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Best remaining free agents by position

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Most of the big money has already been spent in free agency. Names like John Tavares, James van Riemsdyk, Paul Stastny and James Neal have all found new homes. Although there aren’t many big names left on the market, there are still some quality players left that can help make a team better.

Here’s the best of the rest by position:

Center

Joe Thornton: Everyone expects Thornton to return to San Jose, but as of right now he’s still an unrestricted free agent. The 39-year-old is coming off a knee injury. He had 13 goals and 36 points in 47 games last season. Thornton isn’t the same player he once was, but he can still be a complementary piece on a good Sharks team.

Antoine Vermette: The veteran isn’t as productive as he once was, but there’s still likely going to be in demand over the next couple of days. The 35-year-old had just eight goals and eight assists in 64 games with Anaheim last season.

Daniel Winnik: The 33-year-old plays a very specific kind of role, as he’s an energy forward and penalty killer. Winnik had six goals and 23 points in 81 games with Minnesota last year. There probably won’t be a rush to sign the veteran, but he can still be a useful asset. He’s also capable of playing center and wing.

As you can probably tell, the center market is pretty thin.

Wing

Rick Nash: He’s the only 20-goal scorer left on the market now that James Neal has landed in Calgary. The  problem is that the 34-year-old isn’t sure if he wants to keep playing hockey. Nash suffered another concussion after he joined the Bruins, so that’s got to be weighing on him and his huge decision.

Patrick Maroon: The rugged winger split last season with Edmonton and New Jersey and he remained relatively productive, as he accumulated 17 goals and 43 points in 74 games. There probably would have been more interest in his services if he wouldn’t have had to undergo back surgery this offseason. Maroon will still find a nice landing spot in the next few days.

Anthony Duclair: Since he scored 20 goals and 44 points back in 2015-16, Duclair’s career has been a bit of a disappointment. The Coyotes gave him every opportunity to succeed after they got him from the Rangers, but things just never materialized. The 22-year-old was shipped to Chicago last season, but that didn’t help ignite his career either. But he’s still young and a team should roll the dice on his upside.

Defense

Calvin de Haan: The 27-year-old isn’t an offensive juggernaut by any means, but he’s on the right side of 30 and he’s fully capable of serving as an effective number four or five defenseman on a solid team. De Haan was limited to just 33 games last season, but he played in 82 contests the year before that.

Luca Sbisa: Like de Haan, Sbisa also missed a significant amount of time last year. The 28-year-old had two goals and 14 points in 30 games with the Golden Knights. Sbisa is a bottom-pairing defenseman that is capable of moving the puck a little bit.

Dan Hamhuis: The 35-year-old is a defensive defenseman that averaged over 20 minutes of ice time with Dallas last season. He had three goals and 24 points in 80 contests last season, which isn’t awful considering the style he plays.

Alexei Emelin: The Russian blueliner went from being Shea Weber‘s defense partner in Montreal two years ago to being a bottom-pairing defender in Nashville. Emelin doesn’t give his team much when it comes to offense or moving the puck up the ice, but he’s a hard-nosed defender that can lay people out.

Goalies

Steve Mason: After signing with the Jets last season, Mason was moved to the Montreal Canadiens late last week. The Habs, who had a ton of cap space, opted to buy out the netminder, so that’s why he’s on the market right now. The 30-year-old had a rough year in Winnipeg. He was plagued by injuries and never really settled into his new city. Some added playing time will do him some good.

Robin Lehner: At 26 years old, Lehner still has time to develop into the number one goalie many expected him to be, but he’s going to have to do it soon. He had a 14-26-9 record with a 3.01 goals-against-average and a .908 save percentage with Buffalo last season. Playing on a decent team could benefit him in a big way.

Kari Lehtonen: His days of being a big money goaltender are over. The 34-year-old hasn’t posted decent numbers in a while, so he’s more of a backup netminder at this point of his career. Finding his next home won’t be easy given his recent performances and age.

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.

After improbable debut, where do Golden Knights go in year two?

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The Vegas Golden Knights inaugural season was a wonderful statement on the unpredictability, randomness and downright chaotic nature of the National Hockey League.

At the start of the year expectations were about as low as they could have possibly been for an NHL team, and for good reason. It was a roster that was mostly a collection of second-and third-tier players from all over the league where the initial intention was, presumably, to hope enough of them would perform at a high enough level that they could be flipped at the trade deadline for more future assets to continue building an expansion team from the ground up.

It was going to be a brutally tough job for general manager George McPhee.

Then a bunch of wild stuff happened and expectations suddenly changed to something else entirely — win the Stanley Cup. Right now. Not in two years. Not in five years. Not within the decade. Right. Now.

