PHT’s 2018-19 predictions: NHL Awards, first coach fired, overrated teams

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Pre-season predictions are fun to track once things get under way because it’s interesting to see how they start to look as more and more games are played. It’s a good way to see what people are thinking heading into the season, and it’s especially a fun time to check back on them during different points of the year.

Below are our picks for the NHL awards which will handed out in June, plus some various topics like overrated and underrated teams, first coach fired, how many goals William Karlsson will score and more. Please be sure to forget these when they turn out to be 100 percent wrong at the end of the season. But do please come back and praise those individuals for their predictive ways if any of these end up being correct.

Be sure to give us your picks in the comments!

HART: Laine (Leahy), McDavid (O’Brien), Ovechkin (Gretz), MacKinnon (Alfieri), Kucherov (Billeck)
ART ROSS: McDavid (all)
ROCKET RICHARD: Ovechkin (Leahy, Gretz), Laine (O’Brien, Alfieri, Billeck)
VEZINA: Rask (Leahy), Gibson (O’Brien, Gretz), Vasilevskiy (Alfieri, Billeck)
NORRIS: Jones (Leahy), Karlsson (O’Brien, Gretz), Subban (Alfieri, Billeck)
CALDER: Mittelstadt (Leahy, Gretz), Dahlin (O’Brien, Alfieri), Pettersson (Billeck)
SELKE: Bergeron (all)

OVERRATED TEAM

LEAHY: Blues. Every year it’s the same thing: They play well, Vladimir Tarasenko lights it up, and then something happens where they crap out in the playoffs. Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron will help, but Jake Allen needs to rebound.

O’BRIEN: Kings. Considering the age of their core, the Kings could easily crash and burn this season. That’s especially true if Jonathan Quick proves his critics right by regressing.

GRETZ: Kings. They will do what they always do. They will post great possession numbers, they will not give up many goals, but they are still so lacking in talent and creativity offensively that they just will not be able to keep up with the rest of the contenders in the Western Conference. Ilya Kovalchuk will help, but the 35-year-old version of him is not enough to fix everything wrong with this team offensively.

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

ALFIERI: Ducks. Ryan Kesler’s going to miss a lot of time due to injury and Corey Perry isn’t the player he once was. How much longer can the Ducks continue to be one of the better teams in the Western Conference? Sure, there’s some new blood on the roster, but Ryan Getzlaf can’t just keep shouldering the load for them. The Ducks will get into the playoffs, but they won’t do much damage.

BILLECK: Maple Leafs. Sure, they got Tavares. But did they improve on defense? Nope. The Maple Leafs are getting close, but they need a better backend to be Stanley Cup competitive.

UNDERRATED TEAM

LEAHY: Panthers. Roberto Luongo still has some juice left and a young core has been growing together as prospects Owen Tippett and Henrik Borgstrom could play big factors this season. Bob Boughner did a great job in year one. With more familiarity with his system and core players taking the next step, it’s a fine recipe for a big jump.

O’BRIEN: Oilers. It’s deeply unsettling to leave McDavid’s Oilers out of the playoffs, yet Edmonton missed last season even though the unparalleled megastar scored 108 points. That seems kind of impossible, doesn’t it? I expect a significant rebound, but not enough lessons were learned to get in the West’s eight.

GRETZ: Flyers. I don’t know if Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek will be exactly as good as they were a year ago, but they are still front-line players and the young talent on this team is really, really good. Once again they are a goalie away from being a serious contender.

ALFIERI: Golden Knights. Somehow, people are still doubting the Vegas Golden Knights. I don’t know if they’re an underrated team because they made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, but I feel like people aren’t giving them the respect they deserve. They also made some solid acquisitions over the summer.

BILLECK: Sabres. Great summer of moves, including bringing in Jeff Skinner. Carter Hutton should provide better goaltending and Ramus Dahlin. 

OVERRATED PLAYER

LEAHY: Ryan Johansen. What’s $8 million supposed to get you these days? Probably a little more offense than he’s provided for the Predators. He’s hit the 20- and 30-goal marks before and there’s plenty of talent in Nashville that he can get there again.

O’BRIEN: Jonathan Toews. Is Toews still overrated? Yeah, let’s go with Toews.

GRETZ: Marc-Andre Fleury. He had an amazing year, he had the best playoff run of his career, he is still a pretty good goalie, but he is not going to repeat what he did last year and throughout the playoffs.

ALFIERI: Paul Stastny. I liked the Stastny pick up for Vegas, but you can’t help but feel like his stock has picked up a lot of steam over the last few months. He’s still an extremely useful player but will he be able to contribute much more than 50 points? I don’t know about that. His $6.5 million price tag isn’t cheap.

