Keith Kinkaid

Sharks’ goaltending gamble isn’t paying off

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The San Jose Sharks had a major goaltending problem during 2018-19 season.

It was clearly the biggest Achilles Heel on an otherwise great team, and it was a testament to the dominance of the team itself that they were able to win as many games as they did and reach the Western Conference Final with a level of goaltending that typically sinks other teams.

Even with the struggles of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell, the Sharks remained committed to the duo through the trade deadline and were ready to roll into the Stanley Cup Playoffs with them as the last line of defense. And while their play itself may not have been the biggest reason their playoff run came to an end against the St. Louis Blues, it still was not good enough and was going to be a huge question mark going into the 2019-20 season.

Instead of doing anything to address the position in the offseason, the Sharks gambled that Jones and Dell could bounce-back and entered this season with the same goaltending duo in place that finished near the bottom of the league a year ago.

So far, the results for the two goalies are nearly identical to what they were a year ago. And with the team around them not playing well enough to mask the flaws they are taking a huge hit in the standings with just four wins in their first 12 games.

As of Monday the Sharks have the league’s fifth-worst all situations save percentage and the second-worst 5-on-5 save percentage (only the Los Angeles Kings are worse in that category), while neither Jones or Dell has an individual mark better than .892. In seven starts Jones has topped a .900 save percentage just twice, and has been at .886 or worse in every other start. Dell has not really been any better. Say what you want about team defense, or structure, or system, or the players around them, it is awfully difficult to compete in the NHL when your goalies are giving up that many goals on a regular basis.

Sometimes you need a save, even if there is a breakdown somewhere else on the ice, and the Sharks haven’t been consistently getting them for more than a year now. Going back to the start of last season, there have been 52 goalies that have appeared in at least 30 games — Jones and Dell rank 48th and 51st respectively in save percentage during that stretch. The other goalies in the bottom-10 are Mike Smith, Roberto Luongo, Cory Schneider, Cam Ward, Joonas Korpisalo, Cam Talbot, Keith Kinkaid, and Jonathan Quick. Two of those goalies (Luongo and Ward) are now retired, another (Kinkaid) is a backup, two others (Talbot and Korpisalo) are in platoon roles, while Smith, Schneider, and Quick have simply been three of the league’s worst regular starters. Not an ideal goaltending situation for a Stanley Cup contender to be in.

When it comes to Jones it is at least somewhat understandable as to why the Sharks may have been so willing to stick by him. For as tough as his 2018-19 performance was, it looked to be a pretty clear outlier in an otherwise solid career. He may have never been one of the league’s elite goalies, but he had given them at least three consecutive years of strong play with some random playoff brilliance thrown in. They also have a pretty significant financial commitment to him as he is under contract for another four years after this one. So far, though, there is little evidence to suggest such a bounce-back is on the horizon.

It’s enough to wonder if the Sharks will be as patient with their goalies as they were a year ago and what over moves could be made. Make no mistake, this is a team that is built to win the Stanley Cup right now and one that is still trying to capitalize on the window it has with its core of All-Stars. A bad start should not do anything to change that ultimate goal because there is still a championship caliber core here. And while not every team is capable of an in-season turnaround like the one the Blues experienced a year ago, the Sharks are one that could theoretically do it if their goaltending performance significantly changes for the better. But that might require some kind of move from outside the organization if the returning duo does not soon start showing some sort of progress.

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.

The Buzzer: Zucker walks the walk for Wild; Goalies come up big

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Three Stars

1. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

Mike Smith and the Oilers goaltending received (well-earned) attention with this post, but Hellebuyck Jets won the duel of shutouts via a shootout.

Hellebuyck collected 28 saves, including 10 combined from Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and James Neal. Hellebuyck also stopped both of the attempts he faced during the shootout, turning aside McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

After Smith made a save after a strong move by Mark Scheifele, Hellebuyck didn’t blink against McDavid during this blistering overtime exchange:

2. Jason Zucker, Minnesota Wild

Quite a week for a Wild forward who also had quite the offseason, where he was almost-traded.

Zucker included Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau’s name while pointing to how everyone on the team could get better following a loss. With controversy swirling over that comment, Zucker apologized to Boudreau.

One could picture Boudreau saying “Just make it up to me on the ice,” and Zucker did just that on Sunday. The strong two-way player scored the game’s opening goal on the power play, and sent a fantastic pass to Zach Parise for the game-winner.

He also had another attempt that could have easily counted as a second goal, but Keith Kinkaid made the save that will be featured later in this post …

3. Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks

Sunday was a night of rest for NHL offenses, as few players really lit up the scoreboard.

You can boil some of that down to strong netminding. Above, you have Hellebuyck, who was nearly met by Smith in that game. Braden Holtby made 41 saves for a win, and Cam Talbot had a nice night for Calgary, stopping 29 of 30 shots.

Markstrom gets the slight edge over those goalies – plus his opponent Henrik Lundqvist, who made 40 saves, but allowed three goals – by generating 38 saves while allowing two goals in Vancouver’s tight win against the Rangers. Read this for more about the start for Markstrom and Thatcher Demko.

Highlight of the Night

Here’s that Kinkaid stop on Zucker:

Factoids

  • Every game was either decided by one goal, or one goal plus an empty-netter. NHL PR notes that about 53 percent (68 of 128) games this season have been that close.
  • The Jets note that Paul Maurice became the seventh coach in NHL history to reach 700 wins. In case you’re wondering, Maurice got there in 1,539 games, which gets complicated thanks to the way the NHL handled ties and shootouts over the years. Dude’s been able to keep jobs over the years to a remarkable degree, whichever way you slice it.
  • John Carlson really slacked on Sunday, only getting an assist. He’s at 18 points, becoming one of only three defensemen to manage that many through 10 games, joining Paul Coffey (20[!] in 1988-89) and Bobby Orr (who did it twice), according to NHL PR. Carlson’s 18 points stands alone as the top mark in the NHL so far, as Connor McDavid remained parked at 17.
  • NHL PR points out that the Wild are 7-0-0 in their last seven home games against the Canadiens, and Montreal hasn’t even earned a pity point during that stretch, going 0-7-0.

Scores

VAN 3 – NYR 2
MIN 4 – MTL 3
WSH 5 – CHI 3
WPG 1 – EDM 0 (SO)
CGY 2 – ANA 1

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.

Hughes, Hall, Hischier look to lead Devils back to playoffs

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NEWARK, N.J. — If you saw what Daniel Jones did for the New York Giants, you have an idea what Jack Hughes might be able to do for the New Jersey Devils.

The No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft, Hughes has been nothing short of sensational in training camp and the preseason. The 18-year-old center has scored, set up goals and played two-way hockey. He has shown signs of being a dynamic young star forward, which the organization has lacked since moving to New Jersey in the early 1980s.

The addition of Hughes and general manager Ray Shero’s offseason moves to acquire defenseman P.K. Subban from Nashville and forward Nikita Gusev from Vegas and to sign veteran forward Wayne Simmonds to a one-year contract as an unrestricted free agent gives the Devils depth throughout the roster.

Don’t forget, center Nico Hischier is entering his third season after being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft. Taylor Hall is returning after being limited by a knee injury that required surgery. Kyle Palmieri has been a solid goal scorer and there are a lot of young enthusiastic players who want to go out and play coach John Hynes’ in-your-face style of hockey.

The Devils used to be an organization that rode its defense and goaltending. Last season, they scored 222 goals and gave up 275, a differential of minus-53. They finished with 72 points. Only Los Angeles (71) and Ottawa (64) had fewer.

That has to change if they are going to move forward this season.

And just in case you missed it, Jones, the sixth pick overall in the NFL draft, replaced Eli Manning as the Giants’ starting quarterback and revived hope for the season by throwing two touchdowns and running for two others in a 33-32 victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday. It was the type of spark the Devils hopes Hughes will deliver.

Five things to watch this season as the Devils try to get back to the playoffs:

TAYLOR HALL

Hall won the NHL MVP in 2017 with 39 goals and 54 assists and single-handedly got New Jersey into the playoffs for the first time since the 2012 Stanley Cup Final. Hall is coming off an injury-plagued season. He appeared in 33 games and had 11 goals and 26 assists, playing his final contest days before Christmas. The left wing had surgery on his left knee in February and is looking forward to better things.

