Erik Gustafsson

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Depth, defense, Nylander will be Blackhawks’ biggest questions

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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 Chicago Blackhawks.

It is time to ponder three significant questions for the 2019-20 Chicago Blackhawks.

1. Did they do enough to fix their defense?

The Blackhawks have steadily devolved into one of the worst defensive teams in hockey over the past couple of years and seemingly hit rock bottom during the 2018-19 season, wasting what turned out to be a pretty good offensive team.

The front office spent most of the summer working to fix that problem by acquiring Olli Maatta from the Pittsburgh Penguins and Calvin de Haan from the Carolina Hurricanes. Both players should be at least marginal upgrades when they are in the lineup (de Haan may not be ready for the start of the regular season as he recovers from offseason surgery) but there are still a lot of unanswered questions on this unit.

Among them: How much do Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have left in the tank? Keith is one of the best defenders of his era and has a Hall of Fame resume, but he is also entering his age 36 season and has showed signs of slowing down the past couple of years. Seabrook has a terrible contract and is a shell of his former self, rapidly becoming an anchor on the team’s blue line.

Then there is Erik Gustafsson who is coming off of a monster year offensively (17 goals, 60 total points) but has to show it wasn’t a fluke.

The new additions might be fine for the 4-5 spots, but if the top-three aren’t able to play at a high level the new guys really won’t that matter much.

The curious move this offseason was the decision to trade Henri Jokiharju to the Buffalo Sabres for Alex Nylander. Jokiharju showed a lot of promise last year and figured to be a key part of the team’s future blue line. But he never seemed to gain the trust of new head coach Jeremy Colliton, was banished to the AHL, and then traded for a player that so far has been a massive disappointment. Trading him is a big risk that could backfire in a big way if they are wrong.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2. Do they have enough depth at forward?

What gives the Blackhawks a chance this season is the fact they still have impact players throughout their roster. Patrick Kane is still on of the league’s best offensive players, Jonathan Toews resurrected his career offensively a year ago, Alex DeBrincat looks like he has the chance to be a superstar, and Dylan Strome started to show some of the potential that made him a top-three pick in the draft. Their top two lines should be good enough to compete.

The issue is going to come on their third and fourth lines that seem to be produce more questions than answers.

Teams need to roll four lines that can score in today’s NHL, and even with the return of Andrew Shaw the Blackhawks’ bottom-six still leaves plenty to be desired.

One player that could go a long way toward helping that depth is the recently acquiring Alexander Nylander.

Speaking of him…

3. Will they be right about Alexander Nylander?

In a vacuum the decision to trade Jokiharju isn’t completely ridiculous. Teams deal top prospects all the time in an effort to get better, and given the numbers the Blackhawks have on defense it makes sense that someone at the position would get moved.

Trading him for Nylander, a player that is starting to border on being a bust, is what is so confusing.

If you are an optimist, you might point to the Blackhawks’ success with Dylan Strome after he blossomed following a trade with the Arizona Coyotes. The problem with that comparison is that Strome had at least shown the potential to be an impact offensive player. Prior to the trade to Chicago he was a point-per-game player in the AHL and was starting to produce a little bit in his limited NHL action, especially at the end of the 2017-18 season

Nylander to this point has done none of that.

Over three years in the AHL he managed just 30 goals in 165 games and was only a .522 point-per-game player.

Strome, on the other hand, scored 22 in only 50 games in his one full AHL season and doubled Nylander’s per-game point production.

If you are supposed to be an offensive player and you don’t score at the lower level, it’s hard to expect much production at the highest level.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Werenski, McAvoy should be in line for huge contracts

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When it comes to the NHL’s restricted free agent market this summer most of the attention has been directed at forwards Mitch Marner, Mikko Rantanen, and Sebastian Aho. They are the stars, the big point-producers, and in the case of Aho, the rare player that actually received — and signed — an offer sheet from another team, only to have the Carolina Hurricanes quickly move to match it. For now, though, let’s shift the focus to the blue line where there are a few more big contracts still to be settled this summer with Jacob Trouba, Charlie McAvoy, Zach Werenski, and Ivan Provorov all waiting on new deals from their respective teams.

