Jeff Skinner

Fumbling Flames must not panic — certainly not with Gaudreau

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Things are pretty miserable for the Calgary Flames right now.

After suffering their fifth consecutive loss, Calgary saw its current spot solidified: out of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, if they began today. They’re “below .500” at 10-11-3, and whenever they need to add insults to their injuries, they merely need to glance at the latest snarky update about James Neal vs. Milan Lucic.

Johnny Gaudreau (and to an extent, Sean Monahan) haven’t been immune to tough times, either. Their lackluster play relative to their usual work is a cause for concern.

One might look at, say, Gaudreau’s RAPM chart from 2018-19 (via Evolving Hockey):

Then compare it to the slow start so far in 2019-20:

And start to wonder if there are deeper concerns than merely a star player experiencing a slump that also is extending to a big chunk of the team around him, one that came into 2019-20 with pretty high expectations.

That’s when things start to get a little bumpy. On Monday, The Athletic’s Darren Haynes goes as far as wonder: if it’s time for the Flames to trade Gaudreau (sub required)?

Amusingly, in arguing that the Flames waited too long to trade Jarome Iginla, Haynes uses basically the exact same phrasing I would deploy to talk Calgary off the ledge if there was any notion of trading the superstar winger.

Iginla’s situation remains a textbook example of the perils of listening to the heart, not the head, when it comes to the handling of star players on a team getting worse, not better, or underperforming and in need of a shake-up.

For those who actually need it, here’s why the Flames would be using anything but their heads in the hypothetical knee-jerk reaction of trading away Johnny Gaudreau.

1. Obvious buy-low situation for other teams

Any team pondering a rash decision with a player should do one almost-agonizingly obvious thing: look at their shooting percentage, and general luck.

Ding, ding: Gaudreau’s shooting percentage is just 7.8 so far in 2019-20, well below his career average of 12.5, and a far cry from last season’s 14.7. On-ice shooting percentage is a decent (but not perfect) quick-reference way to see if a playmaker’s passes aren’t resulting in as many goals as usual, and Gaudreau is cold there, too, with a nine-percent mark versus his career average of 10.6 percent.

Basically every sign (including PDO) makes this point: if this sustained for all of 2019-20, it would be easily the unluckiest in Gaudreau’s career. As we’ve learned from players ranging from Taylor Hall to Jeff Skinner, the best way to become a notoriously ridiculed GM is to trade someone when their value is at an all-time low.

2. The Flames’ overall luck has been bad, too.

In 2018-19, quite a few Flames enjoyed the best years of their careers, with Mark Giordano finally winning a Norris Trophy and Elias Lindholm loving life with Gaudreau and Monahan. The problem with career years is that, sometimes, you won’t be able to repeat them.

The truth about Calgary is likely somewhere between the red-hot run of the 2018-19 regular season and the ice-cold 2019-20 start.

The instinct might be to make a bold move to shake things up, but that’s exactly the type of situation that could lead to other teams taking advantage of your desperation.

3. Gaudreau is a steal

Thanks to bargains on other second-contract stars like Nathan MacKinnon (somehow $6.3M AAV through 2022-23), Johnny Gaudreau’s contract isn’t the biggest steal in the NHL. That said, Gaudreau carrying a $6.75M AAV through 2021-22 is still “maybe you should have a little talk with your agent” material.

At 26, Gaudreau remains deep in his prime, and at an attractively cost-controlled price. Giving up on that value because of a brief swoon is the sort of mistake that makes you an eternal — and, honestly, justified — punchline on social media.

4. Gaudreau is really popular

Flames GM Brad Treliving has been described as a “riverboat gambler,” but trading Gaudreau would probably be close to losing his deed in a bad bet than even losing his shirt.

Trading away Gaudreau wouldn’t just run the risk of being a bad hockey move and a bad bit of cap management. It would also be a dangerous PR gamble for a team that’s already dealing with some frustrated fans.

