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NBC Sports NHL Player Survey: 2019-20 sleeper team

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We’re two weeks away from the start of the 2019-20 NHL season and the summer gives fans and teams reason to hope that this could be their year. Every season surprise teams emerge, defying the doubters and making noise after being written off by the hockey world.

While we as fans and media have our thoughts on who might surprise this coming season, we posed that question to players at the NHL Media Tour earlier this month in Chicago. You could probably guess two of the teams that were pretty popular considering the upgrades they made over the summer. Some players were confident enough to say their team could be thought of as a sleeper, while others were left with a lasting impression of a team that played them hard last season.

Here’s who NHL players told us will be the sleeper teams of 2019-20:

Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights: “I think Florida’s going to be good. The only problem is they’re in a tough division.”

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs: “Probably New Jersey. I’m not really sure they’re a sleeper team but they’ve made a lot of really good acquisitions this summer. They’ve got the first overall pick, [Nikita] Gusev from Vegas, P.K. [Subban], and they’ve got some pretty good young guys that have been there for a while like [Nico] Hischier and [Taylor] Hall. They missed the playoffs last year but they’re always a tough team to play against. They play fast and they’re going to be a team that surprises some other teams.”

Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks: “The ‘Hawks. I think we have a better group of guys. Our defensive units have been positive, the trades we made were positive and getting [Robin] Lehner is huge. No one wants to not make the playoffs again, so I think that’s a big thing in our locker room. We’re not going to accept it this year.”

Max Domi, Montreal Canadiens: “I think Arizona’s going to be good this year. They were close last year, they did a lot last year, especially with all the injuries they had. That [Nick] Schmaltz is a heck of a player. Adding Phil Kessel’s a big deal. Signing [Clayton] Keller to that extension will give him a lot of confidence.”

John Klingberg, Dallas Stars: “I’d say ourselves. I think we played good hockey after the All-Star break and we were pretty good in the playoffs, just lost that Game 7 to St. Louis and added some really good pieces. We’re going to be a really good team this year.”

Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings: “I’d say Detroit. Everyone’s healthy right now. We have good pickups that would add depth to our team and our young core of players coming up.”

Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames: “I’d say the Montreal Canadiens. They got a lot of really good young players. I remember playing against them. They compete hard, they’re tough to play against. They’ve got a lot of skills. Obviously, Carey Price in net. That’s a good goalie to have.”

Matt Duchene, Nashville Predators: “It’s so hard to pick now. I think Columbus is going to be a lot better than people have them ranked. Obviously guys leaving looks a certain way but I think they’re going to be very, very good team and very tough to be. They always are.”

Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars: “Staying in our division I think Chicago’s going to be a good team. They’re due for a bounce back. They made some key moves this off-season. I expect them to be a lot better this season.”

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins: “Florida Panthers.”

Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks: “I don’t know if there are sleepers anymore, to be honest. I think Colorado’s going to be good. Maybe Vancouver. I’ve found them to be a really good team. They worked so hard last year. There’s a lot of teams that are hiding in the weeds just waiting for their turn to make a surge for the playoffs and make it count when that time comes.”

Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets: “The two teams that I think besides Colorado, who I think is a great team, it wouldn’t surprise me if they made it far would be Arizona or the Rangers.”

Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes: “There was a lot of big off-season moves but I think one team that really improved is the Devils. Their additions on the back end, forward end, they’re going to be a pretty good team this year.”

Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks: “Florida. I think they have a great team, now they have a new goalie with [Sergei] Bobrovsky signing.”

Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche: “Florida. I don’t know if people are sleeping on them too much but I think they made some great additions and I’m interested to see how they do this year.”

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals: “New Jersey.”

Derek Stepan, Arizona Coyotes: “I’m biased. I really like what our team has done. I think we have good pieces. I would throw us in the mix. If we continue to do the things we did at the end of last year with the work ethic and the defensive side of things we could be a dangerous club.”

Kevin Hayes, Philadelphia Flyers: “I think people have the Flyers as a low-end team this year. I don’t think that’s going to be the case. We have a great goalie and have some new faces. It should all come together.”

Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators: “I’m very excited in what we can do, first things first. It’s a new coach, it’s a new team. We’ve got a lot of new guys coming in. Everybody’s put at the end of the standings already. It’s going to be a fun year. It’s going to be different than it was.”

Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres: “Florida Panthers.”

Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild: “I think they’ve been sleeping, but the Edmonton Oilers. Everyone’s kind of just waiting like, When is it going to happen? They’ve got a lot of pieces in play. I know a bunch of those dudes and they work hard. It just hasn’t come together. They do have arguably the best player in the National Hockey League. We’ll see, I guess.”

Bo Horvat, Vancouver Canucks: “I don’t know if they’re a sleeper but think Vegas is always going to be right up there and be good. They’ve got a lot of good players and the building’s tough to play in. I think they’re going to hold a grudge with what happened in the playoffs last year and they’re going to come out strong.”

Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers: “Philadelphia. New coaching staff and they added some depth defensively. They had a good team [last year] and they were tough to play against. They could surprise.”

MORE NHL PLAYER SURVEYS:
Commissioner for the day
Most underrated player
Change or keep current playoff format?

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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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Montreal Canadiens

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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, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

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

Better or Worse: Maybe slightly worse, but largely the same.

Montreal brought in Ben Chiarot and Keith Kinkaid while letting Antti Niemi and Jordie Benn walk. They also traded away Andrew Shaw.

Aside from a Sebastian Aho offer sheet that had little chance of succeeding, it was a very quiet offseason for Marc Bergevin.

Strengths: Depth, five-on-five play, and possibly strong starting goaltending if Carey Price continues getting back on track.

Claude Julien really had this group firing on all cylinders last season, which had to make missing the playoffs extra-painful. Still, it’s generally easier to reproduce even-strength success than it is to shoot or stop pucks at a high level, so that’s nice. This team can send wave after wave of forwards at you, and their top four of Shea Weber, Brett Kulak, Victor Mete, and Jeff Petry is better than a lot of people realize.

Weaknesses: Unfortunately, the Canadiens had to be dominant at even-strength last season because their power play was so putrid.

You might be able to chalk it up to the larger feeling that the Canadiens have some very nice forwards, especially Brendan Gallagher, but seem to lack that super-duper-star. The power play might be better in 2019-20 by sheer luck, but personnel-wise, they didn’t really address the problem during the offseason.

It sure looks like Montreal will need to lean heavily on Price, as Kinkaid doesn’t strike me as that much of an upgrade over Niemi, if he even is an upgrade.

(Nice use of emojis, though.)

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

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Canadiens front office members (especially Bergevin, but also Julien) have weathered some of the bigger storms, as while Montreal missed the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they generally exceeded expectations in 2018-19. Even so Montreal’s missed the playoffs in three of the last four seasons, and hasn’t won a series since 2014-15. Julien is an excellent coach, but professional sports aren’t always fair to coaches, and things could really heat up if a lot of Canadiens follow career years by plummeting back to their lesser, past selves. A rating of 7 feels about right.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Max Domi, and Carey Price.

If Kotkaniemi ends up not being worthy of the third overall pick of 2018, it looks like that will only come down to people merely having a preference, for say, fourth pick Brady Tkachuk — and so on. The point is that Kotkaniemi was brilliant as a rookie, and considering limited usage, could be capable of even more than an already-solid 34 points in 79 games. Honestly, Julien owes it to this team to experiment with just how quickly Kotkaniemi can grow. He aced his first test in the NHL.

Entering 2019-20, a big question is: will the Max Domi we see look more like the 2018-19 sensation, or the 2017-18 Coyotes forward who needed four empty-netters to reach nine goals? Domi’s entering a contract year, so if he can show last season wasn’t a fluke, he can go from a healthy raise from his $3.15M AAV to a huge jump.

Price is basically always fascinating in Montreal: the franchise, $10.5M goalie in a city that’s watched some of the best netminders to ever play the game. Can Price be dominant at 32? The Habs are counting on it.

Playoffs or Lottery: Montreal was unlucky that the East was pretty stout at the playoff-level in 2018-19, and figure to face big obstacles again this coming season. Not only will the Atlantic’s top three figure to be tough (Lightning, Bruins, Maple Leafs), but the Panthers made investments to be hugely improved, too. For all we know, it may all come down to the Panthers vs. the Canadiens, especially if the Metropolitan Division isn’t a total flop in providing wild-card competition.

There’s quite a bit to like with this team, so playoffs seem more likely than the lottery — although we also know that this tough market can also turn the volume up on any slump.

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.

Marc Bergevin was ’90 percent sure’ Canadiens were getting Sebastian Aho

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Despite what you may believe, Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin was fairly certain that he was going to land Carolina Hurricanes restricted free agent Sebastian Aho over the summer.

