PHT Power Rankings: Blackhawks hit bottom

7 Comments

If you turn on any random Chicago Blackhawks game on any random night against any random opponent it is a good bet they are already going to be losing by two or three goals 10 minutes into the first period. It has been a constant trend for about two months now.

Sometimes they are able to push back a little and tie the game only to lose in backbreaking fashion, just as they have done in their most recent losses to the Vegas Golden Knights and Montreal Canadiens.

Sometimes they never push back and just get completely run out of the building.

Either way the result is the same — a loss. Those losses keep piling up at an alarming rate and are sending the Blackhawks toward what is looking to be their worst season in years.

Thanks to the seven-game losing streak they are carrying into the week the Blackhawks officially have the worst record (based on points percentage) in the entire league and are just 3-11-2 since firing Joel Quenneville.

In other words, things are bad. Really bad.

The problems are obvious. The good players that were part of the core that won three Stanley Cups in six years are older, more expensive and not as good as they once were (if they are even still on the team). Those larger contracts, combined with the salary cap, once again ripped apart the depth that always made the Blackhawks such a strong team.

The latter point is where a lot of the problems really start to show up. The Blackhawks went through salary cap purges before but were always able to find ways to restock the cupboards, often times to the point of them still being able to compete for, and even win, championships.

They have not done that over the past few years.

Just consider this question: Who is the last truly impactful and useful the Blackhawks have added to their organization through free agency or a trade? Have there been any over the past three or four years? The re-acquisition of Brandon Saad is probably the answer you could come up with because he is a fine, decent player. But when you had to give up an even better player (Artemi Panarin) to get him back that does not really help things.

Big contracts, an aging core, and no fresh talent entering the organization is a bad combination, and for this week it has the Blackhawks at the bottom of the PHT Power Rankings. They may be there for a while, too.

On to the rest of the rankings!

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Quite simply the best hockey team in the NHL. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point are early season MVP candidates, Steven Stamkos is a point-per-game player right behind them, and they are 11-3-0 since their Vezina Trophy finalist goalie has been injured. That includes the six-game winning streak they carry into the week. They also are coming off of a dominant 7-1 win against a really good Colorado Avalanche team.

2. Winnipeg Jets — The Jets are 10-4-1 in their past 15 games and are averaging more than four goals per game during that stretch. There may not be a better collection of top-line forward talent anywhere in the league.

3. Toronto Maple Leafs — Not too worried about the fact they haven’t won since William Nylander returned. The biggest concern here, just like last season, is that Frederik Andersen gets worn down from the workload he is being asked to carry. His play will determine how far they go in the playoffs.

4. Nashville Predators — They have cooled off a bit in recent weeks but that has coincided with the team being crushed by injuries. When healthy this is still one of the league’s best teams.

5. Washington Capitals — The champs are starting to get on a roll and Alex Ovechkin is still scoring goals at an unprecedented pace given his age.

The Surprises

6. Colorado Avalanche — Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon are both on pace for more than 120 points this season. Doubtful they will maintain those numbers over 82 games, but the fact they have done it over even 30 games is incredible.

7. Calgary Flames — Have to be honest, did not see the Flames being the team to crawl to the top of the Pacific Division at any point this season. How long will they remain there?

[Related: Are the Flames ready to contend?]

8. Buffalo Sabres — When every game you play is decided by a single goal sometimes you are going to get the breaks, and sometimes you are not. Thirteen of the Sabres’ past 15 games have been one-goal games, a stretch that has seen them win 10 games in a row and then also lose five games in a row.  They are not as good as they looked during the winning streak and they are not as bad as they have looked during the losing streak. Things balance out.

Strong Playoff Teams

9. Boston Bruins — They are still going to have to find some secondary scoring if they are going to be a serious threat to win the Stanley Cup.

10. Columbus Blue Jackets — Sergei Bobrovsky picked a terrible time to have his worst season as a starter. How good would the Blue Jackets be this season if he was playing at his normal level?

The Middle Ground

11. Vegas Golden Knights –– They might still be the best team in the Pacific Division and when all is said and done will probably end up winning it.

12. Dallas Stars — The rapid emergence of rookie defenseman Miro Heiskanen has helped make up for the absence of John Klingberg.

13. Anaheim Ducks — John Gibson should be a finalist for MVP at this point, while Daniel Sprong has made a nice little impact in his first few games with the team. Nice move in the shootout on Sunday night to help pick up the win.

14. Edmonton Oilers — If this team makes the playoffs Connor McDavid should be a unanimous MVP winner. He is doing even more than he did a year ago.

Related: Seven stunning numbers from the first two months of the NHL season]

15. San Jose Sharks — They have won three out of their past four and they don’t have a tough schedule coming up this week. Is this where it starts to turn around?

16. Montreal Canadiens — The P.K. Subban for Shea Weber trade gets ripped (and deservedly so) which makes it kind of easy to forget that Weber is still pretty good. He is just older, has a worse contract, and might be starting to break down a bit physically. Still, he can play a little. He has five points in his first six games since returning to the lineup this season.

17. Pittsburgh Penguins — Every time it looks like they are going to get everything together and go on a roll they put together a terrible showing. Still, they have picked up 13 out of a possible 20 points over their past 10 games.

18. Minnesota Wild — They have some concerns right now, with the biggest potentially being whatever is wrong with starting goalie Devan Dubnyk.

19. New York Islanders — Still not sure they have enough offense to emerge from the pack and make the playoffs this season.

20. Carolina Hurricanes — The Hurricanes can not catch a break in goal. Curtis McElhinney came out of nowhere to solidify the position for a little bit, played extremely well, and then ended up injured. Now it is back to the Scott Darling and Petr Mrazek duo that was not working earlier this season

21. Arizona Coyotes — It is really tough to see the Coyotes hanging around in the Western Conference playoff race given the injury situation with Antti Raanta.

22. Detroit Red Wings — Dylan Larkin is on track for the best season of his career and several of their potential trade chips (Gustav Nyquist, Jimmy Howard) are having productive seasons. So they have that going for them.

23. New York Rangers — Henrik Lundqvist is still getting it done, he just doesn’t have enough around him for it to really matter.

24. Philadelphia Flyers — Now that they have a new general manager in place it will be interesting to see where this team goes from here and where “bias for action” takes them.

[Related: Chuck Fletcher’s plate will be full as new Flyers’ GM]

25. Ottawa Senators — Losing Matt Duchene and Bobby Ryan to injury for the foreseeable future is really going to hurt what has been a surprisingly good offense this season.

26. Florida Panthers — With better goaltending this season they may not be needing another second half surge just to get back into playoff contention.

Lose For Hughes

27. Los Angeles Kings — The worst goal scoring team in the league by a huge margin and the third-fewest shots on goal per game. They are redefining what bad offensive hockey is in this era.

28. Vancouver Canucks — Since starting the season 10-6-2 the Canucks have managed to go only 3-10-1 over their past 14 games. Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser are still studs, though.

29. New Jersey Devils — Taylor Hall has to be having flashbacks to his Oilers days.

30. St. Louis Blues — After getting blown out on Sunday the Blues sounded like a completely broken team. They are still better than their rivals.

31. Chicago Blackhawks — Maybe Jeremy Colliton goes on to be a good NHL head coach, but right now the decision to fire Quenneville just looks comical.

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.

Flames still face cap challenges after Lucic – Neal trade

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Calgary Flames faced a cap crunch with James Neal on the books, and they still face potential issues with Milan Lucic being traded in at $500K cheaper.

[More on the contract situations here, and Lucic vs. Neal on ice in this post.]

That’s a lot of money under most circumstances, but $500K goes fast in the modern NHL. In fact, $500K wouldn’t cover the minimum salary of a single player. Every dollar could end up counting for the Flames, so it’s nothing to sneeze at, but things could be tight nonetheless. It may even force someone other than Neal out of the fold.

While the Flames currently boast an estimated $9.973 million in cap space, according to Cap Friendly, that money will dry up quickly. They still need to hammer out deals for RFAs Matthew Tkachuk, David Rittich, Sam Bennett, and Andrew Mangiapane.

Really, would it shock you if Tkachuk and Rittich came in at $10M combined? Such costs are real considerations for the Flames, assuming they can’t convince Tkachuk to take a Kevin Labanc-ian discount.

In Ryan Pike’s breakdown of the cap situation for Flames Nation, he found that Calgary may still have trouble fitting everyone under the cap by his estimations, even if the Flames bought out overpriced defenseman Michael Stone. Buying out Stone seems like a good starting point as we consider some of the calls Treliving might need to make before the Flames’ roster is solidified.

Buying out Stone in August: Stone, 29, has one year left on a deal that carries a $3.5M cap hit and matching salary. If the Flames bought him out, they’d save $2.33M in 2019-20, as Stone’s buyout would register a cap hit of about $1.167M in 2019-20 and 2020-21.

As frustrating as it would be for the Flames to combine dead money in a Stone buyout with Troy Brouwer‘s buyout (remaining $1.5M for the next three seasons), it might just be necessary. Really, it might be the easiest decision of all.

Granted, maybe someone like the Senators would take on Stone’s contract if the Flames bribed them with picks and/or prospects, much like the Hurricanes did in taking Patrick Marleau off of the Maple Leafs’ hands?

Either way, there’s a chance Stone won’t be making $3.5M with the Flames next season.

Trade Sam Bennett’s rights? With things getting really snug, and the forward unlikely to justify being the fourth pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, maybe the Flames would be better off moving on by sending Bennett/his RFA rights to another team and filling that roster spot with a cheaper option?

If a team coughed up a decent pick and/or prospect for Bennett, assuming he needs a change of scenery, it could be a win for everyone. The Flames might not be comfortable about that yet with Bennett being 23, but it should at least be discussed.

Trade an expiring contract player? T.J. Brodie ($4.65M), Michael Frolik ($4.3M), and Travis Hamonic ($3.857M) all seem to be signed at reasonable prices, if not mild bargains. All three are only covered through 2019-20, however, making it reasonable to picture them as parts of various trade scenarios. In fact, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reports that the Flames were working on a potential deal involving Brodie and then-Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri, and Kadri admitted on “31 Thoughts” that he didn’t waive his clause to allow Calgary to trade for him.

***

Over the years, including this summer with LaBanc and Timo Meier signing sweet deals for the Sharks, sometimes RFAs take care off cap concerns for their teams. There are scenarios where such constraints actually help the given team land some discounts; it sure felt that way when the Bruins got a deal with Torey Krug back in 2016.

As of this writing, it seems like the Flames might face a tight squeeze in fitting under the cap.

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.

How Flames, Oilers might handle Lucic, Neal after big trade

Getty Images
Leave a comment

In the additional breakdown of the Milan LucicJames Neal trade, you might conclude that it’s basically a one-for-one deal, conditional draft pick aside. You can get an idea of how the two players are in remarkably similar places in their careers by reading the original breakdown.

Even their contracts look virtually the same … at least at first.

The players are close enough that it’s far from a guarantee that the Oilers will need to hand that third-rounder to their rivals in Calgary.

It’s only once you start digging deeper that you realize that, beyond James Neal being closer to his best days than Lucic, his contract is also a lot easier to deal with, for the most part. Once you start considering those factors, you might once again be surprised that the Oilers convinced the Flames to accept Lucic’s contract.

This was a case of two teams trading problems, and while both players have a decent chance to rebound to at least some extent, the true winner of this trade might be the team that can continue to clean up their messes.

To sort through the especially messy Lucic contract, you have to pull back your sleeves and get in the weeds. So, fair warning: this might make your brain melt a bit, but if you’re interested in what might happen next, these factors are important.

No movement, indeed

Lucic’s contract is an albatross deal for reasons that extend beyond Lucic not being worth $6M (and still not worth $5.25M) per year.

For one thing, while Lucic waived his no-movement clause to make this trade happen, it sounds like Lucic will retain his NMC … for some reason.

Frankly, if this is a matter of the Flames simply being nice, then they may rue such kindness in the future.

Most directly, if Lucic’s NMC is restored, then he might kabosh a trade down the line. Beyond that, there’s a scenario where the Flames might have to protect Lucic in an expansion draft, rather than someone more valuable. It’s possible that Lucic will return the Flames’ gesture by waiving his NMC in that situation (kind of like Marc-Andre Fleury doing the Penguins a solid in the Vegas expansion draft), yet the threat of complications can make you queasy.

Even if it works out, it all seems pretty messy to me. The other potential escape routes are messy for Calgary, too.

Easier to sell the deal than to buy it out

It’s been mentioned that the bonus-heavy structure of Lucic’s contract makes his deal almost “buyout proof.”

That’s pretty much true, as buying out Lucic would bring out marginal savings for the Flames, even if you move the buyout to a later year than the most immediate chance after next season.

Realistically, the most reasonable way Calgary might wiggle out of some of the tougher years of Lucic’s contract would be to find a team like the Senators: a franchise in place where they value contracts that don’t cost as much as their cap hits indicate. For example: the Flames could pay Lucic’s $3M bonus before 2020-21, then trade him to Ottawa, who would be credited with his $5.25M cap hit, even though they’d only be on the hook for the remaining $1M in base salary. That scenario would be even more appealing to a cost-conscious team in the last year of Lucic’s contract, so check Cap Friendly if you’re curious about other possibilities.