The two most intriguing players out of this group are Columbus’ Werenski and Boston’s McAvoy because they are already playing at an elite level among NHL defenders.

Just how good have they been?

Both are coming off of their age 21 seasons and have already demonstrated an ability to play at a top-pairing level on playoff caliber teams.

Since the start of the 2007-08 season there have only been four defenders that have hit all of the following marks through their age 21 season:

  • At least 100 games played
  • Averaged at least .50 points per game
  • And had a Corsi Percentage (shot-attempt differential) of greater than 52 percent at that point in their careers.

Those players have been Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, Werenski, and McAvoy.

That is it.

Pretty elite company.

Based on that, it seems at least somewhat reasonable to look at the contracts Karlsson and Doughty received at the same point in their careers when they were coming off of their entry-level deals.

They were massive.

Karlsson signed a seven-year, $45.5 million deal with the Ottawa Senators, while Doughty signed an eight-year, $56 million contract. At the time, those contracts were worth around 10 percent of the league’s salary cap. A similarly constructed contract under today’s cap would come out to an annual cap hit of around $8 million dollars, which would be among the five highest paid defenders in the league.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Are Werenski and McAvoy worth similar contracts right now? They just might be.

The argument against it would be that while the overall performances are in the same ballpark, there are still some significant differences at play. Karlsson, for example, was coming off of a Norris Trophy winning season when he signed his long-term deal in Ottawa and was already on track to being one of the best offensive defensemen ever (he was already up to .68 points per game!). Doughty, meanwhile, was a significantly better defensive player than the other three and had already been a finalist for the Norris Trophy.

Neither Werenski or McAvoy has reached that level yet, while Werenski also sees a pretty significant drop in his performance when he is not paired next to Seth Jones, which could be a concern depending on how much value you put into such a comparison. It’s also worth pointing out that Jones sees a similar drop when he is not paired next to Werenski, and that the two are absolutely dominant when they are together.

But do those points outweigh the production and impact that Werenski and McAvoy have made, and the potential that they still possess in future years?

What they have already accomplished from a performance standpoint is almost unheard of for defenders of their age in this era of the league. It is also rare for any player of any level of experience.

Over the past three years only 15 other defenders have topped the 0.50 points per game and a 52 percent Corsi mark. On average, those players make $7 million per season under the cap, while only three of them — Roman Josi, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Erik Gustafsson — make less than $5 million per year. Josi is also due for a huge raise over the next year that will almost certainly move him into the $7-plus million range as well.

Bottom line is that the Blue Jackets and Bruins have top-pairing defenders on their hands that still have their best days in the NHL ahead of them. There is every reason to believe they are on track to be consistent All-Star level players and signing them to big deals right now, this summer, will probably turn out to be worth every penny.

Related: Bruins face salary cap juggling act with McAvoy, Carlo

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’ defense suddenly looks respectable

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Look, adding Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan doesn’t transform the Chicago Blackhawks’ defense into, say, the Nashville Predators’ group before they traded P.K. Subban for cap space, frankincense, and myrrh. These tweaks do make a return to the playoffs a whole lot more likely for Chicago, though.

[More: Blackhawks trade for De Haan, send Kahun to Pens for Maatta.]

Because, honestly, the Blackhawks’ defense was astoundingly terrible in 2018-19. To the point that it’s impressive Chicago even created the illusion of being semi-competitive.

In allowing 291 goals, Chicago finished second-worst in the NHL, only ahead of the putrid, sieve-like Senators. Their 72.7 penalty kill percentage was comfortably the worst in the league, which was quite uncomfortable. Things don’t get any better when you delve into deeper stats, either. Chicago’s high-danger chances percentage at even strength was league-worst at miserable 42.77 percent (686 for; 918 against), according to Natural Stat Trick.

