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John Gibson keeping Ducks afloat

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Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson did not receive a single Vezina Trophy vote from the NHL’s general managers last season, and given how well he played that result was probably one of the bigger omissions in the league’s awards voting. It is not that he should have won it, or even necessarily been a finalist, but to not get a single vote when obviously inferior goalies did was … curious.

Since becoming the Ducks’ starting goalie during the 2015-16 season Gibson has been one of the best in the business, and seems determined to have his best season yet in 2017-18. If Anaheim is going to avoid falling off the map in the Western Conference playoff picture they probably are going to need elite play from their goaltender given the early trends they have shown.

Entering the weekend the Ducks are off to a 3-0-1 start, which is pretty impressive when you consider they have been without several of the top forwards, including Corey Perry, Ondrej Kase, and Ryan Getzlaf.

Perry and Kase have yet to play and neither will be back in the lineup anytime soon, while Getzlaf has missed two games due to a groin injury. That is a lot of talent out of the lineup as all three were among the team’s top-five scorers a year ago. And the Ducks were not a great offensive team with them, finishing 18th in the league in goals scored. Take them out and it gets even worse.

Along with that lack of offense, this Ducks team also has the same calling card as every Randy Carlyle-coached team before it: They get completely dominated when it comes to the shot chart, meaning it is imperative that the goalie not only plays well, but is capable of carrying the team.

For all of the success Carlyle has had behind the bench in the NHL (and he has had a lot; winning a Stanley Cup and reaching in the Western Conference Final twice) his teams all tend to play the same way. They get outshot. Badly. No matter who is on the team, no matter what the talent level is, no matter what conference or division they are playing in, they get caved in when it comes to shots.

It was the case during his first stint in Anaheim. It was the case during his time in Toronto. It was the case as recently as last season.

It is, so far, once again the case this season.

Through four games the Ducks are last in the NHL in total shot attempt differential during 5-on-5 play. They are next-to-last in scoring chance differential. They are 25th in “high-danger” scoring chance differential. (All numbers via Natural Stat Trick.) Whether you put much stock in the analytics are not, it is hard to acknowledge that it is a winning formula to continue getting that badly outshot and outchanced over the course of a season.

Still, despite all of those shortcomings the Ducks have collected seven out of a possible eight point to start the year and have only allowed three even-strength goals (and only six goals overall).

Gibson is the single biggest reason for all of that.

As of Friday, he already posted a .955 save percentage in his first four starts. Given that two of their three wins have been by a single goal (a 1-0 win, and a 3-2 shootout win) and their only loss came in a shootout, it is not a stretch to say that if he had been even marginally worse during those first four games the Ducks’ record and early season outlook would easily be completely different at this point.

That is all probably a good indication of what to expect from the Ducks this season, especially as long as their top forwards are sidelined. In short, they are going to go as far as Gibson can carry them.

If that is the way your team is going to play, Gibson is probably one of the best options a team can have at this point. Of the 44 goalies that have appeared in at least 100 games since the start of the 2015-16 season, none of them have a higher save percentage than Gibson’s .925 mark. Despite that, he has only received a Vezina Trophy vote of any kind exactly one time, when he received a single second-place vote during the 2015-16 season when he helped the Ducks win the Jennings Trophy for fewest goals against in a season.

He will probably not have much margin for error this season, and if the Ducks keep leaning on him the way they have, and he continues to deliver, he might finally get that Vezina Trophy support he has yet to receive in his career. Maybe even more.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Capitals face conundrum with Burakovsky

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Right now, it sure seems like Andre Burakovsky is the odd man out for the Washington Capitals, and you wonder if something eventually has to give.

The Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan reports that Burakovsky is likely to be a healthy scratch during the Capitals’ Wednesday game against the Penguins (airing on NBCSN), which would mark the fourth consecutive game that Capitals head coach Todd Reirden sat him viable the dreaded “coach’s decision.”

Publicly, Reirden provided the boilerplate optimism you’d expect, even when a player seems to be in the doghouse.

“He’s just got to continue to come to work every day with the right attitude, which he has,” Reirden said, via Khurshudyan. “He’s got so much skill and talent and had a great day of practice again today. It’s a difficult situation right now; the players are making it difficult for our staff to pick the guys who should be playing each night, and that’s a good thing.”

Limited minutes if he even manages to play

To some extent, it’s true that the defending champions are fairly stacked at forward. Granted, it’s easy for me to picture Burakovsky bringing more value to the table than a limited (albeit rugged) winger like Devante Smith-Pelly, but it sure seems like Reirden’s soured on Burakovsky.

Earlier in his career, it was frustrating to see Burakovsky’s minutes somewhat limited, as it felt like a case of Barry Trotz being too rigid to trust a younger player to learn from mistakes. That’s only gotten worse under Reirden, as Burakovsky’s averaged just 11:36 TOI through the 29 games he has appeared in, a significant drop from last season (13:50) and his career average of 13:04.

