Blackhawks finally get Crawford back

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The Chicago Blackhawks are off to a strong 3-0-2 start this season, but that doesn’t mean that Corey Crawford‘s absence hasn’t been glaring.

In those five games, the Blackhawks have scored 22 goals and allowed 21. They can attribute taking at least one standings point in all five games to some clutch performances from Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Alex DeBrincat.

Cam Ward? He’s been … well, like most critics expected. In starting all of Chicago’s games, Ward’s numbers are hideous: a 4.06(!) GAA and .879 save percentage is lousy stuff, even if the Blackhawks’ defense leaves a lot to be desired.

So … yeah, getting Crawford back is a huge deal.

The would-be workhorse goalie hasn’t played since Dec. 23, so you can’t really blame the Blackhawks for this adorably excited tweet:

Of course, as Bob McKenzie detailed last night (see the video above this post’s headline), the return of Crawford doesn’t exactly guarantee that he’ll return to the putting-the-team-on-his-back form that he developed in recent seasons for Chicago.

There were very reasonable concerns about Crawford even playing this season, as he’s battling brutal concussion symptoms.

Even with Crawford coming back, there’s no guarantee that he won’t suffer another setback, possibly as soon as Thursday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes. As former Blackhawk Dave Bolland told the Athletic’s Mark Lazerus (sub required), the fear can linger, and previous concussions increase the chances of history repeating itself.

“It’s easy to come back from a groin or a broken arm or something like that,” Bolland said. “Coming back from a concussion is a little tougher. You don’t know if you’re really ready. If you take another hit, you’re probably prone to taking another one. It’s hard not to think about that. Knowing when you’re ready to come back from a concussion, it takes a bit of time. You have to know that your brain is healthy and that it’s good. When I came back, it was always pretty tough convincing myself I was ready. I never wanted to come back and not be ready and end up hurting myself.”

On one hand, Crawford isn’t going to be engaged in the frequent puck battles that a skater would deal with. On the other, goalies must be mentally alert the entire time they’re on the ice, tracking the puck even when it’s not in the attacking zone. (Otherwise, you risk allowing a humiliating, long-distance goal, or simply not being ready if an opponent springs a quick breakaway.)

TSN’s Frank Seravalli reports that the NHL is increasingly concerned with goalie concussions, noting that 13 goalies were diagnosed with 15 concussions in 2017-18 alone. It’s such a serious consideration that the league is looking into ways to improve protection as soon as possible.

Servalli’s story focuses on shots off of goalie masks, yet this Marc-Andre Fleury quote from the article really cements the notion that Crawford might not be up to full speed, possibly for quite some time.

“I do think about it,” Fleury said of the dangers of being a goalie, and concussion risks in general. “This last one lasted a little longer than the previous ones, so I’m still thinking about it. Every day you wake up, you don’t feel great, you’re dizzy. It’s disturbing.”

Overall, there are a lot of obstacles in Crawford’s way.

Goalies can see their play slip for a ton of reasons. Sometimes they merely suffer an off year. Perhaps a change in system or new faces on defense can lead to confusion and miscommunication. Aging can mean a slight slip in reflexes, which can sometimes mean the difference between making that quick-twitch save or glove stop or allowing a goal (Crawford’s 33, so he’s vulnerable to Father Time’s attacks).

But beyond those universal factors, there’s also the threat of concussion symptoms resurfacing, or another one being suffered.

No doubt, Crawford’s return is huge for a Blackhawks team hoping to claw its way back into the playoffs. And, in all honesty, Crawford at 80 percent might be better than Cam Ward in the twilight of his up-and-down career.

The Blackhawks would be foolish to assume that this will be a seamless transition for Crawford, though.

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.

Paying for intangibles usually backfires

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In an ideal world the thought of a “bad contract” in sports wouldn’t really exist (in my world, anyway). Professional sports are a multi-billion dollar a year industry and a player’s value should be what the market (in this case, a bunch of billionaire owners — or even one billionaire owner) feels that player should be worth.

The players are the ones putting in the work, making the effort, and drawing fans to the stadium or arena. They absolutely deserve a significant cut of the pie, and if they aren’t getting it, an even richer person ends up keeping it for themselves. So, pay the players.

That said, the world is not always perfect. Especially in sports.

