Pondering Jeff Skinner trade as Sabres visit Hurricanes

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Back in May, I surmised that the Carolina Hurricanes would likely be haunted by a Jeff Skinner trade, and that was before I shared Hockey Twitter’s general reaction of “that’s it?” when he was sent to the Buffalo Sabres.

As bad as that trade looked in August, it only seems to get worse as the 2018-19 NHL season goes along, and so the Hurricanes brass has to take it on the chin Friday, as people inevitably revisit the trade being that Skinner’s making his first visit to Carolina as a member of an opposing team.

Let’s dig a little deeper. For the most part, this will only pour more salt in the wounds of Hurricanes GM Don Waddell and his staff, yet there are a few things that will provide at least a little comfort.

Red-hot Skinner, and a cautionary tale

Puck luck stood as one of the main reasons why I was concerned about Carolina trading Skinner.

In 2017-18, Skinner scored 24 goals, down from 37 the previous season. While this point will cue a wah-wah from Dallas Stars CEO Jim Lites, the 24 goals really weren’t so bad when you consider his 8.7 shooting percentage, down from his current career average of 11.4 percent.

This season, Skinner already has a ludicrous 29 goals, and he’s showing dazzling swagger with a 21.5 SH% (his previous career-high was 14.4 percent from his Calder-winning 2010-11 season). Goals like these have to sting the scoring-starved Hurricanes:

The Hurricanes remain as frustrating as ever when it comes to failing to finish chances. In fact, the frustration is only greater, as Skinner and fellow traded winger Elias Lindholm are enjoying the best runs of their careers on playoff-caliber teams, while Carolina looks like it will once again see the postseason as agonizingly just-out-of-reach.

The free agent factor

The dangerous thing for the Sabres is that Skinner, a pending unrestricted free agent, is virtually certain to cool off, but has socked away such a great season that his price is dramatically inflated. Skinner’s a fantastic player, so that’s not the end of the world, but it’s a factor that more far-sighted fans should consider.

Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, there’s only so much solace one can take from a move eventually looking a bit less painful.

Interestingly, there’s the slight chance – albeit slim – that the Sabres might decide to trade Skinner if they don’t think it’s better to keep him, thus reaping more indirect rewards from this trade. Yow.

Even if it’s just for one year, Buffalo desperately needed to make real progress in 2018-19, and Skinner’s been enormously important in the Sabres doing just that.

Diminishing returns

To review, Carolina received:

  • Prospect Cliff Pu, and the stinky puns that come with his name.
  • Buffalo’s 2019 second-round pick.
  • Buffalo’s 2020 third-round pick and six-rounder.

That seemed like a pupu platter weak return from the moment it happened, and unfortunately, it’s only stinking worse today.

Unfortunately, Pu’s had an awful first year with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers. He has just one assist since Nov. 25, and only one goal and three assists for four points in 32 games.

Cruel stat: Pu’s .13 points-per-game are barely better than that of goalie Scott Darling (.11), who managed an assist in nine contests.

That second-rounder was a somewhat reasonable gamble that the Sabres would struggle again in 2018-19. Instead, they currently hold the second wild-card spot in the East. While Buffalo could fall short of a 2019 Stanley Cup playoff berth, they’re unlikely to fall enough for that to be anything better than a mid-second-rounder.

The third and sixth-rounders in 2020 carry dubious benefits, even if the Sabres struggle in 2019-20. Maybe the numbers will change in the next decade, but a few years ago, TSN’s Travis Yost noted that only about one-third of third-rounders became NHL players from 2000-09, and that number decreases as you go along. And the odds of finding a Skinner-level gem is even less likely.

Of course, draft picks can be helpful in making trades.

Think of it from a PR perspective, in particular.

Sports fans can be drawn in to the siren call of potential, and few things do the imagination wonders quite like throwing some draft picks into a trade, to soften the shock of losing a more proven commodity.

Maybe the Hurricanes could turn those Sabres picks into, say, a goalie for the future? Perhaps they could use them in a package to carve out some goals?

If nothing else, they give the Hurricanes options. Skinner’s goals are a lot more exciting, but still.

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Again, it’s crucial to consider context.

The Hurricanes likely believed that Skinner would leave in free agency (either by his choice, theirs, or both), so they didn’t want to lose him for nothing. It’s possible that both sides wanted to get a split over with after years of missing the playoffs and the tensions that tend to arise from falling short.