Burakovsky’s struggles become a chicken-and-the-egg argument, then: how much of it is pure up-and-down play, and how much of it comes down to shaken confidence?

Checking Hockey Reference, you can see that Burakovsky often enjoyed strong possession numbers, including relative to his teammates … until 2018-19, when he’s been mediocre, if not bad. It’s noticeable that a player who was once deployed for offensive opportunities (career average of 56.8 percent of his shifts starting in the attacking zone) is now averaging a career-low of 45.9 percent.

On one hand, Burakovsky’s stock may be at a new low, judging by his underlying struggles, healthy scratches, and being limited to a disappointing eight points in 29 games. Selling low is a way to lose trades … but considering how reluctantly he’s being deployed by Reirden, maybe a trade would just be better for everyone involved?

After all, the Capitals might not want to hand the pending RFA a $3.25M qualifying offer if this funk – and impasse with Reirden – is the rule, rather than the exception.

Khurshudyan reports that the Capitals wouldn’t want futures in a hypothetical trade, instead wanting someone who could help them now. Either way, a trade before Wednesday’s holiday freeze is reportedly unlikely.

With all of that in mind, is there some sort of solution?

How Capitals can help him out

Well, that might require a bit of creativity. Back in late November, Japers Rink’s Adam Stringham brought up an interesting point: like a flip-flop of Alex Ovechkin thriving as a LW, the left-handed Burakovsky tends to put up better numbers as a RW.

Andre Burakovsky has played roughly the same number of minutes on both the right and left sides of the ice but with pretty different rates of production. Across all lines, Burakovsky’s production is 35% higher when he’s playing on his off-wing.

It could be especially bold – and make Adam Oates’ blood boil – if the Capitals rolled out a line of Ovechkin (LW), Nicklas Backstrom/Evgeny Kuznetsov at center, and Burakovsky on the right.

One could also argue that Burakovsky is worthy of more power play time whenever he might re-enter the lineup. While it would be foolish to quibble with Washington’s top unit, more reps with the second group would make a lot of sense. Burakovsky probably deserves more than 32 seconds of PP time per night, particularly since the Caps roll out two defensemen on the second group (Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen), when a lot of metrics argue that a 4F, 1D setup is more productive.

Checking Corsica’s numbers, Burakovsky has often acquitted himself well on a per-60-minutes basis, frequently meeting or exceeding the likes of T.J. Oshie at that mark. That’s not to slight Oshie; instead, the point is that the Capitals might be leaving goals and assists on the table when they’re failing to find ways to get Burakovsky on the ice.

Getting Burakovsky out there more often could pump his trade value back up, and could also help thaw out the relationship with Reirden. The Capitals have been hit by injuries more often this season merely by comparison to their almost-spooky run of near-impeccable health during the Trotz era, but if those ailments start to hit in waves, wouldn’t it be better to not just have Burakovsky around, but have him on the right track?

Considering the Capitals’ five-game winning streak, things are obviously looking good overall. It’s unlikely that many are losing sleep regarding this situation.

Still, Burakovsky is the sort of talented player who can sometimes turn the tide of a close series, or at least help Washington land that type of player in a trade. He’s not going to do that by languishing on the bench, though.

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 dealt another blow with Crawford’s concussion

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By Jay Cohen (AP Sports Writer)

CHICAGO (AP) — The Chicago Blackhawks added another difficult question to their long list of problems when Corey Crawford suffered another concussion.

Suddenly, their goaltending situation is completely up in the air.

There was no update on Crawford’s status a day after he was placed on injured reserve. The two-time All-Star got hurt in the first period of Sunday’s 7-3 loss to San Jose when the back of his head struck the right post during a scary goalmouth pileup.

”He just needs time to get better,” Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said Tuesday. ”Obviously you feel for him and want him, first of all as a person, just get back to 100 percent as quick as he can. Until then we’ll keep battling.”

Crawford, who helped the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup in 2013 and 2015, also missed most of last year and the start of this season because of a concussion. The pair of head injuries in a relatively short time period raises questions about whether he might play again.

”It looks rough, how he hit his head on the post,” defenseman Connor Murphy said, ”especially a guy like that who battled so hard to come back and was such a big part of our team. To me, he was our best player. … Hopefully he’s back soon.”

Collin Delia was recalled from Rockford of the American Hockey League on an emergency basis when Crawford went on IR. Cam Ward was set to start Tuesday night against Nashville.

The 24-year-old Delia began last season in the East Coast Hockey League before being promoted to Rockford and then making his NHL debut in March. He went 1-1 in two starts with Chicago.