When you are dealing with a sport that has a salary cap (and in the case of the NHL, a hard salary cap) you have to look at contracts a little more critically than just saying, “well, that is what they are worth that and that is the end of it.” A hard salary cap makes the business side of sports even more cutthroat and emotionless than it already is. Teams only have a set amount of money to spend, and paying the wrong player the wrong salary for the wrong reason can make it difficult to keep better players or build a winning team.

That brings us to one of the more eye-opening contracts signed this offseason when the Washington Capitals signed restricted free agent Tom Wilson to a six-year, $31 million contract extension over the weekend.

[Related: Tom Wilson cashes in with $31 million extension]

Reactions to that signing have been … mixed.

On one hand, that is a ton of money to invest in a player that has scored more than seven goals and 23 points in a single season once in five years, a fact that has made it a highly scrutinized deal from an analytical perspective.

On the other hand, there is this the intangible side of the argument that has come out of Washington, where the things Wilson does well don’t always show up on a stat sheet and that he was a part of a Stanley Cup winning team this past season.

Or that he might inflict a lot of pain on you…

Honestly, I would not want to go into the corner against any player in the NHL, but that fact alone does not mean it is smart to pay every player more than $5 million per season over the next six years in a hard-capped league, especially when my team already has several big-money players on the roster.

This is part of the “intangible” argument that gets thrown around in contracts like this. We have seen it and heard it a hundred times.

There used to be literal shouting matches over players like Dave Bolland when he played in Toronto, and then collective confusion (and even more yelling) when he signed for $27 million over five years in Florida. Eventually, his contract became one of the many to buried in Arizona when it did not work out.

When Edmonton spent big money on players like Milan Lucic and Kris Russell in recent years the defense of those contracts wasn’t about the offense they could provide or the tangible production they would give the Oilers, but more about intangible things like protecting Connor McDavid or being gritty and tough to play against. Just a couple of years into those contracts they already look like bad investments for an Oilers team that is pressed against the cap ceiling without any consistent success on the ice to show for it.

The thing about players like Bolland and Lucic is that at one point in their careers they were players that did provide tangible results. Their contracts backfiring had more to do with paying too much for players at the wrong point in their careers and for the wrong reasons.

All of this brings us back to Wilson’s contract. I get the argument that he is still reasonably young, and that maybe the Capitals are finally figuring out how to use him by giving him a real role with good players instead of burying him on the fourth line and sending him out to rattle cages for 10 minutes a night. As I wrote on Friday when Wilson signed his contract, maybe his game continues to evolve and he produces more. Fact is, though, there really isn’t a player in the NHL right now that has signed a contract like this with the sort of production he has put on paper.

That makes it a contract worth evaluating a little more critically, especially when much of the argument for it is based on things we can not easily see.

Taking a deeper dive into this, I went back over the past 10 years and looked at forwards that signed larger, big-money contracts that did not necessarily match their level of production. Specifically, I looked at players that had played at least 300 games in the NHL and averaged less than 0.45 points per game (less than a 35-point pace over 82 games) at the time of their contract signing.

It is a group that includes Wilson’s new deal.

Here are the biggest contracts in that group (at least four years in length, worth at least $3.5 million per season), ranked by largest salary cap hit.

Look at that list, and then ask yourself this question: How many of them would you say have worked out favorably for the team that signed them?

  • Clarkson, Bickell, and Beleskey have already traded or dumped by the teams that originally signed them.
  • Sutter and Abdelkader have no-trade clauses as part of their deals. Given Detroit’s salary cap situation Abdelkader’s deal looks especially problematic. He is 31 years old, still has five years remaining, and over the past two years has scored a grand total of 20 goals in 140 games.
  • Shaw and Clutterbuck have no such clauses in their deals, and would it really be a surprise to see one (or both) be traded before their deals expire? Especially Clutterbuck as the Islanders have assembled a collection of fourth-line players just like him (on equally bizarre long-term contracts).
  • Upshall is the only player on that list that, as of now, played out the entire contract with the team that signed him.

Aside from the group shown above, there were another 22 players with similar stat lines that signed contracts of at least four years in length (Paul Gaustad shows up twice on this list because he actually signed two such contracts, one in Buffalo and one in Nashville).

How did that group turn out?

  • Two of those contracts (the Jay Beagle/Antoine Roussel duo in Vancouver) are starting this season.
  • Four players (Zack Smith, Casey Cizikas, Derek Dorsett, and Dale Weise) are still with the team that signed them … for now.
  • Five players played out the entire contract with the team that signed them.
  • Ten players either had their contracts bought out or traded before the end of them. In many cases within the first two years of signing the contract.

