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It’s Ottawa Senators 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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Ottawa Senators. 

2017-18:
28-43-11, 67 pts. (8th Atlantic Division; 15th Eastern Conference)
missed playoffs

IN:
Mikkel Boedker

OUT:
Mike Hoffman
Alexandre Burrows
Mike Blunden
Fredrik Claesson

RE-SIGNED:
Mark Stone
Cody Ceci
Chris Wideman
Magnus Paajarvi
Nick Paul

– – –

Disaster: a person, act, or thing that is a failure. See also: the 2017-18 Ottawa Senators.

It’s hard to imagine another team and another set of fans who had a worse year than the Senators.

Sure, the Buffalo Sabres were the worst team, but they got compensated with the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft and, thus, Rasmus Dahlin. They’ve also had a pretty good summer and are looking improved.

The Senators took Brady Tkachuk with the fourth overall pick, and he’s stated that he’s making the jump to the pro game this season, but he’s hardly an immediate fix for a team that appears only headed in the wrong direction still. And the Senators have done little to make their team better and stand to lose dearly in the future if this season ends in shambles.

So how did a team that was a goal away from the Stanley Cup Final a year earlier turn into an unmitigated disaster? Well, let’s delve into the calamity of misfortunes.

[Under Pressure: Pierre Dorion | Breakthrough: Thomas Chabot | Three Questions]

Last season’s Senators were a team that could hardly score, a defense that could hardly stop other teams from scoring and goaltending that could hardly stop pucks from hitting the back of the net — though it’s hard to blame Craig Anderson for the last one given the hell he and his wife, Nicholle, have been through over the past 18 months.

By comparison, the 2016-17 Senators didn’t score all that much, but there were in the top 10 for fewest goals against and Ottawa had a .915 team save percentage and not the .895 they endured last season. Their power play and penalty kill also went in the wrong direction.

They also didn’t get hit hard by a European road trip. The Sens won both games across the pond in early November but came home and proceeded to drop the next seven straight.

Away from the rink, things were just as shaky.

In November, Dorion pulled the trigger on a three-team trade that brought Matt Duchene from the Colorado Avalanche — finally. Duchene proceeded to flatline for the next seven games, where he was held pointless. Duchene would end up finding his groove, ending the season with 23 goals and 26 assists in a Senators sweater, but the lack of production didn’t help during their November slide.

Owner Eugene Melnyk made headlines a month later. In an apparent attempt to sabotage the spectacle of an outdoor game in his own backyard, the unpopular owner threatened to move the Senators if “disaster strikes” on the even of Ottawa’s game against the Montreal Canadiens at Lansdowne Park last December.

He later recanted on his comments, but it was another slap in the face for a devout fanbase that has endured some trying times recently.

There was also this. And this meant that the Senators also lost Mike Hoffman, forced to deal their 52-point man for Mikkel Boedker.

And then there’s the Erik Karlsson saga.

When will he be traded? What will be the return? Will the Senators be able to shed Bobby Ryan‘s contract as a part of the deal?

Losing Karlsson — and there’s no way around this — will be a massive blow to the team if it happens. And while there will be a nice haul coming back for him, replacing a two-time Norris winner is nigh impossible.

And on a team already starved for production, it’s Karlsson’s offensive output is where they’d miss him the most. He was tied for the team lead in points with 62. The Sens could enter the season without their highest and third highest point producers as Hoffman was already shipped out.

Even more frightening for Ottawa is that Karlsson, Duchene and Mark Stone are all set to become unrestricted free agents at years’ end. If the Dorion can steady the ship before then, the Senators could be without the core of their team by this time next season.

It would appear that Stone is waiting to see, too. He only signed for one-year, as opposed to committing his future to the team. He’s getting $7.35 million and can get the hell out of Dodge if things get worse in the coming season. Duchene, for what it’s worth, is open to an extension.

Dorion has a massive task on his hands. He’s losing leverage on Karlsson’s return with each passing day, assuming they deal him. He also has the other two aforementioned key names to be signed, a goaltending situation to figure out if Anderson doesn’t return to 2016-17 form, and pivotal decision on Tkachuk forthcoming.

That’s a near-impossible laundry list of things to do (and do right) in one season with so much riding on it.

Times are tough in Ottawa, and things need to work out soon to avoid further disappointment.

Prospect Pool

Brady Tkachuk, LW, 18, Boston University (NCAA) – 2018 first-round pick

The Senators made Tkachuk the fourth-overall pick this past year and could have him in a team sweater this fall. Tkachuk posted eight goals and 31 points in 40 games at BU last season and impressed with three goals and nine points with Team USA at the world juniors. He’s a big boy, likes to use his physicality and plays at both ends of the ice. He will certainly make the Senators better, but the Senators need to send him to the Ontario Hockey League, where London Knights own his rights, or at the very least to the American Hockey League so he can get some seasoning. Rushing him is a mistake.

Logan Brown, C, 20, Windsor Spitfires/Kitchener Rangers (OHL) – 2016 first-round pick

The man is big, real big — six-foot-six big. Got four games in with the Senators last season, notching an assist, and had 48 points in 32 games split between two teams in the Ontario Hockey League after a mid-season trade. Played for Team USA at the world juniors where he had an assist in three games. Interesting tidbit: Tkachuk and Brown played with each other as kids. You’d like to see Brown get in some time in the AHL, but given the situation in Ottawa, there’s a chance you see Brown in Senators red this season.

Christian Wolanin, D, 23, University of North Dakota (NCAA) – 2015 fourth-round pick

Wolanin might not be as high as a couple other forward prospects on the team, but on a team needing defensemen, Wolanin stands out after a breakout season in North Dakota. There, he doubled his previous goal mark with 12 and added 23 assists for 35 points in 40 games to lead the Fighting Hawks in points. Wolanin also got 10 games with the Sens, scoring his first NHL goal and adding two assists. He’s headed to Ottawa this year after signing an entry-level deal in March. Expect to see him this season in the NHL.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Spezza wants to be more than ‘good locker room guy’ for Stars

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Jason Spezza is unlikely to play like a $7.5 million guy for the Dallas Stars this season, but it’s tough to imagine things getting worse than they did last season.

Spezza mixed with Ken Hitchcock about as well as wolves get along with sheep in 2017-18, seeing his ice time plummet from 16:10 minutes per game in 2016-17 to a pitiful 13 minutes per night. To put things mildly, Spezza’s numbers suffered, with just 26 points in 78 games. Excluding the 2012-13 lockout (when he generated five points in as many contests), you’d need to go as far back as Spezza’s rookie season to see such a poor point total, and Spezza managed his 21 points in just 33 games all the way back in 2002-03.

Waning confidence could be seen in a number of areas, including a 5.8 shooting percentage, easily a career-low and just the second time Spezza’s endured a sub-10 shooting percentage over 15 seasons.

Brutal stuff, right?

The good news is that his shooting percentage is almost certain to level out, and the even better news – for Spezza, if not the Stars as a whole – is that Jim Montgomery replaced Hitchcock as head coach. That said, at 35, you wonder how much Spezza really has left in the tank.

If nothing else, Spezza told Mike Heika of the Stars website that he has a “fire in his belly” after that miserable 2017-18 campaign. A mixture of pride and the motivation of a contract year should make it certain that, if Spezza has anything left, he’ll show it this season.

“I’m here to play,” Spezza said. “I’ve produced my whole life and I want to do that again. I don’t want to just hang around for intangibles and being a good locker room guy. I’m here to produce — that’s what I expect of myself.”

Amid struggles that could prompt an existential crisis in a less confident athlete, Spezza continued to succeed in the faceoff circle last season, a sneaky-impressive area of his game. The former Senators center won 55.8-percent of his draws in 2017-18, while his career mark is a strong 53.5.

Such successes weren’t lost on Montgomery, who told Heika that he expects Spezza to take more faceoffs in the defensive zone this season. (Spezza began 43.4-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone last season.)

That’s an interesting idea beyond leveraging Spezza’s ability to win draws.

Most obviously, it could open the door for Radek Faksa to enjoy more favorable opportunities. The stealth Selke candidate began just 33.4-percent of his shifts in the attacking zone last season, and one cannot help but wonder if Faksa could enjoy a Sean Couturier-like leap if his workload was relaxed to a substantial degree. The Stars’ top centers (Faksa, Spezza, and Tyler Seguin) were all pretty effective at winning faceoffs last season, which would hopefully inspire Dallas to focus more on landing advantageous matchups, rather than obsessing over who might win or lose a draw.

Of course, Spezza wasn’t talking about faceoff wins when he was discussing production; he wants to put up points and land another NHL gig after this contract year.

The veteran center truly stands as a crucial make-or-break player for the Stars, especially if Dallas continues to load up with a top-heavy first line of Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alex Radulov.

Through one preseason game, Spezza primarily lined up with Valeri Nichushkin (another Stars forward who could go either way, really) and Mattias Janmark. Via Natural Stat Trick, Janmark stood out as Spezza’s most common linemate last season, so we’ll see if that combination sticks even with coaching changes. You could do worse than Spezza with Janmark and Nichushkin, a trio that would have a lot to prove, even if Spezza’s in a very different phase of his career.

It’s important to remember that Spezza’s not that far removed from being the productive scorer he hopes to be. He generated 50 points in 2016-17, and that total came in 68 games. Before that, Spezza rattled off three consecutive seasons with at least 62 points.

Considering his age and the possibility that Faksa and others might push Spezza for power play reps and other opportunities, it might be too much to ask for Spezza to hit 60+ points in 2018-19. Despite that $7.5M clip, the Stars would probably be quite happy if the veteran landed in the 50 range, especially if he can juggle that with increased defensive duties.

That would make him “good in the room” and on the ice.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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 goalie be selected in first round of 2019 NHL Draft?

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As much as you need an elite center and a star defenseman, goalie remains the make-or-break single position in hockey. Unfortunately, it’s easier to herd cats than predict goaltending performances.

With that in mind, it’s not that shocking that the Marc-Andre Fleury/Rick DiPietro/Roberto Luongo era of goalies going high in drafts is no more. Instead, it’s increasingly common for there to be zero goalies selected in the first round of a draft. None went in 2018, for example, as the Rangers were the first team to select a netminder when they tabbed Olof Lindbom in the second round (39th overall).

American goalie prospect Spencer Knight recently admitted to NHL.com’s Jessi Pierce that he’s pictured becoming one of the rare recent goalies to go in the first round.

“You do think about it, and if I told you I didn’t I’d probably be lying,” Knight said “You do think about all the different ways it could go, but I think the biggest thing is to worry about the small things, the everyday things. It’s very cliché but it’s true. You do have to focus on one day at a time and enjoy the process because all these things only come around once. You only play in this (All-American Prospects Game) once, you only get drafted once.”

Here’s a quick glance at goalies who went in the first round since PHT began draft coverage in 2010.*

2017 – Jake Oettinger (26th pick)
2015 – Ilya Samsonov (22)
2012 – Andrei Vasilevskiy (19)
2010 – Jack Campbell (10), Mark Visentin (27)

* – If I happened to miss one, please note in the comments, email, or social media.

It’s too early to tell if the Dallas Stars will be glad they selected Oettinger (although, oof, they could have landed Eeli Tolvanen), and the same can be said regarding the Washington Capitals and Ilya Samsonov. The Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning do a solid job of shining a light on the highs and lows of drafting goalies with such prominent picks.

While it was refreshing to see Campbell earn a few nice starts with the Kings, the goalie hasn’t justified his draft status. That said, the Stars themselves haven’t had much luck finding answers in net, whether they’ve tried in other rounds, free agency, or via trades. Instead, they’ve sunk a ton of money into bad options, and the hope is that Ben Bishop can reverse that trend (and maybe hold down the fort while Oettinger develops?).

On the other hand, the Lightning knocked it out of the park with Vasilevskiy, who’s on the short list of hyper-promising young NHL goalies. It almost makes too much sense that Tampa Bay’s success in drafting Vasilevskiy allowed them to part ways with (wait for it) Ben Bishop.

Ultimately, there are only 31 starting jobs, and only 62 NHL goalie gigs including backups, aside from those rare stretches where three netminders make a roster.

/nods to J-F Berube.

There have been some fascinating, semi-recent studies regarding drafting goalies early, and the high risk-reward factor.

Back in 2016, TSN’s Travis Yost laid out one of the many arguments against drafting a goalie in the first round. Yost, like many others – including, clearly, NHL teams – notes that there’s simply an incredibly heavy opportunity cost with such an investment. That’s particularly true since many of the NHL’s standout goalies come later in the draft. Henrik Lundqvist and reigning Vezina winner Pekka Rinne went in the seventh and eighth round of their respective drafts, as just two prominent examples.

