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Can Penguins win a Phil Kessel trade?

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The Pittsburgh Penguins face steep challenges as they aim to improve, and it sure seems like they’re in a tough spot to try to “win” a Phil Kessel trade … or really, break even.

The Athletic’s tandem of Josh Yohe and Michael Russo reports (sub required) that Kessel had been asked, and seemed to lean against, accepting a trade that would send Kessel and Jack Johnson to the Wild for Jason Zucker and Victor Rask. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman followed up on that in 31 Thoughts, cementing the thought that Kessel vetoed a trade thanks to his no-trade clause, which allows him to potentially reject moves to all but eight other teams. Friedman also wonders if the Arizona Coyotes could be a potential trade fit for Kessel. Again, the theme seems to be that it might not be so easy to trade Kessel, especially if the Penguins can only find trades with teams who aren’t on Kessel’s eight-team “Yes” list.

Still, reporters such as TSN’s Bob McKenzie indicate that a Kessel trade is more a matter of “when, not if,” so let’s consider some of the factors involved, and get a sense of how the Penguins can make this summer a net positive.

Pondering that would-be trade

One can understand why the Penguins would be disappointed that the Wild trade didn’t work out, although that sympathy dissolves when you wonder if Pittsburgh’s basically trying to guilt Kessel into accepting a trade by letting this leak.

(You may notice the word “stubborn” coming up frequently regarding Kessel, even though he’s merely leveraging his contractual rights to that NTC. Who knows if Kessel even wants out?)

All things considered, moving out Kessel (31) and Johnson (32) for two younger players in Zucker (27) and Rask (26) is a boon, and not just because the cap difference is just about even.

While Pierre LeBrun indicates that there’s at least some chance Kessel might change his mind and OK that Wild trade, let’s assume that he would not. There are still elements of this deal that the Penguins should chase.

Kessel + a contract they want to get rid of?

To be more precise, if the Penguins can’t find a good “hockey” trade where the immediate on-ice result is equal (if not an outright win for Pittsburgh), there could be value in saving money. The Penguins have quite a few contracts they should shed, though I’d exclude periodically rumored trade targets Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang because, in my opinion, it would be a really bad idea to trade either of them.

So let’s consider some of the contracts Pittsburgh should attempt to move, either with Kessel or in a separate deals.

  • First, consider Kessel. He’s 31, and his $6.8 million cap hit runs through 2021-22. Naturally, every year counts for a Penguins team whose window of contention could slam shut if Malkin and Sidney Crosby hit the aging curve hard … but really, that term isn’t the end of the world.
  • Johnson, 32, is a disaster. While $3.25M isn’t massive, teams are almost always better off with him on the bench than on the ice, and the term is a headache as it only expires until after 2022-23. For all the focus on Kessel’s alleged flaws, getting rid of Johnson would be the biggest boon of that would-be Wild trade. (Especially since I’d argue that Rask has a better chance of at least a mild career rebound than Johnson, as he’s likely to at least have a better shooting percentage than 2018-19’s pitiful 5.5 percent.)
  • Patric Hornqvist is a good player and an even better story as a player who’s gone from “Mr. Irrelevant” of the 2005 NHL Draft to a regular 20+ goal scorer and player who scored a Stanley Cup-clinching goal. That said, he’s an extremely banged-up 32, making his $5.3M cap hit a bit scary, being that it runs through 2022-23. It’s not as sexy of a story, yet the Penguins should be even more eager to move Hornqvist than they are to move Kessel. (And, again, for the record: they’re both good players … just risky to remain that way.)
  • Olli Maatta, 24, carries a $4.083M cap hit, and his name has surfaced in rumors for years.

There’s a scenario where the Penguins find a parallel trade, combining Kessel and Johnson or another contract they want to get rid of for two full-priced, NHL roster players, like the ones they would have received in Zucker and Rask.

Maybe the Penguins would find some success in merely trying to open up cap space, though?