Not ideal.

Again, all things considered, it’s surprising Chicago finished 10th in the West, technically two spots out of the postseason. That’s a bit of a mirage since the Blackhawks had 84 points versus 90 for Colorado as the final wild card, but the Blackhawks flirted with playoff contention quite a bit for a team with such an ugly defense.

What if the Blackhawks can merely improve to “meh” in 2019-20 from the “my house is on fire” rating they earned last season?

While offseason shoulder surgery might force Calvin De Haan to miss some time and/or start slow, the bottom line is that he could be an enormous upgrade over Gustav Forsling, who was also part of the Carolina trade.

(And that’s assuming that De Haan won’t play even better. He was hurt for at least some of 2018-19, likely diluting his stats.)

Both Maatta and De Haan were expensive luxuries their teams parted ways with. For Chicago, each could provide the sort of steady defense the Blackhawks rarely enjoyed in 2018-19.

It’s true that Maatta’s skating has been criticized, yet his all-around struggles might have more to do with mediocre defense partners than personal failings.

We can debate how much of a bump Chicago gets from adding these two, but these are two steps up, whether they be baby steps or giant leaps for hockey kind.

And it generally changes the discussion from having next to nothing to maybe having too many options on defense, as Charlie Roumeliotis discussed for NBC Chicago.

The Blackhawks now have some interesting options as left-handed defensemen, as Maatta and De Haan bolster a group that includes veteran Duncan Keith and younger option Erik Gustafsson, who quietly had a breakout season. The Blackhawks have plenty of right-handed options to sort through, too: Brent Seabrook and his troubled contract, joins younger options Connor Murphy, Henri Jokiharju, and Adam Boqvist. Slater Koekkoek and Carl Dahlstrom are also on the fringe of this conversation.

Roumeliotis goes into greater detail on that crowded situation, but again: too much sure beats not enough, and if there’s any chance that this influx also inspires Chicago to work harder to remove some problems (*cough* Seabrook *cough cough*), then even better. As is, this group seems upgraded in nice ways. Don’t expect excitement from De Haan or Maatta, aside from their ability to improve the Blackhawks’ chances of winning games.

Again, the “how much better?” argument is fairly interesting. The Predators lost Subban and the Jets didn’t get much more from trading away Jacob Trouba, so suddenly the Central Division is a little less foreboding — at least for now. We won’t really know if the path to a wild-card spot is clearer, but perhaps it could be.

That’s not to say that GM Stan Bowman should just snooze through July 1, mind you, as there’s still some work to do. For all the blueline improvements, Chicago’s roster is far from perfect, especially when you make that forward group even more top-heavy by removing a nice find like Dominik Kahun:

Bowman’s had a decent knack for finding supporting cast players for Chicago over the years, so it’s conceivable that the Blackhawks can make things work this summer. Perhaps third overall pick Kirby Dach could make an immediate jump to the Blackhawks, providing a big body and some talent while carrying a thrifty entry-level deal?

Adding some forward support is important, and frankly, Corey Crawford‘s health challenges should probably push Chicago to find a better backup option than Cam Ward. And, yes, if there’s any way someone would absorb Seabrook’s brutal deal, that would be nice for Chicago.

Expecting a team to clear all of that up before July is likely asking too much. The bottom line is that the Blackhawks have done a nice job of improving their team so far, as they’ve addressed their biggest weakness in substantial ways. Adding De Haan and Maatta doesn’t confirm a seat in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but that trip is far more probable for Chicago now than it was back when their season ended in April.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Blackhawks face Avalanche on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday night’s matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Avalanche head into Sunday in a solid position, as they hold a one-point lead and game in hand on the closest teams behind them vying for the West’s second wild-card spot. That rosy outlook can change in a big way if the Avs can’t beat the Blackhawks, though.

