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Should Flyers sign Simmonds long-term? It’s complicated

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An NHL GM can make mistakes in a lot of different ways.

One of the most challenging hurdles an executive must clear is determining whether they should keep quality (but aging) mid-level talent around. It’s easy to pinpoint the nucleus of your roster, and try to lock those players down – ideally for value – and it should be easy to disqualify the filler. But what about nice assets with cloudier stances in the pecking order?

It’s maybe a bit amusing that the Flyers signing James van Riemsdyk – a player the Maple Leafs ultimately decided wasn’t a core player – might open the door for Wayne Simmonds to leave Philadelphia under similar circumstances.

Flyers GM Ron Hextall admits that he’d like to keep Simmonds, but he also doesn’t know if it will work out.

“We’d like to sign Simmer,” Hextall said, via Sam Donnellon of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Whether we can or not, I don’t have the answer to that.”

It’s fair to ask if the Flyers can sign Simmonds. It’s also reasonable to wonder if they should.

Now, if this wasn’t a salary cap league, a big-budget team like the Flyers probably wouldn’t fret about signing Simmonds, who’s an undeniable talent. Things get trickier when the belt tightens, and Hextall’s wise to acknowledge that there are some big decisions – and possibly mammoth raises to brilliant younger talents – coming in the near future.

So let’s explore many of the ins and outs of this situation, and the Flyers’ fascinating outlook with or without one of the league’s best power forwards.

Superb situational scorer

Possessing prolific power-play prowess might sometimes seem like a backhanded compliment (“He can’t score at 5-on-5,” – hypothetical jerks), but it can be highly valuable to unearth players who seem to score in those situations, year-in, and year-out.

Simmonds has been, unquestionably, a fantastic scorer on the power play since being traded to Philly. Since 2011-12 (his first season with the Flyers), Simmonds scored 86 power-play goals, the second-best total in the NHL during that frame. Only superhuman Alex Ovechkin was better, leaping tall buildings with a signal bound at 131 goals; Simmonds leads third-place Steven Stamkos by 10 goals (Stamkos had 76, albeit limited by injuries).

Fixating on the power play is only natural with Simmonds (86 of his 187 goals in 522 Flyers games came on the man advantage), yet he brings other strengths to the table.

While the physical winger’s fantasy value gets bumped up another notch by frequent trips to the penalty box (958 PIM in 762 career NHL regular-season games), Natural Stat Trick’s metrics show that he tends to draw about as many penalties as he takes. So that grit doesn’t necessarily put his team at a massive disadvantage.

Simmonds’ possession stats ebb and flow, but some of that might come down to the quality of his linemates. They were mostly “meh” at even-strength in 2017-18, with Valtteri Filppula and Jordan Weal ranking as his most common forward partners.

Between power plays and normal minutes, the bottom line is that Simmonds has been very productive. Last season’s 24 goals and 46 points were borderline alarming for him for the simple reason that he’s been very, very good at times for the Flyers. Simmonds previously scored at least 28 goals for four straight seasons, and with 24 last year, has five in a row with at least that many. He’s essentially been a 30-ish goal guy for most of his Flyers run, as he managed 15 goals in the 45 contests during the pattern and streak-ruining 2012-13 lockout season.

Long story short, there’s a lot to like about Simmonds. If the Flyers let him walk, plenty of teams will clamor for his services, and there are scenarios where he’d sign with a divisional rival and make his former team miserable.

The questions

Again, there are some stumbling blocks, especially if Simmonds wants serious term.

He’ll turn 30 on Aug. 26. While his rather unusual ability to score in tight might be a skill that actually ages well, there are reasons to also wonder if he’d hit the aging curve especially hard.

Most obviously, a physical player is involved in more demolition derby moments, and even if they “win” those collisions more often than not, they take a toll. (Consider that Scott Stevens retired in large part for health reasons, despite being the guy who was usually the culprit rather than victim of vicious hits.)

[James van Riemsdyk signing could spell end for Simmonds with Flyers]

Simmonds was slowed in 2017-18 by issues that ended up requiring core surgery. Maybe those issues can be considered a one-time thing, but age is a serious question here. With Claude Giroux (30), Jakub Voracek (28), and JVR (29) all signed to serious term and combining for a cap hit of $23.525M, the Flyers already boast some forwards whose contracts could become future problems.

