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Grit meant gold in NHL free agency

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After a 2018 NHL Draft that emphasized speed and skill, sometimes while ignoring size concerns, GMs clearly asked “Where’s the beef?” in free agency.

Gritty, hard-nosed, “old-school” players really raked it in. While it’s tough not to feel happy for guys setting themselves up for life (especially since they might feel aches and pains decades after their playing days), it’s also difficult to avoid criticizing franchises for placing premiums on traits that aren’t necessarily proven to bring a whole lot of on-ice value.

With all the beef getting grilled up on the Fourth of July, it seems like a most sensible time to look over some of the moments when teams paid too much for “elbow grease.”

Check out all the free agent moves here.

One of the winners of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs

After scoring as many goals in the postseason (seven) as he generated ruing the regular season, you’d expect Devante Smith-Pelly to get one of those “shrug, you’re clutch, we’ll overpay you”-type deals. Instead, he re-signed with the Capitals for a very reasonable one-year, $1 million deal.

The fluky contract ended up going to Ryan Reaves, who landed a whopping two-year, $5.5M deal. If you want my gut reaction, Hockey Abstract’s Rob Vollman posted the GIF that captured it, but consider that Reaves: a) seemed to have one foot out of the NHL, b) ultimately only ended up with two goals and six shots on goal in his 10 playoff appearances, and c) also cost the Penguins a first-rounder heading into last season.

Even as someone who’s happy for Reaves’ revitalization on a human level, it’s jarring to see all the assets locked up in the limited enforcer. Especially since the Golden Knights otherwise avoided risky deals in letting James Neal and David Perron walk.

Pouring scrappy salt in wounds

Heading into John Tavares‘ decision time, the Islanders showed promise by tweaking their front office and executing a seemingly pitch-perfect draft. Then they poured ice water on that optimism by following the loss of Tavares with some head-scratching moves.

The Islanders really alleviated some of the Maple Leafs’ smaller cap concerns by not requiring salary retention in the Matt Martin trade, but at least Martin was/is beloved by Islanders fans. Maybe acquiring Martin soothed wounds for a mere moment.

Still, it wasn’t a shrewd move, and savvy Islanders fans likely viewed it as another rough moment.

The worry was that the Islanders would experience some of the bad moments of Lou Lamoriello as GM, and that was cemented by a lousy Leo Komarov contract. A $3M cap hit was already questionable for a depth forward, but giving the 31-year-old a four-year term is outright painful.

Considering all the dead money already tied up in marginal players, including redundant ones such as $3.5M for multiple years of Cal Clutterbuckget ready to dominate the hits category, Islanders – a grim outlook only got bleaker thanks to the league’s tendency to overrate “sandpaper.”

[More on the Islanders’ penchant for piling up depth players here.]

More strange decisions

  • The Vancouver Canucks earn a special demerit here because, at least with the Golden Knights in particular and the Islanders if Mathew Barzal works some miracles, some of these other teams at least have some playoff aspirations. Maybe that “good in the room” guy can do [insert subjective intangible things] to help them make the playoffs?

(Honestly, I’m not high on the Islanders’ chances this season, and they might be better off hitting the draft lottery, anyway.)

You’d have to be hitting the Kool-Aid pretty hard to believe that Vancouver is going to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, so their big spending on small-time, gritty players is especially baffling.

Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel both bring some things to the table, yet neither scrappy forward should be expected to turn a cellar dweller into a contender. Giving them matching four-year, $12M contracts might be in step with handing a bad deal to Komarov, but it feels just as much like burning money.

By the time the Canucks are climbing the ranks more rapidly, Beagle and Roussel are likely to be considered burden contracts. Father Time can be especially cruel to bottom-of-the-order guys, so Roussel (28) and Beagle (already 32) are vulnerable to aging poorly. Even if they remained as they are, these deals are questionable. Not good.

  • Mike Babcock apparently isn’t the only person in the NHL who’s way-too-in-love with Roman Polak. The Stars seem infatuated with two conflicting types of moves: 1) landing stars via lopsided trades in their favor and 2) wasting money on immobile defensemen. Giving Polak $1.3M was a case of number two.
  • At least the Stars and other teams limited their risks with one-year deals. Personally, I wonder about the viability of Zac Rinaldo (to Nashville), Luke Schenn (Ducks), and injury-prone Eric Fehr (Wild), but the minimum term makes those decisions far easier to digest.

***

Again, kudos to these “lunchpail guys” for maximizing their value in the open market. This sport undoubtedly takes a huge toll on their bodies and minds, and as Reaves showed with some pretty goals, they all have some hockey talent. You don’t really see someone enjoy a reasonably lengthy NHL career without bringing anything to the table.

That said, such modes of thought could really open up advantages for GMs who take a different approach than their traditional counterparts.

In other words, the winners here aren’t just the rugged players, their agents, and their accountants.

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 driving Coyotes’ fast start, and how can they maintain it?

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PITTSBURGH — The Arizona Coyotes probably deserved a better result Friday night in Pittsburgh.

