What the Golden Knights’ success tells us about the NHL

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The Vegas Golden Knights are on their way to the Stanley Cup Final and you, the hockey watching fan, probably have some thoughts, opinions and maybe even questions about this shocking development.

Maybe you think it’s an amazing story, or maybe you are a part of a long-suffering fan-base and are angered that a team that just showed up on the scene less than a year ago and is four wins away from winning a championship.

Maybe you are asking questions like: How did a first-year team reach this point, and what does it say about the NHL that it could happen?

Let’s try to tackle that a little bit because there is one massive lesson here that we can take from the success of the Golden Knights: This sport is almost impossible to predict and is more prone to randomness and luck than any other. This is true when it comes to the people running the teams, and those of us watching everything that happens as both partial and impartial observers. Basically, nobody knows anything.

We already discussed the disastrous moves that a lot of NHL teams made throughout the expansion draft process when several of them gave up more than they needed to or made bizarre decisions when it came to their protected lists. All of those criticisms are not only fair, but are richly deserved even if they are made with the benefit of hindsight. On one hand, it was the job of the teams to know what they had as far as protecting the right talent and making smart moves. But not even the Golden Knights front office expected this. Even with there being a lot of head-scratchingly bizarre decisions there was almost nobody that looked at that roster at the start of the season and said “yes, that team is going to be playing in the Stanley Cup Final this season.”

[Related: Don’t blame expansion draft rules for Vegas’ success]

But that is part of the craziness that makes the NHL what it is. It is a sport and a league that is driven by luck and randomness more than most will ever care to admit.

That doesn’t mean that skill and talent and having the best players isn’t important. Because it is. It is just that sometimes the game comes down to a player having a career year at the right time, or several players all having everything click for them at the same time.

It is, by nature, completely unpredictable. It is a game of bounces, mistakes, hot and cold streaks, and at times completely wacky results that do not make any logical sense. This can happen of course of a single game, or a playoff series, or even a full season. Goaltending can be one of the biggest and most important factors in all of that, and Vegas has been the beneficiary of some outstanding goaltending this season, particularly when it comes to the play of Marc-Andre Fleury. And at no time has he been better than he has been during these playoffs where he is authoring one of the greatest postseason performances in league history.

Nothing elevates a team — or sinks it — more than a goaltending a performance. A great one masks flaws and makes a team look better than it might otherwise be. A bad one can sink a contender. Both teams that played in the Western Conference Final this season were perfect examples of that this season. The Jets, with largely the same roster that missed the playoffs a year ago and hadn’t made the postseason in four years, were able to power their way to the NHL’s final four because they finally received a competent goaltending performance. That team should have been a playoff team long before this season, and likely would have been with better goaltending.

That is the biggest thing to draw from Vegas’ success — goaltending drives everything.

The other thing we can take from this season is the power of opportunity and what an increased role can do for some players.

How many players around the NHL are capable of big-time performances are being buried in another team’s lineup or organization without getting a serious look?

In Vegas we saw Erik Haula go from being, at times, a fourth-liner in Minnesota (still capable of scoring 12-15 goals) and end up scoring 29 goals this season for the Golden Knights.

Nate Schmidt was mostly a depth defenseman in Washington and when given an opportunity to be a top-pairing defender has shined for Vegas. The same can be said for Colin Miller.

William Karlsson was mostly an afterthought in Anaheim and Columbus, and even if you accept that he is not going to score 40 goals again because he will probably never have another season where he scores on 23 percent of his shots, he is probably better than the ice-time he was given in his previous two stops showed.

Even though his “breakout” season happened a year ago in Florida Jonathan Marchessault is another example of what opportunity can do for a player. A talented, productive player at every level of hockey he played at that was passed over and discarded probably for no other reason than the fact he is undersized. How many players like him have been stuck in the AHL in recent years or been passed over in the draft?

How many players are there around the NHL like Haula and Schmidt that are buried in another lineup never being given an opportunity to do more, either because they are stuck on good teams with deep depth charts, or simply through poor talent evaluation from their teams?

There are probably quite a few!

Vegas’ success is going to up the pressure on every general manager across the league because people are going to look at this season and say, “if they can go from nothing to the Stanley Cup in one year, what is our excuse?” But nobody is going to get a clean slate with an opportunity build a team like this (at least not until Seattle enters the league, and I don’t envy their general manager trying to follow up this act). And there really is not anyway to replicate or duplicate what they did this season. That doesn’t mean there still aren’t lessons about the league to take from this success. The two biggest ones are to embrace the unpredictability that comes with the sport and how much luck and randomness can drive it, and to understand just how important it is for some players to simply get an opportunity to play a meaningful role.

The Golden Knights aren’t a team of misfits.

They are a team of talented players (and a great, game-changing goalie) that finally received a bigger opportunity.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Liam Kirk 1st born-and-trained Brit selected in NHL draft

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DALLAS (AP) Liam Kirk has become the first player born and trained in England to be selected in the NHL draft.

The Arizona Coyotes picked the 18-year-old left wing 189th overall on Saturday with their seventh-round pick.

Kirk was home, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean about 4,600 miles away from Dallas, when he was drafted.

The 6-foot, 161-pound Kirk played this season for Sheffield Steelers in the Elite Ice Hockey League, the highest level of competition in the United Kingdom. He had nine goals and seven assists in 52 games for the Steelers in his second season with the team.

When Kirk attended this year’s NHL scouting combine in Buffalo, he became the first player born and trained in Britain to attend that annual pre-draft event.

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/tags/NHLhockey

Winners and losers from the 2018 NHL Draft

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DALLAS — The picks are in and the 2018 NHL Draft has come to a close. The weekend began with the Buffalo Sabres selecting Rasmus Dahlin No. 1 overall and it ended with the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals choosing Eric Florchuk with the 217th and final pick.

A lot happened, like some surprise selections, a few trades and plenty of intrigue as we approach free agency. Let’s take a look at some winners and losers from draft weekend.

Winner: New York Islanders

Landing Oliver Wahlstrom and Noah Dobson in back-to-back picks was something GM Lou Lamoriello probably didn’t expect when arrived at the draft, but that’s how things fell for the Islanders in the opening round. A dynamic offensive player in Wahlstrom and a good puck-moving blue liner in Dobson really add to the franchise’s prospect pool. The good off-season continues for them days after hiring Barry Trotz as their new head coach. Aside from finding a new goaltender, the biggest concern now facing the team is re-signing John Tavares, which we should know what his plans are within the next week.

Winner: 2018 NHL Draft music

The American Airlines Center DJ — Michael Gruber — spun an impeccable playlist during Friday night and Saturday afternoon. From the Beastie Boys to Weezer to Red Hot Chili Peppers to Sublime to Radiohead, the soundtrack to the weekend was flawless.

Loser: Fans who like trades involving players

One of the most exciting moments of the NHL draft is when Commissioner Gary Bettman steps to the podium and says, “We have a trade to announce!” Those words were uttered many times this weekend, but majority of the moves were teams swapping selections. Only two big trades that included players went down this weekend, which is kind of disappointing considering all of the speculation as the hockey world decended on Dallas. Maybe now that all of the teams are shifting their focus to free agency, some moves will happen this week before the market opens July 1.

Winner: Colorado Avalanche

The Avs made the first big move of the weekend by trading for goaltender Philipp Grubauer and defenseman Brooks Orpik from the Washington Capitals. Grubauer, a restricted free agent, is expected to sign a deal in the neighborhood of three years and $10 million, which gives Colorado a netminder for the future as Semyon Varlamov enters the final year of his deal.

Loser: Calgary Flames

The Flames dealt Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland and highly-touted defense prospect Adam Fox to the Carolina Hurricanes for Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm. That move breaks up one of the league’s top blue line pairings in Hamilton and Mark Giordano. Hanifin and Lindholm, who both rejected contract extension before being dealt, are set to become restricted free agents on July 1.

Winner: Sweden

With 28 Swedish-born players selected this weekend that matches the country’s record which was set during the 2011 draft. Also celebrating are England (Liam Kirk, Arizona) and Jamaica (Jermaine Loewen, Dallas). Kirk is first British-born and trained player to be drafted, while Loewen is the first Jamaican-born player to be picked.

Loser: Slovakia

While the number of Slovakian players drafted this year (5) is up from 2017 (2), the amount continues to remain low for a country that once regularly produced NHL players. Slovakia has seen only 15 players selected over the last six NHL Drafts.

Winner: Brooks Orpik

It’s been quite a month for the 37-year-old defenseman. First, he wins his second Stanley Cup. Then two weeks later he’s traded to the Colorado Avalanche along with goaltender Philipp Grubauer. But as soon as the deal was consummated, Avs GM Joe Sakic said the plan was to try and flip him or buy him out. No suitable offers were made, so Orpik was placed on waivers Saturday with the intent to buy him out. That sets up a situation that could see him headed back to the Capitals.

Loser: Adam Mascherin

Mascherin was originally a 2016 second round pick by the Florida Panthers, but could not agree to a contract wth the team. “He didn’t want to play for the Panthers. That’s what happened,” GM Dale Tallon said earlier this week. He was eligible to re-enter the draft this year and ended up dropping to the fourth round where the Dallas Stars picked him. In the two seasons since being picked by the Panthers, he’s posted 75 goals and 186 points in 132 games with the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers.

