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Senators waiving Smith is latest ‘kick’ to Duchene, fans

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At this point, it would be tough to blame an Ottawa Senators fan if they decided to just take the year off. Seriously, if you were in their shoes, would you mute mention of the team and its players on social media, and maybe just act as if you’re on a deserted island when it comes to news coverage?

We’re getting to the point where it’s refreshing if there’s only one bad news item per week.

The Senators seemed to meet their quota on Tuesday, then, as waiving forward Zack Smith hasn’t exactly been met with rave reviews from other embattled players. It seems like Matt Duchene is saying hello to his old friend darkness, considering the quotes shared by reporters including TSN’s Brent Wallace and the Ottawa Sun’s Don Brennan.

That specific Duchene quote will draw cringes and giggles, yet there are other comments that are honestly a bit more disconcerting, at least if you’re hoping that the Senators can convince Duchene and Mark Stone to stick around.

” … Unfortunately, I guess, sometimes in this business, things happen that are sometimes beyond hockey reasons and things like that,” Duchene said. “It’s tough right now, we are hurting.”

That last bit speaks volumes. The Senators are hurting before they’ve even played their first shifts of an 82-game season.

Hockey teams sometimes depend upon players valuing loyalty and security over getting the most money possible, so the “it’s business” vibe isn’t exactly promising for a franchise that’s projected every sign of penny-pinching.

It’s tough to deny the dark humor of Duchene going from a seemingly miserable situation in Colorado only to eat several extra helpings of extra misery in Ottawa. Still, the situation might be even grimmer for Mark Stone, as he’s spent his entire career with the Sens. Losing his trust risks losing whatever’s remaining of the soul of the Senators.

” … I’m surprised. But again, it’s not my decision,” Stone said, via Wallace. “I have to come to the rink every day and prepare the same way. To say I wasn’t surprised would be a lie.”

In a vacuum, placing Smith on waivers really isn’t that unreasonable.

After generating 30+ points for two straight seasons along with solid possession stats, Smith’s play really slipped alongside his struggling team in 2017-18. For a team trying to count every nickel and dime, there must be real consternation regarding Smith’s $3.25 million salary/cap hit. Moving Smith to the AHL saves the Senators a bit more than $1M, according to Cap Friendly. Such demotions are just a sad way of life in the “What have you done for me lately?” NHL.

With added context, such a move likely registers as callout to players like Duchene and Stone, and could provide yet another pull toward getting out of Ottawa at the first earthly possibility. Loyalty hasn’t exactly been a two-way street with this team:

Yeah, yikes.

Let’s take a quick look back at this debacle of a Senators summer, asking ourselves: how much money would you need to avoid abandoning this sinking ship? (You know, assuming that the Senators won’t just opt to trade Duchene and/or Stone in the near future, anyway.)

The Karlsson – Hoffman catastrophe

You can’t really blame the Senators for everything that happened regarding Erik Karlsson, Mike Hoffman, and those who know them. The franchise blundered their way through the fallout to a jaw-dropping degree, however.

Even outside of the context of the protective order Melinda Karlsson filed against Monica Caryk, the Senators almost certainly could have landed a better collection of assets for Karlsson if they moved the star defender during the trade deadline, rather than before training camp.

Ultimately, they settled for a bucket of “meh,” in part because the lure of one run with Karlsson is less transfixing than the lure of two (as a bidder would have received during the deadline). If it’s true that the Senators limited their offers to West teams, then the situation somehow gets more bleak. Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin deserves to get ripped over many of his trades, but he did a whole lot better – after similarly boxing himself into a cornerin getting some actually useful assets for Max Pacioretty.

The Senators also could have parted ways with Hoffman at a more opportune time. Instead, everyone in the league knew that their locker room was on fire, and GM Pierre Dorion received a humiliating return as a result.

Overall, it was a masterclass in how to implode as a front office, and it was far from the only forehead-slapping moment.

Randy Lee

This development might not be on the radar of casual fans, but assistant GM Randy Lee resigning amid harassment charges is likely the ugliest incident of them all. Lee was with the Senators organization for 23 years, including four as an assistant, running the AHL team as part of that gig.

Owning it

The Senators went viral with laughable video moments sandwiching the lousy Karlsson trade.

From The Department of Unforced Errors comes this absolutely surreal interview between owner Eugene Melnyk and veteran defenseman Mark Borowiecki:

[Even more on that odd interview.]

