Getty

Patience pays off for Jets in building Stanley Cup contender

17 Comments

If their five meetings from the regular season are any indication of what is to come, the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets are probably going to pummel each other over the next two weeks in what looks to be the best matchup of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

They finished the season with the top two records in the league, while the Predators won the season series by taking three of the five games, with all of them being tight, fierce, chaotic contests that saw Nashville hold a slight aggregate goals edge of just 22-20.

They really could not have played it any closer.

They are both outstanding teams. They are evenly matched. The winner will almost certainly be the heavy favorite to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final no matter who comes out of the Pacific Division bracket.

For as similar as their results on the ice were this season, the teams have taken two very different paths to reach this point.

The Predators have been a consistent playoff team in recent years, and while they have a strong core of homegrown talent (Roman Josi, Viktor Arvidsson, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Pekka Rinne, etc.), a large portion of this team has been pieced together through trades, including two of the biggest player-for-player blockbusters in recent years. They also made the occasional big free agent signing. They traded for Filip Forsberg. They traded Shea Weber for P.K. Subban. They traded Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen. They traded for Kyle Turris. They signed Nick Bonino away from the Pittsburgh Penguins. They have been bold and aggressive when it comes to building their roster.

On the other side, you have the Winnipeg Jets, a team that has been the antithesis of the Predators in terms of roster construction.

Since arriving in Winnipeg at the start of the 2011-12 season the Jets, under the direction of general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, have taken part in one of the most patient, slow, methodical “rebuilds” in pro sports, and in the process demonstrated a very important lesson of sorts.

Sometimes it pays to do absolutely nothing at all.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

On the ice, the Jets have been a mostly mediocre team since arriving in Winnipeg, continuing the tradition the franchise had established for itself during its days as the Atlanta Thrashers. Before this season they made the playoffs once in six seasons in Winnipeg and were promptly swept in four straight games (just as they were in their only playoff appearance in Atlanta).

They were never among the NHL’s worst teams, but they were also never good enough to be in the top-eight of their conference. They were mediocrity defined.

The lack of success was at times baffling because it’s not like it was a team totally devoid of talent. It also at the same made complete sense because the single biggest hurdle standing in front of them was the simple fact they never had a competent goaltender or one true superstar to be a difference-maker.

In other words, they were basically the Canadian version of the Carolina Hurricanes.

What stands out about the Jets’ approach is they never let the lack of success lead to overreactions. We have seen time and time again in the NHL what overreactions due to a lack of success can do to a team. It can lead to core players being traded for less than fair value. It can lead to teams throwing good money at bad free agents and crippling the salary cap for years to come. It can lead to a revolving door of coaching changes. When all of that works together, it can set a franchise back for years.

The Jets did none of that.

Literally, they did none of it.

They have had the same general manager since 2011-12 even though before this season he had built one playoff team.

Despite their lack of success when it came to making the playoffs, they have made just one coaching change, replacing Claude Noel with Paul Maurice mid-way through the 2013-14 season.

Just for comparisons sake, look at how many coaching changes other comparable teams have gone through over that same time frame. Buffalo is on its fifth coach (and third general manager). Dallas will be hiring its fourth coach this offseason since the start of 2011-12. Calgary, after the hiring of Bill Peters on Monday, is on its fourth coach. Florida is on its fifth.

You want significant roster changes? Well, there has not been much of that, either. At least not in the “roster move” sense.

The Jets never tore it all down to the ground and went for a full-on rebuild. It took Cheveldayoff four years on the job before he made a single trade that involved him giving up an NHL player and receiving an NHL player in return. Even since then he has really only made one or two such moves.

There are still five players on the roster left over from the Atlanta days — Blake Wheeler, Tobias Enstrom, Bryan Little, Dustin Byfuglien, and Ben Chiarot, who was a draft-pick by the team when it was Atlanta — even though it has now been seven years since they played there. The fact so many core players still remain from then is perhaps the most surprising development given how much the team has lost during that time.

