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Stars CEO’s ire should be directed at GM, not Benn, Seguin

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Things sound awfully rotten deep in the heart of Texas.

With the Dallas Stars stumbling along to yet another mediocre and completely pointless season, tensions are running high and fingers are being pointed.

Those fingers are going squarely in the direction of the team’s best and highest paid players, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn.

This is nothing new in the world of professional sports, and especially the NHL, where the people at the top of the payroll will always take the fall when things go poorly, whether they are the ones most responsible for it or not.

But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill criticism from fans or the local press. This is over-the-top, extremely vicious, and irrational ranting from, of all people, the team’s very own CEO, Jim Lites.

Not only was it all of that, but Lites specifically went to local members of the Dallas media with the intention of going on the record to rip his team’s star players.

In an interview with Sean Shapiro of The Athletic, Lites used several expletives to describe the play of Seguin and Benn this season, saying they have been “f—— horse s—” and that team’s owner Tom Gaglardi is “pissed.”

He did not stop there.

From The Athletic:

“We are a stars-driven league, and our stars aren’t getting it done,” Lites said. “It’s embarrassing, and no one writes it. Write it!”

“These guys are not good enough. They’re not good enough for me, they’re not good enough for the owner, and they’re certainly not good enough for the general manager, who I can’t speak for, but it’s not good enough for the job he’s done,” Lites added. “But we’ve had meeting after meeting after meeting. The accountability on the ice is not there. These guys were signed to big contracts because they were the third- and sixth-leading scorers in the National Hockey League over the past five years. They get their money, we expect them to not be outplayed every game we play in. And if they were as good as they’ve been in the past we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

There was more, via Matthew DeFranks of the Dallas Morning News:

“But for me, it’s pissed me off, what nobody says is what is completely obvious to me: We are getting terrible play from our top two players,”

And later…

“If 14 and 91 don’t lead, we will not be successful,” Lites said. “I think this is the most talented and deep team we’ve had in years here. Certainly, this is the best team that we’ve put together from a talent perspective since Tom Gaglardi’s owned the franchise. Tom has allowed us to do everything we needed to do to be successful. Whatever it’s taken, he’s done. And I am tired of getting emails from him saying ‘What the hell is going on with our best players?'”

This type of candid, on-the-record criticism is almost completely unheard of in the NHL, and makes the rant from Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford from earlier in the season look relatively tame, if for no other reason than he had the good sense to not make his star players the focal points of his anger.

It certainly makes for great print and is highly entertaining to everyone outside of Dallas (especially everyone outside of the Stars’ dressing room), but it’s also completely idiotic and a far better representation of why they’re are almost totally irrelevant as an organization than anything Seguin and Benn are not doing this season.

Yes, it’s true that Seguin and Benn have seen their production slip this season. Yes, it’s also true that they are making a ton of money after signing new long-term contracts in recent years to remain with the franchise and are taking up a significant portion of their salary cap space. And yes, it’s also true that their current level of play is probably worth some criticism (especially most recently), if only because it is not up to the standard that they have set for themselves during their time in Dallas.

But to point the finger entirely at them, and to do so in such an outrageous way is completely baffling.

The thing about tossing out blame in the NHL is that whenever you think it’s your best players that are the problem, they are probably not the problem.

Star players take more blame because they have a more difficult job than, say, your bottom-six forwards. It’s easy to look at a third-or fourth-liner skating around with energy and praise him for always doing his job because his job, within the context of the NHL, isn’t that hard. It’s a lower expectation and is easier to reach and is something they can do on most nights. So it looks like they’re doing their jobs and carrying their weight, even if what they do isn’t always going to make a difference. Your top-line players, the ones that have to score the goals and carry the offense, have a far higher ceiling to reach and no matter how good they are and no matter how well they play they are not always going to reach it. And when they don’t, it looks like they’re playing worse than the fourth-line energy guy even though they are still probably doing more.

Seguin and Benn are having down years for them, but they are still producing more than a significant portion of the NHL, and more than anybody else on the Dallas roster.

That brings us back to Lites’ comment about this being “the best team we’ve put together from a talent perspective since Tom Gaglardi’s owned the franchise.”

How can anyone possibly say that with a straight face when there is not a single player on the roster outside of the top-line that has topped 20 points this season? A season where goal-scoring is once again up across the league.