[Related: Welcome to playoff heartbreak, Vegas]

We realized a lot of those second-and third-tier players were maybe better than anyone thought, including the general managers that willingly gave a lot of them away when they didn’t actually need to. The goalie played the best hockey of his life and masked a lot of flaws on defense for most of the playoffs. A forward that had scored 18 goals in 173 career games on an 8 percent shooting percentage coming into the season suddenly could not miss and finished as the league’s third-leading goal-scorer. All of it together pushed them to the Stanley Cup Final where they fell just three wins shy of doing the impossible.

Now that this improbable, magical season has come to an end, McPhee and the Vegas front office have another tough job ahead of them as they try to build on this season.

There are a lot of big questions here that should lead to an absolutely fascinating offseason.

One of the biggest questions facing them is what they do with leading goal-scorer William Karlsson.

Karlsson is a restricted free agent this summer and after scoring 43 goals and being one of the driving forces of the team’s offense is going to be in line for a substantial raise over the $1 million he made during the 2017-18 season. How Vegas handles this is going to be tricky because at no point in his career did he ever play at a level like this. You can’t really pay him like a 40-goal scorer because you don’t know if he is going to ever be this play again, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest he wont. The best hope is that he is willing to sign a “prove it” bridge deal and show what type of player he really is before going all in on him.

Along with Karlsson’s contract situation the Golden Knights have four pretty significant unrestricted free agents in James Neal, David Perron, Ryan Reaves and Luca Sbisa.

Who do they try to keep (Neal?) and who do they say goodbye (Reaves, Perron?) to in free agency?

But perhaps the most enticing question is what they do outside of their own players, because McPhee is going to have seemingly unlimited options.

The Golden Knights will enter the offseason with more salary cap space than nearly every other team in the NHL. They have 27 draft picks over the next three years to deal from. They has a prospect pipeline that includes three top-15 picks from a year ago. They have what might be the greatest free agency sales pitch ever (We just went to the Stanley Cup Final, we have a ton of money to pay you, oh and we play in Las freakin’ Vegas). All of that makes pretty much any player in the NHL that could conceivably be available in play.

They could, if they wanted to, make a serious run at John Tavares and give the team another superstar to build around alongside Marc-Andre Fleury.

They could, if they wanted to, make another run at trading for Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson and theoretically pay him whatever market value contract he wants beyond next season. Heck, they could probably go after both him and Tavares given the cap space and assets they have at their disposal.

There is, however, a danger in that sort of approach for this team.

The danger: What if the rest of this team, as currently constructed, simply is not as good as it looked this season? It would not be the first time a team went on a lengthy, unexpected playoff run and then came back the next season and cratered across the board.

What if William Karlsson gets re-signed and regresses back to the 8 percent shooter he was in Columbus and Anaheim only scores 15 goals next season? What if Marc-Andre Fleury goes back to the .915 save percentage he has had for most of his career? What if Reilly Smith goes from being the near point-per-game player he was this season to the 45-50 point player he has been throughout his career? What if Neal and/or Perron leave in free agency and Tomas Tatar can not match what they provided over a full season?

Those are a lot of big, important questions and they are ultimately the ones that will dictate where this team goes in the immediate future, perhaps even more than whatever free agent they can acquire or what trade they can make.

At the start of the year we expected this Vegas team to stink. In hindsight, we had no idea how good they were as they stormed through the Western Conference on their way to the Stanley Cup Final. Funny thing is even after doing that we still probably do not really know how good they are or where they are headed in year two.

That, too, is a wonderful statement on the unpredictability, randomness, and chaotic nature of the National Hockey League.

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.

Golden Knights haven’t been afraid of tough roster decisions

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The perception of the Vegas Golden Knights roster today compared to when it was first assembled 11 months ago is, to say the least, very, very, very different. Heading into the season the opinion of this team when looking at it on paper was that it was going to be awful. Today, there’s a lot of strong opinions about how the expansion draft was unfair and how 30 other teams around the league don’t know what they’re doing and made a lot of really bad decisions. In hindsight, there is a lot of truth to the latter point because quite a few teams did, in fact, blow it.

There is also the fact that the roster has changed quite a bit from the beginning of the year, not only in terms of the players that are on it, but also in the way they have been used.

One of the big challenges that Vegas and its coaching staff faced this season was having a collection of players thrown together from all over the league, several of whom had little track record in the NHL or had never really had an opportunity to play larger roles. There was a ton of mystery and a lot of tinkering that had to be done to find the right combinations that would work.

A lot of the players that we thought might be key players, or looked like they might be key players, turned out to be anything but, and looking at how players were used early in the season as opposed to now it is clear that not even the Golden Knights knew entirely what they had in a lot of cases.