You’re not really going to “top” that, but Dorion’s response to a question about what to look forward to this season at least kept the ball (of shame) rolling.

Time flies when you’re having fun, right Senators fans? (Sorry.)

Not even having the lure of tanking

One can quibble about the Senators selecting Brady Tkachuk over, say, Filip Zadina with the fourth pick of the 2018 NHL Draft. That debate is mostly beside the point, though.

Thanks to the Matt Duchene trade, the Senators are sending their 2019 first-rounder to the Avalanche after keeping their 2018 first-rounder. For all the miseries of the 2018-19 season, they won’t at least be able to … “Slack for Jack?” Or would it be “Lose Huge for Hughes?”

(Let me know, Hockey Internet.)

For all we know, a mix of lottery luck and possibly better-than-expected play might leave the Avalanche with an inferior pick in 2019. Strange things happen in hockey, and a combination of a solid-to-good coach in Guy Boucher, a plausible rebound for Craig Anderson, and contract years for Duchene and Stone could propel them into more competitive play.

Still, most are betting on abject misery. The prospect of all of that losing and brooding opening the door for the Avalanche to land an elite talent pours a mountain of salt in the Senators’ many, many wounds.

That’s especially true if Brady Tkachuk ends up being nowhere near the prospect that his brother Matthew Tkachuk is.

***

Those are some of the big-picture nightmares that occurred for the Senators, and they probably overlook some other headaches. (Example: attendance issues should only get worse.)

It was already bad enough that the light at the end of the tunnel seemed so dim, and so distant.

To some extent, every rebuilding team faces asks their players “tough things out.” Sometimes you need to just pull the Band-Aid off, which occasionally means ruffling feathers by doing things like they did today in waiving Smith.

The reality, though, is that the Senators continue to pile on more reasons for Duchene and Stone to want to escape what appears to be an explosively dysfunctional franchise. The controversies and poor trade returns for Karlsson and Hoffman might serve as the haystacks, yet sometimes a smaller move like waiving a well-liked player such as Smith may actually be the last straw.

At best, it’s another kick below the belt.

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.

The Buzzer: Red Wings win; Laviolette lost a bet

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Three Stars

1. Mark Stone

The fantastic two-way winger performed at a high level for Ottawa, generating two goals (including the impressive overtime game-winner) and an assist while logging a busy 20:53 time on ice.

On a night where stone generated a +2 rating, the 26-year-old fired four shots on goal, delivered two hits, and blocked two shots. Stone was probably the biggest reason the Senators won a battle of not-as-dour-as-expected teams.

(See his booming OTGWG in the highlights section.)

2. Nathan MacKinnon

Gabriel Landeskog‘s two goals (and five goals in two games) grabs your attention, but MacKinnon actually had the better overall game.

MacKinnon scored one goal, already his eighth of 2017-18, and also generated two assists. They were primary helpers on both of Landeskog’s goals.

It was an all-around effort for the speedster, as MacKinnon finished +2, generated five SOG, and also delivered a hit and a blocked shot. About the only thing you’d ask for is more success on draws.

Philipp Grubauer was crucial to Colorado’s success, too, stopping 42 out of 43 shots.

(For more on MacKinnon’s rise to stardom, click here.)

3. Jeff Skinner

You could point out plenty of other three-point games from Saturday; perhaps you’d highlight Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jakub Voracek, or Patrick Kane instead?

Regardless, Skinner’s starting to heat up for Buffalo, with all six of his points coming during the Sabres’ last four games. Skinner’s hat-trick goal itself was an empty-netter, but his Saturday was still sterling; he scored on all three of his SOG and sported a +4 as Buffalo added to the Kings’ miseries. Jack Eichel was fantastic in his own right, collecting three assists.

This sort of result really has to be heartening for the up-and-down Sabres.

Highlights

When in doubt, go with overtime game-winners. There were a few to choose from on a busy Saturday around the NHL, but let’s go with Stone’s authoritative shot:

And Gustav Nyquist taking advantage of a nice play by Dylan Larkin to earn Detroit’s first win of the season:

In what might have been the real highlight of the night, Peter Laviolette lost a bet, and well, this happened:

Factoids

Not bad, Marc-Andre Fleury.

This is quite the zany group of former Senators:

What was that line? Living well is the best revenge?

