PHT’s 2018-19 predictions: NHL Awards, first coach fired, overrated teams

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Pre-season predictions are fun to track once things get under way because it’s interesting to see how they start to look as more and more games are played. It’s a good way to see what people are thinking heading into the season, and it’s especially a fun time to check back on them during different points of the year.

Below are our picks for the NHL awards which will handed out in June, plus some various topics like overrated and underrated teams, first coach fired, how many goals William Karlsson will score and more. Please be sure to forget these when they turn out to be 100 percent wrong at the end of the season. But do please come back and praise those individuals for their predictive ways if any of these end up being correct.

Be sure to give us your picks in the comments!

HART: Laine (Leahy), McDavid (O’Brien), Ovechkin (Gretz), MacKinnon (Alfieri), Kucherov (Billeck)
ART ROSS: McDavid (all)
ROCKET RICHARD: Ovechkin (Leahy, Gretz), Laine (O’Brien, Alfieri, Billeck)
VEZINA: Rask (Leahy), Gibson (O’Brien, Gretz), Vasilevskiy (Alfieri, Billeck)
NORRIS: Jones (Leahy), Karlsson (O’Brien, Gretz), Subban (Alfieri, Billeck)
CALDER: Mittelstadt (Leahy, Gretz), Dahlin (O’Brien, Alfieri), Pettersson (Billeck)
SELKE: Bergeron (all)

OVERRATED TEAM

LEAHY: Blues. Every year it’s the same thing: They play well, Vladimir Tarasenko lights it up, and then something happens where they crap out in the playoffs. Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron will help, but Jake Allen needs to rebound.

O’BRIEN: Kings. Considering the age of their core, the Kings could easily crash and burn this season. That’s especially true if Jonathan Quick proves his critics right by regressing.

GRETZ: Kings. They will do what they always do. They will post great possession numbers, they will not give up many goals, but they are still so lacking in talent and creativity offensively that they just will not be able to keep up with the rest of the contenders in the Western Conference. Ilya Kovalchuk will help, but the 35-year-old version of him is not enough to fix everything wrong with this team offensively.

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

ALFIERI: Ducks. Ryan Kesler’s going to miss a lot of time due to injury and Corey Perry isn’t the player he once was. How much longer can the Ducks continue to be one of the better teams in the Western Conference? Sure, there’s some new blood on the roster, but Ryan Getzlaf can’t just keep shouldering the load for them. The Ducks will get into the playoffs, but they won’t do much damage.

BILLECK: Maple Leafs. Sure, they got Tavares. But did they improve on defense? Nope. The Maple Leafs are getting close, but they need a better backend to be Stanley Cup competitive.

UNDERRATED TEAM

LEAHY: Panthers. Roberto Luongo still has some juice left and a young core has been growing together as prospects Owen Tippett and Henrik Borgstrom could play big factors this season. Bob Boughner did a great job in year one. With more familiarity with his system and core players taking the next step, it’s a fine recipe for a big jump.

O’BRIEN: Oilers. It’s deeply unsettling to leave McDavid’s Oilers out of the playoffs, yet Edmonton missed last season even though the unparalleled megastar scored 108 points. That seems kind of impossible, doesn’t it? I expect a significant rebound, but not enough lessons were learned to get in the West’s eight.

GRETZ: Flyers. I don’t know if Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek will be exactly as good as they were a year ago, but they are still front-line players and the young talent on this team is really, really good. Once again they are a goalie away from being a serious contender.

ALFIERI: Golden Knights. Somehow, people are still doubting the Vegas Golden Knights. I don’t know if they’re an underrated team because they made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, but I feel like people aren’t giving them the respect they deserve. They also made some solid acquisitions over the summer.

BILLECK: Sabres. Great summer of moves, including bringing in Jeff Skinner. Carter Hutton should provide better goaltending and Ramus Dahlin. 

OVERRATED PLAYER

LEAHY: Ryan Johansen. What’s $8 million supposed to get you these days? Probably a little more offense than he’s provided for the Predators. He’s hit the 20- and 30-goal marks before and there’s plenty of talent in Nashville that he can get there again.

O’BRIEN: Jonathan Toews. Is Toews still overrated? Yeah, let’s go with Toews.

GRETZ: Marc-Andre Fleury. He had an amazing year, he had the best playoff run of his career, he is still a pretty good goalie, but he is not going to repeat what he did last year and throughout the playoffs.

ALFIERI: Paul Stastny. I liked the Stastny pick up for Vegas, but you can’t help but feel like his stock has picked up a lot of steam over the last few months. He’s still an extremely useful player but will he be able to contribute much more than 50 points? I don’t know about that. His $6.5 million price tag isn’t cheap.

BILLECK: William Karlsson. From 18 points to 78. From nine goals to 43. I’ll glady eat this if Wild Bill does it again, but until he does, I’m skeptical.

UNDERRATED PLAYER

LEAHY: Mikko Rantanen. Playing with Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog, it’s easy to overlook the talents of the 21-year-old Finn. He played a huge role in the MGM line’s success last season and heading into the final year of his entry-level contract, he could set himself up for a rich deal next summer.

O’BRIEN: William Karlsson. I’m starting to think that Karlsson is the bizarro version of Stars-era Loui Eriksson. Karlsson was deemed overrated so often – and harshly – last season thanks to his abrupt production and 23.4 shooting percentage. Now he enters 2018-19 as a perfectly skilled player making a perfectly fair $5.25M, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Vegas regrets going the “prove it” route with “Wild Bill.” (Note: I may be swayed by hair flips, though.)

GRETZ: Dougie Hamilton. He led all defenders in the league in goal-scoring last season, is a 50-point player from the blue line, posts dominant possession numbers, and is signed long-term at below market salary cap number. He might be a top-10 defensemen in the NHL right now and is a tremendous value, and the Hurricanes got him — and a pretty good forward in Micheal Ferland — without giving up a ton

ALFIERI: Blake Wheeler. Sure, Wheeler got paid, but it feels like people still don’t consider him as one of the top players in the league. Only eight players scored more points than he did last season and nobody had more assists. He’s an underrated playmaker.

BILLECK: Blake Wheeler. Glossed over for the Hart despite a 91-point season. One of the best power forwards in the game and filled in admirably at center when Mark Scheifele went down for 16 games. 

FIRST COACH FIRED

LEAHY: Todd McLellan. This is how it’s trending in Edmonton, right? Connor McDavid is there having to do it all himself and general manager Peter Chiarelli had a quiet summer. That’s not going to inspire much confidence that the Oilers can rebound this season, and before the ax falls on him, Chiarelli will make a move behind the bench early.

O’BRIEN: Todd McLellan. Normally I’d say Guy Boucher would be the fall guy, but I doubt Ottawa has the scratch to fork over more money for an in-season hire. So let’s go with McLellan, who’s probably lucky he avoided the axe after 2017-18.

GRETZ: Todd McLellan. When you have the best player in the league and miss the playoffs twice in three years you do not get a very long leash. I don’t think Edmonton addressed its shortcomings enough in the offseason so not sure the winning will return just yet.

ALFIERI: Jeff Blashill. I know the Red Wings don’t typically make coaching moves during the season, but I expect it to be a very difficult year for Detroit.

BILLECK: Guy Boucher. It’s Ottawa and Boucher is in a no-win situation. 

BIGGEST FREE AGENT BUST

LEAHY: Jay Beagle. Good for Beagle getting that money, but that’s a long, pricey contract for a bottom-sixer*. (*Also applies to Antoine Roussel.)

O’BRIEN: Leo Komarov. John Ta-just kidding. Komarov edges Jack Johnson and Antoine Roussel by a hair, because that signing kicks Islanders fans while they’re down.

GRETZ: Carter Hutton. He had a great year for the Blues in part-time duty but the rest of his career performance at the NHL level is just okay. Don’t see him as a solution to the Sabres’ problems in goal.

ALFIERI: James Neal. He got off to a great start with Vegas last year, but he ended up with 25 goals and 44 points in 71 games. Even though those are far from bad numbers, I’m not sure they warranted a five-year, $28.75 million deal.

BILLECK: James Neal. Nearly $6 million a year for a guy who can’t reach 50 points anymore. 

BLUE JACKETS KEEP OR TRADE PANARIN?

LEAHY: Keep. The Blue Jackets could be contenders coming out of the East, but the futures of Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky are going to be huge sub-plots this season. If they’re a playoff team come February, how could not look to add to their roster and try and make a roster and hope for the best in free agency?

O’BRIEN: Trade. Trade him close to the deadline after they a) gauge where their team is and b) have a better shot at landing NHL-ready assets in return.

GRETZ: Keep. The Blue Jackets will keep him because they will be too competitive to trade him. Have to see where the team goes with him.

ALFIERI: Keep. They’ll be in a playoff race and they’ll need him to make sure they get in. I think he ends up walking in unrestricted free-agency.

BILLECK: Keep until the deadline and sign if the opportunity arises.

Erik Karlsson RE-SIGNS WITH SHARKS OR BECOMES UFA?

LEAHY: Re-signs. Doug Wilson is not going to let this big fish get away, and when Karlsson sees the talent that surrounds him in San Jose, he’ll want to stay. Maybe he’ll even grow out his beard after hanging out with Brent Burns and Joe Thornton  (OK, maybe not Jumbo now) for a while?

O’BRIEN: Re-signs… after the trade deadline.

GRETZ: Re-signs. Karlsson will sign with the Sharks before he reaches UFA. The Sharks can make it work under the cap and he can be the focal point of their defense and organization going forward.

ALFIERI: Re-signs. No way he’s leaving San Jose. He’ll be back on an eight-year deal.

BILLECK: Re-signs with a max contract.

PHT’S SEASON PREVIEW:
• Atlantic Division
• Metropolitan Division
• Central Division
Pacific Division
Power Rankings: Who is the NHL’s best team entering 2018-19?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL injury roundup: Crawford getting closer; Johnson hurt in practice

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Let’s take a quick look around the NHL at some injury situations that are worth monitoring as training camps and the preseason roll on.

Yes, Corey Crawford is still getting closer … but he is not back yet

The biggest injury situation this preseason still remains in Chicago where starting goalie Corey Crawford has yet to return to practice with the team. He is still skating on his own, including 30 minutes before practice on Sunday. And while that is a step, it still does not seem that he is ready to return to game action. Coach Joel Quenneville said on Sunday that Crawford is getting closer and that he has not yet been ruled out for a return to practice with the team this week (via Scott Powers of The Athletic; subscription required).

Crawford missed the majority of the 2017-18 season due to an upper-body injury that he finally revealed earlier in training camp was a concussion. As recently as 10 days ago Crawford said he was still dealing with some symptoms and until they clear up he will not be able to return.

[Related: Crawford still dealing with concussion symptoms]

Given the Blackhawks’ goaltending situation behind him they desperately need him healthy this season if they are going to make a return to the playoffs.

Tyler Johnson “day-to-day” with upper body injury

Some potentially big news in Tampa Bay where forward Tyler Johnson missed practice on Sunday with what the team is calling an “upper-body injury.”

General manager Julian Brisebois said the injury happened during practice and is going to keep him out of the lineup on a day-to-day basis. While the team does not expect it to be a long-term injury, Brisebois said on Sunday there are no guarantees he will be ready for the season opener.

After missing at least 12 games in each of the past two seasons, Johnson managed to play in 81 games for the Lightning last season, finishing with 50 points (21 goals, 29 assists) to help the team reach Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. The Lightning were decimated by injuries during the 2016-17 season, a development that played a large role in them falling just short of the playoffs, but were remarkably lucky a year ago on the injury front. When healthy this is one of the best teams in the league and Johnson is a huge part of that.

Ryan Murray to miss some time after being kicked in the groin

Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Ryan Murray was injured in the team’s exhibition game on Tuesday night, and after initially believing that it was just a day-to-day injury, the team revealed over the weekend that it might be a little bit longer.

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen said on Sunday (via Aaron Portzline) that Murray is dealing with a “soft-tissue groin injury” after he was kicked between the legs against the Chicago Blackhawks.

That sounds … awful.

Injuries have been a constant problem for Murray throughout his career and have limited him to just 198 out of a possible 328 games over the past four seasons.

Another injury for Loui Eriksson in Vancouver

With Henrik and Daniel Sedin retiring this summer, Loui Eriksson is now the elder statesman in the Canucks’ locker room.

After struggling through back-to-back injury plagued seasons in his first two years with the Canucks, his third season is not off to a much better start as it was revealed this past week that he is going to be out on a week-to-week basis with a lower-body injury.

After signing a six-year, $36 million contract with the Canucks in free agency prior to the 2016-17 season, Eriksson has managed just 21 goals and 47 total points in 115 games. He still has four years remaining on that contract.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Under Pressure: Jim Benning

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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 Vancouver Canucks.

Are the Vancouver Canucks rebuilding? If you’re going off recent results, you’d think that they were going through some kind of re-tooling. But if you look at what they’ve done in free agency the last few years, you’d think differently.

The Canucks finished 26th in the overall standings last season, 29th two years ago and 28th in 2015-16. You’d think that those kinds of results would lead to the team going in a different direction. Instead, general manager Jim Benning has spent money on free agents like Loui Eriksson, Michael Del Zotto, Sam Gagner, Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel and Tim Schaller. There’s nothing wrong with those players. They can each serve as capable NHL players, but shouldn’t Benning have taken the time to give his younger players an opportunity to step in to bigger roles at the highest level?

There was more drama surrounding the team this off-season, as they decided to move on from president Trevor Linden. Some in Vancouver have speculated that Linden had a different vision for the team than Benning did, but the Canucks GM has denied having those kinds of disagreements with his former president.

[Canucks Day: 2017-18 Review | Breakthrough: Boeser | 3 Questions]

No matter how you slice it, the pressure is on Benning to deliver a quality product sooner or later. Even if the Canucks want to head into a full-out rebuild, positive on-ice results will have to come eventually. As we mentioned above, Benning is the GM of a team that has finished near the basement of the NHL for the last three years. Not many general managers get to keep their jobs after those kinds of runs.

There’s no denying that the team has some solid building blocks in place. Bo Horvat has been a productive NHLer, Chris Tanev is an underrated defenseman, Brock Boeser looks like he’s going to be a superstar and Elias Pettersson is one of the best prospects in all of hockey. But the rest of the roster looks kinds of “meh” to put it bluntly.

Even with the players mentioned above, there’s still a lot of work for this organization to do before they can get back to being one of the best teams in the Western Conference. Can Benning get them to where they need to go? So far, the answer to that question appears to be “no”. And how much more time does he have on his side? Only Canucks ownership can answer that question, but you’d have to think that he’s under the gun at this point.

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.

Canucks must learn painful lessons from Linden era

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Unless you’re a fly on the wall, it’s pretty tough to attribute specific decisions to the exact front office members who made them.

So, yes, to some extent, a GM’s effectiveness hinges upon the quality of the scouts available, and a team won’t have a good GM if the guy above him – whether that’s the owner, team president, or both – makes the right call. It’s not that far from an NFL team’s highs and lows being chalked up so intensely to the work of head coaches and QBs.

One can only speculate as far as which of the Vancouver Canucks’ moves have Trevor Linden’s fingerprints all over them, and which ones come down to someone lower in the pecking order.

As we absorb his (seemingly?) abrupt departure as Canucks president – more on that here – it’s pointless to hammer on the beloved former center to a harsh degree. If the Canucks want to get better in any meaningful way, they need to absorb lessons from an era where they missed the postseason three times and failed to win a single series, often wasting a bucket of cash in the process.

Naturally, people running other NHL teams can learn a thing or two, as well.

  • Actually, start your former stars in vanity project positions.

Steve Yzerman is one of the shrewdest GMs in the league (with “proclivity for former Rangers” being the closest thing to a weakness) after ranking as one of the NHL’s most brilliant players, but don’t forget that there was a maturation process. Yzerman essentially underwent an apprenticeship with the Red Wings before becoming Lightning GM, and even then, Stevie Y was wise enough to surround himself with experienced, varied hockey people.

As former PHT’er Jason Brough notes, it sounds like Linden wasn’t particularly prepared for the gig. “Experience” is thrown around a lot as a buzzword these days, but it doesn’t feel as much like hot air when it comes to high-stakes, sometimes detail-intensive front office work. Garth Snow jumped from NHL backup to Islanders GM, and that didn’t exactly end up as a spectacular success, either.

So, rather than throwing a former player in the deep end right off the bat, here’s a suggestion: name the next Linden “The Ambassador of Fun” and ease that person into a more serious job, if it makes sense. If the ceiling’s “shaking hands and kissing babies,” it sure is a lower-risk way of finding that out rather than handing them the keys of your franchise as if it’s a live hand grenade.

  • Search for diverse voices.

Look, for all we know, the Canucks could give Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals” a run for its money, but it sure feels like things leaned more toward having one too many “yes men” in the room. When there aren’t enough people speaking up, you get moments like the Bruins shrugging their way to the disastrous Tyler Seguin trade.

One way or another, you can essentially tie the Trevor Linden era to that of the GM he hired, Jim Benning.

If Linden’s departure is more about him getting pushed out then Linden getting fed up with an unquestionably difficult job, then this will only be worth the bad PR if the Canucks start to make some changes. Is there really any sign that Benning’s worldview is meaningfully different than that of Linden?

(TSN’s Farhan Lalji indicates that Linden didn’t always see eye-to-eye with ownership or Benning, for what it’s worth.)

The Canucks’ summer moves indicate that the answer might be no, at least assuming that people on their way out of organizations usually see their influence muted. Rather than going full-rebuild, the Canucks handed baffling four-year, $12 million contracts to Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle. Even if you like those two “elbow grease” guys as players who maybe can help you during the playoffs, is there any indication that Vancouver is merely a few scrappy assets away from contending?

As long as Benning is in control, it’s tough to imagine the Canucks taking the steps they need to turn things around. Instead, they continue to collect mistakes and delay the process, potentially dooming themselves to a longer slog through mediocrity.

Linden shoulders some of the blame for mistakes such as the Loui Eriksson contract, yet you can also picture him looking at the structure of this team through bleary eyes and say “Nah, I’ll pass.”

  • Choose a path, not half-measures

It says a lot about the Linden – Benning era that it took until after the 2016-17 season for management to finally acknowledge the word “rebuild.”

Instead, the Canucks’ tanking is closer to a jeep: sometimes embracing it, sometimes trying to “entertain” and meekly compete. Such a process gives Vancouver less of a chance to land truly premium prospects, wastes a ton of money, and opens the door for the Canucks to have money tied up in bad contracts once they’re actually ready to compete (and give young players who actually deserve that money the raised they’re due).

We’ve seen teams show some deftness in trying to have it both ways. The Sharks dumped Douglas Murray and Ryan Clowe for picks during a playoff run. If the Rangers play their cards right, what would be a lengthy rebuild could be palatable.

Still, sometimes you’re better off holding your nose and really taking a plunge. The Linden Era argues that this Canucks group is incapable of walking the tight rope between improving the future while putting a passable product on the ice.

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Look, even lucky NHL teams face serious challenges in becoming competitive. You can take a reasonable approach and still end up behind the true contenders, whether you’re hamstrung by a limited budget, an undesirable market, or other factors.

All of that said, smart teams leverage whatever assets they have, and maybe most importantly, develop clear-eyed self-awareness.

Under Linden and Benning, the Canucks have long suffered an identity crisis, with ugly results being an unfortunate constant. On the bright side, getting the message could help turn things around, even if Linden won’t be around to enjoy the spoils of such victories.

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.

NHLPA 2017-18 poll: Crosby, McDavid dominate; Underrated Backstrom

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Between September and the end of January, the National Hockey League Players’ Association polled its members on a number of topics, from best player to worst arena ice to best referee.

Over 500 players participated and some results are what you’d expect while there were a few surprises along the way. Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid, as you’d expect, dominated such categories as “Fastest Skater,” “Most Difficult Player to Play Against” and “Which player would you select to start a franchise?” But there were a few other topics of interest.

Which goalie is the most difficult to score on? Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens won this handily with 41 percent of the vote, and when he’s healthy, it’s tough to argue.

Who is the toughest player? Ryan Reaves, now of the Vegas Golden Knights, was a big vote-getter, earning 44.7 percent of support. He beat out the likes of Milan Lucic (14.8 percent) and Zdeno Chara (4 percent). Reaves is certainly a tough SOB, but it’s hard to imagine Chara not winning this title every year until he retires.

Who is the most underrated player? There was a time when the prevailing thought was that Loui Eriksson was the guy here. But for a long time many in the hockey world agreed with the players this year and chose Washington Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom (8.6 percent). Playing under the shadow of Alex Ovechkin will do that, but maybe this will be the thing to give him a bit more love around the league. Right behind Backstrom was Jaden Schwartz of the St. Louis Blues (6.8 percent).

Do you like the way points are currently awarded for a win or a loss in the regular season? A whopping 77.7 percent of players said yes, which makes sense when you think about it. As the league loves to promote parity in the standings, if you’re a player, you should be happy that the loser point exists because it keeps your playoff hopes alive a little longer than the old way of two points for a win and zero points for any loss did.

Who is the best referee? The viral referee, Wes McCauley, was a big winner with 47.8 percent of votes. A willingness to conduct a calm dialogue on the ice during tense times and the ability to let players vent at the right time goes a long way to earning respect. McCauley is one of those officials. (Tim Peel at 4.4 percent, eh?)

Which rink has the worst ice? While Bell Centre earned the title of “best rink to play” in and “best ice,” among players, the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida wins worst ice (16.8 percent), followed up by Gila River Arena in Arizona (10.7 percent). In third place, and no real surprise, is Barclays Center in Brooklyn. We imagine most of the New York Islanders chose their own rink considering some of their quotes over the last few seasons.

You can check out the rest of the results at the NHLPA website.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.