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How will Schmidt suspension affect Vegas Golden Knights?

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Earlier today, the NHL announced a 20-game suspension for Nate Schmidt, a decision that both the player and team disagreed with.

Schmidt’s strongly worded statement indicates that the sides have already gone through the appeal process, so barring any other twists, it seems like he’ll be suspended through the first 20 games of the Vegas Golden Knights’ 2018-19 season.

The Golden Knights – and everyone else involved – stated that they won’t have any further comments regarding the suspension itself, but what about how the team will deal with the loss of Schmidt? Because, as much as Vegas’ defense succeeded – to some extent – by committee, the former Capitals defenseman topped Vegas in time on ice during both the regular season and playoffs. He is, to put it mildly, very important, and losing him for about a quarter of the campaign hurts.

We might get more insight on how reigning Jack Adams winner Gerard Gallant will handle the loss (and if reigning GM of the Year George McPhee might also react), so stay tuned at PHT. That said, for those who want some early insight into the impact of this loss, let’s consider multiple factors.

Golden Knights lose a go-to guy

Schmidt averaged 22:14 TOI during 76 regular-season games, then saw his ice time climb to 24:25 per night during the playoffs. Again, both of those averages topped all Golden Knights skaters, with the regular season margin being healthy at about two minutes per game (Shea Theodore came in second with a 20:21 average, with Deryk Engelland right behind him at 20:17), a margin that was similar – yet more pronounced – during the postseason (Theodore averaged 21:48, Engelland at 21:40).

So, while Schmidt didn’t average the bonkers ice time of a Ryan Suter during the regular season, he clearly was the No. 1 guy in Gallant’s eyes. With 2:13 shorthanded TOI and 2:25 on the power play during the playoffs and comparable special teams numbers during the regular season, Schmidt was used as an all-situations guy.

(Schmidt’s most common even-strength defensive partner was Brayden McNabb, according to Natural Stat Trick.)

Beyond Schmidt, Theodore and Colin Miller were logging plenty of time on the man advantage, while Engelland and McNabb were steady penalty killers. Schmidt bridged the gap between those two specialists, in a way, so Vegas loses versatility first and foremost.

Who might step up? Should Vegas dip into the market?

Those previous numbers imply that, possibly, Schmidt’s minutes might just be dispersed between Miller, Engelland, Theodore, and McNabb. Gallant might just lean on all four evenly in their specialized roles. That seemed to be the case during four games in early March when Schmidt was out of the lineup; yes, that’s a small sample size, but Schmidt played in 76 of 82 games.

[These bans are rare, but here are three recent histories of such suspensions]

If those four players can mostly match their work from 2017-18, that’s not the most dire scenario. As with sports, you might expect slippage; after all, Engelland’s generally solid work came as a surprise, while Miller and McNabb are now enjoying the security of long-term deals. (Theodore, meanwhile, still needs a deal as an RFA and probably opened a champagne bottle after seeing Noah Hanifin get paid.)

Vegas didn’t see those key guys leave in free agency, but they didn’t exactly break the bank for reinforcements on defense, either. Nick Holden, 31, is the most noteworthy addition, while they got rid of fading veterans Luca Sbisa and Jason Garrison.

Holden stands as a modest upgrade over some of the lowest-end guys, but probably not much more than that.

It makes you wonder if maybe McPhee should consider bringing in some additional depth. No, there aren’t a ton of promising options on the UFA defensemen market, but Cody Franson seems like a low-risk, OK-reward signing, one who could make sense as a bottom-pairing guy or injury insurance even after Schmidt’s suspension ends.

Those 20 games

It doesn’t hurt to glance at Vegas’ opening schedule and try to gauge how difficult life will be. Take a look at the first 20 games of the 2018-19 season (four of which air on NBCSN):

Thu, Oct 4 vs Philadelphia
Sat, Oct 6 @ Minnesota
Mon, Oct 8 @ Buffalo
Wed, Oct 10 @ Washington
Thu, Oct 11 @ Pittsburgh
Sat, Oct 13 @ Philadelphia
Tue, Oct 16 vs Buffalo
Sat, Oct 20 vs Anaheim
Wed, Oct 24 vs Vancouver
Fri, Oct 26 vs Tampa Bay
Sun, Oct 28 vs Ottawa
Tue, Oct 30 @ Nashville
Thu, Nov 1 @ St. Louis
Sat, Nov 3 vs Carolina
Tue, Nov 6 @ Toronto
Thu, Nov 8 @ Ottawa
Sat, Nov 10 @ Montreal
Sun, Nov 11 @ Boston
Wed, Nov 14 vs Anaheim
Fri, Nov 16 vs St. Louis

The Golden Knights may end up missing Schmidt most during that early five-game road trip, along with that stretch of six of seven games away from home spanning Oct. 30 – Nov. 11.

It’s not all bad, though. There are only two back-to-back sets, and while they have fewer home (nine) than road (11) games, it’s not by an enormous margin. Vegas has a decent shot to navigate that quarter-season without its ice time leader from 2017-18.

Contract year uncertainty for Schmidt

Schmidt was already coming into 2018-19 on a cheap deal, as his cap hit is just $2.25 million with a $2.3M salary. Now he’s expected to lose almost $500K (via TSN’s Frank Seravalli), and the biggest cost might be how this situation affects his next contract.

With a nice 36-point output and top pair duty, Schmidt already raised his standing in the NHL, and it seemed like he might join Ryan Ellis and other defensemen cashing in before they hit 2019 free agency. Schmidt loses out on 20 games to cement his status as a top-pairing defenseman, possibly even increasing his standing in the eyes of NHL executives.

Now, who knows? It’s a disappointing situation for the defenseman, to put things mildly.

***

While there have been other 20-game suspensions for performance-enhancing substances, every other instance was a player who wasn’t a significant part of a team (with all apologies to 2015-16 Shawn Horcoff).

The Golden Knights were already facing a serious challenge in showing that their incredible first season in the NHL wasn’t a fluke. Their second season hasn’t even begun and they’ve already lost Schmidt, their leading defenseman from last season, for 20 games.

How will Vegas adjust, and how will Schmidt perform once his suspension is over? Those are fascinating questions, and serious hurdles for the player and team.

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.

Fight involving Bruins’ Chara plays out exactly as one might expect

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Ever try to punch a giraffe in the face? Me neither, but New York Islanders forward Matt Martin has a story to tell.

Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara is a man few want to fight. He towers over everyone in the NHL and his reach is close enough to double that of his nearest opponent that the best you can often open for is a good shadow boxing practice because the odds of connecting are so terribly low.

Martin got exactly that when he and Chara dropped the glove just four seconds into the second period off the opening faceoff.

The two exchanged rights before Chara threw a nasty, downward-directed bomb that caught Martin flush, knocking him to the ground. To Martin’s credit, he bounced back up and tried in vain to hit Chara. He had no such luck.

Chara ended the scrap by basically stiff-arming Martin to the ground followed by the congratulatory pat on the back from the 6-foot-9 man.

It’s respectable that Martin wanted to try and give his team a boost, although they were only down 1-0 at that point of the game. Ambitious, but respectable.

Chara, meanwhile, just turned 42 on Monday.


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

WATCH LIVE: Devils host Capitals on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Washington Capitals and New Jersey Devils. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The defending champion Capitals, poised to make a fifth straight playoff appearance, visit New Jersey for the fourth and final meeting this season with the Devils – who sit last in the Metropolitan Division and are eliminated from playoff contention.

Three-time MVP and reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin is in line to lead the league in goals for what would be a record eighth time. He scored two goals on Saturday at Tampa and now has 48 for the season as he continues to move up the all-time lists. The 33-year-old captain now needs two goals to reach the 50- goal mark for the eighth time in his career – joining Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy as the only players to record eight-plus such seasons.

New Jersey is among the worst teams in the NHL this season, with 63 points, and is eliminated from playoff contention as they’ll miss the postseason for the sixth time in the last seven years.

NJ is coming off a 3-0 loss at Colorado on Sunday which capped a six-game road trip for the Devils (2-4-0). They now return home for four straight games having lost eight of their last 10 (2-7-1).

While there hasn’t been much success to write about with the Devils this season, one player who is having a great season is 28-year-old Kyle Palmieri, who leads the team with 50 points and 27 goals. This is Palmieri’s fourth season with New Jersey, and his fourth straight season with 20-plus goals.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Washington Capitals at New Jersey Devils
Where: Prudential Center
When: Tuesday, March 19, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Capitals-Devils stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin – Evgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Jakub VranaNicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Carl HagelinLars EllerBrett Connolly
Andre BurakovskyNic DowdChandler Stephenson

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Christian DjoosNick Jensen

Starting goalie: Pheonix Copley

DEVILS
Blake ColemanTravis ZajacStefan Noesen
Kenny AgostinoKevin Rooney – Kyle Palmieri
Drew Stafford – Blake Pietila – Joey Anderson
Eric Tangradi – Michael McLeod – Kurtis Gabriel

Andy GreeneDamon Severson
Will ButcherConnor Carrick
Egor Yakovlev – Steven Santini

Starting goalie: MacKenzie Blackwood

John Walton (play-by-play) and AJ Mleczko (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter.

Key players getting healthy for Bruins, Penguins, Blues

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The Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, and St. Louis Blues have managed to hang in there when it comes retaining spots in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but help appears to be on the way for all three teams.

It’s not clear if that help will arrive by Tuesday’s games for each team, yet it seems like each outlook is fairly promising, which is huge because some star players are involved. Let’s go in alphabetical order.

Boston Bruins: Head coach Bruce Cassidy said that it “looks like” David Pastrnak will play against the New York Islanders, although Pastrnak’s considered a game-time decision. As you can see from the Morning Skate, Pastrnak has been hard on himself for missing time with a thumb injury related to a fall off the ice. (Although it might have happened on ice, just not on a rink.)

Pastrnak has been sidelined since Feb. 10. The Bruins have been able to manage a slew of injuries in recent years, so this is no different, but Pastrnak could really help Boston take those extra steps to ensure that they’ll get home-ice advantage in the first round against the Maple Leafs.

It also seems like Torey Krug might be getting closer to a return. Imagine how dangerous this Bruins team might be if everyone’s at, or near, full-strength?

Pittsburgh Penguins: Kris Letang has been sidelined since Feb. 23, and it seems like he’s another game-time decision after practicing in a normal full-contact jersey on Tuesday.

You’d have to think that Letang would have been a serious Norris candidate if he didn’t miss so much time this season, as he boasts great possession stats to go with 53 points in just 60 games. (Even missing all those games, Letang ranks seventh in scoring among defensemen.)

Letang probably suffered his latest injury during the Penguins’ loss to the Flyers outdoors, when he was tangled up with Shayne Gostisbehere:

With two consecutive losses and a prominent (though, with Montreal fading out of contention, not really “must-win”) game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday, it might be tempting to push the elite defenseman back into action. The Penguins would be wise to consider his unfortunately bumpy health history, though, and try to delicately walk the line between getting him back up to speed while reducing the risks of re-injury.

The Penguins recently got Bryan Rust back, so this team’s getting healthier as the postseason approaches. At least, they hope so.

St. Louis Blues: When the Blues announced that Vladimir Tarasenko would be “re-evaluated” about 10 days after March 10, it sure seemed ominous.

Instead of merely being looked at again, Tarasenko’s set to return for the Blues during Tuesday’s (March 19) game against the Edmonton Oilers. Hockey players, right?

“He will be in tonight. That’s really good news for us,” Craig Berube said. “He’s fine, he obviously never had a lot of practice time, but he looks fine. He’ll be alright.”