A lost face-off followed by a fluke bounce, Phil Kessel missing a wide open net, and a couple of jaw-dropping saves by Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry were just enough to turn yet another solid road effort into a tough-luck 2-0 loss, dropping them one point back of the Edmonton Oilers for first place in the Pacific Division. Even with that result the Coyotes are still off to one of the best starts in franchise history (even dating back to the Winnipeg days) and have at least put themselves on solid ground in the Western Conference playoff race.

Here’s how good their start has been:

  • Their .613 points percentage as of Friday is fourth best in the Western Conference, while they have a six-point cushion between them and the group of teams outside the playoff picture. That may not seem like a huge gap in early December with still three quarters of the season remaining, but history suggests not many teams (less than 20 percent) are able to make up that sort of deficit. The odds are in their favor.
  • Their 38 points through 31 games are tied for the fourth most in the franchise’s 40-year history, and are the most since they had 41 points during the 2013-14 season (that team ended up missing the playoffs by just two points following a second-half collapse. The Western Conference was also far more competitive and top-heavy that season than it is this season).
  • They allowing just 2.26 goals per game, the second lowest total in the league.

In a lot of ways this team has been a Western Conference version of the New York Islanders. They don’t really have an offense that is going to break games open, and they don’t rate very highly in a lot of analytical areas when it comes to shot attempts or shot rates, all of which can lead to some skepticism. But like the Islanders they help make up for the lack of quantity in a couple of other key areas. Their “expected goals against” rate (via Natural Stat Trick) is in the top-10 in the league, indicating that while they give up a lot of attempts they don’t give up the type of attempts that typically turn into goals. They are one of the most disciplined and least penalized teams in the league, almost entirely eliminating the special teams battle. And the most important element? They have one of the best goaltending duos in the league in Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta.

Those two many not be household names around the league, but since being united in Arizona the list of goalies that have outperformed them can be counted on one hand. Since the start of the 2017-18 season both Raanta and Kuemper are in the top-five (among the 56 goalies with at least 50 games played) in all situations save percentage and even-strength save percentage, while both are in the top-10 in penalty kill save percentage. When a team gets that sort of goaltending a lot of flaws that might otherwise exist suddenly go away, and given that both have been able to play at such a high level for an extended period of time it’s easy to buy into it being sustainable. Even before arriving in Arizona both goalies had shown an ability to be above average goalies but were simply in positions where they were unable to get real playing time.

So how do the Coyotes build on this start and turn it into something that can extend their season into the spring?

1. Resist the urge to trade a goalie. Don’t try to to “trade from a strength to fill a weakness,” or even try to suggest it. The strength is what is literally driving the team right now. Not only that, it is almost a necessity to have two good goalies to win in the NHL these days because of how important it is to limit the starter’s workload and keep them fresh. Having two highly productive goalies signed to cap-friendly contracts through next season is a massive advantage. Take advantage of it. Keep them both and keep each them fresh by playing them each regularly. Their success isn’t a fluke.

2. Hope for a rebound from the top players. One of the most surprising aspects of their start is the trio of Phil Kessel, Clayton Keller, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson has combined for just 13 goals this season, putting them on a pace for only 34 goals over 82 games. A year ago that trio scored 55 goals. All three are currently being crushed on the shooting percentage front, and while Keller has never really been a high percentage scorer, the other two have been. Kessel has shown signs the past few games that he could be on the verge of one of his goal-scoring binges, while Ekman-Larsson has scored at least 12 goals in each of the past six seasons, at least 14 goals in five of those seasons. He is due. If those two can get their puck luck to change the offense will suddenly look a lot different (and better).

3. Get Niklas Hjalmarsson back. The other surprising element of their success has been that they have played almost the entire season without Hjalmarsson after he was injured back in October when he was hit by a shot. He is back on the ice skating, and given his original time frame is probably a couple of weeks away from returning to the lineup. It would be a significant add because Hjalmarsson is one of the team’s best defensive players. If he can return to that level it would be a significant addition to a lineup that is already one of the best teams in the league at preventing goals.

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: Another shutout for Jarry; Draisaitl puts Oilers back in first

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Three Stars

1. Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins. Another big win for the Penguins on Friday night, and they owe this one to Jarry as he recorded his second consecutive shutout and stole the show in Phil Kessel‘s first visit back to Pittsburgh as a visiting player since the offseason trade. Jarry has been getting the bulk of the starts over the past couple of weeks and is making a pretty convincing case to keep getting them as he improved his season save percentage to .942 with Friday’s win. He has stopped all 61 shots he has faced over the past two games and has won six of his past seven appearances.

2. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. Thanks to the Arizona Coyotes’ 2-0 loss in Pittsburgh, the Oilers were able to jump back ahead of them for first place in the Pacific Division with their 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings. Draisaitl was again one of the big impact players for the Oilers by factoring into both of the team’s goals. He opened the scoring in the first period by banking a shot in off of Kings defender Drew Doughty, then set up Alex Chiasson‘s game-winning goal just a few minutes later. With his two points he takes over sole possession of the league lead in the scoring race with 53 points, moving one point ahead of his teammate — and linemate — Connor McDavid, who now has 52 points. No other player in the league has more than 44 points right now.

