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Jack Eichel’s off to huge start for Sabres

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With his $10 million AAV kicking in this season, Jack Eichel is certainly being paid fairly for his efforts. He might not always be getting the sort of credit he deserves, at least in certain, more cynical circles.

Perhaps this is the year he really cements his place as one of the NHL’s elite, and carries the Buffalo Sabres along with him?

Even Eichel’s naysayers must admit that he’s off to an impressive start. The 22-year-old already generated 17 points in 15 games, tying him for the 14th-best total in the NHL.

For some, the question is “Can he keep this up?” Really, though, it should be “Can he stay healthy?”

Through three turbulent seasons in the NHL, Eichel’s scored 24 goals twice and 25 once, never falling below 56 points. That’s a greater achievement when you consider that a) he was limited to 67 games in 2017-18 and 61 in 2016-17, and b) Eichel’s been on some lousy teams. (One can only imagine what Eichel might have muttered during hypothetical Uber rides during the past few seasons’ lowest moments.)

So, it’s fair to point out that Eichel’s basically been good-to-great since day one, but it’s also possible that he’s reaching yet another level this season. Enjoy this deeper dive into his fantastic, hype-affirming start.

[PHT Q&A with Eichel]

Questions of luck

Puck luck is an interesting element of Eichel’s start, as there are reasons why things might get even better, but also areas where regression seems all but certain.

For one thing, Eichel’s own shots will probably hit the net more frequently going forward. The center has already generated a robust 59 shots on goal, good for 3.93 SOG per game. Despite being so trigger-happy, Eichel’s only scored four goals, good for just a 6.8 shooting percentage. Maybe some of that volume comes from quantity over quality, but Eichel should get more bounces, as his career shooting percentage is 9.7.

Via Hockey Reference, you can see that his on-ice shooting percentage, meanwhile, is higher than usual. He’s at 11.5 percent, versus a career average of 8.6.

It seems like Eichel’s most common linemates are generally swiping his puck luck. Jeff Skinner (another volume shooter) has been electric, connecting on 18 percent of his SOG as he’s collected nine goals and 16 points in 15 games. Eichel and Skinner seem to turn back time for Jason Pominville, as he’s playing well enough to make Daniel Alfredsson forget who he is again, scoring on 19.5 percent of his SOG for eight goals and 14 points. Even Conor Sheary‘s season shooting percentage is 16.7 percentage.

So, expect Eichel’s goals to climb, while his assists should fall.

That said, Skinner – Eichel could very well remain a deadly combination, to the point that Buffalo might want to dangle an extension to their dimpled new winger.

All-around improvement

There’s only so much you can do about luck. The good news is that Eichel is “making his own luck” with stronger all-around play.

Coaches and color commentators likely put too much weight on faceoffs at times, but it’s still promising to see Eichel go from fairly putrid in that area (41.3-percent career average) to close to even so far in 2018-19, as he’s won 49.2-percent of his draws. The more well-rounded Eichel’s game, the less likely Phil Housley will decide not to roll him out in important situations.

Eichel’s vastly improved his puck possession game, going from a negative player in that regard – however much that falls on him – to one who’s positive by just about every metric, as you can see at Natural Stat Trick.

Now, it’s plausible that Skinner has as much to do with that area of improvement as Eichel’s own work, being that Skinner’s been a consistently dominant puck hog during his career. Then again, maybe this is a sign of what Eichel can accomplish when he’s getting more help?

***

As of this writing, the Sabres currently hold a slim lead on the last East wild-card spot at 16 points in 15 games (7-6-2).

More than even a healthy season in the point-per-game range, making the playoffs would raise Eichel’s profile and standing in the eyes of the hockey world. To do so, Eichel and the Sabres will surely have to roll with punches that used to easily knock them out.

Time will tell if Eichel can pull all of that off, but so far, he’s been extremely impressive.

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.

Sissons, Predators agree to seven-year, $20 million deal

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We see long-term deals with high annual average values.

We see short-term deals with lower annual average values.

But rarely do we see long-term deals with low annual average values. Like less than $3 million low.

Yet, despite the rarity of such a pact, David Poile and the Nashville Predators have become some sort of trendsetters in getting plays to sign lengthy deals worth a pittance annually.

Colton Sissons becomes the second in the past three years to sign on with the Predators long-term at a small AVV. Sissons new deal, avoiding arbitration, is a seven-year contract worth $20 million — an AAV of $2.85 million.

“Colton will be an important part of our team for the next seven seasons, and we are happy he has made a long-term commitment to our organization and the city the Nashville,” Poile said. “He’s a heart and soul player who is versatile and can fill many important roles on our team, including on the penalty kill and power play. His offensive production has increased each season, and he remains an integral part of our defensive structure down the middle of the ice. Colton is also an up-and-coming leader in our organization, which is something we value strongly.”

Poile seems to have no issue signing depth guys to lengthy deals. In 2016, he signed Calle Jarnkork to a six-year deal worth $12 million. In fact, he’s the only general manager to pull of such moves.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Both players have chosen security over maximizing earning potential.

Sissons, 25, had a career-year last season, scoring 15 goals and 30 points in 75 games.

His AAV is in the ballpark of what was projected. Evolving Wild’s model had him making $2.65 million. What wasn’t foreseen is that term.

EW’s model projected a three-year contract for Sissons with a 30.2 percent probability of coming to fruition. But what percentage of chance did EW give a seven-year contract? 0.4 percent.

Anything is possible, kids.


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

PHT Morning Skate: Hard cap hurt; Iginla talked Lucic into Flames move?

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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.

• The hard salary cap is hurting the NHL’s brand. (Broad Street Hockey)

• With his name removed from the list, he’s the top 10 untradeable contracts after the Milan Lucic trade. (The Hockey News)

• Flames’ trade for Milan Lucic is inexplicable. (Yahoo Sports)

• The seven best free-agent deals signed in the NHL this summer. (Daily Hive)

• Ranking every NHL team by weight… a hefty ask. (Vancouver Courier)

• The Flames can blame (partly?) a franchise legend for helping sell Calgary to no-movement-clause Milan Lucic. (Sportsnet)

• Is there too much offense from the defense in today’s NHL? (TSN.ca)

• Stanley Cup-winning teams with the most Hall of Famers. (Featurd)

• The King always gets his way. (NHL.com)

• Part 1 of a look at the false sense of parity in the NHL. (Last Word on Hockey)

John Tavares is both healthy again and still upset his Maple Leafs got bounced by the Bruins in Round 1. (NHL.com)

• The best and worst moves from each Eastern Conference general manager. (The Score)

• What would an NHL team made up only of players from New York/New Jersey look like? (The Athletic)

• A look back on the Martin St. Louis trade and its impact. (Raw Charge)


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

Will coaching change be enough to give Ducks’ goalies some help?

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Since becoming the Anaheim Ducks’ starter, John Gibson has become one of the best goalies in the NHL.

For the first part of the 2018-19 season he was almost single-handedly carrying the team and helping to keep it at least somewhat competitive. He was not only in the Vezina Trophy discussion, but as long as the Ducks were winning he was a legitimate MVP contender. But for as good as Gibson performed, the entire thing was a house of cards that was always on the verge of an ugly collapse.

The Ducks couldn’t score, they couldn’t defend, they forced Gibson to take on a ridiculous workload in terms of shots and scoring chances against.

Eventually, everything fell apart.

Once Gibson started to wear down and could no longer steal games on a nightly basis, the team turned into one of the worst in the league despite having a top-10 goaltending duo. That is a shocking accomplishment because teams that get the level of goaltending the Ducks received from the Gibson-Ryan Miller duo usually make the playoffs.

How bad was it for the Ducks? They were one of only three teams in the top-15 in save percentage this past season that did not make the playoffs.

The only other teams in the top-15 that missed were the Montreal Canadiens, who were just two points back in a far better and more competitive Eastern Conference, and the Arizona Coyotes who were four points back in the Western Conference and the first team on the outside looking in.

The Ducks not only missed, they were 10 points short with FIVE teams between them and a playoff spot. Again, almost impossibly bad.

It is a testament to just how bad the rest of the team performed in front of the goalies, and it continued a disturbing trend from the 2018 playoffs when the Ducks looked completely overmatched against the San Jose Sharks in a four-game sweep. It was clear the team was badly flawed and was falling behind in a faster, more skilled NHL.

The problem for the Ducks right now is that so far this offseason the team has remained mostly the same.

They bought out the remainder of Corey Perry‘s contract, will be without Ryan Kesler, and have really not done anything else to change a roster that has not been anywhere near good enough the past two seasons.

That means it is going to be another sink-or-swim season for the Ducks based on how far the goaltending duo of Gibson and Miller can carry them.

It is a tough situation because the Ducks have made an absolutely massive commitment to Gibson as he enters the first year of an eight-year, $51.2 million contract.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

That is a huge investment in a goalie, and for the time being, the Ducks have not really done anything to support him. Even if you have the best goalie in the league — or just one of the best — it is nearly impossible to win based only on that. Great goalies can help, they can mask a lot of flaws, and they can even carry a mediocre or bad team to the playoffs if they have a historically great season (think Carey Price during the 2014-15 season). But that still puts a ton of pressure on the goalie, and it is nearly impossible to ride that all the way to a championship.

There is, however, one small cause for optimism.

A lot of the Ducks’ problems defensively last season seemed to be based around their system and structure in the early part of the season under then-coach Randy Carlyle.

Under Carlyle the Ducks were one of the worst teams in the league when it came to suppressing shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances during 5-on-5 play.

They were 29th or worse when it came to shots on goal against, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances, and 26th in total shot attempts against. This is something that always happened with Carlyle coached teams and they would always go as far as their goaltending could take them. In recent years, Gibson masked a lot of those flaws by playing at an elite level and helped get the Ducks in the playoffs. He was able to do it for half of a season this year before finally playing like a mortal instead of a goaltending deity.

But after Carlyle was replaced by general manager Bob Murray, the Ducks showed some massive improvement defensively, shaving multiple shots, shot attempts, and scoring chances per 60 minutes off of their totals.

They went from 26th to seventh in shots on goal against, from 29th to 19th in shot attempts, from 30th to 17th in scoring chances against, and from 29th to 17th in high-danger scoring chances against.

Still not great, but definitely better. Much better. So much better that even though Gibson’s overall performance regressed, the Ducks still managed to win games and collect points at a significantly better rate than they did earlier in the season. They were 14-11-1 from Feb. 10 until the end of the season under Murray.

That is a 91.3 point pace over 82 games. That would have been a playoff point total in the Western Conference this past season.

Under Carlyle, it was a 74.6 point pace. That would have been one of the four worst records in the league.

Coaching changes are very rarely a cure-all. It is still a talent-driven league, and if you do not have talent you are probably not going to win very much. But there are always exceptions and outliers, and sometimes a coaching change is a necessity and can help dramatically improve a team.

New Ducks coach Dallas Eakins has an incredibly short NHL head coaching resume so we don’t have much to go by when it comes to what he will do What we do have to go by came in Edmonton where it has become abundantly clear over the past 15 years that the problems go far beyond the head coach (because they have all failed there). The Ducks are still short on talent at forward and defense, but it should still be able to perform better than it did a year ago. And with a goalie as dominant as Gibson can be (with a great backup behind him) there is no excuse for them to be as far out of the playoff picture as they were.

The Ducks don’t need to be the 1995 Devils defensively to compete.

They just need to not be the worst shot suppression team in the league.

If Eakins can figure out a way to build on the momentum the Ducks showed over the final two months of the 2018-19 season, they might actually have a fighting chance.

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.

Calgary Flames set with arena plans to replace Saddledome

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CALGARY, Alberta (AP) — The Calgary Flames have a tentative agreement for a new arena to replace the Saddledome.

The city, NHL team and the Calgary Stampede have agreed in principle to terms. The Stampede, a rodeo exhibition, owns the land.

The deal was to be presented to the City Council on Monday and then put to a vote. Calgary citizens would then have a week to voice their opinion before a council vote next week to ratify the deal.

The Saddledome is almost 36 years old. The cost of the event center is $550 million to $600 million. It is to have a seating capacity of about 20,000 for sports and would be the heart of a larger revitalized commercial and residential district.