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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.

Blackhawks fire Joel Quenneville after slow start

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The Chicago Blackhawks made a huge announcement Tuesday morning with the firing of head coach Joel Quenneville. Jeremy Colliton, 33, has been named as his replacement.

Blackhawks assistant coaches Kevin Dineen and Ulf Samuelsson have also been relieved of their duties and Barry Smith, longtime friend of Senior Advisor of Hockey Operations, Scotty Bowman, has been added to Colliton’s staff.

From Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman:

“This is certainly a very difficult decision. But I believe it is in the best interests of the Blackhawks organization. We need to maximize each and every opportunity with our playoff goals in mind and create continued growth and development throughout our roster at the same time. After much deliberation the last several days, with great respect to what Joel has meant to the Blackhawks, we knew we had to make a change. Along with our appreciation for everything Joel has accomplished for our franchise, we also thank Kevin and Ulf for their many contributions and wish them success in the future.

“We are extremely fortunate to have Jeremy Colliton in the Blackhawks organization and feel strongly that he is best positioned to continue leading our players here in Chicago. All of those associated with Jeremy strongly believe he possesses many of the tools that will make him a successful head coach in this league. He has been very impressive as a communicator, a leader, and coach. He knows the Blackhawks system, understands our players and our culture and we believe he gives us the best opportunity to have success and grow as a team.”

Quenneville remains under contract at $6 million per year through the end of the 2019-20 season.

After zero in-season firings in 2017-18, the NHL has seen two coaches let go in a matter of three days.

The move, which has been brewing for some time, comes as the Blackhawks sit out of the Western Conference playoff picture with 6-6-3 record. Their glory days of NHL dominance are over, and that’ll happen when you spend to the cap annually and your top players seek higher paying contracts every summer. Salaries needed to be shed and despite a growing cap ceiling, the money tied up in some of the team’s biggest names hampered Bowman from adding quality help to the roster. Instead, cheaper, homegrown options were sought, and while there have been a few finds over the years that paid off, most haven’t been able to make as big of an impact, thus leaving the franchise in its current state.

[Blackhawks should follow Rangers’ rebuild plan]

The relationship between Quenneville and Bowman reportedly strained over the years after the dismissal of one of his assistants, Mike Kitchen, and the trades that sent away Niklas Hjalmarsson and Artemi Panarin. Today’s moves show that the GM finally won the power struggle.

Colliton was in his second season coaching the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate after leading the team to the Western Conference Final last year. Before joining Rockford, he was head coach of Mora IK of Sweden’s HockeyAllsvenskan for four seasons.

Quenneville leaves as the second-winningest head coach in franchise history after being hired in 2008. He guided the team to three Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015 and helped the Blackhawks reach the playoffs in nine of his 10 seasons behind the bench. He’s currently the second-winningest head coach in NHL history with 890 wins and is second all-time with 1,636 games coached.

If he chooses, he certainly won’t be out of work very long. There are plenty of possible destinations this season when you take a gander at the NHL standings. Would Quenneville’s availability now force his old team, the St. Louis Blues, to quickly make a decision on Mike Yeo’s future? It should be interesting to watch how this shakes out.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

PHT Power Rankings: Early season NHL surprises and disappointments

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at the league as a whole and where everyone sits nearly one month into the season.

Who are the early season elites? It is a lot of the usual suspects. Who are the early season surprises? Carolina, Arizona and Buffalo are all extremely competitive, and dare we say … good. Who are the early disappointments? Look no further than Philadelphia and St. Louis. Who are we just not sure about? Everyone from Edmonton, to Chicago, to Montreal, to even Colorado.

All of that and more!

To the rankings!

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — I know, I know. They just got clobbered by Arizona. Tough way to end the week. But that loss ended what had been a seven-game point streak and they are still 7-2-1 on the season. And they still haven’t really gotten much of anything out of players like Steven Stamkos or Ondrej Palat yet. The fact they are still piling up wins when they have not really started to click yet is a testament to how good and deep this team is.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins — They just completed a four-game road trip through Canada where they went 4-0-0 and outscored their opponents by a 23-6 margin. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel are firing on all cylinders right now.