BILLECK: William Karlsson. From 18 points to 78. From nine goals to 43. I’ll glady eat this if Wild Bill does it again, but until he does, I’m skeptical.

UNDERRATED PLAYER

LEAHY: Mikko Rantanen. Playing with Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog, it’s easy to overlook the talents of the 21-year-old Finn. He played a huge role in the MGM line’s success last season and heading into the final year of his entry-level contract, he could set himself up for a rich deal next summer.

O’BRIEN: William Karlsson. I’m starting to think that Karlsson is the bizarro version of Stars-era Loui Eriksson. Karlsson was deemed overrated so often – and harshly – last season thanks to his abrupt production and 23.4 shooting percentage. Now he enters 2018-19 as a perfectly skilled player making a perfectly fair $5.25M, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Vegas regrets going the “prove it” route with “Wild Bill.” (Note: I may be swayed by hair flips, though.)

GRETZ: Dougie Hamilton. He led all defenders in the league in goal-scoring last season, is a 50-point player from the blue line, posts dominant possession numbers, and is signed long-term at below market salary cap number. He might be a top-10 defensemen in the NHL right now and is a tremendous value, and the Hurricanes got him — and a pretty good forward in Micheal Ferland — without giving up a ton

ALFIERI: Blake Wheeler. Sure, Wheeler got paid, but it feels like people still don’t consider him as one of the top players in the league. Only eight players scored more points than he did last season and nobody had more assists. He’s an underrated playmaker.

BILLECK: Blake Wheeler. Glossed over for the Hart despite a 91-point season. One of the best power forwards in the game and filled in admirably at center when Mark Scheifele went down for 16 games. 

FIRST COACH FIRED

LEAHY: Todd McLellan. This is how it’s trending in Edmonton, right? Connor McDavid is there having to do it all himself and general manager Peter Chiarelli had a quiet summer. That’s not going to inspire much confidence that the Oilers can rebound this season, and before the ax falls on him, Chiarelli will make a move behind the bench early.

O’BRIEN: Todd McLellan. Normally I’d say Guy Boucher would be the fall guy, but I doubt Ottawa has the scratch to fork over more money for an in-season hire. So let’s go with McLellan, who’s probably lucky he avoided the axe after 2017-18.

GRETZ: Todd McLellan. When you have the best player in the league and miss the playoffs twice in three years you do not get a very long leash. I don’t think Edmonton addressed its shortcomings enough in the offseason so not sure the winning will return just yet.

ALFIERI: Jeff Blashill. I know the Red Wings don’t typically make coaching moves during the season, but I expect it to be a very difficult year for Detroit.

BILLECK: Guy Boucher. It’s Ottawa and Boucher is in a no-win situation. 

BIGGEST FREE AGENT BUST

LEAHY: Jay Beagle. Good for Beagle getting that money, but that’s a long, pricey contract for a bottom-sixer*. (*Also applies to Antoine Roussel.)

O’BRIEN: Leo Komarov. John Ta-just kidding. Komarov edges Jack Johnson and Antoine Roussel by a hair, because that signing kicks Islanders fans while they’re down.

GRETZ: Carter Hutton. He had a great year for the Blues in part-time duty but the rest of his career performance at the NHL level is just okay. Don’t see him as a solution to the Sabres’ problems in goal.

ALFIERI: James Neal. He got off to a great start with Vegas last year, but he ended up with 25 goals and 44 points in 71 games. Even though those are far from bad numbers, I’m not sure they warranted a five-year, $28.75 million deal.

BILLECK: James Neal. Nearly $6 million a year for a guy who can’t reach 50 points anymore. 

BLUE JACKETS KEEP OR TRADE PANARIN?

LEAHY: Keep. The Blue Jackets could be contenders coming out of the East, but the futures of Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky are going to be huge sub-plots this season. If they’re a playoff team come February, how could not look to add to their roster and try and make a roster and hope for the best in free agency?

O’BRIEN: Trade. Trade him close to the deadline after they a) gauge where their team is and b) have a better shot at landing NHL-ready assets in return.

GRETZ: Keep. The Blue Jackets will keep him because they will be too competitive to trade him. Have to see where the team goes with him.

ALFIERI: Keep. They’ll be in a playoff race and they’ll need him to make sure they get in. I think he ends up walking in unrestricted free-agency.

BILLECK: Keep until the deadline and sign if the opportunity arises.

Erik Karlsson RE-SIGNS WITH SHARKS OR BECOMES UFA?

LEAHY: Re-signs. Doug Wilson is not going to let this big fish get away, and when Karlsson sees the talent that surrounds him in San Jose, he’ll want to stay. Maybe he’ll even grow out his beard after hanging out with Brent Burns and Joe Thornton  (OK, maybe not Jumbo now) for a while?

