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Let’s talk about Phil Kessel potentially winning the scoring title

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For the longest time this season it looked like Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov was just going to run away with the NHL’s scoring title.

Suddenly, though, he has some real competition starting to breath down his neck, and it is a member of the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

No. It is not Sidney Crosby, and it is not Evgeni Malkin, either.

It is Phil Kessel.

After his three-point game on Friday night Kessel enters play on Saturday just two points back of Kucherov for the top spot.

Working against him in his quest to win the Art Ross is the fact Kucherov still has two additional games to play the rest of the way and is still averaging more points per game. That is going to make it a tough deficit to overcome, because even though the gap now is only two points, Kucherov is still on pace for 102 points this season while Kessel is on a 96-point point pace.

But working in his favor, aside from the fact that Kucherov’s pace has slowed, even if only slightly as the season has progressed, is that Kessel is playing on a Penguins team that is starting to figure things out and has a power play unit that is currently ripping apart the NHL. That power play unit has the top-three power play point producers in the league (Kessel, Crosby, Malkin) with Kessel leading the way. His 33 power play points are already just two shy of the league leading total (35 for Nicklas Backstrom) a season ago.

If he manages to pull it off — and even if ends up finishing in the top-two or three — it would be another somewhat hilarious development in the second half of his career.

Just look at the player Kessel was thought to be before he arrived in Pittsburgh by a pretty significant portion of the hockey world.

For years he was stuck as the best player on a bad team (in Toronto, of all places, the worst possible city for that to be the case) and was pretty much run out of town while having his reputation sullied on the way out the door.

Even before that critics always spent more time focussing on what he didn’t do as a player instead of what he does do. Colby Armstrong, his former teammate, once said the words “But when the game’s on the line, if he can get a goal for you, that’s about all he’s gonna do.”

One of his former coaches, Ron Wilson, once said “you can’t rely on Phil.”

A couple of years later it turns out that getting goals when the game is on the line is a pretty important skill, and that yes, you can, in fact, rely on Phil.

Since arriving in Pittsburgh Kessel has not only been a focal point of two Stanley Cup winning teams, he was the leading postseason scorer on one of them and should have won (let’s not even say probably — let’s just be honest, he should have won) the Conn Smythe Trophy.

During those two Stanley Cup ones only Crosby and Malkin had more points over the two-year stretch (they each have 46 points; Kessel has 45) while nobody has scored more goals.

Even after accomplishing all of that he was still undervalued as a player (Team USA did not think enough of him to include him on its World Cup roster) while he entered this season still facing bizarre criticism.

It had been well documented that Kessel had developed a great relationship with former Penguins assistant coach Rick Tocchet.

Once Tocchet left this summer to take over the Arizona Coyotes there was real concern as to how Kessel would perform, and if you believe one preseason column in the Post-Gazette, if the Penguins would even want him around.

That storyline has not aged particularly well.

Kessel is not only one of the league’s top-two scorers at this point and having what is the best offensive season of his career, he has been the Penguins’ most consistent player and arguably their team MVP. He may not be the focal point of the roster, he may not be the biggest superstar on the team, and he may not be the locker stall the media crowds around first after a game, but you can’t make the argument that Kessel hasn’t been doing a lot of the heavy lifting for the Penguins since arriving in Pittsburgh.

He has been doing even more this season, and even though it almost certainly will not result in him getting an MVP award — whether it be league or team — he may still end up adding another trophy to his collection. One that nobody has to vote on.

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: William Karlsson’s contract conundrum; worrisome free agent signings?

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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.

• Here’s a look at why William Karlsson has become the NHL’s most intriguing contract conundrum this summer. (The Hockey News)

• We’ve had a litany of storylines thus far this summer, but here’s a list of 11 that have yet to play out. (Sportsnet)

• The Minnesota Wild may start looking at their stable of youth to help the team on the ice this season. (NHL.com)

• Looking for an NHL team on Forbes’ new list of the top 50 richest sporting franchises in the world? Hint: You won’t find one. (Sportsnet)

• Every summer, some of the contracts teams extend to free agents are worrisome. Here’s a few of those from this summer. (Yahoo Sports Canada)

• After showing good signs at the AHL and NHL level last season, what is next for Montreal Canadiens forward Nikita Scherbak? (Eyes on the Prize)

• After the latest developments in a Minnesota courtroom, what is next in the concussion lawsuit against the NHL? (The Athletic)

• There’s been a lot of talk about Jacob Trouba and his contract situation but what about his other half, Josh Morrissey? (Winnipeg Sun)

• National Tattoo Day in Canada meant a celebration of inking for Montreal Canadiens fans. (Montreal Gazette)

• Here’s a list of five NHL players primed for comeback seasons in 2018-19. (FanSided)

• The latest NHL concussion ruling likely means the splintering of cases across several jurisdictions. (Business Insurance)

• A wishlist for NHL 19. (The Sports Daily)

• Are the Vancouver Canucks following in the footsteps of the Winnipeg Jets? (The Canuck Way)

• These guys haven’t hit the ice, nor made their respective team’s opening night roster. But here’s the top Calder candidates for next season. (The Grueling Truth)

• New chest pad regulations for NHL goaltenders are already surrounded in injury controversy. (The Comeback)


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

What’s the right contract for Tom Wilson, Capitals?

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What kind of price to put on grit, agitation, intimidation?

In the NHL, it’s something of a Rorschach Test for GMs. It’s easier to gauge the value of elite players and middle-of-the-pack guys when scoring is their calling card, but when it comes to “intangibles,” prices can vary.

Even with that in mind, Tom Wilson stands as a tricky test case.

You can tie yourself in knots examining the agitating winger, especially if you’re a Washington Capitals fan nervously hoping that the RFA signs a deal soon. Relief won’t come from the latest update, either; the Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan reports that Wilson’s agent Mark Guy said that the two sides aren’t “done or close.”

Khurshudyan provides some interesting ranges for a possible contract: Guy told her that a new deal could be “north of four years,” while Washington also indicated a preference for a long-term agreement. The salary cap could fall somewhere in the $3.5-$4.5 million range, according to Khurshudyan.

With Wilson (probably wisely) opting against salary arbitration, it’s a lot tougher to guess when something will formulate.

But, hey, that gives hockey people plenty of time to bicker about his value. Back when Wilson was suspended during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Puck Daddy’s Ryan Lambert summarized the debate regarding the 24-year-old’s value.

” … He is more accurately described a middle-six forward who has been thrust into a bigger role because Barry Trotz is trying to spread the offense across the first two lines more evenly. A lot is made of the fact that Wilson finished with 32 points at 5-on-5 this season, because that was fourth on the Capitals behind only Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Nick Backstrom. But look at the guys who had that many 5-on-5 points this year: Alex DeBrincat, Dustin Brown, Gabe Landeskog, Gus Nyquist, Josh Bailey, Kevin Fiala, and Vince Trocheck. These are guys for whom a pretty reasonable evaluation is “They’re mostly pretty good,” but not much more than that, and with the exception of Landeskog and Brown, none of them played with guys who, like Ovechkin, were legit MVP candidates.

The remarkable thing about Wilson is that various debates can swing both ways.

From an “intangibles” perspective, you could argue that he can be something of a poor man’s Todd Bertuzzi, “opening up space” for forwards such as Alex Ovechkin, and maybe get opponents off their game with a violent hit or a fight. Conversely, someone could argue that his tendency to take penalties could put his team in a bad position, or perhaps that players looking to deliver crushing checks may find themselves out of position.

The pure numbers get more complicated as you burrow deeper.

On one hand, his career-high came this season, with a modest 14 goals and 35 points. While he rode shotgun with Ovechkin for significant chunks of time, he also didn’t get a lot of reps on the Capitals’ deadly power play.

Wilson’s possession stats were pretty good for a player of his style … yet again, that sometimes came with high-end players, and he also enjoyed some cushy offensive zone starts in some cases, too.

Still, a guy who can score a bit, hit a lot, and kill a ton of penalties brings quite a bit of value. As a former first-rounder (16th overall in 2012), few would doubt that the Caps hold Wilson in high regard.

The Capitals also boast a pretty robust $8.26M in cap space, according to Cap Friendly, so even though they’ve been prudent when it comes to bringing back members of their championship squad, they’d struggle to say that they can’t afford to pay Wilson at full value.

*Phew*

Is your head spinning yet? That would be understandable, and maybe that explains why contract negotiations seem stilted. What kind of deal would make sense for Wilson?

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.

Sharks should still go bold after failing to land Tavares

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No doubt about it, landing John Tavares was the best-case scenario for the San Jose Sharks this summer. They showed as much with what was reported to be a generous offer, but it was not to be.

The question, then, is what is Plan B?

So far, Sharks GM Doug Wilson has been content to lock up some noteworthy in-house talent, and that’s really soaked up a lot of that would-be Tavares money. After signing Joe Thornton for one year, extending Evander Kane to a big deal, and giving term to Tomas Hertl, the Sharks knocked off one of the final items on their to-do list by avoiding salary arbitration with Chris Tierney via a two-year deal.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that the cap hit comes in at $2.9375 million per season.

As it stands, the Sharks aren’t actually all that flush with money. According to Cap Friendly, they’re only about $4.4M under the ceiling with all 23 roster spots covered.

Does that mean that Wilson can go tan on a beach for the rest of the summer? Maybe that’s the call now that Tavares is off the table, but allow some advice: the Sharks should instead go for it … in 2018-19.

There are a slew of interesting trade options for players with expiring contracts right now, and for many teams, that’s the stumbling block. Why give up assets just for a guy who can walk in free agency next summer? Such a thought process might explain the lack of an Erik Karlsson trade, in particular, right now.

The funny thing is, the Sharks might get protected from themselves by such a barrier.

Simply put, the Sharks’ core is aging, a point we’ve made plenty of times at PHT. Even beyond the obvious (Joe Thornton at 39), Brent Burns is already 33, Joe Pavelski is 34 and entering a contract year, Marc-Edouard Vlasic is 31, and even recently extended Logan Couture is 29. Adding another risky long-term contract could make for a scary situation in San Jose, especially when you consider that Max Pacioretty – one of the optimal targets – is 29 himself.

(Jeff Skinner would theoretically be a more palatable risk since he’s 26, yet just about any long-term contract carries risks for an aging team such as the Sharks.)

Let’s list off the reasons why the Sharks should make big commitments, but mainly for 2018-19, since this is theoretically a great time to poach someone on an expiring contract.

  • Again, this team’s window could close soon. The Sharks might as well swing for the fences while they still can.
  • The free agent market is too shallow for a shark to swim.
  • Beyond the worrisome miles on key players (and the possibility that they might have to let Pavelski walk after this coming campaign), the Sharks are simply formatted for this. They’re already heading into 2019 without their first and fourth-round picks, while their two second-rounders could help them put together the sort of trade package that might be acceptable for a Skinner or Pacioretty.
  • Pacioretty would work under the cap, as his $4.5M cap hit essentially matches the room San Jose currently possesses. They’d either demote someone to the AHL or include some salary in a hypothetical trade to make it actually fit. Skinner’s a little pricier at $5.725M, but moving around deals or some salary retention would alleviate those concerns.
  • Both Skinner and Pacioretty could really give the Sharks that extra boost as scoring wingers. Pacioretty would play with the best center of his career – whether he’d land with Couture or Thornton – while Skinner would be shooting for his first-ever postseason bid. Naturally, both would carry contract motivations, which never hurts one’s ambition.
  • And, hey, maybe a player like Skinner or Pacioretty would earn such rave reviews during an audition that the Sharks decide to re-sign them anyway? The cap could always rise for 2019-20, and such a player could serve as a Pavelski replacement.

That’s a pretty decent list, right?

Now, naturally, the Canadiens and Hurricanes might just want to keep those players for themselves, or perhaps their asking prices will be too steep for San Jose. From here, it sure seems like the right strategy for the Sharks.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it would just be flat-out fun to watch Thornton set up Pacioretty for goal after goal …

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.

Trouba, Jets millions apart as arbitration date nears

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With less than 48 hours to go before his arbitration date, Jacob Trouba and the Winnipeg Jets are reportedly millions apart in valuation for the top-pairing defenseman.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported Wednesday that Trouba is looking for $7 million per season while the Jets, at the moment, are sitting at the $4-million mark instead.

This isn’t unusual for a team to be low-balling ahead of an arbitration case while a player shoots for the moon — it’s an oft-used strategy.

Trouba’s underlying numbers suggest he’s among the league’s best rearguards, but when it comes to goals and assists, he doesn’t show as well. And with Trouba, there’s always the question about his durability, having completed 81 games just once in his career and never playing more than 65 in a season in his four other seasons in the NHL.

Arbitration is no fun for either side, where the dirty laundry is aired and teams tell players why they don’t deserve the money they think they do. But it appears increasingly likely that Trouba’s July 20 date will come to fruition in what would be a first for the Winnipeg Jets and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff since the team relocated to Winnipeg in 2011.

The Jets also have forward Adam Lowry (July 22), Brandon Tanev (July 25) and Marko Dano (July 30) with scheduled arbitration hearings. Last week, the Jets handed Vezina runner-up Connor Hellebuyck a six-year, $37 million contract, avoiding a potential arbitration hearing with him as well.

Looking at the comparables likely doesn’t favor Trouba and his current valuation of himself.

Take for instance Seth Jones of the Columbus Blue Jackets. He’s in the third year of a six-year deal that sees him pocketing $5.4 million per season.

Jones had 57 points last year, including a career-high 16 goals.

Trouba finished the season with three goals and 24 points and has eclipsed 30 just once (33) in his five-year career.

Colton Parayko also comes to mind.

The St. Louis Blues d-man signed a five-year, $27.5 million deal last summer after a 35-point season and put up the same total in 2017-18.

Another deal that can be used as a comparison is Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators. Josi signed a seven-year, $28 million deal prior to the 2013-14 season.

In the two years before signing the deal, Josi’s numbers were comparable to Trouba’s and Josi is now likely going to get a significant pay raise after hovering around the 50-point mark for the past four seasons.

The end game, at least this season, likely results in a one-year deal in the neighborhood of $5 to $5.5 million for Trouba. The Jets have the option to give Trouba two years, but he would become an unrestricted free agent following the 2019-20 season, so a one-year deal makes sense for the Jets and will put both sides in the same scenario next season if a long-term deal isn’t hashed out before then.

Both sides have said they’d like to commit to one another long-term. The Jets would like to see Trouba’s production go up, and if he can hit the 45-50-point window this season, there’s a good chance there wouldn’t be a second arbitration case but rather a long-term deal to stick in Winnipeg.

Trouba has been given everything he wanted after initially wanting out of Winnipeg two years ago. He’s on a contender playing on one of the league’s best shutdown tandems and commanding big minutes every night.

If he wants to get paid like an elite defenseman, he needs to score like one and will have every opportunity to earn the raise next summer, assuming the Jets hand him a one-year deal after their arbitration hearing on Friday.


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