Which slow-starting Stanley Cup contender can turn it around?

3 Comments

One month into the NHL season and there are a lot of things in the standings that are upside down.

Teams like Buffalo, Edmonton, and Vancouver that were expected to be in the basement are all near the top, while Stanley Cup contenders like Tampa Bay, Toronto, and San Jose have stumbled.

It is a long season and the early surprises still have to prove they have staying power, while the the disappointments have time to turn things around. We have seen the latter happen over the past few years with the 2019 St. Louis Blues and 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins overcoming brutal starts to win the Stanley Cup. Not every team is that lucky, and both of those examples needed to go undergo significant in-season changes to their roster and coaching staff to reach the top.

Is there a preseason contender off to a slow start this year capable of such a turnaround?

Let’s look at three of the big ones.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Confidence in a turnaround: Fairly high

The pressure is on for this team to do something significant this season and so far they are not really doing much to inspire confidence that this team will turn out any different than the past three. They can score a lot of goals, they give up a lot of goals, and as of Thursday have won just six of their first 14 games of the season. It is one of the worst 14-game stretches they have had over the past three years, being topped only by their 14-game stretch to end the 2018-19 season (when they won only four games down the stretch).

If you’re looking for a positive in Toronto it’s that for all of the struggles they have had so far there are signs that they can easily get this turned around.

For one, they are going to be getting John Tavares back soon. That’s a big add to the lineup.

And for as much as they have struggled to keep the puck out of their own net, a lot of that is related to the play of their goalies. They still have their share of flaws defensively, but they are the second-best shot attempt differential team in the league and while they still give up a lot of shot attempts, they have  cut that number down from where it was a year ago. The biggest issue is in goal where Frederik Andersen has not yet played up to his expected level and backup Michael Hutchinson has given them literally zero chance in the four games he has started.

There is reason to believe Andersen will be better based on his track record, and a backup goalie can be fixed with a trade. Better goaltending can fix a lot of these early problems.

Whether that is enough to get by the Boston Bruins or to actually do something in the playoffs remains to be seen. But they will be there and have the chance.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Confidence in a turnaround: High, but with some caution

Always bet on talent, and the Lightning are still the most talented team in the league on paper. That is the good news.

Here is my concern: Do you remember about a decade ago when the Washington Capitals were the best regular season team in the league every year, won the Presidents’ Trophy with 54 wins, and then got bounced in Round 1 by a No. 8 seed Montreal team that would have had no chance in beating them if not for a super-human goaltending performance from Jaroslav Halak? And then the Capitals responded by trying to fix themselves by changing what they did and the way they played only to self-sabotage themselves and take about two steps backwards?

I fear the Lightning have hit that phase.

It is not just the fact that they are not winning as regularly as they have that is concerning. It is the way they are playing. They are getting out-shot, out-attempted, out-chanced, and out-everything during 5-on-5 play. They have one of the worst shot attempt differentials in the league through 12 games and are simply not generating as much as they did a year ago. They are still scoring goals, but they are relying heavily on the power play to do it and not carrying play at even-strength. No one seems to be afraid of the team that put the fear of god into every opponent for 82 games just one year ago.

Is it a matter of simply working through some new ideas? A slow start with some needed adversity? Or a concerning trend that is maybe an overreaction to (an admittedly horrible) postseason defeat?

[Related: Lightning fighting through some early season adversity]

San Jose Sharks

Confidence in a turnaround: Not without a major change or two. 

The goaltending is still a major issue, but we already knew that. They also do not seem to have any interest in trying to fix it, something else that should have been obvious after the way last year unfolded.

But that is not the only thing broken here. The whole system seems broken. This has been, quite simply, the worst 5-on-5 team in the league this season by pretty much any objective measure you want to look at it. You want to look at underlying numbers like shot attempts, scoring chances, high-danger chances, or expected goals? All among the worst in the league and down near the potential lottery teams.

You want to look at something more basic like simply goals for and against? Worst in the NHL at 5-on-5, getting outscored by a 37-19 margin. That is goals-for percentage of just 33 percent. The next worst team in the league in that category is Detroit at 40 percent (20 for, 29 against). There is no way to sugarcoat that, it is just bad with a capital B-A-D.

There was a point last year where the Blues were playing the right way, doing everything well defensively, and still losing because they couldn’t get a goalie to make a save. All they needed was somebody to solidify that position to turn things around. The Sharks still need that, too. But what’s even worse is that they also need the rest of the team to get its act straightened out as well.

