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The Golden Knights keep getting better, more powerful

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Here is a sentence that would have been laughable to even suggest back in October: If the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday night they will move into sole possession for first place in the entire NHL.

At this point the Golden Knights, the NHL’s latest expansion team, are no longer just a fun story: They are a contender, a legitimate one, and they only keep getting stronger as the season progresses. There is a pretty convincing argument to be made that they actually are the best team in hockey at the moment.

Entering play on Sunday Vegas is on a 15-3-3 run since Dec. 1.

What is even more impressive than the record itself is the way they are starting to dominate games.

When Vegas found its initial success it was easy to kind of downplay it as a team that was simply riding a wave of hot goaltending that would, inevitably, regress. Whenever that regression happened the expectation was that they would start to play like a regular expansion team and start losing.

For a while, there was a lot of evidence to suggest that was going to be the case.

In that first month Vegas was losing the shot bottle, it was losing the possession battle, and with Marc-Andre Fleury sidelined it was relying on a patchwork group of goaltenders to somehow steal games.

But take a look at what has happened in each month since looking at their Corsi percentage (shot attempts at even-strength) and PDO (even-strength shooting percentage plus even-strength save percentage).

The slow start is understandable. It was a new team with what was thought to be an undermanned roster that had never played together.  Since then they have steadily gone from being one of the worst possession teams in the league in the first month that got by on what was mostly percentage driven good fortune, to a team that has been, at least in January, the absolute best possession team in the league.

If you look at December and January together (the aforementioned 15-3-3 stretch) the Golden Knights are the the seventh-best possession team. They have only been outshot five times in those 21 games, and only three of those teams outshot them by more than five.

[Related: Revisiting the trades that built one of the NHL’s best lines in Vegas]

By comparison, Vegas has outshot nine teams by at least five, including seven by at least 10 shots during that same stretch.

There is still an element of some percentage driven luck here, especially when it comes to the goaltending. Fleury is not going to maintain a .945 save percentage for the rest of the season, and William Karlsson still can not miss when the puck is on his stick. He may have deserved more of a look in his previous stops in Anaheim and Columbus, but he is also not a 26 percent shooter every season.

But the fact the Golden Knights are starting to drive possession and control the overwhelming majority of the shot attempts is not only incredibly impressive, it is extremely encouraging for their outlook for the remainder of the season.

They are not just getting the results at the moment, the process driving the results is sound as well.

From the very beginning absolutely everything has clicked for them. The goaltending has been sensational, their top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith has found immediate chemistry, and they are playing a fast, aggressive style of hockey that is starting to overwhelm teams.

Even if Vegas played the remainder of the season at the level of a normal expansion team (let’s say a .400 points percentage) they would still finish with 94 points on the season. There is nothing to suggest they will play at that level. Instead, if they keep playing the way they have been for the better part of the past two months they are going to be giving Tampa Bay, Boston, and Nashville a run for the Presidents’ Trophy. In their very first season.

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 Morning Skate: Panarin talks not progressing; Biron on Emery

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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.

• Monday’s meeting between Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen and the indecisive Artemi Panarin did not result in a whole heck of a lot. (Sportsnet)

• With so many questions surrounding the Montreal Canadiens’ roster for this upcoming season, is it possible that Xavier Ouellet can crack the team’s top-six? (The Hockey Writers)

• We’re still waiting on the trade of the summer (Erik Karlsson), and so while we wait, DownGoesBrown (Sean McIndoe) looks at six times a team has traded a star and won. (Sportsnet)

• Former Buffalo Sabres goalie Martin Biron looks back at a fierce game between his Sabres and the Ottawa Senators back in 2007, a game that included a fight between himself and Ray Emery. (The Canadian Press)

• The potential owners of the NHL’s 32nd team in Seattle are planning quite the practice facility for them if/when the league expands to the state of Washington. (KIRO 7)

• Can the Winnipeg Jets and defenseman Jacob Trouba get a deal done prior to their July 20 arbitration meeting? (Winnipeg Sun)

• Having failed to make a significant impact so far this summer, including not getting in on the John Tavares sweepstakes, it’s time for Don Sweeney to finally make his move. (Murphy’s Hockey Law)

• How is Peter Chiarelli faring this summer? Is he doing what needs to be done to return the Edmonton Oilers to the playoffs? (Edmonton Journal)

• Is there a more polarizing figure with the Toronto Maple Leafs right now than defenseman Jake Gardiner? Trade him! No, don’t do that! Seriously though, don’t trade him. (Pension Plan Puppets)

• It turns out that Joe Pavelski is a pretty darn good golfer. (San Jose Sharks)

• Vancouver Canucks head coach Travis Green isn’t setting the bar that high for his club next season. (The Canuck Way)

Tristan Jarry seems like the perfect offer-sheet candidate, so why aren’t NHL teams knocking on that door? (PGH Hockey)

• Despite the class-action lawsuit being thrown out in a Minnesota courtroom last week, both players and lawyers have no option but to forge ahead in their battle for concussion transparency. (The Hockey News)

• A tale about how voting for this year’s MVP award led to a fight on Twitter. (CJR)

• For your hockey-hit viewing pleasure, a look back at all of Dustin Byfuglien‘s best hits from last season courtesy of Sportsnet.