(Alexander Radulov is third on the team in scoring with 29 points in 28 games, but he mostly plays on the Benn-Seguin line when he is healthy.)

When Seguin and Benn are on the ice this season during 5-on-5 play the Stars are outscoring their opponents by a 24-11 margin. They are controlling 52 percent of the shot attempts. More than 53 percent of the scoring chances. More than 58 percent of the high-danger chances. When you add Radulov to that line it becomes even more dominant.

When neither Seguin or Benn is on the ice, the Stars have been outscored 34-48. Their shot attempt share drops down to 45 percent and their scoring chance and high-danger scoring chance shares drop down to below 47 percent.

This is your deepest and most talented team? No, sir. That is a freaking lottery team.

How can you absolve your GM (Jim Nill) of any responsibility in that mess?

Lites talked about how Seguin and Benn were given the big contracts because they were the third-and sixth-leading scorers in the league over the previous five seasons. It was at that point that a rational sports team executive would have looked at that and come to the reasonable conclusion that maybe, just maybe, his general manager wasn’t doing a good job.

While Seguin and Benn were among the top-six scorers in the league between 2013-14 and 2017-18, they were making a combined total of $11.3 million per season.

Combined.

The Stars had two of the league’s best and most elite scorers on their roster for roughly the cost of one Jonathan Toews. That was a steal. It was such a steal that it should have made them the focal point of a championship contending team with even remotely competent work from the front office. Do you know what the Stars surrounded them with during those years? They surrounded them with a team that made the playoffs twice in five years, only once made it past the first round, and was never a serious threat to win a Stanley Cup because they either never had the goaltending, or the defense, or the depth (and sometimes none of the three) to complement their two superstars.

Superstars that were being paid like second-liners.

The Stars surrounded them with a team where the third and fourth best players after them were a young John Klingberg and a mid-30s, past-his-prime, Jason Spezza. You want to talk about accountability? How do the people responsible for that sort of roster construction get a pass?

Can you imagine what Lites or Gaglardi would have said if Seguin or Benn had spoken out during those years and ripped the team’s management because they weren’t getting enough help and their peak years in the NHL were being wasted? Because that’s what happened, the Stars wasted the prime years of two of the league’s best offensive players and other than former coach Lindy Ruff nobody in a position of power paid the price for it.

Successful organizations start at the top, and it seems awfully difficult to be a successful organization when the people at the top sound like angry fans on the post-game call-in show.

Especially when those same people at the top refuse to look in the right places for who to blame.

They should start by looking in a mirror.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

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.

Avs’ duo of MacKinnon, Rantanen chasing rare feat

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One of the many downsides to the NHL’s goal-scoring decline over the past two decades has been the impact it has had on individual numbers and milestones. For quite a while it looked like the 100-point scorer was becoming a thing of the past, if it was not already entirely extinct. Between 2010-11 and 2017-18 it was a mark that was hit just eight times, and two of those were from Connor McDavid. In only one of those years (2017-18) did the league have multiple 100-point scorers.

There are currently 11 players around the league on a pace to do it this season, including the Avalanche duo of Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. A pair of teammates hitting the 100-point mark in the same season would be a huge deal and put them in some pretty exclusive company as it has only been done six times over the past 25 seasons.

That list:

  • Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom for the Washington Capitals in 2009-10
  • Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008-09
  • Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley for the Ottawa Senators in 2005-06
  • Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne for the Anaheim Ducks in 1998-99
  • Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg for the Colorado Avalanche in 1995-96
  • Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1995-96

MacKinnon and Rantanen have both already topped 45 points this season.

Looking at that same 25-year time period only three other sets of teammates have had that many points through their team’s first 30 games: Alfredsson, Heatley and Jason Spezza for the 2005-06 Senators, Lemieux, Jagr, and Francis, for the 1995-96 Penguins, and Sakic and Forsberg for the 1995-96 Avalanche.

All of those sets of teammates went on to each top-100 points for the season.

(Spezza did not hit the 100-point mark for the Senators, only because of injury. He finished the season with 90 points in 68 games. He had not missed 14 games he almost certainly would have done so as well).

[Related: Avalanche sixth in this week’s PHT Power Rankings]

What stands out about the current Avalanche duo is that as of Monday they are both on pace for more than 120 points this season.

