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Teams looking for defense should seek trades, not free agents

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The bad news is that the free agent market for defensemen looks downright pitiful, especially after Erik Karlsson signed that big extension with the Sharks. The good news is that, if NHL GMs are bold and creative, they could make waves by adding defensemen via trades, instead.

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Update: It didn’t take long for a big domino to drop.

The Jets sent Jacob Trouba‘s rights to the New York Rangers for Neal Pionk and the 20th pick of the 2019 NHL Draft, which was originally Winnipeg’s pick. This post goes deep on what that trade means for both teams.

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Sharks GM Doug Wilson himself stirred the pot about there at least being a bunch of trade discussions, and we’ve already seen interesting moves like the Matt NiskanenRadko Gudas swap between the Capitals and Flyers.

While there could be a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” element to Wilson’s comments … c’mon, it’s still fun to hear this, and ponder the possibilities:

 

Craig Custance laid out some of the potential trade scenarios at The Athletic (sub required), and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman has also gone into plenty of detail regarding possible swaps, among others. It’s not a guarantee that any big trades will happen, but if they do, there’s a solid chance some will happen around draft weekend.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most interesting names that have circulated. With all apologies to Jake Gardiner, you’ll notice that this list is infinitely more appealing than the potential crop of free agents.

P.K. Subban The Predators are coming off of a disappointing season, and it was a pretty rough one by Subban’s lofty standards.

There’s a mixture of sound and queasy logic to Nashville trading Subban. After all, P.K. is 30, and his $9 million cap hit is expensive. Moving that money out could allow the Predators to sign Matt Duchene, and Nashville is also eyeing Roman Josi‘s future, as the Swiss defenseman only has one year left at his current $6M clip. The queasy part is also that some don’t enjoy Subban’s personality, maybe because he cut a promo on them.

There are a lot of warning signs that the Predators could outsmart themselves here, particularly if Roman Josi is overrated – as some have intimated – but that’s a post for another day. Besides, those are worries for the Predators, not the potential team trying to swindle them out of Subban.

For a team with cap space, trading for P.K. could be a glorious investment.

Frankly, would it be that surprising if Subban rebounded in a big way next season? For all we know, his relative struggles in 2018-19 could just boil down to bad injury luck, rather than P.K. being hit by the aging curve.

The Devils stand out as an especially interesting trade party, as I’d argue that they should accelerate their growth process both to entice Taylor Hall to re-sign and to take advantage of the savings they’ll get with Jack Hughes’ (or Kaapo Kakko’s) entry-level contract.

But, really, any team with a glut of cap space and an urge to get better should pounce while Subban’s value is low.

Jacob Trouba – Speaking of taking advantage of a should-be Central Division powerhouse’s desperation, there are plenty of rumors about the Winnipeg Jets shopping Trouba’s RFA rights because of their cap crunch.

Those rumors start to blow my mind when you combine them with at least some talk of the Jets trying to retain Tyler Myers while losing Trouba, but much like the Predators possibly making a bad call, that’s not particularly relevant to teams who might try to land Trouba’s rights.

The New York Post’s Larry Brooks notes that area teams like the Islanders, Rangers, and Devils rank among the teams trying to trade for the right to sign the 25-year-old defenseman, and understandably so. Trouba-level players just do not become available that often.

My suspicion is that Trouba might not have truly reached his ceiling, as he’s sometimes had to battle for opportunities with other Winnipeg RHD like Myers and especially Dustin Byfuglien. If I were the Jets, I’d try to bribe a rebuilding team to take on Dmitry Kulikov, or something of that nature, to find a way with Trouba.

That simply might not be in the cards, and other NHL teams should go the extra mile if Trouba’s rights are available.

Kris Letang – It’s tough to imagine a contender with an unclear window sending away a guy who’s easily their best defenseman, but Letang is one of the many prominent Penguins whose name has at least come up in rumblings, so he absolutely deserves a mention.

Yes, his injury history is a little scary and he’s already 32, but Letang brings so much value to the table, and at an affordable $7.25M cap hit through 2021-22, the potential rewards outweigh the risks. It would be surprising if the Penguins made this blunder, especially after they already thinned out the ranks with the (largely beneficial) Olli Maatta trade. Teams should check in with Jim Rutherford just in case, though.

Shayne Gostisbehere – P.K. Subban getting traded after a “down year” makes some sense because the aging curve is hovering as a threat, and Subban’s also very expensive. The Flyers selling low on “Ghost Bear” could be a borderline disaster … and thus, one other teams should go out of their way to facilitate.

Gostisbehere is still in the meat of his prime, and he’s not only a bargain at $4.5M per year, but he’s also cost controlled for some time, as his steal of a deal runs through 2022-23. It’s honestly almost a little bit offensive that Gostisbehere trade talk has circulated with credibility, rather than just being something you’d screengrab and mock from a message board.

Now, Custance notes that the Flyers aren’t that likely to trade Gostisbehere, but if there’s even a trace of smoke, other teams should try to fan those flames.

Justin Faulk / Dougie Hamilton – Now, the Hurricanes might just stick with their surplus of right-handed defensemen, as a Faulk extension has reportedly been discussed.

Yet, it still seems like a matter of time. Faulk’s getting a raise one way or another from his $4.833M after it expires next season, and Hamilton’s $5.75M cap hit only runs through 2020-21. It’s easy to see why Carolina might value swapping Faulk or Hamilton for a comparable forward (perhaps someone like Mike Hoffman?).

Personally, I prefer Hamilton, as he’s produced impressive numbers even though he inexplicably rarely finds himself as his team’s top power play QB. Like with Trouba, I wonder if another team or coach might get a little bit more out of Hamilton if they put them in the right situations.

Either way, both Faulk and Hamilton can improve a team’s blueline, and maybe at a comfortable price.

Colin Miller – While I can see situations where teams who trade for the players above would win the trades, possibly to a significant extent, I also acknowledge that you’d have to give up something substantial to land them.

Miller might be one of the most prominent candidates who could be landed in a pretty one-sided trade.

Miller, 26, found himself in Gerard Gallant’s doghouse at times in 2018-19, including being a healthy scratch at times during the postseason. After spending big money and assets to land Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty over the last year or so, the Golden Knights are now in a serious cap crunch, as they’ll need to find room to lock down William Karlsson and Nikita Gusev.

An opportunistic team could offer Vegas the chance to save Miller’s $3.875M (through 2021-22) and maybe get back some of the futures they coughed up in those deals — don’t forget all they gave up for Tomas Tatar. Such a scenario would be awfully appealing to Vegas, especially since it sure seems like Gallant won’t use Miller enough to justify that near-$4M price tag.

If you’re an NHL team aggressive to improve, but you don’t have the cap space for the bigger names (or want to spend less in a trade), then Miller could be a fantastic find.

Jared SpurgeonIn my opinion, the Wild would be wiser to go into a full rebuild.

That just doesn’t seem to be the case, as they’ve instead been making more “player-for-player” moves. Not all of those trades have been as bad as losing Nino Niederreiter for Victor Rask, but either way, Minnesota’s strategy seems to be about half measures. They want to half-rebuild, and half … limp into the playoffs? It’s not ideal, is what I’m saying.

So Spurgeon (29, $5.188M) is a tricky expiring contract. The Wild want to be semi-competitive, so they might just want to re-sign him. If not, they also might want more than a poaching team would want to give up for Spurgeon, although a Hoffman-type expiring forward contract could make a swap somewhat reasonable.

A Spurgeon trade seems less like a “bang for the buck” deal, but he’s another interesting name, if truly available.

T.J. Brodie: Honestly, it’s tough to tell how good Brodie is, vs. how much he benefits from being glued to Mark Giordano at even-strength, as you can see from Natural Stat Trick’s teammate stats.

