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Why Flames are going out with a whimper

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On March 13, Mike Smith blanked the Edmonton Oilers, giving the Calgary Flames at least some hope in making a playoff push.

The Flames haven’t won a game since, dropping five in a row by a soul-crushing cumulative differential of 25-7. Their closest losses were by three goals. Woof.

Calgary now sits at 80 points with only six games remaining, all but mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. (The second West wild-card team, as of this writing, is the Ducks at 89 points, and they hold a game in hand on the Flames. Woof again.)

Maybe it was already too late for the Flames when Smith shut out the Oil, but this five-game flop really buried any long-shot hopes. Now, Calgary must close out the season and ponder what to change during a summer that will demand serious soul-searching.

Let’s ponder what went wrong.

Bad luck

Losing Smith for a lengthy, crucial stretch for about a month (13 games) struck a brutal blow to a team that sometimes asked him to clean up some significant mistakes.

That said, overall, the Flames pass the sniff test as far as possession metrics go. This team simply hasn’t been able to finish enough chances despite often hogging the puck, to the point that it’s become an uncomfortable refrain for fans and media alike.

Via Natural Stat Trick’s measures, the Flames’ 6.87 shooting percentage at even-strength ranks among the bottom five in the NHL. That’s not an end-all, be-all stat, yet consider that the bottom eight teams look all but assured to miss the playoffs.

They’ve been struggling on special teams, too, as their 16.6 percent success rate ranks fifth-worst in the NHL. Allowing seven shorthanded goals only pours more salt in their wounds. The power play’s been especially miserable lately, only converting one time since Feb. 27 (1-for-37).

Not enough support

On paper, the Flames seem like they should at least be a playoff team, if not a legitimate contender.

Mark Giordano seems like a hot streak and a good squad away from getting more Norris Trophy buzz, while Dougie Hamilton is the type of producer you want in a modern system. Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan make for a dynamic duo, while the “3M” line of Matthew Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund, and Michael Frolik hold the puck hostage like few other trios. Smith’s also frequently given the Flames the goaltending they’ve craved for some time.

The problem is that, in the modern NHL, you need your supporting cast to buttress those top players, and that hasn’t worked out often enough for Calgary.

Travis Hamonic‘s had his struggles, making it that much more painful that the Flames gave up such a massive package of picks for the defenseman, including their 2019 first-rounder. T.J. Brodie‘s seen his ups and downs, too.

Such struggles would be easier to stomach if certain forwards panned out. It’s difficult not to pick on Sam Bennett, the fourth pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, who is stuck at 26 points in 76 games after failing to score a goal or an assist for the last seven games.

Whether you pin it on Father Time, untimely injuries, or other factors, the Jaromir Jagr experiment was also a bust.

***

The Flames have done a lot right in building this team.

Aside from Tkachuk (whose rookie deal expires after 2018-19), the Flames have their core members locked up long-term. In the case of someone like Gaudreau, they’re getting a star player at a bargain rate of $6.75M through 2021-22.

Still, Smith is 36, and maybe more alarmingly, Giordano is already 34.

With aging-but-important players like those, you never know when the bottom might fall out and the window really closes. It’s easy to picture Calgary figuring a few things out – do they make trades, a key signing, maybe a coaching change? – and become as deadly on the ice as they are in some of our imaginations.

None of this erases the bitter taste of failure for the team and its fans, though.

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.

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

PHT Morning Skate: How much, how long for Wilson?; What if Panarin pulls a Tavares?

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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.

Tom Wilson needs a new contract. Said contract is likely to be signed with the Washington Capitals. The question is: how much and for how long? (The Washington Post)

• Assessing the cost if Artemi Panarin pulls a John Tavares and leaves in free agency next summer. (The Dark Blue Jacket)

• The Liquor Control Board of Ontario is investigating after one of its workers made a homemade sign calling for the ousting of Eugene Melnyk. (Ottawa Citizen)

• The New York Rangers coaching a staff is going to have a distinct Boston University feel to it next season. (College Hockey News)

• Should the Boston Bruins make any more moves this offseason? (WEEI)

• The New York Islanders should leave the Barclays Center and Brooklyn behind after next season. (IslandersPointBlank)

• After signing Connor Hellebuyck, is it possible for the Winnipeg Jets to afford the rest of their core? (The Score)

• The Nashville Predators have managed to widen the window they have to win the Stanley Cup. (Pred Lines)

• The Florida Panthers have one prospect, Henrik Borgstrom, who stands as their best and brightest, and maybe their key to pulling the trigger on a trade to bring in a big name. (The Puck Under the Sun)

• A quick check on the rebuild happening in Detroit shows that while it’s not without its flaws, it appears to be moving in the right direction. (The Sporting News)

• Is Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford done dealing this summer? (Penguin Poop)

• Marred by the gong show that is Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, here’s a look at the least evil owners in the NHL. (Welcome to your Karlsson Years)

• A new NHL team in Seattle means a new AHL team to keep all the kids on the farm. Where will that farm be? (NHL To Seattle)

• With James Neal and Elias Lindholm added to the mix in Cow Town, will the Calgary Flames breakup the 3M line? (Puck Daddy)

• Flames GM Brad Treliving has finally filled a hole that has existed in Calgary’s lineup for seven years. (Flames from 80 feet)

• A look at if NHL contracts should include an opt-out option. (Devils Army Blog)

• With Kyle Dubas now steering the ship, is there a way back into the good graces of Mike Babcock for some out in the doghouse? (Editor in Leaf)

• Should the NHL start up a summer league? (Gotham Sports Network)


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