***

Look, the truth is that the Flames might not be quite as potent as they thought they were. That’s a bummer, and it’s understandable that they might grasp for answers, but panicking would likely only make things worse — especially if that meant parting ways with Gaudreau.

Frankly, it would be a troubling sign if they’d even consider it.

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.

Lightning flash signs of old swagger in beating Sabres

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One game doesn’t undo weeks of up-and-down play; not in a sport with an 82-game regular season. It doesn’t matter if that win came at home, or in Sweden, where the Tampa Bay Lightning managed a 3-2 win against the Buffalo Sabres on Friday.

Yet, for a Lightning team that had been wobbly in 2019-20 after that shocking first-round sweep against the Blue Jackets, it’s good to see a bit of that dominant burst back.

Here are a few thoughts from the first of two Lightning – Sabres games for the 2019 Global Series (find out more about the 2020 version here).

Striking quick early

In particular, the Lightning started strong.

Most obviously, that quick start could be seen in building a 2-0 lead, with the highlight being great passes from Kevin Shattenkirk to Brayden Point and finally to Nikita Kucherov for a pretty goal:

The Lightning were pretty assertive even beyond the early scoring. They fired 13 shots on goal in each of the first two periods before being knotted up 8-8 with Buffalo in the final frame. There were stretches where the Bolts carried themselves with that swagger we were more used to last season. Linus Ullmark gets the L here, but deserves some credit for some sharp saves when Tampa Bay was pressing to send that game out of control.

Discipline coming?

As you can read about here, Kucherov didn’t just score a nice goal. He also delivered a very-not-nice hit on Vladimir Sobotka, who did not return to Friday’s game.

The Sabres did not receive a power play for that hit, and perhaps there might be some overall grumbling about calls. After all, you could argue that was the difference in a one-goal game, as the Lightning went 1-for-4 on the PP, while Buffalo didn’t score on just two power-play opportunities.

Reinhart the Lionheart

Last season, Sam Reinhart had a breakthrough that mostly slipped under the radar, as the now-24-year-old generated a career-high 65 points.

On a rare quiet night for Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner, Reinhart almost scored enough to grab at least a standings point for Buffalo, as the winger was responsible for both of Buffalo’s goals. Reinhart is developing into a heady, useful two-way player, and maybe on his way to new career-highs, as he now has 13 points in 15 games.

***

This win pushes the Lightning to 7-5-2. While the Sabres rank ahead of Tampa Bay at 9-5-2, Buffalo’s now lost four straight games, and have dropped five of their last six. Neither team gets much time to ruminate on this result, as they meet again on Saturday.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

WATCH LIVE: Lightning vs. Sabres in 2019 NHL Global Series

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Friday’s Global Series matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 2 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Lightning and Sabres head to Stockholm, Sweden for a “home and home” in the NHL Global Series. Friday’s game will mark the second Global Series game this season, with the Flyers beating the Blackhawks in Prague, Czech Republic on October 4.

This is the second regular season trip overseas for both teams. The Lightning lost both of their games in Czech Republic in 2008, while the Sabres won both of their games in Finland and Germany in 2011.

This will be the 33rd regular season game contested outside North America. It will be the 12th to be played in Sweden, the most among all countries, and the 11th game in Stockholm, the most of any city. The only game to take place in Sweden outside of the capital was New Jersey’s win against Edmonton in Gothenburg in October of last season.

The Lightning have lost three of their last four games, while they gave up six goals in their only win during that stretch (7-6 OT win at New Jersey). After opening the season with eight wins in their first 10 games, the Sabres have now lost four of their last five and head to Sweden on a three-game losing streak.

While captain Steven Stamkos leads Tampa with 13 points in 13 games (5G-8A), he has just one goal in his last seven games and none in his last three. Last season’s Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov is second on TB with 11 pts (4G-7A) but has just one goal in the last nine games.