Scores

Flyers 5, Devils 2
Avalanche 3, Hurricanes 1
Sabres 5, Kings 1
Jets 5, Coyotes 3
Blues 4, Maple Leafs 1
Senators 4, Canadiens 3 (OT)
Red Wings 4, Panthers 3 (OT)
Blackhawks 4, Blue Jackets 1
Wild 5, Lightning 4 (OT)
Canucks 2, Bruins 1 (OT)
Golden Knights 3, Ducks 1
Predators 3, Oilers 0
Sharks 4, Islanders 1

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.

Blackhawks saw ‘vintage’ Crawford in tonight’s win

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“Vintage Crow.” That’s how Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville described Corey Crawford‘s first win of 2018-19, as he stopped 37 out of 38 shots as Chicago beat Columbus 4-1 on Saturday.

This marks Crawford’s second game back from concussion issues that put his season – if not career – on the line, and he’s been thrown right in the deep end. The veteran goalie has faced at least 30 shots in each of his two appearances, so Chicago hasn’t exactly been able to make it an easy return.

“Yeah, we gotta play better in front of him, no doubt,” Patrick Kane said, according to the Athletic’s Mark Lazerus. “It’s one of those things where we played pretty well the first five games, then all of a sudden he comes back and maybe you’re just expecting him to bail you out — which he has the past two games.”

Perhaps the clearest moment of Crawford bailing his team out came on this save, as Artemi Panarin made things happen very quickly in setting up this scoring chance for Pierre Luc-Dubois:

Following the 4-1 win, Crawford said that he felt like he was reading plays well, and the numbers back that up. The Blue Jackets fired 11 shots on goal on their four power-play opportunities, but Crawford shut the door on all of them.

With this victory, the Blackhawks continued their generally strong start to the season, improving their record to 4-1-2, giving them 10 standings points from seven games.

Before Crawford came back, Chicago was largely winning despite its goaltending, as Cam Ward looked shaky at best through five games. You could state that perhaps Crawford returned at the perfect time, but either way, this is a promising start for the goalie and his team.

It doesn’t guarantee that Crawford won’t suffer health-related setbacks as the season progresses, but so far, so good.

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.

Concussion worries loom as Predators put Rinne on IR

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Pekka Rinne‘s Friday-night start ended in a painful way: not only did the Flames score on his basically empty net, but he suffered an injury thanks to an unlucky collision with Predators teammate Kevin Fiala.

Rinne was removed from Nashville’s eventual 5-3 win against Calgary on the behest of concussion spotters, and now the reigning Vezina-winner has been placed on IR.

At minimum, Rinne will miss three Predators games: tonight’s contest against Connor McDavid and the Oilers, along with a Tuesday home game against the Sharks and a Thursday road date versus the Devils. He’d first be eligible to suit up again on Oct. 27, when the Predators visit the Oilers in Edmonton.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Rinne will actually be ready to return to play.

As usual with NHL teams, it’s unclear how serious Rinne’s issue is, and there’s no guarantee that Rinne suffered a concussion. It’s difficult not to worry about that being the case, as that’s been a growing concern around the league, as we’ve seen with the likes of Corey Crawford and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Rinne’s injury does bring about an interesting situation, as the Predators could choose to roll out promising backup Juuse Saros in more of a No. 1 starter-workhorse role.

Earlier this week, Bob McKenzie discussed the Predators wanting to sign Rinne long-term.

Considering how well Rinne played at times last season, and all the accolades he’s accrued and will likely pile up with this franchise, one can understand the drive to keep him around.

Still, Rinne’s 35 and probably won’t want to take too much of a cut from his current, expiring $7 million cap hit; meanwhile, Saros is just 23 and will carry just a $1.5M cap hit through 2020-21. There’s a scenario where Saros could be the guy, Rinne would move on, and the Predators would set themselves up to be in a decent situation to avoid losing a key skater.

That still-unresolved issue makes even a truncated Saros audition quite fascinating, then.

It’s never good news to lose your starter, particularly a long-time workhorse and reigning Vezina-winner like Rinne. Even so, Saros has shown that he’s quite capable when given opportunities, and it could be valuable to see what they really have here. If Rinne misses more than a week, then the Predators could really feed Saros some reps.

One would assume that the Predators would lean on Saros for most, if not all, of this stretch. If not, we might see called-up goalie Miroslav Svoboda play a bit, too. This would be a big step up for Svoboda, who has been playing for the ECHL’s wonderfully named Atlanta Gladiators, and was a seventh-round pick (208th overall) by Edmonton in 2015.

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.

