Brian Boyle

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NHL teams seeking free agent bargains should shop for ‘antiques’

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With Jake Gardiner needing a contract, RFAs like Mitch Marner not yet signed, and at least a vague possibility of Rasmus Ristolainen-type players potentially being traded, there are still plenty of things to watch for this summer. It just so happens that, beyond Gardiner and very few others, the UFA market looks about as well-stocked as the bread aisle right before a big storm.

Interestingly, some of the best items in the bargain bins are those dented cans nearing their expiration dates.

During July 1, you generally want to avoid messing with Father Time. Yet, as the dog days of summer go along, there’s actually some logic to considering potentially cheap players with long resumes.

Interestingly, one July 1 signing is an example of the sort of bargain I’d pursue between today and when PTOs start to flow close to training camps in September. The Toronto Maple Leafs signed veteran Jason Spezza on the first day of the frenzy, convincing the 36-year-old to go from $7.5 million in AAV in 2018-19 to $700K in 2019-20.

Spezza might not seem like the sexiest choice in his current form, but that’s almost the point. Now that he’s no longer making superstar money, his positives can shine most brightly, and I’d expect him to be a nice bargain for Toronto.

While Spezza might be the best of the types of bets I’d consider making if I were running a team, there are still some intriguing veterans to consider. To make things clear, here are a few key qualifiers before we roll into some names: this list assumes that the contracts would be short, the dollars would be low, and the players would understand that they might have to swallow some pride with a smaller role than in the past.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The lower level of commitment is important to remember. If a cheap, one-year deal doesn’t work out, it’s easier to walk away from a mistake. That’s certainly an easier pill to swallow than to stare at an awkward situation where, say, Milan Lucic is languishing on your roster at $6M, and stands to be an anchor for years.

With expectations sufficiently lowered and contextualized, let’s consider a few veterans.

Cream of the limited crop

Jason Pominville: Fittingly, the best comparison to Jason Spezza is another Jason with a right-handed shot, and some great memories related to the Senators. (In Pominville’s case, it was scoring against Ottawa, much to the confusion and dismay of Daniel Alfredsson.)

Like Spezza, Pominville’s sneaky-solid production was downplayed because of his bloated salary; in Pominville’s case, his 2018-19 cap hit was $5.6M. At a sub-$1M rate, Pominville could be an economical fit for a team that wants a veteran who can still bring some value to the table, and would probably be willing to move around the lineup to make things work.

Actually, I’d argue he’s probably more versatile than Spezza, and thus might fit into a wider array of situations.

Even with all of their improvements, I’d strongly consider bringing Pominville back at a huge discount if I were the Sabres (and if Pominville would accept it). It sure seemed like he was a decent passenger for Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner at times in 2018-19, as The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis also pointed out (sub required):

Pominville was lucky last year to spend a significant chunk of time with Jack Eichel and/or Jeff Skinner, but he was an upgrade on Buffalo’s other right wing options on that line, which only really caught fire when he joined it (climbing from 3.1 to 5.3 goals per hour, and from a 52 percent to 55 percent shot share).

Why not bring back Pominville to occasionally be a cheap addition to the $19M combo of Eichel – Skinner, so you can then use the Marcus Johanssons and Jimmy Veseys as scorers on lower lines, getting them easier matchups? Just a thought.

Similar scenarios could make sense for other cap-strapped teams, too.

Justin Williams: Every indication is that Williams’ choices seem to boil down to retirement or returning to the Carolina Hurricanes.

But just to throw it out there: even during his age 37 season (Williams turns 38 in October), “Mr. Game 7” was more than a guy who shows up in clutch moments. Williams looked almost ridiculous from an advanced stats perspective last season, and brings the sort of intangibles that makes someone a “Storm Surge” innovator.

If I’m another team with some cap space, I’d at least try to wave some one-year money around to see if it might entice Williams to consider branching out. At minimum, Carolina should keep a spot warm for the winger.

