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Kovalchuk could be other no-brainer of this free agent summer

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At age 35, Ilya Kovalchuk would normally be a very risky bet in free agency. There’s always the chance that things swerve from here, but at the moment, he instead seems like he could be one of the true gems to hit the market.

A fascinating report by TSN’s Darren Dreger really transforms the discussion, and should be fodder for plenty of NHL fans to daydream: one of the deadliest snipers of this generation may accept a deal like the one Toronto gave to Patrick Marleau last summer (three years, $6.25 million cap hit).

That would be one heck of a deal for a truly gifted shooter who dominated the KHL since the 2013-14 season after generating exactly a point-per-game (816 points in as many contests) during his outstanding NHL career.

Kovalchuk only taking up a modest chunk of cap space would really alleviate worries about how the aging curve might affect his game.

While it’s highly likely that he’s a step or two slower, he’s always been a crucial guy for his NHL teams, from his do-everything days with the Atlanta Thrashers to his impressive, too-short run with the New Jersey Devils. During his final NHL season in 2013-14, Kovalchuk averaged the workload of a top pairing defenseman, logging 24:44 TOI per contest. It often felt like he never left the ice when his team was on the power play, in particular.

By reportedly valuing winning over getting maximum dollars, Kovalchuk doesn’t just make his potential contract less risky. If he joins a team with other talented players, he won’t have to carry the same workload. If healthy but not what he once was from a transition/all-around standpoint, Kovalchuk could at least be a premium version of a “trigger” on a power play (see: Sam Gagner‘s greatest moments with the Columbus Blue Jackets).

Kovalchuk told Dreger that he expects to compete at a high level.

“If there was any doubt in my mind, I would never come here. I wouldn’t be running around just to collect the money,” Kovalchuk said. “I want to be productive and I want to play for the team that trusts in me and I will give them everything I can to make them proud and successful. I have three or four years left in my tank where I can compete at the highest level…that’s why I’m here and that’s why I want to sign in the NHL.”

We’ve seen examples of top-end players convert KHL dominance to significant NHL contributions, albeit with younger stars such as Artemi Panarin and Alexander Radulov, so it wouldn’t be shocking if Kovalchuk seamlessly returns to the NHL. For all we know, the shorter seasons in the KHL might revitalize him.

(And Jaromir Jagr showed that an older, big-name player can come back to the NHL and enjoy immense success.)

Beyond the “How good will he be?” questions, most fans want to know where he’ll go. Ultimately, we won’t know for sure until July 1 at the earliest (the first date where he can officially sign a new deal).

Dreger reports that Kovalchuk’s negotiations will be handled by CAA Hockey/J.P. Barry, who happen to represent John Tavares, aka the biggest no-brainer of free agency … assuming he even really hits the market.

That connection is even more intriguing when you consider the very positive relationship Kovalchuk has with newly minted New York Islanders overlord Lou Lamoriello.

Islanders fans finally have some positive things to picture this summer, as Kovalchuk and Tavares could serve as enticements to draw each other to Brooklyn, while Lamoriello may very well improve the odds of one or more of those two things working out. Kovalchuk could potentially serve as the most entertaining linemate we’ve ever seen for Tavares, with all apologies to Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, and Anders Lee.

There are plenty of other fun scenarios, and Dreger reports that Kovalchuk’s reps have already been in discussions with at least eight NHL teams.

(That detail, honestly, is maddening. It would be disappointing if there were as many as eight teams who weren’t interested. Maybe some GMs are just taking early vacations?)

Anyway, there are a lot of fun scenarios. Imagine Kovalchuk going back to the Devils to help ease the burden of Taylor Hall, especially now that New Jersey’s style is about 10x more fun. The Islanders make a lot of sense considering recent developments, while the Rangers and Panthers also rank among the teams that have been connected to Kovalchuk in various rumors. Maple Leafs fans seem to be taking that Marleau comparison (and the team’s heaps of cap room) to the next level.

It’s all a lot of fun, particularly when you consider the fact that the NHL lags behind other professional sports when it comes to free agent frenzies.

Let’s just hope that Kovalchuk a) comes back to North America to dazzle us with his skills and b) chooses a contender so we can watch him deploy that world-class shot during the playoffs. He’s already been gone from the best hockey league in the world for far, far too long.

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide

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.

‘Matthew Tkachuk Friendship Tour’ billboard starts popping up in Edmonton

Tkachuk billboard in Edmonton
via CJAY 92
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Fans must wait about a week for the next round in the “Battle of Alberta,” but if they need a reminder, the “Matthew Tkachuk Friendship Tour” billboard began showing up in Edmonton on Wednesday.

Calgary radio station CJAY 92 made it happen, and also helped to make this Tkachuk-centric trolling effort turn into a boon for charities. The billboards hype up the next meeting between the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, which happens in Edmonton on Jan. 29. Deliciously enough, the two teams then meet again in Calgary on Feb. 1. Think of all of the opportunities for friendship.

Take a look at the Tkachuk billboard in Edmonton

CJAY 92 shared photos of the billboards that began sprouting up:

You may, however, notice an omission. The final version includes Tkachuk’s name, the amusing “friendship tour,” and his jersey number. It does not, however, feature Tkachuk making a face like he smelled something rancid, or really didn’t appreciate that pun.

Yeah, that bitter beer face plus the heart background did kind of tie the billboard together.

That said, there’s the real fear of Oilers fans defacing the image in Edmonton. Heck, there’s the risk of someone getting injured trying to vandalize a billboard with Tkachuk’s actual face on it. Maybe it was also a rights issue with getting that picture?

So … yes, it’s a very, very mild letdown. Nonetheless, this adds another wrinkle to this fun, silly rivalry within a rivalry.

Recap of feud with Kassian

As a reminder, the ball got rolling as a feud formed between Tkachuk and Zack Kassian. Tkachuk delivered multiple hits — ones that Kassian found dirty — and then Kassian ragdolled the pesty winger. You could say that Tkachuk got the last laugh, as the Flames scored the game-winning goal during power-play opportunities stemming from Kassian’s penalties. The two also traded trash talk after the game.

After letting the two-game suspension sink in, Kassian warned that Tkachuk “messed with the wrong guy.” Kassian implied that the previous outing was merely a skirmish in a larger war (or, you know, “Battle of Alberta”).

This feud would rank as one of the most glorious in hockey if it stayed onto the ice. Yet, off ice moving and shaking really brings this to another trolly, splendid level.

Tkachuk billboard becomes a boon for charities in Edmonton and Calgary

Once CJAY 92 took care of the more fun aspects of the Tkachuk billboard, Mohamed Elsaghir’s Go Fund Me drive instead focused on raising money for ALS. Between that drive and a $10K donation by entrepreneur W. Brett Wilson helped bump the total contributions above $20K.

While that charitable run came via Flames fans, Oilers devotees made waves for a good cause, too. What started with a fun tweet and $25 donation from Oilers fan Samantha Costa ended up being a boon, too.

Brown Bagging It, one of the benefiting charities, summed everything up nicely:

***

Overall, great stuff. It makes you wonder: could enterprising Oilers fans come up with a billboard idea for the next game on Feb.1? Maybe something along the lines of, “Thanks for James Neal?”

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.

Most dangerous lead in hockey? This season, it’s all of them

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Joel Quenneville remembers years past when NHL teams leading going into the third period could feel comfortable chalking up two points. A win was a pretty sure bet.

Earlier this season, his Florida Panthers erased a four-goal deficit to win a game. And then they did it again. Even the three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach didn’t see that coming.

”We didn’t envision coming back either game,” Quenneville said.

It’s becoming easier than ever to envision. There have already been five four-goal comeback wins this season, the most in NHL history. And the 18 three-goal comebacks are the most through the same number of games in 30 years.

No lead is safe.

”Used to be the dreaded, two-goal lead is the most dangerous in hockey, but now it seems like the four-goal lead’s the hardest one to hold on to,” Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. ”Teams believe they can come back at any time.”

Coaches and players point to a number of different factors for all the rallying going on, ranging from rules designed to create more offense to better power plays, more skill and talent, and human nature when t comes to holding a comfortable lead or facing a difficult deficit.

”It’s very difficult to hold leads now just with some of the rules that have been added,” said coach Todd Reirden, whose Washington Capitals recently erased a three-goal deficit to beat the New York Islanders. ”Just different little nuances that have helped scoring increase in the league. It’s just the way that penalties are called, too, and the league wants offense and they love that aspect of teams coming from behind like that.”

Those rules include more penalties called for obstructing, hooking, holding and slashing and increased advantages on faceoffs for the offensive team. Just like the standings that are set up to be neck-and-neck down the stretch to the playoffs, the modern game is designed for no team to be out of a game.

When David Quinn’s New York Rangers went down 4-0 at Montreal this season, the second-year coach considered it a little unfair based on their effort. They won 6-5 in regulation.

”One of the things we talked about in between the first and second period was: ‘Don’t play the score. If you do the right thing over and over again, the game will reward you,”’ Quinn recalled. ”And I thought that’s what happened. Within a game, you’ve got to be mentally tough, and you’re going to have to have resiliency.”

See the Panthers, who stunned Anaheim and Boston with those four-goal comebacks. Quenneville has been behind an NHL bench for a long time and doesn’t have a scientific explanation for this phenomenon.

”You get a fortunate break on a bounce here, and it can really shift the momentum,” Quenneville said. ”There’s been a lot of offense in this year’s game, teams going for it. You’ve got a 4-0 lead, whether you take your foot off the pedal and all of a sudden you maybe relax a little bit, but the other team’s pressing, they’re pinching, they’re taking more offensive zone chances and thinking that way. You get a couple of breaks and all of a sudden, the other team’s on their heels.”

Much of it is psychological. Players after building a big lead could naturally think their heavy lifting is over for the game. Those on the other side are just getting started.

”The team that’s ahead, as much as you fight it, there’s a natural instinct to just ease off the gas a little and give (up) opportunities,” said Matt Niskanen, whose Philadelphia Flyers recently beat the Bruins in a shootout after trailing by three goals. ”Mentally, you tell yourself, ‘Don’t let up, keep playing the same way because we’re having success for a reason.’ It’s a really hard thing to fight.”

After reaching Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Bruins lead the Atlantic Division at the All-Star break despite a penchant for blowing leads (and their 0-7 shootout record isn’t ideal).

”We’ve got to bear down,” Boston center Patrice Bergeron said. ”You can’t just have a good effort, be satisfied with that, and then just play for a half a game.”

Half a game isn’t enough, especially since hockey has moved toward more offensively skilled players and away from those tasked with keeping the puck out of the net. There’s also the fact that 25 of 31 teams are either in or within 10 points of a playoff spot, and it’s hard for teams to dominate a whole game — let alone a season.

”It just shows the parity of the league and that on any given night, everybody can beat somebody else” Reirden said ”It’s extremely competitive.”

Carlson, Makar, McDavid among PHWA 2020 midseason award winners

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For the third year in a row the Professional Hockey Writers Association has released midseason awards as its members submitted ballots in the days leading up the 2020 NHL All-Star break.

“We’re proud of the work our members put in throughout the entire season, crunching numbers, following trends and speaking to sources to gather the best ballot possible,” PHWA president Frank Seravalli said. “The Midseason Awards are the latest example of that, beginning an independent evaluation process in January that won’t conclude until early April when the real ballots are returned.” 

There were 117 writers representing all 32 PHWA chapters who cast ballots for 10 awards, including the Hart, Norris, Calder, Lady Byng, and Selke.

There were also votes for the Vezina Trophy, GM of the Year, as well as two non-traditional awards, including the Rod Langway Award, for best “defensive defenseman,” and Comeback Player of the Year, awarded to a player who has returned to a previous high level of performance that was interrupted by subpar play, long-term injury or major illness.