Unfortunately for Calgary, even if they found a buyer, they’d seemingly need to get Lucic to play ball. The veteran winger might not be so thrilled to go to a rebuilding team.

Ultimately, the Flames are taking a significant gamble that this Lucic situation will work out better than sticking with Neal. If not, people will point to Treliving taking on Lucic much like, well, Peter Chiarelli also gambling on the big winger.

*gulp*

Neal’s cleaner situation

Puck Pedia notes some potential twists and turns, but overall, the Oilers didn’t just get a player in closer proximity to his best times of production; Neal’s contract is, mostly, a lot easier to deal with. Even if it’s bad, too.

As you can see from Cap Friendly’s buyout calculator, a cap-strapped Oilers team could benefit from a buyout, including one as early as 2020:

Saving close to $4M for three seasons, even if it means tacking on almost $2M for the following two seasons, could easily make a lot of sense for the Oilers, if they determine that a Neal buyout is the right move.

In general, they have more control of the situation, as Neal’s contract lacks a no-movement or no-trade clause. That’s kind of tragic in a way, as Neal’s already bounced around the league like a pinball, but it’s nonetheless the case.

Granted, the one area where Lucic might be a more plausible trade clip is because there’s not really any smoke and mirrors with Neal’s contract. While Lucic’s bonus-soaked contract makes him difficult to buyout, his falling salary vs. cap hit appeals to certain rebuild scenarios. Neal, meanwhile, simply costs $5.75M each season.

Still, that lack of a no-movement clause reduces Edmonton’s odds of worst-case scenarios. For instance: the Oilers wouldn’t need to protect Neal in an expansion draft, which could open up moments of tragic comedy where Neal finds himself with a new team and an expansion franchise again.

Overall, a buyout seems most feasible, although there’s the outside chance that Neal rebounds to become a deadly sniper again alongside Connor McDavid and/or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

***

Every trade carries the tagline of “to be continued,” but this swap seems especially friendly to that caveat. Is the plan for the Flames, Oilers, or both of these teams to ultimately get rid of Neal and/or Lucic all along? If so, at what cost?

Maybe the play of Neal and Lucic will decide the “winner” of this trade, but most likely, it comes down to which team does the best job cleaning up the messes they’ve made.

Check out the original post for more on this trade, including a look at where Neal and Lucic are in their careers.

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.

Trade: Flames get Lucic; Oilers receive Neal

Getty Images
14 Comments

Call it a “change of scenery,” or probably most directly, trading problems. Either way, Alberta rivals the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers made a truly resounding trade on Friday, with the main takeaway being that Milan Lucic goes to the Flames, while James Neal is bound for Edmonton.

Yeah, wow.

Multiple reporters indicate that it’s close to one-for-one, although there are a few minor tweaks to consider.

The Calgary Herald’s Kristen Anderson reports that the Oilers are retaining 12.5 percent of Milan Lucic’s salary, which translates to $750K, while Edmonton is also sending Calgary a conditional third-round pick in 2020. It’s not clear yet what those conditions are.

If Anderson and others are correct, that means the trade boils down to:

Flames receive: Lucic, 31, minus $750K per year. That puts Lucic at $5.25M, with his contract running through 2022-23. Calgary also receives Edmonton’s 2020 third-round pick, if conditions are met.

Oilers receive: Neal, 31, who has a $5.75M cap hit that runs through 2022-23.

As you can see, the two players remain very similar in both cap hit, term, and even age. The Flames save $500K in cap space, while the Oilers add $500K, as Puck Pedia confirms.

Of course, when you’re talking about contracts teams largely want to get away from, it’s often about more than just cap hits. There are some significant ins and outs to that side of the discussion, including Lucic’s deal being essentially “buyout proof.” Neal, meanwhile, would be easier for the Oilers to buy out, if they decide to do that after an audition with the team.

On Saturday, PHT will try to wade through the variety of paths the two teams could take, whether it means sticking with Lucic and Neal respectively, or going for a buyout or trade. For now, let’s consider where they are in their careers.

Lucic’s tough times

After a productive first season in Edmonton where Lucic scored 23 goals and 50 points in 2016-17, Lucic plummeted down the depth chart and in production. This past season was rock bottom, as Lucic scored just six goals and 20 points in 79 games.

The bet on Lucic, some might say in part leading to the dreadful Taylor Hall trade, stands as one of the landmark gaffes of Peter Chiarelli’s Era of Error in Edmonton. It was clear that both the player and team needed to part ways, so now there’s at least peace in that regard.

A bumpy path for Neal, and brutal times in Calgary

Whether you like Neal – a player who absolutely goes over the line at times, when he loses his cool – or not, it’s tough not to feel for him after the last several years.

He was traded from the Stars to the Penguins in 2011, scapegoated a bit out of Pittsburgh on his way to Nashville in 2014, then scooped up by Vegas in the 2017 expansion draft, only to sign with the Flames (possibly in a relatively lukewarm free agent market) last summer. Now this trade sends Neal to Edmonton, making this the 31-year-old’s sixth NHL team, and his fourth in his past four seasons. Players as productive as Neal – aside from last season’s meltdown – rarely become journeymen like this.

Honestly, should we just get his nameplate ready for the Seattle [Unfortunately Not Supersonics] right now?

Despite that upheaval, Neal had been a guy who could score goals nonetheless. He peaked with 40 during his best days with Malkin in Pittsburgh (an 81-point output in 2011-12), but he sniped in multiple climates, generating 20+ goals in 10 consecutive seasons.

And then this Calgary season happened.

Neal never clicked with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, as Elias Lindholm instead took that plum gig. Neal slipped lower and lower in the lineup, sometimes becoming a healthy scratch, and ended 2018-19 with Lucic-like numbers (though in fewer games), as Neal managed only seven goals and 19 points. He was also an all-around disaster, as you can see from RAPM charts via Evolving Hockey that argue that, in some ways, Lucic was actually better last season, as Lucic at least wasn’t as much of a defensive disaster as Neal. Faint praise, but still:

Better times ahead, maybe?

Again, it’s easy to forget that both wingers are 31.

That’s not a great age to be when your contract looks inflated, but there’s also a chance that maybe both could turn things around, at least to some degree. With Neal closer to more productive seasons than Lucic, he’d seem to be a more likely candidate, especially if his rifle of a shot pairs nicely with Connor McDavid‘s all-world playmaking.

But both players have a shot at positive regression. Neal’s five percent shooting percentage from 2018-19 marked the only time in his career that he’s been below 10.4 percent, while Lucic shot at 6.8 in 2017-18 and 8.1 in 2018-19, compared to his career average of 13.5 percent.

Modest rebounds wouldn’t guarantee that either Neal or Lucic sticks around in their new climates. Improvements might just make each forward easier to trade, and more palatable to keep around while looking for trades. There’s simply a lot of room for “to be continued” elements to this move, from buyouts to trades and more.

***

As discussed above, there could still be twists and turns in these sagas, and some of those possibilities will be examined on Saturday. Yet, at this moment in time, this seems like the rare trade win for the Oilers. Maybe this is the start of a positive pattern now that Ken Holland is GM?

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.

Trouba gets seven-year, $56 million deal from Rangers

Getty Images
5 Comments

The New York Rangers have locked up Jacob Trouba with a seven-year, $56 million contract.

Trouba saw his restricted free agent rights acquired by the Rangers last month from the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for defenseman Neal Pionk and 2019 first-round pick (Ville Heinola). General manager Jeff Gorton added up front by bringing Artemi Panarin to Broadway on July 1, so you knew that they were going to eventually come to an agreement to keep the 25-year-old defenseman in the fold following the June trade as they bulk up for a run in 2019-20.

“They’re building a winner tends to be the vibe I’ve gotten,” said Trouba following the trade to New York. “They treat the players first class. It’s very first-class organization. I mean, it’s New York so you’ve got a big stage and they expect a lot out of their team. We want to ultimately get to the Stanley Cup.”

 

Earlier this month Trouba had elected salary arbitration and had a July 25 date scheduled. But that was merely a formality to allow extra time for both sides to hammer out a deal.

According to PuckPedia, $22 million will be paid to Trouba over the next three seasons via signing bonuses and he has a no-move clause from 2020-21 to 2023-24 and a limited no-trade clause in the final two years of the deal.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The ninth overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, Trouba has spent the last six seasons with the Jets, playing 408 games and recording 42 goals and 179 points. In 2018-19 he set a career high with 50 points, making him the ninth defenseman 25 or younger to hit that mark in the past three seasons.

Gorton still has work to do this summer in deciding whether to re-sign RFAs Pavel Buchnevich (July 29 arbitration hearing), Brendan Lemieux and Tony DeAngelo, while working around the salary cap, which after this signing puts them over the ceiling. This could end up leading to a trade of Chris Kreider, who’s entering the final year of this deal carrying a $4.625 million cap hit but owed $4 million in salary for the coming season. They also have a 48-hour buyout window later this summer as well even if they settle with Buchnevich before his hearing.

MORE: Jets were never going to get enough for Trouba

————

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.