Alexander Radulov

Defending champion Blues surrounded by tough teams in West

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St. Louis had better dig in for its repeat bid.

The defending Stanley Cup champion Blues will have their hands full in the Western Conference, which seems to have a slew of contenders. And, every team in the entire league is going to give the Blues its best shot each game.

”There’s going to be a whole different feel for us that we’ve got to figure out, ‘OK, how can we elevate our game?’ We’re not going to catch teams by surprise,” said Blues center Ryan O'Reilly, last season’s playoff MVP and top defensive forward. ”We’re going to need to make changes and grow ourselves to be better this year and to do it again.”

Dallas, Vegas, Calgary, Colorado, San Jose and Winnipeg all go into the season with a shot to knock off St. Louis and keep the Cup in the West after the coveted trophy was won by Eastern Conference teams the previous three years. And even though the Nashville Predators appears to be somewhat overlooked this season, it’s not wise to count them out in the race, especially with the addition of center Matt Duchene.

The Central Division, which may earn both wild cards again in the conference, may be the strongest in the NHL.

”It’s hard not to say the Central with the Blues being in it,” Arizona center Derek Stepan said.

SHINING STARS

Dallas seems set up for success with star players all over the place, giving the franchise a legitimate chance to reach the conference finals for the first time since 2008.

Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn provide plenty of scoring power. Second-year coach Jim Montgomery can roll four lines after the front office bolstered the team’s depth by signing 35-year-old Joe Pavelski, who was an All-Star last year with San Jose for the third time in four years.

”Getting a guy like Pavelski to us is going to be huge for us obviously with the net front (presence) and leadership-wise in the locker room,” defenseman John Klingberg said.

The 27-year-old Klingberg is potentially going into the prime year of his career and 20-year-old Miro Heiskanen is a future star on the blue line, coming off a 33-point rookie season in which he was durable enough to play all 82 games.

Goaltender Ben Bishop looks like he might be at his best at the age of 32. His save percentage led the league last year and he ranked second in the NHL in goals-against average, giving up fewer than two a game for the first time in his career.

THIRD TIME A CHARM?

The Golden Knights are hoping their third year is more like their first, when they reached the Stanley Cup Final, and not like their second season that ended in the first round with a Game 7 loss to the Sharks. Vegas returns its top nine scorers and three-time Stanley Cup champion goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury as the franchise makes another run with familiar faces. Talented forward Mark Stone starts his first full season with the Golden Knights after signing an eight-year deal in February.

”We have something to prove to show that we are a top team in the NHL,” Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault.

GROUNDED JETS

Winnipeg’s chances may hinge on when, or possibly if, restricted free agents Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor sign to stay with the franchise.

”If we don’t have those two guys for the whole season, which I don’t think is going to happen, then it does change our team a little bit because then we’ve lost a lot of players,” Winnipeg Jets winger Nikolaj Ehlers said.

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

Connor McDavid is one of the game’s greats and teammate Leon Draisaitl is a 100-point scorer, but the Edmonton Oilers might be relegated to playing only in the regular season for a third straight year and 13th time in 14 seasons.

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews may not have enough talent around them to avoid missing the playoffs a third straight year in Chicago for the first time in more than a decade.

– The Minnesota Wild signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to 13-year, $98 million contracts in 2012 and they may miss the playoffs two straight years for the first time since then.

– The Los Angeles Kings hired former San Jose and Edmonton coach Todd McLellan, but he will have a hard time stopping the franchise from falling short of the postseason in two straight years for the first time since a six-season drought that ended in 2010.

– Under first-year coach Dallas Eakins, the Anaheim Ducks may miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2000-2002.

– The Arizona Coyotes have failed to make the playoffs for seven straight years, a drought that trails only Buffalo’s in the NHL, and probably will extend the run this season. The Vancouver Canucks could sit out a fifth straight year, which would be a franchise record.

Previewing the 2019-20 Dallas Stars

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or worse: The Stars were one of the most top-heavy teams in the league last season with Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, Jamie Benn, John Klingberg, and Miro Heiskanen driving almost all of the scoring. Only three forwards on the team managed more than 30 points, and if offense wasn’t coming from the Seguin-Benn-Radulov trio, it wasn’t going to come from anywhere. They attempted to address that over the summer with the signings of Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry. That should be an improvement. Perry is a bit of a wild card because his career has fallen off so much in recent years, but Pavelski should still be able to drive a second scoring line that the Stars desperately need. How much better remains to be seen, but they are better.

Strengths: Simply put, it is the top of their lineup and it is not limited to any one position. Whether it be at forward where they have a great top line (Seguin-Benn-Radulov), on defense (Klingberg and Heiskanen) or in net (Ben Bishop) each layer of the roster has top-line talent. That matters a lot. You can not compete for a championship without elite players, they are the toughest players to find and acquire, and the Stars have a bunch of them at the most important positions. Seguin is one of the league’s best offensive players, Klingberg is already a Norris contender, Heiskanen might one day join him, and Bishop has been a Vezina finalist three different times.

Weaknesses: If their strength is the top of the lineup, then it only makes sense that their weakness is everything after that. The Stars’ bottom three lines were so bad a year ago that when none of Seguin, Benn, or Radulov were on the ice at 5-on-5 the Stars were outscored by a 77-56 margin and controlled less than 48 percent of the total shot attempts. That is, in a word, bad. If the Stars are going to be more than just a playoff team and become a legitimate Stanley Cup contender that has to improve.

[MORE: X-Factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): In his first season behind the Stars’ bench Jim Montgomery had the Stars in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and was a double overtime Game 7 goal away from being in the Western Conference Final. It would take a complete meltdown for his job to be in any sort of jeopardy at this point. So we will go with a 1 out of 10 for him on the hot seat rating this season.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Heiskanen, Pavelski, and Roope Hintz are three players worth keeping an eye on in Dallas this season.

Let’s start with Heiskanen because the expectations for him are beginning to shoot through the roof. His rookie season was sensational and so good that Bishop already declared him to be one of the best defenders he has ever played with and a future Hall of Famer. He just turned 20 years old this summer and seems to have unlimited potential. How big of a step he takes in year two will be a fascinating development to watch.

When it comes to Pavelski the biggest question is what he is going to be capable of producing. He has been one of the league’s best goal-scorers over the past six years and is coming off a monster 38-goal performance (in only 75 games) for the San Jose Sharks. But he just turned 35 years old and had a career-high 20 percent shooting percentage a year ago. He is probably not going to be that efficient with his shooting this season so you should expect some kind of a regression. Even if he is a 25 or 30 goal player that is still a huge boost to the Stars’ lineup.

Hintz took a huge step forward over the final two months of the regular season, recording 17 points in 32 games between the beginning of February and the end of the regular season. He continued that strong play in the playoffs with 13 points (five goals, three assists) in the Stars’ playoff games. Him being able to build off that and become a strong complementary piece would go a long way toward solving some of the depth concerns.

Playoffs or lottery: This is a playoff team, and potentially a pretty good one. The Western Conference is still pretty wide open and there remains a pretty big gap between the playoff teams and the rest of the pack. Depending on how much they can get out of Palelski and Perry, as well as any improvement from returning young players (Heiskanen, Hintz, etc.) this could be a top-three team in the Central and potentially even compete for the top spot.

MORE:
Pavelski, Perry missing pieces for Stars?
• 
ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Pavelski, Perry switch to Stars after long stays in first home

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FRISCO, Texas  — Joe Pavelski joined the Dallas Stars as an expensive free agent coming off one of his best goal-scoring years, while Corey Perry quietly signed a low-cost deal for one year after playing the fewest games of his career because of a knee injury.

That’s where the differences end for the veteran forwards trying to help the Stars make back-to-back playoff trips for the first time in more than a decade. The Stars will try to get past the second round after a Game 7 overtime loss to St. Louis, eventual winners of the Stanley Cup.

Pavelski and Perry both ended up on the same team after lengthy careers with the clubs that drafted them – 13 years for Pavelski in San Jose and 14 seasons for Perry with Anaheim, including a Cup title.