Theoretically, they could try to move several of the players above while either adding Zucker-types, or perhaps gaining so much cap room that they might aim for something truly bold, like landing a whopper free agent such as Artemi Panarin or Erik Karlsson?

Heck, they could just open up space to pounce on a trade later. Perhaps a lane would open up where they could land someone like P.K. Subban?

Keeping Kessel?

There certainly seems to be some urgency regarding a Kessel trade, yet it remains to be seen if the Penguins can pull a decent one off.

Pensburgh goes over a trade-killing strategy Kessel may deploy, where he’d stack his eight-team trade list with a mixture of teams that are some combination of: a) Pittsburgh’s rivals, who they may not want to trade with, b) cap-challenged teams who might not be able to manage that $6.8M, and c) teams who simply wouldn’t want an aging winger.

If the Penguins view the situation as truly untenable, then it would indeed be rough to be “stuck” with Kessel.

Yet, would it really be that bad of a thing?

Now, sure, Kessel’s game has declined, with there being at least some argument that his defensive shortcomings overwhelm his prolific point production.

On the other hand, Kessel’s sniping abilities really are rare, and there’s something to be said for having a source of reliable goalscoring in a league where that’s still a tough commodity to come by. Kessel scored 27 goals and 82 points this past season, managed 34 and 92 in 2017-18, and has been a fantastic playoff performer for Pittsburgh. Sometimes teams risk overthinking things, and the Penguins can be charged with exactly that when you consider their dicey decisions during the last couple of years.

Would it be awkward? Probably, but sometimes NHL teams get too obsessed with harmony instead of results. Everyone doesn’t necessarily need to be best friends to win games.

Yes, sure it would be ideal if the Penguins could move along from Kessel while either remaining as strong a team as before, or getting a little better. Especially since Kessel’s value may dip as he ages. But with every other team well aware of the Penguins’ predicament, GM Jim Rutherford could really struggle to find a fair deal. And, even if Rutherford does, it’s no guarantee that Kessel will give it the go-ahead.

The awkward scenario of Kessel staying might not be as bad as it sounds, as he’s delivered on the ice, whether there’s been bad feelings behind the scenes, or not.

***

If you’re anxious about the Penguins trading away Kessel, then this can seem like a grim situation. There’s no denying that it will be a challenge to move him, considering all of the variables. Things get brighter when you ponder other possibilities, particularly the thought that the Penguins might be able to move a problem contract like Jack Johnson’s albatross.

Really, things could work out, even if – like with the building of the Blues and Bruins – it’s easier said than done. Who knows, maybe Rutherford will wield the sort of deft trading skill he showed when the Penguins landed Kessel in the first place?

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.

The Playoff Buzzer: Bruins advance; Avalanche survive

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  • The Blue Jackets were able to sweep the Lightning in front of their home fans in Columbus. Now their season is over as they fell in Game 6 against Boston at that same arena. The Bruins move on to face the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2019 Eastern Conference Final.
  • While the East half of Round 3 is set, the West side is still totally unsettled. The Sharks didn’t fall easily on Monday, but the Avalanche grabbed a gutsy OT win to send this series to Game 7.

Bruins 3, Blue Jackets 0 (Boston wins series 4-2)

Charlie McAvoy only receiving a two-minute minor for his hit on Josh Anderson was a big part of the Game 6 storyline, no doubt. But, really, Tuukka Rask strangled any chance for the Blue Jackets to rally around the anger of not getting a call they believed they deserved. David Krejci managed the lone goal of the first 40 minutes of this one, and Sergei Bobrovsky allowed two quick goals in the third period to sap any last-minute drama. Columbus has some things to build on going forward, even with Bobrovsky and others possibly leaving, but the Bruins get the upper hand.