How many teams would have looked at the team’s lack of success and decided that it just had to trade a Blake Wheeler? Or a Dustin Byfuglien? Or a Bryan Little? Or a Tobias Enstrom? Or, hell, all of them? You see it all the time when teams don’t win or lose too soon in the playoffs or don’t accomplish their ultimate goal. At that point a core player just has to go. Have to change the culture, you know? Have to get tougher and make changes. The Blackhawks got swept in the first-round a year ago and decided they had to trade Artemi Panarin to get Brandon Saad back because they had won with him before. The Oilers were a constant embarrassment and decided they just had to trade Tayor Hall and Jordan Eberle to help fix that. Montreal just had to get rid of P.K. Subban.

The Jets, to their credit, recognized that their core players were good. They were productive. They were players they could win with if they could just find a way to add pieces around them and maybe, one day, solve their goaltending issue. The only significant core players the Jets have traded over the past seven years have been Andrew Ladd and Evander Kane. Ladd was set to become an unrestricted free agent when he was dealt at the trade deadline two years ago and a split between the Jets and Kane just seemed like it had to happen at the time of his trade.

They have also refrained from dipping their toes into the free agent market.

You know what happens when you avoid free agency? You don’t get saddled with bad contracts that you either have to eventually buy out, bury in the minor leagues, or give up valuable assets to get rid of in a trade. Free agents, in almost every instance, are players that have already played their best hockey for another team, and you — the new team — are going to end up paying them more money than their previous team did. It is not a cap-friendly approach.

Only one player on the Jets’ roster is set to make more than $6.2 million over the next two years (Byfuglien makes $7 million). The only players on the roster that were acquired via NHL free agency are Matthieu Perreault, Matt Hendricks, Steve Mason and Dmitry Kulikov.

Mason and Kulikov, who combine to make $8 million the next couple of seasons, are probably the only bad contracts on the roster, and both are off the books within the next two years. Oddly enough, both were signed before this season. Neither has made a significant impact.

Looking at the Jets’ playoff roster you see how this team has been pieced together.

  • Five players were leftovers from the Atlanta days (where three of them — Enstrom, Little, Chiarot — were drafted by the team then).
  • Only four players — Myers, Joe Morrow, Joel Armia and Paul Stastny — were acquired by trade.
  • Hendricks, Perreault, and Mason are the only players to have appeared in a playoff game that were acquired as free agents (Perreault — due to injury — and Hendricks have played in one each; Mason played one period in the first round).
  • The rest of the team, 12 players, were all acquired via draft picks.

So what did the Jets do well to get? Focus on the latter point there. They kept all of their draft picks, they hit on their important draft picks, and they got a little bit of luck in the draft lottery at the exact right time to allow them to get the franchise player — Patrik Laine — that they needed.

This is where the Jets have really made their progress, and it is not like they did it by tanking for lottery picks.

Between 2011 and now the Jets have picked higher than ninth in the NHL draft just two times. Only once did they pick higher than seventh. NHL draft history shows us that there is usually a significant drop in talent and expected production between even the second and eighth picks. No matter where the Jets have picked in recent years they have found NHL talent — top talent — with their first-round picks.

They got Mark Scheifele seventh overall in 2011. He is a core player and among the top-four goal scorers and point producers in the NHL from his draft class.

They got Jacob Trouba ninth in 2012. He is also a core player and a top-pairing defender.

Josh Morrissey was the 13th pick in 2013.

Nikolaj Ehlers was the ninth pick in 2014 and is the third highest point producer and goal scorer from that class.

In 2015 they picked Kyle Connor (one of the top rookies in the NHL this season) at 17 with their own selection, then got forward Jack Roslovic at 25 with the pick they acquired in the Kane trade.

The next year in 2016 they had the ping pong balls go their way to get Laine at No. 2 and had another first-rounder (Logan Stanley) as a result of the Ladd trade.

They pretty much not only hit on every first-round draft pick they had between 2011 and 2016 (Stanley is the only one of the eight not currently on the team) but in most of the cases probably got more than the expected value from that pick.

When you combine that with a core that already top-end talent like Wheeler, Byfuglien, Enstrom, and then finally give them competent goaltending you have the force that the Jets have become this season.

Will this sort of approach work for everybody? Probably not (and if I’m being honest, I was highly critical of the Jets’ approach on more than one occasion over the years), and it requires an owner and general manager that has an almost unheard of level of patience in professional sports to stick with it. And let’s face it, sometimes you do need to make changes. I’m not advocating for say, the New York Islanders, to just keep letting Garth Snow do whatever it is he is doing. And maybe the Jets would have been a playoff team sooner had they made a better effort to find a goalie, for example. You also need to have a little bit of luck when it comes to the draft.

But there are still some important lessons that the rest of the NHL can take from the Jets’ patient approach, especially when it comes to keeping your good players even when times get tough, and not thinking that all of the answers to your problems are available on July 1 when everyone acts like they have a blank check to sign whoever they want.

A few years ago Maple Leafs blog Pension Plan Puppets jokingly asked who had a better first day of free agency, then-general manager Dave Nonis, or a potato. The joke being that the potato had a better day because it was an inanimate object that couldn’t do something dumb. I don’t mean this is an insult to Cheveldayoff, but the Jets for the past seven years have basically been the potato in the sense that they just sat back and did nothing except keep their good players, keep their draft picks, and not sign overvalued players in free agency.

If you do nothing, you can’t mess up.

Today, the Jets might actually win a Stanley Cup because of it.

Hockey really is funny sometimes.

————

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.

The Buzzer: Red Wings win; Laviolette lost a bet

Getty
Leave a comment

Three Stars

1. Mark Stone

The fantastic two-way winger performed at a high level for Ottawa, generating two goals (including the impressive overtime game-winner) and an assist while logging a busy 20:53 time on ice.

On a night where stone generated a +2 rating, the 26-year-old fired four shots on goal, delivered two hits, and blocked two shots. Stone was probably the biggest reason the Senators won a battle of not-as-dour-as-expected teams.

(See his booming OTGWG in the highlights section.)

2. Nathan MacKinnon

Gabriel Landeskog‘s two goals (and five goals in two games) grabs your attention, but MacKinnon actually had the better overall game.

MacKinnon scored one goal, already his eighth of 2017-18, and also generated two assists. They were primary helpers on both of Landeskog’s goals.

It was an all-around effort for the speedster, as MacKinnon finished +2, generated five SOG, and also delivered a hit and a blocked shot. About the only thing you’d ask for is more success on draws.

Philipp Grubauer was crucial to Colorado’s success, too, stopping 42 out of 43 shots.

(For more on MacKinnon’s rise to stardom, click here.)

3. Jeff Skinner

You could point out plenty of other three-point games from Saturday; perhaps you’d highlight Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jakub Voracek, or Patrick Kane instead?

Regardless, Skinner’s starting to heat up for Buffalo, with all six of his points coming during the Sabres’ last four games. Skinner’s hat-trick goal itself was an empty-netter, but his Saturday was still sterling; he scored on all three of his SOG and sported a +4 as Buffalo added to the Kings’ miseries. Jack Eichel was fantastic in his own right, collecting three assists.

This sort of result really has to be heartening for the up-and-down Sabres.

Highlights

When in doubt, go with overtime game-winners. There were a few to choose from on a busy Saturday around the NHL, but let’s go with Stone’s authoritative shot:

And Gustav Nyquist taking advantage of a nice play by Dylan Larkin to earn Detroit’s first win of the season:

In what might have been the real highlight of the night, Peter Laviolette lost a bet, and well, this happened:

Factoids

Not bad, Marc-Andre Fleury.

This is quite the zany group of former Senators:

What was that line? Living well is the best revenge?

Scores

Flyers 5, Devils 2
Avalanche 3, Hurricanes 1
Sabres 5, Kings 1
Jets 5, Coyotes 3
Blues 4, Maple Leafs 1
Senators 4, Canadiens 3 (OT)
Red Wings 4, Panthers 3 (OT)
Blackhawks 4, Blue Jackets 1
Wild 5, Lightning 4 (OT)
Canucks 2, Bruins 1 (OT)
Golden Knights 3, Ducks 1
Predators 3, Oilers 0
Sharks 4, Islanders 1

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Blackhawks saw ‘vintage’ Crawford in tonight’s win

Getty
2 Comments

“Vintage Crow.” That’s how Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville described Corey Crawford‘s first win of 2018-19, as he stopped 37 out of 38 shots as Chicago beat Columbus 4-1 on Saturday.