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

Predators land another steal in signing Saros, Rinne’s heir apparent

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Nashville Predators GM David Poile hasn’t lost his knack for signing promising young players to outstanding value contracts.

Monday represents the latest coup, as goalie-of-the-future Juuse Saros signed a dirt-cheap deal: three years, just $4.5 million overall (so a $1.5M cap hit). That’s truly fantastic stuff for a goalie whose career save percentage is a superb .923.

Now, obviously, the sample size is small for the 23-year-old. That save percentage was accrued over 48 games, with all but one of those appearances happening during the last two seasons. Still, his numbers are promising at other levels, so there’s some credence to the notion that he could end up being a strong NHL starter.

Considering some of the money being thrown around at backups this summer, the Predators landed a great deal even if Saros doesn’t reach his considerable ceiling.

One would think that this only solidifies the passing of the torch from Pekka Rinne to Saros, but we’ll see. Rinne’s $7M cap hit expires after 2018-19, and at 35, you have to wonder if a decline is looming.

The beauty of getting three years of Saros’ services at such a cheap price is that the Predators aren’t boxed into a corner, though. If they feel most comfortable with a slower transition from Rinne to Saros, possibly morphing into a platoon, that’s an option (especially if, after fattening his bank account, Rinne signs his next deal for a palatable price). There are also some other scenarios: Saros could give the Predators 2-3 years of starter-level work at a cut rate, or Nashville could pivot to a different paradigm in net altogether.

(Honestly, would it be that shocking if Saros ends up being a better goalie than Connor Hellebuyck, for instance?)

Simply put, most – if not all – of the NHL’s other GMs should be jealous of Nashville’s unusual mixture of potential production and flexibility at the goaltending position. Those other GMs should take notes.

[It’s been a great day for Nashville, who also signed Ryan Hartman for cheap.]

Speaking of masterful GM work, this signing swings back to one of Poile’s greatest strengths: locking up promising players to team-friendly deals either before a breakthrough happens or right as it begins.

Consider some of the beautiful contracts he’s put together, leveraging RFA situations and tax-related perks:

  • Again, that Saros salary is sweet, and Rinne’s $7M goes away when Nashville needs to lock down other pieces.
  • Ryan Ellis is about to end a five-year contract that carried an almost comically low $2.5M cap hit. He’ll get paid on his next deal, and deft moves like these make it more feasible for him to stick with the Predators. Ellis is 27, so Nashville landed some of his peak years.
  • Filip Forsberg is a legit game-breaker. The 23-year-old’s cap hit is just $6M through 2021-22 (he’s three years into a six-year contract).
  • Viktor Arvidsson‘s bargain contract is no secret. He’s a top-line, 25-year-old winger making $4.25M per season through 2023-24(!).
  • Nashville boasts two 28-year-old defensemen also on enviable contracts. Roman Josi‘s ridiculous $4M contract ends after 2019-20, a seven-year deal among the best in recent NHL memory. Mattias Ekholm ($3.875M per year, six seasons, ends after 2021-22) is right there with Josi and Ellis as great blueline bargains.
  • Just about anyone can sign a first-rounder to an entry-level contract, but it’s worth noting that Eeli Tolvanen didn’t burn a year off of his rookie deal. If he can live up to the hype, the Predators would get three seasons of his sniping at a ludicrous price.

It almost feels like cheating, right? Most NHL front offices would pop open some champagne if they nabbed two of those steals, let alone the litany of bargains Poile has landed.

Now, sure, there are some expenditures. P.K. Subban absolutely ranks as elite, but $9M isn’t cheap. (He’s worth it, but that isn’t cheap.) Ryan Johansen‘s a little rich at $8M and $6M for Kyle Turris looked a little shakier when he was something of a non-factor during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Even then, it’s not outrageous to picture Johansen and/or Turris delivering at a nice level, especially since those deals will account for less and less of each season’s cap percentage.

Once again, it looks like the Predators knocked one of the park with a signing when it comes to Saros.

For all we know, the conglomeration of smart moves could net the Predators a Stanley Cup, and possibly more than one. That said, a lot can happen, so you never know if all of this promise will come to fruition during the rigors (and thanks to the randomness) of the postseason.

Either way, other GMs could learn a lot from David Poile, as this is a masterwork of team-building.

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.

