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Which NHL player is having best contract year?

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NHL teams are getting more sophisticated when it comes to avoiding truly boneheaded free agent moves (sorry, would-be next Bobby Holik), but the truth is that contract years can still swing a player’s contract by millions.

Just ask John Carlson — no, wait, he’s currently swimming in money.

(Note: he’s probably not literally swimming in money.)

We’re only in November, so a lot can change. Injuries happen in the violent, sometimes-randomly unlucky sports of hockey. Hot streaks can go ice-cold. Coaches can lose trust in a player, killing power-play opportunities and sabotaging line combinations.

At the moment, though, these are the players who are off to red-hot starts that could really fatten their future paychecks (and drive up their trade value, too). Cap Friendly’s free agent list was very helpful in putting this together, while stats cited come from Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick.

(Also, this list focuses on pending UFAs, in case you were getting ready to holler at your screen about Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and other could-be RFAs.)

Mark Stone, Senators, 26, $7.35 million

Last night’s rousing five-point performance pushes Stone to six goals and 12 assists for 18 points in 15 games. Yes, you can note that his shooting percentage is a bit high (17.6), but his career average of 15.6 percent argues that he’s long been a talented – if selective – shooter.

There are other reasons why Stone should rank as high-end trade bait, yet will also be tough for Ottawa to let go. He’s still young at 26, and won’t turn 27 until May. Also, if wingers received more Selke attention, Stone would likely be in that conversation. Despite being deployed more defensively (starting 56-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, versus a career average of 47-percent), Stone’s possession stats are off the charts, especially compared to his often-overwhelmed teammates in Ottawa.

If you’re a contender who could land him in a trade, Stone might be worth quite the ransom if he’d also talk extension.

Matt Duchene, Senators, 27, $6M

Despite his Wile E. Coyote-level luck when it comes to finding himself in miserable situations, Duchene is not one of Stone’s overwhelmed Senators teammates. Granted, his possession stats haven’t been resilient like those of Stone’s, but the speedy center still has 15 points in as many games this season.

Old-school executives will also love his abilities in the circle, as he continues to be strong on faceoffs (winning 53.2-percent so far in 2018-19).

One request is for Duchene to shoot more often, as he’s been below 2 SOG per game (1.87), which is not in line with his career average of 2.46 SOG per night.

Artemi Panarin, Blue Jackets, 26, $6M

“The Bread Man” is on the other end of the spectrum, flexing his skills with a resounding 51 SOG in 15 games (3.40 per night, towering over his 2.62 career average).

It would be the latest example that Panarin is for real, except I believe people no longer need convincing that he’s a star. His 16 points in 15 games feels more like “business as usual.”

Of course, the actual business side is where things are most fascinating, as the Blue Jackets need to figure out what to do with Panarin (and struggling contract year goalie Sergei Bobrovsky). Whether he remains in Columbus or is traded somewhere else, motivation shouldn’t be an issue.

Jeff Skinner, Sabres, 26, $5.725M

with Jason Pominville, Sabres, 35, $5.6M

For one of Jack Eichel‘s linemates, it’s about Skinner lining up that first UFA mega-deal, whether it’s with Buffalo (possibly as extension?) or not. On the other end of the spectrum – and on the other wing – we have Pominville, who’s merely hoping to keep his career alive and vibrant.

Both are off to raucous starts, and both are at risk of slowdowns.

Skinner’s generated a fantastic 16 points in 15 games, with nine of those points being goals on a shooting percentage of 18. Then again, maybe the universe is merely repaying Skinner for his unlucky shooting season in 2017-18, when he only connected on an 8.7 success rate? He’s really been all over the place during his career, suffering four seasons with a shooting percentage below the general shooter’s Mason-Dixon line of 10-percent.

Skinner’s long been a very effective player who sort of leaves you hoping for even more, so maybe he’ll put it together at the most lucrative time?

Pominville felt like a nostalgia-friendly addition (and an expensive deal to make the money work) in the trade that netted Marco Scandella, yet the veteran winger has 14 points in 15 games. His eight goals come from some luck, as he’s connected on a whopping 19.5-percent of his shots. He’s also done so with a miniscule ice time average of a mere 13:43 per game, actually down from his recent years of decline.

Both are likely to slip from point-per-game play over the long haul of 82 games, but that’s fine. In Skinner’s case, he could easily exceed his career-high of 63 points. Meanwhile, Pominville could very well show that he still has a place in the NHL, possibly as the full-time “third-best guy on a good line.”

(Another Pominville-like, veteran impact who falls a little short of the top of this list is Jason Spezza, who’s managed a helpful 10 points in 15 games despite limited minutes.)

Anders Lee, Islanders, 27, $3.75M

Hey, maybe Lee is good, not just John Tavares-enhanced?

Either way, it’s been an impressive start to 2018-19 for Lee, who presents an interesting conundrum for the shockingly fast-starting Islanders: do you take advantage of him being the “hot hand” or do you pencil him in as a core player?

Lee has 13 points in 14 games, and his 12.5 shooting percentage is actually below his career average of 14.5 (OK, that might be the Tavares effect).

Interestingly, Lee is succeeding despite being deployed in a resoundingly different way. He’s begun 59.2-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, versus a career average of 45.1. Lee’s possession numbers aren’t the prettiest in every regard, yet they look rosier relative to his teammates.

Lee’s numbers might suffer if things really bottom out for the Islanders as this season goes along; while he’s not really riding inane puck luck, the Isles in many ways have been.

Still, it’s heartening to observe his start, whether you’re an Islanders exec pondering an extension or a team hoping to poach Lee.

Lightning round

  • Spezza: It sure seems like has a new lease on life unshackled from Hitch’s clutches.
  • Erik Karlsson and Jake Gardiner: These two defensemen are in interesting situations. Each are scoring at about a point-every-other-game pace, even though Karlsson hasn’t scored a goal and Gardiner has been limited to one. All three have the potential to go on red-hot streaks to up their value; all three will get paid nicely one way or another.
  • Jakob Silfverberg: Even at 27, it’s tough to tell if we’ve seen everything Silfverberg has to offer. Injuries diluted his totals, but his nine points are more impressive when limited to 11 games. He can’t expect to maintain a 21 shooting percentage, though.
  • Wayne Simmonds: So far, the intriguing winger has 10 points in 15 games. His value is tough to gauge, so his earning power may very well hinge on how 2018-19 shakes out.
  • Semyon Varlamov, Ryan Miller, Robin Lehner: Goalies who are having the strongest contract years so far, with Varlamov and Lehner playing bigger roles.
  • Keith Kinkaid, Jimmy Howard: Two goalies in very different situations, with very similar save percentages. A lot on the line for all of the goalies in UFA situations.
  • Bob, Mike Smith: Among the goalies penciled in as starters who are off to tough contract years. We’ll see if they can get back on track.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Flyers’ goalie nightmare continues with Elliott injury

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Life presents few constants: death, taxes, and the Philadelphia Flyers’ goalies letting them down.

The latest nightmare comes as the Flyers announce that Brian Elliott will miss approximately two weeks with a lower-body injury. Looking at the Flyers’ schedule, it would probably be safest to assume that Elliott will miss 5-6 games, as there’s a substantial gap between Philly’s Dec. 1 game against the Penguins and their Dec. 6 contest against the Blue Jackets.

Sat, Nov. 17: vs. Tampa Bay
Wed, Nov. 21: @ Buffalo
Fri, Nov. 23: vs. New York
Sat, Nov. 24: @ Toronto
Tue, Nov. 27: vs. Ottawa
Sat, Dec. 1: @ Pittsburgh
Thu, Dec. 6: vs. Columbus

Elliott suffered his injury (or re-injury?) as Kyle Palmieri scored a wraparound goal during the Flyers’ eventual 3-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Thursday.

It’s been an up-and-down season for Elliott. Not that long ago, Elliott seemed to be getting on track, rattling off a four-game winning streak while allowing just four goals Oct. 30 – Nov. 10 (albeit with one of those victories happening in a relief appearance).

Even during these past two losses, the 33-year-old has mostly given the Flyers a chance to win, allowing two goals each time (though that Palmieri goal was the end of his Thursday night).

With Michal Neuvirth still on the shelf, the Flyers go back to what sometimes feels like an unendingly bleak situation. Calvin Pickard has been the Flyers’ go-to guy, and that hasn’t worked out well at all. While Elliott’s been merely adequate overall (.911 save percentage), Pickard’s sporting a disastrous .865 save percentage over seven games.

This isn’t the first time such woes have inspired many to wonder if the Flyers should just bite the bullet and given much-ballyhooed goalie prospect Carter Hart some NHL-level exposure, and it’s probably not going to be the last time people call for such a decision.

Like it or not, it seems like management (maybe stubbornly?) is sticking to the plan with Hart, as the Flyers instead recalled Alex Lyon from the AHL.

GM Ron Hextall has been loading up with options in net, creating an unsettlingly stark quantity over quality situation. Along with Hart and Lyon, the Flyers could also conceivably turn to Anthony Stolarz if Pickard continues to struggle … yet those goalies are struggling in their own right.

If you look at the small sample size of AHL games for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, you won’t see much to like, and Hart’s shaky play (.893 save percentage in eight games) is no exception.

Between huge goalie headaches and plenty of fans calling for the ouster of head coach Dave Hakstol, the Flyers have been awfully frustrating lately. Despite all of their talent, perhaps it’s fitting that this team currently sits at a middling 9-9-1?

The temptation would be to imagine how different things would be for the Flyers if they could actually enjoy some good goaltending but … you and Flyers fans know that story all too well.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Archibald to have hearing for illegal check to head of Hartman

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Josh Archibald could be facing a suspension in the near future. The Arizona Coyotes forward will have a hearing for his illegal check to the head of Nashville Predators forward Ryan Hartman on Thursday night.

As you can tell from the video above, Archibald caught Hartman with a shoulder to the head right near the blue line. He was given a minor penalty for an illegal check to the head after the incident occurred late in the second period. Even though he’s not a repeat offender, You’d have to think that the obvious contact will result in him getting at least a one-game suspension.

After leaving the game momentarily, Hartman was able to return to the Predators bench during the third period.

Archibald has no goals, no assists and a minus-1 rating in nine games this season. The two penalty minutes he received for the high hit were his first two of the season.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Predators have one big problem to solve

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Some NHL teams are closer to being perfect than others, but no group of players is without flaw. The Nashville Predators are off to a great start. They’re tied for the best record in the NHL at 13-5-1, but the Preds have a huge issue they’re going to have to address sooner or later.

When it comes to goals scored, they’re currently ninth in the NHL with 62. When it comes to goals against, the Predators (44 goals allowed) only trail Winnipeg by one for top spot. So, what’s the glaring weakness? It’s the power play, which currently ranks dead-last in the NHL at 10.8 percent. No other team is below 12.7 percent this season. Yikes!

The Predators are heading into this weekend’s game against the Los Angeles Kings on a three-game losing skid. They’ve dropped one-goal decisions to Anaheim (shootout), San Jose and Arizona. During that stretch, they’ve gone 0-for-15 on the man-advantage. You think a power-play goal here or there would have made a difference in three one-goal games? Definitely.

A perfect example of that came on Monday night in Anaheim. The Preds went 0-for-7 on the power play in that one, including a 4-on-3 man-advantage in overtime. Sometimes scheme is the issue, but other times it’s just about the opponent’s aggressive penalty kill, or their goalie. In overtime, it was all about Ducks goalie John Gibson, who stoned Ryan Johansen right in front of the net.

As TSN’s Travis Yost pointed out earlier this week, one of the major issues might be how much ice time their defensemen are getting on the man-advantage. Many teams have opted to use four forwards on the power play this season, but the Preds aren’t typically one of them. Because they’re loaded with defensemen like P.K. Subban (now injured), Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis, they feel like those players are the best options in that kind of scenario. Now that Subban’s been placed on injured reserve, they could decide to hand more ice time to their forwards.

Of the eight power-play goals they’ve scored this season, three have come off the stick of Filip Forsberg. No other player has more than one. And just one of the eight goals has been scored by a defenseman, and that’s Josi.

“I thought we started to get some looks in the overtime,” head coach Peter Laviolette said after Monday’s game against Anaheim, per The Tennessean. “We could’ve won the game a bunch of times on the power play and it just didn’t go for us, so that’s where we’re at right now with it. It’s gotta be better.”

The good news for Nashville, is that they’re going to be home for the majority of the remaining days in November and early December, which means they’ll have ample practice time to work on this significant issue. Eight of the Predators’ next nine games will be at Bridgestone Arena. The only road game they’ll play between now and Dec. 3 will be in St. Louis.

Imagine how dangerous the Preds will be if they get their power play sorted out? That’s a scary thought.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Niederreiter’s slow start; Gritty’s first snowfall

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• 16 teams made up of developmentally disabled hockey players are participating in a tournament that they’re dedicating to two people who died in the Tree of Life synagogue mass shooting. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

• This Washington Capitals fan went all the way to Antarctica to remind the penguins which team won the Stanley Cup last season. (Washington Post)

• Who’s the bigger threat on the power play, Alex Ovechkin or Patrik Laine? (The Point)

• One month into the 2018-19 season, it looks like both the Arizona Coyotes and Montreal Canadiens came away happy with the Max Domi-for-Alex Galchenyuk swap. (Featurd)

• Gritty got to enjoy his first snow fall on Thursday. Here’s what he had to say: “Zamboni dust! IT’S FALLING FROM THE SKY.” (NBC Sports Philly)

• Getting Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson’s name on the back of a jersey is not an easy accomplishment. (NHL.com)

• Since we just passed hall of fame weekend, Puck Junk decided to look at the bad hockey card hall of fame class for 2018. There’s some real beauties in here. (Puck Junk)

• The Oilers don’t like to put Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on the same line unless they have to. But if Tuesday’s win over Montreal was any indication, those two will stick together. (The Score)

• Josh Ho Sang is clearly starting to get more comfortable in the AHL. Could an NHL call up be in the cards for him? (Trentonian.com)

• Cecilie Olsen is a 24-year-old woman that’s running a men’s professional hockey team in Norway. (ESPN)

• The Dallas Stars’ lack of scoring depth is well-documented. Their latest experiment consists of trying Brett Ritchie on the second line with Jason Spezza. (Defending Big D)

• Blackhawks forward Chris Kunitz has been through a mid-season coaching change that got off to a rocky start. Things ended up working out for that edition of the Pittsburgh Penguins though. Will the same thing happen for the ‘Hawks? (NBC Sports Chicago)

• Many of the Buffalo Sabres have shown remarkable improvement this season, but others, like Vladimir Sobotka, have regressed badly. (Die by the Blade)

• Rotoworld’s Gus Katsaros broke down Nino Niederreiter‘s slow start to the season. (Rotoworld)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.