Getty

Stanley Cup Finalists Capitals, Golden Knights are heating up

1 Comment

Following up a run to the Stanley Cup Final is never really easy, but it seemed like an especially big challenge for the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights.

After all, the Capitals partied enough to kill a small town’s worth of brain cells, while the Golden Knights went on the sort of run we’ve never really seen for a contemporary expansion team in professional sports.

Yet, as we enjoy the final leftovers of Thanksgiving weekend, the two 2018 Stanley Cup Finalists seem to be rounding into form.

A familiar spot

By beating the New York Rangers 5-3 at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, the Capitals rattled off their fifth consecutive win. With that, the Capitals regained what almost feels like their rightful place atop the Metropolitan Division by way of nabbing 29 points in 23 games.

It’s not a huge lead, mind you. The persistent Columbus Blue Jackets are a mere standings point (28) behind the Capitals in the same number (23) of games played.

As far as what’s working, it also feels like much of the familiar. The Capitals’ 80 goals leads the Metro Division, helping them generate a +7 goal differential. Perhaps the least surprising element of all is Washington’s dangerous power play, as the Capitals’ 27.8-percent success rate slightly leads the Lightning for fourth-best in the NHL.

Capitals’ success and a keyed-in Braden Holtby tend to go together, too. Holtby’s now on a three-game winning streak, only allowing three goals overall during that span. After a tough October, Holtby generated an impressive .934 save percentage over eight November games.

It’s unclear if the Capitals will be able to finish ahead of the Blue Jackets and other rivals to win another division title, but overall, you can file this start under “so far, so good.” And you can mostly dismiss notions about a Stanley Cup hangover.

Digging the Golden Knights

Vegas isn’t in the same cushy spot that Washington is, at least not yet.

If the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs began as of this writing, the Golden Knights would not be in the mix. They’re currently ranked ninth in the West, as their 12-12-1 record for 25 points leaves them just behind the Anaheim Ducks for third (the Ducks have 25 points too, but in one fewer game played) in the paltry Pacific.

Sure, it’s been a slightly disappointing start through a quarter-and-change of this second season in the NHL, particularly since Vegas made some significant investments in free agency.

But the good news is that the Golden Knights clearly aren’t very far out of the playoffs, and they’re finally starting to get the sort of bounces that were (amusingly, from afar) weren’t there in 2018-19 after very much being there in 2017-18.

After battering the San Jose Sharks by a sobering score of 6-0 on Saturday, the Golden Knights have won three games in a row, with all of those victories coming against Pacific rivals. This small winning streak isn’t the only thing that’s promising, either; the Golden Knights can be especially heartened by who is heating up.

Most obviously, Marc-Andre Fleury is looking a whole lot more like the guy who stood on his head basically all of last season (until he ran into the Capitals in that 2018 Stanley Cup Final). After stopping 33 shots against the Sharks, “MAF” has now rattled off consecutive shutouts. Fleury’s won four straight games overall, only allowing five goals during his hot streak.

As Vegas’ starting goalie (and taking into account Malcolm Subban‘s considerable struggles), Fleury is the most important single element of the Golden Knights’ rise. Even so, it’s almost as refreshing to see Max Pacioretty seemingly shaking off his slow start.

“Patches” generated two goals in that rout of the Sharks, extending his point streak to five games (six goals, one assist for seven points). Pacioretty also has nine points in his last seven contests. That’s an enormous burst of energy when you consider that Pacioretty staggered through his first few weeks with the Golden Knights, starting off his stay with a troubling two points through his first 12 games.

Rattling off three straight wins won’t transform an 82-game season, but it’s worth noting because the Golden Knights have actually been arguing for their legitimacy with their work on the ice, only to not exactly reap the rewards.

Via Natural Stat Trick, the Golden Knights rank third in shot-share numbers like Corsi For and Fenwick For Percentage (not to mention actual shots for percentage). They only trail the puck-hogging Carolina Hurricanes as far as hogging the greatest number of scoring chances, and have had similar success in creating more high-danger chances than they’ve allowed.

They simply hadn’t been getting those precious, precious bounces. Their 6.8 even-strength shooting percentage ranks sixth-worst in the NHL, and their team save percentage (90.08) is third-worst at even-strength.

In other words, the underlying stats have argued for a while that the Golden Knights have actually been quite good in 2018-19, but they weren’t getting the saves and the luck.

It stands to reason, then, that the Golden Knights could be a very tough opponent if they merely enjoy league-average luck. With that in mind, Fleury heating up is a very good sign, unless you’re a West team trying to grind out a playoff spot.

***

Does all of this point to a rematch for the Capitals and Golden Knights in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final?

It would be foolish even to call that the league’s most likely matchup. With teams like the Jets, Predators, Lightning, and Maple Leafs standing in the way, both Washington and Vegas would face huge barriers in making deep runs once again.

That said, there were fears that both the Capitals and Golden Knights would stumble badly in attempting encores to their rousing performance last season. While there have indeed been challenges – and almost certainly will be more during what often feels like marathon NHL campaigns – both teams are bolstering arguments that they must be taken seriously once again.