Winner: The Sutter legacy

The only thing that will outlast us all are cockroaches, Jaromir Jagr and a hockey playing Sutter. Riley Sutter was selected by the Capitals at No. 93 and is the son of Ron. The Sutter NHL tree dates all the way back to 1976 and doesn’t look like it will stop growing any time soon..

Loser: Max Pacioretty trade rumors

A rumor going around late in the draft was that Pacioretty was going to be traded to the San Jose Sharks. But that was quickly shot down despite it being “confirmed.” The only news about the Montreal Canadiens captain, who has one year left on his deal, was that he’s parted ways with Pat Brisson and has hired Allan Walsh as his new agent.

Winner: Unique names

There were 217 picks in the 2018 draft and many, if you scour all of the selections, featured some pretty interesting names. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Jett Woo, Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, Jasper Weatherby, Angus Crookshank, Blade Jenkins, Magnus Chrona, Dmitry Zavgorodniy, and Shamil Shamakov are just a handful of what we heard over the two days.

Loser: Nando Eggenberger

The Swiss winger who owns arguably the best name out of any of the eligible 2018 prospects did not get to hear his named called in Dallas. There’s always next year in Vancouver.

Winner: The Krygier family

Christian and Cole Krygier went five picks apart in the seventh round. The twin sons of former NHLer Todd Krygier, Christian landed with the Islanders while Cole ended up with the Panthers.

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Sean Leahy is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Goalie of the future: Avs reportedly sign Grubauer

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Heading into the off-season, the Colorado Avalanche’s future in net was a little blurry. Now it’s clear that Philipp Grubauer will be their go-to guy.

On Friday, the Avalanche sent the 47th pick to the Washington Capitals for Grubauer, also absoring Brooks Orpik‘s contract. Today, Colorado got the wheels turning on a buyout for Orpik, and reportedly agreed to a three-year deal with Grubauer.

Significant investment

The three-year pact will be worth about $10 million, according to TVA’s Renaud Lavoie. If that’s accurate, the 26-year-old would carry about a $3.33M cap hit from 2018-19 through 2020-21. Do note that the Avalanche haven’t made the signing official just yet.

So, let’s consider the cost, then:

  • Cap hit between Grubauer and Orpik in 2018-19: About $5.83M.
  • In 2019-20: About $4.83M.
  • 2020-21: Just Grubauer’s $3.3M.
  • Also, the 47th pick of the 2018 NHL Draft, which ended up being Kody Clark, Wendel Clark’s son.

Not exactly cheap, but the Avalanche have a pretty clean slate, and Grubauer was the most coveted goalie believed to be available this summer.

As usual with goalies, there are risks

Aside from brief struggles during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Grubauer’s passed just about every test thrown in way. In accruing 101 total regular-season games of NHL experience, Grubauer generated a strong .923 save percentage, the same mark he produced over 35 games during the 2017-18 campaign.

It’s easy to play hindsight 20/20 and say that Braden Holtby was “the clear choice” for the Capitals the whole time, but the truth is that Grubauer deserved that nod considering his superior play. While Holtby regained the starting job in Washington during the Stanley Cup run, Grubauer’s steadying presence was important.

Much like other rising backups, there’s a risk factor to investing heavily in Grubauer, who’s never carried a big workload.

The scariest comparison is probably Scott Darling.

Like Grubauer, Darling amassed a small but impressive resume as a backup for a good team. In Darling’s case, the towering goalie had only played 75 regular-season games for Chicago, generating a (wait for it) .923 save percentage, playing in 32 games during his final campaign with the Blackhawks. The Hurricanes are already regretting the four-year deal they handed to Darling, which carries a $4.15M cap hit.

There are plenty of counterpoints. Darling is three years older than Grubauer, and rarely excelled at other levels. Grubauer, on the other hand, put together respectable numbers in the ECHL and AHL before becoming a sturdy backup for the Caps.

Colorado likely hopes that Grubauer works out as well (or better) than more successful backup-turned-starters such as Antti Raanta and Cam Talbot.

Interesting setup

Will the Avalanche roll with a platoon situation involving Grubauer and Semyon Varlamov, whose $5.9M cap hit is set to expire after 2018-19? That’s at least the public plan right now.

It wouldn’t be one bit surprising if the Avalanche tried to find a trade partner for Varlamov, an expensive performer who’s dealt with some injury issues and other concerns in recent years. (One can’t help but note that, amusingly, the Avalanche also sent quite a bit of future assets to Washington in hopes that Varlamov would fix their goalie issues. Life moves fast.)

A Grubauer – Varlamov duo would cost about $9.2M in cap space, while Varlamov’s salary ($5.75M) is only slightly cheaper than his $5.9M cap hit next season.

You would think that would be too rich for the Avs, but maybe Colorado would just eat the coast with the advantage being that Varlamov’s presence could help Grubauer ease into the No. 1 role?

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With Varlamov seemingly on his way out sooner or later and valuable backup Jonathan Bernier headed out the door, the Avalanche are passing the torch to Grubauer.

We’ll see what happens regarding who the other goalie will be in Colorado, but either way, Grubauer gets his wish: to be the man. Will the Avalanche look back at this as a smart decision, or could this be another case where an understudy flops in a headlining role?

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.

Huge Flames – Hurricanes trade features Hamilton, Hanifin, Lindholm

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For a while, things were getting a little sleepy on draft weekend, but the Calgary Flames and Carolina Hurricanes changed that with a massive trade.

Here’s how the five-player trade looks for each side.

Calgary Flames receive: Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm.

Carolina Hurricanes receive: Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland, and defensive prospect Adam Fox.

There are a lot of facets to break down here.

Contract challenges

One factor is that both Hanifin and Lindholm need new contracts as RFAs, so the prices they eventually come in on for Calgary will play a big role in how we judge this franchise-altering trade.

The Hurricanes have changed huge portions of their front office, and this appears to be the first major shockwave stemming from the new regime.

Apparently the contract tiffs aren’t just on the Carolina end. There’s some belief that Fox, a well-regarded prospect who was taken in the third round (66th overall) in 2016, was not going to sign with the Flames. SBNation Flames blog Matchsticks & Gasoline posits that Fox could tip the scales of this trade depending upon how his development goes.

Prime-age players exchange hands on both sides, but one objective remark is that the Flames generally landed the younger players.

The talent is young and substantial enough that plenty of players involved could affect how we look back at this massive move. Let’s consider the biggest names.

Blue chippers, plus a big forward

It’s honestly bewildering to consider the high-end draft picks involved in this move.

Dougie Hamilton, 25, was drafted ninth overall by the Boston Bruins in 2011. This is the second time the high-scoring defenseman’s been traded, as the Bruins sent him to Calgary for a first-round pick and two second-rounders back in 2015.

Despite scoring a career-high 17 goals and continuing a four-season streak of 10+ tallies, Hamilton remains a divisive figure in the NHL, not unlike players like P.K. Subban and Phil Kessel, who he’ll be connected to for the rest of his career thanks to how his pick landed in Boston. Hamilton has been excellent for much of his days, yet plenty of people either believe that he’s ineffective in his own end, brings chemistry issues, or …?

Hamilton’s cap hit is $5.75 million running through 2020-21. Much like everything else with the defenseman, hockey people are likely divided regarding that contract being a bargain or being too rich.

(Fun.)

Noah Hanifin, 21, was the fifth pick of the 2015 NHL Draft.

While Hamilton’s resume is pretty robust with tangible evidence that he’s a difference-maker, Hanifin stumbled a bit out of the gate. He’s corrected in promising ways recently, however, generating career-highs of goals (10) and points (32) in 2017-18.

As much as anything else, it’s his youth, speed, and potential that makes him fascinating. Of course, on the other hand, you can talk yourself into expecting too much thanks to that high draft pick pedigree.

Elias Lindholm, 23, also went fifth overall, but in 2013.

The Swedish forward has been productive, yet not exactly spectacular, so far during his NHL career. He’s already played in 374 regular-season games, generating 64 goals and 124 assists for 188 points.

Micheal Ferland, 26, isn’t of the same draft pedigree, as he went in the fifth round (133rd overall) back in 2010.

You could make a reasonable argument that Ferland could be reasonably comparable to Lindholm from an immediate viewpoint, though. Ferland is coming off of a 21-goal, 41-points season from 2017-18.

Some of that production is likely inflated by playing with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Still, it’s worth noting that he fit in very nicely with those two players, bringing a big body and some nice finishing ability to the table.

Ferland has one year left on a team-friendly $1.75M cap hit.

If you want a fancy perspective:

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This is a really fascinating move for both teams. No doubt about it, the Flames’ take has to be heavily influenced by the hiring of former Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters. The contract situations for Lindholm, Hanifin, Fox, and eventually Ferland will play a role in how hindsight gazes upon this blockbuster.

Let’s get a feel for the immediate viewpoint, though. Who do you think got the better end of the trade?

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.