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Should you buy the fast starts by Islanders, Canucks?

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Two of the biggest surprises in the NHL this season have to be the Vancouver Canucks and New York Islanders. When the season began, nobody had any realistic expectations for these two except for them to lose and probably lose a lot.

So far, the opposite has been happening.

The Canucks, 7-6 overtime winners against Colorado on Friday in a completely insane game, are now 9-6-0 through their first 15 games and are being powered by their two young standout forwards, Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.

It is a surprising start because over the previous three seasons no team in the NHL (Vegas excluded, having only played in one of those seasons) had won fewer games, they lost two of their top-scorers from a year ago to retirement, and outside of the promise of Pettersson, Boeser, and Bo Horvat didn’t really have much going for them.

The Islanders, meanwhile, lost their best player — John Tavares — in free agency, entered the year with several more top players in contract years, and spent the offseason stacking a roster that was already full of depth players on long-term contracts with even more depth players on long-term contracts. It made no sense, and honestly, still probably doesn’t.

After completing a home-and-home sweep of the Penguins this past week, they enter Saturday’s game against New Jersey tied for first place in the Metropolitan Division and riding a four-game winning streak.

The early results are great, and early results matter. A lot. If they are good, they can give you a big cushion for later in the season when you might hit a slump and fall back to the back a little bit. If they are bad, like the early slow starts by the Kings and Panthers (which we wrote about here), they can end your playoff chances remarkably early because the points are almost impossible to make up.

But for as important as the results are, the process behind the results is often times just as important — if not more important — when it comes to sustaining them over the duration of the season.

That is where we start to see some red flags with the Canucks and Islanders because there is a lot of evidence that these two teams may not be playing as well as their early results might indicate, and that unless something changes there they could each be a house of cards just waiting to fall over.

Heck, the Canucks have actually been outscored this season by four goals and are 22nd in the league when it comes to goals against per game. The fact they are 9-6-0 right now with those two numbers is nothing short of insane. And it’s not like the Canucks haven’t had decent starts in recent years. In 2015-16 they were 6-2-4 (a 110-point pace) after 12 games. They won four games in a row to start the 2016-17 season. A year ago they were 8-5-2 after 15 games (only one point off their current start). All of those starts resulted in finishes that had them near the bottom of the Pacific Division and Western Conference.

The Islanders, meanwhile, are currently being carried by incredible starts by their two goalies (Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss). If those two see any sort of a regression things could turn ugly for the Islanders very, very quickly.

[Related: Ten stunning numbers from first month of NHL season]

Both of these teams have the same flaws when it comes to the way they are playing. They are both among the bottom-five teams in the league in terms of controlling shots and scoring chances, both sitting south of the 45 percent barrier when it comes to shot attempt share and scoring chance share. In other words, both teams are getting badly outshot and outchanced on a nightly basis.

There are a handful of teams in the league that are able to outperform their shot attempt numbers because they have difference-making high end talent or exceptional goaltending. Or both. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals the past two years come to mind. The Montreal Canadiens over the past few years had a season or two like that because Carey Price would be able to stand on his head and steal games. But most teams when they have that much of a territorial disadvantage tend to lose. A lot.

Since the start of the 2007-08 season there have been 18 teams that were below the 45 percent mark in terms of shot attempt differential and scoring chance differential on Nov. 3 (Saturday’s date). Of those 18 teams only five of them ended up making the playoffs that season. Only one of the six teams since the start of the 2011-12 season were able to do it.

Now, that is not entirely relevant to the situations the Islanders and Canucks are in because a lot of those teams managed to get off to terrible starts in the standings. The results were matching the way they playing. Things made sense.

But what about the teams that exceeded their early season shot and chance numbers and managed to actually win some games, collect points, and get off to decent starts?

Well, let’s take a look at them specifically.

There have been 10 teams since the start of 2007-08 that were under 45 percent in both shot attempts and scoring chance share through the first month of the season and managed to have a points percentage above .500 in those game.

Five of them went on to make the playoffs. Five of them collapsed, at times in spectacular fashion (looking at you, 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs).

Obviously a bit of a mixed bag in terms of season-long results and an ability to either maintain the early success, or improve upon the process.