Avalanche 4, Sharks 3 (Series tied 3-3; Game 7 airs at 9 pm. ET on Wednesday on NBCSN [stream here])

This was a fascinating game. The Avs managed leads of 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2, yet the Sharks just kept fighting back. When Game 6 went to overtime, there was at least a faint feeling that San Jose was going to stun Colorado in its own building. Instead, Gabriel Landeskog scored the overtime game-winner, forcing a Game 7 in this series. Two unsung heroes loomed large in Game 6, and they follow Rask in the three stars below …

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Tuukka Rask

Rask already turned heads with strong work during the Bruins’ Round 2 series against the Blue Jackets, but Game 6 might count as his best performance yet. While Rask enjoyed a little bit of luck from posts hitting his posts, he was still incredibly sharp for Boston, and thus outrageously frustrating for the Blue Jackets. Rask generated a 39-save shutout to close out Columbus, and the occasionally-criticized goalie is cementing his status as a true difference-maker for a Bruins team eyeing a glorious run.

2. J.T. Compher

Heading into Game 6 for Colorado, Compher had one three-point game to his career, yet he scored two goals and one assist at the most crucial time, with the Avalanche facing down elimination. Check these highlights and decide for yourself: is his assist to Tyson Jost to open scoring the best of Compher’s three points, or was it the 3-2 goal where he showed some pretty impressive hands?

That 3-2 goal sure seemed like it would be the game-winner, except an equally unlikely hero forced the issue for San Jose …

3. Marc-Edouard Vlasic

Again, Vlasic can be a “likely” hero for his work in his own end. And, really, Vlasic was his usual, defensive-defenseman-dynamo self against Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen, his most frequent opponents in Game 6. Yes, Landeskog scored an overtime game-winner, but generally speaking, the Sharks did a great job of limiting that dangerous trio’s chances. Vlasic was a big part of that.

Few would have expected Vlasic to be so prolific offensively, though.

Vlasic scored two goals for the Sharks while firing three SOG, blocking four shots, and managing two takeaways in Game 6. Impressive stuff, even if San Jose couldn’t quite close out Colorado.

Oh, by the way, this is only the second two-goal game of Vlasic’s career, according to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman. Again, it was a rare night.

Factoids

TUESDAY’S GAME 7

Game 7: Dallas Stars at St. Louis Blues (series tied 3-3; 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN [stream here])

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.

John Klingberg one of the driving forces behind Stars’ success

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The Dallas Stars have one of the season’s breakthrough players in 19-year-old defenseman Miro Heiskanen.

He has been so good, so impactful, and so impressive at such a young age that his team’s starting goalie has already called him a “no doubt” Hall of Famer, and one of the best defenders he has ever played with. While it might be just a little early for Hall of Fame talk, the praise toward the No. 3 overall pick from 2018 is certainly justified because he has been great all season.

All of that praise and hype has made it a little too easy to overlook the performance of John Klingberg, Dallas’ other top defender.

So let’s take a few minutes to look at the impact he has made because he has been one of the best players in the postseason so far and a huge part of the Stars’ current run.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

If you have been paying even the slightest bit of attention to the Stars it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that Klingberg has been excelling because he has been an outstanding defender for several years now. While his defensive play has sometimes been unfairly criticized, he has been an elite possession-driving, point-producing player since he arrived in Dallas, having already twice finished in the top-six in Norris Trophy voting.

But because the team around him has always been so top-heavy and so flawed in so many areas, he has never had an opportunity to truly shine on the league’s biggest stage or get the recognition other top defenders around the league tend to get. Reputations tend to be made in the playoffs, and Klingberg hasn’t had a chance to consistently play on this stage. The 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs are just the second time in his career he has played in the postseason, and it has been some of the best hockey he has ever played in the NHL and a big reason why the Stars are in Round 2 and looking to get the upper-hand in their series against the St. Louis Blues.

He is simply operating at an elite level right now.

Entering play on Friday, there have been 26 defenders in the 2019 playoffs that have logged at least 150 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time.  Out of that group Klingberg ranks third in shot attempt differential, first in goal-differential, first in scoring-chance differential, and first in high-danger scoring chance differential (all via Natural Stat Trick). Along with the territorial domination, he also has eight points, including two goals, one of which was a series-clinching overtime goal in Round 1 against the Nashville Predators.

He is pretty much everything you want in a modern-day, top-pairing defender with his ability to skate, move the puck, join the rush, and help drive his team’s offense.

He is also one of the league’s biggest steals against the cap.

There are only six other defenders in the NHL that have produced as much offense on a per-game level as Klingberg over the past five seasons (Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, Kris Letang, Victor Hedman, John Carlson, and Roman Josi). Other than Josi (who still only makes $4 million per season), every other player on that list makes north of $7.25 million per season.

The Stars have Klingberg signed for three more full seasons after this one at just $4.25 million per season, two years longer than what Nashville has Josi signed for.

When you combine that with the fact that Heiskanen still has two years remaining on his entry level deal, the Stars are going to get two potentially elite, two-way defenders, both of whom are capable of playing top-pairing minutes, for a grand total of just over $5 million against the salary cap. That is insane value.

General manager Jim Nill has made his share of mistakes over the years, but drafting Heiskanen at No. 3 overall and getting Klingberg on that contract has been a massive score for him and the organization. Defenders like this are really difficult to come by, and the Stars have two of them for way below market value for the next few years.

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.

 

PHT Morning Skate: Isles melting down; Are Blues falling apart?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Did the Blues just have one off night in Dallas in Game 4 or is this the start of a long slump? (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• Stu Barnes’ experience has been a valuable asset for the Stars coaching staff. (NHL.com/Stars)

• This isn’t the first time Stars rookie Roope Hintz has had success in the postseason. (The Hockey News)

• Charles Glenn is doing his part to get the Blues fans in a frenzy during the singing of the national anthem. He’s hoping to earn a Stanley Cup ring before he retires at the end of the season. (NHL.com)

Jaccob Slavin doesn’t garner many headlines, but he’s found an effective way to use his stick while defending. (The Point Hockey)

• How much longer can the Hurricanes survive with a power play that doesn’t spark the team. (Canes Country)

• The Islanders went on a great run this season, but they’re starting melt down. (New York Post)

• When Joe Thornton has something to say, his teammates listen. (ESPN)

• The Detroit Red Wings released a statement on the passing of Red Kelly. (NHL.com/RedWings)

• What should the Golden Knights do to tweak their roster this summer? (Knights on Ice)

• Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is just as disappointed by his team’s early playoff exit as the fans are. (Tampa Bay Times)

• Did the Penguins have their best stretch of the season while Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang were out? Adam Gretz investigates. (Pensburgh)

Auston Matthews had some surgical hardware from a 2014 operation removed. This procedure isn’t expected to disrupt his off-season training. (Toronto Star)

• Former NHLer John Erskine was severely injured during a highway accident. (TSN)

• Tomahawk science has really helped Patrick Kane perform at a high level at the age of 30. (Forbes)

• Liz Knox explains why so many female hockey players are willing to boycott North American leagues. (The Ice Garden)

• It was an interesting season for Canucks goalie Michael DiPietro. (The Score)

• The New York Rangers signed defenseman Adam Fox, who they acquired from Carolina, to an entry-level deal. (Blue Shirt Banter)

Milan Lucic won’t rule out playing for the Canucks, but someone else should. (Vancourier)

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.

AP/CP Survey: 48 percent of NHLPA reps favor playoff change

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Hockey players are conditioned to think that winning the Stanley Cup means going through the best teams to be the best team.

That doesn’t mean they are blind to some of the inequalities of the NHL’s current divisional playoff format. An Associated Press/Canadian Press survey of NHLPA representatives from all 31 teams shows that almost half favor changing the format – and most of those support going back to seeding the Eastern and Western conferences 1 through 8, the structure that was used from 1994-2013.

This is the sixth playoffs where each division’s top three teams and a wild card are bracketed together with no reseeding by round. A year ago, Nashville and Winnipeg finished first and second in the league in points and met in the second round. The same thing happened with Washington and Pittsburgh in 2017.

”It’s kind of tough the fact that a lot of good teams are going out first or second rounds,” Columbus defenseman David Savard said. ”I think maybe we need to look back at maybe 1 against 8 and play that format.”

Savard was among 15 player representatives (48.4%) who said the divisional format should be changed. Seven (22.6%) others said it should stay the same and the other nine (29%) were noncommittal. The players were surveyed March 7-April 4, before the playoff matchups for this year were fully set.

The NHL went to back to a divisional structure similar to what it used from 1982-93 in large part to create or revive rivalries. Toronto and Boston are going to a Game 7 in the first round for the second consecutive year, while the Capitals and Penguins met in the playoffs three times in a row with each series going at least six games.

”I think it’s good for the rivalries,” said New Jersey goaltender Cory Schneider, who supports the current format. ”I think it’s good for the teams seeing each other year after year. You can cry what’s fair or not fair, the two best teams meeting in the second round, but it’s going to be great hockey one way or another. I think that’s the best part about the playoffs is that it’s a two-month gladiator event where everyone just beats the crap out of each other.”

Presidents’ Trophy winner Tampa Bay losing in the first round to eighth-seeded Columbus is more of a Lightning problem than a format problem. If the Lightning had gotten past the Blue Jackets, a potential second-round series against the Bruins would have guaranteed to knock out one of the top three teams in the league before the conference finals.

Travel is the biggest concern among players when it comes to a playoff format, and it’s much more of an issue in the spread-out West. Grouping by divisions is designed to limit those issues, but the wild-card system means a team like Nashville could face a team from California, Vancouver, Edmonton or Calgary in the first round if it lines up that way.

”The biggest issue is probably the travel for the Western Conference,” said Predators defenseman Yannick Weber, who did not indicate a preference either way for changing the format. ”If we have to go to California for each round and Eastern teams have a little bit of an easier schedule, I think that’s the only downside from it.”

The most equitable format is seeding playoff teams 1 through 16, which the NHL tried in 1981 and 1982. The potential for cross-continent travel in each round is the biggest impediment to making that leap.

The Southern Professional Hockey League has tested a ”challenge round” format where the top three seeds in each conference get to pick their first-round opponent from seeds 5-8. Florida Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle suggested that for the NHL in a recent interview with Sportsnet in Canada.

A pick-your-opponent format would create plenty of bulletin-board material for lower-seeded teams. But in a sport where matchup advantages, injuries and momentum matter more than the results of an 82-game regular season, it could silence complaints that the current format devalues everything from October through March.

”It almost gets to a point that the regular season doesn’t really mean anything because you see those divisions, there’s such a big difference between them,” Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang said. ”If you have to cross over and now you’re facing an easier division because you’re a wild card, doesn’t seem to be fair for me. The whole regular season needs to have a bigger effect on the playoffs.”

That’s where the argument comes in that the NHL should move to a play-in system like baseball, perhaps where the Nos. 7 and 10 seeds and Nos. 8 and 9 seeds in each conference play once to see who gets in. That would theoretically give more of a boost to the top two teams in the East and West.

But this format is locked in through at least next season.

Colorado’s Ian Cole, who played twice in the recent Penguins-Capitals playoff trilogy, supports the division rivalry format because it’s doing what it intended: generate interest.

”We were actually talking about it the other day in the locker room: As much as you’d like to see one through eight or one through 16, then you’re having Calgary playing Florida, for instance, in the first round,” Cole said. ”Does that move the needle, as opposed to Boston versus Montreal, which certainly does move the needle?

”I think there was some good thought behind it and yeah, sure, there are going to be some divisions stronger than others. Some teams are going to get left out because of that or get in because of that. It’s one of those things that this is the current format and we work with it the best we can.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports