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Another Blue Jackets trade deadline riddle involves Duchene, Wennberg

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The Columbus Blue Jackets face the sort of conundrums that would stump “Good Will Hunting,” and that messy blackboard isn’t just filled with equations about Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Although, come to think of it, maybe the Blue Jackets might find a solution for this Panarin proof in an indirect way.

In discussing Columbus possibly going after Matt Duchene in the latest edition of 31 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman brought up a name many of us haven’t really pondered in a while: Alexander Wennberg. Specifically, Friedman wrote that he believes “Columbus’s offer for Duchene screams Alexander Wennberg as part of it.”

That’s a fascinating observation. Also fascinating, if frustrating, is the question: “What is going on with Wennberg?”

The 24-year-old is suffering through a downright disastrous 2018-19 season.

Yes, Wennberg’s clearly more of a passer, but two goals (none at even-strength) is still troubling, and totaling 23 points in 58 games is disappointing. After averaging at least 18:08 TOI during the past two seasons, Wennberg’s slipped to third-line center in Columbus, logging just 15:46 minutes per night, the second-worst average of his career.

The telltale sign of a miserable season is seen in his atrocious 3.6 shooting percentage, more than anything else.

It’s becoming almost a rule to wave NHL GMs off with the motto: “Simply don’t move prominent young players when their shooting percentages are way down,” but Wennberg’s situation is especially confounding. Allow me to rummage through the many ins and outs.

  • It’s not just bad puck luck.

For a passer such as Wennberg, it can be helpful to consider on-ice shooting percentage, not just his personal shooting luck. While Wennberg’ 8.3 on-ice shooting percentage is a big drop from last year’s career-high of 10.6, it’s not that far off from his career average of 8.9 percent.

When considering bounces, it’s tougher to let a player off the hook when they’re not creating a ton of them.

Wennberg hasn’t even generated a shot on goal per game this season, only managing 55 in 58 games, marking a career-low of .95 SOG per contest. He’s never been a volume-shooter, yet perhaps opposing defenders are so convinced that he won’t shoot, that it may also affect his ability to set up linemates? On Feb. 3, The Athletic’s Tom Reed wondered how much longer Columbus could wait through Wennberg’s offensive struggles (sub required), featuring this bummer of a quote from Wennberg.

“You gotta create your own luck and right now I don’t have any,” Wennberg said.

  • Opportunities

On one hand, Wennberg’s ice time is down. If John Tortorella has permanently soured on the Swede, then that’s a big concern.

Yet, it’s not as though Wennberg’s totally buried in the lineup. While he’s generally slotting in at 3C, Wennberg’s most frequent even-strength wingers have been Anthony Duclair and Oliver Bjorkstrand, according to Natural Stat Trick. Duclair’s speed and Bjorkstrand’s goal-scoring potential give Wennberg something to work with, if nothing else.

He’s also been on the second power-play unit, and it’s a group with reasonable talent, considering its secondary stature. You could do worse than lining up with the likes of Seth Jones, Bjorkstrand, Boone Jenner, and Josh Andersen, as Wennberg is currently slated to do.

It’s not a perfect situation, but Wennberg’s also not being healthy scratched and glued to the bench, either.

  • A few other notes

This in-depth breakdown from Jackets Cannon compares Wennberg to some other players like Max Domi, Dylan Larkin, and Jonathan Drouin, pointing to a potential future turnaround. At the same time, that profile also brings into question one area where Wennberg may still shine: his two-way game.

A few days ago, The Athletic’s Alison Lukan did point out ($) that Wennberg does bring decent under-the-radar attributes to the table, such as his ability to initiate an effective forecheck, and his acumen when it comes to exiting the defensive zone.

Columbus has seen better days from Wennberg, after all. He managed 40 points in just 69 games in 2015-16, then rattled off career-highs of 13 goals, 46 assists, and 59 points in 80 games in 2016-17 (the only season he’s exceeded 69 GP so far in an NHL season). There was a time when it seemed like Wennberg was on an upward trajectory, although those feelings have faded.

  • The Matt Duchene solution?

Trading for Duchene becomes immensely fascinating in at least one scenario: what if Columbus moves on from Panarin, but trades and then extends Duchene, instead?

On one hand, Panarin makes a bigger impact than Duchene by various measures, particularly if you zoom out beyond what’s been a fairly hot contract year for Duchene. On the other, it seems clear that Panarin is unlikely to return, so Columbus could avoid losing Panarin for nothing (except $6M in cap space) by pivoting to Duchene. Instead of the giant collapse that would be going from losing Panarin for nothing but that cap space, they could instead take the more palatable step back to Duchene, likely at a substantial increase from that $6M per year.

If Duchene was on board to sign an extension with Columbus, trading away Wennberg and his $4.9M cap hit through 2022-23 would make sense even if Wennberg does bounce back considerably from this slump. The Blue Jackets could also recoup some of the costs in landing Duchene if they decided to move on from Panarin.

