Blackhawks should follow Rangers’ rebuild plan

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The Chicago Blackhawks sent shockwaves through the NHL on Tuesday by firing Joel Quenneville, their decorated head coach.

In a lot of ways, it paralleled the coaching change that happened in Los Angeles, as the Blackhawks said goodbye to a key player from their glory days of not-so-long-ago.

Much will be made of where Quenneville will end up next, but what about the path ahead for the Blackhawks?

The instinct might be to parallel the Kings in another way, by trying to squeeze every ounce out of what sure seems like a declining core group. Instead, allow me to recommend following a different path by another team not that far removed from contending: the soft rebuild of the New York Rangers.

As you likely remember, the Rangers essentially waved the white flag of rebuild heading into last year’s trade deadline, making painful choices such as sending Ryan McDonagh to Tampa Bay. In doing so, the Rangers stocked up on draft picks (including three in 2018’s first round), kicking a mini-rebuild into gear.

The Rangers still have plenty of work to do, yet you could at least see some light at the end of the tunnel.

If you ask me, that sure beats hoping that an aging roster will magically turn back the clock, even as evidence mounts that it’s no accident that Chicago’s fallen out of contention. The Blackhawks could glance at their old buddies in Detroit to see how dire things can get if you refuse to read the writing on the wall.

Let’s dig into what they should try to do, and why a soft rebuild makes sense.

Trade just about any veteran you can

Look, the Blackhawks are almost certain to stick with the $21 million pairing of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, for reasons that mix the voluntary and the involuntary.

What about some of their other pieces, though?

It’s fair to wonder if Stan Bowman simply views Brent Seabrook more highly than he’s seen throughout the rest of the NHL. Simply put, if there’s any way to get Seabrook’s $6.875M (through 2023-24!) off the books, Chicago should do it. Even if it means getting creative.

(Are we certain Bowman hasn’t called Peter Chiarelli, Dale Tallon, or Marc Bergevin about Seabrook? Maybe call them again, like during breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Just saying.)

The market would likely be way stronger for Duncan Keith, and the Blackhawks might be wise to bite the bullet with the 35-year-old while he’s still playing at a high level. There’s a significant age gap, yet Keith could be Chicago’s McDonagh in that it would be a painful trade that may nonetheless be necessary for the future.

After all, a contending team might accentuate the positives (an affordable $5.54M cap hit, Keith’s abilities plus experience) over the drawbacks (age, a deal that runs through 2022-23).

Really, wouldn’t a budget team hoping to take that next step really jump at Keith’s contract, considering how the salary falls through the years?

Keith’s salary from 2018-19 on, via Cap Friendly:

2018-19: $4.5M
2019-20: $3.5M
2020-21: $2.65M
2021-22: $2.1M
2022-23: $1.5M

At minimum, the Blackhawks should not dismiss such questions if there’s any chance Keith would waive his no-movement clause.

There are other options if Bowman lacks the guts or desire to really swing for the fences.

Artem Anisimov stands as one of the easier calls. The Blackhawks are unlikely to get maximum value for Brandon Saad now, yet it might be worth it just to get his $6M off the books (while expediting the rebuild in the process).

There’s even some reason to at least kick around the name Corey Crawford. He’s 33, and his $6M cap hit expires after 2019-20. Maybe it would be best for both sides to move on, at least if other GMs are convinced he’s healthy?

Do note that Saad is the only player discussed above who lacks a no-trade clause, which highlights the notion that Chicago’s issues stem from Bowman’s missteps, as much as anything else.

On the bright side, the Blackhawks have developed a knack for finding diamonds in the rough in drafts, so why not give them more “darts to throw” through gutsy trades?

Unearthing gems

No doubt, there are right place, right time elements to Chicago’s great run. Being terrible at the perfect time allowed them to land Kane (first overall in 2007) and Toews (third in 2006). Being putrid for the remainder of 2018-19 could increase their odds at another blue chipper.

Yet, if the Oilers show us anything, it’s that you need to succeed beyond the no-brainers.

(Granted, Edmonton’s messed up those high-end picks, too.)

