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Blackhawks should try to trade star defensemen

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The Athletic’s Scott Powers dropped an interesting report today (sub required): Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman realizes that he’ll have a glut of defensemen soon, so he might need to make a move.

To be more specific, the impending return of Connor Murphy could make for quite a crowd. Powers notes that Bowman acknowledged that much a couple weeks ago, albeit while also resisting some of the perceived pressure to make a move.

” … Murph’s a good player, so we want to get him back as soon as we can to help our team. What that means for the other guys, we’ll sort that out,” Bowman said on Nov. 24. “If there’s a surplus and everyone’s healthy, then there’s always needs around the league for defensemen. We can maybe make a move at that point.”

Now, Powers points to Bowman trying to move a depth defenseman such as Brandon Manning or Jan Rutta merely to open up a modicum of space … but that honestly might be thinking too small.

Right now, the Chicago Blackhawks are on a six-game losing streak. They’re not technically in last place in the West with 23 points, yet they’re sagging with 30 games played already, so they’re awfully close to that mark. Maybe playing five of their next six games at home will help them save a little face, but just about every projection should hammer a painful reality home: the 2018-19 season is as good as shot for Chicago.

With that in mind, the Blackhawks should begin preparing for the future, and that means acknowledging – not continuing to ignore – the elephant in the room: it’s time to strip away significant portions of this core group.

It’s tough to imagine the Blackhawks parting ways with the $21 million duo of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, and in all honesty, those two could still conceivably help a team contend.

Instead, it’s time for Bowman to hit the “reset” button on an ailing defense, and he’d be foolish not to explore every avenue in doing so. Yes, that means doing whatever he can to a) convince Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to waive no-movement clauses and b) finding trade partners for one or both of those defensemen.

The risks that come with keeping Keith

At 35, Keith isn’t at that Norris Trophy level any longer.

Defensemen aren’t always sniping machines, yet it’s troubling that he’s failed to score a goal in 2018-19, and only has two over his last 112 games. He’s not quite the source of offense he once was, and while his possession stats are respectable, they won’t knock your socks off.

Keith is still a very useful defenseman, however, and one can bet that he still enjoys a high standing in the NHL … for now.

Let’s face it; as times go on and Keith’s team declines further from past successes, his stature is likely to tumble. It doesn’t help that his average ice time is down considerably this season (22:36), and last season’s 23:50 TOI average was already a significant step down from his workhorse, 25+ minute days.

The Blackhawks need to be weary of Keith’s $5.54M cap hit, which lasts through 2022-23. Yes, it carries the scent of obvious cap circumvention, as Cap Friendly lists his salary diving from $4.5M to $3.5M next, and so on until it sinks all the way to $1.5M in 2022-23. In my opinion, Chicago would get a much better return for Keith if they traded him before he became, essentially, Marian Hossa-like contract fodder.

(Sure, the Blackhawks moved Hossa’s deal, but they had to give up a helpful, affordable, and not-yet-optimized player in Vinnie Hinostroza.)

If the Blackhawks wait too long, they might be stuck bribing a team to take the last, empty cap years of Keith’s deal, rather than getting assets that can truly help them in the future. That’s not exactly an ideal scenario for a franchise that sorely needs to restock its prospect cupboard beyond Adam Boqvist.

Finding a taker for Brent Seabrook

While Keith could conceivably fetch an interesting offer, it’s difficult to picture GMs lining up to land Seabrook, a 33-year-old with a horrendous $6.875M cap hit that doesn’t expire until after 2023-24.

On the other hand, we’ve seen some surprising trades over the years that force you to never say never.

The Habs didn’t just absorb a nightmare Scott Gomez contract, they also sent Ryan McDonagh to the Rangers. A contract Roberto Luongo despised didn’t keep him in Vancouver forever. Chris Pronger eventually drew checks from the Coyotes.

Seabrook will be easier to move in time, as his total salary goes from $9M in the first three seasons (ending in 2018-19) to $7.5M next year, and lower as the years pass. That’s a comforting thought, but are we totally certain that Bowman has been practicing due diligence to get rid of that deal as soon as possible? You never know if an old-school team might want to take Seabrook off of Chicago’s hands sooner.

All it takes is one GM/front office to think that they’re seeing something no one else understands. Unfortunately, it’s fair to wonder if Bowman is too close to the situation, and thus overrates his own players to his own detriment.

One to keep

If there’s one defenseman I wouldn’t take many trade calls about, it would be rookie Henri Jokiharju. The 19-year-old is already showing serious promise, and maybe just as importantly for the cap-challenged Blackhawks, he’s only in the first season of his three-year, entry-level, rookie deal.