The point here isn’t to downplay defensive play, or penalty killing, or any number of intangible things that go into a player or a team, because there is value to them. But the thing that stands out about a lot of these players that were given contracts based largely on those things we can’t see is that in many cases those teams quickly realized they maybe weren’t worth the big dollar numbers and either traded them or moved them out, either to dump salary or give that salary to players that, quite simply, produced more.

Perhaps the simplest way to put all of this: Pay big money for what you can see. Not what you can not.

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.

Blackhawks open cap space, send Hossa to Coyotes in complex trade

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Plenty of people have made jokes about Marian Hossa‘s contract being sent to the Coyotes since it became clear he wouldn’t play for the Blackhawks again. It turns out those jokes ended up being justified.

The deal involves several moving parts, but the key takeaway is that the Blackhawks open up cap space, while the Coyotes reduce headaches regarding hitting the salary cap floor, as Hossa’s salary is comically lower than his $5.275 million cap hit.

Here are the full details of the trade.

Coyotes receive: Hossa’s contract, Vinnie Hinostroza, Jordan Oesterle, 2019 third-rounder

Blackhawks receive: Cap relief, Marcus Kruger, Jordan Maletta, Andrew Campbell, MacKenzie Entwistle’s rights, 2019 fifth-rounder

Cap Friendly depicts the sort of loophole Chicago exploited, which the NHL closed up with the most recent CBA.

Old habits die hard

Arizona continues to be the NHL’s answer to a retirement home, and a land of dead money. Hossa’s deal joins Pavel Datsyuk, Chris Pronger, and Dave Bolland as deals that were essentially laundered by the Coyotes. With some of Mike Smith‘s salary retained and the Mike Ribeiro buyout in mind, a lot of money is going to people who won’t suit up in 2018-19.

As often as people make jokes about that practice, the Coyotes have been aggressive in at least attempting to improve during the past two summers. This move cements the thought that GM John Chayka has to do.

Meanwhile, the Blackhawks open up space to do … something? This is still a team formatted to win-now, so maybe GM Stan Bowman has more up his sleeves? (Considering their love for reunions, one cannot help but wonder if they might try to get Artemi Panarin back.)

Rundown of other parts

Hinostroza: The 24-year-old forward will begin a new two-year deal in 2018-19, carrying just a $1.5M cap hit.

He’s spent portions of the past two seasons in the AHL and NHL, producing nicely at both levels. During 50 games in 2017-18, Hinostroza scored a point every other contest (seven goals and 18 assists). Hinostroza could be scratching the surface of his potential, as he generated offense despite averaging a mere 13:49 minutes per game.

Oesterle: After playing 25 games over three seasons with the Oilers, Oesterle received a real chance with the Blackhawks, appearing in 55 contests in 2017-18. There were times that he shouldered a considerable role in Chicago, averaging almost 24 minutes per game in January. Overall, he generated 15 points in 55 games, averaged 20:31 TOI, and generally performed reasonably well from a possession standpoint last season.

His $650K cap hit expires after 2018-19.

Ultimately, the Coyotes received the main pieces for taking Hossa’s contract, while Kruger and that cap space rank as the most noteworthy assets for Chicago. (Unless Entwisle turns out to be a gem?)

Kruger: Maybe most importantly, Kruger returns to Chicago with his $2.775M cap hit set to end after next season.

The 28-year-old suffered a rough season, and this marks the third time he’s been traded since July 2017. It’s almost hard to believe that he played for Chicago as recently as 2016-17, as he’s been on a rocky path lately. Maybe Kruger can regain the form he showed winning two Stanley Cups with the Blackhawks as a helpful supporting cast member?

Entwisle: The 18-year-old forward was a third-rounder (69th overall) by Arizona in 2017.

Campbell: The 30-year-old defenseman was drafted in the third round (74th overall) by the Kings in 2008. Campbell’s accrued 42 games of NHL experience, most recently playing five games for Toronto in 2015-16. His longest run came with the Coyotes, when he appeared in 33 games back in 2014-15. Campbell has yet to score an NHL goal, generating two assists.

Maletta: An undrafted 23-year-old forward with marginal AHL stats.

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.

Galchenyuk trade just one reason Coyotes are excited

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Here’s a confession: last summer, I got a little too excited about the Arizona Coyotes’ progress.

