Capitals, Blues, Avalanche have goalie situations worth watching

NHL Goalies
Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
1 Comment

Goaltending is the one of the greatest equalizers in the NHL.

Great play at the position will mask a lot of flaws and carry an average team a long way. Bad play at the position can sink any Stanley Cup contender in the blink of an eye. It wins coaches the Jack Adams Award, and can then get them replaced one year later.

As we head into the second half of the 2021-22 NHL season there are three playoff teams that have some goaltending situations that could dramatically impact their chances. Let’s dig into them a little bit.

Does Washington need an upgrade?

Goaltending is not the only issue for the Capitals right now, but it is something that is probably worth looking at for two reasons.

  • It was a question mark when the season began and nobody has really taken a significant step forward.
  • It might be the easiest of their current flaws to fix while making the biggest impact.

The question here is how much faith you have in the duo of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek to go through the playoffs. Samsonov has been seen as their goalie of the future for several years now, but he has not really taken a big step forward, and his play over the past two months has slipped. At the same time, Vanecek’s play has been by far the better of the two since the start of December. But is that good enough for what the Capitals are going to need?

As a team, the Capitals’ all situations save percentage is 17th in the league and was 19th a season ago with the same duo. Not terrible, but not exactly game-changing, either.

The most intriguing option for the Capitals here is making a push for Marc-Andre Fleury, who will almost certainly be made available by a Chicago Blackhawks team that is going nowhere fast. Not only would it make sense from a hockey standpoint, but the potential storylines it could lead to if we get a Capitals-Pittsburgh Penguins playoff matchup would be off the charts. Fleury can still be a top-tier goalie and would give the Capitals a clear upgrade in net.

Another thought: What about a reunion with Braden Holtby? Holtby has had a strong season in Dallas, but the Stars are far from a lock to make the playoffs, still have a crowded goalie situation, and Holtby would be a cheaper (both in terms of salary and assets) should he be made available.

Husso is outplaying Binnington in St. Louis

Four years ago Jordan Binnington burst onto the scene in St. Louis and helped turn their season around, solidifying a goalie position that was dragging down an otherwise great team. He backstopped them to their first Stanley Cup and became the team’s franchise goalie. Even though his production has been on a fairly consistent downward trend since then (with some ugly postseason showings in there as well) the Blues still committed to him with a long-term six-year, $36 million contract extension that kicked in this season.

The early results have not been great.

After allowing seven goals on 35 shots on Tuesday night (in only two periods), his second straight start where he allowed six goals, his all situations save percentage for the season dropped all the way down to .901. That is not where you want your starter to be. Lately, Binnington has not actually been the starter.

The Blues have been leaning on backup Ville Husso in recent weeks and riding the hot hand.

There is a pretty dramatic difference in the Blues’ overall team performance depending on who the goalie is this season.

[NHL Power Rankings: Avs take top spot; here come the Bruins]

In games where Binnington is the goalie of record they have an 11-9-3 record while Binnington has a .901 save percentage,

When Binnington is not the goalie of record, the Blues are 14-3-2 while the quartet of Husso, Charlie Lindgren, Joel Hofer, and Jon Gillies have combined for a .940 save percentage.

Expecting that sort of performance to continue is expecting too much (nobody posts a .940 mark over a full season) as neither Husso or Lindgren have that sort of track record in pro hockey. But it is pretty clear that they are the Blues’ best options right now in house. The main storyline here though is the Blues’ big-money goalie has not reversed the recent downward trend in his production and is being outplayed by the other goalies on the roster.

Avalanche might be okay in net after all

In terms of their forwards and defense there is not a better roster on paper than the Colorado Avalanche. The big question was going to be in goal where they had to replace Vezina Trophy finalist Philipp Grubauer with Darcy Kuemper.

They paid a steep price for Kuemper in an offseason trade with the Arizona Coyotes, and the early results this season were a little mixed. Add in the absence of Pavel Francouz at the start and goaltending depth seemed to be the one big question in Colorado.

Lately, though, that is starting to change.

Kuemper is starting to find his game and has a .924 save percentage over the past two months, while Francouz is back and won six of his first seven starts with a .932 save percentage. Prior to Kuemper’s bounce back and Francouz’s the Avalanche might have been a team in the market for a goalie, but given the investment they already made in Kuemper, as well as the level of play from both goalies right now, that might be pushed to the back burner.

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

avalanche injuries
André Ringuette/Getty Images
1 Comment

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.