When the Canadiens dropped a five-year, $42.270 front-loaded contract on Aho’s lap, he signed it. At the time, many doubted that the Hurricanes wouldn’t match. Bergervin saw things differently.

“You’re never 100 percent sure of anything,” Bergervin told La Presse (quotes have been translated). “But I had conversations with his agent and he had some with the other general manager. We were 90 percent sure (we were going to get Aho). I didn’t just make an offer for the sake of making an offer. We looked at their organization and the way they manage their dollars, so we decided to front-load the first year of the contract. For us, it was a real possibility. We believed it was going to get done.”

We all know how the situation played out. The Hurricanes ended up matching the offer and the Canadiens didn’t end up making a significant move after that.

Could they opt to go after another one of the restricted free agents that still hasn’t signed with their respective teams?

“Anything is possible,” added Bergevin. “But there’s a reason why we haven’t seen another offer sheet this off-season. The contract (demands), the compensation, the salary cap. But in the league, anything’s possible.”

Landing a player like Aho would’ve changed the game for a team like Canadiens, who need some help offensively. The pressure is always “on” in Montreal, but the management staff have to feeling it a little more heading into this season. Last year, they were coming off a dismal season. This year, they’re coming off a year where they didn’t make the playoffs, but they still finished with 96 points and restored a positive feeling around the group.

You’d have to think that, internally, they’re feeling the heat this year. They can’t not make the playoffs, can they? They’ve missed the postseason in back-to-back years and in three of the last four. The last time they made the playoffs (2017), they were eliminated in the first round by the New York Rangers.

Since the Canadiens didn’t make a splash this summer, they’ll have to hope that some of their young players improve significantly if they’re going to make the playoffs. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who had an impressive season as an 18-year-old, will have to take a big step forward offensively. The Canadiens could also use some added production from depth players like Artturi Lehkonen, Joel Armia and Jordan Weal. Jonathan Drouin will have to surpass the 53 points he scored last year, while Max Domi will need to build on his 72-point outburst from one year ago.

Oh, and Carey Price and Shea Weber absolutely need to stay healthy if this team is going to make a dent in the Eastern Conference standings.

It should be an interesting year in Montreal. If they fail to make the playoffs, again, is Bergevin’s job still safe? Would his job security depend on how the team misses the playoffs?

The Habs are never boring.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Capitals GM under pressure to keep core together

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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 Washington Capitals. 

While Brian MacLellan certainly had a hand in putting together the Capitals’ core as an assistant, he also followed a path similar to Stan Bowman in Chicago: his job has been to maintain a supplement an established group, and deal with the salary cap headaches that arise from that juggling act.

In my opinion, MacLellan has done a mostly masterful job.

Sure, there were some gutters (*cough* Brooks Orpik *cough cough*) to go with the strikes, but MacLellan’s proven to be a strong hire after George McPhee’s extensive run ended. Saving money while possibly making the team better in certain areas isn’t the splashiest work, but he’s done well.

Yet, heading into next season and a bit beyond that, MacLellan will face probably his biggest pressure yet as Capitals GM.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | On Holtby’s future | Three Questions]

PHT has tackled this topic before, including in part today, but the Capitals face some truly monumental decisions about their future.

Most directly, both Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom enter contract years, and both stand to enjoy significant raises after being bargains for quite some time.

It’s fascinating enough if you oversimplify it to an either/or question: if the Capitals could only bring back one, which would make sense? Holtby’s been solid as a rock for the Capitals at the league’s most important (and unreliable) position, yet with Sergei Bobrovsky and Carey Price setting a $10M+ market for what a top goalie can make in unrestricted free agency, Holtby also stands to make a lot more money than his current $6.1M cap hit. It’s also difficult to put a price on Backstrom, but $6.7M is far too low, and while Holtby’s age (29) is a factor particularly considering the term Price and Bob received, Backstrom is 31 already.

If that wasn’t already complicated enough, Alex Ovechkin‘s seemingly eternal contract becomes mortal soon. His approx. $9.54M cap hit only runs through 2020-21, and his situation opens up a slew of questions, especially since he’s already 33.

This is all quite the riddle for MacLellan, and it’s not just about making objective hockey decisions. These are players who’ve meant a lot to the team and its fans, and have been instrumental in great successes. Merely having uncertainty surrounding Holtby and Backstrom could create headaches.

MacLellan faces some fascinating questions surrounding all of that:

  • How much should the Capitals work goalie prospect Ilya Samsonov into the mix? Might MacLellan be bold enough to roll the dice with far cheaper options in net? There’s evidence that the Capitals are reasonably analytics-leaning (see: Panik, and the continued employment of Tim “Vic Ferrari” Barnes), and some would argue that the savvy move is to go younger and cheaper in net. There’d be a lot of pressure on MacLellan either way: scorn if they move away from Holtby and the bottom falls out, and ridicule if they keep Holtby, Holtby falters, and the Capitals have to lose other key pieces because of the expense of re-signing Holtby. Tough stuff, right?
  • The Capitals are right up against the salary cap ceiling, but if there’s some breathing room around trade deadline time, is this a year to go all-in, even if it means coughing up a first-rounder or more? After all, you’re saying goodbye to some of your surplus of talent either in seeing one or more of Holtby/Backstrom leaving, or whoever must be moved out to accommodate new contracts. Maybe that’s your cue to swing for the fences?
  • Oh yeah, things could also get tricky with Evgeny Kuznetsov.

Overall, this is a Capitals team that still carries Stanley Cup expectations. MacLellan’s mostly wise decisions helped push them over the top for that elusive first ring, but the tests only seem to get harder from there.

How would you handle this pressure-packed predicament?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule
• One deeper look at Holtby/Backstrom
• Adam Gretz’s take

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.

Sharks will sink or swim based on goaltending

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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 San Jose Sharks.

Sometimes, when you get a little time and separation from a narrative, you realize that maybe the thing people were obsessed about wasn’t really a big deal.

Well, Martin Jones‘ 2018-19 season doesn’t exactly age like fine wine. The output is far more vinegar.

With Aaron Dell not faring well either, and the Sharks losing a key piece like Joe Pavelski during the offseason, the Sharks’ goaltending is an X-factor for 2019-20. Simply put, as talented as this team is, they might not be able to lug a dismal duo of goalies in the same way once again.

Because, all things considered, it’s surprising that the Sharks got as far as the 2019 Western Conference Final with that goalie duo.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Jones suffered through his first season below a 90 save percentage, managing a terrible .896 mark through 64 regular-season games. The 29-year-old had his moments during the playoffs; unfortunately, most of those moments were bad, as his save percentage barely climbed (.898) over 20 turbulent postseason contests.

The Sharks didn’t get much relief when they brought in their relief pitcher, either. Dell managed worse numbers during the regular season (.886) and playoffs (.861), making you wonder how barren the Sharks’ goalie prospect pipeline could be. After all, it must have been frightening to imagine it getting much worse than those two.

And, as much as people seem to strain to blame Erik Karlsson for any goalies’ woes, it’s pretty tough to pin this on the Sharks’ defense.

About the most generous thing you could say is that the Sharks were close to the middle of the pack when it came to giving up high-danger scoring chances. Otherwise, the Sharks were dominant by virtually all of Natural Stat Trick’s even-strength defensive metrics, allowing the fewest shots against and the fourth lowest scoring chances against, among other impressive numbers.

The Sharks managing to be so stingy while also being a dominant force on offense is a testament to the talent GM Doug Wilson assembled, but again, Pavelski’s departure stands as a reminder that there could be some growing pains, particularly at the start of 2019-20.

With that in mind, the Sharks would sure love to get a few more stops after dealing with the worst team save percentage of last season.

The bad news is that, frankly, Jones hasn’t really stood out (in a good way, at least) as a starting goalie for much of his career. Having $5.75 million per year through 2023-24 invested in Jones is downright alarming when you consider his unimpressive career .912 save percentage, even if you give him some kudos for strong playoff work before 2018-19.

It was easy to forget in the chaos of San Jose’s Game 7 rally against the Golden Knights, but Jones allowing soft goals like these often sank the Sharks as much as any opponent:

The better news is that last season was unusual for Jones.

Consider that, during his three previous seasons as the Sharks’ workhorse from 2015-16 through 2017-18, Jones went 102-68-16 with a far more palatable .915 save percentage. That merely tied Jones for 22nd place among goalies who played at least 50 games during that span, but it tied Jones with the likes of Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist.

The Sharks had often been accustomed to better play from Dell, too, including a strong rookie year where Dell managed a .931 save percentage during 20 games in 2016-17.

It’s up to Jones and Dell to perform at a higher level in 2019-20, and for head coach Peter DeBoer to determine if there are any structural issues that need fixing.

As powerful as last year’s Sharks could be, next season’s version could have an even higher ceiling if they even get league-average goaltending, making Jones (and their goalies) a big X-factor.

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.