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Trade: Stars land Zuccarello; Rangers get what could be great picks

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The New York Rangers sent Mats Zuccarello to the Dallas Stars in a fascinating trade on Saturday, and the conditions of that deal will mean that Rangers fans will have incentive to cheer Zuccarello on — even beyond simply liking the guy.

(And that shouldn’t be difficult, because Rangers fans really – justifiably – love the undersized winger.)

Conditional draft picks are becoming more and more in vogue heading into the 2019 trade deadline, but this situation is especially interesting.

The Stars confirmed these details, originally reported by TSN’s Bob McKenzie.

Stars receive: Mats Zuccarello.

Rangers’ rather complicated but interesting side: For one thing, the Rangers retain 30-percent of Zuccarello’s salary.

Conditional pick 1: Begins as a 2019 second-round pick.

That 2019 second-rounder gets bumped up to a first-rounder if the Stars win at least two playoff rounds during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, with Zuccarello playing in at least half of Dallas’ playoff games..

Conditional pick 2: Begins as a 2020 third-round pick.

That 2020 third-rounder turns into a 2020 first-rounder if the Stars re-sign Zuccarello.

So, at worst, the Rangers receive second and third-rounders for Zuccarello, but could end up with one or even two first-rounders depending upon how this works out. Wow.

A bit more on those picks

As of this writing, the Stars are ranked as the West’s first wild-card team. They’re unlikely to catch the Blues for the third Central spot, and face some competition in even staying in the full playoff picture.

But if they maintain their current spot, things get interesting.

The Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators came into 2018-19 as the West’s most popular picks (along with the Sharks, probably?) for a deep run, but both teams have been experiencing some struggles here and there. The Stars would still be beating odds if they made a deep enough run to win two playoff rounds, but it’s not impossible, especially if they add even more after landing Zuccarello and Ben Lovejoy.

(Frankly, the Lovejoy trade is … underwhelming.)

There’s a decent-enough chance that the Stars might want to re-sign Zuccarello, too. As you can see from this post, Dallas is in a position to have a lot of cap space to work with in 2019-20, so maybe they’d keep the splendidly talented winger around with an extension?

One factor the Stars’ should weigh heavily in such talks is age, though. The winger is already 31, and will turn 32 on Sept. 1. Maybe the aging curve is a larger worry for bigger, more grindy forwards, but Dallas must at least consider that with Zuccarello.

And, no doubt, the cost going up to a first-rounder would add to the expense of it all. Actually, that pick might be in place to keep the door open for the Rangers to bring back Zuccarello in free agency, for all we know.

Stars add crucial support

Mats Zuccarello isn’t on the same level as Artemi Panarin, but he’s a heck of a playmaker, and probably underrated.

In fact, if you zoom out and look beyond just this season and instead to the last three years, you could make a nice argument that the gap between Zuccarello and Duchene isn’t even that large. (If you feel cheeky, feel free to say “The difference isn’t even Zuccarello-sized.”)

Zuccarello’s generally been a better possession player than his Rangers teammates. While that might be a case where it’s risky to use relative stats – these Rangers teams have been under water basically since the Alain Vigneault era – it’s better to look strong than weak.

Either way, you can’t really deny that he’s a useful scorer. Zuccarello’s generated 61 points once, 59 points twice, and has generally been a safe bet for at least 50 points during a healthy season.

The winger did experience some injury issues in 2018-19, limiting him to 46 games played before the trade. Still, he’s managed a strong pace nonetheless (37 points in just 46 games), and was really tearing up opposing defenses alongside Mika Zibanejad recently, generating an impressive 23 points in his last 20 games.

Zuccarello can give the Stars some supporting cast help, possibly slotting in alongside Jason Spezza on what Dallas would hope to be a stronger second line.

The possibilities are actually more interesting if coach Jim Montgomery experiments a bit. What if Zuccarello can slide onto the Stars’ top line, allowing one of Jamie Benn or Alex Radulov to move around the lineup, potentially allowing Dallas to ice a more balanced attack?

Either way, Zuccarello makes the Stars a more dangerous, diverse team. Refreshingly, the conditions of this trade should make that a much easier pill for Rangers fans to swallow. Really, they shouldn’t hesitate to root for one of their favorites, even if he’s wearing victory green.

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.

Stars approach trade deadline with fascinating future

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As the smoke cleared for the Dallas Stars (after streaming from CEO Jim Lites’ ears), the team has been riding great goaltending and Tyler Seguin’s brilliant work to maintain the playoff spot they were struggling to keep before that on-the-record meltdown.

While strange things could always happen, the most likely question won’t be if the Stars can clinch a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but rather if they wrestle the Central’s third seed back from the Blues, or settle for a wild-card spot.

This brings up inevitable questions, then: should the Stars be buyers at the trade deadline, and if so, to what extent?

Stars GM Jim Nill told NHL.com’s Mike Zeisberger that he’s interesting in adding offense, yet Nill also admits that other teams are going after the same thing, and that the market is pretty unpredictable right now.

“We’re very open to anything,” Nill said. “I think there are a lot of teams, because of how tight things are in the standings, they’re waiting to see where it all goes. So over the next two weeks that’s something we’re going to watch. We’re very open to making a hockey trade if it’s going to make us better. If we stay in the hunt the way we are, we’re open to adding to our team.”

The Stars are in an interesting situation as it comes to the 2018-19 season, but the future could be even brighter if they make the right moves. Let’s analyze the situation.

Keeping the goals down

One thing that jumps off the page is just how great the Stars’ goaltending has been. Between Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin (plus two effective Landon Bow games), Dallas’s team save percentage is at an outstanding .923, compared to a league average of .908.

Is that the sort of thing that’s sustainable, though? There are a few arguments in favor of that continuing, and some points against it, too.

While the Stars tend to lose certain possession battles according to measures such as Corsi/Fenwick, they’ve been the seventh-best team at preventing high-danger chances against at even-strength, according to Natural Stat Trick.

The track records of Bishop and Khudobin are a mix, too. On one hand, Bishop’s had some great seasons, even if you ding him a bit for playing behind strong Lightning teams; meanwhile, Khudobin’s had quite a few strong years where he arguably should have been a starter or at least a 1B goalie on certain teams. The negative side is that injury concerns hover over Bishop, who’s a big goalie and is currently dealing with an ailment. Both goalies are 32. That’s not ancient, but as the league gets faster and more skillful, that number is more concerning.

The Stars have enjoyed goaltending success with Norris-level defenseman John Klingberg out for a chunk of the season, and with Miro Heiskanen needing to gradually earn more and more trust from his coach. It stands to reason that those young defensemen might provide even greater value as time goes on.

Goalies are unpredictable, and it’s tough for any group to play at the Stars’ level. There’s a decent chance they’ll be above league-average down the stretch, though — just maybe not to such an extreme.

A lane is opening up

There was a time when both Jamie Benn ($5.25M from 2012-13 to 2016-17) and Tyler Seguin ($5.75M from 2013-14 through this season) were dirt-cheap for the Stars, yet Dallas frustratingly failed to capitalize on such opportunities.

You’d think that the Stars would be doomed starting in 2019-20 with Benn currently on a long-term deal at $9.5M and Seguin about to begin an extension that carries a $9.85M cap hit, but this team could be in a shockingly strong position if they play their cards right. And get a little luck.

Between Jason Spezza ($7.5M), Marc Methot ($4.9M), and Antti Niemi‘s buyout ($1.5M), the Stars have a ton of bad money set to expire after 2018-19, and stinkers like Martin Hanzal‘s $4.75M evaporate after 2019-20.

When you consider the Stars’ -1 goal differential and other telling stats, it’s probably not the wisest idea to go all-in this trade deadline. Instead, Dallas could be in a very interesting situation if they decide to let the chips fall, although they could be excused if they went after a cheaper rental.

We’ve seen Matt Duchene with an acoustic guitar, so maybe he’d get on cowboy boots and settle in Dallas? Does Artemi Panarin consider Dallas the sort of city he craves? What’s Mark Stone‘s opinion about BBQ?

Maybe the Stars could be proactive and creative in doing a sign-and-trade to land a Panarin or Stone now, using Spezza’s big contract or something else to make the money work now. But the point is that the Stars shouldn’t settle for short-term gains when they could swing for the fences mere months later.

Yes, there are some worries. The aging curve seems to be hitting Jamie Benn hard already at 29. Bishop’s deal might not age well, since it runs through 2022-23. Despite some concerns, there are scenarios where things work really well for Dallas.

***

With Seguin settled, Klingberg on a bargain $4.25M deal through 2021-22, and Heiskanen’s entry-level contract running through 2020-21, Dallas has space opening up soon, without having too many big-ticket players to retain for some time.

Nill might feel like he’s on the hot seat, but for the sake of this franchise, hopefully the Stars don’t mess things up with panic trades, because some Texas-sized opportunities could open up very soon.

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.

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.