Predators top Kings, take over top spot in Central

The Nashville Predators, at least for now, are back on top of the Central Division standings.

Thanks to their 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday night they were able to reclaim first place by temporarily jumping over the Winnipeg Jets.

Yes, it is true that the Predators probably haven’t been playing their best hockey as of late and still have a lot of room to improve before the playoffs begin. And yes, it is also true the Jets still have three games in hand on the Predators as of Thursday, so this position might prove to be short-lived.

But the recent slump of the Jets has put the division back up for grabs and the Predators look poised to try and take advantage of that situation.

Especially given what their upcoming schedule looks like.

After effectively shutting down a Kings team that is going nowhere on Thursday, the Predators continue their current home stand against a fading Colorado Avalanche team and then get to play Edmonton two nights later.

After that, they have head-to-head matchups against St. Louis and Winnipeg, which are followed by back-to-back games against a Minnesota Wild team that has gone into sellers mode ahead of the trade deadline.

They not only have some favorable matchups in front of them, but they also have an opportunity to really gain some ground and create some distance for themselves by playing the teams they are directly competing with. Nothing is a guarantee, obviously, but the opportunity is there.

You also have to assume that general manager David Poile is going to be active ahead of the NHL trade deadline as he has a rare luxury that most Stanley Cup contenders do not have — salary cap space. And a lot of it.

As for Thursday’s game, it Kyle Turris and Roman Josi that provided the offense for the Predators, while starting goalie Pekka Rinne stopped 28 of the 29 shots he faced.

Josi’s goal, which proved to be the game-winner, was an especially beautiful play that was set up by Viktor Arvidsson.

Thursday’s loss extended the Kings’ current losing streak to six games and leaves them in the bottom spot in the Western Conference.

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.

Auston Matthews is on NHL 20 cover, but what’s in the game?

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EA Sports didn’t just reveal that Auston Matthews will be the cover star for the latest iteration of their hockey video games, NHL 20. They also shared some fascinating information about how it will be different from NHL 19, beyond Matthews taking over for P.K. Subban as the cover star.

With that release, and also details Game Informer’s Matt Bertz recently gleaned from a meeting during the video game conference E3, EA Sports isn’t just revealing who is on the cover of the game, but what’s going to be in the game.

(If I’m not laying it on thick enough: EA Sports’ slogan is “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game.” The best jokes are definitely the ones you immediately need to explain.)

If you follow online discourse about sports video games, you’ll probably come across some harsh criticisms, which can sometimes feel unfair to developers who have to pump out annual sports titles, and it seems especially unfair to the NHL crew in Vancouver, as they don’t enjoy the same resources as teams working on, say, the latest Madden.

With that caveat in mind, the tweaks EA Sports is making in NHL 20 sound reasonably ambitious. Let’s ponder a few details, while you can really dive in at Game Informer.

Embracing star power

One of the most prescient criticisms of the recent EA NHL games is that star players often don’t stand out enough from their peers.

The easiest way to tweak that would be to alter the ratings system, thus making great players stand out from the good, and maybe most importantly, good players stand out more than ones who are mediocre or even bad. Having rosters full of competent players, like see 80’s up and down virtually every lineup, doesn’t square well with the salary cap era, where sometimes teams are sending out overmatched depth players and merely hoping they don’t get swamped too badly.

Fixing that is a tough task, but NHL 20 uses an interesting idea we sometimes see in NBA2K games: unique animations for star players.

In general, more animations also seems to push toward a game that feels more like the real thing … at least, that’s the plan. Via the release:

The cutting-edge Real Player Motion (RPM) Tech continues to evolve the way that gamers showcase their mastery. This year’s gameplay introduces Signature Shots that replicate the most recognizable shot styles of the biggest NHL stars, including PK Subban’s booming slapshot wind-up, Auston Matthews’ half toe-drag wrist shot, and Alex Ovechkin’s seamless one-timer. Hundreds of new shot animations allow for more dangerous attacks, and RPM Tech-powered overhauls to passing and puck pick-ups create a faster and more fluid game that can be executed at full speed to replicate real NHL action. New goaltender A.I. includes a full offensive threat analysis, allowing netminders to read and react to the development and threat level of each zone entry.

Game Informer’s article indicates that EA will add 10-15 signature shots. At first blush, that might feel underwhelming, but I personally think it’s a great starting point.

If you want to kill some time, feel free to list way more than 15 signature shots for active players in the comments. I’d be super-curious to find out where people tap out.

More tweaks

Let’s list off some of the tweaks that are reportedly coming.

  • Your team can be a “Bunch of Jerks” with post-win celebrations in a few different modes. On that note: as great as Matthews is as a cover choice – seriously, well done, and Subban was too – it would have been bold to work the “Storm Surge” into the NHL 20 cover instead. EA should make a special collectors edition with that cover and swim in the ‘Canes cash.
  • Fixing one of the most glaring omissions, NHL 20’s franchise mode will include coaches, and in fact a “coaching carousel” of eight coaches: four on your NHL team, four on your AHL affiliate. Sadly, the coaches won’t be licensed, which means we’ll be deprived of digi-Bruce Boudreau, Joel Quenneville’s lush, polygonal mustache, and angry John Tortorella press conferences. Not to mention the pleasure of complaining about coaches’ ratings, when we get bored with complaining about player ratings. Maybe for NHL 21?
  • I’m weary of the series’ still-fairly-new player morale system, and NHL 20 seems primed to add line chemistry, and also to have coaches affect morale. Those are good ideas, and the promising news is that, generally, the games let you turn those factors off if you don’t like the implementation.
  • There are a bunch of EASHL/etc. tweaks that mostly went over my head (microtransactions are bad, kids), but devotees of those modes should read up.
  • Making Ones something you can play on your couch, with a friend, is a no-brainer. Hopefully no friendships, controllers, or furniture will be damaged.

Now, for some, it’s about the changes that aren’t coming in NHL 20.

And, yes, I can bicker with the best of them on certain factors. It doesn’t sound like the board play is being tweaked, which means more aggravating “suction”-type action into the boards if you’re in the area of the AI.

But, honestly, the games are fine for what they are, if you keep your expectations fair, and it sounds like NHL 20 will add some nice features, from the small to … the medium-sized. Not bad, but we’ll see how well EA actually executes on those ideas when the game comes out on Playstation 4 and Xbox One on Sept. 13.

(Now, if only EA would port those games to Nintendo’s Switch …)

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.

Trading Tyson Barrie sounds like a bad idea for Avalanche

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This already-fascinating offseason serves as a warning to NHL teams: be proactive with key players’ next contracts, because if you leave it until the last minute, you could get burned.

Look at what almost feels like city-wide anxiety in Toronto over the RFA future of young star Mitch Marner. Soak in the agonizingly paltry return the Jets received for Jacob Trouba, which was maybe bound to be bad.

Yet, sometimes when a trend forms, there’s also a risk of overcorrection. The Colorado Avalanche face a risk if they get too hasty and trade underrated defenseman Tyson Barrie.

The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun passes along word (sub required for full post) from at least one anonymous Eastern Conference executive that the Avalanche are at least listening to offers about Barrie, a 27-year-old defenseman whose bargain $5.5 million cap hit expires after the 2019-20 season. LeBrun didn’t indicate that a trade is necessarily imminent, but added, “it certainly sounds possible.”

Now, let me say this before I dive deeper: there are scenarios where it could make sense to trade Tyson Barrie.

Someone like Winnipeg Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers might make sense, as he’s young, and not only similarly priced, but locked up at $6M AAV through 2024-25. Ehlers would be a wonderful fit for a Colorado offense that could use some support beyond their mega top line, and his wonderful transition skills would be absolutely terrifying in high-elevation home games in Colorado.

(Seriously, if that happens, pray for any defensemen without the cardio of an elite cyclist.)

But, occasional examples aside … I can’t say I love the logic of moving Barrie, especially if it’s about the Avalanche’s blueline being too crowded with right-handed defensemen, as LeBrun indicates because of Cale Makar (he’s very good!) and Erik Johnson (eh).

First, consider that Barrie is really good, and then realize that the Avalanche are in a situation where they can almost certainly afford to extend him.

Barrie good

The Avalanche have been crawling back up to relevance in recent years, which means that people have probably been sleeping on just how strong a player Barrie is, particularly at that affordable $5.5M clip.

Last season, Barrie generated an outstanding 14 goals and 59 points in 78 games, hitting 14 goals and 50+ points for the second season in a row (he managed 57 points in 2017-18, which is actually pretty astounding because he only played in 68 games). Barrie hit 53 points in 2014-15, so while his numbers are undoubtedly juiced a bit by being the guy often on the ice when Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen are ruling the world, it’s not as though Barrie is a mere bystander.

Since 2013-14, Barrie’s 294 points ranks eighth among NHL defensemen, tying him with P.K. Subban (in one fewer game played), and leaving Barrie ahead of the likes of Torey Krug, Kris Letang, Drew Doughty, and Alex Pietrangelo. If you look at the past two seasons, Barrie’s 116 points ranks him sixth among blueliners, and just one behind Victor Hedman.

Chances are, a lot of hockey fans didn’t know that Barrie has been that prolific, and he isn’t just scoring points. Barrie passes just about every test, often with flying colors.

You can see that he’s an important all-around defenseman when you ponder routinely strong possession stats, particularly compared to Avalanche teammates. If you prefer a visual aid, consider how he compares on this GAR chart (visualization by Sean Tierney, data by Evolving Hockey), which also speaks kindly to Samuel Girard‘s impact:

Barrie outclasses Erik Johnson in the transition game, already, and that should only become more pronounced as the two age (Barrie, again, is 27, while Johnson is 31).

Maybe you can get really granular and claim that Barrie isn’t as strong defensively as (insert high-profile defenseman), but you’d really have to start stretching to find ways to badmouth a player who’s just … really good.

And, here’s a rule of thumb: teams probably shouldn’t trip over their feet trying to find ways to get rid of their really good players. That might sound painfully obvious, but NHL teams sometimes make moves that defy logic, so it has to be said.

Because, frankly, the Avalanche are in a great position to just keep Barrie around, and bask in the competitive advantage.

Plenty of space, and plenty more opening up

One thing that’s really exciting about the Avalanche is that, thanks to MacKinnon’s outrageous bargain contract, Gabriel Landeskog still being affordable for a bit, Philipp Grubauer being primed to provide very nice value for two more seasons, and one year of Barrie, they really have a lot of values on their books.

While Rantanen’s second contract will certainly be a steep upgrade, the Avalanche are still in a pretty comfortable place, as Cap Friendly estimates their pre-Rantanen cap space at a bit more than $36 million, assuming it lands at $82M.

Even with Rantanen primed to possibly bump that space closer to $26M, the Avalanche are in an enviable cap situation both now, and really in the next few years.

Along with best-in-class bargains for the likes of MacKinnon, the Avalanche also: get two more entry-level years out of Makar, one more out of Girard, and also stand to get below-market value from the fourth overall pick of 2019, whether that prospect makes the immediate jump or Colorado has them marinate at a lower level for a year or two.

If that isn’t enough to impress upon the Avalanche that they should be adding, not subtracting a player like Barrie, consider some of the less-ideal money that will go away. Carl Soderberg‘s $4.75M is gone after 2019-20, while Ian Cole ($4.25M) and Matt Calvert ($2.85M) see deals expire after 2020-21.

Carl Soderberg at $4.75M is simply too much, but that deal goes away after next season. Ian Cole is also an issue at $4.25M, but only through 2020-21. Even Matt Calvert’s $2.85M through 2020-21 will be better used elsewhere. That’s almost $12M that can go toward new deals for Barrie, Makar, and other younger players.

So … if the Avalanche can trade Barrie for a comparable player, shouldn’t they just keep Barrie around? Really, shouldn’t they be eager to do so? Defensemen like Barrie don’t exactly grow on trees.

Really, if anything, the Avalanche should be exploring avenues to move Johnson, instead. At 31, his value is only likely to decline, so the already-shaky prospect of paying him $6M gets pretty scary as it goes along, being that Johnson’s deal runs through 2022-23. Traditional-thinking NHL teams love big tough defensemen with pedigree, so it wouldn’t be that shocking if the Avs were able to get the first pick of the 2006 NHL Draft off of their books in hopes of keeping younger, faster, better players.

***

Barrie isn’t a household name, even in many hockey households, but he’s an excellent defenseman. For a young, speedy team like the Avalanche, he’s honestly an incredible fit.

Sometimes there are fair deals out there, and Barrie would likely draw interest. It’s just uncomfortably easy to imagine the Avalanche on the wrong end of such a trade.

Then again, the Avalanche have taken lemons and made lemonade, such as with the staggeringly brilliant return for Matt Duchene, so maybe they’d win an Ehlers trade, too? Colorado is on the short list of teams that might actually pull that off … but generally speaking, I’d just try to keep Barrie around.

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.

Edler inks two-year extension with Canucks

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Scratch another potential name off the unrestricted free agent list.

On Thursday morning, the Vancouver Canucks announced that they had signed veteran defenseman Alex Edler to a two-year contract extension. The deal comes with an annual average value of $6 million. Edler and fellow Swede Loui Eriksson are tied for the highest cap hit on the team.

This deal appears to make sense for both sides, as Edler will be fairly compensated financially and the Canucks didn’t have to give a 33-year-old player with a long injury history a third year on his new contract.

According to Sportsnet’s Rick Dhaliwal, this deal might include a no-trade claude but the Canucks could still opt to leave him exposed in the expansion draft.

“Alex is important to our team and has played as the cornerstone of our defence throughout his career,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning said in a release. “He’s a leader with tremendous experience, plays important minutes and contributes to every part of our team game. We’re very pleased for Alex and his family that he’ll continue his career as a Vancouver Canuck.”

Edler had 10 goals and 34 points in just 56 games with Vancouver last season. Although he’s always been effective, he’s missed at least eight games in each of the last six seasons. He hasn’t suited up in all 82 games since the 2011-12 season. But it’s easy to see why Benning wanted to keep him in the fold.

Besides the fact that he’s still a good player, he’s also one of the key veterans on a team that features many young players like Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and others. Having that veteran presence around the ice and in the locker room can only help the Canucks going forward.

You know who must be thrilled about this news? Jake Gardiner. The Maple Leafs defenseman is set to become a free agent on July 1st, and with Erik Karlsson and Edler off the board any team looking for a puck-moving defenseman will have to open up the vault for Gardiner’s services. Sure, Gardiner was going to get paid no matter what, but the fact that there’s one less defender on the market won’t hurt his case.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

How should Oilers approach Puljujarvi situation?

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Oilers general manager Ken Holland has been on the job for less than two months, but he already has a major fire to put out. What will Holland do about Jesse Puljujarvi saying he doesn’t want to be an Oiler anymore? This should be fascinating to watch.

On Wednesday, Puljujarvi’s agent, Markus Lehto, told Sportsnet that his client isn’t interested in playing another game for the Oilers. To make matters worse for Edmonton, Lehto went on to say that the 21-year-old forward would continue his playing career in Europe if the Oilers decided not to trade him to another NHL team.

It’s fair to say that the Oilers have mishandled Puljujarvi’s career to this point. It’s not Holland’s fault that the previous regime kept the young Finn in the NHL and AHL as an 18-year-old, but he’s here picking up the pieces of this mess. The former fourth overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft had just eight points in 28 games with the Oilers in his first year. He also suited up in 39 games in the minors (he had 28 points).

Clearly, Puljujarvi wasn’t ready for what the Oilers threw his way at that time. The organization didn’t do a good job of assessing whether or not he was ready for North American hockey and the North American lifestyle. Allowing him to continue developing in Finland would’ve been the wise choice. Instead, they’ve allowed him to bounce between the NHL and the AHL over the last three years. Last season, he put up just nine points in 45 games.

So what can they do to salvage this situation? Holland knows that the other 30 general managers in the league can sniff out a desperate situation when they see one. But it doesn’t sound like the veteran GM will panic or allow anyone to force him into making a bad deal.

“At the end of the day, if you can do a deal that makes sense for the Edmonton Oilers, you do it,” said Holland. “If you can’t, you go over (to Europe) and watch him play, and hopefully he scores a lot of goals over there.”

Obviously Holland doesn’t want to see an important asset head over to Finland, but he has to say the things he said so that he doesn’t paint himself into a corner. Let’s be realistic though, Puljujarvi is still young and his upside is still sky-high, but he isn’t as valuable as he was when he was 18 years old. Even if he won’t admit it, Holland knows that. Nobody would give up a top five pick to acquire him. That’s reality.

So Holland has to make sure that he gets an intriguing asset(s) back that could help the Oilers immediately or in the very near future. Yes, Holland is just starting this new gig, but Oilers fans are fed up of being patient. They’ll be looking for some positive results as soon as next season. And if you’re Holland, you probably want to make Connor McDavid happy as quickly as possible. Turning Puljujarvi into an asset that can help you soon enough would be a good start. On the flip side, he’s definitely worth more than an average prospect or a middle-round pick. There’s a balance that interested teams will have to find if they’re going to make a deal with the Oilers.

Nobody wins if a talented youngster leaves the NHL to return to Finland. The Oilers would be missing out on a decent return for him and another team would be missing out on possibly adding a 6-foot-4 winger with offensive upside. All sides should find a way to make this work in North America.

So if you’re Holland, the plan should be simple. If you get a respectable offer from another team, you pull the trigger on a trade and you accommodate a young man who has been mishandled by a previous regime. If you don’t, let Puljujarvi go back to Europe. Maybe he’ll go there and have a change of heart at some point, but that should be the last resort.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.