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Is Duchene right in saying Senators could be better than expected?

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Ah, September. The month of the year when training camps begin, the season is about to start but hasn’t begun yet, and thus just about everyone is optimistic (or at least saying optimistic things when reporters are around). Inevitably, about close to half of the teams will end up being wrong about making the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and only one will be correct in dreaming of winning it all.

So, yes, it’s fun to giggle at the tropes about players being in “the best shape of their lives,” especially since injuries are just as likely to follow such proclamations as any sort of fitness-related career year.

Still, it can be instructive to break down such chances. If nothing else, we can illuminate the past and attempt to bring a sober analysis to the future.

Matt Duchene, in particular, knows that things can change drastically from one season to the other.

His 2016-17 season with the Colorado Avalanche was a disaster, both for the player and team. Some of that had to do with the turmoil that came from Patrick Roy’s bizarre exit; some came from individual struggles for Duchene. Either way, things were rough, and there were plenty of memes that revolved around Duchene being “freed” of a bad situation in Colorado.

If you follow the NHL even tangentially, you probably know what happened next: Duchene was traded to Ottawa, yet the Senators’ and Avs’ fates essentially flip-flopped.

Avs from 2017 offseason to now: Awful 2016-17 season with a seemingly rudderless outlook, tumultuous dealings that ended with Duchene trade, stunning run to 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs and now a promising future, in part thanks to the Duchene trade.

Senators from 2017 offseason to now: While their run was flukey, it can’t be forgotten that Ottawa was an overtime goal from an appearance in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Perhaps partially motivated by money, they moved Kyle Turris in the Matt Duchene trade with the (unspoken) belief that the draft picks they sent to Colorado wouldn’t be a big deal. Oops, that pick could be a premium one in 2019. This summer has seen off-the-ice upheaval to such a jarring degree that Roy’s departure looks like a couple breaking up but remaining good friends (and not just saying they’d stay friends).

Yeesh.

So, here’s what Duchene said about Ottawa’s chances to be better than most of us expect, via the Canadian Press:

“We should have a chip on our shoulder after last year,” Duchene said. “We’re a lot better hockey team than we showed and we can be a lot better hockey team than people are giving us credit for.”

Duchene points to the Senators having speed and “a lot of talent” that is being overlooked. Is it possible that the swift-skating center could be onto something?

Low expectations, yet less incentive to ‘tank’

In all honesty, my answer is “probably not,” unless the goal is to merely save face instead of being an absolute disaster. Making a strong bid for a playoff spot feels far-fetched, at least if they’re wise and try to get something for Erik Karlsson. (A full season with Karlsson, as ill-advised as that would be, could change things a bit. He’s that talented.)

Plenty of people expect little from the Senators, and many analytics models forecast doom and gloom. For example, The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn discusses the grim possibilities in a season preview (sub required), and they’re far from unthinkable:

Without him, the Senators are easily the worst team in the league and it’s difficult to see how they make it out of the bottom five. They currently have a 63 percent chance of landing there. Without Karlsson that jumps up to 89 (!) per cent, with a 45 per cent chance at being dead last.

The agonizing thing is that the Senators can’t dream of Jack Hughes being the light at the end of that tunnel, unless a Karlsson trade somehow netted them a lottery pick. That’s because the Avalanche own their 2019 first-rounder, something that makes the Duchene trade look even worse before you realize that Duchene’s far from guaranteed to stay after his contract expires. (He’s saying the right things about staying with the Sens, but what if Ottawa is abysmal again? The guy must want to compete sometime during his prime.)

Bad stuff, but this context makes Ottawa tougher to predict in some ways, as there’s limited incentive to “tank.” Management might put resources into competing more than maybe they should in 2018-19, in part to save face.

Does that mean hanging onto Karlsson until close to the trade deadline, as dreadful as that might sound? Well, at least he could lean on Duchene to learn about how it feels to play for a team in such a lame duck (and just plain lame) situation.