3. Jakub Vrana, Washington Capitals. Vrana continued his hot streak — and great season — on Friday with a pair of points, including the game-winning goal, in the Capitals’ 3-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks. He now has at least one point in seven of his past nine games, including three multi-point games. His goal on Friday was already his 15th of the season and has him on pace for close to 40 goals this season.

Other notable performances from Friday

  • Shea Weber was great for the Montreal Canadiens in their 2-1 win over the New York Rangers, but he also had a painful night by taking a puck right to the face. Read all about it here.
  • Alex DeBrincat scored for the second game in a row (his seventh goal of the season) as the Blackhawks were able to get a 2-1 shootout win in New Jersey. Corey Crawford was also great in net for the Blackhawks, stopping 29 out of 30 shots throughout regulation and overtime three out of five shots in a five-round shootout.
  • Mikko Koskinen stopped 35 out of 36 shots for the Oilers in their win over the Kings.

Highlights of the Night

Nate Thompson gives the Canadiens the lead with his game-winning goal against the Rangers.

When you record consecutive shutouts you probably have a lot of big saves on your individual highlight reel, and this was probably Jarry’s best of the night on Friday against the Coyotes. This helped protect what was at the time a one-goal lead.

The Blackhawks were 2-1 shootout winners in New Jersey and it was rookie Kirby Dach scoring the winning goal in the fifth round on this slick move.

Blooper of the Night

This could have been a problem for Capitals goalie Braden Holtby as he nearly put the puck in his own net.

Factoids

  • The past two days have seen almost every game across the NHL be decided by just a single goal. The only two that have been decided by more than one goal were only decided by more because of late empty net goals. [NHL PR]
  • Claude Julien moved into a tie for sixth place on the Canadiens’ all-time coaching wins list on Friday night. [NHL PR]
  • The Oilers’ power play is one of the big reasons they are in first place in the Pacific Division so far this season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Pittsburgh Penguins 2, Arizona Coyotes 0
Montreal Canadiens 2, New York Rangers 1
Chicago Blackhawks 2, New Jersey Devils 1 (SO)
Edmonton Oilers 2, Los Angeles Kings 1
Washington Capitals 3, Anaheim Ducks 2

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.

Canadiens’ Shea Weber bloodied after blocking shot with his face (Video)

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The Montreal Canadiens picked up a hard fought (and much needed) win in New York on Friday night by knocking off the Rangers, 2-1, thanks to a late goal from Nate Thompson with a minute to play in regulation.

It was a painful win for captain Shea Weber.

He was once again a workhorse on the Canadiens’ blue line, playing a game-high 24 minutes, finishing as a plus-one, attempting five shots, and blocking five in the defensive zone. One of those blocks in the first period left him bloodied as he slid to the ice and was hit directly in the face by a shot from Rangers center Ryan Strome.

You can see the play in the video above. He somehow did not miss a shift after that play.

Weber has been one of the consistent bright spots for the Canadiens this season and is showing that he can still be a dominant, impactful player. His biggest problem the past few years has been staying healthy enough to remain in the lineup so he can make that impact. So far this season that has not been a problem. He already has 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists) in the Canadiens’ first 30 games this season while posting some of the best possession numbers of his career. His 0.76 points per game average would also be the highest mark of his career.

The Canadiens’ win on Friday was only their second in their past 11 games.

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.

Hurricanes remain ‘hopeful’ for a Justin Williams comeback

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When Justin Williams announced in September he would be “taking a break” from hockey, he didn’t shut the door entirely on a possible comeback at some point this season.

“Because of my current indecision, and without the type of mental and physical commitment that I’m accustomed to having, I’ve decided to step away from the game,” wrote the 38-year-old Williams.

With the Hurricanes sitting in an Eastern Conference wild card and only two points away from a top three spot in the Metropolitan Division, adding a veteran goal scorer like Williams would only help. What he brings on and off the ice is immeasurable, and it was clear last season just how valuable he was to a budding young team. The team is hopeful he’ll return to play and are keeping the lines of communication open.

“We continue to talk with him. I think he’s working out a little bit more on his own right now,” Hurricanes GM Don Waddell told the team website this week. “I think he’s going to start coming to the gym a little more. That’s a positive sign. What that end result is yet is still a mystery to all of us, but we’re hopeful that maybe there is an opportunity there to have him come back.”

Waddell isn’t the only one who’s unsure of a Williams return. Williams himself sounds like he’s been back and forth on what his future holds, according to head coach Rod Brind’Amour.

“I don’t know. I think we’re getting closer to a time where if he doesn’t, then he’s not,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s got to get in game shape and do all that, so there’s a time frame for that. There’s still time for that. … We talk quite a bit. We mostly talk about kids and how’s coaching going. I’ll ask if he’s staying in shape or getting in shape, and he’ll some days say, ‘Yeah,’ and then say, ‘Ah, maybe.’ So, we’ll see.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.