One tweak for Blues’ putrid playoff power play

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Teams might look at power-play goals as a luxury, at least during the playoffs.

The Boston Bruins, aka owners of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs’ only active unit that’s actually regularly productive, can attest. Despite investing in Tomas Kaberle during the 2011 trade deadline, the Bruins’ power play struggled to the point that people wondered if Kaberle should be benched … but the Bruins won the 2010-11 Stanley Cup nonetheless.

Blues hitting sour notes on power play

Still, every goal counts with things as tight as they are in this postseason, so the St. Louis Blues have to be concerned about their chances of winning a 1-1 series against the San Jose Sharks with a power play that’s ice cold heading into Game 3 on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; stream here).

You can dice up their numbers in a lot of ways, and most of them are disturbing. The Blues won Game 2 by a score of 4-2 on Monday despite a power play that went 0-for-5, and also allowed a Logan Couture shorthanded goal. After being productive against the Jets in Round 1, St. Louis has gone just 2-for-28 since their tight series against the Stars, and haven’t scored in their last 18 opportunities. The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford notes (sub required) that the Blues have only managed a 7-5 shots on goal advantage against the Sharks so far on the PP.

Sometimes it’s best to zoom out a little bit and look at the sheer totals, and that’s not pretty either. Overall during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Blues have scored seven power-play goals, while allowing three shorthanded tallies. Not ideal to only manage a +4 differential on the PP two games into Round 3.

The question, then, is: what should the Blues do?

Overall, it’s best not to panic, so head coach Craig Berube’s “just chill out” comments aren’t totally off base.

“Yes, the power play overall — it can be frustrating,” Berube said, via Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “But the key is, I do not believe that it frustrated our team. And it can’t. You can’t let it happen. They have a great penalty kill over there. They’ve had a real good penalty kill for years.”

Brayden Schenn and others also weighed in on the subject.

Rutherford and Justin Bourne provided a detailed breakdown of some of the Blues’ struggles in that article for The Athletic, and it’s worth a look — for those interested, and even the Blues as a whole.

Move that Tank

But, when I see a struggling power play, I try to take a K.I.S.S. approach of simplicity, and look at who’s shooting, and from where.

Nothing seemed too outrageous when breaking down the Blues’ advanced special teams stats at Natural Stat Trick, and the Blues are smart enough to realize that Vladimir Tarasenko should be firing the puck the most, as he leads the team with 22 PP SOG, blowing away Ryan O'Reilly, who’s in second place with just seven. This isn’t a situation where a team is leaning too much on shots from defensemen (see: Nashville) or making a personnel decision that baffles me every time (Carolina using Justin Faulk on its top unit instead of Dougie Hamilton).

There is one adjustment I’d strongly consider making: get Tarasenko closer to the net, rather than having him running things from the point.

Now, it wouldn’t be surprising if Tarasenko prefers playing the role of power play QB. His passing ability won’t get the same shine as his lethal shooting, but he has strong instincts in that regard. There are less outrageous ideas than “get the puck on Tank’s stick more often.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Still, when a power play is struggling, I wonder if the high-danger shooters aren’t getting enough high-danger chances, and I’d wager that Tarasenko would be more of a threat if he was closer to the net, more often. My instinct would be to have him hovering around the right faceoff dot, essentially giving him the photo-negative of Alex Ovechkin shooting from his “office” at the left circle, but honestly, those details are negotiable. The point is that, in my opinion, Tarasenko’s skills would be best used in a spot where it’s that much harder for his shots to be blocked.

The Blues have some nice options on the point, even without Tarasenko. Whether it’s Alex Pietrangelo‘s strong hockey IQ or Colton Parayko‘s rifle of a shot, it’s not as though St. Louis would be totally lost if they weren’t as prone to putting Tarasenko on the point.

This isn’t to say that the Blues don’t let Tarasenko approach the net in these situations, but my advice is simply to get him there more often. Like, preferably all the time.

It might mean that Tarasenko gets fewer actual shots on net, but a lot of times on the power play, it’s about quality over quantity. At this point, it’s tougher for the Blues to argue that the current setup is working, as they haven’t been getting the right quantity of goals on the power play.

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So, again, there’s value in at least debating smaller tweaks. I could see an argument for an elevation of Robert Thomas, who’s coming into his own as a young forward (Berube didn’t seem to like that). Heck, you could make a case for the other Rob: Robby Fabbri, who for all of his struggles – injuries and overall – is the sort of creative player who might be able to make plays on what sometimes feels like a static power play.

(Granted, Fabbri makes more sense to me as a second PP unit specialist, if he can get back into the lineup.)

But, really, the Blues are probably closer than it might seem to being successful. All they really might need to do is bring Tarasenko closer to the net.

Game 3 of Blues – Sharks takes place on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN; stream here).

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.

Back injury ends Ryan Callahan’s career; Lightning put him on LTIR

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Sad news from the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday: Ryan Callahan‘s NHL career is likely over, and his $5.8 million cap hit will be relegated to LTIR.

The 34-year-old spoke with Bryan Burns of the Lightning website about what appears to be a career-ending back injury, described specifically as “degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine,” which Callahan noted affected his lower-back most of all.

” … Unfortunately there doesn’t even seem to be anything they can do immediately to fix the problem,” Callahan said. “And that’s never easy to hear when you’re speaking to a couple doctors and all of them agree on the same thing.”

Callahan told Burns that it’s unlikely that this would be something he could try a comeback from after trying to heal up for a year or two.

“I don’t think a year off or two years off is going to help it to be honest with you,” Callahan said. “From what the doctors have said and the way I feel, it doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to come back.”

From there, it’s the very sad reality of an athlete who put his body on the line by delivering a ton of hits, blocking a lot of shots, and generally going all-out physically. The goal is for Callahan to maintain a quality of life, and that means daily rehab to manage pain.

About the only bright side seems to be that, at the moment, Callahan doesn’t seem to think he’d need invasive back surgery. Here’s hoping that remains the case, as long as that’s the safest and most comfortable route for Callahan.

Of course, Lightning fans will wonder about the various routes the team will take to handle Callahan’s $5.8M cap hit, now that a buyout isn’t really an option. Cap Friendly notes the savings the Lightning receive from Callahan’s unfortunate circumstances.

That $5.8M will certainly come in handy for the cap-challenged Lightning as they hope to sign rising star and RFA Brayden Point, preferably before he reaches the point where an offer sheet would be a threat (credible or otherwise). The Lightning were almost certain to try to trade Callahan, or at least his cap hit, during this summer, so a small silver lining is that one awkward situation was avoided.

Here’s hoping that Callahan can get to a point where he’s comfortable on a daily basis, and his experiences are another reminder that, for all the talk about hockey players being “warriors,” this rugged sport takes a toll on players, particularly longtime ones such as Callahan.

Callahan scored 386 points (186 goals, 200 assists) in 757 regular-season games between the Lightning and the New York Rangers, a team he captained from 2011-12 to 2013-14, when he was a key part of the Martin St. Louis trade. Callahan was credited with 626 blocked shots and 2,147 hits, according to Hockey Reference, and that ignores 14 games from 2006-07. Callahan brought that same spirit to 121 career playoff games.

And, as a reminder, he was more than just a “heart and soul” player, particularly during his peak with the Rangers. Callahan scored 20+ goals on four different occasions, and reached his career-high of 54 points during two different seasons.

That’s a heck of a career for the 127th pick of the 2004 NHL Draft, but here’s hoping that Callahan achieves the most important victory of feeling better.

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.

Panthers expect to hear Roberto Luongo’s plans soon

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Panthers expect to hear soon what veteran goaltender Roberto Luongo‘s plans are regarding next season and beyond.

The 40-year-old Luongo has been in the NHL for 19 seasons and is contemplating retiring, returning or perhaps starting next season on long-term injury reserve because of hip issues.

Panthers general manager Dale Tallon says it will be ”a very difficult decision after such an illustrious career” for Luongo.

The Panthers are expected to pursue a starting goalie in free agency regardless, with Sergei Bobrovsky believed to be their top target at that position. It’s expected that Luongo will advise the team of his plans before free agency starts on July 1.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

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.

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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.