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.

Islanders need Varlamov to pick up where Lehner left off

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

When the Islanders needed to roll the dice on a goaltender last season, they decided to hand Robin Lehner a one-year, $1.5 million. The deal couldn’t possibly have worked out any better for them, as Lehner ended up being named one of the three finalists for the Vezina Trophy.

The 28-year-old posted a 25-13-5 record with a 2.13 goals-against-average and a .930 save percentage in 46 appearances with the Isles last season. It was, by far, the best year of his career. Of course, he had quite a bit of help. New head coach Barry Trotz used a defense-first system that limited the opposition’s scoring chances. That’s not to say that Lehner’s season wasn’t impressive though.

The Islanders netmider also helped his team sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Unfortunately for them, they were swept in the second round by Carolina Hurricanes. In the end, Lehner finished the postseason with a 4-4 record, a 2.00 goals-against-average and a .936 save percentage.

[MORE: Summary]

As good as he was, Isles general manager Lou Lamoriello wasn’t interested in committing to his goalie long-term. Once free agency opened on July 1st, Lehner signed a one-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks and the Isles decided to give Semyon Varlamov a four-year, $20 million contract.

Varlamov’s had his share of struggles over the last few seasons in Colorado. He ended up playing in 49 games last year, but eventually lost his starting job to Philipp Grubauer. The 31-year-old had a 20-19-9 record with a 2.87 goals-against-average and a .909 save percentage last season.

“Even [before last season] when we were looking for goaltenders, he was on the radar for the organization,” Trotz said of Varlamov via NHL.com. “He’s obviously been someone that I think we have a lot of confidence in. With Robin’s [contract] situation, when that didn’t materialize, [Varlamov] was the No. 1 guy that we were going to go after.”

So committing to him for four years is definitely a risky move, but Trotz’s system could help bring out the best in him.

“It’s very hard to play against the teams he’s coaching because of his system,” Varlamov said of Trotz. “Every team playing against a Barry Trotz-coached [team] is going to have a hard time because all the teams he’s coached, they play very well defensively. They play very tight in front of the net.”

There will be plenty of pressure on Varlamov’s shoulders heading into this season. Expectations will be higher for the Islanders this year because they were one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference last season. The beauty of Trotz’s system is that he just needs his goaltender to be solid. Most of the time, he doesn’t need his goalie to steal games. Can Varlamov handle that? Can the Isles replicate the success they had last season?

Varlamov is the biggest change the Isles made to their roster this off-season. If they drop off in 2019-20, a good amount of blame will be placed on his shoulders.

The pressure is definitely on the Russian veteran to provide the team with adequate performances between the pipes.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

It’s New York Islanders Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

2018-19
48-27-7, 103 points (2nd in the Metropolitan Division, 4th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Eliminated in four games in the second round by the Carolina Hurricanes.

IN:
Semyon Varlamov
Jared Coreau

OUT: 
Robin Lehner
Luca Sbisa
Dennis Seidenberg
Valtteri Filppula

RE-SIGNED: 
Tanner Fritz
Jordan Eberle
Tom Kuhnhackl
Anders Lee
Brock Nelson

2018-19 Summary

Did your team lose the captain/best player on the roster? Do you feel like you have no hope? Well if you’re looking for a reason to be optimistic, look no further than the 2018-19 Islanders. After John Tavares walked to Toronto in free agency, many predicted that the Isles would be one of the bottom-feeders in the NHL. Instead, they ended up being one of the greatest stories of the year.

The Islanders’ top point-getter last season was sophomore forward Mathew Barzal, who picked up 62 points in 82 contests. They had four players hit the 50-point mark (Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee). They also had just three players surpass the 20-goal mark (Lee, Nelson and Casey Cizikas). Despite those limited offensive numbers, the Islanders found a way to finish second in the Metropolitan Division which, again, no one expected.

How did they do it? Structure, structure and more structure.

Bringing in Barry Trotz as head coach proved to be a wise move for a team without an offensive superstar. Trotz’s defensive-minded approach ended up giving the Isles an identity. They weren’t very fun to watch, but they found a way to get the job done on most nights.

They also found a way to sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs before they were swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round.

Now, the question is whether or not they can do it all over again.

“We know other teams will take us maybe more serious than they did last year,” Lamoriello said, per NHL.com. “But that’s where we have to grow and that’s where our character that I have tremendous confidence in comes through, plus the coaching staff that we have.

“This is the first time that a lot of our players have ever gone through the playoffs, first time they experienced success, and then the lack of success in the second round and how it’s approached. You learn by experience. You never know what experience is until you acquire it.”

The Islanders brought back three core players in Eberle, Lee and Nelson. The biggest change will occur between the pipes, as they let Vezina Trophy nominee Robin Lehner hit free agency. Lehner had the best year of his career, as he posted a 25-13-5 record with a 2.13 goals-against-average and a .930 save percentage. Despite those awesome numbers, the organization wasn’t ready to commit to Lehner long term. Clearly, they felt that Trotz’s system helped the veteran netminder succeed (it probably did).

In fairness to the team, no other squad was willing to give Lehner a long-term deal, so he ended signing a one-year, $5 million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks.

With him no longer in the picture, Lamoriello had to sign a new starting goaltender. In the end, they settled on former Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov (he inked a four-year, $20 million deal). The 31-year-old has struggled over the last couple of seasons, but playing in Trotz’s system could help revitalize his career like it did for Lehner.

Whether or not he fits in as well as Lehner did remains to be seen.

This whole group proved a lot of people wrong last year. Can they do it again?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Top 20 defensemen; Canucks believe in Benning

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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.

• NHL.com breaks down the Top 20 defensemen in the NHL right now. (NHL.com)

• The Hockey News projects ahead to who the Canucks will protect come the 2021 expansion draft. (The Hockey News)

• The fact that the Canucks are extending Jim Benning shows that they believe in his plan. (Sportsnet)

• How can every team’s jersey be improved? (Puck Prose)

• Can Evan Bouchard crack the Oilers’ defense this year? (Edmonton Journal)

Charlie McAvoy continued developing during a big 2018-19 season. (Stanley Cup Chowder)

• How much can the Predators expect from Dante Fabbro? (Predlines)

• Here’s a list of forwards the Vegas Golden Knights could opt to sign late in the summer. (SinBin.Vegas)

• What would the Penguins front office look like without Bill Guerin? (Pensburgh)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Hughes has potential to take Devils to next level

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

Given all the changes in New Jersey this offseason, there’s no shortage of x-factors heading into the 2019-20 campaign.

One could argue, for instance, that P.K. Subban‘s arrival on the blue line is the biggest change of the offseason. I would disagree and a team that gave up as many goals as the Devils did could use a boost on the backend to take the pressure off their goaltending situation, which is suspect at best heading into the season.

But, in this scribe’s opinion, it’s the arrival of Jack Hughes who has the potential to make the biggest difference.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | Under Pressure]

The Devils need offense, plain and simple. Getting by on a leading point-producer who had just 50 points isn’t going to cut it in the NHL these days.

And while a healthy Taylor Hall will make a big difference as well, we know how big the gap can be between himself and the rest of the scoring on the team (see: 2017-18 season.)

With the potential for a breakout season for Nico Hischier — and one not limited by injuries — the addition of P.K. Subban to the power play and Nikita Gusev and Hughes to the forward contingent, the Devils should be miles ahead of their 25th-ranking in goals-for from last season.

And the expectation is Hughes will play a big role in that. He could start the season as the team’s second-line center and depending on usage, could easily hit the 20-goal mark, if not more.

“Jack’s play will determine to us what he can handle and how much,” coach John Hynes told NHL.com. “We’re not going to put pressure on him and we’re not going to put limits on him right away. We continue to put young players in situations they can handle while also challenging them in the right ways where they can have success but also see how they respond outside their comfort zone.”

Hughes does everything so well. His vision, speed and knack for scoring are all welcome additions to the Devils who sorely need more in each of those areas.

The key will be to find him the right linemates in training camp and let some chemistry develop. If it does, an 80-point season may take shape providing he’s healthy.

And, perhaps, a Calder Trophy for his efforts.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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