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Oilers continue rare boring summer with Strome signing

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The name Ryan Strome must elicit some awkward feelings for Edmonton Oilers fans. After all, you’d need to risk an upper-body injury trying to deny that the Oilers lost in the Strome – Jordan Eberle trade.

Losing that trade prompts faint praise, then, for the Oilers’ current off-season plan of … “Don’t mess anything else up.”

That’s not what they’ve really said publicly, but so far, that’s how they’re operating. While it’s fun – especially from a writing/lampooning perspective – to rubberneck at bad moves and dysfunction (let us again thank Marc Bergevin and the Senators), recent history states that Edmonton’s better off boring.

And that’s exactly what re-signing Strome is. It’s boring, and it’s probably the right move, and you’re probably yawning with me on this one.

The team announced that it’s a two-year deal, with Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reporting that the cap hit will come in at $3.1 million per season. That’s not a great value, but it’s not going to break the Oilers, either. Leave that to trading the pick that became Mathew Barzal for a marginal defenseman, moving Taylor Hall one-for-one for Adam Larsson, and the Milan Lucic albatross contract, instead.

Cap Friendly puts Edmonton’s cap space at just less than $5M, with RFA Darnell Nurse likely to command most of that remaining cash.

The Oilers mainly stayed out of the fray this summer, merely handing speedy winger Tobias Rieder a reasonable one-year, $2M deal. Unless they can bribe a rebuilding team to house bad contracts like Lucic’s $6M per season through 2022-23, GM Peter Chiarelli is most likely going to be limited to trying to target savvy bargains in free agency. Considering how things have gone for him in recent trades, such limitations could very well be a blessing in disguise.

A boring blessing, but a blessing.

During the last three seasons, Strome’s developed into a fairly steady 30-ish point producer, showing some versatility and adequate possession skills. The Oilers could do better and worse with $3.1M per season.

Again, a shoulder shrug seems more palatable than Edmonton’s painful tradition of face-palms.

Oilers Nation’s Cam Lewis summed things up well regarding Strome back in April: Edmonton management is better off seeing the good side of Strome, rather than placing too much focus on how he’s not Jordan Eberle.

If you can convince yourself to not attach him to Eberle, it becomes a lot easier to accept Strome for what he is. He’s a solid, two-way player who can play in a variety of situations. He can centre your third line and be responsible, he can produce some offence in a top-six role, he can play both centre and wing, and he can be useful on the power play and penalty kill. He isn’t spectacular, but he’s a versatile depth player with upside, and there’s certainly value to that.

For all the frustrations in Edmonton, the Oilers still have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. They might stumble upon solutions merely if they stop messing things up.

Strome isn’t great, and you can quibble about him being good versus mediocre. It’s a small victory, but not exasperating the mistake with more mistakes is better than the alternative.

More exciting calls to come

Here’s a take for you: the Oilers put themselves in that bind during the 2017 summer by not trying harder to extend Draisaitl before his breakout 2016-17 season. Maybe a lack of contract year motivation would have meant a slightly less dominant Draisaitl that year, but smart teams lock up core players earlier rather than later.

It’s a consideration that could be particularly important for the Oilers when it comes to Jesse Puljujarvi.

After this past season, the Columbus Blue Jackets look shrewd (rather than bold) for taking Pierre-Luc Dubois as the third pick of the 2016 NHL Draft over Puljujarvi. Puljujarvi’s been moving in and out of the NHL early in his career, generating 12 goals and 20 points in 65 games with the Oilers in 2017-18.

That’s a letdown, yet it may also be an opportunity for the Oilers to save money, for once.

If Edmonton expects Puljujarvi to make huge strides going forward, they’d be better off trying to sign him to a team-friendly contract this summer, rather than waiting to see what happens. Ideally, Edmonton would either save money with a “bridge” contract or keep his cap hit at a reasonable clip by handing out the sort of term that looks brilliant in retrospect.

Determining that the Finn can take big steps forward instead of floundering like, say, Nail Yakupov, comes down to the judgment of Edmonton’s staff. That’s the scary part, but they either need to start getting these things right or step aside for someone who can.

***

Theoretically, more decisions could be coming for the Oilers.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins never seems far from trade rumors, though it’s a relief for Edmonton anytime they abstain at this point. With Cam Talbot‘s contract expiring after 2018-19, the Oilers must eventually figure out if his past season was an aberration or if they eventually need to find a new goalie.

So, yes, there are some deeper questions on the horizon for Edmonton, which opens the door for them to sink or swim.

History teaches us that they might be better off treading water, so it’s probably for the best that they’re just floating along this summer.