Sabres captain Jack Eichel, who just turned 23 years old last week, continues to lead the team in scoring with 17 points in 15 games this season (7G-10A). Eichel, who finished last season with a career-high 82 points, has seen his point total increase in every season of his NHL career. He is currently on pace for 92 points this season

[COVERAGE OF LIGHTNING-SABRES BEGINS AT 2 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Buffalo Sabres vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
WHERE: Ericsson Globe – Stockholm, Sweden
WHEN: Friday, Nov. 8, 2 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Lightning-Sabres stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

LIGHTNING
Ondrej Palat – Steven Stamkos – Alexander Volkov
Tyler JohnsonBrayden Point – Nikita Kucherov
Alex KillornAnthony CirelliMathieu Joseph
Patrick MaroonCedric PaquetteYanni Gourde

Victor HedmanKevin Shattenkirk
Ryan McDonaghErik Cernak
Luke Schenn – Mikhail Sergachev

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

SABRES
Victor Olofsson – Jack Eichel – Sam Reinhart
Jeff SkinnerMarcus JohanssonVladimir Sobotka
Jimmy VeseyCasey MittelstadtConor Sheary
Zemgus GirgensonsJohan LarssonKyle Okposo

Jake McCabeRasmus Ristolainen
Brandon MontourRasmus Dahlin
Henri JokiharjuColin Miller

Starting goalie: Linus Ullmark

John Forslund and Pierre McGuire will call Friday’s matchup.

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Henrique, Nelson highlight this week’s top adds

Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. As always, the goal here isn’t to recommend 10 players you must add and five players that need to be dropped. Context is everything and the context of each league is different. What this is instead is a guideline so that if you’re looking to make a change, you have potential players to target and if you see players I’ve suggested to drop, you can evaluate your potential alternates.

Players Worth Adding

Neal Pionk, Jets – D: The shift from the New York Rangers in 2018-19 to the Jets this season has been to Pionk’s benefit so far. In terms of average ice time, he’s only jumped from 21:10 minutes to 22:58 minutes, but most of that increase has come from gaining additional power-play time. He’s gotten off to a strong start in 2019-20 with two goals and six points in 10 games and should continue to put up solid numbers this season.

Jakob Silfverberg, Ducks – RW: Silfverberg couldn’t have asked for a better start with five goals and eight points in nine games. At the least he’s a nice gamble in the short-term, but he might be worth hanging on throughout the season. Silfverberg has never gotten more than 49 points in a single season, but new Ducks coach Dallas Eakins seems comfortable with giving him a sizeable role. As a result he’s averaging 18:13 minutes, up from 17:06 minutes in 2018-19, which is more than any other Anaheim forward.

Brock Nelson, Islanders – C/LW: Nelson has been in kind of an odd pattern in the early portion of the campaign. He’s scored in exactly every other game and for the last six games he’s alternated between recording 0 and 2 points. The end result is that he has four goals and seven points through eight contests this season. He saw his ice time jump to 17:58 minutes in 2018-19 and set a new career-high with 53 points as a result. This season his playing time has inched up further to 18:20 minutes and he might be able to flirt with new career-highs. One key benefit to him is his left wing eligibility despite his primary role being up the middle.

Marcus Pettersson, Penguins – D: Pettersson is might just be more of a short-term pickup to gamble on while he’s hot. He has registered four assists over his last four games. That being said, he is averaging 18:34 minutes this season, including 1:33 minutes per game with the man advantage, so there is a chance that this will end up being a breakout campaign for him. Even if you decide not to grab him at this time, he’s worth checking back in on later to see how the 23-year-old has been developing with the Penguins.

Andre Burakovsky, Avalanche – LW/RW: Burakovsky is something of a roll of the dice at this stage. Burakovsky never recorded more than 38 points in a single season with Colorado, but he already has four goals and eight points in eight games with Colorado. Perhaps this is a case of the change of scenery agreeing with him, but he’s also just averaging 13:49 minutes. Unless his role with the Avalanche expands, it’s hard to see him being a significant offensive contributor in the long run. Still, given how well he’s already done and the potential that the 24-year-old is taking a step up this season, it’s worth taking a chance on him.