Looking at recent history, the Blackhawks could really reload with the additional ammo they’d potentially receive if they made especially courageous trades.

Consider some of the solid-to-great gems they’ve unearthed in recent years.

Henri Jokiharju is already becoming an important defenseman for the Blackhawks, and he was the 29th pick in 2017. Alex DeBrincat is a budding star, and he fell to the second round (39th overall) in 2016. Most years, you can find a nice diamond in the rough, including Brandon Saad (43rd pick in 2011) in his own right.

No doubt, potential gains would require pain. A proud franchise probably wouldn’t want to absorb the losses that increase the odds of landing a Jack Hughes-type franchise-changer in the lottery range. Trading players who played a big role in winning three contemporary Stanley Cups would entail taking a PR hit, and the awkwardness of asking players to waive no-trade clauses.

That said, Bowman’s shown the necessary courage to make cutthroat moves in the past, trading players like Dustin Byfuglien to stay under the cap. As painful as it was to, say, trade Teuvo Teravainen, Bowman’s also been proactive when it comes to addressing mistakes.

Moving legitimate core pieces would probably feel drastic even by those standards, but perhaps Bowman needs to channel his inner Bill Belichick and trade players a year early, rather than a year late?

By firing Joel Quenneville, the Blackhawks highlighted their fork in the road, consciously or not.

One path is to hope that things will simply sort themselves out. Maybe a new voice could rekindle that old, championship magic?

From here, it honestly feels like Coach Q got as much as anyone could out of this group, and that the Blackhawks’ ceiling is now “first-round fodder.” With that in mind, maybe it’s best to take a step back now, in hopes of making a leap forward?

None of this is easy, but winning (and cap management) isn’t simple arithmetic either. Firing Quenneville couldn’t have been the most comfortable choice, and if the Blackhawks want to change things for the better, they need to make more difficult decisions.

Standing pat will only leave them sinking deeper.

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: Vatrano’s four-point night; Laviolette earns win No. 600

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Three Stars

1. Frank Vatrano, Florida Panthers: Continuing his career year, Vatrano notched his 16th goal and added three assists as the Panthers beat the San Jose Sharks 6-2. The score was knotted at two as the third period began but goals from Keith Yandle and Vincent Trocheck nine seconds apart blew the game open in the Panthers’ favor. Aleksander Barkov chipped in with three helpers of his own. According to the NHL, Vatrano is the third undrafted player in franchise history to record a four-point game, joining Steve Reinprecht and Jesse Belanger.

2. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators: The Finnish netminder turned aside 35 of 36 shots he faced as Nashville downed the Colorado Avalanche 4-1. The win snapped Rinne’s three-game losing streak and helped Predators head coach Peter Laviolette earn his 600th NHL victory. Nick Bonino recorded his 100th career goal and now has four goals in his last four games. Nashville has won 12 of its last 13 regular-season games against Colorado.

3. Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild: Staal scored his 15th of the season and later helped set up Charlie Coyle‘s game-winning goal during a 4-2 Wild victory over the Vegas Golden Knights. Devan Dubnyk made 30 saves and has stopped 64 of his last 67 shots faced. Minnesota is now 4-0-1 against Vegas and are one of two teams (St. Louis) without a regulation loss against the reigning Western Conference champions.

Highlights of the Night

Pretty little goal here from Viktor Arvidsson, who leads all NHL players with 10 goals since the calendar turned to 2019:

Paul LaDue‘s first goal since October was the difference as the Kings topped the Blues:

Congrats to Mackenzie MacEachern for scoring his first NHL goal in the Blues loss:

One heck of an effort by Mikael Granlund and Zach Parise to help set up Mikko Koivu‘s empty-netter:

Justin Braun‘s going to want another shot at this one:

Factoids of the Night

• Via the AP: Laviolette is the 20th coach in NHL history to each 600 career wins and third this season joining John Tortorella and Claude Julien.

• Per the NHL, birthday boy Jonathan Quick recorded his 302nd victory, which is fourth-best among U.S.-born goaltenders. He’s now 67 behind Tom Barrasso.

• Also per the NHL, Aaron Ekblad of the Panthers is the 13th defenseman in the League’s modern era (since 1943-44) to record at least 10 goals in each of his first five seasons.

Scores
Predators 4, Avalanche 1
Kings 4, Blues 3
Wild 4, Golden Knights 2
Panthers 6, Sharks 2

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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.

LaDue’s third-period goal helps Kings edge Blues

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The Los Angeles Kings will head into the NHL All-Star break and their bye week on a winning note following a 4-3 come-from-behind victory against the St. Louis Blues Monday.

Paul LaDue, who hadn’t played for the Kings since Dec. 29, scored 9:53 into the third period to snap a 3-3 tie and give the LA the lead — a lead they would not relinquish.

The Blues entered the game on a positive swing after grabbing points in six of their previous seven games. Goaltender Jordan Binnington has been a difference-maker (4-0-1, .954 SV%, 1.19 GAA) since taking the No. 1 reins from Jake Allen. 

It was a good start for St. Louis as Mackenzie MacEachern tallied his first NHL goal late in the opening period and Oskar Sundqvist followed up 8:18 later to give the Blues a 2-0 lead.

The good times were short-lived for the Blues as Tyler Toffoli got LA on the board 15 seconds after Sundqvist’s goal and the Kings used the second period to flip the script. Goals from Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty changed the scoreline to the home teams’ favor. But while they were on good behavior for most of the game, a Dion Phaneuf cross-check opened the door and gave Ryan O’Reilly the room to fire home the tying goal on the ensuing power play.

The loss was the sixth time this season that a 2-0 lead for St. Louis ended up as a defeat.

Birthday boy Jonathan Quick made 33 saves to earn his 302nd career victory, which moves him past Mike Richter and into fourth place on the NHL’s list of most wins by a U.S. born goaltender.

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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.

Oilers bet on Koskinen with three-year extension

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The Edmonton Oilers have apparently made a decision on their goaltending for the next three years. On Monday, the team announced that they’ve extended Mikko Koskinen for three years with total salary of $13.5M.

“We are excited to have signed Mikko to a three-year contract extension through the 2022 season,” said Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli. “Mikko has a lot of experience as a number one goalie and has performed well both internationally and for our club.”

That $4.5M salary cap hit means that Cam Talbot, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, will likely be moving on after the season. Koskinen has a .918 even strength save percentage in 27 games this season after spending the last seven seasons in the KHL and Finland.

Per Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, Koskinen will make $5.2M next season, $3.3M with a $500,000 signing bonus in 2020-2021, and $4.5M in 2021-22.

Where did this extension come from? Koskinen’s recent numbers haven’t been strong (.906 ESSV% since Jan. 1) and it’s not like there was going to be a strong market for a soon-to-be 31-year-old goaltender with mediocre numbers come free agency in July. The worst part of this for the Oilers is that there is a very good chance Chiarelli isn’t in his job come October, so the next general manager of the team will inherit this contract.

Was there a rush to lock up a starter for next season and beyond for the Oilers? Was Chiarelli thinking Koskinen’s price would rocket up if he played well over the final three months of the regular season? What is Talbot’s status as the Feb. 25 trade deadline approaches? Is he now, along with forward Jesse Puljujarvi, a piece of trait bait to shore up one of their numerous holes?

The Oilers are only three points out of a Western Conference wild card spot, and with jobs on the line, as well as the pressure of season ticket renewals approaching, there’s a full-on playoff push by the organization and an attempt to set up their future in a positive way. But given the previous decisions of the current regime, don’t bet on it.

MORE: Oilers shuffle more deck chairs, waive Spooner and Rattie

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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: Don’t sleep on the Blue Jackets

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It can be really easy to sometimes forget about, or even completely overlook, the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Historically, they are still a franchise that has yet to get out of the first-round of the playoffs. They have been constantly stuck in the shadows behind perpetual Stanley Cup contenders (and Stanley Cup winners) like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals in the standings, and unable to knock them off their thrones when it comes to the postseason.

This season they not only have to deal with those two teams that have won each of the past three Stanley Cups, but the New York Islanders have also emerged as the story in the Eastern Conference.

So again, it is easy for them to kind of get … lost.

But the Blue Jackets are good. They are really good, and they are a team that you should be paying attention to as we head into the second half of the 2018-19 season.

How good are they? For starters, they are a top-10 team in the league standings as of Monday. They have an exciting game-breaker at forward in Artemi Panarin, and they have one of the best all-around defenders in the league in Seth Jones who continues to get better every single season. Along with them, second-year player Pierre-Luc Dubois is developing into a legit top-line center, while Cam Atkinson is the best goal-scorer in the league that nobody ever talks about (14th in the league since the start of the 2015-16 season). Their underlying numbers are strong. They are a good possession team, they typically win the scoring chance battle, and they are really good on the penalty kill.

What makes them such an intriguing team is that they have maintained such a high spot in the standings and are still right in the thick of the Metropolitan Division race despite getting some of the worst goaltending in the league this season.

At least as far as potential playoff teams go.

Sergei Bobrovsky‘s play has dropped significantly from where it has been in previous seasons, and while Joonas Korpisalo is a decent backup he’s probably not going to be backstopping a team to a title.

Overall, the Bobrovsky-Korpisalo duo has managed only a .900 save percentage for the season. That is 20th in the NHL. The only teams currently occupying a playoff position that are worse than them are the Colorado Avalanche and San Jose Sharks. When it comes to even-strength play, they drop down to 24th where Sharks are the only team in a playoff spot with a worse mark. Typically teams that get this level of goaltending don’t end up winning many games. The fact the Blue Jackets are, and winning as regularly as they are, is a testament to how strong the team in front of their goaltenders can be.

Long-term this team has some question marks, specifically as it relates to Bobrovsky and Panarin who are both eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season. Losing one or both could be pretty damaging, especially with Panarin because it is going to be extremely difficult to replace his production. But in the short-term, this is a really good hockey team that is decent goaltending away from being a true contender in the Eastern Conference. Especially as the two teams that have stood in their way the longest have seemingly taken a step back this season.

The only question is whether or not they can actually get that goaltending this season, and if it is going to come from Bobrovsky or from somebody that is currently outside of the organization.

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Still in a class all to themselves. The pressure to win it all is going to be immense this season.

2. Calgary Flames — An absolutely incredible one-year turnaround. In any other year Bill Peters would probably be a lock for the Jack Adams Award, but he is probably already stuck in second place behind Barry Trotz.

3. San Jose Sharks — It’s not usually a good sign when two of your top-three scorers are defenders. But when those two defenders have combined to win three Norris Trophies (and be finalists three other times) and are both point-per-game players, you can win with it. Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns are giving the Sharks just what they expected this season. Unfortunately for the Sharks Karlsson is going to be shut down for a couple of games.

The second tier

4. New York Islanders — They have won 15 of their past 18 games and enter the week with a three-point cushion over every other team in the Metropolitan Division. If they win it Barry Trotz will probably be a unanimous coach of the year winner.

5. Winnipeg Jets — They haven’t always looked great in recent weeks, but they keep scoring a lot of goals and piling up a lot wins.

6. Vegas Golden Knights — Alex Tuch has been the big breakout player for the Golden Knights this season, and now that they have a healthy Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny there is an argument to be made they are even deeper than last year’s team.

7. Columbus Blue Jackets — Imagine how good they would be this season with decent goaltending.

The Other Contenders

8. Nashville Predators — They’ve slumped a bit recently, but I am still not worried. The types of peaks and valleys that every team faces over an 82-game season.

9. Toronto Maple Leafs — They have lost seven out of 10 and some of their big-money players, specifically William Nylander, are not scoring like they are expected to. Surely this will all result in a calm, rational response in Toronto

10. Washington Capitals — A five-game losing streak is almost unheard of for the Capitals. They gave up at least seven goals in two of those games during the current losing streak.

11. Boston Bruins — You have to think there is going to be a trade for some more forward help. Their top three forwards are incredible. They do not have much help.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins — They were on a roll and looking like a Stanley Cup contender until they went on this most recent Western Conference road trip where they reverted back to their early season ways. The bye week and All-Star break is coming at the absolute perfect time for them.

13. Montreal Canadiens –Carey Price is the X-factor for this team. He has a .951 save percentage so far in January and a .930 mark since the start of December.

The Bubble Teams

14. Carolina Hurricanes — They are not going away quietly and really trying to make a run at a playoff spot. Nino Niederreiter was an outstanding pickup that will help not only this season, but in the future as well.

15. Minnesota Wild — They still have the inside track for a playoff spot at the moment, but the status of defenseman Matt Dumba and swapping Niederreiter for Victor Rask is not a promising development for their roster.

[Related: Dumba’s anger led to indefinite stint on sidelines]

16. Vancouver Canucks — They are definitely benefitting from the bottom half of the Western Conference being completely mediocre, but they are still exceeding expectations in a big way. Will Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser be enough to drag them to the playoffs? That is a big ask, but they are at least an interesting team because of them.

17. Buffalo Sabres — With Jack Eichel continuing to develop into a star, Jeff Skinner erupting offensively, and the team winning 17 of its first 25 games it seemed like the playoffs were a given. Not so much now.

18. Colorado Avalanche — The more this season goes on the more it seems that this is a completely ordinary team that just so happens to have one truly dominant line up front. They are just 5-11-3 in their past 19 games.

19. St. Louis Blues — Somehow they are still very much in the Western Conference wild card race, and at the moment are probably playing better than any of the teams around them. Unfortunately that terrible start to the season may make this a case of too little, too late.

20. Arizona Coyotes — Not only are they are 8-4-2 in their past 14 games, but they are doing it with a roster that has been held together with duct tape and playing really well against some of the league’s best teams.

21. Dallas Stars — Just when they started to show some signs of getting it together, they dropped four in a row this past week. Hopefully the bye week is an opportunity for them to recharge and put the first half drama behind them.

The Lottery Teams

22. New York Rangers — After David Quinn ripped his team’s effort in a loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets they responded by winning three in a row. Not enough to make a dent in the deficit they are facing in the Wild Card race, but a nice response either way.

23. Anaheim Ducks — It is downright stunning that a team that lost 12 games in a row, 13 out of 15, and has a minus-29 goal differential on the season is still anywhere near a playoff spot. Have to imagine that is the season goes on they settle more into the lottery pack than the playoff pack.

24. Philadelphia Flyers — Positive signs for the Flyers include Carter Hart looking good in net and Nolan Patrick starting to heat up offensively. They could be difference-makers in the very near future.

25. Edmonton Oilers — Placing Ryan Spooner on waivers is just another reminder as to how bad the roster management of this team has been. What a waste.

[Related: Oilers shuffle more deck chairs, waive Spooner and Rattie]

26. Chicago Blackhawks — Patrick Kane is still scoring at an elite level, Jonathan Toews is having one of the best seasons of his career, and Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome are two young players that look to be emerging on cheap contracts. There are some positives here. The negatives are pretty much everything else.

27. Florida Panthers — With every loss coach Bob Boughner seems to call out his big-money players more and more. Can’t imagine that will be very impactful for very long.

28. Ottawa Senators — The Senators seem determined to get Matt Duchene re-signed, and that leads to a very big question: Why? As in, why would he want to re-sign there, and why are the Senators going to probably overpay a 29-year-old forward to be a part of a rebuilding team that is probably years away from being relevant again? The only logical answer here is that with the salary floor they have to pay someone.

29. New Jersey Devils — Without Taylor Hall in the lineup there just is not much here.

30. Los Angeles Kings — Their 7-1 loss to the Avalanche over the weekend was as ugly as it gets.

31. Detroit Red Wings — This will be the first time since the early 1980s that the Red Wings will have missed the playoffs three years in a row. Given the state of the roster and the current rebuild it’s worth wondering how many years this particular streak will continue.

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.