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.

Goalie of the future: Avs reportedly sign Grubauer

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Heading into the off-season, the Colorado Avalanche’s future in net was a little blurry. Now it’s clear that Philipp Grubauer will be their go-to guy.

On Friday, the Avalanche sent the 47th pick to the Washington Capitals for Grubauer, also absoring Brooks Orpik‘s contract. Today, Colorado got the wheels turning on a buyout for Orpik, and reportedly agreed to a three-year deal with Grubauer.

Significant investment

The three-year pact will be worth about $10 million, according to TVA’s Renaud Lavoie. If that’s accurate, the 26-year-old would carry about a $3.33M cap hit from 2018-19 through 2020-21. Do note that the Avalanche haven’t made the signing official just yet.

So, let’s consider the cost, then:

  • Cap hit between Grubauer and Orpik in 2018-19: About $5.83M.
  • In 2019-20: About $4.83M.
  • 2020-21: Just Grubauer’s $3.3M.
  • Also, the 47th pick of the 2018 NHL Draft, which ended up being Kody Clark, Wendel Clark’s son.

Not exactly cheap, but the Avalanche have a pretty clean slate, and Grubauer was the most coveted goalie believed to be available this summer.

As usual with goalies, there are risks

Aside from brief struggles during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Grubauer’s passed just about every test thrown in way. In accruing 101 total regular-season games of NHL experience, Grubauer generated a strong .923 save percentage, the same mark he produced over 35 games during the 2017-18 campaign.

It’s easy to play hindsight 20/20 and say that Braden Holtby was “the clear choice” for the Capitals the whole time, but the truth is that Grubauer deserved that nod considering his superior play. While Holtby regained the starting job in Washington during the Stanley Cup run, Grubauer’s steadying presence was important.

Much like other rising backups, there’s a risk factor to investing heavily in Grubauer, who’s never carried a big workload.

The scariest comparison is probably Scott Darling.

Like Grubauer, Darling amassed a small but impressive resume as a backup for a good team. In Darling’s case, the towering goalie had only played 75 regular-season games for Chicago, generating a (wait for it) .923 save percentage, playing in 32 games during his final campaign with the Blackhawks. The Hurricanes are already regretting the four-year deal they handed to Darling, which carries a $4.15M cap hit.

There are plenty of counterpoints. Darling is three years older than Grubauer, and rarely excelled at other levels. Grubauer, on the other hand, put together respectable numbers in the ECHL and AHL before becoming a sturdy backup for the Caps.

Colorado likely hopes that Grubauer works out as well (or better) than more successful backup-turned-starters such as Antti Raanta and Cam Talbot.

Interesting setup

Will the Avalanche roll with a platoon situation involving Grubauer and Semyon Varlamov, whose $5.9M cap hit is set to expire after 2018-19? That’s at least the public plan right now.

It wouldn’t be one bit surprising if the Avalanche tried to find a trade partner for Varlamov, an expensive performer who’s dealt with some injury issues and other concerns in recent years. (One can’t help but note that, amusingly, the Avalanche also sent quite a bit of future assets to Washington in hopes that Varlamov would fix their goalie issues. Life moves fast.)

A Grubauer – Varlamov duo would cost about $9.2M in cap space, while Varlamov’s salary ($5.75M) is only slightly cheaper than his $5.9M cap hit next season.

You would think that would be too rich for the Avs, but maybe Colorado would just eat the coast with the advantage being that Varlamov’s presence could help Grubauer ease into the No. 1 role?

***

With Varlamov seemingly on his way out sooner or later and valuable backup Jonathan Bernier headed out the door, the Avalanche are passing the torch to Grubauer.

We’ll see what happens regarding who the other goalie will be in Colorado, but either way, Grubauer gets his wish: to be the man. Will the Avalanche look back at this as a smart decision, or could this be another case where an understudy flops in a headlining role?

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.

Time for Sabres to upgrade in goal

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Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill confirmed that the team will not give starting netminder Robin Lehner a qualifying offer, which means he’ll be a free agent on July 1st. That means there’s an opening for a new number one goalie in Buffalo.

Lehner hasn’t had much to work with since he joined the Sabres, but he’s had plenty of issues with consistency and staying healthy. Again, the inconsistency isn’t all on him because the players in front of him haven’t been good enough. Still, his tenure in Buffalo didn’t go as planned.

The Sabres have a franchise center in Jack Eichel and they’re about to land a franchise defenseman in Rasmus Dahlin, so it’s time they land a goalie that can help push them in the right direction. What are their options?

