PHT Report Card

PHT Midseason Report Card: Metropolitan Division

Now that the All-Star break has arrived it’s time to look back at the first half of the 2017-18 NHL season. Our team-by-team report cards will look at the biggest surprises and disappointments for all 31 clubs and what their outlook is for the second half, including whether they should be a trade deadline buyer or seller.

  • Carolina Hurricanes

Season Review: A lot of what we are used to seeing from the Hurricanes in recent years. They have a lot of exciting young talent, they play hard, they do a lot of things well, they always seem to be just on the cusp of making some noise … and then the goaltending falls apart. Grade: C-

Biggest Surprise: Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise at this point because they are always one of the top teams in this category, but the Carolina Hurricanes are the top possession team in the NHL at a 53.5 shot attempts percentage heading into the All-Star break.

Biggest Disappointment: It has to be Scott Darling. After being one of the top backups in the NHL during his time with the Chicago Blackhawks the Hurricanes acquired him over the summer and immediately signed him to a long-term contract extension to hopefully solve their long-standing issue in net. So far he has managed only an .892 save percentage and has played fewer games than Cam Ward.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Probably stand pat. They are not out of the playoff race by any means, but they are not really close enough to being a contender where it makes sense to be significant buyers. They also don’t really fit the profile of a seller because it is still a very young team while the only upcoming UFA that fits the profile of a rental for another team is Lee Stempniak.

Second half outlook: They enter the All-Star break four points out of a playoff spot with three teams ahead of them. They dominate possession, they are great at keeping teams away from their end of the ice, and they have some talent. If they can get even competent goaltending they could make a second half push. If not? It will just be more of the same in Carolina.

  • Columbus Blue Jackets

Season Review: They stormed out of the gate and looked like one of the top contenders in the Eastern Conference but after winning 17 of their first 26 games have mostly been a .500 team over the past two months and find themselves on the playoff bubble. Grade: B

Biggest Surprise: Probably the fact that their offense has dropped so much. The Blue Jackets were sixth in the NHL in goals scored a season ago and then went out and picked up Artemi Panarin from the Chicago Blackhawks, one of the league’s most productive forwards. Panarin has been outstanding but the Blue Jackets as a team are only 25th in the league in goals scored.

Biggest Disappointment: Aside from trading William Karlsson before the expansion draft and watching him blossom into a top goal-scorer, it might be captain Nick Foligno for his drop in offense. After scoring 26 goals and finishing with 50 points a season ago he is currently on a 14/35 pace this season, while his possession numbers have also taken a hit. Given the contract he is signed for they need more.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They are almost certainly going to look to add, and they could probably use a little more offense up front. They also have to figure out a way to handle the Jack Johnson situation following his trade request. What sort of value he has, though, remains to be seen, and it is unlikely he is going to find a spot that is going to give him increased playing time over what he is getting in Columbus.

Second half outlook: They should be a playoff team, and they could still be a dangerous one, but that is all going to come down to Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky has been one of the best goalies in the league since arriving in Columbus but his career playoff performances have been a nightmare. If they are going to make any kind of a run they are going to need him to solve those postseason demons.

  • New Jersey Devils

Season Review: They have cooled off considerably after their start, but they are still one of the bigger surprises in the NHL and look to be on the verge of ending their current playoff drought. Taylor Hall has been great and their young core has mostly taken a big step forward. Grade: A

Biggest Surprise: There are no shortage of surprises on this team, from Jesper Bratt emerging as one of the team’s top scorers, Will Butcher making an immediate impact, to the entire team itself. But there is no bigger surprise than Brian Gibbons already having 12 goals. He scored five in 66 career games before this season.

Biggest Disappointment: While Bratt, Butcher and No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier have all played extremely well, one young player that probably hasn’t taken the step the Devils would have liked is Pavel Zacha, the No. 6 overall pick from 2015 hasn’t taken that step yet. Granted, he is still only 20 years old so it is way too soon to write him off, but his production has regressed from where it was a year ago.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Ray Shero tends to be pretty bold when it comes to the trade deadline — or any time of year, honestly — and you can be certain he is going to be browsing for rentals.

