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It’s St. Louis Blues day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the St. Louis Blues.

2017-18

44-32-6, 94 points. (5th in the Central Division, 9th in the Western Conference)

IN:

Ryan O'Reilly
Tyler Bozak
David Perron
Chad Johnson
Patrick Maroon

OUT:

Vladimir Sobotka
Patrik Berglund
Tage Thompson
Carter Hutton
Scottie Upshall

RE-SIGNED:

Nikita Soshnikov
Robby Fabbri
Joel Edmundson

The St. Louis Blues got off to a strong start in 2017-18. Early on, it looked like they were going to be one of the top teams in the Western Conference. The Blues won 10 of their first 13 games (10-2-1) thanks to impressive performances from players like Brayden Schenn, Vladimir Taranseko, Alex Pietrangelo and company.

Everything appeared to be great. But near the end of the calendar year, the season started going off the rails. St. Louis wound up losing seven of nine games between Dec. 12 and 29. Things didn’t seem to get much better in the new year. The magic that had been surrounding the Blues early on in the season appeared to be gone.

[Under Pressure: Allen | Breakthrough: Dunn | 3 Questions]

Losing one player to injury shouldn’t be the reason for a season to go off track but looking back, it definitely appears as though losing Jaden Schwartz to an ankle injury did just that. When Schwartz went down on Dec. 9, he had racked up an impressive 35 points in 30 games. After that, they clearly weren’t the same team anymore.

Schwartz was a key cog during their early run, but if a team can’t survive one injury then they probably weren’t that good to begin with.

As always, starting netminder Jake Allen went through his usual ups and downs. His numbers weren’t always terrific, but he still had a 17-6-2 record at one point. When the team started slumping, their starter wasn’t able to help get them out of a hole.

In late December, Allen had even lost his starting job to Carter Hutton for a while (Hutton started 10 of 14 games between Dec. 30-Feb. 2). But Allen and the Blues managed to put together a six-game winning streak in March, but it still wasn’t enough to secure a berth in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

When the Blues decided to trade pending free agent Paul Stastny at the deadline, some players (i.e. Brayden Schenn) voiced their displeasure in the media. Sure, they were in the middle of a tight playoff race, but GM Doug Armstrong obviously didn’t believe that his team was good enough to do any damage even if they did sneak into the postseason. It might not have been a popular decision, but Armstrong was doing what was best for his group in the long run.

So after missing the playoffs, he decided it was time to make some significant changes to his roster. They added plenty of depth down the middle in the form of Ryan O’Reilly and Tyler Bozak and they also added wingers that can chip in offensively like David Perron and Patrick Maroon.

With the new additions and Schwartz and Robby Fabbri now healthy, the Blues appear to be a legitimate threat to make the postseason.

Prospect Pool:

Robert Thomas, 19, C, Hamilton Bulldogs (OHL) – 2017 first-round pick

Thomas has emerged as one of the best prospects in the game. The youngster had an outstanding OHL season with London and Hamilton, as he put up an impressive 24 goals and 75 points in just 49 games. He also performed very well for Team Canada at the 2018 World Junior Hockey Championship, where he accumulated six points in seven games. But Thomas isn’t only just an offensive force, he’s also capable of playing a 200-foot game. Even though he’s still a teenager, the 19-year-old has a legitimate shot of cracking the Blues roster this season.

“I’m excited about Robert. What I like, what coaches like, is he’s got a well-rounded game,” coach Mike Yeo said, per NHL.com. “Robert’s a guy who’s going to learn quickly. He’s a very coachable kid, he’s a smart player, plays well on both ends of the ice. Another right shot, but a guy that’s got a lot of elements, a lot of high hockey intelligence to his game that could really give him a chance to come in and make our team.”

• Jordan Kyrou, 20, C, Sarnia Sting (OHL) – 2016 second-round pick

Kyrou put together an incredible final season in junior in 2017-18. The 20-year-old had 39 goals and 109 points in just 56 games with Sarnia last season. That’s even more impressive when you consider that the second-leading scorer on his team finished the year with 73 points.

The young forward will now make the full-time leap to the professional ranks. It’ll be interesting to see whether or not he is capable of cracking the Blues’ opening-night roster or not. But with all the additions the team made during the off-season, they probably won’t be able to keep both Thomas and Kyrou, so that might be an interesting camp battle. Unfortunately for Kyrou, he can be sent to the AHL and can be recalled to the big club anytime they need him. If Thomas doesn’t stick, he has to go back to junior for the season.