A more comfortable Duchene

Much was made of how well Turris performed early in Nashville, while the numbers weren’t coming for Duchene to begin his run with Ottawa.

Things evened out in the end, though. In fact, Duchene scored more points (49 points in 68 games) in Ottawa in 2017-18 than he did during his full 2016-17 season with Colorado (41 points in 77 games).

Duchene could make Ottawa more spry – and really make a difference at the bank – if he plays all of 2018-19 like he did to close out last season. He quietly averaged almost a point-per-game after the All-Star Break (34 points in 35 games) and was generally the center Pierre Dorion pined for once the calendar hit 2018.

Motivation

If nothing else, this bunch should be hungry … even if that hunger isn’t just to get paid, but maybe to audition for a different team.

Duchene’s in a contract year, as is Mark Stone, who will surely want a long-term deal after tabling the issue with a $7.35M deal for 2018-19. Karlsson might feel awkward if he ends up playing for Ottawa, yet he has a lot of money on the line, so that tension could turn coal to diamonds.

Rebounds

Even beyond the human nature element of wanting to secure futures, there are also players who could conceivably bounce back from tough times.

Craig Anderson‘s developed a downright bizarre tradition of rotating seasons: one mediocre or flat-out bad, then one where he’s basically an All-Star. If that strange pattern continues, he could see an enormous improvement. It’s tough to imagine him being near-Vezina-quality, yet it’s not that hard to picture the aging goalie at least improving noticeably on last year’s odious .898 save percentage. He’s only a season removed from a .926 mark, not to mention stellar postseason work.

Bobby Ryan‘s health situation inspires obvious questions, but it’s easy to forget that he’s just 31. The once-lethal sniper isn’t worth $7.25M, yet he’s been hearing about that over and over again, so maybe his wrist can hold up enough that he can remind people – at least to some extent – of the player he once was?

I mean, he did this during that 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs run, and that was when he was pretty deep in the doghouse:

Also, Guy Boucher’s shown signs of being a shrewd NHL coach before. For all we know, he might not get another chance to prove he can be more than assistant, so he’ll have motivation, too.

A few boosts from youth

For a team in a fairly dire scenario, the Senators’ farm system is perceived to be close-to-middle of the pack in some rankings lists. That said, they have some players who could conceivably help out a bit in 2018-19.

Thomas Chabot is the type of talented defenseman that Ottawa’s rarely found to support Karlsson, and we might see more of that after getting some sneak peaks next season.

It remains to be seen if Brady Tkachuk can follow in the footsteps of his brother Matthew Tkachuk and jump right from the draft to full NHL duty (and, in Matthew’s case, he flourished and frustrated right away).

Those two names stand out the most, but there could be at least a modest infusion of talent soon. Maybe not enough to stop fans from being sad about the Senators lacking a first-rounder heading into what (still) looks like a grim season, but still.

The good brand of regression

PDO is a stupidly simple stat (but a handy one, in my opinion) that can gauge luck – to some extent – by adding a team’s save and shooting percentages. If it’s way over 100, that team’s probably a little lucky, although skill skews it. The opposite can be true for teams that are under 100.

Via Corsica Hockey, Ottawa’s 98.53 PDO ranked fourth-worst in the NHL in 2017-18. Poor goaltending was the biggest factor there (they had the worst save percentage as a team), but their shooting luck wasn’t top of the pack, either.

Now, poor shooting can at least have something to do with a lack of scoring talent, which is an obvious concern for an already-bad Senators team that lost a key sniper in Mike Hoffman.

That said, if you’re the glass-half-full type, you could imagine things swinging in the other direction.

***

To reiterate, if I were to bet, I’d say that Ottawa’s season is going to be bad. Really bad.

Even so, there are areas where things could go better than 2017-18. If nothing else, there’s something to be said for being underdogs, rather than following a magical run – even a Cinderella run – like the one Ottawa enjoyed the year before.

You also can’t blame Duchene for trying to project confidence, whether he truly believes what he’s saying or not.

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.

Ovechkin mocks Hamilton, Hurricanes with chicken gesture

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Did Dougie Hamilton “bail out” on a would-be Alex Ovechkin check, thus letting Ovechkin retrieve the puck for a dagger 3-0 goal in Game 5? Was it a mental mistake by Hamilton, which would still be a gaffe, but not bring into questions of “toughness?”

Whatever the true answer might be, that moment reverberated through the Capitals – Hurricanes Round 1 series, and was referenced early in Game 6 on Monday (currently airing on NBCSN; Stream here). After Ovechkin missed a check on Hamilton, Ovechkin did a “chicken flapping its wings” motion at Hamilton and/or the Hurricanes bench.

You can watch the mocking gesture in the video above this post’s headline, and judge for yourself on that 3-0 goal from the Capitals’ eventual 6-0 win in Game 5 in this clip. Jeremy Roenick provided his take, too.

(Personally, I think Hamilton was confused, not frightened, but perhaps we’ll never truly know.)

Ovechkin’s not shy about trash talk, including in the playoffs – you may remember him jawing at Henrik Lundqvist in 2015 – and the Hurricanes must respond on the scoreboard. Alex Ovechkin let his play do some talking along with that taunting, as he scored a 2-1 goal for a Capitals lead moments after Petr Mrazek was bumped hard in an accidental collision by his own teammate, Justin Williams.

Tune into Game 6 on NBCSN and/or stream it here to see the taunting, heavy-hitting, and tense action.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Hurricanes, Predators attempt to force Game 7s

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Game 6: Washington Capitals at Carolina Hurricanes, 7 p.m. ET (Capitals lead 3-2)
NBCSN
Call: Kenny Albert, Eddie Olczyk, Pierre McGuire
Series preview

Stream here

Game 6: Nashville Predators at Dallas Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET (Stars lead 3-2)
CNBC
Call: Chris Cuthbert, Joe Micheletti, AJ Mleczko
Series preview
Stream here

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes

Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Predators vs. Stars
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

Holtby has been ultimate closer for Capitals

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With a win on Monday night (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, live streamthe Washington Capitals will advance to Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fifth year in a row.

It is a pretty impressive streak when you remember just how often they were a postseason punchline before finally winning the Stanley Cup last season. Especially since no other team in the league has an active streak of more than three years (if the Nashville Predators come back to beat the Dallas Stars, it will be their fourth consecutive year advancing to Round 2, but they still need to win two games in a row to make that happen).

It is not easy to get out of Round 1 that regularly.

One of the biggest reasons they have been able to do so pretty much every year has been the consistently great postseason play of starting goalie Braden Holtby.

He is also a big reason why you have to like their chances of winning just one more game against the Carolina Hurricanes in this series.

Especially since these are the games he tends to really excel in.

Monday’s Game 6 against the Hurricanes will be the 19th time in Holtby’s career he will play a game where the Capitals have a chance to eliminate an opponent.

In the previous 18 games, he has a .932 save percentage in potential knockout games (slightly higher than his career postseason mark of .929 — which is significantly higher than his career regular season mark of .918), and has won seven of hits past 10 including each of his past five.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That includes a perfect 4-for-4 mark in the playoffs a year ago on the Capitals’ run to the Cup when he only allowed one goal in a Game 6 series-clinching win on the road in Pittsburgh in Round 2, and then shut out the Tampa Bay Lightning in a decisive Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final (after also shutting them out in Game 6).

Of the three games he lost during that stretch, he didn’t allow more than two goals in any of them, and has allowed more than two goals in just five of the 18 games where he has had a chance to knock out an opponent out of the playoffs.

In other words: Even when the Capitals lose and fail to move on in the playoffs, it has rarely — if ever — been due to the play of their goalie.

For his career he has been one of the best postseason goalies in NHL history, and when he has a chance to finish the job in a series, he almost always plays well enough to do it.

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.

Zuccarello is perfect complement for Stars’ top line

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The Dallas Stars had a problem for much of the 2018-19 season, and it was always a very easy one to identify.

Even when the team was at its lowest point, their top trio of Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn was doing what it had always done in carrying the team’s offense.

When Seguin and Benn came under irrational fire from their own CEO in the middle of the season, they were far from the biggest issue on the team. In fact, they weren’t even an issue at all and just five seconds of objective research should have made that clear. When they were on the ice the Stars were carrying the play, dominating the opposition, and performing exactly as you would want your franchise players to perform. Maybe the individual numbers weren’t what we have come to expect from them, but they were consistently outplaying and outscoring their opponents.

The problem was that they didn’t have any other forwards that could do the same thing. Their forward depth was so thin that only one other forward outside of the Seguin-Benn-Radulov trio topped topped the 30-point mark this season (Radek Faksa had exactly 30 points in 81 games). That is not anywhere near good enough. It wasn’t a “star” problem; it was a problem with players around the stars.

But because the top trio was so good, and because they received Vezina-worthy goaltending from Ben Bishop (and don’t forget about the play of backup Anton Khudobin, either) they were able to stay in playoff contention in a watered down Western Conference and continue playing their way toward the postseason. If they were going to do anything once they got there they were going to need somebody outside of their top line to provide some kind of a threat offensively.

This is where Mats Zuccarello comes in.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

He has only played seven games with the team entering Game 6 of their Round 1 series against the Nashville Predators on Monday night (8 p.m. ET; CNBC; Live stream), but his impact has already been noticeable.

The Stars acquired Zuccarello from the New York Rangers just before the NHL trade deadline and in his first game with the team made an immediate impact with a goal and an assist in a 4-3 win. It was exactly what the Stars needed for the stretch run. But because he was also injured in that game and missed several weeks they never really had an opportunity to see exactly what he could provide. They are seeing it in the playoffs where he has already tallied three goals (second only to Radulov) and has given them an additional threat offensively.

It’s even more impressive when you remember he is still finding his way with a new team and still probably isn’t all the way back to 100 percent.

In other words, he probably has room to get better.

When you look at his individual shot and scoring chance numbers he hasn’t created a ton of them, and so far is riding a short-term spike in shooting percentage to carry his postseason production. It would be fair to point to that as somewhat of a red flag for what it might mean in the future.

You have to keep in mind, though, that the injury not only took him off the ice, it also robbed him of an opportunity to develop chemistry with a new set of linemates. Getting thrown into what is still a new lineup, when you may not be totally healthy, and right in the middle of the madness that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs is not an easy thing to do. There is still probably a bit of an adjustment period taking place here.

What is important for the Stars, though, is that he is another high-level player that has the ability to capitalize on the chances he does get, and that is an element the team had been lacking all season.

He is a threat with a proven track record of production.

Zuccarello has been a criminally underrated player for quite some time now and has always been a lock to finish with 50-60 points over a full season. That may not seem great or anything that instantly jumps off the page at you, but it is top-line production, and top-line players are not always easy to acquire.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the year Zuccarello became a full-time player in the NHL, his 0.72 point-per-game average puts him 67th out of more than 570 players that have appeared in at least 200 games during that stretch.

Outside of Seguin, Benn, and Radulov there is not another forward currently on the Stars’ roster that sits in the top-100 out of that group.

Jason Spezza is the only other one in the top-200.

You have to go all the way down to Faksa at No. 296 to find the next one.

There just wasn’t enough impact talent elsewhere on the roster to help support the Stars’ top players.

Zuccarello gives them one, and his presence, along with the emergence of Jason Dickinson and Roope Hintz in this series, is a big reason they have been able to put themselves in a position to advance.

MORE: Hintz becoming important part of Stars’ lineup

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.