Which brings us to some optimism:

If they can only stomach a short rebuild …

Normally, I’d refer to this idea as a “soft rebuild,” but let’s be frank: it won’t be easy for Bowman to swallow his pride and, ideally, trade Keith and/or Seabrook. Management probably wouldn’t even enjoy moving a more obvious cap-filler like forward Artem Anisimov.

Could there be some light at the end of the tunnel, though?

It certainly stings that Chicago lost some quality, affordable players in recent years because of the cap crunch and some general errors (Hinostroza, Ryan Hartman, Teuvo Teravainen, Nick Schmaltz, etc.).

They still might have some help thanks to certain cheaper options. As mentioned, Jokiharju could be part of a solution. Rising star Alex DeBrincat‘s rookie contract won’t expire until after next season. If Dylan Strome can at least bring more pros than cons, then he’s another guy who is cheap through at least 2019-20. Depending upon how he develops, Boqvist might be able to add to that group of cheap, competitive players.

According to Cap Friendly, the Blackhawks currently have 15 players carrying $62.21M in cap commitments heading into 2019-20. If Chicago moved Keith or Seabrook for futures and/or expiring contracts, they could push that number closer to $56M or so (considering overages and other cap quirks).

Suddenly, things could look more interesting with a salary cap estimated around $83M.

Perhaps the Blackhawks could right a wrong by bringing back Artemi Panarin, giving them more of a chance to outscore their problems? Maybe they could lure Erik Karlsson away from San Jose and other suitors? They could also target mid-level free agents in pursuit of depth, or extend their rebuild window by taking on some contracts from other teams (maybe they should “help out” the Maple Leafs?).

Things can start to change quickly once you gain some flexibility, with some ideas being wiser than others. Most of the bolder ideas sure beat sitting idly by, risking waiting too long to make much-needed changes.

For the sake of Blackhawks fans, here’s hoping Bowman agrees, even if it means painfully saying goodbye to some of the icons of a fading era.

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.

Where Connor McDavid ranks after racing past 300 points

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The Edmonton Oilers saw their four-game winning streak end 5-4 in overtime against the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday, but they should feel some satisfaction in hanging with such a great team, and getting a standings point for their troubles.

Sometimes thoughts like those can soothe the irritation of a close loss. If that doesn’t work, the Oilers should find perspective in remembering how special superstar Connor McDavid truly is. Reaching a big milestone can do that.

With two assists in that 5-4 OT loss, McDavid crossed the 300-point barrier, finishing the night at 301 points in just 240 career regular-season games. As you might guess, the 21-year-old ranks among the best in league history in that regard:

If you’re like me, you muttered “imagine what McDavid could have done if his rookie season didn’t end with that unlucky shoulder injury?”

Interesting to see how closely McDavid’s work is paralleling that of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and Evgeni Malkin, eh?

Let’s consider a few other enticing and impressive things about what McDavid has accomplished, and what might still come.

  • McDavid could probably argue that he’s been the best scorer since the moment he entered the league.

Using Hockey Reference’s fancy season tools, you can see that Patrick Kane (308 points) is the only player with more points since McDavid entered the NHL in 2015-16. That shoulder injury muttering comes into place here, though, as Kane hit 308 in 278 games, versus 240 for McDavid.

McDavid’s 1.254 points-per-game average easily ranks as the best in the NHL during that span.

  • If healthy, McDavid should compile three consecutive 100-point seasons. He scored 100 in 2016-17, while setting a career-high with 108 last year. With 45 points in 31 games this season, with one contest missed, McDavid could play 50 more games this season. He’d easily hit 100 at this pace, as he’d hit about 117-118 at this rate.
  • McDavid remains a premiere playmaker (Alex Chiasson‘s accountant is nodding so hard right now), as you can see most clearly with 28 assists in 31 games. But he’s becoming a more dangerous goal-scorer, too.

Sometimes that comes down to being more assertive as you spend more time in the NHL, and become more confident in your abilities. Sidney Crosby seemed to enjoy a similar growth in making defenses and goalies respect both his shot and his passing more or less equally.

With 111 SOG in 31 GP so far in 2017-18, McDavid’s averaging 3.58 SOG per contest. That’s a significant jump from last season’s 3.34 SOG per game, and he’s fired the puck more frequently in every season of his NHL career. It wouldn’t be one bit surprising to see him enjoy closer to a 1:1 ratio in goals to assists after collecting 104 goals and 197 assists for his first 301 points.