Adam Henrique, Ducks – C: This is mostly a case of riding the hot hand. Henrique has four goals and five points in his last four games, so he’s worthy of some short-term consideration. In the long run, he has fringe value in standard leagues. The limiting factor with him is his center-only eligibility given the glut of options up the middle.

Paul Stastny, Golden Knights – C: At this point, Max Pacioretty is owned in 84% of Yahoo leagues while Mark Stone is claimed in 97%, but Stastny is owned in just 38%. Stastny is skating on a line with that duo this season and has done his part. Stastny has four goals and seven points in nine games. If he continues to skate with Stone and Pacioretty, he should have a very good year.

[For more fantasy sports analysis, check out Rotoworld]

Marcus Johansson, Sabres – C/LW: Johansson is coming off two rough campaigns, but 2019-20 is shaping up to be different. After signing a two-year, $9 million contract with the Buffalo Sabres over the summer, he’s scored four goals and seven points in nine games. Johansson has typically been put on the ice with Jeff Skinner, who had 40 goals in his first season with Buffalo and has added another five goals in nine contests in 2019-20. All three of Johansson’s assists so far have been on Skinner goals.

Ian Cole, Avalanche – D: Cole missed the start of the season with a hip injury, but he made his return on Oct. 14th and has made up for lost time with four assists in his last three games. He’s not a particularly exciting defenseman from an offensive perspective, but you could gamble on him while he’s hot. It’s worth adding that he’s also one of the better sources of blocked shots out there, so if your league cares about that category then that’s a great secondary reason to consider grabbing him while he’s hot.

Mikko Koskinen, Oilers – G: Koskinen’s first season with the Edmonton Oilers left plenty to be desired, but he’s been a big part of their early season success. He’s 4-0-0 with a 2.21 GAA and .934 save percentage in four starts. He was a top-tier goaltender in the KHL and now that he’s had a full season to adjust to North America, he might prove to be a solid goaltender in 2019-20.

Players You May Want To Drop

Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers – G: Lundqvist has been on the decline for several seasons now and that descent will likely continue at the age of 37. Through four starts, he’s 1-3-0 with a 3.57 GAA and .906 save percentage. It doesn’t help that while the Rangers did get some very encouraging additions over the summer, they are still not quite a full force contender.

Boone Jenner, Blue Jackets – C/LW: Jenner didn’t exactly wow people last season with his 16 goals and 38 points in 77 games, but the 2019-20 campaign might prove to be worse. Despite the Blue Jackets losing some key forwards over the summer, his ice time has tanked from an average of 17:04 minutes in 2018-19 to 14:27 minutes this season. That’s his lowest minutes per game since 2013-14 when he was a rookie. He has just a goal and no assists through eight games.

Sammy Blais, Blues – LW/RW: Blais enjoyed a strong start to the season with three goals and five points in five games, but he hasn’t recorded a point in three contests. If you picked him up during that hot streak, you should re-evaluate his role now. He’s averaging a modest 14:03 minutes per game, so it’s hard to see him being a major offensive force this season. On the plus side, he is an excellent source of hits, so if you need help in that category, then maybe it’s worth your while to keep him even if he’s not contributing much in other areas.

Nino Niederreiter, Hurricanes – LW/RW: After Carolina acquired Niederreiter from Minnesota during the 2018-19 campaign, he went on a terrific run of 14 goals and 30 points in 36 games. However, a big part of that run was due to his increased role with the Hurricanes. He had averaged 14:37 minutes with Minnesota prior to the trade and 18:17 minutes for the rest of the season. In his first full campaign with the Hurricanes, Niederreiter has fallen back to a level of responsibility he’s more accustomed to. He’s averaging 15:39 minutes and has recorded no goals and three assists in nine games. With his playing time down, he’s also taking fewer shots, from 2.86 shots per game in 2018-19 with Carolina to 2.22 this season. His complete lack of goals can still be partially attributed to bad luck, but unless his role increases, he’s not going to return to the levels of production we saw during his post-trade time with Carolina last season.