Interestingly, there are quite a few ways that could work out. Maybe the Blue Jackets find a way to keep both Panarin and Duchene for a big push in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Perhaps they decide that renting Duchene and moving on from Wennberg would be the best move?

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Consider one other amusing wrinkle to this situation. Reports indicate that Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen wasn’t on board with potential trade partners discussing possible extensions with Artemi Panarin (at least earlier, such as during the offseason, and before the trade deadline heated up). Now, it’s tougher to gauge the value of a potential Duchene-to-Columbus trade without knowing if the speedy center would sign an extension.

Whether a Duchene trade is likely or not, the Blue Jackets need to really dig to find out if Wennberg’s really worth keeping around, or if it’s best for everyone if he has a “change of scenery” — if some other team would even be on board with buying low on the playmaker.

“When or if to move Wennberg?” is not the toughest question Kekalainen faces, but it’s consistent with the Panarin and Bob conundrums in that it’s pretty complicated.

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.

Healthy Ekman-Larsson ready to give Coyotes a playoff boost

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Oliver Ekman-Larsson had knee surgery last summer, fully expecting it to help him have a healthy 2019-20 season.

The Arizona Coyotes captain instead played with lingering pain, never able to fully recover.

The NHL’s shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic was a huge letdown, but it at least allowed Ekman-Larsson time to get back to full strength.

”These 2 1/2 months have been really good for me,” he said during a conference call this week. ”My knee is feeling 100% and I’ve been able to get stronger and faster.”

Ekman-Larsson had another solid season in 2018-19, finishing second on the team with 44 points with 14 goals. He was named to the NHL All-Star team for the fifth time and continued to be one of the NHL’s best offensive defensemen.

Ekman-Larsson opted to have offseason knee surgery to help with another lower-body injury and never was quite right this season, his 10th in the NHL.

The break allowed him time to heal, as did a trip back to his home in Sweden.

Unlike Arizona, Sweden did not go on lockdown once the pandemic hit and Ekman-Larsson took advantage, using the time to heal physically and mentally.

”With this virus going around, I haven’t felt so good mentally,” he said. ”Going back home and being around my family really helped that situation. I benefited from the physical part of being away. For the mental part, it was nice to get away from it.”

The Coyotes returned to the ice this week to prepare for the resumption of the season.

The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced Monday a tentative deal on a return-to-play format. Should it be ratified, the league will resume play on Aug. 1 with 24 teams proceeding in an expanded playoff format at two hub cities in Canada.

The Coyotes, the West’s No. 11 seed, will open against Nashville in a best-of-five series in their first postseason appearance since reaching the 2012 Western Conference Finals.

”It just feels like it’s a different game,” said Ekman-Larsson, the lone remaining player from the 2012 team. ”Everybody feels faster and stronger. I don’t know how it’s even possible, but at the same time it’s another level.

”I’m glad that I’ve had the chance to be in the playoffs before. There’s so many good teams and you don’t really know when you are going to have the chance.”

The Coyotes have a chance to make a little noise once they get there.

Ekman-Larsson is healthy, as is Phil Kessel, who struggled with injuries after being traded from Pittsburgh before the season. Arizona also has one of the best goaltending tandems in Antti Raanta and Darcy Keumper, who are both healthy as well.

”For us to get a chance and show that we are good enough to be a playoff team, I think that’s huge for our group moving forward,” Ekman-Larsson said.

A healthy Ekman-Larsson gives them an opportunity to keep moving forward.

Chris Pronger leaves senior VP of hockey ops role with Panthers

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The Panthers announced on Wednesday that Chris Pronger is leaving his role as senior vice president of hockey operations and senior advisor. The Hockey Hall of Famer joined the organization in 2017 after spending three years in the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.

“I want to personally thank the Viola family, Doug Cifu, Dale Tallon and all of the staff with the Florida Panthers,” said Pronger via a team statement. “I was able to grow as an executive and more importantly as a person in my three years with the hockey club. I wish the Panthers organization nothing but the best in the upcoming playoffs and years to come.”

Pronger is moving on to focus on the company he runs with his wife, Lauren. Well Inspired Travels “caters to elite athletes, C-Level executives and business owners.”

The Panthers are currently preparing for their Stanley Cup Qualifier series against the Islanders, which is set to begin next month.

MORE:
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft lottery results

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: NHLPA Executive Board backs RTP, CBA agreement

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The NHLPA’s Executive Board has approved the tentative Return to Play and Collective Bargaining Agreement. Now things move to the full union membership vote for ratification. Voting, which is by secret, electronic ballot, begins Wednesday and will end Friday. [NHLPA]

• Inside the NHL bubble: testing, what could cause postponement [PHT]

Justin Williams on coming back to the Hurricanes for one last run: “I didn’t come back to play 20 games. I came back for a chance to win a Stanley Cup.” [News and Observer]

• “Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr found sensible solutions to shared problems without resorting to any of the hostility or grandstanding these negotiations are typically known for. They and their respective leadership teams started meeting out of the spotlight last summer before recalibrating on the fly and piecing together the framework for this agreement amid a health crisis that poses a significant threat to their industry and many others.” [Sportsnet]

• Will any NHL players opt out of the Return to Play? [The Hockey News]

• These X-factors will shape the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. [ESPN]

• “Lawyers for the NHL Players’ Association are scheduled to appear by video conference before an Ontario judge Tuesday in an effort to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a former union employee who alleges the NHLPA covered up a theft of more than $100,000 in union funds by one of its executives.” [TSN]

• It doesn’t sound like Jake DeBrusk, a pending RFA, will be looking for a hometown discount this off-season. [NBC Sports Boston]

• Who is the No. 1 goalie and will rust be a factor are just a couple of questions facing the Penguins ahead of their series vs. Montreal. [Pensburgh]

• Are the Predators better served hoping to win the No. 1 pick or advancing by the Coyotes? [A to Z Sports Nashville]

• The Oilers are deeper than their solid special teams units. [Oilers Nation]

• A long-term knee injury could keep Juuso Valimaki out of the Flames’ lineup next month. [Flames Nation]

• On the challenges facing Flyers veterans after a long break. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

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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.

IIHF encouraged by NHL’s potential return to Olympics in ’22

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International Ice Hockey Federation chief Rene Fasel is encouraged after learning the NHL’s pending labor deal opens the possibility of the world’s best players returning to the Olympics.

Aside from the uncertainty raised by the coronavirus pandemic, Fasel told The Associated Press he doesn’t foresee any major stumbling blocks that could derail negotiations leading up to the 2022 Beijing Games.

“No, I don’t think there’s a deal-breaker,” he said Tuesday. “There are a lot of challenges. But I think in principle, I would say the news that that’s in the CBA, for me and especially international hockey, is very good news.”

Fasel spoke a day after the NHL and NHL Players’ Association tentatively agreed to extend the collective bargaining agreement for four years, which would run through the 2025-26 season.

A person with direct knowledge of the agreement told the AP it includes a provision that would allow NHL players to compete at the next two Winter Games, including the 2026 Olympics in Italy. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the contents of the CBA were not released.

The league participated in five consecutive Olympics before skipping the 2018 Games in South Korea.

In order to return, the NHL and its players would first have to resolve various outstanding issues — including health insurance, travel costs and marketing rights — with the IIHF and the International Olympic Committee.

Travel costs alone to Pyeongchang two years ago were projected to be $15 million, which the IOC refused to pay. The NHL was also denied control of using Olympic game footage to promote the league and players. Another concern was weighing the benefits of shutting down the regular season for two weeks only to have Olympic games being played in the early morning hours in North America due to the 14-hour time difference; a similar time difference would be present for 2022.

Fasel acknowledged the NHL’s concerns and said he was encouraged after the parties had what he called “a very positive meeting” in New York in early February. Follow-up discussions were placed on hold due to the pandemic.

“We didn’t give up after Pyeongchang. We understood the situation, how it was at that time. No bad feelings,” he said. “We really hope it will come in ’22, and we are ready to work and find a solution.”

The NHL and union have declined to discuss the proposed CBA until it is approved, which could happen as early as Friday.

Carolina Hurricanes veteran forward Justin Williams called the Olympic proposal “really attractive.”

“I just think it’s great for the game of hockey to be able to showcase the best players,” Williams said. “The Olympics are a special event in itself, but having NHL players there, even as actual players, we love to see the best on best. That’s pretty special.”

USA Hockey executive director Pat Kelleher said he was thrilled by the possibility of being to put together a team with NHL players, which could include rising young stars such as Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau and Seth Jones.

“It’s exciting to consider the team of Americans that could represent our country in Beijing, and we applaud the efforts of the NHL and the NHLPA in making this a possibility,” Kelleher said.

The NHL previously tamped down the chances of returning to Olympic play.

“At this point in time, we believe that the negatives outweigh the positives,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said following the February meeting in New York. Daly did raise the prospect of folding Olympic participation into CBA talks.

NHLPA executive director Don Fehr had a different take on talks with the IOC and IIHF, saying: “The impression I had coming out of the meeting was there ought to be a way to get this done to everybody’s satisfaction.”

Fehr previously described the decision to skip the 2018 Games as a lost opportunity to showcase the sport.

Fasel, whose term as IIHF president was extended a year to September 2021, praised the NHL and players for addressing the Olympics in the CBA.

“We do not have leverage, and we just have to get the PA and the NHL to understand this is good for the promotion of the sport, especially in Asia,” Fasel said. “I’m happy that in the end they understand this is important for the development of ice hockey in the future.”