”It’s different. It’s fun,” said Pavelski, who signed a $21 million, three-year deal. ”It’s an exciting part of our career and it’s a change that I think you come in and you embrace that there’s going to be different things and learn to do it their way and help add to that how you can.

”It’s definitely fun to have a guy coming in with a similar situation.”

Pavelski scored 38 goals last regular season, three off his career high, and helped the Sharks reach the Western Conference finals. San Jose had the most successful stretch in franchise history during the four years he was captain, winning six playoff series.

The 35-year-old figures to play on one of the top lines, probably alongside either captain Jamie Benn or 2018-19 scoring leader Tyler Seguin. The Sharks wanted to re-sign Pavelski but couldn’t make it work under the salary cap after giving defenseman Erik Karlsson a $92 million contract.

Circumstances are a bit different for Perry, who is younger than Pavelski (34) but has seen declining production the past three seasons. Perry might miss the Oct. 3 opener at home against Boston after breaking a bone in his foot two days before the start of training camp.

Even when he’s healthy, Perry isn’t likely to fill a leading role similar to that of Pavelski. Both were drafted in 2003 – Perry with the 28th overall pick in the first round by the Ducks, Pavelski in the seventh round by the Sharks.

”It’s a new chapter,” said Perry, who signed for $1.5 million after the Ducks bought out the final two years of the contract for the franchise leader in games (988). ”It’s something different. I’m embracing it as change is sometimes a good thing, rejuvenates myself and my career.”

Benn figures Dallas is as good a place as any for two guys to start over after each spent so long with the only team he had known.

”I’m sure it’s pretty different for them,” Benn said. ”But we make it pretty easy for guys to come into this group. It’s something I take pride in being a captain is we want guys to be comfortable right from Day 1. I think they’re pretty comfortable. They’re fitting in well.”

The Stars are counting on Pavelski for offense after finishing near the bottom of the league in goals during Benn’s lowest-scoring full season since his rookie year in 2009-10. While Seguin led Dallas in points (80), goals (33) and assists (47), Benn scored just 53 points (27 goals, 26 assists).

”Obviously, he’s a goal-scorer,” Seguin said of Pavelski. ”But the biggest thing for him, too, is he’s another threat out there. You have him in the slot now and guys got to respect him. It’ll open up guys like me maybe for one-timers now and Jamie in front, so who knows.”

Despite career lows across the board because of the knee injury, Perry is a former champion (2007) and the only player on the Dallas roster with a 50-goal season (50 in 2010-11, when he was the NHL MVP).

”I think they’re a little different some ways,” Seguin said. ”I think with Joe you saw how San Jose rallied around him. He’s kind of more of a quiet leader. I think Corey Perry, he’s got the ultimate hockey player resume. He’s won everything. He’s been in every situation, and he’s going to know what to say at those moments.”

Seguin has emerged as a leader a year after signing a $79 million, eight-year extension that kicks in this season, adding him to a mix that includes Benn, veteran forward Alexander Radulov and goalie Ben Bishop, a Vezina Trophy finalist last season.

But there’s always room for more, particularly for a franchise that hasn’t made consecutive trips to the playoffs since the last of five straight postseason appearances in 2008.

”I think we have a couple of levels still to go in how we want to be and what we want to be about as a team,” second-year coach Jim Montgomery said. ”Those two are going to help propel us there.”

Pavelski and Perry start with some common ground.

Dallas Stars questions: goaltending, aging, and new faces

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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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Dallas Stars.

Let’s run through three questions for the Dallas Stars heading into 2019-20 …

1. How will the new guys fit in?

During the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, we saw how formidable the Stars could be when Mats Zuccarello helped their second line chip in a bit more offensively, supplementing Jamie BennTyler Seguin, and allowing Ben Bishop to do the rest.

They waved goodbye to Zuccarello during the offseason, but hope to boast an improved offense after making a hefty investment in Joe Pavelski.

Along with Pavelski, the Stars also took some interesting reclamation projects in Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera. If those two deliver above their (newly modest) levels of play, then things could really pick up for a Stars team that looks to be competitive in the Central Division.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | X-Factor | Under Pressure]

2. Will the Stars get elite goaltending again?

Last season, you might have expected slightly above average work from the tandem of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin. Instead, the Stars enjoyed the second-best even-strength save percentage last season, and Bishop managed the difficult task of carrying that outstanding work into the playoffs.

As stingy as Stars head coach Jim Montgomery’s defensive system was in 2018-19, it’s tough to imagine Bishop and Khudobin pulling that off again.

Bishop only played 46 regular season games last season, and was limited to 53 in 2017-18, so we’ve already seen how much the big goalie can be hindered by health. Bishop – Khudobin is a veteran goalie combo, opening the door to a decline related to aging, not just injuries.

Beyond all of that, goalies are just flat-out difficult to predict from year to year. It’s the most important position in the sport, yet also a very tough one to forecast, so relying too much on your netminders is very risky.

3. Can the Stars avoid being hit too hard by the aging curve?

Young talent supplies some of the Stars’ excitement, as John Klingberg (26), Miro Heiskanen (20), and Roope Hintz (22) are all key contributors. At 27, Tyler Seguin is in the meat of his prime, too.

The Stars are still slated to tussle with Father Time in a big way in 2019-20, however.

Jamie Benn is slowing at 30. It’s surprising that Joe Pavelski is 35, and Alexander Radulov is 33, yet maybe we shouldn’t be surprised if they suddenly look their ages. Bishop is 32, and Khudobin is 33. Corey Perry seems like a very old 34, and a reminder of how steep an age-related decline can be.

If enough Stars veterans hit the aging curve in a bad way this season, things could go sideways. Some teams like the Bruins get a little bit lucky when it comes to avoiding these drop-offs, in part because they’re able to shift some of the burden to younger players, and the Stars could pull that off too. Other teams aren’t so lucky, and the Stars haven’t even enjoyed the same peak years as the Kings, Ducks, or Blackhawks.

There are a lot of variables going on with the Stars (and other NHL teams), but the potential results of aging could be huge.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

NHL Free agency: Most long-term contracts will end in trade or buyout

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Exactly six years ago Friday, the Toronto Maple Leafs made one of the most infamous free agent signings in the salary cap era when they inked David Clarkson to a seven-year, $36.75 million contract. It was a dubious signing from the very beginning due to Clarkson’s age (he was already 29 years old) and lack of consistent, top-line production in the NHL. Adding to the absurdity was the reception of the contract in Toronto (comparing him to Wendel Clark) and the way then-general manager Dave Nonis defended the signing from any and all criticism by saying, “I’m not worried about six or seven right now. I’m worried about one. And year one, I know we’re going to have a very good player. I believe that he’s got a lot of good years left in him.”

How did that work out?

In year one Clarkson scored five goals in 60 games, was a colossal bust, and was then traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets halfway through year two of the contract for Nathan Horton, another free agent bust from the same offseason whose career would be derailed and ultimately ended by injury. The Maple Leafs knew Horton would never play again and the whole trade was nothing more than a way to shed an albatross contract that looked to be a mistake from the start. It was an obvious — and ultimately legal — circumvention of the league’s salary cap.

Clarkson’s contract is far from the only one that has gotten general managers in trouble for signing a player for too many years in free agency. Almost every time the justification is similar to the one Nonis gave for the Clarkson signing: We’re not worried about four or five years, we just want to win right now.

Most of them never win “right now,” and almost all of them are looking for a way out within two years.

Between the summers of 2009 and 2016 there were 35 unrestricted free agents signed to contracts of five years or longer.

What sort of return did teams get on those investments?

Let’s start with this, showing the result of each signing.

[Related: PHT 2019 Free Agent Signing Tracker]

This only includes players that actually changed teams as UFA’s. It does not include re-signings of players still under contract with their current team (contract extensions), or the re-signing of restricted free agents.

• Fourteen of the 35 players were traded before the end of their contract term. That includes nine players that were traded before completing three full seasons with their new team. Most of these trades were salary dumps or an exchange of undesirable contracts.

• Ten of the contracts ended in a buyout, usually after three or four seasons.

• There are only three players signed during this time period that are still playing out their contracts with their current teams: Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in Minnesota, and Michael Frolik with the Calgary Flames. The latter has been mentioned in trade rumors for more than a year now.

• Only four players played out the entire term with the team that signed them: Paul Martin with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Anton Stralman with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Brian Gionta with the Montreal Canadiens, and Dan Hamhuis with the Vancouver Canucks.

• Three players had their careers ended by injury before the duration of the contract: Marian Hossa with the Chicago Blackhawks, Ryane Clowe with the New Jersey Devils, and Mattias Ohlund with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

• On average, those 35 players played out just 57 percent of their contract term with the team that signed them. Fourteen of them played out only half of the contract or less.

• If you want to go with the “I don’t care what happens in six years as long as we win the Stanley Cup with this player” argument, the only players in the above sampling that actually won a Stanley Cup with the team that signed them during their contract were Hossa in Chicago and Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik in Washington. The only others to even play in the Stanley Cup Final were Anton Stralman, Valtteri Filpulla, and Matt Carle in Tampa Bay, and Brad Richards with the New York Rangers (he was bought out the following summer after three years of a 10-year contract).

What did teams learn from this sampling?

Mostly nothing, because they have kept doing it.

Between the 2016 and 2018 offseasons there were 13 UFA contracts of five years or more signed, and the early returns are already looking disastrous.

In the summer of 2016 the following deals were signed.

  • David Backes to the Boston Bruins for five years at $6 million per year
  • Kyle Okposo to the Buffalo Sabres for seven years at $6 million per year
  • Frans Nielsen to the Detroit Red Wings for six years at $5.25 million per year
  • Milan Lucic to the Edmonton Oilers for seven years at $6 million per year
  • Loui Eriksson to the Vancouver Canucks for six years at $5.5 million per year
  • James Reimer to the Florida Panthers for five years at $3.4 million per year
  • Andrew Ladd to the New York Islanders for seven years at $5.5 million per year

Not sure there is anybody that would look at any of those contracts just three years later and argue that any of those teams are getting what they hoped to get. Reimer has already been traded so the Panthers could give another long-term deal to a different goalie (Sergei Bobrovsky) this offseason, while the rest of the contracts have all quickly become an albatross for every team that signed them.

There were six contracts signed over the 2017 and 2018 offseasons with Alexander Radulov, Karl Alzner, John Tavares, James van Riemsdyk, Jack Johnson, and John Moore all getting contracts of five years or more.

So far the Radulov and Tavares contracts look to be the best investments and have provided the most return.

Alzner spent time in the AHL this past season, while Johnson has been the subject of trade rumors after just one season in Pittsburgh.

This offseason seven teams have decided to bet against history and take their chances on long-term deals.

  • Vancouver signed Tyler Myers to a five-year contract
  • New York signed Artemi Panarin to a seven-year contract
  • Florida signed Bobrovsky to a seven-year contract
  • Pittsburgh signed Brandon Tanev to a six-year contract
  • Nashville signed Matt Duchene to a seven-year contract
  • New York Islanders re-signed Anders Lee to a seven-year contract

History suggests that probably at least five of these players will be playing for a different team within two or three years.

The players that have had the highest chances of playing out most of their contract are the high-end players (first-or second-line forwards; top-pairing defenders) that are still reasonably close to the prime of their careers, so that might be good news for the Rangers and Panarin and maybe — emphasis maybe — Duchene and the Predators.

All of the rest? These look like textbook deals that are destined to end in a salary dump trade or a buyout within a couple of years.

If a player makes it to unrestricted free agency you should know what you are bidding on and adjust your expectations accordingly. It is usually a player that has almost certainly already played their most productive hockey in the NHL, and it is usually a player that their former team didn’t feel was worth the money or term they were going to be able to get on the open market. It is rare that a team allows a player it actually wants to re-sign and values make it to free agency.

Elite players like Tavares and Panarin are the exception.

The end result is a bidding war for a declining player that probably isn’t as good as you think, which then ultimately leads to a team paying a player to NOT play for them (buyout), or trading them for another player another team doesn’t want, or giving up a more valuable asset to entice a team to take your bad contract in a trade.

NHL Free agency: Sometimes the best way to win is to not play.

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.