Veteran specialists

Brian Boyle: The Predators continued their tradition of paying big premiums for huge depth centers in trading a second-rounder to rent Boyle this past season, so it’s clear that at last some teams see value in Boyle as a large defensive presence who can use that size to screen goalies during the occasional power play stint.

If Boyle costs you big assets, then meh. If he’s cheap and doesn’t command much term, then he could be appealing as the center of an all-defense third or fourth line. (At this stage, fourth would be preferable, but different teams have different situations.)

Thomas Vanek: On the absolute other end of the spectrum, you have Vanek, who would need to be sheltered with limited five-on-five minutes, but might give you some offense in a pinch.

Basically, I’d envision Vanek in the Sam Gagner role during Gagner’s brief time as a power-play specialist for the Columbus Blue Jackets. The 35-year-old managed 36 points in 64 games last season, and scored 24 goals and 56 in 80 games in 2017-18.

Sure, his all-around game makes him less of a net positive overall, but a savvy coach could yield decent returns while limiting risks.

Dented cans

  • Chad Johnson: The 33-year-old’s save percentage was below 90 for the past two seasons, so maybe he’s as done as the former Bengals receiver who shares his name. But if he’d be willing to take on a role as a third goalie – one who could easily be moved between the AHL and NHL – then he could provide some injury insulation. From 2012-13 to 2016-17, Johnson generated a solid .915 save percentage, matching Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller during that span. Maybe he still has something to offer, even just marginally so?
  • Dan Girardi, Niklas Kronwall, Deryk Engelland: Here’s a theory: virtually all NHL coaches need that “toy.” Almost every coach has a player they love who … frankly, isn’t really worthy of those minutes and opportunities, yet the coach fawns over them nonetheless.

Consider Alain Vigneault when he searched for excuses to play Tanner Glass in New York, or Mike Babcock’s love of Roman Polak.

Personally, I’d try not to indulge such bad habits in a coach, yet what if the situation basically demands it?

If such affairs are unavoidable, maybe the key is to limit the damage by getting a cheaper option, one who hopefully wouldn’t get too much playing time, either. The hope would be that, if you give an old coach some old, beat-up player, they’d be more willing to also allow a younger player a longer leash.

Yeah … not the greatest situation, and I’d avoid the Girardis, but these GMs know their coaches better than anyone else.

***

Again, it’s crucial to realize that the above list is full of imperfect players, or ones who will only push you forward with baby steps, not giant leaps for hockey-kind. Even ones I like more (Pominville, Williams if he’d listen to offers from outside the Carolinas) aren’t going to save a GM’s job. And with that aforementioned group of veteran defensemen, some of these options would be less about improving and more about accepting lesser evils to appease the sometimes strange whims of NHL head coaches.

In some cases, veteran players might even sign PTOs, which would allow teams to see if they can find a spot in the lineup and chemistry with the team before even handing out a guaranteed contract.

This list isn’t necessarily comprehensive, either, so fire away if you have suggestions. In the case of this post, the veteran UFA options are 32 and older, if that helps.

MORE FREE AGENCY FUN:
Three signings that teams will regret
Five remaining UFAs who could bring value, the mostly young version
Looking at every team’s offseason in Power Rankings form
• The high-risk, high-reward contracts signed on July 1 frequently end in trades or buyouts.

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.

Playoff lineup, injury notes: Islanders lose Boychuk; Flames scratch Neal

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There were quite a few noteworthy lineup notes surrounding teams in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Friday, so let’s rattle them off.

Thomas Hickey seems to be the most likely immediate replacement for Boychuk. While both defensemen have enjoyed some nice years in the NHL, both have been on the decline. Hickey was limited to zero goals and four assists in 40 games this season after generally coming in at 20-ish points during his previous five campaigns with the Isles, while Boychuk’s ice time was down to 16:16 minute per game during the Islanders’ Round 1 sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins. So the loss of Boychuk likely has more name value than on-ice impact.

Speaking of name value, allow a moment to dream. What if the Islanders instead turn to other Sebastian Ahoand the Hurricanes advance with far more famous Sebastian Aho? Would the Internet be forced to come up with something fresher than the Spiderman pointing meme for that? Might want to do some prep with all this time on your hands, Islanders fans.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

  • Maybe the Capitals feel like they need to bring back a playoff hero after seeing their 2-0 series lead against said Hurricanes dissolve into a 2-2 tie? They recalled Devante Smith-Pelly on Friday. Smith-Pelly scored eight points in 54 NHL games with the Capitals this season, and had been fairly productive (14 points in 20 games) with the Hershey Bears in the AHL. His seven goals during the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run matched his seven goals from that 2017-18 regular season, so if DSP can carry over some of that playoff magic starting with Game 5 (Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC [livestream]), the Caps would be very pleased. He’ll certainly be fighting to stay at the top level …
  • Could the Predators (another team locked in a 2-2 series tie) get some reinforcements back a lot sooner than anticipated? Both Brian Boyle and Wayne Simmonds were recently considered week-to-week, and perhaps that was always a nebulous descriptor, as they at least were able to practice on Friday.

Interestingly, each player was wearing regular practice jerseys, which bodes reasonably well for the future, as that indicates that they could take body contact. There’s an enormous gulf between being able to practice and being ready for the sometimes-traumatic damage of playoff hockey, yet this is all pretty promising for the Preds.

With the Flames down 3-1 to the Colorado Avalanche and facing elimination in Game 5 on Friday (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, live stream) this team badly needs a spark, and Neal really hasn’t been providing much of one basically since signing with the Flames. Neal failed to score a point through the first four games of this series, suffering through a -3 plus/minus, just 13:49 TOI on average, and not really excelling from a possession stats standpoint, either.

[To be fair, Neal is joined by Johnny Gaudreau and others as struggling Flames.]

One wonders if the Flames need to give Neal a pat on the back and say “We’ll get things back on track soon enough.” As mediocre as he’s been across the board, Neal also suffered from a terrible season luck-wise, managing just a five shooting percentage, way below his career average of 11.6. Maybe some of that is the aging curve, and maybe he’s depended upon some stellar linemates to grab his counting stats, but you’d have to figure that there’s some potential for a rebound … eventually. Perhaps just not this season?

Either way, it looks like Austin Czarnik is replacing Neal in the lineup. Hockey comes at you fast, gang.

For a rundown of Friday’s slate of playoff action, check out The Wraparound.

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.

Predators’ Boyle, Simmonds out ‘week-to-week’

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Hours before their Game 3 matchup against the Dallas Stars (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream) the Nashville Predators announced that both Brian Boyle and Wayne Simmonds are considered “week-to-week” with separate ailments.

Boyle, who missed Game 2 due to “illness,” had an appendix procedure, while Simmonds, who only has one goal for the Predators since being acquired just before the February NHL trade deadline, is out with a lower-body injury.

Simmonds left Game 2 in the first period after taking a Roman Josi shot to the knee. After coming back to the ice to test out his leg during a timeout, he retreated back to the dressing room and did not return. Miikka Salomaki, who hasn’t played for the Predators since Jan. 4, is expected to take his place on the fourth line with Rocco Grimaldi and Calle Jarnkrok.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Both players were acquired in February as Predators general manager David Poile looked to strengthen his team’s bottom six. Two experienced veteran forwards, Boyle and Simmonds gave even more balance to a roster that looks to make another deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs this spring.

But with the Predators using the phrase “week-to-week,” especially this time of year when team’s are even more reluctant to say anything about injuries, is not good for either player.

MORE: ‘Grind’ games likely to continue as Predators-Stars series shifts to Dallas

————

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.

Predators’ power play headaches linger into playoffs

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War, war never changes. To Nashville Predators forward Craig Smith, the same can be said for the team’s power play lately.

“I’m frustrated, we’re all frustrated. It pisses me off,” Smith said, according to News Channel 5’s Jonathan Burton. “We’ve been doing the same thing for years; nothing changes.”

The Predators finished the regular season with the worst power play in the NHL, and that problem reared its ugly head during their Game 1 loss to the Dallas Stars, as that unit went 0-for-4. The Stars, meanwhile, went 1-for-3 in snagging a tight 3-2 victory. (Game 2 takes place at 6 p.m. ET on Saturday on CNBC [livestream])

Heading into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Smith and other Predators players remained all-too-aware of these power-play struggles … maybe too aware?

“I think it’s a mindset to go out there,” Smith said heading into Round 1, according to NHL.com’s Robby Stanley. “Sometimes you have to play it like it’s 5-on-5. I think that’s definitely a crucial part of it too, retrieving pucks and getting back and supporting one another, because you’ve got to find the 2-on-1 somewhere. We’ve worked hard at it and watched a lot of video.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Whenever a team’s power play is struggling, I tend to look to three things:

1. Is that team just having bad luck?

It’s just about certain that this plays at least part of the role for the Predators. Still, this bleeds into the next point.

2. Are the wrong players shooting, particularly too many defensemen?

They managed a respectable four shots on goal during those four power plays, although the shooters were a mix of defensemen (P.K. Subban and Ryan Ellis) and maybe not the ideal forwards you’d want firing the puck (Brian Boyle and Kyle Turris). After generating 34 goals despite being limited to 58 games played, Viktor Arvidsson didn’t even have a missed shot on the PP.

Too many point shots is one of those issues that seems all too obvious with power plays dealing with deeper-seated issues than a mere cold streak. In Nashville, you’d figure there’s a political element. After all, you want to keep your star defensemen happy. Either way, you’d want Forsberg, Arvidsson, and Ryan Johansen firing more shots.

3. Are the Predators making the right personnel choices?

Identifying the power play as a problem, GM David Poile brought in a big net-front presence in Brian Boyle (who was also sought after for his defensive acumen) and Wayne Simmonds (a player well-known for his resume of power-play prowess, though that’s faded recently).

There have been signs of at least mild improvement by Nashville’s power play in the last month or so, but allow me to get back on my soapbox and wonder if what the Predators’ PP really needs is Eeli Tolvanen.

Even if the young forward can’t earn Peter Laviolette’s trust at even-strength, you could easily fit Tolvanen into a role as a power-play specialist and hide him lower in the order otherwise. The Stars aren’t exactly the league’s deepest team, so Tolvanen’s skill could also create dividends if Laviolette decided to take the very mild risk of inserting the 30th pick of the 2017 NHL Draft.

In particular, Forsberg and Arvidsson can be threats in these situations, yet for all that the Predators possess, they could really use a/another true sniper whose shot is simply a weapon.

That’s especially true since Ben Bishop has been one of the best goalies in the NHL this season, and considering his enormous frame, it might take next level shooting skills to beat him on some nights. You can quibble with Tolvanen’s all-around game, but few would doubt his shot.

***

One way or another, the Predators need to find answers as the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs go along. Maybe they can grind out a Round 1 series win against a generally low-scoring Stars team, but maybe not, as special teams might just move the needle. Beyond Dallas, the Predators would have to really dominate on 5-on-5 to beat the cream of the crop, if they can’t at least scrounge up respectable special teams.

And that might require not “doing the same thing for years.”

Stars-Predators Game 2 from Bridgestone Arena will be Saturday night at 6:00 p.m. ET on CNBC (livestream).

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.

Predators vs. Stars: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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If you want to get cute with it, you can deem Predators – Stars as the battle of the team with a coach who worse a horse mask versus the team whose CEO called his own players, uh, horse-blank. And, hey, considering the “nontraditional” roots of both franchises, this also features teams with fans most likely to ride actual horses. It’s all enough to leave you hoarse.

