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NHL teams seeking free agent bargains should shop for ‘antiques’

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With Jake Gardiner needing a contract, RFAs like Mitch Marner not yet signed, and at least a vague possibility of Rasmus Ristolainen-type players potentially being traded, there are still plenty of things to watch for this summer. It just so happens that, beyond Gardiner and very few others, the UFA market looks about as well-stocked as the bread aisle right before a big storm.

Interestingly, some of the best items in the bargain bins are those dented cans nearing their expiration dates.

During July 1, you generally want to avoid messing with Father Time. Yet, as the dog days of summer go along, there’s actually some logic to considering potentially cheap players with long resumes.

Interestingly, one July 1 signing is an example of the sort of bargain I’d pursue between today and when PTOs start to flow close to training camps in September. The Toronto Maple Leafs signed veteran Jason Spezza on the first day of the frenzy, convincing the 36-year-old to go from $7.5 million in AAV in 2018-19 to $700K in 2019-20.

Spezza might not seem like the sexiest choice in his current form, but that’s almost the point. Now that he’s no longer making superstar money, his positives can shine most brightly, and I’d expect him to be a nice bargain for Toronto.

While Spezza might be the best of the types of bets I’d consider making if I were running a team, there are still some intriguing veterans to consider. To make things clear, here are a few key qualifiers before we roll into some names: this list assumes that the contracts would be short, the dollars would be low, and the players would understand that they might have to swallow some pride with a smaller role than in the past.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The lower level of commitment is important to remember. If a cheap, one-year deal doesn’t work out, it’s easier to walk away from a mistake. That’s certainly an easier pill to swallow than to stare at an awkward situation where, say, Milan Lucic is languishing on your roster at $6M, and stands to be an anchor for years.

With expectations sufficiently lowered and contextualized, let’s consider a few veterans.

Cream of the limited crop

Jason Pominville: Fittingly, the best comparison to Jason Spezza is another Jason with a right-handed shot, and some great memories related to the Senators. (In Pominville’s case, it was scoring against Ottawa, much to the confusion and dismay of Daniel Alfredsson.)

Like Spezza, Pominville’s sneaky-solid production was downplayed because of his bloated salary; in Pominville’s case, his 2018-19 cap hit was $5.6M. At a sub-$1M rate, Pominville could be an economical fit for a team that wants a veteran who can still bring some value to the table, and would probably be willing to move around the lineup to make things work.

Actually, I’d argue he’s probably more versatile than Spezza, and thus might fit into a wider array of situations.

Even with all of their improvements, I’d strongly consider bringing Pominville back at a huge discount if I were the Sabres (and if Pominville would accept it). It sure seemed like he was a decent passenger for Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner at times in 2018-19, as The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis also pointed out (sub required):

Pominville was lucky last year to spend a significant chunk of time with Jack Eichel and/or Jeff Skinner, but he was an upgrade on Buffalo’s other right wing options on that line, which only really caught fire when he joined it (climbing from 3.1 to 5.3 goals per hour, and from a 52 percent to 55 percent shot share).

Why not bring back Pominville to occasionally be a cheap addition to the $19M combo of Eichel – Skinner, so you can then use the Marcus Johanssons and Jimmy Veseys as scorers on lower lines, getting them easier matchups? Just a thought.

Similar scenarios could make sense for other cap-strapped teams, too.

Justin Williams: Every indication is that Williams’ choices seem to boil down to retirement or returning to the Carolina Hurricanes.

But just to throw it out there: even during his age 37 season (Williams turns 38 in October), “Mr. Game 7” was more than a guy who shows up in clutch moments. Williams looked almost ridiculous from an advanced stats perspective last season, and brings the sort of intangibles that makes someone a “Storm Surge” innovator.

If I’m another team with some cap space, I’d at least try to wave some one-year money around to see if it might entice Williams to consider branching out. At minimum, Carolina should keep a spot warm for the winger.

Veteran specialists

Brian Boyle: The Predators continued their tradition of paying big premiums for huge depth centers in trading a second-rounder to rent Boyle this past season, so it’s clear that at last some teams see value in Boyle as a large defensive presence who can use that size to screen goalies during the occasional power play stint.

If Boyle costs you big assets, then meh. If he’s cheap and doesn’t command much term, then he could be appealing as the center of an all-defense third or fourth line. (At this stage, fourth would be preferable, but different teams have different situations.)

Thomas Vanek: On the absolute other end of the spectrum, you have Vanek, who would need to be sheltered with limited five-on-five minutes, but might give you some offense in a pinch.

Basically, I’d envision Vanek in the Sam Gagner role during Gagner’s brief time as a power-play specialist for the Columbus Blue Jackets. The 35-year-old managed 36 points in 64 games last season, and scored 24 goals and 56 in 80 games in 2017-18.

Sure, his all-around game makes him less of a net positive overall, but a savvy coach could yield decent returns while limiting risks.

Dented cans

  • Chad Johnson: The 33-year-old’s save percentage was below 90 for the past two seasons, so maybe he’s as done as the former Bengals receiver who shares his name. But if he’d be willing to take on a role as a third goalie – one who could easily be moved between the AHL and NHL – then he could provide some injury insulation. From 2012-13 to 2016-17, Johnson generated a solid .915 save percentage, matching Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller during that span. Maybe he still has something to offer, even just marginally so?
  • Dan Girardi, Niklas Kronwall, Deryk Engelland: Here’s a theory: virtually all NHL coaches need that “toy.” Almost every coach has a player they love who … frankly, isn’t really worthy of those minutes and opportunities, yet the coach fawns over them nonetheless.

Consider Alain Vigneault when he searched for excuses to play Tanner Glass in New York, or Mike Babcock’s love of Roman Polak.

Personally, I’d try not to indulge such bad habits in a coach, yet what if the situation basically demands it?

If such affairs are unavoidable, maybe the key is to limit the damage by getting a cheaper option, one who hopefully wouldn’t get too much playing time, either. The hope would be that, if you give an old coach some old, beat-up player, they’d be more willing to also allow a younger player a longer leash.

Yeah … not the greatest situation, and I’d avoid the Girardis, but these GMs know their coaches better than anyone else.

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Again, it’s crucial to realize that the above list is full of imperfect players, or ones who will only push you forward with baby steps, not giant leaps for hockey-kind. Even ones I like more (Pominville, Williams if he’d listen to offers from outside the Carolinas) aren’t going to save a GM’s job. And with that aforementioned group of veteran defensemen, some of these options would be less about improving and more about accepting lesser evils to appease the sometimes strange whims of NHL head coaches.

In some cases, veteran players might even sign PTOs, which would allow teams to see if they can find a spot in the lineup and chemistry with the team before even handing out a guaranteed contract.

This list isn’t necessarily comprehensive, either, so fire away if you have suggestions. In the case of this post, the veteran UFA options are 32 and older, if that helps.

MORE FREE AGENCY FUN:
Three signings that teams will regret
Five remaining UFAs who could bring value, the mostly young version
Looking at every team’s offseason in Power Rankings form
• The high-risk, high-reward contracts signed on July 1 frequently end in trades or buyouts.

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.

The Buzzer: Tarasenko’s three-point night; Nyquist nets OT penalty shot

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Three Stars

1. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues: The Blues forward had a hand in all three of their goals during a 3-1 defeat of the Avalanche. The loss was Colorado’s first regulation defeat of the season, while St. Louis snapped a four-game losing streak. Tarasenko assisted on goals by Brayden Schenn and David Perron before being on the receiving end of this nice bank pass by Jaden Schwartz:

2. Michael Raffl, Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers built up a 5-0 lead by the end of the second period en route to a 6-2 win over the Golden Knights, snapping a four-game losing streak in the process. Raffl chipped in a pair of goals and added an assist for his first multi-goal game since March 15, 2016. Oskar Lindblom and Travis Konecny each recorded a goal and an assist, while Brian Elliott turned away 33 shots.

3. Anders Nilsson, Ottawa Senators: The Senators netminder put forth a strong effort during a 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars. Nilsson stopped 41 shots as the Stars won consecutive games for the first time this season. This was the second straight start for the Swedish netminder where he faced at least 43-plus shots.

Highlights of the Night

• Raffl showed off his moves on this one:

Gustav Nyquist‘s penalty shot goal in overtime put the Blue Jackets over the Maple Leafs 4-3:

Factoids

Scores
Flyers 6, Golden Knights 2
Blue Jackets 4, Maple Leafs 3 (OT)
Blues 3, Avalanche  1
Stars 2, Senators 1

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Avs’ Rantanen leaves game with ugly-looking foot injury

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The last thing the red-hot Colorado Avalanche wanted to see was an injury to one of their star players. Off to a 7-0-1 start and atop the Central Division, things have been going well for a team many expect to take a large leap forward this season.

But now they might have to deal with a blow to their lineup after Mikko Rantanen suffered a lower-body injury during Monday’s 3-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues.

The Avalanche forward was skating alongside the wall when his skate got caught in the ice and turned his foot in a very wrong direction. Rantanen, who did not make contact with any Blues player during the play, limped to the dressing room and was later ruled out for the remainder of the game.

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Your foot should not be looking that way…

Rantanen has five goals and 12 points through eight games this season. He’s been relatively healthy in his three full NHL seasons, missing only 16 games since 2016-17.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Heavy Lifting: Five NHL lines that are carrying their teams

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Let’s take a quick look around the NHL at five lines that are doing the most to carry their teams (or at least their offense) through the first month of the season.

This is always kind of a good news/bad news situation because the good news is your team has a dominant top line that can change a game every night. The bad news is that one line teams do not tend to do very well in the long run. Balance is important!

We are focussing on 5-on-5 production with this look and right now these five teams are fairly dependent on these lines to carry the play.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

Edmonton Oilers
The Line: Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Zack Kassian

This line might be the definition of “heavy lifting.”

This trio has been on the ice for nearly 30 percent of the Oilers’ total 5-on-5 minutes, a substantial workload even by top line standards. Individually, McDavid and Draisaitl are the top-two forwards in the league in even-strength ice-time per game (Kassian is 22nd), both averaging more than 18:30 per game (Mathew Barzal is the only other forward that plays more than 18 minutes of even-strength ice-time per game).

Then we get to the production.

In 124 minutes this trio has outscored teams by an 11-3 margin and been completely dominant. That is 60 percent of the team’s 5-on-5 goals, while the team has been outscored by a 6-8 margin at 5-on-5 when this trio is not on the ice.

It is the same story as it has always been for the Oilers where they need to skate McDavid and Draisaitl into the ground to compete. So far this season it has worked. But we have seen over the past four years that it is not really the best long-term recipe for sustained success.

Boston Bruins
The Line: Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand

When these three are together they are as good as it gets in the NHL.

Bergeron and Marchand are two of the best all-around players in the league, while Pastrnak is quickly turning into one of the most dangerous goal-scorers around. The big question for the Bruins has always been their depth around this line and if they can get enough offense from lines two through four to complement them. Through the first month of the 2019-20 season that concern is still very much the same.

This line has only played 86 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together (about 22 percent of the team’s 5-on-5 total) and has already scored seven goals in those minutes. The Bruins have just six 5-on-5 goals in the remaining 306 minutes of 5-on-5 time that they have played this season, and two of those goals came when Marchand and Pastrnak were together without Bergeron.

As this line goes, so go the Bruins.

Winnipeg Jets
The Line: Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler

With the Jets’ defense in shambles following the offseason, the team has had to rely on the strength of its forwards to remain competitive.

The big line of Scheifele, Laine, and Wheeler has certainly done its part to make sure that happens. Not only in terms of their own production, but also in how much the rest of the team has struggled when they are not on the ice. In nearly 300 minutes of 5-on-5 play without any of these three on the ice, the Jets have managed a grand total of four goals.

Pittsburgh Penguins
The Line: Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Dominik Simon

You could put together a pretty good forward lineup with the players the Penguins have out of the lineup right now. One of the biggest reasons they have kept winning through all of the injuries has been the play of their top line of Crosby, Guentzel, and Simon.

The latter member of this line is a point of much contention in Pittsburgh because he never scores goals himself, but the team loves him on the top line alongside Crosby and Guentzel and the overall numbers justify his existence on that line (it scores more goals with him than it does without him). So far this season Crosby is playing at an MVP level, Guentzel is doing his best to show his 40-goal season a year ago was no fluke, and Simon keeps making plays that keeps the play alive in the offensive zone and leads to offense. In 111 minutes together this trio has already combined to score eight of the the team’s 20 five-on-five goals this season.

New York Rangers
The line: Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad

The third member of this line has mostly been Chris Kreider or Pavel Buchnevich at different times, but the main drivers here are Panarin and Zibanejad.

Panarin has already scored four goals in the team’s first six games and has been everything the Rangers could have expected and hoped when they signed him in free agency. Zibanejad, meanwhile, is off to one of the best offensive starts in franchise history with 11 points in six games. When that duo is together the Rangers have doubled up their opponents on the scoreboard and scored like one of the league’s elite lines.

The problem with this Rangers team in the short-term was always going to be the lack of depth around them, and so far the Rangers have looked rather punchless at even-strength when their top duo is off the ice.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Fast starts most likely to continue

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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we are taking a look at 10 fast starts around the league and which ones are most likely to continue, and which ones are most likely not to continue.

How are we defining a fast start? It’s pretty simple, actually — teams that as of Monday have a .640 points percentage or better so far this season. A .640 points percentage over an 82-game season would be a 105-point pace, so it is obviously pretty high level of play.

There are 10 teams that qualify, and not all of them will continue that level of play throughout the season. Just for comparisons sake, there were nine teams off to the same start through same date a year ago and three of them ended up missing the playoffs. In 2017-18, four of the nine teams off to a similar start also ended up missing. So it stands to reason that a handful of these teams are going to significantly cool off.

This isn’t necessarily a ranking of which of these teams has played the best so far, but a ranking of which ones are most likely to continue playing well.

Who is for real and who is not? To the rankings!

Fast starts that will continue

1. Colorado Avalanche. Entering play on Monday they are 7-0-1 on the season and have the best record in the league, earning 15 out of a possible 16 points in the standings. The scary thing about them? They may not be playing their best hockey just yet. 

2. Carolina Hurricanes. Speaking of not playing their best hockey yet, the Hurricanes have won six out of their first nine games and have just three goals from the trio of Sebastian Aho, Nino Niederreiter, and Andrei Svechnikov. It is a testament to the depth they have assembled that three of their top players can be off to such a slow start and the team can still win the way it has.

3. Washington Capitals. They are the highest scoring team in the league, have been one of the top possession teams, and still haven’t received great goaltending from Braden Holtby. The latter part should scare the rest of the Metropolitan Division because even if Holtby doesn’t return to his former Vezina Trophy form he can still be better than he has been.

4. Vegas Golden Knights. The top of their lineup is full of impact players (especially Mark Stone, who has been incredible to start the year) but one of the big wild cards on this team is the emergence of rookie Cody Glass. He already has six points in his first nine games.

Fast starts, but with some questions

5. Boston Bruins. The biggest question here is the same one they have had for the past two years — will they get enough secondary scoring after their top line? Right now if one of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, or Patrice Bergeron does not score a goal, no one is scoring. They managed to find enough secondary scoring to reach Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final a year ago, so it may not be a huge concern in the long-run, but this is still a very top-heavy team so far this season.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins. Interesting team so far in the sense they have probably overachieved given the injury situation that has taken half of their forward lineup away. They are playing the way coach Mike Sullivan wants them to play, and they have played extremely well, but we still haven’t seen the Penguins as they were meant to look this season. Still not entirely sold on the defense, and I question how much of this early success is entirely sustainable.

Fast starts, but with some real concerns 

7. Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks won five of their first seven games last year — thanks mostly to John Gibson — before completely falling apart. The one thing that should give a little more optimism this time around is Dallas Eakins seems to have them playing a more sustainable style of hockey — one that does not rely entirely on goaltending — and they have actually carried the play in some of their wins. The concern is I am just not sure there is enough offense here and their two goalies have a combined save percentage of .940. What happens when that drops a bit?

8. Arizona Coyotes. They barely missed the playoffs a year ago and have probably been better than you realize at the start of the season. The concerns here are the same as in Anaheim, where they are still very dependent on incredible goaltending and there is not a ton of offense to work with.

9. Buffalo Sabres. For the second year in a row the Sabres are one of the big stories in the NHL with a fast start, entering play on Monday with a 7-1-1 record. There is reason to believe they can avoid the total meltdown they experienced a year ago thanks to an improved roster (offseason additions of Colin Miller, Henri Jokiharju, Marcus Johansson, while Rasmus Dahlin has a full season in the NHL under his belt) and what seems to be a better coach. But there are also still some real concerns. Carter Hutton won’t keep stopping 95 percent of the shots he faces. Victor Olofsson won’t keep scoring on 30 percent of his shots. They still play in an extremely tough division. There is reason to expect some regression here as the season goes on.

10. Edmonton Oilers. It’s been amazing start, but James Neal is not going to keep scoring on 30 percent of his shots and once that stops this team has the same problem it has had for years in that there is not enough depth after Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. They have feasted on a light schedule so far (and those points still count) but this is a team that needs to prove it over a full season before anyone fully buys into it.

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.