”Just the adversity that I went through last season, starting in the ECHL and kind of working my way up, it’s a huge character-building moment for me,” Delia said. ”I had to see where my game was at, see if this was something that I could take to the next level. I think I kind of proved to myself and teammates, coaches, staff that I had the capabilities.”

Crawford’s concussion is another tough blow for last-place Chicago, which missed the playoffs last season for the first time in a decade. Longtime coach Joel Quenneville was fired on Nov. 6, but the Blackhawks went 4-13-3 in their first 20 games under Colliton.

”We played two of our best games of the year against Pittsburgh and Winnipeg and then the last game (against the Sharks), that’s not where we want to be,” Colliton said. ”But let’s bounce back. The sky isn’t falling because we lose a game after we played well for a couple nights.”

The Blackhawks also will be without one of their top defensemen for a while after they decided to loan Henri Jokiharju to Finland for the upcoming world junior championship. The 19-year-old Jokiharju has no goals and 11 assists in 32 games in his first NHL season. The international competition runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Vancouver, British Columbia.

”It’s a great opportunity, we think, for him, but also for our team,” Colliton said. ”We’re thinking about what kind of player he’s going to be months down the road and in years down the road. It’s a chance for him to go there and be one of, if not the top player, one of the top players and help lead them to success.”

While Crawford and Jokiharju are away from the team, forward Artem Anisimov and defenseman Gustav Forsling could return against Nashville after being activated from injured reserve. Anisimov had been sidelined by a concussion, and Forsling was out with a shoulder injury.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Trading Jeff Carter would be difficult for Kings

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From our seats – whether those seats are in cubicles or basements or penthouses – making a trade feels as simple as doing so in “NHL 19” or fantasy hockey.

Of course, there are a lot of elements that make it tougher to do so in reality. Maybe the GM you’d normally trade to has been burnt before, or is scared to make a trade after being roasted so many times over social media. Perhaps you’re one of those GMs who just won’t trade Player A to another team in your division, or conference.

Beyond that, there are the human elements. An executive might feel especially loyal to a player who won his team a Stanley Cup or two, and a player may simply not want to leave a market where they’ve put down roots.

Threat of retirement

That’s one thing to consider for the Kings and Jeff Carter, as he told The Athletic’s Lisa Dillman (sub required) when asked about a potential trade.

“It’s the first time in my career I’ve had a family and kids, so it changes it,” Carter said. “Like I said, I can’t really control much of that. When you’re not winning games, that’s how it goes.

“I’ve been on teams like that before. We’ll see.”

Now, some of you in the audience might blurt out “tough,” but the Kings would have bottom-line reasons to take pause. During a recent edition of TSN’s Insider Trading, Bob McKenzie noted that Carter could just decide to retire if a trade didn’t work for him, which would mean that hypothetical team wouldn’t get an expected return, while the Kings would eat a significant cap recapture penalty.

“He doesn’t have no-trade protection, he loves it in L.A. and would love to stay. If he does get traded somewhere he doesn’t want to go, retirement could be an option for him,” McKenzie said, via TSN’s transcription. “That’s why he signed that back-diving contract ­– he’s only leaving $7 million on the table. If he did retire, there is a cap recapture penalty that would hit the LA Kings at $3.75 million in each of the next three years.”

So, in a lot of ways, Carter’s contract carries a self-imposed no-trade clause, or at least allows him to name a team he’d accept a move to.

A budget-friendly contract

It’s interesting, really, because Carter’s contract is so friendly to a budget team. Consider the remaining years of an 11-year deal, which carries a $5.273M (rounded up) cap hit, yet costs much less in salary dollars, via Cap Friendly:

2018-19: $5.273M cap hit, $5M salary
2019-20: $5.273M cap hit, $3M salary
2020-21: $5.273M cap hit, $2M salary
2021-22: $5.273M cap hit, $2M salary

So, really, that might be the silver lining for the Kings. Carter could very well be useful for getting to the cap floor in the future, if this rebuild ends up being long and painful. Considering how lousy the Kings look, how hard Father Time could hit their core, and how limited their prospect base is, a prolonged period of pain is not out of the question.

The other silver lining is that the Kings have other contracts they can move with greater ease.

For quite some time, the Kings have been lampooned for bragging about Jonathan Quick‘s extension, which carries a $5.8M cap hit through 2022-23:

As poorly as those Tweets aged, the Quick deal doesn’t include a no-trade clause. The Kings also have two defensemen who are very appealing and lack such clauses in Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez (though Martinez needs to heal up), while Tyler Toffoli is the other prominent tradable forward who lacks an NMC or NTC.

Yet, there’s another factor that would make it tougher to trade Carter and/or Toffoli:

Selling low

In that Dillman piece, there’s an especially dour moment where Toffoli notes that Carter (or “Carts”) insisted that Toffoli would score again some day, as the winger is on a lengthy goal-less streak.

It brings to mind a recommendation: if the Kings can convince Carter to accept a trade (or eventually make one of those seemingly-phony trips to LTIR if things didn’t work out), they might want to wait a while to actually make a move.

Serious slump

Because, as it stands, Carter’s value couldn’t get a lot colder.

Perhaps Carter needs more time to recover from various ailments, including a recent ankle surgery. He’s 33, so there’s a delicate balance there, but more time might allow Carter to get more spring in his step.

Yet, from a more black-and-white standpoint, Carter’s numbers could use a boost.

Through 34 games, Carter has just six goals and 15 points. He can’t blame being stuck to the bench (like Ilya Kovalchuk was before he got hurt), either, as Carter’s averaging 18:39 TOI per game, his highest average since 2013-14 (when he logged 18:57 per night).

Line him up with Kopitar?

So, that’s not great, but there are some reasons for hope, and perhaps some sneaky ways to pull a “pump-and-dump.”

For one thing, Carter should enjoy at least slightly better bounces going forward. His shooting percentage is at just 6.5 this season, tying a career-low from way back in 2006-07, and way down from a career average of 11.5. Last season, he scored on 15.3 percent of his SOG, so there’s an argument that this revolves around bad luck more than the aging curve. His on-ice shooting percentage (7.4) is lower than usual, too, so multiple indicators point to at least some improvement.

Allow a somewhat audacious suggestion, then: what if the Kings lined up Carter with Anze Kopitar?

With Kovalchuk on the shelf and often in Willie Desjardins’ doghouse, Kopitar’s having to lug Dustin Brown and Alex Iafallo around at even-strength. Why not give Kopitar a more creative linemate? From the looks of their lines at Left Wing Lock, Adrian Kempe‘s currently on Carter’s wing, so it’s not as though Desjardins is totally against experimenting a bit with placing pivots on the wing. What if Carter enjoyed a Claude Giroux-like renaissance on the wing?

It’s not really something the Kings tried, either. According to Natural Stat Trick, Kopitar and Carter have been on the ice together for a measly eight even-strength minutes.

What do the Kings really have to lose? Kempe can slide back to center on a second line, Carter might enjoy more open ice, and Kopitar might enjoy … life again? OK, that’s too much, but he may enjoy hockey more if he had a little extra help.

Perhaps some teams would see this as a shameless way to inflate Carter’s value, but teams often find ways to romanticize a player who could solve [x] ills.

I mean, if the Kings are happy with the miserable status quo, then forget I said anything.

***

As you can see, this isn’t the easiest situation. Trading Carter is tricky in different ways than it would be to trade Quick, Muzzin, Martinez, or Toffoli (and those would be uncomfortable moves as well).

The Kings are already in a tough spot, but they’ll only pile up more challenges if they don’t explore every avenue to improve their situation, even if it means leaving their comfort zone — and finding out how Carter might react to being traded out of his.

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.

Flyers’ Carter Hart to make historic NHL debut vs. Red Wings

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The Philadelphia Flyers remain in a state of change, so why not make a little history while they’re at it?

When prized goalie prospect Carter Hart plays Tuesday night against the Detroit Red Wings, the Flyers will become the first team in NHL history to start six netminders in the opening 35 games of a season. They will also be the 14th team ever and first since the 2013-14 Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers to start six over the course of a season.

Considering the situation in the Flyers’ crease, who knows how long Hart, 20, will stay up with the NHL club, but this will be a peek into the future as he is expected to be the eventual solution in net. But with Brian Elliott, Michal Neuvirth, Anthony Stolarz, and Alex Lyon in the mix, the short-term answer might be more seasoning in the AHL once there are fewer goaltenders in the trainer’s room.

After a bumpy start to his professional career in AHL Lehigh Valley this season, Hart has settled down and helped the Phantoms win four of his last five starts with a 1.81 goals against average and .938 save percentage.

What helped to make things finally starting to click for him?

“Trusting my game, not trying to overthink plays,” he said on Monday. “Earlier in the year, making the transition from junior to the pro level I was over-analyzing everything. I had talks with the coaches down there and my goalie coaches back home, and I just have to trust my game, got to play to my strengths. When it’s game time it’s just time to play. You can’t think, you’ve got to play.”

Hart, who found out about his call up during the Lehigh Valley Christmas party on Sunday night, will be helped by the familiarity of having his AHL coach, Scott Gordon, a former goalie, acting as the Flyers’ interim bench boss. It’s not the easiest situation to be thrown into, but the franchise has faith in the young goaltender.

“Probably not the ideal time to give Carter a game but Carter’s playing really well,” said Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher. “He’s a professional hockey player, strong kid mentally. He’ll go in and give his best. I have no worries about Carter Hart long term. He’s going to be a really good goalie for this franchise.”

MORE: Stumbling Flyers fire head coach Dave Hakstol

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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.