Last season, the team gave 24-year-old Linus Ullmark a look between the pipes, and he did relatively well over five games. Ullmark will likely be one of the two goaltenders in Buffalo in 2018-19.

For those hoping Botterill will dip his toe in the free-agent pool, you may be disappointed. There’s no number one goalie available this year. Top options include: Kari Lehtonen, Jaroslav Halak, Cam Ward, Jonathan Bernier and Carter Hutton.

Could one of those veterans be paired with Ullmark? Sure, but how much confidence would that give this Buffalo team. Hutton has been one of the better backup goalies in the league over the last couple of years. That would likely be the best free-agent fit for the Sabres. Management might be able to land him if they can sell the idea of him playing quite a bit more than he’s used to.

Hutton could be an option.

The only other way to land a goalie right now is by trading for one.

There’s Philipp Grubauer, who’s currently a Washington Capital. Acquiring Grubauer would cost the Sabres an asset, but he could still be worth looking into if they believe he’s capable of playing at the same level he did in the second half of the season. The 26-year-old has never played more than 35 games in a season, so making him a starter won’t come without risk. At this point though, there are no slam-dunk number one goalies available, so GM Jason Botterill will have to roll the dice on somebody.

If they want someone a little more proven, they have to think outside the box. Would they be willing to take a risk on Cam Talbot in Edmonton? There have been rumblings that he’s available. Sure, he’s coming off a down year, but he was outstanding two seasons ago. He’s scheduled to become a free agent in 2019 and the Oilers might not be willing to pay a 30-year-old netminder the type of money he may command.

Now this is a really “outside the box” kind of idea, but would the Predators be willing to move one of their goalies? Pekka Rinne, who just won the Vezina Trophy, has one year left on his contract and he struggled pretty badly in the playoffs. Juuse Saros, who’s the goalie of the future, is an RFA and he’ll be getting a raise this summer. Nashville doesn’t have to do anything with their goaltenders this year, so this is very unlikely, but it’s just something to think about.

Another veteran option could Sens netminder Craig Anderson, who is available, per TSN’s Frank Seravalli.

No matter how they do it, the Sabres have to find a way to upgrade the roster as a whole, but specifically in goal. They don’t have to find a franchise netminder like a Braden Holtby or a Carey Price, but they need to get better at that position if they’re going to come close to making the playoffs one of these days.

It’s up to Botterill to figure out how he wants to do that.

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.

Trading Jeff Skinner would likely haunt Hurricanes

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The Carolina Hurricanes need to score more goals. You know what’s a bad way to do that? By trading away their best sniper.

More than a few rumors are swirling that the Hurricanes are shopping Jeff Skinner, a winger who easily leads Carolina in goals (89 versus 55 in second place) and points (163, with second coming in at 139) since 2015-16. Elliotte Friedman mentioned growing interest in Skinner in May 11’s “31 Thoughts” while Bob McKenzie opined that Skinner’s “days are numbered” during a recent podcast (or … Bobcast).

Let’s go over all of the reasons why this is a bad idea and an inopportune time to trade Skinner.

Not selling high

OK, it’s probably a stretch to say that the Hurricanes would be “selling low” on Skinner, but they wouldn’t be doing so during a moment of strength, either.

On one hand, Skinner – a player with past concussion problems – played a full 82 games in 2017-18. Skinner’s 24 goals ranked second to rising star Sebastian Aho, who potted 29. Skinner’s typically solid possession stats were even better than usual last season.

Still, if the Hurricanes must trade Skinner (a possibility at some point, as his $5.75 million cap hit expires after next season), they should wait. Skinner’s 8.7 shooting percentage was his lowest success rate since 2014-15, so rival GMs might view him as a less “sexy” option right now, as opposed to 2016-17, when he scored a career-high 37 goals and 63 points with a 13.7 shooting percentage, second only to his 14.4 percent mark from that memorable Calder-winning campaign in 2010-11.

The point is that recent history frowns upon trading players who were riding poor puck luck.

The Oilers didn’t get optimal value for Jordan Eberle. Reilly Smith was comically traded after his three seasons when his shooting percentage was under 10 (all in odd years).

At this moment, trading from a position of strength (defense) to improve a weakness (offense) makes sense for the Hurricanes, although there’s a challenge in getting that right. It’s tough to imagine Carolina enjoying the better end of a Skinner trade, especially in the immediate future.

Why rush this decision, particularly after a risky off-season of front office changes? Especially considering …

What a difference a year makes

It’s easy to forget how drastically an NHL team’s fortunes can change. Hot and cold streaks with goalies often explain why, too.