Still, Carolina and other teams can learn from this. Maybe you can’t trade a player on supremely hot streaks, but there may be better option than selling low when they’re ice-cold. There’s an alternate scenario where the Hurricanes bide their time by waiting to trade Skinner, likely driving up his value while enjoying the goals he could provide.

(Even if he might not be anywhere near as red-hot as he is now, prospering in a dynamic duo with Jack Eichel.)

This saga isn’t over for the Sabres, either, as they must make the right moves regarding his future.

There’s no denying that it looks like an enormous win for Buffalo right now, though, and that’s something the Hurricanes must contend with on Friday night.

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.

Big changes have led to big results for Flames

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After they made the playoffs in 2016-17, the Calgary Flames were expected to take a step forward last season. Their failure do so led them to a coaching change and a blockbuster trade with Carolina. So far, those two things have worked out in a big way.

As of right now, the Flames find themselves in second over in the NHL standings, with 60 points. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning (70 points) are ahead of them. New head coach Bill Peters has found a way to get all of his team’s parts firing at the same time.

Although Calgary finds themselves in the middle of the pack when it comes to goals against, they’ve found a way to put the puck in the back of the net with regularity through 45 games. Their 162 goals for are third in the league behind Tampa and San Jose.

When we think of the best lines in hockey, we often think of the top lines in Colorado, Tampa or even Washington, but it’s time to start showing some love to Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm. Gaudreau (66 points in 45 games) is third in league scoring, Monahan (54 points in 45 games) is 11th, and Lindholm (51 points in 45 games) is 16th. Lindholm, who was one of the two players acquired from the ‘Canes over the summer, has already surpassed his career high in points. He’s been an excellent fit with those two players. Oh, and by the way, Matthew Tkachuk is 17th in league scoring with 51 points in 45 games.

As PostMedia’s Wes Gilberston pointed out earlier this week, the Flames are the first team since the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins to have four players hit the 50-point mark at this stage of the season. Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis and Tomas Sandstrom accomplished that for the Pens.

Another reason the Flames have been so hard to stop this year, is because of their depth on defense. First, 35-year-old Mark Giordano is having the best year of his career. He’s put himself in the Norris Trophy conversation by picking up 43 points in 43 games. T.J. Brodie, Travis Hamonic and the other piece of the trade with Carolina, Noah Hanifin, round out the top four. That’s an impressive group of defenders for one team to possess.

So, adding Peters behind the bench and acquiring Lindholm and Hanifin from Carolina have been excellent moves. Johnny Gaudreau taking his game to another level is also a huge reason why the Flames are where they are today. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t vulnerable.

The biggest question mark they have can be found between the pipes. Mike Smith, who comes with a cap hit of $4.25M, hasn’t been the answer. The 36-year-old has a 12-9-1 record with a 3.09 goals-against-average and a .886 save percentage this season. He just hasn’t been good enough.

So the team decided to turn to David Rittich, who’s been a significant upgrade on Smith. The 26-year-old hasn’t lost a game in regulation since mid-December. He owns a 16-4-3 record with a 2.42 goals-against-average and a .921 save percentage. The numbers look good, but how will he respond when the real pressure begins? We simply don’t know. Can he take his game to another level in the postseason when goals typically tend to drop a little bit? We don’t know.

If he can keep playing this way, the Flames will have a legitimate shot of winning it all. If he doesn’t, they could find themselves bowing out of the playoffs fairly early.

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.

NHL announces 2019 All-Star game coaches

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Todd Reirden had some big shoes to fill when he was named head coach of the Washington Capitals this summer.

It was not only his first head coaching job in the NHL, but he also had to take over for the most successful coach (Barry Trotz) in franchise history that had just guided the team to its first ever Stanley Cup championship.

Halfway through the first half of the 2018-19 season the Capitals are once again back on top of the Metropolitan Division, meaning that Reirden will get the opportunity to coach at the 2019 All-Star game in San Jose.

Reirden was one of four coaches announced to the game on Saturday, joining Jon Cooper (Tampa Bay Lightning, Atlantic Division), Paul Maurice (Winnipeg Jets, Central Division) and Bill Peters (Calgary Flames, Pacific Division).

Head coaches for the All-Star game are selected based on which team has the highest points percentage on Jan. 5, the official halfway point of the NHL season.