So, much like with Spurgeon, a lot of the trade appeal hinges on what the Flames are asking for Brodie (or, similarly, Travis Hamonic).

Brodie’s worth mentioning one way or another, because he’s a bit like Miller in being cheap, as Brodie’s at $4.65M for one more season. There are scenarios where trading for Brodie could make a lot of sense, if the Flames are more focused on freeing up cap space than they are getting maximum value for the defenseman.

Nikita Zaitsev: Tip to NHL GMs: don’t trade for Nikita Zaitsev.

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Again, it’s possible that none of these defensemen get traded, or totally different, star-level ones move on instead.

For the sake of our collective entertainment, it would certainly be cool if there were some splashy trades to consider. So, get to it, NHL GMs.

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.

Flames GM takes profane blame for struggles, shoots down trade/firing talk

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With the Calgary Flames mired in a six-game losing streak, and maybe still a bit shaken from how the Avalanche dominated them in Round 1 this year — and, yes, with bold change in the air thanks to Mike Babcock’s firing — some wondered if Brad Treliving might need to do something drastic.

Earlier this week, PHT recommended avoiding such measures, especially if such a move involved trading Johnny Gaudreau at his coldest.

It sounds like the Flames’ GM got the memo, or never needed it. Treliving shot down talk of trading a key player, and also of firing Bill Peters early on through the coach’s second season, while addressing the media on Friday.

The fact that Treliving used salty language only made the candid remarks reverberate further, as PostMedia’s Wes Gilbertson reports.

A GM only gets so many cracks at finding the right coach, so it makes sense that Treliving wouldn’t throw Peters under the bus. It couldn’t make much more sense not to trade Gaudreau and other players who are important to the Flames, too, so this additional quote is crucial.

The key phrases from Treliving, beyond all the horse-blank, are:

  • “The coaches aren’t going anywhere.”
  • “Our top players aren’t going anywhere.”

It’s understandable that Treliving is still leaving the door ajar for less-important players to be traded, but it’s reassuring that he won’t make a panic move.

Especially since, well, Peters and his staff might be taking on a little water, judging by the fact that Milan Lucic at least practiced as a member of the Flames’ (gulp) top power play unit.

While there’s some logic to using Lucic as a big-bodied screener who would be tough to move from the goalmouth area, it’s not necessarily the greatest sign, either. Personally, I’m also a little underwhelmed by the lack of right-handed shots on that top unit, too.

But those are smaller tweaks that might not even last for a full game, and one cannot blame Peters for tinkering when the team is desperate for answers. It’s also key for the Flames’ GM to zoom out and take a longer view of things, so Treliving’s comments count as a comforting sign.

… Granted, there still isn’t a ton of comfort overall. This is a team that recently needed a players-only meeting, and sports an ugly overall record of 10-12-3.

There’s a lot of work to do, and maybe changes need to be made on the periphery, but credit the Flames’ “Riverboat Gambler” of a GM for knowing when to be cautious (perhaps even hold/fold ’em) too.

Maybe Treliving’s vote of confidence and acceptance of blame might clear a few minds and help turn things 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.

Can surprisingly scrappy Senators find right competing-rebuilding balance?

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When you’re trying to rebuild an NHL team, winning isn’t the only thing. Sometimes it’s the thing you want to occasionally avoid.

Such a thought comes to mind with the surprisingly scrappy Senators, who’ve rattled off wins in four of five games (and eight of 12) to build a respectable 10-11-1 record. Their 10 regulation/OT wins rank ahead of the Maple Leafs and Lightning, both stuck at nine.

Strong Sens Surge

The Senators have enjoyed particularly great work from a red-hot Jean-Gabriel Pageau, a rising Brady Tkachuk, a sneakily effective Anders Nilsson, and hungry players looking to prove themselves, such as Anthony Duclair.

Ottawa can really hang its hat on just how challenging this red-hot stretch should be on paper, with eight of their last 11 games coming on the road.

It all brings up a fascinating-if-awkward question: how much success would be too much success? What are the best ways to find the right balance between not (at least overtly) sabotaging immediate results in the interest of taking bigger swings in the future?

Consider this a suggested blueprint for 2019-20.

Don’t be shameless about killing the fun

In a great piece for The Athletic (sub required), Hailey Salvian notes that Mark Borowiecki said that the Senators “are getting pretty fired up” about defying the odds, and that “it’s definitely fun.”

It brings to mind a key point: there’s an art to “tanking” while not torching the confidence and habits of the players you want to keep around for the better days. When you look at teams that have been stuck in agonizingly long rebuild cycles such as the Buffalo Sabres, you’ll note players like Ryan O'Reilly burning out at the constant losing, and sometimes getting shipped out of town right when Buffalo might have been more situated to restore his love of the game.

Ideally, the Senators will start to build a structure for the future, while also losing enough to bank some big lottery odds. Judging by head coach D.J. Smith’s comments to Salvian, it seems like the organization is taking a sober approach.

“This is a process,” Smith said. “For us, whether its three years, four years, however long it takes for these kids to develop … But that’s been the best part, we are finding ways to win with the young guys and they are getting minutes and they are getting better.

“My job is to make them better by the end of the year, and if we can win some games along the way, it’s great.”

Building up assets to sell at a high price

Along with developing young players, Ottawa should focus on pumping up the value of non-essential pieces for lucrative trade returns.

If you look at the Senators’ near-comical salary structure at Cap Friendly, you’ll notice a ton of players on expiring contracts, with these standing out the most:

  • Jean-Gabriel Pageau: It’s easy to see why the Senators would want to keep JGP around for the long haul, but if I were Senators GM Pierre Dorion, I’d try to maximize the return for a 27-year-old player who’s on a career-best hot streak, with an unsustainable 24.5 shooting percentage acting as a red flag for his impressive 13-goal, 17-point start through 22 games.

While Pageau’s $3.1M AAV will shrink even more for a cap-challenged contender around deadline time, Dorion should consider selling him at his peak value (right now) if a desperate team would be interested.

If there’s angst about letting Pageau go … well, Ottawa could bring him back in free agency next summer.

  • Craig Anderson: The cynical rebuilding thing to do would be to keep Anderson (not playing well) and Nilsson (playing very well) in a platoon situation to lose more games. There’s a different bonus that could happen here, though: if Anderson plays at least competently, a team might look at him as a decent insurance policy, even at 38. Especially if Ottawa retained some of his $4.75M AAV … which isn’t a guarantee with Eugene Melnyk writing the checks, but still.
  • Anthony Duclair, Mikkel Boedker, Vladislav Namestnikov, Ron Hainsey, etc.: The Senators have a wide variety of expiring contracts for different tastes, in some cases with unclear injury situations (Namestnikov is on IR). If Ottawa can get value from trading any of them — even Duclair — they probably should.

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For those grimacing at the notion of the Senators not putting their full weight behind a playoff push, consider a point Salivan made in passing: Ottawa had 21 points in 22 games last season, too.

The Senators’ greatest focus should be on the future, but they don’t need to totally look beyond the present to do so. Finding the right balance could really help in the construction of this rebuild.

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.

Beyond Benn and Seguin: Breaking down Stars’ hot streak

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If it weren’t for the virtually unbeatable New York Islanders, the Dallas Stars would probably be considered the hottest team in the NHL.

About a week ago, PHT’s Adam Gretz chronicled the revitalization of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, the Stars’ biggest stars (don’t mix up your capitalization there, gang). In particular, the strong work from Benn and Seguin stood out after yet another browbeating from management, in the latest case being head coach Jim Montgomery — who later apologized for throwing the two under the bus.

The numbers back up hot play from Benn and Seguin lately, but this video of Benn rampaging against Mark Scheifele and the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday presents the argument in a more violent and entertaining fashion:

Yet, in a team sport like hockey, you usually don’t go on a five-game winning streak without other players stepping up, and that’s especially true when you zoom out to Dallas’ 12-1-1 run since Oct. 19.

Truly, it’s remarkable to compare the Stars’ 2019-20 season through Oct. 18 (when they went 1-7-1) and this blistering run that’s improved the Stars to an overall record of 13-8-2.

Let’s take a look at the other forces driving Dallas’ success. Feel free to play the Stars’ cheesy and/or great Pantera-powered goal song while reading this post.

(Of course it’s called “Puck off.”)

As you’d probably expect, the goalies have been lights out

Last season, the Stars survived (and even thrived) on a steady diet of “Benn + Seguin + all-world goaltending from Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin.” You might not be surprised to learn that they’ve all been key catalysts for this impressive run.

Through the Stars’ ugly first nine games of 2019-20, they allowed 29 goals and only scored 17. Remarkably, the Stars have allowed fewer goals (26) in the 14 games since, while generating 49. I’m no mathematician nor am I a goalie coach, but if you’re allowing less than two goals per game in the modern NHL, you’re probably going to win a lot.

Bishop sports an outstanding .942 save percentage during the hot streak, and Khudobin is right behind him with a .941 in that span.

Scoring variety

When the Stars handed Joe Pavelski a deal with a $7.5 million AAV, they likely expected the veteran forward to help them find scoring beyond Benn and Seguin — even if Pavelski landed with those two, and merely opened up easier matchups for the likes of Alexander Radulov.

After a bumpy start, Pavelski and others have provided offense beyond Dallas’ dynamic duo. Pavelski matches Benn’s 10 points during the past 14 games, and they’re both tied with seemingly defense-only forward Radek Faksa.

(If Faksa turns into the Stars’ answer to Sean Couturier — a defensive forward whose considerable scoring touch was eventually unlocked — then watch out.)

Right behind Seguin’s 15 points in 14 games is a player who basically deserves at least his own paragraph: Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old defenseman has 12 points in his past 14 games, and while he’s soaking up puck luck that probably isn’t sustainable, the bottom line is that he’s a star. He continues to average the ice time of a workhorse defenseman, and may not have to wait long for Norris hype. (It’s promising, too, in its own way that the Stars are thriving while John Klingberg‘s had a tough go of things.)

With Corey Perry gearing up (nine points during the 14-game run) and Roope Hintz back in the mix after dealing with injury issues, it sure seems like Dallas’ attack is more varied than last season. That could be scary, considering how tough they were to contain as Hintz gave them a bit more variety once he really broke through during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Promising metrics

Expecting long-term world-class goaltending is dangerous, especially with older goalies like Bishop (33) and Khudobin (also 33).

But the promising thing is that there are a lot of positives to take away from Montgomery’s system. During this hot streak, the Stars haven’t just been riding some positive bounces, they’ve also generated the third-best differential for high-danger scoring chances during that time, and look good to great by just about all of Natural Stat Trick’s even-strength measures.

Money Puck’s expected goals differential chart for the Stars really drives the point home in an aesthetically pleasing and almost blunt way:

Yes, the Stars are playing a bit over their heads … but maybe not so far that this isn’t a sign that they’re here to stay?

The truth about the Stars is likely somewhere in between their red-hot 14-game streak and the rough nine-game start to 2019-20. It will be fascinating to see where they end up once 2019-20 shakes out, and considering the mix of youth and veterans on this team, what kind of ceiling this group might have.

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.

Off Script: Eddie Olczyk opens up about his battle with colon cancer

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NHL on NBC analyst and 2019 NHL Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador Eddie Olczyk discusses his career and fight with colon cancer in an interview with Kathryn Tappen in a 30-minute special.

Olczyk was named the NHL’s Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador earlier this month and November marks Hockey Fights Cancer Month throughout the league.

Olczyk was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in Aug. 2017 and after a long journey was deemed cancer-free seven months later. Since beating cancer, he has been dedicated to be an advocate for those fighting the disease and their families.

MORE: Book excerpt from Eddie Olczyk: Beating the Odds in Hockey and in Life

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