O’BRIEN: Re-signs… after the trade deadline.

GRETZ: Re-signs. Karlsson will sign with the Sharks before he reaches UFA. The Sharks can make it work under the cap and he can be the focal point of their defense and organization going forward.

ALFIERI: Re-signs. No way he’s leaving San Jose. He’ll be back on an eight-year deal.

BILLECK: Re-signs with a max contract.

PHT’S SEASON PREVIEW:
• Atlantic Division
• Metropolitan Division
• Central Division
Pacific Division
Power Rankings: Who is the NHL’s best team entering 2018-19?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Ron Francis speaks about handling of Peters situation while Hurricanes GM

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NHL Seattle general manager Ron Francis has responded to how physical abuse accusations against former Carolina Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters were handled when he was the team’s GM.

Speaking with The Seattle Times this week, Francis said he addressed the issue with Peters and defended giving him a two-year extension after the fact.

“We looked where the team was and how it was playing,” Francis said. “It was moving in the right direction. We’d made a huge increase from where it was the year before to where we were that year. And quite honestly, we looked at that (physical-abuse) situation, we addressed it and we felt it was behind him.”

“I think you deal with it the best you can with the situation you have at the time,” Francis said. “I think within the last week there have been some changes the league has made. I think that’s positive moving forward. I don’t claim to be perfect. I make mistakes. I try to learn every day from the people I talk with in situations. That’s what I try to do and take that knowledge moving forward. And hopefully you’re never in that situation again.”

Last month, after Peters was accused to uttering racial slurs at Akim Aliu, whom he coached in the American Hockey League, former Hurricanes defenseman Michal Jordan said that Peters kicked him in the back and punched another player during a game. The allegations for were confirmed by current head coach Rod Brind’Amour, who was an assistant under Peters.

Former Hurricanes majority owner Peter Karmanos told The Seattle Times that he would have fired Francis “in a nanosecond” had he been made aware of the allegations against Peters, even though Francis, who added there was a full vetting process during the hiring process, said he informed management of the situation.

Peters resigned as Calgary Flames head coach days after the allegations went public. In a statement that week Francis acknowledged he was made aware of the incidents and that he “took immediate action to address the matter and briefed ownership.” He did not reveal what he did to correct the matter in either his statement or in the interview with the Times’ Geoff Baker.

“When you look back, there were some things we did well and certain things we need to improve on to get better,” he said. “That’s part of the learning process, I think.”

The NHL revealed a four-point plan this week at the Board of Governors that will provide a guideline for teams in handling abuse allegations and other inappropriate conduct.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Wild’s Spurgeon 10 seasons into size-defying career

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The defining moment of Jared Spurgeon‘s hockey career came when he was just 13: His peewee coach in Edmonton moved him from forward to defenseman.

There was no going back for Spurgeon, even though he hasn’t grown much bigger since then. Minnesota’s 5-foot-9, 167-pound stalwart on the blue line has been defying size stereotypes ever since.

”I just fell in love with the position,” Spurgeon said.

The Wild have felt the same way about him over the last 10 seasons. The 30-year-old Spurgeon, who set career highs in games (82), goals (14), assists (29), shots (152) and hits (91) during the 2019-19 season, signed a seven-year, $53 million contract extension at the beginning of training camp.

Not bad for a sixth-round pick the New York Islanders ultimately declined to sign, paving the way for a tryout with the Wild two years after he was drafted.

”Probably the best in the NHL at breaking the puck out. Unbelievable on his edges. One of the smartest players in the game,” said Buffalo defenseman Marco Scandella, who played with Spurgeon in Minnesota for seven seasons. ”He’s got a lot of things in his toolbox, and he doesn’t even need the size.”

Spurgeon, who is halfway through an expected two-week absence for a hand injury sustained while blocking a shot, has ranked over the last four years in the top 20 among NHL defensemen in goals, power play goals, blocked shots and time on ice.

”That’s one of those players that you’re just like, ‘How?’ ” Scandella said. ”You just have to watch him over a season. Play with him, and you understand how good he is.”

The ability to skate – and pass – quickly will always be critical for a player with Spurgeon’s frame. Part of that is being fast enough to elude opponents, but it also means maximizing his power by maintaining leverage and balance for the moments when he does initiate or absorb contact.

”You don’t need to be huge and massive to be strong on your skates,” said St. Louis center Ryan O'Reilly, who faces Spurgeon frequently as a Central Division rival. ”You go in and forecheck, and he is so strong. It’s like going against a big guy.”

Awareness is just as important as fearlessness to succeed as a 5-foot-9 player, of course.

Spurgeon simply doesn’t get pushed around much because he’s rarely caught off guard by a big hit. The advantage of vision from the blue line, being able to see the plays develop in front of him, was one of the benefits that immediately drew Spurgeon to defense. He tried to emulate players who came before him like Brian Rafalski and Dan Boyle, sub-6-foot defensemen who were offensive threats but never a liability in their own zone.

”The emphasis of moving the puck and getting up ice and being able to contribute offensively as well is a whole lot different than it used to be, where maybe you had one of those guys before and a bunch of a big, mean guys,” Spurgeon said. ”But I think now the game is so fast that I think it gives the ability for smaller guys to play.”

According to Sportradar data, there are 41 defensemen who have appeared in at least one NHL game this season and are listed at 5-foot-11 or shorter. That number drops to 18 at 5-foot-10 or less and to six at 5-foot-9 and under.

In the 2005-06 season after the lockout, which brought rule changes to encourage more free-flowing action in the neutral zone and increase goal scoring, there were only 29 defensemen at 5-foot-11 or shorter, 11 at 5-foot-10 or less, and three at 5-foot-9 and under. Twenty years ago, there were fewer still: 22 players at 5-foot-11 or shorter, eight at 5-foot-10 or less, and just one at 5-foot-9 and under.

The Wild have two 5-foot-9 blue-liners with Spurgeon and Brad Hunt. Boston’s Torey Krug is another standout in the club. Those lanky veterans around the league like St. Louis’ Colton Parayko (6-foot-6), Carolina’s Dougie Hamilton (6-foot-6) and Boston’s Zdeno Chara (6-foot-9) have obvious advantages with reach and strength, but there’s plenty more to sound defense than being able to poke a stick at a puck.

”We have the quickness and the first two or three strides in order to close plays so that they don’t get the possession of the puck and move on. I think it’s just using our skating abilities,” Krug said. ”I think it’s been a long time coming, especially with the real changes in the way the game is trending. It’s funny, years ago to have one of those guys on your team, people kind of scoffed at that. Now we’ve got two and sometimes three in the lineup at once, and it creates really mobile back end.”

STREAKING

Pittsburgh goalie Tristan Jarry had a franchise-record scoreless run of 177:15 that ended during a 4-1 loss to Montreal on Tuesday, just the second defeat in eight starts for the backup to Matt Murray. Jarry stopped 82 consecutive shots during the streak, the longest in the league this season.

SLUMPING

The Detroit Red Wings are sliding toward a four-year absence from the playoffs after the end of their famous 25-season streak of making it. The Red Wings are on a 12-game winless streak, going 0-10-2 since Nov. 12, and have the worst record in the NHL at 7-22-3. They’ve dropped 10 straight games in regulation by a 47-16 margin.

Our Line Starts podcast: Montgomery’s firing; drafting the All-Decade Team

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Kathryn Tappen, Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp discuss the surprise firing of Stars coach Jim Montgomery. The guys also give their takes on Gary Bettman’s four-point plan to handle abuse. Pierre McGuire sits down with Sabres coach Ralph Krueger to talk about his time in Europe and his path from the Premier League back to the NHL. Plus, Jones and Sharp reveal their top defensemen and goalies of the decade. Do you agree with them?

Start-0:45 Intros
0:45-7:25 Reaction to Dallas firing Jim Montgomery
7:25-14:10 Gary Bettman and the NHL’s 4-point plan
14:10-32:50 Pierre interviews Sabres coach Ralph Krueger
36:05-End The guys begin to draft their All-Decade Team

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

PHT Morning Skate: Bruins’ stars workload; Shero’s hot seat

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• “Akim Aliu’s story of enduring racism inside hockey includes an incident in which a minor-league team staffer dressed up as him in blackface.” [Wall Street Journal]

• “It feels like this examination and accounting of hockey’s ugly underbelly is in its infancy, as if a light has shined on the game’s conscience for the first time in decades, with the holder of the flashlight realizing just how much cleansing there is to do.” [TSN]

• The Bruins stars are carrying a heavy offensive load. [RotoWorld]

• What players need to avoid the regression monster and which ones are ready to bounce back? [ESPN]

• The name, colors and logo of Seattle’s NHL expansion team could be revealed in February or March. [NHL.com]

• How hot is Ray Shero’s seat now becoming in New Jersey? [All About the Jersey]

• Well-travelled Eric Comrie looking to make mark with Red Wings. [Sun Media]

• Speaking of hot seats, how much longer does Jeff Blashill have in Detroit? [Freep]

• Ranking the all-time jersey designs of the Vancouver Canucks. [Hockey by Design]

• Could the Canadians be potential trade partners with the Blackhawks? [NBC Sports Chicago]

• A look at the best player at every age in the NHL. [Yardbarker]

• Finally, here’s Brett Ritchie with the quote of the season:

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.