Jesse Puljujarvi

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Will Laviolette bring out best of Predators?

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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 Nashville Predators. 

In the grand scheme of things, I’d rate Peter Laviolette as a very good coach, if not a great one.

Even so, there have been times when the Predators haven’t felt optimized, and that inspires some questions about whether swapping out P.K. Subban for Matt Duchene will take this team to the next level. Here are a few areas where Laviolette’s coaching style and decisions become a big x-factor.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | Under Pressure]

Integrating the new guy: Nashville has experienced mixed results from David Poile’s many big trades.

Kyle Turris is facing a legit crisis of confidence. Mikael Granlund really didn’t move the needle, Wayne Simmonds barely produced any offense as a rental, and Nick Bonino‘s been a meh addition at best. Blaming Laviolette isn’t totally fair, but he must work to make sure that Duchene is placed in the best possible situation to succeed.

That might require some experimentation.

Would the Predators be better off with Duchene on a top line with Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, or should Ryan Johansen remain between them? Should they try to find two different duos from those four? Might Duchene be better off as a winger with less offensive responsibility? Laviolette must find the right answers.

Rehabbing: It’s almost as important to get more out of Turris and Granlund.

Can Laviolette convince Turris to put struggles behind him? Don’t underestimate the power of a clean slate … unless Turris is simply done as an effective top-six or even top-nine forward.

Is Granlund better off as a center or wing, and where should he slot in the lineup? Nashville still needs to solve that riddle.

Powering up: The Predators’ power play was absolutely miserable last season, and while the team hired someone new to run the power play, it’s hard not to put some blame on Laviolette, too.

Their excessive reliance on point shots and far-too-defensemen-heavy focus was easy for even a layman to see, so why did Laviolette stand idly by? Did he learn from those issues, and if he didn’t, can his new PP coach Dan Lambert make up the difference?

Perhaps the Duchene – Subban roster swap will fix some of the problems for the Predators, as there should be an organic push to go for what works more (four forwards and one defenseman, forwards taking more shots) than before, when Nashville might have been trying to placate both Subban and Roman Josi. That said, as skilled as Josi is, if he’s still too much of a focal point on the power play, then the results may remain middling. With Subban out of town, Nashville may see a step back at even-strength, too, making better man advantage work that much more crucial.

Handling the goalies: On paper, Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros rank as one of the most reliable duos in the almost inherently unreliable goaltending position.

But there are still ways a coach can mess this up. Making the right calls regarding when to play Rinne or Saros – depending upon rest and possible playoff meltdowns – could very well decide a close series, or even a playoff push if things are bumpy at times in 2019-20.

Eeli’s struggling: Eeli Tolvanen is far from the only frustrating prospect, but it feels like the risks are increasing that he’s going to fall into the Jesse Puljujarvi Zone of Prospect Dread. Why not give him a little more room to breathe and see if Tolvanen can keep his head above water enough at five-on-five that his deadly release could be another weapon for Nashville’s offense?

It won’t be easy to ace all of those tests, but Laviolette’s proficiency is a huge X-factor as the Predators hope to compete for a Stanley Cup.

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

Kings’ big money men are under pressure

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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 Los Angeles Kings.

The 2019-20 season was already slated to shine a harsh spotlight on the most expensive Los Angeles Kings players, particularly if they fail to rebound from a brutal 2018-19.

Already-high cap hits don’t tell the story, as the actual salaries could make management queasy. Between Drew Doughty ($12M), Anze Kopitar ($11M), and Jonathan Quick ($7M), the Kings are spending $30M on three players who are coming off of seasons that were absolutely disastrous.

Take a look at the rest of the Kings’ roster, and you’ll realize that, if this team hopes to be competitive next season, they’re counting on those three – particularly Doughty and Kopitar – to return to elite status, or something close to that. The Kings wisely stayed on the sidelines instead of spending big in free agency, yet this means that the Kings are crossing their fingers on improvement from within.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Three Questions | Kings’ rebuild  | X-factor]

Now, the lack of free agent moves would make you believe that the Kings are acknowledging reality and settling for a wonky rebuild where they might not really be able to blow things up, but might at least be able to absorb some tough years to improve draft lottery odds.

Yet … the thing is, if you’re gearing up for a rebuild, are you really giving Todd McLellan this kind of money, or even hiring McLellan in the first place?

That hefty salary indicates that the Kings are banking on McLellan succeeding with Los Angeles in a way he rarely did with the Oilers: steering a flawed, top-heavy roster to contention. Considering the stuttered development of players like Jesse Puljujarvi, it’s tough to spin the McLellan hire as anything beyond a “win-now’ move.

With that in mind, the Kings still seem like they want to be competitive, and basically all of that rides on a $35M quartet of Doughty, Kopitar, Quick, and head coach McLellan.

None of them have an easy job ahead.

