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Expect huge year from Max Pacioretty no matter where he plays

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Montreal Canadiens.

As of this posting in the middle of August, Max Pacioretty is still a member of the Montreal Canadiens.

He is still a member of the team after speculation that he could be dealt leading up to the trade deadline at the end of the 2017-18 season.

He is still a member of the team after reports surfaced in mid-July (subscription required) that the team was not going to negotiate a new contract extension with him and would look to trade him as soon as possible.

How long he will actually remain with the Canadiens is anybody’s guess at this point, but given that he only has one year left on his current contract and the team seems to be on a collision course with another disappointing season, it certainly stands to reason that he may not be on the team before the end of the season. Almost certainly not at the start of next season, barring some unforeseen change in the Canadiens’ approach.

No matter where he finishes the upcoming season there is one thing you should expect from Pacioretty, and that is a bounce back year in the goal-scoring department.

Among the many things that went wrong for the Canadiens this past season, a down year from Pacioretty was one of the more damaging developments. After being one of the league’s top goal-scorers over the previous six seasons (when he was a lock for at least 30 goals every year and averaged 35 per 82 games played) Pacioretty suffered through one of his worst seasons as a pro, managing only 17 goals in 64 games.

From a traditional box scores numbers outlook, it was an ugly season, at least by the standard Pacioretty had set for himself.

But it was not as bad as it seemed, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest it will not happen again.

[Canadiens Day: Looking back | Breakthrough | Under Pressure | Three Questions

Pacioretty’s season went south early in the year when he went through a 22-game stretch starting in mid-November where he scored just a single goal. It was an eye-opening slump because it’s not what we had come to expect from Pacioretty throughout his career, and on a team that was already desperate for offense it stood out even more. The Canadiens needed him to carry the offense, and it was not happening.

It certainly was not for a lack of effort or chances.

During that slump he was still averaging more than 3.10 shots on goal per game and had managed to score on just one of his 69 total shots on goal during the slump, a shooting percentage of just 1.4 percent.

If you want to find little faults in his game during that stretch you could probably certainly do that, but the biggest issue for an All-Star level player during that sort of slump is often times just a lot of bad luck. Every top goal-scorer in the league is prone to that sort of stretch, and it is usually just as simple as the puck isn’t going in the net. As much as nobody ever wants to admit it, sometimes it just happens.

Given Pacioretty’s career shooting percentages (which are usually around 11 percent) you would expect him to score at least seven goals on that same number of shots, and if even just four or five more end up going in the net we’re probably look at his season (and that stretch) in a totally different light.

Even though Pacioretty is entering his age 30 season and has probably already played his best hockey, there was enough in his 2017-18 performance to suggest that he still has some big hockey ahead of him, and there was not much of a change in his actual play or usage. His ice-time was identical to what it was the previous year. His underlying numbers, including his possession numbers and his ability to generate shots, attempts and chances, were still strong and among the best on the team. The biggest drop came from his shooting percentage, and even that was largely due to that 22-game slump in the middle of the year.

At a $4.5 million salary cap Pacioretty is still set to be one of the biggest bargains in the NHL for at least one more season, and for right now the Canadiens are going to be the beneficiary of that.

Where he is playing at the end of the season is still up for speculation, but no matter where it ends up being (Montreal or somewhere else) that team is going to get one of the league’s best goal-scorers.

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.

It’s Nashville Predators Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators. 

2018-19
47-29-6, 100 points (1st in Central Division, 3rd in Western Conference)
Playoffs: Lost to Dallas Stars 4-2 in Round 1.

IN:
Matt Duchene
Steve Santini
Daniel Carr

OUT:
P.K. Subban
Wayne Simmonds
Brian Boyle

RE-SIGNED:
Colton Sissons
Rocco Grimaldi
Jarred Tinordi

2018-19 Summary

If you judged the Nashville Predators’ season by the sour mood hanging over the team and fans at the end of the 2018-19, you’d almost think they were a cellar dweller.