That’s not the most pleasant thought in the world for opposing goalies and defensemen.

  • It probably wouldn’t hurt if the Oilers get it together.

The Ken Hitchcock Era is off to a booming start, but that should inspire Edmonton to continue to make shrewd decisions, rather than rest on its laurels. At minimum, it can’t hurt McDavid’s spirits – and numbers – if he’s playing competitive hockey deep into the season, and ideally into the playoffs. Still, things could be even merrier if there was more help around number 97.

Imagine what McDavid can do with higher-quality teammates beyond Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins?

Other NHL Teams: “We’d rather not.”

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.

Did Svechnikov make big gains in Hurricanes’ loss?

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The Carolina Hurricanes are justified in their search for a top-six forward/sniper, but whenever a team goes shopping for a trade, they should also ask if they’re taking advantage of the ingredients at hand.

That’s a long way of saying that the Hurricanes possess at least one player who could score more goals for them: Andrei Svechnikov.

Looking at certain underlying numbers (as PHT did earlier in December), it seems fair to wonder if Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour should take the training wheels off of Svechnikov, and just let him fly. Yes, there are risks when it comes to really unleashing rookies – particularly in Svechnikov, who’s made an immediate jump after being the second pick of the 2018 NHL Draft – but the rewards can often be worth it.

After all, this is a young man’s game. Besides, Svechnikov frequently looks fully-grown on the ice, even this early in his NHL career.

Sometimes advanced stats don’t slap you in the face like highlight-reel work, though. Svechnikov scored two goals in Carolina’s 6-4 loss to the Montreal Canadiens, and his first one was absolutely gorgeous:

Might that demand Brind’Amour’s attention? There’s some reason to hope for even more.

“We did have a coming out party, for me, out of Svechnikov,” Brind’Amour said, via Sara Civian of The Athletic.

It’s not like Svechnikov is getting totally buried in the Hurricanes’ lineup, yet here’s a pushy request: just keep ramping up his minutes and opportunities, seeing how much he can handle. Carolina needs goals, and maybe they’d get more with more Svechnikov, risks and all. Brind’Amour could even do so selectively, by handing him more reps on the power play, preferably on a top unit that hasn’t exactly been lightning the world on fire, based on full-season stats.

As of Thursday night, the Canadiens are where the Hurricanes want to be (comfortably in a playoff spot), while Carolina’s sitting in Montreal’s expected position (searching for answers, seven points out of the wild card). You can chalk that up to a lot of things – Carey Price has now won four games in a row – but it’s worth noting that the Canadiens are embracing speedy and/or skilled young players like Jonathan Drouin and Max Domi, while shrugging their shoulders and just letting Jesperi Kotkaniemi play. There are quite a few stories of immediate successes this season, with Elias Pettersson and top 2018 pick Rasmus Dahlin also coming to mind.

So why not see what Svechnikov can do? For all we know, rolling the dice might just help the Hurricanes break out of this frustrating funk.

Here’s Svechnikov’s other, nice goal from Thursday:

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.

Lightning ride Vasilevskiy’s spectacular return to beat Maple Leafs

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The Tampa Bay Lightning remained one of the best teams in the NHL even with Andrei Vasilevskiy missing 15 games, taking a seven-game winning streak into Thursday’s best-versus-best clash against Toronto. All due respect to Louis Domingue, but the Lightning wouldn’t have won their eighth game in a row without a vastly impressive Vasilevskiy.

Honestly, you could make a sane argument that no other goalie in the world could author such a masterpiece, but that’s a debate for your local, hockey-friendly bar.

Speaking of debates, NHL fans were treated to what could potentially be an epic, too-good-for-the-second-round series, with the Lightning beating the Maple Leafs 4-1.

Prediction: a lot of people will look at that 4-1 score and believe that the Lightning absolutely dominated the Maple Leafs. That wasn’t the case, at all, as Vasilevskiy showed the opposite of rustiness in stopping 48 shots.

Vasilevskiy set a new Lightning franchise record for saves in a home game, and tied the overall mark. To review: Vasilevskiy set a new career-high for saves against one of the most explosive offenses in the NHL, and he did it in his first game back since Nov. 10. Tremendous.

Many of those saves were jaw-droppers, rather than run-of-the-mill, with this making a late push for Save of the Year contention:

You can’t really put the Leafs’ lone goal on Vasilevskiy, either, as Kasperi Kapanen stole an ill-advised pass, getting a ton of time and room to score:

After an evenly-matched, exciting 1-1 first period, the Lightning pulled away by scoring three times during the middle frame. All of those tallies were painful for Toronto. Tampa Bay made it 2-1 when Nikita Kucherov scored a barely-goal that Frederik Andersen seemingly gloved, and then the game really got away from the Maple Leafs when the Lightning scored two more times in the final minute of the second period.

Overall, the Maple Leafs generated a gaudy 49-21 shots on goal advantage. While you could accuse the Bolts of sitting on their lead late (they were outshot 16-2 in the third, and endured at least a 13-minute SOG drought), Toronto generated an edge during each period. It didn’t matter, because Vasilevskiy was a human highlight reel in net.

It’s foolish to read too much into a single night during an 82-game season, but perhaps a night like this might give the Maple Leafs that extra push to add that missing piece or two? If nothing else, the Lightning only strengthened their stranglehold on the Atlantic Division crown, not to mention the top spot in the East, and the Presidents’ Trophy.

Sure, the score was lopsided, yet this game made a best-of-seven series that much more tantalizing to imagine, even if getting there would be easier said than done. You know, kind of like getting pucks past Vasi.

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.

NHL’s top two teams meet as Lightning, Maple Leafs face off

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The NHL’s best team is getting even stronger on Thursday night when the Tampa Bay Lightning will welcome back starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The Vezina Trophy finalist from 2017-18 hasn’t played in more than a month, while the Lightning still managed to go on a 12-3-0 run during his absence including the seven-game winning streak the team is currently riding into Thursday night. It’s a testament to how dominant the rest of the team around him is that they kept piling up wins at such a ridiculous pace.

His return comes at a perfect time for the Lightning and helps set up a titanic regular season matchup of Stanley Cup contenders when the Lightning host the Toronto Maple Leafs.

As far as mid-December regular season games go, it doesn’t really get much more exciting than this.

[Related: Vasilevskiy back for Lightning after Domingue’s stretch of solid play]

The Lightning and Maple Leafs enter Thursday as the top two teams in the NHL, sitting first and second in total points, first and second in goal differential, first and second in goals scored, and are both among the top-10 in terms of fewest goals against. The two teams also boast six of the top-30 individual scorers in the league (including three of the top-seven) and that list doesn’t include Auston Matthews, one of the game’s elite offensive talents, who has 16 goals and 27 total points in only 17 games.

Tampa Bay’s offense has been especially dominant this season and is currently averaging an almost unheard of four goals per game. The last time an NHL team averaged more than four goals per game over an entire season was the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins with an average of 4.41. Only five other teams since then have been above 3.80 over a full season.

Only three teams over the past 25 years have scored more goals than Tampa Bay’s 130 through the first 32 games of a season: The 1995-96 Penguins, 1995-96 Colorado Avalanche, and the 2005-06 Ottawa Senators.

The Maple Leafs are not far behind them with 113 goals (a 3.61 goals per game average) in their 31 games, and they have done that while only getting 20 combined man-games from Matthews and William Nylander, two of their top-three leading scorers from a year ago.

That all brings us to the next big thing regarding Thursday’s game as both star-laden rosters are starting to get back to full-strength.

While the Lightning are getting Vasilevskiy back on Thursday, the Maple Leafs recently welcomed Matthews back to their lineup after he was sidelined with an injury and also have Nylander starting to make an impact after he missed the first quarter of the season due to an unresolved contract issue. The only key player for either team that isn’t playing on Thursday night is Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman.

It’s also a pretty massive game for what it means to the Atlantic Division playoff race because a Lightning win would extend what is already a pretty significant lead.

If the Lightning end up taking this game in regulation it would extend their lead in the Division (and also the lead for the top spot in the Eastern Conference) to eight points. Even if it’s only the middle of December that would still be a significant lead and a gap that would be extremely difficult for any team to make up — even one as good as Toronto. A Maple Leafs win in regulation cuts the gap to four. That is a massive swing one way or another.

If nothing else, this game is a great preview for a potential early playoff matchup.

Barring some sort of second half collapse from either team they have established themselves as the top teams in the Atlantic Division and look like strong bets to finish at least in the top-three, with Tampa Bay positioning itself well for the top spot. Assuming all of that happens, and assuming both teams take care of business in their opening round matchups where they will almost certainly be favored, they would be meeting in the second round. There is a lot of hockey to be played before it gets to that point, and a lot of things still have to happen, but on paper it’s an exciting matchup to think about and we will get to see our first preview of what it might look like this season on Thursday night.

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.