Cory Schneider, Devils – G: Schneider has had some highs and some extreme lows over the last few years, but on the whole he’s certainly left plenty to be desired. That trend has continued this season. He has a 0-3-0 record, 4.08 GAA, and .876 save percentage in four games. To make things worse, at least for Schneider owners, Mackenzie Blackwood has rebounded from his own rough start to the campaign. It’s entirely possible that Blackwood will end up getting more starts than Schneider this season. There’s just not a lot to like about Schneider’s outlook right now. 

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey.

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.

Are the Sabres the real deal?

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It’s way too early in the season to be asking this question, but we’re going to do it anyway. Are the Buffalo Sabres the real deal?

Through six games, the Sabres have rattled off a 5-0-1 record and they have the best goal differential at plus-12. Not bad, not bad at all. New head coach Ralph Krueger has seemingly pushed all the right buttons and his players have responded in a positive way. Now, all he has to do (easier said than done) is keep it going for 76 more games!

“Anytime you get off to a good start and get results, confidence naturally comes with that,” forward Jeff Skinner said after Monday’s win over Dallas. “What you have to do is keep working at your game and use the confidence in a positive way. We still have things to work on, we still have things we want to improve. Being able to get off to a good start results-wise is nice. Now we have to keep that momentum going.”

There’s a few things that stand out when you take a look at why they’ve been so good. First, their power-play has been lethal. Raise your hand if you thought Rasmus Dahlin, Jack Eichel and Victor Olofsson would all be in the top six when it came to power play points to start the season. What? Anybody? Thought so.

Buffalo has scored at least one tally on the man-advantage in five of their six games. They scored three power play goals against the New Jersey Devils, two against the Columbus Blue Jackets and two against the Montreal Canadiens.

The Sabres’ power play was ranked 16th last season at just under 20 percent. This year, they’re clicking at 42.9 percent while the league average is right around 21 percent. As dynamic as they are when they’re up a man, there’s no way they’re going to roll at over 40 percent all year. To put that number into perspective, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had the best power play in the league last year, were firing at just over 28 percent.

One of the other strong parts of their game has been their goaltending. Carter Hutton has been rock-solid between the pipes and Linus Ullmark has been really good, too. Hutton, who has started four of the team’s six games, has a 4-0-0 record with a 1.74 goals-against-average and a .931 save percentage this season. He’s coming off a 25-save shutout in a 4-0 win over the Dallas Stars.

“A lot of it is the fact that they both get to play then they both feel like they have a little bit of a rhythm going,” assistant coach Mike Bales, who works with the goaltenders, told the Sabres’ website. “One guy’s not going to sit for too long. So, they always feel game-ready because of that too. It helps a lot.

“You can practice all you want, but when you get into games it feels a little bit different. The traditional, old-school way of doing it where you have one guy play 65 games and the backup would come in and mop up once in a while, wouldn’t get that many starts, was tough on backups for rhythm and feeling ready so I think having two guys going all the time helps them be ready when they do play.”

Whether or not Hutton and Ullmark can keep this going remains to be seen, but it’s imperative that they get great goaltending if they’re going to earn a playoff spot in 2019-20. Ullmark hasn’t been a regular in the NHL for as long as Hutton, so it’s tough to get a gauge of what he can do over a full season. As for Hutton, he’s a veteran and he’s been around the league a lot. He got off to a very strong start last year before fading in a hurry in the second half of the season.

Another reason they haven’t lost in regulation yet is because of their balanced scoring. Through six contests, Buffalo has had 10 different scorers. Olofsson leads the way with five goals, Skinner has four, Marcus Johansson, Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel each have three, Conor Sheary has two, while Johan Larsson, Marco Scandella, Kyle Okposo and Dahlin have all found the back of the net once. Now that’s balance.

As fun as the Sabres have been, it’s tough to envision them staying ahead of teams like Boston, Tampa Bay and Toronto, but they don’t have to finish atop the Atlantic Division to have a successful season. Making it back to the postseason in a Wild Card spot would be a huge success. They still have plenty of work to do before they can reach that point, but this team filled with youth seems to be on the right track.

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.