Looking at The Push for the Playoffs, things don’t look very good — at all — for Chicago, but this proud team likely isn’t waving the white flag on the 2018-19 season just yet. Beating the Avalanche (particularly in regulation) would certainly improve their odds of making an unlikely run, too.

With the stakes in mind – not to mention the star power in Nathan MacKinnon, Patrick Kane, and Jonathan Toews – this should be a fun one at the United Center.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Colorado Avalanche at Chicago Blackhawks
Where: United Center
When: Sunday, March 24, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Avs-Blackhawks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINES

AVALANCHE

Derick Brassard — Nathan MacKinnon — J.T. Compher

Colin WilsonCarl SoderbergAndrew Agozzino

Alexander KerfootTyson JostMatt Calvert

Gabriel BourqueSven Andrighetto

Samuel GirardErik Johnson

Ian ColeTyson Barrie

Nikita ZadorovPatrik Nemeth

Ryan Graves

Starting goalie: Philipp Grubauer

[More: check out this preview for Sunday’s game.]

BLACKHAWKS

Dylan Sikura — Jonathan Toews — Patrick Kane

Alex DeBrincatDylan StromeBrendan Perlini

Brandon SaadArtem AnisimovDominik Kahun

Chris KunitzDavid KampfMarcus Kruger

Duncan KeithBrent Seabrook

Carl DahlstromErik Gustafsson

Gustav ForslingConnor Murphy

Starting goalie: Corey Crawford

Gord Miller (play-by-play) and Joe Micheletti (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from United Center in Chicago, Ill. Pre-game coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Keith Jones and Jeremy Roenick.

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.

PHT Power Rankings: Best under-the-radar performances

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In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we dig beyond the superstars to find some of the most under-the-radar individual performances around the NHL.

Players that are maybe exceeding their previous expectations or just not getting enough attention for the type of season they are having.

Among the group is a former top-five pick that has taken advantage of a fresh start, one of the league’s most consistently overlooked goal-scorers, and a couple of career backup goalies that have had to step in to starting roles and help their teams.

To the rankings!

1. Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames — In only 65 games this season he has already shattered — completely shattered … obliterated … destroyed — every major career high. Before this season he had scored more than 11 goals in a season just twice in five years and never scored more than 17. Entering Monday, he already has 26 goals. Before this season he had never recorded more than 45 points in a season, and had topped 40 just twice. Entering Monday, he already has 72 points and is a top-10 scorer in the league. The fresh start in Calgary, the opportunity to play with top-tier offensive talents, and an increased role has completely jumpstarted a career that had been, for lack of a better word, a bit underwhelming until this season. He is one of the driving forces behind the Flames’ incredible rise to the top of the Western Conference standings and has been lost in the shadows of Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk.

2. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets — Everything about Atkinson’s career to this point is under-the-radar. He is currently on track for what could be his second top-10 finish in the goal-scoring race, and if you go back to the start of the 2015-16 season he is one of the top-15 players in the league in goals-per-game during that stretch. Columbus’ roster is going to look very, very, very different next season after what is likely to be a free agency purge, but Atkinson is still going to be there as one of the organizational building blocks along with Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.

3. Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens — If you are not a Canadiens fan you probably know him as an annoying pest that you absolutely hate every single time you have to watch him play. He is all of that every night, every shift, every game. He is also an outstanding hockey player who is one goal away from his second consecutive 30-goal season and one of the Habs’ top players. He is Montreal’s best possession-driving forward and for a few years now whatever line he has been on has always been the team’s best and most productive. He doesn’t get a lot of attention for his skill as a player, but he should. There’s a lot of Brad Marchand in him — that is both a good thing and a bad thing — and his career seems to be following a similar trajectory in terms of when his big breakout offensively is happening.

4. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes — Yes, the West stinks and that is a big reason why the Coyotes, with their current record, are still so alive in the race. But even with that it is an impressive feat that they are still in it given the injury situation this team has dealt with this season. It is bordering on absurd and somehow keeps getting worse. One of the biggest injuries was the one suffered by starting goalie Antti Raanta that pretty much robbed him of the entire season. That has opened the door for Kuemper to slide in and, for all intents and purposes, save the Coyotes’ season. They got him for Tobias Rieder and Scott Wedgewood a little more than one year ago in a deal that didn’t really move the needle for anybody. This season it is paying off in a huge way.

[Related: Coyotes’ hot streak starts in goal and goes from there]

5. Curtis McElhinney, Carolina Hurricanes — After years of disastrous goaltending, a revolving door of hopeful fixes that all fizzled out, and what seemed to be a positional curse the Hurricanes are finally getting solid play in net thanks to the arrival of … Curtis McElhinney?! Who would have ever guess that a 35-year-old career backup would step in and help solidify a position that has been one of the league’s most franchise-destroying blackholes for the better part of a decade. But here we are. There are a lot of reasons for the Hurricanes’ improvement this year, from Sebastien Aho’s continued development into a star, to the major addition of Nino Niederreiter mid-season. But as we have seen from this team in the past none of that would have mattered if the goaltending was still among the worst in the league.

6. Casey Cizikas, New York Islanders –– Before this season Cizikas was your classic bottom-six energy player who was tasked with playing hard, rattling some cages, and just trying to do a lot of the “little things.” He never scored more than nine goals in a season and was never thought of as any kind of an offensive weapon. His season, though, is a microcosm of everything that is happening on Long Island right now — everything is going right. Entering play on Monday Cizikas is third on the team with 18 goals in only 58 games. That is more goals than Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Josh Bailey and Jordan Eberle. On a per-game basis, the only player on the team that is having a better goal-scoring season than him is Anders Lee. We have to point out that his success this season is almost entirely driving by a 20.8 percent shooting percentage that is almost certainly going to return to reality next season (he is an 11 percent shooter for his career) but everything is clicking for him right now and it is a huge part of the Islanders’ incredible story.

7. Jaroslav Halak, Boston Bruins — The 2017-18 season was a disastrous one for Halak with the Islanders, but joining the Bruins seems to have jumpstarted his career. Together he and Tuukka Rask have formed what is arguably the best goaltending tandem in the league this season and Halak has been especially important because he was able step up and fill in for Rask earlier this season when he was struggling and had to step away from the team for a bit for personal reasons. When he is at his best we have seen Halak take a team pretty far in the playoffs, and so far this season he has played at that level. He and Rask are a big reason why the Bruins should be such a feared team going into the postseason.

8. Alex Tuch, Vegas Golden Knights — Tuch was one of Vegas’ under-the-radar steals in the expansion draft when they got him and Erik Haula from the Minnesota Wild in return for not selecting one of the Wild’s defenders. After a promising rookie season in Vegas, Tuch’s game has elevated even more this season to the point where he has been perhaps their most productive forward this season, even ahead of Jonathan Marchessault, Max Pacioretty, and William Karlsson.

9. Carl Soderberg, Colorado Avalanche — The Avalanche have been, for the most part, a one-line team this season. Their offense has been dominated by Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog with little help from anyone else on the roster. There is one exception to that, however — Carl Soderberg. The veteran forward recoded has already recorded the first 20-goal season of his career this year, and he did it during his age 33 season, something that no other player in NHL history has ever done. The Avalanche are still lacking in depth, but Soderberg has been one of the few bright spots after the top line this season.

10. Erik Gustafsson, Chicago Blackhawks — The Blackhawks defense has taken a lot of hits over the years due to the departure of key players and the decline of several returning players. Their surprising standout this season has been Gustafsson who has emerged out of nowhere to be one of the most productive blue-liners in the league with 13 goals, 35 assists, and 48 total points in his first 63 games. Overall it has been a disappointing year for a Blackhawks team that seems headed for its second straight non-playoff season, but this has been one of the positive developments along the way.

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.