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.

Stars sign 41-goal scorer Jason Robertson to 4-year, $31M deal

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FRISCO, Texas — Jason Robertson signed a four-year, $31 million contract with the Dallas Stars after the young 40-goal scorer missed the first two weeks of training camp.

The Stars announced the deal after their exhibition game in Denver, only a week before the regular season opener Oct. 13 at Nashville.

Robertson turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when the left wing had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. His 13 power-play goals led the team. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn, and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

“Jason is an integral part of the present and future of our team and we’re thrilled to have him for the next four years,” general manager Jim Nill said.

A second-round draft pick (39th overall) by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. The 6-foot-3 California native had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

“Since he was drafted by our organization, he has worked tirelessly to become a better player every day. His knack for scoring goals and seeing plays develop on the ice are just some of the tremendous assets that he brings to our team,” Nill said. “He is one of the best young players in the NHL, and we look forward to seeing him continue to progress.”

Robertson had the second-highest point total for a Stars rookie in 2020-21, when he had 45 points (17 goals, 28 assists) in his 51 games.

Before the start of this season’s camp, new coach Pete DeBoer said he looked forward to coaching Robertson.

“Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here,” DeBoer said then. “So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

Robertson will finally be there now.

Coaching carousel leaves 10 NHL teams with new face on bench

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The coaching carousel spun a little faster than usual across the NHL, meaning nearly a third of the league will have someone new behind the bench this season. And not just bottom-feeders making changes.

Ten teams go into the season next month with a new coach, from Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida and perennial playoff-contending Boston to rebuilding Chicago and San Jose.

John Tortorella will try to whip Philadelphia into shape, Bruce Cassidy is tasked with getting Vegas back to the playoffs and Derek Lalonde takes his two Stanley Cup rings as a Tampa Bay assistant to his new challenge with the Detroit Red Wings.

TORTS REFORM

Philadelphia players knew they were in for some changes when Tortorella was hired, so they asked Cam Atkinson, who spent six years playing for the no-nonsense coach in Columbus.

“I keep telling them like he’s a guy that’s going to change the whole dynamic of this organization,” Atkinson said.

Tortorella has not shied away from saying a culture change is needed after a last-place finish and a decade with one playoff series win. There is likely not much he and players can do this year about a Cup drought that dates to 1975, but they can start with maddeningly inconsistent stretches of games that have plagued the Flyers for years, no matter the roster.

BIG MO

The Panthers were the league’s best team in the regular season last year but struggled in the playoffs before losing in the second round to cross-state rival Tampa Bay in five games. That was enough for general manager Bill Zito to decide to move on from interim coach Andrew Brunette and hired seasoned veteran Paul Maurice.

The expectation is to get back to the playoffs and compete for the Cup, and having Maurice at the helm was one of the factors that made power forward Matthew Tkachuk pick Florida as his trade-and-sign destination.

“He’s got high hopes for our team,” Tkachuk said. “He sees us playing in a certain way that’s going to make us successful. And he’s done it. He’s been around the NHL a long time, been a very successful head coach and somebody that I’m really looking forward to working with.”

PLAYOFF ROTATION

Bruins GM Don Sweeney fired Cassidy after a seven-game loss to Carolina in the first round despite Boston’s sixth consecutive playoff appearance.

Vegas had already fired Peter DeBoer, making him the scapegoat for an injury-riddled fall from the top of the Western Conference that ended with the team’s first playoff miss in five years of existence. The Golden Knights quickly turned to Cassidy, who like Maurice brings experience and gravitas to a franchise with championship aspirations.

“I think we’re very fortunate as an organization to have him as our coach,” center Jack Eichel said. “Every single person I’ve spoke to about them, they said the same thing: that he’s got a really, really great knack for the game and to able to make adjustments and he understands things. Very, very competitive — wants to win, has won a lot of hockey games over the last few years.”

The Bruins replaced Cassidy with Jim Montgomery, a hockey lifer getting a second chance after being fired by Dallas in December 2019 for inappropriate conduct. Montgomery sought and received help at a rehab facility and got a big endorsement from the staff with St. Louis, the team he was working for as an assistant.

“He’s a winner,” Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman said. “I think guys are going to thrive on that energy.”

The Stars completed the circle by hiring DeBoer, who has coached two teams (New Jersey in 2012 and San Jose in 2016) to the final and is on his fifth stop around the league.

“This is a tough league and it’s a tough one to coach in and you have to be able to handle situations,” GM Jim Nill said. “I know Pete can do it.”

LAMBERT ISLAND

Lane Lambert served as an assistant under Barry Trotz with Nashville, Washington – where they won the Cup together – and the Islanders. When Trotz was abruptly fired after New York missed the playoffs for the first time in his four seasons on the job, his right-hand man got the gig with his endorsement.

Longtime executive Lou Lamoriello thought his team needed a new voice. But Lambert isn’t that new, and his familiarity with the Islanders keeps some continuity.

“Barry was great for our team, and having Lane as an assistant, he had lots of say, as well,” forward Mathew Barzal said. “As a group, we all have a good relationship with him, so I think it’ll be an easy transition for our team.”

MORE NEW VOICES

The final coaching change of the offseason came in San Jose, with ownership and interim management firing Bob Boughner and his assistants before Mike Grier took over as GM. Grier hired David Quinn, who most recently coached the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics after spending three years with the Rangers.

Rick Bowness, the Stars’ interim coach when Montgomery was fired who helped them reach the final in 2020 and was not brought back, joined Winnipeg. He immediately made an impact by stripping Blake Wheeler of the Jets captaincy.

The other new coaches – Lalonde in Detroit and Luke Richardson in Chicago – are not expected to make such big waves.

Richardson, who briefly was acting coach for Montreal during the 2021 final when Dominique Ducharme tested positive for the coronavirus, is overseeing the start of a long-term rebuild by the Blackhawks. Lalonde was Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman’s pick to help end the storied franchise’s playoff drought.

“He believes in what he’s preaching, which I think is great walking into a new locker room,” captain Dylan Larkin said. “He’s made a great impression on the guys.”

Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

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Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

“We feel recharged,” Barzal said recently. “We feel like everybody had good summers and worked hard, and we got that excitement back.”

Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

“I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

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OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.