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Three questions facing Detroit Red Wings

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Detroit Red Wings.

For even more analysis of the Red Wings, check out the rest of PHT’s offerings:

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Zetterberg’s health | Under Pressure]

1. Will Ken Holland remain committed to the rebuild?

Between the trade deadline and draft weekend, the Red Wings got out their hardhats and did some real work in rebuilding. Getting some serious assets for Petr Mrazek and especially Tomas Tatar put Detroit in a nice position, and they knocked it out of the park – as far as we can ever know with teenage prospects – at the 2018 NHL Draft.

It’s long felt like there’s been a tug of war for Holland between competing (and now, merely saving face) and making the painful-but-necessary moves to replenish Detroit’s talent.

Such thoughts resurfaced in early July when the Red Wings signed 30-year-old Jonathan Bernier, 32-year-old Mike Green, and 34-year-old Thomas Vanek, with Green getting two years and Bernier inking for three.

Those aren’t “end of the world” decisions, yet it’s tough to make much of an argument for the upside of those deals, either. Strong play from Green and Vanek may only increase the odds of Detroit falling in puck purgatory: too good to land a blue-chipper like Jack Hughes, too bad to contend.

Worse yet, every shift that goes to Green and Vanek could instead go to a developing player who could be part of a (hopefully) brighter future.

2. Graduate or marinate?

Which brings us to another key conundrum: should young players make the jump to the NHL in 2018-19?

Of course, it’s foolish to paint such a topic with broad strokes when each situation should be handled on a case-by-case basis.

For instance, it makes a lot more sense to graduate a player from a lower level to the NHL when you’d burn a year off their entry-level contract either way, as would be the case with older prospects.

More pressingly, the Red Wings must determine if a player would gain anything from spending another year in the AHL or junior, or if they might stunt their growth by staganating. Conversely, the Red Wings could also throw off the rhythm of a player’s development if they play at the NHL, but only sparingly.

Some of the NHL’s biggest successes have come off the back of players producing at an elite level while still on their rookie deals. The Blackhawks’ 2010 Stanley Cup run is one of the prime examples, as Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews won it all in the final year of their entry-level contracts. The Red Wings might want to let some of those slide for when they’re in a better position to succeed.

Even that premise has its counterpoint, though.

For instance, a player of Filip Zadina’s brilliance and creativity could serve as a vital balm for bummed-out Red Wings fans slogging through what could be a trying season. During a rebuild, teams often sell hope, and Zadina could put at least a few extra butts in seats.

Heck, you can even galaxy brain it and wonder if a slower start (jumping right to the NHL, rather than heading in a year or two later with added muscle and seasoning) might open the door for a cheaper second contract.

You’d be pushing the envelope as far as speculation is concerned with some of that stuff, but let’s be honest; these are the type of questions the Red Wings should be asking if they want to succeed in revamping their roster.

3. Is Jeff Blashill the right coach for Detroit?

Since taking over as Red Wings head coach from Mike Babcock, Jeff Blashill has won one playoff game. The Red Wings have missed the playoffs two seasons in a row after their historic run (which, truthfully, was stretched out a bit longer than maybe it ideally should have been).

To blame Blashill for the Red Wings’ slippage is to ignore roster rot that rapidly lowered this franchise’s expectations. Instead, management is better off judging Blashill by how well he develops young players, deals with lower times, and generally presses the right buttons.

While it’s silly to lay the tough times on Blashill’s shoulders, it’s perfectly fair to evaluate him based on his viability going forward.

For one thing, a rebuild can be especially tough on a coach. For another, it’s often said that a coach’s voice tends to lose its resonance as time wears on. That’s especially true if a team is doing a lot of losing, as that voice tends to raise to a counterproductive yell.

(Not judging, it’s only human to not like losing.)

Both Ken Holland and Jeff Blashill are right to look over their shoulders during these years. If the Red Wings decide that one or both need to go, it wouldn’t be wise to delay such a decision. The 2018-19 season could play a big role in such choices, even if there’s only so much either the coach or GM can do about the team’s chances of accomplishing anything particularly meaningful on the ice.

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.

It’s Dallas Stars day at PHT

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Dallas Stars.

2017-18

42-32-8, 92 pts. (6th in Central Division, 10th in Western Conference)
Missed playoffs.

IN:

Blake Comeau
Valeri Nichushkin
Roman Polak
Anton Khudobin

OUT:

Antoine Roussel
Dan Hamuis
Greg Pateryn
Mike McKenna
Curtis McKenzie

RE-SIGNED:

Mattias Janmark
Remi Elie
Devin Shore
Stephen Johns
Gemel Smith

It’s been two years since the Dallas Stars topped the Central Division with their 50-win, 109-point regular season, good for second-best in the NHL in 2015-16.