Second half outlook: The Devils have a great opportunity to end a five-year playoff drought, but even if they don’t this season should be seen as a pretty big step forward if for no other reason than so many young players have stepped forward and shown they can be long-term pieces to build around.

  • New York Islanders

Season Review: Say this for the Islanders, they are not boring. They can score and they can’t really stop anybody from scoring. Is it a recipe for success? Well, probably not but they are right in the thick of the playoff race, even if they are entirely unpredictable.  Grade: C

Biggest Surprise: Josh Bailey has always been a pretty good player, but he is on the verge of shattering just about every career high he has ever had in the NHL. He is two points away from matching his personal best and only four goals away. He never topped 16 goals and 54 points in a season before this year and is currently on pace for 22 goals and 96 points this season. Nobody saw that coming. It is also perfect timing for Bailey as he is eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer.

Biggest Disappointment: You could point to the goaltending but no one really had high expectations for that position. Andrew Ladd is currently two years into a seven-year, $38 million contract and has nine goals in 42 games. That is … not great.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They are one of those teams that is in a really tough spot. They’re not really in a position to be heavy buyers because they’re not even guaranteed to be a playoff team. They have some major potential free agents but because they are still in the race they are not going to want to sell them. They should look to find a goaltender because with better play at the position they could be an intriguing team.

Second half outlook: A lot of it just comes down to what type of goaltending they can get. They are not going to trade Tavares or Bailey, so they are going to keep filling the back of the net like one of the top teams in the league but they have to find a way to keep other teams off the board.

  • New York Rangers

Season Review: The Rangers’ defensive strategy seems to be the same as it has been the past few years — give up a lot of shots and hope for Henrik Lundqvist to steal a bunch of games. The Rangers’ underlying numbers point to a bad team, but because they have one of the best goalies of his generations they are still in the playoff race. Grade: D+

Biggest Surprise: Michael Grabner, for the second year in a row, is one of the top even-strength goal scorers in the NHL. Sure, he has that aided by a ton of empty net goals, but he is still a fascinating — and extremely underrated — player.

Biggest Disappointment: Kevin Shattenkirk has had a really disappointing season, mostly due to injury. When he is healthy he can still be an impact player and a strong top-four defenseman, and given his contract the Rangers are going to need him to be the focal point of the blue line for a long time. They need him healthy.

Trade Deadline Strategy: If we are to believe a report from the New York Post on Friday they could be on the verge of blowing it all up, and not just potential free agents like Rick Nash and Michael Grabner, but perhaps even Mats Zuccarello and Ryan McDonagh.

Second half outlook: Henrik Lundqvist is always going to give them a chance, but it really all depends on what they do at the deadline. The Rangers bleed shots against like a bad team, but Lundqvist is always going to keep them in games and mask those flaws. If they stand pat, they could always sneak into a playoff spot. But if they jettison players like Nash, McDonagh, Zuccarello and/or Grabner it would almost certainly end their run of consecutive postseason appearances.

  • Philadelphia Flyers

Season Review: A completely bizarre team. The Flyers lost 10 games in a row at one point and looked like a team that was potentially on the verge of firing their coach. Since then they have been one of the better teams in the league and have some of the top offensive players in the league. Which team is the real Flyers? Who knows. Grade: C+

Biggest Surprise: The offensive breakthrough for Sean Couturier, easily. He has always been one of the best defensive centers in the league and a decent offensive player, but this season has offensive game has taken a massive step forward and made him one of the league’s best two-way forwards.

Biggest Disappointment: Brian Elliott has been extremely hit-and-miss throughout his career, sometimes performing like one of the league’s best goalies and sometimes like … well … just an ordinary goalie. The Flyers have gotten both versions this season, and overall his .908 save percentage would be his lowest since the 2012-13 season. The Flyers need more consistency from him.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They could easily be a playoff team and they have the top-line players (Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, Wayne Simmonds, Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov) to cause a lot of headaches once they get there, but they could probably use some additional depth everyone on the roster. Definitely go into the deadline as buyers.

Second half outlook: Which Flyers team are we going to get? The one that lost 10 in a row, or the one that has gone 16-6-1 since then?