• Klim Kostin, 19, C, San Antonio Rampage (AHL) – 2017 first-round pick

The 6-foot-3, 212-pounder was the last pick of the first round in his draft year, but he’s shown that he should have gone much earlier than that. Kostin made the leap right to the North American professional ranks last season, as he spent the year in the AHL. He finished the year with a respectable six goals and 28 points in 67 games, which isn’t too shabby for a player who was 18 for most of the hockey year. Kostin will need more seasoning in the minors, but he’s shown that he has a bright future ahead of him.

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.

It’s New York Islanders Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

2017-18:

35-37-10, 80 pts. (7th Metropolitan Division; 11th Eastern Conference)
missed playoffs

 IN:

Robin Lehner
Leo Komarov
Matt Martin
Valtteri Filppula
Tom Kuhnhackl

 OUT:

John Tavares
Calvin de Haan
Jaroslav Halak
Shane Prince
Nikolai Kulemin
Alan Quine
Chris Wagner

 RE-SIGNED:

Thomas Hickey
Ryan Pulock
Brock Nelson
Ross Johnston
Christopher Gibson
Devon Toews

This off-season could very well stand as the most pivotal in the history of the New York Islanders, a team that’s been in the NHL since 1972.

(Deep breath) naturally, the move that towers above them all is a franchise-altering relocation, as John Tavares opted to sign with the Maple Leafs rather than sticking with the Isles.

Such a rattling decision would already make this summer one of big changes for the Islanders, yet while that was the main course, there were plenty of other crucial changes.

[Under Pressure | Building off a breakthrough | Three questions]

After a brutal 2017-18 season from a defensive standpoint, the Islanders seemed to be the only franchise to offer reigning Stanley Cup-winning head coach Barry Trotz a deal within range of his market value. It would be tough to believe that Trotz won’t be able to provide the structure that the Islanders sorely lacked under Doug Weight, who was relieved of his duties.

Former Devils and Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello ended up making the decision to replace Weight, and also stripped such powers away from Garth Snow, who certainly received plenty of opportunities to put his stamp on the Islanders during 12 years as GM.

The Islanders struggled mightily in their own end, and were often porous in net, with the greatest measure of blame being a chicken-or-the-egg argument. How bad were their goalies, versus how vulnerable were they made by a Swiss cheese defense?

Either way, Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss struggled mightily in 2017-18, putting up the sort of save percentage stats that only would have been endearing during the Islanders’ dynasty era, when sub-90-percent was generally the standard. (Today it’s … uh, not.)

While Greiss stands as one of the NHL’s immovable goalie contracts, Halak is now out in favor of former Sabres starter Robin Lehner. It’s a one-year deal for Lehner, so he ranks as one of the leading wildcards for the Islanders.

As grim as it might feel to look at many facets of the Islanders’ season and summer, there are some good sides.

Most obviously, it sure seems like the Islanders unearthed another star center, one they’ll hopefully surround with better talent than Tavares enjoyed. Mathew Barzal took the NHL by storm last season, generating 85 points on his way to winning the Calder Trophy, the most generated by a rookie of the year winner in more than a decade.

Barzal supplemented all that substance with oodles of style.

For all of Snow’s struggles as GM, Barzal ranked as just one of the examples of his shrewd moves.

The trade that landed the Barzal pick looked like another punchline for the Islanders over Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli, something that was accentuated by the Isles winning the Jordan EberleRyan Strome deal. Chia wasn’t the only person who maybe shouldn’t have taken Snow’s calls, as the Travis Hamonic trade looks like another victory for the Islanders, as it helped them land successive promising-looking picks during the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft (more on them in a moment).

The mixture of good and bad is dizzying, although it may also be crucial to soothe some of the agony that comes from losing a foundational talent like Tavares.

Can Trotz and Lamoriello lead this franchise out of some dark days? We’ll begin to find out in 2018-19.

Prospect Pool:

  • Oliver Wahlstrom, W, 18, US NTDP – 2018 first-round pick
  • Noah Dobson, D, 18, Acadie-Bathurst (QMJHL) – 2018 first-round pick

The Islanders selected Wahlstrom at 11th overall and nabbed Dobson one pick later at 12, impressing critics with each pick, as you could argue that both could have gone earlier. It’s likely a matter of debate regarding which player should have been selected first, not to mention if Dobson or Wahlstrom actually ranks as the top Isles prospect.

The similarities end there, aside from both being 18.

Wahlstrom is touted as a potential 30-goal scorer in the NHL. He’ll get a year of seasoning with Boston College in 2018-19, but whenever he makes the jump, Wahlstrom is expected to be a lethal sniper who can bring some other nice scoring skills to the table.

Oh yeah, he also generated quite a sensation at age 9.