[Related: Don’t blame expansion draft rules for Vegas’ success, blame your GM]

Remember back in the offseason when Vadim Shipachyov signed a two-year, $9 million contract with the team to come over from Russia and was supposed to be one of their top players? That quickly fell apart and led to a rather bizarre — and seemingly messy — split between the two sides.

William Karlsson ended up being a 43-goal scorer this season and the biggest individual surprise of any player in the league. During the first month of the season he was fifth on the team in terms of average ice-time per game logging just a little more than 17 minutes per game. The now dominant and seemingly unstoppable line of Karlsson, Reilly Smith, and Jon Marchessault played a grand total of 39 seconds together through the first five games of the season (at which point Marchessault was sidelined with an injury for a few games) and didn’t really become a thing until the second month of the season.

The forward that Vegas leaned on the most in the first month of the season? Well that would be Cody Eakin, of course, as they played him nearly 20 minutes per night. He now plays around 14 minutes per night in the playoffs.

Here is a breakdown of Vegas’ ice-time distribution among forwards in the first month of the season compared to the last month of the season and then in the playoffs.

I excluded players that played less than four games in each time-frame.

The big changes are obviously Eakin going from the top forward down to a third-liner, while the Karlsson-Smith-Marchessault trio became the go-to group. But there are also significant increases for Haula (an extra two minutes per game) and Tuch (three minutes), while Perron saw his ice-tim decrease a bit.

Meanwhile, on defense…

From the very beginning Vegas seemed to know what it had in Schmidt and has leaned on him to be their top defender, a role that he has excelled in.

Deryk Engelland has also, quite shockingly, been one of their top defenders after completely reinventing himself as a player this year.

But in the first month of the season they were playing Luca Sbisa and Brad Hunt nearly 20 minutes per night, while top prospect Shea Theodore was playing in the American Hockey League and not even on the roster. Neither Sbisa or Hunt are significant players on the team now.

Jason Garrison, a veteran that played nearly 19 minutes a night over 70 games a season ago for the Lightning (and also opened the season as Vegas’ highest-paid defenseman) also saw some significant ice-time to start the year. But he was quickly jettisoned to the minor leagues and placed on waivers.

Colin Miller, who ended up leading all of their defenders in scoring, was at the bottom of the usage in the first month of the season.

In the end it’s been a fascinating evolution to watch unfold.

The player that was supposed to be the best forward (Shipachyov) ended up being, quite literally, nothing for them.

The highest paid forwards on the roster are David Clarkson and Tatar.

Clarkson has never — and will never — play a game for the team and is only a part of the organization because Vegas was willing to take his contract, along with Karlsson and a first-round draft pick, in exchange for not taking Josh Anderson or Columbus’ backup goalie in the expansion draft.

Tatar was their big trade deadline acquisition and has been relegated to the press box for most of the playoffs while their other trade deadline pickup, Ryan Reaves, who was never expected to make any sort of an impact, has scored two huge goals.

Their highest paid defenders at the start of the year were Garrison and Clayton Stoner. Garrison played eight games before being waived and relegated to the minor leagues while Stoner never played a single game.

Nothing about this Vegas season has gone as planned or as was expected, and nobody saw this team being as good as it is. Including them.

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Defenders as important to Fleury, as he is to Golden Knights

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LAS VEGAS (AP) Marc-Andre Fleury has been the foundation for the Vegas Golden Knights’ run to the Stanley Cup Final.

Yet while he has a 1.68 goals-against average and .947 save percentage, he’ll be the first one in the locker room to credit the defensemen in front of him.

“It’s a team game – win as a team, lose as a team,” said Fleury, who looks to become the 11th goaltender in NHL history to have his name on the Cup at least four times – and the fourth of that group to win with multiple teams.

“These guys are a big part of our success. We’re well balanced, we got some veteran guys, some younger guys, got some offensive guys, some defensive guys playing together. Those guys have been rallying all playoffs, trying to help me out, blocking shots and letting me see the puck, so it’s been a lot of fun.”

The pairings of Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore and Deryk Engelland, and Colin Miller with Luca Sbisa or Jon Merrill, have helped the Golden Knights become a very tight defensive team during the playoffs, something that will have to carry into Game 1 at T-Mobile Arena, on Monday against the Washington Capitals.

Schmidt has developed into the team’s top defenseman after struggling to find consistent ice time in Washington last season, when he averaged 15:29 on the ice. The fifth-year pro leads the Golden Knights with an average 22:14 on the ice and brings a familiarity to the Final, having played with Washington’s top scorers Evgeny Kuznetsov (24 points) and Alex Ovechkin (22), who rank first and second, respectively, in overall playoff scoring.

“I know a lot of those guys, I know what they like to do,” said Schmidt, who has six points (2 goals, 4 assists) in the postseason. “For what I want to do on the ice, it helps me and I think it helps our group as well that we’ve had success against them. But it’s a whole other type of animal this time of year.”

The Golden Knights swept the regular-season series against Washington, winning 3-0 on Dec. 23 in Vegas and 4-3 on Feb. 4 in D.C.

With five more Capitals have double-digit points – Nicklas Backstrom (16), John Carlson (16), T.J. Oshie (15), Lars Eller (13) and Tom Wilson (11) – Vegas will need one last big effort from a defensive group that has helped allow the second-least number of goals among playoff teams that have played 10 games.

Washington coach Barry Trotz said he knows the Golden Knights have three dynamic duos that each feature one offensive guy who can skate and move the puck – that being Miller, Theodore, and Schmidt – paired with more of a traditional stay-at-home defenseman who isn’t afraid to get physical, block shots and slow the opposing team’s pace – such as Sbisa, Engelland, Merrill and McNabb.

“But they still bring some offense, too,” Trotz said. “They play 5-5-5 all three zones just as we talk about with the Capitals. Watch the TV, you see five guys in the picture, then you’re doing good.”

Schmidt said using speed against them worked during the regular season, by moving their feet more than Washington did, and helping to develop plays in transition. But again, this is the Stanley Cup Final, and Schmidt said he knows Washington can skate well and will be a challenge.

“I think another thing is just making sure you’re really disciplined against this team,” Schmidt said. “You’ve got to make sure you stay out of the penalty box, keep Ovechkin off the power play and keep that unit off the power play.”

To Vegas’ credit, however, it does have the fourth-best penalty kill in the playoffs, stopping 82.5 percent of the power plays it has seen. And, as Sbisa said, that circles back to Fleury and the chemistry that’s been built with the defensive pairings.

“That bond is definitely there,” Sbisa said. “You don’t have to worry about anything else, play it loose, play to your strengths and that’s what we’ve been doing as a group. The six Ds that are playing that night, they’re tight; we play as a three-man group (with Fleury). Flower’s a guy that doesn’t take too much credit for himself, even though he should, because he’s been that good and it’s obviously nice to hear stuff like that coming out of his mouth. But he definitely deserves all the credit here.

“As a D-man, knowing that you have the best goalie in the world behind you, saving you when something happens, it makes a huge difference because it allows you to play your game. Praise has to go both ways.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has better defense?

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

The Caps will go into the Stanley Cup Final with the best defenseman on either side. John Carlson has been one of the better defenders in the league throughout the 2017-18 season. He managed to pick up an impressive 68 points in 82 games during the season and he’s added 16 points in 19 games during the playoffs. Not only is he capable of leading the charge offensively, he’s also relied upon to play significant minutes (averages almost 26 minutes during the playoffs). The Golden Knights don’t have anyone like him on their roster. That’s a fact.

Michal Kempny, who was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks at the trade deadline, has been serving as Carlson’s partner during the playoffs. Kempny hasn’t looked out of place, but playing with Carlson has helped make him look good (his overall CF% is 48.04 percent. When Carlson isn’t on the ice with him it drops to 43.84).

Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov round out the top four for the Capitals. Both players have been relatively solid for the Capitals during their run to the Stanley Cup Final. Orlov has eight points in 19 games and he averages 24:32 of ice time, while Niskanen has eight points in 19 contests and he averages 25:31 per game.

Things get a lot more interesting on the third pairing, which is made up of veteran Brooks Orpik and Christian Djoos. The pairing has been a liability for the Caps throughout the playoffs. There’s a decent chance that they’ll be exposed by Vegas’ speed a few times during the series.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

As we mentioned before, Vegas doesn’t have a clear number one blue liner like Carlson, but they have a group of six players that seem to play well as a unit.

The Golden Knights defense is made up of Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore, Deryk Engelland, Colin Miller, Luca Sbisa and Jon Merrill. None of those names really jump off the page when you look at them individually, but they’ve been good enough to help get the Golden Knights to this point.

No hockey fan considers Schmidt and McNabb as a top pairing and most people thought Deryk Engelland’s days in the NHL were done, but all three of those players have played significant roles for their team.

Before you sell the Vegas defense short, keep in mind that they have Marc-Andre Fleury behind them, which will cover up a lot of their shortcomings. Braden Holtby has been good for Washington, but Fleury has been dominant from the start of the playoffs and he hasn’t gone through a prolonged slump at any point.

Advantage: Capitals. 

The Capitals are at a disadvantage when you compare the bottom pairings of both teams, but the fact that they have the best blue liner in the series really helps shift this discussion their way. Even though Kempny is far from being a top-pairing defenseman, the fact that he plays with Carlson helps make him better. Also, the second pairing of Niskanen and Orlov plays a factor in this decision.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:
Who has the better forwards?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

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.