Avs’ MacKinnon belongs in best in NHL conversation

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As you can see from this Associated Press piece, there are some hot “best in the NHL” debates going around, with people batting around names like Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, and Auston Matthews.

Colorado Avalanche speedster Nathan MacKinnon‘s name didn’t come up in that conversation, but quite frankly, he’ll be impossible to ignore if keeps this up.

The 23-year-old has scored at least one point in all eight games, and his numbers are positively eye-popping. MacKinnon generated six points in the past two games alone, leaving him with a ridiculous eight goals and six assists for 14 points. As of this writing, only Auston Matthews (16 points in eight games) has generated more offense so far in 2018-19, while MacKinnon’s running mate Mikko Rantanen also has 14.

[More on Rantanen becoming a “driving force” for Colorado]

Remarkably, MacKinnon isn’t subsisting on a red-hot power play, either, as only two of his 14 points have come from the man advantage. With that in mind, it’s less shocking that MacKinnon’s seven even-strength goals currently lead the NHL.

It’s dangerous to rely too heavily on season stats, particularly when we’re still in October, but zooming out to last season really cements MacKinnon’s rise among the league’s most exhilarating scorers.

When you combine last season with these early showings, MacKinnon generated a whopping 111 points in just 84 games, trailing only Connor McDavid (119 in 87) and Claude Giroux (113 in 90). MacKinnon’s 1.31 points-per-game average is second only to … you guessed it: McDavid, at 1.35.

MacKinnon slips under the radar almost as seamlessly as he flies by defensemen for a few reasons:

  • The Avalanche haven’t been very great lately. MacKinnon’s efforts helped Colorado make the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet before that, the Avs suffered a three-season drought. The Avs have only made the playoffs twice since 2010-11, and they’ve only won one playoff series since 2005-06.

Even so, looking back at the past illuminates how special MacKinnon’s start has been. MacKinnon scored a goal in his first six games, something Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk, and many other standout Avs failed to do:

Could he break more club records as he goes?

  • Maybe some of the reluctance to name MacKinnon among the best stems from the speedy center beginning his career as an effective scorer, yet not quite the guy people expected.

Through his first four seasons, MacKinnon only crossed the 60-point barrier once (63 on his way to a Calder Trophy in 2013-14), with his 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons inspiring real concern about his shooting ability. It’s one thing to have bad puckluck for a single season, but through the first four years of his career, MacKinnon shot under 10-percent on three occasions, and his peak was just a flat 10.0 during that rookie campaign.

Well, it’s not clear what precisely changed, yet it’s probably safe to dismiss those concerns already. MacKinnon probably would have hit 40 goals and 100 points if he played every game last season (finishing with 39 goals and 97 points in just 74 games), and he’s off to that red-hot start in 2018-19.

  • There were times when MacKinnon almost felt like comic relief in his apparently long-running Tim Horton’s commercials alongside Sidney Crosby.

Now? He’s still goofy, but in more of an “effective buddy cop movie character” sort of way.

His bond with Crosby and the Canadian coffee chain giant really peaked recently, as the two surprised members of Kenya’s senior men’s hockey team (more about that in this post):

Heartwarming stuff, right?

***

To recap: MacKinnon is a speedy center who’s scoring at a near-McDavidian-rate, and he’s building enough evidence that his quantum leap from 2017-18 could be the rule, rather than the exception.

With a rising winger in Rantanen, not to mention a productive, hard-nosed captain in Gabriel Landeskog, MacKinnon also pilots a top line that deserves consideration as the best trio in the NHL.

Oh yeah, MacKinnon also deserves serious consideration for having the best bargain contract in the NHL. Somehow, the Avalanche will receive five more prime-level years of MacKinnon’s services at the ridiculous rate of $6.3 million per season. That’s barely more than half of what McDavid’s getting — and McDavid is worth more than $12.5M.

So, MacKinnon’s on that rare McDavid plane of being lightning fast, yet still boasting the skill and hockey IQ to take advantage of that world-class speed. Maybe it took him more time to harness that, but this seems to be clear today.

It also seems like he’s kind of a goober, and can provide a salty quote here or there.

While it’s true that MacKinnon isn’t totally dismissed as a great player – he was a finalist, falling right behind Taylor Hall for the 2018 Hart Trophy – the point is that the latest Avalanche superstar is worthy of greater hype.

If nothing else, make sure you watch him play. Chances are, his name will pop up more often in “best in the league” conversations if you do.

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.