Since then, it’s been a little bit of free fallin’ in Texas.

Last season was better than the year previous, so there’s a bonus. Of course, it had to be because the Stars were atrocious in 2016-17. The addition of Ben Bishop in the crease last offseason helped, but the Stars had a single line that was able to score with regularity. Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov (also added last offseason), one of the best lines in hockey, each accounted for nearly a point-per-game. Of Dallas’ 231 goals last season, the lined combined for 103 of them and 229 of the Stars’ 609 combined points.

It’s a great line, but no one outside that trio had more than 20 goals or over 35 points. In fact, it was a defenseman — John Klingberg — who nestled in behind them as the team’s fourth-leading scorer. It was a hell of a season for Klingberg, take nothing away from that. But the gap between scoring is substantial and a big reason why the Stars couldn’t cobble together more wins. If their first line had an off night, the team lost. It was a simple formula for opposing team’s to key in on.

The Stars will have a new bench boss this coming season after Ken Hitchcock retired. Jim Montgomery and his puck-possession mindset take over the reins and one of his first tasks will be trying to find Jason Spezza‘s game. Spezza had an awful year, so much so he was made a healthy scratch in the wake of its terribleness. Father time hasn’t been kind to the 35-year-old over the past two seasons. He has one year left on a four-year deal that’s paying him $7.5 million per season.

The Stars do get a bit of a boost with the return of Valeri Nichushkin, who makes his return after two years spent back home playing in the KHL. Thus far, the Russian is the Stars’ biggest addition of the summer. Nichushkin seems primed to move into a second-line role and could be a part of Spezza’s revitalization.

Two scoring lines are better than one, so if Nichushkin can shock Spezza back to life, then the Stars might work themselves back into the playoff conversation.

It’s not the same type of hype train as, say, the additions of Bishop and Radulov in years’ past. Perhaps the quiet summer will bode well for Dallas.

The good news is Klingberg seems to be skating into his prime. He made a case for the Norris this year and has seen his game on the incline for a couple years now, becoming a vital part of Dallas’ offense with 67 points last season. There’s no reason to think that will change. Klingberg rebounded from a down year in 2016-17 to put up career highs, and when he played on Dallas’ good team three years ago, he put up solid numbers in just his second year in the NHL. That sky is the limit for Klingberg.

A new system put forth by Montgomery might spell good things for the Stars, who played under Hitchcock’s aging coaching style. A turnaround by the club this season might just help the Stars keep hold of Seguin, who is set for unrestricted free agency after this year.

Prospect Pool

Miro Heiskanen, D, 19, HIFK Helsinki (SM-Liiga) – 2017 first-round pick

The third-overall pick a year ago enjoyed a solid campaign in his native Finland, posting 11 goals and 23 points in 30 games while averaging the most ice-time of any player in the league with 25:06 per game. That all added up to a league all-star team nod and an award for Liiga’s best defenseman. Heiskanen looked the part at the Olympic Games in South Korea as well with one goal in five games and played in the world hockey championships and the world juniors to boot. A trifecta of sorts:

Jim Nill said he’s coming to North America this season. Some say he’s NHL ready. That could be a big boost for the Stars if he is.

Roope Hintz, LW, 21, Texas Stars (AHL) – 2015 second-round pick

The Stars like themselves some Finns. Hintz is another prospect from Finland who could make his NHL debut this season. He had 35 points in 70 regular-season games in his first pro season in the American Hockey League. In the playoffs, where the Stars were Calder Cup runners-up, Hintz had a further 12 points in 22 games.

“Roope has taken some huge strides,” Stars coach Derek Laxdal told NHL.com. “One of his assets is his speed. He is a big body (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) who can skate at a high speed, make plays at high speed. His biggest challenge throughout the year has just been playing with that consistency and playing a little heavier.”

Ty Dellandrea, C, 18, Flint Firebirds (OHL) – 2018 first-round pick

Dellandrea is the newest addition to Dallas’ prospect pool after being taken 13th overall in June’s draft. A center, Dellandrea stood out in Flint of the Ontario Hockey League despite his team’s rough season. He led the team with 27 goals and had 59 points in 67 games and models his game after Jonathan Toews, both on and off the ice. What’s not to like?

“Ty is an extremely talented two-way centerman with explosive speed, hockey intelligence and willingness to do whatever it takes to help his team succeed on the ice,” Stars director of amateur scouting Joe McDonnell said. “Over his two seasons with Flint, he has continued to improve every facet of his game and exhibits the character and work ethic that it takes to succeed in the National Hockey League.”


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Where should Jonathan Toews rank among NHL’s top centers?

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Life comes at you fast sometimes.

It was not that long ago that the Chicago Blackhawks were the NHL’s most powerful team on the ice and their captain, Jonathan Toews, was regarded as one of the best players in the league.

Perhaps even, in the opinion of some, the best player in hockey and the one player that you should most want to build your franchise around for both tangible (two-way play, production) and intangible reasons (leadership, the fact the team always won and he was at the center of a lot of it). That status among the league’s elite seems to have taken quite a tumble. So much so that he is apparently no longer even considered one of the best players in the league at his position, let alone overall.

Take, for example, this list of the top-20 centers from this the NHL Network this week that does not include Jonathan Toews.

I don’t want to get too far into an in-depth analysis of the value of such a ranking or a list, and maybe you can quibble with one or two names at the bottom of the list (William Karlsson, for example) but the fact that Toews, one of the most well-known names in the league, one of the highest paid players in the league, on one of the most prominent franchises in the league, can’t crack a superficial list designed to draw interest from casual fans is a damning indictment on how far his star has fallen in a short period of time.

[Blackhawks day at PHT: ’17-18 review | Building off a breakthrough: DeBrincat | Under Pressure: Quenneville]

Again: This is a player that just a few years ago was the subject of arguments as to whether or not he was one of the best players in the entire sport. Today the Blackhawks are paying him $10.5 million per season for the next five years (Connor McDavid and John Tavares are the only players in the NHL that will carry a larger salary cap hit this season) and it’s at least debatable, if not factual, that he is no longer one of the league’s top centers.

Just consider that he has not topped the 60-point mark in three years. His 2017-18 performance was the worst of his career offensively and for three years now he has been, at best, second-tier producer offensively.

Here are his ranks among centers in goals per game, points per game, and shot attempt percentage over the past three years.

Again, this is just among centers.

Probably the most encouraging thing about this past season is that his ability to drive possession rebounded in a big way. But that drop in actual offense is significant and jarring. Just for comparisons sake, here are his ranks among centers in the same categories during the six-year stretch between 2009-10 and 2014-15 when the Blackhawks won three Stanley Cups.

Even when he was at his best he was never truly an elite scorer. In his career he has had two seasons where he finished in the top-10 in goals per game league-wide, and zero top-10 finishes in points per game.

Even among centers he was, at his best, just barely inside the top-10 and rarely near the top.

But he was still excellent. He still produced like a top-tier center, and when combined with the defensive play you had one outstanding player. Best player in the league outstanding? Absolutely not. But still outstanding.

The trouble for the Blackhawks is that it is not just the offense that has dropped off so much, as his ability to drive possession also took a pretty significant hit in two of the past three seasons. If he is not scoring like a top-tier center, and he is not helping to dictate the pace of the game like a top-tier center, then there’s not much else to suggest that he is still a top-tier center other than the reputation from his peak years between 2010 and 2015. A reputation that was probably boosted significantly given that the team surrounding him for those six seasons was consistently loaded and always winning.

There is a lot to be said for his defensive game, and it is still held in high regard (at least when you look at the Selke Trophy voting).

But for a $10.5 million cap hit you need to see scoring. You need to see offense. You need to see a player that is going to carry a team in every possible way. And the Blackhawks have simply not been getting that from Toews in recent years, while pretty much every player on the above list that is ahead of him is consistently giving their teams that sort of play, with the one possible exception again being William Karlsson.

But if we are now at the point where it’s a debate as to whether or not Toews is the 18th or 19th best center in the league next to Karlsson, a player that until this season had never scored more than 10 goals in a single season, that has to be a concern for a Blackhawks team that still has more than $50 million committed to him over the next five years.

His play has dropped individually, and when combined with the decline of the Blackhawks as a team it’s seen Toews go from being regarded as one of the best players in the league just three years ago to what is basically now just another guy.

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.

Building off a breakthrough: Alex DeBrincat

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Chicago Blackhawks.

With all that went wrong for Chicago in 2017-18, it’s easy to forget how very, very right things went for Alex DeBrincat.

The pint-sized rookie scored an impressive 28 goals and 52 points despite averaging less than 15 minutes (14:48) of ice time per night. If the 2017-18 season wasn’t absolutely jam-packed with fantastic rookies, DeBrincat would have at least been a finalist for the Calder.

Such a strong season shines a brighter spotlight on the 20-year-old, something he seems keenly aware of, as NBC Sports Chicago’s James Neveau reported in late July.

“It’s definitely different,” DeBrincat said. “It was low-key coming in as a rookie, and there weren’t many expectations for me. Now the expectations are there, but those aren’t something I’m looking at. I’m looking to improve in any way I can and just be a better player overall.”

So, can DeBrincat top his fabulous first year with an encore in 2018-19? There are reasons to expect more and also some arguments for a sophomore slump.

[Looking back on 2017-18]

Let’s get the half-empty out of the way, first: DeBrincat’s shooting percentage indicated that the small scorer received his fair share of positive bounces. While it’s not in the William Karlsson stratosphere, DeBrincat scored his 28 goals by riding a 15.5 shooting percentage. Less puck luck could bump him down a few notches.

The good news is that, well, there’s quite a bit of good news.

Again, DeBrincat didn’t get a ton of opportunities from an ice time perspective. At minimum, the Blackhawks would be wise to send the highly skilled player out on the power play more often. DeBrincat’s 2:02 PPTOI per night stood as a good start, but if you want more punch on the man advantage, wouldn’t you send him out more often than Artem Anisimov, Nick Schmaltz, and even maybe Brandon Saad?

(You could make a reasonable argument that DeBrincat should be right up there with Jonathan Toews, honestly.)

There’s a strong chance that Joel Quenneville will get more and more comfortable with the American forward after seeing him excel last season.

Such thoughts might also provide DeBrincat with better (and more stable) running mates.

Via Natural Stat Trick, DeBrincat’s forward partners were all over the place at even-strength. While DeBrincat enjoyed a decent chunk of shifts with Toews, he also spent comparable time with Patrick Sharp and Schmaltz. Echoing the points about power play possibilities, he was mainly on the second unit last season. Why not get him somewhere in that five-man group?

Whether DeBrincat makes a leap forward, a small step back, or basically stands in place, it sure seems like the Blackhawks unearthed another gem in this guy.

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 Stanley Cup Tracker: Reirden, Bowey give back during days with the Cup

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The PHT Stanley Cup tracker will keep tabs on how the Washington Capitals spend their summer celebrating

Last week, the Stanley Cup returned stateside after a jaunt off in Europe.

Back in America’s heartland, the cup visited Matt Niskanen in his hometown of Virginia, Minn., and made its first-ever trip to T.J. Oshie‘s hometown of Warroad, Minn., where it took a ride in the same car that chauffered around a certain Franklin D. Roosevelt long ago.

So far this summer, the Stanley Cup has been to the World Cup, had caviar eaten out of it and got trotted around in a former presidential car.

Not too shabby.

Washington’s new head coach Todd Reirden, who won the Cup as the team’s assistant to Barry Trotz (who has since moved on to the New York Islanders) got his day with Lord Stanley this past Thursday.

Reirden, a native of Deerfield, Ill., brought the Cup to the Indiana towns of Crown Point and Valparaiso. the latter where he had lived for 12 years. There, he spent time with local police officers and firefighters.

“The real thing I wanted to bring to this area and share is that the people around here were always phenomenal to me,” Reirden told ValpoLife.com. “I wanted this to be a way to give back and also build the game of hockey.”

And give back he did.

The event also had a hockey equipment drive and Bauer stepped with a nice donation.

Staff from the town figured upward of 1,000 people showed up for their chance to see hockey’s most prized possession.

From there, the Cup headed north to Winnipeg on Saturday.

Winnipeg has seen its fair share of the Stanley Cup over the past decade, with Jonathan Toews bringing it back to his hometown no less than three times with the Chicago Blackhawks.

But it was a different Winnipegger who enjoyed his day with the Cup over the weekend in The Peg, with Capitals defenseman Madison Bowey spreading the joy this time around.

Bowey took the Cup to the Children’s Hospital where sick kids were able to spend some time with it.

Bowey’s next stop was the rink where he played hockey as a youth.

“I had to come back here and just show that support, show that love and just how appreciative I am to this community, and just help all those young guys who are striving to be where I am now and I think if I can just come back and give back to my community it goes a long way,” Bowey told the Winnipeg Sun.

He got a chance to throw out the first pitch at a local baseball game.

And then got a chance to eat something homemade of the Cup — his grandmother’s borscht.

On Tuesday, the Cup will travel to Lashburn, Sask., where Braden Holtby will be there to parade it around town. The Cup will then travel to Ontario next weekend where Tom Wilson and his shiny new contract await. Devante Smith-Pelly will also get his day before Lord Stanley makes another trip across the pond, this time to Scandinavia.

A full list of dates and where the Cup will be on them can be found here.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck