Malcolm Subban

Golden Knights surprises disappointments Gallant Fleury
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Season full of surprises, disappointments for Vegas Golden Knights

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Vegas Golden Knights.

Coaching disappointments and surprises for Golden Knights

All these months later, it’s still hard to believe. The Golden Knights fired fairly recent Jack Adams Award winner and generally well-regarded coach Gerard Gallant. If that wasn’t enough of a surprise, they replaced Gallant with Peter DeBoer, former Sharks coach and person Gallant called a “clown.”

Stunning.

As Adam Gretz noted back in January, Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon didn’t exactly share a lot of details for why Gallant was fired.

“It wasn’t a specific block of games, or a specific game,” McCrimmon said. “It’s hard to put into words I guess unless you’ve done these jobs, it’s more just the feeling that you have that a change might be needed. I wish I could be more specific than that, but that’s really how we felt …”

You can’t blame observers for finding disappointments in the process the Golden Knights went through, then.

The real source of disappointments for the Golden Knights

Under Gallant, the Golden Knights were a dominant puck possession team. They did a lot right, even if the results weren’t always there. Regardless of how McCrimmon and others “feel,” sometimes you just don’t get the bounces in hockey.

It’s especially tough for a coach to manufacture wins when your goaltending fails. Both on special teams and at even strength, Vegas’ netminding wasn’t up to snuff.

Marc-Andre Fleury‘s done a lot for this franchise, particularly during their unlikely run to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. His play has dropped considerably from season to season, and 2019-20 represents a troubling picture. MAF only managed a .905 save percentage, forcing Vegas to prop him up to a 27-16-5 record.

To be fair to Fleury, he stood as easily the best option for Vegas for most of three seasons. Simply put, Malcolm Subban and other backups rarely got it done.

Really, to some extent, the disappointments revolve around the Golden Knights failing to find a goalie Plan B behind Fleury. It was a pleasant surprise, then, that they traded for Robin Lehner.

Thanks to the pandemic pause, we really only received glimpses of what the Golden Knights could look like with Lehner in net. Frankly, there’s a strong chance that Lehner is the Plan A to Fleury’s Plan B, rather than the other way around. Lehner even showed as much in just three appearances, winning them all with a sparkling .940 save percentage.

Patched up

After his first season with the Golden Knights, it sure seemed like Max Pacioretty‘s best days were behind him.

Pacioretty finished his run with the Habs with a whimper, managing only 17 goals and 37 points. Unfortunately, his Golden Knights debut seemed like a mirror image, producing merely 40 points in 2018-19.

While I would chalk up a significant portion of Pacioretty’s resurgence to playing with Mark Stone, it’s still delightful to see “Patches” rise. Especially considering how frequently he was unfairly scapegoated in Montreal.

Despite being limited to 71 games played, Pacioretty scored 32 goals and 66 points in 2019-20. He didn’t need outrageous puck luck, either, as his 10.4 shooting percentage was a bit below his 11 career average.

(Granted, he did enjoy a career-high 12.1 percent on-ice shooting percentage, but … still.)

Consider the dramatic difference between Pacioretty’s fabulous RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey for 2019-20:

Golden Knights surprises disappointments Pacioretty 2019-20

And contrast that to his troubling RAPM chart from 2018-19:

Golden Knights surprises disappointments Pacioretty 2018-19

Again, playing with Stone made life significantly easier for Pacioretty. But beyond showing what a difference a two-way star can make, it also shows that a strong player can rebound if given some time. Pacioretty served as one of the most pleasant surprises for the Golden Knights in a season where they had to navigate plenty of disappointments.

Considering the many disappointments and stunning surprises, it’s quite something that Vegas sits atop the Pacific Division during the pause.

MORE ON THE GOLDEN KNIGHTS:

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.

Looking at the 2019-20 Vegas Golden Knights

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the Vegas Golden Knights. 