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.

The Buzzer: McDavid, Draisaitl stay red-hot; Lightning torch Rangers

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Three Stars

1. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers

There is a reason these two lead the NHL in points and a combined 11-point outing will certainly keep them there a bit longer. McDavid recorded his second hat trick in three games and his first career six-point outing. Draisaitl had five assists and extended his point streak to 11 games as the Oilers skated to a 6-2 victory against the Colorado Avalanche. If the Oilers feel that the rest of the lineup can provide enough support McDavid and Draisaitl can build on a dynamic partnership and help Edmonton return to the postseason.

2. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

A trip to Sweden was the perfect opportunity for the Lightning to find their form and in their first game back in North America, they proved they still are an elite offensive team. Kucherov capped off an explosive stretch when Tampa Bay scored three times in a span of 61 seconds and added three assists. It was the second time this season Kucherov recorded four points.

3. Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks

The Czech forward had two goals as the San Jose Sharks extended their winning streak to five with an important 5-3 victory against the Anaheim Ducks. Hertl was the beneficiary of a suspect call when he pushed John Gibson’s pad over the goal line in the opening period. But on his second of the night, the 26-year-old wired a wrister to even the score in the second period. After a slow start, the Sharks are hoping to climb their way back into the playoff race.

Highlights of the Night

McDavid doing McDavid things

Video game dekes are normally reserved for an alternate reality but Justin Dowling of the Dallas Stars showed his slick hands with an impressive toe drag.

Before a one-timer is launched, there are times you just know the player is going to connect. Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is one goal away from the 400-goal mark after this blistering slap shot.

Blooper of the Night

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins probably had a different plan for this celebration

Factoids

  • Connor McDavid became the fourth player in Oilers history to record two hat tricks in three games, joining Wayne Gretzy, Glen Anderson and Jari Kurri [NHL PR].
  • McDavid and Draisaitl are just the second Oilers teammates in the last 30 years to each record five points in a game [NHL PR]
  • The Hurricanes have not lost a game against the Sabres since March 22m 2016 and are one of five teams with an active win streak of 10+ games vs. one opponent [NHL PR]
  • Dougie Hamilton is the fastest defenseman in Hurricanes/Whalers franchise history to reach 20 points in a season (19 GP) [Sportsnet Stats]
  • The Lightning scored four goals in each of the first and second periods of a game for first time in franchise history [NHL PR]
  • Tampa Bay scored four goals in the first 6:42 of Thursday’s game. Only five teams have accomplished that feat faster in the last 25 years [NHL PR].

Scores

Lightning 9, Rangers 3

Hurricanes 5, Sabres 4 (OT)

Jets 4, Panthers 3

Wild 3, Coyotes 2

Oilers 6, Avalanche 2

Stars 4, Canucks 2

Sharks 5, Ducks 3

Kings 3, Red Wings 2

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Necas rewarding Hurricanes’ patience

Carolina Hurricanes forward Martin Necas
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Highly touted prospects are consistently called on to produce shortly after their draft year, sometimes hindering their growth as players.

Whether the club is competing for the Stanley Cup, looking to become a contender or facing a salary cap dilemma, young players on entry-level contracts have become a staple in the NHL.

For the Carolina Hurricanes, the patience they showed during Martin Necas’ development process has proven to be beneficial.

Necas has recorded 13 points through 19 games, including an assist on Dougie Hamilton’s game-winning goal Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres. The 20-year-old forward darted into the offensive zone and could not complete a breakaway opportunity midway through overtime. However, instead of losing his composure, Necas stayed with the play, retrieved the puck and set up Hamilton to help Carolina secure a 5-4 victory.

Carolina selected Necas with the 12th pick in the first round of the 2017 NHL draft. Necas played one game in the NHL that season before returning to the Czech Republic. Last year, Necas had a seven-game stint with the Hurricanes, but the organization felt he needed more fine-tuning in the American Hockey League, where he helped the Charlotte Checkers capture the Calder Cup.

The pressure surrounding a first-round pick is omnipresent during the development process and only heightens when the prospect needs additional time outside the NHL. The situation is even more magnified when the big club is contending for a championship and contemplating a major trade deadline acquisition or a promotion from within.

But Carolina’s front office resisted the urge to disrupt Necas’ development and is reaping the rewards from that tough decision this season.