Last summer, the Winnipeg Jets seemed a lot like the Hurricanes: a team loaded with talent that couldn’t get over the hump, in part because of poor goaltending. The Senators and Oilers both saw flip-flopping seasons because of a number of factors, including stark contrasts between the good and bad for Craig Anderson and Cam Talbot respectively.

One could conceive of a situation where the Hurricanes look downright competitive if everything stayed the same and they merely improved in net, whether that means a rebound from Scott Darling or some other goalie coming in and pulling a Connor Hellebuyck.

This isn’t just about stopping pucks. Carolina wasn’t so great at scoring against goalies either in 2017-18, finishing ninth-to-last in the NHL with 225 goals. Skinner scored 24 of those, so would it really be wise to trade away essentially 10 percent of your tallies?

Hurricanes GM Don Waddell should take caution, as Skinner seems like he’d be part of the solution: a reliable scorer who can skate like few other players and who’s still in his prime at 26. The Hurricanes could regret trading Skinner as they battled in the playoff bubble, much like the Panthers missed Reilly Smith and/or Jonathan Marchessault.

And, if this team continues to flounder, you’d still likely be able to land a princely sum for Skinner during a mid-season or trade deadline move. Forcing a trade for the sake of making changes now seems almost certain to backfire, unless the Hurricanes convince a team to send a superstar their way. Somehow.

***

Look, it’s plausible that someone will make the Hurricanes an offer they can’t refuse. Stranger things have happened.

Red flags wave over such rumblings when you consider how often teams regret trading a player when his shooting percentage has cooled, and sports/hockey history is bursting with examples of teams getting quarters on the dollar when they trade their better players.

It’s possible that the Hurricanes shouldn’t trade Skinner, period. Either way, this seems like a really risky time to make such a move.

I mean, unless Waddell wants to take some heat off of Dale Tallon, Peter Chiarelli, Marc Bergevin, and other GMs who’ve made trades that keep Hockey Twitter giggling into the night.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Oilers robbing Connor McDavid of another MVP award

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The 2018 Hart Trophy race is one of the most fascinating ones we have seen in recent years because there really isn’t anyone that stands out head and shoulders above the pack, while there are also probably eight or nine players that all have a compelling argument to win it. It’s also brought back that maddening debate as to what “value” actually means to a team because the league’s best — and arguably most valuable — player, Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid, is stuck on a dog excrement team that can’t do anything right when he is not on the ice, all but completely submarining his chances of winning the award for the second year in a row.

The Oilers opened the season with the second best Stanley Cup odds in the NHL and are already mathematically eliminated from playoff contention and have, for all intents and purposes, been eliminated for at least half of the season.

That, in the eyes of many MVP voters, will disqualify McDavid from winning.

Maybe from even being a finalist.

Whether he wins the award or is a finalist or not, he is by any objective measure one of the most valuable players in the league this season. Maybe the most. If he played on a better team his performance would make him a slam dunk finalist. He might even win it. Given voting history, he probably would win it.

That is what is perhaps most maddening about this entire thing.

Teams that have players like him usually are better, and they should be better, and it’s a damning indictment on the Oilers organization that they are not better with a player like him on their roster. McDavid’s season presents such a firestorm of debate because we almost never see a season where a player this good, and this dominant, plays on a team this bad.

[Related: Connor McDavid may author one of NHL’s best wasted seasons]

With still four games remaining in the Oilers’ season McDavid has already scored 41 goals and recorded 103 points. He is almost certainly going to win the scoring title for the second year in a row, becoming the first player since Jaromir Jagr in the late 1990s to do so. He is also a back-to-back 100-point player in an era where 100-point seasons have all but disappeared. He has two in three years in the league. The rest of the league over that stretch has one.

Over the past 25 years there have been 36 teams that had at least one player hit the 40-goal, 100-point milestones. Out of that group, 32 of those teams made the playoffs. The only exceptions are McDavid’s Oilers, the 2005-06 Washington Capitals (Ovechkin’s rookie season on a clearly rebuilding team), the 1995-96 Anaheim Ducks (a third-year NHL franchise) with Paul Kariya, and the 1993-94 Philadelphia Flyers with Mark Recchi.

Nine of those teams with such a player went as far as the Conference Finals that year. Seven of them played in the Stanley Cup Final.

Only four Art Ross winners since 1980 have played on teams that missed the playoffs (Jamie Benn in 2014-15, Martin St. Louis in 2012-13, Jarome Iginla in 2001-02, and Mario Lemieux in 1987-88).

Iginla was the runner-up in his non-playoff Art Ross year. Lemieux won it in his year.

But McDavid doesn’t play on a better team. His team, independent of him, stinks.

Because hockey is a sport where the best and most impactful players (outside of the goalie) only play, at most, a third of the game there really isn’t an individual player, outside of maybe the occasional goalie (think Carey Price in 2014-15), that is going to single handedly drag a bad team to the playoffs.

Contrary to what you might have been told this season in other MVP arguments, there is no one really doing that for any of the bubble playoff teams, either.

Taylor Hall in New Jersey might be the player that is closest to doing that because even though the Devils have built a young, fast team that is on the rise, they’ve also been hammered by injuries and haven’t really had anything better than average goaltending. of course, average goaltending is better than whatever it is the Oilers are getting from a worn down and overworked Cam Talbot and their bad backups. The Devils, with a three-point lead over a Florida team that still has two games in hand on them, are also not a lock to make the playoffs.

Nathan MacKinnon’s breakthrough year is big reason the Colorado Avalanche have gone from being one of the worst teams the NHL has seen in decades a season ago to a potential playoff team this season. He has been absolutely amazing this season. But it is not just him behind that turnaround. The Avalanche also have another top-15 scorer on their roster in Mikko Rantanen and a goaltending duo that has combined for the ninth best save percentage in the NHL. The latter part being a pretty big development. The Avalanche, as of Friday morning, are on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture.

Pretty much any other MVP contender you can throw into the discussion plays on a team that has multiple impact players and better supporting casts around them. If you think that makes them more valuable than the league’s leading scorer and one of the most single dominant players in the game, more power to you.

I also disagree with you. Strongly.

When it comes to contributions to his team, creating wins, and, yes, adding value to his team, there may not be a better and more impactful player in the league than McDavid.

He has a point in 71 percent of the Oilers’ games.

He has contributed, by either scoring or assisting, on 46 percent of his team’s goals, which is just an obscene number.

His 13 three-point games this season are tied for the most in the league with MacKinnon.

Do you know the significance of a three-point game? When a team has a player record three points in a single game that team wins the game more than 90 percent of the time. It means his team has scored at least three goals, and in the NHL in 2017-18 three goals is more often than not enough to win a game on its own.

Somehow, in typical Oilers fashion, they have found a way to lose three of McDavid’s three-point games (a .769 winning percentage).

He has 30 games with at least two points (nearly 40 percent of the Oilers’ games), tied for most in the league with Kucherov

When he is on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Oilers are outscoring their opponents by 22 goals.

That is the level you see from playoff teams.

When he is not on the ice, the Oilers have been outscored by 30 goals. That is the level you see from lottery teams. That is also a 52-goal swing depending only on whether or not McDavid is on the ice. It is not uncommon for teams to be worse — or even slightly outscored — when their best player is not on the ice. It happens in most cases. It does not usually happen to this extreme.

The only three players and teams in the league that see anything close to that sort of swing is Taylor Hall and the Devils, Claude Giroux with the Philadelphia Flyers, and, shockingly, Mat Barzal with the New York Islanders.

When Hall is on the ice the Devils are outscoring their opponents by 17 goals. They get outscored by 23 without him (a 40-goal swing). The Flyers own a plus-22 goal differential with Giroux on the ice and have been outscored by 16 without him (a 38-goal swing). It’s a 37-goal difference for Barzal and the Islanders (plus-12 with him, minus-27 without him).

At the other end of that spectrum, the Lightning actually outscore their opponents by 23 goals when Nikita Kucherov is not on the ice (they are plus-21 with him). The Kings outscore their opponents by 18 goals when Kopitar is not on the ice (plus-13 with him).

When McDavid does not record a point in a game the Oilers’ points percentage on the season is only .181.

Want to see how that compares to the other top-20 scorers in the NHL at the moment?

They are 3-17-2 when he does not get on the scoresheet.

That means they are 31-20-6 when he does. That is actually a pretty good record!

Every single number you look at it it paints two crystal clear pictures. The first is that McDavid is probably the best and most impactful player in the league.

The second is that the Oilers organization around him is a raging tire fire that has squandered three years of the best and most impactful player in the league while that player was making peanuts against the salary cap.

As great as McDavid is and has been he is not so far above the rest of the pack that it should make him a slam dunk winner. Giroux has a great — and really underrated — argument. Hall and MacKinnon are in there, too. But if we are being honest none of them have really contributed to their teams what McDavid has or impacted the game the way McDavid has.

Nobody in the league has.

That is value. That is incredible value. It remains true no matter how bad the rest of McDavid’s team is.

The Oilers wasted it. By doing so they not only gave McDavid one less shot at a Stanley Cup in his career, they took away the chance for him to make some individual history as well.

————

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.