This marks Crawford’s second game back from concussion issues that put his season – if not career – on the line, and he’s been thrown right in the deep end. The veteran goalie has faced at least 30 shots in each of his two appearances, so Chicago hasn’t exactly been able to make it an easy return.

“Yeah, we gotta play better in front of him, no doubt,” Patrick Kane said, according to the Athletic’s Mark Lazerus. “It’s one of those things where we played pretty well the first five games, then all of a sudden he comes back and maybe you’re just expecting him to bail you out — which he has the past two games.”

Perhaps the clearest moment of Crawford bailing his team out came on this save, as Artemi Panarin made things happen very quickly in setting up this scoring chance for Pierre Luc-Dubois:

Following the 4-1 win, Crawford said that he felt like he was reading plays well, and the numbers back that up. The Blue Jackets fired 11 shots on goal on their four power-play opportunities, but Crawford shut the door on all of them.

With this victory, the Blackhawks continued their generally strong start to the season, improving their record to 4-1-2, giving them 10 standings points from seven games.

Before Crawford came back, Chicago was largely winning despite its goaltending, as Cam Ward looked shaky at best through five games. You could state that perhaps Crawford returned at the perfect time, but either way, this is a promising start for the goalie and his team.

It doesn’t guarantee that Crawford won’t suffer health-related setbacks as the season progresses, but so far, so good.

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.

Concussion worries loom as Predators put Rinne on IR

1 Comment

Pekka Rinne‘s Friday-night start ended in a painful way: not only did the Flames score on his basically empty net, but he suffered an injury thanks to an unlucky collision with Predators teammate Kevin Fiala.

Rinne was removed from Nashville’s eventual 5-3 win against Calgary on the behest of concussion spotters, and now the reigning Vezina-winner has been placed on IR.

At minimum, Rinne will miss three Predators games: tonight’s contest against Connor McDavid and the Oilers, along with a Tuesday home game against the Sharks and a Thursday road date versus the Devils. He’d first be eligible to suit up again on Oct. 27, when the Predators visit the Oilers in Edmonton.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Rinne will actually be ready to return to play.

As usual with NHL teams, it’s unclear how serious Rinne’s issue is, and there’s no guarantee that Rinne suffered a concussion. It’s difficult not to worry about that being the case, as that’s been a growing concern around the league, as we’ve seen with the likes of Corey Crawford and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Rinne’s injury does bring about an interesting situation, as the Predators could choose to roll out promising backup Juuse Saros in more of a No. 1 starter-workhorse role.

Earlier this week, Bob McKenzie discussed the Predators wanting to sign Rinne long-term.

Considering how well Rinne played at times last season, and all the accolades he’s accrued and will likely pile up with this franchise, one can understand the drive to keep him around.

Still, Rinne’s 35 and probably won’t want to take too much of a cut from his current, expiring $7 million cap hit; meanwhile, Saros is just 23 and will carry just a $1.5M cap hit through 2020-21. There’s a scenario where Saros could be the guy, Rinne would move on, and the Predators would set themselves up to be in a decent situation to avoid losing a key skater.

That still-unresolved issue makes even a truncated Saros audition quite fascinating, then.

It’s never good news to lose your starter, particularly a long-time workhorse and reigning Vezina-winner like Rinne. Even so, Saros has shown that he’s quite capable when given opportunities, and it could be valuable to see what they really have here. If Rinne misses more than a week, then the Predators could really feed Saros some reps.

One would assume that the Predators would lean on Saros for most, if not all, of this stretch. If not, we might see called-up goalie Miroslav Svoboda play a bit, too. This would be a big step up for Svoboda, who has been playing for the ECHL’s wonderfully named Atlanta Gladiators, and was a seventh-round pick (208th overall) by Edmonton in 2015.

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.

Avs’ MacKinnon belongs in best in NHL conversation

Getty
5 Comments

As you can see from this Associated Press piece, there are some hot “best in the NHL” debates going around, with people batting around names like Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, and Auston Matthews.

Colorado Avalanche speedster Nathan MacKinnon‘s name didn’t come up in that conversation, but quite frankly, he’ll be impossible to ignore if keeps this up.

The 23-year-old has scored at least one point in all eight games, and his numbers are positively eye-popping. MacKinnon generated six points in the past two games alone, leaving him with a ridiculous eight goals and six assists for 14 points. As of this writing, only Auston Matthews (16 points in eight games) has generated more offense so far in 2018-19, while MacKinnon’s running mate Mikko Rantanen also has 14.

[More on Rantanen becoming a “driving force” for Colorado]

Remarkably, MacKinnon isn’t subsisting on a red-hot power play, either, as only two of his 14 points have come from the man advantage. With that in mind, it’s less shocking that MacKinnon’s seven even-strength goals currently lead the NHL.

It’s dangerous to rely too heavily on season stats, particularly when we’re still in October, but zooming out to last season really cements MacKinnon’s rise among the league’s most exhilarating scorers.

When you combine last season with these early showings, MacKinnon generated a whopping 111 points in just 84 games, trailing only Connor McDavid (119 in 87) and Claude Giroux (113 in 90). MacKinnon’s 1.31 points-per-game average is second only to … you guessed it: McDavid, at 1.35.

MacKinnon slips under the radar almost as seamlessly as he flies by defensemen for a few reasons:

  • The Avalanche haven’t been very great lately. MacKinnon’s efforts helped Colorado make the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet before that, the Avs suffered a three-season drought. The Avs have only made the playoffs twice since 2010-11, and they’ve only won one playoff series since 2005-06.

Even so, looking back at the past illuminates how special MacKinnon’s start has been. MacKinnon scored a goal in his first six games, something Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk, and many other standout Avs failed to do:

Could he break more club records as he goes?

  • Maybe some of the reluctance to name MacKinnon among the best stems from the speedy center beginning his career as an effective scorer, yet not quite the guy people expected.

Through his first four seasons, MacKinnon only crossed the 60-point barrier once (63 on his way to a Calder Trophy in 2013-14), with his 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons inspiring real concern about his shooting ability. It’s one thing to have bad puckluck for a single season, but through the first four years of his career, MacKinnon shot under 10-percent on three occasions, and his peak was just a flat 10.0 during that rookie campaign.

Well, it’s not clear what precisely changed, yet it’s probably safe to dismiss those concerns already. MacKinnon probably would have hit 40 goals and 100 points if he played every game last season (finishing with 39 goals and 97 points in just 74 games), and he’s off to that red-hot start in 2018-19.

  • There were times when MacKinnon almost felt like comic relief in his apparently long-running Tim Horton’s commercials alongside Sidney Crosby.

Now? He’s still goofy, but in more of an “effective buddy cop movie character” sort of way.

His bond with Crosby and the Canadian coffee chain giant really peaked recently, as the two surprised members of Kenya’s senior men’s hockey team (more about that in this post):

Heartwarming stuff, right?

***

To recap: MacKinnon is a speedy center who’s scoring at a near-McDavidian-rate, and he’s building enough evidence that his quantum leap from 2017-18 could be the rule, rather than the exception.

With a rising winger in Rantanen, not to mention a productive, hard-nosed captain in Gabriel Landeskog, MacKinnon also pilots a top line that deserves consideration as the best trio in the NHL.

Oh yeah, MacKinnon also deserves serious consideration for having the best bargain contract in the NHL. Somehow, the Avalanche will receive five more prime-level years of MacKinnon’s services at the ridiculous rate of $6.3 million per season. That’s barely more than half of what McDavid’s getting — and McDavid is worth more than $12.5M.

So, MacKinnon’s on that rare McDavid plane of being lightning fast, yet still boasting the skill and hockey IQ to take advantage of that world-class speed. Maybe it took him more time to harness that, but this seems to be clear today.

It also seems like he’s kind of a goober, and can provide a salty quote here or there.

While it’s true that MacKinnon isn’t totally dismissed as a great player – he was a finalist, falling right behind Taylor Hall for the 2018 Hart Trophy – the point is that the latest Avalanche superstar is worthy of greater hype.

If nothing else, make sure you watch him play. Chances are, his name will pop up more often in “best in the league” conversations if you do.

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.