JVR’s skills may also make Simmonds’ PP gifts relatively redundant. During his time with Toronto, 45 of James van Riemsdyk’s 154 goals came on the man advantage.

A clever special teams coach would look at a power play featuring JVR and Simmonds – along with gifted assets such as Giroux and Shayne Gostisbehere – as a buffet of brilliant options. Still, the salary cap sometimes dictates that team give up on luxuries to afford necessities, and JVR might make Simmonds expendable.

The bill’s coming

According to Cap Friendly, the Flyers currently enjoy a robust $13.22M in cap space.

With that in mind, it would be tempting to dismiss the fact that Simmonds is due to make a lot more than his bargain, expiring rate of $3.975M. The issue gets thornier when you consider other looming expenses, particularly if Simmonds – justifiably – seeks both a raise and serious term.

Ivan Provorov is entering a contract year, and Hextall might just want to get that situation wrapped up. The Flyers’ two goalies (Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth) will see their combined $5.25M evaporate after 2018-19. One way or another, netminding decisions are coming; it could be a cheap situation once more if Carter Hart ends up being ready, but it’s fuzzy right now.

Locking up the Provorov’s and eventually the Nolan Patrick‘s stand as serious concerns, yet there are also some positives that push the Simmonds decision closer to “go for it.”

Hextall’s been crafty with erasing the mistakes of the past, sometimes quickly and sometimes gradually. Some dead money will be fading soon, making it more plausible for a Simmonds deal to come into focus. Jori Lehtera‘s ghastly $4.7M goes away after next season. Andrew MacDonald‘s ridiculous $5M mercifully expires after 2019-10. They’ll also get to wave goodbye to Dale Weise, Michael Raffl, and Radko Gudas if they want to fairly soon.

Between some money coming off the books and (in an ideal world) another healthy jump for the salary cap, retaining Simmonds might become quite manageable. As Hextall acknowledges, some of the details need to be sorted out.

Wait-and-see?

Donnellon reports that Hextall said he’d be willing to negotiate with Simmonds into the season, and while that might seem like a throwaway detail, it might just be the ticket.

The bottom line is that it will be easier to understand how the pieces fall together (between JVR, Simmonds, and rising young talents such as Patrick and Travis Konecny) after seeing them all in action. JVR’s presence could just as easily boost Simmonds as it could push him to a secondary unit or clog too much of the same real estate in front of the net.

Taking that extra time could also give Hextall the opportunity to achieve cost certainty if he can figure out how much Provorov will cost, and if it would make sense to keep Elliott or Neuvirth around to support Hart.

The Flyers stand as a truly fascinating team to watch. There’s an appealing mix of established players and rising young stars, and if they can come to productive conclusions with the eternal questions about goaltending, they could rise from a playoff bubble team to a frequent, scary contender.

Figuring out what’s the best step to take with Simmonds – whether it be to sign him, let him walk, or trade him before his deal expires – is a very important decision.

For all we know, it could be one of the make-or-break factors as Hextall hopes to convert all of this potential into playoff glories.

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.

NHL on NBC: Bruins want to be more than ‘teddy bears’ vs. Penguins

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NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Considering the Bruins’ comfortable lead atop the Atlantic Division, most teams would gladly take on Boston’s “problems.”

Still, for the Bruins — and few other teams, but yes, also the Penguins, their opponents on Sunday afternoon — it’s about more than division titles. After falling a Game 7 shy of winning the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, this group boasts lofty aspirations.

The Bruins aim to fine-tune during this stretch of the 2019-20 season, and to some, that means reestablishing their identity.

Bruins try to shed ‘Teddy Bears’ criticism

The B’s didn’t just lose Tuukka Rask to an injury on Tuesday when Emil Bemstrom delivered an errant elbow during Columbus’ 3-0 win. Their perceived lack of a response meant that some lost respect for this group.

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty went as far as to call the Bruins “teddy bears.”

The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa also opined (sub required) that “The Big, Bad Bruins are dead.”

Bruins players seemed to get the memo in beating the Penguins 4-1 on Thursday. Haggerty and others praised the team’s physical response, including a rare Torey Krug fight against Patric Hornqvist.

“It’s not about going out there and trying to run them out of the rink. Looking at our roster, we don’t have that kind of group anymore,” Krug said after that win, via Haggerty. “But we talked about sticking together and competing harder and sacrificing a little more. That doesn’t mean putting a guy through the glass, but it means going into the corner and having the willingness to get hit, or to hit somebody else, in order to come out of there with the puck. I think that desperation was lost there for a few games, so hopefully this is a step in the right direction and we can kind of grasp that concept again. It’s been part of our DNA for years, so as long as we can get back to that [we’ll be good].”

Some lingering questions for Bruins

Again, you could argue there’s some mild soul-searching going on for Boston.

Blame it on a drop in physicality, or perhaps some other factors, but I’d personally be a little more concerned about dipping underlying numbers.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12:30 P.M. ET ON NBC]

Looking at sites like Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference, there’s been a dip in key categories. They’ve hogged the puck less often, and have been on the wrong end of high-danger chances (owning just 45.6 percent of that category, via Hockey Reference).

These numbers shouldn’t make anyone pull a fire alarm. It’s not that the Bruins have been terrible. Instead, there are some red flags that the Bruins should improve their play. Sean Tierney (Charting Hockey)’s expected goals share chart captures the sometimes middle-of-the-pack feel to the Bruins’ stats:

Bruins xg

Would the Bruins dominate the puck if they add more edge? Maybe, but either way, there are signs that the B’s have room to improve.

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will have the call of the Bruins-Penguins matchup on NBC from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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.

The Buzzer: Elvis, Ovechkin, and others who rocked

Elvis Ovechkin three stars pht buzzer
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Three Stars beyond Elvis and Ovechkin

1. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago blowing out Toronto will lead to some hand-wringing, no doubt. Yet, as much as that was on a tough night for Frederik Andersen, give the Blackhawks some credit. Toews topped all in that game with an outstanding four-point performance (two goals and two assists).

Saturday continued what’s been one heck of a month for Toews. The Blackhawks captained pushed his January total to 15 points (5G, 10A). Toews reached that total in just eight games, scoring at least one point in seven contests.

Scratch that. Toews has been on fire for a while now. He started off ice-cold with only two points in 11 October games. Toews took off after that, and has generated an impressive 41 points in his past 28 contests.

Underrated rookie Dominik Kubalik contributed to Chicago’s win, too, with three points (2G, 1A).

2. Riley Sheahan, Edmonton Oilers

Sheahan scoffs at Toews’ slow start. The journeyman forward failed to score a point in 12 October games, and managed one in 11 November contests. Sheahan went and matched his December points total (four in 14 GP) in one contest on Saturday.

That’s right, he generated four points, scoring an empty-netter plus three assists. Connor McDavid dominated in his own right with two goals, but Sheahan helped the Oilers rout the Coyotes. Josh Archibald generated three points (1G, 2A) as well.

This just in: the Oilers have a lot of “that guy’s still around?” forwards. It’s honestly cool to see some of them have such a strong day, and maybe take a bit of the pressure off McDavid here and there.

3. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets

It’s as though Atkinson never missed any time. After scoring a goal and an assist in his first game in almost one month on Thursday, Atkinson generated three points (2G, 1A) on Saturday. This gives Atkinson seven points (4G, 3A) in his past four contests.

Others give Atkinson a run for his money, even beyond the next section. Jason Zucker (1G, 2A) and James van Riemsdyk (1G, 2A) both contributed to their respective teams’ blowouts. Atkinson’s extra goal gives him the edge.

OK, now let’s consider Elvis and Ovechkin

Saturday featured enough strong performances that it feels better to give these two a mention. After all, they already received their own posts. Yes, these two probably rank as the “real” third and fourth stars of Saturday, or higher, depending upon your personal taste.

Highlight of the Night

Marc-Andre Fleury is suffering through a tough season, big-picture wise. “The Flower” keeps adding to his resume of breathtaking saves, though:

Comic relief

Jamie Benn provides us with a reason to laugh. At least those of us who aren’t immediately transported to our own memories of hilarious blunders.

That video summarizes the Stars’ night succinctly, as the Wild beat them 7-0.

Factoids

  • Ovechkin nabbed consecutive hat tricks to push his career goals total to 692. He passed Mario Lemieux (11th all-time, 690) and tied Steve Yzerman for ninth all-time (692). Mark Messier sits just two goals away at eighth with 694. Ovechkin also generated consecutive hat tricks for the third time in his career. In doing so, Ovechkin joined Joe Malone (four times) and Wayne Gretzky (three) as the only players to generate consecutive hat tricks three or more times, according to NHL PR. Again, this post delves deeper into Ovechkin’s latest accomplishments.
  • Ovechkin’s teammate John Carlson reached 60 points. Carlson managed the feat in just 49 games, getting to 60 faster than any Capitals defenseman; Mike Green held the previous mark with 60 by game 57. Opinion: Green deserved better treatment from hockey folks during his peak years.
  • Merzlikins authored the 18th instance of a rookie goalie getting a shutout of at least 41 saves, via NHL PR.
  • Cale Makar scored his 11th goal, setting a new record for goals by a rookie Avalanche defenseman.
  • Dominik Kubalik reached 20 goals in his 47th game. NHL PR points out that Kubalik ranks among sixth Blackhawks to reach 20 goals in 50 games or less.

Scores

WSH 6 – NYI 4
COL 5 – STL 3
EDM 7 – ARI 3
OTT 5 – CGY 2
CHI 6 – TOR 2
MTL 5 – VGK 4 (SO)
FLA 4 – DET 1
PHI 4 – LAK 1
CBJ 5 – NJD 0
NSH 2 – BUF 1
MIN 7 – DAL 0
VAN 4 – SJS 1

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.

Elvis thrives: Merzlikins is on fire for Blue Jackets

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Elvis Merzlikins advanced a bold goal lately: to be more than just a funny name. He is leaving opponents all shook  up absolutely red-hot for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

Elvis absolutely hound-dogged shut out the New Jersey Devils in Columbus’ 5-0 on Saturday, and that 41-save performance was far from his first standout evening. Merzlikins generated three shutouts in his last four games, allowing just two goals overall. The Blue Jackets won all four of those games.

(OK, this post includes enough cheesy Elvis jokes … arguably.)

During seven appearances between October and November, the 25-year-old goalie languished with sub-.900 save percentages. Since then, he’s started to take off.

Some “too perfect” moments for Elvis Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets

Maybe Merzlikins made a New Year’s Eve resolution to dominate? Perhaps it was because Elvis asked reporters to leave him alone? Merzlikins suffered only two losses since Dec. 31, winning eight of 10 games.

The lights-out play already makes the story endearing, but there are notes of the surreal. Consider a few facts about his hot streak:

“That’s what you like about him. He’s strong mentally,” Tortorella said after the Jan. 11 Vegas shutout, via Rob Mixer of First Ohio Battery. “He’s a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here…but he’s handled himself really well. I’m happy for him.”

  • Merzlikins ended up making it back-to-back shutouts, as he also blanked the Bruins with a 34-save shutout. His three shutouts have upped the ante each time: first 27 saves, then 34, then 41 against the Devils on Saturday.

Tortorella deserves ample credit for creating a cocoon for his goalies, of course.

Regardless, Merzlikins is playing a big role in helping the Blue Jackets stay in the East wild-card races. Here’s hoping that our jokes rise up the charts or we might just need to leave the building.

(Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

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.

Hat trick helps Ovechkin pass Lemieux, tie Yzerman for ninth on NHL goals list

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An historic week for Alex Ovechkin was capped off with a hat trick Saturday afternoon during a 6-4 win over the Islanders. His three goals pushes him past Mario Lemieux and into ninth place with 692, tying him with Steve Yzerman.

Ovechkin opened the scoring and then passed Mario Lemieux for 10th all-time in the third period as the Capitals mounted their comeback. He ended his day with an empty-netter to seal the win and tie Yzerman. The Islanders led 4-1 entering the third period.

Powered by two consecutive hat tricks, Ovechkin has eight goals in his last three games and 10 in his previous six.

That’s now three consecutive multi-goal games for Ovechkin, the first time he’s done that in his career. Earlier this week he not only passed Teemu Selanne for 11th on the all-time goals list but also hit the 30-goal mark for the 15th time in his career. He, along with Jaromir Jagr and Mike Gartner, are the only players to ever record 15 consecutive 30-goal seasons.

With three goals Saturday — the third time he’s recorded hat tricks in consecutive games — Ovechkin now has 34 on the season as he eyes a ninth 50-goal season. His hat trick was the 26th of his NHL career, tying him with Maurice Richard for eighth all-time.

Next in Ovechkin’s sights? Mark Messier, who finished with 694 goals in his career.

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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.