[Related: NHL reveals All-Star game rosters]

Reirden and Peters are both in their first years as head coach with their respective teams. And while there probably is not much surprise seeing Cooper, Maurice, or even Reirden in this position given the teams they are coaching, Peters is probably a pretty big surprise. After missing the playoffs in each of his four years behind the Carolina Hurricanes’ bench he took over a Flames team that was coming off of a highly disappointing 2017-18 performance. Thanks in large part to a Norris Trophy caliber year from Mark Giordano, a career year from new-comer Elias Lindholm, and some outstanding young core players (led by Johnny Gaudreau) the Flames have climbed to the top of the division and the Western Conference.

In Tampa Bay, Cooper’s Lightning are running over everybody they face this season and enter Saturday with a 12-point lead over every other team in the NHL.

Maurice’s Jets, even with their recent slump, are back on top of the Central Division for the second year in a row.

The 2019 All-Star Game will once again be a three-on-three tournament that has each division face each other in a series of 20-minute mini-games (Atlantic vs. Metropolitan; Central vs. Pacific; then the two winners in a championship game).

The All-Star weekend will take place on January 25 and 26 at the SAP Center in San Jose.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Eight stunning numbers from first half of season

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Every month we will take a look around the NHL at some stunning (or even bizarre) numbers that jump out at us.

This month we take a look at the return of the 100-point scorer,the Flyers’ revolving door of goalies, and some impressive individual performances around the NHL, including from a pair of standout rookies.

The 100-point scorer might be back

Did not think this was ever going to happen. Not with the way the game was trending for so long.

Entering play on Friday there are currently 13 players in the NHL that are on pace for more than 100 points this season (and that does not include players like Patrice Bergeron and Auston Matthews who are on a 100-point pace over 82 games but have missed too much time due to injury to actually threaten the 100-point mark) and a few others on pace for 98 or 99 points and could make a run at it.

Let’s think about those numbers for a second.

  • During the 2017-18 season there were only three 100-point scorers in the NHL (Connor McDavid, Nikita Kucherov, and Claude Giroux), and at the halfway point there were only four player on a pace to reach it.
  • In the seven years prior to last season there were only five 100-point scorers in the NHL, and never more than one in a single season.
  • The last time the NHL had more than 10 100-point scorers in a single season was 1995-96. The last time there were 13 was the 1992-93 season when more than 20 players topped it.

There was an eight or nine year stretch where even reaching 90 points seemed to be impossible, given the way the games were being officiated, the quality of the goaltending, and the way the league had become such a structured defensive game. Just like it wasn’t one specific thing that resulted in the decline in scoring, it hasn’t been just one specific thing that’s resulted in the reversal. Goalie equipment has gotten smaller, power plays are up a little bit, three-on-three overtime has added some goals, and, quite frankly, there has been a pretty good influx of young superstar talent to enter the league that has been given a bit more freedom to create.

The Flyers’ revolving door of goalies

After claiming Mike McKenna on waivers the Philadelphia Flyers could be in a position to use a seventh goalie this season. The season is just now half over. Only two teams in the league this season have had to use more than three different goalies, while none have had to use more than four. The Flyers are already at six and have a very real chance of using seven.

What is most amazing about this number is that all six goalies have appeared in at least two games, and five of them have appeared in at least five.

[Related: Flyers welcome Mike McKenna to the goalie carousel

An historically great offense in Tampa Bay

At the halfway point the Tampa Bay Lightning are averaging 4.17 goals per game, an incredible number in any era.

In the history of the league only 70 teams have scored more goals than Tampa Bay’s 171 through the first 41 games of a season, and the overwhelming majority of those teams played in the firewagon days of the 1980s when goalies were awful and power plays were plentiful.

Since 1990, only nine teams have topped that mark through 41 games, and all but one of those teams played between 1990 and 1993 (the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins are the lone exception) just before the start of the dead puck era.

The Lightning are truly scoring goals like a team from a different era.

The second-highest scoring team in the league, the Toronto Maple Leafs, is at 3.67, an incredible 0.50 goals per game behind the Lightning. The gap between Tampa Bay and Toronto (which is also an obscenely good and deep offensive team), is the same as the gap between Toronto and the 11th highest scoring team in the league, the Ottawa Senators.

They are also scoring on 30.5 percent of their power plays. Only three teams in league history have ever finished a full season higher than 30 percent — the 1977-78 Montreal Canadiens, the 1977-78 New York Islanders, and the 1978-79 New York Islanders.

Elias Lindholm has already exceeded anything he has ever done in the NHL 

I admit, I hated the Dougie Hamilton trade for the Calgary Flames because they were dealing an elite defender for a package of players that … did not seem elite.

It has gone better for the Flames than I — or really anyone — could have expected because one of the key players in that deal, Elias Lindholm, is having an absolutely magnificent season.