Record: 39-24-8 (86 games), first in the Pacific Division, third in the Western Conference.
Leading Scorer: Max Pacioretty – 66 points – (32 goals, 66 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves

• Traded Chandler Stephenson to Capitals for a 2021 fifth-round pick.

• Acquired Alec Martinez from Kings for second-round picks in 2020, 2021.

• Traded Cody Eakin to Jets for a 2021 conditional fourth-round pick.

• Acquired Nick Cousins from Canadiens for 2021 fourth-round pick.

• As part of a three-team deal, acquired Robin Lehner, traded a 2020 fifth-round pick to Maple Leafs, traded Malcolm Subban, Slava Demin, and a 2020 second-round pick to Blackhawks.

Season Overview

Did the crushing end to 2018-19 affect the Golden Knights’ start to this season? It may have played a role, but the biggest issue was goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban could not provide support to a high-powered offense and a team that has been among the best in the possession department.

That weakness ultimately led to Gerard Gallant’s dismissal in January as the team sported a 24-19-6 record. At the time, Vegas had the third-best Corsi in the NHL (54%), were top-10 in 5-on-5 scoring, and had the best expected goals percentage (106.93). But a .985 PDO and a .911 even strength save percentage were anchors on a contending team. It all set up Peter DeBoer, who replaced Gallant after being fired by the Sharks in December, in prime position to help a rebound.

Through Vegas’ 22 games under DeBoer there were slight improvements in those weak areas. Special teams and goaltending were slightly better, but between the pipes remained an issue. Fleury’s ESSV% is his worst in nearly a decade, which is why general manager Kelly McCrimmon went out and acquired Robin Lehner at the trade deadline. The Golden Knights experienced a small sample of what the Swedish netminder can do with only three appearances before the NHL pause. But should we have a resumption of play for this season, Vegas will clearly be a big contender coming out of the Western Conference after strengthening that area.

In spite of their goaltending and special teams, the Golden Knights hummed along to atop the Pacific Division through 71 games. Four players — Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone, Reilly Smith, and Jonathan Marchessault — each topped the 20-goal mark. Shea Theodore is currently fifth among defensemen with 13 goals and early-season addition Chandler Stephenson has found a role in Vegas with 22 points in 41 games.

DeBoer has only had 22 games behind the Golden Knights’, so his impact may not be felt for some time. The goaltending decision will be an interesting one depending on if the NHL resumes with the regular season or goes right to the playoffs. Fleury, who has two more seasons at a $7M cap hit remaining, has been outplayed by Lehner, a pending unrestricted free agent, this season. With Vegas a Cup contender, it should be an easy choice who to ride out the rest of this unique season with.

Highlight of the Season: Nic Petan surely thought he had a goal until Fleury did his thing:

MORE ON THE GOLDEN KNIGHTS:
Biggest surprises and disappointments of 2019-20
Golden Knights’ long-term outlook

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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.

Long-term outlook for Blackhawks: salary cap, prospects, and more

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

Both at age 31 with matching $10.5 million cap hits through 2022-23, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews remain the headliners of the Blackhawks’ core.

While Toews in particular isn’t what he once was, the biggest problem is shaky support.

Duncan Keith is far removed from his prime at age 36, yet his contract ($5.54 through 2022-23) lingers. Quite a bit of this structure has broken down, to the point that it would be preferable for both Brent Seabrook and Andrew Shaw to stay planted on LTIR.

Credit Stan Bowman with trying to improve a shabby defense. Unfortunately, Bowman whiffed with Olli Maatta, Connor Murphy, and Calvin de Haan to varying degrees. Those three contracts stay on the books through 2021-22.

To Bowman’s credit, he’s experienced significant successes finding forward talent, sometimes off the beaten path. While the Blackhawks galaxy-brained themselves out of Artemi Panarin, they locked up Alex DeBrincat to a team-friendly extension.

One key question remains: can the Blackhawks find the cash to re-sign Corey Crawford? Actually, that folds into other questions. Being that Crawford is 35, should they?

Also, will Dominik Kubalik and/or Dylan Strome become core members, or stay in limbo with “bridge” deals. Can Alex Nylander cement himself? The supporting cast continues to go through auditions as if they’re in Chicago’s Broadway.

Long-Term Needs for Blackhawks

The Blackhawks face plenty of long-term needs.

Still, sometimes the biggest needs go deeper than “scoring depth” and “some actual, above-average NHL defensemen.” The Blackhawks organization needs to let go of the past, even if it means some extra suffering in the present. Otherwise, the future could be plagued by half-measures.

It would be understandable if the Blackhawks struck a short-term deal with Corey Crawford. He quietly put together a surprisingly strong 2019-20, particularly down the stretch.

Yet, how many times should Chicago really go to that nostalgia well? (To say nothing of how tough it might be to fit Crawford under the cap, as Mark Lazerus discussed here [sub required].)

This team needs more difference-makers. Adam Boqvist and other prospects figure to boost the competence of Chicago’s crummy defense, but how much?

Ultimately, the Blackhawks need to add “blue chip” talent, and hope that Boqvist, Kirby Dach, and others fall in that category. By trying to enjoy the best of both worlds of competing while getting some young talent, Chicago risks falling short of both marks. They’ve seemingly accrued good-but-not-great talent, and were moderately competitive but not legitimate contenders.

Pull off the Band-Aid already.

Long-Term Strengths for Blackhawks

As mentioned with Panarin and DeBrincat, the Blackhawks have shown some ability to unearth talent even when they didn’t have no-brainer picks like they did with Kane and Toews. (Panarin was a Euro free agent, DeBrincat went 39th overall in 2016). Dominik Kubalik looks like he could be the latest hidden gem.

Such successes have been a bit of a double-edged sword, as referenced in the long-term needs section. By finding ways to be semi-competitive, the Blackhawks have sometimes added good where a “tank” season may have provided great.

Still, there’s decent talent to work with. DeBrincat, Strome, Kubalik, and maybe Nylander can help on offense. Dach’s development is crucial.

Boqvist ranks as vital on defense, too, but he’s not alone. In ranking Chicago’s prospect pool 12th overall (sub required), The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler frequently listed defensemen. Wheeler highlighted Ian Mitchell almost as much as Boqvist, so help could be coming there. Wheeler’s Athletic colleague Corey Pronman placed Chicago’s under-23 core at a respectable 13th, so it’s not as if there’s nothing beyond Kane and Toews.

Lately, “almost” has been in painful supply for Chicago. An optimist might squint and see how things could break the Blackhawks’ way, but improving this long-term outlook will require more long-term thinking.

MORE BLACKHAWKS:
2019-20 season summary
Surprises and disappointments

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.

Looking at the 2019-20 Chicago Blackhawks

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the Chicago Blackhawks.

Chicago Blackhawks

Record: 32-30-8 (70 games), seventh in the Central Division, Out of Playoffs
Leading scorer: Patrick Kane 84 points (33 goals and 51 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves

• Traded Robin Lehner to the Vegas Golden Knights for Malcolm Subban, Slava Demin, 2020 second-round pick.
• Acquired T.J. Brennan from the Philadelphia Flyers for Nathan Noel.
• Shipped Erik Gustafsson to the Calgary Flames for a 2020 third-round pick.
• Traded Graham Knott to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Joseph Cramarossa.
• Acquired Alec Regula from the Detroit Red Wings for Brendan Perlini.
• Sent Aleksi Saarela to the Florida Panthers for Ian McCoshen.

Season Overview:

The Blackhawks didn’t get off to the greatest of starts in 2019-20. They began their campaign with a loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Czech Republic and then came home to play seven consecutive games at the United Center. How did those games go? Well, they only managed to win two of the seven. When October was all said and done, the ‘Hawks had a 3-6-3 record.

They managed to rattle off a four-game winning streak in November, but quickly followed that up by losing five of their last six games to close out the month.

Get the picture?

There was no semblance of consistency with this edition of the Blackhawks. Sure, they still have an elite talent in Patrick Kane and, yes, Jonathan Toews is still a really good player. They also have Dominik Kubalik, who scored 30 goals in his first year, and Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome and Brandon Saad. Those are all talented players, but the entire roster just doesn’t stack up with the elite teams in the Western Conference anymore.

Their defense still features Duncan Keith, but the unit got old in a hurry. Keith has played a lot of hockey, Seabrook was struggling badly before being shut down with an injury and the acquisition of Calvin de Haan and Olli Maata helped, but not enough.

Management has to decide what the next step is for this group. It’s always tempting to “go for it” when you have Kane, but the supporting cast just isn’t strong enough. Can they make it work by tweaking the roster, or is this a team that needs a major overhaul?

Whenever the off-season starts, they’ll have to address the goaltending position too, because Corey Crawford isn’t getting any younger and he’s scheduled to become a free agent on July 1st. He had been playing well down the stretch, but he’s become a question mark when it comes to staying healthy.

Big decisions are coming.

Highlight of the Season:

Kane has been one of the few bright spots on the ice for the this team and he continued to pile up incredible numbers throughout the season.

On January 19th, in a game against the Winnipeg Jets, Kane picked up a secondary assist on Saad’s goal late in the third period. That point allowed the Blackhawks forward to reach the 1,000-point club.

MORE BLACKHAWKS:
Biggest surprises and disappointments

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Flames land top NCAA free agent; Rielly wins in transition

Flames land NCAA free agent Connor Mackey, Colton Poolman, Morning Skate
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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.

• The Flames recently signed two NCAA players to bolster their defense: Connor Mackey and Colton Poolman. Frank Seravalli goes into detail on the Flames’ “two-year pursuit” of Mackey. Seravalli deemed Mackey the No. 1 NCAA free agent available this spring, making Mackey quite the get for the Flames. (TSN)

• Oilers GM Ken Holland spoke with Mark Spector about resolving the situation with Jesse Puljujarvi, which will be a challenge whenever there’s an actual chance to address it. In that same piece, Ken Hitchcock praised Puljujarvi as at least a useful third-line type player, while admitting he isn’t sure Puljujarvi will end up being more than that. (Sportsnet)

• Lou Lamoriello answered fan questions on the Islanders website, which meant a lot of Lou-like non-answers, sometimes comically so. (Yes, he even briefly discussed his fascination with lower jersey numbers.) Later on Sunday, we’ll ponder Lamoriello saying the Islanders would match a Mathew Barzal offer sheet. There’s other noteworthy information, though. The Islanders expect Johnny Boychuk and Casey Cizikas back if play resumes this season/playoffs, while Adam Pelech should be ready for training camp before 2020-21. (Islanders)

• Could the Penguins actually keep their first-round pick from the Jason Zucker trade if the season isn’t completed? Pensburgh goes over that, and in doing so, lays out some of the tricky questions the NHL would face if COVID-19 forces more than just a pause for 2019-20. (Pensburgh)

• Helene St. James hands out best and worst awards for the Red Wings. In doing so, St. James posits that Justin Abdelkader will be waived and sent to the AHL in 2020-21. (Detroit Free-Press)

• Steve Simmons went looking for a phone number in an old phonebook, and found himself pausing to remember several names from the past. (Steve Simmons)

• How Malcolm Subban and Brendan Perlini could make strange history for the Blackhawks. Could Subban end up having the shortest “career” with the Blackhawks ever? (Chicago Sun-Times)

• Andrew Berkshire takes a look at defensemen who excel at that transition game, with Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly leading the pack. (Sportsnet)

• Fun 2020 NHL Draft angle from McKeen’s Hockey: the most polarizing prospect from each region, starting with Antonio Stranges in the OHL. (McKeen’s Hockey)

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.