As tough as 2018-19 was for Kopitar, it’s not an accident that Dustin Brown had a career renaissance while playing almost 1,000 even-strength minutes and less than 100 minutes without Kopitar last season. Chances are, Kopitar will be asked to lug one or even two questionable wingers with him, and it’s up to McLellan to determine what is the most optimal combination. Should Kopitar stick with Brown and Alex Iafallo as the team did last season, or might it be helpful to mix in a little more talent? Could Kopitar + Ilya Kovalchuk work out better with another try? Would Kopitar rejuvenate Jeff Carter? In virtually every scenario, Kopitar will be asked to carry others. Not the easiest assignment for a guy who’s turning 32 soon.

Doughty may be asked to boost defensemen in a similar way, and McLellan must weigh the temptation to play Doughty a ton as one of their only needle-movers (especially if they eventually trade Alec Martinez) versus trying to keep Doughty fresh to avoid injuries and poor play from overuse.

Jack Campbell and Calvin Petersen were sharp where Quick was dull in 2018-19, but a lot still seems to ride on a 33-year-old “athletic goalie,” especially if McLellan’s system can’t hide the Kings’ poor defensive personnel beyond Doughty.

It’s not just the big-money players who need a rebound after having terrible seasons, as McLellan carries the ignominious mark of being fired mid-season, and also being a coach who couldn’t make things work despite having Connor McDavid on his team. As much as the Oilers’ struggles came down to terrible asset management by former GM Peter Chiarelli, McLellan has a lot to prove in his third head coaching gig — and a big salary to justify.

The scary thing is that the Kings probably need these four to do more than merely rebound to a place of “respectability.” They probably need Doughty, Kopitar, Quick, and McLellan to be worth pretty close to this $35M-ish collective investment, and that means that they’re all going to be under a lot of pressure. Probably too much, to be honest.

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

Same old questions remain for Oilers

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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 Edmonton Oilers.

Pondering three important questions for the 2019-20 Edmonton Oilers.

1. Who will help Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl?

Our Joey Alfieri already touched on this when he looked at the Oilers’ depth scorers being under pressure to produce more, but this really is the single biggest question facing the Oilers this season. Just as it was last year. And the year before. And the year before that.

Unless James Neal finds a time machine and goes back to his age 26 or 27 seasons, or the team figures out a way to salvage the development of Jesse Puljujarvi before it sends him away for some magic beans it’s hard to see where this improvement comes from.

How top-heavy has the Oilers’ lineup been over the past two years? Some numbers for you.

  • With McDavid and Draisaitl on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the Oilers have outscored teams by an 88-67 (plus-21) margin and controlled more than 52 percent of the shot attemepts.
  • With only ONE of them on the ice the Oilers have been outscored 136-115 (minus-21) and controlled only 49 percent of the shot attempts.
  • With NEITHER of them on the ice the Oilers have been outscored 151-106 (minus-45) and controlled just 48 percent of the shot attempts.

When their top two players are not on the ice the Oilers are playing at the level of an early 1990s expansion team.

It is appalling to have what might be the best offensive duo in the league and still be so far away from the playoffs.

Does acquiring James Neal in a swap of bad salaries (in what should be an upgrade) and signing some cheap, reclamation project free agents do enough to help move the needle closer to the playoffs?

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

2. How will they stop teams?

Here is a set of numbers for you to ponder: 25, 25, 8, 28, 30, 30, 19, 23, 28, 30, 22, 26, 16

What are those numbers representing? They are where the Oilers have ranked in goals against (starting with this past season on the left and moving backwards) dating back to the start of the 2006-07 season. Average finish: 24th. The one outlier (the eighth place year) was when Cam Talbot pretty much stood on his head in net and was eventually run into the ground due to a ridiculous workload.

The Oilers are bringing back mostly the same cast of characters on defense that haven’t been good enough, and barring an unexpected miracle they don’t really have a goalie that should be a serious threat to steal games. Mikko Koskinen‘s contract looks to be a mess, while Mike Smith is coming off the worst season of his career and is entering his age 37 season.

This all seems like a tough recipe to make work.

Dave Tippett has a reputation for being a defensive coach (a reputation he doesn’t really seem to like) and is very respected around the league, but how much of an impact can a coach make with a thin defense and two massive question marks in goal? Even if McDavid and Draisaitl repeat their magic and they find some respectable second-line scoring can they actually stop enough teams for any of it to matter?

3. What changes will Ken Holland make?

Holland has two cornerstone players that are already among the best in the league and haven’t even hit their peak years in the NHL yet. It is a great starting point. That is the good news. The bad news is that even though he has McDavid and Draisaitl to start building around he still has what might be the most daunting rebuilding job of any general manager in the NHL. Not only because he has a ton of holes to plug, but because he has to deal with the pressure that is not wasting anymore of McDavid’s best years in the league.

In the past, the Oilers have tried to shake things up by dealing players that were once considered part of the core (Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Justin Schultz). They not only failed to capitalize on those trades, but they have quickly run out of such players to deal.

Will Ryan Nugent-Hopkins be next? Oscar Klefbom? It seems to only be a matter of time until Puljujarvi gets moved.

No matter who it is, he is going to have to make significant changes to get this team out of its current situation.

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.

Oilers’ depth scorers under pressure to increase production

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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 Edmonton Oilers.

There’s no denying that the Edmonton Oilers have some high-end skilled players on their roster. Connor McDavid is arguably the best player in the NHL, Leon Draisaitl is one of the top sidekicks in the league and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is another quality option down the middle. Unfortunately for the Oilers, that’s where it ends.

Unlike a lot of the other bad teams in the NHL, a lack of star power isn’t their biggest problem. It’s the depth scoring that’s holding them back. McDavid scored 116 points in 78 games, Draisaitl had 105 points in 82 contests and Nugent-Hopkins had 69 points in 82 games. After those three, the next highest scoring forward on the team was Alex Chiasson, who had just 38 points on the season. Chiasson was the only other forward on the roster that surpassed the 30-point mark. Having four forwards at 38 points or more simply isn’t enough.

New general manager Ken Holland definitely has his work cut out for him. Sure, he’s experienced and has had a ton of success in the NHL, but there’s no fixing this organization quickly.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Three Questions | X-Factor]

“Certainly I understand the anxiety of the fans and I understand the pressures,” Holland said, per NHL.com. “I’m coming in here with eyes wide open. But I also know there are no quick fixes, there are no magic wands, and you have to build it and you have to have a plan.”

Holland acquired James Neal from Calgary for Milan Lucic. Neal underperformed in his first year with the Flames, as he scored just seven goals in 63 contests there, but playing him with a quality center could get his production back up to where it needs to be. They also added Josh Archibald, Markus Granlund and Tomas Jurco and they also re-signed Chiasson.

Getting restricted free agent Jesse Puljujarvi signed to a new deal and convincing him to come back to Edmonton would be huge for an Oilers team that’s starving for talent. Puljujarvi and the organization aren’t on the same page right now. The 21-year-old hasn’t put up big numbers yet, but he has the potential to become a key contributor down the road. Getting the former fourth overall pick back in the organization would be key.

Is that enough quality depth to make the Oilers a playoff team? Probably not. It’s a start though.

The lack of scoring is just one of the many issues facing this team. They still have plenty of question marks on defence and they need to find a long-term solution between the pipes because Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen aren’t true number one goaltenders at this stage of their careers.

There’s still a lot of work for Holland and his staff to do to make this team a playoff team. A lot of the building blocks are in place. Now it’s just a matter of finding the right guys to surround the franchise players with.

How quickly can Holland get this turned around?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Blue Jackets’ Pierre-Luc Dubois on verge of huge season

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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 Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Columbus Blue Jackets raised some eyebrows at the top of the 2016 draft when they used the No. 3 overall pick to select Pierre-Luc Dubois, passing on winger Jesse Puljujarvi. It was a bit of a surprise because Puljujarvi was viewed as the consensus pick at that spot and was one of the big three in that class alongside Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine (even if the other two were a notch ahead of him).

So far, it is looking as if the Blue Jackets were correct in their assessment to select Dubois.

While Puljujarvi has been mishandled by the Edmonton Oilers and not yet established himself as an NHL regular, Dubois has quickly started to emerge as one of the top players on the Blue Jackets and a significant part of the team’s long-term core.

In his first two years in the NHL he has played in every single game while showing consistent improvement across the board offensively, already producing at a top-line level.

Based on what he has already produced there is reason to believe he could be on the verge of a monster season in 2019-20 for the Blue Jackets. How high is the ceiling for him this season? Let’s try to take a look.

[More: 2018-19 In Review | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

The table below looks at recent players with a similar start to their NHL careers and what they produced in year three. The criteria: Forwards since the start of the 2007-08 season that played their first two years in the NHL at ages 19 and 20, while also averaging at least 0.25 goals per game, 0.65 points per game, and a 51 percent Corsi percentage — all marks that Dubois has hit so far in his career.

It is a promising list of comparable players if you are Dubois and the Blue Jackets.

A couple things to consider here.

First is that the previous players in this group scored, on average, at a 31-goal, 81-point pace over 82 games, while only one player (Nylander) failed to scored at least 26 goals. Those are huge numbers.

If you wanted to look for a reason to lower you expectations for Dubois it might be that his per-game averages over the first two years are at the low-end of this group. While that is true, his year two performance was right in line with everyone else (0.33 goals per game, 0.74 points per game). The player whose path he most closely resembles is probably Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk whose career and development skyrocketed this past season for the Flames.

Obviously there are no guarantees in professional sports, so Dubois still has to actually do it. But recent history suggests that players that have performed at the level he has demonstrated at this stage of his developmemt go on to become All-Star level players. If you are good enough to perform like that in your first two seasons, it is usually a strong sign that you are going to be good enough to keep getting better.

Given how much offense the Blue Jackets have lost this offseason they are going to need this sort of step from their best young forward.

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.