It turns out that 2017-18 was a little too early to take the Coyotes seriously, but there are still reasons for optimism. The Alex GalchenyukMax Domi trade stands as the exclamation point at the end of a Coyotes fan’s sentence.

Sometimes teams improve by leaps and bounds. Other times, it’s more about baby steps.

After seeing Arizona stumble a bit this past season, it’s difficult to tell how far they’ve come. Either way, there are reasons to be increasingly positive about what GM John Chayka is doing, so let’s lay them out.

  • The Galchenyuk trade looks like a win.

Time will tell if it’s a big win (or even a win at all?). At the moment, it seems significant. Sure, one can discuss some of the ways that things might work out better than expected for Montreal, but much of that optimism hinges on better luck for Domi.

If you had to make a safe bet, you’d wager on Arizona’s side. Most GMs would take that.

  • Last summer’s trades quietly worked nicely.

There’s a solid chance that tuned-in hockey fans noted that Antti Raanta pulled off a solid first season as a starting goalie, at least after shaking off injury issues early on. He was rewarded with a three-year extension that carries a $4.25 million cap hit, a deal that finds a pretty nifty compromise between mitigating risks for the Coyotes with rewarding Raanta’s patience and hard work.

(Considering his fantastic .930 save percentage in 2017-18 and strong .922 career average, it could end up being a steal.)

The quieter development is that Derek Stepan played quite well, too.

Despite poor shooting luck (14 goals on 209 SOG for just a 6.7 shooting percentage), Stepan still scored his typical 56 points. That’s not a world-beating output, but it’s the type of production that the Coyotes more or less expected from the 27-year-old center.

Stepan can be part of the solution in Arizona.

  • A team that once looked weak down the middle seems formidable.

Landing Galchenyuk and Stepan eases the pressure on certain players. If the Coyotes believe that Dylan Strome would be a more comfortable fit on the wing, that isn’t quite as disappointing now.

  • They can add more talent this summer.

On one hand, it’s tough to gauge how much the Coyotes can really be a factor in free agency, considering their money challenges. Especially since they’re likely to pay up to extend Oliver Ekman-Larsson once they’re permitted by the CBA.

Still, there’s a chance they can add a small piece or two, and they also face interesting opportunities with the fifth pick of the 2018 NHL Draft.

They could add to their very modern-styled group of defensemen (OEL, Alex Goligoski, and Jason Demers all appeal to “fancy stats” types) by landing a prospect like Quinn Hughes. On the other hand, perhaps they’d add a forward who could make a near-future impact such as Brady Tkachuk?

Sure, it would have been great if they happened upon the top pick and were gifted Rasmus Dahlin, but they can still add a blue chip next weekend.

  • Their young players could improve.

It’s easy to forget that Dylan Strome is still just 21. Coyotes fans may always cringe at Mitch Marner‘s superior development (picked fourth after Strome went third overall in 2015), but that doesn’t mean that the ship has sailed on Strome as an NHL-caliber player.

The 2016 NHL Draft presents interesting questions as well.

“Beast” defenseman Jakob Chychrun‘s value is still unclear after his sophomore season was hindered by injury issues. Clayton Keller, meanwhile, looks like a fantastic find; the tantalizing question is: “How high is his ceiling?”

  • Enviable flexibility

In recent years, the Coyotes served as an Island of Misfit Contracts, absorbing dead cap space in Pavel Datsyuk’s and Chris Pronger’s deals in exchange for futures. They’ll see Dave Bolland‘s contract expire after 2018-19.

The nice thing for Chayka and the Coyotes is that they can continue in that potentially fruitful direction, but only if they choose to.

Simply put, this team isn’t anchored to too many problem contracts of their own doing. As of this writing, their longest contracts run for three seasons. OEL will change that, and few would really complain. The point is, the Coyotes enjoy the luxury of room to maneuver.

No doubt, the in-house budget stands as a concern, yet the Coyotes don’t need to fret about dollars going to waste.

***

No doubt about it, the Coyotes have plenty of work to do. The good news is that, so far, this group is getting the job done.

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.

Let’s fix the Edmonton Oilers

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You know things are bad for the Edmonton Oilers when even the media is questioning management.