WHO’S HERE

Hughes isn’t the only new face in town. Subban was acquired on the draft weekend in a major deal with Nashville. Simmonds is a tough guy who plays in close on the power play. Gusev spent the last seven seasons in the KHL, collecting 119 goals and 213 assists.

WHO’S NOT

The Devils emptied the roster at the trade deadline a year ago, dealing C Brian Boyle, D Ben Lovejoy, F Marcus Johansson and G Keith Kinkaid to playoff contenders. After the season, forwards Kenny Agostino and Stefan Noesen were not re-signed and D Steven Santini was part of the deal for Subban, who had a career-low 31 points in 63 games. F John Quenneville was traded to Chicago for F John Hayden.

KEY PLAYERS: Hall tops the list, especially with his contract expiring. Shero would like to get the 27-year-old former No. 1 overall pick signed, but his health is a concern. Hughes has tons of talent but is going to be a marked man in the NHL. He is just 18 and will be hit. Hischier might be the surprise. He seems to be improving. If he hit the nets more, the Devils will be tough. The goaltending looks very good. Corey Schneider is back to his former level of two years ago after hip surgery and Mackenzie Blackwood impressed after coming up from the minors and posting a 6-4-0 record with a 2.37 goals-against average.

OUTLOOK: Since Hynes took over as coach, there has been a pattern of good year, bad year, good year, bad year. This is year five and with the draft and all the moves, the trend clearly indicates good year. The Devils struggled in recent seasons on the power play, scoring on less than 18%. With Hughes, Hall, Hischier, Subban, Palmieri and defensemen Will Butcher and Damon Severson, that should improve. The penalty kill should remain among the best in the league with Travis Zajac, Blake Coleman and Kevin Rooney on the roster.

PREDICTION: After finishing last in the Metropolitan Division (31-41-10) for the second time in three seasons, the Devils have the talent to get back to the postseason. There are question marks, however. The 30-year-old Subban needs to revert to being one of the league’s top defensemen. Hall has to stay healthy. Hughes and Hischier have to deliver and the Devils can’t lose their focus, which they did too many times last season. They should make the playoffs.

Previewing the 2019-20 Montreal Canadiens

(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Maybe slightly worse, but largely the same.

Montreal brought in Ben Chiarot and Keith Kinkaid while letting Antti Niemi and Jordie Benn walk. They also traded away Andrew Shaw.

Aside from a Sebastian Aho offer sheet that had little chance of succeeding, it was a very quiet offseason for Marc Bergevin.

Strengths: Depth, five-on-five play, and possibly strong starting goaltending if Carey Price continues getting back on track.

Claude Julien really had this group firing on all cylinders last season, which had to make missing the playoffs extra-painful. Still, it’s generally easier to reproduce even-strength success than it is to shoot or stop pucks at a high level, so that’s nice. This team can send wave after wave of forwards at you, and their top four of Shea Weber, Brett Kulak, Victor Mete, and Jeff Petry is better than a lot of people realize.

Weaknesses: Unfortunately, the Canadiens had to be dominant at even-strength last season because their power play was so putrid.

You might be able to chalk it up to the larger feeling that the Canadiens have some very nice forwards, especially Brendan Gallagher, but seem to lack that super-duper-star. The power play might be better in 2019-20 by sheer luck, but personnel-wise, they didn’t really address the problem during the offseason.

It sure looks like Montreal will need to lean heavily on Price, as Kinkaid doesn’t strike me as that much of an upgrade over Niemi, if he even is an upgrade.

(Nice use of emojis, though.)

[MORE: X-factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Canadiens front office members (especially Bergevin, but also Julien) have weathered some of the bigger storms, as while Montreal missed the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they generally exceeded expectations in 2018-19. Even so Montreal’s missed the playoffs in three of the last four seasons, and hasn’t won a series since 2014-15. Julien is an excellent coach, but professional sports aren’t always fair to coaches, and things could really heat up if a lot of Canadiens follow career years by plummeting back to their lesser, past selves. A rating of 7 feels about right.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Max Domi, and Carey Price.