But beyond all of that horsin’ around, the Predators and Stars truly are remarkably similar teams.

While the combination of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin has been far hotter this season, each squad boasts two goalies (Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros) who could conceivably be ridden to strong performances during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Most other West teams wish they merely had one such goalie.

Unfortunately, the Stars and Predators also need that great goaltending the most among West teams, at least judging by this season.

The Stars and Predators needed to rank in the top four in fewest goals allowed this season, as they weren’t setting scoreboards on fire.

Dallas scored just 209 goals this season, tied for third-worst, joining the Islanders as the only other playoff team in the bottom 10. The Predators weren’t that much better (236 goals, 13th-worst), and they languished with the NHL’s least efficient power play at a still-rather-shocking 12.9 percent.

Strange things can happen during hockey’s postseason, and goalies are a strange breed beyond that, but this sure seems like it’s going to be a tight-checking nail-biter of a series.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Wednesday, April 10, 9:30 p.m.: Stars @ Predators | USA, SN1, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 13, 6 p.m.: Stars @ Predators | CNBC, SN, TVA Sports
Monday, April 15, 9:30 p.m.: Predators @ Stars | NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports
Wednesday, April 17, 8 p.m. Predators @ Stars | USA, SN, TVA Sports
*Saturday, April 20, TBD: Stars @ Predators | TBD
*Monday, April 22, TBD: Predators @ Stars | TBD
*Wednesday, April 24, TBD: Stars @ Predators | TBD

FORWARDS

STARS: Despite Jim Lites’ criticisms, the Stars should thank the top line of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov for providing most of their scoring. Seguin (80 points) and Radulov (74 points) have the most points of any players in this series, and while Benn is no longer the player who once won the Art Ross Trophy, he ranked third among the Stars with 53 points, 27 of which were goals.

The drop off from the top forwards and everyone else is steep, as Radek Faksa is the fourth-highest scoring Stars forward with just 30 points. Faksa’s known for a strong defensive game more than anything else, so he’s not chopped liver, but the point is that this is a top-heavy bunch.

One interesting wild card is Mats Zuccarello, though. The poor soul got hurt blocking a shot in his first Stars appearance, but he’s slated to be in the lineup during Game 1, and the Stars are tinkering with a Zuccarello – Benn combination. Could a one-line team become a two-line team?

Of course, both Nashville and Dallas lean heavily on their defensemen to score, but that’s for the next section.

PREDATORS: At a quick glance, the Predators’ top line seems inferior, with Ryan Johansen‘s 64 points leading the way. Injuries cloud such judgments, though, as Viktor Arvidsson managed 34 goals in just 58 games (!) this season, while Filip Forsberg was his usual dynamic self with 28 goals and 50 points in 64 games. The gap between these two teams’ top line is small, if they aren’t outright even.

On paper, the Predators should boast better depth, but they really haven’t been able to click. Kyle Turris has suffered through a pretty miserable season, and Mikael Granlund‘s been mouse-quiet since being traded to Nashville. Meanwhile, Wayne Simmonds is struggling through an almost tragically rough contract year.

ADVANTAGE: Nashville, by a hair. While Faksa ranked fourth in Stars forward scoring with 30 points, the Predators had seven forwards who had 30+, and Turris almost certainly would have hit that mark if he wasn’t limited to 55 games. Granlund scored 54 points counting his superior totals with the Wild. Zuccarello makes the argument more fascinating, though.

DEFENSE

STARS: After Seguin, Radulov, and Benn, the Stars’ next three leading scorers were all defensemen: John Klingberg (10 goals, 45 points), Miro Heiskanen (12G, 33P), and Esa Lindell (11G, 32P). Klingberg managed to get that many points in 64 games, and as Stars fans will tell you until your ears are red, he’s very worthy of his hype as a future Norris hopeful.

Where the Stars’ top guys are grappling at least slightly with Father Time, the Stars’ trio is in their primes, with Klingberg at 26, Lindell 24, and Heiskanen somehow this great already at 19.

This is a modern group, and while they’re not as hyped or as well-compensated as the Predators’ blueliners, they’re gaining fast as far as on-ice effectiveness is concerned.

PREDATORS: For the standards of Nashville’s defensemen, you could count 2018-19 as a bit of an off-year, but they likely remain the deepest group in the NHL, or at least rank highly in that regard.

Much like Dallas, three of Nashville’s defensemen ranked in the top six in overall team scoring: Roman Josi (15 goals, 56 points), Mattias Ekholm (8G, 44P), and Ryan Ellis (7G, 41P). Despite being limited to 63 games played, P.K. Subban almost hit double digits in goals with nine, and finished with 31 points. Missing time likely exaggerated worries about Subban’s overall game, as he remains a strong two-way player.

It will also be interesting to monitor Dante Fabbro. He’s a fairly well-regarded prospect, but coaches are reluctant to trust rookies, especially late-arriving ones, and Laviolette is not really an exception. (See: Tolvanen, Eeli.) Fabbro could give Nashville’s third pairing a boost, and while that wouldn’t be a revolutionary change, it could matter in a series where the margin of error figures to be slim.

ADVANTAGE: Predators, but not by as much as some would think. Dallas’ defense is underrated, but Nashville’s group is among the most potent and polished in the NHL.

GOALTENDING

STARS: If Ben Bishop stayed healthy (an unfortunately common phrase for Bishop), he’d get some heavy Vezina hype. He generated a .934 save percentage this season, brilliant even compared to his very strong career average of .921. Bishop put together an absurd .969 save percentage over nine March games, with a league-best .959 save percentage since February (among anyone who played at least two games, sorry Christopher Gibson).

Anton Khudobin hasn’t been far behind, producing a strong .923 save percentage in 41 games.

Jim Montgomery’s system and some strong young defensemen helped, but this Stars team shut opponents down because of stellar goaltending.

PREDATORS: If you had to wager on the best goalie pairing heading into 2018-19, you could have done worse than the (“father – son”) combination of Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros.

Goalies are about as easy to predict as cats are to herd, so they haven’t been the best … but they’ve still been fine. Rinne sported a solid .918 save percentage this season, and after a rough start, Saros ended up with a respectable .915 mark.

Of course, Rinne’s had his playoff nightmares, so people will wonder if those demons will crop again. Maybe the more interesting question is: if they do, will Laviolette go to Saros if needed?

ADVANTAGE: Stars, with mild concerns that Bishop isn’t 100 percent. Of all the West series, this is the one where you could be reasonably confident about both tandems. Again, though: they’re goalies.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

What if the Stars’ first line is horse manure?

One could imagine some Stars executive gloating about giving Seguin “tough love,” but this was really about Seguin finally getting the bounces that didn’t go his way, pre-horse-bleep. If that luck dries up once again, can other lines shovel in some goals?

(Note: yes, you could ask similar questions about the Predators’ depth, too.)

Can the Predators’ power play do something?

NHL officials are notorious for “putting away their whistles” during the playoffs, relative to the regular season, but special teams will still be prominent. Actually, considering how tight this series could be – and how much each team struggles to score goals – getting a few markers on the man advantage might just swing the series.

If nothing else, the Predators spent big to improve this weakness. Wayne Simmonds has slipped, but his resume as a PP specialist is robust. Brian Boyle‘s big body is useful in screening goalies, even a jumbo-sized one like Ben Bishop. Things have looked better at times recently, but overall, the power play looms as a potential problem for the Preds.

PREDICTION

NASHVILLE IN 6. These two teams are structured very similarly, so here’s betting that the Predators are just a little better at making this formula work.

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
• Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
 Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Blues
Islanders vs. Penguins
Capitals vs Hurricanes

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.