Instead, the Predators managed to hold off the Jets and Blues to narrowly win the Central Division, and the team was able to survive some tough injuries to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. There’s no getting around the disappointment once they got there, mind you, as falling to the Stars in a six-game Round 1 series definitely ranks as a letdown.

GM David Poile’s reaction to that letdown was to make major moves, something he hasn’t been shy about in the past.

Yet, even by Poile’s standards, he made some bold bets during this offseason.

The headliner, of course, was trading P.K. Subban to New Jersey for pennies on the dollar to clear up cap space for long-rumored free agent target Matt Duchene. While that move was also, in a more indirect way, meant to keep things open for a possible Roman Josi extension, many will fairly view the Predators’ overall offseason as sending away Subban so they could land Duchene.

The value proposition is debatable, but the logic makes a reasonable amount of sense.

After all, the Predators were absolutely terrible on the power play last season, and they also had trouble getting much offense outside of the top line of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson. The hope is that Duchene can provide more balance to Nashville’s scoring attack, while Dante Fabbro might be able to replace some of what the Predators lost in shipping out Subban for not-much (sorry, Santini).

The Predators also made a fascinating bet in signing a quality depth player – but a depth player nonetheless – in Colton Sissons to a seven-year, $20 million contract. This is a “Poile move” as much as the bold trade, as the Predators also made a similar decision with Calle Jarnkrok a few years back.

One cannot help but wonder if the Predators are addressing personnel changes while ignoring possible structural issues.

Nashville’s power play woes could be as strategic as they were talent-related, as the Predators relied far too much upon lower-danger point shots, rather than a heavier number of attempts from better scoring areas like the slot. Will they emphasize that more now that Duchene is added to the mix? We’ll see.

Let’s not forget how much the Predators have struggled to integrate other new faces.

Mikael Granlund hopes to have a better full season with Nashville, after his first “rental” run was underwhelming. Kyle Turris had a fast start with the Predators, then went on to struggle for a year and change. Wayne Simmonds never really managed to make a mark as a rental, and now he’s gone to the Devils. Nick Bonino was also a disappointment as a free agent addition from a while back. Is anyone noticing a trend?

Will it be different this time around with Duchene, and will some of those players turn things around? The Predators are gambling big-time that the answer is “Yes.”

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Laine makes interesting comments about future with Jets

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Not long after Kyle Connor probably made Winnipeg Jets fans feel a little less anxious about lingering RFA impasses among two big stars, Patrik Laine had an interview with Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston that could make that discomfort rise to a boil.

At least, depending upon how much you read into things. Overall, I’d say: maybe don’t, although as Laine said, “anything could happen.”

You can see a chunk of the interview in the video above, and note that Laine seems pretty relaxed about the whole thing … but he also didn’t exactly guarantee that he’ll stick with Winnipeg.

“Well you never know. It’s still business, you’ve got to be prepared for anything,” Laine told Johnston on Friday. “But yeah, you never know where you’re going to play next year so I’m just prepared for anything.”

Johnston’s full report is worth reading beyond the video, as it includes additional details. Some are promising (Laine is working on his explosiveness, and aware of criticisms of his play off-the-puck) and unsettling (Laine apparently said contracts talks have been “non-existent”).

Again, it’s probably wise for Winnipeg fans not to get too stressed. Most notably, RFA’s are restricted free agents for a reason: teams exhibit a lot of power over their negotiating options, restricting Laine’s ability to play anywhere else. In the past, that often allowed teams to get huge bargains for second year contracts; Laine’s current teammate Mark Scheifele only carrying a $6.125M cap hit through 2023-24 is a prime example of the savings teams can soak up.

This summer could serve as a turning points where high-profile RFAs see the way NBA players are flexing their negotiating muscles, and getting a little more say in their own paths, or at least not rolling over as easily when it comes to trying to get the maximum dollars they can in this context.