Entering play on Friday he has already scored 20 goals, recorded 28 assists, and totaled 48 points in 42 games.

Before this season his previous career highs in those respective categories were 17, 34 (he will almost certainly pass that one soon), and 45.

Granted, a lot of this production (especially as it relates to the goals) is tied to a 19.8 shooting percentage that will only regress, but it has still been a huge surprise season for the Flames.

Morgan Rielly chasing history

With 44 points in his first 40 games, the Toronto Maple Leafs defender is on pace for 90 points this season. Only 10 different defenders in league history have topped that mark, and none have done it Ray Bourque during the 1993-94 season.

The list of defenders to do it: Paul Coffey (seven times), Bobby Orr (six times), Ray Bourque (four times), Denis Potvin (three times), Al MacInnis (two times), Phil Housley (one time), Brian Leetch (one time), Gary Suter (one time).

Elias Pettersson‘s elite company

The Vancouver Canucks rookie was injured again on Thursday night, and that is terrible news for his team and the league. He has been one of the the most explosive rookies to enter the league in quite some time.

Since the start of the 1987-88 season only three rookies have ever scored more than Pettersson’s 22 goals in the first 38 games of their career.

Teemu Selanne with 30 goals in 1992-93, Eric Lindros with 27 goals in 1992-93, and Alex Ovechkin with 24 goals in 2005-06.

[Related: Canucks’ Pettersson leaves game with ugly looking leg injury]

Speaking of great rookie performances

Rasmus Dahlin, the No. 1 overall pick of the Buffalo Sabres, has been having a noteworthy rookie season of his own.

The 18-year-old has already tallied 20 points in his first 41 games. Going as far back as 1987 only one other rookie defenseman at the age of 18 had more points than that (Aaron Ekblad with 24 points for the Florida Panthers during the 2014-15 season). Nobody else has recorded more than 15 during that stretch.

Playmaker Blake Wheeler

We touched on Blake Wheeler’s stat line a month ago and it hasn’t really changed.

In 39 games this season he has recorded 44 assists for the Jets.

He has only scored six goals.

Over the past 35 years no player has recorded at least 44 assists through the first half of the season and scored fewer goals.

(Data in this post via the Hockey-Reference database)

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

NHL reveals 2019 All-Star Game rosters

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The NHL has revealed the rosters for the 2019 All-Star Game, which will take place at SAP Center in San Jose on Jan. 25-26.

Last week it was announced that Alex Ovechkin (Metropolitan), Auston Matthews (Atlantic), Nathan MacKinnon (Central), and Connor McDavid (Pacific) were voted in as division captains. Ovechkin has since pulled out of the event, so the Metropolitan Division will need a new captain.

Given the format of the event where every team is represented and only 11 players per division get to go, it’s tough to use the “snub” word when talking about someone who’s having an All-Star worthy season but isn’t listed below. But there will likely be a few swaps over the next three weeks as injuries pop up.

[Backstrom, Kopitar, Laine, Skinner highlight NHL All-Star Last Men In vote]

On to the rosters!

Atlantic Division
F Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres
F Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
F Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Captain)
F David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins
F Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
F John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs
D Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators
D Keith Yandle, Florida Panthers
G Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings
G Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

Potential injury replacements: Mitch Marner, Brayden Point, Jonathan Huberdeau, Mark Stone, Jeff Skinner, Morgan Rielly, Frederik Andersen, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Jaroslav Halak

Metropolitan Division
F Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes
F Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets
F Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders
F Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
F Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers
F Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils
D John Carlson, Washington Capitals
D Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets
G Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals
G Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers

Potential injury replacements: Phil Kessel, Nicklas Backstrom, Artemi Panarin, Evgeni Malkin, Kyle Palmieri, Chris Kreider, Kris Letang, Zach Werenski, Robin Lehner

Central Division
F Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
F Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche (Captain)
F Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues
F Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche
F Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets
F Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets
D Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars
D Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
G Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota Wild
G Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

Potential injury replacements: Gabriel Landeskog, Alex DeBrincat, Patrik Laine, Ryan Suter, Ben Bishop

Pacific Division
F Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames
F Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes
F Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (Captain)
F Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks
F Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks
D Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks
D Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
D Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks
G Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights
G John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks

Potential injury replacements: Leon Draisaitl, Sean Monahan, Matthew Tkachuk, Elias Lindholm, Timo Meier, Mark Giordano, Jacob Markstrom, David Rittich

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills Competition will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

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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.