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’ Giroux-Couturier duo is great, but they need help

Getty
Leave a comment

The Philadelphia Flyers may not have had much success as a team over the past few seasons but there have been two very important developments during that time.

The first is that Claude Giroux has re-emerged as one of the elite point producers in the league after a three-year decline. He has been so productive that since the start of the 2017-18 season only four players in the league (Nikita Kucherov, Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, and Sidney Crosby) have more total points than his 187.  Just looking at things strictly from an offensive perspective, this is the best two-year run of Giroux’s career.

The second big development is that Sean Couturier has gone from being a reliable, defensive-minded center to one of the most complete and best all-around players in the league, perfectly blending his shutdown defensive play to go with an emerging offensive game that has seen him produce consecutive 30-goal, 76-point seasons (only eight other players in the league matched that).

After finishing as the runner-up in the 2017-18 Selke Trophy voting, he finished sixth this past season and will enter this season as one of the favorites to win it.

[More: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

When the Flyers put them together they can be as good as any other duo in the league.

It is when one (or both) is sitting on the bench that things unravel for the Flyers and the team gets its doors blown off. The table below shows what the Flyers’ shot attempt, scoring chance, high-danger scoring chance, and goal differentials when both are on the ice, one is on the ice, and when neither is on the ice. This is all during 5-on-5 play.

(Data via Natural Stat Trick)

With both, the Flyers are as good as any team in the league. Without one or both they become one of the worst teams in the league. That is the look of a team that has no depth beyond its top few players, and that is simply not good enough to win in the NHL.

This is where Kevin Hayes and Nolan Patrick become so vital to the Flyers’ chances.

The Giroux-Couturier pairing obviously works, but it has left the team dangerously thin the past couple of seasons. The team has been so thin that when the Flyers tried to split them up and play them on different lines it ended up doing nothing but holding them both back because there was not enough talent around them. They work at their best when they are together, and that is the way it should remain.

For the Flyers to have a chance this season they will need Hayes to be able to provide a capable second-line presence down the middle and prove he was worth that seven-year, $50 million price tag, and for Patrick to continue to evolve and help drive the third line after struggling to breakout in his second year as the second-line center.

Without both of those things happening (and without Carter Hart solidifying the goaltending spot) the Flyers will once again struggle no matter how great Giroux and Couturier are.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Flyers could use breakout season from Nolan Patrick

Getty
Leave a comment

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 Philadelphia Flyers.

The success or failure of the 2019-20 Philadelphia Flyers will largely depend on the performance of starting goalie Carter Hart.

If he is good, the Flyers will probably be good. If he is not, there is a pretty good chance it will be more of the same from a year ago.

But for as important as Hart’s development is, the Flyers have another talented, highly touted young player on this roster that could help move them closer to a playoff sport with a big season. That player is 2017 No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick.

Thanks to some lottery luck the Flyers were able to rocket up the draft board and land Patrick, adding a potential impact player to the organization at a time when it probably was not expected. Two years into his career and he has shown some flashes of the potential that made him such a promising draft prospect, especially during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs when he was one of the Flyers’ best players in their Round 1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. During that series he was always looking like he had a chance to do something spectacular on any given shift. It may not have resulted in big numbers, but you could easily see the talent.

He seemed to be a prime breakout candidate heading into 2018-19 based on that showing and progression throughout his rookie year. It did not quite happen as he pretty much duplicated his mostly solid but unspectacular rookie performance while also seeing a concerning dip in his possession and shot attempt numbers.

[More: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | Under Pressure]

A top draft pick not immediately becoming an All-Star level player isn’t necessarily a huge concern. Not everyone is going to step right into the NHL and be Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid. Those players are rare, and there is usually a pretty steep learning curve for players trying to break into the league at 18, 19, or 20. There are a lot of really accomplished forwards in the league today that were high first-round draft picks and whose first two years were comparable to Patrick’s at a similar age, including Aleksander Barkov, Phil Kessel, Bo Horvat, Elias Lindholm, Josh Bailey and even Patrick’s own teammate, Sean Couturier.

Most of those players (specifically Barkov and Kessel, also top-five picks) started to take significant steps in year three.

That has to be what the Flyers are looking for from Patrick this season.

He does not need to be an All-Star right now, but there should at least be some kind of sign in his production and performance that he can start to trend in that direction.

If it does not happen in year three, it will probably be time to start wondering just what type of player he is capable of becoming.

The Flyers still have a couple of All-Stars at the top of their lineup in Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Couturier, they still have some really good secondary players, and they might finally have the goalie they have been trying to find for decades. There are question marks and holes that still need to be filled for sure, but there is the basic framework of a potentially good team here at some key positions at the top of the roster. Patrick emerging as a top-line player would help them get a lot closer to actually being a good team once again.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Flyers’ Hayes under pressure to produce after big contract

Getty
3 Comments

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 Philadelphia Flyers.

In his short time as general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers, Chuck Fletcher has already proven to be far more aggressive than his predecessor (Ron Hextall) in building the team’s roster and re-shaping the organization.

His biggest player move to date might just be the sequence of events that saw him acquire the unrestricted free agent rights to forward Kevin Hayes, and then promptly sign him to a massive seven-year, $50 million contract.

The $7.1 million cap hit per season places him third on the team (behind only Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek) and among the top-50 players in the entire league. That sort of contract is going to bring some serious expectations regardless of what we already know about the player.

What we know about Hayes is this: He is a pretty good player and would be a fine complementary piece for a Stanley Cup contender. He will help the Flyers and probably make them marginally better.

But when you are one of the highest paid players in the league, taking up 9 percent of your team’s allotted salary cap space, and signed for seven years the expectation is going to be a lot higher than “pretty good player” and simply making the team a little better. For that price and that commitment you need to be getting an impact player that is going to dramatically change the outlook of your team.

For as solid as Hayes has been throughout his career he has never really come close to being that sort of player.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | Patrick the X-factor]

He has never scored fewer than 14 goals in a season, but has scored more than 17 just once (this past season).

He has failed to top the 40-point mark just once in five years, but has only topped the 50 point mark in a season one time (again, this past season).

He is not a player that dramatically drives possession and flips the ice territorially in his team’s favor (career 48 percent Corsi player; only twice over 50 percent in a single season).

You can pretty much pencil him in for 15 goals and 45 points every year and probably never miss the mark on him. He is consistently good, but never really takes a step above that. Now that he is entering his age 27 season it is fair to wonder if he will ever do that.

The question that has to be asked is if he continues to produce and play like he has over the first five years of his career how much patience will Flyers fans have for that? More importantly, how much patience will the Flyers themselves have for that?

Every dollar a team spends in a salary capped league is a dollar they can not spend on someone else, and tying up more than $7 million per season in a player that is only giving second-or third-line production without dramatically impacting the game in other areas is something that can quickly turn out to be problematic for a team that has hopes of building a contender. There is a reason most long-term free agent contracts end in either a trade or a buyout; teams have to pay a premium for a player that has probably already played their best hockey for someone else.

Hayes is a fine NHL player, but for the price the Flyers paid to get him they will probably need him to be more than that if they want to avoid buying out his contract or frantically trying to trade it in a couple of years.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Is Carter Hart the real deal?

Getty Images
Leave a comment

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 Philadelphia Flyers.

Let’s take a look three questions facing the 2019-20 Flyers:

1. Is Carter Hart the real deal? 

This is the same sort of question that’s being posed about Jordan Binnington this offseason.

Both Hart and Binnington began their seasons, loosely, around the holidays. That meant they didn’t play full campaigns and weren’t exposed to the rigors that a full NHL season can bring.

But if you’re a Philly fan, you have to like the sample size you were given. Hart didn’t exactly fold under pressure. If anything, he seemed to thrive in the environment and fans certainly got behind him.

That being said, the expectations have been turned up to max at this point. And that’s where the real challenge for the 21-year-old begins.

And given his tender age, one could question whether or not he’s being rushed — even with his breakout performance in the second half.

For him to build off last year, the team in front of him has to follow. The Flyers allowed the second-most five-on-five goals last season. Team defense was flat-out atrocious at times, yet Hart put up a respectable .917 save percentage.

Hart may very well be the real deal. It’s up to the Flyers not to ruin that.

2. What impact will Kevin Hayes have? 

On paper, $50 million over seven years is a lot for a guy who has reached 50 points just once in his five-year NHL career.

But let’s put the money aside for a second and look at where Hayes may help the squad.

As the team’s de-facto second-center, Hayes now allows Claude Giroux to move out to the wing, where he scored 102 points two seasons ago. Giroux is a point-per-game player at center, surely, but diversifying and adding 20-ish more points isn’t a bad thing, and Hayes allows for that.

[MORE: 2018-19 summary | Under Pressure | Patrick the X-factor]

As the team’s second-line center, Hayes’ presence also allows Nolan Patrick to move to the third-line role where the former No. 2 overall pick can develop his game further while facing lesser competition. Patrick, despite his high draft position, could have used a year in the American Hockey League. He wasn’t afforded that chance.

Hayes can also bring solid contributions to the penalty kill, a real sore spot for the Flyers last season. He should complement Sean Couturier well in that regard and it should boost the teams 26th ranking at the same time.

3. Are the Flyers reverting to old ways? 

It’s a question I asked back in June after the Hayes signing and I think it still is worth pondering now.

Ron Hextall tried to do what has made other teams successful in the long run — a slow build, through the draft, developing talent in house and building up an asset base. His patient approach clearly wore on the impatient higher-ups in Philly.

Enter Chuck Fletcher. He’s the exact opposite of Hextall, preferring a win-now-style approach that has included trips to the bargain bin while casting a large contract to a middle-of-the-road centerman.

Methodical rebuilds aren’t a Philly thing. But maybe they should start, especially is Hart shows to be a legitimate No. 1 this season. That’s something you can build around, however enticing it might be to think you can just win now.

The last thing the Flyers need is to heap so much pressure on a young Hart that he implodes because of it. There’s been enough of that sort of thing with goalies in Philly over the years.

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