might be as much as anything, and (players are) finding the back of the net on those.”

Coyotes coach Dave Tippett joked that it’s a Team North America mentality, referencing the 23-and-under World Cup group that thrived playing end-to-end, fast-paced games and scored at a blistering pace. Beyond just Team North America, the World Cup got many of the league’s elite up to speed to start the year, and Philadelphia forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare believes he and the other 168 players who took part are already in December form.

“It definitely helps,” Flyers teammate Sean Couturier said. “I think guys have been in game situations at such a high pace, high level for a month and a half before the season actually started.”

Eight of the top nine scorers so far this season played in the World Cup, and surprise standout Richard Panik benefited from so many Chicago Blackhawks players being away by making the most of extra ice time in preseason. The Blackhawks are also doing their part to contribute to the goal fest by allowing a league-high 14 of the 138 power-play goals scored through Wednesday.

Carolina Hurricanes coach Bill Peters thinks power-play units are ahead of penalty kills and that five-on-five play is “looser” than usual.

Loose play plus a lot of backup goaltenders in the nets is a recipe for offense. Through 97 games, 61 different goalies have started at least once, compared with 85 in 1,230 games last season.

That’s in part a product of injuries to starters like the Los Angeles Kings’ Jonathan Quick, Boston Bruins’ Tuukka Rask and Arizona’s Mike Smith and also the compressed schedule forced because of the World Cup. Each team will have a five-day “bye week” in January or February.

“I’m sure because we have a lot of back to backs and we have the bye week – the games are probably compressed a little bit more together than it’s been in the last (few) years,” Capitals backup goalie Philipp Grubauer said. “If you’re good and play good and get the right numbers and win the games, I’m sure (backups) will get a few more starts.”

Backups will continue to play, but many around the NHL expect production to slide back to normal as the season wears on. So enjoy the throwback scoring while it lasts.

“I think things will tighten up as we go,” Peters said. “But it’s been enjoyable for the fans.”

Predators are being bold with term; are they being smart?

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If nothing else, the Nashville Predators aren’t afraid to be bold.

In a vacuum, the Colton Sissons signing isn’t something that will make or break the Predators’ future. That seven-year, $20 million contract has inspired some fascinating debates, but the most interesting questions arise around GM David Poile’s larger team building, and his courageous decisions.

As we’ve seen, Poile doesn’t just lock up obvious core players to term, he frequently gives supporting cast players unusual security, too.

This signing seems like a good excuse to dive into the Predators’ biggest offseason decisions, and also ponder maybe the biggest one of all: what to do with captain Roman Josi, whose bargain contract will only last for one more season.

The interlocking P.K. Subban, Matt Duchene, Roman Josi situation

By any reasonable estimate, the Predators got hosed in getting such a small return for Subban in that deal with the Devils.

Of course, the Predators’ goal wasn’t necessarily to get a great return for Subban, but instead to get rid of Subban’s $9M to (most directly) sign Matt Duchene, and maybe eventually provide more leeway to extend Josi.

There was some argument to trading away Subban, as at 30, there’s a risk that his $9M AAV could become scary.

The thing is, the Predators only seemed to expose themselves to greater risks. It remains to be seen if Matt Duchene will be worth $8M, even right away, and he’s already 28. Roman Josi turned 29 in June, so if Josi’s cap hit is comparable to Subban’s — and it could be a lot higher if Josi plays the market right — then the Predators would take even bigger risks on Josi. After all, Josi’s next contract will begin in 2020-21, while Subban’s is set to expire after 2021-22.

So, in moving on from Subban to Duchene and/or Josi, the Predators are continuing to make big gambles that they’re right. Even if Subban really was on the decline, at least his deal isn’t going on for that much longer. Nashville’s instead chosen one or maybe two even riskier contracts at comparable prices, really rolling the dice that they’re not painting themselves into a corner.

There’s also the scenario where Josi leaves Nashville, and things could get pretty dizzying from there.

Even if you look it as a Matt Duchene for P.K. Subban trade alone, that’s not necessarily a guaranteed “win” for Nashville. It’s all pretty bold, though.

[This post goes into even greater detail about trading Subban, and the aftermath.]

Lots of term

Nashville doesn’t have much term locked in its goalies Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros, which is wise, as goalies are very tough to predict. Those risks are instead spread out to a considerable number of skaters, and Poile’s crossing his fingers that he’s going to find the sweet spot with veterans, rather than going all that heavy on youth.

The long-term plan has frequently been fruitful for the Predators, as Viktor Arvidsson ($4.25M for five more seasons) and Filip Forsberg ($6M for three more seasons) rank as some of the best bargains in the NHL. Josi’s $4M is right up there, though that fun ride ends after 2019-20.

Your mileage varies when you praise the overall work, though, because some savings are offset by clunkers. It stings to spend $10.1M in combined cap space on Kyle Turris and Nick Bonino, especially since $16M for Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen ranks somewhere between “the price of doing business” and “bad.”

So that’s the thing with locking down supporting cast members. It’s nice to have a defensive forward who seemingly moves the needle like Colton Sissons seems to do …

… Yet is he a bit of an extravagance at $2.857M per year? Again, that’s a matter of debate.

The uncomfortable truth is that, if the Predators are wrong about enough of these deals, then it’s that much tougher to wiggle your way out of mistakes. Yes, maybe the Predators can move Sissons if he slides, but you risk falling behind the pack if you lose value propositions too often.

Will that be the case with the Predators? We’ll have to wait and see, and the most fascinating test cases come down the line. If it doesn’t work out next year, in particular, then things could pretty uncomfortable, pretty quickly.

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.

Sissons, Predators agree to seven-year, $20 million deal

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We see long-term deals with high annual average values.

We see short-term deals with lower annual average values.

But rarely do we see long-term deals with low annual average values. Like less than $3 million low.

Yet, despite the rarity of such a pact, David Poile and the Nashville Predators have become some sort of trendsetters in getting plays to sign lengthy deals worth a pittance annually.

Colton Sissons becomes the second in the past three years to sign on with the Predators long-term at a small AVV. Sissons new deal, avoiding arbitration, is a seven-year contract worth $20 million — an AAV of $2.85 million.

“Colton will be an important part of our team for the next seven seasons, and we are happy he has made a long-term commitment to our organization and the city the Nashville,” Poile said. “He’s a heart and soul player who is versatile and can fill many important roles on our team, including on the penalty kill and power play. His offensive production has increased each season, and he remains an integral part of our defensive structure down the middle of the ice. Colton is also an up-and-coming leader in our organization, which is something we value strongly.”

Poile seems to have no issue signing depth guys to lengthy deals. In 2016, he signed Calle Jarnkork to a six-year deal worth $12 million. In fact, he’s the only general manager to pull of such moves.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Both players have chosen security over maximizing earning potential.

Sissons, 25, had a career-year last season, scoring 15 goals and 30 points in 75 games.

His AAV is in the ballpark of what was projected. Evolving Wild’s model had him making $2.65 million. What wasn’t foreseen is that term.

EW’s model projected a three-year contract for Sissons with a 30.2 percent probability of coming to fruition. But what percentage of chance did EW give a seven-year contract? 0.4 percent.

Anything is possible, kids.


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: Hard cap hurt; Iginla talked Lucic into Flames move?

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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.

• The hard salary cap is hurting the NHL’s brand. (Broad Street Hockey)

• With his name removed from the list, he’s the top 10 untradeable contracts after the Milan Lucic trade. (The Hockey News)

• Flames’ trade for Milan Lucic is inexplicable. (Yahoo Sports)

• The seven best free-agent deals signed in the NHL this summer. (Daily Hive)

• Ranking every NHL team by weight… a hefty ask. (Vancouver Courier)

• The Flames can blame (partly?) a franchise legend for helping sell Calgary to no-movement-clause Milan Lucic. (Sportsnet)

• Is there too much offense from the defense in today’s NHL? (TSN.ca)

• Stanley Cup-winning teams with the most Hall of Famers. (Featurd)

• The King always gets his way. (NHL.com)

• Part 1 of a look at the false sense of parity in the NHL. (Last Word on Hockey)

John Tavares is both healthy again and still upset his Maple Leafs got bounced by the Bruins in Round 1. (NHL.com)

• The best and worst moves from each Eastern Conference general manager. (The Score)

• What would an NHL team made up only of players from New York/New Jersey look like? (The Athletic)

• A look back on the Martin St. Louis trade and its impact. (Raw Charge)


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

Will coaching change be enough to give Ducks’ goalies some help?

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Since becoming the Anaheim Ducks’ starter, John Gibson has become one of the best goalies in the NHL.

For the first part of the 2018-19 season he was almost single-handedly carrying the team and helping to keep it at least somewhat competitive. He was not only in the Vezina Trophy discussion, but as long as the Ducks were winning he was a legitimate MVP contender. But for as good as Gibson performed, the entire thing was a house of cards that was always on the verge of an ugly collapse.

The Ducks couldn’t score, they couldn’t defend, they forced Gibson to take on a ridiculous workload in terms of shots and scoring chances against.

Eventually, everything fell apart.

Once Gibson started to wear down and could no longer steal games on a nightly basis, the team turned into one of the worst in the league despite having a top-10 goaltending duo. That is a shocking accomplishment because teams that get the level of goaltending the Ducks received from the Gibson-Ryan Miller duo usually make the playoffs.

How bad was it for the Ducks? They were one of only three teams in the top-15 in save percentage this past season that did not make the playoffs.

The only other teams in the top-15 that missed were the Montreal Canadiens, who were just two points back in a far better and more competitive Eastern Conference, and the Arizona Coyotes who were four points back in the Western Conference and the first team on the outside looking in.

The Ducks not only missed, they were 10 points short with FIVE teams between them and a playoff spot. Again, almost impossibly bad.

It is a testament to just how bad the rest of the team performed in front of the goalies, and it continued a disturbing trend from the 2018 playoffs when the Ducks looked completely overmatched against the San Jose Sharks in a four-game sweep. It was clear the team was badly flawed and was falling behind in a faster, more skilled NHL.

The problem for the Ducks right now is that so far this offseason the team has remained mostly the same.

They bought out the remainder of Corey Perry‘s contract, will be without Ryan Kesler, and have really not done anything else to change a roster that has not been anywhere near good enough the past two seasons.

That means it is going to be another sink-or-swim season for the Ducks based on how far the goaltending duo of Gibson and Miller can carry them.

It is a tough situation because the Ducks have made an absolutely massive commitment to Gibson as he enters the first year of an eight-year, $51.2 million contract.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

That is a huge investment in a goalie, and for the time being, the Ducks have not really done anything to support him. Even if you have the best goalie in the league — or just one of the best — it is nearly impossible to win based only on that. Great goalies can help, they can mask a lot of flaws, and they can even carry a mediocre or bad team to the playoffs if they have a historically great season (think Carey Price during the 2014-15 season). But that still puts a ton of pressure on the goalie, and it is nearly impossible to ride that all the way to a championship.

There is, however, one small cause for optimism.

A lot of the Ducks’ problems defensively last season seemed to be based around their system and structure in the early part of the season under then-coach Randy Carlyle.

Under Carlyle the Ducks were one of the worst teams in the league when it came to suppressing shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances during 5-on-5 play.

They were 29th or worse when it came to shots on goal against, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances, and 26th in total shot attempts against. This is something that always happened with Carlyle coached teams and they would always go as far as their goaltending could take them. In recent years, Gibson masked a lot of those flaws by playing at an elite level and helped get the Ducks in the playoffs. He was able to do it for half of a season this year before finally playing like a mortal instead of a goaltending deity.

But after Carlyle was replaced by general manager Bob Murray, the Ducks showed some massive improvement defensively, shaving multiple shots, shot attempts, and scoring chances per 60 minutes off of their totals.

They went from 26th to seventh in shots on goal against, from 29th to 19th in shot attempts, from 30th to 17th in scoring chances against, and from 29th to 17th in high-danger scoring chances against.

Still not great, but definitely better. Much better. So much better that even though Gibson’s overall performance regressed, the Ducks still managed to win games and collect points at a significantly better rate than they did earlier in the season. They were 14-11-1 from Feb. 10 until the end of the season under Murray.

That is a 91.3 point pace over 82 games. That would have been a playoff point total in the Western Conference this past season.

Under Carlyle, it was a 74.6 point pace. That would have been one of the four worst records in the league.

Coaching changes are very rarely a cure-all. It is still a talent-driven league, and if you do not have talent you are probably not going to win very much. But there are always exceptions and outliers, and sometimes a coaching change is a necessity and can help dramatically improve a team.

New Ducks coach Dallas Eakins has an incredibly short NHL head coaching resume so we don’t have much to go by when it comes to what he will do What we do have to go by came in Edmonton where it has become abundantly clear over the past 15 years that the problems go far beyond the head coach (because they have all failed there). The Ducks are still short on talent at forward and defense, but it should still be able to perform better than it did a year ago. And with a goalie as dominant as Gibson can be (with a great backup behind him) there is no excuse for them to be as far out of the playoff picture as they were.

The Ducks don’t need to be the 1995 Devils defensively to compete.

They just need to not be the worst shot suppression team in the league.

If Eakins can figure out a way to build on the momentum the Ducks showed over the final two months of the 2018-19 season, they might actually have a fighting chance.

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.