Laine, of course, is far from the only RFA in this situation, and that’s the rub: players are waiting for the first shoe to drop. The Athletic’s Craig Custance provided a fascinating breakdown of the standstill for forwards like Laine as well as defensemen like Charlie McAvoy (sub required), with an anonymous agent making it sound like this is almost a game of chicken: no one wants to blink first, and possibly miss out on more money.

“There is a little of, ‘I don’t want to go first,’” The agent told Custance. “If you’re Rantanen, you’re waiting for Marner. If you’re Marner, you’re waiting for Rantanen. … And you can couple that with, there’s not a ton of urgency right now.”

In Custance’s report, he notes that the Colorado Avalanche haven’t brought offers to Mikko Rantanen, who has discussed his situation with Laine, according to Johnston.

It begs the question: could it be that maybe Laine is nudging the Jets to try to break the ice? Is this interview just a matter of timing, and Laine is merely playing it cool (or even playing “hard to get”?).

Yes, teams are waiting for that new benchmark comparable to be set, possibly in Mitch Marner‘s prominent proceedings with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

But if you’re the Jets, maybe you want to at least dip your toes in the water and see if Laine actually wants to just get something done? Winnipeg is particularly justified in wanting to try to skip in line as, again, the Jets must settle things with Laine and Connor. Earlier this week, Connor went as far as to say that he’d prefer a long-term deal with the Jets, yet would also consider something short-term.

If things thawed out with Connor, maybe they could with Laine as well?

Either way, it’s tough to imagine this ending in any way other than the Jets signing both Connor and Laine. The bigger questions likely revolve around key resolutions: how much, and for how long?

Of course, while it’s difficult to imagine Laine not eventually signing with the Jets, it’s also foolish to say that this will necessarily be easy for Winnipeg. Perhaps that’s the biggest takeaway from what may ultimately be a harmless — if a bit unsettling — interview.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Burning questions for Montreal Canadiens in 2019-20

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Montreal Canadiens. 

Let’s explore three questions for the Habs as 2019-20 approaches …

1. Which Carey Price will show up, and how often?

With that $10.5 million cap hit, Carey Price remains a questionable investment in the eyes of many (myself included).

Still, the 2018-19 season restored some hope that Price could at least be an above-average, if not occasionally elite, goalie for the Canadiens. He managed a .918 save percentage last season, which matches his career average. Considering the heights of Price’s career, that’s a remarkable achievement.

But you must also consider the low points of Price’s career, simply because the Habs have traveled through those valleys quite a bit lately. Price played poorly in 2017-18, and was limited to just 12 games played as recently as 2015-16, so it’s not a given that Montreal will receive great play from Price.

As a side note: it’s his birthday. Here’s hoping it’s a happy one, especially since Price earned about a million cool points for the touching moment he was a part of during the 2019 NHL Awards, as you can see in the video above this post’s headline.

He’s certainly someone who’s become easy to root for.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | X-factor | Under Pressure]

2. How many players already bumped against their ceilings?

The sheer number of Habs who enjoyed career years is remarkable, from Max Domi to Jeff Petry to Phillip Danault. Even traded-away forward Andrew Shaw often played over his head.

How many of those performances are repeatable?

The advice to tap the brakes is worthwhile with Domi, in particular. Contrast his brilliant 2018-19 season (28 goals, 72 points, 13.8 shooting percentage) with a rough final year in Arizona (nine goals [four empty-netters], 45 points, six shooting percentage in 2017-18) and you’ll realize that it’s dangerous to simply pencil in the same results from year to year.

It’s not all gloom and doom. While the “sophomore slump” is a threat, Jesperi Kotkaniemi could also take another big step forward. Shea Weber could be healthier, which may or may not lead to a healthier power play. And, if you’re hoping for anything to repeat, strong five-on-five play usually isn’t a fluke, at least when you keep most of the same players on a team, and most of them are pretty young.

Still, it’s possible that improved power play work might offset a slight drop-off, rather than supplementing a resounding team at even-strength … but we’ll see.

3. Will Marc Bergevin remain patient?

When it comes to judging the Habs’ GM’s work lately, it feels like people have been grading Bergevin on a curve: “Hey, this didn’t work out as badly as we thought.”

That friendly outlook might not last very long, and if Bergevin’s seat starts to heat up again — they’ve missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and three of four — then there’s the risk that he’ll make reckless moves to try to save his job.

As scrappy as this team is, forking over draft picks and/or prospects for quick fixes could really sting. Thankfully, Bergevin didn’t spend big during the past trade deadline or in free agency this summer (aside from a baffling Ben Chiarot signing), so he’s shown some discipline.

Bergevin’s one of the league’s most entertaining GMs because he’s willing to be bold, though, so we’ll see how long he can be stoic and not make a splashy move, beyond the occasional facetious offer sheet.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Will poor power play doom Canadiens again?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Montreal Canadiens. 

Despite finishing with 96 standings points – more than the Golden Knights, Stars, and Avalanche out West – the Montreal Canadiens failed to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

As much as they might be tempted to grumble about the East being deeper than the West last season, the Canadiens should instead turn that “What if?” discussion inward, and wonder: what if we figured out our power play? The Habs finished the season with a +13 goal differential overall, and their even-strength heartiness becomes even more impressive once you realize that Montreal was -14 when you consider the sum of its special teams.

Fittingly for a team that once saw P.K. Subban as a scapegoat, you can’t blame the PK, either.

Instead, the penalty kill stood out like a sore thumb that was throbbing with pain. Montreal’s 13.2 power-play percentage was the second-worst in the NHL, and they actually scored the fewest PPG overall with just 31.

While it’s dangerous to assume that the Canadiens will remain a possession powerhouse in 2019-20, it’s something Claude Julien frequently manufactures in his teams. If Montreal can stay at least strong in that area, then the power play is a big X-factor: can it at least rise to the level of average, or even good, after being a huge detriment last season?

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Questions of personnel

For the most part, Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin was justified in not being too busy in free agency (although he can be charged with not taking advantage of teams who were capped out and had to get rid of valuable players like Nikita Gusev, Erik Haula, and so on).

It would have been nice if the Canadiens might have gone after a mid-level sniper, though.

Montreal has some strong playmaking talent in the likes of Jonathan Drouin and Max Domi, but when you look at that roster, you don’t see a ton of finishers. Apologies to Joel Armia, but when he’s a key triggerman for your power play, you’re not exactly going to leave opponents cowering in fear.

What might change

So, it’s important to weigh the lack of improvements against the instinctive assumption that things are almost bound to get better just by natural regression.

And, truly, there are signs that things should at least bump closer to average.

There are telltale signs that Montreal was a little unlucky. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Canadiens’ power-play shooting percentage was 10.23, the fourth-lowest in the NHL last season.

Again, the personnel question looms large, as Natural Stat Trick puts Montreal’s expected power play goals at 34, instead of 31, so it’s not like that would be a night-and-day difference if luck leveled out. Simply put, the Canadiens are going to need to improve.

One personnel difference could be more Shea Weber. The defenseman with a bazooka shot only played in 58 games last season, and while it’s risky to demand Weber hit close to 82, he might be healthier in 2019-20.

The thing is, just about every successful power play unit creates the meat of their chances from high-danger areas, whether those come from right in front of the net on dirty rebounds, slick plays starting behind the net, or sweet snipes from “Ovechkin’s office.”

Relying too much on Weber howitzers would be a mistake.

Yet, that doesn’t mean that Weber cannot benefit this unit. It would actually be intriguing if the Canadiens decided to experiment a bit, including maybe having Weber slip into that “Ovechkin office” for the occasional scoring chance. If not Weber, the Habs should probably try to find someone who can bury opportunities at a higher rate, perhaps even prospect Nick Suzuki.

Overall, the Canadiens’ power play is a big X-factor, and it remains to be seen if they can improve from within in 2019-20.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.