It should go without saying that it is better to win these games early in the season even if you’re not playing all that well. The points matter, and they help and they can put your team in a good position. Think of it as a head start in a race. Especially if you are a team like the Canucks that is playing in a division as completely craptacular as the Pacific Division currently is because, honestly, who among that collection of mediocrity scares you?

But even with the early wins, and even with the brilliance of Elias Pettersson, the surprising play of Lehner and Greiss in New York, and the fact the Islanders have a sleeping giant of a superstar in Mathew Barzal that hasn’t really erupted yet this season, there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical of these teams being able to maintain what they have already done. And recent history of teams in their position and playing the way they have does not paint a completely promising picture.

(Shot attempt, scoring chance data via Natural Stat Trick)

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.

Sharks set to sweat salary cap after Karlsson extension

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For the San Jose Sharks, priority No. 1 has been checked off their offseason to-do list.

That bit came on Monday morning when the Sharks re-signed defenseman Erik Karlsson to an eight-year deal worth what reports suggest will be $92 million once the team makes it official.

That’s a hefty chunk of change for one of the game’s premier rearguards, and rightly so. A two-time Norris Trophy winner, Karlsson has game-breaking capabilities from the back end. It’s not surprising that he’s one of the highest paid players in the NHL.

But behind the elation general manager Doug Wilson is feeling at the moment, there also has to be a bit of trepidation.

With Karlsson’s contract expected to be in the $11.5 million AAV region, that leaves the Sharks with roughly $13 million in cap space remaining and only 16 players signed, including 11 forwards.

It’s safe to assume that the end of an era is coming for someone in the Bay Area.

Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski are both unrestricted free agents come July 1. Thornton has signed one-year deals with the club for several years now. Pavelski enters the free agent arena for the first time in five seasons after completing the final year of a five-year, $30 million deal.

[MORE: Sharks give Karlsson eight-year extension]

Both are integral parts of the Sharks. And the Sharks may have to let them walk this time.

At 39, Thornton’s on-ice play isn’t worth the $5 million he made last season. He’s the de facto leader of the team, but the Sharks simply can’t afford him at that price point again. If they want him back, a low-salary, bonus-laden contract could be an option.

Losing Pavelski, their captain, would also be a blow.

Despite being 34 (35 next season), Pavelski had 38 goals and 64 points in 75 games last season. Not bad for $6 million, and perhaps he goes the Thornton route for a few years and signs one-year deals that allow the Sharks some breathing room.

Does Pavelski deserve a longer-term commitment? Sure. But the Sharks are once again going all-in with the Karlsson signing and this might be Pavelski’s best shot at a Stanley Cup ring as a captain of the team.

Aside from the two superstars, the Sharks need to make sure they lock down some of their younger talent.

Joonas Donskoi is set to become a UFA, as is Gustav Nyquist — a trade deadline pick up who meshed well with the team.

Nyquist is likely the odd-man out here. Going by Evolving Wild’s free agent model projection, Nyquist, 29, could earn a six-year deal in the $5.7 million range. That’s too rich if you’re planning on keeping Thornton and Pavelski around.

Donskoi, 27, is projected to get a three-year deal in the $3 million average annual value region.

And then there’s the restricted free agent crop.

Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc have become great pieces for the Sharks and both now need raises.

Evolving Wild has Meier taking a six-year deal with a cap hit close to $6 million while Labanc is more affordable at three years and around $3.5 million.

Remember, the Sharks have $13 million to play with following the Karlsson extension.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Pavelski gets $7 million and Thornton gets $5 million. That’s $12 million and roughly $1 million left on the cap.

See the problem? And how many extensions do the Sharks want to give older players? Logan Couture‘s six-year, $8 million AAV deal kicks in next season. He’s 30. Brent Burns, 34, has six more years left on a deal that’s paying him the same amount as Couture per season.

The Sharks only need to look further down on a California state map to see Los Angeles and the devastating effects handing big contracts to old players can have.

Still, banners fly forever and the Kings have two of them and the Sharks have zero.

The Sharks could sell off some assets, too, including a Justin Braun ($3.8 million, one year left) or a Brenden Dillon ($3.2 million, one year left) on the back end for some cap relief.

And the point of this exercise is that someone has to go.

The question now is, who?

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Eakins gets another NHL shot as Ducks head coach

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A favorite from the start, Dallas Eakins has finally been named head coach of the Anaheim Ducks.

The 52-year-old Eakins replaces Randy Carlyle, who was fired in February, though technically he takes over from general manager Bob Murray, who assumed the head coaching duties after Carlyle was canned.

“Dallas is an outstanding head coach who has worked well with our players since joining the organization four years ago,” said Murray in a statement. “He is a tremendous leader and strategist, and deserves this opportunity.”

Reportedly also in the mix for the position were New York Islanders assistant Lane Lambert, Dallas Stars assistants Rick Bowness and Todd Nelson, and University of Minnesota-Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin.

Murray took his time in finding a replacement for Carlyle. The Ducks were the last team to fill their coaching need and the GM eventually decided to keep it in-house, hiring Eakins after he spent the past four seasons coaching the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in San Diego.

Eakins’ chance in Anaheim comes nearly five years he was fired by the Edmonton Oilers after a season and a half behind the bench. The Oilers were 36-63-14 during his 113 games in charge and the disastrous results of that 2014-15 NHL season helped the franchise win the draft lottery and select Connor McDavid No. 1 overall.

While coaching the AHL Gulls, Eakins guided the team to three playoff appearances in four seasons, including a trip to the Western Conference Final in 2019. This season’s job was an impressive one when you consider the amount of injuries the Ducks had to deal with and how often Eakins’ roster was affected by NHL call-ups.

The transition phase will continue into 2019-20 with a Ducks roster in makeover mode. Ryan Kesler is out for the foreseeable future and Corey Perry could be on the move. It’s time for the kids to take over and many of them — like Troy Terry, Sam Steel and Max Jones — have been coached by Eakins at some point.

It’s clear by the results with the Gulls and the player development that’s happened that Eakins has been nothing but a positive influence on the franchise’s youth.

“If I was stressed out or something was going on or I was having a hard time, I wouldn’t hesitate to go talk to him about it,” said Terry in March via the OC Register. “He’s just very approachable. He just served as a mentor. I owe a lot of the success I’ve had this season to him.”

With their situation being what it is, Eakins is the right choice to shepherd the roster forward as Murray attempts to further a youth movement.

MORE ANAHEIM DUCKS COVERAGE:
Examining the Ducks’ options with Corey Perry
Kesler ‘unlikely’ to play next season after hip surger

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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.

PHT Power Rankings: Next team to win its first Stanley Cup

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The past two NHL postseasons have given us first time Stanley Cup champions.

In 2017-18, it was the Washington Capitals finally breaking through and giving their fans a championship after years of torment and disappointment.

This season it was the St. Louis Blues doing the same thing and not only winning their first ever Stanley Cup Final game, but also winning their first ever championship in what was their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since the 1970 season.

With the Capitals and Blues finally getting their names on the Stanley Cup, there are still 11 teams in the NHL that have yet to win it.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we look at those 11 teams in order of who is most likely to be the next team to win its first championship.

To the rankings!

Teams knocking on the door

1. Vegas Golden Knights. This has not been your typical expansion team. In their first two years in the NHL the Golden Knights have already made the playoffs two times, were in the Stanley Cup Final in their debut season, and were an historic Game 7 third period meltdown away from starting what could have been another lengthy postseason run this season. They have a great core of talent in place, are already an established Stanley Cup contender, and have an ownership and a front office that is not afraid to take chances and go all in on winning. Their fans did not have to wait long for a taste of success, and they will not have to wait long for a championship.

2. Nashville Predators. The Predators have been one of the NHL’s most successful teams for the past four years now, and while they have some holes to address this offseason (like their power play) this is still an incredibly deep roster. They have what is perhaps the best top-four on defense in the NHL (barring a trade this summer) and a deep, talented group of forwards. Their core is still fairly young, it is all signed long-term, and they still have some salary cap space to play with when it comes to adding to it. They were in the Stanley Cup Final two years ago and still have a team that is capable of getting back to that level and finishing the job in the very near future.

3. San Jose Sharks. A lot of it depends on what happens with their offseason. Re-sign Erik Karlsson and Joe Pavelski and this team is right back as one of the favorites in the Western Conference. Heck, even if they only re-sign Karlsson and get a reasonably healthy season out of him they are right back at the top of the Conference. Goaltending is still a big question mark, but the rest of this team is so good that it is not going to need a game-stealer in the crease, just somebody to simply avoid losing games.

4. Winnipeg Jets. The Jets badly regressed in the second half of the 2018-19 season, but this is still a team loaded with talent, especially at forward where they are one of the deepest teams in the league. The defense has some holes, especially if Jacob Trouba gets traded this summer, and while they are probably not quite as good as the Golden Knights, Predators, or Sharks they are still definitely a step or two ahead of teams like Columbus and Minnesota.

Teams with some work to do

5. Columbus Blue Jackets. They are set to lose a ton this offseason and do not have a ton of assets at their disposal to replace them, giving general manager Jarmo Kekalainen one of the toughest jobs of any general manager in the NHL, but he still has a pretty solid core in place to work with thanks to Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Cam Atkinson, and Pierre-Luc Dubois. They need a goalie, they need another impact forward or two, but they still have a core of players that can be built around. The big question mark in the short-term is going to be in net where it is going to be awfully difficult to replace Sergei Bobrovsky. Their ability to find a competent No. 1 goalie will determine how quickly they can get to a championship level.

[Related: Which NHL GM has toughest job this summer]

6. Minnesota Wild. Here is my biggest concern with the Wild: I am not sure how much trust or faith I have in the new front office based on what we have seen and heard from them so far. This was a really good regular season team for quite a few years, but was never quite good enough to get over the top teams in its own division. It hit its ceiling, its big-money core is aging and declining, and the front office has made some very questionable moves that might be setting the team back a bit.

7. Florida Panthers. The Panthers were a massive disappointment during the 2018-19 season and have probably been the least successful organization in the league over the past 20 years. It is still a team that is not far from being relevant for the first time since The Rat Trick team during its improbably 1995-96 run to the Stanley Cup Final. The core of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vincent Trocheck is phenomenal and they are all signed long-term at team-friendly rates. They have salary cap space, they seem determined to spend and make a big splash this summer, and if they could get the right complementary pieces around their top young players this is not a team that is terribly far off. But getting the right complementary players is way easier said than done.

8. Buffalo Sabres. They have Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin, one player that is already a star (Eichel) and another that is on the way to becoming a star (Dahlin). As long as they continue on their current paths they will be the foundation of this team for the next decade, and that is an excellent thing because star players are the toughest thing to acquire in a rebuild. The problem is the rest of the team around those two is simply not anywhere clear to a championship level. Eichel and Dahlin can not do it on their own, and for the foreseeable future they will have to try.

9. Arizona Coyotes. If you took a poll of random hockey fans and asked them which team in the league is furthest away from a championship I wager that one of the most popular answers would be the Arizona Coyotes because, well, it is an organization that does not get a lot of respect. That could soon be changing. The Coyotes nearly made the playoffs this season despite being hit harder by injuries than almost any other team in the league. They have a lot of promising young talent and a nice mix of veterans to go with them, but they are still missing a true difference-maker at forward. Getting that type of player is going to be their biggest hurdle in taking the next step in their development. That is the biggest reason I have them behind teams like Florida and Buffalo even though in some ways the Coyotes are better. The difference is those two teams have young franchise cornerstones that can change games. Those are the players you win championships with.

It might be a long wait

10. Vancouver Canucks. Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser are must-see players, but this entire organization just seems stuck in neutral. In terms of wins, they have been the least successful team in the NHL over the past four years but have never quite been bad enough in any one individual season to have a great chance to land a No. 1 or 2 overall pick, while they have also had terrible luck in the draft lottery. They have also never really been good enough to be anything close to a playoff team. Being stuck in the middle ground of the NHL is a terrible place to be, and that is where Jim Benning has put them with little to no sign of getting out of it anytime soon.

11. Ottawa Senators. It is downright astonishing that this team went from Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final (double overtime of that Game 7, no less!) to a team that just seems to be completely hopeless. The truly frustrating thing about the Senators is they have some promising young players. They have some reasons for optimism. The biggest issue holding them back is ownership. If they would not pay to keep together a team that was on the verge of the Stanley Cup Final, and if they would not pay to keep a franchise icon and one of the best players ever at his position in Erik Karlsson, why does anyone think they will pay to keep the next wave of talent that goes through Ottawa if they continue to develop? There is no reason to believe anything will be different this time around. Actions speak louder than words, and the actions of ownership in Ottawa speak for themselves.

