Getty

Tavares and beyond: five years of possible free agents

3 Comments

While NHL fans get to brag about the unpredictability of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, NBA fans score a decided advantage when it comes to off-the-court/ice sizzle.

More often than not, hockey fans can only imagine seismic shifts like LeBron James’ latest “decision.”

(One bold exception is the profoundly dysfunctional Ottawa Senators, who provided us with hockey’s answer to the strange Bryan Colangelo burner account scandal by way of that drama between the significant others of Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman.)

So, like the Toronto Raptors watching Lebron mercilessly crush their playoff dreams, hockey fans grow accustomed to seeing fun spending sprees fizzle away. Could it happen again with John Tavares?

TSN’s Darren Dreger reports that Tavares and his representatives are “focused” on negotiating with the New York Islanders right now. Pierre LeBrun was also involved in that segment, and rained on our speculative parades even more:

Allow a simple response to the Tavares sweepstakes possibly ending before it truly begins: boo. Boo to that.

Now, sure, there’s the chance that business picks up in July. Maybe sooner. Still, reports like those above remain discouraging for those of us who want to grab the popcorn.

[Which teams would benefit the most from potential buyouts?]

It actually inspires a fun activity: let’s go over the next few years and ponder some of the big names who could auction off their services.

Naturally, because hockey, this list factors in the sad, cruel likelihood that the biggest names will bow out, so there are consolation prizes. Also, this list focuses mainly on would-be UFAs, as RFAs hold very little leverage (thanks, CBA).

This summer (2018)

Biggest fish who might not make it: Tavares

Would begging help?

/kneels

The fascinating Ilya Kovalchuk talk is a helpful reminder of how rare it is for an impact NHL player to explore free agency. At 27, Tavares figures to be exactly that. Despite all the turbulence surrounding the Islanders, Tavares generated 84 points in 82 games during 2017-18, the second-best output of his career.

He’s also put to rest any real worries about some of the freak injuries he suffered. Tavares played 82 games twice in the last four seasons, only missing nine games since 2014-15.

Tavares hitting the market wouldn’t just change the fate of a team. If he landed in the right direction, it could create a new contender. You simply don’t see a franchise center become available often; this would be as close as the NHL gets to a Lebron-type seismic shift.

Which means he’ll probably kill all the drama with an extension soon. *Grumble*

Big name with a better chance to actually hit the market: John Carlson

Before more grumbling commences, there’s this:

There’s evidence that Carlson struggles at time in his own end, particularly stretching back to before this past season. After a dazzling 68 points and a Stanley Cup victory, someone’s paying up, and it should be fun to witness that situation develop. You just do not see defensemen of his ilk hit it big very often, either.

Now that you mention it, hopefully a risky Carlson deal doesn’t scare off teams from next year’s incredible crop.

Some other notables: Joe Thornton, James Neal, James van Riemsdyk, David Perron, and Paul Stastny.

[Six players who should stay put this summer, six who should move]

Next summer (2019)

Biggest possible names: Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty

For some, Karlsson is the top draw (myself included). Old-school types might claim that Karlsson “can’t play defense,” even after he managed to drag a mediocre Senators team to within a goal of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final (yes, that was only a year ago). For those types – who also probably believe that Alex Ovechkin “just figured things out this year” – then Doughty is the jewel.

The truth is that both are really, really good.

They also both carry some mileage into their next deals after being remarkable bargains, as they’re both 28 and log big minutes. There’s a strong chance that Doughty might just re-sign with Los Angeles, possibly as soon as this summer, and the same could be true regarding Oliver Ekman-Larsson and the Coyotes. (Preemptive boo.)

Now, Ryan Ellis and the Predators? That could be fascinating.

These guys won’t become UFAs … right?: Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin, Tyler Seguin.

Buckle up, Blue Jackets fans.

Other interesting possibilities

  • Marc-Andre Fleury: He could finish his career with Vegas, but this past season could really drive up his asking price, and his age (already 33) could scare the Golden Knights off.
  • Pekka Rinne: By this time, you’d think Juuse Saros would be ready to carry the torch in Nashville.
  • Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski: Two Sharks centers with intriguing futures. Pavelski, in particular, could age out (turns 34 on July 11).
  • Matt Duchene: With the mess Ottawa’s in, who knows? Duchene leaving would really make a bumpy trade look even worse. Yikes.
  • Blake Wheeler: Winnipeg’s going to need to pay Patrik Laine, Connor Hellebuyck, and Kyle Connor. Could an under-the-radar star get squeezed out in the process?

Summer of 2020

Biggest fish to land: Avoiding a lockout or limiting the damage.

*sigh*

Interesting possibilities

  • Roman Josi: David Poile is responsible for some salary cap wizardry, yet at some point, the Predators are going to need to make some choices.
  • Nicklas Backstrom: Already at 30, and with Braden Holtby also slated for possible free agency during the summer of 2020 (let’s assume Holtby re-signs), it remains to be seen if Washington can/will retain the Swedish center. He deserves an upgrade from that $6.7 million cap hit, one way or another.
  • Corey Crawford: Currently at 33 and the Blackhawks remain in a perpetual cap crunch. Hmm.
  • Holtby: Just in case the Capitals try to save money in net.
  • Tyson Barrie and Torey Krug: Two explosive scoring defensemen who are a bit underrated. Krug, in particular, might be tough for the Bruins to retain. Justin Faulk deserves a mention, too, although his situation could be very different in mere weeks for all we know.
  • Alex Galchenyuk: Will his inevitable split from Montreal happen before free agency 2020?

Even more aimless speculation in later years …

Summer 2021

Aging stars: Alex Ovechkin, Ryan Getzlaf, Tuukka Rask, Henrik Lundqvist, Dustin Byfuglien.

Intriguing prime-age names: Dougie Hamilton, Jaden Schwartz, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog, Devan Dubnyk.

Summer 2022

Last chances at big deals? Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, P.K. Subban, Claude Giroux, Kris Letang, Patrice Bergeron.

Intriguing prime-age names: Johnny Gaudreau, Filip Forsberg, Aleksander Barkov, Seth Jones.

***

Interesting stuff, right?

Of course, many of those players are likely to sign extensions, in most cases with their current teams. The same could be said for players who get traded to new teams. Some of the older guys might just retire. Restricted free agents may also add some spice to summers.

There’s even a chance that a new CBA could open the door for more movement in the future.

Looking at the lists above, it’s easy to envision fun scenarios, even if recent hockey history suggests blander solutions. Then again, re-signing players like these could force other important players to get traded, so team-building nerds should have something to chew on even if free agency isn’t as fun in reality as it can be in our heads.

Cap Friendly was an excellent resource for this post. Their tools can help you go on your own dorky hockey adventures, possibly unearthing more interesting names. (You’d need to wait until the summer of 2023 to get excited about Nathan MacKinnon, though.)

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.

Penguins should bet on a Kris Letang rebound

Getty
29 Comments

The relationship between Kris Letang and Pittsburgh Penguins fans. Sometimes it’s complicated.

For more than a decade Letang has been a No. 1 defenseman for the Penguins, and for many of those years he has been a top-10, and at times maybe even a top-five, player in the league at his position. But there’s always been a sense (at least from this perspective) that he has never really been fully appreciated for just how good he has been, and the criticisms are always the same.

Turns the puck over too much.

Not good in his own end and takes too many chances.

Makes too much money.

Gets hurt too much.

There is an element of truth to some of that, but it doesn’t mean what his harshest critics think it means. Yes, he is guilty of turnovers at times. But so is every high-level player that plays a lot of minutes and always has the puck on their stick. Take a look at the NHL’s leaders in giveaways at the end of any season. It is a list of All-Stars. He does take some chances and at times gambles, whether it be pinching in the offensive zone or trying to make a play out of his own zone. But that is also a part of what makes him the dynamic player that he is. He is capable of doing things and making plays due to his skating and skill that other players not only can not make, but probably can not even attempt.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

It basically comes down to this: He is going to make some mistakes, but as long as the positive plays outweigh the negative plays you have to to take the bad with the good.

Sometimes his freakish athletic ability makes it possible for him to wipe out his own mistake with a brilliant play of its own.

And while he has missed a significant portion of his career due to injury, he’s probably been a little underpaid given the market rate for top-pairing defenseman that play at his level.

But because the bad plays are usually the result of that aggressiveness they will stand out more. And because hockey is a game of mistakes, we tend to focus almost exclusively on that big mistake when it happens and allow it to drive the discussion around that player.

That brings us to Letang’s 2017-18 season (and postseason) for the Penguins. To be fair, it was not a great season, and it reached its low point in Game 5 of the team’s second-round series when a third period breakdown allowed Evgeny Kuznetsov to score a game-tying goal just one minute into the third period, completely changing the direction of the series. The series ended with Letang trying to chase Kuznetsov down from behind on a breakaway as he potted the series-clinching goal. Viewed in the context of the Penguins actually winning the Stanley Cup a year ago without having Letang for any of the playoff games, it made him a focal point for blame when the team did not win this season (nevermind that they probably do not win that Stanley Cup the previous year without him, this is the ultimate what have you done for me lately business).

What made this season even tougher for Letang is that it wasn’t just the mistakes of aggressiveness or the Game 5 blunder against Kuznetsov that made it an off year for him. He seemed to get beat in one-on-one situations more often than usual. He also saw a pretty sharp decline in his offensive production and by the end of the year and playoffs was replaced by Justin Schultz on the team’s top power play unit.

Physically, Letang has been through hell and back in recent years due to both injury and health issues.

The most recent example was the neck injury that sidelined him for the second half of last season and all of the playoffs.

On Wednesday’s locker clean out day in Pittsburgh, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said he had an inclination that the injury, surgery, and recovery in such a short period of time was probably going to be a lot for Letang to overcome.

He also talked about the inconsistency.

“He had stages of the year where he was really good for us and stages where he wasn’t at his best,” said Sullivan. “By no means does it diminish what we think of Kris as a player. He’s a guy that we think is certainly one of the elite defensemen in the league.”

Letang himself admitted that he thought it would be easier to come back and that he might have lost a little bit of his conditioning.

The thing about Letang is that for all of the struggles he had at times this year there were still elements of his game that were in place.

Fifty-one points in 79 games was a down year for him. That still placed him 17th in the league among all defenders in the NHL.

When he was on the ice the Penguins attempted more than 55 percent of the total shot attempts during even-strength play. Among defenders that played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time that was the 12th best mark in the entire league, so the team was still controlling possession and the shot chart, which should be seen as an encouraging sign. Players that help drive possession that much usually see that pay off when it comes to goals for and against. But of the top-20 defenders in the league in shot attempt percentage, Letang was one of just five that had a negative on-ice goal differential on the season. The other four (Jaccob Slavin, Justin Faulk, Noah Hanifan, and Brett Pesce) all played for the Carolina Hurricanes, a team with infamous goaltending issues.

Part of Letang’s issue when it came to goals for and against was his own inconsistency.

Another part of it was the Penguins’ inconsistent goaltending, both from starter Matt Murray when he was healthy, as well his revolving door of backups that all struggled. Improved play from that position would go a long way toward correcting both his and the Penguins’ 5-on-5 issues as a team (because it wasn’t just Letang that struggled in those situations for the Penguins this season).

In the end, though, he is capable of more than he showed this season, and everybody involved knows it.

That is why no matter how much criticism he takes, how many times there is a call for the Penguins to trade him, they are not going to do it. They shouldn’t do it, anyway. Because when Letang is right and on top of his game there are only a small handful of players in the NHL that are better than him at his position, and you are never going to get that upside back in a trade.

Especially now when his value is probably at an all-time low given the injury recovery and the fact he is coming off of a down year. Part of what made the Penguins such a success the past few years was pouncing on trade partners that were dealing players at lower value (Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley, and Schultz all come to mind). The good player usually rebounds. The good — and smart — teams usually make sure it happens for them and not somebody else.

Given his track record there is every reason to believe he can — and probably will — get back to that level.

The Penguins should be more than willing to take that bet that he gets there next season.

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.

Capitals eliminate Penguins, Ovechkin gets first taste of East final

94 Comments

The Washington Capitals did it. They finally slayed the black and gold dragon known as the Pittsburgh Penguins.

To really sell how tough a mountain this was to climb, of course the Penguins forced the Capitals to end it via sudden death.

Evgeny Kuznetsov experienced plenty of frustrating moments on Monday, but the talented center ended Game 6 in overtime with a semi-breakaway 2-1 goal. It only makes sense that Alex Ovechkin was the one to send Kuznetsov on that breakaway, and for Sidney Crosby to be on the ice for that season-ending goal.

With that, the Penguins’ bid at a “threepeat” is over after the Capitals took this second-round series 4-2.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Game 6 feels like a decent microcosm of the series as a whole. There were plenty of sloppy moments, surprisingly tepid stretches, and Washington ended up scoring the majority of the big goals (aside from that bizarre Penguins win in Game 1).

For much of this series, the first period has been barren when it comes to goals, and this one followed suit with a 0-0 start. Alex Chiasson gave the Capitals a 1-0 goal on one that Matt Murray would like back, and there was a surprising amount of doom and gloom surfacing for some Pittsburgh fans. To be fair, the Penguins looked remarkably flat at times with their season on the line.

That doesn’t mean that they just rolled over and gave Game 6 up, mind you.

Kris Letang‘s 1-1 goal included a fortunate bounce, yet the Penguins’ play improved. Granted, the Capitals still seemed like the better team during much of the third period and overtime, yet Matt Murray helped the Penguins hang in there.

The Capitals ended up eliminating the Penguins with Nicklas Backstrom missing Game 6 with an injury and Tom Wilson wrapping up his controversial suspension. Washington likely would have taken a victory over the Penguins under any array of circumstances, but advancing this way has to be a true confidence-booster.

And, of course, an igloo-sized relief.

Ovechkin & Co. won’t exactly get eased into their maiden voyage in the third round, as the Tampa Bay Lightning stand as a fresh, formidable opponent. Chances are, the Lightning will be far less leaky than the Penguins appeared at times during this series, including tonight.

Despite some incredible play from Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel during this series, the Penguins couldn’t best their rivals this time around. After consecutive titles, they must lick their wounds following their first failure with Matt Murray in net and Mike Sullivan behind the bench.

(Yes, that’s quite the accomplishment, and one that might soothe some wounds in Pittsburgh.)

It’s up to management to make sure that this wasn’t the last gasp of a great era. That sounds tough to fathom, yet championship windows can slam shut with cold suddenness in sports. These Penguins aren’t spring chickens, after all, and Game 6 gave the impression that some key guys were fatigued, hurt, or both.

Wait, about the Penguins being a dragon or spring chickens… maybe they were more like Washington’s Bowser?

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 Buzzer: Penguins, Predators even things up

Getty
10 Comments

2017 Stanley Cup Finalists tie up their series

Penguins 3, Capitals 1 (Series tied 2-2)

If the Bruins can win Game 4 tomorrow, than all four of the second-round series could be tied 2-2, at least for a time. For all the jokes at Washington’s expense, these Alex OvechkinSidney Crosby Era series tend to go long, with two extended to seven and one finishing in six. This one will go at least six after Jake Guentzel, Crosby, and the Penguins powered through to win this one. Guentzel scored the opening goal and iced it with an empty-netter, while Evgeni Malkin‘s goal survived the dreaded review process to stand as the game-winner. There was also some fisticuffs between Kris Letang and T.J. Oshie and an injury scare for Matt Murray.

Predators 2, Jets 1 (Series tied 2-2)

Game 3 was a wild one that felt “defense and goalie optional” at times. One of the promising things about this series is that both Nashville and Winnipeg can really clamp down when they make a point to do so and also get a few bounces/saves. Pekka Rinne, P.K. Subban, and the rest of the Predators showed that they can hang with the Jets, and just importantly, nurture a small lead into a hard-nosed win. Read more about the Preds’ Game 4 win here and also enjoy Rinne’s remarkable save.

Three Stars

1. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators – After a rough outing in Game 3 that even included an ill-advised penalty, Rinne was fantastic in Game 4. Holding the Jets to one goal is an accomplishment in itself, especially since he blanked them for about 59 of 60 regulation minutes. Rinne also was perfect at even strength (29-for-29 there, 31 of 32 saves overall). This wasn’t just a matter of stopping “quantity over quality” shots.

If the highlight reel stops aren’t enough, consider this heat map via Natural Stat Trick:

Not an easy night in net, but Rinne cooled the Jets.

2. Jake Guentzel and 3. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins – We might as well lump these two together as the other two stars of the night. Guentzel gets the nod in this case because he scored two goals while Crosby collected two assists (on both of Guentzel’s goals). One could see it go the other way – number 87 often does a lot of work to set up his linemates – but either way, it was an impressive showing. In fact, the Penguins might be calling upon these two to do a little too much.

There are some other decent candidates from tonight’s games. P.K. Subban scored the game-winner for Nashville and continues to be a workhorse on defense. After rough Game 3 outings, all four of the goalies managed solid-to-strong work in their Game 4 starts.

Rinne, Guentzel, and Crosby were the three biggest difference-makers, though.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Factoids

Guentzel is really doing some incredible things. Crosby boosts his numbers considerably, but spin it whatever way you’d like, this is impressive:

P.K. Subban is a playoff performer, and not just because of his three-game goal streak or the stat below. These types of facts don’t hurt, either:

Tough night for Alex Ovechkin, which probably helps to explain Washington only managed three SOG in the third period despite the Penguins’ lead. There were other signs of effort, however, including seven hits by Ovechkin.

Friday’s games

Tampa Bay Lightning at Boston Bruins, Game 4, 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN
San Jose Sharks at Vegas Golden Knights, Game 5, 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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.

Penguins – Capitals nastiness boils over in Letang – Oshie fight

30 Comments

Following two controversial Tom Wilson hits and a controversial three-game suspension, it was fair to wonder if tensions might boil over between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 4.

Both teams were wise to generally keep their emotions in check, too, as special teams factored into three of the four goals in Pittsburgh’s 3-1 win (the Penguins went 2-for-4 while the Capitals went 1-for-3). Now, you can discount Jake Guentzel‘s second goal of Game 4 since it was an empty-netter on the power play, but either way … these teams showed that they can make opponents pay for going to the penalty box. At least, without taking an opposing player with them.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The latter situation emerged with a bit less than a minute remaining in Game 4. After some tense exchanges, Kris Letang and T.J. Oshie engaged in an angry-looking fight. It didn’t last very long, but it was quite the spectacle, as you won’t see many fights during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Looking at the Hockey Fights listings for Letang and Oshie provides some interesting additional context for this bout, which you can witness in the video above this post’s headline.

To little surprise, neither high-skill player is all that likely to drop the gloves. Still, they both have shown a willingness to fight on occasion, including during postseason play. Oshie fought Brayden Schenn during the 2016 postseason, while Letang is credited with three postseason bouts before this tiff, although the last one came the postseason of 2011-12.

With the series now tied 2-2, it’s likely that we’ll see some testy moments now that things boil down to a best-of-three. You can bet that Oshie and Letang will work – and fight? – hard to try to get the last laugh once it’s over.

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.