On the other hand, the payoff from finding a high-end goalie can be enormous. Hockey Graph’s Matt Cane summarized such thoughts following Yost’s post:

Drafting is an inexact science; there isn’t a team in professional sports that hasn’t whiffed badly on their selections. As a New York Giants fan who’s marinating in the poor choice of Saquon Barkley at second overall (mesmerizing talent, terrible value), going against the grain can hurt that much more.

You ultimately have to trust your scouts and your gut while making the decision, whether it be with Knight in 2019 or any other prospect.

It makes you wonder: which teams might want to take such a plunge next year? One could picture a team with aging goalies looking for answers (maybe the Senators if they do manage to trade for a first-rounder?) or teams that seem to be in perpetual pursuit of puckstoppers (the Hurricanes come to mind, in particular).

The smarter, studied route may be to accrue information by seeing goalies succeed overseas, in junior/college hockey, in the AHL, or even on another NHL teams.

Still, if you can identify a Vasilevskiy, you can really reap the benefits. That’s easier said than done, much like goaltending in general.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

What should Sharks do with Joe Pavelski?

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Not that long ago, Joe Pavelski was the most pressing extension question for the San Jose Sharks. The acquisition of Erik Karlsson knocks Pavelski down a peg, yet CBA quirks might delay extension talks for the star defenseman, and Pavelski ranks as a crucial contract conundrum either way.

After all, Pavelski is San Jose’s captain. The Wisconsin-born forward has developed outstanding chemistry with the Sharks’ other big Joe (Thornton), and it shows in his goal totals; since 2011-12, Pavelski’s 214 goals rank fifth overall (edging Evgeni Malkin, Jamie Benn, and Patrick Kane).

On the other hand, it’s far from a no-brainer for the Sharks to lock Pavelski down, particularly if the forward – understandably – would demand some term.

It might sneak up on you to realize that Pavelski is already 34 years old. He’s about to enter a contract year for 2018-19, so he’d be 35 whenever his next deal kicks in during the 2019-20 season.

Given further context, it’s an even more challenging question. As much as Joe Thornton‘s Hall of Famer-caliber passing has made life easier for Pavelski, it’s worth noting that he’s not just scoring goals from “Ovechkin’s office.” Instead, Pavelski’s developed a world-class knack for tipping and deflecting pucks into the net, which often requires him to go to the “dirty areas” of the ice, which opens the door for dirty hits. So, it stands to mention that Pavelski could be an “old 35” once that contract comes around, and players don’t tend to become more durable with age.

The Sharks’ already-aging roster piles on even more context regarding risks surrounding a Pavelski contract extension.

Brent Burns is 33, and his $8 million cap hit could become worrisome as time goes along, as it doesn’t expire until after 2024-25. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is just about to begin a deal that carries a $7M AAV, and he’s locked up for one more season (through 2025-26).

Burns and “Pickles” are more obvious current-day red flags, yet other contracts get a little eyebrow-raising when you consider the learning curve. Logan Couture‘s 29, yet his eight-year ($8M cap hit) extension won’t kick in until 2019-20. He’ll be 30 once it does, and Couture’s commitment runs through 2026-27. Few goalies in Martin Jones‘ range (reliable, not quite elite) enjoy the sort of security he does, as the 28-year-old has six seasons remaining at $5.75M per year.

Add a possible extension for Erik Karlsson (already 28, will be 29 on May 31) to that mix, and especially worrisome types might go into a panic.

Now, don’t get this twisted; the Sharks are justified, in many ways, to go all-in. Even if they eventually foot the bill with an aging roster, not unlike their pals in Los Angeles.

All of those details illuminate how difficult the Pavelski decision could end up being.

With all of that in mind, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Pavelski’s agent Dan Plante told The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz (sub required) that there haven’t been any extension talks yet.

“Since there hasn’t been a whole lot of talks about a contract extension at all, I would say that they are lukewarm or tepid, at best,” Plante said. “It’s really kind of non-existent, so maybe non-existent is a better word.”

Plante indicates that Pavelski would prefer to stay in San Jose, amusingly telling Kurz that “he’s a Wisconsin kid, but he’s bled San Jose Sharks since the day that they drafted him.”

(If you too bleed San Jose Sharks, maybe call a doctor.)

Essentially, Sharks GM Doug Wilson can ponder the following avenues:

  • Trade him rather than losing him for nothing. This one is pretty self-explanatory. It’s somewhat tough to fathom that the win-now Sharks would trade their high-scoring captain during an all-in year.
  • Pavelski plays through the season, then the chips fall where they may. Note that Pavelski’s carrying an affordable $6M cap hit during the final year of his current contract.
  • Sign him to a substantial extension. Hey, the Sharks are already going for it, so why not roll the dice another time?

Really, the dream scenario would be that Pavelski accepts the same approach that fellow Joe-in-teal Thornton does with contracts, as “Jumbo Joe” has been content to sign one-year contracts lately. Of course, Thornton is 39, and his two short-term deals came amid questions about his health (one knee per contract, it seems). It would be a tough sell for Pavelski, whose deal carried that $6M cap hit from 2014-15 through 2018-19, not to mention a $4M cap hit during the stretch of 2010-11 to 2013-14.

Pavelski might feel like he’s owed a heartier commitment after ranking as a bargain for basically his an entire career, and justifiably so. Keeping him around might not be the best option for the Sharks, however, which explains the impasse.

What would you do regarding Pavelski if you were Wilson?

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Carolina looks for big things from rookies Necas, Svechnikov

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes were working on their power play during practice when first-year coach Rod Brind’Amour pulled first-round draft pick Andrei Svechnikov aside for some quick one-on-one instruction.

”Andrei,” the coach said, ”be a shooter.”

The Hurricanes likely will need plenty of shots – and goals – from Svechnikov and fellow first-round draft pick Martin Necas if they’re to finally snap the NHL’s longest active playoff drought.

But the way Brind’Amour sees it, nobody’s asking either of those teenagers to will the team to the Stanley Cup – like he did in 2006 as the team captain. In fact, to even think of the pressure in this situation as being on either of those rookies is misguided.

”I kind of view it the opposite – the pressure’s on us,” Brind’Amour said. ”We’re, ‘Man, we really hope he can play.’ It’s not on him.”

The Hurricanes seem confident that the 19-year-old Necas and the 18-year-old Svechnikov can handle everything being thrown their way during a critically important training camp for a franchise that has undergone a massive overhaul during the past nine months.

”The first couple of days (of camp), everything was confusing because it was new, the guys were new, bigger guys and the game is faster,” Svechnikov said. ”But every day I feel better.”

They’ve changed owners, general managers and coaches while unloading some key players, including their most recent face of the franchise, popular forward Jeff Skinner. Of the top eight point-scorers from last year’s team – one that missed the playoffs for a ninth consecutive season – three were traded away during the offseason.

With Skinner (49 points) now in Buffalo and Elias Lindholm (44) and defenseman Noah Hanifin (32) shipped to Calgary , the scoring has to come from somewhere else – and the two teenagers figure to pick up at least some of that load along with 21-year-old Sebastian Aho, who scored a team-best 29 goals last season and has been moved to center from a wing.

It’s still the preseason, but both players got off to a good start, with each scoring a goal in their preseason debuts this week and Svechnikov adding an assist.

”I don’t really think about” any pressure, Necas said. ”It’s important to not think about it, just play every game and try to play your best.”

Carolina spent the No. 12 overall pick in 2017 on Necas, a native Czech who played one game for the team last October before he was returned to his team back home to further polish his game as a playmaking center. Brind’Amour praised him after that successful debut, saying that ”when you give him a little time and space, he can make plays.

”It’s something that we’ve just got to keep teaching him,” he added.

The Hurricanes were among the winners at the NHL Draft’s lottery, falling into the No. 2 overall pick and using it on Svechnikov , a Russian winger and pure scorer who had 40 goals in 44 games for his junior team last season.

Their connection extends off the ice: Svechnikov says he and Necas are rooming together during training camp at a hotel, where they usually keep things low-key, going out to eat together or watching movies separately. Svechnikov says Necas plays more Fortnite than he does in those rare off hours, adding with a laugh that ”I don’t have time for that.”

On the ice, Svechnikov sure seems like a quick study so far – and that’s encouraging for his coach.

”I think for Andrei to be a successful player, the player we want, he’s got to make plays,” Brind’Amour said. ”That’s pretty obvious, stating the obvious, but at some point we know he’s going to be able to do that. It’s just, when? Can he do that as an 18-year-old? After (preseason) Game 1, you’d say there’s definitely promising things there, and he will be able to.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule