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Why Blues’ discipline has disappeared in Stanley Cup Final

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Through the first three games of the Stanley Cup Final the message has been the same for the St. Louis Blues, so much so that it is almost becoming annoying to keep typing it and saying it.

That message: Stop. Taking. Penalties.

Through the first three games of the series the Blues been completely unable to do that, having already tallied 34 penalty minutes heading into Monday’s Game 4 (8 p.m. ET, NBC; Live Stream).

This is not sitting well with the Blues for a number of reasons, from the fact the Bruins’ power play has already scored six goals, to the fact it is a drastic change from what we saw from the Blues for the entire season prior to this series.

During the regular season the Blues averaged just 7.35 penalty minutes per game, one of the lowest marks in the entire NHL.

In their three playoff series’ before the Final (against the Winnipeg Jets, Dallas Stars, and San Jose Sharks) they actually saw their average drop down to just 6.30 penalty minutes per game, which was the lowest per-game average of any team in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Everything we saw from the Blues this season was that they were one of the most disciplined teams in the NHL. They did a better job staying out of the penalty box than almost any other team in the league and they did not give their opponents an opportunity to burn them on the power play and change a game with bad penalties.

But in the three games against the Bruins the Blues have been averaging more than 11 penalty minutes per game and have already been shorthanded 14 times in the series. This has been a massive problem, not only because it has zapped the Blues of any momentum they have been able to build at times, but because the Bruins’ power play unit is still clicking at an all-time great success rate.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Coach Craig Berube was asked about what is leading to the increase in penalties, and while he acknowledged that his team could be more disciplined, he also made it clear he does not agree with all of the calls.

“Well, there’s a few things,” said Berube. “First of all we were the least penalized team in the league in the first three rounds, now all of a sudden we’ve taken 14 penalties in one series. So I don’t know. I don’t buy into all of that, to be honest with you. I think that we could definitely be more composed after the whistle. I think we’ve let some frustration get in there where we maybe do too much after the whistle. So we’ll clean that up, for sure. But like I said, we were the least penalized team in the league coming into this series. I don’t agree with all of the calls.”

When it was pointed out to Berube that the number of penalties usually decreases this late in the playoffs, he once again referenced the fact the Blues were the least penalized team through the first three rounds.

“Like I said, we were the least penalized team in the playoffs coming into this round,” he said. “Now all these penalties. Again, there’s nothing we can really do about what’s happened. Going forward, well, we can talk about being more disciplined, which we have, and playing between the whistles tomorrow. That can help.”

This is the reaction we should expect from a coach at this point in the season. There is acknowledgement that their team can be better, while there is also an attempt at publicly working the officials in an effort to try and buy some calls later in the series.

But none of this answers the question as to WHY the Blues are taking more penalties.

The answer to that question might be fairly simple: this is what tends happens when teams play the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

When looking at the 2018-19 regular season numbers, the Bruins were one of the most penalized teams in the NHL by averaging more than nine penalty minutes per game, the second highest total in the league.

Every single one of their opponents (the Toronto Maple Leafs, Columbus Blue Jackets, Carolina Hurricanes, and now the Blues) were among the eight least penalized teams in the league, all averaging less than 7:40 in penalty time per game. Looking at those numbers and it would be easy to conclude ahead of time that it might be the Bruins that have to be more disciplined.

In each individual playoff series, the numbers have completely flipped.

While the Bruins have seen a dramatic drop in penalty minutes this postseason, every single one of their opponents has seen their penalty minutes increase when they play the Bruins.

This same trend has happened in pretty much every postseason series the Bruins have played over the past three seasons, where no matter how disciplined a team is during the regular season, they take more penalties in the playoffs against Boston, and no matter how many penalties the Bruins take during the regular season, they take less in the playoffs.

This is not some conspiracy where the Bruins are simply “getting all the calls” and getting favorable officiating in their favor, but rather a combination of factors that are taking place.

I have some theories as to what those factors are.

1. Good teams tend to draw more penalties. For all of the “big bad Bruins” mystique that still follows this team around, the Bruins are an extremely skilled team that dominates possession, plays with the puck, and has elite high-end players all over their lineup. They can beat you in transition, they score off the rush on the power play, they have some of the most productive players in the league on their roster. Guess what happens when skilled players dominate possession and play with the puck for significant stretches of games? Lesser talented teams and players have to cheat more and take penalties in an effort to stop them. Play against Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, and Patrice Bergeron for 20 minutes every night and you are probably going to take a penalty or two at some point.

2. Teams overthink it against the Bruins. This goes back to the whole “big bad Bruins” thing where teams get stuck in a mindset that a matchup with them is going to be physical, so they have to increase their own physicality, match the intensity, and try to impose their will (or whatever other cliche teams spout off in the playoffs). There is a fine line between between being physical at the right time and in the right situations, and being physical just for the sake of being physical. The former is sometimes a necessity, the latter can quickly lead to recklessness. Throw in the powder keg that is four-to-seven games against Brad Marchand and all of his shenanigans and you have the perfect storm for teams to just completely lose their composure as they chase hits and get caught up in post-whistle scrums. The Bruins seem to know how to walk this line and can do just enough to throw teams off their game and draw an extra penalty or two. Sometimes that is all you need to be the difference in a game. The Blues have a bigger team and tend to play a physical game, but there is no denying that in these first three games they have tried to do even more, both during play and after the whistles. It is hurting them.

3. Keeping things even. One thing that does tend to happen in playoff games is a large percentage of them seem to end with the penalty and power play distribution being fairly even. It is the whole “let them play” mindset where the on-ice officials do not want to be the ones responsible for deciding a game with a call or series of calls. This, of course, drives teams and fans bonkers because everyone just wants to see consistency and the calls made as they should be. Sometimes teams will take more penalties than their opponent, and that is okay. It is the way sports works. If you look at some of the individual series with the Bruins, their drastic decrease in penalties from the regular season combined with their opponents drastic increase has, in some cases, resulted in the penalty split being pretty close to even, just as it was in Rounds 2 and 3 against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Carolina Hurricanes. But that has not been the case in this series, and it wasn’t the case in Boston’s two Round 1 matchups against the Toronto Maple Leafs the past two seasons where there was a pretty big split, which again goes back to points 1) and 2).

Whether it is one of these factors are a combination of all three the Blues really need to be better if they are going to even this series and eventually take control of it. If they keep doing what they have done over the first three games they are going to quickly find themselves out of this, missing a prime opportunity to win the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup.

They have to be better when it comes to trying to slow down the Bruins’ offense.

They have to be better when it comes to avoiding the post-whistle scrums and taking extra runs at players.

They simply have to be better.

MORE BLUES-BRUINS:
The Wraparound: Blues look to flip the page
Blues vs. Bruins: Three keys to Game 4 of Stanley Cup Final
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe watch entering Game 4
Stanley Cup Final: Sean Kuraly breaking through for Bruins
Vince Dunn back in Blues’ lineup

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.

Why Rangers should consider trading Chris Kreider right now

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The New York Rangers have undergone one of the most significant transformations in the league this offseason with the additions of Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Adam Fox, and the good fortune that saw them move to No. 2 in the draft lottery where they selected Kaapo Kakko.

It has drastically changed the look of the team on the ice, both for the long-term and the short-term, and also significantly altered their salary cap structure.

With the new contracts for Panarin and Trouba adding $19.6 million to their salary cap number (for the next seven years) it currently has the Rangers over the cap for this season while still needing to re-sign three restricted free agents, including Pavel Buchnevich who is coming off of a 21-goal performance in only 64 games.

Obviously somebody is going to have to go at some point over the next year, and it remains entirely possible that “somebody” could be veteran forward Chris Kreider given his contract situation and the team’s new salary cap outlook.

Perhaps even as soon as this summer by way of a trade.

What makes it so complicated for Kreider and the Rangers is that he will be an unrestricted free agent after this season and will be in line for a significant pay raise from his current $4.6 million salary cap number.

It is a tough situation for general manager Jeff Gorton and new team president John Davidson to tackle.

If you are looking at things in a more short-term window there is at least a decent argument for trying to keep Kreider this season, and perhaps even beyond. For one, he is still a really good player. He scored 28 goals this past season, still brings a ton of speed to the lineup, and is still an important part of the roster.

Even though the Rangers missed the playoffs by a significant margin this past season (20 points back) they are not that far away from being able to return to the postseason. Maybe even as early as this season if everything goes absolutely perfect. They added a top-10 offensive player in the league (Panarin), a top-pairing defender (Trouba), another promising young defender with potential (Fox), a potential superstar (Kakko), and still have a goalie (Henrik Lundqvist) that can change a season if he is on top of his game. It is not a given, and not even likely, but the window is at least starting to open.

Even if they do not make it this season they are not so far away that Kreider could not still be a potentially productive member of that next playoff team.

The salary cap situation will be complicated, but the Rangers can easily trim elsewhere in a variety of ways, whether it be utilizing the second buyout window or trading another, less significant part of the roster. As we just saw this past week, there is no contract in the NHL that is completely unmovable.

They COULD do it.

But just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should, and that is the big issue the Rangers have to face with one of their most important players.

Should they keep him and try to sign him to a new long-term contract?

For as good as Kreider still is, and for as much as the Rangers have improved this summer, they still have to think about the big-picture outlook.

That means separating what a player has done for you from what that player will do for you in the future. For a team like the Rangers that is still building for something beyond this season, the latter part is the only thing that matters.

The reality of Kreider’s situation is that he is going to be 29 years old when his next contract begins, will be making significantly more than his current salary, and is almost certainly going to be on the threshold of a significant decline in his production (assuming it has not already started).

Let’s try to look at this as objectively as possible.

Kreider just completed his age 27 season, has played 470 games in the NHL, and averaged 0.29 goals per game and 0.59 points per game for his career.

There were 12 forwards in the NHL this past season that had similar numbers through the same point in their careers (at least 400 games played, at least 0.25 goals per game, and between 0.50 and 0.60 points per game). That list included Adam Henrique, Ryan Callahan, Wayne Simmonds, Ryan Kesler, Dustin Brown, Drew Stafford, Andrew Ladd, Tomas Tatar, Jordan Staal, David Perron, Lee Stempniak, and Kyle Turris.

This is not a perfect apples to apples comparison here because a lot of the players in that group play different styles and have different skillsets. They will not all age the exact same way or see their talents deteriorate in the same way. But what should concern the Rangers is that almost every one of the players on that list that is currently over the age of 30 has seen their production fall off a cliff. Some of them now carry contracts that look regrettable for their respective teams.

It is pretty much a given that as a player gets closer to 30 and plays beyond that their production is going to decline. Teams can get away with paying elite players into their 30s because even if they decline their production is still probably going to be better than a significant part of the league. Maybe Panarin isn’t an 80-point player at age 30 or 31, but it is a good bet he is still a 65-or 70-point player and a legitimate top-line winger.

Players like Kreider that aren’t starting at that level don’t have as much wiggle room, and when they decline from their current level they start to lose some (or even a lot) of their value.

Given the Rangers’ salary cap outlook, that is probably a risk they can not afford to take with Kreider long-term because it is far more likely that a new contract becomes an albatross on their cap than a good value.

You also have to consider that the Rangers have long-term options at wing that will quickly push Kreider down the depth chart.

Panarin is one of the best wingers in the league. Over the past two years they used top-10 picks in potential impact wingers (Kaako this year and Vitali Kravtsov a year ago). Buchnevich just turned 24 and has already shown 20-goal potential in the NHL.

As Adam Herman at Blueshirt Banter argued immediately after the signing of Panarin, committing more than $6 million per year to a winger that, in the very near future, may only be the fourth or fifth best winger on the team is a very questionable (at best) move in a salary cap league and gives them almost zero margin for error elsewhere on the roster.

Right now Kreider still has a lot of value to the Rangers for this season. He is probably making less than his market value, is still one of their best players, and still makes them better right now.

But when you look at the situation beyond this season his greatest value to them probably comes in the form of a trade chip because it not only means they can acquire an asset (or two) whose career better aligns with their next best chance to compete for a championship, but it also means they do not have to pay a soon-to-be declining, non-elite player a long-term contract into their 30s, a situation that almost never works out favorably for the team.

The Rangers have had to trade some key players and make some tough decisions during this rebuild.

They should be strongly considering making the same decision with Kreider.

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.

PHT Stanley Cup Tracker: Pat Maroon takes Cup back to St. Louis for some toasted ravioli

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The PHT Stanley Cup tracker will keep tabs on how the St. Louis Blues spend their summer celebrating.

Patrick Maroon probably could have had bigger contract offers last summer, while the one-year deal he ended up signing with the St. Louis Blues was a slight pay cut from his previous contract.

But he took a little less to get an opportunity to play for his hometown team and try to bring the city its first ever Stanley Cup. He helped the Blues do just that during the 2018-19 season, and even scored a couple of massive goals during the playoffs, including a double overtime Game 7 goal in Round 2 to clinch their series against the Dallas Stars.

This past week he had his opportunity to spend the day with the Stanley Cup and, naturally, took it back to St. Louis for the first time since the Blues’ initial Stanley Cup celebration.

It was quite a journey.


On Friday night the Stanley Cup made a surprise appearance The Muny, America’s largest and oldest outdoor musical theatre, to surprise the crowd that was there to watch a performance of Footloose.

It made quite an entrance!

From there, it went to the Maroon residence on Saturday morning for a special photo opportunity, 20 years after he had his picture taken with it at the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Keeping with the tradition of using the Stanley Cup as a cereal bowl, Cinnamon Toast Crunch was consumed out of it with Maroon cleaning it out afterwards himself, according to Philip Pritchard, the keeper of the Cup.

Maroon then took it to the All-American Sports Mall in South St. Louis — where he played inline hockey as a kid — to share the experience with 250 family and friends.

Included among the friends were former teammates and coaches from his time as a youth roller hockey player.

Via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

“Everyone makes fun of me playing roller hockey, but this is where I grew up playing,” he said. “To bring it back here is a very special day for me. To cherish these moments with the 250 people I invited, it’s a really private event that I feel like I know everyone here. To share that day with everyone, it really is amazing. It’s a big reunion for all of us to see each other and smile.

“It’s been one of the coolest memories I’ll ever have. It really doesn’t get full circle until you actually leave it, and wow, the Stanley Cup was just at All-American, the rink where I used to come from 9 in the morning to 5 o’clock and just sit and be a rink rat. It’s awesome.”

After that, it was off for a St. Louis speciality and some toasted ravioli at Charlie Gitto’s for lunch.

It was there that Maroon was joined by Blues super fan Laila Anderson.

Maroon ended his day at a nearby lake for private time with family and friends.


Before the Stanley Cup made its way back to St. Louis this past week, defender Robert Bortuzzo also had his day with the cup and took it to his hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario.

“I’ll never be able to truly repay what this community has meant for me and my career in terms of growing up playing hockey as a young kid here,” Bortuzzo said, via the TBNewswatch.com. “It meant a lot for me to come and give the chance for some people to see it and put some smiles on faces at George Jeffrey. It was an easy decision to share it with a great community.”

While boating, Bortuzzo decided to help himself to a snack of assorted meats and cheeses.

The PHT Stanley Cup tracker

 Week 1: Cup heads to the Canadian prairies
• Week 2: Stanley Cup heads east to Ontario

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

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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

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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.