3Nashville Predators — They were the Western Conference champions two years and the Presidents’ Trophy winners this past season. They have shown no signs of slowing down and might be even better this season.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs — There are real questions about their defense and goaltending that need to be answered, and losing Auston Matthews for a month is going to hurt in the short-term, but when you still have John Tavares and Nazem Kadri to center your top two lines in his absence they are going to be just fine. We know they will pile up wins in the regular season and that they are going to make the playoffs. We just don’t know how far they will go once they get there.

Great start, but still skeptical

5. Colorado Avalanche — They have a great record, one of the best lines in hockey that is driving one of the highest scoring offenses in the league, and as of Monday a plus-14 goal differential that is tied for the best in hockey. Why the skepticism: They are still a bottom-10 possession team and they really haven’t had a daunting schedule yet having only played three teams that finished in the top-12 of the standings a season ago. They are 1-2-0 in those games.

[Related: Is the line of Rantanen, MacKinnon, Landeskog the NHL’s best?]

6. Minnesota Wild — The Wild remain a fascinating team when it comes to quality vs. quantity in the shots department. They are once again one of the bottom teams in the league in shot attempt differential. They are one of the best teams in scoring chance differential. There are not many teams that can pull that off. The Wild did it a year ago and, so far, are doing it again.

7. Montreal Canadiens — Of all the teams in this tier this might be the one I am most skeptical of because, well, I just don’t think they’re that good. They have, however, played pretty well so far this season and have the one X-factor that can really elevate them if he is on top of his game. That X-factor: Carey Price. He hasn’t consistently been at that level this season, though he has shown flashes of it. Max Domi has also been a huge surprise having already scored five goals in 10 games after scoring nine in each of the past two seasons.

8. Edmonton Oilers — Two games into the season it looked like Todd McLellan had one foot out the door and the team was doomed to be awful again. And who knows, maybe it will all still play out that way. But they are 6-1-1 in the eight games since and some people other than Connor McDavid are starting to provide some offense. Up is down. Down is up.

9. Chicago Blackhawks — Like the Canadiens I’m not really sure how good this team actually is but they do have some players that can be difference-makers and carry them a long way. Patrick Kane is off to a great start offensively, Alex DeBrincat is emerging as a star, and Corey Crawford is a massive upgrade over Cam Ward and the goalies they were using a year ago. They are not the team they once were. They might still be … decent?

10. New Jersey Devils — They have cooled off considerably from their four-game unbeaten streak to open the year and that concerns me, because this was a very average team a year ago outside of Taylor Hall and the top line. Still reason to think they can be good, but maybe not as good as the 4-0-0 start.

Teams that are better than this

11. San Jose Sharks — In the category of “teams that are not going to be this low in the standings (or the power rankings) for much longer,” the Sharks are at the top of that tier. After winning just two of their five five games the Sharks have now won five out of six and have at least a point in six consecutive games. Erik Karlsson has not been the player they expected … yet. He will be. When he is, look out.

12. Vegas Golden Knights — Everything went right for them a year ago, and so far this season their puck luck has changed. Don’t let that make you think this team is going to keep regressing. They are controlling 60 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts in their games and have the second best scoring chance differential. It is a weird thing to say about a team in its second year, but they are somewhat of a sleeping giant early in the season.

13. Winnipeg Jets — They need to get Patrik Laine going, and they will, but the bigger concern might be the fact that Connor Hellebuyck‘s early save percentage is only .907. His play a year ago is a big reason why they went from middle-of-the-pack, bubble playoff team to legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

[Related: What is wrong with Patrik Laine?]

14. Boston Bruins — There is quite a gap between what their top line is doing offensively and what the rest of the team is doing offensively. That is going to be a problem if it continues.

15. Washington Capitals — I don’t believe in Stanley Cup hangovers. I do believe the 2017-18 Capitals were a really good, top-tier team that had everything click and go in their favor at the right time and that so far this season they have not yet hit their stride.

16. Columbus Blue Jackets — I kind of cringe as to what this team might look like if/when Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky are not there. Given the way Bobrovsky has played so far this season we are getting a little preview of that, and it is not promising. But Bobrovsky is still there for now, and he will play better. As long as he does, so will the Blue Jackets.

The upstarts and surprises

17. Carolina Hurricanes — This is definitely the year the Hurricanes realize their potential and become the team we always thought they could be. This is definitely the year the Hurricanes realize their potential and become the team we always thought they could be. This is definitely the year the Hurricanes realize their potential and become the team we always thought they could be.

18. Arizona Coyotes — The Coyotes did not win their fifth game of the 2017-18 season until the end of November. They have not only won four of their past five to get back to .500 through their first 10 games, they have been one of the toughest teams in the NHL to score against.

19. Buffalo Sabres — There does seem to be a different feel around this team this year. Jeff Skinner has always been everything they could have hoped for him to be. Just a matter now of how long he will remain there.

20. New York Islanders — They have not been great, but they have also not yet been the cellar dweller I thought they would be at the start of the year. Given the way their underlying numbers look they still might very well end up there, but so far they have been competitive. Anders Lee is on his way to having the type of season that can make him a lot of money in a few months.

The disappointments

21. Florida Panthers — They are probably playing better than their record indicates as goaltending has really hurt them, but you can not start a season with only two wins in your first nine games and expect to easily make up that ground. Given the way the 2017-18 season played out this team should know that better than anyone.

22. Calgary Flames — This team just seems like it should be … better. I really don’t know what else to say other than that. They are just underwhelming.

23. Dallas Stars — Take what we just said about the Flames and repeat it here.

24. Philadelphia Flyers — At the start of the season I argued this was the NHL’s ultimate boom-or-bust team given the makeup of the roster and the questions on the blue line and in net. So far they are a bust.

25. St. Louis Blues — The Blues were one of the toughest teams in the league to score against in 2017-18 and missed the playoffs because their offense stunk. They spent the offseason throwing money at fixing their forwards and entering play on Monday have the fourth highest goals per game in the league. Success! The problem: Now they can’t stop anybody. You know what it means when one part of the team works and the other doesn’t, and then when the other part works the part that had been working stops working? It means you are probably a mediocre team.

These teams are bad

26. Ottawa Senators — They haven’t been as bad as expected, but they still only have four wins in 10 games and have probably had a few players playing over their heads so far. It would still not surprise me to see them 31st when the season concludes.

27. Vancouver Canucks — They had a really impressive three-game road trip through Florida and Pittsburgh early in the year where they won all three games. But other than that this team has been about what we expected: A couple of good young forwards, a bad defense and only mediocre at best goaltending.

28. Anaheim Ducks — The injuries have not helped, but other than the play of John Gibson and Ryan Miller there is nothing positive about the way this team has played this season. Think about how bad your team has to play to have a pair of goalies with a combined .938 save percentage over 12 games, and only win five of those games. When those two see any sort of a regression the bottom could fall out on this team.

[Related: Ducks ask too much of Gibson and Getzlaf is not happy]

29. New York Rangers — This season is all about which young players will show some progress and which veteran players will play well enough to get traded for a nice return before the deadline later in the year. Brett Howden has been impressive.

30. Los Angeles Kings — The window on this team as a Stanley Cup contender has been emphatically slammed shut. A slow, dull, boring team that needs overhauled.

31. Detroit Red Wings — It took them until game No. 11, but they finally have a win in regulation. That is how things are going for the Motor City’s hockey team so far this season.

(Shot attempt and scoring chance data provided is via Natural Stat Trick)

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

The Buzzer: Price shuts out Bruins, Grabner helps Coyotes rout Lightning

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Three Stars

1. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens. Price moved into sole possession of second place on the Canadiens’ all-time wins list on Saturday, passing Patrick Roy with his 290th win. He now trails only Jacques Plante’s 314. Price did it on Saturday with a 33-save shutout over the Boston Bruins, which was only his second shutout since the start of the 2017-18 season. The win improves the Canadiens to a surprising 6-2-2 on the young season.

2. Anders Lee, New York Islanders. The New York Islanders were the latest team to feast on the Philadelphia Flyers’ dreadful defense and goaltending with a 6-1 laugher. Leading the way in the win was Anders Lee with four points, including three assists. Lee, currently playing in a contract year, now has three goals and six assists for nine total points in his first nine games of the season.

3. Artemi Panarin Columbus Blue Jackets. Coach John Tortorella was absolutely furious with his team’s third period effort, calling it a soft effort and pretty much hating everything about the way his team played in a 5-4 overtime win against the Buffalo Sabres. And he had every reason to be mad given that they allowed a two-goal lead to slip away. But they did still get a win thanks in large part to Artemi Panarin who scored two goals, including the game-winner in overtime. Panarin is off to an incredible start to the season with 15 points in the Blue Jackets’ first 10 games, including five multi-point games. He has recorded at least three points in each of the Blue Jackets’ past two games.

Highlights of the Night

This Cam Atkinson goal was a thing of beauty for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Factoids

After a miserable start to the season offensively the Arizona Coyotes have been on a little bit of a role with wins in four of their past five games. They have scored at least four goals in each of those wins, including Saturday night’s seven-goal outburst against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Michael Grabner played a big role in that performance.

Big night for Mitch Marner as he helped spark a late rally for the Toronto Maple Leafs following the injury to Auston Matthews.

Scores

New Jersey Devils 3, Florida Panthers 2

New York Islanders 6, Philadelphia Flyers 1

Edmonton Oilers 5, Nashville Predators 3

Washington Capitals 4, Calgary Flames 3 (SO)

Montreal Canadiens 3, Boston Bruins 0

Toronto Maple Leafs 3, Winnipeg Jets 2

Columbus Blue Jackets 5, Buffalo Sabres 4 (OT)

Minnesota Wild 3, Colorado Avalanche 2

St. Louis Blues 7, Chicago Blackhawks 3

Arizona Coyotes 7, Tampa Bay Lightning 1

Pittsburgh Penguins 5, Vancouver Canucks 0

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Oilers risk flubbing another high-end draft pick

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Not that long ago, the Columbus Blue Jackets were ridiculed for selecting Pierre-Luc Dubois with the third pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, allowing Jesse Puljujarvi to fall to the Edmonton Oilers. You don’t have to dig too deep to realize that Jarmo Kekalainen made the right call, or at least appeared to make the right call so far.

While “PLD” settles in as Artemi Panarin‘s co-pilot (for now?) in Columbus, Puljujarvi was in street clothes on Thursday, as his Oilers run hit another low: he was a healthy scratch.

At 20, it’s too early to rubber-stamp the term “bust” for Puljujarvi. Even so, the bumpy, staccato rhythm of his development is frustrating to observe, and it sure seems like the Oilers are stumped.

“His development has to get going to where he has a positive influence on the game every night. And there is still some confusion in how that impact can come,” Todd McLellan said, via Sportsnet’s Mark Spector.

“It’s not always goals and assists — as we’ve seen, there haven’t been many of those. But there are other areas of the game that are important.”

Out of context, this is understandable enough. Objectively speaking, Puljujarvi play isn’t lighting up scoreboards, with just one goal in seven games so far this season, and just 29 points in 100 career games. So, some of this is on the player.

Still, the Oilers aren’t exactly known for making optimal decisions beyond “drafting and extending Connor McDavid,” and it’s becoming increasingly plausible that they’ve squandered another high-end draft resource.

As a reminder, the Oilers drafted Nail Yakupov with the first overall pick of the admittedly cloudy 2012 NHL Draft, only getting four seasons out of the winger before trading him for a meager return. Yakupov now finds himself in the KHL, yet you can’t help but wonder: how much of his struggles fall on poor development in Edmonton?

At minimum, the Oilers have had a tendency to burn through rookie contracts, often with reckless abandon.

Puljujarvi might be the poster child for that problem. He played 28 ineffectual games with the Oilers as a rookie in 2016-17, but also spent plenty of time in the AHL. Puljujarvi also spent a portion of last season in the AHL, although 2017-18 could be seen as his most promising stretch, with 20 points in 68 NHL games.

Again, he’s not alone in seemingly suffering from rushed development. It’s too the point where it’s honestly refreshing when the Oilers show some restraint, like they did with solid-enough defenseman Darnell Nurse.

While Puljujarvi has accrued quite a few games with the big club (it’s somewhat fitting that he was scratched after his 100th NHL game), his linemates have been erratic and it’s not as though he’s been giving many full-fledged opportunities to sink or swim. He averages just 12:43 TOI per game during his NHL career, and his 2018-19 averaged is actually a bit lower at 12:28 per contest.

You don’t really need to burrow through cryptic quotes to wonder if McLellan doesn’t trust Puljujarvi. Looking at the Finn’s lack of opportunities – rarely has he skated with Connor McDavid, and he hasn’t even gotten many chances with Leon Draisaitl – and you can see that the confidence isn’t there. At best, it isn’t there yet. It’s frightening, but reasonable, to wonder if it will ever come as long as McLellan’s behind the bench.

Perhaps that’s why people are discussing some drastic measures.

On TSN’s Insider Trading, Darren Dreger said he believes that things aren’t necessarily coming to a head yet, although he didn’t dismiss the discussion as outrageous altogether.

Citing Puljujarvi’s struggles and the less-than-ideal circumstances (low ice time, irregular linemates), The Athletic’s Allan “Lowetide” Mitchell wonders if the winger would be better served being a big fish in a small pond back down at the AHL level (sub required).

The organization has handled this player poorly. Puljujarvi has far too much skill to give up on, or trade for 10 cents on the dollar. His game has been broken. It might be time to repair and rebuild in Bakersfield. This time next year the Oilers won’t be able to send him to the AHL without waivers. For Oilers fans, the blame game (player, coach, general manager) is less important than unlocking Puljujarvi’s considerable talent while he is an Edmonton Oilers winger. What is best for his development should be the only consideration.

Edmonton holds a lot of sway in how this situation works out, one way or another.

Consider some of the other factors at hand:

  • This team desperately wants to make the playoffs, and the jobs of the coach/GM likely hinge on doing so. Such thoughts complicate the urge to test out a “project” in Puljujarvi.
  • Trading a high-end pick so soon after drafting one is often a recipe for disaster, but that would be especially uncomfortable in this case. Most importantly, Puljujarvi’s stock is at a dramatic low after being a healthy scratch. You also can’t ignore the likelihood that GM Peter Chiarelli fears losing any trade at this point. That’s especially true since he’s been comically bad at assessing future value (*cough* Tyler Seguin in particular *cough this is a really bad cough*).
  • The 20-year-old is in the middle of a contract year.

That’s actually where there could be some serious sunshine if the Oilers – against all odds – somehow get this right.

There’s a scenario where Edmonton signs Puljujarvi to a cheap extension to say “we still believe in you,” give him time to rehabilitate his game, and then he becomes a huge bargain for a franchise that sorely needs value. Imagine, for a second, the Oilers signing him to a Predators-style, forward-thinking contract, only to see him blossom as McDavid’s elusive right-winger?

(Stop laughing.)

***

Right now, this situation is both bad and befuddling. It would be shocking that things hit this low point, if it weren’t for this being a bumbling franchise like the Oilers.

A third NHL season is when people really start to get impatient with a prospect’s development, yet consider that the Oilers really haven’t given Puljujarvi two full seasons of opportunities. While many would grade him an “F” so far, a more appropriate mark is an “Incomplete.”

The Oilers are remedial when it comes to developing all but the most can’t-miss prospects, yet the good news is that they can still pass this test if they get it together. As frustrating as the process has been so far, it should be fascinating to see how this plays out.

For the rest of the NHL, it could also be an opportunity to scoop up a robust reclamation project, like the Penguins did with Justin Schultz.

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.