  • Pittsburgh Penguins

Season Review: The Penguins were, to say the least, a massive disappointment throughout a large portion of the first half but over the past month-and-a-half have started to kick it into gear and look like the Penguins again. Their stars are really dominating right now and have been unstoppable for a few weeks now. Grade: C

Biggest Surprise: Matt Murray has struggled a bit this season and has missed some time recently due to the passing of his father, but backups Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith have stepped in admirably and shown that the Penguins have some pretty incredible depth at the position, and all of it is young.

Biggest Disappointment: This is a weird one to say because he is at the All-Star game, but Kris Letang has just not looked like himself this season. It is not that he has been entirely bad, because he can still play at a high level and is producing points, but he just does not look to be anywhere near as dynamic as he has been in the past. Still recovering from the injury that ended his season a year ago? Just a rough half season? Either way, he has another level he can get to.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They are certainly going to buy. They have some salary cap space and they still have a glaring hole at third-line center. If they can find one this team is going to be one that nobody wants to see in the playoffs.

Second half outlook: They are kicking it into gear at the right time. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel are all climbing the scoring leaderboards, they are starting to find some answers to some roster questions (Riley Sheahan seems to be the answer at fourth-line center; Jamie Oleksiak has been a nice depth addition on defense), and they probably have one or two more trades to make that will further solidify the roster. The first half was a disappointment, but they are setting themselves up for a great second half.

  • Washington Capitals

Season Review: Even after losing Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt the Washington Capitals are still one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference and have a pretty solid hold on the Metropolitan Division. Will they win a third consecutive Presidents’ Trophy? No, but they are still one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Grade: A

Biggest Surprise: Can it just be the simple fact they lost five pretty significant players in one offseason, have had a couple of returning players take a small step backwards, and are still multiple points ahead of every other team in the most competitive division in hockey? Every time we think the Capitals window is starting to shut they always find a way to keep showing up at the top of the league.

Biggest Disappointment: It’s not a huge concern at this point, but some of the Capitals’ top offensive players have gone a little cold recently with Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Andrey Burakovsky have combined for just six goals over the past 14 games.

Trade Deadline Strategy: As long as the Capitals have Alex Ovechkin and are near the top of the standings they are going to be buyers, especially as they keep going without actually winning the Stanley Cup. The pressure keeps building to get there and there is no doubt they will look to add. The salary cap situation will make it tough, but there is always a way to make it work.

Second half outlook: They have the best goal-scorer in the league, an elite playmaking center, a solid defense, and one of the best goalies in the NHL. They are going to win the Metropolitan Division and probably, at some point, have to face their long-time nemesis — the Pittsburgh Penguins — in the playoffs. Will this be the year?

Previous: Atlantic Division

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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.

Goaltending remains biggest question for much-improved Blues

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Sometimes it feels like the St. Louis Blues have faced questions in net for about as long as water’s been wet.

In signing Jake Allen to a four-year, $17.4 million contract a little more than two years ago, the Blues hoped that they might finally have a true No. 1 goalie after bouncing around from Jaroslav Halak to Ryan Miller to Brian Elliott. They even gave Martin Brodeur a brief shot during the twilight games of his career.

(No, you weren’t hallucinating. Brodeur really did play for the Blues.)

Instead, Allen’s been a liability, to the point that he briefly more-or-less lost the 2017-18 starting job to Carter Hutton.

Interestingly, both of the Blues goalies cross their fingers for a rebound next season. The transition from Hutton to Chad Johnson is disastrous on paper if you only judge the netminders by their 2017-18 numbers, yet the bigger picture argues that Johnson can be one of the more reliable backups. Despite a horrendous .891 save percentage from last season, Johnson still has a career average save percentage of .910.

You can’t ask for much better than that from your No. 2, but the Blues still missed the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs even after Hutton played like a great starter for chunks of the past season. Simply put, the Blues need more from Allen.

Let’s consider some of the factors that might impact Allen.

  • To some extent, the 27-year-old (who turns 28 on Aug. 7) is who he is. Allen already has 219 regular-season and 22 playoff games under his belt. His career .913 save percentage is pretty mediocre, thus there’s a fear that the Blues will need to overcome Allen on more than a few occasions.
  • That said, he did generate a .920 save percentage over 47 games in 2015-16, and strong work during the 2016-17 postseason argues that Allen has a higher ceiling than many might assume.
  • No doubt, Allen’s 2017-18 was abysmal, as he went 27-25-3 with a backup-caliber .906 save percentage.

It’s frequently wise to dig a little deeper to try to figure out why a goalie might struggle. In Allen’s case last season, it came down to special teams situations. While he boasted a virtually identical even-strength save percentage in 2017-18 (.919) compared to 2016-17 (.918), his shorthanded save percentage plummeted from a career-high .901 to a career-low .834.

There’s a real worry with some goalies who simply can’t cut it in PK situations, whether that comes down to questionable lateral movement, struggles to see around screens, or any number of explanations. Even after considering those long-term concerns, it’s comforting to realize that last season might just be an aberration.

  • The Blues aren’t that far behind powers like the Maple Leafs when it comes to improving during the off-season. One of the delights of their bold moves to try to contend is that they landed a near-Selke-level two-way player in Ryan O'Reilly.
  • Some good and bad news is that the Blues generally carried on the tradition of playing strong defense and hogging the puck last season. At even-strength, they allowed the fifth-fewest “high-danger” chances, according to Natural Stat Trick.

The bright side is that the structure could very well give Allen a chance to enjoy a rejuvenation. The less optimistic take is that Allen has struggled at times even with a sturdy team in front of him.

  • Such digging doesn’t immediately dismiss Allen’s shorthanded struggles. Apparently the Blues allowed the fifth-fewest high-danger chances on the penalty kill, also according to Natural Stat Trick. It’s up to Allen more than anyone else to turn around those bad PK numbers, or at least it appears that way on paper.

***

Blues GM Doug Armstrong made quite a few moves that lead you to believe that St. Louis is swinging for the fences heading into 2018-19. If a letdown costs him his job, at least he’d be going out with a bang by making some attractive tweaks.

As wise as Armstrong often appears, so far, the organization making Allen “the guy” in net has really backfired.

Ultimately, his job and the Blues’ fate probably lands on Allen’s shoulders. Improvement seems plausible, yet we’ll need to wait and see if he’ll improve enough to allow the Blues to take advantage of all the weapons they added this summer.

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.

Immediate jump unlikely to be best for Kotkaniemi, Habs

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The Montreal Canadiens shouldn’t ask “can Jesperi Kotkaniemi jump straight from the 2018 NHL Draft to the main roster?” Instead, they’re better off wondering if he should.

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said that the 18-year-old will get a chance to impress in training camp after performing well at development camp, according to NHL.com’s Sean Farrell.

“He got better every day, so we’re going in with an open mind,” Bergevin said. “I don’t know, but just the fact that he’s signed and he’s coming to camp and he’s closer to the NHL. Where he’s going to be Oct. 1, I can’t tell you, but we see a lot of potential and growth in this young man.”

That’s fair, and the Canadiens would be justified in giving the third pick of the 2018 NHL Draft the nine-game audition before sending him to Finland or the AHL instead of burning the first year of Kotkaniemi’s entry-level contract.

Cautionary tale

But, big picture, this is probably one of those situations where both sides would be better off if Kotkaniemi dips his toes in the water rather than diving right in. If Montreal needs a quick example of a player whose rookie deal hasn’t been used in an optimal way, they might want to consider Jesse Puljujärvi, who went fourth overall in 2016.

Puljujärvi only played in 28 games in 2016-17, making a minimal impact while pushing himself that much closer to ending his rookie deal. Things didn’t get that much better last season, as he only generated 20 points in 65 games. A breakthrough is quite possible in 2018-19, but the downside would be that the Oilers would then need to give him a raise, and would only really enjoy one high-value season from his entry-level contracts.

That’s the sort of poor asset management Montreal should be concerned about, especially if they’re being realistic about their chances next season.

Tension in the air

Now, it’s plausible – maybe probable – that things could go a little better in 2018-19. For the most obvious example, the Habs could conceivably be viable if Carey Price returns to elite form (and good health).

In all honesty, the Lightning and Maple Leafs seem slated to be light years ahead of Montreal. The Panthers and especially the Bruins head into the season with higher hopes, too. The Habs run the risk of falling short of the postseason even if they improve considerably, so why not just push Kotkaniemi’s contract back a year instead of possibly wasting it?

The Finnish forward only turned 18 on July 6, so you’d expect him to be a bit less polished compared to an older prospect like, say, Brady Tkachuk. The worst-case scenario might be if Kotkaniemi plays well enough to hit double digits in games played, yet generally struggles and ends up stunting his growth while wasting a year of that ELC.

It might not be the healthiest environment for Kotkaniemi to debut, either.

Bergevin and head coach Claude Julien must be at least a touch concerned about job security, and the atmosphere has a chance to be pretty toxic. Critics blast Julien for how he handles young players at the best of times, but how ugly might the scene be if fans are calling for Bergevin and Julien to be replaced?

Montreal seems pretty locked-in to its forward group this season, too, and that’s possibly accurate even if they actually pull the trigger on a Max Pacioretty trade. The return could be pretty modest if Kotkaniemi’s is merely a minor upgrade over a replacement-level player.

***

The Habs already made a divisive choice in selecting Kotkaniemi after lucking into the third pick in 2018. Many believe that Montreal aimed at need first and foremost, with the expectation being that Kotkaniemi will develop into the first-line center, a piece that’s eluded Montreal for ages. The pressure’s eventually going to be pretty fierce for the prospect to deliver, so the Canadiens would be wise to wait until he’s truly ready.

And, again, the decision need not be based on altruism alone. Instead, by doing what’s most likely best for Kotkaniemi, the Canadiens stand a better chance to take advantage of his cheap contract when they’d ideally be better prepared to contend.

There are worse problems to have, yet Montreal really needs to start getting these decisions right if they want to turn things around.

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 Morning Skate: Jagr still holds NHL hope?; Islanders turning the page

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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.

• Jaromir Jagr hasn’t given up on the NHL, but he’s in no rush to return either. (Sportsnet)

• The New York Islanders are looking to turn the page after the departure of captain John Tavares. (NHL.com)

Artemi Panarin has given the Columbus Blue Jackets a contract deadline. (The Athletic)

• Would Tyler Seguin want to play with the Montreal Canadiens? (Montreal Gazette)

• Ranking each NHL team based on their locked-in, young core. (ESPN)

• With the thrill of the 2018 NHL Draft already worn off, we might as well take a look ahead to the 2019 rendition and all that it has to offer. (Last Word on Hockey)

• From wives’ room fights to brotherly competition, St. Louis molded Brady Tkachuk. (The Sporting News)

• Do the Vancouver Canucks have an asset on defense that they can work into a trade that would benefit the club? (The Province)

• If you don’t want to read and would rather take two minutes to watch a video, here’s some possible reasons why a trade for Erik Karlsson hasn’t happened yet, here’s your chance. (Sportsnet)

• Where does the line of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson — the JoFA line — fit in the pantheon of the league’s top lines? (Pred Lines)

• You want offseason grades for all 31 NHL teams? Here you go. (The Athletic)

• And here’s a list of the best player to ever wear each number in the NHL. (Puck Prose)

• The Class of Canada: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Winnipeg Jets. (The Hockey Writers)

• Help is on the way for the Chicago Blackhawks aging defense. (Chicago Mag)

Mike Hoffman‘s fiancée files for disclosure of information in harassment allegations. (Ottawa Citizen)


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

Vegas Golden Knights, U.S. Army agree to end trademark dispute

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The Vegas Golden Knights and the U.S. Army have called an end to their trademark battle regarding the usage of the ‘Golden Knights’ mark and name.

Owner Bill Foley announced on Thursday that the two sides have entered into a trademark coexistence agreement where the U.S. Army will continue using the ‘Golden Knights’ marks and names with its parachute exhibition team. The Golden Knights will continue to use ‘Vegas Golden Knights’ and ‘Golden Knights’ in regards to the hockey team.

“We are pleased that we have agreed to coexist regarding the use of the ‘Golden Knights’ mark and name,” said Foley in a statement. “Our discussions with the Army were collaborative and productive throughout this entire process. We are appreciative of their efforts and commitment to reaching an amicable resolution.”

The U.S. Army filed a notice of opposition in January against against Black Knight Sports and Entertainment over the use of the name ‘Golden Knights.’ Foley is a graduate of West Point and originally wanted to name the team the Black Knights (after the Army sports teams) but decided against it.

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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.