With a middling 4-4-2 record in their last 10 games, St. Louis will welcome the shot in the arm. They also only have a two-point edge on the Dallas Stars for the Central’s third spot (both with 10 games remaining), so there’s added incentive to bring Tarasenko back, and heat up once again.

More: Find out where these teams rank in the Push for the Playoffs.

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.

After tough start, JVR is showing why Flyers brought him back

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For a while there, JVR felt a little … well, JV for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Two main factors seemed to complicate things for James van Riemsdyk as he tried to justify that five-year, $35 million contract to return to Philly. The first was a freak injury, right in the beginning of the 2018-19 season.

The other was even more out of JVR’s hands than the bad luck of getting hurt: the Flyers were transitioning from Wayne Simmonds to JVR, particularly on the power play, and it wasn’t exactly a seamless passing of the torch.

[JVR came into this season under pressure.]

Bumpy start

Flyers coach Scott Gordon saw JVR’s season firsthand, as he went from hurt and a bit lost to his current red-hot streak, where van Riemsdyk now has 10 goals in his last 11 games.

“I think being out that time and not really …he almost didn’t have a role with the team for a while there,” Gordon said, via Dave Isaac of the Courier-Post. “He wasn’t playing as much power-play time, not playing as much top-six ice time and so now I find he’s skating more consistent, getting involved in the play up and down the ice and just has the puck more often. Getting to the front of the net more often obviously, whether it’s a tip or a rebound, that’s critical for anybody but to do that you’ve got to be around the net and he’s been around the net more.”

The turnaround truly has been remarkable, as JVR now has 25 goals and 42 points despite being limited to 56 games played.

2019 has been kind to JVR, so far

JVR is tied for the second-most goals since 2019 began with 20, and no player has more goals than his nine since the Feb. 26 trade deadline.

As with any sniper who’s scoring at an even higher level than usual, a hot streak will eventually be iced, and that’s true with JVR. His 18.8 shooting percentage overall this season is a little high – even for a player who has a knack for getting to the areas of the ice where you can get quality shots, and one who is among the best at finishing such chances – and his luck has been even better lately.

But, to me, it’s the renewed clarity of it all that bodes well for JVR’s short-term future, and the Flyers’ chances of getting the most out of him in 2019-20.

Yes, scoring nine times on 35 shots on goal (25.7 shooting percentage) is unsustainable, but it’s a great sign that van Riemsdyk is firing the puck that often.

It sure seems like JVR isn’t just getting the green light, but that he knows it. Not only does he have eight goals in as many March games, but after averaging 16:26 TOI or less in previous months this season, he’s averaged 18:18 per game during March. That’s an exciting development for a player who went from heavy usage during Toronto’s awkward years, to being shuttled into more of a specialist role during his final two seasons with the Maple Leafs. The thought was that JVR scored incredibly well considering a bit under 16 minutes of ice time in 2016-17 and a bit under 15 in 2017-18, so imagine what he could do with fuller minutes … but he was sort of relegated to that same, more supporting duty through most of this first season.

If the Flyers carry over this finish to giving JVR a heightened role in 2019-20, they might just enjoy the sort of rewards that would get people to look at his $7M as a bargain.

… At least for a while.

Will it all line up?

Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher faces an interesting question, with an invisible deadline from Father Time: can he put a few more pieces together to take advantage of what this team has, before a decline happens?

JVR is already 29, and will turn 30 in May. Jakub Voracek is 29 as well, while Claude Giroux is 31.

For every Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, and other player who continues to play at a high level past age 30, there are scary examples of other steep declines. The stories are especially frightening for power forward-types like JVR. Wayne Simmonds himself has already been showing signs of decay, while Milan Lucic and James Neal rank as some of the starkest examples of how steep the falls can be.

Will the Flyers be able to best take advantage of the remaining high-level years of productivity, however many there might be? As much as Philly can look at many positive developments heading into 2019-20 (and beyond), it remains to be seen if they can make all the pieces fall into place at the perfect time to contend – for real – for at least a few years.

If nothing else, JVR looks far more capable of being a big part of that solution as of today, compared to earlier this season.

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.