Dobson, meanwhile, ranks as one of the most promising defensive prospects once you get beyond Rasmus Dahlin and Quinn Hughes. Dobson scored 17 goals and 69 points during a smashing 67-game season in the QMJHL, so the production was certainly there for the intriguing blueliner.

At least two outlets have compared Dobson to Blues star Alex Pietrangelo.

  • Ilya Sorokin, G, 23, CSKA Moscow (KHL) – 2014 third-rounder

It remains to be seen when the Islanders could even coax Sorokin to the NHL, as he’s under contract in the KHL for quite some time. Regardless, he ranks as one of the team’s most important prospects, as the Islanders clearly need an answer in net.

Sorokin’s shown promise overseas, generating no lower than a .929 save percentage in KHL competition since 2014-15.

Consider Josh Ho-Sang and Kieffer Bellows as the lead Islanders prospects who should be considered “honorable mentions,” at least if you still label Ho-Sang as a prospect (as he’s enjoyed quite a few – though not quite enough – NHL reps).

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.

Islanders stay put, land Wahlstrom, Dobson with back-to-back picks

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DALLAS — It’s been quite few weeks for the New York Islanders organization. After hiring Lou Lamoriello as their new president and general manager and then snatching up Barry Trotz to replace Doug Weight as head coach, they scored big in the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft.

Sitting at picks No. 11 and 12, the Islanders were able to select forward Oliver Wahlstrom and defenseman Noah Dobson.

“All we can say is we’re glad where they were when we picked, so we feel very good about it,” said Lamoriello. “You never know when it comes to drafts, everybody has a little different focus, but these were two players we had very high.”

“It’s a dream come true. To be in New York, that city’s awesome and the organization is a powerhouse organization throughout the years. I couldn’t be more happy,” said Wahlstrom, who spent the last two seasons with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program.

Wahlstrom, who was a viral star as a 9-year-old, scored 48 goals and recorded 94 points this season. There’s no question about his offensive ability (“Scoring goals is my specialty”). It’s his play away from the puck that he feels he needs to improve, along with consistency. Currently committed to Boston College, he says he’ll make a decision at the end of the summer.

“If I have to develop for one year, Boston College is a great spot for me to develop as a person,” he said.

Also offensively-minded is Dobson, who helped the Acadie-Bathurst Titan of the QMJHL win the Memorial Cup in May. Modeling his game after Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues, he’s a good puck moving defenseman that is confident on the rush.

His abilities mesh with where the NHL is going.

“The NHL is a fast game now and you’ve got have D that are able to get the pucks up to the forwards and let them do their thing,” said Dobson. “I think it says a lot. Obviously there’s a lot of great defensemen in this draft. The game’s becoming a fast game so you’ve got to be able to move the puck quick and get the puck up ice.”

Dobson said he wants to use the summer to get stronger and increase his chances of making the team out of training camp in September.

As a 15-year-old, Dobson left his home in Prince Edward Island to spend a year with the Red Bull Salzburg academy. There hs impressed against older competition and furthered his development in a professional setting.

“I think that year at Red Bull showed him how hard he had to work to get to where he wanted to be,” said former NHLer Brian Savage, who served as a Red Bull scout.

Both players were tabbed to go a little higher than they did in many mock drafts, but as Wahlstrom noted, it doesn’t matter where you’re selected.

“You always want to be the best and picked as high as possible,” he said. “But it’s the draft and you get picked and then after that you have to focus on what you do to make the team.”

MORE:
Oliver Wahlstrom goes from viral stardom to NHL top prospect
Noah Dobson and his unique road to the 2018 NHL Draft

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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.

Blues GM confirms Kovalchuk interest, makes Jagr comparison

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PHT’s Adam Gretz placed the St. Louis Blues fifth in his power rankings for potential Ilya Kovalchuk destinations earlier week, citing the team’s need for a boost on offense (while highlighting the tantalizing potential of Kovalchuk with Vladimir Tarasenko).

It sounds like Blues GM Doug Armstrong is throwing his team’s name in the hat, if nothing else. He confirmed the Blues’ interest in Kovalchuk, according to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“Always looking to improve our team,” Armstrong said. “We’re like all teams. He’s 35 years old, there’s risk involved with players of that age. But he could be Jaromir Jagr. He could start slowing down at 41. Or he could come back and hit the wall. You never know.”

Armstrong also mentioned that, unlike teams such as the Sharks and Kings, the Blues didn’t arrange a face-to-face meeting with Kovalchuk. It’s unclear if that fact indicates a lower level of interest from St. Louis and/or Kovalchuk.

The age comments are more than just pointing out the obvious, by the way.

Kovalchuk would count as a 35+ contract, and with his most recent ask being a manageable cap hit yet a deal that would ask for some term at three years, a team would need to be confident that signing him would be worth it in the future. Not just now.

Taking a look at the Blues’ Cap Friendly page, such a risk would be reasonable for St. Louis, yet they would need to mull over the ramifications.

Three especially noteworthy players currently have three years remaining on their contracts: Jaden Schwartz, Jake Allen, and Alexander Steen. It might surprise some to realize that Steen is already 34, but Schwartz and Allen are young enough that the Blues must acknowledge that raises could be coming.

(Personally, that seems most pressing for Schwartz, as Allen has his critics as an up-and-down No. 1 goalie.)

A couple other looming raises could make Kovalchuk’s hypothetical three-year deal a bigger burden, as such a deal would run concurrently with raises in 2020-21. Both Alex Pietrangelo ($6.5 million cap hit) and Brayden Schenn ($5.125M) stand to make a lot more money once their bargain deals expire after 2019-20.

Overall, the Blues are in a fantastic situation to make it all work.

They only have about $62M committed to 18 players heading into next season, and the only plus of Robby Fabbri‘s terrible injury luck for St. Louis is that the RFA is likely to sign a team-friendly contract. (Assuming that Fabbri gets a clean bill of health.)

The Blues stand as a dark horse candidate for John Tavares for the same sort of reasons that Kovalchuk would make sense. While last season’s failure to make the playoffs was a disappointment, they’ve generally been competitive. A big-time addition could really accelerate that improvement, and this team has money to burn (for now). St. Louis also boasts some prominent players in the thick of their primes.

And, sure, Tarasenko’s presence cannot hurt.

St. Louis isn’t exactly like the Ducks, a team that hasn’t drafted a Russian player since 2009. While Tarasenko is the most prominent countryman on the Blues roster, St. Louis also employs Ivan Barbashev, Dmitrij Jaskin, and Nikita Soshnikov. (Czech forward Vladimir Sobotka also isn’t far removed from a three-year sojourn in the KHL, for whatever that’s worth.)

Long story short, the Blues have plenty of reasons to legitimately pursue Kovalchuk, and there’s some reason to believe that St. Louis would be a good fit for him.

That said, they’ll need to get in line … and they may not be in the front of that queue when free agency begins in July.

MORE ON THE KOVALCHUK SWEEPSTAKES

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.

West playoffs set after Avs beat Blues

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While two Eastern Conference matchups are still up in the air, the West is settled after the Avalanche beat the St. Louis Blues 5-2 in Colorado.

More on that decisive game in a moment. First, take a look at how it shakes out:

(Central 1) Nashville Predators vs. (Second wild) Colorado Avalanche

(Central 2) Winnipeg Jets vs. (Central 3) Minnesota Wild

(Pacific 1) Vegas Golden Knights vs. (First wild) Los Angeles Kings

(Pacific 2) Anaheim Ducks vs. (Pacific 3) San Jose Sharks

Nashville won the Presidents’ Trophy, so the Predators will hold home-ice advantage as long as they are in the playoffs. The Jets – Wild matchup seemed to be in the cards for some time, while there was plenty of turbulence below Vegas in the Pacific. The Ducks won their last game of the season while the Kings and Sharks fell on Saturday.

2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Schedule, Bracket, Streams and More

Out East, two intriguing playoff matchups are set. The Metropolitan Division-winning Washington Capitals will take on Columbus, the first wild card. Meanwhile, the in-state rivalry will continue for the Penguins and Flyers in the Metro’s two versus three matchup.

The Bruins and Lightning continue to vie for the Atlantic Division – and thus, the East’s eighth seed – so the Maple Leafs and Devils must wait to see who they’ll face. More on that here.

Play-in game

The Avalanche ended up winning 5-2 following a flurry of late goals (two for Colorado, one for St. Louis) with the Blues’ net empty. It ended up being closer than that score seemed, and there’s some controversy.

St. Louis has some reason to complain about Colorado’s second goal, as Tyson Barrie‘s power-play tally survived an offside review that’s more than a little bit polarizing:

The league ultimately determined that replays were inconclusive. Alex Pietrangelo was not happy after the game, as the Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford reports.

“Maybe they need some glasses in Toronto,” Pietrangelo said. ” … Maybe they’re guessing, or maybe they didn’t want us to get in the playoffs.”

With that, the Avalanche went up 2-0 6:11 into the second period, and the decision could have been even more controversial if the Blues would have failed to kill the delay of game penalty. St. Louis managed to kill it off, though.

Regardless, the game could have been very different if Colorado’s lead stayed at 1-0. Alongside Duncan Keith‘s last-second goal to cost the Blues a win, that Barrie goal stands as a painful “What if?” question for St. Louis.

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.