If Kotkaniemi ends up not being worthy of the third overall pick of 2018, it looks like that will only come down to people merely having a preference, for say, fourth pick Brady Tkachuk — and so on. The point is that Kotkaniemi was brilliant as a rookie, and considering limited usage, could be capable of even more than an already-solid 34 points in 79 games. Honestly, Julien owes it to this team to experiment with just how quickly Kotkaniemi can grow. He aced his first test in the NHL.

Entering 2019-20, a big question is: will the Max Domi we see look more like the 2018-19 sensation, or the 2017-18 Coyotes forward who needed four empty-netters to reach nine goals? Domi’s entering a contract year, so if he can show last season wasn’t a fluke, he can go from a healthy raise from his $3.15M AAV to a huge jump.

Price is basically always fascinating in Montreal: the franchise, $10.5M goalie in a city that’s watched some of the best netminders to ever play the game. Can Price be dominant at 32? The Habs are counting on it.

Playoffs or Lottery: Montreal was unlucky that the East was pretty stout at the playoff-level in 2018-19, and figure to face big obstacles again this coming season. Not only will the Atlantic’s top three figure to be tough (Lightning, Bruins, Maple Leafs), but the Panthers made investments to be hugely improved, too. For all we know, it may all come down to the Panthers vs. the Canadiens, especially if the Metropolitan Division isn’t a total flop in providing wild-card competition.

There’s quite a bit to like with this team, so playoffs seem more likely than the lottery — although we also know that this tough market can also turn the volume up on any slump.

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.

Will Taylor Hall re-sign long-term?

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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 New Jersey Devils.

Let’s ponder three questions for the 2019-20 Devils:

1. Has all the offseason work enticed Taylor Hall to re-sign?

In early June, a report from The Fourth Period’s David Pagnotta suggested that Hall had no interest in re-signing with the club.

Fast forward a month, and the team that managed just 74 points in a dismal regular season now had Jack Hughes, the top prospect in the 2019 NHL Draft, P.K. Subban, one of the league’s best defensemen, and were about to embark on adding Wayne Simmonds and Nikita Gusev before August hit.

Ray Shero needed to do something to convince Hall that the Devils were heading in the right direction and perhaps it has worked, although there is still no long-term extension in place for the former Hart Trophy winner.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

Hall’s agent, for what it’s worth, says there’s no rush. As does Shero.

And while that may be true, these sort of things only become distractions as the regular season hits in 2019-20. The Devils would certainly need to know by the trade deadline so they could avoid a John Tavares incident.

Two first-overall picks in the past three seasons and a genuine attempt to make the team better has to sit well in Hall’s camp. But there’s always going to be that allure of having the world at his feet with truckloads of money and the ability to chose his destination next summer.

2. What role will Mackenzie Blackwood take on this season? 

Cory Schneider went more than a calendar year without a win and he was horrific to start the season, posting a 0-7-2 record before finally getting that elusive ‘W’ in the middle of February.

From there, he went 6-6-2 with a .927 save percentage down the stretch as he finally looked like the goalie sans the hip issue that had plagued him (and was surgically repaired in May 2018.)

Schneider’s injuries and Keith Kinkaid not being very good allowed the Devils a chance to see what Blackwood could do. And 22-year-old didn’t disappoint, even with the mess in front of him.

In 21 starts he went 10-10-0 with a .918 save percentage and two shutouts.

While Schneider appeared to begin his bounceback from surgery in the last half of the season, Blackwood should see increased time (even if the former is making $6 million a season.) Blackwood appears to be the future in New Jersey and the Devils shouldn’t be married to Schneider being their de facto No. 1.

3. What, if anything, will Shero do the rest of his cap space? 

There’s roughly $8 million still sitting in his kitty, although the team still needs to sign restricted free agent Pavel Zacha.

Evolving Wild’s model has Zacha coming in around the $2 million mark in terms of annual average value, which gives the Devils $6 million-ish to work with they want to strengthen the team further.

Of course, the unrestricted free agent pool has shrunk over the summer, but you wonder if a guy such as Patrick Maroon might make for a good addition in terms of grit and experience.

What about a Ben Hutton on defense to make another improvement on the blue line?

There still may be some bargains out there and the Devils appear to have assembled a team worthy of playoff talk.

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


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