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Blues defy big odds to rank among NHL’s best

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After an absolutely maddening run of injuries before the season even began, there was some concern that the St. Louis Blues would miss the playoffs. Instead, they’re in a position to run away with the Central Division with November about to begin.

You can forgive the Blues for setting their sights higher than that, too, even after all those false alarms about “this being the year,” to some extent stretching back to the days of Al MacInnis’ booming shot and Steve Yzerman-administered heartbreak.

Maybe it’s fitting, then, that the Blues enter Tuesday tied with Yzerman’s Tampa Bay Lightning with matching 10-2-1 records as the top teams in the NHL (and, thus, the top seeds in their conferences). They ended October with quite the win, too, topping the Pacific-leading, also-resurgent Los Angeles Kings.

Really, the Blues’ successes might be more impressive than that of the Lightning and Kings. While everything seems to be going right for the Lightning after an injury-ravaged 2016-17 campaign, St. Louis’ black-and-blue status makes its run of victories seem that much more impressive.

Alex Steen missed a big chunk of October. Jay Bouwmeester‘s status remains murky, and Patrik Berglund hasn’t returned yet. Robby Fabbri‘s season-ending knee issues deprived the Blues of a fascinating young forward. Zach Sanford lost a chance to move up the ranks and prove himself.

With all of that, the Blues are 10-2-1, but are especially hot lately: four wins in a row and a 6-0-1 points streak.

That’s pretty fantastic, and might only be an under-the-radar story because of how well-built this franchise is thanks to GM Doug Armstrong. He doesn’t get many mentions among the game’s brightest minds, yet Armstrong looks pretty shrewd as of this moment.

Let’s ponder what is going right for the Blues, and maybe also consider a few elements that make this run even more impressive.

  • The season began with a hot power play, but they’ve learned to adjust as it cooled off.

To start 2017-18, the Blues scored a single power-play goal in five straight games. That man-advantage dominance hasn’t sustained, however, as St. Louis has only generated PPGs in one of their last eight contests (2-for-3 against Calgary on Oct. 25).

  • Critics can’t just dismiss the Blues as having a cushy schedule. So far, they’ve played eight of 13 games on the road. They’ve also faced three back-to-back sets, so if anything their success should have tapered off.
  • As disruptive as those injuries must have been, this is Mike Yeo’s first real season running the Blues.

After all, Yeo was an assistant-turned-interim head coach last season. This time around, Yeo had the opportunity to implement his systems and really cement his philosophies in training camp. Perhaps that makes some difference in how the Blues are approaching each game?

  • Jaden Schwartz has been healthy, and Jaden Schwartz has been a force. With 17 points in his first 13 games, Schwartz leads St. Louis in scoring, enjoying a hotter start than star sniper Vladimir Tarasenko (14 points). Now, with a 25 percent shooting rate, Schwartz is bound to slow down a bit. The Blues would settle for him regressing if he can flirt with a healthy season.

  • Alex Pietrangelo is quietly amassing a pretty compelling Norris Trophy argument. He’s already a sneaky-fantastic, all-purpose defenseman.
  • Some hit-or-miss supporting cast members are belting our homers like Yasiel Puig. Paul Stastny is nailing his contract year so far, including 11 points in 13 contests. Brayden Schenn‘s been a great fit after the trade.
  • The biggest factor is probably the goaltending, which seems to be carrying over the momentum from last season’s turnaround once Yeo took over. Jake Allen continues to look like a legitimate number one guy, while Carter Hutton managed a .950 save percentage in his three appearances.
  • That said, there are the red flags you’d expect from a team wildly exceeding expectations. The Allen-Hutton tandem combined for the best save percentage in the NHL, and that .9475 mark at even strength will slip even if they’re outstanding all season. Other stats over at Natural Stat Trick look fishy, with their third-best PDO signaling that the party might stop or at least slow down.

Of course, the Blues can sidestep some of the plummeting one might expect from the rigors of the season by getting back some key players.

They’ll likely face challenges in their schedule, in the standings, and on the scoreboard to pair with injury headaches, as just about every NHL team hits cold streaks. They still deserve credit for a strong October, all things considered, and their reward is more than just pride: St. Louis currently leads the Central Division by seven points.

Not bad for a team that seemed like an ailing afterthought heading into the season.

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.

PHT Stanley Cup Tracker: Pat Maroon takes Cup back to St. Louis for some toasted ravioli

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The PHT Stanley Cup tracker will keep tabs on how the St. Louis Blues spend their summer celebrating.

Patrick Maroon probably could have had bigger contract offers last summer, while the one-year deal he ended up signing with the St. Louis Blues was a slight pay cut from his previous contract.

But he took a little less to get an opportunity to play for his hometown team and try to bring the city its first ever Stanley Cup. He helped the Blues do just that during the 2018-19 season, and even scored a couple of massive goals during the playoffs, including a double overtime Game 7 goal in Round 2 to clinch their series against the Dallas Stars.

This past week he had his opportunity to spend the day with the Stanley Cup and, naturally, took it back to St. Louis for the first time since the Blues’ initial Stanley Cup celebration.

It was quite a journey.


On Friday night the Stanley Cup made a surprise appearance The Muny, America’s largest and oldest outdoor musical theatre, to surprise the crowd that was there to watch a performance of Footloose.

It made quite an entrance!

From there, it went to the Maroon residence on Saturday morning for a special photo opportunity, 20 years after he had his picture taken with it at the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Keeping with the tradition of using the Stanley Cup as a cereal bowl, Cinnamon Toast Crunch was consumed out of it with Maroon cleaning it out afterwards himself, according to Philip Pritchard, the keeper of the Cup.

Maroon then took it to the All-American Sports Mall in South St. Louis — where he played inline hockey as a kid — to share the experience with 250 family and friends.

Included among the friends were former teammates and coaches from his time as a youth roller hockey player.

Via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

“Everyone makes fun of me playing roller hockey, but this is where I grew up playing,” he said. “To bring it back here is a very special day for me. To cherish these moments with the 250 people I invited, it’s a really private event that I feel like I know everyone here. To share that day with everyone, it really is amazing. It’s a big reunion for all of us to see each other and smile.

“It’s been one of the coolest memories I’ll ever have. It really doesn’t get full circle until you actually leave it, and wow, the Stanley Cup was just at All-American, the rink where I used to come from 9 in the morning to 5 o’clock and just sit and be a rink rat. It’s awesome.”

After that, it was off for a St. Louis speciality and some toasted ravioli at Charlie Gitto’s for lunch.

It was there that Maroon was joined by Blues super fan Laila Anderson.

Maroon ended his day at a nearby lake for private time with family and friends.


Before the Stanley Cup made its way back to St. Louis this past week, defender Robert Bortuzzo also had his day with the cup and took it to his hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario.

“I’ll never be able to truly repay what this community has meant for me and my career in terms of growing up playing hockey as a young kid here,” Bortuzzo said, via the TBNewswatch.com. “It meant a lot for me to come and give the chance for some people to see it and put some smiles on faces at George Jeffrey. It was an easy decision to share it with a great community.”

While boating, Bortuzzo decided to help himself to a snack of assorted meats and cheeses.

The PHT Stanley Cup tracker

 Week 1: Cup heads to the Canadian prairies
• Week 2: Stanley Cup heads east to Ontario

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.

Flames still face cap challenges after Lucic-Neal trade

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The Calgary Flames faced a cap crunch with James Neal on the books, and they still face potential issues with Milan Lucic being traded in at $500K cheaper.

[More on the contract situations here, and Lucic vs. Neal on ice in this post.]

That’s a lot of money under most circumstances, but $500K goes fast in the modern NHL. In fact, $500K wouldn’t cover the minimum salary of a single player. Every dollar could end up counting for the Flames, so it’s nothing to sneeze at, but things could be tight nonetheless. It may even force someone other than Neal out of the fold.

While the Flames currently boast an estimated $9.973 million in cap space, according to Cap Friendly, that money will dry up quickly. They still need to hammer out deals for RFAs Matthew Tkachuk, David Rittich, Sam Bennett, and Andrew Mangiapane.

Really, would it shock you if Tkachuk and Rittich came in at $10M combined? Such costs are real considerations for the Flames, assuming they can’t convince Tkachuk to take a Kevin Labanc-ian discount.

In Ryan Pike’s breakdown of the cap situation for Flames Nation, he found that Calgary may still have trouble fitting everyone under the cap by his estimations, even if the Flames bought out overpriced defenseman Michael Stone. Buying out Stone seems like a good starting point as we consider some of the calls Treliving might need to make before the Flames’ roster is solidified.

Buying out Stone in August: Stone, 29, has one year left on a deal that carries a $3.5M cap hit and matching salary. If the Flames bought him out, they’d save $2.33M in 2019-20, as Stone’s buyout would register a cap hit of about $1.167M in 2019-20 and 2020-21.

As frustrating as it would be for the Flames to combine dead money in a Stone buyout with Troy Brouwer‘s buyout (remaining $1.5M for the next three seasons), it might just be necessary. Really, it might be the easiest decision of all.

Granted, maybe someone like the Senators would take on Stone’s contract if the Flames bribed them with picks and/or prospects, much like the Hurricanes did in taking Patrick Marleau off of the Maple Leafs’ hands?

Either way, there’s a chance Stone won’t be making $3.5M with the Flames next season.

Trade Sam Bennett’s rights? With things getting really snug, and the forward unlikely to justify being the fourth pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, maybe the Flames would be better off moving on by sending Bennett/his RFA rights to another team and filling that roster spot with a cheaper option?

If a team coughed up a decent pick and/or prospect for Bennett, assuming he needs a change of scenery, it could be a win for everyone. The Flames might not be comfortable about that yet with Bennett being 23, but it should at least be discussed.

Trade an expiring contract player? T.J. Brodie ($4.65M), Michael Frolik ($4.3M), and Travis Hamonic ($3.857M) all seem to be signed at reasonable prices, if not mild bargains. All three are only covered through 2019-20, however, making it reasonable to picture them as parts of various trade scenarios. In fact, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reports that the Flames were working on a potential deal involving Brodie and then-Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri, and Kadri admitted on “31 Thoughts” that he didn’t waive his clause to allow Calgary to trade for him.

***

Over the years, including this summer with LaBanc and Timo Meier signing sweet deals for the Sharks, sometimes RFAs take care off cap concerns for their teams. There are scenarios where such constraints actually help the given team land some discounts; it sure felt that way when the Bruins got a deal with Torey Krug back in 2016.

As of this writing, it seems like the Flames might face a tight squeeze in fitting under the cap.

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.

How Flames, Oilers might handle Lucic, Neal after big trade

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In the additional breakdown of the Milan LucicJames Neal trade, you might conclude that it’s basically a one-for-one deal, conditional draft pick aside. You can get an idea of how the two players are in remarkably similar places in their careers by reading the original breakdown.

Even their contracts look virtually the same … at least at first.

The players are close enough that it’s far from a guarantee that the Oilers will need to hand that third-rounder to their rivals in Calgary.

It’s only once you start digging deeper that you realize that, beyond James Neal being closer to his best days than Lucic, his contract is also a lot easier to deal with, for the most part. Once you start considering those factors, you might once again be surprised that the Oilers convinced the Flames to accept Lucic’s contract.

This was a case of two teams trading problems, and while both players have a decent chance to rebound to at least some extent, the true winner of this trade might be the team that can continue to clean up their messes.

To sort through the especially messy Lucic contract, you have to pull back your sleeves and get in the weeds. So, fair warning: this might make your brain melt a bit, but if you’re interested in what might happen next, these factors are important.

No movement, indeed

Lucic’s contract is an albatross deal for reasons that extend beyond Lucic not being worth $6M (and still not worth $5.25M) per year.

For one thing, while Lucic waived his no-movement clause to make this trade happen, it sounds like Lucic will retain his NMC … for some reason.

Frankly, if this is a matter of the Flames simply being nice, then they may rue such kindness in the future.

Most directly, if Lucic’s NMC is restored, then he might kabosh a trade down the line. Beyond that, there’s a scenario where the Flames might have to protect Lucic in an expansion draft, rather than someone more valuable. It’s possible that Lucic will return the Flames’ gesture by waiving his NMC in that situation (kind of like Marc-Andre Fleury doing the Penguins a solid in the Vegas expansion draft), yet the threat of complications can make you queasy.

Even if it works out, it all seems pretty messy to me. The other potential escape routes are messy for Calgary, too.

Easier to sell the deal than to buy it out

It’s been mentioned that the bonus-heavy structure of Lucic’s contract makes his deal almost “buyout proof.”

That’s pretty much true, as buying out Lucic would bring out marginal savings for the Flames, even if you move the buyout to a later year than the most immediate chance after next season.

Realistically, the most reasonable way Calgary might wiggle out of some of the tougher years of Lucic’s contract would be to find a team like the Senators: a franchise in place where they value contracts that don’t cost as much as their cap hits indicate. For example: the Flames could pay Lucic’s $3M bonus before 2020-21, then trade him to Ottawa, who would be credited with his $5.25M cap hit, even though they’d only be on the hook for the remaining $1M in base salary. That scenario would be even more appealing to a cost-conscious team in the last year of Lucic’s contract, so check Cap Friendly if you’re curious about other possibilities.

Unfortunately for Calgary, even if they found a buyer, they’d seemingly need to get Lucic to play ball. The veteran winger might not be so thrilled to go to a rebuilding team.

Ultimately, the Flames are taking a significant gamble that this Lucic situation will work out better than sticking with Neal. If not, people will point to Treliving taking on Lucic much like, well, Peter Chiarelli also gambling on the big winger.

*gulp*

Neal’s cleaner situation

Puck Pedia notes some potential twists and turns, but overall, the Oilers didn’t just get a player in closer proximity to his best times of production; Neal’s contract is, mostly, a lot easier to deal with. Even if it’s bad, too.

As you can see from Cap Friendly’s buyout calculator, a cap-strapped Oilers team could benefit from a buyout, including one as early as 2020:

Saving close to $4M for three seasons, even if it means tacking on almost $2M for the following two seasons, could easily make a lot of sense for the Oilers, if they determine that a Neal buyout is the right move.

In general, they have more control of the situation, as Neal’s contract lacks a no-movement or no-trade clause. That’s kind of tragic in a way, as Neal’s already bounced around the league like a pinball, but it’s nonetheless the case.

Granted, the one area where Lucic might be a more plausible trade clip is because there’s not really any smoke and mirrors with Neal’s contract. While Lucic’s bonus-soaked contract makes him difficult to buyout, his falling salary vs. cap hit appeals to certain rebuild scenarios. Neal, meanwhile, simply costs $5.75M each season.

Still, that lack of a no-movement clause reduces Edmonton’s odds of worst-case scenarios. For instance: the Oilers wouldn’t need to protect Neal in an expansion draft, which could open up moments of tragic comedy where Neal finds himself with a new team and an expansion franchise again.

Overall, a buyout seems most feasible, although there’s the outside chance that Neal rebounds to become a deadly sniper again alongside Connor McDavid and/or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

***

Every trade carries the tagline of “to be continued,” but this swap seems especially friendly to that caveat. Is the plan for the Flames, Oilers, or both of these teams to ultimately get rid of Neal and/or Lucic all along? If so, at what cost?

Maybe the play of Neal and Lucic will decide the “winner” of this trade, but most likely, it comes down to which team does the best job cleaning up the messes they’ve made.

Check out the original post for more on this trade, including a look at where Neal and Lucic are in their careers.

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.

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.