Henrique’s great fit with Ducks pays off with $29 million extension

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As the New Jersey Devils went through a transition this season, it became clear Adam Henrique’s role had changed, and his production took a hit. A late November trade and a new role with the Anaheim Ducks fueled a turn in the right direction — one that has resulted in a five-year extension for the 28-year-old forward.

The Ducks announced on Monday that Henrique, who still has one year left on his deal, signed on through the 2023-24 NHL season with a total contract value of $29.125 million. The $5.825 million cap hit, per The Athletic’s Josh Cooper, puts him fifth-highest on the team beginning with the 2019-20 season.

(Now that Henrique has signed an extension with the Ducks, per the conditions of the deal New Jersey will receive a 2019 third-round pick from Anaheim.)

In 57 games in Anaheim during the regular season Henrique scored 20 goals and recorded 36 points. He found great chemistry on a line with Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase as the trio put up terrific numbers together. The trade was one that filled needs for both sides and both Henrique and Sami Vatanen, who went to New Jersey, immediately found fits in their new locations.

“With us, it puts him back into a more offensive role, which I think he’s going to love,” said Ducks general manager Bob Murray earlier this season. “He’s not old by any means. Sometimes when teams rebuild or reboot, or have this process, maybe it’s time for people to get a change of scenery. It doesn’t mean they’re bad players.”

The work continues for Murray, who has Henrique’s restricted free agent linemates and Brandon Montour to re-sign this summer. Then there are extensions for Jakob Silfverberg and John Gibson, who both have one year left on their current contracts, to figure out. Add all that to the fact that Murray vowed changes after a disappointing playoff exit, plus Ryan Kesler‘s questionable status for next season and a roster re-shaping could be in the plans.

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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.

Flames make fascinating bet with Elias Lindholm contract

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The Calgary Flames’ pivotal decision to trade Dougie Hamilton to the Carolina Hurricanes for a package including Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin was tough to immediately call. Maybe it makes sense, then, that Lindholm’s contract also seems divisive.

At least the terms of the deal are clear: six years, $29.1 million, which calls for a $4.85M cap hit. That’s official from the Flames, while Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that Lindholm isn’t receiving any sort of no-trade/no-movement clauses.

Some criticisms

Whether you love or loathe the terms, it’s clear that the Flames are making a big commitment to Lindholm. If the results are middling, one can bet that people will note that Dougie Hamilton’s cap hit ($5.75M, through 2020-21) doesn’t cost a whole lot more than Lindholm’s new mark. Considering that the Flames still need to sign tough-to-gauge Hanifin to a new deal, the bill for this trade could end up being steep.

For what it’s worth, 55-percent of PHT voters believed that the Hurricanes won the trade, at least on the day it was made.

Despite five seasons already in the NHL (although he was limited to 58 games as a rookie in 2013-14), Lindholm hasn’t yet reached the 20-goal plateau. His career-high so far is 17 goals, while his peak for points so far was 45. He’s falling into a price range with some really nice players, such as Nazem Kadri and Sean Couturier. Looking at the simplest stats, Lindholm seems like a gamble.

And, again, people will beat up on the Flames if Hamilton – and to a lesser extent, Micheal Ferland – go on a tear in Carolina.

With another interesting yet even riskier investment in James Neal, the Flames are really rolling the dice this summer. If those gambles end up looking foolish, Calgary could be stuck for a while. That would bring back unpleasant memories of the albatross deals that hampered the Darryl Sutter era.

The good

At 23, some growth is conceivable, although some might remark that Lindholm probably is what he is after logging 374 regular-season games.

Of course, Lindholm could very well put up impressive numbers if he hits the linemate lottery with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. In that scenario, the Flames’ longer commitments would be a blessing rather than a curse, as a shorter deal would have opened up greater risks for Lindholm to excessively inflate his value.

Even a more modest good-cause scenario would be that Lindholm might give the Flames the sort of supporting scoring they’ve desperately needed beyond Gaudreau – Monahan and the possession monster trio of Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik, and Matthew Tkachuk.

Speaking of possession stats, Lindholm checks out in that area, for the most part. (The Hurricanes hog the puck so much that sometimes it’s easy to take a guy like Lindholm for granted.)

At $4.85M, Lindholm is a fair enough value. The Flames are probably crossing their fingers that such a contract looks like a steal in hindsight. Such a scenario is far from outrageous.

***

Overall, it seems like a pricey but reasonable decision. If nothing else, we can’t accuse the Flames of being cheap, as Lindholm + Hanifin are poised to be more expensive (possibly a lot more expensive) than Hamilton + Ferland, although Adam Fox clouds that situation.

Again, that trade is something fans of the Flames and Hurricanes will be chewing on for years, so it only seems right that Lindholm’s value may also fuel some fun/nerdy hockey debates.

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.