Sportsnet’s Mark Spector chides players for a “sense of entitlement” after last night’s embarrassing loss to the Sabres, yet he also critiques the team’s special teams gameplan. “For the first time ever,” the Taylor HallAdam Larsson trade bewilders the Edmonton Journal’s David Staples.

Even Hall of Fame goalie Grant Fuhr believes that their PK is a mess.

By just about every measure, the Oilers are an absolute mess. And, yes, that PK is insanely ugly.

Is there any hope for them to turn things around? Yes, but they must admit this season is a lost cause, and big changes are needed.

Change in vision

There might come a point where it makes sense to trade one of the Oilers’ few remaining, arguably-not-quite-core assets in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. In a vacuum, it would make sense to move him during a “sell-high” time, which could be this season if he heals up before the trade deadline expires.

Let’s be honest, though; would anyone in their right mind trust GM Peter Chiarelli to extract anywhere near optimal value for RNH, not to mention guys like Oscar Klefbom?

And really, it’s not just on Chiarelli. Todd McLellan deserves some blame for the team’s systemic struggles. Scroll through the Oilers’ last decade-or-so of drafting and you’ll see that the franchise rarely finds talent outside of the first round, a serious indictment of their scouting staff, not to mention their ability to develop. Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish have their fingerprints all over these failures, too.

Management had a vision for what works in the NHL, but it looks ugly unless you’re wearing rose-colored glasses.

Liquidate

This season and coming summer both stand as opportunities to cut the fat.

It’s tough to imagine another team taking on Milan Lucic‘s odious deal and Kris Russell‘s contract, but let’s not forget that seemingly immovable deals have been traded away before. David Clarkson, Nathan Horton, Dave Bolland, and even Chris Pronger have received paychecks from teams willing to warehouse bad contracts for a price. Maybe Edmonton could bribe teams to take some mistakes off their hands?

Sometimes it’s not even that high of a price, but that’s why you need to find a GM who can … you know, at least break even in trades.

In the case of Patrick Maroon and maybe a few other expiring pieces, Chiarelli could even redeem himself a bit by getting decent returns.

Draft capital can help in multiple ways

The bright side of this disastrous season is that the Oilers are likely to get a healthy first-rounder for their troubles. As of this writing, Edmonton’s the sixth-worst team in the NHL, and games played could push them down a bit more.

We all know they enjoy inanely good luck in the lottery, so consider how this could help them out:

  • Landing a key prospect – This is the simplest path, and a reasonable one in that. With cap concerns looming, they may very well need another decent player on a rookie contract.
  • Packaging to get rid of a bad contract – That said, the Oilers might not want to wait out that development process. To embrace more of a “win now” mode, they could clear up space by combining that pick (and maybe more) with a contract they’d otherwise struggle to remove.
  • Landing a big fish – On a similar note, what if the pick could help them grab a key soon-to-be-free-agent defenseman? Imagine how much better the Oilers would look with someone like Oliver Ekman-Larsson or Ryan Ellis, not to mention even bigger names in Erik Karlsson or Drew Doughty. If their teams realize they’re going to lose those players, a high-end pick could get things moving.

Target goalies

Cam Talbot might get back on track, but either way, he’s already 30 and his $4.167 million cap hit expires after 2018-19. Again, the Oilers aren’t the greatest at learning from their mistakes, yet this season should send a blaring signal that they shouldn’t put all of their eggs in one basket.

The Oilers could consider a reclamation project in Petr Mrazek, echoing what the Wild accomplished with their former goalie Devan Dubnyk. They could see if Aaron Dell is the next Talbot: a backup capable of being something more.

We’ve seen plenty of instances where teams need two goalies, so Edmonton should be proactive, even if Talbot ends up ultimately being “the guy.”

They still have Connor

Before Oilers fans get too depressed, don’t forget there are still great pieces in place, including Connor McDavid, who’s somehow barely 21 years old. Believe it or not, locking him up for eight years at $12.5M per is actually an astounding bargain. In fact, it’s such a deal that they can probably relax about paying Draisaitl too much.

The Oilers have made their mistakes, but new management could change things in a hurry. Just look at how dim things looked for the Penguins during the ill-fated Mike Johnston era. They turned things around with a coaching change and some courageous trades, while the Maple Leafs are another example of a team “seeing the light” and enjoying significant returns.

It doesn’t seem like Chiarelli was really taking notes, but if he gets replaced, hopefully the next GM has been paying attention. Things can turn around quickly in the NHL, at least if you push the right buttons.

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.