No one has hit that mark since Crosby did it during the 2006-07 season, and the only three times it’s happened in the salary cap era were the first two years coming out of the lockout when penalties, power plays, and goal-scoring briefly skyrocketed to near early-90s levels.

The last time a pair of teammates topped 120 in the same season was the Lemieux-Jagr duo in 1995-96. Before them? You have to go back to Lemieux and Kevin Stevens during the 1991-92 season, and then the Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, and Paul Coffey trio for the Edmonton Oilers during the 1985-86 season. (Edit: We initially missed Pat Lafontaine and Alexander Mogilny for the 1992-93 Buffalo Sabres here. Add them in as well.)

Overall, it’s been done just nine times in league history.

Given how rare it is and how difficult it is to maintain that kind of a pace of an 82-game season — especially in today’s NHL, even with the recent uptick in scoring — it’s asking an awful lot to expect them to do it. The 100-point mark, though, seems far more attainable as they would both need to maintain just around a point-per-game pace the rest of the season. Seeing as how they have both been point-per-game players for nearly a year-and-a-half now, it is not that far-fetched to think they can pull it off.

It is not the only piece of history they are chasing this season.

Rantanen and MacKinnon are currently first and second in the NHL’s scoring race.

The past five times teammates finished in the top-two in scoring:

  • Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos for the 2012-13 Tampa Bay Lightning lockout shortened season)
  • Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr for the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins
  • Mario Lemieux and Kevin Stevens for the 1991-92 Pittsburgh Penguins
  • Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri for the 1986-87 Edmonton Oilers
  • Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri for the 1984-85 Edmonton Oilers

The only other post-Original Six teammates to do it were Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito on a couple of different occasions for Boston Bruins in the 1970s.

This one seems a little more difficult if only due to the presence of McDavid and the season he is having for the Oilers. As long as he stays healthy you should probably bet on him to end up at the top of the scoring list, especially if new coach Ken Hitchcock is going to keep playing him 25 minutes per night.

Along with Gabriel Landeskog, Rantanen and MacKinnon give the Avalanche the NHL’s best line.

That trio has scored 45 percent of the team’s goals this season, while the Avalanche have outscored opponents by a 28-14 margin when all three are on the ice together during 5-on-5 play. They are the biggest reason the Avalanche are near the top of the NHL standings and on track to make the playoffs for a second year in a row.

(Data in this post via Hockey-Reference and Natural Stat Trick)

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.

Looks like Bobrovsky is back to being Bob

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Whether it came from the mental strain of being in a contract year or can be boiled down to the highs and lows of modern goaltending, the bottom line was that Sergei Bobrovsky wasn’t himself to start this season.

Through his first six appearances of 2018-19, Bobrovsky allowed eight goals once, four goals in another game, three on three occasions, and two in another contest. For a goalie who’s been all-world during the regular season for some time now, it’s not too surprising that John Tortorella felt that Bob wasn’t being Bob.

Well, what about Bob now?

After Monday’s tight 2-1 win against the Dallas Stars, Bobrovsky’s done an about-face in his past six games. He’s kept opponents to a single goal in five of those six contests, including three games in a row.

A hot goalie can often make the difference between wins and losses, such as when Bob stopped Jason Spezza point-blank to preserve Monday’s regulation victory:

Torts and others have noticed that Bobrovsky has been spot-on, including in that win against Dallas.

“He was really good tonight,” Tortorella said, via the AP. “They had some point-blank chances on some of our breakdowns, and he looked in control.”

Maybe it all turned around on Nov. 1, when Bobrovsky only allowed one Sharks goal despite facing a barrage of 45 shots.

Whatever the case may be, this is a fantastic sign both for the team and the goalie. If it wasn’t already obvious that the Blue Jackets need Bobrovsky to get that extra edge most nights, note that seemingly promising backup Joonas Korpisalo has really struggled so far this season, managing a lousy .875 save percentage over seven games.

A keyed-in Bobrovsky could cost the Blue Jackets that much more money if the two sides agree to a contract behind this season, but when you consider the potential pitfalls of him walking away or being traded, maybe that’s a good problem to have?

After all, it sounds like they won’t have that same say with Artemi Panarin.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Which NHL player is having best contract year?

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NHL teams are getting more sophisticated when it comes to avoiding truly boneheaded free agent moves (sorry, would-be next Bobby Holik), but the truth is that contract years can still swing a player’s contract by millions.

Just ask John Carlson — no, wait, he’s currently swimming in money.

(Note: he’s probably not literally swimming in money.)

We’re only in November, so a lot can change. Injuries happen in the violent, sometimes-randomly unlucky sports of hockey. Hot streaks can go ice-cold. Coaches can lose trust in a player, killing power-play opportunities and sabotaging line combinations.

At the moment, though, these are the players who are off to red-hot starts that could really fatten their future paychecks (and drive up their trade value, too). Cap Friendly’s free agent list was very helpful in putting this together, while stats cited come from Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick.

(Also, this list focuses on pending UFAs, in case you were getting ready to holler at your screen about Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and other could-be RFAs.)

Mark Stone, Senators, 26, $7.35 million

Last night’s rousing five-point performance pushes Stone to six goals and 12 assists for 18 points in 15 games. Yes, you can note that his shooting percentage is a bit high (17.6), but his career average of 15.6 percent argues that he’s long been a talented – if selective – shooter.

There are other reasons why Stone should rank as high-end trade bait, yet will also be tough for Ottawa to let go. He’s still young at 26, and won’t turn 27 until May. Also, if wingers received more Selke attention, Stone would likely be in that conversation. Despite being deployed more defensively (starting 56-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, versus a career average of 47-percent), Stone’s possession stats are off the charts, especially compared to his often-overwhelmed teammates in Ottawa.

If you’re a contender who could land him in a trade, Stone might be worth quite the ransom if he’d also talk extension.

Matt Duchene, Senators, 27, $6M

Despite his Wile E. Coyote-level luck when it comes to finding himself in miserable situations, Duchene is not one of Stone’s overwhelmed Senators teammates. Granted, his possession stats haven’t been resilient like those of Stone’s, but the speedy center still has 15 points in as many games this season.

Old-school executives will also love his abilities in the circle, as he continues to be strong on faceoffs (winning 53.2-percent so far in 2018-19).

One request is for Duchene to shoot more often, as he’s been below 2 SOG per game (1.87), which is not in line with his career average of 2.46 SOG per night.

Artemi Panarin, Blue Jackets, 26, $6M

“The Bread Man” is on the other end of the spectrum, flexing his skills with a resounding 51 SOG in 15 games (3.40 per night, towering over his 2.62 career average).

It would be the latest example that Panarin is for real, except I believe people no longer need convincing that he’s a star. His 16 points in 15 games feels more like “business as usual.”

Of course, the actual business side is where things are most fascinating, as the Blue Jackets need to figure out what to do with Panarin (and struggling contract year goalie Sergei Bobrovsky). Whether he remains in Columbus or is traded somewhere else, motivation shouldn’t be an issue.

Jeff Skinner, Sabres, 26, $5.725M

with Jason Pominville, Sabres, 35, $5.6M

For one of Jack Eichel‘s linemates, it’s about Skinner lining up that first UFA mega-deal, whether it’s with Buffalo (possibly as extension?) or not. On the other end of the spectrum – and on the other wing – we have Pominville, who’s merely hoping to keep his career alive and vibrant.

Both are off to raucous starts, and both are at risk of slowdowns.

Skinner’s generated a fantastic 16 points in 15 games, with nine of those points being goals on a shooting percentage of 18. Then again, maybe the universe is merely repaying Skinner for his unlucky shooting season in 2017-18, when he only connected on an 8.7 success rate? He’s really been all over the place during his career, suffering four seasons with a shooting percentage below the general shooter’s Mason-Dixon line of 10-percent.

Skinner’s long been a very effective player who sort of leaves you hoping for even more, so maybe he’ll put it together at the most lucrative time?

Pominville felt like a nostalgia-friendly addition (and an expensive deal to make the money work) in the trade that netted Marco Scandella, yet the veteran winger has 14 points in 15 games. His eight goals come from some luck, as he’s connected on a whopping 19.5-percent of his shots. He’s also done so with a miniscule ice time average of a mere 13:43 per game, actually down from his recent years of decline.

Both are likely to slip from point-per-game play over the long haul of 82 games, but that’s fine. In Skinner’s case, he could easily exceed his career-high of 63 points. Meanwhile, Pominville could very well show that he still has a place in the NHL, possibly as the full-time “third-best guy on a good line.”

(Another Pominville-like, veteran impact who falls a little short of the top of this list is Jason Spezza, who’s managed a helpful 10 points in 15 games despite limited minutes.)

Anders Lee, Islanders, 27, $3.75M

Hey, maybe Lee is good, not just John Tavares-enhanced?

Either way, it’s been an impressive start to 2018-19 for Lee, who presents an interesting conundrum for the shockingly fast-starting Islanders: do you take advantage of him being the “hot hand” or do you pencil him in as a core player?

Lee has 13 points in 14 games, and his 12.5 shooting percentage is actually below his career average of 14.5 (OK, that might be the Tavares effect).

Interestingly, Lee is succeeding despite being deployed in a resoundingly different way. He’s begun 59.2-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, versus a career average of 45.1. Lee’s possession numbers aren’t the prettiest in every regard, yet they look rosier relative to his teammates.

Lee’s numbers might suffer if things really bottom out for the Islanders as this season goes along; while he’s not really riding inane puck luck, the Isles in many ways have been.

Still, it’s heartening to observe his start, whether you’re an Islanders exec pondering an extension or a team hoping to poach Lee.

Lightning round

  • Spezza: It sure seems like has a new lease on life unshackled from Hitch’s clutches.
  • Erik Karlsson and Jake Gardiner: These two defensemen are in interesting situations. Each are scoring at about a point-every-other-game pace, even though Karlsson hasn’t scored a goal and Gardiner has been limited to one. All three have the potential to go on red-hot streaks to up their value; all three will get paid nicely one way or another.
  • Jakob Silfverberg: Even at 27, it’s tough to tell if we’ve seen everything Silfverberg has to offer. Injuries diluted his totals, but his nine points are more impressive when limited to 11 games. He can’t expect to maintain a 21 shooting percentage, though.
  • Wayne Simmonds: So far, the intriguing winger has 10 points in 15 games. His value is tough to gauge, so his earning power may very well hinge on how 2018-19 shakes out.
  • Semyon Varlamov, Ryan Miller, Robin Lehner: Goalies who are having the strongest contract years so far, with Varlamov and Lehner playing bigger roles.
  • Keith Kinkaid, Jimmy Howard: Two goalies in very different situations, with very similar save percentages. A lot on the line for all of the goalies in UFA situations.
  • Bob, Mike Smith: Among the goalies penciled in as starters who are off to tough contract years. We’ll see if they can get back on track.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

PHT Morning Skate: Lightning’s awesome PK; Briere enjoying life as GM

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Tampa Bay Lightning’s penalty kill has been lights out so far this season. (TSN.ca)

• The Vancouver Canucks may have a hard time scoring goals without Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser in their lineup. (Sportsnet)

• Don’t expect the Hurricanes to trade away some of their depth on defense to add more scoring punch. They might just wait it out. (Featurd)

• Puck Junk has a review of the movie Ahockalypse. Let’s just say the review isn’t totally flattering. (Puck Junk)

• The Hockey News does a round-by-round breakdown of the NHL players and where they were drafted. (The Hockey News)

• Sometimes it takes players time to fit in to a new team, but Elias Lindholm has been terrific for Calgary. (NHL.com)

• Everyone knows Alex Ovechkin for his ability to score from almost anywhere, but his passing game is pretty underrated. (Washington Post)

• The Score sat down for a Q & A with former NHL goalie Curtis Joseph. They talked about his new book, the challenges of playing goal at the pro level and his decision to join the Maple Leafs. (The Score)

• Daniel Briere is keeping busy these days, as he’s been serving as the general manager of the ECHL’s Maine Mariners. (Philly.com)

• After going through a tough year in 2017-18, Jason Spezza seems to have found his game again. (NHL.com/Stars)

• Don’t expect Devils head coach John Hynes to break up with top line of Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmieri just so that he could get the rest of team going. (NJ.com)

• Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher rattles off his top five sports idols. There’s a hockey player, a soccer player, a golfer, a football player and a baseball player. (NHLPA)

• Former Leafs star Mats Sundin isn’t shocked by the fact that the team is asking its star players to take a discount. (Canadian Press)

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.