If Necas continues to produce, he will be in contention for a different Calder Trophy this season. While an individual award is an accomplishment, Carolina is hoping its patience will be rewarded as the team looks to build on its Eastern Conference Finals appearance last season.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Maple Leafs GM gives interesting take on ‘polarizing’ players

1 Comment

The Toronto Maple Leafs are mired in a three-game losing streak, and generally speaking, have seemed a bit underwhelming so far in starting 2019-20 with a 9-7-4 record (22 points, currently in second wild card).

Through 20 games, you’ll see players talk about getting “swagger” back, and you probably won’t be able to scroll Hockey Twitter without stumbling upon at least a few debates about the job Mike Babcock is doing.

With as passionate a fan base as the Maple Leafs have, you’ll see people really drilling down to parse even the depth aspects of the team. Maybe that explains why we got an interesting take from GM Kyle Dubas, who almost seemed to break “the fourth wall” when he acknowledged the many takes that defensemen Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie inspire.

Buffet of opinions

Dubas’ comments about Ceci are especially fascinating, as you can see from TSN’s Karen Shilton.

“Cody is an interesting one. I think it goes back to the war between data and subjective scouting [in that] he seems to be a very polarizing player,” Dubas said. “Even when everything underlying about him has been relatively solid, especially when you consider his usage [as a top-pairing defenceman who averages 22:19 of ice time per game], it seems to be every tiny thing that he does becomes a referendum on whether he’s good or not, which is mind-boggling to me. Every defenceman that plays that much and plays in that role is going to [make] mistakes. I think he’s been a good addition for us and has played above expectations from when we acquired him and we’re very happy with him.”

In particular, Dubas captures the tenure of some Hockey Twitter debates when he says “it seems like every tiny thing that he does becomes a referendum.”

But it’s not that hard to see where many of Ceci’s critics are coming from.

When the Maple Leafs acquired Ceci, and it became clear that he’d actually stick around for at least a while, the hope (for many) was that he wouldn’t have the same role as he did in Ottawa, where some believe the Senators promoted him to a level of incompetence. What if Ceci was in an easier role, with fewer minutes and lesser opponents? Instead, his ice time has been virtually unchanged from last season, and defensive measures like his Hockey Viz heat maps (via Micah Blake McCurdy) look as bad as ever:

But, truly, Dubas isn’t totally off base when he says that there are certain underlying numbers where Ceci comes across at least a bit more respectably.

There’s the argument, advanced by people like Jonas Siegel of The Athletic (sub required), that it’s too early to judge Ceci.

Maybe it’s too late; perhaps there’s an “eye test vs. analytics” divide that won’t be broken easily. It could be that the biggest uproar would come if the Maple Leafs brought back Ceci after his expiring deal melts away.

(Opinion: they absolutely should not bring Ceci back.)

Tyson not knocking it out of the park

In the grand scheme of things, the Ceci situation is basically going as prescribed.

The bigger disappointment might be Tyson Barrie, even if you ignore Nazem Kadri‘s promising early results in Colorado. The book on Barrie is that he can be an explosive offensive performer, although there were red flags about him negating much of that prowess with shaky defense.

Those red flags carry over to those Hockey Viz charts, as there’s a lot of the bad sort of red when you consider Barrie’s defensive impact (and arguably not enough of the good red on offense to justify that bleeding).

Keeping it as simple as it gets, Barrie barely has more points (zero goals, five assists, thus five points) than Ceci (one goal, three assists for four points). Those numbers are underwhelming even if you viewed Barrie as something of a paper tiger with superficial scoring stats coming in.

Maybe it’s telling that Dubas’ comments are more milquetoast about Barrie, stating that “we just want him to continue to work and get comfortable here.”

***

Barrie, Ceci, and the Maple Leafs face a familiar foe on Friday in the Boston Bruins. In the Bruins’ own way, they want to get back on track too, as they’ve lost four in a row.

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’ Brodie hospitalized after suffering seizure during practice

1 Comment

In what sounds like a scary scene from Calgary Flames practice on Thursday, defenseman T.J. Brodie fell to the ice and appeared to experience a seizure, according to multiple reporters on hand.

Brodie, 29, was hospitalized afterward, but the good news is that Flames GM Brad Treliving described Brodie as “alert and responsive.”

Treliving didn’t officially announce that Brodie had a seizure, instead referring to it as an “episode.”

The Flames postponed practice after Brodie was taken off the ice on a stretcher. Their next game is on Saturday, when they face the Arizona Coyotes on the road.

UPDATE: The Flames announced in an update that Brodie has been discharged and is doing well in recovery at home with his family.

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.