Here are the results:

Hart Trophy to the player adjudged to be most valuable to his team.
1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
2. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
3. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins 

Norris Trophy to the defenseman who demonstrates the greatest all-round ability in the position.
1. John Carlson, Washington Capitals
2. Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
3. Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes 

Selke Trophy to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game.
1. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers
2. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
3. Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues 

Calder Trophy to the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition.
1. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche
2. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks
3. Victor Olofsson, Buffalo Sabres 

[NHL AWARDS: PHT hands out hardware at the All-Star Break]

Lady Byng Trophy to the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.
1. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
2. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
3. Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues 

Vezina Trophy to the goaltender adjudged to be the best at his position.
1. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets
2. Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars
3. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes 

Jack Adams Award to the coach adjudged to have contributed the most to his team’s success.
1. Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh Penguins
2. John Tortorella, Columbus Blue Jackets
3. Craig Berube, St. Louis Blues 

Jim Gregory GM of the Year Award to the General Manager adjusted to have contributed most to his team’s success.
1. Joe Sakic, Colorado Avalanche
2. John Chayka, Arizona Coyotes
3. Doug Armstrong, St. Louis Blues 

Rod Langway Award to the defenseman who best excels in the defensive aspect of the game.
1. Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes
2. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Roman Josi, Nashville Predators 

Comeback Player of the Year Award to the player who returned to a previous high level of performance that was interrupted by subpar play, long-term injury or major illness.
1. William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs
2. Anthony Duclair, Ottawa Senators
3. Max Pacioretty, Vegas Golden Knights 

Established in 1962, the Professional Hockey Writers Association is dedicated to preserving the rights and improving the access for members of the North American- based media who cover ice hockey. The PHWA is comprised of approximately 300 dues-paying members in NHL markets who write about the sport for newspapers, magazines and online media. PHWA members vote on the following seven NHL Awards: Hart Trophy, Calder Trophy, Selke Trophy, Lady Byng Trophy, Norris Trophy, Masterton Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy, in addition to NHL All-Star and All-Rookie teams.

PHT Morning Skate: Mystery of McDavid’s knee injury; Should Penguins make trades?

McDavid knee Morning Skate
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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.

• Don’t be surprised if the elite women’s hockey 3-on-3 ends up being the best part of the 2020 NHL All-Star Game. (Tampa Bay Times)

• Solving the mystery of Connor McDavid‘s knee injury. (Edmonton Journal)

• Arguing in favor of the Penguins being aggressive and making a trade to improve their supporting cast. Sidney Crosby is 32, while Evgeni Malkin is 33. Kris Letang is also 32. You never know when your championship window is truly going to close, so why not go for it? (Pensburgh)

• What the Maple Leafs can learn from the hated Bruins. (The Star)

• Could the Jets’ slippage cost Paul Maurice his job? The fellow is basically a coaching vampire, so I’ll believe it when I see it. (National Post)

• Rick Tocchet feels like most of us about replacing Gerard Gallant as Pacific All-Star coach because the latter was fired: weird. (Ottawa Sun)

• Justin Williams exceeded expectations during his return to the Hurricanes. (Charlotte News & Observer)

• Comparing Alex Ovechkin‘s remarkable 2019-20 season to his other best sniping years. He’s basically a Terminator robot on skates … right down to some good one-liners. (Japers’ Rink)

• Which forwards should the Ducks look to trade? I agree with Jake Rudolph that trading Ryan Getzlaf would be wise, and also agree that getting Getzlaf to sign off on a trade is a whole other ballgame. (Anaheim Calling)

• Gus Katsaros explores why the Islanders haven’t drawn many penalties. (Rotoworld)

• The Blues are showing off impressive depth during what’s been a strong title defense so far. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• Larry Brooks argues that a lack of urgency might submarine the Rangers’ playoff hopes. Personally, I think “rarely having the puck” and “being bad at defense” rank higher on their list of worries. (New York Post)

• Breaking down the coaching job Alain Vigneault is pulling off with the Philadelphia Flyers. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• Can the Coyotes use the All-Star break to regroup? They’ve slipped a bit lately. (Five for Howling)

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.