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.

Karlsson gets eight-year extension from Sharks

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The most coveted pending free agent defenseman won’t be making it to the dance.

TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported Monday that “all signs” point to two-time Norris winner Erik Karlsson re-signing with the Sharks, the only team that can offer the talented 29-year-old Swede an eight-year deal.

Not long after, fellow TSN insider Pierre LeBrun reported that the deal was done.

And then official announcement came from the team.

“We are extremely pleased that Erik and his wife Melinda have committed to the San Jose Sharks and that they have done so prior to July 1,” said Sharks general manager Doug Wilson in a statement. “Players with Erik’s elite level of talent are rare and when they become available, it’s important to be aggressive in pursuing them. He is a difference maker who consistently makes the players around him better. We are pleased that he has been proactive in addressing his injury from last season and are looking forward to him being part of our organization for a long time to come.

The Sharks wouldn’t disclose the terms of the deal, but according to McKenzie it’s in the $11.5 million per year range, making the total worth of the contract around $92 million. — in the realm of the $88 million Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty got last year.

The deal is the largest in Sharks’ history, besting both Brent Burns‘ and Logan Couture‘s eight-year, $64 million extensions.

The deal keeps Karlsson from hitting the open market, of course, on July 1. It also makes sure he doesn’t hit the courting period, which begins on June 23. The Sharks were the only team that could offer Karlsson the max eight years.

“I’m super excited to continue my journey with the Sharks,” said Karlsson. “Since my first day here, I have only good things to say about the people, organization and the fans. The entire Bay Area has been extremely welcoming to me and my family. I appreciate that and we can’t wait to spend the next eight years in San Jose.

“As far as hockey goes, I’m excited to continue the chase for the ultimate prize: the Stanley Cup. Last year was an unbelievable run but we didn’t achieve what we set out to do. But the dedication I witnessed from my teammates, coaches, staff and organization showed me that we all have a great future ahead of us, and that we are capable of fighting for that championship year in and year out.”

San Jose’s gain is a big loss to a few other teams that were in contention, including the Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning, among others reported — perhaps even a stunning return to Ottawa, as reported earlier this month.

[MORE: Sharks set to sweat salary cap after Karlsson extension]

Karlsson was traded to the Sharks last summer by the Senators, the team that drafted him 15th overall in 2008 and one he put on his back in 2017 as the Sens marched to the Eastern Conference Final before losing in overtime in Game 7 to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

At the time, the move appeared to provide the Sharks with a defensive core to die for.

Karlsson joined Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and other solid pieces that were supposed to carry the Sharks deep into the playoffs.

“It’s extremely rare that players of this caliber become available,” Wilson said at the time of the trade. “The word ‘elite’ is often thrown around casually but Erik’s skillset and abilities fit that description like few other players in today’s game. With Erik, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, we feel we have three of the NHL’s top defencemen and stand as a better team today than we were yesterday.”

Karlsson started slow with the Sharks but regained his stride along the way, finishing with 45 points in 53 games. But it’s that game total that was a big issue throughout the year.

Karlsson dealt with multiple groin injuries right up until the Sharks were eliminated by the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference Final. Karlsson had to watch the decisive Game 6 in that series from the press box as the nagging problem.

It’s not the ideal season, but the Sharks appear fine with gambling on that groin after Karlsson had surgery on it earlier this month.

It will be interesting to see how the Sharks navigate the salary cap after the Karlsson deal. It appears someone will have to go from the UFA pack of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Joonas Donskoi and Gustav Nyquist. Thornton and Pavelski would command the most in terms of dollars (perhaps there’s room for one-year, low-salary, bonus-laden contracts for both.

The Sharks also have Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc, both restricted free agents in a need of a raise.

Meanwhile, attention for a top-pairing defenseman should now shift to Winnipeg Jets rearguard Jacob Trouba.

Trouba’s a restricted free agent but is likely to be dealt at some point this week or at the 2019 NHL Draft this coming weekend. A 50-point d-man last year, Trouba is a solid top-pairing defenseman that can play in all phases of the game.

The issue with Trouba at the moment is that any team willing to pay Winnipeg’s price tag needs to be darn certain they can extend him.

A small piece of consolation in Ottawa: The Senators will gain San Jose’s 2021 second-round selection because of the extension for Karlsson.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck